Democracy aid at 25: time to choose?

jod.26.1carotherscolormedium8Over the past decade, a cascade of negative developments has called into question or even toppled assumptions about democracy and democracy aid that prevailed in the 1990s, notes Thomas Carothers, vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Democracy practitioners confront a daunting set of harsh new realities, he writes for the January 2015 Journal of Democracy. These include:

1) A loss of democratic momentum: The global stagnation of democracy is one of the most significant international political developments of the past decade. Democracy’s failure to keep expanding has hurt the democratic-assistance field in at least two ways.. …..

2) Closing of doors: When some governments that had previously allowed in significant amounts of prodemocracy aid began pushing back against it in the early 2000s, observers thought this might be a short-term phenomenon. ….

3) The troubles of Western democracies: The struggle of Western liberal democracy to maintain the unrivaled pride of place that it enjoyed in the 1990s also affects democracy aid. Democracy’s travails in both the United States and Europe have greatly damaged the standing of democracy in the eyes of many people around the world. ….

4) A feebler policy commitment: Of course, not all aspects of the international environment are unfavorable for democracy work. ….. Yet the headwinds buffeting democracy aid—the waning of global democratic momentum, the growing pushback against democracy aid, the damaged status of Western democracy, and rising competition from non-democracies—also influence many Western policy makers and add up to a further challenge: weakened commitment by the United States and other established democracies to making democracy support a foreign-policy priority.

Democracy aid has arrived not at a crisis, but at a crossroads, defined by two very different possible paths forward, Carothers contends:

  • Some democracy-aid providers facing the new environment will feel inclined to pull back, spend fewer resources, exit from difficult countries, trim their political sails, and avoid direct competition with contending models. In short, they will aim to reduce their risks, and their ambitions.
  • Others will favor a different path. They will accept that backsliding, closing political space, and greater competition are the “new normal” of democracy aid. They will invest more heavily in learning, accept the need to tolerate greater risks, work harder to achieve greater cooperation and solidarity among diverse democracy-aid providers, and argue more effectively for principled, persuasive prodemocracy diplomacy to support their efforts.


Red Notice: Putin’s apologists spread dangerous message


russia browderBill Browder’s Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder and One Man’s Fight for Justice is a sizzling account of his rise, fall and metamorphosis from bombastic financier to renowned human-rights activist, The Economist reports:

Born into a leftish academic household (his grandfather led the American Communist Party), he rebelled by turning to capitalism. …The book begins with Mr Browder’s surprise deportation from Moscow in late 2005. It was not the first sign that something was awry in Russia, but the first time it affected him. The intervention came directly from the FSB, the state security service. Russian officials then raided his offices, beat up someone who unwisely resisted them and confiscated documents….. But his downfall in Russia was the beginning of the story, not the end. Corrupt officials were interested in the fact that Mr Browder’s companies had been some of the country’s largest taxpayers. Using the stolen documents and a bewildering series of phoney lawsuits, they took over the companies and wiped out the previous year’s profits, allowing officials to reclaim the tax paid. The $230m refund, the largest in Russian history, was paid out in a single day.

All this would have remained a mystery, had it not been for the dogged efforts of Mr Browder’s Moscow tax lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who pieced together what was happening and began to seek redress.

The two central messages of the book are moving and simple, The Economist adds:

The first is that Mr Browder and his team have made Magnitsky’s fate into an international cause célèbre. The second is that the book exemplifies both the corrupt and brutal way in which the Putin regime does business at home and the cynical help it gets from foreigners when it launders profits abroad. RTWT

putins preventive counter revContrary to the claims of his Western apologists, the real sources of Putin’s recklessness are to be found not in Western diplomacy but in his terror of democratic revolution, argues Dr Robert Horvath, the author of Putin’s Preventive Counter-Revolution. As an uprising against a corrupt dictatorship, the Euromaidan represented an existential challenge to Putin’s rule, he writes:

The anti-Western hysteria raging in Russia’s state-controlled media is an integral part of the Putin regime’s anti-revolutionary strategy. For more than a decade, Kremlin propagandists have justified the suppression of democracy as the defence of the Russian nation against Western aggression. They have fabricated thousands of conspiracy theories about Western plans to provoke an anti-Putin uprising, dismember the Russian state, pillage its natural resources and enslave its population. They have created an entire literature devoted to exposing the West’s democratic ideals as a screen for global domination, the promotion of sexual perversion, and the crushing of disobedient peoples.

russia Yevgeny Vitishko vitishkoThose in the West trying to figure out how to resolve the situation in Ukraine without Putin losing face should be focusing on precisely how to “help him lose face and break his neck” at the same time, Aleksandr Skobov says (HT: Paul Goble):

A social-economic system has emerged in which “personal success is determined by status in a hierarchy which is in fact feudal and which gives access to the distribution of resources.” ….   “This system,” Skobov argues, “is camouflaged by decorative institutions of private property and the market.” …. That means that Russian elites feel threatened by “the very existence of much more successful and attractive societies in which all these institutions really work.”

Such a sense of being threatened underlies Putin’s ideology of anti-modern conservatism, and that in turn means that “the current opposition of Russia and the West bears a more fundamental ideological character that the opposition of the West and the USSR,” both of which offered “modernization projects.”

Freedom of speech in Russia is being defended only by those few who refuse to recognize state censorship, notes analyst Alexander Podrabinek. “Those who really need free speech pay for it. Those who only pay lip service to free speech comply with the demands of the censors,” he writes for The Institute of Modern Russia.

The Institute continues its series of articles dedicated to Russian political prisoners. This article is dedicated to the Krasnodar environmentalist Yevgeny Vitishko (above, left), who in 2012 faced charges in the “Tkachev’s dacha” case.

Region’s democracies have ‘abandoned’ Venezuela (but ex-leaders can play a role)

VZlacoaThe recent visit by three former Latin American leaders to Venezuela has not only helped draw attention to their assertion that the region’s democracies have “abandoned” the country, but has shown that former presidents can play a larger-than-expected role in pushing for democracy, analyst Andres Oppenheimer writes for The Miami Herald:

What was much more significant was that they forced their own countries’ governments to come to their defense…..The next show of support for Venezuela’s opposition should not be a visit by a group of three former presidents, but by a group of 30 or 40. Just as Maduro and all other leaders regularly meet with opposition politicians in the countries they visit, there is no reason why current or former Latin American leaders cannot do the same in Venezuela.

There are more than a half-dozen clubs of former democratic heads of state where former Latin American leaders are active, including the Club of Madrid, the Socialist International, the Centrist Democrat International, the Montevideo Circle and the Global Center for Development and Democracy.

Instead of putting out statements in support of democracy, which are read by very few, they should organize a massive visit to Venezuela in advance of this year’s legislative elections

vzla econstShortages are undermining support for the autocratic regime’s “21st-century socialist” experiment, especially among the poor, its intended beneficiaries, The Economist adds:

As queues lengthen across the country, there have been protests and some looting and violence. Fights break out, the strong snatch shopping from the weak and shots have reportedly been fired on occasion. Supermarkets have banned customers from photographing empty shelves, presumably under government pressure. Police have arrested journalists and charged them with disturbing the peace as they tried to report on food shortages. Several state governors have forbidden queuing overnight, perhaps sensing that it looks more shameful than when it happens during daylight.

In recent weeks, outsiders have called for greater attention to the crisis in Venezuela, notes Harold Trinkunas, Senior Fellow and Director for Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution’s Latin America Initiative.

Aside from the visit of former presidents of Colombia, Chile and Mexico visited Venezuela at the invitation of the opposition, he notes, separately, Chile has reminded the Venezuelan government that last year’s UNASUR mediation process was still available. However Chile’s offer was swiftly and decisively rebuffed by the Maduro administration, he writes:

The convergence of interests among states and institutions with a stake in restoring peace and prosperity to Venezuela suggests that there is a more conducive international environment in place to support needed measures. But even if these international actors did a better job of working in concert to encourage economic reform, contentious domestic politics in Venezuela remains an obstacle. Any successful reform will require that Venezuelans achieve a degree of political and social consensus that they do not presently possess. This means dim prospects for pulling back from the abyss, and an increased likelihood of further political and social turmoil in this troubled nation.


A former bodyguard to Diosdado Cabello, the powerful president of congress and a leader of Venezuela’s military wing, defected to the U.S. to cooperate with officials investigating drug-trafficking, Venezuelan authorities said, The Wall Street Journal reports (HT: FPI).

Changes needed to avoid unrest in Oman

carnegie menaThe uncertain health of the sultan of Oman has heightened concern about the future of the most personalized of all Gulf monarchies, notes Marc Valeri, director of the Center for Gulf Studies at the University of Exeter. Many Omanis have long equated the country with its ruler, Qaboos bin Said Al Said, who won their loyalty by building up a state and a national identity centered on himself, he writes for Carnegie’s Middle East Center. However, amid mounting popular frustration, criticism of Qaboos has emerged, as has anxiety about what will follow his reign. There are several measures the regime can undertake to avoid further unrest:

  • The Omani model of political legitimacy is intimately linked to Qaboos. But the country’s young population feels less indebted to the ruler, and an increasingly vocal civil society has been complaining about deep-seated flaws in the state he built after taking power in 1970.
  • In 2011 and 2012, most major towns saw peaceful protests by Omanis demanding higher salaries, better living conditions, substantial political reforms, and the end of corruption.
  • The regime responded with a combination of economic gestures, firings of some top officials, and the detention of peaceful activists. Since 2012, repressive measures have become more prominent, with new investments in the security sector and crackdowns on dissonant voices.
  • Political parties are prohibited in Oman and, despite some cosmetic reforms, nearly all power remains with the monarch.

Changes needed to avoid unrest

Oman’s leaders should recognize that the environment has changed. Young Omanis will not be willing to grant the next ruler the same degree of control that their parents granted Qaboos. Instead, Qaboos’s successor is likely to face renewed demands for reform.

Limits on civil society should be relaxed. Rather than actively harassing and repressing peaceful alternative voices, the regime should encourage civil society organizations, a step toward allowing some public participation in governance.

Answers to political uncertainties should be provided. The regime’s reluctance to appoint a prime minister or a crown prince with some executive powers and to prepare for a post-Qaboos Oman has only fueled popular anxiety over the perceived lack of a long-term economic and political vision for the country. If the current ruler does not provide answers to these questions soon, the uncertainty could provoke considerable turmoil in the event of Qaboos’s sudden demise.


Marc Valeri’s current research focuses on the social, political, and economic transformations in the Gulf monarchies as well as nation building and political legitimacy in the Sultanate of Oman since 1970.

Ukraine ‘like pre-WWII Poland’: as West wavers, Putin in it to win it

ukraine euA top U.S. official said Tuesday that the conflict in eastern Ukraine has become a battleground for a peaceful and free Europe, VOA’s Sharon Behn reports.

“We all know that today, a Europe whole, free and at peace rises or falls with Ukraine. Ukraine’s front line for freedom is ours as well,” Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland told a gathering at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

Stephen Sestanovich, an ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union, said overlaid onto a political fight between Moscow and Kiev is an increasing clash between Russia and NATO.

“That’s a longer and potentially more damaging conflict for all sides,” he told VOA. “Putin has convinced himself and now many Western leaders are convincing themselves that this is a kind of fundamental line of division in Europe and it’s not possible to go back,” said Sestanovich, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

What the West doesn’t understand about Putin is that he doesn’t think the West is as strong as the West thinks that it is, analyst Walter Russell Mead writes for The American Interest:

Putin thinks the West has fallen in love with its own prejudices and illusions, and that the imposing structures of the Western world, both NATO and the EU in particular, are hollow facades. Because of this, Putin believes, the West continually embraces foolish foreign policy choices. It overreaches and underresources its foreign policy, and the result is to create a series of opportunities that a hungry power like Russia cannot afford to ignore.

Former chess champion-turned human rights activist Garry Kasparov (right) kasparovcompares Putin to terrorist groups like the Islamic state, The Washington Post reports.

“Islamic State, Kim Jong Un [and] Putin are united in their recognition that the triumph of the free world — liberal democracy and market economy — destroys their power base,” he said. “Putin is the most dangerous among them, because he has nuclear weapons and an enormous amount of money.”

“Every time Western powers look for a compromise, Putin pushes harder. The U.S. is weakening its position by saying what it won’t do. If you want to stop him, tell him what you will do,” he says.

What the West should do is to provide lethal assistance to Ukraine, some suggest.

At the least, the Russian president wants to destabilize Ukraine to prevent Kiev from aligning with Europe and the west, says Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and co-author of an upcoming report on arming Ukraine.

He may have more expansive goals: keep a larger part of eastern Ukraine under Russia’s effective control, establish a land bridge to Crimea, or even create a new entity — Novorossiya — by dismembering Ukraine, he writes for The Financial Times:

What is certain is that Mr Putin has demonstrated no interest in ending the conflict or finding a workable political solution.

That reality must now inform western policy. Under current conditions, with Russia fuelling the fighting at will, diplomatic efforts focused on solidifying the Minsk ceasefire will fail. Only when the costs to Russia of its continued intransigence become too great will Mr Putin think about settling this conflict through negotiations. The question is how to increase those costs for Mr Putin.

ukraine euromaidanPutin is playing for keeps in Ukraine and he might bankrupt the country to get what he wants, analysts tell Bloomberg:

While Kremlin-backed rebels pressure the Ukrainian government, the U.S. and the European Union are contemplating tighter economic sanctions on Russia. Putin, however, seems emboldened in his belief that this is a showdown he must not and will not lose.

“Putin realized that he will never be in the West’s good graces and this makes him act more decisively,” Igor Bunin, director of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow, with ties to the Kremlin, said Tuesday by phone. “He started playing all in.” Russia is winning the battle for Ukraine, which is in the position of its neighbor Poland before World War Two, argues John Lloyd, Director of Journalism at Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. 

If Ukraine is in the position of a semi-abandoned victim, is Russia Nazi Germany? No. …Yet in one respect, there is a parallel. Putin appears to be moving beyond laws, even those of which he approves, he writes:

His press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, recently commented that “there are more important things than laws” — prompting Mikhail Fishman, Newsweek Russia editor , to write that Russia is sliding toward a situation like that in Iran, where a particular interpretation of Islamic morality and justice trumps all laws and government policy.

This “Islamization of justice,” writes Fishman, means that “even a public demonstration of legality” is dispensed with in a state that privileges “the archaic and fundamentalist idea that any alternative to the uniquely true point of view is intentionally amoral.”

There are signs that the conflict may derail Ukraine’s push for another $15 billion in aid, Bloomberg adds:

The government last week requested a four-year aid package. Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, told President Petro Poroshenko that she was ready to support a pact, though said in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde published on Jan. 26 that Ukraine “must have stability at its frontiers” for any hopes of economic recovery.

Such wavering is what Putin seeks, according to Alexander Valchyshen, chief economist at Investment Capital Ukraine.

“Every time Ukraine makes a step toward the West, escalation happens,” Valchyshen said.

“It’s very important for Putin to create as unfavorable a condition for Ukraine as possible,” said Anatoliy Oktysiuk, a senior political analyst at the International Centre for Policy Studies in Kiev. “The war will lead to further economic deterioration, undermining the government.”