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Monday, December 21, 2015

Democrats divided on how to approach Russia

The three Democratic candidates for President of the United States had another chance over the weekend to lay out their plans for US-Russia relations.

Independent Senator Bernie Sanders again stressed the need for an "international coalition", including Russia, to defeat Da'esh (Islamic State).

"This is a war for the soul of Islam. The troops on the ground should not be American troops, they should be Muslim troops. I believe that countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar have got to step up to the plate, have got to contribute the money that we need, and the troops we need to destroy ISIS with American support."

This is a sentiment that has been in American minds for a while-some Americans wonder why the United States has to fight battles halfway across the world when substantial military powers, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have these threats at a much closer proximity.

But Sanders' idea is still a bit faulty. There is already an international coalition to fight against the vile terrorists still controlling large swaths of Iraq and Syria, but it is a deeply divided band of groups fighting the terrorists in Syria, both inside Syria and outside it. A recent political cartoon from The Salt Lake Tribune shows Presidents Obama and Hollande observing the "anti-ISIS coalition", which consists of multiple different heads of state, including President Putin, pointing pistols at each other.

Cartoon by Pat Bagley, appeared in Saturday Nov 28 edition of The Salt Lake Tribune

The disagreements and divisions in this coalition are numerous. Turkey and Russia are at odds because of the Russian plane shot down by the Turkish Air Force. The United States, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey  do not want Bashar Al-Assad to stay in power, while Russia and Iran do. Disagreements regarding the Kurdish minorities in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey have come to the forefront as well.

Sanders was quickly questioned as the debate moderator told him that has happened many times before and asked him about a plan B if his approach proved unsuccessful, to which Sanders stuck to his guns and argued that his plan would work provided wealthy countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar contributed to their potential.

The problem here is that Saudi Arabia in particular has been criticized for its widespread export of Wahhabi Islam-a fundamentalist sect of Islam. Its human rights record is one of the worst in the world and non-Muslims are not allowed to practice their religion openly in Saudi Arabia.

Clinton, like some of her Republican counterparts, advocated for a no-fly-zone over Syria in order to "gain some leverage" with Russia, but unlike some of the Republicans, she shied away from the question that followed-whether she would shoot down a Russian plane, claiming that it would not come to that.

The reality is that a no-fly zone, while it could, like Clinton said, provide safe haven for people fleeing violence  is a serious risk. But if Russia doesn't approve of it like Clinton suggested they might citing an agreement made in Geneva a few days ago with the supervision of the UN, it would only exacerbate tensions where they are already high.

The other issue dividing Russia and the US in Syria is Assad and whether he will stay in power in Syria. Since the Russian intervention, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has seen his position in power, though still uncertain, strengthen. Forces loyal to his government are slowly but surely gaining ground, much to the chagrin of Turkey, the United States, and much of the Arab world but to the relief of Iraq and Iran.

It cannot be forgotten that Assad's violence against his own people has been one of the main reasons that what began as a peaceful uprising became a civil war. The brutality of Da'esh has overshadowed his crimes and allowed him to stay as an alternative to the fractured opposition and it is still very unclear as to who will run post-war Syria.

Sanders seemed less interested in replacing Assad than Clinton, citing the multiple recent revolutions that ended in instability and violence in the Middle East, namely, Libya and Yemen.

It is a difficult tightrope to walk in Syria, and there are very few sides in the Syrian conflict that seem to be approved of by all sides.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Republicans Continue to Discuss the Future of US-Russia Relations

The debate schedule marches on in the United States. On Tuesday, the top nine Republican Party candidates as well as four less popular candidates debated each other again, this time focusing mostly on national security and on fighting terrorism. 

Understandably, the debate started in Syria, where a complicated civil war has become a proxy crusade for the United States, Europe, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. 

Governor John Kasich of Ohio was first to chime in, and he didn't leave much reservation about his view.  

"I don’t understand this thing about Assad. He has to go. Assad is aligned with Iran and Russia. The one thing we want to prevent is we want to prevent Iran being able to extend a Shia crescent all across the Middle East. Assad has got to go."

Kasich is correct that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is an Alawite Shia Muslim allied with Iran and Russia. He is also correct that Syria and Iran enjoy close relations. Syria and Iran have been allies since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. When Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1978, Syria turned to Iran as a new ally as Iran cut off relations with Israel after the 1979 Revolution. Syria sided with Iran in the Iran-Iraq War which took up most of the 1980s despite the rift between Arabs and Persians. The countries continued to strengthen relations in the 2000s during the US invasion of Iraq and the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon.

The idea of Iran "extending a Shi'a crescent all across the Middle East", however, is melodramatic and not entirely accurate. It's true that Iran is vying for influence in the Middle East as one of its largest, wealthiest, and most stable powers, and it is an Islamic Republic that offers support to Hezbollah (a Shi'a terrorist group in Lebanon), but Shi'a Islam is not a dominant faith in the Middle East, not to mention the great division still exists between the Shi'a and Sunni branches of Islam. Furthermore, Syria is a predominantly Sunni country. The only countries in the world where Shi'a Islam is the predominant faith are Iran, Azerbaijan, and Iraq, which has a considerable Sunni minority. 

Kasich went on to defend the idea of supporting the "moderate rebels", a phrase that has been the subject of harsh ridicule in press outlets both inside and outside the United States. 

"And there are moderates there. There are moderates in Syria who we should be supporting. I do not support a civil war. I don’t want to be policeman of the world. But we can’t back off of this. And let me tell you, at the end, the Saudis have agreed to put together a coalition inside of Syria to stabilize that country. He  (Assad) must go. It will be a blow to Iran and Russia."

Saying "I don't support a civil war" is utterly ridiculous when one's been raging for nearly five years, but this civil war is not cut and dry. There are moderate rebels in Syria, but they are not united, they're not consolidated in the same regions, and they possess multiple different agendas. The Kurdish minority forces known as the People's Protection Units (known by its Kurdish initials YPG) has effectively carved out most of the northern border with Turkey into an autonomous region. They are allied with a moderate Arab-Kurdish force known by its initials SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) marching south to take back land from Da'esh in the southeast regions. Some factions of the loose coalition known as the Free Syrian Army are moderates, but they are overshadowed by the Islamist forces they fight alongside. 

Real estate mogul Donald Trump exercised caution. 

"We have to do one thing at a time. We can’t be fighting ISIS and fighting Assad. Assad is fighting ISIS. Russia is fighting now ISIS. And Iran is fighting ISIS. We have to do one thing at a time. We can’t go — and I watched Lindsey Graham, he said, I have been here for 10 years fighting. Well, he will be there with that thinking for another 50 years. He won’t be able to solve the problem...We have to get rid of ISIS first. After we get rid of ISIS, we’ll start thinking about it. But we can’t be fighting Assad. And when you’re fighting Assad, you are fighting Russia, you’re fighting — you’re fighting a lot of different groups."

This doesn't sound much different than what the Obama Administration has been doing lately, though Washington has not spoken with the fire and expletives that Trump has in regards to Islamist terrorists. It is evident from recent talks that the Obama Administration has realized removing Assad became a whole lot more difficult since Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to get directly involved in the country's civil war. Fighting two forces is indeed difficult from a distance even with the United States' military capabilities. 

Trump again implied staying out of Syria's leadership dispute was the best course of action, which is sure to resonate with voters fed up with the complicated nature of the war and the lack of results acheived. And he is absolutely right to warn against the risks of fighting and/or expanding a proxy war where Russia is involved. 

Fiery foreign policy rhetoric was present in the debate, but this time it was from Kasich. 

"Frankly, it’s time that we punched the Russians in the nose. They’ve gotten away with too much in this world and we need to stand up against them, not just there, but also in Eastern Europe where they threaten some of our most precious allies."

Anger and frustration against the Kremlin's policy is in many cases warranted. This kind of statement, however, isn't likely to win over many people in Moscow. Apparently, "speak softly and carry a big stick" is no longer in use by the GOP. 

Speaking of fiery rhetoric, Carly Fiorina was called to clarify her earlier remarks about "not talking to Putin". 

"I didn’t say I would cut off all communication with Putin. What I said was as president of the United States, now is not the time to talk with him. Reagan walked away at Reykjavik. There is a time and a place for everything. There is a time and a place for talk. And there is a time and a place for action.
I know Vladimir Putin. He respects strength. He lied to our president’s face; didn’t both to tell him about warplanes and troops going into Syria. We need to speak to him from a position of strength. So as commander in chief, I will not speak to him until we’ve set up that no-fly zone...and I will not speak to him personally until we’ve rebuilt the 6th Fleet a little bit right under his nose; rebuilt the missile defense program in Poland right under his nose; and conducted a few military exercises in the Baltic states."

Fiorina's comparison to the Reykjavik Summit between President Ronald Reagan and Premier Mikhail Gorbachev is a bit faulty. The talks between Reagan and Gorbachev in Iceland did fall apart at the last minute, but a deal was struck slightly less than a year later in Washington. The climate in which Reagan and Gorbachev met was also much, much different. Gorbachev was not riding the wave of an approval rating in the eighties fueled by nationalism and military campaigns. Putin is. In fact, Gorbachev's rule came at the end of a war in Afghanistan and a nosediving economy. The Russian economy is sputtering from sanctions and the resource curse, but it's hardly in the nosedive that it was in the mid-1980s. Furthermore, detailing in a debate watched by millions the rebuilding of the missile defense program in Poland and the 6th Fleet is hardly covert. 

Chris Christie also got in on the debate when he was asked if he would be "prepared to shoot down that Russian plane and risk war with Russia [if a no-fly zone with Russia was implemented]?

"Not only would I be prepared to do it, I would do it. A no-fly zone means a no-fly zone, Wolf. That’s what it means...I would talk to Vladimir Putin a lot. But I’d say to him, “Listen, Mr. President, there’s a no-fly zone in Syria; you fly in, it applies to you.” And yes, we would shoot down the planes of Russian pilots if in fact they were stupid enough to think that this president was the same feckless weakling that the president we have in the Oval Office is right now."

This quickly led to a rebuttal from Senator Rand Paul. "Well, I think if you’re in favor of World War III, you have your candidate. My goodness, what we want in a leader is someone with judgment, not someone who is so reckless as to stand on the stage and say, “Yes, I’m jumping up and down; I’m going to shoot down Russian planes.” Russia already flies in that airspace. It may not be something we’re in love with the fact that they’re there, but they were invited by Iraq and by Syria to fly in that airspace. And so if we announce we’re going to have a no-fly zone, and others have said this. Hillary Clinton is also for it. It is a recipe for disaster. It’s a recipe for World War III. We need to confront Russia from a position of strength, but we don’t need to confront Russia from a point of recklessness that would lead to war."

Christie retorted quickly. "I’ll tell you what reckless is. What reckless is is calling Assad a reformer. What reckless is allowing Russia to come into Crimea and Ukraine. What reckless is is inviting Russia into Syria to team with Iran. That is reckless. And the reckless people are the folks in the White House right now. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are the reckless people. And if you think that a no-fly zone is a reckless policy, you’re welcome to your opinion. But how is it working so far? As we have 250,000 Syrians murdered, slaughtered; millions running around the world, running for their lives. It’s not working. We need to try something else. And that is not reckless."

Christie is correct that Assad is no reformer, and that Russia's intrusion into Crimea and Ukraine was done without regard for the international community's opinions. The choice of calling the Obama Administration "reckless" is odd, though, most American hawks usually use the words "weak", "ineffective", or "incompetent".  

A no-fly zone is, as Senator Paul said, extremely risky. Putin might back down if it is set in motion but the risk that kind of action invites is not likely to sit well with many Americans and even if he does back down, US-Russian relations will continue to deteriorate. 

Ben Carson also had a memorable quote on US-Russian relations. "We need to get rid of those [archaic energy exploitation rules] allow ourselves to really make Europe dependent on us and other parts of the world dependent on us for energy. Put him [Putin] back in his little box where he belongs."

Whether deregulation would be as effective as Carson alleges is not known for sure. Considering how low the price of oil is these days, it may not even be necessary from America's point of view. The idea of Putin being put in (Apologies for this bad joke) a little box "where he belongs" is quite amusing, though. 

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Another Chance to Chuck Chavismo: Venezuela's Elections

Tomorrow, the citizens of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela head to the polls to elect a new National Assembly.

Since 1998's Presidential Election, the country has been led by Hugo Chavez and his allies, most visibly current president Nicolas Maduro, who took over in 2013 in a snap election due to Chavez's death at the age of 58. Maduro will stand as president until 2018 as the president serves a six year term in Venezuela. Until 2009, the President was limited to two terms, but that changed in a referendum. Since 1999, the country has slowly but surely drifted from a relatively democratic country to one where democracy has been severely undermined by the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Along the road, Venezuela saw some of its rampant poverty alleviated, but the last two years have sent the country spiraling out of control due to low oil prices, triple-digit inflation, shortages of basic supplies, government mismanagement, and continued crime and violence. Mass protests have been plaguing the country for the last two years.

The PSUV seems to have run out of ideas. Millions of Venezuelans have packed up and left their country due to Chavez's "Bolivarian Revolution". Despite enormous oil reserves (the largest proven in the world), oil's stubbornly low price has send Venezuela's economy, which is so dependent on the export of black gold, into a serious recession, and President Maduro's government has offered no solutions. His predecessor, Hugo Chavez, while not exactly the most competent of leaders, at least had high oil prices and a connection to the average Venezuelan to fall back on. Maduro lacks both, and all the rallies in the world against the "imperialistas gringas malditas" (damned gringo imperialists) aren't going to save him from polling numbers, which unanimously state that the Socialists will lose this election by a landslide provided it is free and fair.

And therein lies the problem.

Even if the elections do turn out like the polls claim they will, with the democratic opposition winning in a landslide, the risk of the current government undermining the opposition is quite high. Very little concessions have been made since the opposition came close to winning the 2013 Presidential election, and a well known opposition figure, Leopoldo Lopez, still sits in jail. Luis Manuel Diaz, another opposition figure, was recently murdered. 

If the PSUV tries to undermine the democratic process, there's a large chance the country will see protestors jamming the streets once more as was seen in the last two years. And they don't seem to be straying from their path. In a Foreign Policy piece by Leopoldo Lopez, the situation has been described as such:

"What more are they trying to hide from the international community? The government has already gerrymandered districts so that 52 percent of voters, in pro-opposition urban areas, elect just 39 percent of parliament, and has set up fake parties with names mimicking legitimate opposition parties to confuse voters."

To put it very lightly, Venezuela is in a rut. It's hard to say whether the opposition will be more competent in governing the country as it is a loose coalition of many different parties which could break down and stall as seen in other countries, but at this point, any government that is able to govern in a more democratic and fair manner may be better than the PSUV.

Left-wing politics have long been popular and populist among the peoples of South America, often as a response to American support for right-wing dictatorships in the past, especially in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. Leftist governments are in power today in not just Venezuela, but Bolivia, Uruguay, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil. In many of those places, however, they are in decline or mired in controversy. Dilma Rousseff, President of Brazil, is facing impeachment. Ecuador's left-wing president just signed a bill ending term limits.

That's not to say that socialism is necessarily the cause of the problems that plague many of these countries. Chile's President, Michelle Bachelet, is a Socialist, but Chile itself is wealthy, stable, and democratic. But left-wing populism has the potential to corrupt and forget its original ideas just as much as right-wing governments do, and Venezuela is a prime example of that. The opposition must be allowed to govern with the mandate of the people they are likely to win on Sunday, and if it means putting the Bolivarian Revolution on hold, then so be it. 

Friday, December 4, 2015

Putin's State of the Nation: An Analysis

Yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his annual State of the Nation Address to both houses of the Federal Assembly.

He opened his address with words of gratitude towards the members of the Russian Armed Forces fighting against “international terrorism”. A moment of silence was held for the defenders of the Fatherland, as they are called each February 23rd in commemoration.

Putin dove into a monologue about fighting terrorism next. He spoke about the many terrorist attacks Russia has been hit by.

We still grieve for them and will always grieve, along with the victims’ loved ones, “ he declared somberly.

Putin then claimed that “It took us nearly a decade to finally break the backbone of those militants. We almost succeeded in expelling terrorists from Russia, but are still fighting the remaining terrorists underground.”

This is a confusing claim. If Putin is referencing the two Chechen Wars, then it’s a bit boastful of him to claim that terrorism was almost expelled from Russia. It is true that Chechnya is much more stable than it once was, but stability doesn’t necessarily stamp out an ideology. The terrorists that engineered the recent attacks on Paris were French citizens, living in a democratic, stable, and free country, and they were still driven to the poisonous ideology of Islamic fundamentalism. Furthermore, Chechnya isn’t the only region of the North Caucasus that presents a challenge to Russia’s fight against terrorism While Groznyy’s brand new skyscrapers gleam and sparkle, regions such as Ingushetia and Dagestan still struggle from poverty and corruption. Ethnic minorities from these areas face discrimination and open racism, and Islamic fundamentalism still festers in these areas. If Putin wants to fight terrorism within Russia, he must not forget these areas.

            Next, Putin spoke about the Syrian Civil War and Russia’s involvement in that war. Unsurprisingly, he wasted little time in laying blame on While he did not name any specific nations as culprits, his implications that the west-namely the United States and European Union, have turned Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria into hellish nightmares. It is abundantly clear that the Kremlin is much more interested in stability than democracy in the Middle East, and it certainly is hard to argue that many of these countries were much more stable before foreign intervention.

            However, stability cannot be the only factor in examining what’s going on in the Middle East. Pro-Kremlin Russians are keen to point out the close relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia as being hypocritical to the values the United States touts, and it is certainly true that the close relationship runs contrary to the ideas of democracy and liberty. The Kremlin cooperates with the Saudis as well, however, despite the rivalries related to Iran and to oil production. And it is ironic that Putin would accuse the western powers of “brutally imposing their own rules” in the region when every one of the countries he mentioned as being destroyed by the west were brutal dictatorships beforehand. The late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi openly praised acts of violence and terror. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may have presided over a stable and developed nation but he actively oppressed Shia Iraqis and carried out genocide against the Kurdish minority living in northern Iraq. Bashar Al-Assad’s troops fired live rounds into peaceful protests in the first stages of Syria’s uprising. The Taliban in Afghanistan conducted repression of the Afghan people much like Saudi Arabia does today, and it’s only more ironic considering the Soviet War in Afghanistan was fought on the grounds of an ideology as well.

            President Putin clearly and decisively described the reason for military involvement in Syria: “The militants in Syria pose a particularly high threat for Russia. Many of them are citizens of Russia and the CIS countries. This is why it has been decided to launch a military operation there based on an official request from the legitimate Syrian authorities. Our military personnel are fighting in Syria for Russia, for the security of Russian citizens.” These are understandable reasons, but why now? The Syrian Civil War has raged for over four years and only recently has the Kremlin decided to get directly involved. Da’esh has posed a threat for much longer than Russian troops have been directly involved in the region. Two chief reasons for this involvement that have been debated were also left out, namely, the desire of the Kremlin to keep Assad in power, and the presence of a Russian military base in Syria’s north.
            Putin then turned his attention towards Russia’s newest enemy, the Republic of Turkey. Turkey has received strikingly similar criticism from different sides of the globe for its perceived lack of urgency in fighting Da’esh. Critics of the Kremlin allege that Putin is more interested in helping Al-Assad advance on Free Syrian Army posts, while critics of Turkey claim Ankara is using its military might to beat up the Kurds in Syria rather than advance on Da’esh posts. Both criticisms have some validity to them, as Turkey still struggles to keep its Kurdish southeast regions stable and Russia’s close ties to the Assad government. The two countries are continuing their squabble, now trading accusations of oil purchases from the terrorists in Syria. From the tone of Putin’s remarks as well as those made by President Erdogan of Turkey, it looks like the spat between Moscow and Ankara isn’t going to be resolved any time soon.  

            Putin’s speech left out one very important and recent Russian foreign policy maneuver, and that is Ukraine. Ukraine was not mentioned once in Putin’s speech to the Federal Assembly. Frankly, hours could be given to speculation as to why the still simmering conflict in the Donbas wasn’t mentioned. It could be argued that the sanctions levied against Russia have been replaced by the news out of Turkey and Syria, but those sanctions aren’t going anywhere anytime soon and it’s still evident that they continue to sting the economic capabilities. A need to diversify and expand the economy away from oil and natural gas was brought up in the address, but specifics were rare and if action’s going to be taken, it would be helpful to see it sooner than later, and military campaigns in Ukraine as well as Syria aren’t likely to help that too much.

            The war in Syria and icy tensions with Turkey have provided new talking points for Putin to rally the people around the white, blue, and red. How long they’ll stay around to distract from stagnation and uncertainty at home is yet to be seen.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Crimea left dark and cold as Kiev and Moscow squabble

The Crimean peninsula, which has been grabbing headlines since Russia’s sudden annexation in February of 2014, has been plunged into darkness. 

Electric pylons which bring power into the disputed peninsula from Ukraine have been disabled, and now the delivery of goods is being suspended according to one of the most despised figures on Russian state media, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Kiev seems to be trying to cut the peninsula off from all goods and services for its perceived transgression of moving under Russian control. 

This comes across as a clumsy, nationalistic move by Kiev, despite the fact that it comes in response to the biggest land grab provocation Europe has seen in decades. 

If forces loyal to Ukraine want to punish the Crimeans for being pushed into their new living arrangement, they are being short-sighted at best and malicious at worst. These are the same people who dismissed the referendum to join Russia in March 2014 as an unfair farce. An unfair election, which the Crimean referendum likely was, is not the fault of the people. It is the fault of the government who implemented that rigged process. Kiev’s decision to cut off the Crimean peninsula in retaliation for the Russian annexation punishes ordinary citizens rather than those who took Crimea from Ukraine. 

One could argue that the people voted to join Russia, but nobody except the Kremlin seems to believe that the referendum was conducted in a fair manner. No international observers were allowed in, Russian troops patrolled the streets of Sevastopol and Simferopol, and no time was allowed to organize comprehensive campaigns for both sides as was seen in the Scottish independence referendum. 

If this is Kiev’s idea of coercion, it’s not working. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty interviewed a handful of Crimeans about the situation and most pointed the finger right back at the former capital of their country. It’s true four or five people may not speak for the entire peninsula, but isolating Crimea will only sour relations further. 

While Kiev is blinded by nationalism, the Kremlin is actively relishing in playing the part of neglectful swindler. To forcibly take over a peninsula where two million people live and then refuse to invest into its infrastructure is a similarly ridiculous and malicious practice. If Crimea has been returned to its rightful home under the white, blue, and red, what is preventing Russia from providing federal services to the new region? Is it not Russia, and therefore, entitled to the proper infrastructure the Kremlin delegates to the other parts of the country? 

If the Kremlin is going to annex a piece of land in patriotic fervor, it should provide for that land. If Kiev wants to punish those it deems accountable for their loss of territory, pulling the plug on two million of your until-very-recently citizens is not going to win any hearts and minds. The average Crimean probably is more concerned as to whether they can live in comfort rather than which flag flies at the local government building. 

What the Kremlin did to retake Crimea drew international condemnation. If the Kremlin truly believes the people of Crimea wanted to become part of Russia, they should have let the people decide that for themselves in an open and internationally monitored referendum, not the hasty and rigged process that took place in March. 

If Ukraine wants Crimea back, they’re going to have to prove to the Crimean people that they can govern in a more effective, free manner than what Moscow can do. They’re not going to see the Crimean people welcome the Ukrainian Armed Forces back with open arms if evidence points to those same people cutting off basic supplies. If Ukraine becomes a strong, cleanly governed, and vigorously democratic country and an example for Eastern Europe, perhaps those Crimeans who voted to move back to Russia will reconsider. But that’s a long way off.  

Meanwhile, if Moscow is insistent on keeping this chunk of land in the Black Sea, the least they can do is provide for it rather than sleazily dropping the utility bill back in Kiev’s lap. 

All may be fair in love and war. But nobody is right in the latest chapter of this war. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Yet Another Nationalist Spat: Russia and Turkey back at odds

For centuries, the Russian Empire and Ottoman Empire fought each other, Russia usually emerging victorious. The rivalry stretches back to the 1500s when the first Russo-Turkish War took place in 1568. Ten more wars between the countries would take place until 1917, and in the 20th Century, the Republic of Turkey’s decision to join NATO kept embers of the ancient showdown alive during the Cold War. 

And now, nationalism has pitted the Russian Federation and Republic of Turkey against each other once more. On Tuesday, the Turkish Armed Forces shot down a Russian SU-24 plane which had crossed into Turkish airspace. Both pilots ejected from the plane in time to avoid injury, but were captured by a Syrian Turkmen militia fighting in Syria. One is dead, killed by the militiamen that found him. The other has been transported to Turkey and will be returned to Russia. 

In a meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan, President Putin, visibly angry, condemned the attack in choice words, calling it a “stab in the back” and publicly accusing Ankara of supporting the Islamic fundamentalists in Syria and Iraq under the table. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cancelled his trip to Turkey upon hearing the news and called it a “planned provocation”.  The Turkish Embassy in Moscow was the subject of a raucous protest where stones and eggs were thrown at the building. 

Ankara fired back immediately, insisting they were merely defending their territory and that they had warned the jet to change course multiple times before they shot it down. 

Russia has been crossing into Turkish airspace many times since the Kremlin decided to get directly involved with the Syrian Civil War. Russia possesses a military base in northern Syria not far from the Turkish border. 

Luckily, cooler heads are starting to appear. The Turkish Foreign Minister expressed his condolences to Mr. Lavrov and opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu called for a deescalation of tensions. 

It’s important to remember even with the angry words thrown about that further escalation leading to war between Russia and Turkey is a very distant and unlikely possibility. Despite the strength of both countries’ armed services, war would be catastrophic for both sides. Russia risks walking into a direct conflict with NATO, an event that could only end in worldwide disaster, and Turkey would almost immediately sink their energy sector into oblivion as they receive ample supplies of natural gas from Russia. 

Neither side has much of a moral high ground in this spat. Not long after the plane was shot down, evidence emerged that the Russian SU-24 plane was in Turkish airspace for less than a minute. While NATO and Turkey have both warned that unwanted planes in their airspace could lead to the use of force, Ankara’s decision to shoot down a plane for spending mere seconds in their air comes across as trigger-happy and as if they were looking for a fight. It’s true that this is hardly the first time Russia has crossed into foreign airspace much to the irritation of various EU countries, but the Turkish Air Force regularly patrols and crosses into Greek airspace, which implies they operate under the idea of “Do as I say, not as I do”. The Russian pilot that has returned to Turkey has claimed the Turkish Air Force never warned him that they would use force, further complicating matters. 

It is too early to tell whether this will lead to a significant change in policy when it comes to Russia’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War, but it certainly doesn’t help much. A concrete solution to the Syrian Civil War could be delayed because of this spat and it’s sent a chill into relations between Moscow and Ankara. Turkey’s vehement opposition to President Bashar Al-Assad, who is supported by the Kremlin, will likely become more pronounced, as Ankara was quick to voice its skepticism about a “grand coalition that included Russia to defeat Da’esh. Whispers of a ceasefire and a permanent resolution may be on hold. Some have speculated that it’s time for Russia to directly arm the Kurds in northern Syria and stand by them when this war ends. This is a noble idea in theory as the Kurds have been Daesh’s bane  for many months, but it would infuriate Turkey, which still suffers from a festering wound in its conflict with the PKK. Turkey’s place in NATO will also contribute to hurting an already frayed relationship between the organization and the Kremlin. Closer to home, the Center for Strategic and International Studies has speculated that the energy ties Moscow and Ankara may be put under some strain. 

Both Russia and Turkey are driven by a strong sense of patriotism and even nationalism. Russia’s centuries of history have produced a rich and complex culture and a perseverant people. Russians are often known for being very patriotic even when things look grim. Likewise, In 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk laid the foundation for a new and advanced secular republic in a region still struggling to find identity from colonial occupation and plenty of internal wars. Turkey, despite its problems, has grown into a wealthy, democratic, secular, and influential power. Ataturk’s thoughtful and determined likeness is everywhere in Turkey, from the bills and coins of the lira to the names of landmarks throughout the country. 

Patriotism is a noble value which both countries possess in large quantities. Nationalism, however, can be venomous, especially if it incorporates an ethnic element rather than a civic element.  And pride can blind a government into rash action that it can come to regret. When two fiercely patriotic countries clash with centuries of bad blood in the rearview mirror, someone’s bound to end up hurt, or killed. It’s time to put aside pride and make sure this is an isolated incident. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Democrats mull options for the future of the U.S.-Russia relationship

On Saturday night, the Democratic Party hosted its second presidential debate. 

Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats have fielded a small amount of candidates. Five candidates took the stage at the first debate, three were present at the second. 

Frontrunner and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton started the conversation in the first debate on a very strange foot. When asked “Secretary Clinton, Russia, they're challenging the U.S. in Syria. According to U.S. intelligence, they've lied about who they're bombing. You spearheaded the reset with Russia. Did you underestimate the Russians, and as president, what would your response to Vladimir Putin be right now in Syria?”, she spoke about how much the United States accomplished when Dimitri Medvedev was president between 2008 and 2012, stressing the jointly agreed nuclear arms deal, sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran, and increased supplies to soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. 

She eventually went on to admit things had changed under Putin, but complimented the Obama Administration for standing firm against Putin. “I applaud the administration because they are engaged in talks right now with the Russians to make it clear that they've got to be part of the solution to try to end that bloody conflict [in Syria].”

Clinton’s touting of her accomplishments under Medvedev’s administration is peculiar. It’s true there were no major hiccups in the relationship between the United States and Russia during Medvedev’s presidency save for the War in South Ossetia, but that ended after two weeks and quickly dropped off the international radar because it ended so quickly. It also took place when the Bush Administration was still in power-Clinton was not yet Secretary of State. Clinton also benefited from an administration that happened to be much less popular in Russia than the current Putin Administration. Between 2011 and 2012, Russia saw considerable protests against the Putin-Medvedev tandem of leadership and Putin’s approval rating, now soaring in the low 90s because of the tide of nationalism since the Ukraine conflict broke out, was stuck in the 40s when Clinton was Secretary of State. While Clinton’s claims were not untrue, they came across as odd considering how much things have changed since she left her post as Secretary of State and she failed to bring up specifics when she did allude to the present situation. 

Farther to the left, Senator Bernie Sanders claimed Putin “ already regretting what he did in Crimea and what he is doing in the Ukraine.  I think he is really regretting the decline of his economy.  And I think what he is trying to do now is save some face.  But I think when Russians get killed in Syria and when he gets bogged down, I think the Russian people are going to give him a message that maybe they should come home, maybe they should start working with the United States to rectify the situation now.”

Sanders’ claim that President Putin “regrets” what has happened in Crimea and Ukraine is probably untrue when Russian state media is still trumpeting the return of the Crimean peninsula to its rightful owner and embracing the narrative of fighting “fascists” in the Donbas. It has also loudly decried the United States’ lack of results in fighting the Islamic State and ridiculed the idea of America supporting the “moderate rebels” in Syria’s civil war, a criticism that is not entirely without merit. Russia’s intervention in Syria is also relatively limited-airstrikes have taken place but very few casualties have been reported. Russia’s intervention into Syria is not comparable to the invasion of Afghanistan that the Soviet Union came to deeply regret. If it escalates, that could become a more apt comparison considering the complex nature of the Syrian Civil War, but it’s not clear yet whether that will happen. 

Since that first debate, candidates Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee have dropped out. 

In the second debate, Bernie Sanders and Hillary wasted no time in condemning the Islamic State and the barbaric attacks that happened in Paris. Sanders told the audience that the United States would defeat ISIS "together, leading the world". 

Clinton seemed to subtly rebuke Sanders by telling the audience that this election was not just for the presidency, but the position of Commander-in-Chief. Clinton claimed she would be outlining what she'd do to cooperate with Europe to defeat ISIS. She stressed the US's role in training and supplying the Iraqis as well as the Kurds, but that it "was not an American fight". 

On Syria, Secretary Clinton decried the Kremlin’s support of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, claiming Russia as well as Iran was fighting Assad’s battles. “This is an incredibly complicated region of the world. It's become more complicated. And many of the fights that are going on are not ones that the United States has either started or have a role in.” 

When Clinton was asked whether the Obama Administration underestimated ISIS, she waffled and deferred blame back to the Bush Administration's decision to leave Iraq by 2011. "with the revolution against Assad -- and I did early on say we needed to try to find a way to train and equip moderates very early so that we would have a better idea of how to deal with Assad because I thought there would be extremist groups filling the vacuum."

This doesn't instill much confidence. Clinton's eagerness to blame those who came before her, while not entirely without merit, reeks of the "politician" stench she is trying to rid herself of, especially with a tide of left-wing populist sentiment massing behind Bernie Sanders. 

Martin O’Malley to his credit mentioned the horrific tragedy that recently occurred in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula when a Russian airliner exploded and killed over two hundred people, most of them Russian tourists. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the heinous act, and while some evidence points that way, whether they actually did so is still not known for certain.

The outpouring of grief from the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut to a lesser extent seems to be leading to a more proactive coalition against Islamic State, a coalition Russia and the United States find themselves on some common ground but opposite ends of in other places. Both countries have expressed contempt for Islamic State and their barbaric rule over parts of Syria and Iraq, and both countries have endured horrible tragedy at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. Russia’s support of Assad is firm but his position has been severely weakened and whispers of a transitional government have been heard. Whether there will be a strong coalition between the United States, European Union and Russian Federation against ISIS is not yet clear. But if compromises can be reached in the name of eradicating the Islamic State and its supporters, that could be a strong step in the right direction. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Republican Candidates reiterate their approaches to Russia

Two more Republican debates have occurred in the U.S.. 
In the fourth debate, the Republican candidates doubled down on their stances regarding Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria. Donald Trump again expressed that he would be friends with President Putin, Senator Marco Rubio was adamant once more to call Putin a gangster, and fiery HP CEO Carly Fiorina proposed for a large buildup of arms in Central and Eastern Europe, stressing that Putin was not worth talking to. Senator Rand Paul, who later got into a spat with Senator Rubio about the conservative merits of isolationism, proposed caution and criticized Fiorina for her assertion that Putin should not be talked to.
But how effective would these policies be?
Donald Trump delved in to slightly further detail about why and how he’d enjoy a good relationship with Putin. Apparently the two met on the in-depth news program 60 Minutes and hit it off. While Mr. Trump brought up an important point when he criticized the European Union for not acting more proactively towards the aggressive behavior of the Kremlin (after all, Ukraine and Russia are European soil and the people of the United States often wonder why Washington has to get involved in conflicts in Europe’s backyard), he again did not provide much concrete detail as to how he and Putin would be friends other than that. However, it looked like he wanted to shift attention from his “pro-Putin position” to other foreign policy issues.
Mr. Trump took a much more aggressive stance on fighting Islamic State in Syria, something the Kremlin claims to be doing, though their urgency has been called into question. In a rally in Iowa shortly after the debate, Trump angrily took no prisoners, saying he’d “bomb the (expletive) out of” ISIS and “take the oil” in hopes that confiscating the natural resources of Syria and Iraq that it would weaken ISIS.

Airstrikes from the United States are already hitting Islamic State with some success, at least in Iraq. In Iraq, where the conflict is much less complicated as Iraqi forces from Baghdad and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces advance towards ISIS strongholds like Fallujah and Mosul. Small independent militias also exist, but they are fighting nearly exclusively with the Iraqi forces. As strange as this sounds, Iraq has shown considerable muscle after their initial running from ISIS earned them international ridicule and gave ISIS a powerful propaganda tool. The Iraqi forces are also cooperating with the Kurdish Peshmerga, a former enemy.
Syria’s conflict is much more complicated than Iraq’s. A loose and disjointed coalition called the Free Syrian Army is fighting Assad, as are smaller terrorist groups like Al-Nusra, which are also fighting the FSA. To the north, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (also known as the YPG) are busy carving out Kurdish majority areas along the northern border for themselves in hopes for an autonomous country within Syria once the war ends. Despite Trump’s claim, however, Syria isn’t exactly the oil powerhouse that Iraq is, and while cutting off oil supplies would likely help weaken Islamic State, defeating them is not that simple.
The no-fly zone over Syria proposed by some candidates may not have been the worst idea in theory, but the risk of this now that Russia is directly involved in fighting forces opposed to Assad is astronomical. Senator Paul stressed this to the chagrin of some of the more hawkish Republican candidates. The chance of direct war breaking out should the United States shoot down a Russian plane is not a risk worth taking. A Paul presidency would be more cautious, and would likely see factions become more pronounced as hawks in the party clash with the more isolation-friendly members. The overall opposition to Putin’s foreign policy in both Ukraine and Syria would largely stay intact, however. Gov. Kasich, however argued with him, saying that no-fly zone should be established at least in the parts of the country that are under control of US-backed forces. He continued, saying “Russia’s recent military build-up and intervention in Syria are neither intended to defeat ISIS nor to relieve the suffering of Syrian refugees. Mr. Putin’s real goals are quite different: to take military action to rescue Assad’s criminal government from its death and to strengthen Russia’s strategic position in the Eastern Mediterranean. This is unacceptable and must stop.”

Giving lethal aid to Ukraine is supported almost unanimously by the Republican Party candidates but now that the conflict has effectively frozen over like Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, and Abkhazia/South Ossetia, the likelihood of that happening might not be quite as likely as it would have been earlier. Military assistance will likely still flow to the Ukrainian Armed Forces but it looks like the possibility of the war starting in earnest a second time is not in the interest of either Kyiv or Moscow. Kyiv does not have the capability and the Kremlin does not want to further aggravate its isolated position after invading Ukraine in the first place.
Perhaps the most aggressive of the Republicans’ candidates on foreign policy, Carly Fiorina, seems to endorse a large military buildup in Central and Eastern Europe. This would further drive our two countries apart and while the indignant frustration with the Kremlin’s aggressive behavior is valid, matching the aggression of a powerful nation the United States has a long historical rivalry with is still a very risky move. It was only thirty years ago that the United States and Soviet Union were throwing billions upon billions of dollars (roubles) at an arms race that involved multiple proxy wars, few of which ended well. Pro-Kremlin Russians like to say they are “defending their interests” in Ukraine and Syria from the encroachment of the United States and European Union. Despite the claims of Russian state media, the United States didn’t engineer the revolution in Ukraine. Aggression could validate the often-outlandish statements of Kremlin-run media and drive Russians to rally behind Putin and nationalist anti-American rhetoric even more than they already have. With the Ukraine conflict calming to a seeming stalemate, there is a risk in looking like the aggressor even though it is in response to previous aggression. One only needs to look towards Israel and Palestine to see that a tit-for-tat offensive is not always the best policy even when the reasons behind hold truth.
Going farther into Syria is a risk for the United States and probably would not find much popular support. But in terms of tangible hardship, Russia may be more at risk than the United States. The economy has been stagnant for over five years and sanctions still sting. Both countries have been through the pain and horror of a war that perhaps wasn’t ours to fight. One could argue to some extent that the United States has done it twice, once in Vietnam and once in Iraq. Russia lost too many brave sons fighting for an ideology in Afghanistan. The surrogate wars of the Cold War era rarely, if ever, yielded positive results.
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LGBT Rights: Ukraine inches forward, Russia stays in the dark

Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) has passed a law banning discrimination in the workplace related to sexual orientation. It was the last and most controversial law to pass the Verkhovna Rada for the European Union to formally consider allowing visa-free travel from the EU to Ukraine. 

It wasn’t easy. The bill failed the first two attempts at passage, but the sufficient support needed was eked out on the third attempt. The bill will now go to President Poroshenko’s desk for a signature. 

This is an important step forward for Ukraine in its ambitions to be a part of the European Union. Most of the European Union protects at least some of the rights of their LGBT citizens. 

Unfortunately, what is perceived as an important step towards equality in the countries of Western Europe is considered a sign of immorality and degeneracy in Eastern Europe. Prejudice against sexual minorities is widespread in Eastern Europe, and the Kremlin is an accomplice to this prejudice by passing laws that restrict the freedom of expression to LGBT Russians. Some small political parties have shown their opposition to these laws such as the Yabloko party, which has organized “Russia without pogroms” rallies, comparing the anti-gay laws of today to the violent pogroms against Jews under Tsar Aleksandr III. 

Ukraine is not at all immune to these prejudices. Despite his support of this anti-discrimination law, the Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada thundered that same-sex marriage would not ever happen in Ukraine and President Poroshenko, who also supported the bill, also reaffirmed his commitment to “family values”. Indeed, a recent pride parade in Kiev was attacked by Right Sector nationalists and while the police stood firm against the attackers, many participants were still injured in the brawl. 

In Russia, simply being gay is not “illegal”, but the law does very little to protect LGBT Russians. Numerous violent attacks have happened in Russia since the Kremlin implemented a new law against “gay propaganda” under the guise of “protecting families.” This law has led to an uptick in homophobic rhetoric in the Duma, hate crimes that have gone neglected, and other types of discrimination. 

The resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church since the end of communism, once seen as a positive resurrection of ancient traditions stamped out by the Soviets, has also played a role. The Kremlin has used and cooperated with the Orthodox Church  to justify its intolerant attitudes and while Russia is not a terribly religious or religiously homogenous country (many Russians are atheist, non-practicing, or even Muslim), it is still a socially conservative country where distrust of “non-traditional lifestyles” is common. Indeed, the anti-gay laws passed had widespread popular support. 
Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, one of Russia’s most famous and influential composers, is widely speculated to have been a gay man, but his sexuality was denied by the Soviets and continues to be denied by the Kremlin today. It’s a move that has infuriated many in the musical community. 

There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding regarding homosexuality in Russia that is evident even with Russia’s president. Right before the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, President Putin claimed that gays “were welcome” in Sochi, but asked them to stay away from children, which set off all kinds of outrage.  Immediately, pro-gay press outlets were furious. Some claimed that Putin was implying that being gay was equivalent to pedophilia, and some took it as an implication that gay people were out to poison the minds of children. Both accusations were widely dismissed as absurd and prejudiced. Unfortunately, this attitude is not isolated. The Russian curse word “pidaras”, which is roughly equivalent to the homophobic slur “faggot” in American English, carries an implication of pedophilia as well as it is a near equivalent to the word “pederast”. 

LGBT people are not out to destroy the institution of the family, they want to be included in that institution from a legal perspective. Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law implies LGBT people are trying to recruit impressionable children into some kind of vague sinister organization, another similarly preposterous claim. Sexuality is not a choice as some seem to believe, it is a normal and natural, although fairly uncommon, phenomenon that occurs in animals as well as humans. 

At the end of the day, it should not matter what people do in their personal lives. The rights of all Russians must be protected and upheld. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Myanmar's New Day

It's a country where semantic change understandably confuses outsiders. Long a military dictatorship, votes are being tabulated in the Country Formerly Known as Burma, and celebrations are continuing in the City Formerly Known as Rangoon under a flag that is barely five years old and in a capital that has only been so for nine years.

Under the watchful eyes of the statues of three ancient Burmese kings in Naypyidaw, however, some real change may be coming.

Myanmar, an ancient kingdom that became a British colony, gained its independence in 1948. A brief democratic period came to an end in 1962 when the military engineered a coup d'etat. They've been in power ever since. A large uprising in 1988 led to a free election in 1990. The landslide victory for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, widely compared to South African icon Nelson Mandela, was ignored by the military and they continued their iron-fisted rule. Another large uprising in 2007 (dubbed the "Saffron Revolution") led to an election which Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy boycotted. Unsurprisingly, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, backed by the military, coasted to a rigged victory.

That all seems to be changing. In a desperate attempt to jolt the country's economy and frustrated people back to life, the Burmese government has decided to concede to a general election, which took place on November 8th.

The country is multilingual and lacks a strong, fluid election infrastructure, so official results will take another few days, but earlier today, according to the Myanmar Times, an English and Burmese newspaper which managed to persevere through years of political censorship and repression, about 30% of the votes have been counted.

With 354 (30.2%) of the official results declared, Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy is sweeping the country. It has won over 85% of the seats so far in both the House of Representatives (Pyithu Hluttaw) and the House of Nationalities (Amyotha Hluttaw). It is also dominating the local elections. The Union Solidarity and Development Party has been thrown out en masse, its acting chairman simply telling the world's press outlets "We lost." The tiny number of other votes have gone to mostly ethnic-interest parties as Myanmar's ethnic background is diverse and often turbulent.

The thundering NLD train probably isn't going to slow down any time soon, but Burmese democracy isn't established just yet. Aung San Suu Kyi, though nearly universally loved by the Burmese people, cannot run for president because her sons and late husband are not Burmese, a clause widely seen as designed to keep her out of power. Suu Kyi has said she will be in a position "above the president" if the NLD wins the election, but what that means remains unclear. Unless the military fully caves, which is extremely unlikely even in the face of crushing electoral defeat, Suu Kyi won't be president despite her much larger voice.

When the dust settles there will still be another barrier in the way for Suu Kyi and the NLD to fight. The Burmese military, though they have conceded elections and let the landslide of NLD votes come in for the time being, have reserved a quarter of both houses for themselves, and a three-quarters majority is needed to pass constitutional changes (namely, letting Suu Kyi become president). This means NLD is going to have to win in an enormous landslide. Myanmar's first-past-the-post electoral system makes this possible but still difficult. In the 1990 election that was thrown out, the NLD won 52.5% of the popular vote but nearly 80% of the seats.

Myanmar has many problems to sort out. The ethnic majority Bamar (Burmese) has often oppressed the ethnic minorities of Myanmar such as the Shan, Karen, Rakhine, Chin, and especially the Rohingya peoples. The Rohingya, a Muslim minority subject to persecution by the Buddhist majority. Just like nearby India, Myanmar is a country where dozens of languages are spoken. It is also a poor country surrounded by neighbors where tensions abound because of the incompetence and mismanagement of the military dictatorship. Refugees are flooding Bangladesh and Thailand from regional conflicts.

First of all, religious freedom must be championed in the new Myanmar. The military dictatorship has used a mix of Buddhism and nationalism to persecute Muslim minorities. Nationalist Buddhists recently have filled soccer/football stadiums to protests "Islamism", though questions have been raised as to whether it's political and fundamentalist Islamism or just Islam as a faith that they are protesting.

Myanmar is a unitary state, meaning most of the governmental work is done With its size and population, the unitary system may not be optimal. In Saddam Hussein's Iraq, also a unitary state, nearly everything came from and to Baghdad. Today, Iraq is becoming a decentralized federal republic and with proper implementation (and a lull in religious tension would help too) could become much more effective. Likewise, Russia, a federation, a country of dozens of different ethnicities and two different words to describe its people ("Russkiy" for ethnic Russians, "Rossiskiy" for citizens of Russia, both ethnically Russian and not) manages to allow some degree of autonomy to its various peoples. While tensions and prejudices certainly exist in Russia against Central Asians and Caucasians, ethnic tension between the peoples of Russia proper is rare. Myanmar would do well to acknowledge its ethnic minorities and to give them proper autonomy over their own affairs and in their own languages as well as Burmese, and this includes dialogue and recognition of the Rohingya Muslims who have been brutally persecuted by the partially outgoing government.

Myanmar was sanctioned by the United States when it was a full-blown military dictatorship. Now that it is moving away from that to a certain extent, it has the opportunity to receive investment and growth from countries including the United States that have disagreed with its government's repression.

There is a lot of speculation on whether the Burmese government will actually change because of this election. While much of the two houses of Parliament will be NLD members, the president, barring a constitutional change put in by the new government despite the military's seats, will not be an NLD member, and much of the bureaucracy of the country remains in the hands of the troops. One of the NLD's most important priorities once those final results come in is to be able to move the country bureaucratically out of the doldrums it was and still is in under the military's rule.

Russian Oligarchs in Oxford

The University of Oxford, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious universities, is under fire for accepting a donation of £75 million ($115 million) from Len Blavatnik to build new facilities for the Blavatnik School of Government.

It is also criticized for holding a joint business award with Alfa Bank in 2007-2011. Access Alfa Renova (AAR) consortium played a role in a Kremlin-sponsored harassment campaign against British Petroleum in Russia. This group of Russian billionaires included Len Blavatnik, the richest man in Britain, born in the USSR but now an American citizen.

The Guardian reports that in 2008 and 2009 dozens of British and western managers were “forced out of Russia”-as told by a letter by members of the Russian opposition- in a bitter dispute between BP and a group of powerful Russian billionaires. The billionaires, including Blavatnik, were joint partners with BP in TNK-BP, once Russia’s third-biggest oil company, a dispute that Oxford admits it didn’t investigate, despite a spokesman for the university claiming “Oxford University has a thorough and robust scrutiny process in place with regard to philanthropic giving. The Committee to Review Donations conducts appropriate due diligence based on publicly available information. The University is confident in this process and in its outcomes.”

In a letter to the Guardian, 21 academics, activists and dissidents have claimed that Blavatnik is a member of a consortium that “has long been accused of being behind a campaign of state-sponsored harassment against BP”, as part of which “Vladimir Putin’s FSB intelligence agency fabricated a case against two Oxford graduates”.

The letter in response to the controversy penned to The Guardian scathingly criticizes the university, claiming that Oxford must “stop selling its reputation and prestige to Putin’s associates”, while also calling on the university to set in motion comprehensive reform in regards to transparency and procedure with regards to foreign donations.

The letter has many prominent dissidents’ signatures on it from both past and present. Pavel Litvinov, who openly protested the USSR’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and was sent into five years’ exile for it is one of them, as well as Vladimir Bukovsky, a dissident who has spoken in great detail about the KGB’s psychiatric treatment against supposed enemies of the state. Vladimir Milov, who leads Russia’s Democratic Choice party and a friend to the late Boris Nemtsov, and the letter’s organizer, Ilya Zaslavskiy. Mr. Zaslavskiy, an expert of Free Russia Foundation, graduated from Oxford, ran Moscow’s Oxford alumni association, and has worked for TNK-BP.

The letter says that until a proper investigation is done politicians and other public figures who have endorsed the Blavatnik school should withdraw support. It also urges the university to carry out urgent “transparency and procedural reforms” with regard to foreign donations.
It’s true that Oxford’s faux pas won’t lead to dozens upon dozens of Oxford graduates going into the real world defending the Kremlin’s actions against the Russian people, and it’s silly to think the School of Government will be some kind of indoctrination centre reminiscent of the Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean ideological crusades, even if it does have an oligarch’s name attached to it. However, in principle, this decision is rife with hypocrisy. Oxford is one of the world’s best universities and for centuries has been a place for people of all ages and backgrounds to gain new perspectives on the world around them. Academic freedom is vitally important to any stable society and educational institutions must adhere to strict guidelines to uphold that freedom. If Oxford, already in hot water for its decision to accept the donation and for speaking in vague platitudes when confronted on its reasoning, is to stay the course and ignore popular discontent with its decision, it will, whether purposefully or not, reflect values that run contrary to what it as an educational institution is supposed to stand for, namely, secretive and perhaps even corrupt bureaucratic practices. It looks even worse when the school receiving this donation is a school of government, offering education in a public policy setting centered on the critical thinking necessary to be effective in the field.

On top of that, the school’s construction is not looked upon favorably by some directly involved in the university’s day-to-day operations. The Guardian reported that one Oxford academic, anonymously dubbed it an “architectural calamity”. He added that the university which contributed £25m towards the school had “squandered money on a frippery”. In addition, Martin Dewhirst, an Oxford graduate and former lecturer in Russian, accused the university of not carrying out adequate due diligence when it considered the prospective donation in January 2008. Dewhirst submitted two freedom of information requests asking Oxford to reveal who carried out checks on Blavatnik’s business activities inside Russia. Again, the opposition was met with artificial, vague explanation from the university, which said a donations acceptance review committee approved the donation “based on due diligence conducted by the Development Office”. The Guardian goes on to show that “In response to the freedom of information requests, the university said it did not consult Bob Dudley or anyone from BP about the donation. It said no articles were translated from Russian concerning Blavatnik’s business activities. It was unable to say how many members of the due diligence team “had a good reading knowledge of Russian”.

Ilya Zaslavskiy, the organizer of the letter opposing the donation, argues that Mr. Blavatnik “could have voted with BP against his Russian partners but in the end did not. Zaslavskiy also alleges the price was excessive and an “awful” deal for ordinary Russian taxpayers, frustratedly wondering “How is this good governance?”

Oxford has a choice to make here. It can either ignore the criticism, take the money, and continue on with a stain on its record unlikely to go away. Or it can order a more comprehensive review of the donation and its merits and continue from there. It will likely lead to some short-term embarrassment, but if the university reverses its decision it will ultimately keep its record much cleaner and likely avoid a scandal like this in the future. The latter is likely being taught to its students within its hallowed halls as the preferable alternative. Practice what you preach, or in this case, teach.


Genocidal Doublethink: The Kremlin and the Holodomor

On Saturday, November the 7th, once the biggest holiday in the Soviet Union (with the possible exception of Victory Day) the blue and gold Ukrainian flag was everywhere, fluttering in the shadow of Union Station, Washington D.C.'s main train station.

Around one thousand people had packed the park outside the station despite the chilly, rainy weather to see the official commemoration of a memorial to the Holodomor, a forced famine-genocide that took place between 1932 and 1933 in present-day Ukraine. The word "Holodomor" in Ukrainian means simply "Extermination by hunger". Statistics vary widely on how many people died in the Holodomor, but what we do know is that most of the victims were ethnic Ukrainians and that somewhere between 2 and 10 million people died as a result of the famine.

The event was staged slightly east of the memorial, and featured influential speakers from both the United States and Ukraine. First Lady Maryna Poroshenko addressed the crowd and a video message from President Poroshenko was shown on the large screen above the crowd. Also addressing the crowd were two survivors of the great famine and various American politicians. A documentary was shown on the great famine.

The Kremlin walks a strange line in regards to the Holodomor. Under the communists, the mere suggestion that there was a famine at all was punishable by jail time or exile, although this was relaxed somewhat with the advent of glasnost. In 2003, at the seventieth anniversary of the famine, Russian delegates at the United Nations signed a statement with the United States and Ukraine which read:

"In the former Soviet Union millions of men, women and children fell victims to the cruel actions and policies of the totalitarian regime. The Great Famine of 1932–1933 in Ukraine (Holodomor), took from 7 million to 10 million innocent lives and became a national tragedy for the Ukrainian people. In this regard we note activities in observance of the seventieth anniversary of this Famine, in particular organized by the Government of Ukraine.
Honouring the seventieth anniversary of the Ukrainian tragedy, we also commemorate the memory of millions of Russians, Kazakhs and representatives of other nationalities who died of starvation in the Volga River regionNorthern Caucasus, Kazakhstan and in other parts of the former Soviet Union, as a result of civil war and forced collectivization, leaving deep scars in the consciousness of future generations."

While this sounds like acknowledgment of Stalin's totalitarian brutality, the Kremlin does not consider the Holodomor an act of genocide like the United States, Ukraine, and many other countries do. Most of North and South America recognize the genocide, as does much of Central and Eastern Europe. The Kremlin recognizes that the famine happened and that the policies of Stalin's USSR were part of the reason for their occurrence. However, the Russian government doesn't consider the events to constitute a deliberate attempted extermination of the Ukrainian people since other regions of the USSR were also suffering from famine in the 1930s.

This is a troubling assessment that has widened the already large rift between Russia and Ukraine. To Ukrainians, failure to acknowledge of the genocidal crimes of the Holodomor is to slap the Ukrainian people in the face, especially when it comes from the country most Ukrainians blame the famine's deadly implementation for, not unlike the resentment Armenians feel towards the Turkish government for not recognizing the Armenian Genocide, a feeling that was palpable at the dueling demonstrations on April 24th outside the Embassy of the Republic of Turkey, where hundreds of Armenians and Turks shouted and jeered each other from across Massachusetts Avenue in Washington.

Here's where things get ironic and political. Turkey argues that the Armenian Genocide was not a genocide because the Ottomans did not have an explicit plan to exterminate Armenians for their ethnicity like Hitler did for Jews in the Holocaust. The Turkish government argues that since many of the atrocities of the "Great Crime" (1915 to 1923) as Armenians refer to it, happened concurrently with the Turkish War of Independence (1919 to 1923) that the conflict was not as one-sided as the Armenian account. Ankara admits there were many atrocities committed against the Armenian people living in what is today Eastern Turkey, but stubbornly denies the actions constitute genocide.

Likewise, the Kremlin claims the Holodomor was merely a terrible famine and that the policies set in motion by Stalin's government were merely neglectful rather than deliberately cruel and with the intent to exterminate the Ukrainian people. The Kremlin also points to the rising tide of Ukrainian nationalism in the 1920s and 1930s that sometimes resulted in clashes between separatists and the Red Army to argue that the actions of 1932 and 1933 were genocidal.

The double standard here is that the Russian government recognizes the Armenian Genocide as a genocidal crime, and has done so since 1995. President Putin reiterated the Kremlin's recognition of the Armenian Genocide as recently as April of this year, promptly infuriating Turkey.

Turkey's denial of the Armenian Genocide and Russia's denial that the Holodomor was a genocidal act share many similarities.

Across the Atlantic, the opposite is reality. The Holodomor is recognized as genocide in the United States, but the Armenian Genocide is not. Washington quietly refuses to recognize what happened to the Armenian people between 1915 and 1923 because relations with Turkey, a vital ally in NATO, would be severely damaged. Despite a large Armenian-American community and forty-three of America's fifty states recognizing the genocide, Washington refuses to budge.

Russian state media enjoys pointing out the United States' hypocrisies and double standards, and in the case of these genocides, it has a point. But "Do as I say, not as I do" is not and never will be a valid way to go about geopolitical feuds. If the Kremlin wants to criticize the United States on its failure to recognize Armenia's Genocide, it has to reconsider its biased look into the Holodomor. Until then, it commits the same sins it decries when Ankara and Washington commit them.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Russia's Reality: A Conversation with Vladimir Milov

“Relatively good, to bad, to worse."
That’s how the relationship between the United States and Russia was described at the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative event, A Conversation with Vladimir Milov. Vladimir Milov, chairman of the Democratic Choice party in Russia, was welcomed by the Hudson Institute and Free Russia Foundation Monday afternoon to speak on matters of corruption and what lies ahead for Russia.
Milov worked in the Russian government in the 1990s and early 2000s and now represents the Institute for Energy Policy, a Moscow-based think tank. Corruption has changed in Russia since he was working for the Kremlin. In the 1990s, business and bureaucracy worked separately as two distinct entities. Private enterprise would often buy out government workers for favors in those days, but the two entities stayed relatively separate. Milov described the separation as a “firewall”.
Today, government bureaucracy and business are closely tied together. Yeltsin’s government was criticized, deservedly, for doling out favors to private interests, but today’s government, dead set on state investment, has failed to produce substantial growth in the Russian economy for quite some time. The investments that come into the country often do not stimulate the economy, rather, they enrich President Putin and his political allies. Many projects implemented by the Kremlin have been inefficient and provided little benefit to the Russian people, as has come up every so often as reported by the Russian business daily Vedomosti.
It is no question that the Russian government exercises extensive control over the state media. While some will point to President Putin’s sky-high approval rating as a broad mandate, Milov argued that that approval rating does not show the complexity of the stable but uncertain situation in Russia today. It’s true many ordinary Russians think quite highly of Putin himself, but the system he presides over still manages to invoke contempt among many of the Russian people. Russia today is a vertically oriented country-the system is exclusive and often prevents social mobility for the general populace. While the oligarchs do not have the same blatant influence they may have had under Yeltsin, they still control large portions of the government or government-subsidized industries.
It wasn’t that long ago that Russians were standing shoulder to shoulder in large anti-Putin demonstrations across the country in 2011 and 2012. Back then, Putin’s approval rating was stuck in the 40s.
“Then he injected a drug”, Milov explained. The drug being nationalism, a fervor that swept across Russia in 2014 as Crimea was annexed and the crusade against the “Fascist Kiev Junta” was on.
That fervor is still visible on TV today, but cracks may be starting to appear. Despite TV news continuing on about Ukraine, Syria, and the faults of the United States, the people of Russia are starting to slowly turn towards other priorities closer to home. Living standards are fading while the economy is starting to sink. Putin’s approval rating remains high but the authorities in general are still perceived negatively.
Elections, particularly regional elections, are still tightly controlled in Russia, but that doesn’t mean Russia’s elections are a forgone victory for United Russia. In the cities, for instance, members of the ruling party are slowly falling out of favor with the people, who are fatigued by this highly monopolized system. The patriotic fervor of regaining Crimea and fighting fascists in the Donbas are losing momentum.
In the past the Russian government has always been willing to propose plans to fix whatever issues are bothering the Russian people. That’s been a constant, regardless of whether the plan was effective or not. These days, however, the main refrain from the government has been to wait. Wait, things will stabilize and return to normal, and be patient, because it may take a few years.
This is not to say that Russia will see millions of protestors packed into Red Square in the near future calling for Putin to step down a la Maidan. The overall system in Russia is strong, and is unlikely to yield a popular uprising similar to Ukraine’s recent revolution. Milov attraibuted that to a more conservative and passive attitude among Russians when compared to Ukrainians. He did, however, expect some change, perhaps somewhat along the lines of what has happened recently in Turkey. For reference, Turkey has been under the control of Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the right-wing Islamist Justice and Development Party, and his rule, like Putin’s, has been criticized for creeping authoritarianism. However, Turkey’s most recent election saw the Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, lose its parliamentary majority and go to the coalition negotiation table with the secular opposition, the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) which came in second. While their party did not win the election, Turkish people who supported the CHP and other opposition parties seemed to come out of the election relieved that the system of checks and balances in Turkey was still alive and functioning. Milov stressed that this could be a turbulent and difficult time in Russia, but that the ultimate result could be a more democratic, less stagnant, and cleanly governed country.
Could things go the other way?
“Of course, and that’s in Putin’s interests!” Milov said. But evidence seems to point to the contrary. Irkutsk recently went through a political split away from United Russia as did Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city. Milov seemed to believe that low turnout may be a goal of the authorities. If Russians went out to vote in large numbers, they could, especially in the cities, present a large problem for the Kremlin.
“Public opinion still matters in Russia”, Milov explained. “Even the Kremlin wants to have the people content, and if they lose support, concessions can and very well may happen, such as in 2005 when pensioners’ benefits were monetized!”
Even the anti-American nationalist rhetoric will lose its luster if Russian standard of living continues to decline.
The subject of the murder of opposition activist Boris Nemtsov came up as well in the conversation. Milov, without hesitation, said he was under the impression that the Kremlin had arranged the assassination, stressing his knowledge of the way things worked in the Kremlin and a letter he send to the FSB rife with questions that he claimed point the finger at the state, but he also shed light on a division among liberal Russians-many of them believe that it is completely plausible that Mr. Nemtsov was simply killed by some Chechen thugs.
It didn’t take long after that for the subject to turn to one of Chechnya’s most (in)famous, Razman Kadyrov. Milov remained skeptical that Kadyrov was behind Nemtsov’s slaughter, since Mr. Kadyrov stood to lose from that type of stunt, as Kadyrov has fallen out of favor with many of Putin’s allies despite being close to Putin himself.
These types of tragedies and the search for justice, however, don’t seem to be the path to take for democratic change to happen in Russia. “If you talk to people about this kind of thing they tune out and ignore you. People want problems to be solved, and if you talk about that, people come to your side. People don’t want to talk about the murders and the bombings.”
Milov also stressed that even a period of turbulence leading to stronger democracy as suggested before would not immediately turn Russia into a western European republic.  “When you speak about change, people think about Western types of democracy, forget it. We’re looking towards a more imperfect system but a better system, one where more voices need to be heard? More oppenness, competitiveness, we don’t need to western standards yet, get more competitiveness first!”
When asked what he’d do about the state media monopoly from the United States, Milov’s proposed first steps of action were simple-don’t let these moguls and oligarchs invest in the west.
It’s going to take a long time. It’s going to be turbulent and likely met with substantial skepticism and opposition. It may present problems for the governments in Russia’s neighbors. And it may not be in 2016 when the Duma elections are held or even in 2018 when Russians go back to the polls to elect a president for the next six years. And perhaps most importantly, despite the romaticization of Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution, it probably won’t happen with crowds jamming Red Square for months upon months. But Russia’s stagnant and precarious position today will be called into question sooner or later. It’s up to the people to figure out how to steer the country to strength in democracy, economic diversity, and clean governance.