5 August 2012
The Power of Mockery
By Gwynne Dyer
How much do tyrants fear mockery? Consider the case of Belarus, often called “the last dictatorship in the heart of Europe,” where President Alexander Lukashenko has just fired his air force and border security chiefs because they did not stop a Swedish light plane from dropping teddy bears into the country.
The plane, chartered by a Swedish public relations firm called Studio Total, crossed into Belarusian air space from Lithuania on 4 July, and dropped hundreds of teddy bears on little parachutes on the outskirts of the capital, Minsk. The teddies bore labels calling for freedom of speech and respect for human rights, which is only what Lukashenko’s opponents within the country demand (before they are carted off to jail).
Lukashenko, who has won every “election” in Belarus since 1994, was furious. “”Why didn’t the commanders intercept that flight?”, he raged last week. “Who did they sympathise with?” In reality, his commanders weren’t paying much attention to air defences because nobody is going to bomb Belarus, but he couldn’t accept that explanation. His power rests on people believing he is too strong to resist, and the teddy bears said the opposite, very loudly.
Meanwhile, some hundreds of kilometres (miles) to the east, a trial opened last week in Moscow. Three young women, Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich – Masha, Nadia and Katya to their friends – face a charge of hooliganism that could send them to jail for seven years for singing a song in church. Their real offence is that it was an anti-Putin song.
Masha, Nadia and Katya belong to a punk rock band called Pussy Riot. It’s a loose collective of around ten young Moscow women, feminists in a very macho country, who dress up in brightly coloured clothes and balaclavas (ski masks) and use music and performance art to criticise the repression and conformity they see around them. They are funny, brave, and sometimes offensive. They are not criminals.
In an action that one band member later called an “ethical mistake”, five of them entered the Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer in Moscow last March, stepped onto the altar, and delivered a cheeky, shrieky song begging the Virgin Mary to free Russia from Putin. A companion videotaped them, and the performance lasted exactly 51 seconds before the security guards intervened and the police were called.
The cops came and took down three of the band members’s names (the other two escaped), but they made no arrests, did not confiscate the videotape, and did not open a case against anybody. Only nine people had seen the performance, and most of them were guards. It just wasn’t worth pursuing – until the video appeared on YouTube two weeks later and went viral.
This all happened during the election campaign that saw Vladimir Putin return as Russia’s president after eight previous years in that job and four more as prime minister (to get around the constitutional limit of two terms as president). Pussy Riot chose to make their protest in Moscow’s cathedral in response to Patriarch Kirill’s public statements that it was “un-Christian” to demonstrate and that the Putin era is “a miracle of God.”
It is alleged that Kirill called Putin demanding legal action against the blasphemers. He was certainly very cross: his spokesman, Vsevolod Chaplin, declared that “God condemns what (Pussy Riot) have done. I’m convinced that this sin will be punished in this life and the next. God revealed this to me like he revealed the gospels to the Church.” But the decision to make a horrible example of the young women was Putin’s, not Kirill’s.
People accused of non-violent crimes are hardly ever held in custody in Russia before their trials, but Masha, Nadia and Katya were refused bail and have already been in prison for five months. Nobody has been allowed to visit them, though two of the three have small children. The state-controlled TV channels (i.e. almost all of them) have waged an endless propaganda war against them, portraying them as foreign agents.
The trial verges on the ridiculous. On Thursday a lawyer for one of the cathedral guards (who has “suffered deeply” and lost sleep over the incident), described the punk band as “the tip of an iceberg of extremists, trying to break down the thousand-year edifice of the Russian Orthodox Church by…guiding the flock through trickery and cunning not to God, but to Satan.” And behind it all, of course, was the “world government”: the Satanic West.
The girls of Pussy Riot – they deliberately call themselves girls (“devushki” in Russian) to emphasise their innocence and powerlessness – have done more by mockery to unmask the authoritarian nature of the Putin regime than all their more earnest colleagues together. At a greater personal cost than they ever imagined, they have raised political consciousness in Russia and made the regime look both cruel and foolish.
Vladimir Putin is no fool. He realises that things have gone too far, and on a visit to London last week he tried to throw the machine into reverse. “There is nothing good in what (Pussy Riot) did,” he told reporters, but “I don’t think they should be judged too severely.” The court, no doubt, will take this an order. But the damage to the Putin regime is already done.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“The cops…viral”; and “It is..Kirill’s”)
17 June 2012
Assad’s Russian Defenders: Why?
By Gwynne Dyer
The United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Syria has suspended its peace mission. “The observers will not be conducting patrols and will stay in their locations until further notice,” said the commander of the 300-strong multinational observer force, Norwegian General Robert Mood.
This decision by the observer force is fully justified: its observers were being prevented from visiting massacre sites by the Syrian army, and yet their mere presence created the false impression that the international community was “doing something”. So now the international community will be under even greater pressure to “do something” else about the Syrian tragedy. That means military action against the Assad regime – but the Russians will veto that.
Russian diplomacy is not usually so clumsy. None of the Western great powers will actually send troops to intervene in Syria: the Syrian army is too strong, and the sectarian and ethnic divisions in the country are far too messy.
So why don’t the Russians just promise to abstain in any UN Security Council vote on military intervention? No such vote will happen anyway, and Moscow would expose the hypocrisy of the Western powers that are pretending to demand action and blaming the Russians (and the Chinese) for being the obstacle.
It’s stupid to bring such opprobrium on your own country when you don’t have to, but both President Vladimir Putin’s elective dictatorship in Russia and the Communist Party in China fear that one day they might face foreign intervention themselves. There must therefore be no legal precedent for international action against a regime that is merely murdering its own people on its own sovereign soil.
In reality, there is one kind of justice for the great powers and another for weaker states, and neither Moscow nor Beijing would ever face Western military intervention even if they were crushing non-violent protests by their own people, let alone drowning an armed revolt in blood.
You only have to imagine the headlines that such an intervention would create to understand that the whole proposition is ridiculous. “Security Council votes to intervene in China to protect protesters from regime violence!” “American troops enter Russian cities to back anti-regime revolt!” Such headlines are only slightly less implausible than “Martians invade Vatican City, kidnap Pope!”
But we are dealing here with the nightmare fantasies of regimes that secretly KNOW they are illegitimate. They never acknowledge it in public, and they don’t discuss it directly even in private. But they know it nevertheless, and they understand that illegitimacy means vulnerability.
It doesn’t matter that Russia or China can simply veto any UN resolution that is directed against them. It makes no difference that no sane government in the rest of the world would commit the folly of sending troops to intervene in either of these giants. Paranoid fears cannot be dissolved by the application of mere reason.
Both Vladimir Putin and the Chinese leadership are appalled by the growing influence of the “responsibility to protect” principle at the United Nations, which breaches the previously sacred doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of member states. “R2P” says that foreign intervention can be justifiable (with a UN Security Council resolution, of course) to stop huge human rights abuses committed by member governments.
The Russian and Chinese vetoes on the Security Council give them complete protection from foreign military intervention, but they still worry about it. And they look with horror at the phenomenon of non-violent revolutions that has been removing authoritarian regimes with such efficiency, from the ones that overthrew Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and almost overthrew the Chinese regime in 1989 down to the Arab ones of today.
Moscow and Beijing have convinced themselves that there is a Western “hidden hand” behind these uprisings, even though Western actions (like the US backing for Egypt’s President Mubarak that continued until almost the last minute of the revolution) and Western interests both argue otherwise.
Now, in Syria, they see both of these threats coalescing. First, for eight months, they watch strictly non-violent protests – despite some thousands of killings by the Syrian state – undermine the Assad regime.
Then, when some of the protesters start fighting back and the regime responds with even greater violence, bombarding city centres and committing open massacres of villagers, they hear the Western powers begin to talk about their “responsibility to protect”, with the (deliberately misleading) implication that they are contemplating direct military intervention in Syria to stop it.
So Russia and China will veto any Security Council resolution that condemns the Assad regime, and certainly any resolution that hints at military intervention. Assad must survive, not because he buys a few billion dollars worth of Russian arms and gives Russia a naval base in the Mediterranean, but because his overthrow would be a precedent that, they imagine, might one day be used against them.
Utter nonsense, but it means that the Russians, in particular, will go on taking the blame for the UN’s immobility and lending cover to the West’s pretense that it would act against Assad if only the Russians would get out of the way. They will protect Assad right down to the bitter end – and it may be very bitter indeed.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7, 10 and 12. (“You only…Pope”; “Both…governments”; and “Moscow…otherwise”)
12 October 2011
The Martyrdom of Yulia Tymoshenko
By Gwynne Dyer
There are three obvious explanations for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s behaviour in the case of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who has just been sentenced to seven years in prison and a $186 million fine for a decision she made while in office that would never end up in court in a normal democratic country. None of the three reflect well on Yanukovych.
The first explanation is that he is simply waging a vendetta through the courts against Tymoshenko’s party. Seventeen other members of the government she led have also faced criminal charges over their conduct while in office, and several are already serving jail terms. So maybe Yanukovych is just a political thug who wants to destroy the opposition.
That would make sense, for Tymoshenko is a real threat to him: in last year’s presidential election, she lost by only 3 percent of the votes. However, she herself favours a different explanation. “This is an authoritarian regime,” Tymoshenko said when her sentence was read out on Tuesday. “Against the background of European rhetoric, Yanukovych is taking Ukraine farther from Europe by launching such political trials.”
“Taking Ukraine farther from Europe” is political code for taking it closer to Russia. There is a tug-of-war between Russia and the European Union over the future orientation of Ukraine, and in this analysis Yanukovych, who draws his support from the heavily Russified eastern Ukraine, is secretly Moscow’s man.
Tymoshenko, whose votes come mainly from western Ukraine, is the European Union’s favoured candidate for leader of Ukraine. So in this second explanation, favoured by Timoshenko, she is being railroaded into jail to serve the interests of the Kremlin. But there is a problem with this explanation.
The European Union’s condemnation of her trial was predictable. Carl Bildt, Swedish foreign minister, said: “Clearly this particular trial is conducted under laws that…should have no place in any country aspiring to European membership .” Heavy hints have been dropped that a jail sentence for Tymoshenko would jeopardise the free trade agreement between the EU and Ukraine that is due to be signed in December.
But the Russians have also condemned the trial. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who signed the deal with Tymoshenko, said that “It is dangerous and counterproductive to cast the entire package of agreements into doubt,” and the Russian Foreign Ministry declared that Tymoshenko’s conviction had a “clear anti-Russian subtext.”
The main charge against Tymoshenko is that she was too generous to Russia in a gas deal she signed in 2009 to end a dispute over the price Ukraine paid for gas and the transit fees it collected for Russian gas flowing across Ukraine in pipelines to customers further west. Tymoshenko has actually been convicted of being TOO NICE to Russia. How can you reconcile that with a Kremlin plot to draw Ukraine into its web?
This is clearly a political prosecution, not a criminal one. Nobody is saying that Tymoshenko was bribed by the Russians, or that she received any direct advantage from the deal she signed with Moscow. Perhaps she was too generous, but much of eastern Europe was freezing at the time and the situation was urgent. At worst, she might be accused of a political misjudgment.
Nobody believes the official claim that the Ukrainian courts are acting independently in this matter, and Yanukovych appears to have angered both the Russians and the West equally by his actions. Could there be a third explanation here? Could it all be just an very clumsy attempt by Yanukovych to prove that he is independent of both sides?
One should never underestimate the role of stupidity in politics, but this explanation is highly unlikely. Yanukovych is a ruthless and devious man, but he is not stupid. Let’s go back to Explanation Two, and try a subtler version of it.
Let us assume that Yanukovych is indeed Moscow’s man, and that his ultimate goal is to integrate Ukraine into the free-trade bloc that Russia is building with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Then he must somehow get the rival proposal for a free-trade agreement with the European Union off the table – but he doesn’t want to cancel it himself, for at least half of Ukrainian voters want closer integration with the West.
So the ideal solution would be to trick the EU into breaking off the free-trade talks with Ukraine by presenting it with some human-rights issue that forces its hand. If the EU suspends the talks over the legal persecution of Yulia Tymoshenko, it’s win-win for Yanukovych.
If this is really the strategy, then Moscow would have to play its part by protesting about Tymoshenko’s trial too – as it is indeed doing. Once the Ukraine-EU talks on a free-trade area have been broken off, Kiev and Moscow can kiss and make up. And after a decent interval, Yanukovych could bring Ukraine into the rival customs union with Moscow without too much domestic opposition.
This is what Tymoshenko herself fears. She does not want the EU to break off the free-trade talks because of her trial and conviction. “Ukraine must be saved,” she said last June. “If the EU pushes Ukraine away now and leaves it alone with this regime, our country will be thrown back for several decades.”
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 9. (“The European…subtext”; and “This is…misjudgment”)
30 March 2010
Moscow: No Common Threat
By Gwynne Dyer
“Whether you are in a Moscow subway or a London subway or a train in Madrid or an office building in New York, we face the same enemy,” said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, responding to the twin suicide bombings on the Moscow metro system that killed 39 commuters on Monday. And it’s true: the Chechens, the enemies of all mankind, are everywhere these days.
No? That’s not what she meant? Oh, she really meant that MUSLIMS are the common enemy, whether they are Chechen Muslims in Moscow or British Muslims of Pakistani descent in London or Moroccan Muslims in Madrid. That’s a relief. Then all we have to do to be safe is get rid of all the Muslims.
Hang on a minute! This just in! What she really, REALLY meant was that we all face the same enemy, a shadowy network of Islamist extremists who plot terrorist attacks against innocent people, mostly Christians, all around the world. But they aren’t true Muslims, or they wouldn’t do such terrible things. (Neither would true Christians, or true Jews, or true Hindus or Buddhists or Sikhs, which is why the world is so peaceful and so just.)
Okay, I’ll stop now, but do you see why it makes me so cross? A terrible event happens somewhere, and then we have to listen to politicians talk pompous nonsense about it. Terrorism cannot be our common enemy, because it is only a technique. Enemies have to be people – and the people who use terrorist techniques, though some of them may be our enemies, have little in common from one place to another.
The Chechens, who are strongly suspected of being behind the Moscow bombs, are waging a quite traditional colonial struggle for independence. As they are Muslims, they have increasingly adopted the Islamist ideology that is now fashionable in Muslim revolutionary circles: these days they even talk of a “North Caucasian Emirate.” But in practice their sole target remains Russia, the imperial power that oppresses them.
There have never been any Chechen bombs on the London underground, or on the commuter rail network in Madrid, or in office buildings in New York, nor will there ever be. Russia, like Israel, has been remarkably successful over the years in selling other countries on the notion that they must maintain a joint front against “terrorism,” but the fact is that the only terrorist threat either government faces is from its own subject peoples.
Israel obviously has a lot at stake in its quarrel with the Palestinians, since both peoples claim the same land and there isn’t much of it. Russia has land to spare for every imaginable purpose, and there has never been much settlement by ethnic Russians in Chechnya and the other small Muslim republics of the northern Caucasus. They don’t have much economic value, either, so why not just let them go?
The answer you always hear is that it would start the unravelling of the Russian Federation itself. Letting the so-called “Union Republics” (Ukraine, Latvia, Azerbaijan, etc.) go when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 was inevitable, for they already possessed the legal status of independent countries in a voluntary association, and besides they were too big to stop. But the “republics” within Russia itself were a different matter.
Chechnya, which was conquered by Russia in the mid-19th century but rebelled every time the Russian government was weak or distracted, declared its independence in 1991. Moscow rejected the declaration on the grounds that it did not have the right to secede under the old Soviet constitution, and that letting it go would create a precedent for some of the other twenty ethnic republics within the Russian federation to leave as well.
Moscow tried to reconquer Chechnya in 1994-96 in a war that left Grozny, the capital, in ruins, and about 35,000 Chechen civilians dead. The Chechens actually defeated the Russian army, and a ceasefire in 1996 was followed by Russian recognition of Chechen independence in 1997. However, Vladimir Putin reopened the war in 1999, and Chechnya has been back under the Russian heel for the past ten years.
None of this has the slightest relevance to people outside Russia, nor does the anti-Russian terrorist campaign that was the inevitable aftermath of the Chechen defeat. It is as localised as the Basque terrorism that afflicts Spain or the occasional terrorist killings carried out by breakaway, diehard Republican groups in Northern Ireland. And as pointless, for the Chechens, too, have decisively and permanently lost.
All terrorist attacks on civilians are wicked, because they transgress one of the few boundaries that we have managed to place on war. (In fact, all attacks on civilians are wicked, including nuclear war, aerial bombing, and the “collateral damage” that occurs during conventional military operations, but never mind that.) Most wicked of all are attacks that are mere vengeance, after all hope of victory is gone.
That is what the Moscow metro bombings are, and therefore they are doubly to be condemned. But they should not be confused with some vast global terrorist conspiracy, although the Russian government naturally pushes that line. Let us hope that Hillary Clinton was just being polite to her Russian colleague when she took the same line. It would be very bad if she actually believed it.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“Israel…matter”)