The illusion of choice

The Governor General of Canada, David Johnston, has dissolved parliament, and the country will now enjoy almost 80 days of political campaigning until a general election is held on 19 October. The focus will undoubtedly be on domestic politics, but as this blog is devoted primarily to Russia-West relations here is a look at the major contenders’ policies towards the Russian Federation.

The Conservative Party of Canada

The position of the ruling Conservative Party, and its leader Stephen Harper, needs the least explaining, as it is well documented. The Conservatives are unrelentingly hostile. Harper seems to view the world in black and white terms – there is good (the West) and there is evil (ISIS, Iran, and Vladimir Putin). This view predates the current war in Ukraine: Harper made his dislike of Putin clear well before then. Since the Ukrainian crisis began, Canada has imposed more sanctions on Russia than any other country in the Western world, and has deployed troops to Ukraine to train the National Guard. Harper has also made it clear that he will not agree to Russia rejoining the G7/8 as long as Putin remains the country’s president. He has also repeatedly raised the spectre of a Russian threat to Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic:

Harper’s harsh rhetoric is, however, moderated to some degree by a dose of pragmatism. Canadian sanctions have for the most part avoided targets which might seriously affect Canadian-Russian trade, such as the aerospace sector in which Bombardier Inc. has a major interest. Canada waited until February 2015 to sanction the Russian oil giant Rosneft, and until June 2015 to sanction Gazprom, and the measures against Rosneft were limited and do not rule out all cooperation. Harper has resisted sending arms to Ukraine, and the deployment of troops to that country was not a unilateral measure but followed in the wake of a similar American decision. One can expect Canada to continue to tie its policies closely to those of the United States if the Conservatives return to power in October.

The Liberal Party of Canada

Some critics, particularly in the Ukrainian Canadian community, complain that while the Conservatives talk tough they don’t follow through with action. This creates room for other parties to outflank them by promising to be even tougher. This appears to be preferred direction of the Liberal Party of Canada.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has said very little about Russia, and appears largely ignorant on the subject. For instance, he reacted to the murder of Russian politician Boris Nemtsov by claiming that he had recently met him. In fact, he never had, and was confusing Nemtsov with another politician, Mikhail Kasyanov. Insofar as the Liberals have a Russian ‘expert’, it is the Ukrainian-Canadian journalist turned-MP Chrystia Freeland, who has long been an outspoken critic of the Russian government and an equally vocal supporter of Russia’s small liberal opposition.  Freeland told a meeting in Toronto in March 2015 that, ‘This conflict with Russia is not going to end in one day. Our community, our country, the entire Western world needs to really be prepared for a new environment. This is not something that can end quickly, and we need to adjust the way we think. We need to understand this is a very profound ideological battle going on.’ ‘Putin’s Russia has chosen its path,’ she wrote in Prospect Magazine in December 2014, ‘Today it is an authoritarian state, with expansionist ambitions, that does not consider itself bound by international treaties and norms. To secure his power at home, Putin has decided to test its limits abroad. Whether it is in Ukraine, or elsewhere, one day we will have to stop him.’

Perhaps under Freeland’s influence, the Liberal Party has for now positioned itself as even more anti-Putin than the Conservatives. According to the Liberal Party’s website:

For months, Liberals have been calling on the government of Canada to take the following actions: expand the list of sanctioned Russians to include influential businessmen and close Putin supporters, Igor Sechin and Vladimir Yakunin; explore, with our allies, the feasibility of cutting off certain Russian banks from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) network … and call for an urgent meeting of its NATO allies to decide whether new steps must be taken, in view of escalating Russian aggression in Ukraine.

The New Democratic Party (NDP)

The NDP’s leader, Thomas Mulcair, has said just about nothing about Russia. Until the start of the Ukrainian crisis, the party’s interest in Russia was mostly limited to the issue of gay rights, with foreign spokesman Paul Dewar demanding sanctions against Russian legislators responsible for a law prohibiting the propagation of ‘homosexual propaganda’. More recently, the NDP has been broadly supportive of the Conservative government’s measures relative to Ukraine. After Russia sanctioned several Canadian citizens in March 2014, for instance, Mulcair remarked: ‘If that’s the price to pay to start sending a message to Putin, so be it.’ He then called on ‘the world community’ to ‘come together and start imposing far more consequential sanctions’ if Russia did not submit to Western demands regarding the Crimea and Ukraine.

Since then, Mulcair has distanced himself a bit from the Conservatives by opposing the Canadian military mission to Ukraine, saying that it poses a ‘grave danger’ to Canadian troops. But some of his colleagues have been far more belligerent. Most notably, NDP MP Peggy Nash drew fire for sharing a platform with a member of the far-right Ukrainian paramilitary organization Right Sector. And in October 2014, Paul Dewar denounced the Conservatives for being too ‘timid’ in their measures against Russia because of their failure to sanction the Russian oil and gas industries. ‘Why don’t they go after Gazprom?’ Dewar asked at the time.

Years ago, while a student in the Soviet Union, I had a debate in a restaurant with some journalists about the relative merits of the Soviet and Western electoral systems. The journalists tried to convince me that the Soviet Union was just as democratic as Western states because there was actually no more choice in the latter than in the former. Instead there was an illusion of choice. Voters could select from a variety of political parties, but the differences between them were so slight that it made no great difference who won (especially given that real power lay in the hands of the unelected capitalists behind the scenes[1]). At the time, I thought that this was nonsense. While I still mostly disagree, as I have gotten older and less naive I have begrudgingly accepted that they weren’t 100 percent wrong. Certainly, it is hard to see that the outcome of October’s election will make any significant difference to Russian-Canadian relations, no matter whom people vote for.

[1] The Soviet journalists were not entirely wrong about this either, at least according to last Sunday’s New York Times, which reported ‘Fewer than four hundred families are responsible for almost half the money raised in the 2016 presidential campaign.’ http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/02/us/small-pool-of-rich-donors-dominates-election-giving.html?_r=0

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5 thoughts on “The illusion of choice”

  1. “Harper has also made it clear that he will not agree to Russia rejoining the G7/8 as long as Putin remains the country’s president”.

    Or as long as Harper remains Canada’s prime minister – which may not be nearly as long.

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  2. “While I still mostly disagree, as I have gotten older and less naive I have begrudgingly accepted that they weren’t 100 percent wrong”.

    Since you still believe that they were mostly wrong, which parts of Martin Gilens’ research (as laid out in his book “Affluence and Influence”) do you dispute? That appears to make an irrefutable case for the proposition that the USA, at any rate, is an oligarchy or a plutocracy. Whatever it is, it most certainly isn’t a democracy, as the government entirely ignores the wishes of most of its citizens.

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    1. While often the choice in elections may not be great, this is not always the case. There are instances, such as when NAFTA was an election issue here in Canada or in the elections which brought Thatcher to power in the UK, where there are important distinctions between the parties. But even if there are not, elections do at least provide a mechanism for kicking out one load of people and putting in another, and so thereby serve as a mechanism of accountability. If nothing else, politicians are kept on their toes and have to pay attention to public opinion. Basically, some choice is better than no choice, which was the Soviet option.

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  3. The observations in this post were depressingly confirmed in the first leaders’ debate. It was a strange sight to see Harper, whose foreign policy mostly consists of ineffectual lectures directed at countries that are much too big and powerful to care much about what Canada has to say, successfully posing as the voice of reason on Ukraine. Neither Trudeau nor Mulcair had any criticism to make of Canada’s Ukraine policy, except that it didn’t go far enough, and that we should be sacrificing our own economic interests for the sake of a cause that hardly anyone outside the Ukrainian-Canadian lobby finds important or significant to Canada’s interests.

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