Archive for the ‘Georgia’ Category

The Deification of Dead Political Leaders

January 7, 2010

In an op-ed piece published today on nytimes.com titled “Asia’s 70-Percent Gods,” Roger Cohen discusses his recent trip to Asia where he saw the preserved bodies of Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong.  He notes that the Communists leaders who control one-party states have deified their predecessors for nationalist purposes while ignoring the socioeconomic ideas that they assiduously promoted at the cost of millions of lives (Stalin is still a revered figure in Russia, although some Russian elites, including President Dmitry Medvedev, have criticized his repressive actions).  The deceased political titans remain symbols of resistance to foreign oppression and the overthrow of corrupt governments, but current Asian powerbrokers are promoting the capitalist-type economic policies that Ho and Mao decried in an effort to stay in power by improving the living standards of their countries’ citizens.

At times other Asian nations have treated their heads of state like gods, including North Korea (which is still a communist dictatorship), and Japan; although the latter no longer considers the emperor a deity.

Contemporary Chinese leaders have so far succeeded in facilitating rapid economic growth and remaining in power while using authoritarian measures like censorship and the banning of alternative politial parties.  However, China is not as stable as many outsiders believe.  There are thousands of riots each year as well as ethnic conflict, and there is a wide and growing wealth inequality between urban dwellers and rural peasants that could eventually lead to class warfare.  And when the living standards of the middle class reach a certain level those in it may focus more on their lack of civil liberties and demand change; such a development would undermine the primary pillar of the Communist Party’s political strategy and threaten its primacy.

Political instability, as well as the aging of the population due to the one-child policy, may put a halt to China’s impressive economic growth in the coming decades.  The threat of this happening is significant but largely ignored in America where many fear that China will overtake the US economically and geopolitically by mid-century.  While some might welcome attempts to liberalize Chinese society and bring down the communists, people should be aware that the consequences of a revolutionary movement could be disastrous in terms of lives lost and the destabilization of the global economy.  If democracy emerges in China or other Asian countries one hopes that it will be the result of a peaceful process much like the velvet revolutions that occured in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War rather than a bloodbath.

Surprising Statistics

September 10, 2009

A recent public opinion poll conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States yielded surprising results.  According to the Transatlantic Trends survey, the US is now more popular in Western Europe than in Eastern Europe.  Sixty-three percent of Western Europeans have a favorable view of the US, compared with just over 50 percent of Eastern Europeans.  This is a massive shift from the George W. Bush presidency, when public opinion about America was much lower in Western Europe.

The change is largely attributable to President Obama’s replacement of President Bush (President Obama’s approval rating is 77 points higher in France than President Bush’s was) , who alienated Western Europeans by invading Iraq and adopting a more unilateral foreign policy (President Bush’s Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, dismissively referred to Western Europe as “old Europe”).  President Obama was a vocal opponent of the Iraq War, and he is perceived as being more concerned about Western European views and more inclined toward multilateralism and engagement with other powers.

But it is surprising that the US is more popular in Western Europe than Eastern Europe given that the Eastern European members of NATO are more reliant on America to protect them from a resurgent Russia, a country that has historically dominated the region.  Last year, Russia invaded Georgia and in recent years has used its energy policy to meddle in the internal affairs of Ukraine.

However, just because the US is more popular in Western Europe does not mean that Western European nations are more inclined to support American policies.  Although Western members of NATO have made significant contributions in Afghanistan, the war effort is very unpopular in Western Europe and there are strong indications that governments there are looking to withdraw their troops.  In addition, US-supported NATO expansion is a much more popular idea in the East than it is in the West.  Although America and Western Europe share historical ties and values, governments and peoples will generally support policies that they perceive to be in their national interest, and when those perceptions differ the US should expect its Western allies to go their own way despite how favorably Western Europeans view America and Americans.

Russia Will Buy French Naval Vessels

August 26, 2009

Today, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, chief of Russia’s general staff, announced that his country will buy a Mistral-class carrier from France and might enter into a joint venture with France to build several more.  The vessel can be used to launch amphibious assaults or transport weapons platforms like helicopters and tanks long distances.

It puzzling why Russia wants to purchase carriers.  Even with the new ships, Russia would have a very limited overseas force projection capability, and it is unclear which countries might be targets of a Russian amphibious assault.  Russia has recently been flexing its muscles in Eastern Europe and Central Asia in places like Georgia and Kyrgystan, areas which Russia considers part of its sphere of influence, but those places can easily be reached by land and air. 

The ships, which have an estimated cost of 300 million euros per vessel, seem like a waste of money for a country that is trying to modernize its army.  Perhaps Russia wants to use the carriers to transport weapons to overseas buyers like Venezuela, but that would likely be a bad business decision because any additional revenue resulting from the acquisitions would probably not yield a profit once the cost of the vessels is taken into account.

Russia Withholds Ambassador to Ukraine

August 13, 2009

Earlier this week, Russian President Dmetri Medvedev criticized Ukraine’s political leadership and announced that Russia would not send an ambassador to Ukraine until circumstances have changed.  Medvedev accused Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yushchenko, of being “anti-Russian” and said that relations between their two countries had fallen to “unprecedented lows.”

Since his accession to office in 2005 after a peaceful revolution involving the fall of a Moscow-backed regime, Yushchenko, who believes Russian agents once tried to assassinate him with poison, has adopted policies that could easily be considered pro-Western and anti-Russian.  He suggested that Russia’s navy would be evicted from its port in Sevastopol in 2017 when its current lease expires.  He has overseen arms sales to Georgia and been a vocal supporter of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose country was invaded by Russian troops last year.  He also accused Russia of committing genocide against the Ukrainian people during Soviet times.  But most importantly, his country has recently applied for NATO membership , a move which Russia vehemently opposes because it views Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence.

Last month, Vice President Joe Biden said the US would support Ukraine’s bid to join NATO.  But allowing Ukraine to join the alliance would be a policy error.  It is unlikely that Russia would allow a country that has historically been a Russian satellite state to permanently ally itself with a political-military coalition that many Russian officials consider hostile.  Russia would likely use military and economic coersion against Ukraine and possibly the West as well.  As a result, diplomatic ties with the West would be severly strained at a time when cooperation is needed on a number of important issues, including nuclear proliferation.  Moreover, NATO forces probably could not defend Ukraine against a Russian attack without igniting a major war.   The US and its allies should not risk a disatrous conflict with a strategically important country like Russia for ideological reasons.

Russia Expands Presence in Central Asia

August 4, 2009

Russia is planning to increase its military presence in Kyrgyzstan, much to the chagrin of neighboring Uzbekistan.

The Uzbek Foreign Ministry said the troop deployment “may lead to the strengthening of militarization and provoke varios kinds of nationalist struggles.  It could also cause the appearance of radical extemist forces, which could lead to serious destabilization across this vast region.”

The foreign ministry’s analysis is insightful, even if it is self-serving in terms of promoting Uzbekistan’s national interest in limiting Russia’s military presence near its border.  Citizens and officials in newly independent Former Soviet Union (FSU) states are sensitive about their national sovereignty and they view the Russian military as a threat to their independence.  In response to this perceived threat, those countries may increase the size of their armies and purchase more weapons abroad, which in turn could create new perceptions of threat among Central Asian nations and incease militarization in the region.

Russian expansion into Muslim countries could also foment Islamic extremism and terrorism.  This process has occured in Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim Russian province where the Russian military has used heavy-handed tactics to suppress insurgents and pro-independence forces, which some Chechyns have responded to with terrorist bombings in Russia.  Russia also sustained heavy casualties during its decade-long war in Afghanistan, another Musliam nation in Central Asia, in the 1980s.  If Russia radicalizes militant forces in the region it would be detrimental to the US, which established military bases in the area to support military operations in Afghanistan following the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Russia’s latest move follows a recent pattern of attempts to expand its influence in nearby countries.  Last year, Russia invaded Georgia to assist a pro-Russian separatist movement, and during the past decade it has periodically disrupted natural gas supplies to Ukraine for political purposes.  It also threatened to aim nuclear missiles at Poland and the Czech Republic if they allowed the US to deploy anti-ballistic missile systems on their soil.  Russia is also developing large energy projects in Central Asia, which would give it more economic and political influence there.  The Russian government recently tried to create a rapid-reaction force similar to NATO with other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which Russia would naturally dominate, but the effort failed as a result of resistance from other member states.

Russia will continue to try to carve out a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.  How successful their efforts will be depends on the response of targeted countries, the reaction of the international community, and political and economic conditions inside Russia.