Sunday, December 29, 2013

Ukraine on a knife-edge

Refusing to buckle to pressure from Moscow, the former Soviet republics of Moldova and Georgia have signed trade and political association treaties with the European Union – moves that have set them on the path to eventual full EU membership.

The Kremlin’s outrage at this rebuff to President Vladimir Putin’s long-term plan to rebuild the old Soviet Union through a Russian-dominated Eurasian customs union, was tempered by the refusal of Ukraine to also sign up to the agreement, leaving that country open to seek closer ties with its giant neighbour.

On the face of it, the choice between the Russian grouping and the European Union seems a no brainer. The EU has 500 million consumers and an economy six times the size of the Eurasian Union. As an example of the kind of support available in Europe, Brussels immediately offered Moldova’s 3.5 million citizens visa-free travel within the 28-nation bloc.

But there are other considerations for Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, to ponder.

An elected leader, Yanukovych’s constituency is based in the eastern part of the country where attachment to Russia and nostalgia for the old Soviet Empire is much greater than in the capital, Kiev. While paying lip service to the idea of a future with the EU, his actions have been more in keeping with an old-style Soviet Commissar, principally with the jailing of Yulia Tymoshenko, the opponent who he narrowly defeated in the 2010 poll.

Many observers believe Yanukovych hankers for an authoritarian style of administration less sensitive to the rule of law and human rights, and looks enviously at neighbouring Belarus where President Alexander Lukashenko rules as though the Soviet Union never ended.

However Ukraine is not yet Belarus and in 2015 Yanukovych must face an electorate clearly weary of rampant corruption, organised crime, cronyism and a security service that models itself and uses the same tactics as the original and much-feared KGB - a population that has taken to the streets of Kiev in strident protest at his Government’s failure to embrace the EU.

The demonstrators are backed by a recent public opinion poll showing that some 45 per cent of Ukrainians favour joining the EU against just 14 per cent who preferred the Eurasian Union.

Sadly, in Ukraine today pay-offs and political pressure from Moscow can have just as equal force as public opinion. How Yanukovych deals with the latter will be keenly observed in the lead-up to the country’s 2015 poll.  



Friday, December 27, 2013

Is Yasukuni worth the fuss?

Here we go again: Japanese Prime Minister visits Yasukuni Shrine; angry protests from China and South Korea as this edifice is supposed to contain the spirits of Japanese war dead that include individuals who were convicted of war crimes after World War II; the United States, Japan’s ally, says “tut-tut” and leaves it at that; Japanese PM is totally unrepentant and likely to repeat the process again at some future date.

Come on, guys, isn’t it about time we used some common sense here? The war has been over for almost 70 years. Yes, there were some rather nasty things done by the Japanese during its occupation of parts of China, but aren’t nasty things done in all wars throughout history? Didn’t Genghis Khan do a few nasty things in his sweep through Asia? Aren’t there some pretty nasty things going on today is Syria and South Sudan? Wasn’t the Holocaust a nasty business as well?

Of course, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is being a bloody minded in visiting the shrine just at this time, but it should not take a Nobel Laureate to work out that it is nothing to do with the honouring Tojo Hideki and his crew back in the 1940s and everything to do with raising the finger to Beijing in 2013.

Abe, in common with many colleagues on the conservative side of Japan’s politics, is afraid his country is being sidelined in the Asia of the 21st century, its efforts in lifting itself from the ruins of war to become a world economic powerhouse unappreciated. He has listened to one too many speeches made by politicians around the world and including Australia about “the rise of China”, and he has had a gut-full.

Hence the continuing row with China over the disputed island chain in the East China Sea, which Japan administers and calls the Senkakus and China the Diaoyus; hence the visit to the Yasukuni Shrine. It is essentially Abe telling the world that Japan is still around and specifically to Beijing: “you want to be Asia’s top dog? Then you’ve still got us to deal with”.

Beijing has been naïve to allow itself to be manipulated by the Yasukuni controversy. After all, the Head of State, Emperor Akihito has not visited the shrine since he came to the throne and his father, Hirohito, stopped going after the 1978 decision to include the war criminals. Surely that should carry greater symbolic weight than the occasional decision to visit by a transient political leader?

As it is, Abe has achieved his purpose. The world’s attention is switching back to Japan. China, while making its usual comments about Abe’s "extremely dangerous" direction, is looking rather powerless. The deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations to new lows is something to be deplored and, indeed, feared, but it seems unlikely that there will be significant improvement as 2014 dawns.       


Monday, December 23, 2013

Khodorkovsky will fight from afar

Former political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky can hardly be blamed for not wanting to get back into Russia’s political fray as an opponent to President Vladimir Putin. Ten years in detention, most of that time spent in a Siberian prison camp, would sap the energy of the most determined rebel.

There can be little doubt that Khodorkovsky regrets his initial decision that Russia’s new generation of wealthy businesspeople, the ‘oligarchy’, of which he was the richest and natural leader, could control the country’s strongman.

So for now the man who was once among the world’s richest, will enjoy the small fraction of wealth he was able to spirit away overseas in a semi-retirement spent in Germany and elsewhere. He is adamant that the struggle for power in Russia is not something in which he wants to be involved. He will not even return to the country for fear that he might be detained again, or at least have his passport confiscated.

But he will travel; he will give interviews and probably write books. His insight into the workings of Putin’s Russia – and the details of how opponents of the Kremlin are dealt with – will make interesting reading.
It should be remembered that Khodorkovsky is no saint. He started his business empire in the 1980s when then President Mikhail Gorbachev began to open up the Soviet Union to the world. After the Soviet collapse he was first on the bandwagon buying up former State-run enterprises at bargain basement prices and accumulating huge wealth through the acquisition of Siberian oil fields as the head of his giant company, Yukos.

A chancer who rode his luck until it failed him, Khodorkovsky was probably guilty of at least some of the things for which he was eventually charged – involving fraud and tax evasion – but then so were a lot of other people.
Getting on the wrong side of the Russian leader is a dangerous business and Khodorkovsky is right to fear Putin may be setting himself up as a President for Life. Centuries of living under the absolute rule of the Tsars followed by the equally totalitarian regime of the Soviets have left Russians with little experience or understanding of democracy. For many the authoritarian rule of a strong leader is preferable to the ‘democratic’ turbulence of the 1990s.

Putin has filled the gap: Two terms as President, followed by four years as Prime Minister with a trusted ally filling the presidency and now president again, means that his hands have never been off the levers of power. So far he has circumvented the Russian Constitution rather than destroyed it, but Khodorkovsky will not be the only figure in the West watching and waiting for the next move from the man in the Kremlin.     


Saturday, December 21, 2013

US law enforcement goes over the top

The case of the Indian junior diplomat who was arrested and strip-searched in New York recently has inflamed passions in both countries. In India the focus has been on the insult and humiliation to Devyani Khobagade, the Indian Deputy Consul General in New York, while in the United States and other Western countries the emphasis has been on her alleged crime, claiming on a visa application that her maid was to be paid a certain amount while actually paying her considerably less.

While there have been demonstrations in front of the US Embassy in New Delhi and calls for counter reprisals against American diplomats in India, Ritwik Deo, writing in Britain’s Guardian newspaper raged against India’s privileged and cossetted middle class for believing itself above the law and always expecting special treatment.

Ms Khobagade is not the victim, Deo wrote. Her maid is the victim. Indians are missing the point.

Except that what has being arrested, handcuffed, held in detention, strip searched and cavity searched got to do with the offence of visa fraud? Was there a need to arrest her at all? Would it not have been sufficient to have summonsed her to appear at a police station or a court to explain herself?

To this reporter, used over many years to the Australian way of doing things, US law enforcement has always seemed way over the top with defendants handcuffed for minor traffic offences and appearing in court in leg-irons.

In Australia Ms Khobagade would most certainly have been ordered to pay her maid at the stated rate with full back pay and possibly further compensation; she may have faced further prosecution for the fraudulent statement, and her Embassy would have heard about it. But it is highly unlikely she would have spent any time in detention being subjected to indignities to her person.  

This could be passed off as an isolated incident involving an Indian official in the United States, except that it is not. In April I wrote about the detention and apparent harassment of Uttar Pradesh Urban Development Minister Mohammad Azam Khan at Boston’s Logan Airport.

The Foreign Minister in the former BJP Federal Government, George Fernandes, was strip-searched twice in Dulles Airport while on an official visit and India’s then Ambassador to Washington, Meera Shankar, was given a public ‘pat-down’ at an airport in Mississippi in 2010, apparently singled out from a group of about 30 passengers because she was wearing a sari.

This diplomatic row will blow over. US Secretary of State, John Kerry has telephoned Indian National Security Adviser, Shivshankar Menon to “express regret” over the incident. In diplomatic speak this is the apology you make when you are not making an apology. Mr Kerry also hoped the incident would not harm US-India relations.

There lies the crux of the matter. For all the breast-beating about Ms Khobagade not being above the law and grossly underpaying her maid, the fact is when you start actions against a person who is in any way a representative of another country you will face consequences, whether your actions are justified or not.

Certainly justice has to be done, but surely in a less dramatic fashion than that occasioned in this case by Manhattan law enforcement officials.





Friday, December 20, 2013

North Korea’s Kim set for a long rule

The official broadcasts of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are as stultifyingly boring as always: Congratulations sent to overseas leaders newly appointed or who have reached some milestone; gifts made to the supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, from the City of Moscow – and always a swipe at the Republic of Korea in the south - students in a ‘surprise demonstration’ having their posters removed by the ‘fascist police’.

The view from Pyongyang is that of a State which is a haven of tranquility and happiness in a sea of capitalist misery and despair which requires million-strong armed forces and a nuclear capability to ward off the arch-enemies, South Korea, Japan and the United States, who plot to wipe the North off the map.

And yet there are now clear signs that all is not well in the socialist paradise with the hurried execution of the man thought to be the young Kim’s guide and mentor, his uncle by marriage, Jang Song-thaek.

Add to that unconfirmed reports formerly influential figures close to Jang have either disappeared or are seeking refuge in China and you have all the evidence of a palace coup. Whether a failed plot again Kim that was discovered, or Kim just deciding to free himself from influences that did not appeal to him, remains unclear.

Earlier this year in trying to unravel the Pyongyang puzzle I suggested that Kim, who has lived and studied in the West and is a fan of American basketball, may be seeking to make North Korea more accommodating to the international community. I believe that view is wrong. Kim obviously prefers the the trappings of power to the opportunity of watching live exhibition matches between the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers.

I also wrote around that time that as Kim began to establish himself it would begin to dawn on the old guard that this youthful leader would probably be around until the middle of the century, something which might exercise their minds as to the whether this was in their interests – that theory sits far more comfortably with the recent events.

It is believed that Kim escaped an assassination attempt earlier this year which might have been the source of the current retribution. The clampdown was swift and unusual even by North Korean standards. Executions are usually reserved for common ‘criminals and agitators’.

However, as the President of the Pacific Forum Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Ralph A. Cossa, points out, the reprisals will probably have the desired effect.   Remember the old maxim about ‘killing the chicken to scare the monkeys?’” Cossa writes.

“Kim went straight for the monkey. Can you imagine how scared the chickens must now be?”



Thursday, December 12, 2013

BJP turns screws in State polls

Significant gains by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a series of Indian State elections at the weekend has dealt a severe blow to the Congress-led Government of Manmohan Singh with a national poll due within the next six months.

The BJP’s most spectacular success was in Rajasthan when it picked up an astonishing 84 seats, mostly from the Congress Party, to hold a two-thirds majority in the State. Congress also collapsed in its former stronghold of Delhi, but here the spoils were shared between the BJP and a newcomer, the Aam Aadmi Party. The BJP has the most number of seats but no overall majority and a fresh election is likely in the near future.

Add to this comfortable wins in Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh, where it was already the ruling party and the BJP looks in excellent shape to return to power nationally after 10 years of Congress rule in New Delhi.

What are the reasons behind the resurgence of a party its opponents have always sought to portray as a narrow, secular organisation representative only of the militant wing of Hinduism?  The new Chief Minister in Rajasthan, Vasundhra Raje was in no doubt, being quick to thank the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, for his aggressive campaigning in the State.

Since being named as the man to lead the BJP in the national poll, Modi has hit the campaign trail, addressing huge crowds in all parts of the country. A slick campaigner, he has embraced social media, something that has boosted his popularity among the young.

Modi, who in a dozen years as Chief Minister of Gujarat has transformed the State into an economic powerhouse, is also the darling of big business, and the Indian stock market surged on news of the BJP’s successes.

Where does this leave Congress, the ruling party for three quarters of India’s 66 years since independence? For most of that time it has been dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which has provided three Prime Ministers, and Congress insiders would like the latest member of the family, Rahul Gandhi, to be the fourth.

Unfortunately Gandhi is ambivalent about taking on the job and has proved to be a less-than-effective campaigner. BJP officials gleefully point out that their party won all the seven Rajasthan seats where Gandhi spoke on behalf of the Congress candidate.

Some Congress sources are now suggesting that Rahul’s mother, Sonia, for long a power behind the scenes and the widow of the last Gandhi Prime Minister, Rajiv, would make a better opponent for Modi. Younger members of the party are even going so far as to say it should ditch the Gandhi family altogether.

As one pointed out “there are many quality people in the party whose career paths are blocked because the ultimate seat is always being kept warm for a Gandhi. This really isn’t a healthy position to be in.”   




Thursday, December 5, 2013

Mandela’s example must live on

My best memory of Nelson Mandela goes back almost a quarter of a century to that February day in 1990 when he emerged from the house where he had spent the final few days of his captivity to meet the world’s media.

He walked alone down a long path to the front gate to end the fevered speculation that had surrounded the news of his impending release. What would he say? Who would he blame for the centuries of oppression of South Africa’s black people and for his own 27 years of often brutal captivity?

At that moment he held the future of his nation in his hands.

And then he began to speak, and there was a surreal, almost dream-like quality of the speech he gave. There was no bitterness; no rancour, no demands for reprisals, just a calm, reasoned explanation of the arrangements for a transfer of power to the country’s majority.

It was the kind of address that might be given by the leader of a party that had just won an election in a democracy, but without the triumphalism even that would have involved. He reached out at once to all South African citizens in the name of freedom, in the name of democracy, but above all in the name of peace.

Today his work is over, but there is still much to do. South Africa’s crime rate is unacceptably high, corruption is rife; many black people feel they are still not enjoying the fruits of freedom; many of the richer whites feel isolated in gated and guarded communities.

The task to continue to build South Africa is now in the hands of a new generation of leaders led by President Jacob Zuma, a controversial enough figure for many of his country-people, yet in his address to the nation, and to the world, in which he gave the news of Mandela’s passing, there was enough to suggest that he recognises the path pointed out by the first president is the one to follow.

South Africa’s position as a functioning democracy with a developed economy makes it the natural leader of the African continent and a model for others. Its role in this century will be crucial. It should be the hope of all freedom-loving people that Mandela’s example will live on long after the man himself becomes part of history.     




Monday, December 2, 2013

Israel must not dictate Iran peace terms

The preliminary agreement (and preliminary should be stressed) between Iran and the six major countries plus the European Union over Iran’s nuclear program should be welcomed.

It represents the first major breakthrough in relations with the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution and is a step towards bringing it back as a full member of the community of nations.

It is also confirmation of the more conciliatory approach of President Hasan Rowhani since he took over from the mercurial Mahmoud Ahmadinejad earlier this year. Rowhani is a man the West can deal with in a way that was never possible with his predecessor.

There remains the obstacle of Israel, which immediately denounced the accord, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying that it was a bad agreement, giving Iran a relaxation of the sanctions imposed on it, while still allowing it to pursue its nuclear program.

In essence, Netanyahu’s statement is correct. Any final resolution will leave Iran with a nuclear capability, but only for peaceful purposes. There are plenty of countries around the globe in similar positions – Japan and Germany to name just two.

This will not satisfy Netanyahu whose sees anything less than a total dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program as containing a latent threat that Teheran could at some time in the future upgrade its capability to produce a bomb that would then threaten Israeli cities. His stand is totally unacceptable to Teheran and the negotiating powers know it.

Any final deal will have to include strong and continuing verification procedures to ensure that Iran is keeping to its part of the bargain – that its nuclear program is designed purely to improve the living standards of its people, by reducing domestic dependence on fossil fuels, leaving the country able to export more of its abundant reserves of oil.

It won’t satisfy the current Government in Jerusalem which will certainly be exerting pressure on the Israeli lobby in the United States Congress to scupper the deal. President Barak Obama, who has been seeking this agreement since the early months of his Administration, needs to stand firm.

Failure now would be a crippling blow to the Rowhani moderates in the Iranian Government and likely take the country back on to a more confrontational path. The West simply cannot afford another 30 years of an Israel-Iran stand-off complicating the issues in an already dangerously turbulent region.