Funding GONGOs against democracy

One of the characteristics of the anti-democracy backlash is that while some states are openly repressive towards independent NGOs, others maintain a more ambiguous position, allowing civil society groups to operate under restrictions and the threat of arbitrary interference or dissolution. Regimes are also being more proactive, forming tame, government-organized NGOs or GONGOs.

A new breed of authoritarian capitalist states is in the forefront of such practices, argues Joshua Kurlantzick:

A few of the state capitalists have not been afraid to use their war chests to push back against unwelcome democracy promotion: Russia, for example, now funds political consulting organizations and NGOs operating in Central Asia and the Caucuses. These NGOs appear modeled on the democracy promotion organizations of the US, like the National Endowment for Democracy; in reality, they work with established leaders to constrain and shutter local civil society.

He cites Azar Gat’s assertion that, given the return of authoritarian great powers, the US “remains the greatest guarantee that liberal democracy will not be thrown on the defensive and relegated to a vulnerable position on the periphery of the international system.”

Russia: financial crisis frays ‘social contract’

The Putin era is over but Medvedev’s has not begun. This is the real Russian crisis.

In “a stunning one-week drop of $31 billion, Russia’s foreign exchange reserves yesterday dipped below $500 billion for the first time in eight months. The financial hemorrhage saw reserves fall to $484.7 billion, heightening fears of emerging recession.

The crisis could undermine the unwritten social contract in which the state ensures rising living standards and the people stay out of politics. “It’s a crisis of the middle class,” said Dmitry Oreshkin, an independent analyst. “This is an entirely new phenomenon for Russia and it’s hard to say what will happen.”

Financial constraints could impair the state’s ability to distribute patronage and subsidies. “The Russian government has been spoiled by this bonanza, by basically unlimited resources and the ability to pour money onto social problems,” argues Masha Lipman of the Moscow Carnegie Center. “I think the country is moving toward a situation in which there may not be resources for everyone, and that’s a huge change.”

But systemic change appears unlikely. “The regime seems quite stable; with little real movement towards democracy,” argues Lincoln A. Mitchell. “Russia is a largely consolidated illiberal semi-authoritarian regime.”

The state has been “taking a lead in forming the intellectual and spiritual life of Russians”. Ominously, the regime has even been successful in fostering anti-Western chauvinism among formerly liberal and democratic activists and ideologically motivated youth gangs formed in the aftermath of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution “have spawned a network of ideologically correct organizations.”

Less than a year after President Vladimir Putin announced that the Kremlin would establish its own NGOs, such groups are now finding their voice. “There is a red line, where Russia cannot accept further pressure on its borders in its traditional geopolitical arena,” says Natalya Narochnitskaya of the Moscow-based Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, a Kremlin-friendly ‘think tank’ (the Institute recently opened offices in Brussels and New York in a bid to expand Russia’s “soft power” abroad). “Ukraine becoming part of a hostile military bloc, and seeing [NATO] bases sprout in Russia’s historic heartland, is simply not something we can ever accept.”

The democratic West remains divided over how to deal with Moscow’s authoritarian new nationalism. “The current approach – seeking to punish aggressive, defiant Russia but working with Moscow in vital areas of common interest – is not sustainable,” says Carnegie’s Lipman.  ”US anger is only making things worse. The risk of Russia slipping towards an isolationist course and a militarized economy is growing … The foundations of US policy towards Russia must be revised.”

European approaches have proved to be equally problematic. The EU put respect for human rights and democracy at the core of EU-Russian relations, and “Russia seemed to be on her way to Europe and to joining the Euro-Atlantic institutions,” notes Dieter Dettke, a visiting fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. The EU believed it provided the best model for Russia’s future. But things didn’t quite work out that way:

Russia was never truly happy with the norms and standards the EU prescribed, and there was always a sense of resentment stemming from the lack of input Russia was able to provide to a partnership with the EU. The geopolitical and democratic revolution that many in the West had hoped for, by including Russia in the family of Western democracies and Euro-Atlantic institutions, never took place.

One might hope for better U.S.-European cooperation and it has recently been argued that “only such a coordinated application of carrots and sticks has a chance of guiding Russia back toward the international community.” But in the absence of a single European approach, that seems unlikely. As the European Council on Foreign Relations noted in a recent report on EU-Russia relations, there are at least five different European positions on Russia:

  • The Trojan Horses (Cyprus, Greece) who generally defend the Kremlin;
  • Strategic Partners (France, Germany, Italy, Spain) whose business-driven “special relationship” with Russia prevent common EU policy;
  • Friendly Pragmatists (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Finland, Hungary, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia) who prioritize business interests over political issues;
  • Frosty Pragmatists (Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Ireland, Latvia, Holland, Romania, Sweden, the United Kingdom) who prioritize business goals but are still prepared to confront Moscow on human rights and;
  • New Cold Warriors (Lithuania, Poland) with a hostile relationship with Moscow and opposed to an EU-Russia partnership.

The burgeoning economic crisis may lend credence to Michael Emerson of the Center for European Policy Studies:

 A realistic Russia will recognize that it does not hold all the cards, with serious weaknesses in its economy, demography and international political reputation. The EU has to find the political will and unity to craft a strategic understanding with Russia, which would see a convergence on civilized norms for the wider Europe.

Support Cuba’s independent unions, labor leaders demand

Independent labor leader Pedro Pablo Alvarez Ramos

Independent labor leader Pedro Pablo Alvarez Ramos

Independent labor unions will be a vital part of civil society in a democratic Cuba and the pre-communist union tradition may help them avoid the crises that hit other post-communist labor movements.  The independent Cuban labor leader Pedro Pablo Álvarez Ramos was upbeat about independent unions’ prospects at a meeting this week hosted by the National Endowment for Democracy and co-hosted by the Cuba Study Group.

Pedro Pablo was in Washington to testify before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on violations of worker’s rights in Cuba. He was General Secretary of the United Workers’ Council of Cuba until he was arrested along with 74 other dissidents in a government crackdown in March 2003. He is currently exiled in Spain.

He cited the communist regime’s well-documented labor rights violations, including harassment of independent labor leaders, politically-motivated discrimination in employment, and denial of freedom of association.

His testimony was heard the same week that a petition signed by 38 U.S. labor leaders was submitted to Cuban President Raul Castro, urging him to release five workers, also arrested in the “Black Spring” crackdown, for attempting to form free trade unions and to restore fundamental workers’ rights guaranteed by international conventions.

Those jailed include Alfredo Felipe Fuentes, Miguel Galvan Gutierrez, Ivan Hernandez Carrillo, Nelson Molinet Espino and Hector Raul Valle Fernandez. Another, Carmelo Diaz Fernandez, was granted leave status due to ill health.

“These are brave men whose only ‘crime’ was talking with other workers about organizing to bargain with their employers,” said Thomas R. Donahue, a former president of the AFL-CIO with the Committee for Free Trade Unionism. “Their continuing imprisonment is not only inhumane, but it is also in violation of international law and of Cuba’s commitments as a signatory of the International Labor Organization Conventions.”

Pedro Pablo’s visit came shortly before an anticipated international union delegation to the island. Western unions have been criticized for maintaining contact with the official union, the Central de Trabajadores de Cuba. But the NED meeting heard that it was unhelpful to view such contacts in “black-and-white” terms. Some visiting unionists distributed pro-democracy and free trade union documents while visiting CTC offices and some independent labor activists on the island worked within the official structures. 

Further information: Committee for Free Trade Unionism, 1420 K Street NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20005. Tel: 703.309.6657

UN Democracy Fund – call for proposals

The United Nations Democracy Fund is inviting funding proposals from civil society organizations for projects that promote democracy.

UNDEF funds projects that “strengthen the voice of civil society and ensure the participation of all groups in democratic processes.” Proposals should address at least one of the following thematic categories:

  •  democratic dialogue and support for constitutional processes;
  •  civil society empowerment, including the empowerment of women;
  •  civic education and voter registration;
  •  citizen’s access to information;
  •  participation rights and the rule of law in support of civil society;
  •  transparency and integrity.

Priority is given to projects that “enhance inclusiveness and gender equality.” Funding will range from US $50,000 to US $500,000.  Project proposals should be submitted on-line between 10 November 2007 and 31 December 2008 at the UNDEF web site.  

Only on-line applications in either English or French will be accepted. The application procedure is described in the Project Proposal Guidelines.

NDI honors Tutu, Burma’s women

The National Democratic Institute will confer the W. Averell Harriman Democracy Award on Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and also honor the Women’s League of Burma at NDI’s 2008 NDI Democracy Luncheon.

A representative of the Women’s League of Burma will receive the Madeleine K. Albright Grant which supports organizations that enhance women’s participation in political and civic life, and complements NDI’s Win with Women Global Initiative.

Each year, NDI honors an individual or organization that has exhibited a sustained commitment to democracy and human rights with the Harriman Democracy Award. Past recipients of the Award include Vaclav Havel, Oswaldo Paya Sardinas and Bronislaw Geremek.

At the 2007 NDI Democracy Luncheon, NDI Chairman Madeleine K. Albright announced the establishment of the Andi Parhamovich Fellowship, which honors NDI staffer Andi Parhamovich, 28, who was killed by al-Qaeda-linked terrorists on January 17, 2007, in Baghdad. Each year, the fellowship will bring to Washington, D.C. a young female activist selected from NDI local staff or partner organizations in one of 60 countries.

The luncheon will take place December 15, 2008 in Washington, D.C.

The Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill (map)
400 New Jersey Ave., N.W.
Washington, D.C.
Metro: Union Station (Red Line)