Are the West’s democracies prepared to challenge what one analyst calls “Eurasia’s new authoritarian architecture”?
“For years now, the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia have been talking about the importance of common efforts to promote human rights and democratic values around the world,” notes Alexander Cooley, Professor of Political Science at Barnard College.
“If the liberal democracies pooled their efforts, there seemed good reason to believe that they could embed these values in international law and succeed in fostering the growth of freedom,” he writes for Foreign Policy.
“It turns out, however, that the autocrats haven’t been asleep at the wheel, either,” Colley notes.
Freedom House’s latest global survey concluded that the denial or deterioration of political rights has been “particularly grim for Eurasian countries,” he notes, attributing such developments in large part to conventions signed under the rubric of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
The most prominent cases involve transfers of Central Asians from Russia and Uighurs from both Russia and Central Asia to China. Last year the European Court of Human Rights, where several of these Russian cases have been litigated, even sent the European Council of Ministers a letter of concern about the plight of a group of Central Asian litigants. The so-called “Garabayev Group” comprises 18 cases examined by the court from 2007 to 2011, most of them involving Uzbek and Tajik citizens, many of who were forcibly abducted from Russia….As Russian investigative journalists point out, Russia has, as a result, ceased to be the “safe space” for Central Asian political dissidents and oppositionists that it was during the 1990s.
Authoritarian regional groupings are also “cynically emulating the form, but not the substance, of established democratic actors,” says Cooley , the author of Great Games, Local Rules: the New Great Power Contest in Central Asia (Oxford 2012):
Both the SCO and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have established their own “election observers,” mostly as a response to the consistent criticism that Central Asian elections received from the OSCE’s established monitoring missions run by its Office for Democratic Initiatives and Human Rights (ODIHR). Neither regional body has adopted the United Nations Code of Conduct for International Election Observers and, not surprisingly, these missions usually reach conclusions about the quality of Eurasian elections that are dramatically at odds with those of the ODIHR.
For example, while in 2007 the ODHIR heavily criticized the quality of the Kyrgyz parliamentary elections that allowed autocrat Kurmanbek Bakiyev to consolidate his grip on power, both CIS and SCO monitors certified the legality and legitimacy of the poll. The CIS Election Monitoring Organization also oversees elections in the disputed territories of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdnistria, thus providing the only source of external legitimacy for these polls.
Autocrats are also undermining the rights agenda within international organizations, Cooley notes:
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, established in 1995 as successor to the landmark CSCE, has seen its once vibrant democratic mandate effectively dismantled. Russia, Belarus and the Central Asian states have attempted to gut the organization’s election observation missions and actively blocked adding new “human dimension” projects. Researchers also have even noted how in its security projects, such as promoting police reform in Central Asia, the OSCE has jettisoned political conditions, unintentionally enhancing the capacity of these authoritarian regimes.
Even the United Nations is now becoming a battleground for contesting and redefining political rights.
Reports that Turkey is actively considering SCO membership as an alternative to the European Union, a grouping that has provided a democratic gravity model for its neighborhood, add urgency to the need for democracies to challenge the new autocratic axis.
“Confronting Eurasia’s new authoritarian architecture will require both Washington and Brussels to challenge the legality and purpose of these authoritarian practices,” Colley concludes.
“Ignoring their growing importance, or even choosing to selectively engage with groups like the SCO on less controversial issues, will only further serve to legitimize these new challenges, thereby further undermining democratic norms and Western standing in Eurasia and beyond.”