Monday, May 05, 2014

The power politics of Austerität über alles

As coincidence and 100th anniversary publicity would have it, I've been reading about the First World War during the time that the Ukrainian and Venezuelan political crises have been much in the news, the Ukrainian one seemingly much more so in the US than the Venezuelan one in the US news media.

Fritz Fischer's Griff Nach der Weltmacht: Die Kriegsziele des kaiserlichen Deutschland 1914/18 (1961), English Germany's War Aims in the First World War, was a real kick-start for German scholarship on the First World War when it came out, because it debunked a popular image that the civilian leadership during the Great War had resisted the annexationist aims of the military leadership. In fact, the disputes were over exactly how much to try to annex and the particular manner of control. So there were arguments over timing of proposals, what kind of diplomatic weasel-words to use, whether they should put a Hohenzollern on the throne of the countries that intended to control or a German-friendly native puppet government, etc. But the civilian and military leadership were agreed on an ambitious program of effective German control of various countries, including Belgium.

Also including Ukraine. Ukraine was then part of Russia. In the Brest-Litovsk negotiations in early 1918, the Middle Powers, i.e., Germany's side, recognized a social-democratic group in Ukraine that basically had no real control over the country as a legitimate government. That government, known as the Rada, then concluded an agreement with Germany for Ukrainian independence from Bolshevik-controlled Russia. A few weeks later, Imperial Germany decided a more conservative government was preferable for their purposes, so they formed one headed by aristocratic Polish Gen. Pavlo Skoropadskyi, who then became Ukraine's Hetman (head of state).

So today's jockeying between a non-elected pro-Western government and a strange collection of pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine is a reminder of how cynical inter-state power politics can be.

My impression is that the current pro-Western Ukraine government has a pretty shaky hold on the country right now, especially the eastern parts. There is a strong separatist movement in the east and they've overthrown several presumably elected local governments. One risk the current Ukrainian government in Kyiv is running is that cracking down hard on the pro-Russian separatists might actually provoke a Russian intervention. At the same time, it's possible that Russia may be encouraging and even directly assisting the separatists in hopes of a crackdown that will give them a pretext for moving Russian troops into eastern Ukraine.

C.J. Chivers and Noah Sneidermay have a news article on the pro-Russian forces, Behind the Masks in Ukraine, Many Faces of Rebellion New York Times 05/03/2014. It appears to be much more like real journalism than some of the sloppy stuff we've seen from the Times on Ukraine so far.

Stephan Kaufmann reports in Der Preis der Unabhängigkeit Frankfurter Rundschau 02.05.2014 on the drastic austerity program that the IMF is requiring of Ukraine in a deal just approved. See also IMF approves $17bn Ukraine bailout package BBC News 04/30/2014

It's worth noting what By Anthony Faiola reports in In Ukraine, a crisis of bullets and economics Washington Post 04/15/2014.

At a most dangerous and delicate time, just as it battles Moscow for hearts and minds across the east, the pro-Western government is set to initiate a shock therapy of economic measures to meet the demands of an emergency bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

"We don’t trust them," Ilya said of the country’s interim leaders in the capital as he pushed his infant son in a stroller in the gardens behind City Hall.

Both the government and IMF say they have no choice. Interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk acknowledged that the package is "very unpopular," but Kiev is broke and desperate for cash, and Russia is no longer seen as a viable benefactor.

No matter how much they publicly offer their unequivocal support for Kiev, the IMF and Western governments that have pledged up to $27 billion in loans refuse to toss their money down the black hole of corruption and waste that is the Ukrainian economy.

Especially here in the east, where cultural and economic ties to Russia are far stronger than in western Ukraine, the bailout is hurting the government’s popularity among an already skeptical audience.

Residents are bracing for the worst.
Austerity economics has a high price. Part of the price is that in a situation like this, where the US/NATO/EU groups of nations is trying to confront Russia and bolster a pro-Western government in Ukraine, one of the West's most powerful institutions, the IMF, is requiring them to adopt a drastic austerity program. Does the right hand know what the left hand is doing in this situation?

It's also a problem for European sanctions against Russia. The eurozone is tilting into deflation, if it's not already there. Sanctions would be a blow to the European economies at a bad time. If austerity is such a sacred economy doctrine as it appears to be in Angela Merkel's perspective, then the EU and Germany and the United States need to accept that it weakens the ability of Europe to respond to Russian foreign policies it doesn't like via economic sanctions.

Just as it weakens the pro-Western Ukrainian government in the current political upheavals.

Now with the IMF deal, the West seems to be sticking to the principle of "Austerität über alles!"

Robert Perry at Consortium News has been tracking the Times' coverage fairly closely. Here are just some of his more recent pieces on Ukraine:

Will Ukraine Be NYT’s Waterloo? 05/03/2014
Another NYT 'Sort of' Retraction on Ukraine 05/04/20174 (on the New York Times article linked above)
Ukraine's 'Dr. Strangelove' Reality 05/05/2014 (on the deadly building burning in Odessa that seems clearly to have been done by the pro-Western side)

Alastair Sloan also writes about some of the questionable press coverage in Ukraine: Lies, propaganda and the West's agenda Aljazeera English 05/04/2014

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