The Sunday Mail
Dr Nhamo A. Mhiripiri
Whenever a major news event takes place in any part of the world, ordinary Zimbabweans, policymakers and intellectuals immediately imagine the implications of the event to their private lives, then to Zimbabwe and the rest of the world.
The coverage of the political crisis in Ukraine has brought similar interests and anxieties. It demands pretty much identical reflections and speculations too at personal, national and global levels about what it means to anybody, to Zimbabwe and for the world we live in today and in the future.
We have heard some Zimbabweans lobbying for secession. Fringe groups such as Mthwakazi Liberation Front demanded a separate state even before the adoption of the new Constitution that currently constitutes the Zimbabwe nation-state.
A nation is a collective of people with a shared common history and often claiming common origin. The origins are usually presented as biological. However, there is always contestation over the biological purity of individual claimants to a national composition. Those who join the national project earlier can claim stronger entitlement and legitimacy over late arrivants.
Nations may or may not physically occupy and constitutionally own specific geographic spaces and territories. Nation-states often have legal powers to national physical boundaries and the national groups that reside therein. Due to the slippery nature of identities some nations live within larger nations and strategically claim identity and a sense of belonging depending on which identity best offers opportunities at a given time.
The broader national consciousness based on a state system has its supposed benefits and opportunities. Problems arise when some groups are disgruntled and believe they are marginalised or endangered.
The Crimea crisis poses similar intrigues such as the ones we find in any story on a major event. The idea of identity which is interesting, but often taken for granted, at times elusive and at worst misunderstood, immediately comes to mind. Millions of individual Ukrainians based in Crimea voted in a referendum to indicate they are feeling more Russian today than they feel they are Ukrainian.
They therefore want to belong to the Russian nation-state. They feel unsafe and threatened by the new far-right leadership in Kiev which took over power after the coup. The leadership is regarded as a manifestation of a narrower ethnic nationalism that cannot co-exist with Russian Ukrainians.
For me, getting a new national identity also means rearranging my personal and my family’s circumstances, identity cards, banks, educational facilities, and so on. There is also the daunting possibility of observing immigration regulations when moving from one country to another, and that alone can be an inconvenience that makes me averse to any balkanization of Zimbabwe.
A critical historical appreciation of the Zimbabwe state can make me believe that the boundaries should actually grow bigger and incorporate spaces once occupied by the illustrious pre-colonial states.
The people in the Crimea region of Ukraine have had to contend with similar considerations in the most recent past. The Black Sea peninsula was a territory of Russia for centuries until 1954, when Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea to Ukraine. Ukraine citizens with Russian or Greek ethnicity appear to be feeling marginalised or endangered in the Ukraine such that the inconveniences associated with secession may seem worthwhile.
In 1955 the Warsaw Pact, also known as The Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance, was signed after three days of discussions in Warsaw. The Warsaw Pact was created as a belated eastern European military counterpart to the Western powers’ North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato). In fact, the pact was a military and diplomatic reaction to West Germany which had split with East Germany becoming an independent nation and joining Nato. Ukraine was present at the Warsaw signing in Poland.
Prior to the formation of the Warsaw Pact, Nato had been founded in 1949 to confront and challenge the Soviet Union. The US was the main player in Nato after it emerged strongest among Western nations following World War II. Secondly, it was also set up to ensure US military and economic domination in Western Europe. Last but not least, it would stifle working-class uprisings and check any imperialist competitors. It was within this background that the Warsaw Pact was formed to counter US imperial ambitions and Nato’s Cold War manoeuvres.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US, Russia and Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994. Ukraine agreed to hand over its Soviet-era nuclear arsenal to Russia in exchange for a commitment from Russia to protect its borders. Nato continued on the ascendency, but reassured Russia that it would not advance eastwards, not even into the then German Democratic Republic (East Germany).
A well-meaning President Mikhail Gorbachev swallowed the bait, and withdrew Soviet troops from East Germany. These 380 000 troops had been stationed there through a right of treaty since the end of World War II in 1945. The removal of these troops effectively ended the Warsaw Pact military alliance. The strategic isolation and disempowerment of Russia, the discrediting of communism as a worthwhile alternative ideology did not subside with Russia’s new tolerant and co-operative move.
What perhaps somewhat abated were media-coordinated reports to portray Russia as evil, backward and a terrorist dictatorship in contradistinction to the self-portrayed humane, progressive, and civilised US and Western capitalist front.
Nevertheless, over the years the US and Nato members have reinforced military might and economic dominance in the region and the world over. They have also promoted fascist interests as long as these were partners in the Cold War period or supported US corporate interests. Oligarchs arose in Eastern Europe in general made up of returnees from the West who strategically seized assets and land with an extension of Western corporatism.
Writing for the Workers’ World, Sarah Flounders acidly observes that the US policy supports and funds dissident individuals and organisations of opposition throughout the Warsaw Pact countries since 1990. She points out:
“Western corporations and banks sought resources. Exiled wealthy families surged back into the region to attempt to reclaim ownership of industries, vast estates and swaths of land they had previously owned that had been collectivised. Fascist groups (and) war criminals whom the CIA had smuggled west at the end of WW II and helped to secretly maintain in exile for decades, surged back in. They returned awash in funds for offices, staff, publications, political parties, non-governmental organisations and civil society organisations.
“They drafted and printed anti-communist schoolbooks full of extreme sectarian nationalism and ethnic hatred. They also established militias and hired armed thugs to defend their newly seized assets. For the past 20 years, a handful of pirates and privateers in each of the formerly socialist countries were absorbed in laying hold of every resource, industry or source of formerly collective wealth and making deals and partnerships with US and EU corporations and moving vast sums of money to the West.
“These new oligarchs assumed that they would be offered an equal seat at the capitalist table. They foolishly did not realise that they were the main course. This is the age of capitalist overproduction, decline and commodity super abundance. There is no more room at the table.”
Pressure was exerted on Ukraine to join Nato and the EU despite popular polls against the idea. It is suspicious that a government would want to join a grouping some of whose members such as Greece have threatened to move out while many more openly suffer financial crises and are forced into so-called austerity measures to sustain an underperforming capitalist system. All these experiences serve to give Russia something of a siege mentality and impel Russia to act to control the Ukraine which is important to it as a buffer zone between Russia and the West.
Membership to Nato was one precondition why deposed Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych resisted signing with the EU last November. On February 21-22, in a suspect parliament without a quorum, Yanukovych was deposed in spite of having called for fresh elections and making concessions. The coup brought into power the US-favoured right-wing banker Arseniy Yatsenyuk as prime minister. His sudden unconstitutional ascendency was meant to facilitate Ukraine’s membership into EU and Nato. The fascist inclinations of the new government became obvious when its first act was to ban the use of Russian and Greek languages by Ukrainian minorities.
It also ended Crimea’s autonomy within Ukraine. The majority of people in Crimea speak Russian and they now feared persecution. Russia was equally worried and through a standing agreement with Ukraine they sent the military into Crimea to protect Russians and other minorities.
Despite popular opposition, Ukraine’s post-coup leadership was considering joining EU, a grouping with many key Nato members, and also becoming a member of Nato. It should be noted that if the current crisis had happened after Ukraine had become a full member of Nato, the latter would most probably have intervened militarily against Russia and those in favour of secession of Crimea.
Article 5 of the Nato treaty commits the military alliance to collective self-defence when a member state is attacked. No wonder Russia quickly moved to intervene ostensibly to protect Russian minorities, and endorsed the referendum.
Two questions were presented to Crimean voters in the referendum:
“Are you in favour of the reunification of Crimea with Russia as part of the Russian Federation?”
“Are you in favour of restoring the 1992 Constitution and the status of Crimea as part of Ukraine?”
Some critics claim the wording of both questions technically violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The 1992 constitution granted Crimea autonomy from both Russia and Ukraine, but subsequent constitutions adopted in 1995 and 1999 conferred Ukrainian supremacy over Crimea.
It is also alleged the referendum was conducted under not-so-free conditions with a Russian occupying force in the background. The native Tatar population and pro-Ukraine voters allegedly boycotted the vote, although 96.8 percent of ballots had been cast for the first question, with voter turn-out declared to be 83 percent. As a result, credibility of the vote and its outcome are thus questioned by Western powers and intellectuals. Rebuttals cite that the Western critics pretend that they understand democracy better than anybody else.
If results go against their favoured positions, they question credibility of the process. It must be underlined, however, that the coup triggered a constitutional crisis and whatever followed makes arguments from secessionists and Russia understandable. To conclude that people in Crimea or Zimbabwe vote under pressures all the time becomes problematic and even an insult to voters’ intelligence.
Other reasons for rejecting the referendum outcome might sound familiar to Zimbabweans whose own democratic elections are often discredited on the same basis: allegations of bussing of voters from mainland Ukraine, and unequal access to media for those people opposed to the secession and annexation.
When the US and EU recognised the coup leaders in Kiev, Ukraine, they put constitutionalism into crisis, reminiscent of Egypt after President Morsi. The Russians argue that the people of Crimea who decided to secede from Ukraine are justified. The people of Crimea were suspicious of the new leadership in Kiev and regarded it as ethnic. The secession of Kosovo from Serbia has returned to haunt the US and Nato who supported it. Using the Kosovo precedence, parts of other nations may decide to break away and establish a new national entity. In Africa, the case of South Sudan immediately comes to mind. President Bashir’s Northern Sudan had to concede to international pressure to allow South Sudan to establish an independent country, Africa’s youngest nation.
Vast majorities in Crimea voted in a referendum to join Russia. The United Nations cannot condemn the democratic expressions of the people of Crimea especially after the coup.
Russia’s legalistic approach to the Crimea, with a referendum, gives it the moral high ground over the US and its allies who seem to accept undemocratic actions when they suit their interests.
The post 1991 era is largely described as a post Cold War period because of the negotiations and partial nuclear weapon disarmaments that followed. The so-called bipolar World typified by the US leading Nato and the capitalist order on one hand, and the Soviet Union leading Warsaw Pact and the communist block on the other hand seemed to have dissipated for a much more benign and tolerant new world order.
Optimists described the new order as multi-polar and multi-cultural in which the distinct legal and constitutional rights of nations and people are respected. However, after the September 11 bombings in the US, the latter embarked on unilateral punitive action against perceived military and ideological enemies. The War on Terror saw US bombing and occupying Iraq.
The same unilateralism saw US entering Afghanistan.
The Nato clout has had significant interventions in Libya and Syria. Some of the interventions had controversial endorsements from the UN Security Council such as Libya’s no-fly zone.
Russia and China have blocked some intended actions in the UN Security Council when they suspected the US, Britain and the Nato groupings had ulterior motives in the affairs of a condemned nation. Zimbabwe is a special case over the last decade after we embarked on the land reform programme and the leadership was subsequently accused of serious human rights breaches.
The media and the battle to win international public opinion
The news on Crimea and Ukraine easily reveals the contestation for political and moral legitimacy by the respective powers. The media are intricately linked to this contestation and they have taken a critical position. The BBC, CNN and most mainstream media corporations linked with the West are vilifying Russia. The language of the Cold War is fast returning and one commentator on Russia Today TV noted the presence of “Déjà vu of Cold War” era.
In the aftermath of the annexation, the US imposed asset freezes and travel bans on Russian leaders. Russia considered reciprocal sanctions. The powers appeared at the brink of war. The media sounded like the world has come full circle to pre-1989 times. It seems what used to be called the Cold War is now again with us. The Cold War was the official hostility between the socialist bloc and the capitalist bloc. It was “cold” because of the “frosty” diplomatic relations, suspicions, espionage and subversions largely between the main protagonists, the USA and the Soviet Union.
Yes, indeed, it could become hot and bloody too in frontiers of “spheres of influence”, stretching right down to Africa in places such as Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Back then there was the Soviet Union or United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) which had formed around Russia, and like its name revealed, it aspired for socialist or communist orientation. Again, the situation was not that neat and straightforward and China, although a communist country, was wary of Russia’s imperial inclinations.
This meant that China could not always be relied on to support Russia, just like it was not comfortable with the USA. The main players were called superpowers and they had nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapons were a critical factor in the so-called Cold War because since their acquisitions by the respective countries, the world was on the verge of a calamitous war that could wipe us all out. Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s atomic bombs were demonstrative of the destruction that the new nuclear weapons could unleash indiscriminately on humanity, vegetation and animals.
The military threat was extremely dangerous and nearly suicidal for the whole world and the Non-Aligned Movement was formed in part to quell the Cold War hostilities.
The imposition and counter-imposition of sanctions is neatly packaged and framed into media narratives to suit the ideological persuasion and alliances of the station. The idea of an “international community” is systematically challenged in alternative channels such as RT and Aljazeera, although the CNN and BBC present the words in a way that takes it for granted that the “international community” is the US and its Western allies. One commentator on RT stated, “The international community in essence means the US and Nato. This was the case since the 1990 but is not the case now.”
In a multi-polar and multi-cultural global order, the Western-centric view of “international community” is constantly being ridiculed and exposed for what it is. The Western media are also struggling to shed off their image as “weapons of mass deception” in a world that watches with intense interest. China has already supported Russia’s legalistic approach to the Crimea crisis.
Gorbachev, a post-perestroika Western idol, praised the referendum in Crimea as “a happy event” largely because it was peaceful and a show of the will of the people. Countries like Iran, undergoing constant and consistent pressures to stop nuclear energy production, eagerly observe and consider making strategic alliances. Other so-called rogue states such as Zimbabwe and most countries of the South will have to reassess their position. Is it now time to recuperate the Non Aligned Movement or strategically “play” the West and East against each other in order to extract benefits and opportunities?
The political fact is what is on the ground at the moment. That is the reality and the US and EU need to swallow their pride and move on. Sanctions will cost everyone involved, including big international capital with interest in Russia. Another commentator on RT was urging Russian tycoons such as Roman Abramovich to withdraw their investments from the West as a counter measure.
Sanctions can only be successful if they can make Russia economically isolated. In Brics, the Brazilians and Chinese are likely to play ball. Embattled and embittered countries like Syria and Iraq will also look empathetically at Russia. If diplomatic engagements fail between the major powers, there is still reason to revive the Non-Aligned Movement and Zimbabwe can best ascertain how its own ideology and interests are best served through strategic alignment and non-alignment.
Dr Mhiripiri is a Senior Lecturer in the Midlands State University Department of Media and Society Studies