Why Russia can’t replace West with China

authoritarians xi-jinping-vladimir-putinRussia and China share similar interests and positions when it comes to energy, military, diplomacy and ideology but that doesn’t provide a foundation for a strong Moscow-Beijing alliance? says Yale University’s Christopher Miller.

“Both countries share ideological goals that are crucial to the maintenance of their domestic political systems,” he writes for the Moscow Times:

Both believe that autocracy is a legitimate form of governance and that talk of human rights threatens stability. Both insist that democracy — or “Western-style democracy,” as they often put it — is only fit for some societies and is not a universal aspiration. And both governments are deeply committed to countering attempts by the U.S., European countries and NGOs to promote political liberalization in other countries.

But the most important cause for skepticism about a stronger Chinese-Russian entente is that neither country is in a position to play a primary role in helping the other accomplish its core goals, he writes:

China’s main aims are to safeguard economic growth at home and expand its influence in the Asia-Pacific region. In both areas, Russia can play a role, but only a minor one. The U.S., Europe and Asian countries will be far more important to China’s economic development than Russia will. Moscow, meanwhile, is currently focused on its western frontier. Yet China has little interest in Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova, and is unlikely to get seriously involved.


‘Profound’ discontent in Venezuela: inflation leaves poor doubting Maduro

VZlacoaA marked increase in poverty is undermining the regime’s support base and the popularity ratings of President Nicolas Maduro, reports suggest.

Venezuela’s poverty rate rose to 32 per cent at the end of last year from a record low 25 per cent in 2012, representing an additional 1.8 million people who live in poverty, Bloomberg reports:

The percentage of Venezuelans who consider themselves pro- government fell to 38.2 per cent in April from 52.6 per cent the year earlier, according to a survey by polling company IVAD, cited by Edgar Gutierrez, head of the Caracas-based Venebarometro consulting firm that paid for the poll. The survey of 1,200 people had a margin of error of 2.37 percentage points.

The percentage of Venezuelans who perceive the country’s situation as negative rose to 69.4 per cent in April from 52 per cent in the same period last year, according to the latest survey by IVAD for Venebarometro,

“Venezuela’s poor don’t believe that the government is going to reduce poverty anymore,” Luis Pedro Espana, a sociologist at Catholic University Economic Institute, said in a telephone interview. “They believed Chavez because they saw their consumption rise, but now they can’t buy more than before and can’t find milk.”

Alejandro Velasco, an assistant professor of Latin American studies at New York University, has been visiting the 23 de Enero slum in Caracas famous for its support of Chavez every year since 2002.

“This is the first time I am seeing people so angry,” he said in an interview on June 17. “All of the complaints about shortages, government inefficiencies and corruption are similar to what was being discussed in the months before the Caracazo,” he said, referring to street riots in 1989 that left hundreds dead after then-President Carlos Andres Perez increased gasoline prices and tried to implement other austerity measures. RTWT

The discontent that sparked recent anti-government demonstrations [above] remains ‘profound,’ according to the Economist:

Discontent in government ranks was underlined by the poor turnout on July 20th in elections for delegates to the PSUV congress. Of a supposed 7.6m party members, “almost two million, or more” voted, according to Mr Maduro. But most polling stations saw little movement all day, and dissidents put abstention rates at 85-88%. Enthusiasm was dampened not only by declining living standards and gloom about the future but by a widespread feeling that voting was a waste of time. The party leadership screened all candidates for election, and handpicked 40% of them.

The opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance, however, is in no position to take advantage of the government’s unpopularity.

Incendiary statements against Israel by the Venezuelan government have led to attacks on the Jewish community there, the American Jewish Committee said.

Maduro has publicly accused Israel of pursuing “a war of extermination against the Palestinian people” and has compared Gaza to Auschwitz.

“President Maduro is playing with fire and, if left unchecked, his incitement of state-sanctioned hatred against Jewish citizens could easily ignite with profoundly tragic consequences,” AJC Executive Director David Harris warned in a statement issued Sunday. “Ensuring the safety and security of Venezuela’s Jewish citizens should be a government priority, but President Maduro seems intent on outdoing the hostility towards Israel of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, and that’s saying a lot.”

Weak first step?

“The Obama administration’s decision last week to impose visa sanctions against unnamed government officials in Venezuela is a step in the right direction, but it’s nothing more than a slap on the wrist — and a mild one at that,” the Miami Herald contends:

For years, both President Obama and President Bush before him, despite strong provocation by the late Hugo Chávez and now by Nicolas Maduro, have tried to avoid giving Venezuela’s corrupt leaders an excuse to wrap themselves in the national flag and claim that the United States is attacking the nation’s sovereignty. Dictatorial regimes thrive on such claims and use it as a handy distraction to rally national sentiment against outside interference.

As Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has noted, the “systemic violation of human rights by President Maduro and his state-sanctioned armed thugs” has destroyed freedom of assembly. Free speech, freedom of association, freedom of the press and freedom to vote for independent candidates not connected to the regime are also nonexistent in today’s Venezuela.

Political intolerance threatening Hong Kong society

hong kong global voices onllineThe South China Morning Post’s Peter Kammerer says the increasing intolerance in Hong Kong politics is dividing society and could cause long-term damage.

“Hong Kong has never been so intolerant. …But the push against the supporters of democracy in general and the Occupy Central movement in particular is taking our city along a potentially destructive course,” he writes:

The pro-Beijing Alliance for Peace and Democracy’s anti-Occupy Central campaign is neither peaceful nor democratic. It’s wilfully pitting Hong Kong people against one another purely because of their beliefs. A witch-hunt is under way to divide and silence pan-democrats, reminiscent of the vilification of communists in the West in the 1950s and 1960s. Hong Kong’s then British colonial government deported hundreds of people from leftist trade unions and schools to the mainland for acts as simple as displaying the Chinese flag….

Hong Kong obviously doesn’t face a war, but society is certainly being split and risks being torn apart. It’s the classic “us” and “them” scenario, with Beijing and its backers on one side and those whose ideology looks to Western-style democracy on the other. If the course goes unchanged, those not in the Beijing camp will be sidelined, ignored and isolated. If matters get out of hand, as they well could, there will also be vilification and silencing.


Azerbaijan’s ‘relentless crackdown’ on critics

AZERBAIJAN LEYLA YUNISAzerbaijan’s arrest of a leading human rights defender and government critic, Rasul Jafarov, reflects the government’s concerted efforts to silence its critics, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should immediately secure Jafarov’s release from pretrial custody and drop all politically motivated charges against him. They should also end their ongoing harassment against independent organizations.

“Rasul Jafarov is one of the most outspoken critics of politically motivated prosecution in Azerbaijan and of its ever-deteriorating rights record,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “By arresting Jafarov, the authorities are sending an unambiguous message to activists to stop their human rights advocacy.”

The Grave Crimes Investigation Unit of the General Prosecutor’s Office arrested Jafarov on August 2, 2014. He is the founder and chair of Human Rights Club, an independent human rights group. Together with several partner organizations, Jafarov had been compiling a comprehensive list of victims of politically motivated arrests in Azerbaijan and pressing for their release. He planned to submit the list to the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, which in June had appointed a special rapporteur on politically motivated prosecutions in Azerbaijan. Human Rights Club had spearheaded several critical campaigns against politically motivated prosecutions in Azerbaijan, including the “Sing for Democracy” campaign in the lead up to the Eurovision Song Contest in May 2012.

On July 30, 2014, Azerbaijani authorities arrested Leyla Yunus (above), another human rights defender who was working on the list with Jafarov, on multiple charges, including treason.

Jafarov’s arrest takes place amid a comprehensive crackdown on independent organizations and political activists. In the past two years, Azerbaijani authorities have brought or threatened unfounded criminal charges against dozens of political activists, journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders, most of whom are behind bars. The crackdown continued even as, on May 14, Azerbaijan took over the rotating chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, Europe’s foremost human rights body.

“The government fears human rights work that exposes abuses, and its response is to abuse the law and push organizations to its margins,” Denber said. “Groups that are outspoken and challenge government policies, or work on controversial issues, are now extremely vulnerable to criminal prosecution.”


Putin’s new anti-Americanism

russiaputinterrorAmbassador Michael McFaul was there when the promise of democracy came to Russia—and when it began to fade, the New Yorker’s David Remnick writes.

An expert on democracy assistance, McFaul encountered resistance to his ideas within the Administration, Remnick reports:

During one argument among aides in the White House, McFaul took the position that nations need not wait for the development of a middle class before building democratic institutions. As McFaul recalled, “Somebody said, ‘That’s interesting, but that’s not what the President thinks.’ And I said, ‘That’s interesting, but if that is what he thinks he is wrong.’ It was a jarring moment, and I thought I might even get fired.” He recalled arguing with Tom Donilon, the national-security adviser, about the issue. “Donilon would tell me, Obama is not really interested in that stuff. He’s just a realist.” And yet McFaul, who is not shy about suggesting his own influence, pointed out that Obama gave speeches in Cairo, Moscow, and Accra, in 2009, “making my arguments about why democracy is a good thing. . . . Those speeches made me more optimistic, after all those colleagues telling me he is just a realist.”

“Obama has multiple interests he is thinking about,” McFaul went on. “He has idealist impulses that are real, and then impulses about concerns about unintended consequences of idealism. We were in the Roosevelt Room during the Egypt crisis, and I asked, ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘What I want is for this to happen quickly and the Google guy to become President. What I think is that this will be a long-drawn-out process.’ ”

Reminick profiles several of Russia’s leading ideologues and details the disturbing prevalence of anti-Western illiberal conspiracy theories that inform the regime’s policies.

Dmitri Kiselyov, the head of Russia Today, Putin’s newly created information agency, and the host, on Sunday nights, of the TV magazine show “News of the Week,” is a masterly, and unapologetic, purveyor of the Kremlin line, he notes:  

“Putin now talks more about ideology and about the system of values and the spiritual origins of Russia. In this sense, he, too, is a person of tardy development. He became President unexpectedly. He had no preparation for this role. He had to respond to challenges in the course of things. At first, he had to reconsolidate the state. Now he has inspired a new energy that can be drawn from the national character and the system of values that are rooted in our culture.”

“People in the West twenty-five years ago were surprised by how calmly Russians seemed to absorb the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Boris Mezhuev, the conservative columnist, said. “It seemed to them as if we had voted on it! But in no time at all people were told that everything they had worked for was nonsense. They were told that the state they lived in was based on an unfair idea, that ideology was a myth, the West was only a friend—a complete reversal of ideas. The West underestimated the shock. Only now are we facing the consequences.”

There is an air of defiance, even a heedlessness, to Putin’s behavior, Remnick suggests:

 As the conservative commentator Stanislav Belkovsky put it to me, “It was clear that the actions in Crimea would lead to sanctions, capital flight, and a deterioration of Russia’s reputation, but nobody supporting the aggression thought twice. The imperial horn has been sounded. But we are a Third World kleptocracy hiding behind imperial symbols. There are no resources for a true imperial revival.”

Aleksandr Prokhanov, a far-right newspaper editor and novelist, is another influential voice, Remnick notes:

Together with members of other institutions associated with the Kremlin—the armed forces, the intelligence services, and the Russian Orthodox Church—he started an intellectual group called the Izborsky Club. In the nineties, Yeltsin had called on a group of intellectuals to help formulate a new “Russian idea,” one that relied largely on a liberal, Westernized conception of the nation. It went nowhere. Now, with such notions as “democracy” and “liberalism” in eclipse, groups like the Izborsky Club, Prokhanov says, are a “defense factory where we create ideological weapons to resist the West.” He said the group recently organized a branch in eastern Ukraine, led by the pro-Russian separatists. “The liberals used to be in charge in all spheres,” Prokhanov said. “Now we are crowding them out.”

DUGIN-150x150Prokhanov is hardly an outlier on today’s ideological scene in Russia. Nor is the geopolitical theorist, mystic, and high-minded crackpot Aleksandr Dugin (right), who has published in Prokhanov’s newspapers. He was once as marginal as a Lyndon LaRouche follower with a card table and a stack of leaflets. He used to appear mainly on SPAS (Salvation), an organ of the Russian Orthodox Church. Now the state affords him frequent guest spots on official television.

“For all of Dugin’s extremism, he has, in the past decade, found supporters in the Russian élite,” Remnick notes:

According to the Israeli scholar Yigal Liverant and other sources, Dugin’s work is read in the Russian military academy. He has served as an adviser to Gennady Seleznyov, the former chairman of the Russian parliament. His Eurasia Movement, which was founded in 2001, included members of the government and the official media. He declared his “absolute” support for Putin, and when he pressed his political positions in public it was usually to take the most hard-line positions possible, particularly on Georgia and Ukraine. In 2008, he was appointed head of the Center for Conservative Studies at Moscow State University. Dugin used to brag that “Putin is becoming more and more like Dugin.” And indeed Putin speaks more and more in terms of Russian vastness, Russian exceptionalism, of Russia as a moral paradigm.

Despite these disturbing trends, McFaul – a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy – remains “very optimistic about Russia and Russians,” he tells Remnick:

“In my two years as Ambassador, I just met too many young, smart, talented people who want to be connected to the world, not isolated from it. They also want a say in the government. They are scared now, and therefore not demonstrating, but they have not changed their preferences about the future they want. Instead, they are just hiding these preferences, but there will be a day when they will express them again. Putin’s regime cannot hold these people down forever. I do worry about the new nationalism that Putin has unleashed, and understand that many young Russians also embrace these extremist ideas. I see it on Twitter every day. But, in the long run, I see the Westernizers winning out. I just don’t know how long is the long run.”