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Damien Kingsbury's blog

Thailand's new political showdown: Yingluck ousted after 'abuse of power'

Thailand’s political roller coaster has taken a sharp downward turn, with the country’s constitutional court forcing Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and a number of ministers to resign over an alleged "abuse of power", in what her supporters are calling a constitutional coup. A caretaker prime minister has been appointed by the remaining cabinet, but the country now appears to be headed towards a political showdown.
The court’s ruling, over the transfer of a senior security official in 2011, was marked by rushing proceedings and not allowing Yingluck to present key witnesses in court. The ousted prime minister’s supporters have claimed since the proceedings were first initiated that they were being orchestrated by anti-democratic forces.
It has been reported in the Thai media that the anti-government demonstrations, which had been disrupting Bangkok, were funded by figures who wish to see the country’s royal family have an active role in Thai politics. Anti-government protesters have been calling for the replacement of the government with a non-elected "people’s council".
Although always deeply opposed to the Shinawatra family’s grip on political power, the anti-government group was roused to new levels of anger when Yingluck Sinawatra presented a bill to Parliament granting amnesty for her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, over a corruption conviction. The amnesty would have allowed Thaksin to return from self-imposed exile. Thaksin was ousted as prime minister in a coup in 2006 and was subsequently convicted of corruption.
Opposition forces were further angered when Yingluck attempted to change the 2007 constitution to make Parliament’s upper house fully elected, as it was before the 2006 coup, rather than partially appointed. Such a move would have broken the entrenched power of Thailand’s conservative elite, which has been behind the recent anti-government protests.
Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party, already dominant in the lower house, would have been likely to have been handed a majority in both houses of Parliament had the move succeeded. However, at the urging of the opposition Democratic Party, the conservatively aligned courts overruled the constitutional amendment last year.
Thai politics has been increasingly characterised as a division between pro-government "red shirts" and anti-government "yellow shirts", defined by the former’s power base in the north and north-east of the country and among Bangkok’s working class, and the latter among Bangkok’s middle and upper classes and the south of the country.
However, the divisions also run to views on the role of the monarchy, with succession to the frail King Bhumibol Adulyadej increasingly imminent, patronage networks, the role of the military and police, and a range of other economic, social and cultural factors. While this complex of factors had earlier ensured some fluidity in Thai politics, positions have increasingly hardened and divided since Thaksin’s ouster in 2006.
The "constitutional coup" against Yingluck Shinawatra will only further entrench those divisions. Red shirt supporters are now planning to march on Bangkok, in a reversal of the tactics that plunged the capital into chaos from late last year.
In a state of political flux, the opposition will now be pushing for the establishment of its proposed "people’s council", to which its members would be appointed. This is their preferred alternative to going to fresh elections and again facing the prospect of defeat.
Historically excluded from the levers of power, Thailand’s poor have, through the patronage of the Shinawatra family, experienced some of the economic benefits of political power. They now seem to be reluctant to give up such benefits without a fight.
Having experienced the effectiveness of the yellow shirts’ mass protests and building occupations, the red shirts can be expected to try something similar soon. The only question will be whether Thailand’s traditionally more conservative security forces show as much restraint against the red shirts as they had against the yellow shirts.
In any case, Thailand’s experiment with democracy, so promising at so many levels, now appears to be all but permanently broken. It may, perhaps, be restored, if in a diminished sense. But the idea that a majority of people can choose a government without restriction now appears to have been removed from Thailand’s political agenda for the foreseeable future.

An unwilling Ukraine being taught its role in a Slavic tragedy

As eastern Ukraine spirals out of control, the interim government in Kiev is desperately seeking to renegotiate the Geneva agreement, aimed at restoring a semblance of unity in the now deeply divided state. Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, appears happy adjusting levers of strategic power to apply pressure, in turn in Donetsk, Sloviansk and now in Odessa.
It is not yet clear whether the eastern Russian-speaking region will actually separate from Ukraine, whether Russia will invade or if regional destabilisation is just being used to achieve other ends. At least as likely as invasion, this destablisation is just a bloody game to achieve Russia’s regional economic and strategic goals.
There is no doubt that Russia is providing most of the impetus for separatism in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions. First Crimea separated from Ukraine, with the direct intervention of what Putin first denied and then later admitted were Russian troops without insignia. Now "paramilitaries" with identical unmarked uniforms and weapons are active in eastern Ukraine. These paramilitaries are providing both direction and reinforcement to separatist Ukrainian Russian-speakers.
There is fear within the Kiev government that pushing back against the pro-Russian occupation of key towns and installations in the east will provoke a direct Russian invasion. This will, many believe, be rationalised by the deaths of Russian speakers.
However, short of mass casualties among Russian speakers, which would spark an artificially constructed Russian variation of the "responsibility to protect" paradigm, such an overt intervention is unlikely. The intention of the Russian government appears to be to pressure the Kiev interim government into reversing its position on embracing the European Union and NATO to one of returning to mother Russia.
To achieve this outcome, Russia is balancing its role in eastern Ukraine. Should Russia overtly invade, it would be politically difficult to withdraw and leave Russian speakers living within a Ukrainian state. Such an intervention would almost certainly require absorption of Russian-speaking areas into Russia proper.
More usefully, Russia will exert maximum pressure on the government in Kiev without invading. Russia does not wish to lose the leverage that would come from leaving Ukraine nominally intact but internally divided. In this, Crimea was useful as an object of lesson to the Kiev government for what could happen in eastern Ukraine. It was not necessarily a precursor to what will happen.
In the meantime, what amounts to a deadly theatre is being played out in Odessa, Donetsk, Sloviansk, Konstantinovka, Slavyansk, Andreyevka and Kramatorsk. Dozens have now died, and Ukraine’s security forces are demoralised and, in part, divided.
Since invading Georgia in 2008, Russia has been much more prepared to directly intervene in the affairs of its neighbors. Regional control is much more important to Moscow than international rule of law.
But Moscow does not wish to reincorporate Ukraine entirely, as it did once within the former Soviet Union. Ukraine serves a more convenient purpose if it remains nominally independent but performs to a classically pessimistic script drafted by the Kremlin.
Such a script, by default, portrays Moscow as the powerful yet torn protagonist. In this, Russia’s dramas, vanities and intemperances are writ large. By way of contrast, the minor, peripheral characters are increasingly being rehearsed in their role to be one of subservience and supplication in this Slavic tragedy.

Russia won't invade Ukraine -- as long as everyone does what Putin wants

Russia's political leaders appear to be taking a particular pleasure in the planned and co-ordinated dismemberment of Ukraine. As with any unprincipled thug, Russia’s only constraint is ensuring it remains internationally unaccountable while continuing to dismantle its vulnerable neighbour.
Russia is now breaking off pieces of the country at will and ignoring international protestations while feigning innocence. The eastern Ukraine town of Slaviansk is now firmly under the control of thinly disguised Russian troops and their local compatriots, with Ukraine reluctant to act for fear of provoking even greater Russian intervention.
That pro-Russian militia took military observers from Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe hostage only further highlights Russia’s intransigence towards a genuinely negotiated resolution of the crisis. The arrest of the observers, on the pretext they were spying, was a simple demonstration of Russia’s rejection of any external involvement in events in eastern Ukraine; the release of one on health grounds was an all-but-inconsequential gesture.
European and United States protestations at the events in eastern Ukraine are having no effect on Russia’s actions, nor are proposed economic sanctions by the G7 expected to be strong or co-ordinated enough to be meaningful. In any case, Russia has already factored sanctions into its game plan.
As with threats of US intervention following the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria last year, Russia has fobbed off US concerns by agreeing to terms it had no intention of keeping. Russia was to urge moderation on pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, retaining the fiction that they are not actual Russian soldiers.
While some of the heavily armed and uniformed militia in eastern Ukraine are, no doubt, locals who have volunteered or been recruited to the service of the militant separatist movement, others are clearly uniformed Russian soldiers without identifying insignia. These Russian soldiers are identical to those Russian troops without insignia who, with support of Russian-speaking locals, overthrew Ukraine control of Crimea in February.
Meanwhile, despite Russia’s earlier agreement to draw down troop numbers massed on Ukraine’s border, there are some 40,000 soldiers still in place, along with military "exercises" that look like preparations for invasion. This, too, however, is part of Russia’s "psychological warfare" game plan, whereby it has not technically invaded Ukraine, but the threat of doing so undermines Ukraine’s interim Parliament’s every thought and move.
While Russia is very unlikely to invade Ukraine, it is absolutely intent on seeing Ukraine rewrite the country’s constitution to create autonomous -- Russian-aligned -- regions. It also wants Ukraine to hold new elections, producing a parliament with a dominant core of pro-Russian members, and an agreement to turn away from the European Union and embrace Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union.
In all of this, as with the US in some of its own ventures in Latin America, Russia sees Ukraine as clearly within its own sphere of influence. And there is no doubt that if events in Ukraine are handled badly, they could create a much bigger and more serious regional problem.
But the US, Europe and even Russia are all keen to avoid an uncontrolled escalation of the Ukraine crisis, especially in ways that could spill across borders. To that end, Russia is being a regional thug but, with no one prepared or, indeed, able to force a halt to its carefully calculated actions, it is likely to get the final outcome it wishes.

Spying on Timor-Leste

It will take some months to play out, but Australia is finally before an international tribunal to determine whether or not it has acted legally over the division of the Timor Sea with Timor-Leste. At stake is the territorial boundary between Australia and Timor-Leste and, therefore, control of tens of billions of dollars’ worth of oil and gas resources.

Back in 2000, while Timor-Leste was still rebuilding its devastated infrastructure and preparing itself for independence, Australia insisted on retaining the Timor Gap Treaty, which had been so infamously agreed to with Indonesia in 1989. That this treaty was part of Australia’s acquiescence to Indonesia’s brutal 1975 invasion and subsequent occupation of Timor-Leste, in which up to a third of the population died, was especially galling to Timor-Leste.

Timor-Leste did not, at that early stage, even have a government. But Australia was already pushing hard in pursuit of its own narrowly defined national interests. Those interests were territorial and commercial. As it turned out, they were also personal. The person who led Australia’s case at that time was Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.

Downer later used Australian spies to bug Timor-Leste’s cabinet office during negotiations, in contravention of Timor-Leste law. Timor-Leste claims that those actions invalidate the subsequent treaty. In his life after politics, through his consulting firm Bespoke Approach, Downer became a paid consultant to Woodside Petroleum. Woodside is Australia’s largest hydrocarbon company and stands to make billions of dollars from the arrangement.

During those negotiations, Downer told the cash-strapped Timor-Leste government that if it did not agree to retain the pre-existing border arrangements, income from the Timor Gap’s oil deposits would be frozen. Without that income, the government of Timor-Leste would collapse and its people would starve.

According to reports at the time, Downer said to then Timor-Leste Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri that this approach was ‘a lesson in politics’. Timor-Leste being effectively blackmailed, Downer signed the first part of the three part agreement on 20 May 2002—the day Timor-Leste was officially declared independent.

The treaty, however, was incomplete and, allocating Timor-Leste just 18 per cent of revenues from the oil field, led to two further agreements. These resulted in the 2006 Treaty on Certain Maritime Agreements in the Timor Sea (CMATS), which sets aside the question of a permanent boundary between the two countries for fifty years, by which time estimated reserves will be depleted.

CMATS effectively re-instituted earlier agreements, in 1971 and 1972, with Indonesia. These agreements allocated a territorial boundary along Australia’s continental shelf, placing it much closer to Indonesia than Australia. This arrangement was based on a 1958 iteration of the Convention of the Law of the Sea.

Even then, Indonesia had objected to the continental shelf defining the boundary. Foreign Minister Mochtar Kusumaatmadja said of that agreement that Indonesia had been ‘taken to the cleaners’. However, the border that had been agreed to remained.

Portugal, the colonial authority in Timor-Leste at that time, had not participated in these border discussions. There thus remained a ‘gap’ in the boundary, corresponding to the Portuguese colonial territory.

Soon after Indonesia’s invasion of Timor-Leste, Australia resumed discussions with it about closing that ‘gap’. By this time, however, the Convention on the Law of the Sea had moved on. By 1982, the already contested ‘continental shelf’ argument was replaced by the convention that maritime boundaries be drawn at a point equidistant from claimant states; the so-called ‘median line’ principle. Addressing both the existing boundary arrangement with Indonesia, as well as ‘median line’ argument, and recognising the potential for oil and gas exploitation, the two countries agreed to the Timor Gap Treaty.

This treaty allocated a smaller part of the ‘gap’ exclusively to Indonesia, a larger portion to be shared between the two countries and a significant southern portion to Australia. The treaty remained unequal in terms of the median line principle, but did not disrupt the previously agreed boundary, while also allocating some of the resources of the ‘gap’ to Indonesia.

Following the finalisation of the Treaty with Indonesia, Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans and Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas infamously celebrated by toasting with champagne toast while flying over the Timor Gap. However, development of the gap’s resources had only just begun when Timor-Leste voted for independence in 1999.

It was against this background, and Timor-Leste’s desperate need to begin earning revenue, that it went into negotiations with Australia. But what Timor-Leste did not know at this time was that Australia had brought the full force of its capabilities to bear in deciding the outcome of the negotiations; Alexander Downer had ordered Australian foreign intelligence officers to bug Timor-Leste’s cabinet room, to gain inside information on Timor-Leste’s negotiating strategy.

Australia was ultimately successful in restricting Timor-Leste’s claims to those associated with the previous Indonesian agreement. The region in question—the Joint Petroleum Development Area (JPDA) —remained jointly operated, with a smaller northern section allocated to Timor-Leste, a larger central area to be divided between the two states, and a large southern area allocated to Australia.

The rest of the boundary remained as agreed with Indonesia. While Australia agreed to relatively generous terms in the allocation of income from the field, this assumed that Australia had a legitimate territorial claim in the first place. But more importantly, it placed the most valuable part of the Timor Sea’s hydrocarbon fields, the Greater Sunrise gas field, largely in Australian territorial waters.

The Greater Sunrise field has been estimated to be worth between $40 and $50 billion, with its revenue to be divided between Australia and Timor-Leste. Woodside Petroleum—the company that has since secured the services of Alexander Downer—has the contract to develop the field. However, a separate dispute between Woodside and Timor-Leste about processing the liquid natural gas from the field has stopped further development to date.

Timor-Leste has insisted that the Greater Sunrise gas be processed on shore in Timor-Leste to help kick-start a petro-chemical industry. This is intended to generate employment and technological transfers to Timor-Leste. With support from Australia, Woodside has so far resisted, preferring an off-shore floating processing site. If Timor-Leste is successful in having the maritime boundary redrawn, it will have the whip hand in deciding where processing will take place. If Woodside continues to resist, Timor-Leste may seek an alternative development partner.

Since the beginning of negotiations, Timor-Leste has been deeply unhappy about the whole issue of the Timor Sea. It has continued to argue for a fairer allocation of income from the Sea’s resources and a more internationally acceptable maritime boundary. Until recently, however, given that a treaty is in place, its legal case has been weak. And then came evidence that Australia spied on Timor-Leste’s cabinet discussions. Timor-Leste argues that this spying means that the treaty negotiations were conducted in bad faith and hence invalidates CMATS.

Australia’s spying on Timor-Leste was confirmed by a former intelligence agent who ran the spying operation on Timor-Leste’s cabinet. Following revelations about Downer’s employment by Woodside, he provided evidence of Australia’s actions to Timor-Leste’s counsel, Canberra-based lawyer Bernard Colleary.

Last year, Timor-Leste took the matter to the International Court of Arbitration at The Hague, asking that CMATS be formally invalidated. In response, the Australian Attorney-General, George Brandis, ordered that Australian domestic intelligence agency ASIO raid Colleary’s office and seize the claimed evidence.

This seizure has since been challenged in the International Court of Justice, and the Australian government has since said it will return those documents that do not present it with a security risk. The problem, of course, is that what represents a ‘security risk’ to Australia could, like its ‘national interest’, be widely interpreted. This is not to mention that Australia has again secured inside knowledge of Timor-Leste’s position and thus advantaged itself in a way that constitutes bad faith.

Australia has not just acted badly in relation to Timor-Leste, it is being seen to have acted badly. The question will be, if Timor-Leste is successful in its claim, whether the court will send the two countries back to negotiations or whether it will rule on a median point maritime boundary.

If it is compelled to return to negotiations, the Timor-Leste government says the median line will be its minimum position. If the court rules on the median line, however, it will not need to negotiate. Either way, the result will push the maritime boundary very much closer to Australia and, in effect, put almost all of the Timor Sea oil and gas resources under Timor-Leste’s jurisdiction.

As a result, beyond controlling the Greater Sunrise gas field and existing oil and gas fields, there is also the question about whether, if a median line boundary is imposed, Australia would be required to repay the billions of dollars it has inappropriately received under CMATS.

And perhaps as importantly, a median line maritime boundary with Timor-Leste will be at significant odds with Australia’s maritime boundaries with Indonesia. While redrawing Australia’s sea boundary with Indonesia is a separate issue, this will also come under reconsideration. Such a redrawing of boundaries would significantly reduce Australia’s maritime reach and expand that of Indonesia, with significant resource and security implications for both countries.

Australia is therefore trying desperately to hold off Timor-Leste’s claim, and may yet resort to further pressurising tactics. Australian aid to Timor-Leste could come into question although, with access to greater oil and gas revenues, such aid would become redundant.

In pursuit of its narrowly defined national interest, Australia has all but officially alienated a small regional country that has wanted nothing more than to be a friend. As a friend, however, it has wanted to be treated as an equal. If Timor-Leste is successful in The Hague, it will be made equal to Australia under international law. There won’t, however, be much left of the official friendship.

My life on the black list: Indonesia's tight grip on visas continues

Rejected. That’s how they returned it.
"Application rejected" was stamped on a visa application to speak at a seminar in Jakarta. With this, I will now reach an arbitrary but quite substantial decade on Indonesia’s "black" list.
It has been widely assumed that Indonesia’s practice of black-listing people disappeared when president Suharto was pushed from power in 1998. But, despite its era of "reform" and relative democratisation, Indonesia’s draconian black list remains.
The black ban was placed on my entry to Indonesia not long after Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono became President in 2004. Along with another Australian academic, I was banned after making critical comments about the Indonesian army’s escalation of violence in the province of Aceh.
Along with a third academic, Dr Lesley McCulloch, and American journalist William Nessen, we comprised a small group deemed too troublesome to be allowed entry into Indonesia. Yet despite serving six months in Indonesian prisons for visa violations, within weeks of her release McCulloch’s ban was lifted and she was allowed to return.
By early 2005, I was advising the Free Aceh Movement in the Helsinki peace talks. Six months later, the talks ended three decades of separatist conflict and introduced democracy and a high degree of autonomy to that long-troubled province.
Despite the good outcome for Aceh and Indonesia, the Indonesian military (TNI) lost a substantial proportion of its illegal business interests in Aceh. The TNI was angry. It had two officers on the country’s immigration committee, who were ordered to ensure that I not return.
Visits to the Indonesian consul-general in Melbourne and embassy in Canberra to ask why I was banned produced the reply of either "I don’t know" or "visa violation". Yet no violation could be identified.
The other banned academic did what what some viewed as an about-face on the Indonesian military and had his ban lifted. The Indonesian consul-general in Melbourne said that if I also wrote positive articles about Indonesia my own case might be reviewed. I replied that my writing on Indonesia was often -- if not always -- positive.
Soon after, I learned that I had been banned anew for working on the problem of West Papua. It was like being executed, buried and then dug up to be shot again!
The purpose of a black ban used to be to cut off a researcher from his or her site of work. However, with the advent of email, Facebook and Skype, such bans have limited practical impact on the flow of information.
Some Indonesian friends regarded the black ban as misplaced. In 2008, then governor of Aceh, Irwandi Yusuf, flew to Melbourne to convey that Yudhoyono had lifted my black ban. I was, he said, free to return to Indonesia.
On this advice, a planned two-day stop-over in Indonesia en route to Singapore became a trip from Melbourne to Sydney via Jakarta. The TNI had overturned Yudhoyono’s listing of my ban. The game continued.
Having been more recently assured that the ban had expired, colleagues at the Islamic University of Indonesia invited me to present at a seminar and wrote a letter to the Indonesian embassy in Australia requesting a visa. Yet above the "application rejected" stamp was the hand-written words "masuk daftar cekal" ("banned entry list").
Indonesia’s democratisation process has been imperfect. Notably, reform of the TNI effectively ended around 2008, and it retains numerous "offline" business interests, along with entrenched coercive powers.
But the TNI seems to still be angry over the loss of some of its power and income that came as a consequence of the Aceh peace agreement. I assume it was also not happy with my writing about its involvement human rights abuses and corruption.
If that is the case, being banned from Indonesia is a small price to pay. That was so for the past decade. It now seems it will continue to be so.

Afghanistan's second election: not exactly democratic consolidation

Perhaps it’s because we like to reinforce our own prejudices with positive reaffirmations or perhaps it’s because the media does not know how to tell a complex story simply, but the weekend’s presidential election in Afghanistan was not the democratic triumph we have been led to believe. Yes, they were elections, but this was somewhat short of "two turnover test" that has been incorrectly applied to the notion of "democratic consolidation".
The most positive news to come from the elections was that there was relatively little violence on the part of the Taliban. This meant that most voters who wanted to participate could do so.
Indications are that the voter turnout was in excess of 50%, which might look good set against the United States' own abysmal electoral participation but falls well short of the enthusiastic 80%-plus registered in other new democracies. There has also been much celebration of the fact that around a third of the voters were women, which otherwise indicates how poor the status of women is in this still deeply traditionalist country.
Of the 11 presidential candidates, none was expected to come out as a clear winner with 50%-plus of the vote, meaning the elections would go to a run-off between the two leading candidates. Abdullah Abdullah appeared to be the candidate most favoured by the West, in part because he is a known figure, having run against Hamid Karzai in the 2009 elections, and in part because he is photogenic and speaks English well.
However, unlike 2009, the half-ethnic Pashtun-half Tajik Abdullah was not a frontrunner this time around. The winner is expected to be a full-blooded Pashtun, which while not of an absolute majority in their own right is still Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group.
Of the two leading candidates, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai is an American-educated academic and former finance minister who spent much of his adult life outside Afghanistan. He appears competent and the least corrupt of the leading candidates. The other lead candidate is Zalmay Rassoul, who is backed by outgoing Hamid Karzai, and may be implicated in some of the allegations of profound corruption that have swirled around the Karzai camp.
Other candidates include religious figures, some close to the Taliban and a smattering of warlords. It will be several days, perhaps weeks, before it is known, however, who will head into the run-off.
Early reports suggest that the 2014 elections were not as compromised as the 2009 elections, in part because there were very few election observers left in the field to actually monitor the elections. Even so, there have still been numerous reports of irregularities and a lack of ballot papers in some areas, notably where Abdullah has the strongest support.
The run-off election, with massive opportunities for patronage available to the winner, is likely to see more serious electoral fraud. If reports continue to say that the situation has improved since 2009, that perhaps less reflects that the electoral process is a good one and more that the 2009 elections were, according to all of the electoral observers there then, the most corrupt and compromised in the history of election observation.
A large part of the Afghanistan political equation, though, is the Taliban, which conformed to an increasing political type by not disrupting election day itself. They know this is not the main game.
As the international presence in Afghanistan winds down, both in military and aid terms, no matter who is elected as the new president, they will have to negotiate directly with the Taliban. And the Taliban has shown that any such negotiations will, increasingly, be on their terms.
Afghanistan has had elections, which is positive, even if the process only partially fulfilled the criteria for being truly democratic. However, any suggestion that the "two turnover test" means anything more than forestalling the inevitable is to reflect a poor appreciation of Afghanistan’s conflicted history or fractured political dynamics.

The new tri-polar world: why Russia can do whatever it likes

United States political leaders bluster, but Russia continues to be unmoved by their protestations over its annexation of Crimea and the massing of troops along Ukraine’s border. Long having believed itself the world’s only superpower, the US is now being delivered a lesson in real politik, if not humility.
Estonia, which has a large Russian population, has hit back against Russia, saying the West should freeze all Russian bank accounts … for what little that would appear to do. Estonia’s President Toomas Hendrik Ilves says that what is most threatening about Russia’s behaviour is that "the old rules don’t apply". Since Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, he says, it has been clear that Putin would ignore guarantees of territorial sovereignty that conflicted with Russia’s sense of national interest.
Despite US President Barack Obama claiming that Russia’s seizure of Crimea is a sign of weakness rather than strength, US commentators, such as Stratfor’s George Friedman, believe the US is now headed towards direct confrontation with an increasingly assertive Russia. Assuming the US continues to believe that it is the world’s remaining superpower, and not one that has to negotiate, this may be correct.
There are now real concerns that, having established the precedent of "protecting" Russian speakers in former Soviet satellite states, it may move to annex further regions. Despite some commentary suggesting that Russia’s assertiveness is solely Putin’s doing, in fact it represents the wholesale reorientation of Russian politics towards a dominant conservative nationalist paradigm.
To illustrate, Deputy Speaker of Russia’s Duma, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, bluntly says that the south-east of Ukraine be re-incorporated into Russia. Yet Zhirinovsky is the head of the inappropriately named Liberal Democratic Party, rather than Putin’s United Russia Party.
Within Russia, there is strong support for asserting Russia’s "return to greatness". According to Irina Yarovaya, a prominent member of the Duma's security committee: "Any person whatsoever who criticises the policies of the Russian authorities in Crimea becomes thereby an enemy of the fatherland."
Criticism of Msocow’s policies or Putin himself is no longer tolerated. Leading Moscow academic Professor Andrei Zubov was recently sacked from the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations for comparing Moscow's actions in Ukraine with Nazi Germany's annexation of Austria in 1938. In a parallel move, a number of critical websites have also been closed.
As if to illustrate the parallels between Russia’s former and current oligarchies, and the shift from one strong leader to another, Russia’s Orthodox Church Press has recently released its 2014 calendar featuring none other than the infamous Joseph Stalin. One analyst noted: "As Stalin would say 'this is not mere chance, Comrades'."
In large part, what appears to be missing from the West’s expressions of moral outrage over Russia’s perceived expansionism is that they are not presenting the world as it is, but rather as they would like it to be. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a moment of deep reflection for Russia, but the West’s triumphalism did not mean that Russia had disappeared. It many respects, it remains powerful, perhaps almost as much as it has earlier been.
Similarly, the rise of China as an economic and strategic power -- and the US' Asia "pivot" recognising that -- has added a third key player to the global balance of power. With the US economically and strategically weakened, perceptions of its pre-eminence and ability to shift global events are increasingly doubtful.
The Cold War era was characterised by two superpowers, and the post-Cold War era by just one. But, in the wake of the US’ ill-advised adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the world increasingly appears as tri-polar. No one now seriously questions that China is a global player and that Russia can act, more or less, with impunity in areas it claims to be in its sphere of influence, tends to confirm this fundamental global strategic shift.

A sclerotic Malaysian government stumbles in MH370 crisis

If times of crisis show the true mettle of a government, Malaysians must be wondering about their government’s response to missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.
After decades of working with a tightly controlled media and, overwhelmingly, getting a very easy run, the Malaysian government has been asked to answer hard questions by unbowed journalists.
The Malaysian government is used to passing over issues without question, much less challenge, by local media (online media, such as Malaysiakini, is the exception). But over the past several days the struggling Malaysian government has been looking increasingly inept. It would be a laughing stock, but that this is no laughing matter.
At one level, government spokespeople have contradicted each other, often within hours, about the status of the plane, what could have happened to it and what the likely scenarios are. At another, more basic level, they appear wholly unable to gather clear and hard information and to present it coherently.
The government was initially slow to report that the plane was missing at all. It then took days to announce that military radar had determined that the plane had doubled back on its course.
Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein (pictured), who has been the government’s public face on the issue, said that his handling of the MH370 issue was "above politics". Yet the government has "outed" opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim by saying that he is related (distantly, by marriage) to the pilot of the missing plane, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah. The implication is that there was some connection between the plane’s disappearance and the government’s trumped-up sodomy conviction against the opposition leader.
Yet when French journalist Carrie Nooten asked Hishammuddin if he was being protected for his incompetence as a result of being the cousin of the Prime Minister, Najib Razak, she received a barrage of criticism from the pro-government Star newspaper.
Hishammuddin has been criticised internationally for saying the police had gone to the home of the pilot of the missing plane, even though they did not go to the pilot’s home until several days after the acting minister made this statement. He also raised doubts about the plane’s communications systems being switched off, even though that information had been confirmed.
The Chinese government is also dismayed by the Malaysian government’s inability to provide timely information. China’s official Xinhua News Agency said the delay "smacks of either dereliction of duty or reluctance to share information".
When a foreign journalist on Monday asked about criticism over slow and confused information, Hishammuddin said it was baseless. "I have got a lot of feedback saying we’ve been very responsible in our actions," he said, then went on the attack: "It’s very irresponsible of you to say that."
The government is also refusing to share what information it has about the missing plane with the opposition. Opposition members were not invited to an update briefing on the investigation on Tuesday, yet government parliamentarians were invited. A government MP told the opposition they should not question the minister’s "prerogative" on the matter of invitations. He said opposition MPs had not been invited because they would release the information via social media.
In an information vacuum, and fuelled by the government’s ill-informed ramblings, rumour and speculation has taken the place of hard information.
The Malaysia media has recently reported everything from the plane having burst into flames mid-flight, crashed in the ocean, been hijacked by the crew or others, landed on a remote airstrip, flown in the shadow of another plane, and being seen over the Maldives. Even that doyen of accurate reporting, Rupert Murdoch, has been twittering into the void: 'World seems transfixed by 777 disappearance. Maybe no crash but stolen, effectively hidden, perhaps in northern Pakistan, like Bin Laden.'
The Malaysian government’s incompetence is now playing out as an election issue in a byelection in the town of Kajang in Selangor state on Malaysia’s central west coast. Ibrahim’s wife, Wan Azizah, is a PKR (People’s Justice Party) candidate in that election. Kajang is currently held by the PKR.
In its five decades in power, assisted by rigging electoral boundaries, the Malaysian government has rarely been held to account, much less scrutiny. It is not used to addressing questions directly or, sometimes, honestly. However in recent years its grip on power has weakened.
The MH370 crisis has shown how sclerotic the otherwise comfortable Malaysian government has become.

Crimea vote: Russia's big win, but what now for Ukraine?

Lining up with death and taxes, the outcome of the weekend’s vote in Crimea on whether or not to join Russia was certain before the event. Somewhat remarkably -- with about two-thirds of Crimea’s population being ethnic Russian and the other third being openly opposed to joining Russia -- the vote to join Russia was said to be running in excess of 90%.
While the outcome of the vote may have reflected reluctance by non-Russians to vote in a referendum that was a foregone conclusion, it also -- at least in part -- continued to confirm doubts about the veracity of the result. Foreign journalists had been largely cleared from Crimea before the vote and no independent ballot monitors were allowed.
The referendum was marked by the extremity of the pro-Russia propaganda. Billboards told Crimean citizens that the choice was between Crimean voting for becoming Russian or becoming Nazi. This was in reference to about 10% of Ukraine’s parliament comprising far-right or neo-Nazi party representatives.
The referendum question, too, was whether Crimeans wished to join Russia immediately, or if they wished to be independent, leaving open the option of joining Ukraine at a later date. That Crimea is currently a part of Ukraine was not identified in the referendum.
But backed by Russian troops on the ground and Russian naval ships blockading the strategic port at Sevastapol, the question of nuance over language was only one of a litany of critical problems facing the technically unconstitutional referendum.
The real question now is whether Russia acts to incorporate Ukarine, as passed by its own Parliament two weeks ago. The alternative is that Russia’s President Valdimir Putin could use the vote in favour of unity with Russia to further pressure Ukraine into "voluntarily" turning away from the European Union and returning to the Russian economic camp.
With an estimated 60,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders too, and considerable dissent and pro-Russian sympathy in eastern Ukraine, the government in Kiev will be disinclined to try to wrestle back control of Crimea by military means. At best, this would spark a civil war, which would leave Ukraine divided. At worst it would lead to a Russian invasion, which Ukraine would not be able to stop.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government's friends in the West remain conflicted on what action to take over Russia's heavy-handedness in Crimea. Germany in particular is taking a softer line on proposed economic sanctions than other EU countries.
Economic sanctions are likely. This then plays into the hands of the Kremlin’s hard-liners, who have long been in favour of a split with the West. Instead, they are seeking to strengthen ties with an increasingly powerful China. Some even want a deliberately confrontational relationship with the West, by way of reasserting Russia’s status as a power worthy of the world’s attention.
United States Secretary of State John Kerry says he still hopes for a compromise arrangement with President Putin, in a bid to resolve the Ukraine crisis. The difficulty with this is, increasingly, there is no mood in Moscow for a deal. In any case, as Russians will tell you, in Russian there is no equivalent for the English word "compromise".
In linguistic theory there is, broadly, a view that the language that is available defines one’s ability to conceptualise -- if the word does not exist then neither does the corresponding idea. If this leaves what English speakers might regard as a gap in how Russians thereby understand the world, they might take even less comfort from the further fact that, in Russian, there are seven different words for "enemy".

Jokowi now cleared to run to the finish line as Indonesia's next president

In the race for the Indonesian presidential elections in July, Joko ‘Jokowi' Widodo has just been nominated as PDI-P's presidential candidate. This follows a decision by former president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, to shelve her own plans for an unlikely comeback to support the long-standing front-runner.
The 52 year old Jokowi is streets ahead of the nearest contender, former Kopassus chief and ex-Sunarto son-in-law Prabowo Subianto. Opinion polls show Jokowi consistently running at between double and triple Prabowo’s potential vote, with more than a third of the electorate favouring Jokowi in the first presidential round. Translated into a second round vote, Jokowi should, on current numbers, win the presidency in a landslide.
Having said that, Indonesia’s presidential elections are not a foregone conclusion. Indeed, nothing is a foregone conclusion in politics. But Jokowi would now have to make a serious error not to have a fairly easy run to the finish line.
Such challenges that the preferred presidential candidate now face will come after the elections, not before. The challenges that Jokowi will face will be principally around economic policy - he doesn't have any, yet Indonesia desperately needs to start charting a clear course if its economy is to reach anything like its potential.
Related to this, there remains a big question as to how Jokowi will handle Indonesia's economic rise, assuming it happens as predicted, and its parallel rise as a strategic power. The choices he will face are whether to continue to be inwardly focused and not assert Indonesia's increasingly important role in the region, or to look outwards and make Indonesia a more active international player.
On balance, one would say he will likely remain a conservative, or a minimalist, on foreign policy. Indonesia’s economy, on the other hand, could certainly benefit from clear economic direction, but Jokowi can be expected to be fairly hands off, with his default position tending towards nationalist or protectionist policies.
Beyond that, at this stage of the political game, there is not a great deal the others can do to 'steal' Jokowi's limelight. In Javanese culture, power accrues through perceived lack of action, or discreet action, rather than through overt action.
The more Jokowi’s main rivals, Prabowo and Golkar’s Aburizal Bakri, act, the more they will be seen as 'kasar' or coarse and over-reaching. Jokowi only need be himself to continue his good run of luck and the sense of charisma that appears to build based in his populist but not assertive appearances.
Jokowi is often portrayed as a ‘man of the people’, and he can claim to be closer to the ‘wong cilik’ (little people) than most of the political elite. Indeed, so much invested in Jokowi’s populism that he is seen to represent a clean break with the corruption and money politics that has dominated Indonesia in its post-Suharto period.
Yet in Indonesia, it is all but impossible to be successful in business, as Jokowi was in his home town of Surakarta, without at least flirting with corruption. That he has been a successful politician, first in his home town and then as Governor of Jakarta, perhaps speaks more to his engagement outside the main players in Indonesia’s oligarchy, rather than his complete removal from the world of patronage and favors.
The only possible problem that Jokowi would now face in his run to the presidential finish line will be if there is a critical issue between now and the election that Jokowi is unable to respond to adequately, and if his facade consequently crumbles, His charisma might then quickly crumble.
This close to the elections, though, it would have to be a dramatic issue and an equally dramatic collapse to have any real impact. All Jokowi need do is react little and he would be sufficiently politically preserved to use his electoral buffer to get across the line.
If one was to lay a bet, one would have to say that the odds are now very much stacked in favor of Jokowi becoming Indonesia’s next president. The next big question will be, once in office, how he will wield the still considerable authority the office holds, and whether he can stitch together a legislative majority to help ensure that whatever program he does try to implement will have some success of being passed into law.
Achieving office, in Indonesia, is one thing. Being able to do something with it to address the country's sense of drift is, however, quite another.

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