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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.