22 January 2014
Ukraine Turns Violent
By Gwynne Dyer
“The protest mood in Ukraine is at a higher temperature than ever before,” said Vitali Klitschko, the de facto leader of the anti-government protests that have filled central Kiev for the past two months, in an interview with the Guardian on Tuesday. “We only need a small spark for the situation to develop in a way that will be completely out of control for the authorities.”
It’s make-or-break time, because on Wednesday a raft of new laws came into effect that make almost everything the protesters have been doing illegal. The laws, which were rushed through the Ukrainian parliament last week on a show of hands, ban helmets, hard hats and masks at rallies, and impose fines and prison sentences for setting up unauthorised tents, stages or sound systems in public places.
They prescribe jail terms for anybody blockading public buildings, and make it a crime to “slander” public officials (whatever that means). You can also go to jail for handing out pamphlets, and you can get 15 years for being part of a “mass riot” (however the government chooses to define that).
If President Viktor Yanukovych’s government tries to enforce these laws on the tent city of protesters that has filled the “Maidan” (Independence Square) since late November, there will be something like civil war in the heart of the Ukrainian capital. He hasn’t done so yet, but mobile phone users near the violent clashes early Tuesday morning got text messages saying: “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass riot.”
Yanukovych is getting desperate, because the protests are no longer just against his abrupt decision not to sign a treaty creating closer trade and political ties between Ukraine and the European Union, and to turn to Russia instead for loans ($15 billion) and discounted gas.
The protests have expanded to take in the dire state of the economy, Yanukovych’s ruthless political tactics, and the sudden wealth of the “Family” of officials and businessmen who support him.
So long as the conflict was about the EU-or-Russia issue, Yanukovych could count on the backing of the Russian-speaking half of the Ukrainian population, in the south and the heavily industrialised east of the country: many people there fear for their jobs if the Ukrainian economy integrates with the EU.
But the poverty and the corruption hurt everybody, whether they speak Ukrainian or Russian. Everybody can get together and protest about that.
Another worry for Yanukovych is the attitude of the oligarchs, the billionaire businessmen like Rinat Ahmetov, Viktor Pinchuk and Igor Kolomoisky who control a large share of the Ukrainian economy. They have not been politically neutered like the oligarchs in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and it’s striking that the televisions stations they own have been covering the demonstrations quite objectively.
The ultimate loyalty of the oligarchs is to their money, of course, but they seem to believe that in the long run their money is safer in EU countries, or at least in a Ukraine that conforms to EU legal standards. So they are not ecstatic about Yaukovych’s decision to turn away from the EU, and they are quite capable of turning away from him. Indeed, that’s exactly what they did during the Orange Revolution of 2004, and they could do it again.
So Yanukovych’s back is to the wall, and he has apparently decided that it’s worth gambling that he can clear the streets by force without triggering a confrontation that spreads far beyond the Maidan. And it will have to be done by force, because the protesters will not just fold their tents and creep off home.
The sudden lurch into violence on the streets on Sunday and Monday nights occurred in this context. The several hundred young men who attacked the riot police with pipes, chains and fire-bombs were originally thought to be “provocateurs” hired by the government to give it a justification for using violence on the mass of peaceful protesters, but lots of them were not.
The core group of fighters were members of a radical ultra-nationalist group called Right Sector that is both anti-Russian and anti-EU. It includes both Russian and Ukrainian speakers, and imagines it can use the current crisis to “destroy the skeleton state” and build a new state on the ruins. Things are indeed spinning out of control.
When Vitali Klitschko arrived on the scene to beg them to remain non-violent, he was attacked with a fire extinguisher – and thousands of ordinary protesters showed up to cheer the young thugs as they attacked the police. There is a serious potential for mass violence here, and that could lead to even worse things.
Viktor Yanukovych, for all his faults, is the legitimately elected president of Ukraine, and he has a majority in parliament. What if, facing overthrow in the streets, he called for “fraternal aid” from Russia to defend democracy in Ukraine?
What if the Russians, who are already claiming that it’s a Western plot – “We have information that much of this is being stimulated from abroad,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday – agree to send him police and military help?
It sounds far-fetched and it would be extremely stupid, but everybody is busily painting themselves into corners and there is a small but real possibility that it could happen. In which case, welcome to the Second Cold War.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 12. (“Another…again”; and “The core…control”)
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.
1 December 2013
Ukraine and the European Union
By Gwynne Dyer
Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych had much explaining to do at the summit meeting of the European Union in Vilnius, Lithuania last Thursday. After six years of negotiation on an EU-Ukraine trade pact and political association agreement which was finally due to be signed at Vilnius, he had to explain why he wasn’t going to sign it after all.
“The economic situation in Ukraine is very hard, and we have big difficulties with Moscow,” says Yanukovych in a private conversation with Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel that was broadcast by Lithuanian television. “I would like you to hear me. I was alone for three and a half years (since his election in 2010) in very unequal conditions with Russia…one to one.”
So Ukraine is putting the deal on hold indefinitely – and the EU promptly accused Yanukovych of being gutless. “If you blink in front of Russia, you always end up in trouble,” said the EU’s Commissioner for Enlargement, Stefan Fule. “Yanukovych blinked too soon.” At least 10,000 outraged Ukrainians who had reached the same conclusion came out on the streets of Kiev in protest on the following day.
It was starting to look like a rerun of the “Orange Revolution” that had forced Yanukovych out of power after he won a fraudulent election in 2004, so early Saturday morning the riot police attacked the protesters and drove them from the square. But on Sunday the demonstrators were back on Independence Square 100,000 strong, and Yanukovych had to issue a public apology for the attack.
We’ve been here before, haven’t we? The big Russian bully threatens some ex-Soviet country that is now looking west, and the craven local ruler gives in. Pro-democracy demonstrators come out in the streets, and peace, justice and pro-Western policies triumph. Except this time, it’s not like that.
The big Russian bully bit is still true. Moscow has already seen three of its former possessions in Europe – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – join the European Union. It sees the future of the remaining six – Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – as a zero-sum game between Russia and the EU, and it plays hard ball.
Of those six, Azerbaijan and Belarus are dictatorships that have no desire or possibility of making a deal with the EU under their current rulers. The other four have been pursuing trade and association deals (which might eventually lead to EU membership), and Moscow has been trying hard to frighten them out of it and instead force them to join its “Eurasian Union”, an embryonic customs union that bears a curious resemblance to the old Soviet Union .
After secret discussions with Russia in September, Armenia cancelled its association deal with the EU (which was due to be initialled at Vilnius), and joined the Eurasian Union instead. It’s just too dependent on trade with Russia.
Georgia initialled its deal with the EU in Vilnius because it had nothing to lose: since its war with Russia in 2008 it has no trade with its giant neighbour anyway.
Moldova came under extreme pressure when Moscow stopped importing Moldovan wines, the country’s most valuable export, but the Moldovans just sucked it up and initialled the EU deal anyway. The big issue, however, was always Ukraine.
Russia has been turning the screws on Ukraine hard, because with 45 million people and a serious industrial base it is the most important of the ex-Soviet states. Ukraine’s trade in 2012 was almost equally split between Russia and the EU, but over the past year Russian-Ukrainian trade has fallen by a quarter.
“That’s a huge blow to our economy and we can’t ignore it,” Ukraine’s energy minister, Eduard Stavitsky, told the BBC. Stavitsky had asked repeatedly about getting compensation from the EU for the trade with Russia that Ukraine was losing as a punishment for its dalliance with “the West” – but “all we got were declarations that Ukraine would profit from a deal with the EU in the medium to long term.”
Unfortunately, politicians have to live in the short term, and Yanukovych’s problem (and Ukraine’s) is that the country is divided down the middle. His supporters are mostly Russian-speakers who live in the heavily industrialised eastern half of the country – and those are the people who will really suffer if Russia cuts off its trade with Ukraine.
Yanukovych would not have spent three and a half years negotiating a deal with the EU if he had no intention of ever going through with it. Why bother? He was trying to cut a deal that would satisfy the aspirations of pro-EU voters, especially in the nationalist, Ukrainian-speaking west of the country, without destroying the livelihood of his own supporters in the east.
Either the EU didn’t understand his dilemma, or it didn’t care. It demanded that he choose between east and west, and made no offer to compensate Ukraine for its big short-term losses if it signed a deal with the EU.
So Yanukovych has put the whole thing on indefinite hold, but that doesn’t mean he’ll throw in his lot with the “Eurasian Union” instead. If he can ride out the demos that are currently rocking Kiev, then in the longer term he will probably make a cautious return to talks with the EU.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7-10. “(Of those…Ukraine”)
20 October 2013
Russia, the Maldives, and Short-term Thinking
By Gwynne Dyer
Short term beats long term most of the time, even when people understand where their long-term self-interest really lies. Take, for example, that well-known pair, Russia and the Maldives.
Five years ago, it was hard to find senior people in the universities and scientific institutes in Moscow who were even willing to discuss climate change. But the great heat-wave of 2010, which killed one-third of the Russian grain crop, seems to have changed all that.
It was Russia that insisted on putting a reference to geo-engineering, the highly controversial array of last-ditch measures to combat global warming, into the last paragraph of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report. The Russians get it now. And yet….
On 18 September the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise stopped near the drilling platform Prirazlomnaya, the first rig to drill for oil off Russia’s Arctic coast, and launched four inflatable boats. Their aim was to hang a banner on the platform denouncing Russian plans to exploit the oil and gas reserves of the environmentally sensitive Arctic, especially since burning all that extra oil and gas will speed up the warming process.
There were no weapons aboard the ship, and Greenpeace’s protests are always non-violent. None of the protesters tried to climb up the legs of the platform or damage it in any way. But armed Russian security forces abseiled down from helicopters and took them all prisoner. The ship and all its crew were arrested and taken to the nearest Russian port, Murmansk.
A month later, all thirty crew members, volunteers who come from Britain, France, Canada, Russia, Brazil, New Zealand and eleven other countries, are still in prison. Half of them have already been charged with “piracy”.
It sounds ridiculous, but piracy carries a prison sentence of ten to fifteen years, and the Russian state is deadly serious. The crew have all been refused bail, and it will probably be months before they even stand trial. The Russian state has a long tradition of reacting badly when it is challenged, and the platform belongs to Gazprom, a state-owned firm, but even so this is an extreme over-reaction.
Besides, knowing how hard climate change will hit Russia, why did Moscow let Gazprom start drilling in the Arctic seabed at all? Because Russia’s relative prosperity in the past decade has depended heavily on exports of oil and gas. Because President Vladimir Putin’s rule depends on the continuation of that fragile prosperity. And because Russia’s onshore reserves of oil and gas are in decline.
Russian scientists are well aware that the frozen seabed of the Arctic Ocean is already thawing and releasing huge plumes of methane gas that will accelerate warming further. President Putin is concerned enough about climate change to spend serious diplomatic capital on getting geo-engineering into the IPCC report. But warming is a long-term (or at least a medium-term) problem, and his political survival is short-term.
Short-term comes first, so drill away, and if people protest against it, charge them with piracy. And if you think this is as stupid as politics can get, consider the Maldives.
The Maldives are several hundred tiny islands in the Indian Ocean where most of the land is only about a metre (three or four feet) above sea level. As the sea level rises, most of the country will simply disappear beneath the waves.
You would think that the prospect of national extinction in two generations would concentrate anybody’s mind, and in the Maldives it did – for a while. In 2008 the long-ruling dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was ousted in the islands’ first free election by Mohamed Nasheed, a young politician who put great emphasis on fighting climate change.
Nasheed knew that his own country’s actions could have little direct effect on the outcome: China emits about 2,000 times as much carbon dioxide as the Maldives. But he also knew that the extreme vulnerability of the Maldives gives its decisions a high publicity value, so he pledged to make it the world’s first carbon-neutral country. He even held a cabinet meeting underwater, with all the ministers in scuba gear, to dramatise the country’s plight.
Then, early last year, Nasheed was overthrown in a coup by senior police officers closely linked to the old regime. International pressure forced fresh elections early last month and Nasheed came in well ahead of the other two candidates.
Various interventions by police and judges linked to the former dictator have complicated the issue, and the election will now be re-run early next month. Nasheed will doubtless recover the presidency in the end, but here’s the thing. In the whole election campaign, he didn’t mention climate change once. Neither did the other candidates.
This is a country full of people whose grandchildren are going to have to live somewhere else because the whole place is going underwater, and they STILL don’t want to hear about climate change. You can’t just blame the politicians for the neglect. It’s just too uncomfortable for people to stay focussed on the issue for long.
And by the way, opinion polls reveal that a majority of Russians approve of the piracy charges laid against the Greenpeace crew.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“Russian…short-term”; and “Nasheed…plight”)
10 September 2013
Syria: An Unexpected Rabbit
By Gwynne Dyer
When someone pulls a rabbit out of a hat, it’s natural to be suspicious. Magicians are professionals in deceit – and so are diplomats. But sometimes the rabbit is real.
On Monday morning, the world was heading into the biggest crisis in years: a looming American attack on Syria, a Russian response that could set off the first major confrontation between Washington and Moscow since the Cold War, and the possible spread of the fighting from Syria to neighbouring countries. Or alternatively, a Congressional rejection of President Barack Obama’s plans that would have left him a lame duck for the next three years.
By Tuesday morning all that had changed. A Russian proposal for Syria to get rid of all its chemical weapons was promptly accepted by the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, and the Senate vote on Obama’s planned strikes on Syria was postponed, probably for weeks. If Syria keeps its word, the vote may never be held. What a difference a day makes.
Now for the cavils. Nothing has been signed. Nothing has even been written up for signature. Maybe Syria is just playing for time. Perhaps Obama will want to pursue the Syrian regime legally for the poison gas attacks that he claims it has already carried out (though he sounded very relieved on hearing the news and didn’t mention any “red lines”).
The sequence of events, so far as can be made out, was as follows. At the Moscow G20 summit last week, Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin had a one-to-one chat on the side at which one of them broached the possibility of persuading Syria to give up its chemical weapons entirely. Which one isn’t clear, and the idea was not pursued by either of them.
Yet both men had reason to want such a thing, for the alternative was that Obama would lead the United States into another Middle Eastern war, not exactly what he was elected for – or that he would not get Congressional approval to do so and end up completely discredited. Putin would feel obliged to respond to a US attack on his Syrian ally, but that could end up with Russian missiles shooting down American planes.
There was then silence until Monday, when John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, gave an off-the-cuff reply in London to a question about whether Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad could avoid an American attack. “Sure. He could turn over every bit of his (chemical) weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay,” said Kerry with a shrug. “But he isn’t about to.”
Then Kerry got on a plane to fly home, and halfway across the Atlantic he got a call from the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, saying that he was about to announce that Russia would ask Syria to put all its chemical weapons storage facilities under international control, join the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and finally destroy them all.
The Syrian foreign minister happened to be in Moscow, so within an hour he declared that Assad’s regime “welcomes Russia’s initiative, based on the Syrian government’s care about the lives of our people and security of our country.” By Monday evening Obama was saying that the Russian plan “could potentially be a significant breakthrough,” and the pot was off the boil.
The whole thing, therefore, was made up on the fly. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t work, but it is a proposal that comes without any of the usual preparation that precedes a major diplomatic initiative. The reason we don’t know the details is that there aren’t any. What we do know is that everybody – Obama, Putin and Assad – is clearly desperate to avoid going to war, and that gives us reason to hope.
Two things that have to happen fast, if this rabbit is really going to run. First, Syria has to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention and ratify the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention right away. That could be done within a week, and it would legally commit it to getting rid of all its chemical weapons and the factories that make them.
Secondly, the United Nations Security Council has to pass a resolution demanding that Syria reveal the size and location of its entire stock of chemical weapons and place them under international control. France has already put such a resolution on the Security Council’s agenda; the test will be whether Russia vetoes it. It probably won’t.
There is a great deal of suspicion in Washington that this is merely a delaying tactic meant to stall an American attack and sap the already weak popular support in the United States for military action. Moreover, it will be hard to send international troops in to secure Syria’s chemical weapons (at least forty storage sites, plus some weapons in the hands of military units) unless there is a ceasefire in the civil war now raging all over the country.
But the American military will be pleased, because they were really unhappy about the job that Obama was giving them, and Obama himself looks like a man who has been granted a new lease of life. There will be time to try to make this work.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 11 and 12. (“Now…lines”; and “Two…won’t”)