Saturday, December 6, 2008

Talking about democracy

Some people - OK, many Americans - assume that all the world is just dying to get this thing called democracy. It’s just big, nasty dictators that get in the way. Having lived for a few years now in countries that did not have a tradition of representational democracy, I can testify that it’s not quite this simple.

Yes, there are big, nasty dictators who do repress democratic movements. But - there are plenty of people for whom democracy - as they understand it - doesn’t hold much appeal.

I met one of them last night.

Perfectly ordinary fellow. We had a good conversation when the van we were riding from Ganca to Baku made its ten-minute rest stop somewhere on the long road. Obviously, I was a foreigner, although I spoke Russian. So, I faced the normal questions. Where are you from? What are you doing? I answered the answers truthfully. I’m an American, teaching journalism here. This fellow understood that because I was a journalist, I was probably for a free press and therefore a democrat.

“Democracy,” he sniffed. “It’s a bad idea. I’m against it.”

I did not feel inclined to convince him of its merits. What was the point? I wasn’t even really all that interested in why he opposed democracy. He had his opinion, and he was entitled to it.

But we talked a little about what he does, his background. He’s a truck driver, working for an energy company. Before, in Soviet times, he had a good job, and he still has a job. But I’m sure he looks around him and sees lots of people who have suffered in the transition from the Soviet Union. Or - maybe he equates democracy with the ethnic violence that was unleashed when the Soviet system collapsed. I didn’t enquire. There are so many reasons to oppose what he understands as democracy, whatever the merits I think the system has.

I arrived back in Baku at an ungodly hour, and in the afternoon went out to replenish my supplies. At the market where I shop, extensive changes are underway. Under the same roof they now are selling everything from notebooks to pants, along with the cheese, nuts, vegetables, and fruit that were sold before. The guy from whom I buy cheese and eggs joked with me.

“It’s perestroika,” he said, referring to the renovations. ("Perestroika" literally means "rebuilding" in Russian.)

“Oh, that means democracy will soon follow.”

He thought this was hilarious!


“I’m an optimist,” I said.

“Democracy!,” he laughed and laughed and laughed.


JTapp said...

I love the pragmatism of the average guy on the street.

I'm curious if you've read any Natan Sharansky... Jew and former imprisoned Soviet dissident, wrote The Case for Democracy. It was hailed by some neocons around the time we exported democracy to Iraq...

Eric said...

No - I'm not familiar with it. I'll look it up. Natan is an interesting character. I respect him as a Soviet dissident - but I'm not so crazy about what he's done as an Israeli politician.

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