Background - 06.05.2024 - 10:00 

Democracy as a scarce resource

The theme of the 53rd St.Gallen Symposium was 'Confronting Scarcity'. The increasing scarcity of freedom, democracy and peace in the world was also addressed in many panels.

On entering the grounds of this year's symposium last Friday, everything seemed to be the same. There were the characteristic awnings that are erected every spring in front of the main building of the University of St.Gallen (HSG) to protect the social networking space from any downpours. There were the many young, motivated students from the International Students Committee, who organise the St. Gallen Symposium every year and are always ready to provide helpful information at every turn. But somehow, despite these familiar impressions, there was something different in the air, even if you couldn't quite put your finger on it at first.

Strong for democracy

The St. Gallen Symposium had started two days earlier under the motto 'Confronting Scarcity'. But there was no shortage of high-profile guests at this year's event. Among them was Wladimir Klitschko, former world boxing champion and brother of Kiev's mayor Vitali Klitschko. In his speech, however, Klitschko highlighted the lack of Western support for Ukraine in terms of arms and ammunition. This was frustrating, he said, because Ukraine had chosen to be part of the free world. We give a lot to defend democracy," Klitschko said.

Growing political influence on press

The fact that democracy could do with such powerful fighters was a hot topic on many of the other panels at this year's St. Gallen Symposium. For years, various studies, including one by the Bertelsmann Foundation, have noted a decline in democracy around the world. Antoine Bernard of Reporters Without Borders also stressed that political forces around the world are increasingly eroding democratic values such as press freedom. He presented the results of the latest Press Freedom Index at the St. Gallen Symposium, which this year also coincided with World Press Freedom Day. In addition to the fact that only a quarter of countries have adequate or good conditions for journalism and that half the world's population lives in the countries with the lowest press freedom scores, a key finding of the latest survey is that political influence on journalism has increased significantly worldwide compared to last year. This is particularly worrying as many countries are due to hold elections in 2024. Many governments are no longer fulfilling their duty to protect a free press, but are themselves increasingly the perpetrators of misinformation, propaganda and intimidation of media professionals,' says Bernard.

The US election as a decisive battle

But it's not only governments around the world that are overwhelmed by democracy, but also many citizens themselves, says Prof. Dr. Christine Abbt, a professor of philosophy at the HSG whose research focuses on democratic theory. 'In many people's perception, the world today seems more complex than it used to be. But democracies need informed and curious people who are willing to engage in political dialogue with those who think differently.' This seems a timely statement, especially when it comes to the US. Many fear that this year's presidential election will also be a decisive battle for the strengthening or weakening of democratic values worldwide. At the symposium, for example, Vladimir Klitschko, with an unusually sombre expression for a boxer, warned: 'We could reach a decisive point in the war with Russia as early as this year', alluding to a possible victory by Donald Trump, whose willingness to continue US support for Ukraine is highly uncertain.

Trump 2.0 will be worse than Trump 1.0

At the symposium, the upcoming US election in November will not only affect the political world, but also the business world, as one of the many roundtables will make clear. The small group of business leaders will be moderated by Timo Blenk, CEO of Agora Strategy, a consultancy specialising in geopolitical issues. In his introductory speech, he makes it clear that a Trump 2.0 victory would probably shake up US politics more than his first term. This is because this time he can count on a larger number of loyalists in the US administration. For Europe and its economy, Trump 2.0 would probably mean that it would have to negotiate tariffs with the US more intensively again and that competition with America for technology and raw materials would intensify. This would exacerbate Europe's already high dependence on foreign commodities, especially from China.

A fragile team

Against the backdrop of this scenario, coupled with Trump's repeated threats to withdraw from Nato, the question naturally arises as to how Europe can safeguard its influence in the world and its values in the future, especially in view of the centrifugal forces that are repeatedly making themselves felt in the EU. We are in favour of strong, independent and sovereign states as members of the EU," he made clear at the outset, stressing that Hungary wanted to support the rapid accession of the Western Balkan states, which have been stuck in the accession process for years due to their shortcomings in the areas of the rule of law and democracy.Former Latvian President Egils Levits, who was also on the panel, replied: "We need EU member states that are truly convinced of the European cause. That's why I would never agree to Serbia's accession at the moment. To gain strength and be able to defend its own values, the EU should invest much more in military deterrence. The panel agreed, however, that the EU cannot be a monolithic bloc because of its many cultures, but rather 'a team that speaks with one voice in the world', as the Prime Minister of Liechtenstein, Peter Risch, emphasised, including European countries that are not members of the EU. Dr Anna Stünzi, a researcher at the HSG and a member of the Swiss think tank Foraus, who was also present, sees Switzerland as part of the soul of Europe and the EU as its most important "like-minded" partner in the world.

Bleak prospects for Russia's democratisation

The appearance of another person at this year's symposium was also eagerly awaited. The crowd packed into the HSG auditorium late on Friday afternoon to catch a glimpse of the woman who, for many, has become the new beacon of hope in the fight for greater democracy in Russia: Yulia Navalnaya, wife of the Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who recently died in Russian custody, wants to "continue her husband's legacy", as she assured TV presenter Ali Aslan during the panel discussion. Navalny wants to win over the Russian population and young people as her "most important allies" and encourage them to get involved in politics. But Prof Ulrich Schmid, an expert on Eastern Europe at the Swiss Graduate School of Management (HSG), says it will be a rocky road: "Basically, you can say that there is no longer an opposition in Russia that is capable of taking action. What's more, there is no politics in Russia. And even without Putin, the system he created would probably continue to exist because the entire political and economic elite has compromised itself and could not break out of this system even if it wanted to. The prospects for democratisation in Russia are therefore bleak. It will take decades before the conditions are in place for Russia to free itself from this pathological political system. 

Freedom, peace and democracy are no longer the self-evident norm that many Westerners have long taken for granted. Perhaps it was this air of humility that was in the air at this year's St. Gallen Symposium. Or perhaps it was the fact that the organisers, true to their motto, had decided to forgo luxurious furnishings for this year's event. This was particularly noticeable in the catering. Instead of a lavish buffet, guests were treated to simple vegetarian fare: spätzle, potato gratin or risotto, served in modest portions. We can only hope that in the future we will have to remain modest in our use of natural resources.

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