Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Friday, October 23, 2020

The Ever-Shifting Contours of Hungarian Politic

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

In a tour de force published earlier this year, University of California at Berkeley Professor John Connelly surveys the past thousand years in his book From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe. It will be the standard text for years to come.

One of these peoples, the Magyars, or Hungarians, have played a major role in the region. By the late middle ages, the medieval Kingdom of Hungary was an important Christian state. That kingdom, however, was destroyed by the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, when Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent wiped out much of Hungary’s nobility and clergy.

Defence against Ottoman expansion shifted to the Habsburg emperors of Austria, and by 1700 all of Hungary had come under their rule. In 1867 Hungary became an autonomous partner in the renamed Austro-Hungarian Empire, but the “Dual Monarchy” was defeated in the First World War and the empire dissolved.

The post-war collapse of the Habsburg and three other major empires led to the formation of new states throughout the region, each determined to establish boundaries that would provide it with the largest possible territory.

Some succeeded, others failed, and this was particularly true of the nations defeated in the war. For instance, the map known as the “Carte Rouge,” created by the Hungarian Count Pal Teleki in 1918, represented the density of different Hungarian regions’ by ethnic population.

Created as a scientific backing for Hungary’s position at the peace talks after the end of the conflict, it was of little help. The 1920 Treaty of Trianon saw defeated Hungary lose two-thirds of its pre-war territory and some 60 per cent of its population. It remains a sore point among Hungarians to this day.

Hungary, an ally of Nazi Germany in the Second World War, again ended up on the losing side, and became a Soviet Russian satellite state. Although the 1956 uprising failed, Communism in Hungary thereafter tended to be more tolerable than in other states behind the Iron Curtain.

The decades of the 1960s-70s saw economic reforms, known as the “New Economic Mechanism, popularly called “Goulash Communism.”

So by the time the Cold War ended, the country was virtually free of Marxist dogma. In 1989, there were few doubts about the bright democratic future of post-communist Hungary. But it hasn’t turned out that way. Instead, there has been a bitter repudiation of liberal democracy itself.

Some fifteen years ago, Hungary looked firmly like a success story, having made considerable progress on all sorts of metrics of democracy, rule of law, and institutional quality. Today, on measures such as Freedom House’s Freedom of the World Index, the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators, and the Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index, Hungary has undergone a degree of “democratic backsliding” or “de-democratization.”

In the 1990s the judiciary was insulated from political pressures, following recommendations by international authorities. Hungary’s constitutional court was also hailed as one of the strongest in the world, pushing back assertively against government legislation, including striking down its fiscal consolidation package in 1995.

It also deployed the doctrine of an “invisible constitution,” filling the gaps in the text of the constitution by borrowing from international law and developing and applying its own abstract concepts, such as human dignity.

Yet far from entrenching the principles of judicial independence in Hungarian legal practice and political life, these early reforms led to a backlash and ultimately to the full-fledged politicization of the courts under the rule of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his FIDESZ party.

In elections held in 2010, Orban secured a constitutional majority and passed a new Fundamental Law with FIDESZ votes only. By doing so, he also ensured that the entire pre-2011 jurisprudence of Hungary’s constitutional court went out the window.

Since then, we have seen the forced retirements of large numbers of judges, compromising the judiciary’s integrity; crackdowns on independent media; and the branding of foreign-funded non-governmental organizations as “foreign agents.”

Orban has also hounded the western-oriented Central European University out of the country and forced the university to move to Vienna. However, the European Court of Justice recently ruled that Orban’s decision was not in line with European Union law.

Some analysts blame this as resentment against those forces, spearheaded by the United States and Western Europe, which sought to turn Hungary and other Eastern European nations into copies of the West, without much regard for local realities. It may be a bitter lesson in ideological “overreach.”


Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Donald Trump Deserves the Nobel Peace Prize

By Henry Srebrnik, [Fredericton, NB] Daily Gleaner

On Oct. 9, we learned who won the Nobel Peace Prize. It wasn’t Donald Trump – though it should have been. Instead, it went to the UN World Food Programme, “for its efforts to combat hunger.”

 Many people or organizations have been chosen since it was established in 1901, including some whom history later demonstrated were unworthy of it. Some recent recipients were activists whose work had little to do with relations between states.

In other cases, obvious candidates were bypassed, often for ideological reasons. Donald Trump was one of the latter.

The prize is awarded, according to the selection committee, “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

In September, Trump was nominated by Christian Tybring-Gjedde, a member of the Norwegian parliament, who lauded Trump for his efforts toward resolving protracted conflicts worldwide.

“I think he has done more trying to create peace between nations than most other Peace Prize nominees,” stated Tybring-Gjedde, citing Trump’s role in the establishment of relations between Israel and the Gulf states of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

He also praised Trump for “creating new dynamics in other protracted conflicts, such as the Kashmir border dispute between India and Pakistan, and the conflict between North and South Korea.”

Trump brokered the Abraham Accords, the treaties between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, signed at the White House Sept.15. The documents represent a significant symbolic and substantive breakthrough in the relationships between Israel and the Arab world.

Included is a reference to the Arab and Jewish common heritage, as descendants of Abraham, and the need “to foster in the Middle East a reality in which Muslims, Jews, Christians and peoples of all faiths are committed to a spirt of coexistence, mutual understanding, and respect.”

As part of this deal, Israel agreed to suspend annexation of more Palestinian land in the West Bank. It enhances peaceful relations between Israel and moderate Arab states as well as a possible precursor to progress with the Palestinians.

Other countries, including Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, and Sudan, may eventually come on board. Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, cautiously welcomed the agreement and Riyadh may eventually normalize relations with Israel. It also, of course, foils to some extent the ability of Iran to make mischief in the Persian Gulf.

Also, Israel and Lebanon have agreed to conduct negotiations on their mutual maritime border, with the U.S. as mediator.

The agreement was the most significant advance in Arab-Israeli relations since Egypt and Israel made peace in 1979 – for which Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat were jointly honoured with the peace prize.

And in 1994 Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat received it for signing the Oslo Accords – which didn’t bring peace.

There are other accomplishments. Donald Trump brought the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia, two bitter enemies, to the White House on Sept. 4 to sign an agreement for economic cooperation.

Serbia agreed to move its embassy to Jerusalem, while Kosovo will be recognizing Israel and also planning to locate its embassy there. “It took decades because you didn’t have anybody trying to get it done,” Trump told Serbian President Aleksander Vucic and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti.

The contrast with Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, is telling. Obama gained the prize just a year after winning office, basically for aspirational speeches. The former secretary of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, Geir Lundestad, admitted in 2015 that Obama failed to live up to expectations.

Last year’s recipient, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, was honoured for resolving the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea. Commendable, but not as important as what Trump has achieved.

And unlike previous presidents, Trump has not blundered into new military conflicts. Very few American troops have been killed on his watch.

So why didn’t Trump win the Nobel Peace Prize? Because he is reviled by a chattering class which differs from him ideologically, and which doesn't want to see him re-elected.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

In Hong Kong, Things go from Bad to Worse

By Henry Srebrnik, [Moncton, NB] Times & Transcript

Police in Hong Kong arrested at least 60 protesters for “unlawful assembly” on Oct. 1 They had gathered for a demonstration, timed to coincide with China’s National Day, to draw attention to Beijing’s increasing influence in the semi-autonomous territory.

On June 30, a new national security law went into effect in Hong Kong. The former British colony, under Chinese rule since 1997, had seen Beijing tighten its grip over the past few years, but this, as pro-democracy protester Joshua Wong tweeted, “marks the end of Hong Kong that the world knew before.” 

It signaled President and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping’s desire to seize more control in order to squash pro-democracy protests in the city. The scale and intensity of Hong Kong’s protest movement and growing calls for democracy, and even some calls for independence, caught China’s leaders off guard.

“There was this idea before about China being cautious and trying to cultivate its soft power around the world,” remarked Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. “Those times are gone with Xi Jinping.”

The law supersedes Hong Kong’s Basic Law and the “one country, two systems” that was supposed to remain in effect until 2047. It effectively puts an end to the territory’s autonomy.

The Hong Kong government is establishing a national security council headed by a chief executive as well as a new central government commission. It will become the highest executive body in Hong Kong and enable Beijing to supervise local authorities in executing the law.

In addition, the chief executive will also be able to select judges to handle national security cases, which experts warn could jeopardize the city's judicial independence.

The new law jeopardizes civil liberties and Hong Kong’s independent judicial system, which has allowed the financial hub to thrive over the decades economically. It is so broad that it effectively criminalises dissent and is meant to silence the protest movements that have grown in numbers and intensity since 2013.

The new national security law was met with defiance, as protesters took to the streets in defiance of the sweeping security legislation. It happened to coincide with an annual rally marking the anniversary of the colony’s takeover by China in 1997. In Beijing, Zhang Xiaoming, executive deputy director of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, described the new security law as a “birthday gift” to Hong Kong.

The protests in Hong Kong had intensified in June 2019 after Carrie Lam, chief executive of  the Hong Kong government, tried to enact an extradition law that would have allowed residents to be transferred to the mainland to face an often harsh judicial system.

China has denounced the protests as acts of terrorism and accused Western nations of fomenting the unrest.

On July 31, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that she was postponing the Sept. 6 legislative elections, citing the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This postponement is entirely made based on public safety reasons, there were no political considerations,” she claimed. However, the opposition accused the government of using the pandemic as a pretext.

Opposition activists had hoped to obtain a majority in the Legislative Council. Pro-democracy candidates had made unprecedented gains in 2019 district council elections, winning 17 out of 18 councils.

By the time those elections happen in 2021, opposition candidates will have been excluded from the ballot.

Hong Kong’s economic stature was supposed to guarantee its liberties -- instead, it is now losing both. In 1997, it had an economy worth about a quarter of China’s. Today, that share has shrunk to less than three per cent.

 “I foresee that the international status of Hong Kong as a city will be gone very soon,” remarked Dennis Kwok, an opposition lawmaker. Financial institutions are eyeing Singapore as a safer haven.

But Hong Kong, a British creation with its own political culture, retains its separate identity, nurtured over almost two centuries. This has only strengthened during the past year, and that will perhaps be the most salient result of the protest movement.

Hong Kong’s seven million citizens have a long history of resisting imperialism, both British and Chinese, and they will continue that tradition into the future.


Saturday, October 03, 2020

A Frozen Conflict Zone Heats up in the Caucasus

By Henry Srebrnik [Saint John, NB], Telegraph Journal

Will Armenia and Azerbaijan engage in full-scale war over Nagorno-Karabakh? It’s beginning to look that way, as this “frozen” conflict heats up.

The unresolved battle over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region of about 4,400 square kilometres with a population of roughly 150,000 ethnic Armenians, continues to be a problem for the South Caucasus region.

 Should the conflict re-ignite, it would spread catastrophe over a wide region, impacting not just Armenia and Azerbaijan, but Georgia, Russia, Turkey, and even Iran.

After all, Armenians, an ancient Christian nation, and Azeris, a Muslim people, have had little love lost between them in the area they share in the southern Caucasus.

Each has also had a powerful ally over the centuries, based on their respective faiths, with Russian Orthodox tsarist Russia coming to the aid of the Armenians, while the Ottoman Turks supported the Azeris. They speak a Turkic language, though, like Iranians, they practice Shia Islam, whereas the majority of Turks are Sunnis.

The leaders of Turkey and Azerbaijan often refer to themselves as “one nation and two states,” and Turkey’s 300-kilometre border with Armenia has been closed since 1993 as a gesture of support over Nagorno-Karabakh, causing severe economic problems for landlocked Armenia.

This too factors into the conflict, as there remains the memory among Armenians of the Ottoman Turkish genocide during World War I, in which at least one million Armenians were massacred.

In late September, a new round of fighting over the disputed mountainous region resumed. The fighting now appears to be spilling out of Nagorno-Karabakh, with Armenia and Azerbaijan trading accusations of direct fire on their borders.

Azerbaijan’s Defence Ministry said Armenian forces shelled the Dashkesan region in Azerbaijan, while Armenian officials said Azerbaijani forces opened fire in the Armenian town of Vardenis.

Azerbaijan is frustrated that after nearly three decades there has still been no progress towards settling the conflict, including the return of seven adjacent Azeri territories currently under Armenian control.

Turkey openly backs Azerbaijan and there are signs it is actively engaged in the fighting. It also appears a proxy force of Syrian fighters has been deployed from southern Turkey to Azerbaijan. Indeed, in a major escalation, Armenia claims Turkey shot down one of its fighter jets.

“Armenia should withdraw from the territories under its occupation instead of resorting to cheap propaganda tricks,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s aide Fahrettin Altun stated.

But Russia, which has a mutual defence pact with Armenia and a military base there, has been more circumspect, calling for a ceasefire. It helped negotiate a ceasefire in 2016 after the so-called “April War,” in which some 200 soldiers and civilians were killed, and the two sides came close to all-out war.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan told Russian media the atmosphere was not right for talks while military operations were ongoing. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, also speaking to Russian outlets, ruled out any talks given Armenia’s current stance.

 The Soviet Union created the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region within Azerbaijan in 1924, when over 94 per cent of the region's population was Armenian. As the Azerbaijani population grew, the Karabakh Armenians chafed under the discriminatory rule of what became the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan.

The conflict dates in its modern form to 1988, when Armenian deputies to the National Council of Nagorno-Karabakh voted to unify that region with Armenia. Although Armenia did not formally respond, this act triggered an Azerbaijani massacre of more than 100 Armenians in the city of Sumgait, just north of Baku. A similar attack on Azerbaijanis occurred in the Armenian town of Spitak.

Large numbers of refugees left Armenia and Azerbaijan as pogroms began against the minority populations of the respective countries. Meanwhile, in a December 1991 referendum, Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh approved the creation of an independent state.

The dispute over the status of the territory has been costly: during the initial fighting, as the Soviet Union collapsed, around 30,000 people died and more than a million were displaced on both sides.

After a ceasefire agreement was signed in 1994, a situation of “no war, no peace” has prevailed punctuated by periodic border clashes. By this time the Armenian side had gained de facto control over a territory comprising not just Nagorno-Karabakh itself but a large swathe of land outside the region as well, amounting to just under 14 per cent of the internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan.

The Nagorno-Karabakh polity, which calls itself Republic of Artsakh, is really a de facto Armenian entity, but it is not recognised as a sovereign polity by any other internationally recognized country, including even Armenia.

Only three other entities, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and the Transnistria, themselves breakaway regions which seceded from Soviet successor countries, have granted it recognition. For every-day purposes it has become a province of Armenia. Indeed, Serzh Sargsyan, president of Armenia from 2008 to 2018, is himself from Nagorno-Karabakh.

The UN Security Council has said it confirmed its “full support” for the role of the co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, comprising France, Russia and the United States, who have mediated peace efforts. The council encouraged the parties to work closely with the co-chairs “for an urgent resumption of dialogue without preconditions.” But this is falling on deaf ears at the moment.


Thursday, October 01, 2020

Nothing to Celebrate as Lebanon Turns 100

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the creation of Lebanon. Given the mess the country is in, there’s been little to celebrate.

On Aug. 4, a massive explosion tore apart a large part of Beirut’s port, killing over 190 people, wounding thousands more, and leaving some 250,000 homeless.

The blast came at a difficult time for Lebanon, which is mired in an unprecedented economic crisis. The currency has crashed, throwing more than half the country’s five million people into poverty. Unemployment stands at 25 per cent and now a third of the population is living below the poverty line.

The economic situation had already triggered large anti-government protests. So bad as things have been these past few years, they got even worse For many, this new disaster seemed like the last straw.

Prince Edward Island’s Lebanese community has been raising funds to help alleviate the suffering, but it can only do so much.

Why does tiny Lebanon even exist? The idea of a separate Lebanon, carved out of a larger vague region that was called Syria under the Ottoman Turks, came from France. It was designed to give Lebanon’s Christians, especially those who belonged to the Maronite Church, their own homeland.

In the second half of the 19th century, France increasingly positioned itself as a “protector” of Arab Christian groups, intervening to protect them during conflicts.

With the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, France and Great Britain established their rule over the Fertile Crescent under a system of Mandates, under the legal and diplomatic aegis of the League of Nations. These mandates, really colonies, included Palestine, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. The Syrian and Lebanese mandates were held by France.

Incorporating the largely Sunni Muslim lands of the Bekaa Valley and adding further new territory along the coast to the north and in the Shia majority south, all outside of the Christian heartland around Mount Lebanon, the 1920 borders of this Greater Lebanon included a substantial percentage of Muslims who never reconciled themselves to the state.

Lebanon became independent in 1943 under a National Pact forged by Christian and Sunni Muslim elites from Beirut, with no input from the Shia. It was a complex political system that ensured Christian hegemony.

French financial, commercial and cultural interests would continue to be interwoven with the Maronite community in particular. More generally, access to political and economic power was organised around sectarian identities.

To this day, parts of the country’s elite speak French, and at many schools, French is spoken in class. A vast number of wealthy Lebanese own a second home in France.

This system remained relatively stable until the 1970s. But after a 16-year civil war and the intervention of foreign powers, including Iran, Israel and Syria, it fell apart and the Christians no longer dominate.

Indeed, the state-within-a-state known as Hezbollah, the Shi’ite militant party whose armed strength far exceeds that of the country’s own military, has a hammerlock on Lebanon’s politics.

Though Lebanon is effectively a failed state, there is still a soft spot for it in the heart of the country that gave it birth. Since the August disaster, French President Emmanuel Macron has visited twice. Arriving on Aug. 6, he was mobbed walking about in the Christian districts of Beirut.

Macron met with officials from the eight largest political groups. They were given a so-called “French Paper,” a draft program for a new government. He set deadlines for them to take action and told them he’d be back in December to check on progress.

Meanwhile, a petition circulated online calling for Lebanon to be placed “under French Mandate for the next ten years.” Attracting more than 61,000 signatures, it condemned Lebanon’s officials and its “failing system, corruption, terrorism and militia.” French rule, it asserted, would establish “a clean and durable governance.”

Lebanon is at “risk of disappearing” without crucial government reforms, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Aug. 27. “The international community will not sign a blank cheque” otherwise, he warned in a radio interview.

Back in Beirut on Sept. 1, Macron alluded to France’s long history of involvement in the country and again insisted that the Lebanese elite must meet popular demands for reform by revising the existing political structure – ironically, the one initially created by Paris a century ago.

To help Lebanon overcome its endemic malaise, Paris has taken a variety of steps: encouraging and promoting internal Lebanese dialogue through international and intra-Lebanese conferences, sending French leaders to the country on frequent visits, mobilizing international economic assistance, and attempting to strengthen the Lebanese army so it can become a national military force with sufficient strength to counter Hezbollah’s army.

Macron’s visits have raised further expectations that change will finally come to lift Lebanon out of its dire political and economic troubles, all of which were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the catastrophic explosion at the port.


Wednesday, September 30, 2020

America No Longer Has a Critical Media

By Henry Srebrnik, [Fredericton, NB] Daily Gleaner

Hannah Arendt, one of the foremost scholars of totalitarianism, explained that “a totalitarian state is one that aspires to nothing less than defining and controlling reality.” In today’s “woke” America, media elites determine what is and isn’t appropriate. The system suffers no dissent from within, its practitioners policing the boundaries of acceptable – that is, left-wing – opinion. Other views are deemed “controversial,” a euphemism warning readers that these are wrong.

The press that existed in America from the end of the 19th century until the turn of this one was designed to inform. But it is now more like Pravda in the old Soviet Union.

Roger Kimball, editor of the New Criterion, contends that the American mainstream media “has dropped any pretense of professional objectivity” and are “partisan political actors who try to shape what they’re reporting to achieve a political purpose.”

Over the past four years, they have shared a single overriding preoccupation: consolidating an social consensus that justifies itself by the claim that Donald Trump’s presidency is an existential threat that makes every action by the White House a national emergency.

The media both demonstrates and justifies its role in opposing this extraordinary threat by hyping one supposed crisis of American democracy after another, be it the advent of fascism, Russian control over Trump, the danger from white nationalists, and so forth.

In an article published in the Columbia Journalism Review Sept. 8, Musa al-Gharbi, a sociologist at Columbia University, observed that the quantity of coverage devoted by the print media to Donald Trump is without historical precedent.

The New York Times, for instance, has increasingly embraced advocacy journalism. Its new reporting eschews balance and objectivity in favour of a more revolutionary narrative.

In 2018, “Trump” was the fourth-most-used word in the New York Times. On average, Trump was directly mentioned two to three times in every article, writes writes al-Gharbi, and indirectly mentioned an additional once or twice. “Trump has ceased to be just a topic of news, he seems to be the prism through which we interpret and discuss everything.”

A new tool from Stanford University’s Computer Graphics Lab revealed that cable news has undergone a similar transformation. In other words, he concluded, “news media have basically been running with 2016 campaign-level attention on Trump for four years straight now.”

Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, owns the Washington Post, which has always been a liberal newspaper. But, writes Michael Anton, a lecturer and research fellow at Hillsdale College, it was never “so shamelessly dishonest.”

Lee Smith, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, concurs, noting that each day brings a new story “trumpeting a new mortal threat to the republic or some dastardly revelation based on sources that are usually anonymous.”

On the other hand, the disinterest evinced by this media complex toward the violence and destruction carried out over the past few months is a striking case of the collectivized decision-making process that now governs them. For details of the chaos one needs to read local newspapers.

That’s because the media establishment is increasingly driven by narrative constructions based on theories of identity and power. For these journalists, the “dangerous majoritarian mob lurking in the middle of the country plotting to oppress vulnerable minorities” must be countered, asserts Jacob Siegel, a senior writer at the Tablet magazine website.

The proper aim of politics, therefore, is to wield the power of elite institutions to enforce “correct” thinking. Hence dissenters are regularly vilified as racists and reactionaries.

These ritual denunciations help enforce cohesion among journalists and within the larger educated professional class. They provide an deterrent for anyone tempted to notice the gap that separates elite moral crusades from the priorities of ordinary Americans.

“I think over the past few years, there’s been a kind of new groupthink developed on a number of topics among institutional progressives and a lot of people who are involved have the same zealousness as the convert to a new religion,” according to Zaid Jilani, a journalist who considers himself left-wing but refuses to follow the “party line” on every issue.

Much American journalism has abandoned the traditional standards and practices that once defined reporting. What’s left is a media largely controlled by “woke” progressives.


Monday, September 21, 2020

Protests Continue in Divided Belarus

By Henry Srebrnik, [Moncton, NB] Times & Transcript

Massive protests that began in the wake of the Aug. 9 presidential election, in which the incumbent Alexander Lukashenko awarded himself an 80 per cent victory, have overtaken Belarus. It was a result that has been declared illegitimate by every serious political observer and has led to mass demonstrations.

Often referred to by many in the media as “Europe’s last dictator,” he was even heckled at a post-election rally that was supposed to be full of his core constituency, workers from the rural parts of the country.

The post-election demonstrations have not subsided and seem to be spontaneous. The pre-election protest leaders, including Lukashenko’s main opponent Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, are mostly in exile or in undisclosed locations, and so the crowds that gather in Independence Square in Minsk are entirely self-organized and autonomous.

About 100,000 people have rallied against him weekly in Minsk -- by far the biggest opposition protests of his rule. Women have been at the heart of the protests. Supporters of LGBTQ+ rights appeared with rainbow flags in the women’s march in Minsk on Sept. 5.

Police arrested more than 400 people as tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators took to the streets of Minsk during the “March of Heroes” protest on Sept. 13. 

This has all come as a surprise. After all, Lukashenko centralised power, marginalised all opposition and “won” rigged elections on no less than four previous occasions.

Lukashenko was able to enjoy huge Russian subsidies of cheap oil and gas in return for his political loyalty. A “Union State” between the two nations has existed since 1999, which guarantees free movement and employment in both states. 

In early February Lukashenko visited Russia to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin regarding the further integration process within the treaty. So the events following the August election have caught Lukashenko off guard.

In the Ukrainian Euromaidan Revolution that removed Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, anti-Russian feeling was very evident. But in Belarus, a country ethnically and religiously close to Russia, anti-Russian rhetoric is absent.

There are no European flags, nor many slogans about Europe or the European Union, nor are there any demands to join NATO.

Instead, we see the colours of the Belarusian National Republic, flown by the short-lived pre-Soviet independent republic of 1918-1919 and again from 1991 to 1995, prior to Lukashenko’s total takeover. Lukashenko had restored a modified version of the Soviet flag as the nation’s banner. The demonstrations have been about ending the dictatorship, pure and simple.

Russia remains the country’s chief ally. They have held joint military exercises and the struggling Belarus economy relies on trade with its powerful neighbour. Russia also maintains two military facilities in Belarus, the Vileyka VLF Transmitter and Missile Attack Early Warning System site in Hantsavichy.

In recent years relations had cooled after Moscow moved to end subsidized oil and gas supplies. However, now that Lukashenko is in trouble, he has again turned to Russia. He met with Putin on Sept. 14 for their first encounter since the anti-government protests erupted in Belarus -- a sign that the two leaders have drawn closer amid the crisis after months of strain over bilateral ties.

“These events showed us that we need to stick closer to our older brother,” Lukashenko told Putin, referring to the protests. He noted that disagreements between Moscow and Minsk can involve any issue except security.

Putin announced in late August that a Russian military contingent is ready to intervene on behalf of Lukashenko “if necessary.” Russia could send them in if the protests got really out of control,” he remarked. Putin also granted a $1.5 billion loan to Belarus.  

Moscow’s backing has emboldened the Belarus president. Many foreign independent news outlets have been stripped of their accreditation and several local independent online media sites that have played a key role in reporting on the crisis have been blocked, while members of Russia’s state-owned media have been invited in.

The opposition is not backing down. Tikhanovskaya, living in Lithuania after being forced into exile, told Putin that any agreements made with Lukashenko will not have legal force. “I regret that you have decided on dialogue with a dictator and not with the people of Belarus.”


Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Presidential Race in Pennsylvania

By Henry Srebrnik,  [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

American citizens residing outside the country vote by absentee ballot in the last location that they lived in before leaving the United States.

In our case, that’s the 13th Congressional District in south-central Pennsylvania, a largely rural area that includes portions of Adams and other counties.

With its 20 Electoral College votes, the Keystone State is a must-win for President Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden. Pennsylvania is among a group of competitive battleground states where this fall’s results could decide the presidency.

Although it voted Democratic in the six presidential elections prior to 2016, that election saw Republican Trump win the state by a razor-thin 48.58 per cent to 47.85 per cent for Hillary Clinton. It was one of three “blue wall” states (Michigan and Wisconsin were the others) Trump won on his way to the White House.

Pennsylvania’s two U.S. senators are divided by party, with Democrat Bob Casey Jr. and Republican Pat Toomey, making it one of nine states to have a split United States Senate delegation. There is no Senate race in the state this year,

In the House of Representatives, the 18-member delegation is also evenly split, with nine members from each party. The 13th Congressional District is represented by John Joyce, a Republican. He is being challenged by Tom Rowley, the Democrat. With its white majority of 87 per cent, Joyce faces little opposition in this solidly Republican district.

In Pennsylvania, the president is trailing Joseph R. Biden Jr. in vote-rich Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, but statewide, Biden’s lead over Trump has dropped by 1.4 points.

The former Vice President now holds a small 49 per cent to 46 per cent lead over Trump among likely Pennsylvania voters, according to a recent AARP-commissioned public opinion survey.

Trump has pivoted to a “law and order” message in the state amid protests over racial injustice. The Republicans believe efforts to paint Biden as weak on crime will help Trump win back suburban voters, and especially women, who supported him in 2016 but have since soured on him.

To that end, Trump and his team have been paying frequent visits to the state as they work to build enthusiasm. “Trump is just on the wavelength of rural America in a way that previous Republicans were not,” remarked David Hopkins, an associate professor of political science at Boston College and the author of “Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics.”

However, Biden appeals more to rural voters than Clinton did. He was born into a working-class Irish Catholic family in Scranton.

This month also saw two major developments that are a source of worry for Trump. A story published by the Atlantic magazine – a fiercely pro-Democratic publication – claimed that a few years ago on a European trip Trump called U.S. soldiers injured or killed in war “losers,” and questioned the country’s reverence for them.

Trump angrily denied the article’s claims, calling it a “disgrace.” He holds the military “in the highest regard,” White House spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said in response. “He’s demonstrated his commitment to them at every turn: delivering on his promise to give our troops a much needed pay raise, increasing military spending, signing critical veterans reforms, and supporting military spouses. This has no basis in fact.”

Then came the publication of veteran reporter Bob Woodward’s book “Rage.” An associate editor of the “Washington Post,” also a partisan newspaper supporting Biden in this election, Woodward interviewed Trump in January and asserts that the president knew the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic but downplayed its severity.

“I wanted to always play it down,” the president told him. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.” With close to 200,000 deaths by mid-September, this seems damning in retrospect.

Will these revelations change Trump’s level of support? Perhaps, though probably many of his backers will ignore the new information or even be critical of its release so close to the election. We shall see.

As it stands now, the 13th district of Pennsylvania will remain in Trump’s column, and Joyce will retain his seat, but the state itself remains Biden’s to lose.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Guyana is Mired in Ethnic Conflict

By Henry Srebrnik, [Moncton, NB] Times & Transcript

Guyana’s ethnic woes make it a difficult country to govern.

Guyana’s 780,000 people form what many social scientists have characterized as a plural society, a form of social organization found in some countries that were colonized by Western powers.

Africans were brought over as slaves to work the sugar plantations, later followed by Indians as indentured labour when slavery was abolished.

By transporting different peoples from various parts of the globe for economic reasons, the British created a segmented colonial society.

The two groups remained highly discrete racial, ethnic and cultural communities with minimal common values.

Even after the end of British colonial rule in 1966, this South American country remained one of deep cleavages, with no common religious, political or ideological institutions to bridge the chasm between the ethnic groups. They have no common normative or philosophical framework, and therefore no concept of moral obligation towards each other.

In effect, one group rules over another through political or even military force; and those who are dominated feel little sense of shared identity with the political system. This has been true since independence

Indo-Guyanese now account for 39.8 per cent of the population, followed by Afro-Guyanese at 29.2 per cent. Guyanese of mixed heritage make up 19.9 per cent while indigenous peoples are at 10.5 per cent. Afro-Guyanese are Christians, Indians mainly Hindu.

Plural societies, maintained M.G. Smith, a Jamaican social anthropologist who taught at Yale University, are “defined by dissensus and pregnant with conflict.” So politics becomes a zero-sum game.

Since independence Guyana has seen fierce political rivalry between the two main ethnically-based parties, one largely the vehicle for the Afro-Guyanese population, the other dominated by the descendants of South Asians from the Indian subcontinent.

The 2020 presidential proved no different. The election on March 2 pitted the 75-year-old incumbent David Granger, leader of the People’s National Congress (PNC), the party supported by the Black population, against 40-year-old Irfaan Ali of the South Asian-backed People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C). Granger had won the 2015 election against the PPP/C’s then incumbent, Donald Ramotar.

Granger declared victory days after the vote but the opposition alleged that the results had been inflated in Granger’s favour. Following allegations of vote tampering, a recount, and a lengthy legal battle, the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) finally declared Ali as the winner on Aug. 2 – a full five months after the balloting.

The GECOM also announced that Ali’s party had won a narrow majority of 33 of the 65 seats in parliament, with Granger’s PNC-led but unwieldy A Partnership for National Unity and Alliance for Change (APNU-AFC) winning 31 seats. Another group claimed the remaining seat.

The election was one of the most significant since Guyanese independence because of one of the largest new discoveries of oil in the world off the coast of the country, which could put Guyana among the top 10 oil producers in the world.

Production by Exxon Mobil in the offshore oil fields, estimated to contain at least eight billion barrels, started last December.

Each side feared the opposing party would exclude it from the oil riches and use the proceeds to cement its political power for decades. After all, the new president will be the one to administer the windfall resulting from the find.

As if there were not enough internal conflicts in the country, Guyana is also at odds with its neighbours, dating back to quarrels between rival imperial powers. Much of Guyana is claimed by Venezuela in the west and Suriname in the east.

The Guyana-Venezuela border largely follows the Schomburgk Line, so called after the German-born British naturalist and explorer who sketched it in 1840.

The Venezuelan authorities, however, have long maintained that the Essequibo River, not the Schomburgk Line, is their natural eastern border. This is no small matter: the area in between the line and the river is 159,000 square kilometres, or 62 per cent of Guyana’s territory.

Not only is Guyana’s western neighbor claiming most of the country, the nation on the other side, Suriname, claims the so-called New River Triangle in the southern part of both countries’ common border.

Not surprisingly, the border dispute with Venezuela has revived after the discovery of the offshore oil reserves.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Rivalries Flare Between Greece and Turkey

By Henry Srebrnik, [Moncton, NB] Times & Transcript

Over recent weeks, tensions have been rising in the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean, prompted by what seems like a simple rivalry over energy resources.

Turkey has pursued an aggressive gas exploration effort, sending its seismic research vessel the Oruc Reis, heavily protected by warships of the Turkish Navy, into its waters. Turkey is also holding a military exercise off northwest Cyprus until Sept. 11.

Turkey and Greece have competing ambitions over gas reserves and they disagree profoundly over who has rights to key areas of the eastern Mediterranean. They have laid claim to overlapping areas, arguing they belong to their respective continental shelves.

Turkey has embraced a doctrine known as Blue Homeland (Mavi Vatan in Turkish), which aims to secure control of maritime areas surrounding its coasts.

But this conflict goes further than that. In fact, it’s part of one of the oldest “clash of civilizations” in history, dating back to the 15th century, when the powerful Ottoman Turks, a Sunni Muslim people who had arrived in Anatolia, defeated the Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire, the centre of eastern Christianity.

Greece and the Balkan kingdoms would become subjects of the Ottoman Empire for centuries. Greece recovered its sovereignty in the 19th century, though it didn’t regain all of its present-day territories until 1912.

A vicious war between the two countries following the First World War, with massive ethnic cleansing. Millions of Greeks fled mainland Turkey and Turks were expelled from Greek lands.

Meanwhile, the island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, until 1960 a British colony, remained home to both groups. Upon receiving independence, Greek-Turkish enmity finally led to a Turkish invasion in 1974.

There, too, transfers of population followed, and the island is divided into a rump Greek-Cypriot state in the south, and a self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, guarded by Turkish troops, in the north.

Despite multiple diplomatic efforts over the decades, the Cyprus issue has proved as intractable as ever.

As well, since coming to power, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pursued a more aggressive foreign policy. So the tensions over energy have added a new element to a very old dispute.

The current quarrel has to do with Turkish claims to maritime territories in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Ankara contends that the many Greek islands off Turkey’s Aegean coast should be entitled only to a much reduced Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), a sea zone in which a sovereign state has special rights regarding the exploration and use of marine resources.

They nearly went to war in 1996 over uninhabited islands in the Aegean Sea. 

In late June, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu argued that it was unacceptable that the small island of Kastellorizo, which lies just off the Turkish mainland and is more than 500 kilometres from Athens, has a maritime jurisdiction area extending 370 kilometres in every direction.

Up until now, Greece and the Greek Cypriot government have refused to negotiate with Turkey on the maritime border issue. They insist that it has already been settled by international treaties.

So when the Oruc Reis left the port of Antalya on Aug. 10, as Ankara resumed searching for oil and gas near Kastellorizo, Greece accused Turkey of threatening peace in the eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey claimed that it is well within its rights to explore areas claimed by Cyprus and Greece. Ankara believes it is being treated unfairly and resents what it perceives as its exclusion from talks on energy discoveries in the Mediterranean.

The Greek Cypriots, along with Greece, Egypt, Israel, Italy, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority on Jan. 16 established the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), creating a platform for natural gas cooperation.

The EMGF was a response to an accord signed between Turkey and Libya’s UN-recognized Government of National Accord last November, which Turkey says grants Ankara economic rights to a large part of the eastern Mediterranean, including areas Greece regards as its economic waters.

Turkey's foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, warned Greece on Aug. 26 that Ankara is ready to do “whatever is necessary” to protect its legitimate interests in the region.

Even if this is resolved, Greeks and Turks will find something else to quarrel about. They always do.