What Just Happened? #14
Welcome. Let’s see what’s going on out there this week. Today is Saturday, May 20th, 2023.
We’ve talked about the elections in Turkey and Thailand the last couple of weeks, so just a few words about the results:
Thailand: The vote was an unambiguous repudiation of rule by the existing military government. To his credit Prime (and Defense) Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has so far said the right things and congratulated the winners.
As we discussed last week, the Thai system is stacked in favor of the generals because the prime minister is chosen by the combined houses of parliament, 500 elected and 250 chosen by the military. A majority of votes in the combined houses is 376.
The victorious Forward Now leader Pita rules out allying with any party that has supported the military government and at the moment his proposed coalition would control 313 of the 376 seats he’d need to become Prime Minister.
While the reformists maintain a confident pose, the math is not quite there yet for a coalition of Move Forward, Pheu Thai and smaller parties, so all eyes are on the military’s next moves. The next Prime Minister should be be chosen around July, but there are several scenarios, including deadlock, with no Prime Minister chosen for months.
The New York Times quotes an academic named Gregory Raymond as saying that there is at least a chance that:
“the two military proxy parties — United Thai Nation and Palang Pracharath — could cobble together enough seats to mount their own claim to government. ‘That is still, in my mind, the last scenario. It would be highly undemocratic but can’t be ruled out at this point.’”
This week the Forward Now leader, Pita, has implied threats of street violence, which has been a factor in Thai politics for many years (see last week’s What Just Happened #12). “It would be quite a hefty price to pay for someone who was thinking of abolishing the election results,” he said. “I think the people of Thailand would not allow that to happen.”
There is also the possibility of violence. This week Pita has implied threats of street violence, which has been a factor in Thai politics for many years (see last week’s What Just Happened #13). “It would be quite a hefty price to pay for someone who was thinking of abolishing the election results,” he said. “I think the people of Thailand would not allow that to happen.”
Türkiye: It looks like Erdoğan joins the President for Life club.
If a unified opposition alliance, a haphazard reaction to the February earthquake, surging inflation and a plunging lira didn’t put the opposition coalition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu ahead in the first round, I don’t imagine the runoff will.
The analyst Soner Captagay says 80 percent of Turks are monolingual and 90 percent of Turkish media is Erdoğan-friendly. This clearly stacks the decks.
The markets seem to agree, with the lira plunging to a record low the day after the first round. It could fall far further. Another analyst thinks “Unfortunately it looks like [what] up to 49% of Turks have voted for is an economic crisis ... The next two weeks, we could see the currency collapse.”
And yet the leader is cruising to another term. This speaks to the ascendence of Islamic conservatism in Turkey. Erdoğan used crude religious bigotry (Kılıçdaroğlu is Alevi) in the first part of the campaign.
To Erdoğan’s political credit, his attending to conservative and Islamic concerns like the abolishment of a controversial headscarf ban continues to win him a solid base of votes across his Anatolian heartland. It’s important to keep in mind from outside looking in that Turkish conservatives don’t regard things like abolishing the headscarf ban as even mildly “radical Islamism” the way some in the secular world do.
And so opposition candidate Kılıçdaroğlu continues his winless streak against Erdoğan. When independent former CHP heavyweight Muharrem İnce dropped out of the race it was seen as good news for Kılıçdaroğlu. If he hadn’t, it might have been a disaster. Recriminations will surely follow.
(And in a sign of the sunlit uplands still ahead in the future Turkish relationship with NATO, on Thursday the Turkish Foreign Ministry accused Washington of disrupting the balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean. For docking a ship at Limassol, on the Greek side of Cyprus.)
That statistic about 90 percent of Turkish media being Erdoğan-friendly is kin to CNN’s putting Trump before a cheering audience for ratings in this way: we can not expect corporations to lead the way to unseat authoritarians, or would-be authoritarians.
Discovery, CNN’s parent, has enormous assets, among them sports and international networks and streaming services. CNN is just a line item. In 2022, CNN's operating profit of $956.8 million represented about 2% of Discovery's total operating profit.
Discovery’s bosses will be pressuring CNN to contribute more to the bottom line. If that involves further deploying Trump on CNN’s air, my bet is CNN executives will consider the threat to their jobs more immediate than any threat to democracy.
A flurry of events in East Asia these last few weeks:
A Chinese naval flotilla led by a destroyer “sailed in a full circle around Japan clockwise during a voyage of more than half a month,” the Global Times said, as the G7 assembled in Hiroshima late in the week.
The Chinese Type 055 guided missile destroyer Lhasa, one of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s most powerful warships, led a four-ship flotilla that also included a smaller destroyer, a frigate and a supply ship on a clockwise circumnavigation in a clear demonstration that China will be taken seriously as a naval power.
At the same time, my general idea is that things aren’t all going China’s way in the region. At the beginning of the month Philippines President Bongbong Marcos was in the U.S. to upgrade the U.S.-Philippines defense relationship. The U.S. and Philippine defense chiefs delineated joint defense guidelines reaffirming “the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty’s enduring relevance.”
Meanwhile the ruling parties in Taiwan and Japan held in-person talks for the first time in a closed-door meeting in Taipei. These meetings were to “discuss how to deepen security cooperation amidst rising China threat,” says Taiwan News.
At the same time, Japan’s new national security and national defense strategies (NDS), along with its defense buildup program signal that what the NDS calls “the most severe and complex security environment since the end of WWII” has the attention of national leaders. And of course, the U.S. and Japan have just held talks at the G7 summit on Thursday and Friday.
China is also feuding with South Korea. President Yoon Suk Yeol, who was just in Washington for a full blown state visit to strengthen the South Korea/USA alliance, stated the obvious when he said,
“The Taiwan issue is not simply an issue between China and Taiwan but, like the issue of North Korea, it is a global issue.”
This drew a sharp rebuke from Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin:
“The Taiwan question is purely an internal affair at the core of China’s core interests. Its resolution is a matter for the Chinese, who do not need to be told what should or should not be done.”
With that flurry of activity in mind, consider the map:
The US maintains around 26,000 troops on Okinawa and another some 24,000 on Japan’s main islands. President Biden’s plan, but for the intrusion of domestic matters, was to continue on from the G7 to Papua New Guinea (he would have been the first sitting U.S. president to visit), during which two security agreements would have been signed, on defence cooperation and maritime surveillance, the PNG Prime Minister told a local radio station.
This all shows that if China tries to achieve its goal of absorbing Taiwan by military means, it will at least be complicated, and potentially a bloody, disastrous global mess.
There’s more from Asia this week. China and Russia may be new BFFs but that doesn’t keep China from having new second-best friends in Russia’s neighborhood.
The China-Central Asia Summit was held Thursday and yesterday in Xi’an, chaired by Erdoğan’s fellow President for Life Xi Jinping and attended by heads of state of five Central Asian countries. Xi declared
“The China-Central Asia Summit will usher in a new era of China-Central Asia relations”
“This Summit will help draw a new blueprint for China-Central Asia relations and open up a new era for cooperation between the two sides,” the People’s Daily said, and on Friday Xi proposed another one of his grandiose development plans for the region, involving gas pipelines, transportation corridors and $3.8 billion in financing support.
Beyond capitalizing on Russia’s current weakness, one of the things China is after here is legitimacy in Xinjiang, or at least, through its largess or its domineering, whatever it takes, a willingness from leaders of the Stans, all of whom have Muslim populations, to look away from allegations of China's mass detention of largely Muslim community of Uyghurs in work camps.
The Stans, on the other hand, worry that:
“If China were to really make a move on Taiwan, then the region would be totally trapped between China and Russia because they have no other physical route that can actually facilitate trade at all.”
"In that scenario," Nova Yau, nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Global China Hub says, ”they will be completely cut off by global sanctions and they will have no choice but to sink deeper into the orbit of Russia and China.”
Perhaps first and foremost, last week’s summit was a summit for men with really long names. Attending were Presidents Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (Kazakhstan), Sadyr Japarov (Kyrgyzstan), Emomali Rahmon (Tajikistan), Shavkat Mirziyoyev (Uzbekistan) and good old President Serdar Berdimuhamedov (Turkmenistan).
The Russian Finance Minister in 1992 & 1993, Andrey Nechayev, said Russia “is heading for financial crisis in 2024.” His further trenchant remarks about the war for businessmen in Ekaterinburg this week made attendees nervous. The Times of London reported that he
“drew nervous smiles and was applauded by one member of the audience; in the oppressive environment in wartime Russia dissenters are frequently arrested, tortured and poisoned. Nechayev added that while food franchises like “McDonald’s can be replaced by blini [Russian pancakes], high-tech products can’t”.
The trend toward populism in established democracies shows the prescience of Ben Franklin’s supposed line, “A republic, if you can keep it,” because as we are seeing all around us, populism can lead to authoritarianism.
It’s popular nowadays to cite evidence that authoritarian leaders are cloistered and not getting the range of information that leaders of the liberal democracies get, leading to, for example, 1. Xi’s Covid response and 2. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Authoritarians don’t get advice from the best and the brightest. Note the coterie of ineffectual thugs that Donald Trump had assembled by the end of his term.
One of the many frightening characteristics of Trump’s loyal followers is their approval of cruelty. The old “shoot somebody of Fifth Avenue” line, in retrospect, was just an early salvo, and the fusillade continues. In the CNN debate the former president’s “you’re a nasty person” line brought hoots and cheers from Trump partisans.
Which leads to El Salvador.
The president, Nayib Bukele, is 41 years old and fashions himself a new generation trend setter. He came to power in a country that everyone can agree needed some shaking up. He decided El Salvador would accept Bitcoin as legal tender. And he has taken a very hard line against the terrible problem of gang violence in his country.
In 2022 El Salvador was the most dangerous country in the world by murder rate, at 52.02 per 100,000 (US, by comparison, 7.8), and because of his tough stance against gangs, Nayib Bukele had the highest approval rating in Latin America, at 87%. Bukele will mark his fourth year in office on June 1st and for now, looks in good shape for reelection next year.
In February Bukele’s government opened what it calls a Terrorist Confinement Center that others have characterized at a 40,000-person mega-prison. It is part of Bukele's ‘war’ on violent gangs, and El Salvadorans seem to love it.
Here is a handout from the El Salvadoran government:
This is horrifying. I first saw this picture from far away, I think it was in a “pictures of the week” kind of feature, and at first glance I vaguely thought those heads were pebbles on a beach, or something. It’s frightening because this is a condition of cruelty imposed by a government and its people seem to resoundingly approve it.
Events elsewhere have pushed Africa down the list of headlines, but this week marks a month of fighting in Sudan.
An uprising of the common folk overthrew Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir in 2019 after he had been the bane of the country and a personal wealth extraction tool for thirty years. Competing groups, the ones with the guns, rose to force themselves on the country, and now they are fighting among themselves.
The leaders of the two fighting camps, the army head and a militia head, have no right to steal the dignity of the citizens who stood up and chased out the dictator, but that assault on dignity is fully underway just the same.
There were reports of very heavy fighting in and around the city of Geneina in West Darfur that left more than 100 people dead last weekend. Late this week the VOA reported heavy fighting, with air strikes by the army against the militia “across several residential neighborhoods in southern Khartoum.”
The fighting infects the region at large. “About 200,000 have fled into neighboring countries and more than 700,000 have been displaced inside Sudan, triggering a humanitarian crisis that threatens to draw in outside powers and destabilise the region,” Reuters reported earlier this week, and Barron’s says foreign fighters from Mali, Chad and Niger are “flooding into the fight.”
Fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo doesn’t always make news outside the region, but last week it broke out in an unusual place, not far from the capital in western Congo, in Kwango Province just east and south of Kinshasa. Barron’s again:
“At least 11 people have been killed in militia clashes in western Democratic Republic of Congo, officials said Saturday, as a province in the restive region declared a curfew to respond to the violence.”
Translation: #RDC 4 dead including 3 eco guards, as well as 6 injured during an ambush by a group of armed men against the convoy of the team @gorillacd in #Lubero this Thursday. The @IccnRdc calls for the opening of an investigation so that the perpetrators are brought to justice.
Via Foreign Exchanges, the AP reports:
“Four people were killed in an ambush Thursday in Congo’s Virunga National Park when their convoy of vehicles was attacked by gunmen.”
Three of the dead were “ecoguards” working for the conservation group, the AP says. This is heartbreaking. These are presumably not partisans, but people working in a park that attempts to protect a dwindling habitat for mountain gorillas.
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Foreign Policy reports this week that:
“Russian residents staged a very paramilitary parade, including 50 vehicles and a helicopter, in Barentsburg, Svalbard’s second-largest town. That might not seem huge, but the settlement has just 455 residents.”
I can fill in a little detail about Barentsburg, in the Norwegian administered Svalbard archipelago. We visited Svalbard for an eclipse in 2017, and I wrote about Barentsburg in an article here, at 3 Quarks Daily:
Outpost Barentsburg’s Sovietness is decades and a Cold War away in style. Even this far from the Motherland it has what the young Croatian writer Sara Nović calls the “Eastern Bloc aura – the posturing with size and cement.”
Could Norilsk, way up the River Lena, feel like this? It must be even more bleak out there in Siberia. Barentsburg’s coal dust must be cleaner than living by a nickel smelter. If the eastern shore of Gronfjorden is this bereft of succor, Norlisk, where life expectancy doesn’t even touch fifty, must be a not very virtual hell.
Arktikugol, the mining company and only local employer, has been pulling coal out of the ground in Barentsburg since 1932. Arktikugol bought the operation from a Dutch company which named Barentsberg after the Dutchman who discovered Svalbard in 1596. Barentsburg was shelled to the ground by the German battleship Tirpitz during World War Two after its Soviet citizenry had been evacuated to Arkangelsk.
Most workers are Donbass Ukrainian. Léo Delafontaine, a French photographer who has made three trips here (and whose expertise informs my impressions of Barentsburg), tells me the conflict in eastern Ukraine bubbles not far underneath the surface:
“You can find in Barentsburg pro-Russians, pro-Ukrainians, pro Donbass Republic. In my opinion, pro-Russians are more willing to express their opinion. And the pro-Ukraininans are more discreet. But everybody knows in the town on which side you are. They just don’t talk about it in order to avoid conflicts. Barentsburg is very small, and it’s better like this.”
Life in the mine may be dangerous as the civil war back home, above ground may be cold, but you won’t be sniped dead from the rooftop across the way. The pay, around $1,000 a month, runs triple what they might get back home, even if it is in rubles. Which is okay with most workers, who come from the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine.
They mostly sign up for two-year deals. A few come from farther corners of the former Soviet space. Tajiks and Armenians do less skilled work. Armenians tend to work in construction so they mostly live in Barentsburg in summer. Tajiks clear the snow. While the Russians and Ukrainians have proper apartments, the couple dozen Tajiks and Armenians sleep in dormitories or shared flats.
There is no cash money in Barentsburg. Rubles are paid to a magnetic card issued when the worker signs up with Arktikugol. The canteen and supermarket are priced in rubles.
But this is Norway, after all, and so the hotel bar takes Norwegian kroner. Much better for the hotel, also owned by Arktikugol, but not so great for workers.
It is a fair question how much post-Soviet life has improved: spending your pay (in scrip) only at the company store. Trudging to your frozen dormitory after mining coal grim and underground. Eying the bulging muscles of the heroic workers on the murals, knowing their time – like the Lenin statue’s – is firmly past.
Out front of your door a rusty monument mocks you: “Our Goal – Communism!” With an exclamation mark. (There are prettier murals, of fishies and flowers, children and walruses and whales).
There’s much more from Svalbard in my book Out in the Cold. Also on the subject, see my best books to understand the high north on Shepherd.com.
THOUGHT OF THE WEEK
Hal Brands has a longish think piece this week I linked to yesterday in my weekend reading recommendations. In it he argues that:
“In World War II … the average German soldier was better than his American, British or Soviet opponent. What allowed the Grand Alliance to prevail was not simply superior resources, but superiority in mastering the many tasks — mobilizing economies, managing a fractious coalition, allocating limited manpower and materiel across multiple theaters — that went into winning a total war on a global battlefield.”
On the Ukrainian battlefield today, I don’t know how effective President Zelenskyy is at mobilizing his economy. My impression is, the U.S. is paying his generals. But his population is so all in on defense of the country he hardly has a coalition to manage domestically, and he seems to have threaded the needle on pressing the Allies for more aide without putting them off, although that’s made substantially easier by the righteousness of his cause. Whether he can effectively allocate manpower and materiel across theaters, with Ukraine’s supposed coming offensive, we’re about to find out.
How lawyers make money: Daily Beast reports that Steve Bannon was charged $6,125 for a day’s work “when (his lawyer Robert) Costello clocked a full day on Oct. 18, 2021 to read a new lawsuit filed by Trump asserting a baloney theory of executive privilege, write a letter to the committee asking for a delay, and review a letter from the White House notifying Bannon’s team that President Joe Biden wouldn’t assert any executive privilege.”
And one last thing. In fact, the biggest thing, anywhere. Ever.
“We’ve estimated it’s a fireball 100 times the size of the solar system with a brightness about 2tn times the sun’s,” Wiseman said. “In three years, this event has released about 100 times as much energy as the sun will in its 10bn-year lifetime,” the Guardian reports.
More precisely, “a single optical brightening by a factor >100 to a luminosity of 7 × 1045 erg s−1 and a total radiated energy of 1.5 × 1053 erg, both greater than any known optical transient. “
Or, you could put it that way.
That’s it for today. Next Saturday I’ll pose some probing questions to ChatGPT and Google’s Bard. Every Tuesday CS&W publishes a travel column. The summer before Covid, summer of 2019, my wife and I visited the Russian city of Выборг (Vyborg), the capital of Russian Karelia. Tuesday, read about how Russia felt four summers ago.
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Good weekend, see you Tuesday.
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