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:


•    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.” 


The Big Debate: can China best the West?

4th revolutionIt’s now clear that the end of the Soviet Union heralded an era of democratic complacency. Without a rival system to test them, democratic governments have decayed across the globe, notes New York Times columnist David Brooks:

According to measures by Freedom House, freedom has been in retreat around the world for the past eight years. New democracies like South Africa are decaying; the number of nations that the Bertelsmann Foundation now classifies as “defective democracies” (rigged elections and so on) has risen to 52. As John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge write in their book, “The Fourth Revolution,” “so far, the 21st century has been a rotten one for the Western model.”

The events of the past several years have exposed democracy’s structural flaws. ….A new charismatic rival is gaining strength: the Guardian State. In their book, Micklethwait and Wooldridge do an outstanding job of describing Asia’s modernizing autocracies. In some ways, these governments look more progressive than the Western model; in some ways, more conservative.

Western policy makers should look at Chinese governance innovation “the same way that Western businessmen looked at Chinese factories in the 1990s: with a mixture of awe and fear,” Micklethwait and Wooldridge suggest:

Just as China deliberately set out to remaster the art of capitalism, it is now trying to remaster the art of government. The only difference is a chilling one: Many Chinese think there is far less to be gained from studying Western government than they did from studying Western capitalism. They visit Silicon Valley and Wall Street, not Washington, D.C.

The West pulled ahead of “the rest” because it created a permanent contest to improve its government machinery. In particular, it pioneered four great revolutions, they write for The Wall Street Journal:

The first was the security revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, when Europe’s princes created modern nation states. As Spain, England and France competed around the globe, they improved statecraft in a way that introverted China never did.

The second great revolution, of the late 18th and 19th centuries, championed liberty and efficiency. Aristocratic patronage systems were replaced with leaner, more meritocratic governments, focused on providing services like schools and police. ….

This vision of a limited but vigorous state was swept away in the third revolution. In the 20th century, Western government provided people with ever more help: first health care and unemployment pay but eventually college education and what President Lyndon B. Johnson called the Great Society. Despite counterattacks, notably the 1980s half-revolution of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the sprawling welfare state remains the dominant Western model.

In the U.S., government spending increased from 7.5% of GDP in 1913 to 19.7% in 1937, to 27% in 1960, to 34% in 2000 and to 42% in 2011. Voters continue to demand more services, and politicians of all persuasions have indulged them—with the left delivering hospitals and schools, the right building prisons, armies and police forces, and everybody creating regulations like confetti.

“In all three of these revolutions, the West led the way. But now, as China’s ambitions illustrate, the emerging world is eager to compete again,” they conclude.

The Guardian States have some disadvantages compared with Western democracies, Brooks notes:

They are more corrupt. Because the systems are top-down, local government tends to be worse. But they have advantages. They are better at long-range thinking and can move fast because they limit democratic feedback and don’t face NIMBY-style impediments.

Most important, they are more innovative than Western democracies right now. If you wanted to find a model for your national schools, would you go to South Korea or America? If you wanted a model for your pension system, would you go to Singapore or the U.S.? “These are not hard questions to answer,” Micklethwait and Wooldridge write, “and they do not reflect well on the West.”

“Democracy’s great advantage over autocratic states is that information and change flow more freely from the bottom up,” Brooks adds:

If the Guardian State’s big advantage is speed at the top, democracy’s is speed at the bottom. So, obviously, the elite commissions should push proposals that magnify that advantage: which push control over poverty programs to local charities; which push educational diversity through charter schools; which introduce more market mechanisms into public provision of, say, health care, to spread power to consumers.

Democracy is always messy, but, historically, it’s thrived because it has been more flexible than its rivals. In 1787, democracy’s champions innovated faster. Is that still true?


Russia’s media imperialism

putinrussiaThe repressive “bloggers law” signed by President Vladimir V. Putin on May 6 says a good deal about the troubling decline of free expression in Russia, according to two leading analysts. This measure comes on the heels of a series of other laws recently put in place to restrict television, books, films, and certain public performances, further curtailing Russia’s already besieged media space, Christopher Walker and Robert Orttung write for Freedom House’s Freedom At Issue blog…..

During the decade and a half of Putin’s rule, media freedom in Russia has gradually eroded. As we write in a recent issue of the Journal of Democracy, the Kremlin is finding alarmingly effective ways to manipulate and control media, despite the proliferation of new communication technologies and methods of news distribution…..

Diffusion of Kremlin Media Values

Putin’s revanchism brings with it some distressing byproducts, one of which is the projection of illiberal Kremlin media values beyond Russia’s borders. …..The first order of business for Russian-backed forces in Crimea was to cut off sources of information beyond the control of the Kremlin. The crackdown on mass media was accompanied by fierce repression of local activists, bloggers, and others who voiced opinions contrary to the Kremlin line, according to a report written by Ivan Šimonović, the UN assistant secretary general for human rights. ….

The same type of propaganda invasion that coincided with the physical invasion of Crimea has been on view in eastern Ukraine. As pro-Russian forces extend their hold, Kremlin media values take root there, too, with coercive tactics used on independent journalists and dissidents in ways that are common in Russia, but had been rare in Ukraine….

As the Kremlin’s ability to project media power has strengthened over time, the authorities in countries on Russia’s periphery have been forced to contend with increasingly provocative and destabilizing messaging. Moscow’s well-funded media complex simply outguns local Russophone alternatives in places like Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and the Baltic states.

Moscow’s propaganda effort in these countries is nothing new; it has been a staple of Putin’s rule, calibrated to suit Russian authorities’ needs at any given time. What is different now is its intensity, the sheer brazenness of the falsehoods disseminated by Kremlin-controlled media, and the fact that its disruptive and provocative elements are being escalated as part of Russia’s new revanchist push. The Kremlin’s claims that it wants stability on its borders ring hollow in the face of its own utterly destabilizing propaganda.

Censorship and Propaganda: Two Sides of a Coin

Even as the Kremlin and its surrogates saturate social networks and the internet in general with comments from Kremlin-friendly trolls and provocateurs, more elaborate measures to censor online expression are being put in place. The “bloggers law,” for instance, requires bloggers with significant audiences to register with the authorities and obliges both domestic and international hosting services to record and turn over user data. Additional evidence that the walls are closing in on Russia’s online world is abundant. Pavel Durov, the founder of Russia’s largest social-networking website, fled Russia on April 22, a day after he said he was forced out as the company’s chief executive for refusing to share users’ personal data with Russian law enforcement agencies. At a forum in St. Petersburg on April 24, Putin called the internet a “CIA project” that needed to be controlled, giving a strong signal that further restrictions are in the offing…………


Christopher Walker is executive director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy and can be followed on Twitter @Walker_CT. Robert Orttung is assistant director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs. He can be followed @RobertOrttung.

Orbán ‘far from reassuring’ on Hungary’s democracy

Hungaryorban_full_380A few weeks before last Sunday’s elections in Hungary, the government there sent out a fact sheet meant to answer critics who have claimed that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his conservative Fidesz party pushed through a series of constitutional changes with the aim of insulating themselves against electoral defeat, writes Arch Puddington, Vice President for Research at Freedom House.

The fact sheet listed various “myths” about Fidesz policies, followed by the government’s rejoinders. Item number one dealt directly with one of the principal charges:

MYTH: The governing Fidesz-KDNP party alliance unilaterally and hastily changed a well-functioning electoral system before the elections to ensure electoral victory in 2014.

Now fair is fair. Fidesz did not completely reinvent the Hungarian electoral system. The basic features were set in place by Orbán’s left-of-center predecessors. The reforms were meant to make Hungary more democratic, Fidesz asserted, not give advantage to any particular party. However, in Sunday’s elections, the changes initiated by Fidesz contributed to an outcome that was both less than fair and of benefit to Fidesz, as critics predicted. Indeed, Hungarian analysts suggest that without the electoral revisions, the party would have lost the supermajority it has enjoyed since 2010…..

Jobbik_Magyarországért_MozgalomThen there is Jobbik. Orbán has repeatedly taken credit for stemming the appeal of the ultranationalist party, which has a recent history of rank anti-Semitism and heavy-handed attacks on Hungary’s Romany population. Were it not for my softer brand of nationalism, Orbán has effectively claimed, Jobbik-style xenophobia would be much more of a threat to Hungarian democracy. The problem with this argument is that in the four years since the current Fidesz administration began, Jobbik has actually gathered momentum, at least as reflected in the election results. In 2010 it won 16.7 percent of the vote; on Sunday that figure rose to 20.5 percent, or nearly 1 million votes….

Orbán is admittedly not the only European leader who has adopted a low profile on the Ukraine crisis. But he has consistently stressed his credentials as an anticommunist and critic of Russian imperialism. ….. Then in January, he signed a deal that will allow Russia to provide a massive loan for the expansion of Hungary’s only nuclear power plant. Beyond that agreement, Orbán has spoken about reorienting his country’s trade policies eastward, towards authoritarian countries like China, Azerbaijan, and Russia.

Although many countries exercise self-censorship in dealings with authoritarian trade partners, it is not unreasonable to expect a higher appreciation of democratic freedoms from those who lived under totalitarianism and foreign domination—indeed, especially from leaders like Orbán, who have made opposition to dictatorship central to their political identification. Critics may have gone overboard in picking apart each and every measure of domestic change introduced by Fidesz over the past four years. But its policies, both at home and abroad, are far from reassuring.