William Morris, the NCF Secretary General on the history of and background to the Ukraine / Russia squabble over the ownership of poor much abused Crimea.
In Istanbul as the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople handed a Tomos – a decree granting independence, or autocephaly – to the future head of the local Orthodox Church in Ukraine, the spiritual authority Russia once held over its former Soviet neighbour was severed once and for all. This was a political blow just as much as a spiritual setback for the Russian Federation.
On 6thJanuary 2019 the Ukrainian Orthodox Church declared independence from Muscovite Patriarchal authority after being under its jurisdiction for over 400 years. ‘We have cut the last chain that connected us to Moscow and its fantasies about Ukraine as the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church’ proudly declared the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko. On the contrary, however, President Putin predicted ‘a heavy dispute, if not bloodshed’ over the schism.
Why was the Russian president so furious about the church split?
Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, autocephaly has long been a tour de force for nationalism in Eastern Europe – and Ukraine is no exception. An independent Ukrainian Church undermines President Putin’s efforts to re-establish Russian influence over its former Soviet territories. Ukraine’s national identity has long been associated with, and influenced by Russia.
From 1917 until the Second World War, the Crimean Peninsula was an autonomous republic within the USSR. In 1944, Stalin forcibly deported all of Crimea’s indigenous population, the Tartars, to Central Asia – ostensibly as punishment for their collaboration with the Germans. In turn, many Russian and Ukrainian settlers moved to repopulate the Peninsula. As such, when in 1954 the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred control of Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the proportion of ethnic Russians in Crimea increased significantly. Characteristic of the arbitrary style of Soviet leadership, there was no vote to transfer control of Crimea to Ukraine; the decision was made solely (and in the eyes of many, illegally) by Khrushchev.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a majority of Ukrainians – over 90% – voted in a referendum for independence from Russia. Initially it seemed as though Russia would respect the result – promising to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty in 1995 in return for their Soviet era nuclear arsenal. Again, in 2000 Russia signed an EU deal to formally acknowledge the sovereignty of all former Soviet territories. However, Ukraine’s national identity was still closely tied with Russia. Many ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea continued to feel an affinity with their former Soviet identity; the Russian language and church remained a core part of Ukraine’s cultural landscape.
In Ukraine’s Presidential elections in 2004, the election of Russia-friendly Viktor Yanukovich was widely alleged to be marred by corruption, voter fraud and intimidation. The protests that erupted in response to his incumbency, known as the ‘Orange Revolution’, were successful in triggering a re-vote and a decisive victory for the opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. In contrast with Yanukovich, Yushchenko’s political agenda was more liberal and notably favourable toward European integration.
By 2010, however, Yushchenko’s popularity had decreased and the Presidential election was once again – although this time legitimately – won by the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich.
In 2013 Yanukovich rejected a political agreement to strengthen ties with the European Union in favour of forming a closer economic relationship with Russia. Small-scale protests in Kiev by pro-European Ukrainian citizens soon escalated into the ‘Euromaiden revolution’, which ultimately resulted in Yanukovich being ousted from power and a temporary government being installed in February 2014. This was the backdrop against which Putin sent Russian forces into Crimea – ostensibly to protect ethnic Russians and to ‘return Crimea to Russia’. Despite the ‘referendum at gunpoint’ in which Crimea voted to secede to Russian control, this outcome has not been recognised by the international community.
So what has been happening since Russia invaded Crimea in 2014?
Since the annexation of Crimea, Russia has asserted control of both sides of the Kerch strait, a highly strategic waterway connecting the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea. On May 16th2018, the construction of a bridge over the strait was completed, joining Crimea and Russia. The bridge is too low to allow large merchant ships through the strait. This greatly restricts access from Ukraine’s eastern ports of Mariupiol and Berdyansk to the Black Sea (and in turn, the Mediterranean). Indeed, between May and August 2018, Russia detained over 140 merchant ships attempting to pass the strait, many of them Ukrainian.
On November 24th, three Ukrainian merchant vessels and 24 crew members approaching the strait were seized and detained by the Russian coast guard for supposedly breaching Russian territorial waters. The Ukrainian Government claimed that the vessels were travelling in shared waters, established under a bilateral treaty in 2003. Ultimately, however, there is very little that the Ukraine government can do on its own to stand up to Russia, having lost up to 80% of its own navy in 2014 when Crimea was annexed. The current Ukrainian President, Poroshenko’s declaration of regional martial law on the 28thNovember did little to stabilise the situation although may well help his public standing ahead of the 2019 presidential election.
Therefore, with such little room for manoeuvre, Ukraine’s declaration of autocephaly was clearly, and rightly, an attempt to stand up to Russia in the absence of more effective political channels. We should, however, expect significant push back from Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church. Many parishes in Ukraine that belonged to the Russian patriarchate are technically owned by the Russian state and Putin has already warned that he is willing to fiercely defend ownership of church property.
It may well be decades until there is a resolution, but for now this is an important victory for Ukraine. It is also a moral victory for the idea of the Ukrainian nation taking its own course independently from Moscow that is likely to help Poroshenko in upcoming elections in March.
The International Response
As well as sending a Royal Navy Ship to the Black Sea, the UK’s Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson visited Odessa in December and made a point of meeting with families of the 24 Ukrainian sailors being held in Moscow. Symbolic actions such as these are incredibly important. Not only do they set an example to the international community but also show Russia that Ukraine will not be left to fend for themselves against Russian aggression.
On 19thDecember the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights presented the findings of its periodic report on the situation of human rights in Ukraine. It was disappointing, while unsurprising, to learn that Russia refused to allow the UN mission into Crimea where reports are emerging of rights violations such as arbitrary imprisonment and suppression of freedom of speech and assembly. In eastern Ukraine casualties are still being incurred from shelling activity and there are no means for civilians to receive compensation for injury or death resulting from the conflict.
In addition to its condemnation of the Russian Federation, the report was clear that many casualties were attributable to Ukrainian government forces. It also highlighted a reluctance in Ukrainian law enforcement institutions to investigate the human rights violations by state actors.
After such a comprehensive, balanced report it was disappointing that the international community had nothing to say on the role of Ukrainian state actors in committing human rights violations. While we cannot allow Russia’s actions to go unchecked, all UN members must be held to similar standards so as not to undermine the legitimacy of our peace-keeping institutions and the very concept of universal human rights.
As Syria’s seven year war ostensibly draws to a close, there is still a great deal of uncertainty over the future of Idlib in northern Syria, the country’s last remaining rebel stronghold. With nowhere else to run to, its three million inhabitants (including around 60,000 opposition fighters) are edging ever closer back into the clutches of the Syrian Government and its President, Bashar al-Assad. Although more than half of Syria’s population have already lost their homes, it is this final struggle that may prove the most costly for President Assad and his allies in humanitarian terms.
Presently, Idlib is controlled by rebel factions who, despite their common opposition to the Syrian Government, are divided amongst themselves. A large swathe of Idlib – around 60% – is controlled by the radical Islamist group, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) that has hsitoric ties to al-Qaeda. The National Liberation Front (NLF) – an opposition group supported by Turkey – controls another substantial area.
Throughout Syria’s war Turkey has provided support for opposition groups like the NLF, while Russia and Iran have backed Bashar al-Assad. Of course it was Russia’s intervention in the war in 2015 that marked a decisive shift in favour of Assad’s forces and it now seems as though Bashar al-Assad will soon regain control over much of the rest of Syria after years of uncertainty. The Syrian Government has no qualms about a large-scale offensive on Idlib; on 8th October Assad pledged to ‘liberate’ all areas under ‘terrorist control’. Syria’s deputy foreign minister has also declared that Idlib will be captured one way or another, either peacefully or militarily. And Syria’s Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem, told the NCF directly that if Turkey failed to withdraw, Syria would go to war to regain its territory.
Despite this belligerence, foreign powers involved in the war have shown a new commitment to avert further humanitarian catastrophe. A deal reached between President Erdogan of Turkey and President Putin of Russia on September 17th in Sochi, resolved that a 15-20 kilometre buffer zone would be created around Idlib after the removal of heavy weapons and radical fighters from the area. A ceasefire agreement was also established between the opposing parties. It was created in an attempt to prevent (or postpone) a Russian led attack on Idlib and allow time for further political discussion to take place without the threat of violence.
The first stage of the agreement, which stipulated the removal of heavy weaponry from the buffer zone, was successful. The NLF promptly withdrew its weapons in what was seen as a victory for Turkey, who has taken the responsibility for negotiating with fighters inside the buffer zone. Although HTS did not initially reveal its stance on the agreement, it too seemed to withdraw its weapons in time for the 10th October deadline.
More problematic, however, was the second deadline of the 15th October for the removal of jihadists from the area. There were some early reports that HTS and al-Nusra (another jihadist organisation) had refused to withdraw from the demilitarised zone because Turkey hadn’t guaranteed their safety. And so, the deadline came and went without any sight of the rebels leaving. HTS made a public statement vowing that they would continue to fight, and that they refused to trust Russia. General Naji Mustafa of the NLF also said that Russia’s commitment to the deal could not be trusted, insisting ‘we are absolutely ready for the forthcoming battle’.
There are fears that a breakdown in the agreement will give the Syrian Government and Russia an excuse to carry out a military offensive on Idlib. This is compounded by an ominous text message received by residents in the buffer zone last Friday from the Syrian army reading ‘get away from the fighters, their fate is sealed and near’. These fears are not unfounded; both Assad’s government and Putin have demonstrated their determination to win back all Syrian territory. In the past, Russia has also cited the presence of HTS as a reason for attacking areas of Idlib.
Despite this, there are signs that Russia is remaining flexible and willing to support Turkey’s implementation of the agreement on the ground, even though the deadlines have not immediately been met. This is in the interests of both Russia and Turkey, despite their opposing sides in the conflict. Putin has already spent a vast amount on the war in Syria and does not want to take responsibility for the humanitarian disaster that could occur if there was a military assault on Idlib. Russia is also concerned with reconstruction in Syria, which could feasibly start sooner if a peace is maintained. Turkey shares a border with Idlib and wants to avoid the inevitable influx of refugees if its people are forced to escape through the north.
It is a good sign that Russia has continued to honour the Sochi agreement. Although many are understandably cynical, this may well be the last remaining hope for the safety of the three million people living in Idlib. Talking about whether such an agreement will work in the ‘long term’ for Syria seems redundant given the fast changing nature of the war. What matters for now is that both sides remain committed to a diplomatic solution for Idlib that minimises casualties and sets a course for the Syrian Government to follow.
From the 1950s onwards, Syria received hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military and economic assistance from the Soviet Union. In return, in 1971 Syria’s new president Hafez al-Assad allowed the USSR to open its naval military base in the port city of Tartus. Cordial relations continued into the 1980s as Syria and the Soviet Union signed a twenty-year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. However, though ties with Syria were maintained, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant that the vision of socialist utopia was in ruins.
As a nation that has, historically, sought credibility by projecting itself as a formidable power – regardless of its internal weaknesses – post-Soviet Russia has been keen to regain its position as a key player on the international stage. Inevitably, therefore, Moscow has looked to Syria as a region where it can build upon historic ties and exert influence to rival that of the United States across the Middle East. Russia has been successful in achieving this aim. It is now regarded as a key arbiter in the region and boasts the defeat of ISIS in Syria despite President Obama’s claims in 2015 that Russian interference in Syria would be to no avail. Moreover, in November 2017, Putin hosted talks with the leaders of Iran and Turkey to discuss Syria’s future, highlighting the international consensus that Russia will play a key role in Syria’s reconstruction. Since then, Putin has continued to flex his muscles in the region and proven himself to be a fundamental player in the outcome of the conflict. This not only bolsters his international standing, but also his domestic reputation as a leader who is intent on transforming Russia into a formidable power once more.
There are, however, more tangible interests at stake for Russia in Syria. The naval base in Tartus which was established in 1971 is now Russia’s only military facility outside of the former Soviet Union and holds great strategic importance. By remaining close with President Bashar al-Assad there is a possibility that Russia could, in the future, advance its presence in the Mediterranean. Furthermore Assad is reliant on Russia for providing critical air support, affording Russia a valuable opportunity to test its arms systems.
At present, therefore, Russia is centre stage in the attempt to navigate a Syrian peace settlement. This involves overcoming several challenges that have presented themselves now that the conflict has started to dissipate. For example, Assad has adopted a more unruly attitude now that he perceives himself as a ‘victor’ in the conflict and thus less dependent on Russia. Moscow recognises that Assad cannot fully resume his old powers, but must also contend with the factionalism that is rife within Syria (between anti-Assad opposition groups, pro-Turkish and pro-Iranian militias and the Kurds). If the commentator Dmitri Trenin is correct and Russia is paving the way for a coalition government by creating several de-escalation zones then Putin will need to persuade Assad to accept this, as well as accepting Iran’s interests in the region that Israel has unsurprisingly perceived as a threat.
In his attempt to build his reputation as an international strongman, Vladimir Putin has perhaps bitten off more than he can chew. As long as his international exploits earn him credibility at home, Putin will continue to exert influence over an ever-changing state of affairs in the Middle East. But now that he has successfully raised Russia’s international standing, it remains to be seen whether Putin’s diplomacy will continue to live up to his rhetoric.
When it comes to Syria today we need dialogue. Those who have the courage to stand up and say, “there is another way” have become so important and are much needed at this time everywhere, most especially in the Syrian conflict. We must work for solutions that are in reality something more than a quick fix. We need to look at a long-term solution, rather than a short-term one. A great friend of mine, James Lynn from Northern Ireland, says, “Hatred only destroys the soul of the person who speaks it, for it has no permanent solution to offer.” We all need to be the voice of peace and reason, and keep the Syrian nation very much in our prayers.
So, as a precursor to peace, we need to understand the nature of the war we are facing. Clearly a line must be drawn when it comes to honour in war. And chemical weapons are dishonourable. Chemical weapons are much more widespread and utilised more frequently than the other two types of W.M.D.s. Among the most common chemical agents that have been deployed are G-series nerve gas (in particular, sarin), and mustard gas. Chemical weapons are indiscriminate. Children are particularly the hardest-hit from chemical weapon attacks as their bodies are more vulnerable. Numerous countries still have large stockpiles of chemical weapons despite the Chemical Weapons Convention, which required the destruction of stockpiles by 2012. Due to the Convention, 85% of the chemical weapon stockpiles across the world have been destroyed. This is significant progress, but a considerable number of production facilities and stockpiles remain.
Chemical weapons have been around a long time. The first to use chemical weapons in the Middle East were the British who employed them in the Second Battle of Gaza against the Turks in 1917. Since then they have been used repeatedly, most notably by Saddam Hussein against the Iranians from 1983 to 1988 and the Kurds from 1987 to 1988.
That the Syrian government has chemical weapons is without question. Their existence has been confirmed by the Syrians in oblique statements, most notably by onetime Syrian spokesman Jihad Makdissi who apparently lost his job over the remark.
The Free Syrian Army destroyed the Safira base on 29th November 2012. The artillery base was utterly demolished but the nearby air defence base was fought over for some time. Safira was a sprawling military complex. However, the Islamist group Al Nusra joined the fight and by mid February 2013 the entire town had fallen into rebel hands.
Since when both extreme elements of the opposition and the government have used chemical weapons, the government moreso than the opposition but both parties have been culpable.
All of this does however highlight one issue. There is an acute need to promote the Chemical Weapons Convention in the Middle East today. The are only five countries in the whole world which have either not signed and / or not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. They are: Egypt, Israel, North Korea, Palestine (and yes Palestine is entitled to sign), and South Sudan. They should all be brought onboard urgently.
Back to Syria
Meanwhile let’s come back to the issue of the use of chemical weapons in Syria in recent days. For background, the following timeline of events is drawn from an article by ‘Urayb ar-Rintawi in the Jordanian daily ad-Dustour. These are his words edited for clarity:
On February 18th, the Syrian army began a major Eastern Ghouta offensive via a concentrated artillery and aerial bombardment. And by early March, its units had succeeded in dividing up the Ghouta into different sectors and had recaptured many villages and towns.
The factions affiliated with the “Turkish/Qatari axis” concluded an agreement with Damascus sponsored by the Russian mediators. Thousands of Ahrar ash-Sham, Nusra, and Faylaq ar-Rahman fighters left to Idlib together with their families, and then the Syrian army entered ‘Arabin, Zamalka, and Jobar.
Jaysh ul Islam then denounced ‘the treason and treachery of our brothers-in-arms’ (those affiliated with Qatar and Turkey) who had left for Idlib. Jaysh ul Islam, which is affiliated with Saudi Arabia, could not find a safe haven.
Damascus then began a dialogue via Russian mediators aimed at clearing Douma of the remaining armed opposition giving them the choice of leaving or “settling their affairs” with the Syrian state, leading to an agreement that called for the evacuation of thousands of civilians and military personnel and allowing those who did not wish to “settle their affairs” to head to Jarabulus. This was the deal that came to be known as the ‘Ghouta-for-‘Afrin’ deal.
Convoys of buses then began to carry the armed elements and their families from Douma. In addition, more than 40 thousand civilians left via the Wafideen Gateway and were moved to “shelters provided by the Syrian government”.
Then a coup occurred inside Jayshul Islam. Its leaders who were engaged in the negotiations with Damascus and had reached an agreement with it were either killed or detained. Abu-Hammam al-Buweidani disappeared amidst rumors that he had surrendered to the Russian police, while Abu Qusay and Abu ‘Abderrahman Ka’ka took over the group’s leadership. Implementation of the agreement was suspended.
Next, the Syrian army launched a ruthless offensive on Douma, most of whose stages were broadcast live on air. It tightened the noose around Jayshul Islam’s neck.
Within three hours a chemical attack occurred.
The attack itself
Victims who survived report an odourless gas. This can only be Sarin. The other main gas used in Syria, Chlorine gas, is far from odourless. Some witnesses report a smell of chlorine but our impression is these are less credible accounts from people who were not actually exposed to the gas. Other symptoms are also Sarin specific. Particularly the pinpoint pupils of the dead. For links and fuller details so that you may examine this yourself if you wish, there are full supporting details on our first NCF blog entry on this subject which answers the question “Is this the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack?“. But you will need a strong stomach if you are going to examine all of the links we provide. Some among them are very harrowing. Note that Sarin gas has been extensively deployed before in the Damascus suburbs.
“Chlorine gas generally harms far more people than it kills because it requires comparatively high concentrations (nineteen thousand milligrams per cubic meter) and prolonged exposure to achieve lethal effect”. It is useful to terrorise rather than to kill. For example, to quote National Interest magazine’s excellent extensive report on the issue (we reach slightly different conclusions however), “A helicopter-delivered chlorine bombing in Zubdiya in eastern Aleppo on August 10, 2016, injured around seventy (including forty children) and killed four (including a mother and her two babies). In numerous other chlorine attacks, dozens have been injured, but deaths have numbered “only” in the single digits or even zero.”
Some of the videos relating to the current Douma attack imply that chlorine gas was used. For instance, extensive dousing with water is valuable in dealing with chlorine gas exposure, whereas the removal of clothing is considered an important step in dealing with exposure to Sarin. One repeatedly broadcast video shows the extensive dousing of children with water without the removal of clothing. But it is possible that in the panic in the aftermath of a bomb attack, standard tactics for chlorine were employed as people may not have been as familiar with standard practice for Sarin exposure. There is also a video of two yellow cylinders of the type only normally used to deliver compressed chlorine gas in Syrian government attacks. However, there are various reasons for regarding these as false. For example one of the cylinders is some distance from the blast hole in the roof through which it has supposedly fallen, resting on a bed and comparatively undamaged by the impact and / or blast to which it has been exposed (such cylinders are usually substantially damaged and sometimes blasted apart). In any case, the very high numbers of casualties and the nature of the victim reports make it clear, in our view, that chlorine gas was certainly not employed as the primary agent.
There are a number of possibilities. We will make arbitrary assessments. We do so because we believe it is helpful for those that read this to have a benchmark opinion, which they can then use as an assessment against which to examine the available open source material for themselves and draw their own conclusions. This is inevitably just our own subjective report on the subject. The forthcoming OPCW report will not determine culpability. Even when the United Nations has sent in teams (and UN teams are generally less skilled than those of the OPCW) with the prime objective of determining culpability their reports have been confusing and less than satisfactory when it comes to providing conclusive evidence. We reiterate that this is because the government has not been the sole perpetrator of war crimes with chemical weapons in Syria. The more extreme elements of the Islamist opposition have sometimes done so, occasionally with a view to implicating the government through false flag incidents. And one of the most extreme opposition groups, Jaysh ul Islam, was present in Douma, a group that is so ruthless that it at one point held hostages in cages in Douma.
That said it must be stressed in all fairness that the Syrian government is usually the one culpable. The fact that access to the alleged site was delayed until today by Russian troops now in control of the area makes Syrian government culpability more likely. The NCF does however have direct contacts within the ranks of the Syrian military and they deny culpability in this instance. Undoubtedly your reasonable response might be “they would wouldn’t they”. However, they say that these are victims of “suffocation” after being buried in the aftermath of shelling and that civilians panicked and imagined a gas attack and then some unscrupulous members of the opposition put out false videos or videos from other incidents which they flagged as being from this incident. We give percentage probabilities in an attempt to be helpful. Please note once again that this is an arbitrary assessment:
- This was done deliberately by the Syrian government: 75% probability.
- That this was done by overzealous elements of the Syrian Army without direct Syrian Government instruction: 5% possibility.
- That these were victims of suffocation and the incident was exploited by the unscrupulous: 5% possibility.
- That the Syrian government did not attack and this was an entirely false flag incident perpetrated by Jaysh ul Islam: 15% possibility.
What is needed now is not further military action but a concerted international effort to work for peace both at a second track and first track level that engages Russia, Iran, and the United States of America. There are so many factions operating in Syria. As I was reminded just today by a Hawaiian friend, Stafford Clary:
- Saudi Arabia-Qatar-UAE-Turkey support aggressive Sunni Arab elements against the Syrian government
- Russia-Iran-Iraq-Hezbollah support the Syrian government
- Iran-Hezbollah are aggressively anti-Israel
- Turkey is aggressively anti-PYD (the prime Kurdish faction in Syria)
- US is aggressively anti-ISIS, pro-PYD, and pro-Israel (however the US does not currently oppose al Qaeda elements in Syria)
All people of good conscience must surely believe that the nations of the world should start working together for peace in Syria.
God bless Syria and all its people, and may his peace rest upon their shoulders.
William Morris LL.D., Secretary General, The Next Century Foundation
Countries around the Western world have joined the UK in expelling Russian diplomats. Considering Russia’s actions since the 2014 Crimean annexation, this solidarity from the West is not surprising. Whilst the nerve agent attack has evidently provided the spark, there has been growing unease in the West concerning Russia’s behaviour. Russia’s foreign policy since 2014 has been aggressive, characterised by consistent interference in Western politics.
However, the West’s response has been weak-minded, cowardly and, as a consequence, has heightened tensions. This is not to suggest that the West should fight fire with fire and restart programs of brinkmanship, collusion and the dirty tactics that defined international relations in the 20th Century. Nevertheless, unsubstantiated allegations of partisanship partnered with a refusal to present transparent findings have prevented clear and untainted evidence of Russia’s actions from being published, allowing Russia to deny all allegations whilst continuing to be a sort of spectre looming over the west.
The current response to the attack in Salisbury is a perfect example. With little information other than the strong assumption that Russia was behind it, Russian diplomats across the world have been expelled. Investigations have not concluded and findings detailing the extent to which parties were involved have not been published. Reactionary rhetoric has been used over objective, procedural, unequivocal evidence. Russia can continue to deny their involvement. Russia remains a vague, unquantified threat.
There is a desperate need for transparency in the West to combat this growing threat. The major problem preventing Russia from being held accountable is that it is difficult for the public to truly know the extent of their involvement. Investigations have, understandably, needed to remain opaque in order to be successful. However, investigations have been tainted by the politics of the country. Jeremy Corbyn’s rather innocuous claim that the investigation should be completed before any action was taken led to character assassinations from right across the British political spectrum. A similar situation occurred in the USA. Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s involvement in the US election has devolved into an apparent war between the President and the intelligence services, preventing any findings from being considered in an objective and untainted way. With constant accusations of misinformation and partisanship, made with apparent ulterior motives, the institutions created to defend against such foreign attacks are being eroded into impotency. Investigations need to be allowed to continue without political rhetoric twisting them at every step. We need to see unequivocal evidence of Russia’s culpability.
The issue is compounded by allegations that Russia is making use of social media and data analysis in the USA (as well as conceivably in regard to the Brexit vote). Misinformation and targeted propaganda are the major stories of the day, and again, Russia’s involvement is assumed and alleged but not certified or explained. At the moment the argument revolves around statements like, “Our data has been taken by third parties” and these third parties have “influenced elections”. Such vague statements allow Russia to continue to deny and deflect criticism. Our elections have been affected by this data collation, but we are unsure how or to what extent. We need transparency, both from Facebook, regarding how they protect and distribute our data, and from the companies and organisations that use our data. Only with this level of transparency can the threat from Russia be detailed, realised and prevented. As it stands, this vague allegation that “Russia is meddling” fixes nothing and simply breeds further tension and distrust.
A few months ago, Boris Johnson visited Moscow to talk about UK relations with Russia – he was the first UK Foreign Secretary to do so in five years. It was an understatement then, when Johnson conceded that Britain’s relationship with Russia was “not on a good footing” and vowed to improve relations.
The poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in a leafy cathedral town in England on the 4th of March has however dashed any hopes of closer relations between the two countries. In fact it has threatened to entirely freeze an already cold relationship.
Indeed earlier this week, Johnson himself changed tact, calling Russia a “malign and disruptive force” and accusing the Kremlin of launching cyber-attacks against Britain, labelling them an “act of war.”
Prime Minister Theresa May was even more damning in her condemnation of Russia in light of the poisoning. Speaking in the House of Commons, May publicly accused Russia of attempted murder both because of its record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations and also because the nerve agent purportedly used on Skripal was, and could only be produced in Russia. There are, May concluded “only two plausible explanations for what happened;” either Russia directly orchestrated an attack on a citizen on foreign soil or it simply lost control of the nerve agent, allowing it to get into the hands of others.
May ended with an ultimatum to Russia: you have 24 hours to provide credible evidence that the attack was not state-sponsored or face the consequences of an act that essentially amounts to military aggression. Comparing it to the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko, another double agent, May promised much more extensive measures than the sanctions put in place after his death.
Key points from a source the name of which the NCF has agreed to withhold at present:
- It is very doubtful that these compounds are military grade nerve agents or that a Russian “Novichok” programme ever existed – if they were potentially usable as weapons, people on the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board who were in a position to know would have recommended that they be added to the list of Scheduled Chemicals. They have never been added.
- “Novichok” compounds are easy to synthesize at bench scale in a modern lab – how else could Porton Down have developed a test for them? Any organic chemist with a modern lab would be able to synthesize bench scale quantities of such a compound. Therefore its presence in this case is clearly not sufficient evidence of Russian culpability. Any organic chemist with a modern lab would be able to synthesize bench scale quantities of such a compound. Porton Down must have been able to synthesize these compounds in order to develop tests for them. Therefore its presence in this case is clearly not sufficient evidence of Russian culpability.
Background – again from the NCF source (name withheld)
- The only source for the story that a new class of organophosphate compounds was developed as chemical weapons under the name Novichok in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s is from Vil Mirzayanov, a defector in the 1990s. Mirzayanov described the chemical structures of these compounds and stated that the toxicity of an agent named Novichuk-5 “under optimal conditions exceeds the effectiveness of VX by five to eight times”. Mirzayanov alleged that Russian testing and production had continued after signing the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993.
- Soviet scientists had published many papers in the open literature on the chemistry of such compounds for possible use as insecticides. Mirzayanov claimed that “this research program was premised on the ability to hide the production of precursor chemicals under the guise of legitimate commercial chemical production of agricultural chemicals”.
- Mirzayanov claimed that the Novichok agents were easy to synthesize: One should be mindful that the chemical components or precursors of A-232 or its binary version novichok-5 are ordinary organophosphates that can be made at commercial chemical companies that manufacture such products as fertilizers and pesticides.
- An authoritative review by Dr Robin Black, who was until recently head of the detection laboratory at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Porton Down), emphasizes that there is no independent confirmation of Mirzayanov’s claims about the chemical properties of these compounds: In recent years, there has been much speculation that a fourth generation of nerve agents, ‘Novichoks’ (newcomer), was developed in Russia, beginning in the 1970s as part of the ‘Foliant’ programme, with the aim of finding agents that would compromise defensive countermeasures. Information on these compounds has been sparse in the public domain, mostly originating from a dissident Russian military chemist, Vil Mirzayanov. No independent confirmation of the structures or the properties of such compounds has been published.
- OPCW’s Scientific Advisory Board did not take Mirzayanov’s story seriously enough to rate these compounds and their precursors as Scheduled Chemicals that should be controlled under the Chemical Weapons Convention: The Scientific Advisory Board emphasised that the definition of toxic chemicals in the Convention would cover all potential candidate chemicals that might be utilised as chemical weapons. Regarding new toxic chemicals not listed in the Annex on Chemicals but which may nevertheless pose a risk to the Convention, the Scientific Advisory Board makes reference to “Novichoks”. The name “Novichok” is used in a publication of a former Soviet scientist who reported investigating a new class of nerve agents suitable for use as binary chemical weapons. The Scientific Advisory Board states that it has insufficient information to comment on the existence or properties of “Novichoks”. The Scientific Advisory Board included Dr Black, and several other heads of national chemical defence laboratories in western countries. These labs would have made their own evaluation of Mirzayanov’s claims and specifically would have done their own experiments to determine if compounds with the structures that he described were of military grade toxicity. We can reasonably assume that if they had found that these compounds were potentially usable as chemical weapons, they would have recommended adding them to the list of Scheduled Chemicals.
- The Prime Minister stated that: There are, therefore, only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on 4 March: either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country; or the Russian Government lost control of their potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others. Of course there is a third possible explanation for the detection of such a compound. As the structures of these compounds have been described, any organic chemist with a modern lab would be able to synthesize bench scale quantities of such a compound, with the objective of generating a trail of evidence that would point to Russia. Porton Down, for instance, must have been able to synthesize these compounds in order to develop tests for them.
Our own NCF Team adds:
The pushback from Russia was unsurprising; the country’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov denied the attack and demanded access to samples of the nerve agent used to poison Skripal. Aria Zakharova, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman further accused both the British government and the media of using the incident to fuel anti-Russian sentiment in the UK. The Chairman of the Accounts Chamber of Russia Sergei Stepashin also posited that it was the British security services that were behind the attack who were trying to undermine the upcoming Russian presidential elections: “It seems obvious to me that this might be the primitive work of English security services” he said “tell me who needs this traitor in Russia?”
Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin remained untroubled about any potential blowback. Indeed in a recent visit to the National Grain Centre in Russia, when asked by a BBC journalist whether Russia was behind the poisoning of Skripal, he simply smirked and replied “we’re busy here with agriculture […]get to the bottom of things there, first. Then we’ll talk about this.”
The incident poses an interesting challenge for the direction of British foreign policy in an uncertain pre-Brexit climate and a US ally that is now ambivalent towards Russia’s political manoeuvrings.
There are for instance clear differences between European interests and British interests; both Germany and France are moving towards closer engagement and dialogue with Russia and it increasingly looks like Britain will have to act unilaterally to effectively sever diplomatic ties with Russia. Across the pond, Trump has been unusually subdued in his condemnation; “As soon as we get the facts straight” he said, “if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.”
So will May stick to her promise of more extensive measures? Or will there simply be more expelled diplomats, more sanctions and more frozen assets? The answer is not immediately clear.
What is clear however is that Britain is in a precarious position in condemning extra-judicial killings, or in this case, attempted killings. The use of drone strikes to kill not just foreign citizens but also British-born citizens on foreign soil, if not by Britain then extensively by Britain’s friend the USA, allows Putin to act with impunity. After all, how can the UK condemn Russia for attacks on individuals when the Anglo-American alliance carries out its own attacks on foreign soil?
There is little doubt that if Russia is behind the attack, then it should be punished for attempting to carry out an assassination on foreign soil. But perhaps Mrs May should heed the advice of Mr Lavrov in complying with its own international obligations first, “before putting forward ultimatums.” Is it really wise for Britain to isolate itself further by severing all ties with Russia in the absence of any credible and incriminating evidence?
Vil S. Mirzayanov, “Dismantling the Soviet/Russian Chemical Weapons Complex: An Insider’s View,” in Amy E. Smithson, Dr. Vil S. Mirzayanov, Gen Roland Lajoie, and Michael Krepon, Chemical Weapons Disarmament in Russia: Problems and Prospects, Stimson Report No. 17, October 1995, p. 21. https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/105521/Report17.pdf
OPCW: Report of the Scientific Advisory Board on developments in science and technology for the Third Review Conference 27 March 2013
Robin Black. (2016) Development, Historical Use and Properties of Chemical Warfare Agents. Royal Society of Chemistry
“And, sir, it is no little thing to make mine eyes to sweat compassion”, (William Shakespeare, Coriolanus).
This is my last blog post for The Next Century Foundation. During my time at the NCF, I addressed several hot issues, speaking about different situations and topics, even very controversial ones, which have sometimes generated harsh reactions. I suppose it is inevitable if you are speaking about politics, human rights, dictators, victims or perpetrators. These social fabrications give us a social identity and lead us to often take on conflicting and controversial positions, dictated by interests, simple visions or specific goals. In such circumstances, the “political animal” inside each of us reveals itself trying to impose its own point of view.
However, in spite of the ideas and values that humans can have, every person is made up of feelings and emotions. Before being classified as political animals, humans are sentient beings, with emotions and feelings which define us and make us unique. The same sort of emotions and feelings that are gradually being extinguished with the frenetic and uncontrolled evolution of this world. And today, I want to talk about this. Today I want to talk about who we are. Today, I want to write about the emotions, hopes and feelings that define us and how this world is changing them. And I will do it by speaking through the lense of one of the generations that, more than any other, is experiencing this change in full; a generation that particularly expresses the contradictions of our society but also the dreams and the betrayed hopes: my generation, that of the Millennials.
We live in strange times. Times of great uncertainties, immense fears, incessant and fast changes. I am the son of a generation that has been living through the golden years of development, where entrepreneurs would invest in the job market and believed in the value of their employees. Years where politicians would constantly strive to find new ways to improve people’s lives. The high level of births, the prolific job market, the certainty of the future, the first and the second car, big savings, the summer holidays by the sea or in the mountains. And then the great investments, the incentives to progress, research and development, the high general morale, the man on the moon, the hope for a future of well-being for everyone.
But sometimes expectations about the future are bigger than what reality has to offer and, just like a bubble that swells excessively, sooner or later reality explodes right in your face. And here, all of a sudden, we have a system where the excessive well-being and the immeasurable potential of the third industrial revolution clashes with the individual economic interest. The big industries and multinationals come into play and alter the balance. Human greed grows stronger and stronger while the big multinationals knock on the doors of politics for some “boosts”. And there you go; the first agreements born to maximize profits by damaging workers’ rights; national factories shutting down to re-open in those countries where labor costs 1$ a day, or renegotiating workers’ union achievements with politicians in exchange for a few bribes or support during election campaigns; the high transnational finance getting hold of large company shares and becoming the main protagonist of a new global perverse game. The cost of labor for multinational companies drops dramatically while working hours increase. As a consequence, the price of produced goods decreases. Small and medium-sized businesses close or fail for they cannot compete with similar standards, whereas those able to make it through are the big names of industry or those entrepreneurs who, through criminal support, have managed to reach out to and influence politicians to get some extra procurement contracts or personal favors. The West becomes the center of unbridled capitalism, with no rules, with no ethics or respect. Everyone for themselves. It is against this backdrop that my generation, the Millennials, is born. The first true generation without any clue about its future.
The final blow comes with 2000 and all its technological capacity. It started with the first mobile phones and laptops on a large scale, up to smartphones and tablets. Technology moves; the great giants of Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Amazon develop; technological power becomes incredibly significant. And here’s Black Friday, the purchases with a click, the ads in every corner of the city, superfast transportation and trains in the underground every minute. The illusion of a world as a global, super-technological and limitless village is born. A sense that all this frantic lifestyle is necessary and inevitable emerges.
The savings of our parents are spent in this super-technological world while employment becomes more and more an urban legend. The new contemporary frontier of slavery 2.0 is born. Jobs poorly paid with meal vouchers; fixed-term contracts; easier layoffs; unbearable working hours. The prediction of Charlie Chaplin in his movie, Modern Times, comes true. Man becomes a productive factor with no rights, little money and a need to spend money without worrying too much about the future. It is the betrayal of the dream of a global Californication that we all expected: a happy world with more freedom and less problems to think about; a world where everyone can work and build a better and sustainable future.
But man’s greediness has shattered this dream. The betrayal from a global political class of spineless servants of high finance and powerful world lobbies has sanctioned the end of this dream. And while constitutions drown in an ocean of decay, my question is, what is left of all this?
On the one hand, there is an army of clueless kids, educated in the best prep schools which are financed by international magnates, who repeat as robots notions of economic and political theories aired on televisions and published in newspapers by those same people responsible for such a global delirium. Those same theories that legitimized the unbridled capitalism that is crushing us; theories such as those of the great industrialization or those that ultimately justified the plundering of the marvelous African countries or wars of interest such as those in Iraq or Libya.
On the other hand, there are people who live in the moment, who believe in what the World tells them to believe, only able to find their own identity in the television culture of the Big Brother, phony talk shows or in the trashy pop-porn culture spread throughout the day by MTV. George Orwell’s predictions have never been so true, huh?
And then, what remains is a people of perfect strangers.
I turn around every day, in the train, on the bus, down the street, and I see hundreds of people far away. People with a blank look on their face, lost in the void or on the screen of their smartphones. Lonely, sad, aloof people, with not much of humanity left; people walking quickly through the streets remorselessly hitting whomever is in their path because they are too intent on continuing their virtual conversation with someone miles away; people unable to express emotions or feelings; people too busy masking their loneliness behind the perfect image of their virtually perfect life on Instagram; depressed people no longer connected to reality; people who get together and break up through a telephone because they are incapable and afraid of meeting or knowing each other in a normal, real, natural way. And finally, people unable to associate, to connect, to unite and resist the power, or to oppose unjust decisions.
So what is left of feelings, of humanity, of us being people? For some reason, I’ve always been afraid to answer this question. Particularly, in the last period of my life.
During my time at The Next Century Foundation, I have been able to reflect a lot on politics, religion, people and the complicated relationships that bind us to each other and that bind us to society. I have not really ever considered anything I am writing right now. Not because I did not think about it but rather because this complex machine of intertwined relations, politics, economy, religion and power is difficult to fully understand and, above all, to make it work. And in this sense, in the end you end up accepting it because you understand that things are almost always impossible to change, peace will always be difficult to establish, power will always preserve itself and religion will always be used as a political tool to manipulate the masses. So, almost passively, you end up accepting the status quo of things. Almost like a condition of the universe, immovable and immanent. Everything has always been this way and it will always be this way.
At least until this World decides you are the next target and this status quo affects you in person, lashing out at you with all its strength. And then everything changes. You withdraw, let yourself down, look for explanations, seek yourself and your role in the world. You frantically turn around to find yourself, unsuccessfully. And you cannot help but compare your situation to that of the contemporary world, that of a world that perhaps will never change; and that of the Millennials, that of a simple person surrounded by lonely individuals, unable to sense or feel emotions in one of the largest cities in the world. You wonder if maybe it is just the natural order of things that you eventually have to accept, because perhaps that is how it works, because it has always been and will always be like this. In the last few months of my life, I have been looking for an answer to this question, without luck.
Until something happens; that deus ex machina you need to get you out of trouble. And here comes the answer to your questions. Something that helps you to understand; something like a trip to Holland, a beer with a trusted friend, an exhibition of an artist or walking in the rain in the streets of London without a destination. And it is at that precise moment that when you look into people’s eyes – those you’ve been so reluctant about or that you’ve lost hope in – you suddenly see something different, something you’ve never seen before, something that changes your perspective. And you can suddenly feel a vibe, a feeling, a sparkle that leads you through their eyes. And, like a flash in a pan, you are able to feel all the power and the emotions that each of them has locked within and that can be conveyed through their story or personality. Pure energy, pure emotions, pure humanity. The people’s smiling faces at the Tulip market in Amsterdam; the encouraging wink of a friend down at the pub that – around a pint and some good indie-rock in the background – shows you the right way of looking at things; the power of humanity in the symbolic life scenes of Banksy’s works that lead you to reflect on the true nature of people and humanity; the feeling of the rain falling on your skin in the gray of London’s streets that brings you back to life and connects you to reality again. Your prospects start to change and now you can see things differently. Suddenly you can find an answer to that question in that stream of people and things around you.
And, like a flashback, everything suddenly made sense.
During my time at the Next Century Foundation, I met ambassadors, Lords, religious leaders; I even spoke to the World for 2 minutes before the UN Human Rights Council. All exceptional experiences. However, I now understand that none of these experiences would have made sense without a particular detail that each of them has in common, the confrontation with people. Before the NCF I had not realized how even simply talking with people is essential; how much people can express through their words, their looks or their smiles. And, above all, I had not realized how effective it is to be able to talk with them to try to solve problems.
This is exactly what humanity is. Humanity is talking, confronting each other, solving problems together, uniting different and opposite perspectives. When you can achieve that; when you can take your eyes off your smartphone for a moment and you turn around; when you abandon the social and political fabrications for a moment and drop the mask they gave you, it is only then that you see potential and opportunities in those stranger’s faces rather than indifference and solitude. In that precise moment, you can hear the flow I was talking about earlier. And you understand that that potential is unimaginable and terrifies governments and institutions, and shakes the establishment. Just like the stories I tried to tell you about so far in my articles. And whether it is the Christmas truce or the international mass mobilization for the death of a young man in Egypt, you realise it is all about looking at the world from another perspective. If some people managed to refuse to fight, to kill and be killed, on European soil a little less than a century ago, destroying the socio-political fabrication of wars; if some people managed to get together to protest against a fierce dictator in Egypt without being afraid of the consequences; if one man could revolutionize his country after being imprisoned for 27 years, upsetting the entire institutional set-up based on violence, lies and terror; if other great men like Martin Luther King or Gandhi or so many others have managed to mobilize millions of people around an idea of peace, justice or freedom, then we too can change this mad world.
It is all about being able to channel those vibes into positive, collective paths. And you can only do it through dialogue, confrontation and associationism. Talking and dealing with people, precisely. Alexis de Tocqueville once said that the only way to resist power in a positive and constructive way is through the democratic instrument that starts from the bottom, by means of associationism from the municipal level, from small realities.
People are the solution to the world’s illnesses. And the positive dialogue that you can have with them. Social Capital. It is so simple. The greatest evils of our generation come from this absurd lifestyle that is offered to us in the form of well-being, technology and comfort. Loneliness, depression, indifference, hatred and division are all the fruit of a society that tends to divide us and speculate on our collective incapacity to react, associate and confront each other. It is that simple, and we are the cure.
It is possible. And you can find the proof around you. Turn off the TV, put down your smartphone for a moment. Go down the street, talk to people, listen to what they have to say. Take a hike in the park, maybe in the pouring rain. Try to feel something. Go to the pub, read a newspaper and comment on the news with bystanders. Have a coffee or a beer with them. Ask them how they are and give them a smile. Everything will change, everything will be different.
And speaking of smiles.
Once, a bearded man told me that if you try to smile while walking down the street, this will positively influence your attitude towards others and, above all, your self-confidence. I will never forget those words. I recently tried to do it often and, I’ll tell you something, it worked. If you try to walk down the street smiling at the people you meet, most of them will reply with a smile. And you will feel different as well, more secure, more positive towards others and the world. It’s all about that. Those emotions and feelings I was talking about before. They can come out, if triggered.
We only have to reconsider our values, our priorities for a moment. What we want from life and what we are looking for. And above all, remember who we are and where we come from, always. Love every single rise and fall and take them as an opportunity to grow and improve yourself and the world around you. I think this is the solution, the cure for the ills of mankind. Creating a community of people based on diversity and dialogue. Only then can we overcome all this. And we, Millennials, have boundless potential to do so.
By the way, I have gone too far. And now it’s time to conclude this post.
My time at the NCF gave me a lot. I grew up a lot professionally but mostly as a person. I owe you a lot, William and Veronica, to your kindness and warm welcome. I was welcomed and treated like a son. You gave me a lot to think about and work on. You gave me a smile in tough times and support when needed. And for this, thank you.
Then there is you, Rory, William and Yousef. Some young minds full of passion and desire to change things. You are fantastic. Every day, I saw in your eyes that power and passion of which I spoke about right above, waiting just to be fully exploited. And I know you’ll find a way to do it, it’s just a matter of time.
You were my second family here, in this gigantic crazy world of sharks. I’ll never forget that. And I’d like to conclude this blog post with this thought, while sipping my double espresso in some coffee shop somewhere in London and listening to these fantastic notes of Redemption Song, one of Marley’s masterpieces. He succeeded! He succeeded in uniting people around words of peace and hope. Like Hendrix’s solo or Mercury’s unique voice or even the Boss playing a piano version of Thunder Road. This is the right time, the perfect moment.
Ciao NCF, a presto!
Luctor et Emergo ex Flammis Orior, Per Aspera ad Astra
#lastblogpost #peoplehavethepower #believe #change #ciaoncf
This week Vladimir Putin visited Bashar al-Assad in Syria. This is also the very week on which the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Because of which, the Next Century Foundation would like to reiterate some of the values and principles it believes in and the significance of Human Rights to all peoples of this world.
The Human Rights issue affects the entire global population. Rather than transient national glory, the pursuit of Human Rights is an achievement of which the entire human race can be rightfully proud. Every human being, regardless of their race, sex, religious belief, nationality, language, birth, property or other status, is inherently entitled to inalienable rights and those rights are embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By standing up for Human Rights we defeng the principle of human dignity, and recognise the equal moral worth of every individual.
Whilst we certainly believe in the symbolic importance of marking this occasion, concrete measures must be taken to uphold human rights where they are constantly and flagrantly violated. Abuses of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic have made headlines for almost seven years now, with international reports condemning what many regard as the indiscriminate ruthlessness of the Syrian military and the Mukhabarat’s oppressive methods, ranging from torture to alleged mass prisoner executions. Similarly many are horrified by the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by opposition insurgent groups.
The barbarism of Daesh and the Nusra Front is well known, and their crimes are well documented. Groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, deemed ‘moderates’ by Arab and western governments, have also resorted to terrorism and caused civilian deaths on numerous occasions.
Human Rights mustn’t be used as a political tool. As long as we pick and choose who to punish and who to pardon, human rights will not be firmly upheld and respected anywhere.
On the Syrian dossier, we call on the UN to condemn all violators of human rights in a balanced and proportionate way. The Syrian authorities have often complained, with some justification, about what they consider to be impartial or biased UN reports. If both sides are scrutinized fairly, President Assad’s government may feel reassured, and the Syrian government could potentially soften their position on allowing UN monitors greater access. A United Nations which protects human rights without political considerations, and slams those who abuse them, whoever they may be, would gain the trust and confidence of all parties to any conflict.
Human Rights can be upheld more effectively without resort to the traditional method of imposing economic sanctions. In the vast majority of cases, sanctioning a country has devastating impact on the civilian population as opposed to the political authorities. This is the case in Syria today. It is the Syrian people who pay the price for the alleged sins of the government. In Russia, sanctions have barely impacted Russian President Vladimir Putin or his inner circle, whilst simultaneously rallying more Russians behind their leadership who, as statistics indicate, have grown to despise the West more than ever before. We support a different approach to encouraging respect for human rights. It is our conviction that greater liaison between governments called into question and the international community can ensure that human rights abuses no longer go unchecked.
#syria #humanrights #russia
The 19th century British politician, Lord Acton, averred that ‘Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Over the last 150 or so years, this axiom on the link between power and corruption has proven time and again to be a highly perceptive comment on the darker side of human nature. From Nixon to Castro to Mugabe, there are countless instances of world leaders who subordinated the well-being of their people to the fulfilment their own self-interest. And while corruption is a widespread phenomenon, ranging from public service to private enterprise, from an individual to an international scale, it is at its most indefensible when committed by those acting in an official capacity for personal gain. Fostering a lack of accountability, transparency and good faith in government, corruption represents one of the single biggest threats to the well-being of a country.
When corruption is systemic, and corrupt practices are rewarded with wealth, power and impunity, then people are drawn into public service for the wrong reasons. Indeed, if there is a culture of impunity, then corruption represents a low-risk, high-reward means of advancing both you career standing and your personal fortune.
The numbers bear witness to the predominance of corruption throughout the world. Some sixty countries in the world are plagued by systemic corruption. China and India, countries with populations of over a billion, are constantly battling systemic corruption.
Corruption is so inexcusable that it ought to be addressed head-on with comprehensive reform. And governments recognise that. And that is far less likely to be forthcoming if the common man and woman think that the personal motives of ruling officials are being prioritised over their own wellbeing. Which explains why it is very common for countries to task specialised anti-corruption committees with addressing the issue. However, when the problem is so entrenched and all-pervasive, these committees often merely act as a smokescreen. Take the example of Russian whistle-blower Sergei Rodchenkov, the former head of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, who admitted having run a state-sponsored doping program for Russian athletes. Or Mishan Al-Jabourri, the head of the Iraqi anti-corruption committee, who brazenly admitted in February of last year that ‘everybody is corrupt, from the top to the bottom, including me’. It is disheartening that those tasked with rooting out corruption are engaged in the very same malpractices. Further, it shows that governments are often content with merely being seen to address corruption, rather than doing so in practice.
So what can realistically be done? It is plainly clear that this is a deeply rooted and highly complex problem, a problem whose exact character varies from country to country, but whose defining traits are universal. Effective reforms are reliant on political will. It is imperative that key political actors display credible intent to attack corruption at a systemic level. Those very same people who have acquired power and money in an imperfect system must be willing to use their influence to foster a new, meritocratic culture from the top down. On the other hand, there is the risk that the powerful in society, those with an incentive to maintain the status quo, will mobilise powerful forces to protect their own vested interests. Indeed, countless reformers with the most honourable intentions have failed out of an inability to neutralise resistance. Investigative bodies must be entirely independent and free from interference by the government or the judiciary system.
Corruption is something about which we cannot afford, in good conscience, to be defeatist. Corruption runs contrary to all that is humanly decent. It undermines democracy, it precludes meritocracy and it allows the few to steal from the many. Any attempt to fight corruption, however imperfect, is better than none.
Russia hates the West and the West hates Russia. Or so it seems much of the time. All that Russian dastardliness over Ukraine for a start. From a Russian perspective, places like Ukraine and Syria have always fallen within their hegemony, and we in the West are trying to muscle in on their patch. Which is of course true. We are doing just that.
In regard to Russia the scales are reversed. There is far too much emphasis on Russia’s hegemonic misdeeds which are minor in comparison to those of the West (e.g. the catastrophic Anglo-French promotion of war in Libya despite Russian misgivings).
And meanwhile human rights abuses in Russia are almost utterly ignored.
In Russia it is now a crime to “Deny Traditional Family Values” (an anti-gay measure). In Russia, any form of domestic abuse that does not require hospital treatment is no longer a crime. And now there are murmurs about a proposed draconian anti-abortion law to appease the Orthodox Church. We need constructive dialogue with Russia. It is in their interest and it is in our interest.
Meanwhile it was extraordinary to hear British Premier Theresa May accusing Russia of interference in Western elections the other day in her Mansion House speech. We in the West were past masters at interfering in Soviet elections back in the day. We had a whole disinformation department established by my late father’s friend Lord Mayhew. It was called the IRD, or the Information Research Department. It was disbanded by Lord Owen during his tenure as Foreign Secretary in 1977. But that didn’t stop us interfering in the last Russian elections – or that at least is the Russian perception. Nor does it stop us from putting ruthless pressure on Russia even at the most petty level, such as the recent moves to freeze the Russia Today bank account in the UK by the National Westminster Bank.
We need to be wiser and less petty and work together with Russia to build a safer world. Our petty politics should end. Another Cold War serves nobody.
The links between the Orthodox Church and the Russian state have grown closer and closer in the last five years, resulting in the implementation of a number of hugely controversial laws, conceived in the image of the Church, which have sped up the country’s journey towards a conservatism whose victims are the social, political and ethnic minorities of Russia.
The last few years have seen the state make it a criminal offence to ‘insult the feelings of religious believers’; a federal law has been passed ‘for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values’, known otherwise as the gay propaganda law; any form of domestic abuse that does not require hospital treatment has been downgraded from a criminal to a civil offence, punishable by a fine comparable to a parking ticket; and now there is widespread clamour for the state to implement an anti-abortion law. Thus, in effect, the constitution has provided further protection to the powerful Orthodox church, whilst leaving more vulnerable sections of society – women, children, the LGBT community – even less protected than before. And it cannot be a coincidence that these new laws are in line with the patriarchal brand of conservatism espoused by the Russian Orthodox church. And the ambiguity of these laws has led them to be freely interpreted. For example, the gay propaganda law has led to a justification and increased frequency of homophobic violence, as these people feel as though such behaviour is enabled by the constitution. Furthermore, prominent political figures have further stoked the fire, with member of the state Duma, Vitaly Milonov, equating homophobia to pedophilia, and former Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, condemning homosexuality as being ‘satanic’. All of which has left the LGBT community in a state of peril, with their human rights recognised neither by the church nor the state.
The Soviet Union, for its myriad flaws, was one of the world’s most progressive societies on the issue of gender. In 1920, it became the first country to permit abortion in all circumstances. Barring a 20-year volte face from 1936 at the height of Stalin’s paranoia about population growth, amongst many other things, the law remained in place for the Soviet Union’s lifetime, and was symbolic of a hearteningly progressive approach towards gender relations. Yet the Russia of today is a different story. Borne out of a desire to instil traditional Orthodox values that predate Soviet Union, women are finding their autonomy further and further compromised. Domestic abuse of any kind should be wholeheartedly condemned, yet the decriminalising of less ‘serious’ degrees of domestic abuse effectively legitimises it in the eyes of the Russian people. To be sure, there will be a few rare instances of wives abusing husbands, but those affected, belittled and endangered by this law are, predominantly, women and their children. And therein lies a fundamental issue with this law: it is well known that the bullied become bullies and, likewise, the abused tend to abuse. There is a real danger that this law will set in train a cycle of abuse, as those who have been abused as children go on to do the same to their own families as adults, and such an abhorrent form of behaviour becomes normalised.
Accompanying the rising influence of the Orthodox church in matters of state policy, as well as in the general mindset of the people, has been the rise of activist Orthodox organisations. Although the most extreme are not directly linked to the church, and are actually publicly disavowed by it, their rising influence and religious extremism feels very symptomatic of a form of deeply conservative faith-based worldview that is utterly intolerant of all those it does not encompass. The list of such groups is long: the LGBT community, jehovah’s witnesses, women and ethnic minorities among many others. They promote a particular brand of patriarchal, almost militarised faith, with the straight white male standing alone at the very top of the hierarchy. Though these people worship Vladimir Putin as a ‘gift from god’, it must be said that these radical believers are unconnected to the state. Yet, at the same time, it could reasonably be argued that their the voice is growing louder and their popularity is increasing as a result of laws that have brought the state in closer alignment with the Orthodox church.
This political and religious conservatism is a phenomenon by no means unique to Russia. Despite huge progress over the last century in the way gender relations are perceived, there is a huge way to go, and many still consider the word ‘feminism’ to be threatening and in some way subversive, rather than simply a desire for everyone human being to have equal rights. And much of the same can be said for the way homosexuality is viewed the world over. There should be no problem whatsoever with the growing emphasis on Orthodox faith as a guiding principle for Russian people. But there needs to be a willingness to be amenable to and tolerant of those groups of fellow Russians who, for whatever reason, are not considered compatible with the views of the Church. Because an unwillingness to do so, an exclusive ideology of ‘Us vs Them’ leaves vast sections of society alienated, vulnerable and with their human rights in jeopardy.