Normative Narratives


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Conflict Watch: The Determinative Role of Armed Forces In Regime Change (A Comparative Analysis)

Police leave their position around the Ukrainian p[arliament in Kiev on Friday after the country’s deputy army chief resigned in protest over government attempts to involve the army to put down the unrest rocking Ukraine. Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

Disgraced ex-Ukranian President Yanukovych (is it too soon to call him ex-President?) signed an agreement with the opposition for early elections and a new government, pulling Ukraine back from the brink of catastrophe. Do not confuse Yanukovych’s decision for altruism; rather it was a last resort after it became clear the Ukrainian army would not intervene on his behalf.

Today, the Ukrainian Armed Forces reiterated its commitment to neutrality. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel commended the move, and his support is well founded. A comparative analysis of recent protest movements shows the determinative role Armed Forces play in domestic political conflicts:

Egypt: In modern Egyptian history, the Army has been the strongest and least unaccountable force in domestic politics. It is therefore unsurprising those in control of the Army are determined to ensure their spot at the top of the pyramid (no pun intended) is preserved. The Egyptian military has a vested interest in a protracted civil conflict; by creating an adversary in the Muslim Brotherhood, it has secured an important role in Egyptian life and public support. Indeed, military supremacy was enshrined in a recently passed constitutional referendum.

The Egyptian military determined the outcome of Egyptian politics by removing democratically elected President Morsi by a coup (as opposed to allowing a political process of impeachment and new elections to decide who leads). The army has restricted media independence and cracked-down on all dissenters (including many who were instrumental in removing previous dictator Hosni Mubarak and the ineffectual President Morsi). Now General Sisi–the very man who organized the coup–is poised to take over as Egypt’s next “democratically elected” president.

Syria: In Syria’s dynastic authoritarian regime, the armed forces are controlled exclusively by President Assad; the military cannot be expected to support the will of the people. Assad ordered a military response to peaceful protests, resulting in a protracted civil war with no end in sight.

Thailand:  The Thai army is committed to remaining neutral in anti-government protests (which was not a given; Thailand has a long history of military intervention in politics), allowing the political process to play itself out (the army has positioned itself near protest sight for security purposes, but hasn’t taken a side).

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has proposed early elections; her opposition wants an appointed caretaker government to implement reforms before elections are held. In a recent development, Yingluck has been called in to answer for corruption charges related to a rice subsidy (a policy symbolic of her Pheu Parties popularity with Thailand’s poor), which could result in her impeachment.

Venezuela: Paratroopers we’re called in to “maintain the peace”, which is allegedly a cover for a brutal crackdown of the anti-Maduro opposition. The future remains uncertain in Venezuela; if reports of a bloody crackdown are true, a protracted civil conflict is likely.

When it comes to regime change, the means are just as important as the endsThe extent to which Armed Forces remain neutral / indiscriminately uphold security (in order to give the political process time to run it’s course) is a good indication of both how “ugly” protests will become, and the direction a country will move ex post facto.

In Egypt the military could have remained neutral, allowing the Egyptian people to impeach Morsi and setup elections. Instead, the military decided to intervene, securing it’s own interests. Morsi had to go, but the way he was removed has set the country on a path divergent from pluralistic democracy. In a similar vein, Sisi may indeed be the President Egyptians want. If so, why the need to crackdown on dissenters?

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck may indeed be a corrupt ruler unworthy of her office. If this is the case, allow the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) to conduct an impartial investigation. If she is found guilty, there may be grounds for impeachment. If not, the vocal minority opposition will have to rethink it’s position.

Notably, the Thai Military is allowing the political process to determine the countries political future (as in Ukraine), increasing the likelihood that a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Thailand can emerge from this current bout of unrest (Unlike Egypt, Syria, and likely Venezuela).

If a countries Armed Forces are committed to the goal of pluralistic democracy, the best thing they can do is remain neutral and allow domestic political conflicts to be resolved politically. Democratic governance is derived from “soft power“–inclusive politics, non-violent protest, self-determination. The need to resort to force against non-violent protests is proof in and of itself that human rights rhetoric is being used to human rights violations.

When the global champions of human rights (U.S., E.U., U.N. etc) urge deescalation and dialogue, these are not empty words (as Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay has urged in Venezuela). Over the past few decades, “soft power” has played an increasingly important role in both domestic and international affairs. Governments that embrace this shift will ultimately be the most successful.


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Conflict Watch: Will Western Powers Stand With the Ukrainian Opposition, Or Stand By As Democracy Flounders?

Ukrainian President Yanukovych withdrew from EU trade talks in favor of Russian support, sparking protests

Secretary of State John Kerry today reaffirmed the importance of U.S. and E.U. support for the Ukrainian Opposition at the Munich Security Conference:

Secretary of State John Kerry said on Saturday that the United States and European Union support the people of Ukraine in their pursuit of stronger ties with the West…’They have decided that means their futures do not have to lie with one country alone, and certainly not coerced. The United States and EU stand with the people of Ukraine in that fight.’

However, Ukrainian opposition leaders urged U.S. and EU leaders on Friday to go beyond vocal support for their fight and demand a halt to violence they blame on Yanukovich.

“What we need is not just declarations but a very clear action plan – how to fix the problem and fix the violence, how to investigate all these killings and abductions and tortures,” protest leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said.

The uncompromising standoff, which turned violent after Yanukovich passed a short-lived law barring protests in early January, prompted a rare intervention from the military on Friday.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Friday in a statement on Twitter that he was “very concerned by attempts to involve the military in the crisis” and added that the “military must remain neutral,” but said he was encouraged by the eventual repeal of the anti-protest law.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday accused EU leaders of interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs, helping stoke violent anti-government protests and displaying double standards.

“What does incitement of increasingly violent street protests have to do with promoting democracy?” Lavrov said in response to European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who earlier said Ukraine’s future lay in Europe.

The EU and Russia have been at loggerheads over Ukraine since Yanukovich ditched an EU association accord in November under pressure from a Moscow seen to be trying to bring its former Soviet satellite back into its sphere of influence.

Speaking to Al Jazeera from Munich on Saturday, Leonid Kozhara, the Ukrainian foreign minister, called on Ukranians to distance themselves from the opposition, saying there was a “big misunderstanding between the government and the opposition.”

“For the first time in our country, we can see extremist groups,” he said.

Excuse us Minister Lavrov if I scoff at democracy lessons from the Russian Foreign minister…

The Ukrainian opposition is correct, they need more than words to support their movement towards more effective democratic governance. They need capacity building and organizational support from established democratic governments. Most importantly, they need economic support.

There are already disturbing trends emerging from these protests, namely military intervention and the introduction of an extremist narrative. The world has seen what happens when Western Powers “stand with” democratic movements (but really just stand by and offer little but supportive words). Over time, legitimate grievances and moderate oppositions are overrun by opportunistic extremist forces–the extremist narrative becomes self-fulfilling if a democratic movement is not nurtured. We have seen this sequence of events play out in Syria and Egypt in recent years; do not think because of Ukraine’s geography the opposition is less susceptible to anti-Western forces.

It is important to understand that those opposing democratic movements will not sit back and do nothing. While Russia may be less wealthy than the U.S. or the E.U., its political structure allows it more autonomy in foreign affairs. Despite pressing domestic needs, the Kremlin has proven willing to support to the Ukrainian government (in the form of a $15 billion loan, although this loan was recently suspended due to the inability of Yanukavych to squash his opponents).

Recognizing authoritarian regimes are not accountable when it comes to spending, Western powers must be more pragmatic and timely in their support. In conflict resolution, the thinking used to be solidify economic reforms, then focus on political reforms; history has proven this approach to be ineffectual.

Economic gains from democratization tend to be long term–innovation takes time. Demanding immediate economic reform in return for political support can undermine a budding democratic movement. If things get worse off right away (due to economic reforms), a new democratic regime may lose popular support (think the IMF demanding painful subsidy cuts as a condition for supporting the Morsi regime).

The only condition for economically supporting a democratic movement should be a commitment to pluralistic, inclusive democracy and human rights. Failing to support the Ukrainian opposition in this way means the champions of democracy are not learning from past failures. Furthermore, continued Western inaction could inadvertently undermine future democratic movements. Why would people who desire democratic freedoms risk reprisal if they have do not believe they will receive external support? While democratic freedoms are important, rational people will not oppose their government if they do not believe they have a legitimate chance of seeing their goals achieved.

Update: EU ready with “substantial financial aid” one Ukraine sets up its new government, following the ouster of Yanukovych.