Islamic State’s expansion model

ISIS MEMRIISIS continues to pursue its expansion model in Libya, Sinai, and other hotspots, raising new challenges that differ from those posed by al-Qaeda’s past franchise approach, says a leading analyst.

The Islamic State announced several months ago that it was “annexing” territory in Algeria, Libya, Sinai, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, notes Aaron Y. Zelin, the Richard Borow fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But there is one key difference between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State’s model for expansion, he writes for The Washington Post:

Al-Qaeda wanted to use its new franchises in service of its main priority: attacking Western countries to force them to stop supporting “apostate” Arab regimes, which without the support of Western countries would then be ripe for the taking. This has only truly worked out with its Yemeni branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). On the other hand, while the Islamic State does not have an issue with its supporters or grassroots activists attacking Western countries, its main priority is building out its caliphate, which is evident in its famous slogan baqiya wa tatamaddad (remaining and expanding). As a result, it has had a relatively clear agenda and model: fighting locally, instituting limited governance and conducting outreach.

This post is part of the “Islamist Politics in the Shadow of the Islamic State” symposium.


Mimicking democracy to prolong autocracies?

twq-squareArticulating the shifting political dynamics of neo-authoritarian regimes is vital to understanding how and why post-Cold War autocracies have been so resilient, and for fashioning effective democracy assistance, argue analysts Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz.

Dictators who use pseudo-democratic institutions are not necessarily less repressive than their institution-free counterparts. Indeed, research has shown that these institutions do not lower overall repression levels, but instead enable autocrats to use repression in more targeted and less costly ways, they write for The Washington Quarterly:

Dictatorships with multiple parties and a legislature, for example, are more likely to use repression to target and punish specific opponents, but less likely to use it to indiscriminately restrict civil liberties. By increasing incentives to participate in the regime, these institutions provide dictators with an additional form of surgically targeted political control, enabling them to survive in office longer than their predecessors.

Given that elections, multiple political parties, and legislatures can be risky for autocrats, why do so many dictators allow them to function? they ask:

The most apparent reason is that these institutions bestow onto their leaders a facade of democracy that enables them to maintain international and domestic legitimacy needed in today’s day and age. Authoritarian incumbents have likely viewed the adoption of elections and the legalization of multiple parties as a means of acquiring international legitimacy and, in turn, attracting international aid and investment to keep their regimes afloat….

Savvy dictators are aware that institutional manipulation offers greater advantages and fewer liabilities than overreliance on traditional tactics like overt repression, which push compliance with the regime through brute force but risk creating popular discontent and/or focal points for mobilization that can easily be broadcasted to catalyze destabilizing civil unrest. The exclusive use of repression also requires dictatorships to allocate sufficient power to the security services, which may actually pose the greatest threat to their rule.

Best Offense Is a Good Defense

These dynamics have several implications for democracy assistance efforts, Kendall-Taylor and Frantz contend:

The proportion of dictatorships coming to power through institutionalized means has increased in recent years, raising the possibility that such newly formed autocracies may be particularly resilient. This suggests that strategies aimed at enhancing democratic consolidation in new or fragile democracies to avert the creation of already institutionalized—and therefore durable—authoritarian systems may be a particularly important approach. Employing tactics in new or fragile democracies that promote democratic consolidation—such as developing political parties that represent meaningful segments of society, strengthening civil society and other alternative centers of power outside of the executive—and reinforcing inclusive and participatory institutions could help prevent democratic backsliding and the formation of this resilient brand of autocracy.

Strategically Allocate Resources

Young autocracies are more likely than long-lived regimes to democratize. Institutionalized dictatorships that fall from power during their first decade democratize at a rate of 77 percent, they note:

After two decades in office, the chances of democratization fall to 60 percent. The data we presented above suggests this trend could be the result of a regime’s more effective use of institutions. As regimes mature, they become more adept at utilizing institutions to undermine alternative centers of power and entrench the elite. This implies that an autocracy like Venezuela, in power since 2005, is likely to be a better bet for democratization than one like Zimbabwe, in power since 1980.

Counteract Incumbent Tactics

Finally, identifying tactics to mitigate the specific ways in which incumbents are using pseudo-democratic institutions can mitigate their power-prolonging effect and reduce the prospects that autocracies will accumulate and trigger a global wave of de-democratization, the authors assert:

For example, as highlighted above, authoritarian incumbents are using elections to signal their dominance by spending and mobilizing state resources in the run-up to elections. Encouraging the opposition to participate in sub-national levels of government can enable these individuals to establish bases of support, access to resources, and relationships with current elite or other members of the opposition, which can help overcome an incumbent’s resource advantage. 


Discarding democracy: Freedom House finds ‘disturbing’ global decline


Global freedom suffered a “disturbing” decline over the past year, according to a leading democracy watchdog. An upsurge in terrorist violence and increasingly aggressive tactics by authoritarian regimes had led to “a growing disdain for democratic standards” across nearly all regions, says the annual report of U.S.-based Freedom House.

“In a year marked by an explosion of terrorist violence, autocrats’ use of more brutal tactics, and Russia’s invasion and annexation of a neighboring country’s territory, the state of freedom in 2014 worsened significantly in nearly every part of the world,” writes Arch Puddington, the group’s Vice President for Research.  

For the ninth consecutive year, Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual report on the condition of global political rights and civil liberties, showed an overall decline. Indeed, acceptance of democracy as the world’s dominant form of government—and of an international system built on democratic ideals—is under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years, he notes:

FREEDOM HOUSE 2015Even after such a long period of mounting pressure on democracy, developments in 2014 were exceptionally grim. The report’s findings show that nearly twice as many countries suffered declines as registered gains, 61 to 33, with the number of gains hitting its lowest point since the nine-year erosion began.

This pattern held true across geographical regions, with more declines than gains in the Middle East and North Africa, Eurasia, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and the Americas, and an even split in Asia-Pacific. Syria, a dictatorship mired in civil war and ethnic division and facing uncontrolled terrorism, received the lowest Freedom in the World country score in over a decade.

The one notable exception to the lack of democratic gains was Tunisia, which became the first Arab country to achieve the status of Free since Lebanon 40 years ago, Puddington adds:

By contrast, a troubling number of large, economically powerful, or regionally influential countries moved backward: Russia, Venezuela, Egypt, Turkey, Thailand, Nigeria, Kenya, and Azerbaijan. Hungary, a European Union member state, also saw a sharp slide in its democratic standards as part of a process that began in 2010. 

Overlooked autocrats

While some of the world’s worst dictatorships regularly made headlines, others continued to fly below the radar, the report continues:

Despite year after year of declines in political rights and civil liberties, Azerbaijan has avoided the democratic world’s opprobrium due to its energy wealth and cooperation on security matters. Vietnam is also an attractive destination for foreign investment, and the United States and its allies gave the country special attention in 2014 as the underdog facing Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. But like China, Vietnam remains an entrenched one-party state, and the regime imposed harsher penalties for free speech online, arrested protesters, and continued to ban work by human rights organizations. Ethiopia is held up as a model for development in Africa, and is one of the world’s largest recipients of foreign assistance. But in 2014 its security forces opened fire on protesters, carried out large-scale arrests of bloggers and other journalists as well as members of the political opposition, and evicted communities from their land to make way for opaque development projects.

Finally, while several countries in the Middle East—most notably oil-rich Saudi Arabia—receive special treatment from the United States and others, the United Arab Emirates stands out for how little international attention is paid to its systematic denial of rights for foreign workers, who make up the vast majority of the population; its enforcement of one of the most restrictive press laws in the Arab world; and its dynastic political system, which leaves no space for opposition.


Putin’s preemptive counter-revolution ‘built on shaky foundations’

putin“Read our history: the Russians will never give up their leader. We will tighten our belt, eat less food, suffer any privations, but if outsiders want to force changes on us, we will be united as never before,” Russia’s deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov told the World Economic Forum at Davos, the Daily Telegraph reports:

Mr Shuvalov said a utopian quest for freedom is the curse that brought down the Soviet Union. In a bizarre digression, he then launched into tirade against former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, accusing him of leading the country to destitution and collapse by opening up to western ideas.

“This freedom they are trying to impose on us, it is freedom from common sense, it is freedom of the media to insult anybody, to throw dirt in his face. That’s not freedom,” he said.

But Vladimir Putin’s regime is built on shaky foundations, says analyst Maxim Trudolyubov:

The desire to retain control compels such a leader to concoct a strange blend of nationalism and religion, subjugating all values and ideology to the higher purpose of ensuring his political survival. …..This system considers ideas in any form — unless they serve the needs of the regime — as mortal enemies. This even includes nationalism and fundamentalism. Leaders know that if any idea were to ”break free” from its Kremlin handlers and unite the masses under its banner, it could completely obliterate the political system as it now exists.

russia info warfarePutin’s Russia has no appealing ideology, such as communism, which helped the Soviet Union to survive for 74 years, notes Jonathan Adelman of the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies:

It has the profile of a Third World country, exporting primary goods and importing secondary and tertiary goods. Russia has already had four successful revolutions since 1917….Having lost 50 percent of its population in 1991, Russia has a $2 trillion economy, barely 14% the size of the American economy… Russia remains a kleptocratic authoritarian society without an independent judiciary, press freedom, or transition to democracy.

And yet, there is little likelihood that Putin will fold because he retains some key assets, Adelman adds:

Putin remains at a stunning 80% approval rating in Russia.  …Russia, with one of the five permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council, has a large-scale arsenal of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, equal to that of the United States. Russia spends $70b. on the military which, despite problems, remains the No. 3 military in the world. It has a reserve fund of nearly $90b. With almost a million scientists, technicians and engineers, Russia can place well in global defense technology.RTWT

Arguments that Putin’s regime represents a form of continuity with Russia’s cultural traditions, that it has a cultural DNA that transcends revolutions, or that this continuity works through national character do not withstand scrutiny, says Alexander Etkind, a professor of history at the European University Institute in Florence. Empires come and go, as do their traditions, he writes for Project Syndicate:

For every expansionist Czar, or commissar, from Catherine II to Putin, there have been leaders prepared to retreat. …The belief that Russians desire an authoritarian leader is also misplaced. To be sure, as 2015 begins, Putin’s approval ratings remain high (though they are no more reliable an indicator than Russian budget projections, political pronouncements, or gas deliveries). But, even if the polls are accurate, his popularity is largely irrelevant: dictators do not rule through a social contract, and neither his position nor his legitimacy derives from popular appeal.

Although anti-Americanism has become the centerpiece of Putin’s policies, his newest cultural offensive is targeting the European Union and the Head of its Permanent Mission to Russia, notes Michael Haltzel, Senior Fellow, Center for Transatlantic Relations of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies:

In mid-January the International Department of the Russian Ministry of Education and Science sent out a special letter to the country’s universities, asking to be notified about planned events involving staff members of the EU Mission to Russia.

Singled out for criticism was Ambassador Vygaudas Ušackas, the EU Mission Head in Russia. Under his leadership the EU has been holding a variety of public meetings called “European Schools” around the country, many of them at universities. Inevitably, uncomfortable topics like Ukraine have come up for discussion.


How to save the new Ukraine

ukraine euA new Ukraine was born a year ago in the pro-European protests that helped to drive President Viktor F. Yanukovych from power, note philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, and investor-philanthropist George Soros. And today, the spirit that inspired hundreds of thousands to gather in the Maidan is stronger than ever, even as it is under direct military assault from Russian forces supporting separatists, they write for The New York Times:

The new Ukraine seeks to become the opposite of the old Ukraine, which was demoralized and riddled with corruption. The transformation has been a rare experiment in participatory democracy; a noble adventure of a people who have rallied to open their nation to modernity, democracy and Europe. And this is just the beginning.

It is instructive to compare Ukraine today with Georgia in 2004. When he became president that year, Mikheil Saakashvili immediately replaced the hated traffic police and removed the roadblocks used to extort bribes from drivers. The public recognized straight away that things had changed for the better….., Mr. Saakashvili was a revolutionary leader who first stamped out corruption but eventually turned it into a state monopoly. By contrast, Ukraine is a participatory democracy that does not rely on a single leader but on checks and balances. Democracies move slowly, but that may prove an advantage in the long run.

“Unfortunately, just as democracies are slow to move, an association of democracies like the European Union is even slower. Mr. Putin is exploiting this,” they note.

Strategic Patience

ukraine euromaidan“Right now, yes, most European leaders do appreciate the scale of the problem [of Russia’s military build-up],” says Keir Giles, an expert at London’s Chatham House foreign policy think tank.

“European leaders come and go. And Russia benefits from a continuity of leadership and also from strategic patience, which none of its adversaries can match.”

A Ukrainian female army pilot may die in detention in Russia where she is on hunger-strike, her lawyer said on Monday, calling on President Vladimir Putin to release her, Reuters reports (HT: FPI).

What is at stake in Ukraine is the future of NATO and the stability and security of Europe, analyst Andrew Michta writes for The American Interest:

It’s true that since Ukraine is in Europe’s neighborhood the United States has the right to expect greater determination from Berlin, London, and Paris to stop Russia’s war. But it is only partially true. Ukraine is our common problem as an alliance. This is about the growing threat of a wider war in Europe. It’s time for Washington and its European allies to act accordingly.

What does future hold for Donbas?

This past weekend’s intensified fighting and shelling in southeastern Ukraine, from Donetsk to Mariupol, escalated the Ukraine crisis to a new level. As more people die, political negotiations and eventual diplomatic compromise look less and less likely. What, under these circumstances, does the future hold for Donbas? Carnegie Moscow Center asks:

Alexey Malashenko, Scholar in residence, Carnegie Moscow Center’s Religion, Society, and Security Program

The status of Donbas remains uncertain. Russia still insists that it is in favor of the region being part of Ukraine. However, Russian politicians and, of particular importance, President Vladimir Putin himself, already refer to Lugansk and Donetsk as republics rather than regions. In other words, their statements demonstrate that they effectively consider the regions to be state-like entities.

Still, it’s not viable for Russia to implement the Abkhazian scenario in Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR). …. Donbas is to remain an instrument of Russian politics for a long haul…..the defeats in Donbas might be used to expose Kyiv’s military and political weakness to Ukrainians and point to the fact that Ukraine has no allies in the West that are prepared to take extreme steps on its behalf. …

Balázs Jarábik, Visiting scholar, Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment

Donbas is in a downward spiral. With Russia’s support, the conflict has been worsening: …. Kyiv have been able to mobilize their constituents using nationalistic wartime propaganda. Kyiv is caught between a rock (austerity/reforms) and a hard place (war), and will have a difficult time justifying social welfare cuts to the Ukrainian people and lack of reforms to the IMF. The recently introduced state of emergency in Donetsk and Lugansk regions taken together with the ongoing mobilization indicates that Kyiv has decided to take up the military challenge. The battle for Debaltsevo will be the first test of how solid—and efficient—its efforts are.

Andrei Kolesnikov Member of the board, Yegor Gaidar Foundation

It’s clear that Donbas has joined the ranks of the unrecognized republics like South Ossetia. Each case is different, of course, but the typology of such quasi-state formations is almost identical.

Donbas is headed for a protracted existence in the state of a “frozen conflict”….. RTWT

Ukraine’s struggle for democracy, independence, and territorial integrity has consequences for the whole world, The National Endowment for Democracy’s Carl Gershman writes:

And it’s why the US has a profound stake in its success. By standing with Ukraine, we are not merely supporting their struggle. We are also defending our own national security and advancing the values of human freedom that America, with all its troubles, continues to represent, he argues in World Affairs.