Russia: Pussy Riot

The 3 members of the feminist punk-rock band Pussy Riot have been found guilt of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, after being detained for months for their February 21 protest at the Christ the Savior Cathedral.

3 of 7 Female Members of Pussy Riot have Sparked International Controversy after Being Detained by Russian Authorities

Pussy Riot is a 7-member punk-rock band in Russia infamous for staging impromptu performances in public areas demonstrating their disdain for the return of a Stalin-esque era under Putin.  Most recently, the 7 members staged one such performance in the Christ the Savior Cathedral, criticizing the support Putin has received from the church.  The resulting crackdown by police forces after the video went viral represents that return of censorship and repression that has been installed under Putin.  The return of Putin has been marked by continuous protests and demonstrations against the militaristic, hard-lined conservative President notorious for his repressive handling of anything liberal.  So saying, the recent suppression of Pussy Riot serves as another illustration of the dictatorial nature of the President, marking a blow against freedom of expression and the return disproportionate punishment.  The 3 women that were detained for over 5 months have been convicted of charges of hate-motivated hooliganism and sentenced to 2 years in prison.  Moscow’s Khamonvinchsky District Court found 22-year-old Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23-year-old Maria Alyokhina, and 30-year-old Yekaterina Samutsevish guilty on charges of hooliganism committed by a groups of persons motivated by religious hatred, under article 213, part 2 of Russia’ criminal code.  Despite the reported ruling for anti-religion, the group’s activism was aimed at criticizing the politics of the Church and the support it has for Putin.  The claims of religious hatred are fraudulent and mark the corruption of the justice system instituted in Russia, thus signifying the emerging conservative state based upon vague laws and bureaucracy used to control the citizens.  Not only was the verdict unjust and unfounded, but the proceedings of the trial were shameful and dishonest, shaking the belief of any Russians that were still optimistically in support of the faux democracy under Putin.  The judge rejected the defense and refused to hear reports from several witnesses who were in support of the band members, firmly denying all accounts of political activism and focusing solely on the religious aspect of the band’s ‘punk prayer’.  So saying, the trial of Pussy Riot has gained international attention, resulting in a sensationalist fervor in international media that has proliferated the reports of harsh treatment and possible torture while in police custody.  Evidently, the personal vendetta of Putin against the protest movement has resulted in the disproportionate punishment levied against the members of the band, turning the protest into a much more accredited symbolic movement that has gained international support and thus renewed attention on the practices of Putin’s theological rubber-stamping repressive regime.

“It’s clear in this case that the women’s aim was to make a political statement, and it’s also clear that some found their actions offensive.  But there is still a long way to go between an offensive political statement and a hate crime.” – Hugh Williamson, Human Rights Director of Europe and Central Asia division

The trial of Pussy Riot, at first a propaganda show by Putin to discourage further protests by crucifying the members as feminist hooligans of questionable morality, an erroneous judgement based upon their ‘unethical’ attack on religious values; the trial has spun chaotically into an international media fervor in which corruption and repression have become defining headlines for Putin’s return.  The media has seized upon the offences of the regime, intensifying the diplomatic pressure on Putin for the unjust ruling and punishments.  Reports being proliferated throughout the Western world allege that the band members have been forced to sit in cages for 5 days, some days for 10 hours at a time, being denied food and adequate sleep.  The regime has attempted to exhaust the members in order to extinguish their revolutionary fires, fires that have spread throughout the Russian and international public encouraging uproar and condemnation for such human rights violations.  Nevertheless, as the solidarity of the Western masses begin to coalesce into clusters of sensationalist supporters, the severity of the situation is being muddled in the new form of pop culture activism which, despite resonating enthusiasm, is short-lived and quickly turned into a celebration of issues not at central to the real problem being debated.  This is later turned into an exploit of commercialism that ends in the decay of the movement and the loss of a cause based on good intentions.  Pussy Riot embodies the questions about Russia’s degrading political freedoms and civil liberties,  a series of problems that have escalated under the iron fist of Putin’s powers.  In 2010, a Moscow district court found the co-organizers of a controversial art exhibit “Forbidden Art-2006”, at the Sakharov Museum in Moscow guilty of inciting religious hatred, which is considered an extremist offense, and fined them.  In June and July, in the midst of protests against Putin’s election, the newly formed loyalist parliament adopted a raft of laws putting new restrictions on certain nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign funding, on public demonstrations, and on the Internet.  During a winter peaceful opposition protest, authorities arrested demonstrators who were reportedly involved in a clash with police during the mass demonstration.  They were later charged with crimes disproportionate to their alleged actions.  Police have also conducted searches of the homes of opposition leaders that seemed intended to intimidate them.  Evidently, the intensified oppression of liberties and freedom marks the rise of the police state in Russia, centered around a cult of personality that resembles one of the Soviet era.  Putin’s use of force is not aimed at protecting public order and security, but instead, at setting boundaries for political criticism.

“The millions of dollars of taxpayer money spent in the last few years on fixing the image of our country abroad have been thrown to the wind.  Our image is getting closer to a medieval dictatorship, although in reality we are not that.” – Tina Kandelaki, prominent pro-Putin media personality

The controversy of Pussy Riot’s performances and messages have allowed for their trail and stance against political takeover to be heard across the world, constructing a solidarity movement of organizations and countries in support of the release of the female band members.  Nevertheless, the hype behind the members is being warped by popular culture.  Kony 2012 is a fit warning for the development of movements dedicated to representing and fighting for the just causes of Pussy Riot.  Kony 2012 brought to light a serious problem – warlords escaping justice in Central Africa – but it was turned into an exercise in commercialism, militarism, and Western meddling.  The intensity of the movement was rampant in the first few months but quickly died away as the message quickly became distorted by public mediums in charge of manipulating ideas and ideals to be readily consumed by the masses.  In Russia, Pussy Riot’s new found Western fans are taking the severity of the cause – fighting against political corruption and infringement on civil liberties and freedoms – and turning it into a celebration of feminist punk music and art.  The attention is being drawn from Putin and the hierarchy that is being installed.  For instance, whilst the Western sensationalist culture stars perpetuate the public fervor in directions other than political rights, there lacks any coverage of the much harsher sentences facing the not so famous and not-female co-protesters.  Along with Arytom Savylov, 12 other protesters have charged with calling for mass disorder and assaulting police officers.  Each of them could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.  This is not to say that there is special attention geared towards Pussy Riot because of their status as women, but their popularity in pop culture has allowed them to become figureheads for the media.  With respect, the media has allowed for the trial and unjust ruling to become a global phenomenon but it also results in a smokescreen for the more nefarious actions being committed but not reported.  The obsessive focus on these 3 women, not for their activism or political dissent, but for their status as female punk rockers, risks drawing attention away from other Russian activists or political prisoners and focusing it instead on the plight of all-women punk rock bands, which is decidedly less dire. Moreover, the message of Pussy Riot is about political action and refusing to stand by and allow for the Russia people to be, once again, enslaved by the President.  So saying, the members would not look favorably on the media distortion of the trial’s unjust ending and the manipulated focus on punk rock and popular items of culture that are not correlated to the activist call that they perpetuate. The consequences of the cultural focus also envelop the ability for Putin to manipulate the coverage by appearing lenient and forgiving towards the bands’ members (as has done by asking for lenient sentencing), while he deals in backrooms for harsher treatment of the other protesters (which was done and said above).

“It shows that the Russian authorities will stop at no end to suppress dissent and stifle civil society.  Each step in the case has been an affront to human rights.” – Michelle Ringuette, Amnesty International

In retrospect, the controversy surrounding Pussy Riot brings to light the re-emergence of the Soviet-era police state under former-KGB member, Vladimir Putin; yet, the overt attention of manipulated media has skewed international perspectives away from the general repression of the Russian people and more towards the popular culture item – a female punk rock band.  The development of cultural hype about the detention of these members is likely to converge with Kony 2012 in a cesspool of yet another failed international propaganda movement.  So saying, Putin has attempted to crucify the members in a general policy of ending future protests to his Soviet-esque power and though this has failed, Putin has succeeded in diverting attention away from the trials and tribulations of other political prisoners being tortured and sentenced to much harsher terms.  The Western world has hoped onto the bandwagon of Pussy Riot-related injustices because of their cultural significance as a punk rock band, their status as female punk-rockers and because of the provocative nature of the name, a multitude of selling points for the profit-seeking media networks.  It is this consequence of cultural hype that must be avoided so as to honor the purpose of Pussy Riot and the many other revolutionary persons in Russia that have braved the repression of Russian authorities to demonstrate the return of totalitarianism in Russia.   It is the mission and its objective of transparency in a faux democracy that should be celebrated in the Western lands, not the unjust sentence of a few female punk rockers.

Syria: Chemical Weapons – What Can the International Community Do?

The Syria conflict has gained renewed intensity after the al-Assad regimes announced its willingness to utilize its stockpile of chemical weapons if the international community were to militarily involve itself; thus ensuring that international activity in the region will not surpass mere sanctions and also suggests that the al-Assad regime may be feeling the pressure of the various opposition groups within Syria.

Despite the Confirmation of Biological Weapons, the International Community Still Can’t Do Anything

Though Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons has been an open secret for the past 4 decades, the Assad’s regime’s announcement is a direct confirmation that Syria does indeed have a chemical weapons arsenal at their disposal.  The announcement targeted the international community, stating that if any foreign intervention in Syria’s civil war would be met with the deployment of chemical weapons.  The weapons include mustard and sarin gases, as well as cyanide, and are capable of being deployed by aircraft, surface-to-air missiles and rockets.  The announcement has sparked renewed animosity towards the regime, as well as towards the eastern powers that still persist in supporting the Assad regime, such as Russia and China.  Though the announcement does spark another international dilemma to be confronted if the community were to begin renewed intervention-talks, it does not present any new looming threat for the opposition groups still fighting throughout the Syrian country.  As the perpetuating conflict in Aleppo demonstrates, the opposition groups are utilizing a hit-and-run, urban-guerrilla warfare against the security forces of the regime.  The chemical weapons are poorly suited for such close-quarters style combat; rather, these weapons are generally most effective against mass formations in open country.  This does pose a problem for neighboring anti-Assad countries, such as Turkey.  Turkey has remained a proponent of direct military involvement and has, in the past, deployed reinforcing troops along its borders and has run military-training exercises as a show of force.  So saying, the foreign powers that constitute the ‘Friends of Syria’ contact group are those most threatened by the weapons and it is for this reason that the recurring hopes for further foreign assistance to the people of Syria will most likely dwindle away again.  Nevertheless, Assad forces have killed more than 15,000 protesters in an attempt to repress what it has called a ‘foreign conspiracy’.  Thus the efforts of diplomacy, embodied by the UN’s Annan plan, have gone nowhere and the humanitarian catastrophe escalates.

“No chemical or biological weapons will every be used.  Unless Syria is exposed to external aggression.” – Jihad Madkissi, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman

Russia, a remaining ally for the Syrian dictator, has refused to budge on its stance against unilateral international action, but they have also warned Assad against using the chemical weapons.  Russia’s defense of Assad can be explained by merely pointing a finger at the current President, that being Putin.  The repression enforced in Russia during the first round of presidential elections represents elements of the Stalin-esque era, as well as the heavy-handedness supporting by Russia and represented by Assad in Syria.  Combined with the installment of loyal office-holders in the regime by Putin, the regidity of the country to liberalization is evident.  So saying, Syria also represents to Russia its last stronghold in the Middle East and is also part of a lucrative bilateral trade agreement, thus making Russia very reluctant to lose such an ally.  Many have stated that if Russia were to withdraw its veto on any and all UN measures, then the international community would be able to respond with force against Assad.  However, the complexities of involvement go beyond the mere reluctance of Russia and the American gun-ho attitude of invasion without knowledge, as in Iraq, cannot be the strategy taken.  If Russia were to continue maintaining strong ties to the Assad regime whilst the international community launched a Libyan-style intervention, the result would be a proxy struggle mired in a protracted civil war.  With great powers funding militias on both sides, entering a period of escalated violence, civilian casualties would dwarf the already high numbers currently.  The situation then would not resemble the relatively successful Libyan intervention, but more so that of the Lebanon civil war which resulted in over 150,000 deaths over decades long span.  So saying, an internationally involved military conflict would not provide the sought after government transition.  As of now the Obama Administration, despite hot-headed criticism from GOP Presidential candidate Romney, has taken the correct diplomatic path towards Russia.  The American government continues to try and persuade Russia, if not to join the Friends of Syria contact group, then at leas ease its objections to sanctions.  The recurring request comes after another recent UN resolution for sanctions was vetoed by both Russia and China.  Nevertheless, even without Russia, the current sanctions and embargoes will bankrupt the Syrian regime – just not as swiftly as desired.

“Our duty today as Syrians is to unify for one goal, and that is to make our country free and democratic.” – Manaf Tlass, Free Syrian Army Brigade General

As said before, much blame for a lack of direct action by the Western community, is directed as Russia.  If Russia were to remove its support for Assad and thus allow the international community an unhindered approach to do as it pleases, the situation in Syria as a whole still represents a variable that is nigh unconquerable.  The international community was able to involve itself in Libya because it was a large country with a small population, allowing the rebel forces there to capture a significant stronghold.  Syria is roughly one-tenth the size of Libya and it has 3 times as many people.  Moreover, the rebel forces in Syria have not been able to take control of any significant part of the country.  A majority of the Syrian population lives in or around Damascus and Aleppo, both of which remain under the regime’s general control.  The Syrian rebels have been able to launch sporadic attacks, but poor organization and a lack of unity has made expansion and coordination impossible.  Elements of al-Qaeda and other religious extremists are fighting with the rebels, as well as members of the country’s various minority groups – Christian, Druze and Kurdish groups.  This divided group stands under the umbrella name of the Syrian National Council, which faces a loyal Alawite hierarchy.  There has been no signs of high-level dissent, mainly due to the connection between the Alawite dictator and the fact that all key military and intelligence posts are held by Shi’ites as well.  There loyalists have remained supportive because they know that in a post-Assad Syria, they will likely be massacred.  The scenario was seen in Libya where Qaddafi loyalists were executed without trial.  Evidently, the Assad regime still remains military strong and thus an international-militaristic-coalition would not be the correct response to topple the regime.

“It would be morally far more satisfying to do something dramatic that would topple Assad tomorrow.  But starving his regime might prove the more effective strategy.” – Fareed Zakaria, Editor-at-Large of TIME Magazine

In retrospect, the international community must stand behind its current plan to constrict the Syrian regime financially, through a series of stricter embargoes and sanctions.  Though Russia and China remain allies to Bashar al-Assad, their support is not the key element in keeping the international community from entering into Syrian with guns blazing.  The reality is that the international community cannot, or at least should not, become militarily involved because of the uncertainty of the Syrian situation represented by a fractured opposition and because Assad does hold a key deterrence tool, that being a large arsenal of chemical and biological weapons.

 

Syria: Houla Massacre – The International Puzzle Box

The perpetuating Syrian conflict has become a diplomatic crisis due to its recent intensification resulting in the deaths of 100 dissidents in the town of Houla and once again isolating opposing members of the United Nations Security Council on methods of response.

Syria’s Conflict Continues to Polarize the International Community

The international response to the Syrian civil war has been a blitzkrieg of failed resolutions, condemning statements, economic sanctions, and failed observer missions, all of which have been knee-jerk reactions to the inability of the international community to authorize a join resolution of all UNSC member nations to respond with military force.  Despite the evident slaughter of men, women and children in Houla, both Russia and China reiterated their opposition to military intervention in Syria.  Their resolve is also paralleled by the remaining presence of Syrian diplomats in their countries, a juxtaposition to the position of 9 other Western nations that have expelled Syrian diplomats from their embassies.  Along with Japan, the US, Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain have all retroactively announce the expulsion of Syrian diplomats in protest of the massacre in Houla.  Nevertheless, the show of force in the Western hemisphere amounts to nothing because of the rigid positions of China and Russia.  Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov stated that Moscow will veto any Council resolution that authorizes foreign military interference in Syria.  Similarly, in Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said China opposes regime change by force in Syria. The massacre, another death toll to be added to the genocide, is another reflection of the failure of the Annan ceasefire deal.  Annan’s plan had called on the Syrian government to withdraw heavy weapons from civilian areas and abide by a truce with rebels.  President Assad had promised to abide by the regulations if the rebels were to cease their weapon smuggling and lay down their arms, a clause that clearly represented a security dilemma as the rebels would then be helpless.  Although many attacks have been carried out since the plan was laid out a month ago, the Houla massacre represents the peak of slaughter in the deteriorating county of Syria.  According to Herve Ladsous, pro-Assad gunmen known as the shabiha executed civilians and others were killed by artillery and tank fire, all of which was clearly the responsibility of the Syrian government.  So saying, the polarized positions of Russia and China have kept the full power and authority of the UN at bay, whilst allowing executions and genocide of thousands to continue under Assad.

“We took this action to expel Syrian diplomats in response to the massacre in the village of Houla – absolutely indefensible, vile, despicable massacre against innocent children, women, show at point-blank range by regime thuds, the shabiha, aided and abetted by the Iranians, who were actually bragging about it over the weekend.” – Victoria Nuland, State Department spokeswoman.

In response to the climatic events, the European Union is likely to press the Human Rights Council to recommend the UNSC refer the case of Syria to the International Criminal Court.  Nevertheless, because China and Russia have the power to veto any UN sanctions against Syria, the widespread outrage is unlikely to translate into tough action on the Syrian government.  The dilemma emerging is that members of the international community want different things and do not share the same principles, though mass slaughter being wrong would be one to share.  Russia, China and many 3rd world nations are not victim to the same outrage and gun-ho attitudes of many Western nations.  The repression of a totalitarian regime is not so hard a concept for many to grasp, most especially considering that many nations were victim to repression from Western imperialism.  Despite the demise of the old Soviet empire, the of Putin still represents the hardness of the past.  Though it may be referred to as ugly and not nice, the regimes of the East stand because of their heavy-handedness, as being implemented by Assad to a much greater extent.  Moreover, the repression enforced in Russia during the first round of elections, considered to be rigged, represents elements of the Stalin-esque era.  Combined with the installment of loyal office-holders in the regime by Putin, the rigidity of the country to liberalization is evident.  So saying, Syria also represents to Russia its last stronghold in the Middle East and is also part of a lucrative bilateral trade agreement, thus making Russia very reluctant to lose such an ally.  In the US, the position of Russia and the massacre in Syria has entered the presidential race, with Republic candidate Romney calling Russia’s position heartless and ugly.  Romney has further called for a firmer and more assertive position by the US.  Nevertheless, as with all presidential statement, it is easy to blame and insult but hard to actually come up with an effective strategy or replacement.  The tools with which to approach Russia are not as clear and concise as the GOP candidate presumes.  Many have called for the isolation of Russia through moral and verbal attacks, something that will have as much of an effect as the Anna peace plan in Syria.

“We hold the Syrian government responsible for this slaughter of innocent lives.  This massacre is the most unambiguous indictment to date of the Syrian government’s flagrant violations of its United Nations Security Council obligations.” – Victoria Nuland, State Department spokeswoman

The ties between Russia and China are not easily isolated and cut, and thus attacking Russia with morality questions will undoubtedly lead to more rigidity and opposition by the Russian regime to any Western resolution towards Syria.  Moreover, the cohesive West is not as cemented in its mission towards Syria either.  Israel, a strong US ally in the Middle east, does not want to have  strong Syria nearby and welcomes the thought domestic divide and a weakened enemy.  Israel is surrounded by enemies and the likely repeal of its nonaggression treaty with Egypt, due to its rising Islamist party, will represent another enemy and tense relation for Israel.  Israel is also presented with the encroaching threat of a nuclear Iran, another powder keg tied to the Syrian conflict.  Iran is a strong ally to Assad and is responsible for providing much of Syria’s arms trade and troops, such as the trained shabiha thugs.  If the West were to intervene in Syria, not only would this divide the hemisphere of the West and East into extreme poles, but Iran will most likely drop nuclear talks that are set to resume and thus continue its uranium enrichment, possibly resulting in a volatile nuclear power in heart of the Middle East.  So saying, the cultural and religious divides of the Middle East present an unconquerable task of overcoming or appeasing.  Israel’s existence is already reason enough for many nations to start war, but if Turkey were to involve itself militarily on the behalf of the West, the divides between the Kurdish, Shi’ite and Sunni populations would ignite into a much larger international crisis.

“I made it clear that it is not an open-ended process and that time is coming, sooner rather than later, when the international community will need to make an assessment as to how things are going and what further actions or activities may be necessary.” – Kofi Annan, UN special envoy

In retrospect, the situation for the international community is a looming diplomatic and humanitarian crisis which is only perpetuated by their indecisiveness and polarized members.  The Western nations are attempting to involve themselves in the internal dynamics of domestic politics of a country miles away and in the throes of a civil war, a task nigh impossible without considering the opposition they face from their own member nations.

Iran: Nuclear Talks and the Russo-American Dilemma

The tense relations between Russia and the US, between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, brings rise to concerns over ongoing Iran nuclear talks, set to resume in Baghdad on May 23.

Iranian Nuclear Talks will Require Closer Russo-American Ties

Russian President Vladimir Putin has unveiled a government dominated by loyalists, leaving hopes for reform slim and entrenching Kremlin’s over the economy’s commanding heights.  Along with Putin’s opting out of the G8 Summit, the tense relations between Russia and the US are worrisome for many due to the importance of a strong front being presented by Putin and Obama against nuclear proliferation in Iran.  With President Obama facing his reelection year, talks between the two nation’s will be scarce and wide-spaced, leaving little room for political gobbledygook, stressing substantial progress on relations that have already been strained by the Syrian civil war.  With Russia and America as the two former superpowers responsible for decades of nuclear standoff, they have also assumed the roles concerning nuclear development and proliferation.  America’s pursuit of hegemony has resulted in a staunch policy condemning countries seeking nuclear programs, demanding countries to disarm despite America’s own unwillingness to denuclearize.  So saying, President Obama’s position on an Iranian nuclear program is clear.  Obama has repudiated any intention of adopting deterrence of a nuclear Iran as an acceptable policy option.  Thus, such rigidity could result in an Iranian agreement to live up any resolve to acquire nuclear weapons; President Obama could retreat from his previously assumed rigidity; or there could be war.

“Iran is not after nuclear weapons because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous.” – Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader

War seems to be a drastic conclusion to draw, as all state leaders are assumed to be rational independent thinkers, yet Iran’s history does not suggest appeasement to be high on the agenda.  Nevertheless, Iran has shown signs of a renewed unwillingness to take seriously these talks between itself and the P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Russia, America and Germany).  Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei has stated that the pursuit of nuclear weapons is considered a grace sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous.  The supreme leader has also stated his ultimate goal is to make the state of Israel disappear, as well as to the combat the ‘Great Devil’ represented by the American nation.  The transitions from repressive isolation to willing nuclear talks stems largely from international sanctions imposed on the country in recent years, slowly constricting the economy over the past year.  With both the EU and the USA embargoing Iranian oil shipments, Iran’s oil sits in storage tanks.  Iran’s oil sector accounted for 60% of total government revenue, thus the vulnerability of the regime’s strength to said sanctions is apparent.  A dollar decline in the price of crude oil could reduce the government revenue by as much as $1 billion.  So saying, Iran’s intentions may be to purely seem wiling and cooperative so as to relieve itself from such crippling fiscal constraints.  So saying, most of the countries within the P5+1 remain highly skeptical of Iran’s true intentions and purposes.  Many believe that Iran is using the talks as a stalling tactics so as to buy time to produce the kind of highly enriched uranium necessary for bombs.  The tension of such a situation is very evident considering the danger this would present to America’s prime Middle Eastern ally, Israel, who has already stated its intention to use military force to ensure its security.

“I don’t think there is any question that the impact of this pressure played a role in Iran’s decision to come to the table.  The value of their currency, the rial, has dropped like a rock.” – David Cohen, Undersecretary of Treasury

Iran will seek bargaining leverage in the talks, seeking to drive a wedge between an already strenuous connected group of state leaders.  Iran will see to generate further tensions among its negotiating adversaries while maintaining a tight diplomatic unity of its own.  For this reason, the Russo-American relations must grow into a more coherent P5+1 force with which to deal with the Iranian situation.  With Sarkozy out, Francois Hollande is likely to be more accommodating then the hard-line Sarkozy.  Germany and Britain will rally around US but will do little in ways to provide leadership because of the hegemony represented by Russia and US in this area.  China has become more isolated in recent years, more fixated on its economic interests and need for oil, hence the growing tensions over the Spratly islands. So saying, Russia is the last significant player in the equation. Russia has grown skeptical of American diplomacy but many theorists suggest that it has grown concerned about a possible nuclear-armed Iran, thus more wiling to act accordingly.  With US and Russian relations frayed in the past because of American dominance and unstated aims in Libya, later exasperated by the Syrian civil war, the diplomatic ties between Russia and America will be easily torn asunder by Iranian leaders if not properly dealt with.

Russian Elections: The Rise (Fall?) of Putin

The prompt arrival of the presidential elections in Russia have instigated an abundance of media coverage about the inevitable return of Putin to power, a 3rd term in office, but questions remain whether his post-Soviet mentality will survive the calls for democratization.

Will Putin's Post-Soviet Mentality Withstand Popular Demand for Democratization?

Vladimir Putin was president from 200 until 2008 when he helped usher his ally, Dmitry Medvedev, into the Kremlin and became premiere because the Russia constitution sets a limit of two successive presidential terms.  Nevertheless, Putin has remain Russia’s dominant leader and forging a “tough-guy” image in the media, demonstrating his physical capabilities and taking part in unusual or dangerous acts, such as extreme sports and interactions with wild animals.  Despite his correlation to a fraud-tainted parliamentary election in December, Putin has illustrated his political prowess by reversing the drop in popularity to such an extent that many suggest Putin will be elected Russia’s new president with two-thirds of the vote.  Similar to Putin’s previous two presidential terms in 2000 and 20004, Putin will most likely win the election in the first round and a run-off  is practically impossible, dashing hopes of many opposition groups.  The level of popularity for Putin is not entirely unfounded, as Putin’s initial years as President came at a time of unprecedented economic and social decay, mostly a result from the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  During Putin’s presidency, the Russian economy grew for 9 straight years, seeing GDP increase 72%, poverty decrease by more than 50%, and an average monthly salaries increase from $80 to $640.  So saying, why is it that Putin’s popularity has begun to drop?  Why is it that Putin’s past history may conflict with the modernization of Russia, and result in either his usurpation or reversion of polices?

“In spite of everything, Yeltsin’s time saw radical change, with very little control.  The whole time there was something ‘Wild West’ about it, but it lacked the structure to allow a normal society to develop.  It led Putin to power, but a legal-legislative-framework did not exist.” – Gilles Chenesseau, Vice-President of the France-Russia Chamber of Commerce

Despite the evidence of Putin’s fame and glory in Russia, a new age of modernization may soon be challenge to the Soviet era ideals of the former KGB officer.  Putin’s stance on the Western powers is depicted by his prior indoctrination in Soviet ideology, which has impressed upon him, until this day, a fundamental mistrust of the West.  The tension and Russia-US opposition has been most evident in the Arab Spring, in which Russia has failed to support the UN and the international coalition known as “Friends of Syria” in disposing of Bashar al-Assad, the last remaining ally of Russia.  Bashard al-Assad has been supported by the Russian regime since before the collapse of the USSR, demonstrating the correlation between the current Russian state and its ill-fated “evil empire”.  Putin still retains from the Soviet period a great suspicion of the West.  The democratic demonstrations currently on-going in Russia, coupled with the protests against the fraudulent elections in December, is seen by Putin as part of a Western plot to harm Russia.  Putin views much of the recent protests as a continuation of the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in 2005.  In both cases, these former Soviet states decided to choose pro-Western leaders in 2000 and 2004, consequently leading to Putin firmly believing that the West was behind those protest movements, a so-called Western plot, which in the end would come to revert Russia.

“First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.  As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy.” – Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of Russia

Putin’s neurotic view of world affairs stems from the underlining insecurity of the Kremlin that was acknowledged by George Kennan in his Long Telegram.  Russia’s fears emanated from its contact with the economically advanced West, fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies in that area.  This latter type of insecurity was more eminent in Russian rulers; as the rule of these Russian leaders was relatively archaic in form, fragile and artificial in its psychological foundation, and unable to stand comparison or contact with the advanced political system of Western countries.  Much of this has not changed with Putin’s perspectives; as Putin fears Western influence in Russia after his efforts to restore Russian grandeur through brutish policies, mimicking Bismarck’s “Blood and Iron”, that accomplished restoring territorial and political integrity to the new Russian state.  After the collapse of the USSR, Boris Yeltsin offered hopes to the world of a democratized Russia by introducing capitalism and the free market.  All of this was done too quickly and too chaotically, leaving a country in the midst of social anarchy and economic disparity, all of which Putin sought to put in order.  Instead of extending democracy however, Putin cracked down on media freedoms and made things much more oppressive in Russia.  Putin oversaw a rollback on post-Soviet freedoms during his tenure as president, scrapping gubernatorial elections and introducing tough laws on political parties.

“It can go one of two ways.  It can go the way of gradual reform, in a way that opens up a political system, takes account of different points of views, allows this active generation of people who have grown to use choice in every aspect of their life, and now want choice in their political system.  Or it can go another way: it can go back to repression, after the election.  I think repression will be very difficult; people have lost the fear now and they are ready to stand up for their rights.” – Tony Halpin, Bureau Chief of British Newspaper “The Times”

Putin’s stance as a relic of a Soviet regime, decades now dissolved, will usher in tension between his post-Soviet mentality and the growing vocal majority of democratized youth.  The thaw, of “destalinization” of the USSR under Khrushchev was the first introduction of western liberalism in Russia, but was reverted to an oppressive regime under Brezhnev.  So saying, Putin’s first presidential term was marked by the return of oppressive policies and post-Soviet political repression.  The order and stability brought into the country did instill large level of support and popularity for the Putin regime, but the perpetuation of media and political oppression has transcended the patience of the people.  According to a Levada Poll, the support ratings for Putin has dropped 20%.  Putin will not be able to consolidate his seat of presidential power through the implementation of like-minded policies as previously.  Since his departure as President, the new generations of Russia have been witness to the power of popular protests, the success in neighboring countries, the success in the Arab Spring, as well as the freedom of Western people under the liberal policies they desire.  No longer will Putin be able to repress them with his post-Soviet ideals and if he tries, the repercussion will not be far different from the violent protests in the Middle East and North Africa.  Putin reign of power, and terror if he attempts repression, will be very short-lived if he does not modernize his stance on foreign and domestic affairs.

Syria: “Friends of Syria” Contact Group

Syrian government forces unleashed another round of heavy artillery barrage on a rebel-held district of the city of Homs, killing 21 and wounding some 340 people, a use of indiscriminate violence that is serving to escalate the pressure on the international coalition known as “Friends of Syria”.

Bashar al-Assad Has No Fear of International Retaliation

As security forces perpetuate a near-constant barrage of bombardment for the 18th day on Homs, Western powers and the Arab League are preparing for a meeting of the “Friends of Syria” contact group in Tunisia on Friday to pressure Assad to step down.  The International Committee of the Rec Cross (ICRC) have been negotiating a pause in the fighting to allow them to bring aid to civilians suffering the horrendous conditions of the Syrian revolution, but the use of deadly force against unarmed civilians is evidence of the reality that the regime is devoid of sentiment.  Activists said government forces launched attacks on Homs after rebel fighters holding the opposition Baba Amro district blocked troops from entering.  The London-based Syria Network for Human Rights said at least 250 shells and rockets had hit Baba Amro since the morning, leaving 21 dead and many others buried under the rubble.  Homs, a city of 1 million, has been at the heart of the uprising against Assad’s 11 year rule.

“There were hundreds of demonstrators at the main square of Hajar al-Aswad and suddenly buses of security police and shabbiha (pro-Assad militia) turned up and started firing into the crowd.” – Abu Abdallah, Syria activist

In response to mounting international pressure to provide military aid to opponents of Assad, US Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham outlined ways – including military aid, though not necessarily with direct US involvement 0 to usher along the oust of Assad.  Members of the “Friends of Syria” contact group include foreign ministers from US, France and the European Union.  The group was constructed after repeated vetoes by Russia and China of the resolution proposed by the United Nations Security Council.  The US has described the contact group as a route around the UN to pressure the Assad regime, that will discuss sanctions, humanitarian support and support for a democratic transition in Syria.  Meanwhile, Russia and China have remained fairly resolute in their stance to oppose foreign intervention in Syria, backing Assad’s own program for reform, which has been a mocking attempt at a referendum for a new constitution.  The referendum, limiting the term of the presidency, has already begun to crumble and also comes at a period in time in which security forces have unleashed an unfaltering barrage of violence, clearly illustrating the symbolic nature of Assad’s reform agenda.

“We’ll send a clear message to Russia, China and other who are still unsure about how to handle the increasing violence but are up until now unfortunately making the wrong choices.” – Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State

Parallel to the tactics used by his father Hafez in 1982, Bashar al-Assad is under the impression that since indiscriminate violence work then, it can work again.  The difference between 1982 and 2012 is that the Syrian uprising is much more widespread, publicized and recognized then the one city uprising of 1982.  The use of indiscriminate violence in 1982 was not spoken of until many months afterwards; therefore, there were not perpetuation of domestic anti-government expression because of the knowledge that if one city could be utterly silenced then their risk would go unheeded too.  Now, however, the Syrian rebels are widespread, the international community is aware of it and there is an outspoken cry for reform throughout the country that is publicized and supported.  This unrelenting force for change, a tidal wave that is growing in size, is also beginning to influence those few allies that Syria still has, such as Russia.  The Chief of the Arab League, which has suspended Syria for its crackdown on protesters, said Russia and China might tempter their support for Assad.  It is true that Russia will not attend the international meeting on the conflict on Syria; due to the fact that the Syria government will not be represented, but the Russia Foreign Minister is vocalizing his support for a special humanitarian envoy to Syria from the UNSC.  Russia has called for Europe, the US and the Arab region to join force and bring together the Syrian opposition and government, without preconditions, to help them agree on reforms.  As Russia’s last ally in the Middle East, Russia has been providing arms and tanks for the purpose of protester suppression but this sign, though slight, of willingness to end the violence is a stepping stone to a potential reversion of the former anti-UN intervention policy of Russia.

“There are indications coming from China and to some extent Russia that there may be a change in position.” – Nabil Elaraby, Arab League Secretary-General

Moreover, Chinese leaders will be visiting Turkey where talks are expected to focus on violence in Syria.  On Saturday, China said it supporter the Arab League’s proposal to end the conflict and end the Assad regime.  The seemingly contradictory stance from China appears to reflect their desire for mediation while remaining averse to UN involvement that could lead to the authorization of force, as happened in Libya.  Despite this possibility of Russian and Chinese support, a potential divide at the meeting risks paralyzing the international response to Syria’s conflict as humanitarian crisis widens in part of the country.  In contrast to the caution of the US administration over becoming more involved in Syria’s crisis, some Arab states have sought overt support for Syria’s armed opposition.  A decision not to press to arm the opposition is likely to push countries in the region, such as the Gulf state of Qatar, to act on their own, funneling funds and arms to various factions in Syria, which could spur regional spillover conflict.  However, any multilateral decision to lend support to armed groups in the opposition risks not only antagonizing Russia and China, but also formalizing the sectarian fault lines regionally.

Syria: Assad’s “Iron Fist” and Failure of Arab League Involvement

As the 9-month-old revolt in Syria becomes increasingly bloody, the foreign and domestic tension has escalated with Arab League officials rebuking their own fact-finding mission and President Assad vowing to vanquish all those seeking to end his rule.

Assad Has Vowed to Repress all "Terrorists"

In his 4th speech since the protests began in March, President Assad has illustrated an ever growing vigilance to resist all attempts to usurp his rule, promising the perpetuation of bloodshed and torture in his country.  With no hint of flexibility or reform, the severity of the situation can hardly be overstated as the Syria death toll rises to well over 6,000 and an never-ending stream of reports detailing the torture and kidnapping of civilians.  Not only does Assad’s speech undercut efforts to pressure his regime, but the presence of thousands of rapturous supporters in Damascus has illustrated the division and manipulation of the people.  With dozens dying everyday, the only response from the international community has been ineffective sanctions and a fact-finding mission by the Arab League.  The Arab League had suspended Syria in November for failing to halt its crackdown on protests and now has also sent a fact-dining mission, which began in December.  So saying, the fact-finding mission has been criticized as arbitrary, a farce and many claim its only purpose has been to relieve pressure from Assad to allow him to regroup and revitalize his security forces.

“We cannot relent in the battle against terrorism.  We strike with an iron fist against terrorist who have been brainwashed.” – Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria

Of all the half-hearted and faulty responses to the Syrian crisis, the Arab League mission seems most affluent in its failures.  According to the UN, close to 400 Syrians have been killed since the start of the mission and the US ambassador to the UN stated that the killing had gathered pace since the mission began.  Many officials within the mission have already broken ranks, claiming that the mission is powerless to prevent countless crimes against humanity.  The target of most of these criticisms has been the leader of the delegation, the former Sudanese general Mohammed al-Dabi, who had already attracted controversy for his involvement in the Darfur conflict.  According to reports, al-Dabi has been attempting to avoid inciting Syrian officials by acknowledging unrest, but not on the scale or severity of the violence.  The opposition and corruption within the Arab League mission has heightened concern about the viability of its mission, which will be reviewed by officials for a second time on the 19th of January.  Evidently, the initial emboldening of anti-government forced has come to an end and the monitors from the Arab League are avoided as much as possible.

“What I saw was a humanitarian disaster.  The regime is not just committing one war crime, but a series of crimes against its people.  The snipers are everywhere, shooting at civilians.  People are being kidnapped.  Prisoners are being tortured and none were released.” – Anwar Malek, Algerian member of the Arab League fact-finding team

In Europe, the embargo and sanction on Syria have strained the economy and availability of resources for Assad’s regime, but as with most embargoes, the strain has also affected opposition forces, who are desperately trying to run guns across the borders of neighboring countries.  Moreover, the embargo placed by the EU is not without its faults.  Before, when the UN Security Council attempted to pass a resolution on Syria, both China and Russia vetoed its passing because of their lucrative trade deals with the country.  For example, a recent shipment of tens of tons of munitions was sent from Russia to Syria on Tuesday.  Russia is not part of the EU, so such a route would not have violated its embargo but the cargo ship dropped anchor off the southern Cypriot port of Limassol.  Custom officials boarded the ship to examine its cargo and later reported the vessel to be carrying munition to a destination near Turkey.

“Syria’s priority should be to listen to its people, not to denounce others; instead of massacring its people, it should listen to them.”– Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkish Foreign Minster

Turkey, which had once cultivated close ties with Syria, is now one of the Assad’s regimes most vociferous critics.  Turkey has imposed trade sanctions on Syria and is allowing its opposition groups to meet on its territory.  There were talks in the past about possible intervention by Turkey due to growing gears that Syria’s feud could spill over its borders and onto Turkey’s grounds.  Any intervention would be different from the one in Libya since Russia and China have made Syrian airspace a no-fly zone.  This means that the role of regional players like Turkey increase dramatically.  Turkey may have declared it does not welcome a military solution to the Syria crisis, but it has not ruled it out either.