Democracy is trust. Democracy is so hugely misunderstood in the post-Soviets. You often hear people believe democracy is a majority’s dictatorship, it’s all about voting, and voting is of course easy to rig, because the majority is always blind and stupid, so democracy is just hot air to cover up for manipulations and crimes. You hear it every now and then from those supposedly in the know about the socioeconomic and socio-political developments—columnists, radio hosts, bloggers, but worst of all, politicians. A tremendous misconception. Whatever the circumstances, democracy is no dictatorship, full stop. It’s no oppression or discrimination of minorities, no humiliation of the weaker, no zero-sum game.
Speaking about the balances of power between a majority and minorities, democracy is the more developed, the more impact an individual—hence, minorities formed by individuals—can have on decision-making at all levels. The shorter the distance to the decision-making, or power, centre, the stronger the individual impact. This, in turn, requires decentralisation of power, which is impossible without flattening vertical hierarchies, flattening the interaction between the individual and the power. The entire institution of democratic rule becomes so flat and the decision-making body so close to the individual that the individual her- or himself becomes the centre of the decision-making process. Democracy does involve ugly rivalry and power struggle, and doesn’t close up all loopholes for corruption and incompetence. But what it can do with the help of genuine civic control is largely inhibit corruption and incompetence in decision making.
Basically, each step taken, each decision can and should be verified against the empowerment of individual, whether the decision promotes it or not. In this respect, I would like to emphasise two cases, which I have had a chance to discuss in my blog but which have somehow been generally ignored in the public discourse in Latvia: the merge of three pro-democracy parties into one, Vienotība, and the disproportionate size of the Riga municipality. Both—the refuge of political veterans and the rusty legacy of bygone eras—work against the empowerment of individual, hence, against democracy.
Dombrovskis’s boggy hinterland
Vienotība under the pretence of consolidation against menace has inhibited the political competition in the pro-democracy and pro-reform segment of the Latvian politics. I am happy to acknowledge and praise the Dombrovskis-led governments for what it does to bring Latvia from coma. I do appreciate—and so do many Latvian voters—Vienotība’s role as Mr Dombrovskis’s hinterland in making this happen and letting him do his crisis management job. But as a hinterland Vienotība remains rather boggy and unintelligent. Did it mobilise a new generation to join the politics? Did it mobilise intellectuals? Did it promote participation and civic activism? Did it set higher moral standards and transparency? The answer is no, even with the perfect reputation of Mr Dombrovskis.
A boggy and unintelligent hinterland, a child of freezing down political competition, a voting machine in parliament, Vienotība is helpless before the beast of political corruption. The most striking showcase or a series of showcases would be the wrangles between tax money sucking gangs in the transport branch—rail, air, buses, road building, ports, you name it—presided by Minister Ronis, a man of a questionable political mandate and a questionable political legitimacy, demonstrating an utmost obscure and unintelligible political behaviour.
Another striking showcase is the exposure of Latvian citizens to a massive attack of Kremlin-organised media hogwash propagating hate and rift in the Latvian society. It’s obvious that both examples demand strong political will from the policymakers—Mr Dombrovskis, his closest team and their boggy hinterland. It’s just as obvious that they can’t deliver it.
Is the state of Latvia too weak against the transport and transit gangs? Against the media-strangling tycoons? Against thuggish Russian “investors” using Latvia for money laundry? Actually, the answer to those questions is even simpler than any conspiracy theoretician can suggest. Mr Dombrovskis is no institution; with all the power vested in him he’s only a human being and cannot replace a party or any other institution of democracy. Only institutions can guarantee the rule of law and dependable performance of state functions. If the state performance is impeded, the institutions of the Latvian state are obviously too weak—first of all to keep the predatory interests from ravaging the resources and infrastructure. What happens to the empowerment of individual against this background? This is a sad, sad story, Mr Dombrovskis. Don’t even think anyone of those who have left would consider returning to this dump.
Having Riga, accounting for a third of Latvia’s population, as one municipality keeps its inhabitants and their interests furthest away from the decision-making centre compared to any other municipality in the country and makes the loopholes for corruption and incompetence only larger. For the sake of the empowerment of individual, for better accountability and better management, Riga needs to be divided into a number of self-governing boroughs that would share the ownership of infrastructure operating companies, like any other neighbouring municipalities. This should be a natural next step of Latvia’s local governance reform. At the same time much of the results of the latest split of the old Soviet rajoni into novadi must obviously be revised, because these results on the map leave a very strong impression of a mess that can’t and doesn’t promote local development making frustrated and disenfranchised individuals to abandon their native corners.
Germs of Soviet hypocrisy
Another misapprehension of democracy is the so-called collective interest theory. This is in fact an incarnation of the old immoral maxim of placing common interests above individual ones, which was rooted in the Soviet doctrine. The immorality and harm of this trick was twofold. One was that there is no such thing as “common”—as there is no “common” property, there are no “common” rights or responsibility, what belongs to “all” doesn’t belong to anyone—which was indeed a widely recognised fact of life in the society of the time. The other blow against the morality was that the individual interests and rights were put in opposition to those of the “people” and downgraded to inferiority.
The “people” were assigned chimerical and imaginary collective “interests” and nurtured their disgust to their real interests, the individual ones. Decrying individual interest of course didn’t make them any less significant in anyone’s life. People simply learned to be ashamed of pursuing their individual interests, learned to do it under the table and treat others’ individual interests with contempt. The inferiority of individual interests couldn’t help but bring in the inferiority of individual responsibility. Here we go—the lack of transparency, solidarity and responsibility, and contempt for someone else’s rights and interest—the dirty germs of the Soviet hypocrisy that are still very much alive in our society.
I had a conversation with Jānis Dombrava, a young MP from the ethnically biased Visu Latvijai party, on Twitter the other day. He was unhappy about “European liberals”, read liberal democracy, promoting “immigration” and “people mixture” and neglecting “people’s interests”. The most unfortunate here is that being young and bearing no Soviet legacy of his own, the Visu Latvijai MP seems to be infected with the same delusion of collective interests and contempt for freedom of individual choice. I am not sure if Mr Dombrava only meant the immigration from outside of the EU, because I am not sure about the border between being ethnically biased and racially biased. Yet, it seems obvious to me that the liberal democrats’ complot to allow free movement of labour within the EU has not only instigated many Latvians, whose collective interests Mr Dombrava and his biased party worship, to leave Latvia for a better life abroad but indeed find a better and happier life, have well-paid jobs and bring more Latvians to the world.
It is very unfortunate that Visu Latvijai doesn’t see this very close relation between the interests of those individual Latvians and the interests of the Latvian people. They also seem to overlook other positive effects of the labour emigration from Latvia, such as lifting the pressure from the national social security services in the years of deep economic recession in the country, or, say, earning individual experiences of living and working in a much more advanced democratic society, which at least some of these Latvians will bring with them back home one day.
Who’s to clean up the mess?
Well, yes, if they bother coming back. No one will come back, no one will invest in an innovation- and knowledge-based economy, no one will create a high added value and no salaries will rise, no children will be born and no revival of Latgale or any other countryside will happen, until the politician clean up their mess, until the institutions of the Latvian state guarantee the rule of law that lets no crime go unpunished. Whoever comes to power, whoever those politicians are, they will absolutely have to clean up the mess. Cleaning up the mess would, as I may predict, wash away such products of political corruption as ZZS and Saskaņa. I don’t believe Vienotība is able or willing to do this.
I clearly see that Visu Latvijai doesn’t have a clue what needs to be fixed, let alone intellectual capacity of delivering a solution. Outlawing abortions—is it how high Visu Latvijai’s political competence can fly? Is it a joke? Yes, it was, just as much as their Minister of Justice, Gaidis Bērziņš, who didn’t lift a finger to reform the judiciary that plays a fundamental role in materialising the rule of law. Did he know he was a minister of justice?
The future of the Reform Party remains to be seen. With all respect to the ideas and energy of its ministers, whose intentions, if implemented, would contribute a great deal to the empowerment of individual in Latvia and help create a foundation for an innovative economy, this party is inherently weak being a fruit of a short-lived emotional outburst, which like most of populist movements shuns clear ideological adherence. It seems only logical that the party’s best men shun membership in the party. Now it seems very much up to the Reform Party itself to survive or not. It will be able to survive and make a difference in the Latvian politics, if it decides to transform an outburst into a mature political party.
Whoever comes to clean up the mess, be it the Reform Party or a new liberally minded political actor, the new political elite will not escape from the task of flattening the obsolete hierarchy of political decision-making. The bottom line here is that I do believe in the power of political leadership. The long-overdue ethicalisation of governance should start from within the political elite due to a very simple reason that no one else can strengthen the institution of democratic governance, ensure the rule of law and let no one be above the law.
Democracy is trust, whereas mistrust in the society indicates the weakness of the democratic institutions: civil society, political parties, and parliament. The effectiveness of democratic representation requires not only flattening the interaction between the individual and the power, but also flattening the cooperation between individuals. A democratic society is a horizontal network of independent, empowered individuals. This comes with trust, is based on trust, and it generates more trust.
The difference between trust and mistrust is how much energy you need to engage in cooperation with other individuals, how high the barrier is, how much it costs you ultimately. Mistrust does not necessarily imply suspicion about motives and purposes. Mistrust is also a fear of costs. This leads to another conclusion: mistrust is opposed to making individual contribution. It helps explain the apathy which is so typical for the post-Soviet societies. It also gives an idea why it is so difficult for liberally minded people to join forces in a genuinely liberal political party.
Trust needs time to grow, it needs to be nurtured and cherished. Every decision and every step taken by politicians, the elite needs to be verified against the empowerment of individual, because every step taken in the opposite direction will kick us all back into the haze of mistrust.
Trust is of course not the answer to all questions. Democracy can only help us free the energy we need to create a better life, and we only know too well that democracy does not function as perfectly in poorer societies, where people often struggle to survive, as it does in richer ones. And the rule of law means little if law is faulty and the budget of law enforcement agencies has been substantially reduced. Is that supposed to mean that we don’t need the rule of law and someone can always be above the law? That we don’t need democracy and can just as well wring its neck, like that of a hen laying too small eggs? It’s very easy to give up and it’s very tempting to neglect the need for ethics in politics and fake it up with a scam like a presidential republic, downsizing the number of MPs, impeding referenda, or outlawing abortions. Having lost their faith in their fellow citizens, they are losing their minds. No, we need more democracy, more trust, not less. No Putin- or Lukashenko-style dictator, presiding over his kleptocracy, will help us create a foundation for a modern nation and innovative economy.
A closer zoom on the behaviour of a vast majority of the Latvian political elite would leave little hope for change within this class. Today’s Latvia is no place where to expect a major economic spurt sought by Mr Dombrovskis. It’s no place where Latvians who have left for a happier life can return. Not because of low salaries and meagre social benefits, but because today’s political elite of the country produces no valid ideas how to deal with this misery and shows no intention to change. This leaves an ample space for a liberal party to enter Latvian politics to assume political leadership in building trust.
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