Monday, March 31, 2014

What War Means

When I worked as a university instructor in Kiev in the academic year of 1994-95, my students were mostly young adults in their late teens or early twenties,  who  were already  bracing themselves for the second great public trauma of their young lives.  The first had come suddenly in the spring of 1986 when as young children many of them had been rounded up with little or no warning and whisked away to the south, preferably to the countryside or to some city on the north coast of the Black Sea such as Sebastopol or Yalta.  Many were fortunate enough  to escape  levels of radiation from the Chernobyl catastrophe that would cause cancer, limit their longevity, or stunt their growth.   Others were not so lucky. 

The second crisis came  not as a result of a sudden accidental explosion, but rather as a surfacing of tensions with deep historical roots—specifically, a structural conflict between the twin forces of Ukrainian and Russian nationalism, exacerbated by divergent economic prospects and regional power struggles. I recall visiting a student’s home in Lviv in western Ukraine during the  Christmas holidays in 1994. She confided to me her family’s worry that her brother might have to be conscripted to fight the Russians in Crimea or in the East, where secessionist sentiments were brewing thanks to a lower-than-Russian average  wage in Ukraine and a raging inflation that was quickly making the Ukrainian currency next-to-worthless in world markets. 

Today’s crisis is a continuation of this ongoing conflict, but one sharpened by several changed conditions on the ground. One is the poisoning of relations between pro-Russian and pro-Western factions in the country’s Parliament (I am not just using the wording “poison” metaphorically—recall the attempted assassination of  the increasingly popular Viktor Yuschenko by dioxin poisoning  in 2004, which left him permanently disfigured, and which helped to precipitate the “Orange  Revolution” later that year).  Since then, the question of how best to balance the need for good relations with Ukraine’s major creditor and supplier of energy, Russia, with the growing desire for gaining membership in the European Union became increasingly difficult: the attempted impeachment of  Victor Yanukovych (and the release of his opponent from prison) show that like other fledgling democracies, Ukraine has not yet learned how to share power.

Meanwhile, another one of my students from 20 years ago reports  that “the number of victims of police and snipers in Kyiv is growing every day (people are dying in the hospitals) and is already 100 … My family is OK. I just need to explain to my nearly 6 year old girl why people are flying to the sky forever and what ‘war’ means.”

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Audacity of Audacity

When Stephen Harper writes his memoir, I suggest that he call it The Audacity of Audacity. ( I was originally going to suggest that title  for Christy Clark, but maybe it suits Stephen Harper better. )

The root cause of Conservative audacity and smugness is their knowledge that they need only approximately 38% (plus or minus one or two percent) of the vote to get another majority government. In addition to being indifferent to the views of the progressive majority , they are able to essentially write off the province of Quebec--currently governed by a minority PQ government and a ticking time bomb if there ever was one. Liberals, who benefitted from this system of dis-unity for many decades , should have known that one day the shoe would be on the other foot. That day has come, with deleterious, if not perilous, consequences.

When Lac Megantic followed deliberate deregulation of the railways and a quadrupling of oil being transported thereupon, Harper blamed MM&A Railway for a predictable disaster. When he appointed two high-powered media celebs to the Senate, they were expected to do aggressive campaigning and fund-raising in addition to their regular duties; he expressed anger at their expense accounts. When he appointed Gerry Schwartz's right hand man from the Onex Corporation to head his PMO, to bring his private sector-style "fixing" skills to the public sector , he expressed bewilderment and betrayal when the Boy Wonder actual used those skills. Now, when the Chief Electoral Officer threatens to actually do something about illicit Robocalls in 246 (mostly Conservative) ridings, and to do something to promote higher voter turnout, the Government accuses "the referee of wearing a team jersey" and rolls back his powers. Clearly, there is a pattern here:  Harper keeps creating the conditions that are more conducive to bad things happening, and when those bad things happen, Harper keeps shaking his head and expressing disappointment at how  Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau, the Chief Electoral Officer, the private railway companies, keep letting him down.  But here is the critical point: the prime minister may have just created the conditions for these failures, but creating conditions is what governments do.  It is therefore perfectly reasonable to hold the prime minister responsible for the conditions he creates.

Polls show a clear majority of Canadians dislike the selfish waste of money and unprecedentedly partisan nature of the "Economic Action Plan" propaganda. Even the Calgary Sun--arguably the most pro-Conservative newspaper in the country--has pleaded with them to stop. No dice. Why? Because they don't care what the majority thinks--they don't need that majority to form a  government, they only need that majority  to continue to split its vote between three opposition parties. It's the Conservative plurality in a majority of ridings that the Conservatives care about, and very deeply at that.

Where does all this audacity come from? A devilishly simple place: the pure and simple knowledge that it only takes 37%-38% of the vote to get a parliamentary majority in this country, as long as the opposition vote is split, turnout is relatively low, and the Chief Electoral Officer is suitably muzzled. Here's why: this government deserves to be hated by the majority of Canadians, and the strange ironic truth is that it is.  But the government doesn't care, because it  knows that everything about the system as it is currently configured works in their favour anyways.

There you have it: Democracy, Conservative-style.

Three New Thoughts du Jour

Thoughts du jour:

1) Provincial Parti Quebecois and federal Conservatives seem to both be cruising toward majority governments. Harper makes the perfect foil for Quebec separatists, given his low popularity in that province. He contributes to their "winning conditions".

2) "It is essential to understand that the main challenge for our electoral democracy is not voter fraud  but voter participation" --Marc Mayrand, Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.

3) If Russia successfully annexes Crimea and succeeds in violating international law and international treaties, three groups of actors will be encouraged and emboldened:

 First, China and Russia and some American conservatives will be encouraged to continue their traditional  "spheres of influence" thinking.

Second, Iran, North Korea and all rogue regimes will be encouraged to obtain and keep nuclear weapons, and not to foolishly surrender them as Ukraine did under the terms of the 1994 Budapest Treaty, to which Russia was a signatory.

Third, both prospective separatists in Quebec and actual occupiers in Israel will be encouraged by the trumping of international law by "facts on the ground".