Saturday, August 9, 2008

Return of the evil empire

In a week when the news-networks have been dominated by harrowing scenes of civilian suffering in the ongoing Russian-Georgian conflict over the separatist region of South Ossetia. There are shades of the Sudetenland crisis in 1938, when Hitler, on the pretext of defending a 'persecuted' German minority in that region of Czechoslovakia, was appeased and allowed to annex it, followed by the conquest of the entire country 6 months later. Russia is seeking Anschluss with Russocentric regions in its former Soviet empire. As an Irish nationalist, I have mixed feelings on this matter. While anxious that Russia must not be appeased, I instinctively sympathise with nationalities seeking to go their own way in an historic homeland. Even so, I think the merits of their independence-bids are not universally clear to those with a knowledge of the history of the South Ossettian and Abkhazian conflicts which have led to 2 Russian puppet-states on internationally-recognised Georgian soil.

Abkhazia seems undeserving of independence, given that its pro-independence demographic is a creation of ethnic-cleansing of Georgians - before the 1992-4 war 46% of the population and a majority in the capital Sukhumi - resulting in the Abkhaz, who were never a majority in the region, becoming the largest ethnic-group. The 1989 census said that the Abkhaz were 18% of the population, whereas now they are closer to 40% according to the 2003 census. Around 190,000 ethnic-Georgians were expelled and 15,000 massacred by Abkhaz, pro-Moscow militias and probably Russian troops too. The Sukhumi massacre was a gruesome attocity against the ethnic-Georgians. The late Russian journalist Dmitry Kholodov, later assassinated on a suspected contract-killijng for investigating corruption in the Russian military, witnessed the massacre and reported seeing the following: "They captured a young girl. She was hiding in the bushes near the house where they killed her parents. She was raped several times. One of the soldiers killed her and mutilated her. She was cut in half. Near her body they left a message: as this corpse will never be as one piece, Abkhazia and Georgia will never be united either." They could not have driven the Georgians out without massive military-aid from Moscow, which connived to help the separatists. It treacherously negotiated ceasefires in Sukhumi and Gagra in 1992 in which Georgian troops were promised the shelling of these cities would end if they left these cities. In fact they were stormed by the separatists and massacres ensued in which thousands of Georgians were butchered - some of them, ironically, by Chechen militia led by Shamil Basayev - the later mastermind of the Beslan massacre and prominent Chechen separatist rebel in the wars that began in Chechnya in 1994. So to grant Abkhazia international recognition as an independent state would be to reward ethnic-cleansing and should be unacceptable to the international community. The Georgian refugees expelled in the 1990's must be allowed return and then perhaps take part in a referendum on independence. But the existing yes votes cannot stand, considering their basis in ethnic-cleansing and their non-recognition by the international community, and their defiance of UNSC resolutions respecting Georgia's territorial integrity. Abkhazia's place in Georgia goes back to the ancient kingdom of Colchis, with a break during the independent kingdom of Abkhazia, which nonetheless may have been a primarily ethnic-Georgian kingdom, judging by the names of its kings. It was reunited with Georgia by marriage.

On South Ossetia, the Ossetians have been a majority since at least 1926, with a 26% Georgian minority prior to this conflict. But the Georgian claim on the territory is legitimate in moral terms because they were there first and the Ossetians migrated to SO in the 1300's following expulsion from parts of European Russia by the Mongols. In any case, North Ossetia, a Russian republic, has 10 times the Ossetian population, and as such the Ossetians already have a homeland (considering they don't want independence and have always been remarkably loyal to Russia). There is evidence that pro-Russian militia are ethnic-cleansing Georgian villages according to Human Rights Watch. I do not agree with the Georgian military-intervention here, and regard it as them falling into Russia's carefully laid trap. Russian troops have poured into the region since the NATO summit in Bucharest that refused to give Georgia and Ukraine a date for admission to the alliance. Furthermore, the Russians have been intermittently bombing parts of Georgia in a previously unsuccessfull attempt to provoke Tbilisi. Now Russia has the excuse it needs to meddle in Georgian affairs with something approaching an occupation. As with Abkhazia, the old pattern of ethnic-cleansing, destruction and looting of ethnic-Georgian villages in South Ossetia seems to be repeating itself. Human Rights Watch claims that it witnessed the destruction of the four Georgian villages of Kekhvi, Nizhnie Achaveti, Verkhnie Achaveti and Tamarasheni. In the village of Nizhnie Achaveti, Human Rights Watch researchers spoke to an elderly man who was desperately trying to rescue his smoldering house using two half-empty buckets of dirty water brought from a spring. He told Human Rights Watch that the vast majority of the residents, including his family, fled the village when active fighting between Georgian forces and South Ossetian militias broke out on August 8, but he decided to stay to look after the cattle. He said members of the South Ossetian militia came to his house on August 11, and tried to take away some household items. When he protested, they set the house on fire and left. The man said he had no food or drinking water; his hands were burned and hair was singed – apparently as he was unsuccessfully trying to extinguish the fire – and he appeared to be in a state of shock. He said that there were about five to ten elderly and sick people left in the village, all in a similar desperate condition, and many of the houses were burned.

Russian influence in the region has been the real winner here. The word has gone out that the US cannot be relied on to defend its non-NATO allies. This may well deter some from pursuing NATO membership and closer ties with the West, while in the case of the stronger Ukraine, it may cause them to push harder for it. Meanwhile the crucial Baku-Ceyhan-Tblisi oil pipeline, owned by BP and carrying 1 million barrels worth of oil a day from Azerbaijan to Turkey (before it was temporarily put out of action by a terrorist attack in Turkey) and on to the Mediterranean, risks falling into Russia's hands. A number of attempts were allegedly made by them to bomb it already. A crucial part of exerting leverage on Russia is to develop pipelines bypassing the country. Without Georgia, this strategy is dealt a crushing blow, as Armenia - occupying 20% of Azerbaijan in a war over the ethnic-Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabkah - is hardly going to help the Azeris sell their oil. One thing I would say to those naive enough to believe the Russians on their 'humanitarian' motives for intervention, is to remember the lack of concern by the Kremlin for Chechnya's right to self-determination and its destruction of Grozny and the litany of reports of genocide from the region since 1999, as well as the curious refusal in the Sarkozy peace-plan of Russia to agree to an amendment to Point 4 (on humanitarian agencies access to the region) that would have guaranteed the right of return of refugees to their homes. Today's Irish Independent carries a harrowing report of the ethnic-cleansing of Georgian villages in South Ossetia, where villagers were informed that Putin had ordered them to be expelled or killed. Does this tally with a Russia supposedly motivated in this crisis not by territorial ambition but rather by humanitarianism and concern for the self-determination of small nations? Not to me it doesn't, but judge for yourselves. The reality is that Russia has been deliberately stoking the separatist conflicts in its former Soviet republics in order to frustrate them from NATO membership and from forging closer links to the West.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Irish Times: "Ratify Lisbon regardless"

It is with shock and concern that I read on August 2nd the Irish Times' political-correspondant Stephen Collins 'solution' to the Lisbon impasse. In a disturbing example of the elitism that dominates the Europhile perspective on how accountable the European project should be to the people it claims the right to govern, he calls for the government to ratify sections of the Treaty that might not contravene the Crotty judgement 1987, while putting the remaining issues to a referendum. That the same elite who derided the first no to Nice in 2001 on the grounds of its low turnout and used this to justify calls for a second referendum should now deride a no vote with a turnout of 53% - higher even than for Nice II - on the supposed basis that the people 'didn't understand it' - is a real and present irony in this debate. It also confirms the belief I have always held since I became aware of the contents of Lisbon and during my observations of the shocking reaction of the Brussels and Irish elite to the French and Dutch "no" votes to the EU Constitution - namely that the European project has lost its way, and is prepared to circumvent democracy and popular-consent in the name of "ever closer union". In this respect a parallel may perhaps be drawn with the Russian Duma elections of 1918 which Lenin refused to accept because his Bolsheviks only won 25% of the vote. Like Lenin, the Eurocrats and Irish elites believe that the people need to be guided by an oligarchy of constitutional revolutionaries towards "ever closer union" and should not have the final say on the evolution of the project of European integration. On the politics.ie website, I found it disturbing to find that Fine Gaeler NotDevsSon believes that as one of the most clued-in political-correspondants in the country, Collins' views likely reflected the thinking in the corridors of power in this country. What has Fianna Fáil come to if - as a party that Dev stated was founded to further Irish sovereignty and independence is now prepared to flout a democratic referendum result to end that sovereignty and independence? And if it is to be surrendered with the stroke of a pen, then what were 700 years of struggle for independence for? What did those heros die for if we are just going to give it away without so much of a whimper? I do not believe that the Irish people wish to do so, but as for most of the Leinster House set - well...

The premise of Collins' article is wrong. He states "Attempting to salvage Ireland's place in Europe and protect future generations from the disaster of the Lisbon defeat will be the supreme test of Taoiseach Brian Cowen. If a referendum cannot be won, the only solution is for the Dáil to find a way to ratify the essential nuts and bolts of the treaty, while allowing the electorate to vote again on the issues that caused such anxiety in the campaign. The Taoiseach will have to summon up the nerve and vision displayed by Seán Lemass when he dragged the country into the modern world in the early 1960s, against some of the most basic instincts of his own party and a large chunk of the electorate. History has vindicated Lemass's decision to abandon protectionism and embrace free trade and the wider world of Europe. Brian Cowen is now facing a challenge of similar proportions. The referendum defeat has launched Ireland down the slippery slope of a retreat from involvement in Europe and a return to the status of a being a client state of Britain. A second rejection of Lisbon would inevitably doom the country to that fate for generations to come...Of course the Government would also have political hell to pay for going the legislative route but it might not be nearly as bad as some Ministers think. After all the main reason given for voting No was that people didn't understand the treaty. In that case a good proportion of the electorate might be relieved if the Dáil took on the responsibility of dealing with it, rather than opting for another long drawn out and confused public debate about issues people cannot, or will not, understand."

The article trots out the usual "yes" mantra that the people "cannot..understand" issues put to them in referenda, and implies that we need an elite, who do "understand" these issues to make the decision for us - even if it runs counter to the peoples' decision. It is notable that Collins' seems to believe that it was only on the no side that there was misunderstanding or unawareness of the Treaty's contents. That this is not correct is confirmed by the recent Eurobarometer poll on the aftermath of the no vote, which confirmed that more than one-third of "yes" voters were motivated simply by the notion that 'EU membership has benefited Ireland', which self-evidently has nothing to do with the Treaty. The Treaty will determine our future, and the so-called Brussels "largesse", which was bought by the surrender of our fishing-industry to the vultures of the Common Fisheries Policy, is immaterial to the Lisbon debate. Further, Collins' claims that we will revert to "client" status vis a vis our relationship with the UK is ludicrous. Since 1972 the percentage of our exports going to the UK has fallen from 80% to around 21%. The thesis that were we outside of the EU that would reverse simply does not stand up to scrutiny. The Icelandic, Swiss and Norwegian economies are outside of the EU and have a free-trade agreement with it. The former has just 1% unemployment, while Norway's GDP per capita is similar to our own. Within a year of the French "no" vote to the European Constitution in 2005, FDI had doubled, while Dutch unemployment fell from 4% to 2% - the lowest in the EU. So while some may attempt to draw false causalities between the Irish "no" vote and the Irish recession, the reality is that this has been coming since the beginnings of the housing-slump in late 2006. Economist Moore McDowell has recently expressed the view on Newstalk106 that the recession began a year ago. Clearly, the reasons for the end of the Celtic Tiger stem primarily from domestic factors, such as the failure of the govt to take measures to cool down the overheating housing market e.g. allowing the developers an opt-out from Part V (on social and affordable housing), but I would also contend that the one-size-fits-all interest rate consequent on our membership of EMU, which kept interest-rates too low for too long, was also a factor. I am not advocating withdrawal from EMU. Indeed I strongly support the idea that we no longer have fluctuating exchange-rates between 15 different currencies - thus preventing a recurrence of the 1992 currency-crisis during which unemployment rose to 16% as exports were hammered. Nonetheless, we may need to revisit that aspect of EMU that imposes the strait-jacket of the single interest rate on us, and it ought to be a warning against what can happen when you blindly walk the constitutional-plank into the shark-infested waters of transferring too much power to the unelected bureaucrats of Brussels, Frankfurt and Luxembourg. Something I hope Collins and the Irish Times one day wakes up to. For Cowen to follow Collins' advice would be tantamount to a reversion to an 18th-19th century, Edmund Burke concept of Government, in which what the latter called "the swinish multitude" i.e. the common people, are increasingly kept at arms length by the "men of property", in terms of political-power. The men and women of 1916 surely did not die for this.