Sarmishta: It happened almost by stealth. In more or less a single week, in the haze of summer, with COVID still dominating the world’s attention, three global hotspots ushered in some dramatic changes.
News Clip: Russians approved the national referendum to revise a country’s constitution on Wednesday this week. That could see Putin remain in power until the year of 2036. China’s government passed a sweeping new security law for Hong Kong. For a lot of people in Hong Kong, this is considered a pretty dark day. Israeli government is pushing ahead with its plants. To annex parts of the occupied West Bank.
Sarmishta: Some of the effects have been immediate. In Hong Kong. Those little Post-It notes that were blooming symbols of democracy, just vanished. Political parties dissolved. In Palestine protests already raged about the annexation plan, which would take over as much as 30% of the West Bank. That’s land and that’s home to 3 million Palestinians and long hoped for as territory of a future sovereign Palestine. The frustration has only climbed since. Russians, meanwhile, are digesting their news while facing one of the highest COVID-19 case counts in the world. There will be longterm consequences, too. In three moves, a trio of world leaders is shifting the political order, setting in motion a reality we could be dealing with for years. Why did all this happen now? Did the pandemic play a part? Did an America in freefall encourage it? And what will it do to peace and the balance of power on the world stage? I’m Sarmishta Subramanian, sitting in for Jordan Heath Rawlings. And this is The Big Story. Joining me today is Mark MacKinnon, the senior international correspondent for The Globe and Mail, who has covered Russia, China, and Israel, and is now based in London. Hi Mark.
Mark: Hi Sarmishta.
Sarmishta: It’s been a week or two of big changes. If I may quote you back to yourself, you wrote recently that the world is changing in ways, not easily reversed. Let’s start with Russia. What happened there on July 1st?
Mark: Yeah. Russia has been, obviously Russia has been on a trajectory for the last couple of decades, but on July 1st we saw, maybe the completion of that trajectory, where we are no longer pretending that Russia is some democracy where everybody is voting for Vladimir Putin, because he brings stability and patriotism that was that disappeared with the fall of the Soviet Union. At this point, Russia is a full on authoritarian regime, you could call it a dictatorship even, where they have opened the door with a constitutional referendum on July the first, to Mr. Putin remaining in power for another 16 years. He had four years remaining, that was supposed to take him to the end of his term limit. This is the second time he’s come to a term limit. This has opened the door for him to stay in power until he is an 83 year old man. He came to power as a 47 year old breath of fresh air after the Yeltsin era. And now he’s going to pass Joseph Stalin and challenge the reign of Peter the Great if he lives to the end of these, or isn’t deposed, to the end of this possible term limit that he’s created. And the referendum itself, by all accounts was farcical. You know, people– there was no No campaign allowed, anybody that protested against it, journalists that wrote against it, are being arrested in the days that follow. And, you know, just looking at the way votes were cast around the country, really high rates in places that don’t make sense, turnout surging in the last hours to sort of push up the numbers to where the Kremlin wanted them to be. It really does look like, you know, these numbers can’t be treated as a free and fair expression of Russia’s popular will either.
Sarmishta: Right. I mean, of course the official line is that more than 70% of Russians voted yes, and it’s being interpreted by the government is a big mandate for Putin. How does that actually jive with Putin’s approval ratings?
Mark: I’ve been covering Russia for 20 years now. When I first landed in Russia, Putin was a year– or less than a year into his time in power. And at the start of all this, he was a genuinely popular politician. And if he’d left after his first two presidential terms, I think it’s important to point out, he would have looked like a reformer and someone who had turned Russia around and introduced stability to the system after the shocks of the 1990s. These days, his approval ratings, the only independent– and this speaks volumes in and of itself– the only independent pollster in Russia says that his approval rating currently is 59%, which sounds very high by Western standards. But there’s two important things to remember about that. The first is that, because of the pandemic, they weren’t able to go conduct the poll the way they always do, which is they weren’t able to go door to door. And so this is all done by telephone. And in post-Soviet Russia, someone calls you up and says, do you support the government? A lot of people will just say yes over the phone, cause they don’t know who you are and they won’t speak freely. And the other one is that 59% tracks to be the lowest rating since before he ever came to power. So Putin is, despite everything that he achieved, and there are achievements from a Russian point of view over the last 20 years, is now at his lowest ebb. And yet you see this referendum where we’re asking, you know, the Russians are being asked to give him another 16 years in power. And apparently, you know, 14% of the people who didn’t even support him, have jumped in and voted yes, which makes sense. You can see saying, I support him right now, but do I want them for another 16? A number less than 59% would have made some sense. 14 percentage points higher looks just improbable.
Sarmishta: Right. As you pointed out, we’ve already seen a lot in Putin’s 20 years in office, and we have a pretty good idea of what that looks like within Russia, what does a power grab of another 16 years mean for the balance of power internationally?
Mark: I think the message that Putin has sent, and was very much trying to send by doing it this way– or by going around his constitutional term limits for a second, and maybe arguably a third time– is that those inside and outside the country who are waiting for the day after Putin, for the next Russian leader to come along, and maybe that leader would be different, maybe that leader would be more willing to accept Ukraine’s going a different direction, would be more willing to seek partnership with the West rather than confrontation, that day has now been pushed off to 2036, you know, perhaps at the earliest, who knows what will happen then? So the message is that you’re going to have to deal with me. It also squelches any internal rivalries. There’s going to be no guessing about who comes next. And he was very blunt, he said that as much on Russian television, that if he doesn’t do this, people are going to spend the next few years guessing who the next leader will be, and that will create instability inside the system. That’s a word that Putin very much hates, the word instability, the idea of instability as a former KGB guy. So, yes, what we’re seeing right now, this Russian challenge to the international order, to the extent that such a thing exists anymore, is going to continue. And that’s going to mean continued conflict and Ukraine, going to mean continued conflict–or, you’re going to see more middle Eastern countries who will turn to Russia for backing. And Russia, like China, another country that we’re going to discuss, doesn’t attach conditions to its help. You can be Bashar Al Assad, and as long as you’re willing to, you know, sort of cut Russia in on your gas and oil deals, they’ll support you. It doesn’t matter what you do to your own people.
Sarmishta: So let’s switch to the Middle East. July 1st was, of course, a big day for the government to Benjamin Netanyahu. What was meant to happen on this day in Israel?
Mark: What was meant to happen and what has been pushed off for the moment, we’re not quite sure how long, was Israel after– gosh, it’s been, I have to do the math here, you know, more than 50 years of occupying the West Bank, was going to formalize that and exten– in Israeli terminology, extens sovereignty over parts of it. As much as 30% of it, according to some plans. And what that means to the rest of us, they’re going to annex the illegally built Jewish settlements in the West Bank. And they were going to annex the Jordan Valley, which is the stretch of very strategic land and very fertile land, from a Palestinian point of view, it’s the best growing land in the West Bank, along the border between what is now the West Bank and Jordan. So it would have been the, you know, what a lot of right wing Israelis have wanted for a long time time. They believe this would be unifying the Biblical land of Israel, and it would have been an end to the Palestinian idea of a two state solution, or of a state of their own, and the idea that they would have a state alongside Israel in what is historic Palestine. So, that didn’t happen. It’s been pushed back indefinitely. I expect that– I shouldn’t say indefinitely. I think we’ll get a resolution very soon, because the real deadline, the real moment that Benjamin Netanyahu is dealing with is the end of Donald Trump’s time in office, which, if you’re looking at polls in the US right now means that he’s probably going to have to make whatever movie is going to make between now and November.
Sarmishta: So the details of an annexation plan were not announced, but there’s a sense that something is coming. How is this development being greeted within Israel and by world leaders?
Mark: I think there was an expectation– so the reason why we were talking about July 1st is when, after three sort of stalemated elections, Benjamin Netanyahu and his main rival, Benny Gantz, came to a coalition agreement. And part of that coalition agreement between these two guys that had not been able to beat each other in three consecutive elections, was that the conversation about annexation slash sovereignty was going to be pushed off til July the first. And so Netanyahu spoke quite openly about, so that’s when– the day when I’m going to extend sovereign over these settlements in the West Bank. Benny Gantz said, well that’s when we can start the conversation. There was always that split within the Israeli government. I think what really happened was the international community stepped up, to the surprise of many, frankly, in the absence of the US, which has always landed on the Israel-Palestine file, and took a bit of a stand. And so, I think Netanyahu was backed away from his position by that, he didn’t have Gantz onside. And then the Trump administration said, well, if you don’t have, you know, your own team together, we can’t back you. You can’t, you know, we’re not going to watch the government fall apart and another election be called. You’ve got to get everybody, you’ve got to get your ducks in a row before we do this. Netanyahu’s plan, it should be pointed out, is only to annex the parts of the land that the Trump quote unquote Peace Plan that was unveiled earlier this year was going to give to Israel. But he was going to do it without the Palestinians getting there side of the bargain either. First of all, the Palestinians reject the deal, because they thought it was horribly one sided. Secondly, Netanyahu wasn’t even going to give them their side. He was basically just going to take Israel’s side of the bargain, and call it a day. So I imagine that’s still on the table, especially because that’s what Netanyahu’s supporters expect and want. But he’s got to get– he’s got some politics to do before he can make that move.
Sarmishta: So very quickly before we move on to China, can you sketch out for us– and you could write a book on this and probably will, but this specter of annexation, what does it mean for stability in the region?
Mark: It would be a massive, massive step. The status quo, such as it is in the Middle East, is already a very unstable one. You have millions of Palestinian refugees scattered around Jordan, Lebanon, Syria. You have another refugee crisis underneath that, the Syrian refugee crisis. At this point from an Israeli point of view, it’s almost, why not? This is what’s happened– these are the facts on the ground anyways, we have the support of the White House. From the point of view of the Palestinians, it would be a great betrayal of what they thought they were working towards. For the region though, I think Jordan is a country that’s really, really worried about this. They’re, you know, half of their population is of Palestinian descent. They’re worried about unrest if this happens. It would certainly give– strengthen, I would argue, those in Iran, the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, who seek to portray Israel as this aggressive power, this sort of American dagger in the middle of the Middle East. And I cannot see that moment passing without some response. And then you can never predict the Middle East, you know, if Hamas starts firing rockets and Hezbollah starts firing rockets, what happens after that?
Sarmishta: Some Western leaders have already been quite critical of the annexation plan. Does Israel risk alienating some of its allies if it goes ahead with this?
Mark: Yeah. In this moment, I think it’s a complicated file for the West in general, because there is this, you know, Israel is a democracy. Western governments like to support it. There’s trade links. There’s cultural links. It’s difficult in this time, when Canada, for instance, has sanctions against Russia for annexing Crimea from Ukraine, it’s difficult to say what the– and I put this question to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs last– in the run up to July 1st, and didn’t get a very useful answer from the Canadian government. You know, what’s the difference? Why would we have sanctions against Russia over Crimea, and not against Israel over the West Bank if they went ahead with this. Annexation arguably must be a red line there, if it’s going to be a red line anywhere, and in a time when you’re seeing sort of aggressive, strong men around the world, not just Netanyahu, I’ll put them in a category with Erdogan in Turkey who’s, you know, increasingly establishing Turkey’s presence in Northern Syria in what looks to be a permanent basis. Putin of course, in Crimea and Georgia. Xi Jinping and China sort of pushing out China’s claims on the side of the Indian border, with soldiers shoving and people dying for the first time since the 1950s on the China- India border over land claims. If this line isn’t– you know, if we’ve decided international law doesn’t matter so much anymore, that has massive implications.
Sarmishta: So the third event in this world order trifecta, if you will, is the new security law just passed by China, which also went into effect July 1st. What’s the new law? And can you tell us what it means for Hong Kong?
Mark: Effects of the law are that Hong Kong becomes effectively just another city in China. And since 1997, since the handover from Britain to Chinese rule, there was the promise from Beijing, as part of the agreement at the time with the British government, that there would be one country, one China, but two systems of government. And there would be free speech, something like democracy in Hong Kong, you could say, and do things in Hong Kong that would be forbidden in China. And that worked very well for China for the last 23 years, because it allowed foreign businesses, foreign investors, foreign banks to feel like there was– you could invest in China through Hong Kong. You had protections, you could go to a court in Hong Kong, if you had trouble with your Chinese business partners, and you’d have a decent chance of getting a fair outcome. China made a lot of money through that deal. But over the last year you’ve seen these protests, which started over China trying to extend its authority over Hong Kong and then sort of led us to this moment where China’s decided it can’t tolerate this city-state that sticks its nose up in the air at Beijing, that flaunts China’s authority. And so the new law effectively makes it, you can now– protesting in the streets, shouting certain slogans, these are illegal now, things that were– you could always– you know, when I lived in Beijing for five years, going to Hong Kong was like visiting a different world. In Hong Kong, there were street protests. In Hong Kong you could read articles critical of the government. In Hong Kong you could go into the bookstores and buy a biography of Xi Jinping, or Hu Jintao, the leader at the time, that were more critical of him, that had a balanced point of view on the Communist Party of China. All of that just disappeared. And it’s a sad day for anyone who was hoping that it might work the other way. That was, I think, the original bet, that these freedoms in Hong Kong would spread across the border, into the rest of China, and eventually lead to an opening up of the Chinese regime. Now we’ve seen it went the other way.
Sarmishta: These events didn’t come out of nowhere, as you’ve said. They’re part of a cumulative trajectory. But they do signal serious geopolitical shifts. Why is this happening now? What’s it facilitated by?
Mark: There are obviously very different cases, but it is a different planet with Donald Trump in the White House. What I mean by that is we saw almost no criticism at all as Vladimir Putin pushed through this referendum. I mean, Mike Pompeo I’m sure has said something on his Twitter account, but nothing came from the White House, from Donald Trump. Similar for Hong Kong. Even during the height of the protests last year, when protests were waving American flags, and Donald Trump has a very adversarial relationship with the Chinese government, he never spoke out against the idea of using force against protesters, because I’m not sure he thinks that’s a terrible thing. And you know, in Israel most clearly, this is a moment where the right wing Likud Party that Benjamin Netanyahu heads, will never have a US president more aligned with the way they think. So you have this moment in time. That if you think something’s inevitable, if you think you need to accomplish a certain goal for your country, then now is the moment to do it. If you think you need to achieve certain strategic games, this is the time. And that time– now we’re getting towards the end of that time, or potentially the end of that time, of course, Donald Trump could pull off– I didn’t think he went four years ago, so don’t take my thoughts in American politics too seriously, but you know, it does seem, you know, if I’m putting myself in the shoes of Putin, Netanyahu, Modi, XI, Vučić in Serbia, this is the best strategic window you’re going to get. Plus we’ve got the pandemic in the background, which just, you know, adds a further layer of confusion and distraction to everything.
Sarmishta: Right, so there’s a sense of a bit of a deadline. And then how much of a role is the global pandemic playing? Is there a sense that governments are distracted by the pandemic and its affects? And that things can kind of be quickly slipped through without a lot of international notice and reaction?
Mark: Sure. I mean, on a couple of fronts. And maybe not obvious ones, but one that’s very obvious to me, is the lack of media attention. I mean, in a normal, you know, the calendar that I had for myself for this spring and summer was to be in Russia, the original referendum date was supposed to be April the 22nd in Russia– to observe how that was carried out to talk to Russians, to watch how that took place.Now of course, I’m just one journalist, but there would have been many foreign journalists who had– many more foreign journalists on the ground, rather than those just based in Moscow. Same with, you know, there’s no question that under normal circumstances, I would right now be parked in the West Bank, trying to figure out what happens next and taking a look at the mood on the ground, writing articles that would, I hope if I do my job correctly, be on the front page of The Globe and Mail, and which might put pressure on the Canadian government to sharpen its stand, and to say something, rather than the silence that its sitting in right now. Same thing for China. I mean, there would be– our correspondent would be on the ground in Hong Kong, it would have been for most of the last few weeks, if not the last few months. So you’ve got less international attention and that does matter. That does affect government policy as I sort of, you know– it’s a dotted line, but it does work that way often. And then there’s also the economic side of things, where, you know the idea– when your country is facing deficits 10 times bigger than any time in their history, of starting a trade war over its treatment of Hong Kong or the West Bank, you know, that, at this point, that’s just, you can’t afford to take further risks with your economy. So that tool of the European Union did say it was willing to go that way, or suggest it was willing to go that way over the West Bank, the governments are much more reluctant to use such tools right now. So you’ve got a lack of attention and a lack of tools. It’s very easy right now, if you’re Vladimir Putin and there’s a video circulating online– or last night, this happened in Serbia, of protesters being beaten by helmeted riot police. It’s very easy for her Aleksandar Vučić, or Vladimir Putin, or Xi Jinping to go well, look at America. What are you talking about? How dare you criticize us? You’ve got this confluence of factors, which is making it a very dangerous world for those of us who, you know, are in favour of human rights and democracy.
Sarmishta: Do you have a sense of what these latest events say about American influence in the world? What’s the reality that the next US president, whoever it may be, will be stepping into come January, 2021?
Mark: It’ll be a very different world depending on how November goes. But I think what it says is perhaps that most countries are expecting America to snap back to something like normal. That’s the only way to explain the rush to get things done. If you’re, I mean, Vladimir Putin had four more years left in his mandate. Like, there’s no reason at this moment to tinker with the constitution, other than the things we just laid out. He felt now or never, like this is as good a time as we’re going to get. Because I think there isn’t– you know, Joe Biden is definitely a status quo candidate in terms of the old status quo. And people in Russia, China, Middle East are– would see him as a continuation of Obama, Clinton, and they know what they would get. And it’s different from what they have right now. So that does suggest that American influence can be restored quite quickly. I mean, it’s still the biggest economy in the world, it’s still the biggest military in the world, it has these tools. At the same time, once these redlines are moved, they’re not moving back. So if you’re Joe Biden and you come into power in January, 2021, you can give a speech about the West Bank, you can give a speech about Hong Kong, you can talk about Russian democracy, but the water will already be under the bridge. That’s why these things are happening now. That’s why this push is happening now. And if we have another four years of Donald Trump and his frankly disinterest in international affairs, we could see a lot more of this happening.
Sarmishta: You’ve covered all three of the regions that we’ve talked about today and a few others for The Globe over a number of years. Does this feel like a significant moment?
Mark: Yeah, definitely. You know, there are– having lived in all these places, I tend to see things from, you know– I’m not the student of any one of these that some of my peers are. I’m more of a helicopter point of view. And so yes, you see these moments, I’ve seen them before, where you think, gosh, the world changed. 2001, September 11th, obviously was a massive pivot, the financial crisis in 2008, and then 2016, when we saw sort of the refugee crisis turn into Brexit and Trump, that also felt like, boy, we’re just, you know, something turned, and not just in one country, but around the world. And this is perhaps the biggest one yet, because of– we’re very early on into this phase. We still haven’t seen the end of the pandemic, let alone the economic fallout, let alone the political fallout from the economic fallout. So you know, usually when one of these moments happens like 2016, for instance, the shocks were compressed between sort of May and November. This time, I think we’re going to be– you know, we’ll be having conversations like this in 12 months’ time and it may not be over even then.
Sarmishta: Wow. Interesting times. Thank you so much, Mark, for joining us and sharing your thoughts today.
Mark: Oh, thank you very much for having me.
Sarmishta: Mark MacKinnon, the Senior International Correspondent for The Globe and Mail. And that was The Big Story. For more from us, you can visit our website, thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can also follow us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. And now you can write to us to let us know what you think about the show, or even suggest an episode topic. The email address is email@example.com. I’m Sarmishta Subramanian, and I will be sitting in for Jordan Heath Rawlings all week. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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