A War of Escalation

More sanctions are coming, and more pain will be imposed on Moscow. But does the West have the stomach for the battle?

The Moscow stock exchange seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief this week -- or perhaps shrug its shoulders -- upon hearing the news on Monday about the U.S. and EU sanctions against Russian officials. In fact, it recovered slightly after the sharp fall last week; the ruble, still in a much-weakened position, has regained a bit of ground against both the dollar and the euro, too. Obviously, investors had been expecting much harsher sanctions, and were momentarily relieved. The Russian individuals targeted in the Western sanctions have been mostly dismissive; some, like Vice Premier Dmitry Rogozin, even sarcastic. Only one of them is even known to own property in Europe, and it is in Switzerland, a non-E.U. country.

Many in Russia, however -- especially the business community -- fear that the sanctions imposed so far are only the first step in the escalation ladder. Like in the days of the first Cold War, there will be other rungs to climb in a crisis. Only this time, this escalation will be mostly political and economic, not nuclear -- a vital distinction. But with no compromise on Crimea or Ukraine in sight, and more competition likely, the escalation that has just started will probably continue for some time. And what we're left with as the "new normal" will be Moscow's semi-isolation from the West -- a degree of exile which Russia has never experienced since the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Vladimir Putin remains defiant, but he is not laughing. 

In the political sphere, Russia faces the prospect of exclusion from the Western-dominated clubs it joined or has long sought to join. The process of Russia's accession to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the global economic elite, has been suspended. The G8 will probably rest in peace, while the full-blown G7 will be revived. Ironically, Putin, the decider-in-chief on all issues related to Crimea and Ukraine, has not been barred from traveling in the United States or Europe. But Western leaders' summits with the Russian president will now become rare and frosty events.

The Russian-German inter-governmental consultations scheduled for April are likely to be canceled. France has already postponed the "2+2" foreign and defense ministers' meeting scheduled for later this month in Moscow. Even if Russia is not excluded from the Council of Europe, it will face strong and permanent criticism there, which might make Moscow consider whether its membership is worth the dues it pays. There is no way to kick Russia out of the U.N. Security Council or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, but exchanges in both bodies will become more polemical than productive.

Since one of the aims of Western sanctions is to drive wedges between Putin and his political associates and bureaucratic supporters, the list of persons barred from entering the United States and the EU is likely to be expanded. Already, the EU has stopped discussing visa liberalization with Moscow, which would have allowed Russian officials to travel in Europe without a visa, and would have made it easier for students and business people to make such trips. More is in store.

Those Russians who have bought property in places such as Spain may find it more difficult to come and visit their second homes. Wealthy Muscovites who have established a base for themselves and their families in London may suddenly see their position as less secure if the British government decides to put pressure on them. Eventually, the heads of Rosneft and Gazprom, both close to Putin, as well as the Kremlin oligarchs, may be added to the unwanted aliens list. Of course, this will not stop their companies' business operations in the West immediately, but it will come very close to serious economic sanctions.

The biggest issue in the ratcheting up of Western sanctions, however, is not how much they will hurt Russia, but how much they will hurt Western investors, companies, and workers. The blowback will be real and there will be some pain, but, eventually, probably not bad enough to prevent U.S. and EU leaders from imposing harsher financial and economic measures. The "Belarusian" model of sanctioning individuals close to the country's leadership will thus be followed by the "Iranian" model of cutting important banking, technological, industrial, and energy ties. From that level, there will be only one rung to Russia's full economic isolation in the West. That can't happen until the EU finds a way, however costly, to compensate for a significant reduction of energy imports from Russia. This may come in the form of U.S. liquid natural gas supplies, a resumption of Iranian deliveries, or domestically produced shale gas. With the commensurate slump in EU exports to Russia, trade will drop to a fraction of the $400-plus billion per year it is today.      

There is no question that Western sanctions will be damaging to Russia and its people. Not being able to travel to Europe on vacation is one thing; not being able to buy the right kind of medicine is another. Of course, a country like Russia is self-sufficient to a significant degree, and it will not be completely isolated in the wider world. Faced with a "Great Wall of Europe" in the West, Russia will need to turn more to China, which will never join Western sanctions. But there will only be so much that the Russians can get from the Chinese. Beijing may provide Russia with some cash that will be difficult to generate in Western money markets, but it cannot replace Western technology and commercial investment. 

Thus, Russia will be forced to breach the West's sanctions in all conceivable ways. Moscow will seek to circumvent Western sanctions by going through third parties, and using all possible loopholes, as Iran has been doing for a long time. Putin can bluster about direct confrontation, but the reality is that he respond to the West's measures asymmetrically, e.g. by moving against the West's supposed "fifth column" within Russia. 

The central question, however, is what Western sanctions against Russia can ultimately achieve.

As both Belarus and Iran suggest, even the toughest sanctions will not be enough to provoke a regime change from the inside. The Europeans will be loath to apply additional sanctions, but they are likely to face pressure to do so from the United States, and will eventually follow the leader. NATO, finally, will rediscover its one and only true mission. But these actions will only serve to whip up Russian nationalism and defiance of the West. The Russian elite will not rebel, but they will be cleansed and disciplined as Putin sees fit. A few will leave, but most will stay. But in so doing, it will only strengthen Putin's rule.

Standing up to Western pressure will become the main feature of a newborn Russian patriotism and the central element of national consolidation. This pressure will make Moscow use all of its available resources, but it will also expose all the flaws of its social, economic, and political systems. Then, as they say, if the patient does not die, it will become stronger. The stakes cannot be higher.


Democracy Lab

Mourning a Musical Dissident

The story of Cameroon's late 'Guitar Man,' who spent his life fighting to take down a brutal autocrat.

Lapiro de Mbanga, the great Cameroonian musician, political prisoner, and champion of human rights, died of cancer this past Sunday, March 16, in Buffalo, New York. Known as "Ndinga Man" to millions of Cameroonians, Lapiro escaped President Paul Biya's regime in 2012, after three years of political imprisonment. He received asylum in the United States with the help of a global campaign for his freedom.

His death is a huge loss for Cameroon, and for the global spirit of dissent. During his three-decade career, Lapiro built a legacy as one of Africa's most famous musicians. Called the "bard of Cameroon's working classes," Lapiro become an icon for his country's unemployed youth. Much like the masses he inspired, his lyrics were a diverse blend of pigin, combining Douala, English, and French.

Born Lambo Sandjo Pierre Roger, Lapiro chose his stage name in memory of Mbanga, the small farming town he called home, where people earned $15 a month for working 17-hour days on banana plantations. He began his career in 1974, after dropping out of school, when, despite not knowing how to play drums or guitar, he was recruited by bands to do both, picking the skills up on the fly. He called the talent a "gift of god," and eventually his lively playing style became so good that it gave him his nickname: "Ndinga Man," or "Guitar Man."

His music filled West African streets through the 1980s and 1990s, providing a rare outlet for the frustration of the disenfranchised. The Index on Censorship calls his repertoire "a long list of biting texts on the socio-economic realities in his beleaguered country." One of his songs, "Lef am so," calls out the country's rampant corruption: "You bribe in a hospital to see a doctor. This country is sick." Even though his music was routinely censored, people still found a way to listen.

A country of 23 million people, Cameroon gets very little media attention in the west. Dictator Paul Biya has ruled since 1982, and has implemented what he calls "advanced democracy." According to Lapiro, this advanced democracy looks "more like a toilet than freedom." In reality, it displays all the hallmarks of dictatorship.

Over three decades, Biya has built a system of corrupt and autocratic power, using the legal and justice systems to imprison and bankrupt dissidents, opposition leaders, and journalists. Writers are aggressively jailed under defamation and libel laws, and reporters face prison for even speculating about the health of the president. The secret police prowl university campuses, the army regularly patrols urban centers, and state permission is required for public assembly. Biya's party, the Cameroon People's Democratic Movement, allegedly rigged the country's first multiparty elections in 1992, and has dominated presidential and legislative contests ever since.

Biya's regime is also one of the world's most corrupt. The World Bank reports that the average Cameroonian makes $1,169 a year, but Biya has amassed a personal fortune of more than $200 million. He owns castles in France and Germany and a prominent villa on the Cote d'Azur. In a display of wanton spending exposed in a 2009 Wikileaks cable, Biya vacationed in the French coastal resort of La Baule for three weeks and proceeded to spend $60,000 a day on 43 luxury rooms, racking up $1.2 million in hotel expenses alone, not including the feasts, champagne toasts, shopping sprees, and daily massages.

Lapiro made a courageous public stand against this abuse of power. In 2008, Biya proposed a constitutional amendment to remove Cameroon's two-term presidential limit, which would allow him to stand for re-election in 2011. In response, Lapiro released a single called "Constitution constipée" (or "Constipated Constitution"), criticizing Biya's bid to rule for life. In the song, Lapiro sings, "The head of state is caught in the trap of networks that oblige him to stay in power, even though he is tired. Free Biya!" The sarcastic tune was banned from TV and radio, but quickly became an inspirational anthem for Cameroon's students, who rallied behind the song to push for reform. Thousands took to the streets of dozens of cities that February, protesting against the proposed constitutional amendment and the government's corruption and economic mismanagement.

As a result, Biya targeted Lapiro, accusing him of starting the demonstrations. His thugs finally arrested him on April 9, 2008, in Mbanga City, accusing him of "complicity in looting, destruction of property, arson, obstructing streets, degrading public or classified property, and forming illegal gatherings."

"Before going to jail," Lapiro said, "they tried to kill me twice."

Six months later, Lapiro was sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of approximately $600,000. He called the trial "Kafkaesque," claiming that the outcome was decided in advance. Meanwhile, Biya crushed the protests, killing more than 100 demonstrators with impunity, and passed the constitutional amendment, securing his ability to rule for life. His regime tried to hide the bodies, announced that human rights groups were exaggerating the death toll, and tried to act the victim of costly looting. A local human rights alliance published a 34-page report documenting the murder of civilians, but said no officials were held accountable. To make up for the bad press, Biya raised salaries for civil and military personnel and nixed a few import taxes.

Lapiro served his sentence at New Bell prison, one of the country's most infamous jails, known as "hell on earth." Despite being built for 500-800 inmates, it regularly holds more than 3,000. Lapiro shared a cell with 50 other prisoners. According to a 2010 U.N. report, more than half of Cameroon's prisoners are in provisional detention, and torture is commonplace. Bibi Ngoto, managing editor of the Cameroun Express, was also serving time at New Bell for criticizing Biya. One day, he was found dead in his cell.

While in jail, facing awful sanitary conditions and surviving on little to no food, Lapiro almost died of typhoid fever, but remained brazen. "My struggle has always been to denounce inequalities, and danger is part of that mission," he said in a 2010 interview from jail. While there, Lapiro won the Freedom to Create Imprisoned Artist Prize and its prize of $25,000. The curators said "his songs constitute a cultural megaphone by which the disenfranchised and politically endangered can vicariously exercise free speech."

In March of 2010, Biya's rubber-stamp parliament passed a bill giving his regime control over the polls. To no one's surprise, Biya went on to win another seven-year term in 2011 with 78 percent of the vote in an election that critics say was rigged.

Meanwhile, Freedom Now, Freemuse, and PEN International started a campaign to win Lapiro's freedom. With their help, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention finally declared his arrest a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Lapiro was released on April 8, 2011, one day before the end of his sentence.

In a display of his indefatigability, he produced more anti-Biya songs and toured the world, playing concerts across Europe, Canada, and the United States in the summer of 2011. He criticized foreign governments like Nicolas Sarkozy's in France for cooperating with Biya, but still believed their people could commiserate with his cause. In 2012, he received political asylum in the United States and moved to Buffalo with his wife and five of their six children.

One of Lapiro's last public talks was in Norway in 2013 at the Oslo Freedom Forum. In a 14-minute speech, he asked the audience to "let me be the humble voice that conveys to you the warmest greetings of the oppressed people of Cameroon." He joked that while his country had won Olympic gold medals and even beaten Brazil and the great Diego Maradona's Argentine squad in football, it was also the two-time "world champion of corruption." He warned that Cameroon was a volcano, and "if nothing is done soon, the eruption will be devastating." "I am here to shout, to scream," he said, "on behalf of men in the streets of Cameroon, to sound the alarm that human rights are in peril."

Lapiro called the justice system Biya's most lethal weapon, and described how the dictator manipulates it to condemn his opponents and detractors to long jail sentences. He described a "modern day Machiavelli" who appoints or revokes judges and politicians as he sees fit. "The regime," he says, "has never been elected. It terrorizes the population." He talked about how Biya creates a climate of fear where the lucky critics end up in jail, like him. The unlucky ones, he says, are massacred by army commandos, like the student protestors crushed in 2008.

The world, he would warn, should not be fooled by Biya's moments of cleverness, like when he founded the National Commission to Fight Corruption in 2006, which helped him to jail dozens of ministers and businessmen in a campaign against bribery. In reality, the commission has just given Biya an opportunity to generate good international press while jailing potential political rivals. Bribes and payoffs remain, as Cameroon ranks 144th out of 177 in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.

Just like Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, Biya is also playing the scapegoat card, blaming gays for Cameroon's ills and jailing them mercilessly. His laws forbid homosexual activity, which carries a prison term of up to five years. LGBT activists have been murdered with absolute impunity. Meanwhile, the regime turns a blind eye to child trafficking, female genital mutilation, and violence against women.

In the first interview after his release from prison in 2011, Lapiro said that "singers are the voice of the voiceless." He said he hoped that more would follow in his footsteps, and even outlined one specific way the West could help his country: He urged the European Union to investigate where its aid went once it got to Biya's coffers. He once claimed that he was "in a position to say that the money that the European Union sends to Cameroon to help prisoners doesn't arrive."

Meanwhile, Biya continues to crack down on dissent. Last summer Human Rights Watch reported a "spate of attacks on rights defenders" in Cameroon. Biya is also adapting to the threat that technology can pose to his rule: During the Arab spring, he ordered mobile phone companies to suspend their mobile services for Twitter. Just last fall, he shuttered 11 media outlets. Although his regime no longer imposes Burmese-style pre-publication censorship, the constitution gives him power to ban newspapers based on "threats to public order."

Lapiro was lucky enough to escape this paranoid regime and experience freedom. But he couldn't enjoy it for long, and so many of his citizens continue to struggle. Today, in memory of Lapiro de Mbanga, perhaps we can listen to some of his revolutionary music. Maybe we can start paying attention to Cameroon's 23 million citizens, trapped in Paul Biya's personal prison.

'Ndinga Man'/ Energy Productions NE 5003/Blogspot