Sunday, 14 June 2015

Some thoughts on Richard Sakwa's Frontline Ukraine

Ukraine PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk Meets US Vice President Joe Biden

For anyone wishing to get to grips with the current situation in Ukraine, Richard Sakwa's Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands, is an excellent starting point. Aside from the writer's obvious academic expertise on the subject and ability to navigate the general reader through these complicated and fast-moving events, he has managed to produce a remarkably in-depth, up-to-date account of a conflict that has been going on for little more than a year. Of the hundreds of books written about the Bosnian war, I am not aware of any written so soon after that conflict started that have stood the test of time. Yet I am sure that Professor Sakwa's book will feature prominently in reading lists for students of this conflict long after it ends, however long it lasts.

I also agree with much of what he says about the baleful role the EU and NATO have played in stoking the conflict in Ukraine and about the simplistic way in which events have been interpreted as a conflict between European democracy and Russian autocracy. I particularly enjoyed the paragraph on page 220 of my hardback edition, which angrily decries the Western media's "partisanship and profound lack of historical understanding [which] would demean a Third World dictatorship."

Yet, although I agree with Professor Sakwa's criticism of Western policy in Ukraine, I take issue with his defence of Russian involvement. Russia, he believes, is a "conservative and defensive" power seeking to preserve the bases of international law. But while Russia's attempts to prevent Ukraine joining NATO or allying with it could justifiably be seen as defensive, it is clear even from reading Frontline Ukraine that Russia goes much further than this. Not only does Russia want to prevent Ukraine forging a pro-Western foreign policy, it also wants to dictate Ukraine's domestic policies. As Professor Sakwa writes: "The federalisation of Ukraine was certainly a Russian goal." As is clear from his book, Russia is willing to go to great lengths to achieve this goal. While Russia has the right to make its views clear in international forums, surely the idea that it should have any say in how the Ukrainian state apparatus is constituted flies in the face of generally accepted notions of state sovereignty? It is as if, having accepted the Republic of Ireland's full independence in 1949, Britain continued to demand a say in its internal governmental structures, to ensure these accommodated the desires of its Protestant minority.

I believe that the conflict in Ukraine has been caused by outside interference and that if those that outside powers agreed to stop interfering in its affairs, it would end tomorrow . The EU and US have certainly played a big part in stoking this conflict, but as Frontline Ukraine demonstrates, though Professor Sakwa fails to acknowledge it, Russia's approach to Ukraine has been much more than "defensive" and is one of the main impediments to peace in that country.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Vladimir Putin and The Pravoslavny Idea

Probably the most common prediction among Western critics of Putin’s Russia is that if he achieves his aims in Ukraine, he will then turn his attention to the Baltic states.

The idea seems to be that, having successfully intervened in Ukraine, a country with a large Russian speaking population, he would then be emboldened to extend Russian "protection" to Russian speakers in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

But there are some historical differences between Ukraine and the Baltic states, which, judging by comments Putin’s opponents have made about his views on Russia’s role in the world, suggest that he may not be as interested in the Baltic states. One of Putin’s biggest Western critics, the journalist Edward Lucas, believes that Putin is "very keen on ... (the ) Pravoslavny idea," which holds that historically Orthodox Christian countries are part of an eastern civilization that does not lend itself well to Western-style democracy.

This could bode well for the Baltic states because despite their large Russian-speaking populations they are undoubtedly historically Protestant or Catholic rather than Orthodox. If Putin truly regards EU intervention in the Ukraine as an intolerable encroachment in the Orthodox world, he may for the same reason be relaxed about the Baltic states’ membership of the EU and NATO. Russian interference in the Baltics may be a reaction to Western overtures to Orthodox countries such as Georgia and Ukraine rather than a serious attempt to gain influence there.

But Putin’s supposed attachment to the Pravoslavny idea does not mean that further conflict between the West and Russia is unlikely, just that future battlegrounds are likely to be in Orthodox countries rather than Western ones. Western-backed political forces have already come into conflict with Russia in Georgia and Ukraine and could in the future do so in Serbia, Moldova, Belarus and other countries.

Mr Lucas expressed what may well be the true motivation behind EU policy last year when he wrote of Ukraine that: "The political, economic and cultural success of a large, Orthodox, industrialised ex-Soviet country would be the clearest signal possible to the Russians that their thieving, thuggish, lying rulers are not making the country great, but holding it back."  The hope that its eastward advance will ultimately result in the overthrow of Putin rather than the fear that his influence will spread west may be the guiding principle behind EU policy.

Perhaps the EU will succeed in bringing Western-style democracy to the Orthodox world and its yellow-starred flag will one day even fly above a democratically elected Duma. But if Putin really does adhere to the Pravoslavny idea and is only interested in maintaining his grip over Russia and surrounding Orthodox countries, EU countries should ask if it is worth risking further bloody conflict to achieve this aim.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo: Who Provoked Whom?

A 17th Century Painting of Mohammed: Provocative and Offensive?
Two weeks after the Charlie Hebdo murders, a consensus seems to be emerging. The murders were heinous and unforgivable, but they have to be seen in the context of the hugely provocative cartoons the magazine published with the deliberate intention of causing offence. The cartoons reinforced racial prejudices against North African Muslims living in France, helping to perpetuate systematic discrimination against an oppressed minority. The murders, though indefensible, were simply the most extreme manifestation of the anger the cartoons deliberately stirred up.


A brief examination of the events leading up to the Paris murders suggests otherwise.


Charlie Hebdo's blasphemous activities began in 2006, when it reprinted cartoons of Mohammed published the previous year by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten that were greeted death threats and riots. Although the Jyllands-Posten cartoons were as provocative as some of those later published by Charlie Hebdo, they were published as a reaction to an author of a children's book about the life of Mohammed being unable to find illustrators willing to put their names to images regarded as blasphemous by Muslims.

The illustrators may have had good reason to be fearful, given previous violence related to depictions of Mohammed, such as a suspected terrorist plot in 2002 to blow up frescoes containing images of the prophet in a Bologna church. Defiance in the face of this atmosphere of intimidation rather than a desire to cause offence prompted Jyllands-Posten's decision to publish the Mohammed cartoons.


So the origins of the Charlie Hebdo massacre lie not in the cruel way the magazine peddled stereotypes about France's Arab Muslim minority, but in the desire among some Muslims to impose an outright ban on any images of Mohammed and the refusal in some quarters to accept such an imposition.

I believe the French-Algerian commentator Ramdani Nabila gave the game away in the aftermath of the attacks when, having reeled off the usual criticisms of Charlie Hebdo's racism, Islamophobia etc, she stated in response to the seemingly innocuous cover of its "survivors' issue" that, just as you can't be a little bit pregnant, you can't be a little bit blasphemous.

The issue is not the casual prejudice and unfair mockery that French Muslims undoubtedly suffer, but any depiction of Mohammed, whether it be in cartoons, illustrations for children's books or medieval frescoes. This is not about protecting a religious minority from the cruel prejudices of their non-Muslim neighbours. It is a campaign, masked in the language of human rights and minority protection, to import Middle Eastern blasphemy laws that are designed to secure the privileged status of one religion, not to protect anyone from being offended.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Some Thoughts on the Charlie Hebdo Massacre

Could the Charlie Hebdo massacre have happened in a country without a significant Muslim minority?

Certainly there have been many Islamist terrorist atrocities in Western countries with tiny Muslim populations, most notably the September 11 attack in New York, but also in Madrid in 2004 and in Australia late last year.

But while those attacks were motivated by the foreign policy of the affected countries, the target of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, France's free press, was internal. The same is true of the plot to kill cartoonists in Denmark after they published similar images of Mohammed. The attacks in France and Denmark were not directed at blasphemy itself, but the dissemination and widespread display of blasphemous images in countries inhabited by large numbers of Muslims.

Although they employed extreme methods, it seems likely that the Charlie Hebdo murderers were motivated by the same things that anger many peaceful Muslims in France; the depiction in public view of mocking images of one of the most revered figures in their religion. So when the current wave of revulsion and defiance in the wake the Charlie Hebdo attacks subsides, the debate about freedom of speech and Muslims' right not to be offended will resume, probably with renewed force. Sophisticated anti-blasphemists will argue not for a blanket enactment of blasphemy laws but for a series of soft censorship measures designed to shield Muslims’ eyes from depictions of Mohammed. Display of such images in mass media outlets such as national TV stations and newspapers would be out of the question. Niche magazines that publish them, such as Charlie Hebdo, would still be available to those who want them, but they could only buy them by mail order or under the counter, because they would be banished from public display. They could also be viewed on the Internet, possibly with a warning page similar to those that alert web browsers they are about to view adult content.

Proponents of such measures would claim to have devised a solution that allows anyone who wants to view these images to continue doing so while protecting those who are offended by them. They could even point to vaguely similar precedents in Western European countries, such as, to use a UK example, the ban on ferry companies sailing on Sundays to Scottish islands that observe the sabbath strictly, which was was only recently lifted.

But no one could claim that France or any other country that chose to implement anti-blasphemy measures did not have a less free media. True freedom of expression doesn't just mean the right to say anything that does not break libel, incitement and other laws, but being able to say them in the public arena so they can be discussed, debated and derided. This freedom may have some unsavoury consequences, but it is an essential component of European civilisation and it would be folly to relinquish it.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Radovan Karadzic and the Srebrenica Massacre

Srebrenica exhumation: Courtesy of the ICTY

Not all atrocities of the 1992 to 1995 war in Bosnia can be directly attributed to the political leaderships of the ethnic groups involved in the conflict. Some atrocities were directly ordered by political leaders, some were the indirect result of the hatred they stirred up and others came about as a reaction to previous atrocities committed by the other side.

Until now, though it is difficult to believe that an atrocity on the scale of the Srebrenica massacre could have happened without some direct political involvement, most accounts have not put it in the first category, attributing most of the blame for the events on the leader of the Bosnian Serb Army, Ratko Mladic, rather than the Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic. According to James Gow in 'The Serbian Project and its Adversaries' published in 2003: "Mladic's bloody determination in this situation [the Srebrenica massacre] almost certainly means that the Bosnian Serb political leader, Karadzic, was not involved and knew nothing about it."

But a new book by the historian Robert Donia, 'Radovan Karadzic: Architect of the Bosnian Genocide', published in 2014, argues that Radovan Karadzic "planned, ordered, monitored and sought to justify the Srebrenica genocide", a claim which the author acknowledges "varies from many previous journalistic and scholarly accounts of the event, which attribute the leadership and responsibility for the killings to General Mladic."

Dr. Donia notes that authors of previous accounts of events in Srebrenica in July 1995 did not have access to the documents accumulated by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia over the years, which he says demonstrate Karadzic's primary role in the atrocity. In March 1995, Karadzic signed "Directive No. 7", ordering the Bosnian Serb Army to "create an unbearable situation of total insecurity with no hope of further survival or life for the inhabitants of Srebrenica and Zepa, a phrase which Donia argues "led to mass atrocities at Srebrenica." In a session of the Bosnian Serb Assembly in October 1995, Karadzic claimed responsibility for the operations in Srebrenica and the neighbouring enclave Zepa: "As the Supreme Commander, I stood behind the plan for Zepa and Srebrenica. I personally supervised the plan without the knowledge of the Main Staff, not hiding anything, but I happened to run into General Krstic and advised him to go straight into town and pronounce the fall of Srebrenica and later we will chase the Turks around the woods." Chasing "the Turks around the woods" was a reference, Dr. Donia argues, to the pursuit and killing of Bosnian men who formed a column seeking to escape from the besieged Srebrenica enclave to Bosnian Army held territory around Tuzla. The atrocities, whose victims mostly from eastern Bosnian municipalities other than Srebrenica, were committed in the service of "the Bosnian Serb utopian dream" in eastern Bosnia, identified elsewhere in the book as an ethnically pure Serb state.

In the chapter on the Srebrenica massacre and elsewhere, Dr. Donia has uncovered and compiled a mass of evidence that leaves one in little doubt that Karadzic helped to pave the way for atrocities at Srebrenica. But as far as I can see it falls short of demonstrating a direct link between Karadzic's orders and the actual Srebrenica massacre, which mainly took the form of thousands of men being captured then shot dead or killed with grenades. This may be why Donia blames Karadzic for the Srebrenica "genocide", which also covers the expulsion of women and children from the town, rather than the "massacre", a much more specific event.

Interestingly, one of the most damning fragments of evidence cited in the book to demonstrate the Bosnian Serb political leadership's commitment to an ethnically pure state reflects equally badly on the Bosnian Croat political leadership. In January 1992, before the war started in Bosnia, Nikola Koljevic, a Serb member of the Bosnian presidency, and his Croat counterpart Franjo Boras at a meeting in Zagreb discussed dividing Bosnian along ethnic lines. The transcript contains some blood-curdling proposals, such as reconstituting municipalities and initiating population transfers to create "homogenization of certain areas" as Koljevic describes it and Boras's idea of preventing Muslims from settling in Croat and Serb controlled territories by ensuring that building permits are locally controlled. Such attitudes helped pave the way for the atrocities that ensued during the war that started in Bosnia a few months after this discussion.

But I believe Dr. Donia goes too far in arguing that Koljevic and Boras "had agreed on the need for ethnically pure territories", a big jump even from Koljevic's proposal for "homogenization." His book helps to explain why events such as the Srebrenica massacre happened and why these were due to the attitudes and actions of leaders such as Radovan Karadzic, but there is still a need for further debate about the extent to which atrocities during the Bosnian war were due to the Bosnian Serb goal of an ethnically pure state.