Post-Communist regimes fail to heed lessons of Arab Spring

The regimes of the former Soviet Union exhibit many of the symptoms that gave rise to the contagious revolts of the Arab Spring, according to a new analysis of post-Communist states.

The region’s governments remain resistant to meaningful reform, opting instead for a strategy of authoritarian learning and adaptation, blended in some cases with resource-based clientelism to purchase consent. But pre-emptive authoritarianism cannot guarantee more than a brittle short-term legitimacy that is unlikely to provide a basis for stable governance and will only defer demands for genuine democratic reform.

“The authoritarian countries of the former Soviet Union have built governance systems that are resistant to reform and therefore increasingly vulnerable to unpredictable crises of the sort recently seen in the Middle East and North Africa, according to according to Freedom House’s latest annual assessment of Nations in Transit:

Nations in Transit 2011, the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual assessment of democratic development in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, also finds that the ever-growing tenures of authoritarian leaders in the former Soviet Union have contributed to a number of looming governance problems, including the inability to develop law-based systems, tackle corruption, and—especially in the case of energy-dependent states such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia—diversify their economies.

Without an opportunity for a peaceful rotation of power, citizens in the non-Baltic former Soviet Union are presented with the frustrating prospect of political stagnation for many years to come, adding to the potential for unrest.

“The recent upheaval in the Middle East should raise real questions among authoritarian, seemingly entrenched regimes in the former Soviet countries,” said David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House.  “While the case for meaningful reform in these countries is clear, the nondemocratic regimes in the region are heading in the wrong direction and run the risk of suffering the fate of their counterparts in Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria.”

This year’s analysis also found challenges to democracy in Ukraine, which has been viewed as a key test case for reform in the region. Ukraine has experienced a clear reversal under the leadership of President Viktor Yanukovych, suffering declines in a total of five areas, including steep reductions in judicial independence and national democratic governance.

Hungary, a European Union member state, experienced declines in four areas, including significant setbacks in national democratic governance and independent media. In the Balkans, while Croatia and Serbia made modest progress as part of their broader efforts toward EU accession, five other countries suffered declines. In the former Soviet region, Moldova showed the biggest improvement, though there was also progress in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.

Russia, the former Soviet Union’s most influential country and a lodestar for authoritarian regimes in the region, is now in the midst of a tightly managed leadership transfer, and saw its overall democracy score fall in this year’s analysis. The only uncertainty surrounding the country’s March 2012 presidential election seems to entail the choice between Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, which will be resolved by a small elite circle rather than by voters. In economic terms, Russia needs to attract non–energy sector investment to grow, but the country’s recent track record is one of capital flight and shrinking levels of foreign direct investment, a testament to the arbitrary nature of business regulation and property rights under the current regime.

“The transatlantic democracies have a clear strategic interest in helping reforms in Russia and other former Soviet countries sooner rather than later, and under more orderly circumstances,” said Sylvana Kolaczkowska, managing editor of the report. “Given developments in the Middle East, the United States and EU need to reevaluate their respective approaches to the recalcitrant authoritarian governments in the former Soviet Union.”

Other Key Findings:
·         Reform-Resistant Authoritarian States: Despite the clear need for reform, a critical mass of regimes in the former Soviet Union is effectively resistant to change. Several of these governments have never opened themselves to political competition or other elements of a democratic system in the 20 years since independence, while others—particularly Russia—have actively rolled back partial progress made in previous years.  The democracy scores recorded by Nations in Transit show that all nine countries in the authoritarian categories have grown more repressive over the past decade, and the region’s autocrats seem determined to retain their monopolies on power.

·         Russia at a Pivotal Point: Russia saw its overall democracy score fall due to deepening pressures on the judiciary and federal encroachments on local governance, as regional and local executives who once came to office through elections were replaced by appointed officials. The setbacks in these two areas outweighed an improvement in the civil society category. Despite the ongoing pressures and obstacles imposed by the authorities, civil society persisted in organizing rallies to oppose local officials in Kaliningrad, defend the Khimki forest outside Moscow from development, and assert the constitutional right to freedom of assembly. In response to these efforts, police raided many organizations, confiscating computers and documents, and broke up a number of demonstrations with excessive force.

·         Deteriorating Media Environment in All Subregions: Declines were most numerous in the independent media category in 2010, appearing in every subregion covered in Nations in Transit. A total of seven countries—Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Ukraine—regressed on the media indicator. Hungary, though an EU member state and still one of the better performers in the survey, suffered the largest decline after its government pushed through restrictive new media legislation. News media in new EU member states confront growing challenges from an increasingly difficult economic environment.

·         Setbacks in the Balkans/Resilience in New EU States: While Croatia and Serbia continued to make gradual progress in 2010 on reforms associated with EU candidacy, five other countries in the region—Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro—suffered declines in their overall democracy scores. Such backsliding, which stemmed from a variety of stubborn obstacles to reform in these countries, is a reminder that the EU and the United States do not have the luxury of disengagement from this subregion. A total of six new EU states improved in this year’s assessment. More generally, the democracies in Central Europe and the Baltics have shown considerable durability in weathering a difficult economic downturn.

Nations in Transit examines democratic development in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union. The latest edition assesses developments that occurred in 2010 and assigns each country a set of democracy scores based on performance on key indicators.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

Post-Communist regimes fail to heed lessons of Arab Spring

The regimes of the former Soviet Union exhibit many of the symptoms that gave rise to the contagious revolts of the Arab Spring, according to a new analysis of post-Communist states.

The region’s governments remain resistant to meaningful reform, opting instead for a strategy of authoritarian learning and adaptation, blended in some cases with resource-based clientelism to purchase consent. But pre-emptive authoritarianism cannot guarantee more than a brittle short-term legitimacy that is unlikely to provide a basis for stable governance and will only defer demands for genuine democratic reform.

“The authoritarian countries of the former Soviet Union have built governance systems that are resistant to reform and therefore increasingly vulnerable to unpredictable crises of the sort recently seen in the Middle East and North Africa, according to according to Freedom House’s latest annual assessment of Nations in Transit:

Nations in Transit 2011, the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual assessment of democratic development in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, also finds that the ever-growing tenures of authoritarian leaders in the former Soviet Union have contributed to a number of looming governance problems, including the inability to develop law-based systems, tackle corruption, and—especially in the case of energy-dependent states such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia—diversify their economies.

Without an opportunity for a peaceful rotation of power, citizens in the non-Baltic former Soviet Union are presented with the frustrating prospect of political stagnation for many years to come, adding to the potential for unrest.

“The recent upheaval in the Middle East should raise real questions among authoritarian, seemingly entrenched regimes in the former Soviet countries,” said David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House.  “While the case for meaningful reform in these countries is clear, the nondemocratic regimes in the region are heading in the wrong direction and run the risk of suffering the fate of their counterparts in Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria.”

This year’s analysis also found challenges to democracy in Ukraine, which has been viewed as a key test case for reform in the region. Ukraine has experienced a clear reversal under the leadership of President Viktor Yanukovych, suffering declines in a total of five areas, including steep reductions in judicial independence and national democratic governance.

Hungary, a European Union member state, experienced declines in four areas, including significant setbacks in national democratic governance and independent media. In the Balkans, while Croatia and Serbia made modest progress as part of their broader efforts toward EU accession, five other countries suffered declines. In the former Soviet region, Moldova showed the biggest improvement, though there was also progress in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.

Russia, the former Soviet Union’s most influential country and a lodestar for authoritarian regimes in the region, is now in the midst of a tightly managed leadership transfer, and saw its overall democracy score fall in this year’s analysis. The only uncertainty surrounding the country’s March 2012 presidential election seems to entail the choice between Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, which will be resolved by a small elite circle rather than by voters. In economic terms, Russia needs to attract non–energy sector investment to grow, but the country’s recent track record is one of capital flight and shrinking levels of foreign direct investment, a testament to the arbitrary nature of business regulation and property rights under the current regime.

“The transatlantic democracies have a clear strategic interest in helping reforms in Russia and other former Soviet countries sooner rather than later, and under more orderly circumstances,” said Sylvana Kolaczkowska, managing editor of the report. “Given developments in the Middle East, the United States and EU need to reevaluate their respective approaches to the recalcitrant authoritarian governments in the former Soviet Union.”

Other Key Findings:
·         Reform-Resistant Authoritarian States: Despite the clear need for reform, a critical mass of regimes in the former Soviet Union is effectively resistant to change. Several of these governments have never opened themselves to political competition or other elements of a democratic system in the 20 years since independence, while others—particularly Russia—have actively rolled back partial progress made in previous years.  The democracy scores recorded by Nations in Transit show that all nine countries in the authoritarian categories have grown more repressive over the past decade, and the region’s autocrats seem determined to retain their monopolies on power.

·         Russia at a Pivotal Point: Russia saw its overall democracy score fall due to deepening pressures on the judiciary and federal encroachments on local governance, as regional and local executives who once came to office through elections were replaced by appointed officials. The setbacks in these two areas outweighed an improvement in the civil society category. Despite the ongoing pressures and obstacles imposed by the authorities, civil society persisted in organizing rallies to oppose local officials in Kaliningrad, defend the Khimki forest outside Moscow from development, and assert the constitutional right to freedom of assembly. In response to these efforts, police raided many organizations, confiscating computers and documents, and broke up a number of demonstrations with excessive force.

·         Deteriorating Media Environment in All Subregions: Declines were most numerous in the independent media category in 2010, appearing in every subregion covered in Nations in Transit. A total of seven countries—Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Ukraine—regressed on the media indicator. Hungary, though an EU member state and still one of the better performers in the survey, suffered the largest decline after its government pushed through restrictive new media legislation. News media in new EU member states confront growing challenges from an increasingly difficult economic environment.

·         Setbacks in the Balkans/Resilience in New EU States: While Croatia and Serbia continued to make gradual progress in 2010 on reforms associated with EU candidacy, five other countries in the region—Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro—suffered declines in their overall democracy scores. Such backsliding, which stemmed from a variety of stubborn obstacles to reform in these countries, is a reminder that the EU and the United States do not have the luxury of disengagement from this subregion. A total of six new EU states improved in this year’s assessment. More generally, the democracies in Central Europe and the Baltics have shown considerable durability in weathering a difficult economic downturn.

Nations in Transit examines democratic development in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union. The latest edition assesses developments that occurred in 2010 and assigns each country a set of democracy scores based on performance on key indicators.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

Elena Bonner – she chose freedom

Elena Bonner’s death earlier this week was an “enormous loss, not only for the human rights movement,” said Lyudmila Alexeeva, the leader of the Moscow Helsinki Group, the rights monitoring NGO that Bonner helped found.

Bonner was not only a historically significant figure in the anti-Soviet dissident movement. She remained actively engaged in promoting democratic ideas and institutions, applying her acute political intelligence to dissect and oppose Russia’s authoritarian turn under Vladimir Putin and to express concern about democracies’ resilience in the face of new totalitarian mentalities.

“The death of Elena Bonner is a great loss for the cause of democracy in Russia and for all those around the world who are struggling for freedom,” said National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman.   In 1995, the NED presented its Democracy Award to Bonner and fellow human rights campaigner Sergei Kovalev (left).

“Right up until her sad passing last week she battled against the new danger affecting her country: the disregard for democracy and human rights of the new autocracy of Vladimir Putin,” writes Ivar Amundsen, director of the Chechnya Peace Forum:

It was the Chechen war of the late 1990s that convinced her that the government of the Russian Federation was heading in a dangerous – and depressingly familiar – direction, and as one of the Chechnya Peace Forum’s patrons she saw that the tragic situation in this country epitomises the failure of the new regime. Only last year she called on Putin to resign and, as it looks increasingly likely he will in fact be returning to the presidency, it is clear that for all of us who revere her that the best way to honour her will be to continue her work.

She was a fearless defender of her husband, the iconic Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, writes The New Yorker’s David Remnick:

Sakharov had about him an almost celestial serenity, a complete lack of rage, despite his clear anger at countless injustices. Bonner was an immensely more emotional person. You attacked her husband at your peril. She was Sakharov’s protector, his lion at the gate. She was his armor against the harassment, the denunciations in the official press, the late-night phone threats from thugs at Lubyanka. When the K.G.B. sent them “Christmas cards” with images of mutilated bodies and monkeys with electrodes in their heads, she was unafraid. Yelena Giorgiovna had had long practice in the arts of resilience; when she was fifteen, her mother was arrested and sent to the Gulag.

More recently, she expressed anxiety about the West’s willingness to defend fellow democracies against new forms of intolerance and totalitarianism.

“Last year, I visited her [in her] apartment in Boston,” her fellow dissident Nathan Sharansky recalled. “She was very ill. She spoke almost exclusively about Israel, angry about how the free world abandoned Israel during the Gaza war, about the double standard that was being applied to Israel.”

“‘I can’t stop fearing that Israel will be betrayed in its confrontation with Iran and its battle with terror,’” she told him.

Bonner also continued to press for democracy in post-communist Russia, writes Cathy Young, drawing telling comparisons between Putin’s power vertical and KGB-style tactics to suppress individual liberties:

Ironically, in death, Bonner was finally honored in her own country, with state-run TV airing pious tributes that conveniently omitted her activism after Sakharov’s death. It’s the sort of hypocrisy Bonner would have viewed with wry amusement. Yet she never lost the hope that someday, freedom in Russia would thrive — though she knew she would not live to see it.

She was one of the founders of the Moscow Helsinki Group which inspirited scores of similar groups in the former Soviet bloc and the U.S. Helsinki Watch (since named Human Rights Watch,), notes Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, who writes the blog Minding Russia.

“Characteristically, Bonner later joined the board of Advancing Human Rights, an organization critical of HRW that was founded by her longtime friend and publisher, Robert Bernstein,” she notes. “Her manifestos — whether against Russian President Boris Yeltsin for the war in Chechnya or Vladimir Putin for ‘managed democracy,’ or in support of Israel — shaped the post-Soviet political and moral landscape.”

Bonner consistently exposed authoritarian governments’ attempts to appropriate the moral legitimacy of democracy for illegitimate purposes.

“It is a penchant of oppressive regimes to decorate themselves with fake attributes of democracy — sham elections, a servile judiciary, manipulated media,” she wrote in 2003. “Legitimizing false democracy, false justice, and a make-believe war on terror casts doubt on the real things, particularly for those who, like myself, continue to value them,” she said.

Bonner remained active in Russian democratic politics, writes Vladimir Kara-Murza, as a founding member of the opposition “2008 Committee” founded by Garry Kasparov, Boris Nemtsov, and Vladimir Bukovsky and as the first signatory of the Putin Must Go citizen petition supported by some 100,000 Russians:

“Hope dies last,” Bonner used to say when asked about the prospects for democracy in Russia. She will not see the fall of Putin’s KGB state. But when that day comes, Russia will honor Elena Bonner, as it will honor Andrei Sakharov and all who dedicated their lives to the struggle for our freedom.

Bonner was a leading participant in They Chose Freedom, a TV documentary on the history of the Soviet dissident movement.

Elena Bonner – she chose freedom

Elena Bonner’s death earlier this week was an “enormous loss, not only for the human rights movement,” said Lyudmila Alexeeva, the leader of the Moscow Helsinki Group, the rights monitoring NGO that Bonner helped found.

Bonner was not only a historically significant figure in the anti-Soviet dissident movement. She remained actively engaged in promoting democratic ideas and institutions, applying her acute political intelligence to dissect and oppose Russia’s authoritarian turn under Vladimir Putin and to express concern about democracies’ resilience in the face of new totalitarian mentalities.

“The death of Elena Bonner is a great loss for the cause of democracy in Russia and for all those around the world who are struggling for freedom,” said National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman.   In 1995, the NED presented its Democracy Award to Bonner and fellow human rights campaigner Sergei Kovalev (left).

“Right up until her sad passing last week she battled against the new danger affecting her country: the disregard for democracy and human rights of the new autocracy of Vladimir Putin,” writes Ivar Amundsen, director of the Chechnya Peace Forum:

It was the Chechen war of the late 1990s that convinced her that the government of the Russian Federation was heading in a dangerous – and depressingly familiar – direction, and as one of the Chechnya Peace Forum’s patrons she saw that the tragic situation in this country epitomises the failure of the new regime. Only last year she called on Putin to resign and, as it looks increasingly likely he will in fact be returning to the presidency, it is clear that for all of us who revere her that the best way to honour her will be to continue her work.

She was a fearless defender of her husband, the iconic Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, writes The New Yorker’s David Remnick:

Sakharov had about him an almost celestial serenity, a complete lack of rage, despite his clear anger at countless injustices. Bonner was an immensely more emotional person. You attacked her husband at your peril. She was Sakharov’s protector, his lion at the gate. She was his armor against the harassment, the denunciations in the official press, the late-night phone threats from thugs at Lubyanka. When the K.G.B. sent them “Christmas cards” with images of mutilated bodies and monkeys with electrodes in their heads, she was unafraid. Yelena Giorgiovna had had long practice in the arts of resilience; when she was fifteen, her mother was arrested and sent to the Gulag.

More recently, she expressed anxiety about the West’s willingness to defend fellow democracies against new forms of intolerance and totalitarianism.

“Last year, I visited her [in her] apartment in Boston,” her fellow dissident Nathan Sharansky recalled. “She was very ill. She spoke almost exclusively about Israel, angry about how the free world abandoned Israel during the Gaza war, about the double standard that was being applied to Israel.”

“‘I can’t stop fearing that Israel will be betrayed in its confrontation with Iran and its battle with terror,’” she told him.

Bonner also continued to press for democracy in post-communist Russia, writes Cathy Young, drawing telling comparisons between Putin’s power vertical and KGB-style tactics to suppress individual liberties:

Ironically, in death, Bonner was finally honored in her own country, with state-run TV airing pious tributes that conveniently omitted her activism after Sakharov’s death. It’s the sort of hypocrisy Bonner would have viewed with wry amusement. Yet she never lost the hope that someday, freedom in Russia would thrive — though she knew she would not live to see it.

She was one of the founders of the Moscow Helsinki Group which inspirited scores of similar groups in the former Soviet bloc and the U.S. Helsinki Watch (since named Human Rights Watch,), notes Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, who writes the blog Minding Russia.

“Characteristically, Bonner later joined the board of Advancing Human Rights, an organization critical of HRW that was founded by her longtime friend and publisher, Robert Bernstein,” she notes. “Her manifestos — whether against Russian President Boris Yeltsin for the war in Chechnya or Vladimir Putin for ‘managed democracy,’ or in support of Israel — shaped the post-Soviet political and moral landscape.”

Bonner consistently exposed authoritarian governments’ attempts to appropriate the moral legitimacy of democracy for illegitimate purposes.

“It is a penchant of oppressive regimes to decorate themselves with fake attributes of democracy — sham elections, a servile judiciary, manipulated media,” she wrote in 2003. “Legitimizing false democracy, false justice, and a make-believe war on terror casts doubt on the real things, particularly for those who, like myself, continue to value them,” she said.

Bonner remained active in Russian democratic politics, writes Vladimir Kara-Murza, as a founding member of the opposition “2008 Committee” founded by Garry Kasparov, Boris Nemtsov, and Vladimir Bukovsky and as the first signatory of the Putin Must Go citizen petition supported by some 100,000 Russians:

“Hope dies last,” Bonner used to say when asked about the prospects for democracy in Russia. She will not see the fall of Putin’s KGB state. But when that day comes, Russia will honor Elena Bonner, as it will honor Andrei Sakharov and all who dedicated their lives to the struggle for our freedom.

Bonner was a leading participant in They Chose Freedom, a TV documentary on the history of the Soviet dissident movement.

Saudi Arabian Women Drive Change

On Friday, June 17th, around 40 women in Saudi Arabia reportedly got behind the wheel to campaign for their right to drive.  They asked top female politicians and diplomats from around the world, including Secretary of State Clinton, to lend support to their cause.

Social networking sites such as Twitter played a role in their actions last week both in spreading the word and highlighting photos of the women in the driver’s seat.

“I think I expected more women to go out today, not just sit at home and tweet,” one woman said. “Maybe they have their reasons, but I feel today it is my duty to say this is my right and we should have it.”  After being issued only a ticket for her disobedience, the same woman, Maha, proudly confirmed, “I think I made my statement clear. I think that my voice has been heard.”

For Saudi Arabian women, the ban on driving presents numerous obstacles: with unreliable public transportation, women must rely on a male relative or hired drivers to take them where they need to go- even to the hospital- and they are not allowed to travel by bicycle.

Gaining the right to drive would reverberate in other arenas of public life as well.  It would allow women greater access and the ability to go to work, school, and assemble freely with friends and colleagues.  The government shows little inclination to grant Saudi women this privilege, however, and their lethal response to protests earlier this year make it clear that expanding freedom of assembly is not high on their list of priorities.