By Patricia Lee Shape
By all accounts the next edition of Charlie Hebdo is coming out on schedule. That's the best reply to those who don't understand satire or the need for the full exercise of free speech, even when it hurts.
By Patricia Lee Shape
By all accounts the next edition of Charlie Hebdo is coming out on schedule. That's the best reply to those who don't understand satire or the need for the full exercise of free speech, even when it hurts.
By Patricia Lee Sharpe
You gotta feel sorry for those ISIS guys. Young guys. In great physical condition. Yeah! Probably their equipment is in top working condition, by which I don’t mean the tanks and rocket launchers they captured from the Iraqi so-called army who got it from us U.S. taxpayers. They’re young and randy and ready and able and all they need is...well...girls.
Who are not so dumb, which means they are mostly not running after the ISIS guys.
So what are the ISIS guys to do? And the Boko Haram guys, for that matter, and all their super so-called pious ilk? Being healthy, physically if not mentally, they go out and grab ‘em. The girls. Whether the chicks are willing or not. By the dozens. By the hundreds. These guys are so hot for girls they’ll bomb schools and burn villages and slaughter the non-nubile, young and old, to get at them.
And then, since one lay is like any other lay, they dole them out. Hey guys! Wives for everyone! Or, should the day’s catch be limited, they share them around, for the fun of it. On the other hand, if they end up with too many girls to handle, they sell them off. As slaves. As wives. What’s the difference? A cunt’s a cunt. Created by God to follow orders. From men. Cover up! Stay indoors! Spread your legs! Make new fighters. To say nothing of: cook, cook, cook! Someone said an army travels on its stomach. In the ISIS world iron men aren’t Iron Chefs.
Yes, I know, it’s all very brutal and inhuman, but you really do have to feel sorry for these ISIS guys. How else are they going to get women and make more fighters?
It’s not as if the ISIS types can promise a girl a good time. They don’t drink. They don’t dance. They hate music and movies. They’re big on video and social media, of course, but the content’s not exactly seductive. Except to new recruits, who go orgasmic at the sight of blood. Wow! I, too could be a suicide bomber. Cars and bodies flying in all directions! Wow! I, too, can slaughter the infidel (or the other sort of Muslims), every man woman and child. Gimme a gun and they’re food for vultures and jackals. Look at me, babe. Look at my bloody scimitar!
I have news for these fanatics. Blood spurting from an aorta suddenly exposed to the air is not an aphrodisiac for most girls. Oh darling, I dote on your strong arm and your bloody sword. Why don’t you skewer another infant? Not likely.
Actually, it looks as if the ISIS guys aren’t so proud of what they’re doing either. They pull balaclavas over their heads. They swathe their faces in scarves. Which is not so good for—pardon the Western expression!—romance. What sweet young girl is going to fall in love with a guy who looks like a ball of yarn or a handful of rags? Foolish women by the millions have fallen in love with men of every conceivable bad habit, but they don’t usually fall in love with men they can’t see.
What a bind! If the ISIS guy unveils, the spy in the sky will know who he is. So will a lot of enemies on the ground. And yet, a guy’s got a right to girl, hadn’t he? And sons? And a good meal after a hard day’s killing? Anyway, any decent girl is just waiting, waiting, waiting, to be given to a man. She might as well be taken by a man.
So, guys, I'll hand it to you. You've found the secret to happy hunting. A girl’s school is the best target ever. Especially since girls shouldn’t be educated in the first place. It makes them picky and uppity. They might want to become doctors. They might want to choose their own husbands. How decadent!
By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appearance at Madison Garden before thousands of Indian-Americans during UN Week was dubbed a “love fest.” It was certainly a tamasha, which is Hindi for big blast: music, dancing, balloons— plus the true sign of great importance today: protesters on the street outside. Why the anti-Modi demonstration? Many Indians still fear that Modi will allow Hindu extremism to tear India apart. The colors the controversial PM chose to wear while addressing the Indian-American crowd must have intensified the protestors' anxiety.
During the latest round of parliamentary elections, many Indians laid aside their well-justified concerns about divisive religious issues and registered their hopes for change by deserting the Congress Party and voting for Modi’s BJP. Campaigning vigorously in person and via his mastery of modern media, Modi had promised to get the economy roaring. Perhaps more importantly, he had pledged to preside over a little less corruption. Still, in a bewilderingly diverse country where the greatest threat to law and order is communal violence, anxieties remained. The Bharatya Janata Party is not only well to the right of Congress on economic issues, it is anything but a rigorously secular party.
The BJP shelters a strident Hindu nationalist wing that not only condones but encourages violence to hound those who do not conform to an exceedingly narrow view of Hinduism. (Think of Salafism in Islam or Christian fundamentalism in the US.) Thanks to aggressive Hindu nationalists, erudite Sanskritists have had their books removed from book stores, and India’s foremost modern painter, a Muslim but secular to the core, was forced into exile. (Fairness note: India’s Muslims succeeded in getting Salmon Rushdi’s The Satanic Verses banned.) More boldly, a long march was staged to tear down a historically important mosque supposedly built over an ancient temple devoted to the man-god Ram, of which to date no archaeologically convincing evidence has surfaced. Infamous Hindu nationalist groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS (an ex-member, outraged by Gandhi’s sympathetic attitude toward Muslims, assassinated the Mahatma in 1947) find a welcome at the leadership level in the BJP, and Modi himself was accused of culpable passivity during a bloody Hindu-Muslim riot in his home state of Gujerat while he was Governor. India’s judicial system never sanctioned him, but his apparent favoring of Hindus over Muslims during that slaughter led the U.S. to deny him a visa for years.
The Modi government has not yet moved to execute a Hindu nationalist agenda, but many non-fans are waiting for the shoe to drop and Hindutva proponents are chaffing at the bit. So far, the worst the ideologues have done is to revive demands for eliminating the use of English as an alternative national language, even though such action would so alarm the non-Hindi speakers of South India that a long dormant movement for Tamil independence could be revived. If anything, Modi has reined in his overly enthusiastic nationalists, but not strongly enough to be convincing. What’s more, some analysts believe that the reason he has not moved aggressively on any BJP agenda item, be it economic or communal, is that he is waiting for state elections to give the BJP broader control at the state as well as the national level. We’ll have to wait more than few months to see if this hypothesis is correct.
Whatever Modi’s thought processes these days, one thing was clear to US officials last month. When Modi became India’s prime minister, visa denial had to be reversed. As a result, when he came to the US during UN Week, his schedule reflected his importance in the international scheme of things—and his importance to Indian-Americans who want India to get its act together and become a credible superpower rival to China. Hence the tamasha. So what did Modi choose to wear when he wanted to rev up the desi crowd? Look at the photo above. See the pale yellow shirt or kurta? See the orange vest? These are the classic colors of Hindu holy men, the symbolic colors of Hindu nationalists in India. In short, at Madison Garden the prime minister of a constitutionally secular state chose to flaunt a politically-charged Hinduism. To hammer in the visual message, a half dozen aides draped in orange scarves followed him as he strode to the microphone. This was a pretty shocking sight.
By Patricia Lee Sharpe
(1) “We tortured folks.” President Barack Obama.
(2) “I have full confidence in John Brennan.” President Barack Obama.
Let’s get something straight, Mr. President. We didn’t torture anybody, although John Brennan was somewhere in the chain of command when torture was the order of the day. For that reason, he should never have been elevated to head the Central Intelligence Agency. Many of us objected to that appointment. You pushed it forward anyway, Mr. President, thus putting yourself in surprising company, or so we thought, briefly, recalling your very different pre-election personna. We now know that you are really one of them.
You, Mr. President, seem to have joined Dick Cheney’s take-off-the-gloves “dark side,” but we didn’t torture anybody. We believed that we were living in a country whose Constitution provides no exception to the prohibition against ”cruel and unusual” punishment (not even in the wake of a vicious terrorist attack) and where lying to Congress under oath is a crime and a very serious one, because society cannot function without trust. By appointing and continuing to express confidence to a man who lies to Senators, raids their computers and does his energetic best to suppress a full and accurate report on the torture years, you not only betray us, Mr. President, you undermine our system of law. You invite the chaos and/or authoritarianism that disfigures too many countries today. Where there is effectively no law, when government institutions are a laugh, the Kalashnikov rules.
No Collective Guilt
Get this absolutely straight, Mr. President, we did not torture anyone. The collective guilt brush doesn’t apply here, so kindly put it aside. We weren’t consulted. We weren’t informed. When we began to get hints of really bad stuff happening, evidence was destroyed. We the people were fed lie after lie about that, too, meaning denials of the existence as well as the destruction of evidence.
Americans voted for hope in the person of Barack Obama. Not all of us were enraptured by that vacuous promise, but even we expected that you, Mr. President, once elected, would clean up the swamps and dungeons of the Bush years. We expected that a president who had been a constitutional law professor, no less, would not only repudiate the Bush administration’s addiction to cruel and unusual punishment but also—and this was critical, in order to prevent repetition—would prosecute all those who’d had a hand in it. Yes. All of them. From the delicately-distanced decision-makers in the executive offices right on down to the more obviously dirty-handed guys in the ultra secret “black hole” torture chambers, whether C.I.A. operatives themselves or contractors employed for the purposes of “plausible deniability.”
The Dark Side Rules
But you didn’t, Mr. Obama. You pretended to take the high road, persuading a gullible public that we should just write off the mistakes of the past and concentrate on doing better in the future. You weren’t even willing to prosecute the C.I.A. operatives who destroyed the torture tapes or their equally culpable immediate supervisors, a very serious crime you were happy to overlook. Had we correctly foreseen the astonishing future, the very near future, we wouldn’t have been surprised. What you had in mind, it seems, was the creation of a bigger, better rogue state, an even more perfect police state: you brought the N.S.A. into the picture. Soon our own government was spying on all of us all the time. No warrants needed. Too inconvenient.
By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been training his verbal artillery at the U.S. for the last couple of years. Barrage after barrage of bitter recrimination. He’s nearing the end of his second term as President of Afghanistan. Unless he has a coup in mind, a notion no one seems to be entertaining, come April he won’t have to be dealing with contemptuous American officials scolding him for non-cooperation in public anymore. And so, increasingly, he’s letting it be known that the negative feelings are mutual.
Dan Roberts of The Guardian thinks that a constitutionally term-limited Karzai is mostly concerned with defining his “legacy,” making sure that he’ll be seen as an Afghan patriot, not an American puppet, when this phase of Afghan history is written for the ages. Roberts may be on to something here.
On the other hand, Karzai may be using his anti-Americanism in a calculated way, shading his bio-data to give him an advantage as he seeks a post-presidential role in Afghan politics. This is the theory of Peter Tomsen at Politico, who believes that the wily Karzai is “maneuvering for future relevance, drawing on his period in office and on his tribal status as leader of the important Pashtun Popalzai tribe in southern Afghanistan.” Thus, Karzai may “hope to be seen as an elder tribal leader and international statesman deserving respect and deference by the winning candidate [in the upcoming presidential election], and by Afghan political, tribal, ethnic and religious leaders generally—including the Taliban,” who may gain in strength after NATO and the US withdraw.
Meanwhile, not only have American officials, civilian and military, complained that Karzai is volatile, unpredictable, a poor manager and a corrupt politician, the U.S. President himself has weighed in, describing him as an “unreliable and ineffective partner.” All of which is fairly amusing because, if I recall rightly, Hamid Karzai was snatched from international obscurity and promoted for the presidency by.....the Americans!
So what has the allegedly obnoxiously uncooperative Karzai been saying?
Accused of being ungrateful for American sacrifices in Afghanistan, some 2000 troops killed over the past ten years, Karzai has observed that the Americans didn’t insert themselves into Afghanistan to help Afghans but rather to protect themselves against international terrorism. Even so, Karzai conceded in an interview with NBC, Afghans are indeed “grateful” for having been freed of Taliban rule in 2001. However, he added, U.N. data shows that 3000 Afghans were killed during the first six months of 2012 alone. What’s more, instead of rampaging through Afghan villages, smashing into Afghan homes and frightening Afghan women, those American troops should have taken the battle to the mountainous areas of Pakistan “where the roots of terrorism exist.” Speaking to CNN, Karzai noted that Afghanistan itself lacks the modern equipment needed to carry the war to Pakistan. “I asked the U.S. government to equip our air force with weapons, intelligence and transport planes—and we still haven’t received a response....If they show no interest in this, we will decide whether to purchase from Russia, China, India or any other country.” This may or may not be a bluff, but Karzai is stoutly resisting American pressure to sign a security agreement before the upcoming elections in April. Given his theory that the Americans are in Afghanistan for their own good, Karzai's probably calculating that they'll find a reason not to walk away, and so he’ll keep their military support and burnish his reputation as a bold nationalist at the same time.
Having recently been reminded of President Obama's “unreliable and ineffective partner” charge, the nadir perhaps of years of U.S. carping and criticism, Karzai did not respond with submissive contrition. He explained it away. The Americans are upset, he said, “because where they want us to go along, we don’t go along. They want us to keep silent when civilians are killed. We will not, we can not.” And as for Americans trying to pressure him into signing the security agreement, Karzai let it be known that "classic colonial exploitation" won't work with him. “They can’t push us up against the wall....Afghans will not submit. They have already fought colonial masters. They don’t accept it.”
Criticized for releasing from prison long-held, never formally-charged Taliban prisoners considered to be congenital terrorists by the U.S., Karzai went on the offensive. "Afghanistan is a sovereign country,” he told attendees at a conference in Turkey. “If the Afghan judicial authorities decide to release a prisoner, it is of no concern to the U.S. I hope that the US will stop harassing Afghanistan’s procedures and I hope the US will now begin to respect Afghan sovereignty.”
Nor is Karzai taking recurrent U.S. accusations that he runs a government studded with corrupt officials lying down. He has another version: “I’ve come to believe (that)...corruption comes from the United States through contracts,” he told NBC, adding that “the perception of corruption is deliberate to render the Afghan government exploitable, to weaken it.” In fact, Karzai is not alone in fingering the U.S. contracting process. U.S. Government studies have faulted U.S. agencies for not keeping tabs on contractors with sticky fingers and a tendency to get things done by greasing palms, even to the point of paying Taliban-associated figures big bucks to guarantee the safety of U.S. convoys from Taliban attack! Tens of millions of dollars have mysteriously diappeared, it seems, a not unusual story, unfortunately.
All in all, when it comes to Karzai's strenuous public criticism of U.S. Afghan policy and those who carry it out, what he has to say can usually be reduced to a plea for recognizing sovereigny and showing respect. Respect for the country. Respect for its people. Those American boots on the ground are stomping on Afghan dignity and American officials are shaming Afghanistan with incessant public criticism.
So Ahmed Karzai, feeling his country insulted, feeling himself insulted, is an angry man who is no longer willing to suffer in silence, which will make the remaining pre-election weeks extremely awkward for Americans officials who are praying for more congenial counterparts in a post-Karzai Afghan dispensation. U.S. Senator Karl Levin is already celebrating. He has been quoted as saying, “Whoever the next Afghan president is, he is likely to be more reliable than President Karzai and his signature [on the security agreement] is likely to instill more confidence than would Karzai’s signature.”
Oh dear, Mr. Levin! Think again. Once upon a time Hamid Karzai was America’s anointed Afghan savior aka puppet in the making. What makes you so sure that a future president of the extremely independent tribesmen (and women) who make up the country known as Afghanistan will be any more subservient to outside interests than the current one?
On the contrary, like Karzai, the new president will certainly be an ardent nationalist. Like Karzai, he’ll surely have a prickly sense of honor. He will also take no more kindly to American dictation than Karzai has.
The question is this: Can the U.S. shake off its ethnocentricity and learn from counter-productive past arrogance? This time around, will the American side evince (in public, at least) a little more respect for the dignity of the people, to say nothing of their legendary commitment to self-rule, even if (privately) many Amnericans consider Afghanistan a benighted hopeless mess? In fact, what secular Afghans would really like is less fiddling with Afghan society and politics and more effort as a buffer between themselves and a Taliban-supporting Pakistan. This puts the U.S. in a tricky position, but handling tricky positions is what diplomacy is all about.
By Brady Kiesling, Guest Contributor
Brady Kiesling served two tours as political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Athens before resigning in 2003 over USG policy. He is the author of “Diplomacy Lessons” (2006), and “Greek Urban Warriors,” his booklength study of Greek political violence, should be out later this year.
People in the USA who follow Greek political violence may wonder how Christodoulos Xiros, a man sentenced to six life terms as a member of a deadly terrorist group, “Revolutionary Organization 17 November” (17N), was allowed out of prison on furlough, not once but seven times.
How could the Greek state not have expected that he would at some point disappear? And then, of course, after he did disappear in early January 2014, Xiros made it worse by releasing a videotaped call for the public to rise up and overthrow the Greek state that had been so generous with him.
Actually, there is sort of an answer to that question, but it’s a long, odd one that may make readers uneasy. First there is a major societal difference: Greek politicians have a different set of incentives from U.S. politicians.
American voters tend to divide the world into good people, resembling themselves, and criminals, who are quite different. U.S. politicians (including elected judges, elected district attorneys, and/or elected sheriffs in many jurisdictions) are rewarded with large checks and motivated voters when they devote taxpayer dollars to locking up as many young black and Hispanic males as possible for as long as possible. Influential groups in this process include the owners of private for-profit prisons, the prison guards union (in California), and the National Rifle Association, which by espousing the need to lock up criminals before they misuse their constitutional right to concealed handguns obfuscates the fact that its true purpose is to sustain a hugely profitable arms race between police and drug dealers.
Greek politicians, however, are uneasily aware that they themselves and all their voters are criminals. Greek law is vast, draconian, and self-contradictory, because it is designed to protect everyone from everything while collecting an impossibly large share of GDP in taxes and making certain very specific things very briefly legal for very specific people. With mild exaggeration, every important action in a Greek person’s life is at least slightly illegal; a bribe, illegal to receive and illegal to pay, will temporarily legalize that action while criminalizing everyone involved in it.
Greek prisons are a product of this gentle, somber philosophy.
Though the courts are clogged and dysfunctional, at some point ordinary Greek citizens go to jail, and then, after a certain amount of time, they must emerge from it. There are no private prisons, no death sentences (in Greece or anywhere in the civilized world Europe), and no real life sentences. You can be sentenced, as one 17N member was, to 21 life sentences plus 2109 years, but the maximum you will serve is 25 years, possibly as few as 17 with good behavior.
Note that the Greek state has a strong incentive to let people out early, because existing prisons are hugely overcrowded, there is no money to build more (you can’t float a bond issue when everyone knows you are bankrupt), and even if there were money, any local group can and will use the Greek court system to block prison construction in its backyard for a decade or more.
In the boom years of the Greek welfare state, the Greek penal system hired sociologists and psychologists who read the latest scientific studies in Europe, most of which suggested that re-arrest rates dropped when families were kept intact through regular contact. The possibility of periodic furloughs also turned out to be a powerful incentive for good behavior in prison. A mixed committee of prosecutors, social workers, and prison staff evaluates the behavior of each prisoner and grants furloughs once a certain percentage of the sentence has been served, unless the committee detects (and justifies in writing) that there is a risk of flight or resumed criminality.
This generous penal system evolved to reconcile Greeks to their problematic legal/judicial system during a more prosperous, less violent time (though even now, the Greek murder rate is a third of ours – 1.5 per 100,000 to 4.7).
A system in need of adjustment?
One can make plausible arguments that the system needs urgent adjustment, since the majority of prisoners are now foreigners, many of whom lack social and family structures to justify the risk of letting them out on furloughs. A handful of disastrous furlough decisions have been made, with vicious armed robbers released to commit new and heinous crimes.
[Whether any corruption was involved I have no idea. There is a lovely case from 1986 where an international drug dealer, sentenced to 19 years, was mistakenly released after 19 months. The prosecutor who accused the judicial panel of bribery was herself convicted of slander, while those responsible for the “mistake” walked free. In 1992, 17N contemplated an attack on another clique of judges accused of taking such bribes, and its rival revolutionaries from ELA actually bombed the Thessaloniki courthouse on March 31, 1992 for the same reason, a protest designed to show that revolutionary justice was superior to the Greek state’s.]
Most furlough decisions, however, work out perfectly well. Remember too that Greek law did not, before 2004, dare to define a category of “terrorists” distinct from the rest of humankind. This was a prudent hesitation, if you consider Menachem Begin, Nelson Mandela or even Kostas Simitis, an estimable Greek prime minister (1996-2004), who had to flee Greece in 1969 after a feeble bomb attack against an Esso Pappas filling station and other U.S.-linked targets.
Compared with their fellow inmates, all thirteen 17N convicts were model prisoners, non-violent, intelligent, diligent in their prison chores, and self-controlled (with two exceptions: in 2009, an internal feud led to Christodoulos’s biting on the leg the man police said was 17N’s leader; in 2011, it was again Christodoulos who set fire to his mattress to win transfer out of the special 17N wing and into the main prison).
All but three of these 17N detainees were permitted furloughs, and all of them scrupulously observed the terms until now. Of these ten, seven have since been released after serving 3/5 of their sentences. They have integrated productively and so far harmlessly back into society.
But what about the 23 people 17N murdered: four Americans, two Turks, one UK citizen, and 16 Greeks? Blood calls out for blood. Yes, but Greek law, like U.S. law pre-9/11, allots punishment based on the degree of participation in specific criminal acts. Most people believe that cold-blooded killers should stay in jail, and Christodoulos Xiros was convicted of direct involvement in 10 killings between 1985 and 1992, based largely on a confession he himself signed.
Technorati Tags: anarchism, Brady Kiesling, Christodoulos Xiros, Europe, Greece, Greek penal system, Greek police, Greek politics, Greek terrorism, law and justice, nationalism, Revolutionary Organization 17-N, terrorism, world politics
By Patricia H Kushlis
The US State Department recently issued a travel advisory to American citizens planning to attend the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia in February and March. Often the media ignores or fails to publish the Department’s Travel Advisories. This one’s circulation, however, has received relatively widespread coverage – from Fox News to the New York Times almost as soon as it hit the web.
State’s Advisory contains practical information for first time vistors to Russia and reminders to more seasoned ones particularly those traveling to the troubled Northern Caucasus where Sochi is located.
My advice: if this is a trip you plan to undertake, print the advisory out before you head off, take a copy with you, heed its contents, and watch the website for updates. The information will have been coordinated with the US Embassy Consular Section in Moscow. And a special unit from the US Consular Section (tough but likely busy duty?) will be at the Games to help American citizens in distress.
Russia has changed greatly since it became the successor state to the Soviet Union in 1991 and certainly since the Moscow Olympics in 1980 - but still not all is sweetness and light.
Laying out the welcome mat
Putting aside politics – and whatever one thinks of President (for life?) Vladimir Putin – the country, for the most part, will lay out the welcome mat to Olympic athletes and guests: Much international prestige rides on the conduct of successful games. Besides the Russians are proud of their own athletic prowess especially in winter sports and want to come off as winners (who can blame them) in the international spotlight: sports and international politics intermingle in the Russian psyche.
Furthermore, Sochi itself is a long time domestic Black Sea tourist destination for Russians seeking refuge in a less harsh climate – namely the chance to bask in the sun - dating back to the days of the Czars and the country wants to develop it into a popular international resort.
If there’s one thing that Russia will do to make the Games go off without a hitch is impose tight security. American counter-terrorism experts may grouse that they have not been involved – at least that’s what Fox News reported – but expect the Russian Federation’s police-state security experts to do everything they can to keep the sites protected from potential terrorist acts. That doesn’t mean they won’t happen: remember Atlanta, Munich and for that matter the 2013 Boston Marathon (which if US counter terrorism experts had been in closer contact with their Russian counterparts perhaps could have been avoided).
The dilemma is that the Olympics, regardless of location, are natural attractions to groups and individuals intent upon making political statements before an international audience of millions. This stage doesn’t come their way all that often. Such statements have been made through peaceful demonstrations or occasionally premeditated acts of murder. Those who make them are looking for front page headlines and top of the news coverage.
The Russian government is fighting jut the latest round of the Chechen rebellion since the Soviet Union collapsed. Sochi is very much a piece of the troubled North Caucasus.
The Russian authorities succeeded in regaining power in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, only to have the conflict spread to neighboring regions like Dagistan and among other ethnic Caucasian minorities - like a vial of mercury dropped on the floor.
Two suicide attacks in Volgograd – Russia's transportation hub into the North Caucasus - in December followed by the accidental traffic death in Moscow of a major Chechen leader just show how acts of domestic terrorism are not far away. The Boston Marathon murders last April by two radicalized Chechen young men just show how far the troubles can reach.
By Patricia H Kushlis
T’was the week before the West's Christmas. Vladimir Putin and his KGB elves were busily stuffing stockings with selective political prisoner pardons presumably designed to forestall untoward foreign protesters from marring the upcoming Sochi Olympic Games and thereby further tarnishing Russia’s image abroad.
First came the release of Viktor Khordorkovsky in a veritable reenactment of Soviet era prisoner exchanges in Berlin. Then out of jail were bounced two still unrepentant young ladies from the irreverent Pussy Riot band and finally Green Peace – all high profile captives charged with crimes and imprisoned at the whim of a capricious fake Czar for deeds that in democratic countries would have passed without notice, jail time, or hence, media mention.
Ahem . . . Busy Elves at Work
At the same time Russia’s secret service emperor magnanimously offered Ukraine a short term bailout so that the Yanukovych government would have to kowtow even more to Moscow’s dictates while eschewing a popular Ukrainian association with the European Union. This association agreement would have also likely resulted in a corruption clean up that could have reached Kiev’s -and possibly Moscow’s - highest places.
Then there was Putin’s tightening of yet another screw on the vestiges of Russian media freedom by abolishing the state owned news agency RIA-Novosti and replacing it with the new Russia Segodnya (Today), designed to lift Russia’s less than stellar image abroad. But is appointing a loudly self-proclaimed hater of gays the right person to head an organization whose target audience is presumably western – not Islamic (or Christian) fundamentalist?
Meanwhile on the international front, earlier in the fall the Russians finally agreed to help rid Syria of the chemical weapons the Russians had helped the Assad regime assemble but only after international inspections zeroed in on Assad’s use of the same against the Syrian population and the US’s decision to use force as the only recourse to deal with them – thereby raising the stakes in that conflagration by several notches against Russian’s single friend in the Middle East.
I’m unimpressed with these grand Russian pre-holiday gestures – like sprinkles of powdered sugar on gingerbread men and women - of supposed peace, mercy and good will which foremost find their roots in fundamental weaknesses of the Russian system of governance: Just more examples of an all too powerful and authoritarian leader dressed in the trappings of democracy bestowing benevolence on his supposedly erring subjects just in time for the holidays as well as bending to international outrage after the horse has long left the barn.
Has nothing changed in Russian political culture since Czar Nicholas I sentenced the Decembrist rebels to exile in Siberia after their failed uprising against his inept rule on December 26, 1825? The Decembrists, at least, had attempted to overthrow the Czar’s arbitrary rule.
But here’s another piece of today’s problem.
Russia’s fundamental weaknesses are not all that different from those of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The country’s economy still rises and falls on the sale of petroleum products on the world market and that price is in decline. The lower the international price of gas and oil, the more the Russian government needs to dig into its reserves to fund its growing ambitions abroad and buy peace at home. The ruble is not a reserve currency, the country’s economy grew by just 1 percent last year and printing too many rubles will simply increase Russian inflation beyond tolerable limits as the Gorbachev government sadly discovered in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, the North Caucasus unrest continues seemingly unabated – despite the KGB’s best efforts - with two suicide bombings in the nearby city of Volgograd between Christmas and New Year’s and the death of the Vice Premier of Dagestan in a car crash on Moscow’s Kutuzovsky Prospekt too soon thereafter. Yes, I know that traffic accidents on icy streets do happen – but the proximity of these events does give rise to speculation.
Will wholesale arrests, detentions and the like be sufficient to keep the bombers away from the Games? For that matter, how will the Putin government deal with the expected gay rights activists? Can he orchestrate a faux peace at home – not to mention good will towards all at least until the last visitor has left Sochi?
Fahmida Riaz: Four Walls and a Black Veil
Pat Sharpe as principal translator of deeply moving Pakistani Feminist Poetry