Kremlin’s propaganda war underpins clash with West

sovietpropagandaAttempting to legitimize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin’s “disinformation offensive differs from its Soviet forebear in both style and intensity,” The Economist notes:

The propaganda machine is fuelled by a “cocktail of chauvinism, patriotism and imperialism”, says one journalist. It plays on deep feelings among the Russian public: post-imperial nostalgia for the Soviet Union, an inferiority complex towards the West, and a longing for self-justification.

The coverage relies on the scale of lies and the elimination of other sources of information, says one senior editor. When Ukraine suspended the broadcasts of Russian state TV channels, substituting the liberal Dozhd channel that had been cut off by cable providers in Russia, it was accused by the Kremlin of suppressing free speech. In Russia the state-controlled media creates an illusion of uniformity of thought. Many are scared to voice their opinions not because they may be punished, but because they may be isolated. Any dissenter is described by Mr Putin as a “fifth columnist” and a “national traitor”.

sovietmotherland_smThe propaganda campaign has seen several stages since the protests on Kiev’s Maidan began, says Lev Gudkov, head of the Levada Centre, an independent pollster:

It portrayed Maidan as a conspiracy by the West. It showed the protesters as nationalists, fascists and anti-Semites who had staged a putsch, posing great danger to Russian-speakers. It faked stories of Ukrainian refugees fleeing to Russia (using footage of a border crossing between Ukraine and Poland). The case for taking Crimea, to defend the Russian population from an imagined threat, morphed into Russia’s reclaiming historic lands.

“Trumpeting Russia’s moral superiority, the Kremlin is preparing ordinary Russians for an economic downturn that it will no doubt blame on America,” The Economist adds:

Yet Mr Gudkov argues that, although most Russians support Mr Putin’s actions, they are not prepared to take responsibility or bear significant costs in lives or money. “Televisionwatching does not imply participation,” says Mr Gudkov. That gives some hope that Russia may not go farther into eastern Ukraine.


In short, as Abraham Lincoln reportedly said: You can fool some of the people all of the time, or all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

Prospects for Democracy and Press Freedom in Hong Kong

HKDEMNEDUnder China’s “one country, two systems” policy, Hong Kong residents enjoy greater freedom and autonomy than people in mainland China, including freedoms of speech, press, and religion.  China has stated it intends to allow Hong Kong residents to elect their Chief Executive by universal suffrage for the first time in 2017 and to elect Hong Kong’s Legislative Council by universal suffrage in 2020.  

As Hong Kong’s government contemplates electoral reform in the run-up to the 2017 election, concerns are growing that China’s central government will attempt to control the election by allowing only pro-Beijing candidates to run for Chief Executive. Concerns over press freedom have also grown in the wake of several incidents in which journalists have been violently attacked or fired.

Senator Sherrod Brown, Chairman and Representative Christopher Smith, Cochairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China announce a roundtable on

“Prospects for Democracy and Press Freedom in Hong Kong”

Thursday, April 3, 2014

12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m.

Russell Senate Office Building, Room 385

The roundtable will feature two prominent advocates for Hong Kong democracy, Martin Lee and Anson Chan, who will examine the prospects for Hong Kong’s democratic development.   


Martin Lee: Barrister, founding Chairman of the Democratic Party of Hong Kong, former Member of the Drafting Committee for the Basic Law, and former Member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong (1985–2008).     

Anson Chan: Former Chief Secretary for Administration of Hong Kong, former Member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong (2007–2008), and Convener of Hong Kong 2020, a political group working toward achieving universal suffrage in the 2017 election for Chief Executive and 2020 Legislative Council elections.

This roundtable will be webcast live here.

Click here to download a copy of the Commission’s full 2013 Annual Report.

The Congressional-Executive Commission on China, established by the U.S.-China Relations Act of 2000 as China prepared to enter the World Trade Organization, is mandated by law to monitor human rights, including worker rights, and the development of the rule of law in China. The Commission by mandate also maintains a database of information on political prisoners in China-individuals who have been imprisoned by the Chinese government for exercising their civil and political rights under China’s Constitution and laws or under China’s international human rights obligations. All of the Commission’s reporting and its Political Prisoner Database are available to the public online via the Commission’s Web site.


Trial by Twitter? Erdogan, Gülenists, and the future of Turkish democracy

TurkeyMiddleClassFlagProtestTaksimRTR22YAE-198x132Last week’s attempt by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to “wipe out” Twitter was  rightly decried as a sign of his creeping authoritarianism and an effort to contain the effects of incriminating recordings of telephone conversations between him, his cabinet ministers, family members, and newspaper editors, says Halil Karavelli, a Senior Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Silk Road Studies Program, affiliated with the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. 

The country’s democrats have yet again “failed to stand on their own feet,” he writes for Foreign Affairs. “Turkey’s pro-democratic forces, and liberals in particular, have a history of putting faith in illiberal forces to advance or protect democracy,” Karavelli observes:  

In the 1990s, as the Islamists’ popularity grew, many in the left looked to the military as a savior. When the military grew too powerful, the influential liberal intelligentsia rallied to the Islamic conservative AKP, whom they expected to stand up for democracy once the generals had been emasculated. To that end, the liberals were willing to turn a blind eye toward many of Erdogan’s abuses of power. With Erdogan now proving autocratic, it seems that the liberals have turned toward a new ally. Even though Gülen says all the right things about democracy and the rule of law, however, the way his followers have used their positions in the bureaucracy to put in place a Big Brother state indicates his true intentions.

erdoganFor Erdogan, the timing of the recent scandals could not be worse, says Svante E. Cornell, the editor-in-chief of The Turkey Analystand Karavelli’s SAIS colleague.

On March 30, Turkey is holding municipal elections, in which the stakes are anything but local, he writes for the Middle East Forum:

Instead, they are a battle of wills between the prime minister and the Gülenists, followers of the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen who have been locked in a showdown with Erdogan, their onetime ally, since last December. The tapes are apparently meant to hurt Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the elections, laying the groundwork for his eventual downfall. But in addition to exposing the prime minister’s abuses of power, the tapes also reveal the Gülenists’ own dirty dealings.

“As alliances have been struck and dissolved, Turkey’s pro-democrats have tended to focus on one enemy — whether the generals in the past or Erdogan now,” Karavelli writes:

It is telling that Cengiz Çandar, one of Turkey’s leading liberal pundits recently wrote in the daily Radikal that, if the country were a real democracy, Erdogan would have had to resign after the recordings of him first started to leak. The irony that a prime minister of a democratic country had been wiretapped by his own bureaucratic apparatus apparently did not give Çandar pause. Indeed, Turkish democratic intellectuals and pundits demonstrate intellectual laziness when they reduce their country’s democratic crisis to an Erdogan problem. RTWT

Erdoğan is a talented politician and may yet find ways to survive this crisis as a weakened leader, argues Cornell:

His main asset is the sense of unity within the core AKP that provides a strong antidote to an overt split….Even the Gülenists appear to see a united AKP—but without Erdoğan—as the ideal outcome. But even if Erdoğan succeeds in staying in power, his chances of achieving one-man rule are now largely illusory. He could change party rules and seek a fourth term or, more likely, open an escape hatch and seek to be elected president under the current constitution. This would lead to his gradual loss of influence over day-to-day politics. In any case, it is more than likely that the Islamist movement that he led to unprecedented dominance over Turkish politics will soon conclude that Erdoğan has done his part. ….

What, then, would a post-Erdoğan Turkey look like? This will be the moment of truth for Turkish “moderate” Islam. At first sight, Turkey’s trajectory over the past several years suggests that even in the best possible circumstances, political Islam will be unable to shake its undemocratic, authoritarian, and intolerant characteristics. Even Turkey’s largest Islamist community, the Gülen movement, now implicitly acknowledges this, opposing the very notion of political Islam.

“Islamists have been able to say with some justification that the problem is not political Islam but Erdoğan as a person,” Cornell notes. “The track record of Erdoğan’s successors will determine whether political Islam can redeem itself.”



Transparency group should reject Ethiopia membership bid

EthiopiaA major global initiative to encourage governments to better manage natural resource revenues should reject Ethiopia’s bid for membership due to its harsh restrictions on civil society, Human Rights Watch said today.

The governing board of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) is expected to make a decision about Ethiopia’s candidacy at its next meeting, on March 18 and 19, 2014, in Oslo. EITI was founded in 2003 to strengthen governance by increasing transparency over revenues from the oil, gas, and mining industries.

“The Ethiopian government has crushed activist groups and muzzled the media,” said Lisa Misol, senior business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Ethiopia’s harsh repression of independent voices is utterly incompatible with this global effort to increase public oversight over government.”

An earlier effort by Ethiopia to join the transparency group was rebuffed in 2010 out of concerns over a draconian 2009 law, still in effect, that sharply limits the activities of independent groups. Civil society representatives on EITI’s board said that the law contravened the initiative’s standards that make the free and active participation of independent organizations a requirement for a country to join.

Supporters of Ethiopia’s membership, including Clare Short, the former United Kingdom minister who has been the group’s chair since 2011, have recently pressed the board to overturn its 2010 decision. On February 28, Short publicly endorsed Ethiopia’s candidacy and criticized those who opposed its membership in an unprecedented open letter to civil society members of the board. She argued for loosening the group’s rules and claimed that civil society in Ethiopia favored her position, even though nongovernmental organizations in the country cannot risk criticizing the government.

“It’s absurd to suggest that Ethiopia deserves to join EITI because it has civil society support after the government has systematically intimidated groups into submission,” Misol said. “EITI would become a reward for Ethiopia’s effort to dismantle and silence civil society, providing a perverse incentive for other governments to do the same thing.”

New government-backed nongovernmental organizations have formed. One group that supports the government’s drive to join EITI is a journalism union described as “government-controlled” by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The 2009 Proclamation on Charities and Society Law curtails the independence of nongovernmental organizations in Ethiopia, particularly groups that scrutinize the government.

Kremlin’s ‘social media takeover’: Cold War tactics fuel Ukraine crisis

crimeaSOSThe scale of Russia’s propaganda effort in the Ukraine crisis has been breathtaking, even by Soviet standards, Celestine Bohlen writes for The Times:

Like so much about Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the massive propaganda onslaught seems strangely anachronistic in a time when access to the Internet was supposed to undercut the influence of state-controlled media. It’s all the more puzzling since Russia boasts one of the world’s most active and creative blogospheres, not to mention a thriving community of independent hackers drawn from the same top math schools that feed the ranks of the modern-day successor to the K.G.B.

Telerussia & internetrussia

“According to a government-sponsored survey conducted last January, almost half of Russia’s adult population uses the Internet; for those younger,” she notes:

And yet the propaganda campaign seems to be working. Russian public opinion has been whipped into a nationalist fervor over the fate of Crimea…The Internet itself is hardly a guarantor of healthy debate or accurate information. Users often go online to confirm their own views — only to have them amplified by a steady spewing of paranoid and xenophobic diatribes…….Still, Boris Akunin, one of the country’s most popular writers and a member of the opposition with his own blog, is counting on the Internet to loosen the Kremlin’s grip on public debate.

“One shouldn’t confuse two different Russias: telerussia and internetrussia,” he said in an email. “The former is largely uninterested in politics; they eat what they are fed but they are passive politically. The latter Russia is predominantly anti-Putin — precisely due to the free flow of opinions and information on the net.”

Several weeks before pro-Russian forces intervened in Crimea, President Vladimir V. Putin won another important victory, notes Nickolay Kononov, editor in chief of Hopes & Fears, a digital magazine about business in Russia. On Jan. 24, the social network VKontakte, with its 60 million daily users, came under the control of businessmen allied with the Kremlin, he writes for The New York Times:

VKontakte is Russia’s Facebook and the largest independent medium in the country. The founder of VKontakte, Pavel Durov, had long resisted all pressures to step down. But he sold his 12 percent share of the company to Ivan Tavrin, a partner of the pro-Putin oligarch Alisher Usmanov, and is leaving.

The brilliant young businessman was unlucky in his timing. Before the Olympics, the state wanted to control the only independent platform where Russians could communicate with one another and organize. If the government had issued a special decree allowing for the tapping of the phones of journalists in Sochi, how could it ignore VKontakte? And not having an independent social network has also proved convenient for a Kremlin on its war footing.