Author Archives: PolicyLabs

About PolicyLabs

Dr. Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state-building and political processes in conflict affected situations. He has worked in Iraq (with USAID), Afghanistan (with UNDP), Bosnia and Herzegovina (with OSCE), and Azerbaijan (in academia and think tanks). He has designed, implemented and overseen a broad range of strategies and local and nation-wide policy initiatives, and have chaired and participated in the work of civil-military groups, political coordination boards at all levels. Holds PhD in Contemporary History/Political Science. @ElbayPolicyLabs

Somalia at Critical Juncture

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by Elbay Alibayov

Conferences and statements vs. harsh reality

This week, we witnessed two subsequent (and potentially very important) events pertaining to the grim humanitarian situation and the stabilization efforts in Somalia. First, on Monday 8 May, Somalia’s National Security Council endorsed a political agreement on National Security Architecture reached between the Federal Government (FGS) and Federal Member States (FMSs) the last month. A couple of days later, on Thursday 11 May a high-profile conference on Somalia was held in London, with participation of the representatives of the United Nations, African Union, European Union, the League of Arab States and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, among the others, and all in all more than forty nations.

The London conference participants adopted a New Partnership for Somalia that “sets out how Somalia and the international community will work together to meet Somalia’s most pressing political, security and economic needs and aspirations, as set out in the National Development Plan.” In turn, a seventeen-page Security Pact outlined the mechanisms in support of the Somalia’s national security architecture and security sector reforms.

That is all fine. Documents are well written—structured, logical, with deadlines, roles and responsibilities, and so forth being all in place. Statements are appealing and impressive. Arguments sound convincing. And still there is a feeling that we have seen it all before and it is not as easy and simple as presented therein… give us a bit more money, a bit more troops and modern weaponry, a bit of this and that… and we will do marvels.

First of all, it is not merely “a bit”—the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for an additional $900 million to allow aid agencies to tackle the severe drought facing the country, thus taking his total appeal to $1.5 billion. Do you hear me? One. And half. Billion. US dollars. And it is only humanitarian part of the story. One can only guess how much the military part will cost (to the taxpayers across the globe, including those in Somalia—given there are left any).

And also, I do appreciate the encouragement given to those in distress, but when the document starts with the phrase “After decades of civil war and state collapse, Somalia is making rapid progress towards peace, stability and prosperity” I become alerted. What are you talking about? Is it the same Somalia we mean here? At the same very conference, where the UN has pointed that six million Somalis (more than half the country’s population) were in acute need of assistance, with as many as 275 thousand malnourished children being at risk of starvation? And militants controlling vast territories of the country? “Rapid progress”… Really?

Window of Opportunity

And still, the recent developments in and around Somalia (including the events of this week) may signal of a window of opportunity. Tiny one, but it is real. Can the Somalis and their international backers use this chance?

Thousands of decisions big and small related to particular set of issues are taken every minute across the globe. Mostly they are driven by individual and group considerations of institutional actors and may or may not match. However there are moments in time, which we call junctures when certain decisions coincide by sheer luck (for good or bad) to create synergic effects, those which go much beyond the cumulative outcome, may last longer, and moreover, have a potential to turn the course of developments irreversibly. It seems that such a moment has matured in respect to stabilization in Somalia.

Currently there are three political domains, closely related, which determine the present state and the future of Somali and the Somalis. They dominate any discourse about this trouble country, and it seems that the solutions to them have to be correlated too. One of them is famine (yes-yes, do not be fooled—it is not a malnutrition or environmental issue but inherently political problem) which has taken a scale of humanitarian disaster and demands immediate and well orchestrated action. Another is security related, and concerns primarily the fight against militant Islamists, notably al-Shabaab (and al-Qaeda, by extension) and infighting between various political opponents in their contestation of power. And the last but by no means the least is the quality of governance, its ability to perform key functions assigned to any state in serving its citizens.

Diverse factors driving the decision making of multiple local, regional and international actors involved directly or indirectly in each and all three domains in Somalia have driven us to a white wall with very simple and straightforward message on it: “Somali Ownership Needed.”

What does it mean? Humanitarian crisis (famine and cholera in first hand) demand an urgent and concerted effort. The fight against Islamist Militants needs a long-lasting solution beyond AMISOM. These two cry out loud for domestic ownership—without it nothing sustainable is going to happen, ever. And seems that with new President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” Mohamed taking office in February domestic political dialogue has taken a new, promising turn (which actually resulted in the security sector related political agreements, with significant element of the distribution of command and control over the army and police—thus power—between the FGS and FMSs).

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Digging deeper

To me, this is the moment. Not frequently developments in various parts of a complex system, and decisions made in each of them, connect in such a complementary manner. Whether this opportunity will translate into “right kind of” action and bring about change—remains to be seen. There are questions. Many questions, understandably enough.

Take one of them. Military component of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) comprises a contingent of regular troops from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya deployed in six sectors covering south and central Somalia. They maintain the deployment of about 22,000 troops; add to them the Somali National Army of approx. 20,000 military personnel and you get more than forty-thousand-strong trained military force. To compare, al-Shabaab has an estimated 7,000-9,000 fighters. On the top of it, the allied forces are better equipped (although Somali President, in his bid to lift the arms embargo, complains that his army has the same weaponry as militants) and supposedly has a better access to intelligence and knowledge of modern warfare. So the question begs here: How it comes that the allied forces cannot defeat a group that is inferior to them by any measure of military capacity?

One answer is that the war against militant Islamists (and this has proven true with regards to many guerrilla groups and insurgents over decades, from Latin America to East and Central Asia) is political and ideological and as such it cannot be won by military means alone. There have been numerous Somali state failures over time, from inability to protect to inefficient and unequal delivery of basic services to citizens. This, firstly, created a fertile ground for militant groups to emerge, and secondly, allows them to flourish as they take advantage of the government weaknesses and hold control over vast territories (which effectively means that they “protect” and deliver services) and generate support (or at the very least earn the loyalty of local people) and are seen as legitimate representatives of the State.

To win hearts and minds of Somalis, and thus their allegiance to the legitimate state, the government has to demonstrate that it is ready, able, and willing (in the wording of full corporate offer) to perform its role effectively and efficiently. Can it?

Let’s have a quick test. If there are two domains that would serve as indicator these are provision of public security and delivery of public services. These are fundamental functions of any state, be it sultanistic regime or liberal democracy.

Public security

When it comes to public security, there are two sides of the coin: one is the law and order across the land (outcome); while the other is how it is maintained (process). They are equally important. I would even say that how is more important for society in terms of citizens’ trust, credibility of government and political processes, and sustainability of direct results than what. Dictators are much more effective in establishing order than democracies. We do not accept that. The way the societal problems (even organised crime) are handled matters to us. Rings the bell? Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte of the Philippines (as the freshest name on this otherwise long list)?

And in Somalia we have problems in both what and how of security, public order and law enforcement. Results do not need further elaboration—it suffices to see how al-Shabaab has been evolving while the government descending to the level of para-military forces, to comprehend the direction of the entire Somali affair.

What security

— According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies most recent update, al-Shabaab has now surpassed Boko Haram as Africa’s most deadly militant Islamist group. Fatalities inflicted by them have increasing by a third in the course of one year—from 3,046 in 2015 to 4,281 in 2016.

— Large areas of Somalia are still in the hands of al-Shabaab. The group continues perpetrating terrorist attacks in Mogadishu. Among most notable were two attacks in June and one in December 2016, and two explosions in January this year. Each of those attacks left dozens killed and many more wounded, but as ever with terrorist attacks—created mayhem and sent a chilling message.

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— Morale is low. There are defections on both sides. Some al-Shabaab leaders have surrendered in line with the government’s amnesty provisions; at the same time the Somali National Army soldiers keep defecting to the militants’ camp (it is said that the reason being non-payment or delay with paying wages).

How security

According to Human Rights Watch report covering the events of 2016, the violence and maltreatment of civilians is rampant and it is not only al-Shabaab but all the sides, including the government forces, are complicit in abuses and crimes:

— Abuses by Government include mass security sweeps by national intelligence agency with no legal mandate to arrest or detain; arbitrary detention and recruitment of children by security forces; military court in Mogadishu trying cases that are not legally within its jurisdiction and in proceedings falling short of international fair trial standards;

— There is inter-clan and inter-regional fighting ongoing, primarily linked to tensions around the creation of new federal states. It has resulted in civilians’ deaths and injury and the destruction of property;

— Al-Shabaab kept committing targeted killings, beheadings, and executions, particularly of those accused of spying and collaborating with the government. The armed group continues to administer arbitrary justice, forcibly recruits children, and severely restricts basic rights in areas under its control;

— Reports persist of indiscriminate killings of civilians by AMISOM and other foreign forces, including during operations against al-Shabaab and airstrikes.

Public services

There are two facts that hardly would surprise anyone. Not because they are insignificant; to the contrary, both are appalling. It is because both problems are well known for quite a long period of time, and thus far they have either been ignored or not addressed properly.

One is about Somali’s poor human development record. According to UNDP survey data, 8.3 percent of Somalis lived in near poverty and another 63.6 percent – in severe poverty already in 2006. And we can go much deeper in time–it has been unfolding in front of our eyes for decades. Only “correct” statements and short-lived aid in response. The country was not even ranked in the last Human Development Report 2016.

Another fact about Somalia that does not surprise anymore—it is consistently ranked as the most corrupt country in the world. In the Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index it scored no higher than 8-10 points (out of 100) for many years, and appears at the very bottom of the global ranking. As the global watchdog notes, “public sector corruption is so much more than missing money; it is about people’s lives.” It has direct bearing on the situation with delivery of public goods, distribution and redistribution of assistance, and in particular the international aid, in Somalia. The recent report by the TI’s Humanitarian Aid Integrity Programme points to the following:

— Corruption practices are perceived to be routinized in their application towards humanitarian aid across Somalia, primarily through well-established patronage networks which involve a redistribution of resources;

— Legislative and policy vacuum has allowed the government and local authority representatives create ad hoc rules and regulations to manipulate resources for their own gain. All forms of aid are affected by this environment;

— The extent of perceived corruption is reflected in the findings of 2015 study, where 87 percent of respondents viewed corruption as the single biggest impediment to receiving assistance, above insecurity and violence.

Resilience

With such a record the Somali political system hardly can pass the test. It is obvious that, in order to accomplish a quite ambitious task outlined in the documents produced and signed in Mogadishu and London in the last couple of months the country and its regional and international supporters have to consider addressing the root causes of present, long- and deep-seated problems. Otherwise, I am afraid even this tiny chance will be missed.

One thing should drive our analysis and planning: when it comes to humanitarian crisis in Somalia it is less a result of the drought and more a result of the country’s weakened resilient capabilities. In the environment of continuing infighting, lawlessness and lack of legitimate power, systemic corruption and poor public services (healthcare and education in first hand), high unemployment (especially among the youth), and human rights abuses at the hands of all the warring parties—Somali’s ability to respond and creatively adapt to the challenges posed by the rapidly changing environment has significantly decreased. It is pretty much compatible to the condition of a person with weak immune system. That is why famine, cholera, violence have taken over the land. In contrast, the adversary (as any terrorist group in fact) is highly mobile and adaptive. According to reports, the AMISOM Force Chief of Plans Salifu Yakubu has recently noted that al-Shabaab has been weakened but still has the capacity to attack, because it “remains resilient” and has resorted to asymmetric warfare. Exactly.

More weapons, more food and medicine are needed to address the most urgent manifestations of the problem; while to resolve the problem itself there must be a locally-owned long-term programme aimed at institutional (political, social, economic) root causes of it. Without restoring its resilience, the Somali state would not be able to cope with daunting problems and will further disintegrate and fall even deeper into chaos and suffering. No money in the world can buy the nation’s resilience. It must be built, from within. And this is where the international assistance must be directed.

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This piece was originally posted on PolicyLabs

Ukraine and the Game of Geopolitical Go

by Elbay Alibayov

Political skills are frequently compared to chess-playing. However, it is the game of Go that comes closest to the art and craft of geopolitics. Go is a territorial game, where objective is to control more territory than the opponent. And the playground is big enough to allow performing poorly (or failing) in some areas but still winning the game by doing better on the board as a whole. Ukraine is the case in point.

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Image Credit: Sasha Maksymenko

Another milestone

Three years ago, on 18 March 2014, the self-proclaimed independent Republic of Crimea signed an accession agreement with Russia that resulted in forming new constituent entities within the Russian Federation. The agreement was signed two days after the citizens of Ukraine’s then Autonomous Republic of Crimea and city of Sevastopol voted to join the Russian Federation at the independence referendum (which was not recognized by the Ukrainian authorities). The move was (and still is) regarded in Russia as an historic act of “reunification”, while it was met with an outcry on the West and in the neighbouring countries, and was largely branded as the final act in “Russian annexation” of the Crimean peninsula (further to military occupation in February that created the conditions for the referendum).

For those observers who are familiar with historic background of the Russo-Ukrainian relations and their geopolitical context, it did not come as surprise though: the issue of Crimea (and especially the port of Sevastopol) and subsequent eastern Ukraine separatism are just another milestones on a long route of settling the relations between Russia and Ukraine in contemporary, post Soviet, history. Which itself is just a small section of a millennium long common history, with its numerous zigzags, highs and lows, infightings, controversies and moments of common pride (it is enough to remind that the Russian and Ukrainian statehood has started from Kievan Rus’ of 9-13th centuries; while Crimea becoming firmly part of the Russian Empire after the 1783 annexation and then changing hands in the course of the 20th century).

Sevastopol and national security

The irony of Russian geography is that, in spite of having a vast territory stretching from East Europe to the Far East, Russia is comparable to a land-locked country in terms of useful naval access to the world’s main theatres of action. That is why Crimean peninsula scores high in Russia’s national security strategy, and she cannot afford losing it. It is obvious that Crimea’s annexation was only an issue of time. The work in this direction started early in the post-Soviet times—already in the 1990s some Russian nationalist politicians were declared persona non grata, for meddling into Ukrainian internal affairs (under the pretext of protecting the interests of ethnic Russian or “Russian speaking” population).

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and Ukraine were negotiating the division of fleet and military and naval bases inherited by the newly independent states. From 1997 Russia was leasing the military bases of Sevastopol port from Ukraine, as per Partition Treaty. For quite some time, the sides were using their bargaining chips (gas supply and transit from Russia vs. Sevastopol bases of Ukraine) within tolerable margins.

Things became complicated once the United States and the European Union backed pro-democracy opposition groups started challenging the established status quo. Even worse for Russia, once coming to power after the so-called “orange revolution” of 2004-05, they began openly threatening to discontinue the leasing (which was due to expire in 2017). The situation temporarily normalized when the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was installed in Kiev. The agreement was immediately renewed and extended for another twenty-five-year period until 2042 (known as the Kharkiv Accords).

However, the Euromaidan protests of the opposition forces in 2014 saw Yanukovych ousted, and that was a signal for the Russian military that the time has come for action. Russia simply could not allow this happening. Honestly speaking, no one (at least among actual or those aspiring to be great powers) would.

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Crimea: a done deal

So where is Crimea now? The answer is simple and clear: Crimea is gone; forget it. It has quickly passed a grey zone (limbo, if you wish) of “no return—no further transformation” and has comfortably integrated into the Russian state. And it seems that, over time, everyone has accepted this stand of affairs.

No return means that there is no chance Crimea will be part of Ukraine ever again, given its strategic, even existential, importance to Russia: Crimean peninsula is the only place that hosts its Black Sea Fleet—one of very few outposts from where Russia can defend its southern borders and geopolitical interests in the region, as well as project its strategic offensive capabilities globally. Moreover, since the annexation Russia has deployed additional forces to strengthen its surface and sub-surface combatants and amphibious primary based in Sevastopol, Karantinnaya and Streletskaya Bays, as well as naval aviation and air defence located in nearby bases along with naval infantry.

On the other hand, there was a smallish chance that Crimea would be formally recognized as an independent state by other states and the UN any time soon. That meant no transformation into a fully fledged sovereign state; and declaring independence while being de jure part of Ukraine and de facto Russia’s satellite did not seem a feasible option, either. The only transformation from the grey zone practically justifiable (and the one that Russia did not hesitate undertaking) was integration—that is, Crimea becoming formally the part of Russian Federation. Therefore, for Russia (and by extension for all others) Crimea can be considered (at the very least, for the visible future) as fait accompli.

Eastern Ukraine: a prize no one dares to win

Eastern Ukraine, particularly people’s republics of Donetsk and Lugansk of the Donbass region (acronym for Donetsk [Coal] Basin), is following suit. The circumstances of Donbass are different from those of Crimea, but the destination is the same—into the grey zone where it becomes a low intensity irritant and a bargaining chip. The principal difference being that the Donbass entities are going to stay there at least in the immediate to medium term, if not indefinitely. There are reasons for that.

First comes the superiority of objectives. For Russia, the Donbass uprising has served as a supplement, to distract attention from Crimea and allow settling the primary issue (i.e., everyone to accept Crimea’s secession and integration, or annexation, even though without overwhelming formal recognition internationally) while creating a buffer zone and a constant irritant in Ukraine that will make the neighbor’s government vulnerable and more dependent on Kremlin, to extent necessary for keeping it on a safe distance from the meaningful, full-blown Euro-Atlantic integration.

Moreover, there is a principal difference between Crimea and Donbass in terms of conflict dynamics and political economy. The former was taken in a clinically performed operation and today is firmly controlled by Kremlin and does not seem to create any problems neither within its federal entity borders nor to its neighbours (I even read the reports in Russian media about how much Crimean Tatars, who initially were opposed to secession from Ukraine, come to “appreciate their newly obtained liberty”). For anyone raising their voice of concern (it still occasionally happens nowadays), the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has an immediate response pointing to Kosovo. Legalists may debate the nuances of course, but it hardly would affect the real situation on the ground.

This is not the case with Donbass and its two self-declared entities—Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics. Political economy of the conflict here includes numerous non-state actors, ranging from separatist groups to anti-Russian paramilitary battalions with diverse ideologies and allegiance, and various gangs who proliferate from the chaos and lawlessness and thus are interested in sustaining the present situation rather than ending the war. They have seized control of many industrial sites and are engaged in all sorts of illicit production and smuggling activities as within the region so across the borders.

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According to reports, separatists have seized control of steel mills, coal mines and other enterprises, and up until recent were trading with the government controlled territory.  In turn, paramilitary battalions (such as Azov, Aidar, Tornado), as revealed in international investigations, ignore the rule of law and “have been involved in widespread abuses, including abductions, unlawful detention, ill-treatment, theft, extortion, and possible executions.” Paradoxically, such groups may be of lesser headache in a low intensity conflict and lack of state control than in post-conflict situations when they play a destabilizing role and undermine the rehabilitation and state-building attempts of central authorities.

Next, Donbass is not of existential importance to Russia. Given the outdated infrastructure, degraded condition of coal mines and steel mills of the region (all demanding quite urgent and considerable investment with doubtful prospects of competitiveness), it does not represent such a great economic value to Ukraine either. The cost of physical rehabilitation is estimated in tens of billions dollars; who is going to pay for that?

To sum up, today neither Russia nor Ukraine has an appetite for fully embracing the Donbass, for it will come at prohibitive economic, social and political cost. The intricacy of Ukraine’s position is well summed in one of recent articles: “The good news is that Ukraine is prepared for all-out war with Russia; it is also prepared for and could cope with aid cutoffs from Washington and the end of sanctions. The bad news is that Kiev is thoroughly unprepared for the one scenario that could destroy Ukraine at little cost to Putin: Russia’s return of the Donbass.”

Power the aim, people not in equation

For the time being the strategic positioning of sides to the conflict over control of territories in Crimea and eastern Ukraine has been temporarily settled. “Temporarily” here may mean without meaningful change for decades to come, however. It appears that such a solution serves the interests of all state and non-state actors involved, directly or indirectly.

This is true for the status of Crimea, but becomes increasingly so with regards to Donbass and the implementation of Minsk II agreement that ought to bring peace to the troubled region. Two years after its signing, some analysts observe that “as the Minsk 2 process is now merely a self-sustaining diplomatic fiction, it has consequently become pointless; but it has also become indispensable. The present status quo and ‘neither war nor peace’ scenario is benefiting everybody, including the international community, as it justifies its lack of deeper involvement.”

“Benefits everybody”… well perhaps it is fair to say that it serves all but the ordinary citizens. And they are those who are paying the ultimate cost of the conflict. According to UN Human Rights Commissioner’s data, about ten thousand people have been killed (including two thousand civilians) and close to twenty-three-and-half thousand injured since the mid-April 2014. And it does not count the displacement, loss of jobs and hard earned property, the minimalist services and quality of life, insecurity of daily life and uncertain future, etc.

But hey… let me put it straight: people (whether human lives or their well-being) are never taken into geopolitical calculus by group actors, independently of what they claim in their public statements. Just look around… Whether we like it or not, the rule established by humankind since the dawn of civilization is that in political game, including the geopolitical game of Go, anything else but power can be sacrificed.

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This article was originally posted on PolicyLabs

The Politics of Separatism and Violent Conflict

“Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and then it turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.” – William Morris

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A Southern Sudanese voter casts her ballot on 9 January 2011, the first day of independence referendum that led to the creation of UN’s 193rd member state (Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)

Wars, not much peace

Have you noticed that we live in the age of continuous violent conflict fought simultaneously under various banners in different places? Virtually there is no a single day when we do not hear news about small, big, short or long wars (mostly about attacks and casualties, much rear so about successful peace deals). And this trend has been in making for quite a long time; modern time globalisation and technology advances made information about them readily available but also made the wars more intense and devastating, and rapidly escalating.

These are staggering facts, but in the course of past two centuries (from 1816) more than three hundred civil wars have been fought across the globe. Consider now that vast majority of them take months and years, and some last for decades (and this does not mean that the conflict is settled once and for all)—and you will realise that the humanity has not lived in even a short peace period for at least two hundred years.

Separatism as political manifestation

More than one-fifth of civil wars have been conflicts related to or originating from separatist demands. It does not come as surprise though—the very process of state creation and nation building over centuries, which left many cultural groups and nations stateless or residing as minority on the territories controlled by other groups, made it unavoidable. Political process of the 20th century, especially the collapse of empires, redrawing borders and creating new states after both World Wars, and decolonisation have both created conditions for tensions between various groups within newly formed states and boosted the nationalist and separatist ideas and movements.

The results of most of those state creation and recreation experiments are irreversible, for various reasons ranging from the resistance (or resilience) of internal political structures to regional and global security considerations and international law provisions and practices (which are not unambiguous, in turn). Therefore separatism is here to stay, and each generation of those groups seeking autonomy will take up their fight, as has been the case all along. If so, it makes sense taking a close look at separatism—to understand why it results in violent conflicts and what could be done to prevent it from turning into civil wars, and what could be done to end those wars once they occur.

“Separatist conflict is inherently political but not necessarily violent. Better we understand the interplay between its agents and their ideas, the underlying institutions and structures, and appreciate the role of externalities and contingencies at given point in time—higher the chances to prevent it from turning violent or to end the war once it occurred.”

First, separatism is an inherently political movement. Politically organised distinct cultural groups (for example, ethnic, racial, religious, tribal) advocate and act upon their claims for greater autonomy or independence from the state on which territory they reside in compact, as a minority. Material incentives play small, if any, role in this kind of contest: that is why greed and grievances of political economy analysis fall short of explaining the drivers of separatist conflict.

Second, separatism means conflict, but not necessarily violent. There are many separatist groups which pursue their goals of greater autonomy by peaceful means. And there are many states which engage in talks and concessions to meet those demands, instead of resorting to repressions outright. A lot depends on political culture and tradition of a given country and a combination of various contexts at a given time. And finally there are also various external actors which, in pursuit of their own agendas, may calm down or fuel the violent conflict.

[*On a related but separate note: the end of hostilities and eventual secession does not necessarily or immediately mean peace and prosperity for newly established states. From one civil war they may move into another war–this time within their borders and driven by another political struggle, separatist or otherwise. Think of South Sudan.]

Basics of separatism

All the above, backed by recent literature and evidence on the ground bring us to conclusion that separatism-inspired or driven civil wars shall be understood, studied and dealt with in terms of political science, by employing such categories as institutions, contexts, structures, agents, ideas, and contingency. Below is a summary of basics on contemporary separatist conflict, as informed by evidence:

  • There are different types of separatist groups and movements (or agents)
  • There are different kinds of separatist demands (or ideas)
  • There are different local contexts (or institutions and structures)
  • There are different exogenous factors (or externalities)
  • There are numerous points in time when individual decisions randomly coincide to produce unpredictable outcomes (or contingency ).

This post is first in a series where I will look at each of these statements separately.

1- Different types of (including potentially) separatist groups and movements (or agents)

Most of research conducted on separatism use the most complete database operated by Minorities at Risk (MAR) project of the University of Maryland. According to generally accepted definitions, there are six ethnopolitical groups identified in terms of their potential relevance to separatism. Under relevance it is meant that those groups have a potential for seeking autonomy, due to their historical past or current conditions.

As of 2006, there were estimated 283 such ethnopolitical groups across the globe (out of estimated 1,200 ethnic minorities recorded):

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Ethnonationalists are regionally concentrated peoples with a history of organized political autonomy with their own state, traditional ruler, or regional government, who have supported political movements for autonomy at some time since 1945.

Examples include: Kashmiris in India; Jews in Argentina; Kurds in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey; Turk Cypriots; Tatars in Russia; Zanzibaris in Tanzania; Scotts and Northern Ireland Catholics in the UK; Sardinians in Italy; Basques in Spain.

Indigenous groups are conquered descendants of earlier inhabitants of a region who live mainly in conformity with traditional social, economic, and cultural customs that are sharply distinct from those of dominant groups.

Examples include: Rohingya in Myanmar; Mayas in Mexico; Berbers in Morocco; Chechens in Russia; Nuba in Sudan; Native Americans in the US and First Nations in Canada; Maori in New Zealand.

National minorities are segments of a trans-state people with a history of organised political autonomy whose kindred control an adjacent state, but who now constitute a minority in the state in which they reside.

Examples include: Biharis in Bangladesh; Azerbaijanis in Iran; Crimean Russians; Catalans in Spain; Serbs and Croats in Bosnia; Baluchis in Pakistan.

Religious sects are communal groups that differ from others principally in their religious beliefs and related cultural practices, and whose political status and activities are centered on the defense of their beliefs.

Examples include: Ahmadis in Pakistan; Copts in Egypt; Shi’a in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Communal contenders are culturally distinct peoples, tribes, or clans in heterogeneous societies who hold or seek a share in state power. Disadvantaged communal contenders are subject to some degree of political, economic, or cultural discrimination but lack offsetting advantages. Advantaged communal contenders are those with political advantages over other groups in their society. Dominant communal contenders are those with a preponderance of both political and economic power.

Examples include: Hazaras in Afghanistan; Druze in Lebanon; Zulus in South Africa; Hutus in Burundi; Ashanti in Ghana.

Ethnoclasses are ethnically or culturally distinct peoples, usually descended from slaves or immigrants, most of whom occupy a distinct social and economic stratum or niche.

Examples include: Sri Lankan Tamilis; Roma in Romania, Hungary, Serbia; Tutsis in Congo (DRC); Hispanics in the US; Turks in Germany; Koreans in Japan; Chinese in Vietnam and Thailand.

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Each of these groups has its own identity and shared history, present-day circumstances, and ideas about their future as political entity. I will explore them in the next piece.

This article was first published on PolicyLabs

The Perils of Security Policy Making in the 21st Century

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If I were to chose an epigraph for a book on the topic of challenges faced by security sector today, this quote from the recent book of Wilhelm Agrell and Gregory Treverton would say it all: ‘We are living in a social environment transcended by growing security and intelligence challenges, while at the same time the traditional narrow intelligence concept is becoming increasingly insufficient for coping with diffuse, complex, and transforming threats.’ [1]

Below is my take on the issue, on the example of UK’s anti-terrorism and anti-extremism strategies. This post aims at sharing opinion on certain themes and generating a cross-disciplinary discussion (ideally with the involvement of both practitioners and scholars), without pretending to present any comprehensive, all-encompassing analysis of the intelligence. [2] It serves as an introduction to a series of episode studies/essays I am writing on security policy (employing, to extent possible, the knowledge from various social sciences), namely on the UK Government’s strategies to counter the threats posed by militant Islamists. [3]

Rethinking Security, Realistically

A few month ago, a group of British charitable organisations and think-tanks, The Ammerdown Group, has published a discussion paper on the UK’s security doctrine and strategy. Written by academics and practitioners having first-hand experience working with communities affected by conflict all over the world, Rethinking Security offers valuable insights into the present state of affairs in the field of preventing crises, responding to threats, and building peace. The paper points to a number of factors impeding a change from ‘heavily militarised’ approach towards civilian instruments of peace building, such as influence of powerful social elites and business interests on the policy-making, institutional inertia and politicisation, and preference for values associated with dominance.

In conclusion, it recommends a new strategic approach where instead of interventions based on military power the UK ‘would develop non-military response capabilities, such as early resort to state and civil capacities for violence prevention, conflict transformation, diplomacy and peacemaking, as well as cooperatively devised, civilian-based violence reduction interventions’.

Welcoming the publication of this well-thought-out and timely discussion paper and agreeing with the analysis findings and general direction of recommendations therein, I still have certain reservations with regards to abandoning intelligence and military altogether in favour of soft measures, such as passionately building community cohesion through shared responsibility and common action. I am convinced that the change is necessary, even imperative, but with security sector in the equation (and not only in the US and UK, but in many other countries across the globe which need more effective and more democratically controlled security forces) – a new security sector, adapted to realities of the day and capable of effectively fighting security risks that have resulted from globalisation, such as global terrorism, cyber threats, cross-border human trafficking, and organised transnational crime.

Four features, three themes

Security sector in the twenty-first century faces a number of unprecedented challenges, both by their scope and complexity. One set of contributing factors relates to globalisation. The nature and pace of technological advancements, and especially the revolution called Web 2.0, have exerted enormous influence on all aspects of life. Security environment being by definition dominated by uncertainty, nowadays becomes increasingly volatile—it is multifaceted, nuanced, filled with potentially large-impact surprises, and is very dynamic and rapidly changing. This makes planning, collecting and processing intelligence, and making decisions immensely difficult.

On the top of it, militant Islam has evolved over the last three-and-half decades into a kind of security threat that the world has not encountered before; it keeps evolving through the mutually reinforcing relations between its political and religious causes and economic, political and social contexts as within certain countries, so regionally and globally. By the way things are developing it is clear that at present neither states nor societies are prepared to deal effectively with such a threat.

Western liberal democracies, in particular, are ill-prepared to counter modern extremism, due to certain limitations inherent to them as a governance system; moreover, they are showing reluctance to reform the established practices and procedures and to introduce more flexibility into security policy making. Societies, in turn, are undergoing a painful generational process which is characterised by declining trust towards governments but also deepening divisions between various social, cultural and religious communities.

[*I am particularly interested in exploring social and cultural adaptation of migrants (and possibly newly arriving refugees) from the conflict-torn countries: (unmet) expectations, stereotypes on both sides (hosts and incomers), group identities – all this creates a fertile ground for misunderstanding, isolation, animosity, radicalisation, hate and violence.]

There have been various explanations offered in the literature, to democratic governments’ weakness in handling security sector issues. Four features of the present day decision making, which relate to the national security policy, deserve a close look. First is the sensitivity of issues dealt with by intelligence. Second feature is the urgency of the action required by citizens, from the state. These correlate and I will consider them in tandem, under the ‘pressing circumstances’ below. The third feature is an inherently political nature of the policy making, which in the case of security policy turns to be quite problematic (briefly addressed under the ‘political constraints’). And the fourth is the policy’s reactive rather than proactive positioning against the extremists, especially with regards to their very aggressive propaganda campaign (under ‘communication: a reactive stance’).

Under pressing circumstances

It is well known that in a daily life some people are ready to pay more for a quick gain instead of waiting a bit for getting it at a nominal cost. However, things change when we as individuals, communities, society feel endangered.  If there is a perceived threat to our lives and well-being or that of our beloved ones, we react sharply and our immediate gratification mood spirals with an enormous magnitude. At this moment of collective anxiety we are ready to overpay significantly (actually, no one even thinks about costs) and tend to put a massive pressure on the decision makers to act promptly and effectively.

The state’s reaction to public pressure in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015 can serve as a textbook case: Initial shock gave place to the public outrage, then intensive media reporting took off and this followed by a panic that we were the next target of militant Islamists—all in all, for the officials finding themselves under huge pressure to make last minute amendments to the Strategic Defence and Intelligence Review, pledging significant additional human, technological and financial resources committed to the security strategy (additional investment of £2.5 billion and employment of 1,900 more staff) and then to hastily pass a decision on joining the airstrikes of the ISIL’s targets in Syria.

In this case, the Government’s actions did not seem rational but rather emotionally charged, under the intensity of public outrage. Such decisions tend to result in immediate gains at the expense of long-term priorities. They are also costly. A few days after the publication of the Defence Review and the reports on first airstrikes by RAF planes in Syria, there was no panic anymore. No one thought about the cost of the response.  Obviously, those funds will be taken from some other budgetary items, if not borrowed, and the society will bear the cost of it in the years to come.

Political constraints

Key features of intelligence, such as fragmented knowledge and lack of timely and complete information, as well as difficulty gauging the progress make decision making in security sector notoriously complicated. The uncertainty of the environment where security policy operates partly explains one known weakness of democratic governments—that is, their indecisiveness in taking difficult decisions, also known as the ‘lack of political will’ to act on complex and sensitive problems. At the same time, there are situations when governments tend to act on security issues swiftly and with minimal hesitation. At least two political factors can be distinguished as contributing to this phenomenon.

Decision making in democracies is in many ways defined by electoral cycle, what limits politicians to implementing only those policies that can produce visible results in short time. Taking bold decisions is always difficult, as the cost of risk taking might be prohibitive, and hence, the time must be ripe. For example, the decision to launch the military campaign against al-Qaeda and their hosts, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, was only possible because of conducive environment created by September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and the declaration of the ‘war on terror’.

Similarly, the UK Government’s decision to join airstrikes in Syria was long on the agenda of the Prime Minister, but got the real chance to pass through the Parliament (without damaging his and the Conservative party’s image by the humiliation of possible defeat) in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, when the emotional tension was high and thus, conditions were favourable to overcome the opposition.

By its nature the policy making inevitably brings about change which affects the interests of various stakeholders. In foreign, defence and security policy domain, along with domestic interest groups (such as government ministries and agencies, and state and private contractors and providers of products and services) there are international (governmental, inter-governmental, international public and private) actors who have vested interests in the government taking this or another course of action under external obligations.

Government ministries/agencies elsewhere are constantly competing for funding, in a bid driven by the consideration of the scope and quality of work and, partly, by their political ambition to grow strong and exert more influence. For example, the Government’s reaction to Paris attacks, along with airstrikes, resulted in significant additional public funds pledged by the Prime Minister. This being a precedent, right after the terrorist attacks in Jakarta in January 2016, Scotland Yard went ahead announcing quite considerable increase in the number of trained marksmen (by more than 27 percent) in a move that cost £2.5 million of taxpayers’ money.

On the other hand, international allies put additional pressure on decision makers, either supporting or discouraging them, and not necessarily in the best interest of the nation but rather for the sake of the common good (NATO and European Union related policies stand as an example). Today, Syria and Iraq are not merely a battlefield where the war with ISIL, al-Qaeda, and other militants is fought. It is also the place where local actors (national governments vs. diverse opposition groups in Syria and Sunni tribes and former Ba’athists in Iraq), backed on either side by key regional players (Saudi Arabia vs. Iran) and global powers (US and allies vs. Russia)—all collide in their contest over exerting larger influence in the Middle East theatre, in a dramatic, complicated geopolitical stand-off.

Therefore, statements by some British pundits and politicians in justifying the airstrikes, that ‘we must show our solidarity with France’ or ‘we must go out there and prevent this threat from coming and hitting us next’ sound at the very least as naive (or misleading). Britain must join the fight because, first, that is what her allies demand of her; and two, that is the place to be, if you want to be regarded as an influential global player.

In their turn, the policy makers attempt at putting political pressure, or unduly intervening, in the intelligence process (which is there to provide an impartial specialist advice in support of the policy making).  This politicisation of intelligence may take various forms, from ‘soft’ framing to ‘hard’ manipulation of evidence and/or simply imposition of pre-formulated constructs, disregarding the intelligence advice. To these I would add another type, when policy makers simply reject the intelligence offered to them and rely on other information or their own reasoning. Given the degree of secrecy in decision making on the national security issues, we never actually know for sure how certain decisions were made and which type of politicisation was applied (if any at all).

Strategic communications: A reactive stance

The Government counter-terrorism strategy’s protective function is implemented by specialised forces quite effectively: the fact that there has been no successful attack by militant Islamists on the British soil in more than ten years stands as a proof. However, the responsive stance taken by the state enables militants dictate the pace, location and even the format of engagement. It is obvious when it comes to the terrorist propaganda: the state, the society, and the media are not doing well in countering it as could have been expected. This gives the Islamist extremists a possibility to manipulate individual perceptions and public opinion, media coverage, and eventually the decision making.

Aggressive propaganda undertaken by militants, first of all, targets the young Muslims and serves to justify violence. Traditional themes exploited are jihad (interpreted strictly as ‘just war’) and the protection of the Muslim lands from ‘infidel’ invaders. Their interpretation allows for preemptive attacks and killing civilians—to silence the critics among the Muslim community, of the methods they use. The propaganda also aims at glorification of the images of Islamist fighters (take, for example, Mohammed Emwazi aka ‘Jihadi John’), to promote the case of martyrdom and afterlife heaven. As for non-Muslims, through various video footages, particularly those with execution of hostages, militants intend at inflicting mayhem, so that to put additional pressure and diminish the resistance of targeted states/societies.

One of communication techniques used by militant Islamists is about imposing certain messages and symbols to influence the target audiences’ associations and perceptions. For example, the organisation which has its formal name as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, instead of being called by its acronym ISIL is frequently referred to in public discourse and in the official documents as Islamic State. No one seems to pay attention to this fact, but that is exactly what they want—to be seen as the state. And the attributes of the state, as known from classical definition, include an ‘exclusive authority to use violence for establishing law and order within its borders.’

Consider this (for conclusion)

You have already noticed that I used the case of the British Government’s hastily taking decision on amending the strategy and joining the airstrikes over Syria, under different thematic parts of this post. In one part, the decisions are explained by the desire to calm down the public anxiety (‘availability cascade’), in another it suggests that the decisions might be the result of political maneuvering of the Prime Minister, or the successful lobbying of political elites and military and intelligence agencies. It is also implied that this might have been the result of pressures from the allies, in the geopolitical struggle over the Middle East.

All these explanations seem equally plausible, and I believe that more than one (if not all, to various degree though) have contributed to the decision in question. Think about it. And think about other similar instances (in any country) and their consequences. I will try to elaborate in the future posts, too. Especially from the point of what could be done to minimize the politicisation of intelligence and to increase the transparency and accountability in the defence and security policy domain.

Notes

[1] Wilhelm Argell and Gregory F. Treverton, National Intelligence and Science:Beyond the Great Divide in Analysis and Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 196

[2] I owe my understanding of the sector’s present-day developments and challenges to a number of excellent works produced recently by the leading authors in this field, such as: Loch K. Johnson (ed.), Handbook of Intelligence Studies (Abingdon: Routledge, 2007); Loch K. Johnson (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of National Security Intelligence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Mark M. Lowenthal, Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy, 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2006); Peter Gill and Mark Phythian, Intelligence in an Insecure World, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012); and Wilhelm Argell and Gregory F. Treverton,National Intelligence and Science: Beyond the Great Divide in Analysis and Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015)

[3] There is no globally agreed terminology, but depending on the context (whether related to terrorism or to extremism) the most recent UK Government strategies and policy documents employ the ‘Islamist terrorism’ and ‘Islamist extremism’ phrases. I will use the ‘militant Islam’ alongside these two, as an overarching phrase. See: David Anderson Q.C., The Terrorism Acts 2014, Report of the Independent Reviewer on the Operation of the Terrorism Act 2000 and Part 1 of the Terrorism Act 2006, September 2015; and Counter-Extremism Strategy, October 2015, Cm9148

 

Iraq at Crossroads: The Test of State Resilience

The problems of Iraq are multiple, but most of them seem to originate from few deep rooted and long suppressed causes that, once released in 2003, started their uncontrollable tornado-like movement. However, in spite of their scary manifestations, neither the problems nor their effects are inherently deadly—they do not pose an existential threat to the present Iraqi state. There is a real danger though, that if not properly addressed they would keep unfolding and paralysing the state and the society and, as a result, bringing more dysfunctionality, misery and suffering.

VIDEO: Top Iraqi Cleric’s Followers Continue Protest inside Green Zone

Popular protests in Baghdad’s Green Zone demanding govenrnment reform, February 2016

Two alternatives

The only way out of the current impasse is for the country’s polity, backed by regional and global powers, to negotiate and enforce a set of political arrangements that reflect both the historic tradition and political culture, and the aspirations of contemporary Iraq’s diverse populations. Theoretically, there are two alternatives to consider:

— One is to disintegrate, partition into independent states with dominant ethnic or sectarian population in each. There are three scenarios: two states—Arab and Kurd; three states—Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurd; and four states–Sunni, Shi’a, Kurd and Turkmen.

— Another alternative is to preserve the Iraqi state in terms of its sovereignty and territorial integrity, through undergoing political reforms. Under this alternative one can distinguish two scenarios: to create a fully federal state with much power devolved to autonomous entities; and to strengthen resilience of the present state through institution building and decentralisation.

Neither of these alternatives is easy, straightforward or free from limitations and controversies. They will demand a commitment to concerted and sustained effort of all major sides concerned.

Partitioning

Although it may look to some as a quick-fix solution, the partitioning of Iraq does not appear a feasible solution when brought to close light, for a number of reasons.

First, the issue of borders is contentious. Each side claims more ground (and thus more resources) than others would give up. Mosul is the case in point. Unsettled land and border disputes have caused tensions and fighting in the past and present. Moreover, no third party would dare engaging in this dispute.

Second, it does not solve the issue of minorities, ethnic and sectarian divides, since the population elsewhere across the country is heterogeneous. Therefore, the sense of insecurity will remain as it cannot be solved automatically in such a set-up, and inter-group tensions will be inherited by now newly established states. Exchange of population runs risks of abuse, forceful deportation bordering with ethnic cleansing.

Third, divisions within each ethnic or sectarian group won’t disappear with the creation of new states. To the contrary, chances are high that once left on their own the local factions will fight each other for controlling the power even more fiercely. This rivalry tends to be quite violent and destructive, considering that each group has own militia at disposal.

Further, there is a risk that violent confrontation will weaken and put their survival as sovereign states into question. On the one hand, various extremist groups will take advantage and fill the power vacuum. On the other hand, small states with predominantly mono-ethnic or mono-sectarian population and weak political institutions may easily become satellites of influential neighbours.

There is also an international dimension to partitioning. Creation of new states based on ethnic and sectarian principle would raise tensions in the region: inspire calls for independence and alert the governments which are afraid of those aspirations as threatening the integrity of their states. Think of sectarian minorities across the Middle East and North Africa region. Think also of reactions of the governments in Ankara, Damascus and Tehran to creating an independent Kurdistan state. Today no one is ready to deal with this issue, under constraint of other pressing problems and the uncertainty of outcome—neither among various Kurdish groups, nor in the countries with Kurdish population in the region and in Europe, United States and Russia.

And finally, from economic perspective this option does not look attractive either. The new economies will be vulnerable due to their heavy reliance on oil and non-mineral exports. Industrial production and agriculture are at rudimentary levels, while for building technology-driven production and services they lack basic components such as communications infrastructure and skilled labour. The fact is that today the Iraqi economy is immature and thus cutting it in smaller pieces and distorting even those tiny existing value chains will further expose weaknesses and limit the capabilities for economic regeneration and growth in those states.

Most probably, this all will lead to even more inequality in wealth distribution, higher poverty and disenfranchisement of ordinary people. To sum up, the partitioning risks creating three failed states in place of the one struggling to avoid failing.

Federalism

By the constitution of 2005, Iraq is a federal state whereby Kurdistan region is an autonomous federal unit with its own government. The relations between Baghdad and Erbil haven’t been always smooth and have been marked by numerous tag-of-war-like situations when important decisions and pieces of legislation were blocked in the Parliament or in the Council of Ministers. This rather tactical manoeuvring notwithstanding, it is right to say that federalism in Iraq has survived its test thus far.

Under this scenario Iraq would comprise three or four federal units with majority ethnic/sectarian population, respectively. This set-up is not impossible but requires a new constitutional arrangement with new devolved powers clearly stipulated. If properly designed and, most importantly, respected and implemented afterwards this constitution and the system it introduces may well work. It will to certain degree equalise the rights of Kurds, Sunni and Shi’a Arabs, in exercising the power and control of resources while (again, to certain degree) guaranteeing the rights of minorities in each federal unit. What it will not solve in and by itself is patrimonialism, corruption, divides between the country’s multiple political players, and the inefficiency of its public administration.

There are two features of federalism that must be accepted by Iraq’s political elites (especially its Shi’a establishment) before they all decide to endeavour in this direction. One is that, although federalism offers a solution through decreased ethno-sectarian tensions (especially in a short term), it also encourages and fosters demands for secession over time. To borrow from the English constitutional theorist A.V. Dicey, ‘there is no midway between federalism and independence.’  This is already an issue in Kurdistan, where the leadership has announced their intention to take course on the independence referendum—a move that makes Baghdad’s political establishment feeling uneasy. How would they react if two entities decide to secede one day? These are not easy things to digest. Therefore, accepting a legitimate right of each federal entity to break away through a popular vote at some point is one precondition to this scenario.

Another feature is about the degree of decentralisation. How much power does the federal government retain? In which policy and decision making domains, areas? And how deep down the hierarchy the power would devolve (entity, region, province, municipality, community)? What about tax collection? Which provisions would allow federal government taking full control and command and how do they define those exceptional and extraordinary circumstances (like wars and natural disasters)? These questions sound rather technical, but as ever the devil is in this sort of details. Finding the right balance between the empowering of federal units and the limiting of central government’s powers is a delicate business, but also vital one for the functionality of the future federal state. More clarity is there from the start, more of these are agreed upon and stipulated formally higher chances are that it will work smoothly.

govtappoint_cor_mar-31-2016_reuters

Institution building

The real problem of Iraq lies in its institutions, which struggle to adapt to the changed regime type, on the one hand, and to the fast evolving external circumstances, on the other hand. This puts the state’s resilience under serious test. Iraq is undergoing an evolutionary process, albeit under extreme circumstances, where it has to transition into a stable and modern democratic state. Take, for example, the recent political deadlock when the attempts of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to reform to improve the effectiveness of government were met with unanimous resistance of political elites who benefit from existing institutional arrangements. The fact that the collision between political decay and regeneration has taken an extreme, at times violent, forms does not change or deny the nature of this process—which is and remains inherently dialectical.

This scenario therefore aims at strengthening the regenerational, reformist forces within the Iraqi political system. It will do so by institution building and strengthening the resilience of current government apparatus without attempting to change the country’s constitutional set-up. In fact, it has been recognised by practitioners and in academic literature that the Iraqi constitution has all provisions in it to ensure democratisation and devolved governance, to guarantee the rights of minorities.  The problem, as frequently the case, is not with the constitution itself but with its implementation.

There are four factors necessary for the success of any reform. First is about the constellation of power—that is, how strong are the pro-reform forces, how well organised and cohesive is their coalition, and how inclusive it is in covering the geographic and administrative areas as well as various segments of society. Second is about the independence of bureaucracy (understood in Weberrian, technocratic terms) from undue political influence—that is, the ability of civil servants and public employees to do their job without being significantly constrained by political parties and blocs. Third factor is about technical capacity of government to perform. It concerns both the capacity of individuals and the quality of administrative processes. Fourth factor is about domestic ownership. It is driven by commitment to reform of politicians, public and private employees, entrepreneurs, citizenry at large and their organised groups who see the change necessary, not merely desirable.

I won’t speculate on the parameters under each factor, but analysis of available information and personal observations allow saying that all four factors are present in Iraq today, although neither is strong enough to make it through without sustained, long-term, and quite intensive and targeted effort.

The success of this scenario is strongly conditioned on performance and tangible outcomes. The government will need to achieve and convincingly demonstrate results continuously, in order to prove its effectiveness and maintain its legitimacy and credibility. To do so, the government, along with resources, will have to (a) fight the systemic corruption effectively; (b) endeavour in meaningful justice and rule of law reforms to enable reconciliation and enhance the sense of patriotism that crosses the ethnic and sectarian divides; and (c) adopt flexible approaches that would enable it to manage by discovery, timely adapt to the changing circumstances and to build the overall resilience of the system.

*                  *                  *

I do not conclude this piece with traditional summary of findings and recommendations; the aim was to outline the options with certain degree of detail on their advantages and limitations—this all is a work-in-progress, after all. However, it is clear from the above that I favour the institution building scenario.

Because political history of Iraq as a modern independent state in the course of last hundred years, since the end of World War I, makes a strong case for its resilient capabilities and thus, backs this scenario. From the Hashemite royalty set up by the British colonial rule, through pan-Arabism to Ba’athism, and most recently extremist political Islamism the Iraqi statehood has been put at test. The processes within these contestations have complicated the religious, ethnic, linguistic, national and regional identities. Nevertheless, every time Iraq struggled but bounced back to preserve its integrity.

Also, because this scenario points clearly to the way forward without grand theories behind (hardly anyone would agree that they are suited for Iraq today) and instead rests on a series of relatively small but manageable tactical interventions. And finally, because it is the only option which is practically implementable to deliver tangible results in the immediate term—and time matters.

A full version of this article was first posted on PolicyLabs under the title This is Iraq’s Call: The Road to Take. It is the last in a series of Political Crisis in Iraq: The Things Must Change.

Part I: Political institutions, Politics, Governance

Part II: Economic institutions, Financial stability

Part III: State security, Human security

Part IV: Alternatives, Scenario

I would like to thank Dr. Munqith Al Baker and Dr. Richard Huntington for their substantive comments, valuable conceptual insights and factual contributions made in the course of the work over this series of articles.

Building Peace and Democracy in Myanmar, Brick by Brick

A series of posts on Democracy and Conflict: Real-life Solutions vs Models:

“Locally owned democratic reforms and peace building processes may not look as logical and attractive as externally promoted/imposed models, but they are effective — not the least because they derive from and are built in local culture, contexts, institutions.”

myanmar-conference-2016

21st Century Panglong Conference in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar 31 August, 2016. REUTERS

In this commentary on Myanmar’s recent progress toward establishing democratic governance and ending decades-long civil war, I will try to look beyond the known facts into the background of Burmese politics that frames, directs and conditions the course of developments, but is also continuously influenced by them. That is why this environment is neither static nor monolithic or heterogeneous. I will pick up some pieces of this dynamic puzzle to better understand what is happening in Myanmar and, more importantly, why it happens as it does.

Another milestone

In the course of four days, from 31 August to 4 September 2016, the government and military of Myanmar held a peace conference with rebel groups over the country’s future political and administrative set-up. The conference in the capital Nay Pyi Taw was the first broad based, inclusive of (almost) all stakeholders event dedicated to this issue in nearly seventy years, since gaining the independence in 1948.

The importance of this event is difficult to overestimate. It was the largest and most representative forum bringing together government officials, members of parliament, political party representatives, military officers, and representatives of ethnic armed groups in decades. Its significance is twofold, given that it demonstrated the legitimacy and credibility of the first democratically elected government and set the course toward the implementation of the negotiated peace that shall result in a new, federal political and administrative organisation of the Burmese State.

It was not perfect (what is in political realm?), for it did not live up to (rather elevated) expectations of achieving tangible outcomes except for demonstrating commitment, formally launching the process, and offering all the sides an opportunity to share their opinion. But that is already a firm step forward, in a manner that appears to be characteristic of political processes in Myanmar—testing ground and moving from one milestone to the next as conditions allow.

Conditions must be ripe for making a move to another milestone toward peace and democracy in Myanmar, and they grew so gradually over a number of recent years of painstakingly building momentum, to be ready by this point in time.

This kind of decision making based on ecological rationality (that is when inferences are made through exploiting the structure of information and the environment to arrive at adaptively useful outcomes) shows itself in many instances in Myanmar, including the timing of holding the conference. Many external observes grew impatient over the prolonged negotiations and the delay with holding this landmark event; they missed the point, I am afraid. The conditions must be ripe for making the move toward another milestone, and they grew so gradually over a number of recent years of painstakingly building momentum, to be ready by this point in time:

— The military have made another step on their ‘roadmap’, by allowing the democratically elected government to take public office; in so doing they retained their power and control of certain decision-making domains (such as defence, police and border control where they continue appointing the ministers and their deputies).

— The government is fresh and its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi commands respect internally and internationally and enjoys credibility with majority of population; thus hopes and willingness to cooperate are high for the time being (this is not going to be always like that, because there will be unavoidable delays and failures in addressing the mounting problems that will eventually lead to certain frustration and disillusionment).

— The rebels are exhausted and they realise that they have achieved maximum of what they could have secured through the armed conflict. It is not a secret to either side that violence leads to more violence which only aggravates the situation but does not bring any result in and by itself. Since the signing of National Ceasefire Agreement in October 2015 all but three rebel groups in the north have put the arms down.

— This explains why all the rebel groups (even those who did not sign the agreement) agreed to its text last year. And in fact accepting the peace agreement is being kept firmly by the government and military, as a precondition for participating in the follow-up peace- and state-building process. On the other hand, the negotiation process was long enough (it took four years) for all the parties to hold internal consultations and to weigh all the pros and cons. In turn, the military’s powerful commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and his deputy signing the agreement in person had demonstrated their commitment.

— And finally, the process has got high level of attention and support from the international community. At the moment it is at its pick, which means strong political backing but also availability of financial and technical aid which are much needed to revitalise the economy and to address Myanmar’s numerous social problems (this should be taken with caution though, first, because of ever important to Myanmar strategic goal of balancing its relations with China, and second, recalling the waste in supply and spending when the country first opened for the external assistance in 2011, after the sanctions imposed back in the 1990s).

The fact that the agreement signing ceremony last year was attended by ambassadors of forty-five countries, the UN and World Bank in presence and co-signed by six international witnesses (among them the most important politically and economically neighbours China and India, along with Japan, Thailand, UN and the European Union) already speaks for itself. This year, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed the conference, while the former SG Kofi Annan will head a commission for examining the situation with Rohingya Muslims and offering recommendations.

Recognizing the complexity of Burmese society

Any society represents a complex system due to broad variety of societal groups which constitute it and the diversity of their interests and intra-group and inter-group interactions (as stakeholders in an array of issues). Complex systems, as a rule, are characterized by the interaction of their components and therefore the resulting ‘emergent’ properties of the system as a whole cannot be derived from generalized quality of its components but reflect the properties of those numerous and multidimensional interactions between its constituent parts. Those interactions, in turn, tend to constantly change in their dynamics, directions, forms and magnitude. That is why it is so difficult to categorize any society, even when assessed against the criteria of one given category (for example, using political rights and civil liberties for judging the degree of democratic freedom).

Now imagine how complex is society where one-third of population is comprised of ethnic minorities. Moreover, there are more than a hundred of those minorities living together in these territories literally for ages. Add seven decades of most recent violent confrontation between them and the government led by military junta (of ethnic majority)—a civil war resulting in further erosion of social fabric and deeply running mistrust, physical destruction, economic backwardness, poverty, massive scale human rights abuses, hundreds of thousands of refugees abroad and displaced people in-country, and more than one hundred thousand of fighters belonging to a dozen-and-half of armed rebel groups spread across the land (which are linked to each other but do not form a single cohesive entity, thus may act independently).

Democracy and Peacemaking. It is impossible to meaningfully achieve one goal without attaining the other: there cannot be a democracy without equality and fundamental human rights and rights of minorities respected, and democracy seems to be the only system that can guarantee those rights to the Burmese society’s diverse populations. 

There are two processes running simultaneously in Myanmar, since its independence day. One is the process of political transformation (presumably toward democratic governance, but in a localised fashion). Another is civil war between the ethnic majority and minorities. In the shadows of it is taking place another localised violent conflict, driven by religious divides. These processes are intertwined, although may vary independently, and what happens is that only a solution (or rather, a set of solutions) that addresses core issues at the heart of them has a chance to be effective and sustainable. It is impossible to meaningfully achieve one goal without attaining the other: there cannot be a democracy without equality and fundamental human rights and rights of minorities respected, and democracy seems to be the only system that cannot guarantee those rights to the Burmese society’s diverse populations.

A REBEL SHAN SOLDIER GUARDS A MOBILE CAMP OF THE REBEL SHAN STATE ARMY IN NORTHEASTERN MYANMAR.

A rebel Shan soldier guards the heights of a hill outside a mobile camp of the Rebel Shan State Army (SSA) in north eastern Myanmar. PDN/TAN/JDP

Understanding the local contexts and institutions

This is a sketchy present-day portrait of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, set within the country’s unique contextual features and underlying institutions. Take just some of them, most prominent ones, and you will see the random events, individuals and groups as parts and parcels of political processes occurring in their natural environment.

The country has a long history of statehood—existed as an independent kingdom, at times strongly centralised, for centuries (since the mid of 11th century until British colonization in the end of 19th century). Therefore, sense of nationalism and pride of own history and traditions, in each ethnic group and nation-wide, runs very deep. Perhaps this is one reason that in spite of violent infighting, almost all the rebel ethnicity centred groups do not seek to secede but strive to have equal rights and autonomy thorough building a federal state within the present borders. They take pride of the fact that Burma did not join the Commonwealth because they ‘refused to accept the British sovereign as head of state’.

On the other hand, the colonial rule not only disrupted the continuity of sovereign rule but also exacerbated and exposed the country’s major social vulnerability by stressing its inter-communal ethnicity based differences. This was recognised at the time of gaining the independence, and political equality was reflected in an agreement of domestic forces. Unfortunately this agreement was not implemented, thus effectively leading to armed conflict between the ruling majority and ethnic minorities.

Religion (Buddhism) has been one of distinctive building blocks of identity in Burma over the course of its long history, and has greatly influenced the individual, group, and inter-community behaviour and relations. However, group identity is not a permanent ‘solid enduring fact’ but rather a ‘situational construct’ which, first, has many layers and, second, evolves as part of the advancement strategy in response to changing circumstances (for example, by changing the hierarchy of its ingredient parts/layers). Therefore the Buddhist identity has not always played a dominant or unifying role in inter-communal relations, especially in the framework of the civil war unfolding.

In addition to ethnic diversity, there is a religious minority of Muslim population living in compact pockets; they are seen as aliens and discriminated against by nationalist Buddhists, at times brutally. In the western state of Rakhine, about hundred and twenty thousand Rohingya Muslims are living in displacement camps after being driven from their communities four years ago (it is also indicative that no one represented them at the peace conference).

Economic inequality has been another driver of the conflict, since the minorities live in most remote and underdeveloped areas but also have been neglected by the central government for long. Decades of civil war have devastated the country’s resources and destroyed its economy’s productive infrastructure while creating the opportunities for illicit economic activities, especially drug related, thus contributing to the conflict’s sustainability.

The change from within

Myanmar has demonstrated that by following its own path it slowly by surely progresses toward the end goal. The goal itself is broadly defined; it is shaped and reshaped along the journey, with multiple intermediary milestones determining the pace, the direction and the current and possible future settlement formats. Its smooth transition from military rule to democratically elected government (even though with the power and special position of military constitutionally guaranteed) took too long in the eyes of many observers, but what is important is that it worked out and already started delivering its first results. Another process, of ending the civil war, has too, entered its maturity phase after many attempts, iterations, and prolonged negotiations.

It well may be that, after decades of dominating mostly grim news Myanmar is about presenting to the world a lesson on how internal differences could be overcome. Whatever comes in the end (both in terms of governance and peace), is going to be a Burmese product, a local model that may not (and most probably because of that won’t) fit into Western or any other models of democratic government and peacemaking or work as a model for replication elsewhere.

Revitalisation of a troubled society must come from within if there is to be a meaningful fulfilment of its various communities’ needs and aspirations and a workable mechanism to accommodate their diverse relationships.

I am convinced that the Burmese (and similar) experiences of dealing with their problems deserve to be closely studied and learnt from. I see the success factors of this approach in its domestically-driven energy and localised solutions, built with recognition of political culture, traditions and institutions, with adjustments made to local contexts and, through this interaction, influencing those contexts to allow the change occurring and taking root. The revitalisation of a troubled society must come from within if there is to be a meaningful fulfilment of its various communities’ needs and aspirations and a workable mechanism for their diverse relationships.

The country makes cautious steps in progression and there is a long way to go. But one thing is clear today is that they do it their own way in Myanmar, and even if it does not match everyone’s expectations or standards abroad, it may work well for their people. And that’s what matters in the end.

This article originally appeared as a blog on PolicyLabs under the headline ‘Myanmar: Building Peace and Democracy Brick by Brick’

About the Author: Dr. Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state-building and political processes in post-conflict countries. He has worked in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Azerbaijan. Being posted in the field (such as office in Srebrenica) and headquarters of international projects and missions, he has designed, implemented and overseen a broad range of strategies and local and nation-wide initiatives, and have chaired and participated in the work of civil-military groups, political coordination boards at all levels.

Externality Fallacies in International Aid

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We like models, don’t we? We claim that they represent a simplified reality that helps us make sense of it and serve as guidance for taking action. Accepted, it does in many instances (especially in well ordered situations when the cause-effect relations are observable and/or future developments are mostly in line with the extrapolated past trend). But what happens when some developments do not fit into any existing model? Then in a customary manner we are quick to dismiss them as anomaly that has to be brought back to the norm of the known models.

Take, for example the notion of democracy promotion and democratic transition. All former colonies and, in the same vein, post-communist countries were expected to make a quick and effective transition from their non-democratic regimes to elected and then liberal democracies. It was assumed with little consideration given to unique cultural features of those societies and to their readiness to do so. The reality has shown that this is not the case. Then the notion of ‘grey areas’ was introduced to explain that those countries which did not make it to democracy were lost somewhere in-between but eventually would have to be driven on the predefined route, or otherwise they risk of reverting back to authoritarian rule—with no third option allowed. Not necessarily, it appears—at least not in such a simplistic manner.

What we failed to appreciate is the difference between the commonly accepted set of defined democratic values and the variety of forms that democracy as a governance regime based on those values may take, depending on local political culture and institutions. Also, the mechanistic understanding of such ‘transition’ fails to take into consideration that in order to become sustainable, the reforms will demand a cultural change which time-wise could be expected to take no less than a generational span (independently of the amount of effort, money and pressure invested externally).

And finally, we tried to model those transitions as flawless and irreversible—yet another failure to appreciate that even liberal democracies keep evolving and there is nothing surprising if at times this process turns into zigzagging and iterations, in an attempt of finding the optimal adjustment of political system to the changed external circumstances, let alone high-impact ‘surprises’.

(There are countries, such as Argentina, known for this kind of iterative democratic development. And it seems that the outcry of ‘illiberal democracy’ in Hungary and Poland is exaggerated; the policies of their elected governments signal more of a search of effective adaptive strategies in the face of daunting economic and social problems rather than of turning back to European liberalism).

The same holds true with regard to ending violent conflicts and peacebuilding. So frequently we tend to overestimate the effects of globalisation and see the interaction between local and global as a one-way street, although the evidence suggests that the influence is reciprocal, and to be absorbed by local contexts the global trend (or external influence) has to be ‘glocalised’. On the other hand, there is another fallacy of assuming that the solutions offered (if not imposed) by the developed/industrialised world actors are superior to those home-grown initiatives of local political players in the developing countries. Even driven by the best of intentions, external interventions may distort the inherent logic of internal conflict, which is a product of an interaction of many factors acting within a unique set of local political, economic, social contexts.

Locally owned democratic reforms and peacebuilding processes may not look as logical and attractive as externally promoted/imposed models, but they are effective–not the least because they derive from and are built in local culture, contexts, and institutions.

In any case, whether it is democratic reform or ending the conflict–only when the solutions are driven and owned by domestic actors, there is a chance that the meaningful development (including constitution building) or peace deal would be concluded, and respected and implemented afterwards. And we have to be ready to accept that it may take decades for them to come to realise that only through cooperative strategies they would achieve the final settlement (which is never a zero-sum outcome but something that demands concessions from all sides but still they can live with that)—if, of course, the democratic state and sustainable peace are the final goals and the contest/infighting has not turned into a self-sustaining endeavour when keeping the confrontation and thus status quo going is an end it itself and not a means to achieving the goal.

(These fallacies of international assistance have been recognised and pointed to on numerous occasions and by various institutional agents and leaders over years. For example, the latest, 2015 OECD report on the States of Fragility (formerly known as fragile states), lists fifty such states in Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa and Oceania and concludes that ‘far greater international political will is needed to support nationally owned and led plans, build national institutions’. Note that the majority of those fragile states have been recipients of international aid for decades.)

That said there are various types of internal conflict and a variety of conflict drivers interact in any given violent confrontation, and they are set in a certain external geopolitical field with many interests—so I am far from drawing yet another model here, but rather intend at pointing to some fundamental issues which have been somehow neglected in the international community’s involvement in domestic violent conflicts and civil wars across the globe.

Whether ‘give war a chance’ or ‘give peace a chance’ should not be formulated as a dilemma, in my opinion. There is another dimension to resolving internal conflicts, which may well amalgamate these two within a flexible, adaptive and ecologically rational approach—as demonstrated by some successful experiences in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Among most recent are Colombia and Myanmar—they may not look as attractive as models but they are real and effective. Not such examples in the Middle East yet… or are they in making?

This article originally appeared as a blog post on PolicyLabs under the headline ‘Democracy and Conflict: Real-life Solutions vs. Models