The Government of Ukraine

Protesters filled the streets in 2014, hoping to bring down President Viktor Yanukovych. The Ukrainian people longed for a favorable government. The pro-Russian Yanukovych had made several unpopular decisions. He imprisoned his political rivals, he harassed several independent journalists, he ordered military force upon peaceful protests, and what pushed most Ukrainians over the edge was his decision to not sign an agreement that would form an alliance between Ukraine and the European Union.

Ukraine’s only problems are by no means solely political as the state of its economy has plummeted. The hryvnia, Ukraine’s currency, trades at a rate of about 10:1 with the US dollar. Ukraine’s government has recently been confronted with short-term debts with interest rates that peaked at 15%. In 2014, Ukraine’s bonds were just as weak, if not weaker than Venezuela’s. Directly after the post-Soviet era in 1991, Ukraine became an extremely unproductive economy. Ukrainians experienced large amounts of hyperinflation, which frightened them. The Ukrainian central bank made the switch from their old currency of karbovanets to their current currency of hryvnias and pledged to keep it stable; this currency change took place in 1996. Ukraine’s government certainly has not been stable since this pledge. Numerous Ukrainian businesses refuse to pay taxes, and this of course deprives the Ukrainian government of revenues. The most recent prime minister of Ukraine has approximated that about $37 billion left the country’s possession during Viktor Yanukovych’s rule. According to the Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Ukraine is ranked 130th out of 168 countries in terms of corruption, 11 spots behind Russia.

In early August of 2014, the US’s Democratic Party divided when deciding to send lethal weapons and gear to Ukraine. The Obama administration had given to Ukraine non-lethal equipment (i.e. night-vision goggles and armored vehicles). Many, alongside Committee Chairman Carl Levin asked President Obama to go even further and send Ukraine lethal weapons. The demand for US weapon support will increase as Russia continues to interfere in Ukraine and the risk of open warfare develops. Barack Obama hinted at the fact that weapons could very well be sent to Ukraine if Russia decides to invade Ukraine. John McCain has accused the Obama administration of showing a “cowardly” approach to the situation by not sending Ukraine the necessary weapons and equipment that Mr. McCain believes they need. Ukraine’s military force has previously shown signs of unprofessionalism, and they have lacked the preparation skills of other military forces. In the summer of 2014, 311 Ukrainian troops decided to leave their weapons behind and cross the Russian border. The government in Kiev claimed that the troops had just experienced a short supply of ammunition. There have been several cases of odd behavior from the Ukrainian military. The US should most likely hold off on sending Ukraine any means of lethal weapons until they show that they are capable of a larger degree of discipline and professionalism. Ukraine clearly has several issues, and their government seems to be far from closing in on solutions for these problems.

Ukraine’s government has several political worries. About 50% of Ukrainians back improving relations with Russia; while the remaining 50% of Ukraine’s population are entirely opposed. One major recent issue is that the Ukrainian government in the country’s capital, Kiev, has recently lacked authority its eastern territory territory. Investigative journalist Manuel Ochsenreiter gave an interview and stated, “we have to realize that in the eyes of those protesters, the government in Kiev is a sort of gang of oligarchs, of organized crime, of terrorists, and of course hooligans, and when we see who is right now governing in Kiev, they are not so wrong”, when asked about protesters in Kiev. The government in Kiev greatly desires the military and economic backing of the West, especially NATO and the European Union. The government wants to encourage Russia to take military action, according to Ochsenreiter.

Ukraine has the possibility of striving as a country if it can build and maintain a strong as well as an improved economic and political situation. It would be ideal for Ukraine to become a completely democratic country, but they first need to come across a solution that will hopefully unify the country and solve their problems with government corruption.

The Russian Wildcard: A Losing Hand

For the United States, Russia is the focus of mixed emotions. In more informal media, it is the source of great humor over their tough-as-nails, vodka-drinking stereotypes. Other times, the country, and specifically its leader, Vladimir Putin, get attention for being nefarious underdog competitors of the United States, slowly and indirectly trying to strike back at us in a revival of Cold War tensions. The reality of modern Russia under the leadership of Mr. Putin is not ideal, but not terribly dangerous to the average US citizen. Their resource based economy has been severely hurt by the drop in oil prices and the international community’s response to their aggressive actions in Ukraine and the Middle East. A quick search shows that the US Dollar is equal to almost 60 Russian Rubles. It is true that they sit on the largest nuclear stockpile in the world, but it is also true that the United States possesses a stockpile ranked at a dangerously close second, enough to keep the dynamics of mutually assured destruction alive. In any case, Russia has been trying to strengthen its influence on the world stage in recent years, despite its weakened economy. This pursuit causes the government of Russia to, at times, act more like a gang than a respectable, permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

One of the more blatant examples of Russia’s indiscriminate tendencies is their consistent bombing of rebelling Syrian forces in the city of Aleppo at great cost to the civilian population. They do this in support of President Bashar al-Assad and his fiercely nationalist administration. President Assad is infamous for using chemical weapons against citizens of his own country, most notably in August of 2013, when his military dropped about 1,000 kg of sarin gas in the rebel-held suburbs of Ghouta, killing over 1,000 men, women and children. Mr. Putin’s government has no qualms about supporting people who use those kinds of brutal tactics. The only sign from Russia that may be taken as a signal of their disapproval of such tactics came when they did not veto a UNSC resolution “…to investigate and determine the perpetrators of the chemical attacks in Syria.” Since then, Russia has continued to support the Assad regime’s fight against the rebels, even if it means killing civilians. The Human Rights Watch NGO states that in two months alone in the city of Aleppo, the Russian-Syrian coalition’s bombing campaign “…killed more than 440 civilians, including more than 90 children.” Both the targeting strategy and the types of weapons used were “recklessly indiscriminate.” At least one hospital was purposely targeted and cluster munitions and incendiary weapons were used to inflict maximum damage.  The situation in Aleppo represents a tremendous and unnecessary loss of life as a result of Russia’s attempt to support an ally and back nationalistic causes.

Devastation in Aleppo
Devastation in Aleppo

Russia has also tried to broaden its influence through direct interference with the United States presidential elections, strengthening its stance as the wildcard of world politics. The US government has confirmed that Russia was behind the successful hacking of the Democratic National Committee and other organizations within the Democratic Party. According to CNN, this Russian hacking publicized “…thousands of stolen emails, many of which included damaging revelations about the Democratic Party and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton…” The CIA later discovered and announced that Russian hackers were responsible not only for attempting to damage Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, but also for helping Mr. Trump through assistance in the spreading of fake news about Hillary Clinton. In both cases, Russia was successful in its attempts to bolster its reputation as an international wildcard with far-reaching influence.

In the same way that cash is king in a gang hierarchy, the same goes for Mr. Putin and his inner circle of Russian oil aristocrats. In the time since Mr. Trump’s election to the presidency of the United States, Russian billionaires, many of which have close ties to Mr. Putin, have gained a combined total $29 billion on their net worth. These astronomical figures attract suspicion to Mr. Putin’s personal financial dealings and his motivations to authorize the hacking that the CIA has now stated helped Trump in his election campaign. Gennady Timchenko has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the rise in wealth. In 2014, he withdrew his stake in an oil trading firm the day before the United States brought sanctions against it due to Mr. Putin’s alleged personal investment in the firm. So, like a gang leader, Mr. Putin has a vested interest in the success of the major companies he is tied to.

As it appears, Mr. Putin currently sits as the ring-leader of a gang of Russian oil and steel magnates, looking out for their monetary well-being and potentially getting a cut of the profit in return. When combined with Russia’s purposeful killing of civilians in Syria, it makes for a grim picture of the troublesome nuclear power that is Russia in the 21st century.

The PKK: Back Where We Started

Both ideologically and in the way it emphasizes violence, the PKK is the most radical Kurdish political movement Turkey has ever seen. In the final two decades of the twentieth century, the PKK waged a bloody and costly guerilla war on the Turkish government which killed tens of thousands of people, reaching its peak in the 1990’s when many villages in the southeast part of Turkey (a predominantly Kurdish region) were destroyed. Thousands of Kurds were displaced and fled to other parts of the country.

The PKK originally emerged from one of the radical left tendencies in the Kurdish student movement of the 1970’s when some students (both Kurds and Turks) decided to dedicate themselves to the cause of liberating the Kurdish people from oppression on a class and a national level. They went east, attempting to mobilize disaffected Kurdish youth against the government. Abdullah Ocalan became their leader as they formally organized the group in 1978, assuming dictatorial powers.

Back in 1920, following the end of WWI, originated the reason for Kurdish oppression; the Treaty of Sevres, which was supposed to be implemented in Turkey in 1920, providing for an autonomous Kurdistan. However, Turkey forced modifications to be made in the treaty and the plan was never put into place. Since then, the Kurds have never been allowed full rights as a minority in Turkey.

So what is it that they want? The goal of the PKK, in the eyes of the Turkish government, is to separate from Turkey and create their own state. Most Kurds, however, simply wish for greater autonomy within the existing borders of Turkey.

The PKK was one of several Kurdish nationalist organizations around the time of the 1980 military coup in Turkey, and it was the sole survivor; the rest of the groups were wiped out in the wake of the coup. Ocalan had escaped to Syria earlier, where he gained support from Palestine and Syria and was able to organize guerilla training in Lebanon and later northern Iraq.

By 1984, the PKK actually started carrying out raids on military positions in Turkey, and despite all of Turkey’s counterinsurgency operations, such as bombings of suspected Kurdish camps and even invasions of Iraq, the PKK struck deep into the heart of the country. The countryside was torn apart as both the PKK and the government pressured villagers to take sides and either group would react forcefully if they suspected any disloyalty. The 1990’s brought on a few ideological and strategic changes as the PKK renounced their original goal of a united, independent Kurdistan and instead aimed for a much more modest deal with the Turkish government. It showed support for legal, pro-Kurdish parties, attempting without much success to bring them under its control.

Although the PKK attempted to engage Turkish authorities in negotiations and at several points announced a unilateral ceasefire, the PKK was unable to turn the war from a military struggle to a purely political one. Abdullah Ocalan was hunted down and put on trial for high treason in 1999, and was originally sentenced to death, but the sentence was later changed to lifelong imprisonment in 2002. At this time, the PKK underwent a bit of a struggle with its identity, changing the name of the organization numerous times in just a few years, claiming non-violent and democratic intentions, and saying it would work within the confines of Turkish law to improve the status of the oppressed Kurdish people.

What needs to happen for the Turkish government to make peace with the Kurds? The struggle in Turkey seems to spiral more and more out of control as time goes on, with the end of the brief ceasefire between Ankara and the PKK in 2013 and with President Erdogan fueling the fight with the PKK in order to gain a political advantage in 2015. Since the breakdown of the ceasefire in the summer of 2015, the violence in southeast Turkey has been reminiscent of the devastation of that region in the 80’s and 90’s. The situation must be disturbing for Erdogan, who is seen as the perpetrator of this war; he took on the Kurds militarily, using his campaign against them to garner votes  He persuaded voters that he and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) were the only ones who could cope with the PKK terror threat.

Erdogan claims he wants a deal that would end the thirty years of war between Turkey and the PKK rebels, but hasn’t taken any action to push forward with a peace process. According to a 2013 New York Times article, “until he understands that the Kurdish problem in Turkey is about politics and identity, and not just about getting the guerrillas to withdraw from Turkey and give up their weapons, there will be no hope for peace.”

But Erdogan is not the only problematic person involved; Ocalan may not be the right guy to negotiate with, or to ensure democracy for the Kurds, as he is highly authoritarian – while he was based in Syria for nearly two decades, he consolidated power by killing or isolating challengers. A peace deal between the Turkish government and the Kurds needs to answer the Kurds’ call for human rights in a way that will protect the views of the Kurdish people as a whole, not just Ocalan and the PKK.

The Kurds aren’t asking for as much as they once were; they desire autonomy and an end to the repression of Kurdish activism. Turkey hopes for security and preservation of its borders. Rather than treating the PKK as a sort of security problem and negotiating solely with Ocalan, Erdogan should focus on a solution that actually addresses the Kurds’ grievances concerning cultural rights and autonomy.

The Sicilian Mafia: An Offer the Italian Government Can’t Refuse

When you think of the mafia, you probably think of gangsters and mobsters with guns and Marlon Brando calling the shots. In reality, it isn’t just a bunch of Italians shouting and shooting at each other. They are actually very involved in Italian society, politics, and the economy. The Sicilian Mafia are basically a state within a state; they have their own citizens , land, and laws. The Mafia offers physical protection and security, which the Italian government hasn’t been able to promise since their reunification in the 1860s. Today, the Sicilian Mafia actually works alongside the Italian government as a governing power.
The Sicilian Mafia originated in the 1800s. Sicily, the southern island of Italy, was a prime location and target for raiders to come and try and take over the land. Sicilians came together to form groups in order to protect themselves from invaders. Later, these groups became private armies called the “mafie.” They extorted protection money from landowners and eventually become the violent “Sicilian Mafia,” or in Italian, Casa Nostra, meaning ‘our thing,’. Sicily became a unified part of Italy in 1861, but the Sicilian Mafia acted as a government while the Italian government struggled. The Italian government was established in Rome, and the distance and geographical circumstance of the island of Sicily made it difficult for the government to gain a hold there. In the 1870s, the Italian government asked the Sicilian Mafia to go after dangerous criminal bands that were causing them trouble. In exchange, the government would ignore the Mafia’s taxing of landowners. The Italian government thought that this would be a temporary fix to their problem as they tried to establish their government. However, this allowed the Sicilian Mafia to gain more power and further engrain themselves in Italian society, politics, and economy. For example, the Mafia started threatening people to vote for certain politicians who supported the Mafia. The Catholic Church even hired the Mafia to watch over land holdings and keep farmer tenants in check.
Today, the Mafia consists of an estimated 1,500 men categorized into 67 ‘families’ just in the province of Palermo, Sicily. A regional committee governs the Casa Nostra, and under that is a provincial committee. Then, there is a colonel who watches over three families. Each family has power over a certain territory. The families each have a chief, counselor, deputies, sergeants, and soldiers. The families are somewhat kin-oriented. Members of the family tend to be extended through from father to sons, uncles to nephews, and through godparenthood. However, talent is a big part of the job, so some sons of cosca members who are thought to lack the criminal abilities (cough cough, Al Pacino, cough cough) are passed over in favor of promising delinquents from unrelated backgrounds.
The Mafia is extremely integrated in Italy’s economy and politics today. They account for about 7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, making it Italy’s biggest business. Popular professions include professional tailors for high fashion companies in Milan, pirating DVDs, fishermen, and brewmasters. Their role in politics is also extensive. Antonino Giuffre, number two in the Sicilian Mafia, recounted after his arrest that former prime minister Giulio Andreotti was associated with the Mafia, saying that “Relations between the Christian Democrats [CD] and Cosa Nostra were serene for at least a decade, there was absolute peace.” The Mafia support certain candidates and often rig elections so they win, and in return, they receive political impunity for their violence and crimes. It assumes some government functions such as protection and works parallel to the government when it elects its supporters to key positions. Palermo Prosecutor Giancarlo Caselli says that this is possible because the Sicilian Mafia has a “fifth column” in Sicilian life.
So, it doesn’t seem like the Mafia will be going anywhere anytime soon. Between an inept stateno stable government, and deficient public service system, Italy seems to need the Mafia. The weak Italian government aside, “The mafia-dominated corruption that entangles the country is so deeply rooted that it is all but impossible to reform (or preferably eliminate). Such reform could today only come about by eliminating the central government,”. The Mafia’s idea of honor is still held by many Sicilians who wouldn’t dare support the elimination of the Mafia. The Mafia’s strong roots have supported its control of Italy since the 19th century. Its extensive role in Italian society, economy, and politics demonstrate its role as essentially a shadow government.