Normative Narratives


1 Comment

Conflict Watch: The Illusion of Self-Determination in Crimea

By now, you have undoubtedly heard about the occupation and possible secession of Crimea from the Ukraine. As an unabashed advocate for democratization and socioeconomic modernization, my readers probably expect me to favor the Western narrative on Crimea (the Russian invasion violated Ukrainian sovereignty, any secession not approved by the Ukrainian central government in Kiev would violate international law and will not be recognized).

However, there is a factor which underpins the democratic principles of human dignity and political rights which cannot be dismissed–self-determination:

“No state has been consistent in its application of this,” said Samuel Charap, a Russia specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. During a trip he took to Moscow last week, Mr. Charap said, Kosovo was the precedent cited repeatedly by Russians defending the Crimea intervention. “It’s like, ‘You guys do the same thing. You’re no better. You’re no different.’ ”

“You can’t ignore the context that this is taking place days after the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. It’s not a permissive environment for people to make up their own minds.” [said Benjamin J. Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser]

“Self-determination has been a controversial doctrine since [Woodrow] Wilson, and hell to apply,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a former ambassador at large to the Soviet states and the author of a new book, “Maximalist,” on American foreign policy. “One consistent point: It can’t be used as a cudgel by big states to break up their neighbors. Russia’s own record here does not entitle it to the benefit of the doubt.”

Russia’s two ferocious wars in Chechnya since the 1990s were fought to prevent the very strain of separatism it now encourages in Crimea. In backing President Bashar al-Assad of Syria in his civil war against rebels, Russia argues that state sovereignty should not be violated, an argument it has turned on its head in Ukraine.

As national security adviser Rhodes pointed out, the environment needed for a fair referendum does not exist in Crimea. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), after being initially turned away, has now rejected an invitation from Crimean authorities to oversee the election:

“For any referendum regarding the degree of autonomy or sovereignty of the Crimea to be legitimate, it would need to be based on the Ukrainian constitution and would have to be in line with international law,” OSCE said.

Both the context of the vote and the wording on the ballot are troubling:

The ballot paper offers no option to retain the status quo of autonomy within Ukraine.

Voters among the two million population must choose either direct union with Moscow or restoring an old constitution that made Crimea sovereign with ties to Ukraine. On Tuesday, the regional assembly passed a resolution that a sovereign Crimea would sever links to Kiev and join Russia anyway.

There seems little chance that Crimea’s new leaders, who emerged after Yanukovich’s overthrow as Russian-backed forces took control of the peninsula, will fail to get the result they want. A boycott by ethnic Tatars, 12 percent of the regional population and deeply wary after centuries of persecution by Moscow, will have little effect as there is no minimum turnout.

In Sevastopol, the Crimean home port of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Valery Medvedev, the chairman of the city’s electoral commission, made no pretence at concealing his own preference:

“We’re living through historic times. Sevastopol would love to fulfil its dream of joining Russia. I want to be part of Russia and I’m not embarrassed to say that,” he told reporters.

There is little sign of campaigning by those opposed to the government line. Billboards in Sevastopol urge people to vote and offer a choice of two images of Crimea – one in the colors of the Russian flag, the other emblazoned with a swastika.

No offense to Chairman Medvedev, but his preferences should be irrelevant in this matter (past the power his one vote grants him).

In the context of Russian occupation and propaganda against the Ukrainian government, the absence of outside observers, and a ballot rigged in Moscow’s favor, the referendum as it currently stands does not represent Crimean self-determination.  Any referendum / vote / election with a predetermined outcome is a farce.

Below are concessions from both sides that could lead to de-escalation and a referendum that truly represents Crimean self-determination:

  • In return, the government in Kiev validates the Crimean referendum for secession, which would enable;
  • The OSCE to observe the Crimean referendum (which would have to be delayed from this Sunday in order to make ballot changes, allow for public debates on the issues, etc.; this is a long term and for all intents-and-purposes irreversible decision, and therefore not one which should be rushed); the options on the ballot must be changed to include an alternative to remain part of the Ukrainian Republic.  

If we are to uphold the fundamental democratic pillar of self-determination, “the West” has to be prepared to accept the possibility that it is truly the will of the Crimean people to join Russia. Just as a predetermined referendum to join Russia is a farce, so too would be a referendum which decided for the Crimean people that they must stay part of the Ukraine.

The Ukraine just experienced a revolution; when, if not after a revolution, is a legitimate time for an autonomous region to hold a referendum on its future sovereign? Those who favor remaining part of the Ukraine would be wise to point out the irony of a referendum to join Russia; should such a vote passed, it would likely be the last truly meaningful vote any Crimean citizen would ever take part in.


2 Comments

Conflict Watch: The Determinative Role of Armed Forces In Regime Change (A Comparative Analysis)

Police leave their position around the Ukrainian p[arliament in Kiev on Friday after the country’s deputy army chief resigned in protest over government attempts to involve the army to put down the unrest rocking Ukraine. Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

Disgraced ex-Ukranian President Yanukovych (is it too soon to call him ex-President?) signed an agreement with the opposition for early elections and a new government, pulling Ukraine back from the brink of catastrophe. Do not confuse Yanukovych’s decision for altruism; rather it was a last resort after it became clear the Ukrainian army would not intervene on his behalf.

Today, the Ukrainian Armed Forces reiterated its commitment to neutrality. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel commended the move, and his support is well founded. A comparative analysis of recent protest movements shows the determinative role Armed Forces play in domestic political conflicts:

Egypt: In modern Egyptian history, the Army has been the strongest and least unaccountable force in domestic politics. It is therefore unsurprising those in control of the Army are determined to ensure their spot at the top of the pyramid (no pun intended) is preserved. The Egyptian military has a vested interest in a protracted civil conflict; by creating an adversary in the Muslim Brotherhood, it has secured an important role in Egyptian life and public support. Indeed, military supremacy was enshrined in a recently passed constitutional referendum.

The Egyptian military determined the outcome of Egyptian politics by removing democratically elected President Morsi by a coup (as opposed to allowing a political process of impeachment and new elections to decide who leads). The army has restricted media independence and cracked-down on all dissenters (including many who were instrumental in removing previous dictator Hosni Mubarak and the ineffectual President Morsi). Now General Sisi–the very man who organized the coup–is poised to take over as Egypt’s next “democratically elected” president.

Syria: In Syria’s dynastic authoritarian regime, the armed forces are controlled exclusively by President Assad; the military cannot be expected to support the will of the people. Assad ordered a military response to peaceful protests, resulting in a protracted civil war with no end in sight.

Thailand:  The Thai army is committed to remaining neutral in anti-government protests (which was not a given; Thailand has a long history of military intervention in politics), allowing the political process to play itself out (the army has positioned itself near protest sight for security purposes, but hasn’t taken a side).

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has proposed early elections; her opposition wants an appointed caretaker government to implement reforms before elections are held. In a recent development, Yingluck has been called in to answer for corruption charges related to a rice subsidy (a policy symbolic of her Pheu Parties popularity with Thailand’s poor), which could result in her impeachment.

Venezuela: Paratroopers we’re called in to “maintain the peace”, which is allegedly a cover for a brutal crackdown of the anti-Maduro opposition. The future remains uncertain in Venezuela; if reports of a bloody crackdown are true, a protracted civil conflict is likely.

When it comes to regime change, the means are just as important as the endsThe extent to which Armed Forces remain neutral / indiscriminately uphold security (in order to give the political process time to run it’s course) is a good indication of both how “ugly” protests will become, and the direction a country will move ex post facto.

In Egypt the military could have remained neutral, allowing the Egyptian people to impeach Morsi and setup elections. Instead, the military decided to intervene, securing it’s own interests. Morsi had to go, but the way he was removed has set the country on a path divergent from pluralistic democracy. In a similar vein, Sisi may indeed be the President Egyptians want. If so, why the need to crackdown on dissenters?

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck may indeed be a corrupt ruler unworthy of her office. If this is the case, allow the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) to conduct an impartial investigation. If she is found guilty, there may be grounds for impeachment. If not, the vocal minority opposition will have to rethink it’s position.

Notably, the Thai Military is allowing the political process to determine the countries political future (as in Ukraine), increasing the likelihood that a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Thailand can emerge from this current bout of unrest (Unlike Egypt, Syria, and likely Venezuela).

If a countries Armed Forces are committed to the goal of pluralistic democracy, the best thing they can do is remain neutral and allow domestic political conflicts to be resolved politically. Democratic governance is derived from “soft power“–inclusive politics, non-violent protest, self-determination. The need to resort to force against non-violent protests is proof in and of itself that human rights rhetoric is being used to human rights violations.

When the global champions of human rights (U.S., E.U., U.N. etc) urge deescalation and dialogue, these are not empty words (as Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay has urged in Venezuela). Over the past few decades, “soft power” has played an increasingly important role in both domestic and international affairs. Governments that embrace this shift will ultimately be the most successful.


Leave a comment

Conflict Watch: Will Western Powers Stand With the Ukrainian Opposition, Or Stand By As Democracy Flounders?

Ukrainian President Yanukovych withdrew from EU trade talks in favor of Russian support, sparking protests

Secretary of State John Kerry today reaffirmed the importance of U.S. and E.U. support for the Ukrainian Opposition at the Munich Security Conference:

Secretary of State John Kerry said on Saturday that the United States and European Union support the people of Ukraine in their pursuit of stronger ties with the West…’They have decided that means their futures do not have to lie with one country alone, and certainly not coerced. The United States and EU stand with the people of Ukraine in that fight.’

However, Ukrainian opposition leaders urged U.S. and EU leaders on Friday to go beyond vocal support for their fight and demand a halt to violence they blame on Yanukovich.

“What we need is not just declarations but a very clear action plan – how to fix the problem and fix the violence, how to investigate all these killings and abductions and tortures,” protest leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said.

The uncompromising standoff, which turned violent after Yanukovich passed a short-lived law barring protests in early January, prompted a rare intervention from the military on Friday.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Friday in a statement on Twitter that he was “very concerned by attempts to involve the military in the crisis” and added that the “military must remain neutral,” but said he was encouraged by the eventual repeal of the anti-protest law.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday accused EU leaders of interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs, helping stoke violent anti-government protests and displaying double standards.

“What does incitement of increasingly violent street protests have to do with promoting democracy?” Lavrov said in response to European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who earlier said Ukraine’s future lay in Europe.

The EU and Russia have been at loggerheads over Ukraine since Yanukovich ditched an EU association accord in November under pressure from a Moscow seen to be trying to bring its former Soviet satellite back into its sphere of influence.

Speaking to Al Jazeera from Munich on Saturday, Leonid Kozhara, the Ukrainian foreign minister, called on Ukranians to distance themselves from the opposition, saying there was a “big misunderstanding between the government and the opposition.”

“For the first time in our country, we can see extremist groups,” he said.

Excuse us Minister Lavrov if I scoff at democracy lessons from the Russian Foreign minister…

The Ukrainian opposition is correct, they need more than words to support their movement towards more effective democratic governance. They need capacity building and organizational support from established democratic governments. Most importantly, they need economic support.

There are already disturbing trends emerging from these protests, namely military intervention and the introduction of an extremist narrative. The world has seen what happens when Western Powers “stand with” democratic movements (but really just stand by and offer little but supportive words). Over time, legitimate grievances and moderate oppositions are overrun by opportunistic extremist forces–the extremist narrative becomes self-fulfilling if a democratic movement is not nurtured. We have seen this sequence of events play out in Syria and Egypt in recent years; do not think because of Ukraine’s geography the opposition is less susceptible to anti-Western forces.

It is important to understand that those opposing democratic movements will not sit back and do nothing. While Russia may be less wealthy than the U.S. or the E.U., its political structure allows it more autonomy in foreign affairs. Despite pressing domestic needs, the Kremlin has proven willing to support to the Ukrainian government (in the form of a $15 billion loan, although this loan was recently suspended due to the inability of Yanukavych to squash his opponents).

Recognizing authoritarian regimes are not accountable when it comes to spending, Western powers must be more pragmatic and timely in their support. In conflict resolution, the thinking used to be solidify economic reforms, then focus on political reforms; history has proven this approach to be ineffectual.

Economic gains from democratization tend to be long term–innovation takes time. Demanding immediate economic reform in return for political support can undermine a budding democratic movement. If things get worse off right away (due to economic reforms), a new democratic regime may lose popular support (think the IMF demanding painful subsidy cuts as a condition for supporting the Morsi regime).

The only condition for economically supporting a democratic movement should be a commitment to pluralistic, inclusive democracy and human rights. Failing to support the Ukrainian opposition in this way means the champions of democracy are not learning from past failures. Furthermore, continued Western inaction could inadvertently undermine future democratic movements. Why would people who desire democratic freedoms risk reprisal if they have do not believe they will receive external support? While democratic freedoms are important, rational people will not oppose their government if they do not believe they have a legitimate chance of seeing their goals achieved.

Update: EU ready with “substantial financial aid” one Ukraine sets up its new government, following the ouster of Yanukovych.