Russia’s new dissident generation

“Several thousand people demanding the release of political prisoners took to the streets of Moscow on Sunday in the biggest protest action so far this fall,” AFP reports:

On a gray, overcast afternoon, protesters marched along Moscow’s central Boulevard Ring road carrying photographs of political prisoners, including business tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and members of the band Pussy Riot.

This month marks 10 years of imprisonment for Khodorkovsky, a onetime oil baron who was the richest man in Russia. Two young women from Pussy Riot, a politically charged punk-rock group, were imprisoned last year. They have at least one thing in common: They challenged Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

“Our task today is to mobilize enough people to compel the Kremlin to release the innocent victims of political repression from prisons,” opposition leader Alexei Navalny told the crowd.

The popular and charismatic anti-corruption crusader himself narrowly escaped a five-year prison term following his conviction in July for embezzlement of $500,000 from an obscure provincial timber company. Navalny was released on appeal, allowing him to run for mayor of Moscow in September…..Navalny’s release may also have been a sign that with the approach of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in the Russian city of Sochi in February, the Kremlin is prepared to make some concessions to its opposition and civil society groups.

Intellectual struggle

It would take longer to change the system than many had thought, after tens of thousands took to the streets in December 2011, Navalny said.

“Back then everyone thought that Putin’s regime wouldn’t last longer than 1 1/2 years,” he said. “But the truth is that we need to prepare for a longer, more exhausting and more intellectual struggle.”

Khodorkovsky’s arrest ten years ago changed the relationship between business and politics in Russia, writes analyst Victor Davidoff, noting that Yukos was a vital source of funding for philanthropic projects, civil society groups and Putin’s critics:

Yukos openly funded oppositional parties like Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces. Since then, business executives who dare to finance the political campaigns of people and parties out of favor with the Kremlin soon feel the full weight of state pressure. This usually begins with financial audits and often ends with criminal charges and the destruction of their businesses.

Activists are hoping that the Kremlin will issue an amnesty for political prisoners in advance of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

“We have a big chance to achieve this amnesty,” said Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader and former deputy prime minister in Boris Yeltsin’s government,. “Putin is afraid that leaders of Western countries will not attend his [Games]. Athletes may come but not Western leaders. So now is the best time for us to push toward our goal.”

In a disturbing imitation of Soviet practices, Robert Amsterdam writes, one of the Bolotnaya Square protesters, Mikhail Kosenko, was recently sentenced by a court to be committed against his will for punitive psychiatric care, with the clear message being sent to any other young people in Russia feeling rebellious: dissent is “crazy.”

Former Soviet dissident Pavel Litvinov is also concerned that ominously familiar practices are evident in the arrest of Greenpeace activists, including his son, engaged in a peaceful protest.

“I know only too well what a prison term in Russia means. I was arrested for participating in 1968 in a demonstration against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia,” he writes for The Washington Post:

Lev Kopelev, Dima’s grandfather on his mother’s side, a Soviet writer, spent eight years in Soviet prison camps because he protested the looting and raping of the German population by Soviet officers and soldiers during World War II, when he fought the Nazi army.

Dima’s grandfather was arrested under Joseph Stalin, and I, Dima’s father, was arrested under Leonid Brezhnev. The Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore, but Dima has been arrested under Russian President Vladimir Putin — a former member of the Soviet secret police, the KGB. Is it not the time to break the cycle?

Litvinov is a member of the board of the Andrey Sakharov Foundation.


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U.S. needs new strategy to address China’s human rights abuses


nobel_china-liu-xia121204The persecution of exiled dissident Chen Guangsheng’s family, the disappearance of Chinese legal pioneer Gao Zhisheng, the harassment of Liu Xia (right), a leading poet married to imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, “demonstrate the comfort that Beijing feels in flouting its legal obligations to its own people and in outright lying to the international community,” says Jared Genser , a leading human rights advocate.

“Given that continued inattention only breeds more persecution, a new strategy is desperately needed,” he writes for The Washington Post:

First, the clear violation of China’s commitments and its lies must be directly and publicly confronted. Failure to squarely address the government’s impunity only emboldens those in the Chinese government who interpret quiet diplomacy and private protestations as a license to oppress. It was disheartening, for example, when President Obama failed to sign a letter to incoming Chinese President Xi Jinping last December from 134 Nobel laureates pressing for Liu Xiaobo’s release. ….

Second, in instances in which Chinese officials refuse to engage as honest actors, it is incumbent upon the U.S. administration to meet with Chinese dissidents and their families who can speak with unique authority about the persecution they continue to face in China….

Finally, each high-level meeting with Chinese officials should include a substantive discussion of human rights issues relevant to the subject of the meeting. International standards on political, social, economic, environmental and cultural rights inform nearly all aspects of modern life.

“Prioritizing a bilateral relationship that consistently emphasizes fundamental freedoms would allow the administration to articulate a coherent strategy for addressing human rights while fostering the conditions for a real dialogue,” Genser contends.

Jared Genser, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, founded Freedom Now, a legal advocacy organization that serves as international pro bono counsel to the families of Chen Guangcheng, Gao Zhisheng and Liu Xiaobo.


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Advancing democracy a casualty of new ‘modest strategy’ for Middle East?

What are America’s core interests in the Middle East? How has the upheaval in the Arab world changed America’s position? What can Mr. Obama realistically hope to achieve? What lies outside his reach?

These were the key questions driving a recalibration of the Obama administration’s strategy for the region undertaken by Susan E. RicePresident Obama’s new national security adviser,  according to a New York Times report:

The blueprint drawn up on those summer weekends at the White House is a model of pragmatism — eschewing the use of force, except to respond to acts of aggression against the United States or its allies, disruption of oil supplies, terrorist networks or weapons of mass destruction. Tellingly, it does not designate the spread of democracy as a core interest.

“Critics say the retooled policy will not shield the United States from the hazards of the Middle East. By holding back, they say, the United States risks being buffeted by crisis after crisis, as the president’s fraught history with Syria illustrates,” The Times adds:

“You can have your agenda, but you can’t control what happens,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. “The argument that we can’t make a decisive difference, so we’re not going to try, is wrongheaded.”

Other analysts said that the administration was right to focus on old-fashioned diplomacy with Iran and in the Middle East peace process, but that it had slighted the role of Egypt, which, despite its problems, remains a crucial American ally and a bellwether for the region.

“Egypt is still the test case of whether there can be a peaceful political transition in the Arab world,” said Richard N. Haass, who served in the State Department during the Bush administration and is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “But here, the administration is largely silent and seems uncertain as to what to do.”

The recalibration “is actually a strategy of breathtaking ambition,” foreign policy maven Walter Russell Mead writes for The American Interest:

US administrations have tried for decades to reach an understanding with Iran, and from the time of the Balfour Declaration to the present day ending the Arab-Israeli conflict has been the impossible dream of diplomats all over the world. As for mitigating the horrors in Syria, the administration so far has had absolutely no success at that—and if anything the consequence of its peculiar mix of saber rattling rhetoric and practical passivity has been to make a bad situation significantly worse.

“The new strategy abandons core goals of the first term—we aren’t doing much about democracy now and that whole idea of bridging the gap between the US and the Muslim world seems to have been left on the cutting room floor,” he adds.

Other observers are more critical.

The new approach “will hearten our enemies in the Middle East, such as Hezbollah and the Assad regime and Iran, and confirm to our friends there that they will be far more on their own for the next few years,” argues Council on Foreign Relations analyst Elliott Abrams:

Think of it this way: who will be smiling when reading that article? An Israeli thinking about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, an Egyptian newspaper editor wondering about the limits of free speech, a Jordanian fearing a continuing flow of refugees from Syria and Hezbollah/Iranian dominance, an Emirati worried about Iranian subversion– or Hassan Nasrallah, Bashar Al Assad, and Ayatollah Khamenei?

“The struggle for democracy in Egypt or indeed across the Middle East….will not disappear simply because the administration chooses to ignore it,” argues his CFR colleague Max Boot. “Nor will the Israelis and Palestinians reach a peace deal simply because the administration wills it to happen.”

“From a certain Washington point of view, Obama’s aims look worthy and, better yet, plausibly achievable — unlike, say, establishing democracy in Iraq,” writes The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl:

The problem with the approach is that it assumes that the Syrian civil war and other conflicts across the region pose no serious threat to what Obama calls “core U.S. interests,” and that they can be safely relegated to the nebulous realm of U.N. diplomacy and Geneva conferences……

Let’s suppose for the moment that al-Qaeda’s new base in eastern Syria, Hezbollah’s deployment of tens of thousands of missiles in Lebanon and the crumbling of the U.S.-fostered Iraqi political system pose no particular threat to America. That still leaves U.S. allies in the region — Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey — marooned in a scary new world where their vital interests are no longer under U.S. protection.

Establishing priorities is a useful starting point for developing a regional strategy – but it can’t end there. I can only hope the NSC is also thinking about the following, Tufts University’s Daniel W. Drezner writes for Foreign Policy:

1)  The means to achieve success in Iran and Israel/Palestine;

2)  Response strategies in case negotiations with Iran or those between Israel and Palestine break down/never start up.  Or, in the case of Iran, next steps if a deal is actually brokered — just how far can/should an Iranian/American rapprochement go? 

3)  Wild card contingencies – what happens if Al Qaeda establishes a safe haven in Syria?  What happens if the Egyptian government disintegrates?  What happens if Saudi Arabia or Israel decide that they don’t trust the Iranians no matter what deal they sign? 

4)  Coordinating the rest of the foreign policy bureaucracy.  Remember them?  It’s fine for the White House to establish the administration’s foreign policy priorities.  But it sure would help if there was some better interagency policy coordination about what to do on these issues.  Not to mention….

5)  The back seat stuff.  Just because President Obama doesn’t want to devote his scarce time to democratization in the Middle East means the rest of the U.S. foreign policy machinery can kick back and go on cruise control.  Indeed, it is precisely when the president is not engaged on an issue that it matters what the rest of the government is doing.

Several aides participated in the strategy sessions, The Times observes, but President Obama “drove the process”:

He gave his advisers a tight deadline of the United Nations’ speech last month and pushed them to develop certain themes, drawing from his own journey since the hopeful early days of the Arab Spring.

In May 2011, he said the United States would support democracy, human rights and free markets with all the “diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal.” But at the United Nations last month, he said, “we can rarely achieve these objectives through unilateral American action — particularly with military action.”

Not only does the new approach have little in common with the “freedom agenda” of George W. Bush, but it is also a scaling back of the more expansive American role that Mr. Obama himself articulated two years ago, before the Arab Spring mutated into sectarian violence, extremism and brutal repression.


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China’s coming economic slowdown – authoritarian model ‘plants seeds of its own demise’

joffe“The big question of the 20th century has not disappeared in the 21st,” says a prominent analyst.

“Who is on the right side of history? Is it liberal democracy, with power growing from the bottom up, hedged in by free markets, the rule of law, accountability and the separation of powers? Or is it despotic centralism in the way of Stalin and Hitler, the most recent, though far less cruel, variant being the Chinese one: state capitalism plus one-party rule?” Stanford University’s Josef Joffe asks.

“The demise of communism did not dispatch the big question; it only laid it to rest for a couple of decades,” he writes for The Wall Street Journal:

Now the spectacular rise of China and the crises of the democratic economies….have disinterred what seemed safely buried in a graveyard called “The End of History,” when liberal democracy would triumph everywhere. Now the dead have risen from their graves, strutting and crowing. And many in the West are asking: Isn’t top-down capitalism, as practiced in the past by the Asian “dragons” (South Korea, Taiwan, Japan) and currently by China, the better road to riches and global muscle than the muddled, self-stultifying ways of liberal democracy?

But the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen “hint at a curse that may return to haunt China down the line: the stronger the state’s grip, the more vulnerable the economy to political shocks,” notes Joffe, the editor of Die Zeit, Germany’s most popular weekly newspaper. “That is why the Chinese authorities obsessively look at every civic disturbance through the prism of Tiananmen, though that revolt occurred a generation ago.”

Overnight collapse?

“Chinese leaders are haunted by the fear that their days in power are numbered,” writes the China scholar Susan Shirk. “They watched with foreboding as communist governments in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe collapsed almost overnight beginning in 1989, the same year in which massive pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and more than 100 other cities nearly toppled communist rule in China.”

Western commentators’ infatuation with China is reminiscent of an earlier generation’s adulation of Stalin or Hitler, Joffe suggests:

And no wonder: These tyrants promised not only earthly redemption but also economic rebirth; they were the hands-on engineers, while thinkers dream and debate, craving power but too timorous to go for it. Too bad that the price was untold human suffering, but as Bertolt Brecht, the poet laureate of German communism, famously lectured, “First the grub, then the morals.”

Today’s declinists succumb to a similar temptation. They survey the crises of Western capitalism and look at China’s 30-year miracle. Then they conclude once more that state supremacy, especially when flanked by markets and profits, can do better than liberal democracy.

Some analysts contend that China’s developmental authoritarianism is “the biggest potential ideological competitor to liberal democratic capitalism since the end of communism.” It presents such a threat, according to Oxford University’s Timothy Garton Ash, precisely because it can “plausibly claim to be associated with economic, technological and cultural modernity.”

Yet while the promise of non-democratic modernization may appeal to authoritarian regimes in the developing world, the ‘China Model’ is not readily exportable.

Furthermore – as the Journal of Democracy’s Marc Plattner has noted – the sustainability of authoritarian capitalism is yet to be established, while demonstrably resilient liberal democracies appear better placed to withstand economic and other crises.

The declinist orthodoxy is neither new nor convincing, according to Georgetown University’s Robert J. Lieber, as “America’s staying power has been regularly and chronically underestimated,” by the pundits.

Economic and political cycles matter less than America’s beneficial structural characteristics, he contends:

These advantages include America’s size, wealth, human and material resources, military strength, competitiveness, and liberal political and economic traditions, but also a remarkable flexibility, dynamism, and capacity for reinvention. Neither the rise of important regional powers, nor a globalized world economy, nor “imperial overstretch,” nor domestic weaknesses seem likely to negate these advantages in ways the declinists anticipate, often with a fervor that makes their diagnoses and prescriptions resemble a species of wish fulfillment.

“Authoritarian or ‘guided’ modernization plants the seeds of its own demise,” argues Joffe, a fellow of Stanford’s Hoover Institution and Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies:

The system moves mountains in its youth but eventually hardens into a mountain range itself—stony, impenetrable and immovable. It empowers vested interests that, like privileged players throughout history, first ignore and then resist change because it poses a mortal threat to their status and income.

“History does not bode well for authoritarian modernization, whether in the form of ‘controlled,’ ‘guided’ or plain state capitalism,” Joffe concludes:

Either the system freezes up and then turns upon itself, devouring the seeds of spectacular growth and finally producing stagnation. (This is the Japanese “model” that began to falter 20 years before the de facto monopoly of the LDP was broken.) Or the country follows the Western route, whereby growth first spawned wealth, then a middle class, then democratization cum welfare state and slowing growth.

Joffe’s “The Myth of America’s Decline: Politics, Economics and A Half Century of False Prophecies,” will be published by Liveright on Nov. 4.


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