Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, October 26, 2015

Turkey and Kurds at War Again

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside PEI] Journal Pioneer
In parliamentary elections held in Turkey last June 7, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) received nearly 13 per cent of the popular vote, giving it 80 seats in the 550-member National Assembly. 

It marked the first time that a primarily Kurdish party had cleared the 10 per cent electoral threshold to enter parliament. 

Indeed, the HDP’s electoral success is the main reason that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was unable to retain its parliamentary majority. Not since 2002, when it first came to power, has the AKP failed to win an outright majority. 

This enraged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and provoked angry post-election rhetoric against Kurdish nationalists, because Erdogan wants to transform Turkey’s parliamentary system of government into a presidential regime, which would boost his power enormously. 

As a result, another parliamentary election is scheduled for Nov. 1, giving Erdogan a second shot at becoming the dominant figure in Turkey. He wants the AKP to regain its previous majority, to enable parliament to amend the constitution and make his position more dominant.

As well, although the HDP has supported a peace process by the government with Kurdish rebels that began in 2013, it has been accused of maintaining links with militant organizations, most notably the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The HDP was involved in negotiations with both the government and imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Ergogan is unlikely to accept HDP demands for a devolution of powers to regional governments or any other decentralization program that strengthens the territorial autonomy of Kurdish areas. Nor will he agree to Ocalan’s proposal for “democratic confederalism,” a form of local government to be exercised by citizens alongside state institutions. 

Meanwhile, a cycle of violence has gripped Turkey since mid-July, signaling the end of the fragile ceasefire observed by the PKK and the Turkish military since 2012. Over a hundred soldiers and police, and hundreds of PKK fighters, have been killed, along with dozens of civilians.

Erdogan has launched military assaults on the militants’ hideouts in southeastern Turkey and in Iraqi Kurdistan.

On Oct. 10, two explosions hit a peace rally in Ankara calling for an end to the renewed conflict between the PKK and the Turkish government. Almost 100 people were killed, and more than 240 were injured.

Among those taking part in the rally were members of the HDP. The party has accused the government of escalating violence to try to push the party below the 10 per cent electoral threshold in the forthcoming election.

“Ankara is the capital of Turkey. If a bird flies here, the state knows about it,” remarked Selahattin Demirtas, co-chairman of the HDP. “There was a rally of 100,000 people but no security precautions were taken.” 

Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s Turkey researcher, has noted the escalation of violence, along with a general deterioration of the human rights situation. “We have seen waves of arrests of political activists under vague antiterror laws and further attacks on freedom of expression, with a spike in the number of cases of ill treatment of detainees,” he stated.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, on the other hand, blamed the attack on both the Islamic State (ISIS) and the PKK. But some analysts are skeptical about claims of Kurdish rebel involvement. 

As well, ISIS and Kurdish fighters are battling each other across the border in Syria. Yet in response, Turkish jets did not bomb ISIS; they bombed the PKK.

In any case, the Turkish government will eventually have to address the demands of its large Kurdish minority, including assigning greater powers to the Kurdish-majority regions in the southeast.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Welcome to Another Prime Minister Trudeau

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party won a resounding victory in the Canadian federal election, winning 184 seats in the 338-seat House of Commons.

The ruling Conservatives were reduced to 99 seats, the New Democrats to 44, with the Bloc Québécois at 10 and the Greens with one.

This was a very long campaign, and each of the three major parties were in the lead at one time or another during its 78-days duration.

The Liberal Party had won just 34 seats in the last federal election in 2011, far behind both the New Democrats, who came second with 103, and the Conservatives, who won the election with 166. Many thought they were on the road to extinction.

At first few people gave Justin Trudeau, Liberal leader since 2013, much of a chance. He is, after all, a man with a thin resumé -- although he’s 43 years old, he hadn’t done much in his life prior to entering politics in 2008. He seemed like a dilettante coming from a rich background.

But he capitalized on the Trudeau name -- his father Pierre was prime minister from 1968 to 1984, with one brief interruption -- plus the fact that after nine years in office, Prime Minister Stephen Harper had outlived his welcome. The Conservatives seemed tired and dispirited as the campaign wore on.

Trudeau benefited from being underestimated by both Harper and Thomas Mulcair, the New Democratic Party (NDP) leader. The Conservatives ran television ads saying Trudeau was simply not ready to lead the country.

I always thought the Conservative ad wasn't working. Former Liberal leaders Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff -- both of them academics and intellectuals with PhDs -- were the ones, it seems, who weren’t ready! Both lost elections to Harper.

A seasoned politician like Thomas Mulcair has also been swept aside, a victim of the “anyone but Harper” feeling. The NDP has been reduced to its traditional third place in the next parliament.

The party will take a very long time to recover from this. It was one thing to always run third, but another to be reduced to it again (and badly) after seeing power within their grasp for the last four years. No one likes to go backwards. They are in a sense even bigger losers than Harper.

The combination of his famous last name, plus dissatisfaction by large numbers of the public with Harper, catapulted Trudeau into winning a majority government.

Trudeau’s upbeat message of hope and change clearly resonated with the electorate; he came across as a “happy warrior.”

Despite being prime minister for nine years, Harper was an outsider who, as an Albertan and religious person, was always disliked by our “Laurentian elites”, that governing class living in the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto triangle, who believe that only they have the right to govern Canada.

The intense dislike of Harper mystified me because, frankly, I don’t see today’s Canada as all that different from the one he inherited nine years ago.

All the politically correct groups remain active; special interests continue to dominate the culture, in the arts, academia and journalism; the Supreme Court has stopped the government in its tracks a number of times, and so on.

In terms of foreign affairs, I expect Trudeau to take less of a hard line against Russia in relation to the situation in Ukraine. He will also probably be less involved than Harper was in fighting the Islamic State in the Middle East, not as supportive of Israel, and more favourable towards admitting Syrian refugees to Canada.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Russia Expands Role in Syria

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Pioneer Journal
In the past few weeks, Russia has expanded its military presence in Syria, sending weapons, tanks, air missile systems and planes to support the Bashar Al-Assad regime. 

It is now engaging in bombing runs itself and Russian warships in the Caspian Sea have also fired cruise missiles at Islamic State (ISIS) strongholds.

As well, Russia, Syria, Iran and Iraq have recently created an information center in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad to coordinate the fight against the Islamic State extremists now controlling much of Iraq and Syria. 

The establishment of a coordination centre to fight ISIS will be welcome news to Syria’s beleaguered president, Bashar al-Assad, who has suffered reverses lately.

The fact that Putin is helping Syria in fighting ISIS should come as no surprise. Iran and Iraq, too, are battling ISIS, so the fact that they are now going to help coordinate the fight is also not unexpected. 

The old Soviet Union had a long-time relationship with Syria. Their alliance was strengthened during the Suez crisis of 1956, which brought the two countries together in backing Egypt. Syria, at that time, had the largest Communist Party in the Arab world. 

The alliance was upgraded and formalized in the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation signed by Hafez al-Assad (Bashar’s father) in Moscow in 1980. 

Russia has been Syria’s major arms supplier for decades, accounting now for over three quarters of Syria’s arms purchases.

In addition, Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base for its Black Sea Fleet, obtained in 1971, is located in the Syrian port of Tartus. Given that Russia’s Mediterranean fleet is so distant from home, this base is crucial to Russian military interests. 

The base has come under threat as the rebels have advanced towards it. Fears of a collapse, or a coup, that might in the worst case deprive Russia of its naval base, the only military facility Russia still controls outside the former Soviet Union, are genuine.

In a speech before the UN General Assembly Sept. 28, the Russian leader extolled Assad. “We think it’s an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government,” said Putin. “No one but Assad’s forces are truly fighting the Islamic State.”

The alternative to Assad is radical Sunni forces, who are trying to increase their influence among the many Muslims living in Russia. Putin worries about a rise in Islamist terrorism in Russia as well. 

“More than 2,000 fighters from Russia and ex-Soviet republics are in the territory of Syria,” he told American journalist Charlie Rose on the television program “60 Minutes” Sept. 27. “There is a threat of their return to us. So, instead of waiting for their return, we are better off fighting them on Syrian territory.”

The U.S. is no doubt very unhappy about these developments, but given America’s lack of success so far, it’s hard for them to complain. After all, Barack Obama famously blinked, two years ago, when Assad used chemical weapons against his own people and thus crossed the president’s “red line.” 

And the United States has thus far been unable to make any headway in finding its own allies in Syria. It seems Syrians either support Assad or one of the radical Islamist groups fighting to overthrow him.

This is all part of Putin’s attempt to regain a role for Russia as a power to be reckoned with and showing that he backs words with deeds -- as opposed to the United States, which for years has called on Assad to go, yet has done little about it. 

And should Assad in the end be eased out as part of a deal in which Russia will be a key broker, Putin wants to be able to make that deal from a position of strength, not weakness.

Mongolia Lies in the Heart of Asia

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian 

The Mongols were once a power to be reckoned with. Under leaders like Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, and Timur (Tamerlane), they conquered huge swaths of Europe and Asia, including much of China, Russia and the Middle East, during the 13th and 14th centuries.

The empire, though vast, did not last, and by 1691 Mongolia itself had come under the rule of China’s Qing dynasty

In 1911, as the Chinese Empire disintegrated, Outer Mongolia declared independence from Beijing. (It was called Outer Mongolia, to differentiate it from Inner Mongolia, which is today an autonomous region of northern China, with a majority Han Chinese population.)

Mongolia became the world’s second Communist country, after the Soviet Union, in 1924.   Though it was never incorporated into the USSR, the Mongolian People’s Republic was controlled from Moscow.

In the 1930s, Mongolia served as a bulwark against the Japanese, who had conquered large areas of China. Large-scale battles between Japanese and Soviet forces took place on the border between Mongolia and Japanese-occupied Manchuria in the summer of 1939, in which the Soviets prevailed. 

So even after the Nazi invasion of the USSR in June 1941, Japan never joined the war against the Russians.

Though the Communists took power in China in 1949, Mongolia remained a Soviet puppet state, and Moscow stationed troops in the country when the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s led to Russian-Chinese skirmishes.

In 1990, as Russia was itself abandoning Marxism-Leninism, Mongolia dismantled its Soviet-style one-party system in favour of political and economic reforms and multiparty elections.

The Communists, renamed the People’s Party, retained power, though, until defeated in 1996. They again formed the government in 2000-2004 and 2008-2012. Since then, the country has been governed by the Democratic Party.

A landlocked country of 1.56 million square kilometres, situated between China and Russia, Mongolia consists mostly of steppe and desert. 

A third of the population of three million lives in the capital, Ulaanbaatar (also spelled Ulan Bator), while around 40 per cent of the country is nomadic. Buddhism is the predominant religion.

Vast quantities of mineral wealth have made it a target for foreign investors, transforming the tiny but fast-growing economy, which rose from a GDP of $1.1 billion ten years ago to $11.7 billion today. 

This rapid change has taken place against a backdrop of political wrangling and government pledges to tighten control over the country’s assets.
The country’s parliament, known as the Great Khural, chose Chimed Saikhanbileg as prime minister in November 2014 after his predecessor and fellow Democratic Party member Norov Altankhuyag lost a vote of no confidence over allegations of economic mismanagement.

Mongolia’s economy has been hit by the crash in commodities prices and a steep drop in foreign investment, which in the first three quarters of 2014 slumped 59 per cent.

Saikhanbileg has been trying to rejuvenate the economy through foreign investment in the mining sector.

 The biggest chunk of that investment will come from a proposed expansion of the giant Oyu Tolgoi copper mine. A two-year dispute over the mine with Rio Tinto, one of the world’s largest mining companies, was finally settled in May. 

Saikhanbileg’s message for investors was that his country is “back in business.”

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Niqab Becomes an Election Issue

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
This very lengthy Canadian election campaign has revolved around many topics, but it seems that some of the most emotional involve Islam and Muslims. And the way the three main political parties handle these hot-button issues may determine their relative standings on Oct. 19.

There have been debates about the intake of Syrian refugees, and about convicted terrorists being stripped of their Canadian citizenship, if they are also nationals of another country.

But nothing has gained as much traction, especially in Quebec, as the niqab, the veil worn by some Muslim women that covers the face.

In September, a Canadian appeals court upheld a lower court’s previous decision to strike down a ban on wearing niqabs at citizenship ceremonies. The Harper government wants to uphold the ban and said it will take the issue to the Supreme Court of Canada. 

The prime minister has repeatedly insisted that the “overwhelming majority” of Canadians, as well as “moderate Muslims,” agree with his party’s position.  

He may be right. Canadians right across the political spectrum are opposed to immigrants being allowed to wear facial coverings during the citizenship ceremony, according to various polls, and this is especially the case in Quebec. 

A poll commissioned by the Privy Council Office found that 82 per cent of Canadians nationwide, and 93 per cent of Quebecers, supported a ban. In Quebec the number of people who said that the issue would have the most influence on their voting intentions was 18 per cent.

This is bad news for New Democratic Party leader Tom Mulcair in his home province of Quebec, where the NDP won more than half their total number of seats in the 2011 federal election. Support for the New Democrats, who oppose a ban, has been plummeting in their provincial stronghold.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals also disagree with the government’s stand, but his party has far less to lose. Liberal strength is concentrated among anglophones on the island of Montreal; these voters are less concerned with the niqab issue than are francophones, who see it as a cultural intrusion. 

For that same reason, the separatist Bloc Québécois also opposes the niqab and has been targeting the NDP. One poll showed the Bloc leading among francophone voters with 30 per cent of the vote compared with the NDP’s 27 per cent. Until the niqab issue took hold, most of these francophones were supporting the NDP.

There is a difference of opinion amongst scholars in Islam as to whether or not covering the face is obligatory, recommended, or simply a matter of culture, and its use varies in Muslim countries.

For example, the vast majority of Egyptian Muslim women wear a form of veil that covers the hair but leaves the face uncovered. But the number of women wearing the full niqab has increased dramatically in the past 10 to 20 years.

However, most Canadians are not going to immerse themselves in Islamic theology and jurisprudence; they will relate to the niqab in a visceral and emotional way. And it may continue to resonate with much of the public long after this election is over.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Barkina Faso Survives -- Sort Of

Henry Sebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The trials and tribulations of some countries never seem to end.

Take the case of the West African state of Burkina Faso, the former French colony once known as Upper Volta.

This landlocked country of 274,200 square kilometres, with a population of more than 17 million people, is one of the poorest places in the world. It contains more than 60 different ethnicities.

In the late 19th century, European nations were engaged in carving up Africa into various colonial holdings. The French proved victorious in Upper Volta, though they had to subdue the followers of Samori Touré, founder of the Wassoulou Empire, an Islamic state in the region. 

It took almost two decades, but they finally prevailed, with the help of non-Muslim ethnic groups chafing under Touré’s rule. (About 60 per cent of the country is Muslim.)

Under French rule, the country remained poor. Colonial officials tried to promote the growth of cotton for export, but the policy failed, and revenue generated by the colony stagnated. 

So disappointed were the French that between 1932 and 1947 they parcelled out its territory to neighbouring French colonies.

In 1960, as part of the wave of decolonization in French Africa, Upper Volta attained full independence from France.

The first president, Maurice Yaméogo, soon created a one-party state; after six years, he was overthrown in a military coup d’état, handing power to General Sangoulé Lamizana.

A new constitution passed in 1970 provided for a four-year transition to fully civilian leadership but Lamizana remained in office (ostensibly winning an election in 1978) until he was in turn ousted in 1980 by Coloel Zerbo Saye.

Two more coups followed in quick succession, and when the smoke cleared, a left-wing regime under Thomas Sankara was in control. He changed the country’s name from its colonial designation to Burkina Faso.

A Marxist firebrand, Sankara sought closer ties to Cuba and the Soviet Union, created a youth program (the Pioneers of the Revolution) for educating children about Marxist ideals, and began a campaign to weed out suspected “anti-revolutionaries.”

This didn’t go over too well with Burkina Faso’s neighbours, nor with France, and in1987, Sankara, along with twelve other officials, were killed in a coup organized by Blaise Compaoré.

He moved the country back into the western camp, and won four elections of doubtful validity between 1991and 2010. But his attempt to amend the constitution to extend his 27-year term caused his removal from power in 2014 by a series of demonstrations and riots, and he fled the country. 

An interim military regime charged him with treason and announced it would prepare the country for elections to be held this coming Oct. 11. 

But on Sept. 16 the elite presidential guard --- Compaoré supporters – under General Gilbert Diendéré took the country’s interim leadership hostage in an attempted coup.

Presidential guard soldiers clashed with anti-coup protesters on the streets of the capital, Ouagadougou, until they were finally defeated. The African Union referred to the soldiers behind the coup as “terrorists” and the unit has been disbanded.

It remains to be seen whether the transitional government will now allow Compaoré’s allies to contest the elections, should the balloting even go ahead as planned.

Monday, October 05, 2015

It's Very Difficult to Govern Uganda

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
The east central African state of Uganda has a population of 37.8 million, divided into 56 ethnic groups, the largest being the Baganda, at more than 17 per cent.

The Nilotic peoples of the north, including the Acholi, Ateso, Iteso, Kakwa, Lango, Lugbara, and Madi, have little in common with the mainly Bantu peoples like the Baganda, Basoga, Bakiga, Bakonzo, Bamba, Banyankole, and Bunyoro, farther south.

Also, thanks to European missionaries in the 19th century, most Ugandans are either Anglicans or Roman Catholics.

Ethnicity has been such a powerful political force in Uganda that it is reflected in the political parties, the military, and local and national governments. Ethnic cleavages became responsible for coups, secession attempts, and wars. Holding the country together is a challenge.

The Imperial British East Africa Company had become active in the region in 1888, and after 1894, the area was ruled as a protectorate by the British. In 1957 Sir Andrew Cohen, the British Governor of Uganda from 1952-1957, noted that “nationalism is still a less powerful force in Uganda than tribal loyalties.” Not that much changed after independence in 1962.

National governments in Uganda have either been coalitions of various ethnic groups or ultimately unsuccessful attempts to dominate the state with the support of only a few numerically small ethnic groups, as under the rule of Idi Amin, a Kakwa, in the 1970s. None have been successful at representing all major ethnic groups in government. 

Idi Amin’s 1971 coup against the country’s first prime minister, Milton Obote, a Lango, established a tyranny characterized by human rights abuses, political repression, and gross economic mismanagement. He also expelled some 90,000 Asians from Uganda in 1972. 

The number of people killed as a result of his eight year reign is estimated by international observers and human rights groups to range from 100,000 to 500,000. 

When Amin was in turn toppled by Obote in 1979, the victorious Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) soldiers wreaked vengeance among Amin’s followers among the Kakwa, Aringa, Madi and Lugbara, who had formed the bulk of his army and government.

But in 1985, the UNLA, supported by the Acholi, was in turn battling Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) rebels, mostly southerners. Museveni is himself a Banyankole. Following Museveni’s victory over Obote, the NRA became Uganda’s national military.

The Kingdom of Buganda, comprising all of Uganda’s Central Region, including the Ugandan capital of Kampala, had for a long time generated resentment throughout Uganda, because it had enjoyed a position of unrivalled superiority throughout the colonial period. 

Following the outcome of a 1964 referendum which returned the two counties of Buyaga and Bugangaizi, given to Buganda by the British, to the rival Bunyoro Kingdom, many in Buganda called for secession from the country. 

The kingdom was therefore abolished by Obote in 1966 and its hereditary king, the Kabaka, sent into exile. (It was revived in 1993.)

In the northern region there have been secession attempts in West Nile and the Acholi sub-regions. They have more in common with the neighbouring areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan than with the rest of Uganda.

Obote had relied heavily on the support of the Acholi, and following his defeat by Museveni, whose supporters were southern peoples, the Acholi have been fighting the current regime under different banners. 

First came the Uganda People’s Democratic Army (UPDA) formed in 1986, followed by the Holy Spirit Army (HSA), and then Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which is weakened but still operational.

Meanwhile, Museveni, who has cracked down on most opponents since taking power three decades ago and has been accused of running a dictatorial government, plans to run for the presidency again next year. A recent poll suggests that 71 per cent of Ugandans would vote for him.