Ukraine under siege: Ground view from Kiev

As Russian forces encroach into Crimea and the US threatens action against Moscow, the situation in Ukraine is reaching a boiling point.

People in the region are drawing boundaries along ethnic lines and Russian forces are threatening the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine, as its allies struggle to think of means to hinder Putin’s Soviet era dreams of expanding Russian influence. But beneath the Cold War era tug of war, what are the factors at play in Ukraine? What are the social and political roots of this crisis, and where is the nation of Ukraine and the Eurasian region headed in the coming weeks.

Karen Madoian, a former journalist from Inter News Agency in Kiev, with extensive experience of reporting from Crimea, gives us a ground view of the situation in Ukraine.

ImageQ1: Just give us an idea how tense the situation is on the ground in Kiev?

The situation in Kiev is stable. The political process has returned to the legitimate framework. The Parliament of Ukraine recently approved the new Cabinet. New presidential elections are scheduled for 25 May, 2014. One of the challenges was to maintain law and order in the city.

People have lost confidence in the police. There was a time when the police was not performing its functions at all. But now things are changing and fortunately we are not facing a rise in crime.

ImageQ2: Given the unpopularity of Viktor Yanukovych, have the people of Ukraine recognised the legitimacy of the acting President and the new Parliament?

The majority of Ukrainians have recognised the legitimacy of the new leadership. The Parliament is not new – the Opposition has formed a new majority. Indeed, the recognition of the new government is complicated in case of the south-eastern provinces. These are industrial regions of Ukraine comprised of the Russian speaking population. People there do not identify themselves as ethnic Ukrainians. South-East was Yanukovich’s stronghold. This is why they have perceived the recent changes as a threat to their future. Such anti-Ukrainian sentiments are wisely utilised by Russia. You see the outcome in the region of Crimea where now local pro-Russian elites are practically annexing the territory with help of Russian troops on the ground.

Q3: Has the EU and the West recognised the new political authority?

Both the US and the EU have recognised the new leadership. Top European diplomats have already visited Kiev. Last week John Kerry visited Ukraine to confirm US support. IMF and the European Commission are committed to assist in the revival of Ukraine’s economy, which is crucial at the moment as the country was on the verge of bankruptcy.

ImageQ4: Are pro-Russian groups in Ukraine taking action against the state? Are they working independent of Russian control?

Pro-Russian groups have become very active in the south-eastern regions of Ukraine since the fall of Yanukovych. A week ago they organised various protests, with people waving Russian flags and appealing to Moscow to intervene to save the Russian-speaking population from “the nationalist government”. Attempts to storm regional administration buildings were made in the cities of Odessa, Kharkiv and Donetsk. All these events were coordinated from Russia.

The Ukrainian media has found undeniable evidence that some of the people who attacked the administration offices came from the neighboring regions of the Russian Federation. But these groups won’t succeed because of the low level of organisation. Law enforcement bodies are gradually taking the situation in the south-east under control. The leader of one of such groups in Donetsk was arrested by the State Security Services last Friday.

Q5: Are Russian forces slowly encroaching into Ukraine’s territory?

The situation unfolding in the region of Crimea is a clear example of Russia’s aggression. More than 10,000 Russian troops have been deployed with a purpose of protecting ethnic Russians from ‘ultra-nationalist threats’. Practically, Ukraine has lost control over the territory and has no options to force Moscow to withdraw its military. Ethnic Russians are in majority in the autonomous republic of Crimea. Russia’s Black Sea fleet is based in the city of Sevastopol, where much of the population has Russian passports. But it doesn’t give Moscow any legal basis to intervene. What’s happening now is a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. But despite undeniable proof of Russian military presence, Putin insists that the armed men are not Russian soldiers but Crimean self-defence forces.

Q6: Why is Russia showing aggression against Ukraine? Is Ukraine key to Putin’s Eurasia Vision?

ImagePutin once said that the dissolution of the Soviet Union had been the “geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. He has made it clear that his goal is to reintegrate the former Soviet republics within the framework of a Eurasian Union. Putin succeeded with Belarus, Kazakhstan and recently Armenia. The latter was forced to join the informal union fearing the withdrawal of Russia’s support in its territorial dispute with Azerbaijan. The Russian President sees Ukraine as an important factor in his geopolitical project. Due to the nation’s important geographic position, industrial potential and fertile lands, Ukraine is a key component without which the Eurasian Union makes no sense. That was why the Kremlin put a lot of effort to break Yanukovych’s plans to sign the Association Agreement with the EU last November – a move that catalysed public protests in Ukraine.

Disadvantages of this option for Ukraine are obvious. The Eurasian Union, unlike the EU, is not based on the principle of equality among member states. On the contrary, it is a hierarchical organisation, where all decisions are made in Moscow. Any equality or democratic procedures within the Eurasian Union would pose a threat to Putin.

Q7: Do the US and EU have any cards to play in the crisis?

ImageBoth the US and EU have high stakes in the Ukrainian crisis. First of all, Ukraine is key to the regional security mosaic. Both the EU and US maintain a containment strategy to keep Russia from expanding and regaining the status of a powerful empire. As Zbignev Brzezinski explains in his famous book “The Grand Chessboard”, without Ukraine, Russia “would become predominantly an Asian imperial state”. But if Moscow manages to gain control of Ukraine and its resources, the Russian Federation could become a powerful imperial state.

The US does not want Russia to take full control over the post-Soviet states. NATO allies share common borders with Ukraine. Several NATO members directly border Russia. If Russia is allowed to succeed in Crimea, it may later threaten NATO members such as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which were part of the Soviet Union. The latter two have huge Russian-speaking communities and Moscow has repeatedly attempted to raise the issue that their rights are violated in those nations.

This approach has been used to justify the invasion in Crimea.

Q8: How do you see this crisis playing out in the coming weeks?

Current developments imply that the crisis is deepening. Despite recent signals from the US administration about possible sanctions, and statements from EU and NATO officials warning Putin, Russia is expanding its presence in Crimea by sending more troops. Based on the aggressive rhetoric of Putin who does not recognise the new government in Kiev, there is no doubt that Moscow will continue its course of separating Crimea from Ukraine.

A military option for Ukraine is out of the question. The Yanukovych regime weakened the armed forces. The Ukrainian army has around 130,000 servicemen against around 900,000 in Russia. This is why any shot could escalate to war with the most damaging consequences not only for Ukraine, but the whole Black Sea region which includes Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. It may result in full control of the Crimean region by Russia with the possibility of Russian encroachment in eastern Ukraine. From this position, Putin will be strong enough to dictate his conditions to Kiev. I predict greater involvement of the West with the purpose of conflict mediation. The key players in this case will be the US, the EU, as well as the UN and the OSCE who might dispatch observers to monitor the situation on the ground.


Sedition charge for cheering: A new low for India

Ayushman Jamwal

ImageIt is sad to see the administrative machinery of India succumb to jingoism. It was shocking that a couple of students from a university in Meerut were charged with sedition for cheering for Pakistan’s victory over India in the Asia cup last Sunday. Sedition is a serious charge. It is treason; an act of war against the state of India, and these students did no such thing by expressing joy over Pakistan’s victory.

This case once again has illuminated the limited rationality of the administrative machinery in India. Even though the UP government entertained the sedition charge, it has become an endemic problem across the country to throw the charge around. Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was charged for his cartoon criticizing the Indian emblem; Writer Arundhati Roy was charged for supporting Kashmir’s right to self-determination; Activist Binayak Sen of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties was charged for citicising the government for atrocities against tribals in the Naxal affected areas.

Fortunately, there have been no convictions for cases like these. India’s civil society has created enough pressure on governments to keep convictions at bay and even get charges dropped. The government takes no action against militants who behead our soldiers on the Line of Control. It does not slap sedition charges against the Hurriyat Conference and the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front for their bandhs and agitation demanding the cessation of Jammu and Kashmir. It entertains a charge targeting a group of Kashmiri students who made the mistake of not cheering behind closed doors, because it was easy. A possible win to placate the hardliners who unfortunately make us forget that every citizen enjoys inalienable fundamental and constitutional rights, the freedom of expression being one of the most important ones.

An argument that always follows these cases is that Pakistani citizens would face much more dire consequences if they cheered for India. It completely dilutes the seriousness of a sedition charge, making it seem as a light punishment as compared to what one would face in Pakistan. Political spokespersons, news anchors and living room orators end up becoming the judges of what is the acceptable nature of the personal virtue of patriotism.

Are we that morally shallow that we cannot sincerely reflect how the actions of the state fare against the ethos of our Constitution? Why do we always need the yardstick of Pakistan to tolerate jingoistic actions? Why do we reduce the discussion of such issues to the hateful political narratives of the Shiv Sena and the MNS? Why does the self-proclaimed intelligencia of this country engage in moral one upmanship with Pakistan?

In my opinion, India won that battle a long time back. Freedom is much better protected in our country. We are not a country plagued with Zameendari, and a regulated social media. Yet acts like these seem to indicate we have forgotten all that we have achieved as a country.

The Constitution is not the only victim of this case. The joy of playing and enjoying a game has also taken a hit as political nationalism always rears its head over sports. Cricket is religion and religion is political. Just like Tamil Nadu CM Jayalalithaa called for the ban of Sri Lankan players from playing in the state in order to gain the support of Tamil hardliners, cricketers will face the brunt of political tug of wars, and cricket lovers will face the pressure of politically correct cheering.

If we look at the global media, the world is aghast to see the deep-seated intolerance exposed in the world’s largest democracy. Sedition for cheering is not a helpful headline for a nation that prides itself on tolerance. Moreover, the sedition charge as well as the political and media outrage against the students has had an undeniable effect in further alienating the Kashmiri youth. At the same time it has bolstered the efforts of the extremists and the separatists. 26/11 accused Hafiz Saeed and even the Pakistan foreign ministry recently stated they would offer the Kashmiri students scholarships to safely study in Pakistan.

This is the political and moral capital India loses when state and central administrations do not immediately crush such charges. Even though there have been a number of cases, no High court or even the Supreme Court has given any direction to state and central governments. India is fortunate to have an active civil society, but due to the lethargy of the administrative machinery, India is and will always pay a heavy price whenever it is unable to defend the Constitution within its own borders.

Power of 49: Question your female MPs

Ayushman Jamwal

ImageThe Power of 49 is a noble initiative by CNN-IBN, encouraging women to cast their vote for those working for the progress of women across the country. Education, employment and security, three essential tenets for female empowerment in every society, and this campaign aims to push women to analyse, introspect and make the best choice in the upcoming general elections.

But every party promises these things. There are no ideological differences on the delivery of such promises. But all parties are unified in having a record of lax implementation of relevant laws and policies. Moreover, no one party can take credit for legislation like the anti-rape law, which was actually drafted through cross party consensus spurred on by public pressure. In my opinion, on women centric issues, the choice will be a difficult one. Which party is truly committed to the mission?

Beyond this question, the 49 per cent should reflect upon the work of the 58 female MPs in the Lok Sabha and 26 in the Rajya Sabha. They must ponder on how these female representatives, even the female heads of political parties, have truly served the mission of female empowerment and gender justice.

Across the nation there has been a momentum to boost female education, with government schools and foundations pitching in to educate the girl child. But justice for crimes against women, the rape and assault of females of all ages, is an area where central as well as state governments do not have a glowing track record. The law and order machinery is still considered apathetic, insensitive and slow when dealing with such cases, failing to become an active deterrent against such crimes.

Why don’t female MPs actively pursue these cases? Where is the ruckus in Parliament? Where are the dharnas by these MPs and the sustained outrage against the slow lurch of the law and order machinery?

In my opinion, the most immediate concern for the 49 per cent is the delivery of justice in cases of sexual assault. The issue is regularly highlighted in the news media, but the most action by female parliamentarians seems to be outrage sound bites. Words delivered in Parliament and news studios seem to be the standard and the only extent of their response. They either don’t seem to wield enough clout in their respective parties to push for speedy trials and convictions, or they seem uninterested in pursuing the case beyond a sound bite.

The question the 49 per cent must ask is that how much has sound bite outrage truly served their interests? Does it weigh heavier than the impact of a robust law and order machinery? At the same time, they must ponder on the popular call for the Women’s Reservation Bill, and wonder, will more female representatives in legislative bodies deliver greater female empowerment and security? Will they tow the party line or will they move beyond the political parameter, and see the resolution of such cases as a matter of great urgency?

Gender justice is a unifying factor for women across class and communal lines, but can the 49 per cent be galvanised into an influential vote bank? Similar to the way the India Against Corruption movement and the Aam Aadmi Party mobilised Delhi’s citizens to vote for honest governance, can the 49 per cent be developed into a strong vote bank by a similar institution or movement?

I tried to gauge the possibility of this from one of my female colleagues, and she made a valid point that there are too many ideological, communal, class and economic differences between the 49 per cent for them to be mobilised as a unified unit. She made another valid point that female MPs may not relate to the social evil of crimes against women or the apathetic nature of the law and order system, as they live in a completely different world. They and their families do not experience the stress of using public transportation, of filing grievances with the police, or even walking on a street alone in the evening. They enjoy wealth and security not even remotely enjoyed by the millions they claim to represent.

For the 49 per cent, the dynamic needs to change. The debate needs to forgo the evil of mindsets and move to the enforcement of justice. Mindsets take decades to reform, but the human will of those in power to act can bring immediate relief to victims. The 49 per cent must hold their female parliamentarians accountable for their inaction through the power of their vote, and sustained activism against a tedious law and order machinery. Female MPs campaign for votes with the female empowerment card. They have gotten used to flaunting it, and even try to hide their incompetence behind it. The 49 per cent must make them earn it.

India does not need an anti-racism law

Ayushman Jamwal

ImageAssault cases against citizens from the North East have taken center stage in the national media. Within almost a week, a youth from Arunachal Pradesh named Nido allegedly succumbed to his wounds after being beaten up; and a minor girl from Manipur was allegedly raped by her landlord’s son in South Delhi. The cases have highlighted the argument made by North East activists and student groups that people from the region are being specifically targeted, and that a majority of Indians continue to endorse discrimination against them. The debates and discussions have sparked demands for the passage of an anti-racism law, and the creation of North East specific units in the law and order machinery. However, in my opinion, this is a redundant idea.

Laws and reforms are necessary to tackle institutional racism, earlier practiced in the United States and South Africa, where the black community was denied the right to economic empowerment and the right to vote. Even after those historic legislations, the same communities, namely in the United States, face political and legal racism. Yet, extra legislation and additional bureaucracy has never addressed such issues. The social justice quotient is higher in the US as compared to India because pre-existing laws have been strongly enforced via an efficient redressal system and speedy courts.

People have been arrested in the Nido murder case as well as for the rape of the Manipuri minor. Demanding a new law to address racism or an investigation by the CBI, which has a minimal conviction rate, is a hollow political statement, riding a temporary wave of outrage. With the arrests made, the activists calling for justice should demand a thorough investigation and swift prosecution. It is the most prudent campaign for justice as compared to the process of drafting, negotiating, discussing and passing a new bill, and then hoping the law would be fully enforced.

It is easy to cite anti-racism laws passed by different countries as examples, but it is easier to forget the specific tenets of those laws and the political contexts in which they were passed. On Monday Times Now’s Arnab Goswami made the argument for a new law by giving the example of Bolivia, which passed an anti-racism law in 2010. What he forgot about the law was that it gives the government power to close news organizations and arrest journalists for publishing content deemed racist. The media circles of Bolivia have been accusing the government of implementing a tool for censorship. After the passage of the Bill, major Bolivian newspapers published blank front pages titled, “There is no democracy without the freedom of expression.”

Racism like patriarchy is one of the many social evils plaguing Indian society. But the strides made against patriarchy were not achieved through constant legislation, but by the enforcement of laws proclaiming equality. There are many laws in the IPC that can effectively prosecute all crimes including discrimination. The drafting of new laws and the sanction of investigations only delivers hope, something easily crushed by administrative apathy. Only the effective enforcement of laws can deliver results and initiate change in society.