Tag Archives: russia

This is what “lock her up” means in American politics

US president George W. Bush met with Ukraine's then-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko... before she became a political prisoner. (Government of Ukraine)
US president George W. Bush met with Ukraine’s then-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko… in 2008, three years before she became a political prisoner. (Government of Ukraine)

“Lock Her Up!”Ukraine Flag IconUSflag

It might just be the slogan of the 2016 Republican National Convention.

But it has real meaning. As has been widely reported, Donald Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort worked for the former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, a Russian puppet who ultimately abdicated in 2014 and fled to Russia when even his own supporters couldn’t defend him firing on protestors in Kiev.

When the pro-Russian clique in Ukraine yelled, “LOCK HER UP” in 2010, after Manafort helped Yanukovych win election, that’s exactly what Ukraine’s new government did. Yanukovych put Yulia Tymoshenko — his 2010 presidential opponent and a former prime minister — in prison. And she spent three years imprisoned, until Yanukovych fled Ukraine and launched the country into a civil war that continues to cripple and divide the one-time Soviet republic to this very day.

Most ironic of all, Tymoshenko’s ostensible crime was for making a natural gas deal as prime minister (under duress) with Russia that Yanukovych, a sycophant of Vladimir Putin, decreed too unfavorable to Ukraine. Even the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Tymoshenko’s jailing was politically motivated.

As I argued in an email earlier tonight to Andrew Sullivan (who’s live-blogging the two conventions for New York Magazine), this is a bad sign for American democracy.

Politicians, and especially presidents, make ethical mistakes. Bill Clinton probably committed perjury about his sex life. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were both knee-deep in Iran-Contra. George W. Bush enabled torture and may have fabricated evidence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as a pretext for war. Hillary Clinton absolutely disrespected the concept of freedom of information with her email server. Yes, she lied about the emails.

But when I hear an entire political convention yelling “LOCK HER UP,” as a slogan, it’s a troubling sign for American democracy and, let’s say it, the critical thinking of an electorate who would be led by a strongman like Donald Trump and, apparently, New Jersey governor Chris Christie.

I almost wish Clinton would invite Tymoshenko to the Democratic National Convention, just to show Americans how dangerous this moment is in American politics. I know that’s impossible, but Tymoshenko knows something about the abuse of law and being a political prisoner. It was tragic to see it happen in Kiev, but to think that we’re at this point in American politics is frightening.

It’s anything but conservative.

It’s anything but respect for the Constitution.

It’s anything but liberty.

As Yatsenyuk throws in the towel, a grim future for Ukraine

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If it weren’t possible to be more pessimistic about the future of Ukraine and its economy, Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s sudden resignation on Sunday is reason to be even more glum. (Facebook)

No one believes more in the possibility of a post-crisis and prosperous Ukraine than Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the country’s prime minister and, too often, its chief punching bag.Ukraine Flag Icon

Never beloved, even among the pro-European Ukrainians who live in the country’s western regions and who resent Russian interference within their borders, Yatsenyuk’s goal since the fall of former president Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin, has been rightsizing an economy that’s underperformed even by standards of the region, with growth rates dwarfed by authoritarian Belarus, a Russian ally that’s retained Soviet institutions.

Facing few good options, Yatsenyuk simply gave up, hoping that, perhaps, the resignation of Ukraine’s last ‘true believer’ might shake loose enough support for the economic reforms that Ukraine desperately needs to continue its financial lifeline from the International Monetary Fund. Ironically, though Yatsenyuk has personally advocated liberalizing reforms and anti-corruption measures for years, his government is now seen as incapable of delivering reforms and as incorrigibly corrupt.

Yatsenyuk must now know how former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh surely felt after a decade in office (if not quite in power).

It’s not even the first time the pressured premier resigned. His resignation in July 2014 paved the way for fresh parliamentary elections in October 2014 that restored a majority for a pro-western, pro-European government that was ultimately headed by Yatsenyuk. Continue reading As Yatsenyuk throws in the towel, a grim future for Ukraine

16 in 2016: Sixteen global elections to watch in 2016

(123rf.com)
(123rf.com)

Of the most important elections in 2015, it’s a safe bet to argue that three of them took place in Greece: the January parliamentary elections, one insane roller-coaster of a referendum in July and another snap parliamentary vote again in September.

So what is the world to do in 2016, when no one expects Greeks to return to the polls? (Though, Athens being Athens, it’s impossible to rule the possibility out.)

Fear not. The new year will bring with it a fresh schedule of exciting elections on all seven continents, including in the United States, which after a marathon pair of primary campaigns, will finally choose the country’s 45th president in November 2016.

But following American politics only begins to scratch the surface.

At least two world leaders in 2016 will put ballot questions to voters  that could make or break their careers (and legacies).

New governments could emerge from elections in Taiwan, the Philippines, Morocco, Georgia, Peru, Jamaica, Ghana, Zambia and Australia.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy will either advance or flame out in his bid for a French political comeback in 2016.

Semi-autocratic leaders in Russia, Uganda, Congo and Vietnam will seek endorsements from their voters while hoping that the veneer of elections doesn’t unleash popular protest.

An opaque series of votes in Iran could determine the country’s future Supreme Leader.

A mayoral election in London (and regional elections outside England) could reshuffle British politics with an even more important vote on the horizon in 2017.

One very special election could change the international agenda of world peace and global security altogether.

Without further ado, here is Suffragio‘s guide to the top 16 elections to watch in 2016. After a short break in the new year, your attention should turn to the South China Sea… Continue reading 16 in 2016: Sixteen global elections to watch in 2016

Garibashvili’s resignation in Georgia a reboot for ruling ‘Dream’ coalition

Prime minister Irakli Garibashvili abruptly resigned days before Christmas, amid deepening troubles for the Georgian Dream coalition. (Facebook)

Though the disparate groups who hold power today in Tbilisi rode to power three years ago as the ‘Georgian Dream’ coalition, life for them is quickly devolving into something more like a nightmare.Georgia Flag Icon

With fresh elections due in October 2016, prime minister Irakli Garibashvili resigned abruptly on December 23 after just over two years in office (and at the ripe old age of 33). The political crisis has left Georgia, including both the government’s supporters and detractors, stunned. Giorgi Kvirikashvili, foreign minister only since September 2015 and, formerly, the minister of economy and sustainable development, became Georgia’s new prime minister-designate on Christmas Day. Like Garibashvili, he’s a political unknown with longtime ties to Ivanishvili, formerly the head of the Ivanishvili-owned Cartu Bank.

Before ascending to power, Garibashvili was a longtime employee of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire who financed the Georgian Dream (ქართული ოცნება) coalition, united mostly by its opposition to the policies and anti-Russian orientation of Georgia’s former president Mikheil Saakashvili. Garibashvili rose quickly in the new order after the Georgian Dream coalition won the 2012 parliamentary elections. While Ivanishvili himself held the premiership between October 2012 and November 2013, it was Garibashvili, by then a trusted Ivanishvili adviser, who took the pivotal role of minister for internal affairs. In that position, barely out of his twenties, Garibashvili was tasked with ‘reforming’ the Georgian police forces, though he spent more time throwing several former Saakashvili era officials in prison.

When Ivanishvili decided to step aside from frontline politics, no one believed that he was necessarily ceding control of Georgia’s new government, and Garibashvili never truly shook the impression that he was really just a puppet serving at Ivanishvili’s pleasure. That impression will be even harder to shake now, with tongues wagging that it was Ivanishvili who ordered Garibashvili’s resignation.

The Garibashvili government's failures in the aftermath of devastating flash floods in June 2015 were amplified when many animals from Georgia's national zoo escaped onto the streets of Tbilisi. (Beso Gulashvili / Reuters)
The Garibashvili government’s failures in the aftermath of devastating flash floods in June 2015 were amplified when many animals from Georgia’s national zoo escaped onto the streets of Tbilisi. (Beso Gulashvili / Reuters)

It isn’t an outrageous leap to believe that Ivanishvili is still calling the shots in Georgia’s government, nor is it unrealistic that he is eager to shake up Georgian politics, above all to protect his return on investment as fresh elections beckon.

Garibashvili never had much of a political power base independent of Ivanishvili. Moreover, he often clashed with Giorgi Margvelashvili, Gerogia’s president, who easily won the October 2013 presidential election (to what is now a mostly ceremonial office, thanks to reforms in the last year of the Saakashvili era that transferred power from the presidency to the parliament). Margvelashvili, formerly a little-known academic and former education and science minister, owes his position, like Garibashvili, mostly to Ivanishvili and his bankroll, though he is nominally an independent and he has demonstrated his willingness to disagree with Ivanishvili publicly from time to time.

It’s no surprise to anyone that the Garibashvili-led government has struggled for the past two years. The economic expansion of the Saakashvili years, with its technocratic zeal for improving infrastructure and attracting foreign development, are now a long-faded memory. Inflation is up, GDP growth is stagnant by the standard recent trends (now expected to be less than 3% and far below the 5% prediction earlier this year) and Georgia’s currency, the lari, is down — by nearly 40%, compared to the US dollar in the last 15 months. Garibashvili’s government has lurched between the rhetoric of reform and a far more unfocused reality, given the varied perspectives among the nationalists, socialists and liberals that comprise the many parties that comprise the Georgian Dream coalition.

His government is also tainted with the appearance of incompetence. Flash flooding in June 2015 caused a devastating humanitarian crisis in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, but it also wiped out the national zoo, killing many animals and letting many others escape, leading to surreal photos throughout the international media of a hippopotamus (among other beasts) stomping through city streets. Continue reading Garibashvili’s resignation in Georgia a reboot for ruling ‘Dream’ coalition

Why the future of the LGBT rights fight is international — in 20 tweets

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Though I wasn’t able to join The Atlantic‘s conference this week on the future of the LGBT civil rights fight, I took to Twitter earlier today to make that case that the future of the LGBT rights fights is largely international in character.

Without prejudice to the ongoing fights, legal and political, across the United States, I would argue the LGBT outlook should be much more global in 2015 — and as we look to the future and the kind of world we want to see in 2025 for both LGBT rights and human rights more generally. Continue reading Why the future of the LGBT rights fight is international — in 20 tweets

‘Coalition of the frenemies’ is bombing Syria for all the wrong reasons

The aftermath of an American strike in Syria's Idlib province last September. (Abdalghne Karoof / Reuters)
The aftermath of an American strike in Syria’s Idlib province last September. (Abdalghne Karoof / Reuters)

Call it the ‘coalition of the frenemies.’Syria Flag Icon

With British prime minister David Cameron’s victory in the House of Commons last week, fully four of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus NATO member Turkey and several regional allies, will now be engaged in the fight against ISIS (ISIL/Islamic State/Daesh) in eastern Syria. Following last week’s fatal shooting in San Bernardino, California, by two jihadist sympathizers, US president Barack Obama reassured the United States in a rare Sunday night prime-time address that his administration will continue its intensified airstrikes against ISIS in eastern Syria, increasingly targeting the oil tankers controlled by ISIS that fund its jihadist mission.

Cameron’s team, including foreign minister Philip Hammond, argued that a force of 70,000 ‘moderate’ Syrian forces would be willing and ready to take on the ISIS threat in the event of a coordinated allied campaign to deploy sustained airstrikes against ISIS, both reducing the terrorist threat to Europeans at home and establishing the conditions for peace abroad (and the Obama administration has more or less echoed this sentiment). That seems optimistic, however, given that ‘radical’ rebels, like ISIS and the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra quickly overpowered ‘moderate’ rebels like the Free Syrian Army throughout 2012 and 2013.

In reality, there’s no bright line among anti-Assad Sunnis in Syria. Although Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is Alawite, 75% of Syria’s pre-war population was Sunni, which means there’s a lot of room for variation. Nevertheless, after more than a year of U.S. airstrikes, moderate Syrians (whether 70,000 or 7,000) and Kurdish peshmerga forces have not effectively dislodged ISIS, particularly outside traditionally Kurdish areas of Iraq and Syria.

Though U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is still boosting peace talks in Vienna in early 2016, neither the Assad government nor the anti-Assad rebels have indicated they will join those talks. What’s more, it’s not even clear who would ‘represent’ the anti-Assad rebels, who are fighting as much against each other as they are against Assad.

Even as countries from four continents are running air campaigns in Syria, they are acting in far from a coordinated manner. Tensions are already rising after Turkey downed a Russian military jet late last month, despite repeated warnings that the jet was infringing Russian airspace. Imagine how tense the situation could become if a Russian jet attacks an American one in the increasingly crowded Syrian skies. None of the actors, including Russia or the United States, has any clear strategic plan for an endgame in Syria. Russia still can’t articulate a credible scenario where Assad rules a united postwar Syria, and the United States still can’t articulate a credible scenario where Sunni and Shiite factions can work together to govern Syria — or even Iraq, for that matter.

The descent of the world’s major powers upon Syria was accelerating even before jihadist terrorists left 130 innocent civilians dead in Paris, and the manner in which Syria has now become a proxy war for so many other regional and global actors is starting to resemble the domino trail of alliances and diplomatic errors that began World War I.  It’s irresponsible to argue that the world is plunging into World War III, but the escalations in Syria reflects the same kind of destructive slippery slope that began with the assassination of the heir of a fading empire by a nationalist in what was then a provincial backwater. Continue reading ‘Coalition of the frenemies’ is bombing Syria for all the wrong reasons

Why Beirut matters too

The Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque and the Saint George Maronite Cathedral stand side by side in Martyr's Square in downtown Beirut. (Kevin Lees)
The Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque and the Saint George Maronite Cathedral stand side by side in Martyr’s Square in downtown Beirut. (Kevin Lees)

I’ve seen plenty of commentary online since Friday night criticizing the American and European media (and their audiences) for ignoring Thursday’s terrorist attacks in Beirut while focusing their attention solely on Friday’s deadlier Paris attacks.Lebanon

But, as I write tomorrow for The National Interest, as the world mourns the victims of both attacks, there’s a risk that the lessons of the Beirut blasts (by far the worst since the beginning of the civil war in neighboring Syria) will go unheeded.

Just as the Paris attacks are changing the nature of the Western response to ISIS/Daesh, so should the Beirut attacks change the nature of Western engagement with Lebanon.

Recognizing the humanity of the victims in Lebanon is really just the first step, because the real courage among policymakers is to adjust to the post-attack Beirut with more support politically, economically and morally.

Do read the whole thing here.

I argue first that U.S. and European policymakers should care about Lebanon and its stability:  Continue reading Why Beirut matters too

Literature and Peace prizes both send potent political messages

Svetlana Alexievich, a Belorussian and nonfiction writer, won the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday.
Svetlana Alexievich, a Belorussian and nonfiction writer, won the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday.

Everyone expects the Nobel Peace Prize to have a political meaning.tunisia flagbelarus flagnobel-peace-prize

By the very nature of the prize, it’s not surprising when the Oslo-based awarding committee makes a decision that is affected by — or that subsequently affects — international politics. That follows almost directly from the very words that Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel used to describe the prize’s qualifications:

The most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.

That was true earlier this morning, when Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet received the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize. The decision highlights Tunisia’s peaceful transition to democracy and the crucial role that the quarter played in late 2013 to salvage Tunisia’s fragile transition. With an economy that’s still struggling, Tunisia nevertheless remains the only Arab Spring country to depose its leader that is also still working to enshrine a democratic system of government. Libya, Syria and Yemen are locked in anarchy or civil war, and Egypt’s democratically elected president, Islamist Mohammed Morsi, was deposed in a 2013 coup by the Egyptian military. The award is a reminder that the Arab Spring really did bring forth some good in one of the most difficult regions of the world. As the awarding committee itself noted, the prize is essentially a nod to the Tunisian people themselves:

More than anything, the prize is intended as an encouragement to the Tunisian people, who despite major challenges have laid the groundwork for a national fraternity which the Committee hopes will serve as an example to be followed by other countries.

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RELATED: How Tunisia became the success story of the Arab Spring

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But it was arguably Thursday’s prize to Svetlana Alexievich for literature that makes the bolder and more timely political statement, even though it was awarded by the Swedish Academy (and not by the Norwegian Peace Prize selection committee).

The award would have been edgy enough solely because the Swedish Academy awarded the prize to a nonfiction writer and a journalist. As Philip Gourevitch wrote in The New Yorker in October 2014, the Prize has historically favored fiction over nonfiction, and most especially over contemporary journalism.

Literature prize a shot against Lukashenko — and Putin

But Alexievich’s award — for ‘her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’ — came just three days before a sham election in Belarus.

Continue reading Literature and Peace prizes both send potent political messages

Why the ‘brosé summit of 2015’ was more about Russia than the United States

US president Barack Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin share a toast Monday at the United Nations. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US president Barack Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin share a toast Monday at the United Nations. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The way the US and international media portrayed Monday evening’s meeting between US president Barack Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin, you might think that the diplomatic maneuvering at the United Nations General Assembly over Syria’s civil war amounted to a fight-to-the-finish struggle for the two countries, both of which are permanent members on the UN Security Council. UNSyria Flag IconRussia Flag IconUSflag

But that’s just not true because the stakes in Syria for the United States are far, far lower. It is tempting to view every disagreement between the United States and Russia as a zero-sum game, with a clear winner and a clear loser, but that’s false.

Here’s why.

Why Syria matters so much to Putin

Consider how important Syria and, in particular, Bashar al-Assad, is to Russia. Assad, these days, doesn’t control much of Syria’s territory, but he does retain power throughout many of the coastal cities where most of Syria’s weary population still resides. That’s important to Moscow because the Syrian coast hosts the only warm-water port for the Russian navy at Tartus.

A look at which groups control Syria, as of September 2015. (Wikipedia)
A look at which groups control Syria, as of September 2015. (Wikipedia)

But it’s so much more.

While the United States continues to project influence on a global basis and while China has expanded its regional reach into south Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and even parts of Latin America, Russia’s post-Soviet influence is more limited. The battle lines between Russia and the ‘West’ are no longer Vietnam or Afghanistan or even Poland or Hungary, it’s skirmishes within former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia or fights over influence in central Asia.

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RELATED: One chart that explains Obama-era Middle East policy

RELATED: The idea of a nuclear war with Russia is absolutely crazy

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Syria, however, retained the strong ties with Moscow that it developed under Assad’s father Hafez in the 1970s. Outside the former Soviet republics, there is virtually no other country that you could consider anything like a Russian ‘client state,’ with the exception of Syria. That’s a big deal for a country resentful that it has gone from a truly global player — culturally, technologically, politically and economically — to regional chump with fading commodity exports, crumbling physical and social infrastructure and an economy one-tenth that of the US economy.  Continue reading Why the ‘brosé summit of 2015’ was more about Russia than the United States

How Syria’s turmoil is rooted in an early-morning 1994 car crash

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In the wee foggy hours of January 21, 1994, a speeding Mercedes crashed on the highway en route to Damascus International Airport.Syria Flag Icon

Its driver was 31-year-old Bassel al-Assad, the eldest son of Syria’s president, Hafez al-Assad, and he died instantly. His death scrambled what had been a long-planned succession for Syria’s aging ruler. From an early age, it had always been clear that Hafez was grooming Bassel — by far, the most popular and charismatic of Hafez’s sons — to succeed him.

His death forced Hafez to switch plans, despite more than a decade of work preparing Syria for Bassel’s eventual ascension and preparing Bassel to one day rule Syria with the same grip as his father had.

Bashar al-Assad, Bassel’s younger brother, was immediately recalled from London, where he had lived for two years engaged in post-graduate studies as an ophthalmologist. For the next six years, until his father’s death, Bashar underwent a transformation to prepare to take the reins of the family business.

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Photo credit to Reuters.

Like Che Guevara in Cuba, Bassel’s face routinely greets everyday Syrians alongside Bashar and Hafez. Or at least it does in what little Syrian territory remains dominated by the Assad regime these days. As Syria’s hell continues through its fourth year, many Syrians must wonder whether their lives would have turned out differently under the other Assad son.

So as Russian fighter jets land at Bassel al-Assad airport in an escalating effort this month to boost the struggling Assad regime, it’s tantalizing to wonder what might have happened if the Latakia airport’s namesake had survived.

As Roula Khalaf wrote for The Financial Times in 2012, no one ever expected Bashar to one day become Syria’s president — least of all, probably, Bashar himself:

“Growing up, Bashar was overshadowed by Bassel,” says Ayman Abdelnour, a former adviser who got to know Assad during his university years. “That seemed to be a complex – he didn’t have the charisma of Bassel, who was sporty, was liked by girls and was the head of the Syrian Computer Society.” Bashar was “shy; he used to speak softly, with a low voice. He never asked about institutions or government affairs.” Assad was also close to his mother, Anisa Makhlouf, whose family played a central part in the regime. “A mama’s boy more than a papa’s boy,” is how one western politician describes the president.

In 2000, ready or not, Bashar assumed the presidency at age 35.

Even before Syria’s civil war began in 2011, the eye doctor-turned-strongman showed signs of weakness. There was an initial period of political freedom in the first year of his regime — though the period became known as the ‘Damascus Spring,’ the term now rankles with irony, and the thaw on political dissent clearly ended by 2002. In the wake of the US military’s overthrow of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the remaining Ba’athist regime in the Middle East, Assad spent much of 2003 and 2004 worried that neoconservatives might attack him next (a fear that was not entirely unfounded).

Bashar’s biggest miscalculation came in Lebanon, where nearly everyone believes Syrian forces assassinated former prime minister Rafic Hariri in 2005, a galvanizing moment for Lebanon that generated backlash among Lebanese of all backgrounds and religions. Ultimately, the furor over Hariri’s shooting forced Bashar to withdraw the Syrian troops that had occupied much of the country since Lebanon’s own civil war began in 1976.

Continue reading How Syria’s turmoil is rooted in an early-morning 1994 car crash

Refugee crisis brings EU back to ‘familiar’ level of dysfunction

munichPhoto credit to Corbis.

A quick take on what’s going on as Europe deals with a growing crisis of refugees and migrants.

Why Kazakhstan should have won the 2022 Winter Games

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It’s official — the International Olympic Committee has awarded the 2022 Olympic Winter Games to Beijing.China Flag Iconkazakhstan

Ultimately, China’s successful bid faced little competition after Oslo and several other finalist cities withdrew from consideration after cost considerations and other hassles. Beijing, which was bidding to become the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Games, already hosted the 2008 Summer Games as a way to prove its mettle as a host city, and it has already built much of the Olympic infrastructure it would need to host again — sparing its sole competitor, Almaty, from the task of building stadiums that, as in most Olympic host cities, lay fallow for decades thereafter. Kazakhstan has relatively little experience at throwing international events, and it certainly doesn’t have the budget that China (or Russia’s 2014 Sochi Winter Games) could have promised.

Nevertheless, Kazakhstan would have been the first central Asian country ever to host either the winter or the summer games, and by 2022, it will gather experience through hosting the 2011 Asian Winter Games and the 2017 Winter Universiade. It also had the benefit of offering real snow, unlike Beijing, a fact that its proponents reiterated throughout the competition.

While Almaty’s selection might have raised more uncertainty than Beijing’s, it would have more greatly fulfilled the Olympic Charter’s stated purpose:

The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth people through sport practised in accordance with Olympism and its values.

Central Asia has long been overshadowed by its neighbors Russia (which controlled the region when all five of its countries were swept into Soviet Union) and China (which is home to the region’s largest and most dynamic city, Urümqi). But its location has made it incredibly important to global trade and geopolitics — and, in the 21st century, to Russia, to China or to the United States, a leverage that Kazakhstan and its neighbors have used to great effect, and it that’s what Kazakh diplomats mean when they speak about their country’s ‘multi-vector’ foreign policy.

It’s hard to think of a region of the world so little understood and even more rarely considered than central Asia, and Almaty’s selection as the site of the 2022 Winter Games would have drawn a rare and welcome spotlight on Kazakhstan, specifically, and central Asia generally — warts and all.

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RELATED: As Putin blusters over Kazakhstan,
what follows Nazarbayev?

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And there are a great many warts. Kazakhstan has been ruled by the same man, the 75-year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev, since 1989 when the country was still a republic in the Soviet Union. Despite duly conducted show ‘elections,’ it’s not a democracy and, also like China, it’s received harsh international condemnation for human rights abuses. Under Nazarbayev, Kazakh nationalism (vis-à-vis Russian nationalism) has been a greater priority than ethnic or sexual minority rights. Its sudden oil wealth, developed over the past two decades, has boosted the odd architecture of Astana, the country’s new capital, and widening corruption (it ranked 126 in the latest Transparency International rankings of corruption perceptions — worse than China’s ranking of 100 but better than Russia and the other four ‘stans’ of central Asia). Its dependence on petrodollars, as oil prices remain subdued, demonstrates just how much the economy should diversify. Its record on press freedom is very poor, but not quite as poor as Beijing’s. On balance, Kazakhstan is no worse than China when it comes to human rights and democracy and, on many vectors, it’s a less repressive country than China.

Of course, Kazakhstan (a country of 17 million people) doesn’t boast one of the world’s largest economies. Yet, at between $212 billion and $231 billion, it’s more than three times larger than the closest central Asian alternative, Turkmenistan. For all of Nazarbayev’s failings, he personifies Kazakh pride at clawing back their own nation-state after centuries of Russian colonization and economic subjugation that began in the early 1700s. Nazarbayev has used his petro-fueled bully pulpit to call for more ambition among the Muslim world, scolding the World Islamic Forum in 2011 for dragging its feet on modernizing. He’s a hero among the nuclear non-proliferation set because of his decision to give up Kazakhstan’s nuclear weapons — a policy that Nazarbayev has skillfully used to generate goodwill on the global stage and in the international media.

Perhaps most importantly, with Russian designs on its near-abroad ever more menacing in president Vladimir Putin’s third term, from Ukraine to Georgia, central Asia has also felt some uneasy pressure from Moscow. Leading Russian politicians hungrily eye Kazakhstan, especially the northern plains where many ethnic Russians currently reside (ethnic Russians comprise nearly 24% of the population). There’s a real question as to whether Kazakhstan will remain a stable, independent country in the coming post-Nazarbayev era — Putin could easily take advantage of turmoil if the political transition to the next generation of leaders isn’t smooth.

Almaty, still the country’s mountain-dazzled cultural and financial center (but no longer the capital since 1997), lies in the far southeastern corner of the country, closer to China and Kyrgyzstan (and even Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) than Russia. That’s one reason why the country, just six years after independence, moved its capital to the northern steppe, transforming sleepy Akmola into a city of over 850,000 today — that’s certainly some feat for a country aiming to erect Olympic infrastructure in the next seven years.

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Moreover, choosing Beijing doesn’t rid the Olympic committee of its woes with respect to human rights and autocracy — China’s record is arguably worse than Kazakhstan’s on both counts. Given that there are around 50 Chinese cities with populations at least as large as Chicago, it’s somewhat disappointing that Beijing wants two bites at the same Olympic apple. China is far more diverse and culturally engaging that its urban eastern coastline. Urümqi, in Muslim-majority Xinjiang, or the mountainous (and snowy) Tibetan plateau, one suspects, were off-limits due to the government’s anxiety that separatists might try to hijack the games for political purposes.

Critics note that the 2008 Beijing ceremony, like the 2014 Winter Games in Russia, did little to promote human rights, and they point to the egregious conditions of foreign workers in Qatar, which is (for now) hosting the 2022 World Cup, despite the ongoing tumult over corruption at FIFA. Handing the 2022 Games to Beijing will do just as little to influence Chinese behavior.

But there’s a strong case that Kazakhstan would have been more susceptible to international influence — it’s not a member of the United Nations Security Council, for one, and Nazarbayev has gone to great lengths to portray his rule as just, if not always liberal or democratic. He’s sensitive to international pressure on democracy and human rights, considered renaming the country to eliminate its status as ‘just one of the ‘-istans’ in Eurasia, and his government nearly went into a tailspin when a comic mock-u-mentary portrayed the country in a silly, provincial light.

Of course, the 2022 Winter Games would have been a Nazarbayev legacy project, from start to finish, but no less than they’ll now be a showcase for China’s ruling Communist Party — in 2022, China’s leader Xi Jinping (pictured above with Nazarbayev) will be prepared to step down after a decade in power.

But they’re also a project that could have bolstered Kazakhstan’s independence and transformed the image of central Asia worldwide. It’s difficult to think of another Olympic ceremony, short of the Barcelona Summer Games in 1992, that could have had as much transformative value — not even the pending 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, the first games to be held in Brazil or in South America.

Handing the 2022 Winter Games to Almaty would have highlighted a region with has a unique culture and a storied Silk Road history at the crossroads of world history. This more intimate understanding is precisely why the Games exist, and Beijing’s selection marks a wasted opportunity to further fundamental Olympic goals.

Primakov’s legacy lives on in aggressive Russian foreign policy

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In an alternative universe, with just a twist in Russian politics, Yevgeny Primakov might have died, at age 85 late last month, as his country’s president.Russia Flag Icon

Instead, he’ll be known for what the international community remembers as ‘Primakov’s loop’ — his order that a Washington-bound plane across the mid-Atlantic reverse course and turn back to Moscow upon hearing the news that the United States had launched military action against Russia’s ally Serbia in 1999. Though it was ultimately a nationalist gesture that did nothing to stop the eventual NATO-led action in Serbia and the de facto independence of Kosovo, it was the highlight of Primakov’s turbulent nine-month tenure as prime minister.

Russian president Boris Yeltsin turned to Primakov in a moment of crisis, after the collapse of the Russian ruble and an economic collapse that left the once-proud country even more at the mercy of international institutions. Despite narrowly winning reelection over a cast of misfits, nationalists and washed-up communists in 1996, Yeltsin failed in his second term to restore the kind of economic prosperity that capitalism seemed so loftily to promise in the heady days following the Soviet Union’s breakup. Privatization of public industries amounted to a botched firesale of national assets, delivering wealth into the hands of a few lucky and well-placed businessmen who made obscene fortunes in the process.

A former spook who started his career as a writer for Pravda in Cairo in the 1960s, Primakov would become the chief Russian strategic on Middle East affairs across a career that spanned the Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev eras, reached its apex under a wary Yeltsin and concluded with a turn as Russia’s chief envoy to Iraq in the lead-up to the 2003 US invasion. Primakov, not surprisingly, vociferously opposed US military action and had nurtured a decades-long relationship with Iraq’s president Saddam Hussein. Continue reading Primakov’s legacy lives on in aggressive Russian foreign policy

Saakashvili makes a political return — to Odessa

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The last we’d heard of former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, he was enjoying a hipster lifestyle in Williamsburg. Georgia Flag IconUkraine Flag Icon

Increasingly, though, Saakashvili has become a persona non grata in Georgia, where he held power between 2004 and 2013, ushering in liberal reforms to a country sorely in need of liberalization. When an umbrella coalition of opponents, led and financed by Bidzina Ivanishvili defeated his ruling party in late 2013, Saakashvili recognized the loss and facilitated the ensuing political transition, which coincided with the constitutional change from a strong presidential system to a parliamentary system.

So it was quite a surprise to see Saakashvili emerge last weekend in Saturday as the newly minted governor of the Odessa region.

We live in an era where Stanley Fischer can obtain Israeli citizenship, lead its central bank and then return to the United States to become vice chair of the Federal Reserve — or where Mark Carney can switch roles from heading the Bank of Canada to the Bank of England. So why shouldn’t a well-regarded former president be permitted, especially at the young age of 47, to take on a politically difficult role in a nearby country — especially when the struggles facing Georgia and Ukraine are so similar?

In order to assume the role as Odessa’s new governor, Saakashvili was obligated to give up his Georgian citizenship and accept from Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko an offer of Ukrainian citizenship. Saakashvili previously refused to do so when Poroshenko earlier offered him a position as deputy prime minister.

A post-presidential exile from Georgia

As Saakashvili himself has noted, however, Georgian citizenship entitles him to little more than six square meters in prison. That’s because the current government has charged Saakashvili with multiple offenses, all of which seem precariously motivated by politics, not the rule of law. Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev called the announcement a ‘circus,’ but the reaction from Georgia’s current leadership was even more incendiary. Tina Khidasheli, the country’s defense minister, attached Saakashvili for treason, and the country’s president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, called the move an ‘insult’ to Georgia and its government.

The step could complicate Saakashvili’s plans to lead the opposition in the 2016 parliamentary elections in Georgia or compete for the presidency in 2018.

As president, there’s no doubt that Saakashvili reduced corruption and improved the underlying Georgian economy and, in stepping down with grace, established a strong precedent for democratic transition and the rule of law. His largest miscalculation came in 2007 and 2008, when he escalated military and diplomatic tensions with Russia. With high hopes for NATO and European Union membership, and believing Western forces would ultimately come to his aid, Saakashvili’s clash with the Russian military led to the quasi-annexation of two breakaway republics — Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Many of the current government’s criminal charges against Saakashvili today spring from the debacle. Continue reading Saakashvili makes a political return — to Odessa

Komorowski trails in shock Polish presidential vote result

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It’s safe to say that Polish president Bronisław Komorowski’s surprise second-place finish in the first round of the presidential election on Sunday was one of the most unexpected events in Polish politics of the past decade.Poland_Flag_Icon

Even after exit polls showed Komorowski (pictured above) training the conservative Andrzej Duda, it was still difficult to believe the popular, capable, moderate incumbent could have failed in a race where polls previously gave him a wide lead.

Though the presidency is chiefly ceremonial, the president serves as commander-in-chief of the Polish army and represents Poland in international affairs, though the prime minister (nominally selected by the president) establishes foreign policy. Notably, the Polish president also has a veto right over legislation, though a three-fifths majority of the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament, can override a presidential veto.

The presidential vote is widely seen as a prelude to the more important parliamentary elections expected to take place in October 2015.

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Complacency among Komorowski’s supporters, the gradual rise in support for Duda (pictured above) and the surprisingly robust protest vote for former rock musician Paweł Kukiz, who waged a populist campaign that called for more direct representation in national elections. Kukiz demands the elimination of party-list proportional representation and the introduction of single-member constituencies, with legislators individually responsible for their voters’ demands. Ironically, Kukiz’s call for a first-past-the-post system coincides with widespread dissatisfaction with the electoral process in Great Britain, where the FPTP system made for some rather inequitable results in last week’s election. Nevertheless, Kukiz won over one-fifth of all voters on Sunday, and both remaining candidates are keen on winning over his supporters.

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Both candidates will now advance to a May 24 runoff and, though Komorowski is still expected to win reelection, there’s a chance that Duda could use the momentum of his first-round victory in the next two weeks to propel himself into the presidency. Duda, a 42-year-old member of the European Parliament, is the candidate of the nationalist, conservative Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS, Law and Justice) that held power between 2005 and 2007. Unlike Komorowski, he opposes plans for Poland to join the eurozone.

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RELATED: Kopacz puts imprint on Poland’s new government

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Komorowski, nominally an independent but tied closely to the more pragmatic governing Platforma Obywatelska (PO, Civic Platform), receives generally high marks for his performance as president. Komorowski, a former defense minister, has struck a reassuring tone on the threat of growing Russian ambitions in Ukraine and eastern Europe, and his reelection campaign has sought to reassure voters that he will be a steady hand with respect to Poland’s security.  Continue reading Komorowski trails in shock Polish presidential vote result