Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Easy in Manila – but Ukraine awaits

United States President Barack Obama was well and truly in his comfort zone in Manila at the end of his East Asian tour, declaring his country would come to the aid of the Philippines should it ever face attack.

“Our commitment to defend the Philippines is ironclad,” Obama said in a clear warning to China that is engaged in a territorial dispute with Manila over islands in the South China Sea.

Even though there is a long-standing treaty which actually requires the US to come to the aid of the Philippines if it is attacked, the President must have welcomed the opportunity to play the tough guy following his equivocation in the escalating row with Russia over Ukraine and the inevitable failure of Middle East peace talks.

He was underlining his policy of ‘tilting’ towards Asia and ensuring Beijing clearly knows his continuing commitment to the US’s friends in East and South-East Asia.

China predictably sniffed at Obama’s support for the “troublemaking” Philippines, claiming it was another attempt to contain China’s influence in the region – which it was.

However, Beijing knows that its “indisputable” territorial rights are actually on shaky ground, which is why it refuses to take part in any international mediation. Its claims on various islets and shoals are based on “ancient maps and charts” – documents drawn up when the Abbasid Caliphate ruled most of North Africa and the Middle East, while the Eastern Roman Empire stretched from the toe of Italy to Trebizond.

With allies reassured and the big stick waved at China, Obama must now address the realities waiting in Washington. Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempts to get the Israelis and Palestinians to talk about a lasting “two-state solution” has clearly failed, but this is not such a problem as every Administration since Nixon and Kissinger has tried and failed to find a solution to this insurmountable problem. Ukraine is a different matter.

While Obama was away, US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel was assured by his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, that Russia had no intention of invading the rest of Ukraine after accepting the annexation of Crimea – but to many commentators this held echoes of the Sudetenland and Adolf Hitler’s 1938 speech about this being his last territorial demand.    

The US president made a big mistake when, from the beginning, he took the military option off the table, leaving the US and Europe to dither and debate over the extent and depth of sanctions while Russian President Vladimir Putin presides over the gradual break-up of Ukraine (the extent to which he is complicit in this can be debated).

Any threat to use force would have remained just that – a threat - but one that Putin would have appreciated. As it is he correctly judges he can ride out sanctions (they are rarely fully effective and inevitably weaken with time) while continuing to play cat and mouse with the West.

This from the pages of history:

By now, the Nazis had perfected the art of stealing neighbouring territory. They would start by encouraging political unrest inside the area. At the same time, they would wage a propaganda campaign citing real or imagined wrongs committed against local Germans. When neighbouring political leaders finally came to see Hitler to resolve the ongoing crisis, they would be offered help in the form of a German Army occupation to "restore order".

Obama would do well to ponder another quote from the past, this from the Spanish philosopher, George Santayana:

Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them.


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Anti-Muslim remarks setback for Modi

Reported anti-Muslim remarks by two right-wing Hindu nationalist leaders have thrown a spanner into the hitherto smooth progress of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign in the Indian General Election.

The President of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Pravin Togadia, reportedly demanded that a Muslim businessman leave his property in a predominately Hindu area of Bhavnagar, in Gujarat and that Togadia’s followers should go against Muslims with “stones, tyres and tomatoes”.

And in Bihar a BJP candidate, Giriraj Singh, reportedly said that those who opposed the party’s Prime Ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, “should leave India and go to Pakistan” – a clear reference to Muslims, the majority of whom are vehemently opposed to the BJP.

Togadia has since denied making the comments, while Singh appears to have gone to ground and is not answering calls. However, the Indian Electoral Commission has launched an investigation into both incidents.

Modi himself went into damage control, saying he did not support either statement.

“My government will be of the people – for those who voted for me, for those who did not vote for me and even for those who did not vote at all,” he said.

“Petty statement by those claiming to be BJP’s well-wishers are deviating the campaign from the issues of development and good governance.”

The last thing Modi needs at this stage of the election are references to the BJP’s roots in Hindu nationalism. While there are few votes to be had among the Muslim population, incidents such as these may alienate moderate Hindus who might be wavering in their support of the ruling Congress Party-led coalition.  

Almost half of the electorate have already voted, but there are some important contests still to come, particularly in Varanasi, where Modi himself is standing, which does not go to the polls until the last day of the election on May 12. indu area of Bhavnagar, GujaratHh




Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Abe plays Yasukuni card for Obama’s visit

Shinzo Abe’s ritual offering to the Yasukuni Shrine where the spirits of Japan’s war dead are said to reside, is yet another example of the Prime Minister’s determination to keep his country at the top of the United States’ East Asian agenda.

Deliberately designed to coincide with a visit from US President Barack Obama this week, the gesture brought the usual protests from South Korea and China, as among the spiritual inhabitants of Yasukuni are leaders guilty of committing war crimes against both nations.

While Abe did not actually visit the shrine on this occasion, a number of other Parliamentarians, including his Minister for Internal Affairs, Yoshitaka Shindo, paid ritual homage, something that Washington disapproves of, but is powerless to stop.

Japan has always ignored Chinese and South Korean protests, but on this occasion Beijing went a step further by seizing a Japanese merchant vessel, claiming its owner, Mitsui OSK Lines, still owes compensation dating back to World War II.

However, most observers believe the seizure will come to nothing as the Chinese Government cannot afford to endanger the business that might be lost from Japanese firms should the incident escalate into a full-blown crisis.

By upping the ante over Yasukuni visits China and South Korea are playing straight into Abe’s hands, demonstrating their powerlessness to influence Tokyo’s actions.

Far better to have accepted the visits as just a nation paying tribute to its war dead, as they do themselves, while ensuring the actual atrocities are never forgotten.

As it is Abe will ensure he has Obama’s full attention when he raises the issues of greatest concern for his country including East Asian regional security and especially Japan’s continuing row with China over the Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims as the Diaoyu.



Saturday, April 19, 2014

Pyongyang lashes Kirby again

North Korea has predictably lashed out again at its latest bete noire, Australian former High Court Judge Michael Kirby, for repeating assertions that the leaders of the Stalinist state must be held accountable for human rights abuses.

Kirby, who heads a special United Nations inquiry into North Korean crimes against humanity, released a report earlier this year in which he said the regime’s top officials, including the 31-year-old Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, should be brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC) to answer for their misdeeds.

While there is no chance that anyone from the Pyongyang regime will voluntarily present themselves at the Hague, Kirby has followed this up with a call at a UN meeting for targeted sanctions against individuals most responsible for the abuses which, he said, included summary executions, enslavements and sexual violence.

The response from North Korea, presented via the country’s official news agency, was in keeping with its regular use of extravagant language, describing Kirby’s report as “a frantic racket aimed at tarnishing the image of the dignified Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” and “bringing down the ideology and social system chosen by the Korean people in the long run’’.

The question is what to do next? Emma Campbell, a Korea expert at the Australian National University College of Asia and the Pacific, believes the West’s options are limited.

Dr Campbell points out that the North is already subject to strict sanctions through its refusal to abandon its nuclear weapons program, and that an even greater crackdown would probably hurt the general population more than its leaders.

Military action would run the risk of devastation on the Korean Peninsula and beyond, while China would almost certainly block referral to the ICC by using its veto in the Security Council.

Dr Campbell puts her faith in more people-to-people engagements in the areas of culture, sport, government and economics, coupled with increased humanitarian aid “to improve the lives of the North Korean population and empower them to bring about change on their own terms”.

While this may be effective elsewhere in the world, Dr Campbell has made the mistake of underestimating the utter ruthlessness of the Pyongyang regime and the lengths to which it will go to preserve its hold on power.

She is not alone. I have previously expressed the hope Kim, who received part of his education in the West, might be a liberalising influence – I was hopelessly wrong.

Instead, the young man has proved himself to be in the best Stalinist traditions by liquidating anyone who might prove to be a challenge to his rule, including his close relations – his aunt appears to be the latest victim.

I fear that any increased humanitarian aid would simply be channelled to reward the regime’s closest supporters, including the million-strong armed forces.

As Kirby states, virtually the only option will be targeted sanctions against individuals, but even these will be mitigated if China chooses to ignore them. Beyond that lies the possibility of support for internal dissidents to destabilise the regime – something Russian President Vladimir Putin is employing all too successfully in Ukraine – if indeed there are any dissidents left that have escaped the regime’s attention.     

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Gandhi v Gandhi in slanging match

As the country’s drawn-out election passes the halfway stage, Indians are both amused and bemused at a family spat that has broken out within the powerful Gandhi family.

With members on both sides of the electoral divide – Rahul Gandhi and his mother, Sonia, are spearheading the Congress Party’s campaign, while Rahul’s aunt, Maneka, and cousin, Varun, are candidates for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – the likelihood of a slanging match was always on the cards.

Relations got off to a civilised start with Varun actually praising Rahul for development work within his Uttar Pradesh constituency of Amethi. The compliment was not returned, however when Priyanka, Rahul’s feisty sister, said her cousin had gone astray and should be shown the right path.

Addressing a pro-Congress crowd in Amethi, Priyanka continued: “When a young one in the family chooses the wrong path, the elders show him the right path.”

Maneka quickly hit back, saying it was for the people and not Priyanka to decide whether her son was on the wrong path or not.

“I am confident he will do his duty well and win the confidence of the people,” Maneka said.

Varun weighed in saying his cousin had crossed the lakshman rekha of decency with her remarks (a reference from Hindu mythology of a strict convention not to be broken).   

“In the past decade, whether it has been a member of my family or a senior leader of any political party, I have never crossed the lakshman rekha of decency in my speeches,” Varun said.

“We should debate unemployment, corruption, poverty and illiteracy instead of making personal attacks.”

Seemingly oblivious to the fact she had started the row, Priyanka said the election was “an ideological war and not a family tea party”.

Repeating that Varun was on the wrong path, she said she would not have forgiven her child if he had done something like this.

The family split goes back to the 1980s when Sanjay Gandhi, the son of then Prime Minister Indira and husband of Maneka, was widely thought to succeed his mother in office. However, when Sanjay died in a plane crash Indira began to groom Rajiv, her elder son and husband of Sonia, to succeed her.

As a result Maneka, who had political ambitions of her own, fell out with her mother-in-law and founded her own party, which she later merged with the BJP.

In a separate development the Election Commission has told media organisations not to publish opinion polls using information from exit polls in seats that have already voted.

 The problem arises from the country’s lengthy election period which involves voting for the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha (Parliament) being held on nine separate days over more than a month.

The process is necessary because with more than 814 million people eligible to vote at almost a million polling stations, the Commission has to move manpower and resources around the country. Votes will not be counted until May 16.

As a result the Representation of the People Act bans the publication of exit polls, but in the somewhat convoluted language beloved by the framers of Indian legislation, it is not quite clear if the ban extends to opinion polls.

Some media outlets have been conducting opinion polls in areas where the votes have already been cast, leading to allegations that it is a deliberate attempt to influence those who have yet to exercise their franchise.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Stab in the back for Aussie innovation

If the reports are true that significant cuts are planned for Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) it will be one of the biggest mistakes, if not the biggest mistake, of the Abbott Government.

Other spending curbs projected in the May Budget are harsh – I would much prefer to see these mitigated by increases in taxation – but as short-term measures in place while the economy improves, they can probably be lived with.

But a cutback in research endangers a lifeline, perhaps the only lifeline, to a reasonable future for the people of Western developed nations such as Australia.

Politicians have long been saying the nation’s economy is “in transition”. The question really is “in transition to what?” Prime Minister Tony Abbott sees the free trade deals with Japan, South Korea and potentially China as the way forward.

These agreements will certainly mean cheaper cars and, to a lesser extent, cheaper electrical goods for Australian consumers. Going the other way, farmers and miners should benefit.

They will, however, lock Australia in as a food and natural resource exporter with some back-up from education and tourism. The base is narrow, and vulnerable to factors such as climate change and overseas political and economic crises over which the country has no control.

This is just the time when we should be looking to our entrepreneurs, researchers and scientists – our best inventive brains – to come up with the products and technologies that are going to entice consumers in the 2020s, 30s and beyond. We need people who will think outside the box, not within the box of primary production and digging things out of the ground.

Unfortunately Australia’s managerial class has become complacent and risk averse – and our best brains are going to realise from the cuts to CSIRO that they have no future here.

Who will blame them if they head for the United States where the thinking and culture is so very different? One example:

American car-makers are suffering from the same Asian competition that ended the industry here, but a vigorous young company called Tesla is fighting back by designing and manufacturing electric cars and components, and in just a decade has produced the first fully-electric sports car, the Tesla Roadster, and the Model S, the first full-electric luxury sedan.

Hard going at first but the company is now posting profits and plans a $6 billion factory to produce its own lithium-ion batteries. It may yet be many years before fossil fuels become prohibitively expensive as easily accessible reserves run low, but in the US Tesla and others are already working on the alternatives.

Interestingly, Tesla Motors is named after electrical engineer and physicist Nikola Tesla whose 19th and early 20th century designs included the ancestor of the electric motors the company now uses. Tesla was doing his best work around the same time that Australians were inventing the world’s first refrigerator, electric drills, full-length feature films and, open to dispute, the aeroplane.

Today Australia’s innovative spirit remains – the Scramjet is just one example – but cuts to the CSIRO’s budget send the wrong message. As former Victorian Chief Scientist Sir Gustav Nossal says, CSIRO can produce research results that will sponsor innovation and help create smarter industries that will be needed when the mining boom finally fades.

Unfortunately the vision of our industry leaders and politicians does not extend that far.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sonia real power in India – PM

A new book has been launched in the midst of India’s month-long election which will give no comfort to the ruling Congress Party, already well behind in the polls.

In The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh, a former media adviser to Singh, Prime Minister for the past 10 years who is stepping down at this election, quotes him as saying that he had to accept that Congress President Sonia Gandhi was the real power in his government.

“I have to accept that the party president is the centre of power. The government is answerable to the party,” he reportedly told the book’s author, Sanjay Baru, shortly after Congress had won re-election in 2009.

In some ways this confirms what many Indians has suspected all along – that Singh, who was already over 70 when he took office a decade ago, was taking his orders from Gandhi, the widow of assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and mother of the leader of Congress in the current election, Rahul.

However, to have the matter raised again at this stage underlines the Gandhi family’s influence over Congress that stretches back decades. Rahul’s great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru was the country’s first Prime Minister after independence from the British in 1947 and Nehru’s daughter, Indira, led the country from 1966-77 and again between 1980-84. Rajiv held office from 1984-89.

Baru, said that Sonia’s influence, always present, reached its highest level after Congress was successfully re-elected in 2009 when Singh was effectively “defanged” with Gandhi distributing Cabinet portfolios against his wishes.

The publication brought a swift response from the Prime Minister’s Office which denounced it as a work of fiction. The current media adviser, Pankaj Pachauri described it “as an attempt to misuse a privileged position and access to high office to gain credibility and exploit it for commercial gain”.   

By coincidence, Baru’s book comes only weeks after a biography of the Opposition  Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Leader Narendra Modi in which his role in the 2002 Hindu-Muslim Gujarat riots is discussed.

In Narendra Modi: A Political Biography, author Andy Marino states that Modi, who was then in his first term as Gujarat Chief Minister, was “shaken to the core by the mindless violence”.

More than 1000 people died in the riots, most of them Muslims, and Modi’s detractors have long claimed that he did not do enough to halt the violence. However, he tells Marino that a request to bring in the army to maintain law and order and keep the two communities apart was refused because the army was needed to deal with heightened tensions with Pakistan.

Marino writes that Modi wanted to resign after the riots but was persuaded by the BJP hierarchy to stay on. In the years since he has rarely talked about the violence, saying his role in building Gujarat’s economy into the strongest in the nation was sufficient answer.

“I never waste my time in confrontation,” he is quoted as saying in the biography.

In a recent interview Modi defended his staunch religious views but said he respected the traditions of all religions.

In a television interview he said Muslim children should get better quality education “with a Koran in one hand and a computer in the other”.

Another prominent politician to come under the microscope during the campaign is the leader of the Samajwadi Party, Mulayam Singh Yadav, who criticised a new law under which rapists can be sentenced to death for a repeated offence.

Yadiv, whose left-of-centre party holds 22 seats in the Lok Sabha (Parliament) said it was unfair to hand the death sentence “to boys who make mistakes” and he would move to water down the law if he came to power.

His remarks have caused outrage across India where the subject is a sensitive issue in the wake of several high profile rape cases, and Yadav was quickly into damage control saying no one respects women more than his party.     



Friday, April 11, 2014

Might-makes-right no answer to island disputes

Indonesia has officially joined the line-up of nations opposing China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, abandoning its previous efforts to be a neutral umpire in the disputes.

Jakarta has now aligned itself with the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan, all of which have asserted their rights against China’s on various islets and shoals as well as the fishing grounds – and possible rich hydrocarbon fields – surrounding them.

In doing so it finally recognises that China’s land grab does include at least some of the islands in the Natuna Chain. Indonesia administers the islands as part of its Riau Province. Without the naval capacity to resist its giant neighbour, Jakarta has relied on quiet diplomacy supported by the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) to keep Beijing at bay.

However, it is now faced with the example of the Philippines which sought to seek arbitration using UNCLOS for its dispute with China over the ownership of Ren’ai Reef. Beijing refused to take part, stating it was a matter of sovereignty that could be settled only by “direct negotiation”.

If a UNCLOS Tribunal goes ahead and rules in the Philippines’ favour, China will ignore it, Beijing stated.

As recently as last month, Indonesia’s new Ambassador to China, Sugeng Tahardjo, was hailing cooperation between the two countries that would bring benefits to the entire region.

“Indonesia-China relations are solid, mutually beneficial and continuously growing,” Sugeng said.

It appears that this cooperation will not be extending to a speedy resolution of the Natuna dispute.

In recent times Indonesian Coastguard attempts to detain Chinese fishing boats working in its Exclusive Economic Zone have been resisted by armed naval vessels. Beijing, on the other hand, has declared a fishing ban on foreign vessels around Hainan Island that takes in more than half of the entire South China Sea. The final straw has come with a Chinese decision to declare an Air Defence Identification Zone over the South China Sea similar to one already in place over the East China Sea.

Writing in the PacNet Newsletter, Associate Professor Ann Marie Murphy of Seton Hall University in the United States calls Indonesia’s new tactics “a game changer”.

“With Indonesia officially contesting China’s claim, the strategic ambiguity that had allowed Indonesia to position itself as a mediator between China and its ASEAN partners has been lost,” Professor Murphy says.

“Precisely how events will unfold cannot be predicted but tensions in the South China Sea are likely to rise further.”

At stake here is not just the ownership of a few rocks, but the entire international framework governing disputes between nations. Gregory Poling of the US Centre for Strategic and International Studies sums it up when he says if China, by virtue of size or force of arms, is free to ignore that framework, then the entire edifice risks being discredited.

“No nation, China included, would find its security and prosperity better served by a return to the pre-20th century system of might-makes-right relations,” Pollard says.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Harassment laws concern for journalists

Some disturbing developments in the United Kingdom have raised questions about the freedom of the press and the possibility of journalists facing criminal action for simply doing their job.

The Chief Reporter of the Croydon Advertiser, Gareth Davies, was served with a Prevention of Harassment Notice by police after he tried to contact a convicted fraudster, Neelam Desai as part of his investigation into a series of dating website scams.

He said he had visited her home once and in following weeks sent two politely-worded emails asking for comment.

Ms Desai apparently complained to the police who handed Davies the harassment notice, usually reserved for cases involving domestic disputes or for offences such as stalking. 

Davies was told by police who served the notice that being a journalist did not give him special privileges and “just doing a job is what brought down the News of the World” – a reference to the now defunct Sunday newspaper’s role in the phone hacking scandal.

In a separate development, an attempt to stop Northern Ireland’s Sunday World from publishing a story about a man’s alleged links to a banned terrorist group went all the way to the High Court before it was thrown out.

The man had also sought to use the harassment legislation to stop publication, but in this case the judge said the newspaper could proceed because it had “legitimate information concerning serious criminal activity”.

The Croydon Advertiser case has caused a storm among newspaper publishers and human rights groups with the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers in Paris saying it was “an embarrassment to the authorities and damaged the international reputation of the UK”.

The legal director of the human rights group Liberty, James Welch, said police should be wary of discouraging good journalistic practices with these “chilling” warnings.

Also worth noting is the decision by a coroner not to name a man who had died of a drink and drug overdose on the grounds that he had an unusual surname and that children related to him might be put at risk. This is despite UK legislation covering coroner’s  inquests which states they should be held in public except in cases affecting national security and that the first act of an inquest should be to establish the deceased’s identity.

Another coroner apparently told an expert witness: “the press are here so you had better be careful about what you say.”

It seems that in the wake of the Leveson Report following the News International phone hacking scandal, UK public officials are going to inordinate lengths to “protect” individuals from the media, certain to be heartily welcomed by anyone with something to hide.

In the Croydon Advertiser’s case the complaint of an individual already convicted of fraud, with numerous charges made against her by people who alleged they had lost substantial amounts of money because of her actions, should have given the police pause.

In Australia the current emphasis on privacy, largely as a result of problems associated with social media, could well provide a cloak for individuals and organisations with things to hide from investigative reporters.

I am certainly not suggesting the media are above the law, but officialdom should remember the countless cases when the work of dedicated professional journalists “just doing their job” has brought to light wrongdoings that would otherwise have gone unpunished. 


Monday, April 7, 2014

Eyeball-to-eyeball and the West is blinking

Numerous articles I have read on the current crisis in Ukraine have likened it to Adolf Hitler’s wresting away of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in 1938. It is a tempting analogy but one, I believe, that is flawed.

Vladimir Putin is not Hitler whose ultimate aim went far beyond slicing off pieces of adjacent territory to unite the German peoples under the Third Reich. He sought to dominate Europe and destroy the Soviet Union. Initially Hitler had no desire to confront the United States, or even the United Kingdom, which he was prepared to leave free to enjoy its empire if it would stop fighting him.

It was only his megalomania fuelled by a series of easy victories and the utter stupidity of Japan in bringing the US into the war that was the undoing of the Fuhrer and his Axis allies.

I would suggest that a more relevant date from history is 1962 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was so confident he had the measure of the young and relatively new US President, John Kennedy that he thought he could get away with planting nuclear missiles on his client state of Cuba, little more than 100 kilometres from the American mainland.

It was a simple bully boy tactic, backed by a modicum of logic: after all the US was just as threatening with nuclear missiles stationed on the Soviet Union’s doorstep in Turkey. However he miscalculated and blinked first in the “eyeball-to-eyeball” confrontation. A year later Khrushchev had been deposed.

Would the Soviet Union have ever used those Cuban-based missiles? Of course not; the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was clearly understood by both parties even if then it hadn’t been widely debated. There was not even a need for them. Both sides already had armouries of missiles quite capable of reaching the other from their own homelands.

The rationale behind Cuba was to show the world that not only had the Soviet Union recovered from the ruins of World War II it was now the dominant superpower and that its centralised system of government was triumphant over the decadent democracies of the West. It would have influenced non-aligned nations in Africa, Asia and South America to fall in behind the Kremlin, leaving the US isolated and the remaining Western democracies in disarray.    

Instead, the events of 1963 created the seeds of the Soviet Union’s eventual failure. It took a long while and for a time it seemed that international communism was still on the march especially in South-east Asia, but the rot had set in and was eating away at the philosophical foundations. Afghanistan proved the edifice could be propped up only by brute force and eventually the leadership tired of the struggle.

Russian born Konstantin Sarkivisov, Professor Emeritus at Yamanashi Gakuin University in Japan, believes the low-point for the former superpower came not with the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, but a decade later when Putin, in his first term, seemed ready to abandon any pretence of continued rivalry with the West and put out feelers for eventual membership of the EU and even NATO.

The moves were opposed by Washington and even the lesser suggestion that there be visa-less travel between Russia and the EU was rejected. From that point Putin realised there was no point in courting the West. That Russia’s influence could be rebuilt only through rivalry and confrontation.

So we had the five-day war against Georgia, the threats to slice off territory from Moldova, and now Crimea. The West’s answer to date has been a range of economic sanctions, so mild they have hardly caused a ripple in the global financial system. Worst of all, US President Barak Obama has specifically taken the military option off the table even if Moscow uses force to annex further parts of Ukraine with significant ethnic Russian populations. which most recent events in the eastern part of the country indicate he is ready to do. Putin is treading a risky course, but so far his gamble has paid off.

Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili says the biggest casualty in this inadequate response will be the principles on which the West is built as it stands by while Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova are punished by Russia simply because of their desire to live in a free and democratic world.

Someone is blinking – and it is not the Russian president.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Extravagant abuse in Indian campaign

Indian election campaigns have never been short of extravagant language, but the current one is setting new records for abusive and threatening rhetoric.

In the last few days Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate Heeralal Regar declared that the ruling Congress Party President, Sonia Gandhi, and her son and political leader, Rahul Gandhi, should be “stripped of their clothes and sent back to Italy” – a reference to Mrs Gandhi’s Italian heritage.

Regar later apologised for his over-the-top remarks claiming he had been misquoted.

Not to be outdone Congress candidate Imraan Masood, said he would like to “chop [BJP leader] Narenda Modi into pieces”.

The leader of a Congress-allied party, the Nationalist Congress Party, and current Minister for Agriculture, Sharad Pawar, weighed in, saying Modi should be “treated in a mental hospital” and that he was “a danger to the country”.

Modi himself said the leader of the third force in Indian politics, Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party, was a Pakistani agent after one of Kejriwal’s colleagues called for a plebiscite in the state of Kashmir which is claimed by both countries.

And Kejriwal hit back saying Modi was “skirting the issues, backing corrupt politicians and fielding scam-tainted candidates”.

The latest Nielsen poll predicts the BJP and its supporters are heading back to power for the first time in a decade with a likely total of 236 seats in the 543-seat Lok Sabha (parliament) against the ruling Congress Party and supporters’ 92. The result would mean the BJP would have to negotiate with some of the numerous minor parties to secure an overall majority, but this is par for the course in Indian politics.

Voting will be held on nine days beginning on Monday and continuing in various parts of the country until May 12. This will allow sufficient resources to be deployed on each polling day. The final count of votes will begin on May 16.