The League of Authoritarian Gentlemen

It used to be that it was mainly the liberal democracies who banded together in defense of their values. No longer.

By Alexander Cooley, the Director of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and the Claire Tow Professor of Political Science at Barnard College.
Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP/GettyImages
Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP/GettyImages

For years now, the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia have been talking about the importance of common efforts to promote human rights and democratic values around the world. If the liberal democracies pooled their efforts, there seemed good reason to believe that they could embed these values in international law and succeed in fostering the growth of freedom.

It turns out, however, that the autocrats haven’t been asleep at the wheel, either. And nowhere is this truer in Eurasia, where Russia, China, and the Central Asian states have been busy discovering the virtues of alliance in a common cause. They’ve been working hard to forge an international front of anti-democrats, developing a new set of counter-strategies and regional legal tools. It seems to be working. The latest edition of Freedom House’s global survey of political rights notes that its findings are "particularly grim for Eurasian countries."

Over the last year, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has renewed its crackdown on democratic opposition, most recently by staging an all-out assault on non-government organizations with foreign ties. The Chinese Communist Party has also been doing its best to silence critics and maintain its tight control over dissidents. Yet far less attention has gone to the two countries’ transnational efforts to band together in their efforts to snuff out democratic impulses.

The rise of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is a case in point. Comprised of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the SCO presents itself as a new-style international organization that champions the principle of non-interference in the sovereign affairs of its member states — a not-too subtle jibe at the political and economic conditions imposed by other Western-led groups. Originally, the SCO’s precursor, the Shanghai Five, resolved lingering Soviet-era border disputes among its members, but the group has now expanded its activities to include security, economic initiatives, infrastructure development and education. Though the organization’s formal headquarters is in Beijing, cooperation among the SCO’s internal security services are conducted through the poetically named Regional Antiterrorist Structure (RATS) located in Tashkent.

Under the mantra of combating the "three evils" of terrorism, extremism, and separatism, RATS maintains a consolidated watch list of regional "extremist" individuals and organizations. The list has expanded dramatically, initially from 15 organizations and individuals in 2006 to 42 organizations and over 1100 individuals in 2010. Human rights groups fear that this expansion is the result of authoritarian "logrolling," as each country lists its own regime threats in exchange for agreeing to other countries’ designations, which may include political opponents in addition to bona fide terrorists.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Counterterrorism and Human Rights has expressed "serious concerns" about SCO data-sharing and listing procedures, noting that they were "not subject to any meaningful form of oversight and there are no human rights safeguards attached to data and information sharing." RATS may even be sharing surveillance technologies under new cybersecurity initiatives launched in response to the political mobilization facilitated by social networks during the Arab Spring.

In 2009, SCO member states signed a new Anti-Terrorism Treaty that allows for suspects to be transferred among member states with minimal evidence of their crimes, and even permits member states to "dispatch their agents to the territory" of another SCO member state when conducting a criminal investigation (Article 18, original, unofficial translation).

The SCO Treaty has a regional counterpart in the Minsk Convention, originally signed in 1993, which also has been cited to justify the forced return of accused suspects facing criminal charges. For example, in June 2010, Kazakhstan extradited 29 political asylum-seekers to Uzbekistan. Kazakhstani prosecutors justified the extradition under both the Minsk and SCO accords, stating that the complainants were involved in "illegal organizations" and accused of "attempts to overthrow the constitutional order;" but a subsequent communication from the U.N. Committee Against Torture (CAT) found that Kazakh authorities had still violated their non-refoulement obligation, the CAT provision that mandates that a "State party cannot return an individual if a risk of torture exists in the receiving State."

According to human rights organizations (here, here), these regional agreements have facilitated a number of politically motivated renditions and abductions. The most prominent cases involve transfers of Central Asians from Russia and Uighurs from both Russia and Central Asia to China. Last year the European Court of Human Rights, where several of these Russian cases have been litigated, even sent the European Council of Ministers a letter of concern about the plight of a group of Central Asian litigants. The so-called "Garabayev Group" comprises 18 cases examined by the court from 2007 to 2011, most of them involving Uzbek and Tajik citizens, many of who were forcibly abducted from Russia.

To be sure, these legal frameworks are not necessary for the conduct of such extra-territorial activities (and it’s worth noting that the United States also cooperated with Central Asian security services earlier in the decade to render suspects to and from the region). For example, Russian political dissident Leonid Razvozzhayev was abducted in Kyiv by armed agents in October and transported to Moscow, while Uzbek security services are reportedly operating independently both in and beyond Eurasia. As Russian investigative journalists point out, Russia has, as a result, ceased to be the "safe space" for Central Asian political dissidents and oppositionists that it was during the 1990s.

These regional organizations are also cynically emulating the form, but not the substance, of established democratic actors. Both the SCO and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have established their own "election observers," mostly as a response to the consistent criticism that Central Asian elections received from the OSCE’s established monitoring missions run by its Office for Democratic Initiatives and Human Rights (ODIHR). Neither regional body has adopted the United Nations Code of Conduct for International Election Observers and, not surprisingly, these missions usually reach conclusions about the quality of Eurasian elections that are dramatically at odds with those of the ODIHR.

For example, while in 2007 the ODHIR heavily criticized the quality of the Kyrgyz parliamentary elections that allowed autocrat Kurmanbek Bakiyev to consolidate his grip on power, both CIS and SCO monitors certified the legality and legitimacy of the poll. The CIS Election Monitoring Organization also oversees elections in the disputed territories of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdnistria, thus providing the only source of external legitimacy for these polls.

Finally, authoritarians are now targeting the rights agenda even within established international organizations. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, established in 1995 as successor to the landmark CSCE, has seen its once vibrant democratic mandate effectively dismantled. Russia, Belarus and the Central Asian states have attempted to gut the organization’s election observation missions and actively blocked adding new "human dimension" projects. Researchers also have even noted how in its security projects, such as promoting police reform in Central Asia, the OSCE has jettisoned political conditions, unintentionally enhancing the capacity of these authoritarian regimes.

Even the United Nations is now becoming a battleground for contesting and redefining political rights. According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, over the last 10 years Russia and China have exhibited higher correspondence with votes in the General Assembly on human rights issues than either the United States or the European Union. In 2011, for example, the overall support for the United States from other states was just 37 percent, whereas China’s was 60 percent and Russia’s 59 percent. Moscow is also taking the lead in introducing new counter-norms in the human rights sphere — in September 2012 the U.N. Human Rights Committee narrowly passed a controversial resolution, introduced by Russia, promoting the "traditional values of mankind," a text that LGBT rights activists have condemned as potentially undermining gay rights — especially as the Russian parliament considers new legislation to criminalize "gay propaganda."

To be sure, the situation within the OSCE and United Nations reflects the broader overall schism in Russia’s relations with the West. But given its ruthless clampdown on NGOs and the rise of new regional organizations that prioritize sovereignty over democracy, Russia is now leading an effective three-pronged assault on the external actors that have helped to promote and disseminate the Western values agenda.(In this respect, it’s revealing that, just this week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to consider membership in the SCO as a way of expressing his displeasure with the pace of negotiations on Turkish accession to the European Union.)

Confronting Eurasia’s new authoritarian architecture will require both Washington and Brussels to challenge the legality and purpose of these authoritarian practices. Ignoring their growing importance, or even choosing to selectively engage with groups like the SCO on less controversial issues, will only further serve to legitimize these new challenges, thereby further undermining democratic norms and Western standing in Eurasia and beyond. 

Alexander Cooley is the Director of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and the Claire Tow Professor of Political Science at Barnard College. Twitter: @CooleyOnEurasia