Politics and International Affairs and the quest for the ulterior motive.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Death by poison: Story of the Russian defector
The world was rattled by the news of the death former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, who dies of a suspected poisoning by a radioactive substance. The former spy was a critic of the Kremlin and its incumbent Russian President Vladimir Putin. The news of his poisoning and subsequent death has unnerved the UK government to such an extent that the government’s disaster management group codenamed COBRA held emergency meetings in London. The worrying aspect for the government and also partly the reason for the COBRA meet is that the suspected agent used as the poison was Polonium 210. A highly radioactive substance that can only be obtained by high end nuclear reactors or in secret nuclear locations under the respective government’s watch. Experts say that it is certainly not a “over the counter” material unlike its other radioactive cousins. The suspected use of Polonium 210 therefore points a mysterious finger to some governmental agency in Russia, most likely the FSB, formerly the KGB or even the Kremlin. What is even more worrying is the fact that if weren’t the usual suspects supplying the Polonium and in fact the source is someone from outside the government it throws a larger question on the availability of these materials in the wrong hands or in the nuclear black market.

Litvinenko himself was a controversial figure. Earlier working as a spy for the FSB he defected to the UK in 2000. From then on he has been a vitriolic critic of the Kremlin’s iron fisted rule over Russia and also its conduct of the war in Chechnya. He has also accused Putin and the FSB of orchestrating bombings in apartments in Moscow in 1999 that killed over 300 people and which was the pretext used by the Kremlin to engage in a war in Chechnian separatists. He was also investigating the death of Kremlin critic, Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist who was recently gunned down by an armed assialant in the lift of her apartment. Litvinenko alleged that the killing of Politkovskaya was the handiwork of the FSB on instructions from the Kremlin. A charge the Kremlin vehemently denies. However, some in Russia did view Litvinenko in much dimmer light than his portrayal in the Western media. He was arrested in 2000 for his conduct in anti-terror operations during his stint in the FSB, on his release he took assylum in the UK and ultimately spoke out against the rule of the Kremlin. Many Russians regard him as an traitor who left his country to speak about the war in Chechnya and against the president. They also charge him as being an antinational element who was giving legitimacy to the terrorists in Chechnya. Some bizarre allegations also followed where a British MEP alleged that Litvinenko had actually unearthed that current Italian Prime Minitser Romano Prodi was a mole for the KGB. That said it is obvious that along the way Litvinenko did make some powerful enemies and maybe paid the price for being the spy who knew too much.

This incident also throws light on the way the Kremlin handles criticism against security agencies and the president. In the Kremlin’s world view any criticism of Russian conduct in Chechnya and its handling of terror events like Beslan is anti national and unacceptable. The Russian media is known to be mostly subservient to the president and any criticism of Putin is avoided or told in a round about fashion. In such a scenario the Russian population is told only one side of most stories – that of the Kremlin. Even during the Beslan crisis the death of hundreds of children was protrayed by the Kremlin as an unfortunate outome of the necessary military action at the time.
Putin is also not known to take too kindly to competition, most recently the erst while richest man in Russia Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was jailed for eight years in a Siberian prison and his company Yukos was dissovled in a matter of months. Many allege that the crime of Khodorkovsky was simple – he was ambitious and looking to challenge Putin. Similarly, media tycoon Boris Berezovsky has to flee the country after the Kremlin threatened to arrest him for his anti-Putin style of reporting. Such incidents do not portray the current state of democrarcy in Russia in good light. There is no doubt that Putin and his style of functioning is more authrorotative than dictatorial, but having said that being authorotative need not necessarlity come about by trampling on democracy and its basic tenenats of free speech. The Western media too has had a field day with their portrayal of Livinanko and the manner of his death which is so reminiscent of the romantacized view of the cold war and spy novels. The true extent of the Kremlin’s involvement is by no means certain nor is it outrightly deniable, but the death and the sorriunding circumstances do point to a deeper conspiracy, the ultimate who do it – and no there is no butler in this thriller.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Indo-Pak talks: Don't bite the Siachen bullet
India and Pakistan will resume their foreign secretary level talks in the coming days. On the plate is a diverse agenda ranging from the next steps in confidence building measures, the controversial joint anti-terror mechanism, the border disputes, Siachen and most obviously Kashmir and cross border terrorism. The much talked about evidence, whether it is clinching or otherwise, about Pakistan’s involvement in the 7/11 Mumbai blasts will likely to generate the maximum heat and pubic attention. Post India’s open talk about evidence on Pakistan’s 7/11 involvement, Pakistan has curiously been adopting measures to diplomatically stump India with a series of premature ideas and possible solutions that have neither been discussed or at best have not got approval across the board. One such notion that is being floated by President Musharraf and Pakistani Foreign Secretary, Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri is one on the impending breakthrough and final settlement of the Siachen issue.

Siachen, the world’s highest and most challenging battlefield has seen both sides lose soldiers and money to keep the strategically vital glacier under their respective controls. India occupied the glacier in 1984 and has ever since more or less controlled the glacier and its key peaks. Most notably the Saltoro ridge has been under Indian control and has proved to be the strategic watershed on who controls Siachen. Also, with Siachen under its belt, the Indian army can take a peek at the Pakistani military installations on the Pakistani side whilst also protect Ladakh from any untoward Pakistani military misadventures. Moreover, the Indian army through its commander in Siachen has made it amply clear that the control of Siachen is paramount and any troop withdrawal at this stage will only be counterproductive. For his part, Kasuri, has been vocally speaking to the press about the breakthrough that is likely to be in place in a matter of “days, not weeks”, as told to NDTV in an interview. The wide proclamations have been politely scoffed at by the Indian establishment who are yet to see the reason behind Kasuri’s blustering optimism. That said, the Pakistani side has been known to be better than ours in the battle for public sound bytes and diplomacy. This latest statement too seems to indicate that the Pakistani’s are playing the game of brinkmanship in setting the agenda for the talks with India. Their desire is to push India to a ‘Siachen only’ corner during the talks, since it will be under constant speculation and media attention, while pushing back the potentially damaging Indian agenda on 7/11 links and cross border terror. Again, if India is seen to shy away from speaking on Siachen, Pakistan will argue that another opportunity by Pakistan to find lasting peace has been discarded by India. If we do make a commitment on Siachen, domestic politics will ensure a through consensus on the decision or worst still a roll back on whatever commitments are given during the Foreign Secretary level talks. The Indian diplomatic establishment under the old Pakistan hand S.S. Menon and the Foreign Ministry now under Pranab Mukherjee will need to preempt the Pakistan ploy of forcing its agenda and will need to clearly outline that the agenda as we see it, which is clearly about cross border terror, 7/11 and Kashmir. Also, equally important is getting the joint anti-terror mechanism up and running, what with, the prime minister putting all the diplomatic eggs on the anti- terror mechanism basket, some positive movement on the front is a logical expectation.

The next level of talks between the two neighbours is bound to generate a lot of interest on both sides. However, the expectations must be tempered against realism. Anyone who has read President Musharraf’s memoir will acknowledge that making lasting peace with this man is not only tough it seems impossible. However, since we can’t choose or wish away other countries leaders, one must work with him. This while he and his PR machinery continue to offer solutions that are over the top and mostly unacceptable. More importantly, Menon and Mukherjee must ensure that India’s agenda to find a solution for Kashmir and stop cross border terror activities must be squarely on top of the agenda, even if it means the Pakistani side walks away with more media brownie points and more fodder to complain about against its neighbour. The future of the Indo-Pak peace talks rests not on television interviews but actually on finding real peace and real solutions on mutually acceptable, rather than dictated, terms.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Saddam Verdict : Hope, Despair and Division

Saddam Hussein, the once feared despot of Iraq, who ruled the country with barbaric brutality for close to 25 years finally had his day in court and was duly awarded the death sentence. The death sentence comes for the Dujail massacre in 1982, which resulted in the extermination of 148 odd Shia Iraqi under the Sunni Baath party leadership. Iraq was in a bloody war with Iran at the time and Shia-Sunni tensions were high, with both sides looking suspiciously at the other. A failed assassination attempt led to the ultimate bloodbath under direct instructions from Saddam and carried out by his cronies, all of whom have been sentenced. The premise Saddam gave for the killings was lame and pointed out to the influence of Shia Iran actively backing Shia Iraqis to carry out an attempt to kill him. The court however, ruled that the massacre held no legal, moral or military justification and for his actions and crimes against humanity, Saddam must face the gallows. More cases against Saddam, mainly involving the gassing of the Kurds in Halabja, the Anfal campaign targeting Shias and the killing of the Marsh Arabs, still need to reach their logical conclusion, with or without Saddam. While there is no love lost for Saddam from any quarter, leaving aside his minor core group of supporters from Tikrit and the remnants of the Baath party, the execution order and the veracity and legality of the court that tried his case is under the scanner.

Questions have been raised ever since the trial began about whether Saddam would get a fair trial or not, considering the active presence of the US in Iraq, the biased approach of the current Iraqi government and the routine killings of Saddam’s defense lawyers and the kin of sitting judges. Moreover, Saddam himself refused to recognize the court and made the proceedings a propaganda tool to paint himself a martyr for his people. His religious overtures and his antics of carrying a copy of the Koran to the court did not cut much ice with religious Iraqis and Muslims worldwide keeping in mind his ‘secular’ past and colorful ways. That said, media organizations in the Arab world and commentators on the Middle East have raised their concerns about the court and the rule of law applied against Saddam. Some have even gone to the extent of calling the court a kangaroo court with a single point agenda to hang Saddam. That said, it is also true that prior to the invasion in Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam, the same commentators were the source of the gross human rights abuse carried out by Saddam and his sons Uday and Qusay. One would agree that the court and the proceedings may not meet the expectations of every analyst there is no disputing the outcome is one which is well deserved for Saddam and his cronies. It would have been a travesty of justice if Saddam would have been let off and many Iraqis would still fear the overthrown dictator keeping in mind any chances of his return to power.

The victims and the families who suffered under Iraq may welcome this sentencing, surely never would they have realistically believed that such a day would come. But the ruling is sure to upset the already precarious situation that exists in Iraq. The Shias have welcomed the decision with customary gunfire and spontaneous street celebrations. They now feel that they will get the chance to have a government that is representative of the demographics that exist in the country. Also, finally the nightmare quarter of a century of fear is finally over. But with it comes the vent up anger of the Sunnis, who fear that with Saddam gone and him never making a comeback (a popular belief by many Sunnis) there hopes of ever regaining power are bleak. Many even fear having to live as second-class citizens under the dominant Shia majority. This sense of despair and fear of losing governmental representation will fuel the Sunni insurgency in the days to come. The argument that the decision to hang Saddam will in anyway decrease the insurgency holds little merit as the Sunnis will be renege to hit back at the Americans, who they see as the cause of their ‘loss’ of power and the Shias, who they distrust because of the backing they receive from Iran.

Al-Qaeda and the Mujahideen Shura Council that are carrying out the atrocities against ordinary Iraqis will welcome this decision for two reasons. One, they never really backed Saddam, whom they saw as an equal infidel like the Americans with his western ways and secular ideology. Secondly, the decision will help them propagate the notion of the injustices being carried out by the occupying Americans against Iraq and thereby justifying their jihad against the invading infidels. However, this ruling awarding capital punishment to an erstwhile dictator will ruffle many feathers in the broader Middle East, with heads of states becoming more wary of democracy in the Arab world, if all that democracy means is that heads will literally roll. This misplaced fear, however, should not be an impediment for democracy as many citizens of countries ruled by oppressive regimes will realize the true power of democracy where a court of law can punish even the ex head of state and elections can get help get them the universal right of franchise.

Many commentators have argued that the timing of the ruling is meant to coincide with the mid term elections in the US and that it was meant to help Bush and the Republicans. Understandably, the White House has vigorously denied all such claims. One finds the argument of the curious timing as far fetched and moreover, despite the hang order, the war in Iraq and domestic scandal will not help the Republicans to save the Congress and maybe even the Senate. But one must take this moment to cherish democracy and the power it holds, it may not be perfect, and Iraq certainly is not the pinnacle of democracy, but under the true tenants of democracy it does have the power to bring even the most villainous of men in history to justice.