Zimbabwe’s support for Russia shortsighted

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? Guest Columnist Leon Hartwell

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 destabilisation 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, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. In context though, Resolution 1973 was adopted after Gaddafi labelled protesters “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.

Fast forward to March 18 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 characterised 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 recognised that 82% of Crimea’s electorate took part in the secession referendum and 96% of them spoke out in favour of reuniting with Russia, thereby legitimising the outcome.

How would Mugabe react should the UK demand intervention in Matabeleland based on the same dubious principles that Putin had 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 colonised 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 Organisation 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?

What if the UK attempted to justify both intervention and re-colonisation 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.

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

Mugabe supported Putin because it is a matter of you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. For example, on July 11 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 June 27 2008.

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.

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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