// archives

Archive for March, 2019

Ukraine Election

Unlike comedian Alec Baldwin, who is famous for his impersonation of President Trump on Saturday Night Live, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky is famous for playing the anti-president, an accidental hero who sweeps into the presidency of Ukraine and cleans up all the corruption. He used to play it for laughs, and now he’s playing it for real.

Zelensky is now leading in the opinion polls for the Ukrainian election on Sunday with 25% of the vote, well ahead of incumbent president Petro Poroshenko (12%) and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko (18%). (She’s the one who used to wear her hair in braids wound up around her head.)

The other third of the voters are currently divided between 36 other presidential candidates who will be eliminated in Sunday’s vote, which will also decide whether Poroshenko or Tymoshenko goes up against Zelensky in the two-person run-off three weeks later. Baldwin will never be the US president, but there’s a good chance that Zelensky will be the Ukrainian president.

What a heart-warming story, I hear you murmur. Humble comedian plays even humbler high-school history teacher Vasyl Holoborodko, whose classroom diatribe against the corruption of Ukrainian politics is secretly filmed by a student. It goes viral on the internet, and humble teacher is instantly elevated into the presidency by a grateful public.

The story gets even better. In real life, ‘Servant of the People’, the TV show about the teacher-turned-president, plays on the country’s biggest television channel, 1+1, and is a nationwide hit. Then the guy playing the teacher, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, decides that he has a chance of working the same miracle in real life. So he puts himself up for the presidency, and lo! The public agrees.

This is not art imitating life; it is life imitating art. But if you are a nasty old cynic who suspects the worst about people’s motives, then you are probably right, at least in this case. Zelensky is not just a simple comic who got lucky.

A little background. Ukraine is one of the less fortunate post-Soviet countries, with ageing heavy industries, few natural resources, and barely a third of Russia’s per capita income (in terms of purchasing power parity). It has been mired in a low-intensity war with Russian proxies in its eastern provinces for the past five years, and has lost Crimea to Russia for good.

You might think that, in these circumstances, political debate would concentrate on ending the war and raising popular living standards, but the war is barely mentioned and the main economic debate is about ‘corruption’.

That debate would make sense if it was really about cleaning up an extremely corrupt political system dominated by the ‘oligarchs’ (who also control most of the media). In practice, it is mainly a struggle between rival oligarchs, using accusations of corruption to target each other when in fact they are all corrupt almost by definition.

Poroshenko, a leading oligarch who won the election after the 2014 revolution, was at daggers drawn with Ihor Kolomoysky, the second-richest man in Ukraine, from the beginning of his presidency. In 2016 he nationalised Kolomoysky’s PrivatBank, the largest bank in the country, and Kolomoysky went into self-imposed exile in Israel while fighting Poroshenko’s actions in the courts and the media.

It was at this time that Kolomoysky and Volodymyr Zelensky, already a successful comedian with his own production company, began developing the TV series about the accidental president, and it went on air on Kolomoysky’s 1+1 channel two years ago. It was an instant runaway hit, and now Zelensky is the leading candidate for the real presidency.

Is Zelensky just a stalking horse behind which Kolomoysky can take control of Ukraine away from Poroshenko? Not necessarily. The two men may have a pragmatic alliance but their own separate agendas. But it is noteworthy that Zelensky showed up at Kolomoysky’s birthday party last year and was introduced as “our president”.

That large numbers of Ukrainians should fall for a fake maverick (who doesn’t even offer much in the way of concrete policies) is a measure of their disappointment with the status quo of rule by oligarchs behind a facade of democracy. Russia’s relative prosperity is mostly due to its oil, but it also owes much to the fact that Vladimir Putin has brought its oligarchs under control. In Ukraine, their rivalries still dominate everything.

There is not much reason to believe that Ukraine will finally turn the corner in this election and escape from the miseries and failures of its first three decades of independence. On the other hand, it’s not getting any worse either, and for the moment the war in the east seems encysted and confined. Hope dies last, and maybe Zelensky will surprise us.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 13. (“That…everything”)

Conquest Is Always An Option

When President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Monday affirming Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, there was an outcry that went far beyond the Arab world. His action went against the international rule on the ‘inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force’, we were told – conquest, in less lawyerly language. Alas, that is just an ideal, not a hard-and-fast international law.

The Golan Heights, which belonged to Syria, were part of Israel’s conquests in the 1967 war. Israel returned most of Egypt’s lost territory (except the Gaza Strip) in the 1979 peace agreement, but continues to occupy the lands it conquered from Jordan and Syria 52 years later. The only part it has annexed according to Israeli law, however, is the Golan Heights.

As far as Israel is concerned the issue was closed in 1981, although nobody else in the world accepted the annexation, not even its greatest ally, the United States. They all went on referring to the ‘occupied territories’, including the Golan Heights, as defined in UN Security Council Resolution 242 – but Israel didn’t care, and the legal issue was sidelined for another 38 years.

The only reason Trump has now ‘recognised’ the Golan Heights as Israeli territory is to give a little electoral boost to his good buddy, Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is facing corruption charges that might lose him the election on 9 April. It doesn’t change the legal situation as far as everybody else is concerned, nor does it make Israel’s hold on the territory more secure.

What guarantees Israel’s position in the Golan Heights is a crushing superiority in military force , and the same is true of most other occupied territories around the world. There is text in the United Nations Charter (Art. Two) requiring all members to refrain “from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state,” but it’s a pious hope, not a universally enforced law.

When there is a conquest, the victim is expected to take action itself if possible, as Britain did when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. It will probably get some legal cover from international law, but it is unlikely to get military aid unless it is in other countries’ interests to give it.

Such interests WERE engaged in the 1990-91 Gulf War, when Iraq conquered Kuwait. For strategic reasons (i.e. oil), many Arab and Western countries volunteered military forces to reverse that conquest – and they got legal cover from the UN too, for what it was worth.

But when it’s a great power doing the invading, like China in Tibet (1950), the Soviet Union in Afghanistan (1979), or the United States in Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), and Iraq (2003), the UN is paralysed by Security Council vetoes and most other countries lie low. The invaders have no legal cover, but that doesn’t stop them.

When non-great powers invade, like the Indonesian seizure of Timor or the Moroccan annexation of Western Sahara, both in 1975, there will be no outside help for the victim unless some great power cares about it – or unless the local people can wage a guerilla war long enough to make the conqueror cut its losses and go home. They succeeded in Timor; they failed in Western Sahara.

There has been a major effort to shrink the role of force and expand the rule of law in international affairs since the Second World War. That war frightened the people in charge enough that they were willing to consider fundamental changes to their old way of doing business, and to some extent they succeeded. This is the most peaceful era in human history.

But it is not actually peaceful, and the project everybody signed up for in 1945 is still very much a work in progress. Trump would quite like to wreck it entirely, as in his view it’s just another part of ‘globalisation’, but there is little chance that he will succeed. He just doesn’t have the leverage.

Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights makes the simultaneous American campaign to reverse the Russian annexation of Crimea look hypocritical, but that campaign wasn’t getting any traction anyway. Similarly, it hasn’t sabotaged the much-trumpeted Trump peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because that wasn’t going anywhere either.

Everybody in the Arab world already knows that Trump is completely loyal to Israel, if only because that is the best way to get the votes of US evangelical Christians. Nobody expects anything to come from his Middle East ‘peace plan’, if it ever sees the light of day. On the shock-horror scale, this whole episode rates about 2 out of 10.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9. (“When…Sahara”)

World’s Leading Demagogue

You can keep your Orban, your Netanyahu, your pathetic Boris Johnson. As for Donald Trump, he’s really an icon of democracy, just slightly shop-soiled. The coveted title of World’s Leading Demagogue has just gone to the Turkish President, Recep Tayyib Erdogan.

Erdogan may look like an ageing, disappointed post office clerk, passed over for promotion too many times, but he can take an ignorant remark from halfway around the planet and inflate it into an existential threat to Turkey’s future. He’s desperately trying to rally support for his AK party in local elections due at the end of the month, so what better theme than the threat of an invasion by New Zealand?

“Your grandparents came here,” he warned the savage New Zealand hordes, “and they returned in caskets. Have no doubt that we will send you back like your grandfathers.” Erdogan had already warmed the crowd up by showing them footage of the massacre of New Zealand Muslims in their mosques by Australian terrorist Brenton Tarrant, so they cheered that line.

“They are testing us from 16,500 km. away, from New Zealand, with the messages they are giving from there. This isn’t an individual act, this is organised,” he explained, and then showed the crowd extracts from Tarrant’s 74-page manifesto on a giant screen. One of the killer’s many goals, it seems, was to ‘drive Turkey out of Europe’. (The country’s north-western corner, including half of Istanbul, is the southern Balkans.)

Erdogan also accuses the West as a whole of “preparing” Tarrant’s manifesto and “handing it to him.” New Zealand is presumably just the West’s chosen weapon. There are three times as many people in Istanbul alone as there are in New Zealand, so that may sound like an empty threat to you, but bear in mind that Erdogan’s electoral support mostly comes from the less well educated half of the population.

He was speaking at a rally commemorating the Ottoman empire’s victory over British and allied troops who landed at Gallipoli, 200 km southwest of Istanbul, in 1915. ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand) troops played a big part in that First World War battle, which is one of the founding myths of modern Turkish nationalism.

So Erdogan’s audience would not necessarily have giggled when he defiantly warned the evil New Zealanders: “We have been here for a thousand years and will be here until the apocalypse, God willing. You will not turn Istanbul into Constantinople.” There he stood, metaphorical sword in hand, turning back the New Zealand neo-Crusaders single-handed, and the world heavyweight title for demagoguery was his.

First, a couple of niggling details. Istanbul IS Constantinople; the name hasn’t changed. ‘Istanbul’ is just the Turkish pronunciation of the old Greek popular name for the city, ‘Stamboul’. (The Turkish language does not like words to start with two consonants.)

Second, the Turks have NOT been there for a thousand years. They conquered the city in 1453, five-hundred-and-some years ago. Before that it was Christian for rather more than a thousand years. But you don’t want to get caught up in the details when you’re holding a flaming sword.

And third, I have never met anybody in Europe who wants it ‘back’. It would be as ridiculous as somebody in the Muslim world wanting Granada or Seville back.

Oh, wait a minute. I HAVE met Muslims who want Granada and Seville back. They tend to be of the Islamist persuasion, but there is a quite widespread conviction in the Arab world that the original 7th-century conquests that gave Muslims control of half of the then-Christian world were legitimate, whereas the 12th-century European counter-offensive that tried to take some of them back (the Crusades) was illegitimate aggression.

It was really just the ebb and flow of empires, with religion mostly as cover. The Muslims (or at least the Ottoman Turks) were on the offensive again by the 15th century, almost reaching Vienna by 1688. Then the tide turned again and the British empire was almost at the gates of Istanbul in 1915. Nothing to get excited about – and now it’s over.

It really is over. Legally, it has not been permissible to change borders by force since the UN Charter was written in 1945, and in fact few have changed. Militarily, modern technologies and methods of political mobilisation have made it ruinously expensive to sustain the long-term occupation of people who do not want to be occupied.

So I think it will be hard for New Zealand to reconquer Istanbul even if it wants to. Turkey is safe. But the old tribal buttons are still there to be pushed, and there are plenty of populist demagogues willing to push them.

Trump has his border wall (‘criminal’ Mexicans) and his anti-Muslim immigration controls (‘terrorist’ Muslims). Orban has the Jews (the enemy within Hungary’s border) and Muslim refugees (the enemy without). Narendra Modi, now in election mode, has Muslims both within India’s borders (cow-killers) and beyond them (Pakistani nukes and terrorists).

And Erdogan just has New Zealanders. Must try harder.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“They…population”)

Terrorism and the Difference (New Zealand-Australia)

Extreme right-wing terrorism, mostly of the ‘white nationalist’ variety, is becoming as big a problem as Islamist terrorism in many places. That’s certainly the case in the United States, where the US Government Accounting Office calculated last year that 119 Americans have been killed by Islamist extremists since the 9/11 attacks, and 106 Americans by far-right extremists.

It’s also true that almost all the attacks are designed to exploit social media. Brenton Tarrant had a number of semi-automatic rifles with him in Christchurch, but his real weapon was the GoPro camera on his headband live-streaming his atrocities.

All too common in the world, but I was still astounded when I heard that such a huge terrorist attack had happened in New Zealand. Fifty murdered in two mosques! This is a country of over four million people where there were only 35 homicides in all of last year. Then I heard that the terrorist was an Australian, and it made a bit more sense.

I write this with some reluctance because I have close family there, but Australia is the most racist country in the English-speaking world. Even in America after two years of Donald Trump, you are less likely to hear overtly racist or anti-Muslim comments (though you certainly hear a lot).

Whereas New Zealand is rather like Canada: there is undoubtedly still some racism and anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim prejudice, especially in rural areas and in francophone Quebec, but it is rarely expressed openly because it just sounds ignorant. And the urban young really do seem colour-blind.

So the real question of the day is: why is Australia like that? Why did it make more sense when I heard that the Islamophobic mass-murderer was Australian? The answer may lie largely in the character of the Australian media – and I don’t mean the social media. I mean the ‘mainstream’ media. Mostly, I mean Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

The monolithic dominance of Murdoch’s News Corp. over the Australian media landscape has few counterparts in other democratic countries, and it is reflexively anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant. Indeed, Murdoch himself was over 40 years old before the ‘white Australia’ policy (no non-white immigrants) was officially abandoned.

Murdoch’s various organs never weary of demonising Muslims, but they are full-spectrum racists, and recently they have been playing with white nationalist ideas. Within the past year they have repeated the myth about a ‘white genocide’ among South African white farmers, and News Corp’s leading national columnist, Andrew Bolt, has written a column about the alleged ‘Great Replacement’ (of white people by non-white immigrants).

News Corp has been on the wrong side of almost every argument from Australian participation in the Vietnam War and the Iraq War to the brutal policy of refusing to admit refugees who have been rescued at sea. (They are all sent to rot in detention camps rented from the neighbouring Pacific Island countries of Nauru and Papua New Guinea.) By now, this policy is so normalised that it has bipartisan support in the Australian parliament.

Of course, there is a chicken-and-egg question here. Murdoch and most of his journalists enthusiastically peddle this tripe, but they are Australians who were born into it. They didn’t invent it, and doing it comes naturally. The real reason Australians are more racist than New Zealanders may lie further back in the past.

The two countries were settled within fifty years of each other by people from the same country and of the same ethnic stock: English, Irish and Scottish. But the people they encountered at the other end were very different.

Australia’s aborigines lived in small hunter-gatherer groups who never developed agriculture despite 65,000 years in the country. New Zealand’s Maoris arrived only five hundred years before the whites, but they already had farms, lived in proto-states (chiefdoms) and built hillforts all over North Island.

The arrival of white colonists was a disaster for the Maoris, but they were tough enough to get the respect of the invaders. When a treaty was finally signed in 1840, it was written in both languages. The killing went on for another thirty years and the Maoris lost a lot, but the country is official bilingual today and everybody does understand, more or less, that you can and must live alongside people who are different.

White Australian settlers had no difficult wars against dangerous opponents, just easy subjugation of poorly armed Aboriginal people who lived in small groups and were divided by 600 different languages. The Aborigines didn’t even get citizenship and the right to vote until 1967 – so traditional white Australians come quite unprepared to the world of cultural pluralism. Some of them really don’t like it.

White Australian society is different: more aggressively nationalist, more racially conscious, perhaps more paranoid. Not all white Australians, probably not even most, think like that, but the history of white race riots in Australia is long: against Chinese in the 1800s, against Italians in the 1930s, against Lebanese in 2005.

That is the tradition Brenton Tarrant comes from, long before he logged on to various white supremacist websites. So no surprise, really.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 5 and 15. (“It’s…atrocities), “Whereas…blind”; and “White…2005”)