Day: June 14, 2012
Newly arrived Middle East Institute summer intern Ilona Gerbakher writes:
While the world is significantly more democratic today than it was twenty years ago, there have been notable failed transitions. Political scientists Danielle Lussier and Jody Laporte gave a joint talk Tuesday at the Woodrow Wilson Center on “The Failure of Democracy in Post-Soviet Eurasia.” Lussier focused on the regression to authoritarian rule in Russia under Vladimir Putin. Laporte investigated the ways in which three post-Soviet authoritarian regimes – Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan – deal with political opposition between elections. Lussier and Laporte chart the decline of freedom in former communist countries, and ask the question, “why did democracy fail to survive in Russia and the Eurasian republics?”
The case of Russia is perplexing, as it is an outlier in the context of democratization theory. Its level of wealth, education and history of independent statehood suggest Russia should be more politically open than it is today. Lussier presented a graph which showed that, since 1998, Russia’s domestic policies have been backsliding into authoritarian territory. Examples of this backsliding include passage of laws that have obstructed the formation of political parties, cancellation of elections and legislation that curtails freedoms of press and association.
Lussier rejects the three common explanations for the return to authoritarianism in Russia. First of these is that Russia’s elite is insulated from popular pressure by hydrocarabon wealth. Second is that Russia’s history instilled a cultural preference for authoritarian rule. Third is that the failure of liberalization in the 1990’s discredited democracy in Russia.
She suggests an alternative explanation: that the Russian public failed to constrain the Russian political elite. Elite constraining activities, such as building and supporting opposition parties and campaigns as well as public acts of political dissent, are a vital check on the tendency of governments to centralize power in economically or politically difficult periods. The Russian public more consistently engages in elite-enabling activities that support hegemonic parties.
One elite-enabling activity, contacting public officials to perform private favors, is the single (non-voting) political activity with the highest public participation. Other forms of non-voting political participation have steadily declined for the last two decades. They are episodic rather than repetitive. Young people are the least politically engaged sector of society. The decline in political participation preceded the decline in political openness (and the rise of authoritarianism) in Russia.
Laporte shifted the focus from Russia to Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakstan. Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the only post-Soviet democracies are Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The rest are non-democracies, because vote fraud and voter manipulation is endemic. Elections are neither free nor fair. In order to investigate the inner-working of these authoritarian regimes, Laporte examined the way that they treat political opposition between, as well as during, elections.
In all three countries, the election committees are dominated by pro-government officials, state resources are abused in order to mobilize support for the government, and vote fraud is endemic. Opposition parties are prevented from registration in various ways, their space for campaigning is limited, and opposition party operatives are often harassed.
Between election cycles differences emerge. In Kazakhstan, repression of opposition parties is constant and unconditional. All opposition groups and operatives are targeted, the dominant tactic is violent repression, and the goal of the government seems to be to completely eradicate the opposition. In Georgia, repression of opposition parties between elections is intermittent, the targets are random, the dominant tactic of repression is public and private criticism by government officials (acts of violence against opposition groups are rare), and the intent seems to be harassment rather then eradication of the opposition. In Azerbaijan, repression of opposition parties is reactive and the targets are contingent upon circumstances, with more opposition parties are being targeted in recent years. The main goal is to discourage criticism of the government. The dominant tactic is judicial, such as high court fines levied against protestors. Why do we see these differences in the treatment of opposition groups? Laporte speculates that both the nature of the opposition party and patterns of political corruption are at play.
Michelle Dunne and Dimitri Simes got it wrong in yesterday’s discussion on the PBS Newshour of Russia’s role in Syria. They failed to understand the main reason the Obama Administration hesitates to buck Moscow and offered a precedent–the 1999 Kosovo intervention–that can’t be mechanically applied in today’s conditions.
If only Syria were at stake and the Russians were tacitly on board, it would be foolish, as Simes suggested, for the Americans to hesitate to act without UN Security Council (UNSC) approval. They acted without approval in Kosovo without any serious backlash from Russia, which in 1999 was in no position to offer much resistance.
But that is not the current situation. Iran is also on the chess board. If the United States attacks Syria without Moscow’s concurrence, it will lose Russian participation in the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran. Your top national security priority for the moment is stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons, but you would put that goal at risk for the sake of Syria? Whether you believe stopping Iran can be done by diplomatic means or you think that military action will be required, you want to keep your powder dry and the Russians on side as much as possible.
Russia to boot is not the basket case it was in 1999, when it winked and nodded at NATO’s attack on Serbia, which after several months ended Belgrade’s repression and the expulsion of the Albanians from Kosovo. Simes conveniently forgot that Kosovo briefly threatened real problems between the United States and Russia, when Moscow seized the Pristina airport before NATO forces arrived there. But Russia was too weak and too broke to do anything more than putter around the runways. Moscow today is far better equipped with armed forces, hard cash and diplomatic support to respond than it was in 1999.
The key to solving the Syria problem is convincing Moscow that it risks losing everything when the Assad regime comes down. Diplomatic persuasion, not military action, is what is needed. At some point, Russia will realize that protecting its port access in the Mediterranean and its arms sales to Syria requires support to the successor regime. If Moscow fails to jump ship in time, the Russians will go down with it.
Moscow sounded a bit desperate yesterday underlining that its arms sales to Bashar al Assad violate no UN resolution or international law. True enough. What they violate is common sense and human decency. No one should be surprised that this is difficult for Vladimir Putin to understand. He is after all having his own problems with demonstrators. But even he by now understands that helicopter gunships are not the right way to deal with dissent.
When President Obama sees President Putin at the G-20 meeting in Mexico next week, Syria should be high on the agenda. The road to Damascus still runs through Moscow.