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How State Restrictions are Reshaping Civic Space Around the World

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This article was originally published by IPI Global Observatory on 19 May 2017.

In April 2017, the Russian Ministry of Justice designated the Kola Ecological Center, a small environmental group in Russia’s Murmansk region, a “foreign agent.” The organization’s offense? It had advised regional authorities on nuclear waste handling and opposed plans to extend the run time of a local nuclear power plant—and, importantly, it had accepted Norwegian funding in the past. It now joins more than 150 Russian NGOs for whom the foreign agent label has led to crippling fines, onerous lawsuits, and, in the most extreme cases, liquidation.

Russia is not an isolated case. Governments around the world are cracking down on civil society activism. Pointing to threats of terrorism or the need to protect national sovereignty, they are erecting new barriers to the operations and funding of NGOs, harassing and demonizing civic activists, and criminalizing dissent through expansive anti-terrorism laws. Between 2014 and 2016, more than 60 countries restricted citizens’ freedom of assembly and civil society’s ability to access funding.

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Iran’s Elections: What You Need to Know

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This article was originally published by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) on 12 May 2017.

On May 19, the Islamic Republic of Iran holds presidential elections, the first following the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement. Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani is running against five other candidates, approved by Iran’s Guardian Council to compete in the election. The race has centred heavily on economic policies for tackling high unemployment and growing inequality, together with how to reintegrate the country into global financial platforms following the rollback of sanctions in the aftermath of the nuclear deal.

Policy decisions in Iran are largely devised through consensus among the various leadership figures represented in the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC).  The SNSC is headed by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is the final arbiter on matters of national security, but the presidential role has proven capable of steering decisions towards moderate or radical positions. For European governments and businesses that have long dealt with the Islamic Republic, there is a clear distinction between the administrations of former presidents Mohammad Khatami, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Rouhani.

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Book Review: The Central African Republic’s Vanishing State

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This article was originally published by the IPI Global Observatory on 4 May 2017.

The Central African Republic was most recently in the news when armed helicopters assigned to the United Nations mission in the country (MINUSCA) fired at a group of rebels near the town of Bambari. This was deemed necessary to protect civilians from attacks, which has been a central part of MINUSCA’s mandate since 2014, the year in which an armed rebellion ousted then-President Francois Bozize. Bambari marks a frontier between two groups that were part of the Séléka—the rebels that deposed Bozize but have since faced off against each other.

Notably missing from descriptions of this recent incident is the role of the government of CAR itself. Reporters and government officials alike attribute that absence to a “lack of capacity“—the state can scarcely project any presence beyond the capital city of Bangui. A stated goal of international engagement in CAR is to restore and extend state authority and legitimacy, ultimately producing a government able to resolve such insecurity without external assistance. While all involved acknowledge that this is an ambitious undertaking, to fully appreciate its magnitude one must read Yale University anthropologist Louisa Lombard’s account of state-making and rebellion in CAR, State of Rebellion: Violence and Intervention in the Central African Republic.

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In a Deluge of New Media, Autocrats Swim and Democracies Sink

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This article was originally published by World Affairs on 1 Mai 2017.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

At the beginning of the century, the spread of the internet, satellite television, and other media technologies was expected to break down old monopolies and political boundaries, making it nearly impossible for those in power to control what people read, watch, and hear.

Digital media have indeed expanded around the world at lightning speed in the years since, reaching populations that previously received news only from state broadcasters.

Nevertheless, press freedom worldwide deteriorated to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016, according to Freedom House’s latest annual report. Just 13 percent of the world’s population lives in countries whose media environments are ranked as fully “free.”

What the optimists failed to take into account was that forces interested in maintaining control over news and political discourse would not simply accept the inevitability of their own demise, but would fight back and look for new opportunities to increase their dominance.

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Finis Europae? Historical Cycles and the Rise of Right Wing Populism

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This article was originally published by openDemocracy on 26 April 2017.

Why has Europe failed to inspire its citizens in a similar way to other ideas such as the nation, socialism or human rights? Here are some answers and some solutions.

In 2002, Jurgen Habermas and Ulrich Beck celebrated the great successes of the European Union: the re-unification of Germany, the expansion to the East, the successful introduction of the Euro. Old enmities had been left behind and former enemies collaborated in peaceful competition creating the most successful economic region in the world. Europe was becoming the model for the future of humanity.

The reality is different today. Europe is a dysfunctional entity that has betrayed its foundational values. Politicians, commentators and mainstream academics were aghast at the victories of Brexit and Trump. ‘Politics has gone mad’ said many. ‘The world is crumbling before our eyes’ intoned the French Ambassador to America.

Yet the rise of right wing populism and euroscepticism was not unpredictable. The economic, political and cultural trends leading to Brexit, Trump and the rise of the xenophobic and nationalist right-wing are similar and well-known. They did not seem to worry the European elites until recently.

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