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The Arab Spring and “Structural Power.”

Posted by democratist on March 31, 2011

March 31st 2011,

A few days ago we noted Michael Cox’s recent restatement of the argument that, despite the current debate about it’s supposed decline, the US has managed to retain a great deal of “structural power.” However we did not explain this concept in any detail.

The notion of structural power was first put forward by the British academic Susan Strange in the 1970′s. In her classic States and Markets (1988) she defined it is as;

“the power to shape and determine the structures of the global political economy within which other states, their political institutions, their economic enterprises and (not least) their scientists and other professional people have to operate…Structural power in short confers the power to decide how things shall be done, the power to shape frameworks within which states relate to each other, relate to people, or relate to corporate enterprises.”

Essentially in Strange’s view, “structural power” is the power of a state to shape various kinds of international frameworks: For her, the advantages for the US of the dollar as the key post-War currency for international trade was the central example of structural power at work, because it allowed the US to run large deficits at reduced cost (a feature of the International Monetary System which continues to this day).

However, it has occurred to Democratist that beyond the realm of economics, the “Arab Spring” we are now witnessing may well represent the strengthening and maturing of a new and potentially far more important form of structural power, one that may well confer considerable advantages for the US, and the wider West over the coming years.

As Halliday argues in Revolutions and World Politics (1999), in addition to expressing the tensions that occur within societies in transition, revolutions are also a result of the pressures placed on traditional societies by international factors.

And over the last 20 years the international trend towards democratization - which therefore increases pressure on others to democratize - has strengthened markedly; the end of Communism, the enlargement of the EU, the continued democratization of Turkey,  the revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon - and now Tunisia, Egypt and (possibly) Libya.  These will all add to the already considerable domestic problems faced by developing autocratic states as an additional, and now heightened structural pressure for domestic reform, if revolution is to be avoided.

This trend has in turn been encouraged by a developments in IT and globalization;  Al Jazeera, Twitter, Wikileaks, Wikipedia and Facebook are all a part of this process.

But while the US has consciously (and sometimes counterproductively) sought to export democracy for much of the last century, a great deal of the attraction of democracy - its equation with modernity for increasing numbers of people throughout the world - has been partly independent of the United States’ actions. Rather the desire for freedom and egalitarianism which informed the French and American revolutions has taken on something of a life of its own – regardless of (for example) the US invasion of Iraq, or support for Hosni Mubarak.

Nonetheless, since democratization represents the development of an international framework within which states relate to each other, and one which seems likely to disproportionately favour the democratic West (no two democratic states have ever gone to war with each other), whilst placing an additional pressure on authoritarian competitors, this democratization has to be seen as a burgeoning form of Western structural power.

Posted in Democratization, Egyptian Revolution, Historical Materialism, International Political Economy, Jasmine Revolution, Libyan Revolution, Orange Revolution, Revolutions, Russia 2012 Elections, wikileaks | 4 Comments »

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 »

British diplomacy: In need of a bit more “Sic Semper Tyrannis”, and a bit less Bordeaux?

Posted by democratist on July 1, 2010

1st July 2010

Democratist today avidly watched the speech given by new British Foreign Secretary William Hague, which sets out how the new coalition government is to conduct UK foreign policy.

We were especially pleased that Hague put renewed emphasis on the need for the UK to engage in a proactive foreign policy that places an “enlightened national interest” at it’s core: We fully support that notion that, as Hague stated, the UK needs a foreign policy that “…is ambitious in what it can achieve for others as well as ourselves, that is inspired by and seeks to inspire others with our values of political freedom…that is resolute in its support for those around the world who are striving to free themselves through their own efforts from poverty or political fetters.”

It was additionally notable that the new government underlined its commitment to spending 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid from 2013, and also that the importance of helping former Soviet states in the process of transition to democracy was mentioned directly.

With this in mind therefore, Democratist is keen that the FCO should immediately make clear that intends to fully back the UK’s commitment to OSCE ODIHR election observation over the next few years, and more specifically to ensuring (at the very least) that the UK sends the full complement of 10% of election observers to all future OSCE ODIHR election observation missions, a policy to which it had been largely committed prior to 2008 (but sadly somewhat neglected over the past two years).

Democratist conjectures that OSCE election observation is about the best value for money currently available to the UK in terms of its overseas aid/foreign policy in relation to the former Soviet Union. Election observation played a key role in the development of the Baltic States in the 1990′s, and more recently in Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova (considerably improving the relationships of each of these countries with the UK, and allowing for far higher levels of co-operation than had previously been possible). It retains huge potential to positively influence developments in countries as diverse as Belarus,  Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, and even (over the longer-term) Russia itself. All this at a total average cost of just over £600,000 per annum (apparently less than the current value of the FCO’s wine cellar).

It should also be noted that, if the UK does not put people forward to work as observers, it means that certain, perhaps less well-intentioned countries gain proportionately more influence in the process of observation, and will be able to have greater influence on subsequent OSCE  statements and reports over the coming years. In a worst-case scenario, such an outcome could do significant damage to the OSCE’s reputation – and (as the Foreign Secretary so correctly noted in his speech) such damage is not easily repaired.

Posted in Democratization, Elections, Orange Revolution, OSCE, UK Foreign Policy | Leave a Comment »

 
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