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Americans, Liberasts and Russian Democracy.

Posted by democratist on April 4, 2012

4th April 2012,

In a previous article, I described the argument that Russia’s elections are “more or less” democratic as one of the “legitimating myths” of Putinism [designed to bolster the regime and keep the population in check]. Unsurprisingly, this claim upset some readers, and they made a number of counter-arguments.

Their main points were;

  • The current Russian government is, despite the fraud that took place in both parliamentary and presidential polls, broadly a reflection of the preferences and political goals of most Russians.
  • “Western” democracy is not a universal value; there are many different styles of democracy and the current system in Russia represents an “acceptable” variation on the democratic theme, in line with Russian history and cultural norms.
  • The “western” democratic model is not without its weaknesses and inefficiencies and does not solve problems such as corruption.
  • The “non-systemic” opposition is weak and divided, especially the “pro-western” liberals. Some of these parties may be dependent on American money (witness the $200 million dollars spent by the American government on supporting Russian NGOs since 2009, with $50 million more apparently on the way). Liberalization would only benefit hard-core leftists, nationalists and liberal “traitors”.

These are interesting arguments, but not without some elements which characterize the “mythologising” to which I was referring. I will deal with each in turn:

The first point is essentially true. Vladimir Putin is popular, and would presumably have won the presidential election without falsification (although the fact that falsification did occur makes it hard to be 100% sure; the assurances of opinion polls will never be good as the “real thing,” i.e. a fair vote). However, the position of the party of “crooks and thieves” is far less secure, and it would not have won the (reduced) representation it now has in the Duma without considerable fraud in December. The current government may also broadly reflect the preferences and goals of a majority of Russians but, as is the nature of politics, there is no guarantee that this state of affairs will continue indefinitely, and as Russian society evolves it seems likely that there will ultimately come a point when the majority of Russians find themselves actively opposed to government policy.

More fundamental is the question of whether “western” democracy is a universal value. From Democratist’s perspective, one of the main lessons to be learned from a (non-conspiratorial) analysis of the Arab Spring is that democracy, while “western” in origin, is increasingly coming to be seen as having universal applicability, and that “democracy” need not necessarily mean “Americanization” or “neo-liberalism.”  Recent events in the middle East have shown that the populations of countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria have risen up despite American hypocrisy on the issue of democratization. These people are demanding respect and representation for themselves in their own countries regardless of any “Freedom Agenda” or other rhetoric. Democratization is not simply an American plot (although the Americans, just like other major powers will doubtless seek to influence these processes), but is rather reflective of historical-social developments taking place in many countries, and so it is to be hoped that the polities which emerge from these revolutions will reflect the sovereignty, national character and priorities of their people.

Furthermore, the idea that the world is divided into incomparable moral blocs or civilizations has taken a huge blow over the last 18 months. While the cynics have sought to paint the Arab Spring as harbinger of anti-western Islamist autocracy, there have been significant historical-social trends in the region over the last 40 years which suggest that this will not be the case: The large majority of arab Islamists are not calling for the establishment of revolutionary islamic states, but rather the creation of a “civil state” [i.e one which, while not secular, has many democratic elements, including free and fair elections].

So, while the last fifteen years may have been witness to democratic stagnation or reversal in the CIS, on the global scale, the last two centuries (and especially the last seventy years) demonstrate the growing potency of democratic ideals, and the erosion of autocracy as a legitimate form of governance, even in “unexpected” places, and (more recently) regardless of American rhetoric: Democratist contends that a set of shared values is slowly emerging throughout the world, including democracy, human rights, the defence of national sovereignty and a belief in the benefits of economic development, even though this has taken place during a period in which some of these values have come under pressure in the United States: They may have originated in the West, but in responding to basic human aspirations and social change within the context of the spread of capitalism, their potential applicability is growing ever wider.

This brings us to the question of whether the current political system in Russia is just a variation on the democratic theme; one, moreover, which is in line with Russian history and cultural norms. This is, of course ultimately a question for the Russian people to answer, rather than any outsider, and (again) American lecturing on this issue has proved remarkably counter-productive over recent years. Nonetheless, it has to be said that there are strong arguments which suggest that the current system, while popular with a majority of Russians, does not meet the basic criteria of democracy. As an example, the OSCE ODIHR (an organization of which the Russian government is both a member and occasional participant) reports the following problems with recent parliamentary and presidential elections; technical restrictions on who was able to stand, a biased electoral administration dominated by the ruling party at all levels, the partiality of most media, and ballot stuffing on election day. It is up to Russians themselves to decide whether they feel that these problems match existing Russian “cultural norms,” and if they do, the extent to which such “norms” are worth preserving, or should be changed.

As for corruption, it is certainly true to say that no political system can eliminate it completely. However, it must also be admitted that institutionalized democracy, with a firmly established rule of law and independent legal system has proved a more effective guard against corruption than the current Russian system. By many accounts Russia is the most corrupt industrialized country in the world; Vladimir Putin’s friends from his Saint Petersburg youth and the Ozero dacha collective are worth billions. Indeed the current system is so entrenched that it may prove unreformable until a change in the political or economic situation provokes a collapse.

Finally, the question of the non-systemic opposition. Yes. The opposition is weak and divided, sometimes extreme, and possibly reliant on American money (although I still require some convincing on this point). Additionally, American calls for increased funding for NGOs are helping to stoke growing government paranoia. But on the other hand, the current system (deliberately) stifles debate and does little to encourage the development of Russian NGOs. It seems unlikely that President Medvedev’s recent changes to the law on registration of parties will make much difference to this situation. And while it might be possible, with institutional safeguards in place such as an independent legal system, “fair and balanced” requirements for the media etc, to create the basis for wider debate and eventual genuine elections, on the basis of recent history we are unlikely to see these wider structures in place anytime soon.

Posted in Arab Spring, Democratization, Domestic NGOs, Russia - US Relations, Russian Liberalization | 19 Comments »

The Great “Arab Spring” of 2011: Causes and Consequences.

Posted by democratist on March 28, 2011

28th March 2011,

As the “Arab Spring” rolls onwards through Libya, and towards Yemen and Syria, Democratist – like many others (not least a number of red-faced foreign policy professionals), has been looking to get some sort of an explanatory purchase on recent events in the middle East. Why there? And why now?

For Democratist,  the key factor lies in the interrelationship between globalization (Al Jazeera, Twitter, Facebook, Wikileaks and the rest), and a number of other historical-sociological factors that have been perhaps slightly less eagerly grasped upon by (especially the US) media.

These include the rupturing of corrupt political, economic and social systems dominated by authoritarian cliques (and supported by the West) for decades; tremendous social upheavals provoked by poverty, the evident injustice of crony capitalism (abject poverty cheek by jowl with decadent wealth), the rising expectations of the (literate and tech-savvy) young; and the delayed flowering of civil society.

Looking at the broader, global context, a superbly insightful, if so far largely ignored framework for understanding these events is to be found in Revolutions and World Politics: The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Power. (Palgrave, 1999) by the late Professor Fred Halliday of the LSE (1945-2010).

One of the main conclusions of this 300-page comparative study of revolutions and their international aspects is that over the last three centuries, the focus of revolutionary upheavals has been, not (as Marx had hoped) on the most developed states, but rather in the contrary direction; that revolutions have historically tended to occur in less developed countries, and during periods in which the “conflicts of modernity” were at their sharpest, with these states only subsequently settling down into democratic reformism.

In other words, the historical pattern has been one in which revolutions take place in societies that have embarked on, but are at a comparatively early stage of economic and political development: One of Halliday’s key insights is the idea that, in the contemporary world, revolutions express the pressures placed on traditional societies by international structural factors, in addition to the tensions that occur within societies in transition, and the drive for accelerated development.

All three elements have been present in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. They are also present to a very considerable degree in a large number other less developed countries – including Yemen, Syria and Iran, and throughout much of the former Soviet Union.

What the revolutions in the middle East represent therefore, are the increasingly inevitable consequences for states which refuse to meet their citizens expectations, after a certain level of development has been attained, in an increasingly integrated world.

While not linear, or liable to easy prediction, this trend has become all the more evident since 1989; in the collapse of the USSR itself, in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), Lebanon (2005), Kyrgyzstan (2005). Moldova (2009), and now with the great Arab Spring of 2011, whereby the democratic agenda has been firmly set for much of the rest of the developing world.

As Halliday notes;

“Revolutions are moments of transition which, once passed, may not need replication. Instead, they lay down an agenda for political and social change that through reform, struggles and democracy may take decades or centuries to be achieved. This is at once evident from the programmes on rights of the American and French revolutions, the radical egalitarianism and the international programme associated with each; the point is not whether America or France always, or ever, lived up to these ideas, any more than Russia was to do after 1917, but rather how ideas and aspirations that emerged from these revolutions retain their validity in subsequent epochs.”

2011 may then therefore eventually come to mark the decisive point at which among the populations of developing states, democractic reformism ceased to be seen as essentially a restrictedly “Western” phenomenon, and became recognized as a potentially universal one.

See also my pieces:

Russian Autocracy and the Future of the Arab Spring

Revolution, Democracy and the West.

The Arab Spring and Structural Power

The Egyptian revolution and the precariousness of autocracy.

Posted in Democratization, Domestic NGOs, Egyptian Revolution, Fred Halliday, Historical Materialism, Historical Sociology of International Relations (HSIR), Jasmine Revolution, Libyan Revolution, Moldova, Russian Corruption, Soviet Union, Ukraine, Western Foreign Policy, wikileaks | 12 Comments »

Belarus 2010: How they cheated.

Posted by democratist on February 14, 2011

14th February 2010,

The Belarusian domestic nonpartisan election monitoring NGO,  Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections has just released their Final Report on the 19th December 2010 elections.

This is an excellent report, that gives considerable detail on the techniques used by the regime to rig the polls (which broadly match our predictions). You can link to it here, or read Democratist’s short summary below.

The main points are;

  • The necessary foundation for democratic elections, in particular regarding the real independence and balance of the election authorities, vote count procedures and effective complaints and appeals process, was not established.
  • 2009 census data provides an indication that 300-350,000 persons who have the right to vote were not included on the voter lists, and that the real number of eligible voters in Belarus during the election should have been 7.4-7.45 million.
  • The complete dominance of state broadcast and printed media by the incumbent, especially during the last two weeks of the campaign period, disadvantaged other opposition candidates who were either not mentioned, or were portrayed in an overwhelmingly negative light.
  • The majority of the national observers were representatives of NGOs and political parties loyal to the regime. Their task was to interfere with activities of independent national observers and journalists. No single complaint has been lodged by these observers, or any election observation report released.
  • The authorities used state administrative resources to coerce voters, especially students and state employees, to vote early. Observers experienced numerous obstacles during early voting, including denial of accreditation and withholding of information on the registration figures.
  • A high number of reported irregularities concerned the inclusion of voters into the list for mobile voting. As a rule, voters were added to the special voter list based on their age and the geographical distance from the polling station (especially in rural areas) rather than at the request of the voter. In many polling stations, the number of mobile voters was disproportionate, i.e. up to 30%.
  • The vote count was carried out in a non-transparent manner. Though most of the observers were allowed to observe the vote count, in most cases the distance from which they were allowed to watch did not allow them to view the content of ballot papers.
  • It is impossible to say whether the ballots in the ballot boxes at the moment the vote count started were the same ballots which were cast by the voters themselves, because during early voting and mobile voting, members of election commissions (which were not independent or pluralistic) and unauthorized persons had access to relevant ballot boxes in absence of observers or other witnesses, and the way the ballot boxes were designed and sealed did not provide an adequate safeguard against potential manipulation.
  • Peaceful conduct of the election was marred on the evening of election day, 19 December, when riot police brutally dispersed participants of a mass demonstration who came to Nezalezhnasci Square in Minsk to protest against unfair conduct of the election. By the morning of 20 December, about 700 persons were detained, including seven presidential candidates. Many of those detained were beaten, including three presidential candidates. At the time of the report’s release, four presidential candidates and 31 of their supporters were in pre-trial detention facilities and under house arrest. They are charged with organization of a mass riot or participation in it.

Posted in Belarus, Domestic NGOs, Elections, Electoral Fraud, Human Rights | Leave a Comment »

 
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