The core of democracy is tolerance of other people's views. Whether it is Rosa Luxemburg's call for respecting the "freedom of people who think differently" or Winston Churchill's pride in British parliamentary debate, left and right agree on this principle.
Alas, it is not much on display in Kiev. Egged on by their favorite, Viktor Yushchenko, crowds have been blocking the main government building and doing all they can to humiliate his rival, prime minister Viktor Yanukovich. Their man won the presidential election, but where is the respect for constitutional procedures they claim to support?
In a minuscule way, I felt the same intolerance when I criticized the street protests in these columns a month ago. The flood of ferocious e-mails, mainly from Yushchenko fans, exceeded the response to anything I had written before.
Although my article said Yushchenko would probably be a better president than Yanukovich and urged the EU to open its doors to Ukraine immediately (views that most of the Kiev protesters held), it caused outrage. I had dared to suggest that Yanukovich's voters were as genuine as Yushchenko's, and that Yushchenko's backers included oligarchs who had enriched themselves at the state's expense. Above all, it drew attention to the degree of funding by the US and other western governments for the campaign.
The more polite e-mailers made the point that the vast crowds in Kiev's streets were fed up with corruption and electoral cheating, and foreign funding was irrelevant. Others claimed I had been bribed. Many were viciously anti-Russian (anti-Russianism is as unpleasant as anti-Americanism in my book). But the overwhelming reaction was a crude tone of "If you're not with us, you're against us." It tolerated no criticism, nuance or scope for reasoned disagreement. In short, no democracy.
In spite of the anger it provoked, the article had benefits. It seemed to prompt a more balanced and less romantic tone in some foreign reporting. A few people went to listen to the hopes and fears of people in Donetsk and other non-Yushchenko areas. After all, assuming the vote was free, 44 percent voted for Yanukovich -- not exactly a trivial minority that can be swept aside by the political Darwinists who dismiss their opponents as "post-Soviet hold-outs and nostalgics" who will soon die off.
Best of all, the piece was followed by a belated discussion of the role of foreign governments in elections. The way the US has exploited and financed "people's power," first in the Philippines in 1986, to a lesser extent in eastern Europe in 1989, and strongly in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine since 1999, came under the spotlight.
As with "humanitarian interventionism," which was much debated in the 1990s, "electoral interventionism" needs to be thrashed out. Why is so much of it selective? Why do western governments (for they are the prime interferers) that claim to be fostering democracy take only one side, rather than being above the fray? Why are only certain countries picked? Georgia, but not Azerbaijan. Serbia, but not Croatia. Zimbabwe, but not Egypt.
Of course, it is a travesty to suggest, as some commentators do, that critics of this interventionism support dictators, despise their courageous opponents, or are ideological cynics. The issue is how foreign power is used and with what motives. More constructively, we ought to discuss alternatives.