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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Al-Bab: A Snapshot of the Complex Syrian Civil War

Five years after Syrians started to rise up against the brutal dictatorship of President Bashar Al-Assad, the Syrian Civil War rages on across this land of ancient history from Palmyra to Aleppo to Damascus. 

Libertarian Presidential Candidate Gary Johnson raised many eyebrows when he was caught completely off guard when asked about the siege of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, seemingly unaware of Aleppo’s importance and perhaps even existence. 

Aleppo, however, is not just Syria’s largest city. It is a province in northwest Syria, home to many cities. To the northeast lies a smaller city by the name of Al-Bab.  

Al-Bab is not a particularly large city. Its population in 2004 was estimated around 63,000, and it is likely less than that today as it is currently under the occupation of Islamic State. 
What makes Al-Bab significant, though, is its enormous strategic importance to multiple different factions in the Syrian Civil War. 

As mentioned before, Al-Bab is under the control of the Islamic State. To the immediate north, Free Syrian Army forces backed by the Republic of Turkey sit only a few kilometers away, waiting to advance on the city as a main objective of the “Euphrates Shield” operation. While Ankara has carved out a sizable chunk of land in Syria for their forces, their forces have been very inconsistent in their abilities and have few friends in the region. 

To the south lies the Syrian Arab Army, the forces to which President Al-Assad is Commander-in-Chief.  

The Syrian Arab Army is arguably one of the stronger players in this war, but five years of combat across Syria against various different adversaries has left the fighting force exhausted and even with Russian assistance, the SAA is still bogged down in their siege of Aleppo and has made little advances otherwise. To the far east, the besieged city of Deir-Ez-Zor lies surrounded by Islamic State and in real danger of being sieged and taken over. 

To both the east and west lies another player still, the Syrian Democratic Forces. The SDF, as they are often abbreviated to, is a broad coalition of Kurds, Arabs, some Turkmens, Christians, and Armenians which have rallied in the country’s north. The SDF proclaimed a large victory in the nearby city of Manbij a few months ago, but has been limited and careful in their recent campaigns with the Turkish-allied FSA’s marching towards the same objective. If the Syrian Democratic Forces manage to siege and capture the city of Al-Bab, they will have stuck a hell of a monkey wrench into Turkish ambitions in the region and put their biggest objective-carving out a united region of Syria for the Kurdish minority not under Assad’s control. While Kurdish units in the SDF (known as the People’s Protection Units and by the Kurdish initials YPG) have withdrawn from the region on orders from Turkey and the United States, they remain a factor in the Syrian Democratic Forces approaching from the west and may be able to connect their regions into one entity, possibly setting the stage for a federal region similar to that in northern Iraq. 
Yellow: SDF. 
Red: SAA. 
Green: FSA. 
Gray: IS. 

The various groups in this civil war are, unsurprisingly, generally unfriendly towards each other. 

The Turkish-backed FSA forces are hostile to the SDF and Assad’s SAA, and vice versa. 

The SDF, while not outright hostile to the SAA, has a relationship of tense neutrality with Assad’s forces and even if limited cooperation takes place between the two parties as has happened in the past, that does not mean they will continue to cooperate. Some have speculated that the SAA and SDF may end up fighting against each other if Islamic State and the FSA are defeated as Assad has repeatedly refused to entertain plans for a new federal Syria similar to the Iraqi setup after 2003. 

While the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army forces fly the same green, white, and black flag of the FSA in other areas, they are largely Islamist and answer to Turkish forces rather than towards a broader desire to liberate Syria from Assad’s grip. These forces have not come in contact with Assad’s forces and will likely avoid doing so as direct conflict would drag Turkey farther into the conflict than it wants to be. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also seems more interested in preventing the Kurds and their allies from establishing a united entity in Syria as such an entity would likely allow the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK to operate and undermine Turkey. 

The Kurdish forces in Syria are often doted on by Western media because they are secular, somewhat democratic and have feminist leanings as women frequently fight alongside men in combat. However, the YPG, as they are known, is closely related to the PKK in Turkey and despite the fact that the PKK does not instill the same fear as Islamic fundamentalist terrorists seem to, it is still called a terrorist group for a reason and Ankara is understandably worried about this. 

Islamic State is retreating on all its different fronts and probably will not retain control of Al-Bab  once they are engaged in the city limits. Who takes it from them is still unclear, but the strong adversarial relationships between the various different groups surrounding the city is definite cause for worry. 

Iraq, meanwhile, has managed to start its advance into Mosul, Islamic State’s last and by far the largest stronghold in the city. If Mosul is retaken by the Iraqi Security Forces, the Islamic State will be severely weakened and the country may evict the terrorists from their borders by the Spring of 2017. Syria, unfortunately, looks like it will endure war for considerably longer unless some sort of comprehensive peace deal can be worked out, but that seems quite unlikely. 

Trudeau, Trump, and Fashionable Authoritarianism in the Free World

Fidel Castro, infamous revolutionary and symbol of Cuban Communism, died at the age of 90 just two days ago. 

In Miami, Cuban-Americans poured into the streets of Little Havana in celebration. The five blue and white stripes of the Cuban flag fluttered everywhere next to the 13 red and white American ones as people hugged, cheered, and banged pots and pans together in a joyous cacophony. 

Ninety miles south in the other Havana, Cubans wept and expressed sorrow for their fallen comrade. Nine days of mourning were declared by the Cuban government. Although an aging Fidel had conceded power to his (only slightly) younger brother Raul in 2006, he remained a powerful symbol of the Cuban Revolution against the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and even as he neared his last day, continued to be a vocal spokesman for the communist cause. 

Fulgencio Batista

Communist Cuba is, in some ways, ahead of its counterparts around Latin America. The Cuban people are well-educated and generally live long, healthy lives due to the system in place. Cuban doctors are world-renowned for their administration of healthcare. 

However, these advances that occurred under communism came at serious prices. Cubans living on the island have extremely limited access to information. Freedom of speech and of the press is non-existent. For fifty-plus years, Cubans have been trying to move to other countries, particularly the United States. Miami is jokingly nicknamed “North Havana” because of the huge and vibrant Cuban community there. While Cubans don’t starve in the streets of Havana, most are forced to live spartan lifestyles, making tiny wages that if not for the communist system, would plunge them into squalor and poverty. Opportunities for advancement on the island are sparse. Repression has remained brutal and unforgiving. 

World leaders reacted from all sides of the spectrum. U.S. President Barack Obama and President-Elect Donald Trump both expressed a hope for Cuba to move forward, and Trump was blunt (though not wrong) in describing Castro as a bloodthirsty leader. 

A confusing reaction, however, came from north of the United States. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, according to public broadcaster CBC, expressed “deep sorrow” upon hearing about Castro’s death and called Castro a “legendary revolutionary and orator”who his father, the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, “was very proud to call a friend”. 

Trudeau’s comments came as a shock and a sharp contrast to other Canadian politicians.  They were quickly criticized by opposition Members of Parliament in Canada’s Conservative Party, and Tom Mulcair, the head of the New Democratic Party, had a much more subdued reaction to the news. 

Ironically, Mulcair’s NDP is typically farther to the left on economic issues than Trudeau’s Liberals, which only made Trudeau’s remarks more confusing. 

Canada, like the United States, has long been an example of democratic success, and for Canada’s head of government to praise the exact opposite of that tradition is unnerving. 

Prime Minister Trudeau has yet to comment on the mounting criticism of his remarks, and it isn’t really known whether this was a poorly thought out remark or an honest opinion. If he does truly hold serious admiration for Fidel Castro, however, he is continuing a worrying trend evident on both the left and the right in the free world, the admiration of strongman, authoritarian leaders and their legacies. It especially comes across as ironic considering Trudeau’s very outspoken support of social justice movements such as feminism and public appearances at LGBT Pride events in Canada as LGBT individuals in Cuba were brutally persecuted by the Communists. 

President-Elect Donald Trump drew sharp and deserved criticism for similar remarks. He has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, the late Saddam Hussein, and the late Muammar Gaddafi. According to Trump, Putin’s leadership dwarfs Barack Obama, Saddam Hussein was good at stamping out Islamic fundamentalism, and Muammar Gaddafi should not have been deposed by the NATO coalition that aided Libyan rebels in the Libyan revolution of 2011. 

Now, President-elect Trump is not completely off base in his remarks on Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi if they are taken by themselves. After Gaddafi’s death, Libya has been stuck in a brutal and confusing civil war between Islamists, various factions of transitional leaders, desert tribes, and lingering loyalists. However, in the grander scheme of things, there are serious problems with his views on these heads of state. While it’s true that Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism rarely manifested themselves in Saddam’s Ba’athist Iraq, different and equally grave sins were committed. Iraq’s Kurdish minority, who make up nearly a third of the country and most of the northern provinces, were butchered and gassed in the Al-Anfal Genocide and the Halabja chemical disaster. Hussein also started a war against the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1980 which accomplished nothing and killed hundreds of thousands, a war where the United States assisted Iraq. Hussein also oppressed the Shi’a Muslim community in Iraq. 

And for all Putin’s “strong leadership”, the Russian economy has slumped into a serious recession due to sanctions, low oil prices, and military adventures engineered by the Kremlin in Ukraine and Syria. The Donbas remains a not-quite-frozen stalemate where Ukrainians and Russians, brother Slavs, die nearly every day. Bashar Al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army is exhausted even with Russian support. Much of this “strong leadership” comes from a token opposition in the Duma made up of grey-haired Communists, absurd ultranationalists led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and the democratic opposition’s utter failure to resonate with the Russian people at large. 

It’s true that comparing Putin to Fidel and Raul Castro is probably unwise. Putin does not employ even close to the same levels of censorship and repression that the Castros do, but it remains that both Prime Minister Trudeau’s lionization of Castro and Trump’s praise of Putin and others is deserving of heavy criticism. 

Various Latin American left-wing organizations are also speaking wistfully about Fidel. There’s a little more concrete reason for this considering the United States’ hypocritical and undemocratic actions in Latin American countries such as Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and so forth. At the same time, there’s a startling blind eye turned towards the basket case socialist Venezuela has become. Venezuela’s Chavistas were vocal allies of the Castros in Cuba, and when oil was selling for over US$100 per barrel, their policies looked sound if not entirely democratic. As soon as oil became cheap, however, the Venezuelan economy tanked and the country descended into near-anarchy, a phenomenon many Latin American leftists have remained silent on. 

For our own sakes, the countries of the Americas must look towards their inspirational figures with a more honest and objective eye. It is possible to criticize American foreign policy in Latin America and also be aware of the repression that continues in Cuba, and it is possible to criticize things such as the EU’s handling of the Refugee Crisis without defecting to the Kremlin as a role model. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Perspective in the Aftermath of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election

So ends another election season. Until the media starts the next one in two weeks, at least. 

This election truly had it all, and not in a good way. National security scandals, crotchety old socialists, and a guy with a silly haircut defended the size of his manhood on national television in a debate. 

And that's just scraping the surface. Now, less than a week after Hillary Clinton conceded to President-Elect Donald J. Trump, people are asking questions about the results. Let's take a look at some of them. 

Why did the Democrats lose when everyone expected Clinton to oust Trump, possibly in a blowout? 

Hillary Clinton and her running mate, Tim Kaine, were predicted to carry most of the swing states in Tuesday's election. According to polling and the vast majority of predictions, only Ohio looked likely to be won by Trump. 

While Clinton managed to barely scrape a victory in New Hampshire and hung on to Virginia, she lost the swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina. 

The deciding upsets, however, came in states which had been considered relatively safe victories for her. Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, neither of which had voted for the Republican nominee since the 1980s, both went to Trump.  Below, a comparison between the 2012 and 2016 elections:


While Secretary Clinton managed to maintain the urban vote in these three states, she was unable to win majorities in rural, predominantly white and working class counties that President Obama managed to win from Governor Mitt Romney. These communities which had previously been voting for Democrats, swung over to Trump's brand of populism and his often-repeated desire to bring American manufacturing jobs, a former hallmark in many of these communities, back from other countries. Clinton, meanwhile, stuck to a strategy of ensuring high turnout in diverse, urban communities. She did that reasonably well, but learned the hard way that urban votes alone do not win you every state, especially states that are as large as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. 

These results also imply Clinton may have underestimated Trump and his appeal because polling agencies time and time again said she would win. The fact of the matter is, the polls were largely inaccurate, possibly because some who voted for Donald Trump would not say they were voting for him. 

In addition, Trump's momentum always came back in the polls. After his first meltdown, where he insulted the family of a Muslim-American soldier who had been killed in action, his poll numbers plummeted. 

But they came back. FiveThirtyEight predicted Trump had about a 10-12 percent chance of winning the presidency after the incident. A month later it was nearly 50 percent. 

Then a video emerged of Trump, in choice words, bragging about how he could take advantage of women sexually because of his wealth. Republicans walked away from former endorsements en masse. Rumors swirled that the GOP might drop him and shove Mike Pence into his place. That never happened, but Trump looked as if he was finished once more. FiveThirtyEight again predicted Trump had about a 10-12 percent chance of winning the presidency afterwards.

But he chipped away once more at the polls. He did not manage the comeback he made the first time due to the proximity of Election Day, but he was on the rebound. And it translated when Americans went to the polls. 

Democrats gripe that they have won the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections, dating back to the 1992 election that propelled Bill Clinton to the Oval Office. Whatever one's stance is on the Electoral College and whether it should remain part of American democracy, them's the rules. In terms of popular vote, however, many of these elections were very close-especially 2000, 2004, and 2016. The constant in these elections is not a curious voting anomaly, but the overall favorability of the Democratic candidate in that election. 

Al Gore was Vice President under the still-popular outgoing President Bill Clinton and he looked to carry that momentum into another Democratic victory in 2000. Unfortunately, Gore lacked the charisma and charm of his former running mate, while then Governor George W. Bush effectively played up his Texas roots with his folksy demeanor. Gore also chose to not campaign with President Clinton as he believed it would keep the President's sex scandal in the public eye. He failed to win his home state of Tennessee and also chose Joe Lieberman over Jeanne Shaheen for his running mate, a move that may have propelled him to a win in the small but electorally important New Hampshire, and therefore, the election overall. 

In 2004, John Kerry was chosen by the Democrats to oust President Bush. Kerry, while qualified, was not considered an exceptionally likable candidate. His looks were often lampooned as some compared him to Lurch from the Addams Family, and his tendency to flip-flop on many issues enabled the Bush campaign to run an iconic ad depicting Kerry windsurfing back and forth with the caption "Whichever way the wind blows". 

Clinton had the qualifications to be president, there's no doubt about that. But her nagging email scandal and various other skeletons made her unpopular and a haze of untrustworthiness hung over her. While Trump was also considered as such, Clinton was unable to present herself as a positive alternative, merely less bad. 

Identity politics may have also played a part in Clinton's loss. As mentioned before, Clinton lost white, working class voters in rural areas of the Rust Belt. These were areas where anti-establishment sentiment and distrust towards the government was especially high. Rather than rally possible voters, however, Clinton may have contributed to the overwhelming feeling of being forgotten in these areas by staying in more diverse cities that were likely going to vote for her anyways. Racist and xenophobic sentiment stoked by her opponent also contributed to this problem. Non-white people overwhelmingly vote for Democrats in America, where the majority of white Americans, particularly poor and working class white Americans, found an appeal in Trump that Clinton could not recapture even with former Democrats. 

 A stronger example of identity politics is evident in Turkey. Turkey has four large political parties: the right-wing and Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP*), the secular left-wing Republican People's Party (CHP), the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP). Since the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has fallen into identity politics. Many Turkish voters do not vote on policy, but on which party is perceived to represent them. Conservative Muslim Turks often vote for AKP because of their faith, not because of conservative economic policy. The same can be said of secular-minded Turks and the CHP. Although secularism is a cornerstone of the Turkish Republic, the people outside the cities are still predominantly conservative and Muslim, and the CHP is unable to win elections on the grounds that their voting base is just too small. 

Could Bernie Sanders have won?

After Trump's victory, former supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders' campaign came out of the woodwork and speculated that he would have been able to win the election. 

It's possible Bernie would have been able to win in a head-to-head against Trump, considering he was perceived as much more trustworthy and genuine than Clinton and he did manage to win the Michigan and Wisconsin primary contests, but Sanders was not the perfect candidate many of his diehards swear he was. 

Bernie Sanders, being an independent Senator from a small and overwhelmingly rural state never received the same media scrutiny that Clinton had been dealing with. But some of his faults came out during the primaries. He may have been able to win the votes of working class and poor, rural white Americans but he lost black and Hispanic Americans by considerable margins to Clinton and may have been attacked for his supremely ironic and poorly thought out remark that "White people don't know what it's like to be poor or live in ghettos". His far-left economic platform would have alienated many in the centre of the political spectrum. He seemed largely uninterested in foreign policy. 

And while the Cold War is over, its influence remains. Sanders, a socialist, would have likely been attacked for his record of supporting or otherwise speaking positively of left-wing policies in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, his claims that bread lines were a "good thing" and his extended stay in the U.S.S.R. There's a reason that his fanatical supporters were mockingly nicknamed "Sandernistas", a nod to the Sandinistas. 

Well, who could have won? 

That's actually not too hard to answer. Many believe that the outgoing Vice President, Joe Biden, would have won convincingly had he faced Trump. Biden, unlike Clinton, does not have a haze of untrustworthiness around him, deserved or not. He can match Clinton toe to toe on policy. He has Obama's charisma and charm. And he likely could have shored up rural voters. 

How will Trump govern? 

The short answer is that we don't know. 

A slightly longer answer is that it depends on whether Vice President-elect Mike Pence got the same deal as Governor Kasich is said to have been proposed. 

John Kasich, Governor of Ohio, patron saint of the NeverTrump movement, and likely winner of the Presidential Campaign Eating Contest, was offered the Vice Presidential position on Trump's campaign. If we're to believe Kasich's staff, the Governor was offered the position with the promise that he would be in charge of foreign and domestic policy, while Trump would be in charge of "making America great again". 

Kasich turned the offer down and consistently refused to endorse Trump. 

Trump, meanwhile, found his man in Mike Pence, former Governor of Indiana. 

Stark ideological differences exist between Trump and Pence. On social issues such as abortion and LGBT rights, Trump doesn't seem to care. Pence, however, is right as right can be. 

Mike Pence seems to be the man in charge of making Trump palatable to reluctant conservative stalwarts in the Republican Party. A political cartoon in the Indianapolis Star tellingly depicted Trump rabbling away at a microphone while Pence stood behind him dressed as a firefighter, hose at the ready. 

Cartoon by Gary Varvel.

Unfortunately for the Republicans, that may be a choice they regret. Mike Pence is not a popular fellow at home in the Hoosier State. In 2012, Pence rode outgoing Governor Mitch Daniels' coattails into office. Daniels, who is still very popular in Indiana, focused almost exclusively on expanding business opportunities in Indiana and largely ignored social issues. Pence, on the other hand, signed SB 101, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, into law in Indiana. 

It was a disaster. Democrats decried the anti-LGBT nature of the law. Republicans criticized its almost immediate effect of halting businesses from coming to Indiana. The Indianapolis Star, Indiana's largest newspaper, published a headline in protest that screamed FIX THIS NOW. 

Pence tried to ban same-sex marriage via constitutional amendment before his signing SB101, passed extremely restrictive abortion laws, his defunding of Planned Parenthood contributed to an HIV epidemic in the southern part of the state, and claimed he had the authority to ban Syrian refugees from being settled in Indiana, something no state governor can do. 

For these reasons and others including taking Governor Daniels' balance sheet to an extreme in tax cuts so far right the GOP-controlled state legislature had to stop it, shutting down popular preschool funding and an energy efficiency program with Daniels' approval, Pence was likely to lose re-election in Indiana, which, ironically, is a generally conservative state. 

Economically, Trump and Pence differ. Trump wants "fair trade", Pence advocates "free trade". A compromise may be possible, but how it becomes policy is still yet to be determined. 

On foreign policy Trump wants to be friends with Putin while Pence seemed to repeat the typical Republican line before Trump's rise in the Vice Presidential debate. In Syria, Trump is likely to hand the reigns over to Putin and Assad. Negotiating with Mexico regarding the possible wall could get extremely messy. Policy regarding China and Iran remains much of a mystery, especially considering the international nature of the nuclear deal. 

It's difficult to see much of a silver lining in this mess. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Tashkent's Tough Road Ahead: Uzbekistan after Karimov

On Monday, August 29th, news broke that Islam Karimov, the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, suffered a brain hemorrhage and had been hospitalized. Rumors abound that President Karimov has died, but the statements pronouncing him dead are still unconfirmed.

Even if Karimov is not dead, there are serious doubts as to whether he will be able to continue his duties as President.

Islam Karimov rose through the ranks as a member of the Communist Party and ascended to power in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic by 1989. He has been the President of Uzbekistan since the country became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991, and he has ruled with an iron fist. Freedom House, the well-known American think tank, consistently rates the Central Asian country as one of the most repressive countries in the world. 

Uzbekistan is the most populous country in Central Asia and most of its 31 million people are very young, almost half are under 25 years old. It is a mostly Sunni Muslim country and its people speak a Turkic language called Uzbek as well as Russian.

Despite its population, Uzbekistan is plagued by an economic rut. China and Russia, its main trading partners, are both coping with economic troubles. Remittances from Uzbeks living in Russia don’t carry the same worth as they once did with the rouble’s collapse. Chinese investment in the country has slowed down considerably.

These problems are not limited to Uzbekistan, either. Central Asia as a whole is struggling to find its place in the world as its five nations are all only a couple decades old.

Of the five countries in the region, only Kazakhstan seems to have mobilized as a regional power as the discovery of oil pushed the Kazakh economy into overdrive, but with Russia’s considerable recession, even Kazakhstan’s economy has slowed down. Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan’s tiny eastern neighbor, is probably the most democratic country in the region, but it has endured multiple violent revolutions and is wracked by corruption. Despite very friendly relations with their much more stable and wealthy cousin Iran, Tajikistan still reels from the effects of a long and bloody civil war. Turkmenistan doesn’t sing unending hymns of praise to Saparmurat “Turkmenbasy” Niyazov any more, but it is still a rigidly controlled police state.

Islamism is also a cause for concern. All five of the Central Asian countries are predominantly Muslim. Although they are all secular countries which were not so long ago removed from the atheist ideals of the Soviet Union, Islamist groups have played a role in opposition to the dictatorships that replaced communism. It is currently unclear as to whether Islamism will play a role in moving Central Asia away from its status quo, but considering the problems with Islamic fundamentalism that nearby Afghanistan and Pakistan struggle to contain it could destabilize the region.

A transition to functioning democracy in Uzbekistan is possible, but difficult to imagine. Authoritarian government is the status quo in both Central Asia and the regions that surround it. The only real exceptions to this rule is Mongolia, which quietly but effectively transitioned to democracy after its communist regime fell. It’s true that Kyrgyzstan is somewhat democratic and Iran has some elements of democracy present in its structure of government, but for various and different reasons, to call either of those countries a shining example of democracy is a major exaggeration at best.

There’s also the little-known factor of clan politics. Officially kept under wraps by Tashkent, two political clans control much of the country-the Tashkent clan and Samarkand clan. If the different clans turn against each other this could hamper stability in the country.

Uzbekistan’s status as a young country must also be considered. While Uzbeks are a people with a long history, it hasn’t even been three decades since Uzbekistan became a sovereign nation free from Russian and Soviet control. There may be some opportunity for Turkey to play a role in fostering change in Uzbekistan as both are Turkic peoples, but that may be a long shot as Turkey seems to be largely preoccupied with its recent intervention in Northern Syria and the recently botched military coup.

So what can be done for Uzbekistan to move towards democracy and prosperity? It’s difficult to say. Not only is it corrupt and repressive, Uzbekistan is isolated. It’s never been the primary subject of sanctions like Russia or Iran, but it does not have extensive trade relationships or a particularly strong economy. It does not have the technological muscle  that Russia or China does.

But it does have potential. Uzbekistan, as mentioned before, is the most populous nation in Central Asia. Its young population, if encouraged and mobilized to pursue education and entrepreneurship to bring back to their country could jump-start the country’s moribund economy. The largely overlooked region also has massive tourism potential as it boasts considerable natural beauty and history as a major portion of the ancient trade route known as the Silk Road.

For now, Uzbekistan is relatively quiet as Karimov’s fate is still not definite. The picture should come into focus in due time, though, and when it does, the consequences will be substantial.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The American Presidential Election: Personal Thoughts, Opinions, and an Endorsement

My God, it's almost here, isn't it?

Only two more months until the United States of America elects its forty-fifth president.

And what a ride it's been.

A real estate mogul waving the banners of populism and nationalism holds the GOP nomination, and Democrats are countering with a First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State angling to become the first woman at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Behind them stand a silver-haired Hoosier in Mike Pence and a harmonica-blowing Virginian by the name of Tim Kaine respectively.

I can't say I'm too excited to vote in this election.

Donald Trump is a loudmouth who plays to xenophobic and racist sentiments. His policy platform is exceedingly vague and much too fluid. He cozies up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. His brand of political incorrectness, something I would usually appreciate, isn't clever or thought-provoking, it's irritating. When I hear something called “politically incorrect” I usually think of humor, usually satirical humor. Satire can cut deep into something in a totally brash and over the top manner but really make you think as well as laugh. Borat and The Dictator were wildly politically incorrect and offensive, but they were rooted in intelligent satire. Sacha Baron Cohen, the actor behind those characters, isn't an anti-Semite, or a racist or a sexist, he’s hilarious.

But in this case it’s not funny. It’s not satirical. It’s just bluster for the sake of bluster. That’s not to say all politically incorrect humor has to have a deeper meaning, but there’s no other value or purpose, and it’s understandable why people find that inflammatory. 

I told myself before the first Republican presidential debate that I would listen with an open mind to Trump. 

"He's brash and abrasive, but he isn't stupid." I told myself. "Maybe he will use a different approach in the debates and bring forth some thought-provoking ideas that have merit. If he does, I'll give him credit where credit is due." 

That didn't happen.  Instead we got shots at Rosie O'Donnell and Megyn Kelly. 
Hillary Clinton is the second choice. I'll admit I would be taking a closer look at voting for Clinton if I was registered in a state where polls were close, but I don't.

A vote for Clinton is a vote for the status quo. Clinton's policies are not very different than President Obama's and she would most likely govern in a manner similar to him. I'm not particularly horrified by that, and I do like President Obama as a person.

But Clinton lacks the charisma, likability, and relatively clean appearance President Obama has since she's been in politics for much longer than he. She has defended major policy blunders such as the United States' limited involvement in Libya's Civil War. Her policy with regards to the Kremlin is exponentially more reasonable than Trump's, it's not something that inspires much confidence. When asked about how she'd engage Putin in one of the debates, she was vague, citing accomplishments between 2009 and 2011, and the climate has changed substantially since then.

Her multiple scandals are not to be disregarded either. Her husband, Former President Bill Clinton, has multiple sexual assault allegations against him. While innocent until proven guilty must always apply, the accusations are numerous, damning, and difficult to ignore. The email scandal, while perhaps not directly malicious, shows a negligence that is difficult to explain away. Even Bernie Sanders, who famously proclaimed that he was "sick of hearing about your [Clinton's] damn emails", resorted to negative tactics as his campaign slowed in momentum.

Had Vice President Biden or even Senator Kaine been the nominee things may have been different. But Hillary's unpopularity isn't just because of paranoia. The "Lock Her Up" chants at the RNC and the sexism certainly don't help the Republicans, but these problems don't appear out of nowhere.

Make no mistake, I'd love to see a woman in the White House. I just wish it wasn't Hillary Clinton.

Admittedly, I've been a bit all over the place in my voting practices.

The first election I voted in was in 2012.

I voted to re-elect President Obama, and then supported downticket Republicans in both the Senate and House. In hindsight this was mostly due to my mostly liberal views on social issues and I've actively considered that I may have voted for Romney in hindsight as my priorities have shifted somewhat since 2012.

In 2013 I campaigned for a Republican who ran against a longtime Democratic congressman for the empty Senate seat in my state. I still believe I made the right decision there.

In the 2014 Midterm elections I voted for the Independent candidate for Governor as I'd campaigned for him. I also voted for my Democratic congressman as he was running unopposed, and the Republican challenger to now-Senator Ed Markey.

During that Governor's race, I was a staunch independent, priding myself on being a centrist and a moderate. But I learned something after that 2014 election, and that is that part of the reason that the United States has only two major parties is because both those parties are large coalitions of different factions, and both Democrats and Republicans have centre-leaning factions. Being from Massachusetts, the Commonwealth's Republican Party is generally not keen to pander to social conservatives as it may in other states, and Massachusetts seems to have a long streak of successful Republican governors-Weld, Cellucci, Romney, and now Baker. In hindsight I'd probably have voted for Baker.

The only way to see a real change in the party landscape in a country that uses the electoral system we do is for either one of the parties to permanently split, or for a serious overhaul of the electoral system.

That's probably unlikely. So I decided to look into the two parties despite being put off by the social conservatism of many Republicans and the flirting with social democracy in the Democratic party. My views on the various issues in this country are not much different now than they were before, but third parties appeal much less to me these days.

In the primary, my support went pretty quickly to Governor John Kasich. I had my disagreements with the man, primarily on the issue of Planned Parenthood, but his more accommodating stance on leaving equal marriage rights as they were, his strong economic record of balancing budgets both in Ohio and in Congress, his long service on the Congressional Armed Services Committee, and his willingness to stick to a positive message based in real policy convinced me he was the best in the GOP field. I was not interested in voting for either Democratic candidate.

As for the other Republicans? Christie was abrasive and overly pessimistic. Bush wasn't all that bad on policy but he lacked charisma and spark. Senator Rubio certainly had the appearance of a great presidential candidate (relatively young, Spanish-speaking son of Cuban immigrants, handsome, didn't come from wealth, etc.) but his  abysmal voting record, inexperience, and robotic debate performances proved massively disappointing. I respected Senator Paul, but he never managed to gain any momentum.

And Cruz was much too preachy for my taste. It was taught to me, a practicing Roman Catholic, that religion is a personal matter between the faithful and God. I did not see that coming from Cruz or his supporters as he invoked God constantly. 

At the end of the day, I would recommend a vote for Governor Gary Johnson and Governor William Weld.

Now, I am not a libertarian. I supported Governor John Kasich in the primaries, and Kasich was pretty much a standard Republican.

Libertarianism is quite similar to socialism and communism in that as great as it may sound on paper, it can be reckless and extremely problematic. Now, libertarians never performed atrocities in the name of their ideology like the socialists and communists, but ideological purity is not necessarily something that should be striven for in a free society. I believe in small, efficient government, but you can't just slash away recklessly at government and say you've fixed the problem. In a way, cutting the size of government should be like surgery...cuts or incisions need to be carefully evaluated and defined before they are done so as to minimize adverse effects. And I don't agree with all of the ideas in the Libertarian party platform.

But the Libertarian ticket is a strong one this year. I was drawn to Governor Kasich for his strong economic record at both the federal and state level, something Johnson and Weld both share. Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico (a reliably blue state), was able to win re-election comfortably on his record. William Weld, a Republican in royal blue Massachusetts, won re-election in 1994 with 70% of the popular vote, an unheard-of margin. Both are still quite popular in their home states. The social conservatism that drives younger people away from the GOP is not as present in the Libertarian camp. Governor Weld in particular has impressed me with his eloquence and charisma as well as his pragmatic outlook.

Clinton has extensive experience too, but her unpopularity is not without merit and I don't see her uniting the country, especially when she seems to take pride in the fact that she's made enemies of the Republicans. That might fire up your base, but it sounds wildly immature otherwise. Trump is an enormously risky option which many sitting Republicans are still very reluctant to follow up with.

The chances of Johnson taking up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are extremely low. Anyone who says otherwise is unrealistically optimistic. But seeing Johnson get into the debates and talk policy would be a breath of fresh air while Clinton and Trump insult each other.

You could say it's a wasted vote. You could say it's a protest vote, and that would be accurate, as I feel the Republican Party, the party I've leaned towards for most of my life, has abandoned the principles that won me over in nominating Trump. I don't see a conservative leader in Trump, I see someone with an enormously vague, constantly changing platform who openly praises leaders in other countries who go against the values I was taught to cherish as an American. Clinton is preferable to Trump in my eyes, but she isn't someone I can really support on her own, and if I did vote for her, it would be mostly to vote against Trump.

Cut the Olympic Doom Crap Out, Media

The Olympic Games have once again come to a close. Rio passes the torch to Tokyo while Pyeongchang (no, not Pyongyang) prepares to welcome the Winter Olympics in 2018. We'll also probably hear soon which city will be awarded the 2024 Olympics.

There has been a trend with the Olympics lately which is bothersome and seems to only be getting worse. The media seems to be only too happy to relentlessly point out the negative aspects of what's going on in the host country or city.

It was not particularly visible in Vancouver, but Beijing, London, Sochi, and Rio all had serious doubts as to whether their hosting of the Games would run smoothly. The Athens Olympics are now looked back upon with frustration as Greece reels from economic catastrophe.

Now, the issues that surround the Olympics are not fabricated, they are very, very real. Rarely does the Olympics make a host city money, and the International Olympic Committee is an organization rife with corruption. London gambled by putting the Olympic Stadium in a relatively underdeveloped region of the city. Russia's anti-gay laws and questionable location choice (Sochi is a beach resort town, not a winter wonderland) were rightfully mocked and criticized. Rio and Brazil do struggle with corruption, poverty and crime, not to mention Brazil's economy falling off a cliff in the last few years. By contrast, the Brazilian economy was surging when Rio was awarded the Games.

But the show went on and Rio was able to put together a good show. The Opening Ceremony wasn't the amazing spectacle of Beijing, Sochi or London, but it went off without a hitch and the subdued nature of it is understandable considering how much less money Rio allocated for it. There were a few isolated incidents with crime, but nowhere near the disaster that was expected. Zika was a near non-issue as it is winter in Rio and the mosquitos which can carry Zika were not present as they would be in the summer. And these Olympics were full of wonderful sports stories just as previous Games were, with Neymar, Brazil's golden boy, smashing a penalty goal past the German keeper to give Brazil revenge for the 7-1 dismantling in the World Cup semifinal, Michael Phelps doing what he does best once again, Britain's surge into the top of the medal table, Usain Bolt effortlessly wowing the crowds with more golds on the track. Kosovo won their first medal ever. A refugee team marched into the Maracana to a standing ovation.

Furthermore, Rio is not some backwater village. It's a sprawling city that receives tons of tourists every year despite its problems. It had (has) the infrastructure to handle a large event such as the Olympics.

Perhaps some of it can be attributed to prejudice. Brazil, like many of its neighbors, has stereotypes that portray it as a lawless, crime-ridden land where everyone's looking to make a quick buck off any unsuspecting gringo tourist. This was less evident in Sochi and much, much less evident in London.

This media hysteria will likely continue, but look for it to move from the Olympics to the World Cup. South Korea and Japan, the next two hosts, will likely get less negative press when they host the Games as they're known as advanced and well-developed countries, but it could come back in 2022 when Beijing hosts the Winter Games, as most of the events will have to be many miles outside Beijing proper, not to mention how 2022 seemed to be the Olympics nobody wanted-by the time the IOC had to choose a city, only Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan remained in the running as every other bid had been withdrawn. The World Cup, however, has even bigger problems with Qatar and (to considerably less controversy) Russia hosting next.

It's fine to call out the problems that come along with the Olympics. There are real problems that come with hosting the Olympic Games, and they should be brought to light. Hysteria, however, is just obnoxious, and as we saw with Rio, largely unfounded when crunch time hits. Cut it out and let the host countries put on their shows.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

How Populism Goes Out of Style

Populism is a political ideology that seeks to rally the people against a common enemy which, both on the left and right, is mistreating them.

Who is enabling the mistreatment of the people varies widely depending on who you ask. Wealthy citizens, established politicians, financial institutions, elites, immigrants, minorities, you name it, all can be smeared in a populist campaign.

For those who aren't buying what populism is selling, the phenomenon can be very alienating and frightening. The rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the United States and various ethnic nationalist parties in Europe who are gaining in polls across the continents are decried as a worrisome problem, a threat to liberty and democracy, and the first step towards violence and war, such as when Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany.

Mark Twain said that "History doesn't repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes." When fascism and communism rose to power in Europe, populism was a large part of each movement. Hitler, Mussolini, and Lenin all rose to power for similar reasons.

Post-war Germany was a dreary place. The economy was decimated by debt and reparations. The German Mark became so worthless that children would play with bundles of bills and their parents would burn the bills to keep warm. The flourishing national pride of Imperial Germany was replaced with frustration and depression. Similar problems plagued Italy between 1918 and 1922. Benito Mussolini, like Adolf Hitler, promised territorial expansion and a closer relation to the Catholic Church in his rise to power. And in Russia, Vladimir Lenin capitalized on a frustrated and disheveled population who did not want to fight in the First World War under the weak provisional government of Aleksandr Kerensky.

Few people in the United States saw real estate mogul Donald Trump rising so quickly to become the nominee of the Republican Party in this year's presidential election. But his brash and wildly politically incorrect rhetoric coupled with powerful nostalgia to "Make America Great Again!" made a frustrated Republican electorate flock to him.

Democrats were overjoyed to see their vivid idea of the obnoxious, intolerant Republican rise to dizzying highs in the polls, eyeing a sweeping victory in the general election. Nothing seemed able to stop Trump once the primary began, not the extensive experience heralded by candidates like Jeb Bush and John Kasich, not the religious right championed by Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

A similar, but smaller populist movement emerged in the Democratic Party as well when longtime Senator Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy for President. Sanders, a self-declared socialist on the American left's outpost, focused his campaign on income inequality, the corrupt practices in the American banking system and extravagant liberties taken by the richest Americans.

There are various reasons why Sanders was unable to capitalize on populist sentiment and Trump was able to, but the longtime Senator from Vermont certainly had an effect on the Democratic Party despite losing.

Neither Trump nor Sanders was expected to do as well as they did in the primary process, but these types of candidates don't just come out of nowhere. 

It's impossible to pinpoint exactly where and when populist sentiment started to play a substantial part in the American electoral process, but when examining the rise of Donald Trump in Republican Party, one could turn the clocks back to 2008 when then-Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain were fighting it out in the presidential election to suggest a starting point.

2008 was a largely frustrating year for Republicans. President George W. Bush was leaving office in the midst of two wars, a sharp economic recession, and approval ratings in the 20s. Even many Republicans had turned against his leadership. Senator McCain, the Republican nominee, was facing an uphill battle to win the presidential election because he was similar in approach and policy to President Bush and was seen as more of the same.

Senator McCain, in an attempt to rally the more conservative and religious-right factions of the party, chose Alaska firebrand Sarah Palin as his Vice Presidential nominee, a move that was widely criticized after the election as Palin's inexperience and policy weaknesses showed rather quickly once the press started to scrutinize and vet her. Yet many in the party still insisted she could bring home the bacon for their factions.

A darker undercurrent of prejudice was also lurking in the shadows. Senator Obama, the first major Black American running for president, faced a lot of questioning from members of the Republican Party as to whether he was a Christian American as he had claimed, or a Kenyan Muslim.

This came to the forefront when, at one of Senator McCain's campaign rallies, a middle-aged woman spoke directly to the Senator detailing how much she did not trust Senator Obama. McCain gives her an understanding nod, until the woman claims "He [Obama] is an Arab".

At that point, Senator McCain quickly took the microphone away from the woman and explained that Obama was not an Arab, but a "decent family man and citizen who I happen to have fundamental disagreements with on policy".

Rather than go the way of their presidential candidate, however, many Republicans continued to fan the flames on this issue until it boiled over about three years later, finally pushing President Obama to release his long-form birth certificate, which, as he had previously insisted, showed he was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. Anti-establishment sentiment championed by the Tea Party and similar groups, however, continued to increase as more personal attacks against Obama came forward.

By 2016, the anti-establishment sentiment came to a boiling point. At one point, polls showed Donald Trump, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and former HP CEO Carly Fiorina at the top of the polls. None of these candidates had any substantial political experience, and yet they led the polls. It's true Carson and Fiorina eventually faded into obscurity, but Trump was able to stay in the driver's seat and coast to the Republican nomination.

As for the Democrats, Bernie Sanders also struck a nerve with frustrated Americans. His message on income inequality resonated with many Americans in states with economic problems and a lack of job opportunities. Sanders was not nearly as brash or politically incorrect as Trump and he did not go after Mexicans and Muslims like Trump did, but like Mr. Trump, he was quick to put the problems facing the United States of America were due to an outside force, in Sanders' case, banks, millionaires, and billionaires who did not pay enough in tax.

Sanders, however, was up against a much different figure. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, was able to beat him in the Democratic primary for various reasons. Her vast experience in different branches of the government (First Lady, Senator, Secretary of State) was a sharp contrast to Sanders' lack of concrete accomplishment in a long Senate career.  Her concrete and comprehensive foreign policy was a major blow to Sanders as Sanders seemed largely uninterested in foreign policy. Clinton also dominated with both Black Americans and Hispanic Americans, two key demographics the Democrats reach out to.

The biggest obstacle to Senator Sanders, however, was the general Democrat-voting public's feelings towards their establishment. Most Democrats and "liberals" in America were, and are, largely satisfied with the way things are. President Obama is substantially more popular as his second term winds down than Bush 43 was in 2008. Clinton's Vice Presidential pick, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, is wildly popular with Virginia Democrats and even some Republicans.

As the election draws closer it looks as if the establishment faction of the Democratic Party will crush the populist uprising in the GOP as Donald Trump continues to steer his campaign into trouble with clumsy, inflammatory remarks. Traditional swing states such as Ohio and Florida look to be safely in the hands of the Democrats and even some normally red states such as Arizona, Georgia, and Missouri may turn blue come November. Gaps are even narrowing in Texas, Mississippi, and Utah, states that 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney easily won.

That doesn't mean Sanders supporters and Trump supporters don't have legitimate grievances, however.  There are millions of people across the United States who are frustrated and maddened by politicians in Washington who they think have turned a blind eye to their plight. Sanders and Donald Trump both dominated in rural areas of the United States where opportunities, jobs, and upward mobility are scarce and government entities are widely mistrusted as too distant and concentrated on other areas. This is evident in the rust-belt and rural areas of upstate New York which are relatively ignored compared to New York City.  Southern Illinois is commonly overlooked in favor of Chicago. Western Massachusetts can often be an afterthought to Boston. 

Neither Sanders nor Trump may be the answer to the problems they promised to fix. And their ideas may even make things even worse. Left-wing populists in South America have largely failed to address the problems that they were elected to fix. But that doesn't mean the problems don't exist among their voters. Simply put, if the ideas that take hold in populist campaigns are addressed more comprehensively by "mainstream"or "establishment" politicians, anti-establishment sentiment may be kept at smaller levels. Would people have voted for Trump to "Make America Great Again" if they already believed America was great from their own backyards? Would they have voted for Sanders if there was a comprehensive effort to address income inequality previously?

A similar phenomenon in Europe is taking hold. The European Union's severely flawed handling of the refugee crisis has led to the rise of ethnic nationalist and even neo-Nazi parties in response. Austria, for instance, nearly voted in a presidential candidate from their Freedom Party, which has open historical links to the Nazi Party. The final vote tally had the FPO candidate losing by less than 1 percentage point.

Again, though, these parties don't come out of nowhere. They likely would have stayed on the fringe if there was a comprehensive plan to take in limited numbers of refugees and assimilate them into the European social fabric.

It's time for mainstream political voices to acknowledge populist sentiment to an extent. Their candidates may play to foul or wildly exaggerated sentiments, but these movements have legitimate grievances, and if those grievances are addressed and righted, populism loses steam.

Monday, June 6, 2016

The Ballad of Donnie and Vova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Victory Day: A Personal Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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