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The Democracy Charade

world_report013108.jpgI think that Human Rights Watch gets some points for innovation today. In preparing their 2008 World Report, instead of carrying out the same old tired exercise of denouncing the atrocious human rights abuses perpetrated by this and that misbehaving government, they instead aim their barbed criticism at the governments of the United States and European Union for their propping up of cosmetic democracies, causing great damage to human rights. “It’s now too easy for autocrats to get away with mounting a sham democracy,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch in an interview with AFP. “That’s because too many Western governments insist on elections and leave it at that. They don’t press governments on the key human rights issues that make democracy function — a free press, peaceful assembly, and a functioning civil society that can really challenge power.” A lot of attention is given to Russia in the report, and special criticism is given to the “rhetorical games” played by Vladislav Surkov for co-opting of the vocabulary with “sovereign democracy.” Given that Dmitri Medvedev has stated his disagreement with the sovereign democracy concept, perhaps Russia can look for more ways to get a more favorable mention in HRW’s next report. One good first step might be to stop trying to block George Clooney from speaking about Darfur…. Excerpts related to Russia from the document are extracted below – the complete text can be read here.

Excerpts from the essay “Despots Masquerading as Democrats” by Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch

Rhetorical GamesMany repressive leaders have tried to redefine democracy by introducing a devastating qualifier or an antithetical adjective. President Vladimir Putin, as he cripples democracy by shutting down all competing centers of influence in Russia, has become a proponent of “sovereign democracy,” meaning in effect that democracy is whatever the sovereign wants it to mean. As the Burmese junta rounded up protesting monks and violently suppressed dissent, it spoke of the need for “disciplined democracy.” China has long promoted “socialist democracy,” by which it means a top-down centralism that eliminates minority views.Controlling the Electoral MachineryBecause of such failings, national electoral monitoring mechanisms are often supplemented by international institutions. But these, too, have been targeted by those seeking to manage elections. The Kremlin effectively prevented observers from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the main election monitoring body of the OSCE, from reviewing Russia’s December 2007 parliamentary elections by delaying visas, limiting the number of international monitors to be admitted, and threatening to prevent the OSCE from offering its assessment until long after Russia’s government-controlled media had shaped public perceptions of the balloting.Silencing the MediaOne of the first targets of Russian President Putin was the independent media. Today, all major television and radio stations and most major newspapers are in the hands of Kremlin loyalists. This controlled media landscape was one of Putin’s most important tools for ensuring that the opposition had no chance to threaten his political dominance, whether in the parliamentary elections of December 2007 or the planned presidential elections of March 2008.Shutting Down Civil SocietyIn addition to political parties, a vibrant democracy requires a variety of associations and organizations so that people can mobilize support for their policy preferences and make their voices heard. These civil society organizations thus are another common target of autocratic rulers.In Russia, for example, a 2006 law regulating nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has served as a pretext for growing harassment. The law requires groups to submit annual reports on their activities and their use of foreign funds on pain of liquidation—a sanction that already has been used. Meanwhile, organizations have been subject to intrusive inspections, and a 2007 law allowing any politically or ideologically-motivated crime to be designated “extremist” and subject to harsh punishment raises concerns that the law will be used to silence dissent.Banking on the “Democrat” Rather than Democratic PrinciplesOne common failing is to support a particular proclaimed “democrat” rather than the human rights principles that make democracy meaningful. Established democracies seem increasingly to look for individuals—rather than institutions—to save the day, hoping that people will equate the ascendance of a leader prone to democratic rhetoric with the arrival of democracy itself, even though the first lesson of democratic theory is that unrestrained power tends toward tyranny. This failing has certainly characterized Western policy toward Pakistan’s Musharraf, but it has also played a central role in the response to such disparate countries as Russia, Nigeria and Georgia.Bush famously embraced Putin in 2001 after “look[ing] into his eyes and s[eeing] his soul.” Putin proceeded systematically to undermine nearly every competing center of influence in Russia—the Duma, the regional governors, the press, the NGOs, even the oligarchs. The US government ultimately did react, but it had lost an early opportunity to build US-Russian relations around principles rather than personal chemistry.Germany, which traditionally plays a leading role in shaping the European Union’s policy toward Russia, had a mixed record in 2007. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, perhaps because she grew up in the East under Soviet domination, sees Putin with clearer eyes than her mercantilist predecessor, Gerhard Schröder. She has spoken out several times about the disturbing trends in Russia, and during her first trip to Moscow in 2006, made a point of visiting human rights NGOs. That led to hope that Germany would elevate the importance of human rights when it assumed the EU presidency during the first half of 2007. In fact, human rights continued to be consigned largely to low-level consultations. Merkel did raise human rights during the EU-Russia summit in May 2007, when demonstrations were quashed, but the next EU presidency, under the Portuguese government, undermined that effort by equating the raising of human rights issues with “lecturing.”