26th October 1997


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A communist come-back?

The “Reds” are back in Russia and this is October. But no October revolution! An astute Boris Yeltsin knew when to compromise. The challenge to the President came from the Communists but the wily Yeltsin was able to divert the attack and make Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, the principal target.

The issues were mainly economic...... privatisation, energy prices, land ownership reform, free-market housing. Gennady Zyuganov’s communists saw the hand of the IMF and the World Bank, meaning the old enemy, the United States. The reform which provoked the broadest and most vigorous protest “was currency redomination. Mr. Zyuganov played his cards so smartly that President Yeltsin had no option but a tactical retreat..... “run away to fight another day” was how the press chose to present the Yeltsin administration’s dilemma. The Russian press reportage would have reminded any Third World reader of how the electorate in many under developed countries reacts to budgets stamped” made in Washington meaning the Fund and the Bank. Of course President Yeltsin did have a card up his sleeve........ dissolve parliament, a threat that would have upset Mr. Zyuganov and his Communists most of all.

The larger picture however raises another interesting question. Do the problems and challenges which confront the Yeltsin regime resemble the characteristic choices that most welfarist Third World governments face when the Treasury can no longer pay the bills? The welfarist project has to be dismantled, and hard unpopular choices (privatisation, for instance) become unavoidable. Is this the time for such choices in post Communist Russia, a Russia where food, housing and health were heavily subsidised? If so would confusion, unemployment and labour unrest, mass agitation, crime and (organised?) violence, mark the last years of President Yeltsin? Militarily at least, the former Soviet Union is till a superpower. Its huge arsenal and the access, presumably an easy access, to weaponry leave us with frightening scenarios.

Budget and politics

Across the board, from Communist to ultranationalist and semi-fascist, it is agreed that the 1988 budget presented on Oct. 8 would determine the mass mood and this in turn influence political opinion in a sprawling Russia where the multiparty system has no clear, identifiable shape. On the 1997 budget, most party leaders and commentators, have only criticism and abuse to offer. “The law on the 1997 budget was grossly violated. Even after the spending was cut, it was fulfilled by 77 percent only” complained the C. P. leader, Zyuganov. In the past, the rule evidently was for government opposition collusion....... in short, wildly unrealistic budgets leading later to savage cuts in spending and frantic efforts to raise additional revenue, observed British correspondent John Thornhill. A more charitable comment was offered by a Western economist who described the exercise as “an annual performance” in Russia’s political theatre which had little impact on government economic policy. The reality is the government will do what it wants, regardless of what the DUMA says!

More recently however the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recognised a welcome change, an attempt to present a more credible budget where “expenditure limits are consistent with realistic revenue projections.” The OECD Secretary General himself had a good word for the 1998 effort. He spoke of “very significant building blocks” essential for strengthening market reforms. He advised the Yeltsin administration to pay more attention to small businesses and foreign direct investment. He made two other points......the need to reinforce “the legal basis for tax administration” and promote a policy that will actively encourage competition. Slowly but surely, the Western alliance and the experts who work for international agencies, not just the UN affiliated, to introduce the capitalist system and its mechanisms to a new Russian generation.

But there is however another school of opinion, if I may call it that, which advocates an eastward orientation of economic policy. Interestingly Dr. Sergei Karaganov is Deputy Director of the Institute of Europe, at the Academy of Sciences, Moscow.

“Regions will continue to acquire more rights in terms of foreign trade, consular and other relations with neighbouring countries and regions in these countries..... Japan, both Koreas, China, Mongolia. This tendency towards transborder regionalisation is a reflection of a worldwide tendency, and is largely healthy.”

New agreements and alliances, some already operational, continue to be the dominant post-Cold War pattern. The world of the two superpowers is no more. Thus, each state seeks security in formal pacts or loose, flexible arrangements. President Yeltsin and French President Jacques Chirac took many journalists.... and quite a few European leaders.... by complete surprise when they announced that Russia, France and Germany would hold annual summits. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl who had already left Strasbourg for home, made no comment but Mr. Tony Lloyd, described by the press as “a junior UK foreign minister, did. “It’s not a snub to Britain” he told David Buchan, a British reporter. “We ought to welcome it because it is in all our interest that Russia has the best possible relationship with Europe”.

Europe carried much less importance than the United States in traditional British policy. The Transatlantic Alliance between the English-speaking “cousins” was a very special relationship. More recently, Britain has “walked on two legs”, to use a very popular Maoist expression. But all these members of the now US dominated western alliance give high priority to Russia, and see President Yeltsin as a welcome force for European peace and stability.

The Russian leader, on the other hand, is far from happy over NATO’s approach to eastern Europe, the former members of the Moscow-led “Warsaw Pact.”

On the landmines ban, a Canadian initiative, Russia did not disappoint Mr. Chirac. He did not appear to have any difficulty in responding to the French leader’s request for Russian support on the Canadian campaign for a ban on landmines.

The UN: not doing well

With right eous Ital ian anger of the radical variety, Emma Bonino, the European Union’s Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid, has turned on the institution she has long been a passionate supporter of. The UN, she said faces ‘’being tarnished for ever by shame’’ for its role in the Congo. ‘’The saga of the commission of enquiry into the massacres has surpassed the degree of ridicule it has already earned.’’

Ms. Bonino, who directs the world’s biggest budget for humanitarian aid, had better be listened to, for knowing Ms. Bonino, I can say this, ‘’there’s no fury like this woman scorned’’.

More to the point, she is right. We need to know what is going through the minds of the (relatively) new UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan and the (brand) new High Commissioner for Human Rights, the former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson. How could the UN just decide to buckle and pull out its human rights investigators when the (fairly) new strongman of the Congo, Laurent Kabila told them to? The UN human rights team was dispatched to the Congo in June to investigate reports that Mr. Kabila’s rebels, in the battle to topple the long-time dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, massacred Rwandan Hutu refugees. When these UN human rights investigators were first deployed it was with the acquiescence of Mr. Kabila. But no sooner were they on the ground than they were obstructed and denounced at every turn.

Reports from human rights and intelligence sources make it clear that all this was a stalling tactic to give time for the mass graves to be exhumed, the bodies burnt and the evidence scattered to the wind and rivers. Witnesses have been intimidated and jailed.

Mr. Kabila’s government has tried to bolster its case by denigrating the UN’s self-image as an impartial, human rights organisation. It has a point: The UN peacekeepers (mainly Belgians and Bangladeshis) cut and ran from Rwanda three years ago after some of the peacekeepers were brutally murdered. Facing a de facto US veto on the UN returning, it was left to the French to unilaterally send in their forces in an attempt, not greatly successful, to end the killings orchestrated by the Hutu militias.

The UN has two serious problems to overcome - its failing credibility as a human rights organisation - which Ms. Robinson has supposedly been recruited to solve - and its fading seriousness as a peacekeeper, for which the Clinton administration’s whimpishness in the face of the anti-UN hostility of the chairman of the US Senate’s foreign relations committee, Jesse Helms, has been largely responsible.

Its human rights weaknesses are something the Secretary- General can do much to repair himself, since it has deep roots in the culture and mores of the institution itself, and had a willing supporter of the take-it-easy approach during the tenure of his predecessor, Boutros Boutros Ghali.

This was expertly documented in a report written two years ago by Article 19, the London-based International Centre Against Censorship.

It showed in enormous detail how governmental manipulation of UN human rights committees had led to the suppression of a ‘’substantial number of allegations of abuses in the five veto-wielding countries.’’ This was not just the Soviet Union and China but the US, Britain and France too. It showed how UN operations in the field have often failed to report publically human rights violations.

In ex-Yugoslavia essential information that would have helped relatives trace missing victims during the ethnic cleansing was withheld.

Most serious of all was that the UN forces in Somalia violated the Geneva Convention by refusing to disclose crucial information about the casualties they inflicted on local people. Not surprisingly, Canadian and Italian units of the UN peacekeepers from that operation have been accused of brutality and cruelty.

The UN’s problem with peacekeeping is that its authority, finances and reach have been so mangled by consistent opposition from the US during the Clinton Presidency that it does not have the spine to stand tall. A new Secretary-General is not enough. The rot has gone too far for that.

We are now paying the price for this in a number of arenas. There is a blunting of sensibilities following one televised ethnic war after another, in which the world community seems politically helpless.

It also affects issues like the aftermath of the Gulf War where there is a growing unwillingness by rank and file member countries to support the continued and intrusive monitoring of Iraq’s war machine by the UN.

Saddam Hussein’s gain here is going to be America’s big loss.

Intellectually, this state of affairs doesn’t add up. With the end of the Cold War and with the number of smaller wars declining dramatically each year, this should be the time for great UN activism in pursuit of helping the world peace process along.

Instead, this quite unique historical opportunity for a great peace and the advancement of universal human rights is being wasted and frittered away.

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