US has ‘moral imperative’ to advance democracy


That is the one word of advice that Burma’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi offered today for activists striving for freedom in an age witnessing what a former US president calls “the broadest challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism.”

“Persevere,” she said. “You’ll get there in the end, knowing that many, many people support you in mind and spirit.”

The U.S. has a duty to support the world’s democratic movements, said former president George W. Bush, while warning that transitions are neither easy nor one-directional.

“Freedom is a powerful force, but it does not advance on the wheels of historical inevitability,” he told a Washington forum organized by his Presidential Center to honor dissidents and democracy advocates.

“In the Arab Spring, we have seen the broadest challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism,” he said. “Great change has come to a region where many thought it impossible.  The idea that Arab people are somehow content with oppression has been discredited forever.” 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to advancing democracy, but tactical innovation need not entail political relativism, Bush said, in remarks that drew comparisons with his landmark speech on the 20th anniversary of the bipartisan National Endowment for Democracy. 

“In promoting freedom, our methods must be flexible.  Change comes at different paces in different places.  Liberty often arrives not in leaps, but in steps,” he noted. “Yet flexibility does not mean ambiguity.  The same principles must apply to all countries.”

While Burma’s reform process is encouraging, it may not lead to a democratic transition, the National League for Democracy leader cautioned. Rumors that several hardline cabinet members were due to resign may be encouraging but could not be confirmed, she said.

Democratization is not irreversible until such time as the military commits itself openly and officially,” said Daw Suu Kyi, addressing the forum via videoconference.

External support for democratic struggles was important, she said, singling out the US Congress which “did everything it could to support democracy in Burma.” But democracy is ultimately the work of indigenous actors and, as in other struggles for freedom, “we Burmese have to do it for ourselves,” she said.

We are living in “extraordinary times in the history of freedom,” former president Bush told the meeting.

But he echoed Suu Kyi’s warning about potential backlash from powerful countervailing forces.

“Yet we have also seen instability, uncertainty, and the revenge of brutal rulers,” Bush noted. “The collapse of an old order can unleash resentments and power struggles that a new order is not yet prepared to handle.”

The event marked the unveiling of a new Freedom Collection – “a living repository” of inspirational stories, documents and artifacts from the world’s leading movements for freedom in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Papers from dissident-turned-president Vaclav Havel were among the contribution to the Freedom Collections, presented by Martin Palous, former Czech envoy to the US and now head of the Prague-based Havel Library.

“Words can change the world,” said Havel, a phrase that continues to inspire Normando Hernandez (left), a Cuban journalist and former prisoner of conscience. When he was jailed as a member of the Group of 75 in Cuba’s Black Spring crackdown, his possession of a copy of Havel’s Power of the Powerless was cited in the evidence against him.

Havel explained his support for the island’s democrats by saying that “of all the remaining totalitarian regimes, the one in Cuba is probably closest to my own experience,” said Hernandez, currently a Reagan-Fascell fellow at the NED, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

The Freedom Collection is designed “to provide both moral support and practical knowledge” for what Thomas Jefferson called the “contagion of liberty,” said former president Bush. 

“We want a young activist in Venezuela to hear Bob Fu talk of his struggle with despair.  We want a Syrian dissident to learn Havel’s art of the impossible.”

Bush was introduced to the forum by exiled Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid, founder of the Tharwa Foundation. The presidential center’s collection of interviews with dissidents describing their personal struggles and motivations will help “break the barrier of fear” for activists, he said.

“The collection shows freedom advocates we are not alone.”

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Can Georgia poll restore bloom to fading Rose Revolution?

Georgia’s Rose Revolution of 2003 signaled the beginning of a new era for the former Soviet Union Republic. The triumphant new political elite, headed by President Mikheil Saakashvili, vowed to establish a democratic state characterized by respect for human rights, a corruption-free government and a functioning market economy seeking integration with Europe and eventual EU membership.  

Yet Georgia is a state in which overreliance on personalities as opposed to democratic institutions has remained the norm, according to Hrant Kostanyan and Tika Tsertsvadze. The personality credited with leading Georgia towards democratization may end up undermining the process he started, they caution in a new commentary for the Center for European Policy Studies.

Georgian civil society seems to have overcome the crisis and brain drain it suffered after 2003, when many activists became absorbed by the new regime. Independent civil society organizations are now gaining momentum again and are set to play a crucial role in the run-up to the parliamentary and presidential elections. The “It Affects You Too” campaign, uniting a number of NGOs and monitoring electoral process has already achieved some results. This is particularly important in the absence of credible state institutions, free media and any substantive debate between government and opposition, which have both focused on smear campaigns rather than viable political agendas.

The Rose Revolution government is sparing no effort to convince the EU that ‘too much’ democracy could be dangerous for reform in the country. The government argues that in order to make the already enacted reforms sustainable, a strong executive power has to be maintained. This paradox does not sit well with the norms and values that are adhered to and promoted by the EU and its member states.

Moreover, among the host of reasons cited as the basis for the success of reforms, Georgian authorities often trumpet their ‘liberal’ regulatory framework. However, the problem with this ‘libertarian’ approach is that it too is incompatible with that of the EU and calls into question the rhetoric about prioritizing EU integration. The start of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) negotiations with the EU has raised Georgia’s profile and attracted foreign investment in the short term. However, it also puts pressure on the Georgian government to move towards regulatory convergence with the EU in a mid- to long-term perspective, which somewhat inconveniently will require a more conservative regulatory framework.

The new era heralded by the Rose Revolution in Georgia has seen important reforms and substantial progress. However, with elections around the corner, the Georgian government is yet to embark on the process of democratization and Europeanization that will create effective checks and balances across its governmental branches, and facilitate greater civic activism.

Hrant Kostanyan is a Visiting Research Fellow at CEPS. Tika Tsertsvadze is Coordinator of the EUCAM programmed at FRIDE, the Madrid-based think-tank.

This is an extract. Read the rest.

Hat tip: Global Europe.

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China: rule of law matters, as workers strike and ‘ideological struggle’ roils ruling party

China’s hardline chief of domestic security has been forced to relinquish control of the country’s police, courts and espionage networks in the wake of the Bo Xilai affair.

The demotion of Zhou Yongkang (right) is “a symptom of the ideological struggle” within the ruling party, say observers:

Senior party members and political analysts, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter, said it was highly unusual for a top leader to hand over their portfolio before the end of their term, especially in the midst of a major power struggle.

One of these people characterised the current political strife and the purge of Mr Bo as “a symptom of the ideological struggle caused by disagreement over which direction the country should go in”.

Some officials within the party, including premier Wen Jiabao, are trying to push through political reforms that would move China towards western-style democracy while hardliners, including Mr Zhou, are opposed to such a move.

While international media has understandably focused on the cases of Wang Lijun, Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng, Chinese media are also covering the country’s growing labor militancy, and media attention is “helping to drive the movement,” says China Labour Bulletin:

A glance at CLB’s new interactive strike map shows how strikes have increased over the last six months, and how disputes have expanded across different sectors to encompass a broadening range of issues. In March, for example, a sudden increase in the price of fuel led to an upsurge in strikes by bus and taxi drivers. The following month, the manufacturing sector once again took centre stage as workers protested low pay and plans by their employer to relocate, merge or downsize.

The growing number of labor disputes is also leading analysts to ask: Does rule of law matter in China?

“A cursory look at the two crises that have hit the Chinese government in recent weeks — one at the very top, with the purge of Bo Xilai, and one at the grassroots, with the escape from unlawful house arrest of the blind activist Chen Guangcheng — suggests not,” writes Nicholas Bequelin:                                                                                                            

Both cases are widely seen as emblematic. Bo’s embodies the corruption of an unchecked political elite: Communist Party members are investigated by the party’s own disciplinary committee, and not by the courts. Chen’s case is rife with the predatory behavior of local officials whose conduct is more reminiscent of China’s feudal past than of the “new socialist countryside” Beijing leaders claim to be building.

“Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that the law doesn’t matter in China,” says Bequelin, a senior researcher on Asia at Human Rights Watch:

First, while Chen’s case entails the catalogue of unlawful measures that are used against government critics, it also embodies the rising assertiveness of a citizenry that is increasingly ready to defend its legal rights against official arbitrariness, corruption and injustice.

Land-rights activists, factory workers, forcibly evicted residents, arbitrarily censored netizens, ordinary consumers and environmental activists — citizens in China are increasingly committed to defending their rights. To overcome the control of local courts by local authorities, Chinese citizens are taking their grievances public, making full use of new media. They are increasingly ready to take their demands to the streets, as witnessed by the rapid growth in the number of social protests over environmental issues, labor disputes, land seizures, abuses of power and corruption.

“As a result, the authorities back down more often than people may suspect,” Bequelin notes, as in the cases of Wukan, where local citizens ousted leaders involved in illegal land transactions; the July 2011 Wenzhou train-crash; the Dalian protests in August 2011 over a petrochemical factory’s environmental and safety violations and it is the case “in countless labor disputes when workers sue for compensation or violation of labor laws.”

“Admittedly, such victories come hard,” he concedes, with rights activists suffering police harassment and suppression,.

“But the fact is that the rule of law has become a central demand of the Chinese citizenry, and grievances are increasingly framed in the language of rights. The law matters.”


Growing rights awareness and new communications technologies are proving a potent combination for mobilizing, China Labour Bulletin notes:                       

Last week on 8 May, around 1,000 shoe factory workers in Dongguan walked out in protest at management plans to cut their monthly bonus from the usual 500 yuan to just 100 yuan. Management refused to talk so one worker posted their grievances on his micro-blog.

China Labour Bulletin contacted the worker and posted an account of the strike on our microblog. This story was then retweeted more than 50 times within the hour and soon five reporters had gathered outside the factory gate demanding to know what was going on. They were refused entry but the very next day the management, under pressure from local government officials to make the story go away, agreed to increase the workers’ bonus to 300 yuan and the strikers returned to work.

To put these recent developments in perspective, CLB published in late March a research report that shows how demographic shifts combined with economic growth and social change over the last decade have given China’s workers more bargaining power, and how a younger, better educated, more aspirational workforce that is more aware of its legal rights has learnt to use that bargaining power to its advantage. Workers are not only more confident in their ability to organize strikes and protests, they are increasingly willing to sit down with their employer and negotiate a settlement on behalf of their co-workers. Indeed, in some factories, workers have already established an embryonic system of collective bargaining.

A Decade of Change: The Workers’ Movement in China 2000-2010 is available as a downloadable PDF.

China Labour Bulletin is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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Syria: SNC still lacks transition plan, political strategy – and unity

The Arab League has postponed a Syrian opposition conference planned for Cairo this week after the Syrian National Council, the leading exiled  coalition, threatened to boycott the meeting. Observers say the cancellation is the latest indication of the international community’s inability to engage the divided and dysfunctional opposition.

“When it comes to influencing Syria’s bloody struggle between President Bashar al-Assad and rebels trying to unseat him, the exile opposition SNC seems as helpless an onlooker as world powers groping for a strategy,” reports suggest.

The international community has tried to forge the SNC into a representative umbrella coalition, equivalent to Libya’s Transitional National Council, that could convene disparate opposition networks within and outside Syria.

“But the organization has been losing momentum,” writes Roula Khalaf. “Even local groups committed to peaceful opposition to the regime are taking their distance from the SNC, and some recently joined in what they described as a provisional parliament for post-Assad Syria.”

For the time being, however, and in the absence of credible leaders emerging from within Syria, engaging the SNC is the default option for foreign governments within the Friends of Syria group, say analysts.

“Some of them do seem to realize that sooner or later the real center of gravity has to be inside Syria, but they don’t quite know how to find that,” said Yezid Sayigh, at the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center in Beirut.

The decision to boycott the Cairo event reflects the SNC’s frustration with the international community’s failure to provide financial or military assistance to the opposition, according to a prominent member.

“No government has institutionally helped the rebels with either weapons or humanitarian aid,” said Jamal al-Wadi. “Weapons smuggling has been done by individuals, despite promises by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others to support the Syrian people.”

Wadi, who is from the southern town of Deraa, cradle of the revolt, said Turkey in particular had failed to match its anti-Assad rhetoric with action, and hit back at those who say they cannot help the opposition while it remains fragmented.

“The international community is using the excuse of a divided opposition as a coat hanger to escape its responsibilities, when it has the moral and humanitarian obligation to stop Assad’s bloody crackdown,” Wadi said.

Opposition divisions are also due to the international community’s lack of response to the Syrian conflict, says Radwan Ziadeh, a leading member of the SNC.

“There were three new parties that were announced in Cairo last week, everyone with a cousin and a grandmother is setting up a new opposition party,” he said:

Further fragmentation is inevitable, he added, because the opposition inside the country cannot organize in the midst of a continuing security crackdown, or hold elections to decide who truly represents it.

The SNC is currently engaged in heated internal discussions over the leadership of SNC president Burhan Ghalioun, who is under fire for allegedly weak leadership and ‘frivolous globetrotting”:

A Skype conversation in February between the SNC’s 10-member executive committee and activists inside the besieged areas of Homs and Hama disintegrated into bickering over finances: the executive committee members were speaking from the Four Seasons Hotel in Doha, the Qatari capital.

Also raising questions about the SNC’s priorities was the decision to dispatch representatives to Miami to sign an agreement last week with opponents of Cuba’s communist government. That deal coincided with a four-day visit to Tokyo by Mr Ghalioun, a Paris-based academic.

“They have to be in one place, working 24 hours if they want to succeed,” said Haitham Al Maleh, a veteran dissident jailed by both Mr Al Assad and his late father Hafez. “We are in a revolution. People are getting killed daily.”

Others are more scathing, and fear the group may not only have lost relevance to people inside Syria but may actually be hindering the uprising.

“Until now, they have handicapped the revolution,” said leading dissident Kamal Al Labwani. “We need one council and real leaders for our revolution.”

Calls for the reform of the SNC at a time of increased bloodshed are distracting attention from the key issues, says Rime Allaf, a Syria analyst at the UK-based think-tank Chatham House.

“I think it is a moot point that the SNC itself should restructure, especially as it is unclear how this would benefit the uprising,” she said. “The SNC tried to please so many and ended up pleasing nobody … The uprising is going on regardless of who leads it and the people are coming onto the streets regardless.”

But those protests are unlikely to succeed in generating a democratic transition without a compelling strategy and vision from a coherent opposition, analysts contend.

“Unless the opposition develops a clear transition plan and a credible political strategy for winning over key sectors in Syria, it will fail in bringing about change,” writes Carnegie analyst Sayigh. “The Friends of Syria can afford to live with the lack of a political strategy, but the opposition cannot.”

It has yet to negotiate and draft what veteran Syrian activist Michel Kilo calls “a practicable political pact . . . defining the features of the phase of the transfer of power, how long it will take, the tasks of this phase, and ways to liquidate tyranny, present a democratic alternative, and ensure the people’s rights and so on.”

More importantly, “the opposition has not yet developed a strategy to chip away at the regime’s support base,” he continues:

To foment change, the opposition needs to encourage dissent and splits within the regime’s core ranks and support base. Minorities that have rallied behind the regime out of fear of the alternative need to be reassured of their post-Assad future. And the large urban middle class that dislikes the regime but is deterred by the high costs of openly opposing it and discouraged by the opposition’s disunity and militarization needs to be convinced that the opposition offers a credible alternative. …These sectors of Syrian society are key to tipping the struggle for power in Syria.


Radwan Ziadeh is a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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Ex-leader granted bail in case ‘testing Mongolia’s budding democracy’

Former Mongolian President Nambaryn Enkhbayar (left) was granted bail today but will remain hospitalized following a 10-day hunger strike to protest his imprisonment on – charges in a case his British lawyer has condemned as “Soviet stuff.”

The probe “reflects political jockeying ahead of next month’s parliamentary election, according to several analysts who term Mongolia’s democracy as both vibrant and immature. At stake in the vote is power over Mongolia’s rich resources of copper, gold, coal and rare earths, including the deals to exploit them and the policies for distributing the proceeds.” 

The case has “[thrown] Mongolia’s young democracy into turmoil in a crisis freighted by dueling accusations of corruption and human rights abuses,” the New York Times reports:

In an eerie echo of a political protest in Ukraine, Mr. Enkhbayar, who served as prime minister before leading the country as president for four years until 2009, has refused to cooperate with his interrogators, who barred his lawyers during the questioning. The confrontation intensified when Mr. Enkhbayar, 53, stopped eating and drinking after a local court extended his detention until the eve of the June 28 parliamentary election.

“This is likely to open a Pandora’s box,” said Mark C. Minton, a former American ambassador to Mongolia. “It will do no good for Mongolia’s reputation and due process or rule of law, which is already shallowly rooted.”

Enkhbayar’s hunger strike left Mongolia’s authorities looking confused and uncoordinated. “They got a lot more than they bargained for,” Minton said.

The news of Enkhbayar’s bail was welcomed by his son, but the case will remain politically contested, he said.  

“Doctors are very worried about his health recover and all hope the process will go smoothly,” Batshugar Enkhbayar wrote in an e-mail today. “My father is still facing politically motivated false allegations that he needs to fight.” 

The current President Tsakhia Elbegdorj’s has called for “humane” and “transparent” treatment for his political rival, following international criticism over his predecessor’s detention. A review of court documents on Enkhbayar’s case suggests his “detention appears to be arbitrary,” said Amnesty International. But Elbegdorj insists that he has no right to interfere in judicial investigations of corruption.  

“Corruption has been a growing challenge for Mongolia as it seeks to develop its vast mineral resources without falling prey to the so-called ‘resources curse’, a phenomenon in which countries rich in raw materials experience slower economic development than countries without,” the FT reports:

Despite the huge deposits of copper, gold, coking coal and iron ore contained within Mongolia’s borders, satisfaction with the ruling political parties is very low among voters, who list unemployment, poverty and inflation as their top concerns. …Mongolia remains one of the poorest countries in the world in terms of per capita gross domestic product, ranking 119th, just below Morocco, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Enkhbayar lawyer Peter Goldsmith, a former British attorney general, called the accusations against his client “insubstantial, stale and petty,”  the Times reports:

Just as troubling, Mr. Goldsmith said, are Mr. Enkhbayar’s detention without formal charge and the mistreatment of his supporters. Mr. Enkhbayar’s party secretary was harassed after being called into a police station, and another party member was detained for collecting petition signatures, Mr. Goldsmith said.

“Everyone had hoped Mongolia had broken away from the Soviet chain,” he said in a phone interview. “But this is Soviet stuff.”

Mongolia’s democratic consolidation has been sufficiently impressive for the country to assume the rotating chairmanship of the Community of Democracies in July 2011.

Enkhbayar ‘s prosecution is “the highest-level corruption case that Mongolia has experienced since it split from the Soviet Union 20 years ago and [is] proving to be a severe test of its legal and democratic structures,” reports suggest.

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