Yanukovych and Stalin’s Genocide

Every November Ukraine commemorates the Holodomor, the famine and genocide of 1932 and 1933. Since 2010, President Viktor Yanukovych has marked the occasion with a formal address to the people. Read in isolation, none of them is terribly interesting. A comparative look at all three speeches, however, reveals some interesting shifts in tone and content that may illuminate Yanukovych’s own evolving thinking about the genocide and his regime.

But first a striking continuity. Yanukovych has never called the Holodomor a genocide. He’s called it a crime, a tragedy, and an Armageddon, but not genocide. Ironically, he does use the term Holodomor, which means “killing by means of hunger” and, in that sense, is virtually a synonym for genocide. There are indications that this reluctance to call a spade a spade may change.

Back in 2010, during his first encounter with Holodomor remembrance day, Yanukovych stated (this and subsequent citations are the translations provided on his website):

I bow to the memory of those innocently killed by the Holodomor.

Now in More Stores

My new book, Where the West Ends, is now available at the Kobo store for those of you with a Kobo e-book reader. It’s also available on iTunes for those of you who buy your books there.

It’s also available from Barnes and Noble, of course, and you can get a trade paperback copy or an e-book for your Kindle from Amazon.com.

Aging Asia's Demographic Dilemma

By 2050, half of Japan's population will be over 52 and, according to the Economist, that country will be “the oldest society the world has ever known.” By the end of this century, the Japanese are expected to number 47 million, down from today’s 127.7 million. If there is any reason to be pessimistic about the future of the Land of the Rising Sun, it is its collapsing demography.

Japan’s total fertility rate—generally speaking, the average number of births per female over her lifetime—is now estimated to be 1.39. That is well below the 2.10 TFR needed for a population to replace itself.

Apart from instances of war, famine, and pestilence, Japan’s demographic decline will be unprecedented. Yet the country will not be unique for long. Other East Asian nations are sure to follow the Japanese trajectory.

England's Anti-Democratic Libel Laws

Many years ago, a diplomat from an African nation famous for its cruelty and barbarism toward dissenters approached me at a dinner party to discuss his least favorite topic: the foreign press. His country of origin, said the diplomat, had been reviled in the media—not the media people of his own nation of course, they’d been taken care of, but those who toiled for the vicious foreign media. In fact certain members of his country’s leadership had been smeared so consistently and unfairly, added the diplomat, that there was little left for them to do but salve their shredded egos with lawsuits. Which would also, he assured me, take place abroad.

And these leaders knew exactly where to go.

“What do you think of England?” asked the diplomat before hastily answering his own question. “It’s a democracy with a free press! And yet, this is a nation that is very fair towards those who have been insulted.”

New Media & the Israel-Gaza Information War

Confused about what happened in Gaza last week? There’s a reason for that—and it’s not necessarily the fault of warring Twitter feeds. 

At the time, only one thing seemed to be clear: the threat of war. You could blame the Palestinians for that. Or you could say it’s Israel’s fault. It all depends on what (and where) you were reading. 

The fact is, journalism on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tends to be more charged than that of other territorial divisions (heady Nagorno-Karabakh coverage, anyone?). This is partly because problems there go beyond mere border disputes, but more importantly, it is because political interests have long encouraged stark divisions among the reading public. The press falls prey too—at this point, many reporters have covered this story for years and understand all too well which facts play better than others. 

Egypt's Morsi Proclaims Himself Pharaoh

Almost two years after Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak was removed from power, Cairo’s Tahrir Square is still an epicenter of protest and violence. It’s an epicenter of protest and violence because Egypt is again ruled by a man who has declared himself dictator. The country’s new president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, announced that “constitutional declarations, decisions and laws issued by the president are final and not subject to appeal.”

He’s already being called the new Pharaoh. It makes no difference that he was elected. Democracy isn’t just about getting elected. A democratic election is not a one-time plebiscite on who the next tyrant is going to be. Democracy requires individual and minority rights and the separation of powers. Winners cannot oppress losers, nor do losers get to wage war on the winners.

Some of us are more surprised than others by this development, but the Muslim Brotherhood was never a democratic political movement. It's not even a close call. You don't have to be a cheerleader for Hosni Mubarak to recognize its inherent authoritarianism.

Egypt expert Eric Trager explains in The New Republic how the organization weeds out moderates by design.

It begins when specially designated Brotherhood recruiters, who work at mosques and universities across Egypt, identify pious young men and begin engaging them in social activities to assess their suitability for the organization. The Brotherhood’s ideological brainwashing begins a few months later, as new recruits are incorporated into Brotherhood cells (known as “families”) and introduced to the organization’s curriculum, which emphasizes Qur’anic memorization and the writings of founder Hassan al-Banna, among others. Then, over a five-to-eight-year period, a team of three senior Muslim Brothers monitors each recruit as he advances through five different ranks of Brotherhood membership—muhib, muayyad, muntasib, muntazim, and finally ach amal, or “active brother.”  

Throughout this process, rising Muslim Brothers are continually vetted for their embrace of the Brotherhood’s ideology, commitment to its cause, and—most importantly—willingness to follow orders from the Brotherhood’s senior leadership. As a result, Muslim Brothers come to see themselves as foot soldiers in service of the organization’s theocratic credo: “Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law; the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.” Meanwhile, those dissenting with the organization’s aims or tactics are eliminated at various stages during the five-to-eight-year vetting period.

Last year in Cairo I met a couple of young activist recruits who washed out. They weren’t fired, exactly. One just up and quit because he could no longer stand the paranoid and authoritarian politics of its leaders, and the other was pressured out by what Americans call a hostile work environment.

“Hamas is more liberal,” Mohamed Adel told me, “and more willing to cooperate with other movements than the Muslim Brotherhood is.” He had left just weeks before I met him at the journalist syndicate. “The Brotherhood thinks dealing with anyone who is a former member . . . or someone from other movements and parties, is like dealing with an infidel.”

Abdul-Jalil al-Sharnouby, another young activist, was an editor at the Brotherhood’s Web site. Party officials treated him horribly and it became obvious, from his insider’s view, that the leaders would lord it over Egypt with a military regime or a police state if given the chance. “The Brotherhood as it exists now,” he told me, “wants to come to power and rule the way Hosni Mubarak did.”

Egypt’s political culture is authoritarian and always has been. The Muslim Brotherhood is a logical and perhaps inevitable product of a pre-existing problem bigger than itself and older than its religion.

I’ve met Egyptian liberals. They exist, but they’re a minority. Moderates are a larger minority, but genuine liberals belong to an even smaller minority and they know it. They feel it keenly, and are therefore far gloomier about Egypt’s prospects than Westerners were when the so-called Arab Spring started almost two years ago.

“The Western worldview is not very popular in Egypt,” Egyptian journalist Mohamed Ahmed Raouf told me. “They watch American movies, they drive American cars, but they don't accept Western culture or values of democracy, pluralism, and enlightenment. They don't accept it. People have to be open-minded, and that's not the case here.”

Hala Mustafa, a liberal intellectual at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told me the Muslim Brothers grotesquely distort the words “freedom” and “democracy.” “I heard one of them just the other day referring to individual rights,” she said, “but in a very backward way. He thinks Islam already has all rights for everybody and that we have to respect that. He thinks this is freedom, but it’s completely different from any liberal concept of freedom. The Muslim Brotherhood is against individual freedom not just for women and Christians, but also for Muslims and men.”

Egypt’s deeply embedded illiberalism isn’t exactly a secret. It’s the country’s most obvious political characteristic, one that imposes itself on the observant almost at once. Egyptian blogger Big Pharaoh explained it to me this way the first time I visited Cairo seven years ago: “Most of the armed terrorist groups we see now were born out of the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood…My biggest fear is that if the Muslim Brotherhood rules Egypt we will get Islamism-lite, that they won’t be quite bad enough that people will revolt against them. Most Egyptians don’t drink, so they won’t mind if alcohol is illegal. The same goes for banning books. Most Egyptians don’t read. So why should they care if books are banned? Most women wear a veil or a headscarf already, so if it becomes the law hardly anyone will resist.”

But sure, the Brothers threw the word “democracy” around when they were on their way up, especially when gullible foreign journalists were in town. They got a big kick out of portraying themselves as religiously conservative democrats, as though they were the Egyptian equivalents of Germany’s Christian Democrats or the Republicans in the United States. But their slogan is and always has been “Islam is the solution.” They’re only moderate compared with the totalitarian Salafists.

Morsi promises that his dictatorial powers are temporary. Feel free to believe that if you find it credible. Hey, it might even be true. Weird things happen in the Middle East all the time. The army could remove him tomorrow. Other regime components might tell him to get stuffed, making him more Hugo Chavez than Fidel Castro. The “street” might throw the country into ungovernable chaos. Morsi might even feel enough pressure from abroad that he dials it down. But whatever happens later, he just proclaimed himself dictator. If he isn’t stopped, that’s exactly what he will be.


Photo Credit: Aladlwlmosawah

My Kickstarter Project Has Funded

I can’t do field work abroad without finding ways to cover travel and operating expenses, so last month I launched a Kickstarter project to pay for a trip to Libya. And I’m happy to report that it has successfully funded. I even managed to raise more money than I asked for. Thanks very much to everyone who is helping me out here.

And I want to publicly thank the terrific folks at Basis Technology who pledged such a generous donation that they are now the official sponsors of my trip.

I also want to publicly thank the following people who donated fifty dollars or more to the project.

Joanne Gerber

Michael Ravine

Lee Benham

Bruce F Webster

John Mulder

Stan Tillinghast

Eric Rosenberg

Meir Kohn

Matthew Judd

William Terris

Dee Grant

Rob Hafernik

David Barzai

John Storr

Mike Robinson

Carlton Wickstrom

Henry H Bradley

Yancey Strickler

JM Hanes

Deb Steinshouer

J.M. Heinrichs

Tim Hulsey

Basil Mangra

Adam Harrison

Dan Hendrickson

Joseph Blankier


Jeff Kirk

Herbert Jacobi

Debbie McMillan

Andres Gentry

Tom Frymire


Corie Schweitzer

Chris Hancock

David Herr

Yair Alan Griver

Russell David Snow

Kat Wilton

Maged Ibrahim

Michael Hussey

Steve Feldman

Joanne Kessler

Gene Mitchell

Eric McErlain

Rick Woolard

Eric Soskin

Terri Goon

Eric Schell

Claudia Brown

Michael Krene

Michael Taylor

Sean O'Connor

Steve Drown

Milton W. Ferrell

Perry Branson

Barbara Berman

Francine Hardaway

Ira Lukens

Emily Robertson

J Alan Bennett

Leslie Watkins

Steve Ornstein

Christopher Frautschi

Mike McGinn

Barbara Skolaut

Philo Juang

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers!

Old School Terrorism Returns to Israel

A bus just exploded in Tel Aviv. Various Palestinian terrorist organization praised the attacks, as did the mosques in Gaza.

Meanwhile, Egypt brokered a cease-fire between between Israel and Hamas that should go into effect today. We'll see if it holds.

Morsi's Egypt, Out of Control

So tell me exactly how it’s possible for the nation of Mohamed Morsi, an Egyptian president who has pledged unparalleled affection for Hamas, to help broker a peace between Israel and Hamas? On Tuesday, the same day this is being written, Morsi promised “positive results,” while predicting “Israeli aggression” would soon end.

On that same day a Palestinian rocket landed on the outskirts of Jerusalem—then 140 more rockets hit Israel. From Gaza there’s a daily barrage of missiles fired at southern Israel—a fair indication of just how swiftly Hamas’s once primitive weaponry has evolved.

Morsi may want to grab the mediator role once flaunted by his predecessor Hosni Mubarak, but as an Islamic Brotherhood puppet who received just 51 percent of the Egyptian vote in the last election, he does not quite have the cachet to pull it off. He is—for all his posturing, his dreams of leadership—essentially a weakling.

Targeting Ukraine's Corrupt Leaders

A recent policy memo of the European Council on Foreign Relations, “The EU and Ukraine after the 2012 Elections” (pdf), is well worth reading. Its author is Andrew Wilson, senior policy fellow at the council, a reader in Ukrainian studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London, and the author of several highly regarded books on Ukraine.

Wilson begins by reminding us that “Relations between the EU and Ukraine are at an impasse. The last two years have been dominated by rows over the selective prosecution of regime opponents, in particular the conviction of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in October 2011, and an accelerating trend towards a more authoritarian and corrupt style of rule in Ukraine.”

So what should the EU do about Ukraine? The answer, in short, is to embrace its people and squeeze its ruling elites.

China’s New Winner-Takes-All Politics

Jiang Zemin scored a resounding political triumph on Thursday as the Communist Party’s new Politburo Standing Committee was revealed in Beijing. Not only did the former supremo pick China’s next leader, Xi Jinping, but he also packed the rest of the seven-member body with at least four allies and possibly five. Hu Jintao, the just-departed general secretary, now has only one friend he can count on—Li Keqiang—in the Standing Committee, the apex of Chinese political power. 

Jiang also forced Hu to give up his post as chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, adding to the humiliation. Hu’s allies had been predicting that, following Jiang’s example in 2002, Hu would hold onto that important position for two years. Some even said he was going to keep it for five.

Israel's Goals, Hamas' Choices, and Egypt in the Middle

After six days of airstrikes against the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza, Israel faces a decision: to negotiate a cease-fire with Hamas or mount a ground operation. Today, I spoke to my BICOM colleague Michael Herzog—a retired brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) who served from 2006 to 2009 as chief of staff to Israel’s minister of defense—about the framework within which that decision is being debated in the political and military leaderships.

The fundamental judgement to be made is whether the aims set by Israel for Operation Pillar of Defense have been achieved. These aims are modest in Israeli terms. The aim is not to topple Hamas. It is to restore normalcy for Israeli citizens by reinstating deterrence. To that end the IDF seeks to degrade the capability and motivation of the terrorists and deny Hamas and other armed groups in the Gaza Strip access to the long-range weapons that fell near Tel Aviv and Jerusalem last week.  

Arabian Labyrinth

The New York Times asked me to review a new book by Karen Elliot House called On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines - and Future. With a title like that it sounds like a homework assignment, but it’s fascinating, actually, and it doesn’t read like a text book at all.

I’ve said everything else that needs to be said in the Sunday Book Review, so here it is:

In Peter Berg’s whodunit “The Kingdom,” a young F.B.I. agent boarding a plane to Riyadh asks a seasoned colleague what Saudi Arabia is like. “A bit like Mars,” replies the more experienced man.

It’s not Mars, exactly, but for most Americans Saudi Arabia is probably more like another world than any other inhabited part of this one. It is about as distinct from the freewheeling United States as a country can be — not a modern totalitarian “republic” like Communist North Korea, but another kind of dictatorial regime, a fanatically conservative society self-oppressed by thousand-year-old rules, regulations, prescriptions and prohibitions. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is, as Christopher Hitchens once described the occluded realm ruled by the Kim family in Pyongyang, a place “where everything that is not absolutely compulsory is absolutely forbidden.”

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Karen Elliott House has been visiting the kingdom for more than 30 years, and in her new book, “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines — and Future,” she skillfully unveils this inscrutable place for regional specialists and general readers alike. “For millennia,” she writes, “Saudis struggled to survive in a vast desert under searing sun and shearing winds that quickly devour a man’s energy, as he searches for a wadi of shade trees and water, which are few and far between, living on only a few dates and camel’s milk. These conditions bred a people suspicious of each other and especially of strangers, a culture largely devoid of art or enjoyment of beauty.”

Religious edicts are crushingly enforced by state, mosque and society. Movie theaters are banned, as are concerts and just about everything else related to entertainment. Women, even foreign women, must cover themselves in public. Unrelated women and men aren’t allowed to mix anywhere. Even Starbucks coffee shops­ are segregated by gender.

Men have it rough, but women have it much rougher. According to Wahhabi Islam, men must obey Allah and women must obey men. “Fortunately for men,” House writes, “Allah is distant, but unfortunately for women, men are ­omnipresent.”

Western women like House, though, have an advantage, despite the fact that they’re forced by the Muttawah, the religious police, to cover themselves. In Saudi Arabia they are treated as “honorary men,” so House was able to interview whomever she liked — men and their wives, women and their husbands — something no foreign man or Saudi citizen of either gender is ever allowed to do.

She describes the society as a maze “in which Saudis endlessly maneuver through winding paths between high walls of religious rules, government restrictions and cultural traditions.” The labyrinth is not just a metaphor. Cities are claustrophobic places where even men but especially women live as shut-ins, socializing strictly with family. Walk down a residential street and in every direction you’ll see not porches and yards but walls “that block people from outside view but, more important, separate them from one another.”

And the country as a whole is riven with virtual walls. The sterile interior highlands of the Nejd are at odds with the relatively cosmopolitan Hejaz on the coast of the Red Sea. In the Eastern Province, where the country’s oil reserves are concentrated, Shia Muslims live under the boot, denounced by Wahhabis as heretics. The Ismailis in the destitute south, with their historic links to Yemen, are not-so-benignly neglected. Each of these regions in turn is divided by tribe, and each tribe is divided by family. Most Saudis marry one of their cousins. Hardly any of them marry outside their tribe, let alone region.

But the highest wall of all — the information barrier restricting knowledge of the wider world and its ways — is crumbling fast. Thanks to the Internet, the young (and 60 percent of Saudis are 20 or younger) know all about life in less cloistered Arab societies and in the West. And they’re not buying into the Saudi system the way their parents and grandparents did.

“Our minds are in a box,” a middle-aged businessman explains to House. “But the young are being set free by the Internet and knowledge. They will not tolerate what we have.” A single man in his 20s tells her: “Facebook opens the doors of our cages.” And a university official says: “A young man has a car and money in his pocket, but what can he do? Nothing. He looks at TV and sees others doing things he can’t do and wonders why.”

Read the rest in the New York Times.

A Closer Look at Bahrain's Opposition

If Bahrain’s public relations efforts deserved closer examination (see “Bahrain’s PR firm”), so too does its opposition movement. However, Foreign Policy beat me to it—see their November 7th interview with Maryam al-Khawaja, who runs the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Further investigation into the prominent rights organization is somewhat limited, however, given that the names of their board members have been pulled from their website over safety concerns. But perhaps a better corollary to Qorvis is Bahrain Watch, a group that’s also very interested in PR—so interested, in fact, that they tallied up the total amount spent by Bahrain’s monarchy on PR worldwide since protests began almost a year ago.


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