What does Egypt’s military want?

Credit: Project Syndicate

Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forceshas neither executive power nor control of the framing of a new constitution following the Islamists’ resounding electoral victory, Omar Ashour writes from Cairo. While the generals would like to combine the Algerian military’s prerogatives with their Turkish equivalent’s legitimacy, recent events suggest that the SCAF is trying to apply lessons learned from the ‘dirty wars’ in Algeria and Argentina.

CAIRO – “Whatever the majority in the People’s Assembly, they are very welcome, because they won’t have the ability to impose anything that the people don’t want.” Thus declared General Mukhtar al-Mulla, a member of Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

Al-Mulla’s message was that the Islamists’ victory in Egypt’s recent election gives them neither executive power nor control of the framing of a new constitution. But General Sami Anan, Chief of Staff and the SCAF’s deputy head, quickly countered that al-Mulla’s statement does not necessarily represent the official views of the Council.

So, one year after the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, who, exactly, will set Egypt’s political direction?

The electoral victory of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing and the Salafi parties, which together won more than 70% of the parliamentary seats, will give them strong influence over the transitional period and in drafting the constitution. But they are not alone. Aside from the Islamists, two other powerful actors will have their say: the “Tahrirists” and the generals.

Tahrir Square-based activism has not only brought about social and political change, but also has served as the ultimate tool of pro-democracy pressure on Egypt’s military rulers. Indeed, while the army, the most powerful of the three actors, still officially controls the country, there is little confidence in the generals’ commitment to democracy. “The SCAF are either anti-democratic….or some of their advisers told them that democracy is not in their best interest,” says Hazem Abd al-Azim, a nominee in the first post-Mubarak government.

If the generals do not want democracy, nor do they want direct military rule à la Augusto Pinochet. So, what do they want? Ideally, they would like to combine the Algerian army’s current power and the Turkish army’s legitimacy. This implies a parliament with limited powers, a weak presidency subordinate to the army, and constitutional prerogatives that legitimate the army’s intervention in politics.

The minimum that they insist on is reflected in statements by Generals al-Mulla, Mamdouh Shahim, Ismail Etman, and others. That would mean a veto in high politics, independence for the army’s budget and vast economic empire, legal immunity from prosecution on charges stemming from corruption or repression, and constitutional prerogatives to guarantee these arrangements.

The new parliament and constitutional assembly will have to lead the negotiations with the SCAF. But, given that any successful democratic transition must include meaningful civilian control over the armed forces and the security apparatus, the SCAF’s minimum demands could render the process meaningless.

The veto in high politics would include any issues that touch on national security or sensitive foreign policy, most importantly the relationship with Israel. With an Islamist majority in the parliament promising to “revise” the peace agreement with Israel, tensions over foreign policy are likely to rise.

The independent military-commercial empire, which benefits from preferential customs and exchange rates, no taxation, land-confiscation rights, and an army of almost-free laborers (conscripted soldiers), is another thorny issue. With the Egyptian economy suffering, elected politicians might seek to improve conditions by moving against the military’s civilian assets – namely, by revising the preferential rates and imposing a form of taxation.

Immunity from prosecution is no less salient. “The Field-Marshal should be in jail now,” screamed the elected leftist MP, Abu Ezz al-Hariri, on the second day of the new parliamentary session. When Mahmoud Ghozlan, the Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson, proposed immunity (known in Egypt as the “safe-exit” option), he faced a wave of harsh criticism.

Pressure from the United States has also influenced the SCAF’s decision-making. “The military establishment receives $1.3 billion from the US….They are very sensitive to US requests,” according to Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who lobbied the Obama administration to support the revolution in January 2011.

But most of the SCAF’s pro-democracy decisions have come as a result of massive pressure from Tahrir Square. This includes the removal of Mubarak, his trial (and that of other regime figures), and bringing forward the presidential election from 2013 to June 2012.

Two other factors are equally, if not more, influential: the status quo inherited from the Mubarak era and the army’s internal cohesion. With few exceptions, the SCAF’s members benefited significantly from Mubarak’s regime. They will attempt to preserve as much of it as possible.

“The sight of officers in uniform protesting in Tahrir Square and speaking on Al Jazeera really worries the Field Marshal,” a former officer told me. And one way to maintain internal cohesion is to create “demons” – a lesson learned from the “dirty wars” in Algeria in the 1990’s and Argentina in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

In particular, Coptic protesters are an easy target against which to rally soldiers and officers. Last October, amid an unnecessary escalation of sectarian violence, state-owned television featured a hospitalized Egyptian soldier screaming, “The Copts killed my colleague!” The systematic demonization of the Tahririst groups, and the violent escalation that followed in November and December, served the same purpose.

Despite everything, democratic Egypt is not a romantic fantasy. A year ago, Saad al-Ketatni, the Muslim Brotherhood leader, would never have dreamed of being Speaker of Parliament. The same applies to the leftists and liberals who now hold around 20% of the parliament’s seats.

If 2011 witnessed the miracle of Mubarak’s removal, a brave parliament’s institutional assertiveness, coupled with non-institutional Tahririst pressure, could force the generals to accept a transfer of power to civilian rule (with some reserved domains for the army establishment) in 2012. What is certain is that this year will not witness a return to the conditions of 2010. Egypt may become stuck in democratization’s slow lane, but there will be no U-turn. The hundreds of thousands who marched to Tahrir Square on the revolution’s anniversary will guarantee that.

Omar Ashour is a visiting scholar at the Brookings Doha Center and Director of Middle East Graduate Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter. He is the author of The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements.

This article first appeared on Project Syndicate and is reproduced with permission.

China’s reform impasse

The right blend of technological innovation and structural reform should allow China to maintain an economic growth rate of about eight percent a year for the next twenty years, the World Bank said today.

But some analysts believe that a fundamental flaw at the core of China’s developmental authoritarian model militates against the ruling Communist party implementing the required reforms.

“If China wants to keep its high growth rate, it must graduate to making Chinese-designed high-tech and high-value-added products,” writes Minxin Pei:

It will need more innovation, which demands less government control and more intellectual freedom. Most critically, the investment-driven and state-led economic model responsible for China’s rapid growth must give way to a more efficient, consumption-driven, market-oriented model. Such a shift will not be possible without downsizing the state and making the party accountable to the Chinese people.

The notion that the regime can enjoy uninterrupted economic growth is one of five myths about China’s power that dominate Western commentary, he writes. Other misconceptions include the claim that the Communist authorities have bought off the middle class and control the Internet:

There is a world of difference between political apathy and enduring loyalty. At most, the Chinese middle class tolerates the status quo because it is a vast improvement over the totalitarian rule of the past — and because there is no practical or immediate alternative. But as the Arab Spring shows, a single event or a misstep by authoritarian rulers can transform apathetic middle-class citizens into radical revolutionaries. ….The party knows it cannot bank on middle-class support. Such insecurity lies behind its continuing harshness toward political dissent…..

While China’s Internet-filtering technology is more sophisticated and its regulations more onerous than those of other authoritarian regimes, the growth of the nation’s online population (now surpassing 500 million) and technological advances (such as Twitter-style microblogs) have made censorship largely ineffective. The government constantly plays catch-up; its latest effort is to force microbloggers to register with real names. Such regulations often prove too costly to enforce, even for a one-party regime.

The recent popular revolt in Wukan highlighted tensions within the ruling Communist party between reformists and neo-Maoist conservatives, personified in the clash of the populist, leader of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, with Wang Yang, the governor of Guangdong province.

The dispute has led to an interesting, if precarious experiment in local democracy:

“The good thing is Wukan people know exactly what they want. They haven’t been lured by people buying votes. They are focusing on the long term,” said Zhang Lifan, a historian.

There is, nevertheless, plenty of scope for things to go wrong as the new representatives will have to deal with difficult issues such as returning land to villagers and an investigation into the death in police custody in December of a popular village leader. This would likely require punishment of party officials. “Nothing has changed. We have to see if the election process will be able to resolve our complaints,” says one of the more impatient leaders of the December protests.

Meanwhile, one well-connected member of the CPPCC advisory body summed up Mr Wang’s risky endeavour in harsh terms: “If the results are not great, his political career could be over.”


Twitter and internet freedom: distinguish democracies from dictatorships

Reports that Twitter is planning to ‘censor’ the content of certain tweets has caused alarm amongst pro-democracy bloggers and other cyberactivists. “If Twitter censors, I’ll stop tweeting,” China’s dissident artist Ai Weiwei tweeted in response to the news. But there is a world of difference between a democracy banning speech on “security” grounds and a dictatorship banning “security”-infringing speech by autocratic fiat, writes Richard Fontaine, a Senior Advisor at the Center for a New American Security.

Twitter has taken fire in recent days from activists and bloggers who fear that the company’s new censorship policies will muffle online freedom. News reports recall the ways in which protestors have had made use of Twitter to oppose dictatorships, and dissidents express concern that their ability to communicate will be harmed. The more immediate issue, however, may lie elsewhere. Twitter’s new policies demonstrate vividly the complicated relationship between Internet freedom and democratic government.

The complications take on greater importance in light of America’s global Internet freedom strategy. The U.S. government began an active policy of promoting Internet freedom in the second George W. Bush term, and its efforts have accelerated in the Obama administration. The State Department devotes tens of millions of dollars to support technology and training for online dissidents, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has given a series of major speeches highlighting the issue. In one, she invoked Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous four freedoms, added a fifth — the “freedom to connect” — and observed that “the spread of information networks is forming a new nervous system for our planet.”

It is easy to imagine two sides locked in pitched battle over Internet freedom: The democracies, embracing the freedom to connect for all, and the dictatorships, who censor, monitor, and disrupt. Indeed, pressing the cause of Internet freedom has thus far generally meant taking on autocracies, like Beijing and its Great Firewall, the Mubarak regime when it shuttered Egypt’s Internet during the 2011 protests, or Iran as it systematically monitors domestic dissidents. But it has become increasingly clear that autocracies alone do not challenge Internet freedom; democracies do as well.

In the blog post explaining its new policy, Twitter hit on this truth, noting that the company will be active in “countries that have different ideas” than the United States “about the contours of freedom of expression.” All democracies restrict speech to some degree, and the forms of banned expression vary, ranging from child pornography (which is illegal virtually everywhere) to hate speech (banned in Europe and other places but not the United States) to country-specific expression (such as criticism of national heroes or monarchs).

America, however, is an outlier. The United States recognizes some limits on free expression – slander, perjury, “fighting words” and certain other forms of expression are illegal online or off – but its commitment to free speech is nevertheless the most absolute of any major country. This puts it in potential conflict with fellow democracies about what constitute legitimate restrictions on online expression. Given Washington’s role as the world’s most active proponent of Internet freedom, it also complicates its efforts to rally fellow democracies behind the cause.

The examples of differing democratic practice abound. Witness, for example, the recent request by Indian telecommunications minister Kapil Sibal to Google, Yahoo, Facebook and others that they remove content deemed insulting to leaders of the Indian Congress party. Mr. Sibal pledged that his government would take unspecified steps to act if the private sector would not. This month, during a hearing on a related case, an Indian high court justice said that, “like China,” the government could block websites entirely if their hosts do not remove offensive content. Turkey banned YouTube for two years because it refused to remove videos that Turkish courts deemed insulting to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Germany and other countries prohibit Holocaust denial online, and France bans the sale of Nazi paraphernalia over the Internet. Governments in Britain, Italy and Germany have established lists of blocked websites – generally those containing child pornography, hate speech, or online gambling platforms – even though those lists are not always transparent.

The differences arise not only in national policy, but in international law as well. A number of European democracies, including Denmark, France, Slovenia and Switzerland, have signed an additional protocol to the European Convention on Cybercrime, which requires them criminalize such acts as using computers to distribute xenophobic material or insult people because of their race, religion, or ethnic origin.

The United States faces its own potential contradictions. Secretary Clinton used one of her major addresses on Internet freedom to explain why the notion did not apply when Wikileaks published thousands of classified cables online. A district court recently ruled that, as part of its lawful intercept authorities, the Justice Department can seize Twitter feeds. And then there is the tremendous debate that has emerged over the Stop Online Privacy Act.

The truth is that the U.S. government will always enforce some limits on free expression, and our political system will continually wrestle with where the limits should be drawn. But we should not allow this to undermine the important cause of promoting global Internet freedom. Authoritarian governments will inevitably attempt to shield themselves from criticism and pressure by pointing to democracies that ban online expression. Denying them the opportunity to do so successfully will require the United States and other to articulate, publicly and consistently, the critical distinction between the restrictions placed on online speech by democracies and the repression favored by many autocracies.

The distinction rests not only in the kind of banned speech, but also in the process by which the decision to restrict it is made. True democracies bar forms of expression based on law and regulation, and they make decisions to do so in accordance with due process. Their pronouncements are generally transparent, with decision makers accountable to the law, to legislatures, and ultimately to the people, who can turn them out of office in periodic elections. There is a world of difference between a democracy banning speech on “security” grounds when the citizens know what the decision is, who made it, and how to change it, and a dictatorship banning its own “security”-infringing speech by autocratic fiat.

It is crucial to make that distinction clear. Doing so can benefit America’s diplomatic effort to promote Internet freedom, and it may also help guide policymakers at home. Resolving tough new issues often involves complex considerations of technology, law, and fundamental principle. In remembering what makes a democratic approach to the Internet distinctive, we might avoid falling prey to measures that would suggest we are otherwise.

Richard Fontaine is co-author of Internet Freedom: A Foreign Policy Imperative in the Digital Age. Follow him @rhfontaine. This article was originally published by Techcrunch.

From revolution to reform: great expectations in Tunisia

While Tunisia’s democratic transition has reportedly inspired the country’s soccer team to perform beyond expectations in the Africa Cup of Nations (above) the new coalition government is struggling to address the grievances that gave rise to the Jasmine revolution.

“We are proud to have a new democracy but we do know it’s not enough,” President Moncef Marzouki said this weekend. “There are huge expectations and we need to give employment to about 800,000 people. This is a huge challenge.”

But while Tunisian citizens appear patient about the pace of political reform following last October’s elections (left), they are notably less so about economic and social improvements, according to a new opinion survey.

“A rise in unemployment and the cost of living are consistently identified as concerns that the new government must address immediately, with youth feeling most affected by a lack of job opportunities,” says the report, from the National Democratic Institute (extracted below). “Security is another issue that citizens expect the new government to address immediately.”

Tunisians show a pronounced “desire for greater social and economic justice” and have “high expectations for good governance,” according to Nicole Roswell and Asma Ben Yahia, the report’s authors. The survey also reveals a widespread conviction that Tunisia’s “political life – and its new constitution –should not be dominated by religion, but rather include and reflect religious values,” they note.

Tunisia’s coalition government, comprising Islamists, liberals, and leftists, could become a model for other Arab transitions, said Marzouki, speaking at the African Union summit in Addis Adaba, Ethiopia, arguably typifying the inclusive approach required to gain consensus on the formation of a new constitution and fresh elections.

The constituent assembly elected Marzouki (right) a secular leftist, as president, as part of a power-sharing dealwith the Islamist Ennahda party, which won a plurality of the vote in October’s election.

“We hope that we can probably have, in 2013, or 2014, the beginning of the [economic] solution. But now we have to tackle the problem and I am afraid that we will have some troubles in the year to come. But we don’t have any choice,” he said.

“The Islamists, Ennahda, cannot rule the country by themselves. The secular movement cannot rule Tunisia by itself so we have to have this coalition and the coalition is probably going to work,” he said.


Nearly a year after Tunisia’s nationwide protests led to the overthrow of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and inspired uprisings across the Arab world, Tunisians remain proud of their accomplishments and hold high expectations for their new government, according to recent focus group research conducted by NDI.

National Constituent Assembly (NCA) elections held Oct. 23 were a cathartic experience for citizens, who were able to choose their political leaders for the first time. Reactions to the election results – the moderate Islamist party Ennahda won 42 percent of seats – vary widely, but there is broad recognition that elections were an important political landmark. Participation in the elections reinforced commitment to the goals of the revolution and citizens now hope to play a role monitoring the performance of elected leaders.

The Institute has conducted focus group research throughout Tunisia since March 2011 to provide political and civic leaders with timely and objective information about citizens’ priorities and attitudes during the political transition. The most recent round, conducted in December, explored attitudes toward newly-elected leadership and post-election expectations for political, social and economic development. Here are some key findings:

Tunisians continue to view dignity – political, social and economic – as the primary goal of the revolution. New freedoms and increased political pluralism have been key achievements thus far toward that goal.

Citizens understand that political progress will be slow and consider it largely on track. They lack a similar patience for economic and social improvements. A rise in unemployment and the cost of living are consistently identified as concerns that the new government must address immediately, with youth feeling most affected by a lack of job opportunities. Security is another issue that citizens expect the new government to address immediately.

Tunisians were motivated to vote in October by an overwhelming sense of civic duty. Confidence in the election administration was high, despite anticipated and observed flaws. Voters cited a range of influences on their decisions at the ballot box, including religion, regional loyalty and party platform.

Understanding of democracy has expanded beyond freedom of expression to include individual responsibilities, like voting and accountability for lawmakers. Although they express interest in remaining politically active, citizens lack clear avenues to stay engaged between elections. Women encounter the most difficulty in this regard and often express the view that they have turned their rights over to elected officials to make decisions on their behalf.

Citizens consider the newly-elected NCA – whose mandate is still being defined – responsible for both drafting the country’s new constitution and creating jobs. Tunisians give equal importance to these two priorities. Expectations regarding the constitution-drafting process are varied, with strong support for a referendum on a draft constitution. For the first time, Tunisian citizens have high expectations for transparency and responsiveness to constituent needs, and citizens point with concern to the lack of party outreach since the elections.

A year on from the fall of the Ben Ali regime, the following conclusions offer a framework for considering the significance of the past year’s accomplishments by shedding light on Tunisian attitudes regarding the country’s political progress and revealing aspirations for the immediate future:

Expanding Definitions of Citizenship

Conceptions of citizenship in Tunisia prior to the 2011 uprising were based on demonstrating obedience, and in most cases motivated by fear of repercussions by an authoritarian state. In the first months of the transition, Tunisians expressed enthusiasm for new freedoms; however, concern for a re-emergence of the RCD-backed regime was pronounced. The proliferation of new political parties and movements led to confusion about political choices, and skepticism among average Tunisians over what they viewed as a new class of political elites uninterested or unaware of citizen concerns.

Despite concerns that citizens lacked basic information to cast informed votes, the NCA elections proved to be a boon for confidence in the role of individual choice. Focus group respondents were pronounced in their conviction that a new democratic culture was taking hold, however also cautioned that in addition to exercising choice – one of the cornerstones of democratic practice –citizens need to be equally mindful of their duties. An underlying sense of disunity and geographic discrimination could threaten the continued cultivation of a strong national identity and political culture. If citizens do not find productive avenues to contribute to political goals, through political parties or civil society, enthusiasm for political gains may wane.

Increasing Political Legitimacy

Political parties are both vehicles for popular expression and entities for organizing political life. Despite the country’s newfound civil liberties and political freedoms, focus group research conducted by NDI throughout the spring and summer of 2011 revealed that citizens were suspicious of a political class seen as distant and incapable of addressing the country’s pressing issues. In looking to the approaching NCA election in July 2011 (prior to the delay), NDI found high levels of anxiety over the large number of parties and independent candidates planning to contest. Respondents expressed a desire to learn about candidates and participate in the election, but a profound skepticism over leaders’ ability to deliver on promises.

Despite this trepidation on the part of the electorate – many of whom were first-time voters – the elections were an overwhelming success, not only for confirming citizens’ will and consolidating the political landscape, but also as a symbolic milestone that demonstrated a definitive break with the autocracy of the past regime.

Elected leaders, equipped with a new-found legitimacy, are now expected to provide tangible results to a public emboldened by their recent electoral experience. People need parties to connect them to the processes and events taking place around them. Parties and their leaders must both manage expectations and demonstrate meaningful efforts toward stated goals if they are to maintain relevance and build credibility. In a post-election atmosphere, parties that prove most adept in this regard will have the greatest chance of success in future elections.

Desire for Greater Social and Economic Justice

Throughout 2011, Tunisians prioritized the importance of economic stabilization and growth, with particular focus on addressing the country’s unemployment rate. Views ranged from the belief that government should take responsibility for job creation to more liberal economic views encouraging private sector expansion and entrepreneurship to support locally-led development. Diverging views aside, focus group respondents were united in their insistence that an increase in productivity will be required, acknowledging in part that strikes and work stoppages – while a demonstration of free expression – further slow potential for economic recovery.

Interim government officials struggled throughout most of 2011 to implement short term fixes to revive the economy in the absence of a political mandate to craft longer term policy. At the same time, political parties made campaign promises to would-be voters on economic recovery, but have offered no tangible suggestions following the elections. Looking to the year ahead, in which Tunisian politicians will need to focus great attention on building consensus on a series of fundamental political questions, the extent to which these leaders can also simultaneously manage expectations and address the very real financial hardships faced by many Tunisians will be a determining factor in how citizens evaluate transition progress.

High Expectations for Good Governance

Tunisians want government services, political and economic stability, and representation by those they elected to serve them. Consistent with earlier findings, the constitution is viewed as a top priority because it is seen as a precondition for stability and integral to solving other problems. It may be that Tunisians are expecting too much of the assembly, given the challenges their society faces; or, perhaps in the absence of other organizing principles, the NCA represents the one tangible institution that in the short term will bring some clarity to their situation and further the process toward genuine democratic governance.

Most focus group respondents say that Tunisia’s political life – and its new constitution –should not be dominated by religion, but rather include and reflect religious values. Participants support women playing a meaningful, if not limitless, role in politics and public life. However, underneath these responses are often qualifiers that speak to the difficulties of launching a genuine constitutional democracy and pluralistic civil society in a country scarred by decades of divisive tactics by authoritarian rule.

Focus group respondents have consistently called for justice for the crimes committed against the population by the previous regime over the last 23 years, and particularly during the period of citizen revolt. Fair trials of former regime officials and police forces – overseen by an independent judiciary empowered to issue judgments – are seen as a necessary step to heal the wounds of the past.

Young Tunisians Continue the Search for Political Voice

Young Tunisians were unanimously credited with guiding the uprising and initiating the transition to democracy, but their activism did not translate into political participation during the election process. As such, this important segment of society – often referred to as the ‘youth bulge’ in the past – stands at a crossroads. Faced with limited job opportunities and few avenues for meaningful contributions to the political discourse, young focus group respondents remain wary of political parties and see few options to contribute through civil society associations that they feel represent their interests.

With their potential to inspire and mobilize support bases cultivated during the campaign period, young Tunisians could be valuable assets for political parties in the post-election environment. Compared to their parents’ generation, young Tunisians demonstrate a nuanced understanding of the political process and willingness to put their skills – including savvy online networking and organizing – and energies to productive use. Effective strategies to harness this potential could result in political gains for parties who seek to actively engage constituents as part of their strategic programs for 2012.


Research and production of the NDI report was made possible with funding from the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI).

NDI is one of the core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

Golos faces fresh attacks, as Putin promises ‘state capitalism’ to appease middle class

Russia’s leading independent election monitoring group is facing “open intimidation” in the run-up to March’s presidential polls, as Prime Minister made a pitch for ‘state capitalism’ that drew more skepticism than applause.

“We are talking here about the open intimidation of Golos members and attempts to evict the organization from its office,” Golos representative Alexander Kynev told a Moscow news conference. The group had also experienced “phone-tapping, as well as breaking into letter boxes and accounts on social networking sites,” while an online map of electoral violations during December’s State Duma elections was shut down by a denial-of-service attack

The election watchdog, which expects to mobilize some 2,000 monitors for the March election, is already facing eviction from its Moscow office by Wednesday:

The group’s head, Lilya Shibanova, was also detained for over 12 hours at a Moscow airport ahead of last December’s parliamentary polls after she refused to hand over a laptop that Customs officials said could contain material harmful to Russia’s interests.

Shibanova said on Monday that a new online map designed to monitor suspected vote fraud at the presidential polls was up and running. The group’s online map of alleged election violations at December’s parliamentary vote was closed down by a denial-of-service attack by hackers on the morning of the polls. Shibanova accused the Federal Security Service (FSB) of being behind the attack. The FSB did not comment.

Opposition groups can anticipate an intensification of covert efforts, said Mark Galeotti, a New York University expert on organized crime and security in modern Russia.

“If the next rounds of protest show greater numbers,” he said, “I would see many more dirty tricks, the FSB unleashed. “

Russia’s newly-energized opposition organized a motorcade protest Sunday to protest Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s plans to return to the presidency, a day after the Soviet Union’s last leader Mikhail Gorbachev proposed a referendum on constitutional reform to end the current “autocracy” and pro-democracy leaders made surprise appearances on the country’s state-controlled television, as RFE-RL reports:

Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former Duma deputy and a leader of the unregistered Parnas opposition movement, appeared on state-owned Channel One at 10 p.m. Moscow time on January 26, while former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, also a Parnas leader, appeared an hour later on NTV, which is owned by the state-controlled Gazprom natural-gas monopoly.

Nemtsov told viewers it has been a long time since he’d appeared on national television. “It’s true I haven’t been in the NTV studio for five years,” he said. “Obviously, something is happening in the country.”

With his working class and regional base showing a “lacklustre” response to his election campaign, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is making a bid for the middle class vote with a promise to provide stability and modernization in a turbulent age.

“We are living through a period of serious changes in the world economy. Never before has technology advanced so quickly. What we see today would have seemed like science fiction only fifteen years ago,” Putin writes today:

In such circumstances it is important to ensure the stable development of our economy, to give our citizens maximum protection from the impact of global crises, and at the same time to renew all aspects of our economy. For Russia, it would be inadmissible to not have an economy that can guarantee stability, sovereignty and a decent standard of living.

We have the key drivers for success in place. Russia now has a rapidly growing middle class prepared to invest in better medical services, better housing and higher retirement benefits. The task of the government is to make sure their money doesn’t go up in flames.

Putin’s pitch initially appeared in the Vedomosti newspaper, which used an accompanying commentary to question his credibility, expressing scepticism about prospects for the implementation of any reforms.

“The word ‘must’ is used in the text 32 times, the word ‘will’ 19 times, ‘need’ 17 times and ‘necessary’ 11 times,” said the paper. “But who is it that ‘must’? And what has he [Putin] been doing all these last years?”

“For Putin, the economy is still a boring chapter in a textbook that is strictly kept separate from the ‘politics’ chapter. Tariffs, taxes and state procurement are not going to change the key problems,” it said.

But Russia is unable to attract the investment – or retain the talent – required for economic renewal without addressing the country’s endemic corruption and the absence of rule of law, issues which emerged at last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos:

“For Putin, the economy is still a boring chapter in a textbook that is strictly kept separate from the ‘politics’ chapter. Tariffs, taxes and state procurement are not going to change the key problems,” it said.

But Russia is unable to attract the investment – or retain the talent – required for economic renewal without addressing the country’s endemic corruption and the absence of rule of law, issues which emerged at last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos:

The most gripping exchange came right at the end when Bill Browder of Hermitage Capital – once the biggest foreign investors in Russia and now a bitter critic – asked the panel about the notorious death in police custody of Sergei Magnitsky, his lawyer and auditor.

The response of Igor Shuvalov, the deputy prime minister was – I think – meant to sound reasonable and reassuring. He described the case as “horrendous” and said that some people had already lost their jobs and been charged over it. But it was very difficult to get to the bottom of the case, because the “system” was protecting some guilty people.

The assembled business people did not seem impressed. One told me that – on the basis of that answer – he had decided not to proceed with a big potential investment in Russia.


A Yekaterinburg rally designed to kick-start Putin’s election campaign turned into a damp squib and indicates that the opposition may appeal to a broader base than its current core supporters within the urban middle class:

The Kremlin has been at pains to portray the discontent as being concentrated inside Moscow’s liberal upper classes. “Protests? What protests?” Mr Putin told Sky TV on a campaign stop in Tomsk, Siberia, last week. “I am not concerned. I think about the people – the ordinary people of Russia.”

Yet the mood at the rally in Yekaterinburg would indicate that the agitation has spread wider than the Kremlin thinks.  Yuri, a 20-something factory worker who declined to give his last name, said he and co-workers had travelled in from Pervouralsk, a 40-minute drive away, because of the bonuses they would receive for the day’s work – not because they were planning to vote for the prime minister.

“We came here today to support candidate Putin. Why? Because our employer told us to,” he said, as two middle-aged female colleagues nodded in agreement.

The worker added that neither he nor any of his friends supported Mr Putin any more, and blamed him for the failures of United Russia, the ruling party. “For 12 years in power United Russia could have done a lot more – and not steal…..Everyone I’ve asked said they voted against United Russia. But they won all the same.”


By contrast, the weekend’s motorcade indicates that the opposition is showing an unprecedented level of energy and creativity in mobilizing supporters:

With horns blaring, they drove for some three hours, causing major bottlenecks on the 15-kilometre (nine-mile) ring road — known as the Garden Ring — encircling city centre. Some cars were papered over so they were entirely white — the color of the anti-Putin movement — others were decked with white ribbons and balloons, and some sported snowmen on their roofs in the action dubbed “white ring”.

“While the opposition is getting its bearings and hoping to turn out enough protesters to get the Kremlin’s attention — their clout lies in their numbers — Putin appears to be waiting to see whether they will gather steam or lose it,” the Washington Post reports:

He has an entrenched bureaucracy behind him and supporters who have not been reluctant in the past to play dirty tricks and worse. Already, attempts have been made to discredit several of the opposition leaders. Two different sets of tapes recording opposition members in unflattering conversations have floated out. One of those who was taped, a Duma deputy who formerly served in the KGB, estimated that the operation to trap him on tape cost $300,000.

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