At the end of 2010 it seemed that all that could be done in the face of autocrats who continued to rule supreme was to protest hopelessly at the fate of imprisoned freedom activists. Then, quite unexpectedly, 2011 became the year when a yearning for human dignity turned into mass movements for democracy that toppled tyrants one by one.
By the year’s end, even as pundits were predicting authoritarian decades to come in Russia, so demonstrators in Moscow and elsewhere confounded them by turning out to protest fraud in Russia’s parliamentary elections. Even the thaw in Burma brought hope of happy outcomes for that country as well.
The late Christopher Hitchens helped explain what is happening in a piece in Slate early in 2011:
"Not long ago, a close comrade of mine was dining with a person who I can't identify beyond telling you that his father is a long-term absolutist ruler of an Arab Muslim state. 'Tell me,' said this scion to my friend, 'is it true that there are now free elections in Albania?' My friend was able to confirm the (relative) truth of this, adding that he had once even acted as an international observer at the Albanian polls and could attest to a certain level of transparency and fairness. The effect of his remarks was galvanic. 'In that case,' exclaimed the heir-presumptive, thumping the table, 'what does that make us? Are we peasants? Children?' The gloom only deepened, apparently, as the image of the Arab as a laughing stock - lagging behind Albania! - took hold of the conversation."
All this gives grounds for optimism that the world is indeed becoming a better place. But the fear is that the drive for democracy is opening the way to new autocratic regimes which reach for religion or nationalism and the promise of stability (or all at the same time), in order once again to plunge the newly enfranchised citizens into a desperate apathy.
Ukraine is a good example. There, the hope of the Orange revolution in 2004 has been frittered away by venal politicians and succeeded by despair at rule by an oligarchy whose sole concern appears to retain power in order to fleece their compatriots with impunity.
The challenge of the coming year is that democratic revolts be followed by democratic institutions and procedures which will keep new autocrats at bay. The fear is that the opposite will happen.