Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, October 27, 2014

Hungarian Politics Moves Further to the Right

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

It’s been a quarter century since the fall of the Communist regimes in eastern Europe, and the emergence of post-Communist political cultures.

In Hungary, the post-1989 period has given rise to a multi-party system, with ideological parties on the left, centre, and right.

It is interesting to note, however, that very different types of conservative parties evolved, divided in part on the issues of national identity.

Gergely Egedy, an historian and political scientist who teaches at the National University of Public Service in Budapest, has observed that the issue of nationhood has become central to Hungarian politics.

As he puts it, “Which has priority over the other, the Hungarian state or the Hungarian nation?” This is no idle question, because some one-third of Hungarians live outside the country, in neighbouring Romania, Serbia and Slovakia.

After 1989, Egedy writes, two variants of Hungarian political conservatism emerged: the “patrician” and the “plebeian-populist” or “mobilizing” varieties. The former is very sceptical regarding mass democracy, while the latter distrusts cosmopolitan liberal elites. Both types were a response to the depredations of decades of Communism.

The patrician conservatives coalesced around the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF). Its leader, Jozsef Antall, served as Hungary’s first post-Communist prime minister, from May 1990 until his death in December 1993.

The MDF formed a centre right coalition government with the Independent Smallholders’ Party (FKGP) and the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) in 1990 to command a 60 per cent majority in parliament.

The government accepted the legal-civic concept of the nation and rejected the view that it is based solely on ethnic and cultural factors. “Membership in the Hungarian Democratic Forum is open only for those who are committed both to the nation and to the rule of law,” Antall stressed.

He made it clear that, while concerned with the fate of fellow Hungarians living beyond the borders, the MDF did not intend to follow an “irredentist” policy of trying to incorporate these areas, and that it had no territorial claims against its neighbours.

However, after the landslide victory of the Socialist Party in 1994 and the crushing defeat of the MDF, a new variant of political conservatism crystallised in Hungary. The Alliance of Young Democrats (Fidesz), under the leadership of Viktor Orban, gradually became the most powerful party on the right. (The MDF no longer even exists.)

In 1998 the party took over the government, but the Hungarian version of “plebeian conservatism” became fully formed only after its electoral defeat in 2002.

During the next eight years, spent in opposition, Fidesz consciously downplayed the significance of parliamentary politics and presented “the nation” as the alternative to the legitimacy residing in parliament.

As a consequence, Fidesz would be a more vocal advocate of minority rights for ethnic Hungarians abroad than previous governments.

Orban was returned to power in 2010, as Fidesz won 227 seats, an absolute majority, and, together with its ally the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), which won 36, two-thirds of the 386 seats in parliament.

In the April 6, 2014 election, Fidesz won 117 seats and its coalition partner KDNP 16, in a parliament which now consists of 199 members. An even more right-wing party, Jobbik, took 23.

As an ethnic nationalist, Orban’s policy toward the European Union has not been one of unconditional commitment, in contrast to the approach of patrician conservatives.

He is something of a “Euroskeptic” and dislikes the fact that his domestic opponents have been warning the EU about perceived threats to democracy, freedom of the press, the rule of law and fundamental rights in Hungary.

Orban admires Russian president Vladimir Putin and last August remarked that the sanctions policy pursued by the West “causes more harm to us than to Russia. In politics, this is called shooting oneself in the foot.”

In a speech this past Sept. 23, U.S. President Barack Obama included Hungary in a list of countries where “endless regulations overt intimidation increasingly target civil society.”

Hungary was for centuries a country that, as part rulers of the Habsburg Empire, lorded it over many subject peoples, and clearly some of that attitude remains part of its political DNA.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

In Poland, the Politics of Values Predominates

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Poland emerged from its Communist-imposed political system 25 years ago, and since then the country has been home to a lively multi-party political culture.

Poland is a nation-state with few cultural or religious minorities – almost all its citizens are ethnically Polish and Roman Catholic by heritage.

That wasn’t always the case. Before the Second World War, in a Poland with different borders, only some 68 per cent of the population spoke Polish as its first language. The country was also inhabited by Belarusians and Ukrainians in the east, Germans in the west, and Jews in most of the larger towns and cities.

But after the war the Germans were expelled and the territories with Belarusians and Ukrainians were incorporated into the Soviet Union. Most Jews were murdered by the Nazis during the war.

During its decades under Communism Poland remained a very cohesive society, and one closely wedded to its Catholic faith. The Church was seen as a repository of Polish culture. So during the Communist period political discourse on the part of those opposed to the regime revolved around values rather than just economic interests.

Hence the rise of Solidarity in 1980 signified more than just the creation of a trade union fighting for workers’ rights. It quickly came to represent the “true” nation, symbolized by its use of Catholic and papal emblems.

Solidarity’s leader, Lech Walesa, sported on the lapel of his jacket a pin with the image of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, known as the Queen of Poland. The icon portraying Mary and the infant Jesus is housed in the Pauline monastery on Jasna Gora in the city.

Through the 1980s, its fields filled with Solidarity banners raised by hundreds of thousands of the outlawed movement’s supporters.

Of course after 1989 “real” politics emerged in a Poland free of Soviet control and it was no longer possible for Solidarity to remain a purely oppositional movement, so the anti-Communist consensus evaporated.

Most of the political parties that emerged tried to portray themselves as the legitimate successor to Solidarity and so debate continued to revolve around matters of identity and values, which produced a moralistic tone in politics.

Eventually, though, two ideological strands emerged out of the Solidarity tradition. One was dedicated to traditional and Christian values, the other to market and pluralist principles based on competition and individualism.

The former view was espoused by the Law and Justice (PiS) Party, the latter by Civic Platform (PO). They have become the dominant parties in the country.

The political debate emerged in full force in the 2005 election, as questions of national identity, historical memory, and religious commitment appeared as focal points in the contest. That year Poles elected PiS candidate Lech Kaczynski, the mayor of Warsaw, to a five year term as president. He narrowly defeated the PO nominee, Donald Tusk.

The PiS also received the most votes in the parliamentary elections held later in 2005 and formed a minority government under Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz. He was replaced by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the president’s twin brother, a year later.

However, new parliamentary elections were held again in 2007, this time won resoundingly by the PO, and Donald Tusk became prime minister.

On April 10, 2010, several members of the Polish political elite, including President Lech Kaczynski, were killed in an airplane crash in Russia. Presidential elections held a few months later saw Bronislaw Komorowski of the PO beat PiS standard-bearer Jaroslaw Kaczynski. As Tusk remained prime minister, it ensured PO dominance across the political landscape.

The most recent parliamentary election, held in October 2011, saw Donald Tusk’s PO win with 39 per cent of the vote to about 30 per cent for the PiS. The PO gained 207 of the 460 seats in the Sejm, the lower house of parliament, and formed a coalition with the Polish People’s Party (PSL), which won 28 seats. The PiS won 157 seats.

This coming December, Tusk will become president of the European Council, the institution of the European Union that comprises the heads of state or government of its members; he has been replaced as prime minister by Ewa Kopacz.

While the PO is an enthusiastic supporter of the EU, the PiS remains more wary, claiming that the PO’s focus on markets and Europe has harmed Poland’s commitment to its Christian principles of morality and social justice.

Religious influence and the Catholic Church’s presence in public life continue to roil the political waters in Poland. The fault line between the two parties lies along a clerical-anticlerical axis, involving religious and secular identities.

Monday, October 20, 2014

China and Iran Increase Economic Ties

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

On Sept. 20, for the first time in history, two Chinese warships docked at Iran’s principal naval port of Bandar Abbas, in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, the gateway for at least 20 per cent of the world’s oil and gas shipments.

They took part in four days of joint naval exercises. One of the vessels, the Changchun, was a guided-missile destroyer.

A Chinese fleet commander, Rear Admiral Huang Xinjian, remarked that the visit was intended to “deepen mutual understanding, and to enhance exchanges between our two countries’ navies,” according to the New York Times.

This should not really come as a surprise, given China’s ever growing presence in international affairs, which is now reaching the Middle East. As Walter Russell Mead noted in his article “The Return of Geopolitics,” in the May-June 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs, “China, Iran, and Russia never bought into the geopolitical settlement that followed the Cold War, and they are making increasingly forceful attempts to overturn it.”

In November 2013, immediately after the announcement that Iran had reached an interim deal with Western negotiators concerning its nuclear program, China’s former ambassador to Tehran, Hua Liming, greeted it favourably. China is a member of the P5+1, the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany, who have been in talks with Iran in an attempt to broker a nuclear agreement.

Why was he pleased?  Perhaps because he thinks that Iran’s program has reached a stage where it will be impossible to prevent the country from becoming a nuclear power.

And China has helped make this possible. With regularity, officials in Asia have confiscated shipments of equipment and materials sold by Chinese state enterprises to Iranian companies in contravention of international treaties and UN rules, including components and parts for nuclear weapons.

For example, in 2005, seven Chinese firms were suspected of selling nuclear weapons technology and all seven had sanctions placed upon them. They were banned from trading with the United States for two years.

China has also enabled Tehran to withstand pressure from the international community. China is the biggest purchaser of Iranian oil, surreptitiously evading American sanctions by paying in gold and in Chinese currency. Iran uses much of the profit to buy Chinese products.

And when Western countries imposed sanctions against Iran due to concerns over its nuclear program, Chinese oil companies were able to win bids for developing large oil fields in Iran. So the negotiations over the Iran nuclear issue have ensured desirable results for China.

China has now emerged as Iran’s top trading partner, and trade between Tehran and Beijing totaled $40 billion in 2013. Chinese firms are investing in various sectors in Iran, including steel, mines, transportation, agriculture, oil, gas, and the petrochemical industry.

China and Iran have had more frequent interactions recently. Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani held in-depth meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit in May.

They announced they would promote cooperation in all fields to a new high. Xi stressed that China is willing to continue its efforts for an early, comprehensive and proper settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue.

This past April, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Morteza Sarmadi met with outgoing Chinese Ambassador Yu Hongyang, to confer about stronger economic ties, the semi-official Iranian Fars News Agency reported.

“China attaches a lot of importance to the reinforcement of ties with Iran as an important and trustworthy partner,” Yu stated. “There are vast potentials for continuing the upward trend of the two countries’ ties in all the various fields,” he added.

These high-level exchanges demonstrate Iran’s approval of China’s position on the Iranian nuclear issue.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Controversy Over "Mein Kampf"

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

It is arguably the most influential book of the 20th century. It is certainly the most notorious. Should it be able to circulate freely, or is it simply too toxic? And in the era of the internet, can a ban on its publication even work?

The book is “Mein Kampf,” the author, Adolf Hitler.

The book has been suppressed in Germany since the end of the Second World War, because its copyright holder, the state of Bavaria, has allowed virtually no legal versions to be produced since 1945.

But Bavaria’s copyright expires at the end of 2015; after that, anyone can publish the book.

Since it will likely become available, the Institute for Contemporary History, a centre for the study of Nazism in Munich, plans to produce an annotated “critical edition.”

The book’s extensive notations, notes historian Christian Hartmann, part of the editorial team, will “encircle” Hitler’s story line with a “collage” of commentary to demystify and decode it.

“Mein Kampf” (“My Struggle”) is the autobiographical manifesto by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, in which he outlined his political ideology and future plans for Germany. Volume 1 was published in 1925 and Volume 2 in 1926.

Hitler dictated it to fellow Nazi Rudolf Hess while in his cell in Bavaria’s Landsberg Prison in 1923-1924, where he had been incarcerated following the abortive Munich “Beer Hall Putsch” of Nov. 8, 1923 -- his first attempt to take power in Germany.

When “Mein Kampf” was first released it fared poorly. However, after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, 12 million copies were sold.

The book outlined Hitler’s world-view. He described the struggle for world domination as an ongoing racial, cultural, and political battle between the so-called “Aryans” and Jews, accusing the latter of conducting an international conspiracy to control world finances and the press, and inventing liberal democracy as well as Marxism and Bolshevism.

As the master race, the Aryans, he contended, were entitled to acquire more land for themselves. This Lebensraum, or living space, to the east of Germany, would be acquired by force, and would be used to provide room for the expanding Aryan population at the expense of the Slavic peoples, who were to be removed, eliminated, or enslaved.

Hitler fancied himself a profound thinker. “Hitler’s Philosophers,” recently published by historian Yvonne Sherratt, examines Hitler’s enthusiasm for philosophy and the thinkers in the field who prefigured and fueled his ideological leanings.

She writes of Hitler’s self-conception as the “philosopher-Fuhrer.” In turn, philosophers like Martin Heidegger embraced Nazism with apparently complete enthusiasm.

As the world well knows, “Mein Kampf” did indeed provide a blueprint for the horrors to come, including the organized genocidal murder of millions of innocent victims during the Second World War.

Ron Rosenbaum has noted in the “Afterword” to the 2014 edition of his book “Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil,” that the Nazi dictator “was using genocidal means to re-sculpt the human genome by carving off entire chunks,” including Jews, Roma, Slavs, and Soviet prisoners of war.

The debates over the “true nature” of Hitler may never come to rest. But should his pernicious and evil doctrine, as expounded in “Mein Kampf,” a book which may indeed seduce new generations, be made easily available in Germany?

The Jews of Bavaria remain resolutely opposed. Charlotte Knobloch, a vice president of the European Jewish Congress and of the World Jewish Congress, and one of the primary leaders of the Jewish community in Munich, remarked that “Mein Kampf” is the ideological foundation for the Holocaust. “We should sink it in a very deep ocean so that it will never be seen again.”

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Monday, October 06, 2014

The Ties Between China and Israel are Flourishing

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

Following the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the People’s Republic of China a year later, ties between the two countries were virtually non-existent. A Maoist China that stridently supported revolution in the Third World, and gave aid to the Palestinian guerrilla movements, wanted nothing to do with the Jewish state.

But as China emerged as a modern trading nation, that would change. Starting secretly during the 1980s, but with increasing openness after the establishment of official ties in 1992, arms sales at first defined Sino-Israeli relations. Israel became China’s second-largest weapons supplier.

In fact, during the 1990s, American officials accused Israel of illegally providing China with weapons such as the Patriot missile, Lavi jetfighter, and Phalcon airborne radar system.

The arms trade seems to have levelled off, though in 2012 Israel appointed Matan Vilnai, a former major general, as its ambassador to China. Today, though, China is more interested in acquiring Israeli technology. Cyber-security is just one cutting-edge field, along with drones, in which Israel excels and where China wants to improve.

China is also interested in many technologies where Israel is considered a world leader, such as water recycling, desalination, agriculture, and health and medicine.

Israel is bringing its agricultural technology to the vast fields of China. The Israeli firm AutoAgronom was bought out this year by Yuanda Enterprise Group, a Chinese conglomerate that is involved in construction, electronics, and environmental technology.

China is Israel’s third-largest trading partner globally, and its biggest trading partner in Asia. The two-way trade volume has increased from only a little more than $50 million in 1992 to more than $10 billion in 2013.

This past April, outgoing Israeli President Shimon Peres paid a three-day visit to China aimed at bolstering economic and diplomatic ties between the two countries, as well as reinforcing the mutual commitment to combat the spread of non-conventional weapons in the Middle East.

“China is both a regional and a global power and relations between us have strategic significance,” Peres said. “In terms of the diplomatic aspects there are issues of critical importance on the agenda. China is increasing its interest in the Middle East and we have a mutual interest to promote peace and stability, to tackle the scourge of terrorism and the proliferation of non-conventional weapons.”

Peres was referring to the threats China faces from terrorism and extremism among the Uighurs in Muslim Xinjiang.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made relations with China a priority. In May 2013, he led a large delegation to China, meeting with top political and business officials and agreeing with his counterparts to establish a task force to improve trade ties.

Gao Yanping, China’s Ambassador to Israel, wrote following Netanyahu’s visit, “With the interdependence between countries deepening in the globalized world, China and Israel have a shared destiny. The closer our cooperation is, the more benefits will accrue for both our peoples, and the more contributions we will be able to make to regional stability, world peace and global prosperity.”

In turn, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Israel last December. He told his hosts that the Chinese and Israeli economies “are highly complementary, and the mutually beneficial cooperation between us enjoys a very bright future.”

In May 2014, 400 Chinese business and government officials visited Israel for a week of conferences, summits and business deals. Tel Aviv University announced a partnership with Beijing’s Tsinghua University to invest $300 million to establish the XIN Research Center that will focus on researching early-stage and developed technologies in biotech, solar energy, water and the environment. The week-long visit also included the first-ever Israel-China Economic Summit.

In 2013 alone, Israel produced 1,000 new start-ups. Israel has tried to brand itself as a center of dynamic commercial innovation and economic development in China’s eyes, and it seems to be succeeding.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Turkey and ISIS: What's Next?


Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian 
 
The Turkish parliament on Oct. 2 passed a motion authorising its forces to be deployed in Iraq and Syria in the case of a threat to national security.

The bill, submitted by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, also allows for foreign troops to transit through Turkey and calls for the establishment of a so-called security zone of up to 32 kilometres inside neighbouring Syria.

A number of Arab countries have joined the American-led bombing campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the fundamentalist Sunni group which has quickly gained control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria.

Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states of Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have all taken part in airstrikes against ISIS. Yet Turkey, which has the largest military in the region, and which borders both Iraq and Syria, had until now been somewhat reticent about joining the coalition.

Washington found this strange. After all, White House spokesman Josh Earnest remarked recently, it is certainly not in Turkey’s interest “for all that instability and violence to be occurring so close to their border.”

Turkey may have been constrained by the fact that its population is Sunni Muslim and that Turks generally sympathize with Sunni Arabs as victims. And ISIS is battling the Shi’ite governments of both Iraq and Syria. 

Behlul Ozkan, an assistant political science professor at Istanbul’s Marmara University, contends that Davutoglu’s strategy aims to export Turkey’s brand of political Islam and promote Sunni solidarity to extend Turkish influence.

In any case, Ankara is especially concerned that the international campaign against ISIS may bolster the regime in Damascus of Bashar al-Assad, whose resignation it has demanded. 

Turkish officials have long expressed frustration over the international community’s failure to heed their warnings that Assads continued grip on power were risking regional stability and sowing the seeds of Sunni radicalisation.

The ongoing civil war in Syria has placed a tremendous burden on Turkey. It would like to set up a buffer area inside Syria, protected by a no-fly zone, in part to halt the flow of refugees. Some 1.5 million Syrians are now in Turkey, including 160,000 Syrian Kurds who fled the recent fighting with ISIS.

There is also some historical symbolism involved in Turkey’s decision. There are reports that ISIS fighters have surrounded the 700 year old tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire.

It is considered a Turkish enclave, despite its location inside Syria. The tomb was made Turkish territory under a treaty signed with France in 1921, when France ruled Syria. Turkey was allowed to keep the tomb, place guards at it and raise a Turkish flag over it.

Turkey hardened its stance against the extremist Sunni militants after the Sept. 20 release of 46 of its citizens who had been seized in June by ISIS in Mosul, Iraq. In an interview with the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan indicated that Turkey would no longer be a bystander in the campaign against ISIS.

Perhaps Erdogan has also decided to get involved in the fight against ISIS in order to prevent Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, who have links to Turkish Kurd separatists, from further strengthening their position as key western allies. Turkey has tried to prevent Turkish Kurds from crossing the border to help Syrian Kurds.

In any case, events have forced Erdogan’s hand. ISIS fighters armed with tanks and heavy weapons have advanced on the predominantly Kurdish town of Kobani, right on the Syrian-Turkish border, which stretches for 933 kilometres.

The situation in Kobani is “very difficult,” said Nawaf Khalil, a spokesman for Syria’s Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). The PYD is an offshoot of the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, the separatist Kurdish group inside Turkey with which Erdogan’s government has been in peace talks for more than a year. 

But the Kurds are not pleased with the idea of a buffer zone occupied by Turkish troops, in areas now under Syrian Kurdish control. 

Cemil Bayik, co-chair of the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), the political umbrella group dominated by the PKK, told the Turkish daily Radikal that it would spell the end of the peace efforts, “because a buffer zone is directed against us.”

Some Syrian Kurds have even accused Turkey of offering covert aid to the Islamic State in its efforts to eject Kurds from border areas in Syria.
And the PKK has become so infuriated by Erdogan’s approach that its leaders are threatening to resume their 30-year guerrilla war inside Turkey. That’s not something Erdogan wants to hear.
Henry Srebrnik i

Monday, September 29, 2014

Yes, Uruguay Does Exist



Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

They are usually small in area and population, ethnically and religiously homogenous, well-off, and situated in a peaceful part of the world, alongside neighbours who have no designs on them.

What are they? Countries which go virtually unnoticed internationally. Yet they can be quite interesting. The quintessential example? Uruguay. 

A settler state like its big neighbour Argentina, which lies across from it, separated by the mouth of the Rio de la Plata, Uruguay’s population of 3.32 million is composed almost entirely of Spanish and other European immigrants.

At 176,215 square kilometres, it is the second-smallest country in South America. Its only other neighbour is Brazil, and it has historically served as a buffer between these two South American giants. 

During the 19th century wars of independence in South America, the country was briefly occupied by Brazil, but gained its independence in 1828, with the help of Argentina. 

Over the next decades, Uruguay became wealthy from the export of livestock to Europe, and it became the world’s first welfare state. The capital, Montevideo, became a major economic centre of the region.

But in the late 1950s, partly because of a decrease in demand in the world market for agricultural products, Uruguay began having economic problems, which included inflation, mass unemployment, and a steep drop in the standard of living for Uruguayan workers. 

This led to student militancy and labour unrest. An urban guerrilla movement known as the Movimiento de Liberacion Nacional-Tupamaros was formed in the early 1960s, robbing banks and distributing food and money in poor neighbourhoods, and undertaking political kidnappings and attacks on security forces. 

The filmmaker Constantin Costa-Gavras drew inspiration for his 1972 movie, “State of Siege,” from their abduction and execution in 1970 of Daniel Mitrione, an American adviser to Uruguay’s security forces.

Democratic institutions could not withstand the strain. In 1968, President Jorge Pacheco brought in a state of emergency; his successor, Juan Maria Bordaberry, repealed all constitutional safeguards in 1972 and brought in the army in to combat the guerrillas. 

They not only defeated the insurgents but mounted a coup in 1973; the dictatorship would last twelve years.

The new regime suppressed all political activity, including the traditional parties and the left. Many people were imprisoned, tortured and killed. 

Unions and political parties remained illegal until a general strike in 1984 forced the military to accept civilian rule and the restoration of democracy in 1985.

Though democracy was re-established, a controversial “Expiry Law,” passed in 1986 by the Uruguayan parliament, prevents the prosecution of police and military officials for crimes committed under military rule.

The country has in recent decades returned to its progressive orientation. In 2004 Uruguayans elected Tabaré Vazquez as president, while giving his Broad Front, a coalition of numerous left-of-centre movements, a majority in both houses of parliament.

As president, he presided over improvements in education and working conditions and a significant expansion of the welfare system.

He was succeeded after the 2009 election by José Mujica, who had been a Tupamaro himself. He had been captured by the authorities on four different occasions, was tortured, and was also shot once. He spent 14 years in captivity, 10 of them in solitary confinement.

Like many other former Tupamaros, Mujica re-entered politics and became a member of a movement which is a member of the Broad Front. He was minister of Livestock, Agriculture and Fisheries in Vazquez’s administration.

Eschewing the opulent presidential mansion, the 79-year-old former guerrilla and his wife, Lucia Topolansky, live in a modest house on Montevideo’s outskirts. His net worth upon taking office in 2010 amounted to about $1,800. He gives almost 90 per cent of his income to low-income housing organisations.

Topolansky is also a former guerrilla who was imprisoned for 13 years. Today she is a senator.
Last December, Mujica signed into law a plan to create a regulated, legal market for marijuana. Legislators have argued that the legislation forms part of a tradition in Uruguay of searching for progressive solutions to social problems.

Indeed, under Mujica, Uruguay has emerged as a laboratory for socially liberal policies. The country has also enacted a groundbreaking abortion rights law, legalized same-sex marriage and is becoming a centre for renewable energy ventures.

As well, poverty has fallen by almost half, unemployment is at a historic low, and there has been a substantial redistribution of resources.

Why is Uruguay so liberal? “We’re a country of immigrants, anarchists and persecuted people from all over the world,” Mujica explains.

It turns out there’s plenty of news from Uruguay!


Observations on the Scottish Referendum on Independence


Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
 
While voters in Scotland rejected independence from the United Kingdom in a referendum on Sept. 18, by about 55 to 45 per cent, on a turnout of about 85 per cent of the electorate, this is not the end of the story.

First, the result: Even though the Yes side was defeated, it shows the power of national identity. After 307 years of being part of a larger state, almost half the population of Scotland voted for sovereignty, giving the lie to those who claim that peoples in liberal democracies, unlike oppressed minorities in brutal dictatorships, don’t ever need or want their own countries. (Are you listening, Stéphane Dion?)

Second, the leaders of the political parties at Westminster have promised the Scots “devo max” – greater devolved powers for the Scottish parliament. Scotland, like Quebec, will eventually become a virtual de facto state.

Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister and leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, while conceding defeat, maintained that the 1.6 million people who voted for independence showed the “depth of yearning” for the political powers promised to Scotland by British political leaders to stave off disunion.

“Scotland will expect these to be honored in rapid course,” Salmond insisted. “We now have the opportunity to hold Westminster's feet to the fire on the vow that they have made to devolve further meaningful power to Scotland.”  He himself, though, has resigned his position.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has agreed. He has stated that new laws would provide Scotland with greater capacity relating to taxation, public finances and welfare. 

Already, starting in 2016, the UK will reduce taxes by 10 per cent for Scots, allowing their government to replace that fiscal space with its own taxes. That latest change came under the Scotland Act of 2012. Further  powers will soon be added to these.

Third, with Scotland, and potentially Wales, becoming the equivalent of sub-units in a federation, with extensive powers, the result will require completing the circle, so to speak. (Northern Ireland is a different matter altogether.) 

The only national entity in the United Kingdom now without its own legislature is England itself, a situation that needs to be rectified. There will have to be, as Cameron himself put it, “English votes for English laws,” in other words, preventing Scots at Westminster from voting on legislation affecting only England. 

Cameron has indicated that plans to empower Scotland should be linked to constitutional reform in England. English nationalism will grow, and “Britishness” will decline. 

Peter Hain, a Labour Party legislator who has served as secretary of state for both Wales and Northern Ireland, said that “We need to recognize the reality that the United Kingdom should have a federal political structure with a constitutional arrangement which defines the demarcation of powers between Westminster and the rest of the United Kingdom.

So an English assembly may be in the offing, to create a situation of symmetrical federalism. The Westminster government may in the future deal with little more than foreign affairs, defence, and other supra-national matters.

Those visiting London next summer may see more English flags (the Cross of Saint George) and fewer Union ones.
Henry Sr

Friday, September 26, 2014

Israel Walks a Tightrope Between Russia and Ukraine


Henry Srebrnik, [Calgary] Jewish Free Press
 
When it comes to its foreign policy towards Russia and Ukraine, Israel walks a diplomatic tightrope.

The Jewish state must take into consideration all kinds of factors: its relationship with both countries, one of them a great power; its alliance with the United States, which strongly backs Kyiv in its struggle with Moscow; and the effect of its policies on the situation of the still substantial Jewish communities in both of the former Soviet states.

This has led to some uncomfortable situations. 

A Defense Ministry-approved deal to sell drones to Ukraine was vetoed by a Foreign Ministry special panel amid fears Russia would disapprove, Israel’s Channel 2 reported on Sept. 15. Jerusalem was concerned a drone sale to Ukraine would anger Moscow.

When Russia annexed the Crimea in March, Jews in the region were divided in their attitudes. Most Crimean Jews, Russian speaking, supported the move, while those in Ukraine were opposed. Jews in Russia on the whole supported the move.

The 193-member UN General Assembly on March 27 passed Resolution 68/262 by a vote of 100 to 11 to denounce the Crimean referendum that paved the way for the absorption of the peninsula into Russia. Another 58 countries abstained, while the remaining 24 did not vote.

Israel did not take part in the vote, using a strike by staff at its Foreign Ministry as a pretext for the abstention. 

“Our basic position is that we hope Russia and Ukraine will find a way as quickly as possible to normalize relations, and find a way to talks, and to solve all the problems peacefully,” remarked Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman at a Jerusalem news conference in April. 

The United States was not happy with Israel. “We were surprised Israel did not join the vast majority of countries that vowed to support Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the UN,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said at a briefing after the UN vote. 

Historically, Jews have less than fond memories of Ukraine, traditionally a hotbed of anti-Semitism. In 1648-1649 the Cossack Hetman Bogdan Chmielnicki led a peasant uprising against Polish rule in the Ukraine which resulted in the destruction of hundreds of Jewish communities and the deaths of at least 100,000 Jews. 

After the First World War, Symon Petliura’s Ukrainian nationalists, fighting the newly-formed Soviet armies, were involved in pogroms that killed about 50,000 Jews. And during the Holocaust, Nazi death squads, and their Ukrainian collaborators, murdered 900,000 Jews.

The radical elements of Ukraine’s far-right nationalist politics, which rose to the fore during Ukraine’s overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych in February, are also working in Russia’s favour.
Russian anti-Semitism was less virulent. As well, those Israelis with long memories recall the Soviet Union’s role during the struggle to establish the state. 

Moscow voted for UN General Assembly Resolution 181 in November 1947 to partition Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, recognized Israel de jure almost immediately in May 1948, and allowed its allies to provide arms to the new country.

As well, the Soviets in December 1948 voted against UN General Assembly Resolution 194 on the so-called “right of return” of Palestinian refugees to their homes.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a hawk, is himself Soviet-born. He comes from Chisinau (Kishinev), in Moldova, and is the founder and leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, whose electoral base consists of immigrants from the former USSR. 

Lieberman, who immigrated to Israel in 1978, lives in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim. He admires Russian President Vladimir Putin, and in December 2011 appeared with him just days after a contested legislative election in Russia. In turn, the Russian leader visited Israel in June 2012.

 “We are very happy that people from the Soviet Union build such a brilliant political career,” said Putin in 2009, when Lieberman was first appointed to the position by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Speaking to a group of rabbis from Israel and Europe in July, during the latest Gaza war, Putin told them that “I support Israel's struggle, which is intended to protect its citizens.”  (After all, Putin has his own terrorists to worry about, in Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, and elsewhere.)

Of course America remains Israel’s lifeline, its main economic, ideological, and political ally. Still, in the final analysis, Israel, as a beleaguered state now surrounded on virtually all sides by chaos and violence in neighbouring countries, must hedge its bets. 

In a Middle East that is exploding, Israel can’t depend on just one great power ally. The recent Gaza war, and the different approaches to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, has exposed rifts between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, on Sept. 16 Ukraine’s parliament passed legislation to grant special status to the rebellious east as part of a peace deal, hopefully a war with Russian-backed separatists that has killed more than 3,000 people.

It grants three years of self-rule, including the election of local councils, in parts of the war-torn east and calls for local elections in November. It also allows for local oversight on court and prosecutor appointments and local control of police forces. And it gives the region the right to use Russian as an official language.

Israeli diplomats may now have less to worry about.