New media no game changer in Russia (yet)

The live TV broadcast of 20,000 martial arts fans booing Vladimir Putin illuminates key features of Russia’s media landscape, which are particularly relevant for upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, according to Christopher Walker and Robert Orttung. Management of news media is pivotal to the leadership’s political dominance, but Russian citizens are getting restive.

The modern authoritarian media model forged under Putin offers Russians a sometimes entertaining but always deeply warped lens through which to observe politics. We offer three points that, while not exhaustive, are essential to understanding Russia’s contemporary media system and how it has adapted to meet the needs of the authorities:

1. New media are not a political game changer in Russia (yet). Russia’s internet audience is growing. There are already some 50 million users in a population of roughly 142 million. The Russian internet is also comparatively free of state restrictions. Notably, even as the Kremlin quickly censored the Putin booing story through its control of television news, Russian internet users actively discussed and debated the spontaneous auditory assault on the prime minister. None of this has gone unnoticed by the authorities. Global Voices reports that regional discussion boards have become targets of oppression in the lead-up to the parliamentary elections, and Freedom on the Net 2011, Freedom House’s annual assessment of internet and digital media, identified Russia as a “country at risk” due to mounting encroachments on key spheres of online activity. At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that Russian internet users are heavily concentrated in major cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg.

2. Among influential “old media,” state capitalism begets state outlets. Roughly 80 percent of the population gets its news and information from television, and the Kremlin has been quite thorough in its use of state-controlled enterprises to bring key outlets into line—and keep them there. Gazprom-Media, an arm of the state-run energy giant Gazprom, owns a stable of television networks, radio stations, and newspapers. …………. Other Kremlin-friendly businessmen like Aleksandr Mamut, Alisher Usmanov, Oleg Deripaska, Aleksey Mordashyov, and Roman Abramovich have extensive media holdings. Equally important, the upcoming switch to digital broadcasting is expected to eliminate many independent regional stations.

3. Authorities don’t try to block everything, only the content that counts. Russia enjoys considerable diversity of information today, but this does not translate into meaningful coverage of policy and politics. For the authorities, blocking a candid discussion of what counts—broadly speaking, detailed information about policymaking, public spending, and the deeply intertwined relationship between business and government—is paramount.

Given the curbed media environment, along with the other restrictions on public space in Russia, it is clear that the upcoming elections were throttled even before the campaign began. This is unfortunate, because as the recent heckling of Putin suggests, Russia’s increasingly restive population is ready for change.

This is an extract from a longer post on the Freedom House blog. Read the rest here.

Christopher Walker is vice president for strategy and analysis at Freedom House.  Follow him on Twitter at @Walker_CT. Robert Orttung is assistant director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

‘Dignity agenda’ made the difference in Egypt?

If the Muslim Brotherhood’s performance in Egypt’s election demonstrates that Islamists are “moving from opposition to power,” it also highlights the failure of the Facebook liberals and Tahrir Square protesters to make the same transition.

The poll confirms the political marginalization of the young secular activists behind the protests that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt’s “non-theocratic parties and candidates…..simply haven’t shown the will, or perhaps the ability, to organize and mobilize voters consistently across the country,” analyst Eric Trager reports from Cairo.

The civil society activists’ failure to make the transition from protest to politics appears to have played into the hands of the Islamists.  

“I wanted to vote for the youth, but no one is organized enough. That’s why I voted for the Brotherhood,” said Sayed Ismail, 38, who works in a Cairo garage. “I don’t want an Islamist party, I just want some organization. Enough chaos.”

A survey by the US-based International Republican Institute revealed that 80% of the Jasmine revolution’s supporters were motivated more by socio-economic demands for jobs and dignity.

But liberal secular parties allowed the Brotherhood to appropriate the social agenda by failing to connect with the emerging independent labor movement (above) that played a salient if under-appreciated role in ousting Mubarak. Instead, liberals effectively vacated this political terrain to a group that is unlikely to deliver on workers’ demands – for independent unions and decent work– despite the Islamists’ “vague calls for social justice.”

“This is a phrase everyone uses,” said Bakr Hassan Bakr, a lawyer and labor activist in Port Said. “But what does social justice mean to the liberal, the leftist or the Muslim Brotherhood? To the Brotherhood it means charity, giving out bread and rice. Our vision is to create decent work and equal chances for getting reasonable jobs.”

The secular parties failed to develop a coherent program that addressed the socio-economic objectives – the dignity agenda – that motivated most Egyptians to support the Jasmine revolt, says Mohamed Abolnaga, an economic researcher at the Egyptian Competition Authority.

“Political parties — especially those under formulation — lack a clear significant vision towards sustainable social inclusive economic growth,” he writes. “When I questioned several political opposition figures about their vision for Egypt’s socio-economic model, I received answers revolving around social equity and justice without a clear founding comprehensive vision.”

Egypt’s victorious Islamists to form coalition with seculars?

Interim results from Egypt’s first free elections since 1952 give the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party a clear lead, with some party officials claiming 50% of the vote. Party leaders declared their intention to form a coalition with secular liberal parties, but also warned the ruling military that it must defer to civilian authority.

The new parliament must have “real powers”, including the right to form a government, said Essam El-Erian, a senior party official.

“This is no mere parliamentary election,” he said. “After the way Egyptians flocked to the polls in large numbers we all have a historic responsibility. This should be the beginning of the transfer of power and it should not be voided of meaning.”

The Brotherhood’s success was a reflection of its political discipline, organizational prowess, and considerable resources, said observers.  

“They outspent, outworked and politically outclassed the other political parties by a huge factor,” said analyst Elijah Zarwan.

Rival parties concede that the FJP leads the count in the first cohort of nine out 27 governorates, including Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt’s two largest cities. It remains unclear whether the Brotherhood’s Islamist rivals, the radical Salafist Nour party, or the liberal secular Egyptian Bloc – including Neguib Sawiris’ Free Egyptians, Tagummu and the Social Democratic Party – has taken second place, as Reuters reports:

Both the Salafi Nour Party and a liberal-secular alliance known as the Egyptian Bloc appeared to be making strong showing in some places, judges said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the results were not final. For example, according to a Brotherhood statement based on its monitoring of the count, the Brotherhood so far had 30 percent of the vote in the Nile Delta province of Kafr el-Sheikh, while the Nour Party had 22 percent, unexpected for their party created only months ago. In the Red Sea province, the Egyptian Bloc placed second to the Brotherhood.

“The competition is between Al-Nour and the Egyptian Bloc to follow the FJP,” Executive Director of the Egyptian Democratic Academy, Hossam El-Din Ali told Daily News Egypt.

“Our expectations were exactly the same as the results,” said SDP leader Mohamed Abul Ghar. “We hoped to have 10 to 15% of the seats in parliament and we are getting this in the first phase.”

“The disappointment is that the other liberals and leftist parties did not gain anything,” he added. ‘Even remnants of Mubarak’s [National Democratic] party [NDP] did not capture much. The Islamists have a clear majority.”

Nour’s unexpectedly strong performance prompted speculation that the Islamist parties could form a majority within the new parliament, but Brotherhood figures have publicly rejected that option. The FJP’s leader, Mohammed Mursi, told reporters that the military must allow the parliament to form a government, which should be a cross-party coalition.

“A government that is not based on a parliamentary majority cannot conduct its work in practice,” he told reporters.

Mursi was sending a message to the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a senior Brotherhood official, Sobhi Saleh, told The Associated Press.

“You can’t come and say, ‘I choose the government and I sack the government.’ It’s over, the people have emerged,” he said. “If you impose a government on me that I don’t endorse, you are creating tension in the relationship.”

“You, yourself, are subject to the people’s authority,” Saleh said, with reference to the SCAF.

The Islamists’ strong performance sets the scene for a potential confrontation with the military, said Omar Ashour, a professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter.

“There will be a constant push toward controlling, monitoring and holding accountable the security establishment and possibly the military establishment,” he said. “This is if we get a parliament that’s gutsy and willing to punch above its weight.”

Although the Brotherhood had won 50 percent of the vote, Saleh said – adding that “this percentage will be higher in the future – it would not form an Islamist coalition with the Salafis.

“We seek diversity because we believe that we don’t live alone in Egypt. We will be the core of moderation in parliament,” he said. “If the extremists want to go too far to the right, they will find themselves alone in this corner.”

The parliament’s composition will not be finalized until the New Year, after two more rounds of voting. Analysts suggest that the inchoate secular liberal parties may pick up seats by combining against the Islamists in run-offs for the third of seats reserved for individual candidates instead of party lists.

Independent election monitors were largely positive about the conduct of the election.

The Washington-based National Democratic Institute* commended the conduct of the poll but said election authorities should insist on a 30-yard campaign-free zone around polling stations.

“We were pleasantly surprised by the voter turnout, which appeared to be very large, and also by the diligence of election officials,” said NDI’s Robert Becker. “At the same time, we witnessed a lot of shortcomings, and a number of violations, and these are things we hope can be fixed in the coming rounds of voting.”

Some monitors reported that Islamist parties were largely responsible for electoral malpractices.

“There were mistakes made by all parties but the majority were made by the FJP and the Salafis [al-Nur],” said Magdy Abdul Hamid of the Egyptian Centre for the Enhancement of Community Participation.

The Islamists’ success is neither a surprise, nor cause for alarm, says Khalil al-Anani, a specialist on political Islam at Durham University.

“This is the result we would have seen had genuine democratic elections been held at any time since the last revolution in 1952,” he said.

The Brotherhood was reaping the benefits of its strategic patience and its commitment to grassroots organizing, securing voters’ support by providing welfare and other services, addressing citizens’ concrete needs rather than abstract rights.

“We are talking about a very strong and well-organized social movement which has been working on the street for decades and making the effort to address people’s needs rather than push its own ideology,” he said.

“The Brotherhood ground operation, which calls to mind some of the best American campaigns in both its use of technology and distribution of activists, suggests that the organization…… has mastered democratic forms quite quickly,” writes Eric Trager, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The Islamists have absorbed Western democracy’s campaigning techniques, but not democratic values, he observes:

[W]hen probed on the substance of their political platform, the Brotherhood remains firmly illiberal. When I asked Shams el-Din, the Brotherhood neurologist, whether he believed that homosexuals should be stoned, he said, “Yes.” “We think that the laws should conform with what has been put forward by the revelation, using parliamentary means.”

The FJP’s election manifesto illustrated some of the party’s illiberal tendencies, criticizing Egyptian popular music for “stirring desires” instead of being “directed towards more ethical and creative horizons that are consistent with the society’s values and identity.”

The Brotherhood’s El-Erian denied that it would draw on Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party for guidance.

“I hope we can give a different model,” he told Reuters. “We hope that when we build a modern democratic country in Egypt this will be a good example, inspiring others to build democracy.”

The group condemned Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s support for a secular state during his recent visit to Egypt, and some observers believe the group views the AKP as too liberal.

The Brotherhood’s success may be a watershed in more ways than one, al-Anani contends, confirming political Islam’s regional ascendancy while generating new tensions – internally and with other political actors – that have an uncertain outcome.

“It’s a defining moment in modern Egyptian history because it’s the first time that Islamist parties will have the upper hand in the realm of formal politics, which is a pattern being repeated in Tunisia, Morocco and maybe Yemen too,” he added. “Islamists are moving from opposition to power, and although it offers them an opportunity it also presents them with an immense challenge in terms of how they will handle these new responsibilities as they move from the political fringes to the political centre.”

“In Egypt, for example, the Brotherhood will have to pull off a difficult balancing act in terms of maintaining credibility with the military council and its own supporters, and we don’t yet know what the internal impact of that dilemma will be.”

*NDI is a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Iran’s hardliners invade UK Embassy as rights probe begins

Today’s storming of the British Embassy in Tehran by hard-line Basiji militants (above) signals an escalation of the Islamic Republic’s conflict with the West.

“The incident raises the stakes to the point of very ill-disguised confrontation between Iran and one of the major players in the West,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The attack represents the regime’s response to the British government’s announcement that it was severing all ties with Iranian banks, including the Iranian Central Bank, in the most punitive sanctions yet against the Islamic Republic (more punishing than even Washington seems prepared to countenance).

“They want to send the message that the Europeans’ ratcheting up of pressure is not cost free and that Iran has the means to reciprocate,” says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The invasion also coincides with the launch of a UN investigation into human rights abuses in Iran. Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed announced that he will consult exiles living in France, Germany and Belgium after being denied permission to enter Iran.

“A visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran would have allowed me to gain better understanding of the situation,” Shaheed said.

“However I will now study a wide range of human rights issues by meeting activists within the Iranian diaspora, alleged victims of human rights violations, intergovernmental and civil society organizations,” he said.

The embassy invasion may also reflect internal divisions within the ruling elite and the regime’s need to burnish its radical credentials.

“Radicals in Iran and in the West are always in favor of crisis … Such radical hardliners in Iran will use the crisis to unite people and also to blame the crisis for the fading economy,” analyst Hasan Sedghi told Reuters.

Iran’s regional standing has deteriorated as a result of the Arab Awakening, with its Baathist ally in Syria under siege, while Hamas and Hizbollah, the other members of Iran’s axis of resistance, are similarly tarnished by their ambivalence towards the pro-democracy protests.

Tehran said that it “regrets” the assault on the embassy, but most observers believe the regime must have given the go-ahead.

“Clearly the protesters who broke into the embassy were doing so with full knowledge of the authorities,” according to Dr. Geoffrey Kemp, a former Senior Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs on the National Security Council. “Since June 2009 the Iranian authorities have been particularly conscious of any civil uprising because of what happened when the Green Movement came into effect.”

The authorities deployed the Basiji militia (left) as shock-troops against the Green opposition and its cadres are known to be controlled by the Pasdaran, or Revolutionary Guard (see Matthias Kuntzel’s essential analysis of the Basij’s origins, evolution and political orientation).

“The police and various ministries had prior knowledge of the protest, which was organized by the student arm of the Basij,” according to reports. “Any such action of this scale can never be independent in the Islamic Republic. These gatherings are always approved by higher officials.”

After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad‘s disputed election in 2009, Iran’s leaders attacked the US, Israel and the UN. “But Britain was singled out,” writes Ian Black:

“The diplomats who have talked to us with courtesy up to now have in the past few days taken the masks away from their faces and are showing their true image,” said the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “And the most evil of them is the British government.”

It has been downhill ever since. The BBC’s Persian-language TV service, launched in 2009, is seen in Tehran as a government channel. The UK’s active role on the nuclear issue keeps it in the forefront of the regime’s hostility. Last week’s announcement that Britain had frozen $1.6bn of Iranian assets was the immediate trigger for the embassy attack.

Many ordinary Iranians have long entertained conspiracy theories about British influence, even to the extent of suggesting that London is the real power behind the Great Satan of the United States.

Such culturally ingrained suspicions are satirized in Iraj Pezeshkzad’s My Uncle Napoleon, arguably Iran’s most popular novel.

The author “traced the origins of Uncle Napoleon’s character to his own childhood, when, listening to grown-ups, he was baffled by the way they indiscriminately labeled most politicians ‘British lackeys,’” Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, has observed.* “This obsession was so pervasive that some Iranians even claimed Hitler was a British stooge and Germany’s bombing of London a nefarious plot hatched by British Intelligence.”

Iranian democracy activists and analysts recently called for the West to be more assertive in providing assistance to internal opposition forces. The West’s carrot-and-stick policy of incentives and disincentives to induce a change in behavior is fundamentally flawed, it is claimed, because it is based on a false assumption: that Iran’s leadership makes decisions on the basis of a rational cost-benefit calculus, the regime is ideologically-driven and incapable of compromise.

The embassy assault confirms the regime’s anxiety that tough new sanctions will inflict enough economic damage to undermine its political legitimacy and stability, Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Roula Khalaf suggest:

Iran is no doubt worried about what might lie ahead. And, if a robust oil embargo ever becomes a reality, Tehran’s calculations could change.

Another Islamic Republic rule might then kick in: you alter your behaviour only when you are cornered and can no longer afford to go forward. This happened during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war when Tehran accepted a ceasefire to end the eight-year conflict in response to souring public opinion and a dramatic fall in oil prices.

*Azar Nafisi is a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

Kremlin unleashes ‘attack dog’ against poll monitors

The Kremlin has launched a dirty tricks campaign against Russia’s only independent elections monitor, just days before voters head to the polls to elect the State Duma.

In a televised address last weekend to the ruling United Russia party, premier Vladimir Putin accused unnamed foreign powers of funding his opponents.

Pro-Putin deputies have asked the Prosecutor-General to investigate the activities of Golos [Voice], claiming that it violated electoral law, while reporters from the state-run NTV channel invaded the NGO’s office.

“An NTV television crew barged into the Golos Moscow office looking to gather up some ‘kompromat’,” said Patrick Walsh, the National Endowment for Democracy’s program officer for Russia. “NTV is essentially the Kremlin’s attack dog, as this video (above), makes abundantly clear.”

Golos deputy head Grigory Melkonyants told The Moscow Times by phone Tuesday that NTV reporters approached the group’s activists three times between Friday and Monday with “provocative questions” about whether it is funded by the CIA.

In the video uploaded by Golos on YouTube two unidentified men barge into its Moscow office, demanding to know “What is your organization doing?” and ”Are you getting money from the U.S.?”  

No one answers the questions and Melkonyants, who filmed the incident on his cell phone, is heard repeatedly saying “You are Surkov’s propaganda” throughout the 6 1/2-minute video. The reference to the Kremlin’s propaganda mastermind Vladislav Surkov was intended to render the footage unusable for the one-sided, hit pieces NTV is infamous for, Melkonyants said.

Golos has always suffered official harassment, Melkonyants said, but the fact that “such strong pressure” was now being used confirms that the NGO, a NED grantee, “has become a really powerful organization.” The group plans to dispatch more than 3,000 monitors across 40 regions for the Duma elections, The Moscow Times reports, and to use an interactive user-generated map (right) to detail electoral violations nationwide.

“It is basically a coin flip to determine where this goes from here,” said the NED’s Walsh: 

On the one hand, Golos’ reporting on regional election fraud has received considerable attention in Russia’s blogosphere.  A clip shot of a United Russia representative attempting to bribe pensioners with public services for votes went viral overnight [see below]. On the other hand, Golos has already been dragged through the mud by Russia’s official press. Just a few days ago, an article in the state-run Rossiskaya Gazeta claimed that Golos was a political entity tarnished by western funds.

“Given United Russia’s abysmal approval ratings they might just be desperate enough to pursue this further, or it might just be a warning shot,” he said.

This week’s incidents came days after Russian premier Vladimir Putin warned the West against funding his critics, as he officially accepted the ruling party’s nomination to contest next year’s presidential election. Unnamed foreign states are financing opposition efforts to influence next week’s Duma elections and the presidential poll due in March, he told United Russia’s party congress.

The harassment of election monitors proves that “electoral violations are already planned,” said Kommersant reporter Oleg Kashin.

The Kremlin’s hyper-sensitivity to scrutiny is perhaps predictable after Golos’ embarrassing revelation of the party’s electoral malpractices:

When a small-town mayor from Russia’s governing party recently offered tens of thousands of dollars in government cash to a veterans group in exchange for votes in next month’s parliamentary elections, it appeared to be business as usual. Violations of Russia’s election rules no longer evoke much surprise here, and in the past the episode would have probably gone unnoticed, or at least unpunished.

But this is the era of the smartphone.

Someone recorded the mayor’s speech and uploaded the video to YouTube. Along with the promise of cash was a threat to cut off the elderly veterans if they failed to vote for the party, United Russia, which is led by Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin.

“With video clips that have attracted the most attention, we see that the authorities are prepared to make what for them are unpleasant decisions, like punishing a specific official,” said Golos’s Melkonyants. “Citizens see that thanks to these video clips they can have influence. This is becoming a tool for putting pressure on the authorities.”

The Kremlin also appears anxious over recent indications that Putin has lost his political lustre. He was booed during a martial arts event in Moscow last week and the Levada Center, Russia’s leading independent polling group, reports that support for Putin and Medvedev fell from 60 to 51 percent over recent weeks.

“Many Russians feel cheated by the fact that the ’power tandem’ has agreed to an audacious switch of office,” said Levada’s Alexei Grazhdankin.

Middle-class voters “are worried about the specter of stagnation and they are critical of what is happening in the country,” said Lev Gudkov, head of Levada. “Half of them believe the government has no plan to get out of this crisis.”