From Velvet Underground to Velvet Revolution

After Soviet tanks crushed Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring in 1968, all performing musicians were vetted for loyalty to the new regime, The Economist notes.

The criteria included: no English lyric or band names, and no long hair. “Plastic People of the Universe” failed on all counts. Their inspiration was America’s “Velvet Underground”……

Havel spoke during the revolution about Reed’s influence on him, and appeared with him after he had become the Czech president, TNR recalls.

Sometimes rock ‘n’ roll can do more to promote freedom than translating the Federalist Papers, say David Feith and Bari Weiss.

Whatever his personal politics, Reed’s music assumed a life of its own behind the Iron Curtain, they write for The Wall Street Journal, noting that Czechoslovakia’s 1970s’ anti-Communist movement coalesced around the Plastic People:

Playwright Václav Havel documented their trial and imprisonment in 1976, then published the “Charter 77? human-rights manifesto and eventually led the Velvet Revolution against Communism in 1989. The name derived partly from Reed’s band, Havel later said. And when the two men met in 1990, Havel told him, “Do you know I am president because of you?”

As far as we know, Lou Reed didn’t get up in the morning thinking about how he could overthrow the Soviet Union. But his story reminds us that in unfree societies, free expression—whether from Lou Reed or Lady Gaga—is subversive in itself.

So it is today, as regimes try to tamp down the contemporary analogues to the Plastic People of the Universe, Feith and Weiss contend:

In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, two members of the punk-rock collective Pussy Riot now sit in prison, guilty of “hooliganism.” In Turkmenistan, the popular singer Maksat Kakabaev, known as Maro, served in a penal colony for two years. In Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship, the rocker Miron was accused of creating political unrest and forced into military service. And in Iran, “Samira,” a female rapper, sings: “Captive and prisoners behind the dark walls/ We know our destiny to freedom.”


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Syria’s secular opposition ‘implodes’?

If President Obama won’t take action to halt Assad’s conventional aggression and roll back Syria’s growing terrorist safe havens, he needs to empower those who will – namely, Syria’s moderate armed opposition, Foreign Policy Initiative Senior Policy Analyst Evan Moore and Policy Director Robert Zarate argue in U.S. News and World Report’s World Report.

But that boat has probably sailed, another analyst suggests.

For over a year, the U.S. has tried, perhaps ineffectually, to shape the Free Syrian Army into a fighting force of moderates that can beat President Bashar al-Assad, Luke Jerod Kummer writes in The New Republic.

It helped form the Supreme Military Council (SMC) last December to add a command structure to what had been a boneless mass of militias, while also establishing a destination for foreign aid,” he notes:

But as President Obama proved reluctant to give munitions that would turn the war’s tide, the militias in the SMC grew restive. Since the U.S. declined to punish Assad after a chemical attack, and instead partnered with the regime’s benefactor, Russia, the SMC has looked disjointed and wobbly. It might flip upside down so extremists, rather than moderates, are on top. Or it could crumble altogether.

One episode in particular indicates that the relatively moderate secular forces are reaching an accommodation with radical jihadist groups, which augurs ill for prospects for any democratic transition.  

“In late September, a heavyweight in the Tawhid Brigade, an Islamist militia, issued a declaration rejecting the council’s political counterpart and proclaiming a shared principle of Islamic rule among a list of signatories that operate in the north,” Kummer notes:

That alliance was reportedly autographed by a member of Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate—and also by representatives of militias belonging to the SMC. Days later, dozens of brigades around Damascus united under the banner of Jaish al-Islam, or the Army of Islam, to become a formidable coalition that threatened to rival the SMC in the capital. Again, the bigger problem was the question of loyalty—the army’s commander, Zahran Alloush, is a founding member of the SMC. He has amassed and consolidated power, reportedly with an outpouring of support from Saudi Arabia. His muscle is desperately needed by the SMC, and it’s not clear what role, if any, he will play in the council going forward. RTWT

A State Department official told me on background that the American government was aware of these reports but that it is difficult to determine if the signatories actually represent the majority of the militias, or even if the leaders have agreed to these accords. “We understand these types of statements reflect the frustration over the ground situation, and we remain committed to increasing pressure on the regime by continuing to support the Syrian Coalition and the Supreme Military Council to help change the balance on the ground and move towards a negotiated political solution,” the official said, adding that there has been no change in policy regarding assistance for the SMC or the opposition’s political arm and that aid, including shipments of “lethal aid,” is being sent and that would continue.

The Syrian government on Tuesday fired a deputy prime minister who has lately been an outspoken voice in favor of reform and who recently held meetings with American and Russian officials about potential peace talks to end Syria’s civil war, The New York Times reports.

HT: Real Clear World and Foreign Policy Initiative.

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Our Walls Bear Witness – The Plight of Burma’s Rohingya


Ayessa, 55 years old, fled her home in Sittwe for an internally displaced persons’ camp after her husband and brother were killed in anti-Rohingya violence in 2012. Greg Constantine

Denied citizenship and rendered stateless by the Burmese government, the 800,000 Rohingya lack basic rights, including the right to work, marry, and travel freely, and routinely suffer severe abuse.

Following violent attacks in 2012 that destroyed numerous Rohingya communities, more than 100,000 are now confined to displacement camps and segregated areas, where they continue to be subjected to violence including crimes against humanity.

Join us in bearing witness to the suffering of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Burma long considered among the world’s most persecuted peoples.


NOVEMBER 4, 6:30 p.m.

Rubinstein Auditorium
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, SW
Washington, DC

Greg Constantine
Author of Exiled to Nowhere: Burma’s Rohingya

Holly Atkinson, MD
Director of the Human Rights Program
Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
Past President, Physicians for Human Rights

Maung Tun Khin
President, Burmese Rohingya Organization UK (BROUK)

ushmmThe speakers will discuss the photographs and the stories of individuals whose lives have been affected by violence against the Rohingya and Muslims elsewhere in Burma.

Learn more about the situation in Burma and the Museum’s efforts to prevent genocide.


NOVEMBER 4–8, 2013

Building-sized images of the Rohingya displaced in Burma and in exile taken by prize-winning photographer Greg Constantine will be projected each evening from November 4 to 8 on the Museum’s exterior walls on 15th Street, SW (Raoul Wallenberg Place). This exhibition is free and open to the public.

This exhibition is produced by the Museum in association with FotoWeek DC 2013.

Generous support provided by the National Endowment for Democracy. Additional support provided by the Open Society Foundations and Physicians for Human Rights.

This program is made possible in part by the Helena Rubinstein Foundation.


The exhibition is free but registration for the opening program is required. RSVP today.

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Turkmenistan – a state of perpetual mobilization

To watch Turkmen state television is to know no citizens love their president and enjoy regaling him with spectacles, write RFE/RL’s Sahra Ghulam Nabi and Charles Recknagel.

Every month, thousands of people assemble at stadiums or parade grounds to participate in carefully choreographed festivals that celebrate their country and its leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. Such mass celebrations are not new to Turkmenistan. They were fostered by authoritarian President Saparmurat Niyazov — Berdymukhammedov’s predecessor — who continued the tradition of Soviet state spectacles after the country’s independence from Moscow in 1991.

Personality Cult

But correspondents in Turkmenistan say Berdymukhammedov, who came to power upon Niyazov’s death in 2006, favors still more frequent and elaborate public celebrations than his predecessor.

State-run media declared in 2012 that Turkmenistan had entered a new “era of supreme happiness” in the wake of Berdymukhammedov’s landslide reelection – and public celebrations are key to supporting that message.

“There has to be this constant show of success, of prosperity, and of enjoyment of being the nation that you are,” says John MacCloud, an expert on Central Asia at the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. “You need intense political pressure to maintain that kind of narrative of a state that is not only wonderful but getting better. We saw it under Stalin in the 1930s, where oppression was matched with these joyous stories and mass ecstasy, and we see the same attempt in North Korea, and we saw it to an extent in [Nicolae] Ceausescu’s Romania.”


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Chinese Communism’s ’70-Year Itch’

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Communist Party had been in power for a little more than 70 years. Similarly, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ruled in Mexico from its founding in 1929 until its defeat in the 2000 elections—71 years, writes Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

There is good reason to think that several of today’s remaining one-party authoritarian regimes are now facing the “70 year itch,” he writes for The Atlantic.

Part of the problem is that revolutionary one-party regimes like those in China, Vietnam, and Cuba cannot survive forever on the personal charisma of their founding leaders, notes Diamond, a founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy and senior consultant at the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies:

A more basic issue is that these regimes have a tough time achieving what Max Weber called the “routinization of charisma”. However, if, as in Vietnam and especially China today, authoritarian regimes do “deliver the goods” of development, they face—as the PRI did in Mexico—a different dilemma. It is impossible to create a middle-class society without eventually generating middle-class values and middle-class organizations

With rising education and incomes and growing access to information, people become more tolerant of diversity, more demanding and assertive, and more willing to protest. Their value priorities shift from seeking material gain and security to seeking choice, self-expression, and “emancipation from authority.” Once the revolutionary fervor of the founding period fades, the only means they have to establish their legitimacy is through successful performance—in essence, economic development.

Closely intertwined with this psychological shift is the rise of a civil society—of independent organizations and flows of information, opinion and ideas. These psychological and social changes undermine the legitimacy of authoritarian rule and generate favorable conditions for a political transition to democracy.

“China’s Xi Jinping desperately does not want to be the Chinese Gorbachev. But in his obsession with avoiding becoming another Gorbachev, he is governing in a way that will bring about Gorbachev’s fate—the collapse of the party and the regime under his rule,” Diamond suggests:

For Xi and his colleagues, there is a way out. They could buy significant time by launching a gradual process of democratization—something like what their old rival, the Kuomintang (KMT), did in Taiwan after losing the Chinese civil war. They could introduce competitive elections to determine who governs at lower levels of authority.

Political equivalent of a bank run

China’s political inertia cannot last. Five or ten years ago, most experts on China regarded predictions of the early demise of Chinese communist rule as ridiculous or fanciful. The party, they insisted, had become extraordinarily institutionalized and effective at governing. But today—even with all of China’s impressive economic achievements—more and more American and other China experts believe there is a political crisis brewing.

Corruption and cynicism are now so widespread among CCP elites, and they have hedged their bets so extensively (sending much of their wealth and even their children abroad), that when political authority unravels it could happen in what Minxin Pei has called “the political equivalent of a bank run.”

A chaotic political vacuum in China could be filled by the military, or by other actors ready to rally public support by playing the nationalist card. They might launch a military strike against the disputed islands in the East China or South China Sea, or even against Taiwan itself. Moreover, it would be much harder for China to construct a functional democracy following a sudden collapse of Communist authority than it would be if China follows the gradual approach that Taiwan took.

Read the rest.

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