Is Democracy Dying: Francis Fukuyama on Russia, Ukraine, and Political Ideology
29 April, 2018

Nearly 30 years ago, political theorist Francis Fukuyama sparked global debate on democracy with his "The End of History" essay. Written in 1989, it argued that liberal democracy was and would remain the triumphant form of government. Today, many claim Fukuyama’s theory has flopped.

While Eastern European leaders proclaim allegiance to such ideologies, with rising evidence of corruption, censorship, and government surveillance, it is becoming clear that democracy is little more than a facade in many parts of the region.

Fukuyama says the rise of populism in the region, which, to a degree, is also starting to emerge in western Europe and the United States, poses a problem.

“A democracy is a really complex thing, a liberal democracy because it needs a clean impartial state to deliver services and protect the population. It needs the rule of law, which limits the power of the state and it needs democratic elections accountability to make sure the state responds to the interests of the whole people,” he said.

“What's happening is that these populists are using their democratic legitimacy to undermine the other two parts. So they corrupt the state...they get in bed with businessmen, oligarchs, that want to use state power to protect their businesses and vice-versa, and they really hate the rule of law because the rule of law prevents them from doing what they want.”

Currently, Fukuyama heads the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University, where during their studies, young Ukrainian politicians, including Mustafa Nayyem and Svitlana Zalishchuk, made the decision to go into politics.

Fukuyama says Ukraine is symbolically important to the region because it’s a country that’s trying to move away from its Soviet past and towards Europe.

Photo credit: Andriy Novikov/HROMADSKE

“I think that Putin understands that this is what's at stake, and that's why he wants to stop it from happening. So, I think that Ukraine has a significance that goes way beyond Ukraine: if it succeeds, other countries will take heart from that, and if it fails, they're going to get discouraged,” he said.

Hromadske spoke to Fukuyama about Russian influence, Ukraine’s reform progress and global political institutions.

Francis, we are speaking about the building of democracy and yet, there is a concept that, today, a lot of governments, a lot of people who come to power, they proclaim that they have democratic views, they respect elections, they have parties, but, in the end, it's more or less a facade of democracy. In the end, everyone already knows how to rig an election, how to not allow openness to the media, and, in the end, have just a party, which doesn't really consult the population. And this idea of freedom, freedom of speech, and all the reforms, are often considered to be something annoying, enforced by the West, something that we have to do to cooperate with western allies. To what extent do you see these concerns and to what extent is it applicable to Ukraine? And what could be done with that?

Well, you know, the state-building has good aspects and bad aspects. Bad aspects are when the government uses war as an excuse to clamp down on criticism, on journalists, on opposition groups that may object to things that it's doing. On the other hand, wars are very serious in terms of creating national identity and a certain sense of unity. In Ukraine, I see both of those things going on. I do see the war being used, to some extent, by the government as an excuse for not addressing certain kinds of reforms that are necessary because, really, the state needs to be not just strong in a repressive sense, it needs to be strong in the sense of being, you know, a clean institution that can actually respond to public interest rather than the private interests of oligarchs or well-connected people.

Photo credit: Andriy Novikov/HROMADSKE

After the revolution, we had a lot of advisers from eastern Europe, who were looking at the example of the reforms of the 90s in Poland, in the Czech Republic, in Slovakia. But, this was right after communism, that was not reforms in the oligarch system, which, you know, sometimes requires privatization and other things. In Ukraine, everything is already owned by somebody. How do you see the difference? How do you see and to what extent do you see that these usual things should not just be copy and pasted?

Well, I think that's right that the way the way privatization was done in the 1990s allowed oligarchs to basically capture very large parts of the economy and they still are dominant in Ukraine. That didn't happen in the Czech Republic and Poland an Hungary -- although, now in Hungary you're kind of getting the emergence of new oligarchs because of Orban's policy. But, in Ukraine, it's a legacy. I think the only way that you can deal with it is by introducing more competition. There needs to be more small and medium-sized businesses growing up that are not part of this oligarchic system, there needs to be more multinationals investing in Ukraine, that's the only way, I think, that you chip away at that domination of the economy by this oligarchic structure.

Photo credit: Andriy Novikov/HROMADSKE

We do have a president who is one of the richest men in the country, which, actually, he has his business and he runs it, so it doesn't look like there is any choice that he would give away, what he owes, or he would run. So, still, it's so interconnected. So, is it the rule that people with that amount of money should just not go into politics?

Well, it's going to be hard to impose that kind of rule retroactively, so, I think it's a norm that really has to evolve over time. I mean, you need to elect a different type of politician, I think, down the road so that that distinction is observed. As I'm saying, unfortunately, this seems to be a trend in a lot of countries, where, people with money use their money to get political power and people with political power use it to protect their money. And that is something in law that needs to be addressed, because that's not a good development.

For many years, you've been answering on what was meant by "The End of History" and you've done that in numerous interviews for many, many years, but, if we speak about the ideas of liberal democracy which probably have moral superiority globally, do you really think it's still there? And, to what extent to do you think this Russian idea of postmodernism, nihilism, that people are starting to believe that these democratic ideas are hypocritical because everybody is corrupt, even democratic governments are corrupt. So to what extent do you think this nihilism is really thriving?

You know, I don't think that you can build a society around nihilism, like you say. I think that, if the Russian government tries to project this idea that everything is corrupt, it's going to come back to haunt them because people are going to stop believing in their own institutions. So, I really don't think that you can build a successful society around these very cynical ideas that simply want to weaken everybody else. Eventually, that's going to come back to haunt you. There is no Russian idea right now. I mean, what does Russia represent other than the opportunity for tremendous political corruption? It's not like communism. You know, communism, for all of its evils, was actually an ideal of a kind of society that was attractive to people in other places. And I just don't see that in the Russian idea right now.

Photo credit: Andriy Novikov/HROMADSKE

But it's attractive in other places...

No, no, no, no. The idea of nihilism is not attractive. What the Russians are doing is exacerbating existing polarizations and divisions and uncertainties within other countries. That's different from projecting an actual idea. That's simply trying to widen gaps that already exist, but that's not an idea around which you can build a successful society.

If you could single out a couple of priorities at this stage, from your work talking to different people, looking at Ukraine in terms of the necessary change.

I think most people would put judicial reform at the top of the list. You know, that really needs to be strong structures that are very independent of the political forces in the country that can really hold officials accountable. I think, in the economy, there really needs to be a land reform because there's a lot of hidden assets that are locked up and unavailable, that could spark a lot of growth in this country. I think those would be two things that would be at the top of my list. I think Ukraine is very symbolically important to the entire region because it's a country that's trying to break away from its Soviet and Russian past, it wants to orientate itself towards Europe, it has a right to do that. I think that Putin understands that this is what's at stake, and that's why he wants to stop it from happening. So, I think that Ukraine has a significance that goes way beyond Ukraine, and, if it succeeds, other countries will take heart from that, and, if it fails, they're going to get discouraged, so I think that's why Ukraine is a very important country.

/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk