Monday, September 26, 2016

Little people forgotten in the march of history

It would be fair to say that life has not been kind to Harun İpek.

While serving in the Turkish Army in 2003 the young conscript stood on a landmine planted by the Kurdish separatist group PKK, which has been waging a guerilla war with Turkey on and off for the past 30 years. Both his legs had to be amputated.

After he was invalided out of the military, İpek was able to retrain as a public servant and gained a job with the Directorate of Nature Conservation and National Parks. That ended in the wake of the 15 July failed military coup against the Government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

İpek is one of more than 100,000 workers sacked or suspended from State institutions over their alleged links to cleric Fethullah Gülen who Erdogan blames for engineering the coup. The disabled veteran’s offence was that he accepted scholarships from a Gülen Movement School for his four children.

“My children used to be proud of being the children of a veteran. Now they are seen as infidels. I have still not been given a reason why I have been removed,” İpek said recently.

This one human story reveals the lengths to which Erdogan is going in his “cleansing of State institutions”, to use his words.

It is hard to see what kind of threat a disabled former soldier working quietly away in an agency dedicated to improving the country’s environment might have been to Erdogan or his Government, and why he should be so punished for taking an opportunity to give his children an education.

While the Government will no doubt maintain that the Gülen Movement Schools are breeding grounds for revolutionaries, why then did it allow 300 schools catering for more than two million students to thrive up until the coup?

And why is it that the more than 700 schools that operate outside the country, including some in the United States, have not attracted the attention of local authorities?

When the events of 15 July are examined in the sober light of history, it will most likely be found that the coup was a bungled attempt by a few disaffected military officers who, in the end, could not even convince the forces at their disposal to do their will.

What the historians will concentrate on is the massive over-reaction by the Government which many observers are now saying, with some justice, has developed into a witch-hunt.

What they will not record in detail are the ruined lives and shattered dreams of the countless ordinary people like Harun İpek, punished for just being in the way.   

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The game is almost up for Mugabe

The end game is being played out for the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe.

The country is bankrupt; Government workers have not been paid; the main hospital in Harare has cancelled elective surgery in an effort to husband its dwindling stock of drugs; unemployment is more than 80 per cent and rising.

In recent days desperate protestors have taken to the streets in a rare show of defiance towards the country’s 92-year-old President Robert Mugabe. They were quickly dispersed by supporters of Mugabe’s Zanu PF Party, some say with the use of live ammunition.

Last week Minister of Finance, Patrick Chinamasa made one last attempt to pull the country back from the brink.

Presenting his mid-year Budget review to Parliament, Chinamasa said that in the first six months of the year 97 per cent of the nation’s revenue went to pay the wages of the bloated Public Service. He announced plans to slash 25,000 public sector jobs and cancel the end of year ‘13th cheque’ bonus of a month’s pay which has been a tradition since colonial times.

Yet almost before the country had time to absorb this information, the edict came out from the presidential mansion overturning everything the Minister had said. There would be no job cuts and the bonus would be paid as usual.  

Chinamasa, an experienced senior lawyer who has sought to re-engage with Western diplomats and international funds, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, might have expected this — a similar move a year ago was also overturned by Mugabe.

As a result payments to Government workers throughout the first half of 2016 have often been weeks late, although the president has been keen to ensure the army and police were always at the front of the line in order to keep them onside.

Mugabe can also reply on the support of roughly 70,000 Zanu PF party members which he keeps on the public payroll. Officially public servants, they do little or no work, but can be relied on to get out on the streets to break up any sign of popular discontent with the regime.

Former Minister of Finance Tendai Biti tried to reduce the number of these ‘ghost workers’ as they are known in Zimbabwe, but ran into the same presidential opposition as his successor.

Given Mugabe’s age, discussion about the succession is rife. There is growing support for 70-year-old Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is believed to have the best chance of re-engaging with the international community and securing the investment the country so desperately needs.

However Mugabe, who seems bent on retaining control of the country from beyond the grave, favours his wife Grace (51), known for her lavish lifestyle but with little administrative experience.

A key figure in the struggle against colonialism, Mugabe became Prime Minister after independence in 1980 and president in 1987; as such he is the only leader most Zimbabweans have ever known.

He took over a nation ravaged by sanctions and civil war, but with the potential to become one of the most prosperous in Africa. Instead, decades of his mismanagement have driven the country and its people into the ground.

Under different circumstances his name could have ranked alongside Nelson Mandela as one of the heroes of African liberation. Instead he will be seen as a throwback to the feudal concept of the absolute ruler regarding the nation and its people as his personal property.

That will be the sad legacy of Robert Gabriel Mugabe — and that is the tragedy of the ruined Zimbabwe he will leave behind.       

Sunday, September 11, 2016

India groans under garbage mountain

As if India did not have enough concerns about what to do with its garbage, a recent conference in Canberra, Australia, has been told that it is now the country of choice for the illegal dumping of e-waste.

This latest mountain of trash — everything from clapped out refrigerators to last year’s smartphones — are being ‘imported’ from Western countries taking advantage of India’s ‘throw away’ culture and lax regulations.

The conference, which had the theme World Making and the Environment in the Asia-Pacific Region, was told that a staggering 90 per cent of the world’s electronic waste is ending up in India.

Australian Nation University academic Assa Doron said people in Western countries liked to throw away goods and forget about them, while engaging in “pious everyday rituals of recycling”.  

However, while the West might be using India as an electronic waste dump, the country itself has to bear some of the blame for its failure to deal properly with its own domestic rubbish.

Ride on many trains in India and you will see passengers throwing drink and food cartons out of the windows. As one traveller said: “What else can we do? There is no proper disposal. If we throw it out onto the track, perhaps someone will come along and pick it up. Perhaps they will be able to recycle it.”

The Ganges River, sacred to Hindus, is still a repository for human and latterly industrial waste. The devout, who bath in it to wash away their sins, risk all kinds of infections resulting from their piety.

In recent decades central Governments have tried unsuccessfully to tackle the problem. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose constituency is the holy city of Varanasi on the Ganges, was elected in 2014 with a pledge to make the river run pristine from the mountains to the sea.

However, while there have been a number of highly-publicised cosmetic clean-ups, the crucial work of building sewage works and treatment plants for the human and industrial waste dumped into the river every day, has made a faltering start.

Some observers blame the country’s stifling bureaucracy rather than Government inaction, with Modi expressing shock to close advisers at the lack of enterprise from his public servants. The PM has intervened personally to speed the process with a plan to give the job of building and running urban sewage treatment plants to the private sector, rather than municipalities.     

Back at the Canberra conference co-convener, Dipesh Chakrabarty was saying that because of their huge size India and China would be the two nations deciding the future of the planet.   

“If they don't give up on coal and fossil fuels, we're all done for," Professor Chakrabarty said.

Just another problem on the already brimming plate of the Government in New Delhi.

Monday, September 5, 2016

After Karimov? Uzbekistan in the balance

The recent death of Uzbek President Islam Karimov reminded me of a conversation I had with a commentator and former senator from that country some 16 years ago. We discussed why Karimov needed to keep such an iron grip on the country he had ruled since before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The president had just been re-elected with around 90 per cent of the vote in a process that was clearly rigged. Why, I asked, is it necessary for him to have such an unbelievably high percentage of the vote which would never happen in a fair election? Why couldn’t he be happy with say 65 per cent which would still be classed as a landslide in the West?

My companion said that if such a result was published and it was seen that perhaps 30 per cent or more opposed Karimov it would be an encouragement for “undesirable” elements in the country.

“Uzbeks have the choice between democracy and chaos or strong rule and stability and overwhelmingly they choose stability. In Uzbekistan if you go about your lawful business, raise your family, pay your taxes and keep out of politics you have nothing to fear from the Government,” the former parliamentarian said.

This supposed link between democracy and chaos has been skilfully managed by Karimov over the past quarter of a century, reinforced more recently by the need to confront Islamic extremism in a country where the majority of the population profess to be Muslim.  However, like many dictators, the Uzbek strongman saw himself as immortal and had no interest in succession planning.

The situation is complicated by the Uzbekistan’s strategic position in central Asia, which is bound to see the United States, Russia and China all vying for influence with whoever manages to take control in Tashkent.    

While a number of names are being thrown around as possible successors, an obvious choice has yet to emerge. At best this will result in a behind-the-scenes power struggle, at worst overt violence and the kind of instability that Karimov so feared.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Turkey’s plan for a Kurdish ‘buffer’

Turkey’s incursion into Syria further complicates an already tragic situation, drastically reducing any hopes of ending the five-and-a-half-year conflict and inflicting further misery on the country’s civilian population.

The message from Ankara is that the sole aim is to push Kurdish YPG forces away from Turkey’s borders in order to reduce the chances of them contributing to a Kurdish uprising in its own territory. While this may be true, there are strong indications that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may go far beyond a simple policing action.

Buoyed by the wave of support he has received at home in the wake of the failed military coup, Erdogan is using some of his political capital to drive deep into Syria in order to establish a permanent buffer zone between the YPG operations there and the separatist movement in Turkey’s south-eastern areas.

Ankara would have no interest in a complete annexation of the territory, as the YPG is claiming, as that would involve having to take responsibility for any civilians remaining there. The more likely aim would be a permanent area of military occupation where its forces would have a free hand to confront the YPG, which Turkey has long regarded as a terrorist group.

This, of course, has angered the United States, which sees the YPG as a valuable ground asset in the war against Islamic State and other terrorist groups, but Washington will not go too far in its condemnation.

Erdogan has the ability to tear up an agreement that would result in tens of thousands of refugees pouring into Europe, destabilising its institutions and maybe even threatening the European Union and NATO.

Then there is the possibility of a rapprochement with Russia. On the face of it this seems unlikely as Turkey has repeatedly called for the ousting of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while Russia is Assad’s staunch ally. However, for Erdogan nothing is more important than preventing the establishment of a Kurdish State on Syrian soil.

The incursion has drawn protests from Assad, But Ankara knows these can be safely ignored. Territorial integrity no longer exists in Syria and whatever emerges from the conflict will look nothing like the nation that existed before 2011.