Murari Sharma: Lessons from Ukraine for Small Countries

Early this month, Russia annexed Crimea. The local government in Crimea hastily organized a referendum, in which among those who voted, 93 percent supported the annexure. History has repeated itself once again reminding small countries of its profound but disturbing lessons.

But before I go into that, let me give you the background if you have not been following recent developments in Ukraine.

Ukraine has been torn between its pro-west and pro-Russia ruling elites since it became independent from the Soviet Union. In the latest episode, pro-west forces launched protests against the pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovich in November 2013 when he refused to sign the association treaty with the European Union in favor of joining the Eurasian Union sponsored by Russia. To resolve the crisis, the two sides agreed on February 21, 2014 to end the protests and hold fresh presidential elections. But western countries did not like the agreement. The protests continued and Yanukovich fled Kiev.

The pro-west elite formed a new government in Kiev. The parliament quickly passed a bill to outlaw the Russian language and shut down Russian television programs, only prevented by the presidential veto from becoming law. There was sporadic violence against the ethnic Russians in Ukraine. Alarmed by all this, the Crimeans, the majority of whom are ethnic Russians, decided to hold the referendum and join Russia.

Crimea was part of Russia until the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian himself, transferred it to Ukraine in 1954. Russia had retained its Black Sea  naval base there under a lease agreement after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Western countries have taken several steps against Russia arguing that the Russian military encouraged Crimeans to secede from Ukraine. They have booted Russia out of G-8 and imposed travel bans on more than 30 senior Russian officials. The EU has hastily signed the association treaty with Ukraine. Western countries have also pushed through a resolution by 100 votes in the 193-member UN General Assembly.

But the crisis is far from over. The Russian minority in eastern Ukraine, the country’s industrial heartland, has been agitating against the Kiev government and demanding a referendum like in Crimea. Russia has amassed a huge force on the Ukrainian boarder.  Ukraine has also mobilized its military on the Russian border.

To prevent a military confrontation, western countries have threatened Russia with additional sanctions should it intervene in eastern Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Russia has no intention to march into the troubled region but he has made it clear that it would try to protect the Russian minority there if they were attacked.

The EU, which has 28 members, is divided on further sanctions. Russia supplies almost 30 percent of gas the EU members consume. Russia-EU annual trade is worth more than 340 million US dollars. London is home to Russian oligarchs and money. So each EU member views additional sanctions against Moscow from its own angle.

For instance, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, etc. want strong measures because they have little to lose. Bulgaria and Romania have a soft corner for Russia on which their economies largely dependent. Britain speaks tough but does not want to lose Russian oligarchs and money. Germany and France do not want to lose Russian gas supply and their exports to Russia.

The US is more aggressive than Europeans because it has very little to lose. Its annual trade with Russia is worth around 24 billion. Among leaders, Republicans like John McCain, the senator from Arizona, sound more hawkish than President Barak Obama, a Democrat. But none of the two parties has the appetite for military engagement with the nuclear Russia in the near abroad.

Besides this political crisis, Ukraine is also in a deep economic crisis. Its growth is slow and it will default on its debt repayment soon if external financial support is not available. Part of the reason Yanukovich had decided to join the Eurasian Union was because Moscow was providing subsidized energy and 15 billion dollars in soft loan while the EU was asking for a series of austerity measures before it was ready sign the association treaty and provide financial assistance.

The economic crisis is going to get worse before it gets better. Russia has asked Ukraine to pay back 3 billion dollars it has already provided, canceled the remaining 12 billion dollars, and pressed to pay the outstanding gas bill of more than 10 billion dollars immediately at a regular rate, not at the heavily subsidized price. Kiev will not get the 18 billion dollars the IMF has committed recently until it begins to make deep cuts in spending and embrace prolonged austerity.  The austerity is sure trigger further unrest in the rump Ukraine as it has in Greece and Spain.

This sorry Ukrainian saga has several important lessons for small countries like Nepal.

First, small countries continue to remain vulnerable to blatant aggression from big countries of all hues in one pretext or another — protecting minorities, preventing humanitarian catastrophe, promoting their own values, etc. However, the real intention behind such aggression is often strategic and economic.

Western countries colonized much of the world to exploit. Germany and Italy occupied much of Europe and parts of Africa during World War II. Japan did it in Korea and South East Asia and China in Tibet and Vietnam. The Soviet Union invaded Hungry, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan and Georgia. More recently, western countries have engaged in aggression in Granada, Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. India invaded East Pakistan and Maldives. Now Russia has annexed Crimea from Ukraine.

Second, unless their strategic or economic interest is at stake, big countries often do not come to protect small countries. Oil-rich Iraq, Kuwait and Libya and oil-less Syria and Palestine get starkly different treatments. So small countries with limited strategic and economic interest for larger countries must fend for themselves from external aggression.

Third, big countries, more than small, are driven by their interest. Western hearts did not bleed for Ukraine; they were only interested in Kiev joining the EU and NATO. They made noise about democracy but did nothing to protect Ukraine’s integrity. Russia loved Crimea to protect its own turf. Not to forget, during the Cold War, both blocs were only interested in expanding their ideological tent.

Fourth, small countries often fall into the trap set by large countries and lose. Big countries use glib rhetoric projecting that they and small countries share the same values and interests. Small countries cannot tell their interests from that of their bigger friends and do things that work against them. Ukraine lost Crimea because of this. Western countries are cutting huge business deals with the worst human rights violators while preaching human rights and freedoms.  China makes big deals with Taiwan but complains when its smaller friends try to engage with Taipei. India trades with Pakistan but dislikes when a smaller neighbor does the same.

Fifth and most problematic, political leaders are interested more in wielding power than in protecting the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. More so in small countries. The Ukrainian nationalists have proved it once again. Rather than tolerate Yanukovich for a few months and keep Crimea, they forced him out and let the territory go to Russia.

This is not the first case and is unlikely to be the last. For instance, the personal rivalry for power between Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, both educated in Britain, was behind the partition of India. Yahiya Khan and Julfikar Bhutto partitioned Pakistan rather than let Sheikh Mujib-ur Rahman of East Pakistan become prime minister. East Timor, Kosovo, and South Sudan have similar stories.

This list of lessons is by no means exhaustive. But it is sufficient to warn: Small countries, including Nepal, beware!!!

30 March 2014


Murari Sharma: West and Russia Share Blame in Ukraine

Today, the Crimeans are voting in a referendum to decide whether they want to rejoin Russia or exercise greater autonomy within Ukraine. This is a result of the crisis created by the contest between Western countries and Russia to maintain their control over Ukraine. Both sides have blamed each other for the crisis and Western countries have threatened to impose sanctions against Moscow if Crimeans decided to secede from Ukraine. However, both sides must share equal blame if Ukraine disintegrated.

Crimea has a tortured history. All major past empires in the region invaded and occupied the peninsula at different periods. The territory came under Russia in 1856 at the end of the Crimean war. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian, transferred the territory from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 without any problem. Crimea, where Russians constitute the majority, has now become a serious issue.

Big power rivalry has been building up there ever since the Soviet Union broke and Ukraine became independent 1990. The United States and the European Union have been pushing the idea of giving Ukraine NATO and EU membership but Russia has consistently opposed it.

 After the breakup 1990, Moscow either did not or could not prevent several other Warsaw Pact members from joining the NATO or EU. It could have been because either Russia was too weak at that time or the countries that have already joined the Western alliances were not as important strategically and culturally as Ukraine.

 Ukraine has a special place in Russian psyche and strategy. The foundation of Russian empire and religion were also laid in Kiev, the capital of the now troubled country. And Ukraine is large, shares common border with Russia, and is the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea fleet located at Crimea. That is why Moscow has been trying to keep Ukraine in its orbit harder than other Eastern European countries. 

 This is not the first time Western and Russian interests have clashed in the post-1990 period over Ukraine. In 2004, the West-supported Orange Revolution dislodged the pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych, and the pro-West Viktor Yushchenko became president. Yanukovych came back to power as prime minister in 2006. In the snap election in 2007, the pro-West Yulia Tymoshenko became prime minister. As the economy suffered under Tymoshenko, Yanukovych won the presidential elections in 2010.

Yushchenko and Tymoshenko had sought to align Ukraine with the NATO and EU. But Yanukovych changed course and decided to join the Eurasian Union propagated by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The West supported the opposition to mount protests in Kiev early this year. On February 21, an agreement was reached between Yanukovych and the opposition to settle the crisis, but the West persuaded the opposition to walk out of the agreement. 

As the agreement failed, Yanukovych fled the capital on February 22. The protestors formed a pro-West regime in Kiev and the parliament passed a new bill cancelling the second language status for Russian. This outraged Russian-speaking eastern Ukrainians, who mounted their own anti-Kiev protests. Russia supported them.

In this fight between two elephants to secure their hegemony over Ukraine, Crimea decided to hold the referendum taking place today. In this vote, the Crimeans will decide whether the Crimea becomes an integral part of Russia or remains an autonomous part of Ukraine, the two choices given in the referendum.

If the West had exercised caution, this climax could have been avoided. If Western countries had not sent their leaders to Kiev to express their support for the new regime and begun to work on a financial package Ukraine desperately needs to remain solvent, Russia would not have withdrawn its financial package. Neither would it have any ground to mobilize the military outside its naval base in Crimea which is maintained under a lease agreement.   

In the contest of their strategic interests, neither Western countries nor Russia ever thought about what was best for Ukraine and what the Ukrainian people themselves wanted. Now Ukraine and its people are suffering the consequences of this unfortunate contest. That is a tragedy.

Aggressive military posture taken by Russia in Crimea is wrong. So are the Western provocation and the draconian sanctions to punish Moscow. Therefore, both Russia and Western countries need to step back and let the Ukrainian people decide what they want. The status quo ante of 21 February and the agreement signed between Yanukovych and his opponents on that day could be the best starting point. It may still save the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Russia needs to understand that it does not have the international law, wherewithal and competitive strength to outplay the West. The West must understand that it does not enjoy moral high ground and capacity to bend Russia. 

The West has no moral case to make in Crimea after what it has done in Kosovo, South Sudan, Timore L’este, Iraq and many other places. Russia trying to maintain its influence in Ukraine is akin to the United States trying to invoke the Monroe Doctrine for the Americas. I do not agree with the Monroe Doctrine or its Russian counterpart, but I have no hesitation to say that they are one and the same.

Neither does the West have enough strength to bend Moscow over Ukraine. If the United States has not been able to shatter Cuba next door with several decades of strict sanctions, it could not cow down Russia, the second largest nuclear power and one of the largest economies in the world, with its sanctions. Russia could retaliate by turning off the gas pipes to Western Europe and by seizing Western assets in its territories.

Sober reflection suggests that Washington needs Moscow as much as Moscow needs Washington for world peace, security and progress. So the best Western policy would still be to let Ukrainian people sort out their differences themselves and decide what they want, without any external interference. If the Ukrainian people want Western help, let them decide so through a democratic process. If they want Russia to help them, so be it.

Otherwise, Western countries, which might have already lost Crimea for Ukraine in today’s referendum, would only encourage the rump Ukraine to descend into violence and split into two.  

Murari Sharma: New Prime Minister’s Challenges

Prime Minister Sushil Koirala has finally formed the cabinet. It gives hope that the country will have a democratic constitution within a year, as pledged, and a stable government. I believe the administration is well-placed to deliver, but it would be premature to be confident that it will.

A coalition of the Nepali Congress Party and the Communist Party of Nepal (UML), this government enjoys nearly a two-thirds majority, in the Constituent Assembly, which is sufficient to approve the new constitution. Besides, the two parties are not too far apart on the two most contentious issues -– federalism and form of government — faced by the CA I.

While they might have some differences, both coalition partners support economically viable multi-identity states in federal Nepal. A compromise had eluded the CA I because the UCPN (Maoist), then the largest party, had stood for ethnic states in the hills and the Madheshi parties had fought for a geographical state in the entire Terai. They did not have the math on their side.

On the form of government, the NC, the largest in the current CA, is wedded to the parliamentary system. The UML, the second largest, supports executive power shared by president and prime minister, as in France. The two could agree on either model. Failing that, a popularly elected prime minister and a president elected by the national and state legislatures could be a possible compromise.

Because of its strength, the coalition has the ability to offer a stable government. If the current Tory-LibDem coalition government in Britain is any guide, such administration does not have to be unstable or ineffective at all.

However, it could be a huge mistake to assume that Koirala’s sail from here will be smooth and easy. The Maoist and ethnic parties will fight to the hilt for ethnic states and the Madheshi parties will struggle for a geographical province. Both these groups will use the house and the streets to block the NC-UML’s economically viable multi-ethnic states.

External influence will also come into play and make the task inordinately complex. The Madheshi parties enjoy sympathy of the southern neighbor for their demand. While the northern neighbor is apprehensive about ethnic states, Western donors support them.

The traditional rivalry and competition between the NC and UML is likely to come in the way of the statute and stability, for several reasons. First, the NC is reluctant to go for the election of the president and vice-president before the statute is promulgated. But the UML wants it immediately. This issue can pull the NC and UML apart.

It leads to the second reason. The UML’s KP Oli, parliamentary party leader, and the NC’s Sher Bahadur Deuba and Ram Chandra Paudel are desperate to become prime minister. They could betray Koirala at the first hint of his weakness and try to dislodge him, which will accentuate the factional rifts in both parties and lead the NC to its political suicide.

In fact, Oli and Deuba tried to torpedo Koirala soon after he was elected prime minister. Though the 7-point agreement between the NC and UML does not commit the Home Ministry to the UML, Oli threatened to pull out of the accord and stay out of government if his party did not get that portfolio. Deuba held back the names of his supporters for the cabinet, hoping that he could throw his hat in the ring if the UML stayed out.

There are some other contentious issues as well. For instance, the cabinet lacks inclusiveness. Ethnic groups, women and dalits are woefully unrepresented or under-represented. Also, there are grumblings in both coalition partners about some districts and groups over represented and others non-represented.

Although in bad taste, such conflicts are integral to politics whose goal is to acquire and retain power. In power games, often brutal and bloody tactics are pursued. Countries have waged wars for power. Princes have killed their sovereign fathers for it. Generals have incarcerated and killed their political masters. Any effort to outmaneuver one’s opponent or competitor is the kindest of all these strategies.

Unmarried and free from family obligations and temptations, Sushil Koirala could maintain his personal integrity. But the question is whether he could be gutsy and effective to keep his alliance partners clean, take fearless action against those who breach the line, retain the support of friends, make new allies, blunt the attacks of foes, and deliver. It is a big challenge.

More so in view of Koirala’s limited strength and experience. His fractious party does not have a majority in the house. His pick of ministers from the NC has made several of his colleagues unhappy. He has never been a minister and never actively led any organization. He became his party’s president by default. When Girija Prasad Koirala, his cousin brother and de facto party president died, he was acting president.

If Sushil Koirala can deliver the new statute within a year and stable government until the next election, his party will be rewarded with victory; he may continue as prime minister after the elections, even though he has promised to quit. If he cannot fulfill his promises, voters will pummel him and his party, as they did the Maoists in the recent ballots.

Often arrogant and irresponsible, the Maoists tried to write a hybrid of ethnic-communist constitution and failed. Governments were frequently changed. So voters punished the Maoists and their collaborators in other parties.

Sushil Koirala’s success will depend on his capacity and skills to learn fast on his job, to prevent his colleagues and opponents from pulling him down, and to get the best out of his competitors and opponents. If he can deliver the constitution and stable government, he would be remembered as one of the most successful prime ministers of Nepal.