In the former Soviet space, fear the taxman

Anti-democratic regimes of the past employed a variety of nefarious means to silence and cow their opponents, writes Joanna Rohozinska. Now midnight visits by shadowy men and Black Marias have given way to less dramatic, but certainly no less effective means of ensuring social control. Contemporary would-be dictators have replaced Big Brother with the Taxman.

The trend towards pursuing and punishing economic cases is visible throughout the post-Soviet space. There are several high profile ones that have drawn international attention and condemnation, including the cases of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Russia and Ales Bialatski (right) in Belarus. Khodorkovsky was first arrested in October 2003 on charges of tax evasion, fraud and embezzlement. Initially sentenced to eight years in 2005, he was re-tried in 2009, together with his business partner Platon Lebedev, on further charges of embezzlement and money laundering and sentenced to 14 years, to run concurrently with the earlier sentence. Bialatski, head of the Belarusian Human Rights Center Viasna (Spring), and vice-president of the Paris-based International Human Rights Federation (FIDH), was arrested by the Belarusian authorities on tax evasion charges. He was sentenced in November 2011 to 4 ½ years’ imprisonment for ‘concealment of income on a large scale,’ based on financial documents provided by prosecutors in Lithuania and Poland. He has been declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, while Human Rights Watch said that his “arrest is a clear case of retaliation against him and Viasna for their human rights work….the latest in a long series of efforts by the government to crush Belarus’s civil society.”

In Ukraine, which heads to the polls in parliamentary elections on 28 October, raids by tax police on TVi, the sole remaining independent national TV broadcaster, in July caused enough of an international outcry that a moratorium on tax inspections of media outlets was announced for the entire election period. However, in the wake of the raid prosecutors opened a criminal investigation against Mykola Knyazhitsky, the head of the station, on charges of “tax evasion.” In September, the station had its foreign currency accounts frozen and lost an appeal against paying a 9 million Hryvna (around $1 million) tax debt. While the moratorium leaves media outlets theoretically free from undue attention until November, this does not prevent tax authorities from carrying random inspections of advertisers. 

Aside from cutting off potential sources of financial support to opposition forces, SMEs have become increasingly vocal proponents of reform and active in social protests in several countries of the former Soviet Union. Strikes of small entrepreneurs in Belarus have flared periodically, the largest gathering over 30,000 people and shutting down outdoor markets in several cities. In 2010 in Ukraine small business owners rallied in Kyiv protesting the introduction of a new tax code, while in Russia, small business made a strong showing at protests following the presidential elections. While motivating factors include some pro-democratic sentiments, disgust with endemic corruption and selective justice likely figure more prominently. Put simply – lack of rule of law is bad for business. In Ukraine, SME’s employ some 6 million people, out of a population of 46 million. Unfortunately, a common trait among post-Soviet states is the lack of interest among ruling circles in supporting the development of an independent middle class. The state’s unwillingness to carry out reforms has even become an impediment.

SMEs and democratic forces have common cause in pushing for pro-democratic reforms and have begun cooperating in some instances. But these relationships are as fragile as the livelihoods of small independent businessmen who ultimately stand to lose everything if they are perceived as falling afoul of the authorities. While death and taxes are unavoidable, in the post-Soviet space, the tax inspector does double duty.

Joanna Rohozinska is a Senior Program Officer for Europe and Eurasia at the National Endowment for Democracy.

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A ‘discreet element’ of Burma’s transformation

Burma’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi will need to engage in some “hard bargaining” over constitutional reform if the current reform process is to produce a genuinely democratic transition, says a prominent analyst.

“Both peace and democracy require broad negotiations with the country’s ethnic minority groups to establish a federal system in which different groups will have real political autonomy while surrendering any right to secede,” Stanford University’s Larry Diamond  writes for

“If federalism and self-government for all people of Burma are to be viable, the country needs to construct effective structures of local government,” he contends. “This will require massive training and institution building, a task that Suu Kyi regards as a priority for international assistance.”

Such assistance has been a vital but little-appreciated factor in Burma’s reform process, says a leading observer.

“One of the more discreet elements of Myanmar’s transformation is the enduring role of the National Endowment for Democracy, the US taxpayer-funded body that for years has bankrolled and fostered human rights efforts, non-violent resistance movements and media activism inside the country,” writes Greg Torode, South-east Asia correspondent for the South China Morning Post (subscription):

The Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma broadcaster and the prominent Thailand-based Irrawaddy news website are among the institutions that have benefited, along with many smaller operations inside the country. It has sponsored extensive projects to document human rights abuses and train Buddhist monks and other groups in the up-to-date tactics and techniques of non-violent protest, something seen in the widespread protests – later smashed with force – of late 2007.

If Myanmar’s transitional politics are raising all manner of questions, at least some of them involve the endowment: does it consider its work a success and will that work continue? What role does it believe it has played in the events of the last year? And have any lessons been learned that could be applied elsewhere?

“It really is a long-term effort, but the key for things to take root and survive is creative and persistent people who are adaptable,” said Brian Joseph, the endowment’s senior director for Asia and global programs.

“What we have done has been to provide an important piece of a broad movement towards significant political change… but it is just one piece in a jigsaw. It must always be remembered that we weren’t the cause of that change and we weren’t the straw that broke the camel’s back. At every level, it is the people of Burma that have to take any credit, and it is the people of Burma that have to figure out the next steps.”

He pointed to the endowment’s long-term funding of the Irrawaddy website, which has built an international reputation. “They were constantly creative and adapted,” he said, adding that the site was now a “key part of the landscape”.

In that regard, endowment officials are quick to distance themselves from policy choices or specific moves on the ground, saying they are involved with efforts to expand and support “democratic space” – activists and institutions – rather than actual decisions about action. They also deny links to US intelligence operations, or a specific “regime change” agenda, saying that regime change doesn’t always mean the rise of democracy.

For the people on the ground – the activists and journalists now enjoying the first taste of relative freedom – there is a sense that the support of the endowment, and the many Western governments running similar programs, has been important, but it is far from the whole story.

“We are grateful and the support has been wonderful,” said an elderly journalist and former political prisoner. “But the outside world must always remember this is our struggle, that we are not some bloody foreign creation or tools in a global power struggle. All the way through this we are the ones taking the risks, making the decisions about what to do, when to do it and what to say.”

The reform process initiated by President Thein Sein has led to the release of political prisoners, economic liberalization, the formation of independent labor unions and an end to media censorship.

“One of the most ambitious media reform plans is to change the nature of the state-run broadcasting service into a public broadcasting entity,” writes Kavi Chongkittavorn, a prominent commentator on Southeast Asian affairs:

Within the Asean context, what Myanmar has done is considered a milestone under the Asean Charter and the Asean Political and Security Community. After the charter was approved, Asean countries have shown different levels of commitment to compliance with the numerous rules. However, in the past 18 months, Myanmar has swiftly and broadly instituted sensitive reforms shunned by other Asean countries.

“If it succeeds, it could become a new template for other developing countries, which emerge from totalitarian systems,” says Chongkittavorn, a member of the World Movement for Democracy’s steering committee.

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Making democracy work

At a time of elevated partisanship in domestic affairs, U.S. political leaders would do well to reflect on a path-breaking bipartisan initiative that helped liberate millions from authoritarian rule, writes Mark R. Kennedy.

“As today’s political leaders seek to overcome the challenge of reaching consensus on economic policy and enhancing U.S. national security, they would benefit by studying the achievements of Chuck Manatt and Frank Fahrenkopf at the “Making Democracy Work” exhibit that the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM) opens this weekend,” he writes for the Huffington Post:

While the comity, respect, and humor enjoyed by Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill is often praised, fewer understand the profound and long-lasting impact that resulted from the cooperation of then-Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Charles Manatt and Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf. While both chairmen were tireless advocates for their own party’s platform, they inherently understood their common interest was in laying the foundation for transition from authoritarian governments that controlled so much of the world’s political map in 1983.

It was bipartisan action that gave institutional form to President Reagan’s vision, outlined in his historic Westminster address of June 1982 to defy, of an initiative “…to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.”

“President Reagan’s plan was not simply his own invention,” writes Kennedy, professor and director of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management:

It sprang from a major study titled “Project Democracy,” conducted by the American Political Foundation founded in 1979 by Manatt and RNC Chairman Bill Brock. Responding to Reagan’s challenge and conditions around the world, Congress authorized and funded the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the Center for Private Enterprise (CIPE), and the Solidarity Center. Manatt and Fahrenkopf were among the founders of NED and helped guide its first 10 years. Manatt served as Founding Chairman of NDI. Frank Farhrenkopf served as Founding Chairman of IRI and continues to serve on its board.

“The new freedoms many enjoy today resulted from the democracy promotion efforts spawned by Reagan, Rep. Dante Fascell, Manatt, Fahrenkopf, and others,” he concludes. “We owe them a great debt. Their success contributed to the fall of communism without a shot being fired.”


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US boosts aid to Syrian opposition, but are rebels ‘turning against America’?

The Obama administration today moved to bolster Syria’s opposition with a commitment of $45 million in non-lethal and humanitarian assistance, but the aid may not be enough to stop a backlash against the U.S., a prominent senator warned.

The announcement coincided with reports that Assad’s sister has left for the United Arab Emirates in what one analyst calls a further “blow to the regime.”

The U.S. would contribute $15 million in non-lethal— mostly communications – equipment as well as $30 million in humanitarian assistance to aid refugees and other victims of the violence, said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

She welcomed signs of stronger coordination between rebel groups within the notoriously factional opposition.

‘‘It is encouraging to see some progress toward greater opposition unity, but we all know there is more work to be done,’’ Clinton said.  ‘‘We are working to help them strengthen their networks, avoid regime persecution and document human rights abuses.”

The boost in assistance is at least partly a response to growing concerns that the West’s failure to assist democratic forces within the opposition is contributing to the growing influence of radical Islamists and raising the risk of sectarian conflict.

“We know the regime will do everything it can to pit communities against each other and that extremists will be eager to exploit tensions and impose their own brutal ideology,” Clinton said. “So the opposition and civil society will have to be especially vigilant against this threat and reassure minorities they will be safe in a post-Assad Syria.

AP reports: The new U.S. humanitarian assistance — which brings America’s total humanitarian contribution to more than $130 million since the crisis began — will include food, water, blankets and medical services to victims of the violence. U.S. officials said on Thursday that an earlier shipment of medical goods provided by USAID had just arrived in southern Syria. The officials would not provide details of how the aid made it into Syrian territory.

The additional non-lethal support brings the total U.S. contribution in that area to nearly $40 million since the crisis began and includes 1,100 sets of communications equipment, including satellite-linked computers, telephones and cameras and training for more than 1,000 activists, students and independent journalists.

‘‘Conditions in Syria continue to deteriorate as the Assad regime relentlessly wages war on its own people,’’ Clinton said.

The opposition may also be buoyed by reports that Assad’s sister has left for the United Arab Emirates:

It is unclear if Bushra al-Assad’s brother has approved her trip and sources told the Financial Times the trip is not a defection but an attempt to protect her children after the assassination of her husband in July.

Even if it is not a defection, her departure will be a blow to the regime, said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma.

“You can’t overestimate how much Syria is run by an extremely narrow group of people who are all intermarried – this is a family business at heart, it’s about traditional loyalties,” said Landis. “When you have a family member like Bushra leave the country, it’s a vote of no-confidence.”

But the boost in U.S. aid may not be sufficient to ensure a ‘democracy divided” for the U.S. in a post-Assad Syria, warned Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who met opposition leaders in Turkey earlier this month.

“The overall feeling is of deep disappointment and increasing anger at the United States among the opposition forces,” Lieberman told The Cable’s Josh Rogin, noting that the rebels are struggling to understand why they aren’t receiving more American help. “They know they are getting some help from the Saudis and the Qataris and the Turks. They see a little more from us, but not anywhere near what they need,” he said.

Lieberman and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) met with senior leaders of Free Syrian Army branches during a recent trip to Istanbul.

Following a meeting of the Friends of Syria group, the Arab League’s Secretary-General called for a Security Council resolution to endorse the Geneva declaration – agreed by both Russia and the West – that calls for a political transition.

“What is important is that Geneva…agreed that we should start a transitional period, from the present regime to another regime so that Syrian people’s rights will be met,” said Nabil El-Araby. “If we are truly friends of Syrian people we will take steps to save the whole region from an expanded civil war, and causalities of massive proportions.”

Despite the new assistance package for the opposition, the Obama administration remains adamantly opposed to more active intervention, says a leading analyst.   “Russia and China are blamed – and rightly so – for blocking UN measures to halt the murderous repression of Bashar al-Assad’s regime,” writes the FT’s Philip Stephens:

Diplomats, however, report that none is as determined as the US administration to avoid being drawn into the conflict. The message delivered to Europeans by their US counterparts is that the US does not have sufficient strategic interest to become embroiled in a Syrian civil war. The representative of one close ally of the US has been heard to remark that if Moscow really wanted to discomfit Washington it would lift its veto on international action.

“As more parts of Syria’s control slip from the regime to the opposition, we’re supporting civilian opposition groups as they begin providing essential services – reopening schools, rebuilding homes, and the other necessities of life,” said Clinton:

Dedicated civil servants are working to preserve the institutions of the Syrian state while freeing them from the regime’s corrupt influence. In these places, we are seeing the emergence of a free Syria, and the United States is directing our efforts to support those brave Syrians who are laying the groundwork for a democratic transition from the ground up.

A growing chorus of voices, including Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US envoy to the UN, and former State Department policy planner Anne-Marie Slaughter, has called on the administration to provide not only nonlethal technical assistance, but to arm Syria’s pro-democratic opposition in order to counter extremists.

Khalizad and Slaughter are both board members of the National Endowment for Democracy.

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‘Hypocrisy goes global’: blasphemy issue vital to future of Arab democracy

The struggle over blasphemy is a part of the larger debate on the future of democracy in the Arab world and beyond, writes Arch Puddington Vice President for Research at Freedom House.

The amateur anti-Islamic video that provoked the recent violent anti-American protests has not only “reignited efforts to enact global legislation that would penalize insults to religion,” but also prompted “an epidemic wave of hypocrisy,” he argues:

First, there is Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who called for recognizing “Islamophobia as a crime against humanity”…… Yet even as he speaks dismissively of “hiding behind the excuse of freedom of expression,” Erdogan presides over a government that is a world leader in the jailing of journalists.

Then there is Hassan Nasrallah (above), the political and spiritual leader of Hezbollah. In a televised speech to his followers in Lebanon, Nasrallah declared: “Those who should be held accountable, punished, prosecuted, and boycotted are those who are directly responsible for this film and those who stand behind them and those who support and protect them, primarily the United States of America.” But while Nasrallah demands punishment for those who have insulted Islam, he has publicly and repeatedly pledged solidarity with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, a man responsible for the violent deaths of up to 20,000 Muslims.

The available evidence confirms that the violent anti-American protests were not a “spontaneous reaction” to the 14-minute video, but were pre-organized, writes Yarim-Agaev, a former Soviet dissident:

The film, “Innocence of Muslims,” was available on YouTube for a long time without attracting any attention. Two days before the riots, the film was broadcast in Arabic on the Salafi Egyptian television channel Al-Nas. Several popular preachers on other conservative Islamic satellite channels called upon people to turn out Tuesday at the U.S. Embassy in Egypt. If this was not organization, what was it?

“Protests orchestrated on the pretext of slights and offenses against Islam have been part of Islamist strategy for decades,” says Husain Haqqani, professor of international relations at Boston University and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

The debate over freedom of expression “is a distraction from what is really going on,” he contends.

“It ignores the political intent of Islamists for whom every perceived affront to Islam is an opportunity to exploit a wedge issue for their own empowerment,” writes Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2008-11:

Islamists almost by definition have a vested interest in continuously fanning the flames of Muslim victimhood. For Islamists, wrath against the West is the basis for their claim to the support of Muslim masses, taking attention away from societal political and economic failures. For example, the 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Conference account for one-fifth of the world’s population but their combined gross domestic product is less than 7% of global output—a harsh reality for which Islamists offer no solution.

“The Arab world is at an important crossroads. It is time to abandon this false narrative” of a Western war against Islam, says a former radical Islamist.

Across much of the Muslim world, the democratic West is “viewed through a hodgepodge of conspiracy theories, half-truths and a selective reading of history,” writes Ed Husain, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of The Islamist:

When I met Muhammad Mahdi Akef, the influential former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, in April 2011, he insisted that Al Qaeda was a figment of the Western imagination. The idea that it doesn’t exist, that the United States attacked itself, is buttressed by preachers in mosques, on satellite television channels and in glossy Arabic books.

When I watch Al Jazeera Arabic I am stunned by unchallenged references in talk show interviews to the “American Zionist plan” or “the American enemy” or the “ally of the Zionist entity.” Attacking the United States has become part of the political culture in much of the Middle East.

If hypocrisy is a common feature of many reactions to the crisis, “so is the limp response of democratic political leaders,” writes Puddington. “In this regard, President Obama’s relatively straightforward defense of freedom of expression at the United Nations stands as one of the less apologetic affirmations of the values of freedom in the face of pressure from the advocates of censorship.”

But the overly apologetic response of some Western leaders is explained by a failure to understand the lessons of history and the nature of ideologically-driven political actors, says Yarim-Agaev, a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.

“Any suggestion of compromise or acceptance of the legitimacy of your enemy’s ideology is a sign of your weakness—which only provokes further attacks,” he contends:

It is not surprising that America’s leaders are not proficient in the strategies and tactics of ideological warfare. Lessons learned from communism are now long forgotten, and are certainly not taught to current U.S. politicians. ……..We did not start wars with communism, Nazism or Islamism. They were imposed upon us. Those ideologies thrive on confrontation with the free world. Today we must revisit Kristallnacht, the Holocaust and the Cold War, to recollect our successful experience of dealing with those virulent ideologies.

“The struggle over blasphemy is a part of the larger debate on the future of democracy, both in the Arab world and beyond,” Puddington argues on the Freedom House blog:

Those who stand firm behind freedom of expression are not advocating offensive speech, but the fundamental right of all human beings to decide for themselves what speech to endorse, denounce, dismiss, or ignore. This right applies not just to YouTube videos, but also to the words of political leaders. And that is the true reason why many leaders are so eager to restrict it.


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