Re-Thinking Democracy Promotion

The crisis caused by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the threat to freedom posed by kleptocratic autocracies. The world is watching how the democratic community of nations responds to Putin’s brazen attack not only against Ukraine but against the very concept of freedom and the ability of people to choose their own political destiny. Much is at stake, for authoritarian regimes pose a danger not only to their own populations through suppression of human rights but to others as well. This requires a re-examination of democracy promotion, the threats it faces, and how best to advance it.

Re-Thinking Democracy Promotion Amid Rising Authoritarianism

Monday, June 9, 2014 9:30 am – 5:00 pm Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Kenney Auditorium Paul H. Nitze Building 1740 Massachusetts Ave. NW Washington, DC 20036.

The conference is co-sponsored by Freedom House, The American Interest, and Johns Hopkins-SAIS.

To RSVP, please click here.

The inconvenience of history: Cold War containment won’t deter autocrats

George_F_Kennan_-_An_American_LifeIn an interview published in January, the FT’s Geoff Dyer notes, President Barack Obama downplayed the legendary American diplomat who was the architect of the Cold War policy towards the Soviet Union known as “containment”. “I don’t really even need George Kennan right now,” he told the New Yorker.

But his administration is now “retrofitting for a new age the approach to Moscow that was first set out by the diplomat George F. Kennan in 1947 and that dominated American strategy through the fall of the Soviet Union,” Peter Baker writes for The New York Times. He reports that President Obama plans to revise his Russia policy into “an updated version of the Cold War strategy of containment.”

“However, the problem for the administration if it starts to map out a long-term approach towards Russia is that the world is very different from 1947, when Mr Kennan first raised the idea of containment. The global economy is much more interlinked and political power more dispersed, making it harder to think about marginalizing an important country such as Russia,” notes Dyer.

“Tough sanctions will have some impact on Russia, but the idea of long-term global isolation is unrealistic,” says Tom Wright, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “If the administration tries to do that, it is unlikely to succeed in holding together an international coalition.”

The Obama administration believes that even the modest sanctions announced so far have had a broader impact on the Russian economy, including capital flight and currency weakness, and that over time Mr Putin’s actions will discourage investment in the country.

“A Russian government that does not respect territorial sovereignty could be one that does not respect other basic principles, such as contracts and rule of law,” says a senior administration official.

Nor are such ‘realist’ postures as engaging autocrats likely to deter ideologically-driven bad actors, says a leading commentator.

There was no reason to expect that the Ayatollah Khamenei would take Obama’s “extended hand,” but every reason to expect that he would crack down barbarically on stirrings of democracy in his society, Leon Wieseltier writes for The New Republic:

There was no reason to expect that Assad would go because he “must go,” but every reason to expect him to savage his country and thereby create an ethnic-religious war and a headquarters for jihadist anti-Western terrorists. There was no reason to expect Putin to surrender his profound historical bitterness at the reduced post-Soviet realities of Russia and leave its “near abroad” alone. There was no reason to expect that the Taliban in Afghanistan would behave as anything but a murderous theocratic conspiracy aspiring to a return to power. And so on. Who, really, has been the realist here? And what sort of idealism is it that speaks of justice and democracy but denies consequential assistance (which the White House outrageously conflates with ground troops) to individuals and movements who courageously work to achieve those ideals?

Putin’s march into Ukraine had two rationales, notes FT analyst Philip Stephens:

The first, a consequence of Moscow’s failure to coerce Kiev into a Eurasian union, was rooted in the 19th-century concept that Russian security depends on command of its near-abroad. The second was a calculation that European disunity and Mr Obama’s aversion to confrontation would blunt the international response….I am not suggesting that the US and its European allies should be reaching for their guns. But Washington could have assembled (and should still do so) a much stronger set of economic measures, including financial sanctions, as a demonstration of its determination to defend basic international norms of behaviour.


Eastern Ukraine: ‘a new pawn in Putin’s dangerous game’

Putins-InterestThe wave of patriotic jingoism which Putin is riding is unprecedented in Russia’s post-Soviet history, writes Peter Zalmayev, director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative (EDI), an international non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of democracy and rule of law in post-Communist transitional societies:

And yet, having unleashed the beast of 19th century-style politics of territorial expansion in the service of a unifying national narrative, Putin’s very survival depends on his ability to continue to feed it. Whether keeping this beast happy will involve gobbling up eastern Ukraine in the near future may not matter as much, considering that a dangerous precedent has already been set with Crimea, threatening to unravel the very fabric of the post-World War II order of international relations. And while the Kremlin likes to point to the US’ own adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria as having set that very precedent, they did not involve annexation of a sovereign country’s territory.

Russia may one day rue its Crimea adventure when, say, in 20 years, Beijing decides to send tanks across the border to Russia’s Far East, ostensibly to protect its Mandarin-speaking guest laborers there, who by then may number in the millions, he writes for Al-Jazeera.

In retrospect, the international compromise reached last week to calm tensions in eastern Ukraine seems like a vehicle for both sides to pursue their broader objectives, says Council on Foreign Relations analyst Stephen Sestanovich, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

U.S. President Barack Obama said Russia hasn’t abided by either the spirit or the letter of an agreement to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine, and he warned that the U.S. is prepared to impose additional costs. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required: HT – FPI)  

The Ukrainian interim authorities said Thursday that “civilian activists” had regained control of City Hall in the southeastern city of Mariupol, forcing pro-Russian protesters to leave without bloodshed. – New York Times

Clashes between Ukrainian security forces, local protesters and pro-Russia activists spread across the region Thursday, with fighting at an arms depot, a city hall and at checkpoints near the restive city of Slovyansk, where the “people’s mayor” threatened to protect his men with hostages. – Washington Post  

The promised Ukrainian military effort to reassert control over the restive eastern part of the country barely registered on Wednesday, but the Geneva agreement to defuse the crisis in the country frayed even further as the United States and Russia exchanged warnings and accusations of meddling in the region. – New York Times  

Russian oil and gas company Gazprom has billed Ukraine’s state-owned Naftogaz $11.4 billion for not importing the full amount of natural gas under a 2013 supply contract, Gazprom’s deputy Chief Executive Alexander Medvedev said Thursday, Interfax news agency reported. – Wall Street Journal (subscription required)  

The U.S. State Department said Wednesday that it is “deeply concerned” about reports that Vice News reporter Simon Ostrovsky has been kidnapped by pro-Russian separatists in the Slaviansk city of eastern Ukraine. – Washington Times  

Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland are planning to band together and form a joint military brigade, according to local media reports. – Washington Times  

  The death of a pro-Ukraine activist adds to a growing file of vigilante “arrests” and disappearances of politicians, activists and journalists – blamed on armed separatists – as law and order erode, the civic fabric frays, and fear of violence grows in Ukraine’s east. – Financial Times  

Ukrainian confectionery tycoon Petro Poroshenko has a chance of winning the May 25 presidential election in the first round, an opinion poll indicated on Wednesday. – Reuters

Sanctions must accompany Venezuela’s government-opposition dialogue

Vzla postchavez-300px-bannerViolence that began between the Venezuelan government and large segments of the opposition last February has now resulted in a dialogue between the opposing sides, says analyst Luis Fleischman.

The aggressive discourse of the pro-Maduro representatives casts serious doubts about the intentions of the government, he writes for The Americas Report. As we repeatedly pointed out, the Bolivarian regime has not been designed to give up power. It is a fully revolutionary regime and at the same time, it is a mafia state, to use the words of political scientist Ari Chapin.

Although there is much wishful thinking on the side of the opposition represented by the Mesa de Unidad (MUD) coalition, a group that includes most opposition parties, the future is far from certain…………..

The most significant shift has been the attitude of former Brazilian president Jose Inazio Lula Da Silva, who has always been, like his successor Dilma Rousseff, a strong apologist and enabler of the regime founded by Hugo Chavez. Yet, Lula issued surprising statements criticizing Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro for practicing political rhetoric instead of governing the country and dealing with the economic problems and the scarcity affecting the Venezuelan people. Although Lula did not make any reference to Venezuela’s political prisoners, the state of democracy or human rights, he praised the leader of the opposition MUD leader, Henrique Capriles, for resorting to dialogue and not acting in a radical extremist way…………….

Early in April Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary of the OAS, acknowledged at an event in South Florida that Venezuela is in a deep crisis and even if protests cease the crisis will continue, regardless. In a private conversation with others and me he acknowledged that Venezuela has violated human rights.

It is not clear how Lula and Insulza’s changed sentiments will influence the situation or if it will change anything but their respective statements were long overdue. Yet, they are very important, not because they are sufficient but precisely because they are a first step. If Venezuela has strategic importance to Brazil, it is more the case for the U.S. This is not because of the oil contracts or the oil supply but because Venezuela is a dangerous regime that declared it’s enmity to the U.S. In addition it is a rogue state that supports terror, as well as a narco-state, whose political and military elite is involved in drug trafficking. It is important for U.S. policy makers to recognize the fact that Venezuela, situated barely two hours away from Miami, is part of a geo-political security zone that affects our country’s security.

It would also be incumbent for the U.S. government to follow the Senate initiative of Senators Robert Menendez, Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson and the House initiative of Congresswoman Ileana Ros Lehtinen and apply sanctions at least on those individuals responsible for the repression in Venezuela.

Luis Fleischman is co-editor of The Americas Report and the author of the book, “Latin America in the Post-Chavez Era: The Security Threat to the United States.”


Towards a Free Media in Vietnam?


Every single newspaper, radio station, and television broadcast in Vietnam is officially controlled by the Vietnamese Communist Party or government. But thanks to social media and news outlets based outside the country, Vietnamese citizens are increasingly gaining access to independent sources of news.

Faced with a rapidly changing media landscape, Vietnam’s authorities rely on a combination of restrictive laws, Internet controls and outright repression to stifle the free flow of information. Vietnam is second in the world only to China in the number of jailed netizens. 

Given the economic impacts of a stifled Internet, online censorship is not only a human rights issue but increasingly a business issue. The business ramifications of Internet censorship have increasingly come to the forefront as the U.S. and Vietnamese governments negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). 

In marking World Press Freedom Day, join bloggers from Vietnam and other experts working to expand freedom of expression for a discussion on the challenges and opportunities in promoting a free media in Vietnam.

Confirmed speakers:

Vietnam-based bloggers and digital activists*

Le Thanh Tung (freelance journalist and digital activist)

Ngo Nhat Dang (freelance journalist and contributor to the BBC Vietnamese section)

Nguyen Dinh Ha (blogger and digital activist)

Nguyen Thi Kim Chi (actress, director and playwright)

To Oanh (blogger and former contributor to state-owned newspapers) 

Scott Busby, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Do Hoang Diem, Chairman, Viet Tan

Libby Liu, President, Radio Free Asia

Brett Solomon, Executive Director, Access

Meredith Whittaker, Program Manager, Google 

*Highlighting the challenges faced by Vietnam’s online community, Hanoi authorities blocked three of the invited activists from traveling: Pham Chi Dung, a writer and civil society advocate, had his passport arbitrarily confiscated in February and until now, has been banned from traveling; Nguyen Lan Thang, a blogger, was stopped at Hanoi Noi Bai Airport and prevented from boarding his flight on April 5; and Anna Huyen Trang, a citizen journalist for Vietnamese Redemptorists’ News, was stopped at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat Airport on April 13 and physically harassed by security police.

Date and time: Thursday, May 1st Time: 12:00 – 2:00pm (lunch will be served from 12:00 – 12:30pm) Location: Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St NW (Suite 300), Washington, DC. RSVP

The US State Department is “deeply concerned” by the Vietnamese authorities’ decision to uphold the conviction of human rights lawyer and blogger Le Quoc Quan to 30 months in prison on tax evasion charges. 

Quan was previously arrested in 2007 for three months on his return from a five-month Reagan-Fascell fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.