A pattern has established itself in Western coverage of so-called "people power" revolutions. The revolutions themselves are reported on television and on the front page of newspapers, and extensively praised and analyzed on the editorial pages. Distinguished staff correspondents fly in to cover the story. The revolution is described as part of a growing wave of democracy sweeping the region or the world. The latest examples of this treatment have been the Western responses to the "colored" revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
In all too many cases, a few years or even months later, things have gone very sour indeed. The victorious opposition turns out to have been united by nothing more than hatred of the regime in power and desire for the spoils of office. Corruption, poverty and brutal misrule continue unabated. The "revolution" turns out to have produced either a reshuffle of the ruling clique or populist authoritarianism, or both.
At the roots of this failure generally lie old social and cultural weaknesses, including the lack of solid economic and political institutions; of educated, law-abiding, politically committed and economically dynamic middle classes, and of mass political parties capable of mobilizing popular support behind painful reforms.
These stories, however, are not covered on Western television, and if they are covered in Western papers, it is usually on page 20 or so.
As a result, when democracy collapses again, Western publics are bewildered. Wasn't the country in question part of an inevitable march toward democracy and the free market?
Out of this comes a tendency not to analyze deeper causes but to explain things by the supposed wickedness of easily demonizable individuals, like President Vladimir Putin in Russia or General Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan.
Pakistan is where I first observed this process at work, as a reporter for the Times (London) in the late 1980s. When Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) replaced the former military dictatorship in 1988, through elections backed by large street demonstrations, Western papers carried headlines like "People Power in Pakistan" and "Benazir's Tender Democracy." They quoted Bhutto as declaring that her party represented "Scandinavian-style social democracy."
Those of us who had lived in Pakistan knew that if this so, it was the kind of Scandinavian social democracy that Vikings might have produced in the 9th century: fair division of their plunder. At the time, it was very difficult to make this argument heard. Later, after the PPP's record in government had made it obvious, it was impossible to write about Pakistan at all, because no one was interested any more.
There is a good journalistic reason for this. Most Western audiences are fundamentally uninterested in foreign news, except of the melodramatic variety. Most dramatic foreign stories, however, are tragic and disastrous. Ostensibly democratic revolutions are among the few that combine high drama with cheerful and positive emotions. By contrast, the slow unraveling of impoverished pseudo-democracies is both undramatic and highly depressing.
But there is also an ideological reason. This pattern allows Western audiences and journalists to retain their pure faith that, in the Soviet phrase, "the wind of history is in our sails." It allows them to avert their eyes from the way in which the West continues to rig the terms of the international economy against developing countries, and to turn their backs on Western responsibility for providing the kind of substantial, long-term economic aid that the new democracies need.
Instead of looking at the record of the Philippines or Pakistan, Western thinking has taken as the norm the example of Eastern Europe after the popular revolutions that overthrew Communist rule and Soviet hegemony.
These have indeed led to successful economic reform and stable democracy. But there are very special reasons for this. Fear of renewed Russian domination provided a tremendous mass push to Westernizing reform. And a tremendous pull was provided by the promise of membership in the European Union.
This is not a combination that can be duplicated elsewhere. Most developing countries seem closer to the melancholy pattern of most of Latin America over the past century, of a cyclical movement between flawed democracies and ineffective dictatorships and back again a process interspersed with numerous "people-power revolutions" that turn out to have made no real difference whatsoever. But then, Latin America is barely covered even in the serious U.S. media.
Copyright 2005, International Herald Tribune