Jan 23, 2014

The Magic Mountain

A session of the Montreux, Switzerland, conference on Syria (from BBC).

A session of the Montreux, Switzerland, conference on Syria in a hotel of the town (from BBC).

On Wednesday, a long-expected international conference backed by the United Nations began in Montreux, Switzerland. Its participants, representatives from 40 countries (including the U.S. and Russia) and delegates from the Syrian government and some factions of the Syrian opposition, discuss the so-called Geneva communiqué. This document was issued in 2012 as a result of another international meeting about the Syrian conflict. In general, it provides a framework within which the war will come to an end, including the stop of violence, the formation of a transitional government with full executive authority, and the holding of elections, among other things. After a one-day break, the meeting will resume on Friday in Geneva.

The first day of the encounter was dedicated to speeches from all the delegations attending it. Leaving rhetoric aside, this first glance at the conference illustrates the obstacles that very likely it will find in the near future. The most salient point of divergence is that while the U.S., most of the foreign delegations, and the Syrian opposition insist that Bashar Al-Assad must step down and cannot be present in a transition government, the official Syrian representatives assure that the continuation of Al-Assad as president is not to be discussed. Further, for the Syrian government the conference is not about discussing the formation of a transition authority (even more, Syria is the only participating delegation that did not subscribe the Geneva communiqué), but about the Syrian people’s demands of “eliminating terrorism”, “terrorists” being how they refer to Al-Assad opponents (in addition to the fact that there have been reports of Al-Qaeda activity in Syria). Therefore, there are different and diverging goals among the attendants to Montreux and Geneva.

Another aspect that could complicate the conference is its measures of success. It would be very unlikely that the main goal of the Geneva communiqué, the constitution of a transition government, is achieved. However, there are other more specific goals that will be discussed in the second part of the meeting. While the Montreux event featured speeches from each delegation, Geneva will hold more head-to-head mediated conversations between the parts in conflict. It is expected that the talks in these sessions go around issues such as the provision of humanitarian assistance and the protection of human rights in the areas of conflict, the facilitation of the flow of people between zones controlled by the government and by the opposition, or the continuation of the provision of basic public services throughout the country. The extent to which deals can be struck in these issues is still to be seen, but it appears they have more chances of success than topics related to the transitional government.

But even within that reduced set of expectations about the conference, whatever results it could bring could find further difficulties to be implemented in the ground. This is mainly due to the fragmentation of the Syrian opposition. Its largest and arguably most visible section for external viewers, the Syrian National Council, is not sitting at the table because it refuses to discuss anything until Al-Assad leaves power. The leader of another large group, the National Coordination Committee, refused to participate because its delegation did not have sufficient time to prepare itself. Finally, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces yielded to pressures from other countries and agreed to take part in the discussions, although many of its members did not agree with this because they wanted guarantees that Al-Assad would step down.

The picture above could suggest that the prospects for the conference in Geneva are grim. However, it must also be underlined that the current assessment is made taking as after just one day of work in which top-level diplomats (mostly foreign ministers from the participating countries) gave speeches. The session in Geneva could be more productive, constructive, or at least less polarized, given its interactive nature and the presence of mediators. At the same time, the top objective, the formation of a transition government without Al-Assad, could almost be ruled out. Once works in Geneva begin and some time as gone by we can have a clearer idea about what to expect from this conference.

Jan 22, 2014

The other 62%

Poll officials counting ballots of the constitutional referendum in Egypt (from Al Jazeera)

Poll officials counting ballots of the constitutional referendum in Egypt (from Al Jazeera).

Last week Egypt held a constitutional referendum. After many months of work and frequent controversies, the constitutional draft was ready to be submitted to the Egyptian citizens for a vote of confidence. 98% of the voters supported the new document. This figure has been largely taken as an overwhelming support for the constitution and the people who is behind it, namely the Army and the Army-appointed president Gral. Abdel Fatah Al-Sissi. Yet, the participation rate was at a low 38%. What would the remainder 62% of voters have to say about the document?

One answer is that they could be against what the constitution and its supporting group represent. There have been some reserves in calling the constitution democratic. For instance, Islam continues to be the state religion, and it is uncertain whether the political influence of the military has been reduced. This is, the role of religion and the Army have not been entirely constrained, what would be expected in a democracy. Thus, the constitution would have fallen short of the democratizing expectations which surrounded Hosni Mubarak’s downfall three years ago. People dissatisfied with the outcomes of the political processes in Egypt would feel the constitution is “more of the same”.

However, the constitution includes some precepts that contrast with attitudes of the government headed by Mohammed Morsi, toppled by the military last summer. For instance, there is a prohibition to create political parties based on religion, race, gender or geography, which practically outlaws the Muslim Brotherhood. As well, in spite of the official character of Islam, there are provisions guaranteeing the protection of religious minorities. Quite notably, the document says that women cannot be discriminated from being appointed to senior positions in the public and judicial administrations, and, for the first time in Egypt, the state has the responsibility to protect women from all kinds of violence. The inclusion of these rights marks a clear contrast with the previous rule of Mubarak and the short-lived administration of Morsi and the Brotherhoon. Those whose power could be affected by these new rights, particularly the Brotherhood, could be among the 62% who did not go to the polls. They would have felt it was an exercise aimed at damaging them, and would not legitimize it by participating in it.

That said, it is worth noticing that the 38% turnout rate in last week’s referendum is in fact higher than that of the previous vote of confidence for a constitution back in 2012 (33% of participation, with 64% of voters supporting the constitution), when the document was heavily influenced by the Brotherhood and there were more grounds to doubt of its democratic credentials. Despite all its problems, including those already visible by the institutions it designs and those that can be foreseen in enforcing the new rights, this version of the constitution generated more enthusiasm than its predecessor.

In such an agitated political system it is difficult that no group feels threatened by practically any new constitution. There will always be losers and winners in the process of trying to define who the actors will be and under what rules they will play. Also, due to the upheaval of such process (evident in political maneuvers but also in violent episodes, not absent from this referendum), people who would like to participate in it but cannot make their voices heard, or who feel alienated from it, could not be very eager to respond to the call of officials to go to the polls. In the end, the low turnout rate in the referendum could be read as a symptom of the convulsed process of political change in Egypt.

Jan 20, 2014

China´s Limited Liberalization

Li Dongsheng at a news conference in 2007. Source: Frederic J.Brown/AFP

Li Dongsheng at a news conference in 2007. Source: Frederic J.Brown/AFP

By Erika Hernández

China’s recent anti-corruption policies seem give the apparent image of democratization. Anti-corruption policies inherently recognize political and civil rights by simply denouncing abuse of power. But as Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter address in their seminal work on transitions, democratization not only encompasses liberalizing certain public spaces and relieving some pressures but it also furthers inclusiveness. Inclusiveness is understood as allowing a greater participation by the citizens, be that by permitting competing parties to exist or developing accountability mechanisms such as freedom of information agencies. But there exists evidence against deepening democratization in China. The recent arrests of transparency rights advocates has confused many observers that hope for democratic change. Yet, this astute strategy resembles that of “liberalized authoritarian regimes,” often adopted by other former communist regimes like the former Soviet Union and Cuba.

China’s President Xi Jinping has attempted to crackdown corruption since 2012. Today, China’s Vice Minister of Public Security, Li Dongsheng, is the most recent target of this policy. However, the investigation is related to another more important one. Zhou Yongkang’s assets, China’s former Politburo member and former internal security czar, have been under close inspection for alleged corruption. Zhou’s major attainment was creating a robust and feared domestic security apparatus that controlled the police, courts and intelligence. But holding Zhou accountable for illicit activities not only suggests emerging factions within China’s Communist Party. It can also imply that the top echelon’s calculations have steered towards maintaining the security forces under control, perhaps to prevent internal dissension and even a possible coup. Some analysts disagree in that there is no evident faction formation nor is President Xi aiming at attacking the opposition (Leigh-Moses 2013).

Under the Corruption Perceptions Index of 2013, Transparency International classified China’s place at the 40th most corrupt out of a total of 177 countries. China seems to be less corrupt than Mexico (34th), less so than Russia (28th) but more corrupt than the Czech Republic (48th) and Turkey (50th). To some extent, China seems to have done its part for cracking corruption by installing the CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI). However, this seems to be putting China’s economic future at risk. According to China’s Hurun Report Luxury Consumer Survey of 2014, one third of the wealthy Chinese have emigrated perhaps in order to attain a better education but also possibly as a result of the new anti-corruption schemes. The report indicates that between 658 and 450 billion have already been deposited in offshore accounts. Compared to China’s hold of 3.34 trillion dollars in foreign exchange reserves (CIA 2013), a continued reserve outflow can increasingly debilitate its economic prowess in case of housing bubble.

Moreover, the government’s liberalization policies are asymmetric to those of increasing demands for inclusiveness. Xy Zhiyong, a professor at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, was detained this past July for advocating asset disclosure of government officials. He was accused for organizing in public spaces with numerous people (Roberts 2014). Other fifteen anti-corruption advocates were also detained last spring for joining protests demanding accountability on government officials’ wealth. The Chinese government views these as disrupting public order but illicit enrichment can also be considered as disrupting the economic order. If the new anti-corruption policies are holding more and more officials accountable and the government is not accepting being challenged by the emerging civil society, then the commitment to accountability is questionable. It is highly possible that with these new policies, the Chinese government is seeking greater legitimacy. This suggests that the government understands that the citizenry does not openly approve the ruling methods, which can be confirmed by the recent protests. The question is, how longer will the citizenry continue to approve the government’s methods if it suppresses citizenry’s accountability demands while allowing a limited transparency offer?

For many of us, China’s current policies are déjà vu. Parallels appear with other communist systems: Cuba and the former Soviet Union. Cuba has aimed at advancing policies (actualización) that call to increase discipline in public works to combat corruption within the Communist Party cadres and in the society but that restrict citizenship organization. For its part, Mikhail Gorbachev implemented a broad transparency policy, Glasnost, along with furthering economic and limited political liberalization, Perestroika, which incapacitated the system in managing the economic transition. Could China’s new transparency policies continue to cause reserves flight, which countries like the United States depend upon? Furthermore, is the government promoting transparency in order to allure foreign investment to counter Chinese capital flight? Would a possible economic crisis increase citizens’ protests? Will the government be unable to contain massive protests with a weakened security apparatus? Might the government counter citizens’ demands through pursuing populism like Venezuela? These are only a few questions that can only be answered as these events unravel – or not – in the following years.

Jan 17, 2014

Cuba and the European Union – Moving Ahead

This week the European Union announced the decision to begin the process of ending with its “common position” of suspending relations with Cuba. Proposed in 1996 by then Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, the objective was to create some pressure on the island to foster democratic change. After twenty years of this policy and apparently much more for pragmatic reasons than for having achieved, even partially, its goal, the tentative date to normalize relations is 2015.

The EU common position is a rare tool in European foreign relations. Within its framework, all EU members adopt a single stance in relation to a specific issue or country. Common positions have been notably used for Congo, Zimbabwe (both of which have ended), and Cuba. Somewhat similar to the embargo imposed by the US, the EU common position had diplomatic and economic components. On the one hand, there wereare no bilateral agreements which would serve as a framework for any kind of relation between Cuba and the EU or its individual members. On the other hand, investment and business opportunities practically came to a halt.

Since some years ago, members of the EU (among those Spain) noticed the ineffectiveness of the agreement. They relied on a number of arguments. First, aside from Cuba, the EU common position was only used for Al-Qaeda. For some European foreign ministers, it was inadequate or exaggerated to place in the same category a Communist country and a terrorist organization. Second, they witnessed some, albeit arguably superficial and selected, changes in the island. The replacement of Fidel Castro by his brother Raúl as the president of the country, the relaxation of some controls (such as those related to international travel, for instance), and the release of more than seventy prisoners identified by the EU as political were taken as symbols that some things were occurring in Cuba. They are clearly far away from a full respect to the human rights of Cubans and from the openings that are conductive to a democratization, but they were enough for some to assess that the situation was not the same when the common position began. Thirdly, there were some instances in which the common position was ignored. For example, the release of political prisoners took place after a dialogue between Spain and Cuba, which should not have taken place because the policy did not allow for bilateral dialogues of any kind. As well, there were reports about visits between members of the Cuban and European Catholic Churches, which, again, were prohibited under the common position.

Spain successfully pushed for an ending of the economic embargo against Cuba in 2003 (its negotiation token was the release of the political prisoners). Ten years later, the Spanish newspaper El País mentions that the EU is the first foreign investor in Cuba, and that the EU is Cuba’s second foreign trade partner, after Venezuela. So, there was a material benefit to extract from finishing with the economic component of the common position. With the elimination of the diplomatic part, agreements could be reached between the two parts to improve their economic relations.

However, there are some caveats to ending with the European policy. For instance, Poland and the Czech Republic have notoriously insisted on the inclusion of a human rights observation clause in any bilateral agreement with Cuba, still to be negotiated. It remains an open question how the Cuban government reacts to this and, eventually, how it will be enforced. Additionally, members of the Cuban opposition have requested the EU to have a broader vision of its relation with Cuba. Blogger Yoani Sánchez criticized that in his visit to Cuba last week, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans had meetings only with government representatives and not with the dissidence, who have many human rights and democracy projects that also need assistance from Europe.

The ending of the EU common position towards Cuba can be taken as an example of pragmatic foreign policy. Although its maintenance could have had some relevance in the discourse and in ethics (democracies not having relations with a non-democratic regime), the EU came to terms with the reality that the common position was not serving its objectives and that ending with it could yield material benefits. The European experience can thus be added to the list of cases of embargoes failing to promote democracy or which were surpassed by another set of goals.

Jan 14, 2014

Human rights, solution, and peace

Protestors in Bilbao showing their support for ETA members (from ABC).

Protestors in Bilbao showing their support for ETA members (from ABC).

Last Saturday, a massive manifestation took place in the streets of the Basque city of Bilbao. Under the motto of “human rights, solution, and peace”, citizens marched in support of detainees related to the terrorist group ETA. They wanted to show their despise to the government because of its continuation of detentions, what they say is an inadequate response to the organization’s announcement of disbandment. The rage against national authorities increased when a federal judge cancelled the authorization for the march given by one of his colleagues, alleging that one of the organizers was the group Herrira, whose activities were suspended last year due to supposed links to ETA. How can justice be done at the same time for ETA members and victims?

In principle, the answer should not be that difficult. Following a due process of law, criminals are expected to receive a prison sentence according to the rules dictated in a penal code. Spain, unlike other states undergoing similar justice processes (such as Guatemala, where the former president Efraín Ríos Montt went through a trial for genocide against thousands of indigenous people during his rule in the 1980’s; although he was found guilty, the inconsistency of the court’s actions suggested to some that it was nothing but a show), enjoys a reliable judicial system. There would be little reason to doubt that the process of law will be respected. The problem, however, seems to lie in the attitudes of the government in relation to ETA members (from the point of view of ETA members, relatives and some Basque politicians) and in the expectations of ETA detainees and their supporters (from the point of view of ETA victims and their relatives).

On the one hand, ETA members and their relatives argue that the government is not contributing to the reconstruction of peace but, on the contrary, maintains a punitive attitude. Since 2011 and in the course of the previous months, ETA members have rejected violence for good and announced the dismembering of the organization. Thus, they comment they expect to forge a new Basque country by institutional means. Their expressed desire to have many of their “exiled” members (accused of several crimes in Spain) and to reintegrate into normal life implies a suggestion to have a fresh start. Nonetheless, they complain that their farewell to arms and their commitment to institutions has been met by more detentions, some of which viewed as unjustified (last Wednesday four intermediaries between ETA detainees and other free members of the organization were arrested; this detention was the trigger for the demonstrations of this Saturday), and by human rights abuses against those arrested (like putting in different jails members of a same ETA cell, preventing a coordinated defense, or not allowing detainees to enjoy prison-term reductions or other benefits in jail). From this perspective, the government is not observing a due process.

On the other hand, the Spanish government wants terrorists and their collaborators to pay for the crimes they committed, regardless of their new spoken allegiance to institutions. Not surprisingly, authorities receive large pressure from ETA victims and their families to ensure that those offenses are not left unpunished. Furthermore, calls for peace and reintegration have been made rather from the ETA side, without much, if any, echo or enthusiasm from the government (although parties related to ETA or to local nationalism enjoy substantial influence in Basque politics). From this point of view, terrorism is a gross crime and its perpetrators or facilitators must receive a penalty.

It could be said that both parties are partially right: the government must refrain itself from strange treatment of ETA detainees (such as their “dispersion” through different jails) and ETA members must realize that arguments requesting any kind of amnesty are not sound. Although the government could improve its attitudes towards detainees, it is very unlikely that ETA supporters will change their views. If justice for ones (ETA victims) is understood as offenses for others (ETA members, or vice versa), some resentments will remain and the episode of the terrorist group will not be definitely closed.

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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