Over the last two decades, when China was busy with capacity building, Russia seems to have been pre-occupied with incapacity hiding, writes Ivan Krastev. “When Western commentators try to make sense of the different performance of the new authoritarians, they would well advised to look beyond formal institutional design.”
Russia clearly has elections, but no rotation of power. In the two post-communist decades, the president has not lost a single election: the role of the elections are not to secure the rotation of power, but to avoid it. In the case of China, clearly, the opposition doesn’t have a chance of winning either. Yet on the other hand, Chinese leaders do not stay in power for any more than ten years, after which a new party leader and president are automatically elected. In other words, in the Russian system elections are used as the way to legitimise the lack of rotation, while the Chinese Communist institutional structure has developed to allow an element of power rotation.
Of course, we are still talking about two non-competitive regimes. But the Chinese understand that you need to change leadership, or you have a problem. The Chinese system, based on the principle of collective leadership, prevents the emergence of personalised authoritarianism and provides much more checks and balances.
Listening to the People
By definition, non-democratic regimes have in-built hearing problems. Surveillance and polling can never replace the information that comes from people regularly taking place in free and competitive elections. Democratic elections are not only an option to elect leaders, but also a direct way to gauge where people stand.
When it comes to ‘hearing the people’, however, there is an important difference between China and Russia. This comes down to the fact that the Chinese government has not criminalised labour protest. Labour conflicts, ordinarily directed against regional leaders or company directors, are not considered dangerous for the party. So every year there are hundreds of thousands of strikes, and these have become an important source of reliable information. When people go on a direct protest, it is much better than pure polls – valuable not only because they are visible, but because they also offer an opportunity to contest the ability of the local leaders to settle conflicts. In Russia, the supposedly more democratic system, you don’t see strikes, because the price for protesting on labour issues is very high. Russia’s rigged elections are a much weaker test to judge the mood of the people and the ability of the regional leaders to deal with them.
Tolerance of opposition, tolerance of dissent
Democratic decision-making depends upon both diversity of views and the acceptability of disagreement, and here is where we uncover another point of divergence. If you compare Russia and China, you will see that in Russia there is certainly much more tolerance for organised opposition. The process is completely screwed up, but you can register a party, you can go on the street to protest, you can even ask Putin to resign. The Chinese regime is certainly much harsher and intolerant in this respect. But while the Kremlin broadly tolerates the opposition, it does not listen to it. It does not allow for dissent on policy matters and Government officials are careful not to advocate policies favored by the opposition.
Though the Chinese system is much more classically authoritarian and communist, its decision-making process is of a much better quality, more inclusive than the Russian one.
Recruitment of elites
Where do people come from to occupy the most important positions in the state and leading industry? A study conducted by Russkiy Reporter in the end of 2011 revealed a number of interesting facts on this front. First, the great majority of the Russian elites went to one of just two Universities. Second, none of those occupying the top 300 positions came from the Russian Far East. And, third, the most important factor influencing membership of this elite circle is to have known Mr Putin before he became president. In short, Russia is governed by a circle of friends. This is not a meritocratic system in any sense…..
This is not the way in which the Chinese Communist party works. It is doing its best to create different layers of society, and does try to make the system reasonably meritocratic…… The Communist party serves as a vehicle to recruit and socialise the elites, and the Chinese leadership invests a lot in ensuring regional representation and providing its cadres with opportunity to get diverse experience.
Bottom of Form
The Chinese and Russians totally differ in their view of the experimental nature of politics. Chinese political and economic reforms are organised around the experimentation of different models in the different regions and try to figure out what works from the point of view of the leadership. This is emphatically not the case in Russia: experiment is, basically, a dirty word there.
What does it all mean?
In summary, while there was once a time that you measured democracy looking at institutions, now you need to also ask questions about how the institutions function. Do they look like democracies? Is it possible that the democracy is faked? Russia is a brilliant example that should force us to think. It has fashioned a democratic surface, but under this surface all types of non-democratic practices are flourishing. China is another country – authoritarian and severe undoubtedly. But because of the pressure of the system, the different ideas underlying its transformation, and the country’s involvement on the world stage, its political practices are much more open than its formal institutions may lead us to believe.
Ivan Krastev is chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia, and permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna (IWM).He is a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Democracy, an initiative of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Nelson Mandela was locked up on Robben Island. Andrei Sakharov was exiled to Gorky. Vaclav Havel was thrown into a Prague jail cell. Aung San Suu Kyi was repeatedly placed under house arrest. All of these courageous, dissident voices were muffled at some time by authoritarian regimes, but in the end, they found their way back to freedom. Oswaldo Payá [left] of Cuba never got that chance.
His daughter, Rosa Maria Payá, this week presented a petition signed by 46 activists and political leaders from around the world to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, calling for an international and independent inquiry into Payá’s death.
“Mounting and credible allegations that the Cuban government may have been complicit in the murder of its most prominent critic, a leading figure in the human rights world, cannot go ignored by the international community,” said the appeal, organized by the UN Watch human rights NGO.
“After Mr. Payá’s death, the White House paid tribute to him, saying, ‘We continue to be inspired by Payá’s vision and dedication to a better future for Cuba, and believe that his example and moral leadership will endure,’” the Post notes:
When pro-democracy activists were arrested and beaten at his funeral, the White House again spoke up. But in the past week, since Mr. Carromero’s interview was published, the administration has not uttered a word. What if it had been Sakharov, Aung San Suu Kyi, Mandela or Havel who was run off the road? Would it have said nothing?
“At this critical juncture, with new information at hand, the United States ought not to be complicit in silence about who killed Oswaldo Payá,” the Post concludes.
In 2002, Payá initiated the Varela Project, a mass petition calling on Cuba’s Communist authorities to guarantee constitutional rights. He was killed alongside fellow activist Harold Cepero in a car crash in July. The car’s driver, Spanish rights advocate Ángel Carromero, was imprisoned on charges of vehicular homicide, but released to Spain in December. He told the Washington Post last week that the car was hit by a vehicle with official license plates.
Shortly after the crash, Payá’s widow, Ofelia Acevedo, said that a survivor of the crash had sent text messages from his cell phone reporting that the car crashed after it was repeatedly rammed by another vehicle.
Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo yesterday told Berta Soller, the leader of the dissident Ladies in White, that the European Union will continue its tough “common position” toward the Communist regime:
Garcia-Margallo offered Spain’s help in a “transition” to democracy in Cuba, drawing on the Iberian nation’s not about to tolerate criticism,” said the National Endowment for Democracy’s Carl Gershman:
Visiting Bayamo with foreigners — the two survivors of the crash were fellow Catholics from Spain and Sweden — crossed another red line. The city is the center of the cholera outbreak in the eastern part of Cuba, and for the regime, the disease is not just a medical problem but also an economic and political threat. ….The spread of the disease also challenges Cuba’s self-image as a medical superpower and could arouse anger in citizens who believe that sending Cuban doctors to Venezuela and other countries detracts from the care they receive at home. The fact that Bayamo has experienced labor unrest the past two years and was a rebel stronghold during Cuba’s war of independence against Spain and the uprising against Batista further arouses the regime’s anxiety.
“He had said they were going to kill him. And this was the third accident he had this year,” charged Martha Beatriz Roque, a well-known dissident economist.
The Communist regime had a further incentive to remove Paya, said analysts.
“What really distinguished him was that unlike almost all the others, he engaged in retail politics,” said Philip Peters, a Cuba expert with the Lexington Institute. “His Varela Project stands out as the only initiative of its time that enlisted citizen participation on a large scale. No one else did that, before or since.”
“Most importantly, the Brotherhood has successfully opposed attempts to outline how the transitional period will be managed — an ambiguity the group no doubt hopes it will be able to exploit to seize a leadership role after Assad’s fall,” he writes in Foreign Policy:
In June 2011, a major meeting was organized in Istanbul by the Arab League to restructure the Syrian National Council, and U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told the opposition that the council must subject itself to an independent committee that would lay out internal reforms if it hoped to win greater American support. The committee met in Cairo in July 2011 and presented draft documents that outlined the transitional period, laying out the duties of opposition forces and detailing the fate of armed factions. They also included an important article criminalizing the use of political the founding statements of the Syrian National Coalition, established in Doha in November 2012.
The Islamist group has also benefited from its allies and sponsors in Turkey, Qatar, and Egypt, Hassan writes:
Al Jazeera, the Qatari-owned polished the image of anti-regime Islamists in its coverage. The Brotherhood also carefully selected leaders who can be easily controlled or who have minimal leadership skills. According to a appointment of the Syrian National Coalition’s current leader, Moaz al-Khatib (above), because it thought he could be easily steered as he was a “good-hearted mosque preacher.”
Khatib has proved that the Brotherhood underestimated him by unshackling himself from its control, unilaterally announcing a brave initiative for dialogue with the regime. For his defiance, he has since been subject to fierce attacks from the Brotherhood and its allies: The SNC criticized Khatib for “taking personal decisions,” while the Brotherhood itself rejected the initiative as “undisciplined and inadequate.”
“The Muslim Brotherhood knows it has a long way to go before taking control of Syria,” Hassan concludes. “But its power grabs have already played a major role in perpetuating the current crisis, and they bode ill for its role in the new Syria.”
Hassan Hassan is an editorial writer for the United Arab Emirates-based National. Follow him on Twitter:@hhassan140.
Martin Frost has been elected Chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.
Frost, a prominent Democrat who represented the 24th district of Texas in the House of Representatives for thirteen terms (1979-2005), succeeds Richard A. Gephardt , who served as NED Chairman since January 2009. Gephardt leaves the NED Board after nine years of service, the maximum allowed under NED’s by-laws. First elected to the NED Board in 2009, Frost was unanimously elected by NED’s bipartisan Board of Directors.
Frost served in the House Democratic Leadership during his tenure in Congress, and chaired a special House Task Force from 1990-95 established to help eastern and central European nations transition to democracy after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“Long before he joined the NED Board, Martin Frost demonstrated his commitment to advancing democracy abroad,” said NED President Carl Gershman.
“His leadership in the US Congress of the Frost-Solomon Task Force reflected the same kind of international solidarity and assistance that NED has embodied for the past 30 years,” he said. “His intuitive understanding of NED’s mission combined with his political experience will be of great benefit to the thousands of ‘small-d democrats’ NED assists around the world.”
Thanking the outgoing chairman for his service, Gershman said, “Dick Gephardt ’s leadership has helped to keep the Endowment strong during a time of great political turmoil. He has upheld NED’s strong bipartisan tradition and his example will be of great benefit to our new Chairman. “
The National Endowment for Democracy was created in 1983 as a private, nonprofit, grant-making foundation with a mission to strengthen democratic institutions around the world through nongovernmental efforts. With an annual appropriation from the U.S. Congress, the NED Board, which is independent and bipartisan, makes more than a thousand grants each year to support prodemocracy groups in nearly 90 countries. The Endowment supports projects that promote political and economic freedom and participation, human rights, a strong civil society, independent media and the rule of law.