Russian Poker? Why The New Cold War May Be About To Thaw

Facing potential Second Cold War, participating countries strategize as if playing poker.
Facing potential Second Cold War, participating countries strategize as if playing poker.
Stanislav Kucher


MOSCOW — The list is long: the scandal around the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, an unprecedented expulsion of Russian diplomats, sanctions leading to the fall of the ruble and a hit on aluminum giant Rusal, retaliatory sanctions, strikes on Syria and over-the-top rhetoric of official Moscow during and after all-the-above crises. Judging by these events, which cry out that we are in full "new Cold War" territory, a kind of turbo poker match is on with the participation of leading Western countries on one hand and Russia and Iran on the other. How will it play out?

For starters, the Americans, British and French have incommensurably more chips. Russians and Iranians have the deck stacked against them, and their constant bluffs do not appear to working. There remain three variants: either Russia turns over the table, or radically changes their strategy, or, having conceded defeat with a smile, leaves the table and goes back to looking to earn a decent living some other way.

I will share with you a quotation that was passed onto me by an old friend, an international lawyer, son of a high-ranking Soviet diplomat who'd served in Washington in the middle of the 1980s. It says a lot and comes from a surprising source: "Our country is large, it has a strong economy, rich resources. So it will somehow survive all these blockades, sanctions. As for Washington's allies that are much more dependent on foreign trade, the policy of cowboy attacks against normal economic relations will affect them much more."

Russian journalist Vsevolod Ovchinnikov — Photo: Андрей Орлов

These words had come from a prominent journalist and TV presenter more than two years after the deployment of our troops in a Middle Eastern country torn apart by a civil war, less than a year after a charismatic Republican president took over the White House, three years before Russia began to seek rapprochement with the West and nine years before the state named the Soviet Union collapsed.

These words from the edition of "International Panorama" in the middle of 1982 came from Vsevolod Ovchinnikov, and they can be easily found on the Internet. The friend who sent it to me, unlike his father, never worked for the state, though neither is an active opponent. He is a successful professional in his sphere, a pragmatist who has always sought to stay out of politics.

No less precious, to my mind, was the brief commentary that he attached to his message: "History repeats. Only now everything promises to happen much quicker."

I completely support this prognosis that is bad news for some and a real sign of hope for others.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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