Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Putin's Russia:Parallels with Al-Assad


The first part in a new series on Russia, its internal politics, and its role in International affairs.

The recent news that a Russian cargo ship, bound for Syria, has turned back after having its insurance to move through British waters revoked by the government is troubling. On board the MV Alead reportedly were three Mi-25 Helicopter Gunships and a new advanced air defence system; the perfect tools to fight a civil war and to deter any potential interference from the outside world. The ship, which was flying the flag of the Dutch-Antilles, is now likely re-sail under the Russian tricolour as a sign of the Putin regime’s determination to support Al-Assad.

In such a case, any attempt by the British authorities to prevent the passage of the ship would be highly prevocational and illegal. Instead the significance of the matter remains with the actions of the Russians: Putin’s determination to defy the western world is indicative of his deep paranoia over internal opposition and of the continuance of his outward-looking KGB Cold-War mentality. Indeed the recent wave of protests that have accompanied Putin’s re-entrance into the Kremlin have provoked a difficult situation for the regime. The propping up of Assad is becoming increasingly reflective of the domestic situation in Russia, as the Oligarchy resorts to intimidation and oppression of opposition forces, fearing a movement reflective of the Arab-spring.
Pro-Democracy protests against Putin's rigged re-election to the Kremlin: New laws against protests are indicative of the police state characteristics of Putin's internal and external policies (more on the protests in Part 2) 

This paranoia is compounded by the paranoia of the ruling elite, who see every attempt to challenge them as part of a wider western-led plot to overthrow them. Luke Harding, in his book Mafia State has estimated that up to 77% of the political elite could have FSB ( (Russia’s post-Soviet Intelligence agency) and/or KGB backgrounds, including 42% of leaders who are already known to have had. Such a makeup goes some way to explaining the action of a regime that has moved to solidify its position internally through oppression, whilst simultaneously remaining belligerent in its diplomacy toward democracies. It is therefore unsurprising that despite the moral-bankruptcy of his position, Putin continues to block UN resolutions towards Syria, considering the immediate parallels that can be drawn between the protests in Syria and the Arab world in general, and the protests against Putin’s recently rigged return to the Kremlin

Aside from explanations centred on the backward and autocratic mentality of Russia’s political elite, and the parallels that can be drawn between Syria’s revolution and Russia’s own internal opposition (more to come in a future article), the regime’s actions can be viewed as an attempt to remain a big game player on the international stage. Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs has stated “my deep conviction is that Russia has not cared about its international image for a long time.” This may be true, to the extent that Russia does not care what the west thinks of it. But Putin is desperate to revive the strength of his Russian state; which means being taken seriously by both internal opposition and the West.

The support of Syria is just one on a list of actions that share inconspicuously the common theme of highlighting the strength and autonomy of Putin’s regime from the West. The murder of the KGB defector Alexander Litvineko by FSB agents in London in 2006, which was likely to have been ordered, or at least endorsed, by Putin, is another such example. In the aftermath of the assassination, the Putin regime refused to give up the supposed killer, Andrei Lugovoi, and even endorsed him for political office. The invasion of Georgia to humiliate the country and its president, Mikheil Saakashvili in 2008, for their pro-Western stance is also indicative of this.

A posed picture as part of Putin's carefully cultivated 'Strongman' image
The message of Russia’s actions in Syria is simple: ‘We don’t need the West and we do as we please.’ But as The Economist has argued, Russian defiance should not be seen as an insurmountable bar to action: It did not prove to be in Kosovo in 1999. The UN Security-Council should thus move to outmanoeuvre Russia, and sideline it from resolutions, particularly if China’s position softens further. My personal suspicion is that Putin does care about Russia’s international image, just as he cares so obviously about his domestic one. Just as he wants to return Russia to great-power status, so too does he want to project an image of strength. The response therefore, should be strength from the West against him; to be ignored in the case of Syria would be a humiliation for Putin both internationally and at home.

Putin’s legitimacy had been quashed in the wake of the election-rigging scandal and his oppression against opposition and his support of dictatorial regimes is reflective of this domestic context. With his regime’s position so morally-bankrupt, western leaders should not allow him the pleasure of playing such a major, and disruptive, role in international relations.

Upcoming:

Part two of this feature will deconstruct Putin’s so called ‘Mafia State’ and assess how Putin’s ascendancy to power has corresponded with the formation of an autocratic oligarchy. Part three will question whether, with the centennial anniversary of the 1917 revolution soon coming into view, popular opposition forces will have the strength to enact a new revolution.

Friday, 22 June 2012

ART


THE KIZITO ARTS MOVEMENT

"I am what I am because of who we all are."- Leymah Gbowee

Welcome to the world of the controversial and provocative Artist Patson Ncube and his fascinating new project - The KIZITO Arts Movement



The KIZITO Arts Movement is a large collective of Artist's local to Cambridge, London and Brighton. To date, featuring the work of Elise Naomi Buddle, Helen Lanzrein, Joe Dean, Nicola Powys, Oliver Wallington and Richard Hickman, this is an expansive and varied family, the very backbone of the project, though, lies buried deep in the complex and compelling works of the collective's founder - Zimbabwean Artist Patson Ncube. 

"How do I explain Ubuntu? It is everything. Everywhere. Ubuntu is what it means to be human. It is working together, creating together, surviving together."
Patson Ncube has been making provocative, political, richly spiritual paintings for many years. A graduate of Westminster School of Art, he has squatted in London warehouses, campaigned outside government buildings and taught Art at various different levels across the western world. However, always at the very heart of his work the concept or philosophy of 'Ubuntu' has remained central. 'Ubuntu' is an illusive and expansive African philosophy mysteriously devoid of a tangible origin, discussed by a wealth of leading political figures, from Desmond Tutu to Nelson Mandela, and embodying all the invaluable virtues that society strives for, clasping for harmony and the spirit of sharing among it's members. 'Ubuntu' essentially promotes an altruistic ethic, a way of life that requires constant selflessness, constant understanding of your surroundings and of your fellow human beings.

It is this fascinating concept, this idea that "United we stand, divided we fall" that clearly excites Ncube. He discusses the concept with a gleam in his eye and the sort of thoughtful eloquence one would expect having observed the intellectual complexities of his work. The painting shown above, which will possibly be included in several of the upcoming shows, is a piece entitled "My God Is A Nigger" and while at first glance it seems little more than frank, candid, provocative scrawling, when he discusses this work Ncube explains that it is clearly not a controversial publicity stunt. "That painting says it all. God is always what people want him to be. He is everything to everyone and to me... he is exactly that. But if he is everything to everyone... why do we fight over him?" Ncube's work typically combines these bold rebellious observations about Religion and Racism with a strong personal narrative, weaving African history, attractively abstract colour schemes and wonderfully simplistic designs with an immediate sense of spirituality, seemingly portraying one man's journey into his past and surroundings and often evoking a sense of disbelief and incredulousness upon arriving at his destination.

Ncube's work has undoubtedly undergone an evolution of sorts, from his early works that were clearly  voicing a very angry, very critical take on his surroundings, to his more ambiguous, more spiritual works in recent years, he explains, "Coming from where I come from, Zimbabwe, looking at my early work... I was very angry. It was just something I never understood, that someone could not only discriminate but that they couldn't possibly co-exist with me, just because of the colour of my skin or where I come from, it made me crazy. I thought I was going mad, I was always thinking 'What the fuck?'"
Thankfully, though his work is more quietly observant nowadays, it still retains this air of disbelief, this 'What the fuck?' sensibility and it's this combined with his understanding of 'Ubuntu' philosophy that provides the backbone to the incredibly varied KIZITO Arts Movement exhibitions that begin on the 7th of July at 'Cafe Julienne' on Regents Street, in Cambridge.


At the heart of the exhibition is the idea of unity. The sense that the collective is more important than the individual, and fittingly, Ncube has gathered an unusually varied community of Artists who will be contributing to the series of KIZITO Art exhibitions, set to descend upon several locations in Cambridge, before travelling to Brighton and then later in the year, showing at various London galleries and spaces. One of these individuals is Elise Naomi Buddle, a Brighton-based Artist whose gloriously hypnotic works (above) explore notions of control in society, both in their conception and in their complex execution. She creates expansive, truly visually arresting works, rich with ambiguous imagery and symbolism, that evoke atmospheric landscapes seemingly inspired by abstract forms. When seen alongside Ncube's own spiritual journey's the works compliment and communicate with each other; illustrating the truly collaborative nature of 'Ubuntu' philosophy and the unity that lies within very different Artist's work.

Oliver Wallington's work, (above) large abstract paintings, site-specific and video installations, explore violence and intimacy using grotesque, fractured forms and looming religious imagery while casting a broad cynical eye at contemporary society and it's treatment of the themes central to his work. Though perhaps a little less aesthetically pleasing than Buddle or Ncube's work, again when seen together in a KIZITO exhibition, the sense of collaboration and collective exploration translate beautifully. (If I may say so myself.)




Another greatly anticipated contributor is the hugely talented Joe Dean - a superb figurative Artist whose own work draws on delicate observations of nature and his environment and captures, in stunning oils, beautiful moments from a wide range of classic Cinematic moments, will be a particular hit at The Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, which is where the exhibition moves on the 3rd of August.

Upon reflection, observing the various members of this new KIZITO Arts Collective, many of which are not covered in this article, one is struck by the incredible quality of the varied work on show and the inexplicable sense of unity that a collection of their work evokes, in fact an important 'Ubuntu' philosophy suddenly springs to mind, in the words of Desmond Tutu "We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas, in fact, we are all connected and what we do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity."

The KIZITO Arts Movement looks to combine the insurmountable talents of a variety of contemporary Artist who might otherwise be overlooked or remain solitary and create a series of exhibitions that will continue to evolve and grow, adding members as they travel, spreading their message of community and unity and showcasing a broad plethora of stunning talent while actively illustrating the power and beauty of thoughtfully curated ensemble exhibitions. Together indeed, they stand and united they surely won't fall.


Find the KIZITO Arts Movement at; 
twitter: @KIZITOArts
            @WallingtonArt


Facebook: www.facebook.com/KizitoArtsMovement


Blog: http://kizitoartmovement.wordpress.com/

The KIZITO Art Movement are: 
Elise Naomi Buddle
Helen Lanzrein
Joe Dean
Patson Ncube/KIZITO
Nicola Powys
Oliver Wallington
Richard Hickman



The Progress Trap?

A powerful feature-length documentary on the nature of progress and how a narrow definition of the term is having severe consequences for human kind and the planet. This is highly recommended watching that will put the fiscal crisis and our other first-world problems in a bit of perspective. More than just an environmental film, 'Surviving Progress' draws together different elements such as the intricacies of human psychology, the 'science' of economics, the nature of debt and the collapse of the great historical civilisations. The documentary questions the very nature of traditional economics, which is leading us to the precipice of self-destruction in the name of individual accumulation. The result is a thought-provoking (and hopefully practice-changing) film that presents the paradox of economic development; the most needy are reliant on environmental destruction to pay their debts to the banks, and the western world to sustain our lifestyle. It argues therefore that economics is a flawed science, with no grounding in the natural world, and that our psychological emphasis on short-term benefit could lead us into a new dark age, such as consumed Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. 'Progress' is taken as a fundamental constant: In fact 'regression' has been probably more frequent in human history. We are beginning to develop the engineering capacity of Gods; we need now to develop the moral capacity and longer-term vision of God if we are to survive.

Full film available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LeEPfiaeRA0

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Austerity vs Growth

In his recently released book ‘End this Depression now!’ Nobel-Prize winning economist Paul Krugman cuts against the current economic consensus, arguing for a return to Keynesian economics to push us out of the current recession. He believes that the deficit needs to be extended with more public spending in order to restore the confidence of consumers and businesses. With the recent democratic revolutions in Europe against austerity, Krugman has stated that today's voters across Europe have proved themselves "wiser than the Continent's best and brightest.”



Krugman’s arguments will be wind in the sails of Labour, who are advocating a ‘pro-growth’ strategy of enlarged public spending. The logic is that just like in the 1930s, governments must spend more during a recession in order to stimulate demand. The danger is that, as R. Rajan in Foreign Affairs has pointed out, the current recession is very different in nature to that of 80 years ago. He has argued that the recent growth has been fuelled by cheap borrowing – and this ‘debt-fuelled growth’ is unsustainable. Austerity is therefore necessary to cut the deficit and ensure the confidence of those lending to Britain.

So what is it to be – Austerity or Growth? With Europe’s voters rejecting austerity, the coalition is coming under increasing fire from both voters, in local elections, and many commentators also. Labour has rallied against austerity, blaming the coalition for the ‘double dip’ that the British economy has taken. However, the major extent of the coalition’s austerity has yet to hit, and with the EU being Britain’s largest trading area, the Euro implosion is undoubtedly having a significant impact.

Across the pond, Obama can take credit for overseeing a rejuvenation of the US economy with a significant stimulus package, evidence for Krugman and Labour’s cause. But US fiscal policy also mixes in necessary fiscal restraint, perhaps in part enforced by the brinkmanship tactics of the Republicans. Furthermore the US economy is also being rejuvenated by dynamic states who enjoy significant autonomy from the centre but are nevertheless required to balance their budgets – policies that are noticeably far from the Labour vision.

America is proving that austerity and growth are not necessarily mutually exclusive: Obama’s emphasis on ‘fairness’ is certainly a more palatable message to voters than the austerity enforced by centre-right parties across Europe (and facing widespread rejection). Yet the question has still not been answered as to when the bill will be paid. Obama’s plan, in an election year, may be successful in securing his re-election – in France, Hollande has been successful in using a more drastic plan to overturn Sarkozy. Here, Labour are promising much of what Krugman has advocated, but like Obama and Hollande are yet to decide when the budget deficit will be reduced. As a party largely reliant on high public spending, it is difficult to see them taking the plunge (if they are elected and recovery occurs) to cut spending when Britain is on the up again. It’s all very well promising more ‘debt-fuelled growth’, but Labour are yet to prove they are mature enough to keep the more sour end of the fiscal bargain – footing the bill during the good years.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Racism at the Euros


As Euro 2012 peers its head around the corner – ominously for some England football fans, though inconsequentially for most – the media has been awash with pieces regarding racism in the host nations, Poland and Ukraine. The bulk of it has focussed on the revelation that the families of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will not be travelling to the group stages of the tournament, for fear of racist abuse. The prolific undercurrent of racism in Ukrainian and Polish football does indeed warrant anxiety; racism is still present in the English football (as demonstrated by the recent Premier League season), but campaigns such as the ‘Kick It Out’ movement indicate a much stronger intent to eliminate racism that has been shown by UEFA, Polish and Ukrainian authorities hitherto. Indeed the 2012 tournament will be a spotlight on the desire of these groups to clampdown on racism, should any occur. 

The BBC has also recently aired a Panorama entitled ‘Euro 2012: Stadiums of Hate’, which documents the conduct of fans at domestic football matches in both the host nations. In the programme there are swathes of the crowd, in almost every game, that engage in Nazi gesturing, with no interventions whatsoever from authorities. One senior Ukrainian police officer rather glibly claims in an interview that the support had been culpable only of pointing to the opposition fans, with no Nazi connotations intended. 

This occurred at a game between teams in the top tier of Ukrainian football, which is noteworthy in the fallout of the media storm: Ukraine’s foreign ministry spokesman, Oleg Voloshyn, hit back by saying that "Nazi symbols can be seen at ... any match in England, but does it mean that fans should not come to London for the Olympics?”, which is not only incorrect, but a rather fatuous point to boot. It is a non sequitur because the demographic of fans that will be attending the Olympic Games is quite different to those that frequent our football stadiums. And that is in no way an indictment of our current football stadiums, either. English football has had its hooligan heyday during the 60s and 70s, although since the inception of the big money Premier League, and other advances in the policing and stadium requirements, things have been much improved. To claim that one would see the kind of behaviour in the terraces of England’s lower leagues – let alone its jewel in the crown – is rather fanciful. Conversely, to say that there are no longer English football fans who would want to comport themselves in such a manner, given half the chance, is likewise na├»ve. But for the moment, British society at large holds racism in enough contempt for it to not be apparent, or at least accepted, in everyday life. And herein lies the problem for Poland and Ukraine, as demonstrated in part by the by the response – or lack thereof – by stewards and police to the abhorrent behaviour. It would seem that there is simply not enough attention paid to the racism that appears to blight the terraces of Polish and Ukrainian football grounds, which must indicate a lack of compassion to the cause by these societies. 

In an article by blogger Brendan O’Neill on The Telegraph’s website it is argued that this view in itself is ironically xenophobic, where an anti-racist stance serves as a well positioned veil, allowing us to sneer at the “uneducated peoples” of these nations. Perhaps this is true, although the more likely reason for people voicing their concern is that there is a slew of other countries in Europe that clearly do not have the same profile for racism in their football stadiums which were not chosen to host. Time will tell if any players or fans of ethnic minorities receive abuse at the tournament, and one can only hope that sufficient measures are taken by the relevant bodies to prevent any untoward behaviour.