West set to ‘Azerbaijanise’ relations with Belarus?




The crisis in Ukraine is making Belarus more dependent on Russia. But it has also made the Belarusian leadership keener to balance its close ties to Moscow with a warmer relationship with Brussels, writes Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform:

Most Europeans think little about Belarus, a country of ten million people that nestles between Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. It has been politically stable for a long time: Alexander Lukashenko was first elected to the presidency in 1994, and is virtually certain to win the next presidential election, in November. But even though the authoritarian political system seems immutable, the economy and the foreign policy may be less so. The EU needs to wake up to the geopolitical opportunities that could arise in Belarus.

Small and lacking in natural resources, Belarus was always an easy place for the West to conduct a values-based foreign policy, The Economist notes:

The EU tagged Mr Lukashenko “Europe’s last dictator” and placed its hopes in the opposition (the regime’s unpleasantness made alternative strategies hard to defend). But now officials acknowledge that the policy of disdain simply drove Belarus closer to Russia. Moreover, Mr Putin’s adventurism in Ukraine has raised the stakes. As Mr Lukashenko wryly pointed out last week in a swipe at Mr Putin, “there are dictators a bit worse than me, no?”

The EU, including hardline members like Britain and the Netherlands, is now rethinking its approach. It will not abandon its calls for democracy, or its solidarity with the Belarusian opposition, it adds:

But it is considering a range of ways to work with Mr Lukashenko’s regime, from speeding up its visa-application process to support for Belarus’s membership of the World Trade Organisation. An EaP summit in Riga next month will be watched closely for signs of a thaw, particularly if Mr Lukashenko is allowed to attend. But that would require him to free the handful of remaining political prisoners, and he fears giving the impression of bowing to pressure. Bigger changes, say officials in Brussels, will have to wait until after the presidential election.

Some opposition activists in Minsk fear that the West will ‘Azerbaijanise’ its relations with Belarus – meaning that it will ignore human rights for the geostrategic gain of strengthening Belarusian independence, adds Grant, who recently took part in a study trip to Belarus, organised by the European Council on Foreign Relations:

But much of civil society would welcome a rapprochement between Minsk and Brussels, in the hope that this could lead to a softer regime, and allow Belarusian NGOs greater access to Western funding and advice. …The EU should seek to engage not only civil society but also President Lukashenko’s regime. This could help to strengthen the country’s independence, encourage the government to treat NGOs and the opposition more kindly, reduce Belarus’s isolation and make it a little more European. Such outcomes, though far from certain, would be a worthwhile achievement.


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Plump state, sickly populace: what Russians really think

russia authoritarian IMR

Institute of Modern Russia

Many European politicians fear Moscow is using the May 9 anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender to the Soviet Union to paper over the deep divisions opened by Russia’s involvement in the war in Ukraine, the FT’s Kathrin Hille writes:

For many in the west, the explanation behind this gulf has been simple: lies and propaganda. Russian media have become more bellicose and ideological than they were even in the Soviet era, demonising Ukraine’s pro-European Maidan movement and accusing the new government in Kiev of being organised by American spies and backed by fascist gangs.

“At a moment when Putin is trying to redraw the map of Europe, how can we stand next to him and celebrate the postwar order on the continent, the very foundations of which he is bent on destroying?” asks a diplomat from a European country whose leader has declined the invitation to Moscow.

The 4,421 victims of the Katyn massacre “might seem like a trifle compared to the 27 million Soviet citizens who died in the war, not to mention all those killed and trampled underfoot by Stalinism,” analyst Ivan Sukhov writes for the Moscow Times.

“But as long as that memory remains — the knowledge of this country’s failings as well as its heroic feats — it prevents society from slipping into a totalitarianism that acknowledges only the myth and discards or denies the rest,” he contends.

kasparovThe West’s current sanctions against the regime “were piecemeal and late and are still very mild,” says democracy advocate Garry Kasparov:

We need real action that targets Mr. Putin’s oligarchs and makes them choose between him and their ill-gotten fortunes. The free world’s leaders still want to believe they can have it both ways – that they can engage with Russia, take Mr. Putin’s money and gas, and still stand up to him in the global arena. This has proved completely false.

What is really harming ordinary Russians is Mr. Putin’s kleptocracy, not sanctions. If he grows bold enough to start a major war, average Russians will suffer even more.

“According to the Institute of Collective Action, a non-governmental group of sociologists which records activism across the country, there has been a clear uptick in unrest over the past few months,” according to reports. “They are often small-scale protests over personnel cuts in hospitals, which threaten to undermine the already precarious state of the healthcare system in many regions.”

When the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, it set free a range of widely diverging, often mutually contradictory historical narratives, Hille adds:

The history of central and eastern Europe and central Asia had been constricted in a tight ideological corset for more than 70 years. Suddenly newly independent countries could revive their national histories and debate atrocities from the Stalin era. Such discourse became a key pillar of national identity.

In Russia, things were much more complicated. Russia had been the nucleus from which the Soviet Union was built, its language and culture had dominated the now-defunct communist empire and its people had accounted for the lion’s share of the Soviet armed forces. A clean break with the past was impossible. In many cases, the opening of historical archives pitted Russians against their neighbours.

In the 1990s, during a brief interlude of multi-party politics, Russia started to question its past. But at the same time, political infighting, corruption and financial crises left many with a sense of loss, chaos and confusion. Almost a decade after the end of the Soviet Union, the country was still struggling to find a new identity. RTWT

Plump state – sickly populace

russia putin 2For today’s self-styled Russian patriots, patriotism means authoritarian power centred in a single individual, the monopoly of state capitalism in which the ruling bureaucracy pockets the lion’s share of the country’s wealth, says Vladimir Ryzhkov, political analyst and State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007.

“It means the suppression of dissent and creative freedom, isolation from the West, holding the authorities up as sacred and giving them total domination over society and the economy. According to their critics, liberal patriots, the good of Russia derives first of all from its economic and social prosperity, from the wealth and well-being of its people,” he writes for the Moscow Times:

Their ideal is a “free” Russia, in the highest and noblest sense of that word. A different coalition of interests stands behind each competing version of patriotism. Those advocating the superpower, authoritarian version include the ruling bureaucracy, security forces, defence industry brass, state monopolies and those whose incomes depend on the state. The coalition advocating liberal patriotism is much weaker and includes small and medium-sized businesses, the intelligentsia, nongovernmental organizations and independent professionals……

The “Great Russia” coalition is set on devouring Russia’s seemingly endless natural resources and enriching themselves in the process. In order to keep the general population silent and obedient, they have created a “perpetually besieged fortress” ideology that simultaneously condemns the Western consumer culture while itself consuming everything Russia has to offer. The historian Vasiliy Klyuchevskiy aptly described this phenomenon as “plump state – sickly populace.”

The late-19th century Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyev described this dilemma well. He said: “There are profound differences between the demands of true patriotism that wants Russia to be as good as possible, and the false claims of nationalism that claims Russia is already better than every other country.”

Escalation of Authoritarianism and Legal Environment

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the greatest challenge for all former Soviet republics, without exception, was overcoming the aftermath of a totalitarian regime, the Institute of Modern Russia adds:

The direction in which each newly independent government chose to move can serve as an indicator, to a certain extent, of the country’s readiness to depart from totalitarianism at that time. Now, nearly a quarter of a century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, one can see varying degrees of progress or regress in the constitutional, legal, and judicial reforms achieved by Russia, the Baltics, Central Asia, Georgia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet republics.

On April 13 the Institute of Modern Russia and the New York University International Law Society will host a panel discussion entitled “Escalation of Authoritarianism and Legal Environment in Russia” at New York University School of Law. Participants in the discussion include Ekaterina Mishina (University of Michigan), Pavel Ivlev (Committee for Russian Economic Freedom), Boris Palant (Palant & Shapiro, PC) and William E. Pomeranz (Woodrow Wilson Center). IMR director Lidiya Dukhovich will moderate.

RSVP to imrrsvp@gmail.com

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Cuba’s GONGOs are ‘uncivil’ civil society at Americas Summit

cuba agent2Cuban and American officials say U.S. President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro spoke by telephone ahead of an expected historic encounter at the Summit of the Americas beginning Friday in Panama City, VOA reports:

A senior White House official told VOA the two presidents spoke on Wednesday, before Obama left the United States for Jamaica and Panama. Jorge Leganoa, deputy director of Cuba’s state-run National Information Agency, also confirmed the leaders’ conversation.

Cuban adversaries have literally come to blows over each others’ presence in the summit’s parallel meetings dealing with democracy, human rights and other social issues. The so-called civil society conferences are ending quite uncivilly, the LA Times reports:

At odds are an official delegation of Cuban “civil society,” or nongovernmental groups — although most seem to be from the very governmental Communist Party — and a collection of dissidents from Cuba and abroad who vehemently oppose the government of Raul Castro and his brother Fidel before him.

That was not the end of it. On Thursday, members of the official delegation attending the meetings attempted to derail conversation to support issues important to the Cuban government, according to participants.

“We are tired of the … Cubans,” said Sofia Montenegro, a Nicaraguan activist who was also participating. “They want to sabotage everything.”

Orlando Gutierrez, an American, and Jorge Luis Garcia Pérez, a Cuban dissident known as Antúnez, were beaten after participating in a pro-democracy event in Panama. Some observers questioned President Obama’s decision to re-establish diplomatic ties with Havana after the assault on Antúnez, The Hill reports

cuba agentOne of the attackers of a group of American citizens and Cuban dissident leaders has been identified as Col. Alexis Frutos Weeden (above left, and right), who is the head of Cuban intelligence in Venezuela, notes Capitol Hill Cubans.

“It’s both simple and terrible. We received threats and insults. They say they are civil society but they act like a civil militia,” Cuban dissident Manuel Cuesta Morua told AFP:

But leading Cuban dissident Elizardo Sanchez said he was not surprised by the commotion because it is the first time that the Cuban government has been invited to a Summit of the Americas since its inception in 1994.

“For the first time, all civil society representatives find themselves under the same roof,” said Sanchez, head of the Cuban National Human Rights Commission.

Truly phenomenal result

Other observers argue that, despite the regime supporters’ violence, some form of dialog may emerge.

chrissabatini-thumbStandard“It’s kind of a beautiful thing. You have Cubans going together and interacting,” said Christopher Sabatini, adjunct professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. That this Cuban contingent came together at the Summit “demonstrates for the Cuban government a real element of change. It allowed opponents to go to a summit and speak and participate as equals,” added Sabatini, a former Latin America program director at the National Endowment for Democracy. 

A new public opinion survey yielded the “truly phenomenal result” that the U.S. president has almost double the approval rating of Raul and Fidel Castro, pollster Fernand Amandi told National Public Radio:

For those that were not satisfied with the political system – 53 percent answered that in affirmative – we followed up with, why not? And what they actually said was striking.

BLOCK: And what were some of those responses?

AMANDI: Because they make us believe we are living the best life in the world when that’s not the case. It’s a fraud that is 59 years old. Because we are slaves. I didn’t choose my president. There is no democracy or freedom of expression. RTWT

Twenty percent of Cubans report listening to Radio Marti in the last seven days, according to an independent survey conducted in March among a nationally representative sample of 1,200 Cuban adults (18 or older) across the island.  

antunez2Human rights remain a big issue in Cuba and arrests of political critics remain high. Dissidents and Castro supporters clashed in front of the Cuban embassy on Wednesday, CBS news reports:

That’s why Jose Luis Garcia Perez, known widely as Antunez (right), traveled here. ….. Antunez was roughed up by Castro loyalists, and told CBS News that Cuba’s problems are not economic, but political. He said repression is constant and dissidents must have a seat at the negotiating table. Antunez opposes removing Cuba from the terrorism list and what would likely come next: the opening of a U.S. embassy in Havana.

Cuba still provides sanctuary for wanted terrorists, reports suggest.  

Consequently, it would be a mistake for the U.S. to take Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terrorism, said Carlos Eire, the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History & Religious Studies at Yale University and author of a memoir about growing up during the Cuban Revolution, Waiting for Snow in Havana

He pointed out that Cuba has had two illegal arms shipments seized in the past year and a half, one to North Korea, the other to China. Alberto de la Cruz, managing editor of the Babalu Blog, which covers Cuba, said that removing Havana from the state sponsors of terrorism list would be based on political expediency.

“Cuba’s dictatorship continues to harbor and protect known international terrorist fugitives, including an American who is on the FBI’s most-wanted list (Joanne Chesimard). Furthermore, Cuba’s government continues to support and provide cover for terrorist regimes in the Middle East as well as terrorist organizations such as FARC, ETA, ELN, etc.” RTWT

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A hemispheric model? Why Chile is in a bad mood

chile bacheletScandals are shaking one government after another this year in Latin America: the mysterious death of a prosecutor in Argentina, the ouster of Peru’s prime minister over a domestic spying operation, the revelations of a vast bribery scheme at Brazil’s national oil company, Simon Romero reports for The New York Times:

Chile was long thought to be above such agitations, given its reputation as one of the region’s least corrupt nations. But a series of stunning scandals is placing the political establishment here in turmoil, suddenly raising doubts about a country that has been a darling of international finance institutions and exposing figures across the ideological spectrum to scorn.

The most prominent target of criticism is President Michelle Bachelet, the 63-year-old pediatrician who returned to the presidency in 2014 on a platform of reducing inequality. ….Yet the conservative opposition is also under fire after the arrests in March of executives from one of Chile’s largest financial groups on charges of tax fraud, bribery and money laundering. Prosecutors say the charges stem from an illegal scheme to finance the Independent Democratic Union, a right-wing party.

“All of these revelations at once are throwing the system into shock,” said Pablo Collada, the director of Intelligent Citizen, an organization promoting transparency in politics. “It’s like we’ve realized this is a swamp, and everyone has one foot in the mud.”

“The opposition is on the floor with its scandals, but this is a personal tragedy for Bachelet,” said Robert Funk, a professor of political science at the University of Chile. “There was a sense of moral superiority around Bachelet, and now she’s struggling to regain legitimacy,” he tells the Times:

The rising sensitivity over corruption in Chile and other parts of Latin America reflects the strengthening of the region’s middle classes this century, accompanied by an emboldened sense of citizenship that holds political leaders to higher ethical standards. With economic growth slowing throughout the region, tempers are flaring….. Chile has important advantages in limiting the scope of corruption, including a vibrant civil society and an independent judiciary. The economy, while growing slower than in recent years, is still expected to expand by about 2.5 percent this year, a rate countries like Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela would envy.

“During the boom period, with greater social spending, corruption did not have the gravity and political consequences that it has when times are tough and governments have little choice but to carry out fiscal adjustments,” said Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, and a former Latin America program officer at the National Endowment for Democracy.

A small country with big impact, Chile is widely viewed as a model of progress in Latin America, the Atlantic Council adds:

Embracing free-market policies, smart economic management and foreign investment, its formula is touted as an example of regional success.  But, recent political shifts and accelerated social demands have called Chile’s model into question, throwing the country’s national identity into crisis. Will Chile continue to be a hemispheric model?

Join the Atlantic Council and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) for a discussion with Eugenio Tironi, a leading political analyst, and Felipe Larraín, Minister of Finance under former President Sebastián Piñera. These experts, who were instrumental in shaping Chile’s political and economic identity, will discuss what made the country such a powerhouse and whether it has stumbled.

Opening Remarks:
Carl Meacham
Director, Americas Program, CSIS  

Felipe Larraín Bascuñá
Director, Latin American Center for Economic and Social Policies
Universidad Católica de Chile

Eugenio Tironi
TIRONI Asociados

Peter Schechter
Director, Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center
Atlantic Council 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Registration 11:45 a.m.

Discussion: 12:00-1:30 pm
A light lunch will be served.

Atlantic Council
1030 15th Street NW
12th Floor
Washington, DC 20005


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Defending the legacy of Hong Kong democracy protests

china hk protests july1-crowds-rnIn late 2014, the business district of Hong Kong was flooded by pro-democracy activists protesting efforts by the People’s Republic of China to control the former British colony’s democratic elections. Dubbed the “Umbrella Revolution,” these demonstrations brought to light Beijing’s efforts to restrict pro-democracy candidates from being nominated in advance of the Hong Kong Chief Executive election in 2017.

Martin Lee and Anson Chan are leaders of Hong Kong’s democracy movement advocating for the autonomy promised under China’s “one country, two systems” governance model. They spoke with The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth in Hong Kong about the effect of student protests, the need for the United States to speak out and their fear that important freedoms may be slipping away (HT: FPI).

china hric_umbrellaOn Friday, April 10, Hudson Institute’s Center for Chinese Strategy will host a conversation with David Feith, Hong Kong-based editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal, and Libby Liu, president of Radio Free Asia, to examine the legacy of the Hong Kong protests, the future of uncensored media, and the democracy movement. Michael Pillsbury, director of the Center for Chinese Strategy, will moderate the discussion.


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