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The struggle for new blood and the future of Russia’s Left

Tue, 2018-02-20 14:42

A new candidate is helping to reinvigorate Russia's sclerotic left-wing politics ahead of the presidential election, but what space will there be for voices and movements from below?

Gennady Zyuganov, head of KPRF. (c) Emile Alain Ducke/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.In a televised interview broadcast before the Communist Party of the Russian Federation’s (KPRF) party congress, Gennady Zyuganov, the party’s head, announced that the KPRF had already laid the basis not only for the 2018 Russian presidential elections, but also beyond. Curious phrasing for a party that had only just put forth a candidate with less than three months to go before the elections. Still more curious was how Zyuganov deflected when asked a question about whether or not he intended to run, as he has in all but two of Russia’s post-Soviet presidential elections:

“I am the leader of one of the largest parties. This isn't any one person's party. If Zhirinovsky [head of the Russian Liberal Democratic Party] leaves, it all falls apart. It’s the people's party, for the people and defense, and we have created a powerful, authoritative organisation.”

The party’s congress took place just before New Year, and one of its main tasks was to rejuvenate the party that has actually been “one person’s” for some time. After an abortive announcement earlier in the year, Zyuganov took a step back and was not the party’s pick for presidential candidate at the December congress. That honour now belongs to one Pavel Grudinin, a relative unknown and head of one of the few collective farms, or sovkhozy, operating privately in Russia today.

After so many years at the helm, what’s prompting this change? Overall, it’s been a trying year for Zyuganov: a public spat with Chechen leader Ramzan Kaydrov over whether or not Lenin should be buried, a seemingly singular focus on a “back to the USSR” mentality at the expense of a broader electoral platform, and for the first time, a dip in popularity — the bombastic Vladimir Zhirinovsky now slightly outperforms Zyuganov among the Russian electorate. This is part of a larger tendency of the party’s decline: whereas once the pro-Kremlin United Russia party saw the KPRF as its main political opponent, given how the party forced the 1996 elections into a second-round runoff and their continued (though diminishing) presence in the Duma, it seems the Kremlin now believes that any viable competition to Putin’s 2018 presidential bid has yet to ripen.

January: KPRF's presidential candidate Pavel Grudinin (centre) at the Kirov Factory in St Petersburg. Source: KPRF. These recent setbacks speak to a larger malaise that has set in among the party base, which is dissatisfied with the party’s leadership as they have been since its first days on the political scene. From its founding in 1993, the KPRF has had to delicately balance managing the expectations of its rank-and-file members and the electoral needs of the party’s leadership. Ostensibly operating within a multi-party system, the Communists had to adjust their politics in the pursuit of enlarging their electoral share, a process described in great detail in Luke March’s biography of the party, The Communist Party in Post-Soviet Russia. Under Zyuganov’s leadership, the party adopted more moderate views and outmaneuvered more radical groups, often co-opting their members for party aims. This cynical approach to grassroots movements colours the party leadership’s relationship with local members and activists to the present day.

To get a sense of the party’s criticism from the left, I spoke with Yevegeny Myshayev, a municipal KPRF deputy in Moscow, and Vladimir Zhuravlev, an activist from Left Block. Though their views are by no means uniformly accepted across the KPRF and overall Russian left, they do demonstrate the tensions inherent between party leadership and the rank-and-file, and leftist activists outside of the party.

From power to opposition

The story of how the KPRF adapted to playing the role of sanctioned opposition has already been told. The party initially relied on the votes of the disaffected working-class and mid-tier party functionaries who had been swept aside with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Overtime, however, as other parties adapted to the post-Soviet political landscape and stripped away this working-class base, the party was left with an electorate of elderly pensioners and committed leftists.

In a bid to expand this narrowing demographic, the party leadership, with Gennady Zyuganov at the helm, opted to “reinvigorate” its vision: not just a return to the policies of the Soviet Union, but a revamped socialism, with Russian state interests at its centre. This “red-brown” alliance of communists and nationalists has left its mark on the party, most notably in terms of ideology and legislative action. Commentators have noted that the party toes the Kremlin line in all foreign policy matters, a result of adopting outright nationalist views. This was most evident in the party’s unanimous vote on the recognition of the seizure of Crimea.

“Even high-ranked members in the district don’t do any work that would yield results because there’s no ‘political’ will for this in the KPRF’s leadership”

It is perhaps this willingness to play within certain bounds that has allowed the KPRF to hold on to its official opposition designation. Vladimir Putin and the United Russia party that supports him have made use of nationalism in a similar fashion as a way to realise their ambitions of reestablishing Russia as a global hegemon, with an imperialist foreign policy as the main implement to see this through. Even if the KPRF leadership by-and-large did not support this foreign policy, it would risk a lot to openly defy the Russian government’s foreign policy aims. After all, the only parliamentary deputy that voted against the recognition of the Crimean referendum was later threatened with expulsion and ultimately investigated for embezzlement, effectively leaving him in exile abroad. If the party were to follow a similar course, it could face the sorts of repercussions the Communist Party of Ukraine dealt with, when it was banned outright in 2015 after the Maidan revolution.

Domestically, the party has more leeway to express its opposition views. A glance at the vote tallies for the controversial Yarovaya Laws, which aimed to subject telecommunications data to government collection, was opposed by the KPRF as a bloc, without a single vote in favour. At the local level, however, party activity is noticeably more muted.

Enter Yevgeny Myshayev. Elected to the municipal council of Moscow’s Strogino district in 2012 under the KPRF banner, Yevgeny Myshayev, 59, immediately set his sights on fighting corruption and abuses of power. In 2015, Myshayev and two of his KPRF colleagues visited a site where illegal demolitions were taking place. The foreman assaulted one of Myshayev’s fellow deputies, and Myshayev physically intervened, earning him an arrest. His confrontational demeanor has earned him the party’s reproach: they have tried to expel him twice before, and he thinks the next attempt is not too far off.

Yevgeny Myshayev. Source: "I'm a resident of Koptevo". Joining the party ranks in 2011, Myshayev has since become disillusioned with its milquetoast political strategy.

“Even high-ranked members in the district don’t do any work that would yield results because there’s no ‘political’ will for this in the KPRF’s leadership. I’ve come to understand that I have to act on my own and not count on the KPRF struggling for power. As practice has shown, the KPRF only fights for power in words and not deeds, and reforming the party is impossible.”

The problem, in Myshayev’s view, is that the party is dominated by retirees who willingly submit to the official party leadership. This demographic issue is indicative of the KPRF’s reformulation after the disbanding of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Myshayev complained that the party’s primary activity is the collection of party fees and not much else. Although the party has an advantageous logistical situation, with district committees all over Moscow, it appears to be squandered:

“In every Moscow district, there are pressure points, usually related to the violations of residents’ rights. No party or social organisation helps them to stand up for their rights and interests. [The district party members] don’t carry out any work with the residents, who need organisational and legal help.”

These local issues are the main points of contention between the party and Myshayev. The most recent flare-up centered around the September 2017 Moscow municipal elections. These elections were a blowout for Yabloko, a center-left party that put a lot of effort into cultivating the exact types of local relationships Myshayev feels the KPRF has neglected. This helped Yabloko catapult their candidates into gaining a stunning 152 seats across the city’s various districts. The communists, meanwhile, lost a comparable amount of seats: 159.

Before voters even went to the polls, the KPRF threatened to not recognise the results, citing what they called campaign violations. They joined a chorus of opposition voices who complained that voters had not been sufficiently informed about the elections and where they could vote. With turnout at 15%, even Russia’s Central Election Commission agreed with this notion, saying the Moscow city government had failed in its efforts at notifying its citizens. At the eleventh hour, however, Zyuganov personally intervened and pressured the party’s city committee to walk back this threat of non-recognition. This infuriated Myshayev, who started to petition the Moscow authorities to annul the results in several districts. In his words, this is what will precipitate the next attempt at expelling him from the party, as he is going against what he feels is an agreement between the party and the Moscow authorities. “This is just one example of when I have come into conflict with the party, but there have been many such conflicts.”

Focusing on electoral work at the expense of other political projects is a sore point for leftist organisations across the world

Myshayev’s disagreements go far beyond electoral politics, however. With the worsening economic and social situation, he feels the time is ripe for the creation of “a real Communist party, because there is no political force in the country that could organise the people in the struggle for power.” Although he cites his experience living under socialism in the Soviet Union and still adheres to Marxism-Leninism (you would be hard-pressed to find many socialists in Russia who do not), Myshayev went on to state:

“Now the proletariat does not exist, and in the struggle for power, you have to rely only on the young, the working people, who have to be organised since nowadays a revolution can only be achieved through ‘colour approaches’ [a reference to the various “colour” revolutions that have swept across some countries of the former-Soviet Union]. The KPRF is only concerned with parliamentary work.”

Despite his other qualms with the party, Myshayev’s last line of thinking reflects another shift the party undertook in the 1990s, namely, abandoning the idea that systemic change can only come about through revolutionary and not evolutionary means.

His maligning of the party’s almost singular focus on parliamentary puppet theatre reflects the extent to which the KPRF has abdicated even its nominal role in the worker’s movement, diminished as it may be by Myshayev’s calculations.

1 May 2016: Russian labour activist Alexey Etmanov leads a demonstration of autoworkers through St Petersburg. Source: MPRA / Facebook.Recently, a court liquidated one of the largest and most politically active unions in Russia under the auspices of Russia’s “foreign agent” law, whereby any individual or organisation receiving any level of funding from abroad open themselves to government scrutiny. Aside from publishing a piece on this in its central committee’s paper, Pravda, the KPRF has not done much else to address what is undoubtedly a major blow for the working people of Russia during economically challenging times. The KPRF’s absence in this arena is all the more striking because worker grievances are on the rise in Russia, suggesting that a more energised and combative left movement has some fertile ground on which to work.

The youth question and the non-systemic left

Focusing on electoral work at the expense of other political projects is a sore point for leftist organisations across the world, and Russia is of course no exception. The idea that young people can also form the basis of a new left movement is not exclusive to Russia either. One need only look at Podemos in Spain or the Democratic Socialists of America in the United States. I asked Myshayev what prospects he sees for achieving this goal of a “party of a new type” with a broad youth base: “Young people are especially sensitive to injustice. The disposition in the youth scene is becoming more and more radical.” Myshayev, born in 1958, cannot reasonably be seen as part of the “youth”. His views, however, have become commonplace among young leftists in Russia.

There is a slew of non-systemic (that is, not taking part in official party politics) leftist organisations in Russia, like the Russian Socialist Movement, Left Front, and Left Bloc. The last two are perhaps the most interesting because they represent the tensions inherent in the left today, a legacy of the KPRF’s role as the official leftist opposition and its reconfiguration to accommodate nationalist views. Left Front, founded in 2008 and currently led by Sergey Udaltsov, is a conglomeration of leftist organisations that has long been rumored to have deep ties to the KPRF. Udaltsov, who spent several years behind bars as a result of his protest activity in 2012, has spent the months since his release trying to reconstitute the organisation into a viable political force.

Sergey Udaltsov, of Left Front, is currently campaigning on behalf of Pavel Grudinin in Russia's presidential election. (c) Finistre Arnaud/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.Left Front’s focus for the past few months had been choosing a candidate for the 2018 presidential elections. At the end of October of this year, Udaltsov announced that Left Front would be holding “online primaries” to determine who would stand for the left in the upcoming elections. Voters were invited to choose from almost 80 candidates in an effort to find the best person to put forth in the elections. Demonstrating Zyuganov’s lack of appeal, he came in 15th place. After two turns, the winner was none other than the aforementioned Pavel Grudinin. Prior to the conclusion of the primaries, Udaltsov did not respond when asked exactly how this candidate would declare his candidacy and through which party’s organisation. The lack of transparency surrounding the primaries further perturbed leftist observers. The fact that the KPRF has now nominated Grudinin and that Udaltsov continued to openly support this move shows the degree to which the Left Front and the party are interconnected.

The fact remains that for now, the KPRF has a lock on orienting leftist politics by virtue of its size and role as sanctioned opposition

The similarities go beyond political work. Ideologically speaking, Left Front mirrors the “red-brown” approach the KPRF innovated. In fact, some of the founders of the latest newcomers to the leftist-opposition scene, Left Block, split from Left Front when it explicitly supported the annexation of Crimea and the creation of the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics.

Vladimir Zhuravlev, a Moscow activist in Left Block who was recently detained protesting the excesses of Russia’s elite, described relations between the two groups: “We are happy that leader of Left Front Sergey Udaltsov is free now but we [aren’t] sure that [the] restarted Left Front will be a point to unite the left. It is more left-patriotic than we are and I think we just have different views and goals…We are against any capitalistic government - Russia, Ukraine, ‘people republics’, etc.”

Vladimir Zhuravlev at a 2017 rally in defence of internet freedom. Source: Facebook. Zhuravlev’s view on the KPRF differ little from those of Myshayev, the disenchanted KPRF municipal deputy:

“It is a highly bureaucratic, nation-oriented and corrupted puppet of the regime. But there are lot of good people inside of it and we are trying to cooperate with them and use resources of the KPRF. The head of KPRF doesn’t want to cooperate with anyone, only to use our activists as youth crowd scene.”

This cynical use and neglect of the youth activists is a point Myshayev returned to later in our conversation. In his assessment, the youth scene needs a radical guiding force, though he wasn’t sure Left Front could provide this.

“I think that Left Front isn’t capable of bringing a lot of young people into the movement, let alone struggle, apart from sanctioned meetings and marches. People of different political views and those dissatisfied with the current authorities do take part in the movement, but the leader of Left Front Udaltsov doesn’t have an idea about how he plans to come to power, and that’s why the group’s main activity is organising protests and marches. He can’t and doesn’t know what to propose. It’s for this reason that the movement’s composition isn’t constant.”

He was more optimistic about Left Block: “Left Block is more radically oriented and despite it also having ideological discord and vacillation, it’s exactly this radical attitude that keeps them in.” Nevertheless, Left Block has a ways to go before it can truly have an impact on leftist politics. By Zhuravlev’s calculations, the group counts on the support of about 300 members nationwide, though a lax approach towards dues collection and different tiers of membership and supporters complicate this count a bit.

"Capitalism is shit": officers in the elite Moscow district of Barvhikha demonstrate protesters' banner inside the police station. Source: Left Block. No matter the true number, the fact remains that for now, the KPRF has a lock on orienting leftist politics by virtue of its size and role as sanctioned opposition. Myshayev welcomes the KPRF’s recent soul searching and apparent desire to reinvigorate itself by shaking up its leadership. More has to be done, however:

“The loss of the party’s vanguard nature of its activity (or rather, inactivity) has paralysed the people’s will for victory over counterrevolution, the forces of which have only strengthened in just a quarter century that was lost for the country’s development on the path to socialism. The party has to publicly offer an apology to the people for forfeiting (by its own volition) its vanguard role in constructing socialism and issue a Leninist appeal to join the party to all legal-aged citizens who recognise the objective necessity of the resumption of constructing socialism in the country taking into account the material conditions. Without a large scale appeal and an influx of new energy, there’s nothing but a dead end, the people can’t organise on their own!”

Judging by the decisions made at the December congress, the KPRF has also taken some of these lessons to heart. In announcing his decision to not run in the elections, Zyuganov cited his age and the need for “fresh blood” in the party. He will, however, continue to be the party’s Chairman and will lead Grudinin’s campaign headquarters. This gambit may also not pay off. As both official and independent polling demonstrates, Grudinin, once enjoying a lead on Vladimir Zhirinovksy, has now come neck-and-neck with him. Also, due to Zyuganov’s long-lasting hold on the party, many in the electorate are not even aware that the KPRF has nominated someone else. In short, a nominal reshuffling at the top a reinvigorated leftist opposition party does not make.


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Tue, 2018-02-20 05:27
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A new candidate is helping to reinvigorate Russia's left-wing politics ahead of the presidential election, but what space will there be for voices and movements from below?

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Progressivism, the establishment and ultraconservatism in Colombia

Tue, 2018-02-20 04:50

Presidential elections will be held in Colombia in May 2018. But how will candidates fare in front of one of the most conservative electorates in Latin America?. Español

A women holds a Colombian flag facing the sun. Image: via Nueva Sociedad, All rights reservedThis article is being published as part of the partnership between Nueva Sociedad and democraciaAbierta. You can read the original here


The game of alliances and political formulas in the run up to the upcoming presidential elections in May this year show several points of interest. On paper, the campaign will incorporate two new elements in comparison to the last three or four presidential elections.

The first is the fact that several candidates have real possibilities of getting through to the second round. Unlike the certainty of the Uribe-Santos binomial of the past, on this occasion the names of Gustavo Petro, Sergio Fajardo and Germán Vargas Lleras have all become relevant, and will join Iván Duque, the candidate who will presumably lead the conservatives to victory at the parliamentary elections on March 11 and who has been endorsed by former President Álvaro Uribe.

As things stand today, all of them stand a chance of making it to the second round. The other noteworthy aspect of the campaign is that, for the first time in quite a while, opinion polls currently show a substantial support for two progressive candidates: former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro and former Medellín mayor and former governor of Antioquia, Sergio Fajardo.

It would perhaps be better for the FARC to target some segments of the population and territories and to focus on the municipal and departmental elections due in 2019, at which it is bound to have better results.

To this should be added the participation of the Left which, obviously, has the effect of subtracting votes from the progressive candidates. On the one hand, the Revolutionary Alternative Force of the Commons, the former FARC, which keeps to both its past acronym and leadership. Its prospects, so far, are not very good.

In recent weeks, Rodrigo Londoño, formerly known as "Timochenko", has had a hard time attending planned meetings in Armenia and Cali, as his presence there generated altercations. It would perhaps be better for the FARC to target some segments of the population and territories and to focus on the municipal and departmental elections due in 2019, at which it is bound to have better results.

The other candidacy which takes away votes from progressivism is that of Piedad Córdoba, an independent candidate whom a substantial part of the electorate associates with both the old FARC and also Cuba and Venezuela. Prejudice burdens her discourse, which nevertheless deserves to be listened to carefully.

Within the orthodox Left, the political figure to consider is Gustavo Petro. He is currently leading most opinion polls as far as direct voting intention is concerned.

Within the orthodox Left, the political figure to consider is Gustavo Petro. He is currently leading most opinion polls as far as direct voting intention is concerned. This is due to the support he enjoys from the most disadvantaged sectors of the unequal Colombian society, whose living conditions he tried to alleviate during his not uncontroversial mandate as mayor of Bogotá between 2012 and 2015.

To this support from the capital city’s popular sectors should be added his image as a corruption-fighting politician and his well received proposals on education and public healthcare and on the strengthening of the independence of the judiciary. However, greater media exposure at this time makes him a target to criticism aimed at undermining his popularity. In any case, the polarity he generates makes it very difficult for him to reach the presidency of Colombia.

A more moderate brand of progressivism is that of Colombia Coalition, led by mathematician, former Medellín maire and Antioquia governor, Sergio Fajardo

A more moderate brand of progressivism is that of Colombia Coalition, led by mathematician Sergio Fajardo, who has been joined by Claudia López and Jorge Enrique Robledo.

This alliance, which includes figures from both the Green Alliance and the Democratic Pole, takes up some of Gustavo Petro’s proposals in that it gives priority to fiscal progressiveness, better redistribution of wealth, growing investment in public education and healthcare, higher accountability and the strengthening of the fight against corruption. In its favour, the good image of the municipal and departmental governments of Fajardo, and the high approval ratings of Claudia López and Jorge Enrique Robledo, who was the second most voted senator at the last elections (after Álvaro Uribe).

Very close to Fajardo, the Liberal Party ticket: Humberto de la Calle and Clara López. De la Calle is a political figure committed to the peace agreement signed with the FARC, but whom many associate with Juan Manuel Santos, whose disapproval ratings exceed 70%.

Very close to Fajardo, the Liberal Party ticket: Humberto de la Calle and Clara López. Humberto de la Calle has, a priori, far fewer possibilities than the previous two candidates. He is a political figure committed to the peace agreement signed with the FARC, but whom many associate with Juan Manuel Santos, whose disapproval ratings exceed 70%.

Nor does the company of Clara López as candidate to the Vice Presidency seem to help, being as she is a traditional figure of the Colombian center-left whose support for Juan Manuel Santos and the fact that she was  a cabinet member have earned her much criticism as opportunistic and ideologically ambiguous. In any case, their political approach is much more liberal, in terms of the State/Market/Society relationship, than Fajardo’s and, especially, Petro’s.

A third strong candidate is, inescapably, Germán Vargas Lleras. A Conservative and former Vice President with Santos, he is now running as an independent candidate due to the endemic corruption of his party, Radical Change.

Vargas Lleras, who expresses the thinking of the Colombian establishment, has raised the need to review some "specific aspects" of the Peace Agreement signed related to transitional justice and the participation in politics of the old FARC leaders.

Despite his authoritarian and not very empathic image, which have deteriorated markedly his popularity, Vargas Lleras also served as Minister of Infrastructure, Housing and Water while being Vice President, a post which has earned him substantial territorial weight, especially in the Caribbean region, as shown at the last municipal and departmental elections.

Unlike all the aforementioned candidates, who mostly share a strong commitment to guaranteeing the implementation of the Peace Agreement in the established terms, Vargas Lleras, who expresses the thinking of the Colombian establishment, has raised the need to review some "specific aspects" of the agreement signed related to transitional justice and the participation in politics of the old FARC leaders.

This is a belligerent position as regards the Peace Agreement which, it is worth remembering, has been shielded by the Constitutional Court for the next twelve years.

Strong criticism of this process is, of course, the main tenet of Colombian ultraconservatism. This space is currently being disputed by three candidates, among whom a winner will be decided on March 11.

On the one hand, former Attorney General Alejandro Ordóñez, who embodies the most destructive position towards the Agreement and is supported by the influential religious community which voted massively against it at the October 2016 referendum.

On the other hand, Marta Lucía Ramírez, Álvaro Uribe’s former Minister of Defense, who also represents a reactionary position towards the Agreement, although more nuanced than Ordóñez's, and enjoys a larger support from and voting intention by the conservative electorate.

The candidate who is best positioned to lead Colombian ultraconservatism is Iván Duque, who has the support of former President Álvaro Uribe, and whose capacity for electoral mobilization cannot be ignored.

A priori, however, the candidate who is best positioned to lead Colombian ultraconservatism is Iván Duque, who has the support of former President Álvaro Uribe, and whose capacity for electoral mobilization cannot be ignored. He is the idol of a mass of voters who, at the last presidential elections, managed to have a drab candidate such as Óscar Iván Zuluaga win Santos in the first round. Duque championed the victory of the NO at the plebiscite, which meant millions of votes. In addition, he is currently the most voted senator in recent Colombian history, and his approval ratings, despite all the antidemocratic excesses in the fight against the FARC and the ELN, are close to 80%.

The presidential race seems to be a matter of four: Gustavo Petro, Sergio Fajardo, Germán Vargas Lleras and Iván Duque. 

On the basis of the above, the presidential race seems to be a matter of four: Gustavo Petro, Sergio Fajardo, Germán Vargas Lleras and Iván Duque (or, surprisingly perhaps, Marta Lucía Ramírez). It will all depend on the progress of likely coalitions, electoral volatility and the ability to mobilize voters in a society where only 50% of the population actually goes to the polls.

The possibility of a "Left Front" (Petro/Fajardo/Humberto de la Calle) being out of the question, and taking into account that the majority conservative vote will coalesce around Vargas Lleras and Iván Duque, progressivism, of whatever shade, will have serious difficulties getting through to the second round with any hope of finally winning the presidency.

This is so, even though the social and educational precariousness, and the profound inequalities of Colombian society, objectively, could be quite a perfect substrate for a formula of political change.

In any case, it all remains to be seen. Although the indications are that the most likely outcome is a second round with Vargas Lleras and Iván Duque, or with Vargas Lleras and Fajardo, or Petro, we must not forget a fundamental fact: the electorate in Colombia is one of the most conservative in Latin America. And this can show, as it has so many other times, at the next elections.

Country or region:  Colombia Topics:  Democracy and government Ideas Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

“Invisible battalion”: how Ukrainian women secured the right to fight on a par with men

Tue, 2018-02-20 01:17

For four years, Ukrainian civil society has been fighting in the war against Russia. The war effort came from below – and women are playing an active role. RU

The instructor-paramedic Daria Zubenko at work. A shot from the documentary "Invisible battalion", 2017, Ukraine.The protagonist of Serhiy Zhadan’s poem “The Recruitment Office” doesn’t want to join the army. It’s easy to understand why. Before 2014, the Ukrainian army was a wretched sight, with missiles crashing into apartment buildings and ammunition dumps exploding. Emerging from the ruins of the Soviet empire, this poor, corrupt non-bloc state hadn’t anticipated that it would have to put up much of a defence against anyone.

The army was underfunded financially and in terms of attention, and while the military hardware rusted away, conscripts built dachas for their generals. In the words of Zhadan, Ukraine’s most popular contemporary poet: “Here’s the bottom line, Mum: count me out, I’m not going [to the army].”

Everything changed in 2014. After EuroMaidan and pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych’s escape from the country, the empire struck back. Unexpected Russian military aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine required an urgent defensive operation, and the response mounted by Ukrainian society was quicker than the one mustered by the Ukrainian state. Aside from the dozens of volunteer battalions that were immediately formed to aid the so-called “Anti-Terrorist Operation”, who fought on the frontlines at times literally in slippers, Ukrainian society took on the challenge of providing the army with everything it needed, from quadcopters, gunsights and thermographic cameras to nails and staples.

It was only much later that the authorities responded to the situation, pouring their own finances and attention into the effort, bringing yesterday’s volunteers into the fold (over the past three or four years, the word “volunteer” has specifically come to refer to those who raise funds for the material support of a unit, buy whatever’s necessary and take it over to the front). Most of the volunteer battalions gradually integrated themselves into the National Guard system (subordinate to the Ministry of Internal Affairs) or the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The Ministry of Defence gradually began reforming the food supply and nutrition systems. Many volunteers have established their own charitable funds. The Ukrainian army remains imperfect and insufficiently modernised, but the speed with which it rose from the ashes through the efforts of civil society is a phenomenon still awaiting investigation.

Ukrainian women have refused to “reconcile” men or to define themselves as the victims of male conflicts

Women have been actively involved in all these processes. Contra certain feminists who claim that wars are nothing but “macho games”, Ukrainian women have refused to “reconcile” men between themselves or to define themselves as the victims of male conflicts; adopting an active civic stance, they’ve played an integral role in the armed resistance. While the en-masse entry of women into the army may have come as something of a surprise to the outside observer, there are now over 20,000 of them in the Ukrainian Armed Forces – some 8% of the total number of troops. Only 2,000 have risen to officer rank; not a single one has been promoted to the rank of general.

But as women have poured into the army, the state has been slow to ensure that they enjoy adequate conditions of service, both legally and practically speaking. The Invisible Battalion project, supported by the Ukrainian Women’s Fund and UN Women, was devised to draw public attention to the role played by women in the conflict.

The Invisible Battalion project was conceived and put into action by women soldiers. Having faced a whole host of problems during their army service and encountered gender inequality challenges of both a legal and practical nature, these women came up with an advocacy campaign focused on their own rights, opportunities and representations in the popular consciousness. The campaign involved working with the public and lobbying the authorities (though without expressing support for any specific political forces). They also enlisted the support of sociologists to carry out the first – and so far the only – investigation of the problems facing women in the conflict. The sample consisted of 42 participants, the only selection criterion being first-hand experience of front-line fighting (demographic profiles, political views and battalion affiliations were not taken into consideration).

Olena Maksymenko. Photo courtesy of Kleopatra Anferova for the Invisible Battalion project.Olena Maksymenko is a journalist who became an activist in the space of a few months and soon found herself on the front line. She didn’t take part in the study, but her story is emblematic of how Ukrainian women are reconsidering their role in society in an era of profound change.

From culture to the front line

A hitherto apolitical culture journalist who, by her own admission, wouldn’t have been able to tell you the name of the Ukrainian prime minister, Olena Maksymenko resolved to report on the Euromaidan protests.

Detained in Crimea in the spring of 2014, she worked to bring cultural festivals to the liberated towns of east Ukraine before finding herself on the front in 2015. She served one stint in the Nikolai Pirogov First Voluntary Mobile Hospital, and then four in the Volunteer Ukrainian Corps Hospitallers, which was formed by the far-right group Right Sector. Olena’s deployment locations included Shirokino, Peski, Starohnatovka and Gnutovo, and some of her stories wouldn’t be out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster. Like the one about a hilltop operation on a wounded soldier who died at the very moment the sun came. Or the one about a music-obsessed comrade-in-arms who wouldn’t go anywhere without his speakers… which began blaring out “The End” by The Doors as the unit came under fire one day.

Marinka. Photo courtesy of Olena Maksymenko.After her service, Olena spent some time working on a social integration programme for military personnel. Eventually, however, she returned to military journalism, and now devotes her energies exclusively to the latter. Many women continue to serve, and are doing so indefinitely – “until the war comes to an end”. An end that’s not in sight.

In the autumn of 2015, Olena was photographed for the Invisible Battalion project, thereby helping to raise public awareness of the problems faced by female soldiers during their service.

The Invisible Battalion

In The Unwomanly Face of War, the Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich maintains that “[e]verything we know about war we know with a ‘man’s voice’.” The Invisible Battalion study, conversely, provides a platform for the voices of women – those of soldiers, a volunteer and several experts. Its field and theoretical components are supplemented by a photograph selection and a calendar featuring those selfsame photos.

The “invisibility” of women in the war is first and foremost a legal one. The legal framework established by Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence, which also encompasses the regulatory requirements of the Ministry of Health, turned out to be hopelessly outdated, premised as it is on the Soviet-era patriarchal paradigm of “maternity protection” and failing to factor in women’s physical labour, whether complex or light.

The research team discovered with some horror that, as per Ministry of Health regulations, women in the workplace cannot carry loads in excess of seven kilos – which, in the eyes of any mother of a toddler (or, indeed, any mistress of a large cat), is a risible proviso. A whole host of military professions were thereby closed off to women, including that of photographer (a World War II-era relic, given the heavy cameras of the time) and drone operator, in addition to a number of professions that involve no heavy lifting (interpreting, for instance). But women were allowed to serve as nurses (because casualties that need to be removed from the battlefield obviously all weigh in at under seven kilos), cooks and field banya directors. They were allowed, in other words, to serve men in “heroic” combat posts – and they certainly couldn’t vie with them when it came to military careers.

Such was the state of play for women in the war, with some never officially registering, and others registering as accountants… to perform the duties of grenade launcher operators. Which would all be a barrel of fun, of course, if only it didn’t hurt women financially (from 200 euros a month, to say nothing of premiums and bonuses), deprive them of veterans’ benefits (the law “On the status of war veterans and guarantees of their social protection” provides rather a long list of these), deny them compensation (how are you supposed to document an injury to a cook?), rob them of promotion opportunities, and simply cheat them of the right to be recognised.

This legal invisibility inevitably entails infrastructural invisibility – no uniforms, no footwear, no feminine sanitary protection, no front-line access to gynaecological services. Only in 2017 did the Ministry of Defence finally develop a range of women’s underwear for Ukrainian servicewomen, and even then its quality left a lot to be desired and ended up causing an uproar. Prior to that, women were forced to buy everything they needed out of their own pockets or to rely on volunteer-provided supplies.

“Diana Makarova [head of the eponymous foundation] has helped out a lot,” says Olena. “I popped in just to get a few bits and bobs but came out laden with everything from thermal underwear to trousers to cartridge pouches.”

Ukraine’s servicewomen have also come up against a wall of incomprehension on the part of their male comrades-in-arms: as independently confirmed by several of the study’s respondents, male soldiers have had to re-evaluate their worldviews and get to grips with the fact that women, too, can serve as fully-fledged combatants. Out-and-out discrimination aside, stories abound about men’s overzealous attempts to protect their female colleagues. In volunteer units, incidentally, the gender equality situation is better than in non-volunteer ones.

Male soldiers have had to re-evaluate their worldviews and get to grips with the fact that women, too, can serve as fully-fledged combatants

Ukrainian servicewomen, spurred on by civic (and sometimes personal) motivation – some have always wanted to serve, others have witnessed Russian troops entering their home villages – have endured these conditions without entertaining much hope of recognition or reward. The medical unit of the Volunteer Ukrainian Corps, which, in contrast to other volunteer units, reached no agreement with the authorities regarding integration into the official structures of the Armed Forces or the National Guard, failed to receive a single penny from the state and kitted itself out entirely at its own expense (volunteer-collected funds aside).

Olena Maksymenko received a war veteran identification card on account of her service in the First Voluntary Mobile Hospital. Of the women soldiers in the Volunteer Ukrainian Corps interviewed by us for the study, not a single one has been issued with a formal acknowledgment of service, and not a single one expects to receive such an acknowledgment. We were also made aware of cases where social workers paid visits to children of women serving at the front and interrogated them about their “neglectful” mothers; men, needless to say, encountered no such problems. Our study’s respondents told us these stories with profound resentment in their voices (“we didn’t leave our kids to go on some massive bender, you know – we left to get involved with something of profound social importance…”)

Elena Maksimenko in Shirokino. Photo from personal archive.As the study confirmed, the media portrayal of female military personnel also leaves much to be desired. Journalists have been in no hurry to give coverage to the above-mentioned problems; instead, they’ve cultivated exotic images of perfectly made up and manicured bunker-ladies fighting the good fight – with their beneficent husbands’ blessings, of course. One glossy magazine, meanwhile, went one better, publishing a selection of quotations by Nadezhda Savchenko… alongside a picture of her face photoshopped onto someone else’s body (with Savchenko imprisoned in Russia at the time, a photo of the real her wearing a white shirt, as required by the format of the magazine’s eponymous column, would have been impossible to source).

And here’s another striking example of invisibility, brought to our attention during a presentation of our research in Dnipro. A girl in military fatigues showed us one of the certificates she needed to obtain a veteran identification card. Its printed text stated said that the certificate had been issued to Ms. So-and-so to certify that he…

Military gender equality

The first presentation of our research in December 2015 attracted a large audience and even provoked a degree of tension. During the discussion component of the event, a Defence Ministry official announced that the agency had openings for psychologists, and that she would happily encourage women to apply.

“I’m sorry, I’ve been moving columns away from enemy bombardments and you’re suggesting I should work as a psychologist?” Olena Mosiychuk, a respondent and paramedic with the far-right Azov regiment, retorted.

And so the Invisible Battalion campaign got off to a vigorous start. The project’s authors and the servicewomen involved in it had to engage with the press, public opinion and the Ministry of Defence itself. Initially, the latter failed to grasp exactly what was being demanded of it. We were forced to explain that in any 21st century army, advanced technology trumps physical strength. That the differences between average male and female dimensions are of far less consequence than is commonly supposed. That women have no need of patronising male “care”, that they can look after their own reproductive health, that they’ll figure out for themselves what does them harm and how (if at all) they’ll give birth afterwards. That men and women should enjoy the same career development opportunities as long as they have the necessary qualifications.

“I’m sorry, I’ve been moving columns away from enemy bombardments and you’re suggesting I should work as a psychologist?”

The explanations eventually hit home, and six months later the campaign yielded its first results. In the summer of 2016, the Ministry of Defence made changes to the rank-and-file, non-commissioned officer and starshina staff position lists, the women’s columns of which had previously been full of blanks.

Meanwhile, society at large also took the women’s demands as read. For the most part, the campaign was sympathetically received, and media coverage gradually become more clear-eyed. The Invisible Battalion project calendar received a National Festival of Social Advertising award. As for the servicewomen themselves, participating in our study was just the beginning for them: they promptly began attending equal rights rallies.

Former Ukrainian Armed Forces servicewoman Anna Ivantsyk at a feminist rally, Lvov, 8 March 2017. Photo courtesy of Ganna Grytsenko.The Ukrainian parliament, too, joined the efforts to achieve military gender equality. A cross-party women’s group called Equal Opportunities prepared Draft Bill no. 6109 (“On amendments to certain laws of Ukraine concerning the provision of equal rights and opportunities for women and men throughout their service in the Ukrainian Armed Forces and other military formations”), which was adopted on first reading two years after the campaign began. The bill reinforces the principle that women perform military service on equal terms with men; this means equal access to army posts and military ranks, the same retirement age, and equal detailing conditions. Analogous changes were made in the US only in 2015 – so Ukraine is only two years behind the global trend.

Advancing the female agenda

The campaign also precipitated other, wider-reaching changes. In particular, it gave rise to a discussion of why 450 civilian professions were closed off to women on account of how “physically demanding” they were. By 2017, the issue of professional inequality in civilian life began to receive considerable media coverage thanks to the efforts of feminist activists; towards the end of that year, the Ministry of Health finally revoked Decree No. 256, which had limited the professions open to women for almost a quarter of a century.

Activist Kseniya Chubuk at a feminist march, Kiev, 8 March 2017. Photo courtesy of Tsenzor.NETLate 2017 also saw the release of a documentary film of the same name as the campaign. Shot by three women directors and focusing on six servicewomen, the film explores the challenges they’ve faced over the course of their service, from evacuating casualties along the “road of life” to recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder to reintegrating into civilian life.

After serving five stints as a paramedic-cum-journalist, Olena Maksymenko worked on a social integration programme because, as she puts it, she had “a profound understanding of how stricken these people are when they return from the front.” Eventually, however, she went back to journalism and now works as a frontline correspondent, her time divided between Kyiv and the war zone. She pens frequent articles for the Come Back Alive NGO, always reminding readers of how they can donate money towards essential army supplies. It is precisely in this role, says Elena, that she feels most useful.

“I’m not only telling my readers about the war, about who’s fighting and what it all looks like, I’m also telling the guys and girls at the front that people do actually care,” she adds. “My pieces bring in real money: ‘likes’ and reposts for them means revenue for Come Back Alive – revenue we use to buy thermal imagers, drones and other things that’ll help you survive.”

Ukrainians have been repelling Russian aggression for almost four years now, and they’re not about to stop anytime soon. Bill No. 6109 may have been passed, but a number of other women’s issues await public awareness campaigns of their own; in particular, the issue of women’s access to secondary and higher military education hasn’t yet been resolved.

Nevertheless, the confident presence of the female agenda within Ukrainian civil society allows me to predict that the future will witness progress both in the legislative sphere and in everyday gender equality.


Sideboxes Related stories:  The rise of Azov Peace-building versus human rights in Ukraine’s Donbas Growing up apolitical in Ukraine’s war zone Disconnected society: how the war in the Donbas has affected Ukraine “Ukraine’s veterans don’t need sympathy, they need dignity” “I’m not afraid to say” that something’s changing in Ukraine Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

The power play behind the FYROM dispute

Mon, 2018-02-19 09:16

With Tsipras hoping to become a 'Bismarck of the Balkans', this dispute is a political tool for parties from all sides of the spectrum and is a clear indication of nationalist sentiment.

A massive rally in Syntagma square against the use of the term Macedonia by FYROM in Athens, Greece on February 4, 2018. NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved.On February 4, Greece took to the streets. This time, the issue wasn’t a bailout package, impending reforms or massive layoffs. It was simply a matter of preserving history; preventing FYROM ( the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) from laying claim to the legacy of Macedonia and Alexander the Great. Protesters were demanding that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras did not make an agreement at the UN headquarters in New York which would allow for the neighbouring country to the north to include “Macedonia” in its name.

The dispute started in 1990 with the dissolution of Yugoslavia. What was then the Macedonian prefecture formed the parliament of the “Socialist Republic of Macedonia.” One of its aims was to unite all the Macedonian people under one state. This was later entrenched in the 1991 constitution in Article 5, which sought to protect "the rights of the portions of the Macedonian people, which live as an ethnic minority in neighbouring countries." The country became a member of the UN in 1993 and has been recognised by over 130 states.

Macedonia is a geographical area that, throughout history, has been ruled by many different ethnic groups. Its poster child, Alexander the Great, unified the different city-states of Greece in an empire, often through bloody wars. He was born in what is today Greece, even though there was no such thing at the time. His, the Romans’, the Ottomans’ and the Yugoslavians’ “Macedonia” included the territories of FYROM.

There are two distinct historical facts that must be recognised. Firstly, Alexander and his kingdom were more akin to the Greeks than the Slavs, the primary ethnic group in FYROM. Secondly, the land of FYROM has been called Macedonia for centuries. Arriving via these two facts at the same end destination, both nations refer to Macedonia in constructing their identity.

Balkan Bismarck?

Greece vetoed FYROM’s accession to NATO at the 2008 Bucharest summit, stating that Article 5 of its constitution implied territorial expansion at Greece’s expense. The issue has hovered at the periphery of Greek public discourse over the crisis years. When Tsipras took a seat at the negotiating table, those opposed to his solution brought the decades-old issue to the forefront of their agenda. As the Financial Times wrote, if he settled the dispute, he hoped to become a “Bismarck of the Balkans.”

The first rally was held at Thessaloniki, the biggest city in Greek Macedonia on January 21. Police recorded 90,000 participants, whereas the organisers claimed 500,000. At the Athens rally, organisers claimed 1.5 million participants, whereas police counted 140,000. News outlets fell in line with their political affiliations in reporting the size of the crowd.

“Macedonia is Greek,” protesters cried at the rally. “I had shivers up my spine from the moment I arrived until I left. It was a peaceful, honest, apolitical gathering. I’ve never been a part of anything similar. I felt proud of Greece for finally waking up,” said one participant, Felicia Adamidou.

The country exited the bailout programmes in 2017, but the government was severely wounded in the process. SYRIZA’s and Tsipras’s approval ratings have plummeted. His opposition is using the dispute to deepen this negative sentiment.

The leader of New Democracy, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, is seen as a rising star of liberal politics in Greece. He noted a few days before the Athens rally that the “shadow state” of anarchist organisations who interfere with peaceful protests “must not be tolerated.”

Οι πολίτες εξέφρασαν την αγωνία και την έλλειψη εμπιστοσύνης τους σε μία κυβέρνηση που έκανε τα πάντα για να διχάσει τους Έλληνες πάνω σε ένα κρίσιμο εθνικό ζήτημα. Είναι προφανές πια ότι δεν εμπιστεύονται τον κ.Τσίπρα, τον κ.Καμμένο και τον κ.Κοτζιά να διαπραγματευτούν οτιδήποτε

— Kyriakos Mitsotakis (@kmitsotakis) February 4, 2018

“Citizens expressed their frustration and lack of trust towards a government that did everything in its power to divide Greeks on a national issue,” he tweeted on the day of the rally. His party had supported a conciliatory solution that would allow for FYROM to include “Macedonia” in its name at least five times under the leadership of Antonis Samaras. His row during his presidency was with Golden Dawn, who sued him over the arrests of three Golden Dawn MPs. He smiled for the cameras and put on his best nationalist hat alongside Golden Dawn MPs at the rally.

The protests also provide a playground for street politics, an indispensable phenomenon of Athenian life. Anarchist group Rouvikonas, known for destroying property and raiding banks, announced that “Blood will be shed” at the Athens rally. They perceive it as right-wing fascism and nationalism. It is hard to argue with them when a Greek flag is hung by a crane over hundreds of thousands of protesters, carrying more Greek flags. Golden Dawn held a rally the night before the apolitical protest, at the same location. Members of Golden Dawn got aggressive during the apolitical protest and clashed with police. 

As the Athens rally was drawing to a close, a team of 80 fascists attacked the self-organised community space "Embros." They threw rocks and glass bottles at the building and the people of "Embros" climbed to the rooftop and threw whatever they could find. On the day of the attack, they were finishing a photography exhibition with over 80 artists from many different backgrounds and were hosting community kitchen "Allos Anthropos" (Different Person) which provides food to local disadvantaged groups (refugees, homeless etc.) Witnesses claim that the riot police eventually broke the conflict up. But before the fight broke out they were advising them not to go near the building.  

Those who attended the rallies are not Golden Dawn sympathisers, but it would be naïve to call the rallies apolitical. The dispute is a political tool for parties from all sides of the spectrum and is a clear indication of nationalist sentiment. The latter is galvanized to promote the former. It is of paramount importance that this reality is not hidden behind the politicians’ rhetoric. The same game is played across the border, in FYROM, except for them it hinders their participation in regional and defensive blocs.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Could Macedonia become a Balkan success story? Macedonia and rightwing banality: history as myth machine Turning the Macedonian tables: what if the solution to the identity issue is the basis for solving the name of the state? Country or region:  Greece Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

Activist Reham Al-Bader’s death in Yemen shows the dangers women face providing lifelines in conflict

Mon, 2018-02-19 07:54

Women in Yemen are challenging the death and destruction around them, often paying a heavy price.  Yet, their voices and skills are still sidelined.

Human rights activist Reham Al-Bader (left), Elaf Samir Noman (middle), and Naseem Al-Faqeeh (right) taking a break during the distribution of food baskets in Taiz, Yemen in October 2016. Photo: courtesy of Hobi Laha Humanitarian Organization. All rights reserved.On 8 February, human rights activist Reham Al-Bader Al-Dhubhani and her colleague Mu'men Saeed Hammoud Salem were killed while delivering humanitarian aid in Taiz, a city in southwest Yemen which has experienced some of the most intense fighting since the ongoing conflict escalated in 2015.

Civil society and ad-hoc initiatives have provided essential lifelines to people in the besieged city. Many of these efforts have been spearheaded by courageous women. “Reham was like a bee, you could find her everywhere in Taiz giving goods to people,” her friend Dalia told Arab News. “Those who know Reham, they know the loss for Taiz.”

The war in Yemen has extracted grave tolls on civilian life. According to United Nations figures, 16,200 people have been killed including 10,000 civilians, and more than 3.4 million have been displaced. The country’s infrastructure, health, and education systems have been decimated. A million people contracted cholera in the world’s largest outbreak of the disease.

Land and sea blockades of commercial goods including some humanitarian aid have compounded the crisis, pushing a country that has suffered from debilitating poverty to the brink of famine. Yemen faces what many have described as the ‘worst humanitarian crisis in the world,’ with more than 22 million people in need of life-saving assistance.

Yemen had ranked last in the Global Gender Gap Index and the Gender Inequality Index before the escalation of the conflict, which has exacerbated structural inequalities. Rates of women suffering from malnutrition, as well as cases of violence against women, and child marriage, have increased.

Yemeni women made significant strides towards political inclusion in the 2013 National Dialogue Conference, but their participation has been subsequently sidelined and only a handful of Yemeni women were engaged in the now stalled peace process.

A soldier helps Reham Al-Bader and Naseem Al-Faqeeh to avoid snipers and landmines to distribute water and food to trapped families in Taiz, May 2017. Photo: courtesy of Hobi Laha Humanitarian Organization. All rights reserved.This is the extraordinarily challenging context in which Reham worked, among many other women who have stepped up to deliver much-needed humanitarian assistance and to broker resolutions to various manifestations of the conflict. 

Women are coordinating relief services – opening schools and medical units; delivering food and medical assistance; documenting human rights abuses; leading protests for the release of ‘disappeared’ loved ones – surmounting physical and metaphorical mountains to assist those affected by the war.

Yemeni women are also leading and influencing efforts to support and reactivate local conflict resolution processes. In numerous governorates, women and women's initiatives have successfully resolved local disputes, contained violence, and steered communities away from armed conflict.

In the process, women are exercising at times conflicting roles in conflict resolution – both playing upon gender norms and subverting them to mobilise community support, engage leaders, negotiate ceasefires, and assertively demand peace.

“Women see their communities and country ravaged by war, and they understand that these challenges cannot be resolved without them.”

Women's leadership in shoring up the stability of Yemeni communities threatened by conflict is not rare, isolated, or ‘new.’ But their efforts are insufficiently acknowledged and harnessed amid restrictions placed upon women and what is ‘appropriate’ for them to do.

We must recognise the commitment and power of women to foster peace and stability in the face of the complex conflict and its humanitarian fallout, and bring about transformative change.

In an interview with UN Women late last year, Reham said: “Women see their communities and country ravaged by war, and they understand that these challenges cannot be resolved without them.”

Across Yemen women are challenging the death and destruction around them, often paying a heavy price for doing so. Yet, their voices and skills continue to be marginalised and their engagement sidelined.

The violence exacted on civilians and humanitarian partners in Yemen, which took the lives of Reham and her colleague, also plays a powerful role in silencing those who are actively striving to resolve the country’s multifaceted challenges.

We must not permit that debate and dialogue are replaced with silence and fear. We demand that civilian lives be respected. And to all of us seeking a lasting solution to the conflict in Yemen, we must recognise and harness the expertise of all of those in society, looking beyond gender norms and stereotypes, to make our efforts truly inclusive.

Country or region:  Yemen Topics:  Conflict Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

Is Oxford University complicit in Aung San Suu Kyi's genocide denial?

Mon, 2018-02-19 07:14

Just as Suu Kyi dismisses allegations of Myanmar’s international human rights crimes as designed to tarnish the image of Myanmar, the administration at Oxford University considers this a “public relations” issue.

Aung San Suu Kyi when she was a Burmese pro-democracy campaigner walking with Andrew Dilnot, the Principal of St Hugh's College of the Oxford University, at a reception in Oxford in June 2012. Lefteris Pitarakis/Press Association. All rights reserved. When reality goes off the chart of what is thinkable, fiction is no match.     

That Oxford University’s most iconic living graduate Aung San Suu Kyi may find herself at the International Criminal Court for her “complicity of silence in crimes against humanity” and even a genocide will go down in history as one such extraordinary tale.  Yet as the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee made unequivocally clear in her 6-minute interview with UK’s Channel 4 News on 14 February: this is no hyperbole.       

In the eyes of many conscientious people, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and former icon of freedom, human rights and democracy has lost her hard-earned moral authority and the image as the “Queen of Democracy” for her role in what UN officially calls “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” of nearly 700,000 Rohingyas of Myanmar in the last 6 months.

The finger pointing at the Oxford-educated Burmese politician comes not from her old nemesis, that is, the Burmese generals, who had routinely vilified her in their state-controlled media for several decades during her 15-years of house arrest.  Quite the opposite: former admirers and supporters such as Desmond Tutu, the Irish singer Bono who composed “Walk On,” a song dedicated to Suu Kyi; Sir Geoffrey Nice, former Prosecutor in the case against Slobodan Milosevic, who shared the televised Rule of Law Roundtable at LSE with her when she first returned to Britain in 2012; Head of the Human Rights Council Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein and the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, from the Republic of Korea, who, like many Asian women, considered the Burmese “a role model” – all have turned against her, bitterly disappointed at Suu Kyi’s “callous dismissal” of credible allegations as the UN Human Rights Chief put it, of mass atrocities under her watch.

Alarming parallel

In an alarming parallel, both Suu Kyi and Oxford University show a similar indifference to concerns regarding the persecution of the Rohingya – a prolonged history.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s government routinely issues blanket denials in response to any credible findings about its mass graves of Rohingyas executed in cold-blood; systematic and pervasive use of rape against Rohingya women and girls; or destruction of over 340 Rohingya villages in an area covering 100 kilometres.

Suu Kyi has shown a similar indifference to these concerns. In her internal memo to the UN Secretary General Antonia Gunterres, Pramila Patten, UN envoy on sexual violence in conflict, reportedly wrote that the “meeting with the state counsellor was a cordial courtesy call of approximately 45 minutes that was, unfortunately, not substantive in nature.” Suu Kyi expressed the “belief” that those (688,000 Rohingyas) who fled did so due to an affiliation with terrorist groups, and did so to evade law enforcement,” according to the Guardian (12 Feb 2017).

Meanwhile over 80 scholars, activists and public intellectuals including Gayatri Spivak, Noam Chomsky, Johan Galtung, Gregory Stanton, and Barbara Harrel-Bond have publicly sent a letter of concern to the Vice Chancellor of Oxford University, Louise Richardson, an expert on terrorism, regarding Oxford University Press’s choice of expert to opine on the victims of Burmese genocide which Suu Kyi is accused of ‘presiding over’, ‘whitewashing’ and ‘denying’.  Dr Jacques Leider is a well-known adviser to the Myanmar military who denies Rohingya identity, their unique history, and the crime of genocide the group has been subjected to for decades. The letter has been accompanied by a chorus of over 1,500 on-line citizens worldwide, who have signed a petition to Vice Chancellor Richardson, echoing these concerns of scholars and public intellectuals about the roles both Oxford University and Suu Kyi are playing in the still on-going genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims.

The Vice Chancellor and her team have chosen so far not to even acknowledge the receipt of the letter of concerns (dated 5 Feb 2017).  Additionally, they did not respond to the genuine offer of assistance made in writing by the renowned post-colonial scholar Gayatri Spivak of Columbia University, an offer to help them select a scholar who will meet the standards of scholarly integrity regarding Rohingya history and identity. As a follow-up to the letter to the VC, Professor Spivak wrote, “I did indeed insist that future readers of the Oxford history not read a biased account of the Rohingya. The UN considers the Rohingya situation to be certainly ethnic cleansing and even genocide…. Professor Amartya Sen (an Honorary Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford) has called it a slow genocide. It is not necessary to take any political position in a scholarly entry. But the account must be impartial. I strongly recommend that the Press locate an impartial scholar to write the entry. I am in Calcutta, away from my desk. I will, however, be happy to help you in this matter if necessary.”

Just as Suu Kyi and her office have consistently dismissed the allegations and findings of Myanmar’s international human rights crimes against the Rohingya as “fake news” designed to tarnish the image of Myanmar, the administration at Oxford University apparently considers this challenge primarily a “public relations” issue concerning regard for the reputation of the Oxford University Press in Myanmar’s still unfolding campaign of destruction targeted at the Rohingya people as a group.  

The written response from Oxford University Press on-line editor Louis Gulino to a group of East Oxford residents and the Vicar of Cowley St John’s Parish who also wrote to the Vice Chancellor, urged that any future correspondence should be directed at the publicity office of the OUP.  While OUP’s clear concern about its public relations is understandable in the light of such scandals as that which exposed shady ties between the Gaddafi regime of Libya and the London School of Economics in 2011, OUP assurances to date are inadequate.

Ella Percival, Communications Manager, emailed this response on 8 February: “As this is a publishing matter, the first stage of this process is for Oxford University Press to follow these review procedures and, if necessary, implement a more detailed review. If the article does not meet our strict standards of scholarly integrity, it will, of course, not be published. Please rest assured that this decision is currently being considered.  We are very aware that the history of the Rohingya is a complex and contentious area of research and, as always, the goal of the Press is to represent this history with accuracy, balance, and sensitivity.”

Also see the official statement now up at the OUP site. Here OUP is arguing that their strict refereeing process ensures fairness and accuracy. This does not appear to have been the case with the commissioning of the article in the first place. The fact that only Rohingya communalism was made the focus of the article suggests that there is at least a tacit acceptance that the opposing Buddhist community's claim of its own authenticity as an ethnic group, which is not the case, is going unchallenged. Given the controversy over the history and ethnic “indigeneity” within Rakhine (which the OUP seems to believe only concerns doubts about the Rohingya), it would be necessary for fairness for an equivalent piece examining Rakhine Buddhist communalism to be commissioned and published simultaneously with the piece on the Rohingya.

This has not been done. OUP has in effect taken sides by focusing on the Rohingya in this controversy. For example, at no point did OUP consult one of the only history professors specialising in Rakhine religious communalism as a referee, Michael Charney of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. His University of Michigan doctoral thesis (1999) focused on the subject of religious communalism in Rakhine up through the colonial period and the SOAS  professor has continued to write on the region since.

Taking sides

Besides these failures by the OUP editors, the non-responses from the Vice Chancellor taken together with their press office spin demonstrate little understanding by the leaders and managers of the University of our concerns both on ethical and intellectual grounds. In numerous interviews – made available in Burmese translation to the Burmese readership inside Myanmar, as well as in public events including the ones sponsored by the Burmese military, the commissioned expert, Dr Jacques Leider, has repeatedly said that Rakhine identity is a “real ethnic identity” whereas the Rohingya group identity is an “invented political identity” by politically motivated Muslims in the 1950’s, the promotion of which has been revived only in the 1990’s, in spite of all the historical and official evidence available to the contrary. 

Yet in the social sciences, for example, it has been generally agreed since the publication of the late Benedict Anderson’s influential work “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism” (1983), that nations, national sentiments and national identities are all products of collective imaginations. They are all social inventions.

Furthermore, OUP’s selection of a French-educated expert on Myanmar with known ties to the Myanmar military from amongst the myriad of qualified scholars of Myanmar is only one of the ways in which Oxford University is involved with the Myanmar government. Oxford University has institutional ties with Yangon University, known to us as a platform for propagating justifications for the Burmese genocide, and Oxford-based or -trained Burmese who openly espouse anti-Rohingya racism in their Burmese-language social media posts on Facebook, the most widely-used medium that has been deployed for the incitement to commit genocide against the Rohingya, intentionally spreading misinformation designed to disparage the Rohingya and their claims of extreme repression and persecution.

In response to Aung San Suu Kyi’s appeal or “challenge” made during her visit to Oxford in 2012 during which she had conferred upon her an Honorary Doctorate, the University – then under the vice-chancellorship of John Hood – established an institutional link with Yangon University with the aim of helping to revamp higher education in a country reeling from 50-years of intellectual isolation and the absence of academic freedom. The British Government is said to have footed the bill of 4 million GBP.  Who indeed would object to a western university of Oxford’s calibre helping to improve the quality of Burmese university education?

Yangon University

But the problem is that the repressive character of the higher education sector in Burma has not changed, in spite of all the talk about democratic transition.  Recent news reports indicate that Yangon University still does not have any administrative or intellectual autonomy from the Ministry of Education.  Recently, the same Ministry expelled over 3 dozen students for holding a protest demanding an increase in the educational budget for universities, as the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar Yanghee Lee pointed out in her Final Statement on Myanmar (dated 1 February 2018). 

Suu Kyi’s own government stands accused of resorting to the old “repressive tactics” in the face of allegations of its criminal responsibility in the case of “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya, to borrow the words of UN Secretary General Antonio Gunterres. Most troublingly, the Yangon University website openly echoes the government’s blatant denial that the Rohingya exist, despite all historical and official evidence to the contrary. And many of its recent graduates join the loud chorus of Burmese voices which deny any wrong-doing is being committed by Myanmar, both from the government and the country’s above-the-law military.

Any scholar of genocides knows that the denial and dismissal of allegations of international state crimes including crimes against humanity and genocide has been a common feature in the systematic destruction of peoples and communities, from Nazi Germany to Rwanda, from Indonesia's genocide of the Chinese to Bosnia and S. Sudan. The fact that Yangon University, its faculty and graduates are engaged in this classic denial of atrocities, should be an alarm call and a serious concern for Oxford University administration.

Finally, some well-known Burmese researchers who have been brought to Oxford University for research and academic residency have been observed spreading verifiable misinformation, 'fake News' in today’s parlance, including such allegations as that the “Bengali”, a Burmese racial slur in reference to the Rohingya, have been engage in burning down their own homes. Khin Mar Mar Kyi, Aung San Suu Kyi's Gender Scholar based at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, is not alone in having been spotted sharing, approvingly, such official Myanmar Government propaganda on her Facebook page.

Screen-shot of typical tweet.Recently, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was seen on Britain’s Channel 4 News directly confronting Win Myat Aye, the Minister for Social Welfare and Aung San Suu Kyi’s point man on the humanitarian crisis, during a visit to the affected Rohingya region of Western Myanmar. Win Myat Aye was caught on camera repeating the official lie that “they (688,000 Rohingyas who fled to Bangladesh as the result of Myanmar military’s scorched earth “security clearance operations” since August) torched (their own villages)”. Johnson’s incredulous and instant response was, “why would they do that”? Subsequently, the Foreign Secretary told the media that he believed Myanmar was putting out these “farcical tales” in order to cover up its “industrial scale ethnic cleansing”.

Setting standards?

When it comes to standards for truth-telling, politicians, government officials and political leaders are not the first people in the world that anyone would turn to. However, when Oxford University – seen globally as a standard bearer in academic knowledge production and expected to uphold high standards of excellence in research, scholarship and publishing of intellectual integrity, factual accuracy and fairness in interpretation – finds itself peddling such a consistently false perspective, it is high time that the leadership of the University reviewed its institutional ties to Myanmar’s higher education sector.

On 29 January, the student-run Oxford Union devoted an evening of discussion on the subject of genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, S. Sudan and Myanmar during which 4 scholars and practitioners of international law and activism against genocides took part. As the Burmese speaker on the panel, I thanked the Union and its bright, international, interested student audience for organizing and attending in large numbers a debate on subjects as grim and inhuman as these genocides. And I specifically called their attention to the complicity of Oxford University in my country’s on-going genocide of the Rohingya people.

Even the undergraduate students at St Hugh’s, Suu Kyi’s alma mater, voted to drop her name from their Junior Common Room and the college stored away her portrait, once hung proudly on its wall, into “a secure location” as of September 2017 while her government was accused of ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.

Oxford students have indeed consistently shown their humane concerns as well as intellectual curiosity about genocides, past and present. But their university ought to stop letting itself be used, wittingly or not, by individual scholars and experts whose denialist stance on the Rohingya, their identity, history and sufferings should be ground for the withdrawal of commissioned work, professional ties, and support.

By all the current indications, Suu Kyi will be unable to salvage her condemned name at the 11th hour of her political career. But the administration of the University of Oxford still have a chance to do the right thing and avoid being recorded in the annals of genocide as a by-stander at best, complicit at worst, in the ongoing Burmese genocide.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Ten reflections inspired by the Rohingya crisis When is a genocide a genocide? Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

Santiago Maldonado: the ill-fated traveller

Mon, 2018-02-19 05:44

Sebastián Ortega and Emilia Erbetta wrote a profile about Santiago Maldonado (the young man who disapeared in Mapuche land in Patagonia) in Rolling Stone magazine, available here. This is a small fragment. Español

Santiago Maldonado. Source: Cosecha Roja. All rights reserved.

This piece is published in the framework of our partnership with Cosecha Roja. Read the original here.

Santiago’s journeys turn his life story into a puzzle which is missing some pieces. There are only fragments left from his voyages: the reconstruction of his last years is marked by the memories of those who accompanied him or who encountered him on his path. 

His journey to Misiones in January of 2011 marked a turning point in his life. His departure point was La Plata, from there a group of friends accompanied him.

Upon arriving at Misiones, Santiago and Enzo Robles, a young tattoo artist like himself, were the only ones that remained. The others had trailed off in different directions.

Santiago travelled with a rucksack filled with acrylic paints with which he would paint walls he encountered on the way: huge paintings of different colours displaying libertarian phrases. 

In Misiones, they met Chuncho, an old Guaraní man who put them up in his house in the mountains. During these days, Enzo contracted a urinary infection.

Suddenly, he gave up being Lechuga to become the Brujo (wizard). He went from being a village punk to a nomad with libertarian ideas.

The elderly man went up to the mountains with a machete and came back with a fist of leaves and branches that he then stuffed into a cut up bottle. He filled it with water and added a lightbulb.

"Drink it all up" He said.

Half an hour later, Enzo was completely cured.

Santiago was fascinated: he took note of the names of the herbs and what each one was useful for. From there, his interest in ancestral medicine and plant power grew.

Suddenly, he gave up being Lechuga to become the Brujo (wizard). He went from being a village punk to a nomad with libertarian ideas.

Before leaving Chuncho’s home, Santiago offered to paint a mural as a thank you. At the request of the elderly man, he drew the figure of Jesus on one of the walls in his home, and he gave him a smile and a bottle of wine in his hand. “A Jesus somewhere between drunk and happy, and libertarian” remembers Enzo.

One afternoon, the two friends went to sail along the Paraná in boats made of wood with a few young Guaranís that Chuncho had introduced them to.

Whilst they took a rest by the coast, Santiago went towards the river bank to clean the mud off his boots and he fell into the water, into a deep part where his feet didn’t touch the floor.

From far away, his friends saw him waving his arms, it seemed like he was fooling around. Enzo remembered that his friend didn’t know how to swim. 

The Guaranís rescued him. Lechuga vomited liquid and was lying down on the grass in pain. From this moment onwards, his relationship with the water was one of fear and respect.

I imagine him escaping from the troops, the exact kind trained to kill, and suddenly he finds himself face to face with water.

The friends that met him on his travels recall that he would barely go near the sea or any river. Sometimes, when they would go out to sail along the lagoon in their village with their childhood friends, he would take off his boots. He was scared he would drown if the boat flipped over.

Seven years later, Enzo thinks about the last minutes of his friend’s life in the Mapuche community: “I imagine him escaping from the troops, the exact kind trained to kill, and suddenly he finds himself face to face with water, that had once before given him a taste of death.”

Many of Santiago’s tattoos had been done by Enzo. And when his family confirmed that the body found in the river Chubut was his, he tattooed the bearded face of his travel companion on the arm of his brother Sergio.

In between his trips, Santiago returned to his family home in 25 de Mayo. When he returned from Misiones, the Maldonados did a barbeque to celebrate Stella’s 59th birthday: it was the last time they shared a meal together as a family. That day, Sergio and his wife Andrea gave her a kettle.

“It’s beautiful” she said.

Santiago appeared with another gift for his mother: a small, second-hand Hindu cookery book. Even though Stella had never been interested in cooking – her menu usually consisted of pizza, cold meat and sausages – she completely forgot about the kettle and showed off the book that her youngest son had brought her, her favourite son.

Santiago Maldonado. Source: Cosecha Roja. All rights reserved.

The gift remained a mere anecdote as Stella never cooked a Hindu dish. That afternoon, after lunch, Santiago gave Sergio a tattoo under the watchful eyes of Germán.

The meeting between the brothers was exemplified in one photo: Santiago, without a shirt and with latex gloves, finishing off a tattoo on Sergio’s right arm. Standing next to them, Germán watches as his younger brother gets to work. It’s the last photo of the three of them together.

At that moment, Santiago was already thinking about dropping out of university. The idea had been going around in his head and he was conversing about it with his friends in La Plata: he would say he was no longer enthusiastic because he liked the workshop. After a few months, he quit his studies.

“I don’t want anything from the state” he said to a friend from 25 de Mayo.  

Sergio was worried, he had always been a type of father figure for Santiago. The two brothers were very different: the oldest saw himself as a structured individual. With his partner Andrea, he planned everything from his small production business specialising in tea and Patagonian spices to his holidays.

They often argued due to their different lifestyles. Santiago treated them as though they were bourgeoisie and when he dropped out of university he explained to them that he had already learned everything he needed. The rest, he said, he would learn outside. 

When he left university, he became distanced from many of his friends from the guesthouse. “The last time I ran into him in La Plata was in May or June of 2012, at an ayahuasca meet up.

The whole tribe from La Plata was there, among them were Lechu and Facu” remembers Fran. At that meeting they discussed what the ceremony would be like. Lechu wasn’t able to participate: a few days earlier he had begun his journey by bike.


Nobody remembers the exact moment in which Santiago decided he was no longer Lechuga but instead the Brujo. The first nickname was given to him, the second was chosen by himself.

It was much more than a simple name change: it went alongside a transformation which saw him turn from an adolescent punk from 25 de Mayo to a libertarian nomad opposed to the capitalist system, religion, who believed in economic autonomy and natural medicine.



Sideboxes Related stories:  Mapuche vs Benetton: un-settling the land Tragic Patagonia Country or region:  Argentina Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

Sacrifice zones in rural and non-metro USA: fertile soil for authoritarian populism

Mon, 2018-02-19 03:36

Sacrifice zones – abandoned, economically shattered places – are spreading in historically white rural areas and small towns across the United States. Rural decline fosters regressive authoritarian politics. 

Mississippi in 2010. Photograph taken by the author. All rights reserved. This is the fourth article in a series on ‘confronting authoritarian populism and the rural world’, linked to the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI). The article opening the series can be read here.

‘The United States is coming to resemble two separate countries, one rural and one urban,’ political analyst David Graham proclaimed in a 2017 article in The Atlantic. Viewing the map of 2016 presidential election results, it is hard to avoid a similar conclusion. Donald Trump carried over 2,500 largely rural counties and Hillary Clinton, who won the popular vote, less than 500 mostly urban ones.

The ‘two countries’ thesis echoes scholars of uneven development going back decades, from Michael Lipton’s study of ‘urban bias’ to Cynthia Duncan’s Worlds Apart and – more recently – Katherine Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment. Too often now, though, ‘rural’ has become a synecdoche for ‘Trump voters,’ ‘working-class’ or ‘white’ – misrepresentations that Samantha Bee demolished in hilarious video interviews with small-town minority voters. In fact, Trump voters had a higher median income than Clinton voters, reflecting backing among affluent whites without university degrees, many of them business owners in suburban counties. In fact, Trump voters had a higher median income than Clinton voters.

Multiple studies point to racial resentment as the strongest predictor of voting for Trump’s brand of bigotry, faux populism and economic nationalism. Racial anger intensified in the lead-up to 2016 not just because the US had an African American president, but also from an accelerated decomposition of community life and livelihoods that many whites worried could reduce them to what they imagined as the level of Blacks and other minorities.

It drew on a deep historical well of entrenched racism and anti-Native and anti-Black violence. These whites feared that the hopelessness and decay of the country’s rural and urban ‘sacrifice zones’ was spreading. Chris Hedges described ‘sacrifice zones’ as places where ‘the marketplace rules without constraints, where human beings and the natural world are used and then discarded to maximize profit’.

Economic and political transformations

White privilege had many dimensions  –  decent wages in largely industrial employment, defined-benefits pensions, seemingly permanent jobs  – but these began to unravel in the neoliberal 1980s and imploded during the Great Recession of 2008.

The punditry and media didn’t grasp the enormity of these transformations because so many analyses were piecemeal, examining home foreclosures but not the opioid epidemic, or deindustrialization and unemployment, but not the disappearance of locally-owned financial institutions.

They also failed to place US decline in global and historical perspective, rarely asking why in one of the richest nations people did not enjoy the right to health or a dignified retirement.

After the mid-1970s wages decoupled from productivity gains and stagnated. Internationally, the key factor was the mid-1970s collapse of the Bretton Woods framework, which since 1944 had promoted protected national economies, and the subsequent ‘opening up’ of international finance and trade. Domestically, attacks on unions, particularly once Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, further eroded workers’ bargaining power.

Income and wealth inequality soared. By 2016, 63 percent of Americans didn’t have enough savings to cover a $500 emergency. Today, nine million have zero cash income. The divide had a pronounced racial dimension. In 2014, the median earnings gap between black and white men, which narrowed sharply in 1940-1970, was larger than in 1950. In 2014, the median earnings gap between black and white men was larger than in 1950.

One striking finding of Cramer’s Politics of Resentment was that rural Wisconsinites viewed the 2008 Great Recession as ‘unremarkable’. They had been living in a recession for decades. The economic precarity of low-income Americans is such that the cost of a car repair may initiate a downward spiral that culminates in job loss and even homelessness. Nationally, residential foreclosures – 383,037 in 2006 – climbed rapidly, with around one million each year in 2009-2012. The cumulative impact was devastating, as families doubled up with relatives, went on the road, or moved to shelters.

Rural sacrifice zones

Some features of US sacrifice zones are specifically rural. The 1980s saw the worst farm crisis since the 1930s depression. Petroleum and fertilizer costs skyrocketed, grain prices plummeted, and interest rates climbed, as monetary policies sought to dampen inflation and loans were called in. The rapid consolidation of input and machinery suppliers, and in the processing, brokering and exporting of key commodities, allowed a handful of giant corporations to garner a rising share of the total value-added between the farm gate and the consumer.

Survivors of the 1980s suffered a second crisis in the past five years, following the end of the commodities boom of the 2000s. In 2013-2016 US farmers and ranchers experienced a 52 percent drop in real net farm income, the largest three-year decline since the 1930s depression. Over half of farm households now lose money on farming. As farmers again go bankrupt, the multiplier effects further destabilize local economies.

Populist demagogues like Trump blame job loss exclusively on free trade and factory flight:  their liberal critics also cite automation. But financialization has clearly been a central factor. In the 1980s leveraged buyout specialists loaded companies with debt, dismembered them, slashed wages and pensions, and cashed out. One small-town Ohio manufacturer even ordered executives to live elsewhere, ‘so they wouldn’t be troubled by requests for civic involvement or charitable contributions’. Buyout specialists loaded companies with debt, dismembered them, slashed wages and pensions, and cashed out.

Big investors also targeted mutually-owned banks, which long powered small-town economies. Directors often donated to local institutions and sometimes made loans based on trust rather than credit scores. As giant financial institutions took over, they sucked wealth out of communities, instituting stricter lending criteria, undermining small businesses, creating ‘banking deserts’, and forcing the newly un-banked into high-cost check cashing outlets and payday lenders, themselves frequently financed by large banks. During 2008-2016, rural areas, which have less access to broadband and Internet banking, saw 86 new banking deserts.

Like mutual banks, cooperatives and credit unions that reinvested locally the wealth communities produced had constituted a bulwark against rapacious corporations and financial institutions. Of the 3,346 agricultural cooperatives – grain elevators and packing houses, among others – that existed in 2000, 1,350 closed by 2015. Of the more than 8,000 credit unions in 2007, over two thousand closed by 2017.

Family-owned stores and diners on small-town Main Streets were sites of human contact, invested profits locally, and provided income and employment for farm and other rural households. As malls and chain stores proliferated, such businesses withered from relentless competition. Fewer small businesses means less ad revenue for local newspapers, thousands of which closed in recent decades, some succumbing to the Internet and others to the same financialization that was strangling industries and banks.

More recently, low-wage retail and service jobs in chains and malls began to disappear because of e-commerce. Empty storefronts and malls and vanished newspapers are not just signs of job loss and economic precarity. Inhabitants of sacrifice zones read them as stark, painful reminders of abandonment and a shredded social fabric.

The human toll

In recent decades, federal and state governments have removed funding from social services of all kinds. Rural hospital closures doubled between 2011-12 and 2013-14. Post offices are closing too. They have long been lifelines for rural people, serving as meeting places, delivering essential medicines, information, and human contact.

Because property taxes are a main source of education funding, when tax bases and populations decline, schools – typically centers of small-town sociality – close, cut back or consolidate with adjacent districts. Thirty percent of all school closures nationwide in 2011-12 were in rural areas. Most recently, the Trump administration let funding lapse for community health centers used by 26 million Americans.

As once vital communities and neighbourhoods hollowed out, losing their institutions and the capacity to appropriate the wealth that they produce, despair and anxiety triggered violence and addiction. Economist Umair Haque, in a trenchant essay on the ‘social pathologies of collapse’ – school shootings, the opioid epidemic, ‘nomadic retirees’ who live in their cars and work low-wage jobs, and the normalization of indifference – concludes that ‘we are grossly underestimating what pundits call the “human toll”’.

The scale of the opioid problem – and of the physical and emotional pain behind it – is staggering. In 2015, some 92 million or 38 percent of US adults used prescription opioids, with 11.5 million (4.7 percent) reporting misuse. In 2008-2017 drug companies shipped 20.8 million opioid pills to just two pharmacies in one town – population 2,900 – in largely rural West Virginia. Drug overdoses now kill more people than gun violence and auto accidents combined. Drug overdoses now kill more people than gun violence and auto accidents combined.

Angry politics in shattered communities and white suburbs

In the 2016 election Trump performed best in counties with the highest drug, alcohol and suicide mortality rates. In 2017, for the second year in a row, life expectancy in the US fell, in significant part because of opioid overdoses and other ‘deaths of despair’. Farmers, in particular, are killing themselves in record numbers.

Trump discerned the anger, fear and alienation in the sacrifice zones, but directed his racist, anti-immigrant harangues only at their white inhabitants. His country-club racism, off-hand authoritarianism, simple-minded nationalism, overblown promises, and claims to be a ‘strong leader’ resonate in shattered communities, as well as among nouveau-riche entrepreneurs and well-to-do white suburbanites, many of whom bought Republican claims about ‘burdensome’ regulation of business and were uneasy that their heretofore monochromatic communities were being ‘invaded’ by affluent immigrants and people of colour.

Trump repeatedly pathologised non-white inhabitants of the sacrifice zones, deploying age-old right-wing tropes about ‘undeserving’ minorities that in turn served to justify the traditional conservative agenda of shrinking government and protecting the interests of the super-rich. Governments appeared unable or unwilling to address the convergence of multiple crises –employment, housing, education, health, decaying communities – and this revived memories of past broken promises, including those of neoliberal Democratic administrations. This feeling of abandonment, along with downward mobility, made white rural Americans receptive to a candidate who cast himself as an ‘outsider’.

Challenging questions

In the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative, activists and researchers are debating pressing questions.

Should the resistance in the US try to win over Trump supporters, or is it better to work on combatting voter suppression, particularly of minorities, fighting for campaign finance reform, and mobilizing the vast numbers that abstain from electoral participation? In the #MeToo-Stormy Daniels moment, will white evangelical and white women voters drop their support for the crude, misogynist, philandering president? Or does having a pliable, if mercurial, conservative, racist ally in the White House trump all other considerations?

To what degree is global and US authoritarian populism a façade for a state-led project that invokes ‘family values’, retrograde forms of masculinity and heteronormativity, and an exclusionary vision of the nation in order to exacerbate social divisions, roll back social conquests, and intensify exploitation of human beings and the environment? Is it possible to re-legitimize the public sphere and public investment, funded by progressive taxation, to create a stable and more just society that provides opportunities for all? Are they taking shape as a global authoritarian populist axis?

To what extent are the world’s autocrats – Trump, Duterte, Erdoğan, Modi, Orbán, Putin, among others – simply a mutually reinforcing collection of erratic rulers? Or are they taking shape as a global authoritarian populist axis? And finally, can movements in different countries learn from each other to resist the authoritarian wave?

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

The Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI) was launched during 2017 as a response to the rise of authoritarian populism in different parts of the world. Our focus is on the rural origins and consequences of authoritarian populism, as well as the forms of resistance and variety of alternatives that are emerging.
In March 2018, a major ERPI event will be held in The Hague, the Netherlands, bringing together around 300 researchers and activists from across five continents. ERPI small grant holders will present research insights and debates will focus on mobilizing alternatives, generating new research-activist networks across the world.   
You can also follow updates from ERPI on Twitter and Facebook.

Related stories:  Confronting authoritarian populism: the rural dimension Hindu authoritarianism and agrarian distress Why #DefendAfrin? Confronting authoritarian populism with radical democracy Country or region:  United States Topics:  Civil society Conflict Culture Democracy and government Economics Equality International politics Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

Why mental health is the hidden cost of the housing crisis

Mon, 2018-02-19 03:00

Our homes are supposed to be safe and welcoming, yet one in five adults in the UK suffer from mental health problems due to housing pressures.

Credit: Pixabay/TheDigitalArtist. CC0 Public Domain

For six years, Anastasia Miari has suffered from clinical insomnia triggered by anxiety.

Like many other people, financial worries keep her awake at night. The 27-year-old freelance writer lives in a house-share in east London and pays £750 a month for her room, but is considering moving to cut down on her rent.

“I get bouts of real anxiety but it doesn’t come in the form of panic attacks—it rears its ugly head in my sleep,” Miari told me in a recent interview, adding that she only slept one hour the previous night.

“Basically, it is difficult to know how much money you’re going to earn every month and if your rent is super expensive, you can’t afford to save to buy a house. A place has just become available at a friend’s house and it is £100 cheaper a month than mine, but it’s a box room.”

Our homes are supposed to be safe and welcoming places free from the pressures of everyday life, so it’s no wonder that housing problems have a major impact on our mental wellbeing.

High rents, the threat of eviction, overcrowding, substandard housing and financial pressures brought on by the ‘bedroom tax’ (in which tenants in social housing have their benefits reduced if they have a so-called ‘spare’ room) are all issues which can lead to stress, anxiety and depression, and which have a knock-on effect on all aspects of our lives from work to relationships.

London is Europe’s most expensive city in which to rent according to recent research by the analytics firm ECA International, but prices are rising across the UK, including in Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow. And with increasing rents and stagnating wages comes financial insecurity, which plays havoc with our mental health.

In fact one in five adults in the UK suffer from mental health problems due to housing pressures, according to research carried out by the charity Shelter. In the worst cases, some people reported experiencing suicidal thoughts.

According to the same source, around one in six adults also said that housing problems had affected their physical health too, in the form of hair loss, nausea, headaches and exhaustion.

“Housing and mental health are closely related,” said Helen Rowbottom, policy officer at the National Housing Federation, when I talked to her. “The negative impact of poor housing on someone’s health and wellbeing is well evidenced. In many cases, it can prolong illness and escalate healthcare costs.”

Housing problems not only cause mental health problems, they also have the potential to make existing conditions worse. People with mental health conditions are one and a half times more likely to live in rented housing, according to research by the NHS Confederation mental health network and the National Housing Federation, leaving them at higher risk of rent increases which perpetuate the cycle of stress and anxiety.

In addition, since it was introduced nearly five years ago, the bedroom tax has hit some of the most vulnerable people in society the hardest, leaving tenants in social housing out of pocket just because they have a ‘spare’ room. Three-quarters of people paying the tax have had to cut back on food, according to a report published by the Department for Work and Pensions in 2015. Nearly half had also cut back on heating for their homes.

It doesn’t take much imagination to link these problems to mental illness. Three months after the Department’s report was published, a study in the Journal of Public Health found that all of the residents in one community in northern England—in which 68.5 per cent of the population live in social housing—reported stress and symptoms of anxiety and depression as a result of the bedroom tax.

In a recent interview, Gareth Bradbury, a 54-year-old single father from Bolton, told me that his girls were nine and five years old when they came to live with him. The family lived in a three-bedroom house and he worked as a gardener to support his daughters, who went on to attend university.

Then, a string of problems changed Bradbury’s situation. He had a heart attack and had to have bypass surgery, but later went back to work. While cleaning the gutters of his house he fell and seriously injured one of his legs, leaving him unable to work. When the bedroom tax was brought in in 2013, the added pressure on his finances took its toll on his mental health.

“The bedroom tax came in and I have to pay £30 a week out of my benefits,” he said, “but I also need a car to get about so my disability [allowance] pays for that. I have been on meds for depression and I’m still on them. I went for a swap of houses to a two-bedroom house, but got knocked back. I was offered a one-bedroom flat but my daughters still come and stay with me so I could not accept it. I’m stuck paying this forever.”

Against the odds, Bradbury says he has managed to cope. “I got on with my life and now I run a small group of volunteers called Bolton Community Kitchen. We feed the homeless, vulnerable and elderly people of Bolton every Monday night. I’m a lucky one that will bounce back.”

Anne Power, a professor of social policy at the London School of Economics, told me that the bedroom tax has undermined people’s confidence in their entitlement to the “peaceful occupation of their home,” which is a legal entitlement—a right.

“It has made them feel insecure when they simply cannot afford to pay the additional rent and many people have had to turn to family when they couldn’t meet the rent, increasing the feeling of being a burden,” she said. “Generally, welfare reform has greatly increased people’s sense of anxiety and uncertainty, which is the last thing you need in your home.”

For Bradbury, his community has been a source of support during difficult times. But if you don’t have that kind of support and housing pressures are affecting your mental health, it’s worth getting in touch with Shelter which provides advice on a range of issues, from falling behind on your rent to living in a home which isn’t up to standards.

The mental health charity Mind also covers the impact of housing problems on mental health extensively and can provide crucial support, as can another organisation called Rethink. Speaking to your GP about a mental health problem is always important.

It may also be helpful to contact Citizens Advice, who give free, confidential advice to people struggling with housing issues. Your local council may also be able to help in the form of a discretionary housing payment—an extra payment to people who claim housing benefit—which could help you if your housing benefit doesn’t cover your rent.

Whether it’s the pressure of paying an extortionate rent or financial anxiety caused by the bedroom tax, Britain’s housing crisis is having a serious effect on mental health. What’s worse, this is a problem that is being largely overlooked, and with very dangerous consequences.

When Brenda, from Manchester, was evicted from her home she spiralled into a deep depression. “You blame yourself and you feel a sense of total helplessness. I remember not wanting to go on and wondering if I should end it,” she told Shelter.

Things began to turn around after she spoke to one of the charity’s advisors. “She was the first person who had asked how they could help me. It was the beginning of me taking back some control. I think about that call practically every day. All you need is someone to listen.”


Sideboxes Related stories:  Why aren’t we thriving at work? How to decolonise mental health services Mental health: why we're all sick under neoliberalism Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

It’s about time we all admit that Putin has prevailed in Syria

Sun, 2018-02-18 12:49

The end game is clear: Assad, Russia and Iran will emerge victorious.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (2nd L, Front) and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin (2nd R) view a military parade in the Russian-run Hmeimim Air Base in the coastal city of Latakia, Syria, on Dec. 11, 2017. Syrian Presidency/Xinhua News Agency/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The conflict in Syria has been the most vicious in contemporary history, creating a geo-political hall of mirrors pitting Syrian against Syrian, Saudi Arabia against Iran and Russia against the United States.

To say that it is the most complicated proxy war of our times is an understatement. The war has had international and regional dimensions which have served to prolong, fuel and perpetuate the crisis.

The latest of which, a dramatic clash between Syria and Israel leading to the unprecedented downing of an Israeli F-16 after the latter targeted a group of Iranian installations in Syria, has threatened to further escalate to conflict. But in stepped Russia, and after promises made to either side, the situation calmed down, for now.

This only highlighted the growing importance of Moscow in Syria and the increasingly brave power plays Putin is making in the region.

In Syria, Russia strode in where the west was hesitant, and just over two years on from the riskiest move in post-Soviet Russian foreign policy, the end game is clear. Assad, Russia and Iran will emerge victorious, and that is a direct result of Moscow’s decision to intervene in 2015 when its long-term ally, Assad, was on the ropes and struggling to survive.

Any hopes the US had of being a powerbroker in Syria ended in September 2015. The presence of Russia immediately limited almost all western policy options that sought to oust Assad.

Russia didn’t have to worry about the Turkish-Kurdish dimension, it was too busy steamrolling Syria’s disjointed opposition. ISIS to Russia was no different to other rebel groups; in the eyes of Moscow they were all a threat to Assad and warranted an iron fist.

As Russia began to crush the anti-Assad opposition, the west could only watch from afar as the balance of power tilted in favour of the Syrian government.

The lack of western policy decisiveness is due to many factors; the emergence of a US backed Kurdish powerhouse in the north of Syria and Turkish efforts to quell that rise. The sharp rise of ISIS and other Jihadist groups further muddied the waters, creating an extra element of risk for a possible US intervention. This all played into Putin’s hands.

Over two years on from Moscow’s much maligned decision to intervene and prop up its long term Syrian ally, the Russians have been vindicated, insofar as the so-called Islamic State has been defeated and expelled from all Syrian cities, the last of which in Deir-Ezzor broke the back of the terror group.

The Syrian army, with assistance from Iranian backed militias, Hezbollah and Russian firepower is now on the victory march towards the remaining opposition strongholds in Idleb, Eastern Ghouta, Daraa and Qunaitra, possibly finishing the military side of the conflict by the end of 2018.

In December 2017 President Putin victoriously declared a withdrawal of a "significant part" of Russia's military forces in Syria, and heralded a successful end to the military operation.

The echoes of negativity and criticism of Russia by the US seem but a distant memory, and President Obama’s claim that Russia would be caught in a "quagmire" never truly transpired.

Putin’s bold remarks came during a visit to Hmeymim air base in Latakia where he told his forces that they had “fought brilliantly” and that the operation to destroy terrorism in Syria had neared a successful completion.

Russia has a new found appetite for power politics in the Middle East. 

The Russians had an official casualty list of 41 soliders, though the real number may be higher, it is far removed from the thousands killed in the Soviet Union’s long and brutal insurgency war in Afghanistan.

Most important of all, Russia saved its only genuine ally in the Middle East, maintaining and expanding its power and military bases whilst sending out a strong message to the world: Russia has a new found appetite for power politics in the Middle East.   

Russia's decision to intervene in Syria marked a culmination of sorts, this was the first real 'great power' involvement in the conflict on a large scale. Moscow had seen the anti-Assad opposition grow and weaponise, and it didn't act for some time, save for some strong language and the use of Veto’s at the UNSC.

September 2015, however, marked a new stage of the Syrian war, one where Moscow would emerge as victor and powerbroker. 

As the US failed in creating a consistent and well defined policy towards the crisis, the Russians saw an opportunity and were prepared to step in.

Moscow’s intervention in Syria was timely, it checked a large-scale rebel advance on Assad’s coastal heartland and utilised the international mood towards groups such as ISIS and Al-Nusra, at a time after atrocities in Paris, San Bernardino and Ankara were committed. Moscow played on the west’s fear of the influx of refugees and terrorism.

The legitimate fear the coastal areas in Syria may be overrun, thus placing the Russian Naval base in Tartus under direct attack spurred Moscow on to take matters into their own hands. The naval base is not large or incredibly sophisticated, it generally holds around ten Russian ships and other auxiliary vessels at any one time. Its significance is mainly due to the huge distance between Russian sea ports and the Mediterranean.

Russia also has one eye on the future. In December it confirmed it will maintain a permanent military presence at its air and naval bases in Syria. The agreement signed for 49 years with Damascus will allow Moscow to harbour eleven warships in Tartus including nuclear ships.

Russian intervention, in the words of foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, prevented the collapse of a “country whose capital was two to three weeks away from being seized by the terrorists.”

Although this admission may have been slightly exaggerated, it still cemented the fact that Russia felt the necessity to act and did so.

Had the US been brave and acted in either 2013 after the chemical weapons accusations or in 2015 when the Syrian government was flailing and desperate, it could have been in Russia’s position today.  

Moscow didn’t act without reason, it waited for one year of western airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, and years of support for anti-Assad groups before acting. With a swift and brutal intervention, led by thousands of attacks and airstrikes against rebel groups, and at times unfortunate civilians, of which hundreds if not thousands have been killed, Russia turned the tide of the conflict towards Assad.

Moscow ensured a position of strength for itself in Syria’s geo-political war, in the greater scope of things, it emerged victorious from a risky and dangerous decision to enter a foreign conflict.

Russia has secured its long term interests in Syria

By decisively backing President Assad Russia has secured its long term interests in Syria, gained considerable more influence in the region and sent a powerful message to the world, that Russia is growing in strength and ambition.

Russia’s firepower was also aided by soft diplomacy; the Russians helped to broker a ceasefire in Al-Waer district in Homs, the last remaining anti-government stronghold in the city, which was the nucleus of the uprising.

The agreement on 2 December 2015 entailed 300 rebels leaving the district with aid going the other way. Since then Aleppo, Daraa and areas around Damascus have all seen Russian brokered ceasefires. Russia established a center for reconciliation at the Hemeimim air base in Lattakia in 2015 to negotiate rebel surrenders and defections.

Russia is also set for a long term economic investment in the country and has secured a long-term foothold in Syria’s energy sector potentially making Syria a future long term transit hub for oil and gas shipments to Europe. This allows Russia to expand and cement its control over a European gas supply.

Soyuzneftegaz, the Russian energy giant, obtained exclusive rights to explore offshore gas reserves off Syria’s coastline, while contracts, both current and pre-war, between the two countries are worth $1.6 billion alone.

It is no surprise that President Putin declared “mission accomplished” in a visit to Syria in early December. Russia has no doubt altered the trajectory of the Syrian conflict, ultimately dictating a winning outcome.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Syria's wars: a new dynamic The Kremlin as seen from Kobane Syrian refugees in Russia have to fight for their rights To the victors, the ruins: the challenges of Russia’s reconstruction in Syria Russian soldiers in Damascus: politics isn’t everything A refugee family’s ordeal in Russia Why sectarianism fails at explaining the conflict in Syria Why are Russians indifferent to the Syrian conflict? Country or region:  Syria Russia Iran Israel United States Topics:  Conflict Democracy and government International politics Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

The Guardian view on... cultural genocide

Sat, 2018-02-17 13:54

When Britain's liberal newspaper parrots the lines of hardline nationalists opposing diversity, something interesting is going on.

Grafitti calling for an Irish Language Act. Image, BBC, fair use.

Sometimes, the best way to understand the shape of a specific nationalism is to look at its more liberal adherents. The bellicose blusertings of flag-wavers are roughly similar in each country: you can try to distinguish between your Nigel Farages, Donald Trumps, Modis and Erdogans, but the heat at the surface can make it harder to delve into the depths of national meaning.

What’s often more interesting is the bits of a hegemonic nationalism that are so embedded that even those who blush at words like ‘nationalist’ will repeat them in what they think is a calm, ‘rational’ tone. And it’s with that in mind that we should turn to the Guardian’s editorial page.

For context, the Northern Irish Assembly collapsed more than a year ago under the pressure of a DUP financial scandal and the broad crisis of Brexit. This week, Theresa May and Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, went to Belfast hoping to secure a deal to reassemble the Assembly. One of the key stumbling blocks was that the DUP was unwilling to sign up to an Irish Language Act.

There is much more to be said about what’s really going on in this process, and the various motivations of the many parties to the negotiations. But set those aside for a moment. Because it was in this context that the Guardian published an editorial under the headline: “The Guardian view on Northern Ireland talks collapsing: the lost language of power-sharing”, which included this paragraph: 

“The darker truth here is that Sinn Féin has chosen to weaponise the language question for political ends, less to protect a minority than to antagonise unionists. Unionists have duly been antagonised. The Gaelic language is the main tongue of a mere 0.2% of the Northern Ireland population. Around 10% claim to understand it to some degree (perhaps just a few phrases). But Sinn Féin does not do things accidentally. Its proposals have become a weapon of tribalism in communities where identity politics always looms large and divisively. Fears that Irish may be made compulsory in schools, that a language qualification might become a job requirement and that street signs would be made bilingual are not all well grounded. But some are. Bilingual road signs, for instance, would take the issue into every street in Northern Ireland, with pointless provocative effect.”

There are a few details the Guardian seem to have forgotten here. An Act to protect the Irish language isn’t just some wheeze concocted by Sinn Fein to troll the Orange Order. The 2006 St Andrews Agreement required the British government to ensure such an Act was passed, and, as the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission points out, “the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 introduced a statutory duty on the Northern Ireland Executive to adopt strategies to ‘enhance and protect the development of the Irish language’ and to ‘enhance and develop the Ulster Scots language, heritage and culture’”.

“All of these commitments are” the Commission notes “awaiting implementation.”

As well as having the backing of the human rights commission, the proposed Irish Language Act is also supported by all three cross-community parties represented in the Assembly – the Greens, Alliance (the Northern Irish sister party of the Lib Dems) and People Before Profit.

Then there’s the reason that this issue re-emerged: it flared up when DUP communities minister Paul Givan slashed funding for the Irish language in December 2016, in what looked like an effort to distract from the controversial Renewable Heat Incentive scheme. But, according to the Guardian, it’s Sinn Fein who are “weaponising the language for political ends”. 

Then, of course, there’s the matter of the European Charter on Minority Languages, under which Britain is supposed to be protecting the Irish language in Northern Ireland.

But all of that is detail. The real point here is this. 

The lack of people speaking Irish in Northern Ireland isn’t just the result of the inevitable supremacy of English. It’s the product of brutality over centuries – from the plantations to Cromwell’s mass murder to the 1831 Education Act, with which British colonists forced Irish people to learn in English rather than their native tongue; to the violence of the famine and the vast exodus it triggered; to the oppression of Catholic communities which triggered the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Looked at over centuries, the decline of the Irish language is best understood as a product of what Tomás Mac Síomóin, among others, describe as the cultural genocide of Ireland

It is in this context that we should look again at that Guardian editorial: where it deplores moves to revive a language as divisive, because the elimination of it has been so successful that only a few thousand people in the North still speak it; where the victims of this oppression are dismissed as ‘tribal’, while the hatred of those who detest diversity goes unchallenged.

Of course the Irish language is political: it’s always political for marginalised minorities to express themselves. It’s always political to defend diversity in the face of those who demand a monochrome society.

But in its rush to parrot the lines of the DUP, what the Guardian misses is a fascinating trend: what we see now bubbling into the most precarious bit of Britain’s high politics is a long term, underlying trope deep within the psyche of Britishness.

We’ve become familiar with it in Scotland too, where increasingly panicked British nationalists are becoming ever more obsessed with laughing at or complaining about Gaelic and Scots tongues, moaning about the invented costs of adding place names in different languages to road signs, and endlessly claiming that “Gaelic was never spoken here” about places whose names are clearly derived from Gaelic words (for the record, Gaelic was spoken almost everywhere in Scotland at some time or another). While legislation defending Gaelic and Scots was brought in by the previous Labour/Lib Dem Executive, it’s often attacked as an SNP and nationalist project.

And of course, it’s a trope with which many in Wales and Cornwall and among Britain’s Gypsy and traveller communities are familiar. 

This tells us a number of vital things.

Anglonormativity hasn’t gone anywhere. The fact that the Guardian allowed someone to write such nonsense under the paper’s own byline shows that even Britain’s most progressive mainstream newspaper is unwilling to do the deep work of decolonising its soul. Those who hoped Britain would be able to reinvent itself as a pluralinational polity seem have been deluding themselves.

In fact, it seems like Englishness and Britishness are, for many, merging more than ever as Anglo-British nationalism seems to be swallowing Unionism. To understand this distinction, it’s important to understand that the Unionist party manifesto in Scotland in 1951 spent much of its time making clear that it was the party which defended Scotland’s place as its own nation within a union of equals, where Labour was the party of the British state and the SNP the party of independence.

Unionism in Scotland was represented by Tory lawyers defending Scotland’s separate legal system whilst happily waving a union flag, middle class teachers defending Scotland’s distinct education system within the UK, and the clergy defending the autonomy of the Church of Scotland under the broad umbrella of the British state. Historically, Welsh Tories and Welsh Labour were as happy to speak in Welsh as were Plaid Cymru members.

In Northern Ireland, the arch unionist the Rev Dr Ian Paisley described himself as both Irish and British: his unionism meant that for him, those were complementary identities.

But as the deep crisis of the British state unfolds, it seems that the acceptance of national pluralism which has ebbed and flowed in the 300 year history of the UK is on the wain. Instead, it is being replaced by the reassertion of Englishness as Britishness; the demand for conformity around the dominant culture within the union, rather than the construction of each separate national identity as equally British. 

Demands for linguistic conformity are, like all attacks on freedom of speech, a sign of fear. And if this is anything to go by, Anglo-British nationalists are very worried indeed. 

When languages die, every poem ever written in them goes, every song sung in them loses its meaning, a whole understanding of the world is snuffed out.

Whilst the Irish language – with its own state – is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, the existence of the language in the north represents a cultural diversity whose value can never be measured with the tools of a capitalist society: it’s no coincidence that across the world, there is a direct and close correlation between language diversity and biodiversity. And just as game-keepers kill wildlife because they fear competition, colonists always do what they can to purge indigenous languages, because diversity threatens their power.

And when Britain’s most progressive newspaper joins in with that process, it tells us that Anglo-British nationalism feels like it’s facing deep threats.

But perhaps we already knew that.


Sideboxes Related stories:  The many languages native to Britain Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

Active interpretation: at the meeting place of research and creative practice

Sat, 2018-02-17 05:08

The concept of hospitality was central, as audiences engaged with imagined and ‘real’ others, while the gallery space extended a welcoming invitation for public participation, creative re-interpretation and multi-vocality.

Young participants engaging with ‘The New Union Flag’ installation shot: Photo: Marcia Chandra. All rights reserved.In the time since the Brexit referendum, and in the midst of an alleged “refugee crisis”, when our social fabric is becoming increasingly divided and ‘protective’ against an imagined invasion of ‘others’, Who Are We? – A Tate Exchange project, which welcomed more than 5,000 visitors in its 6 day incarnation last March – responded to processes of othering and division. It emerged as a collaborative exploration of notions of identity, belonging, migration, and citizenship.

Located on the fifth floor of Tate Exchange and at the periphery of Tate Modern, the exhibition space became a civic landscape where viewers were encouraged to physically navigate a shared space and become – as Rancière would argue, active interpreters inventing their own translations of the artworks. A collective of twenty-two installations addressed different facets of migration, inviting audience members to respond to important questions around belonging, human rights and (im)mobility.

Writers including Claire Bishop (2006), Grant Kester (2014) and Nicolas Bourriaud (2002) have contributed to our understanding of participatory, collaborative and relational art and the potential of socially engaged art practice. As Bishop suggests, the artist should be understood as a collaborator and a producer of situations where audience members become involved in shared knowledge-production processes. Equally, the curatorial framework of Who Are We? was invested in translating complex social issues into an engagement experience, facilitated by artists and activists, during which audiences transitioned from passive consumers of art to critically-engaged participants.

By embracing creative modes of the “responsive artist” and “post-studio practice”, the Who Are We? programme facilitated democratic participation by inviting audiences to become engaged with the exhibition’s programme as well as with the artists themselves. In doing so, the programme challenged the ‘borders’ between art and spectatorship, by letting audiences in and asking for their opinion. Audience members participated in a series of activities including sharing stories, creating artwork as response to posed questions as well as discussing the meaning of hospitality and welcome. 

‘Dead Reckoning’ Installation elements shot: Photo: Marcia Chandra. All rights reserved.In his work titled “Engaged with the Arts: Writings from the Frontline”, John Tusa reminds us that “The skill of arts management is to turn the awkward, obfuscating and bureaucratic into a language that truly serves the arts and their audiences.” As museologist Jan Jelinek argues, museums can “only fully develop their potential for action when they are actually involved in the major problems of contemporary society. Museums are institutions intended to serve society and only thus can continue to exist and function.” Such an understanding of the museum as an institution which should share power and knowledge with communities is further explored in creative consultant and reviewer Chrissi Tiller’s piece on the role of the gallery or the museum, in not only ‘making things visible’ but also becoming a platform for social change.

The partnership between Tate Exchange and Tate Exchange Associates was therefore invested in the recognition of the gallery as a space that pushes the boundaries of representation, and instead involved the public in the interpretive process, thereby challenging the gallery’s authority and supporting its role as a space for meaning-making, learning and activism. The installations therefore served as points of departure for audiences to respond to, reflect and interrogate the complexities of a seemingly ‘simple’ question: Who Are We?

In particular, the interactive and participatory audio-focused installation ‘Beyond The Babble’ – produced through the collaboration of academic Giota Alevizou and artist Lucia Scazzocchio – engaged participants in meaning-making processes by inviting them to record personal thoughts, stories and memories around questions of individual and collective identity. Such processes occurred within the surrounding gallery space as participants ‘tuned into’ particular narratives emerging from the ‘babble of noise’; within the installation’s ‘audio booth’; and finally, within the social media sphere, as participants sent ‘audio postcards’ (audio tweets).

During their participation, audiences became engaged in personal declarations while also reflecting on the role of social media as spaces for learning and knowledge exchange, also functioning as ‘echo-chambers’ that can vindicate particular dominant narratives and solidify ‘louder’ public opinions. For others, the embodied experience of ‘speaking up’ allowed them to reflect on the mediated nature of social media and their effect of reducing often complex social issues into simplified ‘Newsbytes’ that lack analytical depth. In their co-authored reflective piece, Alevizou and Scazzocchio, investigate how the installation instigated instances of digital citizenship by inviting self-reflective individual declarations that emerged within the ‘noise’ of social media and created shared empathy for listeners.

Another example of collaborative meaning-making processes emerged through Alketa Xhafa Mripa’s 'Refugees Welcome' mobile installation, which comprised a Luton tail lift van, a neon sign of ‘Hope’ and metallic letters spelling out ‘Refugees Welcome’, positioned alongside the van’s interior and seeking to extend a ‘British Welcome’ to audiences.

Participants responded to Mripa’s kind invitation by sharing their personal understandings of ‘welcome’ as well as reflecting on their (hi)stories and social ties to Britain. Through combining self-reflection and memory exchange, ‘Refugees Welcome’ interrogated popular understandings of the van as a symbol of illegal border-crossing and instead re-imagined a space for hospitality and welcome, invested in the recognition of our shared humanity.

The Who Are We? project, also serves as a case study illustrating what can be achieved through a multidisciplinary creative synergy between academics and creative practitioners, as the latter were paired up during the project’s research and development phase, leading to the final exhibition. As Counterpoints Arts Co-Director Aine O’Brien argues in her review piece included in this series, the collaboration between artists and academic partners “opened up unique avenues and ways of reciprocal thinking and sharing/learning.”

Who Are We? allowed multiple collaborations as it brought together a group of artists working in response to a particular question while also enabling collaborations between different disciplines and art-forms. As Kester reminds us, collaboration carries with it an “implicit ethical orientation in relationship to differences” by moving away from the model of the solo artist and instead evoking an art practice that is “defined by open-ness, listening and intersubjective vulnerability.”

Equally, an ethical orientation towards difference, dialogue and exchange, was evident in the creative methodologies of the Who Are We? project, which resulted in powerful creative interpretations of social issues underpinned by academic insights. Reflections on some of these creative synergies are further explored in this special feature.

By positioning social issues at the forefront, Who Are We? explored the emergence of new commodified forms of citizenship as well as the reshaping of old ones. It also shed light on the prevalence of prejudice and stereotyping in everyday life encounters and encouraged viewers to reflect on the role of borders and decision-making frameworks determining who is allowed in and who remains out; not just from national borders, but also from our hearts and minds.

Who Are We? Banner located at entrance. Co-designed by Graphic Thought Facility and Universal Design Studio. Photo: Cathrin Walczyk. All rights reserved.Since the beginning of the “refugee” or “migrant crisis” the media agenda has been ‘flooded’ with stories of thousands of individuals traversing across European borders, alarming audiences with the prospect of an unstoppable “wave” of “illegal migrants”. As always, it depends on who is talking, and whose point of view is represented. The employment of inundation metaphors such as “waves” or “flows” often reduces displaced individuals to a generic ‘tide’ of human bodies and robs them of their humanity, while supporting a culture of fear and disbelief.

This is a fear of the unknown: a fear of the other, a fear of the future.” According to the  2017 Demos report Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself? this is the same climate of fear that has long permeated the public imagination in the UK and whose consequences we witness in the UK’s vote to leave the European Union on June 23, 2016, as well as across a Europe pockmarked by the growing rise of ‘populist’ right-wing and Eurosceptic political parties.

Following the Brexit referendum, the UK has witnessed a critical rise in hate-crimes and racist attacks, introducing to the public domain a rhetoric on full national sovereignty, freedom and control, thus re-solidifying binary divisions of “us” versus “them” and creating a hostile social environment that has become embedded politically and culturally.  

In an increasingly mediated society, we are surrounded by a plethora of media all posing important questions about who we are as a society: What does it mean to belong to a nation, to Europe, to the UK, to the world? Who has the right to a better life and who doesn’t? Who is allowed in and who remains out? Whose decision is it?  

These are some of the questions to which Who Are We? responded to, through creating a platform that challenged dominant discourses. It initiated much-needed conversations between artists, researchers and activists, exhibition spaces and diverse audiences, and art institutions and curators. The project adopted a multi-layered participatory model rooted in dialogical methods of co-production and exchange, bringing together a wide range of expertise, viewpoints and experiences.

For Derrida and Dufourmantelle “hospitality” is perceived as a question of what arrives at the borders of encounter; in that initial dynamic of contact with an ‘other’, a ‘stranger’, a ‘foreigner’ or ‘someone without a name’. The concept of hospitality was central to the project as audiences physically and subjectively engaged in different moments of encounter with imagined and ‘real’ others, while the gallery space extended a welcoming invitation for public participation, creative re-interpretation and multi-vocality.

By resisting traditional linear pathways of knowledge transmission, Who Are We? invested instead in actively listening and responding to important questions about our changing social sphere, while also inviting diverse audiences to become part of the project’s discourse and legacy.

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VIDEO: Can radical social democracy save us?

Sat, 2018-02-17 04:09

Paul Mason, Dr Faiza Shaheen, Anthony Barnett and Dr Johnna Montgomerie discuss whether radical social democracy offers a way out of the crisis of neoliberalism, and what that means for future economic policy. 


Paul Mason, Dr Faiza Shaheen, Anthony Barnett, Dr Johnna Montgomerie and Laurie Macfarlane discuss whether radical social democracy offers a way out of the crisis of neoliberalism, and what that means for future economic policy. 

Paul Mason, Dr Faiza Shaheen, Anthony Barnett and Dr Johnna Montgomerie discuss whether radical social democracy offers a way out of the crisis of neoliberalism, and what that means for future economic policy. 

The debate is part of a new series by Paul Mason exploring what radical social democracy means during the next decade. Paul’s first essay in the series can be read here


* Dr Faiza Shaheen is Director of the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS)

* Anthony Barnett is co-founder of openDemocracy and author of The Lure of Greatness. 

* Dr Johnna Montgomerie is Deputy director at the Political Economy Research Centre, Goldsmiths University of London. 

Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

fp 16 feb 2018

Sat, 2018-02-17 01:33
Select Show on Front Page:  Show on Front Page Landscape By defending Russian journalist Ali Feruz, we defend ourselves. Now we need to repeat it Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ?

This week, Russian activists helped drag journalist Ali Feruz — who faced deportation to Uzbekistan — out of immigration detention. We need to extend this solidarity to others inside the system. 

Image Caption:  "Migrant lives are important". A column in support of Ali Feruz at the 19 January anti-fascist march in memory of Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova. CC BY 4.0 Dmitry Horov. Some rights reserved. Whom should I marry? Genealogical purity and the shadows of slavery in southern Senegal Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ? The multiple roots of Emiratiness: the cosmopolitan history of Emirati society Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ? A cosmopolitan history of Emirati society “She is not a ‘Abid”: blackness among slave descendants in southern Tunisia Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ? Neoliberalism and Iran’s protest movement Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ? Brexit means…more arms dealing to human rights abusers Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ? Brexit means… more arms dealing to human rights abusers Hidden in plain sight: forced labour constructing China Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ? Hidden in plain sight With Tillerson in Latin America, Monroe is back Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ? Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ?

One day without us: mining Twitter, framing solidarity

Fri, 2018-02-16 12:56

Expressions of migrant solidarity through the #1DayWithoutUs campaign sought to counterbalance xenophobic sentiments, offering a multiplicity of migrant voices and experiences in the UK today. 

One Day Without Us. Source: Instagram. All rights reserved.According to its organisers, the 2017 One Day Without Us action sought to emphasise the variety of work migrants undertake to help keep the UK afloat. The movement, organised online under the hashtag #1DayWithoutUs was being tweeted about 85 times per minute at its peak on the 20th of Feb 2017, while nearly 20,000 tweets went out under the hashtag in the 48 hours leading up to the event.

Using Twitter scraping and analytics tools (such as tags, discover text, 'r' and Excel), Photini Vrikki and I explored the stories, themes and key influencers within the movement, which had resulted in dozens of separate events across the UK.

Expressions and stories of migrant solidarity, primarily through the cross-media and cross-platform campaign of #1DayWithoutUs group, sought to counterbalance xenophobic sentiments, often by offering a multiplicity of migrant voices and experiences in the UK today. 

On 5th February 2018, a rather different use of Twitter arose with US president Donald Trump sparking a backlash from UK politicians by attacking the UK’s NHS on Twitter, arguing that "thousands of people are marching" in the UK because the NHS is "going broke and not working". His tweet came after ex-UKIP leader Nigel Farage appeared on Fox And Friends, one of the president's favourite ‘news’ shows, talking about the previous weekend’s march, and stressing "a population crisis caused by government policy on immigration". The march was of course in support of the NHS and against proposed funding cuts by the UK current government, but that was beyond the point Trump made when he later tweeted: “Thank you to @foxandfriends for exposing the truth. Perhaps that's why your ratings are soooo much better than your untruthful competition!”

This is a fear of the unknown: a fear of the other, a fear of the future. – Ernesto Laclau

Incidents such as these, which spread rumors, vituperate, and mislead, have become, in the past few years, a communication practice of online populism that aims to control public opinion and seeks to establish a frontier against an assumed enemy –coalescing across diverse sections of society. Certainly the communication practice of online populism has become widespread, laying bare what Ernesto Laclau and others have deemed the normalisation of nationalist rhetoric and the development of new frameworks for the ‘politics of fear’ that entrench new social divisions on the intersections of nation, immigration and the provision of (or contributions to) public services. ‘This is a fear of the unknown: a fear of the other, a fear of the future’, according to authors at the think tank Demos, a fear which permeates the popular imagination in the UK and Europe following the so-called migration crisis and the wave of Euro-skepticism that has dominated politics since the European Union membership referendum in the UK in 2016.

But there’s more to this, beyond simply fear. The Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos also undertook research on the rise of xenophobia and racism on Twitter. Looking at the ways in which this rise may have been related to campaigning tactics and the referendum result, the study also gives an indication of the ways in which Twitter was used to both report hate speech incidents and to express solidarity with migrants.  

What then is the common thread that links Twitter with the populist backlash against the NHS and discussions about the impacts of immigration? Laclau and Mouffe have been widely cited in an attempt to grasp how popular parties like Podemos and Syriza (in Spain and Greece respectively) may be examples of the ways in which alternative left forces use populism as an appropriate strategy for ‘radical democracy’. Irrespective of the potential, or even the feasibility, these two cases may have had to instill radical democracy, examples of countering or counterbalancing populism have certainly been more prominent in social media, such as Twitter, where we can see users expressing solidarity with, and celebrating the contributions of, migrants across physical and digital borders. These Twitter solidarity practices have become more prominent in social movements that have appeared after the Brexit referendum.

Preparing for a second year of action, which culminates on International Migrants Day on 17 February 2018, Matt Carr wrote recently in the Huffington Post, that ‘the word ‘identity’ has become a staple of our national conversation about immigration, usually in order to present migrants and migration as a threat to who ‘we’ are, or as an anomalous aberration…’. This is certainly a different kind of conversation about migration in the UK that conceals the smearing and scapegoating style that is so popular with Farage, Trump and their likes.

Now is therefore a good time to look into the narratives that built this movement a year ago and to how migrants’ experiences just after the referendum related to the populist discourse against migrants and the NHS. This retrospection will allow us to see how this year’s action may or may not focus on the same issues, i.e. immigration and the dismantling of the NHS.

We traced the corpus of Twitter starting with a couple of months prior to the event. We deployed digital methods to explore linguistic frequencies and used a hashtag and co-word analysis to identify indicators of wider issue dynamics used by the movement. We also traced the kinds of claims, declarations, judgments, commitments and acknowledgments that people made on Twitter and the kinds of stories or conversations they generated regarding certain propositions (or oppositions). Below we offer some insights from the discursive clusters of the themes for the most prominent hashtags and stories of solidary unfolding on the day of the event last year.

Save our NHS: an analysis

An early theme in the corpus of tweets within the two months leading to the event focused on the contribution migrants make to the NHS. By cross-referencing Twitter data with what was being reported in the mainstream media, issues concerning social care and the growing public health crisis saw a sharp increase in social media activity.

There were two periods of increased activity around this theme – 23-27 January and February 7-10. During these two periods, the word ‘migrant’ (both as a semantic term and as a hashtag) was commonly used alongside terms and hashtags such as #NHS and #SaveOur NHS.

The claims in this tweet, which received the most retweets during the time period, were verifiably true. Based on a dataset from the Office of National Statistics, just over a quarter of the NHS Doctors are migrants.

NHS Staff Groups by Nationality. Source: ONS Data. Graph produced by Vrikki/Alevizou.Drilling down further into the Twitter dataset revealed other frequently used co-words including ‘contribution’, ‘rights’, ‘justice’, ‘against bigotry’ and #bargainingchip, a term also frequently used to refer to the rights of migrants.

#bargainingchip was also a major trending hashtag on February 20, the key day for demonstrations. There was also a series of personal narratives that emerged from staff on the NHS, focusing around the terms “support” and “survive” as illustrated in the diagram below

Two other hashtags that were frequently used during this campaign were #RightoStay and #StopTrump. The latter hashtag was related to President Trump’s attempts at banning citizens from seven different countries from entering the United States – but was subsequently overruled by the Supreme Court. Interestingly the #RightoStay and StopTrump both have strong correlations with other campaigns like @The3Million – an activist group focusing on the three million EU citizens currently working in the UK – and other migrant associations and activist groups. In these tweets the analysis of the stories leading to the event found expressions of enrichment and solidarity with migrants, as well as gratitude.

Trends leading to the Campaign day on 20 February 2017

In the 48 hours leading up to the event, we saw the key hashtags shift and slightly intensify alongside declarations, claims and pleas.

#RightoStay, #BargainingChip, #StopTrump #Brexit were all among the top 12 hashtags in the period between December 2016 and 17 February. However, they became the dominant topics of conversation in the 48 hours leading up to the event.

#1DayWithoutUs on the day of the event

By examining and coding the tweets of the day in depth, the stories that formed the event itself on the 20th February changed slightly but not in essence. In fact, even though 41% of the tweets were disseminating content, photos, videos, or commenting and quoting on other tweets, the stories that were told were very much related to what built up the movement during the two earlier weeks. For instance, 28% of the tweets tweeted on the day identified with the causes and demands of the action and showed clear sentiments of solidarity toward migrants in the UK. Another 10% of the tweets made reference to the important role migrants play in the NHS and in the UK’s higher education system; suggesting in multiple cases the ways in which the two highly impactful institutions will fail without migrants’ services. 13% of the stories talked about how the mainstream media and the politicians have ignored or have not shown any support to the action (2%),  and how the Referendum to Leave the European Union has led to these problematic discussions around migration (5%). Some tweeters attacked the action and its causes, hinting towards the financial impact of migrants in the UK, and called for migrants to leave the country (6%).

The turning point of these stories, and the biggest difference between the hashtag stories (i.e. the leading up to the event) with the experience stories (i.e. the unfolding of the event) can be seen in the stories that started forming under the definition of who might be considered a migrant. Some of the tweets (7%) called upon the fact that most of British citizens come from migrant pasts, that their parents or grandparents were migrants from Europe and abroad, and that no one should be considered a lesser human being just because one comes from a different country.

The convergence of these diverse stories has created new modalities and avenues to show solidarity, leading to a point whereby social media and especially Twitter, are more than ever shaping discussions around migration and social movements.

Hashtagging and telling stories of solidarity

Through the use of hashtags as the vehicle that lead to the interruptive #1DayWithoutUs action day, users displayed new approaches to resisting the populist discourses that enveloped the Brexit campaign. By sharing their views and by using specific hashtags, Twitter users managed to focus on specific issues related to their role as migrants in the UK, or as supporters of migrants, and formed henceforth a ‘radical democracy’ that had more to do with notions of radical resistance against the dominant discourses rather than clear political aims. Twitter here served as a space for migrants and for people who were in solidarity with them to sustain their views, amplify their voices, and built a strong community that has managed to re-organise the same action a year later. What remains to be seen on this Saturday’s One Day Without Us and the months beyond, is how many of those discourses that built the movement last year, have remained or have changed.

Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

"At the first shock I couldn’t help but groan and shake"

Fri, 2018-02-16 10:12

More details around the Russian anarchist case, in which several people were tortured by the security services, emerge.

In late January, Moscow birdwatcher and guide Anton Mironenko-Marenkov was investigated for holding an illegal mass demonstration. Illustration: Anastasia Vilkul.

This article is part of our partnership with OVD-Info, an NGO that monitors politically-motivated arrests in Russia.

As Russia’s presidential election draws closer, our weekly bulletin becomes ever more depressing. But this week we conclude with two items of good news.

The case concerning alleged torture of anti-fascist activists during an investigation into terrorism in Penza and St Petersburg continues:

“They told me to sit on the bench without raising my head. They blindfolded me, tied my hands and pushed a sock into my mouth. I thought they wanted to get my fingerprints on something or other. But they connected wires to my big toes. At the first shock I couldn’t help but groan and shake. They repeated the procedure until I promised to say whatever they told me to say. After that I forgot the word ‘no’ altogether and agreed to say whatever the officers told me to say.”

- Shakursky’s mother was fired from her job as soon as the first publications about the Penza case appeared in the media.

- Military prosecutors in St Petersburg have not investigated the allegation of torture made by computer programmer Viktor Filinkov. The young man told human rights defenders that he was tortured by FSB officers. Prosecutors forwarded the allegation to the FSB. 

  • - Dmitry Pchelintsev, a survival instructor and defendant in the Penza terrorism case, has withdrawn his allegations of torture. There is reason to believe he did this because he was tortured again. 

  • - Ilya Kapustin, a witness in the St. Petersburg case, has submitted a formal complaint about torture to the Investigative Committee.

New details about pressure on Memorial staff come to light:

 - 37 houses in the centre of the Chechen village of Kurchalou are to be demolished. They include the house of the head of Memorial’s Grozny office, Oyub Titiev. Residents learned about the planned demolition on 5 February. They were given until 12 February to evacuate their homes.  

  • - Oyub Titiev was arrested on the morning of 9 January. That evening, he was charged with possessing drugs - a packet with banned substances was allegedly found in his car. The next day the police forced Titiev’s relatives out of his home.

  • - On the road leading from the place where Titiev was arrested to the police station where he was taken are four closed-circuit cameras. Astonishingly, the very day the human rights defender was arrested, all four cameras were оut of order

  • - Bakhrom Khamroev, a member of Memorial and leader of the organisation Erdam (“Help”) has been charged in Moscow with assisting in the fictitious residence registration of a foreign citizen.

    - According to Vitaly Ponomarev, a member of the board of Memorial Human Rights Centre, the charges against Khamroev are “merely a pretext for retribution against a human rights defender known for his work in defending refugees from Central Asia.”

The homes of a number of nationalists in Moscow have been searched:

- Law enforcement officers visited the home of Ivan Beletsky, the co-chair of the Party of Nationalists, who at present is not in Russia. Searches were also conducted at the homes of party members Dmitry Golikov and Konstantin Filippov. The two men, along with Golikov’s wife, were questioned by the FSB and released on condition of non-disclosure.  

Two people were arrested as a result of a protest at the offices of United Russia (during the protest, one of the office windows was broken and a smoke bomb thrown in).

- In a first reaction by the authorities, the home of animal rights activist Elena Groban was searched. She was not allowed to see her lawyer for four hours. When her lawyer was allowed in to see her, Gorban had already decided to admit her guilt and testify. Subsequently, a young man, Alexey Kobaidze, was arrested. Both were sent to a detention centre, but were subsequently released under travel restrictions. A criminal investigation into alleged vandalism is underway.

- During the questioning, police officers also asked about the march protesting against the torture of anarchists and anti-fascists in Penza and St Petersburg that had been organized by Moscow anarchists on the capital’s Myasnitskaya Street without official permission.

And finally two items of good news:

- Novaya gazeta journalist Ali Feruz has been able to leave Russia. Hooray! A court permitted the journalist to travel to a third country. The authorities had wanted to deport Feruz to Uzbekistan, where his life would have been in danger. Since August 2017 Feruz had been held in an immigration detention centre.

- Marked money, undercover inspectors and the law on holding public events without official permission. No, this has nothing to do with rallies that don’t have official permission or criminals. In Moscow's Izmailovo park, a birdwatcher, an amateur ornithologist who has been telling people about the birds to be seen there, was arrested. You can read about it here.

Thank you

As the elections draw closer there is ever more work to do. Help us continue our work now and in the difficult months ahead, before and after the 2018 election campaign, here. You can volunteer to work with us here.


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Related stories:  Torture, Penza, Petersburg The 26 March case: how Russia is cracking down on freedom of assembly Russian authorities take aim at anti-fascists in St Petersburg Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

By defending Russian journalist Ali Feruz, we defend ourselves. Now we need to repeat it

Fri, 2018-02-16 05:33

The solidarity campaign for Ali Feruz, who faced deportation to Uzbekistan, has been successful. What can we learn from it?

A column in support of Ali Feruz at the 19 January anti-fascist march in memory of Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova. CC BY 4.0 Dmitry Horov. Some rights reserved.This article originally appeared in Russian on Socialist News.

For almost a year, people have campaigned in support of Ali Feruz, a journalist with Russian independent media Novaya gazeta. He was first detained in March 2017 on suspicion of breaking Russian migration legislation. This came after the refusal by the Russian authorities to grant him asylum after he fled Uzbekistan, where he had been arrested and tortured by the brutal Karimov regime. For the last six months, after a Moscow court decided to deport him back to Uzbekistan, Ali has been held in a special prison for foreign citizens on the outskirts of Moscow.

Yesterday, at 11.10am, Ali Feruz flew to Germany. The story of this journalist and activist, a friend and colleague, has caused a stir in public discussion — for the most part, thanks to the active campaign in support of Feruz. It goes without saying that Ali’s release is a victory for everyone who took part in the #HandsOffAli campaign

Until his arrest in August 2017, Ali covered the exploitation of immigrants in Russia and the crimes of Uzbekistan’s regime. He volunteered for human rights organisations, was an LGBT activist and a member of the Independent Trade Union of Media Workers. It was precisely because of these connections that when a Russian court threatened to deport Feruz to Uzbekistan — where Ali faced the threat of further imprisonment — a huge campaign was mobilised. Rights activists, trade unionists, LGBT activists — everyone joined in. And Socialist Alternative was one of the driving forces behind the public campaign in defence of Ali.

Freedom for Ali is a victory, but a better outcome would have been to allow Ali to stay, live and work in Russia

It’s worth reminding ourselves what’s been done. Activists conducted dozens of public demonstrations. We picketed the Russian Presidential Administration, the Interior Ministry’s immigration department and the courts. We took part in marches and protests, displaying placards in support of Ali. There were acts of solidarity in many other countries. The on-line petition on the platform collected over 70,000 signatures. There were fundraising evenings, collections to support Ali, his family and other immigrants who have found themselves held in the Sakharovo immigration prison. We distributed leaflets, recorded videos, issued press releases and held many meetings. In other words, we did everything possible to attract attention to Ali’s case and involve people who weren’t indifferent in action. In addition, of course, the lawyers and rights activists also conducted a huge amount of work.

In essence, we were forced to fight only for the Russian state to observe its own laws. The authorities should have granted Ali the right to political asylum and not try to hand him over to Uzbekistan’s political police. When it became clear that obtaining political asylum was not going to happen, the demand to allow Ali to leave Russia for a third country became key.

Ali Feruz in court, 7 August 2017. Source: YouTube / Euronews. I’ll venture an assumption that those people who, over the course of the past year, spread lies about Ali in the media and social networks will now claim that all he ever wanted was “to get out to the west”. By contrast, some people will think that leaving for Germany was the best outcome for Ali. But we don’t agree. Freedom for Ali is a victory, but a better outcome would have been to allow Ali to stay, live and work in Russia.

Ali is needed here. Not just because he is known and loved. His professional experience and personal qualities were useful to Russian media, civic and political organisations who are fighting for the rights and freedoms of all the oppressed. Ali himself wanted to stay until it became clear that neither Russia nor Uzbekistan would ensure his freedom and allow him to speak his mind. The authorities in these countries only see such people as a threat and are ready to get rid of them. They are prepared to hand over activists like Ali to neighbouring authoritarian regimes, hide them away in prison, torture them — even kill them.

This is why we still have more work to do and things to fight for. The campaign in Ali’s defence has attracted attention to the arbitrary treatment of immigrants and refugees in Russia, the inhumane treatment of foreign citizens in Russia’s immigration centres, which are no better than real jails.

We defended Ali, we defended ourselves. Now we need to repeat it — for those people who don’t have the same kind of support as Ali

The campaign, of course, also revealed several weaknesses. It was hard to keep the campaign “in shape” the whole time. Sometimes mobilisation happened automatically and, at other times, it was hard to get people activated. But we always insisted that the most important thing for this kind of political campaign was public activity, although not every participant always agreed with this.

But now we have reason to celebrate. This is our success, our achievement. Even in such difficult political conditions, solidarity campaigns can achieve important results.

Ali is now free. We defended Ali, we defended ourselves. Now we need to repeat it — for those people who don’t have the same kind of support as Ali.


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Socialist News is a Russian-language platform dedicated to socialist ideas.

Related stories:  “I don’t remember who I am”: diary of detained journalist facing deportation from Russia Igor Yasin: “If there’s no freedom of assembly for LGBT, there’s none for anyone else” Scaling back on healthcare may start with Russia’s migrants. But it won’t end there Not in my classroom: Russia’s refugee children struggle to get to school Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

Combating fake news: an impossible feat?

Fri, 2018-02-16 05:09

The recent explosion of fake news around the world has serious real life consequences in the political sphere. How will Latin America approach this in the light of upcoming elections? Español

Los Angeles International Airport, Source: Wikimedia Commons. All rights reserved. We are currently immersed in an era of informational misrepresentation. Fake news (#Fakenews), as it has been referred to, has become a type of political tactic used to manipulate public opinion that has been highly criticised but has also proven highly effective.

In Latin America, the cases reported have been numerous: in Argentina the web page Chequeado is collecting information regarding recent incidents, and a similar project is underway in Colombia called ColombiaCheck. 

This issue is distressing for countries of the region considering many will experience two years of intense electoral campaigning. In 2018 alone there are 14 confirmed electoral processes, and a similar quantity is expected for the year 2019.

This issue is distressing for countries of the region considering many will experience two years of intense electoral campaigning.

These processes will be carried out in a context of significant political polarisation that can easily turn into a breeding ground for manipulation of information for political purposes.

However, as many Latin American organisations have already denounced in an open letter, fake news is not a recent phenomenon, but a strategy of media monopolies against independent and community based forms of media.

The desire to control information and to construct “the truth” has always existed, the difference is that now the network of digital technologies enables the fabrication of information and its publication on the net. It is for these reasons that it is important to deal with not just the perspectives of fake news but also to approach disinformation, manipulation, and the concentration of the media in few hands.

Manipulation of information in the digital age

The media has always been criticised for its monopolistic tendencies. Then things appeared to change and the great innovation that led to the infrastructure of the internet facilitated a type of distributed communication that Manuel Castells called mass self-communication.

Mass self-communication is basically the possibility that users can communicate with each other directly, without intermediaries or peer-to-peer, presenting an opportunity to break through the media monopolies.

All of a sudden, the same infrastructure that enabled the #ArabSpring or #OccupyWallStreet in fact represented the interests that they previously fought against.

However, this type of idealisation was called into question when a series of events – including the electoral campaign of current United States president Donald Trump – demonstrated the great capacity for the instrumentalisation of digital platforms on a mass scale.

All of a sudden, the same infrastructure that enabled the #ArabSpring or #OccupyWallStreet in fact represented the interests that they previously fought against, and facilitated the accumulation of power. 

The concept that was breaking down this idea of mass self-communication was a notion still considered rather suspicious: post-truth. This is understood as the ability to fabricate truths and to position them in such a way that they provoke certain feelings, sensations or reactions.

In other words, people tend to believe in what reinforces pre-existing values within their own identity system, which can involve the likes of nationalism, racism, or even class outrage.


Is increased state involvement/control the solution? 

One of the biggest threats to the circulation of fake news is heightened state regulation and control of information and currently, France and Brazil are in the process of creating such frameworks.

Brazil has put in place a commission in light of the 2018 presidential elections in order to generate solutions to and block webpages containing fake news.

The proposal has generated a range of reactions over the possibility that the commission will pave the way for censorship of both independent and traditional media outlets.

This commission will function in accordance with the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and will be composed of state entities including the army, the National Intelligence Agency, and some NGOs.

However, the proposal has generated a range of reactions over the possibility that the commission will pave the way for censorship of both independent and traditional media outlets.

French president Emmanuel Macron has announced a law against fake news which will encourage an increase in transparency in relation to digital media and their sources of finance (including information about advertising money they may receive). Additionally, it will allow the authorities during election periods to eliminate or block content they deem to be ‘false news’.

However, these regulatory strategies do not seem to get to the real root of the problem but rather they justify a significant increase in state control over the media, above all independent outlets, and their very citizens that consume them.

Technological “solutionism”

An alternative to this would be to use technology to combat fake news, although at times it is not entirely effective. 

Facebook has introduced two specific tools: the first is called “disputed flags”, which tags news articles which appear to be false with a red icon, a type of warning sign. Notwithstanding, the tool was reported to be inefficient in that it required a verification period of 3 days and it worked only from a dichotomous perspective (fake news or not, the reasons for which it had been reported were hidden).

From there, Facebook introduced once more an already existing tool called “related articles”. This function shows related news articles upon publication so that an article’s sources can be immediately corroborated, facilitating fact checking. 

Other tools that are being used are conversation bots, like those that will be used throughout the Brazilian elections. These are automated chats that respond to public queries regarding ways to verify information however they are quite restricted in their responses.

None of these tools however resolves the true cause of the problem, but only attempts to combat the spread of links recognised as fake news.

Another tool is extension programs for browsers that identify and tag links to questionable news articles based on databases like B.S. detector. The problem is that it depends on constant updating of the databases upon which they are constructed and they do not apply to every context and country.

None of these tools however resolves the true cause of the problem, but only attempts to combat the spread of links recognised as fake news. The structural problems previously mentioned remain intact.

So… What other solution is there? 

As has been mentioned, the upcoming elections in Latin America will increase the use of fake news. It has been proven that politicians and parties wish to manipulate public opinion regardless of the consequences, and without definite solutions the biggest threats to fake news are the very citizens themselves.

There are important initiatives originating from groups of activists and journalists that carry out fact checking, such as Chequeados in Argentina and ColombiaCheck in Colombia.

In spite of their efforts however, it is important that citizens generate a more critical eye with regards to the information they consume and when faced with suspicious news sources, they must learn not to share them. 

Article previously published in Asuntos del Sur. Read the original here

Sideboxes Related stories:  Open letter on fake news and elections in Latin America Fake news didn’t start with Donald Trump Internet shutdowns: the “new normal” in government repression? Topics:  Culture Democracy and government Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

FP February

Fri, 2018-02-16 03:34
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