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

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Tibetan Trouble - What India should do
Protests have erupted around the world against the ‘occupation’ of Tibet by China including in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, where anywhere from 30 to a 100 protestors have been killed by Chinese forces. This year marks the 49th year of Chinese occupation of Tibet, which is currently designated as an ‘autonomous region’ of China. India, due to geographical proximity and as host to the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, has always been seen as a player in the ongoing struggle between the exiled Tibetan authority and the Chinese government. This latest flare up is seen as the most severe in decades and will certainly see the pressure on China increase. As the exiled home of the Dalai Lama, there is increased domestic and international pressure on India to take a more proactive role on the issue that has now snowballed into a major crisis for China.

The media coverage and user generated content on the internet has given a graphic visual on what exactly is going on in the ‘roof of the world’. Armored vehicles and heavily armed Chinese army and security forces conducting door to door checks are reminiscent of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 where hundreds, some say even thousands of activists, students and labor union groups were killed, the memories of which have become hardwired into Chinese history. China has for long laid claim on Tibet and has considered the region as integral to Chinese territory. However, the indigenous Tibetans see themselves as a separate genealogy from the Han Chinese that forms most of Chinese population. The Tibetans consider the Dalai Lama as their spiritual head and he along with thousands of Tibetans were forced into exile in 1959 after the Chinese invaded and ‘reclaimed’ Tibet. Then Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru, offered moral and political support for the Dalai Lama and ever since he has set-up bases at Dharamshala and McCleodganj in Himachal Pradesh. The Tibetan community have periodically raised there voice on the occupation of Tibet and their message has been accentuated through Hollywood movie stars and western politicians that have raised the stature of the Tibetan struggle to an international level and appeal. However, pragmatic politics from India has ensured that in order to settle the decades long Indo-China border dispute a quid pro quo now exists where in, we recognize Tibet as an “autonomous yet integral region of China” while the Chinese recognize Arunachal Pradesh as an integral part of India. It is another thing that the Chinese have not lived up to their side of this understanding; nevertheless, we have maintained our side of this tacit understanding. With the Tibetan crisis now brewing India has taken a moderate approach on the crackdown. Much like our nuanced reaction to the violent crackdown by monks in Myanmar, India is wary of not wanting to be seen as muddling in China’s internal affairs.

Whatever be the merits of a hands off approach on the Tibet issue, there is no denying the fact that India will be a stakeholder in the outcome of any move to find a solution to the Tibet issue. India must accept that though, Tibet is an integral and autonomous part of China, the protests and uprisings by Tibetans in India is an issue of concern. The proposed march by Tibetans and monks to Lhasa could lead to a dramatic showdown if the marching troop reaches the Indo-Tibetan border and presses to cross the Line of Actual Control. India must come out strongly in support of the Dalai Lama and his claim that China is indulging in ‘cultural genocide’ in Tibet. The world over countries that have offered asylum to refugee populations either ensure that the migrants ultimately return to their homeland or offer open support for their plight. Palestinian refugees that had to flee the Palestinian territories in the aftermath of the 1967 war were given asylum in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, all countries that recognize the need for a Palestinian state and fully support their right to return in any solution that comes out the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. A similar offer has to be professed by India, as we do offer asylum to the Tibetan community on Indian soil. While we remain gracious hosts, our opinion on the issue of a free Tibet has slowly waned to accept the Chinese stand on the issue. The cordial relations we share with China may get strained if we do take a strong approach vis-à-vis Tibet, but then this is a step that we must take for the Tibetan community that accepts as much from the Indian government. The other alternative mentioned is direct face to face talks between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese authorities, an idea which remains fanciful given China’s rigidity on the issue.

The Tibet issue is bound to remain in the headlines given the scrutiny the world has thrown on every aspect of Chinese existence. From levels of pollution, to dealing with dictators in Africa, to poisoned toys being exported, the lack of free speech and media and their crackdown on religious freedoms are all issues that have gained increased space in the public domain in the past year. The Chinese have been quick to dismiss all such claims as Western propaganda and biased international press coverage. The Olympics in August this year will only ensure that the Chinese have to adopt a twin pronged approach. On the one hand they would want to welcome the world and the international press to showcase the economic might that China has become, with its fantastic stadiums and breathtaking architecture and infrastructure while at the same time black out questions on the freedom of speech and religious freedoms in the country. Given this dilemma the Chinese will find questions on Tibet even tougher to answer. China will have to realize that globalization and the fruits that come with it, have also an important caveat. The more one opens to the world the more the world will scrutinize your systems. The dissent that China sees is the result of that sobering lesson that globalization has to offer.


Monday, March 03, 2008

Russian Elections: Putin's Marketing Ploy
Russia has elected, some say selected, a new president to take over from incumbent Vladimir Putin. Dmitry Medvedev, a long term ally of Putin and first deputy prime minister under him, will take the reins in May after a landslide victory in the March 2nd polls. As predicted, the candidate that enjoyed the backing of Putin found it easy to take the country’s top job, in elections that the West has cast doubts on counts of fairness. The objections of the West aside, analysts feel that these elections will not dramatically alter the power structure in Russia, with Putin slated to become Medvedev’s prime minister in May. Medvedev himself, in his victory speech, pledged to carry forward the path shown by Putin, who enjoys a larger than life status in Russia. Putin, with the help of the United Russia party will be easily installed as prime minister and in all likelihood still decide policy and direction for his country. In so far as relations with the West may be concerned the reaction from Western countries has been mixed. While the Germans, French and European Commission have welcomed the new president, hoping to solidify their relations with a rising former superpower, the United States has not overtly congratulated the president elect and has voiced concerns over the state of democracy in Russia.

Putin has described his country’s version of governance as a ‘managed democracy’. A strong executive in the shape of a president that controls the government and its various arms and where free enterprise is allowed to flourish as long as they remain loyal to ‘national interests’. This understanding of democracy has led many to believe that Putin is a direct throwback to the Communist era where dissent is not an option and where a fair electoral system is present only on paper. Putin has argued consistently that the turmoil his country has witnessed after the break up of the USSR required a tough approach to get the country back on track. And he has numbers to back him. Russia is today the world’s eighth largest economy and its economic upturn has ensured a rising middle class. While the economic boom has got with it rising costs and inflation, Russians do claim to have regained a sense of pride in their country steadily climbing back to its erstwhile status of a superpower to match the United States and other European big wigs. Coupled with the massive reserves of natural gas and hydrocarbon reserves that the country holds on to, the Russia of old seems to back. This rise of Russia has left many in West worried. This worry materialized when Russia played up its gas diplomacy to the hilt in the last two years by stopping gas supplies to Georgia and Ukraine, both formerly in Russia’s sphere of influence but seen as moving closer to the West and the European Union. Russia asked for a fair price for its gas and signaled to the West that Russia’s natural wealth will no longer be ‘exploited’ by the West. These strong arm tactics were carried by Gazprom, the Russian hydrocarbon’s giant that is under the direct control of Russian government and by that extension under Putin. Interestingly, president elect Medvedev has been the chairman of Gazprom and European governments would therefore be familiar with the man.

The United States and Russia also share a tenuous relationship. What started off as bonhomie between George Bush and Vladimir Putin, both men were elected in 2000, soon turned sour over Russia’s role in crushing the separatists movement in Chechnya and failing to toe the American line. The independent minded Putin further crossed hairs with the West by curbing down heavily on free speech and on the oligarchs, the select group of Russia’s richest men who made billions in sell of state property after the fall of the Soviet Union under Boris Yeltsin. Yukos owner, Mikhail Khordokovsky’s case was highly reported in the United States. The West saw this as Putin’s attempts to curb a man who wanted to be Russia’s president. Yukos, the billion dollar oil and gas firm was nationalized and sold to Gazprom and Khordokosky was sent to a Siberian prison for a decade. Putin, in the face of the West’s disapproval showed to the world what the definition of a ‘managed democracy’ actually is. More recently, Russia and the United States squared off over the US’ plans of setting up military bases and missile silos in Poland and Georgia, which met with strong disapproval by the Russians. Last month, when Kosovo declared independence, the US sided with the Kosovars while the Russians backed the Serbs. Taking opposing views, keeping in mind respective national interests, be it on Iran or on issues in the UN, has become the norm between the two countries, thereby further straining relations.

With his second term ending this year, and a third not possible under the Russian constitution, Putin began the hunt for his successor. Amongst the many names that came up, Medvedev’s candidature best suited Putin. An old hand from Putin’s native St. Petersburg, Medvedev is a known loyalist and a moderate. Putin’s selection for his successor seems to be two fold. He chose a loyalist to ensure that he continues to call the shots as the prime minister, and it is entirely possible that Medvedev is keeping the seat warm for Putin to return as president in 2012. Also, he has chosen the 42 year old lawyer with no secret service experience so as to ensure that he does not create an alternate power base inside the Kremlin. The old guard of the former KGB and the present FSB secret service will remain loyal to Putin, from whom he derives maximum power. This will ensure that Medvedev remains reigned in. Putin will not make the mistake of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who chose Putin as his successor imagining the ex-spy to be a puppet under him. Putin managed to get the security and military establishment to back him and ultimately became the new power centre in Russian politics. Second, in choosing Medvedev Putin has also sent a signal to the West that he has installed a more moderate and liberal figure as president to perhaps begin some sort of rehabilitation of ties between Russia and the West. The new face of Russia is young, moderate and in keeping with the times. This while the real power continues to be Putin, albeit behind the scenes. It seems that Medvedev will act as the perfect marketing tool for Putin, whom the West found impossible to deal with. In light of this Putin may have created the perfect smokescreen for the West. Medvedev, at 42, marks a generational shift from the Communist days and his love for liberal talk and Deep Purple may just win him brownie points in popularity in the West. This while Putin can get on with the job of running his country.