Chinese dissident Gao Zhisheng seen by family

“Family members of one of China’s most prominent dissidents visited him in a prison in the western region of Xinjiang this month,” The New York Times reports:

The group, Human Rights in China, based in New York, said in a statement late on Tuesday that Gao Zhisheng’s younger brother and his father-in-law visited him on Jan. 12, citing Mr. Gao’s wife. …Foreign human rights advocates say they fear for Mr. Gao’s life because there is no word on his well-being or whereabouts for long stretches of time. Foreign governments have condemned China for its harsh treatment of Mr. Gao over the years.

Mr. Gao [left] is a rights lawyer and a Christian who was subjected to long periods of detention and what he called torture by security forces after he took on politically delicate cases. Those cases included defending Chinese whose land had been taken from them and given to developers, as well as persecuted members of Falun Gong, the banned spiritual movement. Mr. Gao was once a celebrated lawyer praised by the state and the governing Communist Party. He renounced his membership in the party in 2005 and denounced the government.

Human Rights in China is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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How to Finish a Revolution? Go beyond ‘avant-garde NGO elite’

Georgia’s new government “could still go the way of …… previous ones,” The Economist cautions, noting that the Caucasian republic “needs more effective checks on state power than it has had in previous years, in the form of political opposition and civil society.”

The paper cites a recent paper from Chatham House, the London-based foreign policy think-tank, which finds that Georgia’s civil society is too weak to influence politics “as citizens have little capacity to influence political developments owing to lack of engagement, clientelist networks and corruption.”

Citizens rarely participate in public policy debates and barely recognize, let alone engage with NGOs, which are the least understood of Georgia’s public institutions.

Surveying civil society in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, the report notes that many Western-funded NGOs are “not anchored in society and constitute a form of ‘NGO-cracy’: a system where professional NGO leaders use access to domestic policy-makers and Western donors to influence public policies without having a constituency in society.”

“Despite the growing numbers of registered NGOs, very few citizens participate, volunteer their time or make donations to NGOs. The low figures for citizen engagement – 5 per cent of the population in Ukraine, 4 per cent in Moldova and 4.8 per cent in Georgia – have remained unchanged for the last twenty years,” writes Orysia Lutsevych, the report’s author and a consultant for the EU-Russia Centre.

NGOs are populated by Tbilisi-based intellectuals and experts who more often engage “with embassies and Western foundations” than ordinary citizens. Consequently, Georgian NGOs are “passive consumers of democracy development aid instead of the driving force behind democratic change,” she argues:

Much evidence today suggests that in the course of the post-Soviet transitions, a rather elitist non-profit-organization sector emerged, which focused on professional consulting and service provision….Many large Western donors, who invest substantial resources in strengthening civil society, often support NGOs patronage networks and sustain a gap between a few well-established groups and active citizens….In Georgia, 83 per cent of NGOs report that they have never received an individual donation. The low levels of NGO membership are reflected in the volunteering numbers: only a third of NGOs in Georgia report having even one or two volunteers.

Avant-garde NGO elite

The findings of a short online survey of the perceptions of NGO leaders in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine reveal a belief that “they play an avant-garde role in transition, where they know better than the average citizen, and discount the importance of mass movements as a driver of social change,” Lutsevych writes, in How to Finish a Revolution: Civil Society and Democracy in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine:

More than 66 per cent of the NGO leaders surveyed said that the most important function of civil society in a democratic system was to influence public policy; 50 per cent said they aimed to promote accountability in politics; and 52 per cent said that the strength of their NGO was driven by access to decision-makers in government and various administrative agencies. The impact of this effort is weak, however, especially in policy areas that challenge the state’s political and economic power. Over 70 per cent of Georgian NGO leaders said that their policy impact was minimal.

“The fundamental problem with Western assistance to civil society in the post-Soviet space is that it leaves much of society untouched,” Lutsevych argues:

Viewing civil society through the narrow lens of NGOs excludes informal youth groups, intellectuals, faith-based associations, local citizens’ initiative groups and business associations. Despite efforts to improve NGO capacity, create a more enabling legal environment and increase policy impact, local NGOs are not getting stronger.

NGOs need to become more transparent, increase their media outreach and build more domestic and international networks. … Most well-established groups direct their advocacy towards human rights and monitoring state policies, paying no attention to inequality, education, access to public utilities and the poor delivery of public services.

But Lutsevych is perhaps guilty of neglecting the many foreign-funded civil society groups that are engaging more diverse constituencies away from the metropolitan comforts of Tbilisi.

For example, the Caucasus Centre for Civil Hearings has conducted mock public hearings in Lagodekhi, Marnauli, and Akhalikalaki on such issues as youth involvement in civil society and the treatment of ethnic minorities. The center also partnered with the Azerbaijani Alliance of Women for Civil Society to host four hearings in Georgia to promote cross-cultural exchanges between all three South Caucasus countries on regional conflict, religion, unemployment and labor migration, and political apathy.

Similarly, the Sukhumi Cultural-Humanitarian Fund promotes women’s political engagement by training activists in advocacy techniques and lobbying municipal authorities on issues affecting women in the regions.

Western donors aren’t entirely to blame, The Economist notes:

Part of the problem lies with Georgians themselves. If they “want true democracy, transparency and personal freedom, they also need to engage in public debate and build social trust”. Yet few ordinary Georgians feel confident to talk about politics outside of the home, according to public opinion surveys. Changing that will take years. These days, Georgian public life inspires more fear and loathing than love.

In a celebrated 2002 article – ‘The End of the Transition Paradigm’ in the Journal of Democracy, she recalls, Thomas Carothers challenged the assumption that post-Soviet states were ineluctably transitioning from communism to liberal democracy, and counseled donors of the need to retain a capacity to adapt and adjust to the vicissitudes of transition and take account of the underlying, country-specific historical and social constraints.

And yet…

“Today there are hardly any new approaches to strengthening civil society in the region. …There is little innovation in the ways in which additional funds for civil society are invested,” Lutsevych concludes.

On the plus side, she says:

New civil voices use more mass mobilization strategies and social media, and are visible in public spaces. They are more effective in influencing the state and political society than Western-funded NGOs. Wider civic engagement would help build the power of the middle class to work together for enabling citizens to influence policy and further advance democracy in these countries.

In order to ‘finish’ the colour revolutions, democracy promoters and local activists need to focus on society itself. Active and empowered citizens, not the expertise and capacity of a few NGOs, are the indicator of civil society’s strength.


Orysia Lutsevych was 2012 Robert Bosch Fellow at Chatham House. She is currently a consultant for the EU-Russia Centre to develop the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum and advises the Westminster Foundation for Democracy on citizen engagement in Ukraine.

The Journal of Democracy is published by the National Endowment for Democracy. NDI and the Solidarity Center are core institutes of the NED.

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‘Fourth time lucky’ for Georgia’s democracy?

“Something amazing happened in Georgia’s 1 October 2012 parliamentary elections. The government lost and it gave up power, aside from the now-weakened presidency that it will hold for another year,” say two leading analysts:

A new coalition known as Georgian Dream ran under the leadership of Georgia’s richest man, the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili (right), and won 85 seats in the unicameral, 150-member Parliament. Georgia’s post-Soviet background and circumstances make the 2012 opposition win and subsequent orderly handover of power truly remarkable. Indeed, among the “competitive authoritarian” regimes found in what used to be the USSR, it is nearly unheard of.

“Georgia is lucky to be getting a fourth chance at democracy, after the opportunities under Zviad Gamsakhurdia (1990–92), Eduard Shevardnadze (1992–2003), and Mikhail Saakashvili faded. But this chance remains a fragile one,” Charles Fairbanks and Alexi Gugushvili write in the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy:

It is true that Saakashvili and his government respected the forms of democracy to a degree unusual in the former Soviet Union, and that this respect gradually went up over time. Yet the president and his camp also engaged in endless maneuvering designed to isolate, marginalize, and penetrate any sort of political opposition.….. When such tactics fell short, the National Movement resorted to ballot fraud. Media freedom declined progressively after 2007, when the government closed and later seized Imedi, the only independent television channel seen across the whole country. As OSCE Parliamentary Assembly president Riccardo Migliori put it, the National Movement showed “a little [bit] of Leninism . . . trying to destroy their enemies.”

The JOD article “puts the current state of Georgian politics in a broader context,” The Economist notes:

In the authors’ view, only the emergence of Mr Ivanishvili stopped the UNM’s slide towards autocracy. His considerable wealth bound together a disparate coalition, tapped into deep public disaffection with the UNM, and enabled his Georgian Dream movement to withstand the UNM’s hard-line response. Indeed, the authors argue, likely evidence of inflated voter lists suggests that the UNM was ready to falsify the vote. But high voter turnout and extensive international scrutiny helped persuade Mr Saakashvili to cede defeat, paving the way for Georgia’s first constitutional transfer of power.

Ivanishvili’s successful challenge confirms Lucan Way’s argument that economic “oligarchs” are a threat to competitive authoritarian regimes,5 write Fairbanks, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a professor at Georgia’s Ilia State University, and Gugushvili is a researcher at the European University Institute in Florence, and an affiliated fellow at the Center for Social Sciences in Tbilisi:

For the bulk of the campaign, the government met Georgian Dream’s electoral challenge with costly public works and padded public payrolls, with boasts about the modern architecture with which it had graced the country, and with constant threats to fire any state employees who failed to support their elected masters. Previous actions suggested that the threats were not empty. “Do you personally know someone whom you believe was fired from a state/public job because of their political beliefs?” asked the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) in its August poll. Almost a fifth of respondents in Tbilisi (19 percent) said yes, while the figure across the country as a whole was 14 percent.7 These numbers are extraordinarily high. The government made no distinction between the state and the government in power: At the Rose Revolution, the National Movement’s party flag had become the flag of the country. The government identified the state with a political party in the Soviet manner.

In a further indicator of Georgia’s illiberal democracy, labor unions complained that Saakashvili undermined freedom of association.

“Alone among former Soviet Union member nations, only Georgia has seen its ex-official union federation democratically reform and emerge as the biggest civil-society voice in the country,” said the Washington-based Solidarity Center. “However, its efforts to promote worker rights and democracy have apparently rubbed the Georgian government the wrong way. Since 2008, the government has viciously attacked the Georgian Trade Union Confederation and its affiliates.”

While Soviet-era unions lacked genuine independence and collective bargaining rights, functioning as transmission belts for the ruling Communist parties and providers of members’ welfare facilities, Georgia’s unions have striven to remain autonomous.

“Georgian unions are politically involved but neutral toward both the ruling party and the opposition. This position is a break from past Soviet and post-Soviet practice, when unions were an extension of the ruling political party,” the Solidarity Center notes.  “Georgia’s 2006 labor code was in many respects a step backward for workers, as it diminished unions’ bargaining rights and introduced a hire and fire policy that enables a worker’s dismissal without a valid reason.”

Saakashvili’s hostility to independent labor unions may be a reflection of the post-Soviet legacy in which, Fairbanks and Gugushvili observe, “there is still not much life in the yawning social space between the family and the government in Georgia”:

Citizens distrust one another, and even activists have an aversion to the realities of organization, leadership, planning, and funding. There are NGOs that have played brave and useful roles in the opening to democracy, but they depend on Western money and normally shun politics. Now, the urgent need is to nourish activism that explicitly presses demands on government. The Orthodox Church and the business community outweigh the slender NGO sector, but each is deeply flawed and some would say that neither should count as part of legitimate civil society.


The Journal of Democracy is published by the National Endowment for Democracy. NDI and the Solidarity Center are core institutes of the NED.

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Egypt’s Brotherhood exploits ‘civil society’ in pre-election campaign

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has initiated a campaign to improve public services, including free health care, to coincide with the second anniversary of the 25 January uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak.

The Together We Build Egypt initiative builds on the Islamist group’s grassroots organizing efforts that helped it emerge as Egypt’s most powerful political force. The program, which will include a push to upgrade or renovate 2,000 schools, will be backed by business and civil-society groups, according to the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper.

The Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, has already launched several initiatives, including convoys to provide medical services such as orthopedic, pediatric and gynecological check-ups.

Non-governmental groups are supporting the initiative, said Moustafa Al-Ghoneimy, the campaign coordinator and a member of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau.

“Twenty Cairo-based NGOs along with 800 NGOs in different governorates have joined the campaign,” he said:

He explained that the campaign has three main projects. One is a health related project that aims to provide a free or almost-free of charge health service for the poor.The Islamic Medical Association will contribute medical convoys that would tour the governorates providing free health services..

[And] unnamed businessmen have contributed enough money to repair and maintain 1,850 schools, which is part of the educational aspect of the campaign. Al-Ghoneimy added: “The third project is establishing charity markets that sell products for reduced or wholesale prices.”

But some civil society groups suggested that the campaign is an election ploy rather than an attempt to provide sustainable services to address social needs.

“Our organization supports hundreds of families, I can’t promise them a development project that would turn out to be unsustainable, only aiming to garner votes in the upcoming elections,” said Zeinab Afify, head of a national orphan charity.

The campaign is designed to mobilize civil society support for the Islamist government, said Mahmoud Hussein, the Brotherhood’s General Secretary, who called on the media “to follow the project to validate its credibility and achievements.”

President Mohammed Morsi has struggled to gain power over Egypt’s bureaucracy, the Project for Middle East Democracy reports:

“Morsi still appears to exercise little day-to-day authority over the judiciary, the police, the military and the state-run news media.” Writing for the Wilson Center, Joshua Stacher finds that “the Brothers will have to govern however they can from the offices of state with an uncooperative bureaucracy as well as an increasingly experienced protest movement. Morsi and the group, for now, realize that repressing dissent is futile.”

POMED is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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Cuba still holds 90 political prisoners, says rights group

At least ninety political prisoners remain incarcerated in Cuba’s jails, according to a new list compiled in Havana by the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.  

The Center for a Free Cuba today received a list of 90 current long-term prisoners held by the Communist authorities. 

The regime claims that it released those political prisoners arrested during the “Black Spring” crackdown of 2003, most of whom were forced into exile in 2011 

“Apologists of the Cuban dictatorship are still heralding this banishment, which in itself was a violation of international law,” said CapitolHillCubans, a bipartisan pressure group:   

Note that this doesn’t include the nearly 7,000 democracy activists that were arrested for shorter-periods throughout 2012. And these are only the ones that have been thoroughly documented. 

Thus, the number of political prisoners in Cuba has actually increased — despite the banishment – since 2011. More “reform” you can’t believe in. 

The Center for a Free Cuba is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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