13/06/2012 13:15 BST | Updated 12/08/2012 06:12 BST

The Dictators' Club: Why Democracy May Be More Fragile Than We Think

My next book will be set, in part, in Georgia, and before going there I've been spending a few days reading about the place and its rich, painful history.

One of the chief pleasures of writing novels is the opportunity to learn about new and fascinating things in the name of research. My next book will be set, in part, in Georgia, and before going there I've been spending a few days reading about the place and its rich, painful history.

What stands out from the long lists of invasions and occupations by the Turks, the Persians and the Mongols, is that there must have been a moment, a little over 200 years ago, when Georgia really thought that it was going to be delivered at last. The new empire in the north was Christian, European, and with its protection was offering an end to being a battlefield for violent, jockeying superpowers. But as even the most hopeful of Georgians must have feared, the Russians reneged on their promises, quickly withdrew the few soldiers they stationed there, and left its protectorate to be invaded by the Persians once again. Tbilisi was burned to the ground.

That was in 1795. Except for a proud century or so in the early Middle Ages when successive queens and kings built an independent state, Georgia had been trampled by foreign armies for its entire history. Before the arrival of an imperial Russia, it had been the Poland of the Middle East, stuck between two restless bullies; afterwards, briefly, it was pinched hard on three sides; and then Russia swallowed it up. For three short years after the First World War, from 1918 to 1921, it was free again, under a democratically elected government, before Russia invaded once more.

Georgia's fate, it is tempting to think, will never change. Its current fortunes may seem a little brighter, but from the broadest perspective its renewed ambitions for independence, for NATO membership, for a democratic future of its own will be lucky to survive more than a decade or two before it is once again consumed. The country's lesson would seem to be that history is circular, and progress only a short arc within it.

In western Europe, which with North America has led the world in the matter of progress, it's easier than it has been for three generations to imagine this dark analysis of history taking hold. Money is beginning to look a more powerful historical force than democracy. People who understand it are needed, we are told, to run not just our regulatory agencies (which have been toothless for years as a result), but our governments as well: visible technocrats in Italy and the largely faceless forces of the EU, the ECB and the IMF in Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

The hole left in old-fashioned politics has been an invitation to the far right and authoritarian politicians of every stripe - in Greece, in France, in Austria, and in Hungary where over the last few months a Hungarian rapper by the name of Dopeman has been under criminal investigation for criticising the state, the grotesque mirror of a death sentence given in Iran last month to one of its rappers. We expect to see this in Iran. We don't expect to see it in the European Union.

Perhaps democracy is not as established as we assume. Under half the world's population lives in a full democracy, and detailed studies suggest that government is slowly becoming less rather than more representative Over a hundred of the 196-odd countries in the world are not democratic, but only four - Saudi Arabia, Burma, Brunei and Vatican City - are content to say they are not. The rest operate fictional democracies, where the vote isn't about the people having power but about governments controlling it. And to the shame of western governments, their confidence is growing.

Six of these countries met last week in China to discuss the future of Central Asia and to make pronouncements about matters of grave import to the world. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is made up of four Central Asian states, three of them functional dictatorships, together with an economically confident China and a resurgently puffed-up Russia. None of them is known for encouraging political freedom or human rights. To add piquancy, and to counter any charges of faint-heartedness, this year they invited President Ahmadinejad of Iran to observe.

The group meets to discuss security and closer economic ties, but its real political aim is for Russia and China to envelop a region they consider to have been too susceptible, since the fall of the Soviet Union, to American influence. Their purpose this time round was to talk about Afghanistan.

President Karzai also attended as an observer, and one wonders how he felt, and what ideas he might have picked up, as he listened to these grizzled holders-on to power debate the future of his damaged and delicately hopeful country. For now, Russia and China are suggesting a strategic security bloc, whatever that might be, to help to control the country's 'instability.' But they are unlikely to stop at that. In two years the Americans will be gone, and their bequest, sadly, will be no great enthusiasm for the liberating potential of democracy. When the last troop leaves Afghanistan, the influence of its neighbours will really begin to be felt.

Of course, beyond a certain form of political expediency, Afghanistan won't learn anything from the members of the Shanghai Group. China is rich, but not in ideas to improve the world; Russia is powerful, but does nothing useful with its power. But both are eminently practical, and have a practical interest in inviting as many countries as possible into the broader club that they head, of faux-democracies and prettified dictatorships; a club that is growing larger and more powerful by the year, and that sees the crisis in Syria as a way of stymying an economically weakened west and legitimising their own illegitimate rule. Hence the Group's repugnant comments last week.

This is where Europe's economic trials and Syria's acute political troubles join. China and Russia can imagine a world where the west's bullying notions of freedom have been shown to be a frippery, and where they and their natural sympathisers - Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, Sudan, Burma, Indonesia, Venezuela and the rest - can demonstrate that democracy and capitalism are eminently separable.

Our leaders' responsibility, and ours as voters, is not to lose faith in the democratic cause. In two hundred years, it has transformed almost half the countries on the planet and freed almost half its people; in another two hundred, if we hold our nerve, it stands a good chance of finishing the job. Nothing else will protect the political freedoms of Georgia and Afghanistan, of small vulnerable countries threatened by their regressive neighbours. We would do well to remember that money has got nothing to do with it.