News & Current Affairs

September 13, 2008

Expulsions stoke US-LatAm dispute

Expulsions stoke US-LatAm dispute

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

US-Venezuelan relations are said to have hit a new low

A series of tit-for-tat expulsions has left the US without ambassadors in three Latin American countries.

Bolivia and Venezuela have expelled their US envoys, accusing Washington of trying to oust Bolivia’s government.

Meanwhile, Honduras has refused the credentials of a new US ambassador, postponing his appointment.

Washington has responded by throwing out envoys from Bolivia and Venezuela and freezing the assets of three aides to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The US regretted the actions of Venezuela and Bolivia, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

“This reflects the weakness and desperation of these leaders as they face internal challenges, and an inability to communicate effectively internationally in order to build international support,” he said.

Bolivian and Venezuelan allegations – including that the US supports continuing anti-government protests in Bolivia – were false “and the leaders of those countries know it”, Mr McCormack added.

Relations between the US and Latin American opponents such as Mr Chavez had seemed to be on a holding pattern – but the situation has changed in a matter of days.

This week’s arrival in Venezuela of two Russian bomber planes taking part in a military exercise is not thought to have helped the situation.

And with more joint military exercises in the pipeline, our correspondent says it could take a while for tensions to subside.

Bolivia accusations

Freezing the assets of the three Venezuelan aides, the US Treasury accused them of “materially assisting the narcotics trafficking” of rebels in Colombia.

All three had “armed, abetted and funded the Farc, even as it terrorised and kidnapped innocents”, according to a statement from the US Treasury referring to the left-wing rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

Analysts say the trio – Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios, Henry de Jesus Rangel Silva and Ramon Rodriguez Chacin – are members of Mr Chavez’s inner circle.

Bolivian President Evo Morales (10 September)

Evo Morales accused the US envoy of meddling in Bolivia’s internal affairs

Mr Carvajal Barrios is a military intelligence director who has protected Farc drug shipments from seizure, claimed the US statement.

Mr Rangel Silva is another intelligence chief who had pushed for greater co-operation between Venezuela and the Farc, the US Treasury alleged.

And Mr Rodriguez Chacin, who until Monday was Venezuela’s justice minister, is Caracas’ main “weapons contact” for the Farc, the statement charged.

The flurry of diplomatic expulsions began on Thursday, when Bolivia threw out the American ambassador to La Paz, Philip Goldberg.

President Evo Morales said the US envoy had been siding with a violent opposition movement in the east of Bolivia, where groups are demanding greater autonomy and a bigger share of gas export revenues.

‘Go to hell’

US officials said the allegations were baseless, but nonetheless expelled the Bolivian ambassador to Washington in retaliation.

This prompted the Venezuelan leader to step into the fray alongside his Bolivian ally.

President Chavez gave US ambassador Patrick Duddy 72 hours to leave Caracas, telling him: “Go to hell 100 times.”

On Friday, Washington responded by giving the Venezuelan ambassador his marching orders.

Now Honduran President Manuel Zelaya has refused to accept the credentials of a new US ambassador.

“We are not breaking relations with the United States. We only are [doing this] is solidarity with Morales, who has denounced the meddling of the United States in Bolivia’s internal affairs,” Mr Zelaya said.

In a separate development, Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega said he supports Bolivia, but did not announce whether he would take any action against the US envoy in Managua.

A growing number of left-wing Latin American governments have backed Mr Chavez’s anti-US rhetoric.

The region has also benefited from the Venezuelan leader’s generosity with oil.

But the US is a leading trade partner and a major aid donor to Latin America, so few in the region will be happy relations have plummeted to this new low, according to our correspondent.

He says this diplomatic row is serious but will probably soon blow over, while Bolivia’s problems are only likely to get worse.

Advertisements

September 12, 2008

Washington expels Bolivian envoy

Washington expels Bolivian envoy

Bolivian President Evo Morales (10 September)

Mr Morales wants to carry out land reforms to bring wealth to poor areas

The US is to expel Bolivia’s envoy in Washington, one day after the US ambassador was told to leave Bolivia.

Bolivian ambassador Gustavo Guzman was declared “persona non grata”, the US state department said.

On Wednesday Bolivian President Evo Morales blamed US envoy Philip Goldberg for “conspiring against democracy” and encouraging the break-up of Bolivia.

Elsewhere, at least eight people have been killed in clashes between pro- and anti-government groups, reports say.

The fighting between rival supporters took place in the northern Pando province. Some 20 people were reported injured.

Bolivia has seen large protests in recent weeks by opponents of President Morales’s economic and social policies.

Reacting to the decision to expel Mr Goldberg, whom Mr Morales accused of inciting protesters, a US state department spokesman said it was a “grave error” and described the accusations as “baseless”.

Military protection

The eight deaths in Pando happened as pro- and anti-government protesters fought each other with clubs, machetes and firearms, officials say.

Protesters have also been blocking roads and occupying buildings in eastern regions, which are home to Bolivia’s important natural gas reserves.

Violence has flared in eastern Bolivia

Opposition groups want greater autonomy as well as more control over revenues of natural gas in their areas.

They object to Mr Morales’s plans to give more power to the country’s indigenous and poor communities, by carrying out land reform and redistributing gas revenues.

On Monday, the government announced it was sending the military to protect gas fields and infrastructure from demonstrators and guarantee exports to neighbouring countries.

On Wednesday, officials said saboteurs had caused a blast on a pipeline, forcing them to cut natural gas exports to neighboring Brazil by 10%.

The Brazilian foreign ministry said in a statement that the government was taking the necessary measures to guarantee gas supplies in the country.

The statement also expressed Brazil’s “grave concern” at the events in Bolivia, and deplored the outbreak of violence and attacks on state institutions and public order.

August 23, 2008

Russia’s neighbours go their own way

Russia’s neighbours go their own way

It is easy to assume that escalating tensions between Russia and the West could mean an end to the blurry fudges of the post-Cold War years and a recasting of East-West relations into black and white antagonism, with two opposing camps, each surrounded by its own sphere of influence.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is flanked (right) by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in Tbilisi on 12 August

Ukraine’s leader (R) went to Tbilisi to back President Saakashvili

But look at how the Georgia crisis is being received around Russia’s edges. The response is often evasive, and sometimes downright surprising.

Among the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which 20 years ago were constituent parts of the USSR whose loyalty to Moscow was automatic, Russia has won remarkably few endorsements. Some Central Asian states have sent in aid to South Ossetia. But on the whole the response has been decidedly muted.

To be fair, Georgia too has drawn criticism. But gone are the days when Moscow could rely on satellite states to speak up for it. For Russia’s leaders to declare that Russia was and always will be the “guarantor of stability” in the Caucasus is now a risky statement that could repel as well as draw regional backing.

Its neighbours are now independent countries whose priority is not to please the Kremlin but turn any crisis to their advantage, or worry about how it might adversely affect them.

Economic interests first

Next door to Georgia in the Caucasus, Azerbaijan’s top concern is to keep the pipeline that runs from Baku through Georgian territory to Turkey free from threat of attack.

But President Ilham Aliyev is also apparently wary of aggravating Russia. He has now publically backed Georgia’s territorial integrity, but steered clear of more vigorous support of Tbilisi.

Elderly refugees from South Ossetia sit in a refugee camp in North Ossetia, Russia,  on 10 August

Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have donated aid for Ossetian refugees

Landlocked Turkmenistan too, with its immense gas fields on the other side of the Caspian Sea, has a lively interest in making sure the Baku pipeline is not disrupted and Georgia remains a stable reliable partner.

It competes as well as collaborates with Russia as an energy supplier. It does not want one of its main outlets threatened.

And beleaguered Armenia, at the southern tip of the Caucasus, has even more reason to be alarmed. Any prolonged conflict in Georgia would disrupt all its supply routes.

Further west and closer to Europe in the “former Soviet space”, there has been an even more marked shift in governmental responses.

Tiny impoverished Moldova, on the border between Romania and Ukraine, has its own “frozen conflict” unsolved from Soviet days: the Russian-supported and heavily armed enclave of Trans-Dniester.

So this week Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin pointedly turned to the European Union for help in finding a peaceful way out of that stand-off.

Ukrainian ambivalence

In Ukraine, President Viktor Yushchenko from the very start saw Russia’s military intervention in Georgia as an implied threat. Ukraine too is a Nato aspirant, and Russia has frequently warned it that Nato membership is something it will not tolerate.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (image from 14 July)

Yulia Tymoshenko is likely to run in the next election

So President Yushchenko was swift to define himself as the champion of Ukraine’s right to join Nato and defy Russian pressure.

Not only did he fly to Tbilisi to offer moral support, he issued a presidential decree to remind Russia that its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol in the Crimea does, after all, use a Ukrainian port.

In future, he demanded, Russia must give 72 hours’ notice before moving its vessels and he once again raised the prospect that Ukraine might not renew its lease for the port when it expires in 2017.

But how Russia’s relations with Ukraine might unwind is not straightforward.

The fear has certainly been expressed in Kiev that a restive pro-Russian population in the Crimea might provide a pretext for another Russian military intervention. Russian nationalists who see the Crimea as historically Russian territory would seize any pretext to realise their ambitions, goes the argument.

What is certainly true is that a clash between Moscow and Kiev over the Crimea would probably cleave Ukraine in half and open up a dangerous conflict with widespread repercussions. But a more likely scenario is less dramatic.

Russia has only to wait for a change in Ukrainian politics. President Yushchenko may be a prominent leader but his long term-durability is not guaranteed. Opinion polls put his popularity at under 10%.

With presidential elections due in 18 months, the Kremlin may well reckon it can look for a more reliable partner in his likely opponent and current Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, who has been remarkably quiet on the Georgia crisis.

Mixed signals from Minsk

But perhaps the most interesting response has come from Belarus and its President, Alexander Lukashenko, sometimes described as “Europe’s last dictator”.

Belarussian police arrest demonstrators outside the Russian embassy on 11 August

Belarussian police pounced on anti-Russian protestors during the conflict

Only a few years ago Russia was such a close ally, there was talk of the two countries merging, so one might have expected him to back Russia’s action in the Caucasus.

But Belarus has had a series of bad-tempered rows with Russia over energy supplies and has recently shown more interest in improving Western contacts.

The initial response from Minsk to Russia’s intervention in Georgia was decidedly ambivalent – so much so, that the Russian ambassador there even publicly expressed his displeasure.

President Lukashenko then travelled to Sochi to reassure President Medvedev that Moscow’s military operation had been conducted “calmly, wisely and beautifully”.

But he took steps to clear the way for better relations with the US and Europe.

In the last few days the final three political prisoners in Belarus have been suddenly released – the beneficiaries, it seems, of an unexpected presidential pardon.

“It’s very significant,” said Britain’s Ambassador to Minsk, Nigel Gould Davies. “For the first time in a decade Belarus does not have any political prisoners.”

And watch this space. Whether Belarus is really serious about improving its relations with the West will be tested in September, when it holds parliamentary elections.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.