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Republicans need to get over Cuba

In Rajiv Gopie on January 28, 2012 at 1:15 pm

“Cuba will be free” the top Republicans candidates stated in a Florida debate, crystallising the unhealthy obsession that the GOP has with the small Caribbean nation. As they tried to woo Florida’s sizeable Cuban population the candidates spoke in narratives that were decades behind the current state of Cuba. Seeking to play on family ties and the nostalgia of older Cuban migrants they spoke of Cuba as some sort of oppressive North Korean-style regime ruled by tyrants and a place where all the evils under the sun gathered.

It would be folly to think that these witty men are not aware of the real situation in Cuba but instead are using old wounds to gain cheap political points amongst a sizeable but shrinking demographic. Cuba may not have the free enterprise and trappings of America or Europe but it also does not have the poverty of the Southern US states nor the vast income inequality. It does not have the millions without health care and access to basic services like the USA nor does it have the rising xenophobia of Europe. Instead the unfairly suppressed island has worked towards a society without poverty and homeless children, a place where healthcare of phenomenal quality is free and so too is education.

Cuba is far from perfect and I disagree with many of its policies; its imprisonment of political dissidents, its suppression of free speech and its opposition to free actor choice, but it is far from the Orwellian nightmare that the GOP is narrating. The changing tide in the island since the retirement of Fidel Castro points to a more open future. The EU has recognised these changes and is seeking to build bridges with the island. The USA needs to get over its obsession with Cuba. This piece may target the Republicans but the Democrats are just as guilty of exploiting old rhetoric to win over the Cuban vote in Florida.

The old Cuba and its old guard will be washed away by the waves of progress, we already see the daughter of Raul Castro openly advocating for gay equality, a group that was demonised and hated by Fidel (who later apologised for the mistreatment of GLBT people during and after the revolution), and overtures by the regime to open up the island to investment etc. and grant amnesty to political prisoners. If Cuba can change why can’t the US? Will the course be the continued opening of old wounds and the fostering of hate and sorrow or will it be about engagement and reconciliation? Will the USA continue its proud tradition of reaching out and helping the promotion of democracy or will it deny its own nature for cheap political points?

(The author is no communist but would like to one day live in a fair world.)

-Rajiv Gopie

Hezbollah – Enter the Arab Summer

In Meor Alif on January 23, 2012 at 2:52 pm

Hezbollah – Enter the Arab Summer.

Very few fighting units in the course of modern history can boast to have such an impressive portfolio than that of Hezbollah in waging effective asymmetric warfare. It doesn’t take much to realize that given the right time of day and the right weapons in their hand, Hassan Nasrallah’s band of brothers can make a Thermopylaeic stand against any incoming hoard. There is no doubt that it has traditionally been able to hold its own despite all sorts of geopolitical changes that has occurred in the Middle East. In recent weeks however, as we have witnessed in the news, there have been interesting developments in the politics surrounding the Sparta they live in. Hezbollah might be facing their toughest challenge to date with the slow but certain demise of the Assad family in Syria. This regime change seem to be ebbing away against Hezbollah’s traditional power bases and draws out a very intriguing point to consider; what is the future of Hezbollah in Levant? And will they be able to adapt to the changes to continue to be the force that they are in the axis of resistance?

It wasn’t too long ago that Hezbollah was just another reactionary group that emerged from the abyss of Palestinian refugee camps in Southern Lebanon. The creation of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent Arab-Israeli war that ensued the same year created a backdrop of the Nakba which would give birth to many attempts to salvage the conditions of the several thousand Palestinians who were pushed into Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. Hezbollah’s meta struggle against Israel was in no means a cause that it took upon itself without any precedence. Before it, there was the PLO and although they were far from being joined at the hip as organizations, both were nevertheless associated through their struggle against Israel. It was Operation Galilee, a full scale invasion attempt by Israel in 1982, in retaliation to prior PLO attacks, which really brought Hezbollah to the fore.

The literature on Hezbollah is nothing short of diverse. However, a running consensus from the differing views appears to suggest that the foundation of Hezbollah rests on a few notable factors. Among those include the explanation of a structural imbalance that existed in the Lebanese National Pact which in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s no longer reflected an accurate demographical breakdown in Lebanon at the time. During this period, the Shiite population was no longer the small confessional group that it was during the early years post Lebanese independence. In fact, it had grown to become the largest Lebanese confessional community – rendering the old arrangement, and the outdated context it was created in, almost obsolete in terms of representation in the legislative, executive and military positions in Lebanon. The poor living conditions of the Shiite community, especially in the south, and the lack of development for them further entrenched the feeling of communitarian isolation. Hence, having always seen itself until this very day as the protectors of the Lebanese Shiite community – at its conception, the identity crisis plaguing the Shiites in the context of the broader Lebanese society is argued by many to be an important factor in precipitating the creation of Hezbollah. The overwhelming battering which the Shiite community had to endure as a result of military defeats, like that of Operation Litani, and the injuries inflicted as a result of Operation Galilee combined with the feeling of helplessness, contributed to the fostering of militant movements.  But more importantly, as the world witnessed in 1979 – the Iranian revolution carried out by fellow Shiite clerics in Tehran gave the Shiite community in Lebanon the impetus to take domestic matters into their own hands. The eviction attempt by Israel on the PLO brought together organizations like the Islamic Jihad, the Organization of the Oppressed on Earth and the Revolutionary Justice Organization to assimilate and form what is known today as Hezbollah. Either way, what was clear then, and is still clear now, is that this Iranian sponsored organization is essentially an armed organization hell bent on expelling Israel from Lebanon and fighting them in the long haul. Hezbollah has, till this day, managed to claim several hall mark victories in the cause of fighting Israel – starting with the 1984 American pull-out from Beirut and the subsequent Israeli pull-out under Ehud Barak in 2000, and its most recent ‘victory’ against Israel in 2006 – all of which have contributed to Hezbollah fame and the almost mythical status of Hassan Nasrallah. More importantly, Hezbollah’s efforts in the social and development programs that it provides for its people and the substantial electoral gains it has achieved over the year has made it a force like no other.

However, in these past few weeks, Hezbollah’s existence and its future has been called into question. Their close tie with Damascus is an open secret and with the regime in Syria slowly inching into disrepute, what can be said about the future of Hezbollah?

As the entire international community peers into the country, almost unequivocally, there is a consensus that a toppled Assad regime would create a more democratic Syria – something which Hezbollah would not necessarily welcome as openly as it did in Egypt and Libya. We know now that a few months ago, Hassan Nasrallah was quick to condemn the two ‘dictators’ but has since refused to say the same about Assad. A joint statement between Hezbollah and Amal claiming “firm support for the Islamic Republic in the face of American and Israeli threats” in November highlights Hezbollah’s stance with regards to the issue of Syria, as part of the statement read;

“What is happening in Syria is an international conspiracy targeting Syria’s rejectionist position and its policies which support the Arab and Muslim resistance movements, particularly in Palestine.” It goes on to reaffirm that Lebanon will never be “a conduit for a conspiracy against sisterly Syria”

In simple terms, a new, more democratic Syria would most likely be more reflective of the Syrian demographic, hence, in all likeliness a Sunni government will be formed in replace of Assad’s Alawite regime. There is a fear for Hezbollah that a new Sunni government in Syria would be disinterested in shaking hands with them, especially seeing how Hezbollah has grown to become the face of Shiites in the contemporary world. Although the new Syrian government would be united with Hezbollah in so far as fighting Israel is concerned the religious divide between them will prevent and stand in the way of Syria continuing to support Hezbollah in the way they previously used to. Furthermore, given this change in leadership, Syria would also be likely to review all its long standing relationships with its neighbours, including Iran, and position itself more moderately on different issues so as to gain as many new allies as they can, including those previously alienated by Assad. Given the atmosphere of revolution that the Arab spring has brought to the several countries that endured it, it would make sense for a new Syria to be interested to continuing its relationship with Iran and Hezbollah (albeit less vigorously in terms of ideological commitments) while balancing that out along more Arab nationalist overtures, which could bring together Egypt, Palestine and all the other Arab countries coming out of dictatorships over the last few months against Israel.

It would be interesting to also consider if the Muslim Brotherhood will play any part in a new Syria and how that would affect Hezbollah in the long term. Nasrallah’s continued support of Assad at the present moment is not doing itself any favours. The more Hezbollah continues to pledge unfettering support for Assad, the dimmer its post Assad future will be, because such a move will only result in Hezbollah positioning itself in direct contradiction to the Syrian opposition, as disorganised as they may be. Even if for some reason the new Syrian government does decide to take Hezbollah in as an ally in the future, it would surely never forget or lose sight of Hezbollah’s past and their staunch support in favour of the dictatorship at this present time. Either way, the way forward, presumably for Hezbollah, is to keep this consideration in mind and attempt to manufacture some sort of new relationship with the Syrian opposition as early as it can in anticipation of the crumbling of Assad and his government.

However, all of the above is not the worst case scenario – it’s far from it. The worst case scenario for Hezbollah is the possibility of the instalment of a new Syrian regime that although fights Israel, would also simultaneously crack down on Hezbollah viewing them only as nothing more than the dangerous religious splinter militant group they are.

Moreover, the cold hard reality is that, without Assad in the picture, Hezbollah will find it very difficult to transfer arms into Lebanon. Keep in mind that for decades now, the Levant area has always teetered on the brink of war and the prospect of it has, and always will, play in the back of the minds of Hezbollah leadership. In the event of war, anything less than a cooperative and supportive Syria would spell bad news for Hezbollah.

Unsurprisingly, on the other hand, the conflict which has engulfed Syria has definitely rung some bells in Israel. The changes in Syria have forced Israel to be more vigilant about the Hezbollah threat. The Israel Defence Force recently claimed that; capitalizing on the confusion in Syria – Hezbollah has managed to add the SA-8’s (a Russian truck mounted tactical surface-to-air missile system that has a range of 30 kilometers), several dozen M600 (the M600 is a clone of the Iranian Fateh -110, has a range of 300 kilometers, and can carry a half ton warhead with great accuracy) long-range missiles, and additional 302 mm. Khaibar-2 rockets (with a range of 100 kilometers) to its arsenal. This is to be added to the large quantity of shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles and the already significant arsenal of M600s that Hezbollah already possess. There is also a growing fear that in the state of chaos, Syrian chemical weapons could fall into the hands of Hezbollah. The heightened sense of insecurity following the thought that Israel would be encircled on different fronts from a better armed Hezbollah and a trigger happy Iran will put the hawks in the Knesset at the edge of their seats and more ready to commit to war or self-defence more than ever.

It will definitely be a big few months ahead for Hezbollah. Its traditional position in the old political order will be challenged and both Hezbollah and Iran will have to find a way to fit in a post Arab spring Middle East. The emergence of Turkey and Erdogan’s efforts to reassert influence over what it sees as its old Ottoman playground, alongside the rise of Egypt from the ashes with the Muslim Brotherhood at its helm trying to reclaim Egypt’s dominance in Arab politics will be a stern test to Hezbollah’s and Iran’s staying power in the coming months. What is certain is that there will be a genuine power struggle for the leadership position in the Muslim world, to be the defenders of Palestine and to lead the push for the fight against Israel – it would be careless to assume that the veteran players; the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey, Iran or Hezbollah, would just give in without a fight – watch this space, enter the Arab summer.

Meor Alif

Democracy and China and Terrorism oh my! : Secretary Clinton goes to West Africa

In David Meyer on January 22, 2012 at 12:04 am

As what is undoubtedly Hillary Clinton’s last full year as Secretary of State begins, the destination of her first major multi-stop foreign trip may surprise you. With talk of U.S. foreign and security policy “pivoting” towards the Pacific, Clinton headed in the opposite direction, across the Atlantic, to West Africa for a whirlwind tour across four states. The visit was billed as focusing on building and consolidating democracy, but economic and security issues were also clearly on the table. Some commentators noted that the trip may also have shared the objective of shoring up relationships with African states that are constantly being tempted by Chinese investments. It’s clear that pivoting towards the Pacific is going to be comprised of diplomacy in every direction…

The centerpiece of the visit was the first stop in Monrovia, Liberia, where the U.S. delegation attended Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s swearing-in ceremony and inaugurated the new U.S. Embassy building. Liberia has seen its fortunes rise in terms of U.S. attention, especially with Secretary Clinton’s initiatives to promote political participation and social equality for women and girls around the world (including the creation of an Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, Melanne Verveer, who was a member of the delegation). With the reelection of Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state, and her reception of the Nobel Peace Prize, which she shared with another female Liberian democracy and women’s rights advocate, Leymah Gbowee (as well as Tawakkol Karman of Yemen), Liberia seems to be fulfilling a key component of Clinton’s foreign policy priorities. Of course, despite these notable achievements, Liberia has yet to become a bastion of political freedom in West Africa like, say, Ghana. But comparisons like that may be unfair as the country continues to heal from years of war. The new embassy is certainly a major gesture of goodwill, but whether recent revelations about Charles Taylor’s ties to the CIA will have any effect on the bilateral relationship remains to be seen.

Following this victory lap in Liberia, Clinton’s team (which included the U.S. Executive’s heavy hitters on African affairs, notably Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson and AFRICOM chief General Carter Ham) dropped in on President Alassane Ouattara in Côte d’Ivoire. While expressing her admiration for the progress made in the country since last year’s electoral crisis and calling for a unity government, there were reports that behind closed doors she pressed Ouattara on the issue of war crimes (links in French). According to diplomatic sources, in private Clinton called for the removal of Guillaume Soro, Côte d’Ivoire’s current Prime Minister, and an Ouattara ally, as well as anyone currently in a position of power in the government who could be linked to possible crimes during the post-election chaos or under Laurent Gbagbo’s regime. Clinton requested that anyone fitting this description appear before the International Criminal Court, at the very least to provide testimony. This is tied to two main issues in the post-Gbagbo Côte d’Ivoire: First, there has been concern that Gbagbo supporters have been treated harshly by the Ouattara regime and not provided adequate physical protection, resulting in unlawful killings and human rights violations. Second, the question of any unity government, which would ostensibly contain pro-Gbagbo members, is still a sticky subject for American diplomats. On the surface, the U.S. government wants to support stability in Côte d’Ivoire through a moderate, inclusive regime. On the other hand, however, the presence of officials in the government that can be tied to human rights abuses or previous overstretches of government power, especially by the military, may have a negative effect on any budding democracy and stability in the country. Clinton trod carefully, striking a balance between praise and pressure while revealing a U.S. that promises to be supportive of the new regime but still come down forcefully on issues of good governance and stability.

After the quick stop in Abidjan, the delegation took a jaunt to Togo, the first time a Secretary of State has visited the small state (link in French). Observers were quick to note Togo’s current inflated importance, sitting as a rotating member on the U.N. Security Council. Envisioning possible votes on Iran and Syria, it was easy to tack the Togolese onto this short excursion. On the agenda was anti-drug smuggling and anti-terrorism; U.S. offers of cooperation in these areas can go a long way in beefing up a small state’s security forces. Compared to Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire, there isn’t as much to praise in Togo’s political system. In 2005, President Faure Gnassingbé took over the position from his father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who had held power for 38 years. His reelection in 2010 was marred by fraud allegations, but it seems that real attempts are being made to shore up the country’s image and improve the economy. Jeune Afrique shrewdly noted the presence of Donald Steinberg, the Deputy Administer of USAID, in the American delegation, and openly questioned whether the reopening of USAID operations in the country, which were suspended during the ‘90s due to Togo’s “democratic deficit,” are a bargaining chip for that crucial Security Council vote. Indeed, a combination of USAID money and increased anti-terrorism and anti-drug funding would be music to the ears of President Gnassingbé. Suddenly it seems like Clinton’s trip has veered away from its lofty goals of promoting democracy in West Africa, as diplomacy in Togo just looks like old-fashioned propping up of dictators for political favors. However, legislative and local elections are on the table for 2012 and the main opposition party, the UFC, was given seven ministerial positions following the 2010 elections (link in French). If there ever was an opening to push for more democracy in the country, it’s now, and it seems like the State Department has found an opportunity to both get what it wants at the U.N. and promote inclusive democratic governance in Togo. Assistant Secretary Carson gave Gnassingbé a lot to live up to when he stated the president is “determined to put in place a strong reform-minded government – one that is democratic, multiparty and which opens up the country.” Let’s hope he’s right about the Togolese leader’s will to step up to the plate on democratization.

Before heading home, the delegation island-hopped to Cape Verde, where the Secretary met Prime Minister José Maria Pereira Neves. The island nation is often looked to as a paragon of democracy in Africa, though it is somewhat removed from the continent itself. Nonetheless, it offered the perfect capstone to a trip that had democracy at its heart.

So how should we rate this excursion by the Secretary? Despite the fact that it was relatively short, I believe it’s important to show that the United States is still actively engaged on the African continent. As mentioned at the outset, the constant talk of shifting U.S. policy priorities towards Asia has many wondering if this means other U.S. initiatives, especially democracy promotion around the world, are bound to suffer. The U.S. State Department is much more complex than that. Indeed, as I previously mentioned, the tilt towards Asia isn’t geographically limited to the Asian continent. As China builds new relationships in sub-Saharan Africa and South America, the United States is going to be on the alert to attempt to counter Chinese influence. While, in my opinion, China’s increased role in global affairs isn’t something that threatens the United States from a security standpoint (nor is it something that can be “countered”), it’s clear that, as the economy recovers, American businesses are going to be on the lookout for investment opportunities in foreign countries. The U.S. government realizes that if they don’t act to shore up relationships with developing states, U.S. businesses are going to pay the price. And as more people begin to fret about the security situation in Nigeria, building U.S. influence in the region is a clear precursor to growing U.S. involvement in the energy sector in the Gulf of Guinea and increased anti-terrorism cooperation across West Africa. At the very least, Clinton’s visit shows that the U.S. remains committed to democracy in Africa, and that’s not something to be taken lightly in the continued development of the continent.

-David Meyer

Resetting the Reset with Mitt Romney

In Joe Raimondi on January 18, 2012 at 10:31 am

Suppose Mitt Romney wins the Republican presidential nomination and competes against Barack Obama later this year in the general election. If he were to win the general election, would his administration’s relationship and engagement with Russia be radically different than that pursued under the Obama administration? While most analysis of Romney’s foreign policy approach understandably deals with it in more general terms (see James Joyner or various blog posts by Dan Drezner), both Josh Kucera and Mark Adomanis have detailed the parts of Romney’s foreign policy white paper that address Russia. The word “banal” pops up in both pieces. Maybe his ideas about foreign policy (per the white paper) are “banal.” If so, is this more-or-less a consequence of Romney’s need to at least superficially defer to mainstream Republican foreign policy tropes, if only for campaign purposes?

To what extent should we view his white paper as an indicator of what foreign policy initiatives under President Romney would look like? There are at least two things to keep in mind. First, talk is cheap for presidential candidates. It’s advisable to present ideas, initiatives, and strategies in a succinct and decisive manner, and downplay or simply ignore complicating factors or exigencies that are incompatible with said strategies. Candidates present their foreign policy approach in a simplified way because doing so distills issues into an accessible form for likely voters. Or, as Mario Cuomo once said, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Romney’s white paper is primarily a campaign document and should be viewed as such.

Second, Romney is aware of his audience. He may feel compelled to evoke a tough position vis-a-vis Russia on nuclear disarmament, missile defense, and Russian “aggressive or expansionist behavior” because he’s the presumptive candidate of the party that over the past three decades has (pretty successfully) staked a claim to being more capable on national security and defense issues. It makes sense for Romney to echo boilerplate (hawkish) Republican positions about Russia of late (“Russia is a destabilizing force on the world stage. It needs to be tempered.”), though in a way that is moderated (or “banal”) enough to attract independents and moderates.

Mitt Romney doesn’t think much of the Obama administration’s policy, critiquing it by means of a promise to “reset the reset.” The logic is that between (perceived) acquiescence on the New START Treaty and the pushed-aside Bush-era plan for a Central European missile defense system, Obama has fecklessly adopted a conciliatory and asymmetric approach to Russia – characterized in his white paper as one where “we give, Russia gets” – to the detriment of U.S. security interests. His line of attack on Obama’s reset policy is consistent – in a more subtle manner – with a recurring Romney campaign theme: Obama as an apologist for the U.S. To that end, it makes sense, but are his arguments and assertions well-founded or merely reactionary?

In particular, the notion that “the Obama administration has failed to move Russia towards a more beneficial working relationship with the United States and our allies” is not really accurate, considering the nadir of the U.S.-Russia relationship over the past decade was mid-late 2008 during the second Bush administration (specifically the buildup and aftermath of the Russo-Georgian War), and occurred as a consequence of Bush’s insistence on a missile defense system in Central Europe (the Czech Republic and Poland, specifically) as well as Putin’s suspicion towards NATO enlargement, and the perceived security threat it (still) represents to Russia. If only by default, by the end of 2008 the only direction in which U.S.-Russia relations could conceivably move was up. Since then, the Obama administration’s disavowing of the missile defense sites in Central Europe as well as negotiating the New START Treaty in 2010 are significant: the former as an overture that the Obama administration was serious about dealing with an Iranian security threat in a way that wasn’t threatening to Moscow, and the latter as an avenue for continued cooperation on nuclear disarmament.

Should Romney’s assertions about “reverting” to the European missile defense system be taken seriously? Probably not, one reason being NATO reliance on the NDN (over the next two years at least) and the idea that the former is “linked” to the latter. Beyond that, it’s likely that Romney’s blustering with regards to both Russia and China, the other “nation with rising ambitions,” is illustrative more of a calculated foreign policy position for domestic consumption during an election season rather than a true indication of policy.

In the alternative scenario, Barack Obama is elected to a second term. What exactly is the “next phase” of the reset policy, and what are some avenues for closer engagement and cooperation? At the recent swearing-in ceremony, Michael McFaul, the new American ambassador to Russia, described this “next phase” as a “more complex” one, “when the alignment of our interests and values is never easy.” In terms of security interests, a primary avenue for cooperation is through missile defense. According to Ellen Tauscher, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, there is optimism that the “strategic stability” talks, scheduled over the next eight months, could either result in a deal or at least move the two sides much closer together. As far as NATO enlargement, the unveiling of the reset policy back in 2009 was accompanied by talk that “countries who seek and aspire to join NATO are able to join NATO,” but overall the issue has been downplayed over the past three years, and has become even more marginalized in the context of recent Department of Defense spending cuts and reorientation towards the Asia-Pacific region. More important for the next five years is Russia’s recent accession to the WTO and the potential commercial benefits to be gained by the repeal of the outdated Jackson-Vanik Amendment. McFaul’s reference to aligning values is a bit ambiguous, but if “aligning values” entails the U.S. lecturing Russia on human rights and political corruption issues, it’s likely that such an effort will be met with little more than derision.

Beware the Al Qaeda phantom in Syria!

In Meor Alif on January 12, 2012 at 7:19 pm

Beware the Al Qaeda phantom in Syria!

As Hafez al Assad stares down at the rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria from that special place in heaven for Syrian dictators, surely the thought that a Libyan styled intervention happening in Syria would have crossed his mind. As much as it would make him turn in his grave, there is very little moral credit these days to staunchly deny that an imminent or at the very least a likely intervention is just around the corner.

All the quintessential elements are present and accounted for – there is a dictator with an alleged history of sponsoring terrorism who with each move he makes does no favours for himself in the eyes of the international community, there is a resilient population that knows not the meaning of being subdued, a Syrian National Council that should slowly gain momentum as things unravel in Syria and soon in the Free Syrian Army we might have a Northern Alliance. At the time of this writing, a humanitarian intervention makes sense, but what makes a moment opportune? Or more importantly is there something unseen here that ought to be?

In his recent address to the media, Mr. Bashar al Assad waved his iron fist and continued to pin the blame of instability unto the ‘terrorist’, possibly taking cue from his father and the responses meted out to the Islamists by the late Assad in the 1980’s. Quite understandably, given the impending end of this regime, the ‘blame it on the terrorists’ move is an easy card to reach out for which with it carries a certain hope of legitimation for the violence his regime continues to carry out every day. Logically, no one would say no to you when you are fighting terrorists in your own country, and who would be silly enough to get in your way if you are doing everyone a favour by making the world free of one less terrorist movement? Well, to this I say, the African National Congress were terrorists.

If we were to pause for a moment and muster in us the most minute amount of sympathy for Mr. Bashar by the mere fact that we respect the idea of an office of a president, then maybe we ought to look at certain facts and consider if there really are terrorist in Syria, and more importantly, are they the kind of fighters that we can learn to like and help or the kind that Mr. Bashar is right in blaming?

It is almost common knowledge by now that historically Mr. Bashar’s regime are bigger fans of Hezbollah and several other more nationalist oriented terror organizations than the Islamist fashioned Al Qaeda. Understandably, it might be unwise to drag Al Qaeda into yet another rapidly deteriorating complicated conflict zone, but in the light of recent reports of links between the Free Syrian Army and Al Qaeda, a thought has to be spared for the possibility that being the violent entrepreneurs they are, that there is some truth behind Al Qaeda wanting a piece of the action in Syria.

We know now that momentously but rather thinly a few months ago America and Al Qaeda found themselves of the same side of the political spectrum for once in their long history. Although Ayman al-Zawahiri’s motives deferred greatly from America’s in that it saw the change in Syria brought by the protesters in July as yet another step towards the annihilation of America. But despite this obvious difference, it cannot be denied by a neutral observer that fundamentally, for the briefest of moments, both America and Al Qaeda agreed that the Syrian population had a cause worth supporting.

As I mentioned earlier, those familiar with Al Qaeda and who of course as a prerequisite, buy into the notion that Al Qaeda is an organization with a proper functional structure with tentacle like networks wouldn’t be surprised at the entrepreneurial reaction of Al Qaeda to the developments in Syria. A rational theorist interested in analysing Al Qaeda’s reaction would agree that it is completely understandable for Al Qaeda to be interested in ceasing the opportunity to support a movement that quite potentially would topple a secular regime and replace it with a more theocratic one. Similarly, the same observer would understand that America and the west would see in Syria like they did in Libya an opportunity to replace a dictatorship with democracy.

But as far as Al Qaeda involvement in Syria is concerned at the moment, the link thoroughly ends at the video released by Ayman al-Zawahiri a few months ago – or at least this is how much we know about their involvement currently. Certain reports claim that towards the end of 2011 sometime in September, meetings occurred between the Free Syrian Army and Abdul Hakim Belhadj. Some might say that this is evidence that there are certain Al Qaeda elements trying to weasel their way into Syria. However, the problem with this claim lies with the mistaking of Abdul Hakim Belhaj as being Al Qaeda, for at the very least there should be a world of a difference between being an Al Qaeda sympathizer and an Al Qaeda member.  Mr. Belhaj has always denied being an Al Qaeda member and moreover, the National Transitional Council in Libya has always vociferously insisted that there are no links between their revolution and Al Qaeda.

Moreover, very few out there are convinced that any Al Qaeda involvement is present at all in Syria; at least Omar Bakri is unconvinced.

In an interview conducted by Ashraq al-Awsat in January 2012, Omar Bakri is reported to have said during the interview that;

“Through my study of the literature of Al-Qaeda, the Islamist movements, and the Salafi jihadi tendencies, through my following up of the reports of their activities and operations, and through my presence in Lebanon, I can say confidently (describing the reality at face value): neither Al-Qaeda Organization, nor the Salafi jihadi groups have any presence in Lebanon or Syria.”

He goes on further to analyze the supposed Al Qaeda involvement in the recent Damascus explosion and comments;

“In my opinion, what the Syrian regime claims is mere falsehood that is unfounded. We have not heard at all from any of these organizations, which the regime claims to exist, an announcement of its responsibility for any operation. This is bearing in mind that Al-Qaeda Organization and the Salafi groups usually publish video tapes after each suicide operation in order to recruit youths and attract new supporters, which has not happened in any of the Syrian events.”

This alongside the insistence of the media in refusing to believe any Al Qaeda or terrorist activities are present in Syria, further bites away at the credibility of the claim that they are somehow present. Even as early as December, governments like Lebanon through their own efforts have refuted the existence of Al Qaeda in proximity to Syria.

At the end of it, the terrorist that we can neither like or support nor fight against is one that Mr. Bashar al Assad and his regime only sees in their minds and on SANA. What does exist however is a rebel group that should be assisted at the very least in their efforts in providing protection for the protesters and the establishment of safe zones in Syria. Beyond that, there is very little chance that the events in Syria will solve itself unless Mr. Bashar woke up with an epiphany either to win this struggle with a much larger blitz against the ‘terrorists’ or steps down. As it stands, he remains committed to the former.

Meor Alif

Hey, I was listening to that!: On the curbing of media freedoms in Belarus and the DRC

In David Meyer on January 10, 2012 at 11:52 pm

It’s been a bad couple of weeks for media freedom in two very different parts of the world. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the newly (re)-inaugurated president, Joseph Kabila, and his regime took Radio France Internationale (RFI) offline for several days, threatening Congolese access to external sources of information. Perhaps an even larger blow to personal liberty was struck in the authoritarian stronghold of Belarus, where President Lukashenka’s regime began enforcing a law that seriously undermines Belarusian citizens’ access to the internet. Both of these developments are tied to the changing political situations in the countries, but what are the implications for both states’ futures?

On December 31st, DRC Communications and Media Minister Lambert Mende accused RFI of supporting Etienne Tshisekedi’s claim to the presidency (he was Kabila’s main challenger in last year’s presidential election) and of acting with “deliberate will to create a confused [political] situation which can lead us to confrontations between Congolese,” and thus their signal would be cut off until further notice (all DRC links in French). The French radio service had also had its signal disrupted several times following Tshisekedi’s proclamation that he alone was the true president of the country on December 23rd. On January 6th, the U.S. State Department denounced the move as amounting to “censoring” the media in the country and called on the government to immediately reestablish the station’s signal. Fortunately, on January 9th RFI service was restored, with Minister Mende noting (as if there had been nothing strange about the cutoff) that the enforced outage was “finished” but ominously stating that the station needs to have submitted to Congolese law if it wants to continue to enjoy its broadcasting rights. However, this is a hollow victory for media freedom in the DRC, as two other national media chains which are regarded as close to the opposition, Radiotélévision Lisanga and New Canal futur, remain suspended. Unfortunately, the “victory” in the case of RFI may divert attention away from these other politically motivated blackouts of media outlets.

This isn’t the first time, and most likely won’t be the last, that the Kabila regime has manipulated media freedoms inside the country. Indeed, RFI had it’s signal cut off from July 2009 until October 2010 after the authorities accused the station of “lowering the morale” of the army. Perhaps more worrying was the suspension of SMS services across the entire country on December 3rd, just after the bitterly contested national elections. Vice Prime Minister of the Interior, Adolphe Lumanu, stated that the action “was taken in order to preserve public order and assure a happy outcome to the electoral process.” Service wasn’t restored until December 28th.

Infringements on media freedom directly impact citizens’ ability to participate in the political process. So, political freedom is directly connected to a free media. In the case of the DRC, geography matters, especially for communication networks. The DRC’s massive size and lack of infrastructure allows the state to clamp down easily on important frequencies or entire stations if they so desire. In addition, to shut off SMS service deprives large numbers of citizens of one of their primary means of communication, especially with friends and family. These moves by the Kabila regime show there to be considerable government concerns about possible organized protests à la Arab Spring, but they also reveal the desperation of a prototype failed state to keep control over its citizens.

This same type of desperation is on full display a little further north, in Belarus. In this case, however, the state isn’t failed, but rather inching in a more all-consuming direction. As mentioned above, the Lukashenka regime has brought into force a new law that restricts citizens’ internet usage and compels service provides, including internet cafes, to record the web traffic of each individual. Several opposition political websites have made their way onto the blacklist. This all comes on the heels of the massive crackdown on the democratic opposition following last year’s rigged presidential elections, in which Lukashenka won nearly 80% of the vote. Even as the Belarusian economy has tumbled, the regime has only been tightening its grip on power.

In contrast to the DRC, where state authorities also may have complete control over certain communications networks, Belarus has several characteristics that allow for external intervention despite regime lockdown. Indeed, Belsat, which receives Western funding and is based out of Poland, continues to broadcast satellite news from the outside to offer an alternative to state-controlled media in Belarus. Of course, Belsat operates at a low level and its journalists undertake significant risks reporting from inside the country, but as its viewership has risen above 10% of Belarusian citizens, there is hope that progress can be made on increasing Belarusian exposure to alternative forms of media. The internet crackdown, which can easily be linked to the deteriorating economic situation in Belarus, could herald new attempts by the regime to clamp down on this type of external broadcasting as well. Belarusians’ exposure to external media is critical to expanding their political consciousness, and possibly leading to further popular democratic uprisings in the country to match those that took place in the wake of last year’s flawed elections. This is a long-term goal, but the efforts of those that promote media freedom in the country are of utmost importance to Belarus’ future. In addition to these challenges to the Belarusian authorities at home, the U.S. has upped the ante, and new sanctions are due to come into effect soon.

As media crusaders battle on in Belarus, are there any lessons to take from their struggle that could be applicable in a country as different as the DRC? There already are several independent news outlets that operate in the DRC, notably Radio Okapi, which is funded by the U.N. Promoting local media sources would be important, if the money or support from the international community was there, and it clearly isn’t. In a country as vast as the DRC, especially with its infrastructural problems, it’s going to be very difficult to set up and maintain quality local news outlets without more outside aid (something Belsat continues to enjoy) and, unfortunately, as alluded to in my previous post, American policy in the DRC continues to be rather passive.

As for the possibilities of external broadcasting, they would run right into several problems. Obviously infrastructure, importantly internet penetration, is a major stumbling block, but there’s also an indelible legacy that gets in the way of any serious discussion on the topic. The history of insurgency in Central Africa is defined by rebel groups building their forces in neighboring states before launching their anti-government campaigns. Any type of external broadcasting by political exiles, who are clearly present in all of the surrounding states, would be too easily tied to ambitions of violent takeover of the DRC and the perceived threat could be instrumentalized by the Kabila regime to only further crack down on opposition groups and free media. However, the DRC is not the monolith that the Belarusian state is (or at least pretends to be), and a slow but steady approach of spreading new political ideas may be the best way towards the Congolese people undertaking a popular campaign to demand their political, civil, and human rights. If the Congolese are to take a lesson from the Belarusian activists, it should be that, although their work is dangerous, it is necessary to secure the future freedoms of all citizens, and it is their present perseverance that will define the future of their country.

-David Meyer

Welcome to the Post-9/11 Era

In Ben Kurland on January 9, 2012 at 5:40 pm

Much has been made over America’s military role in the world in the past decade as a result of the attacks on the Twin Towers. Surely the wars spawned by the attacks have defined the past decade both tactically and strategically. It saw the rebirth of counter insurgency, a new understanding of intervention, and an all-around reexamination of the role of war in modern society. It seems more ink has been spilled over the simple numbers 9 and 11 than I care to create an analogy for. Call the era what you may (the 9/11 era, the era of American interventionism, etc.) the simple fact is that the 2000s made much ado of American military might.

Last Thursday, however, President Obama travelled to the Pentagon to jointly announce with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta a new outlook for the American military in the 21st century. The report, called Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21stCentury Defense, says many things but the most notable and the point most noted by news media and politicians alike is that the U.S. will seek to reduce in military budget over the course of the next decade. Military spending could be cut by as much as $450 billion over the next decade. Additionally, automatic budget cuts of $500 billion are called for after Congress’ Joint Budget Committee failed to come to an agreement in November (although they will probably find a loop hole).

We still do not know exactly where the cuts will come from but there are safe bets conventional troop numbers will be effected as well as speculation surrounding nuclear forces, R&D, health and benefits, or as the President outlined, “As we look beyond the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and the end of long-term, nation-building with large military footprints – we’ll be able to ensure our security with smaller conventional ground forces. We’ll continue to get rid of outdated Cold War-era systems so that we can invest in the capabilities we need for the future, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; counterterrorism; countering weapons of mass destruction; and the ability to operate in environments where adversaries try to deny us access.”

There are several elements to this statement that indicate what I have suggested in the title of this article, namely that we are now entering the beginning stages of the post-9/11 era. What we saw after 9/11 was a surge in the willingness to commit large numbers of forces to spots around the world perceived to be in accordance with our liberal values of spreading democracy, freedom, etc. Troop numbers and the size of the army and marines surged especially after the adoption of COIN theory in both Iraq and Afghanistan. This was in line with the tenets of COIN which called for large numbers of soldiers to commit to countering a hard to find and wily enemy.

We are moving away from this thinking, however. With budgetary concerns being brought to the foremost in the American politic, it seems even the military will have to do its part in reducing costs. What this means is that the United States’ “big footprint” tactics which also happen to be quite expensive will probably fall by the wayside. Whether or not COIN turns out to work in Afghanistan or not, more likely than not we have seen the United States employ it unilateral for the last time for at least the short run.

So, what will take its place? What will the post-9/11 era in US military strategy look like? It may actually look more familiar than you think. Speaking speculatively, I think you will see the adoption in effect (if not in name) of two doctrines that proceeded the attacks on 9/11; namely the Powell and Rumsfeld doctrines.

First is the Powell Doctrine or simply that the United States will only commit forces under strictly defined parameters after having answered several vital questions like “is there a vital national interest at stake?”, “have all non-lethal alternatives been exhausted?”, and “do we have broad international support?” There are more questions but you can get the gist from these few. The re-adoption of this mind-set is already underway. It is a direct genesis of having committed American forces too deeply and at too much expense to too many wars with too little support. Do not misunderstand me; the United States’ military will maintain a far advantage over any other military in the world. Even with tsuch being the case, it simply will not commit to the same level of exertion as was seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Frankly, this might not be a bad thing. If I may place it in a dual choice; the U.S. military will do better to fight smarter in the short-run rather than harder.

This leads me to my second principle, the Rumsfeld Doctrine. This may be quite shocking for those familiar with Donald Rumsfeld, the now mostly disgraced former Secretary of Defense who over saw much of the early mismanagement of the two wars that have brought the United States to this crossroad. What I am emphasizing, however, is not the need to mismanage future engagements (as a matter of fact I will make the bold statement that the United States should try to avoid such follies) but instead highlight some of Rumsfeld’s practical, pre-9/11 ideas. Namely, that the United States should commit to a highly mobile, technologically advanced force relying more on air support assisting a small, nimble ground force. In other words, the United States slims down, speeds up, and gets smart. We have seen a variation of this in the implementation and proliferation of drones. They are technologically advanced, highly integrated, relatively cheap, and mobile alternative to large scale, ground intensive troop deployments. They go places ground soldiers cannot, see things ground soldiers cannot, and can be lethal where ground soldiers cannot. Not to mention that they do not risk lives where the army does.

So, what does this have to say about the post-9/11 era? Ceteris paribus, the United States should reconsider these two approaches as a way to control costs while still meeting the challenges of a new era.

Fundamentalism in Central Asia: Perceptions and state responses

In Joe Raimondi on January 7, 2012 at 4:16 pm

Proximity to Afghanistan and the evolution of terrorism have fostered much debate and analysis over the past few years about security threats posed by violent fundamentalist or extremist groups in Central Asia. In the context of places with relatively high-conflict potential, we have seen more emphasis placed on this region as a consequence of the spread of diffuse transnational organizations, prompting speculation about the spillover effect from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Recently, Louise Arbour identified “Central Asia” in a Foreign Policy post titled “Next Year’s Wars,” though her analysis does place “insurgency” as one issue among many that contribute to instability in the region – including ethnic conflict, poor inter-state relations, and natural-resource issues. Fundamentalism and extremism exist in this environment but are hard to isolate from the broader range of political and socio-economic issues.

Two groups that have gained notoriety of late are the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) – an offshoot of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan – and more recently (and to a lesser extent), the Jund Al-Khilafah, a Kazakh group has taken responsibility for potentially religiously-motivated bombings, in Atyrau, Kazakhstan in October.

While Uzbekis are often the usual suspects for acts of terrorism and subversive behavior in Central Asia – a recent example being the tenuous claims about the IJU operating in the run-up to the Kyrgyz presidential elections in October – those involved in the Atyrau bombings as well as the attacks in Taraz, Kazakhstan in November don’t seem to be linked to any Uzbekistan-based groups or individuals. As far as the November attacks go, there is speculation that the man who carried out the attack in Taraz may have had links to Islamists based in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. The mere existence of certain extremist groups operating within Central Asia is not unequivocal.

Real or perceived security threats – often in the form of externally and/or internally destabilizing groups and individuals – are useful issues for regimes concerned with population control. This logic extends to the Central Asian Republics (CARs) when assessing government depictions, analyses, and portrayals of different threats, often characterized under the umbrella of fundamentalism or extremism for political purposes. A look at a recent Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report is illustrative of the difficulty in assessing extremism in the CARs, especially for external observers trying to figure out where the security threat ends (in terms of potential for violence or conflict) and government tampering or even human rights violations begin. The most recent report (“speculation”), from December 2011, contains references to the imprisonment of 16 men in Uzbekistan – from an “unidentified illegal Islamist organization” – as well as the imprisonment of 28 men in Tajikistan for “supporting a terrorist group.” The point is not that these convicted men pose no threat, are unaffiliated with extremist groups, or have had their human rights trampled on, but that to what extent can we gain an accurate understanding of the threat in cases where the legal system abides by a different set of rules and the governments have a high capacity to manipulate the system and either eliminate or marginalize dissent?

President Imomali Rakhmon’s response to Islamism in Tajikistan illustrates the sometimes uneasy relationship between religion and the state in the CARs. For at least the past year, there have been governmental shut downs as well as general police harassment of “men with beards.” Like other CARs, the conflation of endemic political corruption, constrained and suppressed media outlets, and the political utility of “threats” have undermined attempts to separate and identify real threats from manufactured ones, or ones based on expedience. George Camm frames the problem as such:

“Is it possible that some of the 1250 unregistered mosques really are fanning the flames of extremism? Certainly. But the work of determining   that with any degree of confidence is drastically complicated by the government’s perpetual exaggerations and non-transparency… With their ham-fisted policies, the authorities can’t seem to identify genuine threats to security. When officials do speak publicly on the topic, legitimate concerns are often so heavily laced with untruth that their claims elicit little trust.”

As in Kazakhstan, external assessments of extremism in Tajikistan entail analysis of highly repressive, opaque, and dysfunctional regimes which are noteworthy for dismal rankings on both corruption and press freedom indices.

Geographic proximity of the CARs to Afghanistan and Pakistan warrants comparisons of Islamism in both Central and South Asia, but is one plausible given the effect of decades of Soviet rule on religious life in the former? When we look at the CARs alongside the course of events in Afghanistan and Pakistan throughout the 1980s – specifically the influx of foreign money and manpower to fuel the jihad against the USSR, and the subsequent devastating effects on Afghan society, it is fair to say that religious life in South and Central Asia has developed in distinct manners. We have enough trouble with accurate depictions of religious life in Afghanistan in itself, let alone in a broader regional context.

At the same time, geography matters for analysis of extremism in Central Asia because porous borders and weak institutional capacity in Afghanistan and Pakistan are critical factors for operational capacity for Central Asian-based groups like Jund Al-Khilafah and the IJU. Radicalization in the CARs is also connected to broader jihadist movements, such as the one in the North Caucasus (the Caucasus Emirate), in terms of media and rhetoric (individuals from one region propagating jihad via videos, and the language used to do so), as well as training and manpower. One example: a Caucasian man named Magomed Bagilov, fighting for the Dagestani Vilaiyat, who received training in Waziristan with the IJU as well as religious education in Egypt.

There will likely be continued, localized, and sporadic violence emanating from the CARs, with responsibility being assigned to violent fundamentalist groups outright or individuals with alleged links to foreign/transnational groups. The recent government response to protesters in the Kazakh city of Zhanaozen (the basis of which is unclear) will probably affect the Kazakh government’s response and posture towards future unrest. In terms of political and religiously-motivated violence, though, “ham-fisted” approaches by Central Asian governments blur the mixture of different security threats to these states, and those posed by fundamentalist groups represent just a portion of the larger picture. The state narrative will continue to utilize the expediency of this threat, whether real, perceived or overblown.

Avoiding a repeat: Prospects for Albanian democracy and political violence in 2012 and beyond

In David Meyer on January 6, 2012 at 8:55 pm

It was almost one year ago that protestors across Albania, principally in Tirana, mobilized against Prime Minister Sali Berisha and his Democratic Party government. The manifestations of public anger had been primarily organized by Albania’s Socialist Party, led by then mayor of Tirana, Edi Rama (Rama lost his reelection bid to Lulzim Basha, the former DP foreign minister in the most hotly contested electoral battle of the May 2011 local elections). These protests, which were a continuation of the political dispute that had gripped Albania since the 2009 parliamentary elections, threatened to throw the country into disarray, not because of the protests themselves, but due to the state reaction. On January 21st, following fringe demonstrators setting fire to cars and hurling rocks and eggs at security forces, the police struck back. Four demonstrators were killed and over 40 people, including police officers, were injured in the ruckus. Seeing images of burning vehicles and running protestors in front of the iconic “Pyramid” in downtown Tirana, formerly Enver Hoxha’s mausoleum, raised the specter of the anarchy that engulfed the country in 1997. Indeed, there is a monument in front of the Pyramid with a bell meant to represent youth voices standing up for peace, legitimacy, and a better future (my rough translation). These clashes represented a direct threat to Albanian democracy; two incredible symbols of Albania’s past of turmoil seemed to be giving birth to the present breakdown.

Following the deadly protests and an outcry against the police violence from the international community, Sali Berisha declared that this had been a coup attempt and attempted to lead a political witch hunt against the Socialists, the Chief Prosecutor Ida Rama (not related to Edi Rama), who had called for a full investigation into security force violence, and even the President, Bamir Topi, a former DP official before taking up the nonpartisan position. Luckily, the international community didn’t bite, despite several lame attempts by non-Balkan watchers to link the violence to the Arab Spring, and swift rebukes were in order, including from Albania’s most treasured ally, the United States. However, as the year progressed (read: after the bitterly contested local elections were sorted out) the tensions began to relax, and last September the infamous parliamentary gridlock, which had prevented the passing of laws that required a 2/3 majority (importantly, laws with E.U. accession implications), was tentatively broken.

So, what does this next year have in store for the Land of Eagles following a 2011 marked by state violence against demonstrators, ridiculous talk of a coup, and now apparent calm? Over at Balkan Insight, Besar Likmeta attempts to strike a balance between being hopeful that a turning point has been reached in the Berisha-Rama battle and the realist viewpoint that this is only a lull in the fighting. Quoted in the article is Lutfi Dervishi, a political commentator who believes that the fragile peace may last through the July presidential elections (which is not a popularly elected position, but rather chosen by a simple parliamentary majority) but then unravel as the 2013 general election preparation kicks into gear. This seems to be the most likely scenario and the selection of the next president could have a crucial role to play in the continued struggle. A candidate with Democratic Party connections could be construed as an attempt to influence the nominally nonpartisan position, especially after Berisha’s attacks on President Topi following the deadly demonstrations as well as a public dispute over the appointments of Supreme Court judges. Since the beginning of the new year, Berisha has brought four government institutions directly under the control of the Prime Minister’s office, removing them from normal government control. Some are already worried that this will undermine the neutrality and independence of government administration.

The Socialists, however, are most concerned with wrestling back control of the parliament, and any kinds of anti-democratic developments might provide them with more ammunition to reignite protests against the current government, perhaps hoping to goad the security forces into another rash move. The chances of renewed violent civil unrest in 2012 look slim, unless President Topi’s successor is seen as politicized. It seems like the best chance for the Socialists will involve focusing on the economy, which has been slowing down over the last year (the National Institute of Statistics is one of the entities Berisha recently brought under the direct control of the Prime Minister’s office…let the conspiracy theories on economic growth numbers commence!). The Socialists may be tempted to take a page out of the U.S. Republican Party’s playbook: sit back, relax, and obstruct reform legislation. Using some of the Berisha regime’s less democratic measures as cover, it might behoove the Socialists to watch the country sink while pressing for a big change in 2013. Of course, the E.U. question looms large over Albanian politics, and is supposedly something all sides agree on as important to Albania’s future. While I don’t believe the current weakening of the E.U. will have much of an impact on Albania’s desire to join the regional bloc, a more complete collapse of E.U. institutions could turn Albanian politics on its head. Without an issue to join hands over, the country could head back to the political doldrums of the past two years.

Albania’s past elections have been marred by murders of candidates, racially tinged protests for and against Greek minority rights, and allegations of voter fraud and corruption. If the presidential election remains non-political and the economy steadies itself (perhaps a tall order) there is a chance that the center of Albanian politics could hold. The longer Albanian political parties cling to this (at least cosmetic) cooperation, the better prepared the country will be to hold more democratic elections in 2013.

-David Meyer

Is it time to repeal the Jackson-Vanik Amendment?

In Ben Kurland on January 4, 2012 at 12:10 am

Yes.

On December 16th at its Ministerial Conference in Geneva, the World Trade Organization (WTO) formally accepted Russia’s bid for accession after its initial application 18 years ago. The WTO is the world’s largest rules-based trade organization that sets out to liberalize trade policy of its members and provide a dispute resolution mechanism that, believe it or not, is quite effective. Russia is the world’s 11th largest economy by GDP. What does this marriage mean? It means that Russia will have to begin liberalizing its trade policy, open up its markets to foreign goods, and remove restrictive tariffs. Russian Economic Development and Trade Minister Elvira Nabiullina, for example, called the deal a win-win situation and estimated that WTO accession could benefit Russian industry to the tune of 2 billion U.S. dollars a year from the removal of barriers to Russian goods. At the same time, the international community wins because the lowering of trade tariff allows for better access by foreign imports in the Russian market allowing for increased sales and beneficial competition.

For a good, short summary of how compliance will affect Russian imports you can look here.

Where is the sticking point? For the United States, it is the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. Passed in 1974, the amendment prevents the United States from extending Most Favored Nation (MFN) status to any country that restricts freedom of emigration. It was aimed at the USSR which the United States believed was violating the rights of its Jewish population to emigrate through a “diploma tax.”

So, what’s the big deal? The problem is that since Jackson-Vanik is still on the books, it represents a violation of WTO rules. If the US does not graduate Russia from Jackson-Vanik and offer Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR), it would mean that Russia does not have to extend to the US all of its WTO commitments. This hurts US exports by putting them at a disadvantage in an increasingly open market. It is also worth mentioning that the exit fees levied on Jewish emigrants was lifted in 1991 when the USSR collapsed and became the Russian Federation. Jackson-Vanik is like one of those joke laws you can read about online that may or may not be true… you never know. The only problem is that it is real and has the potential to harm the US export sector.