Zimbabwe: jailed activists prompt concern, solidarity

Zimbabwean human rights activist Jestina Mukoko is one of 17 activists charged with conspiracy to overthrow Mugabes regime (Credit: VOA)

Zimbabwean human rights activist Jestina Mukoko is one of 17 activists charged with conspiracy to overthrow Mugabe's regime (Credit: VOA)

A Zimbabwean judge has ruled that 16 democracy and human rights activists must remain in jail over the New Year. They are charged with plotting to overthrow President Robert Mugabe, said Irene Petras, director of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy

On December 22, 2008, the Steering Committee of the World Movement for Democracy issued a statement on Zimbabwe, expressing its solidarity with the country’s democracy and human rights activists, including World Movement participants. The statement- signed on behalf of the Steering Committee by its chair, The Hon. Kim Campbell, former Prime Minister of Canada, and two other members, Michael Danby, an Australian member of parliament, and Jana Hybaskova, a Czech member of the European Parliament- calls for the immediate release of abducted democracy and human rights activists, including prominent human rights activist and Zimbabwe Peace Project leader Jestina Mukoko. 

The Steering Committee urges the international community to act to protect Zimbabwean citizens from the severely deteriorating economic, health, and humanitarian situation, a consequence of the continuing political crisis.

A New Year resolution for Misha: get Georgia’s reform back on track

Government control of key media outlets and interference in editorial decisions is diluting Georgian journalism’s democratic function, observers suggest. Democracy cannot exist without the kind of scrutiny and accountability that independent investigative journalism provides, says Sozar Subari, Georgia’s ombudsman for human rights.

President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government has come under fire for its opaque decision-making. Even after the recent government reshuffle, an event conspicuously under-reported on state media, “power is still confined to a small, closed circle,” notes an RFE-RL report.

“Praising your own team instead of holding them responsible is a long way from seeking to establish the truth,” it continues. “The media response — to omit from the main news programs one of the day’s most important developments — is tantamount to riding roughshod over the facts.”

“The reality is that the Saakashvili government is the fourth one-party state that Georgia has had during the last 20 years, going back to the Soviet period,” said Lincoln A. Mitchell, formerly with the National Democratic Institute. “And nowhere has this been more apparent than in the restrictions on media freedom.”

Journalistic TV investigations were one of the catalysts of the Rose Revolution. Investigative television programs are as necessary as news programs, says Vakho Komakhidze, a journalist and founder of the Reporter studio, financed by the National Endowment for Democracy.

“The focus of discussion on media in Georgia should not be what government channels will or will not broadcast but whether private ownership of national TV stations will be transparent and independent,” says Miriam Lanskoy, NED’s Senior Program Officer for Central Asia and the Caucasus. She cites two current cases in Georgian courts where former station owners allege that they were coerced by government agents to give up shares.

Saakashvili’s New Year resolution should perhaps be to curb his erratic behavior and focus on democratic reform. “The advice of people like me is: To whatever degree possible, forget about the Russians,” said Ronald D. Asmus, executive director of the Transatlantic Center at the German Marshall Fund. “Accelerate reform and regain the moral high ground you had, and lost.”

But his commitment to democratic institutions seems wobbly, judging by his recent record and comments. “If I had been in the opposition, I would have destroyed this government in three months,” especially given the economic crisis, he told the New York Times. “I know how to do it,” he said, “but I don’t want to teach them how to do it.”

Following Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, Saakashvili took advantage of enhanced state capacity to promote economic development and counter-corruption initiatives. But the “laudable achievements of Saakashvili’s state-building program have come at the high price of a superpresidential political system,”, according to Lanskoy, and Giorgi Areshidze, director of the Partnership for Social Initiatives (PSI), a Tbilisi-based NGO, write in the Journal of Democracy.

Former NDI staffer Mitchell detects two competing personalities at work. “I’ve seen him do things right out of Giuliani’s playbook, and I’ve seen him do things that are right out of Putin’s,” he told the New Yorker.

Others suggest time is running out for him to recapture his credibility. “What is the future for Saakashvili?” said Sozar Subari, a longtime critic of the president. “He started the war, he lost the war, he lost the territories. There is a crisis. There is no investment in Georgia. The situation is getting worse and worse. If there is no change, he will leave Georgia as the president who lost everything.”

Crisis strains Putin-Medvedev “tandemocracy”

Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev yesterday signed a law extending presidential terms from four years to six, apparently expediting Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency. The move fed speculation that Putin, eager to act before the financial crisis further erodes his popularity, is unlikely to wait until scheduled elections in 2012 to return to the office.

The Kremlin acted unusually quickly, pushing the amendment through both houses of the Duma and all of the nation’s 83 regional assemblies in less than 50 days. The liberal Yabloko party objected, highlighting a clause in the 1998 law which requires that regions be given a year to consider proposed constitutional amendments.

“They’re completely ignoring the law,” said Sergei Mitrokhin, Yabloko’s chairman. “Unfortunately, this happens quite often, but this is the first time the process has been ignored for such a significant issue as a constitutional amendment.”

The amendment coincides with another proposal to expand the definition of treason, a move that democrats fear “could mean a return to Soviet-style prosecutions of government critics as traitors, making crimes even of conversations with foreign reporters and nongovernmental organizations.

Activists and lawyers suggest that the law is being pushed through in anticipation of increased political dissent and social unrest prompted by the financial crisis and the Kremlin’s economic mismanagement.

The financial crisis is testing the viability of the Putin-Medvedev “tandemocracy,” notes one observer. “The two centers of power promised a gradual evolution of Russia’s political system toward more pluralism and public accountability,” Vladimir Frolov writes in the Moscow Times. But Medvedev’s modernization agenda has given way to crisis management and Putin’s White House is “the political center of gravity.”

The declining price of oil – from $140-plus to $40 a barrel – is hurting authoritarian “petrocrats” like Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Hugo Chavez as well as Putin. The Wall Street Journal suggests that the Russian premier is particularly vulnerable, noting that the authorities have banned state media from using the word “crisis,” although the Public Opinion Foundation reports that 42% of Russians believe the country is in one.

The closure of political space and emasculation of democratic institutions may backfire against the regime as discontented citizens take to the streets:  

As the state is unable to tolerate or channel public anger into democratic debate, hostility can erupt in unpredictable ways. Earlier this month, some 30 Russian cities held demonstrations against a high new tariff on imported second-hand cars. … Riot police were sent from Moscow 3,750 miles east to Vladivostok, the epicenter of the movement. So far, the anti-tariff demonstrations aren’t overtly political, but the Kremlin seems to believe that can change and isn’t taking chances.

Robert Amsterdam’s blog features a rare document of dissent from within the security services, highlighting a posting on the Interior Ministry’s website from a disaffected police officer:  

The power knows that actions of people’s protest are possible, and that the consequences could be unpredictable. A question. On whom is the power relying? Who can save it from the people’s wrath? Who will help hold on to what has been pillaged? That would be you and me, colleagues. The Russian police. We are going to disperse the protesters, like we did on 1 May of 1993 and in October of that same year, like we dispersed the Russian March in 2008. So, in everything that has taken place with our Motherland since the year 1993, there is our guilt…. A question. Are we going to be the dogs-on-a-chain of this regime?

As RFE/RL’s excellent Power Vertical notes, the posting has since been removed and replaced with a message apologizing for the “inconvenience.”

Promoting democracy – the Wilsonian way?

As analysts speculate on which elements, if any, of the Bush foreign policy legacy the new Obama administration should retain, and even ask whether liberals should promote liberal democracy,  a new book notes that American presidents from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Bill Clinton made democracy promotion a centerpiece of foreign policy.

Even realist icon Henry Kissinger concedes that Wilsonianism is the dominant tradition of U.S. foreign policy, noting that it is “above all to the drumbeat of Wilsonian idealism that American foreign policy has marched since his watershed presidency and continues to march to this day.”

The end of the Cold War seemed to vindicate Wilsonian idealism as “democratic transitions and economic integration had ushered in what some saw as a global Wilsonian era,” according to Woodrow Wilson, the Bush Administration, and the Future of Liberal Internationalism, edited by G. John Ikenberry, Thomas J. Knock, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Tony Smith:

There are few observers today who do not think moments arise when the international community-or, if necessary, the Western democracies-should intervene in troubled countries to prevent genocide, alleviate humanitarian crises, and thwart transnational terrorists. There is also a good deal of support across the political spectrum for international assistance in support of struggling democracies. But how do these Western democracies distinguish between enlightened and legitimate interventions and liberal imperialism?

But the contributors differ on whether “optimistic assumptions about democracy promotion and peace, … [lead] inevitably to imperialist adventures” and whether Wilson’s notion of liberal internationalism focused less on promoting democracy than on inter-state collaboration to build a cooperative and rule-based international order.

Democracies must also respond to challenges with which liberal internationalism has little historical experience. “Building liberal order today must entail some systematic response to the problem of weak and failing states; globalization and the increasingly deadly technologies of violence makes this so, even if more idealist aspirations of democracy promotion do not,’ Ikenberry contends.

Nicaragua: curb Ortega’s ‘dictatorial tendencies’

Using international leverage to arrest Nicaragua’s downward spiral toward authoritarian rule could prevent President Daniel Ortega from “morphing” into another Robert Mugabe, argues Kevin Casas-Zamora, senior fellow in foreign policy at Washington’s Brookings Institution.

Ortega’s Sandinista movement has reacted violently to the alleged rigging of last month’s elections, cancelling the registration of two opposition parties, and harassing its critics – including former Sandinista poet Ernesto Cardenal – as well as domestic and international civil society groups.

“Our democracy is in grave danger,” said Carlos Tunnermann, a former Sandinista ambassador. “There are dictatorial tendencies taking away Nicaraguans’ right to choose.”

As the largest bilateral provider of aid, the U.S. should follow the lead of European states, and reconsider cooperation links with the Ortega regime, Casas-Zamora argues, “prudently, but firmly” using as leverage the $175 million five-year Millennium Challenge agreement signed in 2005.

With the lowest approval rating of all six Central American heads of state at just 22 percent, Ortega has been courting unsavory international allies, including Iran and Libya. “Ortega has become a deeply unpopular president after a series of scandals,” the U.S.-based Stratfor consulting firm notes. “Making grand gestures in the international system is one way for Ortega to step into the spotlight and perhaps attract an international sponsor.”