How US can help two democratic revolutions – Ukraine and Venezuela

Oscar-winner Jared Leto’s acceptance speech reminded us that two democratic revolutions are occurring right now, one in each hemisphere, say two key observers.

Sadly, they haven’t been paid proper attention; their meaning and potential future impact not understood, according to Martin Palous, former Czech Ambassador to the U.S. and U.N., and Dr. Jiri Valenta, president of the Institute of Post-Communist Studies and Terrorism.

Things certainly don’t look bright for the West at the current moment. Yet, surprisingly, in the present scramble for options, there is, in our view, a still unexplored means for punishing Russian aggression, they write for The Miami Herald:

The Russian navy has been flexing its muscles and itching to again project its power globally. Thus we bring into focus that other revolution, Venezuela’s. After the 2008 Russian intervention in Georgia, where Putin carved out South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a Russian naval task force was sent to the Caribbean to court its autocratic, anti-U.S. regimes. Notice that Nicaragua and Venezuela were the only countries to recognize the legitimacy of the carved out Georgian regions.

In short, the U.S. must fit both crises, Ukraine’s and Venezuela’s, into a new and comprehensive, global strategy of its own. Russian access to the naval facilities of anti-American countries in the US strategic backyard is impermissible. Helping the Venezuelan — as well as Cuban, democrats and human rights defenders — is the way to prevent it.

This is not to suggest that America should use its hard power in these countries,” say Palous and Valenta:

The time for military interventions in her “Near Abroad” is long past. What the U.S. must do is further the democratization processes, first in Venezuela, but also in Cuba and Nicaragua. Organizations like Freedom House or the National Endowment for Democracy and its grantees can help. The support of diverse programs and their increased funding should be obligatory for America.

As we have learned from Havel, military occupations by hostile forces do not last forever. The lesson of Russia´s past interventions is that peaceful resistance and the struggle for human rights generate the “power of the powerless.” In the end, freedom prevails.

Former Czech Ambassador to the U.S. and U.N. Martin Palous is Senior Fellow and Director of the Vaclav Havel Initiative for Human Rights and Diplomacy at FIU. Dr. Jiri Valenta headed a post-revolution, Czech foreign ministry think tank. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, he is current president of the Institute of Post-Communist Studies and Terrorism (


Africa’s ‘authoritarian contagion’

freedomhouseThe recent pressure on civil society and independent media in Kenya is not only a significant threat to democracy in a geo-politically important country, but also the predictable outcome of the international community’s failure to punish earlier, comparable state-driven repression in Ethiopia, another African nation that is viewed in Western capitals as a strategic partner, says Robert Herman, Vice President for Regional Programs at Freedom House. 

There is nothing terribly surprising about the attempt by newly elected Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta to create a more hostile environment for advocates of democracy and human rights, he writes for the group’s Freedom at Issue blog. He had telegraphed his intention in the run-up to the March 2013 presidential vote, all but vowing retribution against such activists because of their support for the International Criminal Court’s indictment of those—including Kenyatta and his now vice president, William Ruto—accused of directing ethnic and political violence following the 2007 presidential election, which left more than 1,200 Kenyans dead and some 600,000 displaced.

When the retribution came, it followed a sadly well-worn script developed by authoritarian states, which are more inclined and better equipped than ever to export “worst practices” when it comes to repressing civil society and silencing dissent.

The broader phenomenon illustrated by Kenyatta’s actions is not just a matter of coincidence or independent imitation. Whether they are selling sophisticated technology to track down dissidents online or sharing legislative approaches that provide a patina of legitimacy for their crackdowns on political opponents, repressive governments are actively working together to push back against nonviolent movements for democratic change. Indeed, such authoritarian solidarity has arguably outpaced collaboration among the world’s democratic states, which are often feckless in mobilizing to defend their own values and assist likeminded activists under duress.

One hopes that the United States and other democratic donor governments will draw their own lessons from these experiences, finally recognizing that the prioritization of security and macroeconomic concerns over democratic performance is a self-defeating strategy. In the long run, repressive states are less stable, less prosperous, and less friendly to democratic partners than open societies, and the spread of authoritarian practices can only damage the interests of Washington and its allies.


Democracy in Crisis: Corruption, Media, and Power in Turkey

Turkey’s democracy is in crisis. Shaken by last summer’s protests and a mounting corruption scandal, the government is lashing out at critics.  

A new report from U.S.-based Freedom House on Monday, slammed Turkey for a “frantic crackdown” on the media, the Wall Street Journal reports:

Numerous reports from leading press advocates—including New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, and Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists, or IFJ—have called on Ankara to enact changes. Freedom House, a New York-based organization that promotes the spread of human rights and democracy, said the U.S. and the European Union also need to actively push Turkey to rise to international standards. 

Freedom House’s new report Democracy in Crisis: Corruption, Media, and Power in Turkey puts the current crackdown in context, and lays out steps for Turkey, the EU, and the United States to protect democracy and a free media in Turkey. 

Freedom House invites you to a panel discussion of: Democracy in Crisis: Corruption, Media, and Power in Turkey

Thursday, February 6, 2014. 10:00 – 11:30am. Newseum, Knight Conference Center, 8th floor conference level, 555 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20001. 

Opening Statement: David J. Kramer, President, Freedom House


Steven A. Cook, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Susan Corke, Director of Eurasia Programs, Freedom House

Andrew Finkel, Co-founder of P24, an NGO supporting independent journalism in Turkey, and a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group

Moderator: Carla Anne Robbins, Clinical Professor of National Security Studies, Baruch College, City University of New York

Click here to RSVP. Read the Wall Street Journal review of the report here.

Promoting democracy: 7 don’ts

Democracy and freedom are in decline around the world. What should the United States do to reverse this trend? Better yet, what shouldn’t it do? asks Freedom House president David J. Kramer.

Two headlines emerged from Freedom House’s just-released annual report, Freedom in the World: an eighth consecutive year of decline in democracy around the world and a leadership gap among the community of democratic nations, he writes for the American Interest.

Instead of offering recommendations on what the U.S. needs to do, he suggests seven things Washington needs to stop doing.

1. Don’t think that in today’s interconnected world threats to democracy and freedom elsewhere pose no threat to our own democracy and interests, or to those of our allies. ….

2. Don’t fall for the false choice between staying out of difficult situations entirely, on the one hand, and sending in hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, on the other. There are many things we can do in between those extremes to support moderate, democratic forces—things like funding activists and showing solidarity by meeting with them ….

3. Don’t assume that just because the United States cannot and should not intervene everywhere that we should not intervene anywhere…..

4. Don’t call for leaders to step down from power and then do nothing to bring to fruition such an outcome. ….Read the rest.

Democratic ‘leadership gap’ as global freedom declines

The state of freedom declined for the eighth consecutive year in 2013, in large measure because of intensified repression in Eurasia and the Middle East, according to Freedom in the World 2014, Freedom House’s annual report on global political rights and civil liberties.

While regression in Egypt were particularly notable, there were also serious setbacks to democratic rights in other politically influential countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Venezuela, and Indonesia.

These reversals coincided with growing self-doubt on the part of the leaders of the world’s major democracies, especially the United States, the report suggests.

“Without a reassertion of American leadership, we could find ourselves at some future date deploring lost opportunities instead of celebrating democratic gains,” said David J. Kramer, the group’s president.

“Authoritarian states, including China and Russia, show no hesitation in bullying their neighbors and increasing repression at home, and the report’s findings bear this out,” Kramer said.

While the overall level of regression was not severe— 54 countries registered declines, as opposed to 40 where gains took place—the countries experiencing setbacks included a worrying number of strategically or economically significant states whose political trajectories influence developments well beyond their borders: Egypt, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Thailand, Venezuela, writes Arch Puddington, Freedom House head of research.

“We are at a time right now where the leaders of the authoritarian community are more self-assured and arrogant than they’ve been in the past and there’s a kind of a loose coalition, alliance of the repressive countries,” he told VOA (above).

“The political elites don’t always have to use violence. They don’t have to put people up against the wall, but they are still able to control politics and marginalize the political opposition,” explained Puddington. “This is the eighth straight year in which more countries have suffered a decline in freedom than have experienced improvements… What we’re also seeing is an inability for freedom to make any kind of serious breakthroughs in countries like Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela… where you have political leaderships that are smothering the opposition and controlling the press.”

Global Findings

The number of countries designated by Freedom in the World as Free in 2013 stood at 88, representing 45 percent of the world’s 195 polities and slightly more than 2.8 billion people—or 40 percent of the global population. The number of Free countries decreased by two from the previous year’s report.

The number of countries qualifying as Partly Free stood at 59, or 30 percent of all countries assessed, and they were home to just over 1.8 billion people, or 25 percent of the world’s total. The number of Partly Free countries increased by one from the previous year.

A total of 48 countries were deemed Not Free, representing 25 percent of the world’s polities. The number of people living under Not Free conditions stood at nearly 2.5 billion people, or 35 percent of the global population, though it is important to note that more than half of this number lives in just one country: China. The number of Not Free countries increased by one from 2012.

The number of electoral democracies stood at 122, four more than in 2012. The four countries that achieved electoral democracy status were Honduras, Kenya, Nepal, and Pakistan.

One country rose from Not Free to Partly Free: Mali. Sierra Leone and Indonesia dropped from Free to Partly Free, while the Central African Republic and Egypt fell from Partly Free to Not Free.

Perhaps the most troubling developments took place in Egypt, whose first competitively elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was removed from office in an old-fashioned military coup, albeit backed by the acclamation of many citizens. While Morsi and his political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood had exhibited authoritarian tendencies during their short period of leadership, the military and allied forces arrayed around General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi have moved ruthlessly to both eliminate the Brotherhood from political life and marginalize the liberal secular opposition and other elements of society that are critical of the interim government. Since the July takeover, the authorities have killed well over a thousand demonstrators, arrested practically the entire Brotherhood leadership, coopted or intimidated the media, persecuted civil society organizations, and undermined the rule of law.

Modern Authoritarianism in Action

While freedom suffered from coups and civil wars during the year, an equally significant phenomenon was the reliance on more subtle, but ultimately more effective, techniques by those who practice what is known as modern authoritarianism. Such leaders devote full-time attention to the challenge of crippling the opposition without annihilating it, and flouting the rule of law while maintaining a plausible veneer of order, legitimacy, and prosperity.

Central to the modern authoritarian strategy is the capture of institutions that undergird political pluralism. The goal is to dominate not only the executive and legislative branches, but also the media, the judiciary, civil society, the economy, and the security forces. While authoritarians still consider it imperative to ensure favorable electoral outcomes through a certain amount of fraud, gerrymandering, handpicking of election commissions, and other such rigging techniques, they give equal or even more importance to control of the information landscape, the marginalization of civil society critics, and effective command of the judiciary. Hence the seemingly contradictory trends in Freedom in the World scores over the past five years: Globally, political rights scores have actually improved slightly, while civil liberties scores have notably declined, with the most serious regression in the categories of freedom of expression and belief, rule of law, and associational rights.

The past year was notable for an intensification of efforts to control political messages through domination of the media and the use of legal sanctions to punish vocal critics.

In Venezuela, the leading independent television station, Globovision, was neutralized as a critical voice after it was sold under government pressure to business interests that changed its political coverage. In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa, having pushed through legislation in 2012 that threatened to cripple media coverage of elections, ensured that the law was implemented during the balloting in 2013.

Freedom’s Trajectory in 2013

As in the seven preceding years, the number of countries exhibiting gains for 2013, 40, lagged behind the number with declines, 54. Several of the countries experiencing gains were in Africa, including Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Madagascar, Rwanda, Togo, and Zimbabwe. However, some of these improvements represented fragile recoveries from devastating crises or slight increases from quite low baselines. There were also important declines on the continent, including in Central African Republic, Sierra Leone, Uganda, South Sudan, the Gambia, Tanzania, and Zambia. In the Middle East, in addition to Egypt and Syria, deterioration was recorded for Bahrain, Lebanon, and the territory of Gaza.

An assessment of the Freedom in the World political rights indicators over the past five years shows the most pronounced declines in sub-Saharan Africa and the greatest gains in the Asia-Pacific and Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regions, though there has been significant rollback of the improvements associated with the Arab Spring. Eurasia registered the lowest scores fo political rights, while MENA had the worst scores for civil liberties categories. Latin America saw declines on most indicators, especially in the civil liberties categories, such as freedom of expression and freedom of association.

Read the full report.