Reading List Special – The Armenia/Azerbaijan conflict 2nd October 2020

Three links today which all explore issues surrounding the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Is Peace Possible Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?

The first comes from Carnegie Europe and brings together a wide range of expert views on the conflict and when/whether it will be peacefully resolved. There are some views which appear more pessimistic and some which are pure pie in the sky – you can judge for yourself which might be which.

Turkey backs Azerbaijan in war with Armenia as Russia stands by

AL-Monitor’s Amberin Zaman takes the general view that Russia is letting this conflict play out for a while so that both sides are exhausted and to show that the Minsk Format is ineffective. By then stepping in and determining a ceasefire (if not peace), Russia will reassert its regional dominance.

No peacemakers for the new/old Caucasian war

On the other hand Pavel Baev for Brookings suggests that Russia was largely caught out by the conflict flaring up at this time as its attention was focussed on Belarus.

A few hot (bad) takes from me:

  • The US is distracted and showing once again that it does not have the will or capacity to be the world leader as it once did. This can change, of course, but shows no signs of doing so at the moment.
  • Turkey’s overt intervention on the side of Azerbaijan is new and one further example of Erdogan’s desire to be a regional power (or more). Whilst Russia might be prepared to tolerate Turkish actions in Syria and Libya, will they be happy that this is also happening in their own backyard, the ‘near abroad’?
  • Armenia is Russia’s most dependable ally. So why has the Kremlin not immediately come down on the side of Yerevan? Partly, I suspect, because they want to chastise Pashinyan for using the ‘my big brother is going to beat you up’ threat.
  • The Minsk process is at risk of failing completely. The three co-chairs are Russia, France and the US. Of these, only France seems to be fulfilling its remit at the moment – without great success. Minsk is a subsidiary of OSCE which has been bogged down with internal arguments largely started by Azerbaijan and Turkey.
  • Diplomatic calls for both sides to stand down and negotiate are the equivalent of ‘thoughts and prayers’.

Reading List – 10th September 2020

After a few weeks off, here is some catch up reading on key issues:

What Russia Really Has in Mind for Belarus – And why Western leaders must act

A look at one possible plan that President Putin has for his troubled neighbour and how it migh unfold. The authors argue that rather than an army of Little Green Men, there are a load of Little Grey Men inside Belarus gradually moving it closer and closer to Russia.

Democracy After Coronavirus: Five challenges for the 2020s

This is a long read – a great study on the difference that the pandemic has made to elections and the wider issue of democracy. In this regard, this paper argues that there are five main challenges for democracies after coronavirus: protecting the safety and integrity of elections, finding the right place for expertise, coping with resurgent populism and nationalism, countering homegrown and foreign disinformation, and defending the democratic model.

Lessons learned with social media monitoring

Another long read – this time a look at how different domestic election observers have tried to tackle the task of monitoring what is being said and by whom on social media. Regular readers will know this is a keen area of interest of mine and this paper sums up the great work done by the various NGOs as well as the frustrations they face.

Reading List – 19th June 2020

Belarus will hold a Presidential election on August 8th and Ryhor Astapenia, a Fellow at Chatham House has written a piece suggesting that, although President Alexander Lukashenko will win this time, the three pillars on which his rule is cemented appear to be crumbling and it is time to consider a Belarus without him in charge.

In his preview of the election, Andrew Roth for The Guardian looks at the measures being taken by the Lukashenko regime to crack down on the candidates running against him. Many of these opponents come from within the establishment and therefore have more credibility than previous electoral contestants.

At the same time, the Director of ODIHR, the election observing wing of OSCE, has publicly called on Belarus to issue the necessary invitation for international organisations to observe the election. Issuing such an invitation is a requirement of Belarus’ membership of OSCE.

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Ben Noble has written a very interesting article looking at the national vote in Russia which starts next week. The point that stood out for me was that the vote only goes to emphasise the weakness of existing state institutions such as the Duma and Constitutional Court.

 

 

Quinton Scribner and Dr Richard Connolly have written a Chatham House article on the likely effect of the virus on Russia’s economy. For me this provided the clearest explanation yet of why Russia is so reluctant to spend the national ‘rainy day fund’ that they have built up over the years.

 

Reading List – 12th June 2020

Twitter has disclosed more than 32,000 accounts which have been part of three state backed schemes to promote disinformation and acting in an inauthentic manner. These accounts are said to be part of state sponsored operations and existed in China, Russia and Turkey.

The 1,152 Russian accounts were said to be promoting the ruling United Russia party and denigrating rivals. The Turkish accounts were engaged in similar activity related to the AK Parti.

Twitter’s opening line of their press release is particularly interesting. They state:

“Today we are disclosing 32,242 accounts to our archive of state-linked information operations — the only one of its kind in the industry.”

That Twitter should have such an archive is welcome. But it seems a shame that other platforms do not and that there is not an industry-wide archive. A similar case can (and has) been made for a multi-platform library of political adverts. Combatting improper and illegal behaviour on social media cannot be undertaken on a platform by platform basis.

 

 

RFE/RL reports apparent confirmation that Moldovan oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc has been hiding out in Moldova.

Plahotniuc was the power behind the Democratic Party and fled in June 2019 after a joint action by Russia, Europe and the USA to try to end the corruption that was endemic under his regime. It has been claimed that he stole more than $1bn, the equivalent to roughly one eighth of the Moldovan economy. 

Plahotniuc apparently made his way to the USA where his request for asylum was rejected and he was ordered to be deported. That deportartion has not happened yet however and it is claimed that he has multiple passports and identities.

 

The Carnegie Moscow Center seems to be going all in on President Putin at the moment. Tatiana Stanovaya argues that Covid-19 and the fall in the oil price have exposed the holes in the Russian regime, whilst Alexander Baunov says that Putin has gone missing during the crisis.

 

Another Carnegie piece, this time looking at the electoral challenges faced by Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus.

Reading List – 15th May 2020

Apologies for not having done one of these for a while…

 

Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie’s Moscow Center argues that Russia could be squeezed out of a new bipolar world where everything comes down to the USA and China. And while this may be a relief to some in sanctions-affected Russia, he argues that the risk is that Russia loses relevance.

 

In Time Magazine, David Miller argues that just because Netanyahu can annex parts of the West Bank doesn’t mean he will.

 

Nana Kalandadze of International IDEA looks at the aborted attempt to hold an all-postal ballot in Poland last weekend.

 

Reading List: 25th March 2020

The EU Council of Ministers has given the go ahead to open accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. The move had been delayed following an objection from President Macron of France in December.

Opening accession talks is a long way from the countries actually becoming members of the EU, but it is a hopeful sign for countries which have already made substantial economic, social and political reforms with a view to membership.

 

In an expected move, President Vladimir Putin has announced that the ‘public vote’ on changes to the constitution will be delayed from its 22nd April date due to the coronavirus. It will now be held ‘at some future moment’.

The constitutional reforms were announced by President Putin in January and the original proposal would have prevented him from seeking another term in office after 2024. However an amendment tabled in the Duma proposed to wipe the slate clean and allow Putin (and Dmitry Medvedev, the only other living President) to serve a further two terms.

 

The UK’s Law Commissions have produced a report on changes to the rules governing elections and campaigning. Among the suggestions they make is for all political adverts to carry the equivalent of the imprint that paper campaigning materials must carry. This sets out who is responsible for the publication.

The commissions also suggest changing the rules on postponement of elections to give returning officers more powers in the event of floods and other natural disasters. They also want to see electoral paperwork made mroe simple.

 

Reading List – 15th March 2020

If you have never heard of the Open Skies Treaty (or fully understood what it means), the possibility that the USA might withdraw is a good excuse to read this short article which explains the treaty and sets out why it would be a mistake for President Trump to undermine it.

 

 

Elections will (coronavirus permitting) shortly take place in North Macedonia and Serbia and are also scheduled for Montenegro in the autumn. Just a month before the first of these, Facebook has extended its political adverts policy to the region.

 

Rather than indicating a definite course of action, amendments to the proposed new Russian Constitution suggest that President Putin is keeping his options open – and keeping oligarchs and the siloviki on their toes.

 

Abysmally low turnout, a six month counting process, rival candidates refusing to accept the result and each declaring themselves the winner. This is the reality of the Afghan presidential election where the US has intervened in each previous contest to declare a winner.

 

Reading List – 2nd March 2020

The Guardian reports on developments in the East African country where power has been dominated by the clan system and where minorities and women have been excluded.

 

The possible impact of the coronavirus on the US election has been raised in a number of quarters. In an op-ed on Wired, Jon Stone suggests that the option of an all-mail ballot in November is not that easy to achieve as US elections are managed by states and counties rather than federally.

However, the very fact that people are thinking about the possible impact and how it can be mitigated this far out from the November polls is encouraging.

 

A court in the USA has ruled that privately owned social media companies such as Facebook and twitter are not covered by the First Amendment – the right to freedom of speech. In a case brought by conservative groups, the court said that the companies have the right to censor material they do not like. I would guess that this one will go to the Supreme Court.

 

Most Americans don’t have confidence in the ability of tech platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to defeat attempts to interfere in elections, according the Pew Research. But the vast majority also think that it is the duty of these companies to do so.

 

 

This is fairly techy in the detail, but this article exposes the security flaws in the sorts of electronic voting machines which are common in the US. There are also a couple of videos where experts explain how they might go about hacking individual machines or the election server.

 

Reading List – 21st February 2020

Three staff of the American NGO NDI have been expelled from Togo. The three were accredited as election observers by the Togolese electoral commission and had been working with a non-partisan local group to help them plan domestic observation of the forthcoming presidential election.

 

As Iran heads to the polls today, CNN’s Luke McGee previews the election in which hardline candidates are set to dominate as many moderates were barred from running. However the bigger factor might be turnout.

 

 

Special polling stations will be set up so that Israelis who are quarantined will still be able to vote in the March 2nd general election.

 

 

Axios reports that President Trump has cut back on his spending on Facebook despite the platform abstaining from making policy changes that would hurt him. As social media platforms signalled they might change policies on political advertising, Trump lobbied Facebook hard not to restrict his ability to mictro-target. While his spending on Facebook adverts is still significant, it is now a much smaller proportion of his advertising budget having fallen from a monthly high of 72% to just 14% and most ads are aimed at increasing his private voter information lists.

 

Reading List – 19th February 2020

A deep fake video has been circulating in India ahead of regional elections. It purports to show BJP politician Manoj Tiwari criticising the regional government in a video targeted at a particular section of the population who speak the Haryanvi dialect of Hindi. We know it is a fake because the company that produced it has told us how they did it (and because the politician concerned doesn’t actually speak the language involved).

“In a country like India where digital literacy is nascent, even low-tech versions of video manipulation have led to violence. In 2018, more than 30 deaths were linked to rumours circulated on WhatsApp in India.”

Various solutions have been proposed, including banning deep fakes from being circulated within 60 days of an election. Such a plan is likely to fall foul of free speech advocates and comedians in many countries. But would a proposal such as that banning the distribution of manipulated political images be any better?

 

Another Vice article which contrasts the public words of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg with his company’s private lobbying efforts to prevent any meaningful regulation.

A senior US politician recently told me that he believes that significant electoral interference will continue to take place in America and around the world until regulation is introduced.

I’ve written recently that Facebook has failed to come up with a sensible vision for how regulation of political content on social media can work. This leaves it open to countries (or blocs like the EU) to regulate and, without an alternative vision, platforms will be in a weaker position to affect such changes.

 

Alix Boucher gives an overview of the coming contest and the concerns that election observers have over its fairness.

 

Chatham House’s Ryhor Astapenia argues that although Belarus President Alexander Lukashenka has succeeded in keeping his country somewhat distant from Russia, he has resisted reforms that would truly separate the economy from Russia’s and failed to implement significant reforms.