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Apr 23, 2013 | Commentary

Photo Credit: SSR Seminar Bangui, Central African Republic, 2008 by hdptcar via photopincc

Barry Buzan wrote in his seminal Peoples, States and Fear (2nd Ed., 1991), that states were internally “strong” or “weak” depending on the solidity of the bond between rulers and ruled, i.e., legitimacy of governance. That the second edition of that work was published around the time of the collapse of the USSR is no small coincidence. What Mr. Putin calls one of the “greatest catastrophes of the twentieth century” can partly be blamed on the weak bonds between the Soviet government and the people it ruled, and by the discrepancy between public expectations in standards of living and individual liberties, and what the Soviet government could provide. As Mikhail Gorbachev remarked in the heady days of glasnost and perestroika, “the most dangerous moment for a regime is when it tries to reform itself.”

Agencies, bureaucrats, and people have their interests. They are sometimes moral, and sometimes material. We should not be surprised that security sector reform, or reform writ large, is so difficult to achieve. SSR programme managers have argued in favour of structural adjustments, such as the civilianization of the armed forces, as a way forward. Others have argued for legislative renewal, allowing for rule of law, instead of rule by law, which dominates the legal landscape of so many totalitarian societies and other dictatorships. For the last twenty years, these factors have been the bread and butter of SSR. But secretly, there is not a SSR programme manager who doesn’t wish that the refractory elements of a society begging for reform would not “give up and leave,” “change” or “see the light.” As Erik Männik, Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for Defence Studies and former Head of Defence Policy Panning at the Estonian Ministry of Defence, once told me in Estonia, it is easier for someone to “change his or her view, than to change beliefs.”

Evidently, capitalism was rapidly embraced after the collapse of the Soviet and socialist political sphere. Beliefs have changed. Yet, the views about how to manage political and security affairs have not. Nugzar Ruhadze, writing for the Georgian Weekly Journal of 14-20 March 2013, laments the perpetuation of the “nomenklatura;” where what counts most is not the quality and content of one’s work, but how well one toes the party line.

In 1999, I asked Leslie Campbell, then programme director for the Middle East and North Africa at the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, what the most significant obstacle to democratization in Algeria was. He answered that it was not so much the presence of Islamist radicals, but the fear by the existing leadership that their career prospects, privileges and pensions might evaporate.

So why not incentivize reform? Make it materially attractive? Although this may mean deliberately assisting regimes and governments that some Euro-Atlantic capitals find abhorrent, one must not forget that the aim is the maintenance of stability and helping states meet their internationally-recognized responsibilities towards their constituencies. For the SSR programme manager, this would be the opportunity to demonstrate empathy, psychological sensitivity and leadership savvy.

One of the incentives for reform is the prospect of association with (or even membership in) prized trading blocks and alliances like the EU and NATO. Here, emulation is enough to trigger reforms. This explains why the Baltic States and most of Central Europe have fared much better than the rest in adopting new structures and enacting legislation that make them “Euro-Atlantic.”

But what if the central authorities are not seeking EU/NATO membership? Then the moral imperative for SSR has to be substituted by a material imperative. The SRR programme manager has to approach top leadership — even when that leadership is under international political pressure to conform to accepted norms of security governance — with a supportive narrative.

This narrative should emphasize the difference between democratization and security sector reform. Democratization is a question of national self-determination; it does not always bring normative change. Therefore those in central leadership positions have to be satisfied that SSR is not cover for regime change. SSR is one of the devices whereby the aspirations of the constituents can be met easily, and, these expectations having been momentarily satisfied, that the leadership of the target country can be secured in its political position. By engaging in SSR, as we all know, some principles of individual liberties will have been achieved, a small consolation for an empty stomach.

Domestic economic and commercial opportunities are often rare in countries where the leadership rules with a decisive grip. Where the domestic economic structure cannot generate its own income, the type of politics playing out often discourages tourism and foreign direct investment (FDI). In a paper by James Agarwal and Dorothee Feils, published in 2007 in the Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences, transparency and corruption (euphemistically called red tape) are the two predominant risks preventing FDI decision-making by multi-national corporations. Without additional revenue, society cannot meet its expectations in standards of living. And frustrated expectations, as Ted Robert Gurr (Why Men Rebel, 1970) and the Arab seasons remind us, are the seeds of regime change.

In a multipolar world, where economic growth sustains political stability, the linkage between state revenue via facilitated foreign investment can only take place if the security sector relaxes its grip, or performs its work in the service of economic and commercial well-being. That leap of imagination requires a lot of courage from the point of view of the powers in place in countries like Russia, Belarus and elsewhere. At least as much as it will take the SSR manager to draft a programme which may end up protecting the power of a regime that is shunned openly by the rest of the world.  After all, in centrally-directed bureaucracies, initiative comes from the top. It is at the top that one must work.

Furthermore, the opposition — logically at the bottom — is already convinced of the need for change, so why preach to a choir that can’t sing? Rather preach to the priest who can sign!


Frederic Labarre is an Associate at the Security Governance Group.