Burma’s parliamentary by-elections on Sunday were seen as a make or break moment for the reform process that has taken place over the last two years. The country, long ruled by one of the world most repressive authoritarian regimes, inaugurated a new parliament and a nominally civilian government in early 2011, though both are still dominated by the military and its allies. The authorities have since taken a series of other steps, such as the release of some political prisoners that were designed to improve relations with democratic powers including the United States. The international community in turn has sought to engage the new leadership and encourage further reforms.
On March 5, the day after Vladimir Putin won a new term in the Russian presidential election, around 20,000 members of the country’s broad-based opposition movement gathered in Moscow’s Pushkin Square to protest what organizers deemed an unfair and illegitimate vote that was marred by electoral fraud. The demonstration ended with nearly 250 arrests in Moscow alone, as a number of the protesters refused to leave the park in an act of civil disobedience.
At a meeting of cultural workers on February 26, following his landslide reelection victory on February 12, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov announced that the Era of Might and Happiness has officially begun in Turkmenistan. Thus ends the Era of Great Renewal, as the Turkmen leader dubbed the first five years of his reign. That in turn was preceded by the Golden Age of the late president for life, Saparmurat Niyazov. Evidently, no more reform is needed, and the people are supposed to be happy with what they have.
Last week, Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin published an article—in the business newspaper Kommersant and, in shortened form, in the Washington Post—on the topic of “democracy and the quality of government.” Skeptical readers may scoff at the idea, but the fact that the Russian leadership devoted time and resources to the piece makes it worth investigating.
Writing on the revolutions of Central Europe in the New York Review of Books two decades ago, scholar Timothy Garton Ash made the observation that “the crucial medium was television. In Europe, at the end of the twentieth century all revolutions are telerevolutions.”
Today, one could argue that all revolutions, at least in their nascent stages, are social media revolutions. However, this does not mean that television has been tossed onto the ash heap of history. In fact, in settings where the state retains dominance over television, it is in many ways functioning as a counterrevolutionary medium.
On December 28, with little fanfare, Russia’s foreign ministry released a 90-page human rights report on the United States, Canada, and assorted European countries. There is no accompanying introduction, preface, or methodology for this rather slapdash document, entitled On the Human Rights Situation in a Number of the World’s States, but the selection of countries and their respective treatment makes it fairly clear that the report is meant to be a stick in the eye of the Kremlin’s perceived enemies, rather than any genuine attempt to promote human rights around the world.
Perhaps the biggest story to emerge from Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Russia is the central role played by new media. To be sure, the failure of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party to obtain a solid majority in the State Duma, even while cheating, is significant. But the Kremlin-approved parties that profited from the antigovernment protest vote—the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, the Communist Party, and the faux-opposition A Just Russia party—appear unlikely to stimulate reform. The election results thus reflected deep disillusionment with Putin, but utterly failed to provide a road map to future change.