Why the UK needs improved caretaker conventions before the election

Open Democracy News Analysis - 4 hours 4 min ago

In 2010, the UK’s underspecified caretaker conventions caused the “Squatter in Downing Street” controversy, when Gordon Brown remained in office after Labour’s election defeat, and the country still lacks adequate rules to govern caretaker situations.

Flickr/gordon 2208. Some rights reserved.

Caretaker periods and their attendant challenges are universal to parliamentary democracies. The government’s mandate to exercise its executive powers stems from its ability to command the confidence of parliament. However, there are points in every parliament’s lifecycle when no government can lay claim to such support - between parliamentary dissolution and a general election; after a general election and before the new government is formed; or when an incumbent government loses the confidence of parliament. During such periods a government must be in place. But in the absence of parliamentary confidence these cabinets lack democratic legitimacy, which can pose significant problems when they are called upon to make controversial and consequential decisions. For this reason, most parliamentary democracies have developed rules to govern these situations, often in the form of constitutional laws.

In the UK, the rules governing caretaker situations have historically been underspecified. As long as elections produced single party parliamentary majorities, this posed no particular problems because government formation did not typically require complex coalition negotiations. Transition periods were short: on average, government formation in the UK took just four days in the period from 1945 to 1994, compared to an average of thirty-nine days for the rest of Western Europe. However, the recently lengthened election timetable, and polls that predict a more fragmented parliament, make clear that the UK is likely to experience a more extended caretaker period in May 2015.

Inadequate caretaker conventions give rise to considerable costs and risks. As the ‘squatter in Downing Street’ episode illustrates, they can generate high-profile political controversy. As a result, parties were forced into unwisely frantic government negotiations in 2010, under tremendous public and media pressure. Moreover, poorly specified caretaker conventions can cause serious economic instability when they fail to ensure that the normal process of government continues largely unhampered. In New Zealand in 1984, for instance, a serious exchange rate crisis was triggered by unclear caretaker conventions in the context of fundamental disagreements between the outgoing prime minister, Sir Robert Muldoon, and the incoming Labour administration over the country’s exchange rate policy. The Reserve Bank was forced to suspend all currency exchange dealings to halt a run on the dollar.

Increasing Vulnerability

Two developments have increased the UK’s vulnerability to crises during caretaker situations. First, the electoral timetable has been lengthened considerably. Following recommendations by the Modernisation Committee, twelve days were added to the period between the election and the first session of the new parliament in 2010, doubling the length of that period compared to the three previous elections. The Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 further extends the length of the general election timetable from seventeen to twenty-five days, excluding weekends and bank holidays. The anticipated cumulative effect of these changes is that ‘[t]he length of time between dissolution and the formation of the next government in 2015, and therefore the length of the caretaker/purdah period, may be considerably greater than for any other election in modern times’. (Remark made by Ruth Fox in her written evidence to House of Lords Library, LLN 2011/002: Constitutional and Parliamentary Effect of Coalition Government, 2011)

Second, these institutional changes are compounded by secular electoral trends that are making hung parliaments and the need for coalition negotiations increasingly likely. The 2010 general elections produced the UK’s second hung parliament and its first coalition since the Second World War. Longitudinal data suggest that partisan de-alignment has steadily eroded the vote share accruing to the Conservative and Labour parties in the postwar era. In the 1955 general election, the two largest parties attained a combined vote share of 96.1 per cent. A mere 8 seats went to MPs from other parties. By 2010, the electoral dominance of the two parties had been significantly eroded—their joint vote share was 65.1 per cent and fully 86 seats went to parties other than the Conservatives and Labour. Pollsters predict another hung parliament in May this year, which is also likely to be characterized by a more complex constellation of political forces than its predecessor.

The UK’s caretaker conventions and their shortcomings

The UK’s current caretaker conventions are part of the Cabinet Manual (2011). They recognise three situations in which ‘governments are expected by convention to observe discretion in initiating any new action of a continuing or long-term character’: ‘in the period immediately preceding an election’, ‘immediately afterwards if the result is unclear’, and ‘following the loss of a vote of confidence’ (§2.27). In all three situations, the same ‘restrictions on government activity’ apply. The government is expected to defer activity such as ‘taking or announcing major policy decisions; entering into large/contentious procurement contracts or significant long-term commitments; and making some senior public appointments and approving Senior Civil Service appointments, provided that such postponement would not be detrimental to the national interest or wasteful of public money’. The Manual further states, ‘[i]f decisions cannot wait they may be handled by temporary arrangements or following relevant consultation with the Opposition’ (§2.29).

However, these conventions still leave the UK vulnerable to crisis and controversy because of three major shortcomings which could easily be addressed.

First, the current rules do not fulfil the central and minimal purpose of caretaker conventions, which is to ensure that the country is never without an acting government. A key gap in the current UK caretaker conventions is the lack of provisions to prevent a caretaker government from resigning. The Cabinet Manual merely notes ‘[r]ecent examples suggest that previous Prime Ministers have not offered their resignations until there was a situation in which clear advice could be given to the Sovereign on who should be asked to form a government. It remains to be seen whether or not these examples will be regarded in future as having established a constitutional convention’ (§2.10). To date, therefore, there is no duty of the incumbent government to remain in office during caretaker periods until the next cabinet is formed.

To ensure effective governance in the transition period, it is essential that the Prime Minister and government do not resign until the next regular government has been formed. Clear expectations about the identity of the government during caretaker periods are critical in effectively managing political and economic uncertainty during those periods. The UK should therefore follow the example of other parliamentary democracies and affirm the first principle of all caretaker conventions: a caretaker government cannot resign until an alternative government has taken office because the country cannot be left without a functioning executive. If the Cabinet Manual is not the appropriate vehicle to introduce such an innovation, it could be securely established by legislation.

Second, the current conventions lack clarity about the termination of caretaker periods. The Cabinet Manual states that ‘[t]he point at which the restrictions on financial and other commitments should come to an end depends on circumstances, but may often be either when a new Prime Minister is appointed by the Sovereign or where a government’s ability to command the confidence of the Commons has been tested in the House of Commons’ (§2.30). A central feature of this guidance is its indeterminacy. In the absence of an investiture vote, there is no clear consensus as to when a government’s ability to command parliamentary support can be considered to have been tested. As the House of Commons Justice Committee concluded, the period in which the caretaker conventions apply should be carefully defined, and the fact that a caretaker period has commenced or concluded should be explicitly announced. Greater clarity would have the merit of helping to manage public expectations and market reactions during transitional periods, and would provide political actors with a clear understanding of the rules and restrictions that are in effect.

Third, the current caretaker conventions do not adequately detail the restrictions on government activity during caretaker periods. If the UK is to be well prepared for the possibility of a lengthy post-election caretaker period, more attention has to be given to the practicalities of applying the caretaker conventions. Caretaker conventions are self-policed; they are thus only effective in so far as all major parties agree in their interpretation of the general principles and accept cross-partisan responsibility for their maintenance and observance. To this end, it is important that all parties understand and agree on shared definitions of what constitutes ‘major policy decisions’, ‘large/contentious procurement contracts’ or relevant appointments, before these issues become contentious. Some Westminster systems have chosen ‘definitions revolving around the monetary value of the contract’, for example, and ‘many have codified the level of appointment [permitted without consultation during the caretaker period] with precision’ (A. Tiernan and J. Menzies (2008). Caretaker Conventions in Australasia. Canberra, ANU E Press, 2008, pp. 36–7.). Similarly critical are appropriate protocols for the consultation process between the government and the opposition, should they become necessary. One central question that requires clarification is the degree of agreement required between parties before decisions can be taken. Another question that ought to be clarified is who should participate in the consultations.

Conclusions

In sum, the UK’s caretaker conventions are inadequate and the price that the country may pay for the political and economic uncertainty that these rules may trigger is potentially high. The polls indicate that the UK is set to elect another hung parliament in May 2015. Policy makers should act now to develop more adequate caretaker rules. Moreover, they must ensure that the media, the markets and the public understand that adequate conventions allow the normal processes of government to continue largely unhampered while a new government is negotiated.

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Could students swing the general election? No, obviously they can’t – and neither can badgers.

Open Democracy News Analysis - 4 hours 4 min ago

The election strategies of “modernised” unions and NGOs are becoming increasingly futile. We need to create mayhem to move the ground from under politicians, not fight on their terrain.

 

For the next three and half months, the general election will dominate every area of public life. Years of strategy and planning and comical manoeuvres and blunders – along with all the social movements and demonstrations and faintly dissenting occupations of public space – will be watered down and blended together by politicians and the mainstream media into a moment which combines ideological blandness with procedural unfairness. This weekend’s hint from Labour that it might replace tuition fees with a graduate tax was a clear example of what is to come – policies undoubtedly rooted in the demands of real movements, but a pale shadow of what anyone actually wanted.

Perhaps the most tedious and futile thing about general election periods is the refusal of pretty much every charity and left-leaning NGO to recognise the broader picture, instead insisting on campaigning around the election as themselves – seeking to mobilise their own supporters over their own narrow set of objectives.

In reality, May 2015 will witness a vote about whether or not Britain’s welfare state continues to exist in any form: on one side will be the washed-up and unimaginative remnants of post-Blair social democracy, on the other a well-honed ideological vision for a privatised society. For Dominic Dyer, however – Chief Executive of the Badger Trust – it is a moment in which “Badgers [will] take centre stage”. The Badger Trust will, accordingly, be campaigning seat-by-seat for candidates which oppose the badger cull – in doing so swinging few, if any, seats, for a mixture of opposing political parties.

If all one cares about is the welfare of badgers, this kind of general election campaign can work as part of a lobbying strategy. But applied for any organisation that wants to see more than minor changes, it is a dead end. The National Union of Students (NUS) is the most glaring example: having produced a manifesto of demands ranging from free higher and further education, to ending immigration and asylum restrictions and effectively abolishing private providers in education, it is making no attempt to mobilise its members in any meaningful sense beyond the ballot box.

An accompanying toolkit for NUS’s “days of action” before the election underlines this in almost comical terms: its suggested actions include running mock car boot sales and coconut shies; direct action and occupations are not mentioned once. In fact since 2010, NUS’s only serious attempt to mobilise its membership on a national scale has been to march a few thousand students to Kennington Park in south London under the banner of ‘educate, employ, empower’ in November 2012.

Back in December, there was a flurry of news stories about the voting power of university students. The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) published a report which seemed to back up NUS’s strategy of focussing entirely on getting students registered to vote, while quietly dismissing its somewhat ‘out there’ claim that “students could swing 200 seats” in May.

There is no particular reason to believe that students will all vote for a single party: the interests of an Eton-schooled Oxbridge student are almost as different as it is possible to imagine to those of a working class student at London Met. But where students do turn out for one party overwhelmingly (44% of them voted Lib Dem in 2010, 16% more than the general population), vanishingly few will do so because they have been told to vote in one way or another by NUS. If political parties are going to promise the abolition of tuition fees, they usually tell people about it themselves.

Even if students did vote entirely for a single party, there are just 9 ‘student seats’ in England (where students are more than 13% of the electorate) in which either the Tories or the Liberal Democrats are first and Labour second, in which the student population exceeds the majority of the incumbent party. Outside of these constituencies, any attempt to swing the seat is reliant on the population at large.

A closer look at the data reveals that students’ impact on constituencies where they are most highly concentrated is by no means straightforward. Labour should benefit overall from the student vote, but with many young Labour voters switching to the Greens, the split vote could benefit the Conservatives in some constituencies. In 2010, a similar swing from Labour to the Liberal Democrats increased a wafer-thin Tory majority in Reading East.

What if, instead of trying to swing a handful of marginal constituencies which are likely to swing anyway, NUS organised another big national demonstration, followed by a series of direct action targeted against the government, putting education funding at the top of the national agenda on the eve of the election? Many of the policies that NUS now advocates are very basic elements of social democratic consensus before Thatcher came to power – but they are now radical, outsider demands.

The only way to put free higher and further education on the political agenda – or rent controls, or a progressive taxation system –is by building a mass, combative movement. In orientating themselves so wholly towards voter mobilisation at the general election, organisations like NUS are fighting on the worst possible terrain: where the ideological consensus is far enough away that no politician of government might give them what they want unless there is external pressure, and where the number of people they can mobilise to vote will probably not make a meaningful difference to the result.

It would be irresponsible to ignore the election. In the era after the defeat of the labour movement in the 1980s, this ritual is, sadly, the closest thing that ordinary people ever get to directly deciding who runs the state. But the slick-looking, professionalised mode of election campaigning pursued by NUS and other leftwing NGOs is out of step with the need for something which many social movements identified almost as soon as the Coalition came to power: a move away from single issues and towards a broader sense of class solidarity and opposition to austerity and neoliberalism.

In the current context, it is not glossy brochures or lobbying strategies that are needed, but politically calculated mayhem. And the “outdated” trade union movement’s strategy of honestly advocating a vote for a political party, while – in theory at least – having a means of holding that party to account, seems almost refreshing, and looks like it will have far more of an impact on the election than badgers and students ever will on their own.

Categories: les flux rss

Defending the status quo: Labour and leftist responses to the Green Surge

Open Democracy News Analysis - 4 hours 4 min ago

Shouts of "you'll let the Tories in!" are again doing the rounds, will it ever be acceptable to vote for a lefty party that isn't Labour?

The Green's Natalie Bennett. Flickr/jonanamary. Some rights reserved.

The ongoing Green Surge—the Green Party of England and Wales now has over 46,000 members—has produced some illogical and politically blinkered responses from progressives both inside and outside of the Labour Party.

In December, before they increased their membership by nearly 20,000 people, the bizarre advice from The Guardian’s Richard Seymour to the Green Party was “to discover their dark side.” Bafflingly, he explained to one challenger that “any real compassion and concern must logically entail a rigorous hatred.”

Tweeting at Green MP Caroline Lucas, feminist writer and Labour supporter Julie Bindel demanded to know “will the Greens hold its policy of legalising and legitimising the international sex trade? This is a deal breaker for many.” Apparently the Labour leadership’s direct responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan men, women and children, it’s pro-austerity policies—which, incidentally, would push women into prostitution—and, er, the future of humanity, are not deal breakers for Bindel.

Finally, there is left-wing Labourite Owen Jones. In his latest Guardian blog Jones sets out some of his arguments for not voting Green, before explaining that Labour should not base its anti-Green strategy on these arguments. By feigning sympathy for their position at the same time as bashing potential Green voters Jones is very much attempting to have his cake and eat it.

Before I get into the detail of Jones’s arguments, I want to make it clear my criticism is not personal – Jones is simply the most prominent, and therefore most influential, figure on the Labour Left. I think Jones does magnificent work in and out of the media spotlight. As I’ve noted previously “Like many on the Left I see Jones as representing ‘my team’ against the Establishment.” However, on the topic of electoral politics the inescapable fact is that Jones is currently acting as a conservative force, attempting to hold back the progressive, arguably radical, surge coming at Labour from the left. Jones wants to increase the number of people voting Labour and decrease the number of people voting Green.

All this leads to some bizarre political contortions. For example, Jones desperately wants Labour to back rail nationalisation to take votes away from Greens – the party that actually backs rail nationalisation.

Talking about Green voters, Jones also snidely comments that “Few of those who claim there is no meaningful difference between a Labour and Tory government are being hammered by the bedroom tax.” This, of course, plays into the popular, though questionable, stereotype of the Green Party as a haven for the middle-class (the Green Surge will likely change the social make-up composition of the Green Party). And it also hides the blindingly obvious fact the Greens are attracting support, including many former Labour voters, precisely because of their emphasis on social and economic justice and their opposition to the bedroom tax.

Echoing the age-old Labour fear-mongering, Jones notes that Green voters could well wake up the day after the election with “buyer’s remorse” when they realise their principled vote has helped another Tory Government into power. Jones, of course, fails to mention the “buyer’s remorse” hundreds of thousands of Labour supporters have felt since 1997 when they realised they helped to elect a New Labour government – again, a key reason many people are switching their vote from Labour to the Greens.

More importantly, Jones seems to be unaware of the history of his own party. Circa 1900 there were two main political parties in the UK. The Tories who, as now, commanded the support of much of the ruling class, and the Liberal Party, whose establishment reformism received substantial support from recently enfranchised working-class voters. The newly born Labour Party – then known as the Labour Representation Committee – won just two MPs in the 1900 election. The Owen Jones’s of the day would have argued that voting for the nascent Labour Party, however unhappy you were with the Liberals, would have split the anti-Tory vote. Luckily for us today, millions of voters ignored such pleas, and voted for the Labour Party, eventually leading to the watershed 1945 election victory. In short, the Labour Party is only a serious contender for power today because people ignored Owen Jones’s argument about not splitting the anti-Tory vote.

But it’s not just early twentieth century history that people wearing their specially-fitted Labour Party blinkers are unable to see and comprehend. Last weekend Jones travelled to Athens to support Syriza’s astonishing election victory. However, Syriza received just 4.7% of the vote in the 2009 Greek election. PASOK, Greece’s equivalent of the British Labour Party, received 43.9% of the vote, winning the election. Following PASOK’s support for the savage austerity agenda, by the June 2012 election Syriza had become the second party in Greece with 26.9% of the vote, while PASOK had slipped to third place, gaining just 12.3% of the vote. So, again, it needs to be emphasised that if Syriza supporters had followed Jones’s logic and voted for Greece’s Labour Party, PASOK, then Syriza would never have been in a position to win the last week’s election.

There is an obvious question for those who scream “You’ll let the Tories in!” at any progressives who vote for anyone other than Labour: when, exactly, will it be safe for people to vote for a left-wing party other than Labour? The answer for those keen to protect the political status quo, of course, is never. Luckily many people are ignoring this conservative argument and joining and voting for the Green Party in increasing numbers.

 

Categories: les flux rss

Islamic State: the unknown war

Open Democracy News Analysis - 28. January 2015 - 23:07

Western states express optimism about the anti-jihadist campaign in Syria-Iraq. A report from a high-level meeting in London offers another view.    

At the multinational conference on Iraq held in London on 22 January 2015, the United States secretary of state John Kerry was able to claim that the tide was turning in the war against Islamic State. The evidence cited includes well over 2,000 airstrikes since August 2014, Iraqi army ground incursions backed by coalition support, more than 700 km sq of territory retaken, thousands of Islamic State fighters killed, hundreds of military vehicles destroyed, and half of Islamic State’s top military commanders “eliminated”.

If what Kerry says is accurate, then Islamic State must be facing serious problems. The narrative is supported by reports that the Iraqi army is planning an assault later this year to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city which lies at the core of Islamic State’s rapid expansion in June 2014. Moreover, Kurdish sources claim that their peshmerga forces are now in control of the fiercely contested town of Kobane in northern Syria.

If the claim about the Islamic State military commanders is accurate that would be the biggest blow so far to the movement. Many of these men are Iraqi and they are among the most experienced paramilitary fighters to be found anywhere in the world. Many survived the long and bitter shadow war fought with United States and British special forces in central Iraq from 2004-07, especially Operation Arcadia in 2006; some are also veterans of the action that killed Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, the then leader of al-Qaida in Iraq - the antecedent  of Islamic State - in June 2006.

On all these counts, then, the west's campaign seems to be making serious progress - quite a change from the gloomy predictions in the last months of 2014. The problem is that appearances may deceive. At least, there are indications of very different dynamics at work.

Between the lines

It is not just the repeated indications of a surge in recruits to Islamic State from abroad, reportedly running at around 1,000 a month to add to close to 20,000 already there. The numbers from western states may be in the very low hundreds, but a range of countries across the Middle East and north Africa - not least Morocco, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia - remain a significant source of new operatives, There are also clear signals that some western ground-troops are already becoming involved in direct combat with Islamic State.

Defense News reports in recent days that Canadian special forces operating with Iraqi and Kurdish forces in north-east Iraq close to Islamic State positions came under mortar and machine-gun attack, with Canadian snipers responding. They were part of a group of sixty-nine that has also been involved in target-designation for coalition aircraft, illuminating the targets with lasers. Defense News commented aptly that it was "a surprising bit of openness about a mission often clouded in secrecy”. It is certainly the case that United States, British and Australian military sources have been far more cautious about the activities of their own special forces - all known to be operating in Iraq, and some quite possibly in Syria as well.

Since then, there have been other Canadian special-force contacts with Islamic State fighters. Military Times reports this from a widely circulated Associated Press wire, adding an almost poetic gloss: “Canadian special forces in northern Iraq have engaged in two more firefights against Islamic State group militants, but Canada’s government denies they’re involved in combat”. On its own this is a reasonably clear indication of mission-creep  - the one remaining issue being to define when “combat” is “not combat”, with that distinction apparently the responsibility of government not media.

A revealing reverse

There is, however, a far more striking illustration of this "war of new connections". This relates to Britain's involvement and a decision that has been almost entirely missed by the country's media. 

The defence secretary Michael Fallon announced in December 2014 that Britain was going to commit hundreds of troops to a new mission to help retrain the Iraqi army. A battalion-sized group involving around 200 trainers supported by a strong protection force of a broadly similar size, this “heavy” force was scheduled for deployment in January 2015.

The current edition of Jane’s Defence Weekly, the authoritative defence publication, says that the entire plan has been put on hold. The troops will not, after all, be sent in the foreseeable future. The core reason is most indicative both of domestic priorities and of the real state of affairs in Syria-Iraq.

The decision, reports Jane’s, was taken at a meeting of the UK's national-security council (NSC) on 16 December  2014, chaired by prime minister David Cameron. “According to senior defence sources in London, fears that UK troops could be killed or taken hostage in the run-up to the UK general election in May were behind the rejection of the plans” (see Tim Ripley, "UK puts training Iraq mission on hold", Jane's Defence Weekly, 19 January 2015).

The political calculation is all too obvious. For a government facing a tight election and a public expressing strong opposition to further British involvement in wars in the Middle East, the prospect of video of captured soldiers in orange jump-suits prior to execution by beheading was too difficult to contemplate.

This kind of development helps explain why it is hard to assess the true course of the war against Islamic State. All that can be said is that some accounts of what is happening simply do not gel with the optimistic statements from John Kerry. Islamic State may have experienced some recent reversals, but that it is anywhere near defeat seems highly unlikely.

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Department of peace studies, Bradford University

Oxford Research Group

Costs of War

Remote Control Project

Paul Rogers, Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto, 3rd edition, 2010)

Every Casualty

Paul Rogers, Global Security and the War on Terror: Elite Power and the Illusion of Control (Routledge, 2007)

Long War Journal

Related stories:  Islamic State, a view from Raqqa America and Islamic State: mission creeping? Islamic State vs its far enemy Islamic State: from the inside A letter from Raqqa Islamic State: from the inside The Islamic State war: Iraq's echo Topics:  Conflict International politics Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
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Russian nationalism can be deadly

Open Democracy News Analysis - 28. January 2015 - 17:22

As the trial of an extreme Russian nationalist organisation continues in Moscow this month, the parents of one of their victims try to come to terms with what has happened.

The cemetery in Sevastopol, Crimea is on the edge of the city. The rain is unceasing. The parents of 25-year-old Anastasia Baburova, Eduard and Larisa, stand in front of their daughter’s white marble grave, laid with fresh roses, slightly bent (‘So that no one can re-sell them’). The gravestone has a portrait of Baburova, together with the anarchist slogan, ‘My homeland is all mankind.’ Anastasia was an anarchist.

‘They’re winter daffodils, and they can withstand the cold. I want flowers to grow near Nastya, always,’ says Larisa, pointing out the little green bushes with shiny leaves, which look like snowdrops.

Anastasia Baburova, killed by members of BORN in January 2009. On 19 January 2009, Anastasia Baburova was gunned down alongside Stanislav Markelov, in central Moscow. While Markelov, a human rights defender, had provided legal support to people involved in Russian anti-fascism, Baburova, an anti-fascist herself, was a reporter for opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Six weeks later, a previously unknown group, the Military Organisation of Russian Nationalists (BORN), announced that it was responsible for these murders. In 2011, Nikita Tikhonov and his partner Evgenia Khasis, members of BORN, were sentenced for the murder of Markelov. Tikhonov received life imprisonment; Khasis – 18 years. Four other members of BORN are currently on trial in Moscow. Among other offences, they stand accused of several murders, including a Moscow judge and an anti-fascist activist. 

Six years later, Baburova’s parents agreed to recount how they came to study the destructive power of extreme nationalism, and the progress made on bringing the killers to justice. 

A chance victim

‘After the funeral it was so difficult to go back to work’ says Larisa, who teaches at Sevastopol’s University of Nuclear Energy and Industry. ‘The first time I went into the lecture hall, I couldn't look up, so the students put a piece of paper on my desk with the words “Hello, Larisa Ivanovna!” I was afraid I’d break down, so I silently took the chalk and wrote the assignment on the board. It was only then I could talk. Now work is everything for me. But when things are hard I come here, to my daughter.’ 

‘He snapped us from all angles, trying to scare us.’

Sitting round a table in their flat, Eduard and Larisa recall the first day of the Tikhonov-Khasis trial. A right-wing radical tried to photograph them. ‘He was taking pictures, but I couldn't see his face, only the nose sticking out of his scarf. He snapped us from all angles, trying to scare us.’

‘On 19 January 2009, I came home after work on autopilot,’ says Larisa Ivanovna. ‘I didn't change out of my work clothes. It was as if I expected something. I switched off and fell asleep half sitting, which I've never done before’ she remembers in a trembling voice. ‘In my sleep I heard the telephone, my niece was ringing from Moscow very upset. She asked for Nastya’s telephone number. Fifteen minutes later another call: “Nastya’s been shot, but don't worry, she's in hospital.” Larisa continues, her voice breaking: ‘We rushed to buy plane tickets, then ran home. Our relatives came round and told us that Nastya had died.’ 

According to CCTV footage, Anastasia was shot at 2.22 pm. A minute later, the killer, dressed in black, rushed into the Kropotkinskaya metro station. Anastasia was shot when she tried to stop the killer. ‘We didn’t know that he had shot her on purpose,’ says Larisa Ivanovna. ‘We thought she was hit by a bullet because she was walking beside [Markelov].’ It was only half an hour later that a passing pensioner called an ambulance. Meanwhile, Anastasia was bleeding to death on one of Moscow’s central streets. 

Anastasia was bleeding to death on one of Moscow’s central streets.

In the two-room apartment in the centre of Sevastopol, everything reminds the parents of their murdered daughter. A school portrait hangs in the corner, her room is just as it was: left-wing history books, pencil drawings and binoculars with the label still on.

‘Here’s a magazine with her articles,’ says Eduard Baburov. The magazine is published by Autonomous Action, a group whose main goal is self-government and direct democracy. Nastya became a member of this organisation the day before she died. ‘She was always independent,’ says her father. ‘She even went to the kindergarten alone. I had to walk 50 metres behind her.’ 

Antifa

Eduard and Larisa tell me that their daughter wrote to them regularly – twice a week. But she said nothing about her political views. ‘She was a good conspirator, she changed her telephone number regularly and didn’t even give us her address,’ says her mother, sighing. ‘It was very irritating! We didn't know that she was going to the trials of neo-Nazi groups, and was being very careful for this reason.

‘We found out about all this after her death. I couldn’t settle down to anything and was reading everything that was written about Nastya on the internet. They had taken everything we had. We couldn’t stick our head in the sand,’ says Larisa, remembering how she studied the street protests at the end of the 2000s. ‘I visited Russian nationalist sites like Aleksandr Potkin’s Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), Maksim Martsinkevich’s Format 18, and Dmitry Dyomushkin’s Slavic Union (which later became Slavic Power).’ Here, Larisa found posts in response to killings: ‘the Russophobes have been dispatched to hell’; ‘the journalist girl kicked the bucket in intensive care.’ She was shocked that people could react like this. She had never encountered anything like it before. 

‘We first heard the word antifa [anti-fascist] in 2003, by chance,’ says Eduard. ‘It was pouring with rain. Nastya had been staying with us and left her wet rucksack behind when she left.’ Her mother takes up the story: ‘I decided to dry it out, so I shook out all the contents and we found a little brochure called The Red Antifa Book. The preface talked about how you could be killed for owning this book in Russia today. I read it, but I didn’t understand a word. It wasn’t real.’

‘We were very worried and we asked Nastya, “What's antifa?” She just smiled knowingly. That was the first time we heard the name Markelov.’ A human rights defender, Stanislav Markelov was known for his work representing the family of Elza Kungaeva who was kidnapped and murdered by Colonel Yury Budanov in Chechnya; defending the victims of the 2002 Nord-Ost theatre siege; and the mass OMON beatings in Blagoveshchensk, Bashkiriya, in 2004. Markelov, a trained lawyer, not only defended anti-fascist interests and the relatives of murder victims, but was actively involved in the movement itself.

Moscow metamorphosis

In Moscow, Anastasia went to study at MGIMO, Moscow’s prestigious Institute of International Relations. She studied French, English and Chinese, though she dropped out of her course halfway through the second year, with no explanation. ‘I went to Moscow to try and put her back on the right path, even if it meant joining the paying course,’ remembers Eduard. ‘I was told in the registry office that she had had top marks throughout, and that she only had one exam to finish. She would’ve made the grades for a free ride.’

‘But Nastya wasn't having any of it,’ says Larisa. ‘She didn’t want to talk about it. She was staying at the journalism faculty at Moscow State University, and that was it. She found MGIMO difficult both morally and materially. It was all the children of diplomats. Everyone knew everyone, and she didn’t feel at home there. 

‘As soon as she moved to Russia, she was in touch with the anti-fascists. She felt more at home with them. She learnt a lot during the 1990s. Salaries in Sevastopol weren’t paid for years. The central heating didn’t work for three years in a row. When it all started, I was so worried about how we were going to live. I sent Nastya to a children’s holiday camp for a month just because there, at least, she’d be properly fed.’

‘When she was at the university, she used to do self-defence. When she came home she would show off her biceps. I would say to her, “If anyone wants to attack you, then you will lie there and die, and no one will help you,”’ says Larisa, not looking at us. ‘She would reply with tears in her eyes: “Mum, do you think I’m going to live for a long time?”’

Russian Image

Files with all the transcripts of conversations recorded in neo-Nazi apartments lie on the table. Larisa has carefully studied the evidence given by Nikita Tikhonov and his common-law wife Yegenia Khasis during the trial. ‘Murderers can be maniacs or people steeped in ideology: the former kill everyone, but the fascists choose their targets on ideological grounds,’ says an agitated Larisa Ivanovna. ‘Here’s Tikhonov telling Khasis: “We were in a car with an ‘animal.’ I felt as if I’d eaten something past its sell-by-date. I just want to take him out. The only thing that stopped me was that I didn’t know the area we were driving through.”’

Nikita Tikhonov and Yevgeniya Khasis were convicted of the murder of Anastasia Baburov in 2011. (c) RIA Novosti/Ruslan Krivobok

The most striking passages are marked in colour, and found their way into Larisa’s speech at the 2011 trial of Khasis and Tikhonov: ‘I’ll never believe in their repentance, my eternal curse is on the murderers, the organisers, and the people who ordered the killing. Who needs their repentance? It won’t bring Nastya back.’ 

‘Who needs their repentance? It won’t bring Nastya back.’

In November 2014, new judicial proceedings began in relation to BORN. As these proceedings developed, Tikhonov and Khasis stated that people with links to the Presidential Administration and Ilya Goryachev, the leader of extreme nationalist organisation Russian Image, were complicit in organising the killings. While the Presidential Administration later denied any such links, Tikhonov and the 32-year-old Goryachev had known each other since at least 2004, when they started publishing the Russian Image magazine together. ‘I had already read about the concept behind Russian Image before the trial,’ says Larisa, quoting the organisation’s slogan: ‘It’s not a gang, a propaganda agency or a political party, but all of them together. We know the names of all our friends and enemies, and each one of them can count on individual approach!’ 

‘In his interviews, Goryachev said that the nationalists wanted to take power in any way possible,’ says Larisa Baburova. She admits that the Presidential Administration may have had a hand in it too. ‘Those two [Tikhonov and Goryachev] made friends there as speechwriters, and thought they could do the job themselves. In Russia, everyone dreams of running something.’  

Aleksandr Potkin, leader of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, has said that Tikhonov wrote speeches, even possibly for former Finance Minister and political heavyweight Boris Fyodorov and the current Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov. Goryachev was working in the PR department for the TV Channel Spas, which promotes Russian Orthodoxy. 

Instructions for murderers

‘Today, the BORN trial is making progress, as is the Tikhonov-Khasis case,’ says Larisa. She fetches the step-by-step guide for ‘prisoners in ZOG torture chambers’. This foreign acronym refers to the ‘Zionist Occupation Government’, the bugbear of all ‘Russian patriots’. The document, found in a nationalist flat, is illustrated with an eagle squeezing a swastika in its talons. ‘People were shocked that Tikhonov and Khasis had slit their veins [in 2011], but the first point of the instruction booklet is about to kill yourself.’ 

While Khasis and Tikhonov did not manage to kill themseves, Ilya Goryachev and Maksim Baklagin, members of BORN on trial in December 2014, also attempted suicide in pre-trial detention. Both stated that they were pressured by the security services.

‘Don’t look a cop in the eyes, look at the floor,’ Larisa reads, forcefully. ‘Deny any guilt and don’t get drawn into innocent questioning. If you betray your comrades, you’ll get a longer sentence – penalties for group crime are tougher.’ This is why the suspects in the BORN trial accused have denied the existence of any group. Yuri Tikhomirov and Mikhail Volkov, another BORN suspect, are particularly adamant that they did not belong to any group.

‘Other cases have demonstrated that trial by jury is preferable. The jurors in the case of the Tadjik child only found the accused guilty of hooliganism, and one of them was acquitted completely.’ The child referred to here is 8-year-old Khursheda Sultonova, who was murdered in February 2004 in St Petersburg. Only two of the murderers were sentenced to life imprisonment. 

‘Khasis is now saying that she regrets having anything to do with the murders and is sorry for the victims. But this is pure hypocrisy,’ says Eduard Baburov. ‘She was in charge. Tikhonov decided to delay the attack, which was planned for the next day, because he was always anxious before a murder and hadn’t slept. But Khasis said “I’ll find replacements. Give me 100 bullets and I’ll go.”’

Confession

Anastasia's parents are convinced that Tikhonov confessed under the influence of his father, a retired security services officer. After his father painted an eloquent picture of the likelihood of Nikita rotting away in prison, Tikhonov decided to do a deal with the investigation in the hope he would get better conditions – no Arctic prison camp, at least. 

Khasis, 29, explained her motives in cooperating with the investigation on a BORN support site: ‘I shall give evidence in this case within the limits of what I know. I have become free.’ Later she added, ‘This is not a fight with Ilya [Goryachev] or the Presidential Administration. That would be funny, really it would. My fight is quite another one. It’s with myself, a search for answers to questions which cause me agonising pain, which divide my life into “before” and “after”, as if with a razor.’ 

‘Goryachev’s lawyers are sure that it’s because he gave evidence against Tikhonov and Khasis, now they’re going to take their chance to get their own back,’ says Larisa Ivanovna. ‘But no one made Sergei Golubev give evidence against Goryachev!’

Known as ‘Agent’, 31-year old Sergei Golubev was a vocalist for an ultra right-wing band Terror National Front, and co-ordinated advertising for the ultra-right group Blood and Honour. At the 2011 trial of Tikhonov and Khasis, Golubev said that, a few days before the murders, Ilya Goryachev had warned him that ‘within the next two weeks something is going to happen and there could be police raids’, so it would be better to disappear. Goryachev did just that. At the time of the Markelov and Baburova murders, Golubev had an alibi: the right-wing radical was on holiday in Serbia. 

The best memorial

‘A just sentence would be the best memorial.’

‘Nastya liked playing in this courtyard here,’ says Larisa as she sees me out. ‘We had our wedding party here and the Vladimir Cathedral is over there, which is where Nastya’s funeral was held. It’s good that she and Markelov are remembered.’ 

Every year on 19 January, friends and supporters of Baburova and Markelov hold a march in their memory in Moscow. This year several hundred people turned out to take part.

‘The demonstrations in memory of Nastya and Stas [Markelov] are helpful,’ says Larisa, ‘they support us. The recordings in the neo-Nazi apartment made it clear that the suspects acted together. A just sentence would be the best memorial.’

Sideboxes Related stories:  Defending the indefensible Prisoners without conscience Mother’s boys: conversations with the parents of Russia’s neo-Nazis Country or region:  Russia Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Categories: les flux rss

Russian nationalism can be deadly

Open Democracy News Analysis - 28. January 2015 - 17:22

As the trial of an extreme Russian nationalist organisation continues in Moscow this month, the parents of one of their victims try to come to terms with what has happened.

The cemetery in Sevastopol, Crimea is on the edge of the city. The rain is unceasing. The parents of 25-year-old Anastasia Baburova, Eduard and Larisa, stand in front of their daughter’s white marble grave, laid with fresh roses, slightly bent (‘So that no one can re-sell them’). The gravestone has a portrait of Baburova, together with the anarchist slogan, ‘My homeland is all mankind.’ Anastasia was an anarchist.

‘They’re winter daffodils, and they can withstand the cold. I want flowers to grow near Nastya, always,’ says Larisa, pointing out the little green bushes with shiny leaves, which look like snowdrops.

Anastasia Baburova, killed by members of BORN in January 2009. On 19 January 2009, Anastasia Baburova was gunned down alongside Stanislav Markelov, in central Moscow. While Markelov, a human rights defender, had provided legal support to people involved in Russian anti-fascism, Baburova, an anti-fascist herself, was a reporter for opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Six weeks later, a previously unknown group, the Military Organisation of Russian Nationalists (BORN), announced that it was responsible for these murders. In 2011, Nikita Tikhonov and his partner Evgenia Khasis, members of BORN, were sentenced for the murder of Markelov. Tikhonov received life imprisonment; Khasis – 18 years. Four other members of BORN are currently on trial in Moscow. Among other offences, they stand accused of several murders, including a Moscow judge and an anti-fascist activist. 

Six years later, Baburova’s parents agreed to recount how they came to study the destructive power of extreme nationalism, and the progress made on bringing the killers to justice. 

A chance victim

‘After the funeral it was so difficult to go back to work’ says Larisa, who teaches at Sevastopol’s University of Nuclear Energy and Industry. ‘The first time I went into the lecture hall, I couldn't look up, so the students put a piece of paper on my desk with the words “Hello, Larisa Ivanovna!” I was afraid I’d break down, so I silently took the chalk and wrote the assignment on the board. It was only then I could talk. Now work is everything for me. But when things are hard I come here, to my daughter.’ 

‘He snapped us from all angles, trying to scare us.’

Sitting round a table in their flat, Eduard and Larisa recall the first day of the Tikhonov-Khasis trial. A right-wing radical tried to photograph them. ‘He was taking pictures, but I couldn't see his face, only the nose sticking out of his scarf. He snapped us from all angles, trying to scare us.’

‘On 19 January 2009, I came home after work on autopilot,’ says Larisa Ivanovna. ‘I didn't change out of my work clothes. It was as if I expected something. I switched off and fell asleep half sitting, which I've never done before’ she remembers in a trembling voice. ‘In my sleep I heard the telephone, my niece was ringing from Moscow very upset. She asked for Nastya’s telephone number. Fifteen minutes later another call: “Nastya’s been shot, but don't worry, she's in hospital.” Larisa continues, her voice breaking: ‘We rushed to buy plane tickets, then ran home. Our relatives came round and told us that Nastya had died.’ 

According to CCTV footage, Anastasia was shot at 2.22 pm. A minute later, the killer, dressed in black, rushed into the Kropotkinskaya metro station. Anastasia was shot when she tried to stop the killer. ‘We didn’t know that he had shot her on purpose,’ says Larisa Ivanovna. ‘We thought she was hit by a bullet because she was walking beside [Markelov].’ It was only half an hour later that a passing pensioner called an ambulance. Meanwhile, Anastasia was bleeding to death on one of Moscow’s central streets. 

Anastasia was bleeding to death on one of Moscow’s central streets.

In the two-room apartment in the centre of Sevastopol, everything reminds the parents of their murdered daughter. A school portrait hangs in the corner, her room is just as it was: left-wing history books, pencil drawings and binoculars with the label still on.

‘Here’s a magazine with her articles,’ says Eduard Baburov. The magazine is published by Autonomous Action, a group whose main goal is self-government and direct democracy. Nastya became a member of this organisation the day before she died. ‘She was always independent,’ says her father. ‘She even went to the kindergarten alone. I had to walk 50 metres behind her.’ 

Antifa

Eduard and Larisa tell me that their daughter wrote to them regularly – twice a week. But she said nothing about her political views. ‘She was a good conspirator, she changed her telephone number regularly and didn’t even give us her address,’ says her mother, sighing. ‘It was very irritating! We didn't know that she was going to the trials of neo-Nazi groups, and was being very careful for this reason.

‘We found out about all this after her death. I couldn’t settle down to anything and was reading everything that was written about Nastya on the internet. They had taken everything we had. We couldn’t stick our head in the sand,’ says Larisa, remembering how she studied the street protests at the end of the 2000s. ‘I visited Russian nationalist sites like Aleksandr Potkin’s Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), Maksim Martsinkevich’s Format 18, and Dmitry Dyomushkin’s Slavic Union (which later became Slavic Power).’ Here, Larisa found posts in response to killings: ‘the Russophobes have been dispatched to hell’; ‘the journalist girl kicked the bucket in intensive care.’ She was shocked that people could react like this. She had never encountered anything like it before. 

‘We first heard the word antifa [anti-fascist] in 2003, by chance,’ says Eduard. ‘It was pouring with rain. Nastya had been staying with us and left her wet rucksack behind when she left.’ Her mother takes up the story: ‘I decided to dry it out, so I shook out all the contents and we found a little brochure called The Red Antifa Book. The preface talked about how you could be killed for owning this book in Russia today. I read it, but I didn’t understand a word. It wasn’t real.’

‘We were very worried and we asked Nastya, “What's antifa?” She just smiled knowingly. That was the first time we heard the name Markelov.’ A human rights defender, Stanislav Markelov was known for his work representing the family of Elza Kungaeva who was kidnapped and murdered by Colonel Yury Budanov in Chechnya; defending the victims of the 2002 Nord-Ost theatre siege; and the mass OMON beatings in Blagoveshchensk, Bashkiriya, in 2004. Markelov, a trained lawyer, not only defended anti-fascist interests and the relatives of murder victims, but was actively involved in the movement itself.

Moscow metamorphosis

In Moscow, Anastasia went to study at MGIMO, Moscow’s prestigious Institute of International Relations. She studied French, English and Chinese, though she dropped out of her course halfway through the second year, with no explanation. ‘I went to Moscow to try and put her back on the right path, even if it meant joining the paying course,’ remembers Eduard. ‘I was told in the registry office that she had had top marks throughout, and that she only had one exam to finish. She would’ve made the grades for a free ride.’

‘But Nastya wasn't having any of it,’ says Larisa. ‘She didn’t want to talk about it. She was staying at the journalism faculty at Moscow State University, and that was it. She found MGIMO difficult both morally and materially. It was all the children of diplomats. Everyone knew everyone, and she didn’t feel at home there. 

‘As soon as she moved to Russia, she was in touch with the anti-fascists. She felt more at home with them. She learnt a lot during the 1990s. Salaries in Sevastopol weren’t paid for years. The central heating didn’t work for three years in a row. When it all started, I was so worried about how we were going to live. I sent Nastya to a children’s holiday camp for a month just because there, at least, she’d be properly fed.’

‘When she was at the university, she used to do self-defence. When she came home she would show off her biceps. I would say to her, “If anyone wants to attack you, then you will lie there and die, and no one will help you,”’ says Larisa, not looking at us. ‘She would reply with tears in her eyes: “Mum, do you think I’m going to live for a long time?”’

Russian Image

Files with all the transcripts of conversations recorded in neo-Nazi apartments lie on the table. Larisa has carefully studied the evidence given by Nikita Tikhonov and his common-law wife Yegenia Khasis during the trial. ‘Murderers can be maniacs or people steeped in ideology: the former kill everyone, but the fascists choose their targets on ideological grounds,’ says an agitated Larisa Ivanovna. ‘Here’s Tikhonov telling Khasis: “We were in a car with an ‘animal.’ I felt as if I’d eaten something past its sell-by-date. I just want to take him out. The only thing that stopped me was that I didn’t know the area we were driving through.”’

Nikita Tikhonov and Yevgeniya Khasis were convicted of the murder of Anastasia Baburov in 2011. (c) RIA Novosti/Ruslan Krivobok

The most striking passages are marked in colour, and found their way into Larisa’s speech at the 2011 trial of Khasis and Tikhonov: ‘I’ll never believe in their repentance, my eternal curse is on the murderers, the organisers, and the people who ordered the killing. Who needs their repentance? It won’t bring Nastya back.’ 

‘Who needs their repentance? It won’t bring Nastya back.’

In November 2014, new judicial proceedings began in relation to BORN. As these proceedings developed, Tikhonov and Khasis stated that people with links to the Presidential Administration and Ilya Goryachev, the leader of extreme nationalist organisation Russian Image, were complicit in organising the killings. While the Presidential Administration later denied any such links, Tikhonov and the 32-year-old Goryachev had known each other since at least 2004, when they started publishing the Russian Image magazine together. ‘I had already read about the concept behind Russian Image before the trial,’ says Larisa, quoting the organisation’s slogan: ‘It’s not a gang, a propaganda agency or a political party, but all of them together. We know the names of all our friends and enemies, and each one of them can count on individual approach!’ 

‘In his interviews, Goryachev said that the nationalists wanted to take power in any way possible,’ says Larisa Baburova. She admits that the Presidential Administration may have had a hand in it too. ‘Those two [Tikhonov and Goryachev] made friends there as speechwriters, and thought they could do the job themselves. In Russia, everyone dreams of running something.’  

Aleksandr Potkin, leader of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, has said that Tikhonov wrote speeches, even possibly for former Finance Minister and political heavyweight Boris Fyodorov and the current Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov. Goryachev was working in the PR department for the TV Channel Spas, which promotes Russian Orthodoxy. 

Instructions for murderers

‘Today, the BORN trial is making progress, as is the Tikhonov-Khasis case,’ says Larisa. She fetches the step-by-step guide for ‘prisoners in ZOG torture chambers’. This foreign acronym refers to the ‘Zionist Occupation Government’, the bugbear of all ‘Russian patriots’. The document, found in a nationalist flat, is illustrated with an eagle squeezing a swastika in its talons. ‘People were shocked that Tikhonov and Khasis had slit their veins [in 2011], but the first point of the instruction booklet is about to kill yourself.’ 

While Khasis and Tikhonov did not manage to kill themseves, Ilya Goryachev and Maksim Baklagin, members of BORN on trial in December 2014, also attempted suicide in pre-trial detention. Both stated that they were pressured by the security services.

‘Don’t look a cop in the eyes, look at the floor,’ Larisa reads, forcefully. ‘Deny any guilt and don’t get drawn into innocent questioning. If you betray your comrades, you’ll get a longer sentence – penalties for group crime are tougher.’ This is why the suspects in the BORN trial accused have denied the existence of any group. Yuri Tikhomirov and Mikhail Volkov, another BORN suspect, are particularly adamant that they did not belong to any group.

‘Other cases have demonstrated that trial by jury is preferable. The jurors in the case of the Tadjik child only found the accused guilty of hooliganism, and one of them was acquitted completely.’ The child referred to here is 8-year-old Khursheda Sultonova, who was murdered in February 2004 in St Petersburg. Only two of the murderers were sentenced to life imprisonment. 

‘Khasis is now saying that she regrets having anything to do with the murders and is sorry for the victims. But this is pure hypocrisy,’ says Eduard Baburov. ‘She was in charge. Tikhonov decided to delay the attack, which was planned for the next day, because he was always anxious before a murder and hadn’t slept. But Khasis said “I’ll find replacements. Give me 100 bullets and I’ll go.”’

Confession

Anastasia's parents are convinced that Tikhonov confessed under the influence of his father, a retired security services officer. After his father painted an eloquent picture of the likelihood of Nikita rotting away in prison, Tikhonov decided to do a deal with the investigation in the hope he would get better conditions – no Arctic prison camp, at least. 

Khasis, 29, explained her motives in cooperating with the investigation on a BORN support site: ‘I shall give evidence in this case within the limits of what I know. I have become free.’ Later she added, ‘This is not a fight with Ilya [Goryachev] or the Presidential Administration. That would be funny, really it would. My fight is quite another one. It’s with myself, a search for answers to questions which cause me agonising pain, which divide my life into “before” and “after”, as if with a razor.’ 

‘Goryachev’s lawyers are sure that it’s because he gave evidence against Tikhonov and Khasis, now they’re going to take their chance to get their own back,’ says Larisa Ivanovna. ‘But no one made Sergei Golubev give evidence against Goryachev!’

Known as ‘Agent’, 31-year old Sergei Golubev was a vocalist for an ultra right-wing band Terror National Front, and co-ordinated advertising for the ultra-right group Blood and Honour. At the 2011 trial of Tikhonov and Khasis, Golubev said that, a few days before the murders, Ilya Goryachev had warned him that ‘within the next two weeks something is going to happen and there could be police raids’, so it would be better to disappear. Goryachev did just that. At the time of the Markelov and Baburova murders, Golubev had an alibi: the right-wing radical was on holiday in Serbia. 

The best memorial

‘A just sentence would be the best memorial.’

‘Nastya liked playing in this courtyard here,’ says Larisa as she sees me out. ‘We had our wedding party here and the Vladimir Cathedral is over there, which is where Nastya’s funeral was held. It’s good that she and Markelov are remembered.’ 

Every year on 19 January, friends and supporters of Baburova and Markelov hold a march in their memory in Moscow. This year several hundred people turned out to take part.

‘The demonstrations in memory of Nastya and Stas [Markelov] are helpful,’ says Larisa, ‘they support us. The recordings in the neo-Nazi apartment made it clear that the suspects acted together. A just sentence would be the best memorial.’

Sideboxes Related stories:  Defending the indefensible Prisoners without conscience Mother’s boys: conversations with the parents of Russia’s neo-Nazis Country or region:  Russia Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Categories: les flux rss

Yemen: descent into anarchy

Open Democracy News Analysis - 28. January 2015 - 16:44

With the resignation of its president and prime minister, Yemen lacks the capacity to steer its political transition towards the goal of greater stability. The alternative, however, does not bear thinking about.

Will he grow up in a united country? Flickr / Martin Sojka. Some rights reserved. 

Recent violence in Yemen points to the resurgence of tribal fault-lines which were previously managed by playing off interest groups against one another or, in more recent years, seeking to redistribute political power federally under the National Dialogue Conference (NDC).

The NDC initiated a political transition, with ambitions for security sector reform and a more vigorous counter-terrorism strategy to combat al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula (AQAP). Now, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG), which has been keeping a watching brief on the country’s progress, the only real choice open to Yemenis is the inclusive process mapped out by the NDC agreement in January 2014 … or a descent into civil war along Libyan lines.

The World Development Report: Conflict, Security and Development, published by the World Bank, shows how countries which have experienced conflict are more likely to suffer further violence: 90% of today’s armed conflicts had a predecessor of some kind, a ratio which has doubled since the 1960s. And Yemen has experienced conflict of some kind throughout the past half century.

Between 1962 and 1970, North Yemen was locked in a bloody civil war among the republican forces which had dislodged the ruling imam from power on 25 September 1962. Meanwhile, conflagration spread to the south, which witnessed an insurgency between 1963 and 1967, ending with the withdrawal of the British colonial authorities and the establishment of a Marxist-orientated government.

By the mid-1980s the two Yemens were again locked in a brief civil war—a conflict which flared up again in 1994, four years after the unification of the country. Then, the Saleh government, which had ruled the north since 1978, depended on the standing of the southern general Abdrabuh Mansour Hadi, who would serve as Ali Abdullah Saleh’s deputy until he became president in the transitional political deal brokered by the Gulf Co-operation Council in November 2011.

Lineage

Recent violence from the Houthi movement in the north may have begun in 2004 with the assassination of the tribal leader Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi by the government in Sanaa, but it has deeper roots and can be traced back to the Zaydi lineage which produced the Shia imam for over two centuries. The launch of an attack on the capital on 25 September last should leave no one in any doubt that the Houthis believe they are the direct descendants of the imam and, therefore, entitled to a greater share of power. They have come down from the mountains to which they were banished in the civil war half a century earlier.

Again according to the ICG, the violence has the potential to spread far and wide and threaten the stability of the entire country, as the Houthis square up to take the fight to AQAP. The latter has sought to capitalise on the disaffection among some Sunni tribesmen, who fear the sectarian overtones of much of the language employed by the Houthis.

There is an old saying in Yemen that ‘a camel is actually a horse created by committee’.

Instability is endemic to Yemen because the state was formed on the basis of compromise between competing interest groups. Tribal affiliations dating back to pre-Islamic times have always exerted a powerful influence on politics and society. Long after Marxism, populism and Islamism have subsided, tribalism will continue to dominate the lives of people from the rugged mountainous region of Radfan to the urban centre of Taiz and the port city of Hodeida. And, as the ‘gateway to Arabia’, Yemen continues to have considerable strategic importance for the regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as the United States and Russia.

While attention is focused on the northern Houthi rebellion, resurgent southern secessionism continues to mobilise hundreds of thousands of people, who can be frequently seen carrying the old flags of the People’s Democratic Republic of South Yemen in massive demonstrations on the streets of the southern capital, Aden. The NDC plan to carve up the country into federal zones, with power devolved to four northern (Azal, Saba, Janad and Tehama) and two southern (Aden and Hadhramaut) regional units, failed to placate the mosaic of Yemeni interest groups.

There is an old saying in Yemen that ‘a camel is actually a horse created by committee’. And the inability to make the NDC agreement stick is evidence of the difficulty faced by Yemeni political leaders who have sought to implement it. But this can only pave the way for a serious deterioration in the security situation, which the ICG contends will benefit no one except AQAP.

Resignations

Arguably, the greatest threat to Yemen’s stability is not the Houthi violence in the north nor even AQAP activity in the south, but the prospect of the country dividing again along pre-1990 lines. The resignations earlier this month of the president, Mansour Hadi, and his prime minister—following a Houthi attack on the presidential palace—expose the delicate balance of forces in the country.

The only person who successfully managed these relationships was Saleh. But the former president was recently accused by the UN of fomenting violence and instability and undermining Mansour Hadi, his former deputy. Saleh responded with characteristic vigour by securing the expulsion of Mansour Hadi from the General People’s Congress party, effectively isolating him from the political process.

In her scintillating book Dancing on the Heads of Snakes, Victoria Clark tellingly observed how, if the threat emanating from Yemen does demand action on the West’s part, “it would be advisable to nurture a healthy suspicion that we still do not know the half of this beautiful and enchanting, but also opaque and unstable, corner of the Arabian Peninsula”. And it would be advisable for the international community to continue to support the peaceful transition in Yemen with the proviso that it make only those contributions Yemenis themselves request. The fate of the ‘gateway to Arabia’ hangs in the balance—depending on continuing engagement and support, short of intervention.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Yemen: a state born of conflict Yemen in the frame, again Yemen’s troubled transition Country or region:  Yemen Topics:  Conflict
Categories: les flux rss

Yemen: descent into anarchy

Open Democracy News Analysis - 28. January 2015 - 16:44

With the resignation of its president and prime minister, Yemen lacks the capacity to steer its political transition towards the goal of greater stability. The alternative, however, does not bear thinking about.

Will he grow up in a united country? Flickr / Martin Sojka. Some rights reserved. 

Recent violence in Yemen points to the resurgence of tribal fault-lines which were previously managed by playing off interest groups against one another or, in more recent years, seeking to redistribute political power federally under the National Dialogue Conference (NDC).

The NDC initiated a political transition, with ambitions for security sector reform and a more vigorous counter-terrorism strategy to combat al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula (AQAP). Now, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG), which has been keeping a watching brief on the country’s progress, the only real choice open to Yemenis is the inclusive process mapped out by the NDC agreement in January 2014 … or a descent into civil war along Libyan lines.

The World Development Report: Conflict, Security and Development, published by the World Bank, shows how countries which have experienced conflict are more likely to suffer further violence: 90% of today’s armed conflicts had a predecessor of some kind, a ratio which has doubled since the 1960s. And Yemen has experienced conflict of some kind throughout the past half century.

Between 1962 and 1970, North Yemen was locked in a bloody civil war among the republican forces which had dislodged the ruling imam from power on 25 September 1962. Meanwhile, conflagration spread to the south, which witnessed an insurgency between 1963 and 1967, ending with the withdrawal of the British colonial authorities and the establishment of a Marxist-orientated government.

By the mid-1980s the two Yemens were again locked in a brief civil war—a conflict which flared up again in 1994, four years after the unification of the country. Then, the Saleh government, which had ruled the north since 1978, depended on the standing of the southern general Abdrabuh Mansour Hadi, who would serve as Ali Abdullah Saleh’s deputy until he became president in the transitional political deal brokered by the Gulf Co-operation Council in November 2011.

Lineage

Recent violence from the Houthi movement in the north may have begun in 2004 with the assassination of the tribal leader Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi by the government in Sanaa, but it has deeper roots and can be traced back to the Zaydi lineage which produced the Shia imam for over two centuries. The launch of an attack on the capital on 25 September last should leave no one in any doubt that the Houthis believe they are the direct descendants of the imam and, therefore, entitled to a greater share of power. They have come down from the mountains to which they were banished in the civil war half a century earlier.

Again according to the ICG, the violence has the potential to spread far and wide and threaten the stability of the entire country, as the Houthis square up to take the fight to AQAP. The latter has sought to capitalise on the disaffection among some Sunni tribesmen, who fear the sectarian overtones of much of the language employed by the Houthis.

There is an old saying in Yemen that ‘a camel is actually a horse created by committee’.

Instability is endemic to Yemen because the state was formed on the basis of compromise between competing interest groups. Tribal affiliations dating back to pre-Islamic times have always exerted a powerful influence on politics and society. Long after Marxism, populism and Islamism have subsided, tribalism will continue to dominate the lives of people from the rugged mountainous region of Radfan to the urban centre of Taiz and the port city of Hodeida. And, as the ‘gateway to Arabia’, Yemen continues to have considerable strategic importance for the regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as the United States and Russia.

While attention is focused on the northern Houthi rebellion, resurgent southern secessionism continues to mobilise hundreds of thousands of people, who can be frequently seen carrying the old flags of the People’s Democratic Republic of South Yemen in massive demonstrations on the streets of the southern capital, Aden. The NDC plan to carve up the country into federal zones, with power devolved to four northern (Azal, Saba, Janad and Tehama) and two southern (Aden and Hadhramaut) regional units, failed to placate the mosaic of Yemeni interest groups.

There is an old saying in Yemen that ‘a camel is actually a horse created by committee’. And the inability to make the NDC agreement stick is evidence of the difficulty faced by Yemeni political leaders who have sought to implement it. But this can only pave the way for a serious deterioration in the security situation, which the ICG contends will benefit no one except AQAP.

Resignations

Arguably, the greatest threat to Yemen’s stability is not the Houthi violence in the north nor even AQAP activity in the south, but the prospect of the country dividing again along pre-1990 lines. The resignations earlier this month of the president, Mansour Hadi, and his prime minister—following a Houthi attack on the presidential palace—expose the delicate balance of forces in the country.

The only person who successfully managed these relationships was Saleh. But the former president was recently accused by the UN of fomenting violence and instability and undermining Mansour Hadi, his former deputy. Saleh responded with characteristic vigour by securing the expulsion of Mansour Hadi from the General People’s Congress party, effectively isolating him from the political process.

In her scintillating book Dancing on the Heads of Snakes, Victoria Clark tellingly observed how, if the threat emanating from Yemen does demand action on the West’s part, “it would be advisable to nurture a healthy suspicion that we still do not know the half of this beautiful and enchanting, but also opaque and unstable, corner of the Arabian Peninsula”. And it would be advisable for the international community to continue to support the peaceful transition in Yemen with the proviso that it make only those contributions Yemenis themselves request. The fate of the ‘gateway to Arabia’ hangs in the balance—depending on continuing engagement and support, short of intervention.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Yemen: a state born of conflict Yemen in the frame, again Yemen’s troubled transition Country or region:  Yemen Topics:  Conflict
Categories: les flux rss

Turkey, openDemocracy and ‘so-called pluralist debate’

Open Democracy News Analysis - 28. January 2015 - 16:35

We were pleased to take a rare opportunity to publish an interview with Turkey's prime minister. We humbly hope we are at the beginning of this journey, not the end.

Taksim,Gezi.June,2013. Meg Rutherford/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Here is Richard Falk's response to criticisms of his interview with Turkey's prime minister, also published today.

We were pleased when Richard Falk offered us his extended conversation with the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu for publication on openDemocracy. Hotfoot from the 100th edition of his Strategic Depth, (surely a record number of sales for a book on foreign policy as Behlül Özkan notes), Ahmet Davutoğlu is an impressive publicist for the thinking and self-perceptions of Turkey’s ruling elite. 

Now, it seemed, he was willing to share with our readers his vision of Turkey’s ruling AK party’s domestic achievements to date and of Turkey’s future prospects as a world power. And indeed, encouraged by Richard Falk, the prime minister gives a relaxed and forthright exposition of many of the major headings of such a worldview at a critical moment in this increasingly important regional powerhouse’s troubled history. 

This had to be interesting for a global readership like ours, especially for anyone with little chance to keep up with Turkey’s rapid evolution since the Arab spring. Moreover, huge claims are made throughout the interview for civilizational advance, on the basis of which, if the prime minister means anything at all by his central boast and contention that “only the Turkish people can judge the mistakes of their politicians”, they ought one day to be able to hold him to account.

Why openDemocracy? As editor of our Turkish Dawn pages as well as Can Europe make it? and Arab Awakening, I can only assume that this choice was guided by some recognition of the burgeoning Turkish contribution to our global platform since our founding editor visited Gezi Park during those historic events in June 2013. At that time, we were excited like so many others by this miraculous emergence of a pluralist, democratic avant garde, a showcase for what Hendrik Wagenaar recently christened ‘Democracy2’ - excited not just for Turkey but for the democratic world at large. Articles poured in from openDemocracy veterans joined by many fine new Turkish contributors.  

Ever since then, the interest and the desire to debate Turkey’s meaning and future has continued on our website. Our Turkish readership has grown steadily, through the months of a brutal, institutionalised backlash, to the historic Turkish presidential elections in August 2014 and on to the present day. But it is a particular kind of interest, clearly reaching for an overview, a ‘seeing ourselves as others see us’, not readily available at home. To understand this, you have only to glance at a few of the articles which have recently peaked Turkish interest, Turkey’s quagmire since the Arab Spring, Turkey’s ISIS crisis and Race and racism in modern Turkey

They couldn’t be expected to know all this in detail, but it seemed as if Ahmet Davutoğlu and his advisers had decided that it was time openDemocracy had something more like the ‘official version’ to chew over, and that with the confidence one must expect from ruling elites, they were willing to take on all comers.

Or were they? Here then, was the rub. It wasn’t so much that Richard Falk’s most interesting questions, on preventing the Turkish rich from getting richer at the expense of the poor, providing welfare for any society within a neoliberal framework, or the "failure to use women creatively and productively," to name but three - met with little or no answer from the prime minister, as that was where other openDemocracy contributions could come in. It was more that Gezi Park and everything that means for democratic rights and "acting on behalf of the people" was completely airbrushed out of the disquisition despite its apparent largesse. Worse than that, tantalisingly, Davutoğlu appeared to approach some of the more challenging issues only to dive into abstraction, or into some putative future stage in what Oguz Alyanak so penetratingly describes as a seemingly ‘parallel universe’. The challenge of Gezi Park, had the gauntlet been taken up, would surely have sent us straight to the heart of the debate about the ‘general will’ and the ‘national will’ that the prime minister initiates, with some verve. But disappointingly of course, the argument backs off. Instead, as Umut Ozmirili scathingly remarks, we are treated to another iteration of “the AKP’s majoritarian understanding of democracy which reduces it to the ballot box.” 

These collapsings and elisions of argument, however, also have their interest. Turkey is not alone in having a mono-majoritarian ‘National Us’ narrative pitted against the profound pluralist challenges of modernity, with all the help it can get from their establishments and mainstream media to fend off a rival, devolving notion of ‘peace, prosperity and freedom’ in which their survival is also at stake. This is what makes Turkey so fascinating for many Europeans – it holds up such a stark mirror image to our own neoliberal selves. 

And this is the main reason why I disagree with Ozmirili that our editorial decision to publish this interview was 'fundamentally wrong'. If, armed with a certain amount of critical perspective, we non-experts could find in this conversation a plentiful supply of warning echoes and illuminations, why shouldn’t our readers do the same? 

On the other hand, it seemed to us, that the Turkish prime minister, without much quarrel from his friend and interviewer, had hoped to bypass criticism on openDemocracy, where we are used to robust debate. And that was an entirely different matter. 

We had to take this into account not only in weighing the attractions of opening up a debate, but as a necessary calculation in our obligations to our Turkish contributors and readers. This feature, as it happened, was published in the middle of a fresh rounding up of journalists accused of nefarious practises on behalf of the Gulen movement. We have tried our best to understand the ins and outs of that chequered relationship with the AKP. But at the very least, here was another reminder (the latest came in as I write today) that from time to time in recent months, Turkish contributors have asked us to remove their names and those of human rights campaigners, academics, students, lawyers and journalists they might have mentioned who felt, for whatever reason, that their jobs and reputations were at risk if their opinions were identified on our platform. To be able to debate in the open cannot be taken for granted by them, and we owe it to those who cannot speak truth to power, if at all possible, to raise their concerns and those of the ‘many victims of “New Turkey”’ movingly cited by Umut Ozmirili in whatever way we can. Were we then to turn down such a rare opportunity? 

So what to do? Well, on openDemocracy the answer is usually: let’s try and have a proper debate. We commissioned responses from critics old and new who we could rely upon to help us open up the issues that we felt (and they agreed) had been closed down. To introduce them to you again briefly, we invited in Behlül Özkan on the dangerous flaws in the AKP's foreign policy; Bulent Gokay on why Turkey will only become a real global power when it has a functional democracy; Bill Park on how governance is becoming more troubled under the AKP; Alexander Christie-Miller on the mass arrests of journalists that weekend; Firdevs Robinson on why Turkey's politicians must not be let off the hook; Oguz Alyanak on how they live in a parallel universe–and the political scientist Umut Özkırımlı on why we should not have published this piece at all.

Each had their own priorities, and I think the result, combined with rich pickings from our Turkish Dawn archive, has been the opening move in a holding to account. 

Some, however, refused. We were indeed assailed by people on both sides who criticised us for not having confined ourselves to pursuing their main lines of argument. They shared the conviction that this was a betrayal of our values, somehow ruining our reputation for openness and democracy. Our defence of what we think constitutes a ‘pluralist debate’ fell on deaf ears. 

But it is my own conviction that if you take it upon yourself, in a world overflowing with communication as it is, to protect people from the pernicious views of your opponents you will never advance the debate – let alone win the argument. You will only consolidate the views of those who already agree. Whereas if you can encourage people to think for themselves, think twice, reconsider, then sooner or later, minds will be changed, sometimes in newly creative ways you could never have expected, however expert you are. Since the desire to change things is why any of us writes – or edits – for openDemocracy, this is an important quarrel to which I’m sure we will return. Umut Ozmirili, as it happened, proved himself an adept at just this practise in his next piece for us, ‘a Socratic dialogue on the Charlie Hebdo affair’.

So this is the forum for debate we have tried to construct on the meaning of Turkey in the contemporary world, and readers will have to judge for themselves if they would rather that the messengers had been shot, and that no debate had taken place at all.

What happens now?

What next? This ‘first round’ was never meant to be the end – just another beginning. Indeed, in the ideal world, Ahmet Davutoğlu would now come back into the discussion to answer and take issue with his critics. (So far his office has declined our invitation to do so.) Maybe we are not so naïve in our belief in ‘so-called pluralist debate’ as to expect that this will happen. But we do hope that some of the many, many supporters of the AKP for whom the historic rise of that party and of Turkey’s prominence in the world are the hopeful events of their lives – will want to do so on his behalf. And that they will now proceed to do so without expecting to make the kind of killing that closes down a rich, multi-faceted discussion. We want to publish them. 

One last point. Without falling into the trap of generalising about those we have so far commissioned to respond to the interview as a ‘bunch of secularists’ or any of the other reductive descriptions that have been circulating on Twitter and elsewhere, there is one challenge in what I have read and helped to edit so far, that I would like to see elaborated – room for holding the prime minister’s critics to account in at least one regard, alongside the prime minister, in the next round of debate.  

There is too often a tone of voice, or implication on the part of some of the respondents – nothing much more tangible than that – that they have some altogether more civilised, safe place from which to launch their criticisms of the historic efforts of the AKP, a place maybe where the advances sought by the prime minister are more or less already done and dusted, that makes me uneasy. As editor of Can Europe Make It? I have become allergic to that other ‘parallel universe’ in which Europe is as a setter of standards for civilizations, when the facts on the ground seem to point in a different direction altogether. 

It would be at least premature in this debate if our editing gave anyone to understand that when we accuse Turkey of “rapacious capitalist practises, lack of labour rights and persisting gender inequality,” we are implying that those are not to be found in all of our own countries too, sometimes pursued, indeed, like TTIP not to mention GCHQ, with a Machiavellian stealth and ferocious removal from public debate that autocrats in many other parts of the world may envy. 

I only wish that there was any prospect that David Cameron would volunteer to come and share his vision for the future with an outfit like ours, subjecting himself to an open questioning on all sides of his sins of omission and commission. But then, he clearly saves himself for debates he thinks he can win.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in conversation: Part 1 Turkish PM in conversation, Part 2: Old Turkey, New Turkey Turkish PM in conversation, part 3: How do you create a fairer society? Turkish PM in conversation, part 4: The Arab Spring and Turkey’s future Say what you want, think what you like Is Turkey's foreign policy based on democratic values – or pan-Islamist ideology? Turkey cannot be a global power until it is a stable democracy Turkey has elections, but not democracy Reconciling the AKP's vision of Turkey Turkey’s politicians should not be let off the hook Welcome to the parallel universe: Richard Falk’s interview with PM Davutoglu The Ayatollah's second coming: critical reflections on a 'non-interview'
Categories: les flux rss

Turkey, openDemocracy and ‘so-called pluralist debate’

Open Democracy News Analysis - 28. January 2015 - 16:35

We were pleased to take a rare opportunity to publish an interview with Turkey's prime minister. We humbly hope we are at the beginning of this journey, not the end.

Taksim,Gezi.June,2013. Meg Rutherford/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Here is Richard Falk's response to criticisms of his interview with Turkey's prime minister, also published today.

We were pleased when Richard Falk offered us his extended conversation with the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu for publication on openDemocracy. Hotfoot from the 100th edition of his Strategic Depth, (surely a record number of sales for a book on foreign policy as Behlül Özkan notes), Ahmet Davutoğlu is an impressive publicist for the thinking and self-perceptions of Turkey’s ruling elite. 

Now, it seemed, he was willing to share with our readers his vision of Turkey’s ruling AK party’s domestic achievements to date and of Turkey’s future prospects as a world power. And indeed, encouraged by Richard Falk, the prime minister gives a relaxed and forthright exposition of many of the major headings of such a worldview at a critical moment in this increasingly important regional powerhouse’s troubled history. 

This had to be interesting for a global readership like ours, especially for anyone with little chance to keep up with Turkey’s rapid evolution since the Arab spring. Moreover, huge claims are made throughout the interview for civilizational advance, on the basis of which, if the prime minister means anything at all by his central boast and contention that “only the Turkish people can judge the mistakes of their politicians”, they ought one day to be able to hold him to account.

Why openDemocracy? As editor of our Turkish Dawn pages as well as Can Europe make it? and Arab Awakening, I can only assume that this choice was guided by some recognition of the burgeoning Turkish contribution to our global platform since our founding editor visited Gezi Park during those historic events in June 2013. At that time, we were excited like so many others by this miraculous emergence of a pluralist, democratic avant garde, a showcase for what Hendrik Wagenaar recently christened ‘Democracy2’ - excited not just for Turkey but for the democratic world at large. Articles poured in from openDemocracy veterans joined by many fine new Turkish contributors.  

Ever since then, the interest and the desire to debate Turkey’s meaning and future has continued on our website. Our Turkish readership has grown steadily, through the months of a brutal, institutionalised backlash, to the historic Turkish presidential elections in August 2014 and on to the present day. But it is a particular kind of interest, clearly reaching for an overview, a ‘seeing ourselves as others see us’, not readily available at home. To understand this, you have only to glance at a few of the articles which have recently peaked Turkish interest, Turkey’s quagmire since the Arab Spring, Turkey’s ISIS crisis and Race and racism in modern Turkey

They couldn’t be expected to know all this in detail, but it seemed as if Ahmet Davutoğlu and his advisers had decided that it was time openDemocracy had something more like the ‘official version’ to chew over, and that with the confidence one must expect from ruling elites, they were willing to take on all comers.

Or were they? Here then, was the rub. It wasn’t so much that Richard Falk’s most interesting questions, on preventing the Turkish rich from getting richer at the expense of the poor, providing welfare for any society within a neoliberal framework, or the "failure to use women creatively and productively," to name but three - met with little or no answer from the prime minister, as that was where other openDemocracy contributions could come in. It was more that Gezi Park and everything that means for democratic rights and "acting on behalf of the people" was completely airbrushed out of the disquisition despite its apparent largesse. Worse than that, tantalisingly, Davutoğlu appeared to approach some of the more challenging issues only to dive into abstraction, or into some putative future stage in what Oguz Alyanak so penetratingly describes as a seemingly ‘parallel universe’. The challenge of Gezi Park, had the gauntlet been taken up, would surely have sent us straight to the heart of the debate about the ‘general will’ and the ‘national will’ that the prime minister initiates, with some verve. But disappointingly of course, the argument backs off. Instead, as Umut Ozmirili scathingly remarks, we are treated to another iteration of “the AKP’s majoritarian understanding of democracy which reduces it to the ballot box.” 

These collapsings and elisions of argument, however, also have their interest. Turkey is not alone in having a mono-majoritarian ‘National Us’ narrative pitted against the profound pluralist challenges of modernity, with all the help it can get from their establishments and mainstream media to fend off a rival, devolving notion of ‘peace, prosperity and freedom’ in which their survival is also at stake. This is what makes Turkey so fascinating for many Europeans – it holds up such a stark mirror image to our own neoliberal selves. 

And this is the main reason why I disagree with Ozmirili that our editorial decision to publish this interview was 'fundamentally wrong'. If, armed with a certain amount of critical perspective, we non-experts could find in this conversation a plentiful supply of warning echoes and illuminations, why shouldn’t our readers do the same? 

On the other hand, it seemed to us, that the Turkish prime minister, without much quarrel from his friend and interviewer, had hoped to bypass criticism on openDemocracy, where we are used to robust debate. And that was an entirely different matter. 

We had to take this into account not only in weighing the attractions of opening up a debate, but as a necessary calculation in our obligations to our Turkish contributors and readers. This feature, as it happened, was published in the middle of a fresh rounding up of journalists accused of nefarious practises on behalf of the Gulen movement. We have tried our best to understand the ins and outs of that chequered relationship with the AKP. But at the very least, here was another reminder (the latest came in as I write today) that from time to time in recent months, Turkish contributors have asked us to remove their names and those of human rights campaigners, academics, students, lawyers and journalists they might have mentioned who felt, for whatever reason, that their jobs and reputations were at risk if their opinions were identified on our platform. To be able to debate in the open cannot be taken for granted by them, and we owe it to those who cannot speak truth to power, if at all possible, to raise their concerns and those of the ‘many victims of “New Turkey”’ movingly cited by Umut Ozmirili in whatever way we can. Were we then to turn down such a rare opportunity? 

So what to do? Well, on openDemocracy the answer is usually: let’s try and have a proper debate. We commissioned responses from critics old and new who we could rely upon to help us open up the issues that we felt (and they agreed) had been closed down. To introduce them to you again briefly, we invited in Behlül Özkan on the dangerous flaws in the AKP's foreign policy; Bulent Gokay on why Turkey will only become a real global power when it has a functional democracy; Bill Park on how governance is becoming more troubled under the AKP; Alexander Christie-Miller on the mass arrests of journalists that weekend; Firdevs Robinson on why Turkey's politicians must not be let off the hook; Oguz Alyanak on how they live in a parallel universe–and the political scientist Umut Özkırımlı on why we should not have published this piece at all.

Each had their own priorities, and I think the result, combined with rich pickings from our Turkish Dawn archive, has been the opening move in a holding to account. 

Some, however, refused. We were indeed assailed by people on both sides who criticised us for not having confined ourselves to pursuing their main lines of argument. They shared the conviction that this was a betrayal of our values, somehow ruining our reputation for openness and democracy. Our defence of what we think constitutes a ‘pluralist debate’ fell on deaf ears. 

But it is my own conviction that if you take it upon yourself, in a world overflowing with communication as it is, to protect people from the pernicious views of your opponents you will never advance the debate – let alone win the argument. You will only consolidate the views of those who already agree. Whereas if you can encourage people to think for themselves, think twice, reconsider, then sooner or later, minds will be changed, sometimes in newly creative ways you could never have expected, however expert you are. Since the desire to change things is why any of us writes – or edits – for openDemocracy, this is an important quarrel to which I’m sure we will return. Umut Ozmirili, as it happened, proved himself an adept at just this practise in his next piece for us, ‘a Socratic dialogue on the Charlie Hebdo affair’.

So this is the forum for debate we have tried to construct on the meaning of Turkey in the contemporary world, and readers will have to judge for themselves if they would rather that the messengers had been shot, and that no debate had taken place at all.

What happens now?

What next? This ‘first round’ was never meant to be the end – just another beginning. Indeed, in the ideal world, Ahmet Davutoğlu would now come back into the discussion to answer and take issue with his critics. (So far his office has declined our invitation to do so.) Maybe we are not so naïve in our belief in ‘so-called pluralist debate’ as to expect that this will happen. But we do hope that some of the many, many supporters of the AKP for whom the historic rise of that party and of Turkey’s prominence in the world are the hopeful events of their lives – will want to do so on his behalf. And that they will now proceed to do so without expecting to make the kind of killing that closes down a rich, multi-faceted discussion. We want to publish them. 

One last point. Without falling into the trap of generalising about those we have so far commissioned to respond to the interview as a ‘bunch of secularists’ or any of the other reductive descriptions that have been circulating on Twitter and elsewhere, there is one challenge in what I have read and helped to edit so far, that I would like to see elaborated – room for holding the prime minister’s critics to account in at least one regard, alongside the prime minister, in the next round of debate.  

There is too often a tone of voice, or implication on the part of some of the respondents – nothing much more tangible than that – that they have some altogether more civilised, safe place from which to launch their criticisms of the historic efforts of the AKP, a place maybe where the advances sought by the prime minister are more or less already done and dusted, that makes me uneasy. As editor of Can Europe Make It? I have become allergic to that other ‘parallel universe’ in which Europe is as a setter of standards for civilizations, when the facts on the ground seem to point in a different direction altogether. 

It would be at least premature in this debate if our editing gave anyone to understand that when some of our contributors accuse Turkey of “rapacious capitalist practises, lack of labour rights and persisting gender inequality,” we are implying that those are not to be found in all of our own countries too, sometimes pursued, indeed, like TTIP not to mention GCHQ, with a Machiavellian stealth and ferocious removal from public debate that autocrats in many other parts of the world may envy. 

I only wish that there was any prospect that David Cameron would volunteer to come and share his vision for the future with an outfit like ours, subjecting himself to an open questioning on all sides of his sins of omission and commission. But then, he clearly saves himself for debates he thinks he can win.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in conversation: Part 1 Turkish PM in conversation, Part 2: Old Turkey, New Turkey Turkish PM in conversation, part 3: How do you create a fairer society? Turkish PM in conversation, part 4: The Arab Spring and Turkey’s future Say what you want, think what you like Is Turkey's foreign policy based on democratic values – or pan-Islamist ideology? Turkey cannot be a global power until it is a stable democracy Turkey has elections, but not democracy Reconciling the AKP's vision of Turkey Turkey’s politicians should not be let off the hook Welcome to the parallel universe: Richard Falk’s interview with PM Davutoglu The Ayatollah's second coming: critical reflections on a 'non-interview'
Categories: les flux rss

Reflections on my interview with the Turkish prime minister

Open Democracy News Analysis - 28. January 2015 - 16:32

Why was there such a fuss? Should we never listen to what political leaders have to say in explanation of their policies?

Ahmet Davutoglu in December, 2014. Demotix/Konstantinos Tsakalidis. All rights reserved.

This is a follow-up to an interview Richard Falk conducted with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu on September 28 2014. Here is openDemocracy editor Rosemary Bechler's response to the interview and ensuing discussion, also published today.

Last summer while in Turkey I welcomed the opportunity to interview Ahmed Davutoğlu shortly after he was selected as the new head of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and as the country’s prime minister. I regarded it as an occasion to raise questions of deepest concern about the kind of approach Davutoğlu, who had previously gained prominence in the world as Turkey’s dynamic foreign minister, would put forward. It did not even occur to me that it was appropriate or would be illuminating to press him on issues on which AKP positions were already widely known, such as the government’s mishandling of the Gezi Square demonstrations in 2013 or the allegations of human rights abuses associated with imprisoning journalists and political dissidents, especially those who supported the Kurdish struggle. Such ‘gotcha’ journalism rarely produces responses of interest, instead eliciting defensive and familiar commentary, and usually serves to reassure readers that the interviewing journalist holds ‘politically correct’ views.  

I have long followed Turkish politics and during years prior to the AKP ascent to power wrote about such issues as torture, human rights, Kurdish entitlement to some form of self-government or internal self-determination, and the refusal of Ankara to confront the realities of the Armenian massacres that took place in 1915. In raising such issues I was severely attacked by some of the then reigning secular journalists for daring to raise such issues that brought unfavourable global attention, especially by human rights NGOs, to Turkey. I remember well a press conference in 1993 at which I was acting as a spokesperson for an international delegation from Europe that had visited the country to understand better the Kurdish struggle to achieve minority rights. I was belligerently told by Turkish ‘journalists’ that it was inappropriate to comment critically on such matters in the public domain. These journalists claimed to have sat in on meetings of the National Security Council, and indicated their personal approval of a planned spring offensive against Kurdish villages that would soon commence. My point being: journalists in Turkey have often in the past crossed the line between a posture of objectivity and active participation in the political life of the country. I believe some are now doing so again, but with a drastically different agenda than during the pre-AKP era.

Such behaviour certainly does not justify imprisonment or banishment, but it does require an understanding of the Turkish national context in which journalists play a more overtly political role, frequently behaving as players rather than observers and interpreters. Any reading of the harsh daily criticism of AKP policies and personalities in the media would reassure even the most skeptical reader that there is no suppression of hostile commentary in present day Turkey.

My openDemocracy critics

Among those commentators invited by openDemocracy to respond to the interview with Davutoğlu was the political scientist Umut Özkırımlı who attacks me personally as a “lobbyist or ‘embedded academic.’” He apparently believes that Davutoğlu’s responses were “propagandistic” because they expressed the viewpoint of the AKP and the Turkish government, and should not even be heard. By such reasoning we should never listen to what political leaders have to say in explanation of their policies. Özkırımlı’s Google search of my past, evidently seeking to discover material that might help destroy my credibility, turned up an article that the New York Times solicited after my meeting with Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris back in 1979, days before his return to Iran to lead what he was calling the 'Islamic Revolution' that was nearing victory at the time.

My responses to Özkırımlı’s more detailed criticisms are are addressed throughout this article. I would only add that Özkırımlı apparently felt the further need to distance himself from what he insultingly derides as "this so-called interview" by adding a rather odd ‘disclaimer’ at the end of his piece. In it he criticized openDemocracy for abandoning its "core values" by publishing "this propagandistic piece," presumably to protect its readership from any exposure to the corrupting effects of Davutoğlu’s ideas. To me, this seems to embody an ethos of repressive pluralism, which is not how I have previously interpreted the core values of openDemocracy.

The issue takes on an added dimension in light of the strident defence mounted on behalf of Charlie Hebdo’s freedom of expression that is being given a clear precedence by secular liberals over the often abhorrent Islamophobic content of cartoons disguising their messages of hate beneath the banner of ‘satire.’

I was, of course, long aware that Turkish secular intellectuals in the west, especially in Britain and the United States, had strongly opposed the AKP leadership from the inception of its role as running the Turkish government in 2002, particularly demonizing its principal leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Part of my motivation for seeking this interview with Davutoğlu was the belief he would convey a clear sense of the changing Turkish political reality as seen through the lens of the AKP. From long association I knew Davutoğlu to be thoughtful, knowledgeable, and a person of fine character who well understood the complex challenges facing the Turkish government at this time.   

It is my impression, which is admittedly impossible to validate, that some of the hostility evoked by the interview among those among the openDemocracy faithful preoccupied with Turkey, was the degree to which giving Davutoğlu such a platform would dilute their propaganda campaign to paint Erdoğan as Turkey’s Putin, that is, the totalizing leader who dominated the political scene to such an extent as to render other individuals, regardless of their formal title, politically irrelevant.  

I would observe further that up until 2011 or so, anti-Erdoğan forces pursued the opposite tactic of highlighting Davutoğlu’s role as the architect of Turkish foreign policy, thereby shifting attention away from Erdoğan’s leadership role in the AKP government. In this way, credit for any positive AKP achievements could be given to others. In recent years the most ardent AKP detractors altered their opposition strategy, concentrating their anger and exhibiting their alienation almost exclusively in relation to the person of Erdoğan. It suited their purpose, then, to situate the more moderate and less vivid AKP personalities, including Davutoğlu, Ali Babacan the AKP’s economic mastermind, and former president Abdullah Gul in a shadowland of political invisibility. I believe that this obsessive attention to Erdoğan is both misleading and manipulative, although to some extent encouraged by Erdoğan’s swagger and style in the aftermath of his 2011 and presidential electoral triumphs.

With what now seems like naive innocence, I assumed that a western publication like openDemocracy, with its reputation for and claims of pluralist discourse, would view publication of such an interview as a worthwhile and essentially unproblematic event. How wrong I was! Soon, I was informed that the publication of the interview was proving to be ‘controversial’ for the editorial staff and that to prevent any impression of approval, the editor-in-chief, Mary Fitzgerald, would write a kind of blog comment preceding the interview, which would warn readers to be on guard, somewhat like TV advertisements for prescription drugs in America that are required to warn listeners of possible dire side effects. 

Nevertheless, I was quite unprepared for the hostile framing of the interview that then ensued. Mary Fitzgerald’s introductory comment warning readers to beware of the toxic opinions to follow was just the official disclaimer. No less than eight unfriendly responses of essay length had been solicited, apparently to ensure that the anti-AKP readership would feel suitably over-represented! 

Without an apparent editorial doubt in evidence, despite taking the opportunity to trumpet openDemocracy’s signature ‘pluralism,’ not a single author sympathetic to Davutoglu or the contributions of the AKP leadership to Turkey’s wellbeing during its 12 years of governance, reaffirmed in no less than eight democratic elections, was invited to contribute. And the prefatory remarks that I had submitted and that I expected to precede the interview to provide context were not published. 

It might have been of interest to use the interview as the foundation for a debate about Turkey’s political development, and prospects, but this would have required two supervisory roles by openDemocracy—attentiveness to the substance of the interview and some balance between pros and cons. 

Bill Park, alone among the respondents, does try to strike some sort of balance in assessing the accomplishments and shortcomings of the 12-plus years of AKP leadership, although he comes down rather heavily against the AKP in the end and pays no detailed attention to Davutoğlu’s views as expressed in the interview. 

Firdevs Robinson is even more fervently anti-AKP in her commentary than Park. She does make an arresting comment: “The difference between a police state and a democratic one is the accountability of its security apparatus.” She clearly intends this assertion as a further indictment of what Davutoğlu has to say, although she never directly engages with the opinions expressed in the interview. It is certainly true that Turkey’s approach to the accountability of its security forces is problematic, but does that by itself negate democracy or more frighteningly, lead us to classify Turkey as ‘a police state’? If so, there would be no democracies left in the world, and Turkey would be no different than the others. 

Surely, the quality of government cannot be reduced to this issue of accountability, no matter how important it is for the full realization of democratic potential. After the Snowden disclosures of the national and global surveillance features of the security apparatus operative, by this logic the United States would qualify as an extreme police state. Although as with Turkey there are serious problematic and anti-democratic features of the American security apparatus, fortunately it would be a wildly irresponsible exaggeration to regard the United States as a police state. 

Alexander Christie-Miller also joins the anti-AKP chorus, giving particular attention to the authoritarian style of Erdoğan, yet at least however grudgingly acknowledging that in terms of economic and political performance, the AKP did better during its period of leadership than did its inept predecessors. Semanur Karamer moves in a similar direction of criticism emphasizing Erdoğan’s ‘Putinesque paranoia’ and indicting his ‘bluntly majoritarian understanding of democracy.’ I share his view that Turkey’s regional influence and domestic stability depend to some extent on improving its human rights record at home, although other factors are equally important and not mentioned. Oguz Alyanak is more stridently negative accusing Davutoğlu of living in ‘Neverland’ without a feel for the realities of Turkish political life, dismissing the popularity of the AKP that he encountered as an illusion in ‘the eye of the beholder.’ Alyanak goes so far as to suggest that a government with such a bad record as that of the AKP has lost all credibility as “the legitimate representative of the Turkish people.” It is not clear to me as to why Alyanak’s views of AKP credibility outweigh the repeated approval given by the Turkish citizenry.

Behlül Özkan has been publishing over and over again this same contention that Davutoğlu is an adherent of a pan-Islamic ideology “whose ultimate goal is the ascendancy of Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.” Of course, such an assessment is put forward without any attention at all to address Davutoğlu’s views as expressed in the interview. It also collides with his expressed views in a range of publications and his foreign policy advocacy. It should be recalled that Davutoğlu’s chose Assad’s anti-Sunni government as the earliest and most heralded application of his ‘zero problems’ doctrine. The turn against Assad came only after the Damascus government committed numerous crimes against humanity, and after Ankara made strenuous efforts to induce the Syrian leader to act humanely in response to the opposition and agree to democratic reforms. 

Similarly in Egypt, support for the Muslim Brotherhood came in the aftermath of its electoral victory, and Ankara’s opposition to the military coup and its bloody aftermath was a position consistent with a commitment to democracy and human rights. In my private dealings as well as in his public service, Davutoğlu has consistently urged Turkey to pursue a foreign policy based on a blend of pragmatism and humane values, and it is a provocative deflection from reality to portray his worldview and behavior as pan-Islamist.

Bulent Gokay writes the most knowledgeable and challenging response to the interview, although he like the others does not engage directly with Davutoğlu’s views expressed in the interview. Somewhat strangely he puts forward the view that Turkey’s global status depends on it becoming “a stable and functioning democracy.” He adds, “[t]here is no exception to this.” China? Saudi Arabia? Russia? These may not be societies of choice from the perspective of a western educated individual, but such countries, and many others, are not democracies and yet have a global status that commands respect and exerts influence. Indeed, the history of international relations is one in which non-democratic states have been treated as geopolitical equals with democratically governed states. This was constitutionally acknowledged in the UN Charter by including the Soviet Union and China among the five permanent members of the Security Council enjoying veto power. 

Gotcha journalism 

Mary Fitzgerald summarizes her comment by describing the interview as ‘deeply problematic, sometimes enraging.” This is hardly a welcoming signal for a contributor to an online publication. In the body of her text she criticizes me for missing “a rare opportunity to challenge the assumptions of a deeply problematic state.” Elsewhere she elaborates on my failure to challenge Davutoğlu, concluding with a dismissive flourish: “[t]his is not an ‘interview’ but a conversation between a diplomat and a prime minister who are on very good terms.” Of course, I am not ‘a diplomat,’ although I was friends with Davutoğlu long before he entered politics when we were both in academic life and shared a preoccupation with international relations, especially with finding better ways to connect culture, history, and politics with what was happening in the Middle East and the world. In all these interactions, what I remember best is Davutoğlu’s opposition to efforts by the west to fill all the civilizational space of non-western peoples and his contrasting affirmation to the effect that civilizational pluralism offers the only desirable foundation for world order.

If seen as a conversation, I would be embarrassed to have played such a passive role, merely suggesting topics that struck me during the interview as opportunities for hearing what the new Turkish prime minister had to say, and avoiding the fatal attractions of ‘gotcha journalism.’ I believe the interview discloses valuable in-depth explanations of central issues of AKP policy, including its effective challenge of the previously seemingly impregnable Turkish ‘deep state’ controlled by the military and intelligence services and constraining, if not engaged in deposing, the elected leadership of the country.

I recall a conversation with Mike Wallace, famed '60 Minutes' TV journalist, the week after he returned from Tehran having done what he agreed was a disastrous interview with Ayatollah Khomeini at the height of the hostage crisis following the seizure in 1979 of the American Embassy. Wallace ventured the opinion that the interviewed failed because rather than letting Khomeini give his views on what happened, he tried repeatedly to pin him down, and got a series of useless angry responses. There is a place for aggressive interviewing, especially in relation to breaking news, or issues on which a political leader has not spoken, but aggression for aggression’s sake leads nowhere. As an example of an approach I favour, Edgar Snow obtained fascinating responses from Mao tse-Tung when he interviewed him in 1965, at a time when the world public didn’t know much about his outlook. [Snow interview described in an article published by The New Republic, Feb. 27, 1965] Again he was sharply criticised for giving a propaganda outlet to a leading Communist leader, the ideological enemy of the west at the time. In my view, such exposure to controversial views, without conditioning the audience to reject what is being said before it is even heard, is exactly what the pluralist ethos should involve, but in this instance it is the opposite of what openDemocracy chose to do.

The bigger picture

In all of this discussion of how to view Turkey it has surprised me that no one observed that a sharp shift in media treatment has accompanied two international developments: Turkey’s show of a post-Cold War independent foreign policy in the Middle East, highlighted by the 2010 Turkish initiative (jointly with Brazil) to defuse the looming crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme, much to the displeasure of Washington and Tel Aviv. Turkey was widely criticised in Washington for what many believed to have been a constructive move to lessen the chances of a military confrontation with Iran that could have caused a devastating regional war. The American response was a slap on Turkey’s wrist, an admonition ‘to stay in its lane’ despite the fact that the Cold War discipline was no longer operative. In effect, even though Iran was Turkey’s neighbour and a war in the region would deeply threaten Turkish national security, Ankara was instructed to be an obedient junior ally, and to leave serious diplomacy in the region in the hands of the US government.   

Secondly, the shift in Turkey’s attitude toward Israel is continuing to have adverse media consequences for how Turkey is perceived in the west. This shift was first publicly displayed by Erdoğan’s angry and hostile outburst directed at the Israeli President, Shimon Peres, during a meeting of the World Economic Forum in 2009. It reached its climax a year later when Israel launched a lethal commando attack in international waters on the Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara, that was part of a ‘freedom flotilla,’ an effort by humanitarian NGOs seeking to break the blockade of Gaza by delivering medical supplies to the entrapped civilian population. 

Prior to these two developments, there was a generally sympathetic view of the AKP leadership, with the US government in particular using its relations with Turkey to demonstrate that even after the 9/11 attacks it could have a good working relationship with a Muslim country in the region. This was especially true of the early years of the Obama presidency when there were many reports in the media of the close working relationship that had developed between the American Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, and Davutoğlu after he became foreign minister, especially in working out a joint approach of support for the anti-Assad uprising in Syria. 

It is true that after winning victory in the 2011 elections, Erdoğan in particular threw the caution and pragmatism of his earlier leadership to the winds, and provocatively gave vent to his conservative opinions on social issues and showed his hostility toward the implacable domestic adversaries that had mounted a relentless, and often unfair, attack against his leadership. It is also the case that the break with the Hizmet movement led by Fetullah Gulen added some fuel to domestic and diaspora Turkish fires of discontent. 

Yet, in my view, the real animus for this turn in perceptions was a result of international, not domestic, changes, and this is reflected in the sorts of Turkish attitudes expressed in the eight responses solicited by openDemocracy to cast a dark shadow over the interview.  With such an outlook it is an implicit consensus among the critics that since Erdoğan is the ruthless authoritarian leader of Turkey it is a waste of time to hear the views of Davutoğlu. Almost by definition Davutoğlu is a political hack or stooge. Thus endowing him with any kind of leadership status is to blur the anti-AKP campaign that is centered on ‘the Putinization of Turkey.’  

In the end, reading over the interview my main reaction is ‘why such a fuss?’ There is nothing whatsoever that is inflammatory in Davutoğlu’s responses, and revealingly, none of the critics question its substance, which makes one wonder both why some were opposed to publication and others merely voiced their more general attacks on the AKP, Erdoğan, and Davutoğlu. Most hopefully, we can all learn from this episode that it is better to listen than to cover one’s ears because there is only a single truth worth heeding. 

We should also be aware that not all fundamentalists are religious.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in conversation: Part 1 Turkish PM in conversation, Part 2: Old Turkey, New Turkey Turkish PM in conversation, part 3: How do you create a fairer society? Turkish PM in conversation, part 4: The Arab Spring and Turkey’s future Say what you want, think what you like Is Turkey's foreign policy based on democratic values – or pan-Islamist ideology? Turkey cannot be a global power until it is a stable democracy Turkey has elections, but not democracy Reconciling the AKP's vision of Turkey Turkey’s politicians should not be let off the hook Welcome to the parallel universe: Richard Falk’s interview with PM Davutoglu The Ayatollah's second coming: critical reflections on a 'non-interview'
Categories: les flux rss

Reflections on my interview with the Turkish prime minister

Open Democracy News Analysis - 28. January 2015 - 16:32

Why was there such a fuss? Should we never listen to what political leaders have to say in explanation of their policies?

Ahmet Davutoglu in December, 2014. Demotix/Konstantinos Tsakalidis. All rights reserved.

This is a follow-up to an interview Richard Falk conducted with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu on September 28 2014. Here is openDemocracy editor Rosemary Bechler's response to the interview and ensuing discussion, also published today.

Last summer while in Turkey I welcomed the opportunity to interview Ahmed Davutoğlu shortly after he was selected as the new head of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and as the country’s prime minister. I regarded it as an occasion to raise questions of deepest concern about the kind of approach Davutoğlu, who had previously gained prominence in the world as Turkey’s dynamic foreign minister, would put forward. It did not even occur to me that it was appropriate or would be illuminating to press him on issues on which AKP positions were already widely known, such as the government’s mishandling of the Gezi Square demonstrations in 2013 or the allegations of human rights abuses associated with imprisoning journalists and political dissidents, especially those who supported the Kurdish struggle. Such ‘gotcha’ journalism rarely produces responses of interest, instead eliciting defensive and familiar commentary, and usually serves to reassure readers that the interviewing journalist holds ‘politically correct’ views.  

I have long followed Turkish politics and during years prior to the AKP ascent to power wrote about such issues as torture, human rights, Kurdish entitlement to some form of self-government or internal self-determination, and the refusal of Ankara to confront the realities of the Armenian massacres that took place in 1915. In raising such issues I was severely attacked by some of the then reigning secular journalists for daring to raise such issues that brought unfavourable global attention, especially by human rights NGOs, to Turkey. I remember well a press conference in 1993 at which I was acting as a spokesperson for an international delegation from Europe that had visited the country to understand better the Kurdish struggle to achieve minority rights. I was belligerently told by Turkish ‘journalists’ that it was inappropriate to comment critically on such matters in the public domain. These journalists claimed to have sat in on meetings of the National Security Council, and indicated their personal approval of a planned spring offensive against Kurdish villages that would soon commence. My point being: journalists in Turkey have often in the past crossed the line between a posture of objectivity and active participation in the political life of the country. I believe some are now doing so again, but with a drastically different agenda than during the pre-AKP era.

Such behaviour certainly does not justify imprisonment or banishment, but it does require an understanding of the Turkish national context in which journalists play a more overtly political role, frequently behaving as players rather than observers and interpreters. Any reading of the harsh daily criticism of AKP policies and personalities in the media would reassure even the most skeptical reader that there is no suppression of hostile commentary in present day Turkey.

My openDemocracy critics

Among those commentators invited by openDemocracy to respond to the interview with Davutoğlu was the political scientist Umut Özkırımlı who attacks me personally as a “lobbyist or ‘embedded academic.’” He apparently believes that Davutoğlu’s responses were “propagandistic” because they expressed the viewpoint of the AKP and the Turkish government, and should not even be heard. By such reasoning we should never listen to what political leaders have to say in explanation of their policies. Özkırımlı’s Google search of my past, evidently seeking to discover material that might help destroy my credibility, turned up an article that the New York Times solicited after my meeting with Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris back in 1979, days before his return to Iran to lead what he was calling the 'Islamic Revolution' that was nearing victory at the time.

My responses to Özkırımlı’s more detailed criticisms are are addressed throughout this article. I would only add that Özkırımlı apparently felt the further need to distance himself from what he insultingly derides as "this so-called interview" by adding a rather odd ‘disclaimer’ at the end of his piece. In it he criticized openDemocracy for abandoning its "core values" by publishing "this propagandistic piece," presumably to protect its readership from any exposure to the corrupting effects of Davutoğlu’s ideas. To me, this seems to embody an ethos of repressive pluralism, which is not how I have previously interpreted the core values of openDemocracy.

The issue takes on an added dimension in light of the strident defence mounted on behalf of Charlie Hebdo’s freedom of expression that is being given a clear precedence by secular liberals over the often abhorrent Islamophobic content of cartoons disguising their messages of hate beneath the banner of ‘satire.’

I was, of course, long aware that Turkish secular intellectuals in the west, especially in Britain and the United States, had strongly opposed the AKP leadership from the inception of its role as running the Turkish government in 2002, particularly demonizing its principal leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Part of my motivation for seeking this interview with Davutoğlu was the belief he would convey a clear sense of the changing Turkish political reality as seen through the lens of the AKP. From long association I knew Davutoğlu to be thoughtful, knowledgeable, and a person of fine character who well understood the complex challenges facing the Turkish government at this time.   

It is my impression, which is admittedly impossible to validate, that some of the hostility evoked by the interview among those among the openDemocracy faithful preoccupied with Turkey, was the degree to which giving Davutoğlu such a platform would dilute their propaganda campaign to paint Erdoğan as Turkey’s Putin, that is, the totalizing leader who dominated the political scene to such an extent as to render other individuals, regardless of their formal title, politically irrelevant.  

I would observe further that up until 2011 or so, anti-Erdoğan forces pursued the opposite tactic of highlighting Davutoğlu’s role as the architect of Turkish foreign policy, thereby shifting attention away from Erdoğan’s leadership role in the AKP government. In this way, credit for any positive AKP achievements could be given to others. In recent years the most ardent AKP detractors altered their opposition strategy, concentrating their anger and exhibiting their alienation almost exclusively in relation to the person of Erdoğan. It suited their purpose, then, to situate the more moderate and less vivid AKP personalities, including Davutoğlu, Ali Babacan the AKP’s economic mastermind, and former president Abdullah Gul in a shadowland of political invisibility. I believe that this obsessive attention to Erdoğan is both misleading and manipulative, although to some extent encouraged by Erdoğan’s swagger and style in the aftermath of his 2011 and presidential electoral triumphs.

With what now seems like naive innocence, I assumed that a western publication like openDemocracy, with its reputation for and claims of pluralist discourse, would view publication of such an interview as a worthwhile and essentially unproblematic event. How wrong I was! Soon, I was informed that the publication of the interview was proving to be ‘controversial’ for the editorial staff and that to prevent any impression of approval, the editor-in-chief, Mary Fitzgerald, would write a kind of blog comment preceding the interview, which would warn readers to be on guard, somewhat like TV advertisements for prescription drugs in America that are required to warn listeners of possible dire side effects. 

Nevertheless, I was quite unprepared for the hostile framing of the interview that then ensued. Mary Fitzgerald’s introductory comment warning readers to beware of the toxic opinions to follow was just the official disclaimer. No less than eight unfriendly responses of essay length had been solicited, apparently to ensure that the anti-AKP readership would feel suitably over-represented! 

Without an apparent editorial doubt in evidence, despite taking the opportunity to trumpet openDemocracy’s signature ‘pluralism,’ not a single author sympathetic to Davutoglu or the contributions of the AKP leadership to Turkey’s wellbeing during its 12 years of governance, reaffirmed in no less than eight democratic elections, was invited to contribute. And the prefatory remarks that I had submitted and that I expected to precede the interview to provide context were not published. 

It might have been of interest to use the interview as the foundation for a debate about Turkey’s political development, and prospects, but this would have required two supervisory roles by openDemocracy—attentiveness to the substance of the interview and some balance between pros and cons. 

Bill Park, alone among the respondents, does try to strike some sort of balance in assessing the accomplishments and shortcomings of the 12-plus years of AKP leadership, although he comes down rather heavily against the AKP in the end and pays no detailed attention to Davutoğlu’s views as expressed in the interview. 

Firdevs Robinson is even more fervently anti-AKP in her commentary than Park. She does make an arresting comment: “The difference between a police state and a democratic one is the accountability of its security apparatus.” She clearly intends this assertion as a further indictment of what Davutoğlu has to say, although she never directly engages with the opinions expressed in the interview. It is certainly true that Turkey’s approach to the accountability of its security forces is problematic, but does that by itself negate democracy or more frighteningly, lead us to classify Turkey as ‘a police state’? If so, there would be no democracies left in the world, and Turkey would be no different than the others. 

Surely, the quality of government cannot be reduced to this issue of accountability, no matter how important it is for the full realization of democratic potential. After the Snowden disclosures of the national and global surveillance features of the security apparatus operative, by this logic the United States would qualify as an extreme police state. Although as with Turkey there are serious problematic and anti-democratic features of the American security apparatus, fortunately it would be a wildly irresponsible exaggeration to regard the United States as a police state. 

Alexander Christie-Miller also joins the anti-AKP chorus, giving particular attention to the authoritarian style of Erdoğan, yet at least however grudgingly acknowledging that in terms of economic and political performance, the AKP did better during its period of leadership than did its inept predecessors. Semanur Karamer moves in a similar direction of criticism emphasizing Erdoğan’s ‘Putinesque paranoia’ and indicting his ‘bluntly majoritarian understanding of democracy.’ I share his view that Turkey’s regional influence and domestic stability depend to some extent on improving its human rights record at home, although other factors are equally important and not mentioned. Oguz Alyanak is more stridently negative accusing Davutoğlu of living in ‘Neverland’ without a feel for the realities of Turkish political life, dismissing the popularity of the AKP that he encountered as an illusion in ‘the eye of the beholder.’ Alyanak goes so far as to suggest that a government with such a bad record as that of the AKP has lost all credibility as “the legitimate representative of the Turkish people.” It is not clear to me as to why Alyanak’s views of AKP credibility outweigh the repeated approval given by the Turkish citizenry.

Behlül Özkan has been publishing over and over again this same contention that Davutoğlu is an adherent of a pan-Islamic ideology “whose ultimate goal is the ascendancy of Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.” Of course, such an assessment is put forward without any attention at all to address Davutoğlu’s views as expressed in the interview. It also collides with his expressed views in a range of publications and his foreign policy advocacy. It should be recalled that Davutoğlu’s chose Assad’s anti-Sunni government as the earliest and most heralded application of his ‘zero problems’ doctrine. The turn against Assad came only after the Damascus government committed numerous crimes against humanity, and after Ankara made strenuous efforts to induce the Syrian leader to act humanely in response to the opposition and agree to democratic reforms. 

Similarly in Egypt, support for the Muslim Brotherhood came in the aftermath of its electoral victory, and Ankara’s opposition to the military coup and its bloody aftermath was a position consistent with a commitment to democracy and human rights. In my private dealings as well as in his public service, Davutoğlu has consistently urged Turkey to pursue a foreign policy based on a blend of pragmatism and humane values, and it is a provocative deflection from reality to portray his worldview and behavior as pan-Islamist.

Bulent Gokay writes the most knowledgeable and challenging response to the interview, although he like the others does not engage directly with Davutoğlu’s views expressed in the interview. Somewhat strangely he puts forward the view that Turkey’s global status depends on it becoming “a stable and functioning democracy.” He adds, “[t]here is no exception to this.” China? Saudi Arabia? Russia? These may not be societies of choice from the perspective of a western educated individual, but such countries, and many others, are not democracies and yet have a global status that commands respect and exerts influence. Indeed, the history of international relations is one in which non-democratic states have been treated as geopolitical equals with democratically governed states. This was constitutionally acknowledged in the UN Charter by including the Soviet Union and China among the five permanent members of the Security Council enjoying veto power. 

Gotcha journalism 

Mary Fitzgerald summarizes her comment by describing the interview as ‘deeply problematic, sometimes enraging.” This is hardly a welcoming signal for a contributor to an online publication. In the body of her text she criticizes me for missing “a rare opportunity to challenge the assumptions of a deeply problematic state.” Elsewhere she elaborates on my failure to challenge Davutoğlu, concluding with a dismissive flourish: “[t]his is not an ‘interview’ but a conversation between a diplomat and a prime minister who are on very good terms.” Of course, I am not ‘a diplomat,’ although I was friends with Davutoğlu long before he entered politics when we were both in academic life and shared a preoccupation with international relations, especially with finding better ways to connect culture, history, and politics with what was happening in the Middle East and the world. In all these interactions, what I remember best is Davutoğlu’s opposition to efforts by the west to fill all the civilizational space of non-western peoples and his contrasting affirmation to the effect that civilizational pluralism offers the only desirable foundation for world order.

If seen as a conversation, I would be embarrassed to have played such a passive role, merely suggesting topics that struck me during the interview as opportunities for hearing what the new Turkish prime minister had to say, and avoiding the fatal attractions of ‘gotcha journalism.’ I believe the interview discloses valuable in-depth explanations of central issues of AKP policy, including its effective challenge of the previously seemingly impregnable Turkish ‘deep state’ controlled by the military and intelligence services and constraining, if not engaged in deposing, the elected leadership of the country.

I recall a conversation with Mike Wallace, famed '60 Minutes' TV journalist, the week after he returned from Tehran having done what he agreed was a disastrous interview with Ayatollah Khomeini at the height of the hostage crisis following the seizure in 1979 of the American Embassy. Wallace ventured the opinion that the interviewed failed because rather than letting Khomeini give his views on what happened, he tried repeatedly to pin him down, and got a series of useless angry responses. There is a place for aggressive interviewing, especially in relation to breaking news, or issues on which a political leader has not spoken, but aggression for aggression’s sake leads nowhere. As an example of an approach I favour, Edgar Snow obtained fascinating responses from Mao tse-Tung when he interviewed him in 1965, at a time when the world public didn’t know much about his outlook. [Snow interview described in an article published by The New Republic, Feb. 27, 1965] Again he was sharply criticised for giving a propaganda outlet to a leading Communist leader, the ideological enemy of the west at the time. In my view, such exposure to controversial views, without conditioning the audience to reject what is being said before it is even heard, is exactly what the pluralist ethos should involve, but in this instance it is the opposite of what openDemocracy chose to do.

The bigger picture

In all of this discussion of how to view Turkey it has surprised me that no one observed that a sharp shift in media treatment has accompanied two international developments: Turkey’s show of a post-Cold War independent foreign policy in the Middle East, highlighted by the 2010 Turkish initiative (jointly with Brazil) to defuse the looming crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme, much to the displeasure of Washington and Tel Aviv. Turkey was widely criticised in Washington for what many believed to have been a constructive move to lessen the chances of a military confrontation with Iran that could have caused a devastating regional war. The American response was a slap on Turkey’s wrist, an admonition ‘to stay in its lane’ despite the fact that the Cold War discipline was no longer operative. In effect, even though Iran was Turkey’s neighbour and a war in the region would deeply threaten Turkish national security, Ankara was instructed to be an obedient junior ally, and to leave serious diplomacy in the region in the hands of the US government.   

Secondly, the shift in Turkey’s attitude toward Israel is continuing to have adverse media consequences for how Turkey is perceived in the west. This shift was first publicly displayed by Erdoğan’s angry and hostile outburst directed at the Israeli President, Shimon Peres, during a meeting of the World Economic Forum in 2009. It reached its climax a year later when Israel launched a lethal commando attack in international waters on the Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara, that was part of a ‘freedom flotilla,’ an effort by humanitarian NGOs seeking to break the blockade of Gaza by delivering medical supplies to the entrapped civilian population. 

Prior to these two developments, there was a generally sympathetic view of the AKP leadership, with the US government in particular using its relations with Turkey to demonstrate that even after the 9/11 attacks it could have a good working relationship with a Muslim country in the region. This was especially true of the early years of the Obama presidency when there were many reports in the media of the close working relationship that had developed between the American Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, and Davutoğlu after he became foreign minister, especially in working out a joint approach of support for the anti-Assad uprising in Syria. 

It is true that after winning victory in the 2011 elections, Erdoğan in particular threw the caution and pragmatism of his earlier leadership to the winds, and provocatively gave vent to his conservative opinions on social issues and showed his hostility toward the implacable domestic adversaries that had mounted a relentless, and often unfair, attack against his leadership. It is also the case that the break with the Hizmet movement led by Fetullah Gulen added some fuel to domestic and diaspora Turkish fires of discontent. 

Yet, in my view, the real animus for this turn in perceptions was a result of international, not domestic, changes, and this is reflected in the sorts of Turkish attitudes expressed in the eight responses solicited by openDemocracy to cast a dark shadow over the interview.  With such an outlook it is an implicit consensus among the critics that since Erdoğan is the ruthless authoritarian leader of Turkey it is a waste of time to hear the views of Davutoğlu. Almost by definition Davutoğlu is a political hack or stooge. Thus endowing him with any kind of leadership status is to blur the anti-AKP campaign that is centered on ‘the Putinization of Turkey.’  

In the end, reading over the interview my main reaction is ‘why such a fuss?’ There is nothing whatsoever that is inflammatory in Davutoğlu’s responses, and revealingly, none of the critics question its substance, which makes one wonder both why some were opposed to publication and others merely voiced their more general attacks on the AKP, Erdoğan, and Davutoğlu. Most hopefully, we can all learn from this episode that it is better to listen than to cover one’s ears because there is only a single truth worth heeding. 

We should also be aware that not all fundamentalists are religious.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in conversation: Part 1 Turkish PM in conversation, Part 2: Old Turkey, New Turkey Turkish PM in conversation, part 3: How do you create a fairer society? Turkish PM in conversation, part 4: The Arab Spring and Turkey’s future Say what you want, think what you like Is Turkey's foreign policy based on democratic values – or pan-Islamist ideology? Turkey cannot be a global power until it is a stable democracy Turkey has elections, but not democracy Reconciling the AKP's vision of Turkey Turkey’s politicians should not be let off the hook Welcome to the parallel universe: Richard Falk’s interview with PM Davutoglu The Ayatollah's second coming: critical reflections on a 'non-interview'
Categories: les flux rss

Succession in Saudi Arabia: no surprises here

Open Democracy News Analysis - 28. January 2015 - 16:05

People should not expect drastic change in Saudi Arabia, as the regime's primary concern will be to maintain the status quo.

King Abdullah financial district in Riyadh. Demotix/Dominic Dudley. All rights reserved.

Obituaries appearing on the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah made much of how he fell short of making good on his promised agenda for reforms, while commentators provide the new King Salman with a list of things he is expected to do. However, Saudi Arabia and the world should not get their hopes up. The regime’s primary concern will be to maintain the status quo. And the swift positioning of figures in key posts in this orderly succession indicate that is exactly what will happen.

Although, during his nine-year reign Abdullah went through three crown princes, expect no dramatic changes, because Saudi successions have been unexciting since 1975.  Prior to that, things were rather different. 1962 saw a failed “palace revolution” by reform-minded young royals led by Prince Talal, who drew inspiration from Nasser and called themselves “Free Princes.”

Two years later, King Saud was deposed as he was an unbridled spendthrift driving the country into near bankruptcy. His successor, the frugal King Faisal, was assassinated in 1975 by a disaffected nephew, taking revenge for his brother who was killed at the order of Faisal during the 1964 “TV riots”.

Over the last forty years, the Al Saud have taken care to present a united front. This closing of the ranks is shaped not only by the experiences of the 1960s, but also lessons from history: in the nineteenth century, the Al Saud were ousted from power twice; the last time in the 1890s when rivalrous brothers fought openly over succession.

As a result they spent ten years in the political wilderness, languishing in exile in Bahrain and Kuwait until the founder of the current Kingdom of Saudi Arabia began the long campaign to restore Saudi power in the early decades of the twentieth century. 

The Al Saud have one paramount political objective: safeguarding the dynasty’s hold on power at all costs. Since 1975, the driving force behind this singular mission were the seven Sudairi brothers, led by the future King Fahd. In control of the key ministries of defence and the interior since 1962, they created the office of ‘second deputy prime minister’ in 1982, when Fahd ascended to the throne (having already acted as de facto ruler since 1975).

The position was created with the foresight of having not only a crown prince, but putting in place the next heir apparent-in-waiting as well. The first incumbent of this new position was King Fahd’s full brother, defence minister Prince Sultan. This meant that the then Crown Prince Abdullah was effectively squeezed between two Sudairis.

When King Abdullah came to power in 2005, he left the office of second deputy prime minister vacant twice, only appointing another Sudairi brother, interior minister Nayef in 2009, and – following another hiatus from 2011-2013, eventually giving the post to Prince Muqrin, who has now stepped up to become crown prince.

As the youngest surviving son of the founder of the kingdom, Muqrin is probably the last of his generation to become monarch. Most of his political life was spent in domestic administration; governing the important provinces of Hail and Medina. His foray into the world of international security was less fortunate; he was fired as Director of the Intelligence Agency for his failure to bring about regime change in Syria and replaced by the another Sudairi scion: Bandar bin Sultan, son of the late Crown Prince Sultan and a former ambassador to Washington.

Based on the experiences of the last decennia, and depending on how long the frail new King Salman will last, it is expected that the current status quo will be maintained for quite a few years to come.

King Salman’s quick appointment of his nephew, interior minister Muhammad bin Nayef as Second Deputy Prime Minister has already settled the succession question beyond new Crown Prince Muqrin.  As the youngest surviving son of the kingdom’s founder, the transition to the next generation has not only been announced, but the preferred candidate has been selected.

The appointment of the new king’s own son Muhammad also evinces the continuing hold on power of the Sudairi branch of the royal family. Given the new defence minister’s extreme youth (34), it is a clear indication of the Sudairis’ wish to consolidate their control over the kingdom far into the century.

Also it will be interesting to watch if any of the sons of former King Fahd and the late Crown Prince Sultan will feature again in new senior appointments. There is little chance for Crown Prince Muqrin to extend his influence through his sons: none have government experience, and the new Crown Prince’s own status is undermined by his descent from a Yemeni concubine rather than a Saudi princess.

So nothing much new can be expected from those who have now risen to the top.

Sideboxes Related stories:  All change in Saudi Arabia? Not quite yet Saudi Arabia's succession: securing the status quo Saudi Arabia's moribund monarchy A new dawn in Saudi? The new great regional game: Saudi Arabia and Iran Country or region:  Saudi Arabia
Categories: les flux rss

Succession in Saudi Arabia: no surprises here

Open Democracy News Analysis - 28. January 2015 - 16:05

People should not expect drastic change in Saudi Arabia, as the regime's primary concern will be to maintain the status quo.

King Abdullah financial district in Riyadh. Demotix/Dominic Dudley. All rights reserved.

Obituaries appearing on the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah made much of how he fell short of making good on his promised agenda for reforms, while commentators provide the new King Salman with a list of things he is expected to do. However, Saudi Arabia and the world should not get their hopes up. The regime’s primary concern will be to maintain the status quo. And the swift positioning of figures in key posts in this orderly succession indicate that is exactly what will happen.

Although, during his nine-year reign Abdullah went through three crown princes, expect no dramatic changes, because Saudi successions have been unexciting since 1975.  Prior to that, things were rather different. 1962 saw a failed “palace revolution” by reform-minded young royals led by Prince Talal, who drew inspiration from Nasser and called themselves “Free Princes.”

Two years later, King Saud was deposed as he was an unbridled spendthrift driving the country into near bankruptcy. His successor, the frugal King Faisal, was assassinated in 1975 by a disaffected nephew, taking revenge for his brother who was killed at the order of Faisal during the 1964 “TV riots”.

Over the last forty years, the Al Saud have taken care to present a united front. This closing of the ranks is shaped not only by the experiences of the 1960s, but also lessons from history: in the nineteenth century, the Al Saud were ousted from power twice; the last time in the 1890s when rivalrous brothers fought openly over succession.

As a result they spent ten years in the political wilderness, languishing in exile in Bahrain and Kuwait until the founder of the current Kingdom of Saudi Arabia began the long campaign to restore Saudi power in the early decades of the twentieth century. 

The Al Saud have one paramount political objective: safeguarding the dynasty’s hold on power at all costs. Since 1975, the driving force behind this singular mission were the seven Sudairi brothers, led by the future King Fahd. In control of the key ministries of defence and the interior since 1962, they created the office of ‘second deputy prime minister’ in 1982, when Fahd ascended to the throne (having already acted as de facto ruler since 1975).

The position was created with the foresight of having not only a crown prince, but putting in place the next heir apparent-in-waiting as well. The first incumbent of this new position was King Fahd’s full brother, defence minister Prince Sultan. This meant that the then Crown Prince Abdullah was effectively squeezed between two Sudairis.

When King Abdullah came to power in 2005, he left the office of second deputy prime minister vacant twice, only appointing another Sudairi brother, interior minister Nayef in 2009, and – following another hiatus from 2011-2013, eventually giving the post to Prince Muqrin, who has now stepped up to become crown prince.

As the youngest surviving son of the founder of the kingdom, Muqrin is probably the last of his generation to become monarch. Most of his political life was spent in domestic administration; governing the important provinces of Hail and Medina. His foray into the world of international security was less fortunate; he was fired as Director of the Intelligence Agency for his failure to bring about regime change in Syria and replaced by the another Sudairi scion: Bandar bin Sultan, son of the late Crown Prince Sultan and a former ambassador to Washington.

Based on the experiences of the last decennia, and depending on how long the frail new King Salman will last, it is expected that the current status quo will be maintained for quite a few years to come.

King Salman’s quick appointment of his nephew, interior minister Muhammad bin Nayef as Second Deputy Prime Minister has already settled the succession question beyond new Crown Prince Muqrin.  As the youngest surviving son of the kingdom’s founder, the transition to the next generation has not only been announced, but the preferred candidate has been selected.

The appointment of the new king’s own son Muhammad also evinces the continuing hold on power of the Sudairi branch of the royal family. Given the new defence minister’s extreme youth (34), it is a clear indication of the Sudairis’ wish to consolidate their control over the kingdom far into the century.

Also it will be interesting to watch if any of the sons of former King Fahd and the late Crown Prince Sultan will feature again in new senior appointments. There is little chance for Crown Prince Muqrin to extend his influence through his sons: none have government experience, and the new Crown Prince’s own status is undermined by his descent from a Yemeni concubine rather than a Saudi princess.

So nothing much new can be expected from those who have now risen to the top.

Sideboxes Related stories:  All change in Saudi Arabia? Not quite yet Saudi Arabia's succession: securing the status quo Saudi Arabia's moribund monarchy A new dawn in Saudi? The new great regional game: Saudi Arabia and Iran Country or region:  Saudi Arabia
Categories: les flux rss

Charlie Hebdo numero 1178: all is forgiven?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 28. January 2015 - 15:30

Mutual recognition between people and cultures moves in mysterious ways, the cartoon its Rorschach test. 

Third blot in the Rorschach ink blot test. Wikicommons. Pulbic domain.“Tout est pardonné” -------- What are we to do with this message on perhaps the most awaited cover in the history of global journalism? And what are we to do with the fact that these powerful words, written last week in tears – literally -- by a once joyous band of journalists, were almost ignored in the tsunami of reactions to the image itself of a Mohamed with a Je suis Charlie banner shedding a tear?

We knew that the survivors’ issue would be “ni pleurnichard ni revanchard” (neither tearful nor revengeful). “Tout est pardonné” in a way echoes “l’amour pas la haine” after the 2011 Charlie bombing, well, minus the provocative kiss-on-the-lips. Defiant, they refuse self- censorship: but this is the most pacifist of all Mohameds. So why did the world only comment on the defiant image? What shall we do with the forgiving part?

There is of course, at the root of it all, the power of drawing, irreverence as the ultimate universal. But as all power – and power was Charlie’s main target – it must be used wisely. Tignous, one of the cartoonists killed, explained that satire must fulfil three conditions, make us laugh, hopefully make us think, and if it is a perfect success, create a feeling of shame to be laughing about that. As Xavier de la Porte muses on his Rue 89 website, that is a complex message!

And what a risk, taken by each cartoonist time and time again, not to be as subtle as his ambition. Can our public space live up to such power and subtlety? Do we have enough trust in ourselves and in one another? Mutual recognition between people and cultures moves in mysterious ways, the cartoon its Rorschach test.

1

Perhaps it is all too confusing? Who is doing the forgiving? Wolinski and company from up on high, or Mohamed-Charlie with his tear – forgiving those who kill in his name? Or the families and survivors yes – but who are they, now that we are all Charlie? Now that, for a minute or so, the global extended family includes the dodgy heads of states walking with Francois Hollande at the head of the 3 million march in Paris on that Sunday?

And who is to be forgiven? The killers – who don’t give a damn? Or all those who, over the years, had said: Supporting Charlie? Yes.... but? Or the many French Muslim kids who refused to respect the minute of silence the day after – in the name of this “but”? Different worlds. So we ask: what have they learned?

Surely it would be wrong to hold to account those belonging to what we call in France “la communauté francaise d’origine Musulmane” (not a “minority” as in the English speaking word). As Olivier Roy and others have long argued they are, simply, French and European citizens. Charb, who was killed too, exclaimed after the 2011 Charlie bombing: “People worry that ‘moderate Muslims’ are not reacting. There are no moderate Muslims in France, there are no Muslims at all, but people who are of Muslim culture, who respect Ramadan in the same way as I do Christmas and goggle up turkey at my parents’.” But of course “French Muslims” did react, whether or not under the label. So we ask: do they forgive such a high-jacking of Islam?

FORGIVE! There are all those who think: how can they be so naïve! What a wonderful world that can never be! There is no redemption on the fronts of Mali or Clichy sous bois, in the suburbs inside and outside our borders. Security is the only mantra. So we ask: will our colonial DNA, colonial within, colonial without, have the last word – all is security? Can those who still live under the post-colonial shadow forgive us this unending presence of the past? Are we meant to forgive the stubbornness of their memory?

Perhaps it is hard to wrap our heads around All is forgiven, because the real message of the survivors’ issue (read the inside pages!) is too politically incorrect: “They” can never retaliate against our forgiveness. Thou is forgiven is the creed that will always belong to us, the laics, the atheists – not to these religions of all hues that sought to appropriate it. What is at stake is not just freedom of expression, as most of the world seems to hear, but the kind of society we will fight for, till the end, and which the French in particular still hold on to: laicité.

So as Luz and company shout on the page in Charlie Hebdo 1178, Cabu, Wolinski and their mates will live on, not just because there is sex in paradise (hey, we can still smile malgré tout) but because of this creed, our secularism, the only space where “all can be forgiven.” The survivors persist in refusing to discriminate against Islam in their secular irony even though they continue, as always, to reserve their most provocative stuff for Christians (the most provocative cartoon in the post-attack issue exhibits divorced women who will now be able to take their communion their big tongues sticking out…we won’t even translate the bishop’s thought bubble). They are deadly serious in this manifesto: laicité is the only way to deal with the challenges of our age, from social integration to the politics and geopolitics of radical Islam. Against, “religious totalitarism” we must reclaim the universalism of liberty, equality and sisterhood (I quote).  Some readers may think this simplistically last century. But who is Manichean here, the survivors ask? Equating us (Charlie) with them (Islamic fundamentalists) as secular “fundamentalists” is the source of all this evil! True secularism which seeks to enlarge our domains of co-existence is incompatible with Islamophobia. We prove it thus: all is forgiven.

2

But is it right to forgive all? In the Doctrine of Virtue, Kant explains that forgiveness is a duty of virtue as part of self-respect. It is not a revision of our feelings toward an offender but about our actions. And it should not be about the relationship between victim and offender but about pursuing either our own moral perfection or the happiness of the whole community, country, humanity.

But that forgiveness should be consistent with self-respect also means that we sometimes have a duty to withhold it if we think it will encourage our offender to wrong us again. That is what is likely to happen if an offender cannot acknowledge the injustice committed before being forgiven. So we are left with the question, since the killers are dead, of who is supposed to provide Charlie et al with such an acknowledgement. And is such an acknowledgement of injustice bound up with “forgiving” the cartoons themselves? If no one authority speaks for Islam – according to which we are told mercy cannot be expected from Allah unless one is oneself a forgiver – a fortiori, no authority speaks for radical Islam. What has forgiveness done for us all?

To be sure, we can all do with the self-respect bit. In the lead up to the killings, my fellow French compatriots seemed to have forgotten how to appreciate their country. But as Obama writes Vive la France in the D.C. condolences book, let us bask in the reflected glow of Charlie Hebdo’s magnanimous stance. All is forgiven: can the USA say the same?

The problem is that we, the rest of us, have not earned the right to forgive. Who would dare what they dared. Charb had repeated the age-old cry – mieux vaut vivre debout que mourir a genoux – knowingly. The survivors quip that these stupid offenders were not worthy of him and his friends – hey, they did not know Charlie Hebdo’s address and wore gagoules to hide their identity only to drop an ID card. How infuriating to get whacked by such pathetic guys! (“C’est rageant de se faire buter par des minables” ). Dead pan.

We are left with our collective ambivalence. To be or not to be Charlie, the Charlie that forgives, the Charlie that persists. We may or may not want to be the Charlie d’avant January 7 but surely, let us be inspired by the Charlie d’apres to imagine a world where the petit and grand grievances that plague us all, can be, by the strike of a magic pen, just like that, forgiven.

Country or region:  France EU Topics:  Civil society Conflict Culture Democracy and government Ideas International politics
Categories: les flux rss

Charlie Hebdo numero 1178: all is forgiven?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 28. January 2015 - 15:30

Mutual recognition between people and cultures moves in mysterious ways, the cartoon its Rorschach test. 

Third blot in the Rorschach ink blot test. Wikicommons. Pulbic domain.“Tout est pardonné” -------- What are we to do with this message on perhaps the most awaited cover in the history of global journalism? And what are we to do with the fact that these powerful words, written last week in tears – literally -- by a once joyous band of journalists, were almost ignored in the tsunami of reactions to the image itself of a Mohamed with a Je suis Charlie banner shedding a tear?

We knew that the survivors’ issue would be “ni pleurnichard ni revanchard” (neither tearful nor revengeful). “Tout est pardonné” in a way echoes “l’amour pas la haine” after the 2011 Charlie bombing, well, minus the provocative kiss-on-the-lips. Defiant, they refuse self- censorship: but this is the most pacifist of all Mohameds. So why did the world only comment on the defiant image? What shall we do with the forgiving part?

There is of course, at the root of it all, the power of drawing, irreverence as the ultimate universal. But as all power – and power was Charlie’s main target – it must be used wisely. Tignous, one of the cartoonists killed, explained that satire must fulfil three conditions, make us laugh, hopefully make us think, and if it is a perfect success, create a feeling of shame to be laughing about that. As Xavier de la Porte muses on his Rue 89 website, that is a complex message!

And what a risk, taken by each cartoonist time and time again, not to be as subtle as his ambition. Can our public space live up to such power and subtlety? Do we have enough trust in ourselves and in one another? Mutual recognition between people and cultures moves in mysterious ways, the cartoon its Rorschach test.

1

Perhaps it is all too confusing? Who is doing the forgiving? Wolinski and company from up on high, or Mohamed-Charlie with his tear – forgiving those who kill in his name? Or the families and survivors yes – but who are they, now that we are all Charlie? Now that, for a minute or so, the global extended family includes the dodgy heads of states walking with Francois Hollande at the head of the 3 million march in Paris on that Sunday?

And who is to be forgiven? The killers – who don’t give a damn? Or all those who, over the years, had said: Supporting Charlie? Yes.... but? Or the many French Muslim kids who refused to respect the minute of silence the day after – in the name of this “but”? Different worlds. So we ask: what have they learned?

Surely it would be wrong to hold to account those belonging to what we call in France “la communauté francaise d’origine Musulmane” (not a “minority” as in the English speaking word). As Olivier Roy and others have long argued they are, simply, French and European citizens. Charb, who was killed too, exclaimed after the 2011 Charlie bombing: “People worry that ‘moderate Muslims’ are not reacting. There are no moderate Muslims in France, there are no Muslims at all, but people who are of Muslim culture, who respect Ramadan in the same way as I do Christmas and goggle up turkey at my parents’.” But of course “French Muslims” did react, whether or not under the label. So we ask: do they forgive such a high-jacking of Islam?

FORGIVE! There are all those who think: how can they be so naïve! What a wonderful world that can never be! There is no redemption on the fronts of Mali or Clichy sous bois, in the suburbs inside and outside our borders. Security is the only mantra. So we ask: will our colonial DNA, colonial within, colonial without, have the last word – all is security? Can those who still live under the post-colonial shadow forgive us this unending presence of the past? Are we meant to forgive the stubbornness of their memory?

Perhaps it is hard to wrap our heads around All is forgiven, because the real message of the survivors’ issue (read the inside pages!) is too politically incorrect: “They” can never retaliate against our forgiveness. Thou is forgiven is the creed that will always belong to us, the laics, the atheists – not to these religions of all hues that sought to appropriate it. What is at stake is not just freedom of expression, as most of the world seems to hear, but the kind of society we will fight for, till the end, and which the French in particular still hold on to: laicité.

So as Luz and company shout on the page in Charlie Hebdo 1178, Cabu, Wolinski and their mates will live on, not just because there is sex in paradise (hey, we can still smile malgré tout) but because of this creed, our secularism, the only space where “all can be forgiven.” The survivors persist in refusing to discriminate against Islam in their secular irony even though they continue, as always, to reserve their most provocative stuff for Christians (the most provocative cartoon in the post-attack issue exhibits divorced women who will now be able to take their communion their big tongues sticking out…we won’t even translate the bishop’s thought bubble). They are deadly serious in this manifesto: laicité is the only way to deal with the challenges of our age, from social integration to the politics and geopolitics of radical Islam. Against, “religious totalitarism” we must reclaim the universalism of liberty, equality and sisterhood (I quote).  Some readers may think this simplistically last century. But who is Manichean here, the survivors ask? Equating us (Charlie) with them (Islamic fundamentalists) as secular “fundamentalists” is the source of all this evil! True secularism which seeks to enlarge our domains of co-existence is incompatible with Islamophobia. We prove it thus: all is forgiven.

2

But is it right to forgive all? In the Doctrine of Virtue, Kant explains that forgiveness is a duty of virtue as part of self-respect. It is not a revision of our feelings toward an offender but about our actions. And it should not be about the relationship between victim and offender but about pursuing either our own moral perfection or the happiness of the whole community, country, humanity.

But that forgiveness should be consistent with self-respect also means that we sometimes have a duty to withhold it if we think it will encourage our offender to wrong us again. That is what is likely to happen if an offender cannot acknowledge the injustice committed before being forgiven. So we are left with the question, since the killers are dead, of who is supposed to provide Charlie et al with such an acknowledgement. And is such an acknowledgement of injustice bound up with “forgiving” the cartoons themselves? If no one authority speaks for Islam – according to which we are told mercy cannot be expected from Allah unless one is oneself a forgiver – a fortiori, no authority speaks for radical Islam. What has forgiveness done for us all?

To be sure, we can all do with the self-respect bit. In the lead up to the killings, my fellow French compatriots seemed to have forgotten how to appreciate their country. But as Obama writes Vive la France in the D.C. condolences book, let us bask in the reflected glow of Charlie Hebdo’s magnanimous stance. All is forgiven: can the USA say the same?

The problem is that we, the rest of us, have not earned the right to forgive. Who would dare what they dared. Charb had repeated the age-old cry – mieux vaut vivre debout que mourir a genoux – knowingly. The survivors quip that these stupid offenders were not worthy of him and his friends – hey, they did not know Charlie Hebdo’s address and wore gagoules to hide their identity only to drop an ID card. How infuriating to get whacked by such pathetic guys! (“C’est rageant de se faire buter par des minables” ). Dead pan.

We are left with our collective ambivalence. To be or not to be Charlie, the Charlie that forgives, the Charlie that persists. We may or may not want to be the Charlie d’avant January 7 but surely, let us be inspired by the Charlie d’apres to imagine a world where the petit and grand grievances that plague us all, can be, by the strike of a magic pen, just like that, forgiven.

Country or region:  France EU Topics:  Civil society Conflict Culture Democracy and government Ideas International politics
Categories: les flux rss

Crisis in Yemen: what the media is getting wrong

Open Democracy News Analysis - 28. January 2015 - 14:26

It is important to stop perpetuating misconceptions about the current crisis (i.e., that it’s a sectarian conflict or proxy war among Iran and Saudi Arabia) that make for a good – albeit largely unfounded – story.

Houthis march in celebration of the Prophet's birthday, Sana'a, 2013. Luke Somers/Demotix. All rights reserved.Watching the media coverage of Yemen’s most recent crisis, it is easy to get a sense that a radical, Iranian-backed and relatively new rebel movement has seized control of the government in a coup d’état. Media reports tell us that the Houthis, a movement associated with the Zaydi branch of Shia’a Islam, is a new group that engineered a coup – and that they are inadvertently creating new opportunities for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Much of this is at best half-truth and requires some crucial corrections.

1. The Houthis aren’t new

The Houthi movement is not, as recently portrayed in the press, a new or formerly-marginal group. The Houthis fought and won or survived six rounds of conflict with the Yemeni military between 2004 and 2010. But the group was first founded more than three decades ago as essentially an ethno-religious pride organisation dedicated to ensuring that Zaydi youth in northern Yemen didn’t overlook – as had Sunni-crafted textbooks – the more than 1,000 years that Hashemite Zaydi imams ruled much of contemporary Yemen. This movement, known then as Shabab al-Mumin (Believing Youth), eventually turned political and, starting in 2004, involved anti-government protests against the government in Sana’a for its collaboration with the United States, Israel’s most powerful foreign backer. It was a government crackdown on these demonstrations that ultimately led to violence and the strengthening of a militant wing, known as Ansarullah, around the Houthis.

2. The Houthis didn’t want to overthrow the government

While much of the media coverage suggests that the Houthis engineered a coup, it is important to note that they have generally been hesitant to govern. As Helen Lackner noted in a recent article, the Houthis could have easily seized control of the capital and taken over the government, and could have done so months ago. Instead, they chose – since first entering Sana’a in September 2014 – to slowly encircle President Hadi and his government in hopes that they would form what Lackner calls a ‘puppet’ government to present to the international community.

It appears that President Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi, his prime minister and his cabinet all resigned not due to pressure from the Houthis. Instead, they resigned to spite the Houthis and essentially to put the ball back in their court – letting them sink or swim in the quagmire they had helped to create.

Even in parts of the Sa’ada governorate in northern Yemen long controlled by the Houthis, the movement has been unwilling to govern in a comprehensive sense and instead has allowed the central government and foreign aid agencies to continue providing key services. Yes, the Houthis have provided security and have adjudicated disputes through efficient local courts, but they have not tried to provide basic services in the same way that Hamas does in Gaza or Hezbollah does in parts of Lebanon. This is because the Houthis have relatively little recent bureaucratic or legislative expertise, lack the resources to undertake large-scale service provision, and acknowledge that their popularity could wane if they try and fail to deliver public goods. This is just what President Hadi had in mind when he resigned: the Houthis will either fail to run the government effectively or will withdraw rather than take on the country’s myriad political, security, and economic challenges (several of which Lackner discusses in her recent article).

3. The Houthis aren’t Iranian proxies, and Iran has little to do with the current situation

Much of the media has reiterated this suspicion that the Houthis are essentially an Iranian proxy or client along the same lines as Hezbollah and are intended to threaten Saudi Arabia. While relations between the Houthis and Iran are primarily a matter of speculation, it is important to note a few things. First, the Houthis are deeply proud and opposed to external interference and would be unlikely to follow any dictates from Tehran. Second, the branches of Shia Islam practiced among Iranians and Yemen’s Shia’a are different, and Zaydi Islam is generally closer to the Shafi’i school of Islam practiced in Yemen than it is to Iran’s Twelver Shi’ism. Thirdly, the Houthis have not demonstrated the sorts of generous financial resources or relatively sophisticated weaponry that Iran traditionally bestows upon its clients in Syria and Lebanon. Lastly, aside from a brief period in 2008-2009, the Houthis haven’t necessarily entered Saudi soil or taken any actions against Saudi Arabia – as one would expect if the group was part of an Iranian plot to destabilise the Kingdom.

Much of the suspicion about Iran’s role comes from US and Saudi officials who see Iran around every corner. In early 2013 the US and Yemeni governments reportedly seized some Chinese-made weapons that they claim were from Iran and bound for the Houthis. However, little evidence of the Iranian connection was ever released, and the US has a history of attributing weapons to Iran with little evidence (and even where allied intelligence agencies reach fundamentally different conclusions). It would be exceptionally difficult for Iran to smuggle vast amounts of weapons to the Houthis given the sheer logistics involved, and the fact that the weapons would need to circumnavigate the Arabian Peninsula and head through some of the most heavily patrolled waters in the world. Besides, as one of the best armed countries in the world – and a recipient of US military assistance – it’s not as though the Houthis didn’t have alternative sources of weaponry.

Furthermore, the Houthis have enough of an ally in former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down amid the Arab Spring but who retains significant control over parts of the country’s security services. Saleh instructed his loyalists in the military and in elite security units to step down both last September, when the Houthis first entered the capital, and in recent weeks as they rather easily surrounded numerous key government institutions.

4. AQAP or IS could benefit from the chaos, but terrorism in Yemen is hardly the Houthis’ fault.

AQAP, based in Yemen, is widely considered the most capable Al Qaeda franchise. The group has long benefited from the absence of government control over a significant portion of Yemeni soil, and further chaos could expand the AQAP’s ability to operate with impunity. But let’s be careful not to blame this too much on the Houthis’ actions over the past several months. AQAP has long had an ability to operate relatively freely in parts of Yemen, particularly since the country’s security services fragmented among different political factions during and since the 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations there. Indeed, if anyone is enabling AQAP, it’s not the Houthis but instead former President Saleh and those other powerful political figures, particularly the al-Ahmar family, who refuse to help de-politicise the security forces and allow them to operate more effectively.

Furthermore, radical Islamic clerics friendly with past and current regime figures in Yemen – and Saudi support given to increasingly radical forms of Sunni Islam there – owe much more credit for cultivating and enabling AQAP. If anything, the Houthis are going to be a potent ally in helping to counter AQAP and perhaps Islamic State if they gain a meaningful following in Yemen (which is something else the media has reported based on relatively sketchy information).

All of this isn’t to say that the Houthis are necessarily behaving responsibly by taking the government and parts of the capital hostage. The group has a demonstrated history of human rights abuses against non-Zaydis and perceived opponents, in particular in areas it controls. And violent repression of public dissent is already visible, according to Lackner. But it is important for the media to stop perpetuating misconceptions about the current crisis (i.e., that it’s a sectarian conflict or proxy war among Iran and Saudi Arabia) that make for a good – albeit largely unfounded – story.

Sideboxes Related stories:  An introduction to Yemen's emergency Country or region:  Yemen Topics:  Civil society Conflict Democracy and government International politics
Categories: les flux rss

Crisis in Yemen: what the media is getting wrong

Open Democracy News Analysis - 28. January 2015 - 14:26

It is important to stop perpetuating misconceptions about the current crisis (i.e., that it’s a sectarian conflict or proxy war among Iran and Saudi Arabia) that make for a good – albeit largely unfounded – story.

Houthis march in celebration of the Prophet's birthday, Sana'a, 2013. Luke Somers/Demotix. All rights reserved.Watching the media coverage of Yemen’s most recent crisis, it is easy to get a sense that a radical, Iranian-backed and relatively new rebel movement has seized control of the government in a coup d’état. Media reports tell us that the Houthis, a movement associated with the Zaydi branch of Shia’a Islam, is a new group that engineered a coup – and that they are inadvertently creating new opportunities for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Much of this is at best half-truth and requires some crucial corrections.

1. The Houthis aren’t new

The Houthi movement is not, as recently portrayed in the press, a new or formerly-marginal group. The Houthis fought and won or survived six rounds of conflict with the Yemeni military between 2004 and 2010. But the group was first founded more than three decades ago as essentially an ethno-religious pride organisation dedicated to ensuring that Zaydi youth in northern Yemen didn’t overlook – as had Sunni-crafted textbooks – the more than 1,000 years that Hashemite Zaydi imams ruled much of contemporary Yemen. This movement, known then as Shabab al-Mumin (Believing Youth), eventually turned political and, starting in 2004, involved anti-government protests against the government in Sana’a for its collaboration with the United States, Israel’s most powerful foreign backer. It was a government crackdown on these demonstrations that ultimately led to violence and the strengthening of a militant wing, known as Ansarullah, around the Houthis.

2. The Houthis didn’t want to overthrow the government

While much of the media coverage suggests that the Houthis engineered a coup, it is important to note that they have generally been hesitant to govern. As Helen Lackner noted in a recent article, the Houthis could have easily seized control of the capital and taken over the government, and could have done so months ago. Instead, they chose – since first entering Sana’a in September 2014 – to slowly encircle President Hadi and his government in hopes that they would form what Lackner calls a ‘puppet’ government to present to the international community.

It appears that President Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi, his prime minister and his cabinet all resigned not due to pressure from the Houthis. Instead, they resigned to spite the Houthis and essentially to put the ball back in their court – letting them sink or swim in the quagmire they had helped to create.

Even in parts of the Sa’ada governorate in northern Yemen long controlled by the Houthis, the movement has been unwilling to govern in a comprehensive sense and instead has allowed the central government and foreign aid agencies to continue providing key services. Yes, the Houthis have provided security and have adjudicated disputes through efficient local courts, but they have not tried to provide basic services in the same way that Hamas does in Gaza or Hezbollah does in parts of Lebanon. This is because the Houthis have relatively little recent bureaucratic or legislative expertise, lack the resources to undertake large-scale service provision, and acknowledge that their popularity could wane if they try and fail to deliver public goods. This is just what President Hadi had in mind when he resigned: the Houthis will either fail to run the government effectively or will withdraw rather than take on the country’s myriad political, security, and economic challenges (several of which Lackner discusses in her recent article).

3. The Houthis aren’t Iranian proxies, and Iran has little to do with the current situation

Much of the media has reiterated this suspicion that the Houthis are essentially an Iranian proxy or client along the same lines as Hezbollah and are intended to threaten Saudi Arabia. While relations between the Houthis and Iran are primarily a matter of speculation, it is important to note a few things. First, the Houthis are deeply proud and opposed to external interference and would be unlikely to follow any dictates from Tehran. Second, the branches of Shia Islam practiced among Iranians and Yemen’s Shia’a are different, and Zaydi Islam is generally closer to the Shafi’i school of Islam practiced in Yemen than it is to Iran’s Twelver Shi’ism. Thirdly, the Houthis have not demonstrated the sorts of generous financial resources or relatively sophisticated weaponry that Iran traditionally bestows upon its clients in Syria and Lebanon. Lastly, aside from a brief period in 2008-2009, the Houthis haven’t necessarily entered Saudi soil or taken any actions against Saudi Arabia – as one would expect if the group was part of an Iranian plot to destabilise the Kingdom.

Much of the suspicion about Iran’s role comes from US and Saudi officials who see Iran around every corner. In early 2013 the US and Yemeni governments reportedly seized some Chinese-made weapons that they claim were from Iran and bound for the Houthis. However, little evidence of the Iranian connection was ever released, and the US has a history of attributing weapons to Iran with little evidence (and even where allied intelligence agencies reach fundamentally different conclusions). It would be exceptionally difficult for Iran to smuggle vast amounts of weapons to the Houthis given the sheer logistics involved, and the fact that the weapons would need to circumnavigate the Arabian Peninsula and head through some of the most heavily patrolled waters in the world. Besides, as one of the best armed countries in the world – and a recipient of US military assistance – it’s not as though the Houthis didn’t have alternative sources of weaponry.

Furthermore, the Houthis have enough of an ally in former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down amid the Arab Spring but who retains significant control over parts of the country’s security services. Saleh instructed his loyalists in the military and in elite security units to step down both last September, when the Houthis first entered the capital, and in recent weeks as they rather easily surrounded numerous key government institutions.

4. AQAP or IS could benefit from the chaos, but terrorism in Yemen is hardly the Houthis’ fault.

AQAP, based in Yemen, is widely considered the most capable Al Qaeda franchise. The group has long benefited from the absence of government control over a significant portion of Yemeni soil, and further chaos could expand the AQAP’s ability to operate with impunity. But let’s be careful not to blame this too much on the Houthis’ actions over the past several months. AQAP has long had an ability to operate relatively freely in parts of Yemen, particularly since the country’s security services fragmented among different political factions during and since the 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations there. Indeed, if anyone is enabling AQAP, it’s not the Houthis but instead former President Saleh and those other powerful political figures, particularly the al-Ahmar family, who refuse to help de-politicise the security forces and allow them to operate more effectively.

Furthermore, radical Islamic clerics friendly with past and current regime figures in Yemen – and Saudi support given to increasingly radical forms of Sunni Islam there – owe much more credit for cultivating and enabling AQAP. If anything, the Houthis are going to be a potent ally in helping to counter AQAP and perhaps Islamic State if they gain a meaningful following in Yemen (which is something else the media has reported based on relatively sketchy information).

All of this isn’t to say that the Houthis are necessarily behaving responsibly by taking the government and parts of the capital hostage. The group has a demonstrated history of human rights abuses against non-Zaydis and perceived opponents, in particular in areas it controls. And violent repression of public dissent is already visible, according to Lackner. But it is important for the media to stop perpetuating misconceptions about the current crisis (i.e., that it’s a sectarian conflict or proxy war among Iran and Saudi Arabia) that make for a good – albeit largely unfounded – story.

Sideboxes Related stories:  An introduction to Yemen's emergency Country or region:  Yemen Topics:  Civil society Conflict Democracy and government International politics
Categories: les flux rss

Why the Irish political elite is terrified of Syriza

Open Democracy News Analysis - 28. January 2015 - 12:38

The Irish political elite is deeply invested in an essentially religious narrative: Ireland sinned, Ireland confessed, Ireland did penance, Ireland has been forgiven, Ireland will be rewarded. If Syriza's strategy in Greece succeeds, this will be exposed as a folly.

Irish PM Enda Kenny, along with Michael Noonan, Barry O'Neill and Joe McHugh. Flickr/Fine Gael. Some rights reserved.

Ireland is not Greece. If government ministers and technocrats wore t-shirts, this slogan would be imprinted on those in charge of managing the crisis that hit Ireland in 2008. There is a certain irony here — when the Eurozone began to feel the first tremors of the banking earthquake, it was Ireland and its rogue banks that were feared most as the source of possible contagion.

Over time, it suited the narrative of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund to shift that stigma onto Greece. The Irish government has been only too happy to play along: Ireland’s image as the success story of bailouts and austerity is good for investment and good for access to international financial markets.

But Syriza’s victory in the Greek elections poses a profound challenge to the Irish governing class — does it keep insisting that Ireland has no common cause to make with Syriza or does it acknowledge that Europe is divided between the creditors and the debtors and that Ireland is firmly in the latter camp?

It is true, of course, that at many levels Ireland and Greece are not especially similar. Ireland entered the crisis with very low levels of public debt. The Irish economy has been much more deeply integrated into the global system — Ireland has survived the crash in part because of its close ties to the US and British economies where austerity has been limited. The Irish political system has deeper roots in caution and conservatism. Unemployment in Ireland, especially youth unemployment, has been somewhat limited by the relative ease with which Irish people can emigrate to English-speaking countries like Australia and Canada — a significant factor in reducing the scope for protest. While Irish systems of governance (regulation, corruption, tax collection) proved to be catastrophically bad, they were, for many reasons, easier to reform (at least on the surface) than their Greek equivalents. 

Yet these differences, important as they are, cannot obscure one overwhelming commonality of interest: debt. The four biggest public debtors in the Eurozone are Greece, Portugal, Italy and Ireland. The policy of socialising the liabilities of rogue private banks and the economic consequences of taking about 30 billion euro out of the economy in spending cuts and tax rises added about 160 billion to Irish public debt. At the end of 2014, the national debt was 203 billion euro — 111 per cent of GDP. (Since GDP is artificially inflated by the practices of Irish-based multinationals, even this somewhat understates the scale of the problem.) The servicing of this debt is a huge burden on a much-reduced exchequer. The total annual take in income tax for Ireland is around 18 billion euro. Interest on public debt takes around 8 billion of this. Debt service currently costs as much as the running of Ireland’s entire education system. As a percentage of GDP, Ireland’s debt service costs are actually higher than Greece’s.

It would seem quite obvious, therefore, that Ireland has an enormous stake in Syriza’s suggestions for a European debt resolution conference. Yet, almost immediately after the Greek election, the Irish finance minister Michael Noonan seemed to dismiss the whole notion when he described a debt conference as “not necessary yet”. He also went out of his way to suggest that Ireland did not really have a debt problem: “Our debt is in a very good position now; it’s affordable and it’s repayable.”

Why would the Irish government take such a line? In the short term, it is concerned to reassure financial markets that Ireland is the success story it is supposed to be. There is a certain logic in this: Irish 10-year bond interest rates were trading at under 1.1 per cent at the beginning of this week, while Greek 10-year bond interest rates are close to 9 per cent. There’s a strong financial incentive for Ireland to place as much distance between itself and Greece as it possibly can, all the more so because it is hoping to replace some of its expensive IMF loans with cheaper money raised on those international markets.  

But beyond this, there is a deeper terror — the fear that Syriza might actually succeed. The strategy adopted by both the governments that have been in office since 2008 has been one of strict obedience to the demands of its lenders. Everything has been sacrificed — up to and including national sovereignty during the so-called bailout by the Troika — in order to place Ireland as the Eurozone’s exemplary pupil.

There has been a mutual interest at work here. Angela Merkel and the Eurozone leadership need a success story in order to prove that the dual policy of socialising private debt and imposing austerity is both legitimate and effective. The Irish government needs to be show its own electorate and international lenders that it is indeed a great success, that the imposition of so much private debt on citizens has made both moral and economic sense.

Hence, Ireland does what it is told and gets in return the gold star for diligence, effort and perseverance. Just last week, the IMF’s Christine Lagarde told The Irish Times that Ireland has “set standards” for other indebted nations to follow — Greece was hardly far from her mind.

If Syriza succeeds in getting major concessions on debt, this whole strategy will be exposed as folly. The Irish political and technocratic elite is deeply invested in an essentially religious narrative: Ireland sinned, Ireland confessed, Ireland did penance, Ireland has been forgiven, Ireland will be rewarded. But if Greece stops doing penance and is nonetheless rewarded, this begins to look like what it almost certainly is — a rather childish view of how power works in the world. 

There is thus a kind of quiet hysteria behind the insistence that the massive public debt that is Ireland’s legacy from the Eurozone crisis is “affordable and repayable”. Who is the debt “affordable” for? Not for the 400,000 children who are now living in deprivation in Ireland. (The rate of child poverty has doubled since 2008.) And how exactly is an economy with fewer than 2 million workers and massive levels of household debt going to repay 200 billion euro, especially if Eurozone deflation makes the debt even more extreme?

The disjunction between the official insistence that everything is fine and the reality as experienced by most Irish citizens will make for a deeply divided response to Syriza. For the government to insist that Ireland has no stake in a comprehensive resolution to the European debt crisis may make it popular in Frankfurt, Brussels and Berlin but it will do little for its already battered popularity in Dublin and Cork. On the other hand, Syriza’s victory is a huge boost to the Irish opposition, especially to Sinn Fein, which has long placed itself as the Greek movement’s Irish ally. 

Most probably, the Irish government is hoping that it will get the best of both worlds. It will hold the orthodox line while at the same time Syriza wins some concessions that would then be passed on to Ireland as well. It may be far too clever a game to try to play at a time when Europe’s future is being contested and the pressure to pick sides will be hard to resist. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Why are the Irish not resisting austerity? The winds are changing: a new left populism for Europe Country or region:  Greece Ireland
Categories: les flux rss

Why the Irish political elite is terrified of Syriza

Open Democracy News Analysis - 28. January 2015 - 12:38

The Irish political elite is deeply invested in an essentially religious narrative: Ireland sinned, Ireland confessed, Ireland did penance, Ireland has been forgiven, Ireland will be rewarded. If Syriza's strategy in Greece succeeds, this will be exposed as a folly.

Irish PM Enda Kenny, along with Michael Noonan, Barry O'Neill and Joe McHugh. Flickr/Fine Gael. Some rights reserved.

Ireland is not Greece. If government ministers and technocrats wore t-shirts, this slogan would be imprinted on those in charge of managing the crisis that hit Ireland in 2008. There is a certain irony here — when the Eurozone began to feel the first tremors of the banking earthquake, it was Ireland and its rogue banks that were feared most as the source of possible contagion.

Over time, it suited the narrative of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund to shift that stigma onto Greece. The Irish government has been only too happy to play along: Ireland’s image as the success story of bailouts and austerity is good for investment and good for access to international financial markets.

But Syriza’s victory in the Greek elections poses a profound challenge to the Irish governing class — does it keep insisting that Ireland has no common cause to make with Syriza or does it acknowledge that Europe is divided between the creditors and the debtors and that Ireland is firmly in the latter camp?

It is true, of course, that at many levels Ireland and Greece are not especially similar. Ireland entered the crisis with very low levels of public debt. The Irish economy has been much more deeply integrated into the global system — Ireland has survived the crash in part because of its close ties to the US and British economies where austerity has been limited. The Irish political system has deeper roots in caution and conservatism. Unemployment in Ireland, especially youth unemployment, has been somewhat limited by the relative ease with which Irish people can emigrate to English-speaking countries like Australia and Canada — a significant factor in reducing the scope for protest. While Irish systems of governance (regulation, corruption, tax collection) proved to be catastrophically bad, they were, for many reasons, easier to reform (at least on the surface) than their Greek equivalents. 

Yet these differences, important as they are, cannot obscure one overwhelming commonality of interest: debt. The four biggest public debtors in the Eurozone are Greece, Portugal, Italy and Ireland. The policy of socialising the liabilities of rogue private banks and the economic consequences of taking about 30 billion euro out of the economy in spending cuts and tax rises added about 160 billion to Irish public debt. At the end of 2014, the national debt was 203 billion euro — 111 per cent of GDP. (Since GDP is artificially inflated by the practices of Irish-based multinationals, even this somewhat understates the scale of the problem.) The servicing of this debt is a huge burden on a much-reduced exchequer. The total annual take in income tax for Ireland is around 18 billion euro. Interest on public debt takes around 8 billion of this. Debt service currently costs as much as the running of Ireland’s entire education system. As a percentage of GDP, Ireland’s debt service costs are actually higher than Greece’s.

It would seem quite obvious, therefore, that Ireland has an enormous stake in Syriza’s suggestions for a European debt resolution conference. Yet, almost immediately after the Greek election, the Irish finance minister Michael Noonan seemed to dismiss the whole notion when he described a debt conference as “not necessary yet”. He also went out of his way to suggest that Ireland did not really have a debt problem: “Our debt is in a very good position now; it’s affordable and it’s repayable.”

Why would the Irish government take such a line? In the short term, it is concerned to reassure financial markets that Ireland is the success story it is supposed to be. There is a certain logic in this: Irish 10-year bond interest rates were trading at under 1.1 per cent at the beginning of this week, while Greek 10-year bond interest rates are close to 9 per cent. There’s a strong financial incentive for Ireland to place as much distance between itself and Greece as it possibly can, all the more so because it is hoping to replace some of its expensive IMF loans with cheaper money raised on those international markets.  

But beyond this, there is a deeper terror — the fear that Syriza might actually succeed. The strategy adopted by both the governments that have been in office since 2008 has been one of strict obedience to the demands of its lenders. Everything has been sacrificed — up to and including national sovereignty during the so-called bailout by the Troika — in order to place Ireland as the Eurozone’s exemplary pupil.

There has been a mutual interest at work here. Angela Merkel and the Eurozone leadership need a success story in order to prove that the dual policy of socialising private debt and imposing austerity is both legitimate and effective. The Irish government needs to be show its own electorate and international lenders that it is indeed a great success, that the imposition of so much private debt on citizens has made both moral and economic sense.

Hence, Ireland does what it is told and gets in return the gold star for diligence, effort and perseverance. Just last week, the IMF’s Christine Lagarde told The Irish Times that Ireland has “set standards” for other indebted nations to follow — Greece was hardly far from her mind.

If Syriza succeeds in getting major concessions on debt, this whole strategy will be exposed as folly. The Irish political and technocratic elite is deeply invested in an essentially religious narrative: Ireland sinned, Ireland confessed, Ireland did penance, Ireland has been forgiven, Ireland will be rewarded. But if Greece stops doing penance and is nonetheless rewarded, this begins to look like what it almost certainly is — a rather childish view of how power works in the world. 

There is thus a kind of quiet hysteria behind the insistence that the massive public debt that is Ireland’s legacy from the Eurozone crisis is “affordable and repayable”. Who is the debt “affordable” for? Not for the 400,000 children who are now living in deprivation in Ireland. (The rate of child poverty has doubled since 2008.) And how exactly is an economy with fewer than 2 million workers and massive levels of household debt going to repay 200 billion euro, especially if Eurozone deflation makes the debt even more extreme?

The disjunction between the official insistence that everything is fine and the reality as experienced by most Irish citizens will make for a deeply divided response to Syriza. For the government to insist that Ireland has no stake in a comprehensive resolution to the European debt crisis may make it popular in Frankfurt, Brussels and Berlin but it will do little for its already battered popularity in Dublin and Cork. On the other hand, Syriza’s victory is a huge boost to the Irish opposition, especially to Sinn Fein, which has long placed itself as the Greek movement’s Irish ally. 

Most probably, the Irish government is hoping that it will get the best of both worlds. It will hold the orthodox line while at the same time Syriza wins some concessions that would then be passed on to Ireland as well. It may be far too clever a game to try to play at a time when Europe’s future is being contested and the pressure to pick sides will be hard to resist. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  Why are the Irish not resisting austerity? The winds are changing: a new left populism for Europe Country or region:  Greece Ireland
Categories: les flux rss

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