Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

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.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Nick Kristof and Academia

Nick Kristof's latest column for the New York Times takes on the role of academics in American society. His point is that they are nowadays largely irrelevant to the "great debates" in the U.S., as they hide in their Ivory Towers. Academics write in arcane language and largely write to each other. They've walled themselves off, so to speak, from the American public. As a result, there are, in his words, "fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago."

It's a provocative piece, to be sure. But is it on point? As a matter of fact, CWCP's Yohanes Sulaiman and Brad Nelson--two academics who also blog and pen op-eds for wide audiences--believe Kristof has missed a few things. Below are their brief responses to Kristof's take.

Yohanes Sulaiman

Kristof is right to some degree that there's a disconnection between political scientists and real world policy-making. True, part of it can be explained by the focus on quantitative studies and very arcane game theory, but at the same time, he is missing the larger picture.

Most important is tenure. If you want tenure, you need to be published in scholarly publications, period. No college or university gives someone tenure because she/he is on CNN or quoted in the New York Times. This gives academics perverse incentives for scholars to focus on academic research and debates, not policy-advocacy.

Plus, policy advocacy is a dangerous job. Professors can incur the wrath of politicians. And now throw in departmental politics, which can, at times, be unkind toward anyone who doesn't act and speak in line with the conventional role of the serious scholar. Furthermore, speaking one's mind could turn into be a career-ending mistake, which, once again, de-incentivizes scholars to take public positions on policy issues.

At the same time, at least in my field of IR, a growing number scholars are connected and, to some degree, involved policy debates. Think about Foreign Policy magazine, the Monkey Cage blog, and even this blog. Still, the number of scholars active in reaching out to mainstream audiences compared to the total number of academics is pretty low. In that respect, Kristof does make a good point.

Brad Nelson

Overall, I think Kristof's take is rather lazy. He leans on a longstanding tired mantra of academics--that they've insulated themselves from the wider society and could care less about important policy debates in America, that they're out of touch. Some professors, of course, do act this way. But in my view, many don't. I think he's off-base here. Scholars are better connected to the public than ever before via blogging, Twitter, and other social media. Scholars--especially the younger generation of scholars--are actively reaching out to lay audiences; a growing number don't only want to talk to each other. Many are genuinely eager to present and discuss their theories and findings with non-academics in ways that are easy to digest and interesting. A major issue is that in the Internet age, there are so many voices competing to get heard that academics--like most people--get lost in the noise.