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Sustaining democracy in disaster

Rayhan Ahmed Topader:

The major players in the international community have accepted the outcome of January’s elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in the name of stability. In doing so, they have failed the Congolese people. Moreover, they have fallen short of the aspirations of the UN’s sustainable development goals, which call for accountable and inclusive institutions. Martin Fayulu, the runner-up in Congo’s presidential elections, at a rally in Kinshasa. The results compiled by the independent national election commission (CENI), leaked to the press, confirm those of the Catholic church, which fielded 40,000 observers across the country. They show that Martin Fayulu, the opposition coalition candidate, won the presidential election, not by a whisker, but by a landslide. However, after a week’s delay and intense negotiations, the CENI announced the victory of Felix Tshisekedi. Both in the region and beyond, many argue that, whatever its flaws, the election at least produced a transition from the long presidency of Joseph Kabila, which is the best bet to preserve stability in DRC and the wider Great Lakes region. They may well be wrong on both counts. Less than four years ago, Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near its border, prompting fears of a widening conflict between those neighbors as they faced off in Syria. Yet today, with the withdrawal of American troops from northeastern Syria, analysts agree it now falls to Russia to restrain Turkey through talks and persuasion.

Several years of adroit diplomacy and politicking have left Russia in a new and untested position in the Middle East: It is the one country all sides can talk to. In the not so distant past, no reference to Saudi Arabia in the Russian media would be complete without one official or another denouncing its radical Wahhabi Islam as an extremist threat to Russia’s own way of life. But there was President Vladimir Putin, descending from his plane in Riyadh, Sauid Arabia, to the echoes of a 21-gun salute and traveling to the royal palace with a cavalry escort. Saudi Arabia and Iran, for instance, have nothing but deep enmity for each other, yet Moscow maintains good relations with both Riyadh and Tehran. In a sense, it plays one off the other, Mark Katz, a professor at George Mason University who studies Russia and the Middle East, said in a recent interview. You don’t like the Iranians in Syria? he paraphrases the Russian message to the Saudis. Then it’s a good thing we’re there to keep an eye on them. The Turks loathe Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad. Russia is Assad’s staunchest ally, yet Russia just sold an antiaircraft missile system to Turkey. The four biggest U.S. foes who stand to gain from Syrian pullout. Now Putin wants to sell one to Saudi Arabia, too. Plus a nuclear power plant. Saudi Arabia appreciates Russia’s active role in this region and in the world,” King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud said Monday as he opened talks with Putin.

In Soviet times, relations between Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union were at a rather low level. In recent years, the quality of our relations has changed dramatically. We consider Saudi Arabia a friendly nation,” Putin responded. Analysts say that American confusion, bungling and missteps especially in the past few days have opened the door to the Middle East for Russia. Moscow, by not talking about human rights and transparency, is a welcome change of pace from the West, they say. Putin finds common ground with leaders as diverse as Assad of Syria, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Hassan Rouhani of Iran and even Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. Russians do not scold the Saudi prince, Mohammed bin Salman, over the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at a gathering with Russian President Vladimir Putin during Putin’s Oct.14 visit to the country But experts question whether Russia, having established diplomatic beachheads, has the means to bend the Middle East to its will. They don’t have enough oomph to turn it,” said Heather A. Conley, a former U.S. diplomat who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The American withdrawal from Syria gives Russia an even freer hand in that country. Turkey’s invasion of Kurdish areas does not directly threaten Russia’s interests. In fact Turkey offered Russians the opportunity to persuade the Kurds to start talks with Assad’s government.

The mutual recriminations between Turkey and the United States two NATO allies give Russia even more to build on as it attempts to weaken the Western alliance. Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, said in a tweet that Russia’s influence in Syria “has been again tested and proven strong” by the Kurds’ decision to talk to Damascus.Keeping contacts with all, including Turkey, and having a clear view of one’s own interests and thus a coherent policy is paying off. Yet the dramatic turn of events of the past few days has led to signs of an underlying uneasiness among some in Moscow. The Turkish military invasion in the north of Syria has only complicated the situation in the region, Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the foreign affairs committee in the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament, wrote on his blog. Trying to solve its problem by military means, Turkey creates a new one and exacerbates the old ones. Vladimir Dzhabarov, the deputy head of the Federation Council foreign affairs committee, suggested that Russia and the United States could jointly broker further talks between the Kurds and Assad’s government. Syria is just one item on the agenda during Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The price of oil is another both Riyadh and Moscow believe its price should not be allowed to go too high. Russia wants to pursue a number of energy and military deals that nuclear power plant being one of them.

They will also talk about the attacks on a Saudi oil refinery last month and on an Iranian tanker. Another topic sure to come up is war-torn Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and Iran back opposing sides both of which, as it happens, have had cordial talks with the Russians. It is a balancing act for Moscow: Sow some friendship with one side, then the other; sow some uncertainty at the same time, get some deals done, some boots on the ground. Katz argues that Russia does not have an actual strategic goal for the Middle East. It wants to continue as a player and prevent any one side from becoming dominant.They’re dependent on keeping the pot simmering but not boiling over, he said. It is not clear, he said, that is possible in the long run. In 2018, Freedom in the World recorded the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The reversal has spanned a variety of countries in every region, from long-standing democracies like the United States to consolidated authoritarian regimes like China and Russia. The overall losses are still shallow compared with the gains of the late 20th century, but the pattern is consistent and ominous. Democracy is in retreat. In states that were already authoritarian, earning not Free designations from Freedom House, governments have increasingly shed the thin façade of democratic practice that they established in previous decades, when international incentives and pressure for reform were stronger.

More authoritarian powers are now banning opposition groups or jailing their leaders, dispensing with term limits, and tightening the screws on any independent media that remain. Meanwhile, many countries that democratized after the end of the Cold War have regressed in the face of rampant corruption, antiliberal populist movements, and breakdowns in the rule of law. Most troublingly, even long-standing democracies have been shaken by populist political forces that reject basic principles like the separation of powers and target minorities for discriminatory treatment. Some light shined through these gathering clouds in 2018. Surprising improvements in individual countries including Malaysia, Armenia, Ethiopia, Angola, and Ecuador show that democracy has enduring appeal as a means of holding leaders accountable and creating the conditions for a better life. Even in the countries of Europe and North America where democratic institutions are under pressure,

Writer and Columnist