Saturday, February 28, 2015

Nemtsov's Ghost

In the first minutes of the 28th of February in Moscow, Russia's capital and largest city, opposition figure and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov was brutally slaughtered. According to Russia's Interfax news agency, Nemtsov was shot in the back at least four times in a drive-by in view of the majestic Kremlin and the ancient cathedral of St. Basil. Nemtsov was 55.

Very little is known as to why Nemtsov was assassinated. Conspiracy theories immediately whipped around like gusts of wind: Who would do this? Was it the Kremlin? Was it a covert operation meant to destabilize Russia from the outside? Could it have been merely a group of thugs? Organized crime? 

States in North America and Europe will take into account the recent history of Putin's Russia and the Ukraine crisis and will likely be quick to speculate that the state was behind this assassination. It's understandable why: this is not the first anti-Putin figure that's found themselves on the other side of death before they'd planned.

Boris Berezovsky, an oligarch, was an outspoken critic of Putin since he was first elected in 2000, was found dead at his home in Britain in 2013 of an apparent hanging-and there were apparently no signs of a violent struggle according to British police. Berezovsky was allegedly deep into debt and had been exiled from Russia.

Anna Politkovskaya was a reporter for the investigative paper Novaya Gazeta, and unfortunately not the only member of Novaya Gazeta's staff to die from suspicious reasons. She was killed in 2006 in the elevator of her apartment and the editorial staff remember her with this line:

"As long as there is Novaya Gazeta, her murderers will not sleep well."

Five men were sentenced to prison for her death last year but the motive is still unclear. 

Aleksandr Litvinenko is famous for dying of radiation poisoning and cursing Putin before his death in the UK.

"This may be the time to say one or two things to the person responsible for my present condition. You may succeed in silencing me but that silence comes at a price. You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed. You have shown yourself to have no respect for life, liberty or any civilized value. You have shown yourself to be unworthy of your office, to be unworthy of the trust of civilized men and women. You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life. May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me, but to beloved Russia and its people."


We don't know for sure whether Putin, the Kremlin, or some element of the Russian Government killed these people. But patterns exist-each of these people were vocal opponents of Putin and each died a suspicious death. It's certainly possible, but innocent until proven guilty still applies. 

Nemtsov certainly seems like the next link in the chain. But was he? And does it even make sense that the Kremlin did this? 

Maybe not, suspicious as they may look. And there are a few reasons why it's possible. 

Berezovsky was found hanged in his own residence in Britain. Politkovskaya was killed in an elevator of her apartment building. Litvinenko was poisoned. 

Hanging seems like a wildly cumbersome way to go about an assassination. Politkovskaya's death  was likely not witnessed by anyone other than the person who did the killing. Litvinenko's killer, whoever it was, was subtle and used a method of assassination that would be hard to identify until it was too late. 

Nemtsov's death was far, far less subtle. Not only was he gunned down in a large city in a country where gun control is very stringent, he was gunned down a stone's throw of the city's most famous landmarks. If it was the Kremlin's work, it was an extraordinarily clumsy attack. Remember this is the country that once had one of the most feared intelligence agencies only 25 years ago-it doesn't seem like something the KGB or FSB would do, repression be damned. 

The other questionable factor of this killing is that Nemtsov, despite his status as a household name in Russia, is no Navalny. It's true that Nemtsov is involved with the opposition to Putin, but he is hardly the charismatic, handsome, relatively young figure with frequent media exposure that Navalny is. So why Nemtsov of all people? The man was considered a member of the last generation by those both in and out of the opposition to Putin-a relic of the Yeltsin years. If the opposition did come to power in the future in Russia, Nemtsov would be fairly far back in the line of possible presidential candidates. 

The other question we need to ask ourselves about this event is-how does Russia react? Various opposition leaders including Nemtsov planned to be at a large (leaders called for 100,000) protest, but whether they'd actually pull 100,000 onto the streets was called into doubt when President Putin enjoys an 86% approval rating.  Will this cowardly assassination galvanize and strengthen the opposition? It's difficult to say, but certainly possible. His bloody end not far from the Kremlin will certainly raise eyebrows and anger people, but the influential state-controlled media was able to convince many Russians that forces loyal to Kiev, rather than pro-Russian rebels, shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 despite a large amount of evidence to claim otherwise. Can they do the same in the event of an drive-by in central Moscow? We'll just have to see, but it seems to have already started as pro-Kremlin outlets have also "innocently" speculated narratives around Nemtsov's womanizing and shady business deals as a cause. 

There will be a funeral for Nemtsov, and it will likely feature many opposition members. Flowers and memorials have already been left near the place Nemtsov was shot. Justice will be demanded, but in a state still marred by considerable corruption, it will likely take a long time-if it is served at all.

What's clear, though, is that the Kremlin will do all in its power to distance itself from this act if evidence emerges that they were somehow involved. Nemtsov's relative irrelevance in the opposition make him a surprising target for assassination, and this could amplify the brutality of the event. If evidence emerges from the investigation that the Kremlin was somehow involved, it could very well jolt the struggling opposition to life and possibly even start to turn Russian public opinion against Putin. And boy would it be ironic if a man who served years in the KGB was brought down by a popular response to a botched assassination.











Friday, February 20, 2015

Nothing to Sing: The strange case of the wordless National Anthem

In theory, and usually in practice, nothing unites the people of a state more than their national anthem. The words of a national hymn are fairly uniform from country to country-topics such as liberty, natural beauty, history, and perseverance of the country's people. Some invoke the name of a god or gods. The national hymn is a fundamental symbol of any country, as important as the flag or the constitution.

Some are somber, and some are so bombastic that they leave you with tears in your eyes ready to go to fight for a battle that isn't being fought. Some have long fanfares (and some have introductions that are so long that during sporting events, only that part is played, leaving the droves of fans in attendance to take it away wordlessly)

And yet, there still exists the peculiarity of the nation with the wordless hymn. There are four nations in the world that do not have official lyrics to their national anthems. They are the Kingdom of Spain, the ancient Republic of San Marino, the multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the only-partially-recognized Republic of Kosovo.


Depending on who you ask, the answers to the question "How many national anthems does Bosnia have?" could be one, and it could be as large as four. The reason for this is the cumbersome and confusing Dayton arrangement of Bosnia as a state for the last twenty years. After years of spending time in a hellish war, Bosnia was stitched back together by the international community as, essentially, a three-nation federal republic. The country has two separate entities-the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a joint operation shared by Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) and Croatians. The other entity is called Republika Srpska, which roughly translates as "Serb Republic".

Bosnia's present-day national anthem was adopted in 1998 but has only recently received lyrics-and these lyrics are not yet official. Because of the history of ethnic nationalism and the prolonged history without words, most of the people living in Bosnia don't identify with that hymn.




This anthem might just be a day late and a dollar short, despite a hauntingly beautiful melody and poetic lyrics about going into the future together as one. Bosniaks often sing the previously used anthem "Jedna si Jedina" ("You are our one and only") over the instrumental recording at sporting events. The Serb population tends to identify with the anthem their brothers across the border in the Republic of Serbia sing, "Боже правде” ("God of Justice"). Likewise, the Croat population sings the same song their counterparts in Croatia sing: "Ljepa Nasa Domovino" (Our Beautiful Homeland). 






The partially recognized Republic of Kosovo is another country without lyrics to their national anthem. Kosovo still sits in recognition limbo after declaring their independence from Serbia, something Serbia still refuses to recognize and is vocally opposed to. In November 2014, a historic meeting between Prime Minister Edi Rama of Albania and Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia ended in heated words when Rama called on Vucic to move on from Kosovo. In October, a football match between Albania and Serbia was interrupted by a drone operated by an unknown party that displayed "Greater Albania", including Kosovo. A Serbian player tried to take the drone down and all hell broke loose. 



Kosovo's anthem, titled "Europe" is the official hymn, but many Kosovars, who are ethnically Albanian, sing Albania's "Himni i Flamurit", or "Hymn to the Flag". With Serbia in negotiations to join the EU, the future of Kosovo and its hymn is up in the air.  



The third country with no official words to its national anthem is an ancient and tiny nation completely surrounded by Italy called San Marino. Barely more than 30,000 live in San Marino, so the anthem, words or no words, is rarely heard outside the country's diminutive boundaries. It does have unofficial words, but they were never formally adopted. 



Only one other nation has an anthem with no official words, the Kingdom of Spain. The anthem, called simply "La Marcha Real" (The Royal March) has been around for centuries, but has gone through various adaptations through the turbulent history of the Spanish monarchy and the rule of fascist dictator Francisco Franco. Like many of these other countries, Spain has proposed lyrics to the hymn but in 2008 the supposedly nationalist lyrics were rejected by many of the Spanish people for their nationalist tone (though whether the lyrics were truly nationalist are up for debate.)To make things even more interesting, a tide of republicanism is rising in Spain, and the country may adopt the republican anthem they sang at various times in the 19th and 20th centuries, not to mention the various provinces who are seriously considering independence from Madrid.











Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Yemen's Houthi Takeover: No Laughing Matter

Recently, the small state of Yemen on the southernmost end of the Arabian peninsula fell victim to a coup d'etat which saw the Houthis, a terrorist group, take control of the government in the capital of Sanaa. To put it lightly, these are not a happy bunch.

The Houthi insignia. The Arabic script reads "God is Greatest. Death to America. Death to Israel. Damn the Jews. Victory to Islam." 

Not a pleasant greeting, is it? This is the rise of a barbaric fundamentalist group like Islamic State and Boko Haram. This group has effectively taken control of the already vulnerable government and the results could be disastrous for the already-suffering Yemeni people. 

Yemen is, by several notches, the poorest country in the Middle East, owing largely to its lack of oil and underdeveloped economy. For years after unification of the traditional northern part of the country and the communist south, Yemen had been under the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh governed as an autocrat for many years, and he was eventually removed from power in the Arab Spring protests, but his replacement, Abd Mansur Mansur Hadi, had much difficulty reforming the military and keeping terrorist groups at bay. Hadi was a pro-American Sunni leader.  

Yemen's tribal differences, poverty, and strong presence of fundamentalists make it an extremely dangerous and unstable country. It certainly doesn't help that the Houthi insurgency has adopted such a menacing motto-it's reminiscent of groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria and Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. It's yet to be determined if terrorist groups like the Houthis and Al-Qaeda are going to establish themselves as the rulers of Yemen and ally with these groups in other countries, and the United Nations is working to try to prevent that.

Despite these problems, Yemen has not disintegrated into total anarchy...yet. Hadi was able to resign in a relatively quiet and nonviolent manner and Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, a top aide of Hadi's was released Tuesday. 
Even though Yemen is not a very strong country in the region, it's a country that could have a very profound negative effect on the rest of the region if it descends further into anarchy. There exists considerable speculation that the Houthis are funded and supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran, as they are both subscribers to Shi'a Islam and fiercely anti-American in rhetoric.

On the northern border of Yemen lies Iran's not-so-friendly rival, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a Sunni absolute monarchy which competes with Iran for regional influence.  Saudi Arabia considers the Houthis a terrorist group and has deployed troops against then in the past. Al-Qaeda is an enemy of the Houthis as they are Sunni.

This presents a difficult conundrum for countries like the United States, who backs the recently-resigned government. The USA will likely continue to conduct drone strikes against Al-Qaeda, but it must be careful as to how it conducts itself as to the Houthis. If the US negotiates with them, relations with Saudi Arabia may sour, and if they refuse to work with the Houthis, the detente pursued with Iran by both Washington and Tehran may be hurt.

The greatest threat, however, may be the rise of other terrorist groups and what the Houthis may do in relation to Islamic State, Boko Haram. It's true that IS was just driven out of the Syrian/Kurdish border town of Kobane in a very symbolic victory, but they still control considerable territory in the Middle East. Boko Haram is taking over swaths of northern Nigeria, and part of the reason for their success is the poverty of the northern part of the country. The Houthis could amass control of Yemen quickly if they're able to fend off al-Qaeda and enemy tribes.

Yemen must act quickly and decisively if it is to avoid an all-out civil war, or at least win one should it arise. But the divided and impoverished state of this country is going to make this extremely difficult and may require international support. This in itself is a problem with the outrage over American drone strikes-and the Houthis could use this to their advantage.

There is also a separatist movement in the south which may use this upheaval to break the country in two once again-Yemen has only been a unified state since 1990.



It's sad to see this country, with its rich and somewhat unknown history, to see this violence and hardship. Yemen has long been a crossroads between Africa and the Arab world, and has many ancient cities, centers of the Ayyubid and Rashulid dynasties, where buildings remain as they were hundreds of years ago.


Further news here: