Change isn't quick

Posted: Dec 14, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- On Europe's western edge, in Ulster, democracy is producing unlovely results. On Europe's eastern edge, in Russia, the results are even more unsavory. Those whose mission is to finish regime change in Iraq by constructing democracy can sense how long their task may take by noting the difficulties in Europe, which is more politically mature than the Middle East.

When did the troubles in Northern Ireland begin? The Battle of the Boyne is a convenient marker. That victory of the armies of King William III, a Protestant, over those of King James II, a Catholic, is still celebrated by Ulster Protestants, largely to lacerate the feelings of Catholics, every July 12. It occurred in 1690.

Thirty-five years ago, Northern Ireland boiled into violence that in three decades claimed 3,000 lives. Five years ago, the Good Friday agreement, brokered by the United States and endorsed by 71 percent of Ulster voters, supposedly brought peace by bringing paramilitary forces into politics.

Concerning another country, the Los Angeles Times reports that U.S. and other diplomats ``have met commanders of an Afghan faction that is attacking the U.S.-led troops, urging the militants to dump their leader, disarm and form democratic parties.'' Sudden conversions to civility would solve most of the world's problems -- and would be especially helpful in Ulster. There the ``power sharing'' under the 1998 agreement, which was supposed to marginalize or moderate the extremes, has marginalized the moderates.

The party of Ian Paisley, the 77-year-old Protestant fanatic who says the pope is the ``anti-Christ,'' has become the largest party in the province's assembly, which has been suspended for more than a year, since allegations of Irish Republican Army spying. Paisley refuses to deal with Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, a paramilitary force that probably will now refuse to continue the ``decommissioning'' -- disarmament -- that it has committed to, but has done only partially and grudgingly. For the first time, Sinn Fein has surpassed more moderate parties to become the dominant voice of those who reject British rule in Ulster.

In Russia, a bastardized mockery of democracy has produced the marginalization -- actually, the annihilation -- of the moderates. After the elections to the Duma, Russia's parliament, a senior adviser to the real winner, President Vladimir Putin, used a familiar Marxist trope in reading out of history the two pro-Western parties that failed to win any seats. They should, he said, ``be calm about it and realize that their historical mission has been completed.''

One reason they have been, in Trotsky's words, consigned to the dustbin of history is that Putin, who trained for democracy in the Soviet KGB, is using ``managed democracy'' to concoct a meretricious legitimacy for lawless authoritarianism. In a post-election statement, Putin blandly promised to correct ``shortcomings'' in the election. They include his measures suffocating independent media, controlling political communication from urban billboards to broadcasting, and jailing the richest Russian on the eve of the election. Optimists are construing his statement that Russia's constitution is ``the basis of stability'' as a promise not to repeal the two-term limit on the presidency. Do not bet on that.

Putinism is uprooting the shallow seedlings of democracy across Russia's 11 time zones. Putinism is becoming a toxic brew of nationalism directed against neighboring nations, and populist envy, backed by assaults of state power, directed against private wealth. Putinism is a national socialism without the demonic element of its pioneer who, 70 years ago this year, used plebiscitary democracy to acquire the power to extinguish German democracy. There probably are not enough Jews remaining in Russia to make anti-Semitism a useful component of Putinism. But do not bet on that either.

Responding to another act of anti-Semitic violence, an attack on a Jewish school, Rabbi Joseph Sitruk has suggested that Jewish men wear baseball caps rather than skullcaps in public and ``avoid walking alone'' lest they become ``targets for potential assailants.'' This is in France, birthplace of the Enlightenment, where Sitruk is chief rabbi.

Anti-Semitism in post-Holocaust Europe, where Jews are few, is a reminder -- especially to France, where Marxism was a long time dying -- of just how wrong Marx was. He said modernity -- industrialism and the attendant demystification of the world -- would drain the history-making power from premodern forces, such as religion and ethnicity.

Those forces will drive developments in Iraq for years. The durability of those forces, around the world, is the big news -- although there is nothing really new about it -- of 2003.