Red Line: Syria, Abkhaz elections and Anna Hazare

Syrian border guard. Source: Reuters / Vostock Photo

Syrian border guard. Source: Reuters / Vostock Photo

Each week, Voice of Russia hosts Red Line, a discussion about global events as seen from Moscow. In this edition: Syria, Abkhazia and Anna Hazare.

Participants: Sergei Strokan, Mira Salganik, Evgeny Satanovsky, Fred Weir, Vinay Shukla


Sergei Strokan: This week we will start with the events in Syria which is becoming ever more of a hotbed of international tension. European governments are increasing pressure on President Bashar al-Assad, but Russia is strongly opposing international sanctions, and President Dmitry Medvedev’s special envoy to Damascus revealed an alternative plan this week intended to restore peace and stability. Then we will turn our eyes to the Black Sea republic of Abkhazia, which this week celebrated the third anniversary of its independence and held presidential elections. Finally, our Face in the News is Anna Hazare - a 74-year old Indian peasant whose 13-day-long hunger strike has rocked the world’s most populous democracy.

Mira Salganik: It might be interesting to see how the Indian summer of protest has differed from the Arab Spring.

Sergei Strokan: What we see is growing public discontent over social ills, but what is different is the approach to the mass protests. The Syrian crisis is a textbook example of how these things are handled in a world that is not only interdependent, but very contradictory, too. Now our first heading, Beyond the Headlines, in which we will discuss the question currently being hotly debated by the world community: What to do with President Assad?


Mira Salganik:  Syria is a hot-potato issue. The six-month old conflict has already claimed the lives of more than 2,000 civilians and brought the country to the brink of a large-scale civil war.


Sergei Strokan:  But I think that mistakes made in Libya will be avoided in Syria. President Obama and his key European allies have made themselves very clear: President Bashar al-Assad should ultimately step down. According to them, there is no place for him in the “new democratic Syria”. This is a very tough approach, but that is what we see.


Mira Salganik: I think it is a rigid position and it is not going to be very productive.


Sergei Strokan:  The number of protestors who pledge not to give up protesting until he resigns is growing every Friday, still I strongly doubt that Assad’s days are numbered. The West wants to give support to success of the “Arab Spring” in Syria. A Libya-type military operation is out of the question, but why not try punitive measures, like sanctions, that bite? This week the European Union imposed a ban on imports of crude oil from Syria. The ban will deprive the Syrian budget of more than 3 billion euros annually. You know, Mira, I came across an interesting quote from Adib Mayaleh, Head of the Central Bank of Syria. Here is what it says: “I say the opposite of what Queen Marie Antoinette advised her hungry nation: to eat cake if they have no bread. I suggest we give up cake to eat plain bread.” No doubt, the sanctions will make Syrians tighten their belts.

Mira Salganik: The banker has not lost sense of humor. But if sanctions are so bad, what is the alternative?

Sergei Strokan: There is no guarantee the Russian approach will work, but Moscow sees an alternative way to settle the Syrian conflict. This week President Medvedev sent a personal message to President Assad. It was delivered by Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov. Mr. Bogdanov called for “an immediate ceasefire by both the Syrian government and the opposition and urged Assad to implement his promised reforms without delay.”

Mira Salganik: But as I understand, this scenario is not welcomed by the West, which sees the change of Syrian leadership as an absolute precondition to any further development of Syria, presumably in the democratic manner.

Sergei Strokan: This approach is not welcomed by the west, and it is not surprising, that there are two basically different international approaches to Syria and they have already generated two rival draft resolutions that have been submitted to the UN Security Council.


One draft, backed by Britain, France, Germany, Portugal and the United States, calls for freezing the foreign assets of President Assad, his brother Maher, who is one of the Syrian top military brass, and of 21 other senior government officials and businessmen. One of them is Bashar’s cousin, all-powerful tycoon Rami Makhlouf, who reportedly controls the Syrian mobile phone network and other enterprises and has been the target of many opposition protests.

The proposed measures are aimed at producing a sort of “suffocating effect” for Syrian leadership, depriving it of funds they desperately need.  But, of course, the West-backed resolution is opposed by Russia and China, and other countries who made it clear they will never support it.


Russia doesn’t want just to stir up the Syrian opposition like was done in Libya, so as an alternative to the Western plan, Moscow introduced another draft, which was co-sponsored by China, South Africa and Brazil.  The draft is calling for “an immediate end to all violence" and it does not mention any sanctions.

Mira Salganik: The basic difference between the two drafts, as I see it, is in the attitude toward President Assad personally, his future, isn’t it?


Sergei Strokan: Exactly. While the Western-backed draft is mistrustful of the Syrian leader, who is already written off by President Obama and his key allies, Moscow still envisages a role for President Bashar Assad in new reformed Syria - despite all his wrongdoings. 


Mira Salganik: All in all, the situation with two rival resolutions on Syria looks like a classical diplomatic deadlock.


Sergei Strokan: Let us explore the arguments of both sides, taking a closer look at the events in Syria. Mass riots in Syria started in mid-March after Facebook’s call for a "Day of Dignity" – the same way as anti-government riots were launched in Tunisia and Egypt. As the country was rocked by riots unprecedented in scale, parallels with Libya became more obvious.

Mira Salganik: However, with all obvious parallels with Libya, 45-year old President Bashar al-Assad is by no means a Muammar Gaddafi. Although I don’t have much admiration for Assad, I must say that he doesn’t look altogether like a classic Arab despot – he evokes mixed feelings. 

Sergei Strokan: I think, his moves are sending conflicting messages. While trying to rule with iron fist tolerating no dissent the way his father did, Bashar has lifted the country's 48-year-old emergency law.

Mira Salganik: Which was a major concession to the opposition and few people expected that Bashar would do that.

Sergei Strokan: Yes, and this week he went further with his reforms, scrapping the old media rules. According to new regulations, media should be independent and serve their message freely restricted only by the constitution and the law.

Mira Salganik: But on the other hand, it is equally true that so far he has failed to cultivate an image of an Arab leader with reformist leanings. One of the things that is often said about him is that we know that he was never meant to be president, it was a matter of coincidence, rather tragic coincidences, and when he stepped in, he was naturally surrounded by his father’s old guard. Bashar didn’t have a chance of changing the elite at that time.

Sergei Strokan: I think that still this old political elite largely determines his politics. He had a very limited number of options, a limited field for maneuvering.

Mira Salganik: It is not surprising that with one foot firmly in the past Bashar is besotted by conspiracy theories trying to put all the blame for Syrian protests on outside enemies – be it Islamists or the West.

Sergei Strokan: Syria and its leader are at a crossroads. The situation is very dangerous in many ways. If ethnic and religious strife continues, Syria’s sovereignty might be jeopardized. Some even say that under the worst scenario Syria might fall apart.

Mira Salganik: The skeptical Western approach to Bashar’s reforms can be summarized as “too little, too late.”

Sergei Strokan: But my question is – who can measure the pace of the reforms in a country like Syria, which is just awakening from decades-long lethargic sleep? And, finally, let us not forget that a potential power vacuum in Damascus if Bashar is ousted would bring about unpredictable consequences for the vast Mideast region.

As for Bashar Assad, he faces a clear choice: to end hostilities and pioneer much-awaited changes or to be driven out by old political habits, by old inertia, to lose his “historic chance” and fail to meet Syrian people's needs.

Mira Salganik: It doesn’t depend only on the western approach and the Russian approach. There are neighbors of Syria who will also play a big role in the future and we don’t know how it will be.


Sergei Strokan: I think we need to discuss it with our expert, Evgeny Satanovsky, head of the Moscow-base Institute of Middle East studies.  


Russia and the West have locked horns over Syria. Do you believe both parties can reach compromise in the Security Council as there are two rival draft resolutions on Syria?


Evgeny Satanovsky: To my mind there is no chance that the western block is organizing some informational and political base for an intervention like it was organized in Libya. The Russian position, and we have some guarantees about the Chinese position, are much more careful and not so radical, because we have the Libyan experience.

Sergei Strokan: Do you still believe that Russia and the West can reach a last-minute compromise and work out some comprehensive draft resolution?

Evgeny Satanovsky: The problem is that the civil war in Syria was initiated not only by the illegal activity of Bashar al-Assad’s government, but also by Doha and Riyadh. Saudi Arabia in its informal war with the Islamic Republic of Iran wants to replace Bashar Assad; they need a Syria without Iranian influence. It is not true that the western block by itself wants to do something, this is an Arab game inside the Arab world, and in this situation, Russia wants a compromise and wants to save Bashar Assad as the leader of the country, because anarchy is something terrible.

Sergei Strokan: As I understand according to you, the West doesn’t have any independent interest in Syria?


Evgeny Satanovsky: Of course, the West has an independent interest in Syria, and its independent interest in Syria also includes the destruction of the Syrian-Iranian alliance.

Sergei Strokan: Coming back to the future of Bashar Assad - in your personal view – is Assad a goner or does he still have a chance?

Evgeny Satanovsky: To tell you the truth, this is the last thing I am interested in, the future of Arab leaders in the time of the Arab spring. Who remembers the European leaders, their names and their future at the beginning of the First or Second World War? Bashar maybe has a chance, if he is brutal enough. His problem is that he is trying to be brutal, he wants to be as his father, but he cannot. He is not half as his father, he is not more than Bashar al-Assad, and that is really his problem, because it is much better to have some heavy conflicts for the brief time than heavy conflicts for the long, long months, which we have now in Syria.

Sergei Strokan: So you think that his chances are just to tighten the screws, not to unveil and go ahead with democratic reforms?


Evgeny Satanovsky: This isn’t a comedy show. Please don’t discuss the democratic reforms in the Arab world, be in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya or Syria. This is a question of Islamicization, radical or not, this is a question of the destruction of national consensus. This is not good democracy. But Hitler was voted into power in a democratic way, maybe that type of democracy is what we will have in the Middle East.

Sergei Strokan: My final question: What in your assessment might happen to Syria if Bashar is forced to resign? Can we expect any calamities; can we expect that the country will fall apart or it will turn into a springboard of terrorism


Evgeny Satanovsky: We will have a combination of the Iraqi situation and the situation in Libya. Upgraded levels of al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, which are much more radical in Syria than in Egypt, conflicts between Kurds and Arabs, a war of everybody against everybody. The whole area will be in the hands of Sunni Islamicized groups, which might be good for conservative Arab monarchies, but not so good for the future of secularism.

Sergei Strokan: Now we are moving on to Red Line’s second heading, Between the Lines, where we usually discuss what we believe to be the most thought provoking publication of the week. Three years after the August 2008 war in South Ossetia, which led to the disintegration of Georgia and emergence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent sovereign states, the issue of their sovereignty remains another hotly debated issue in Russia’s relations with the US and the West.

While Russia sees Georgia as undeniable aggressor in the five-day war of August 2008 and believes it has every political and moral right to recognize them as sovereign states, our American partners, regrettably, see the things in a different way. It was reported that before departing for summer vacation, the Senate voted to declare Abkhazia and South Ossetia provinces of Georgia illegally occupied by Russian troops who must get out and return to Russia.

The controversy, which mars the Russian-American reset, is analyzed in an opinion “Why Are We Baiting the Bear?” contributed to the website of the newspaper “The Post Chronicle” by U.S. politician Pat Buchanan. Mr. Buchanan insists that Senate Resolution 175, which condemns the so-called “Russian occupation” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia,” is irrelevant and doesn’t match up with the reality.

Mira Salganik: This is a very uncommon view coming from Washington, isn’t it?

Sergei Strokan: On one hand, Buchanan’s opinion changes nothing. Just days after the publication of the story, Washington insisted that it does not recognize the legitimacy of the results of the election in Abkhazia. On the other hand, Buchanan is quite convincing, while not being involved in any propaganda or information war between Russia and Georgia. I think the time has not come yet for his ideas to define American policy. But, eventually one day it might change.

Mira Salganik: When you say convincing, what do you mean? Each side believes it is convincing. Each side believes it knows the truth.


Sergei Strokan: He is convincing when he explains that Washington should not lecture Russia, as such lecturing sounds offending. Here is a quote: “Going on across this inflamed region are ethno-national struggles for self-determination, the resolution of which, 6,000 miles from the United States, is none of our concern. How would Abraham Lincoln have reacted had Czar Alexander II declared the Russian Empire was recognizing the independence of Virginia and demanding that the breakaway enclave of West Virginia be returned to Richmond?” Can we see how hypocritical we appear?”


Mira Salganik:  Russia’s stand on Abkhazia as I see it has nothing to do with a great powers former clash over the spheres of interest.

Sergei Strokan: Abkhazia is neither Russia’s backyard, nor Russia’s client state with a puppet president. But having said that I want to emphasize that it is more than just a territory. Abkhazia is a reality, unique in many ways – culture, religion, habits, traditions. And not only is Abkhazia close to Russia geographically, as well as in terms of history and ethnicity, but it also counts many Russian citizens as permanent residents.

Mira Salganik: So, any developments in this neighboring country are significant for Russia.


Sergei Strokan: Yes, and this is why Pat Buchanan is asking: “Why are we provoking Russia for whom the Caucasus — ablaze as it is with secessionism, Islamism, and terrorism — is a vital national interest? “ And as for “hypocrisy” mentioned by Patrick Buchanan it is fraught with many dangers. We all live in this interconnected world where we no longer can afford hypocrisy verging on wars. I shall be blunt: I don’t believe that the West is all that concerned with tiny Abkhazia or South Ossetia – incidentally, why are the two always coupled despite being so different on so many counts? Their having been administrative parts of Soviet Georgia doesn’t wipe off dissimilarity between them! 


All the games played around the breakaway “provinces of Georgia” have Russia as the principal aim! And to me it is very frustrating.


Mira Salganik: But I think we have to highlight another aspect of the game. Don’t you find that the Senate resolution backing Georgia has greatly stirred up local revanchists?


Sergei Strokan: President Saakashvili, as you know has a big headache with the Georgians ousted from Abkhazia in the early 1990s. Already at that time that the Abkhazians started their fight for independence. I was told there are about 250,000 of them. They want to go back to Abkhazia, reclaim their property and settle there.  They are Saakashvili’s voters and revanchists ready for anything.


Mira Salganik: Georgia naturally called the Abkhazian election illegitimate – which was   predictable. As you said, Abkhazia threw off Georgian rule in wars in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Sergei Strokan: A friend of mine who is just back from Abkhazia said he saw the ruins of residential areas in Abkhazian cities laid waste during the War for Independence in 1992-1993. According to him, the areas still have not been rebuilt. He also spoke of the improvised roadside memorials that dot the entire country, commemorating the casualties of that war.


Mira Salganik: I also have many friends in Abkhazia, and I have seen those memorials. They are really very moving, there was a lot of suffering. But let me say that my friend’s family at least for the last three years is happy that they can go to sleep at night without thinking of Kalashnikovs.  Mr. Buchanan is absolutely right when he says that whatever are the circumstances Russians are more welcome in Abkhazia and Ossetia than Georgians, this is a fact.

Sergei Strokan: And these people who gave up their Kalashnikovs have come to appreciate the peace, and they know they have Russia to thank for that.


Mira Salganik: Admittedly, each of the conflicting parties has their own arguments and reasoning, and each of their stories is true in its own way. Only time can solve the problem.


Sergei Strokan: I think Pat Buchanan also makes this point. Let us hear one more voice from American media. Now we are joined by Fred Weir, correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor.


Pat Buchanan in his story says that Senate had no right to criticize Russia on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, do you share this view?

Fred Weir: I suppose it is important to know that Pat Buchanan is a very prominent member of the Republican Party, he ran in the presidential primaries twice, in the 1990s, but he is of that part of the Republican Party, that wing of the party, that is often termed isolationists, which means that his criticism is not based on any particular love of Russia or support for the Russian position. His position is that the United States should not get involved in very large parts of the world where it can only do bad. This is his argument, and he says in the article that the United States is just unnecessarily antagonizing Russia over a matter that the United States has no business involving itself in. So this is a position, but it is a minority position within the Republican Party and it is not going to be widely accepted. But today in the Republican Party the same position is held by Ron Paul, who is part of this wing of the party the same as Buchanan is, and Ron Paul is not only running in the presidential primaries, he is doing very well in using the same arguments that the United States should get out of a lot of these foreign entanglements, there is no business being in Iraq or Afghanistan, building an empire, having troops in Korea or in Germany still. This is what is often termed isolationism, and it is surprising that it is doing well in the Republican presidential primaries so far.

Sergei Strokan: Have you been to Abkhazia, have you seen the developments in the republic?


Fred Weir: Yes, I spent a couple of weeks in Abkhazia in 2008 just before the war, just weeks before the war broke out, and first of all I was stunned by the natural beauty of that place, it is really an amazing national creation that will do very well if they can solve their political problems. I am sure that even when I was there, there were enormous numbers of Russian tourists in places like Gagra, and I am sure that this will only get better, that the prospect is excellent, but especially in the southern part of Abkhazia, Sukhumi and further all the way down to the border there, most of the infrastructure is still destroyed from the war; in the capital Sukhumi even lots of buildings are still bombed out, they have an enormous amount of work to do.


Sergei Strokan: But do you believe that it can develop into a sovereign state?


Fred Weir: Sure, I don’t see why not. We know there are lots and lots of places that are members of the United Nations, little tiny dots on the map, which are sovereign states. It is not rocket science apparently to manage as a sovereign state. There are some places in Africa or the South Pacific that would never make it if they had high-standard statehood. So I am sure Abkhazia has lots of preconditions to be a sovereign state, it is just caught in the political gears or geopolitical gears, which prevented from being recognized by the world.


Sergei Strokan: Can I ask you one question about Russian-American relations? So as you know, this Abkhazia and South Ossetia issue is a matter of contention in our relations. Do you think it can jeopardize the reset process, it can poison our relations, or we have to agree to disagree on that subject?

Fred Weir: I think that the worst moment of course was at the time of 2008 war, and that was when it all blew up. George W. Bush was still president of the United States, and he had a fairly hostile attitude towards Russia, so I don’t think that this is going to get worse. It remains a frozen problem. These problems remain and they can blow up in the future, there is no doubt about that.


Sergei Strokan: Well, this is politics, but let us hope for the beauty of compromise that will prevail in our relations.

The time has come to move on to Red Line’s concluding heading, Face in the News. This week the man we talk about is Mr. Anna Hazare, a 74-year old Indian public figure who ended his two-week hunger strike against corruption in New Delhi by making the Indian parliament bow to his demands to tighten anti-corruption legislation – a move which if implemented will leave top Indian public figures with no immunity. Anna Hazare – a former peasant, ex-army driver and “one man army” in a fight against wide-spread Indian corruption staged a protest in the center of Indian capital which rocked the “most populous world democracy” making embattled Prime Minister Manmohan Singh say he applauds Anna Hazare.

Mira Salganik: He does applaud Anna Hazare. I would agree with Mr. Soutik Biswas, a renowned Indian journalist, who wrote that Hazare’s campaign was a reality check for India.  Indeed it is for the first time in decades that the ruling political elite of India is being directly exposed to the frustrated masses and is made to hear their demands.


Sergei Strokan: What Anna Hazare has done is truly an extraordinary thing. This is something one can hardly believe, regardless of whether parliament will finally approve all the amendments to the legislation Hazare proposed. While lying on a bed covered with white linen under the huge portrait of Mahatma Gandhi Anna Hazare outplayed the authorities.

Mira Salganik: There was another thing that added to the development of the protest movement. The Indian authorities made a silly mistake, which they regretted almost immediately. They put Anna Hazare behind bars, and that immediately galvanized the whole of India, and the government naturally the next day released him, but one day was enough, the harm was done.


Sergei Strokan: It took them just one day to understand that they made a mistake, and not a drop of blood was spilled! This is a point. India is by no means Egypt or Syria.   

I can’t imagine President Bashar Assad would act the same way. I think that by not jailing this anti-corruption activist, Indian authorities showed an ability to seek compromise and consensus.

Mira Salganik: For the first time, the Indian establishment was made to see a movement that presented well-articulated demands. There were no broken windows, no burned cars, it was really a non-violent movement controlled by the rules put forward by Hazare.

Sergei Strokan: So this is not a street mob of angry protesters, but an organized movement of people demanding to have a say in national decision-making. Do you believe that a hunger strike like this is the best method in today’s India?


Mira Salganik: India remembers how effectively Mahatma Gandhi used it during the struggle for independence, but that was 60 years ago. As for Hazare, a hunger strike is not a novelty for him. Actually there was a hunger strike that he staged in April, that was the beginning of the campaign, and that is number 16, I think, because he built his reputation in Maharashtra, where he had to confront the local government, local bureaucracy, and he had hunger strikes there, and I would say there were by and large successful.

He has a vision, but he doesn’t know how to implement it. The main thing is that he is a man of the masses, one with the masses, knowing the masses, understood by the masses.

Sergei Strokan: The way I see it, Mr. Hazare's movement is a triumph for Indian democracy, and it should be regarded as a victory for people, because it demonstrated that fighting for better and stronger laws is no longer the preserve of politicians and business tycoons.

Mira Salganik: This is the coming of the age of the Indian street, as people demand more from their politicians. Yet, on the other hand, opening the debate  on the  amendments to the controversial  anti-corruption law, Mr. Pranab  Mukherjee,  a stalwart  of Indian politics said that  India was "at a crossroads", with the focus squarely on the country's parliamentary democracy.

Sergei Strokan: And a couple of days before him Rahul Gandhi, scion of Nehru-Gandhi family, who is widely seen as the prime minister-in-waiting, sounded a similar warning. While praising Hazare, he also criticized the movement for setting "a dangerous precedent for a democracy" by trying to dictate their demands to parliament.


Mira Salganik: In all honesty it must be said that Indian media has not been balanced in projecting Hazare and his movement. Well, it has been noted time and again that a hunger strike needs the oxygen of publicity.


Sergei Strokan: Yet, the Indian media’s almost unanimous support has finally led many to argue that sections of the media - TV and print - have openly sided with Hazare and that the neutrality of the media has been seriously compromised.

Mira Salganik: Come on! It was a made-for-media event: anti-corruption hunger strike, a patriarchal activist with an excellent record leading it, men and women - young and old  - come and join him. A colorful microcosm of a restless, angry, hungry India!

Sergei Strokan: Writing on India's leading media watchdog site The Hoot, Archana Venkat said that the Indian media - "mainly TV" - was aping their counterparts in the U.S. by "taking sides on every issue worthy of public consumption”. And it was reported that his team was actively using Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites.


Now we are joined by Vinay Shukla, the Moscow bureau chief of the Press Trust of India. So today we are discussing the phenomenon of Anna Hazare. Now that the dust has settled – at least for the time being – how do you assess the results of the stand–off between the people and establishment?


Vinay Shukla: I would say that India is no more what it was before the parliament accepted the demands of Anna Hazare. This is a really challenging time for the establishment because masses have their grievances and they found a leader who could somehow spread their demands, so in that way I would say India has changed, and that is a big challenge for the establishment.


Indians were becoming politically indifferent in the sense that everybody knew that politics is a dirty game and it is full of corruption, and everything, and they accepted it. In this background, the Hazare phenomenon has galvanized Indian society.

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