The tangled events leading up to World War I are much written about this centennial year, and one striking element is the power of “the street” to push history in unexpected and sometimes tragic directions when popular passions are either deliberately fired by demagogues or aroused by tribal loyalties, ethnic myths, xenophobia or legitimate frustration.
That may be what is happening over Ukraine. The surprising announcement by Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, on May 7 that he was pulling Russian armies back from the Ukrainian border and calling on anti-Kiev secessionists to suspend a referendum set for Sunday seemed at first to signal that he was ready to defuse the protracted and increasingly dangerous conflict.
But by week’s end NATO said it hadn’t seen any military pullback; more clashes were reported in southeastern Ukraine; and the motley secessionists holed up in government buildings in Donetsk said they were still preparing for a referendum on breaking with Kiev.
Protests in Thailand
In Thailand, after months of violent demonstrations, the ouster of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra by the Constitutional Court on May 7 posed the question of what to do when different institutions of government become hostage to implacable adversaries.
The ostensible reason for deposing Ms. Yingluck, whose Pheu Thai party was elected to office by a landslide in 2011, was that she abused her power when she replaced an official with a family member. The real reason was that Ms. Yingluck is the younger sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, the tycoon who was prime minister until he was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and who still plays an active role in Thai politics from exile in Dubai. It was the third time in recent years the court had removed a prime minister on a dubious pretext.
What next? More violent rallies seem inevitable. National elections are tentatively scheduled for July 20, and the Shinawatra clan’s “red-shirt” supporters from the rural heartlands in the north and northeast have a majority of the votes. But the “yellow-shirt” traditional elite of upper- and middle-class Thais from Bangkok and the south, with their supporters in the royal establishment, decry the Shinawatra clan’s populist economic policies and want to install an appointed government that would introduce election “reforms,” presumably to prevent another automatic red-shirt victory.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand’s popular monarch, has intervened in crises past, but he is 86 and ailing. In the absence of any institutional solution, it would seem time for the bitterly opposed sides to start talking.
Atrocities in Nigeria
Perhaps the most talked about news of the week concerned the abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls by a brutal Islamist sect in Nigeria opposed to their education. The sect, Boko Haram, whose name roughly translates as “Western education is a sin,” threatened to auction off the girls. Many countries offered help in rescuing the girls and a team of United States military officers arrived to assist with communications, logistics and intelligence.
That so many teenage girls should be seized from their school simply because they wanted an education was in itself terrible; worse, the girls had been abducted on April 14, and it took Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, three weeks to even acknowledge the kidnapping. And when he did, it became evident that he had no idea where the girls were or what to do to save them.
Boko Haram, under a demented leader called Abubakar Shekau, has been waging a terror campaign from bases in the largely Muslim and poor northern states of Nigeria since 2009. At least 1,500 people have been killed in the first three months of this year alone in attacks by the cult and in equally vicious, though largely ineffective, reprisals by the government. Boko Haram has not paused in its terror campaign since the abductions — on Monday, dozens of gunmen chanting “Allahu akbar” descended on the town of Gamboru Ngala in northeastern Nigeria, massacring at least 336 residents and setting hundreds of houses on fire.
Celebration in Russia
Back in Ukraine, one of the few things certain in the crisis was that Mr. Putin’s moves were hugely popular in Russia. The president used the Russian Victory Day holiday on May 9 to put his seal on the annexation of Crimea and on the resurgence of Russian power, presiding over a military parade in Red Square, where he proclaimed that the holiday confirmed that “the invincible power of patriotism triumphs.” Then he defiantly flew to the Crimean naval base at Sevastopol, where he was greeted with loud cheers from Russian sailors.
After mass demonstrations against his administration last year and a weakening economy, the Ukrainian crisis has allowed Mr. Putin to achieve extraordinary popularity at home even as he tightens the screws on a fading opposition and erodes his standing in the West.
A Pew Research Center survey conducted between April 4 and 20 found that 83 percent of Russians have confidence in the way Mr. Putin is conducting world affairs. At the same time, reflecting the success of Mr. Putin’s relentless campaign to portray the United States as Russia’s enemy No. 1, the poll found that only 23 percent gave America a favorable rating — the lowest in the 12 years Pew has been polling.
In Ukraine, meanwhile, pro-Russian secessionists in the headquarters of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” marked Victory Day by hanging out a banner with Stalin’s image and the phrase “Death to fascists.” Their leaders said that despite Mr. Putin’s call to postpone it, they were going ahead with the referendum, which asks one question: “Do you support the creation of the Donetsk People’s Republic?” It was unclear who would be voting and from what lists, but a sizable “yes” was all but certain, given that opponents of the armed secessionists were not likely to show up or vote “no.” But what supporting the Donetsk People’s Republic meant would ultimately depend, again, on how Mr. Putin chose to use it.
The Obama administration, for its part, said Thursday that it was ready to impose the next set of sanctions if the Kremlin continued to pursue what Washington describes as a campaign to disrupt the Ukrainian presidential election scheduled for May 25. The government said the next wave of sanctions will target Russia’s defense, high tech, engineering and energy sectors.