Few Choices for Merkel in Russian-Ukrainian Conundrum

Putin and Merkel in 2007 (Frank Augstein|AP)

Putin and Merkel in 2007 (Frank Augstein|AP)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is between a rock and a hard place these days. Being the leader of the country that’s financially propping up the European Union is tough enough without throwing in a balancing act when the Russian president flies off the handle while holding the EU’s natural gas pipes in one hand and Ukraine in the other.

Background

If you have had a hard time following this whole ordeal with Ukraine, here is how the whole thing got started, in a nut shell. Late last year, the Western half of Ukraine wanted to become more integrated with the European Union -you know, break down some trade barriers and sell some grain to their neighbours (Ukraine is the world’s 3rd largest grain exporter)-.   The Eastern part of Ukraine is very pro-Russia and no so very pro EU. Viktor Yanukovych was the president at the time, and he was from the East and has a lot of Russian Support. (For a much more analytical, visual, and rather pro-Western Ukraine explanation, check out Max Fisher’s blog post for the Washington Post)

Clashes between Western protesters and the government get out of hand and Yanukovych flees (deeper explanation on Fisher’s Blog). The Ukrainian parliament decides to make the chairman of parliament the acting president. Putin decides that Yanukovych is still the president, and that parliament’s actions are unacceptable; so Putin gets the Russian parliament to grant him permission to use military force. Russian troops move into Crimea (a section of the Eastern part of Ukraine), in order to “quell protests,” but also to set the scene for Crimea to be annexed by Russia (something that the Ukrainian parliament is now set t vote on).

The UK prime minister, David Cameron, and the US president, Barack Obama, are working with Chancellor Merkel in trying to find a way to deescalate tensions in Crimea.

Merkel’s Dilema

Obama has already put a hold on bank accounts and travel documents for Russians and Ukrainians who support Putin’s actions and undermine Ukrainian autonomy. Merkel, on the other hand, is in no such position to hold Russia accountable.

As you can see from this lovely map that Wikier Samuel Bailey shared on wikipedia, most of Europe’s natural gas comes from Russia. This means that Merkel has to be very careful in dealing with the man who has his hand on the tap.As NBC’s chief foreign correspondent, Andrea Mitchell, pointed out on The Rachel Maddow Show that this dynamic was forcing Merkel to play “good cop” to Obama’s “bad cop.”

Major_russian_gas_pipelines_to_europe

John Cassidy, a political blogger for The New Yorker, seems to think Merkel is the key fixing this situation:

If there is a solution to the crisis, it may lay in Berlin, in the personage of Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor and the de facto leader of the European Union. Since the Russian troops moved into Crimea, Merkel has said little publicly, confining herself to a few anodyne comments about “preserving the territorial integrity” of Ukraine. Behind the scenes, though, she is at the center of things. And, if anybody can persuade Putin that it is in his interests to order his soldiers back to their barracks, she might be the one.

On March 12th, Merkel quit playing “good cop” and gave a speech making it clear that military intervention would not be an option on the side of the EU or its member states. She did, however, say that it Russia were to take Crimea away from Ukraine, it would severely impact the relationship that Russia has with the EU and that Russia’s economy would suffer.

A video with English subtitles of her speech can be found here (unfortunately not many sites have an English translation because American media is currently focused on the disappearance of a Malaysian airplane). If you sprechen Sie Deutsch, you can watch Merkel’s full speech, below.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UX-iWr3WGBc

As you can imagine, the whole situation has been cause for great angst all over the world, and European bloggers have been particularly vocal about it. Many are vocal purely in the sense that they are history buffs or news junkies and unlike the media, who recounts the events of the day, they want to give you a holistic picture of the whole affair. One such blog was written by Jean Quatremer, with help from Lorraine Millot, of the French news site Liberation. The duo try to present the facts of the entire situation in an unbiased manner for their readers.

Other blogs offer less of a picture and more an opinion. A user called vincimus, on the German blog site Terra-Germania, is outraged. He (or possibly she) plays the  role of the conspiracy theorist. He writes in short sentences with vague references to different events and explanations of the situation. Vincimus asserts that Americans and Unkrainian “oligarchs” stormed parliament to overthrow the elected president and states that 10o,000 voices have been allowed to make the decisions of 44 million people.

In a political blog post on Stern.de, Von Lutz Kinkel agrees with Merkel, for the most part, but asserts that she’s just going through the motions. He believes that essentially, Crimea has already been lost to Russia. He says that Merkel can’t admit this, because if she does it essentially tells Russia that annexing other countries is acceptable and they can continue doing such things with no consequences. Kinkel appears to support the idea of the EU and Germany sanctioning Russia, but balances this thought by asking if they can morally implement sanctions when Germany has gone against international law in the past.

As for you, Dear Reader…

If you were to ask me, I would actually advise not to read any blogs about this situation. The fact is bloggers (including myself) get things wrong. If they had the necessary expertise to tell you the whole story, they wouldn’t be a blogger; they’d be a journalist, historian, or academic. Bloggers have interesting opinions, but they often like to present them as fact.

What you should really do is follow a news service like the BBC, who covers the context of the situation, the politics involved, and gets the first hand interviews with the people -from the politicians to the refugees- on the ground. Alternatively, you could follow Human Rights Watch, who has boots on the ground during situations like these and aggregates first hand accounts into reports and press releases.

Blogs, in these situations, are really just a bunch of noise; and it makes me hate to read them. 

A picture is worth a thousand words. It’s also pretty destructive.

What makes political cartoons so attractive in comparison to other means of communication? As I sit here writing this blog post trying to figure out what I want to write about, it is this question that keeps popping up in my mind. The power of cartoons: why are they used as a method to communicate political themes when words could have accomplished the same thing?

The answer to the question might seem fairly obvious: provocation. Take for example the French cartoonist Charlie Hebdo and his recent depictions of the prophet Muhammed. It wasn’t too long ago his studio was set on fire in a wave of protests against his depictions. Would a similar reaction happen if the same message was conveyed in words?

Charlie Hebdo’s depiction of the prophet Muhammed

In reviewing Euro-crisis caricatures, I tend to find many of the them quite humorous. It’s easy for me to say that though: I’m an outsider – an American – looking in on the crisis. Depictions of a Greek being ran over by a car called crisis and being ‘saved’ by a Red Cross bulldozer driven by Merkel is probably hilarious to the German (I find it quite funny as well); to the Greek, however, I am thinking it is far from evoking humor. Would taking the same picture and transforming it into words have the same impact and reactions?

Angela Merkel ‘saving’ the Greek.

Using a picture, such as our aforementioned German bulldozer example, seems to have more of a profound impact on the Greek viewer than German headlines and descriptions such as “bankrupt Greeks” and “frauds in the Euro family.” Using derogatory words aren’t as effective as the action of pictures and visualizations. As the German magazine Der Spiegel reported recently, “Greeks filed a lawsuit for collective libel against the Munich-based magazine Focus several months ago after it depicted the Venus de Milo statue with an extended middle finger in February 2010.” The fact that Greeks sued over a depiction shows just how hard-hitting depictions can be.

Words just aren’t cutting it: they are only words. Even Merkel’s criticism of “southern European inefficiency” (I guess this commented offended quite a few southern Europeans) couldn’t persuade a European to sue a German; a picture, however, has the ability to enrage the masses.

I suppose the methods for decoding pictures rings closer to home than the analytical approaches used when reading. The point is much clearer and memorable because of its nonverbal nature. For example, when a German is depicted as being a Nazi during the crisis, one can automatically associate the current behavior of the Germans with the behavior of the past. Whether it is true or not, one gets the sense that a crime is being committed, an atrocity is happening, and something needs to be done. It is indeed a much easier and more efficient way of portraying a message: as they say, a picture is a thousand words.

A picture almost a thousand words.

Nonetheless, many believe cartoons are still unnecessary and aren’t as effective. According to Christina H. from Cracked.com, political cartoons

“…should be a means to get a controversial point across in a concise, effective and humorous way. In reality, most usually convey less information than, say, grunting or gesturing. Whether you agree or disagree with the message is irrelevant, as these cartoons are often shitty ass vehicles for any message. Taken on average, political cartoons are the least effective way of making a point aside from suicide bombing and Internet petitions.”

Christiana H. makes her point crystal clear: political cartoons aren’t the best way to convey a message.

The question here, then, is whether a cartoon’s efficiency of portraying a message is worth it. Does portraying Angela Merkel as a Nazi have any relevance to the crisis, or does it further tarnish the reputations of Greek citizens? One might like to think that using words, although less efficient, does less harm to a particular individual. But then again…

Angela Merkel as a Neo-Nazi.

Maybe it is the case that more laughs and positivity result from the art, rather than anger and hate. It’s been said before that the best medicine goes down much better with a bit of humor. What do you think? Do political cartoons and depictions do more harm than good, or does a questioning and analysis even matter?