Tag Archives: democracy

Xenophobes elected to oversee European integration

Rhodri C. Williams

Well, the loonies have officially taken over the boobyhatch, as my late sainted Aunt Pat would have said. Marine Le Pen takes 25% of the French vote. Great Britain scores the first national election won by neither Labour nor the Conservatives but a party advocating independence for the UK (why didn’t anyone think of that before?) Austria and Denmark veer wildly right. And lets not even talk about Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. So now we all get to adjust to the fact that a party campaigning under a swastika entered the European Parliament. At least they took some trouble to disguise it. Plausible deniability and all that.

Sweden was one of the few bright spots, with a very robust Green party (that has taken on some of the tough issues related to e.g. fisheries) taking second place. The election of the xenophobic and weasely Sweden Democrats (9.9%) who refused to say whether they would join a future Le Pen-led racist bloc was bad, but symbolically somewhat offset by the arrival (5.3%) of what had previously been a somewhat marginal feminist party (both were in a dead heat at 7% as of yesterday but lets take what we can get).

So with all that said, let me sign off with quotes from the Facebook feeds of three Sweden-associated friends of mine. First, as the voting began:

People who cannot be bothered to vote do not deserve to live in democracy. There are plenty of people denied any chance to make their voice heard who would gladly trade places with you. If you do not know enough – read or listen to debates. If you do not agree with any candidate – give a blank vote. Not voting has no excuse rather than laziness or stupidity. Usually both.

And as the results began to drop in:

Proud to have voted in Sweden today, wish I could have voted a few 100,000 times in the UK as well.

And as we wake up to our just desserts:

A black day for Europe. Happy that I live in a country, and from a country, that actively rejects these types of bigots and morons.

Seven decades since the end of World War II next year. I suppose Europe was overdue for a bit of teenage rebellion. Hope they don’t wrap their car around anyone’s tree.

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No region for buffer countries

by Rhodri C. Williams

Events in Ukraine continued to metastasise since my earlier post reporting on the Yanukovich defenestration last week. I spent a long weekend in Finland, ironically enough reading a fascinating history of that country’s long and troubled history as a buffer country between Russia and Sweden. I was also sans internet, which always seems like a blessing until you get back and realise that the world moves on without you, occasionally in distressing directions.

What I missed of course, was the creeping Russian military takeover of the Crimean Peninsula, which is now by and large recognised as a fait accompli, with the only remaining debate focused on how to keep the de facto Russian border from moving into mainland Ukraine. Its impossible to keep track of the tsunami of commentary that has been triggered by these undoubtedly tectonic events, but it is revealing that much of it focuses on the role of the big blocs putting the squeeze on Ukraine, rather than the poor buffeted Ukrainians themselves.

One of the interesting things about the Western end of the discussion is the dizzying range of responses. At the most parochial end, the mid-term election attack ads on how Obama lost Ukraine are already in the make. However, such arguments only underscore how remarkably far the West has already penetrated the vast territory consigned to Soviet Russian tutelage after World War II. Imagine if Putin was coming under criticism in Moscow for failing to block an extension of the NAFTA, and you might get the idea.

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Ukraine 2.0, and its still February…

by Rhodri C. Williams

Simply amazing. The Ukrainian boat of  state looked set to capsize just five days ago as the Russian Sochi supertanker bore down. Miraculously, she righted herself in its wake, her un-beloved Captain spilling his cooked logbooks left and right as he dashed for his armored lifeboat. But now there is dissension among the crew and the tanker still lurks nearby in the fog, its commander brooding imperiously and sending out his cabin boy to mutter imprecations. It looks better, in other words, but could all be a prelude to getting dramatically worse. 

One issue is the engagement of the West, which is now enjoying a windfall opportunity to support the Ukrainian opposition, despite earlier performances so lacklustre that historian Anne Applebaum was moved in January to lament the death of “the belief that some kind of post-Cold War order still prevails in Europe and the United States is an important part of it.” Having negotiated the initial truce that eased Yanokovich out (see this fascinating BBC account of the role played by Radislav Sikorski, Polish foreign minister and Applebaum’s husband), Western actors are now frantically engaged in attempting to shore up an interim government composed of the bewildered former opposition.

It is not clear that they are always doing themselves great favors. First, whatever the merits of Russia’s ostensible concerns about Ukraine, airily dismissing them is unlikely to calm the waters. Writing for Stratfor, for instance, George Friedman notes that the ‘truce agreement’ was achieved in part through sidestepping Ukraine’s constitution, but argues that the latter “didn’t have the patina of tradition that a true constitution requires, and few will miss Yanukovich.” In a similarly blithe manner, the US has gone on to dismiss Yanukovich as President and proclaim the non-existence of East-West tensions in the country.

There are plenty of reasons to believe that the political split between the Russian-speaking East and the Ukrainian-speaking West is overstated, beginning with the lack of any groundswell of popular support for union with Russia or its “Eurasian Union” anywhere outside the Crimean Peninsula. Writing for the Globe and Mail, Daniel Bilak asserted that the population of the East are “confused and uncertain” but increasingly joined to the West by joint rejection of the Russian-oriented oligarchs that have compounded their economic misery:

Mired in poverty, the people of Eastern Ukraine have been cynically manipulated by regional political and economic (a.k.a. oligarch) elites for the past 22 years of Ukrainian independence. As they enriched themselves through the cheap acquisition of decrepit Soviet-era assets (a phenomenon common throughout the former Soviet Union), these clans have exercized virtual total economic and political control over the lives of their electorate/employees, who are tied like serfs to the large enterprises that dominate their towns and cities. Fear of losing jobs and pensions makes these people easy to manipulate at election-time, something the ruling clan has used to great effect.

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The “eastern narrative” in the age of globalization and the internet is not sustainable. While they may be more passive than passionate, Mr. Yanukovych’s 20 per cent approval rating shows the degree to which Ukrainians from the east are united with the rest of the country against what most see as endemic bureaucratic racketeering at all levels of government. Anti-Maidan demonstrations have been fleeting at best. On the other hand, “Euromaidan” demonstrations in the eastern oblasts recently gained ground by the thousands, driven by a growing social network-friendly middle class of small entrepreneurs and youth.

On Thursday, this trend reached an apex when Ukrainians of all ages showed solidarity with their compatriots on the Maidan by stopping on roadways busloads of thugs hired by the regime (often burning their buses) and lying on railway tracks to prevent police and troops from reaching Kiev.

In essence, socio-economic problems make all Ukrainians brothers-in-arms. With an economy on the verge of collapse, Ukrainians are facing up to theft of Homeric proportions, as they wonder how Ukraine’s debt went from $36-billion to $72-billion in four years, with no improvement in their livelihoods. Eastern Ukrainians are also patriots of their country – they feel as much cheated by this regime, as their brethren in western Ukraine felt betrayed by the previous government.

On the other hand, it will be important for Western actors to pressure the new interim government to avoid moves that could be seen as unnecessarily provocative. By rushing to strike down legislation recognizing Russian as an official language, for instance, the Parliament has met genuine demands to roll back the Yanukovich legacy with a measure that could unnecessarily alienate potentially sympathetic members of the country’s Russian-speaking community. Meanwhile, major concerns have been raised by the apparent mobilization of the Russian-speaking majority on the Crimean Peninsula, who have threatened to secede, and allegedly sought a Russian intervention.

Russia itself appears bewildered, furiously condemning the new authorities while repeatedly affirming Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Where the Beijing Olympics provided useful cover for the 2008 war in which Russia disciplined Georgia, another former Soviet Republic, the Sochi Olympics constituted a distraction that prevented a more assertive response to the rumblings in Ukraine. Likewise, the penumbra of corruption and human rights abuses that overshadowed Sochi’s glitz hardly constituted an advertisement for closer ties.

As argued here in the BBC, it is quite likely that Moscow has realized applying further pressure at this stage is only likely to burn whatever bridges it has left to Kiev without bringing tangible gain. Still dangerous circumstances, but Yanukovich’s corruption, repression and abrupt abdication may have left the best possible legacy – a set of incentives for all actors to allow Ukraine to fumble its way forward to cleaner and more representative government.

Beware philosophers bearing simple answers – Sharia and democracy

by Rhodri C. Williams

The BBC Magazine is currently running a series by philosopher Roger Scruton on democracy. In the latest installment, he gives his views on the compatibility of Islamic Shari’a law and democracy. As with a fair bit of what I read on these topics, I took issue. A little more unusually this time, I took issue strongly enough to be moved to reply.

Scruton’s starting point is a comparison of the states of Eastern Europe that resulted from the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 with the states that resulted further south from the simultaneous dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. While such a comparison undoubtedly provides a useful analytical window into the current tumult in the Middle East, that is where my agreement with Mr. Scruton ends.

Quite simply put, Scruton’s analysis treats the two categories of post-imperial states as antithetical, positing a nearly unbridgeable divide in historical experience and political culture and going on to issue a fatwa on the incompatibility of Shari’a with democracy. To me, this argument not only essentialises and oversimplifies the diverse experiences of entire regions but also misses the wonderful opportunity that the recognition of obvious commonalities would provide to draw historical lessons relevant both to the Middle East and the (less dramatically so but undoubtedly troubled) frontiers of Europe.

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Democracy as a process

by Rhodri C. Williams

Democracy is on my mind this afternoon. For one thing, its July 4th and Philip Gourevich was kind enough to remind me that its about more than hotdogs and fireworks:

As our national day of celebrating our political system passes, I am also currently attending one of the most convincing exercises in homegrown open democracy anywhere in the world here in Sweden, while I simultaneously find myself preoccupied by the ongoing struggle to establish something tenable between the unattractive extremes of autocracy and people power in Egypt.

In Sweden, I am attending “Almedalen week“, an annual political gala in the picturesque seaside town of Visby. Sweden is a small enough polity that after a few years there, you recognize all the politicians and they are literally all here, from the xenophobes to the suecophiles, strolling around in their business casual uniforms, making speeches and gleefully networking. Coming from a country where the president has to cart around truckloads of bulletproof glass on foreign trips, it is a pleasant kind of shock to be this up close and personal with Sweden’s political elite, as well as a lot of leading journalists, diplomats and other functionaries.

There is plenty to find fault with in Almedalen, ranging from the way the week has morphed into a commercial free-for-all to the fact that Swedes of color are frequently notable by their absence. But for all that, Almedalen week is a remarkable experience, a sort of national pep rally for a democratic process that is deeply ingrained, civilly conducted, and fundamentally liberal (in the philosophical sense, Rush. Look it up.) Nothing much of import gets said or decided here, but everyone comes away with a fairly visceral sense of a system that is accessible and responsive.

Meanwhile in Egypt, we are seeing a brand new democratic process experience severe ructions. The commentators have been out in force, and there seems to be a  consensus that both sides are at fault, with the Muslim Brotherhood having vastly overplayed the hand it won in Egypt’s first free elections, and the opposition having responded by undermining the very democracy some of them had risked life and limb protesting for in 2011 (see the ICG’s statement here and Nathan J. Brown’s constitutional analysis here). For both practical reasons and more principled ones, there has been some reluctance to characterise what Egypt is currently experiencing as an unqualified coup. But it is undoubtedly a severe and early setback in a fragile process.

As I write this, a raucous group of Yanks (and their Swedish buddies) who are renting the guesthouse next door are doing a very poor rendition of ‘Star-Spangled Banner’. My own patriotism is feeling a bit less bruised now that I dumped this year’s load of IRS busywork into the mail (though Peter Spiro reminds that ever more US citizens abroad are unwilling to face a lifetime of pointless double-filing), and it is tempting to reflect on the progress of democracy. It is undeniably a pretty infectious idea that all those be-wigged gentlemen farmers invoked back in 1776. It certainly feels like the concept has found fertile ground here in Sweden, and it has made extraordinary progress in the last few years in the Middle East. But it is crucial to recall that it is a process, and never an entirely irreversible one.

PS – Anyone interested in watching my efforts to discuss the rule of law in Libya – in Swedish – here in Almedalen can tune in here: http://www.sommartorg.se/. The seminar will be carried live at noon, GMT+2 and will be available for streaming thereafter.

A happy ending for Eurovision?

by Rhodri C. Williams

I promise that this will be my last ever word on the Eurovision song contest. There are any number of good reasons for me to move on, not least the fact that Eurovision seems to move me to rant, which is honestly not my strongest genre. However, the best possible reason was handed to me on a plate by fresh-faced Emmelie de Forrest, who took all the honors and moved them conveniently from one peaceful Nordic democracy to another one a forty minute commute away.

And there were moments, as Azerbaijan nudged within a few ‘dix points’ of Emmelie’s comely heels, where I saw an alternative, dystopic future – a future in which I would once again be compelled to wander the darkened streets of the blogosphere, bitterly denouncing the capricious demolitions of homes in Baku, casting aspersions upon the political naifs of the European Broadcasting Union, and railing against the hypocrisy of ostensible guardians of democracy such as the Council of Europe, long since tamed by a steady diet of inflated per diems and caviar. Thank you, Emmelie, for sparing us all that.

But before I bow out of the debate about Eurovision and human rights fully, a few observations. First, despite the welcome contrast between Azerbaijan’s structural aversion to human rights (universality notwithstanding, how is one honestly to go about applying them in a dynastic autocracy fueled by oil patronage?) and Sweden’s imperfect but earnest efforts, the human rights did emerge once again as a background issue in this year’s contest.

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Libya goes to the polls

by Rhodri C. Williams

Hamdulillah! After weeks of increasing tension over last minute objections to the allocation of mandates in what is to be Libya’s first properly elected and fully sovereign legislature, and months of increasing uncertainty over the interim government’s commitment to human rights and the rule of law, the BBC confirms that the people will now have their say.

Is Libya ready for the results? Robert Kaplan and Kamran Bokhari point to the new Libya’s “low level chaotic violence” as an argument for withholding “cold-turkey democracy” from any new Syria to emerge from that country’s ongoing bloodbath. But, by my lights, the Economist gets it on the money this time:

Building respect for the law, after 42 years of Qaddafi’s bizarre rule, will be the hardest task. Hundreds of pro-Qaddafi prisoners (some say more) are still in the hands of militias, who have also recently arrested an Australian lawyer from the International Criminal Court at The Hague after she had come to visit Saif Qaddafi, the colonel’s son, who is held in Zintan. The new government will have to act fast to tackle such judicial shortcomings if the country is to be put firmly on a path to the rule of law. A peaceful election would be a giant first step.

Beyond the policy argument – that democracy is part of the solution, not part of the problem – there is the intuitive rationale that will have struck anyone who has traveled to Libya recently. Saleh, who just undertook his seasonal shift to a shadier spot in Tripoli’s old town coffee shop, has registered. He had no idea who he was going to vote for, the list of approved parties hadn’t even been announced yet with less than a month to go, but he couldn’t wait to vote. If the Libyans are really to ever own Libya, it cannot be by the right of conquest alone.
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