Autocratic model: Putin’s Russia enables repression

nations in transit

The findings of Freedom House’s Nations in Transit report point to Russia’s role as model and enabler for Eurasia’s autocracies, according to Arch Puddington and David J. Kramer, vice president for research and president, respectively, at Freedom House.

Vladimir Putin is not solely responsible for this depressing state of affairs. But his actions have contributed mightily to the woes of his neighborhood, they write for the American Interest.

The grim facts are reflected in the findings of Nations in Transit, an annual report on the condition of democracy in the post-Communist world issued by Freedom House. Among the major conclusions:

  • Four out of five people in the 12 Eurasia (i.e., former Soviet) countries live under authoritarian rule;
  • 97 percent of the region’s citizens live in societies with major restrictions on press freedom;
  • Every country in the region save two (Georgia and Moldova) has experienced a decline in democratic standards over the past decade;
  • The past decade has seen major setbacks in judicial independence and civil society;
  • Azerbaijan and Russia have registered the most serious setbacks over the decade.

nations in transit2Again and again, however, the findings of Nations in Transit point to Russia’s role as model and enabler for the region’s fellow autocracies. We are increasingly witnessing a kind of copycat effect, where measures adopted by Russia for repressive purposes find their way into the legal and political systems of neighboring states.

This is especially the case concerning civil society. As early as 2005, Putin pushed through legislation to restrict the activities of non-governmental organizations, and this became a model for other regimes in the region. After Putin returned to the presidency in May 2012, he launched a series of measures to further restrict NGOs, culminating in the law that brands groups that accept funding from abroad as foreign agents. In 2013 alone, some 1,000 civil society groups were investigated, harassed, or shut down altogether, as in the case of GOLOS, a respected election-monitoring organization.

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Review of post-coup Egypt confirms retreat from democracy

egypt fh infographic

In the year since the July 2013 coup, the interim government has been guilty of an “abysmal failure to restore democracy,” according to the latest Egypt Democracy Compass from Freedom House.

“Although the authorities have taken basic procedural steps such as adopting a constitution and holding a presidential election, Egypt is now much farther from genuine democracy than it was immediately after the coup,” said the group’s Vanessa Tucker, vice president for analysis.

“Political pluralism has all but vanished following the bloody suppression and mass criminalization of the Muslim Brotherhood and parallel crackdowns on leftist and liberal activists. Access to unbiased information has been quashed as critical or independent media are shut down and the surviving outlets obediently toe the government line. And all of this has taken place in a shockingly arbitrary legal environment, with more than 16,000 political prisoners arrested, thousands tried in military courts, and detainees denied the most basic elements of due process. Sadly, given that Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has been the de facto ruler for the past year, it is unlikely that the recent election will lead to a change in course.”

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How Can We Do Better at Promoting Democracy?

The National Endowment for Democracy’s Carl Gershman, Carnegie’s Thomas Carothers, and Daniel Calingaert of Freedom House spoke on a panel entitled “How Can We Do Better at Promoting Democracy?” as part of a recent conference on “Re-thinking Democracy Promotion Amid Rising Authoritarianism.” The conference was jointly sponsored by The American Interest, Freedom House, and Johns Hopkins-SAIS.

TAI‘s editor, Adam Garfinkle, served as moderator.

Eurasia’s rupture with democracy

eurasia ruptureRussia is playing a pivotal role in accelerating the decade-long decline in democracy among the states of the post-Soviet sphere, according to the latest Nations in Transit report from Freedom House.

Russia serves as the model and inspiration for policies leading to a retreat from democratic institutions throughout Eurasia and bringing the region to a new, alarming level of repression during the past year, the survey states.

“The events of 2013 show that the regime in Russia as a role model for other authoritarian leaders, even in states where the authorities already surpass their Russian counterparts in institutionalized brutality and intolerance,” said Sylvana Habdank-Kołaczkowska, the report’s project director. “Ten years ago, one in five people in Eurasia lived under Consolidated Authoritarian rule, as defined in the report. Today, it’s nearly four in five, and the trend is accelerating.”

Nations in Transit 2014 finds that regression from democratic governance is the dominant trend across Eurasia and the Balkans, as well as in post communist Central Europe, where the persistence of clientelism and corruption further undermined democratic standards.

But the year brought some positive developments in Kosovo, Albania, and Georgia, which scored improved ratings due to better elections and peaceful transfers of power.  “The most encouraging trend of 2013 was the vocal civil society response to repressive or inadequate governance,” said Habdank-Kołaczkowska. “Civil society spoke up not only in Ukraine but also in Central Europe, Kyrgyzstan, and, to a lesser degree, the Balkans.”

Key findings: 

•    Of the 29 countries assessed in 2013, 13 were rated as democracies, 6 as transitional regimes, and 10 as authoritarian regimes.

•    As in every year for the past 10 years, the average democracy score declined in 2013, with 16 countries suffering downgrades, 5 improving, and 8 not registering any score change.

•    Russia’s negative influence on the governance practices of its neighbors became more pronounced in 2013, as replicas of Russian laws restricting “homosexual propaganda” and foreign funding of NGOs appeared in several Eurasian countries.

•    Corruption increased in Central and Eastern Europe in 2013, with half of the 10 assessed European Union (EU) member states receiving downgrades.

•    The Balkans registered some positive developments during the year, including Croatia’s EU accession and a historic agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, but dysfunctional governments continued to drive down democracy scores in the region overall.

Regional findings:

Eurasia

•    The environment for civil society became more hostile in Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan.

•    Civil society proved resilient in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, both of which registered ratings improvements in that category.

•    Kyrgyzstan and Georgia are the only Eurasian countries where ratings have consistently improved in the last five years.

•    Conditions remained dire in Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—the report’s worst performers.

EU Member States

•    Hungary’s ratings declined for the sixth year in a row, and the country came close to falling out of the category of Consolidated Democracies.

•    Corruption worsened across the region, with Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia registering downgrades.

•    Economic and political pressures resulted in ratings declines in the Independent Media category in Latvia, Lithuania, and the Czech Republic.

•    The only EU country to register an overall score improvement was Romania, where conditions calmed after a presidential impeachment attempt and related political turmoil in 2012.

The Balkans

•    Productive negotiations over ethnic Serb areas of Kosovo and an orderly transfer of power following elections in Albania contributed to significant score improvements in the two countries.

•    The outlook is less positive for Macedonia, which fell back into the category of Transitional Regimes—after graduating from the group 10 years ago—due to a deteriorating environment for independent media.

•    A long-running political stalemate continued to paralyze the central government in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

•    Despite improvements in civil society in the last 10 years, minority rights—and especially the rights of LGBT people—continue to be challenged in several countries.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

Egypt ‘at perilous juncture’: parties concerned over new election law

A law passed by Egypt’s interim president will set the stage for parliamentary elections this year but political parties fear it will return the country to a system similar to one under ousted president Hosni Mubarak, Reuters reports:

One of the most significant changes in the election law is a return to a system where individual candidates take the majority of seats in parliament, rather than party lists of candidates. Of the 540 parliament members to be elected, 420 will be drawn from individual candidate lists while 120 will be from absolute closed lists. Such an arrangement would weaken the position of political parties in the country where they already have little influence on the ground, politicians say.

“It is not at all what we expected and it will weaken political parties and allow the return of a parliament similar to what we had during Mubarak’s days,” said Khaled Dawoud, a spokesman for the liberal al-Dostour party.

egypt sisiEgypt is at a perilous juncture in a decades-long journey of change, says a leading analyst.  A prudent readjustment of U.S. policy can help prevent catastrophes that have become distinct possibilities—such as the escalation of unrest into an Algeria-style insurgency or the outbreak of an Islamic revolution similar to that of Iran, notes Michele Dunne (above, left), Senior Associate in the Middle East Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Above all, the U.S. must not endorse as a partner a repressive government that will increase the likelihood of such outcomes, she contends.

Even a less extreme scenario of ongoing radicalization of Islamists is bad for U.S. interests and for Egypt, Dunne writes in in a new policy paper. Lending U.S. support to youth and civil society to help create a more educated, enlightened cadre of Egyptians that can deal more capably and creatively with the next wave of political and social change, whenever it comes, will be a wiser investment, she asserts:

egyptsisidunneMaintain only essential security and counterterrorism cooperation with the Egyptian government. …

Express support for the Egyptian people’s aspirations rather than for the state. . ….. What is critical is that the space for free expression, association, and competitive politics be reopened so that Egyptians can work toward resolution of their deep differences, from the nature of the economy to civil-military relations to the role of religion in public life.

Transfer the bulk of assistance to one or two large programs aimed directly at the population. …. U.S. military assistance should constitute at most one-third—$500 million—of the $1.5 billion the United States has long provided to Egypt annually. The remainder, at least two-thirds, should not be devoted to programs implemented by Egyptian government agencies. Rather, it should go to one or two large, high-profile programs that aim to empower Egyptian citizens and improve their economic prospects. ….

Invest in higher education and vocational training for Egyptians. One of the striking disparities between Egypt (whose first attempt at a democratic transition failed) and Tunisia (which so far is succeeding) is the level of human development in each country, notably levels of education as well as empowerment of women…. Better higher education, including vocational training, will also be critical to helping young Egyptians qualify for jobs created in the private sector….

Strengthen support for civil society organizations, particularly rights, watchdog, and labor groups. Egyptian civil society is under intense pressure in the constricted post-coup environment. Simply put, if the United States, Europe, and other democratic nations do not support civil society in Egypt financially and diplomatically during the coming period, many of these groups are likely to crumble under the pressure of a military-dominated government intolerant of scrutiny and criticism. ….

EgyptUSflagsRTXX9IF-198x132Avoid getting bogged down in state reform. The United States should avoid becoming enmeshed in assistance projects to strengthen Egyptian state institutions. That will require discipline because Sisi has emphasized repeatedly that the state—rather than citizens—will be his priority. ….

Do not bolster the military’s economic interests. ….

Coordinate with Europe, persuade Gulf allies and Israel. The United States should take this opportunity to develop a joint policy strategy with Europe, which largely shares U.S. values and concerns regarding Egypt and is the country’s largest trading partner. It should also undertake, with Europe, the more difficult task of convincing allies in the Gulf and Israel that the road to stability in Egypt lies along the path of political participation, rule of law, and respect for rights rather than one of exclusionary politics and brute force. ….

But the Gulf monarchies are unlikely to sign up to prioritize inclusive initiatives over maintaining the status quo, reports suggest.

Saudi Arabia this week “called for a donor conference to assist Egypt as the Gulf’s Arab superpower seeks to muster regional support for its vital regional ally against what it regards as the threat of political Islam,” The Financial Times reports:

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud called on states to support Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was elected president with nearly 97 per cent of the vote on a low turnout. Mr Sisi faces severe economic challenges, such as low tourism revenues and poor investor confidence as government wage bills soar amid large state subsidy costs.

Concerned at the rise of political Islam in the aftermath of the Arab spring, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have led Gulf support for Mr Sisi, who deposed the elected Islamist Muslim Brotherhood government last year.

The story now unfolding in Egypt will be a long one and largely beyond Washington’s control, says another prominent analyst.

egyptcarnegie2The country’s politics do not represent a dichotomy between democracy and autocracy or Islamism and secularism, but rather the interplay between several large forces (an entrenched bureaucracy, a sprawling military, political Islam) to which a new and potent force has been added: the people’s expectation of political participation, writes Michael Singh, managing director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy:

As in Turkey, Thailand, and similar cases, the interaction among these forces will not follow a straight line toward a particular outcome, but a meandering and turbulent path that will require patience and sustained attention from Washington.

The State Department is unlikely to be in a position anytime soon to certify that Egypt is on the road to democracy and thereby clear the way for resumption of military aid. But returning to the status quo ante — which had been deteriorating for years — should not be Washington’s goal, nor Cairo’s. Rather, Sisi’s victory should be seen as an opportunity to redefine the relationship so that it once again merits the label “strategic.”

Credit: Freedom House

Credit: Freedom House

“The single-mindedness with which the Egyptian government pursued [the prosecution of US-backed democracy assistance NGOs] was surely intended as a warning to the United States that support for democracy and human rights would not be tolerated,” writes Freedom House analyst Charles Dunne:

Worse, it was designed to signal to Egyptian pro-democracy civil society organizations that they too would no longer be tolerated. Their resolve to bring about representative democracy in the wake of Mubarak’s overthrow was simply unacceptable to Egypt’s falool, or “remnants” of the former regime, including the bureaucracy, the security services, and the economic oligarchs, all intent on a comeback.

That comeback is in full swing now.

Political progress & human rights: unrealistic hopes?

“The exuberance that attended the February 2011 revolution led Western officials and Egyptians alike to form unrealistic hopes for the country’s transformation,” the Washington Institute’s Singh contends:

While Washington should not despair of pressing Cairo to follow a democratic trajectory, it should focus on realistic goals that can serve as progress on which to build. Some immediate goals should be Egypt’s military stepping back from politics; authorities permitting open campaigning during upcoming parliamentary elections; the legislature playing a robust role and serving as a check on presidential power; and Sisi pledging compliance with term limits and allowing for the rotation of power, which in itself would be a sharp and welcome departure from the past six decades of Egyptian history.

“Even as it presses for such pragmatic steps, Washington should continue to speak out for human rights and democracy,” he contends. “This support should aim to help Egypt build democratic institutions — political parties, civil society, and a just, well-functioning legal system, for example — to repudiate the false choice between extremism and authoritarianism.”

A board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, Dunne agrees that the U.S. “must avoid being trapped in these zero-sum games.”

“This will be challenging, because U.S. relations with Egypt have always had a dominant security focus, and particularly a military-to-military dimension,” she notes. “During the Mubarak era, most U.S. assistance and effort went into the security relationship, with secondary attention devoted to various reform projects (economic, judicial, decentralization) agreed upon with the government. The new Egyptian government, and particularly the military from which Sisi hails, will be eager to return to that model.” 

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