WINTER OF DISCONTENT, PART I: THE PRESENT PREDICAMENT IN UKRAINE, VENEZUELA AND THAILAND

Graffiti in Boston

By Kirstie Yu
Staff Writer

For the past few weeks, I have been receiving notifications on my iPhone lock screen about the current state of Ukraine through news applications such as the New York Times and Circa. However, I have not received any about the situations in Thailand and Venezuela, even though these conflicts have been going on for as long as or even longer, in the case of Thailand, than the Ukrainian crisis. Why is it that the United States and Western media are making headlines of the news in Ukraine when there are other global conflicts that are just as important as what is happening in Ukraine, if not more? I believe that the only reason the United States and Western media are so fixated on the Ukrainian situation is that it is simply easier for the media to cover and increase readership. In addition to this, the U.S. media and government officials are stuck in a Cold War mentality.

In Ukraine, tensions began to rise when President Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Russian stance came into conflict with the pro-EU stance of the nation’s youth opposition. President Yanukovych suspended talks on an agreement between Ukraine and the European Union in which the European Union would help support the Ukrainian economy. Russia made its position clear on the agreement by changing its foreign policy to prevent the import of all goods from Ukraine. However, after the Ukraine-EU agreement broke down, Russia indicated that it would be willing to provide Ukraine with a $15 billion bailout loan, which President Yanukovych accepted. This infuriated Ukrainians who wanted to establish closer ties with the European Union and to distance themselves from Russia. In response, three months of protests, dubbed Euromaidan, began in November 2013, culminating thus far in a temporary truce that broke down less than a day after it was called between President Yanukovych and opposition leaders, the deaths of both protestors and police, the flight of President Yanukovych to Russia and his subsequent impeachment, the call for an early presidential election that will take place on May 25, 2014, and, most importantly, the beginning of Russian military intervention in Ukraine, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently received permission from the Russian parliament to deploy Russian troops in the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.

In Venezuela, protests have arisen due to President Nicolás Maduro’s inability to unite the country and stabilize the Venezuelan economy following the death of President Hugo Chávez almost one year ago today. According to CTV News, a myriad of reasons contribute to the growing displeasure with President Maduro’s regime, including surging inflation, scarcity of basic goods, problematic gas prices, high levels of criminal violence and persistent uncertainty about the validity of election results that put President Maduro in power in the first place. Although the first three reasons have important underlying economic implications, it is actually the fourth reason that has led most strongly to widespread student protests. On January 6, 2014, Miss Venezuela Monica Spear, her husband and her daughter were returning by car to Caracas after a New Year’s vacation when they were assaulted by highway robbers. Spear and her husband were killed, while their daughter was left wounded and orphaned. After this incident, protests began against the President Maduro’s regime, fueled by outrage over economic instability and overall insecurity. These mainly student-led protests only increased in force in February, especially because they coincided with the February 12th commemoration of the role of young people in a historical battle and because of the escalation of violence from both the government and protestors. The protestors’ main goal is the resignation of President Maduro, but he has yet to step down at this point.

In Thailand, protestors began decrying the unstable government under current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in late October 2013. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is the younger sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted from office and has been in a self-imposed exile in Dubai and London since 2006. Many of the protestors see Yingluck as a puppet for her brother Thaksin, and this became even more apparent when Prime Minister Yingluck introduced an amnesty bill that would nullify Thaksin’s corruption allegations and allow him to return to the country without punishment. The public outcry against this bill led to protests in Bangkok, and the Thai Senate eventually rejected the bill in November 2013. However, the lasting backlash to the proposed bill caused Yingluck to dissolve the nation’s parliament on December 9, 2013, and call for new elections to be held February 2, 2014. Protests against Yingluck’s government are made up largely of younger educated urban middle-class citizens, who widely refused to vote in the February election because they did not believe the elections were free and fair. These demonstrators want every trace of “Thaksin’s regime […] wiped out” from their country and will not stop until an “unelected council is put in place to reform what they say is a corrupt political system.” In the aftermath of the February 2nd election, police have attempted to evict around 6,000 demonstrators from government sites, which has led to ongoing violence and contention between the protestors and police.

All three of these global conflicts are ongoing and all are important to the global economy and world affairs in distinct ways, yet the most attention has been paid to the Ukrainian crisis. The U.S. Council on Foreign Relations has a Global Conflict Tracker that does not, at the time of publication of this article, consider the Ukraine conflict to be as high on their Preventive Priority Level scale as the conflicts in Venezuela and Thailand. Although it may be easier for the media to cover the Ukrainian conflict due to pre-existing negative sentiments towards Russia lasting from the Cold War era, it is wrong for the media to mainly focus on the Ukrainian crisis just because images of Russian imperialism may be more salient to news readers. The media’s job is to inform, and, when it chooses to do so, it can do an exemplary job, as we are now seeing in Ukraine. However, more should be done to cover the ongoing crises of Venezuela, Thailand and other ongoing global conflicts currently under the media’s radar. In the next part of this series, I will examine the implications each of these protests has on U.S. interests and explore why the failure of the media to cover them is so problematic.

Image by Brian Talbot

OLYMPIC THREATS: AS ATHLETES COMPETE, SOCHI WARDS OFF LARGER-THAN-LIFE HAZARDS

Sochi at Night

By Aarushi Gupta
Staff Writer

The Olympic Games symbolize nations of the world putting aside political and economic differences and coming together in the spirit of athletics and sportsmanship. However, four weeks before the course of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, a string of terrorist attacks, close to the resort town where the Olympics will be held, threatens the existence of a global tradition that brings glory to the best athletes in the world. A series of attacks beginning in October have taken place in Volgograd, a city 600 miles away from Sochi; while the distance seems far enough to be trivial, the concern lies with the potential for future attack on this event, as well as the fact that transportation is a huge factor with respect to the Olympics. Athletes and spectators will be attending from all over Russia and the world, and if any path into Sochi is put in harm’s way, there could be catastrophic consequences. But bombings have proved to be just the beginning, as a slew of Internet attacks and hijacked planes threaten the security of these games.

There have been several terrorist attacks near Sochi in the weeks preceding the Winter Games; arguably the most concerning fact is that these attacks have been carried out by several terrorist organizations, ranging from Chechen separatist groups to Islamic militants in several cities located relatively close to the Olympic Village in Sochi. The most prominent is the double attack at the Volgograd railway station on December 29 and 30, 2013, which together killed 34 civilians. Now, more than a month later, an Islamist group has taken responsibility for the attacks claiming, “If you hold the Olympics, you’ll get a present from us for all the Muslim blood that’s been spilled.” The two men who organized the attack, Suleiman and Abdul Rahman, were from the Dagestan province in Russia, which is also where the terrorists who planted the bomb at the Boston Marathon were from. Various other suicide bombers, including many women, responsible for several incidents in Russia, have claimed ties to Dagestan, which indicates a serious potential threat to the Olympics. Chechen separatist groups have threatened to disrupt the games with ‘maximum force’, simply to use the games as an international platform for their anti-Moscow sentiments and garner international support for their separationist movement. There is no guarantee of safety at these Olympics, and with serious threats being made towards the Olympic institution, international travel agencies have been issuing serious advisories. The U.S. government has promised its full intelligence support to pursue and capture the offenders, going so far as to send Janet Napolitano, former head of Homeland Security and current chancellor of the UC Regents, with the Olympic Delegation to ensure its safety.

The various attacks have not gone unnoticed by the international community or by Russia’s own president, Vladimir Putin. In trying to reassure the public, Putin took a small ski trip to Sochi and was photographed on the slopes. Seeming to ooze confidence in the security of Sochi, Putin looked cavalier on the slopes. Since then, Sochi has been put under high security, with a “special exclusion zone […] where only Sochi-marked vehicles, emergency, or specially accredited intelligence service cars will be allowed into the wider Sochi area.” However, it is important for officials at Sochi to realize that since Sochi does not have a commercial air hangar, most visitors and athletes will be flying into Russia via Moscow or through St. Petersburg. Travel centers and train stations will be key for those trying to get to the Games, and the terrorist attack at the Volgograd train station has already proven that these will most definitely be targets. Georgetown scholar Christopher Swift has said that, “anybody traveling by ground to the Olympics likely will have to go through Volgograd.” The U.S. government has sent out an advisory to all U.S. citizens hinting that travelers should get “private medical evacuation and repatriation insurance,” despite all reassurances from Russian officials that the terrorist situation is being handled. It is true that the presence of Cossacks (the Russian police) has been increased to 400 personnel, evoking memories of the Tsarist era in Russia with their large fur hats and coats, but they are only stationed around the immediate Olympic vicinity. What experts call “soft targets,” locations such as restaurants, hotels, and other civilian-occupied, unfortified destinations are outside of the protection of the Russian government, and the security of these sites is significantly less than that of the Olympic venue.

Bomb threats on the ground by several groups were not alone; during the opening of the Olympics, a flight to Istanbul was hijacked by a drunken Ukrainian passenger who tried to commandeer the plane to Sochi. While this turned out to be a harmless attempt to secure the aircraft, it showed the real potential of something much worse. The man who was detained on the aircraft, an F-16 fighter, reportedly had “requests concerning his own country [Ukraine]” and wanted to relay “a message concerning sporting activities in Sochi.” The Ukrainian Security Service says that the man was acting alone, but it will be upsetting if the man’s sentiments are shared amongst other individuals who feel the same about the former Soviet Union hosting these games.

Of course, external threats are not the only concerns for these controversial games. Russia’s recent anti-gay legislation has also presented a threat to many visitors as well as competitors. Some, like Jose Coira of Houston, have chosen to forgo the Olympics, despite losing their down payment on several reservations, including airfare, hotels and tickets to the events themselves. He and his partner simply did not feel safe going to Russia amid the controversy over homosexual rights, as well as the violence occurring there. The global community has not been discrete in its protestation of the homophobic legislation passed in Russia; from Germany’s rainbow colored Olympic uniforms to Team Canada’s direct and amusing jibe that has gone viral, it seems that the international community is reminding Putin that diversity and inclusion is a major factor of these games.

But threats to these Olympics refuse to stop at physical terror; the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced on the eve of the games that hackers are targeting “any company that finances or supports the Olympic Games.” These cyber attacks are being launched mainly by a group named Anonymous Caucasus, who claim that “the Sochi games infrastructure was built on the graves of 1 million innocent Caucasians who were murdered by the Russians in 1864.” They are believed to be responsible for the malfunctioning website for the Russian National Olympic Committee, which was down earlier this month, along with training sites for Olympic volunteers, the Sochi Airport website and several sponsoring sites. Homeland Security will be monitoring communications and transactions in Sochi, and attendees are warned to be wary of phishing and malware scams from unidentifiable persons at the games.

Contrary to the terrorist attacks, physical and viral, which suggests that athletes would be worried to compete in Sochi, statements from the President of the IOC in Russia suggest that athletes are very excited to stay and compete in Russia. The Chief of IOC for the Sochi Olympics, Thomas Bach, sidestepped questions about security and safety, laughing them off and reminding press that threats have been an inherent part of the Olympics. Bach also said that 40,000 security forces protect city of Sochi, and that “these games will be the safest in history.” This is the same man who said earlier this week that the “the Olympic stage is ready for the best winter athletes of the world.” After his statement, a hilarious spew of Sochi hotel malfunctions emerged on Twitter from journalists covering the event. Thomas Bach might be optimistic about the security and the hotel accommodations (which are reportedly still giving athletes trouble), but at this point when threats are still emerging, it is fitting to be cautious at best.

Image by United Nations Photo