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Archive for January, 2020

Putin the Immortal?

Five years ago somebody posted photographs on the internet showing a man who looked a lot like Vladimir Putin in photographs from 1920 and 1941. In both shots he was in military uniform, defending the interests of the Russian people then as he still does today.

But how can this be? He wasn’t even born until 1952. So the wave of faux speculation starts that Putin is an immortal hero who returns at intervals to save Russia. Or maybe just that he’s an immortal vampire. At any rate, he’ll be around forever. It was nonsense then, and it’s nonsense now.

Last week the Russian president announced a wave of constitutional reforms, and the vast majority of foreign observers, especially in the West, immediately jumped to the conclusion that Putin is changing the system so that he can stay in power forever.

Twenty years in power (his current term as president expires in 2024) is not enough for Putin, the foreign pundits insist. He can’t risk leaving power, they explain, or Russians would start asking where his vast illicit wealth came from. And then the pundits spin off into lengthy tirades about how he is Evil Incarnate, even comparing him to Stalin.

Joseph Stalin, who ruled the old Soviet Union from 1924 until his death in 1953, was a mass murderer without a conscience. Nobody was safe from his paranoia: he even killed most of the other heroes of the Bolshevik Revolution. He was probably responsible for the deaths of ten million Russians.

And Vladimir Putin? Here’s Simon Tisdall, columnist and former foreign editor of The Guardian: “Like Stalin, (Putin) has made many enemies and caused untold misery….cronyism and corruption on a vast scale…military aggression and disruption abroad…..Again like Stalin, retirement is not a safe option for the ex-KGB spy who normalised assassination as a modern-day tool of state policy.”

Where to start? Perhaps with the obvious point that Stalin killed tens of thousands for every death that can be attributed to Putin. Moreover, corruption in Putin’s Russia is far less than it was in the 1990s under the first post-Communist president, the Western-backed Boris Yeltsin, a drunken puppet who made ordinary Russians cringe.

‘Military aggression and disruption abroad’? Guilty as charged, in the illegal restoration of Crimea to Russian control (though most people in Crimea welcomed it), and in backing anti-government rebels in eastern Ukraine.

But there is a litany of Western invasions and military interventions (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Serbia, Syria, Yemen) that didn’t meet the highest legal standards either, and had equally messy outcomes. Nor do Western governments lag behind on the assassination front.

More importantly, Russia’s western border is a thousand kilometres east of where it was in 1914. It is a minimum of 300 km. east of where it was as recently as 1991. Putin has not challenged that new frontier once (with the partial exception of Ukraine) in 21 years in office. You could have a much more frightening and disruptive person than Putin in the Kremlin.

The old KGB was a ruthless organisation, but also a rational and realistic one. Putin is a man steeped in that tradition, not an adventurer or a fantasist, and we should probably be grateful for that. So what are the odds that he will still be running things after 2024?

He will be 72 years old in 2024: definitely time to start thinking about what happens after he’s gone. And I’m going to make a bold assumption here: that he is a Russian patriot.

Being Russian means that he fears disorder above all else: Russians sometimes call themselves “Italians of the North”, and they don’t mean it in a good way. So he wants a strong state, run with a firm hand, even after he has retired, which means that a clear and orderly succession is very important.

However, living on under somebody else’s firm hand is not an attractive prospect for Putin. He may or may not have fabulous sums of stolen money tucked away – the evidence for that is unclear – but you make a lot of enemies in a quarter-century in power, and they could hurt you badly after you have relinquished it.

So what Putin needs is a position that gives him the final constitutional say when big changes loom, but lets him withdraw from the daily exercise of power. Something like the chairmanship of a strengthened State Council that can overrule both president and prime minister when necessary (but does so very rarely).

And lo! That appears to be exactly what he has in mind. The details of his proposed reforms are not yet clear, but a weaker president, a stronger prime minister, and a State Council presiding serenely from afar are all part of the package.

I’m not saying that’s what will actually happen, but I think it’s what he’d like to happen.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 1 and 2. (“Five…now”)

River of the Dammed

When Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed got the Nobel Peace Prize last year for ending his country’s 20-year military confrontation with neighbouring Eritrea, Donald Trump got quite cross. He should have got the prize, Trump said, because it was he who had prevented a war.

“I made a deal, I saved a country, and I just heard that the head of that country is now getting the Nobel Peace Prize for saving the country. I said: ‘What, did I have something to do with it?’ Yeah, but you know, that’s the way it is,” said Trump, philosophical as ever. Real super-heroes know that saving countries is a thankless task, but they do it anyway.

Part of the problem in this case, however, is that Trump was talking about the wrong country. War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography, but Trump missed all of his generation’s lessons (heel spurs). Eritrea, Ethiopia, Egypt, what’s the difference? They’re all in Africa, and they all start with ‘E’.

The conference where Trump allegedly saved a country was about preventing a war between Ethiopia and Egypt, not between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Nobel Prize Committee can’t give him a prize for his walk-on role in those talks because Egypt-Ethiopia is not a war-that-didn’t-happen (here’s your Prize), just a war-that-hasn’t-happened-yet (no prizes).

Three months later that war still hasn’t happened, but it might. In fact, the deadline for an agreement in months-long direct talks between the main parties in the dispute, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, passed yesterday (Wednesday). Now the dispute goes to the three heads of government to agree on a mediator – and if they can’t agree, maybe we’ll see our first real ‘water war’.

Various think tanks have been touting the idea of water wars for decades. (Never ask the barber if you need a haircut, never ask a think tank if there’s a risk of war.) But this time they might hit the jackpot: a war between Egypt and Ethiopia, each with 100 million people, and Sudan as piggy-in-the-middle.

It would be hard to arrange, since Egypt and Ethiopia don’t share a border, but they do share a river: the Nile. Ethiopia is building a huge dam – the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam – on the Nile, and Egypt is very unhappy about it. So unhappy, in fact, that it would be no surprise if there were Ethiopian anti-aircraft missiles hidden in the hills around the damsite.

Egypt depends on the Nile for almost all of its water – it’s basically a big river flowing through a desert – so it’s very sensitive about people tampering with the source of that water. The branch flowing out of the Ethiopian highlands, the Blue Nile, accounts for 85% of that flow, so Cairo is bound to get twitchy when Ethiopia starts building a dam on it.

On the other hand, the GERD is strictly a hydroelectric dam, meant to double Ethiopia’s supply of electricity. They’re not taking any water out for irrigation, so all the water should just flow through, spin the turbines, and carry on down to Sudan and Egypt. The only water lost would be the relatively small amount that evaporated in the reservoir.

That’s the theory, but in practice there are two problems. One is just filling the dam’s immense reservoir. That’s 74 cubic kilometres of water that will never flow down the Nile: a full year’s flow if you took it all at once. But then everybody in Egypt would starve, so the dam must be filled over a period of years. The dispute is about how many: Ethiopia wants 4 to 7 years, Egypt is talking about 12 to 21 years.

That’s even before they get into the details, like what happens if there is a succession of drought years? Does Ethiopia go on filling the reservoir anyway, or does it stop, maybe at the expense of enduring big power cuts because the dam is still not producing its planned electrical output?

With good will it could all be sorted out, but good will is notable by its absence.

Egypt is a brutal military dictatorship; Ethiopia is a democracy. Egypt is the traditional great power of the region; Ethiopia is the rapidly rising rival. And the Egyptians, naturally enough, are paranoid about the Nile: even without the dam, their rising population means they will face grave water shortages within five years.

Back in 2013, at a conference to discuss the dam, senior Egyptian politicians discussed ways of destroying it with then-president Mohammed Morsi. (They didn’t realise the meeting was being televised live.) The preferred method seemed to be backing Ethiopian anti-government rebels, but as Morsi said, “All options are open.”

The man who overthrew Morsi, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is certainly no stranger to violence – and Ethiopia will start filling the reservoir this summer.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“Various…middle”; and “That’s…output”)

Collateral Damage

One of the main causes of death for airline passengers in recent decades is being shot down by somebody’s military. Not the very biggest, of course: accidents account for nine-tenths of all deaths in civilian airline crashes, and terrorist attacks and hijackings cause most of the rest. But a solid 2.5% of the deaths are due to trigger-happy people in military uniforms.

The statistics are pretty reliable for so-called ‘major incidents’ (more than 50 deaths): 1,379 airline passengers killed in civilian planes shot down because they were off-course or simply mis-identified, out of a total of 57,767 deaths in 594 crashes since the first ‘high fatality’ crash in 1923.

The first was an El Al plane that strayed into Bulgarian airspace in 1955, the second an off-course Libyan airliner shot down by Israel over the Sinai Peninsula in 1973. The last of the military shoot-downs in which actual fighters were involved was an off-track Korean Air Lines jumbo jet shot down by a Soviet fighter in 1983. All 269 passengers and crew were killed.

Since then the killing has been done by surface-to-air missiles, with no visual identification. The first of these was in 1988, when the US Navy ship Vincennes, operating illegally in Iran’s territorial waters, shot down an Iran Air jet bound for Dubai with 290 people aboard in the mistaken belief that it was a fighter plane. They all died.

Ukrainian Air Force missiles shot down a Siberia Airlines flight over the Black Sea in 2001 during a military exercise, killing 78. In 2014 Russian-backed rebels fighting in eastern Ukraine shot down a Malaysian Airlines plane and killed all 298 passengers and crew.

And now 176 people, the great majority of them Canadian citizens or residents, have been killed just off the end of the runway in Tehran by a young Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps technician who thought he was shooting down an American drone. At least his commander acknowledged his personal responsibility – “I wish I was dead” – but the Iranian government lied about it for three days.

Technically, this kind of mistake is inexcusable. You don’t even need high-cost military technology: a free Swedish app called Flight Radar 24 will give you real-time flight data on your phone for all civilian airliners in the air in your vicinity. What we are dealing with here is mostly human error – but human error driven by paranoid politics and huge time pressure.

You can’t do anything about the time pressure: decisions really do sometimes have to be made in seconds if you suspect that you have a ‘hostile’ incoming on the radar. The paranoia might be easier to address in principle, but it’s equally inevitable in practice: all the shoot-downs happen in countries that are in acute military confrontations of one sort or another.

And that’s the point, really: all these shoot-downs are fundamentally a political and military phenomenon, not a technical malfunction or mere human error. We live in a far more peaceful world than our distant ancestors did, but our deepest cultural traditions are still tribal. Once a confrontation gets going, we quickly turn into Yanomamo villagers.

You can’t imagine an ‘accidental’ shoot-down of a civilian aircraft over Canada nowadays, for example. Back in the Cold Days, however, there were surface-to-air missile systems in Canada, designed to shoot down Soviet bombers but perfectly capable of making the same sort of mistake that killed a plane-load of Canadians over Tehran last week. Nobody is invulnerable, and nobody is immune to the paranoia.

On the other hand, don’t despair. The great majority of the world’s people now live in countries where the risk of war is very low or entirely absent, and the cities are not surrounded by anti-aircraft missiles. We have already travelled a very long way from the time when every human society lived in constant fear of all its neighbours.

This is still a work in progress. The past century has seen the most destructive wars in history– which was inevitable, given the growth in technology, wealth and population. But it was also the first time that people ceased to see war as natural, honourable, and potentially profitable, and latterly warfare has gone into a steep decline.

There could still be back-sliding, especially if the climate crisis overwhelms us, but so far the trend line is promising. The world’s population has more than doubled in the past half-century, but the number of people killed in war is less than a tenth of what it was in the previous half-century.

However, the planes are much bigger, and there are now around a million people in the air at any given moment, so there are also more people being killed in shoot-downs. It’s never any consolation to tell people that things are getting better on average when they have been devastated by a personal loss. But for what it’s worth, they are.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 12. (“You…paranoia”; and “This…decline”)

Taiwan Election 2020

“Over the past few years, China’s diplomatic offensives, military coercion, interference and infiltration have continued unabated,” said Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen on New Year’s Day, as the January 11th election neared. “China’s objective is clear: to force Taiwan to compromise our sovereignty.” But every leader of her Democratic People’s Party (DPP) has always said that.

“Moreover, at the beginning of last year China’s President Xi Jinping proposed the one country, two systems model for Taiwan,” Tsai continued, as though it were some new horror. But every leader of Communist China since Deng Xiao-ping has promoted the one-country, two-system model. What’s new here?

What’s new is that a year ago Tsai Ing-wen was universally seen as doomed to lose this election, but now she’s expected to win it hands down – and the reason is that Hong Kong, the territory for which the one-country-two-systems formula was originally invented, has been engulfed by chaotic and increasingly violent protests against Beijing for the past seven months.

The protests are driven by the belief of most Hong Kongers that the mainland Chinese regime is cheating on that sacred formula. When Britain returned its Hong Kong colony to Beijing’s rule in 1997, the two parties agreed that, for fifty years, the prosperous city-state could keep its existing more-or-less democratic system, including free speech, independent courts, and the full panoply of human rights.

Taiwan was promised the same terms if only it would ‘reunite with the motherland’. But early last year, only 23 years into the 50-year deal, Beijing forced the Hong Kong government to introduce a law making it possible to extradite Hong Kongers to face trial in mainland courts. And Hong Kong, so peaceful for so long, blew up in Beijing’s face.

Chinese Communist courts have a 99.9% conviction rate and the police have a record of extorting confessions or manufacturing evidence. Hong Kongers saw the new law as a direct assault on their freedoms, and although the proposal was eventually dropped by a frightened HK government, the demonstrations have continued and intensified.

Now the protesters are demanding full democracy. They will never get that in Hong Kong, ‘two systems’ or not, because those ideas might then spread to the rest of China and undermine the Communist monopoly of power. Whereas the people of Taiwan have already had democracy for three decades, and they don’t want to lose it.

China is a monolithic, authoritarian surveillance state of 1.4 billion people, but just 130 km off its east coast 26 million Chinese people live in a society as democratic (and sometimes as turbulent) as Italy or the United States. Moreover, they have three times the per capita income of mainlanders. And the harder Beijing tries to gather Taiwan into the fold, the greater the support for Tsai’s pro-independence DPP.

Exactly one year ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned that Beijing “makes no promise to renounce the use of force and reserves the option of taking all necessary means” to achieve unification and implement “one country, two systems” in Taiwan. That was when Tsai began her electoral come-back: from thirty points behind the opposition Nationalist Party (KMT) then to twenty points ahead now.

The KMT was the ruling party that came out of the 1911 revolution that ended several thousand years of imperial rule in China. However, it lost a long civil war against the Communists in 1949, and at least a million of its senior members and its troops withdrew to Taiwan (which they ran as a dictatorship) to plan a comeback.

The KMT insisted it was still the legitimate government of all China, but the comeback never happened. By 1996, after a decade of reforms, it lost Taiwan’s first fully free election to the pro-independence DPP, and the two parties have alternated in power ever since.

The curious thing, however, is that neither party ever really comes down off the fence. The DPP never says outright that it would like to make Taiwan a separate and independent country. And the KMT never says that it would accept reunification under the ‘one-country, two-systems’ formula, just that it would like closer relations with the mainland.

That’s because the electorate would never vote for reunification with a Communist-ruled China, but Beijing would invade rather than allow Taiwan to declare independence. A recent opinion poll showed that 85% of all Taiwanese voters support either the status quo or a declaration of independence, while only 6% want reunification with China

There are other, mostly domestic issues in Taiwan politics, which is why the KMT sometimes wins, but whenever the main question is reunification with China the DPP wins easily. That’s why Tsai Ing-wen will win the election next Saturday: nobody in Taiwan can ignore what is happening in Hong Kong.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“The KMT…since”)