Author Archives: Henry Srebrnik

Henry Srebrnik: Do elections matter in deeply-divided societies?

The following countries have held parliamentary or presidential elections so far this year: Afghanistan, Algeria, El Salvador, Guinea-Bissau, Iraq, Libya, Malawi, Mauritania, Thailand, and Ukraine.

So what? you might remark. After all, that’s quite a rogue’s gallery.

Yet for many people, elections have become the sine qua non of democracy. Our television screens show us people lined up at polling stations, eager to cast their ballots, and commentators usually let us know how excited these voters are to “finally” have a say in the governance of their country.

But in fact, in states without a robust civil society, the rule of law, protection of human rights, and a political culture that tolerates diversity of opinion, elections may exacerbate, rather than resolve, deep cleavages within the policy – even if they have been relatively free and honest.

In most such places, though, opposition parties often boycott what they consider to be a foregone conclusion; or, if they do contest the election, they invariably claim – usually correctly – that widespread fraud and other irregularities have rendered the result invalid.

Also, only too often, governments brought to power are fairly quickly dispatched in coups (Thailand), or themselves become highly autocratic and sectarian (Iraq). Some countries seem to be in a permanent state of rotation between civilian and military rule (Nigeria, Pakistan) or are such failed states that elections are meaningless (Lebanon).

In yet others – Central American oligarchies such as Guatemala and Honduras – incredible inequality makes for continuous political violence. Elections are irrelevant, held merely to please some foreign capital like Washington.

Elections can’t paper over issues of what Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan called problems of “stateness” in places where there are differences about the territorial boundaries of the state and who has the right of citizenship in that state.

For example: Although Sri Lanka has never ceased to be an electoral democracy, the lack of genuine political power by the minority Tamils led to a vicious decades-old civil war in which tens of thousands of people were slaughtered.

Ask yourself this: would you rather have lived in a colony without any internal self-rule at all, but with the rule of law, like pre-1990s Hong Kong, or in a sovereign state with “elections,” like Zimbabwe?

The Hustings


Henry Srebrnik: Is it really necessary to explain why Putin isn’t Hitler?

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday asked for the revocation of a parliamentary authorization that gave him the power to invade Russia’s neighbor.

Ever since the crisis in Ukraine began, with the overthrow of the legally elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, war drums have been beating in the West. They have defined as “aggression” Putin’s attempts to make certain Russian-speakers and ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine don’t get trampled by the nationalist Ukrainians in the west – the heirs of those who fought alongside Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union in World War II.

To add to the insult, people like Hillary Clinton and Prince Charles have glibly compared Putin to – wait for it – Adolf Hitler! I guess even a lesser tyrant like Mussolini or Syria’s Assad won’t do. CNN for weeks ran almost daily “breaking news” alarmist clips warning of Russian troop movements near the Ukrainian border – as if there was something illegal about a country moving its forces around within its own territory.

In fact, it’s the outgunned “rebels” in the east, not the Ukrainian army, that have been suffering most of the casualties, and have begged Putin to intervene. Unlike Hitler, he hasn’t sent forces across the border, though there has been enough provocation for him to invoke an international norm like R2P (“responsibility to protect”) to do so. Instead, he keeps calling for negotiations between the Russians in Ukraine and the new president, the oligarch Petro Poroshenko – who was elected with virtually no ethnic Russian support.

If only Hitler had been more like Putin! World War II might never have occurred.

The Hustings


Henry Srebrnik: Can the Kurds create a state of their own?

Iraq is imploding, composed as it is of three mutually hostile groups: Arab Sunnis in the center, Arab Shiites in the south, and Kurds in the north.

With talk of partition, has the moment of historical opportunity finally arrived for the Kurds, the largest ethnic group in the world without a state of its own?

After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the United States and Great Britain established a so‑called “no‑fly zone” above the 36th parallel in northern Iraq, allowing Kurds in that region to establish a de facto autonomous jurisdiction.

The defeat of Saddam Hussein by the United States in 2003 enabled the Kurds to strengthen their hold. Iraqi Kurdistan is now virtually independent, with its own flag, executive, legislature, and judiciary. Its capital is Erbil (sometimes spelled Arbil).

Taking advantage of the turmoil in Iraq, the Kurdish military, known as the Peshmerga, has now seized large tracts of Kurdish-populated territories that had remained disputed and outside its control, including Kirkuk, which the Kurds see as a future capital.

Will the Kurds be able to gain — and retain — cities such as Kirkuk and Mosul, surrounded by oil-rich areas that would enable a Kurdish state to become economically self-sufficient, indeed wealthy? In two decades of de facto autonomy in Iraq’s north, the Kurds have proved they can run a civil state.

The Kurds have also benefitted from improved relations with Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Ergogan, a religious Sunni, is no friend of the Shiite regime in Baghdad.

So Ankara and Erbil have built strong economic and diplomatic relations; they have signed a 50-year energy deal and Kurdish oil is being exported via a pipeline that connects the autonomous region to the port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. Turkey is now the KRG’s main business partner.

This is probably the best chance the Kurds have had in 80 years to form a sovereign state, at least for a part of their historic patrimony.

The Hustings