Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The shadow of Putin

Two days after a suicde bomber unleashed carnage at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, Russia is holding a day of mourning for its dead. In an attack as cowardly as it was brutal, thirty-five innocent people were killed and over one hundred more were injured. As the nation and the world begin to comrussia bombe to terms with this barbaric atrocity, many questions are emerging: who exactly was responsible? did the security services have advance warning? was there more that could that could have been done to save lives?

The biggest uncertainty though, is surely how the powers-that-be in the Kremlin will respond. Within hours of the blast, the finger of blame pointed towards to the North Caucuses – the origin of numerous attacks on Russian cities over the past decades. Consequently, fears of enhanced authoritarianism and ethnic persecution are rising once again.

Shortly after coming to power in 2008 Russian President Demitry Medvedev made brave promises to fight corruption and poverty – two of the main reasons why so many young men and women in the Caucuses have turned to militant Islam and expressed their anger at the Russian state through violent means. However, such a positive and progressive focus on the root causes of insurgency was quickly disregarded (if of course, it ever really existed at all). By the time an Islamist Chechen group bombed the Moscow metro last year Medvedev had fallen firmly back into the familiarly destructive mind-set of meeting violence with violence- ominously declaring:

"We have ripped the heads off the most infamous bandits but it appears that this was not enough. We will track them all down in due time and will punish them all, just as we did the previous ones."

putinThis provocative and dangerous stance was doubtlessly shaped, at least in part, by his autocratic Prime Minister and mentor Vladimir Putin – the man who most commentators assert has, in reality, held power over Medvedev’s administration since stepping down as president in line with constitutional term limits. Putin has, after all, spent years making political capital off attacks from the Caucuses, beginning with a series of bombings in Moscow during the Autumn of 1999, which he used justification to instigate war with Chechnya. This dramatically boosted his popularity as Prime Minister whilst undermining then President Boris Yeltsin. Putin took the Presidential office shortly afterwards.

Over subsequent years an array of evidence emerged suggesting that Putin’s security services had themselves played a part in the bombings: a ‘false flag’ operation to put their man in the top-job. When this theory was presented by dissidents Alexander Litvinenko and Yuri Felshtinsky in Blowing up Russia the book was banned, copies were destroyed in Hitleresque style and Litvinenko was audaciously murdered in a London restaurant.

In the interim Putin exploited further attacks by militants to consolidate his authoritarian hold on Russia. The Moscow Theatre siege in 2002 led to permanent suppression of independent television stations, crippling an already restricted media and plummeting Russia down the press freedom index. Two years later the murder of children in a Beslan school was shamelessly-and somewhat ludicrously- used as an excuse to abolish elections for regional governors, replacing them with presidential appointments.

Such history makes Putin’s pledge for ‘revenge’ all the more ominous- especially considering his intention to stand for President again next year. Sadly there is a strong likelihood that he will play on state-orchestrated nationalism (the kind that resulted in violent racist riots after a Russian football fan died in a fight with a Caucasian last month) to bolster his support-base. If he does so – the true number of victims from Monday’s attack will be much higher than thirty-five.


Friday, 21 January 2011

Five more years of pain?

belarus4Last month I wrote about the pro-democracy protests that were rocking Belarus in the wake of Alexander Lukashenko’s rigged re-election. Back then it looked as if the resistance could reach critical mass and imperil his sixteen year old dictatorship. However, like so many democratic uprisings, it has been ruthlessly crushed by security forces and its lead players have been thrown into jail. Tragically the people of Belarus were unable to succeed where the people of Tunisia so spectacularly did just a few weeks later.

And so today Lukashenko was formally sworn in as President once again and began his fourth term in office. In many ways it is aLukashenko2.jpg strange throw-back to days of the USSR, when ruthless European dictators were regularly shoe-horned into power as their political opponents were beaten and imprisoned. The geopolitical similarities run far deeper: the Russia-Belarus Union State originally formed in 1996, has been the subject of renewed enthusiasm by Lukashenko, Putin and Medvedev in recent years, including talk of developing it from a regional political grouping into formal unification.

However, there are also significant differences from the Cold War days that provide the European community with critical opportunities to aid the Bealruasian people in their struggle for human rights and freedom. Lukashenko’s current Russian patrons are nowhere near as powerful as their Soviet predecessors –nor are they unfalteringly supportive of his regime. Over the pasts weeks an economic spat over energy prices has driven a clear political wedge between the two states that, if exacerbated, could leave Lukashenko estranged from his only true ally. Even if this specific incident is ultimately resolved, it is not beyond comprehension that future disputes could dampen long-term Russian support for Lukashenko.

The 58 year old tyrant may accordingly turn away from Moscow somewhat and gradually look towards the rest of Europe; providing an historic chance to influence him. Of course whilst any such chance should be seized, it must also be handled with extreme care. Firstly, efforts for democratic reform should be led by Belarus’ immediate neighbours- lest the perception of ‘Western European interference’ isolates Lukashenko or antagonises Russia. Secondly these efforts must be correctly targeted; for example specific sanctions on the dictator and his close associates until measurable targets are met will be far more effective than indefinite economic sanctions that could inadvertently harm the Belarusian people.

Already there are positive developments along these lines, including the unilateral travel ban imposed by Poland on Belarusian government officials. If this was adopted by other European states- with the promise of lifting it when the detained oppositions candidates and those arrested during the protests are released - it would be hard for Lukashenko to ignore. Other devices including bank account freezes could be combined with high-level dialogue and summits to secure results such as protest rights, Red Cross access to political prisoners and moves away from the death penalty.

Making Belarusian rights an issue in negotiations with Russian authorities, especially during trade negotiations, could also provide a valuable channel for influence, allowing for progress even if Lukashenko’s relationship with the Kremlin returns to its usual amicable state. This is a long shot fraught with issues, but it its not beyond comprehension that given the right circumstances and negotiation Russia may provide something of a route towards progress rather than an outright obstacle. If nothing else this is an avenue worth exploring.

Then again – the inevitable change may not come from ‘above’ at all. Although many of those leading the demonstrations back in December are now locked away from the eyes of the world- most likely suffering from the beatings, starvation and denial of medical care prevalent in Belarusian jails – their inspirational acts have reverberated across the nation. December’s protests were the largest in decades and with the grievances wholly un-addressed a repeat is by no means off the cards. What’s more, the security forces have only been able to detain a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands who took part – there are many new leaders still out there and many more prepared to follow them. Sooner or later Europe may see its very own Tunisia moment.

belarus 5

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Retribution or distraction?

800_ap_al_kamouni_110116On 6th January 2010 six Coptic Christians were shot dead as they left church in the Egyptian city of Nagaa Hammadi; a Muslim police officer standing guard nearby was also hit and killed. Last Wednesday, just over one year after the murders, an emergency court found Mohamed Ahmed Hussein guilty and sentenced him to death.

It's the latest milestone in Egypt’s escalating inter-communal tensions. The shooting was the worst sectarian incident in a decade, until it was overshadowed by the brutal murder of twenty-one more Copts on New Year’s Eve. Understandably the Coptic community -which includes about 10% of all Egyptians- are rapidly viewing themselves as a people under siege in their own country (a feeling shared by many other Christians throughout the Middle East- especially in Iraq where extremist Islamist groups have been similarly targeting churches for gun and bomb attacks.) Fear has already turned to civil unrest on Egypt_Blastseveral occasions and the threat of another attack is now part of daily life.

Yet an execution will not solve this turmoil, nor even come close. The abhorrent nature of capital punishment is only exacerbated by a justice system a dubious as Egypt’s, where Hammadi has been denied an appeal or anything resembling international fair trial standards. Even more significantly, putting him to death may well antagonise sectarian strife further. The extremists will be provided with a new martyr, an angle for recruitment and a cause for revenge that could result in further suffering for the Coptic community. Concurrently, the serious doubts over whether Hammadi is guilty mean that his death could isolate or anger Muslim communities- the majority of whom have been overwhelmingly supportive of the Copts, in many cases holding solidarity vigils and forming human-shields outside Coptic Masses.

Sadly, that the Egyptian authorities should choose a response to sectarian violence that can generate only negligent or counter-productive effects, comes as no surprise. After all, inter-communal harmony has never been a priority for President Mubarak and his government, who have long treated Copts as second class citizens. Nobody was ever brought to justice for at least fifty-two serious sectarian incidents between 2008 and 2010, whilst numerous government policies amount to active institutional persecution.

Take for example the case in 2009 when a government-led cull of almost half a million pigs ruined the livelihoods of swine famers across the country- almost all of whom are know to be Coptic. Although the government defended the move as a response to swine flu, Middle East obersevers widely regarded it to be a sectarian act- an assertion supported by condemnation of the cull by the World Health Organisation and scientific evidence that the pigs posed no medical threat. Other institutional bigotry has been more subtle, yet equally damaging; Human Rights Watch has identified a longstanding inclusion of incitement to religious hatred in school curricula as well as in the state-controlled media. Perhaps most strikingly, despite arresting and subsequently condemning Hammadi for the January 6th 2010 shootings, the authorities still harassed and detained a group of activists for paying condolences to the families of those killed - quickly moving to supress any suggestions that official indifference or provocation played a part in the incident.

Given this, it stands to reason that last week’s death sentence to may have been fostered as little more than a distraction for the eyes of the international community. On the basis of their past form Mubarak and his enforcers will lose no sleep over whether the impending execution leads to more violence or even whether the man they kill is guilty, so long as they can divert criticism from abroad by pointing to it as evidence that they are ‘getting tough on sectarianism’.

Instead of this facade the government should be focussing on a genuine and coordinated approach to what is undeniably one of the most significant crises facing the country and indeed the broader region. This would require a clean break from disciminatory policies, thorough and timely investigation of sectarian incidents and vocal political support for the many brave Muslims who have literally put their lives on the line to defend their Coptic countrymen. It should also involve fair and open trials for those accused of sectarian crimes- with penalties of imprisonment rather than execution- lest the extremists behind the violence be given any more fertile ground for recruitment or revenge.

Anything less will only condemn Egypt to more violence, turbulance and ruined lives- affecting all of the country's communities.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

China’s Tajik land-grab

On Wednesday, shrouded in opaqueness and confusion, Tajikistan’s ruling regime ceded 1000km of the country’s Pamir Mountains region to China. The move generated only sparse media interest and was regarded in some quarters as nothing more than a corrupt dictatorship settling an old land-dispute with its powerful neighbour. However the true significance may be far deeper, revealing worrying signs about the Chinese government’s attitude to continued geographical expansion.

PamisThe precise facts of the transfer are still unclear, including exactly what has been handed over, how many people live there and what the change of sovereignty will mean to them. It is known that the final agreement relates to a disputed border and a deal struck some twelve years ago but that is where any consensus seems to end. Whilst the Tajik dictatorship is boasting of success, claiming that China originally sought almost twenty times as much land, opposition groups are objecting that the country’s territorial integrity and constitution have been debased. China, meanwhile is professing to have acted in accordance with international law, ironically a concept its leaders have ignored or openly dismissed countless times in the past. Interestingly, no one knows precisely what Tajikistan (or more accurately the Tajik political elite) got in return for the land, but owing to strong economic links between Beijing and Dushanbe, finance surely came into play. All uncertainties accounted for, when placing this affair in a broader regional context, it could have serious implications for South and South East Asian politics.

Of course the Chinese government’s land-grabbing is nothing new. It hardly needs to be reiterated how desperate the power-that-be in Beijing are to keep hold of occupied territories such as Tibet, East Turkestan and Inner Mongolia where systematic repression and cultural destruction have long been utilised to maintain control; but this is the first time in decades that China (as a state) has actually expanded its borders.

That is especially ominous considering the recently escalating tensions surrounding Chinese claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea. In 2010 territorial maritime spats with Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia were ratcheted up by provocative Chinese naval exercises and bizarre stunts including a submarine crew placing of a Chinese flag on a disputed sea bed. It was uncertain at the time whether these were simply displays of military bravado or the early throes of a concerted effort to tangibly increase geographic control, but this week’s acquisition of Tajik territory gives emphasis to the latter. Poignantly the barren, sparsely-populated and inhospitable nature of the Pamir Mountains suggest that the very principle of territorial expansion appeals to China’s leaders, creating a hugely precarious situation not only in the South China Sea but across the continent.

Perhaps the two most dangerous flashpoints will be Taiwan – regarded by China’s leadership as an integral part of Chines6e territory that should ultimately be reclaimed; and the China-India border where territorial disputes between the two countries led to military clashes as recently as 1987. These on-going issues will only be exacerbated by the China-India economic race and the anticipated breakdown in China-Taiwan relations should the pro-independence Democratic People’s Party win next year’s elections. Combine such factors with a Chinese-government desire for wider territorial control and you could have a recipe for political disaster.

Of course, it would be reckless to suggest that drums of war are beating but the ‘Tajik deal’ is China’s latest move in a pursuit of expansionist politics that will almost undoubtedly cause some degree turmoil in the region over the coming year. Who said the age of the empire was dead?


Friday, 14 January 2011

The times they are a-changin’

Many years ago, when I first became involved in human rights work, I was told something that has stuck with me and shaped my activism ever since: nobody sees the end of a dictatorship coming. Campaigning for freedom in Burma, Tibet, Zimbabwe or North Korea may seem hopeless and at times will undoubtedly be disheartening, but the struggles for freedom in South Africa, East Timor and the Soviet Union all once seemed the same.

I’ve heard it so many times since and in so many different forms that I’m not even sure who first said it to me. There is even an episode of Ashes to Ashes when Alex Drake tells a member of the ANC that in a few years Nelson Mandela will walk off Roben Island and become South Africa’s first democratically elected President – of course he cannot believe her, so hopeless did his cause appear at the time.

As I write this, approaching midnight on January 14th 2011this mantra is once more being played out. Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali – one of the world’s longest-ruling dictators – is on board a private jet attempting to seek refuge in various countries, having fled Tunisia this afternoon in the wake of unprecedented pro-democracy protests. For 23 years Ben Ali has deprived the Tunisian people of political rights, civil society and religious freedom. His security services have arbitrarily jailed opponents, subjected them to horrendous tortures and broken up political dissent with ruthlessness and impunity. He has brutalised a nation of ten and a half million for his own personal gain. And now he is gone.

What is even more striking than such a well-entrenched dictatorship coming to a close is the sudden and abrupt manner in which in has done so. It was less than one month ago that this wave of protests began. A university graduate- unable to find work in an economy wrecked by governmental corruption and incompetence- took to selling fruit in a public square. Taking exception to his unauthorised trading, police officers beat him and confiscated his cart. On 17th December he returned to the square and set himself on fire in protest. His death led to protests in solidarity…the murder of demonstrators by armed police officers brought more angry citizens out onto the streets…the initial anger over economic mismanagement and heavy handed policing quickly evolved into demands for democracy…and the rest is history in the making.

Of course Tunisia is not ‘out of the woods’ -not by a long shot. Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi has temporarily assumed power but whether he can –or will – oversee a peaceful transition to liberal democracy is a huge question. The next moves by other government members and various opposition groups could all influence the eventual outcome in any number of ways. The future is far from certain.

However, tonight the street protests have given way to street parties – the Tunisian people have toppled a dictator. And already similar protests in neighbouring Algeria are serving to reinforce a message to dictators across the world; even the most well-established regimes can face wholly unexpected and rapidly terminal challenges. The concurrent message to activists is that, wherever you campaign for freedom – and however bleak the outlook may seem- your day will come.

game over

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Straw’s gift to the far right

Just like Brown’s “British jobs for British workers” jibe; Jack Straw’s preposterous sound bite about the alleged tendency of Pakistani men to rape young white girls was something you’d expect from the UK’s fringe far-right rather than a prominent member of a mainstream party. Yet once again we are presented with a Labour politician taking it upon themselves to provide those opposed to immigration, multiculturalism and ethnic harmony with an invaluable boost for propaganda and recruitment.

Straw’s loyalists will stamp their feet, cry out that his comments were misconstrued and cling onto the claim that there is a cultural problem. This is tenuous at best; the high court judge ruling in the cases that provoked Straw’s outburst specifically stated that the race of assailants and victims was coincidental. Even the former Home Secretary’s own party are rushing to distance themselves from his assumptions – with Home Affairs Select Committee Chairman Keith Vaz publicly denouncing such stereotypes.

However, even if there were some truth in what Straw has said he is still unarguably at fault for announcing it so brazenly and publicly. Surely a veteran politician should realise the enormous dangers of making such comments to the media? Surely he should realise that any conclusions should be based on further research as Bernado’s and the National Working Group for Sexually Exploited Children and Young People have suggested? Surely he should realise that the best way to deal with any issue is direct and discreet local-level conversations with the respective communities – and that this would be infinitely more effective than shouting his mouth off on prime time television?

The BNP won’t contextualise his statements in their electoral leaflets- nor will the EDL in promotional material for their next rally. Instead they will point out that a senior politician has talked about “Pakistani heritage men thinking it is OK to target white girls in this way” and how “they see these young women, white girls who are vulnerable, some of them in care... who they think are easy meat." Just like the former Prime Minister gave vocal credence the bigoted accusation that immigrants are ‘stealing our jobs’, the former cabinet member has supported the assertion that they are ‘raping our women’. Ironically the man who put up such a sterling performance against Nick Griffin on Question Time in 2010 has gifted him enough promotional material to ride-off throughout 2011.

Cynics may suggest that- rather than reflecting reckless incompetence; Straw’s comments were actually intended to stir up racial tensions. After all domestic societal discord would only reflect badly on the coalition government and as despicable racist Phil Woolas recently demonstrated – Labour politicians are not beyond inciting racism for political gain. Whatever the reason; Straw’s claims were grossly inappropriate and extraordinarily dangerous. Vaz, Miliband and the rest of Labour must now pull out all the stops to repair the damage that their colleague has caused…not only to protect their party’s image, but to limit the benefits that the far-right reap and the damage that they can inflict upon UK society as a result of this incident.

Monday, 3 January 2011

A turbulent birth

south_sudan_mapFrom 9th-15th January history will be made: it is now beyond doubt that the people of Southern Sudan will vote to secede – dividing Africa’s largest state and forming the world’s newest. The most recent polling suggests data that up to 97% of the territory’s four million registered voters will cast their ballot in favour of independence, indicating not only a victory but a landslide for those seeking to break from Khartoum's rule. The polling stations are prepared, the papers are printed, the observers are arriving and the head of the electoral body has declared the infrastructure 100% ready.

This is meant to be the final chapter in a six year long peace process following the North-South civil war. That conflict dragged in religion, race and resources. It also dragged in men, women and children –with more than two million loosing their lives. Unfortunately however, the suffering may not be over. As whilst secession is inevitable, the birth of independent South Sudan looks set to be a turbulent one.

Indicted war criminal and current Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir has publicly announced that he will be the first to recognise Southern independence; yet he has silently built up a force of 20 000 troops along the line where the border will be drawn, in direct violation of the post-war peace agreement. The Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM)- the party that fought in the Civil War and has since led the South as an autonomous state -has responded in kind, sending large numbers of its own forces North over the past few weeks. It is not beyond comprehension that Al-Bashir, a tyrant currently overseeing a genocide in the Western Sudanese province of Darfur, would rather incite a fresh war with the South than letting it smoothly secede along with the majority of Sudanese oil reserves. Although fears of a fresh conflict have decreased significantly since last year, in Sudan nothing is certain.

A further and perhaps greater danger is the prospect of internal insurgencies against the Southern government once independence is declared. The SPLM has many enemies aside from Al-Bashir and local or tribal grievances could relatively easily descend into violence, causing early instability in the new state.

Of course there are also positive signs. 52% of registered voters are women, suggesting a degree of gender-equality that has been unarguably absent in the united Northern-dominated Sudan; whilst the SPLM’s de-mobilisation of child soldiers and creation of a protection unit to prevent further underage recruitment indicates a welcome break from this barbaric practice that has long blighted central Africa.

Small though such developments may seem in the grand scale of regional and inter-state politics, they are nevertheless encouraging signals for the international community’s newest member. With independence now the only certainty we can only hang onto these and hope the new state’s birth- though turbulent- is not so painful.