Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hostages to conflict, political blindness

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We live in a world of populations held hostage.

We are not talking here about unfortunate captives who are held hostage by rogues, thugs and tyrants. We are talking about the many millions who are being held hostage by their own failures.

Yes, we are talking about elected leaders. But we are also talking about ordinary citizens and corporate leaders who sit passively by and fail to demand their elected leaders do the right thing. And mainly, we are talking about people everywhere who fail to demand what they know, deep down, is in the best interest of their families and fellow citizens.

In short, today we are talking to the people everywhere who end up holding themselves hostage -- but who probably don't even realize they have become their own worst enemies.

Think about the sad lives of the Palestinians of Gaza. They have for some time allowed themselves to be turned into cannon fodder by the Hamas leaders they once elected, but no longer trust to lead them. According to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a credible poll in June showed 70 per cent of Gaza Palestinians wanted Hamas to sign a ceasefire. Now ask: what do those Palestinian civilians think when Hamas installs rocket launchers in their homes, schools and hospitals? Surely they know why Hamas puts the rockets there -- so Israel will kill civilians when it retaliates after the rockets are fired, and Hamas can use that as a public relations weapon.

Gaza's Palestinians have become hostages of their leaders -- and Hamas uses their women, children and infants as mere PR fodder.

Now think about people with a very different predicament -- they live in a huge country but are trapped in a bipolar political existence. Russia's 143 million people live in what they call a capitalist democracy and yearn for the prosperity of being a major player in the global economy.

At first, President Vladimir Putin seemed to have schemed to make 2014 the year Russia would be swept into the global economy -- via Putin's own clever Sochi two-step: First by hosting Sochi's Winter Olympics, then hosting in Sochi a G-8 economic summit. All to showcase Russia as an ideal place for global investment.

But then, Putin became embarrassed when Ukraine chose closer ties with Europe -- and reverted to his KGB ways. He took Crimea, armed and trained pro-Russian separatist thugs to capture more of Ukraine. All that shattered Russia's economic dreams.

Yet the Russian people rewarded Putin with stratospheric ratings in polls. He made them feel powerful again, albeit still poor. Russians seemed blind to the reality that they were holding themselves hostage.

Then one of Russia's ground-to-air missiles, fired from rebel-held land, blasted a Malaysia Airline jetliner out of the sky, murdering 298 innocent civilians, most of them from the Netherlands.

And this brings us to one last population that is endangering its self-interests by holding itself hostage: Europe. The European Union has timidly refrained from imposing tough sanctions against Russia. The world knows why: Europe, especially Germany, depends upon Russia for much of its natural gas and has many other trade ties.

Even this week, EU foreign ministers met in Brussels but failed to get tough. They just chose to consider a modestly expanded list of sanctions.

Europe's shame could be seen as a retreat inside its own protective Shell -- in this case, Shell Oil, the huge Dutch-British oil company. Shell has vast gas investments in Russia's Siberia. And the fact that 193 Dutch citizens (including four Shell employees) were blown out of the sky by that Russian missile didn't cause Shell to end its opposition to further sanctions.

This was a time when the world would have benefited from leadership in the form of speeches and mainly initiatives from U.S. President Barack Obama geared toward a global commitment toward helping Europe end all dealings with Russia.

Yet the toughest words last week came from British Prime Minister David Cameron. In a commentary in the Sunday Times, Cameron called on the EU to finally take tough action against Russia.

Cameron wrote that "we sometimes behave as if we need Russia more than Russia needs us."

Europeans must stop holding themselves hostage to Russia's gas pipelines. They can start by shutting off Russia's pipelines -- until the Kremlin rejoins the civilized world.

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive.

-- McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 24, 2014 A11

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