Note: Today is the second in a series of posts that detail Eurasia Group's Top Risks for 2013.
As their people grow bolder in their quest for information, China's leaders will only tighten the restrictions they place on cyberspace. China is, in fact, embarking on a worrying experiment: It is the only major power that is attempting to preserve an authoritarian system in the information age. This gigantic task will demand a great deal of leaders' attention, raise tensions among the Chinese people, and reverberate outside of China's borders through the country's foreign policy.
China's Great Firewall and unpredictable censorship regime have more or less enabled its leaders to manipulate the information accessible to its citizens. But these tools are fast becoming insufficient, a fact made clear by strikes at a major Chinese newspaper this week. China's internet users stand at more than half a billion and counting. Growing demands for transparency and information leaks that embarrass the government are inevitable, as evidenced by the public's growing awareness of high-level corruption scandals.
The Communist Party appears poised to implement a new phase of information control that is part reactive and part proactive. On the reactive side, the government has begun to disrupt virtual private networks used by many foreigners, and even some Chinese, to circumvent the country's firewall. The government will proactively attempt to capitalize on technological tools by using the internet and social media such as Weibo (China's version of Twitter) to convey its own messaging.
The friction between the government's attempts at self-preservation and the population's desire for more transparency will be the greatest political challenge for China in 2013. While the stability of the government is unlikely to be shaken in 2013, this internal conflict will distract leaders and encourage them to deflect public anger outward. Finding foreign scapegoats is a time-honored tactic that the Communist Party is likely to repeat this year.
There are plenty of foreign targets to turn to. Territorial tensions are high and are only exacerbated by the U.S. pivot to Asia, which has emboldened countries such as the Philippines to more aggressively push their interests. The largest risk is an increase in nationalism from China toward Japan, especially given the growing tension surrounding outstanding territorial disputes between the two countries.
Ultimately, though, China's attempts to limit information run counter to its stated desire to develop an innovative economy. How can China's handful of vibrant IT firms and internet giants become global competitors while operating under a regime that restricts online information? How can China become a dominant player in the global economy if it is disconnected from the global information society? These are inherent contradictions that the new Communist Party leadership will have to resolve.
On Monday, we'll profile Risk #3: Arab Summer.
By Carroll Colley
Washington is on the verge of completing an improbable trifecta in U.S.-Russian relations. In August, the Obama administration helped guide Russia across the finish line for World Trade Organization membership. Congress is now fast tracking an end to the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a piece of Cold War-era legislation that ties trade policy to human rights, and one that has remained a bone of contention between Moscow and Washington for more than twenty years. Finally, Congress is also about to establish "permanent normalized trade relations" with Russia.
So why are relations on the verge of a potentially serious turn for the worse-and perhaps a reassessment of the "reset" in U.S.-Russian relations? Because this legislation will also include the so-called Magnitsky Act, which publicly rebukes the Kremlin for its poor human rights record.
Sergei Magnitsky, an attorney investigating a corruption case involving tax fraud charges against a UK-based investment firm, announced he had uncovered evidence of collusion among police, organized crime figures, bankers, and the Russian judiciary to push the company out of business. In November 2008, Magnitsky was arrested on corruption charges and held for 11 months without trial. He then died in prison under disputed circumstances. An independent human rights organization, Moscow Helsinki Group, has accused Russian security of torturing him. Magnitsky's death provoked international criticism, but a defiant Russian government continues with a posthumous criminal case against him.
The Magnitsky Act will publicly name and shame Russian officials involved in the case, bar them from receiving US visas, and freeze any assets they hold in the United States. Moscow, as you might imagine, is incensed. The Kremlin sees the bill as evidence of continued anti-Russian sentiment in the United States - -Mitt Romney's campaign comments about Russia were grist for this mill -- and as an intrusion by the U.S. into Russia's domestic affairs. The House looks set to vote on the legislation tomorrow, the third anniversary of Magnitsky's death. The Kremlin promises to respond to the bill's passage by retaliating in kind.
The Magnitsky Act won't damage President Vladimir Putin inside Russia. He remains Russia's dominant political figure, his approval numbers are strong, and few Russians closely followed details of this case. Yet, Moscow remains extremely sensitive to international charges of human rights abuses and corruption of government officials. That leaders of Russia's nascent opposition movement have endorsed the Magnitsky Act aggravates the Kremlin even more.
Moscow has already floated suggestions for a 'black list' of US officials, including those connected with the extradition and trial of convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout or with the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Of more concern is the likelihood of increased pressure on U.S. industry operating in Russia, including, for example, unannounced tax inspections of U.S. companies, delayed or denied licensing or registration procedures, and other bureaucratic complications.
While the Magnitsky Act will punish those involved in the case, it won't do much to improve Russia's human rights regime in the near term. Several incidents since Putin's inauguration in May demonstrate that the state continues to use force to weaken the political opposition. Russian officials recently announced the arrest of political activist Leonid Razvozzhayev on charges of orchestrating a series of riots. Razvozzhayev insists that Russian security officials kidnapped him in Ukraine where he was applying for political asylum, transported him back to Russia, and gained a confession from him by torturing him and threatening his children. Politically connected murders of journalists and human rights activists are no closer to being resolved.
U.S.-Russian relations are now likely to enter a period of strain and recrimination, though pragmatism on both sides will prevent a total collapse. The U.S.-Russian "reset" was a good idea at the time and produced significant results, but there is only so much it can accomplish with so much continuing mistrust on both sides.
Carroll Colley is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Eurasia practice.
By Carroll Colley
The story grabbing most of the headlines in Russia the last two weeks has a racy hook, but it's not the story the international community should be watching. Sure, the criminal trial against feminist/garage band Pussy Riot has its share of political intrigue. But that trial is more about church-state relations than the political repression of the women involved. Criminal charges against opposition leader and blogger extraordinaire Alexey Navalny, however, are far more serious, and they provide a window into the Kremlin's current strategy of zero tolerance for political opponents. If Navalny is convicted and jailed, the opposition would be weakened, but it could well provoke even larger protests and greater political uncertainty.
First, the more colorful case. The state is prosecuting Pussy Riot for the band's performance of a musical rant against President Vladimir Putin in Moscow's largest cathedral, and the case exposes the dark underbelly of the Russian judicial system: incompetent prosecutors, questionable witnesses, and a highly politicized judge. Instead of pursuing administrative charges -- which many Russians favor -- the government is throwing down the gauntlet by pursuing a criminal case, though some legal scholars claim that the charges themselves are outside the scope of Russian law.
While a corrupt judicial system creates problems of its own, allegations of incompetence and corruption in Russia's court system are nothing new, and the state's position in this case is more a product of the Putin regime's wish to reward the Orthodox Church's political loyalty than to punish a little-known feminist punk band. Putin, the first Russian ruler since the era of the tsars to be a practicing Orthodox, wants to support one of the political system's most stalwart supporters which called on its members to vote for him in the March presidential election.
The three women face up to seven years in prison for "hooliganism" for performing an "anti-Putin hymn" ("Holy Mother, Drive Putin Out"). After meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron last week in London, Putin said the women have already been punished enough -- they have been held in pre-detention for five months -- and should not be judged too harshly. The use of the legal system to prosecute Pussy Riot may be clumsy-and it has backfired by turning the band into an international cause celebre -- but in the end, it's little more than a colorful footnote to a worrisome trend.
On the other hand, the renewed criminal charges of embezzlement against Navalny (he was previously investigated on similar charges but cleared) should be recognized for what they are -- increased pressure against out-of-system opposition leaders that will grow under a third Putin presidential term.
Navalny has used his blog to wage a successful anti-corruption campaign against the government for several years, making him a major irritant for the ruling elite. He is the face of the opposition movement and has demonstrated that he can send a crowd of protestors into Moscow's streets. Most recently, he exposed that the head of Russia's Investigative Committee -- the Russian equivalent of the FBI -- violated Russian law by owning property in the Czech Republic and holding a Czech residence permit. The Investigative Committee responded quickly with these most recent charges.
Interestingly, Navalny remains free, which suggests that the Kremlin is making him an offer: Stop the anti-government shenanigans or risk 10 years in prison. If his past actions are a good indicator, Navalny won't take this deal; he has been playing this cat-and-mouse game with authorities for some time and has yet to blink. Among the opposition, Navalny appears to be the most charismatic and ambitious figure, one who could possibly rally Russia's disparate opposition movement and mount a credible political career. A potential show trial -- if the standard set with Pussy Riot is to be followed -- and subsequent prison sentence would create yet another political martyr and drastically underscore the authoritarianism of Russia's political dynamic.
If Navalny's case goes to court, he can't expect the leniency that Pussy Riot may ultimately receive. He'll probably get prison time, a verdict that would enrage the opposition (the upper-middle classes in Moscow and a handful of other major cities) and probably provoke greater unrest. But the outcome would be largely supported as a sign of strength by Russia's majority, the working middle and lower classes that support the current system. It will also send yet another signal that the Kremlin's patience with the democratic opposition has reached its limit.
Carroll Colley is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Eurasia practice.
Alexey SAZONOV/AFP/Getty Images
By Ayham Kamel
Recent, though futile, efforts to resolve the crisis in Syria have demonstrated the absence of leadership from global powers such as the U.S. and likely set the stage for possible contagion. The unwillingness of the major powers to intervene in crises such as in Syria -- a marker of what Eurasia Group has called the G-Zero World -- has allowed regional players to step into the breach, notably Qatar via the Arab League. But the League's efforts have also exposed a regional power vacuum and tensions among Middle East nations that could potentially escalate into a proxy war in Syria.
The Arab League's late-January initiative called on President Bashar al-Assad to step down, leaving the vice president to negotiate with the opposition, but it reflects neither the complexity of the Syrian conflict nor the domestic power balance. For example, the opposition is still deeply divided and there is still considerable support for the regime among business interests and some minorities. The Syrian regime is likely to retain power throughout most of 2012, but the risk of collapse will rise considerably in the last quarter.
Other players have taken advantage of major powers' unwillingness to get involved in Syria. Qatar has been pushing for more hawkish Arab League policy on Syria, but the organization lacks the power to push through such initiatives. Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia have also staked out a role. But, the lack of interest in producing a negotiated solution effectively means that the Syrian regime can disregard the Arab League on many issues.
Divisions in the League between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and other members also limit the group's ability to formulate and pursue effective policies. The 24 January decision by the GCC to withdraw monitors from Syria highlights this division. Both Egypt and Algeria, traditionally important players in the organization, are uncomfortable with what is increasingly seen as Qatari and Saudi dominance. In the near term, Egypt's leverage will likely decrease given its own political transition, but major stakeholders (such as the military and the Muslim Brotherhood) will eventually seek a more proactive foreign policy. Within the GCC, there is also a subtle, but important, tension between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Saudi royals are wary of Qatari calls for direct military intervention as a tool for democratic reform in Syria or any other Arab countries, a precedent that could be later used against Riyadh.
Syria is a key part of the regional balance of power between moderate pro-U.S. states and the so called resistance camp lead by Iran. Seeking a broader realignment in the Middle East, regional powers are likely to increase their support of their local allies. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar are actively encouraging the uprising driven by conservative Sunnis. Meanwhile, Iran is providing the Assad regime with intelligence, and technological equipment to suppress the uprising.
The Syrian conflict has fanned Sunni-Shiia tensions and the risks of contagion in Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq are considerable. In Iraq, Sunnis are emboldened by a resurgence of conservative movements across the Middle East. Lebanon could become more unstable as the Syrian conflict has divided political factions in an increasingly delicate struggle. Jordan's own communities could reconsider their allegiance to the Hashemite monarchy as communal divisions between Jordanians of Palestinian descent and tribal elites begin to increase. Potential Syrian or Iranian support to Kurdish separatist groups in Turkey is likely to become a problematic issue. Finally, covert action by either the Sunni axis (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the Arab League) or Shiias (Iran and Iraq) entails significant risks to regional stability and could spur a violent proxy war that would hurt the business environment and oil flows.
Ayham Kamel is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Middle East practice.
DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images
By Risa Grais-Targow
By all rational measures, Cuba is effectively irrelevant to the United States. The island is small, its economy is about the size of New Hampshire's, and since the collapse of the USSR it poses no strategic threat. Yet the Castros have a habit of popping up in the headlines. In part, that is because of the inevitable fascination with a small country that has been a foreign policy irritant for the United States since 1959 and, more recently, its outsized role in Florida politics. But change is coming to Cuba, slowly but surely, and with change comes the possibility of unexpected volatility.
Cuba is gearing up for the first Cuban Communist Party (CCP) congress in 14 years, to be held April 16-19. Much of the event will be focused on formalizing Raul Castro's small steps toward economic liberalization (e.g., trimming the state's workforce and allowing more room for entrepreneurs) outlined in a November 2010 wish-list of 300 reforms. Another, perhaps more important, development will be the identification of the next generation of leaders, including the appointment of a new second-in-command for the CCP (the second most powerful position in Cuba). The long delay since the previous CCP congress suggests that there has been much internal wrangling over that issue.
The Castros are clearly on the way out (Fidel is 84 and Raul is 79), and the CCP has promised that the congress will usher in a new generation of leaders. Just how new and young they will be remains to be seen. On March 25, Raul Castro announced that the 50-year-old Economy and Planning Minister Marino Murillo, who has been the architect of much of the economic reform agenda, would now oversee its implementation as a sort of economic czar, signaling Raul's devotion to the reform process. The CCP may, however, simply shuffle senior party members into new positions rather than appoint younger reformers.
Such developments could also be important for the U.S. and perhaps trade with Cuba. Unless Congress decides to revisit the issue, the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 stipulates that the Cuban embargo cannot be lifted while the Castro regime is still in power. A shift in the leadership could also open the way to dealing with other potential concerns. For example, Cuba is actively exploring for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, raising U.S. concerns about how it would handle disasters similar to the 2010 Macondo well blowout.
But the CCP faces deeper challenges than this round of leadership refreshment. Most young Cubans are disenchanted with the regime. They have spent most of their lives in post-Soviet Cuba dealing with grinding economic hardship. Finding true believers among that generation is likely a difficult task and the regime's ability to implement meaningful reforms will affect the stability of Cuban politics further down the line.
Risa Grais-Targow is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Latin America practice.
ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images
By Jonathan Tepperman
The government of Rwanda reacted with fury last weekend when a leak revealed that a forthcoming U.N. report may charge Rwanda with genocide stemming from massacres of Hutu rebels and civilians by Tutsi forces in the next-door Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) following the 1994 Rwandan civil war. Rwanda's foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, blasted the 500-plus-page draft report as "fatally flawed" and "incredibly irresponsible" and threatened to withdraw the thousands of troops Rwanda contributes to U.N. peacekeeping operations in multiple African countries if the United Nations moves forward and publishes the draft.
At first blush, it's easy to understand Rwanda's rage. It does seem a little rich for the United Nations -- which pretty much sat on its hands in April 1994 when Hutu extremists butchered some 800,000 Tutsis, ignoring the pleas of the United Nations' own head peacekeeper for reinforcements -- to now accuse the Tutsi government that stopped that killing of perpetrating a genocide of its own in the process. (The U.N. charges relate to a period of several years following Rwanda's civil war, when the victorious Tutsis chased rebel Hutus across the border into the DRC, then called Zaire.)
And yet Rwanda's livid reaction, and its refusal to even countenance the possibility that it too may share some blame for the mayhem, is another painful sign of just how badly things have gone wrong in that country since the Tutsi government of President Paul Kagame's very promising start.
SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images
The Call, from Ian Bremmer, uses cutting-edge political science to predict the political future -- and how it will shape the global economy.