Dr. Joel Tannenbaum helps me understand what the hell is going on.
Ukraine, Venezuela, and Thailand have all been mired in political uncertainty and widespread protests since late last year, and these protests are finally starting bubble over, with violence between protesters and “peacekeepers” and calls for the countries’ leaders to resign, both within the country and from international actors.
All things considered, this is a pretty remarkable time in human history. Rarely have we seen wide regional revolutionary pushes, such as those in Africa in the 1960’s, in Eastern Europe in the early 1990’s, and of course the Arab Spring in 2011. But even rarer is a group of revolutions happening in different parts of the world. Ukraine has been searching for a national identity since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the country’s embattled pro-Russian president’s whereabouts are currently unknown. Venezuela’s harsh rhetoric between political factions have finally bubbled over in the post-Chavez era. And finally, Thailand is looking to finally break free of a former PM in exile who some believe is secretly running his sister’s government.
Making sense of all of this can be extremely difficult, so I asked a friend to help me. Dr. Joel Tannenbaum is an Assistant Professor of History at the Community College of Philadelphia and holds a PhD from the University of Hawaii. He also plays in some great punk bands, one of which has a new record out.
Good Men Project: So first off – looking at what’s going on in the Ukraine, Thailand and Venezuela I’m reminded of the Arab Spring. It’s not a sort of regional blowup, but it is widespread movement within three countries that aren’t minor players on the world stage by any means. Is that a bad correlation to make?
Dr. Joel Tannenbaum: I think there are similarities in all three conflicts, but I think the similarities are more clear between the Ukraine and Venezuela, in that both play a pretty big role in global energy supplies, so there are bigger, badder countries (and corporations, of course!) who feel staked in the conflict. You can never forget, for instance, that Germany consumes a lot of natural gas from Russia and the pipelines which move that gas go right through the Ukraine.
All three movements have a focus on eliminating political corruption, which has been going on for a long time within all three nations. Why do you think the public is blowing up now?
I think the reason you are hearing so much rhetoric about political corruption is because the term is so poorly defined that it can mean virtually anything. But if you take it to mean “individuals using positions of governmental authority to enrich themselves” then that’s an almost universal problem. There are all sorts of indexes by organizations that measure political corruption, however defined, and you’ll see that, inevitably, the countries near the top are relatively poor countries with some sort of natural resources that the rest of the world wants, the countries near the bottom are wealthy and small, and everyone else is in the middle somewhere. But man, if you don’t think political corruption is a problem in the United States, go spend a day at a polling station during the next Philadelphia City Council election. You’ll see corruption on a level that makes Caracas seem reasonable.
Do you think there’s a need for bloodshed within these kinds of mass protests for people around the world to say, “Okay, I better pay attention to this?”
I don’t disagree with that. I mean, sex and violence, that’s what people pay attention to, right? But I think it’s also worth mentioning that the US media tends to focus on political protests in countries with governments that our government doesn’t like. There have been lots of political protests in Bahrain in the last two years, for instance, and the government response has been just as brutal, maybe more so, than in the Ukraine, but we haven’t heard much about it because the government cracking the skulls is one that is considered a friendly and reliable opposition to Iran by the United States and Saudi Arabia.
So Venezuela’s protests started after a former Miss Venezuela was killed in a roadside bombing. What does this have to do with Venezuela’s government?
Dude, I’m still trying to wrap my head around that one.
Nicolas Maduro came in as a reformer that was trying to get away from Hugo Chavez’s legacy. He’s been president for less than a year and then this happens, along with a brutal response. How do you make sense of such a staunch public outcry against his administration only a year into his presidency?
Maduro has been trying to protect Chavez’s (very real) reforms but also distance himself from Chavez’s rhetorical style, which got loopier as he got older and sicker and more (justifiably) paranoid. I think the people who are protesting him are really protesting Chavez’s reforms, first and foremost, because Chavez’s reforms made them slightly less rich. I mean, that’s an oversimplification, obviously, but I think it gets at the core issue.
If you don’t think political corruption is a problem in the United States, go spend a day at a polling station during the next Philadelphia City Council election. You’ll see corruption on a level that makes Caracas seem reasonable.
He’s made charges against the US of backing opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. The US clearly has a long history of influencing South American politics, do you think that could be the case here?
Obviously, yes. I mean, that’s the Monroe Doctrine. Interfering in South American, Central American, Mexican and Caribbean politics has been stated US foreign policy for 200 years. At least we’re not sending Fidel Castro exploding cigars anymore.
Thailand is now in their fourth month of a political crisis aimed at a self-exiled former prime minister who still has influence in their politics. Do you see this ending any time soon whatsoever?
We’re rapidly getting out of my wheelhouse here. But my sense is in Thailand, what’s being hashed out has a lot to do with the political power of the military, kind of like in Turkey. It seems to me like you have a lot of very wealthy people in Thailand who got wealthy relatively recently and they are challenging the traditional power of the military in Thai domestic politics. On the ground level it seems to be playing out along classic urban vs rural lines. And again, not that I know much about Thailand, but when you’ve got conflicts between elites that are big enough to essentially shut the country down for weeks at a time, it tends to go on for awhile.
PM Yingluck Shinawatra is under investigation right now by her own government, and the opposition leader is also under suspicion for corruption. The removal of Shinawatra would be the third coup in the country since 2006. How do you go about breaking that kind of deep corruption?
Again, I’m not saying political corruption isn’t a real thing, but you’ve got to ask yourself in situations like this, who is being accused of what, and by whom? Are you sure the people making the accusations of corruption aren’t simply staked in other kinds of behavior that could also be seen as corrupt?
A lot of what I’ve read has the students at the forefront of this one. Why do you think students and young people are always the first to join the fight?
As an old professor of mine used to say, society doesn’t give kids any power, so if they want it they have to try and take it.
Finally, the Ukraine has turned extremely brutal. Do you think Putin and Obama get involved in this, past the usual condemnations of violence?
Putin is already involved, and if the EU doesn’t back off, I’m sure he will get more involved. I’m sure Obama is acting as a very halfhearted advocate for European interests here, as he usually does. Unfortunately for the people doing the protesting at the ground level, who seem to have very legitimate aims of national self-determination, I don’t think any of the big players involved actually give a damn about them.
Ukraine is another country with deeply rooted corruption; President Victor Yanukovych was removed as PM in 2004 after allegations that he poisoned his rival for the presidential election. This can’t end well for him, right?
I think as long as he keeps it sweet with Putin he’ll be okay. Worst case scenario, he ends up living in a sweet McMansion in Dubai or something.
One of the main causes of this is a very public push for more integration with the EU against a pro-Russian president. Are we going to see more of this in the coming years in other countries?
I think in the next few years you are going to see a lot of Russia trying to reassert its influence in the former Warsaw Pact countries and in Central Asia. That’s the game. That’s always been the game.
Are you sure the people making the accusations of corruption aren’t simply staked in other kinds of behavior that could also be seen as corrupt?
Do you see any of these countries falling into full blown civil war like what we’ve seen with Syria?
I certainly hope not. But if you’re trying to figure out where that might happen, the key might be to look for similarities between Syria and Iraq. What Syria and Iraq have/had in common were a relatively small group ruling over a relatively large group or groups. In Iraq you had a Sunni minority ruling over a Shia majority. In Syria you have an Alawite minority ruling over a fractious coalition of groups, with Sunnis being the largest. That, combined with clumsy and ill-timed foreign intervention, seems to be what creates these nightmare situations. So if you apply that logic, the aforementioned Bahrain seems like it could go down that way. Egypt, mercifully, not so much. Full blown, violent state collapse in Egypt sounds like one of the worst things I can possibly imagine.
Looking at all of these protests, it’s kind of crazy that we haven’t had something like this in the United States for a long time. Occupy was a start for the left, the right wing had the Tea Party before it was absolved into the Republican Party – but really, nothing concrete came of either. Shouldn’t we be a prime candidate for something like this?
Honestly, no. I don’t see it. I think the state in America is extraordinarily efficient at its repressive functions, so much so that we barely see them, and I think we have this cultural emphasis on individualism that makes effective organization really difficult. That individualism has benefits as well. I think part of the reason that the US has had such effective civil rights movements – Black Power, gay rights, the Women’s Movement, etc – is because we are really good at explaining these things in terms of the rights of individuals to be happy and to participate in this meritocracy that we supposedly have. But we really seem to suck pretty bad at any sort of cross-sectional movement.
Now, as for how that plays out on the right, I’m reluctant to include the Tea Party, because the Tea Party was completely a creation of big, big money. Like crazy money. That’s not to say that the white tribal anger it seemed to capitalize on wasn’t real, but those angry white people were just being moved around on a chessboard by FreedomWorks and Koch Industries. Occupy, whatever its limitations, wasn’t based on a handful of rich people willing it into existence.
It’s easy to say bad things about Occupy after the fact, and I don’t want to stand around and kick the corpse, not when there were so many genuinely serious people involved. A good friend of mine dedicated the better part of a year of her life to the People’s Kitchen at Occupy Riverside and paid a heavy price for it. To denigrate Occupy is to denigrate people like her. But I can’t be clear enough about this – while Occupy’s rhetoric wounded some fragile egos in the financial services industry, I think Wall Street and whoever else never really considered Occupy to be a real threat. And it turns out they were correct. As (The Nation editor) Doug Henwood puts it:
“Hegemony means getting to choose your own opposition.”
You can follow Dr. Tannenbaum on Twitter at @marketfrankford.
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