Day: May 25, 2014


According to exit polls, Ukrainians Sunday gave Petro Poroshenko a landslide mandate in the presidential poll.  While voting in the eastern provinces of Donbas was sparse, turnout elsewhere was high and the margin over also-ran Yulia Tymoshenko was so wide that it is difficult to see how even Russian President Putin could question the legitimacy of the result.  The Ukraine crisis is not over, but Poroshenko’s election could open the way to a negotiated political settlement, which is his often expressed preference.  Poroshenko has not favored NATO membership for Ukraine and has pledged to protect the rights of Russian speakers, but he also favors stronger ties to the European Union.

Russian President Putin has reason to be content.  His red line is NATO membership for Ukraine.  Poroshenko has indicated he will not cross it, though he occasionally suggests Russian intransigence will make him reconsider the proposition.  Putin will plump for maximum self-governance in Donbas, to allow Russian speakers the kind of de facto ethnic independence Serbs have in Bosnia.  He will also want Poroshenko to attract lots of money from the EU and the International Monetary Fund, so that Russia will get back the money it loaned Poroshenko’s predecessor.

While likely to oblige Putin’s interest in getting his money back, Poroshenko has his work cut out for him.  He has pledged to visit Donbas first, including to thank the Ukrainian security forces who have tried–without much success–to restore order there.  Parliamentary elections are not due until 2017.  There appear to be no plans to bring that date forward.  The parliament has been an important player since previous President Yushenko abandoned his post.  Its slate of priorities will be daunting:  Ukraine needs to phase out its expensive energy subsidies, attract private investment, end oligarchical cronyism and cut back on corruption.

Europe has some serious thinking to do in light of the Ukraine crisis.  Its dependence on Russian natural gas, its weak military forces and its diplomatic clumsiness–all closely related–should make not only Brussels but the 28 member state capitals think harder about what it takes to sustain a coherent and successful foreign and security policy.

If in fact the Ukraine crisis now heads in the direction of a peaceful denouement, the Obama administration will have reason to boast that its low-key diplomatic approach has produced a decent result.  Particularly important was the decision not to listen to experts who advised agreeing with Putin to postpone the election.

But even if things go well now with Ukraine, Washington needs to rethink policy towards a Russia bent on expanding its hegemony in what it considers its “near abroad.”  NATO expansion in particular needs presidential attention:  Montenegro and Macedonia are technically qualified and could be admitted at the Summit in Cardiff, Wales in September, but Macedonian membership will require President Obama to deliver bad news to Athens.  A broader package of moves closer to NATO would be ideal, one that includes Kosovo, Bosnia, Sweden and Finland.  I am hesitant about Georgia, a country NATO is in no way capable of defending.  But letting Putin know that NATO is determined to expand to those countries that it can defend, that meet the membership criteria and that want to join will limit his ambitions and encourage those who seek a democratic future.

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Restoration, not transition

I’ve got lots of friends looking for the silver lining in Egypt’s presidential election Monday and Tuesday.  All agree General Sisi will win big.  The Center for American Progress advises him:

Egypt needs to deal effectively with security threats without creating new ones, set out a clear and practical plan to right the Egyptian economy, respect basic human rights, and open up political space for all Egyptians.

Paul Salem suggests looking beyond the results to the integrity of the electoral process, turnout, the margin of victory and Hamdeen Sabahi’s campaign for hints of what lies in the future.

All that is well and good, but I fear none of it will count for much.  What we are seeing in Egypt is not the continuation of a democratic transition.  It is the restoration of military autocracy.  The “deep state,” which reaches beyond the military into the judiciary and business, is back in charge.  Sisi has declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, jailed its leadership, and expropriated its property.  The April 6 Movement, whose leadership denounced these and other violations of human rights, has likewise been jailed and disbanded.  The press is under the thumb of the new authorities.  Al Jazeera’s journalists are in prison.  Thousands of Brotherhood demonstrators have been killed and hundreds condemned to death in one-day sham trials.

All the indicators point in a direction opposite the one CAP advocates.  Political space has narrowed, human rights are not respected, nothing practical or clear has been done (or even proposed) about the economy, and the brutality of the crackdown is generating insurgency in the Sinai.  The electoral process will be okay, because most of Sisi’s opponents will stay home.  Still, turnout will likely not be any lower than is normal in Egyptian elections.  Fifty per cent will be a triumph.  The margin of victory will be large, but Sabahi will get enough votes to lend credibility to the exercise.

It is what Sisi does with the power Egyptians bestow on him that really counts.  Nothing about his behavior since the July 2013 coup suggests he will govern openly and inclusively.  He’ll likely keep his current “technocratic” government, or something much like it.  It is loaded with holdovers from the Mubarak era.  Power in Cairo may be a bit more dispersed, but it is unlikely that the parliamentary elections due in a few months will produce a serious opposition.   The Brotherhood may be back some day, as Shadi Hamid suggests, but for now it will revert to its semi-clandestine status while serious advocates for human rights either rot in jail or find refuge abroad.

Western minds find this scenario a difficult one to picture.  We have a sense that there is a direction, a right and a wrong side, to history.  Progress is in a democratic, liberal direction.  It is natural, even inevitable.  Anything other than that will run up against newly empowered citizens who won’t give up their hard-won freedoms.

It isn’t necessarily so.  Egypt is an astoundingly poor country.  Most of its citizens, who live on less than $2 per day, have to think first about their daily bread.  Literacy is low and the middle class tiny.  The “party of the couch,” who stayed at home during the street demonstrations, is far more representative of citizen sentiment than the April 6 Movement.  Even the Brotherhood, which has deep roots, is not finding it easy to mobilize against the army’s determined effort to marginalize it.  Liberal notions of freedom of speech, religion and association as well as equality before the law have little constituency in an Egypt that has basically known 7000 years of autocratic rule, in one form or another.

I don’t mean to suggest that Egyptians are incapable of liberal democracy.  To the contrary, I think they are not only capable of it but would benefit enormously from it.  But the social basis for it is narrow and the resistance to it among the elite strong.  Sisi shows every sign of unwillingness to entrust his country’s fate to the will of its people.  He is conducting a restoration, not a transition.

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