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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 “...is 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.