Putin's presdiential rivals brave; Saudi's King Salman visits Indonesia; Geert Wilders' mixed ancestry By Hamish McDonald.

Trump says opponents behind hate crimes

Russian presidential candidate Alexei Navalny (front right) and his wife, Yulia, in Moscow this week at a march in memory of assassinated opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.
Russian presidential candidate Alexei Navalny (front right) and his wife, Yulia, in Moscow this week at a march in memory of assassinated opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.
Credit: Sefa Karacan / Andalou Agency / Getty Images

Donald Trump announced a $US54 billion increase in defence spending, then gave the State Department 48 hours to come up with cuts of up to 30 per cent to its $US50 billion diplomacy and aid budget to help pay for it – payback perhaps for a thousand of its staff signing a dissent from his attempt to exclude people from seven Muslim-majority countries. Clearly, it’s going to be “Eyeless in Gaza” if The Donald has his way.

Meanwhile the upsurge in hate crimes and xenophobia since Trump’s election is also costing. A white bigot shot dead an Indian engineer and wounded another in a Kansas bar, shouting “get out of my country”. Bomb threats continue against Jewish community centres. Muhammad Ali’s son was questioned at an airport about how he became a Muslim. Even the Australian children’s book author Mem Fox got an offensive grilling on arrival in Los Angeles. Universities expect declining foreign student enrolments, and New York expects 300,000 fewer visitors than last year’s 12.7 million, costing businesses about $US600 million in sales.

The new president gave his first State of the Nation address to congress on Tuesday night. It’s bad but he can fix it. Trump led off by deploring the hate, without accepting any responsibility. Earlier that day he’d suggested to state attorneys-general the anti-Semitic attacks might be the work of his opponents, a popular theory on white-supremacist websites. “Someone’s doing it to make others look bad,” Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s attorney-general, reported him saying.

Wall Street reacted favourably to Trump’s speech, rated as “more presidential” than his usual unscripted rant against foreigners. Bankers like his promise to repeal Barack Obama’s restrictions on predatory lending and deceptive accounting, imposed after the global financial crisis they created. But even they wonder how he can manage a drastic cut to profits tax, the higher defence budget – plus more operational costs for Middle East fighting and a modernised nuclear arsenal – his pledged trillion-dollar infrastructure boom, and the tens of billions that his Mexican wall and deportations would cost. On all these issues, the speech was policy-short.

The Republican congressmen who rose on cue in standing ovations during Trump’s speech are also getting adverse feedback from the grassroots about Trump’s plans to scrap Obama’s Affordable Care Act, his entourage’s murky dealings with Russia, and his refusal to release his tax returns. Several Republican senators are inclined to support appointing a special prosecutor to look into Russia’s activity during last year’s campaign.

1 . Putin rivals brave

Russians came out in their thousands in Moscow and St Petersburg on Monday to remember the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, shot dead two years earlier just outside the Kremlin, at a moment when security cameras in the area just happened to be down.

Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister who had written a highly critical report on Vladimir Putin’s rule and was looking at the involvement of Russian forces in Ukraine, was emerging as a strong candidate to run against Putin in next year’s elections. Several Chechens have been charged with his murder and police don’t seem interested in who ordered it.

Vladimir Kara-Murza, another Russian opposition figure working with exiled tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia foundation in the US who had been in Moscow to show a documentary film about Nemtsov, came down with acute poisoning earlier last month before flying home. He had organised street protests against Putin and co-authored a report on corruption in the staging of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games. He survived an earlier poisoning in 2015.

Despite these grim precedents, a new contender is still pushing to run against Putin, despite a dubious court process designed to disqualify him. On February 8 a court found anti-corruption campaigner and self-described “nationalist democrat” Alexei Navalny guilty of conspiring to embezzle from a state timber company in 2009 and gave him a five-year suspended jail sentence. The verdict was almost verbatim that given in the same case in 2013, found flawed by the European Court of Human Rights and annulled by the Russian Supreme Court.

Russia’s constitution bars people serving sentences from running in elections, but it’s unclear whether suspended sentences count and Navalny is not dropping out. Political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky told The Guardian that Navalny might still be allowed to run. “The Kremlin hasn’t decided yet if it needs a sparring partner, an effective opponent who will get 10 per cent of the vote and give it legitimacy, and if it does who will it be,” he said.

2 . King Salman and the Wahhabists

Deft work on the tarmac at Sydney’s airport last week. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu liked the acclaim he got in the city so much he extended his visit by another day, further overlapping the visit by Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

As Widodo’s Garuda airliner rolled up to the VIP terminal, he might have spotted Netanyahu’s El Al plane, which had been obliged to skirt Indonesian airspace on its way down from Singapore by flying over the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. But awkward encounters were avoided as their itineraries were carefully separated, as were takeoff times last Sunday.

The comparative diplomatic effort looked disproportionate, given Israel’s distance and smallish trade with Australia. But Netanyahu was the first sitting Israeli leader to visit, and the truncated Widodo visit reflected more the uncertainties of politics back in Jakarta so that little advance notice was given and not much time spared. Malcolm Turnbull made up for it by a snap decision to attend a meeting, opening in Jakarta on Sunday, of Indian Ocean rim leaders, and appearing with a business delegation led by Trade Minister Steve Ciobo.

But Saudi Arabia’s King Salman will be a hard act to follow. He arrived in Jakarta on Thursday with 620 staff in his personal entourage, plus a delegation of 800 officials including 25 princes and several ministers. Advance aircraft flew in 459 tonnes of equipment and supplies, including two armour-plated limousines the king will use in a six-day holiday in Bali after all the official engagements.

With a rumoured $US25 billion in potential investment to wave around, King Salman is up there with China’s Xi Jinping in influence-buying. But it comes with a dark side. Saudi Arabia has been pumping money into Indonesia and other South-East Asian countries to promote its stark Wahhabist school of Islamic fundamentalism. Indonesia’s police have the upper hand fighting jihadist terrorism, but Wahhabi-style intolerance is running riot in the streets. The 10 agreements to be signed by King Salman include those on Saudi help in education and “Islamic development”.

3 . Geert by genes

The Netherlands was once the colonial master of what became Indonesia, and as its closely watched elections approach on March 15, the white nationalist Geert Wilders is doing his best to downplay his ancestry in the Indies.

That mane of white-blond hair is the peroxided part of this cover-up. Wilders’ mother was born in Sukabumi, West Java, in 1935 to a Dutch colonial official Johannes Ording and his local wife. Pursued by debtors and dismissed from government service, Ording and his family moved to Holland soon after. To a Dutch scholar of the mixed-race “Indo” communities, Lizzy van Leeuwen, the apparent heritage suggests Wilders follows in the tendency towards aggressive nationalism and repudiation of the native other displayed by earlier Indo-Dutch politicos.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 4, 2017 as "Trump says opponents behind hate crimes".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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