Russia ‘needs rebuilding’ – not retro-Soviet smears

Russian opposition leaders today decried a Soviet-style smear campaign after a pro-Kremlin website released recordings of private phone calls in which activists discussed plans for this week’s mass protest rally in Moscow, AFP reports:

Sensationalist website Life News late Monday published nine recordings of phone calls by opposition leader and former cabinet minister Boris Nemtsov, in which he can be heard badmouthing fellow activists using obscenities.

Activists accused the authorities of using unconstitutional methods in an attempt to sabotage the turnout at the Moscow protest, but they also believe the regime is demonstrably unable to revive and reform itself.

Credit: RFE/RL

“It is already clear that Russia will experience a systemic political crisis in 2012,” writes Vladimir Ryzhkov (right), a co-founder of the opposition Party of People’s Freedom, and a member of the steering committee of the World Movement for Democracy.

“The country’s leaders and institutions will completely lose the people’s trust by next summer. The authorities will become vacillating and weak and will flounder from one crisis to another,” he believes.

During last week’s annual telethon Q&A, Putin demonstrated that he has no serious political or economic agenda, Ryzhkov writes in the Moscow Times, to address “the most important issues affecting the country’s development: the creation of an effective democratic political system, the elimination of rampant corruption, establishing rule of law and diversifying the economy.”

Putin’s failure is all the more glaring because of the widespread consensus, as Andres Aslund notes, that Russia needs to be rebuilt.

“Ample material is available: talented human capital, lots of cash and plenty of raw materials,” he writes, but would-be reformers must first overcome Russia’s two biggest problems: corruption and authoritarianism:

Let’s face it, the aim of Vladimir Putin’s regime and most other authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet Union is to maximize corruption for the enrichment of themselves and a broader elite. That is the reason for their authoritarian rule. Therefore, the main goal of both anti-corruption endeavors and democratization is to break the power of the corrupt elite. With few exceptions, authoritarian rule means corruption, not order. Everything follows from this elementary insight.

But Putinism may be more robust than its detractors suggest, some observers believe. The ruling United Russia party is still seen as the one most closely aligned with mainstream opinion, according to the Levada Center, a leading polling firm, while Putin’s provincial support is stronger than in the cities.

Furthermore, “Russia’s GDP is growing faster than Brazil’s, one of the big four emerging markets,” according to one account. “ As voters look around at their neighbors to the West and see one economic crisis after another, Putin’s chances of becoming president of Russia again are greatly improved.”

Putin will win the presidential election in March election, but he will then need to decide on a “new paradigm” for his presidency, says Edward Lozansky, president of the American University in Moscow and the United States-Russia Forum:

If he chooses to continue the “liberal course” and Mikhail Prokhorov becomes the new prime minister, a social explosion may happen in the next few years or as soon as truly popular leaders appear on the left who are able to consolidate the largest part of the political spectrum in Russia. If Putin decides to go “left” after the election by himself, we may see a two party system representing the interests of the majority of the people, with really competitive and fair elections.

The Levada Center, is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

Never mind China – is the threat to ‘dethrone democratic ideology’ closer to home?

Is the global consensus on the legitimacy of liberal democracy under threat, not least in the advanced democracies? Is the shrinking middle class also diminishing democracy’s natural base of support?

“There is a broad correlation among economic growth, social change, and the hegemony of liberal democratic ideology in the world today. And at the moment, no plausible rival ideology looms,” writes Stanford University’s Francis Fukuyama. “But some very troubling economic and social trends, if they continue, will both threaten the stability of contemporary liberal democracies and dethrone democratic ideology as it is now understood.”

China’s developmental authoritarianism is the “single most serious challenge to liberal democracy in the world today,” he argues. But it is culturally-specific to East Asia, not readily exportable and may not even be sustainable, given the inherent “moral vulnerability” of a demonstrably corrupt and unaccountable regime:

Every week, there are new protests about land seizures, environmental violations, or gross corruption on the part of some official. While the country is growing rapidly, these abuses can be swept under the carpet. But rapid growth will not continue forever, and the government will have to pay a price in pent-up anger. The regime no longer has any guiding ideal around which it is organized; it is run by a Communist Party supposedly committed to equality that presides over a society marked by dramatic and growing inequality.

China’s middle class may have agreed a Faustian pact with the ruling Communist party, sacrificing liberty for prosperity, but a healthy bourgeoisie is normally associated with robust democracy and moderate politics.

“From the days of Aristotle, thinkers have believed that stable democracy rests on a broad middle class and that societies with extremes of wealth and poverty are susceptible either to oligarchic domination or populist revolution,” Fukuyama notes.

But ideological or political allegiances are not a function of class or status, as Marxists eventually realized.

“Middle-class people do not necessarily support democracy in principle: like everyone else, they are self-interested actors who want to protect their property and position,” says Fukuyama, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Political allegiances are also formed from ideas and identities as much as interests, as Ernest Gellner’s “wrong address theory” demonstrated:

Gellner went on to argue that religion serves a function similar to nationalism in the contemporary Middle East: it mobilizes people effectively because it has a spiritual and emotional content that class consciousness does not. Just as European nationalism was driven by the shift of Europeans from the countryside to cities in the late nineteenth century, so, too, Islamism is a reaction to the urbanization and displacement taking place in contemporary Middle Eastern societies.

The absence of a coherent systemic alternative to liberal democracy should not obscure the need for ideological revision and refreshment if it is to maintain its appeal, Fukuyama contends.

Despite the crisis of globalized capitalism, the left has “failed to make a plausible case for an agenda other than a return to an unaffordable form of old-fashioned social democracy,” but its inability to contest the battle of ideas may be damaging for democracy itself, he says:  

This absence of a plausible progressive counter-narrative is unhealthy, because competition is good for intellectual ­debate just as it is for economic activity. And serious intellectual debate is urgently needed, since the current form of globalized capitalism is eroding the middle-class social base on which liberal democracy rests.

He calls for a “new ideology” which, politically, would “reassert the supremacy of democratic politics over economics and legitimate anew government as an expression of the public interest” and, economically, “not see markets as an end in themselves; instead, it would value global trade and investment to the extent that they contributed to a flourishing middle class, not just to greater aggregate national wealth.”


Fresh unrest highlights Wukan’s challenge to China’s ‘rigid’ stability

A senior Communist Party offical is due to start negotiations with leaders from the besieged village of Wukan. The talks will be “the highest-level acknowledgment yet of what has rapidly become the most serious case of social unrest in China this year,” reports suggest. “For a top province official to go to the village underlines concerns among authorities that unrest could spread in the province.”

Too late.

Violent unrest today spread to another town in the southern province of Guangdong

Credit: Global Voices Online

A 15-year-old boy was reportedly killed and over 100 others badly injured when riot police attacked demonstrators who occupied government buildings in Haimen, a town 75 miles from Wukan. Aggrieved citizens took to the streets (above) to demand the removal of a highly pollutant power-plant, according to China Digital Times.

“Despite attempts to censor the web and a virtual black-out in China’s state-run media,” AFP reports, “weibos — Chinese microblogs similar to Twitter — have buzzed with news of the Haimen and Wukan protests.”

As the violence erupted in Haimen, the authorities pledged today to compensate victims of illegal land grabs in Wukan where villagers expelled local officials complicit in corrupt land grabs and the killing of a local resident in police custody.

The current unrest is prompting debate and division within the upper echelons of the ruling Communist Party, analysts suggest, as the regime prepare for next year’s leadership transition.

“When we look back, the defining feature of Hu Jintao’s era will be stability preservation,” said Cui Weiping, a Beijing-based dissident. “Stability preservation is the party’s defensive response to a society that is growing more fluid and assertive.”

“But the system can’t keep up with social change and public demands. That’s why they’re so anxious despite all the security spending,” she said.

The regime’s annual expenditure on domestic security now exceeds its national defense budget, according to official figures.

“China has always been a heavily controlled place, but what’s new is the scale of it, the way in which the government has pushed this as an alternative to the emergence of a real civil society,” said Borge Bakken, an analyst at the University of Hong Kong.

In 2007, China experienced over 80,000 “mass incidents”, up 60,000 the previous year, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

“Is there a risk of disruption? Yes, absolutely. Is this a place just waiting to explode? No,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

“The chances of long-term, systemic instability are very, very small. The chances of some major disruption — like 1989, but on a much larger scale — are considerably greater, but still the odds are they can avoid it,” he said.

But while recent outbreaks of worker militancy could be resolved through labor-management bargaining, rural villagers’ grievances over illegal land seizures can only be settled by holding local party officials to account and reforming the ruling party – a step the authorities can’t afford to take.

“You don’t open the box. There is too much dirt in it. That is the political reality,” says Han Dongfang, who heads the Hong-Kong-based China Labour Bulletin.

It is also raising questions about the sustainability of the regime’s performance-based legitimacy, based on a de facto social compact in which citizens abstain from politics in exchange for material prosperity. 

“The party-state has become so reliant on enforcing a kind of ‘rigid’ stability that involves buying off anyone who can be bought off with economic goods, and crushing those who can’t,” Kelley Currie, a reform specialist at the Project 2049 Institute, told The Diplomat.

“Increasingly, however, the costs of buying people off are getting out of reach of local municipalities and they are finding that no matter how many police they have, it’s not enough when the whole town decides to stand up against the authorities or when the wholly inappropriate, unnecessary abuse of some citizen gets broadcast via social media.”

The Wukan affair is symptomatic of a more profound challenge for the Communist regime, writes analyst Jacqueline Deal:

Even more troubling for the central government, the grievances of Wukan-ites are representative of a broader problem in China. CCP members readily confess that corruption is rampant. According to the former China bureau chief of the Financial Times, a local official who pays 300,000 yuan for a position can expect to pull in five million within a couple years of occupying his or her post. Most of this will be outside the salary attached to the position, make no mistake. Bribes, kickbacks, and the seizure of land for real estate development deals are part of a predatory system whose victims are ordinary Chinese people.

These issues are at the forefront of internal party debates on future economic and social policy in the run-up to next year’s leadership transition. A rivalry between spokesmen for different approaches has been much reported. The populist, Mao-invoking leader of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, who launched a very public anti-corruption campaign, is said to be vying with Wang Yang, the leader of Guangdong province where Wukan is located, for a seat on the Politburo standing committee.

“Instead of the usual murky guessing game of Chinese politics, Wukan has had the clarity of a moral play,” the FT’s Rahul Jacob notes:

Grandmothers and children along with thousands of other villagers have demonstrated daily for justice against corrupt party officials and for the return of Xue’s body so his funeral can go ahead.

The Communist party leadership, often lauded for the speed with which it builds airports and highways, has had no coherent response. Worse, the local government last week trotted out the four detained leaders of the protests to implausibly recant on video while police tried to starve the village into submission.

The ruling party’s response to the Wukan affair will be a key indicator of the relative strength of inner party reformers like Wang and neo-Maoist conservatives like Bo Xilai:

The question now is whether Mr Wang will break his silence. If he does, and finds a way to prove himself a genuine reformer, then his debate with Bo Xilai could find new life. If he doesn’t, his silence will suggest what many have long suspected: that the Chinese Communist party’s factions act as one when its authority is questioned.

Bo Xilai recently commissioned the world’s biggest police surveillance system in Chongqing, the model city for his neo-Maoist revival. But the regime’s obsession with stability and security is not a sustainable strategy for containing change, says the dissident Cui Weiping.

“I don’t know how or when the era of stability preservation will come to an end, but when it does, there will surely be major changes,” she says.“You can’t manage a society that refuses to be managed.”

China Labour Bulletin and China Digital Times are grantees of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

Dissidents pay tribute to Havel as ‘precursor and guide to liberation’

Václav Havel and the NED’s Carl Gershman at a Library of Congress reception in honor of the celebrated dissident-turned-president

As world leaders prepare to attend Friday’s funeral of Václav Havel, the former dissident and Czech president, some of his true heirs were also paying tribute.

Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, the head of Cuba’s Christian Liberation Movement and Sakharov prize winner, tweeted that Havel was “a friend in solidarity with the cause of democracy in Cuba” and a “precursor and guide to liberation in this new era”

“Vaclav Havel has passed away and we barely started to walk the path he walked dozens of years ago :-(,” Cuban dissident blogger and philologist Yoani Sanchez tweeted.  Havel’s The Power of the Powerless “helped me find my voice, to recognize myself as a civic being. Thank you teacher!”

In his celebrated 1978 essay, written in the midst of the Communist regime’s backlash following the launch of the Charter 77 dissident manifesto, Havel cautioned against “the attractions of mass indifference” and the “general unwillingness of consumption-oriented people to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity.”

Havel not only possessed but deployed “massive moral authority,” said Madeleine Albright, the former US secretary of state and chair of the National Democratic Institute, lending his moral weight to support those struggling for freedom and democracy.

“More so than any of the prominent figures from the period of anti-communist dissent, Havel used his position, voice and moral authority to advance present-day struggles for freedom,” writes Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy:

If he looked backward at all, it was only to find lessons from his own experience that might be useful for freedom-fighters today. Communicating those lessons, he once wrote to the Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya, was a way of repaying a debt to those who helped him in his own time of need.

He found many ways to repay that debt. In 1991, at a moment when he himself might have received the Nobel Peace Prize for leading the Velvet Revolution, he campaigned successfully for it to be awarded to Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi and remained a steadfast supporter of the Burmese democracy movement. He termed Alexander Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus “the disgrace of Europe” and extended moral and practical solidarity to the opposition. He developed a deep connection with Paya’s Varela Project; and he established the International Committee for Democracy in Cuba,…. He co-authored a report applying the “responsibility to protect” doctrine to the totalitarian system in North Korea, and he led the successful international campaign to give the Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize, launching it with an open letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao demanding Liu’s release from prison.

“The theater of politics makes permanent demands on us all, as dramatists, actors, and audience – on our common sense, our moderation, our responsibility, our good taste, and our conscience,” Havel wrote in a recently republished essay.

And he stayed true to his words.

Ellen Bork notes that as recently as December 8 Havel joined a committee of Nobel laureates and other eminent figures in a campaign to free Liu Xiaobo, and cites Charter 08 translator Perry Link’s observation that it was “conceived and written in conscious admiration” of Charter 77. 

“There will be many tributes to Vaclav Havel,” she writes. “Perhaps he would have appreciated if one of them were a sincere effort by the world’s democracies to free Liu Xiaobo.”

On hearing of Havel’s death, Irwin Cotler’s thoughts turned to the winter of 1989 when he was on a Canadian delegation to the Soviet Union, he writes:

I took the occasion to visit with Andrei Sakharov, a Soviet dissident who helped make the 1989 Velvet Revolution possible, and with whom I had the privilege of working closely over the years. While in Sakharov’s apartment, the phone rang. It was Francesco Janouch, a leader of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia calling to tell Sakharov that the Czech politburo had fallen and that there were over 250,000 people celebrating its demise. Sakharov was elated. As he told Janouch, capturing history in the moment, “I feel 21 years younger tonight” — a reference to the still-born Prague Spring of 1968.

“As cosmic coincidences go, the deaths of Václav Havel and Kim Jong Il in the same week the U.S. pulled the last of its troops out of Iraq is hard to ignore,” writes Bret Stephens.

“The world could not be indifferent forever to a murderer like Saddam Hussein,” said Havel.

“A big danger of our world today is obsession,” he told a Prague democracy conference. “An even bigger danger is indifference.”

As Stephens notes:

Kim died in his proverbial bed, thanks in part to global acquiescence in, and considerable tangible support for, his rule. That’s a testament to what our indifference continues to achieve for tyranny, and a poor way of honoring the memory of Václav Havel.

Kazakh violence exposes autocratic fragility

Fifteen people were killed in violent clashes over the weekend, as rioting spread to a second town in Kazakhstan’s oil-rich Mangistau province. One person was killed and 11 wounded when police attacked demonstrators blocking a passenger train in the town of Shetpe.

The incident follows Friday’s killing of at least 14 striking oil workers in Zhanaozen which prompted some analysts to suggest that the violence portends a potentially turbulent transition in the authoritarian Central Asian state.

“The protests exposed the main weakness of the political system that [Kazakh President Nursultan] Nazarbayev has crafted in 20 years of his rule — it works as long as the leader is strong and relatively young,” said analyst Lilit Gevorgyan. “At the time of transition, all the achievements born out of political and economic stability can be wiped away if political turmoil follows.”

The unrest is a symptom of the dearth of democracy, observers suggest.

“People want to be heard, but there are no mechanisms which would allow people to be heard…This results in such brutal methods,” Kazakh political analyst Aidos Sarym said. “Zhanaozen actually threatened the unity of our nation.”

“In general, there is a need to slacken the reins. Public mechanisms are needed. There are things which should be discussed in parliament,” he said. “There must be modernization of society, of the political system.”

Others contend that underlying socio-economic grievances over the distribution of oil revenues are feeding a “sense of injustice” in western regions.

“The west feels abandoned,” said Kate Mallinson, a central Asia expert at the GPW political risk consultancy. “So much oil money has gone to build the glittering new capital in Astana and other prestigious projects.”

Kyrgyzstan-based opposition channel K-Plus claimed Sunday that the violence was sparked when police drove a bus into a crowd of protesting oil workers in Zhanaozen to disperse their sit-in. It claimed about 70 people were killed and 500 wounded.

The authorities are adopting a heavy-handed approach to the unrest, according to the Associated Press:

Rights activists will likely also be concerned by what appeared to heavy-handed treatment of detainees at Zhanaozen’s main police station Sunday evening. Journalists at the station reported hearing screams coming from what appeared to be interrogation rooms, while a number of men with bloodied faces were lined up in a row in the corridors with their faces against the wall.

Many protesters suspect that the true toll may be higher than the official tally, Reuters reports:

One oil worker, who declined to be named, said he had just visited a blood donor centre in Aktau. “It is working round-the-clock. If only 10 people were killed, why is it working round-the-clock?” he told Reuters.

About 200 people attended a protest in solidarity with the strikers in  Almaty, the commercial capital, said Andrei A. Grishen, the editor of a newsletter published by the Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law.

The Kazakh authorities are responsible for the violence, said opposition leader and former Senator Zauresh Battalova.

“Instead of taking care of human rights, [instead of] addressing the people’s problems in a legal way, [the authorities] used force, sent in troops, which shows that our authorities are not capable of working in a legal way,” Battalova told RFE/RL.

“It shows that our authorities fully ignore the principle of the rule of law and operate using force only. This kind of authority cannot run a country that proclaims itself a secular country based on law.”

Credit: RFE/RL.

The striking oil workers (right) recently added political demands, including the right to form independent labor unions and political parties, to their list of grievances.  

Alexei Malashenko, an analyst with Moscow’s Carnegie Center suggests that “Nazarbayev is in a very precarious situation. I think he has been losing so far, and should he suppress the current outbursts with force, something similar is likely to erupt.”

News of the suppression of the riots has spread on social network sites, as has happened during recent protests in Russia against alleged election fraud and in the Arab world. The picture has been different in the traditional media in a throwback to Soviet times, when Nazarbayev was a Communist Party boss.

The main state channel, Khabar, ran a feature film about Nazarbayev’s life and interviews with him. Singers sang songs with lyrics written by him, and video clips lionised him as “the founder of new Kazakhstan”. Internet, mobile communication and telephone landlines were cut off from Zhanaozen. Communication has been patchy elsewhere across the sprawling nation.

“This manner of behavior — by blocking social networks and jamming information — has shown to the entire world that the authorities have actually lost,” Malashenko said

Kazakhstan’s Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.