Typhoon Haiyan’s thin silver lining for the Philippines

In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, the Philippines is counting its dead and assessing the massive damage to infrastructure from the storm, a prominent commentator notes.  

The Philippines suffers from bad luck, and as one of the poorest countries in East Asia, it could not be expected to have the storm warning systems and storm-safe infrastructure of countries, like Japan or Singapore, writes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Joshua Kurlantzick:

Still, the horrific quality of infrastructure in the Philippines certainly has made these storms deadlier. Because the Philippines is one of the most unequal and corrupt countries in Asia, funds for housing projects, roads, and seawalls and other public monies routinely vanish into the pockets of political dynasties; before the typhoon the country was riveted by a high-profile case involving massive slush funds amassed by several prominent politicians.

In a project funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group, the Center for International Private Enterprise is working to improve the quality of public governance and expand the network of cities, public agencies and civil sector organizations committed to reducing corruption and implementing good governance.

“Although President Benigno Aquino has made some inroads into fighting corruption, his administration still faces an uphill battle, and many areas, including Leyte, remain dominated by patronage networks and a few political clans,’ Kurlantzick notes:

The most recent high-profile corruption scandal appears to have catalyzed middle-class Filipino sentiment, potentially leading to the type of public outcry against corruption that could actually turn the country’s political course. In the terrible aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, public pressure to reduce graft in construction projects, and to focus more intensely on upgrading infrastructure, would be at least one positive outcome.

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EU-Russia ‘battle for hearts and minds’ in Eastern Europe

“For millions of citizens in former Soviet republics, decisions in coming weeks could determine whether the European Union’s model of market-based democracy will play a bigger role in their lives – or whether the more authoritarian model of Russia and much of the rest of the former Soviet Union does instead,” say two leading analysts:

“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.

Normative jurisdictions – Europe’s new dividing line

“For the Kremlin, the successful implementation of an EU-type, rules-based, values-driven model of the economy and politics [in ex-Soviet republics] would directly threaten the supposedly distinctive?model of governance that is currently upheld by Moscow,”says James Sherr of Chatham House, the London-based foreign policy think-tank. “We really now have two different normative jurisdictions in Europe. That’s the new dividing line of Europe, and the question is where the border is.”

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is pressuring neighboring states instead to join a customs union currently comprising Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan which is due to deepen by 2015 into a Eurasian Economic Union of ex-Soviet states.

Ukraine’s decision is likely to make or break the Kremlin’s project, analysts suggest.

“Putin’s Eurasian Union cannot be a serious entity without the second large Slavic state limping along. It needs Ukraine as an anchor,” says Carnegie Moscow’s Lilia Shevtsova. “Eurasia simply cannot exist without Ukraine. And without the Eurasian Union the Kremlin cannot reenergize the system of personalized power which needs satellite states.”

“The new Putin Doctrine is based on the linkage between the Russian “state-civilization” and the Eurasian Union, which is supposed to be like a galaxy with Russia as the pole,” she contends.

Russia views Ukraine as a fellow Slavic country, a cradle of a shared civilization.

“We have common traditions, a common mentality, a common history and a common culture,” Putin said of Ukraine last month. “We have very similar languages. In that respect…..we are one people.”

The Kremlin today demanded an apology from Poland after far-right rioters attacked the Russian embassy in Warsaw, Reuters reports:

Some Russian officials saw the violence in the context of strains between Russia and the European Union over human rights and democracy as Ukraine prepares to sign a trade pact with Brussels that would mark a symbolic move away from Moscow’s orbit….”The events in Warsaw show: Nationalism is immeasurably stronger in several EU countries than it is in Russia,” Alexei Pushkov, the head of the State Duma’s International Affairs Committee, said on Twitter. “The EU should not lecture us but deal with its own members.”

Replay of Cold War rivalry

Russia has used economic and security threats to compel post-Soviet states into its Eurasian Customs Union and to block the European Union’s Eastern Partnership initiative “in a replay of the classic East-West rivalry of the Cold War,” the National Endowment for Democracy’s Carl Gershman recently noted.

Former Soviet states that opt for the EU risk Russian retaliation, Buckley and Olearchyk note:

Russia’s Eurasian union plan is the most determined of several attempts to rebuild economic links sundered by the 1991 Soviet collapse. Its officials insist it is a trade bloc, not some neo-imperial project.

The Kremlin’ is already employing various strong-arm tactics, including restrictions on imports of Ukrainian goods for reasons of “health and safety”, a ban on Moldova’s most lucrative exports, wine and brandy, and a threat to sever gas supplies to Europe’s poorest country.

Armenia has already capitulated and announced that it would join Putin’s customs union. While Russians may not be good at “soft power”, says Georgian foreign policy analyst Alexander Rondeli, “they know how to do soft blackmail.’”

EU faces ‘Hobson’s Choice’

“The EU/US and Russia have, often unintentionally, forced these states to make zero-sum choices,” says Samuel Charap of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington. “In some cases, these choices have deepened social and political divisions.”

For Ukraine, the EU offers the best long-term route to growth and modernity, but the reforms Brussels demands (which Chatham House’s Mr Sherr calls a “polite euphemism for severing the link between politics, business and crime”) would weaken the elite’s grip on power and wealth, Buckley and Olearchyk note:

Mr Sherr says the EU faces a “Hobson’s choice”. It must decide whether to sign a deal with a corrupt country that has gone backwards democratically in recent years, or to let Russia’s “soft blackmail” prevail. Kiev has accelerated efforts to complete EU reforms in recent months. But some European leaders fear its leadership will go cold on continuing reforms after a deal is signed.

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China’s Communist Party winning online ‘ideological battle’?

China’s ruling Communist Party claims to be winning an “ideological battle” against opinion leaders on social media.

At the recent China Internet Media Forum, People’s Daily Public Opinion Monitoring Unit director Zhu Huaxin presented a study illustrating the initial impact of an online offensive launched in August, Oiwan Lam writes for Global Voices Online.

The results show a marked drop in political commentary and conversation on social networks and other platforms over the past two months.

The offensive began on August 10, when the State Internet Information Office compelled major online opinion leaders and Internet celebrities to adopt and promote a set of seven “self-censorship guidelines.”

Later that month, President Xi Jinping told Party leaders that ideological control should become the Party’s number one priority, and ordered the CCP propaganda machine to build “a strong Internet army” of government censors who would focus on eliminating online “rumors”.

Zhu explained in his presentation that over the past two months, on leading social media platforms, the total number of messages posted by state-controlled media outlets and government branches have well out numbered messages posted by “public opinion leaders” or those who use online platforms simply to share their own personal views.

The chart above presents data from Zhu’s report, showing the total number of messages in three major sectors according to a his research samples.

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Totalitarian thread runs through Communist China’s eras, says Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama offers his take on the “eras” of Communist China, in an exclusive interview with Amy Kazmin, the FT’s south Asia correspondent:  

Mao’s era of excessive, “unrealistic” ideology; Deng Xiaoping’s introduction of “capitalism to a socialist country”, Jiang Zemin’s shift to allow the Communist party to represent wealthy businessmen and intellectuals, along with the working class; and finally Hu Jintao’s pursuit of a “harmonious society” amid widening social and economic fissures. 

“Judging these events, [we see] the same party – totalitarian system – has the ability to act according to new realities,” he concludes. Yet Hu’s quest for a harmonious society “more or less failed”, he says. “The method to promote harmony [was] through tight control and relying on use of force. That is the mistake. Logically, harmony must come from the heart … Harmony very much based on trust. As soon as use force, creates fear. Fear and trust cannot go together.” 

The Dalai Lama “remains the living embodiment of Tibetan aspirations for dignity, and cultural and religious freedom. Beijing’s blustering rhetoric against him only reinforces that sense of where true power lies,” Kazmin suggests.

The Dalai Lama received the 2010 Democracy Award from the National Endowment for Democracy.  

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