Archive for March, 2014

Crimea: What Is Democracy?

Monday, March 17th, 2014

With a reported turnout of nearly 80% of voters and a 97% majority in favour of rejoining Russia, the Crimean referendum has proved pretty decisive. There is not a single western democracy which can match these figures in any election about anything, yet they declare it illegal. Oh?

So what is democracy if it is not the right of groups of people to determine their destiny, who governs them and who they join up with? Ah, but Crimea is under Russian occupation! Really? So one and a half million people went to the polls in a carnival atmosphere, because a few thousand troops who appear very friendly to them and have been welcomed by the population at large, told them to go and vote or else? Or else what? And why did these people celebrate all night long?

What is being described on the media by academic commentators, who should know better, as an election not free because of the presence of foreign forces, renders illegal in one half witted argument, the setting up of the post Nazi modern German state, the attachment to the UK of the Falklands, Gibraltar and Northern Ireland and the dysfunctional governments of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

If we are going to continue on this quicksand of legality, why not ask how Ukraine acquired Crimea from Russia in the first place? It was given to Ukraine on a whim by Khrushchev in 1952, a process no more legal in international law than if Scotland woke up one morning and found Cameron had given it to America.

There will be no solution to this crisis until the West gets real. This does not mean that Russia is without fault but it does have a case and the Russian people of Crimea have a right to be heard. As for the occupation, they see it as a rescue from the self inflicted chaos in Kiev, topping over twenty years of bad government from whichever side was in power. The idea of democracy is that the people and the people alone are sovereign. In Crimea they have spoken and the West will get nowhere until it listens.

Talking To Russia

Monday, March 17th, 2014

There is now a chance for dialogue to begin with Russia that goes beyond telling her what she has to do, to gain re-admission to the diplomatic community, which for diverse reasons has been remarkably united to its opposition to events in Crimea. This opposition stems not so much from outrage at a violated principle, as from fear of breakaway movements within their own states. Typically the one country in the world most exposed to charges of hypocrisy, the UK, because of the status of Northern Ireland, the Falklands and Gibraltar, has been among the most strident. Nevertheless China abstained in the UN Security Council, so Moscow will realise it has some diplomatic ground to recover.

The chance for dialogue arises because now that the referendum has been held and the re-absorption of Crimea into Russia is all but complete, each side has a legal stand point. The West says it will not recognise the detachment of Crimea form the Ukraine and Moscow refuses to recognise the Kiev government. But both have happened and there are no realistic alternatives. Moscow is not going to walk from Crimea and the Kiev government will not resign. Both are de-facto. The way forward would be for the West and Kiev to accept that Crimea has gone, without recognising that it has, and for Moscow to talk to Kiev as the in situ government without recognising it.

Behind it all are the western fears that Putin is trying to reconstruct the Soviet empire and the fear in Moscow that NATO and the EU and hell bent on expanding ever eastwards to the Russian border. All this unnecessary fear could have been nipped in the bud if on the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had been invited to join both.

But we are where we are. The West will eventually have to give Russia assurances that the Ukraine is not going to become a member of NATO, nor part of the EU, without a wider settlement which includes Russia itself. Moscow must assuage Western fears of a post Soviet advance westward. Meanwhile the rhetoric about economic sanctions grows shrill. As a debating point maybe, but the West needs to remember that in a real economic war it has more to lose than Russia. In the end Europe cannot prosper until it acknowledges that Russia is part of Europe. Without Russian energy and export opportunities, Europe would be in big recession. Germany has six thousand companies operating in Russia. If those are messed with, Germany is in economic trouble and if that happens the Euro is dead.

This does not mean links with the US should be severed. The point is that Russia is joined to Europe; America is across the Atlantic. The time for grandstanding is over and the time for thinking and measuring begins.

Tony Benn

Friday, March 14th, 2014

This Blog is saddened, like so many, at the news of the passing of one of the great political personalities of modern times. His politics were a unique mix of enthusiasm, principle, compassion and left wing ideology. When in parliament, sometimes as a minister, he was both efficient and incisive. He was also divisive because his principles took him to the far left wing; dismissed by many as the loony left. But division is the dynamic of democracy and it is no accident that as he withdrew from formal political combat as his age advanced, the politics of our country became blander and the centre softer.

With most politicians the limelight fades when they retire, but with Tony Benn it burned ever brighter. He became a national treasure admired and respected even by those who had been his bitterest political enemies. His passing will be felt most keenly by his family to whom all will offer sympathy in their loss. In truth we have all lost something.

Corrupt Police?

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

There is a good deal of anxiety nowadays about police corruption in the UK as a consequence of numerous scandals, miscarriages of justice, inquiries and revelations. At the heart of all this lies the way the police service is organised in England. Almost every county has its own force, to which are added the big forces of the major cities, topped off by the Metropolitan Police, which is presently the most scandal hit of the lot. There is nothing worse in a free society than lack of trust in the police, and this is a problem requiring the utmost urgency in its solution.

It does not follow that many police officers are corrupt. Only a tiny handful is. The issue is the complicated sphere of responsibilities which the police service now has to shoulder, which are so very different to the world of the past in which the foundations of the current structures were laid. These are too unwieldy with too many departments overlapping. Order is maintained by process rather than leadership, because with so many specialisations, leadership is diffused. There are also too many forces. County borders are not recognised by criminals.

The solution lies in reducing the number of forces not by area, but by function. There should be a Community Police Service responsible for crime prevention and order in the community. Next there should be a Community Crime Service to investigate low level crime. The NCA should remain to deal with organised crime and Special Branch also, to deal with national security. Finally there must be a National Traffic Police Force, in the same way as we already have British Transport Police to cover public travel. Each of these six forces would be ultimately responsible to the Home Secretary and led nationally, but all should also have local command and liaison with the communities in which they operate.

At the moment there are nearly forty police forces in England each trying to do more or less everything. It is no longer a structure fit for modern purpose. We need specialist forces focused on what they do, which is done well to a high degree of public satisfaction.

Crimea, Ukraine, Russia And The West

Saturday, March 8th, 2014

While the diplomatic offensive to resolve the crisis hots up but makes no progress, the position on the ground remains bloodless but grows more unstable. This blog has exhaustively discussed this issue over the last few weeks at each stage of its development and it is now time to take a look at each side’s position separately.

The West. There is near unanimity in the outrage at Russian military activities in Crimea and hostility to both Russia and Russia’s argument to explain its position. Public opinion is generally against Russia’s intervention in Ukraine (only 3% of Brits in a recent poll sympathetic to Russia) but there is as yet no unanimity as to what to do about it. A good deal of the rhetoric is over the top and some of the legal arguments could be used with even greater relevance when applied to the disastrous interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya all of which states are in various forms of civil conflict and governmental dysfunction as a consequence.There is also the serious question, which the West ignores, of the dubious legality of the Kiev government and the neo fascist elements within it.

Russia holds that the legitimate government of the Ukraine was overthrown in an uprising, made worse by EU and US meddling and that the instability which this has unleashed places at risk the welfare of the substantial segment of the population which is of Russian origin, as Ukraine was part of Russia before the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is especially acute in Crimea where Russia has substantial military and naval assets. Crimea was part of Russia since the days of Catherine the Great. Khrushchev gave it to the Ukraine, a symbolic gesture because Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, which then became real when the SU collapsed and Ukraine did not join the Russian Federation. Crimea is about to hold a referendum to rejoin Russia, whose Parliament has said it will welcome her back if the vote is yes.

Meanwhile thousands of Russian troops are everywhere to be seen in Ukraine, although they maintain a peculiarly ambiguous status without insignia. This does not meet with modern nostrums of openness and transparency. There have been arguments and confrontations with more or less disarmed local forces loyal to Kiev, but so far no fighting. As military occupations go this is pretty benign and nowhere near the much more forceful pattern used by the West in its own military adventures.

What to do about it? The Ukraine must own up to significant responsibility through consistent bad government and stoking of ethnic tensions, for the fracture in the integrity of their State and the collapse of their economy. Their country is a complete mess and as they were in charge of themselves it is their fault. This does not mean they should be left to stew.

It is almost a given that Crimea has gone, whatever the West may say. It is possible that eastern Ukraine will follow, but that is by no means inevitable. At some point Russia and Ukraine will have to negotiate, but that will not happen until Crimea has had its referendum. Meanwhile the West should be less strident and work harder behind the scenes to set up realistic options to put on the table when the talking does indeed begin. There are no military options and any major economic sanctions will hurt the west more than Russia. The coolest head in the crisis is Angela Merkel and Germany will be the peacemaker. Obama is powerless and most of his declarations are for his domestic audience but the impact on Moscow is virtually nil.

What should Britain’s position be? So far it has been following the American line in public, although as always is actual position is not so easy to read. It needs to be aware that if it dismisses the Crimean referendum and its subsequent inclusion in Russia as illegal, it will open questions about the status of Northern Ireland, the Falklands and Gibraltar, all of which are part of Britain because of the wishes of the majority who live there, not because their status is never challenged by Ireland, Argentina and Spain. Then there is the question of Kosovo. How can its route to independence be legal and Crimea’s not so? And is not a people’s right to self-determination the cornerstone of everything Britain stands for?

Criticism of Russia’s military engagement is made seemingly hypocritical by British participation in wars in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq. Any major economic war with Russia would impact the EU significantly and put an end to Britain’s fragile recovery. One can only hope that Whitehall is carefully considering all these things. Its record post cold war is not good.

Time To Take Stock

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

So far the Russian occupation of Crimea has been achieved without loss of life, or indeed without a drop of blood being spilled. This could only happen though the enthusiastic welcome of the majority of the population who see themselves as actually or ethically Russian. It is therefore not realistic to make out that this is a full scale invasion, but it is certainly an intrusion.

The West has been seriously caught out not because of Russia’s actions but its own. The epicentre of the crisis is the manner in which the new government came to power. Even after a deal had been agreed and signed to meet almost all the demands of the protesters, the far right elements refused to accept it, provoked more violence and eventually caused the legitimately and democratically elected president to flee. Yes, he was unpopular and yes, he may have been corrupt, but in a democracy there are processes to deal with such situations and the manner of his ousting, the appointment of a new government with a significant far right component and its subsequent enactment of its idiotic language law, together flew in the face of everything the West alleges that it stands for.

At this point the West should have drawn back and held urgent talks with Russia on measures which could jointly be taken to restore order and ward off bankruptcy. Instead it recognised the new government. What followed was inevitable. The ethnic Russians in the east became acutely alarmed and called for help. Russia responded with surprising deftness, as the lack of bloodshed thus far confirms, but the diplomatic balloon went up. Within the posturing and noise there is something of a hidden split between Europe and the US.

In the former there is a growing recognition that Russia and Europe are interdependent economically and the hatred of Russia which permeates the neo-con wing of American politics, is absent in Europe. Indeed privately European diplomats admit that Russia has shown itself to be the more nuanced and skilful player in recent times. America appears the more ideological and heavy handed.

Germany urges dialogue and believes it will be a serious mistake, which will be counterproductive all round and especially to the Ukrainian people of all persuasions, to paint Russia into a corner and isolate her. Germany is right. What happens next depends not on President Putin, but on the tensions between Washington, Brussels and Berlin and how these resolve into a common position.

There will be no resolution until Russia is satisfied as to the legitimacy and intentions of the Government in Kiev. This mob appointed mish-mash with its alarming neo Fascist component, has already probably lost the Crimea by its early efforts. It will now be hard pressed to hold on to the eastern provinces. Its moderate elements have shown recent restraint and know that if they do anything rash they will be political toast.

Like all crises this one has now detached from its genesis and developed a momentum of its own. All sided must now wind it down. They must stop posturing and start talking. Syria is the example of what happens if they don’t.

Crimea and Ukraine: Now What?

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

It is becoming clear that the Crimea is lost as an integral part of the Ukrainian state and it is unlikely that Kiev will ever be able to satisfy the anxieties both of its ethnic Russian population and Russia itself to cause it to return. What is now in the balance is whether the eastern provinces of Ukraine will go the same way.

The West is furious at the way things turned out, but mostly it only has itself to blame, as previous blog posts have set out. What is now required is a realistic approach to resolve issues which have festered since Ukraine became nominally independent after the fall of the Soviet Union. The poor quality of its governance is a key factor in its present predicament.

The West knows that it has no military options short of world war and it is beginning to focus on bringing economic and diplomatic pressure upon the Russians sufficient to cause them to count the cost of going too far in what has so far been a remarkably seamless and well executed military advance. Above all the West must now talk to Russia, recognise its anxieties and fears and find some way to meet these as well as the aspirations of the west leaning population loyal to Kiev. At all costs it must detach itself from the far right activists in the Kiev political firmament who admire the Nazis.

Both Russia and the West have to stand tall and recognise that in the modern world they need each other. The plunge of the value of shares on the Russian stock market and the fall in the rouble will remind the Kremlin that it no longer rules over a command economy separated from the global market. America must rein it its neo conservative zealots who have a visceral hatred of Russia and all things Russian and NATO needs to remember that if Russia turns off the gas, half Europe’s lights go out.

Both sides need to remind themselves that unless they work together there can be no resolution of the suffering in Syria or the problem of Iran’s nuclear programme. Russia has as much to fear from jihadists and ethnic violence as any country in the West. It would be helpful too if American rhetoric was a little less strident and showed a better grasp of the issues. Over the last forty eight hours both Kerry and Obama have sounded like hypocrites to many who do not love them as well as to many others who do.

Ukraine: Again the West Flounders

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

The pattern is familiar. An insurrection breaks out in an unstable State, subject to indifferent government. It starts with street protests. The West back the protesters without taking account of the underlying fault lines of ethnicity, religious group, cultural variation and racial origin. It sees the mob as heroes because they make western sounding noises, failing to notice within their ranks people with whom they want nothing whatever to do. The recognised government falls and a new government comes to power without the authority to rule. The state collapses and chaos ensues. So far none of these failed states has emerged into the good times so we cannot tell if they ever can.

Those western politicians who joined the street protestors in Kiev have achieved the opposite of their intention. A new government without any legal mandate, beyond self appointment and acclamation by the crowds outside its parliament, is peopled with some pretty unsavoury types, some of whom are from the far right, who have openly declared that Hitler’s Germany is their ideal. One of the first things it does is to pass into law a declaration that Russian, spoken by nearly half the population and the only language of many if not most ethnic Russians in the east and south of the country, shall cease to be an official language, in what had been a bi-lingual state. Not surprisingly this scared the living daylights out of every single Ukrainian of Russian origin.

The West somehow supposed that President Putin would play tidily winks and ignore the mayhem and violence threatening not only the Russians in a country which was until recently an integral part of Russia itself, but substantial Russian naval and military assets in the Crimea. Unlike Russian foreign policy which studies all the options and possibilities and then plays its hand according to the principles of protection and containment, the West still sees diplomacy through the obsolete prism of a world long gone. Until it can upgrade its diplomatic thinking to match the technological revolution, it will blunder on from one crisis to another, without knowing how it got there or where it is headed.

Meanwhile Russia has consolidated its hold over the Crimea with the support of the local population, without so far firing a shot. Kiev blusters and mobilises but it is far from clear whether it actually controls or is recognised by its armed forces. There is little doubt that a good part of them could not be relied upon to take on the Russians if the Kiev government did something rash. The difficulty is that there is no authority now in Kiev whom the Russians in Ukraine would accept as a guarantor of their rights, culture and interests. For a long time yet they will look for that to Moscow. This is the outcome of overthrowing a government from the street rather than through the ballot box.