Ukraine shows democracy must be seen as a strategic asset

Thijs Berman is the Executive Director of the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy. Early in his career, he was based in Moscow for Dutch radio. From 2004-2014 he served as an MEP, and in 2004 he was part of the parliament monitoring team for the presidential elections in Ukraine.

If the invasion of Ukraine were not such a hideous tragedy we might understand its irony: autocratic ruler Vladimir Putin is showing the world how crucial democracy is for a free and peaceful society.

Had we been living in the times of a democratic Russia, the parliament would be the voice of the people, and would debate belligerent plans openly and transparently. A strong opposition would demand different policies and insist on dialogue and peaceful compromise. Independent media would debunk disinformation in a free Russia, and engage in a critical debate about how “just” an invasion of Ukraine would be. The population would not be inundated with propaganda. Together with strong civil society organizations, opposition to the war would grow.

Unlimited power, limitless injustice

But democratic Russia never materialized. Instead, the world watched over the debris of the Berlin Wall as corruption flourished and democratic hopes died. Never before did so much wealth fall into the hands of such a small elite in such a short period of time as in recent decades in Russia. This rampage could only succeed because the media was silenced, parliament became a rubber stamp, and judges slavishly followed. Unlimited power, limitless injustice.

Many foreign observers had expected the free market to do the work. Entrepreneurs simply needed clear laws and a level playing field, they argued, so that the democracy and the rule of law with all its checks and balances would grow gradually and organically. That turned out to be grossly optimistic. Building and strengthening democracy and the rule of law requires the growth of a democratic culture and daily hard work at all levels, from villages to cities, from the courts of auditors to parliaments, and from police stations to school classes.

Promoting the resilience of democratic society

Yet democracy is more than a right. Democracy also produces better results, from conflict prevention to public health. Even the Russian military’s failure in Ukraine can be explained in part by the lack of democracy. The army leadership dared not contradict Putin on his Blitzkrieg scenario and lied to the soldiers about the invasion. Corrupt officers purchased inferior equipment with impunity. That’s why Russian army trucks have been standing on Ukrainian roads for weeks with empty fuel tanks, flat tires and demoralized troops.

In Europe, after the Russian invasion, massive investments in defense were decided on with lightning speed, as were measures to secure strategic items such as energy and food.

But another measure is at least as urgent. For what is more strategic for peace and prosperity than the resilience of democratic society itself?

It is therefore high time to see democracy as a strategic asset, the quality of which is vital to the survival of a free open society and to the protection of peace and security. This realization must lead to an urgent review of domestic and foreign policies in Europe.

Investing in democracy as a strategic asset

Investing in democracy is by far the cheapest insurance policy against war. But this does not make it a simple choice. It means that every democratic country must dare to look in the mirror. Only when the more established democracies shed their complacency and are open to criticism will they become credible in their dialogue with other countries. How inclusive is our democracy? Who is still excluded? Whose rights are insufficiently protected? How do our democratic institutions take their responsibility to serve and offer equal access to every person?

While we must work on restoring our own citizens’ trust in government, we must simultaneously look at how to promote democracy as a strategic asset globally. This must prompt a radical review of priorities.

We must ensure that democracy becomes a cornerstone of geopolitical strategy, and with this in mind, NIMD and 16 other democracy and human rights organizations – working with the European Partnership for Democracy – have put together 10 recommendations for a European response to this attack on Ukraine and democracy.

Peace and democracy at stake

Because we must give greater priority to strengthening democracies. This can be done by training politicians early in their careers, supporting dialogue in post-conflict countries, assisting women and minorities on their way to elected positions, strengthening parliaments and local government, and assisting free media and civil society organizations.

Inevitably, restoring trust between politicians and voters will be high on the agenda. After all, in many democracies, young and old, elites serve themselves comfortably while the population looks on hungrily. This cannot continue, because without social justice and without tackling corruption, the very survival of democracy is at stake. And with it, peace.