Putin at Ease in Asia’s Power Politics

Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China observe a military ceremony in Shanghai, May 20
Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China observe a military ceremony in Shanghai, May 20 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

There is an expression in Japan: kumo o tsukamuyou. It translates roughly into “like grasping a cloud.” We might call it “wishful thinking.” The proverb springs to mind when reading Japan’s former defense minister Yuriko Koike’s recent commentary.

In it, Koike presents her perspective of the challenges Japan has to face in East Asia. She believes these challenges are easy to enumerate for they all depend on one factor alone: liberal democracy. Those closest to it are under pressure by those farthest from it. China, Russia and North Korea are problems, Japan, the United States and their allies are the solution.

Koike’s is an ideal world in which the leader of the world’s biggest democracy could only possibly choose to ally with likeminded democratic powers and thus India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, is dutifully expected by Koike to team up with the alliance being formed to contain China’s assertiveness in the East and South China Seas.

Yuriko Koike, though, might have another thing coming. Not only is Modi not the obvious ally she believes him to be; the government in Tokyo itself may very well have other plans. Read more

Why Ukraine, Thailand Are Not Venezuela

Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro delivers a speech
Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro delivers a speech (Palacio de Miraflores/Miguel Angulo)

After the “color revolutions,” the European “indignados,” “Occupy Wall Street” and the “Arab Spring,” pundits are again trying to make sense of a wave of public demonstrations around the world. Parallels have been drawn between the protests in Thailand, Ukraine and Venezuela but only a superficial analysis could conclude that these are equivalent.

The advent of new social media and the easier ability for unorganized demonstrators to mobilize themselves has facilitated the emergence of such phenomena. However, the lack of political coherence often implies an inherent anarchic and unsubstantial character to such demonstrations. If all these protests have something in common, it is that they largely failed to achieve any meaningful change. The Arab Spring did shake things up but it is difficult to see how overthrowing the old regimes has managed to improve living conditions in the Middle East and North Africa.

That said, in 2014, Venezuela’s is probably the most consistent and rational of the protests and it differs starkly from realities in Bangkok and Kiev when it comes to legitimate grievances as well as methodology.

Grievances

When the first protests were held against the “Bolivarian” revolutionaries back in the days of Hugo Chávez, the regime called them American led agitation. Those were the times of high oil prices and boon social programs after all; the public was still unaware of just how disruptive the government’s reforms would become. After a decade of Chavismo, however, it is quite clear that any good it may have brought is easily eclipsed by the catastrophic mismanagement of the state.

It would be easy to say that Chavismo brought corruption but all Venezuelan governments are corrupt. A more accurate critique would be that the revolution misrepresented itself since the old aristocracy was not eradicated; it was replaced. The new regime is not more transparent than the old one but unlike the old one, the new claimed it would be, well, revolutionary. This is the danger of grandstanding and Chávez excelled in the art. Unluckily for his successor, Nicolás Maduro, who is the one left to pick up the pieces.

In what concerns the economy, Chavismo was an unmitigated disaster. More corruption, less foreign investment, gross mismanagement, greater dependency on oil — and thus on the United States — and generalized dysfunction of the economy. Planned economies have failed in the past. Venezuela is no different.

What is worse for the regime is that this is not an academic debate such as the ones being held in the West on how best to deal with the crisis. In Venezuela, even something as basic as toilet paper has become a scarce good and the masses have taken notice. Crime has skyrocketed and the government’s wise policy is to arm paramilitary forces against “imperialist enemies.”

In foreign policy, too, the regime has brought only embarrassment. Venezuela’s oil diplomacy in Latin America has gained it few real allies, its anti-American stance brought it isolation and the few partners it has managed to put together are completely useless. Cuba and Iran are themselves isolated and could not help the regime in Caracas if it actually required foreign aid, be it in military assets or funds. If Venezuela truly wanted to oppose the United States, the way to do it as an Atlantic state would be to befriend the European Union and Brazil instead and help foster such initiatives as Mercosur. Instead, the regime’s buffoon of a leader ensured the enmity of most Western investors. The kitsch tracksuit transpired lack of sophistication in both fashion and statesmanship.

Conversely, neither Yingluck Shinawatra nor Viktor Yanukovich dramatically altered the status quo of either Thailand or Ukraine. This is not to make an argument against change since change can be successful. But between status quo and catastrophic change, the choice is more than obvious.

Yanukovich, in spite of having been elected by a more Russophile base, did not dramatically side Kiev with Moscow. His decision to postpone an association agreement with the European Union seems to have been based on pragmatic and expedient calculations and to have been everything but the product of some type of bias. Ukrainians rising up against him were clearly disappointed in his policy and critiques pointing to shortsightedness may deserve merit. Nevertheless, not only was his policy perfectly legitimate; he was hardly the first politician ever to opt for the short term. Indeed, Ukraine’s economic woes may well have required faster, more decisive action rather than a macroeconomically sound long-term solution.

Yanukovich’s government has been called bullish and exceedingly corrupt, so much so that even many oligarchs have denounced it. Again, as true as this may be, it is hardly revolutionary and even less worthy of any dramatic moves to overthrow the government. Political intimidation and corruption have long been embedded in Ukraine’s political fabric and Yanukovich can hardly be begrudged by those who previously voted for such pristine politicians as Yulia Tymoshenko. The incumbent president may have concentrated power in his and his family’s hands but such phenomena are hardly a monopoly of this administration, even if it may be more shameless about it.

Shinawatra did continue many of her infamous brother’s policies in Thailand such as distributing subsidies to poor communities to unethically secure constituencies or being largely complacent with her associates’ business interests which have long been suspected of corruption. Even so, this hardly marks a big departure from business as usual.

While demonstrators in Venezuela have thus ample cause for revolt, it is difficult to see how Thais or Ukrainians can possibly justify their explosions of anger other than with political bias. Indeed, in the early days of both crises, most commentators had trouble finding a discernible motivation for them and many press articles ended with question marks. In the case of Thailand, Western media have remained far more detached and noncommittal.

Methods

The methods of the protesters also vary. Whereas in Venezuela, the opposition calls for the resignation of a government that has objectively curtailed freedom of speech and sunk the economy, in Ukraine, it has yet to blame the current economic crisis on the government. In Thailand, it is the opposition that is actually hurting the economy by keeping the country politically unstable. Ukrainians demonstrating in Kiev have pushed for the removal of the president from the onset but only recently did they have grounds to use the human rights card.

While Venezuelans are largely on their own, Ukrainians have sought to enlist the aid of outsiders to their cause by framing theirs as a struggle against tyranny and oppression.

Ukrainian media are hardly up to Western standards but it would nevertheless be wrong to believe there is no freedom of speech in the former Soviet republic. Indeed, one has to wonder how many regimes — democratic or otherwise — would have allowed a string of foreign activists and politicians to pour into their country to lend support to the opposition. The same can be said of police tactics which, confronting severely belligerent extremists within the crowd, still allowed for the protests to continue strong for months on end.

In truth, Chavistas and the West have more in common than they would like to admit for both appeal to “international solidarity.” In opposition, Yanukovich is more parochial.

In Ukraine as well as in Thailand, the opposition has been impervious to compromises. Time and time again, Yanukovich offered terms for the protesters to leave which they repeatedly rejected only to recall their demand that he be deposed. In Thailand, Shinawatra called early elections but the opposition would not relent, knowing full well that they lacked the votes to unseat her democratically.

Democracy is a bit of a problem for Ukraine’s opposition as well. Contrary to the image of a country united against a tyrant that they wish to convey, Yanukovich’s poll numbers have remained steady. While not high enough to win an election outright, they are certainly enough to at least take him into a second-round runoff.

In Venezuela, on the other hand, the regime’s numbers have dwindled as the economic crisis worsened.

In violence the crises also differ with escalation and provocation of security forces being a constant in Bangkok and Kiev. In Venezuela, there have been fewer victims.

Change

Finally there is the issue of change. What could be achieved by each of these revolts?

In Venezuela, that much is clear: a government led by the opposition would dump the planned economy and move back to free markets. Poverty would likely remain but employment and diversification should ensure the growth of a healthy middle class in the medium term. Geopolitically, Venezuela would no longer be ignored by international investors. In short, the basket case that is Venezuela today would make a comeback. Politically, too, it is easy to envisage a more transparent and competent regime in place of the “Bolivarians.”

In Thailand, however, things are murkier. If there is no doubt the opposition would pursue lawsuits against former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and call off subsidies to peripheral areas, it is difficult to see how any of that would significantly reduce corruption in the country or alter current electoral trends. If, as the opposition wishes, the army were to intervene, would this stave off corruption? Unlikely.

In Ukraine especially, the country would not become particularly more democratic or humane. Corruption is a cultural trait rather than the feature of a given government. Whereas in Venezuela, nationalizations have fostered political appointments and governmental corruption as well as mismanagement on a wide scale, in Ukraine, the levels of corruption have suffered little variation.

According to Transparency International, during Yanukovich’s rule, Ukraine has slipped ten places in its Corruption Perceptions Index ranking. While Yanukovich may have introduced malpractices, it is convenient to remember that the period between 2010 and 2013 was also when the financial crisis hit hardest. Western investment dried up and lowered the energy derived revenues of countries like Russia which Ukraine also depends on. A depressed economy is a paradise for corrupt practices. Comparatively, another peripheral European country like Portugal fell seven places during the crisis.

These are, of course, largely contextual variations whereas Venezuela has been slipping in the ranking ever since Hugo Chávez rose to power and stands today thirty places below its ranking in 2005!

Cautious politicians would do well to listen to tales of human rights violations, on the part of status quo regimes, with more than a grain of salt. This is especially true of those seeking some sort of international legitimacy and support. Too often has Western voluntarism been used as a proxy instrument in unrelated conflicts.

As grey as international relations may seem, good judgement always depends on objectivity, not emotion.

New York and Cairo: Triumphs of Demagoguery

View of the Empire State Building in Manhattan, New York, June 20, 2008
View of the Empire State Building in Manhattan, New York, June 20, 2008 (Rich Greene)

One of the fundamental qualities of a statesman is that of probity. Most oaths of office include the term for a very important reason: because popular support is but one of the standards for governance. Indeed, the public is fickle and its capricious whims can be easily verified by the recurring opinion polls which show that the masses’ defining characteristic is that they are inconstant.

Nowadays, many a democracy have been corrupted by populism and statesmen everywhere bow to public pressure when they should not. Instead of doing what they know is best, they rule cosmetically and simply do that which is popular. Read more

Populism Endangers Portugal’s Austerity Reforms

Portuguese prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho arrives for a European Council in Brussels, February 8
Portuguese prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho arrives for a European Council in Brussels, February 8 (The Council of the European Union)

Portugal’s ruling liberal conservatives have, since they came to power in 2011, strived to balance incompatible pressure groups. Local elections in Portugal have precipitated tensions.

Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho’s Social Democrats and their conservative coalition partners came to power with a clear mandate: to do what the left could not and implement the painful but necessary economic and fiscal reforms prescribed by Portugal’s international creditors. The parties have carried out the task with some difficulty but for the most part the conditions set out by other European countries and the International Monetary Fund were met. Hikes in taxes, frozen salaries and incentives for civil servants to retire early have all slowed spending and eased the market pressure on Portuguese government bonds.

International demands for credible commitments to austerity, however, conflict with another influence that equally shapes the Portuguese government’s composition and policies: a populist party machine that propelled Passos Coelho into the leadership of his party and then of the government.

These influences are at odds as campaigning for the local elections that are due later this month is making clear.

Ruling party spokesman Marco António Costa, a known affiliate of the party’s nonideological populist faction, came out in public to accuse the International Monetary Fund of “institutional hypocrisy” after it published a study which concluded that too swift austerity measures may be counterproductive to economic recovery. His criticism is not an academic one. Rather, it is meant to put pressure on the government to deemphasize austerity and return to “growth policies.” Such a fiscal or monetary stimulus should prevent the Social Democrats from suffering too badly in the polls.

The same path is being followed by the conservatives whose leader, Deputy Prime Minister Paulo Portas, is making speeches with a rhetoric based on “the worst is behind us” and stressing employment and growth.

Such populism could not only destabilize the coalition; it can have a bad effect on Portugal’s credibility in the financial markets.

Speculation now abounds that President Aníbal Cavaco Silva, a former prime minister with a background in finance, will move to either call early elections or use his influence to cause a change within the Social Democratic Party that would demote the demagogues and bring about a technocratic leadership.

Central Africa, Barometer of Multipolarity

President François Bozizé Yangouvonda of the Central African Republic shakes hands with Chinese vice premier Li Keqiang in Yinchuan, September 12, 2012
President François Bozizé Yangouvonda of the Central African Republic shakes hands with Chinese vice premier Li Keqiang in Yinchuan, September 12, 2012 (Xinhua/Yao Dawei)

There are a number of phenomena which currently define African politics and must be understood before commenting on the geopolitical evolution of today’s central Africa.

One is that of “extraversion.” Jean-François Bayart, a French professor in African politics, coined the phrase to describe the endemic and domestic subversion of the state apparatus in sub-Saharan Africa.

Inherited from the Europeans, the African state system is not adapted to the reality on the ground. Moreover, it exists within artificial borders. Therefore local elites quickly pervert the functions of the state with clientelistic behaviors and policies so as to protect first and foremost the interests of their respective clan, tribe, ethnic or religious group. Government agencies fall under the aegis of a specific group with the chief purpose of redistributing tax revenues among the most important political stakeholders in a certain territory. Liberal democratic values such as term of office, rule of law and public service rest in the minds of a few liberal and educated elites who rarely happen to lead a specific political faction. The direct consequence is an invariable degradation of democracy as well as a race for power. Ubiquitous corruption and civil strife follow.

In the best cases, like Ghana and Senegal, a remnant of colonial administration manages to preserve technocratic rule. In the worst, like Congo, the entire polity becomes a kleptocracy.

Another phenomenon that matters bearing in mind is geopolitics. Economically peripheral states dwindle while central ones thrive. Thus states neighboring or harboring deserts, mountains or tropical forests have the worst luck and those by the sea and close to important natural resources have the best.

Another factor is work mentality and in the case of Africa the more individualistic mentalities can be found the farthest away from the equator, in the north and south.

Combining these trends, one can conclude that state dissolution will be the worst felt in central Africa. Unfortunately, much like the city states that divided Italy and Germany for much of European history, in Africa too more interests intersect at the center than in the extremes of the continent. This has evolved to produce an axis of instability and weak central government rule, one that spans from Libya through Chad and the Central African Republic to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Instability is endemic in these countries which are also where population flows are the strongest.

During the Cold War, domestic conflicts in Africa followed bipolar lines of superpower client state dependency. Today such lines are more opaque. However, Stathis Kalyvas’ logic of violence in civil war (PDF) still applies: elites are the ones to mobilize to war according to their interests, not according to their ideals. The only difference today is the absence of ideals in a multipolar world.

Some have equated the current conflict in the Central African Republic to Mali or Libya but it actually bears more resemblance to Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria in that the struggle is strictly political rather than religious or ideological. A particular faction is eager to preserve power in the face of upcoming elections and finds no support for a repression of rival factions by its sponsors — usually European powers. The next step is to switch allegiances and in Africa this usually means foregoing Paris or London for Washington or Beijing and Moscow. This process can go wrong since the Atlantic seaboard is almost exclusively a Western backyard — as Côte d’Ivoire’s president Laurent Gbagbo discovered — and emerging powers like Brazil, India and South Africa are not yet capable of projecting power there.

That said, central Africa matters because unlike the pro-Western situation of the previous two decades, more and more African factions and elites seem willing to question the consensus in an ideological way. Whereas before all the movements were “revolutionary” and “democratic,” to appeal exclusively to a Western audience, they now have become “anti-terrorist” — as in Somalia and Uganda — or “anti-Wahhabi” — in the Central African Republic and Mali — which appeals to the West as well as to the BRICS. The next step will be to explore the ideological divide between the different powers and the only question remaining is how long the transition will take.

Hollande Doctrine? France Leads from Behind in Mali

French president François Hollande delivers a public address from the Elysée Palace in Paris, January 11, 2012
French president François Hollande delivers a public address from the Elysée Palace in Paris, January 11, 2012 (Elysée)

Paris’ gunships struck Islamist targets in the northern Malian town of Kona on Friday in support of a combined ground intervention by African troops from the Economic Community of West African States. French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian reported that during the operation, the French military suffered one casualty.

On the works for months, the intervention mandated by United Nations Security Council Resolution 2085 is meant to put an end to the swift takeover of northern Mali that Tuareg and Islamist groups undertook, in the process causing the political collapse of the central government through a military coup.

Instability in the Sahel has heightened since last year’s collapse of Muammar al-Gaddafi’s regime in Libya during a popular uprising that was supported by NATO air and naval forces. The “Arab Spring” in Libya caused a considerable power vacuum which brought political disunity along that country’s Mediterranean coast, loss of control over southern Libya and significant advanced weaponry in the hands of smugglers who have been able to export it to such conflict areas as Gaza and Syria.

After a brief Cold War flirtation with Islamist terrorism, Gaddafi became a strong opponent of Salafist organizations and cooperated closely with Western intelligence to stave off such influences in the Sahara and Sahel regions. Thus the rebellion against him was also comprised of Salafists who seized the first opportunity to subvert an important opponent. The September attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi was further proof of their renewed presence in Libyan society and political life.

Mali being yet another side effect of Gaddafi’s demise, the country suffered the worst as local Tuaregs and the Salafists of Ansar Dine expelled the Malian army from the north, declared the secession of that territory and assumed independent rule under the name of Azawad in April. Sharia was declared law in the region and non-Muslim historical landmarks desecrated and vandalized.

These events put France in a difficult position since Paris not only has business interests and citizens to protect in Mali but had not approved of the military coup d’état that overthrew the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré. To make matters worse, regional power Algeria has been pushing for a negotiated solution, fearing that France might resort to a full recognition of the Tuareg state in order to bring stability and isolate the Salafists. Not only would this further delegitimize colonial borders; it would provide a sanctuary for potential support to other independence minded Tuareg populations across the Sahel, including in southern Algeria.

In reality, many of Africa’s borders bear no semblance of reality to ethnic, religious and demographic distribution of populations or viable economic delimitation. As such, the independence of a Tuareg state would make sense, particularly considering that this desert dwelling people could more easily monitor the movements of organisations such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar Dine. It would also be historically coherent with the background of the region.

The Economic Community of West African States has some experience in peacekeeping but precious little in conventional fighting. It also has a limited budget and no knowledge of desert warfare. All this spells doom for a force which will be required to control a big territorial area under difficult conditions.

France had equated providing only technical advisors as well as financial and logistic support but the latest move to employ aircraft and some special forces might signify a change in direction to a more involved role. This would in turn mean that Paris may have decided not to confront Algeria and instead force Malian rule over Azawad, thus thwarting Tuareg hopes of independence. Essentially the French are solving in Mali a problem of their own making, using American president Barack Obama’s approach of limited involvement.

Mediterranean Engenders Tyranny of the Majority

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain, President Moncef Marzouki of Tunisia, European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, Portuguese foreign minister Paulo Portas and Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal of Algeria meet in Valletta, Malta, October 5
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain, President Moncef Marzouki of Tunisia, European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, Portuguese foreign minister Paulo Portas and Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal of Algeria meet in Valletta, Malta, October 5 (European Commission)

As predicted, the fate of the “Arab Spring” democracies is leaving much to be desired. Liberal societies can simply not arise from illiberalism and the alternative is, and has always been, to either have secular, authoritarian, pro-Western elites or Islamist, populist, unreliable governments. Between liberal dictatorship and Islamist democracy, the choice is a dilemma.

What makes the choice more difficult is that it is also one between civil rights and political freedoms. In all of last year’s Arab revolutions, the observed constant was ethnic or ideological majorities politicizing the Mediterranean spillover of the Western financial crisis in order to unseat minority regimes. In Tunisia, the Islamists removed the secularists. The same happened in Egypt. In Bahrain, the Shia majority tried to overthrow a Sunni regime; vice versa in Syria, and in Libya there was no majority to be had. Read more