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Peak Putin?

The crowds of protesters in Moscow and other Russian cities were far bigger the last time, in 2011-2012. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny was so intoxicated by the forty or fifty thousand citizens who demonstrated in Moscow against Vladimir Putin’s rule that he boasted: “I see enough people here to take the Kremlin…right now, but we are peaceful people and won’t do that just yet.”

It was a delusional thing to say even then. Five years later, the crowds joining the protests against official corruption on Sunday were in the hundreds or the low thousands in most Russian cities. Even in Moscow’s Pushkin Square they probably did not number more than ten thousand – and Navalny himself was arrested on his way to the square. At home, Putin reigns supreme, with approval ratings around the 80 percent level.

He’s not doing too badly abroad, either. On Friday he met with Marine Le Pen, the leading candidate in France’s presidential election next month and Putin’s favourite Western leader after Donald Trump. She supported Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea from the start, and promises to work for an end of European Union sanctions against Russia if she becomes president of France this spring.

That promise might be hard to keep, since she would also be busy organising a referendum on withdrawing France from the EU, but Putin replied “I know that you represent a European political force that is growing quickly.” It certainly is: the Brexiteers in Britain have already won their referendum on leaving, and the EU would probably not survive the departure of two of its three biggest members.

Without the EU, there would be no powerful counterpoise to Russia in Europe, and the election of Donald Trump has already put an admirer of Putin in the White House. Moreover, Russia is now the dominant outside power in the Middle East for the first time since the 1960s, and it has achieved that position at a far lower cost in blood and treasure than the United States paid in 2001-2015.

Putin is undeniably a master manipulator both at home and abroad, and he has good reason to be pleased with his accomplishments. And yet….

Putin has played a weak hand internationally with great skill, but Russia really is weak. Its economy is smaller than Italy’s, and apart from defence industry the country is largely de-industrialised. (Have you ever bought anything made in Russia?)

Only oil and gas exports give Moscow the cash to play the great power game at all, and the collapse of oil prices has put Moscow on a starvation diet. The relatively low-cost intervention in Syria has brought Moscow high diplomatic returns in the short term, but Putin lacks the resources to play a major role in rebuilding post-war Syria, so Russia’s influence in the region is bound to fade as time passes.

Even in Europe, Russia’s posture is essentially defensive, if only because it could not afford to hold up its end of a new Cold War. Putin has effectively neutralised the pro-Western government of Ukraine by seizing Crimea and sponsoring a separatist war in two eastern provinces, but he won’t go any farther even with Trump in the White House.

Putin’s real vulnerability is at home. His popular support has held up well despite three years of economic decline because of falling oil income, and it may even carry him safely through next year’s presidential election. But there is no reason to believe that oil revenues are going to recover in the near future.

Even Russia’s cooperation with the Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries in cutting oil production to get the price back up caused only a modest and brief upward tick in world oil prices. Now they are back down where they were three months ago.

There is great over-capacity in the world’s oil industry, and it’s entirely possible that Russians face two or three more years of declining incomes (from a base that was never all that high). Many Russians are still grateful to Putin for ending the decade of chaos and acute poverty after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but for half the population that is ancient history.

It is the young whom Putin must fear, because they are less impressed by hollow foreign triumphs in places they don’t care about, and more unhappy about an economic future that leaves most of them bumping along the bottom. He has had a long run in power – seventeen years and counting – but his future is probably a lot shorter than his past.

In fact, Russia may be at peak Putin right now, with only mounting troubles in his future. The crowds were smaller this time than last, but they were not just in the big cities. When there are protests in places like Chita and Barnaul, you know that a lot of people are running out of patience.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 11. (“Even…House”; and “Even…ago”)

Northern Ireland

Martin McGuinness, who began as a terrorist and ended up as Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government, died peacefully in hospital on Monday aged 66. His career spanned almost five decades in the history of that small but troubled place – and by resigning from the power-sharing government in January, he began a new and possibly final act in that long-running drama.

If it really is the last act in the Northern Irish tragedy, leading eventually to some form of “joint sovereignty” over Northern Ireland by the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic, then there may be some more blood spilled before the end. That would not have bothered McGuinness, for all his latter-day reputation as a man of peace.

As a Catholic born in Derry, Northern Ireland’s second city, McGuinness grew up believing that Britain must be driven out of Ireland and that the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland must be forced to accept unification with the Irish Republic. But the burning issue when he was a young man was the oppression of Northern Irish Catholics by the Protestant majority.

The initial Catholic protests against that in the mid-1960s were non-violent, but McGuinness (aged 21) was already the second-in-command of the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Derry at the time of Bloody Sunday in 1972, when 14 civil rights protesters were killed in the city by British soldiers.

The Provisional IRA exploited atrocities like that to convert the Catholics’ non-violent struggle for civil rights into a guerilla war employing terrorist tactics and aiming for unification with Ireland. McGuinness was one of the foremost advocates of violence, and quickly rose to become the IRA’s chief of staff.

He claimed to leave the IRA in 1974 in order to enter politics (which made it possible for him to talk to the British authorities), but all local observers agree that he remained a senior IRA operational commander at least down to the end of the 1980s. As such, he was probably responsible for such IRA innovations as “human bombs” (not to be confused with suicide bombs).

In 1990, for example, Patsy Gillespie, a Catholic civilian who worked as a cook at a British army base, was abducted by the IRA and strapped into a van packed with 450 kg of explosives. While his family was held hostage, he was ordered to drive the van to a British army check-point – whereupon the bomb was detonated, killing Gillespie and five British soldiers.

In all, the IRA killed 1,781 people during the period when McGuinness was a senior commander, including 644 civilians, and McGuinness was probably involved in the decision-making on half of those attacks. Fintan O’Toole, a columnist in the Irish Times, recently called him a “mass killer”.

But if so, he was a pragmatic mass killer. When it became clear in the 1990s that the campaign of violence was not delivering the results McGuinness had hoped for, he was open to peaceful compromise, at least until circumstances improved. He played a key role in persuading most of the more dedicated IRA killers to accept the power-sharing government embodied in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

As the leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, in Northern Ireland, McGuinness became the Deputy First Minister of the province, sharing power with the biggest Protestant party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). He was seen as a calm, constructive politician during his ten years in office – but he never lost sight of his ultimate goal.

When he resigned in January, he had two excellent pretexts for doing so. First, he knew that he was dying (from a rare heart condition). Second, First Minister Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP and his partner in office, was entangled in a profoundly embarrassing energy scandal but was stubbornly refusing to step aside.

However, McGuiness was also well aware that Britain’s decision to leave the European Union in last June’s referendum created new possibilities in Northern Ireland (which voted heavily to stay in the EU).

The open border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic depends on both countries being part of the EU. When Britain leaves it will almost inevitably become a “hard” border that controls the movement of both goods and people. That would greatly anger the Catholic of Northern Ireland, and if Sinn Fein goes on refusing to appoint a deputy prime minister then no new power-sharing government is possible either.

There was an unscheduled election early this month that produced no movement from Sinn Fein, and another may be called at the end of next week. But there is no sign that either Sinn Sein or the DUP will budge, and in the end Britain may be obliged to re-impose “direct rule” from London on Northern Ireland, which would anger Catholics even more.

McGuinness was probably not hoping for a return to violence, but he was undoubtedly open to it if necessary. Solving the border issue will require creative thinking all round, and could lead to outcomes the IRA and Sinn Fein would welcome – like joint British-Irish sovereignty over Northern Ireland. A little violence could help to stimulate that kind of thinking.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“He claimed…soldiers”)

What’s Wrong with Southeast Asia?

Thirty years ago most of Southeast Asia was run by thuggish dictatorships. Then the Philippines showed the rest of the world how to get rid of the dictators without violence, and its non-violent example was watched and copied around the world. But now the thugs are coming back where it all started.

The democratic revolution in the Philippines in 1986 was quickly followed by the non-violent overthrow of the generals in Thailand in 1988(though they continued to intervene every few years), and then by the fall of Suharto’s 30-year dictatorship in Indonesia in 1998. By then the example had also spread through the rest of Asia (democratic revolutions in Taiwan and South Korea and even an attempt at one in China).

The democratic wave swept across the rest of the world too: Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in 1989-91, South Africa in 1994, a large number of Latin American and African countries in the past quarter-century, and even a brave (but failed) attempt at democratisation in several Arab countries. More people now live in democratic countries than in dictatorships.

But in the cradle of the non-violent revolutions, things are going backwards. Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, is a self-proclaimed murderer who boasts about how many people his death squads kill. “If you are corrupt, I will fetch you using a helicopter to Manila and I will throw you out,” he declared in December. “I have done this before, why would I not do it again?”

“Duterte Harry” (as he is called in homage to Clint Eastwood’s film portrayal of lawless cop “Dirty Harry”) was elected to the presidency with a massive majority last year, and he is still hugely popular with ordinary Filipinos. But this is not democracy; it is populist demagoguery of the most extreme kind.

About 8,000 suspected drug dealers and users have been killed by police and vigilantes, with Duterte’s warm approval and encouragement, since he was elected last June. And the fate of Thai democracy is equally disheartening, although the strongmen there wear military uniforms.

Thai democracy, deeply polarised by a long-running political battle between the urban middle class and the rural poor, fell to a military coup in 2014. Two years later, the Thais ratified a constitution that grants the army permanent power over the political system, including the right to appoint all 250 members of the Senate. And even so the military have now postponed the promised election from this year to 2018.

Indonesian democracy still survives, and the latest president, Joko Widodo, is a genuinely popular figure of unimpeachable honesty. In the 2014 election he saw off his opponent, a former general and ex-son-in-law of the old dictator Suharto, with ease. But there are signs of rising extremism in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country.

The hard-line Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI), which demands a sharia state in a country where 15 percent of the population are not Muslim, has been leading violent demonstrations against Basuki Purnama, the ethnic-Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta. He is facing spurious charges of “insulting Islam”, but the FPI’s real objection is that non-Muslims should not hold positions of authority over Muslims.

There is clearly support for this view among some of the capital’s Muslims – and to make matters worse many senior military and police officer have had close links with the extremist organisation. Indonesian democracy is certainly the healthiest in the region, but it faces serious threats.

And then there is Burma, the latest convert to democracy in Southeast Asia. After half a century of almost continuous military rule Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning leader of the democratic opposition, is finally the effective leader of an elected civilian government.

But she still operates under a military veto, and she has to close her eyes to the brutal attacks on the Rohingya, a Muslim minority that the army and other Burmese ultra-nationalists insist is not really Burmese at all. The army is using this conflict to burnish its own nationalist credentials and undermine the fledgling democratic government, and “The Lady”, as she is universally called, dares not defy it.

There is no country in Southeast Asia where democracy is really secure, and in most cases the main reason is the overweening power of self-serving military and police forces. Power struggles between the old political and economic elite and “new” politicians like Widodo in Indonesia and the brother and sister Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra in Thailand, both overthrown by military coups, play a large role too.

But there are many other new democracies with over-mighty militaries and privileged elites that do not want to let go, and yet the failure rate is significantly lower everywhere else except the Middle East. There may be some common cultural factor that unites the Southeast Asian countries, but it’s unlikely: they are variously Buddhist-, Christian-, or Muslim-majority.

So what’s the matter with them? Maybe it’s just bad luck. After all, they aren’t actually a statistical sample.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“About…uniforms”; and “There…threats”)

Choose a Side: Trump and the Sunni-Shia War

The Sunni-Shia civil wars in Iraq and Syria are both nearing their end, and in both cases the Shias have won – thanks largely to American military help in Iraq’s case, and to a Russian military intervention in Syria. Yet Russia and the United States are not allies in the Middle East. At least not yet.

President Trump may get in bed with the Russians and the Shias eventually, but he doesn’t seem to have given the matter much thought yet. So for the moment US policy follows the line laid down by Barack Obama.

Ex-president Obama was determined not to send American troops into another Middle Eastern war. Even as the Sunni extremists of Islamic State and the Nusra Front (al-Qaeda under another name) expanded their control in Syria and then seized much of Iraq, Obama restricted the US intervention to training local troops and deploying American air power.

In Iraq the local government’s troops were mostly Shia (as is most of the population), and US support was sufficient without committing American troops to ground combat. The Iraqi army is now in the final stages of reconquering Mosul, Islamic State’s capital in Iraq and an almost entirely Sunni city. Yet there have been no massacres of Sunnis, and only a handful of American casualties.

In Syria, the United States strongly opposed the Shia-dominated regime of President Bashar al-Assad, but it did not fight him. Obama found local allies to wage a ground war against Islamic State in the form of the Syrian Kurds, who are Sunni, but more interested in a separate Kurdish state than a Sunni-ruled Syria.

That collaboration worked well too. With US training and air support, the Syrian Kurds drove Islamic State steadily back, and are now closing in on Raqqa, its capital in Syria. And in all that time, Obama avoided taking sides between Shias and Sunnis in what most Arabs now see as a Shia-Sunni war.

Obama even managed to maintain America’s traditional alliances with Saudi Arabia and Turkey despite the fact that those two countries, both ruled by devout Sunni regimes, were sending money and arms to the extremists of Islamic State and the Nusra Front. He successfully walked a fine line in the Middle East for six whole years.

It’s doubtful that Donald Trump has the skill, knowledge and patience to go on walking that line. His instinct is to treat Iran as America’s most dangerous enemy in the Middle East, which would certainly please Saudi Arabia. But Iran is Russia’s close ally in the Syrian war, and Trump’s instinct is also to get very close to Vladimir Putin.

There’s a similar problem with Turkey. On one hand, Turkey is an important NATO ally and it has now sent its army into Syria, ostensibly to help destroy Islamic State.

On the other hand, Turkey is ruled by the authoritarian and impulsive President Recep Tayyib Erdogan, a mini-Trump who sprays abuse at anybody who crosses him (he recently called the Germans “Nazis” and the Dutch “Nazi remnants and fascists”).

In 2015 Erdogan deliberately re-started a war against Turkey’s own Kurdish minority in order to attract right-wing votes and win a close election. Now he has sent the Turkish army into Syria, allegedly to help destroy Islamic State but in fact mainly to smash the embryonic state that the Syrian Kurds have been building across northern Syria. Those Syrian Kurds have been America’s closest allies against Islamic State for years.

There are even Turkish troops in northern Iraq (without permission), and Erdogan has threatened to use them if the Iraqi army abuses Sunni Muslims during the reconquest of Mosul. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi replied (in November): “We do not want war with Turkey…but if a confrontation happens we are ready for it.”

Erdogan has gone rogue, and Turkey’s recent, quite fragile reconciliation with Russia is not restraining him. The two countries, together with Iran, are jointly supervising the shaky ceasefire in Syria, but they do not share the same goals and they are not really allies.

Into the midst of all this vicious complexity wanders the boy-man Donald Trump, with his full-spectrum ignorance, short attention-span and shorter temper. His appointee as National Security Adviser, General Michael Flynn, doubtless advised him to support Turkey’s ambitions, but then it was revealed that Flynn was in the pay of the Turkish government and he had to resign.

If Trump cosies up to the Russians instead, he will have to accept a close relationship with Assad’s brutal regime in Syria (no problem there) and also with Russia’s main ally in the Syrian war, Iran (potentially big problem there). But various latent conflicts are likely to burst into flame as the big civil wars in Iraq and Syria stagger to an end. Trump will have to jump one way or another quite soon.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“Erdogan…resign”)