The killing today of Benazir Bhutto was tragic for many reasons. Most obviously, it was another senseless death, adding to the spiraling extremist violence that has spread in recent years from Pakistan's remote regions into the heart of its major cities, including the capital, Islamabad and the nearby military garrison, Rawalpindi, where Bhutto was murdered. But the killing also may push the country even farther from a return to real democracy, already a shaky prospect in a country with a checkered history of electoral politics. For while Bhutto was hardly a saint, she had served as the strongest, most credible opposition voice against the sham elections prepared for early January.
Time Magazine named Russian President Vladimir Putin its "Person of the Year" last week. In announcing the magazine's choice for special recognition this year, Time's managing editor, Richard Stengel writes, "if Russia succeeds as a nation-state in the family of nations, it will owe much of that success to one man, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin." Stengel is merely joining the chorus of voices in an increasingly conventional narrative praising Putin for Russia's apparent revival where it isn't clear at all that any praise is actually due him.
Michael McFaul, senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment's Russia and Eurasia Program, takes on the argument that Vladimir Putin's strong hand has been responsible for Russia's economic resurgence. Noting that "the positive change that has occurred between the 1990s and the last several years has little if anything to do with Putin," Dr. McFaul argues that the Putin administration's concentration of state power has actually impeded economic growth, not encouraged it.
After President Vladimir Putin said last month that Russia would not allow other countries "to poke their snotty noses into our affairs," we should face the fact that security relations with the West are in a shambles. Putin, who is fond of tough-guy slang, used the colorful phrase when he accused the United States of pushing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to decide against sending observers to the State Duma elections on Dec. 2.
It is a hypocritical shell game where Kremlin political strategists dragged political heavyweights onto the ballots to serve nothing more than a decorative function. Then, after the elections, they were replaced by others who are unknown or even unpopular with the voters.
Mauritania, an often-ignored country on the western periphery of the Arab world, surprised observers two years ago by undertaking one of the most forthcoming advances toward democracy in the region. Democratic reforms came as a result of a 2005 bloodless military coup led by Colonel Ely Ould Mohammad Vall.
Russia-watchers breathed a sigh of relief Monday with the news that Vladimir Putin had selected his successor. Finally, we knew the name of Russia's next president: Dmitry Medvedev. The initial consensus was, it could have been worse. But what we learned on Monday is dwarfed by what we still do not know about Russia's immediate future.
For the last eight years of Vladimir Putin's presidency, friends of mine who either worked for or were simply sympathetic to the Kremlin have argued at various times that Russia was a "managed" democracy, a "sovereign" democracy or an autocracy like China on the long road to democracy via the autocratic-modernizer path. Western observers of Russian internal developments, including the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have echoed this third argument, emphasizing that Russia's transition from communism to democracy would be a long one but that it is nonetheless under way.
Carnegie Senior Associate Michael McFaul takes on the conventional wisdom that Vladimir Putin's tight-fisted rule has been behind the economic growth and stability over the past seven years. "The emergence of Russian democracy in the 1990s did indeed coincide with state breakdown and economic decline, but it did not cause either," McFaul writes.
After making a few initial concessions to the international community, like allowing in a UN human rights investigator and permitting a government meeting with pro-democracy leaders, the Burmese junta has stood firm. In the weeks since the August and September protests, the military has scoured the country, rounding up demonstrators and shuttering monasteries.