Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Another step in Putin’s Grand Plan

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the arrival of fugitive American whistle-blower Edward Snowden in Moscow is an added ingredient in his long-term strategy of rebuilding Russian power and prestige.

For a few days at least he can lecture the United States about human rights, pointing out that Snowden has broken no Russian laws; mouthing legalisms about extradition treaties while staying at the centre of one of the most newsworthy stories of the year.

It’s a great opportunity and the former KGB strongman will take full advantage of it, but in the end it will be a minor and probably soon-forgotten step along the road he has been treading since succeeding the clownish Boris Yeltsin in 2000.

He inherited a country in crisis. The once proud Soviet Union was long gone; the world now familiar with the names of new countries which had once been Soviet republics. The possibility of further splintering was real with a virulent insurgency in the North Caucasus. The economy was in ruins and instead of being able to rely on the vast distances that had defeated Napoleon and Hitler, Moscow was now little more than 200 kilometres from the borders with potentially hostile Ukraine.

In the 13 years since Putin has masterminded a Russian resurgence based on the careful distribution of its abundant natural resources. Much of Europe now depends on Russia for its natural gas requirements and treats Moscow with deference because of it The North Caucasus crisis is contained if not quashed, the economy is growing steadily, poverty has been reduced and his popular support, if no longer overwhelming, is still solid enough. Returning to the presidency after the token term of his crony, Dmitry Medvedev, Putin was ready for the next stage of his Grand Plan.

The Syrian Civil War provided the ideal opportunity. Putin supports President Bashar al-Assad, not simply because he has been an ally in the past, but because the United States and much of the Western World backs the rebels. He gambles that the extensive weaponry and other technical assistance he is supplying to the beleaguered leader will be sufficient for Assad to crush the revolution while the US and other nations dither over what they should, or should not do to aid the insurgency.

For all his fine words about working with the West to end the bloodshed Putin will turn a blind eye to whatever reprisals a victorious Assad will make among the population who opposed him, while the Russian president will be quite happy to see a rampant and fully armed Hezbollah make mischief with Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Putin will have a firm and grateful ally to counter US influence and prestige in the Middle East which will take a great hit if Assad wins. He will feel free to meddle in the affairs of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbajan; Belarus will be pushed further into Russia’s orbit and even Ukraine may be prized away from its Western leanings.

At some point, of course, even a war-weary US will say enough and Putin cannot hope to do what the Soviet Union couldn’t and face down the might of the superpower. The trick will be in knowing when to stop - and that might be the greatest test yet for the man who has led his country back from the brink of chaos.  

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Warning signs in Turkish protests

What begins as a relatively minor and peaceful protest draws an unexpected and excessive reaction from authorities; protesters are joined by hundreds of sympathisers, provoking even more aggressive attempts to quash them. Demonstrations grow violent; the rhetoric escalates on both sides as the demonstrators turn their anger on the government itself.

Sounds familiar? Egypt? Libya? Syria?

In fact, this pattern is working itself out in Turkey, a democratic state with long-ingrained secular traditions and until recently regarded as the most westernised of Muslim countries. That mantle appears to be slipping as an increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister appears to have learnt nothing from the massive disruptions to nations on its doorstep.

The problems began less than a month ago when around 100 pro-environment activists began a sit in to protest against a plan to build on an Istanbul park – a fairly routine disagreement which, it was assumed, would be solved by negotiation and compromise.

Instead the police moved in to forcefully remove the protesters using tear gas and water cannon, while Prime Minister Recep Rayyip Erdogan began making bombastic statements about how these kinds of protests would not be tolerated.

Almost at once the ranks of the demonstrators were swelled by thousands of students and other citizens taking to the streets, while unrest spread to other cities. Erdogan responded by ordering an intensification of the crackdown and threatening to call in the army if the police could not to the job.

What has caused this blatant over-reaction by the Prime Minister over what began as a simple example of civil society in action? Some observers blame the weakness of the parliamentary opposition for failing to properly scrutinise Erdogan’s conservative Justice and Development Party Government, allowing the instinctively hard-line leader to develop a messiah complex.

As one demonstrator put it: “Erdogan is behaving like a sultan. He does not listen to anyone or take advice from anyone. He believes he is the font of all wisdom.”

That ‘wisdom’ is taking on a decidedly right-wing bent. Erdogan has described anyone who consumes alcohol as “alcoholics”, has banned kissing in public and tightened censorship laws.

On the plus side his administration has presided over a gradually strengthening economy, with increased foreign investment and lower unemployment and inflation.

No one doubts the Government’s economic credentials, but many Turks are questioning whether greater prosperity has to come hand-in-hand with a whittling away of long-held freedoms.

It is to be hoped that both sides can take the road to compromise. The last thing the international community needs is yet another flashpoint in this troubled part of the world.  

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Pollution threatens health of Chinese people

Authorities in Beijing are finally acknowledging what visitors to China have known for years: The pollution created by the country’s explosive industrial growth is gradually poisoning its population.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection has issued a statement admitting that pollution problems had become “serious” in 2012 with a marked deterioration in air, water and land quality.

The China Daily has reported a surge in the sales of face masks in Beijing itself where smog pushed the pollution index to record levels earlier this year, resulting in an epidemic of what has become known as ‘Beijing Cough’.

The index had measured the level of particles in the air as high as 900 micrograms per cubic metre in some parts of the city – the World Health Organization considers the maximum safe level to be 25 micrograms.

And that is Beijing. While no figures are available, a visitor to Wuhan, in central China, described the atmosphere as “thick enough to cut with a knife” and said she developed a persistent cough and sore eyes within hours of stepping off the plane.

Added to this is the poisoning of China’s river system by the dumping, often illegally, of untreated industrial waste. The Ministry report found that more than 57 per cent of groundwater in 198 cities was “bad” or “extremely bad”; more than 30 per cent of the country’s rivers were “polluted” or “seriously polluted”.

The problem extends into rural areas where industrial development not only causes dislocation when communities are forced to make way for it, but also contributes to the poisoning of surrounding agricultural land.

Power stations, necessary to maintain China’s economic expansion and often fuelled with coal imported from Australia, are a major contributor to air pollution. China is embarking on a nuclear power program, but its 17 reactors contribute just one per cent of the country’s electricity.

Around 17 per cent of power generation comes from renewable energy sources, largely due to an extensive hydroelectric system. Overseas studies have suggested that China could produce far more of its energy needs from renewables, notably wind power.

However, former Premier Wen Jiabao was unenthusiastic, preferring to put his faith in a rapid nuclear expansion. It remains to be seen whether the current regime will follow the same path.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Sharif tastes the realities of power

The first speech to Parliament by new Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif highlighted the dilemma in which he finds himself.

Posing as an ardent nationalist and patriot, he called for an end to American drone strikes on Pakistani territory.

“We respect the sovereignty of others and they should respect our sovereignty and independence – this campaign [the drone strikes] must come to an end,” he said.

Fine words, but what is the latest situation on the ground?

Two police officers killed and three others wounded by an improvised explosive device while on patrol in Peshawar – almost certainly the work of the Taliban.

Three Taliban militants killed, as well as two women civilians during a raid by security forces on a home in Quetta.

And Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates sends a letter to Opposition politician Imran Khan asking him for help in reviving the anti-polio vaccination campaign in Pakistan which has slowed almost to a halt after repeated attacks on vaccination teams.

The deadly assaults are bolstered by outrageous propaganda spread by Taliban militants that the campaign is really a front by the US aimed at sterilising Muslim children.

Just another day in the tortured life of the Pakistani state.

It means Sharif has a fine line to tread, something he recognised later in the same address when he said that it was necessary to work out a “joint strategy” with the US to halt the strikes.

While an end to the drone attacks is demanded by large segments of the country’s population who see it as an affront to sovereignty, there are elements within the Pakistani security forces who see them as a necessary evil if the Taliban is ever to be defeated.

A further complication is the impending withdrawal of NATO forces from neighbouring Afghanistan which will presumably settle the question of drone strikes anyway.

In opposition Sharif was vocal in his demands the drones cease immediately and that the Taliban be encouraged to the negotiating table. The realities of power appear to be moderating this position.

Nothing is likely to change too soon.   



Monday, June 3, 2013

New focus for Tiananmen protests?

Ever since the bloody repression of China’s democracy movement in the Tiananmen massacre of 4 June 1989, Hong Kong people have defied the official Chinese line that the event was a counter-revolutionary riot of no significance that should be forgotten, by turning out in their hundreds of thousands in what has become an annual candlelit vigil to remember those who died.

The transformation of the British colony into a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic in 1997did nothing to quench support for the event and by now the Government in Beijing knows that short of sending in the troops it is powerless to prevent it. However, this year’s vigil has come under fire from a growing band of radicals who want to break the links with the mainland altogether.

The hero of this group is an academic, Horace ChinWan-kan, the author of a book which advocates a Singapore-style city-state status for Hong Kong. He says that the Tiananmen protesters’ aim of seeking a reform of the Communist system on the mainland has become irrelevant to the larger issue of a fully free and democratic Hong Kong.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post he called “for a line to be drawn” between Hong Kong and the mainland.

“In those days when Hong Kong people supported the student protests in Beijing, we were free-riding on the hope of a democratic China. Today we must realise Hong Kong’s democracy has to rely on its own people,” Chin said.

The movement came to prominence last year when in a demonstration in front of the Chinese Government liaison office, autonomy supporters waved British colonial-era flags. Since then they have also carried the flag of Taiwan – the breakaway offshore island which Beijing considers a renegade province – at protests.

At the heart of these changes is a growing disillusionment that Beijing will ever waver from its authoritarian one-party style of government. Added to this is a frustration that 16 years after the handover, the promise of a full democracy in Hong Kong has been constantly postponed and is currently just a vague prospect for 2017.

Balanced against the democracy movement are the concerns of many local business interests that the profitable two-way dealings with the mainland could be disrupted and the fears of many ordinary Hong Kongers that a too radical push for greater freedoms could force Beijing into a crackdown that would destroy the city’s vibrant, international lifestyle.

Whatever the outcome of this year’s vigil, it would seem that an increasing number of young Hong Kongers, who have no memory of the massacre itself, are seeing it more as a symbol for change rather than the commemoration of a past atrocity.