North Korea, the Hermit Kingdom (Part I of II)

Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un in front of military leaders

Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un in front of military servicemen

(Part I of II)

North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is a country of 25 million that has been effectively  trapped in a Cold War mindset since the 1950s. Like his father Kim Jong-il who ruled from 1994 until his death in 2011, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has run the country through a policy of desperation, repression, and isolation, the last of which has given way to its label as the Hermit Kingdom. North Korea is governed by Juche, a political ideology of self-reliance used to justify the totalitarian military dictatorship and the idolization of its hereditary leadership. Kim il-Sung, the father of Kim Jong-il and grandfather of Kim Jong-un, is the founder of Juche and still the Eternal President of North Korea despite the fact that he has been deceased for over 20 years. Worshiped like a God, the leadership of Kim il-Sung and his successors are treated as infallible, and their policies have driven the country to a draconian state in a constant humanitarian crisis with alarming similarities to George Orwell’s 1984.

Reverence to Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il is compulsory

Reverence toward Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il is compulsory

North Korea’s leaders have perpetuated a mentality of mortal fear through decades of pro-regime propaganda. The country has instilled into its populace the idea that at any moment South Korea and the ‘evil American imperial empire’ would annihilate them if not for their hard work and the sacrifice of their armed forces. The North Korean active armed forces are the fifth-largest in the world by manpower, a staggering feat considering North Korea is barely in the top 50 of countries by population. Bizarre reports from North Korea such as an official released happiness index placed them at #2 most content behind China, South Korea at #152, and the US at #203 (though the criteria and full rankings are unclear). After a trailer for the movie, “The Interview” featuring James Franco and Seth Rogen was released, North Korea’s UN Ambassador made an official complaint to the United Nations, declaring the film as “the most undisguised act of terrorism as well as an act of war.”

The conclusion of the Korean War (1950-1953) resulted in a cease-fire though not a formal peace treaty, thus technically the two countries have been at war for more than six decades. The sinking of the ROKS Cheonan navy ship that killed 46 South Korean servicemen, and the shelling of Yeongpeong Island, also in 2010, are recent skirmishes that prove North Korea is willing to push the envelope on what is acceptable in terms of brash maneuvers to embolden their own military situation. Though the rhetoric and threats far exceed the reality of the situation, North Korea has shown it is an unpredictable and temperamental thorn in the region. For example, despite an extensive array of measures, sanctions, and incentives offered to give up its nuclear and missile programs, North Korea continues to develop and test its weaponry and nuclear capabilities.

Map showing common routes taken by North Korean defectors

Map showing common routes taken by North Korean defectors

The reality for many North Koreans is far from the front lines, despite hosting the most heavily militarized border in the world with South Korea. Millions of North Koreans live and work in labor camps which have been compared to Nazi labor camps and Soviet gulags. The inhumane conditions are coupled with the extent of service in the camps, which can span past one’s life onto their future kin. In the relatively short span of several generations malnutrition and starvation has resulted in a marked difference in stunted health and growth between North Korean children and their neighbors in South Korea. The health emergency has become the norm in the country and the state has taken great effort to hide the scale and extent of the atrocities. The average North Korean knows next to nothing about the modern world, living in a caged country and with minimal hope for change.

Most comparable humanitarian disasters are troubled by a lack of governing authority and distribution networks. Uniquely, the North Korean government has defiantly rejected food aid many times because of the conditions dependent on halting or ending its nuclear ambitions, and its stance on the donors themselves. Its adherence to the Juche self-reliance ideal has created a paradox of being unable to sustain itself without outside help, while being ideologically  against accepting most assistance with the exception of its closest quasi-partner, China. China has seen North Korea as a buffer zone between a united Korea under Western influence, and has desired internal stability in the Hermit Kingdom over an even worse humanitarian disaster that would inevitably come with state collapse. Recently, the United Nations has tried to put additional pressure on China to change its policies towards repatriating North Korean defectors, many of whom must travel to Southeast Asia before being accepted as refugees in South Korea. The transition into the modern world for North Korean defectors is so shocking that assimilation is an extremely difficult task in itself.

While a total reformation of the North Korean political system seems the best way forward for the people of the DPRK, total state collapse would inevitably bring about chaos and tremendous consequences for the millions of refugees that would find themselves in a totally new world they have been taught to fear their entire lives.

(Part II covers the contemporary relations and future of North Korea and can be found here)

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The New War in Iraq has Begun

ISIS militants marching in seized city of Mosul

ISIS militants marching in captured city of Mosul

The Iraqi government, the United States, and the international community must recognize the situation on the ground in Iraq and label it appropriately for what has become: a new civil war. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (synonymous with ISIS) now control cities and significant territory within the country, has further deepened the fracture between Sunnis and Shias, and it has created a vacuum that the Kurdish Regional Government has capitalized upon.

ISIS captured the second largest city in Iraq, Mosul, on June 10th. While the scale of the attack and the success they achieved was unprecedented, their rapid growth and brutality is nothing new. The Sunni Islamic terror group’s first major attack freed hundreds of militants from the Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons occurred in July 2013, nearly a year ago. Since then they have continued to gain sympathizers, fighters, and land, and they now are fighting towards Baghdad while threatening what little stability is left in the country. In February, ISIS was disavowed from its affiliate status with al-Qaeda, and the radical group has continued to prove its effectiveness on its own in pursuit of creating a new Islamic caliphate under strict Sharia law.

Extent of ISIS influence and control

Extent of ISIS influence and control

In the attack on Mosul, the Iraqi army deserted en masse, leaving behind weapons, military equipment, and even uniforms. ISIS has even added former Saddam loyalists to their cause, stirring old animosities against the current Shia government. Thus far, the Iraqi government has proven to be wholly incapable of mounting a counter campaign to reverse the progress gained by the extremist group. At present, ISIS informally administers a volatile region spanning from eastern Syria to western Iraq. ISIS has enough resources and firepower to attack conventional security forces head on though they additionally utilize suicide bombers with devastating results.

The alliances that have been sought with tribal militias and locals to fight ISIS have fallen far short in creating a united opposition to the intruding extremist group. As a result, the US has signalled that it wishes for a new Iraqi government to be formed without the current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, accusing him of failing to curb the festering sectarian divisions plaguing the country. Maliki has had significant troubles appealing to the Sunni community and has marginalized many Sunni leaders in how he has approached the crisis in the western Anbar region. It is clear that without international support the Iraqi government, with or without Maliki, cannot hope to administer their own country.

Iran’s stake in Maliki and a stable neighbor in Iraq, the only other large Shia majority country, has also been brought to the forefront. Iran is already deeply involved in Syria and propping up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but ISIS is a common enemy for both Iran and the United States. Furthermore, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has jumped in and taken control of Kirkuk and other smaller towns previously contested between the KRG and Iraqi government. The Kurdish Peshmerga security forces have not directly fought with ISIS on a comparable scale to the Iraqi army, but they are a critical element to be reckoned with in terms of both the future of the Iraqi state and ISIS controlled territory on their border.

PM Maliki requested a state of emergency after the capture of Mosul

PM Maliki requested a state of emergency after the capture of Mosul

The nascent war currently raging in Iraq between Islamic extremists and the Iraqi government is not the responsibility of the United States. If an American says, “this is not our fight” then they are correct, the current crisis is not a fight of the United States. However, this war has developed under the current Iraqi government that recent events have suggested may be impossible to truly win. The Iraqi government needs to make further concessions to moderate Sunnis willing to stand up against the terrors of ISIS. The Kurdish factor also cannot be ignored, and as they have their own highly trained security forces (the peshmerga), parlaying with the KRG against ISIS should be an obvious option to pursue.

The wider involvement regarding the US, Iran, and beyond needs to be weighed with the larger security threat as a whole. If ISIS is able to build an autonomous, unrecognized state within the borders of Syria and Iraq that can export terrorism to neighboring countries then the priority should be to disable that threat as quickly as possible. The safety and security of innocent Iraqis, whether they be Shia, Sunni, or one of the myriad of smaller minorities, needs to be addressed as well. The US cannot and will not send a conventional military force back to Iraq in the near future. However, utilizing the resources and relationships in the region to stem the success of ISIS for the benefit of all must be pursued.

Iraq cannot continued to be ignored, and the problems it faces will continue to worsen until there is significant change in how the people of Iraq are empowered to stand up and oppose ISIS.

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Thailand Quietly Slipping Back into Military Rule

Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk demonstrating in opposition to the May 22nd military coup

Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk demonstrating in opposition to the May 22nd military coup

Thailand has once again fallen victim to a military coup with the ouster of democratically elected Yingluck Shinawatra on May 22nd. This is the latest of well over a dozen coups the country has experienced since the abolishment of its absolute Monarchy in 1932, and the ruling interim authority set up by the military, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has already taken harsh steps to preventing any dissent. Hundreds of political figures and activists have been arrested, martial law has been instituted, and a gathering of as few as five people can be sentenced to at least a year in prison for illegal assembly. Human Rights Watch has called for an end to civilians facing military trials and arbitrary arrests, warning that the sweeping measures adopted by the interim NPCO authority are setting the groundwork for a military dictatorship.

Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt protests in Bangkok in February

Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt protests in Bangkok in February

The coup has come after over seven months of ongoing political crisis that so far has claimed the lives of over two dozen people due to interspersed faction violence. The political divide in Thailand falls largely between the ‘yellow shirts,’ (the People’s Alliance for Democracy) who are primarily urban upper class and pro-Monarchist, and the mostly rural and urban lower class ‘red shirts’ (the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship). The conflict between these two sides of society has only been worsened by the intervention of the military and their actions which have included the suspension of the constitution. Additionally, the NCPO has closed border crossings to Laos and Cambodia, imposed curfews, and General Prayuth Chan-ocha has declared himself acting Prime Minister of the country.

In supporting ex-Prime Minister Yingluck, the red shirts have protested against the rampant interference in the political process after opposition yellow shirts blocked enough polling stations for the courts to declare the preliminary general elections invalid earlier this year. The yellow shirts opposed Yingluck and her brother and predecessor as Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, for alleged corruption. Thaksin has lived outside of the country in exile since he was removed in a military coup in 2006. The yellow shirts thus sought reform and the immediate removal of Prime Minister Yingluck rather than scheduled elections. Now that the military junta has stepped in, the yellow shirts have won in regards to Yingluck’s ouster while the red shirts have further been marginalized and have vowed to continue to fight for their right to vote.

The King of Thailand, the longest ruling Monarch still in power today, still holds some important powers including his position as the leader of the armed forces and the head of state. The King’s official recognition of the NCPO and its leader General Prayuth, lent legitimacy to the coup and further complicated the process towards a representative government. Revered especially by the yellow shirts, King Adulyadej at age 86 is the symbol of consistency that many fear cause a chasm if his ailing health continues to worsen. Without the King, as encroaching military authority will have little trouble in solidifying its own interests at the expense of both political groups as has been seen by their actions so far. While the red shirts have been directly disenfranchised, the yellow shirts who are tacitly supporting this military takeover are assuredly feeling much less threatened. Nonetheless, the relationship between the yellow shirts and military will be very interesting to follow as it develops over time.

General Prayuth, acting Prime Minister of Thailand

General Prayuth, acting Prime Minister of Thailand

The actions of the armed forces and the protesters who both sides that took up violence or intimidation tactics to push their agendas has culminated in a government in the hands of a few highly connected military officers. If flashing the ‘Hunger Games’ salute can put you in jeopardy of going to prison, the outlook for the future for Thailand is not bright at the moment. The NPCO says it is acting in the interest of Thailand’s stability, and while creeping violence was previously an issue the ironfisted approach of removing Yingluck and clamping down on dissent has spun the country backwards. Curfews in key tourist locales have since been lifted by the military after tourism crashed in the country following the coup, but the authoritarian laws on the opposition groups are likely to stay for much longer.

Thailand as noted above is no stranger to military takeovers. While in the past the military has stepped back after time to allow governments to form again, all signs indicate that as soon as the elected leadership crosses a line with the armed forces or begins to threaten their authority, they jump back to take charge again. The denial of fair elections for the people of Thailand, notably the red shirts, underscores the difficulty the country will have in moving forward. Opposing authoritarian measures such as the limits on assembly and peaceful protest must continue to delegitimize the ruling military authority. Internationally support of the Thai people who seek democratic reform, regardless of their political affiliation, can expose the nature of the military junta and facilitate further pressure to reform more quickly. The red shirts demanded the right to vote and were denied, so now it is time to see if the reform the yellow shirts pressed for will actually take place.

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President Sisi, Egypt’s Next Autocrat?

Egypt1Egyptians celebrated a tremendous achievement when the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak was toppled on February 11th, 2011. Unfortunately, that victory was short-lived because the subsequent leader, Mohammed Morsi, fell far short in delivering on the people’s goals of “bread, freedom and social justice.” Now a year after Morsi’s leadership abruptly ended, the military official who announced the coup to depose Morsi, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is going to be elected the next President of Egypt. Sisi is expected to usher in a reversion to many of the same autocratic policies and practices of the Mubarak era that Egyptians fought so hard against in the first place.

A defining hope early on in the Arab Spring was that with the downfall of autocratic leaders like Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Ben Ali in Tunisia, and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, a new and promising future would be on the horizon for the region. However, with perhaps the exception of Tunisia, the aforementioned countries are still facing daily challenges in managing the difficult transitional period toward finding a new and stable government. Egypt as the largest nation in terms of economic size, population, and regional influence is once again facing oppressive military encroachment that will severely limit the potential of its people.

After Mubarak was overthrown, the power vacuum was filled by the most organized institution outside of the formal state apparatus: the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi, narrowly defeated the military’s contender in June of 2012. When Morsi became president he consolidated power to his own office until his controversial ouster via military coup on July 3rd, 2013. Morsi’s creeping Islamism in politics divided the country and resulted in sporadic deadly clashes on the streets.  Conflict between the Brotherhood and the military apparatus that has persisted in tensions across the country and led to greater pessimism toward the future.

Although Morsi was elected democratically, he turned his back on the majority of the Egyptian people by failing to implement the reforms expected of a new leader. The Brotherhood was banned by the current interim regime and nearly 700 people were sentenced to death by a court for their role in the violence on behalf of the Brotherhood though the decision is not yet final. The court ruling is shocking both in terms of scale and in terms of brutality, and has served to reduce the Brotherhood to a shell of what it once was. Originally a leader in informal community development and social projects across the country, the jump into the political realm for the Brotherhood backfired incredibly.

Though Mohammed Morsi was responsible for mismanagement during his term as president, the planned execution of hundreds, persecution of hundreds more, and declaration by Sisi that the group would be wiped out are reminiscent of the Mubarak’s brutal repression tactics from when he was in power. Already the United States, which held an ambivalent stance towards the Morsi ouster, has warmed to the prospect of Sisi taking the reins in Egypt. After reducing military exports to Egypt, the US has begun sending Apache attack helicopters again in order to combat extremist violence in the Sinai peninsula.

General Sisi announcing the military coup that ousted President Mohammed Morsi

General Sisi announcing the military coup that ousted President Mohammed Morsi

On June 5th it is widely expected that Sisi will be announced as the next president of the country. Sisi has manipulated his image to be a symbol of stability and opposition to Morsi, though it is clear that his military allegiances will not disappear once he takes the leadership role. “Sisi-mania” took the country by storm when General Sisi stepped up to declare Morsi as unfit in the military coup, and ever since he has been destined for the top spot and crafted as a reluctant but beloved leader.

After more than four decades in the military, there is little question that Sisi will not deviate from the military interference in institutions and businesses that has kept them so entrenched in Egyptian society and politics. His reaction to the Brotherhood has suggested that opposition to his rule will be met with an iron fist, and the cult of personality that has been created around him marginalizes those who disagree with the direction he will take the country. What Egypt really needs is a more representative government that includes the real revolutionaries and liberals who ousted Mubarak, however those groups have been scattered and disorganized especially in contrast with the hierarchy of the military. Furthermore, eliminating the Muslim Brotherhood only pushes moderate religious Egyptians away from the state and gives the more extreme Islamic groups, such as the Salafis more legitimacy in their grievances.

The reality is that Sisi will be the next leader of Egypt, and the future does not look bright in terms of his promises to moving Egypt forward. The liberal revolutionaries that hoped for a freer, more accountable, and less corrupt Egypt have in many ways been co-opted by the old military elites with a new veneer. The military apparatus in Egypt has successfully capitalized on the disappointment that came with Morsi’s presidency and Sisi’s camp has presented him as the only option left. The United States has already decided to play ball with Sisi, and the majority of the Egyptian people have begrudgingly accepted the reality before them though once he is in the limelight the dissatisfaction with the military may return. Hopefully slowly but surely, the aspirations that led to Mubarak’s fall may once again permeate into Egyptian politics to direct the country through positive development for the people. Sisi has made sweeping promises to alleviate poverty and interestingly says he will step down if the people rise up against him, but I for one wouldn’t bet on it just yet.

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The Biggest Election in World History

Narendra Modi, leading opposition candidate for the prime minister of India

Narendra Modi, leading opposition candidate for the prime minister of India

The largest democratic election to ever take place is currently underway, but there’s a fair chance you have heard little about it. The Indian general elections to determine the next prime minister of the country as well as the composition of the lower house of parliament (called the Lok Sabha) began on April 7th, will continue until the 12th of May, and the winners will be announced on May 16th. In total there are more than 814 million eligible voters, which is over three times the amount of people eligible to vote in the United States’ 2012 presidential elections. Yet despite the scale and significance of these elections, they have attracted little attention outside of India itself.

Opposition candidate for prime minister Narendra Modi of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) may very well topple Rahul Gandhi, the candidate of the ruling Indian National Congress (commonly referred to as the Congress) which has been in power for the majority of India’s democratic history. Regardless of the results, huge changes are expected for the second most populous country in the world because of the swift rise of the BJP and Modi in contrast to the drop in popularity of the ruling coalition and Rahul Gandhi. The next prime minister’s term of five years will undoubtedly have a tremendous impact outside of India, though it has been largely overlooked thus far by Western media with the exception of the possible impact on financial markets.

The BJP is a Hindu-nationalist party and the more conservative of the two competing factions, contrasted with the liberal nationalist Congress which has been the largest and leading party of the ruling coalition since 2009. In fact, the Nehru-Gandhi family to which Rahul Gandhi belongs has dominated India’s political scene since independence in 1947, though popular discontent with the status quo and the lack of the party’s ability to improve their ruling image has eroded some of their support. Rahul Gandhi, referred to as ‘the reluctant prince,’ until recently played a back seat in politics and has been overshadowed by his family’s image and history.

Modi on the other hand, is a dynamic and controversial figure who has been praised for his economic growth as Chief Minister of the Gujarat state, but criticized for his handling of key events and lack of human rights development. During the 2002 riots in his home state of Gujarat that led to the deaths of hundreds via communal violence, Modi was lambasted for failing to curb the conflict and subsequently faced a special investigation. Though Modi was not convicted of any willful wrongdoing he was condemned internationally by countries like the US, UK and Pakistan. Despite these issues, Pakistan surprisingly endorsed him in the current election because they consider him a ‘strong leader,’ and Western countries have showed a willingness to work with Modi if he does indeed win.

Rahul Gandhi, Congress candidate for prime minister of India

Rahul Gandhi, Indian National Congress candidate for prime minister

Thus, the elections have been framed as being between a status quo and party line follower in Rahul Gandhi, or the riskier but economically savvy Narendra Modi. Modi on the world stage will almost assuredly be a more divisive figure in comparison to Gandhi or the outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Nonetheless, perhaps a greater foray onto the world stage could positively pay off for the country set to be the world’s most populous by 2028.

This election should not be forgotten as soon as the winner is announced. Indian politicians spent approximately $5 billion total on their campaigns, making it the second most expensive election of all time after the 2012 US presidential elections. The volatile relationship between India and Pakistan is a critical issue the next Indian leader in power must grapple with, as is managing the growth of one of the top ten largest economies in the world. India pursues a non-aligned and self-focused agenda, but its worldwide impact will continue to grow regardless of these goals.

There will be a new prime minister for 1.2 billion people on May 16th, though the US and West should not wait until then to start planning future cooperation with India. Preemptively strengthening  ties and adapting to the new leadership early on are much more favorable actions that should be taken in order to avoid being caught flat-footed when issues may arise. India may not be the most active in terms of foreign affairs, but there are huge benefits to greater economic collaboration and human rights development possible in the years ahead.

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The Syrian Civil War is Far From Over

Syria4

For more background information on the Syrian Civil War check out this post or read my preceding update on Syria.

At least 150,000 people have been killed as the Syrian Civil War enters its fourth year of fighting. The bloodshed has become so devastating and the fighting so entrenched that the United Nations has ceased formally counting the casualties because of a lack of verifiable information. Since the shock from learning of atrocities has subsided and without a major breakthrough by either side, coverage and interest in the conflict has waned. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the longer the civil war continues, the more the security of the whole region will be threatened, and the tougher it will be for millions of civilians to return to normalcy.

The total number of Syrians who have fled the country is now around three million according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres as 2.6 million have officially registered as a refugee in a foreign country. For comparison, if the same percentage of people were to flee the United States that would amount to nearly 42 million refugees, more than the entire population of California. Even if the civil war were to suddenly cease tomorrow, the effects will be felt for years to come for Syrians in the country and those who have resettled regionally and internationally.

The first and second rounds of the Geneva II Conference concluded quietly in February and failed to accomplish anything meaningful. A third round is potentially in the works but there is heavy pessimism on all sides because little has changed and it seems nobody is willing to truly reconcile on key issues. In terms of chemical weapons, it is still possible for the OPCW (the Nobel Peace Prize winning organization tasked with removing the weapons) to complete their mission before the proposed deadline of mid-2014. While taking chemical weapons out of the equation is a great accomplishment and should be praised, unfortunately this is only a minor element of the war at large and will not by itself have a ripple effect in lowering violence.

Spillover from the conflict is apparent through violent attacks in Iraq and Lebanon, and is causing a constant worry for Syria’s other neighbors of Jordan and Turkey. Whether it be violence directly occurring within Lebanon, or the collapse of local markets in southern Turkey, sprawling animosities and the refugee crisis are impacting the region as a whole. International and regional aid has been fluctuating depending on the circumstances, but obviously the longer the conflict goes on the costlier it will be and the more difficult it will be to properly gain the resources necessary to rebuild.

Fighting and shelling may have subsided in some areas, but it is clear that the underlying tensions are just as pressing as ever. Without any political reconciliation or any kind of formal cease-fire, any drop in direct combat between government forces and the opposition could very well translate to an increase in irregular and indirect fighting. Unfortunately too many Syrians and international fighters on both sides are still making the choice to enter the battlefield and risk their lives instead of suing for peace or seeking alternative solutions. A cessation to the bloodshed cannot be instituted successfully without the acquiescence of fighters on the ground, and the process cannot move as quickly in the right direction without international resources and assistance.

What can be done is to not ignore or brush aside the problems of Syria as ‘business as usual.’ These are real people who may be a half a world away but deserve the world’s attention because the atrocities and the devastation have continued and will continue. A renewed effort at seeking political reconciliation and an emphasis on how little violence has accomplished thus far should be a priority. There are next to no opportunities present for either side to seriously consider putting down their weapons because the incentives to disarm have been too few, and too many grievances have not addressed. Even small, concerted efforts towards a cease-fire could have beneficial impacts in the long term. Syria will not conclude its civil war until the Assad issue has been resolved, and the opposition has presented a real alternative.

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What’s Next for Russia and Crimea

Ukrainian military officials leave their posts, escorted by Russian forces

Ukrainian military officials leave their posts, escorted by Russian forces

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on March 18 that he signed a treaty with Crimean leaders to annex the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine into the Russian Federation. Putin claimed earlier in March that pro-Russian self-defense forces (not Russian military units), entered the Crimean peninsula and established control over government buildings, airfields and the strategically significant Sevastopol port on the Black Sea. The action comes after months of anti-government protests in Ukraine culminated in the ousting of their Moscow-backed President, Viktor Yanukovych. In response, the US, EU, and other Western governments have condemned the military incursion, suspended Russia’s membership in the G8, and have placed economic sanctions against Russian officials with further measures pending. Ukraine has pulled its forces out of the peninsula to avoid military confrontation, leaving the peninsula and over two million Crimean people under Russian control.

Direct warfare between Ukraine and Russia is very unlikely and would be devastating for both;  Ukraine would be affected more in terms of loss of sovereign authority and Russia in terms of tarnishing what legitimacy and reputation it has left. War is an option that neither side wants.

What is more likely to occur is a quasi-controlled Crimea territory under Russian control that deepens the political and economic divide between Russia and the West. More trade agreements and political summits will be either cancelled or postponed, and effective cooperation in the near future will be largely undermined by the Crimean issue. Putin has staked too much on Crimea to withdraw quickly, and the West cannot let the controversy go unpunished else leaders will receive criticism for appearing acquiescent and weak. The focus on the conflict between Russia and the West will likely center on saving face rather than direct and significant action from this point forward.

Timeline of Key Events

November 21, 2013: Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refuses to sign a trade agreement with the European Union in favor of increased ties to Russia, sparking national outcry

November 2013 – February 2014: Anti-government rallies in Ukraine demanding political and economic reform result in massive rallies, the occupation of government buildings, and violent clashes between security forces and demonstrators

February 20: The deadliest clashes yet result in over 70 deaths as government snipers fire on protesters

Late February: Ousted former president Yanukovych flees to Russia, early elections are scheduled in Ukraine, and Russian armed forces begin to take control of military installations in the Crimean peninsula. Anti-government protests end after Yanukovych’s departure

Early March: US, EU and other international governments condemn Russian intervention in Ukraine and begin issuing economic sanctions and cancelling agreements with Russia

March 4: Russian President Vladimir Putin claims he has reserved the right to protect citizens in eastern Ukraine but vowed force would only be used as a last resort

March 16: A referendum taken in the Crimea shows overwhelmingly support to leave Ukraine and join Russia

March 18: President Putin signs a treaty with Crimean leaders to annex the Crimean peninsula to the Russian Federation

Crimea2

Despite the strong rhetoric against Putin’s actions, producing a tangible deterrent to Russia could potentially cost the West just as much as it would affect Russia. In today’s globalized economy, the reality of options that the US and the rest of the international community can implement effectively is limited. Actions such as suspending Russia from the G8, cancelling trade agreements, and organizing additional military exercises are more important in a symbolic sense than a practical one.

European nations are too highly dependent on Russian natural gas, and international business leaders don’t want a war over the Crimea which would undercut their profits. The sanctions and cancelled summits thus far have been targeted on Russian economic and political leaders believed to be profiting on the Crimean crisis and more have been promised, but the impact will assuredly not coalesce Russia into doing an about face on the issue.

Crimea has a population of about 2.3 million, the majority of whom are ethnically Russian and speak Russian though almost a quarter of the population are ethnically Ukrainian. There is an additional Crimean Tatar minority which has returned to the peninsula after they were forcibly deported in WW2. The Tatars have expressed their fears of increased persecution under Russian authority and many have fled further west into Ukraine. Thus clearly the ramifications of the intervention have angered more than just the world at large, it has had a real impact on stirring up past grievances.

The closest comparison to what is happening in Crimea at present is the reaction to the conflict over South Ossetia, which has been under de facto control of Russian and South Ossetian authorities since the 2008 Georgian War. Similarly to Crimea, South Ossetians passed an unofficial referendum that voted for independence the ruling government did not recognize, and Russian military forces occupied the area in the name of protecting their civilians. The vast majority of the international community condemned the incursion, and in addition to Russia only four other countries (two of which are tiny Pacific island nations) recognized South Ossetia as a sovereign state.

What is next for Russia and Crimea depends on how Putin and Western leaders manage their leverage over one another. Neither stands to gain significantly from isolating the other side economically or even politically, but simultaneously backing down would only serve to embolden the competition. Crimea will continue to be officially considered part of Ukraine though the reality that it is under Russia’s wing will serve as a wrench in negotiations for some time.

The majority of the Crimean people voted in favor of joining Russia, and those have effectively had their wish granted. Excluding select elements of Russia’s leadership, few others stand to gain, and even then in the long run it is hard to tell if the benefits will outweigh the costs of the decision to intervene.

 

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The Central African Republic’s Crisis in the Center

CAR1On February 12th, the President of the Central African Republic Catherine Samba-Panza declared war on the Christian militias, known as the anti-balaka (anti-machete) for their reprisal wave of targeted killings of Muslims that has plunged the country into a humanitarian crisis. The current violence was preceded by 10 months of attacks on Christian communities by Islamic militant groups known as the Seleka. Amnesty International declared that the present offensive by the Christian anti-balaka has amounted to ethnic cleansing and has caused “a Muslim exodus of historic proportions.” Altogether there are 8,000 troops, (6,000 African Union and 2,000 French) who are trying to stop the sprawling and brutal sectarian violence with another 1,000 incoming from the European Union. Tens of thousands have been killed thus far and over a million people, nearly a quarter of CAR’s population, have been displaced.

CAR2The Central African Republic is a resource-rich but financially poor country that has endured five coups and numerous smaller rebel conflicts since its independence from France in 1960. CAR is about the size of France and is located squarely in the heart of Africa on line where Muslim and Christian cultures intersect that is becoming increasingly pronounced. The country is majority Christian (estimates vary from 55-80%), and the Muslims account for approximately 15% of the population living primarily in the northeast. The exodus of such a high percentage of the Muslim community, which constituted a significant portion of the merchant class, has devastated the country’s domestic economy. Additionally, the country’s neighbors have had more than their own fair share of conflict over state control, resources, and religious schisms presenting more challenges to the refugees fleeing CAR.

The hand-to-hand brutality of the violence and ensuing chaos that has destroyed villages and communities has justifiably attracted the attention of the international community. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon remarked that the situation has created a de facto partition of the country, and a UN force of 12,000 peacekeepers with a broad mandate has been proposed to augment the existing units in place. Though specific militia groups on both sides have undoubtedly been motivated on religious grounds, the violence has also been perpetrated for control over local areas and resources. The International Criminal Court opened an investigation into possible crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by various groups in CAR, though the legal process is incredibly lengthy and limited in who may be prosecuted.

The location of CAR takes place in a fragile region already rife with existing issues, from the northeast and east Sudan-South Sudan tensions, to instability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the south, to weak states like Chad which do not have the funds nor ability to adequately assist with such a refugee crisis. Holding the perpetrators of violent crimes responsible cannot be accomplished without some degree of stability, and the incoming peacekeeping mission aims to provide a departure from the sprawling and incessant attacks.

It will not cause a domino affect if one country in the region faces such a devastating problem as the Central African Republic currently is, but rather a ripple effect that will undoubtedly strain the stability surrounding states nonetheless.  The issues of religion and ethnicity are not being properly addressed and are too often the cause or justification of revived violence. The threat of genocide is a very real possibility if violent groups retain the ability to act with impunity, but with the consent of the government and the mandate providing further troops to stop the killings, it may very well be prevented from spreading further out of control.

In looking ahead, any and all militia groups need to be held to the same standard by the international forces, else the back-and-forth struggle of retaliatory action will continue. The proposed UN force should be approved given the severity of the situation and the potential for such heinous crimes to continue. President Samba-Panza has shown she will not tolerate obvious attacks on Muslim groups, and along with the CAR government the protection of civilians and de-escalation of conflict need to remain as top priorities. The international community should fast-track sending the necessary forces in order to quell the violence, and needs to play the vital role of investing in the refugees and infrastructure so the Central African Republic may rebound from this blight that has struck at its core.

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Sochi Olympics 2014: Behind the Games

Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremony

Scene from the opening ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics

The Olympics are  a unique opportunity for the many nations of the world to come together in competition through sport. Inevitably when different countries come together, political, social and cultural differences are brought to the attention of the public, and the current Winter Olympic Games in Sochi are no exception.  Russian President Vladimir Putin has placed his personal reputation on the line for the Sochi Games, and in many ways the games’ success will be seen as reflective of Russia as a whole. At a budget that has surpassed $50 billion the games are the most expensive Olympics of all time, more than the 2012 London Summer Games but also more expensive than the previous 21 Winter Olympic Games combined dating back to 1924. In addition to the allegations of rampant corruption on an unprecedented scale, Russia has been criticized over the decision to host in Sochi specifically, its stance on LGBT issues, and problems with human rights in general.

The $50+ billion price tag on the games is so notably suspect because of the sub-par conditions of many of the facilities and the lack of accountability for the money spent. A senior International Olympic Committee official stated that it was common knowledge that a third of total spending on the games disappeared due to corruption perpetrated by business associates with connections to Putin. Others place the figure even higher with some alleging that well over half the money allocated to the games were pocketed. A popular Twitter account highlighting many of the hastily and incomplete construction results has garnered more than 300,000 followers, but also glosses over a larger problem. Unfortunately, the total lack of accountability for billions of dollars spent in Sochi is reflective of the status quo in Russia, a deeply ingrained issue that has gone largely unnoticed by the outside world.

Sochi2

Located on the Black Sea the Sochi area was previously best known as a summer beach getaway for many Russians complete with palm trees. The nearby ski resort of Rosa Khutor in the northern Caucasus mountains is 30 miles away where the alpine events are taking place. Also close by are many smaller regions that have sought autonomy or independence, including Chechnya and South Ossetia, the latter of which Russia and Georgia fought a brief war over in 2008. Perhaps most vocally, the ethnic Circassian people have expressed their disdain for hosting the games specifically at Sochi because of its historical significance as the site of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Russians in the late 19th century. For further context, in addition to the proximity to disenfranchised and separatist groups, Sochi is comparably equidistant from the heart of the Middle East to the capital of Russia, Moscow.

After multiple bombings in Volgograd a city in the north Caucasus in October and December that killed 7 and 34 people respectively, the issue of security has been paramount for Russia. Journalists and experts have accused Russian security of engaging in mass surveillance  of virtually all electronic devices and even spying in bathrooms, but at the end of the day if any and all attacks are prevented, Russian will likely assert it was all worth it. Furthermore, attracting intense criticism and controversy has been Russia’s stance on LGBT issues, specifically the law passed in 2013 by a vote of 436-0 banning ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’ among minors. The conservative Russian culture and the government itself have quietly ignored the issue in regards to the games and this is likely to continue in order to avoid a backlash. The law has not been actively enforced in any context at the Olympic Games, but it has simultaneously served as a platform for discussion and advocacy on the issue in the West.

While the Olympics are largely regarded as a tremendous opportunity to gain international prestige and promote a country’s stance on the world stage, the problems and conflicts that exist within and because of the games should not be ignored for the sake of convenience. Russia and Putin  in many ways are using the Olympic games as a tool to further their own means, and the extent to how successful the outcome will be remains to be seen. Hopefully, the attention and pressure to address many of the issues outlined above, from corruption to human rights, may influence Russia to implement positive change in the future.

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Frozen Revolution in Ukraine

Ukrainian protester in front of riot police

Ukrainian protester in front of riot police

In recent months the Ukrainian people have increasingly demonstrated against their government over the repression of basic rights, rampant corruption and the economic direction of the country. Recently the clashes between riot police and protesters turned fatal when at least three were killed in the capital of Kiev, the primary locus of the conflict. The protests initially erupted on November 21st of last year when the government rejected key bills for a trade agreement with the EU in a shocking surprise and they have come to be labelled as the EuroMaidan movement. It is important to note that the controversy of moving towards greater European integration or returning to the Russian sphere of influence is secondary to the frustration and anger at the current administration of Victor Yanukovych and direction of the country as a whole. The quick implementation of harsher anti-demonstration laws have only added fuel to the fire, escalating the stakes between the increasingly detested government and protesters. It is apparent that the Ukrainian government cannot subdue the popular opposition with force alone, and if they refuse to make real concessions the conflict is likely to escalate further.

In response to the heightened tensions, Yanukovych has promised to review the anti-protesting laws and reshuffle elements of his government. Token concessions will not likely sway his critics, however, as they are demanding an end to the power structure that has been deepening its control over the political and economic affairs of the country since Yanukovych took office in 2010.

Examples of some of the provisions that were signed into law on January 17 include:

1. Gathering and sharing information on the Berkut (special security forces) or judges carries a penalty of up to a year in jail

2. Blocking access to government buildings and residential buildings carries a penalty of up to five and six years in jail, respectively

3. Participation in peaceful demonstrations while wearing a mask, scarf, helmet or another means of protecting or concealing one’s face or head carries a penalty of up to ten days in jail

Further provisions allow for broad interpretation and implementation of censorship on the internet and ‘extremist activities’ in general. These measures have been overwhelmingly criticized both domestically and internationally; some have described the laws as moves towards dictatorship in the country.

The controversy of the ‘hijacking’ of the opposition by extremist factions is reminiscent of the rhetoric used by Bashar al-Assad to decry and generalize the Syrian opposition as foreign terrorist elements. Svoboda is the most significant far-right party actively participating in the protests and there are smaller fringe groups that are attempting to push more radical agendas against the state. It would be naive to paint the opposition as free of extremist actors but it is clear that they are a minority. The majority of Ukrainians are not extremists bent on dismantling the state but rather wish for an end to a government not representative of the people that they see as creeping away from democracy.

Although the contexts and scale are completely different, similar to in Syria the opposition needs to be cognizant of itself presenting a representative voice in pursuing their demands, else they will face internal conflict and have a tougher time presenting themselves as legitimate. Extremist elements who promote and carry out unprovoked violence against the police need to be isolated and disavowed from the majority opposition. The goal of the opposition should not be to influence change in the government structure via violent force, but rather mass demonstration and civil disobedience to the unjust laws that limit basic freedoms.

Yanukovych and the security forces should realize the more brutal they act, the less credibility they will have to the rest of the world and the further the situation is likely to devolve. Political changes are imperative, and in order to reach a settlement the government must be willing to give up more power than it is currently comfortable with. Yanukovych should make it clear he is willing to make significant reforms to the power structure he has been building and the opposition should support a negotiated solution and take measures to prevent escalating the bloodshed which can be done without abandoning their cause or diminishing their impact.

The Ukrainian people are demanding reform and they are not going to back down easily. If they can brave the subzero temperatures for days on end to make a statement, then perhaps their government should listen.

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