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Archive for July, 2016

Russia’s Civil Society: From Democracy Backpedaling to Informal War

By Blog Admin, on 30 July 2016

 

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by Professor Alena Ledeneva

Across Central, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, democracy and civil society in the post-communist era are being diverted by informal ties, networks, practices that hide behind democratic institutions. The main problem with powerful informal obligations to family, friends, colleagues and bosses is that they also compromise the state, governance and civil society, especially where clear boundaries between public and private cannot be drawn. Imagine official positions that take over private lives, or having to choose between being a good bureaucrat and a good brother.

I’ve presented my research into informal practices in my trilogy on Russia: Russia’s Economy of Favours, How Russia Really Works, and Can Russia Modernise. In these three books, I take an ethnographic approach towards studying informal practices at different levels and periods, from the Soviet Union to Putin’s Russia. I view communism, its collapse, and the formation of a new system from the perspective of informal practices, and question the predominant discourses of the state, democracy, and civil society, associated with formal institutions.

There are three strands to my argument.

Firstly, the 1990s’ liberal reforms in Russia were originally thought to allow civil society to emerge and get grounded in already existent networks, yet this was not what happened. It turned out that Russia’s informal networks operate according to the ‘us versus them’ logic that is largely self- or network serving, and thus not conducive to civic values.

Secondly, the double standards widespread under the communist oppressive system continue to operate even after the fall of such a regime. The post-communist vacuum was hard to fill, and after a short blip of enthusiasm for democracy in late 1980s and early 1990s, the informal practices in politics – black PR, kompromat, krugovaya poruka (joint responsibility) – have increased people’s cynicism towards the new democratic institutions.

Thirdly, the non-civic nature of informal networks in Russia has also had effects on those in power. On one hand, Putin’s power networks served themselves and reproduced the culture of privileges, which is detrimental to civil society. On the other hand, Putin’s restrictive laws of 2006 and 2011, which, although damaging to existing non-governmental organisations, had the unintended consequence of benefitting civic initiatives emerging ‘bottom-up’. This was illustrated by the Blue Buckets campaign for equality on the roads, and the anti-Putin protests of 2011. The internet has become an important tool for activism, such as the Last Address initiative, whereby people commemorate victims of Stalin’s purges by putting a plaque on their building.

However, since 2012 powerful nationalist propaganda has considerably eroded the atmosphere for bottom-up social initiatives. This was launched by the Kremlin to ensure popular support for the continuing confrontation with the West over the situations in Georgia, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Syria and now Turkey. The informal war – an undeclared warfare behind the misleading facades – has gone international. This is not surprising, given the decades-long tradition of informal economy and informal politics. The future is even more worrying, as the number of leaders who admire and emulate the Most Powerful Person in the World is only likely to increase.

 

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Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL

Poland – Judicial independence in jeopardy? President Duda refuses appointment of ten further judges

By Blog Admin, on 25 July 2016

By Dr Philipp Koker, Honorary Research Fellow at UCL SSEES

This post originally appeared at http://presidential-power.com/ and is reproduced with kind permission.

The controversy over Poland’s constitutional court triggered by president Duda’s refusal to appoint judges nominated by the outgoing Sejm and passage of legislation to legitimise his and the new government’s behaviour has so far dominated the presidency of Andrzej Duda (for a summary see Aleks Szczerbiak’s post here). Now, Duda is once again in the line of fire following his refusal to appoint ten out of thirteen judges from lower-level courts to higher positions. Thus, although the individuals put forward by the National Judiciary Council (a committee formed of 17 judges, the minister of judges and 5 political nominees) are far from uncontroversial, the relatively unchecked power of the president in the area of judicial appointments and the government’s plan to reform the judiciary continue to be the most prominent battlefields of Polish politics today.

President Duda appoints ‘his’ nominee Julia Przyłębska as judge of the Constitutional Tribunal on 9 December 2015| © prezydent.pl 2015

The Polish constitution, like so many others (irrespective of this being intentional or not), remains vague on a number of presidential duties and prerogatives. Article 179 of the 1997 Constitution thus states with regard to appointments of judges that “judges are appointed by the president on the suggestion of the National Judiciary Council” but gives no further instructions on the procedures or an eventual right of the president to refuse such nominations. Constitutional scholars widely agree that presidents may refuse the nomination of any candidate for public office (irrespective of judge, professor or prime minister) on the grounds of a person’s lack of formal and legally required qualification or reasonable doubts about their loyalty to the constitution. While this generally follows from presidents’ inaugural oath to uphold and protect the constitution, the rejection of nominees for political or personal reasons arguably has no legal basis.

Duda’s refusal to appoint the judges met with particular opposition due to the lack of justification for his decision. Before being proposed candidates for judicial promotions are vetted by the National Judicial Council; if their application is denied they can appeal the decision in court. An additional vetting by the president beyond formalities thus appears not only unreasonable but also adds the complication that there is no prescribed legal way to appeal his refusal to appoint a nominee. Many conflicts over constitutional clauses along the lines of “the president appoints/signs/etc” fall into the category of conflict between two constitutional organs and can be adjudicated by the constitutional court by the ways of a standard procedure. Yet as both the National Judicial Council and the rejected nominees lack ‘organ quality’, neither of them can easily challenge the president’s decision. The latter became clear in the only other case judicial promotions at lower courts were refused by the president. In 2007 Duda’s pre-predecessor Lech Kaczynski (the deceased twin-brother of current Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski), created a precedent for Duda’s actions by declining to appoint nine judges. The nominees’ constitutional complaints were eventually rejected after four years of deliberations as the justification was that the implementation of administrative law by the president does not fall within the remit of the Constitutional Court. The Supreme Administrative Court likewise rejected the complaints and subsequent further constitutional complaints were also rejected so that the case now (still) lies with the European Court of Human Rights (for a longer summary, see the report of the Helsinki foundation here).

Newspapers have speculated on the reasons which led the president to reject the nominations. In fact, some of the nominees are far from uncontroversial. One judge was prominently accused of bribery, another judge controversially dismissed a collective law suit against the financial services provider Amber Gold (which was liquidated following the discovery that is was based on a pyramid scheme), and a third was involved in the widely discussed case of restricting the “parents’ rights” of a couple accused of violence against their children. In addition, one judge was widely criticised for continuously extending the arrest of a football fan for alleged drug-dealing, yet without any verdict being issued over the course of three and a half years. Last, one of the judges whose promotion was denied judged on a case in which Law and Justice party Jaroslaw Kaczynski leader sued fellow legislator Janusz Palikot (then Civic Platform, later founder of ‘Palikot’s Movement’) for insulting him.

None of the above-mentioned controversies would generally justify denial of appointment or other presidential intervention. Thus, it is more likely that they are part of the Law and Justice government’s plan to reform and mould the judiciary in their image. Given that Duda is generally seen as little more than a vicarious agent of Law and Justice leader and Polish politics’ grey eminence (he does not hold any government office) Jaroslaw Kaczynski, it is not unreasonable to assume that the president is now helping to fulfil that plan (while at the same time extending the powers of his office). In a recent proposal made by the government (which was already widely criticised by the Human Rights Ombudsman and NGOs), the National Judiciary Council would have to propose two candidates per vacancy thus considerably increasing the president’s power over judicial nominations. This, together with the conflict over the constitutional court and the government’s decision to once again merge the position of general prosecutor with the minister of justice (the positions were separated by the predecessor government in 2008 and unsuccessfully vetoed by president Lech Kaczynski) highlights the great importance that Law and Justice attaches to judicial reform. Nevertheless, it also shows that judicial independence in Poland might increasingly come under threat – not only, but partially due to president Duda’s activism.

 

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of UCL, SSEES or UCL SSEES Research Blog

 

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Immigration in London after the EU Referendum

By Blog Admin, on 7 July 2016

by Dr Katja Richters (SSEES former post doctoral teaching fellow)

 

Immigration has been one, if not the most prominent topic before and after last week’s EU referendum. Innumerable media reports have painted a picture of leave voters as people who blame immigrants for their problems with housing, access to education and healthcare, unemployment and low wages. While I share these concerns, I strongly believe that neo-liberal policies rather than immigration and EU membership are their causes. As some of the reactions to the referendum result and the worrying outbreak of nationalism and hate speech have shown, voters were not well informed about what kind of immigration the EU facilitates.

Similar confusion also characterises the perceptions of East Europeans held by some of the leave voters that I and my fellow remain campaigners spoke to in Haringey before 23 June. Many of the remarks we heard were spontaneous and unpolished, which is understandable given that we knocked on their doors unexpectedly. Nevertheless, there was a trend towards singling out Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians as the main ‘trouble-makers.’ One woman I spoke to said that she was happy for Germans and French to live and work in the UK, but she did not want Poles and other East Europeans to have the same rights. In her opinion, the latter were lazy, lived off state benefits and prevented Brits from accessing vital NHS treatment. Other Haringey residents felt quite the opposite, i.e. that Poles were making it harder for them to find jobs as they were prepared to work more for less. There was also the perception that Romanians and Bulgarians were causing unspecified problems, spoke little or no English and formed criminal gangs.

Somewhat surprisingly, more than half of the voters who expressed these opinions were either first or second generation immigrants. Haringey is one of the most ethnically diverse boroughs in the UK with sizeable Turkish and Kurdish communities as well as many migrants from Commonwealth states. There are also a number of East European shops and bars dotted around the borough. Voters from a BAME background added a different perspective to the perception of East Europeans as a number of them felt that they harboured racist prejudices. They told us that they were intending to vote leave because they felt that the progress that has been made in combating racism since the 1970s was threatened by the influx of migrants from less tolerant and diverse societies. Some also criticised that the EU facilitates movement only between its member states, but makes it much harder for Commonwealth citizens to live and work in the UK. They consequently questioned why people who do not have a historical connection to Britain enjoyed more rights than those whose ancestors had stood by the UK during difficult times, i.e. two world wars.

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A typical East European food shop, similar to those on Harringay Green Lanes

It would be presumptuous to claim that this relatively small sample of Haringey residents was representative of voters’ perceptions across the country. As a West German who has spent considerable time and energy studying the history, politics, languages and cultures of Eastern Europe – notably Russia and Ukraine – I do not perceive Eastern Europeans as ‘civilisational others’ and I am saddened and worried by the opinions I have summarised above. I would nevertheless draw the tentative conclusion that East Europeans, however defined, face an image problem in the UK that needs to be addressed. As our political elite is wondering how to reshape Britain’s relationship with the EU, I believe it is worthwhile thinking about how we as academics and researchers interested in Central and Eastern Europe could share our passion for the regions and people we study with a wider audience. If we succeeded – and I think we can – in making the hypothetical Joe Bloggs realise that EU migrants come from countries with fascinating cultures and rich histories it would not only be the migrants who would gain from this.

It would also be the academic community because it would give it a powerful answer to the question ‘Why should we spend taxpayers’ money on your research?’

 

 

Views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of UCL, SSEES or SSEES Research Blog. 

 

 

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FYRUK? Ukoslovakia? Herceg-Engleska?

By Blog Admin, on 6 July 2016

by Eric Gordy – Senior Lecturer in Southeast European Politics

This post originally appeared on Eric’s personal blog and is reproduced with kind permission of the author.

 

It has become mildly popular, in the wake of the disastrous referendum in which a small majority of a deliberately misinformed public voted to advise the UK government to leave the European Union, to draw parallels between the future of the UK, which would certainly not survive such a dramatic move, and the recent past of the states of the former Yugoslavia.

There are a few similarities, which might as well be noted. The first of them is that decisions deeply affecting the fate of a great many people were decided after bitter, ethnocentric populist campaigns in a referendum. The second is that they led to the rise into prominence of bizarre and clownish figures from the political margins who would never have a chance if they had to face an informed public or oppose a responsible and engaged elite. And of course the third is that we were able to witness established parties and figures which gave every appearance of being established and cast in stone melt and dissipate as quickly as butter in a skillet awaiting the arrival of a fate-cursed egg.

But there are, after all, more differences. The chronological difference that matters is that in the case of the former Yugoslavia, referenda were demanded by outside actors, undertaken when conditions had already become unsustainable, and regarded as paths to resolution. In the case of the UK the referendum derived from the ongoing social crisis, but predated (by an hour or so) the political crisis. The practical difference that matters is that by the times referenda were held in the Southeast European states, there were already armed groups prepared to affirm or reject the outcome. In the UK, for better or worse, violence has been mostly restricted to small groups of people inspired by the rabble-rousers willing to engage in acts of heroic sacrifice like shooting an MP as she walked out of a library, painting vulgarities on a Polish cultural centre, and sending threatening notes to schoolchildren.

The interesting material is in the space between elements that are similar and elements that are different, where we can see a diverse set of political and social forces trying to push events in one or another direction. The loony right wing of the Conservative party, which Mr Cameron thought he would marginalise in his ham-libidoed miscalculation, is gearing itself up to claim a mandate to govern that it does not have even its own party. Conspirators in the Labour party are doing their best to assure that if the Conservatives go down they will not go down alone. Meanwhile both in London and in Bruxelles a chorus of voices is trying to affirm by repetition the claim that an advisory referendum carries with it inevitable legal finality.

Much of the dispute about whether the outcome of the referendum has to be transformed into basic change – for the worse – in political structures derives from the UK’s idiosyncratic legal system. Its defenders decribe its functioning as an «unwritten constitution,» in which the absence of established rules is compensated by a tradition of interpretation. This contention depends in the first instance on the maintenance of basic stability and continuity in the system, but much more than that on the (invalid) assumption that all participants in the system share similar values and goals. A vocal plurality of EU officials are demanding that the UK government invoke Article 50 of the EU Charter, which would set the actual process of exit in motion. This demand is motivated by a fear of extended uncertainty and the perception that the referendum results reflect a public will that has been expressed and cannot be changed. Inside the country, there is debate over whether invoking Article 50 can be done by the prime minister or must be voted by Parliament, whether the move requires consent of all of the constituent units of the UK, and whether any parliamentary decision could be blocked by the unelected chamber of the parliament or by judicial review.

The principal dilemma here is one that existed in the former Yugoslav cases, but was resolved in those instances principally by force: that is that there are a number of ways of preventing the collapse of the system that are legal, but only one that is legitimate. The legitimate way is to dissolve the parliament and hold new elections, which IF they were won by a party or a coalition pledging a new referendum on the basic of new circumstances and risk, MIGHT result in a repeat of the referendum with a changed result (there are at least five preceedents for this in the short history of EU-related referenda). Vetoes of various types, whether from Scottish parliamentarians, judges or «lords,» are simply tricks that would not address fundamental issues. Legally it could be argued that in a representative system members of parliament have both the authority and the obligation not to follow public opinion when it threatens the integrity of the state, but the political risk of doing this is high enough, and the level of courage among parliamentarians low enough, that this is unlikely to happen. Assuming that the use of force does not shift from thug to systemic scale, this means either new elections or a drawn-out period of confusion, paralysis, weak legitimacy, and decay.

It may be that the most important similarity between the recent violent restructuring of the former Yugoslavia and the coming dissolution of the UK (which will be mostly non-violent, with the violence concentrated on marginalised populations who media and public opinion will systematically ignore) is the parallel set of causes. The earlier set of incidents took place in a part of the world where the managers of a hegemonic ideology had lost the trust of the public and the will to defend their ideas. The present events have their root in a clumsily expressed but similar type of public rejection, in which the greatest proportion of working class support for exit came from people who saw their vote as an act of «rebellion,» and who perceived their own interests as ignored in a political and economic system that over a long period disinvested in their livelihoods, withdrew support for their social needs, and symbolically treated them as marginal. In both instances high levels of social dissatisfaction resulted in the emergence of new political orders which would marginalise the people who supported them even further.

If people in our profession were cynical and self-seeking, they would be pleased with this course of events. Lots of jobs for Balkanologists and involuntary specialists in acquises communitaires and other such strange creatures! Mostly, though, we are not, because we know a little bit about the effects of manufactured disorder, socially approved violence, and recombinant structures of hatred.

 

Views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of SSEES, UCL, or SSEES Research Blog.

 

 

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