Author: Bardhyl Jashari, Executive Director of the Metamorphosis Foundation for Internet and Society; Photo: Vancho Dzambaski
President Biden’s Democracy Summit, which was held online on 9 and 10 December, was clearly an urgent need. It comes at a time when democracy, both in Macedonia and in many parts of the world, is weakening and facing serious challenges such as illegal wiretapping and surveillance, autocratic tendencies accompanied by corruption, restrictions on freedom and the immense influence of social networks. Freedom House has seen a decline in world democracy for the past 15 years in a row, so it was probably the last moment the democratic part of the world had to reaffirm its commitment to upholding fundamental values. As such, the Summit was a great opportunity to discuss and explore the best ways to jointly strengthen democracy – from governments, states, NGOs, etc.
Concrete action is needed.
What is very important, for many countries, but especially for us who live in the Balkan countries, where the expectations and hopes from democracy were and still are high, although corruption and the rule of law are gradually eroding this hope, is that this Summit as a platform for global dialogue should not remain a manifestation with very nice promises and statements. The summit should create content with measurable impact and consequent concrete actions that will contribute to the strengthening and promotion of democracy. This is crucial because it is the only way to show that democracy and democratic societies are better and can overcome autocratic alternatives to the success and well-being of citizens – as President Biden said in relation to the goals of the Democracy Summit. This means offering citizens the opportunity for a more prosperous, safer and more peaceful life while preserving the civil liberties and values on which true democracy rests.
The role of NGOs
The aspirations and experiences of CSOs should be substantially reflected in this dialogue and subsequent activities. Strengthening democracy and the fight against authoritarianism, the fight against corruption and the promotion of respect for human rights requires an innovative approach and a genuine partnership between government officials and NGOs. This effort cannot be treated only as a technical project separated from the needs and specifics of the different communities we work with. NGOs are well-positioned to accurately identify these needs and challenges and to work successfully with citizens and other relevant government actors to address them. Only in that way can sustainable results be achieved and to bring their democratic mission to every citizen, and especially to make tangible the benefits of a democratic society where the rule of law and human rights are respected. At the same time, such an approach would enable the development and nurture of democratic habits based on the social and cultural context of the country where the citizens of the country will be bearers, but also overseers of democratic values. Although the current government in Macedonia is more open and ready for cooperation and joint engagement with civil society organizations, what it lacks are concrete acts that would restore confidence in the government, would concretize the fight against corruption, and that would directly affect the strengthening of democracy in general.The rule of law must transcend the frameworks of political parties and their policies, especially as citizens’ perception is that it is not just politicians or the administration that are corrupt, but the entire system of government, starting with the judiciary. When heads of state fail to deliver on their promises and turn their pro-democracy rhetoric into concrete action, it is NGOs and the media that criticize, sensitize, offer solutions and underline democratic values in an effort to keep states on track of democracy. It often happens that they are the first who feel the attacks of autocratic regimes. I hope that the Summit will be the event that will mark the beginning of a new period that will slow down and stop the wave of autocratic tendencies and reaffirm the democracy and values it embodies as the only appropriate model for prosperity.Otherwise, the failure to achieve concrete results will only reinforce the impression among many people that democracy is not functioning properly, which I do not agree with. However, we will have to understand this disappointment given the repeated failures in the last 30 years in our country in the fight against corruption, organized crime, and lack of rule of law, discrimination, selective justice and many other problems. In addition, this will hamper our efforts as a civil society to promote democracy and human rights. Even worse, this accumulated frustration can be channelled into misguided anti-democratic agendas and at the same time free up space for populist politicians and demagogues.
The Chinese government is angry at the Democracy Summit hosted by US President Joe Biden. This government has tried to make this concern known to the whole world. One week before the summit, the Chinese government hastily organized its Forum for Democracy and published a White Paper entitled “China: A Democracy That Works,” as well as a report entitled “The State of Democracy in the United States.” At the same time, these activities were accompanied by numerous articles, press conferences and posts on social media praising the power of Chinese “democracy” and its alleged superiority over American democracy.
There are many reasons for this concern. Beijing sees the Democracy Summit as an attempt to portray the race between the United States and China as a showdown between two democracies, one that China accepts and the other that it rejects. China insists that they have a “people’s democracy” that works better than Western democracies and works better for the people. This claim is an important part of China’s ambition to present itself as a global leader.
The portrayal of China as an autocratic country does not contribute to this ambition, and this is part of their concern. But what China does not want to understand is that democracy, among other things, means free elections, in which the winner is not known from the beginning, and that the Chinese model persistently promoted and their attempt to redefine democracy is at odds with basic democratic principles.
Another concern for China was Taiwan’s participation in the Summit. For China, this is a double humiliation, because in addition to the historic dispute in which China considers Taiwan as its part, there is also Taiwan’s participation in an event to which China was not invited. In doing so, President Biden’s administration has made it clear that the United States and its allies support Taiwan’s prosperity and security.
Thus, from a Chinese point of view, the Summit is an initiative that aims to slow down and reduce Chinese influence in the world. This time the number of countries involved is very high, a fact that makes the Democracy Summit seem more powerful in the eyes of the Chinese government and is seen as an attempt to strengthen the mood against China and to form an “anti-China coalition” in the world.
Cooperation against non-military attacks
The United States needs to strengthen the democratic institutions in its country, which have also suffered blows in recent years, to restore its image as a role model country for the whole world, as it was and remains for us in the Balkans, and at the same time to cooperates with other democracies supporting fragile democracies, not only in the Balkans but also in other countries. Countries that are victims of various non-military attacks: cyber-attacks, fake news, various disinformation campaigns, election interference – which aim to undermine confidence in democracy and shatter institutions. This makes technology cooperation critical, which today is at the heart of the economic, military, ideological and geopolitical competition between democratic and autocratic countries. The support of the Balkan countries in the field of “cyber security” is a vital part of the efforts to protect democracy.
The Democracy Summit can be a good starting point and a worthwhile undertaking in this regard. It is a great opportunity for all Democrats around the world and those who believe in democracy – led by the United States – to come up with concrete actions against the growing tendencies of authoritarianism and its attacks on democracy and the defenders of democratic values.