Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, October 30, 2017

Kenya's Continuing Election Fiasco

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian 

A number of previous elections had led to massive violence, with thousands dead and injured. The one held in August was annulled due to irregularities. 

The main opposition candidate, who had lost to the incumbent, then announced he was withdrawing from the race. A member of the electoral commission fled the country. Finally, the do-over vote was a farce.

This is Kenya, a country riven by tribal rivalries that come to a head at election time, largely between President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Kikuyu tribe and Raila Odinga’s Luo community. 

Kenya has 44 official tribes and election candidates usually form alliances with politicians from other ethnic groups to broaden their appeal, but the Kikuyu and Luo have been the backbone of support for the two main contenders.

Following the 2007 election, a wave of ethnic violence lasted months, killed 1,400 people and displaced 600,000 more.

This year’s contest, held between Kenyatta and Odinga on Aug. 8, was also preceded by unrest for weeks before the balloting. 

In fact, in the major cities, where ethnic rivals live in close proximity, the run-up to the voting saw many residents head for the safety of their ancestral homelands in rural areas. 

It was won by Kenyatta, the incumbent, running under the banner of the Jubilee Alliance, with 54 per cent of the vote, to Odinga’s 44 per cent.

But few of Odinga’s supporters in his National Super Alliance (NASA) accepted the result. At least 70 opposition supporters have been killed since the results were announced August 11.

A legal challenge by Odinga, alleging widespread fraud, prompted the Supreme Court on Sept.1 to nullify the results.

Chief Justice David Maraga, citing irregularities, described the results as “invalid, null and void,” adding that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) failed to conduct the election “in a manner consistent with the dictates of the Constitution.”

The IEBC had refused the court full access to its computer system, which meant the opposition’s claims of hacking could not be proved or disproved.

Odinga was as happy as he was surprised. He had appealed to the court after losing the last presidential race to Kenyatta, in 2013, as well -- and dismissed it as inept after it ruled against him.

President Kenyatta at first said he disagreed with the ruling but would respect it. However, he then denounced the justices. “They have been paid by white people and other trash,” he told supporters. 

On Oct. 10, though, Odinga announced that he was dropping out of the rerun of the election scheduled for Oct. 26.

He claimed that not enough has been done to address the problems and singled out the IEBC for particular criticism, deeming it “rotten.”

As well, Roselyn Akombe, one of seven IEBC officials in charge of overseeing the rescheduled election, resigned eight days later. 

She left the country, arguing that without Odinga, the election had no chance of being credible and that it had become “increasingly difficult” for her to perform her duties.

She pointed to the death of Chris Msando, the electoral commission’s top digital security officer, who was killed a week before the Aug. 8 vote; it remains unsolved.

The Supreme Court failed to hear a last-minute case that sought to delay the repeat presidential poll. 

Odinga called for demonstrations on election day, and clashes occurred between opposition supporters and police, but the vote went ahead. Turnout, predictably, was low in areas that had supported him. And of course Kenyatta “won.”

Nic Cheeseman, a professor of African politics at the University of Birmingham, said Kenya was facing a “really dangerous situation” with few solutions.

When it comes to Kenya, a cynic might be inclined to ask: if elections are the answer, what is the question?

Human Rights Violations Increase in Zimbabwe

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Pioneer Journal
At the age of 93 Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president, has announced that he will lead his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) in elections next year.

He would be 99 should he win and complete a five-year term. 

Millions of people in his long-suffering country must shudder at the thought.

Two recently published books, Kingdom, Power, Glory: Mugabe, Zanu and the Quest for Supremacy, 1960–87, by Stuart Doran; and The Struggle Continues: 50 Years of Tyranny in Zimbabwe, by David Coltart, describe the culture of violence and corruption that Mugabe has fostered since he gained power, and which is now deeply embedded among the ruling elite.

They have become accustomed to using methods of violence as a matter of routine and are able to act with impunity.

Corruption is found at every level. No road is built, no political or official appointment made, without opportunity to profit.

Ordinary Zimbabweans face shortages from electricity to water to fuel. Banks ration cash withdrawals. Poor service delivery and unemployment add to the despair. 

Economic growth is tepid, projected to slip to just 0.8 per cent in 2018. More than four million people – one-quarter of the population-- are in need of food aid. Another third have fled the country.

Yet the president and his family have money to burn. His wife Grace’s recent purchases include a $5 million mansion in South Africa and a Rolls-Royce. Her son from an earlier marriage, Russell Goreraza, bought two Rolls Royces and air-freighted them to Zimbabwe.

Just to be on the safe side, she and her sons have also established homes in Dubai, and also own real estate in Hong Kong.

The 52-year-old Grace, who was awarded a doctorate after only two months at the University of Zimbabwe, is secretary of Zanu-PF’s Women’s League and there is speculation that she might try to eventually succeed her husband. She is supported by a ZAPU-PF faction by the name of Generation 40.

Her main rival would be Vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa, who leads a faction calling itself Team Lacoste.

How did everything go so wrong?

The British government formally granted independence to Zimbabwe on April 18, 1980 and Robert Mugabe became its head. He had been the most prominent leader of the1972-80 war of independence against the white minority that ruled what had been Rhodesia. 

Mugabe indicated that he was committed to a process of national reconciliation and reconstruction as well as moderate socio-economic change. These fine words, though, would soon prove empty.

Mugabe’s ZANU movement represented the Shona people, some 75 per cent of the population, while rival Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) was the political home of the minority Ndebele people, about 19 per cent and concentrated in the western part of the country.

Although both groups had united to defeat the white Rhodesian regime, they became rivals after independence, with ZANU soon seizing total control. 

Nkomo’s supporters in Matabeleland were brutally repressed in a campaign of mass murder, torture, arson, rape and beatings. About 20,000 were murdered by Mugabe=s notorious counterinsurgency unit, the Fifth Brigade, trained by North Korea. 

Nkomo finally surrendered politically and the parties formally merged in December 1989.

Mugabe’s ruinous agricultural policies, which involved seizing established farms and distributing them to political cronies, meant that by October 2003, half of Zimbabwe’s population was considered “food-insecure.” 

He also distributed state-owned grain only to his political followers and withheld it from supporters of a new opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Morgan Tsvangirai.

The government’s urban slum demolition drive in 2005, which destroyed the homes of some 700,000 people, drew more international condemnation. 

The president said it was an effort to boost law and order and development; critics accused him of destroying slums housing opposition supporters.

Mugabe has rigged elections, hamstrung the independent press and left his country bankrupt and impoverished. The economy has been reduced to 1953 performance levels. Life expectancy, at 55 years, is one of the lowest in the world.

For its first decades as a sovereign state, Zimbabwe was a prosperous country by African standards. How distant that all seems now.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Austrian Election Strengthens Right Wing Parties

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian
Legislative elections in Austria Oct. 15 saw right-wing parties make gains, continuing a trend seen last month in neighbouring Germany.

Austria uses a proportional representation voting system to elect members of the country’s 183- seat National Council.

Sebastian Kurz’s centre-right Austrian People’s Party (OVP) emerged as the winner, with more than 31.4 per cent of the vote, good for 61 seats, while the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), led by Heinz-Christian Strache, took second place, with 27.4 per cent and 53 seats.

On the other hand, incumbent Chancellor Christian Kern, whose centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPO) came first four years ago, saw his party decline to 26.7 per cent of the vote and 52 seats, their worst showing in modern Austrian history.

As has been the case in many other countries these days, there was a stark polarization between urban left-leaning Vienna and the more conservative rural parts of Austria. The capital, whose metro area houses nearly a third of the country’s population, is at odds with its hinterland.

While the OVP emerged with the most seats, the FPO was the big winner, overtaking the Social Democrats and dictating the course of the election, with a campaign that centred largely around immigration and fears of radical Islam. 

Founded in 1956, the FPO emerged from the short-lived Federation of Independents, launched after the Second World War by former Nazis who had been stripped of their voting rights.

The FPO platform included the denial to migrants of access to welfare payments. They also advocated closer relations with the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, the so-called Visegrad group of European nations that tend to be more nationalistic than other European Union countries.

Those countries have refused migrant quotas approved by a western-dominated majority of EU member states. They also reject proposed reforms that would transfer more power from national governments to Brussels institutions. The FPO also wants a more decentralized EU. 

Strache intimated that Hungarian-American financier George Soros, a bĂȘte noir for European nationalists, is the shadowy instigator behind the refugee crisis and sanctions against Russia.
In the campaign, Kurz was forced to shift his People’s Party closer to the hard-line anti-immigration stance pushed by the FPO. 

He touted his role in the spring 2016 decision to close Austrian borders to new arrivals, and also emphasized his efforts to pass Austria’s recent so-called burqa ban.

Many Austrians fear that the roughly 90,000 refugees in the country of 8.4 million from 2015 to 2016 are draining its resources, Kurz said.

The FPO was able to criticize the cozy relationship between the two other parties, who have governed Austria in a grand coalition for the last decade, denouncing their control of public life. 

Opposition to the two-party duopoly attracted voters who objected to this “red-black elite,” as they called it, referring to the social SPO and Christian Democratic OVP, respectively.

Last year the FPO narrowly missed out on capturing Austria’s presidency for the first time, with its candidate Norbert Hofer defeated in the final round after a dramatic showdown with Green Party candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. 

In this parliamentary election, however, the Greens failed to meet the four per cent threshold needed to win seats and were wiped out. 

Should the FPO enter government, as seems certain, Hofer would most likely become Austria’s foreign minister. Strache declared that the result showed that his party had “arrived at the centre of society.”

Julia Ortner, a political commentator for the newspaper Vorarlberger Nachrichten, said that “after what we have experienced elsewhere in Europe, especially in Hungary and even in the United States,” allowing right-wing parties into government “is no longer a taboo.”

The Permanence of Borders

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
Humans draw lines that divide the world into specific places, territories, and categories; this has been an essential component of activity for millennia. 

Beginning as fuzzy zones between tribal groups, boundaries became more clearly defined with the development of states.

Following Europe’s wars of religion during the sixteenth century culminating in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, frontiers across Europe morphed into fairly rigid lines. 

This model of organizing political space was subsequently exported to the rest of the world through European colonial conquest, most prominently during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

By the late nineteenth century, the extent of a nation’s territory had become an index of its power, with overseas colonial possessions augmenting prestige and wealth and redefining territoriality.

Without frontiers, there can be no exercise of sovereignty -- the authority and control over a distinct territory and its corresponding population and resources. Territorial boundaries provide a framework for organizing political and economic life.

National borders create imagined communities, which are limited by boundaries and are where people are aware of their sovereignty within finite frontiers. 

Harvard historian Charles S. Maier has explored the evolution of territorial organization as a worldwide practice of human societies. His 2016 book Once Within Borders: Territories of Power, Wealth and Belonging Since 1500, tracks the changes that have defined territories over five centuries and draws attention to ideas and technologies that contribute to territoriality’s remarkable resilience.

At a time when the technologies of globalization are eroding barriers to communication, transportation, and trade, the interdependence of economies and the emergence of cyberspace seem to have reduced the salience of physical territorial control and weakened traditional notions of sovereignty and citizenship, he notes. 

But if Maier is correct, the rise of cross-border processes and institutions, often defined as part of “globalization,” may challenge established notions of territorial sovereignty, but they are far from transcending them. 

Territory will continue to claim an important place in the human imagination. “People still want frontiers. There’s a certain comfort in them,” he suggested in a January interview with the Harvard Gazette. They remain a foundation for statehood, power and identity.

“I thought that borders were coming down all over, that we were moving toward a borderless world. 
The fall of the Berlin Wall remained a vivid memory. Going into this project, I assumed territory didn’t matter as much as it had earlier. Well, that was innocence. Now I think that if borders are fading, they’re fading slowly and with a lot of pushback.”

In fact states throughout the world are enhancing their border security in an effort to better manage the flows into and out of their territories. Good fences may not make good neighbours, but they at least keep them from causing trouble.

When the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989, there were 16 border fences around the world. Today, there are at least 65 either completed or under construction.

Examples include the United States constructing hundreds of miles of fencing along the Mexican border (and this predates Donald Trump’s intention to build a wall), and India fencing its 4,000-kilometre border with Bangladesh and 2,900-kilometre border with Pakistan. 

Pakistan has built fences along sections of the Afghanistan border, while Iran strengthened its 700-kilomtre border with Pakistan. 

Israel has constructed a 760-kilometre security barrier around many Palestinian areas in the West Bank, while shorter fences have been built along Israel’s borders with Gaza and Egypt. 

More recently, Hungary erected a border fence with Serbia to prevent migrants from crossing into the country. Macedonia decided to block the border with Greece, and Bulgaria with Turkey, for the same reason.

Kenya, Saudi Arabia and Turkey constructed border fences in a bid to keep out jihadist groups next door in Somalia, Iraq and Syria, respectively.

Along the Moroccan border with Western Sahara a sand wall called the “Berm,” is surrounded by mines to stop Polisario Front fighters from crossing. It is second in length only to the Great Wall of China, and has kept families separated for decades.

Numerous other countries, including China, Greece, Kuwait, Spain, Thailand, Uzbekistan, and the United Arab Emirates, launched new fence construction projects over the past decade.

It isn’t the borderless world of the utopian dreamers just yet. As long as there are sovereign states, there will be borders, even if “soft” ones.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The British Empire Was an Unwieldy Creation

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
It is hard for 21st century people to comprehend a geographic institution so huge and long-lasting that at one time it was assumed that the sun would never set upon it.

Today, the sun can’t even find it – but its legacy, in terms of language, laws, international organizations, and models of governance, are with us still.

At its height, the British Empire, which lasted half a millennium, spanned the world, from the Arctic shores of northern Canada and the deserts of Australia to the humid tropics of India and the beaches of Fiji. A quarter of the globe was coloured pink on maps.

By 1921, it contained a population of some 460 million people, then approximately one-quarter of the world's population. It covered more than 35 million square kilometres.

The empire was decentralized, as there had never been a master plan of conquest. It wasn’t governed from an imperial centre, as others, like the French or Spanish ones, were.

Much of it was created piecemeal, and happenstance and chance were often involved in the absorption of all of the bodies of land on every continent and the numerous islands throughout all the world’s oceans that eventually comprised the empire.

Britain frequently found itself unintentionally the owner of new territories through the actions of individuals whose policies had either not been thought through in London or even sanctioned. 

Indeed, much of its most important possession, India, was initially the property of a private enterprise, the East India Company, which expanded its holdings on the subcontinent over the decades. Other regions, too, were originally owned by firms such as the Hudson’s Bay Company and the British South Africa Company.  

“The British Empire was nothing more than a series of improvisations conducted by men who shared a common culture but often had very different ideas about government and administration,” concludes Kwasi Kwarteng in his 2011 book Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World. “There is very little unifying ideology in the story of Britain’s empire.” 

Kwarteng agrees that it was created, as the famous phrase has it, “in a fit of absence of mind.”

Bernard Porter, in British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t, and Empire Ways: Aspects of British Imperialism, both published in 2016, concurs with this assessment. 

He maintains that Britain was “a less imperial society than is often assumed.” The empire was neither monolithic nor guided by an overarching vision that defined its function and objectives. 

British possessions had little in common with each other beyond the fact that the Union Jack flew over them.

This pragmatic approach enabled powerful colonial officials, often described as “men on the spot,” to direct policy in each jurisdiction with little supervision from London. 

Such individualistic behaviour meant that procedures developed over the years by one governor could simply be reversed as a new one took his place. They were elitists who sought to wield power without much oversight.

Nonetheless, while the empire-building enterprise involved colonial settlement, missionary activity, and administration, the primary goal was usually to make huge amounts of money through trade. 

Profits from all these far-flung outposts, especially India, ultimately found their way back to enrich the centre.

Most shameful of all was the purchase and sale of people. More than three million Africans were transported across the Atlantic to toil in Britain’s American, Caribbean and Indian Ocean colonies for more than two centuries.

Slavery on an industrial scale was a major source of the wealth, based upon the West Indies sugar trade and cotton crop in North America was based. Slavery was finally abolished in Britain's colonies in 1833.

The empire began to be wound down not long after the Second World War; Britain could no longer sustain it. And while decolonization was sometimes a brutal affair, as in Aden, Cyprus or Kenya, it was mostly a fairly orderly process. 

But in places with deep-seated religious rivalries, such as India and Palestine, both destined to be partitioned, the British simply lost control.

Even toward the end of empire mainstream opinion in Britain retained an unshakable confidence in the endurance of its values and centrality to world affairs.

Perhaps this was understandable. After so many centuries as the world’s pre-eminent nation, it took a long time for the British to come to terms with the fact that they were no longer a superpower.

The Dismal Beginnings of the Congo State

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Some nine decades ago, at the height of European imperialism in Africa, one colony, though ostensibly a “free state,” was so brutally managed that a European government had to wrest control from its ruler, who treated it as a personal possession.

The country known as the Congo Free State, until it became the Belgian Congo in 1908, emerged out of a treaty promulgated by the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, attended by 14 countries. 

Now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, it gained its independence in 1960, but few countries in the world have had such a tragic past – nor are things much better today.

In 1876 King Leopold II of Belgium had hired the American explorer Henry Morton Stanley to explore and colonize the Congo River basin of equatorial Africa. 

His claims to the Congo, which emerged out of the scientific and philanthropic activities of the Association Internationale du Congo, would lead to a “scramble for Africa” especially amongst France, Germany, Great Britain and Portugal, among those represented at the conference.

By the mid-19th century, European nations such as Great Britain, France, and Germany had begun looking to Africa for natural resources for their growing industrial sectors as well as a potential market for the goods these factories produced. 

Neither the Berlin Conference itself nor the framework for future negotiations provided any say for the peoples of Africa over the partitioning of their homelands. It was a conference purporting to determine the future of Africa in which no Africans were involved.

At this major gathering to create an orderly division of European spheres of influence in Africa, King Leopold would convince the delegates that common trade in Africa was in the best interests of them all.

Though the centre of Africa was supposed to be internationalised, it eventually became Belgian, as the conference decisions would lead to the recognition of King Leopold’s fledgling Congo Free State, with dire consequences for its population.
It was not a colony as such, as there was no metropolitan power to which it was responsible; nor was it a state formed, like Liberia, as a consequence of settlement. It retained the form of a private “philanthropic” initiative ostensibly advancing the common interests of the peoples of Africa and Europe.

Leopold had cultivated the notion that he wished to sponsor a self-westernising native confederation. His so-called Free State would become a convenient device which would allow the European powers to preserve access to the area without undertaking financial or political obligations – Leopold would take care of those – while persuading themselves that they were advancing the well-being of Africans.

In reality, he instituted one of Africa’s most brutal and exploitative colonial regimes, marked by violence, slavery and mass murder, as its inhabitants were literally worked to death, with perhaps as many as 10 million killed.

Forced labour was used to gather wild rubber, palm oil, and ivory. Resistance elicited swift and harsh responses from Leopold’s private army, the Force Publique, who were also known for cutting off the hands of the Congolese.  

In 1890, the author Joseph Conrad traveled on one of the first steamboats on the Congo River. He saw a colonial regime of appalling greed, violence and hypocrisy. In 1899, he transformed his notes about the journey into his novel Heart of Darkness.

Such public outcries finally forced the Belgian government to take the Congo over in 1908.
The Berlin Conference remapped Africa without considering cultural or linguistic borders, dividing the continent into some 50 different colonies. 

This new map was superimposed over the more than one thousand indigenous cultures and regions of Africa, including dozens in the Congo itself.

It is by any measure one of the world’s most dysfunctional states. Since 1997, various civil wars have resulted in some five million deaths.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A "Second Israel" in the Middle East?

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

In the recent Kurdish referendum on independence, the citizens of the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq, to no one’s surprise, voted overwhelmingly to create a sovereign state. The yes side gained almost 93 per cent of the vote.

In the run-up to the vote, opponents of the move tried to smear the Kurds by claiming that they were, in effect, in the pay of Israel.

The “proof?” A statement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:  “While Israel rejects terror in any form, it supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to attain a state of its own.”

Turkey and Iran, as well as the government in Baghdad, then began to spread false news.

“We will not allow the creation of a second Israel in the north of Iraq,” Iraqi Vice-President Nouri al-Maliki, a former prime minister, said at a meeting with U.S. Ambassador Douglas Silliman.

A number of Turkish media outlets claimed that Kurdish groups had entered into a secret deal with Israel to gain their independence by resettling Jews to the region.

They alleged that Mahmoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), agreed to welcome some 200,000 Israeli Jews of Kurdish origin. 

In exchange, Israel would reportedly back Barzani’s bid for Kurdish statehood in the upcoming referendum. Another Turkish paper contended that Barzani is Jewish and comes from a long line of Kurdish rabbis. “Turkey, don’t be asleep!” one column warned.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency played a role in Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence vote.

Supporters of the ultra-nationalist Turkish Homeland Party protested outside the Israeli embassy in Ankara, claiming that Jerusalem was attempting to establish a “second Israel.”

Diliman Abdulkader, a Kurdish scholar and analyst of Middle East affairs, told Newsweek magazine that such attacks were designed to destroy Kurdish credibility in the region by associating them with Israel and playing on prejudices against Jews.

In Iran, Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister who now serves as foreign policy adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, described Barzani as a fixer working for “Zionists” bent on causing the disintegration of Muslim states.

Major General Mohammad Hossein Baqeri, Chief of Staff of Iran’s Armed Forces, also denounced the referendum as a “plot” hatched by Israel and its allies. “The Zionist regime and the world arrogance” -- meaning the United States -- “are behind this,” he declared.

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, chair of the Assembly of Experts, the body that selects the country’s Supreme Leader, asserted that Kurdistan’s bid for independence from Iraq is an attempt to “create another Israel” in the region.

And Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a senior Iranian cleric, expressed the hope that Kurds would come to their senses and give up the Israeli plot.

In actual fact, the Kurds and Israelis do go back a long way as allies. The relationship dates back many decades, after the outbreak of the Kurdish rebellion in Iraq in the autumn of 1961 under Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani, father of the current president of the KRG.

However, these ties were abruptly stopped in March 1975 following the Algiers Accord between Iraq and Iran that put an end to the Kurdish rebellion. 

Tehran as part of the agreement agreed to suspend its aid to the Iraqi Kurds, and Israel did not wish to offend Iran, then an Israeli ally under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

But the 2003 war in Iraq and the establishment of a de facto Kurdish state reinvigorated ties between Israel and the KRG.

The referendum again reminds us of the injustice of a Middle East political order arbitrarily imposed by British and French colonial powers after 1918, one that had left the Kurds betrayed and without a state.

Once Again, Homage to Catalonia

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian
Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s 1938 account of the Spanish Civil War, described the fight by the Catalans for self-rule against the centralizing Spanish nationalism of Francisco Franco’s fascists. 

They were on the losing side, and Franco abolished Catalan autonomy in 1938. Following his death in 1975, Catalan political parties concentrated on autonomy rather than independence.

Eight decades later, is history repeating itself?

Of course today’s Spain is no dictatorship, and since 2006, when a Statute of Autonomy granted sweeping powers to Catalonia, the region already controls its own police, education, health care, schools, parliament and media.

Nevertheless, the Catalan government in September decided to hold a binding referendum on self-determination. 

It was meant to fulfil a pledge made in 2015 by Artur Mas, then the president of the Catalan regional government, known as the Generalitat, and reaffirmed by Carles Puigdemont, the current president.

However, the government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in Madrid did all within in its power to disrupt the scheduled Oct. 1 vote.

Catalonia, one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions, is situated in the country’s northeast and home to 7.5 million people. The capital, Barcelona, is one of Europe’s most vibrant cities.

Catalans have their own history, culture, and language, and until 1714 Catalonia was a self-governing polity within the Spanish Empire of the day. 

Industrially more advanced than the rest of the country, Catalonia has come to resent the political dominance of elites in Madrid.

It accounts for almost one-fifth of Spain’s economic output, and its departure would be a tremendous loss to the country, so Madrid is determined to hold onto it.

Spain’s judiciary maintained that the Constitution does not allow any region to secede, so in advance of the vote, Rajoy blocked 140 websites, including that of the Catalan National Assembly.

Spanish authorities raided the offices of the Catalan regional government, seizing 10 million ballot papers and arresting at least 14 senior Catalan officials. They dismantled the technology to connect voting stations, count the votes, and allow online voting.

Madrid also took control of Catalonia’s finances to ensure that separatist politicians could not spend further public funds on the referendum. 

About 4,000 national police officers were sent to Catalonia ahead of the vote, under orders to keep polling stations closed, and some 1,300 schools were sealed off, to prevent them being used.

On the day of the referendum, Spanish riot police smashed their way into polling stations and fired rubber bullets at protesters.

Catalans contended that the Spanish response was returning the country to the dark days of Franco’s fascist dictatorship, which had banned all “separatist” activity in Spain. 

Back then, even the Catalan language was suppressed and only “Spanish” – that is Castilian – could be taught. Is Catalonia going back to the future?

The balloting went ahead, but in conditions that amounted to a virtual state of siege.
The Catalan government announced that the referendum had been approved by 90.09 per cent of voters  – but in a turnout of only 42.3 per cent of those eligible to cast ballots. 

Puigdemont blamed this on “indiscriminate aggression” by Madrid and contended that Catalans “have earned the right to have an independent state.” 

But Rajoy declared the process illegal since a majority of Catalans hadn’t voted.
Rafael Catala, Spain’s justice minister, warned that Madrid was prepared to use its emergency powers to prevent a unilateral declaration of independence. 

Two days later, King Felipe VI of Spain accused the separatist leaders of “inadmissible disloyalty” that threatened the country’s constitution and unity.

And on Oct. 5 Spain’s constitutional court suspended a forthcoming session of the Catalan regional Parliament was expected to approve a unilateral declaration of independence.

Many Catalan demonstrators, outraged, held signs that mentioned the 1930s civil war. One read,  “We’re the grandchildren of those that you didn’t manage to kill.”

Friday, October 06, 2017

Akko had its Moment in Jewish History

By Henry Srebrnik, [Calgary] Jewish Free Press
When I’m in Israel in November, I’ll be visiting the Mediterranean seaside city of Akko (Acre in English). I’ve been there once before, many decades ago.

Not that many Jewish tourists go there. It’s north of Haifa and off the beaten path. For most of its history, it has been an Arab town; many of its landmarks date back to the Crusader period.

It’s an ancient settlement, mentioned in the Bible, and over the centuries it was home to Canaanites and Greeks, Crusaders and Ottoman Turks, Jews and Britons. Alexander the Great conquered it; Napoleon failed to do so.

Akko fell to the Arab armies commanded by the Caliph Umar in 638, but the Christian Crusaders captured it from its Muslim rulers in 1104. The city developed extensive trade relations with Mediterranean cities like Genoa, Pisa, Venice and Marseilles.

During this period it was known as St. Jean d’Akko; the Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem had their headquarters there. They were concerned with the welfare of pilgrims who came to the Holy Land.

The last outpost of Christian rule in Palestine, Akko fell to Mamluk armies in 1291 The Knights moved to the Greek island of Rhodes, and later to another Mediterranean island, Malta. In 1517, Akko became part of the Ottoman Empire, and would be under Turkish rule for the next four centuries. 

Today, its population of 47,000 includes Jews, Muslims, Christians, and members of the Baha’i faith, for whom it is a holy city. 

Few Jews live in the Old City, where most of the residents are Muslim Arabs. In the modern city of Akko, however, Jews comprise about 70 percent of the population.

The rampart-ringed Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its mosques, Turkish baths, Crusader castle ruins and tunnels, is worth a visit.  

The Ahmed el-Jazzar Mosque, built in 1781, is the largest one in Israel outside of Jerusalem, while the Hospitaller Fortress is one of Israel’s most monumental examples of Crusader architecture. It contains an ancient underground passage discovered and maintained by the order.

Akko is also the site of the Shrine of Baha’u’llah. The city was the final resting place of the Persian founder of the Baha’i faith, who was exiled there in 1868 and spent the last years of his life in a house in its gardens.

The Ottoman Citadel, built in the 18th century over the ruins of a 12th century Crusader fortress, became the tallest structure in the city.

Underneath the Citadel is the Crusader City historic site, a series of gothic vaulted halls, which were once headquarters for the Crusader armies. There is also a series of narrow subterranean tunnels to explore and a crypt.

The Citadel served as a major high-security prison during the period of British rule in Palestine after the First World War. 

The prison housed many top members of the Zionist resistance to British rule. The first prisoner was Ze’ev Jabotinsky. He and 19 others were imprisoned during the 1920 Palestine riots.

In 1939, 43 members of the Haganah, including Moshe Dayan, were prisoners in the Citadel.

On May 4, 1947 a dramatic prison breakout by incarcerated members of the right-wing Irgun and Lehi underground fighters captured headlines around the world and was later even included in Leon Uris’ 1958 novel Exodus.

Two weeks earlier, four Irgun members, Dov Gruner, Yehiel Dresner, Mordechai Alkahi, and Eliezer Kashani, who had been captured by the British, were hanged in the prison. 

In response, the Irgun made plans for a massive prison attack. They purchased a truck, a jeep, two military pickup trucks and civilian vehicles, which were then disguised as British. They also acquired British Army uniforms.

At the time, 163 Jews were being held in Akko prison, 60 of them Irgun members, 22 Lehi, and five from the Haganah, the main force fighting British rule. The remaining Jewish prisoners were felons; 400 Arabs were also jailed there.

The Irgun High Command selected 41 prisoners for escape: 30 Irgun and 11 Lehi, as that was the available number of spots available at safe houses. 

Disguised as British soldiers, the Irgun convoy arrived at the prison. In an audacious attack, the wall of the fortress was blasted open. An ensuing fire blocked the guards from reaching the escape route.

Altogether, 27 inmates succeeded in escaping --20 from the Irgun and seven from Lehi. Nine fighters were killed in clashes with the British army: six escapees and three members of the Irgun attacking force. Eight escapees, some of them injured, were caught and returned to jail. 

Also arrested were five of the Irgun attackers who did not make it back to their base. The Arab prisoners took advantage of the commotion, and 182 of them fled as well.

Three weeks after the jail break, the five fighters who had been captured after the operation were put on trial; three were sentenced to death.

The Akko prison break strengthened morale in the Palestinian Jewish population and they became more determined in their fight to create a Jewish state.

The prison is now the Museum of the Underground Prisoners. It features an interactive display with original and reconstructed exhibits, a tour of the prison cells and an account of the prison’s rich history.

An impressive sculpture close to the site, the work of Israeli artist Zvi Gera, depicts a scene from the great escape and memorializes those who risked their lives to save their comrades, and those who perished in the heroic effort.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

In 2017, Nationalism is Considered Illegitimate

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

Though we like to think the world is becoming ever more integrated and “globalized,” the desire for “a state of one’s own” remains strong among many ethnic groups.

We have seen this with the recent referenda in Iraqi Kurdistan and Catalonia in Spain.
In both cases, the respective governments in Baghdad and Madrid were strenuously opposed to these, and the international community concurred. 

It seems that the territorial integrity of states has trumped the desire for self-determination on the part of ethnic, religious and linguistic communities, including those that were historically separate from those polities.

The Kurds of Iraq and the Catalans in Spain already enjoyed autonomy, controlling their own police, education, health care, schools, parliament and media.

Nevertheless, in both cases, their regional governments decided to hold referenda on full sovereignty, scheduled for Sept. 25 in the Kurdish case, and Oct. 1 in Catalonia. 

The referendum in the Kurdish region went ahead, since the Iraqi state had no control over the area, and its people voted massively to create an independent state.

But not only did the Baghdad regime refuse to recognize the vote, neither did neighbouring Iran, Syria and Turkey. They have all promised to reverse the decision.

In the Catalan case, the government in Madrid, backed by the European Union, did all within in its power to disrupt the scheduled Oct. 1 vote.

Thousands of riot police were sent to the region, and ordinary men and women were dragged from the polls by helmeted police. In this case, too, a majority of those voting supported an independent republic, though the Madrid government insists the vote itself was illegitimate.

Catalans and Kurds have their own histories, cultures, and languages. Until 1714 Catalonia was a self-governing polity within the Spanish Empire of the day, while the Kurds were promised a state after the First World War, but instead ended up under the rule of Arabs, Persians, and Turks. 

In both these cases, Ottawa and Washington oppose the formation of a new polity. But why have they, reflexively, come to oppose self-determination anywhere and everywhere? 

Spain and Portugal were one country for almost sixty years, until 1640, when the Portuguese regained their independence. The Portuguese are as similar, in terms of language, culture, and religion, to Spaniards, as today’s Catalans are.

Until 1922, Ireland was an integral part of the United Kingdom, and by that time all its inhabitants had the same legal and political equality as people in the rest of the British state.

So, had Portugal remained part of Spain, and Ireland part of the UK, would they be denied independence today, should their people have now wished it? 

Here’s another, perhaps more hypothetical, case: In the 18th century Poland was partitioned by its Austrian, Prussian and Russian neighbours and disappeared from the map of Europe.

This remained the case until after the First World War, when the three empires disintegrated, and Poland was reconstituted as a state.

But what if the war had never happened, and those multinational states had evolved into liberal democracies? 

In that case, the Poles might have ended up as minorities in all three, but with full individual rights and freedoms. 

Would their desire to once again live in a free country of their own then be seen as something disruptive of the political order in Europe? No doubt Austria, Germany and Russia would have claimed as much, and many would agree.

But why can self-defined collectivities no longer form independent states if they want them? Does it all this simply come down to timing? As if the right to self-determination by nations ended arbitrarily at some point in the mid twentieth century?

For today’s liberal multiculturalists, the answer to separatism is a definitive no – it is something to be avoided, except in the most extreme cases of massive violence. 

They maintain that if people have democratic rights and personal freedoms, as individuals, there is no justification for collective ethnic nationalism -- now deemed atavistic and dangerous. 

They regard as illegitimate states which are founded on the basis of ethnic or religious nationhood, as opposed to the civic-territorial model found in present-day Canada or the United States. 

They have come to define nationalism itself as a variant of racist intolerance, indeed a political pathology that leads inexorably to the narrowest of so-called “tribalism.”

The New York Times correspondent based in Madrid, Raphael Minder, reflects this view perfectly. 

In a Sept. 30 article on the Catalan crisis, he blamed politicians for “awakening the demons of nationalism rather than solving more pressing issues,” as if national identity was something conjured up by unscrupulous troublemakers. 

This stance is both anti-democratic and ridiculous. Fortunately for the Irish, Poles, and Portuguese, they beat that liberal “deadline,” but it appears the Catalans and Kurds have not.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Yes, Virginia, There is an American "Deep State"

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

The idea of an American “deep state,” comprising what some call the “ruling circles” or “power elite,” running things behind the scenes, for most people conjures up visions of conspirators lurking in the shadows, secretly controlling the country. 

It sounds like something out of a far-left or far-right fantasy. But actually, it hides in plain sight, if you know where to look. 

In The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, a professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, explains that the self-segregation of America’s elites result in what she calls “highly stratified hyper-educated affluent places” in parts of cosmopolitan cities such as Boston, Los Angeles, New York, or Seattle.

It’s not a closed caste system – the Clintons and Obamas are now part of it. But the result is “a deep cultural divide that has never existed with such distinction as it does today.”

As Angelo Codevilla, professor emeritus of International Relations at Boston University, noted in the Spring 2017issue of the Claremont Review of Books, “Well-nigh the entire ruling class -- government bureaucracies, the judiciary, academia, media, associated client groups, Democratic officials, and Democrat-controlled jurisdictions --have joined in ‘Resistance’ to the 2016 elections,” in which, to their consternation, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton.

Their practical objective is to hamper and otherwise delegitimize 2016’s winners and “browbeat Trump voters into believing they should repent and yield to their betters. This campaign might break the Trump presidency.”

Codevilla’s is definitely a view from the far right. Yet it fits well with a commentary from the left by Serge Halimi, president and director of the French newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique, in its September 2017 English edition.

Halimi noted that, after Trump won the election, he was after a good deal from Russia. Trump was personally eager to explore the possibility of a strategic accommodation with Russia, especially in Syria.

A new partnership would have reversed deteriorating relations between the powers by encouraging their alliance against the Islamic State and recognising the importance of Ukraine to Russia’s security.

As we know, he has been completely stymied in his efforts, because there was a convergence in the objectives of the U.S. intelligence agencies, the leaders of the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party, the majority of Republican politicians, and the anti-Trump media. That common objective was stopping any entente between Moscow and Washington.

The intelligence community and elements in the Pentagon feared that a rapprochement between Trump and Vladimir Putin would deprive them of a presentable enemy once ISIS’s military power was destroyed, writes Halimi. 

The Clinton camp was keen to ascribe an unexpected defeat to a cause other than the candidate and her inept campaign; Moscow’s alleged hacking of Democratic Party emails fitted the bill. And the neoconservative foreign policy hawks hated Trump’s neo-isolationist instincts.

“The media, especially the New York Times and Washington Post, eagerly sought a new Watergate scandal and knew their middle-class, urban, educated readers loathe Trump for his vulgarity, affection for the far right, violence and lack of culture,” asserted Halimi. “So they were searching for any information or rumour that could cause his removal or force a resignation.”

British journalist Glenn Greenwald, in an article he published Jan. 11 on his Intercept site, also observed that there really is, at this point, “obvious open warfare between this unelected but very powerful faction that resides in Washington and sees presidents come and go, on the one hand, and the person that the American democracy elected to be the president on the other.”  

Greenwald, a longtime iconoclast, maintains that they preferred Clinton to Trump because she defended and intended to extend the decades-long international military order on which the CIA and Pentagon’s pre-eminence depends, while Trump posed a threat to it.

“Whatever one’s views are on those debates, it is the democratic framework,” he concluded, “that should determine how they are resolved. All of those policy disputes were debated out in the open; the public heard them; and Trump won. Nobody should crave the rule of Deep State overlords.”

But the nationalists who backed Trump’s agenda --hard-liners like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka --have been ousted. Trump promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington. Is it now drowning him?

Iraq's Kurds Aim for Independence

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian
In 2004 I co-edited a book, De Facto States: The Quest for Sovereignty, which was to include a chapter on Iraqi Kurdistan. The person asked to write it didn’t come through, though, so it wasn’t in the anthology. Today such an article would be an absolute necessity. 

It’s been a long time coming, but on Sept. 25 the Kurds in northern Iraq finally voted in a referendum on independence. In a turnout of some 73 per cent of the more than five million eligible voters, the pro-independence side gained 92.73 per cent of the vote.

Those who follow events in the Middle East know that the Kurds, at least 30 million in number, are the largest ethnic group in the world without their own country, even though one was promised them as far back as the end of the First World War.

They are spread across the region, mainly in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, and have fought for a state of their own at one time or another in all of these countries.

But only in Iraq, where they have enjoyed limited self-government since the Gulf War in 1991, when the United States enforced a no-fly zone across the north, have they had a realistic chance to acquire it. Indeed, the area they govern has increased since the Islamic State temporarily drove the Iraqi army out of northern Iraq in 2014.

The Kurds now control around a fifth of Iraq’s territory, including land they have long claimed is theirs but which was Arabised under Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. It includes the disputed city of Kirkuk, which is populated by a mix of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen.

While the rest of Iraq has for years been beset by violence, the Kurdistan Autonomous Region, with its population of eight million, gained international recognition as part of a federal Iraqi state in 2005. 

Before the elimination of Saddan Hussein, the Kurds in Iraq were the victims of mass murder and ethnic cleansing, which peaked in the late 1980s when Saddam slaughtered some 200,000 of them.
In 1992, the two major political parties in the region, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), established the autonomous regional government.

The two parties have long contended for power. The capital, Erbil, is the stronghold of the KDP, led by the Barzani clan. The current prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, is a nephew of the region’s president, Masoud Barzani. 

The weaker PUK is run by the Talabanis, whose leader, Jalal Talabani, is a former president of Iraq. His son Qubad has been the deputy prime minister since 2005. They dominate the region around the city of Sulaymaniyah.

Not surprisingly, the Baghdad government opposed the referendum and said it would never give up its claim to Kirkuk, located within an oil-rich province from which the Kurdish regional government has been independently exporting oil.

Those oil fields pump about 40 per cent of Iraq’s total output and are seen as the economic engine necessary to support an independent Kurdistan.

Washington, concerned that the vote would hobble the fight against the Islamic State, saw it as a bad precedent and as a destabilising force in the region. 

The governments of Iran,Turkey and Syria also dislike the idea of an independent Kurdistan breaking away from Iraq, since the Kurds in those countries might wish to join them in a greater Kurdistan.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to cut off the pipeline which exports the oil from Kirkuk across the Turkish border.

Will the overwhelming yes vote lead to independence? Maybe, but it won’t be easy.