Category: Regional (page 1 of 3)

What the UAE’s detention of a UK graduate student means for Middle East studies

I feel like I should say something about the disappearance—and likely assassination—of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. This tragedy was enabled by America’s permissive stance towards Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US support for other horrific Saudi policies (like its bombing of Yemen). I’ve expressed concern on Twitter and in personal conversations, and have been writing about Yemen for years.

But to be honest, I don’t think I have anything new to say at this point. Most Duck readers will already know, and be upset, about this situation. Instead, I want to raise another concerning human rights abuse by one of our Persian Gulf allies: the detention of UK graduate student Matthew Hedges by the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

A few months ago, reports spread of a UK man detained in the UAE on espionage charges; he was rumored to be an academic doing research in the country. These reports were later confirmed as the UAE announced it had charged Hedges with espionage for trying to obtain classified information and gain access to confidential archives. Hedges is a PhD student at the University of Durham, and was studying the UAE’s post-Arab Spring foreign policy. He has been held in rough conditions and there are concerns about his physical and mental health. Continue reading

What’s in a Name? Developing Countries and Security Cooperation

This post comes from Dr. Fabiana Sofia Perera, Assistant Research Fellow at the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies and a 2016 alumna of Bridging the Gap’s New Era Workshop.

Defense Secretaries from the countries of the western hemisphere will convene in Cancun, Mexico next month to talk about the most pressing issues facing defense and security institutions in the Americas. The biannual meeting presents an important opportunity for the US to engage with Latin America as the hemisphere continues to try to work together to address the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and other challenges. After the underwhelming Summit of the Americas, defense seems like a promising avenue for cooperation. Secretary Mattis already met with a number of his counterparts during his first trip to the region in August promising a closer relationship between the US and Latin America.

Security cooperation between the US and Latin America, however, faces one important obstacle: the definition of developing country. Though scholars think of the region as part of the developing world (studies of Latin American countries are routinely featured in journals and conferences focusing on development), most countries in the hemisphere are middle income. Trinidad and Tobago, and Estonia, for example, have about the same GDP per capita; Uruguay is nearly on par with Croatia; Costa Rica and China are within a few dollars of each other. This is where the US runs into difficulties for carrying out cooperation activities.

US Code, Title 10, Section 312 provides that security cooperation money “may be used only for the payment of expenses of, and special compensation for, personnel from developing countries.” US Code further stipulates that the term “developing country” “has the meaning prescribed by the Secretary of Defense [in] the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017.” The current iteration of that meaning is that countries are considered “developing” if they are not “high income” on the World Bank classification of countries. Argentina, Barbados, Chile, and Trinidad and Tobago are all “high income” this year.

The World Bank’s definition is not the only option, and may not be the best one for US purposes.  Continue reading

Take Me to Church

There is a spat of ecumenical proportions brewing in the Eastern hemisphere: Patriarch Krill of Russia stopped praying for the Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. The reason for that is simple: the patriarch of Constantinople is rumored to consider granting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church an autocephalous status that would potentially carve out a third of Russian Orthodox Church curacies  severely damaging Moscow’s status as the third Rome* not to mention financial repercussions.

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Babies R Us

While in the US children are being separated from their parents seeking political asylum and taken to a Walmart prison, some Russian lawmakers are concerned that illegal aliens can enter the country through its citizens’ vaginas during the FIFA World Cup that starts today.

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We are Groot

Today is President Putin’s inauguration day and even Avengers couldn’t stop it, as evidenced by the arrested raccoon in the center of Moscow on Saturday during the unsanctioned rally ““He’s No Tsar to Us.” For Russia watchers, the Saturday protests probably created a sense of déjà vu of May 2012 when much larger protests erupted in Moscow and around Russia. They displayed a high degree of social mobilization around the fair elections narrative, but the protesters paid a high price for it: over 30 were criminally charged and 17 were sentenced to several years in prison, some fled the country.

The scale of the protest in May 2012 was so large that a new legislation on rallies was enacted on 9 June 2012. It increased the fines for the violation of public rallies law to up to a million rubles. One of the authors of the rally law – ‘Just Russia’ member Sidyakin – at first stated that the law was supposed to prevent the ‘Ukrainian scenario’ in Russia . Communist Party and Liberal Democratic party members warned President Putin about the ‘orange plague’ and that nobody ‘wants to go back to the 90s’ and the President should not let an ‘orange revolution’ take place in Russia.

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Cabinet Reshuffling and the Patrimonial Presidency: Lessons from Tunisia

This post marks the return of the Bridging the Gap channel at the Duck after a short hiatus. It comes from Gregory White, Professor of Government at Smith College, who will be attending our International Policy Summer Institute this June.  

How can we understand the Trump administration’s ongoing reshuffles of top tier staff and cabinet officials? Recent changes at the State Department, the National Security Council, the White House Communications Office, Veterans Affairs, and the National Economic Council – and that’s just the last several weeks – are unprecedented in US politics. Some people have been brought down by scandal or near scandal, with others dismissed for no clear reason.

Scholars have sought to understand this turnover as the result of a preference of loyalty over experience, the insurgent nature of the campaign (with inexperienced or no staff), or the chaos of Trump’s policy whims. I propose a different lens for thinking creatively and comparatively about Trump’s behavior as a way of understanding its potential implications.

Throughout all of the cabinet and staff reshuffling I have often thought of Tunisia – in particular its post-independence presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. One might think that comparing the United States to Tunisia is like comparing an apple to a steak – or even an apple to a stop sign. It is hard to think of two countries with more dissimilar political histories and systems. But constant cabinet and staff turnover and (re-)cycling characterized Bourguiba and his successor Ben Ali’s governments, and it had and continues to have profound implications for the North African country.  Continue reading

Does the U.S. Have a North Korea Strategy?

A Presidential summit in May is not a high risk / high reward scenario. It is Russian roulette.

Last November the media poked fun when inclement weather kept Trump from getting his opportunity to stare down the enemy at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea. While Trump was reportedly frustrated with being denied this photo-op, it is regrettable for us all that he never made it. Despite the pageantry that comes with these visits, I know from experience that there is something visceral about standing at the world’s most heavily militarized border. There is a certain tension that cannot be faked. And for a moment, you cannot help but think of the consequences if this precarious peace was broken. While no one can claim to know what Trump is thinking at any given moment, I would like to believe that such an experience would inform his decision to either stare down or embrace North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un in a possible meeting between the two leaders.

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Do Populists Kill Democracy? A Sympathetic Extension of Levitsky and Ziblatt

This is a guest post by Lucas Dolan, a PhD Student at American University’s School of International Service. His research deals with the transnational coalition-building of right-wing populist movements. For further information, see his website, or find him on Twitter (@mrldolan).

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (L&Z) have accomplished something impressive. Their new book How Democracies Die (HDD) is a relatively condensed volume that—while clearly written for a popular audience—is also likely to become required reading for scholars interested in authoritarianism and democratic backsliding.  Indeed, my institution’s chapter of the 24 university “Democratic Erosion” consortium assigned the book even before it was released. It is a rare scholarly work that has generated substantial discussion in both the scholarly and policymaking communities immediately upon publication. The book draws from the authors’ extensive research on de-democratization in Latin America and Eastern Europe (as well as some instructive episodes of American history) to identify processes of democratic erosion and derive lessons for resisting such processes. These historical and comparative chapters are then used as benchmarks for evaluating the threat to democracy posed by President Donald Trump. Puzzlingly, the book omits a meaningful discussion of the role of populism in democratic erosion—despite one of the author’s influential work on that topic. In this review, I attempt to reconstruct how deeper engagement with populism might have fit with the book’s core contentions. I conclude that Levitsky’s own mobilization approach to populism lacks cohesion with HDD and that Jan-Werner Müller’s ideational understanding of populism interfaces more naturally with the mechanisms of democratic decline proposed by L&Z.

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Crimea River

One of the most predictable elections is just around the corner: even Google has already proclaimed Putin the winner of the presidential race of March 18th 2018 in Russia. The only marginal hiccup for the authorities might be a low turnout, but a couple of viral videos are already scaring the bejesus out of the electorate: if they don’t show up and vote for you-know-who, somebody else will be elected and they will make each family house a gay man in pink pajamas in their apartment!

Surprisingly enough, Putin will have a wee bit of competition on the ballot after all. Pavel Grudinin [I am very tempted to translate his name as ‘boobilicious’], a candidate from the Communist Party, has managed to gain an unexpected amount of support – around 10%. With other candidates polling between a margin of error and about 5%, Grudinin’s rating seems unexpected. The head of the company “Lenin’s Sovkhoz” is popular not just with Russia’s pre-baby-boomers, but also with millennials! And if the Kremlin wants to blame somebody for this, they should be kicking themselves for Grudinin’s success. Millennials like the communist candidate because of governmental idealization of the Soviet past.

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The legacy of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Why ‘great inspiration’ is not quite enough

A co-authored post by Dr Leena Vastapuu and Dr Maria Martin de Almagro.

The first elected woman head of state in Africa, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, has just stepped down from her office in Liberia. Her successor George Weah assumed the position on 22 January 2018.

In a recent interview with CNN entitled “Why Africa owes a debt of gratitude to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf”, President Sirleaf and journalist Chude Jideonwo had the following exchange.

Chude Jideonwo (CJ): You are in your final days as the first female president of an African country. When you step down, there won’t be any more. What does that say to you?  

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (EJS): It tells me that we haven’t worked hard enough for parity, particularly in political participation. It saddens me, to a certain extent, because I represented the breaking of the glass ceiling in Africa. And I think that there are lots of women out there who haven’t quite reach there, but the queue is forming.

CJ: You’ve been a president for 12 years. […] What do you think your gender, your femininity, brought to this particular position, if anything?

EJS: It brought great aspirations. To women, and to girls, in Liberia, in Africa. And going beyond, in my travels in the United States, in Europe and in other places, inevitably there is someone who comes up to me and says: “You’ve inspired me”. Continue reading

Has Sunshine Returned to the Korean Peninsula?

Ahead of the 2018 Winter Olympics, the media has become fascinated with a common narrative that the erstwhile “bitter enemies,” North and South Korea, will march under one flag. The identity and political relations of the Koreas are more complicated than the “enemy” rhetoric conveys. Emblematic of this complexity are the families that are separated by the border, with living siblings that pre-date the division of the peninsula. The current thaw in inter-Korean relations is rooted in the late 1990’s “Sunshine Policy” of the former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. Yet, the question remains as to whether direct engagement between North and South Korea has the possibility to fundamentally alter the political situation on the Korean Peninsula.

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You Can Leave Your Hat On

With an avalanche of news about the government shutdown, DACA, CHIP and Stormy Daniels, the American news media did not have too much time to cover Putin’s nipples (this time around), even though it was a great opportunity to update the famous horse riding photograph. On the Russian Orthodox Epiphany night Putin was photographed bathing in ice cold water in the Seliger Lake, displaying both his Orthodox Christian devoutness and manly sass.  Why does he do that? While for some in the West these displays of machismo can seem gay, in Russia they are gobbled up as the ultimate display of virility and strong leadership. Moreover, they have a deeper political meaning for the population that sees Putin as a spiritual leader, a pastor that would guide Russia to a brighter tomorrow.

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Size Doesn’t Matter

Any woman would tell you that. What matters is what you do with it and whether you know how to use it. Whatever Brobdingnagian thing you’ve got going on there, it’s way more important to have a game plan and understand the sweet spots you need to target. Otherwise, both parties may come away less than satisfied from the encounter.

I am talking, of course, about the nuclear arsenal size and the ever-lasting dick-measuring contest that is international politics. After the ridiculous Trump tweet that Kim John Un’s nuclear button is smaller and less powerful than that of #45, IR Twitter was quick to point out Carol Cohn’s seminal “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals” article that discussed exactly that. That the world of arms race is essentially a world of phallic worship and missile envy, replete with “penetration aids”, “thrust capabilities” and “vertical erector launchers”.  Who knew that a presidential candidate who mentions the size of his penis during a primary debate would actually bring it up during an international nuclear stand-off?!

Another piece that comes to (my) mind is the book by Stephen Ducat “The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity”. As he observed, the ‘wimp factor’, i.e., the possibility of coming off as too feminine in politics is a major fear in many cultures, spanning from ancient Greece to modern United States. In a culture with a generalized ethos that equates penetration with domination, political hierarchy is often built along the same lines that glorifies ‘real men’ ‘with balls’ hence denigrating femininity and non-cis-gendered males and females. The wimp factor is especially relevant for global politics built on notions of hierarchy, and is often expressed in terms of gender, which favors the male, dominant position.

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Happy New Year

If anybody is planning to collude with some Russians for New Year’s (but not in order to swing an election), I compiled a brief checklist. Originally, I wanted to take apart an article from a prestigious newspaper that described “a Christmas encounter with a Russian soul”, but then I decided against it. After all, if you don’t buy “the case for colonialism”, then you probably also won’t think that “Russians do not share the ethical heritage of the West, but moral intuition exists everywhere, and is able to be inspired”. But enough with the narcissistic white bigotry, let’s learn about Russia!
  • In good ol’ orientalist tradition let’s start with drinking. No self-respecting Russian ever says “na zdorovie” while toasting. Ever. You drink for something – “za”.  Want to impress some Russians, say either “vashe zdorovie” or “budem!” – both are correct equivalents to “Cheers”.
  • Another important thing, New Year is THE winter holiday in Russia. Not Christmas. You prepare for it in advance, buy presents, decorate a tree, have a massive meal and get together with the family. Atheist Soviet traditions have stuck pretty well and the reflex of cutting an Olivier salad on December 31st is hard to suppress.
  • What the hell is an Olivier salad I anticipate you’d ask. It’s a Russian New Year staple food that originally included hazel grouse, crayfish, and a bunch of other expensive ingredients concocted by a French chef in mid 19th century, but gradually became a potato, pea and mayonnaise based delight that you enjoy by the ton.
  • So what about Christmas (you might wonder)? Most Russians celebrate Christmas (if they do) on January 7th thanks to the power squabbles with the Catholic Church back in the Middle Ages. While after the Revolution Russia moved almost two weeks ahead (hence the Great October Revolution celebration on November 7th), the Russian Orthodox Church stayed behind and insists on celebrating all Christian holidays based on the Julian calendar. Some even celebrate Old New Year on January 13th!
  • Also, Christmas trees. Again, in a post-Soviet mind – a fir tree is a totally secular New Year tradition that has nothing to do with Christmas. To be fair, they have much more to do with Saturnalia than with Christmas anyway. You know how in America people make fun of those who take down their Christmas lights in February? Try keeping your tree until March!  
  • Last but not least. Russians also have a type of Santa – his name is Father Frost (Ded Moroz), he brings presents, rides a sleigh and he is assisted by his granddaughter Snowmaiden (Snegurochka). Despite his somewhat dubious origin story and unclear family tree (where is his wife? Or Children?!), his is still a far cry from the controversy caused every year by Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands.

I am off to cut the Oliver and obsessively check the statuses of submitted manuscripts. Remember, despite the condescending orientalist horse crap that you might read in the Wall Street Journal, Russians are like everybody else. They just want acceptance with minor revisions.

Happy New Year!

Nothing Compares to You

For Russia watchers Christmas always comes early (or Hanukkah comes right on time!) when Putin gives his annual presser in mid-December to the journalists from Russia and around the world. This year was no exception, and Putin provided an almost 4-hour spectacle of economic indicator juggling, question evading and what looked like battling the flu. Even devoted supporters noticed that Putin was not on top of his game that day. He had to constantly clear the throat and looked like he had fever.

There was something for everyone. Putin came out against abortion ban and spun a conspiracy theory about the Olympic doping scandal. Accused the US of North Korean missile program development and encouraged rotation of governmental cadres. Explained the rationale behind a possible retirement age increase and advised the head of Rosneft Sechin to show up to court when he is subpoenaed. Many bloggers and mass media outlets have devised several versions of Putin Presser bingo, because every year there seems to be the same number of shticks that come up. These include drinking from a cup with a lid, making a joke – this year a particularly crass one, – providing reassuring mumbo-jumbo about Russian economic growth and an expected tough question from a Ukrainian journalist.

Let’s start with the last one. Questions from UNIAN journalist Tsymbayuk are a rare aberration from the mainstream discourse on the Ukraine crisis in Russia (this time they were met with boos and “provocation” outcries). He asked whether Putin was planning to exchange prisoners of war and reminded that Russia and Ukraine were not one country. Putin had a long comeback arguing that the accent-free Russian of the journalist was already a sign that the countries occupied the same mental space. After that followed quite a long history lesson riddled some historical inaccuracies and an emphasis on the same Christian foundation of the two countries that make up one nation. Later, Putin also quipped about the scandal provoked by the former Georgian President and ex Odessa governor Saakashvili, who is allegedly “spitting in the faces of Ukrainians and Georgians”. Putin even wondered whether there were “real Ukrainians” available in the country. Oh, snap. A lot of Russians don’t believe Ukraine deserves to be a state in the first place…

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Look What You Made Me Do

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the sovereignest of them all? Asked no head of state — ever. And yet, the Russian Parliament is in the process of devising a document, which assesses levels of sovereignty among the G20, and devises punishments for countries or individuals who infringe on state sovereignty. I have to admit, it fits well with the ISQ’s new online symposium on International Systems in World History. Hierarchy, international system, definition of state, coercion – it’s all there! Russian Parliament does not reflect on the Eurocentrism of their concepts though…

The Interim Commission of the Federation Council for the Protection of State Sovereignty has prepared a plan for an annual report on interference in Russia’s internal affairs (securitization alert!). Apparently, the West is stimulating interethnic and interreligious protests in Russia by way of turning the Russian youth “into an instrument of loosening up of national political systems, implementing scenarios of  “color revolutions”, coups d’état, and social destabilisation.” So, if we track the empirical application of Butcher and Griffiths’ article,  there is in fact a clear delineation between domestic and foreign politics. The foreign part comes in with the “monitoring of the interference of foreign states and international organizations in the political, economic, cultural and humanitarian spheres of activity in Russia”. Especially worrisome for Russian lawmakers is the expected interference with Russia’s presidential election in spring 2018. See, Russia does care about election meddling! Just not the American one.

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We Shall Overspread

While there is a big debate in the US about the old monuments, Russia is erecting new ones. Starting with the eye sore of a Kalashnikov statue in Moscow that had a bit of a glitch of sporting a German rifle instead of the famous Russian export and finishing with a “monument to manspreading” aka Russian Emperor Alexander the Third in Crimea’s Yalta. While manspreading is a great metaphor for the “Crimea reunification”, let’s put aside the Ukrainian side of the issue and take a closer look at the schmock du jour.

Alexander the Third statue is seated somewhat uncomfortably on what looks like a pile of manure, with his hands on a sword and the words “Russia’s only allies are its army and fleet” engraved on the base of the monument. During the unveiling ceremony that was attended by President Putin, the emperor was lauded as the “Peacemaker” who

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Democratic Weakness and the Secessionist Impulse

This is a guest post from Katy Collin, who is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Brookings Institution and an adjunct instructor at American University’s School of International Service. Her research is on the use of referendums in peace processes.

In the last few weeks, international borders have been challenged around the world. Secessionists and great powers are undermining the norm of territorial integrity, or border fixity. In the Middle East, East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and in Europe, international boundaries are being pushed from within and between states.

Respect for international boundaries has been one of the primary sources of stability in the post-World War II world. It has not been legitimate to conquer neighboring states and seize territory as a mechanism for dispute resolution or payment of international debt since the end of that war. Border fixity has contributed to the sharp decline in wars between states.

On the other hand, defending arbitrary international borders, particularly following de-colonization, may be one of the primary drivers of wars within states. Strong borders may protect weak states and promote fragility. Since World War II, about half of the wars and most of the violence globally have been associated in some way with struggles to alter borders. As much as the post-War international order has been built on border fixity, it has also established a normative case for the self-determination of peoples. Continue reading

Iraqi Kurds vote for independence: What does this mean for Iraq’s neighbors, and especially for Turkey?

This is a guest post, written by Margarita Konaev, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Center for Strategic Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Kirstin J.H. Brathwaite, Assistant Professor in the James Madison College at Michigan State University.

The referendum on independence of Iraqi Kurdistan and subsequent military clashes between the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and Baghdad are setting off alarm bells across the Middle East. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to cut off the flow of Kurdish oil exports, warning that the Kurds could “go hungry” as a result of economic sanctions. Military options, he added, were also on the table. The Syrians are refusing to recognize the results of the referendum. And at the request of the central government in Baghdad, Iran has closed the airspace to the Iraqi Kurdish area. The United States, United Nations, and even Russia have all expressed their disapproval of this “unilateral” move. In fact, the only country that welcomed the independence vote is Israel. Continue reading

#MeToo

“The women who accused Harvey Weinstein did not act as women. Because sexual harassment – well, that’s great, honestly. And if you have a role, what difference does it make how you got it. […] In general, how can a man be accused of sexual harassment, is it not what he exists in this world for? If he has the power that he uses in this way, that’s good. It’s wonderful when a man who has so much power is sexually harassing you, isn’t it?”

No, it isn’t. But that is what a relatively famous Russian actress Lyubov Tolkalina had to say about the Hollywood scandal. Even though in the same article about Russian movie industry attitudes to Harvey Weinstein there were other opinions, including from men who sympathized with the victims of sexual assault and derided the hypocrisy of the movie industry in Russia and the US, so far the response to the Hollywood revelations in Russia have not necessarily been #MeToo. The underlying issue here is not just the patriarchal culture, but also the internalized misogyny and victim blaming that go with it, or, as Lyubov Tolkalina puts it, “A woman is always guilty in male sexual assault”. Being a part of a macho patriarchal culture is hard, so a lot of women side with the desirable and hierarchically higher in-group – men – and re-affirm female objectification and disparagement. Moreover, this kind of responses mirror the pushback against the social media campaign #IamNotAfraidtoSayIt (#янебоюсьсказать) initiated by a Ukrainian activist in 2016 where women in Post-Soviet space shared the horrifying stories of sexual abuse.

The stories under those Russian and Ukrainian hashtags showed that sexual assault and violence against women are, unfortunately, everyday and underreported phenomena. Statistics on domestic violence in Russia are disturbing: around 600,000 women suffer annually of domestic abuse, while approximately 60-70% of incidents of domestic abuse never even get reported. This was sarcastically captured in the headline of an article on domestic violence in Rossiyskaya Gazeta: ‘If he kills you, then report it’. In other words, law enforcement officials routinely discard the claims of domestic assault brought forward by women or claim that the women brought the violence on themselves. Apart from the physical violence, there is a general discursive tolerance towards violence against women.  Even women who suffered from domestic violence usually tend to justify it or reconcile with their offenders and continue to tolerate the abuse. Continue reading

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