Then the rearranging of borders: Vishnyeva became part of the Belorussian S.S.R. By the time Shimon Peres returned for a visit in 1992, hoping to find the house where he was born, the Soviet Union had collapsed. The village was part of independent Belarus. Journalist Joanne Levine, traveling with Peres, recalled how he sang a Yiddish lullaby his mother used to sing, then went house to house, knocking on doors, asking if people remembered his family. The house had been burnt down; so had all others that might have sparked a memory. He found a shard of a broken tombstone that belonged to his great-grandfather. He placed a stone and he said a prayer for the dead.
The next year, Peres and Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Peace Accords with Yasser Arafat. It was a hopeful time. The Cold War was over, and peace in the Middle East seemed within grasp. The threesome shared the Nobel Peace Prize. A year later, Rabin was assassinated.
HELL FREEZES OVER
And then it happened: the second of November, 2016. All Souls Day for Catholics. For baseball fans, the day hell froze over. A toss from Bryant to Rizzo for the third out and the Cubs won the World Series. Perhaps world peace was next?
Not right away. Instead, the next day, Steven Seagal was back in the news. Putin had made him a Russian citizen. The day after that, observers for the largest ever OSCE mission for a U.S. election arrived on our shores: nearly 300 short-term observers from member states, working under a couple dozen long-term observers from throughout Europe. (Russia offered to send its own contingent of observers—a political stunt, since Russia is an OSCE member.) The OSCE has sent a token force of observers to the U.S. since 2000. But in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down aspects of the Voting Rights Act. With heightened concerns about voter registration and electronic voting, the OSCE decided a serious contingent in 2016 was needed.
On the morning of Election Day in America, I headed to my son’s high school to vote. The Boy is 15; this time around, he wanted to come with me. And I wanted him to be engaged—to understand that the right to vote in a free and fair election is not something we can take for granted. Like a free press, it’s a cherished pillar of liberal democracy. (Of course, there were Macedonian teenagers who were engaged in the U.S. election as well: inventing clickbait red meat headlines and stories in a digital advertising ecology that rewarded such behavior. File that under corrosive.)
A question: What if the endgame of an election isn’t sustaining liberal democracy at all, complete with protection of minorities and freedom of expression—but instead transitioning to illiberal democracy? Or simply to an illiberal state? We don’t have to look as far as Putin’s Russia or Lukashenka’s Belarus. These days, just travel to Poland, where the nationalist-populist government has curtailed freedom of the press; or to Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán takes inspiration from Russia, China, Turkey, and Singapore—because, he said, the economic crisis of 2008 showed liberal democracies couldn’t be competitive.
Things fall apart, Yeats wrote. The center cannot hold.
THE PRELIMINARY ASSESSMENT
You’ve seen numerous recaps of the U.S. election—but perhaps not what the OSCE had to say. From a nonpartisan, international organization that has an interest in process, not outcome, a few verbatims:
Recent legal changes and decisions on technical aspects of the electoral process were often motivated by partisan interests, adding undue obstacles for voters.
More than an estimated 35 million eligible voters were not registered for these elections, underscoring the need for continued efforts to enhance voter registration, particularly among marginalized communities.
Intolerant speech by one candidate about women, minorities, and people with disabilities was frequent.
Contrary to good practice, 15 states use Direct Recording Equipment machines that do not provide a voter-verified paper audit trail.
In 13 percent of observations, observers noted malfunctions with electronic voting equipment.
It helps, sometimes, to see yourself as others see you.
Momentous political events—from the fall of the Berlin Wall to Tiananmen Square to the murder of the Jesuits in El Salvador—mark 1989 as an epic moment in history. A decade after the Velvet Revolution of ’89, I was in Prague for a conference celebrating the anniversary. Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, George H.W. Bush, and Mikhail Gorbachev were Václav Havel’s guests of honor at Prague Castle. Along with discussions, concerts, and rallies, there was disenchantment in the air; Gorbachev spoke of increasing backlash he saw against globalization. In a Q&A, I asked: What do you say to the people here in Central and Eastern Europe who feel they were misled—that democracy and a free market haven’t delivered what was promised?
Thatcher chimed in first. “Cheer up!” she said. More followed—but not enough of the stuff that would stir the heart and restore those whose faith in democracy was flagging.
In Russia, these were Boris Yeltsin’s final days as leader. On New Year’s Eve 1999, he resigned and apologized for some things that hadn’t gone as he had hoped, and he handed over reins to his chosen successor, Vladimir Putin.
Another confession: a deep-seated fear that we will look upon 1989 as the beginning of an era that has come to a close—in terms of commitment to global norms and rights and institutions that have kept the world from being a much more frightening and brutal place.
In the months since the autumn elections, there have been protests near and far. In Russia, in March, tens of thousands protested in scores of cities—raising their voices against corruption. Arrests were made. In Belarus, in March, people took to the streets to resist a new law against “parasitism”: Anyone who hasn’t worked in six months can be fined $250. The law’s implementation was postponed, yet the outrage not assuaged. Four hundred people, including journalists, were arrested. On the eve of May Day, opposition figures were rounded up.
“We are not idiots,” said Belarus’ President Lukashenka in his annual address to the National Assembly. He accused EU leaders of pouring dirt on his country. “We see what is happening inside the EU itself.” He added, with crude swagger: “I want to tell all the European leaders: You really lack something between the legs … You will soon realize your mistakes and will regret having made them. Why are you so stubborn? Where’s your democracy and tolerance?”
Indeed. It turns out that democracy is a messy and inefficient and fragile thing. And certainly never something we finish trying to achieve—unless we give up on it.
STEVEN BOYD SAUM is the editor of this magazine. Part of this essay appeared on KQED FM as “Belarus, Baseball, and Berlin.”