Democracy Lab

Her Work Isn’t Done

This week the world is celebrating Aung San Suu Kyi’s achievements as a pro-democracy activist. Now the question is: Can she finish the job?

The West is celebrating Aung San Suu Kyi this week. The Burmese pro-democracy activist, the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), has been giving speeches and receiving honors. She stopped in Oslo to pick up a belated Nobel Prize, awarded to her in absentia in 1991, when she was just beginning her long stint in house arrest. (All in all she's spent some 15 years of the past 24 in detention.) On her swing through Ireland she received prestigious awards from Amnesty International and the city of Dublin. The audience at the London School of Economics serenaded her with "Happy Birthday" on her visit there. (She has just turned 67.) On Thursday she's giving a speech to both houses of the British parliament, a privilege granted only rarely to non-Britons.

If anyone deserves such accolades, it's her. Despite years of vicious treatment meted out by Burma's generals, the Lady -- as the Burmese often refer to her -- stuck doggedly to her commitment on non-violence and pressed her demands for greater freedom for her people. The military government repeatedly urged her to go back to Britain to be with her husband and two sons there -- offers she resolutely rejected, knowing that the authorities would probably never allow her to return. She has calmly defied soldiers who leveled their guns at her and she has survived at least one overt assassination attempt. She is, without question, a brilliant moral exemplar, a member of the same family tree that includes names like Gandhi, King, Mandela, Sakharov, and Havel.

And yet there is a distinctly valedictory note to all the fanfare on this trip. Her European tour is a story of honors long and unjustly deferred. At each point along the way another circle closes, another bit of unfinished business is checked off the list. Her visit to Britain includes a long-awaited reunion in Oxford with members of her extended family. This is sure to be a bittersweet occasion.

We in the West are right to celebrate her past achievements. But in one way the rejoicing is a bit premature. The stark fact is that her native country is still a long way from achieving the democracy of which she and her colleagues have dreamed of for so many decades.

Burma has only just begun a slow and methodical transition that may or may not end up in the promised land of liberal democracy. Last year, President Thein Sein, an ex-member of the ruling junta, launched a program of tentative liberalization that has included a softening of censorship, legalization of trade unions, and freedom for hundreds of high-profile political prisoners.

That process of opening culminated on April 1 with a parliamentary by-election in which Aung San Suu Kyi and 42 of her NLD colleagues won almost all of the seats at stake. Unfortunately, that was merely a fraction of the overall seats in the national assembly, so the freshly elected NLD members are outnumbered by the government's proxies to the tune of 15 to 1. Thein Sein's reform moves can't disguise the fact that Burma is still under the control of the same old elite.

So can Aung San Suu Kyi actually change anything in her country? Now that she's in parliament, she can presumably leverage her enormous popularity among the Burmese people to push for proper reforms -- starting with the present constitution, which was drawn up under military supervision in a process denounced by many observers as a sham. She has made changing it one of her priorities.

Considering, however, that the constitution has been carefully designed to tilt the balance of power in parliament in the military's favor, that could be an uphill climb. She could, perhaps, beat the odds by finding and cultivating allies among the pro-government factions in parliament. Or she could try to shape the agenda by proposing specific reform bills that enjoy grassroots support -- easier said than done, given the current restrictions. One thing is sure: She will need all of her political skills in order to negotiate the challenges yet to come.

Such challenges no longer belong to the realm of a clear-cut struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. The path ahead is likely to involve many a messy compromise. This is the realm of realpolitik, not heroic moral crusades. And that is terrain in which she has, as yet, strikingly little experience.

For example, the Lady and her NLD colleagues at first refused to take the oath of office to the constitution, which they denounced as illegitimate. Undoubtedly true -- but then why take part in an election based on its rules? As it happens, there are many precedents in which political players have sworn fealty to a constitution and then proceeded to amend or revise it. The NLD newcomers ended up taking the oath anyway.

More recently, she has repeatedly warned potential investors against putting their money into her country (particularly in industries dominated by cronies of the military). This is consistent, perhaps, with her long-held policy of dissuading tourism to Burma on the grounds that foreign visitors were merely bolstering regime-friendly businesses. Clinging to such an uncompromising policy may be hard to sell to the voters back at home who are desperate for jobs.

She faces similar dilemmas in her dealings with the elite in her own country. Burma's tycoons, who got where they are by cultivating their own ties to corrupt generals, have been making overtures to the NLD leader. They could be potent allies in any push for greater political participation -- and formidable obstacles to true reform of the country's crony-ridden economy.

And what about the generals themselves? What sort of assurances should she be prepared to offer in return for progress toward democratization? Are they even willing to tolerate genuine democracy? Or do they see the NLD presence in parliament merely as a fig leaf for a Malaysian-style version of authoritarian modernization? Good luck prodding them toward the exit.

Her recent statements on the ethnic violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the province of Arakan, which has left dozens dead, suggest that she's aware of the tightrope she must walk. She could have assumed a stark moral stance by denouncing the ethnic Burman majority's pogroms against the stateless Rohingya minority, but that unpopular position would have eroded her support in the Burmese heartland, so in the end she opted for vague language about the need to change Burma's citizenship laws. However you slice it, this wasn't exactly the stuff of Mandela.

The next general election is three years away, by which time she'll be 70. The intervening period will show whether the Lady has the political flexibility and the strategic acumen to maneuver her country into the safe harbor of democracy -- or whether her greatest achievements already lie behind her.

DANIEL SANNUM LAUTEN/AFP/GettyImages

Democracy Lab

The Devil They Know

Why the West shouldn't expect Russia's policy on Syria to change anytime soon.

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused the Russians of sending attack helicopters to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "We have confronted the Russians about stopping their continued arms shipments to Syria," Clinton said. "They have, from time to time, said that we shouldn't worry; everything they're shipping is unrelated to their actions internally. That's patently untrue."

Her pugnacious remarks made for a striking contrast. Just last week, according to the New York Times, she was dispatching an emissary to Moscow to sound out the Russians on how to achieve "a common vision on a post-Assad political transition in Syria." The article noted that the Russian government had recently "suggested it is not opposed to new leadership in Syria, its most important ally in the Middle East."

Judging by Clinton's outburst, the envoy's trip doesn't seem to have gone well. Maybe it had something to do with the remarks made over the weekend by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. He confirmed that a Russian freighter had docked at the Syrian port of Tartus late last month. And yes, he said, there were weapons onboard the ship -- but nothing that Assad could deploy against his own people. The equipment delivered was strictly for the defense of Syrian air space, and "could be used only if Syria is subjected to military intervention from abroad." (He has since repeated the point in response to Clinton's allegations.)

None of this, obviously, bodes well for the prospect of Russian-American cooperation on Syria. But that shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. Judging by the evidence, Moscow's position has remained remarkably consistent throughout the Syrian uprising -- and there's little sign that it will change any time soon.

The reasons for this are fairly clear. First and foremost, Assad's regime is pretty much the Kremlin's last solid ally in the Arab world. The friendship between Moscow and Damascus goes back decades. (The photo above shows an Assad supporter greeting Lavrov during a visit to Damascus in Februrary.) The present Syrian president's father, Hafez el-Assad, was one of the Soviet Union's most reliable regional friends. And Tartus, which provides access and supplies for Russian ships in the Mediterranean, counts as Moscow's only military base outside the old USSR. Losing it would strike a blow to Russia's desire to be taken seriously as a world power. "Without Syria as an ally, they really have no presence in the Middle East," says Mark Katz, a Russia watcher at George Mason University.

Second, the Russians are obsessed with the spread of Islamist regimes and ideology -- especially given the continuing challenge from Islamic insurgents in the republics of the North Caucasus. Russian press reports about the Syrian opposition reflexively portray it as dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, and depict the Arab Spring as a boon to fundamentalists throughout the region. "Assad may not be so great, but the alternative to Assad is bound to be worse," is a sentiment that regularly punctuates Russian coverage. "They have a genuine question: ‘If Assad goes, what comes next?'" says Steven Pifer, an ex-U.S. diplomat at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "I'm not sure anyone can answer that question."

Finally, Moscow is reluctant to give a pass to the Americans on anything these days. Having recently returned to the presidency, Vladimir Putin has been showing little inclination to cultivate the relationship. Soon after taking office, he snubbed the Obama administration by skipping a key summit meeting, and Russian officialdom has been notably brusque in its treatment of the new U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul -- despite his identification with the "reset" policy, aimed at cooperation with the Russians.

One fruit of the reset often cited by its defenders was the Russians' willingness to abstain from the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing intervention against Libya last year -- a move that prompted one of the very few open disagreements between Putin and then-President Vladimir Medvedev, who argued in favor of compromise with the Americans. But Medvedev's position has since been soundly discredited in Moscow. The Russians insist that they thought they were allowing a no-fly zone rather than a mandate to topple Qaddafi -- with the clear implication that no one in the Kremlin will be making that mistake again anytime soon.

In fact, the real question observers should be asking is why the Russians have been so rigid, failing to leave themselves much in the way of options in case Assad fails to hang on. Case in point: Even though the Russians and the Chinese are often lumped together as opponents of intervention, Beijing has actually made a much better show of it.

Last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi sat down at a conference table in Beijing for an official meeting with the then-head of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), Burhan Ghalioun. Yang expressed China's support for the United Nations peace plan brokered by Kofi Annan, and explained that his government favored "any solution that is in the fundamental interests of Syrian people and is acceptable for all." The SNC leader replied that his organization also supported the Annan Plan -- and then, for good measure, thanked the Chinese for their "humanitarian assistance" to the Syrian people.

The Russians don't seem to be taking comparable care with their image. To be sure, Moscow's diplomats have made a few encouraging noises of late, stressing that they don't support Assad as an individual so much as the principle of the sovereignty of his state. Russia resists intervention, Lavrov recently said, "not because we are protecting Assad and his regime, but because we know that Syria is a complicated multi-confessional state, and because we know that some of those calling for military intervention want to ruin this and turn Syria into a battleground for domination in the Islamic world."

And it's probably true that it's ultimately less Assad's personal fate that concerns Putin and company than Russia's place in the larger scheme of things. "The West does not see Moscow as an equal partner," writes Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Middle East Studies Institute in Moscow, in a recent commentary. "So, if some group needs Russian support in Syria and, especially, in Iran, it will come at a price. The price is measured not in finances but in the oft-proclaimed Russian geopolitical interests that have been ignored by the international community throughout the post-Soviet period."

Such are the considerations behind Moscow's latest offer to host an international conference to discuss a Syrian settlement, thereby implicitly acknowledging that Assad's future is open to discussion. This show of flexibility is, once again, somewhat less flexible than it seems at first glance. The Kremlin insists that such a conference can only work if Iran is a part of it, a demand that makes it highly unlikely that Western capitals will ever sign on -- a fact that the Russians undoubtedly understood when they made the offer. (Clinton also rejected Iran's participation in Tuesday's remarks.) But by trying to pose as an honest broker, the Russians can at least once again show the world that they're a force to be reckoned with, a player on the global stage.

So does all that justify backing a losing horse? The answer is that Assad's eventual fall doesn't look quite so inevitable from the Russians' perspective. As they see it, the Syrian resistance is fragmented and weak, and the strategic initiative remains on the side of Assad's forces, who retain undisputed control of the country's major urban centers. This is one point where they might not be entirely wrong.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin is fully aware that Western politicians -- including Barack Obama -- have little appetite for direct military involvement in the Syrian maelstrom. Moscow, in short, is betting that Assad can beat the odds. Until that changes in some fundamental way, Moscow's policies probably won't either.

LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images