Monday, June 6, 2016

The Ballad of Donnie and Vova

“I’ll be friends with Vladimir Putin. I just think so.”

Such were the words of Republican Party nominee and real estate mogul Donald J. Trump when asked how he would engage the United States’ old rival Russia. 

This was a stark contrast to most of the other candidates who ran in the primary elections on both sides of the American political spectrum. Senators Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul appealed to caution but condemnation of the Kremlin’s action. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged to stay the course plotted by President Obama, and most other Republicans pledged to directly arm the Ukrainian Army in its still-not-quite-frozen conflict with pro-Kremlin separatists. Ohio Governor John Kasich even raised some eyebrows when he claimed that “we should punch the Russians in the nose”, a sharp contrast to his normally folksy “Aww shucks” Midwestern demeanor. 

Russian state media immediately jumped at the news when Mr. Trump claimed he and Putin would get along, and the Kremlin commended him for the overture. While Moscow did not venture to comment on American domestic political issues, it was more than happy to welcome a change from the icy relations between the two countries over the past few years. 

The honeymoon between Trump and Putin soured briefly when Trump’s campaign released an ad implying that Putin, and by extension, Russia, was America’s menacing, tough enemy by showing President Putin performing throws in his judo gi and laughing after a brief clip of Hillary Clinton barking like a dog at a campaign. The Kremlin did not seem amused by the campaign advertisement’s implications. 

But the ad did not seem to have lasting negative effects as Trump still is looked upon favorably by Russians including those working at the state media TV channels, and Putin’s strong-man style of rule remains popular with nationalists in both the United States and Europe. 

Press outlets seem largely amused by this unexpectedly chummy relationship between the mouthy real estate mogul and the Kremlin’s ex-KGB Commander in Chief. Social media users gleefully spread pictures around of a mural depicting Putin and Trump locking lips (not unlike that infamous picture of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker) near a restaurant in Vilnius, Lithuania. 

But is Putin who Trump supporters think he is? And in the event of Trump taking up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue this coming January, will relations between Russia and the United States become friendly and possibly even cooperative? 

Donald Trump’s political platform has been, save for a few exceptions, consistently inconsistent. 

Mr. Trump was a Democrat at the beginning of President Obama’s first term, and he spoke glowingly of the new President as he rode into Washington on a wave of momentum from his election victory in November. 

For reasons still unclear, though, Trump’s approval towards President Obama did not last. Between 2011 and 2012, conspiracy theories that President Obama was not born in the United States and lied about his personal religious beliefs bubbled up and boiled over again. Trump, who was mostly silent about these theories in 2008 as Obama was on the campaign trail, became very outspoken and rode the wave of controversy by rallying those who believed the President was a Kenyan Muslim rather than a Christian American. Trump started to flirt with throwing his hat into the ring as the 2012 presidential election kicked off, but ultimately decided against it. 

The controversy mostly dissipated when Obama released his long-form birth certificate which said he was born, as he had said many times before, in Honolulu, Hawaii. Trump, however, continued to doubt as he demanded other documents such as his college transcripts from Columbia University. He has consistently criticized President Obama during his second term in office and finally decided to run for president, igniting a monumental movement and throwing the Republican Party into an identity crisis. 

Part of the reason the United States has only two political parties is due to the fact that both the Republicans and Democrats are very much “big-tent” political parties, meaning that they both incorporate multiple different factions under one banner who may or may not decide to unite behind a candidate when election season rolls around. 

The Republican Party in the United States is home to many factions. If one wanted to, they could probably break the party down along different lines three, four, or even five different ways based on the various presidential candidates in 2016’s primary. Candidates like John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and George Pataki campaigned on their ability to achieve success in states with strong Democratic bases and were considered, for better or for worse, “moderates”. Candidates like Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee played to the Christian Right which is more influential in Southern states. Rand Paul hoped to appeal to the more Libertarian Republicans with his cautious foreign policy and desire to relax penalties for the use of illegal drugs such as marijuana. 

And Trump? Trump proved himself to be the wild card in all this. Rather than appealing to the traditional “small government, Christian values, and lower taxes” platform of many Republicans, Trump opted to appeal to vague but powerful nostalgia for a bygone era with his slogan “Make America Great Again!”, took a hardline stance on the issue of illegal immigration by boldly proclaiming that he plans to build a wall across the US-Mexico border and that Mexico will be the ones to foot the bill (this did not go over well south of the border, as three different Mexican presidents scathingly fired back at him). He also promises to be tough on Islamic fundamentalist terrorism by instituting a “temporary” ban on Muslim immigration to the United States as well as fiery claims that he would take on China and other countries competing with the United States with protective “America First” economic policies. In doing this, Trump adopted a right-wing stance much more similar to European nationalist and populist parties rather than traditional American conservatism. 

So what does Vladimir Putin have to do with all of this? 

Vladimir Putin is considered by many in Europe’s nationalist parties to be an ideal leader. He’s considered a strong, bold leader who demonstrates a deep love for the country he leads and its culture. He’s considered to be someone who will not tolerate outside forces diluting that culture or national identity through fear or intimidation. Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front, Viktor Orban of Hungary’s Fidesz, Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party, Vojislav Seselj of Serbia’s Radical Party, and various other political figures have demonstrated an admiration for Putin’s method of conducting business. If Putin or someone like him was in power, the problems America or Europe 
face, they claim would not be as severe or perhaps not even exist, they claim. 

Below the surface, however, things are not such a clear consensus between Trump and his supporters, the European nationalist bloc, and the Kremlin. Russia’s immigration policies are not as strict as Trump claims he wants the United States’ to be. Many migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus come to Russia for job opportunities as Russian remains a lingua franca between former members of the USSR. 

Furthermore, Russia is not an ethnically homogenous country, nor has it ever been such. In the Russian language, there are two words that both translate to “Russian”, but their definitions are slightly different. There is Russkiy, which denotes people who are ethnically Russian, and there is Rossiskiy which denotes “a citizen of Russia”. These terms are not mutually exclusive, one can be both Russkiy and Rossiskiy, but there is an important distinction. The official name of the country most people call “Russia” is “Rossiskoi Federatsiy” or “Russian Federation”. The use of “Rossiskoi” rather than “Russkoi” implies that Russia is a home to all the peoples of Russia, be they ethnic Russians or not. 

Many of the ethnic minorities living in Russia and the immigrants who come to Russia are Muslims. Within Russia there are millions of Muslim Tatars, Bashkortostanis, Chechens, Dagestanis, and Ingush peoples. Likewise, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kyrgyz peoples come to Russia for economic opportunities, all of whom are predominantly Muslim. Around 6.5 percent of Russia’s 150 million people are Muslims, a much higher number than that of the United States and higher than many European countries. This denotes a small but very important difference between the ideas Trump and many of Europe’s nationalists propose and that which is actually practiced in Putin’s Russia. 

Vladimir Putin is many things, but he’s no Islamophobe. Trump proposes extended surveillance at mosques and a temporary ban on Muslims who want to come to the United States? Vladimir Putin oversees and approves the construction of new mosques in Russia’s cities and has wished “Eid Moubarak!” to Russia’s Muslims after Ramadan came to a close. Is it true that many of these peoples are more secular than Muslims elsewhere? Perhaps, but that is much more a product of history (particularly seventy years of state-enforced secularism) than Putin’s policies. 

Is Putin a strong leader? Is he the strong leader that he is portrayed as? Suppose it depends on what your definition of “strong” is. Considering the current situation in Russia, though, that may be a somewhat difficult argument to make. The economy has slumped into a considerable recession. The rouble doesn’t buy what it used to. The conflict in Ukraine, regardless of whether you support the Kremlin’s actions or not, has become a stalemate with few tangible benefits. Russia is much more isolated and distrusted internationally. The Kremlin has been mostly mute on how it’s going to tackle economic woes. Things may not be a catastrophe now, but there are wounds festering below the surface in Russia and if current trends aren’t reversed, those wounds could become infected and spread to corrode still-healthy aspects. Rhetoric and pride can mobilize a people to do things previously considered impossible, but it doesn’t fill one’s wallet with a stable wage every few weeks by itself. 

Coming back stateside we may be seeing a similar horizon. Donald Trump’s plans to “Make America Great Again” lack substance in many ways. He never really specified how he would be friends with Putin...he’s never really specified much at all. Economists are very vocally wary of his protectionist policies. 

And yet his popularity still sits high and mighty. Whether he can turn that into a general election victory over Hillary Clinton is still yet to be written, but if he can’t, he may just prove the point that rhetoric can mobilize, but its ability to deliver tangible results is inconsistent at best. 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Victory Day: A Personal Reflection

May 9th, the day Nazi Germany surrendered against the Allied forces of the USSR, United States, and United Kingdom ending World War II, is today.

There is an old quote that says "World War II was won with American steel, British intelligence, and Soviet blood." The United States, with its vast wealth of raw materials and largely unharmed industrial sector, was able to mobilize its economy to sky-high levels of production and keep the military from running out of supplies. British intelligence was vital in intercepting and decoding Nazi cyphers and played a vital role in giving Allied forces the upper hand as to the Axis strategies.

And last but not least, Soviet blood. It is estimated that somewhere around 20-27 million Soviets from all corners of the vast empire died in the Second World War from a combination of war crimes, military casualties, famine, and disease. By contrast, Germany lost around 7 million people, and the United States and United Kingdom each lost less than a million in the war.

Because of the staggering number of people lost in the war, Victory Day is by far the most important state holiday in modern Russia.  The titanic struggle against Nazi Germany has been woven into Russian culture and identity as well as pride.

At 10 am Moscow time this Monday, Russia's well-known military pomp will be out in full display. Soldiers of the Russian Army will march through Red Square to world-famous military marches such as Священная война (The Sacred War) and Прощание славянки (Farewell of Slavianka) and the Russian people will pay tribute to their grandfathers who shed their blood to defend our Fatherland against the Nazi invaders. 

Some do not approve of the way Russia looks back on this chapter of its long history. There are some who deny the atrocities carried out by Stalin's government against the Ukrainian people in the years leading up to the war. Some gloss over the fact that Stalin's government cooperated with Hitler at the beginning of the war to invade Poland. The reality of Stalin's brutal and absolute rule is also somewhat overshadowed by the victory in the Second World War. 

These grievances, however valid, are often looked down upon when remembering the victory over the Nazis, and while the picture of history in the early Soviet Union is not completely rosy by any stretch, perhaps these things can be remembered and reflected upon on a day other than May 9th. There is no doubt in my mind that they must be remembered, but timing is important. 

In the United States, some are keen to point out the blatant racism plaguing the country during the Second World War when veterans of that conflict are given tribute. Again, they are right. The American military was segregated in World War II and racism was still institutionalized in American law. This is not to mention the widespread propaganda that painted the Japanese (or "Japs") as sniveling and deceitful subhumans. 

But however valid your message is, there is another part to protest, and that is the method of getting that message out. In both countries, bringing up the darker shades of history as the entire country comes together to reflect on the sacrifices of those who fought can come across as in poor taste and even disrespectful. 

Remembering these parts of history is not a bad thing-in fact it is a very good thing to keep people honest. But the timing on both sides could be a bit more different and the protest movements can be channeled into more effective methods rather than raining on the parade. There's a difference between constant apologizing and groveling for the sins of the past and looking upon them with an honest and open mind while retaining one's pride in his country and its history. 

For instance, I would not be opposed to wearing an orange and black St. George's ribbon on May 9th as a symbol of remembrance. I am fully aware of the disagreeable connotations it has with modern Russian nationalism especially in regards to the "struggle against fascists" in Ukraine, but that ribbon has been used in the Russian military since before 1917. It is a part of our history. I may not wear it at other times, but it is no sin in my eyes on May the 9th. 

And so while I do often criticize the Kremlin, today is a day for remembrance, for pride, for commemoration. I remember. I am proud. I am proud of this country I was born in and the heroic resistance of the people who I share blood with. I remember their enormous sacrifice and the many who never lived to see victory. I am humbled and moved by the photos I see of old men, their uniforms covered in medals and honors, who saw the horrors of that war first hand. And I hope Russia will continue to honor the memory of those whose struggle has become such an integral part of this country's identity and history. 

Подвиг народа будет жить в веках. 
С Днём Победы. Ура!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

With Warsaw Summit approaching, Duda stresses NATO unity in remarks at National Press Club

WASHINGTON-President Andrzej Duda of the Republic of Poland stopped by the National Press Club in downtown Washington D.C. this morning to deliver remarks to an audience of about 500 and to take part in a question-and-answer session with the hosts of the cable news program "Morning Joe" on MSNBC, Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough.

The event was organized by the Atlantic Council and Center for European Policy Analysis, two American think tanks with vested interests in Polish affairs both within her borders and in her region of Europe.

Introductions were made by Frederick Kempe, the President and CEO of the Atlantic Council and Wess A. Mitchell, the President of the Center for European Policy Analysis. Their remarks set the stage by emphasizing Poland's central location in Europe, its relatively large Armed Forces, and its growing influence in the region. Poland has also been particularly active in NATO since the Kremlin annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine.

Poland is a country of 38 million people, eighth largest in Europe and slightly larger than Canada.

President Duda was elected into office in Poland's two-round Presidential election last year, beating out incumbent president Bronislaw Komorowski of the center-right Civic Platform party. He won the presidential election as a member of the right-wing Law and Justice party, but resigned from the party membership in May 2015. Before running for president he was a member of the Polish Sejm (equivalent to the House of Representatives) and the European Parliament.

"Poles and Americans...stand united and speak with the same voice on issues of importance."

Duda focused on foreign policy and cooperation with regards to security in his speech.

First, President Duda outlined Polish foreign policy and the three principles it is based upon, which he claimed "are based in the deep historical experiences of my country, sometimes very difficult and painful experiences."

"Three pillars define Polish foreign policy: first, the obeying of international law, international sovereignty, and territorial integrity of all states, no matter how strong or weak they are", Duda explained, in a clear nod to Warsaw's fierce opposition to the Kremlin's aggression in Ukraine and its sudden annexation of Crimea two years ago.

Duda then explained his second principle, partnership and dialogue among nations, and its contributions to stability. "History has taught us that such a system never guarantees a permanent peace in our world."

Duda's third pillar was that of "Euro-Atlantic Unity". "For the last twenty-six years, Poland has been a consistent advocate of trans-Atlantic cooperation." He expressed pride in Poland's membership in the European Union and in NATO, despite the soft Euroscepticism of his former political party. He then thanked the United States for its continuing support for Polish sovereignty and in NATO's unity.

"Our goals are the same. We need to keep NATO strong and united, with the United States engaged in European security as the leading guarantor of credibility in the alliance. It's our goal to strengthen the security of our common states, with a special focus on the Central and Eastern European countries. For Poland, this means strengthening NATO on its eastern flank."

Duda also stressed the importance of contributions from each different NATO state. This has been a recent controversy as the United States has pressed various European countries to add to their defense budgets to mixed results. While countries like Germany lag behind, Poland has maintained and turned itself into a considerable and modern power in the area of defense, and Duda was keen to remind his mostly American audience that Poland sent troops to be part of the coalitions in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Just as everyone should expect NATO to come to their aid, everyone must also chip into the common maintenance of the alliance, and Duda maintained that Poland would stand firm to its obligations to NATO, specifically the policy of keeping defense spending as at least 2% of national GDP.

This focus on the unity of NATO by President Duda is not by coincidence. NATO's next summit will be in early July and will be meeting in Warsaw, Poland's capital and largest city.

Despite the various different perceptions and prioritization of threats across the countries of NATO, it is imperative that NATO members remember that they all belong to the same alliance with the same values and principles. According to President Duda, the main threat facing NATO was the rule of force replacing the rule of law; another not-so-subtle nod to continuing aggression in Eastern Ukraine as well as Syria.

However, Duda was quick to reassure the audience that he did not seek a hostile relationship with Poland's neighbors.  "What threatens Europe today is not a particular state, or a particular nation. It is the policy of a certain state which results in permanent violation of international law. Poland, like the whole of Europe, does not seek to isolate Russia. We don't want the Cold War to come back, as Prime Minister Medvedev suggested a short while ago in Munich...nations do not want to live in the balance of fear, however, we need to remember that if we're going to have a partnership, it must be built upon mutual respect for common rules is needed. In other words, in order for a dialogue to be possible, law has to be respected."

Duda called for sanctions to be brought against every country that violated those common laws, citing their nonviolent nature, and hoped that the upcoming Warsaw summit would reassure the international community of NATO's ability to resolve conflicts both in Eastern Ukraine and in the Middle East where the Islamic State still wreaks havoc.

In his closing remarks, President Duda cited President John F. Kennedy's famous quote "There are risks and costs to a program of action. But they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction."

In his question-and answer session with Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, President Duda was asked about a wide variety of both domestic and international subjects. Poland's recent constitutional crisis was a topic of discussion that emerged quickly. After Duda's former party, Law and Justice, won the parliamentary elections last October, it proceeded to nominate judges to Poland's Constitutional Court that would replace the judges appointed last minute by the rival party Civic Platform. The crisis has raised eyebrows and cooled relations between Germany and Poland, but Duda, now speaking in Polish rather than English, seemed calm and convinced that his former party was in the right. 

 The discussion also shifted to the upcoming U.S. Presidential Election, set to occur in November.  Ms. Brzezinski seemed very keen to ask President Duda about his opinion of Republican front-runner Donald Trump, who has been running on a platform similar to the European right-wing, which tends to be more nationalist, populist, and isolationist than the traditional American right which advocates for decentralized government, individualism, lower taxes and firm foreign policy. Duda decisively avoided the question, saying that it was the American people's decision and that he did not wish to get involved in domestic affairs of the United States.  The President walked the tightrope as he reiterated broad support for NATO, an organization which has been called "obsolete" by the real estate mogul, but also claimed he understood the message of "America First", claiming he naturally wants to put Poland first as its head of state. 

President Duda also received a bit of criticism on Poland's reluctance to be pro-active in the Refugee Crisis, but he stood his ground and a bit of soft euroscepticism emerged when he explained that Poland was not going to be told what to do by Germany when it is capable of making its own decisions and mentioned that refugees were not heading to Europe with Poland in mind as it does not have as high a living standard or as generous a social safety net as Germany. 

Andrzej Duda is still a relatively new president and the government he oversees is less than a year old. His messages of unity across NATO will continue to resonate, but there may be more gridlock to come when it comes to the European Union as the union faces an enormous challenge in the refugee crisis.