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‘Long way to go’ before Russia-Ukraine repair relations after prisoner swap

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Soldiers of the Ukrainian army on the front line during the Joint Forces Operation in Donbass area, Luhansk region, Ukraine, on June 2018.

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A high-profile prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine is being seen as a boost to the possible resumption of peace talks, but some experts are tempering those hopes.

Ambassador Kurt Volker, the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations, told CNBC Wednesday that “there is a long way to go before there would be any normalization between the two countries.”

“Russia’s invasion, occupation, and claimed annexation of Crimea will never be accepted by Ukraine,” Volker, who is also the executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership, told CNBC. “That said, it is possible to make progress toward peace in Eastern Ukraine.”

“This prisoner exchange is a good step, that could pave the way for further exchanges, a more durable cease-fire, withdrawal of heavy weapons and — ideally — a decision by Russia to proceed with implementing the Minsk agreements. If so, it would tremendously improve the lives of the local population,” he added.

On Saturday, a possible thawing of frosty relations between the two neighbors came about after Russia and Ukraine exchanged a total of 70 prisoners, including Ukrainian sailors that were detained in November 2018 following a skirmish in the Kerch Strait.

The incident in the strait was just one of a number of incidents reflecting heightened tensions between the countries since 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its role in a pro-Russian uprising in the Donbass region in the east of the country.

The uprising prompted Russian-backed separatists within the Donbass to proclaim two “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk, exacerbating the destabilization of (and tensions with) Ukraine. It has also led to Russia becoming something of a pariah in the international community and it is still subject to sanctions for its actions.

What’s happened?

The conflict in the Donbass region is now in its fifth year, although it has been characterized more by regular skirmishes than outright war. Nonetheless, the human cost has been high. Over 13,000 people (including civilians and combatants from both sides) have died since 2014, according to the United Nations, and hostilities have affected 3.9 million civilians living in the region.

Efforts by France and Germany in 2015 to broker a cease-fire and peace deal, known as the Minsk agreements, were widely seen to have failed with both Russia and Ukraine accusing each other of failing to meet the conditions of the deal.

Against a backdrop of bitter relations, a lot of focus has been on how the new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian and TV star by trade, would handle Russia after he campaigned on a pledge to end the conflict in the Donbass region. During his inauguration, Zelensky said that the government’s “first task is to achieve a cease-fire in Donbass.”

‘Normalization’ of Ukraine-Russia relations?

Zelensky said Saturday that all steps must be taken “to finish this horrible war,” Reuters reported, while Russian President Vladimir Putin said the swap would be “a good step towards the normalization of relations.”

Even President Donald Trump got enthusiastic, tweeting his approval and his hope for peace.

Experts are cynical, however. Otilia Dhand, senior vice president at Teneo Intelligence, is also not convinced that the exchange means conflict resolution, noting that there are major barriers to peace in place.

“First, this was just another (though high-profile) among several exchanges of prisoners between Ukraine and Russia under the 2015 Minsk cease-fire agreement,” she said in a note Tuesday.

“Second, the political conditions of the cease-fire agreement require constitutional reform in Ukraine prior to the restoration of Kyiv’s territorial control. Separatists would likely demand decision-making powers in foreign policy to prevent any possibility of Ukraine’s westward economic and security integration, which remains unacceptable for Kyiv.”

Nonetheless, Dhand noted that the recent increase in bilateral activity suggests that some form of talks over the Donbas conflict will likely take place soon, with both sides having vested interests in a resolution.

“Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, seeks a substantial political victory to foster his position in the political system … Russia seeks a normalization of relations with the EU and the U.S., the easing of sanctions and the return to the global political stage,” she said.



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Dressed as Aladdin, but No Happily Ever After

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In the early 20th century, the Middle East was portrayed in popular culture as a gaudy and savage world where lecherous sheikhs lived in extravagant palaces among their harems.

It was “One Thousand and One Nights” on steroids. The region was depicted as backward and Arab peoples were treated as a monolith.

I was reminded of that magical Arabia when I saw the photographs of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, at an “Arabian Nights” party when he was 29, costumed as Aladdin in brownface makeup and a turban (a video also showed Mr. Trudeau in blackface).

The media scholar Jack Shaheen, who died in 2017, said the demonizing of Arabs and Muslims accelerated after the war between Israel and its Arab neighbors in 1967. The perception of Arabs worsened with the 1973 oil embargo by Middle East oil producers, and even more so after the Cold War ended. “We have replaced the red threat with the green threat, namely Islam,” Dr. Shaheen said.

Orientalism, or stereotypical, colonialist representations of Asia, especially the Middle East, has been pernicious and persistent. In 1992, the opening song in Disney’s “Aladdin” contained these lyrics: “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face” and “it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home!” It was changed in the home video version, but it left out only the ear cutting.

The setting, Agrabah, was a stand-in for Baghdad, which had been bombed by the American military only the year before. In an editorial in 1993, The New York Times wrote that “one form of ethnic bigotry retains an aura of respectability in the United States: prejudice against Arabs.” They were seen as “billionaires, bombers, belly dancers and boisterous bargainers,” Dr. Shaheen said.

It took another generation to fix the other problematic lyric: In Disney’s 2019 live-action remake, “chaotic” replaces “barbaric” in the opening number of “Aladdin.”

The story “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” was not even in the original Arabic-language version of “One Thousand and One Nights,” according to scholars. While the earliest manuscript dates back to ninth-century Baghdad, the story of a boy and his magical lamp first appeared in French in the early 18th century.

A translator in France said a traveler from Syria had told him the story. So “Aladdin” reflects the Orientalist imagination of a European, layered on a tale from an Arab. To add another cultural layer, “Aladdin” was originally set in a nameless kingdom in China.





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Want to Hold Your Own 2020 Caucus? Now You Can (if You’re an Iowan)

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Iowa Democrats will allow some voters to organize their own presidential caucuses in 2020, part of a plan to make the state’s first-in-the-nation nominating contest more accessible for people who cannot attend one of the party’s 1,678 designated caucus sites.

The state party’s plan, which the Democratic National Committee’s rules committee sanctioned on Friday, is designed to assuage concerns that Iowa’s caucuses are exclusionary and depress turnout because they require in-person participation at a midwinter evening event.

The plan will allow Iowans to apply to hold their own ad hoc caucuses Feb. 3 wherever there are groups of Democrats who wish to participate. These satellite caucuses could take place at locations like factories, restaurants or group homes, or at overseas or out-of-state military installations where Iowans are posted, party officials said.

The onus will be on people who cannot attend the regular caucuses to apply to hold their own gatherings. A state party panel would then approve or reject the satellite caucus locations. Satellite caucus results would be reported through an app, officials said.

“Iowa Democrats have worked incredibly hard to bring more voters into our party, and a satellite caucus system is the best solution for us to build on that work while increasing participation on caucus night,” Troy Price, the Iowa Democratic Party chairman, said in a statement.

The party’s proposal came after more than a year of debate about how to increase accessibility for the caucuses. In a state of more than three million people, the most that have participated in a presidential caucus was about 240,000 for the 2008 Democratic contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

[Which Democrats are leading the 2020 presidential race this week?]

In August 2018, D.N.C. members voted to adopt new rules for the 2020 presidential primary that encouraged states that held caucuses to switch to primaries and required remaining caucus states to allow for a form of participation that did not require attending an event. Other reforms included reducing the power of the party’s superdelegates.

Iowa Democrats had worked for months to design and implement a “virtual” caucus system, which would have allowed participation through a dial-in phone system. The D.N.C. rejected that proposal last month after party security officials said it was vulnerable to hacking.

Iowa Democrats also considered mailing absentee paper ballots, but feared such a system would be considered a primary by New Hampshire officials, who are bound by their state Constitution to hold the nation’s first primary and could have tried to leapfrog Iowa on the presidential calendar.

Mandy McClure, an Iowa Democratic Party spokeswoman, said Iowa and New Hampshire officials had communicated about the latest Iowa proposal. “We’ve been partners with New Hampshire,” she said.

[Sign up for our politics newsletter hosted by Lisa Lerer and join the conversation around the 2020 presidential race.]

The satellite caucuses must take place at the same time as Iowa’s regularly scheduled caucuses, which are set to begin at 7 p.m. Central time on Feb. 3. That could require some groups of overseas caucusgoers to hold middle-of-the-night gatherings and could still hinder participation by shift workers and restaurant employees who work in the evenings.

“Voting by mail for all those who sign affidavits saying they are working that night or physically unable to caucus would be a much simpler and more equitable solution,” said Larry Cohen, a D.N.C. member from Maryland who played a leading role in developing the party’s rules and guidelines for the 2020 primary process.

In 2016 the party allowed four satellite caucus locations after permitting groups who “demonstrated a clear need” to petition to hold their own caucuses. The new plan for 2020 will be “moved into full compliance after further review by D.N.C. staff,” the committee said Friday.

Democratic officials in Iowa and Washington said they did not have an initial estimate of how many people would participate in the satellite caucuses, and by Friday morning the presidential campaigns had not been briefed on the specifics of how they would operate.

Matt Stevens contributed reporting from New York.



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Lonely Deaths of a Refugee Mother and Her Son Unsettle South Korea

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SEOUL, South Korea — It was sad enough when the bodies of Han Sung-ok and her 6-year-old son were found in their $74-a-month apartment in Seoul in July, two months after they had died.

But the story became national news after it emerged that Ms. Han, 42, was a North Korean who had fled famine in her homeland, and that the two had died alone and impoverished in one of Asia’s richest cities.

Their bodies were so decomposed that the cause of death could not be determined, according to the authorities. But several South Korean news outlets have reported that they died of starvation, and officials have not disputed those reports. The news channel that broke the story last month quoted an unidentified police officer as saying that there was no other possible explanation.

The deaths have been a shocking reminder of the hardships faced by many North Koreans in the South, as they try and sometimes fail to adjust to a radically new life. Since the news became public, thousands have visited a mourning station built for Ms. Han and her son, Kim Dong-jin, in central Seoul, laying white chrysanthemums in front of portraits of them.

The most emotional visitors were other North Koreans and their supporters, hundreds of whom came from across the country on Saturday to attend a funeral ceremony for the mother and son. Speaker after tearful speaker apologized for not protecting them from the prejudices, indifference and ostracism that many North Koreans say they experience in the South.

“I am still struggling to understand this: She escaped a famine in North Korea — only to starve to death in the heart of South Korea, where there is so much food that going on a diet is its biggest fad,” said Heo Kwang-il, who leads a North Korean defectors’ organization.

Not much is known about Ms. Han’s life in either Korea. But she appears to have become increasingly isolated and despondent in her last months, though help for her and her son was just a few hundred yards away at a district government office.

She first arrived in South Korea in 2009, according to government records. Like all defectors from the isolated, totalitarian North, she went through 12 weeks of mandatory classes, learning basic skills like using a credit card and driving a car.

The government provides North Korean refugees with low-rent apartments, welfare payments and free health care and job training. But many struggle to make the transition from the North’s highly regimented system to the South’s fast-paced, capitalistic one. A few have even returned to the North, complaining that they had been treated like second-class citizens in the South.

Ms. Han got off welfare in nine months, suggesting that she was adapting quickly to her new life. But Kim Yong-hwa, the head of the NK Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea, who knew Ms. Han, said she had been carrying an emotional burden.

She had originally fled the North for China in the wake of the famine that killed millions of North Koreans in the late 1990s, according to Mr. Kim. He said she became one of the thousands of North Korean women sold by human traffickers to rural Chinese men looking for wives.

Such women live with the constant fear of being returned to North Korea and sent to a labor camp. Rights groups say that many of the women’s Chinese husbands exploit that vulnerability and sexually abuse them.

Some North Korean women in that situation have made their way to South Korea with children they had in China, only to face the stigma of being a single mother in the South, along with all the other difficulties of adjusting to life there.

Ms. Han initially came to the South alone, leaving a young son behind with her husband, according to Mr. Kim, who said he helped arrange her escape through Thailand, using smugglers. She paid the smugglers $2,000 after arriving in the South and getting cash support from the government, Mr. Kim said.

“But she terribly missed her son in China,” he said.

In 2012, Ms. Han asked her husband, an ethnic Korean, to join her in South Korea with their son. The man found work at a shipyard. Another son — Dong-jin — was born in 2013. They soon discovered that he had epilepsy.

South Korea’s shipbuilding industry entered a slump, and Ms. Han’s husband lost his job. In 2017, the family moved back to China.

Last September, Ms. Han returned to South Korea with Dong-jin, having divorced her husband, according to Mr. Kim. He said she called him, sounding depressed. She was afraid she wouldn’t be able to work, because she couldn’t find a child-care center that would accept an epileptic child. He said he advised her to apply for welfare benefits.

What happened to Ms. Han and Dong-jin after that is not clear.

North Korean defectors are closely supervised by the government for five years, but that time period had expired. The district office says Ms. Han never applied for welfare. Other North Koreans in Seoul have said that she did not have close friends among them.

She apparently could not afford a cellphone, meaning she would have been even more isolated. In her last months, her only income was $165 per month in government child support. In March, when Dong-jin turned 6, that amount was cut in half. A social worker visited in April and reported that no one was home.

On May 13, Ms. Han withdrew the last money in her bank account: $3.20.

On July 31, a meter man went to the apartment because the gas and water bills had gone unpaid for months. The smell was terrible, and he called the police. (Neighbors later told reporters that they thought it had been from a compost pile.)

The police later estimated that Ms. Han and Dong-jin had died in late May. Forensic investigators found no evidence of poisoning or physical trauma, nor was there any sign of a break-in. The refrigerator was empty except for a bit of chili powder.

Lee Jung-bin, an emeritus professor of forensic medicine at Gachon University near Seoul, said that starvation would be hard to prove in such a case, even if circumstantial evidence pointed to it. “If they don’t find any clear clues, like poisoning, forensic examiners will have to settle for ‘cause of death unknown,’ ” he said.

Many other questions are unanswered. Why didn’t Ms. Han ask for emergency assistance at the district office? Why didn’t she report her son’s illness, which would have entitled them to disability support? Kang Mi-jin, a North Korean defector-turned-journalist in Seoul who has been investigating the case, said Ms. Han could have withdrawn $4,500 that she had originally deposited to secure the apartment.

“She either didn’t know how to navigate the South Korean system and find the help that was available, or just felt so hopeless about her situation that she gave up trying,” Ms. Kang said.

Another North Korean refugee, Lee Min-bok, said: “She died not because she didn’t have any food, but because she had no hope.”

Helping defectors from the North has not been a political priority for South Korea in recent years, as the government has focused on improving ties with Pyongyang. And as the economy has slowed, there has been resistance to increasing subsidies for the refugees, who some see as competitors in a tough labor market.

But the deaths of Ms. Han and her son have unsettled many people. Government officials stood in silence in their memory this month, at a meeting to discuss how to repair gaps in the welfare system for defectors.

Later, they announced that the government would check in with all 31,000 North Koreans living in the South, to make sure that anyone who needed help received it.



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