Putin planned to replace Russia’s democracy with kleptocracy ‘from the get-go’

President Vladimir Putin has signed a law banning public demonstrations at night, tightening controls over dissent after more than a decade in charge of Russia, Bloomberg reports:

Legislation on public protests has been modified to outlaw events starting before 7 a.m. or ending after 10 p.m., except for some memorial and cultural events, according to a government statement. Russian law already prohibits unauthorized protests.

The growing curbs on the right to dissent are one reason why former oligarch-turned-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky (right) has re-launched Open Russia, an NGO promoting civil society.

KHODOKOVSKYUnlike many oligarchs, Khodorkovsky made the mistake of putting his head above the parapet and challenging the Kremlin, AP reports.

“Putin came to view me as someone who was gaining more influence than he was prepared to grant anyone who was not fully devoted to him,” he says. “He knew I had ambitions to become prime minister and that I’d had positive discussions with members of the pro-Kremlin party to encourage constitutional reform in favor of turning Russia into a parliamentary democracy.”

“He saw me as a threat because he had chosen the path to authoritarianism. That’s why he personally disliked me.”

At a meeting in the Kremlin in 2003, Khodorkovsky confronted Putin over corruption among state officials. Putin retorted by reminding him of the dubious ways in which Yukos had gained its assets and mentioned problems Khodorkovsky’s company had had with the tax authorities.

“I thought then that he hadn’t yet made up his mind about whether to go for a more open and transparent form of government or for authoritarian rule,” he says.

“Turns out that when I brought up the issue of state corruption, he’d already chosen to become more authoritarian. He’d basically made a deal with the state bureaucracy; you can steal as much as you want as long as you are loyal to me. So he took my words as … an attack on him.”

putins-kleptocracyKhodorkovsky’s suspicions are confirmed by a new book, “Putin’s Kleptocracy – Who Owns Russia?” in which Karen Dawisha argues (above) that analysts are wrong to “approach the Putin era as a democracy in the process of failing,” Epoch Times reports:

That assumes that the autocracy that Russia has become is the result of historical accidents or and bureaucratic incompetence. Not so, she said. It is not by chance that we have the current system. She argues that Putin and his clique sought from the beginning to establish an authoritarian regime in Russia. They were not motivated to build a democracy “that would inevitably force them to surrender power at some point,” she states.

“Within weeks of Putin’s coming to power, the Kremlin began to take away the basic individual freedoms guaranteed under the 1993 Russian Constitution.” She cites a document “never before published outside Russia,” which details plans laid out in late 1999 and early 2000 to reshape the government to deny “citizens the rights of a free press, assembly, and speech.”

Regime fragility

The recent arrest of oligarch Vladimir Yevtushenkov “is an indication of the fragility at the heart of Russia’s highly personalized system of power,” says one analyst.

“Western sanctions are having a rapid impact because they are reinforcing broader economic weaknesses that the current Russian system is unable to counter. It cannot reconcile its survival instincts with the need for long overdue structural reforms, argues John Lough, an associate fellow with Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia program.

As a result, Putin’s social contract over the past 15 years, which delivered improved living standards in return for popular acceptance of limitations on civic freedoms, has been turned on its head, he writes for the Moscow Times:

To compensate, Putin can now only offer the population a defiant reassertion of Russia’s influence in Ukraine but at the price of much harsher restrictions on civil society and confrontation with the West.

In these circumstances, it is logical for Putin to fear dissent among the business elite and the formation of interest groups that could unite to challenge his course in Ukraine. By showing that a loyal figure such as Yevtushenkov is not invulnerable, Russia’s business leaders have been put on notice that the slightest sign of protest could lead straight to a prison cell.

“Putin created a typical, corrupt, over-centralized, inefficient police state,” Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister turned Kremlin opponent, tells the Christian Science Monitor. “It’s based on the export of raw materials, and that’s an economic dead end. As for the political system, there is no mechanism to change power without revolution. That is the real danger facing us.”

Russia on ‘road to nowhere’

russia moscow timesDemocracy is important to most Russians, but they can’t seem to agree on what exactly it is, the Moscow Times reports:

In the survey, conducted by the state-run pollster Public Opinion Foundation and published by the Kommersant newspaper Monday, 63 percent of respondents said it was important for Russia to have democracy, while another 16 percent said it made no difference to them personally whether Russia was ruled by a democratic system or not.

Twenty-two percent said there was not much democracy in the country and that transparency and free speech were lacking. Another 11 percent said there is too much democracy, lamenting the fact that “everything is permitted, and everyone does what they want,” Kommersant reported.  

The poll’s results also revealed that there was no common consensus on what exactly democracy entailed, with 43 percent of respondents saying democracy meant “transparency, free speech and free elections” as well as “upholding human rights,” while another 12 percent described it as ordinary citizens taking part in the country’s management.

Analyst Grigory Kertman expressed skepticism about the survey’s results, saying most respondents were just giving the ”socially acceptable response.”

“For all the predictability and manageability of the elections, people value the right to vote,” Kertman said, adding, however, that for most people elections were nothing more than a ”form of dialogue with the authorities.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said the European Union may need to rethink its energy partnership with Russia if Moscow continues to violate basic principles, RFERL reports:

Merkel said there were good reasons to continue the energy cooperation, noting that within the European Union different countries had different levels of dependency on supplies of Russian natural gas

Russia’s “reversal of 2012″ was the point at which the political elite understood that a gas and oil economy worked best under a nondemocratic “power vertical” and that restructuring the country’s political foundations in hopes of achieving an uncertain result — and at a time when mass public protests were on the rise — was simply too risky, analyst Vladislav Inozemtsev writes for the Moscow Times.

The only way to stop Russia’s “convulsive turn” is to show the Russian people that their own leaders carry far more responsibility for the country’s problems and failures than any perceived enemies in the West, he contends:

No further sanctions are even necessary: Those already in effect are enough to prod Moscow leaders into taking retaliatory measures that will derail Russia’s economy.

And when that happens, Russia will turn once again to the West — as it has turned many times in the past — in search of investment, technology and innovation. At that point, both sides will need to build economic and political ties that are strong enough to resist the machinations and adventurism of a handful of oligarchs with close ties to the Kremlin. RTWT

Despite what some Russian ideologues would like us to think, these ex-KGB leaders and corrupt oligarchs have not embraced orthodox religion and pan-Russian nationalism, writes José Ignacio Torreblanca, Senior Research Fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations:

What they are interested in is ideological manipulation to ensure their own survival. The Putin regime, through an unparalleled concentration of economic and media power, has managed a feat that will forever be remembered in the history of authoritarianism. It has achieved democratic and popular legitimacy – because yes, Putin is very popular – for an extractive oligarchy that owes its existence to the overlapping of intense political authoritarianism, extreme social inequality, and undue concentration of wealth.

Gradually, Russia has been converted into a petrostate, a state entity that has not only constructed its power on raw materials but that because of that base can ignore its society’s demands for political, economic, and social modernisation. The “resource curse” in Russia has created a unique hybrid: something halfway between Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, where oil and gas income is used to build the social support that the regime needs to maintain a democratic façade, and a petrol monarchy that anchors its legitimacy in a rancid nationalism rooted in religion, culture, and mythical historic battles. Putin has become obsessed with identity and nation-building, from the manipulation of the media to harass independent groups in civil society and social movements (including homosexuals) through to the rejection of foreign influence and ideas and the re-vindication of both Tsarism and the Soviet era.

Political scientist Ivan Krastev argues that to understand Putin, one must understand how a KGB agent thinks. The job of the KGB man, unlike that of a member of the military or a Communist Party apparatchik, is not to create hierarchical structures and keep them under control, but to infiltrate and capture them while maintaining the appearance of normal operation.


China has ‘limited tools’ to counter Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

china hk reutersChina’s Communist Party has for years has used a deft mix of censorship, arrests, armed force and, increasingly, money, to repress or soften calls for political change, the New York Times reports:

But as he faces swelling street demonstrations in Hong Kong pressing for more democracy in the territory, the toolbox of President Xi Jinping of China appears remarkably empty of instruments that could lead to palatable long-term solutions for all involved…..Hong Kong’s future may rest heavily on whether Mr. Xi has the clout, skill and vision to figure out a solution that somehow keeps the territory stable without sparking copycat calls for change closer to home — and without dealing a heavy blow to his own prestige.

“This is already much bigger than anything the Beijing or Hong Kong authorities expected,” said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University who studies democratic development. “They have no strategy for peacefully defusing it, because that would require negotiations, and I don’t think President Xi Jinping will allow that. Now, if he yields, he will look weak, something he clearly detests.”

“If he had negotiated from a position of strength,” Mr. Diamond tells the Times, “and pursued a strategy of delivering ‘gradual and orderly progress’ toward democracy in Hong Kong, albeit at a more incremental timetable than democrats were hoping for, he could have pre-empted this storm.”

Ominous precedent

A surge of emotion washed through me on Sunday night as I watched tens of thousands of protesters fill the streets of Hong Kong on television, analyst Jonathan Mirsky writes for the New York Review of Books blog:

It was the same feeling I had in Beijing on the nights leading up to the killings in Tiananmen Square on June 3 and 4, 1989. Once more we are seeing highly disciplined but angry young Chinese demanding an old-fashioned kind of democracy: freedom to choose their own leaders.

Now again we are watching heavily armed police trying to disperse peaceful democracy protesters. Already they have used teargas and pepper spray—for the first time in Hong Kong in years. And they are possibly awaiting orders to do more than that. I sense again the dread I recall experiencing around 9 PM on Saturday night, June 3, 1989, as the Army and Armed Police began marching into Tiananmen Square.

CHINA HK CDT“Umbrella Revolution” 

So much for “one country, two systems,” Michael Corones writes for Reuters:

Dubbed the “Umbrella Revolution” after the large number of protesters carrying them to protect against the sun and, somewhat less successfully, the sting of tear gas, the demonstrations aim to pressure China to hold fully democratic elections for Hong Kong’s legislature in 2017 and to prompt the current executive, Leung Chun-ying, to step down.

A Reuters graphic (above) looks at how public opinion has changed since the handover. Polls conducted by the University of Hong Kong show ebbing confidence in China’s “one country, two systems” philosophy and Hong Kong’s future in general, and more than 50 percent of respondents are either “quite distrustful” or “very distrustful” of the Beijing central government. Doesn’t sound like the protesters will be leaving the streets anytime soon.

Hong Kong belongs to China. But the grass-roots political movements responsible for the protests underway in the heart of the city’s financial district would never have taken root in any other Chinese city, Michael Forsythe writes for the Times:

Freedom of speech, assembly and religion and a free press are all enshrined in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, drafted to govern the city of 7.2 million upon its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 after more than 150 years of British rule. Hong Kong residents are guaranteed those rights until 2047, and a legal system inherited from the British helps keep it intact.

It is a system called “one country, two systems” that the leaders in Beijing hope — or hoped — would someday also be applied to Taiwan to encourage its political reunion with the motherland. Taiwan has governed itself since 1949.

Some experts pointed out that the Communist Party keeps a garrison of People’s Liberation Army soldiers in Hong Kong, the Washington Post reports:

“Deploying the PLA would certainly scare everyone off the street immediately,” said Willy Lam, an analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “But it would also make the front pages of every paper in the world. For them, I think it remains something of a last resort.”

In an apparent reaction to Chinese accusations of a foreign hand in the protests, the U.S. Consulate stressed in a statement that Washington does “not take sides in the discussion of Hong Kong’s political development, nor do we support any particular individuals or groups involved in it.”

General strike

china hk march july 2014A labour activist from the 1989 democracy movement in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Han Dongfang, says the only way forward in light of the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong was for the Chief Executive, C Y Leung, to step down.

The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions and the Teachers’ Union have called for a general strike in support of the students’ struggle for democracy.

“HKCTU calls for all workers in Hong Kong to strike tomorrow, in protest of the ruling of the National People’s Congress, as well as the brutal suppression of peaceful protest by the Hong Kong government,” said the group. “Workers and students must unite to force the totalitarian government to hand state power back to the people.”

The South China Morning Post reported on Monday that about “80 to 100” delivery staff from the local Coca-Cola distributor had also gone on strike in support of democracy, according to TIME:

Spontaneous strikes for political causes are extremely rare in Hong Kong. Also unusually, the company told the Post that it had “expressed understanding about the action.”….Analysts say that the further use of heavy-handed force by the police will broaden the support base for the protesters.

“People saw what happened with the protests and the violence used by the people and most of the public are very angry,” Mabel Au, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, tells TIME. “That’s why the trade unions came out and called for a strike.”

“Hong Kong’s students, workers and citizens are bravely standing up for democracy and the right to peaceably assemble as they fight for that most basic democratic right to nominate and elect their own leaders–a right promised Hong Kong people by Britain and China in 1997 and

vouchsafed for them under international law,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement:

We specifically call on the Hong Kong government to abandon use of excessive force against peaceful students, workers and citizens. There is no reason to throw tear gas and threaten to shoot your citizens.

We call on the Chinese authorities to commence discussions with Hong Kong citizens on how to speedily implement the undoubted democratic right of Hong Kong people to freely nominate persons to be candidates in democratic elections–a basic right being denied. 

Turkey’s authoritarian drift threatens rights, rule of law

turkey0914_reportcoverHRWTurkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is taking far-reaching steps to weaken the rule of law, control the media and Internet, and clamp down on critics and protestors, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 38-page report, “Turkey’s Human Rights Rollback: Recommendations for Reform”, outlines the rollback of human rights and rule of law in Turkey, linked to mass anti-government protests in 2013 and corruption allegations that go to the very heart of the government of the ruling AKP.

Human Rights Watch tracked the government’s response to the recent developments and made concrete recommendations, focusing on four areas: strengthening the human rights context of the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); reforming the criminal justice system; ending impunity for past and present abuses by state officials and for family violence against women; and ending restrictions on speech, media, Internet, and the rights to assembly and association.

“Over the past year, Erdoğan’s AKP has responded to political opposition by tearing up the rule book, silencing critical voices, and wielding a stick,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “For the sake of Turkey’s future and the rights of its citizens, the government needs to change course and protect rights instead of attacking them.”

“As Turkey feels the heat of war in Syria and Iraq, Ankara has renewed its interest in closer ties to Europe,” Sinclair-Webb said. “But Turkey is unlikely to succeed in moving closer to Europe unless Turkey’s leaders take steps to reverse the rollback on rights and strengthen the rule of law.”

Uncivil societies

russia_civilsociety_HRWThe ongoing crackdown on civil society groups “is about weakening NGOs, not making them more transparent or effective,” The Economist notes:

It is being undertaken by leaders who, if they accept democracy at all, want it to amount to nothing more than a tame vote every few years. Foreign donations are an easy target for autocrats whose worst nightmare is a flourishing civil society. NGOs’ activities in the “colour” revolutions a decade ago in the former Soviet Union and, more recently, the Arab spring, have sharpened autocrats’ hostility to them.

It is hardly surprising that leaders like Mr Putin want to curb those who seek to promote democracy, but these laws reach far beyond free speech and human rights. NGOs also suffer if they criticise poor public services, stand up for reviled minorities or disclose facts that the powerful want to hide. Mr Orban has targeted a group that publicises discrimination against Roma and another that runs a hotline for battered women. Among those Mr Putin has dubbed foreign agents are a group of women seeking information about Russian servicemen injured and killed while covertly deployed in Ukraine.

“Persuading autocrats who have decided that NGOs pose an existential threat to ease up will be a struggle. But donor countries can help stem the illiberal tide,” The Economist notes. “Initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership, launched in 2011, which supports governments keen to increase transparency and cut corruption, should help to stop the trend spreading.”