European Waves

Democracy beyond the pandemic: reflections on Forum 2000

This year’s Forum 2000 conference was held in Prague, as well as online, from October 10–12, 2021, and focused on the topic, ‘What Now? Building Back Democratically.’ Some of our EPS students had the opportunity to volunteer as rapporteurs, hosts, and observers at the conference. Here, Nicole (22), Jonah (22), Catherine (26), Aria (22), Olha (22), and an anonymous student reflect on the panels and their experiences.

 

Nicole (22), What now? Current challenges to Havel’s legacy

       The Forum 2000 Foundation was established by the former president of the Czech Republic Václav Havel. The fundamental values that he wanted to promote were democracy and human rights, but also the development of the civil society and recognition of religious, cultural and ethnic diversity. Nowadays, the Conference and the Festival of Democracy are still focused on Havel’s legacy; an interesting debate emerged throughout several panels, arguing that democracy and human rights remain the main concerns for the international community, although there appears to be a lack of concrete action to protect them. What I noticed, listening to the delegates’ speeches, is that democratic states, especially the EU nations, are facing three major challenges: COVID-19 crisis, digital revolution, and the threat of authoritarianism. All of them are interconnected, as there is evidence that the pandemic accelerated the process of digitization and contributed to the weakening of democracy, which resulted in the digital realm becoming a tool for both authoritarian regimes’ propaganda and human rights activists who fight against them. 

The topic of this year’s conference was “What now? Building back democratically”, so a number of speakers tried to suggest some solutions in order to overcome the global challenges; some of them came up with the idea of an alliance between democracies, because they think there is a need for coherent political action, which through cooperation and flexibility could create a supportive community. On the contrary, other delegates argued that democracies should steer away from alliances, and instead they should prefer coalitions, as there are some democracies which are not liberal anymore. Despite the different suggestions, I believe that precise indications on how to face the current challenges were not outlined. The idea that was distinctly expressed is that we are living in a delicate historical period where democracy, together with human rights, is indeed put under pressure, and there is always the risk of its collapse. What we need, in my opinion, is more awareness, more action and a clear stance on the current issues from the supranational organizations that have the power to keep EU states together and make them cooperate. The EU must do more in this regard: there are clear signs that its community is in some way divided and its approach has been too appeasing; this is not acceptable. Democracy is one of the founding values, and everything in its power needs to be done to keep it safe, to keep populations and their rights protected. Moreover, quoting the words of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, “We have a responsibility to continuously carry Václav Havel’s loving-kindness, and commitment for universal responsibility.”

Jonah (22), reflecting on the comparative significance of democracy

     One type of panel at this year’s conference concerned itself with the fragility of democratic institutions. Discussions were had, for example, on the role of cities in (re)building citizens’ trust in electoral politics — actors at the municipal level enjoy a greater proximity to their constituents, but are often unable to cooperate strategically with those at the national level. This makes it difficult to ‘share’ the democratic confidence conferred by a local intimacy with politics at large. The topic fits in a general theme of emphasising the necessity of greater civic engagement in a healthy democracy.

At the same time, there was extensive discourse on the situation in a number of authoritarian states. In countries like Myanmar and Belarus, activists have long been struggling to safeguard a particularly basic need: to be able to live, in a substantive sense, a human life. In combating the unfettered oppression that these regimes employ to curtail fundamental freedoms, many of them consign themselves to the risk of being imprisoned or exiled — sometimes for decades.

It is perhaps tempting to think of both these kinds of topics as linearly continuous with one another; as sharing an aspiration of fostering liberal democracy of some kind. And while that idea is certainly connected to the pursuit of human rights and dignity, its general label may serve to obscure a real distinction. That is to say, it is important to keep in mind that where some kind of democracy has already been established, this very fact changes our conception of what goes into living a life of freedom and dignity — it is what informs the desire, in the first type of panel, to improve citizens’ confidence in the democratic system as a whole.

Where democratic institutions are absent, this is not necessarily so. In many cases, rather, people dissent in service of still more basic rights and freedoms, and ‘democracy’ as such need not occupy the primary place it does where those freedoms have been secured. Describing these protests as merely or even mainly an attempt at a democratic state of affairs is to do a disservice to what is actually going on. Nowhere was this clearer than towards the end of the conference, at a restricted workshop for activists. Their stories were filled with harrowing uncertainty, persecution, and fear — and the sweetness of their successes lies not in some abstract contribution to democratisation, but in the fact that life itself is at stake.  

Catherine (26), reflecting on the challenges facing independent journalism in democracies

    I had the opportunity to attend a Forum 2000 panel titled, “Malign Foreign Influence: How Should Democracies Respond?” Moderated by journalist Arzu Geybulla, one of the panelists was Adam Michnik, editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza.

Coming from a family of journalists, I was especially intrigued to hear Mr. Michnik’s views on how to address the challenges independent journalism faces from authoritarian regimes. Mr. Michnik, who advised Lech Wałęsa and participated in Poland’s Round Table Talks, drew parallels with the communist era, when media outlets such as Radio Free Europe and the BBC helped to counteract authoritarian monopolies on information. He pointed out that in democracies, there is a paradox in which we have to live with ‘fake news’ in order to protect freedom of expression. Instead of banning disinformation, he argued, we should increase support for independent media to expand democracy instead of shrinking it.

This is a monumentally difficult task. Mr. Michnik’s words made me think of my home country, the United States, where local journalism is struggling to survive in an era where information, whether true or false, is ubiquitous, and digital and media literacy are low among certain groups. Organizations such as AARP (formerly American Association of Retired Persons) have offered free courses on identifying disinformation, particularly on social media, but these efforts cannot be the only solution.

Local journalism plays a critical role in reporting issues that would not be covered nationally — but local news outlets are in decline. More than half of the daily newspapers in the country are owned by hedge funds or private equity firms. Growing up in Colorado, I watched as newspapers significantly cut staff and reduced publication frequency, despite often still showing profits. Hedge funds such as Alden Global Capital engage in cash harvesting — explained by one Colorado magazine as “stripping assets and spending as little as possible to keep it going until you’ve squeezed out all that’s left, like a vampire working an old folks’ home.” This practice is indicative of treating journalism as a commodity rather than a necessity.

This needs to stop. Independent journalism is essential to democracy. If we continue our current trajectory, more newspapers will cease reporting on important local issues. False information of malign foreign origin will become even more prevalent. As Mr. Michnik argued, we need to increase backing for independent media. And that will require ownership, whether private or nonprofit, that supports journalists and their readership.

 

Aria (22), reflecting on the Discussion over China’s Threat to Democracy  

      The conference’s theme of building back democratically fosters a sense of hope as the world approaches a “post-Covid” era. Moreover, an important component of building back democratically also involves a renewed motivation to defend democracy. In order to have a productive conversation over the state of democracy around the world, it is imperative to discuss the actors that threaten it.

China’s swift rise in the last forty years has become increasingly concerning as it has on many occasions grossly violated international law, the sovereignty of democratic states, and human rights both within and without its borders. Given that the health of the world’s economy is largely contingent on both, China’s producers and consumers, it has become difficult for many states to take united and decisive actions to reprimand the Chinese government. However, China’s role in the rapid spread of Covid-19 certainly gave way for it to organically become the topic of conversation in many of the conference’s panels, and for many scholars and politicians to become more openly critical of the CCP’s (Chinese Communist Party) authoritarian practices. Discourse over China was prevalent throughout the conference, and many panelists expressed concern over how the EU needed to take more initiative when it came to defending democracies from the authoritarian challenges that China brought, not only militarily, but also with its growing dominance in the technological realm.

Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-Wen’s, opening remarks for the conference relayed the clear message that it was time for democracies to take decisive action towards China. She referred to Taiwan as being on “the frontline of [China’s] assault,” an assault which had coincidentally escalated that week as China ramped up military operations directly breaching Taiwanese sovereignty. For years, US foreign policy on Taiwan has been used as a bargaining tool to appease and maintain its flexible relationship with China. However, after China’s dismantling of Hong Kong’s democratic institutions and values in the last two years, there is an increasing pressure for the international priority to now shift towards the defense of Taiwanese democracy, and for Taiwan to turn to its partners in the EU. In her remarks, Tsai Ing-Wen declared her dedication to “become an indispensable partner to the EU” not just politically, but also economically, in order to create a more diverse and resilient supply chain that is no longer monopolized by China. While surely China is not the only existing threat to democracy in the world, it is arguable that its actions call for it to remain an essential part of the discourse when it comes to democracy, something which was clearly reflected at this year’s Forum 2000 conference.

Olha (22), reflecting on the Crimean issue during two Forum 2000 conferences

       My personal experience with Forum 2000 has been incredibly precious since I finally got to know the authentic offline part of the conference. During the previous event, the only option to participate was opening up YouTube and listening to more famous experts than in Zoom classes. The conference in 2021 took place in person, however, I must admit, both of these conferences delivered bright ideas. 

I appreciate that the Crimean issue was on the agenda during both conferences I attended. The annexation problem tends not to be highlighted on the international level and even in Ukraine itself. But the problem is worth discussing. Especially in such a way that involves engaging NGOs, state and academia representatives, as was the case at this year’s conference. For instance, during the panel “Ukraine: A Success Story?” the Head of Amnesty International criticised the Ukrainian government’s approach to the annexation issue and its organisation of the Crimean platform, referring to it as a “facade”. It is apparently a debatable question, which was also raised at the conference in 2020. By contrast, as a tentative project, the Crimean Platform was promoted during last year’s  Forum 2000 by the First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine. Still, the recent Forum 2000 event comprehensively covered the Ukrainian topic within half an hour, allowing space for the facts, debates and open questions. 

Student, Forum 2000: demanding change or preaching to the choir?

      Reporting at Forum 2000’s twenty-fifth conference was an extremely interesting experience. But, although thought-provoking, to what extent did the conference actually achieve its goals?

Central to the organisation are Václav Havel’s words: “It would be good if intelligent people, not only from the various ends of the earth, different continents, different cultures, from civilization’s religious circles, but also from different disciplines of Human knowledge could come together somewhere in calm discussion.”

In short, dialogue among a diverse group of people brings change. Forum 2000 states that they provide “leaders with the proper venue to voice their concerns as well as to look for ways to address them.” Therefore, entering the conference, I was ready to see change happen. I expected fruitful discussion, but in my view, this did not happen.

Instead, the panels resembled lectures to the general public. Forum 2000 attempts to discuss everything related to democracy over three days, meaning that there are too many panels for any conversations to be finished. Many panels lasted less than an hour, leaving moderators to cut the speakers short. Several panelists were slightly offended, arguing that their opinions were worth hearing. I would agree. Panelists only had about five minutes to present their ideas and were limited to answering specific questions. There was little opportunity for open discussion.

This highly formal set-up is not conducive to debate or the thrashing out of opinions. Most participants kept the conversation at a theoretical level, quite simply because they did not have time to discuss any concrete proposals. Moreover, while Forum 2000 allows for dialogue, most panelists agree with each other, limiting debate.

More concerning to me was the limited role of women. I noted with some discomfort at one panel, that other than one female panellist, I was the only woman in the room. The role of women at the conference felt cosmetic – they had only been invited because a woman had to be present at every panel. Even the specifically feminist panel I attended, “Women 4.0: Democratic (E)Quality?” was cut short to just half an hour. This begs the question of which panel was deemed important enough to run overtime, when this panel was shortened by a third. As one activist speaking at the panel, Nyaradzo Mashayamombe, stated, “We cannot have a democracy without acknowledging the 52% of the population which is women and girls.” Forum 2000 even tweeted this quote, apparently unaware of the irony.

In conclusion, although Forum 2000 tackles a broad range of issues, I feel that reform is needed for the conference to become a platform for real, productive discussions.

Conclusion

     In conclusion, this year’s Forum 2000 Conference was thought-provoking for us all. In a time when democratic backsliding is evident, a discussion of the various facets of democracy is essential. Although the conference may need reform in order to become an arena for change, it is certainly true that it provides a platform for discussion. It brings together like-minded people in one common goal, and inspires its attendees to fight for the values we can no longer take for granted.

 

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