The line of shame stretching from Srebrenica to Homs

“Anyone with a political memory is thinking about Sarajevo these days as President Bashar al-Assad’s artillery shells blast into Homs (above) and families huddle in dark and unheated basements trying to stay alive,” writes Michael Ignatieff:

With the bombardment entering its fourth week, those watching video clips filmed with mobile phone cameras feel the same emotion they felt watching the siege of Sarajevo 20 years ago.

It is the feeling of shame.

You know it is shame when “the international community” now talks, just as it did during the Sarajevo siege, not of stopping the carnage, but of offering “humanitarian” assistance. The very word is abject. The people in the basements of Homs would be insulted to be called innocent victims in need of humanitarian rescue. They have been fighting to overthrow a regime.

“Resigning ourselves to carnage is also strategically foolish,” he adds. “It will leave us in a world where any tyrant knows he can shell his own people into submission, safe in the assumption no one will step in to stop him.”

The experience of Bosnia confirms that is also a strategically inept way of discrediting liberal democratic forces and empowering violent militants, according to Emir Suljagic, a Srebrenica survivor, and Reuf Bajrovic, a Washington-based political consultant.

Abandoning the Syrian opposition “would leave these forces susceptible to radical ideologies and movements which seek to kidnap the Syrian fight for freedom and hinder building a democratic and prosperous new Syria for decades to come,” they write in El Pais:

Bosnia should be a lesson: in a far less conducive environment, some Bosniak elements turned to extremist ideologies, which resulted in the formation of religious Muslim-only units, with emirs and imams, in what started out as a secular, multiethnic Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Wartime atrocities committed by foreign and domestic “mujahedeen” created deep-seated fears and resentments that continue to be employed by nationalist politicians.

So what can be done? Ignatieff asks:

In place of military intervention, nations can impose a comprehensive quarantine of Syria, designed to treat Mr Assad and his regime as an outcast, deny him any pretensions to legitimacy, drain any remaining support away from his cadre and force him from power.

Why should any country that values freedom still permit a Syrian embassy on its soil? Why should any country with an airport allow a Syrian commercial flight to land? Why should any Syrian associated with the regime be allowed a visa to a foreign country? Why should tankers still be landing fuel and arms at Syrian Mediterranean ports?


‘Birth of civil society’ + ‘politically mobilized middle class’ = end to Russia’s status quo?

Russians have “no opportunity” to change their government by democratic means, activists complained to a European hearing this week, but the country is “witnessing the birth of a civil society…..that never existed before,” says a leading commentator.

credit: Moscow News

“People come to us and say: ‘I always thought I was alone. Now I know I’m not’,” one activist says.

But the most promising aspect of the opposition’s recent resurgence is the emergence of a ”politically mobilized middle class,” says a former Russian premier.

“Unlike the Arab Spring rebellions, the driving force behind the ongoing protests is not Russia’s poor and disadvantaged, but rather the country’s rising urban middle class,” Mikhail Kasyanov, prime minister from 2000 to 2004, writes in the Moscow Times. “That is an important difference because successful democratic transitions have historically almost always required a politically mobilized middle class.”

Russians’ growing sense of citizenship and social responsibility mean that current shifts in political attitudes are unlikely to be reversed when Putin reassumes the presidency, says Vladimir Pozner, a prominent journalist and commentator.

“We are witnessing the birth of a civil society, something that never existed before. The vast majority of people in the Soviet Union and Russia were never really citizens in the common understanding of that word. They never had a social conscience, a sense that they had a responsibility,” he says.

Sergei Rassypnov personifies the shift:

Until a few months ago, Sergei Rassypnov cared little about politics. He went about his life as a Moscow real estate agent without concerning himself about the power plays of Vladimir Putin…[including] the kind of vote manipulation that allowed Putin’s party to cling to its majority in a December parliamentary election.

Rassypnov decided to do his part to try to stop that.

He signed up for one of the dozens of training sessions held at Golos, Russia’s oldest election monitoring group. Golos has been operating in Russia for more than a decade and runs a website that compiles evidence of violations despite growing government pressure, police raids, detentions and cyber attacks.

At a recent session, Rassypnov and about three dozen volunteers learned how to identify suspected vote-rigging and document it, for example getting tips on taking video and uploading it online.

“Officials don’t do us favors, they don’t respond to complaints,” Golos deputy director Grigory Melkonyants told volunteers. “If 100,000 people watch an online video, this is the best complaint to the Prosecutor General’s Office.”

Russia’s supposedly resigned and apathetic citizens made approximately 30,000 complaints about violations during the December 4 State Duma elections, says Andrei Y. Buzin, who is responsible for election oversight at Golos.

“Here’s one example in Moscow,” he said. “A member of the election commission was seen stuffing ballots. Observers saw him. A complaint was filed with the prosecutor’s office. Members of the commission were called in, and they denied it. Case dismissed.”

It’s no wonder that the latest poll from the independent Levada Center reports that 80 percent of Russians expect Putin to win Sunday’s election.

Russia is experiencing a surge in xenophobia and hate crimes, while officials enjoy a “culture of impunity,” civil society activists told a European Parliament hearing on human rights.

“Russia has no opportunity to change its leaders in a democratic way”, said Evgenia Chirikova, an environmental activist and leader of the Campaign for the Defence of the Khimki forest:

Alexander Cherkasov, a council member of the civil rights society Memorial, and Ella Kesaeva, co-chair of Voice of Beslan, highlighted the culture of impunity related to the Chechnya war and the Beslan school siege in 2004. “Everyone in the North Caucasus now believes that you cannot find justice in the court rooms,” said Ella Kesaeva.

Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis, said the number of hate crimes that go unpunished had fallen since 2008, however mass media, activists and religious groups were facing numerous problems because of the anti-extremist legislation

“In the months following Putin’s return to the presidency, much will depend upon the country’s civil society and the protest movement’s leaders,” says Kasyanov, co-founder of the opposition Party of People’s Freedom:

Russians must persevere and formulate a set of specific political demands. They must insist upon real and dramatic changes — not superficial, cosmetic improvements — to the political system. The main objective now is to strive for free and fair elections that will ultimately lead to a legitimate and responsible government.

Burundi’s opposition parties in peril

Given Burundi’s political impasse and following the EU’s denunciation of the country’s discouraging human rights record, Nancy Welch revisits Burundi’s predicament and the challenges facing the country’s opposition political parties.

Following turbulent general elections in 2010, Burundi has inched ever closer to a slippery slope of conflict that defined years past and left the once-ethnically polarized country on its knees. While some observers considered the 2010 elections to represent a breakthrough in Burundi’s political evolution, a rather different narrative presents itself when considering the conduct following the elections of Burundi’s political parties. As described in the EU’s 2010 electoral observation final report, Burundi’s political parties faced internal divisions, lacked financial resources, and suffered indiscipline prior to the elections. Since the elections, those debilities have grown, particularly among Burundi’s opposition parties, and now threaten to jeopardize their legitimacy and permanence, and in turn, undermine the practice of multiparty politics in Burundi more generally.

Of Burundi’s 44 registered political parties, seven opposition parties won seats in the May 2010 communal elections, the process and results of which several of Burundi’s main opposition parties disputed. 12 such parties formed the Alliance of Democrats for Change (ADC-Ikibiri), which boycotted subsequent legislative and presidential elections, allowing the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) and opposition party National Unity and Progress Party (UPRONA) to win the majority of legislative seats. Incumbent President Nkurunziza won a virtually uncontested bid for reelection with a landslide 92% of the vote.

Following ADC-Ikibiri’s protests and the ruling party government’s dismissal of the coalition’s boycott as illegal, the government placed restrictions on opposition party members’ freedom of movement and association. Dozens of opposition party members were arrested and affiliates of both the ruling and opposition parties were found murdered. Fearing a similar fate, several opposition leaders Agathon Rwasa (National Forces for Liberation, FNL), Alexis Sinduhije (Movement for Solidarity and Democracy, MSD) and Pancras Cimpaye (Front for Democracy in Burundi, FRODEBU) fled into exile.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and various Burundian NGOs have produced considerable documentation on politically-motivated crimes committed by government security services and other government representatives during and following the elections. Such documentation reveals the ruling party government’s systematic persecution of opposition party members and affiliates, not to mention civil society activists, journalists (also see) and lawyers. At the same time, evidence is mounting that implicates several opposition party leaders and laymen in efforts to wage an armed rebellion against the Burundian state. Reports of such activity surfaced in late 2010-2011, some of which the UN Group of Experts (GOE) on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) substantiated in a report published last December. The GOE’s interviews of FNL combatants, arrested rebel collaborators, and independent sources reveal that elements of FRODEBU, FNL and MSD have recruited over 500 combatants from South Kivu and Burundian refugee camps in Tanzania, and that FNL militants have collaborated with notoriously predatory rebel groups in South Kivu such as the Mai Mai Yakutumba. The GOE cites a number of opposition political party leaders at the rebellion’s helm, including Agathon Rwasa (FNL), Pancras Cimpaye (FRODEBU), Leonard Nyangoma (National Council for the Defense of Democracy, CNDD), and Pascaline Kampayano (Union for Peace and Development, UPD).

Among the report’s most striking revelations were those incriminating Alexis Sinduhije, MSD’s 2010 presidential candidate, a 2004 Committee to Protect Journalists International Press Freedom Award winner, and one of TIME magazine’s ‘most influential people in the world’ in 2008. Four mid-level officers in the FNL told the GOE that Sinduhije was responsible for raising funds and moral support for an armed rebellion of which he is purported to be one of the leaders. During a meeting in Dar es Salaam in August 2011, opposition affiliates say that ADC-Ikibiri’s political leadership recognized Sinduhije’s “overall leadership” of the rebellion. According to FNL members, Sinduhije has successfully supplied South Kivu-based FNL combatants with funding, which has been supplemented by the FNL’s sale of gold and hardwoods extracted illegally from the DRC.  The GOE may be overly optimistic regarding the veracity of testimonies by Burundian security and intelligence services whose downplaying of the rebellion corresponds with government officials’ attempts at face-saving with frightened rural citizens and cautious international donors; however, the GOE acquired telephone recordings from the Burundian police that expose Sinduhije offering to pay a collaborator’s bail and ordering him to flee – actions that may further corroborate his leadership role.

In an abrupt turn of events last month, the Burundian government requested Tanzanian officials to arrest Alexis Sinduhije based on information contained in the GOE’s report and shaky allegations that Sinduhije had murdered the director of the World Health Organization’s Burundi office. Lacking proof to substantiate the Burundi government’s claims, Tanzania released Sinduhije who is said to have traveled to Uganda following his release.

Although Sinduhije is still referred to as a “political activist” and ADC-Ikibiri continues to be politically engaged at some level, opposition party leaders’ alleged support of armed rebellion has damaging implications. In a country where a great number of government officials and institutions lack legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Burundians and where opposition political parties, media and civil society constitute the only remaining counterweights to a progressively monoparty state, opposition parties will be more effective counterweights by renouncing thuggery for which the ruling party government is well-known. Counterparts are right to emphasize the need for greater oversight over the police and empowerment of Burundi’s newly created National Independent Human Rights Commission; all the same, political parties must make commensurate institutional adjustments by disempowering militant elements in favor of members committed to peaceful political engagement and ultimately, democratic progress. Opposition parties will better serve their institutional and ideological interests by resisting the urge to take up arms, thus restoring their legitimacy among citizens and government reformers alike. Without such legitimacy, opposition parties’ calls for improved governance and increased political space will increasingly fall on deaf ears. While opposition political parties removed from the armed struggle might normally fill the void of rebellious counterparts, a few such parties are experiencing institutional disorder of their own. By all accounts, opposition political parties will have to ­­­­clean up their act if they seek to effectively counteract their government’s ongoing abuse of power and repressive political reforms.

While its depiction of the Burundian government’s pursuit of political inclusivity warrants circumspection, the World Bank asserts wisely that “while there is cautious optimism after the elections, it remains necessary for national, regional and global partners to help consolidate peace and secure the development gains built over the past ten years.” If Burundi’s political parties fail to renovate themselves and government hardliners continue to erode political liberties, civil society, the media, and Burundi’s few remaining reform-minded politicians may be the country’s only hope of keeping its democratic consolidation ‘torch’ aflame.

Xinjiang violence follows ‘systematic repression’, say Uyghurs

At least 20 people have been killed in violent attacks in China’s ethnically fractious region of Xinjiang, according to reports.

Following recent unrest in Tibetan areas, the Uyghur region of Xinjiang has seen a fresh outbreak of violence, with the most recent riot erupting in Yechang county: China Digital Times reports

Although there are no official reports about what triggered the violence, there is speculation that the most recent riot was a result of allegations of discrimination and marginalization of Uighurs. China also has claimed that it faces the threat of organized terror by radical Muslim groups in Xinjiang.

The violence in Yechang — called Kargilik by Uyghurs — broke out because locals “could no longer bear China’s systematic repression,” said Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress:

He said local Uighurs told him seven armed Chinese security personnel were killed and that three people were shot to death. He said two more people were killed but did not provide any detail of those deaths. He said 10 people were injured, including two seriously hurt, and that police have detained 84 people. Police have sealed off the area, he said.

The government has failed to win over Uighurs and other ethnic minorities through policies to boost economic growth and incomes as it increases police presence and controls religious practices to deter displays of separatism. China’s ethnic Tibetan regions have also been unsettled in recent months by scattered demonstrations and clashes with authorities, as well as self-immolations in protest against the government’s policies.

Censors blocked postings about the attack on microblogs. Searches on Sina Corporation‘s popular Weibo service returned the message: “In accordance with relevant laws, regulations and policies, ‘Xinjiang Yecheng’ search results were not shown.”

China Digital Times adds:

No details were given about what might have set off the violence, although Xinjiang see periodic outbreaks of anti-government violence by restless members of the region’s native Turkish Muslim Uighur ethnic group.

The Xinhua News Agency said rioters armed with knives attacked victims in Yecheng county outside the city starting overnight. They killed 10 people and police shot and killed two assailants, the report said. Xinhua said police were chasing others involved in the attacks but did not say how many suspects there were.

The report could not be independently confirmed. Chinese authorities maintain tight control over information and the circumstances surrounding such incidents are often murky. Reports of violence in the region are not new, as there have been persistent reports of outbreaks of violence. The Guardian adds:

Censors have begun blocking internet searches for Yecheng and Kashgar. Searches for both Yecheng county and Kashgar on the news service Sina’s Weibo microblog brought only a message saying results could not be shown due to regulations.

Microbloggers have often been quick to spread eye-witness accounts of disasters, accidents and other politically-sensitive events.

Almost 200 people died, mostly thought to be from China’s majority Han Chinese ethnic group, and 1,700 were injured when riots erupted in Urumqi in July 2009. Fighting broke out between Uighurs and migrant Han workers and buses were overturned and set on fire. Vicious assaults on Han were followed by revenge attacks on Uighurs.

Southern Xinjiang saw three outbreaks of violence in July 2011, according to state media. A group of Uighurs was said to have stormed a police station in Hotan, taking hostages and killing four. On 30 and 31 July, another Uighur group in Kashgar hijacked a truck, set a restaurant on fire and stabbed people in the street, state media reported. Chinese authorities say police shot 14 attackers in Hotan and five in Kashgar, but exile groups have disputed those accounts.

Read more about Xinjiang protests via China Digital Times, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Putin, Khodorkovsky warn Russia’s opposition ahead of poll

Credit: RFE/RL

A leading Russian opposition figure could be killed following Sunday’s presidential election, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned today, claiming that his opponents may ‘sacrifice’ one of their own in an attempt to foment unrest. In a reciprocal caution, imprisoned former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky (above) advised opposition groups to beware of provocateurs striving to divide and discredit the protest movement.

“They are looking among well-known people for a sacrificial victim,” Putin said during a televised meeting with supporters. “They could, I’m sorry, knock someone off and then blame the authorities.”

Throughout his campaign, Putin has employed nationalist rhetoric in alleging that foreign forces are plotting to undermine Russian sovereignty and that the U.S. is funding the democratic opposition.

Khodorkovsky warns that “professional provocateurs” may try to discredit the anti-Putin protest movement by advocating more radical or violent tactics akin to “storming the Kremlin.” 

The revived opposition has shattered the “myth” of Putin as a guarantee of stability and changed the balance of power, he writes in the Kommersant daily newspaper. Reforms to party registration and governors’ elections due to take effect in May could become “a catalyst of a change of political generations,” he argues.

Khodorkovsky outlines seven priorities for the opposition to maximize current political opportunities:

  • Exclude radical scenarios, which discredit the idea of mass protest and play into the hands of Putin’s circles;
  • Avoid organizers of mass protests breaking into “competing firms,” which the Kremlin is also waiting for;
  • Continue mass actions;
  • Go to elections on 4 March and try to get the second round;
  • Limit itself to two or three new parties that would replace the old ones, not to create dozens of new parties;
  • Participate in governors elections in Russian regions;
  • Use the potential of formal and informal members of the Putin team who understand the necessity of change and that the main candidate for presidency is not always right.

The Kremlin has been “taken aback by the degree of opposition,” says Andrew Wood, a former British ambassador to Moscow.

Even if Putin secures re-election to the presidency in March, “which one must assume that he will, it won’t necessarily mean he has strong and durable support,” said Wood, now a Russia expert at Chatham House, the London-based foreign policy think tank.