Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Fears of Abandonment

Barack Obama's upcoming trip to Asia--to Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan, specifically--comes at a distressing time for America's friends in the region. Sure, there are the historical differences between Japan and South Korea that have resurfaced because of various statements and moves by Shinzo Abe and various figures in his administration. But the heart of these anxieties revolves around China, the growing behemoth that's looming over the present and future of Asia.

America's allies, such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia and Taiwan, to name but a few, are facing the prospect of a rising China economically and militarily dominating the region. On the economic front, there is the risk that they'll eventually be "Finlandized," as a natural course of trade and commercial ties with China. That is to say, growing interdependence in the region, with China as the central economic hub, will gradually realign the interests of America's friends in ways that are consistent with Beijing's. In short, they'll simply get sucked into China's orbit.

Meantime, on military and security matters, China's rapidly increasing defense budgets, its streamlined foreign policy apparatus, and its improving naval capabilities threaten the safety and security of countries in Asia. In response, U.S. allies, like the Philippines, have resorted to legal recourse to resolve disputes. They have also ramped up their defense budgets and are in the process of procuring the newest and latest vessels, subs, aircraft, and so on. But most important is the role of the U.S. in preserving a balance of power throughout the region. Even U.S. allies readily admit this.

The problem, though, is that these countries fear being abandoned by the U.S., that America won't have their back in times of need. These fears of abandonment are acute at the moment. You see, U.S. allies are concerned about what they see from the Obama administration, Washington and America more generally. And what they observe is a weakened, distracted and increasingly inward-focused U.S., one that's suffering from a political, security and economic malaise.

What's the evidence? Where to begin?

1. America is still recovering from its worst economic catastrophe in 70 years, and has implementing widespread budget cuts, particularly on foreign affairs. Will the U.S. have the financial wherewithal to provide a meaningful, longstanding commitment to Asia?

2. As seen in last year's government shutdown, which forced Obama to cancel his planned trip to Asia, America's Congress is dysfunctional, too often prone to partisan politics and bickering, rendering the body unable to deal effectively with issues and problems--whether these issues and problems are at home, Europe, Ukraine, the Middle East or Asia. Congress, at this point, is purely a reactive body. But is that sufficient to deal with the rise of China?

3. Asian countries widely believe that the U.S. can't pivot from the Middle East. Too many problems, too many interest groups, and too much oil will dictate that America won't be able to "rebalance" from the Middle East to Asia. Asia will remain second fiddle, at best, in U.S. foreign policy.

4. After more than a decade of two wars, with dollars and human lives lost forever, America is seemingly retreating from the world. Even polling data is now starting to support this assessment. An inward-looking America doesn't have the time or patience or resources for Asia, right?

5. And then there's Ukraine. Rumblings from Asia indicate that local leaders are alarmed at how Team Obama has handled the dismemberment of Ukrainian territory. In their view, Obama has effectively given Putin a free pass at annexing Crimea and possibly parts of Eastern Ukraine. They worry that his passive stance toward Russia is how he would deal with China in the event that Beijing attempts to seize control over the South and East China Seas. And quite frankly, given how Obama responded to China's ADIZ over the East China Sea last November, they have just cause to be very concerned.

All of the above, combined, points to the idea that there are good reasons to question how committed the U.S. will be to its Asian allies over the long-term. As should be obvious, one visit to the region by Obama will hardly soothe all of these concerns. And promises--either by Obama or his associates--will help but will only go so far. Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan want concrete action.

It's a good thing that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is on Obama's agenda. In my view, getting the TPP done and ratified--of course, something that's far from guaranteed, for lots of reasons--would probably help America's friends the most. As an institutionalized mechanism, it forces the U.S. to make a long-term commitment to the region. The TPP would likely strengthen the economies of participating countries--most importantly, Australia, Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam--especially in relation to China. And it would also enable the U.S. and its Asian partners to begin to write the economic rules that will define the 21st century, the rules by which China will have to abide.

The TPP isn't a panacea, to be sure. But it's the type of tool that the U.S. ought to be thinking about more in the context of its ties to Asia. Heck, maybe the TPP could get the ball rolling for the U.S. to start drafting ideas on security institutions in Asia. For instance, what about an Asian NATO? Or maybe a more loose security framework, like a non-aggression pact? Something to think about.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

What We Learned From the 2014 Indonesian Parliamentary Elections

1. Joko Widodo is not invincible

In the past few months, virtually every political poll declared that Joko Widodo (also known as Jokowi), the current governor of Jakarta, is a shoo-in to be the next Indonesian president. All surveys noted that the PDI-P, Jokowi's party, would gain a huge boost in the election by declaring Jokowi to be its presidential candidate.

Thus there were a lot of finger-pointing when the quick-count result showed that the PDI-P only received 19% of the vote, far below many optimistic projections by the polls. [A self-disclosure: I made a prediction that the PDI-P would gain around mid-20% of the vote, so, yes, I also made a bad prediction.]

Granted, 19% of the vote is a respectable gain and that still puts the PDI-P as the front-runner. Still, with all the euphoria about Jokowi, the result may disappoint people within the PDI-P and open the floodgate of criticisms from people within the PDI-P who are opposed to Jokowi's candidacy (because he is not part of the old guard and a relatively a newcomer to the national politics), questioning where's the so-called the "Jokowi effect," which promised to bring the PDI-P the windfall of voters.

There are three problems with this argument.

First, there is a lot of evidence, both anecdotal and also in surveys, that the PDI-P wouldn't gotten its 19% of the vote without Jokowi. In the last election, the PDI-P only garnered 14% of the vote, and at this point, there is basically a "Megawati fatigue" (Megawati is the head of the party and the PDI-P's candidate for presidency in 2009) that would have driven voters away had Megawati run again this time. So, in a sense, the PDI-P would probably do far worse without Jokowi as the standard bearer. (Also keep in mind that in the past few weeks, Jokowi was the target of almost every black campaign circulating in Indonesia.)

Second, it was only very late in the race that Megawati decided to declare Jokowi as the PDI-P's candidate for presidency, making many people very suspicious about whether Megawati was sincere in putting Jokowi forward.

Third, there is also speculation that people simply didn't see the correlation of voting for the PDI-P now as vote for Jokowi later -- they simply didn't vote for the PDI-P because they don't identify themselves with that party, but they are going to vote for Jokowi. So basically there's a disconnect.

While it is too early to declare that Jokowi's candidacy dead -- he is still, I think, the most popular politician in Indonesia and has the best shot to be the next president; however, his aura of invincibility is broken. Fair or not, Jokowi and the PDI-P's inability to live up the hype has resulted in damage to the Jokowi brand. And worse for him, up until now, the media, afraid of his popularity, has been treating him very gently. This setback may embolden some of the media, owned by his opponents, to start hitting him.

UPDATE: Right on cue, the circular firing squad had begun (in Indonesian).

2. The Big winner: Prabowo Subianto

Regardless of what you think about him, it has to be admitted that Prabowo Subianto is the big winner in this election. His Gerindra Party's share of the vote almost tripled, propelling the party from the bottom of the barrel to the third largest share of votes in the election. 

Moreover, with Jokowi's aura of invincibility broken, Prabowo's ambition to be the next Indonesian president, already written off by many analysts, just got another breath of life. Should he play his cards right, he might be able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

3. Reports of the death of religious parties have been greatly exaggerated

The religiously moderate parties, in spite of several public opinion surveys predicting them to receive around 3-4% of the vote, and thus written off as dead, managed to stay alive. This is especially the case for the PKB, which benefited from its relationship with Nadlatul Ulama, its parent organization. On the other hand, radical Islamist parties, such as the PKS, saw their support decline.

4. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is still an important player in Indonesian politics

While the president and his party have been battered by corruption scandals and accusations of ineffectual leadership, the president is relatively still popular and this translated into a quite respectable result of 9% of the vote for the Democratic Party of Indonesia. Granted, this is far cry from the party's previous showing in 2009. Still, without the president's influence, it is very likely that the party's performance would be far worse.

5. Expect horse-trading in coming weeks

Because no party received the minimum required percentage of votes to name a presidential candidate (the rules stipulates that only a party or a coalition of parties that receives 25% of popular vote or 20% of the parliamentarian seats could nominate a presidential candidate), there will be a lot of deal-making and deal-breaking in the next few weeks. 

Golkar, which received the second largest share of votes in the election, is where the action will be. The party has always been a part of government since Suharto formed the party in the 1960s; and since the Reformation, the party has always been a part of governing coalition, and many people in the party want the tradition to continue. 

This time, however, Golkar is led by the unpopular Aburizal Bakrie, who has nominated himself to be the party's candidate for president. Already, there are rumblings from within the party, wanting Aburizal Bakrie to withdraw his candidacy or at least allow members in the party to be courted as vice-presidential candidate by more popular candidates, such as Jokowi or Prabowo.

Expect a lot of internal squabbling in the next few weeks, especially should Bakrie remain adamant to fulfill his presidential ambitions.

6. Next government may not be as good as hoped

'Nuff said.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

This Is Not a New Cold War

“To make my future bright, I reach for the fire of the past” say the Tatars. Indeed, the fire of the past is in many ways the only thing we can use to make sense of what’s happening in Ukraine today. Yet it seems that the immediate past, and not the more distant past, is what we are using for our guiding light, which I believe it incredibly wrong and counter-productive. Having undergone a major shift in academic, personal and professional interests from history to political science around five years ago, of late I find myself getting back to my early education in Russian history. My past few posts, especially the one co-authored with my colleagues and my Primer on Ukraine are a prime example of this- have been written with the aim of providing a sense of guidance in these confusing times.

As the heat continues to ratchet up in the Ukraine crisis, in the West the war drum is beating to the sound of the Cold War mentality. People have been saying things in the media like “How can we say there isn’t a new Cold War with Russia? Just look at what’s going on!”. This attitude, however, shows a grave and fundamental flaw in general thinking on Eurasian geopolitics, and more specifically, a tendency to view Russia in a very myopic way.

I have often bemoaned what I perceive as a continued “Cold War mindset” in the US toward Russia. Some have attributed this to the fact that so many of our policymakers were people who made their bones during the Reagan years or before. This, I believe, was more common, and perhaps more justifiable, during the George W. Bush administration, when indeed several key members of the government had been in service since the 1970’s. While there may be some truth to this, I think the bigger issue is a grave public misunderstanding of Winston Churchill’s “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” (In this case, Russia). It’s important to make this distinction between a “Cold War” in which ideology is the driving factor and a revived, expansionist quasi-imperialist Russia because while political ideology can be bought or corrupted by money, a revived nationalism is much more potent and will drive the Russians to do bigger and bolder things.

The “Cold War,” in the strictest sense of the term, was an ideological battle between the democratic, capitalist West and the authoritarian, centralized and command-economy East. In many ways, however, the Cold War was a continuation of the historic battle between Russia and the West that has continued in one form or another for centuries. The biggest differences between the Great Game and the Cold War, however, were the emphasis on ideology over imperial glory in the latter, and the fact that Russia was already in control of the so-called “Eurasian heartland.” It is the control of this Eurasian space that constitutes the biggest factor in the current Ukrainian crisis.

“Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire.” Among Eurasia analysts, this is one of the most oft-quoted maxims in the field, which comes from Jimmy Carter’s former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. Halford Mackinder stated in his “Heartland Theory” that whoever controlled the Eurasian heartland controlled the world. During the Cold War, Eurasia--including Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia--were all under the command of the Russia-dominated Soviet Union. When the USSR collapsed, a large portion of Eurasia re-opened. Now that Russia is more vulnerable and has lost a considerable amount of its strategic depth, it is seeking to re-expand its empire, and Ukraine is the keystone in the “European” facet of Russia’s Eurasian empire.

Secretary of State John Kerry told CBS’s Face the Nation a few weeks ago "You just don't in the 21st Century behave in 19th Century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext." That comment reveals a lot about Russia’s current actions. As Russia re-emerged from the ashes of the collapse of the USSR, it needed to find a new identity, and naturally it went back to what it could connect with before the Soviet Union; it revived many of the symbols and ideas of the Tsarist era. Indeed today many believe that Russia’s greatness on the world stage can only be had through imperialist expansion, which is arguably what is happening in Crimea, even if Crimeans themselves vote to join Russia. After all, how many imperial possessions have countries obtained from groups seeking protectorate status from a larger power (a case-in-point is Russia’s takeover of Georgia in the early 1800’s, which began as a Georgian request for Russian protection against the Ottoman Muslims).

Some parallels can actually be drawn, I feel, with the current military standoff in Crimea and the Crimean War of 1853-1856. In theory the Crimean War was about who had the rights to protect Christian shrines in the Ottoman Empire’s Palestine. In reality, however, it was an attempt by Russia to stave off the great Western powers, particularly France and the United Kingdom, from taking strategic control of the Black Sea region in light of the declining Ottoman Empire, known by then as the “sick man of Europe.” Now, with the potential that Russia has “lost” Ukraine to Europe, it has taken the opportunity in Ukraine’s uncertain domestic situation to assert control militarily. While it is taking a gamble by sending troops into part of a country that directly borders several NATO allies, Russia has calculated that the West will not respond militarily- no doubt informed, in part, by the West’s relative lack of action in Georgia.

It would be unfair to place blame squarely on the shoulders of Americans for seeing things in this light, however. Russian ideologue Aleskandr Prokhanov has openly stated that he has worked “day and night” for a new Cold War between Russia and the West. The idea is that this will allow Russia to make a substantial re-orientation toward China. Nevertheless, the point is that by continually referring to our relations with Russia in the context of the Cold War risks creating a broad view in the American public of Russia as it’s portrayed in The Hunt for Red October. On the level of the policy makers in Washington and, to a lesser extent, Brussels, if they too continue to see the crisis through this prism, it can only serve to worsen things and cause the West to err and blunder. If we are going to deal with this new crisis in Russia-West relations, we need to give it the proper historic depth and perspective it deserves.

The current conflict in Ukraine is not part of a new, repackaged or revived “Cold War,” and to say that it is shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Cold war was all about. The conflict is rather part of the broader contention for Eurasia, of which Ukraine is a relatively small but pivotally important part. We need to stop referring to the current standoff between Russia and the West as a “new Cold War” in order to break out of that outmoded mentality. I argue that instead of looking to our immediate past, one which we can much better understand given that it is still very much within living memory, we need to look even further into the past to understand what is truly going on. If we are going to deal this this crisis, we may as well try to start off with a proper view of it.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

China's Lessons Learned from Ukraine

I've read a number of critical takes on Team Obama's response to the events in Ukraine, and many fear that the administration is acting far too "weakly" in the face of Russia's provocations. These critics, of course, want Obama to respond with strong punitive measures. Why? The gist is that the U.S. has to act and look strong to avoid emboldening states from learning the lesson that conquest and aggression pays. They might be right. As a global leader, perhaps it is up to the U.S., along with its Western allies, to uphold this norm in international relations.

That said, there is one specific argument put forward by Obama's detractors that I find profoundly dubious. The argument is that China is rapidly learning that the U.S. is weak when it comes to confronting foreign countries aggressively asserting their sovereignty over contested territories. The critics worry that China will learn these lessons and apply them to its own regional claims in the South and East China Seas, emboldening Beijing to further up its aggressiveness in these areas. If this were to happen, the critics claim, East Asia and surrounding areas could turn into a tinderbox.

Could this happen? Sure, it's possible; lots of things are possible, for that matter. But to buy that argument we would have to assume China's leaders are simpletons who make wild comparisons between cases, no matter what these cases look like. I don't see China's leaders in those terms.

Put simply, Chinese leaders know that Russia's intervention in Ukraine is not neatly analogous to China's own hypothetical moves in the South and East China Seas. China knows that U.S. has much stronger interests on the line in East Asia, and Asia more generally, than in Ukraine, which really isn't a big strategic factor in U.S. foreign policy. South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, to name but a few countries, have territorial disputes with China, but they are also strong allies of the U.S. Any Chinese move that harms the sovereignty of any of these allies--and that includes their territorial claims--would trigger vigorous and likely immediate economic, political, diplomatic, and military countermeasures by Team Obama. I'm not saying that the U.S. would necessarily be ready to wage war against China should it formally annex disputed islands; but it would most assuredly, in my view, be willing and prepared to contribute the kind of assistance that's designed to get China to back down.

Furthermore, Russia nowadays isn't a serious competitor to the U.S. for influence and leadership in the world. Oh certainly, Russia, especially under Putin, is a irritant and a troublemaker on a host of issues, from Iran and Syria to Georgia and now Ukraine. But Russia isn't the Soviet Union. It lacks the economic, political, military, and soft power to rival America's standing in the world. In fact, Russia is so weakened that the EU and NATO, with U.S. support and encouragement, have expanded right to its doorstep, something that was unthinkable just a few decades ago.

Should Russia permanently capture Crimea, or even Eastern Ukraine as well, those additions don't reverse the decline in Russian power and they don't tip the balance of power in Europe. Those moves would put the West on edge, to be sure, and ratchet up Russian-Western tensions and hostilities. But in the big picture, they don't mean terribly much strategically.

China, meantime, is an ascendant Red Panda, expanding its material bases of power year by year. It now possesses the second largest economy and military. Additionally, over the last decade, it has expanded and upgraded its ties to states across the world; garnered significantly more clout and respect in regional and international institutions; and is treated as a great power by a substantial number of countries. China is seen as indispensable on a number of consequential issues, like stability and nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula, the world economy, climate change. But along with China's rise is the growing fear--within both the policy and academic communities--that China, in the coming years, will look to kick the presence of the U.S. out of East Asia. In the parlance of John Mearsheimer, China wants to establish regional hegemony in Asia.

It is in this vein that Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, among others, are important to the U.S. They are a part of the American-led bulwark that's essential to contain and inhibit China's actions throughout Asia. They are important for the U.S. to keep a strong foothold in the region. China is aware of this. Chinese leaders realize that aggressive military plans and actions, especially those involving these four countries, will ineluctably draw a significant response by the U.S. Arguably, this is one of the reasons that China has embarked on a "salami slicing" approach to its territorial claims. Better to move slow and carefully, nibbling a little at a time, so as to not provoke a coalition that jeopardizes China's rise.

In the end, it is very possible that China is distilling lessons from the ongoing hostilities in Ukraine. And one day China might use deadly force to satisfy its ambitions in its own region. However, if that does happen, it will be unrelated to America's reaction to Russia's aggression in Ukraine.

The Limits of Putin's Ambitions

Is Ukraine the new Sudetenland?

In light of Russia's invasion of Crimea, which belonged to Ukraine, Zbigniew Brzezinski apparently thought so:
[Putin] initial success may tempt him to repeat that performance more directly in the far eastern provinces of Ukraine proper. If successful, the conclusive third phase could then be directed, through a combination of political unrest and increasingly overt use of Russian forces, to overthrow the government in Kiev. The result would thus be similar to the two phases of Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland after Munich in 1938 and the final occupation of Prague and Czechoslovakia in early 1939.
That quote, however, completely overestimates Russia's power and Putin's willingness to launch wars to regain the lost Soviet Empire.

For starters, Russia's power and ability to project isn't nearly comparable to Germany's capabilities in 1938. Germany had the ability to expand not only because Hitler was convinced that France, Italy and Great Britain would do nothing to prevent him (in France and Britain's case, it was more due to the lack of public appetite for another war), but more importantly, because at that time, the distribution of power was relatively equal.

In addition, keep in mind Putin's Russia is not an isolated hermit kingdom. It is deeply linked to international economy. Already the fallout from Russia's invasion led the Ruble to fall to a record low. Still, this does not mean that Putin is what Merkel termed as "in another world." In fact, Putin is a very rational leader who knows the limits of what he can and cannot do.

He knows that he needs Crimea because it houses the Black Sea Fleet -- not to mention its historical importance to Russians. Taking over entire Ukraine, however, is not something that he can do, and he knows this. Instead, Putin is pushing for the Georgia scenario, wherein he takes over parts of the country, setting up a de-facto local government under Russian protection. He knows that as long as he doesn't swallow all of Ukraine, the international community will puff and huff, but nothing will come out from it.

Well, listen, how do you think I feel about it? Can you imagine how I feel about it, Vladimir? Why do you think I'm calling you? Just to say hello? Of course I like to speak to you! Of course I like to say hello! Not now, but any time, Vladimir. It's a friendly call. Of course, it's a friendly call. Listen, if it wasn't friendly, you probably wouldn't have even got it. 

Meantime, Putin has looked into Obama's eyes and saw that Obama lacks guts. He looks at how Obama bungled Syria and had no appetite for any foreign adventures. Since Obama is so powerless against a small fry like Assad, why would Putin believe that Obama is willing to face the big bear that backs Assad?  [Khrushschev might have made this error when he forced the Cuban Missile Crisis on Kennedy, underestimating Kennedy's willingness to fight. But Crimea is not Cuba.]

Besides, Putin holds some precious cards, notably Russia's ability to make life miserable for people in Ukraine and European Union by cutting off the supply of natural gas. Of course Putin won't do that -- at least for now. It is more effective to force the European Union to waffle and do nothing by simply putting that on the table. Moreover, by taking over Crimea without significant international repercussions, it's likely that the Ukrainian new government will toe the Russian line very carefully.

Thus, there will be so much hot air puffed in the next few weeks, but at the end of the day, Russia will stay in Crimea. Ukraine will seethe but they know that they can do nothing; the European Union, as usual, will keep debating until the cows come home; and Obama will remain a lame duck in international affairs until 2016.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Primer on Ukraine

As CWCP’s main analyst of Russian and Eurasian affairs, I have been notably silent on the current situation in Ukraine. My main reasons for keeping comment on the situation mostly limited to my Twitter feed are that I had written an article this fall (well before the protests of the Maidan began) published in Ukrainian Quarterly in which I highlighted that Ukraine was coming upon a critical time in its geopolitical orientation, and have focused my more recent writings about countries and issues in Eurasian geopolitics, such as Moldova’s Gagauzia region and Serbia, that tend to be overlooked. Nevertheless, we here at CWCP feel it’s time to make our voice heard on the issue of Ukraine’s Euromaidan.

Ukraine seems to be something of the darling of the community of Eastern Europe/post-Soviet space analysts--even well before the protests, it seems everyone was particularly interested in Ukraine. While some may dismiss this as some sort of “jumping on the bandwagon” in the analytical community, it is not without reason or justification. Not only does the sheer geographic size of Ukraine make it among the most important states in Eastern Europe, but from the standpoint of the geopolitical analyst, in many ways it encapsulates the spirit of the grand geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West.

The media have mostly focused on the battle between protesters in the streets and the Ukrainian security services. As so much focus has tended to be on the actual domestic situation in Ukraine, it’s easy to overlook the broader geopolitical interplay and the implications for Europe as a whole.

In 1795, Ukraine was part of what was known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Throughout the 18th century, Poland-Lithuania was subjected to a geopolitical struggle between the Austrian, Prussian (German) and Russian empires. All three kingdoms sought to control the Commonwealth by installing a leader loyal to them by way of Poland-Lithuania’s elective monarchy. During the last third of the 18th century, there was a series of treaties between the three kingdoms, which led to what we call the “Partitions of Poland.” Insofar as Ukraine is concerned, the eastern half of modern Ukraine was taken by Russia, and the western half by Austria. This history accounts in part for the regional east-west divide in Ukraine today, which has pitted half of the country in favor or closer ties with Europe, and the other half inclined toward Russia. This also explains in part why we have not seen the massive protests we are witnessing in Ukraine in a place like Armenia, which has taken it a step further than Ukraine and stated that they will fully integrate with the Russia-led Customs Union, and that they will not hold bilateral trade talks with the EU, but rather that any commercial discussions between Armenia and the EU will take place in the context of the Customs Union.

A sort of lackadaisical mindset toward Europe, in particular Eastern Europe, seems to have settled into the mindset of the U.S. policy, analytical and other such communities. We tend to think that nothing bad can happen in Europe now that the Cold War is over. NATO has been searching for a purpose since that period. Particularly since so much of Central and Eastern Europe has acceded to the EU and NATO, we tend to overlook that region, and comfortably assume that those parts of the region that have not already joined the West’s supranational structures will soon follow.

I will never forget when I was preparing to apply for graduate school my adviser on the matter, who happened to be a Central Europe specialist, told me I’d be better off focusing on the Caucasus and Central Asia rather than Europe itself, because, my adviser believed, Central and Eastern Europe would be “better behaved” and that not much would come from them. To be sure, this is not 1989, and while it’s true that we shouldn’t expect throngs of protesters jingling their keys in the streets of Prague or Romanians putting their president and his wife on mock trial before live TV cameras, we are currently witnessing a major political crisis not on the periphery of Europe, but at its very heart. Crises that have occurred in Europe since the end of the Cold War have taken place in areas that many dismiss as being pseudo-European or with one foot in Europe and one in the “east” (namely Bosnia and Georgia). Now, however, we cannot deny that Europe itself is facing a majorly unsettling turn of events, and European security is being threatened in an undeniable way at its very core.

The macro-level view of the situation begs two questions: Should Ukraine split into two separate countries? And what is the likelihood of a civil war? To these I can only offer some general insights and cautionary notes. It seems that most level-headed people agree that Ukraine should stay united; this is what I have gathered from both my American colleagues as well as Ukrainians I have spoken to, many of whom are pro-European and hail from the country’s western half. The same argument against Ukrainian division seems to coincide with that concerning the possible severing of Scotland from the UK-- western Ukraine is primarily agricultural, while most of the country’s industry is in the east. A “Republic of Western Ukraine” would not likely survive on its own economically, and would have to depend on the largesse of the EU or Poland in particular.

As to the second question, some spoke of the fear of a civil war in Ukraine ten years ago during the Orange Revolution. While we are witnessing a great deal of violence, to be sure, a civil war does not seem likely or imminent at this point. Having said that, one of the main points of my article is to highlight the fact that the days of American and Western European dismissal of the possibility of violence and instability in Eastern Europe are over. There is a possibility that, if the situation escalates, senior military and police commanders may take their troops and personnel and bring them to the service of the side of the conflict they support, based on their own regional, religious and linguistic background (remember that the eastern half of Ukraine is largely Russian-speaking and Orthodox of the Moscow Patriarchate persuasion, while the west is largely Ukrainian-speaking and adheres to the Ukrainian Catholic or Ukrainian Orthodox Kyiv Patriarchate). Of course, there is the possibility of a repeat of the situation in Bosnia’s conflict when external suppliers came to meet the needs of the warring factions selling them weapons. Already there is one Russian biker gang, the Night Wolves, participating in the anti-Maidan activities.

At the end of the day, our ability to think of Europe as a sunny paradise is over. How far the situation will escalate with of curse depend on domestic political considerations as well as external diplomatic factors. One thing is for sure: the focus in Eurasian geopolitics has undoubtedly shifted toward the “Eur-“ part of the phrase.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Legitimacy Crises and Reform in Indonesian Democracy

A recent article on a handful of semi- and consolidated-democracies in Southeast Asia caught my attention. The article's author, Lin Neumann, argues that instability, gridlock and power-hungry leaders, are harming the political systems in Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia and Indonesia and creating a widespread legitimacy crisis. Given the protests and unrest in Thailand and Cambodia and the one-party rule in Malaysia, it's no surprise Neumann chose to talk about these three countries. What is surprising is that Neumann lumped Indonesia, a seemingly stable and increasingly prosperous country, with Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia.

What's his justification? Neumann's beef is that Jakarta Governor Joko Widowo, or Jokowi as he's known locally, is by far the most popular politician in Indonesia, and with presidential elections right around the corner, it would seem that he would have the inside track to be SBY's heir to the leadership mantle. Alas, that's not necessarily the case. Elders in the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), threatened by Jokowi's rise, could block his road to political advancement.
Here is the money paragraph:
Jokowi is a true outsider and he now enjoys a 30-point lead in several opinion polls over his closest rival for July's election. But his position as a candidate is dependent on the most opaque process possible--former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the chairman of the party to which Jokowi belongs, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), has the sole power to determine the party's candidate. Should she decide to run for president for a fourth time (she lost in direct elections in 2004 and 2009 and settled for No. 2 in 1999), she would deny the popular will with no recourse for the public unless Jokowi broke ranks with the PDI-P, which is considered highly unlikely.
So what does this mean? All of this could very well put a dent in the armor of Indonesia's democratic political system. According to Neumann, "For many Indonesians, a presidential election without Jokowi could also be seen as illegitimate, just another exercise by the elite to reshuffle the deck chairs out of fear that a genuine reformer might upset cozy deals and bring a commitment to greater transparency into the opaque world of Indonesian governance."

What Neumann is talking about here, broadly speaking, is the notion of a deficit in democracy. This is a common theme in studies of democratic political systems, both mature and young systems. Here in the United States there is considerable talk about how big money--individual and corporate donors--influences and distorts electoral outcomes. Moreover, in unstable democracies, with weak and fragile institutions, we often see leaders pack legislatures and judicial branches with followers and sycophants. There is also the tendency for democratic leaders to use media outlets as their own personal political instrument. It's also not uncommon for senior political elites, as Neumann points out, to block the rise of upstart politicians, forcing them to wait their turn or simply shutting them out altogether from political ascension. I could go on, as the democracy deficit literature is quite voluminous.

It's tempting to suggest that Indonesia political parties ought to decentralize if not democratize the selection of candidates who will run in legislative and presidential elections. That would be a wonderful step. The rub, of course, is that those changes in party decisions must be made at the top, by the very leaders who are currently in a position to subvert democratic processes. As a result, instead, we have to think about altering the incentive structure of party leaders, so that they will find it in their interest to enact intra-party reforms. The answers aren't easy, and I don't have good ones right now. At this point, my hope is that this blog post and Neumann's article begin to spark a vigorous debate on widening democracy within Indonesia's prominent institutions.