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The other side of the conflict: conversing with a Russian friend

 

Nadia's photo

I FIRST MET Nadia in the city of Toronto during the summer of 2008. Back then the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were being occupied by Russian troops and today, six years later, Russia is being accused of invading Eastern Ukraine. During the time Nadia and I shared in Canada, we discussed the Russo-Georgian war and many other related topics over lunch. I was interested in hearing her perspective on the current crisis.

I found her point of view particularly interesting not only because she is a Russian citizen who is currently living in the country, also because being fluent in English and Chinese as she is, she has worked and studied in China, Canada and South Africa, among other places. In other words, few people understand the West and the East the way she does.

First of all, I would like to know whether you consider you are receiving proper information from your government regarding the conflict in Ukraine and Russia’s participation in it.

– I do believe that during a war no one actually receives proper information. We all only see what our governments want us to see and that’s not something exclusive to Russian society. The news that you watch in Spain and the news that I watch in Russia are totally different. And how you and I perceive the news is also different. For you, as well as for the greater part of the world, it is ‘yet another conflict’ taking place in some remote country. For me, as well as for most Russians, it is a war in which my friends and relatives die and get hurt. I do take it personally, and so it is hard to keep calm and objective.

The Western world portrays Russia as an invader. On your TV screens you can see Russian troops and military forces all over Ukraine. We in Russia see the war between Ukrainian national forces and forces of the Ukrainian opposition, in which many ethnic Russians die or get hurt and they are our relatives, or our friends, or our friends’ relatives. I cannot say that politics is one of my strong points so my understanding of what is happening is very limited, but the general idea of what I, as an average Russian, would get from the news here is that the current Ukrainian government is rather confused and basically does not know what to do next; that Russia is trying her best to help reconcile the two parts of the conflict; and that European and American news lie.

Now, which news source is really lying? I don’t know. And you don’t know. And I don’t think we will ever know. I think in such circumstances one should not believe any mass media since during a war everybody lies.

Back in July, the USA and the EU imposed sweeping economic sanctions on Russia in response to her involvement in Ukraine. The Russian government retaliated banning certain imports from those countries who took part in the sanctions. Have these measures affected your everyday life?

To be honest, not really. But it does not mean that all Russians are totally okay with the change. There might be somebody who is suffering because they cannot buy their favourite sort of Dutch pears any more. I would say there are many factors to be considered in this regard, starting with one’s geographical location and finishing with one’s income level. There was a big discussion regarding these sanctions and there were different opinions on the matter.  And I, as well as many Russians I know, believe these sanctions are fair in an “eye for eye” view of things.

Going back to the negative effect it might have had, my opinion is based on my personal experience. I personally have not experienced any difficulties or inconveniences caused by these sanctions. However, I live in the far East of the country and it is really, really far out: an 8 hour flight away from Moscow. We never had most of these banned imports anyway. In that region nothing changed. A couple of weeks ago I visited my friends in Moscow and St. Petersburg and one of them said that some fish became more expensive. But in general, I don’t think these sanctions have had a major effect on our lives.

What is your opinion, and what would you say is the general opinion where you are, regarding Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula?

I really do not see anything negative in this. And I do not think there are many Russians who would be unhappy about it. You must also remember that we never really perceived Ukraine as a foreign country, there is so much history and blood relations that connect Russia and Ukraine, especially Crimea and Sevastopol. The population in this region is mostly Russian; they willingly became part of Russia so I cannot see anything wrong with it.

While I’m writing these lines my best friend is enjoying her holidays in Crimea and she says it is great there and people are happy. No one was killed in the process of this very episode of the crisis and I would say that all parties involved are actually happy about how it all was resolved. The American government was not very happy though. I came across a very interesting article on the Internet in which the author could not understand the American government’s involvement in this Crimean issue. He said it was nearly ridiculous that the USA would interfere, as ridiculous as it would be if a region of Mexico voted to become part of the USA and Russians would interfere. And I agree with that. I think the fact that the rest of the world has a problem with recognising Crimea and Sevastopol as part of Russia responds merely to political reasons. For me, this region was never truly separated from Russia, if you look at its people throughout history.

Do you consider the pro-Russian rebels who are currently fighting in Donetsk and other parts of Eastern Ukraine as rightful Russian citizens who should be given the chance to join the country?

Yes, because the people of Ukraine and Russia are historically connected and many of us have relatives and friends in Ukraine and naturally vice versa. Given the amount of propaganda and hatred towards Russians that is being cultivated in Ukraine – no matter how the crisis would be resolved – I do not think that any Ukrainian born Russian or any person with a Russian surname would have a peaceful life in Ukraine. It does feel wrong and sorrowful to me but I do not think that there is anything that could be done to change that.

What is happening now has been happening for so long and has become so complicated that no one can give a reasonable explanation to it or predict how and when it will all end. All this will cause some sort of discrimination, or even a genocide in the long term, making it impossible for Russians -or as you call them pro-Russians- to live in Ukraine. And to answer your question, there are hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees in Russia now. And Russia will give a new home to every person from Ukraine who wishes to have one. And I think that is right, I think that is human.

Valentina Melnikova, president of “The Association of Mothers of Russian Soldiers”, estimates there are currently between 7000 and 8000 Russians fighting on Ukrainian soil. Have you heard of someone you know who’s been deployed there? What do you think about this sort of military involvement? Is it Russia’s duty to protect the rebels in Ukraine?

I don’t know of anyone who is currently fighting in Ukraine.  You never know what truth is so I would not take any current estimation as factual. The Internet is flooded with various rumours regarding Russian soldiers dying in Ukraine but I would not like to repeat the rumours: I believe one can only trust something he or she has personally experienced when it comes to war.

What do I think about this sort of military involvement? It is understandable for me if Russian people would want to go and fight for their families and friends who live in Ukraine. But as any sensible person, I think this war should stop. I think it should have never been started in the first place. It has always been beyond my understanding why people should kill people. Any war is wrong, but this particular conflict feels so wrong that I can hardly believe it is all really happening. I do not understand why people, regardless of their nationality, must pay with their lives and the lives of their loved ones for mistakes made by a group of greedy politicians.

The conflict was triggered by the violent protests that took place in Kiev last February, which managed to overthrow the government in what many viewed simply as a coup d’état fueled by the West. Would you say the USA and the EU are being somehow hypocritical denouncing other countries’ involvement in the region while supporting coups worldwide whenever they suit their interests?

I really do not feel that my knowledge of politics is anywhere close to judge such things. As I see it, every  government is hypocritical when they are trying to protect their interests. I think it is important for us to remember it. Our governments are hypocritical, the news that we watch is -if I may say so- ‘photo shopped’ according to our governments’ interests. And one of the negative side effects of this informational war is how we, people from different countries, let these things change our perception of each other.

I was on an international flight a week ago and there was a man from a Western country who sat next to me. There was a friendly chat between the two of us that lasted for a few minutes until I said I was Russian. After that this man just stopped talking to me, he turned away and acted as if I didn’t exist for the rest of the flight. Somehow it made me feel responsible for what my government does, or to be more precise, for what my government does according to his government’s news. I know I deviated from the question, but I feel it is important to say that we should not judge people on the basis of where they come from –  especially in such a tense international environment. We should not become victims of our governments’ hypocrisy.

Do you think the rights of ethnic Russians in Ukraine were at risk of being violated or damaged after the former Ukrainian government was overthrown?

I do believe so. And I do believe that ethnic Russians in Ukraine will not be able to live there peacefully.

Should the Ukrainian regions inhabited by a majority of ethnic Russians be granted the opportunity to join Russia the way Crimea did?

It is another question I feel uncomfortable answering because of my very weak political background. On one hand, if these regions joined Russia the way Crimea did, it might cause a second wave of sanctions and unhappy American and EU politicians, which would make this crisis even more complicated and reduce the chances for a peaceful settlement in the foreseeable future. On the other hand, it seems more than right to give Russians born in Ukraine an opportunity to live in Russia, to live peacefully with their loved ones in a country where they feel at home and are not hated for being of Russian descent.

 

To end this interview, I would like to briefly discuss with you a topic which has been pretty controversial among sectors of European and American societies. That is no other than Russia’s law against gay propaganda. I recently watched a documentary in which many people from all corners of Russian society publicly supported the law and advocated the need to protect children against inappropriate content and confusion. What are your thoughts on this measure? In the past Spanish society was probably more careful about the content children were exposed to. Now I think it is not far-fetched to say Spanish media exposes children to all kinds of violent and sexual content throughout the day. You have been to several Western countries; would you say our governments are becoming too permissive?

I do not think that media content in Western countries is much different to Russian media. Actually it is all the same TV shows, programmes and series that we watch. Though we do have this age restriction now in movie theatres, you know all those 12+ or 18+ markers that are shown before the movie begins.  I personally find them quite useless. I mean if a 15-year old wants to watch an 18+ movie, he’ll do it no matter what newly established censorship says. And I cannot say that governments are becoming too permissive about these things. It is just the amount of 18+ content today is so huge and availability of any information is so wide that no government will be able to control it. I think any restriction in a modern world is quite useless because today’s children are born with tablets in their hands. It is the parents’ duty to protect their children from all sorts of scenes they may find harmful that are shown on TV or available on YouTube.

As for gay propaganda and that documentary you watched, Russia historically is quite a traditional society and I have to agree that in general Russia’s tolerance level is quite limited nowadays. I think it has a lot to do with the Soviet times, when people went fanatical about morality and words like “gay” or “lesbian” were whispered in disgust. I frankly believe my mother did not even know such words before American movies were allowed on TV. But today things are changing, many people are starting to see it differently and maybe in some 200 years they will even allow gay unions in Russia.  I am sure that on that documentary you watched it was all 40+ 50+ people who were supportive of this law. Younger generations, at least in many cases, are not as traditional and if the director of that documentary had wanted to show Russians that support gay couples he or she would have easily found them in all corners as well. It is again, two sides of the same coin.

-Thank you very much Nadia for your insight. It has been a pleasure speaking with you again.

-The pleasure has been all mine.

 

By Alberto Aberasturi.

 

 

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The Dutch are eating ‘Boycott Baguettes’ in response to Russia’s EU boycott: will that be enough?


As the Russian boycott of European goods continues, farmers and consumers across the European Union search for ways to limit their losses. In The Netherlands, the call for financial support from the government goes hand in hand with the search for new destinations for the produced goods.

ABOUT TEN PERCENT of the Dutch agricultural export is destined for Russia and many farmers produce specifically for the Russian market. The consequences of the boycott has hit them the hardest. Two questions occupy the farmers’ minds since the Russian boycott started: what to do with their products, and how will their companies survive?

New recipes, home -grown ingredients
In support of the farmers affected by the boycott, and with the anger over the recent plane crash fresh in their minds, many Dutch consumers offered their help by posting special recipes based on the products boycotted by Russia. The farmers themselves joined forces in a campaign to push consumers to eat more tomatoes, cucumbers and bell peppers. They, too, provide recipes: the ‘boycott baguette’ for example, with green pesto, mozzarella, zucchini, red bell pepper, eggplant and a few leaves of basil.

But as one farmer argued, ‘people might eat more tomatoes for a few days, but will not do so for weeks in a row.’ Furthermore, selling the surplus of tomatoes, pears and other fruits and vegetables boycotted by Russia will cause for a significant devaluation of the products. In order to protect farmers, EU countries established what is called an intervention price. This price serves as a bottom to the market price; if the market price is lower than the intervention price, intervention agencies are obliged to buy the products for that price.

What’s next?
In order to prevent the market prices from dropping to the intervention price, the EU now urges farmers to take their products off the market, by compensating their losses. The surpluses are most likely sent to so-called ‘food banks’: a social service that provides people living off a low income with food-parcels.

On the long term, socio-economic researchers argue that it is time to review the Dutch export of agricultural products. In an analysis in Dutch financial newspaper Financieel Dagblad, researchers Arjen Daane and Krijn Poppe argue that “it should be examined whether in some cases, the export of Dutch knowledge, technology and starting materials (a tactic already adopted by the dairy industry) is more attractive than providing finished goods for the export market.” Furthermore, the call for political intervention proofs to them that the greenhouse sector of the Dutch agricultural market is no longer able to cope with major setbacks.

Such a review of the Dutch greenhouse sector is, of course, no short-term solution for the current surplus. The call for new export markets is relevant, but time-consuming. Dutch pear farmers, who have worked for six years to broaden their horizon, could not have asked for a better timing: they expect to enter the Chinese market before the end of the harvest season.

As the conflict in Eastern Ukraine intensifies, the end of the two-way boycott between the EU and Russia is nowhere in sight. As farmers struggle to get rid of their products, it seems that the surplus creates an unexpected benefit for low-income households: in order to limit the waste of goods removed from the market, fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and other products will fill their food packages. But for all other parties involved, the boycott, as much as the Ukraine-Russian conflict as a whole, should end rather sooner than later.

Written by Lisanne Oldekamp
Picture Credit: Pomax

 

Palestine and Israel – has Europe sided with the executioners?


IT HARDLY COMES as a surprise when European and other Western countries in general fail to oppose the destructive use of force by one state against another. It does, after all, feed into the same reasoning people once used to justify colonialism: those with power should use it, simply because they can. The European powers and Ireland all abstained from voting this week on a UN Resolution to conduct an inquiry into the alleged war crimes taking place through what has been translated into English as “Operation Protective Edge” (although some sources suggest that a more accurate translation denotes a more offensive nature – “Operation Mighty Cliff”) – an ongoing military assault on Palestine by Israel, resulting in the deaths of 697 Palestinian civilians (256 of whom were women and children).

Let us make no mistake – war crimes have been inflicted by both Hamas and the Israeli state on one another. However, in the context of Palestine and Israel, we see a nation with a vastly superior military capacity reacting to provocations (sometimes intentional, sometimes inadvertent, and sometimes merely perceived) with a disproportionate level of force. Throughout this recent battle, the damage and loss of life on the Palestinian side substantially dwarfs the loss suffered by Israel – standing, on July 23rd, at 32 IDF soldiers and 2 civilians) with three quarters of the over 700 Palestinian fatalities (and growing) being civilians. Figures of those injured in Gaza exceed 4000.

Even former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright – a woman that once gave her whole-hearted support to the U.S blockade on Iraq – has criticized Israel’s ‘disproportionate military response in Gaza’. The conflict can be seen in almost an infinite number of lights – how we choose to view it depends entirely upon the sources we consult and the interpretations we believe.

However, when a state inflicts a destructive and inhumane level of force on the civilians of another region, our choice perhaps becomes clearer. As Howard Zinn once said, “in a world of executioners and victims, it is the job of thinking people not to side with the executioners”. Whatever Israel’s justifications for its actions are, and however valid they may be, we (as objective third parties) should be on one side and one side only: the side of humanity. It is not necessarily our position (as third-party bystanders) in this age-old conflict to be pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli. But when confronted with devastating loss of life and unspeakable war crimes, we must choose the side of humanity and take action to put an end to the forces that threaten it. If we are to take at face value the reasoning of the countries that abstained from voting on the UN Resolution, then we could accept that they held reservations due to the inquiry’s lack of impartiality. They believed the inquiry’s wording was heavily biased against Israel before any investigation had actually taken place.

Considering both Hamas’ and Israel’s role in the current segment of conflict, this would seem fair. However, many sources claim that there was nothing in the language of the Resolution to exclude Hamas from investigation . An explicit statement in the Resolution assuring Hamas would also be under scrutiny would not have hurt, of course. However, its absence does not seem sufficient to exclude any inquiry at all from taking place (particularly given the scale and nature of the crimes committed). Thus, the reasoning of the European and Western countries in withholding their support might better be explained by other factors.

Israel is a power to which Europe and the West can relate. In addition to its Western-friendly attitude and economy, its current position is one that might bring a touch of nostalgia to the diplomatic tables of Europe. Responding to resistance in occupied territories with brutal, debilitating force is a familiar trend in history textbooks. It was a rationale that characterised European powers in their imperialist and colonialist pursuits in the rest of the world. It is the same logic often deployed by habitual abusers: killing a fly with a sledgehammer is acceptable, so long as you possess a sledgehammer.

This line of reasoning fits well into a natural-selection view of the world – the fittest will survive, and the fittest deserve to survive. However, as independently thinking people, we should perhaps rise above the primitive nature of this reasoning. As laypeople not encumbered by national and historic prejudices to certain modes and habits of behaviour, we should begin attempting to develop a healthier and more balanced mentality towards excessive exertion of military force. We should also condemn Europe’s abstention from the vote on the inquiry (regardless of the fact that its indifference failed to stop the inquiry from launching forward).

Following the bloody and bitter history of colonialism and imperialism, Europe’s attitude towards this kind of dynamic should be one of shame, remembrance and regret, rather than one of implicit endorsement. After all, as Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” The bitter conflict in which the region has been embroiled for essentially as long as history can remember rages on – and it is unclear how exactly it will continue to unfold. Marwan Bishara of Aljazeera makes a startling observation: that “not one great power possessing superior firepower has won a war against a weaker, less organized, less professional resistance against occupation”.

However, in comparing the Israel-Palestine conflict to this fact, he may have underestimated Israel’s stake in the situation. Throughout history, most colonial powers did not fight their uprisings on home turf and thus had substantially less skin in the game. Israel, on the other hand, has everything to gain or lose in this conflict.

Can weak truly trump strong when both sides are fighting for all their lives? It remains to be seen.

Written by Sahar Shah
Picture Credit: Leftmedia

The shadow of Lampedusa: Counting the cost of a European tragedy


As a stretch of land across the Mediterranean Sea, Italy is continuously facing the arrival of unseaworthy boats carrying migrants – men, women and children trying to leave behind war and poverty to reach Europe.

Most of those on board would have the right to asylum, but for many the journey ends when they’re barely within sight of Italy: news of migrants dying on their way to Europe are a sad routine. And the EU is in no rush to do anything to help solve what it apparently thinks of as only Italy’s problem.

On October 3rd last year, 366 migrants drowned off the coast of Lampedusa, an island half-way between Sicily and the North African coast. The international outcry that followed prompted Italy to launch a massive search-and-rescue effort called Operation Mare Nostrum. A number of men, ships and helicopters were used to track down traffickers, to escort any intercepted boat of migrants to the nearest safe port and to provide quick medical assistance to whoever may need it.

So far this year, Operation Mare Nostrum has rescued 50,000 migrants – not without a price. The operation’s cost, at first estimated to be around €1.5m a month, quickly soared to €9.5m each month. In a year, this adds up to €114m, quite a strain for a country that was hit so hard by the recession.

While migrants attempt to reach Italy first due to its position in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, Italy isn’t usually their final destination: it was estimated that two thirds of migrants who arrive in Italy leave for other countries. It’s Europe that they risk their lives to reach. It would seem logical to assume, then, the issue of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea is a European issue that should be tackled by a coordinated action, with funds coming from all countries in the EU.

As if.

As Italy spends €9.5m a month to keep Operation Mare Nostrum running, Europe contributes around €9m – a year. That’s not a typo: the EU “contributes” to the search-and-rescue effort to save as many migrants as possible in the Mediterranean Sea with less than a twelfth of the operation’s cost. This has led Italian officials to complain that the EU is “not helping enough”. A polite way of saying that the EU is not helping, at all.

Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was more direct, going as far as saying that Italy will leave the EU if its members don’t help with the costs of Operation Mare Nostrum. His demands for Mare Nostrum to be taken over by the EU and incorporated into Frontex – EU’s border patrol body – in order to share the cost, however, fell on deaf ears. Apparently, that of migrants risking their lives at sea while trying to reach Europe is Italy’s problem alone.

The arguments so far made to defend this decision defy logic. Several countries, such as Germany, argue that Italy should face the problem on its own because they deal with far more asylum-seekers than Italy does. While that is true, it seems hardly pertinent to the problem at hand: the fact remains that no other European country has to run a humanitarian naval operation in any way comparable to Operation Mare Nostrum.

Taking absolutely no part in the rescue effort doesn’t keep the EU from wailing whenever another tragedy involving migrants at sea makes it to the news. A regular occurrence, because even Operation Mare Nostrum is not enough to save everyone. On June 30th, 30 migrants suffocated in a boat as they were forcibly kept below the deck of the fishing boat on which they were trying to reach the Italian coast. On July 2nd, 70 migrants were lost at sea in yet another incident. By the time this goes online, more stories like these will probably make it to the headlines. The EU will wail about it, no doubt – before proceeding to do absolutely nothing. Italy’s problem. We already have so many asylum-seekers to deal with, people. Buzz off.

The most appalling aspect of the issue is that a great part of the migrants who leave on boats for Europe do qualify for asylum – only that they have to risk their lives for what should be their right. And a right is not something you may only receive if lucky enough not to die at sea first, after having put your life in the hands of traffickers – thus fuelling the trade of human lives across the Mediterranean Sea.

Despite its prominence amongst the arguments thrown back and forth between Italy and the EU as Italy starts its presidency, it’s noteworthy how no one seems to be considering the idea of working together to create humanitarian corridors across the Mediterranean Sea. Not only would that give migrants a safe route, thus allowing asylum-seekers to apply for it without risking their lives – it would also deal a blow to the traffickers Operation Mare Nostrum is seeking to stop.

But then again, migrants dying in the Mediterranean Sea? That’s Italy’s problem alone.

By Alessandra Pacelli

Photo: UNESCO

EP Elections: The ‘white elephant’ of politics in the 21st century?

Alberto Novi

Alberto Novi

It would be simple to get on a high horse and start lecturing about the EU elections. Writing for a pan-European student news network, the benefits of greater communication in Europe are undoubtedly apparent to us. However across Europe, the EU as it is now, isn’t what the voters want. The European elections as they stand, are the white elephant of the political 21st century.

European Parliament

European Parliament

Voter turnout has fallen steadily across the continent, from a highpoint of 69% in the first elections, to 2009’s comparatively paltry 43%. Though it makes much of the news, and particularly recently encourages much debate, the UK’s indifference to the European elections is matched by France and even topped by the Czech Republic. Just 28% of Czechs deemed a trip to the polling booth in 2009 worth their time. In both Eastern and Western Europe, fringe parties are coming to the fore, a recent poll indicated somewhere in the region of 25% of this year’s incoming parliament may come from rejectionist parties.

So what does that say about Brussels and the MEPs? Not only that they’re failing to engage huge swathes of an electorate, but that when they do, the ones that make it to the polls actually don’t want them to exist at all.

So what can be done? The established parties claim that the populists don’t have to campaign with proper defined policies, that they can claim everything from stopping immigration to world peace without the worry of actually having to enact anything on a national level. The traditional viewpoint — of UKIP as ‘swivel-eyed loons’, of the French National Front as ultra-right nut-jobs (en Francais of course) — dismisses the very core of why they are seeing such support. The populist groups are having a resurgence, because the EU they’re trying to strive for, often represents the EU that people want. Whether we like it or not, the majority of citizens in the EU are unhappy with how it is now, and want the homogenisation of cultures and the business classes causing the stripping back of welfare states to stop. Those are issues that exist in every country, in every land, across the EU and that’s what needs to change.

As Pandeia has shown with our study of the bloc groups, the populists won’t work together, these ‘fringe’ parties don’t all come from the same point of view. Some want out of the EU completely, others have ridden themselves of their far-right tendencies, while some are scarily fascist. There is no possibility of these groups working together to rise up and cause some sort of coup. But that does not mean they should be discounted. These issues that they represent, the ones that do drag people to the polls come the end of May, they’re the issues that need to be front and centre of the political discussions. Until that happens, the EU will be resented and disdained from Dublin to Dresden.

The Ukraine crisis in tweets

Ukraine

Ukrainian forces are reportedly moving into Eastern Ukraine to tackle pro-Russian activists who have reportedly taken control of a number of important government buildings across the region. The Ukrainian government are calling it an anti-terror operation.

Leaders in the west of the country have denounced the protests claiming they are the product of Russian aggression.

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This view of events has been supported by many western leaders including Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt. US President Barack Obama called on his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to use his influence to calm protests in the east of the country which some claim could result in civil war in Ukraine.

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The European Union has repeatedly called for calm as the Ukrainians build up their forces to move into the eastern part of the country.

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Some have been reporting that the area is calm despite the build up of troops.

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However others have claimed that Ukrainian forces are already on the move to deal with the unrest.

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Amid scattered reports of hostilities and casualties Bloomberg is reporting that the Ukrainian government have said the Russian 45th Airbourne are currently in Slovyansk.

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Russia has categorically denied that it is involved in the current unrest. The Russian ambassador to the UK said  the US has been unable to prove direct links between Russia and the ongoing crisis.

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Meanwhile, some have called for greater security in eastern Europe with the Euromaiden group suggesting that US troops may be mobilised in the area. There has been an increase in air patrols amid concerns about instability in the region.

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Taiwanese Students Take to the Streets: ‘Everything Is A Black Box’

Taiwan protest, 2006

Taiwan protest, 2006

TAIWANESE students have flocked to the streets to protest a recently passed trade agreement. 

While Chinese President, Xi Jinping, faced little resistance at home or abroad over a trade agreement with Taiwan, President Ma Ying-jeou found himself unable to ignore the Taiwanese students. For the first time in a long time, they are voicing their anger and dissatisfaction with the government through massive demonstrations. On a weekend afternoon that would normally see Taipei residents stare at assorted cute paper pandas on Liberty Square (as some still did), the real action was happening just a block away. In the centre of the city, a large group of students continued an unprecedented occupation of the national parliament which had been going on for more than two weeks.

Friday evening, when young people usually fill neon-lit shopping streets, the stores appeared empty as young people flooded the streets surrounding the parliament for the eleventh day in a row, that prolonged a sit-in that has effectively deterred police from entering and clearing the parliament. As various professors from Taipei universities were lecturing in the streets, flood lights illuminated streamers and banners suspended from the broken windows and doors through which protesters entered parliament and supplied the protesters. No end to the siege was in sight. Sunday marked a milestone in the protest when at least a hundred thousand Taiwanese, more according to other sources, filled the avenues around the presidential office in a mass demonstration nothing short of spectacular.

“Revoke the treaty! Safeguard democracy! Scrutinise legislation! Oppose the black box!” the protesters chanted as they carried the symbol of the Sunflower Movement. Outside of Taiwan, there is still considerable confusion as to what this movement is about.

Proximity of China and Taiwan

Proximity of China and Taiwan

A special situation

Many foreign publications have dryly remarked that China quite openly aspires to appropriate the island state that itself and until very recently claimed to ‘own’ China. This fact alone should make any agreement with China problematic. The first significant trade deal in 2010 famously sparked a physical fight in parliament in which at least one legislator was hit with a clock and transported to a local hospital.

Some people in Taiwan, as well as some abroad, see any rapprochement between the countries leading to unification, such as Xunyu, 25, who has been helping out as staff at the protest for almost two weeks now: “We are Taiwanese, not Chinese. I would always oppose an agreement.”

However, Xunyu represents only a minority. The focus on China and Taiwan’s relations hides the fact that, in reality (predominantly for domestic reasons) these protests have spun out of control, and authorities have been very hesitant to react and use force. A poll by Taiwanese magazine Business Weekly shows more than 50 per cent of respondents are against the treaty. In fact, most people are not simply opposed to trade agreements with China, they are opposed to what they call the ‘black box’, or the opaqueness of Taiwanese politics and the undemocratic way the Nationalist Party (KMT) decided to ratify the treaty in “less than 30 seconds”, as the protesters claim.

Taiwan Parliament 2 ‘Everything is a black box’

  For Xiaoyun, 19, this is her first protest. She is camping in the open air against the barbed wire of the barricades with her    boyfriend  Youwei, also 19, who is doing homework as required by the protests’ leaders so students do not get behind on their  education. Like  many, Xiaoyun still lives with her parents, who now discuss politics at home and support her. “Everything is a  black box,” she says.  “Yes, I fear China, but I am actually really worried about the way this has been pushed through.”

At the beginning of the process, ruling party KMT promised to review every clause of the agreement in cooperation with the  opposition Democratic People’s Party (DPP). When instead the KMT decided to promptly withdraw from the talks and pass the  agreement in a hurried vote, many people felt betrayed. “The government never explained anything well to the people and has  only insisted on the good points,” says Ziyan, 25, who works at the smartphone producer HTC. Her colleague Cheying, 25, thinks  that she would “surely benefit from the treaty,” but that this not the point. “What we want is procedural democracy,” she says. “I want them to protect small business and vulnerable people better,” adds Ziyan.

The protesters demands include: special regulations for the ratification of future treaties, that the treaty will be revoked and modified to better protect vulnerable people and industries, and lastly constitutional reform.

This last complaint is especially sensitive in Taiwanese society, as President Ma Ying-jeou appears to be acting on China’s behalf, which is perceived as a service to  the enemy power. His approval rating has been extremely low for a long time, and ‘Ma 9%’, as the nickname goes, is speculated to be targeting history books rather than news reports in desperate search of accomplishment. The president is an important political force in Taiwan, and many blame him personally for not explaining the treaty, showing instead a defensive attitude that leaves little hope for a compromise.

More than a student movement

Originally a radical student movement for Taiwanese measures has evolved into protesters breaking into the parliament and turning it upside down. They have garnered support from diverse sections of society, in a country still heavily influenced by Confucian deference and not accustomed to violence. Most of them admit that at least one parent actively supports their cause. Tsang-chiang, DPP councillor on Kinmen Island, less than two kilometres off the Chinese coast, has flown in with his two children just to join the protest. Many appear to understand that the issues at hand matter especially to the young, who are concerned about becoming part of China one day.

Taiwan protests 2Currently, Taiwanese students graduate into the labour market of an ageing society where low economic growth has meant stagnating wages, while prices have increased and housing property is increasingly hard to obtain for newcomers. While promising much-needed economic growth, the current agreement threatens to make property values jump, as mainland Chinese would be able to buy apartments in Taiwan. According to many observers this would help investment banks and real estate sectors, while exposing vulnerable industries to Chinese competition and influence. Many Taiwanese fear that their country, which has excellent, though hard to finance collective health insurance and other social policies, will become a more unequal society.

Politics at play

The case of the Taiwanese trade agreement is a classic example of far reaching policies that are negotiated in the twilight zone of international diplomacy rather than in the arena of national politics. Taiwanese citizens feel vulnerable in negotiating an agreement with an economic giant like China without any backup of a larger trade block, such as the EU or ASEAN.

The Taiwanese black box may not be opened any time soon, but protesters like Alice are not easily discouraged in their newly found political engagement: “I don’t think our government is afraid of anything any more. They know this is just a very temporary outburst of people. But even though I know things might not change, I still want to stand up.”

By Shir Bashi, Sofia Lotto Persio

Pictures: Paul Chang (Anti-Chen protest), Planet Observer (China and Taiwan satellite image), Jimmy Tseng (Protesters scaling parliament), Y.J. Wang (Female protesters with banners).