As Putin blows nationalist ‘dog whistle’, is reset in need of a reset?

Vladimir Putin has called on Russians “not to lose ourselves as a nation,” to seek inspiration from the country’s traditional values rather than Western political models.

Russia had chosen the path of democracy, he said in his first major speech since returning to the presidency, but defined that as “the power of the Russian people with their traditions” and “absolutely not the realization of standards imposed on us from outside.”

He struck a chauvinistic note, implicitly defending the decision to force overseas-funded civil society groups to brand themselves as “foreign agents.”  

“Direct or indirect outside interference in our internal political processes is unacceptable,” Putin said in his speech in the Kremlin. “People who receive money from abroad for their political activities — most likely serving foreign national interests — cannot be politicians in the Russian Federation.”

The chauvinistic tone had a political purpose, said former Kremlin insider Gleb Pavlovsky.

“As long as Putin talks about patriotism he is obliged to show that somewhere the anti-patriots are hiding. He seeks them among mythical political structures which are supposedly financed abroad,” he told AFP. “It is a phantom topic.”

Pavlovsky was equally dismissive of Putin’s declared intention to root out high-level corruption, suggesting that low- and middle-rank officials would likely bear the brunt.

“Putin had failed to send a message of purging the high ranks,” the strategist told the Interfax news agency:

The opposition ridiculed Putin’s statements as lacking substance and novelty. “Everything will be fine soon, I promise,” opposition activist Alexei Navalny wrote, sarcastically summing up the address.

Another opposition activist, Vladimir Ryzhkov, called the speech a “manifesto of preserving political status quo.”

Putin’s patriotic theme was anticipated after a Kremlin commission referred to a unique Russian “civilization” in outlining a new “strategy of state nationalities policy”, earlier this week.

“Thanks to the unifying role of the Russian people……..a unique sociocultural civilisational community on the historical territory of the Russian state has formed: the multinational Russian nation,” reads a representative sentence from the document, seen by the Financial Times:

The new approach is a classic example of “dog whistle” politics – a politically loaded message inaudible to all but Russian conservatives and nationalists, who see its significance in two ways: an imperial instead of a civic concept of nation which simultaneously implies that Russia belongs to a civilisation other than the west.

The strategy is likely to encounter resistance from non-Russian nationalities.

The document is a “trial balloon” by hardline Russian nationalists who hope to “create a unitary nation” by abolishing or diluting national autonomous republics, home to a number of non-Russian peoples, said Rafael Mukhametdinov, a historian from the republic of Tatarstan.

“They feel there might be a crisis – just as happened to the Soviet Union, when all the republics separated and headed for the exits. There is no reason why the same thing cannot happen now to Russian Federation,” Mr Mukhametdinov said.

Putin’s uncompromising tone will only add credence to arguments that the reset of US-Russian relations is in need of a…er, reset.

“As President Obama approaches his second term, few foreign policies are more in need of reassessment than his stance toward Russia,” say two leading analysts.

“[G]lib formulations and major energy projects should not cover up the fundamental choice the two administrations face: to continue their transactional approach to relations, with their inevitable ups and downs, or to put relations in a broader, longer-term strategic framework, which could foster more enduring constructive relations,” according to Thomas E. Graham, senior director of Kissinger Associates, and Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center:

A choice in favor of the former faces two problems. First, it is hard to see where progress can be made in the next four years. ………Putin’s recent preference for trade and investment requires a qualitatively different business climate in Russia, including the de facto rule of law and competent, honest governance. Fruitful cooperation on regional conflicts, as Syria has demonstrated, requires dealing with the age-old principles of world order, sovereignty and noninterference in internal affairs, and the growing Western preference to use force to protect foreign populations from brutal leaders.

Second, domestic political conditions in neither country are conducive to pursuing such trade-offs. Incensed by Washington’s insistence on dealing simultaneously with the Russian government and Russian society, Putin has taken steps — from branding foreign-funded non-governmental organizations as “foreign agents” to ending the U.S. Agency for International Development’s 20 years of work in Russia — that do not make it politically easier for Obama to sell closer engagement with Moscow.

“By contrast, a strategic approach would start with the geopolitical transformation now underway across the globe and ask how each country could become a strategic asset for the other,” Graham and Trenin contend:

So far, both the U.S. administration and the Kremlin have resisted taking a strategic approach. …On the U.S. side, this oversight grows in part out of the discomfort America has with the very idea of Russian power, grounded in the long Cold-War struggle. Having confronted malevolent Soviet power for so long, America resists the idea that Russia could ever have a positive role in American strategic interests.

On the Russian side, there is still great resentment over the way the United States treated Russia after the end of the Cold War, and a fair amount of suspicion that U.S. policy is aimed at weakening Russia today.

“There is no guarantee that we would reach agreement,” the analysts suggest. “Indeed, a strategic dialogue could reveal unbridgeable differences. But the potential benefits of strategic cooperation justify the effort.”


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What’s on the menu for Euro-Endowment?

The revolts of the Arab awakening have been a wake-up call for European Union policy-makers, as rapid change in the Southern Mediterranean again highlighted the EU’s inability to act swiftly, decisively and audaciously to events unfolding on its borders. Last month’s launch of a European Endowment for Democracy is one of the initiatives to emerge in response to recent events, but there are reasons to question whether the project has been thought through, writes Petr Pribyla.

Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski successfully jump-started the negotiations leading to the formation of the European Endowment, notably in light of the deteriorating human rights situation in Belarus and the tumult in North Africa in the first half of 2011. Calls for the EU to establish its own democracy fund to provide assistance to those in need beyond EU borders already been hotly debated in previous years. But none had secured the support of Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, or of Stefan Füle, the European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy.

What has been decided on and what is not clear yet

On 12 November, the Commission allocated 6 million EUR to launch the EED, which is designed to be an independent institution, functioning alongside the EU’s current instruments Brussels for promoting democracy and human rights. But some points are yet to be clarified.

It remains to be seen whether EU member states will make financial contributions on a regular basis, particularly in light of current austerity measures. Current financial support is limited to 6 million EUR allocated by the Commission from the budget of the European Neighbourhood Policy; the Dutch, Polish and Swedish governments have each agreed to provide another 5 million EUR; and another donation is expected from Switzerland, a non-EU member state with a strong record of supporting similar human rights and democracy initiatives. Consequently, it is expected that the EED will have a budget close to 20 million EUR at its launch in mid-2013.

The EED’s budget cannot be compared to other EU instruments in this field or to the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in the United States which operates with a budget at least five times greater. So it is clear that if EU member states are not willing to contribute regularly to the EED, it can hardly be expected to live up to expectations and give a new dynamism to the EU’s human rights and democracy promotion policies.

What is the added value?

Many insightful articles, policy papers and policy briefs from FRIDE, the German Development Institute, the Centre for European Policy Studies and the Open Society Institute, amongst others, have identified numerous hurdles the EED could encounter in its first years. Most suggest that the EED’s added value to the existing plethora of EU human rights and democracy promotion instruments depends on how it copes with two major challenges. Firstly, which actors in authoritarian and potentially democratizing regimes will it support; and, secondly, how it will fill the gaps left by current EU instruments.

Will the EED prioritize political parties, independent media, journalists, foundations, educational institutions or selected dissidents?

The effectiveness of existing EU instruments for human rights and democracy promotion – the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights and the Instrument for Stability – is limited by such bureaucratic constraints as programming cycles and budgeting in delivering financial support to recipients. So the EED’s added value should be its ability to act flexibly and swiftly in supporting smaller projects, with non-registered NGOs and dissidents.

What is on the menu?

It is still too early to identify what will be on the EED menu, although some EU officials cast doubts on its future. One senior EU official involved in the negotiations to establish the EED, commented: “[the Polish presidency] pushed through the whole idea, without even thinking how to secure the long-term financial backing by the member states…[Consequently] it is not clear what exactly it is going to be supporting and how to make sure that it will not duplicate the other instruments.”

This is an edited extract from a longer post on the Foreign Policy Association blog. RTWT

Petr Pribyla is based at the Centre for the Law of EU External Relations (CLEER) at the T.M.C. Asser Instituut in The Hague, Netherlands.

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Chávez in ‘complex’ condition, opposition in state of anticipation

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is in a “complex” condition following his latest surgery for cancer in Cuba, his designated successor said today.

The incumbent’s illness has prompted the populist leader to name Vice President Nicolas Maduro (above left) as his political heir, a development that surprised Venezuela-watchers.

“This is huge. He could have said something indirectly. He could have said something like, ‘We’ll have to see. Let’s talk about it when the time comes,’” said Javier Corrales, a professor of political science at Amherst College in Massachusetts. “He switched from being very evasive to very articulate. That must have been the result of a major change in health for the worse.”

Venezuela’s long-rumored transition to the post–Chávez era began when the cancer-stricken president made an explicit call to his supporters to get behind Maduro as his successor, writes Francisco Toro:

We’re reduced here to painting with very broad brushes—a kind of tropical Kremlinology that tells its own story about just how authoritarian politics have become in the Chávez era. [but] Maduro is “seen as a champion for the civilian side of the Civilian-Military divide, a split typically described as pitting more radical, leftist, pro-Cuban civilians against more conservative, corrupt, nationalistic military men in the upper echelons of bureaucratic Chavismo.

Opposition leaders and independent observers alike question whether the ideologically diverse ruling alliance can remain united in the absence of Chavez.

“Just look at all the different groups in the MUD, there’s a full spectrum from right to left,” said a Western diplomat in Caracas, referring to the opposition Democratic Unity coalition’s 20 or so political groupings.

“Do you think they would be together if it wasn’t for Chavez? Their hatred of him is the only thing holding them together. Without him, it’s a totally new scenario, and the different egos and points of view will rise to the fore again.”

Recent developments have led analysts to question whether the status quo is sustainable.

Chávismo without Chávez can only exist for a short time,” said Moises Naim, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. And that may be so, Toro writes in The New Republic:

Chávez’s explicit endorsement ends what some had feared would become a messy fight to succeed him. But how lasting will that peace prove to be, once the comandante is out of the picture? After all, the skills it takes to remain in an autocrat’s favor over an extended period of time have little in common with the skills it takes to keep the governing coalition intact—to say nothing about running the country.

Now that Chávez has named his successor, notes Americas Quarterly Editor-in-Chief Christopher Sabatini, “the gubernatorial election in Miranda is becoming a test of succession within the opposition over who could potentially have the legitimacy to lead in the post-Chávez era.”

“Venezuela will never be the same again,” says Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas. “There is no going back. The Chávez era may be coming to a close, but the historical imprint that Chávez has had on Venezuelan history is certainly not.”

“Whether you like it or not,” said Sabatini, “Chávez has forever changed Venezuelan politics. And he will continue to shape the country, particularly since many will perceive him as a martyr should he succumb abruptly to the disease.”

One Caracas-based analyst cites the precedent of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez’s popularity surge after her husband Nestor Kirchner’s death.

“It’s obvious that if you compare Maduro and Capriles head-to-head, today or before, Capriles is without doubt a much stronger leader, evidenced by his 45-percent vote share against the maximum leader,” local analyst Luis Vicente Leon said.

“But if an election occurs soon after an emotionally dramatic event (like Chavez’s death), then you’re not comparing Capriles with Maduro but with the emotion unleashed by such a loss,” he added.

But Chávismo rests on more than the incumbent’s charisma, as evidenced by the recent presidential elections in which opposition candidate Henrique Capriles “was thumped by more than 11 points as an ailing Chávez, barely able to campaign, nonetheless coasted to a third term,” notes Toro:

That campaign showed the obscene structural advantages a cash-flush petrostate incumbent enjoys in an increasingly autocratic environment where opposition fundraising is badly hobbled by harassment and intimidation against its donors, and all checks on the abuse of official prerogatives for campaign advantage have been hollowed out. While Maduro has none of Chávez’s charisma or storied emotional bond with the poor, he would undoubtedly inherit that advantage.

“Capriles is probably the only potential opposition candidate with sufficient national presence, name recognition and organization to defeat a sympathy-buoyed Nicolas Maduro in a short campaign,” Credit Suisse analysts suggest.

“However, if he were to lose a second election in under three months, there could be greater uncertainty about who would be the opposition’s candidate if new elections were held.”

Chávez purchased much of his popularity “with a massive, deficit-financed consumption boom,” notes Toro, who blogs about the Chávez Era at “To give just one example, the government has imported literally millions of Chinese-made appliances to sell below-cost to its supporters.”

This indicates, analysts suggest, that Chávez’s authoritarian populism has not been sufficiently institutionalized to ensure its longevity.

“He was an institution-breaker not an institution-maker,” the COA’s Sabatini said.

Chávez’s populist spending spree “comes at a price,” says Toro.

“If nothing is done, some forecasters estimate Venezuela’s 2013 budget deficit will reach an insane 19.5 percent of GDP (consider that Greece’s deficit topped out at 15.4 percent of GDP in 2009),” he notes. “That this demand-side boom can’t last is clear as day.”

And that may present fresh opportunities for the opposition ……….

Because, macro-economically speaking, a fresh election in February is an entirely different proposition from one in, say, December 2013.

If transition comes earlier, the “winner” of fresh elections will find himself in the unenviable position of having to reverse treasured Chavista spending programs soon after taking power, and Chávez will forever be remembered as the hero who kept the evil neoliberals at bay right up until the day he died. But if Chávez manages to hang on for another year or so, he may just live to preside over the collapse of his own governing model.

Which is one very good reason to cry out, “¡Viva Chávez!”


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Syrian endgame has begun

…and the West may regret its lack of assistance for the opposition, says Michael Ignatieff, a former Canadian politician, now at the University of Toronto:

The agonized questions the international community has been asking for the last 18 months are becoming irrelevant. Do we arm the rebels? They are already armed. Do we provide them with safe havens? They have them already. Can we stop the killing? Not anymore.

As the endgame approaches, the real question is whether, having done so little to secure the rebels’ allegiance, Western governments have any leverage to shape their conduct now that they are winning. The US will soon anoint the Syrian opposition as “the” legitimate representative of the Syrian people, but the militias inside the country who have done the fighting will not surrender power to these ‘outsiders’ without a struggle.

As the International Friends of Syria grouping prepares to meet in Morocco, the big question is….

“Can the Friends of Syria out-buy the extremists? Buying loyalty on the ground, that’s one of the big questions on the table,” said a Western diplomat involved with the Syrian opposition.

The new opposition coalition’s “relative success—Western diplomats say they have started to work with it to engage local councils in the country— has created a genuine momentum for the rebels,” The Wall Street Journal reports:

Underscoring the new Western focus on sidelining extremist rebels, military and intelligence officials from the U.S., U.K., France, Turkey, and some Arab countries attended a meeting in Turkey of Syrian rebel fighters last week. The meeting named Salim Idriss, the secular head of the War College in Aleppo, as the chief-of-staff of a new, 30-member rebel council, people who attended the meeting said.

The council is supposed unify rebel ranks and eventually bring it under the civilian authority of a rebel government. It aims to sideline some of the most extremist Islamist groups by excluding them from an organizational structure that will receive foreign funding and arms that are flowing with the coordination of Arab Gulf states.

But leading the fight on key front lines are the rebel groups the West views as most problematic. Sidelining them may be impossible.

“We strongly believe with the coalition there is a possibility to have a real, credible alternative to the regime,” a senior French official said, adding, “We also believe that we, and the Syrians, will not have so many options. This may be the last serious opportunity…to avoid having long, destabilizing dynamics.”

Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood today said Washington had made a “very wrong” decision by declaring the jihadist Al-Nusra Front rebel group a terrorist organization. “The designation is very wrong and too hasty. I think it is too early to categorize people inside Syria this way, considering the chaos and the grey atmosphere in the country,” Farouk Tayfour, deputy leader of the group, told Reuters.

The protracted and violent nature of the conflict may have ruled out any prospect of a democratic transition, some analysts fear.

“If nearby Iraq is any guide, outsiders will be swept aside by insiders and the transition from violence to politics will be bloody,” Ignatieff contends:

The challenges facing any post-Assad Syrian leadership will be daunting: securing these weapons, protecting minorities from revenge massacres and preventing the Syrian state from disintegrating altogether into warring sectarian enclaves.

The armed groups who come out on top in the struggle will seek outside help, and each outside actor, whether it be the Qataris, the Saudis, the western governments or the Russians, will struggle for influence over a chaotic situation.

“There is still reason to believe that the worst can be avoided,” Ignatieff asserts:

It’s not unimaginable to see the Russians and Americans co-operating in a joint UN mandated force to secure weapons stockpiles; or to see them jointly promoting a strong UN political mission to channel the factions of Syria towards constitution making and elections. The reason that erstwhile antagonists like Russia and the US might co-operate in a UN mandated transition in Syria is paradoxical: each has lost something by doing nothing in Syria, and all might gain something if they act together to secure an end to bloodshed.


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Egypt’s Islamists reviving autocrats’ agenda

Brotherhood must ‘understand that democracy is not just a way to gain power,’ says former leader Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is reviving the authoritarian agenda and contributing to what one analyst calls “the entrenchment of Islamist-liberal cleavage in the Arab world.”

“Beware the Islamists now that they have shown their true colors. That’s the message that the authoritarian Arab regimes still standing are sending to their people as the Middle East watches with alarm the possible unraveling of the first major Muslim Brotherhood experiment in government,” writes Roula Khalaf:

From Jordan to the Gulf, Egypt’s divisions and the instability unleashed by Mohamed Morsi’s assumption of sweeping powers and a rushed Islamist-tinted constitution are playing into the hands of authoritarian regimes. The rise of Egypt’s Brotherhood after the fall of Hosni Mubarak had bolstered the ambitions of other Islamists. Now, however, the Islamists find themselves on the defensive.

“The Gulf is using this as the perfect ‘we told you so’ moment and Morsi presented it on a golden plate,” says Sultan al-Qassemi, a prominent Emirati commentator. “And there are people already saying that they don’t want to be like Egypt.”

Moderate Islamists share liberal concerns about the Islamists’ growing authoritarianism.

“The Muslim Brotherhood needs to understand that democracy is not just a way to gain power but an end in itself,” said Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh (above), a former Brotherhood leader.

Morsi initially enjoyed considerable public support and goodwill from the international community, but he has “risked all this by seeking extra powers and pandering too much to his real power base – the Muslim Brotherhood, backed by many hardline Salafist Islamists,” writes Amin Saikal, director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University.

“He has lost, or possibly never had, the ability to strike a balance between his Islamist supporters and the liberal and secularist opposition forces (including many from the Coptic Christian minority), and thus also to keep the military out of politics.”

Islamists elsewhere in the region are arguing that the Brotherhood should have taken a more incremental, inclusive, power-sharing approach,” says analyst Abdelwahab Badrakhan.

“The Egypt experience has an echo everywhere; in Yemen, Libya, Tunisia and even in the Gulf states,” he says. “And some Islamists say we would have preferred Egypt’s Brotherhood not to have moved so fast. [Egyptian Islamists] are learning [to govern] at the wrong time and they have concepts and complexes from decades of repression that make it difficult to learn about civilian rule.”

The current events in Egypt are “truly historic and significant” because of three main factors, argues Rami G. Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut:

• We rarely have a chance to assess the behavior of Muslim Brotherhood or Salafist politicians who are endowed with the great mantle of legitimate democratic incumbency and operate in a reasonably credible democratic system. Tunisia and Egypt are really the only two examples that meet these criteria and both are passing through stressful days.

• Everything in Egypt except for its stunted cuisine eventually influences similar developments across the Arab world…….. How the Islamists perform will shape the Arab region’s transitions much more profoundly than, say, developments in Turkey and Iran …

• The newly dynamic, open and competitive nature of the public political sphere in Egypt has allowed a wide range of actors to take part in political activism….. The incumbency of the Muslim Brotherhood has been coupled with the equally decisive birth of a political system that allows for the mostly peaceful contestation of power, with the occasional lapse into momentary clashes that are politically insignificant in historical terms.

The Brotherhood’s instincts are being exposed in the face of the liberal-secular opposition’s new-found vibrancy and unity, observers suggest.

“We suddenly discovered that the other civil society is strong and that they are challenging the Islamists. That’s reassuring for Egypt and for the outside world,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, professor of political science at Emirates University. “A weak Muslim brotherhood – not a triumphant Muslim Brotherhood – is good for everybody.”

Dismissed by Islamists as out of touch with largely conservative Egyptian society and often treated by Brotherhood leaders with disdain, the liberals will earn credibility and receive a much-needed boost in parliamentary elections if they can manage to at least shrink the Islamist win in the constitutional referendum.

“Now what’s happening is the opposition is putting pressure on them in a way that makes them less democratic,” said Ibrahim Zafarani, a former member of the Brotherhood who now leads a small moderate Islamist party. “That forces them to close in on themselves and become more defensive.”

Morsi’s gambit “is now playing into the criticism that Islamists groups are aggressively majoritarian,” says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre:

In any case, he says, Islamists have a different conception of democracy, which makes it very difficult to reach a consensus. Liberals believe in rights and freedoms “that are, by definition, non-negotiable”. Islamists see democracy as the pursuit of a majority that can promote a different ideological project, he says.

“We are seeing the entrenchment of Islamist-liberal cleavage in the Arab world. This has become the fundamental divide in Arab politics and will be the case for the foreseeable future.”

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