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Global spread of democracy stalled

Putin and Chávez are using oil money to create other models, while others just step back.

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In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez, elected to a six-year term with 60 percent of the vote in 2000, is pushing forward with a constitutional referendum that, among other things, would allow him unlimited reelections.

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In Georgia, President Mikhail Saakshvili has come under strong Western criticism for imposing a state of emergency on Nov. 7 after police violently broke up a large protest gathering. The protests were sparked by opposition allegations of corruption and the possible involvement of Saakshvili's government in a murder plot.

Behind the bad news, say experts, are a number of factors. One is that the wave of democracy unleashed following the fall of the Berlin Wall has run its natural course. Those nations ripe for political change have experienced it and now are trying to consolidate their gains.

Another problem is that in some countries citizens are confronting what they feel are democracy's weaknesses. They have gained a vote, but remain dissatisfied with their lot.

"It's tough sledding for democracy right now," said Vin Weber, chairman of the National Endowment for Democracy, at a Sept. 12 Carnegie seminar.

The high price of oil is not helping. Non-democratic but petroleum-rich states such as Venezuela, Kazakhstan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Angola can use their flush coffers to placate their citizens, and help their neighbors.

"It gives them ready money to go out and promote their style of politics," says Mr. Carothers of Carnegie.

In addition, revelations about warrantless wiretapping, waterboarding, and other controversies related to Iraq and the war on terror have not helped the US image abroad. That gives antidemocrats ammunition to try and discredit the US style of government.

Then there are the examples of Russia and China. Both are doing well economically, though for different reasons. Both present themselves to the rest of the world as alternatives to what they charge is Western chaos.

"The narrative that Putin is using to explain his actions to his people is that he has brought order to Russia after the chaos that the US foisted on them after the collapse of the Soviet Union," says Thomas Melia of Freedom House.

Putin, as well as Chavez of Venezuela, and Hamas officials in the Palestinian Authority, deliver services to the lowest sectors of society in a manner that democracy did not seem able to do, according to US experts.

And while there may not yet be an Axis of Autocracy, Venezuela, Iran, Russia, China, and others press what they consider their advantages in as many international organizations and forums as they can.

"In the last year and a half, what you've seen is more effective coordination of autocracies, while democrats dither," says Mr. Melia.

Europe and the free nations of Latin and Central America need to understand there is a real problem, and join with the US to counter this propaganda, says Melia.

"There's another cold war underway," he says. "It's not East vs. West, but democracy versus nondemocracy."