How to fight for the public square

The agora in ancient Athens

The agora in ancient Athens

As citizens gather in city squares from Caracas to Kiev to Cairo, governments are showing symptoms of agoraphobia, which literally means fear of an agora or “place of assembly,” according to Douglas Rutzen and Brittany Grabel of the International Center for Not-for-profit Law.

This phenomenon is occurring in countries across the political spectrum, but in cases of authoritarian agoraphobia, governments have simply destroyed public squares, they write for Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab.

For example, in Bahrain, the government bulldozed Pearl Square to stymie the country’s 2011 reformist movement and prevent citizens from assembling there. In other countries, governments have erected physical barriers to restrict access to civic space. In Egypt, the military recently erected ten-foot iron gates to control access to Tahrir Square, while in Uganda, the police installed barbed wire to keep citizens out of Constitution Square, Kampala’s only public square. On March 20, 2014, the Turkish government blocked Twitter, restricting access to the digital agora.

Supplementing physical and electronic barriers, many governments are erecting legal barriers to civic space. In January 2014, Cambodia issued a blanket ban on all public gatherings. Days later, Viktor Yanukovych’s Ukraine enacted legislation imposing five year prison sentences on protestors if they blocked government buildings, and allowing the authorities to seize the cars of people participating in “Automaidan” protests. Shortly after, the Venezuelan government brought criminal charges, including arson and conspiracy charges to imprison citizens engaged in peaceful assemblies. These are but a few recent examples of the global agoraphobia pandemic.

According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, more than twenty countries have recently considered or enacted legal restrictions on the freedom of peaceful assembly.

Agoraphobia is a global contagion, and no country is immune. To address this pandemic, international institutions, governments, and civil society must embrace a holistic treatment plan.

First, global and regional institutions must enhance norms protecting peaceful assembly. International norms on the freedom of assembly are just beginning to take shape. The U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) recently established a U.N. special rapporteur on the freedom of assembly. He has written three pioneering thematic reports, but his reports are not binding in international law. …..

Second, governments must reform their national laws and practices. International norms have little impact if they are not enshrined at the national level. …….Donor and experts with comparative expertise must be prepared to respond to appeals from countries requesting assistance. In addition, like-minded governments must increase their political support for multilateral initiatives, such as the Community of Democracies Working Group, which plays a critical role in mobilizing diplomatic engagement when restrictive laws are proposed.

Third, the international community must focus on frontlines. In many countries, security personnel receive limited or no training on how to manage protests in a peaceful, democratic manner. Under the auspices of the special rapporteur or another international body, an initiative should be launched to compile and share good practices, complemented by in-person training programs. …….


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Putin’s three-fold challenge to the international system

russiancrimeIt is now common ground that Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea represents a revision of the 1991 settlement involving the end of the USSR, with some portraying this as an indication that “Russia is back” and others viewing it as the kind of revanchism that inevitably threatens the international system, says a leading analyst:

But in a certain sense, this revision of the international order is less important than two other acts of revisionism the Kremlin leader is engaged in, acts that unlike the first have immediate consequences beyond the border of what was the Soviet Union because other countries, even those which did not emerge from imperial collapse, may pick up on, writes Paul Goble:

The first of these is Putin’s revision of the 1945 settlement, not the division of Europe into spheres of influence but rather the insistence of the founders of the United Nations that citizenship is more important than ethnicity and that no country can assert the contrary, even though under the right of nations to self-determination, ethnic groups sometimes can….. Putin’s regime is pursuing a program that also elevates ethnicity over citizenship at least with regard to ethnic Russians and that claims that the Russian state has the right to use force to protect ethnic Russians who are not its citizens abroad.

The consequences of this are truly horrific for three reasons. First, there are more than 15 million ethnic Russians living in the former Soviet republics and formerly occupied Baltic states who would be the object of such a policy…           Second, the nationalistic impulses behind such a policy are unlikely to be kept only in the foreign policy realm…And third, unlike the specific case of the Russian Federation and the post-Soviet space, this kind of dynamic can spread to a variety of other places in the world, especially given that the Kremlin is now promoting ties with leaders and groups who have already shown themselves contemptuous of the rights of minorities of all kinds.

The other Putin act of revisionism concerns the settlement of 1919. Putin and even more some of those around him are celebrating the virtues of empire, of the right of powerful states to hold less powerful peoples in thrall, Goble asserts:

By celebrating empire, the Russian leadership is not just revising the settlement of 1991 or that of 1945. It is challenging this settlement of 1919 and pushing the world back to one where some nations claimed the right to rule others without their consent and use the latter for their own benefit.

Putin and his supporters in Moscow and the West would like to keep the focus on what Putin is doing in Ukraine as narrow as possible.  Diplomats are likely to say that is the only way to make “progress.” But Putin’s three-fold revisionism of the hard-won settlements of the 20th century is so dangerous that they and the rest of us need to recognize what is at stake.



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Putin’s iron-fisted message: ‘progressive conservatism’?

sovietmotherland_smThe revolution in Ukraine, and Russia’s lightning-speed annexation of Crimea, triggered a landslide shift in the Russian media, says Shorenstein Center fellow Jill Dougherty.

With Russia’s state-owned domestic mass media firmly under government control, the Kremlin is putting increasing pressure on smaller, independent media. Internationally, it is moving aggressively to champion Russia’s policies and values by rebuilding the decayed communications and propaganda structures of the Soviet Union, she writes for The Huffington Post:

Injecting new life – and new money – into the “medium,” it has honed its “message:” a litany of recriminations against the West and a firm conviction that Russia has the right, to reject Western values, and to promote its own alternative view to the world.

One Russian TV journalist, requesting his name not be used because of the political sensitivity of the issue, told me it’s not so much an issue of being pro-Kremlin or anti-Kremlin; Mironyuk, he says, “was a kind of liberal Kremlin media manager and that liberal clan has been defeated, and defeated with blood. And another hard-line clan has been waiting…they are now ruling the Russian media and that’s why everyone who used to be against them is being destroyed.”

[After a purge of its leadership] Russia Today soon shifted its editorial approach, forgetting about early features on life across the vast expanse of Russia, broadcasting a steady stream of “alternative” news reports, heavy on conspiracy theories, criticism of the American government’s “oppressive” domestic and international policies, and a steady stream of “what-about-ism,” a time-worn propaganda technique used by the Soviet government in which criticism is deflected by cries of “but what about?…”

In the 1990′s Russia’s media outlets were sometimes taken over at the point of a gun. At 3 a.m. on April 14, 2001 I stood in the hall on the eighth floor of Ostankino Television Center at the offices of NTV, Russia’s cutting-edge, hard-hitting news channel, as armed men forced the station’s security to step aside. NTV was now under control of the state-owned energy conglomerate Gazprom. The new NTV specializes in screeds against the opposition and two years ago made waves with an ambush interview with the new American Ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul. After that run-in McFaul tweeted “Everywhere I go NTV is there. Wonder who gives them my calendar?”

Today, the domestic Russian media are more likely to be brought under Kremlin control in “hostile takeovers” than in midnight raids by men in balaclavas and body armor. The state controls all TV networks, beginning with First Channel, which covers approximately 98% of all households in the country.

“All TV networks are either under state control or under control of the state-affiliated companies that are headed by Putin’s closest friends,” investigative journalist Yevgenia Albats, chief editor of The New Times magazine told me in March. “All these current media are in the hands of the Kremlin.”

Talking to “Brotherly” Countries

Vladimir Putin’s media reach doesn’t stop at Russia’s borders. It extends to other parts of the Russian-speaking world, “brotherly” countries that used to be Soviet republics. Last December, explaining why he was offering a loan to cash-strapped Ukraine, Putin told reporters: “I’ll tell seriously without any irony: we often use the phrase ‘brotherly country’ and ‘brotherly people.’”

Image Problems

Moscow, however, has had difficulty in expanding the reach of its media internationally.

Kremlin officials have candidly admitted to me that Russia has an “image problem.” In an interview in Moscow last year Konstantin Kosachev, head of Rossotrudnichestvo, Russia’s key soft power agency, told me: “Right now the image of Russia is, in some way objectively, negative. In some way it is discredited.”

Vladimir Putin claims the West is waging a media war against Russia. Kremlin officials are deeply cynical about the West’s “image management.” Human rights, democracy, they have told me, are nothing more than “branding” meant to “sell” a nation internationally. As Alexander Smirnov, the Kremlin’s public relations and communications chief, put it in a Moscow interview in February 2012: “If we are talking about democracy, it’s the most expensive brand in the world that you (the U.S.) have created. It’s a million times more expensive than Coca-Cola.”

‘Progressive conservatism’

Now, with the sudden birth of Russia Today, President Putin is re-creating a crucial part of the Soviet Union’s external propaganda structure dismantled under Boris Yeltsin. The new agency is shaping up as a modern version of APN (News Press Agency,) founded in 1961, which was tasked with reporting on “the social-economic and cultural life of the Soviet people and items reflecting Soviet society’s point of view on important internal and international events”.

Russia, in Putin’s eyes, has become the un-West, a center of gravity in its own right. “I think they are getting more definite about what we are NOT,” says Ekaterina Zabrovskaya, editor in chief of “They are opposing our beliefs to some Western ideas.”

“I would say it’s ‘progressive conservatism,” RIA Novosti’s Executive International Director Pavel Andreev told me. “It’s based on the foundation of Russianness, of unique Russianness. I think this is the narrative which they will be developing but it’s still in the early stages, to be adopted and to develop the external messaging that would be unified across the board but, I mean, they are getting there.”

Ukraine, Vladimir Putin says, is the turning point. “Our Western partners have crossed the line, playing the bear and acting irresponsibly and unprofessionally,” he told his lawmakers, as applause filled the ornate hall of the Kremlin.

“They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position, because we maintain it and because we call things like they are and do not engage in hypocrisy. But there is a limit to everything.”

HT: MikeMcFaul


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Uganda: a general challenges a dictator

UgandaEven as US officials made lofty pledges to support African democracy Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni used looted development funds to close off nearly every peaceful means of loosening his grip on power, says analyst Helen Epstein.

But the opposition wasn’t Museveni’s only problem. What worried him even more was that discontent was also growing in his own political party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), she writes in a must-read essay for The New York Review of Books:

The 2011 elections had brought to Parliament a group of enlightened young people like Cerinah Nebanda who belonged to the NRM, but were just as enraged as the opposition was about rampant corruption and the resulting deterioration of health care and other services. They were working on legislation to prevent Uganda’s oil revenues from falling into the hands of corrupt officials, and were trying to rehabilitate Uganda’s woefully neglected health care system by raising the miserably low salaries of Uganda’s doctors. What happened next, according to General David Sejusa [until recently a senior adviser to Museveni and coordinator of Uganda’s two main spy agencies], was utterly chilling.

“There was a movement of elimination,” he told me. “A meeting was held in Statehouse [the president’s official residence] in September 2012 involving key family members.” Museveni himself was there, as well as First Lady Janet Museveni, Museveni’s then-thirty-eight-year-old son Muhoozi Kainerugaba, Museveni’s half-brother Salim Saleh, and various in-laws. Sejusa wasn’t invited to this meeting. By then, he had been put on what is known in Uganda as katebe, a state of powerlessness in which officials retain their titles and salaries but are given no tasks and don’t receive official reports. Most intelligence work was now carried out by a parallel agency directly under the control of the Museveni family. Nevertheless, Sejusa had built up a strong personal network during his many years in power and he soon found out what took place at that September 2012 meeting.

According to Sejusa’s sources, Museveni’s relatives were furious with the president. He had promised to deal decisively with dissent, but he was letting them down, they said, and now Nebanda and other “rebel MPs” were tearing the ruling NRM apart. “Nebanda was part of a fearless emerging force,” Sejusa said. They “were speaking about things that [Museveni’s family felt] shouldn’t be talked about—especially the corruption of the first family and the prime minister. They were also punching holes in the myth that Museveni himself was innocent, and that only those working for him were corrupt.”

Before long, hit squads were organized to stage car crashes made to look like accidents, shootings made to look like robberies, and poisonings made to look like food poisoning, drug overdoses, and other mishaps. In October 2012, shortly after the meeting at the president’s office, Sejusa, who was still Museveni’s senior adviser and spy chief, wrote a prophetic letter that appeared in several Ugandan newspapers warning of “creeping lawlessness,” “sickening robberies of government money,” and “murders.”


Whether democracy can ever take root in a country with such a brutal political culture will depend crucially on the support that the FUF [the recently-formed Freedom and Unity Front] and all those who continue to struggle for justice in Uganda will receive from inside the country and from the US and other foreign powers, some of which have kept Museveni’s phony democracy going for years, Epstein contends:

In 2012, the World Bank and several European donors finally reduced aid to Uganda because of the regime’s corruption, and in February 2014, President Obama issued a statement warning that the enactment by the Ugandan government of a harsh bill criminalizing homosexuality would damage US–Uganda relations. Museveni signed the bill nevertheless, declaring that he would “work with Russia.” Uganda’s recently developed oil fields may soon diminish the need for foreign aid in any case.



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Iraq’s April 30 Elections: Consolidating Democratic Gains or Cementing Sectarian Divides?


Later this month, Iraqis will go to the polls to elect new members of the Council of Representatives, the country’s legislative body, as well as members of provincial assemblies in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Preparations for the April 30 elections have been turbulent to date, with looming questions regarding the ability of displaced Iraqis to participate in the polls; the controversial disqualification of certain candidates; and the now-rescinded resignation of the commissioners of the Independent High Electoral Commission, the body charged with organizing the polls. Sectarian rhetoric and ethnic appeals have also characterized the campaign messages of certain candidates and party coalitions.

Amid sharpening sectarian divisions and an increasingly precarious security environment, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) present a panel of experts to share their perspectives on Iraq’s national elections, and what they mean for the country’s democratic development.NDI recently conducted a nationwide pre-election poll to gauge citizen perspectives on prospects for peaceful elections; anticipated voter participation rates and shifts in partisan support; and longer-term issues such as perceived improvements or declines in cross-cutting issues such as security, basic service provision, employment and education. The results reveal distinct regional divides and opinions on the country’s state of play ahead of these critical elections.

NDI’s Iraq-based Resident Director, Elvis Zutic, will discuss the poll’s key findings and his views on the country’s political, electoral and security contexts. Discussants will complement his assessment with analyses of the importance of these elections, and how the outcome of the polls will impact Iraq’s broader development progress and its relationships with regional and international actors.

Featured Speakers:

Elvis Zutic Resident Director, NDI Iraq

Sarhang Hamasaeed Senior Program Officer, Middle East and North Africa Programs, USIP

Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad Former Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations Counselor, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Manal Omar, Moderator Associate Vice President for the Middle East and Africa, USIP


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