Brothers in Arms

Vladimir Putin's stubborn support for the Syrian regime is intended to shore up his faltering support within Russia.

Eleven months and more than 7,000 deaths later, the Syrian regime's only ally outside of Iran remains Vladimir Putin's Russia, which has provided both diplomatic support to President Bashar al-Assad by obstructing key Security Council resolutions and material support in the form of a vigorous arms trade with Damascus. The Kremlin has proven that it is expert in the grim application of realpolitik to defend its last remaining friend in the Middle East.

There is, however, another important element to Putin's defiant support for the Syrian regime: the upcoming Russian presidential election, scheduled for March 4. Putin's orchestrated return to power as president has been complicated by an increasingly vocal domestic opposition movement, which took to the streets en masse to protest against voter fraud in December's parliamentary elections.

These demonstrations, coupled with the general weariness at the decline of living standards and increasing state corruption, have raised the possibility that Putin may not secure a majority in the first round of voting, a contingency he has acknowledged as possible -- though it would no doubt be politically disastrous for him and his ruling United Russia party. As a consequence, Putin is attempting to shore up his reputation as an unyielding strongman abroad to detract from the increasing perception of weakness at home.

Putin has not had a significant foreign policy standoff since the 2008 Russian-Georgian War, which was billed as an effort to reclaim Russia's "near abroad" from creeping Western and NATO influence. He opposed, but did not veto, the Security Council's authorization of a NATO-imposed no-fly zone in Libya last year. He now appears to be compensating for that acquiescence by backing a friendly tyrant and showing a wobbly electorate that Russia won't be pushed around by American and European democracy-promoters.

Putin has hard military reasons for supporting Assad's Syria, home to Russia's only warm-water port in the Mediterranean and a longstanding symbol of Russian influence in the Middle East. In 1957, Bashar's father Hafez, then still a Syrian Air Force pilot, received his training in MiG fighter jets in the Soviet Union. Since the end of the Cold War, the Syrian-Russian relationship has not only endured but strengthened. In recent years, Damascus and Moscow have enjoyed an arms trade estimated at $4 billion. Last month, a Russian naval flotilla, including the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, docked in the Russian-controlled port of Tartous. Two weeks ago, Russia dispatched a freighter carrying several dozen tons of munitions to Syria via Cyprus. And just as the Arab League was deciding to endorse a policy of peaceful transition of power in Syria, Moscow inked a $550 million deal to provide Assad with 36 new Yakovlev Yak-130 attack jets.

Putin's defiance on Syria is also an effort to reclaim the mantle of nationalism, which he once used to his advantage but has now slipped beyond his control. Great Russian chauvinism, historically exploited by czars and Communist Party general secretaries, has always been both an asset and a liability to Putin's political fortunes. Far-right nationalists oppose Russia's financing of puppet-regimes in the Caucasus, for instance, yet Putin has underwritten jingoistic pro-Kremlin youth movements such as Nashi, whose agents have harassed Western diplomats, violently disrupted pro-democracy demonstrations, and staged annual indoctrinating summer camp programs where figures such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili are compared to Nazis.

As Putin has sought to project strength abroad, he has intensified his efforts to whitewash his authoritarian political record and re-write Russian history. Over the last month, he produced a barrage of opinion pieces covering everything from his program of economic and political "reforms," to the imperative of preserving the "dominance of Russian culture." Nostalgia for lost great power status looms large in the mind of a man who once called the collapse of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century." In another recent article, Putin attempted to regain the ground lost to opposition nationalists by reasserting the platform of Russian exceptionalism that United Russia has long cultivated. "The Russian people and Russian culture are the linchpin, the glue that binds together this unique civilization," he wrote. "But all kinds of provocateurs and our enemies will do their best to snatch this linchpin from Russia ... What they really want in the end is to make people destroy their homeland with their own hands."

Putin's Russia has also employed this ultra-nationalist rhetoric in an intensive media war meant to prop up the Syrian regime. Kremlin-controlled media outlets, such as Pravda and the English-language channel Russia Today, have repeatedly parroted Assad's justification that his brutal assault on Syrian demonstrators is actually a crackdown on "terrorists" abetted by foreign intelligence agencies. To rally domestic support, Putin has implicitly drawn a parallel between the Syrian regime's crackdown on a civil protest movement and Russia's scorched-earth campaign in Chechnya.

It's a familiar playbook for Putin. The Second Chechen War vastly increased his poll ratings when he was still Boris Yeltsin's last prime minister and heir apparent. Assad's rhetoric, which depicts the Syrian demonstrators as a contagion to be "cleansed," echoes Putin's infamous threat to Chechen rebels that he would "wipe them out in the outhouse." By defending Assad's propaganda war on an imagined Islamist insurgency, Putin is reminding Russians of what made them want to vote for him over a decade ago.

Yet Putin's opportunism might just be his rivals' opportunity. The United States, the European Union, and the Arab League -- all committed to phasing out the Assad dictatorship -- stands to remind the tens of thousands of Russians set to protest this week that their battle for self-determination is the same as their counterparts in Syria. Russian democrats should be encouraged to show Putin that his foreign policy is a symptom of, not an antidote to, his defunct domestic agenda.



The Forbidden Citizen

Why 2012 will be a very bad year to be a Chinese dissident -- and what America can do about it.

It's only been a month, and 2012 is already looking bleak for the notion that peaceful criticism can exist within China. In January, a court in the central Chinese city of Wuhan sentenced writer Li Tie to 10 years on charges of subversion of state power, and prosecutors in Hangzhou charged poet Zhu Yufu with subversion for penning a poem about political reform. Prominent dissident Yu Jie, who fled China in January, explained at a press conference in Washington how Beijing policemen beat him for hours and burned him with cigarettes. In late December, a Sichuan court sentenced pro-democracy activist Chen Wei to nine years for subversion; a few days later a court in Guizhou gave government critic Chen Xi ten years on the same charge. Such harsh sentences, meted out to people who had merely exercised their constitutionally guaranteed right of freedom of expression, send an unambiguous warning to critics of the Chinese government to keep silent.

China's ruling Communist Party has been treating dissidents with an increasingly heavy hand over the past few years. Fearing a "Jasmine Revolution" in the wake of the Arab Spring last year, the government shifted its strategy from just detaining critics to disappearing them. The internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei was arrested on April 3 and held in an undisclosed location until June 22. In 2009, China sentenced Liu Xiaobo, one of the chief architects of the Charter '08 democracy appeal, to 11 years in prison. When the Nobel committee awarded Liu the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, China started a campaign of intimidation by arresting, detaining, and intimidating other signatories, and by placing Liu's wife, Liu Xia, under house arrest despite the lack of a legal basis for doing so. And 2009 also saw the government unleash harsh repression in response to unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet. Contrary to the claims of the International Olympic Committee, whose president, Jacques Rogge, said that the 2008 Beijing Olympics would improve the Chinese human rights situation, the legacy appears to be the ascendance of the security state, a massive project of surveillance and censorship set in motion to quell any signs of protest around the games -- and which continues unabated to this day.

But 2012 will likely be worse. As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) formally heads into its orchestrated leadership transition in which power will likely transfer from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping, it will place a higher-than-normal premium on trying to maintain the façade of a "harmonious society." Concurrently, it faces unprecedented social unrest and demands for justice and accountability coming from all regions and across socioeconomic groups. Because the CCP remains profoundly hostile to free expression and refuses to loosen its tentacled grip on the legal system, it is left pursuing a strategy of "social management" that provides only piecemeal relief -- and may well fuel even greater outrage.

In early December 2011, the citizens of the fishing village of Wukan, fed up with local Communist Party officials' obfuscation over land sales of dubious legality, began to protest. In a highly unusual role reversal, the officials fled and the people of Wukan governed themselves for two weeks. With the reputation of Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang on the line, and with extensive domestic and international media coverage, the local government dispatched mediators, promised to investigate returning some of the land to the villagers, and appointed the protest's leader to the position of village party secretary.

But since then, virtually no progress has been made on the land dispute. More problematic is the total failure of an investigation into the suspicious death in custody of one of the protest leaders. Although Wukan has achieved some gains, including an election, those may prove incomplete and reversible; moreover, the state's reaction to the incident betrays little indication that it is now more willing to systematically discuss criticisms.

While China's legal system may resemble one that interprets and upholds the law, the reality is that courts, judges, and lawyers answer to the CCP's dictates. To reconcile the growing number of indictments on the grounds of "endangering state security" with the lack of armed, organized threats to the Chinese state, it helps to try and understand the government's interpretation of what constitutes a threat. The poet Zhu Yufu got a decade in prison on charges of subversion in part for writing, "It is time, people of China! It is time…The square belongs to us all; our feet are our own…It is time to use our feet to go to the square and to make a choice…We should use our choices to decide the future of China." At a time of unprecedented wealth and power, it is telling that the Chinese government finds such words so threatening.

The handful of Chinese lawyers trying to make the rule of law a reality have been targeted for trying to defend cases involving freedom of expression. At least six were disappeared and released in 2011. Equally worrying, the Chinese government -- long a recipient of significant international assistance to promote the rule of law -- has taken steps towards legalizing disappearances. If revisions to the Criminal Procedure Law are adopted as planned in March 2012, police will be entitled to detain for up to six months, at a location of their choice, suspects in alleged cases of "terrorism" or "national security" -- notoriously vague designations that have often been used against peaceful government critics.

Many believe that the Chinese government, flush with cash and confidence, is impervious to criticism. The dozen or so governments that conduct regular human rights dialogues with Beijing issue statements of concern, meet dissidents, and discuss these problems among themselves. While the Chinese government clearly loathes these dialogues, it has for the most part learned to manage them without paying a price for its unrepentant abuses. Indeed, Western governments rarely impose penalties on the Chinese government. Instead, they look to Beijing for cooperation on a host of global diplomatic, security, and environmental issues -- not to mention mutually beneficial trade relationships -- and as such are often wary about overtly promoting the rights of people in China.

The United States has in the past year offered up some tough rhetoric on the Chinese government's human rights track record, but it has not publically articulated or imposed a price on Beijing for its abuses. Nor does it coordinate across the government to take full advantage of opportunities to promote rights. The free flow of information, a functional and independent legal system, and the ability of people to peacefully express criticism aren't just the purview of the human rights community -- they are realities that fundamentally underpin economic and security ties as well. Every U.S. Cabinet member could raise a human rights issue when meeting with Chinese officials, but almost none -- with the exception of Attorney General Eric Holder -- have publically done so.

So it's time to change the game plan.

The United States and other countries should tell the Chinese government that it cannot dictate who its leaders meet. U.S. President Barack Obama should welcome into the White House activists like Yu Jie or Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer prior to the visit in February of China's likely next president, Xi Jinping, underscoring the importance of free speech and responsible civil dissent. Such gestures make America's rhetorical commitments to human rights manifest.

Governments have to consistently find -- and use -- their voice on rights. Officials from at least two EU member states were passing through Hangzhou when the poet Zhu Yufu's sentence was announced. Neither said a word publicly, missing a perfect opportunity to manifest these countries' stated bedrock commitment to human rights. Perhaps most important, governments need to make the defense of the freedom of expression in China an inescapable topic of all public and private discussions with Chinese officials. Doing so will help offer a degree of protection for individuals and demonstrate a seriousness of purpose that is difficult for Beijing to ignore.

In many countries, political transitions entail policy innovation, vigorous debate, and competition for popular support in elections. This will manifestly not be the case in China this year, and some people there will suffer terribly for merely pointing out this reality. Western governments should not be shy in noting the same. Failure to recognize the efforts of those who struggle daily to hold the Chinese government to the letter of the law and to exercise their rights only increases Beijing's sense of entitlement and impunity. It's already been a long year for dissidents in China -- and it's only been a month. Let's not make it worse for them.