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Thursday, February 25, 2016

An Overstayed Welcome: The Decline of the Left in South America

South America has long been known for electing populist left-wing governments. With oil prices towering, Venezuelans embraced Chavismo. Bolivians rallied behind Evo Morales who spoke out against the racial prejudices and economic disparity plaguing the country. Brazilians elected their still-beloved Lula to power in landslides in 2002 and 2006, then elected his chief of staff Dilma Rousseff twice after he left office in 2010. Argentina's power couple, Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, dominated the political scene from 2003 on.

That has changed considerably since November. On December 6, Venezuelans, seeing their country in deep crisis and rocked by protests, rampant violence, a stubborn government and a worthless currency, sent a Democratic Unity Roundtable to try its chances against the ruling United Socialist Party. It did not disappoint-routing the PSUV 56.2% to 40.9% and shifting the previously divided parliament decisively against Chavismo.

In Brazil, Dilma Rousseff eked out a victory in the October 2014 elections 51.6% to 48.32%, making the fourth consecutive election won by the left-wing Workers' Party. Since then, however, her popularity has fallen off a cliff. A mammoth corruption scandal involving the oil giant Petrobras and her party combined with a tanking economy put her approval rating in the single digits and impeachment proceedings in the hands of the Chamber of Deputies.

In Argentina, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner's party was beaten narrowly in November by a centre-right coalition under the banner of "Cambiemos" ("Let's Change").

And it's continuing in 2016. Bolivians made their voices heard in a referendum directed at President Morales' ambitions to run for a fourth term, and their answer was no. Peru heads to the polls in April with the two most popular candidates being centre-right and centre. Ecuador's President Rafael Correa is facing mounting criticism and seems to be dragging the country towards an authoritarian government.

Yet a continent-wide ideological shift may not be the reason for this substantial changing of the guard. The answer to why this has occurred may be a simple overstaying of welcome by the popular left-wing. Many of the popular leaders that made the left a powerful force in contemporary South America are either out of office or have stayed too long, losing the original fire that they once had.

Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, famous for his social welfare programs Bolsa Familia (Family Allowance) which helps poor Brazilian families and Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) which fought against hunger, remains enormously popular in his home country, even though a similar program was enacted in Brazil before he was elected president. 

The Brazilian economy was also streaking. From 2000 to 2012, Brazil's economy grew at an average of 5% a year and in 2012 it became larger than that of the United Kingdom. The country was also starting to take a greater role in foreign policy.

It's been a different story since then. Lula hasn't been president since 2011, as Brazil, like the United States, limits its presidential candidates to run for two terms. In 2010, Lula's chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff, won the presidency, and things started to go south. Today, Rousseff's approval rating is in the single digits and it is possible she could be impeached. Millions of Brazilians have protested and asked her to leave office in the midst of a reeling economy and corruption scandals hanging heavy over Rousseff's Workers Party. 

Things are even worse in Venezuela. President Hugo Chavez was able to mass colossal support by steering the country towards a socialist path, bringing many Venezuelans out of poverty with a strong dose of anti-American sentiment and close relations with Cuba. But the momentum he was able to amass was largely available to him because of sky-high oil prices, and his accomplishments were unable to modernize or diversify the economy. His administration also did substantial damage to Venezuela's democratic system of government. Chavez died in 2013 and not long after he was replaced by Nicolas Maduro, the price of oil fell out of the sky. Venezuela's resource curse almost immediately put the country in dire straits. Protests plagued the country, Maduro cracked down, and lines for basic supplies persisted. Lacking the charisma and high oil prices of his predecessor, Maduro's United Socialist Party was trounced in the December parliamentary elections by a large coalition of opposition parties. 

In Bolivia, Evo Morales is into his third term as president, but the results of a recent referendum bar him from running for a fourth. This is, as The Economist puts it, his "first major defeat" in Bolivia, as before this he was considered quite popular-winning in a landslide in 2014's election. Morales, like Chavez and Maduro in Venezuela, was very vocally critical of the United States' influence in his country. His campaigns against racial injustice towards the indigenous population and a long period of economic growth won him considerable popular support. But as corruption scandals pile up and the economy slows down, Morales' popularity is vulnerable. Though with more than three years left in his term, he may be able to right the ship and leave office with Bolivia in a much more stable state than Venezuela or Brazil. 

Argentina's transition is arguably less headline-grabbing than its neighbors, but it reflects much the same general trend. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, wife of former President Nestor Kirchner, recently left office after the end of her second term. Some politicians in her party attempted to pass a constitutional amendment to change this but they were unsuccessful and met strong opposition from rival parties. Though Kirchner's party won the first round of the presidential election, they did so unconvincingly and lost the second round. 

The political left in South America has been largely rejected at the polls, but whether they stay down depends largely on whether the forces on the right can capitalize on their new victories. As these victories are still young, that's hard to tell right now. 

The Kremlin and Fascism: It's Complicated

According to a report by The Moscow Times last week, France's far-right Front National party has asked Russia for a loan of 27 million euros ($29.7 million).

It's not hard to understand why the Kremlin supports euro-skeptic populist parties in the European Union. Their rise in popularity across the continent hurts unity among the European countries in the union and allows the Kremlin to promote an alternative, one rooted in nationalism, populism, and distrust of "the West".

It's not the first time the Kremlin has become friendly with or at least oversaw Europe's far-right. In March of 2015, numerous far-right European political parties, including Germany's neo-Nazi National Democratic Party, were invited to a forum in St. Petersburg. According to The Moscow Times, representatives from other parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece where have also met with Kremlin officials, and that British National Party leader Nick Griffin, often maligned as a white supremacist, helped monitor Russia's 2011 Duma elections, claiming they were "much fairer than Britain's".

The Kremlin itself did not comment on the forum positively or negatively, but the implications of allowing the forum to go on hurt its image.

Opposing the EU is not wrong or incorrect by itself. The EU is far from a perfect entity in many areas of policy.

But the implicit endorsement of Europe's far right is a policy rife with hypocrisy. European far-right parties are often ethnic nationalist and some even border on neo-Nazi. The Sweden Democrats campaign with the slogan "Keep Sweden Swedish" and have in the past used blatantly racist slogans. One of the members of Greece's Golden Dawn party is on record as saying "We may do the Nazi salute, but at least our hands are clean," not to mention the party's flag contains an insignia similar to the Nazi swastika.

Russia fought Nazi German fascism between 1941 and 1945 when Hitler's forces invaded the Soviet Union. Fighting the poisonous ideology has become a part of Russian patriotism. One of Russia's most famous military marches, Священная война (The Sacred War) begins as such:

"Arise, great country!
Arise, for a fight to the death!
Against the dark fascist forces, 
Against the cursed hordes!"
Let our noble wrath
boil over like a wave!
This is the people's war, 
A sacred war!

This rousing march is played every May 9th at the Victory Day military parade as the national flag and the banner of victory are marched into Red Square in Moscow. 

Over twenty million Soviets gave their blood defending the fatherland against the Nazis. Russia continues to honor their memory through military pomp and celebration. 

Fighting fascism since the end of communism, however, has become a distorted tool of propaganda. It is true Ukraine does have a population of ultra-nationalists who dislike Russia and her people, but the claims made by the Kremlin that Ukraine's Euromaidan Revolution was taken over by a "fascist Kiev junta" are grossly exaggerated. 

Above all, this is insulting to our grandfathers who fought the Nazis. Fighting fascism in the 1940s was for the survival of the Soviet Union, for the defense of the fatherland. Today, it's a perverted pipe dream that is subject to whether United Russia can gain more influence. No, it wasn't a perfect war or a war without its own atrocities on the Allies' side. But it has been said that World War II was won with American steel, British intelligence, and Soviet blood, and that is something Russians will always take pride in. The sacrifice and struggle of our people will live for centuries. 

Unfortunately, while the military pomp continues in the square, the money within the Kremlin may go to those who are too close to old enemies for comfort. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Russia's Wild South: Experts discuss the situation in Chechnya

On February 17th, 2016, three policy experts discussed the situation in Chechnya and the implications of the situation for Russian domestic politics. 
After the two wars in Chechnya, the Putin Administration made it a priority to rebuild the region, pouring billions of roubles into the tiny mountainous province and turning Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, from a hellscape to a glittering city reminiscent of Las Vegas or Dubai (though likely with considerably less alcohol).
In doing so, the son of a Chechen warlord killed by Russian forces named Ramzan Kadyrov was installed as the head of Chechnya, a region he currently rules as an absolute monarch in all but name. Kadyrov is famous for being bellicose, charismatic, extremely fond of the spotlight, and iron-fisted.
“Putin is a soft version of Kadyrov, and Kadyrov is a hard version of Putin”, Aleksandra Garmazhapova, a journalist from Novaya Gazeta quipped. “When asked who would they rather meet in a dark alley, people responded with President Putin-Kadyrov is a “monkey with a grenade”, but Putin plays by certain rules.”
There’s a striking similarity between the imagery the two leaders prefer to promote of themselves. Both Putin and Kadyrov try to paint themselves as manly men but with just enough “human” features. To do this, Kadyrov prefers to use his instagram account, which hosts various images of him ranging from holding baby birds to showing him deep in prayer. Putin does much the same, though his pictures are more widely shared and broadcasted due to his higher position. Some of his most famous pictures include him cuddling with a puppy, working out, practicing his beloved judo, and enjoying tea with Prime Minister Medvedev.
The charisma and manliness is much the same, and so are the problems with both men and their administrations. Freedom of the press, already considerably hampered in Russia, is even more restricted in Chechnya. Both Russian and international journalists are afraid to report on what exactly goes on in Chechnya under Kadyrov. A journalist from Kommersant magazine was personally called out by Kadyrov who challenged him to write about his region. Crimes that do occur are often left unsolved in both Moscow and Grozny out of fear.
Another problem, Ms. Garmazhapova said, is that opposition figures in Russia are embarrassed to admit it, but they are fearful of Kadyrov. The negative response that comes from law enforcement when opposition figures are harassed and intimidated implies that the Kremlin endorses Kadyrov’s bellicose attitude.
Anton Ryzhov, who worked in Chechnya defending human rights and condemning the practice of torture, elaborated.
Torture was used many times to extract confessions regarding terrorism in Chechnya, though now that the region is a bit more stable the practice has waned in frequency.
Federal agencies in Russia are hampered by Kadyrov, Mr. Ryzhov said. “If a person loyal to Kadyrov is called in for investigation, they never show up.”
Kadyrov thrives off of tribute and while Chechnya suffers from a poor economy and a lack of jobs, the administration gets rich. This structure also has another implication that the grisly murder of Boris Nemtsov may not be solved as it nears its first anniversary.
Though not the problem it used to be, Islamic fundamentalism is still a problem that must be addressed in the North Caucasus, as Denis Sokolov stressed.
Islamic teaching in Chechnya, particularly the more fundamentalist variety, often comes from “internet sheikhs” promoting the “Caucasus Emirate” rather than the traditional ustaaz (teacher) in Dagestan as well as Chechnya. Islamic fundamentalism is still a method in which Chechens and Dagestanis can command power at a more local level, and because of where the teaching comes from, a surprisingly small amount of Sharia law is actually practiced and known by those who do.
The paranoid anti-Americanism of recent years has only further exacerbated the situation in Chechnya and the Caucasus. Relationships that were strong between the judiciary and Chechen courts now are tense because of widespread propaganda of “fifth column” actors from the United States. Corruption has worsened as well and institutions are hurting because of it.
Chechnya is much better off than it was in years directly following the brutal wars fought between Russian and Chechen forces. The current situation, however, is not at all maintainable, nor is it beneficial to the Chechen people. If the Kremlin does not start to seriously re-think what it did to stabilize Chechnya in the first place by installing a warlord’s son, the simmering region may boil over again in the future.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Iran's Pivotal Elections: The Nuclear Deal, the Supreme Leader, and the end of Sanctions

On the 26th of February, the people of the Islamic Republic of Iran head to the polls to elect two different legislative bodies-the Islamic Consultative Assembly which is usually known simply as the Parliament or Majlis, and the Assembly of Experts, an upper house of sorts which is tasked with choosing the Supreme Leader of Iran, a post currently held by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The election comes at a pivotal time in the Islamic Republic's existence. After months of negotiations, Iran's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammed Javad Zarif, emerged exhausted but triumphant, nuclear deal in hand. The agreement was a landmark one which seeks to curb Iran's nuclear program to exclusively pursue energy purposes. Substantial sanctions relief came months later and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani promptly headed to Europe and hammered out billion-dollar trade agreements with France and Italy.

Iran is both a dictatorship and democracy. Iranians may elect the President, the Parliament, and Assembly of Experts, and they do so in large numbers. The 2013 Presidential Election saw 72.77% of registered Iranians head to the polls, where Hassan Rouhani was elected in a landslide. In 2009, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected president in an election that was likely subject to government tampering, Iranians poured into the streets, furiously asking where their votes went.

However, the elections and candidates are subject to strict scrutiny by the Guardian Council, an organization with close ties to the Supreme Leader, and reformists who seek to gradually change the country are often disqualified by the Council. The Guardian Council raised some eyebrows when they disqualified Hassan Khomeini, grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, from running for a seat in the Assembly of Experts, as Khomeini is the father of the Islamic Revolution and his likeness is still ubiquitous around the streets of Iran's cities.

Some of those disqualifications have been repealed, but many still stand. The elections are ten days away, and are widely seen as a public referendum on whether the Iranian people desire to see Tehran continue its negotiations with Western countries and entities such as the European Union and United States.

Most countries in the European Union already have relations with Iran, but the United States does not.

The history of US-Iranian relations is a complicated one and there aren't many clean hands.

Iran still harbors anger towards the United States for three reasons. In 1953, a coup d'etat was engineered by the US and UK, replacing Iran's constitutional monarchy with an absolute monarchy and deposing the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. The coup was directly cited as a reason to distrust the United States by the Islamic Republic government when it came to power and overthrew the Shah.

In the 1980s, two more events further pushed Iran and the United States apart. The United States directly supported Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War which lasted from 1980 to 1988. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians perished in that war and many met death because of poison gas used by Saddam Hussein's regime. Very little was accomplished by the war. In 1988, as the war was drawing to a close, the USS Vicennes accidentally shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing 290 civilians. Vice President George H.W. Bush declared he would not apologize for America many times after the accident occurred, which enraged Iranians.

Tehran's hands are not entirely clean either. The government of Iran sponsors Shi'a militants in Lebanon such as Hezbollah and has supported terrorist groups like Hamas in the past as well. When a large wave of fundamentalist Iranian students stormed the American Embassy in Tehran they took dozens of embassy employees hostage for 444 days.

Hard-line rhetoric still flourishes on both sides. After the nuclear deal was struck, Ayatollah Khamenei forbade negotiations between the United States and Iran (which didn't actually end), and multiple senators and representatives from the United States have said without flinching that they will do all in their power to end or undermine the deal. Many presidential candidates such as Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Marco Rubio have promised to tear up the nuclear deal "on day one" if they are elected president. Real estate mogul Donald Trump has called it one of the worst deals ever negotiated.

Talking tough doesn't mean that deal is doomed, however. GOP Senator Rand Paul, a presidential candidate who dropped out of the race after the Iowa caucus known for his more cautious approach to foreign policy, stated that tearing the deal up on day one was unrealistic. Fellow GOP presidential candidate and Governor of Ohio John Kasich agreed, stressing the impetus should be focused on enforcing the deal rather than abruptly ending it. Independent-turned-Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders even called for full normalization of relations between the United States and Iran.

     Full normalization of relations is probably not going to happen right away even if Sanders is to shock the world and snag the nomination for president from Fmr. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and go on to win the presidency. Unlike the problems between the United States and Cuba which have mostly faded into the back of people's minds, the adversarial relationship between the US and Iran is still being steadily dismantled. A reformist or even moderate victory in the legislative elections, however, could clear the road for that in the future. It could send the message that the democratic elements of the Iranian government are slowly but surely strengthening and the authoritarian elements are on the defensive.

Even if the United States does elect a candidate that desires to end the nuclear deal, it may be a toothless promise on their part. This deal was not enacted exclusively by Washington and Tehran-the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China were all involved in its negotiations. The United Kingdom, one of the main actors behind the 1953 coup, restored full diplomatic relations with Iran last August. Iran enjoys stable relations with both Russia and China. France recently signed a trade deal with Iran, which happened not long after sanctions relief took place. The point here is that ending the nuclear deal would only achieve the desired goal for hawkish politicians in the western countries if Iran committed a serious provocation. If Tehran doesn't directly provoke the countries it just negotiated with, any new sanctions would be much less powerful in isolating the regime.

The wild card in all of this is the health of Supreme Leader Khamenei. Ayatollah Khamenei is 76 years old and rumored to be ailing. While the successor to Khamenei is not yet known and has not yet been decided, it is almost certainly being discussed behind closed doors. If the moderates and reformists in Iran manage to pull off an election victory in both the Majlis and the Assembly of Experts, which they very well could, it would represent a substantial boost in power and influence for the democratic elements of the Iranian government. A moderate or reformist Supreme Leader would represent a sharp contrast to the hard-liner Khamenei and could bode well for future relations between the United States and Iran.

This isn't 2009 and the Iranian government does not look like it's going to come crashing down to the sound of thousands of green-clad Iranians in the streets chanting "Down with the Dictator!" to President Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei. But it could be the best chance for the "Republic" part of "Islamic Republic of Iran" to become a bigger player in Tehran, and that can and will benefit both Iran and the countries it wishes to become directly involved with again.

Don't Have to Live like a Refugee: Europe and the Assimilation Problem

For the last year, the news in Europe has turned from tensely watching Greece, Russia, and Ukraine to the shores of the continent, where millions of refugees from Syria's bloody civil war are crossing over the borders.

Some come because they yearn to be free.

Some come for economic opportunity.

And some are coming to do evil deeds in the name of a perverted and twisted version of one of the most widely practiced faiths.

The rhetoric on both sides has been frightening and led to frightening consequences.

On New Years' Eve, many of Europe's cities were shocked as hundreds of cases of sexual violence were committed and then covered up by news agencies for fear of appearing racist or prejudiced.

Hate crimes and vigilante groups have sprung up all over the European Union as ethnic nationalist and neo-Nazi parties gain in the polls.

Political polarization is at best frustrating and at worst terrifying. Much of Europe's political discourse has become extreme.

On the left, some have become so zealous to defend their narrative of building a multicultural and inclusive society that they cannot admit the problems that can and have arisen, instead retreating and making accusations of racism.

On the right, populism, nationalism, and hatred are rising and fast. In Sweden, the far-right Sweden Democrats are leading the polls with slogans like "Keep Sweden Swedish". 

It is beyond a reasonable doubt that Europe did not prepare adequately to take on the difficult task of accepting, settling, assimilating, and providing for millions of people.

The main problem to solve, however, may not be who's coming in or even how many are coming in. 

The United States of America has had an immigration debate going for most of its history as a sovereign state. Despite the overall success of assimilation in the United States, the history of immigrants coming to America is fraught with prejudice.

Before the Civil War, Irish immigrants fleeing British persecution, religious division, and famine came en masse to the United States. Most of them were poor and Catholic, stereotyped as rubes who did nothing but drink and fight. Back in those days, anti-Catholic sentiment was also strong in the United States. Irish were barred from many job opportunities, which stated in plain terms "No Irish Need Apply".

Decades after the Civil War, President Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law. All Chinese laborers were restricted entry into the United States.

During World War I, German-Americans were subject to widespread mistrust and hatred. Speaking German was severely discouraged, German-American businesses were attacked in hate crimes, and names were changed en masse to hide identity.

A similar wave of prejudice occurred against Eastern Europeans with the communist takeover of Russia and again at the beginning of the Cold War in the 1940s and 1950s.

Japanese Americans also suffered racism during World War II when they were kept in internment camps as a national security precaution. The Supreme Court upheld this decision in Korematsu v. United States and even Bugs Bunny cartoons were quick to paint the "Japs" as sniveling, deceitful and bloodthirsty.

The issue of assimilation may turn out to be the most important problem to solve both for the present and the future. Margaret Thatcher once said that "Europe was created by history. America was created by philosophy."

That Thatcher quote brings to light a very important difference between the United States and Europe. Nationalism thrives in the United States, but for the most part it is a civic nationalism rather than an ethnic nationalism, meaning it is based in the ideas that make up the country. In the United States, that means the ideas put forth in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

Despite a history fraught with institutionalized racism, a theme that the United States is still trying to shake off, there is a sense and a belief in the United States that "Anyone can be an American". It's not uncommon to see Americans describe themselves as their heritage followed by "-American". Politicians in the United States proudly proclaim the country a "nation of immigrants". Indeed, in the United States there are large communities of immigrants who retain their culture while adopting American ideals and beliefs. In the United States there are Lebanese-Americans, Syrian-Americans, Russian-Americans, and so on. These are people who adopt American ideals, culture, and customs but also retain parts of their own cultures. The city of Chicago is famous for its huge Polish-American population and to this day, Polish is the third most widely spoken language in Chicago behind English and Spanish.

Europe's problem is not where the refugees are coming from. Even though Islamic fundamentalism is definitely a serious security problem for the western world,  the faith most of the refugees practice isn't the problem either.

What Europe needs to focus on is assimilation. In European countries, ethnic identity is more a part of nationalism than it is in the United States.

This isn't to say there aren't assimilated immigrants in Europe, there are many. Britain has large populations of Poles, Romanians, and Bulgarians. France has a large population of Africans, especially Algerians. Germany is home to millions of Turkish citizens.

Firstly, Europe must publicly and vigorously embrace what makes it free. The United States is no longer an outlier when it comes to democracy. The vast majority of European countries are vigorously democratic and free. Turnout is often higher in European countries and this is certainly a strength the EU can boast. If immigrants are actively taught the benefits of the process they can feel motivated and included in that  process. Participation in the process has to be valued across all communities and it must extend to truly make the immigrants a vital part of society as Germans, French, and British rather than Turkish, Algerian, and Polish.

Secondly, civic nationalism must be promoted in the face of ethnic nationalism. Europeans have every right to feel proud of where they come from. Unfortunately, displaying flags in many European countries often have counter-demonstrations of  acceptance and inclusiveness. Of course this is a good thing, but in order to beat ethnic nationalists at their own game, you have to provide an alternative which retains the ability of the nationalists to remain proud. The embrace of an active civic nationalism could hurt the rising popularity of ethnic nationalist political movements and civic nationalism by definition is open to anyone, further promoting inclusion.

And thirdly, perhaps most obviously, concrete and comprehensive immigration policies must be hammered out with the cooperation of the countries where the refugees and migrants are coming from. If systems are set up to let people come across, the flourishing human smuggling industry that has popped up can be fought against and ultimately beaten.