Khodorkovsky in Kiev
After he was released in December after more than a decade, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Yukos Oil tycoon who was once Russia’s richest man, suggested that he would stay out of Russian politics. Though jailed on embezzlement and tax evasion charges, it was widely assumed that the real reason for Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment had been his funding of groups opposed to President Vladimir Putin.
But Khodorkovsky’s hiatus from Russian politics doesn’t seem to have lasted very long. The ex-tycoon was in Kiev yesterday, addressing a crowd of thousands of people, backing Ukraine’s new leaders, and accusing Russia of complicity in violence against anti-Yanukovych protesters.
“Legal states exist only where and when there is a separation of powers, an independent judiciary and real changes in power as a result of elections,” Khodorkovsky told students at a Kiev university. “It’s completely clear that there’s nothing of the sort in Ukraine under Viktor Yanukovych or in Russia under Vladimir Putin.”
He also told the crowd not to assume that all Russians support the incursion into Crimea.
Khodorkovsky has offered to mediate a solution to the crisis in Crimea, though given his standing in Russia, it seems pretty unlikely that he will be taken up on the offer.
Since his pre-Olympic pardon and departure from Russia, Khodorkovsky has been living in Switzerland and recently applied for residence in the country. He has stated a desire to return to Russia once his legal status is clarified, but speeches like this one might make that less likely.
Politically speaking, it may be better for Vladimir Putin to have his longtime nemesis join the ranks of the country’s exiled dissidents rather than sit in jail as the country’s best-known political prisoner.
Fukushima’s Human Toll
Remembrance ceremonies are being held today in Tokyo and towns around Fukushima to mark the third anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster that claimed more than 18,000 lives.
I noted last month that Fukushima seems to have had less of an impact than many expected on the growth of nuclear power around the world, but its effects on the Japanese population still linger.
About 100,000 people are still living in temporary housing, and Japan has so far built only 3.5 percent of the new houses promised to people in heavily affected prefectures.
CBS reports that in Koriyama, a town about 40 miles from the nuclear plant, many parents are still afraid to let their children play outside. There’s also an ongoing debate about whether higher-than-normal rates of thyroid cancer in children are connected to nuclear radiation or simply more rigorous testing.
Then there’s the psychological impact. A Brigham Young University study released last week found that a year after disaster, more than half of the citizens of Hirono, a heavily affected town near the plant, showed “clinically concerning” symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Two-thirds showed symptoms of depression.
Many of the residents, who had an average age of 58, were still living in temporary housing when the study was conducted.
It's not quite clear what all this will mean for the country's politics. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to restart the country’s nuclear program—all of the country’s 48 reactors are currently offline—but polls show that the public is still wary about the idea. But Abe is generally popular, and the economy is showing some long-awaited signs of life, so the government may be able to absorb the anti-nuclear backlash.
The disaster didn’t have much of an impact on attitudes toward nuclear power in the United States, though apparently authorities were worried it would. A recently published FOIA investigation by NBC shows that in the days following the disaster, “staff at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission made a concerted effort to play down the risk of earthquakes and tsunamis to America’s aging nuclear plants.”
Oxford Study: Big Dams Aren’t Worth It
A new Oxford study looking at 245 dams in 65 countries finds that large dam projects run an average of 96 percent over budget and take an average of 2.3 years longer to complete than originally planned. The report mostly targets so-called megadams, recommending that emerging-market countries focus on smaller dams, which are more likely to be economically viable. An extreme case—Brazil’s Itaipu Dam—ran 240 percent over budget.
The report also found that large dams are not actually carbon-neutral given the large amount of concrete involved and methane produced by flooded vegetation in reservoirs.
No country has embraced dam-building with quite the enthusiasm of China, which has constructed more than 20,000 large dams in the last 60 years, including the controversial $59 billion Three Gorges Dam, which displaced more than a million people. China’s pace of construction slowed under former Primier Wen Jiabao, who intervened to block the construction of several projects, but looks set to accelerate again as the country finds itself up against steep power generation and emissions reduction targets.
The world’s largest planned hydroelectric project, Brazil’s Belo Monte dam, was halted by a judge last year after a legal challenge by indigenous groups in the area.
The Passport Underground
The presence of two men traveling on fake passports on the missing Malaysia Airlines plane initially seemed like an indication that terrorism might have been involved. But it now appears to have been an example of something far more common—two Iranian men traveling to Europe on forged passports from Thailand:
The 19-year-old Iranian passenger, Pouria Nourmohammadi Mehrdad, who was using a stolen Austrian passport, was traveling to Germany, where he was to meet his mother, said Khalid Abu Bakar, the inspector general of the Malaysian police.
“We are in contact with his mother,” Mr. Khalid said at a news conference.
Interpol identified the second Iranian traveler as Delavar Seyed Mohammad Reza, 29, who used a stolen Italian passport, and released a photograph of the two men boarding Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 at the same time….
Thousands of Iranians seeking to leave their home country wait in Asian countries with friendly visa regulations to make the second part of their migration to the West and to Australia. Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are popular jumping-off points for middle-class Iranians who arrive on tourist visas and are helped by local travel agents and by people-traffickers to travel to the West.
Getting an Iranian passport isn’t always that easy for Iranian citizens, and they are frequently forged, but even with one, options can be limited for travelers from the country. Iran is ranked 86th out of 93 on Henley & Partners’ travel freedom index, which looks at visa restrictions on travelers with different nationalities.
Ironically, Israeli passports—which are considered easy to forge but allow a wide range of visa-free travel in Asia and Europe—seem to be one of the more popular options for Iranians looking to emigrate. Seven Iranians with forged Israeli passports were arrested in Vancouver last summer. They had been planning to emigrate.
Thailand, where the two men reportedly purchased their passports, has become a global hub for the production of fake travel documents. The documents in question here were apparently stolen at the beach resort of Phuket within the last two years.
The AP reported in 2005:
More rare and expensive are the lost or stolen passports -- some of which have been sold by tourists to black market buyers. They are used by criminals to cross borders, where immigration officials' eyes are better trained to spot fakes.
Many of these passports are sold by or stolen from the more than 10 million tourists who visit Thailand each year.
One 24-year-old French tourist said he was offered US$240 by a clean-cut Iranian man in his 30s staying at the same guesthouse he was at on Bangkok's Khao San Road -- the popular backpacker district that police say is a major source of black market passports.
"Some Westerners will sell their passports for US$500 to get quick cash, and then they'll say it was stolen, so it's hard to crack down,'' immigration policeman Chote said.
In 2010 Thai police arrested a Pakistani national named Muhammed Ather "Tony" Butt who had allegedly operating a passport-forging gang for more than a decade and was linked to terrorism groups including those responsible for the 2004 Madrid train bombing, the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is accused in involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers.
Last August, Malaysian police arrested an Iranian man who had jumped bail in Thailand after being held for a year on suspicion of “providing fake passports to human trafficking and drug rings, as well as terrorists plotting out bombings in Bangkok.”
A spokesman for Iran’s parliament has called reports about the two Iranians on the plane “psychological warfare” and an attempt to pin the blame on Muslim countries, but in this case, authorities seem to be strongly leaning against the possibility that the two men were in any way involved in terrorism.
Like thousands of others every year, they seem to have been migrants attempting a dangerous journey who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Ottawa: Where’s All the Canadian Erotica?
The National Post reports that three Canadian erotica channels have earned a government reprimand for not showing enough home-grown content:
Wednesday, the CRTC issued a broadcast notice saying AOV Adult Movie Channel, XXX Action Clips and the gay-oriented Maleflixxx were all failing to reach the required 35% threshold for Canadian content.
Based on a 24-hour broadcast schedule, that translates to about 8.5 hours of Canadian erotica a day.
According to a shocking finding by the Post, on the day the article went to print, “in the entire Maleflixxx daily broadcast schedule, the only obviously Canadian title on Thursday’s line-up was ‘Men of Ottawa’ ” (no description available). Yet it was broadcast at 3pm, hardly prime time for Maleflixxx viewership.”
The Canadian content rules, which are similar to those in a number of other countries, are meant to promote the country’s own productions by keeping the airwaves from being overwhelmed by content from other countries—well, let’s be honest, one country in particular.
The CanCon rules, requiring broadcasters to show a certain percentage of Candian-produced programming, have benefited the development of popular shows like The Kids in the Hall and Degrassi (would Drake be famous today without CanCon rules?), but they seem a bit outdated in the age of Netflix and might also face legal challenges as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.
For now, though, Canada's porn producers have some hours to fill.
Genocide in the Central African Republic?
The U.N. has launched an investigation into “reports of genocide” in the Central African Republic, with tens of thousands of Muslims reportedly fleeing the country in fear of reprisal attacks from Christian militias.
The current chaos began a year ago when the Seleka—a majority-Muslim rebel group—seized power and immediately began a campaign of “looting, torture and killing in the majority Christian country.” Seleka control over the country quickly crumbled, and the current anti-Muslim backlash began after Seleka President Michel Djotodia resigned in January.
An estimated 650,000 people have been displaced by religious violence, with about 300,000 fleeing to neighboring countries. Fewer than 1,000 of the original 100,000-strong Muslim population remain the capital, Bangui.
The U.N. investigators are drawing up a “confidential list of suspects for eventual prosecution” by the International Criminal Court.
The U.N. Security Council discussed plans for sending a peacekeeping force to the country last week but took no action. There are already about 2,000 French and 6,000 African Union troops on the ground in the country, though their effectiveness has been limited and in some cases they have been accused of making the violence worse.
This is unfortunately a very complex situation in a country that doesn’t get much media coverage, and where options for international intervention are limited. If the investigators do apply the G-word to what’s happening in the Central African Republic, it may garber some more international attention, though it’s not quite how much impact that will have on what’s happening there.
Who Gets to Self-Determine?
On Sunday, Crimea will hold a referendum asking citizens whether they want to remain a part of Ukraine or “reunite” with Russia. The U.S. has signaled that it will not recognize the referendum, and the leaders of Britain and Germany have warned of further sanctions against Russia if Moscow attempts to legitimize its actions in Crimea through the vote.
In the New York Times over the weekend, Peter Baker looked at how the situation in Crimea fits into the “centuries-old debate over the right of self-determination versus the territorial integrity of nation-states,” noting that “for all of the articulation of grand principles, the acceptability of regions breaking away often depends on the circumstances.”
It’s true that Washington’s insistence that Ukraine’s territorial integrity be respected seems a bit incongruous with its support for the independence of, say, Kosovo or South Sudan. And Russia has certainly exploited the Kosovo precedent in its bids to gain international recognition for Georgia’s breakaway regions—Abkhazia and South Ossetia. On the other side, Russia has spent recent years talking itself blue at the U.N. Security Council about respecting territorial sovereignty in places like Libya and Syria but is willing to send its military into the territory of its neighbors on the pretext of protecting the rights of ethnic Russians—which is one possible reason why China’s been fairly tepid in its support for Russia’s actions.
Even accepting that the situations aren’t equivalent and that a referendum held under conditions of de facto Russian occupation shouldn’t be considered legitimate, it’s still easy to take the cynical view that large international powers tend to support either self-determination or territorial integrity based on whether it lines up with their own interests.
At the blog Opinio Juris, Robert McCorquodale, professor of international law and human rights at the University of Nottingham, attempts to parse the legality of the situation, arguing that whether or not a declaration of independence or merging is valid in international law is determined both “by the actions of the state within whose borders the people live; and the responses of the international community.”
By these standards, he argues that while Crimea is well within its rights to hold an independence referendum, Russia had no legal right to intervene on Ukrainian territory given that there was no evidence that Ukraine was oppressing the region by force.
All the same, due to historical circumstances, there certainly is at least some organic support for reunion with Russia in Ukraine, and it’s reasonable to wonder how the U.S. or Europe might have reacted if Crimea had held a referendum under less blatantly illegitimate circumstances.
The widespread international recognition of new countries has been extremely rare in recent years, and the rare examples—places like Kosovo, East Timor, and South Sudan—have taken place only after years of exceptionally violent conflict. In general, international institutions are set up to favor keeping international borders as they are. The African Union’s charter, for instance, specifics “Respect of borders existing on achievement of independence” and with a few notable exceptions, those borders have remained in place.
Given that the redrawing of international boundaries is almost always a messy and violent process and the fact that populations are almost never neatly divided into ethnic or linguistic units that you can draw lines around, the bias has understandably nearly always been toward working with the borders that are currently in place.
2014 was already expected to be a big year for the question of self-determination, with independence referendums planned in Scotland and Catalonia. But Crimea has provided a much more unexpected and much more dangerous reappearance of a very old political problem.
A Mystery in a Very Tense Neighborhood
Thus far, politics don’t seem to have come into play in the frustrating search for a missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, which involves “40 ships and 34 aircraft from nine countries … combing a vast area of ocean in the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea, northeast of Malaysia towards Vietnam.” But it’s also hard to ignore the fact that this search is taking place in a very tense region.
About two-thirds of the 227 passengers and 12 crew on board the plane were Chinese, and the Chinese foreign ministry has urged Malaysia to speed up its search, saying, "This incident happened more than two days ago, and we hope that the Malaysians can fully understand the urgency of China, especially of the family members, and can step up the speed of the investigation and increase efforts on search and rescue."
The level of tension between the two countries hasn’t been quite as high as with some of China’s other neighbors. China and Malaysia are important trading partners and have enjoyed diplomatic relations since the 1970s.
But Chinese naval exercises in January around the James Shoal—a submerged reef about 50 miles off the Malaysian island of Borneo—reportedly prompted leaders in Kuala Lumpur “to quietly step up cooperation with the Philippines and Vietnam, the two Southeast Asian nations most outspoken over China's moves in the region.” Malaysia has also announced plans to build a naval base near the shoal to protect oil and gas reserves. China wasn’t explicitly mentioned in this announcement, but the implication was pretty clear.
Malaysia is among a number of countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines, with territorial claims in the Spratly and Paracel Islands. Based on historical activity, China claims nearly all of the islands and atolls in the South China Sea under a policy known as the “nine-dash line. “
The U.S., China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia have all now committed resources to the search for the plane, in an extremely rare example of cooperation in the area.
It’s not quite clear at this point how the politics of this situation will play out, and obviously a lot depends on whether or not it turns out that terrorism was involved.
It’s possible, as the Financial Times suggests, that the tragedy is “providing Beijing with a chance to build goodwill with smaller regional powers that are more used to feeling the brunt of its growing military might.”
But it also seems worth wondering whether these countries might be better able to cooperate on addressing crises in the area if the baseline level of tension were a little lower.
McFaul: “These Things Can Move Very Quickly in Unintended Ways”
According to Michael McFaul, who departed his position as U.S. ambassador to Moscow after two tumultuous years, shortly before the current crisis in Ukraine broke out, the invasion of Crimea was likely “not some premeditated move by Putin to fulfill his grand strategy of dominating that part of the world."
Rather, he argues, “it’s important for people to remember that his most important foreign-policy objective is to create the Eurasian Economic Union as a counter to the European Union. Critical to the success of that object was to have Ukraine in the economic Union, not Crimea but all of Ukraine.”
Perhaps in a bid to shore up support from the existing members of the union, Putin held a snap summit with the presidents of Kazakhstan and Belarus this week. In a conference call today, organized by the National Security Network, I asked McFaul whether Putin’s project to build an economic union of post-Soviet states to counterbalance the EU can survive the Ukraine crisis.
“I don’t think it’s a fait accompli that Crimea will be occupied forever,” he said. “It’s a big if. But if it happens, it destroys the project. There’s no doubt about it. Most importantly, if that tragic scenario plays out, you have made sure that the rest of Ukraine will never have any interest in joining a Eurasian Union. It just changes the electoral politics within Ukraine. The only mechanism he’ll have left is coercive power—he’ll coerce countries into joining. But the size of the Ukrainian economy and population just dwarfs everybody else in the former Soviet Union who could join. Ukraine was always the big prize, and he’s just guaranteed that it’s now over.”
McFaul, who has now returned to Stanford, where he was a professor and prominent scholar on Russian affairs before joining the Obama administration, said the upcoming Crimean referendum on joining Russia would “create some very sticky facts on the ground” that would be difficult for U.S. diplomacy to reverse. “I fear that that will create an ambiguous sovereignty in Crimea that could last for a long time,” he said.
McFaul is also not convinced that Russia’s military advance will stop with Crimea. “These things can move very quickly in unintended ways,” he said. “Is Putin planning an invasion of eastern Ukraine? I don’t know but I would be surprised. But can I put together a set of events over the next weeks or months that would lead to military intervention in eastern Ukraine? Of course. To say that it’s not possible would be irresponsible. I’m deeply worried about it, frankly. Even if the probability of it is low, the negative consequences are extremely high.”
McFaul defended the Obama administration’s “reset” policy, of which he was a key architect, saying that the intention was always to “engage with Russia to seek agreement on common interests” without linking them to areas of disagreement such as human rights or Russia’s policies toward its neighbors. He pointed to a number of accomplishments of the policy, including the New START nuclear reduction treaty and the Northern Distribution Network to Afghanistan.
On the question of whether Putin views President Obama as “weak” and has taken advantage of an unwillingness to inflict serious consequences, McFaul argued that “On the contrary, [Putin] has a theory of American power that is quite paranoid about how powerful the United States is, allegedly fomenting revolution in the Middle East and now Ukraine.”
Tension in Sochi as the Winter Paralympics Begin
The Sochi Winter Games were more politically tense than your average Olympics, though probably less than many were expecting, or hoping. But in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Crimea—just a few hundred miles up the Black Sea coast—has raised the stakes for the Paralympic Games, which kick off today.
Nobody’s completely boycotting the games, but a number of countries, including the United States, France, Norway, and Britain, have decided not to send official delegations to today’s opening ceremony. Ukraine is sending its athletes after strongly considering a boycott, but Valerii Sushkevych, president of the country’s Paralympic committee, said after a meeting with Vladimir Putin that he fears that “during the Paralympic Games we will see something which could not be rectified” take place in Ukraine, in which case the athletes will leave “at that very second.”
During the Olympics, the IOC denied a request by Ukrainian athletes to wear black armbands in honor of those killed during street protests in Kiev, and it will be interesting to see whether there are further political gestures from the team. Already today, the Ukrainian team made a statement by sending out only its flag-bearer, Nordic skier Mykhaylo Tkachenko, in the athletes’ parade at today’s opening ceremony, with the rest of the 23-member delegation staying in their rooms.
The Sochi Paralympics, the biggest ever held, are meant to highlight Russia’s progress in its treatment of its 13 million citizens with disabilities. Its record on this hasn’t always been so distinguished. In 1980, when Moscow hosted the Summer Olympics, the country simply declined to organize the Paralympics, with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev reportedly saying, "In our country, there are no disabled people."
According to a Human Rights Watch report issued in September, in recent years “The Russian government has taken some high profile steps to improve accessibility, but when it comes to daily life – such as going to work or visiting the doctor – people with disabilities face an uphill battle.”
According to the report, Russian accessibility laws are now actually quite strong—and unlike the United States, it has signed and ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities—but Russians with disabilities still face serious barriers related to infrastructure and discrimination.