Im in ur sovrentee, observin ur elekshuns: Kyrgyzstan edition

Bad times for democracy in Central Asia continue.

Via Registan:

The OSCE has officially said the Kyrgyz election “failed to meet key OSCE commitments, despite some positive elements.” Before the elections, OSCE observers saw “instances of obstruction of opposition campaign events as well as pressure and intimidation of opposition supporters.” Then, on election day, there were “many problems and irregularities, including ballot box stuffing, inaccuracies in the voter lists, and multiple voting.” But hey, at least they had multiple candidates!

Joshua has a good summary of the Kyrgyz election mess (complete with ballot-stuffing video) here.

Good news, bad news, and dumb news


Dostum’s day of reckoning may be approaching, albeit slowly:

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama has ordered his national security team to investigate reports that U.S. allies were responsible for the deaths of as many as 2,000 Taliban prisoners of war during the opening days of the war in Afghanistan.

Obama told CNN in an interview that aired Sunday that he doesn’t know what how the U.S.-allied Northern Alliance behaved in November 2001, but he wants a full accounting before deciding how to move forward.

I’m often displeased with the Obama Administration’s approach to justice at home and internationally, but it’s pretty clear that this administration doesn’t hold its predecessor’s view that war crimes aren’t really war crimes when they are committed by U.S. allies.


Akbar Ganji on the “Rise of the Sultans” and the evolving authoritarianism of the Iranian state:

Khamenei and his supporters have been snuffing out dissent among intellectuals, political parties, labor unions, clerical seminaries, and civil society groups. They have been enhancing ideological uniformity at the senior level of government by defaming previously high-ranking officials, such as former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. They have also been extending their control over state corporations, large industries, and banks in a bid to create a state-run form of capitalism that would benefit them.

Khamenei and Ahmadinejad’s plan has already received a warm welcome from Iranian arch-conservatives, some Islamic fundamentalist groups in the Middle East, and members of Israel’s political right who oppose peace in the region. Should it materialize, the resulting state would resemble the totalitarian militaristic bureaucracies of Latin America in the 1980s and of certain countries in the former Soviet bloc.

Like those states, the new Iranian regime would be hell-bent on restructuring the ruling class, eliminating influential opponents, and accumulating capital. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad may speak in the name of the people and the nation, but they have methodically resisted the demands of any professional group and have defied the formation of trade unions, syndicates, and political parties. They are fundamentally against democracy, including even those semi-democratic institutions that currently exist in Iran, such as elections and the parliament. Their ideal regime would create a state-run capitalist class eager to profit in international markets to the detriment of blue-collar workers in Iran and any independent private sector. It would be a rentier state based on political allegiances, brimming with discrimination and corruption and maintained by the machineries of oppression. If left unchecked, Khamenei’s efforts would further consolidate power in the hands of a select few — all but guaranteeing the ultimate triumph of sultanism in Iran.


Via Registan:

[…] if the Azerbaijani regime seriously can’t handle a video of a guy dressed in an oversized animal costume playing a violin it can’t be a good omen for freedom of speech on the interwebs in Central Asia.

Yeesh. Facepalm.

Iran’s deep political divide

This is the best essay on contemporary Iran I’ve read in a long time . An excerpt:

The key to the Islamists’ “anti-imperialism” is not the emancipation of the subaltern, but self-preservation. Ahamadinejad’s “anti-imperialism” has meant little to the well-being and the emancipation of ordinary people: the excluded, the poor, and women. If anything, hardliners have denied most citizens of their economic benefit and human rights, while their extremist rhetoric and exclusivist practices have justified and dignified neo-liberal enemies in the west. Their undemocratic precepts have given ammunition to the most intolerant Islamophobes and warmongers in the United States and Europe, enabling them to wage a protracted campaign in which mostly poor and downtrodden Muslims get victimised.

Think: any of the talking heads of cable news. Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial statements have, since they were made, been extrapolated to the entire Iranian people, and even Muslims in general. This is the main reason why the Daily Show’s brilliant Jason Jones “Behind the Veil” segments were so shocking to so many Americans.

Under the “anti-imperialist” Ahmadinejad, scores of NGOs have been closed down; hundreds of dissident students, faculty, women, and civil-society activists have been incarcerated, and the mass protests of teachers, bus-drivers, and other workers have been suppressed. It was under Ahmadinejad’s government that subsidies were cut, privatisation reached a new height (eighteen times more than that in 2001-03), and a 25% inflation-rate brought low-income people to their knees. Ahmadinejad’s electoral campaign in 2005 focused on fighting corruption, generating jobs and a generous redistribution of oil money. But under his government, cronyism and corruption reached a new level, and people living below the poverty-line increased (by 13%), with 9 million-10 million falling below it (according to the Islamic Works Council). In fact, judging on economic policies and support for the public sector, Mir-Hossein Moussavi is certainly more to the “left” than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.


The shocking outcome of the elections dashed hopes and inspired a profound moral outrage that in turn fed into a broad-based protest movement unseen in the history of the Islamic Republic. This movement, neither a class struggle against a pro-poor government nor a secularist war against religious rule, embodies a post-Islamist democracy movement to reclaim citizenship within a religious-ethical order. It articulates the long-standing yearnings for a dignified life free from fear, moral surveillance, corruption, and arbitrary rule. Indigenous and non-violent, it represents a green wave for life and liberty.

This is such an important point, as I personally know some fellow lefties who wrongly believe Ahmadinejad is a Persian Hugo Chavez with slightly nastier views on Israel.

My colonial agenda

Bill Easterly writes:

The UN Security Council decides on military intervention (“peacekeepers”) or a Great Power does it on their own. Two of the Council’s permanent members are authoritarian, most of the Great Powers follow their own geo-strategic interests most of the time, and none of them have any democratic rights for Bottom Billion citizens to make Security Council or Great Power foreign policy decisions. (Small caveat: There never has existed or will exist a benevolent and politically neutral international force that will rapidly deploy to surgically solve Bottom Billion problems.) Yet the Great Powers will decide according to Collier’s proposals whether an “area or people” are allowed to have elections, whether the elections are legitimate when allowed, and when to send in the military (which, despite the nice “peacekeepers” label, are in a purely technical sense made up of soldiers carrying guns that are aimed at people.) The dictionary definition of “colonialism” is “Control by one power over a dependent area or people.” I agree that permanent colonies are a thing of the past, but the above description sure sounded a lot like “control” of “a dependent area” by outside powers. Many may indeed think me way out of line to call Collier’s proposals by the inflammatory word “colonialism” just because of the technicality that they actually fit the definition of “colonialism.” But us dissenters will persist anyway because the Bottom Billion deserve better than control by a development expert with an army, they deserve democratic rights just as much as all the other Billions.

I believe in the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). I believe that sometimes —very rarely, and only when a very strict set of criteria are met– military intervention in warranted to stop imminent or ongoing atrocities on a large scale. I believe that peacekeepers and international administration can lessen the suffering of civilians after civil war. As much as I want local leaders everywhere to look out for the wellbeing and reflect the real interests of their people, I know that is not always the case and that local elites  who claim to speak for this group or that group in divided societies often speak for and care about only themselves.

I also know many people who have lived through state failure and civil war, and they have told me very frankly that it’s all well and good to shout from the ivory tower about local ownership and the evils of “neo-imperialism” and the inherent democratic deficit in international administration –and there is truth to those charges, for sure– but refugees, IDPs, war orphans, disabled veterans and former child soldiers, survivors of wartime sexual violence, and preyed on minorities really don’t give a flying crap about any of that. They care about basic things, food, clean water, dignified housing, protection from predation, medical treatment, and an opportunity to pick up the pieces of their lives and rebuild. At an even more basic level, all development, all progress is contingent on people being alive. If local authorities cannot or will not protect the very lives of their citizens, it is not unethical for outside actors to step in — as a last resort, temporarily, and using means that maximize human security.

If believing that makes me a colonialist, so be it.


Not much I can add. Follow @TehranBureau on Twitter for real-time updates. And check out these stunning photos from The Big Picture.


A supporter of defeated Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi shouts slogans during riots in Tehran on June 13, 2009. Hardline incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared winner by a landslide in Iran's hotly-disputed presidential vote, triggering riots by opposition supporters and furious complaints of cheating from his defeated rivals. (OLIVIER LABAN-MATTEI/AFP/Getty Images)

An injured backer of Mir Hossein Mousavi covers his bloodied face during riots in Tehran on June 13, 2009. (OLIVIER LABAN-MATTEI/AFP/Getty Images) #

An injured backer of Mir Hossein Mousavi covers his bloodied face during riots in Tehran on June 13, 2009. (OLIVIER LABAN-MATTEI/AFP/Getty Images) #

Tough questions from Alanna Shaikh

Alanna recently wrote a disquieting post about the worst story someone ever trusted her with in the field until now, implying that she just encountered something worse in the course of her work. It’s a disturbing read. At the end, Alanna asked a few questions, including the following.

Alanna: I want to know whether it’s useful to have the EU pull its funding from the country whose name I won’t mention or if it’s more effective to keep pushing small changes and hope they add up.

It’s probably not useful, unless the regime in power relied very, very heavily on foreign aid. And even then, if the regime can support itself through some combination of oil and gas exports, drugs, private sector corruption and organized crime, then it’s still probably not helpful.

Of course, if we’re talking about sanctions, that’s a bit different. Some quick thoughts on sanctions.

When Serbia under Milosevic was placed under sanctions, its crime networks benefited mightily while ordinary people suffered. That legacy continues to hinder development and democratization today. Much of Serbian civil society, people who opposed Milosevic, were also against the sanctions, because international isolation made their work more difficult as well. Eventually, Milosevic was overthrown  and turned over to the ICTY to stand trial, but only after running Serbia into the ground economically, shredding its social fabric, bloodying much of the region and drawing the wrath of NATO in the form of seventy-eight days of airstrikes. And Serbia in the nineties and early 2000s was a vastly more developed country with a stronger civil society than any of the Central Asian states have now. Sanctions are like aggressive chemotherapy in the international body politic. Even if they work, the collateral damage is staggering. I’m not categorically opposed to sanctions, but I think that they are more often than not poorly designed and enforced unethically. Iraq after the First Gulf War is a horrible example of this.

Alanna: I want to know if supporting democratic institutions actually leads to democracy.

Working in a governance development organization, I should have a better answer to this than, sometimes, when conditions are right, and when we’re lucky. Some quick and hopefully not entirely incoherent thoughts on democracy assistance.

What we know is that the impetus for democratic reform has to come from within if it’s going to lead to anything approaching liberal democracy. Democracy support is most effective in regimes that have just undergone a paradigm, whether it’s a full-blown people power revolution, the end of an armed conflict, or just a slightly less un-free election. In these instances, the new government is often full of people who didn’t plan beyond getting into office. They can be swayed in one direction or another, but the window of opportunity is small. If they can’t meet rising expectations and the citizenry starts getting restless, the new boss will start looking and acting a lot like the old boss. Democracy assistance to institutions can, in this case, help a new and tentatively pro-democracy government meet the expectations of the people, or at least not fail utterly. Where there is no indigenous pro-democracy movement and the democratic impulse is weak, where the regime in power has no qualms about using violence to destroy its opponents, or where current regime leaders have made it clear they won’t leave until they die or someone kills them, external assistance to institutions alone will not start the engine of democratization. However, that doesn’t mean that external assistance for things that improve the everyday lives of people, like the reform of social welfare and education ministries (generally seen as more technocratic than political) isn’t worthwhile.

I might come back to this in a few days. Right now, I have to finish packing. Tomorrow, I move to a new apartment.

More Shia Family Law stuff

I have no idea what to title these posts at this point.

Anyway, an expert (to see who, go to the comment thread) wrote the following at Registan.

Just a quick point on this law — it is certainly a bad development from a political point of view, for the reasons enumerated above.

However, purely as a law, it has been caricatured as the ‘marital rape’ law. In fact, the Dari version shows it to be basically pretty middle of the road Shi’a jurisprudence, slightly to the right of Iran, but not egregiously so.

The particular provision that has been mistranslated and misinterpreted as ‘allowing’ marital rape doesn’t do so, legally speaking: article 132 includes the following relevant provisions:
(1) The spouses are obliged to socialize with one another and their parents and family.
(2) The spouses are obliged to cooperate and collaborate for welfare of their families and children.
(3) The spouses must abstain from any actions that would cause the hatred and displeasure of one another; whenever the husband wants his wife to attend to her appearance, the wife is obliged to do so.
(4) The husband is obliged, except during period of travel, to spend the night in one place with his wife at least one night out of four, except when it is harmful to one of the spouses or one of them suffers from a venereal disease. It is the duty of the wife to tend to the husband’s inclination for sexual liaison. The husband is obliged to not postpone intimacy with his wife for more than four months without his wife’s consent.
(5) Whenever a man has more than one wife, he is obliged to spend at least one night out of four in view of section (4). The right of the wife (to intimacy) may, upon her consent, be transferred to the husband and other spouses.
(6) The husband may increase the rights (of intimacy) to more than one night, on the condition that no harm or shame comes to the other spouses.
(7) The wife is obliged to manage and perform those areas of domestic chores that the husband has specified in the marriage contract; otherwise, the wife is not obliged to perform domestic chores.

As you can see, this is not an explicit endorsement of marital rape. From a purely legal point of view, the offending language in section (4) (”It is the duty of the wife to tend to the husband’s inclination for sexual liaison”) has to be read in light of section (3)’s injunction against actions that would cause “hatred or displeasure”. And under basic jurisprudential principles the article could be interpreted so as to prohibit rape, in fact.

No question that the language about the wife’s obligation to satisfy the husband’s sexual needs is highly problematic. But the point of article 132 is to govern the mutual responsibilities of spouses (including up to four wives) in the sexual sphere.

No question this is absolutely discriminatory toward women, and deeply troubling, given Afghanistan’s current political climate, as well as the absence of a functioning judiciary, and the absolute lack of state protection for women, in particular Shi’a women.

But it is not a ‘marital rape’ law, and by casting it thus, the Western media and policy makers have actually given a sop to Mohseni and others who make a living by positioning themselves as defenders of Islam against Western interlopers. The law should never have been rammed though, but the Wolesi and Mishrano Jirgas’ foolishness, and Karzai’s weakness, are other issues.

Now, Afghan civil society and their international supporters should focus on ameliorating some of the political damage, and not try to engage in a debate on Shi’a jurisprudence.

The latest on the Shia Family Law fiasco

On April 5th, the Washington Post reported that Karzai ordered the law reviewed by the Ministry of Justice:

I ordered the justice minister to review the law, and if there is anything that would contravene the country’s constitution or Shariah law or the freedom our constitution gives to Afghan women, without any doubt there will be changes in it, and again it will be sent to the parliament of Afghanistan.

According to the Post article, Karzai also claims that the press has mistranslated the law.


In any case, Afghan civil society activists and liberal members of the National Assembly have already begun campaigning for a comprehensive and rights-affirming review. On the Canadian radio news program “As It Happens,” MP Sabrina Saqib said that the law has sparked an intense national discussion on women’s rights and has already been the subject of numerous radio and television debates.


Registan‘s Joshua Faust makes some good points, but his commenters are better.

Commenter “Monk” says:

It is a shame that religious and racist extremists like [mohammad Asif] Mohsini have become power brokers while the Hazaras, despite their never ending persecution by Islamic and ethnocentrist extremists; are being increasingly marginalized. Let’s not even start discussing how the dedication of all aid and reconstruction funds to Taliban hit south and warlord hit north have let down the Hazaras right from the start of “democracy in Afghanistan”.

This law is yet another attempt to undermine the progress Hazaras have made during the last eight years. The facts speak for themselves. Hazara women still refuse to wear full hijab, they have had active participation in programs like Afghan Star. They hold posts such as Afghanistan’s only female governor, only female mayor, head of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission and more in NGO’s and offices across the country. Hazarajat has the most promising female to male ratio in school and university enrollment.

These are facts, unmatched in any of the areas Mohsini or Karzai could ever actually represent. The rest is pure bullshit.

Meanwhile, not just the Western press continues to churn out ever more ridiculous and shallow stories on tHoSe cRaZy ShIa! 

Take, for example, this article from Al Jazeera, which is so absurdly one-sided it merits a mention just as an example of awful journalism on Afghanistan. The reporter apparently thinks he can gauge the opinion of the entire Shia community by going to ONE MOSQUE in Kabul during a speech by Mohseni in support of the law. The best (read: worst) part comes in the related video, wherein Mohseni unfurls a “scroll” with…stuff on it. We’re told it’s covered in the signatures and thumbprints of “hundreds” of Shia women who support the law. No opponents of the law are interviewed and the video ends on a shoulder-shrugging “guess that’s just their culture!” note.



In a  better Washington Post article, Pamela Constable writes:

In the flurry of debate, some Afghan men have expressed concern that women might be tempted to have affairs if they are allowed out in public or have expressed outrage at what they see as foreign interference in their religious beliefs. But some women, especially those from an emerging, better-educated generation, have seized the opportunity to express their views on the need for more women’s rights within Islam.

One is Habiba Saddiqi, 23, an engineering student who has collaborated closely with UNIFEM, the U.N. women’s organization that has a large program in Kabul and was among the first groups to raise alarms about the Shiite law. Saddiqi, who is Shiite, said she and her friends had collected thousands of signatures in the past week, calling for a more moderate version of the law.

Huh. Thousands of signatures, you say? Would have been nice of Al Jazeera to interview Saddiqi.

“We need such a law, but it should be a democratic one,” she said. “This law is made by men for their benefit. If a father can order a daughter to marry whomever he likes, it means she has no rights. That is not good for women, and it is not good for society.”

Ballots, bullets and choices

Carlotta Gall reports:

April 12, 2009

Allies Ponder How to Plan Elections in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan — Inside the office of the Afghan interior minister is a map showing that nearly half the country is a danger zone. Ten of Afghanistan’s 364 districts are colored black, meaning they are under Taliban control, and 156 are colored to indicate high risk.

The map raises a difficult question: How, in such an environment, can Afghanistan hold countrywide presidential elections in less than five months?

This is difficult, not just politically, but ethically, because we’re talking about holding an election that will absolutely get some people –election workers, voters, likely both– killed. If the Taliban have their way, this could be an especially bloody election. That some people will die is a given, but how much blood is too much?  And how can a calculation to this effect even be made?

During the 2005 parliamentary elections, the joint disarmament and electoral commissions had to OK candidate disqualifications, and the former chose to allow a lot of people usually referred to with some combination of the words “war,” “lord” and “criminal”  stand for election. The idea was to let  these individuals run so they wouldn’t retaliate during or after the elections, to bring in potential spoilers and tie their futures to that of the legislature.

Only thirty-four potential candidates were disqualified based on ties to illegal armed groups. Violent reactions from even these thirty-four were anticipated but never materialised, suggesting that the disarmament commission might have been too cautious and squandered an opportunity to keep some real bad guys out of the new legislature. Then again, what if the commission had gone in the opposite direction and there had been widespread violence and chaos?

This time around will be no easier, given that this will in every respect be a wartime election, and a not a post-conflict one.

On the political front, poorly-timed elections can be disastrous and drain legitimacy from new and weak institutions. If a huge swath of the Afghan citizenry is disenfranchised, the winner of the election will have a weak democratic mandate, representing not the the choice of the country at large, but rather only those areas where ballots could be cast. Afghanistan is already cut in two (at least) and an election in which the south can barely take part could make that division even starker and more of  an obstacle to future peace.

As things stand now, the elections will go ahead. And I’m sympathetic to the argument that violating the constitution and delaying the election would play into the hands of both a deeply flawed and increasingly embattled executive and an anti-democratic insurgency, but I also wonder if the potential worst case scenario for not delaying wouldn’t be even more disastrous.

Any thoughts? I’m an outsider looking in, with no answers.