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Archive for January, 2011

The Egyptian Revolution and the Precariousness of Modern Autocracy.

Posted by democratist on January 29, 2011

29th January 2011,

Some of the less perceptive among Democratist’s readers might be forgiven for believing that the US has been caught off-guard by the revolt in Egypt, and that events there have been given much of their impetus by the example of the similar uprising in Tunisia a couple of weeks ago.

Certainly that is the impression one might have garnered from the lack of US government public statements on the subject until yesterday, and an evident unwillingness to abandon long-time ally Hosni Mubarak in Obama’s statement late last night, despite it becoming increasingly apparent that the writing is on the wall.

But if you thought that the Americans had been caught short, you’d be wrong, because in fact it was the CIA that planned and has directed the uprising in Egypt all along - at least according to Russia Today.

Since late last night, RT has been claiming that recently released Wikileaks cables reveal that the US has been plotting to overthrow Mubarak for “at least three years” and that they, “show Washington had been secretly backing leading figures behind the uprising.”

Curiously, RT does not include a link to these documents on their website, so Democratist decided to have a look for ourselves…

It turns out that the extent of the “US plotting” (according to the Telegraph article that broke the story) was that the US Embassy in Cairo helped a young dissident attend a  summit for activists in New York in December 2008, while working to keep his identity secret from Egyptian state police.

A couple of days after his return, when this individual claimed that Egyptian opposition forces were drawing up a plan for a transition to a parliamentary democracy, US Ambassador Scobey (unsurprisingly) questioned whether such an “unrealistic” plot could work, or ever even existed.

Scobey’s reaction (like Obama’s statement yesterday) and the wealth of other Wikileaks documents that repeatedly underscore  the deep and enduring political and military relationship between the US and the Mubarak regime over the last 30 years suggest a rather different story to that put forward by Russia Today; one where the US has attempted to balance the realpolitik support of an important if nasty autocratic ally with a comparatively limited liberal policy of help for moderate oppositionists. Subsequently, it is apparent that the Americans did not expect their democratization projects to have any significant impact over the short-term, and have been caught largely unprepared by the recent rioting.

So why has RT suddenly decided that what is happening in Egypt is a CIA-backed coup?

The answer is simple; just as in Georgia and Ukraine, from the perspective of the nomenklatura, any major popular democratic uprising has to be presented to the Russian people (and by extension the world at large) as part of an “American plot”, because what has to be avoided at all costs is the idea that people might actually be able to think for themselves.

As long as it’s all the CIA’s fault, that’s OK. But if people in other countries can overthrow oppressive regimes, then the Russians might slowly wake up to the idea that they might one day do the same thing – and that would never do.

Russia Today’s position reveals the precariousness of modern autocracy; the Egyptian revolt highlights that, while the last few years may have been witness to some democratic reversals in the CIS (Ukraine, Belarus), on the global scale, the last two centuries (and especially the last sixty years) demonstrate the growing potency of the democratic ideal, and the erosion of autocracy as a legitimate form of governance, even in the most unexpected places, and despite the United States perceived hypocrisy on this issue.

Over the long-term the nomenklatura has much to fear from this trend, and it is therefore unsurprising their apologists make every effort to explain it away as renewed Western imperialism. In turn, the US and EU have much to gain; but only if they make clear through their actions as well as words that, in addition to the necessary realist policies, they are willing to recognize and support the democratic aspirations of people throughout the region, and indeed the world wherever possible.

Posted in Belarus, Egyptian Revolution, Orange Revolution, Russia Propaganda, Russia Today, wikileaks | 12 Comments »

Tunisia: A New Opportunity for Democracy and Western Policy in the Maghreb.

Posted by democratist on January 18, 2011

18th January 2010,

Democratist has been taking a semi-break from the CIS for the last couple of days to watch the unfolding events in Tunisia, where the authoritarian President Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali has been deposed. A national unity government has been installed and is to prepare the country for new elections, which must take place within two months, according to the constitution.

The current situation is unstable, and it remains to be seen when those elections will indeed take place, or the extent to which elements of the old regime within the new government will attempt to interfere with them (or indeed if the new government will hold). Nonetheless, with moderate Islamists and secular leftists in the ascendant, the possibility of the long-term emergence of a reasonably stable democratic country in the Maghreb appears on the horizon, in a region where the US and EU have been all too happy to follow a realist policy of propping up local autocrats for many decades.

This is a potentially historic opportunity that needs to be grabbed with both hands while the going is good: Whereas American neo-conservatives may have been disastrously mistaken in their belief that the 2003 invasion of Iraq would lead to the rapid emergence of a democratic exemplar for the rest of the Middle East to copy, the Tunisian “Jasmine” revolution presents mainstream Western foreign policy liberals with a potential opportunity to put policy on a surer footing, and encourage the US and EU to work with the well-educated, westernized and democratically minded Tunisian population towards a similar goal in relation to North Africa; and one that has a considerably greater chance of success.

In the coming months then, the emphasis needs to placed on diplomatic engagement with the new government, economic assistance and preliminary discussions in relation to free trade and FDI. With regard to the first of these, Democratist believes Tunisia presents an important new opportunity for international election observation to make a real difference in helping to ensure the legitimacy of any forthcoming vote, as well as providing feedback on the process for future improvements.

While tellingly Russia Today has been arguing that the revolution in Tunisia took place due to a lack of jobs and economic growth rather than political rights, Democratist is of the opinion that, just as was the case in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and Moldova (2009) free and fair elections (and an associated end to corruption) have been at the heart of the protestors’ demands.

The West may well now have an opportunity to start to rebuild its reputation with the people of the Maghreb (and not just in Tunisia), but if it is to do so effectively, a commitment to free elections and human rights, and to hold any new government accountable in this regard, must play a central role.

Posted in Elections, Jasmine Revolution, Moldova, Orange Revolution, Revolutions, UK Foreign Policy, Western Foreign Policy | 1 Comment »

BP and Rosneft: Beware Russians bearing gifts.

Posted by democratist on January 15, 2011

15th January 2010,

On New Year’s Eve Democratist wrote that it would be very interesting to see how many foreigners were willing to put their cash into Russia in 2011.

We have just received at least one early affirmative answer, from BP, who have signed a joint venture with the energy firm Rosneft to exploit oil and gas deposits in Russia’s Arctic shelf. The firms are to exchange expertise in exploring the region, and Rosneft will take 5% of BP’s shares in exchange for 9.5% of their own.

The deal is unlikely to actually produce any oil or gas for at least three years, but there are already a couple of potential implications that deserve a preliminary mention;

The first is that the deal again underscores the centrality of raw materials to Russia’s development strategy over the coming decades. While Medvedev talks up liberalization and democracy, it is Putin’s ex-KGB chums in the nomenklatura who control the energy companies and the money they produce. As long as the resource rents keep coming in, and BP provides its know-how to ensure the oil flows freely, the pressure for political or economic reform will remain limited. Depending on price levels, Russia can muddle along with the current mixture of autocracy, corruption and a crumbling Soviet-era industrial sector for many years.

The second is the threat that increased involvement with the Russians poses for the UK over the medium term. As our business relationship with companies such as Rosneft deepens, so Russian political influence through multinationals such as BP will increase. Most of the oligarchs are awash with cash, and have already proved themselves effective as lobbyists. Recent spy scandals also highlight the Russians’ interest in political decision-making in the UK and a desire to influence these processes. While companies like BP are free to do deals with Russia and other petro-states, the vigilance of the serious press, civil society, judiciary and others will be become more important to safeguard our political system and (for example) ensure the rule of law continues to be applied in an independent manner, or prevent the watering-down of UK foreign policy in the CIS.

Democratist supports the promotion of political freedom in the FSU. We know that (for the time being) the deck is stacked against us, but we do not share the views of those  in this country who would be all too willing to voluntarily put on the golden handcuffs of the Russian state for short-term gain: Corruption, initially during the Soviet period, but more significantly since 1991, has been a disaster for the Russian people, and the City of London (among others) has been implicated in its facilitation. However the UK has also become home to more than 300,000 Russian citizens over the last 20 years, many of whom are by no means mega-wealthy, and who have been attracted to our country in part as a refuge from lawlessness at home (“voting with their feet,” as Lenin might have put it). Over the coming years, a deepening business relationship with Russia in the raw-materials sector will mean it becomes ever more important for the UK to protect and retain the freedoms that have made our country so attractive to outsiders, and prevent the import of corrosive business. political and legal practices along with the financial interests British companies have acquired in Russia.

Posted in Energy Politics, Russian Economy, UK Foreign Policy, Western Foreign Policy | 2 Comments »

Needed: An alternative to the “Anna Chapman show.”

Posted by democratist on January 13, 2011

13th January 2011,

Tomorrow will mark an interesting, although generally overlooked anniversary; it has been two years since the BBC’s Farsi-language television news service took to the airwaves, on 14th January 2009.

The channel is run by the BBC World Service from London. It broadcasts for eight hours a day, seven days per week, and is aimed at the 100 million Farsi speakers in Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It costs about £15 million per year to run, which is paid for by the FCO, but the BBC retains editorial independence.

It is illegal to watch in Iran, so there are no official viewing figures, but when it was set up the BBC said it hoped that the television service would reach the same number of people as listened to its radio broadcasts per week (10 million) within three years. The service proved a useful source of information and news for demonstrators in Iran following the rigged elections there in 2009 (so much so that the authorities unsuccessfully attempted to jam it), and US President Barak Obama gave it a lengthy interview in September 2010, again suggesting that the US government considers the channel an effective tool for direct communication with the Iranian people.

The evident success, cheap running costs, and inability of hostile governments to interfere with the service suggest both a strong case for continuation of the channel, and (from Democratist’s own perspective) for creation of a new similar Russian-language TV service for broadcasts to the former Soviet space.

The last twelve months have been witness to a number of significant setbacks for democratic development and the rule of law in the CIS (not least in Ukraine and Belarus - right on the EU’s doorstep). Russia itself has undergone some mild liberalization of the print media over the past few years, but TV channels continue to function as conduits of state propaganda (for example, ex-spook and aspirant regime politician Anna Chapman is about to start hosting her own show on REN-TV).

The BBC’s Russian radio service does a good job, but recent history (e.g. the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004) suggests it is television which has the critical impact, especially during a crisis. Since many people possess satellite dishes in the region, and the BBC already has a good reputation theere, it seems that a significant audience already exists for such a channel, given the opportunity.

Compared with other forms of foreign aid, the creation of such a service would be very cheap, and provide reliable news in the face of state censorship to a region where democratic development is by no means assured.

Posted in Russia Propaganda, Western Foreign Policy | 6 Comments »

Russia and the WTO: Not so fast, Seymour.

Posted by democratist on January 12, 2011

12th January 2011,

Last December’s agreement between Russia and the EU, and the subsequent speculation about potential accession to the WTO at some point in 2011, has prompted Democratist to cogitate upon the likely impact of international economic integration on Russia over the next few years.

While the agreement with the Europeans may have brought accession further towards reality, there remains a great deal of protectionist sentiment domestically within Russia. This is best exemplified by Putin’s own attempts last year to modernize domestic industry through a renewed emphasis on industrial policy (to be funded by raw materials rents). A lack of cash seems to have put paid to that strategy for the time being, but Democratist maintains that a rise in raw materials prices beyond a certain point will likely prompt a shift back towards protectionism.

However, while we cannot yet be fully sure that it will finally happen, the prospect of accession looks like being one of the Kremlin’s key trump cards for 2011. In the face of western investor scepticism, anger over the second Khordokovsky trial and the imprisonment of Boris Nemtsov, Medvedev will doubtless find it convenient to offer up the prospect of Russia’s eventual WTO accession as an indicator that the country is basically on the right, liberal path.

This will play well with many Western leaders as it appears to accord with liberal political theory. According to this perspective (often attributed in origin to Seymour Lipset’s 1959 classic Some Social Requisites of Democracy), WTO accession will act as an anchor for long-term reform and increase economic growth, leading to the consolidation of a democratically minded middle class. Seen in this light, the privatization program that began in Russia last year promises a lengthy pull-back by the state, and continuing rapprochement with the West as Russia seeks support for modernization.

But we might wish to refrain from opening the champagne for a second; Democratist has long argued that whether Putin or Medvedev wins the Presidential election in 2012, any liberalization in Russia will remain tightly constrained by the interests of the nomenklatura. The current government has demonstrated comprehensively over the past decade that the manipulation of public opinion is one of the few things they genuinely do well. In this regard, in contrast to the rosier expectations of some of our liberal friends, Democratist suspects it may take several decades for economic development to provide a basis for the promotion of the rule of law and a broader liberalization.

Additionally, WTO membership seems unlikely to do much to promote the diversification of the Russian economy away from reliance on raw materials without a concerted effort to tackle corruption. Given that the current regime has itself acted as an important facilitator and beneficiary of corruption since 2000, Democratist is of the opinion that change in this area will take a long time to emerge, and will face many serious setbacks. If parts of Russia’s backward (and still largely state-controlled) industrial sector start to lose out after the country joins the WTO, causing unemployment and unrest, this may also prompt a return to a greater reliance on industrial policy, or back to protectionism. 

As is so often the case, much depends on the price of hydrocarbons; Russia requires deep and potentially unpopular reforms to diversify its economy, but many among the elite seem to believe that, despite the apparent lessons of the Soviet period, the economy can be developed effectively (and painlessly) through state-led industrial policy. If the money becomes available again, this would presumably be the prefered option. However, if prices stagnate or decrease over the coming year or two, the prospects for economic reform within the context of WTO accession will be somewhat better (although they will still face resistance from elements within the elite).

Posted in Russia 2012 Elections, Russian Corruption, Russian Economy, Russian Foreign Policy, Russian Liberalization, Russian Middle Class, Russian Politics | Leave a Comment »

Moldova 2011: A Renewed Opportunity for EU Diplomacy.

Posted by democratist on January 7, 2011

7th January 2010,

Democratist has continued to take a keen interest in Russia and the EU’s geopolitical manoeuverings following the November 27th elections in Moldova. While several polls in the CIS in 2010 have been broadly perceived as “successes” in terms of Russian foreign policy (Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus) Democratist sees the current situation in Moldova as holding out at least a little hope for European influence in the former Soviet space.

In the first half of December both Russia and the EU offered alternative trade deals,designed to sway the formation of potential coalitions to their own advantage during the period of negotiation that followed the inconclusive poll: Russian presidential chief of staff Nariskin, hoping for a deal between the traditionally pro-Moscow Communists (PCRM) and Marian Lupu’s Democrats offered inclusion in Russia’s proposed customs union, as well as cheaper gas and a resumption of banned Moldovan wine imports. Meanwhile, attempting to encourage a continuation of the Alliance for European Integration (AIE) which had run the country since September 2009, the EU pushed its association agreement as a path towards more comprehensive free trade, and a proposed visa liberalization plan, while leaving the prospect of eventual Moldovan accession to hover in the background.

On 30th December, having failed to come to an arrangement with the Communists, the Democratic Party agreed to the re-establishment of the AIE; Lupu was elected speaker of Parliament and, in the absence of two of the 61 votes required by the constitution for election to the substantive post, appointed to replace Liberal leader Mihai Ghimpu as acting President. The AIE has not yet attempted to have Lupu formally elected to the presidency, since under the constitution a new parliamentary vote would have to take place if this is not a success. Instead, Prime Minister designate Vlad Filat has suggested the coalition may offer the Communists a ministerial post in the new cabinet in exchange for the two additional votes required.

It remains to be seen if the PCRM will take Filat up on his offer. They have not been willing to do so in the past and complained that the November elections were rigged (despite a thumbs up from the OSCE). If they decide against, another election seems inevitable by the end of 2011 unless a loophole can be found. However, since the electorate is unlikely to thank the Communists for having put them to the trouble of voting four times in under three years, such a strategy would not be without some risk.

As for the Russians, from what Democratist can gather from a recent article in RIA Novosti’s Russia Profile, their mood seems to have shifted over the past few weeks to a mixture of disappointment at the Communists’ waning popularity and inability to form a coalition (implying some loss of influence), a belief that Russia’s continued position as a source of remittances for Moldova will act as a counterweight to that trend, and the hope that Marian Lupu will be someone they could work with. There is also an unwillingness to allow relations with Moldova to sour the more important relationship with the EU.

And so the ball is now back in the EU’s court: Moldova may have to return to the polls at the end of 2011 or, with the support of the PCRM Lupu may be elected to a five-year term as President, but either way an opportunity now exists to show other CIS countries such as Ukraine and Belarus, what it is possible for an impoverished country like Moldova to accomplish through an improved relationship with the EU.

It is time to see whether those free-trade and visa liberalization plans are all just talk – or not.

Posted in Elections, European Union, Moldova, OSCE, Russia Foreign Policy | 1 Comment »

 
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