Will ethnic violence kill Burma’s reform process?

Sectarian violence could jeopardize Burma’s fragile democratization process, President Thein Sein warned, as the government declared a state of emergency to stem violent conflict between Buddhists and Muslims.

“If we put racial and religious issues,….the never-ending hatred, desire for revenge and anarchic actions at the forefront,” said Thein Sein, “there’s a danger that…the country’s stability and peace, democratization process and development, which are only in transition right now, could be severely affected and much would be lost.”

Ethnic violence in the country’s far western Arakan (or Rakhine) state claimed at least 17 lives in clashes between Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim Rohingya.

Burma is a combustible place,” writes analyst Hannah Beech.”

Burma is composed of a patchwork of fractious ethnicities that were bound more by colonial diktat than by any historic sense of community. Tensions between the country’s majority Bamar (or Burman) population and various ethnic groups—the Kachin, the Shan, the Karen, the Chin, the Mon and the Arakanese, to name just a few—have for decades driven civil insurgencies in the country’s borderlands.

According to Maung Zarni, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics………

…the situation was all the more tragic because both sides had been persecuted by Burmese authorities. He said the nominally civilian government could well benefit from the unrest because it diverted attention from the military’s continued attacks on other ethnic groups. Up to 300,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh to escape state-sanctioned abuse and discrimination by Arakanese locals. They belong to the only ethnic group in Burma subjected to a two-child policy and severe travel limits. Rohingya babies born out of wedlock are placed on blacklists that deny them schooling and forbids marriage. Animosity has been fanned by prominent members of Burma’s pro-democracy movement. Ko Ko Gyi, a former political prisoner and leader of the 1988 student uprising, this week referred to the Rohingya as terrorists: ‘‘We want to say clearly that Rohingya are not one of the [Burma] ethnic nationalities.’’

“We have now ordered troops to protect the airport and the Rakhine villages under attack in Sittwe,” Zaw Htay, director of the president’s office, told Reuters. “Arrangements are under way to impose a curfew in some other towns.”

Some victims of the violence were from the stateless Rohingya group of Muslims, who live in abject conditions along Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh and are despised by many Rakhine, who belong to the predominantly Buddhist majority.

About 100 Rohingyas tried to flee by boat into Bangladesh but were pushed back on Monday morning, Bangladesh’s border guard said.Five boats carrying about 200 Rohingyas were pushed back out to sea on Sunday, said Anwar Hossain, a major with the guard.

Rohingya activists have long demanded recognition in Myanmar as an indigenous ethnic group with full citizenship by birthright, claiming a centuries-old lineage in Rakhine State, where they number some 800,000.But the government regards them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship. Bangladesh has refused to grant Rohingyas refugee status since 1992.

The sectarian violence is partly due to the Rohingya’s statelessness between Burma and Bangladesh, analysts suggest.

“The Rohingya fit somewhat awkwardly in that borderland between the two different political systems, they have nowhere to call home and, as a result from time to time, there are these episodes of conflict,” Nicholas Farelly, a Burma watcher at Australia National University, tells VOA. “We have seen one of those very recently and it has in this case taken the form of Buddhist and Muslim mobs of varying sizes coming to blows.”

The possibility that the relationship between the country’s “two political titans could falter and set back Burma’s reform movement” is also a growing concern.

“For now, Thein Sein has managed to keep the more conservative parts of the military on board, just as Aung San Suu Kyi has persuaded her more radical supporters to accept compromise with the state,” notes the BBC’s Feargal Keane:

There is a fear that more conservative elements of the government might see rising ethnic unrest, expanding protests over living conditions, and the growing political threat from the NLD as a reason to put the brake on reform. As the regime’s grip loosens and long dormant forces emerge the transition is likely to be challenged in numerous and unpredictable ways.

‘The strange dynamics of Myanmar’s rapid process of democratization enter a new phase this week,” the FT’s Gwen Robinson writes, with some observers claiming that Suu Kyi’s celebrity status is threatening to undermine reform efforts.

The trouble, say critics, is that Ms Suu Kyi’s mega-celebrity status runs the risk of eclipsing her cause, and her political experience. ………..This kind of celebrity is bringing with it political headaches, as demonstrated by the tensions in the UK over her speech to the combined houses of British parliament.

After much wrangling, and despite opposition from Black Rod, the Queen’s official representative, Ms Suu Kyi will address parliament in Westminster Hall. This is normally reserved for heads of state, though even Ronald Reagan had the lesser honour of speaking in the smaller Royal Gallery in the House of Lords.

On her recent trip to Thailand, Suu Kyi warned would-be investors to maintain “a healthy skepticism” toward the reform process, prompting speculation of growing tension between the democracy icon and Thein Sein.

“Suu Kyi has since played down suggestions that relations between her and the government were damaged by her remarks,” the Wall Street Journal reports, “but analysts say this time she will likely receive even more media attention than during her visit to Thailand.”

“The lesson, perhaps, for those who want to support Myanmar’s reformist government is to treat Ms Suu Kyi carefully,” notes Robinson. “She may be the world’s leading democracy icon but she is still a minority opposition leader, and a fledgling one at that.”

The country’s reform process is unlikely to generate a sustainable democratic transition without a vibrant civil society, but Burmese non-governmental organizations face considerable hurdles, from lack of capacity and expertise to bureaucratic impediments to registration and funding, say activists. 

“We haven’t been very successful in establishing a vibrant civil society in Myanmar,” said activist- comedian Zarganar.” This is partly because many of us have just been released from prison. We hardly know anything. I don’t even know how to write a proposal.”

He made the same points at recent roundtables at the State Department, the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID:

If they think everything is fine now and are looking at donating money, at least please scrutinize carefully to ensure the money gets to the people who are actually doing the work. At the moment, that’s not happening.

We haven’t got exposure either, because we can’t travel abroad. So the money ends up with people who have a passport in hand, can write a good proposal, and speak English fluently, while the people who sacrificed their lives and worked for the public good have nothing.

And let’s say I want to set up an NGO (non-governmental organization). I applied for a registration. I couldn’t get it. That’s why I had to set up HOME as a company. As an NGO, you have to renew (the registration) every year.


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Putin ‘paranoia’? Raids on opposition confirm hardliners’ ascendancy

Russian security forces armed with assault rifles today raided the homes of several opposition leaders, a day before a planned mass rally by critics of President Vladimir Putin.

The searches and a new law sharply increasing fines for protest violations highlight the ascendancy of hardline elements in the Kremlin under Putin, said former finance minister Alexei Kudrin.

Police stormed the residences of anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny (right), left-wing leaders Sergei Udaltsov and Ilya Yashin, TV personality Ksenia Sobchak and the Solidarity Movement’s Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister under president Boris Yeltsin.

The activists were summoned to appear before the Investigative Committee, the country’s main criminal investigation agency, at the same time as the anti-government protest.

“This is the biggest action yet against the opposition in terms of scale and also the most demented one,” Anna Veduta, Navalny’s spokesperson, told the Financial Times.

“In the end, it will probably be counter-productive and help us. The people will not accept such behavior from the authorities.”

The Kremlin‘s commissioner for human rights, Mikhail Fedotov said he was “shocked” by the raids, and called on demonstrators and security forces to show restraint on Tuesday.

“I think that from the standpoint of social harmony, modernization and political reforms, this is the very worst that could have happened,” Fedotov told Interfax.

Valery Borshchyov, a lawyer and activist for the Helsinki Group, believes the raids are “an act of intimidation.”

“It was not essential to search the opposition leaders’ flats in the middle of the public-holiday period,” he said. “The authorities want to send a signal to frighten society, to show that everyone who violates the new law will be tried.”

Observers say the raids are designed to deter ordinary citizens from supporting the rally, which will be an important indicator of the opposition’s ability to maintain the momentum of the winter’s pro-democracy protests.

“The electoral cycle brought with it heightened political consciousness,” said Andrei Kortunov. “Now that the elections are over, authorities want to return to life as normal.”

The authorities “want to scare off Muscovites from participating in a very important political event,” employing “a very simplistic idea to behead the protest demonstrations,” opposition activist Andrei Piontkovsky (left) told the BBC:

It was a decision by one person – Vladimir Putin. Who else would be able to send the prosecutor’s office representatives at seven in the morning on a holiday to the homes of the protest organisers? This means he is becoming increasingly ineffective in his actions – which is bad of course, as he is the president of a nuclear state.”

“Judging by the reaction in the media, internet and blogosphere, the result is the opposite – tomorrow there will be more people than expected,” said Piontkovsky, a former Reagan Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.

The raids prompted outrage on social networking websites, reports suggest:

“hello37″ – a reference to the year when Joseph Stalin began a bloody campaign of purges and political repression – was the top trending words on Twitter throughout much of the day.

“At 8 o’clock in the morning people burst into my room. They did not allow me to put my clothes on, robbed my apartment, humiliated me,” Sobchak twitted on her blog after the search.

“I never thought we would be back in the country of SUCH repression,” she added.

Russian political scientist Gleb Pavlovsky said the “raids had nothing to do with investigations, but are a campaign of intimidation.”

Leading activist Lev Ponomarev (right), the head of For Human Rights, said the government was trying to provoke radical elements to cause trouble on the march, giving security forces a pretext to intervene.

“[The authorities have] several purposes here: To intimidate the organizers, destabilize the leaders of the rally, and deliberately make people angry with these [searches] so that more angry people come to this rally,” he said. “Using this opportunity, I call [on protesters] not to give in to this provocation. It is crucial to conduct the rally and the march tomorrow in a peaceful fashion.”

Putin signed into law on Friday a new law that drastically raised fines for violations of public order during street demonstrations.

“This is a ban on rallies and political actions,” said Sergei Mitrokhin, the leader of Yabloko, a liberal opposition party. “Now, anyone can be punished with slave’s work or an astounding fine. I cannot call people to a rally knowing in advance that from there they may be sent to the galleys.”

The new penalties were described as excessive by Putin’s own advisory body, the Presidential Human Rights Council.

“They lost their sense of reality about what they can do and what they can’t,” said Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin insider “People who do not agree with the authorities turn out not to have full rights.”

He described the law as “idiotic” and “dangerous” in an interview on Ekho Moskvy radio station:

“Putin has once again shown that he has lost the plot,” he said, adding that the law was driven by paranoia of protest movement in Mr Putin’s circle. “However, there is clearly no danger of crowds storming the Kremlin or the Moscow mayor’s office,” he said.

“[Putin’s] people have lost their perspective. They look out the window and they see German tanks coming.”

“The searches of the opposition leaders on the eve of June 12, alongside the new law, will radicalize the protest and demonstrate the strengthening of the influence of radicals in the regime,” said Kudrin, who has flirted with the opposition since he left government in September.


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New opposition leader calls for defections, as Syria’s ‘unraveling’ speeds up

The new head of Syria’s main opposition group has urged government officials to defect from a regime that is “on its last legs,” echoing similar demands by the rebel Free Syrian Army, which also called for a campaign of mass “civil disobedience” and a general strike to increase pressure on President Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist regime.

“We are entering a sensitive phase. The regime is on its last legs,” Kurdish activist Abdel Basset Sayda (above, right) said in an interview after being appointed leader of the Syrian National Council.

He also sought to reassure minority groups by offering guarantees for their rights and safety in a future, democratic Syria.

“We will expand and extend the base of the council,” he told reporters, “so it will take on its role as an umbrella under which all the opposition will seek shade.”

The rate of military defections has reached its highest level, says Ausama Monajed, a leading official of the SNC. Hundreds of troops switched to the opposition in Idlib and Homs, while a strategic air defense battalion, armed with anti-air and anti-tanks missiles, has also joined rebel ranks.

Sayda replaced Burhan Ghalioun (above, left) , who resigned last month amidst growing internal acrimony over the Muslim Brotherhood’s disproportionate influence and the SNC’s distance from the Syria-based Local Co-ordination Committees, which lead the anti-government protests on the ground.

A secular Kurd who has lived in Sweden for the past 17 years, Sayda “emerged as the consensus choice precisely because he represents no one, either inside Syria or out,” analysts suggest:

Both the Muslim Brotherhood and liberals in the council concluded that he did not pose a threat or provide an advantage to any bloc within the council, they said, but for the same reasons he will have little real authority, and the bickering will continue.

“Younger activists are understandably frustrated by the SNC’s impotence,” one observer notes:

They speak of their anger against those older activists they believe are trying to dominate the SNC to ensure they get good positions in post-Assad Syria, and neglecting the needs of the fighters on the ground. …..They are the ones pushing for a wholesale restructuring of the council, to make it more democratic. But one of the SNC’s founding members, Basma Kodmani, explained that this is the inevitable nature of a broad-based movement.

We have idealists and political opportunists under the same roof, and we have to learn to get along, she said – this is politics, something Syria has not had for more than 40 years.

The appointment of Sieda is being portrayed as a bid to broaden the opposition by rallying Syria’s 1 million Kurds, Reuters reports.

“Opposition figures are also portraying his election as a sign that Syria’s various minorities, who worry about their safety in a post-Assad Syria run by the majority Sunni population, would be safe,” reports suggest.

SNC officials say the election confirms that the Syrian opposition is “committed to upholding democratic principles and the idea of a ‘leaderless revolution’,” the New York Times reports:

“The ideal leadership of the council is not through one person — because no one is elected and has actual legitimacy,” said Bassma Kodmani, a member of the executive committee. Until such time as there are free elections in Syria, she said, the choice of the president of the council should be made by consensus.

“The revolution does not want to see a big leader, or one individual who leads everything,” Ms. Kodmani said. “Personalization leads to polarization.”

“Syrians have abandoned the regime in spirit, even if they have yet to defect in body,” according to Joshua Landis.

The recent massacres in Houla and al-Qubair indicate that the regime can no longer rely on the regular army to suppress protests and is now relying on the sectarian Alawite shabiha militia. The Sunni merchant class, a bastion of the regime, is also beginning to turn against Assad, says Landis.

“The revolution is popping up everywhere now. The heart of Damascus is now involved,” he notes. “When the merchants of Hamadiya – the main souq – go on strike, you know you have lost the conscience and heart of Damascus. The Sunni bourgeoisie has now turned on the regime.”

The revolution is coming to Damascus, writes Julien Barnes-Dacey, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, formerly based in Syria from 2007 to 2010:

Recently, security forces opened fire in the center of the capital to disperse a small gathering of peaceful demonstrators just a few hundred meters from parliament. The mood has markedly shifted away from the regime over the last couple of months. The decision by Damascene merchants to go on an unprecedented strike in response to the Houla killings marked an important escalation of local defiance. Many Damascus suburbs fall under effective rebel control at night. Anti-regime protests are spreading to districts like Midan and Kafr Sousa, just minutes from downtown Damascus.

According to analyst Muhammad Ali, Syria’s business class is approaching a tipping point:   Merchants have finally decided to enter the crisis due to economic distress and slumping profits, the extortion by which the regime pays its Shabiha thugs, and civilian casualties in neighborhoods of Damascus. The massacre at Houla and further slaughters only strengthen the resolve of the merchants, mostly Sunni, against the largely Alawite regime.

The opposition’s gains over recent days reflect growing international efforts to provide assistance to rebel forces, say analysts.

The arming of the opposition has gained momentum, Roula Khalaf writes in the Financial Times:

Gulf-backed moves to arm Syria’s opposition are gaining momentum amid growing flows of funds and weapons and a better organization of deliveries to fighters on the ground. Syrian activists say more significant funds are now coming from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in addition to a regular flow of donations from Syrian expatriates and some wealthy individuals in Syria. The new arms include anti-tank missiles and account for the apparent sharp rise in attacks. At least 20 tanks or armored personnel carriers have been burned in the past week.

“The rebels now control a widening swath of territory in north and central Syria,” says McClatchy’s David Enders:

They use it as a base for storing and manufacturing weapons and for launching attacks against government soldiers in previously peaceful parts of the country.     In May, at least 404 government soldiers and police officers lost their lives in combat with the rebels, according to burial notices published by the Syrian government news agency, SANA. In June, SANA reported the burial of 150 soldiers in just the first seven days of the month. In March, SANA reported only 176 deaths; in April, 363.

Rebel units show none of the desperation for weapons and ammunition that plagued them as recently as February. One unit on Friday proudly displayed six new Belgian FAL assault rifles along with ammunition – gifts, the rebels said, from Saudi Arabia.

“The opposition is a long way from producing the sort of coordination and command that can march on the Presidential Palace,” says Landis, editor of the Syria Comment blog, “but today, one can imagine the day when it will summon the strength to do it.”

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Stronger democracy will check ‘Old Guard in new Mexico’

PRI candidate Peña-Nieto. Pic credit: www.latintelligence.com/

“After voting the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) out of Los Pinos, Mexico’s presidential residence, twelve years ago, the country looks poised to bring it back,” notes Shannon K. O’Neil.

The party “continues to be a club of corruption, a preserve of tightly linked political and business interests, a network woven together through the constant exchange of favors and positions, negotiated in the shadows,” says Denise Dresser, a prominent Mexican political analyst.

But “whether the PRI set to take power is a new version of its old self is less important than the fact that Mexico’s democratic institutions will hem in the next president, regardless of party or personal preferences,” O’Neil writes for the Council on Foreign Relations:

Mexican democracy has evolved in ways that make a return to wholesale PRI dominance unlikely. Consider how the role and power of the legislative and judicial branches have changed since the 1990s. During the old PRI’s heyday, Congress was little more than a rubber stamp, with the PRI’s delegates rarely questioning the edicts of their president. Now, Congress is a real fulcrum for negotiations and debates between Mexico’s three main parties. Even if the PRI gains a majority in both houses, the administration will need the support of at least a segment of the opposition to pass the big-ticket items on the agenda — energy, tax, labor, and political reform — some of which would require constitutional changes. Unlike the PRI of the past, whoever wins will need to work with the opposition in order to govern.

Likewise, the Supreme Court is more powerful than in decades past. It now provides a check on the president and on vested interests. In the old days, the justices blessed whatever legislation came their way. But in the 1990s, President Ernesto Zedillo reorganized and professionalized the court, creating an independent institution as a hedge against an opposition takeover, which had begun to look increasingly likely. Since then, the court has become an independent and final arbiter on many political issues — it has passed judgment on topics as diverse as the constitutionality of new legislation, the rules governing elections, and the jurisdiction of civilian courts over the military. 

The elections “will pose a new test for Mexican democracy” and for the authority of a state that has been undermined by powerful narco-traffickers, said Dr. Luis Carlos Ugalde, former president of Mexico’s Federal Electoral Commission, at a National Endowment for Democracy forum.

Endemic corruption has sapped the legitimacy of the state, the former Reagan-Fascell fellow recently observed.

“We have good laws. But they do not have an effect on the real world of corruption,” Ugalde wrote in Nexos magazine, in a dissection of corruption and impediments to cleaning it up:

Mexico’s civil society is also better placed to resist a PRI-led regression, especially its independent media, says O’Neil, the Douglas Dillon Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, who recently directed CFR’s Independent Task Force on U.S.-Latin America Relations: A New Direction for a New Reality:

A few decades ago, if the PRI found itself displeased with news coverage, it could literally stop the presses, as it held a monopoly on newsprint. Now Mexico has developed a vibrant and fiercely independent press, led by El Universal, Reforma, and La Jornada. Mexican voters and society have also gained a stronger voice, using social media and information now publicly available through Mexico’s freedom of information law to shame corrupt bureaucrats and politicians. 

“The job of Mexican journalists covering drug trafficking and organized crime along the Mexico-U.S. border has been called the most dangerous job in the world,” says a recent report from the Center for International Media Assistance (below). “And the danger has spread from journalists for traditional media to bloggers and citizens who post reports on drug cartel violence through social media such as Twitter and Facebook.”

 The threats to independent media confirm O’Neil’s suggestion that “Mexico’s democracy still struggles with deep-rooted vested interests, and the country has a limited set of tools for ensuring open, accountable, and responsive government.”

“A forward-looking democratic administration could push doors open further by investing in political reforms to encourage elected officials to be more accountable to their constituents, fully implementing the country’s judicial reforms, and ensuring the continuation of a free press and active civil society,” she concludes.


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As Putin ‘throws down gauntlet’ to critics, Russian liberals ‘losing faith in the West’

Russia’s don’t need Western assistance or democracy promotion, says a leading liberal, as President Vladimir Putin today “signed into law a controversial bill that dramatically raises fines on illegal protests.”

But growing discontent with the regime was confirmed by news that a growing number of Russians want to emigrate abroad.

Some 20 percent of respondents hope to permanently leave Russia, according to a Levada Center poll, a 7 percent increase over the last three years:

When asked to assess their country’s future prospects, roughly one-fifth of those surveyed said they believe that Russia will become as rich and developed as the West, with 7 percent anticipating development along the lines of Asian countries such as China and India. Seven percent had more dire predictions for the country, saying they foresee “impending collapse and ruin” for Russia.

The independent Levada Center* also finds that only 15 percent of Russians support protest marches and camps, news that is likely to prompt a re-assessment of tactics by opposition groups.

“People are angry about the new law. It’s going to drive turnout up,” said Sergei Davidis of the Solidarity movement, referring to a planned opposition rally.

Analysts believe the rally will be an indicator of the opposition’s ability to maintain momentum, but is unlikely to represent a major watershed.

“It’s an important day, but it’s not likely to be a turning point,” said Alexei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technology. “It’s important for the opposition to show that people continue

Russian democrats are confronting “a phenomenon that until recently was unthinkable: emerging anti-Western and anti-American liberalism,” says a leading observer.

“We Russians don’t need any assistance from the West! We don’t expect any help in democracy promotion!claims Lilia Shevstova, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center.  Russian democrats need the West to recover its confidence and “reinvent” itself as a model for the rest of the world.

Beset by economic crisis, apparently dysfunctional political institutions and a crippling lack of self-confidence, the West’s democracies, no longer provide the compelling pole of attraction and ideologically assured alternative to authoritarian rule they represented during the Cold War, she writes in a must-read polemic in the American Interest.

I am only describing how Western developments and Western policies are seen from the outside by those who have traditionally looked to the West as an example and even an icon….. Western observers themselves admit that the West has problems. Francis Fukuyama, for one, writes about “American Political Dysfunction.” Walter Mead declares, “The core institutions, ideas and expectations that shaped American life for the sixty years after the New Deal don’t work anymore.” William Galston says, “We need a fundamental renewal of the liberal tradition in America.” ….. Even Robert Kagan, whom we can hardly suspect of declinism, agrees that “the United States must adjust to the new” (p. 140).

Europe is no different. Walter Laqueur has announced “the slow death of Europe.” Zbigniew Brzezinski concludes that Europe has become “the world’s most comfortable retirement home” (p. 36). Europeans themselves lament the crisis of Western civilization as well. Constanze Stelzenmüller acknowledges a “toxic polarization of domestic politics” and discrediting of “politicians as well as of the institutions of representative government.”

“The Western project is beginning to resemble a house with a shaky foundation,” Shevstova suggests, lamenting that the West’s opinion-formers and decision-makers are plagued by a politically disabling cynical pragmatism, rationalized as realism or realpolitik.

Recent trends mark a pronounced regression since the Cold War, when the existential challenge of Soviet Communism “forced the West to pay close attention to justice, fairness, equality and social aspects of capitalism” and to adopt a values-based approach to foreign policy:

The universalization of human rights and respect for dignity and freedom blurred the boundaries between domestic and foreign policy, entailing rejection of the concept of absolute sovereignty in the global arena. The Helsinki process and its Final Act were simultaneously a sign of the new vitality of Western civilization, an effective instrument to contain the U.S.S.R. and a catalyst for the “third wave” of democratization. The Velvet Revolutions of 1989 owed at least part of their success to the influence of liberalism in the area of international relations.

By contrast, “it seems that there is no intellectual or political force in the West that would dare repeat the breakthrough of the 1970s by re-energizing liberal civilization with a return to values and principles. Looks like we are back in the Kissingerian world,” Shevstova notes:

Western policymakers today are mainly trying to update internal politics—brushing aside interdependence with the international environment—and debating how to maintain the geopolitical and societal status quo…..

But how can Western civilization reinvent itself while pursuing a foreign policy pragmatism based on turning inward and making trade-offs with the non-democratic world? Western states do indeed face a multitude of internal challenges, but if foreign policy is a projection of the domestic agenda, how can liberal democracies hope to reform their political systems and revive their principles while refusing to follow them in the international arena?

My Western friends would argue that in order to think about values abroad, the West should first sort things out at home. And then…liberal democracies will start thinking about the integrity and popularity of their foreign policies, and of democracy, in the outside world. I just don’t get this: How can one re-energize liberal democracy while continuing with the same foreign policy model that is one of the causes of the liberal democracies’ normative crisis?

Charles Kupchan is typical of many Western analysts in claiming that by pursuing illiberal, paternalistic routes toward modernity,  capitalist autocracies like China and Russia provide ”an appealing alternative to the Western model,” says Shevstova.

The notion that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is an attractive model for anyone is risible, she suggests, while noting that “if Fukuyama, Minxin Pei and Andrew Nathan are right in saying that the Chinese system ‘embeds plenty of hidden problems that will make it in the long run unsustainable’, and that the Chinese model ‘is expedient, something temporary and transitional,’ then China may soon cease being a success story and prove that its culture and past do not ‘contrast’ with liberalization.”

Equally absurd are Western analysts’ claims that engagement with so-called modernizers like Dmitri Medvedev will in some way facilitate an incremental form of democratization:

The most frustrating aspect of this hypocrisy is the role played by the Western political and intellectual communities in the Kremlin’s staged “operas”, like the Valdai Club and Yaroslav Forum, which have been used by the Kremlin to legitimize its authoritarian rule. The annual participation of Western politicians, pundits and journalists in meetings with Kremlin leaders has helped to make Russian authoritarianism appear more civilized and acceptable for the West. …. Western participation in the Kremlin’s show will only exacerbate Russia’s disenchantment with the West and highlight its double standards.

The history of Western civilization has proven that the best environment for progress is one of competition and a certain clash of ideas. Having lost its former opponent, Communism, the West has acquired, without even noticing, a much more dangerous enemy: the corruption and cynicism exported by authoritarian systems. The Russian political and business elite has personally integrated into Western society, and it has succeeded in creating there a powerful laundry machine and a multi-layered “service class” that operates that machine (made up of lawyers, bankers, politicians, journalists, experts and even entire think tanks). This service class has been successfully lobbying on behalf of the interests of the Russian system in the West.

Nevertheless, many Russian liberals believe the West can reinvent itself and rebound, says Shevstova:

We believe that there is a chance to turn global interdependence in the opposite direction, to force the new West to influence Russia and the other transitional societies that got stuck in the doldrums. But we doubt that the new West can emerge without changing its current foreign policy paradigm and the ways it deals with the world. We doubt that the West can revitalize itself with its current crop of political leaders and intellectual elites.

We Russians don’t need any assistance from the West! We don’t expect any help in democracy promotion! Indeed those words should be erased from political dictionaries. Any Western attempt to preach democracy or to assist our civil society will only discredit our agenda (especially given the West’s current reputation).

Russia’s democrats need the West to “revive the principles that it is built upon,” she asserts:

Constraints on the freedom of the corrupt elites of authoritarian states to operate in Western society (the Magnitsky bill could be one) would be healthy, first and foremost, for Western society. Raising the issue of politicians and intellectuals who damage their reputations by working for authoritarian regimes would also help us both—but would help Western society most of all.


* The Levada Center is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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