This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post's website. To read the original, click here.
The current strain in U.S. relations with Russia sums up the challenges of dealing with authoritarian rulers. They vigorously object to any criticism of their human rights record, yet even when such criticism is muted, they may still resist cooperation with the United States on major security issues. The Obama administration has resisted moves by Congress to sanction human rights abusers in Russia, but President Vladimir Putin continues to intensify his crackdown on civil society and block international efforts to stop mass atrocities in Syria. The time has come for the United States to take a fresh look at its relations with Russia and with other dictatorships around the world.
Until recently, it could at least be said that countries with objectionable political systems played host to major global sports competitions only occasionally. Forty-four years elapsed between the Berlin and Moscow Olympics, and it was another 28 years before the games were held in Beijing. Second-tier events in dictatorial states tended to be limited to low-profile sports like weightlifting and wrestling. But all that is changing fast. Some of the most prestigious international athletic competitions have recently been held, or are now set to be held, in countries that regularly make world headlines with their rigged elections, state-dominated media, repression of minorities, or full-bore retreat from democracy to authoritarianism.
The release of some 3,000 e-mail messages believed to be from the personal accounts of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and members of his inner circle has shined a light on the cynicism and deceit of the dictatorial regime in Damascus. Assad is revealed to mock his own countrymen as well as the reforms he promised in response to the antigovernment protests that began a year ago. In the e-mails, he refers to these reforms as “rubbish laws of parties, elections, media.” That he offered them at all, of course, would seem to fly in the face of his long-standing assertion that the uprising is an assault by foreign-backed terrorists, as opposed to a legitimate demand for political change by Syrian citizens.
As we mark the first anniversary of the events that led to the Arab Spring, it is worth highlighting the uprisings’ far-reaching repercussions for freedom, both in the region and beyond. Freedom in the World, the report on global freedom issued annually by Freedom House, found more declines than gains worldwide for 2011, but we believe that the overarching message for the year is one of hope and not reversal.
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.
Never before has Belarusian leader Aleksandr Lukashenka faced aneconomic 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.
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.
When Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin announced last week that he intended—and had always intended—to return to the presidency, he effectively tore down a flimsy veil of constitutional rectitude that had separated Russia from the autocracies of Central Asia. For over four years, Russians were invited to believe that unlike the perpetual presidents in those countries, their leader would uphold the rule of law and make way for new blood in the form of his chosen successor, Dmitri Medvedev. Now, however, it appears that Medvedev’s entire presidency was an artifice designed to circumvent the ban on more than two consecutive terms.