How Baku’s ‘caviar diplomacy’ neutered Europe’s rights standards

As Azerbaijan gears up to host this weekend’s Eurovision song contest, Gerald Knaus explains how an authoritarian regime “neutered” Europe’s oldest human rights organization, turned international election monitoring into political theatre and secured the stamp of legitimacy from Council of Europe membership while preserving the structures of an autocratic regime.

This is the story of how Europe’s oldest human rights organization has been neutered by a smart and ruthless policy. Azerbaijani officials referred to it as “caviar diplomacy”: a policy that began in 2001, not long after Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe, the continent’s club of democratic nations. It gathered speed after Ilham Aliyev (left), who had served in the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly (PACE), became president of Azerbaijan in 2003. Once the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline was completed in 2005 and the Azerbaijani state coffers were awash in oil revenues, the “caviar policy” shifted into top gear.

The aim was to win and retain the stamp of legitimacy conferred by Council of Europe membership while preserving the authoritarian structures of an autocratic regime. Azerbaijan has not held a single competitive election since Heydar Aliyev, the father of current president Ilham Aliyev, came to power in 1993, following a coup against the first elected president. The Central Election Commission, in charge of organising elections, has stacked the deck so firmly in favour of the incumbent government that no political competition is possible, fair or otherwise. In the parliamentary election of 2010, not a single opposition candidate managed to win a seat.

How, then, could the head of the PACE election observation mission in 2010 declare that the elections had met international and Council of Europe standards? Why, when the human rights situation has steadily deteriorated since 2003, has debate in PACE on Azerbaijan become ever more anodyne, even complimentary?

Beneath the institutional failure, it is also a story about individuals and the difference they can make, for better or worse, within institutions like the Council of Europe. The cast of this story – the critics and the apologists – are Swiss, Belgian, British, German, Spanish and Turkish; they are liberals, social democrats, conservatives, nationalists and former communists. In Azerbaijan too many of them have betrayed the values and traditions set out in the European Convention on Human Rights. The result may well be the most serious crisis of legitimacy in the history of the Council of Europe.

When Azerbaijan was admitted to the Council of Europe, despite well documented democratic failings, it was with the idea that Council of Europe membership would gradually transform Azerbaijan. Sadly, the reverse has occurred. The outcome is a tragedy for the citizens of Azerbaijan, particularly those brave pro-democracy activists who languish in jail as political prisoners. But it is also a tragedy for Europe, whose values have been trampled. For the PACE parliamentarians enjoying the benefits of caviar diplomacy are also sitting members of national parliaments across Europe. And it is certainly a tragedy for the Council of Europe itself, which urgently needs to recover the values its founders entrusted it with if it is to justify its continued existence.

Read the full report – Caviar Diplomacy: How Azerbaijan Silenced the Council of Europe Part One – published by the European Stability Initiative.

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Voting for change: pitfalls and possibilities in Arab transitions’ elections

The first elections in post-authoritarian Arab states provide significant opportunities for both indigenous and international actors to strengthen transitional processes, writes Yale University’s Ellen Lust. The formation of political parties, managing the electoral process or and other pro-democratic initiatives require rules and outcomes that are domestically driven, inclusive of diverse actors – including former regime allies, and seen as “fair enough,” rather than focusing on impeccable processes or ideal outcomes.

Democrats in the Arab world face considerable challenges in leveling the playing field for first elections. They need to guarantee that the regime will not revert to authoritarianism while assuring political opportunities for those long shut out of the process. These are difficult tasks, given ongo­ing conflict over regime change and the resources that old regime allies have accumulated. Fear that the old order may return, combined with a some­times visceral desire to see those associated with it suffer, prompts many to support the outright exclu­sion of regime elements.

This problem was particu­larly acute in Egypt and Tunisia, where swift tran­sitions gave regime elites little time to switch sides. However, even where regime change comes more gradually, years of pent-up frustration with old elites may lead to widespread demands for exclu­sion. This will be particularly true when last-ditch efforts to hold on to power lead to brutal repres­sion, adding fresh wounds to long-held grievances.

Eliminating old regime allies writ large, however, undermines democracy. Retaining space for local elites (often framed by the opposition as “rem­nants of the old regime”) helps to ensure that they buy into democracy instead of trying to subvert it. It also recognizes that the fundamental nature of society does not change upon the resignation of a leader; indeed, just as the autocrat had to co-opt the pillars of the local social order, democracy too has to find a place for them. Moreover, by exclud­ing old elites from the democratic process based on their political affiliations and positions, this prac­tice perpetuates, albeit to a smaller degree, some of the same problems that plagued the ancien regime.

Democrats should be wary of taking such efforts too far and resist the understandable but counter­productive temptation to block those associated with the old regime.

Bans and Blacklists

Popular demands to ban or blacklist former regime allies are especially prevalent where elites have not defected from the old order to be at the forefront of reform, leaving few to argue that allies of the old regime support democratization. Not surprisingly, then, calls for bans and blacklists have been wide­spread in Egypt and Tunisia and will likely emerge elsewhere in the Arab world.

The extent to which revolutionaries are success­ful in excluding candidates closely associated with former ruling parties depends in part on the con­tinued presence of old regime elites in the transi­tional government. In Egypt, where members tied to the old regime continued to sit in government, the ruling military council – known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) – refused to issue a political exclusion law. In the absence of such a law, the Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling issued only weeks before parliamen­tary elections that would have excluded former ruling party members from standing for election.2 In contrast, the Tunisian transitional government represented a much greater break with the past and issued Article 15, prohibiting elites from the ancien regime from participating in the 2011 elections.3 An unpublished blacklist became the basis for disqual­ifying candidates.

While it may appear to stifle democratization, Egypt’s approach may actually be a more effective foundation for democratic change than Tunisia’s. In the absence of an official ban on ex-regime allies, groups like Egypt’s Revolutionary Youth Coalition published unofficial lists and rallied voters against supporting ex-National Democratic Party elites. This approach promoted transparency, informed voters, and fostered debates, while allowing old regime allies a continued stake in the competition. The Tunisian approach – excluding elites from the ancien regime and compiling an unpublished blacklist – lacked transparency, inflated rumors about the level of exclusion,4 heightened opposi­tion from regime sympathizers, and led to rejection of party lists in which organizers unknowingly in­cluded blacklisted individuals.5 Moreover, it failed to resolve the underlying problem, as allies of the old regime nevertheless could, and did, seek influ­ence by backing less-tainted allies in the elections.

International actors should encourage public cam­paigns to strengthen pro-revolutionary forces over official bans and undisclosed blacklists. Public campaigns promote transparency, foster debate,

Bans and Blacklists

Transitioning elites face competing pressures as they define the role of international actors in the implementation process. For a number of reasons, election organizers often lack the wherewithal to conduct elections effectively on their own: the ncient regime did not establish procedures aimed at implementing credible, democratic elections; those who organized the country’s previous elec­tions are largely discredited; and those stepping up to design and run first elections may have never before voted in national polls. Yet, while interna­tional assistance is necessary, it may also be po­litically contentious. Nationalist sentiments are at an apex in the context of transitions, and naysayers can use any appearance of foreign tutelage to dele­gitimize the process.

International actors should recognize that their as­sistance can be the source of political conflict, es­pecially when it comes to the high profile, critical processes of electoral preparation and monitoring. They should shape their programs accordingly, en­gaging in the process but limiting the extent and visibility of assistance. They should refrain from intervening heavily in the ongoing process, even though the notion that first elections are a critical juncture in democratization makes it tempting to do so. Processes may in fact be more smoothly car­ried out with more external direction, but flawed processes driven by domestic forces may have more legitimate outcomes. Ultimately, successful elections depend not only on clean processes, but on results that are seen as credible. That, in turn, requires that the public perceives that domestic forces control the electoral process.

In Egypt, for instance, given the continued presence of old regime allies overseeing the elections, many were more skepti­cal of SEC decisions and less forgiving of flaws in elections; yet even then, widespread public op­position to international intervention remained, as public reaction to SCAF’s crackdown on U.S. and U.S.-funded NGOs later suggested. That the elec­tion process continued despite early results appar­ently at odds with the desires of SCAF, combined with oversight by well-respected judges and suc­cessful appeals of elections in cases of alleged ir­regularities, led most to conclude that the results were credible.

The international community should thus avoid the temptation to replace or run roughshod over elec­toral management bodies. They should help elec­tion organizers learn lessons from Egypt, Tunisia, and other regions, giving them insights into the challenges ahead, including helping them to en­hance transparency and develop reasonable time­tables for the processes at hand. Such assistance can minimize public backlash and at the same time help reduce flaws in domestically-managed elec­tions, increase the integrity of the management body, and build public trust in the process.

Candidate and Party Campaign Training

Individual candidates and parties also often lack the experience and resources to conduct elections, and they too know that receiving international as­sistance is highly politicized. Political parties do not want to be perceived as reliant upon or the pawns of international forces, least of all the United States. Such ties can jeopardize public support and invite government repression, as Egypt’s recent crackdown on NGOs so clearly demonstrates.

Not surprisingly, in both Tunisia and Egypt, democracy promoters reported wide­spread interest – across the ideological spectrum – in the resources they offered. Programs trained an extraordinary number of candidates and parties in the art of campaign strategy, focusing on gauging and responding to voters’ interests and policy demands.

Despite the apparent success and value of these programs, there are important reasons to rethink their implementation in first elections. Leveling the playing field for candidates and promoting effective, policy-based campaigns in elections are laudable goals, but they are unlikely to be achieved in first elections. There is little reason to believe that campaign training influenced the outcomes of elections in either Tunisia or Egypt. In both cases, al-Nahda and the Muslim Brotherhood were seen to be effective organizations before the elections, and retained their dominant position. Rather, with thousands of candidates and more than a hundred parties vying for seats, effective campaigning by thousands of candidates may simply increase public confusion. Most importantly, the vast number of candidates entering the field means that offering equal access to training programs for all parties and candidates is an enormous undertaking. It draws energy and resources away from the long list of tasks critical to conducting elections, at a time when pressures to proceed quickly are high.

Democracy promoters should thus resist the temptation to step up efforts to provide campaign training for parties and candidates in first elections. Given the enormous challenges that democracy activists and practitioners at home and abroad face in leveling the playing field, preparing elections, educating voters, and monitoring the process, it is prudent to shift time and resources into more urgent, and critical, tasks aimed at establishing and strengthening the process in first elections.

Voter Education

Voter education is a major challenge in first elections. In Egypt and Tunisia – as elsewhere in the Arab world – the majority of the population had never voted, and those who had did so under very different circumstances. Citizens in these countries need to be informed of their rights to vote and to be empowered to participate, from registration to find Democrats are invested in obtaining outcomes that will strengthen and sustain democracy in the long run. They first need elections that yield a sufficient­ly wide array of forces seated at the table to avoid spoilers. Elections should also assure the rights of minorities and women, and be carried out quick­ly and smoothly enough to establish legitimacy. Continued demands to exclude actors from the old regime and minimize international involvement make it difficult to meet these challenges.

International actors can assist by helping demo­crats recognize that in democracies, the process matters as much as the outcome. Indeed, demo­crats in the Arab world – and democracy promot­ers assisting them – would do well to remember that elsewhere democracy has slowly taken root, often despite (and perhaps even due to) elites close to the old regime continuing to play a role in the new order.24 It is certainly understandable that dem­ocrats eyeing the candidacy and potential victory of former regime officials fear their participation will endanger democracy. Candidates connected to the former regime can make promises to the contrary, but this often provides little assurance. In some cases, officials of former authoritarian regimes play by new democratic rules; at other times, they renege. Neither outcome is assured. Moreover, can­didates emerging from ranks far outside the former regime can be enemies of democracy as well. The key to safeguarding progress is to maintain support for building democratic rules that bind everyone, regardless of their history. Excluding elements of the past regime violates democratic principles and increases opposition to democratic processes.

The downfall of longtime authoritarian regimes presents a critical historical moment. The changes taking place across the Arab world provide citizens new political and economic opportunities that have eluded them for decades. The exact nature of change will differ across the region, determined in part by the degree of rupture with the old regime, the role of minorities, and the extent of post-war recovery. In all cases, however, the logistical challenges for first elections will be daunting: nascent electoral institu­tions to be built or reformed; electoral processes to revise; and parties, civil society organizations, and citizens to train. These challenges are exacerbated by high uncertainty about the relative strength and true political demands of emerging elites, including Islamists; unconsolidated legitimacy of democratic institutions; widespread temptations to marginalize and exclude former elites; and opposition to inter­national involvement.

Avoiding these temptations—driven by fear of counter-revolutionaries, anger at past injustice, and heightened nationalistic sentiments—may be the best way for local democrats to achieve their goals. They need to repress urges to exclude allies of the old regime if they are to keep local elites invested in the new order. They need to balance international intervention and nationalistic demands if they are to benefit from resources and expertise as they imple­ment first elections.

Members of the international community must also adjust their own strategies in response to the unique challenges posed by first elections in the Arab world. They should limit their activities, set­ting aside many programs and priorities that would be desirable in later elections (e.g., political party and candidate strengthening, electoral law assis­tance, etc.) in order to concentrate on more immedi­ate, critical needs (e.g., strengthening EMBs, voter education, training local monitors and poll assis­tants, etc.). They should work with Arab democrats to counter demands for the wholesale uprooting of the old system, to broaden the playing field, and to ensure a diverse set of representatives seated at the table. They should also seek ways to support locally driven processes (e.g., facilitating lessons-learned from other countries, supporting but not overpower­ing EMBs, establishing train-the-trainers programs for local NGOs, etc.), recognizing that international engagement itself is politically contentious. Final­ly, they should help moderate expectations both at home and abroad, countering perceptions that there is a ‘correct’ electoral process or outcome, or that elections will immediately ‘usher in’ democracy.

Ellen Lust is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Yale University and an expert in electoral politics. 

The above extract is from “Voting for Change: The Pitfalls and Possibilities of First Elections in Arab Transitions,” is the second in the “Project on Arab Transitions” paper series published jointly by the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law and the Brookings Doha Center, The full paper can also be downloaded from the CDDRL website.

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Door for change ‘wide open’ in Iran, as regime loses cultural Cold War

Iran has stronger prospects to transition to a liberal democracy than most Arab states, new research suggests, but the Islamic Republic remains “a very grim picture” when it comes to human rights, the Obama administration said today.

Nevertheless, the Iranian regime’s failure to impose Islamist ideology “leaves the door of hope for political change wide open,” according to a leading analyst.

The past year witnessed “a continuation of many negative trends” in Iran, said Michael H. Posner, assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, citing intolerance of dissent, unfair trials, amputations, floggings, executions and restrictions on free speech, internet freedom and political participation.

“So it’s a very grim picture,” he said, highlighting the case of seven Baha’i leaders sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment, in a presentation to mark the release of the State Department’s 2011 Human Rights Report. 

Iran’s nuclear program is too advanced and entrenched to be stopped short of regime change, a prominent analyst said today. 

“Iran is insecure, but it believes it is profoundly entitled. This mix of vulnerability and grandiosity is a bad combination,” writes Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “The Iranian regime wants the bomb, not primarily to have the option of attacking Israel, a possible fringe benefit, but as a hedge against regime change and as a prestige weapon in its quest for regional power and influence. 

“Iran’s nuclear program is too advanced, too entrenched, too redundant and too secretive to be stopped permanently, even by military attack. To do so, you’d need to change the regime.”

In pursuing a form of cultural Cold War against liberal values, the regime has striven to impose Islamist ideological strictures on Iranian society in a vain struggle against modernity, writes Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

But “after the brutal implementation of Islamic ideology for more than three decades,” it has “overstretched its political authority.”

Women and youth want to look to the future but the government wants to imprison them in a mythological past. Under the Islamic Republic the number of schools for foreign languages in Iran has enormously increased, because families are keen to provide their children with secular education. Despite censorship people are more eager to read Western books or watch Western movies or listen to Western music.

Even former Islamist ideologues like the film maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the late poet Qaisar Aminpoor and the intellectual Abdul Karim Soroush have rejected Islamic ideology.

“In fact the true believers who abstain from becoming morally and economically tied to the regime are susceptible to become revisionists and reformists,” says Khalaji, a Qom-trained Shiite theologian. “If the Pahlavi monarchy was trying to modernize the society from above, the Islamic republic has unwittingly but successfully modernized the society from within.”

None of the transitional states emerging from the Arab awakening have expressed any desire to emulate the Islamic Republic.

“While the Islamic Republic’s soft power fails, the Iranian people’s urge to integrate into world culture and economy is unprecedented. This leaves the door of hope for political change in Iran wide open,” he concludes.

Indeed, Iran has stronger prospects to transition to a liberal democracy than most Arab states and even some Asian and European countries, according to recent research.

Iran shows an “abnormal gap” between the societal potential for liberal democracy and the actual level of political liberty, the research concludes, with robust support for liberal norms co-existing alongside conservative values.  In comparison to 64 other countries, Iran’s potential to develop liberal democracy was found to be higher than Arab countries, such as Egypt, Morocco and Jordan, such Asian states as South Korea, India and Thailand, and certain European countries, including Russia, Ukraine and Romania. 

“Our findings demonstrate that Iranian society as a whole is characterized by a pro-liberal value structure that is deeply at odds with the fundamentalist regime,” said Yuval Porat, a member of the research team. “This presents considerable potential for regime change in Iran and for the development of liberal democracy.” 

While the findings are encouraging, writes analyst Anshel Pfeffer, some questions are left unanswered:

1. Are Iranians with democratic aspirations in favor of continuing their nation’s nuclear program and acquiring nuclear weapons? In the past, also reform-minded Iranian politicians, including former prime minister and presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi (now under house arrest), staunchly supported nuclear development. …..

2. Do Iranians who are not supporters of the regime see the region in the stark terms of Shia versus Sunni? Would they relinquish Iran’s current policy of destabilizing other nations in the Gulf and cut off support to Hezbollah and other such groups? Or would the hostile standoff between the regional powers remain also if a democratic government would rule in Tehran?

3. Would some form of democracy in Iran equate with a renewed openness with the West and what of a resumption of the once close ties with Israel? Or will one of the first things they agree upon in a new constitution be a ban on “normalizing” ties with Israel, as the new democratically-elected Tunisian parliament did early this year.

4. Are Iranians prepared to act upon their desire for freedom and democracy and challenge the regime? And what would they be willing to risk in such a challenge? This is a question no survey can give anything near an accurate answer to, but it is key in trying to establish where the regime’s tipping-points are. A tipping-point could be the refusal of security forces to fire on demonstrators. It could be a level of civil disobedience and chaos which shuts down a nation’s infrastructure and it could be violence of a magnitude that would necessitate foreign intervention. …..

The regime’s efforts to eliminate dissenters from its ideological orthodoxy  stretch well beyond its own territory, says Roya Boroumand, executive director of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation:

“Terrorizing Iranian expatriates has become a feature of Iran’s policy under President Ahmadinejad,” she wrote recently:

The regime has no tolerance for a discourse challenging its version of what the Iranian people want. It silences individuals or groups whose activities or discourse it does not direct or control. To stop any alternative perspective from leaking out, it also targets Iranian expatriates who travel to Iran and communicate with their peers. The international community has successfully campaigned for the release of prisoners in the past. But the well-connected and highly visible individuals are exceptions. Saeed Malekpour, like Zahra Bahrami, is neither of these. The international community can make a difference by showing that it is not fooled by televised confessions. To do so, it has to consistently challenge the regime’s version of facts and call for the release of the victims of a judiciary that makes a mockery of due process of law.

Economic sanctions are beginning to undermine the regime’s confidence, raising the likelihood of a crunch coming over the summer, say analysts.

“The regime has the money,” says Abbas Milani, head of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University.. “They are not sure of the security of their own investment! That’s the only way I can understand this kind of a fall [in the rial]. The Iranian middle class doesn’t have the kind of money to bring about this kind of a fall.” The mullahs, Milani says, are “clearly trying to save some gold and save some currencies in kind of liquid forms so they can get what they need if the bigger sanctions come. All of these drastic changes are the beginnings of what might come in July.’’

For Abbas, who has advised the last two U.S. administrations on Iran policy, the deeper question is whether current optimism over the talks is, as he put it, “too optimistic.” He doubts that Iran’s recalcitrant Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will approve a deal that lets the next round of sanctions against Iran go forward as planned in late June, something Washington has said must happen. The current sanctions have no doubt hit Tehran very hard, Abbas says, but he suspects that the huge drop in the value of its currency, the rial, is driven by Iran’s own government, which is hoarding dollars and euros so it has the cash on hand for when the July sanctions take hold.

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

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‘Shock and outrage’ at killing of Somali journalist

The killing of a young reporter – the sixth journalist to be killed in Somalia this year – has prompted “shock and outrage” from union and media colleagues.

Ahmed Addow Anshur (right), 25, was murdered on Thursday, 24 May 2012, the National Union of Somali Journalists reports. He was shot four times in the head and chest by four men armed with pistols.

“We strongly condemn this indescribable murder of Ahmed Addow Anshur whose work as a journalist over the years has been lauded for his high professional quality and integrity,” said Burhaan Daahir,  president of the union’s Supreme Council. “It is obvious that he was murdered in the exercise of his professional work as a journalist so that he does not expose uncomfortable truth.”

The presenter of Radio Shabelle’s popular evening radio program Qubanaha Wararka (News Content), Anshur had been investigating and reporting on corruption cases with Hassan Osman Abdi, the director of Radio Shabelle, who was killed in January.

“In April, he told me, after finishing an interview on the investigations of murder of Hassan, that he is afraid to leave the premises of Shabelle because he fears for his life,” confirmed Osman.

NUSOJ calls on Transitional Federal Government and the African Union Peacekeeping troops in Mogadishu to act firmly and urgently to dispel the climate of impunity for attacks on journalists” added Osman.

Anshur, a member of NUSOJ’s Banadir branch, is the third Radio Shabelle journalist murdered in this year.

He leaves a pregnant wife.

Radio journalist Farhan Jeemis Abdulle (left), was shot and killed by masked gunmen in Somalia’s northern town of Galkayo earlier this month on the eve of World Press Freedom Day, an annual event to highlight threats to media, journalists and freedom of expression.

For further information, contact:
National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ)
Taleex Street, KM4 Area, Hodan District,
Mogadishu, Somalia, tel/fax: +252 61 5889931
NUSOJ is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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