Democracy NGOs deny fear of persecution prompted Russia staff move

Two US-based democracy assistance groups say media reports that personnel from their Russian offices have been relocated due to fear of persecution are misleading.

The International Republic Institute (IRI) told RFE/RL that the accounts are “overblown,” adding that its staff was not harassed or threatened:

The Russian daily “Kommersant” cited employees from IRI and another Washington-based group, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), as making the allegation.

IRI said it relocated its staff in Eastern Europe a month ago after Moscow forced the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to end its work in the country. Moscow has accused USAID, which IRI gets funding from, of meddling in Russian politics.

NDI told RFE/RL its staff members moved to Lithuania temporarily in October for the same reason.

Whatever the immediate reason, Amnesty International Russia’s director, Sergei Nikitin, wrote on his blog that the closures “show the stability of the general trend: the pressure on civil society in Russia continues.”

NDI and IRI are two of the National Endowment for Democracy’s core institutes. 

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Can democracies challenge the ‘League of Authoritarian Gentlemen’?

Are the West’s democracies prepared to challenge what one analyst calls “Eurasia’s new authoritarian architecture”?

“For years now, the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia have been talking about the importance of common efforts to promote human rights and democratic values around the world,” notes Alexander Cooley, Professor of Political Science at Barnard College.

“If the liberal democracies pooled their efforts, there seemed good reason to believe that they could embed these values in international law and succeed in fostering the growth of freedom,” he writes for Foreign Policy.

“It turns out, however, that the autocrats haven’t been asleep at the wheel, either,” Colley notes.

Freedom House’s latest global survey concluded that the denial or deterioration of political rights has been “particularly grim for Eurasian countries,” he notes, attributing such developments in large part to conventions signed under the rubric of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

“According to human rights organizations (herehere), these regional agreements have facilitated a number of politically motivated renditions and abductions,” Colley writes:

The most prominent cases involve transfers of Central Asians from Russia and Uighurs from both Russia and Central Asia to China. Last year the European Court of Human Rights, where several of these Russian cases have been litigated, even sent the European Council of Ministers a letter of concern about the plight of a group of Central Asian litigants. The so-called “Garabayev Group” comprises 18 cases examined by the court from 2007 to 2011, most of them involving Uzbek and Tajik citizens, many of who were forcibly abducted from Russia….As Russian investigative journalists point out, Russia has, as a result, ceased to be the “safe space” for Central Asian political dissidents and oppositionists that it was during the 1990s.

Authoritarian regional groupings are also “cynically emulating the form, but not the substance, of established democratic actors,” says Cooley , the author of Great Games, Local Rules: the New Great Power Contest in Central Asia (Oxford 2012):

Both the SCO and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have established their own “election observers,” mostly as a response to the consistent criticism that Central Asian elections received from the OSCE’s established monitoring missions run by its Office for Democratic Initiatives and Human Rights (ODIHR). Neither regional body has adopted the United Nations Code of Conduct for International Election Observers and, not surprisingly, these missions usually reach conclusions about the quality of Eurasian elections that are dramatically at odds with those of the ODIHR.

For example, while in 2007 the ODHIR heavily criticized the quality of the Kyrgyz parliamentary elections that allowed autocrat Kurmanbek Bakiyev to consolidate his grip on power, both CIS and SCO monitors certified the legality and legitimacy of the poll. The CIS Election Monitoring Organization also oversees elections in the disputed territories of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdnistria, thus providing the only source of external legitimacy for these polls.

Autocrats are also undermining the rights agenda within international organizations, Cooley notes:

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, established in 1995 as successor to the landmark CSCE, has seen its once vibrant democratic mandate effectively dismantled. Russia, Belarus and the Central Asian states have attempted to gut the organization’s election observation missions and actively blocked adding new “human dimension” projects. Researchers also have even noted how in its security projects, such as promoting police reform in Central Asia, the OSCE has jettisoned political conditions, unintentionally enhancing the capacity of these authoritarian regimes.

Even the United Nations is now becoming a battleground for contesting and redefining political rights. 

Reports that Turkey is actively considering SCO membership as an alternative to the European Union, a grouping that has provided a democratic gravity model for its neighborhood, add urgency to the need for democracies to challenge the new autocratic axis.

“Confronting Eurasia’s new authoritarian architecture will require both Washington and Brussels to challenge the legality and purpose of these authoritarian practices,” Colley concludes.

“Ignoring their growing importance, or even choosing to selectively engage with groups like the SCO on less controversial issues, will only further serve to legitimize these new challenges, thereby further undermining democratic norms and Western standing in Eurasia and beyond.”


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Turkey views autocratic SCO as alternative to democratic EU?

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is actively considering membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a group that’s been described as an authoritarian international for Eurasia’s illiberal regimes, according to Eurasia Daily Monitor analyst Emrullah Uslu:

When asked to clarify whether the SCO is an alternative to the EU, Erdogan said, “The SCO is better and more powerful, and we have common values with them [emphasis added]. We told them, ‘If you say come, we will.’ Pakistan wants to join, as does India. They have also made requests. We could all join together. In terms of population and markets, this organization significantly surpasses the European Union in every way.”

“You should include us … and we will say farewell to the European Union,” Erdogan told Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The SCO has become a vehicle for undermining international standards of human rights and refugee law, according to a recent report from the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

“Whether or not Endogen was once again ‘joking’ about Ankara giving up the EU in favor of the SCO, pro-AKP media outlets have nonetheless catapulted the debate into the public sphere,” writes Uslu:

Turkey has been criticized in the past for seemingly moving away from its democratization process and slowly turning into an authoritarian regime. Therefore, Erdogan’s statement about Turkey’s values matching those of the SCO is politically treacherous. Raising the SCO debate in Turkish politics may inadvertently negatively contribute to the international debate on whether Turkey’s political system is indeed becoming more authoritarian.

The SCO has also been described as “the most dangerous organization that the American people have never heard of” and “one of those international bodies whose proclaimed ideals conceal an often sordid reality.”

The group’s approach to counter-terrorism is modeled on China’s Three Evils doctrine for combating terrorism, extremism and separatism, even if, as one study notes, this has “too often acted as cover for suppression of ….legitimate opposition groups and the cutting-off of trans-regional ties between them.”

The SCO focus on territorial integrity, non-interference in internal affairs, and social stability “contributes to supporting repressive regimes at the expense of national, regional, and global human rights,” according to a recent whitepaper from Human Rights in China.

FIDH and Human Rights in China are grantees of the National Endowment for Democracy.

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In ‘surprise turnabout’, Syria’s opposition open to dialog with regime

Syria’s opposition is softening its position on negotiations with the Assad regime, reports suggest.

Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, the head of the opposition coalition, today expressed a willingness for the first time to talk with government representatives.

In his surprise turnabout, al-Khatib said he was willing to talk with representatives of Assad’s regime ‘in Egypt, Turkey or Tunisia’ on condition the government releases tens of thousands of political prisoners and renews all expired passports held by Syrians abroad — a reference to exiled opposition leaders and activists,” AP reports:

There was no immediate government response to the comments by al-Moaz, a 52-year-old preacher-turned-activist chosen to head the coalition as a unifying figure. Al-Moaz’s statements, posted on his Facebook page, were later taken down and replaced by another posting in which he clarified he would be negotiating a transitional phase “to prevent more bloodshed” and asserting that he was expressing his personal opinion.

The Syrian National Council, the largest group in the coalition, said al-Khatib’s statements do not reflect the position of the coalition, which refuses to negotiate with a “criminal regime.”

“No dialogue with the butchers,” Suheir Atassi, a senior member of the coalition, wrote on her Twitter account.

But in a pre-emptive strike at dissenters, al-Khatib criticized “those who sit on their couches and say … do not negotiate. We don’t negotiate about the regime remaining, but for its departure at the lowest cost in blood and destruction.”

“The key to ending the deadly stalemate actually lies with Russia, long the main foreign operator in the country,” says a prominent activist-analyst.

“When anti-western feeling ran high among the Arab people in the 1950s and 1960s, the region’s leading nations – Egypt and Syria foremost among them – enhanced their legitimacy by building strong ties with Moscow and creating a strategic distance from the west,” writes Bassma Kodmani, a former head of foreign relations in the Syrian National Council:

But Russia’s military support and diplomatic protection of the regime of Bashar al-Assad is overriding these memories. For almost two years, the Syrian opposition has been asking: “Why does Russia need to rely on a criminal clique when the majority of our population and political elites could be supportive of a close co-operative relationship with Moscow?”

The opposition does not favour a military outcome. It will explore every possibility to end the people’s ordeal; to salvage the nation, society and the institutions of the state; and to restore sovereignty.

Kodmani cautions that Syria’s people “do not want their revolution to be hijacked by any one force or group from inside or outside,” a thinly-veiled reference to the radical Islamist groups that have marginalized mainstream secular and democratic forces within the opposition.

“Russia should listen carefully to the Syrian people; their message is simple and clear,”  writes Kodmani, director of the Arab Reform Initiative:

They want their freedom and they will earn it sooner or later. Moscow should look out for those who were its friends and could once again be its partners and allies. These voices need to be offered some prospect of success. They should not be pushed into the arms of the west, which pursues its own interests. Mr Assad is a liability for Russia. With the Syrian people, Moscow can turn the dark page of this regime.


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‘Hybrid autocrat’ Chávez leaves Venezuela in ‘twilight zone’

Hugo Chavez was a ‘Great Leader’?  Er, no, he wasn’t, says a former admirer.

The fading Venezuelan president “was neither a tyrant nor a democratic liberator but a hybrid, an elected autocrat, and the nuances of that category often escaped his friends and critics abroad,” writes Rory Carroll, The Guardian’s Caracas-based Latin America correspondent from 2006 to 2012.

“He relied on the ballot box for legitimacy while concentrating power and eroding freedoms, shunting Venezuela into a twilight zone where you could do what you wanted – until the president said you couldn’t,” he writes in The New Statesman, the UK’s left-wing weekly.

Maria Lourdes Afiuni (left) made the mistake of defying Chávez by releasing a banker accused of fraud, notes Carroll:

Chávez erupted. He went on television to accuse Afiuni of having been bribed, of being a bandit, and said in earlier times she would have been shot. “We have to give this judge and the people who did this the maximum sentence . . . 30 years in prison in the name of the dignity of the country!”

A single mother in her forties, Afiuni had cancer. Inmates attacked her and threatened to “drink her blood”. An international campaign for her release was launched but on this bright January day she remained incarcerated and hunched in her cell, afraid to mix with the other inmates. “I’m here as the president’s prisoner,” she said.

“Afiuni’s plight was not typical of Hugo Chávez’s rule,” writes Carroll:

There were no gulags, no mass arrests, no fear of the midnight knock on the door. Chávez did not rule through terror.

Chávez praised Fidel Castro, Robert Mugabe, Vladimir Putin and Muammar Gaddafi as brothers but restrained the bloodshed, settling for selective intimidation and thuggery. Repression was usually a last resort – when oil revenues, charisma and political skill were not enough for him to get his way.

Instead, Chávez’s critics faced a range of less blatant threats, says Carroll, author of the forthcoming book, Comandante: Inside the Revolutionary Court of Hugo Chávez:

The first weapon was humiliation. Intelligence agents passed recordings of intercepted calls to a chavista television show, The Razorblade, which would gleefully spin and broadcast them, to an accompaniment of animal noises.

The second weapon was disqualification from running for office. Leopoldo López, a potential presidential rival descended from Simón Bolívar’s sister, was accused of corruption, tangled in legal knots and sidelined.

The third was emasculation. Antonio Ledezma was elected the metropolitan mayor of Caracas but became irrelevant. A red-shirted mob occupied the city hall, with police complicity, and Chávez transferred the mayor’s powers to a newly created city authority run by an apparatchik….

Union leaders who agitated too hard for workers’ rights, such as Rubén González, were jailed for unlawful assembly. Political prisoners, to use that loaded term, seldom numbered more than a dozen at any one time. A small number that sent a loud message: Chávez owned the courts.

The Barrios family knows all about rule of law in chavista Venezuela.

“Jorge Antonio Barrios was just nine years old in 1998 when the Aragua state police came looking for his father, Benito,” The Economist reports:

He watched as the officers beat him and took him away. Later that day Benito died from multiple gunshot wounds. The police said they shot him in self-defense after he opened fire on them. As is customary in Venezuela, no one was prosecuted. The country has one of the world’s highest murder rates, and according to academic studies, 96% of homicides go unpunished.

Benito’s brother, Narciso, was the next to die at police hands and another seven men in the family have been fatally shot since.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which found that “in the majority of these acts, members of the same police force of the state of Aragua appear to be clearly implicated,” directed the government to provide protection to family members, and says it has not complied.

Venezuela is “hardly a Stalinist dystopia, but not the democratic New Jerusalem Chávez’s propagandists proclaimed,” the Guardian’s Carroll notes:

Other Latin American governments knew of the abuses, that elections were free though not fair, but stayed silent. Venezuela’s hollowed economy required huge imports from its neighbours to keep shelves stocked. Why risk the bonanza?

While Chávez’s designated heir, Vice- President Nicolás Maduro, known to be close to Cuba, “does an awkward tango” with his rival Diosdado Cabello, Venezuela remains in the twilight zone.

“The longer-term challenge will be the economy and rebuilding institutions – ministries, the judiciary, the armed forces, local government – which have been gutted and have become hyper-politicized. It will be messy and painful,’ Carroll concludes.


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