Putin has more trumps in Ukraine gamble

By Ameen Izzadeen
Amid tough talk and military buildups by Moscow and the West, the crisis in Ukraine has now shifted from Crimea to the country’s east along Russia’s western border.
Just like Crimea, the eastern regions of Ukraine are largely inhabited by Russian-speaking people. Following Crimea’s example, they want to hold a referendum and join Russia. The disintegration of Ukraine is what Russia may be threatening the West with. The West and the West-installed government in Kiev did not foresee such an eventuality and are now caught in a quagmire from which they find it difficult to extricate themselves.
The West accuses Russia of fomenting separatism in Ukraine’s Russian majority regions. But the bottom line is that Russia has more trump cards than the West as the biggest political crisis to engulf Europe since World War II moves dangerously close to a civil war in Ukraine or an all-out war between the world’s big powers.
As the US sends warships to the Baltic, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin appears unperturbed by the Western moves and is ready to face further sanctions. With the situation still volatile amidst clashes between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian activists in the east, Russia has deployed some 40,000 troops on its western border, ostensibly for a massive military exercise. But analysts say these heavily armed battle-prepared troops can move in and capture Ukraine or much of it within a matter of days.
Russia can also cut off gas supplies to Europe, precipitating a major economic crisis there. In fact, Russia did warn that it might cut off supplies to Europe. Russia provides more than half of the European Union’s fossil fuel imports. Germany is the biggest recipient of Russian gas. But almost two thirds of this energy supply to Europe goes via Ukraine. Yesterday the European Union said it was willing to hold talks with Russia and Ukraine on gas security.
Putin is simply not ready to blink in this eyeball-to-eyeball game with the West and compromise Russia’s survival, security and self-respect.
But the West, instead of recognising Russia’s security concerns, especially Ukraine’s importance as a buffer state in Moscow’s strategic equation, took a gamble and engineered a regime change in Kiev. The West also plays a hands-on role in the goings on in Ukraine. Its signature was seen in Ukraine’s military campaign this week against pro-Russian separatists in the east.
It is increasingly evident that Ukraine launched its military campaign only after it got assurances from the US and Nato, which is rapidly strengthening its military presence in Eastern Europe. In the words of NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, there would be “more planes in the air, more ships on the water and more readiness on the land.”
Prior to sending its military to the east, the Ukrainian government issued a Monday ultimatum to pro-Russian activists to leave the government buildings that they had captured or face a military response. But the ultimatum only toughened the resolve of the activists. When the ultimatum ended on Monday, Ukraine pussyfooted. But with some prodding from the US and the West, Ukraine on Tuesday launched the military campaign despite Putin’s warning of mass bloodshed. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Ukrainian government had a responsibility to maintain law and order, and these provocations in eastern Ukraine were creating a situation to which the government had to respond.
His remarks indicated that Washington supported the military operation which came a week after Central Intelligence Agency Chief John Brennan visited Kiev to assess the situation.
When asked what the CIA chief was doing in Kiev, Carney replied bluntly: “We urged the Ukrainian government to move forward, gradually, responsibly, and with all due caution, as it deals with this situation caused by armed militants… Let’s be clear: the way to ensure that violence does not occur is for these armed paramilitary groups, and these armed so-called pro-Russian separatists, to vacate the buildings and to lay down their arms.”
Supported by fighter jets and helicopters flying low over the area, the Ukrainian troops had early success. They recaptured a military airfield which had been taken over by the pro-Russian groups. Four pro-Russian protesters died during the early hours of the military campaign.
But by Tuesday, the military campaign turned out to be a big humiliation for Ukraine with pro-Russian activists and civilians overpowering the Ukrainian troops, some of whom surrendered and pledged their loyalty to Russia.
Ukraine’ military misadventure has dealt a major blow to the West, especially the United States, while strengthening Russia’s position on the ground and at the negotiating table in Geneva. Yesterday, Russia’s foreign minister, the United States’ Secretary of State, Ukraine’s foreign minister and the European Union’s foreign policy chief met in Geneva to hold talks aimed at defusing the Ukrainian crisis.
The tone of the Ukrainian foreign minister Andrii Deshchytsia’s remarks in Geneva indicates that Ukraine and the West have mellowed — or so it seems.
Deshchytsia said: “I think that we still have a chance to de-escalate the situation using the diplomatic means. And we will try hard. We are trying hard — not only Ukraine — but also the United States. However, the time is now, not only to express the concerns, but to look for a more concrete and adequate response to Russia’s plans and actions.”
The remarks were a far cry from Ukraine’s rhetoric over the weekend before it launched its military campaign. Last week Ukraine’s security services deputy chief Vasily Krutov threatened to “destroy” anti-government activists in the country’s east stating, “They must be warned; if they do not lay down their arms, they will be destroyed.”
Pro-Russian activists point out that the West could endorse pro-West Ukrainian protesters’ occupation of government buildings in Kiev and elsewhere in the run-up to the overthrow of democratically elected President Victor Yanukovych in February. They ask why it cannot accept the pro-Russian people’s occupation of government buildings and facilities as a legitimate way of expressing the people’s opposition to an illegitimate government in Kiev. The pro-Russian people in the east are in no mood to compromise and accept the authority of the West-backed government of acting president Oleksandr Turchynov. The West charges that the activists in Ukraine’s eastern towns are being handled by Russia. Moscow denies the charge but has indicated that it will protect the ethnic Russians whether they are citizens of Russia or any other country.
Russians may argue that if the United States could invade Grenada on the pretext of trying to protect a handful of American students studying there, Russia also can interfere to protect millions of Russians living in Ukraine’s eastern regions. After all, Ukraine’s eastern regions once belonged to Russia and were annexed to Ukraine during the Soviet era.
These arguments apart, yesterday’s Geneva talks offer little hope unless the West learns to respect Russia’s security concerns. Russia which seized control of Ukraine’s Crimea region and then rapidly annexed it last month, insists that Ukraine devolve power to the regions and adopt foreign and defence policies of non-alignment: In other words, Ukraine should not have any deals with Nato or the European Union. True, such a demand sounds intrusive and undermines Ukraine’s sovereignty. But foreign policy making is an art of compromise with prudence being the key element. If a country’s national interest goals clash with those of other countries, especially a powerful neighbour’s, prudence demands the country should strike a balance between its national interest and those of other countries. To some extent, the ousted president of Ukraine had struck a balance in his foreign policy. But the West saw him as a Russian agent and played a direct role in the coup to overthrow him.
Obviously, this angered Putin whose foreign policy doctrine tolerates no outside interference in Russia’s backyard. If he lets go of Ukraine, he fears that it will trigger a domino effect with countries in Russia’s backyard, one by one, coming under the influence of the West and this process could eventually end in the overthrow of his own government in Moscow.
Yesterday, as this column was being written, Putin was answering questions from the public during his yearly call-in show titled “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin.” News agencies following the telecast quoted Putin as accusing Ukraine’s new authorities of driving the country towards the abyss. He also expressed hope that Russia and Ukraine could reach a compromise, saying the neighbours had a huge number of common interests.
Putin is right: The relationship between Russia and Ukraine is symbiotic. Russia will suffer economically if Ukraine blocks the pipelines that take Russia’s gas to Europe. On the other hand, Ukraine had, prior to the outbreak of the present crisis, benefited from cut-rate gas prices, concessions and credit facilities from Russia. Besides, more than a million Ukrainians are working in Russia and the billions of rubles they send home prop up Ukraine’s economy.
But such a mutually beneficial neighbourly relationship was an irritant to the western strategists who wanted to weaken Russia economically and militarily.
However, as the crisis in Ukraine, which is preparing to hold a presidential poll next month, drags on, the silver lining amidst the dark war clouds is that the parties to the conflict still talk to each other. US President Obama keeps talking to Putin, while US Secretary of State John Kerry regularly meets Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
In yesterday’s television show, Putin renewed his offer to resolve the crisis through diplomacy: “I very much hope that I am not obliged to use the right {to send Russian troops to Ukraine} and that through political and diplomatic means we can solve all the acute problems in Ukraine.”
The US and its western partners, instead of aggravating the crisis by imposing more sanctions and provoking Russia, should grab this offer for a dialogue.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Death sentence for a free Egypt

By Ameen Izzadeen
An Egyptian court on Monday sentenced to death 529 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood for killing one policeman. Although the ruling has been condemned worldwide, it underscores a reality in Egyptian politics: The Deep State runs the show. It has turned the Arab Spring into an Arab winter. It has hijacked democracy and uses it as a tool to sustain dictatorship. It has facilitated the return of the repressive regime with a new face.
The judiciary, along with the military, is part of this Deep State which apparently thinks that governance is too precious a thing to be left in the hands of democratically elected politicians, more so, in the hands of a bunch of Muslim fundamentalists. Members of the Deep State think that they are the custodians of the country and governance is their monopoly.
The trial in the southern city of Minya lasted less than two days. During the proceedings, the judge, whom the opposition describes as a lackey of the military, heaped insults at the defendants while defence lawyers were barred from the court.
The human rights group Amnesty International described the ruling as a grotesque example of the shortcomings and the selective nature of Egypt’s justice system. It also questioned why there were no efforts to check the military-backed regime’s excesses. The Amnesty statement said:
“This is injustice writ large and these death sentences must be quashed. Imposing death sentences of this magnitude in a single case makes Egypt surpass most other countries’ use of capital punishment in a year,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International.
“This is the largest single batch of simultaneous death sentences we’ve seen in recent years, not just in Egypt but anywhere in the world.
“Egypt’s courts are quick to punish Mohamed Morsi’s supporters but ignore gross human rights violations by the security forces. While thousands of Morsi’s supporters languish in jail, there has not been an adequate investigation into the deaths of hundreds of protesters. Just one police officer is facing a prison sentence, for the deaths of 37 detainees.
“Without an independent and impartial process that can deliver truth and justice for all, many will question whether Egypt’s criminal justice system has indeed anything to do with justice.”
Yet the United States and the European Union expressed only deep concern and shock over the ruling, in statements that appeared perfunctory. Well, there was little surprise in their stance as they had no qualms about recognising the power grab in the Egypt last year or granting legitimacy to the military coup led by Field Marshal Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi.
The United States being a promoter of democracy says it will not back military coups. In fact, the United States has passed legislation not to assist military governments. But US presidents know how to circumvent the law and do the wrong thing legally, especially if the military backed regime serves the US interests. Augusto Pinochet’s Chile was a case in point. Like the Pinochet regime, the Egyptian junta kills people who take to the streets to protest over the manner in which the democratically elected government of Mohammed Morsi was removed. Thousands have been killed. Tens of thousands of dissidents, including teenage girls are being imprisoned under inhumane conditions. The teenage girls serve a 12-year jail term for taking part in anti-junta protests. Torture is rampant and there is little evidence that the due process is applied to political prisoners, whom the Egyptian regime describes as terrorists while a new law has made public protests illegal.
Yet the West continues to mollycoddle the regime saying that Egypt is going through a transition towards democracy.
The democracy the military regime tries to impose hardly differs from what existed under dictator Hosni Mubarak who was ousted in the 2011 Arab Spring revolution. During the Mubarak era, parliament voted for a presidential candidate. It had always been Mubarak versus a few weak candidates. The winner was then endorsed in a countrywide referendum and usually the result was a near-90 per cent endorsement of Mubarak.
Similarly, the Presidential election likely to be held within months has one strong candidate and a few weak candidates. The Deep State has seen to it that the Brotherhood, the only opposition party capable of posing a challenge to the strong candidate, military chief Sisi, is out of the way. The military backed regime has declared the Brotherhood a terrorist group. Even if the Brotherhood tries to reorganise itself under a different name, the Deep State will strike again and ban the group as had been case in Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s. Whenever the Turkish Islamists were seen to be popular among the masses, the Turkish Deep State got the military and the judiciary to ban the Islamists’ party. But the Islamists would reappear under a different name only to be banned by the Turkish courts again. This process went on until the AK Party or the Justice and Development Party of the present Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan, an Islamic-leaning politician, succeeded in checking the Deep State.
In fact, Erdogan, a strong supporter of the Brotherhood, advised the Egyptian Brotherhood on how to tame the Deep State. But Morsi did not take the advice seriously and eventually paid a heavy price.
Until such time the Brotherhood, which had the backing of some 35 per cent of Egyptian voters, turns wise like Erdogan, the Deep-State-defined democracy in Egypt will continue its persecution; for the Deep State serves the West and in the process kills dissidents, commits human rights violations and jails journalists. Among them are three Al-Jazeera journalists.
While the West turns a blind eye to the wrongs taking place in Egypt, the Egyptian masses are misled by one-sided propaganda slavishly carried out by an influential section of the Egyptian corporate media. They are told that the country needs a strong man to bring stability which in turn will bring economic prosperity. This strategy has worked and Sisi is being seen as the stabiliser.
Egypt’s Industry, Trade and Investment Minister Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour told Reuters recently: “In the West, a candidacy and maybe the election of an army officer or an ex-officer to the presidency of a developing, third world country would raise eyebrows and call to mind the image of a Pinochet rather than a George Washington… a dictator rather than a reformer. [But] this country as it stands today needs a strongman that can pull it together… Law and order is good toward investment and toward the economy.”
In other words, he appeared to say that Egypt in a strongman’s hand is good for capitalists. Ousted President Morsi was naïve not to understand what the capitalists’ requirements were. Morsi resisted the IMF’s economic aid package because he felt austerity measures which the IMF wanted to impose would make his government unpopular.
Earning the wrath of the Deep State and the West, the Morsi government looked east. It improved relations with China and Iran, showed solidarity with the Palestinian resistance group, Hamas, and scaled down ties with Israel. The Morsi government was seen as moving away from the West’s influence. The Morsi government also made mistakes in not taking into account the wishes of the liberals and the minorities. Without realising that he lacked power to confront the military, the judiciary and the liberals, Morsi wielded his stick, only to be dealt a knockout punch on the face. Now he and tens of thousands of his supporters are facing a fate that befell the 529 people on Monday.
Also alarmed by the Brotherhood’s rise to power were the ruling elite in the Gulf States. Apart from Qatar, the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, saw the Morsi administration as a threat to their hold on power. They conspired with the West to get rid of him and financed and orchestrated the so-called second uprising. Recently, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar following the rift over Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE have bolstered the post-Morsi authoritarian regime with 12 billion dollars. These countries and the West want Sisi to consolidate his power. When on Wednesday Sisi announced he would be quitting his military post to contest the elections, stock market indices shot up, signalling the capitalist world’s endorsement of his candidacy. He announced his candidacy only after strengthening the role of the army in politics. According to Sisi reforms, the defence minister, who is the Army chief, will be the head of the newly formed Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, not the President. The creation of this all powerful military body indicates that whoever comes to power, the Army will run a parallel government. Egypt’s military is armed, trained and funded by the US. Sisi is also a US-trained General. It was a strange coincidence that he was in the US when Mubarak was being thrown out.
The billions of dollars of military aid the US has been giving Egypt since the 1979 Camp David accord goes directly to the Army, bypassing any civilian authority. All this indicates that the so-called civilian government to be set up after the presidential election within months will be beholden to Washington as the Mubarak regime had been for 30 years. By closing down Hamas offices in Cairo, cracking down on Hamas activists and closing down Hamas’s secret tunnels through which the Palestinians smuggled in essentials such as medicine, the military backed government in Egypt has already shown that it is indeed a puppet of the West and Israel.
(This column first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Crimea: The era of new Cold War begins

By Ameen Izzadeen
The Ukrainian crisis has dragged the post-Cold War world order from relative stability to instability and from order to chaos. The crisis exploded at a time when a new balance of power was taking root, recognising Russia and China as key power centres.
Although, with the end of the Cold War between the two power blocs led by the United States and the Soviet Union, the bipolar world order gave way to a unipolar world order led by Washington, within a decade or so the power balance moved towards a multi-polar world order. In other words, the equilibrium resulting from the dominance of one nation-state moved to an equilibrium resulting from an unequal distribution of power among several states or groupings. This was not to the liking of the United States although the new multipolar world was bringing some semblance of a balance of power and stability.
The US by its own failings and hubris let the baton of global leadership slip away from its grip. The role of a sole superpower entails duties and responsibilities, with the ultimate objective being global peace and order. Instead, the US ventured on a path to increase its power. Whatever the truth behind 9/11, it became a launch pad for a US campaign to dominate the world through military means.
But while the US was busy implementing its neocolonialist and empire-building project and spending much of its energy and resources on the Middle East, China emerged as an economic and military power. In the meantime, Russia, aided by high oil prices — a result of the US misadventure in the oil-rich Middle Eastern region — came out of its economic mess and regained its composure to act like a superpower, if not a great power. These developments obliterated the unipolar world order and gave rise to a multipolar world, with the European Union and other regional groupings such as the Shanghai Countries Organisation and the BRICS also acting as economic power centres.
The inclusion of Russia in the G-8, a grouping of the world’s top industrial nations, and the G-20 economic summit bringing together the G-8 and the world’s fastest growing economies were signs that a balance of power within a multipolar world order was being established.
There was an understanding that each power centre recognised the other’s security and economic concerns. There was an unwritten agreement not to cross each other’s areas of influence. It was because of this understanding that Russia and China allowed the US to have its way in dealing with issues such as the Yugoslav crisis, the Kosovo war, the global war on terror, the invasion of Iraq, the attack on Libya and Iran’s nuclear programme. Perhaps Russia and China believed that it was to their advantage if the US and the West get bogged down in multiple conflict areas as it would sap the West’s military and economic energies. But whatever it was, there was cooperation and camaraderie that even saw the United States and Russia agreeing to slash their nuclear arsenals.
But parallel to these moves which sought to strengthen an inclusive multi-polar world order where each power centre respected the other’s security concerns, the US continued its moves aimed at dominating the world, thus dealing a blow to the multi-polar balance of power. Washington tried to create an exclusive world order dominated by the United States. Balance of power is understood to be a precarious point between order and chaos. Balance of power, however lopsided it is, ensures relative peace, provided states within the international system agree to respect the status quo or the arrangement of the global power structure. But when one or more countries decide to seek world dominance, the international balance of power breaks down, creating in its wake chaos and instability.
The whole balance of power was shaken to the core when the US and its European allies overthrew a legitimate government in Ukraine and installed a puppet government led by right wing extremists. They showed scant respect for Russia’s security concern, although, prior to the Ukrainian crisis, Russia had warned the West not to violate the unwritten agreement.
One such issue was when the US tried to install anti-missile missile systems in Eastern Europe. Washington shelved the plan when Russia protested. The next major dispute was over Syria where the West and Russia failed to reach compromise. But Russia sees the West’s role in last month’s Ukrainian putsch as the biggest provocation although during the 2008 Georgia war, Moscow had conveyed to the US and its allies that it would not tolerate Nato’s military dominance in Russia’s backyard.
Just as the US and its allies have surrounded China, the West wants Russia surrounded by pro-US countries with links to Nato. The aim of the West is to create political unrest in Russia leading to a putsch, install a puppet government, eliminate Russia’s nuclear arsenal, and prevent a Russia-China security alliance from taking shape. This is why Russia sees the crisis in Ukraine or the intervention of the West in Ukraine as a threat to its very survival and is forced to send troops into Crimea. This is why Putin on Tuesday said, “Russia found itself in a position it could not retreat from,” and warned “if you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard. You must always remember this.”
Just as the US would not tolerate any world power to mess around in its backyard, Russia mistakenly thought that the US would respect Russia’s doctrine of not allowing any world power to infiltrate its backyard.
Sadly, Barack Obama, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for generating hope for peace at a time when war was the norm, is at the helm of affairs when the US is shattering the balance of power and placing the world on the threshold of a nuclear conflict. In this exercise, he exposes the US hypocrisy and double standards. Instead of ridding US policies of hypocrisy or double-standards, the Ukrainian crisis shows that his administration has institutionalised these immoral concepts which only an evil-incarnate would adopt as state principles.
Just read the last paragraph of the the White House statement issued on Sunday soon after Crimea voted overwhelmingly for reunion with Russia. Here it is: “In this century, we are long past the days when the international community will stand quietly by while one country forcibly seizes the territory of another.”
Now which country has supported Israel’s land grab in Palestine and Syria? Which country has used its veto more than 40 times in the United Nations Security Council to protect Israel? Which country sends more than US$ 4 billion of US taxpayers’ money to Israel despite its horrendous violations of international law? The answer is the United States. How come the US does not call Israel a thief just as it called Russia on Wednesday at the UN Security Council?
Then on the referendum issue, the US and the West have dismissed the Crimean people’s verdict to join Russia. But the West has justified Kosovo’s separation from Serbia on the basis of a 1991 referendum. Britain, for instance, justifies its illegitimate occupation of the Falklands/Malvinas islands on the basis of a referendum among the island’s pro-British population.
An attack on the West’s hypocrisy formed a major portion of President Vladimir Putin’s fiery speech to Russia’s Parliament, Duma, on Tuesday. He said:
“This is not even double standards; this is amazing, primitive, blunt cynicism. One should not try so crudely to make everything suit their interests, calling the same thing white today and black tomorrow (…) After the dissolution of bipolarity on the planet, we no longer have stability. Key international institutions are not getting any stronger; on the contrary, in many cases, they are sadly degrading. Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle “If you are not with us, you are against us.”
“To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organisations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall. (…) We understand what is happening; we understand that these actions were aimed against Ukraine and Russia and against Eurasian integration (…) we have every reason to assume that the infamous policy of containment, led in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, continues today. They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position, because we maintain it and because we call things like they are and do not engage in hypocrisy. But there is a limit to everything. And with Ukraine, our western partners have crossed the line, playing the bear and acting irresponsibly and unprofessionally.”
These words indicate that Russia sees an existential threat and is ready to defend itself even if it meant a return to a Cold War. Moscow says it cannot be bullied by the threat of sanctions. Moscow also says the world is not confined only to the West. There are other countries with which Russia can do business.
On the one hand, the world badly needs a counterforce to check the excesses of the United States and the West and expose their deception by which they show bad as good, injustice and justice, and the aggressor as the victim. But on the other hand, confrontational politics may bring the world close to war, possibly a nuclear war. The world’s economic resources will be misused for destructive purposes – to wage war, to produce dangerous weapons and divide people – instead of using them for poverty alleviation, on education and health. The golden mean, however, lies between the two extremes. It is a point where global powers respect each other’s security concerns. Russia appears to be ready for a compromise.
The West precipitated the problem by recognising the putsch led by rightwing neo-Nazi parties, whose members this week beat and forced the head of Ukraine’s national television to resign for telecasting Putin’s landmark speech. So the moral responsibility or the onus for defusing the tense situation in Ukraine and Crimea now lies squarely on the shoulders of the West. But the West has long forgotten what morality is in politics.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Indian polls: Congress outlives its use

= Dynastic politics dies in refreshed democracy; Modi frontrunner but regional parties also could form coalition at centre
By Ameen Izzadeen
India’s Congress Party appears to have outlived its use as Mahatma Gandhi once said. It was formed largely to end the British colonialism and for swaraj or self-government. Established in 1885, it was the pivot of the Indian Independence Movement before it became the premier political party that has ruled India for more than five decades since Independence in 1947.
In recent years, Congress, a pan-India party, has been suffering severe drubbing in assembly elections in many states where the victors have been largely regional parties. Has Congress become, more or less, a Hindi-belt party and is it gradually losing its India-wide appeal? Wait till mid-May for the answer.
After independence, Mahatma Gandhi wanted to dissolve the Congress. Gandhi was quoted as saying in ‘The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi — Volume 90.’: “Though split into two, India having attained political independence through means devised by the Indian National Congress, the Congress in its present shape and form, i.e., as a propaganda vehicle and parliamentary machine had outlived its use.”
Last year, India’s anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare also in an interview referred to Mahatma Gandhi. He said Gandhi wanted to dissolve the Congress Party because he had predicted that the party would become completely corrupt. But he was not heard by the leaders who formed the first government on the basis of the Congress Party.
In the early post-Independence decades, the Congress Party’s electoral successes were largely because it was perceived as a nationalistic and anti-colonial force with India’s interests at heart. But now that most of the people who witnessed India’s independence struggle are dead or in the twilight of their lives, sentiments connected to the freedom fight have little appeal among the new generation of Indians who form the majority of the 814 million voters. A majority of these young and middle-aged Indians are caught up in the capitalist-driven global economy. Issues facing them are different. As more and more Indians receive higher education, they want highly paid jobs and improved living standards.
Even the Indian film industry does not see poverty as a theme that could attract crowds while those living below the poverty line — some 32 per cent of India’s 1.2 billion population — dream of becoming millionaires.
They want India to be an economic giant. Economy was the key factor that assured the Congress Party’s re-election at the 2009 parliamentary poll. Today the Indian people are well informed and politically more mature than they were when the Congress Party shifted its focus from Independence to fulltime politics. With free market reforms, many people migrate to the cities, where upward social mobility is promised. Oppressive caste-based norms which are severe in the villages are disappearing in the hustle and bustle of city life. The Indian media, empowered by the Right to Information Act, play a crucial role as a watchdog. The Right to Information Act, passed in 2005, has brought about powerful investigative journalism and exposed corruption in the government.
It is because of India’s revitalised media that the anti-corruption campaign of Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Admi Party or the Common Man’s Party, received its much-needed momentum. Civil society action and rejuvenated media activism have made even a minimally corrupt government like the one headed by ‘Mr. Clean’ Manmohan Singh to look like the most corrupt government of India since independence.
Ironically the very legislation — the Right to Information Act and the Lokpal Act, among others — that the Congress government introduced has come back to haunt the party. The Congress Party and its allies are implicated in a number of large-scale corruption cases which include the 2G telecom licence deal, the Commonwealth Games sleaze, the coal scam and questionable land deals by Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra.
The modern Indian voter appears to believe that there is a correlation between economic growth and good governance. The Congress Party’s relatively better economic performance amidst global recession is hardly a plus point while the scale of corruption that has tainted the government’s image is hard to ignore. Even informally promoting Congress Party scion Rahul Gandhi as the prime ministerial candidate has not helped the party much. Dynastic politics has little place in India’s refreshed democracy. The world’s largest democracy appears to be coming of age.
This is why that the Bharatiya Janata Party prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is seen as the winning horse in the parliamentary race. There are no known cases of corruption against Modi. But he is no crusader against corruption like Hazare or Kejriwal. As chief minister of Gujarat, he watered down the Lokayuktha bill — state-level anti-corruption legislation.
Yet Gujarat’s economic success has stood him in good stead. Gujarat is an example which suggests that instead of a centralised economic agenda implemented from New Delhi, what has contributed immensely to India’s economic growth, in recent years, are economic drives at state level. Gujarat’s success has generated countrywide expectation that Modi is the man for India. The wave is surging and a Modi victory is incontrovertible.
Yet, his party, many analysts believe, will fall short of an absolute majority at the elections. This is because the BJP is not a pan-India party as the waning Congress Party is. Opinion polls indicate the BJP and its allies will win around 220 seats and the Congress Party a pathetic 100 or fewer in the 543 seat lower house. This is because regionalism and political federalism are fast becoming India’s political realities. Some regional parties want a bigger say in governance and foreign policy. The manifestos of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (AIADMK) led by actress-turned-political cult figure Jayaram Jayalalithaa and its political rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (DMK) led by veteran politician Mutuvel Karunanidhi have dwelt extensively on foreign policy, especially on matters pertaining to Sri Lanka. Both these parties have called for an internationally monitored referendum in Sri Lanka’s north and east on the question of a separate state. With no major party likely to win a majority on its own, regional parties are sure to up their ante when forming any coalition.
A clearer picture, however, will only emerge after the elections which will be held from April 7 to May 12 in nine stages. Some analysts suggest that there could be a third option at the upcoming elections. Instead of a Congress-led or a BJP-led government, small parties can come together to muster the required 272 seats to form a government. This is why Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, whose party is likely to sweep the southern state, has not signed an electoral pact with the BJP, whom she has partnered at past elections. She may extend her party’s support to the BJP if she and other leaders of regional parties fail in their efforts to form a coalition.
Another major player in the upcoming elections is the new entrant, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Its leader Kejriwal is winning new converts from India’s middle class which in the past had voted for Congress. But its major political enemy ironically is its own policy of political cleanliness. As a result, even acts that could be regarded as routine if done by others are seen as preposterous by the media and activists if the AAP does them. For instance, this week, Kejriwal held a fund-raising dinner, drawing criticism that only the rich could afford to buy the Rs. 2000 tickets and therefore it went against the very description of his party as a common man’s party. In yet another incident, Kejriwal is seen in a leaked video advising a journalist to highlight a certain part of his interview for greater impact. Critics say such media manipulation is the trait of a power-hungry politician which Kejriwal tries to show he is not.
These slurs apart, the AAP is unlikely to emerge as a third force given its lack of experience in governance or organisational capabilities. It governed New Delhi only for a month or so.
BJP’s communalism
Another major factor in the upcoming elections is how the minority Muslims who form 14 per cent of the population will vote. Some believe they may veer towards the AAP, since the Congress Party whom they traditionally supported has not done much for their social and economic uplift. According to the 2006 report of the Rajinder Sachar Committee, which was appointed by the Singh government, the socio-economic and educational status of Muslims is below that of the Scheduled Castes.
With the AAP’s polls battle directed more towards the BJP than towards Congress, Muslims see Kejriwal as a man who could take on Modi whose image has been sullied by his alleged role in the massacre of Muslims during the 2002 ethnic riots in Gujarat.
But Modi’s BJP is also making efforts to woo Muslim voters, offering a new hand of friendship. The BJP says that Modi has been cleared by a Supreme Court panel of involvement in the Gujarat riots. But the Congress Party claims that the Supreme Court appointed panel’s ruling has been challenged in a higher court and insists that the moral and political accountability with regard to the Guajarat riots lies with him as he was the chief minister. The Congress calls on Modi to apologise for the riots but the astute politician thinks that doing so would antagonise the hardline Hindutwa activists who form the crux of the BJP.
But a majority of India’s Hindus are not extremists. They rejected the BJP’s Hindutwa hardline policies at the last general elections held in 2009.
In their post-election reviews, BJP leaders admitted in 2009 that the hate speech made by Varun Gandhi, son of Sanjay and Maneka Gandhi and grandson of Sonia Gandhi’s mother-in-law, former prime minister Indira Gandhi, cost them the victory. A majority of Indian voters saw Varun Gandhi’s call to his “Hindu brothers” to vote for the BJP to drive all traitors — meaning India’s 14 per cent Muslims — to Pakistan, as repulsive and not befitting the type of politics India should follow in this modern age.
With the economy — in the common man’s understanding the commodity prices — being a key factor that may determine the winner, the outcome of the election has global impact as India represents a huge market and accounts for 17 per cent of the world’s population.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Karzai seeks peace with Taliban, but he is no Chavez

By Ameen Izzadeen
Three months into 2014, Afghanistan is fast hurtling into uncertainty with many Afghan watchers wondering what the situation will be once the US-led Nato troops on December 31 end their military occupation of the country which is strategically located between three key regions — South Asia, Central Asia and West Asia.
Will the Taliban, which virtually rules the countryside, take control of the whole of Afghanistan?
No, says the confident Afghan President Hamid Karzai addressing a Colombo news conference on Thursday during his first state and third official visit to Sri Lanka. He was emphatic.
“No. The Taliban will not be back,” Karzai told the news conference which was also attended by his delegation members, many of whom did not sport the two-fists-long beard which the Taliban had imposed on men during their oppressive rule. The clean shaven men and the presence of women in the delegation were indicative of the liberal outlook of the President, who is being derided by Islamists and left groups as a US stooge.
“Our country will be peaceful, stable and those Taliban who are Afghans and who want to be in Afghanistan are welcome. They are our brothers. We will receive them with open arms and they will be encouraged to participate in Afghanistan’s reconstruction and lead a normal life, sending their children to school in their own country,” said Mr. Karzai who briefly supported the Taliban in the early days of their rule but distanced himself when they enforced their hardline policies.
Is he over-optimistic about peace with the Taliban? Does he think that everything will be normal in Afghanistan once US troops leave? But his optimism is apparently not shared by the Taliban, who killed 20 Afghan soldiers in eastern Kunar province on February 24, just hours before Karzai took a plane to Colombo, forcing him to postpone the visit.
There is no formal peace process on the table either, although in June last year the world saw some facilitation by Qatar to bring the Taliban, the United States and the Afghan government to the negotiation table. Within a month, the process collapsed when Taliban officials closed an office the Qatari government had let them run in Doha and went back to the mountainous terrains of Afghanistan. This came after Karzai protested to Qatar over the Taliban’s attempt to project themselves as the alternate government.
But with Mr. Karzai’s presidential days waning, he appears to be a different man – a man of peace who even challenges the US for the sake of peace. He has earned the wrath of the Barack Obama administration which wants him to sign a bilateral security arrangement (BSA) before US troop withdrawal is completed by December this year. The BSA will allow the US to maintain military bases and thousands of soldiers in Afghanistan even after the so-called troop withdrawal.
“I have put a condition on the BSA. A peace process should be launched first. In return for the bases for the United States, the Afghan people must see peace. They should see peace, progress, the fulfilment of their aspirations and the enjoyment of their rights. The biggest violator of the people’s rights is the condition of war against stability. We want to bring about a progressive society where human rights are respected. For this we need peace.
“In the absence of a peace process, I will not sign the BSA,” Mr. Karzai said adding that “we have some indications of the Taliban’s willingness to talk peace. We will talk peace and take the process forward.” Other reports said that Karzai refuses to sign the BSA because the US has not given him a guarantee that it will play a key role in the peace process and the US troops who will stay back after the December 31 drawdown deadline will stop night raids on Afghan homes.
Is Mr. Karzai’s change in stance or his new image as an Afghan Hugo Chavez related to the April 5 presidential election? He is barred by the constitution from contesting for a third term. But all indications are that he wants one of his confidants to be elected, probably former foreign minister Zalmai Rasoul, so that the same old policies can continue. But Mr. Karzai says he has no favourites and he will be a free man after next month’s elections to visit Sri Lanka as a tourist with his wife and children.
But Afghan watchers and critics believe that his sudden anti-US speeches are poll-related theatrics. With anti-US sentiments prevalent all over Afghanistan, the more one becomes anti-US, the more votes he will get, they say.
Karzai admitted at the media interaction in Colombo that the bases would be set up with the Americans signing the BSA with the new government.
In yet another move that drew US anger, Mr. Karzai last month released 65 hardcore Taliban prisoners from a jail once run by the US forces.
Continuing his ranting, two days before he arrived in Sri Lanka, Mr. Karzai told the Washington Post that the war in Afghanistan was not being fought with his country’s interest in mind. “Afghans died in a war that is not theirs,” he said.
The Sunday Times asked him why he took 12 long years to realise something which anti-war and anti-neocolonialist groups knew all along. When he responded he did not sound like the anti-US Chavez. He said he would be careful with his words.
This was his reply: “We realised it a long time back. But we want to be friendly with the rest of the world. We have strategic partnerships with many countries. We have signed such agreements with Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway, Italy, India and other countries. Similarly we also have a strategic partnership with the US. We want to engage them in the closest possible manner. We have close security arrangements. The only thing we ask in return is that such partnerships should bring peace to Afghanistan.
“You were referring to my remarks to the Washington Post where I asked whether the Americans and Nato are in Afghanistan for Afghanistan or for another purpose. US presidents and officials have announced that they are in Afghanistan to protect their security. They are for themselves, for their own security. We respect their security concerns because it is our belief that there should be peace and security for all countries. Similarly, we also expect them to respect our peace and security.”
To a question on the West’s double standards and its attempt to penalise Sri Lanka through the United Nations Human Rights Council process, he was equally circumspect with his words. He spoke of the importance of protecting human rights of all and said the Sri Lankan government was doing it.
He said peace in Sri Lanka would guarantee rights and the West should help “countries like ours to achieve peace and stability and … an environment where rights are guaranteed.”
He said that since he had already spoken much about the attitude of the West, he would not speak about it in Colombo.
With regard to the drone attacks, too, his response was not as forceful as it was during the Washington Post interview where he said he wished the five-year-old drone victim he met in a French-run hospital had been dead. She had no face — completely blown off from the chin up to the eyes – and no parents too. They died in the US drone attack. Avoiding such emotionally charged remarks, he told the Colombo news conference, “The loss of life (in drone attacks) is unfortunate and sad.”
Perhaps, the Colombo news conference was for a different audience with the message being the need for close cooperation between Afghanistan and Sri Lanka in various areas ranging from education to sports. (See box story).
But his country’s close relations with India have raised eyebrows in neighbouring Pakistan which is paying a heavy price because of the war in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s politicians and the media have accused India of fomenting trouble in Pakistan’s Baluchistan and other areas bordering Afghanistan. They also question the rationale for India to maintain a dozen consulate offices in Afghanistan.
But Mr. Karzai was defensive of India’s role in Afghanistan, though he dismissed the claim that India maintains a dozen consulate offices throughout Afghanistan. “India has been a tremendous friend of Afghanistan and given us more than 2 billion dollars in aid over the past four years. There is no truth in reports that India has a dozen consulate offices in Afghanistan. In addition to the embassy in Kabul, there are four Indian consulate offices – in Kandahar, Jalalabad, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif. Two of these are 60-years-old and the other two are 22-years-old. India is viewed very well in Afghanistan,” he said.
(This article first appeared in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka)
Four deals signed:
Sri Lanka and Afghanistan signed four agreements during President Hamid Karzai’s state visit this week to Sri Lanka.
The agreements signed on Thursday relate to higher education for Afghan students in Sri Lanka, training for Afghan health sector workers, Sri Lanka’s assistance in developing Afghanistan’s sports, including cricket, and skilled jobs for Sri Lankans in Afghanistan.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai told Thursday’s news conference that he had discussions with President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Sri Lanka’s assistance in skills development, capacity building and on accepting Afghan students on scholarships on Afghan government resources to study medical science, engineering, and other subjects.

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Ukraine: Who holds the reins?

By Ameen Izzadeen
Democracy is politically victimised, especially when it poses a danger to the interests of big powers. In recent years many a government that has come to power through democratic elections has been overthrown by people’s power — a process that appears to be legitimate, but beneath whose surface one finds big power politics.
Ukraine is one such case. The rapidity with which the government of President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown last Saturday is mind-boggling. It was, in a way, as Russian President Vladimir Putin called it, a Brown revolution – a German phrase that describes the handover of power to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party. In Ukraine, it was a virtual handover of power to the Fatherland Party led by Yulia Tymoshenko, the West’s chosen messiah whose task is to free Ukraine from the Russian grip and make it a Western vassal state. Although, the West saw the overthrow as the culmination of the Ukrainian people’s struggle for democracy, it is largely a fascist putsch by those who had no faith in democracy or the democratic process which involves free elections.
True, democracy recognises the people’s right to rise in a revolution and overthrow a government. But that is only when the government turns oppressive and makes a mockery of democracy and turns elections into a farce. Since Yanukovych, despite his mistakes and misdeeds, had not closed the door on democracy and he was even ready to hold an early presidential election within months, the Ukrainian power grab by the rightwing Fatherland Party, the Svoboda party and the neo-Nazi Right Sector group lacks legitimacy and is immoral.
Certainly, the crisis over Ukraine’s ties with the European Union could have been sorted out at a presidential election or a countrywide referendum. But the opposition probably fears the outcome of a referendum. A recent opinion poll indicates that only 40 per cent of the people back the country’s membership in Nato. No wonder, the putschists kicked the democratic option away and resorted to the short-cut to power in their attempt to install a pro-West puppet regime.
Apart from pressure from Russia, President Yanukovych had his reasons not to sign a deal with the EU. With Ukraine’s economic woes and its foreign debts increasing, the country was fast losing its creditworthiness. Major international banks would offer loans only at high interest rates while the European Union and the International Monetary Fund demanded tough austerity measures such as slashing of subsidies on oil and gas in exchange for one or two billion dollars in aid. Yanukovych saw the EU-IMF prescription as a conspiracy to make him unpopular or bring down his government because a cut in subsidies would push the prices of most goods and services up.
When this method failed, the regime changers in the West resorted to Plan B. They rallied behind the opposition to overthrow the government and called it a people’s power revolution.
Regime changing is a key feature of international relations practised by powerful countries, including the United States and Russia. The process is part of the post-colonial world order, with neo-colonialist policies helping big powers to continue their domination and rob the resources of developing countries.
But if democracy brings in governments hostile to the West, then such governments are removed through a process that is seen to be democratic. It is in this context that methods such as people’s power revolutions are seen to be helpful.
Ukraine is not the only country where the regime change formula has worked. In July last year, Egypt’s democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi was overthrown in what was described, over and over in the Western media, as another people’s power revolution, though it had all the features of a military coup. The West feared that Egypt under Morsi was drifting away from its sphere of influence as his government had curtailed ties with Israel and improved relations with Iran, China and Hamas. It later transpired that the Egyptian putsch was funded by the United States’ democracy-hating West Asia ally, Saudi Arabia, and Washington itself had played a key role in the run-up to the overthrow.
Another example of democracy being dealt a serious blow was Palestine. Here the West implemented a different plan – Plan C – when Hamas swept the elections to the Palestinian Authority’s legislative council in 2006. Instead of respecting the people’s verdict in a free and fair election, the West refused to recognise a Hamas-led government, halted the peace process and suspended aid. Moreover, the West forced Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to dissolve the Hamas administration in a move that saw bloody clashes between supporters of Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah group. As a result, Palestine is today politically divided with Hamas governing the Gaza Strip and Fatah the West Bank. Since Hamas’ victory in 2006, the Palestinian territory has not seen a national election though the presidential and parliamentary elections should have been held in 2010.
Decades ago, the West implemented another formula – Plan D — to overthrow a democratically elected government. This happened in Iran in 1953. When Mohammed Mossaddeq nationalised the country’s oil industry which was in the hands of British Petroleum and Shell, he was overthrown in a military coup orchestrated by Britain’s MI6 and the American CIA at the behest of these transnational oil giants.
In the case of Algeria, the West-backed military coup – Plan E — scuttled the democratic process in the midst of a parliamentary election when the results of the first phase of the polls showed that the anti-West Islamic party, Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), was in the lead.
There is yet another regime change formula, Plan F: Assassinations.
Cuba’s legendary leader Fidel Castro has survived hundreds of assassination attempts by the CIA. A 2006 Channel 4 documentary titled ‘638 Ways to Kill Castro’ quotes Fabian Escalante, the former head of Cuba’s Intelligence Directorate, as saying that they had busted more than 600 plots and conspiracies to assassinate Castro.
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro accused Washington of infecting former President Hugo Chavez with the cancer which eventually took his life. He was repeating the allegations made by Chavez himself when he was battling the cancer.
The regime changers’ Plan G is military intervention which we have seen in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya in recent years.
There may be other sophisticated formulas which elude scrutiny. For example, as a long- or mid-term plan for regime change (Plan H), a foreign state could secretly groom an agent in the target state to achieve its agenda. He could be a public figure from the opposition, civil society or even from the government itself. One never knows whether Mikhail Gorbachev, who presided over the mighty Soviet Union during its final collapse in 1991, was such a person.
Then there is the International Criminal Court process for regime change (Plan I). Through this process, a leader of the target state is slapped war crime charges and tried at the ICC. This happened to Liberia’s Charles Taylor.
But these regime change plans entail consequences which, sometimes, go counter to the objectives of the regime changers. Take for instance, Iraq. Much to the disappointment of the United States, the government in Baghdad is friendlier towards Iran than to the US and supports Syria’s Bashar al-Assad government which Washington seeks to overthrow. In Libya, though the regime is pro-West, the country is in bloody political chaos that has claimed thousands of lives, including that of a US ambassador.
Even the Ukrainian case is also saddled with problems and uncertainties. Many do not know how Russia will respond to what it sees as hostile events in neighbouring Ukraine. Questions are being asked about Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Already the Ukrainian putsch has increased military tensions with Russia. Besides, Russia is livid that the interim pro-West coalition government has removed the official status granted to the Russian language. Russia also keeps a close watch on Ukraine’s Crimean region where the Russians form the majority.
As this article was being written yesterday, Reuters news agency flashed a breaking news items to say that pro-Russian armed men had taken over Crimea’ Parliament building and raised the Russian flag over it. Reports also said that ethnic tension was on the rise in Crimea with Tartars who are Muslims, backing the new government and fighting the Russians. In response, the new government in Kiev summoned a Russian diplomat to the foreign ministry to lodge its protest while the interim president Olexander Turchynov warned Russia that its troops from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet should not move outside their naval base at Sevastopol in Crimea.
These developments in Crimea came even as Russian President Putin ordered a sudden and massive military drill close to Ukraine’s border in a move that underscored Russia’s determination to keep Ukraine within its orbit. Russia has also tightened security in its Crimea naval base, amid reports that Ukraine might send troops to the region. If this happens, will Russia send troops to Crimea as it did in the South Ossetia case when Georgia sent troops to the region?
Questions also arise as to whether the new anti-Russian government will allow Moscow export gas to Europe via pipelines that go through Ukraine. Will there be Russian military intervention if Ukraine decides to close the pipelines? Russia on its part has said it would honour legally binding energy contracts to provide Ukraine with natural gas. But there is also a possibility that the new government in a bid to distance itself from Moscow, may look to other sources of energy supplies.
Russia is also worried that that the regime change formula that worked in Ukraine could be tried out in other countries in Russia’s backyard. Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think-tank in Moscow, told German magazine Süddeutsche Zeitung early this week that pro-Western opposition forces are preparing for operations like the Ukrainian putsch throughout the territories of the former USSR, including in Russia itself.
It was only a few months ago that Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan is reported to have warned Putin that if Moscow stopped supporting the Syrian regime, he (Prince Bandar) would prevent Russia’s Islamic rebels from carrying out terrorist attacks aimed at scuttling the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. But it now appears the game against Putin is bigger than Sochi.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Ukraine: Flashpoint for a new Cold War

By Ameen Izzadeen
Who said the Cold War is over? Look at the crisis in Ukraine. It indicates that the Cold War embers are still smouldering, though they are unlikely to engulf the whole world as a major fire, as had been the case prior to 1991 for some four decades, during which the nuclear clock had been often set at five-minutes to zero hour, or even less than that.
The West did indeed savour victory over its Cold War rival, the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies following the dramatic collapse of the communist empire and communism itself in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. But Russia, the mother country in the Soviet Union, was smarting over the defeat. Though Russia adopted the West’s economic policies with some modifications and controls, it refused to bow to the West which Moscow felt was trying to undermine its security, sovereignty and power. Russia quietly worked hard to regain its superpower reputation.
The growing crisis in Ukraine, which shares a border of more than 2,000 km with Russia, is not without the overtones of the new version of the Cold War.
In the immediate post-Cold War era, Russia was unable to assert its external authority owing to internal economic crises and the drastic fall of the ruble. But by 2005, Russia, aided by rising oil prices and the iron-fist rule of President Vladimir Putin, regained its composure and was able to send a powerful message to the West, especially the United States. Putin’s message – or the Putin doctrine – in a no-nonsense manner told the West: Do not mess around in Russia’s backyard. The message was also directed at Russia’s newly independent neighbours.
The Central Asian countries which were striking military and economic deals with the West in the immediate post-Cold War era took the warning seriously and decided to stay clear of the West. Uzbekistan urged the Americans to dismantle the US military base. Kyrgyzstan was dilly-dallying. Soon it saw a Russian engineered coup, in which President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was thrown out. This was because he had promised the Russians that he would ask the Americans to dismantle the Manas base, but when the Americans agreed to increase the rent and the economic aid, he reneged on his promise, angering Russia. With the new pro-Russian regime in Kyrgyzstan increasing the rent to very exorbitant levels, the United States in October last year announced it would quit the base by July this year.
These developments were a victory for Russia, which together with China has got Central Asian countries in a defence and economic alliance in the form of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Russia also has a wider plan to bind all its neigbours in an economic union. Called the Eurasian Union, the proposed alliance is Russia’s response to the European Union.
Not only in Central Asia, Russia also scored a victory over the West in its Western backyard. Apart from forcing the United States to scrap a move to install strategic missiles in Eastern Europe, Russia in 2008 militarily intervened in Georgia’s civil war, daring even North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) which had signed a defence agreement – the so-called Partnership for Peace agreement — with Georgia.
Russia, the world’s second biggest nuclear power (after the US) — and the world’s biggest conventional force — strongly opposes its neighbours’ flirtations with the Nato. But, like Georgia, many of Russia’s western neighbours had negotiated Nato membership prospects when Russia was weak and battling numerous domestic problems such as a faltering economy and a separatist rebellion in Chechnya.
Ukraine was one such nation that longed for Nato membership. It started talks with Nato in 1995 and by 2008 it was a candidate that had acquired Nato’s requirements to qualify for membership. But by this time, Russia was strong enough to twist Ukraine’s arm. The Ukraine-Russia relationship is symbiotic, but in Russia’s favour. Ukraine depends on Russian gas while Russia cannot send its gas to European countries if Ukraine closes the taps of the pipeline that goes through Ukraine. However, relations between the two countries were often strained because of disputes over the price of gas and Ukraine’s delay in honouring payments to Russian suppliers. When Russia, demanding payment, cut off supplies, Ukraine retaliated by closing the taps of the pipelines that took Russian gas to Europe. That was prior to 2010. Russia is also Ukraine’s biggest market for industrial and agriculture products while Ukraine hosts a base for Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
However, the relations between the two countries improved with the election of President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2010. He shelved Ukraine’s plans to join Nato and declared that Ukraine under him would remain non-aligned. The Ukrainian Parliament in June 2010 approved a resolution to keep the country out of the process of “integration into Euro-Atlantic security and NATO membership”. However, Nato maintains some low level ties with Ukraine, holding seminars and joint exercises of low strategic importance.
It is against this backdrop that this column seeks to analyse the current crisis in Ukraine.
The crisis broke out when Yanukovych, under Russian pressure, halted moves to join the European Union and instead turned towards Russia for economic aid and cooperation. This was in November last year.
An angry opposition urged the people to join street protests and accused Yanukovych of selling the country to Russia and squandering the opportunity to prosper through the deal with EU. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians responded to the call for protest and stayed put at the Maidan – Independence Square — in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. The protest gathered pace when at the EU summit in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius in November last year, Yanukovych refused to sign the EU association agreement and police resorted to use force to disperse the crowd. According to BBC, Yanukovych reportedly told Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite, who hosted the EU-Ukraine talks, that Russia had threatened to restrict imports of Ukrainian goods.
With these developments, the protesters called for the resignation of the government.
With the economy in bad shape, Yanukovych turned towards Russia and China. In December last year, he visited China and claimed that Beijing had promised US$ 8 billion in aid. The same month, he met Putin in Sochi, the venue for the Winter Olympics, and held talks aimed at striking a “strategic partnership”. Also in December, he met Putin for the second time in Moscow to discuss the growing crisis. While Putin accused the West and the European Union of blackmailing Ukraine, the West voiced its strong disapproval over what it called Moscow’s unacceptable pressure on Ukraine — with the US Secretary of State John Kerry urging the Ukrainian leaders to listen to the people. The White House condemned the violence, while US lawmakers warned of possible sanctions. In a show of solidarity with the protesters, US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland visited Maidan, the nerve centre of the protests.
In response, an angry Moscow told the West not to meddle in Ukraine. Russia also announced that it would write off $15 billion of Ukrainian debt and would reduce the price of Russian gas supplies to Ukraine by about a third.
But these concessions did not convince the protesters. Neither did the agreements Yanukovych reached with opposition leaders help solve the crisis. Analysts say a new opposition leadership has emerged to direct the protesters. This is why Russia strongly believes that the protesters are handled by the West.
In its response to this week’s clashes between protesters and the police – clashes that killed 27 protesters and policemen – Putin said that “from the point of view of the Russian leadership”, all of the responsibility for the bloodshed could be laid at the door of “the extremist forces.” Russia’s Foreign Ministry in a statement described the violence as an attempt at a coup d’etat and a “brown” revolution.
“The Russian side is demanding the leaders on the streets to stop the violence in their country and immediately resume dialogue with the lawful government without threats and ultimatums,” the statement said even as the EU warned of possible sanctions against Ukrainian leaders.
The West also talked tough. President Obama warned that there “will be consequences” for anyone who steps over the line in Ukraine — including the military intervening in a situation that civilians should resolve. He also expressed hopes that Wednesday’s truce “may hold”.
In yet another move, the EU yesterday held an emergency meeting to discuss the situation in Ukraine and possible sanctions that would make Yanukovych a political pariah. Hours before this meeting started five more people died in fresh clashes and the shaky truce with the opposition collapsed. It is also possible that the crisis in Ukraine is part of a Western plan to punish Putin for protecting the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria.
It is no secret that the EU is keen to thwart Russia’s attempt to promote a rival Eurasian Union. A possible solution to the crisis would be a referendum to decide on the issue of Ukraine joining the EU — or for the protesters to remain patient till presidential elections next year. It should be noted that the protesters who are at Independence Square at Kiev are not a microcosm of the whole of Ukrainian society. Yanukovych was elected as president in an election that had the endorsement of international observers. He still enjoys considerable support among the Ukrainian people, though it may be fast waning.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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