Browsing articles in "Europe and Russia"
Oct 1, 2012
PEstrada

The Caucasian Candidates

Today Georgia holds parliamentary elections. Actually just two political parties are competing for the 150 seats in dispute. The United National Movement (UNM) is the party of the current President, Mikheil Saakachmilli. It controls the Parliament with 130 places in its favor and with David Bakradge, head of the party, as its President. The challenger is the coalition Georgian Dream, commanded by Bidzina Ivanichvili, a multimillionaire and philanthropist. This electoral contest is an example of a more or less recent trend in campaign making, where the strategy to defeat the opponent relies on accusations to demonstrate that he or she is just unsuitable to lead the country rather than the contrast of policy options or proposed government programs.

Indeed, the Georgian election and Ivanichvili’s profile in particular offer fertile ground for “personality attacks”. He has an estimated fortune of 6.4 billion dollars. He and his campaign advisors have tried to make his personal story a good point for him. He was born in the small village of Tchorvika, in an impoverished workers region. However, due to a constant dedication to studies and to the necessary job to pay for them, he obtained a degree in Engineering and Economics at the Tbilisi State University. Afterwards, he moved to Moscow to continue his graduate studies at the Moscow Science and Research Institute of Labor. In the meantime, still in Russia, he began to sell computers and telephones and later opened a bank, the Rossyiski Kredit, which became one of the most successful financial institutions in the country. In 2003, he returned to Georgia and, in the midst of the Revolution of Roses (a large set of protests in the aftermath of the perceived fraudulent parliamentary elections of 2003, ending in the resignation of the President), he boosted his philanthropic activities by building university buildings, theatres, financing artistic and scientific projects, and even, allegedly, some major reforms like those of the Georgian police forces and the Army. So far, a classic tale of the man with humble origins turning into the wealthiest person in his country just by the means of incessant effort.

For the UNM the main problem, if not actually the only one, resides in one element of the story: Russia. In an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde summoned by himself, Bakradge has pointed out Ivanichvili’s links with that country. Just before the whole electoral process began, Ivanichvili sold his entire business properties in Russia, noticeably the Rossyiski Kredit bank (352 million dollars), Unicor estate society (982 million dollars), and the pharmaceutical chain Doktor Stoletov (70 million dollars). Bakradge questions the unusual conditions which allowed for such a rapid and favorable set of transactions. Even more, he argues that Ivanichvili cannot be trusted as a Prime Minister (the position he would have if the Georgian Dream party wins the election) because during his time in Russia his links with public officers allowed him to build his fortune using public resources and later this same networked proved more profitable during the privatization phase of the perestroika. Out of this, Bakradge suggests Ivanichvili’s position on key issues with Russia is at best ambiguous given the potential conflict of interests. A sensitive item in the agenda is what to do (keep pressing or yield) with the Russian occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia after the 2008 war. Bakradge comments that having had a large set of his assets there, and that being the birthplace of his fortune, Ivanichvili wants to keep friendly and close ties with Russia, “a country he has never criticized”.

On the contrary, Bakradge shows the good points of continuity with the UNM, especially the adhesion to NATO and the strengthening of relations with the countries of the European Union, which could be fostered by the development Georgia enjoys now. Thus, everything unpleasant with the campaign (mainly the strong polarization noticed in practically all international news agencies), under Bakradge view is Ivanichvili’s fault.

However, there is a large fear of fraud in the elections (an echo of the 2008 contest, where the opposition even boycotted it) and stories of government intimidation of citizens after earlier in September revelations were made about the torture and rape of prison inmates. There are accusations against the government indicating that the money it has received from the United States as development assistance has been selectively used. Certainly Georgia is not on the brink of becoming a failed state anymore, with all kinds of criminals challenging the government’s authority, but the gap between cities, particularly Tbilisi, and the rural areas is widening.

Speaking of the US presidential election, a reporter from the New York Times mentioned that Mitt Romney had a double job: to convince the people of firing Barack Obama and hiring him instead, with the former point making some people think about the sense of their vote but the latter sounding not so attractive. The campaigns in Georgia seem to have focused just on the negative side: do not hire the Georgian Dream or fire the UNM. I am not sure if this kind of campaigning is adequate or useful for the society, where no programs to improve the public sphere are discussed and the debates rely on the candidates’ private biographies. Nonetheless, when being posed a direct question, Bakradge refused to call Ivanichvili the Troy Horse of Russia. And there is a large agreement amongst international observers that notwithstanding the fear of fraud, the elections will be clean. Without a question that can strengthen the democracy of the country. We will have to wait until tomorrow to see if it did.

Other
Sep 20, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Russia Says Goodbye to a Slice of the American Pie

If you're sure...

In Vladimir Putin’s most recent show of strength (the previous being his flight with endangered Siberian cranes), he has unceremoniously kicked USAID out of Russia. On Tuesday, the US State Department announced the notification from the Kremlin that USAID operations were to be concluded by October 1. While the USAID Russia program page has not been updated to reflect this imminent status change, officials within the organization and outside have interpreted the relatively short time frame as a slap in the face. Since 1992, USAID projects have covered health, human rights, civil society, and environmental issues in Russia and the quick withdrawal of almost $50 million in funding will have serious repercussions for a number of Russian NGOs that have come to rely heavily on the US to operate.

While the time frame for USAID’s Russian office dismantling is short and, to some, this announcement seemed abrupt, it is not too surprising that this would be one of Putin’s next steps in limiting foreign, specifically US supported, programs and perceived influence in the country. In March 2012, the New York Times ran an article describing the work of the Obama administration to get $50 million (money accrued from a foreign aid program that reinvested tax dollars in post-Soviet states and actually made a profit, designated in part to the promotion of democracy and civil society in Russia) in stalled aid moving again. These efforts, thwarted for years, continued as such with Putin declaring resistance to US aid as a tool to meddle in Russian domestic affairs. In July, Putin signed a law that mandates all foreign-funded non-government groups involved in political activity to register as “foreign agents,” with a difficult registration process and all the negative connotations of such “agents” implied. Most recently, the protests revolving around the arrests and sentencing of three members of Pussy Riot, the Russian punk rock band who performed protest songs on the altar of the central Orthodox cathedral in Moscow, have unsurprisingly fueled the President’s desire to squelch the unrest in Moscow’s streets and undermine any foreign influences believed to be stoking the fires.

This most recent act of Russian self-affirmation, coming on the heels of its accession to the World Trade Organization in August, can and should be seen as just that. The country hopes to become a giver of aid, not a receiver. This attempted shift can also be seen in its announcement to forgive a significant portion of North Korea’s accumulated debt, with other motivations obviously also at play.

But what does this mean for the Russian people who were working for NGOs funded, at least in part, by USAID and for those who benefited from these programs? Funding cuts will certainly terminate many programs, or stall operations until other methods of funding are discovered. Organizations like Golos, Russia’s only independent election monitoring organization that was key in exposing voter fraud in December’s election, will suffer significant setbacks. Though the Obama administration has stated that it will continue to support democracy and human rights programs in the country, it will be doing so via an endowment to a vaguely mentioned private fund established under Russian law. No telling how long something like that will take to actually materialize. Also important to note, however, is not just the loss in funding to these organizations, but also one of the important messages being sent to the world. As Yelena Panfilova, the head of the Moscow branch of Transparency International explained, Russia is now in the ranks with the other countries who have taken similar actions in the past including Venezuela, Somalia, and Belarus (running with the wrong crowd, as any good mother would say).

It is difficult to predict just how long these steps towards complete insulation from foreign actors deemed meddlers will continue, but it seems that Putin might have made a bit of a mistake here. Cutting off US funding to Russia’s domestic NGOs and making it more difficult for foreign countries to establish or maintain NGOs there, means a tightening in the number and the scope of NGO actors, clearly a current goal of the Kremlin. These restrictions, however, limit the more formal, structured, and arguably more peaceful means for Russian citizens to exercise their feelings of opposition. As the protests in Moscow continue, and in fact grow, it seems that the lack of these structures could prove more problematic for Putin and his attempts at a consolidation of power, not less.

Sep 17, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Call for Papers: Politics of the Economic Crisis

In the 10th year of the print edition of Democracy&Society, our journal will take a deeper look into the reconfiguration of political forces after the economic downturn, with particular attention to its effects on democracy, sovereignty and the clash between expansionism and austerity. Don’t miss the opportunity to participate!

Democracy & Society, Volume 10, Issue 1

 We are seeking well-written, interesting submissions of 1500-2000 words on the themes below, including summaries and/or excerpts of recently completed research, new publications, and works in progress. Submissions for the issue are due Monday, October 22nd, 2012.

Politics of the Economic Crisis

The turbulence created by the economic crisis of 2008 went far beyond the financial sector. The political upheaval that ensued has reignited ideological debates among scholars, policymakers, and civil society over the proper role of government in the economy. The ideological arguments for austerity on the one hand, and expansionism on the other, have resulted in a clash that precipitated the fall of governments all over Europe and contributed to the dramatic polarization and political stalemate in the United States. The consequences of the economic downturn are still unfolding, but its political effects on policymaking, democratic institutions, and national sovereignty are already a reality. In order to better understand these developments, several questions can be addressed, including:

-                    The boundaries of sovereignty and the future of the Euro Zone – European governments continue to clash over policies of austerity and expansionism. The European Central Bank along with the largest European economies insist on imposing austerity measures on the weakest Euro Zone members, and the loss of decision-making power by national governments is creating new tensions between domestic political demands and international economic realities. What might the European Union look like in the future? Is further integration via fiscal unity a viable option at this point? Or will political dissatisfaction and financial constraints lead to a reconfiguration of the Euro Zone? What are the consequences for democracy in countries such as Greece, Portugal, and Spain, whose governments are under pressure from supranational bodies?

-                    The Hardening of Ideological Divides – U.S. policymakers responded to the financial crisis by injecting hundreds of billions of dollars into the economy. This approach provoked protests and intensified the ideological debate between left and right over government roles and responsibilities. Did the financial crisis fundamentally change the balance of political power? What does the inability of the United States to conduct meaningful financial sector reform say about dominant political forces in the country? And what does the current political gridlock, along with its ideological undercurrents, mean for the future of American democracy?

-                    State regulations and interventions – A good part of the discussion of how to prevent future crises has focused on the correct level of state regulation of the economy. Some argue, however, that the issue is not the quantity but rather the quality/content of the regulations and relationship between state and society. Is the paradigm shifting? What lessons are policymakers drawing about this particular relationship? Is the new “State Capitalism” – with governments at the center of stability and growth promotion – a useful model, and are we likely to see more countries adopting it moving forward?

-                    Reviewing the Washington Consensus – The responses to the crisis have been marked by massive infusions of cash in national markets and an exponential increase in the amount of debt that governments have accrued in an attempt to keep their economies afloat. Once considered nearly extinct, believers in “Keynesian” stimulation via large budget deficits are now mainstream. Is the new flexibility on fiscal discipline, manipulation of interest rates, deregulation, and even nationalization of industries signaling the demise of the Washington Consensus? Or are the expansionary policies of today merely a temporary bitter pill that will be discarded once the threat of recession fades?

-                    The rise of inequality and the future of the middle class – One of the signatures of the current economic downturn, primarily (but not only) in the U.S., is the rise of inequality in rich countries, with particular losses for the middle class. This trend is not new, but the expanding gap between rich and poor has accelerated recently. Some argue that inequality is right at the center of the financial crisis since it prompted policymakers to expand and ease credit for families. How does the weakening of the middle class impact the future of democratic politics? What does the current level of inequality say about the success of developed democracies, and should less-developed democracies re-think their approach to economic growth?

-                    Rebalancing world forces –The difference in the pace of growth for areas previously known as “center” and “periphery” since the beginning of the crisis has profoundly impacted the international balance of power. It has become commonplace to say that the G20 has replaced the G8, and institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank face pressure for reform to reflect the new influence of emerging economies. However, old structures resist this reconfiguration of geopolitical power. How did the economic crisis impact international coordination and decision-making? Is global power really shifting? Who are the winners and losers of this emerging scenario?

Please email submissions to democracyandsociety@gmail.com. For additional information, please visit www.democracyandsociety.com or contact Andrea Murta or Josh Linden at democracyandsociety@gmail.com.

Sep 16, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Blood Being Spilled

According to recent reports, Greeks are increasingly talking about “blood being spilled” and even “civil war” in response to the painful pay and pension cuts being imposed by European authorities in exchange for bailout money. Obviously, to talk about civil war is way over the top, but it seems clear that as new loans loom, Greece is set to enter a period of more violent protests.

We’ve talked several times about Greece and other weak links being “punished” for their past extravaganzas. But beyond the discussion of a fundamental ideological divide –is austerity or expansion better to recuperate a bankrupt economy-, there is the question of feasibility. The European Union, the European Central Bank and the IMF just imposed, for example, cuts on disability benefits in Greece, leading to protesters in wheelchairs gathering in front of the country’s parliament. I suppose nothing is sacred.

Protesters in the streets of Portugal / 09.15.2012

And is all that pain helping? Right now Greece is cutting one thousand jobs a day and the unemployment rate has surpassed 23%. In the words of “The Guardian”, “Greek debt still accounts for 166% of GDP – and shows little sign of reversing. That has added to the mood of fury and fear, provoking criticism even among reform-minded Greeks of the troika and its policies.”

Portugal faces similar challenges. Yesterday the streets of Lisbon witnessed the largest anti-austerity protest since the start of the crisis, and Madrid had its own mass manifestation. It gets increasingly hard to convince the people that the cuts in their salaries will result in anything positive for their countries.

I remember when, not long ago, the US job marked was shedding 800,000 jobs a month (though the unemployment rate never got as high as in Europe). And as we are constantly reminded, the US chose a different path to try to spur its economy. Obviously the situations are different and demand different responses, but the same ideological clash appears in the comparison between them.

How much more can Greeks, Portuguese and others take? We will find out soon enough. And don’t miss the opportunity to discuss it further in the next edition of our journal Democracy&Society –the call for papers will be made available tomorrow.

Sep 13, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Buying time

This week when the constitutional court of Germany backed the country’s contribution to a new organism to infuse money in the Euro Zone economies, they basically signed off on the establishment of an instrument that will move towards unionizing the zone’s debt.

It gave some breathing space to the Euro and made it clear that Germany is more amenable now to paying the price of keeping the common currency going. The new organism is being compared to some sort of “continental IMF”, which will use its funds to bailout (yes, the big dirty word) economies in risk.

It also meant that, as the NYT put it, “Europe is moving beyond its common monetary policy toward encouraging its core group of countries to develop a more unified fiscal policy as well”. That has been at the core of the current debate over the future of Europe: will they unify more or break apart?

Politically it is still risky to move towards fiscal unification, and Berlin faces a big domestic backlash for finally giving its support to its problematic neighbors. The price of not doing so, however, could be much higher for the German taxpayer down the road.

For citizens of Portugal, Greece, Spain and Italy, that does not necessarily mean that their lives will be easier. Bond purchasing by the new instrument will be conditioned to adherence to adjusting mechanisms – a euphemism for more cuts and constraints in government investment.

While it remains to be seen how much restraint these countries can take, the announcement signals that we might have to wait longer to see a definitive answer to the Euro dilemma.

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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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