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.


Obama visits a Saudi Arabia ‘in transition’?

Saudi ArabiaU.S. President Barack Obama sought to cement ties with Saudi Arabia as he came to pay his respects on Tuesday after the death of King Abdullah, a trip that underscores the importance of a U.S.-Saudi alliance that extends beyond oil interests to regional security, Reuters reports:

U.S. criticism of Saudi Arabia over its human rights record has normally been low-key and may remain so. Obama said in an interview with CNN that the United States had to balance its pressure on Saudi Arabia and other allies over human rights with its immediate concerns about terrorism and regional stability.

“With all the other countries we work with, what I have found effective is to apply steady, consistent pressure, even as we are getting business done that needs to get done,” he said.

Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the interior minister of Saudi Arabia, arrived at a meeting of security chiefs from across the Arab world in Marrakesh, Morocco, last March to deliver a call to arms, The New York Times reports: It was time, he declared, for a concerted effort to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood, according to Arab officials:

Several were stunned at his audacity. Brotherhood-style Islamists are an accepted part of politics in much of the Arab world, including Tunisia, Libya, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain and Morocco itself, to say nothing of their warm welcome in Qatar, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to anger the powerful Saudi prince.

“He is the strongest prince,” said Bernard Haykel, a professor at Princeton University who studies Saudi Arabia. “He is the most powerful guy in the system. He is the pivot,” he told The Times:

Many took his appointment [as the new deputy crown prince] as an attempt to underscore the dynasty’s stability, laying out its rulers for decades to come…. Unlike King Abdullah or King Salman, who studied at the court, Prince Mohammed was educated in the West and graduated from Lewis & Clark, a liberal arts college in Portland, Ore…..Because of his Western education, Prince Mohammed is believed to favor liberalization on matters like education and opportunities for women. But he has made few public statements on social issues, and experts say his security mind-set makes him unlikely to push for changes that might endanger his family’s legitimacy as the guardians of the kingdom’s ultraconservative version of Islam.

saudi wahhabiSaudi Arabia remains the major source of Wahhabi ideology, which spreads outward to radicalize foreign Muslims, analysts Carol E.B. Choksy and Jamsheed K. Choksy write for World Politics Review:

The attacks in Paris earlier this month serve as a tragic example of Wahhabism’s influence. The Charlie Hebdo attackers, Cherif and Said Kouachi, were radicalized in France by Wahhabi tenet-holding al-Qaida operatives and preachers ….
The Saudi export of Wahhabism and jihad began in earnest in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979. … it allocated $4 billion each year for the next three decades to build approximately 1,500 mosques and 2,000 madrasas (or religious schools), employ 4,000 preachers, enlist thousands of students andprint millions of textbooks to globalize the Wahhabi creed. Wahhabi institutions sprung up in Saudi Arabia’s Gulf neighbors, along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, in Afghanistan itself and across Central Asia and the Balkans.

The Saudi-funded Wahhabi expansion included North America and Europe, too. A charitable foundation established by the late King Fahd provides some of the funding for foreign mosques and other Islamic institutions, and is also a major funding source for Wahhabi publications, as the foundation’s website boasts. Disseminated widely, these publications spread an “ideology of hatred that can incite violence,” according to Freedom House.

But over the last decade, the country’s rulers have sought to moderate the sermons of some of the kingdom’s most radical clergy. More modern-thinking clerics have been promoted to senior state positions and some scholars from other branches of Sunni Islam brought onto the top clerical council, reports suggest.

“The Wahhabis do not have the same grip over power in Saudi Arabia as they used to over the past centuries,” said Ammar Ali Hassan, a Cairo-based political analyst. “The power of politics has overtaken the influence of religion on governing the kingdom, and King Abdullah should be the one taking the credit.”

The more that King Abdullah’s health declined, the higher the number of people being threatened and imprisoned by the Ministry of Interior grew, a Saudi observer writes for Politico:

raif-badawi-cropped-internalInitially, the threats, while harsh and unwarranted, were against activists who were truly outspoken in their demands for political rights and freedoms. In 2012, for instance, Mohammed Al Bajadi was tried and sentenced in a secret court on charges of disobedience of the rulers, speaking to foreign media, demonstrating and owning prohibited books on democracy. In 2013, Mohammed Al Qahtani was sentenced to 10 years in prison for documenting political prisoners and calling for a constitutional monarchy. Mikhlif Al Shammari was sentenced in the same year, for promoting anti-sectarianism. Raif Badawi (left) established a web forum called The Saudi Liberal Network that facilitated the discussion and criticism of the radical Islam taught in Saudi schools. In return, he was sentenced last year to 10 years in prison and a thousand lashes. His lawyer, Abulkhair, was sentenced to 15 years for establishing an independent human rights organization. The list goes on and on.

Under Abdullah, the kingdom’s regional dominance has receded, says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow for national security at the Center for American Progress.But the diminished clout he leaves to his successors is not entirely a consequence of the late king’s actions, he writes for The Atlantic:

The Middle East as a whole is fragmenting as more countries and non-state groups like ISIS compete for power. In addition, technological and demographic changes, such as the rise of a new generation in the Middle East’s current youth bulge (15- to 29-year-olds constituted about one-third of the region’s population as of 2008), have limited the ability of traditional institutions to enforce conformity or influence events. These dynamics are not unique to Saudi Arabia, but they are perhaps nowhere more clear than in the kingdom, which has the highest number of active Twitter users in the Arab world, and where a liberal blogger was recently sentenced to a prison term and 1,000 lashes for criticizing the authorities.

islamists nytHuman rights activists might be ready to turn the page on tributes to Saudi Arabia’s deceased leader. But the U.S.’s top military officer said he’d like to see a few hundred pages more, in the form of an essay contest honoring King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz and his close security ties to the U.S., The Wall Street Journal reports:

Human rights activists and others have pointed to some of the more unsavory aspects of his rule, including limiting free expression, a harsh justice system where beheadings are a common punishment and serious limits on women’s rights. In the last weeks of King Abdullah’s reign, a Saudi blogger began undergoing a sentence of 1,000 lashes for writing articles critical of Saudi Arabia’s clerics on a liberal blog.

The Saudi regime is eager to stress continuity and stability to both its allies and its citizens, say analysts

“They have told the people of Saudi Arabia that everything is going to be stable for the next 30 years, so don’t worry about the transition,” said James B. Smith, a former United States ambassador to Riyadh. “And it is a strategic message to everyone else who wants to try to second-guess the whole transition idea.”

“None of these people are ideological,” Professor Haykel said. “There is no commitment to anything beyond their interests.”

Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks portray Prince Mohammed as personally motivated to fight militant Islam and in tight cooperation with the United States.

But Adam Coogle, who monitors Saudi Arabia for Human Rights Watch, said that while law enforcement under Prince Mohammed’s father had often been arbitrary, Prince Mohammed had professionalized and formalized it, The Times adds.

“He is the architect of the crackdown on and jailing of these activists with ludicrously harsh sentences,” said. “This is all on his watch.”

Neil MacFarquhar, with The Times’s reporters Helene Cooper and Rod Nordland, wrote a news analysis about Saudi Arabian-American relations in the wake of King Abdullah’s death. MacFarquhar provides a short list of books or articles for those who’d like a larger context for understanding the situation, history and consequences:

“Saudi Arabia in Transition: Insights on Social, Political, Economic and Religious Change.” A brand-new primer on the many facets of Saudi Arabia from religion to oil to women’s rights, with individual essays by some of the best academics in the field.

“Awakening Islam,” by Stephen Lacroix, who helped edit the primer above, examines the Islamic revival movement within Saudi Arabia that gave birth to the global jihadists…





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.


Cuba insists change ‘not negotiable’

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson had breakfast with dissidents on Friday after a day of talks with the regime focused on restoring diplomatic relations

Asked whether Cuba might at least examine how to expand freedoms to help the Obama administration with Congress, the communist regime’s lead negotiator Josefina Vidal said, “Absolutely no.”

“Change in Cuba isn’t negotiable,” she insisted.

The role to be played by civil-society activists and the political opposition in this new scenario will depend on their ability to adapt to a new context and evolve, by looking for new ways of self-management and by basing the survival or success of their projects in terms of the support achieved by citizens, within or outside Cuba, notes Eliécer Ávila, a founder of SOMOS+ and a member of the Cuban Civil Society Open Forum.

A more open political game can largely benefit civil society, if it does not waste time crying over what is already a reality and rather decide to “turn on their batteries” to take benefit from the possible advantages that can arise from these new winds of change, she writes for The Huffington Post.

Other civil society activists want the U.S. to be more aggressive in holding the regime to account for its human rights violations.

Administration officials must demand free elections and accountability for murdered activists, democracy advocate Rosa Maria Paya writes for The PanAm Post.  Payá is the daughter of the late democracy leader Oswaldo Payá, who, along with Harold Cepero, was killed in an automobile accident on July 22, 2012 in Bayamo, Cuba. She addressed a Washington conference on human rights last Friday alongside other Cuba democracy advocates, including Frank Calzon of the Center for  Free Cuba (above).

U.S. tech companies see a potential windfall in the Obama administration’s decision to ease trade restrictions with Cuba, Julian Hattem reports for The Hill:

In 2013, just 26 percent of the country used the Internet, according to the International Telecommunications Union, an agency of the United Nations — but most of them could merely access a walled-off network of largely Cuban websites and services. The portion of Cubans who have actual unfettered access to the true, global Internet is estimated to be closer to 5 percent.

“Cuba remains one of the most heavily restricted environments for Internet use in the world, and it has been that way for quite some time,” said Laura Reed, a research analyst at Freedom House, a pro-democracy organization.


Cuba: civil society’s ‘new wiggle space’ – four conditions for US reset

cuba posibleThe United States and Cuba began historic talks Thursday, aimed at ending more than five decades of official estrangement, The Washington Post reports:

Despite somewhat stony exteriors as the official sessions began, the delegation heads, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson and Josefina Vidal, head of the Americas department of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, were said to have made initial progress in breaking the ice ……Jacobson plans to hold a breakfast for Cuban civil society representatives, human rights activists and political dissidents Friday before her departure.

Jacobson said re-establishing diplomatic ties and opening embassies in Havana and Washington were “not overly cumbersome,” but that the two sides had profound differences on other issues, such as Cuba’s human rights record, Reuters adds.

The Presidents of the United States and Cuba have laid the groundwork that will allow “Cuba’s situation to improve,” said Yoani Sanchez, a prominent dissident blogger and director of the Internet portal 14ymedio.com. “We now have to use this new wiggle space.”CUBA DEPEISTRE

Raul Castro has warned that he does not consider this new era of detente an opening for significantly altering Cuba’s communist system, one-party rule or economy, which is largely controlled by the state, the LA Times reports.

“Raul Castro will try to gain the most while giving up the least,” Jose Daniel Ferrer, a leading dissident who opposes the regime but welcomes rapprochement, said in an interview.

Cuban officials are hanging tight to their managed economy and will do their best to control any transition, analysts suggest.

“As Roberta Jacobson begins historic talks with Cuban officials, the first of their kind in over 30 years, it is essential to keep progress on democratic reform and respect for human rights at the top of the agenda,” said Robert Herman, vice president for regional programs at Freedom House. Ms. Jacobson and her delegation should “raise concerns over recent crackdowns on universal human rights, including freedom of expression, and engage in meaningful conversation with members of Cuban civil society and dissidents, who will be instrumental in balancing discourse while diplomatic relations are being restored.”

Totalitarian regime

cuba foranothercubalogoindexCuba is home to the longest-standing totalitarian regime in the Western Hemisphere, said the University of Delaware’s Maria P. Aristigueta, who recently presented a talk on “The Role of Civil Society in Leading Change in Cuba.”

Civil society groups in Cuba are cautiously optimistic about the change in U.S. policy, she said, drawing on her research conducted through a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) grant in 2007. But they want to ensure that four main conditions are met prior to the U.S. re-establishing diplomatic relations with the country, she said:

  • Political prisoners need to be released immediately. Elizardo Sánchez of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation estimates there are still more than 100 people imprisoned.
  • Cuba must ratify the United Nations human rights covenants.
  • All “apparatus of repression” must be dismantled, including assaults on “counterrevolutionaries,” arbitrary arrests, demonization and intimidation of those who think differently, and police surveillance of activists.
  • The Cuban government must accept the existence of civic structures that have the right to express opinions, decide, question, and choose. These voices that have not been represented in the current negotiations between the governments of Cuba and the U.S.

[T]he biggest prize [of the policy shift] should be the advance of democracy and open markets in Latin America, The Economist says:

The Castros are not the only ones who will be discomfited by the loss of the American alibi. Venezuela leads a loose coalition of countries that uses defiance of the United States as an excuse for policies that stunt economic growth and democratic rights. It has long supported Cuba (and other Caribbean countries) with sales of oil at heavily subsidised prices. Even for robustly democratic countries like Brazil, the American bogeyman makes it easier to justify resistance to trade deals and to cosy up to uglier regimes.

Gradualism rather than revolution is what Cuba needs, according to Harvard analyst Noah Feldman:

Of course human rights abuses should be reversed and free expression expanded. That’s why the freeing of political prisoners is a positive step. But when it comes to Cuba’s economic development, slow progress is preferable to radical transformation. The same is true of political evolution; moving too fast might not produce greater freedom, but actually the opposite.

Cuba is rated Not Free in Freedom in the World 2014, Not Free in Freedom of the Press 2014 and Not Free in Freedom on the Net 2014