Syrian/Russian Airstrikes Kill 34 Turkish Soldiers in Idlib as Erdogan Tries to Invoke Article 4 of NATO; Tulsi Surrogate Debates Bernie Surrogate on Foreign Policy

Yesterday Turkish forces in the Idlib province of Syria, who have been attempting to stave off the defeat of Turkish-backed terrorist “rebels,” were killed as a result of airstrikes that have been officially blamed by Turkey on the Syrian government but may have involved the Russian air force. Newsweek reported the following:

Turkish Hatay province Governor Rahmi Dogan has announced that at least 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in airstrikes blamed on the Syrian government against their positions in the country’s northwestern province of Idlib. The count has risen steadily since an initial announcement of nine dead and more injured, some critically.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based monitor supportive of Syria’s exiled political opposition, first reported a death toll of up to 34 Turkish soldiers earlier Thursday in an area where both the Syrian and Russian air forces were highly active. The monitor did not assign responsibility for the strikes.

Erdogan has been talking tough about how he will spare no effort to stop the Syrian government from re-taking control of its own territory in Idlib, which it is feared would result in hundreds of thousands of additional refugees crossing into Turkey, among other problems. Scott Ritter reported yesterday for RT that Erdogan had consulted with NATO – invoking Article 4 – but seems to have had little success in getting the alliance on board to assist Turkey in Syria:

Turkey engaged NATO in Article 4 consultations, seeking help regarding the crisis in Syria. The meeting produced a statement from NATO condemning the actions of Russia and Syria and advocating for humanitarian assistance, but denying Turkey the assistance it sought.

The situation in Idlib province has reached crisis proportions. A months-long military offensive by the Syrian Army, supported by the Russian Air Force and pro-Iranian militias, had recaptured nearly one-third of the territory occupied by anti-Assad groups funded and armed by Turkey. In response, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dispatched thousands of Turkish soldiers, backed by thousands of pieces of military equipment, including tanks and armored vehicles, into Idlib to bolster his harried allies.

The result has been a disaster for Turkey, which has lost more than 50 soldiers and had scores more wounded due to Syrian air attacks. For its part, Russia has refrained from directly engaging Turkish forces, instead turning its attention to countering Turkish-backed militants. Faced with mounting casualties, Turkey turned to NATO for assistance, invoking Article 4 of the NATO charter, which allows members to request consultations whenever, in their opinion, their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened.

Among the foundational principles of the NATO alliance, most observers focus on Article 5, which declares that an attack against one member is an attack against all. However, throughout its 75-year history, Article 5 has been invoked only once – in the aftermath of 9/11 – resulting in joint air and maritime patrols, but no direct military confrontation. The wars that NATO has engaged in militarily, whether in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Libya or Iraq, have all been conducted under Article 4, when NATO made a collective decision to provide assistance in a situation that did not involve a direct military attack on one of its member states….

…The best Turkey could get from its Article 4 consultation, however, was a lukewarm statement by Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, condemning Syria and Russia while encouraging a diplomatic resolution to the fighting in Syria that focused on alleviating the unfolding humanitarian crisis regarding refugees. This is a far cry from the kind of concrete military support, such as the provision of Patriot air defense systems or NATO enforcement of a no-fly zone over Idlib, Turkey was hoping for.

Antiwar.com has also reported that comments out of Washington don’t seem to indicate much interest in direct military assistance to Turkey at this time:

US officials are making clear they aren’t considering joining the war in any real way. Defense Secretary Mark Esper in particular said that “I don’t see any likelihood that we would be back along the border.

In a failed effort to pressure the European nations to support Turkey’s continuing gambit in Syria, Erdogan decided to open up the Turkish border into Europe, namely Bulgaria and Greece, for 72 hours to allow Syrian refugees to head into the EU.

A telephone conversation took place between Erdogan and Putin in which the Kremlin confirmed that a meeting could take place in the near future but no date was given. Other than the airing of views between the two and an agreement to ” step up the corresponding interagency consultations and to examine the possibility of soon holding a meeting at the highest level,” nothing concrete was announced.

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Tulsi surrogate Niko House debates Bernie surrogate Ben Burgis on their respective candidates’ policies. The debate primarily focuses on foreign policy but some domestic policy is touched on as well.

Amid Direct Fighting Between Syrian Arab Army and Turkish Troops, Erdogan Announces He Will Meet with Putin, Merkel, & Macron in Early March; Follow Kevin Gosztola & Joe Lauria Reporting on Assange Extradition Hearing from London

Turkish troops have been engaged in direct fighting with Syrian Arab Army soldiers as the Assad government – with the help of the Russian air force – has endeavored to retake control of Idlib province, the last stronghold of foreign-backed terrorist “rebels” in Syria. Below is a video of journalist Aaron Mate interviewing former weapons inspector Scott Ritter on the current situation in Idlib.

In the midst of escalating clashes, Erdogan announced this past weekend that he has agreed to meet with Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Macron on March 5th regarding the situation in Syria. According to Politico:

Erdoğan did not say where the leaders would meet. Russia, Germany and France did not immediately confirm the meeting.

Merkel and Macron have expressed growing alarm about the situation in Idlib, where an escalation in fighting has displaced nearly 1 million people in recent weeks amid aerial bombing by Syrian regime forces and their Russian allies.

The two leaders also took time out from an extraordinary leaders’ summit on the EU budget this week to hold phone calls with Putin and Erdoğan about the situation in Syria.

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The extradition hearing to determine whether Julian Assange will be handed over to the United States from the UK to face charges under the Espionage Act, began this past Monday. One of the best places to get updates from the hearing in London is from journalist Kevin Gosztola. His Twitter thread live from the Monday’s hearing can be found here:

This is a thread for Day 1 of Julian Assange’s one-week extradition hearing. Prosecutor (unsure of name at moment) has started opening argument and emphasizes there have been “misstatements of the charges against him.”

Prosecutor: First charge is “straightforward criminality and a conspiracy to steal and hack into Department of Defense computer system. This is an ordinary criminal charge and any person, journalist, or source, who tried to gain unauthorized access to computer system is guilty.”

Prosecutor: “Reporting our journalism is not an excuse for criminality.” “True in the United Kingdom as it is in the United States of America”

Prosecutor says they are not criminalizing the publication of classified materials but rather the publication of names of informants or dissidents who help the US and allies in military operations

James Lewis QC suggests identities revealed in documents were all individuals who passed information about countries, specifically Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran

James Lewis QC said Assange is raising abuses of process to “deflect from his criminal behavior” and those issues can be dealt with once he is “returned” to the United States

James Lewis QC states Assange knew publishing documents to the internet would be so damaging to security and intel services in United States and damaging to armed forces, as well as US interests.

James Lewis QC is essentially reciting summary of Chelsea Manning’s trial, which I’m not going to bother to share details from unless he says something we didn’t hear in 2013 during her trial. But all her conduct is being recited because US is prosecuting as conspiracy case

Much of this is recycled, and crucially, James Lewis QC shares details about the digital media found in Bin Laden’s compound in Abottabad which was a sensational piece of evidence in Manning’s trial to argue she aided the enemy. Manning was acquitted of that charge

You can follow his reporting at Shadowproof.com.

Joe Lauria of Consortium News is also reporting directly from London. An excerpt from his report on the second day of the trial in which the defense responded to assertions made by the prosecution:

Assange attorney Mark Summers revealed that Assange’s supposed attempt to help Manning “hack” a government computer for secret documents was actually an attempt to help her crack a password to  download video games, movies and music videos, forbidden on military computers.

Summers says Manning had legal access to classified material and did not need a user name or a password to get into the database.   The Espionage Act indictment says Assange helped Manning sign in under an administrator’s password in order to help get secrets, not the latest video game.

The U.S. government’s case is based on “lies, lies and more lies,” Summers told the court.  Summers said that there’s no evidence Manning ever saw WikiLeak‘s wish list, and she provided material that wasn’t asked for. Manning gave WikiLeaks the U.S. Rules of Engagement in Iraq to show that the Collateral Murder video had violated those rules, not because Assange had asked for it, Summers said. 

It is difficult to understand how a journalist asking sources to provide the information, even classified information, can be construed as a crime. 

Summers also gave a detailed explanation about why the government’s assertion that Assange had endangered the lives of U.S. informants was false.   He explained that Assange had instituted a Harm Mitigation Program to redact the names of informants and other people that might be at risk, a program so stringent that David Leigh of The Guardian complained to Der Spiegel, two publications partnering with WikiLeaks, that too much time was being wasted. 

Spiegel journalist said it was the [most] extreme measures he had ever experienced. Summers also told the court that The Guardian was responsible for publishing the password for the encrypted, un-redacted State Department cables that WikiLeaks and its media partners were slowly and carefully running out. When The Guardian made the entire archive available, Assange called the State Department to warn them.    

Read more here.

Survey: Afghans Want U.S. Troops to Leave; Why Afghans Fight; IG Report Reveals Thousands of Afghans Killed as Result of “Reconstruction”

U.S. Troops in Afghanistan (Reuters)

As we keep hearing reports of a possible withdrawal agreement with the Taliban being imminent, it’s a good time to take note of a few facts about the U.S. military presence in that country and its effects.

At the end of 2019, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft reported on the Asia Foundation’s periodic Survey of the Afghan People. Unsurprisingly, Afghans want U.S. forces to leave their country and fear them as much as the Taliban:

Foreign military occupations are known to increase resentment among the local population. After 18 years of war, Afghans experience similar levels of fear when encountering American-led international forces as they do Taliban forces. At the same time, they are increasingly optimistic about the prospects for peace but don’t see the foreign forces as important to that process, according to the latest iteration of the Asia Foundation’s Survey of the Afghan People. For the United States, this raises serious questions about the utility of its continued military presence in Afghanistan.

The intent of the survey is to gauge the opinions of the Afghan people over time and provide useful data for policymakers and stakeholders. This year’s survey conducted in-person interviews with over 17,000 Afghans in all 34 provinces from July 11  to August 7 of 2019. Significantly, this year’s survey included, for the first time, questions related to the ongoing negotiations with the Taliban. An overwhelming majority of the Afghan people support the negotiations (89.0 percent)….

…Afghans have been asked over the past few years how fearful they would be when encountering various security forces. When taken as an average score, Afghans experience similar fear when encountering both Taliban forces and international forces. The Taliban have sympathy from only about 13 percent of the population according to this year’s survey and target civilians as a deliberate strategy, and yet, Afghans still fear foreign forces at near similar levels.

As Nichols J. Davies recently wrote in an article in which he compiled published reports of why Afghans join the fighting in the conflict – whether its on behalf of the government forces, the Taliban or other militias. The reasons, it turns out are similar in all of the military conflicts in which the U.S. has current involvement:

Afghan government troops and police who are suffering the worst casualties on the front lines of this war told the BBC they are not fighting out of hatred for the Taliban or loyalty to the U.S.-backed government, but out of poverty, desperation and self-preservation. In this respect, they are caught in the same excruciating predicament as millions of other people across the greater Middle East wherever the United States has turned people’s homes and communities into American “battlefields.”

In Afghanistan, U.S.-trained special operations forces conduct “hunt and kill” night raids and offensive operations in Taliban-held territory, backed by devastating US airpower that kills largely uncounted numbers of resistance fighters and civilians. The US dropped a post-2001 record 7,423 bombs and missiles on Afghanistan in 2019.

But as BBC reporter Nanamou Steffensen explained (listen here, from 11:40 to 16:50), it is lightly-armed rank-and-file Afghan soldiers and police at checkpoints and small defensive outposts across the country, not the U.S.-backed elite special operations forces, who suffer the most appalling level of casualties. President Ghani revealed in January 2019 that over 45,000 Afghan troops had been killed since he took office in September 2014, and by all accounts 2019 was even deadlier.

Steffensen traveled around Afghanistan talking to Afghan soldiers and police at the checkpoints and small outposts that are the vulnerable front line of the US war against the Taliban. The troops Steffensen spoke to told her they only enlisted in the army or police because they couldn’t find any other work, and that they received only one month’s training in the use of an AK-47 and an RPG before being sent to the front lines. Most are dressed only in t-shirts and slippers or traditional Afghan clothing, although a few sport bits and pieces of body armor. They live in constant fear, “expecting to be overrun at any moment.” One policeman told Steffensen, “They don’t care about us. That’s why so many of us die. It’s up to us to fight or get killed, that’s all.”

…In the final interview in Steffensen’s report, a policeman at a checkpoint for vehicles approaching Wardak town from Taliban-held territory questioned the very purpose of the war. He told her, “We Muslims are all brothers. We don’t have a problem with each other.” “Then why are you fighting?” she asked him. He hesitated, laughed nervously and shook his head in a resigned manner. “You know why. I know why. It’s not really our fight,” he said.

The attitudes of the Afghan troops Steffensen interviewed are shared by people fighting on both sides of America’s wars. Across the “arc of instability” that now stretches five thousand miles from Afghanistan to Mali and beyond, US”regime change” and “counterterrorism” wars have turned millions of people’s homes and communities into American “battlefields.” Like the Afghan recruits Steffensen spoke to, desperate people have joined armed groups on all sides, but for reasons that have little to do with ideology, religion or the sinister motivations assumed by Western politicians and pundits.

….In 2015, the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), interviewed 250 combatants from Bosnia, Palestine (Gaza), Libya and Somalia, and published the results in a report titled The People’s Perspectives: Civilians in Armed Conflict. The researchers found that, “The most common motivation for involvement, described by interviewees in all four case studies, was the protection of self or family.”

In 2017, the UN Development Program (UNDP) conducted a similar survey of 500 people who joined Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab and other armed groups in Africa. The UNDP’s report was titled Journey To Extremism in Africa: Drivers, Incentives and the Tipping-Point for Recruitment. Its findings confirmed those of other studies, and the combatants’ responses on the precise “tipping-point” for recruitment were especially enlightening.

“A striking 71%,” the report found, “pointed to ‘government action’, including ‘killing of a family member or friend’ or ‘arrest of a family member or friend’, as the incident that prompted them to join.” The UNDP concluded, “State security-actor conduct is revealed as a prominent accelerant of recruitment, rather than the reverse.”

Read the complete article here.

Meanwhile, a recent report by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) revealed that not only has little actual reconstruction occurred in the country considering the amount of money provided by U.S. taxpayers, but thousands have been killed and wounded as a result of the project:

2,214 people were killed overall, 216 of them American soldiers and 68 others American civilians. 2,921 others were wounded, and 1,182 ominously just “went missing.” This is again, for the sake of a reconstruction which mostly didn’t happen, and failed even where things weren’t built.

SIGAR John Sopko was asked to put a letter grade on the US reconstruction effort, and said he believes even a D- would be too high for it. He added that the US got credit for attendance and that was it.

It seems safe to say that the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has been an unmitigated failure and it’s way past time for us to leave.

Update on Status of Book

St. Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow; photo by Natylie Baldwin, Oct. 2015

I wanted to give readers a status update on my forthcoming book, The View from Moscow: Understanding Russia and U.S.-Russia Relations. The manuscript is in the process of being professionally copy edited. That should be completed by the end of this month and then work on book cover design and conversion will begin in March.

I will, of course, send out another update when I have a publication date and a pre-order page live on Amazon.

Thank you to everyone who has helped with financial contributions, beta reading, and those who keep reading and sharing my blog posts/articles. As some of you may have noticed, the number of subscribers here has doubled over the past year.

I was also asked to do my first video interview a couple of weeks ago by Julia Dudnik of Russland – a YouTube channel dedicated to news and analysis of Russia for a German audience. I discussed the basis for hostility toward Russia in U.S. foreign policy – including the Wolfowitz Doctrine and Brzezinski’s Grand Chessboard, the Clinton machine’s 2016 electoral loss and subsequent Russiagate hysteria, and Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric versus his actions. It was a bit nerve-racking since it was my first on-camera interview and I think I was a bit weak on the last question I was asked, but I think overall it went fairly well.

I have another YouTube interview tentatively scheduled for April. More details about that to come…

Poll: Many Citizens of NATO Countries Actually Don’t Want to Abide by Mutual Defense Clause in Conflict Against Russia


We’re constantly hearing U.S. politicians crow about NATO being so essential and how Trump was an apostate for even suggesting during one of his transitory moments of lucidity some time back that maybe NATO was no longer necessary. You’ve heard this shibboleth trotted out several times during the Democratic primary debates. It would be unthinkable to question NATO and the U.S. commitment to it – all for one and one for all – especially in light of that dastardly Putin who’s just waiting for the right moment to swallow up the Baltics, Poland, Germany, France and maybe the eastern seaboard of the United States for dessert.

But how do many in Europe feel – the ones who would be most affected by a potential NATO conflict, especially with Russia? Well, as it turns out, according to a recent Pew Center Poll, many of them are not so gung-ho on that little detail known as Article 5 or the mutual security clause that states an attack on one is an attack on all. In other words, all NATO members are potentially obligated to jump into the fray if Russia and any other NATO member were to somehow end up in a military conflict. The Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity reported:

Pew Research Center poll results released Sunday indicate that the majority or plurality of people in 11 of 16 NATO countries where individuals were questioned oppose their respective governments meeting this commitment, at least if the military adversary were Russia…

…When asked if their respective countries’ governments should use military force to defend a NATO ally country neighboring Russia with which “Russia got into a serious military conflict,” people living in the 16 NATO countries tended to answer in the negative. “No” was the answer for the majority of polled individuals in eight countries – France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Turkey. In three more NATO countries – the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland – a plurality rejected military intervention. Only in five countries – the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Lithuania – did more people (a majority in each case) support such military intervention than reject it.

For those of you who may have been surprised to see Poland included in the countries who had a significant percentage of their population showing skepticism of abiding by Article 5 in a conflict against Russia, there are even people in the Polish political class who are questioning the wisdom of continuing to nurse historical grievances rather than attempting a modus vivendi.

Earlier this month, ex-Polish president Lech Walesa – who lobbied for Poland to be included in NATO in the 1990’s – admitted that it’s time for Poland and Russia to work to bridge their differences, acknowledging that neither country can escape geography:

It is imperative for Warsaw and Moscow to improve relations, outlive the troubled past and move forward, ex-president of Poland Lech Walesa has said, adding that only a “third party” benefits from the discord.

While the relationship between Poland and Russia wasn’t particularly warm throughout recent decades, it can be unfrozen if both sides do their part, Walesa told Russia’s Sobesednik weekly.

“Even now, these relations can be made good,” the former president said.

When we quarrel, only third parties win. Warsaw was always closer to Moscow than to Washington.

As I explained in a previous post, Russia has no desire to invade or occupy other countries in Europe. It simply wants its security interests to be respected. Any further expansion of NATO should be publicly and officially taken off the table and the U.S. should gradually draw down on its military engagements and entanglements. No, I’m not arguing for isolationism – economic and diplomatic engagement with the world is fine, but militarism is not. There’s absolutely no justification for any country in the world needing 700 or more military bases throughout the planet. Given our geography and our nuclear arsenal, the U.S. is not going to be invaded.

Graham Allison in a recent article for Foreign Affairs said what many observers have noted for a while now – the U.S.’s moment in the sun of being the lone superpower is over:

“Unipolarity is over … For the United States, that will require accepting the reality that there are spheres of influence in the world today—and that not all of them are American spheres. … Yet because many U.S. analysts and policymakers still cling to images of China and Russia formed during this bygone era, their views about what the United States should and should not do continues to reflect a world that has vanished.”

Russia is a major power on the other side of the world that has interests that are not going to be the same as the U.S. Indeed, no two countries’ interests are ever identical. Challenges will come up in relations between countries, especially those who are or perceive themselves to be major powers. Russia will likely be a competitor of the United States for the foreseeable future. But a competitor does not have to be an enemy.

Serious and sustained multilateral diplomacy can lead to a new security architecture in Europe that does not require Russia to be an enemy and does not require the U.S. to play big daddy. Putin proposed an outline that can be used as a starting point for this years ago but was rebuffed out of hand. More recently, he has called for the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council – all major nuclear powers – to hold a summit to cooperate on peace and other pressing global issues. France 24 reported on the proposal last month:

Speaking in Jerusalem at an event marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Putin argued that the countries that created a new global order after World War II should cooperate to solve today’s problems.

“The founder countries of the United Nations, the five states that hold special responsibility to save civilisation, can and must be an example,” he said at the sombre memorial ceremony.

The meeting would “play a great role in searching for collective answers to modern challenges and threats,” Putin said, adding that Russia was “ready for such a serious conversation.”

Putin suggested war-torn Libya could be on the agenda, following recent peace talks in Moscow and Berlin.

To date, China and France have shown interest in a possible meeting in September at the UN General Assembly, but the US and UK have yet to respond.



From the Vault: Iran – Axis of Culture, History and Geopolitics

This is an article I wrote in May of 2005 about Iran. It was originally published by Newtopia Magazine, which is now defunct. I’m publishing it here so that it has a home on the web and for whatever value readers may still derive from it 15 years later. – Natylie

The strong independent spirit of the Iranian people stems from a long history of imperial powers exerting their hegemony directly or using the nation as a pawn in a series of rivalries, namely the Great Game between Russian and Britain in the 19th century, the Cold War in the 20th, and the newly intensified petro-politics of the 21st. Americans would be well-advised to look into the Iranian past if they think that the Neocons will be able to succeed where other imperialists have failed.

When I first viewed photos of the breathtaking images of the detailed rock carvings at the tomb of Xerxes near the ancient Persian capital of Persepolis, along with the Zoroastrian fire temple, I wondered how many in the U.S. had any idea about this part of the rich and complex narrative of a civilization that in ancient times reached a cultural level comparable to that of Greece, Rome or Egypt. Within the psychological landscape of most Americans, Iran is a distant place filled with strident Khomeini worshippers and women in chadors, remembered most for a frenzied band of zealots who held the U.S. embassy staff hostage over some little understood animosity towards the shah – a man that the U.S. media, throughout most of his brutal reign, depicted with warmth (1).

More recently, anxious post-911 Americans were told by their president that Iran belongs to an ominous triumvirate of evil nations. Seymour Hersh (2) and Scott Ritter (3) both claim to have scuttlebutt from inside sources that the U.S. is planning a military attack on Iran.

Many analysts point out that such an attack would not be feasible due to a shortage of U.S. military personnel, Iran’s possession of the dreaded Sunburn missile(4), and the slim chance that Vladimir Putin would simply stand by while a neighbor with such geo-strategic significance is invaded. Therefore, there is speculation that the Bush administration’s saber-rattling is just bluster to get Iran to take negotiations more seriously regarding its nuclear program.

This might be reassuring except that the past words and deeds of Neoconservatives do not indicate that they have been blessed with an overabundance of rationality or a sense of limitations. Added to this volatile mix is the very real likelihood that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons as what it logically perceives to be the only possible deterrent to a declared hostile superpower that militarily occupies Iraq to the west and Afghanistan to the east, with numerous bases in the Caspian region to the north. Iranians across the political spectrum support such a nuclear program in the interests of maintaining their independence as a nation free of foreign domination (5).

The strong independent spirit of the Iranian people stems from a long history of imperial powers exerting their hegemony directly or using the nation as a pawn in a series of rivalries, namely the Great Game between Russian and Britain in the 19th century, the Cold War in the 20th, and the newly intensified petro-politics of the 21st. Americans would be well-advised to look into the Iranian past if they think that the Neocons will be able to succeed where other imperialists have failed.

The ancient Persian civilization reached its peak under the leadership of Cyrus the Great who united the various tribes and ethnicities stretching back from the Indus Valley to Egypt, and chose Persepolis as his capital in the 5th century B.C. (6). Cyrus understood that humane rule was the simplest way to maintain loyalty. He preferred persuasion and negotiation over force, never humiliated the vanquished, and allowed his subjects freedom of worship. Cyrus also had genuine respect for the amalgamation of Aryan and Sumerian-derived influences that was Persian culture.

Owing to Persia’s unique geographical realities, tribes within the Iranian plateau were historically vulnerable to invasions and had developed loose confederations for protection. However, experience soon demonstrated that a strong and charismatic leader was needed to bridge internal rivalries. Moreover, in the transition from nomadism to agricultural settlements, a spiritual philosophy called Zoroastrianism had emerged in the 6th century B.C. as an ethical guide for resource distribution (6).

Zoroastrianism stressed compliance with a code of just behavior, the origin of the just ruler concept that has been such a strong force throughout Iranian history up to the present. It is this tradition that made the Persians receptive to Islam with its strong emphasis on social justice hundreds of years later (6).

More authoritarian leaders like Xerxes and Darius were less effective at holding alliances. By the time of Darius III, the areas proximate to Greece had shed any loyalty to the Persian Empire, which contributed to Alexander the Great’s defeat of the Persians in battle.

By 208 A.D., with the Iranian plateau’s north and south reunited, the tradition of Cyrus was revived in the Sassanian dynasty. Persian culture enjoyed a renaissance with the emergence of such cultural trademarks as the architectural dome and vault, carpet-making and miniature painting. But Persia again descended into political and spiritual stagnation when the Sassanians sanctioned religion as a means of consolidating power (6).

By the 7th century, the Persians were ready to embrace the message of Muhammad but considered their sophisticated culture superior to that of the tribal Arabs. The Arab incursion occurred at a time of major controversy within Islam regarding the legitimate successor to Muhammad. Ali, a blood relative to Muhammad as well as his first convert, was passed over in favor of Abu Bakr. After Bakr’s death, a series of successors from the aristocratic Umayyad class conquered territory by force while Ali, a quiet and humble preacher of justice and egalitarianism, developed a significant following (Shia Ali). After Ali’s death, his son, Hussein, continued to advocate the Shia viewpoint and confronted a massive Umayyad army with only 72, all duly massacred (6) (7). The anniversary of his martyrdom is still mourned with profound emotion through passion plays (ta’ziyeh), mostly among the popular classes, as it resonates with the grief and injustice many have experienced (1).

Other invasions occurred in later centuries, the most devastating of which was carried out by the Mongols, notorious for their organized butchery. In response to Mongol brutality, Persians retreated into the fatalistic mysticism of the Sufi order, an apolitical group under the tutelage of Safi-al Din of the Safavids renowned for his boundless generosity to the poor. Over the centuries, Sufism was transformed into a political force and gained a following among the tribal Turkomans who mobilized an army in its name. During this time the Persian Empire expanded under a brand of Sufi-influenced Shiism but was eventually defeated by the Ottoman Turks in 1514, taking the northwestern territory inhabited by the Turkoman tribes. The most enduring legacy of this period was the continued spread of Shiism which claimed 95% of the population by the 18th century (6).

By the 19th century, the Persians were caught in conflict between imperial Britain and czarist Russia. Conflicts with Russia mostly took the form of border disputes while Britain, a more advanced industrial power, began dumping cheaply manufactured exports in Persia, which destroyed many local farmers, artisans and bazaaris, although a handful benefited from an increase in demand for raw materials to the west. By century’s end, most land was owned by absentee landowners and cultivated by sharecroppers whose produce was typically exported to the west (1).

The reigning Qajar dynasty. comprised of the shah, his court and regional treasurers, collected revenue mostly from the poor peasant majority. Due to lack of centralized control, the ulama (clergy) provided hospitals, schools and other social infrastructure. Sustained popular agitation resulting from increased government debt to foreign powers, extravagant personal expenditures by the shah and corresponding economic hardships on the majority, led to reform demands from the ulama. The central demand involved the establishment of what would become the Iranian parliament, or Majles.

Subsequent negotiations for drafting a constitution, however, proved problematic.

Secular reformers framed their arguments in terms that the average Persian could not relate to, while the ulama invoked popular religious rhetoric. The resulting constitution only vaguely addressed reforms with any potential to limit the ulama’s influence, and failed to limit the shah’s authority. By 1911, the constitutional movement was dead due to ineffectiveness, desertion by the ulama and the intervention of outside powers (1) (6).

At the end of WWI, most of Iran was under the control of the British. Its economy was in shambles and food scarce while separatist movements flared. A military commander named Reza Khan staged a British backed coup. He focused on building and maintaining a strong army in order to minimize foreign dominance and ensure security. He suppressed rebellions, centralized government control and embarked on an intensive modernization program, reasoning that to compete with and subdue the west, Persia had to emulate its ways. He viewed Islam as an obstacle to modernization, and glorified pre-Islamic Persia. Reza was declared shah in 1925 and took the name Pahlavi. Meanwhile, the ulama fumed under increasing marginalization (1) (6).

The shah’s downfall was precipitated by his support of the Nazis. Britain and Russia demanded that the shah expel the Germans and then marched into Iran, forcing the recalcitrant shah’s abdication and accession of his son, Muhammad Reza Shah. Social and economic discontent deepened due to war-related destruction and Reza Shah’s continued influence in the Majles. Little opportunity for meaningful redress existed, however, as British and American interests dug in for oil (1).

During WWII, Britain had enjoyed monopoly concession rights to Iran’s oil through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) (1). When Muhammad Mossedeq, a populist leader of the National Front coalition, spearheaded passage of a bill in the majles – which, by this time had weakened the shah’s authority – to nationalize Iran’s oil in 1951, Mossadeq’s popularity soared, leading him to victory as prime minister the following month (8).

With British and American support, Mossadeq was eventually pushed from power and Muhammad Shah reinstalled. The coup likely would have been impossible if Mossadeq had succeeded in taking control of the military (8) (1). Many Iranians still view Mossadeq as a national and democratic hero and wonder what Iran might be like today had he remained in office (9).

With strong U.S. support, the shah’s reign in the 1960’s and 70’s was characterized by a rise in GNP driven by oil, massive corruption, and increased socioeconomic dislocation for most Iranians. Many of the shah’s development policies reflected western methods that were inappropriate to Iran’s conditions but benefited a few Iranian elites and U.S. corporations. The result was mass exodus to urban areas that were largely unprepared for the influx. Urban workers faced inflation, low wages, shortages of essential goods and insufficient productive investment (1).

This period was also marked by evermore repressive political tactics via SAVAK, the shah’s secret police, trained by the CIA and Mossad (1). The brutality of the shah’s Iran by 1976 was described in an Amnesty International report as “[having] the highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture which is beyond belief. No country in the world has a worse record in human rights than Iran” (8).

By the late 1970’s, the confluence of economic grievances, extreme political repression and outside influences united the various groups within Iran with the common goal of ousting the shah. These included nationalists, leftists and Islamists, though the Islamists were the only group with limited ability to express opposition (1) (10). The human rights rhetoric of the Carter administration provided some transitory cover for the dissidents who disseminated petitions in Iran in 1977. The shah initially made some minor concessions because he was uncertain as to how serious the U.S. administration was about human rights. He subsequently realized that as long as Iran played ball on oil, the U.S. would sweep human rights issues under the rug (1).

As organized opposition against the shah’s regime reached a critical mass, the State Department began attempts to contact the more moderate elements in order to stave off the possibility of a more stridently anti-U.S. replacement, to little avail (1).

As an Iranian blogger in Tehran known as The Brooding Persian stated, “As revolutions go, the overthrow of the monarchy was relatively painless. But what happened afterwards was a killer. I was enthusiastic about the revolution though didn’t much care for the Ayatollah from day one. I never thought of it as his revolution” (11). Any revolutionary coalition with so many different groups with various perceptions of self-interest will have post-revolution jockeying for power. The group(s) who are the most willing to rout out their competitors with any means necessary are typically the ones who prevail (9).

Ayatollah Khomeini spoke out against Reza Shah in an early book called Secrets Exposed wherein he outlined the blueprint for an Islamic government ruled by mujtahids – or educated members of the clergy just below an ayatollah. To Khomeini the majles was simply an instrument of western imposition and only mujtahids could be trusted to govern with sufficient piousness.

Khomeini’s following increased from 1961 – 1963, during which he renewed criticism against Muhammad Shah’s regime. He was arrested several times and eventually exiled. He subsequently wrote another book, Islamic Government, which expanded on his earlier writings and articulated three points: 1) monarchy is to be unequivocally condemned, 2) legitimate authority comes only from Islamic jurists who interpret the Quran and Traditions (hadith), and 3) Islam must be vigilant against corruption from within and without (1) (7). Of the several influential ayatollahs of the revolution, including Third World Movement anti-colonialist Ali Shariati, Khomeini was the most enduring and extreme.

When the overthrow of the shah had been completed, Khomeini – as the uncompromising revolutionary leader in absentia – was flown into Tehran from Paris to take the reins. Despite promises to National Front leaders in the revolutionary coalition, Khomeini refused to place any democratic language in either the name of the new republic or in the constitution (1). Khomeini forcefully suppressed competing parties, maintained the secret police and cemented his powers by purging universities of all leftists, destroying grassroots workers’ councils, and personally appointing local clergy who led Friday prayers (1).

Afshin Matin-Asgari, a participant in the 1979 revolution, now a professor at Cal State Los Angeles, observed the revolution heading in a troubling direction even before the shah’s overthrow but believes that the shah’s repressive regime is to blame for creating conditions in which only the most reactionary elements could emerge as a viable alternative, “In retrospect, I think the revolution’s balance has been negative [but] that does not mean thinking that the Shah’s regime was a good thing” (12).

Life under Khomeini was one of general economic stagnation and draconian controls on personal behavior, justified by extreme religious interpretation, enforced by fundamentalist vigilantes (1) (9). There were, however, some advancements in the areas of education and health, especially in the provinces. War with Iraq from 1980 to 1988- in which the U.S. sided with Saddam Hussain’s Iraq – unified Iranians and diverted attention away from internal problems.

The end of the war and Khomeini’s death the following year allowed for some debate among the top ulama, though Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Khameini, was hardly more liberal. President Rafsanjani followed the wishes of Khameni and implemented more privatization, deregulation and free-trade style policies (1). Frustration among Iranians in general continued to build as many felt that, in addition to a war that had required huge sacrifices, the revolution had not lived up to its promise of justice (10) (11).

In 1997, a burgeoning Reform Movement channeled frustration into action as the Iranian people voted for Muhammad Khatami as president over Khameini’s favored candidate. Khatami was a quiet intellectual who, as cultural minister, had eased censorship and advocated reconciliation between Islam and liberal democracy, the rule of law, political rights for women and minorities, equitable economic development and a moderate foreign policy (14).

Khatami, however, has been limited in what he can accomplish, due mainly to the Khomeinist Guardian Council, consisting of twelve Islamic jurists, six appointed directly by the Supreme Leader and six nominated by a judiciary controlled by the ulama. The Guardian Council has ultimate veto power over any legislation by the majles it deems in conflict with Islam. The Guardian Council can also vet candidates for office and has recently disqualified thousands of reformists from running (13).

The Reform Movement is another complex coalition of left-leaning clerics and various secular progressives. As Iranian economist and self-described anti-imperialist/Marxist/Feminist Simin Royanian points out: “Today’s ‘Democracy and Liberalization’ movement in the jargon of the western powers, especially the U.S. government, means trade and market liberalization” (10).

Iranian political observers have broken down the Reform Movement into six general streams ranging from hard-left – or unionists and revolutionaries, to more right-wing reformers consisting of the upper middle class who favor a top-down free market reform package that protects their gains, along with some political liberalization (14) (15). Many of the reformers do not support economic liberalization policies, but actively support stronger unionization, higher wages and social welfare protections for women and children (10). A student protest at Tehran University that turned violent in June of 2003 was in response to a proposed privatization plan (16).

With the failure of Khatami to implement significant reforms, much of the Iranian population, including reform supporters, is disillusioned. Youth comprise a large percentage of the population and show signs of increasing depression and alienation. Drug use, immediate self-gratification and consumerism are on the rise (1) (17).

Afshin Molavi, an Iranian-American journalist who chronicled his journey through Iran in a 2003 book, Persian Pilgrimages, encountered two recurring complaints: lack of economic opportunities and disgust with archaic religious policies. Many express ambivalent or even positive feeling towards the United States as a result of associating such negative conditions with the Islamic Revolutionary government free of foreign control. In a country where a despised regime espouses rhetoric of the U.S. as the Great Satan, sympathy toward the U.S. is one small expression of defiance (9).

If the U.S. were to attack Iran, however, any supportive sentiments would likely evaporate quickly (5) (11). Iranian human rights attorney and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Shirin Ebadi has argued persuasively how a military intervention would destroy Iran’s gradual march toward greater human rights by rallying newfound support to a regime that will opportunistically clamp down further (18). The point was echoed by Royanian, “When the gates [of reform] opened, there followed a flood, which continues today. If the U.S. intervenes, the gates will close” (10).

The Brooding Persian agreed: “I think what we need here is time and space to map out our own priorities. So my only solution for now is freedom, tolerance and space. Iranian encounters with the west in modern times have been problematic, something to look up to while also being fearful of. The west’s conduct in Iran has been less than exemplary – assorted intrigues and conspiracies and wars and coups. And you can’t reconstruct those memories away. Since a lot of people loath this regime so much, most are willing to forgive and forget…well, until the next round that is” (11).

References:

  1. Keddie, Nikki R. Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution. Yale University Press. New Haven, CT. 2003.
  2. The Coming Wars” by Seymour Hersh. The New Yorker. January 2005.
  3. Sleepwalking to Disaster in Iran” by Scott Ritter. Al Jazeera. March 30, 2005.
  4. “Iran: A Bridge Too Far?” by Frank Gaffney. Information Clearing House. October 26, 2004.
  5. The Iran Situation” by Ahmad Sadri and Foaad Khosmood. Zmag. February 20, 2005.
  6. Mackey, Sandra. The Iranians: Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation. Plume/Penguin Publishers. New York, NY. 1998.
  7. Esposito, John L. Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam. Oxford University Press. New York, NY. 2003.
  8. Blum, William. Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since WWII. Common Courage Press. Monroe, ME. 1995.
  9. Molavi, Afshin. Persian Pilgrimages: Journeys Across Iran. WW Norton and Company. New York, NY. 2003.
  10. Email correspondence with Simin Royanian, April 4, 2005.
  11. Email correspondence wit The Brooding Persian, April 10, 2005.
  12. Email correspondence with Professor Afshin Matin-Asgari, April 25, 2005.
  13. “Essential Background: Overview of Human Rights Issues in Iran” by Human Rights Watch. January 13, 2005.
  14. Protest and Regime Resistance in Iran” by Bijan Khajepour. Middle East Report Online. 12/11/02.
  15. The New Landscape of Iranian Politics” by Morad Saghafi. Middle East Report Online. Winter 2004.
  16. Iran Protest Rally at Student Dorm Turns Violent.” Payvand’s Iran News. June 13, 2003.
  17. “Another Link.” The Brooding Persian blog. February 5, 2005.
  18. The Human Rights Case Against Attacking Iran” by Shirin Ebadi. The New York Times. 2/8/05.

Brett Wilkins on the 75th Anniversary of the Firebombing of Dresden, Germany

View from Dresden city hall after the February 13-15, 1945 Allied bombing. (Photo: Deutsch Fotohek/Wikimedia Commons)

Tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of the Allied bombing of Dresden, Germany, which incinerated tens of thousands of people – the vast majority of them civilians – in the closing days of the war in Europe. Below is an article by Brett Wilkins about the bombing. – Natylie

The Beasts and the Bombings: Reflecting on Dresden, February 1945

The Dresden bombing shocked the world’s conscience.

The Allied destruction of Dresden wasn’t the biggest or deadliest aerial bombardment of a German city during World War II. But it is by far the most infamous, largely due to Kurt Vonnegut’s anti-war masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five. February 13 marks the 75th anniversary of what Vonnegut, who survived the bombing as a prisoner-of-war, called “carnage unfathomable.”

Butcher Harris and British Terror Bombing

By early 1945 the once-unstoppable German army was in retreat on all fronts. Its desperate last-ditch counteroffensives against the rapidly advancing Allied forces in the west—the Battle of the Bulge and Operation Baseplate—had failed, while in the east the Red Army rolled into German territory during the first Silesian Offensive. The time was right, British commanders argued, for large-scale aerial attacks on cities in eastern Germany that would aid the Soviet offensive and crush German morale.

Long before this time the British had implemented a policy of what they called “terror bombing,” or the total deliberate destruction of German cities, as a method of breaking the will of the German people to continue fighting. Waves of Royal Air Force (RAF) warplanes bombed densely populated cities under cover of night, abandoning any pretense of precision targeting and causing widespread, indiscriminate death and destruction. The chief of the RAF Bomber Command, Arthur “Bomber” Harris, declared his desire to visit “the horrors of fire” on the German people. Once Harris was pulled over by a British police officer for speeding in his black Bentley. “You could have killed someone,” the constable admonished him. “Young man,” the commander retorted, “I kill thousands of people every night.”

In 1943, Harris wrote that “the aim is the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers and the disruption of civilized life throughout Germany” while “downplaying the obliteration of German cities and their inhabitants.”

He wasn’t lying. Although the British government insisted that it was never its policy to target civilians, the truth was something altogether different. As Harris said after Luftwaffe bombers blitzed British cities, since the Germans had “sown the wind” they should “reap the whirlwind.” In 1943, Harris wrote that “the aim is the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers and the disruption of civilized life throughout Germany” while “downplaying the obliteration of German cities and their inhabitants.”

“Bomber” was indeed a fitting nickname for Harris, but his men had another one for him — “Butcher.” He lived up to the moniker. Around 50 German cities were subjected to horrific aerial bombardment, often with incendiary bombs designed to spark massive firestorms and maximize death, destruction and terror. In July 1943, some 45,000 civilians including 21,000 women and 8,000 children died during more than a week of relentless bombing in Hamburg. In February 1945 hundreds of Lancaster bombers leveled Pforzheim, killing nearly a third of the population. The list went on and on.

‘Fire, Only Fire’

Harris and other RAF commanders proposed simultaneous attacks on Berlin, Chemnitz, Dresden and Leipzig in the winter of 1945. Dresden, Germany’s seventh-largest city, was the largest urban area in the Third Reich that hadn’t yet been bombed. It had been spared from Allied attack because it was an important cultural city — known as the Jewel Box for its celebrated architecture — with relatively few significant military targets. It was a city of refuge, with 19 hospitals and more than a million refugees fleeing the horrors of the Red Army advance encamped there. They were drawn by Dresden’s reputation as a safe haven from the flames of war that had engulfed most of the rest of Germany, a reputation reinforced by the presence of some 25,000 Allied prisoners of war held in and around the city.

The first RAF warplanes approached the city after 9:30 p.m. on February 13. Some 200,000 incendiary bombs along with 500 tons of high-explosive munitions including two-ton “blockbuster” bombs were dropped during the initial raids, sparking thousands of fires that could be seen from 500 miles (800 km) away in the air. The heat generated by the inferno melted human flesh, turning many victims into piles of goop. Men, women, children, the sick, the elderly, refugees and Allied POWs and even the animals in the city zoo — all were incinerated together. The 2700º Fahrenheit (1480° C) firestorm sucked all the oxygen from the air; many thousands suffocated to death. Lothar Metzger, who was nine years old at the time, later recalled:

About 9:30 p.m. the alarm was given. We children knew that sound and… hurried downstairs into our cellar… My older sister and I carried my baby twin sisters, my mother carried a little suitcase and the bottles with milk for our babies. On the radio we heard with great horror the news: “Attention, a great air raid will come over our town!” … Some minutes later we heard a horrible noise — the bombers. There were nonstop explosions. Our cellar was filled with fire and smoke and was damaged, the lights went out and wounded people shouted dreadfully. In great fear we struggled to leave this cellar…

We did not recognize our street any more. Fire, only fire wherever we looked… It was beyond belief, worse than the blackest nightmare. So many people were horribly burnt and injured. It became more and more difficult to breathe… Inconceivable panic. Dead and dying people were trampled upon… cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burnt to death, burning people ran to and fro, burnt coaches filled with civilian refugees, dead rescuers and soldiers, many were calling and looking for their children and families, and fire everywhere, everywhere fire, and all the time the hot wind of the firestorm threw people back into the burning houses they were trying to escape from… The twins had disappeared… we never saw my two baby sisters again.

The following morning, a wave of more than 300 United States Army Air Force Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers pounded the survivors with over 700 tons of explosives. On February 15, US warplanes bombed the city’s southeastern suburbs, as well as the nearby towns of Meissen and Prina. By the time it was all over, some 25,000 men, women and children were dead and nearly 90 percent of the homes in central Dresden were obliterated. Many of the targets that could have been considered of military interest — a few factories, the railway system — remained relatively unscathed. Nazi military trains were chugging through the city again within three days of the bombing.

‘Are We Beasts?’

British and American officials insisted Dresden was chosen as a target because of its industrial and transportation infrastructure. This is only partially true. On the eve of the bombing, the Red Army was a mere 80 miles (130 km) from Dresden and the US and Britain, knowing that Europe would be carved up between themselves and the Soviets after the war, wanted to impress Stalin with a massive show of force. An RAF memo to airmen the night of the attack explained that “the intentions of the attack are to hit the enemy where he will feel it most” and “to show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do.” A few months later, the United States would wage the world’s first and only nuclear war, obliterating two Japanese cities and killing hundreds of thousands of their people, in what was partly yet another bid to shock and awe the Soviets.

The Dresden bombing shocked the world’s conscience. Churchill, not known for outpourings of compassion, was appalled by the savagery of the attack, calling it “an act of terror and wanton destruction.” After seeing photographs of the devastated city, the prime minister asked, “Are we beasts? Are we taking this too far?” In a top secret memo dated March 28, 1945, he wrote:

It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land.

Others defended the bombing. “Butcher” Harris acknowledged that “the destruction of so large and splendid a city at this late stage of the war was considered unnecessary even by a good many people who admit that our earlier attacks were fully justified.” However, he asserted that terror bombing would “shorten the war and preserve the lives of Allied soldiers.” Harris infamously added: “I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British grenadier.”

As many as 600,000 German civilians were killed by Allied bombing over the course of the war. Many of these victims died during the war’s final months, when Germany’s defeat was certain and such slaughter served no valid military purpose. And while the Nazis may have started the air war by bombing British cities, killing 14,000 civilians during the Blitz, the whirlwind they reaped—to paraphrase Harris—was so grossly disproportionate that it would forever stain the Allies’ self-righteous claims of having waged the “last good war.”

Brett Wilkins is a San Francisco-based freelance author and editor-at-large for US news at Digital Journal. His work, which focuses on issues of war and peace and human rights, is archived at www.brettwilkins.com.

Our work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License. Feel free to republish and share widely.

From the Archive: Hillary Clinton Admitted in 2009 Before Congress That U.S. Helped Fund Al Qaeda to Fight the Soviet Union; A Decade Earlier Brzezinski Admitted the U.S. Role Was Even Bigger

Recently Noam Chomsky tweeted out the video below of Hillary Clinton testifying before Congress in 2009 about how the U.S. – with the help of Pakistan – helped create, fund and train the jihadist fighters who became Al Qaeda in order to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

However, the U.S.’s role started even before Clinton acknowledges. President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, bragged in a 1998 interview with the French newspaper Le Nouvel Observateur that he had encouraged Carter to sign a secret order in 1979 to begin training and funding jihadists in Afghanistan. The purpose of the order was to lure the Soviet Union into invading – so it could have “its own Vietnam” quagmire. This was known as Operation Cyclone.

The Soviet-Afghan war is estimated to have killed around a million Afghans*.

Here are images from 1960’s era Afghanistan taken by an American college professor named Bill Podlich who was there at the time – before the horrors of the Taliban and other extremist jihadists were unleashed on behalf of Brzezinski’s wet dream of socking it to the Soviets:

See the full article with more images at My Modern Met.

The Atlantic also has a great photo-journal of this era here.

*Afghanistan:  Demographic Consequences of War, 1978-1987” by NA Khalidi.  Central Asian Survey, Volume 10, No. 3, pp. 101-126.  1991.

New PM Mishustin Enjoys 50% Approval as Russians are Split on Goal of Reforms, but Support Individual Proposals; Putin Continues Cleaning House – Dismisses Regional Governor for Humiliating Local Firefighter & Other Disturbing Behavior

A recent Levada Center poll shows that about half of Russians approve of the new PM Mikhail Mishustin. This reflects a clear improvement over Russians’ views of the former PM Dmitry Medvedev, according to BBC Monitoring:

The poll published on the Levada site on 30 January reported that some 48 per cent of respondents said they liked the “first activities” of Mishustin as prime minister. A further 37 per cent said they did not approve, and 15 per cent did not give an answer.

When asked the same question in December 2019 about the actions of then prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, 38 per cent of respondents said they approved and 61 per cent said they were not in favour.

The real test of Mishustin’s popularity will come over the next year or so during which Russians will be looking at their standard of living and pocketbooks. The Financial Times reported yesterday that decisions on budget spending will be decided on next week:

Russia’s 2020 state expenditure could swell by more than Rbs 2tn ($32bn), equivalent to around 1.3 per cent of GDP, analysts have estimated, if the amendments are approved. That would be on top of an already agreed Rbs19.5tn spending blueprint, helped by cash from an oil-fuelled national wealth fund that has swollen to $125bn….

…Real incomes in Russia have fallen for five of the past six years as Mr Putin’s administration prioritised tight state spending and the building up of a fiscal safety net that helped Moscow weather the brunt of western sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea….

…Andrei Belousov, a pro-spending former Kremlin aide who was promoted to the powerful role of first deputy prime minister in the new government, said on Wednesday that additional capital had been approved for the initiative. He described the budget changes as “a serious injection of liquidity into the economy.”

Mr Belousov, who is seen by investors as the embodiment of Mr Putin’s new-found desire for stimulus, said that the government estimated Rbs300bn could be spent from the national wealth fund each year without affecting inflation, a key concern to more hawkish ministers under the previous government who had argued against spending the fund’s proceeds domestically.

Another Levada poll showed that Russians are about evenly split on the goal of Putin’s recent proposed constitutional changes. Russian news agency Interfax reported:

Forty-seven percent of the respondents polled by Levada said that the constitutional amendments were aimed at improving the public governance system for the benefit of most residents, and the same percentage argued that the amendments served the interests of the incumbent president, who wished to broaden his power and to stay in office after 2024.

A state-backed poll that was reported on by TASS in early February breaks down Russians’ views regarding the proposed changes in more detail. With respect to the amendments involving social benefits, an overwhelming majority of Russians were supportive:

The poll results indicated 91% of Russians applauded the initiative to have regular cost-of-living adjustments to pensions and other monetary benefits for inflation enshrined in the Constitution. Some 90% of respondents welcomed the initiative to set the minimum wage no lower than the subsistence level.

Proposed changes that tighten citizenship and residency requirements on office-holders was very popular:

Some 87% of those polled approved the idea to raise the residency qualification for Russian presidential candidates from 10 to 25 years. The idea to grant the Constitutional Court the power to check bills at the president’s request was supported by 81% of the survey’s respondents.

Provisions allowing for the Constitutional Court to review proposed legislation for legality beforehand also received overwhelming support, according to BBC Monitoring’s reporting on the same poll:

…. Eighty-one per cent of respondents described as “rather positive” the amendment allowing the president to refer bills passed by the State Duma to the Constitutional Court and veto them if they are found to contravene the constitution.  

Meanwhile Putin has reiterated that the Russian people will vote on the proposed changes. He further stated that, depending on how the vote goes, he can sign or not sign the changes into law. The AP reported Putin’s comments at the end of January:

“It is necessary that people come to the polling stations and say whether they want the changes or not, ” Putin said at a meeting with municipal officials in a Moscow suburb.

“Only after the people speak out, I will either sign or not sign” the amendments into law, Putin added.

Putin continued to clean house in recent weeks when he dismissed the regional governor of Chuvashia, Mikhail Ignatyev. Ignatyev was first expelled from the United Russia party on January 29th, then Putin fired him the following day, citing “loss of confidence.” Putin appointed State Duma deputy Oleg Nikolaev as the interim governor.

Ignatyev had engaged in a pattern of disturbing behavior, including stating publicly on January 18th that journalists critical of the government should be “wiped out” – comments condemned by his Russian colleagues as well as the UN and OSCE. Shortly after, a video emerged of Ignatyev dangling a set of keys to a fire engine above the head of a firefighter, forcing him to jump up and down to retrieve them. According to The Moscow Times, Ignatyev tried to mitigate the fallout, but both colleagues and authorities higher up weren’t having it:

The Chuvash administration’s press service and the regional fire department defended Ignatyev’s latest actions as a “friendly joke,” saying the jumping firefighter is the governor’s longtime acquaintance. Ignatyev also apologized for using the phrase “wipe out” in reference to journalists and said his words had been “distorted.”

One Russian analyst quoted by Vesti News said that particularly in a region like Chuvashia, which is relatively low-income, such behavior by the governor makes it look like he is out of touch and sees himself as a king.