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Monday, November 19, 2012

Yasser Arafat: A Grave Matter

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Former PLO & PA leader, Yasser Arafat (AP)
            The old adage says that dead men tell no tales, however, thanks to modern science and medicine, corpses now can tell their stories. This ability is extremely useful as you may imagine, especially if these corpses happen to be infamous deceased world leaders who suffered, shall we say, controversial deaths.
            Such is the case with the former leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), Yasser Arafat.
            Before you start worrying that some terrorist has resurrected Arafat to lead an army to destroy the world, let me clarify that thankfully that has not happened. Instead, a joint team of Swede, French, Palestinian, Swiss, and Russian scientists are excavating Arafat’s tomb in order to exhume his body to determine whether the former premier was assassinated.

Just a Trace
            Last year, news organization Al-Jazeera published a documentary in which Swiss experts declared that high levels of the radioactive substance polonium-210 had been found on Arafat’s clothing and personal belongings in his home. Polonium-210 is not only one of earth’s rarest elements but also one of the most lethal. Ingesting less than 1 gram (0.04 ounces) of the silver powder can kill a healthy adult in a matter of a week. Polonium first made headlines in 2006 when it was used to kill KGB agent-turned-Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London.  Once again, the element is suspected as the poison of choice in Arafat’s 2004 death.
            CNN interviewed  Francois Bochud, director of the Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne, Switzerland. Bochud said his researchers had tested Arafat's toothbrush, clothing and keffiyeh, the distinctive black-and-white headscarf he often wore.
A body fluid stain from the clothing contained 180 megabecquerels per liter of the radioactive isotope, while a typical sample would contain 5 megabecquerels per liter, Bochud said. (A becquerel is a unit of measurement of radioactivity for all of you non-geeks out there.)

Assassination? Maybe.
            The close friends and family of Arafat have long declared that his death was the result of an assassination by the Israeli secret service. Just prior to his death, Arafat claimed repeatedly that Israeli special forces were attempting to kill him. Many ignored his claims as the paranoid accusations of a 75 year-old man against a government that had long frustrated his hopes of seeing Israel and Palestine united again. However, the discovery of the presence of polonium-210 has changed the entire situation surrounding his death, lending credence to the claims of assassination.
            One note must be made though—until the full exhumation and toxicology report is published, no fingers can or should be pointed.

Severe Ramifications
            Extreme care must be taken on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict with regards to the results of this exhumation. In addition to the already tense relations over the incessant rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip on Israeli urban centers, and the retaliatory airstrikes made by the Israeli Air Force upon the Hamas/Hezbollah rocketeers, the discovery that Israel assassinated the Palestinian’s beloved leader could force the area into a direct and bloody conflict. As  scholar Michael Fisbach notes “To the end of his life, Arafat remained a polarizing figure. To most Palestinians, he remained  the almost mythical symbol of their drive for independence and dignity, who pulled together a dispersed and downtrodden people, turned them into a movement, and led them to the doorway of independence.”
            The PLO is seeking to cross that threshold of independence that Arafat led them to, as evidenced by the recent bid for UN recognition and membership. The organization is fiercely determined to achieve acceptance upon the world stage, and to find that Arafat was assassinated would make the PLO all the more determined to fulfill that dream. Arafat longed to see a free Palestine and his legacy still lives on. If he was truly a martyr for the cause, then the cause will be seen as all the more legitimate: a dangerous place for both Israel and the entire Middle East to be in.
            In life, Arafat was, as Fisbach said, a polarizing figure. He was labeled often as a terrorist, yet was a recipient of the distinguished Nobel Peace prize for his efforts.  In life, he wished to be able to tell the story of Israeli-Palestinian peace, but now in death his remains may only begin yet another tale of violence.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Your vote doesn't count...

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Russian women vote during the recent gubernatorial
elections (Guardian UK)

The political climate in Russia right now is colder than the Siberian wastelands in the dead of winter. For the first time in nine years, the Kremlin has allowed Russian districts to hold gubernatorial elections. Nine years is a long time for voters to wait to have their say, especially when the governing authorities strictly discourage other forms of political activism and protest (see the October 17th arrest of opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov).  Despite the recent elections however, most voters will once again leave the polls feeling cheated and disregarded. Yulia Boronenko is the political strategist for one of the only opposition candidates to be allowed onto the ballot. She sums up her view simply: “This is Russia. Forget independence. There is no independence here.”
            Boronenko’s opinion is not unfounded though; throughout the campaign process, she has seen the heavy hand of the Kremlin ensuring the victory of each candidate belonging to the Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party. It is no coincidence that each candidate belonging to Putin’s political camp defeated all comers; it was instead a carefully planned and manipulated contest.

The “Tactical Sketch of the Campaign”
            On October 4, ten days before the polls opened, a 43-page document was leaked onto a Russian social blogging site called “The Smart People’s Forum.” Allegedly the campaign strategy for all incumbent governors (who belong to Putin’s United Russia Party), the remarkable document details the sort of insider manipulation that Russians fear is at the core of their political system. The most revealing section of the document was titled “Tactical Sketch of the Campaign,” and closely explained how opposing candidates would be handled. “The optimal number of candidates,” the section begins, would only allow two other parties onto the ballot — a “nationalist” from the Liberal Democratic Party, and what the strategy calls a “spoiler” from Patriots of Russia, a tiny party with no seats in either the federal or the regional parliaments. “Consultations with these parties have been carried out as to their possible candidates; the presumptive candidates are controllable,” the document states. “The main instrument for ensuring the necessary results for candidate _________ is to create a group of controllable candidate-opponents with the use of the ‘municipal filter.’”
            What is the “municipal filter?” To put it simply, the incumbent governor is the filter. Through a series of proclamations and acts passed by Putin in the last decade, the incumbent candidate now has the power to decide who may oppose him at the polls. This power to control the political arena virtually guarantees victory for the incumbent, despite any unpopularity. The uncompetitive situation resulted in a dismal voter turnout in the district of Novgorod—a measly 36%--because without a strong alternative, the citizens simply see no point in voting. Alexander Zhukovsky, adviser to the governor, said this hurts the entire political system. “That is really going to hurt legitimacy,” he told a reporter for Time Magazine “For the next five years we’re going to have to deal with people claiming that the czar is a fraud.”  When asked whom she would vote for, Nina Mikhailova, an elderly babushka of the same district, bewilderedly responded, “I guess I’ll vote for Mitin.... Why? I don’t know. Who else is there?”
            What is even more interesting to note is that most voters never even saw nor heard about the 43-page insider document. Nikolai Petrov, an expert on regional elections at the Carnegie Center in Moscow said that he had never seen a government leak this revealing. “Sometimes you see a couple of pages, some specific tactics, but nothing like this,” he said. Yet not one of the local television stations or newspapers reported the findings; the government almost entirely controls all of the public media. Even private websites that published the document were subject to less subtle censorship. The forum the document was originally posted on was so heavily hacked, the moderators were forced to shut the site down for several days. The forum’s administrator, Vasily Nikitenko was repeatedly approached with sums of money to take the document down. ““When I told them to [buzz] off, the attacks peaked,” he told a reporter. “We’re just hoping it will stop after the elections.”
Russians in Moscow protest the apparent rigging of the
elections (RT/AP)

Putin’s Game
            It would be unfair (and unfounded) to say that these dominated elections only mark the beginning of a new Soviet dictatorship. Throughout the elections (as far as has been discovered), Putin and his political party played by the rules—not one law was broken. Despite the obvious disadvantage new candidates have in the Russian political system, the campaign manipulation remained legal. Nevertheless, it is important to realize that Putin is still a power-hungry leader. His political career of being Prime Minister of Russia and raising up his protégé Medvedev, then becoming the Russian president and placing Medvedev into the seat of prime minister, and now finally returning to his place of power as prime minister, only points to Putin’s unwillingness to release his grip on Russia’s reins. It is important to remember that while Putin may not be a Nikita Khrushchev, he nonetheless was mentored in the halls of the KGB and schooled by the communist apparatchiks of the Cold War. I am not one to jump to conclusions (and neither is “conclusion-jumping” necessary), but the United States needs to watch these new developments in Russia closely. Russia has steadily grown increasingly more benevolent to Iran’s Ahmadinejad, to the point of directly vetoing restrictive measures to Iran’s nuclear program in the United Nations Council. Russia has begun to pull away from it’s relationship with the United States. As the Wall Street Journal reports, the latest development is a huge step backwards in US/Russia relations. “Last week, the Russian government unilaterally pulled out of a two-decade old partnership with the U.S. to safeguard nuclear and chemical weapons. This... follows Moscow's decision last month to close the U.S. Agency for International Development mission to Russia. Meanwhile, Russia continues to obstruct international action to end the Syria crisis. Moscow has vetoed three U.N. resolutions on Syria while arming a Damascus regime that has killed 30,000 in 19 months.”
            Things are quickly coming to a head between the United States and Russia. Since the Russian elections refused any possibility of reforming our relationship, the outcome of the American elections might just be the deciding factor.