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March 2012 Country Archive


This issue surveys ‘The Arab Awakening,’ plus March country reports
Syria, Libya, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Iraq, Iran

(For quick access click on each country name)

Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, North Korea, Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Hungary, Bosnia, Serbia

The Arab Awakening
“To Democratise is to Islamicize”

This perception from Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center was by way of public explanation for the Russian stance on Syria. Unfortunately, we think it hits the nail square on the head. RUSSIA were being demonised because they have (since the 1960’s) been arms suppliers to SYRIA, yet some media try to make it appear that they have only recently become involved, like the Saudi’s clandestine help to the rebels. Given the neighbouring Israeli presence the US never did, nor were ever likely to supply Syria.

The fact is that this is a civil war that is going on in Syria. To deny that and call it something else is to prevaricate. It is a brutal civil war but not in every part of the country. Both the government and the rebels have done and are doing terrible things. There are no Geneva conventions here!

It isn’t new for Syria. The two powerful strands in the country are the secular Baath, led by the Assads and based on the approx 30 % religious minorities; and the Moslem Brethren based on the Sunni majority. In a sense this uprising is the latest round in a history of brutality between them, going back for decades.

As we have consistently reported over past months, arms have been flowing to the rebels from Saudi Arabia; Jordan; Lebanon and Iraq; indeed generally from the Sunni Moslem neighbours, because what the west seems to have not yet fully caught onto is that:

this war is about bringing the nation back to God!

Baath Syria is, as Baath Iraq was also, a secular state where all religions and none are equally acceptable.

The Arab League is almost entirely Sunni Moslem

SYRIA currently occupies a lot of news time. Those brave but reckless western journalists reporting from inside SYRIA are mostly there without permission, and so have their mentors from amongst the rebel groups, get their news and shoot their film from the perspective of the rebels on the receiving end of the shelling, etc. That does enable readers and viewers to have reports and see, not only the violence of the military assault, but also some of the horrors perpetrated by the rebels, particularly in literally ‘butchering’ certain classes of prisoner.
The government knows it is in a civil war, which it does not intend to lose. The western ‘line’ to have the president stand down, is presumably to allow a democratic choice of a successor. Such a presumption is either cynical in the extreme, or plain naïve. But ‘naïve’ won’t do for the US, UK or French foreign ministries.

They have picked sides. Yet the side they want to win has at least four heads. The BBC published a ‘Guide to the Syrian Opposition,’ which it says is “fractious and deeply divided.” The Syrian National Council that Foreign Secretary Hague of the UK is backing, are largely exiles living outside the country. Whatever the other opposition groups stand for, the one that matters is the Moslem Brotherhood. They have always been there and have rebelled before, based on Hama and Homs in 1982 when they took fearful casualties. If the overthrow of the Alawites were possible, then there is no doubt who a ‘democratic Syria’ would choose, as in Tunisia and Egypt. The majority are of course Sunni, (hence the support of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states) but with a large minority, some 30% to 33% who are not. Neighbouring Iraq already has a de facto Shia government, much to the dismay of the Saudis whose major worry at this time is their confrontation with Iran. Now the US has withdrawn, Iran indeed can be seen to be the major beneficiary of the US 1993 invasion of Iraq.  So much for miscalculation!

Indeed the US, UK, and French support for the rebels - any rebels, would seem primarily to be driven by the desire to eradicate Iran’s only Arab ally. Is it that it simply seems too good an opportunity to allow to pass by?

“The Friends of Syria” the name for the US/UK/ France conference held in late February in neighbouring Tunisia, was used by grandstanding western statespeople to protest the Syrian government’s assault on the rebel base area in Homs, in which many innocent civilians mixed up with the armed rebels, have undoubtedly suffered death and mutilation. But this illustrates that it is a civil war, inevitably ugly and unspeakably cruel. It is not very different to the recent events in Libya, but the upshot of that, where the NATO contribution made the big difference, can now be seen in the state of chaos that remains.

The Arab League as arbiters of democracy (see below) are a sad, bad joke. So many of their members - and of the western governments involved, have got a dog in this fight. Can there be any doubt that the US/ UK/ France/ Israel/Turkey see this as an opportunity to stick it to the Iranians? Their talk of peaceful resolutions, yet instant dismissive reaction to Assad’s referendum, indicates simply that they want him gone. But if that happened, the Alawites who would quite rightly be in fear of their lives, would pick another leader, his ’attack dog’ brother perhaps, a pugnacious Special Forces general.

Syria having been cold shouldered except by Russia, since the time of the Israeli wars, had found an ally in Iran. This, unusually for the middle-east has not been a matter of religion, since Syria has long been a secular state where all religions or none, are a personal matter for their citizens. The Alawites, like most of the other minorities, are one variety of ‘nonconformist’ Moslem, as are the Druses, the Ismailis, the Shia and more, who differ from the majority primarily in that they are not mainstream (Sunni). With a secular constitution, before beating up its own people, Syria could have been said, by definition, to be one step (a long stride to be sure), nearer a western style democracy than any others except Lebanon, in the Arab world (which as we can see, is still a very long way).

After a full year of revolution there are at least four separate Syrian rebel organisations each with different backers. Which would dominate, should they succeed? To the mainstream Sunni, it is an affront to belong to a state which allows freedom of religion. ‘Secular’ simply means ‘godless’ to the rebels, who are motivated to bring in sharia law and the dominance of their religion, (yet outsiders will claim as we do, that a secular state is a necessary forerunner of democracy).

The organised rebels are doubtless enhanced by nascent democrats, as in Egypt ‘the internet savvy’ generation, and those who have lost family members, but the long existing mainstream rebels of the Moslem Brotherhood desire particular change which, includes rejoining the umma, thus restoring the power of religion – specifically the Sunni branch of Islam. They also want revenge on the al-Assads and the Alawites.

To the rebels, self-evidently ‘God’ is a cause worth dying for. None of this is to deny that the government of the Alawites have run a tight ship in Syria, allied with the other minorities –Syrian Orthodox Christian, Druses, Kurds, Shi-ites, Ismailis, Armenian Christians, together totalling about a third of the population. In this severe regime they have not been significantly different to the other nations of the Arab Awakening, to which freedom and justice are strangers. The Sunni middle-class here have been compensated with light government and taxes, and have prospered. Hence central Damascus and Aleppo - the main business and population centres, have remained supportive of the Assads. The rebels have little support there, in fact to the contrary, since the revolt has obviously had a major negative impact on business.

There is a probability and this is our main fear, that if this civil war goes to the rebels, the Alawites and the other minorities including the Syrian and Armenian Christians with whom they are allied, would be subject to a far reaching religious purge, a terrible religious war, with the west, as now, standing helpless on the sidelines.

Under the Assad family it has long been by western standards, cruel to its enemies, and in this fighting it certainly has matched or even outdone the rebels, brutality for brutality. Of course the government can be seen to be doing this by their use of artillery, but it is not a solution for Assad to step down, to make way as the Western governments wish, for what? A democratic government like… where exactly?

See below: The ARAB LEAGUE. On which Arab state should a new Syria model itself?

Our SYRIA report concludes that ‘stalemate’ might be how that nation and this crisis will wind up. The fact is that this has been the ugliest confrontation in the ‘Arab Awakening’ with issues about heresy as prominent as democracy, and deep divides between the western powers with Moscow, Beijing and Tehran, and their Syrian proxies, none of which happened in the case of Libya. (Go To SYRIA)

The Arab League as arbiters of democracy

World Audit Democracy table has a right sidebar panel below listing all the members of the Arab League out of 150 nations in the world in order of democracy. 2012 figures reproduced here. For methodology see World Audit.


United Arab Emirates  74
Kuwait 76
Jordan 81
Oman 85
Lebanon 89
Mauritania 92
Algeria 99
Morocco 100
Egypt 106
Saudi Arabia 111
Tunisia 120
Iraq 124
Syria 135
Yemen 139
Sudan 139
Libya 145
Somalia 145

Their highest ranking is 74th place out of 150 nations in the world! To have the Arab League pontificate about democracy is simply ludicrous. They were formed in 1945 and this is as far as they’ve got with their civil societies, after 67 years of sharing the world with all the many different forms that there are of political organisation.

To say that democracy is not understood by the Arab member states, is manifestly to misrepresent the case. They understand it - and nowhere do the rulers want it! Remember democracy means not only ‘fair votes,’ and other ‘political rights’, but ‘human rights,’ a clean system of courts and of impartial justice - with ‘corruption’ no part of the equation. If it were just votes - as Stalin is attributed with saying, it doesn’t matter who votes- what matters is who counts them.

So in the obvious absence of democracy, then stability may be the next best thing. But if a government is so cruel and tyrannical, as it is claimed is Syria, then it is up to Syrians to change it, not for outside powers to ordain that a government or a leadership must change, without any evidence that this would make for a better situation and with every likelihood that it would become worse!

As the academic in Moscow noted: ‘democratisation equals Islamicization’.

Democrats must take cognisance. If that is the will of the people, then so be it.

However people of goodwill must understand that they can compare the society the Syrians would then endure, which would at best be like Saudi Arabia (with religious police, public executions and floggings, stoning of women, as prescribed by Sharia law, all without the healing application of money), or Iran, with the mullahs in control of every aspect of life and Sharia as the means of exercising justice. (GO TO SYRIA )

Read this issue of Libya- a post-revolutionary example. The successor state to Qadaffi’s regime has now broken up to country-wide lawlessness with scores of well armed mobile clans who can’t believe their luck – life has never been so good, they are the masters now of a masterless state!

Libya which seemed so clear-cut, (so much so as to have game-changing NATO military intervention), within a matter of months has shown that violence has not brought democracy. Rather it has seen the end of fighting a dictator turn into anarchy - not even close to the stability which Qadaffi did at least provide, which might come to be seen as second best, if democracy cannot eventually prevail.

So it has now become something of a lawless jungle, currently dominated by mobile gunmen of no known allegiance, but will in our view eventually fall to the Moslem Brotherhood. The Moslem Brethren there have clandestinely survived the time of the Qadaffis, and just as in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, they possess what the other hopefuls don’t have, that is both organisation and a long-held, well understood mission, that they are the party of God. (Go To LIBYA)

Prime Minister Erdogan continues to have a place at the centre of geopolitical events, where Turkey the former imperial power over the several states in the Arab Awakening, has itself exemplified the moving on from the theocracy, that plagues so many middle-eastern states. Whilst promoting ‘soft Islam,’ a concept not unlike the Christian Democrats of Europe, they have to have careful regard for their own geopolitical interests. Theocratic Iran is their next door neighbour and although on reasonable terms, has been a rival for many centuries. Turkey as with Iran, Iraq and Syria all have minority Kurdish populations with the capacity to become the swing vote in government as in Iraq. Or, to be destabilising civil life as in Turkey, where there has been warfare going on between the Turkish army and Kurdish independence fighters for several decades. Turkey, once an ally of the Syrian government has definitely turned against the al-Assads, but this might have as much to do with concerns about the Iranian influence in Baghdad, as disgust at the military atrocities. We also look a little more closely at the Turkish style of democracy, which whilst substantially better than any of its neighbours, is far from being beyond causing concern. Our report explores these issues and more. (Go To TURKEY)

From the western media’s point of view the ‘revolution’ is on hold, whilst the big news is the 43 defendants, including 16 Americans working for NGO’s who have been arrested, and charged with not having proper licences to be operating in Egypt; and with their funding now re-classified as ‘illegal funds from abroad”. It is believed that the military junta which still runs Egypt has been deeply annoyed, because these mostly young enthusiasts have been saying in various quarters what many westerners and Egyptians think: that it is time for the military to pass on their civil powers to the newly elected parliament. The US has responded with what must be true: that if Egypt criminalises these young aid workers, the US Congress will almost certainly decline to pass the annual Bill of aid to Egypt, averaging around one thousand, two hundred, million dollars each year (most of which goes to the military). The Egyptian media on the other hand is complaining that the US is interfering in Egyptian affairs – so what’s new? Paying annually 1.2 billion US Taxpayer’s dollars must entitle them to have something to say about this outrageous persecution of aid workers, whose motivation is to want the best for the country they are working in. More detail in the report: (Go To EGYPT)

Saudi Arabia
The Kingdom now has to cope not only with Syria, where they are backing and unofficially arming the rebels, but also Iraq, which with the Americans gone, is with its Shi’ite leadership inevitably favouring the Iranians. So much so, that the Saudis believe, according to WikiLeaks, that the Prime Minister, al-Maliki is an Iranian agent! However in February, Riyadh resumed diplomatic relations with Baghdad, no doubt expecting troubled times ahead. The report tells of Saudi concerns about the Shi-ites. Saudi is mindful of the vacuum caused by the lack of a regional power, which the US became when it had its armed forces in Iraq. The competition is clearly Iran. In this context of a possible ‘Shi-ite A-bomb,’ we look at the question of Saudi nuclear ambitions, for which the Saudis are talking with the Chinese, as Washington is understandably reluctant to share nuclear technology, to avoid an all-out nuclear arms race in the Gulf. This attitude we believe has been pushing the Saudis closer to China, who have their own interests in getting closer to the worlds largest oil producer. (Go to SAUDI ARABIA)

Morocco has so far come through the Arab Awakening seemingly unharmed. The government, a relatively benign monarchy, has ridden the waves and society has emerged with some progress to show. As our report explains, this is perhaps the most successful of all the Arab nations embroiled in change, but it is noteworthy that it was the Islamists of the Justice and Development party that made the biggest impact in elections. (Go To MOROCCO)

More or less unaffected by the resurgence of the other MENA nations, Iraq has no shortage of problems of its own. It is emerging that the government has not been making a very good fist of running its oil industry, and we report several changes of policy. They have not been quick learners, but hopefully they will get there in the end. Since it is claimed that Iraqi oil reserves compare with those of neighbouring Saudi Arabia, then theoretically, if they can get their act together, this should become a very rich state. The president al Maliki, whom the Saudis, according to wikileaks believe to be an Iranian agent, is undoubtedly calling all the shots in terms of government, even though this involves some amazing sleight of hand in dealing –well or badly, with the several powerful components of the Iraqi body politic.

Our report tells of how tensions in Baghdad with the Sunni Arabs are easing –the Sunni lawmakers ended their boycott of parliament and a little later, the Sunni Cabinet members also went back. Now it’s the turn of the Shi’ites, as we explain. (Go To IRAQ)

Although Iran is an important and ancient nation of some 70 million people, it seems to attract disproportionately more attention than any other nation on earth. As of now, it has no nuclear bomb nor the missiles to weaponise it, although its enemy Israel, claim it is planning to produce a bomb. - North Korea meanwhile, as any one who reads our reports can see, not only has both bombs and missiles and is at least as pugnacious as Iran ever was. But of course there is no Israel in the firing line. The effect of this is that North Korea remains a worry –a problem as yet unsolved, but not one to keep the world’s leaders awake at nights. But Israel, when head to head with Iran, is truly scary with war drums beating in Tel Aviv, and the geopolitical debate as to whether the impressive IAF will go in anyway, even if not unleashed by the US.
Whether or not it would achieve the objective of destroying a future Iranian military nuclear capacity, as of now nil, what it undoubtedly would be is an act of war and what it would do is to evoke Iranian reprisals, not necessarily on distant Israel but certainly on US interests. Who else could be held responsible for allowing, not preventing their client Israel from going ahead?

No doubt plans for reprisals have been prepared, the oil transport bottleneck of the Gulf of Hormuz is heavily tipped as the place. This is not, of course a matter of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard motorboats taking on the mighty US navy, but simply of their mining the Straits. No matter that minesweepers would be deployed, what insurance companies would cover the risk of a super-tanker hitting and being destroyed by a mine – and for how many years to come? Apart from speculators in the price of oil it would be devastating for much of the rest of the world. As has been commented, the world would have ‘sleep-walked into war’ – and this in a US election year (!) But how would it finish?

Our reports from Iran necessarily look at the international situation which constantly is changing, but also at the internal political situation which is both fascinating and important, as it amounts to clear instability in a divided government. It shows a capacity to improve the situation, or to see it become considerably worse. (Go To IRAN)


Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, North Korea, Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Hungary, Bosnia, Serbia.

Within a few days of our publication date, the March 4th Russian presidential election will have taken place with Putin ensconced for a further six years in his third presidential term. Our RUSSIA report tells of mass demonstrations against Putin, simply unheard of before, but largely sparked by the resentment of city folks against the crude electoral tactics of United Russia, back in the December Duma elections.

For Russians who once controlled a third of the world, who put the first man into space, whose history is studded with great names in literature, science, the arts, indeed all of the accomplishments of an advanced society, to have to stand by and witness the busloads of United Russia youth having their fun, stuffing the ballot boxes in each of Moscow’s election stations as though Russia was on the lower tier of third world dictatorships, it all became a stuffed vote too far. Already the announcement by Putin that he was resuming his presidency by arrangement with Medvedev, who would become the new prime minister, had struck a discordant note, even in a ‘pretend’ democracy.

The candidates are Zyuganov (Communist); Mironov (“A Just Russia”); Zhirinovsky (“Lib Dem”); Prokhorov (Independent); and of course: Putin (“United Russia”)

Putin has achieved a lot for Russia in the years since Boris Yeltsin, although Russians understood that he always was the KGB’s man from the time he entered government, so the power behind him was no mystery at all. Thus far he did and probably still could win fair and square against a chosen field of candidates; but to eliminate on ‘technicalities’ any candidate who could certainly show a good result and therefore could have an established position for the following election, which is what Putin/Medvedev have done, is treating the electorate like idiots – they now understand that, and they don’t like it!

See below the disqualified candidates and the reasons advanced by the Registration committee

The following candidates were denied registration by the Russian Central Elections Committee (CEC).

Name Party Profession Reason of rejection
Grigory Yavlinsky Yabloko Politician, Economist Rejected due to the high quantity of invalid signatures he presented[5] to the CEC (25.66%).
Eduard Limonov Independent Writer, Leader of the unregistered Party The Other Russia Registration request from group of voters turned down on the grounds that the required two million signatures had not been certified by a notary.[6]
Leonid Ivashov Independent Colonel General in Reserve, President of the Academy of Geopolitical Affairs Registration request from group of voters turned down because he did not inform the CEC about holding a meeting in due time
Dmitry Mezentsev Independent Governor of the Irkutsk Oblast Rejected due to the high quantity of invalid signatures he presented
Nicolai Levashov Independent Writer Registration request turned down because at the time of registration attempt he had lived in Russia for less than 10 years.
Boris Mironov Independent Writer, former leader of the National Sovereignty Party of Russia Registration request from group of voters turned down on the grounds that the candidate had been previously convicted of writing extremist texts.[7]
Svetlana Peunova Independent Head of the unregistered political party Volya Rejected due to the lack of signatures gathered to uphold her bid (243,245 signatures gathered out of the necessary 2 million).[7]
Viktor Cherepkov Independent Leader of the unregistered party Freedom and Sovereignty Did not present any signatures required for registration.
Rinat Khamiev Independent Leader of the Chairman of the People's Patriotic Union of Orenburg, CEO of Zorro LLC Did not present any signatures required for registration.
Dmitry Berdnikov Independent Leader of the group "Against Criminality and Lawlessness" Submitted an application on creation of an initiative committee, but later dropped out of the registration process.
Lidiya Bednaya Independent Unknown Rejected by the CEC because she didn't provide the necessary documentation.

Note that candidates from unregistered parties require 2 million signatures to put up candidates, whilst registered parties do not! Then see the attempts at registration above and the grounds on which the committee turned them down.

We suspect that it’s unlikely that Putin would even need to ‘fix’ the vote in present circumstances, after all, the population is enormously widely dispersed and he has a lot of positives in his favour, including an organisation in all 89 republics of the federation – and who counts the votes? But this might be the last election where he could ‘walk over.’ The test of that is for the still remaining six years, for which he constitutionally can put up again, if he so wishes, one more time in 2018.

Any protest vote this time might well go to the communists, by OAPs remembering ‘the glory days’. But Prokhorov, ‘the mystery billionaire’ generally assumed to be a stalking horse for the Kremlin, might do well for that reason. We are influenced by the ‘smart’ Russian commentators that claim EVERY Russian billionaire was subject to orders from the Kremlin, as Khordokovsky in his Siberian cell might now confirm.

There is a definite winding down theme in the news coming out of Afghanistan, and a collapsing of what passed for order. It’s not all over by any means, but the West has decided that they cannot do more than they have done, and so planning to bring the troops home is the next step. For policy makers of course, there is a lot of talking to do and as our report tells, there is heat if not light between the parties, as to whether or not the Taleban should have an office in neutral Qatar.
These parties are the US, Pakistan (who now have to face a future without the backup of advanced military technology in dealing with their rebellious hillmen); and Afghanistan itself, whose government might survive, but in certain circumstances could just blow away in the wind
Our current report looks at all of these factors and more. (Go To AFGHANISTAN)

Domestically there are three centres of power, any one of which might gain the upper hand. Obviously there is the elected government, whose weaknesses are more apparent then their strengths; the Army together with the ISI, their intelligence arm, whose presence has been all too apparent in the chaos of this nation. But in addition, the Courts have now become active power players and are confronting the military over illegal imprisonments , torture of prisoners, ‘disappearances,’ and other causes seemingly impossible to confront. But resting on the constitution, the courts have come into their own. The Pakistani position is complex in the extreme, better understood we believe if following our expert analyses. (Go To PAKISTAN)

China and India, the largest importers of Iranian oil are not joining the oil sanctions which the US has persuaded many other important nations to implement. Our report explains the position of India regarding sanctions, but also with regard to Iran’s nuclear situation and Israel’s ratcheting up tensions with open ‘war talk’.

Further, India has a large Shia Moslem population which is not currently causing difficulties, but given that Iran is the spiritual home of all Shi-ites, New Delhi are not going to let that become a problem. Following the recent bomb blast directed at an Israeli diplomat, which Tel Aviv quickly attributed to Iranian agents, to the rest of the world it looked like a lethal tit-for-tat, following the street assassination of an Iranian nuclear engineer, similarly targeted in his car with a magnetic-clamp bomb.

The report examines the position of India with regard to its neighbour Iran, as well as giving an update on the important elections in Uttar Pradesh (India’s largest state). (Go to INDIA)

North Korea
For the Korea watcher, this issue will tell you if not all, then most of what you might want to know about the hermit kingdom and there’s a great deal to choose from. Always relevant is the disparity with which the western world regards North Korea (which has both A-bombs and long distance missiles), with their attitude to IRAN which has neither. But let your Korea watching start here. Particularly because there is a new paramount boss here. News of N.Korea accepting Food Aid in return for halting their nuclear program, came too late for this issue. We will fully cover this in our next (April) issue.  (Go to NORTH KOREA)

This issue, in comparing leaderships, looks back on the 26th anniversary of the departure of President and Imelda Marcos, laden down with loot; and then looks at the presidents that followed: Corizon Aquino was one successor, the widow of the popular Senator Aquino, assassinated as he disembarked from the plane, on which he had returned to the Philippines. Their son Benigno is the current president and we observe that he is dong a good job in cleaning out the ‘Augean stables,’ the mess in which various plundering predecessors had left the nation. We also observe that Judicial Reform is at the top of the ‘to do’ list, since a corrupt bench of judges enabled the looting to take place and are hindering the government’s campaign against graft. (Go To PHILIPPINES)

President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT is ‘sitting pretty’ having been assured of a further four years as president. With the excitement of the election now fast fading, we examine and make what we can of the recent and current economic figures, the underlying reality of which is that whatever problems Taiwan has, as one of the world’s great exporters, the fact is that its international customers are buying less, given the problems of the Recession. The only good economic news was that its unemployment figures have remained stable at 4.18%. The future depends so much on its customers, foremost amongst which is mainland China, which is due a leadership change in the autumn, that might mean policy changes! (Go to TAIWAN)

Last month’s issue looked at the economy of Vietnam but this month we look at the human rights situation, 37 years after their war finished with the USA.

The Central Committee has determined to take the country into ‘comprehensive integration’ with the Asia Pacific region, which includes fully democratic nations like Australia, New Zealand , where freedom of the individual is highly prized and human rights jealously guarded. So how will Vietnam be ‘comprehensively integrated’ in terms of its very restrictive civil society? We quote the latest Human Rights Watch survey which devotes five pages to Vietnam. It’s not good, in fact its pretty awful as readers will see. We make the point above about the war with America, that finished in 1975.
Obviously in wartime civil liberties are restricted but that’s long gone and the world is, or should be, a different and better place.

There is a question why is the government so routinely cruel to its own citizens? Vietnam is one of five remaining communist countries, the others being: North Korea; Laos; China; Cuba. Of these, North Korea in our assessment would be the worst, indeed World Audit’s Democracy League table has them at 150th place (out of 150); Laos is at 142; Cuba at 132 Vietnam is at 128; China is on 120.

Given that the world is no longer divided into two camps why should it be that the remaining communist countries treat their citizens this way? Our report itemises the various forms of repression and it doesn’t make for a pretty picture. Yet Vietnam is a fascinating country, with much to interest the tourist which tourism industry should be making a worthwhile contribution to the economy. But we note by way of a conclusion, that the government is becoming sensitised to some injustices and can only hope that the programme of comprehensive integration with the Asia Pacific countries will lead to an easing of the constrictions on society that are so apparent. (Go to VIETNAM)

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in January says fears that pro-democracy uprisings across the Arab world might spread to Azerbaijan have fuelled a crackdown on dissent.

Opposition parties in Azerbaijan joined forces, signalling a political shift. They met on January 12 in Baku to officially create a new Resistance Movement for a Democratic Society. But the parties' aims differ and it’s not certain that they represent any real challenge to the Aliyev regime, who can be considered immovable.

In the meantime, rogue elements are presenting a security threat to the government and straining the country’s relations with Iran. On January 19, Azerbaijan's National Security Ministry (MNS) said that it had uncovered a terror group with Iranian links that was plotting to assassinate public figures. This has created an aggressive standoff between the two countries. Azerbaijan, which has a secular government, has friendly relations with Israel and the US, and Iran has accused Azerbaijan of helping Israeli assassins. In particular, the government has accused Azerbaijan of allowing the safe passage of Israeli secret servicemen that it claims were responsible for the killings of Iranian nuclear scientists. Azerbaijan denied the accusation and said that Iran’s stance was an "absurd reaction" to Azerbaijan's protest over the alleged plot by Iranian agents to kill Israelis in Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan is ‘caught in the middle’ of the West’s plans to impose sanctions on Iran. Western governments are trying to isolate the state and starve it of oil revenues, but in doing so, Western companies operating in Azerbaijan stand to lose out. (Go to: AZERBAIJAN)

Georgia is inflating the level of military cooperation that it has with the US in order to stand tall against Russia. However, the White House is keen to dampen its fire, in order to have a more open dialogue with Moscow on the issues of Syria and Iran. After visiting the United States on February 1st, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said that talks that he had held with US President Barak Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton had raised US-Georgian strategic ties to a “new level”.

The issue of defence between the two countries has been strained since the brief 2008 war between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia. Since then, the United States has not provided Georgia with any weapons, although it has given Georgian troops military training. Georgian officials have complained that there is effectively an embargo against them and President Mikheil Saakashvili has been consistently keen to get hands on more US arms.

Washington is rightly nervous of being seen to give Georgia significant military assistance and has long been annoyed with Saakashvili's belligerence and thirst for weapons. While President Obama has held back from promising Saakashvili significantly more than his country already receives from the US, he has suggested that the US could sign a free trade agreement with the country. During Saakashvili's trip, Obama said that it was a "possibility" and would be a "win-win" situation for both countries. Obama also reaffirmed America's support for Georgia's ambition to join NATO, which given the obligation of All fellow members to rush to the aid of any member of NATO under attack, might appear to belong in the higher flights of lunacy, given Saakashvili’s noted pugnacity towards Russia.

Given Russia's future uncertainties, as popular discontent with President Vladimir Putin grows, the US will likely bide its time before making any firmer promises. (Go to: GEORGIA).

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov, has arranged for five more years as leader of the Central Asian state, keeping the EU’s prospects for buying gas from the country the same. On February 12, Berdymuhamedov won “97 per cent” of votes in a presidential election that international observers didn’t even bother to oversee, for lack of competition. Berdymuhamedov ran against seven candidates including government ministers and the director of a state-run textile factory, but none of them presented a threat. Nomination for them was a poisoned chalice, in case any of them did well. Not a good career move! All applauded him in the run-up to the polls, and few voters recognised anyone on the ballot paper, other than the president, whose portrait hangs everywhere.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) sensibly didn’t send observers into Turkmenistan during the polls, saying that being there wouldn’t "add value", given the limited freedoms and the lack of political competition in the country.

According to the Turkmen election commission, official turnout among the 2.9 million registered voters was “96.7 percent”. International rights groups say there is little evidence that Turkmenistan is improving its human rights record.

Ruled with an iron fist for more than 20 years, the only area where Turkmenistan has become more open is business. Turkmenistan has four per cent of the world’s proven gas reserves and international energy companies are grappling to get their hands on it. Keen to develop a wide range of customers and to attract investment, Berdymuhamedov has courted companies in the EU, US and China. However, he has left Europe dangling over the proposed Nabucco pipeline. The pipeline, if built would supply gas to Europe and bypass Russia. But it cannot go ahead unless economically, there is enough gas to fill it. While Azerbaijan has agreed to meet some of the demand, the EU needs Turkmenistan’s reserves to make the project viable. (Go to: TURKMENISTAN)

Our Editors resolved years ago, that with the exception of Romania and Bulgaria, we would no longer report EU member nations because NewNations reports ‘nations in transition’ and EU membership in itself, was normally sufficient evidence of democracy. But then there was Hungary,’ slipped off the democratic twig’, behaving badly, and needing the hopefully improving bright light of publicity.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the leader of the right wing Fidesz party, has been in power for two controversial years. During this period, he has been accused of rolling back democratic advances in the Eastern European country particularly via changes to the constitution inaugurated on January 1, which some have called tantamount to a 'constitutional coup'. Numerous international bodies, from the US state department, to the OSCE, to Brussels itself have lambasted changes which they consider an affront to the values of democracy enshrined by the EU, of which Hungary is an increasingly reluctant member. Orban's recent political escapades have earned him an unenviable soubriquet -the 'Vikttator.'

Budapest has been attempting to stave off the effect of a long-term budget shortfall that has brought the country to the edge of bankruptcy at several points. The European Commission has downgraded its economic outlook for Hungary to a 0.1% contraction this year, versus growth of 0.5% previously, in forecasts made earlier this week. The EU has taken punitive measures against Budapest until it can prove that it can cut its budget deficit to less than 3%. The government has described the decision as "unfounded and unfair.”

The IMF is also reluctant to offer funds, while the central bank's independence is threatened. It says that unless changes are instituted, a bailout fund is off the cards. In mid-January the European Commission gave Hungary one month to respond to its concerns over the central bank legislation. That deadline is fast approaching.

Another bone of contention with the EU is the general tightening of state apparatus under this regime, which some critics believe to be a reflection of a new authoritarianism. Media freedom, observers say, has suffered greatly under Orban. Abortion and same-sex marriages are now outlawed, and discrimination against women and sexual minors is inscribed at a legislative level. All but 14 religious denominations have been denied official recognition, thus losing tax-exempt status and state school payments. The European Commission has just launched three suits against Hungary, arguing that Orban's actions and policies are in breach of European law. The commission noted specific concerns about constraints on the central bank's independence, excessive influence on the country's judiciary and data protection laws, which the government's critics claim infringe privacy laws.

There are some for whom Orban's defiance against the EU strikes a chord - many believe that accession to the Union has not benefited the country as a whole. Hungary's dependence on foreign funds means that Budapest has no choice at the moment but to negotiate with its more democratic neighbours. (Go to: HUNGARY)

On February 10, a major breakthrough came for Bosnia Herzegovina in the shape of a newly–created central government, finally formed after more than 16 months of political gridlock between Serb, Croat and Muslim leaders. As in the previous government, Serb parties will control the main economic positions, whilst the defence and security posts will be taken up by Bosniak parties. The new Prime Minister of Bosnia is Vjekoslav Bevanda, a Bosnian Croat economist and former regional finance minister. Zlatko Lagumdzija of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), a previous candidate for the Prime Minister's post, will serve as Foreign Minister.

The budget is a matter of urgency: State officials did not receive their salaries in the month of January and the doors of national cultural institutions are closing as their employees face mountains of wage arrears. Bevanda has confirmed that he hopes that a budget will be passed by the end of March. Sixteen months of political stagnation meant that the opportunity to access valuable EU funds was missed, and sixteen years on from the war that devastated the region, foreign investors are still somewhat wary. Unemployment reached a four-year high at the start of this year at 43% and a significant divide between rural and urban standards of living exists, with some rural communities enduring abject poverty.

Bosnia’s future harmony depends on the cooperation between its different ethnic constituents. Coming to terms with the past is nonetheless part of Bosnia’s future and in particular, its attempt to resuscitate an EU bid, which remains a key part of the Balkan state’s long-term strategy. Polls show that 70-80% of Bosnians want to join the Union, which, despite its problems, remains an attractive source of financial sustenance. Upon its formation, Bosnia's new central government immediately laid out ambitious plans to meet all conditions set by the European Union over the course of March and apply for membership of the bloc by the end of June. Much remains to be done if Bosnia is going to recover from the political petrification which it has experienced over the past year, due to the sparring of its political elites.

Aside from the economical and political matters, the cold snap affecting all of Europe, forced the government to declare a state of emergency in snow-bound Sarajevo. A thaw is mercifully underway. (Go to: BOSNIA)

Serbia has experienced some turbulence in the past months, as Boris Tadic’s government faces a mountain of economic problems: swelling unemployment, a withering report from the IMF on its budget and downgraded growth prospects. Politicians, however, have other matters on the agenda – such as upcoming elections and ongoing problems with neighbouring Kosovo.

The cold snap has not left Serbia untouched. Huge snowfalls saw 11,000 villagers trapped by snow in Serbian mountains and least twenty people have lost their lives. 32 municipalities in the country were forced to introduce emergency measures, with helicopter evacuations taking place in the centre of the country and schools and universities closing. Energy consumption sky-rocketed. As the snow has melted, ice floes have moved down the Danube, damaging dozens of small boats. The estimated financial cost of the cold snap is $660 million.

A recent IMF mission to Belgrade ended without a deal to allow the government to borrow from the fund. Under the agreement with the IMF, Serbia's 2012 budget deficit must not exceed 4.25% of gross domestic product. Unfortunately, it already does. The refusal of the IMF to facilitate the loan is of particular concern to employers, who are keen to ensure the international body is involved in Serbia's economic strategies; they are particularly concerned about excess state spending prior to the elections, due to take place on May 6.

Corruption remains inherently linked to the nation's economic issues, but the government claims to have been making strenuous efforts to reduce it. The omnipresent issue of organized crime is another source of concern, particularly in terms of the nation's EU bid. In a positive step forward, on February 3, the presidents of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Serbia met in the Bosnian ski resort of Jahorina to discuss ways of fighting the organized crime that plagues their region.

Kosovo is a matter of ongoing conflict, though recently resumed dialogue between the two countries has been praised. Recognition of Kosovo is not a prerequisite of EU accession but ‘normal relations’ are. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has praised EU-brokered talks between Pristina and Belgrade as heralding good faith, a reduction in tensions and facilitating freedom of movement in Kosovo’s north, where there have been road blocks and clashes. Another positive note is that France has thrown its weight solidly behind Serbia's bid to join the EU. The Swedish Foreign Minister has told the Swedish parliament that Belgrade has his backing. (Go to: SERBIA).

                                                             Clive Lindley. Publisher


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