Rouhani ‘is no reformist’ but Iran hardliners block efforts to expand liberties

rouhaniHassan Rouhani, Iran’s centrist president, is struggling to implement domestic reforms as hardliners block his attempts to expand civil liberties, says FT analyst Najmeh Bozorgmehr:

Rouhani is not a reformist but largely owes his surprise victory in the June presidential election to pro-reform groups who mobilised voters in the hopes that his promises of moderation could bring more social and political freedom and improved economic conditions after eight years of suppression under president Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad….But while the president and his government have the strong support of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader and ultimate decision maker, in foreign policy and nuclear negotiations, they remain unprotected in the tense power struggle with hardliners on domestic issues.

“A complicated power struggle is going on between the government and hardliners in the parliament and the judiciary who are worried about future elections…. and do not want Rouhani to succeed,” said one reform-minded analyst.

iranexecutionsDespite the release of some political prisoners, including dissident lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, Rouhani has failed to make progress on human rights, say monitors. Since his government, notes the Boroumand Foundation, executions of criminals and alleged members of rebel groups have reportedly increased.

Mistreatment of Bahais is another aspect of Iran’s abuse of human rights, says Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“There are only 300,000 Bahais in Iran, or less than one-half of 1 percent of the country’s population. But since its founding in 1979, the Islamic Republic has singled this group out for systematic repression,” he writes for The Washington Post:

Rouhani has been no help to Bahais. In his Sept. 19 op-ed in The Post, Rouhani wrote that “we must join hands to constructively work toward national dialogue, whether in Syria or Bahrain. We must create an atmosphere where peoples of the region can decide their own fates.” How about in Iran? The persecution of Bahais gives the lie to his pose as a moderate.

The Boroumand Foundation is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. 

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China’s authoritarian capitalist experiment: ‘system is over if they reform, and if they don’t’

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New State Security Committee by Badiucao for China Digital Times:

China’s new national security committee, announced at the conclusion of this week’s ruling Communist Party plenum, will differ from its American equivalent in one crucial aspect: The Chinese version will have dual duties with responsibility over domestic security as well as foreign policy, Jane Perlez writes for The New York Times:

That means the new body will deal with cybersecurity as well as the unrest in China’s Tibet and Xinjiang regions, where resistance against the Han majority population is continuing, according to Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing and an occasional adviser to the government.

“In China, the security question is largely domestic: cyber, Xinjiang and Tibet,” said, an international relations professor at Beijing’s Renmin University. The focus will be on foreign policy with a considerable domestic component that will call for the Public Security Bureau to participate on the committee when it discusses matters of internal security, he said.

In response to the news that the Third Plenum meetings established a new committee on state security, notes China Digital Times, Badiucao immediately compared it to the Soviet KGB (which translates as Committee for State Security) and re-imagined the KGB logo with Chinese characteristics.

The reforms initiated at the party plenum are likely to spark “the mother of all experiments in authoritarian capitalism,” says Tufts University’s Daniel Drezner.

The meeting agreed to reform financial markets and land laws, but the ruling party “also faces massive corruption, environmental degradation that threatens to overwhelm urban areas and a gap between rich and poor that dwarfs that of the United States,” notes The Washington Post:

How to tackle those problems without giving greater voice to the emerging middle class and empowering the judicial system and the rule of law? Not just dissidents but also many Chinese intellectuals and policymakers have recognized that such change is essential to economic development and social peace in the future.

“These reforms are just like small repairs on an old road,” says Zhang Ming, a professor of politics at Renmin University in Beijing. “In essence, they are about making small adjustments at the administrative level, but these are pretty meaningless and hard to sustain.”

“There tends to be an impression outside China that this is a seamless authoritarian system and when the leadership says jump everyone jumps, but that is a very unrealistic view of how the country works,” says Kenneth Lieberthal, a former senior director for Asia on the National Security Council in the White House. “The reality is yes, everyone jumps but not necessarily in the direction the leadership wants. This is a system that can be highly disciplined and highly centralized but almost never is,” he tells The Financial Times.

Godfather of China’s neoconservatives

Wang_HuningThe front-runner for the job of heading the new national security body is considered to be Wang Huning (right), who is a member of the Politburo, the director of the policy research office of the Communist Party and a close adviser on domestic and foreign policy to three Chinese presidents: Mr. Hu, Mr. Jiang and now Mr. Xi, The Times’s Perlez notes:

Mr. Wang is unusual in the Chinese policy firmament because his expertise covers American politics and Chinese domestic concerns as well as foreign policy, a portfolio of interests that would seem to coincide with the mandate of the new national security committee.

Wang has been described as a “cross between Henry Kissinger and Karl Rove” and “a godfather of China’s neoconservatives, who have provided the ideological backbone for Chinese leaders since 1989 by arguing against Western-style democracy and in favor of authoritarian government and state-sponsored nationalism.”

“His skills span both foreign and domestic policy and his membership in the Politburo gives him more political clout than anyone in the formal foreign policy system has,” Brookings analyst Lieberthal said.

Brittle legitimacy

The ruling Communist Party’s “myopic focus on GDP growth rates helps fuel over-investment across the country but it also aligns almost perfectly with the corrupt interests of many officials,” notes the FT’s Jamil Anderlini. “By building a large dam, road or giant housing complex, an official can boost GDP and create jobs while also creating a large pot of money he can dip into for himself or spread around friends and family.”

An example of this phenomenon played out nearly a decade ago, when the central government ordered hundreds of big cities to build water treatment facilities to handle the growing problem of untreated sewage pouring into China’s waterways. When the programmed ended and government inspection teams were sent out from Beijing they found that virtually all of the facilities had been built on time and to the right specifications. But one year after they were completed only about half of the plants had actually been turned on.

“I saw photographs of sewage pipes leading up to a treatment plant and then going directly around it to dump untreated sewage straight into a river,” says Mr Lieberthal. “Building the plant was a major profit centre for the local officials but putting it into operation made it a cost centre. You can see examples like this over and over again throughout China.”

Recognizing the brittleness of its performance-based legitimacy, the ruling party has launched an offensive against the perceived ideological laxity that has allowed the dissemination of liberal ideas, including advocacy of constitutionalism, democracy, demands for civil rights and individual freedoms, and proposals that the armed forces be freed from party control. A recent party edict – Document #9 – warns that “anti-China forces in Western countries and domestic dissidents” are continuously “infiltrating China’s ideological domain and challenging mainstream ideology.”

System is over if they reform and over if they don’t

“Since it remains an authoritarian one-party state, China’s leaders are still able to marshal enormous resources and impose strict discipline when they absolutely have to but doing so depletes vital political capital,” Anderlini notes.

Aside from maintaining the GDP growth that underpins the party’s legitimacy, the other key priority is “stability maintenance,” he notes – in short, “snuffing out incipient peasant or worker rebellions. This is usually achieved through a measure of good governance combined with a pervasive and iron-fisted array of security and surveillance services.”

“The biggest challenge for the party is the fact that all its traditional methods of governing are no longer effective. What they need is an overhaul of the entire system,” says Chen Min, a former political commentator with a major newspaper who was dismissed for his outspoken views.

“The problem is that the current leadership has no idea how to quickly fix the system so they find themselves in a situation where it’s over if they reform and it’s over if they don’t reform.”

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Religion vs. ideology: Islamist fanaticism is not Islam, says Jordan’s Queen Rania

RANIAJordan’s Islamists are trying to repair the damage to the Muslim Brotherhood’s image caused by the movement’s Egyptian and Tunisian branches, says analyst Saed Ameri.

“Although the announced goal of the recently-launched National Initiative for Building, or Zamzam,’ by Jordan’s key Islamist leaders is to develop a modern civil state in the kingdom and push for reforms,” he writes, “its unannounced objective is actually to change the bad impressions about the Islamist movement brought on by the ‘unsuccessful’ rule of the Egyptian and Tunisian Islamists.”

The region’s democrats and reformers must highlight the distinction between the religion of Islam and its ideological distortion for political ends by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, says Jordan’s Queen Rania.

“Democracy gives rise to the legitimacy of the ballot, but this legitimacy is not absolute,” she tells Al-Arabiya TV:

After rising to power, one needs to gain the legitimacy of accomplishments, which is the most important. The transitional stage that we are witnessing today in the Arab world may be just a point in history. But building a deeply-rooted and viable democracy, which is firmly planted in our heritage, our history, our principles and our values – this will take generations. It must take its time.

Part of the reason for the frustration of the region’s younger generation, “which may have led to some of the revolutions we witness in the Arab world,” she contends, “is that Arab youth today live in two different worlds – the real world and the virtual world. The Internet has broadened the horizons of our youth, has opened up the world to them, and has raised the level of their expectations.”

RTWT HT: Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) 

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EU gives up hope on Ukraine deal

European Union diplomats have given up hope Ukraine will sign an association agreement at the Vilnius summit later this month, the EU Observer reports:

The rupture comes after Ukrainian authorities on Monday charged Serhiy Vlasenko, the lawyer of jailed former PM Yulia Tymoshenko, with domestic violence in a case which could see him also jailed for three years.

Speaking to EU Observer from Kiev today, Vlasenko said: “They activated my case as another bright example of selective justice.” He said they did it as a PR stunt to force the EU parliament to give a negative verdict, helping Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to blame the Vilnius failure on the EU.

“I have no doubt in my mind Yanukovych has decided not to sign the treaty … But this enables him to say: ‘Look. I did all my homework. I adopted a lot of pro-EU laws, except in the area of politically motivated cases. Now you should sign because of the Russian pressure on my country’.”

An EU diplomat, who asked not to be named, gave the same opinion.

“We are sure the signature won’t happen,” he said.”The Vlasenko case is designed to influence the EU parliament report. In this way, they are trying to provoke the EU to fire the first shot in the blame game of who is guilty for the non-signature.”

He said that Yanukovych is unlikely to join Russia’s Customs Union either.

“The chances for signing the association agreement collapsed before our eyes today,” Andriy Shevchenko, a lawmaker from Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party and a parliamentary representative to the Council of Europe, told GlobalPost.

He added that he sees “not a single sign that Yanukovych or his team is ready” to reach a compromise.

A western diplomat in Kiev said: “With a high probability of failure at the Vilnius summit, once again we see that Yanukovich is choosing short-term tactics for his own interests as opposed to long-term strategy for the country’s interest. The EU may, indeed, be more inclined than ever to now take a political pause.”

One EU official said all was not yet lost, as some Brussels officials had expected a delay in the vote, the FT reports.

“This negotiation was always going to be a last-minute thing, so we will push all possible diplomatic channels to save it. But it will be hard,” the official said.

Russia has been pressing Ukraine to join a Kremlin-led customs union instead of the EU.

“This new battle for hearts and minds between the EU and Russia has echoes of cold war rivalries,” Neil Buckley and Roman Olearchyk write for The Financial Times:  

The EU is offering six former Soviet states far-reaching trade and “association” agreements under its Eastern Partnership program. It was hoping to sign or initial such deals with four – Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia and Georgia – at a special summit in Vilnius, Lithuania on November 28….The EU sees its Eastern Partnership as the best way of exporting its democratic values beyond its eastern border. Russia is pressing the same countries to join its single market, and submit to its rules, but is happy for the authoritarian elites and systems in countries such as Ukraine to stay in place. –



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