Just how democratic is the Middle East getting?Written by Angelique van Engelen
If democracy is any more up for a redefinition anywhere, now would be time and Middle East would be place. Events in Iraq and elections of Palestians had a contageous effect in other Middle Eastern countries too. For first time in at least 50 years, we see grassroots demand for updated versions of democracy in countries that have long been dominated by authoritarian regimes; Egyptians have been demanding to be allowed a multi party system, in Lebanon fall of a strongly Syrian influenced government went accompanied by street rallies and even in Syria, where street bans are most stringent, people going out on streets were unusually defyant. What are chances that grassroots demand for democracy will actually begin to intersect with supply from home governments? Go to any Arab country and read headlines of background sections of newspapers and you’ll surely find yourself immersed in series and series of studies on merits of true democracy, women’s rights as well as links between Islam and women’s rights. You could argue that news in Arab world is taken in a literal sense here but after sixth week, you’ll find yourself harboring less than democratic feelings for editors of papers for their lack of ingenuity. Slowly, however, all theorising is being replaced by real live examples of efforts to effect greater democracy in Middle Eastern countries. Not least to satisfaction of senior US officials including President Bush, who reiterated that time has come for Middle East to shrug off shackles of authoritarian regimes only last week. Both in policy circles and on ground, change is taking place, observers say. To descrIbe where two parties interlock would be to cover story of century no doubt. A lot has been said already about spread of democracy in Middle East, but events are finally beginning to provide poignancy that rhetoric went short of for decades and decades. Why euphoria? In Middle East, grassroots still really means grassroots. That is why ever since 9/11 attacks, think tanks (who have a reputation of providing most dependable information on societies they are active in)’ refocus from Israeli Palestinian piece efforts to ways of combating terrorism has been more on money than ever. After 9/11 attacks, many institutions overhauled their agendas and soon their work started to reflect exact concerns that were alive on policy making level. Topics included research into promotion of democracy in a way that endorses, rather than undermines stability; war on terrorism, along with diminution of extremism and radicalism as well as nation-building process in Iraq. What was taking place was a shift toward new realities. Initially, organizations were accused for totally missing out on any alarming signals that wider Arab societies might have issued ahead of 9/11 attacks, but this was soon forgotten. More pressing issues such as bigger scope for democracy in more Arab countries were gaining momentum as invasion of Iraq and effort to build a democracy in that ravaged country became a matter of western style branding of a seemingly revamped phenomenon. As Washington was showing itself ready to ‘entertain an unprecedented level of political risk and uncertainty’, idea of Arab autocracy was slowly beginning to become more and more old fashioned. All nice for who was buying into it when listening to hyper modern tv reports, but what did this work out on ground? How is US making good on its promise to actually effect greater and true democracy in Arab world. Good question. How do you go about effecting deeper democracies in countries which hardly have any other idea of ruling other than by what they deem decent autocratic approach.
Kyrgyzstan’s Revolution : a New Definition of “Partytime”?Written by Angelique van Engelen
Kyrgyzstan’s swift and sudden revolution happened almost before one could have managed to pronounce this obscure country’s name. The chaos in country where activists chased away their ruling leaders show a country coming to terms with a colonial past and on a quest to find a new identity. Despite looting and – tempered- violence, initial reading of this revolution is that catharsis might preclude a positive outcome. Not so much only for this tiny country, but more importantly perhaps in wider context of rise of democracy in ex Soviet countries. Even Russian leader Vladimir Putin has shown a new attitude to regime change in a former Soviet state – vouching support for new regime and also promising to treat its old leader kindly. Kyrgyzstan’s revolution likely will have opened doors to a more pragmatic government that nevertheless will still be leaning on Russia. As such, it will be third of ex-Soviet countries that has seen a grassroots revolution within last 18 months that Russia has had to swallow. Opposition activists took matters into their own hands to ensure –what else- improved living conditions for a people that have become seriously impoverished at hands of a not so corrupt but still corrupt bunch of leaders.
Kyrgyz nationals followed in footsteps of Georgian and Ukrainian opposition forces. In Georgia, opposition - backed by US government- overthrew their Russian puppet cabinet in 2003. More recently, Ukraine last December held another round of Presidential elections after pro -Moscow outcome of first round was contested – putting in place pro Western Viktor Yuschenko. Russia’s reaction to events, which one overseas based Kyrgyz diplomat branded ‘a coup’, can be seen as uncharacteristic. Perhaps issuing a blue print of a new party line – one of utter pragmatism- President Vladimir Putin did not waste many words over issue. Moscow is ‘ready to work with Kyrgyz opposition’, he said. He also offered refuge to Akayev. Russia has never been very much interested in this poorest of five Central Asian states. Regional organizations aside from Russia that might be called onto for mediation are not immediately considered capable of inventing an adequate solution, observers say. Most of five central Asian countries have internal problems and have had difficulties in coping with fledgling economies since well before fall of Soviet Union. After 1991, region has failed to develop any robust political and economic institutions with clout and this is believed to have an impact on economic development of countries, most particularly that of Kyrgyzstan. There is also a lot of personal competition between region's –mostly elderly- leaders and this attitude, which harks back to Soviet days. This highlights why a distinct cooperative atmosphere in Central Asia is simply non-existent. Russian imperialist ambitions never really very strongly connected to Kyrgyzstan, although Russia has some troops on ground. US troops are also stationed outside airport in capital Bishkek in accommodation that recently started to take a more permanent form than tents soldiers set up when they first arrived some two years ago, say people who’ve visited country. The base camp was meant to be a "staging ground" for US troops before fall of Taleban in Afghanistan. All central Asian countries have long been cited to be particularly vulnerable to outside interference from greater powers, yet it’s unlikely that events we’ve seen this week in Kyrgyzstan were result of outside meddling. The last years, country has shown an ambivalence toward anything that reaks of hegemony. On one hand there has been fear that Russia would step up its influence and at same time people have wondered what would happen to them if Russian troops would leave. Kyrgyzstan is only country in Central Asian region to have very limited oil reserves –it pumps out 2,000 bpd- and as such it has escaped every foreign power with an interest in region. Just after fall of Soviet Union, an enormous discovery of oil reserves under Caspian Sea was made, which it was believed would put region on a par with Middle East in terms of oil reserves and would make it number one spot for natural gas in world. Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazachstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan mutually agreed to carve up rights to undersea reserves. The estimates however were somewhat exaggerated and region’s oil interests are of distinct yet not vital importance.