Author Archive for
Chris Borgen

The Cossacks: A Legal Primer

by Chris Borgen

The recent altercation between members of Pussy Riot and Cossack militia that was caught on video is a red flag signalling a broader issue in the Russian Federation: the resurgent power of the Cossacks and their relation to the Russian state, especially to keep politically-disfavored groups in check.

But who are the Cossacks?  A paramilitary organization? A political party? An ethnic group? And what are they doing at the Sochi Olympics?  This post will try to explain a little about who the Cossacks are, their role in Russia today, and the legal implications for human rights, minority rights in particular, and the use of state power.

The word “Cossack” summons for many images of mustachioed horsemen with bearskin hats. But, as one CNN report put it, “the Cossacks have long symbolized rebellion and military might in Western and Southern Russia and Ukraine.” Today’s Cossack organizations provide contracted-for security services for Russian regional governments.  Aleksandr Tkachev, the governor of Russia’s Krasnodar region, in which Sochi is located, has been at the forefront of contracting with the Cossacks (although, as I’ll explain below, this has been supported from the Presidency on down). About 400 Cossacks are being used as security in Sochi. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

As for the utility of  having Cossacks–a non-state (or perhaps quasi-governmental) entity–provide security services, the official line seems to be that Cossacks will have greater leeway for action. CNN again:

“What you cannot do, a Cossack can,” Krasnodar Gov. Aleksandr Tkachev explained to local police.

His comments sparked an outcry from Sochi natives, minorities and migrants. Analysts say it is not a coincidence that the Cossacks’ revival is taking place as nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise in Russia.

[Emphasis added.]

The Pussy Riot incident in Sochi is simply the most obvious example of a larger trend that could have important implications for the rule of law in Russia and in former Soviet republics. But before looking at the current situation in greater detail, some history and context is needed…

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Ukraine: Background, Sanctions, and the Sword of Damocles

by Chris Borgen

The BBC is reporting that dozens of people have died today in new fighting between police and protestors in Ukraine.  For a background to what is underlying the protests, see these posts concerning the struggle over the norms that will define Ukraine,  how Ukraine’s domestic disputes interact with Russian and European regional strategies, and the significance of the eastward spread of the protests and Russia’s technique of push-back against the norm-based arguments of the EU.

Some of these themes are echoed in the BBC report:

Ukraine seems be caught in a modern “Great Game”. Vladimir Putin wants to make Russia a global economic player, rivalling China, the US and EU. To that end he is creating a customs union with other countries and sees Ukraine as a vital and natural element in that – not least because of the countries’ deep cultural and historical ties.

The EU says assimilation and eventual membership could be worth billions of euros to Ukraine, modernising its economy and giving it access to the single market. It also wants to reverse what it sees as damaging infringements on democracy and human rights in Ukraine.

Many Ukrainians in the east, working in heavy industry that supplies Russian markets, are fearful of losing their jobs if Kiev throws in its lot with Brussels. But many in the west want the prosperity and the rule of law they believe the EU would bring. They point out that while Ukraine had a bigger GDP than Poland in 1990, Poland’s economy is now nearly three times larger.

While the immediate issue in the streets of Kiev is an end to the violence, the medium-term Western response may be sanctions against Ukraine, particularly targeting the assets of President Yanukovich and his allies.

But, hanging over all of this like the sword of Damocles is the concern over the stability of the Ukrainian state. The previous Opinio Juris posts, the BBC report linked-to above, and others have noted the sharp electoral and linguistic (Ukraine-speaking/ Russian speaking) divide between western Ukraine and eastern Ukraine. Some have voiced concern that Ukraine faces a possible civil war or a break-up of the country.  Edward Lucas of The Economist has written in an op-ed in today’s (February 20) Telegraph:

Perhaps the authorities will decide that they cannot crush the protesters and will draw back, meaning months of tension, jitters and uncertainty. Even then, Ukraine’s territorial integrity has been shattered, perhaps fatally. In the west, government buildings have been set ablaze. The region – the old Austro-Hungarian Galicia – was the site of a decade-long insurrection post-war against Soviet rule. If pro-Moscow authorities in Kiev try to crack down there, civil war looms…

Equally worrying is Crimea – site of the Charge of the Light Brigade 160 years ago – which could now be the flashpoint for another conflict with Russia, with far more devastating effects. The region is on the verge of declaring independence from Kiev (a move likely to prompt Russian intervention to protect the separatist statelet).

The BBC report sounds a more hopeful note:

Some commentators suggest this shows the country is liable to split violently across the middle. But others say this is unlikely – and that many in the east still identify as Ukrainians, even if they speak Russian.

As I mentioned in my previous post on Ukraine, the answer to the question of whether or not there is civil war or secession, depends in part on what the protestors in the eastern part of the country are protesting about.  If they are willing to continue on the path to closer integration with the EU and set aside closer integration with Russia, then the strand of hair keeps the sword suspended. If the Ukrainians in the east just want Yanukovich out, but still want to avert integration with the EU and increase integration with Russia, then the strand doesn’t necessarily break, but it does fray, as the normative conflict over the future of Ukraine will persist.

But while the question of civil war and secession depends in part on the severity of normative friction in Ukraine, that is not the only determinant. Also important is what role Russia will play in either further exacerbating the conflict or finding a peaceful solution. In September, Russia raised the specter of secessionism in Ukraine, specifically linking it to Ukraine’s signing the EU Association Agreement. Russia actively supports secessionist movements in Moldova and Georgia, two other countries seeking closer relations with the EU. Whether President Putin believes that preventing Ukraine from  signing an Association Agreement with the EU is important enough to push that country to war remains to be seen.

The issue for today is ending the violence in the streets of Kiev. But that is the first step in a long road to finding stability in Ukraine.

Ukraine: Popular Protests, Human Rights Reports, and the Push and Pull of Normative Competition

by Chris Borgen

Following up on my earlier posts on the normative aspects of the struggle concerning Ukraine and other former Soviet countries (1, 2, 3) in the run-up to, and the aftermath of, the EU’s November summit in Vilnius, where Ukraine had been expected to sign an Association Agreement with the EU.  However, the Yanukovich regime backed out at the last minute. I want to focus on recent developments in what analysts are calling the “post-Vilnius” atmosphere and what they reflect about how states and citizens compete over norms.

First, there is the spread of protests from the relatively  pro-EU western Ukraine into the relatively pro-Russia eastern Ukraine.  Electoral maps of Ukraine (1, 2) show the ideological division and why Ukraine is an example of what I’ve called a systemic borderland.  The fact that the anti-government protests moving eastward across the map may be a sign of an increasing tilt towards following the original path of the government in seeking closer association with the EU.  But it also may be nothing more that the populace being tired and angry of the political gridlock and motivated by pictures of anti-protestor violence in the western cities. In this latter scenario, the citizens in eastern Ukraine still want to be more closely tied with Russia, they are just sick of their government brutalizing their own people, for whatever the reason. News reports about protests are one thing, but understanding why people are protesting is very important in situations concerning whether or not domestic norms are in play.

I haven’t seen any significant data on whether there is a deeper normative shift taking place or whether the eastern protests are primarily a reaction to offensive government tactics.

The second development of note is the broadening of the Russia/ EU tensions. The New York Times article on this issue from the January 28 online edition is well worth a full read. Here are a few key points related to the normative aspects of the post-Vilnius tensions:

The future of Ukraine and disagreements over how Russia and EU have approached this are the drivers of the current international bickering. (Keep in mind the domestic tensions are also between the Ukrainian citizens and their government over how the Ukrainian government reacted to protests.)  The international tensions stem from a concern about how Russia perceives its future, vis-à-vis Europe. From the Times:

Russia, [Michael Emerson, the former EU envoy to Moscow] said, needs to show that “all its talk about a ‘common European house’ from Lisbon to Vladivostok is not just a slogan and that Ukraine can be comfortable with both the E.U. and Russia.”

In short: is there one Europe or two?  Will Ukraine be a bridge uniting Europe or a border between two normatively distinct Europes?  A related issue is whether Russia even wants to explore deepening ties with the EU. The Times continues… (Continue Reading)

TED Talks, Placebo Politics, and the Work of International Lawyers

by Chris Borgen

I recently wrote a post that described the virtues of international lawyers thinking about the future and having an international law analog to “design fiction.” The main point being we as international lawyers are often so focused on historical examples, issues, and analogies that we need to spend more time considering the technological changes that are upon us and changing the world in which we live. A bit of tech futurism + international legal practice.

One of the best-known critiques of the profession considered the lack of imagination of the international legal profession. In 2001, Martti Koskeniemi wrote in The Gentle Civilizer of Nations that international law had been depoliticized and marginalized “as graphically illustrated by its absence from the arenas of today’s globalization struggles” or it had become “a technical instrument for the advancement of the agendas of powerful interests or actors in the world scene.” (page 3) He further wrote that international lawyers “in the past 40 years have failed to use the imaginative opportunities that were available to them, and open horizons beyond academic and political instrumentalization, in favor of worn-out internationalist causes that form the mainstay of today’s commitment to international law.” (page 5)

Now, having made a plea for a little more tech futurism in international law, I note that Professor Benjamin Bratton has just done a great job of taking the form of technological futurism most prevalent in TED conferences and smacking it upside the head a few times. Moreover, he did this in a sharp TEDx presentation (and an essay in The Guardian). I highly recommend watching the full TED talk. There’s a lot there that also applies to international legal profession.

Bratton describes the problem of “placebo politics”—focusing on technology and innovation as the solution to major world problems, but not taking into account the difficult issues of history, economics, and politics that bedevil actual workable solutions. Problems become oversimplified. He wrote in The Guardian:

Perhaps the pinnacle of placebo politics and innovation was featured at TEDx San Diego in 2011. You’re familiar I assume with Kony2012, the social media campaign to stop war crimes in central Africa? So what happened here? Evangelical surfer bro goes to help kids in Africa. He makes a campy video explaining genocide to the cast of Glee. The world finds his public epiphany to be shallow to the point of self-delusion. The complex geopolitics of central Africa are left undisturbed. Kony’s still there. The end.

You see, when inspiration becomes manipulation, inspiration becomes obfuscation. If you are not cynical you should be sceptical. You should be as sceptical of placebo politics as you are placebo medicine.

For more on Kony 2012, see our discussion of it, here.

Bratton continued:

If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation.

Instead of dumbing-down the future, we need to raise the level of general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded and which are embedded in us. This is not about “personal stories of inspiration”, it’s about the difficult and uncertain work of demystification and reconceptualisation: the hard stuff that really changes how we think. More Copernicus, less Tony Robbins.

[Emphases added.]

International lawyers can be (but aren’t always) good at the facts on the ground, the messy realities of history, politics, economics. If my previous post was about how lawyers need to keep a weather eye on how new tech is changing the present and shaping the future, then Bratton reminds us how the technologists need to appreciate the hard realities of the present and to remember the lessons of past. In other words, each of us has a lot to learn from the other.

China’s Crackdown on the Uighurs and the Case of Ilham Tohti

by Chris Borgen

The New York Times reports that  Ilham Tohti, a Uighur economics professor, has been arrested by Chinese authorities for separatism and inciting ethnic hatred.  A number of his students are also seemingly being detained. Tohti is just one person and, perhaps unfortunately for him, his case is emblematic of larger regional tensions in China and Central Asia.

The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking ethnic group, about 80% of whom live in the southwestern part of the Xianjian Uighur Autonomous Region in Western China.  Xianjiang is a geopolitical crossroads  and is also important for China’s energy policy, with significant oil and natural gas reserves.   Moreover, a Council on Foreign Relations backgrounder on Xianjian and the Uighurs explains that

Xinjiang shares borders with Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and the Tibet Autonomous Region, some of which have minority communities of Uighurs. Because of the Uighurs’ cultural ties to its neighbors, China has been concerned that Central Asian states may back a separatist movement in Xinjiang.

The CFR also gives a précis of the last century:

Since the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, Xinjiang has enjoyed varying degrees of autonomy. Turkic rebels in Xinjiang declared independence in October 1933 and created the Islamic Republic of East Turkistan (also known as the Republic of Uighuristan or the First East Turkistan Republic). The following year, the Republic of China reabsorbed the region. In 1944, factions within Xinjiang again declared independence, this time under the auspices of the Soviet Union, and created the Second East Turkistan Republic.

In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party took over the territory and declared it a Chinese province. In October 1955, Xinjiang became classified as an “autonomous region” of the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese government in its white paper on Xinjiang says Xinjiang had been an “inseparable part of the unitary multi-ethnic Chinese nation” since the Western Han Dynasty, which ruled from 206 BCE to 24 AD.

And then we come to the story of Ilham Tohti, the economics professor.  The New York Times reports:

A vocal advocate for China’s embattled Uighur minority, Mr. Tohti, 44, was the rare public figure willing to speak to the foreign news media about the Chinese government’s policies in the vast region that borders several Central Asian countries. He was also the target of frequent harassment by the Chinese authorities, especially after he helped establish Uighurbiz.net, a website for news and commentary on Uighur issues.

There has been unrest in China’s west over the past year

(Continue Reading)

Hackers’ Bazaar: the President’s NSA Speech and the Market for Zero-Day Exploits

by Chris Borgen

All Things Considered ran an interview this past Monday with Alex Fowler, the chief privacy officer of Mozilla (developer of the Firefox web browser), stemming from a blog post Fowler had written critiquing President Obama’s speech last week concerning NSA activities. When asked about the “most glaring reform needs” that were not addressed in the President’s speech, Fowler said:

right now, we have a policy approach in Washington which is focused on not closing security holes but actually [on] hoarding information about security backdoors and holes in our public security standards and using those then to exploit them for intelligence needs. In our perspective, and I think certainly those of your listeners – as you think about the news related to Target data breaches and breaches with Snapchat and other common tools that we use every day – that what we really need is to actually focus on securing those communications platforms so that we can rely on them. And that we know that they are essentially protecting the communications that we’re engaged with.

This relates to the market for so-called “zero-day exploits,”  where the U.S. government pays hackers for information about holes in software security that its intelligence and law enforcement agencies can then use for surveillance. (The market for zero-day exploits is described in greater detail in this previous post.) The U.S. also pays the sellers of these exploits to keep the holes secret, not even warning the company that has the security hole, so that the exploit may remain useful to the U.S. government for as long as possible. Unfortunately, this also means it will remain open for criminal hackers who have also discovered the hole.

The injection of U.S. government funds has transformed a formerly loose, reputation-based, market into a lucrative global bazaar with governments driving up prices and the formation of firms with business models based on finding and selling exploits to the U.S. and other governments. Although cash-rich companies like Microsoft are responding by trying to out-bid state actors for information about zero day exploits in their own products, the money in the market has shifted from rewarding security into incentivizing insecurity

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Exploring International Law with Opinio Juris in 2013: Highways, Back Roads, and Uncharted Territories…

by Chris Borgen

There’s never a boring year in international law and 2013 turned out to be particularly eventful: Syria, major cases in front of national and international courts, a possible nuclear deal with Iran, and turmoil in Eastern Europe, Egypt, and South Sudan, to name but a few reasons.

This post is not an attempt to log all that we have written about on Opinio Juris this year. There’s just too much.  If any of these topics (or others) are of particular interest to you, you can use our search function to find the posts related to them.  Rather, this post is an idiosyncratic tour of some of the highways, back roads, and other territory that we traversed in 2013… (Continue Reading)

When the “Things to Come” are Already Here, Where Should International Law Go?

by Chris Borgen

Novelists such as H.G. Wells and George Orwell used fantastic fiction to describe their world as it was and to imagine, to use Wells’ title, “The Shape of Things to Come.” This past summer I wrote a post on what current science fiction can bring to international law. I mentioned various books that, though fantastic, illuminated topics related to international law, international relations, or national security.

Well, according to my tricorder, I mean, the newsfeed on my smartphone, this past week reality just got a little more science fictional with the revelations of US intelligence agents roaming around in World of Warcraft and Second Life, on the hunt for any terrorist who might be using these virtual worlds to communicate, plot, and even train.

For all the surprise this has elicited, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen virtual worlds (weirdly) interact with the very real world of international relations. There was that time that the Green Lantern Corps had to patrol a virtual refugee camp that had been built by human rights activists in Second Life’s Sudan in order to protect it from vandals.  Or that proprietary financial system owned by a Chinese company that would support financial transfers and investments across the economies of different virtual worlds.  Or that time that NATO commissioned an interactive model of Afghanistan for planning and training.  And then there’s the Swedish Embassy in Second Life

So, Snowden reveals that U.S. intelligence agents are posing as, let’s say, warrior elves and they’re running around on quests in World of Warcraft looking for al Qaeda organizers.  I’m just not all that surprised.  It is a bit amusing, though, that there ended up being so many intelligence officers online that they had to set up a “deconfliction group” to keep track of who was really whom, so that some Jack Ryan posing as a warrior elf wouldn’t report a wizard as being an al Qaeda operative when that wizard is actually a US agent posing as an al Qaeda operative who’s avatar is a wizard. This truly is “The Looking Glass War.”

These are the types of scenarios one sees in “political science fiction.” Sci-fi bloggers have remarked that the Snowden revelations are not that different from plot points in Neal Stephenson’s novel REAMDE, one of the books I mentioned in my post this summer.  And another author that I wrote about, Charles Stross, has decided to not write the third book in his near future cybercrime trilogy because the present is already arriving at his imagined future. Here’s how Stross put it:

At this point, I’m clutching my head. “Halting State” wasn’t intended to be predictive when I started writing it in 2006. Trouble is, about the only parts that haven’t happened yet are Scottish Independence and the use of actual quantum computers for cracking public key encryption (and there’s a big fat question mark over the latter—what else are the NSA up to?).

I’m throwing in the towel.…<snip> …The science fictional universe of “Halting State” and “Rule 34″ is teetering on the edge of turning into reality. Meanwhile, the financial crisis of 2007 forced me back to the drawing board for “Rule 34″; the Snowden revelations have systematically trashed all my ideas for the third book.

Our colleagues in the world of architecture and design have “design fiction”: films and websites devoted to as-yet non-existent objects as a means of thinking about the possibilities of design and engineering and their relationship to society.  Here are three very different examples (noted by Tobias Revell in the previous link): “New Mumbai,” “Microsoft’s Productivity Future Vision,” and “Post CyberWar.”

As lawyers, we spend much of our time looking at precedent, at the lessons of history.  We cannot stop doing that, as history is the great teacher. But we also have to remember that with every passing second, the future arrives. And, like the writers, the designers, the engineers, and the architects, we have to imagine what things may come, and how our work may shape the future and how the future may shape our work.

Because law is itself a disruptive technology.

More on Ukraine: All Normative Geopolitics is Local

by Chris Borgen

As the political crisis in Ukraine over the government’s decision not to sign an Association Agreement with the EU passes its second week, this conflict and the positioning over other Russian “Near Abroad” countries (especially Armenia, Moldova, and Georgia) are good examples of the interrelationship of norms and geopolitical strategy.

The situation has been largely described in terms of Putin’s reaction to these countries planning on signing new agreements with the EU.  While that is an important part of the story, it is only part. As I described in previous posts (1, 2), this is also very much a story of domestic disputes over norms, ranging from domestic laws to cultural practices.

And, closely related to this latter aspect of normative geopolitics, is the importance of domestic politics in country that has significant ideological divisions.

This might actually be another iteration of Ukraine’s strategy of balancing both Russia and the EU by playing both sides and committing to neither. Political analyst Nicu Popescu has written:

In fact, Kiev chose not to choose at all and tried hard to maintain the status quo in Ukraine’s foreign and domestic policies. Yet in his bid to buy time, President Viktor Yanukovich inadvertently precipitated the biggest crisis of his presidency to date.

Consider in relation to this the New York Times report that “[a]t virtually the same time” that Ukraine cabinet of minsters announced suspension of preparations to further integrate with the EU:

President Viktor F. Yanukovich, who was on a visit to Vienna, issued a statement saying, “Ukraine has been and will continue to pursue the path to European integration.”

In a move emblematic of Ukraine’s often inscrutable politics, Mr. Yanukovich barely acknowledged the developments in Kiev and, responding to a reporter’s question about the pacts with Europe, said, “Of course, there are difficulties on the path.”

Was this an attempt to soften the blow that Ukraine is turning its back on the EU or some complex tacking to serve an immediate need (holding off Russian gas embargoes as the winter sets in) while deferring a longer term goal (increasing European integration)? Even Kiev-watchers seem a bit befuddled.

But that’s politics in a systemic borderland

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The Protests in Ukraine and Normative Geopolitics

by Chris Borgen

One hundred and ten years ago next month, British geographer Halford Mackinder presented a paper at the Royal Geographical Society in London entitled “The Geographical Pivot of History,” setting out the basic tenets of what we now call “geopolitics.”  Strategic thinking during the Cold War was in part framed by geopolitical ideas such as the struggle over key territory in the “global heartland,” namely, Eurasia. But geopolitics today has evolved. It is no longer primarily a military stuggle to take or hold territory. It is now defined by competition over ideas and institutions in relation to strategic goals. Geopolitics has become normative.  Witness Ukraine.

Tens of thousands people are in the streets of Kiev because Ukraine’s political leadership announced two weeks ago that it would not sign an Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU at the EU summit in Vilnius at the end of November. Rather, the government announced that Ukraine would join the Moscow-led Eurasian Customs Union.  The relationship of foreign policy strategy to norms and laws, of high politics to people in the streets, is the stuff of normative geopolitics.

I had recently written a post about the struggle to define the normative futures of countries in Russia’s “near abroad,” particularly Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, and Georgia.  (And written about these topics at greater length in various articles and essays.) At issue is whether these countries will become more fully integrated into “European” institutions (especially the EU) or reintegrate with revamped “Russian” institutions (such as the Eurasian Customs Union). When a state is on one side or another of a normative border (Lithuania is part of the European normative order, Belarus is in Russia’s), normative boundaries coincide with national boundaries and the situation is relatively clear. But some states, such as Ukraine, are what I have called “systemic borderlands” that contain aspects of two or more normative systems. When normative systems overlap and jostle within a country, the result can be normative friction.  This can relate to domestic laws, such as whether a particular conception of property rights or of human rights will be adopted. It can also concern international legal norms, such as to which treaties a state will become a signatory or which international organizations a state may join.

Ukraine is a particularly stark example of a systemic borderland; its electoral map shows the normative division of the country between further integration with the EU or  with Russia.  The NY Times reported on November 21 that Ukraine’s decision not to sign the Association Agreement:

…largely scuttles what had been the European Union’s most important foreign policy initiative: an ambitious effort to draw in former Soviet republics and lock them on a trajectory of changes based on Western political and economic sensibilities. The project, called the Eastern Partnership program, began more than four years ago.

[This] a victory for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. He had maneuvered forcefully to derail the plans, which he regarded as a serious threat, an economic version of the West’s effort to build military power by expanding NATO eastward. In September, similar pressure by Russia forced Armenia to abandon its talks with the Europeans.

The EU issued a memorandum reiterating its (at least official) view that the signing of DCFTAs and Association Agreements with the EU is not normative competition, but rather normative bridge-building between east and west:

While being aware of the external pressure that Ukraine is experiencing, we believe that short term considerations should not override the long term benefits that this partnership would bring. However the European Union will not force Ukraine, or any other partner, to choose between the European Union or any other regional entity. It is up to Ukraine to freely decide what kind of engagement they seek with the European Union…

We therefore strongly disapprove of the Russian position and actions in this respect. The Association Agreement and a DCFTA are opportunities to accompany our common neighbours towards modern, prosperous and rule-based democracies. Stronger relations with the European Union do not come at the expense of relations between our Eastern partners and their other neighbours, such as Russia. The Eastern Partnership is conceived as a win-win where we all stand to gain.

This attempt at framing increasing integration with the EU as a “win-win” for the EU, Russia, and Ukraine, has not persuaded Vladimir Putin…(Continue Reading)

Russia, Moldova, and the EU: Realpolitik as Normative Competition

by Chris Borgen

Today’s New York Times has an overview of Russia’s power politics towards its “near abroad,” countries that used to be part of the USSR.  Some of these countries, such as Armenia, Moldova, and Ukraine, have been debating internally whether to become more integrated with the EU or to rebuild close ties with Russia. Armenia made the news recently for setting aside years of negotiations with the EU and, under considerable pressure from Moscow, announcing that it would join the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union. While the New York Times article focuses on the foreign policy and economic issues involved, these situations also exemplify the importance of law (both domestic and international) in international relations, because high politics in the “near abroad” is not about the formal acquisition of territory, but the adoption of norms. (For more on this theme see, also, this.)

The New York Times article uses the case of Moldova as an example of how Russia pressures its neighbors: threatening energy cut offs, banning key exports from Moldova, even bringing religion into play. In the case of Moldova, Russia also supports a separatist group that has seized control of Transnistria, the eastern-most section of the country. (As readers of this blog may know, I was part of a group of lawyers from the NY City Bar who wrote a report on the legal issues related to the Transnistrian conflict and, last year, part of an Open Society Foundations supported study comparing the conflicts in Moldova and Cyprus.)

But the heart of the matter is whether Moldova will become more fully integrated into “European” institutions (the EU, first and foremost) or reintegrate with revamped “Russian” institutions (the Eurasia Customs Union, for example). At times a state can be on one side or another of a normative border: Poland is part of the European normative order, Belarus is in Russia’s. In such cases, when normative boundaries coincide with national boundaries the situation is relatively clear. But the issue of which way Moldova will face is still being contested, somewhat within Moldova (particularly by the Transnistrian separatists) and more so by Russia. Thus, Moldova and certain other states in Russia’s near abroad (such as Ukraine) are borderlands between two normative systems, each state containing aspects of both.

When normative systems overlap and jostle within a country, the result can be normative friction. This can relate to domestic laws, such as whether a particular conception of property rights or of human rights will be adopted. It can also concern international legal norms, such as to which treaties a state will become a signatory, which international organizations a state may join, the recognition of national borders, and issues of non-intervention. Any issue that seems to favor one set of normative system over another can become symbolic of a larger struggle. Even when you put up and take down Christmas decorations can turn into a political crisis.

Although this has been the case in Moldova, Armenia, and Ukraine for years, Russia is increasing its pressure now because… (Continue Reading)

From Apology to Bazinga!: International Legal Rhetoric in Obama’s Speech and Putin’s Op-Ed

by Chris Borgen

In From Apology to Utopia, Martti Koskenniemi  mapped how international legal rhetoric can be used to “apologize” for power—to provide a fig leaf over the rude exposure of realpolitik—and how it can be utopian—making rules for a world that does not actually exist.  This week we have had two examples of international law and high politics: President Obama’s speech on Tuesday and Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in today’s New York Times. And while many in the U.S. seem most concerned about Putin’s apparent skepticism toward American exceptionalism, I suggest that more attention should be focused on what his op-ed and President Obama’s speech show about how Russia and the U.S. use international legal rhetoric in pursuit of their goals.

As President Obama’s speech tried to make the case for U.S.-led military action in Syria (if the current diplomatic initiatives fail), Vladimir Putin’s op-ed argued why the U.S. should not intervene. In looking at these two texts—attempts by an American President and a Russian President to speak to the American public, and, at times, to the world—we can compare and contrast how the language of international law is used by both leaders.

Putin’s argument plays on American fears and worries but it is framed in the rhetoric of international law. There are some scare lines, such as: “A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.” There is a description of a “reeling” Afghanistan where “no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw.”  And, he adds, don’t forget the divisions in Iraq and Libya.  It is not in “America’s long-term interest” to have U.S. military intervention be “commonplace.” Well, that last part is true enough.

There are also some parts that are a bit hard to swallow, like his implying that his policy is based on a concern over the security of Israel or blaming the ongoing civil war on the West supplying arms to the opposition (which staying silent on Russia’s arming of the murderous Assad regime). I half-expected Putin to follow-up some of his arguments with “Bazinga!”

But all of these various points, be they persuasive or not, are placed in a frame of international legal rhetoric.  Putin’s op-ed is an excellent example of Russia’s strategy of using the language of international law to try to persuade publics around the world of the wisdom of its own foreign policy, while implicitly or explicitly critiquing the policies of other states. Near the beginning of his essay, Putin explains… (Continue Reading)