Thanks for the hint, Vladimir Zhirinovsky

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The Independent Online
WESTERN Man proclaims the death of History. With the collapse of Communism, democratic and liberal society and the free market have triumphed. A few spots on the globe remain to be sorted out, the odd rumple here, the occasional dozy dictator there. But in broad sweep terms, the guys in white stetsons have done the business. Then what happens? Well then, ol' History yawns, quietly gets up again, and delivers Western Man an unexpected thwack across the back of his silly little skull.

In the latest case, an anti-Semitic, anti-Western and authoritarian politician has been the 'surprise' gainer in the Russian elections. But the success of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, regarded by his enemies as a potential Hitler, ought not to astonish anybody who knows anything about Russia, or political history or, for that matter, about human nature. Evidently he is not, as the good people of Glasgow say, a very nice wee man. But we can learn from his success.

We can learn, above all, a decent humility. Zhirinovsky may be a mere flash of darkness at the edge of the story of contemporary Russia. He may turn out to be a transient blur who exploited the pain caused by reform, and who then disappeared, or was neutralised by a developing Russian democracy. But to assume, now, that this story must end happily reeks of the sin of Western democratic pride. In Russia, it never has before.

The benign outcome is not preordained. It is just as plausible that imperial and economic collapse, despite important gains made by the reformers, will prove intolerable and provoke a return to autocracy or worse. Time and time again, politics trumps economics. Russia might have evolved into a liberal democracy in, say, the Thirties, but for the First World War. It took another path and may do so again, however many bright young things Morgan Grenfell aims at Moscow each week. Zhirinovsky wants to be president himself, one day: and as Helen Womack noted in yesterday's Independent, Yeltsin's referendum 'would mean he inherited a constitution easily bent to the purposes of a dictator . . .'

It would be a rich irony if Western democracy now succumbed to some of the fallacies of Marxism, which it defeated. But the apparent belief of so many democrats in their system's inevitable global triumph is a species of determinism as crude as any promulgated by Leninists and Trotskyists. (I particularly cherish the brand of Trotskyism which believed in trying to contact UFOs, on the grounds that any life-form advanced enough to achieve intergalactic travel must also have developed the 'correct' Marxist analysis. Today we know that the Vulcans were early exponents of market-testing.)

Similarly, the assumption that yesterday's Communist soldiers or Islamic herdsmen will automatically become Western-style democrats once the requisite number of ballot boxes are in place, sounds remarkably like the Marxist belief in revolution as a consciousness- changing moment of enlightenment. Such transformations may occur in the world of religion, but in politics things take a little longer - particularly if democracy does not come hand-in-hand with obvious economic advantage.

Democracy is not the natural human state, but something learnt and struggled for. It evolves and has specific local forms; it is not given or final. And democracy, being a cultural product, is not as easily exportable as other Western commodities. Not to Islam, not to Africa; and perhaps not to Russia, either. And when it is exported, we should be careful about assuming that something irreversible has taken place, something that goes with the grain of history. Just as some poor countries' rulers once decided it was in their interest to declare themselves the presidents of People's Republics and parade Russian or Chinese tanks on May Day, so they may decide that in a world ruled by the IMF and the World Bank, a Leader of the Opposition is a profitable ornament of statehood.

These are cynical reflections. But at a time when the democracies seem to have lost the will to fight real battles for themselves, and when United States foreign policy can be reversed by a handful of deaths in Mogadishu, the bland assumption of a happy Disney ending in every continent is a luxury policy-makers cannot afford. History didn't die, and danger didn't end, when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.

In the current case, scepticism about the victory of democracy in Russia must logically be followed by a relatively tough line on the need for some form of credible Western defence alliance. This is a question of some practical importance which has so far failed to attract the attention it deserves.

The question of how far east the democratic defence system should be spread is a complex one. European democracies can hardly be excluded. But if the British parliament and the US Congress are not prepared to go to war for Bosnia, would they really do so for Ukrainian sovereignty? Nato's principle is that 'an attack on one is an attack on all': but I wouldn't bet on it if the Baltic states joined.

What is clear is that some defence system is still a necessary insurance premium for the democracies. Those Europeans and Americans who would dissolve Nato into a regional security organisation (including Russia) in order to encourage Moscow's democrats are arguing for a gamble of truly historic proportions.

And since the 'Nato's days are over' school includes optimists in the White House and the State Department, we are talking about people who could gamble with pretty big stakes. Vladimir Zhirinovsky may be a fool and distraction; or the prophet of evil days. But whichever he is, he deserves our thanks. If we ignore his timely hint, we have no one to blame but ourselves.