Freedom at Issue:

Insights on the global struggle for democracy

On November 4, to mark the release of this year’s edition of Countries at the Crossroads, Freedom House and the Atlantic Council hosted a discussion on the prospects for successful democratic transitions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)—particularly in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, which were among six MENA countries examined in the new Crossroads report.

Eight years and a day after President George W. Bush laid out a broad agenda in support of freedom and representative government in the Middle East at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood before the National Democratic Institute (NDI) on November 7 to essay a detailed overview of the Obama administration’s response to the Arab Spring. The secretary’s remarks did much to advance and clarify the administration’s policy. But their historical continuity with the Bush policy was equally striking. Call it the Bush Freedom Agenda 2.0.

Threats to media freedom in South Africa—which has had one of the most open press environments on the continent since the end of apartheid more than 15 years ago—have increased in recent years, raising fears of backsliding in a country seen as a model in the region. These threats have occurred in the context of multiple challenges to democratic consolidation, including recent encroachments on judicial independence and other institutions that provide checks and balances on executive power. In addition, an upsurge of inflammatory rhetoric directed at the white minority, particularly by the faction headed by Julius Malema, president of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) Youth League, has led to the overt injection of race into various debates on political and socioeconomic issues and resulted in increased self-censorship by non-blacks on a range of issues.

At an October 22 briefing designed to tout the enhanced relationship between the United States and Uzbekistan ahead of the first visit to the Central Asian country by a U.S. secretary of state in seven years, a senior State Department official was asked whether this strategic partner was still boiling people alive. The fact that this question needed to be asked is a worrisome sign for U.S. moral authority.
 

 

In recent remarks made at the Heritage Foundation, House Speaker John Boehner said that “in Russia’s use of old tools and old thinking, we see nothing short of an attempt to restore Soviet-style power and influence.” In using this formulation the Speaker gets things only half right. Moscow is undeniably seeking ways to reassert power and influence. But Russia’s Putin-era effort to flex its muscles is not in the Soviet mold, as the Speaker suggests. The contemporary effort represents, instead, a modern, adaptive form of authoritarianism, whose particular methods and tools pose new challenges.

Never before has Belarusian leader Aleksandr Lukashenka faced an economic crisis in his country like the one he bears responsibility for today, with a collapsing currency, severe shortages, and dwindling hard currency reserves. Never before has he been under more pressure from the European Union and United States through sanctions for his human rights abuses and from Russia through its cut-off of subsidies. Together, these unprecedented developments are leading some observers to suggest that Lukashenka’s days might be numbered.

President Raúl Castro introduced market reforms in Cuba earlier this year to preserve, not dismantle, the communist system. He retains a tight grip on power and seems intent on pursuing a Chinese model of market economics combined with political repression. The reforms have, however, brought about a significant change in attitudes in Cuba, according to a recent Freedom House survey. Optimism is growing, expectations are rising, and Cubans want more freedom. Will the Chinese model work in Cuba?

by Sarah Trister

At the end of this month, national elections will decide who will serve as Kyrgyzstan’s first full-term president since the April 2010 revolution that ousted the increasingly authoritarian Kurmanbek Bakiyev. And at the end of the year, Central Asia’s first and only female president, interim leader Roza Otunbayeva, will also become the first leader in Central Asia to leave her post in a voluntary and peaceful transfer of power.

 

Tyler Roylance

In an October 15 opinion piece in the New York Times, provocatively titled “Democracy’s Collateral Damage,” Ross Douthat makes a series of arguments and observations about ethnicity, democracy, and stability. While they touch on a legitimate scholarly debate about the difficulty of establishing new democracies in multiethnic countries, they also seem to posit dubious cause-and-effect relationships and assign blame where it is clearly not due. Because these arguments sometimes contradict one another, they are best addressed one or two at a time.

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