Anti-American head of Duma ethics quits in US assets scandal

The anti-American head of the Russian Duma’s ethics committee quit his seat today after a leading anti-corruption blogger revealed his secret property acquisitions – in the United States.

Ruling party deputy Vladimir Pekhtin resigned after Alexei Navalny (above), a leading figure in Russia’s opposition, accused him of failing to declare his ownership of properties in Florida.

Last week, Navalny posted photographs and records showing Pekhtin’s name on deeds to two condos in Miami Beach and another in Ormond Beach.

“Pekhtin, 52, officially found himself in trouble not because he owned property in Florida — there’s no law against that — but because he had not listed it on the annual declaration required of government officials. That, undoubtedly, would have been too politically incorrect,” the Washington Post reports:

He had listed an income of $72,000 a year, along with $5,500 for his wife. Together, according to the declaration, they owned property including two large apartments, two houses, six large parcels of land, a Porsche Cayenne, a Toyota Land Cruiser, three Mercedes, a snowmobile and jet ski. All of it was in Russia, where people often seem to own vast quantities of property on small salaries.

Navalny has been a major Kremlin irritant for the last two years. He started calling United Russia the Party of Crooks and Thieves, a name that has stuck among the opposition-minded. The authorities have fought back against his anti-corruption campaign and popularity. Three charges of fraud have been brought against him recently. His supporters call the charges politically motivated, but he risks up to 10 years in prison.

The episode is an embarrassment to President Vladimir Putin and his ruling United Russia party which have made anti-Americanism a prominent theme in regime rhetoric. Putin has consistently accused overseas-funded non-governmental groups of acting as “foreign agents.”  

“Navalny has manifestly put Pekhtin, the ruling party, and the Kremlin in an extremely uncomfortable position,” political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya wrote recently on Politcom.ru.

At a time when the Kremlin has pledged to crack down on corruption, it has exposed Putin’s inability — or unwillingness — to police top officials, RFE/RL’s Brian Whitmore adds. And at a time when the authorities are branding NGOs who receive funding from abroad as “foreign agents,” one of the top lawmakers in the country is secretly holding multimillion-dollar properties abroad.

“If Aleksey Navalny has ferreted out published documents, the Russian security services are also perfectly capable of probing officials with regard to their exclusive loyalty to the Russian Federation,” Stanovaya wrote, adding that Putin apparently “does not have sufficient resources to move against the bureaucracy.”

The exposé is also likely to intensify what one analysis characterizes as deepening disarray among the elites as Russia’s self-isolation progresses.

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Yoani on Cuba’s real mercenaries

 

Dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez (above) was warmly welcomed by Brazilian lawmakers today “in sharp contrast with the hostile reception she got from pro-Havana protesters in northeast Brazil,” AFP reports.

“We are making up for the unacceptable violence shown toward a visitor to our country,” said Octavio Leite, a deputy from the opposition Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB).

Sanchez’s Brazilian critics parroted the Cuban regime’s standard characterization of Sanchez as a pro-American “mercenary,” but it appears that it was the protesters who were acting at the behest of a foreign power.

According to local news magazine Veja, Cuban diplomats recently met with militants from Brazil’s ruling Workers’ Party in Brasilia and asked them to organize protests against Sanchez during her stay in the South American country, Reuters reports. One junior official in the Rousseff administration was present at the meeting, Veja said.

Sanchez’s visit touched a political nerve in Brazil, where the left-leaning government of President Dilma Rousseff is often criticized for not taking a more critical stance with Cuba’s one-party system and the repression of political dissent there.

The celebrated blogger noted that the Leftist protesters were exercising the rights to protest and free speech denied to Cuban citizens.

“I am so happy. It has been five years of struggle,” Sanchez told local media.

“Unfortunately, in Cuba you are punished for thinking differently. Opinions against the government have terrible consequences, arbitrary arrests, surveillance,” she said in an interview with GloboNews television.

The demonstration was not the first act of officially-orchestrated repudiation she has witnessed, Sanchez observed.

“The first act of repudiation that I saw in my life was when I was only five. The commotion in the tenement caught the attention of the two girls we then were, my sister and I,” she blogged today:

We peered over the railings of the narrow corridor to look down to the floor below. People were screaming and raising their fists around a neighbor’s door. As young as we were, we had no idea what was going on. ….. Years later I could put together that kaleidoscope of childish evocations and I knew I had been a witness to the violence unleashed against those who wanted to emigrate from the port of Mariel.

She has since “experienced several acts of repudiation up close…whether as a victim, observer, or journalist… never — I should clarify — as a victimizer,” she wrote:

I remember a particularly violent one that I experienced with the Ladies in White, where the hordes of intolerance spat on us, pushed us and even pulled our hair. But last night was unprecedented for me. The picketing of the extremists who blocked the showing of Dado Galvao’s film in Feria de Santana was something more than the sum of unconditional supporters of the Cuban government. They all had, for example, the same document — printed in color — with a pack of lies about me, as Manichean as they were easy to refute in a simple conversation. They repeated an identical and hackneyed script, without the least intention of listening to any reply I could give them. They shouted, interrupted, and at one point became violent, and occasionally launched a chorus of slogans that even in Cuba are no longer said.

But, with the assistance of Senator Eduardo Suplicy, Sanchez managed to exercise her own right to free expression over the objections of those who “only knew how to yell and repeat the same phrases, like programmed automatons,” she wrote:

Their neck veins swelled, I cracked a smile. They attacked me personally, I brought the discussion back to Cuba which will always be more important than this humble servant. They wanted to lynch me; I talked. They were responding to orders; I am a free soul. At the end of the night I had the same feelings as after a battle against the demons of the same extremism that fueled those acts of repudiation in 1980 in Cuba. The difference is that this time I understood the mechanism that foments these attitudes, I could see the long arm that controls them from the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana. RTWT

Yoani Sanchez will be one of the speakers at The Revolution Recodified, a three-day conference at The New School and New York University about the impact of digital technology in Cuban culture and society. 

For more than a decade, Cuban artists, musicians, independent journalists and librarians have teamed with computer scientists and engineers on the island and in the diaspora to foment a socially engaged and politically independent culture using digital technology. The conference will explore the ways that digital technology is transforming Cuba’s cultural and political landscape by challenging the state’s longstanding monopoly on communications media and its hegemonic control of cultural production and distribution.

Further info here.

 

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‘Ghannouchi’s inflexibility’ plunges Tunisia deeper into crisis

“Tunisia was in political limbo on Wednesday as President Moncef Marzouki suffered setbacks in his bid to replace Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who quit after failing in his plan to form a non-partisan cabinet,” AFP reports.

Talks between Marzouki and Rached Ghannouchi, head of Islamist Ennahda [also known as Nahda or Renaissance] party, ended inconclusively, dashing hopes of a soon end to Tunisia’s deepest political crisis since the revolt that ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali two years ago.

“For the moment we have no name,” said Ghannouchi, whose party holds the majority in the National Constituent Assembly, after his meeting with Marzouki. He added that he was in “talks with Jebali” to continue in his post.

Jebali stressed when he resigned he would not sign on again as prime minister under “any initiative that does not fix a date for new elections. What about the constitution? What about elections?”

“We need a coalition government with several political parties and technocrats,” Ennahda party chief Ghannouchi told reporters.

Tunisian citizens are reportedly ’furious’ at the Islamist leader’s sectarian stance.

The head of the country’s largest labour union body backed Jabali’s call for an apolitical government to organize new elections.

Those parties rejecting a government of technocrats are unaware of the seriousness of the situation and failing to place national interest above sectarian or partisan considerations, said Houssine Abassi (left), Secretary-General of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), the country’s largest civil society group.

Tunisia has been in political turmoil since the murder of secular politician Chokri Belaid outside his Tunis home on February 6 sparked widespread protests and a general strike.

“Jebali’s plans had been bitterly opposed by Ennahda hardliners, represented by Ghannouchi, who refused to give up key portfolios and insist on Ennahda’s electoral legitimacy,” AFP reports:

Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, a prominent figure in the Republican party, expressed support for Jebali on Wednesday. “We support him because he has gained credibility,” he said.

Samir Bettaieb, leader of Al-Massar party, said he had “confidence in Hamadi Jebali due to the role he played after Chokri Belaid’s assassination.”

A section of the Tunisia media also showered praise on Jebali. Le Temps said Jebali “has given everyone a wonderful lesson in courage, consistency and commitment for the best interests of the nation”.

A Nahda spokesman reiterated the party line that a political coalition would enjoy greater legitimacy than a government of technocrats.

“Politicians who fought for a long time and worked hard for the revolution are also qualified to be part of the government,” said Najib Gharbi. “I guess Jebali doesn’t agree anymore.”

Radwan Masmoudi, who leads the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy and is close to the Renaissance Party’s leaders, said an agreement to form a new government was “probably close” but faced several challenges. Among them, he said, is the Islamist group’s insistence on retaining key government portfolios, including the Interior Ministry. Opposition parties have singled out that ministry as sorely in need of reform.

The speech left Mr. Jebali’s position in his party unclear. Mr. Masmoudi said that while the speech had been “statesmanlike,” the prime minister was in danger of losing his base. “He can’t be a leader if he doesn’t have a political party behind him,” he said.

But Noomane Fehri, a member of Tunisia’s constituent assembly who belongs to a liberal opposition party, said he had found the speech refreshing.

“He did what he said he would do,” Mr. Fehri said. “He continued to be a man you can trust.”

Gharbi’s claim that Nahda “fought for a long time and worked hard for the revolution” is disputed by independent analysts.

“It bears noting that Islamists were largely absent from the 2010-2011 demonstrations that led to the ouster of former president Ben Ali; after initially spontaneous protests, it was the union leadership that added crucial muscle to the nonviolent campaign,” write Middle East specialists Ahmed Charai and Joseph Braude.

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Dispensable Nation? Time to end US-Pakistan alliance?

“Religious radicals, right-wing politicians and elements in the security services are increasingly harassing non-governmental organizations (NGOs), human rights workers and other civil society groups,” says a prominent analyst.

The attacks are intensifying “even as Pakistan enters into a delicate political phase with polls imminent,” writes author Ahmed Rashid:

Last October the young but prominent educationalist Malala Yousafzai (left) was attacked* in her school bus and had to be flown to England for a series of operations. Her attackers were self-proclaimed Pakistani Taliban. Malala, who is only 14, has become an international celebrity and has now been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, but it is still not safe for her to come home.

Asma Jahangir, the country’s leading human rights lawyer and women’s rights advocate, has been forced to respond to a campaign launched by right-wing politicians such as Imran Khan and religious leaders who have called her unsuitable to become the caretaker prime minister when parliament is dissolved. In reality, no political party has nominated her for the job and it is only the speculative Pakistani media that has suggested her.

The attacks coincide with growing questions about US policy toward Pakistan speculation about the health and utility of the Washington-Islamabad alliance. US-Pakistan relations have never been good so perhaps it’s time to end the pretense of an alliance, says a former envoy.

“In 2002, at arguably the height of U.S.-Pakistani cooperation against terrorism, a Pew poll found that 63 percent of Americans had unfavorable views of Pakistan, making it the fifth most disliked nation, behind Colombia, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and North Korea,” notes Husain Haqqani, while “a 2012 Pew poll found that 80 percent of Pakistanis have an unfavorable view of the United States, with 74 percent seeing it as an enemy.”

Nor can Pakistanis’ anti-Americanism be attributed to adverse reaction to drone attacks or the war on terror. A study based on analysis of keywords in the Pakistani press found evidence for widespread anti-Americanism going back to 1965, Haqqani notes, while the U.S. embassy in Islamabad was burned down following demonstrations in 1979, the culmination of a series of attacks on U.S. buildings dating back to the 1950s and 1960s.

While serving as Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States in 2008-11, Haqqani worked with Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special envoy for Af-Pak before his death in 2011, to repair relations, but “the civilian leaders were unable to smooth over the distrust between the U.S. and Pakistani militaries and intelligence agencies,” he writes in Foreign Affairs. “And the lack of full civilian control over Pakistan’s military and intelligence services meant that, as ever, the two countries were working toward different outcomes.”

The initiative may also have failed because Holbrooke “never received the authority to do diplomacy,” according to his former aide.

“Pakistan is a failure of American policy, a failure of the sort that comes from the president handing foreign policy over to the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies,” Vali Nasr writes in his forthcoming book, “The Dispensable Nation.”

“My own tenure as ambassador came to an abrupt end in November 2011, just weeks after an American businessman of Pakistani origin falsely accused me of using him as an intermediary to seek American help in thwarting a military coup immediately after the U.S. raid that killed bin Laden,” writes Haqqani, a Professor of International Relations at Boston University and a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute:

The allegation made no sense because as ambassador, I had direct access to American officials and did not need the help of a controversial businessman to convey concerns about the Pakistani military threatening civilian rule. The episode confirmed again, if confirmation was needed, that supporting close ties with the United States is an unpopular position in Pakistan and that there is a general willingness in Pakistan’s media, judicial, and intelligence circles to believe the worst of anyone trying to mend the frayed partnership.

“The United States should be unambiguous in defining its interests and then acting on them without worrying excessively about the reaction in Islamabad,” he argues:

The new coolness between the two countries will eventually provoke a reckoning. The United States will continue to do what it feels it has to do in the region for its own security, such as pressing ahead with drone strikes on terrorist suspects. These will raise hackles in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, where the Pakistani military leadership is based. Pakistani military leaders might make noise about shooting down U.S. drones, but they will think long and hard before actually doing so, in light of the potential escalation of hostilities that could follow. Given its weak hand (which will grow even weaker as U.S. military aid dries up), Pakistan will probably refrain from directly confronting the United States.

“Once Pakistan’s national security elites recognize the limits of their power, the country might eventually seek a renewed partnership with the United States — but this time with greater humility and an awareness of what it can and cannot get,” Haqqani concludes. RTWT

The attack on Malala came shortly after she received a Civic Courage Prize from the Centre for Civic Education in Islamabad on September 15, International Democracy Day. The Centre for Civic Education is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance NGO.

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Russia XXI: the logic of suicide – and rebirth?

Russians don’t have authoritarian DNA in their genes and it is a myth that democracy is somehow unsuitable for Russia, says a prominent analyst.

Russian society itself erects no insurmountable barriers to the formation of a rule-of-law state,” writes Lilia Shevtsova (right), chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.  

“Mentality, culture, historical memory, and political habits do not make a democratic transition impossible, as the experience of other civilizations has demonstrated,” she writes in a major new report on Russia’s democratic prospects: 

A number of obstacles stand in the way of Russia’s path to an open society: its past, its traditions, the mindset of its elite, common stereotypes about its nature, and peculiarities of the personalized-power structure. However, as the history of other transformations over the past fifty-seventy years demonstrates, when certain preconditions for democracy are absent, the political elite (primarily its intellectual segment) can compensate for that absence with its own vision and with a readiness to offer society a consolidating strategy. This, of course, requires that the elite reject its selfish, old-regime interests. However, in the final analysis, even non-democrats can begin to build democracy, as Juan Linz and Giuseppe Di Palma have shown: “The non-democrats of yesterday can become democrats, even convinced democrats.” 

But recent events demonstrate that Russia’s civil society is “trying to free itself from the stifling embrace of the Russian system and of the political regime that is its engine,” she notes.

President Vladimir Putin last week angrily lashed out at many of the non-governmental organizations engaged in that civil society resurgence and at U.S. criticism of the Kremlin’s attempt to form a post-Soviet Eurasian federation .

Addressing officials of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, Putin criticized “recent nervous statements about integration processes in the former Soviet lands.”

While he didn’t mention any names, Putin was clearly referring to a statement by former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who said in December that the US would resist what she called “a move to re-Sovietize the region” in the guise of regional integration.

“Let’s make no mistake about it,” she said. “We know what the goal is, and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.”

Putin warned FSB officials of foreign efforts to undermine the proposed alliance.

“They may use various instruments of pressure, including mechanisms of the so-called ‘soft power,’” he said. “The sovereign right of Russia and its partners to build and develop its integration project must be safely protected.”

After Putin’s inauguration in May, the Kremlin-controlled parliament quickly rubber-stamped a series of repressive laws that sharply hiked fines for taking part in unauthorized protests, extended the definition of high treason and required non-government organizations that receive foreign funding to register as “foreign agents,” a term that sounds synonymous to spies in Russian. Leading Russian NGOs have vowed to ignore the bill, which also allows an unlimited number of inspections and checks that could paralyze the activities of NGOs.

“No one has the monopoly of speaking on behalf of the entire Russian society, let alone the structures directed and funded from abroad and thus inevitably serving foreign interests,” he said. “Any direct or indirect meddling in our internal affairs, any forms of pressure on Russia, on our allies and partners is inadmissible.”

Despite the Kremlin’s crackdown on independent voices, “the signs are now plain for all to see…..that the Russian system is beginning to decay,” Shevtsova writes in her must read report, Russia XXI: The Logic of Suicide and Rebirth:

It cannot sustain the crumbling status quo, nor can it be certain of finding a new incarnation for itself. The only real questions are what stage of decay the system is in, whether the agony of its demise has already started, and, if so, how long it will last. To be sure, the system still has some resources, if not to revive itself, then to draw out its death, and that survival instinct could take a nasty, even bloody, form.

Nevertheless, “the Russian system, that is, the existing institutions, informal rules of the game, entrenched interests, political traditions, and mentality and habits of the elite (and society as well), has demonstrated an exceptional ability to survive and to absorb body blows,” she notes:  

It has proved that it can survive a change of the political regime, while retaining the mechanism of personal rule embodied in a leader who stands above the fray. The Russian system has even survived through two different structural, economic, and ideological incarnations: first by exchanging tsarism for communism in 1917, and later by discarding communism for imitation democracy in 1991. Throughout all of these periods of change, the essential elements of the Russian system have remained unchanged: a personalized-power regime whose fusion with property necessitates tight control of the economy; a ruling class that hungers for external spheres of interest; a claim to Russia’s global status; and militarism as the means of securing and justifying the regime’s domestic and foreign policy agenda.

Russia’s democratic opposition has been disabled by the failure of the country’s liberals which have emerged as “one of the pillars of the new post-communist autocracy,” serving as “Viagra for Russian authoritarianism,” Shevstova laments:

More than any other class of intellectuals, liberals ought to be most invested in establishing freedom and the rule of law, but the sad irony is that it was liberals who delivered the most crushing blow to the chances of liberal democratic change in Russia. I called them “system” liberals (Andrei Illarionov later coined the shorter “syslibs”). Operating within the system and serving the government in different capacities even as they tried to monopolize the mantle of liberalism, these syslibs were instrumental in restoring one-man rule in Russia. Bright and popular personalities in the service of the new Russian autocracy, they have done much to discredit liberal values and to create an atmosphere in which cynicism and double standards thrive.

Like the syslibs, many Western politicians question Russia’s democratic potential and fear its populist and nationalist forces, Shevstova adds:

Many in Western political circles do not believe that a free Russia would behave decently. They believe that under authoritarian leadership Russia is more predictable and relatively docile. Order and stability, even at the expense of freedom, is what many Western leaders prefer to see in Russia. This goes a long way toward explaining the Western policy of acquiescence toward Russian autocracy.

The West’s democracies are also losing the battle of ideas with authoritarianism, Shevstova warns.

“Western civilization, in the eyes of a significant part of the Russian population, has lost its role as the alternative to the personalized-power system,” she writes:

This is partly the result of the current Western “malaise.” Western intellectual and political gurus have been candid in acknowledging the state of the Western model. Francis Fukuyama today writes of “dysfunctional America,” Zbigniew Brzezinski warns of Western decay, and Walter Laqueur has announced “the slow death of Europe.” Naturally, this Western crisis is inspiring neither liberal hopes within Russian society nor attempts to follow the Western model, at least for the time being.

The reset in US-Russian relations and EU policy toward the Kremlin “are considered by many democracy-minded Russians as legitimizations of the personalized-power system that give it additional strength to survive. For the first time, one can hear harsh criticism of Western policy toward the Kremlin coming from pro-Western circles in Russia,” she contends:

For example, one of the leading figures of the Russian democratic opposition, Vladimir Ryzhkov, says: “Paris and Berlin are solid supporters of Putin. Obama’s Russia policy is much more advantageous to Putin and his inner circle than that of former U.S. President Bush.” ….

The president of the Levada Center [a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy], Lev Gudkov, who is an independent sociologist, says:

I think that both the opposition and the public at large (there is practically no difference here) perceive the “reset” policy as a purely cynical act of trade-off between Putin and the new American administration. The agreement is based on a few assumptions. Among them are America’s promises to refrain from criticizing Putin’s authoritarian regime and accept – at least superficially – Putin’s claims to the status of a major statesman who restored Russia to its historical superpower position. ……. Essentially, the over whelming majority of Russians believed that for the sake of increasing the Russian regime’s world prestige and protecting its geopolitical interests, it is not only lawful but appropriate to treat the Americans as “useful idiots” (to resort to the phrase attributed to Lenin). They believed that to this end any means are justifiable, including deception, blackmail, etc.

From Andrei Piontkowski, an independent publicist [and former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy]:

This “reset” once all the lofty peel is removed is reduced to a simple bargain: the American military cargo transit to Afghanistan in exchange for safe havens in the West for the assets the Russian ruling elite has illegally accumulated. [...] ….

“At this point, I would expect my Western colleagues to say: ‘Come on! This is rubbish! What do you expect the West and the United States to do? Isolate Russia? End trade? Stop negotiating nuclear weapons cuts?’” Shevstova continues:

Of course not. I am not so irresponsible or naïve. The opposition and the liberal critics of the West do not expect Western governments to fight for Russian democracy and freedom; this is an agenda for Russians. But in pursuing trade or security relations, nothing is forcing Western governments to play the game “Let’s Pretend” with regard to the path the Kremlin has taken.

By masquerading as an imitation “sovereign democracy,” Putin’s regime was for a while able to maintain a degree of legitimacy, but no longer:

  • the Russian people no longer have to concentrate on basic physical survival, and their memories of the 1990s have begun to fade;
  • a new generation of Russians is demanding a higher standard of living;
  • increased prosperity has allowed city residents to begin to pay attention to issues of freedom and dignity;
  • Medvedev’s presidency created a gap between the imitation of liberalization and the reality that proved irritating to many;
  • the sharp degradation and corruption of the regime became evident;
  • new social means of communications appeared;
  • the regime’s methods began to backfire in the 2011-12 elections, as the regime’s efforts to intimidate and discredit the opposition led to increased support for it (as well as its radicalization) and further alienation of the regime from the people.

“If the current trends continue in Russia, its economic, social, and political decay will continue, which will bring inevitable geopolitical decline, Shevstova argues:

The ability of the Russian system to adapt to the new internal and external circumstances continues to decrease. The authorities try to respond to new challenges mainly through coercion. The regime cannot change the political and social rules of the game, because that would mean new and unpredictable outcomes, and the Kremlin fears these more than it fears the results of the current rot.

Exactly how this political decay will develop and what forms it will take are still very unclear. Will it be a lengthy process of stagnation and decline that goes beyond any timeframe we can adequately measure today? Or will it be interrupted by social and political explosions, and, if so, when and with what consequences? Would these explosions (or explosion) just lead to the continuation of the authoritarian system under a new guise, or would it transform Russia into a liberal democracy?

The upcoming political agenda features some key objectives for the nascent opposition:

One of them is consolidating the opposition and formulating an agenda that is responsive to the challenges posed by a more repressive regime. Another objective is integrating political and socio-economic demands. Yet another is uniting all of the opposition factions and the moderates within the system ready for change under the banner of universal democratic demands and the peaceful transformation of the system.

“The fast-paced events of the day and the degradation of the system may call for some ad hoc changes to the agenda, but one objective remains paramount under any circumstances: the pledge by all participants in the political process to renounce personalized power and to step down from positions of power in case of electoral defeat,” Shevstova concludes.

“This has never happened in Russian history. If Russia finally manages to do it, it will have reached its ‘end of history’ and the beginning of a new one.”

RTWT

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