The Conundrum of Democratisation

By Claire McNear, on 7 May 2014

By Fei Xue

Taking even a glance at the news this spring, one would quickly notice the great amount of public attention devoted to the massive protests and political conflicts taking place in Venezuela and Ukraine. Although both countries nominally have democratically elected leaders, the lack of checks and balances on executive power, the manipulation of elections, and the oppression of dissenting opinions mean that neither country truly embraces democratic principles. As a result, Venezuela and Ukraine are suffering from acute class antagonism and ethnic division, and the angry voices of citizens cannot be expressed through democratic channels, but rather in massive protests and violent resistance. Thus, despite the geographical distance and the historical, ethnic, and cultural disparities, both nations follow a farcical brand of democratic design that, with these recent uprisings, has revealed the flaws of the universal and immediate democracy approach wielded by several major players in global politics.

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The Ukraine Crisis – The End of the System?

By Jack Harris, on 8 April 2014

By Anna Kruglova

The crisis in Ukraine has thoroughly put an end to Barack Obama’s famous “reset” of relations with Russia. It has revealed a cyclical tendency in Russia’s relations with the US and the West more broadly – much as in the 1990s, a relative thaw in relations has once again given way to tensions. Yet the Ukraine crisis has broader implications for international politics. It has revealed fundamental weaknesses in the international system that emerged from the conferences held in Yalta and Potsdam after the Second World War. State actors have created an environment that has left the system unable to engage with emerging issues and produce constructive responses, and allows problems to deepen and develop into full-blown crises.

The first problem – a lack of meaningful UN reform – has already been widely debated but bears repeating here. During the Ukraine crisis, the UN, the closest thing we have to a universal international institution, was once again been paralysed by divisions to the point where it was unable to muster any response beyond anodyne verbal condemnations and calls for negotiation. The structure of the Security Council must take most of the blame for this paralysis. The rotating memberships of the Security Council led to the bizarre situation in which countries with no direct stake in the crisis, such as Rwanda and Chad, were involved in the debates over the Ukraine crisis, while Germany, a key leader in the EU and an important partner of Russia, was excluded. As such, what discussions were held were largely useless, and the resolutions they produced were immediately vetoed by Russia. These issues have long been widely acknowledged, even by the Secretary General, but no efforts towards comprehensive reform has been made since 2005. Without reform, the UN will continue to be unable to respond effectively to international crises.

The second problem is that too many violations of sovereignty and international law have now gone unpunished for verbal condemnations to carry any weight. The invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 were not sanctioned by the UN, while in Libya NATO blatantly disregarded the limits of the mandate granted by resolution 1973, which gave it the authority only to enforce no-fly zones, not to directly interfere in the conflict by bombing ground forces. All of these acts were admitted to be violations of international law and yet went wholly unpunished. With such precedents now firmly established, states will face ever greater temptations to break the rules.

Thirdly, in place of the common standards provided by international law, double standards are now firmly settled in the system of international relations. Russia has recognised the break-away regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, while denying such recognition to Kosovo, which is recognised by the EU and the US. Debates over which of these new states truly deserved independence and recognition will likely never be conclusively resolved. What is clear, however, is that principles of sovereignty and self-determination enshrined in the UN Charter have become little more than tools deployed in support of concrete foreign policy goals of individual states.

Finally, one striking feature of the political rhetoric or “propaganda tools” on both sides in this crisis has been the frequent reliance on the trope of an “external enemy”, whether the threatening, mercantile West, aggressive, authoritarian Russia, Middle Eastern autocrats or rising China. Despite the economic interdependence of almost all nations in the modern world and the demise of a bipolar system of international relations, hostile discourses centred on scary “others” still appear to carry great political appeal. In a world in which national economies are tied ever more strongly to one another, such hostile discourses and models of political behaviour create risks that cannot be afforded.

This combination of factors has left the international system ill and flawed. The crisis in Crimea has provided only further proof of the relevance of these flaws to international relations. Naïve as it may seem to call for sweeping reforms of the international system, a commonly accepted framework for international law has to be found if such incidents are to be avoided in the future. If actors continue to disregard the rules that they themselves have established, we will see more crises like that in Ukraine in the years to come.

Image credit: Mstyslav Chernov

Ukraine Orange Again: Witnessing a Euro Cold War

By Claire McNear, on 19 December 2013

By Hesham Shafick

“I ask Yanukovych – resign!” said Vitali Klitschko, the boxing world’s heavyweight champion and one of the leading figures of the pro-Euro opposition protests in Ukraine.

President Viktor Yanukovych had been ousted from his position as prime minister 10 years earlier through the Orange Revolution. Since then, the Ukrainian dream to join the European Union and become a part of the so-called Western bloc had been progressing.

Six years later after the revolution, however, the Russian-backed “deep state” managed to bring Yanukovych back, this time as president. Yanukovych propaganda portrayed the Orange Revolution as a Western-sponsored coup.

Inspired by the Arab Spring and Turkish protests, Ukrainian protesters have vowed to remain in Kiev’s Independence Square, where protests first began on 21 November, until Yanukovych steps down, an action the West has largely received as a return of the Orange Revolution.

In the East, it was also perceived as a new Orange Revolution, though with a markedly different definition provided by the current regime. This definition is embodied in former Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s statement, “Push away the plotters, who seek power and attempt to repeat the scenario of 2004.” Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the ongoing demonstrations as a “pogrom,” and advised Ukraine to enhance trade agreements with Russia and spurn the West.

The East–West division in Ukraine is starkly reminiscent of Berlin Wall-era Germany. In addition to the proxy East–West dispute over Ukraine, the Ukrainian population itself has long been divided. In the eastern part of the country, much of the population speaks Russian and sees Moscow as a patron. But many in the western part of Ukraine see Russia as an imperialist force, and often invoke the slogan “Ukraine is Russia” as a way of calling out Ukraine’s leaders for maintaining what they believe is too close a relationship with their eastern neighbour. After the Orange Revolution, when the West dominated public office, the East dominated the public sphere. Today, the opposite is true.

It is not only the ideological and cultural differences within the nation that make Kiev the new Berlin: fiscal pressure obligates Ukraine to take a side. In simple words, Ukraine needs to borrow money, whether from the West or the East, in order for its economy to survive. Standard and Poor’s, which already cut Ukraine’s credit rating to B- in early November, warned that further political deterioration could bring another downgrade. Yet both Europe and Russia, Ukraine’s most likely lenders, stipulate not borrowing from the other. Brussels says a trade deal with Europe would bring Ukraine valuable investment, yet a prerequisite of opening the markets to foreign direct investment is required. Putin on the other hand is using the supply of cheap Russian gas – or the threat of cutting it off – as a hammer to bring Ukraine to heel.

Giving up on Brussels and looking instead to China sparked the latest upheaval, which began with a failed vote of no confidence against the government. The protesters in Independence Square are seeking to accomplish what they failed to do in Parliament. Opinion surveys conducted before the protests showed about 45 percent of Ukrainians supporting closer integration with the EU, with a third or less favouring closer ties with Russia. But the protests, and the subsequent police violence, appear to have unleashed anger against the government and tipped the balance more strongly in favour of integration with the EU.

Yanukovych’s trip to China could reveal a possible source of financing that might save the regime’s head. Beijing has already provided Ukraine with $10 billion in loans and promised further economic and trade agreements. China could be a loophole to steer between the two sides battling back home. Being an Eastern substitute to Russia, it both sidesteps the negative connotation of “Ukraine is Russia” and keeps Yanukovych’s Eastern constituency pleased, while tackling the nation’s fiscal anguish.