Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

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.

 

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

The Pandemic Propels Populists to Power

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

We know that nationalism, isolationism, xenophobia, and attacks on the liberal world order have been increasing for years. That trend will be accelerated by the pandemic.

Many governments have used the crisis to give themselves emergency powers, moving them still further away from democracy.

In late March, Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte rammed a bill through his country’s parliament that granted him vastly expanded emergency powers, ostensibly to fight the novel coronavirus.

The measure granting Duterte the new powers was approved by Philippine lawmakers using Zoom, the remote teleconferencing service, and put the country under a “state of national emergency.”

The bill authorized Duterte to reallocate the national budget as he saw fit and to personally direct hospitals. “Do not challenge the government,” he insisted in a televised address. “You will lose.”

However, Duterte failed to win approval to take over private companies and utilities, authority he had sought.

Also that month, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban pushed even more expansive emergency legislation through his parliament, enabling him to suspend existing laws, decree new ones, and arrest individuals deemed to be peddling “falsehoods” about the pandemic or “obstructing” the government’s efforts to fight it.

“He is using this crisis to further increase his power,” remarked András Bíró-Nagy, the director of the Budapest-based Policy Solutions think tank. “The Hungarian prime minister enjoys the situation where he can act as a captain in a crisis. I don’t see him giving up these powers again easily.”

Although parliament did lift this authorization in mid-June, the fact that it was ever in force in the first place is worrying. Hungary’s case demonstrates that populism can degenerate into arbitrary rule, and it should make observers suspicious of the democratic loyalties of populists in power.

Duterte’s and Orban’s COVID-19 power grabs were especially brazen, but they were far from the only attempts by authoritarian leaders or parties to use the current health crisis as an excuse to curtail civil liberties or undermine the rule of law.

Authoritarian regimes in Bangladesh, Belarus, Cambodia, China, Egypt, El Salvador, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, Uganda, Venezuela, and Vietnam have all detained critics, health workers, journalists, and opposition members during the pandemic.

Democracies that have lately come under assault, meanwhile, such as Brazil, India, and Poland, have seen populist leaders or ruling parties seize on the crisis to remove checks on their power or weaken the opposition.

Hybrid regimes, whose electoral mechanisms combine democratic and autocratic elements, are at risk of receding into electoral autocracies.

“In states of emergency, there may be a need to temporarily derogate from certain rights and procedures but any such measures need to be temporary, proportionate and absolutely necessary from a public health perspective,” contends Lydia Gall, an Eastern Europe researcher with Human Rights Watch.

Democracy was faltering globally even before the pandemic, as populism gained strength after the 2008 crash, with more and more jobs insecure and poorly paid.

For each of the past 14 years, according to Freedom House, which released its Freedom in the World 2020 report in March, more countries experienced an erosion of political rights and civil liberties than strengthened political rights and civil liberties.

People in 64 countries experienced deterioration in their political rights and civil liberties in 2019, while those in just 37 countries experienced improvements. Democracy has declined in 25 of the 41 established democracies since 2006. This has reversed the pattern of the preceding 15 post-Cold War years.

“The unchecked brutality of autocratic regimes and the ethical decay of democratic powers are combining to make the world increasingly hostile to fresh demands for better governance,” said Sarah Repucci, Freedom House vice president for research.

Also, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, an intergovernmental organization that supports democracy around the world, at least 70 countries and territories across the globe have postponed various elections and referenda due to COVID-19.

When societies reopen, continued large-scale unemployment and economic distress may well fuel more populism, whose advocates are ready to mobilize against an establishment that, they contend, has deprived people of their freedom and livelihoods at the same time.

 

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Mozambique Targeted by Terrorists

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

When you think about Islamic State terrorism, Mozambique isn’t a country that comes to mind. After all, it is in southern Africa, far from the Middle East.

Still, its location on the Indian Ocean, and the influence of Muslim traders, led to conversions to Islam over the decades. Today, about one-fifth of the country’s 30 million people are Muslim, and they predominate in the northern provinces. The rest of the country is mainly Christian.

This has led to attempts by militants to seize control of these areas. The region is far from Mozambique’s main central city of Beira and the capital, Maputo, in the far south.

Attacks began in the northernmost province of Cabo Delgado in 2017 and have rapidly gathered pace this year with insurgents seizing key towns for brief periods and increasingly hitting military or strategic targets.

That came after the group, known as Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama, pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS) last year, calling themselves an affiliate of its Central Africa Province. IS subsequently began claiming the local group’s attacks.

At least twice they have been spotted flying the black and white Islamic State flag and they have publicly declared their intention to turn Mozambique into a “caliphate.” Many are from the Kimwani people, who have suffered economic and social marginalization.

In 2010 a huge gas field was discovered off the coast. Overnight Mozambique became home to the fourth largest gas reserves in the world -- and became a target of Islamic insurgents.

The government hopes to reap as much as $100 billion in revenue over the next quarter-century from the projects being developed by French, American, Italian and other energy firms -- more than six times the current annual gross domestic product. Mozambique is still struggling to emerge from a 16-year civil war that ended in 1992 and badly needs the income.

In late March, insurgents captured the strategic and heavily-defended port in the far northern Mozambique town of Mocimboa da Praia. Two days later, they seized another important town, Quissanga.

It was one of several attacks on the port, 60 kilometres south of the projects It is used for cargo deliveries to the developments.

Rebel groups have also occupied villages more than 100 kilometres from the coastal capital, Pemba, before leaving under Mozambican Defence and Security Forces fire.

On Aug. 12, Islamic State claimed via its media channels to have taken over two military bases in the vicinity of Mocimboa da Praia, resulting in the deaths of a number of Mozambique soldiers and the capture of weaponry ranging from machine guns to rocket-propelled grenades.

Insurgents sank one of the French-made HSI32 interceptor boats Mozambique bought from the Abu Dhabi-based shipbuilder group Privinvest in the latest attack on the port.

The UN, in coordination with the Mozambican government, in early June requested US$35 million for a Rapid Response Plan for Cabo Delgado. Tanzania has also said it will launch an offensive against the jihadists in forests along the border with Mozambique.

The Brazilian-born Catholic bishop of Pemba on July 21 stated that the Cabo Delgado armed attacks have caused a humanitarian crisis affecting more than 700,000 people, almost one-third of the province’s population.

“The world still has no idea what is happening, because of indifference, and because it seems that we have already become accustomed to wars,” Bishop Luíz Fernando Lisboa said.

More than 1,500 people have died and another 250,000 have been displaced since the violence began. Several sub-contractors on the gas projects have been killed while outside the perimeter of their sites.

But the upsurge in brutal violence in northern Mozambique, including the beheadings of women and children, has now sounded alarms in the region.

Observers say the evolution of the insurgency in Mozambique is remarkably similar to Boko Haram’s emergence in northern Nigeria, with a marginalised group exploiting local grievances, terrorising many communities, but also offering an alternative path for unemployed youths frustrated by a corrupt, neglectful and heavy-handed state.

Mozambique President Filipe Nyusi has called these “heinous crimes,” but the solution to the conflict lies in good governance, and an attempt to address deep-seated economic and social grievances, including a share of any future gas revenues for those living in the region.

 

Monday, August 24, 2020

We're Witnessing an American Tragedy

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

The Coronavirus pandemic has created a massive economic contraction around the world, and its effects have been particularly devastating in the United States, which has suffered by far the highest death total, now inching upwards towards 200,000 people.

COVID-19 saw 40 million Americans lose their jobs, and 3.3 million businesses shut down. Many analysts predict that the U.S. unemployment rate will remain in double digits through the middle of 2021, which will surely doom President Donald Trump’s chances of re-election.

Thousands of enterprises will never re-open, eliminating millions of jobs – almost half of all Americans work for small companies, mainly in the low-wage service sector, and such businesses are more vulnerable to bankruptcy. Younger people entering the work force may not get a good job in the first place for years to come and their overall lifetime incomes may never catch up.

These economic dislocations fall disproportionately on those with lower incomes and savings. Temporary government programs to help those in dire straits will only mitigate the problem. The road to recovery will be long.

This crisis has illuminated the deficiencies of the American economy, its ruling elites, and its Social Darwinist political culture, which places value on individual freedom and getting ahead at all costs, at the expense of community and family.

This has led to an ever-widening chasm between Americans who are beyond rich and those who have little or nothing. In the 1950s, the salaries of CEOs were, on average, just 20 times that of their mid-management employees. Strong unions saw to that.

But during the 1980s politicians began to dismantle social protections, undermine labour rights and slash taxes on the rich.

Today, those at the top levels of corporations earn 400 times that of their salaried staff. One per cent of Americans control $30 trillion of assets, while those at the bottom have more debt than assets. They live on the edge of bankruptcy and if they lose their jobs, there is little of a safety net. They are on their own.

Entire segments of the economy, especially in manufacturing, have been outsourced overseas, and much of industrial America is a hollowed-out economic wasteland. In the 1960s, manufacturing made up 25 per cent of U.S. gross domestic product.  It is barely 11per cent today. More than five million American manufacturing jobs have been lost since 2000.

Uncontrolled immigration and the corporate hunger for ever-cheaper labour has frayed the social fabric. The collapse of the working-class family has been responsible in part for an opioid crisis that has displaced car accidents as the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.

Fully 37 percent of African American families have zero or negative net worth. The median wealth of Black households is a tenth that of whites. And 41 percent of all Black-owned enterprises have closed since March. This is the backdrop to the rage that followed the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis this past May.

America, like many a hegemonic power before it, also suffers from imperial overreach. Policing the international system does not come cheap. After World War Two, the U.S. became a military behemoth abroad. To this day, American troops are deployed in 150 countries.

Since 2001, the U.S. has spent over $6 trillion on military operations and war, money that might have been invested in domestic infrastructure, including education and health care.

Deindustrialisation, deregulation, low-wage work, underemployment, and a dysfunctional health system have long been evident but, as in a war, they now point to the nation’s underlying weakness. The reliance on unfettered markets with minimal government intervention has proved inadequate to repair the damage.

Americans today find themselves members of a failing state, ruled by a dysfunctional and incompetent government. The bonds of community and trust have almost vanished, replaced by anger and resentment that has led to levels of political polarization not seen since the Civil War 160 years ago. This will remain the case long after Trump is a memory.

Yet, in the midst of a pandemic and what is clearly an economic depression, Americans are about to elect as their president a run-of-the-mill machine politician born just a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

 

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Can New York Recover From Covid-19?

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The predominant urban center in North America, New York City is the primary American locale for the arts, culture, finance, the media, and intellectual life. I first visited New York in 1958, many, many times thereafter, and last time in December 2018. Who could not love it?

Yet today, New York faces a looming existential crisis brought on by the coronavirus. The city is a shadow of its pre-pandemic normal. In the most populated, most dense, most diverse American metropolis, more than 23,000 have died.

In the heart of Manhattan, national chains including Kate Spade, Subway and Le Pain Quotidien have shuttered branches for good. J.C. Penney and Neiman Marcus, the anchor tenants at two of the largest malls in Manhattan, recently filed for bankruptcy and announced that they would close those locations.

From SoHo to Fifth Avenue to Madison Avenue, once packed sidewalks are now nearly empty. There are virtually no tourists, a fraction of the usual army of office workers goes into work every day, many residents stay at home, worried for their health, and many of the wealthy have left the city for second homes.

New York City accounts for a very large share of the country’s transit ridership. Many people don’t own cars and use buses and subways – which are now seen as incubators for the virus. Crowded public transportation facilitates the spread of a highly contagious, airborne disease.

Though New York’s subway system has stepped up its disinfecting of trains and buses and has launched an app that tells riders on some lines how crowded rail cars are, many people remain reluctant to use them. 

The pandemic sparked an exodus of frantic wealthier residents fleeing the city for the suburbs or countryside, an estimated 420,000 of them since March, gutting upscale neighborhoods now facing up to 40 per cent vacancy rates.

Many are looking to buy houses in small towns along the Hudson River in upstate New York, or nearby Connecticut. Real estate agents say these are selling hours after they go on the market, with buyers sometimes paying full price in cash after seeing the houses only on video tours.

After all, suburban, exurban, and small-town residents don’t live in dense urban neighbourhoods. They get around in their private cars and have far more room inside their houses; as well, they have back yards. Today’s technologies make it increasingly easy for employees to work far from dense megacities.

New York City’s left-wing mayor and New York State’s governor, though both Democrats, are at odds over what to do to stem the tide.

Mayor Bill de Blasio took a shot at Gov. Andrew Cuomo Aug. 6 for trying to lure the wealthy back to New York with the promise of tax breaks. The mayor stated he would like to raise taxes on the rich if federal coronavirus aid doesn’t come through.

“If our federal government fails us and doesn’t provide a stimulus we should immediately return in Albany to the discussion of a tax on wealthy New Yorkers,” de Blasio said. “Wealthy New Yorkers can afford to pay a little bit more so that everyone else can make it through this crisis.”

Cuomo has been pleading with rich city dwellers who left the city for second to come back, and dismissed calls for boosting taxes on the rich to stave off a potential 20 per cent cut to major programs, like school funding.

“We do not make decisions based on the wealthy few,” de Blasio declared. “I was troubled to hear this concept that because wealthy people have a set of concerns about the city that we should accommodate them,” he added. “That’s not how it works around here anymore.”

It’s a very divided city. Today the top one per cent in New York take in over 40 per cent of the city’s income while much of the city’s population find themselves left behind. This is due in large part because of a precipitous fall in middle income jobs.

The pandemic will only exacerbate the problems of a great, yet troubled, metropolis.

 

Monday, August 17, 2020

Belarus Strongman Is Returned to Power -- For Now

By Henry Srebrnik, [Moncton, N.B.] Times & Transcript

Let’s hope no one was foolish enough to take the Aug. 9 presidential election in the former Soviet republic of Belarus seriously, because it was as fixed as an old-time wrestling match.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Aleksandr Lukashenko was re-elected president, for the sixth time, defeating four challengers.

Lukashenko garnered over 80 per cent support, with political novice Svetlana Tikhanovskaya far behind with undert 10 per cent. She refused to accept the results, while large protests erupted in some 20 cities and were met with police attacks.

 Lukashenko has ruled the country since it passed its current constitution in 1994. Term limits were abolished in 2004, and he is Europe’s longest-serving ruler.

This is the land where the old Soviet Union has somehow managed to survive ideologically. So it’s no surprise to learn that Lukashenko, a former Soviet collective farm manager, was the only deputy in the old Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic’s Supreme Soviet to vote against the 1991 dissolution of the USSR.

Lukashenko’s authoritarian style involves controlling the main media channels, harassing and jailing political opponents, and marginalising and incarcerating independent voices.

The powerful secret police, still called the KGB, closely monitors dissidents. There have been more than 100 cases of prosecution of journalists across the country since January.

Still, this time around Lukashenko faced the biggest opposition protests for a decade. There have been hundreds of arrests in a wave of demonstrations since May.

On July 30 tens of thousands rallied in the capital, Minsk, in support of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. She stepped in to challenge Lukashenko after her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular blogger, was arrested and barred from running. Two other leading contenders, Valery Tsepkalo and Viktor Babaryko, were also prevented from contesting the election.

Tikhanovskaya joined forces with Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of Valery Tsepkalo, and Maria Kolesnikova, campaign manager for Babaryko. He had been charged for embezzlement and fraud. The three women became the main symbol of the opposition.

The Belarusian authorities’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been met by severe criticism. In terms of preventive measures, Belarus remains the least active of all the countries in the region in trying to control the spread of the virus, and Lukashenko has insisted that Belarus’s economy continue to operate as normal.

Belarus has had nearly 70,000 confirmed cases and some 600 deaths. The president recommended vodka and sauna visits as protective measures. At the end of July, though, he himself contracted COVID-19.

Fearing the sudden upsurge in opposition to his reign might even result in a possible loss, Lukashenko on July 29 used one of the oldest tricks in the authoritarian playbook: He claimed to have uncovered a foreign plot to “destabilise” the country.

He claimed that 33 mercenaries with the private Russian military group Wagner had been arrested outside the capital, Minsk. Russia denied the charges against them and it cooled relations between the two countries, though Belarus has been Moscow’s closest ally since the breakup of the USSR.

Belarus was never an independent state before 1991 and its Slavic population of almost ten million is ethnically very close to that of Russia. The Russian language is used by 70 per cent of the population, and more than four-fifths are members of the Russian Orthodox faith.

Since December 2018, Russia and Belarus had been pursuing negotiations on closer integration. They have held joint military exercises and the struggling Belarus economy relies on trade with its neighbour.

Belarus exports some 40 per cent of its goods to Russia. And Moscow is also Minsk’s largest creditor: Almost 38 per cent of its debt is with Moscow.

About one-quarter of Belarus’ GDP is driven by cheap Russian gas and oil. But Moscow early this year stopped its deliveries when the two countries failed to renegotiate oil prices. On March 5, Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei declared that further  talks would make no sense before an agreement was resolved. The deliveries were resumed in April.

The arrest of the mercenaries was also aimed at Tikhanovskaya, as investigators tried to link her husband to the detainees. She has fled to Lithuania. Meanwhile, some 6,700 people have been detained since protests erupted after the vote results.

 

Monday, August 10, 2020

Panicked Provinces Succumbed to Fear

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

Lord Acton warned that it is human nature for people given power over others to wield that power ever-more broadly.

This impulse has been particularly evident with restrictions that violate Canadians’ mobility rights as enshrined in section 6 (2) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

It states that every Canadian has the right to live and work in any province. No legislature can overrule it with Section 33, the Charter’s notwithstanding clause.

True, the government can attempt to justify its actions limiting a right by using Section 1 of the Charter, which stipulates that it remains subject “to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” But this has not been tested in court. Nor has the federal Emergencies Act been invoked.

Prince Edward Island was all but cut off from the rest of Canada for months on end – this was even reported in a Washington Post article of July 6. Other Maritime provinces also shut their borders, while in British Columbia officials were telling Albertans not to cross the provincial border to cottages they owned in that province.

Since mid-April, 375 individuals have been denied entry to PEI. A Montreal woman with a 91-year-old mother on the island has been unable to visit. A Manitoba man who managed to get in after his application was denied was sentenced for violating the Public Health Act.

There were internal travel restrictions in various provinces and territories. Security checkpoints were implemented in several regions in Quebec, including along the Ontario border.

The Newfoundland and Labrador government gave sweeping new powers to the police, authorizing officers to stop vehicles, detain people and take them to the border if they were not complying with public health measures.

How quickly xenophobia rears its ugly head. On PEI cars with out-of-province licence plates had profane notes left on their windshields. British Columbia Premier John Horgan suggested drivers of such vehicles should consider taking public transit or riding a bicycle if they’re feeling harassed. Some have been victims of sabotage.

These border bans have fuelled criticism from civil rights advocates. Canada “should know better than to allow provinces and territories to claim lands as their own, to the exclusion of others,” wrote Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), in the National Post May 21.

The border restrictions are not based on population density and the need for social distancing, he noted. Instead, they’re based on residency. “It’s not their border to patrol,” he insisted.

The CCLA in May sent letters to each of the provinces and territories contending that if a province or territory limits those rights, its reasons must be justified. 

“So far, what we’ve seen from these governments hasn’t convinced us that there is good evidence that these limits are reasonable,” Cara Zwibel, director of CCLA’s Fundamental Freedoms Program, told the CBC in May. A challenge of the Newfoundland and Labrador ban is now before its supreme court.

On July 3, the four east coast provinces did ease inter-provincial travel restrictions within the region, creating an “Atlantic bubble.” However, the rest of Canada remains shut off.

Long before this pandemic upended our lives, the French philosopher Michel Foucault, in a series of lectures he delivered in 1976 titled “Society Must be Defended,” laid out the basis of a new concept of power in the modern world, which he called “biopower,” or power over life.

Foucault became convinced that human freedom was deeply imperiled by alliances of opinion-makers, experts, and politicians. Against them, liberal democracy, with its guarantees to certain basic liberties and to participation in a process of collective self-determination, appears powerless.

A politics centered on life, promising safety and well-being to a populace that must forgo its rights, can become a murderous totalitarianism, Foucault argued.

During the French Revolution, for instance, Jacobin extremist Maximilien Robespierre’s regime, which inaugurated the infamous Reign of Terror, was named the Committee of Public Safety.

In the twentieth century, too, dictatorial regimes contended they were saving their people from enemies, often portrayed as carriers of disease. Of course COVID-19 is real, but we must nonetheless always be wary of losing our liberties.