2014: year of the dictator?

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Freedom House

Recent trends and events of the past year indicate that the engine of democracy has run out of steam, argues Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, and author of The Twilight of International Human Rights Law.

Probably the most striking examples are the advance of authoritarianism in two relatively wealthy and modern-seeming democracies, Turkey and Hungary, he writes for Slate:

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has jailed political opponents and harassed the media. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban says he wants to create an illiberal state modeled on Russia and Turkey.

Russia, which lumbered toward democracy in the 1990s, has become an increasingly authoritarian place. ..China’s authoritarian system is increasingly admired throughout the developing world. The government has managed to maintain order (the country is enviably safe) despite wrenching economic and social change. Since the size of China’s economy surpassed that of the United States earlier this year, it will become increasingly hard to maintain that democracy is necessary to economic development. ..President Raúl Castro has made clear that he plans to maintain Cuba’s authoritarian system while working on economic reform, along the lines of the China model. The cheering from Venezuela and other parts of Latin America expresses the relief felt by leftist authoritarians who see that if the United States can tolerate an undemocratic Cuba, it will have no grounds for criticizing authoritarianism in their countries.

“For quite some time, U.S. foreign policy has been based on the assumption that we should promote democracy,” Posner notes:

The seemingly relentless rise of democracy made this approach seem reasonable, and perhaps it sometimes was. But much of the flowering of democracy took place in Western countries, or countries that inherited Western institutions and norms from Western colonizers. So advances in democracy that we attributed to our own benevolent influence probably reflected deeper-seated historical and cultural factors over which we have no control. It may well be that democracy has reached its limits.


Is U.S. ‘shortchanging its commitment’ to advancing democracy?

carotherscolormedium8U.S. assistance to advance democracy worldwide has shrunk by 28 percent during Barack Obama’s presidency and is now less than $2 billion per year, says a leading authority. The decline has been especially severe at the U.S. Agency for International Development, which traditionally funds the bulk of U.S. democracy assistance, notes Thomas Carothers, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. USAID spending to foster democracy, human rights and accountable governance abroad has fallen by 38 percent since 2009, he writes for The Washington Post:

The drop-off affects almost every region to which such aid is directed. It has been largest in the Middle East — a startling 72 percent cut that came just as much of the Arab world attempted a historic shift toward democracy. In Africa, a 43 percent decline has left a paltry $80 million for democracy work for the entire continent outside of Liberia and South Sudan. Overall, the number of countries where USAID operates dedicated democracy programs has fallen from 91 to 63.

To grasp just how unimpressive the U.S. commitment to aiding democracy abroad has become, consider this: Leaving aside Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, USAID spending on democracy, rights and governance in fiscal 2014 — $860 million — totaled less than what just one U.S. citizen, George Soros, spends annually to foster open society globally … The main aid agency of the country that prides itself on being an unmatched force for democracy cannot even match the financial commitment of one of its citizens?

Supporting democracy, human rights and better governance more substantially and effectively will not produce instant solutions, Carothers writes:

But patiently and seriously pursued, such aid can be a crucial part of the longer-term solutions we seek. Troubled though our democracy can seem at home, our society still enjoys its unique stability and security thanks to its pluralistic, open political system rooted in democratic accountability and the rule of law. That formula remains the right one for our pursuit of stability and security abroad.


Cambodia: drop ‘insurrection’ charges against opposition

cambodia acilsCambodian authorities should drop politically motivated “insurrection” charges against 11 opposition party activists, Human Rights Watch said today:

On December 25, 2014, the Phnom Penh municipal court will hold a trial of members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) for their alleged role in a July 15 demonstration. The “insurrection” prosecutions are part of the government’s ongoing use of arbitrary arrests, intimidation, and violence to pressure the country’s political opposition into dropping demands for electoral and other reforms, Human Rights Watch said. “The government’s prosecution of the 11 activists is a breathtakingly cynical act of political vindictiveness against the already besieged Cambodian opposition,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Cambodia’s foreign donors should press the government to immediately drop the spurious charges against the activists.” The charges stem from violence during a demonstration on July 15 organized by senior CNRP officials, including several then-members elect of the Cambodian National Assembly, at Phnom Penh’s Democracy Plaza (also known as Freedom Park). …. The government had closed the area to the public as part of a wider crackdown on CNRP protests against the official results of a July 2013 national election, which was neither free nor fair, and which returned Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to power. ….Cambodia’s Penal Code defines “insurrection” as a form of “collective violence that could lead to endangering institutions of the Kingdom” or “lead to an adverse effect on the integrity of the nation’s territory.”

“Hun Sen may be hoping that holding this trial on Christmas Day will blunt international criticism of what is a politicized witch-hunt with a judicial veneer,” Kine said. “Cambodia’s foreign donors should tell the government that its manipulation of the security forces and the judiciary to undermine the opposition is as unacceptable as it is transparent.”

Azerbaijan cracks down on independent voices

azerb Ilgar NasibovThe current crackdown on independent voices in Azerbaijan is unprecedented. Although the country has long held a poor record on human rights, the precipitous decline in recent months has halted the work of Azerbaijan’s brave and resilient civil society. Arrests, detentions, and media smear campaigns against independent activists have become a regular occurrence, and now have reached the country’s most prominent journalists and human rights defenders. This harsh rhetoric and the larger crackdown on civil society set a dangerous precedent and are reverberating throughout the region. Azerbaijan’s deepening repression is being watched carefully by other regimes in the neighborhood that are beginning to implement similarly repressive measures in their own countries.

azerbaijan dissidents2There is more than one motivation behind this crackdown, which is a response to domestic and international factors. There were several instances of grass roots protests over social issues in the winter of 2013 that demonstrated considerable popular frustration with corruption and social inequality. In the presidential election in the fall of 2013 the opposition united behind a single candidate demonstrating a degree of organization and cohesion among opposition forces that had not existed in the past. The crackdown against civil society started as a response to these factors but grew in intensity over the course of 2014.  

The anti-corruption revolution in Ukraine has contributed to the Azerbaijani government’s continued sense of insecurity and the growth of Russian propaganda and influence in the region provides legitimation for Azerbaijan’s crackdown. Although Azerbaijan continues to work closely with some European institutions, especially the Council of Europe, international institutions have largely proven unwilling or unable to hold Azerbaijan to its democratic commitments. Calls for sanctions against Azerbaijan from intergovernmental organizations, civil society organizations, and prominent individuals are mounting as Azerbaijan fails to fulfill its international commitments.  

In this panel, Altay Goyushov, Audrey Altstadt, Catherine Cosman, Thomas Melia, and Miriam Lanskoy will examine the domestic and international dimensions of this crackdown, as well as the implications it will have for the future of Azerbaijan, and the region.

The International Forum for Democratic Studies

at The National Endowment for Democracy 

cordially invites you to a presentation entitled 

The Crackdown on Independent Voices in Azerbaijan 


Altay Goyushov

Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow, National Endowment for Democracy

Professor of Turkic History, Baku State University 

Audrey Altstadt

Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Professor of History, University of Massachusetts, Amherst 

Catherine Cosman

Senior Policy Analyst, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom 

Thomas O. Melia (invited)

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

United States Department of State 

with comments by 

Miriam Lanskoy

Director of Russia and Eurasia Programs, National Endowment for Democracy 

moderated by 

Christopher Walker

Executive Director, International Forum for Democratic Studies 

Monday, January 12, 2015 12:00–2:00 p.m.

(light lunch served from 12:00–12:15 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 Thursday, January 8

at http://crackdowninazerbaijan.eventbrite.com.



Livestream of the event will be available here.

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

Cuba ‘has given little, gained a lot’

cubaPayá_&_Cepero_II_Aniversario_SMALL_02The U.S. will continue to press for democracy in Cuba, President Barack Obama insists. But the daughter of a well-known Cuban dissident who died under mysterious circumstances two years ago believes that the Cuban people “are being ignored” in the new shift in U.S. policy which also ignores the abuses of Cuba’s ally Venezuela, Buzzfeed reports:

“The government of Obama is in some way rewarding the Cuban government for the release of the hostage,” said Rosa María Payá, the daughter of Oswaldo Payá. Payá was a Cuban activist who opposed the Castro regime and won the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for his petition calling for free multiparty elections. “There is something paradoxical about this. The Obama administration has right now on [Obama’s] desk the deal passed in the Congress asking for sanctions against the Venezuelan government. And the Venezuelan government is very influenced by the Cuban government.”

Other observers suggest that if the embargo is to disappear, so should Cuba’s dictatorship.

Raul Castro, 83, has said he will step down in 2018. His ailing older brother is 88 and virtually absent from public life, The Washington Post reports:

Miguel Diaz-Canal, the 54-year-old vice president who would be in line to replace him, remains very much in the shadow of the Castros and their circle of aging army generals ….But if tensions with the United States ease, Cubans will increasingly look inward at the shortcomings of their anachronistic system and Soviet-style planned economy.

“I want to see who they blame now for the economic collapse and lack of freedoms that we have in Cuba,” dissident activist Yoani Sanchez wrote on Twitter.cubayoani

But other Cuban dissidents are more critical of a deal which threatens to bolster the regime.

“For a government that denies economic freedom and property rights it seems clear that the changes proposed will first benefit the state apparatus,” said Jose Daniel Ferrer, leader of the Cuban Patriotic Union dissident group in Santiago, the island’s second largest city. “Only in the medium or long term will we know the effect on the Cuban people.”

The deal was also a major propaganda boost for the ruling Communist Party.

“Getting the rest of the Cuban Five back has been a huge priority for Raúl Castro,” Julia Sweig, director of Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Slate:

cubayoanipicThere are two more looming factors guiding Raúl Castro’s thinking. One is that the 83-year-old leader plans to step down in 2018, meaning the country will not be governed by a Castro brother for the first time since 1959. ……

“I do think that they’re trying to lay the groundwork for a process of change in which they can keep their scalps and guide the country toward a more sustainable political system,” Christopher Sabatini, senior policy director and chairman of the Cuba Working Group at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, told Slate:

The other big factor at play here is the turmoil in Venezuela. The South American nation threw the tottering Cuban economy a lifeline during the regime of Hugo Chávez, providing the island with 100,000 barrels of oil per day. Today, in the aftermath of Chávez’s death and bruised by political turmoil and the plummeting price of oil, Venezuela’s economy is in chaos and the government is on the verge of defaulting on its debt.

cubazuela“You don’t need to be a capitalist to realize that Venezuela’s economy is in very dire straits,” said Sabatini, a former Latin America program director at the National Endowment for Democracy. “It’s getting worse literally by the day. So they’re going to lose that benefactor.”

The deal is a triumph of ideology over interests, according to Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“It is a fallacy that Cuba will reform just because the American President believes that if he extends his hand in peace that the Castro brothers suddenly will unclench their fists,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). “A majority of democratic activists on the island, including many that I have met with, have been explicit that they want the U.S. to become open to Cuba only when there is reciprocal movement by the Castro government.  They understand that the Castros will not accede to change in any other way,” he added:

Today’s policy announcement is misguided and fails to understand the nature of the regime in Cuba that has exerted its authoritarian control over the Cuban people for 55 years. No one wishes that the reality in Cuba was more different than the Cuban people and Cuban-Americans that have fled the island in search of freedom. In November, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights & National Reconciliation (CCHR) documented 398 political arrests by the Castro regime. This brings the total number of political arrests during the first eleven months of this year to 8,410. This is a regime that imprisoned an American citizen for five years for distributing communications equipment on the island. 

“In the medium and long term, this is a challenge for the Cuban system, because it undermines the climate of hostility that has long been used to justify one-party state,” said Arturo Lopez Levy, a former Cuban government analyst who now teaches at NYU.

No fundamental change has been made by Raul Castro in the effort to control expression of dissent in society in general. He is gaining quite a lot without yet making much change, a leading democracy advocate tells Deutsche Welle.

“Perhaps people in Cuba will get access to more information and freedom ,” says Mark P. Lagon, the incoming president of Freedom House. “But it is incumbent upon the United States to use a heightened diplomatic engagement with Cuba to press for basic freedoms there. This may give the Castro brothers a lifeline to continue in power and that would not be a good thing.”