What is happening in Crimea is what diaspora separatism would love to have happening in Sri Lanka. And Russia is one country that the Rajapaksa regime would be hoping to rely on to prevent northern Jaffna becoming a South Asian Crimea. But what Russia is doing in Crimea is almost a casual demonstration of the fulfillment of separatist aspirations, on the one hand, and an inconsiderate frustration of the textbook expectations of national sovereignty and security – in a country called Ukraine. At one point, Russia even invoked R2P of all things to justify its army getting out on the streets of Crimea, exercising its ‘Responsibility to Protect’ the Russians who are a minority in Ukraine but a majority within Crimea. Shoved virtually to the sidelines, notwithstanding all the puffed up rhetoric about diplomatic isolation and economic retaliation, are the West and the NATO – the flagship defenders of R2P and occasional promoters of separatist aspirations. Tough luck (more like, up yours), says Putin, grandson of Lenin’s cook, PhD in resource economics, possessed of his own – rather manic – sense of Great Russian history, and reinforced by KGB training.
Let us shift focus to Geneva, where the shoes are reversed and even mixed up. While Crimea exploded out of nowhere in the last fortnight, Geneva has been the stage for a slow moving drama (with year-long Acts and half-yearly Scenes) of undramatic resolutions that never rise up to the worst fears of the Rajapaksa regime or the best expectations of the diaspora groups. And in Geneva, it is the West that stands accused, by Russia among others, of trying to unnecessarily meddle in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. But the West’s alleged meddling in Sri Lanka is nowhere near what Russia is doing in Ukraine. The leaked draft resolution for this month’s UNHRC meeting is mostly incremental ‘muddling through’ from last year’s resolution. The draft changes are more about acknowledging developments in the past year than about radical action items for next year. Yet, the changes are enough to worry the Rajapaksa regime because the annual agony has started to sap the regime’s energy so much so there could be fatigue failure even without a regime change.
Where is India?
What about India? India has played both sides in Geneva, displeasing the diaspora first and angering the Rajapaksa government later. India played wordsmith to the 2012 resolution famously, or infamously, adding the qualifying words “in consultation with and with the concurrence of the government of Sri Lanka” to the mandate given to the Office of the High Commissioner. Those words have been struck out in the leaked draft resolution for 2013. But on Crimea, India reportedly is the only major country “appearing to publicly lean towards” Russia at a time of overall lack of open support barring of course Syria’s Assad. Even China is cagey. While advocating peaceful resolution of the conflict, National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon has spoken of Russia’s “legitimate interests” in Ukraine provoking protestations from the Ukrainian Embassy in Delhi.
Sri Lankan ‘readers’ of international affairs will obviously be interested in India’s stance on Crimea because geographical comparisons are unavoidable even if they are farfetched. In a scenario of Jaffna becoming Crimea, the cloak of Russia will fall on India. Lo and behold, one would hope that Chief Minister Wigneswaran would be able to forestall any lunatic effort in the Northern Provincial Council to copycat the resolution of the Crimean parliament to call for a referendum to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. But history teaches us that political lunacy cannot be ruled out any time, especially in election time and that too in India. Ukraine and Crimea are not going to bother the voting masses of India who seem sufficiently fed up with the Congress dynasty and necessarily want change even if that change would bring the anti-Muslim Merchant from Gujarat to the Central Government in Delhi. But foreign policy will be election fodder for India’s chattering classes and we can stay tuned to hear what the BJP and the actors in Tamil Nadu have to say about Russia and Crimea. All of which will be over-read and over-analyzed by Sri Lankan and diaspora ‘readers.’
And the Muslims
Adding to the complexity of comparisons but forgotten in the Russian-Ukrainian debate are the Crimean Tatars who have as much, if not more, claim to the peninsula as the Slavs, be they Russians or Ukrainians. The deportation of the Tatars out of Crimea began under the imperialist Tsars and ended with Stalin (the Georgian Communist who became the Russian patriot) who packed them off en masse to Siberia. To the Tatars, their land was colonized by the Russians after they were deported. The Tartars have been returning to Crimea after the collapse of the Soviet Union and are now uneasily sandwiched between the Ukrainians and the Russians. The Muslims in Sri Lanka can justifiably find their parallels in Crimea.
In an inexplicable show of annoyance, President Rajapaksa is reported to have lashed out at the SLMC leader, Justice Minister Rauf Hakeem, about the SLMC providing documented information to the UNHRCabout the attacks on Muslim and Christian places of worship by pro-government extremist groups. I say inexplicable because I have never seen any report about the President either publicly or privately taking to task the perpetrators of these attacks or their highly placed sponsors. To his credit, Mr. Hakeem is said to have held his ground saying that he has as much control over the SLMC as others have over the different constituent parties of the UPFA. Making a folksy point, he compared the President’s concern to the absurdity of trying to hide a pumpkin in a plate of rice. The President’s lashing out is even more inexplicable if he is serious about getting the support of the Muslim countries in Geneva. True to form, External Affairs Minister GL Peiris presented statistics in Geneva, which no one believes including the presenter, that the places of worship of all religions have come under attack and the attackers are being apprehended by the police. In other words, the government is protecting religious equality. More laughable is his now worn out argument that the fact that judges have been dealt with for their misdemeanors in accordance with the constitution should not be taken as an attack on the independence of the judiciary by the government.
Back to the future
What sense can one make by juxtaposing Crimea and Geneva? Together, in my view, Crimea and Geneva illustrate the limits or bounds beyond which diaspora separatism and the Rajapaksa regime cannot do much. Crimea is what diaspora separatism would love to have but cannot have, and Geneva is what the Rajapaksa regime would love to shake off but cannot shake off. But in politics, as in life, we never know enough about what we can do, and know even less about what we cannot do. So misplaced comparisons will be made and unrealistic expectations and paranoid overreactions will ensue as per usual. The prospect of the two sides drawing reverse lessons is my wishful thinking, but is unlikely.
In a broader sense, the showdown in Crimea is not merely a “Cold War redux”, but is also Europe going back to the nineteenth century. It was about an year before the outbreak of the celebrated 19th century Crimean War (1853-1856), that Marx famously corrected Hegel that all great world-historic facts and personages appear twice, but “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” And we have it again. The Crimean war itself was a bloody mid-century farce. It was brutal, but shadow boxing according to Marx and Engels. Even though their views were not widely known at that time, subsequent historians have confirmed their assessment. In the tragedy of that shadow, at least for the English speaking world, rose Florence Nightingale and modern nursing, as well as Tennyson’s versification of the “Charge of the Light Brigade”.
It was a war triggered by the fight over the control of the Holy Land between the Catholics led by France and Orthodox Christians led by Tsarist Russia. Russia lost to the combined forces lead by France and Britain. But the aftermath of the Crimean War led Europe into a new flux that saw the emergence of Bismarck’s Germany, the eventual outbreak of the First World War and the Russian Revolution itself. Today’s Crimean showdown is, on the one hand, a manifestation of one of the unfinished questions of the revolution, and, on the other a comeuppance for European machinations against Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.
The unfinished question is of course the national question. The Soviet Union did not fall to capitalism as one huge market but disintegrated along pre-existing fault lines of the Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians, Belorussians), the Balts (Latvians, Lithianians, Estonians), the Caucasians (Gerogians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis), and the Central Asians (Uzbecks, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Turkmenians, Kirgiz). Post-Soviet, the Europeans, especially through NATO, have been insensitively encircling what is left of the old Russia, through the former Warsaw countries and Soviet Republics. For Putin, Ukraine became the instance where Russia would draw the line, rather cross the line. His motives and methods are highly questionable, but comparisons to Hitler are outlandish.
Equally outlandish are comments that Putin is getting away as an international cowboy because there is a weak Sheriff in the White House. To his credit, President Obama knows more about what he cannot do than about what he can do. It is remarkable that Putin and Obama have been able to maintain contact through long phone conversations. It is even more remarkable that despite the tension, the Russian and Ukrainian soldiers and the people in Crimea have been able to maintain their calmness and interact peacefully with one another. As the wife of a Ukrainian soldier remarked that is what she would expect the leaders to do as well.