No, democracy not being discarded?

freedom house -electoraldemocracies-2015

The global decline in freedom suggested by the new Freedom House annual Freedom in the World report – ‘Discarding Democracy: Return to the Iron Fist’ – is questionable, says political scientist Jay Ulfelder. 

Freedom House’s topline message is, for instance, belied by the trend over time in its count of electoral democracies – countries that hold mostly free and fair elections, he argues on his Dart-Throwing Chimp blog. By Freedom House’s own count, the number of electoral democracies actually increased by three in 2014 to an all-time high of 125, or more than two-thirds of all countries. 

FREEDOM HOUSE 2015So how can both of these things be true? How can the number of electoral democracies grow over a period when annual declines in freedom scores outnumber annual gains? Ulfelder asks:

The answer is that those declines are often occurring in countries that are already governed by authoritarian regimes, and they are often small in size. Meanwhile, some countries are still making jumps from autocracy to democracy that are usually larger in scale than the incremental declines and thus mostly offset the losses in the global tally. So, while those declines are surely bad for the citizens suffering through them, they rarely move countries from one side of the ledger to the other, and they have only a modest effect on the overall level of “freedom” in the system.

This year’s update on the Middle East shows what I mean. In its report, Freedom House identifies only one country in that region that made significant gains in freedom in 2014—Tunisia—against seven that saw declines: Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. All seven of those decliners were already on the authoritarian side of the ledger going into 2014, however, and only four of the declines were large enough to move a country’s rating on one or both of the relevant indices.


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Region’s democracies have ‘abandoned’ Venezuela (but ex-leaders can play a role)

VZlacoaThe recent visit by three former Latin American leaders to Venezuela has not only helped draw attention to their assertion that the region’s democracies have “abandoned” the country, but has shown that former presidents can play a larger-than-expected role in pushing for democracy, analyst Andres Oppenheimer writes for The Miami Herald:

What was much more significant was that they forced their own countries’ governments to come to their defense…..The next show of support for Venezuela’s opposition should not be a visit by a group of three former presidents, but by a group of 30 or 40. Just as Maduro and all other leaders regularly meet with opposition politicians in the countries they visit, there is no reason why current or former Latin American leaders cannot do the same in Venezuela.

There are more than a half-dozen clubs of former democratic heads of state where former Latin American leaders are active, including the Club of Madrid, the Socialist International, the Centrist Democrat International, the Montevideo Circle and the Global Center for Development and Democracy.

Instead of putting out statements in support of democracy, which are read by very few, they should organize a massive visit to Venezuela in advance of this year’s legislative elections

vzla econstShortages are undermining support for the autocratic regime’s “21st-century socialist” experiment, especially among the poor, its intended beneficiaries, The Economist adds:

As queues lengthen across the country, there have been protests and some looting and violence. Fights break out, the strong snatch shopping from the weak and shots have reportedly been fired on occasion. Supermarkets have banned customers from photographing empty shelves, presumably under government pressure. Police have arrested journalists and charged them with disturbing the peace as they tried to report on food shortages. Several state governors have forbidden queuing overnight, perhaps sensing that it looks more shameful than when it happens during daylight.

In recent weeks, outsiders have called for greater attention to the crisis in Venezuela, notes Harold Trinkunas, Senior Fellow and Director for Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution’s Latin America Initiative.

Aside from the visit of former presidents of Colombia, Chile and Mexico visited Venezuela at the invitation of the opposition, he notes, separately, Chile has reminded the Venezuelan government that last year’s UNASUR mediation process was still available. However Chile’s offer was swiftly and decisively rebuffed by the Maduro administration, he writes:

The convergence of interests among states and institutions with a stake in restoring peace and prosperity to Venezuela suggests that there is a more conducive international environment in place to support needed measures. But even if these international actors did a better job of working in concert to encourage economic reform, contentious domestic politics in Venezuela remains an obstacle. Any successful reform will require that Venezuelans achieve a degree of political and social consensus that they do not presently possess. This means dim prospects for pulling back from the abyss, and an increased likelihood of further political and social turmoil in this troubled nation.


A former bodyguard to Diosdado Cabello, the powerful president of congress and a leader of Venezuela’s military wing, defected to the U.S. to cooperate with officials investigating drug-trafficking, Venezuelan authorities said, The Wall Street Journal reports (HT: FPI).

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Changes needed to avoid unrest in Oman

carnegie menaThe uncertain health of the sultan of Oman has heightened concern about the future of the most personalized of all Gulf monarchies, notes Marc Valeri, director of the Center for Gulf Studies at the University of Exeter. Many Omanis have long equated the country with its ruler, Qaboos bin Said Al Said, who won their loyalty by building up a state and a national identity centered on himself, he writes for Carnegie’s Middle East Center. However, amid mounting popular frustration, criticism of Qaboos has emerged, as has anxiety about what will follow his reign. There are several measures the regime can undertake to avoid further unrest:

  • The Omani model of political legitimacy is intimately linked to Qaboos. But the country’s young population feels less indebted to the ruler, and an increasingly vocal civil society has been complaining about deep-seated flaws in the state he built after taking power in 1970.
  • In 2011 and 2012, most major towns saw peaceful protests by Omanis demanding higher salaries, better living conditions, substantial political reforms, and the end of corruption.
  • The regime responded with a combination of economic gestures, firings of some top officials, and the detention of peaceful activists. Since 2012, repressive measures have become more prominent, with new investments in the security sector and crackdowns on dissonant voices.
  • Political parties are prohibited in Oman and, despite some cosmetic reforms, nearly all power remains with the monarch.

Changes needed to avoid unrest

Oman’s leaders should recognize that the environment has changed. Young Omanis will not be willing to grant the next ruler the same degree of control that their parents granted Qaboos. Instead, Qaboos’s successor is likely to face renewed demands for reform.

Limits on civil society should be relaxed. Rather than actively harassing and repressing peaceful alternative voices, the regime should encourage civil society organizations, a step toward allowing some public participation in governance.

Answers to political uncertainties should be provided. The regime’s reluctance to appoint a prime minister or a crown prince with some executive powers and to prepare for a post-Qaboos Oman has only fueled popular anxiety over the perceived lack of a long-term economic and political vision for the country. If the current ruler does not provide answers to these questions soon, the uncertainty could provoke considerable turmoil in the event of Qaboos’s sudden demise.


Marc Valeri’s current research focuses on the social, political, and economic transformations in the Gulf monarchies as well as nation building and political legitimacy in the Sultanate of Oman since 1970.

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Alarm over Syriza’s Russian links: ties to ‘fascist’ Dugin

DUGINThe day after his election as Greece’s new prime minister, Alexis Tsipras threw a grenade in the direction of Brussels: he objected to calls for further sanctions against Russia as a result of rising violence in Ukraine, the FT reports:

On Wednesday, Athens went further. “We are against the embargo that has been imposed against Russia,” said Panagiotis Lafazanis, the energy minister and leader of Syriza’s far-left faction….Nikos Kotzias, the foreign minister, and Panos Kammenos, defence minister, have both been cultivated by figures close to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.

Mr Kotzias — a former Piraeus university professor — has espoused increasingly nationalist positions, developing a relationship with Alexander Dugin (left), the Russian nationalist philosopher, during several visits to Moscow, according to a colleague who declined to be identified. Mr Dugin, who is close to several figures in the Moscow security establishment and last August called for a “genocide” of Ukrainians, was invited by Mr Kotzias to speak at an event in the Piraeus campus in 2013, where he extolled the role of Orthodox Christianity in uniting Greeks and Russians.

The idea of an Orthodox Christian alliance in geopolitics became fashionable in the 1990s, when the late Professor Sam Huntington propounded his “Clash of Civilizations” theory, The Economist notes:

He argued that one pole in world affairs would be an eastern-Christian bloc, linking Russia, Serbia and Greece. War was raging in former Yugoslavia at the time, and pro-Serbian sentiment was abundant in Greece, both among Orthodox bishops and anti-American Marxists. That made the theory more plausible. But the fashion for Orthodox geopolitics died down when the Balkans as a whole were drawn closer to the Western orbit and Greece enjoyed a burst of euro-fueled prosperity. Now of course that process has gone into reverse.

“The religious-nationalist thinking personified by … Dugin, a friend of the new Greek foreign minister, can in certain moods stress Orthodox Christian solidarity and in other moods seek friends in the world of Islam,” the paper adds. “The only fixed point, for Mr Dugin, is opposition to the West and liberal democracy.”

Anton Shekhovtsov, a researcher who studies far-right politics in Europe, tells RFE/RL that sympathy for Russia by Syriza and its coalition partner, the right-wing Independent Greeks party, goes far beyond the norm for Greece.

Several dozen e-mails reveal conversations between Georgy Gavrish, a close friend of Dugin’s and an official in his Eurasia movement and people inside Syriza, says Christo Grozev, a media investor and blogger specializing in information issues in eastern Europe, he tells RFE/RL:

The messages show “very close cooperation on strategy, on PR, and so on,” Grozev says. Syriza consultants would send “strategic memoranda” on party positions and policies to Dugin and Gavrish for their comments and suggestions….Gavrish lived in Greece for several years until about 2013. “Over those five years, he [Gavrish] served, apparently, as a proxy for Dugin to find like-minded or susceptible politicians and public figures in Greece to engage with Dugin’s ideology of Eurasianism versus Atlanticism,” Grozev says

Previous Greek governments have been pro-Russian and have often refused to toe the EU line, Carnegie Europe’s Judy Dempsey notes:

Athens was strongly opposed to sanctions against Serbia during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. But what is different about Syriza and some of its ministers is that they are overtly sympathetic toward Russia—and, in turn, anti-Ukrainian. During a visit to Moscow in May 2014, Tsipras accused the Kiev government of harboring neo-Nazis.

Panos Kammenos, the new defense minister and founder of the right-wing Independent Greeks, who is known for his anti-Semitic views, has blamed Western propaganda for the crisis in Ukraine. “Western NGOs sponsored by Germany or foundations like the Clinton Institute, provoked the crisis in Ukraine where a coup d’état overthrew the legal government,” he said in October 2014.

Dugin has been engaged in such activity across Europe for many years, says Andreas Umland, a professor at Kyiv’s Mohyla Academy. “He is closely connected already for more than 20 years with a whole variety of right-wing intellectuals in France, Italy, Belgium, Great Britain,” Umland told RFE/RL:

“He is reading them and they read him. Some of his books have been translated. It is not a very public sort of activity because it is more in the realm of publishing, pseudo-academia, intellectual circles, and elite discourse.”

The details of the ideology are confused and contradictory. Umland describes Dugin’s vision as “a radical form of anti-Westernism” that ultimately comes down to “a fascist program.”

“He is a fascist,” Umland says of Dugin. “He promotes an ideology that comes down to a rebirth of the Russian nation as a new Eurasian nation and a total restructuring both of world politics and Russian domestic politics. He has praised the SS in the past. He has made ambivalent statements about the Third Reich, Italian fascism, German Nazism. He sees himself also in a fascist tradition.”  RTWT

‘Useful’ or ‘useless idiots’?

Back in 2013, Dugin had stated that “in Greece, our partners could eventually be leftists from SYRIZA, which refuses Atlanticism, liberalism and the domination of the forces of global finance,” notes Dr Vassilis Petsinis is a Visiting Researcher at the Herder Institute (Marburg, Germany).  This is one of SYRIZA’s segments with a considerably harder Euroscepticism than the party-average, he writes for Open Democracy:

Nevertheless, the formation of a coalition government with the, right-wing, Independent Greeks has opened up new prospects. Some commentators have pondered that the disagreements in crucial areas of decision-making (e.g. military expenditures, minority issues and Balkan foreign policy) may lead to a split in the long term. Other analysts reckon that the pact with the Independent Greeks may lead to a ‘right-turn’ on the SYRIZA’s part and the consolidation of a government with more explicit features of national populism.

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AFSA launches Mark Palmer Award for advancing democracy

palmerThe American Foreign Service Association is seeking nominations for the new Mark Palmer Award for the Advancement of Democracy 

The Palmer Award is open to all Foreign Service members from any of the foreign affairs agencies, serving domestically or overseas, who promoted American policies focused on democracy, freedom and governance through bold, exemplary, imaginative and effective efforts during one or more assignments. The award offers a $2,500 prize and a travel stipend to attend the award ceremony in the Benjamin Franklin Room in June. 

Ambassador Mark Palmer (left) was a Foreign Service Officer who focused throughout his career on the issues of democracy and human rights.

National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman described Palmer as “an entrepreneur of democracy,” citing his role in crafting key parts of President Ronald Reagan’s celebrated 1982 Westminster Address that helped launch the NED.  Against the wishes of a White House speechwriter, Palmer managed to have included in the text a critical endorsement of the idea of establishing an organization that would “foster the infrastructure of democracy.”

Palmer would also play an instrumental role in the creation of the Community of Democracies. 

All nominations must be received by March 20, 2015. Self nominations welcome. For more information, please visit or contact Perri Green, coordinator for special awards and outreach, at (202) 719-9700 or

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