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.


Elections in context of political Islam and Russia’s crisis challenge Tajikistan stability

tajikistanAs Tajikistan approaches the March 1, 2015, parliamentary elections, it has to cope with critical challenges from political Islam and the economic consequences of Western sanctions against Russia. The parliamentary elections will pit the ruling People’s Democratic Party of Tajikistan against its longstanding adversary, the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), a moderate Islamic political party.  

After suffering protracted civil war in the 1990’s, the Tajik government and the IRPT signed a peace agreement – which made the IRPT the first and only Islamic party in Central Asia permitted to work lawfully and integrated into the political system. A few years later, however, a new crisis of confidence broke out, and the Tajik government has since sought to marginalize the IRPT. After the 2005 and 2010 elections, deemed not free or fair by the OSCE, the IRPT was allowed only two parliamentary seats despite its claims of winning a majority of the vote.  

Today, the Tajik government continues its effort to discredit the IRPT, portraying them to be as dangerous as the Taliban. Yet suppressing legal and moderate Islamic voices only fosters religious militancy, as more Tajiks join ISIS, and radical sentiments in the country increase.  

The International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy 

cordially invites you to a presentation entitled

 “Challenges to Stability in Tajikistan: Parliamentary Elections in the Context of Political Islam and Russia’s Economic Crisis” 

featuring tajik UmedBabakhanovUmed Babakhanov  (right)

Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow 

with comments by

David Abramson

U.S. Department of State  


Miriam Lanskoy

National Endowment for Democracy

moderated by

Sally Blair

International Forum for Democratic Studies 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015 3:00 p.m.–4:30 p.m. 1025 F Street, N.W., Suite 800, Washington, D.C. 20004 Telephone: 202-378-9675 RSVP (acceptances only) with name and affiliation by Friday, February 6

at http://challengestostabilityintajikistan.eventbrite.com.    

Twitter: Follow @ThinkDemocracy and use #NEDEvents to join the conversation.

During his presentation, Umed Babakhanov will discuss the history of political Islam in Tajikistan and the impact of Western sanctions on Russia on stability in Tajikistan, including the implications of these trends for the 2015 elections. His presentation will be followed by comments from David Abramson and Miriam Lanskoy.

Umed Babakhanov is founder and editor-in-chief of Asia Plus (news.tj), a leading independent media outlet operating in Tajikistan since 1995. Under Babakhanov’s direction, Asia Plus has emerged as one of the most reliable sources of information in the region, committed to strengthening the independent media sector and promoting dialogue through a range of media, including a news agency, newspaper, FM radio, and a business magazine. In 2012, he launched “For a Tolerant Tajikistan,” an initiative that seeks to foster greater understanding between secular state institutions and the Muslim community through discussions on the role of Islam in society. In 2000, he founded an independent school of journalism and served for ten years as its first chairman. Over the past 25 years, he has been writing for Komsomolskaya Pravda, the Associated Press, the Moscow Times, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Eurasianet, and other media, covering the civil war in Tajikistan and political developments in Central Asia. During his fellowship, Babakhanov is tracing the evolution of political Islam in Tajikistan and examining whether a legal Islamist party will improve the country’s stability or weaken its political foundations. David Abramson is a foreign affairs analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the U.S. Department of State. Miriam Lanskoy is the director for Russia and Eurasia at the National Endowment for Democracy.

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.

Rule of law – with Chinese characteristics

china rule of lawChinese authorities have detained former State Security Minister Zhou Yongkang on corruption charges and seized $14.5 billion in assets from the minister’s family and members of his inner circle, VOA reports.

“The Ministry of State Security, China’s internal intelligence agency, has been the recipient of huge amounts of money and political support,” said analyst Kerry Brown of the London-based Chatham House think tank. “The MSS, under the control of Zhou Yongkang, became a law unto itself. The MSS has had very little accountability.”

“As with other institutions affected by the anti-corruption purge,” Brown said, “the [leadership’s] strategy has been to take one or two individuals and to make an example of them. In this case, it has been Ma Jian…This is a sign that for the current anti-corruption campaign, no organization or entity is off bounds. The same goes for the military.”

The regime’s approach to rule of law illustrates that China’s elite wants democracy without the demos, says Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Chinese human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang talks to media in BeijingThe Chinese judicial system’s failure to release three high-profile key activists detained in recent months – public intellectual Guo Yushan, lawyer Pu Zhiqiang (right), and legal activist Guo Feixiong – reflects progressively harsher suppression of civil society, says Human Rights Watch:

There is no publicly available credible evidence of illegal behavior in any of their cases, yet all three are likely to advance in the coming weeks as judicial personnel handle these cases with instructions from Communist Party authorities. Over the past decade, the three have been at the forefront of China’s human rights movement, pushing officials for greater adherence to the law and devising new methods to advance their cause:

Guo Yushan, 38, founded two influential organizations in Beijing: the legal aid NGO Gongmeng in 2004, and a public policy think tank, the Transition Institute, in 2007. ….;

Pu Zhiqiang, 50, forged a unique path as a lawyer defending many sensitive and prominent free speech cases, including that of Ai Weiwei…. and

Guo Feixiong, 48, is best known for his work in 2005 aiding villagers in Taishi, Guangdong province, as they sought to remove the allegedly corrupt village leader from office. …..

“Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, the crackdown on dissent has netted some of China’s most respected critics known for their innovative activism developing the rule of law,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Prosecuting and imprisoning these well-established public figures indicates near-zero tolerance for independent activism.”

China analyst Nigel Inkster of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies said Xi’s corruption purge may be on shaky legal footing.

“So far things seem to be going Xi’s way,” he told VOA. “But he has gambled a lot on the success of this campaign which, however, suffers from the fact that it is not being pursued within a framework of rule of law…This may well be the hurdle at which it falls.”        

“The question remains to be whether Xi is taking a page from Chairman Mao,” said longtime political analyst Willy Lam with the Chinese University of Hong Kong, noting the three fallen leaders were all considered to be Xi’s political opponents. “Starting with Mao, corruption has been used to take down enemies of the more powerful faction,” he told CNN.

The Financial Times’ David Pilling and Julie Zhu report on arguments in Hong Kong over the term “rule of law.” Mainland officials such as ambassador Cui Tiankai have pushed an interpretation of the phrase which emphasizes public obedience, notes China Digital Times:

….as former Central Party School researcher Wang Guixiu told the South China Morning Post last year, “the public say it is about putting officials in check, while officials say it is about how to govern the public.” Prominent figures in Hong Kong’s legal community have recently urged its government to acknowledge its own obligations under rule of law as well as the public’s..[Source]

Read more from Stuart Lau at South China Morning Post.

At China Media Project, meanwhile, Qian Gang writes that an apparent “death sentence” on the phrase “judicial independence” presents “a worrying signal for rule of law” in China.


‘Revenge of the remnants’: double blow for Egypt’s democracy movement

egyptGeneral_Al_SisiThe two sons of ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak were released from prison Monday, nearly four years after they were first arrested along with their father, AP reports:

Security officials said the two, wealthy businessman Alaa and Mubarak’s one-time heir apparent Gamal, walked free from Torah Prison in a southern Cairo suburb shortly after daybreak and headed to their respective homes in the capital’s upscale Heliopolis suburb….Mubarak’s sons walked free a day after deadly clashes between anti-government protesters and police marked the fourth anniversary of the uprising that ended their father’s 29-year rule. That violence Sunday left at least 18 people dead, including two men authorities said died planting a bomb and three police officers, and wounded dozens.

There was a vocabulary to Egypt’s “January 25 Revolution” that swept President Hosni Mubarak from power, Ruth Michaelson reports for PRI:

At the center of it all was Tahrir Square or “Freedom Square” …. And there was a new global phenomenon described as a Facebook revolution because so many of the young, secular supporters of the pro-democracy movement had organized via social networking…..Amid all of this dramatic change and great uncertainty for Egypt, the name for the old Mubarak-era police, politicians and power brokers was the word “felool,” which is Arabic for “remnant.”

Even in those heady days when it seemed a new era was being ushered in, there were many Egyptians who believed it was only a matter of time before the “felool” would regain power and reassert its authority. The violent response to demonstrations Sunday on the fourth anniversary of the Tahrir protests illustrated just how intent the old guard is on using any means necessary to keep tight control over the country.

“Four years after the Egyptian uprising, the Egyptian government of Abdel el-Sisi is taking a page from a discredited past by resorting to violence and illegal arrests to crush dissent,” said Robert Herman, vice president for regional programs at Freedom House. “Egyptian authorities should focus their energies on instituting urgently needed political reforms rather than killing and detaining those who exercise their rights to advocate for democratic change.”  

Egypt is rated Not Free in Freedom in the World 2014, Freedom House’s annual global assessment of political rights and civil liberties, Not Free in Freedom of the Press 2014, and Partly Free in Freedom on the Net 2014.

In the wake of the French terrorist attacks by gunmen claiming to act in the name of Islam, remarks by Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi have drawn praise after he called on scholars at Al Azhar University to lead a “religious revolution,” notes the Foreign Policy Initiative’s Ellen Bork.

There is no reason to believe Sisi will create the atmosphere in which the religious reform he calls for could take place, she writes for World Affairs:

Sisi is overseeing a crackdown on the press and civil society, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and other religious groups. 

Rather than accept Sisi’s remarks at face value, Michele Dunne and Katie Bentivoglio, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, see them as part of an agenda to “align religious institutions with the military’s goals and narratives.” Far from seeking a liberal, or secular society, Sisi and his government persecute those who stand outside certain religious boundaries. Dunne (a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy) and Bentivoglio also note that although under strict government control, anti-Semitism in the media remains pervasive. RTWT