14 May, 2014

Zimbabwe's Support for Russia Shortsighted

by Leon Hartwell

An alleged telephone conversation surfaced on YouTube between Igor Chubarov, Russia's ambassador to Eritrea, and Sergei Bakharev, the ambassador to Zimbabwe and Malawi. The 5-minute long discussion started with Chubarov stating; “My congratulations! Your country [Zimbabwe] demonstrated very, let’s say, right understanding of the situation on Ukraine.”

Bakharev immediately replied, “And as for yours [Eritrea], they have surprised us. Are they fucking crazy?” Chubarov then indicated that he was not sure how that happened and expressed his surprise as well. He then exclaimed, “[but] your guys were fucking good. The only one on the continent [to reject the UN’s Resolution 68/262 on the territorial integrity of the Ukraine]. Oh no, Sudan as well.”

The conversation then continued with a lot of swearing and a couple of jokes about which territories Russia will annex next. Whether the telephone exchange is authentic or not, the truth is that Zimbabwe supported Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.

Formal annexation of Crimea (Photo: Kremlin.ru)

Resolution 68/262: Territorial Integrity of the Ukraine
On the 27th of March 2014, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 68/262 by a 100-11 vote with 58 abstentions. The Resolution primarily focused on the dubious secession referendum held in Crimea on the 16th of March as well as Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. It called on “states … not to recognize any change in the status of Crimea or the Black Sea port city of Sevastopol...”

States that supported Resolution 68/262 broadly argued that Russia’s intervention in Crimea infringed on Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Those who voted against the resolution included Armenia, Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. As a whole, taking into consideration their lack of respect for human rights, this is not a group of countries that any state necessarily want to be associated with.

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980 and who turned 90 years old in February, is a self-proclaimed supporter of ‘sovereignty’. That begs the question; why does Zimbabwe support Russia’s annexation of Crimea?

Sovereignty is sacrosanct
Mugabe never misses an opportunity to talk about the sacrosanct principle of “sovereignty”, which is exactly what has been violated in Ukraine. The nonagenarian leader has gone as far as rejecting both the principle of the Responsibility to Protect (which promotes intervention) and the International Criminal Court on the pretext that it conflicts with the idea of sovereignty.

At the 66th UN General Assembly in 2011, Mugabe stated: “the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) should not be twisted to provide cover for its pre-meditated abuse in violating the sacred international principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of states because to do so amounts to an act of aggression and destabilization of a sovereign state.”
Mugabe’s statement was in response to UN Resolution 1973, which in 2011 essentially led to the removal of his long-time friend and fellow dictator, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. In context though, Resolution 1973 was adopted after Gaddafi labelled protestors “cockroaches” and demanded that his supporters should “cleanse Libya house by house.”

Gaddafi’s language, which was reminiscent of Rwanda’s Hutu regime’s message during the 1994 genocide, suggested that he intended to exterminate a group of people. Despite the wave of killings that Gaddafi unleased on his opposition in Benghazi, Mugabe was angered by NATO’s intervention as this, he argued, challenged state sovereignty.

President Mugabe speaking at the UN (UN Photo/Ryan Brown)

Putin justifying support for Crimea
Fast forward to the 18th of March 2014: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin gave an eloquent speech and selectively drew upon history to justify Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

First, Putin referred to the shared history between Crimea and Russia, which helped to soften the idea of a big takeover of the region.

Second, he argued that the Soviet Union’s decision to incorporate Crimea into Ukraine in the 20th century was arbitrary as it “was made behind the scenes”.

Third, Putin portrayed Ukraine’s Euromaidan protestors and their leaders as illegitimate and characterized them as “Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites” with the aim of cloaking Russia’s annexation of Crimea under the pretext of humanitarian intervention.

Fourth, the Russian leader stated that there are many ethnic and linguistic Russians located in Crimea, thereby giving Russia an added purpose to intervene (supposedly) on behalf of their interests.

Fifth, Putin argued that Crimea asked for Moscow’s help to join Russia (although he failed mention that a pro-Moscow armed group took over the parliament building in Crimea which enabled pro-Moscow Crimean MPs to approach Russia for ‘assistance’).

Finally, Russia recognized that 82% of Crimea’s electorate took part in the secession Referendum and 96% of them spoke out in favor of reuniting with Russia, thereby legitimizing the outcome.

Mugabe’s support for Putin’s is unwise
How would Mugabe react should the UK demand intervention in Matabeleland based on the same dubious principles that Putin used for annexing Crimea? Like Russia in relation to Crimea, the UK has a history with Matabeleland. The Russian Empire first annexed Crimea in 1780s, while Britain colonized Southern Rhodesia (which is today known as Zimbabwe) approximately a hundred years later. Still, where do you draw that historical line with regards to territorial boundaries? How far back into history can you possibly go?

Furthermore, Mugabe knows that territorial boundaries are as arbitrary in Africa as it is in Crimea. The Scramble for Africa meant that Africa’s territorial boundaries were created in accordance with the interest of European colonial powers. That is why the Democratic Republic of Congo has over 500 ethnic groups in one territory while the Somali people are scattered all over modern-day Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti. The then Organization of African Unity accepted the application of the principle of uti possidetis, which meant maintaining the sanctity of colonial boundaries in an attempt to limit border disputes and to speed up independence. What if Matabeleland today decides that its borders are arbitrary and therefore they should have a secession referendum?

Moreover, as mentioned, Putin tried to build his case by portraying the current Ukrainian government as illegitimate, despite the fact that it came into being as a result of almost three months of protests against Viktor Yanukovych’s draconian regime. What if the UK attempted to justify both intervention and re-colonization of Matabeleland based on the fact that most Zimbabweans speak English, Mugabe is authoritarian, illegitimate, and that his regime has led to the killing of thousands of Zimbabweans?

Based on the above assumptions, imagine if the UK decided to send well-armed groups into Matabeleland to take over government structures and then to support a secessionist referendum where people could vote either to become independent or to join the UK. Voter turnout for a secession referendum in Matabeleland will probably be high. Many people in the region resent Mugabe for generally marginalizing Matabeleland and for Gukurahundi (which lead to the killing of about 20,000 Ndebele).

In short, Russia’s annexation of Crimea is as absurd and unjustifiable as the re-colonization of Matabeleland by the UK would be. Yet, Mugabe supported Putin’s actions in Crimea.

Practicality over principle
Mugabe supported Putin because it is a matter of you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. For example, on the 11th of July 2008, Russia and China vetoed sanctions against Mugabe and his inner circle responsible for violence, torture and intimidation that preceded the controversial presidential run-off elections on the 27th of June 2008.

Zimbabwe’s objection to Resolution 68/262 was important for Russia in as much as it needed to demonstrate to the Russian public that there was a small group of states that viewed its actions as legitimate. For Mugabe, Russia’s support in the past (and possibly in the future) has been invaluable given that Russia has veto power in the UN Security Council.

As the world is becoming increasingly globalized, international relations matter more and more. Putin violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and in the future this could also have negative impacts in other countries where secessionist movements could demand independence based on some of the same dubious principles. This is arguably why China, Mugabe’s strategic ally, chose to abstain rather than to blatantly reject Resolution 68/262. Mugabe’s regime failed to see the bigger picture. Zimbabwe’s foreign policy stems from the individual interest of Mugabe and his inner circle rather than being based on a strategic approach that serves the country’s long-term national interests.

*Leon Hartwell is an independent political analyst

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