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December 2013 Country Archive

On December 1ST 2013




The negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme have reached an interim conclusion for a six month deal. Substantial differences between the west and the Iranians remain, but enough was agreed for both sides to make concessions, where Iran will obtain the release of some of the billions of their own money, the ‘frozen’ dollars owed to them for past oil deals. In return Iran agrees to curb its nuclear progression feared to be intended to arrive at a position to be able to produce a nuclear weapon, and to allow the inspection regime considered necessary by the UN expert monitors to ensure compliance.

It is conditional and tightly monitored and in six months time progress will be sought, to take Iran further away from any option to go nuclear, in return for concessions in the severity of the existing sanctions regime. It seems like a common sense outcome requiring stages of a relaxation of sanctions reward, in return for further steps away from nuclear development of a military kind. In its way, it is a triumph for diplomacy over the use of (US) military force favoured by Israel (along with their own), Saudi and the Gulf States, to smash up Iran’s capability of becoming nuclear, which it is believed by many experts, would only be in itself, a way of delaying a determined drive towards nuclear weaponry, it would hand them the most powerful motive for seeking their own weapon and would result in another mid-eastern war .

The optimism that welcomed the November Geneva talks might not therefore have been premature. But Teheran seemed genuinely keen on a deal, as its sounding out of western oil companies for investment in Iran seems to suggest.

There is still a lot of suspicion towards the Iranians and vice versa. Powerful pro-Israeli / conservative lobbies in Washington are pushing against any relenting of the pressure. What the Iranians want (and always wanted) is the abolition of all sanctions against Iran in exchange for de facto giving up their nuclear weapons programme, or placing it under strict scrutiny. What has changed is the way to achieve that – soft diplomacy rather than the aggressiveness which Israel’s Netanyahu has embraced as his own.

Some cynics see a long term strategy of Khamenei in this – since Khatami was not appreciated in 1997-2005, he let the West taste eight years of Ahmadinejad before serving up another moderate and see what kind of welcome he gets. It is worth noting that when Rowhani’s candidate, Zarif was put forward to be the foreign minister who negotiated this deal, despite not being loved by the conservatives, he obtained a strong approval in the parliament, which infers the Ayatollah must be on board. (Go to Iran)



The Syrian government will go to Geneva II with the risk of US military intervention averted (any further suggestions of attacks would compromise the Iranian nuclear deal, which the Obama White House has clearly indicated to be a priority). Moreover, the Syrian army has also continued to make territorial gains on the ground, eroding the rebels’ stronghold even in their key ‘conquests’ of Aleppo and Homs. The Syrian National Coalition (SNC), which brings together the highest number and range of militants, has not even decided whether or not it will even participate in Geneva II. One of the reasons is that the foreign powers behind the SNC are somewhat conflicted with each other. The Assad regime, meanwhile, in its forty years of rule has suppressed any politics that were not related to the Ba’ath Party, depriving the opposition a political and institutional foundation upon which to even start building an actual alternative. The opposition groups have acted locally, relying on local networks that have not managed to expand into national networks – in the same way that the Benghazi opposition managed to extend its reach gradually to other parts of Cyrenaica and then Tripolitania in the Libyan revolt of 2011. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been two notable outsiders that have competed for influence over various SNC factions, apart from their more shadowy involvement with the Islamic fighters whose motives they share, as a battle against that freedom of religion which is one of the attractive characteristics of Syria.  (Go to Syria)



Looking back at the events of this year, it has been a trying period for Prime Minister Erdogan of the ruling AKP party. The situation in Syria has proved, in practical terms, a costly humanitarian exercise, with floods of refugees pouring across the border into Turkey. It has also been something of a diplomatic minefield for Ankara which has attempted to have its concerns about the Assad regime placed at the forefront of international discussions on the matter, to no avail. A signal perhaps that it may be losing some of its diplomatic clout? Whilst a historic peace settlement was reached with the Kurdish separatist movement, the PKK in March of this year, an agreement to put an end to decades of fighting, worryingly, has slowed to a halt in past months.

The most attention-grabbing events of the year however came in the summer months, with the Istanbul Gezi park protests. Erdogan's attempts to crush indefatigable protestors (which included the unpitying use of tear gas and water cannon), are the strongest example yet of what many critics see as a lingering authoritarianism, and disdain for the rights of citizen-critics. This also provoked some of the strongest condemnations of Erdogan's regime from international ‘rights’ organisations, who have repeatedly accused the regime of undermining democratic freedoms in a number of spheres, and notably having an appalling record on freedom of speech, and the freedom of the media.

Erdogan nonetheless remains extremely popular, credited with turning Turkey into the "Anatolian tiger" whose economic growth rates have been the envy of a lacklustre Europe.  (Go to Turkey)



The Iraqis have finally started major infrastructural improvement works, which despite reducing oil exports in the short term will allow for a major increase in future exports. But there are elections coming soon and political manoeuvring is rapidly becoming once again the chief concern; the level of infighting is reaching the point where forming a new coalition might prove a daunting task. Despite some hints that a new deal between Maliki and the Kurds was being struck, there are now signs that Maliki might not be fully committed.

Maliki has been facing civil unrest for weeks in the Sunni heartlands of Iraq’s north, where the influence of the neighboring Syrian insurgents is beginning to be felt. (In fact the Al Qaida element in the Syrian insurgency originates from the Iraqi branch of Al Qaida, so the connection was always there from the outset). Recently however, the Iraqi border tribes have shifted their support towards the Syrian insurgents, facilitating a spill-over into Iraq. At the same time the Kurdish militias and the Iraqi army are facing-off against each other, on the borders within Iraq of the Kurdish region. Now one of the key Shi’ite factions most uneasy about Maliki, Muqtada As-Sadr’s movement, is also joining the opposition to him.

The Iranians appear increasingly worried by Maliki’s brinkmanship, which risks causing the disintegration of Iraq and civil chaos, something that Iran has no interest in. Maliki has benefited from extensive Iranian support in the past, but has by now managed to create his own power base, and is no longer so easily manageable by Teheran, whose attempts to defuse tension among Iraqi factions are not currently achieving much. In particular, the Iranians have sought to mediate between Maliki and the Kurdish regional government in the north of Iraq, with whom they also have good relations. Their failure in this, means that the Kurds are tempted to join an anti-Maliki coalition, which is led by Arab Sunnis and is supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar.

The Iranians appear undecided about what to do in the face of Maliki’s stubbornness. They can see that Maliki, their main ally in the region, after Bashir Al Assad in Syria, is now clearly at risk. Their influence is at jeopardy of being drastically reduced. Should they back-up Maliki with all means, risking another Syrian situation - easier said than done - or seek to engineer the replacement of Maliki with a more pliable Shiite politician?   (Go to Iraq)


Saudi Arabia

The Saudis have not liked the United States’ re-orientation of strategic interests in the Middle East – buttressed thanks to ‘fracking’, by a far greater US autonomy in energy supply. Syria, Iran and perhaps even Egypt (where the Saudis are predicting some US objections ahead, in light of an obvious revival of the military government, starting when the US announced the ban on the sale of military equipment to Cairo), are at the heart of this re-orientation of American priorities.  It is a shift that the Saudis might well describe, if unreasonably, as a ‘betrayal’ from what has been for 70 years or more their historical ally in the Middle East. Obama's decision not to intervene militarily against al- Assad was a shock to Riyadh, which has been left more isolated in its tentative religion-inspired policy of supporting Sunni Islamic rebels. But Saudi seemed to be expecting the US to make a pre-emptive strike on Tehran, as Netanyahu also looked for, but in both cases whilst the US has guaranteed Saudi since the 1930’s from foreign attack, and Israel in the aftermath of its fight against all of its Arab neighbours, that still holds. But the pre-emptive attacks on Iran or its ally Syria, looked for by these US Allies is not the US's chosen way of guaranteeing Peace. It would in fact be the opening stages of an international war with unforeseen consequences.

This has now played out unexpectedly, as a result of the Russian-American understanding on Syria’s elimination of its chemical weapons. And of course, the rift between Riyadh and Washington over Syria, has only widened by the new course of relations between the U.S. and Iran. The new common front between Tehran and Washington against the proliferation of jihad in Syria, may prove very difficult for the Saudis to digest. (Go to Saudi Arabia)



Libya was once famous for its flamboyant dictator and for its oil reserves, which were not only abundant but also highly desirable for their low sulphur content. Libya was also noted for its stability and ‘predictable unpredictability’ (for better or worse), as former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld might put it - in that there was chaos, rather than rule of law, but the chaos was orchestrated from a single and well organized source of power and control: Qadhafi himself. Two years after the Brother Leader’s demise. Libya has become completely unpredictable per se, and its power structure fractured among a weak government and dozens of feuding, heavily armed gangs or militias. Some of the militias, those who reached the former regime’s arsenals first, managed to grab some very sophisticated and heavy weapons, including tanks and armored vehicles. Others are also involved in illicit trades, whether drugs or sub-Saharan migrants anxious to buy a ‘ticket’ for a seat in one of the sorry excuses for boats, that are used to ferry African migrants to the more prosperous shores of the Mediterranean if they’re lucky, or a watery grave, if not.

Libya still lacks a Constitution, which has been replaced by an almost Somalia-like ‘arrangement’ by admission of most of the current ministers in Tripoli. On November 16, Tripoli saw some of the most intense inter-militia battles of recent months resulting in at least 40 dead, many of them merely unfortunate bystanders. (Go to Libya)



Egypt should learn a few lessons from NATO’s experience in Afghanistan: ‘carrot and stick’ policies work better than ‘stick’ alone. The central government must invest more in the Sinai region where fighting continues, and it must also deal with the local Bedouins, who have often challenged the Egyptian central authorities, whom they blame for refusing to recognize their rights. The Bedouin clans are a separate hazard from the jihadists, with understandable material objectives and can to some extent be co-opted. They could help reduce the more radical or ideological elements from a region that was already fertile for violence before the July coup.

Egypt must actually invest in infrastructure, and grant the Bedouins the right to ownership of land, in order to prevent them from supporting the jihadists in their effort to convert the Sinai into a battlefield. Little is yet known about the Islamic militants who are making the Sinai their home and base; nevertheless, the armed forces say that most are Egyptian, some come from Gaza, and that there has already been some sort of diversification into various groups.  (Go to Egypt)


North Korea

This is NewNations’ first update on Korea since July, so instead of a month, there is almost half a year to catch up on. As a new year approaches, the third with Kim Jong-un at the helm, it is also apposite to ask what 2014 may bring. So we shall look forward, but first backward.

Overall, the second half of 2013 was quieter than the first. The lurid threats which peaked in March and April died down thereafter – until now: see our concluding paragraph. It remains hard to see what Pyongyang thought to gain from such extreme sabre-rattling, or why – God forbid – it might be tempted to try it on again. All interlocutors, China included, are utterly fed up with this rebarbative, recalcitrant, recidivist regime. Those who support engagement – as many still do, faute de mieux – now do so warily and wearily, rather than with enthusiasm or real optimism. Everyone has had their hopes dashed and fingers burned too many times.

Domestic politics remain as opaque as ever. Yet behind the theatrical mask of mass parades and endless celebrations of unity and loyalty, some difficulties cannot be hidden. The most visible problem is the extraordinary and intriguing churn at the top of the Korean People’s Army (KPA).  (Go to North Korea)



India witnessed tremendous political turmoil this year but also saw some landmark achievements in its history – a mission to Mars being one. However, India’s fascinating democratic process is in full swing at the moment. With national elections approaching in April-May 2014 the electorate stands divided and the debate has become very passionate. This debate is shaping in the form of ‘a choice between two evils’ i.e. a corrupt, dynastic but socially inclusive party (the Congress); and a relatively clean and performance-oriented but highly communal figure (Narendra Modi of the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP). In addition to this, the ghost of the Sri Lankan civil war came to haunt India as PM Manmohan Singh got caught up in domestic political turbulence, over Colombo’s hosting of the 23rd Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting (CHOGM). With a tough history of military intervention, Sri Lanka remains critical to India’s strategic interests, however,

Tamil political parties within India would want the central government to hold Colombo responsible for alleged human rights violations. Thirdly, and from a security perspective, India is bracing for more militancy in its northern state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), believing that fighters now focused on resisting US-led troops in Afghanistan, will shift toward the Himalayan flashpoint with Pakistan. It is increasing its use of drones, thermal sensors and foot patrols as it tries to catch out any battle-hardened militants moving through the forested mountains near the turbulent frontier. Finally, The Indian Navy received a new aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, from Russia, boosting the number of carriers in its fleet to three. This will make it the third Navy in the world after US and Italy to operate more than one carrier.  (Go to India)


This year was politically and economically turbulent for Bangladesh, and the scenario only worsened in November. Poll-bound Bangladesh recently installed an “all-party” interim government headed by PM Sheikh Hasina to oversee upcoming elections, despite boycott by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which termed the move as “farce”, heightening tension in the country. The possibility of political violence remains very real and high, if the situation is not resolved soon. As a reaction to the worsening crisis in Bangladesh, the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the US Congress, held a hearing on the prevailing political turmoil over the next general elections. The US is also in talks with India, Bangladesh’s immediate neighbour, which is concerned about the current political deadlock and its security fallout for the region.

Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, the nation’s most respected citizen, blasted the Bangladesh government after it passed a law he said would pave the way for the “ultimate destruction” of Grameen Bank, the pioneering micro-lending institution he founded. The bill passed by the Parliament this month tightens the government's grip on this bank set up to fight poverty, and brings it under ever closer control of the central bank. The watching world are right to fear with Professor Yunus, that this is a recipe for the ministerial and other well connected looters in which this poor nation abounds, to once more ‘rip off’ the long suffering population of this state.

Moreover, in a vituperative attack against the Nobel Laureate, FM Muhith said that the former’s speeches – referring to his speech made in Chittagong last month – sound like those of a “terrorist”. On a slightly positive note, and more so for India than for Bangladesh, the latter has agreed to hand over Anup Chetia, former General Secretary of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), militant secessionist group in the Northeast Indian state of Assam – reflecting growing bonhomie between Dhaka and New Delhi. Finally, in an interesting development tied to the economic woes of Bangladesh, Wal-Mart recently said that about 10 of more than six-dozen Bangladeshi garment factories, failed safety checks in audits it commissioned. (Go to Bangladesh)



The honeymoon between Nawaz Sharif and Pakistani public opinion did not last long; now Sharif faces his inability to control or restrain the army on the Indian frontier and the failure both of his policies towards India, and towards the Pakistani Taliban. On the economic front the IMF loan is only providing temporary respite, as the currency remains under heavy pressure. Efforts to resolve the power generation sector crisis seems to be leading nowhere. Nawaz Sharif’s insistence in improving relations with India is creating a lot of trouble for him, as the Pakistani army is expressing its hostility to his plans by pursuing an increasingly aggressive policy in Kashmir, where cross-border raids are more and more common. Out of 150 violations of the ceasefire since 2003, 40 have taken place in just 30 days this autumn.

After relations with Iran improved greatly under the PPP government, Sharif is suspected by the Iranians of being too dependent on Saudi support. In November a raid carried out from Pakistani territory by a radical Sunni Islamist group killed 14 Iranian border guards. Perhaps the Pakistani authorities had no role in it, but questions will surely be asked.

Disillusion with their successive ‘democratic’ governments have led to lurking hopes for a ‘benevolent dictator,’ but the last one of that description, General Musharraf, is currently under arrest by order of ‘the judges.’ Even worse, he has inevitably now become the object of the revenge of the current prime minister Nawaz Sharif, whom he quickly displaced during his takeover of the state, in which ever-present corruption had apparently reached the depths, with the then Sharif government leading the charge.

Yet over the years when Musharraf was in charge, he showed a firm hand with the Islamist terrorists as well as with public corruption. It was the last time in which Pakistan looked to the outside world, as though it might have a future as a nation state, rather than the crippled, dysfunctional, disaster that it has become.   (Go to Pakistan)



2013 marked a downturn in Russia's financial fortunes and increasing instability in the North Caucasus, but saw an upsurge in credibility on the international stage, after President Putin brokered a deal with Syria over the government's use of chemical weapons, preventing military strikes by the US. But while the Kremlin is bolstered by that deal, its heavy-handed attempts to clench its grip on the extensive former vast Soviet space have not been as successful, with the EU apparently posing a more attractive option for some Eastern European FSU countries. The Eurasian Economic Union obviously is at the heart of Putin’s strategy for the Russian Federation. In terms of Russian domestic politics and to some extent, many of the more important federated republics, he has licked them into something resembling the shape he was aiming for.

But the FSU presents quite a different series of problems - given that Putin was put into power originally by the KGB, to restore as far as possible the size and strength of the USSR, although he seems to have succeeded with UKRAINE (see below).

He has now to contend with trying to attract several desirable FSU republics like Kazakhstan, to join into his Economic grouping. But the problem is that after more than 20 years since their independence, the current rulers, often now immensely rich, and not having to answer to anyone, particularly to Moscow, how does he persuade them to rejoin the old empire? Many will have memories of how their individual fate used to depend on pleasing the central government, and seeing Moscow apparatchiks creaming off the money and making the big decisions. It is not as though there were a ‘pretend’ cause to rally them. Communism under the USSR was hardly the model they would now wish to see in their scattered but independent republics. There is yet a further problem. Those FSU states west of the Urals are attracted by the European Union and those to the east, certainly resource-rich states, find China more congenial, (See Kazakhstan this issue). Putin is in his third term as President and given how fast the world changes, he cannot at this stage be certain that he, or those who think as he does, will even be there in four years time and beyond.

However, it does seem that Putin has been successful with his major Europesn target, Ukraine which almost at the last moment has capitulated to Russia’s mixture of threats and blandishments (see Ukraine).

The Russian Economy Minister acknowledged for the first time that Russia's economy would lag behind global growth in the next 20 years. Aleksei Ulyukayev forecast that Russia's economy would grow by an annual average of 2.5 per cent during that period – down from an earlier projection of 4 per cent. Russia's $2 trillion economy has slowed sharply since (Putin's return to the Kremlin) in May 2012 and Ulyukayev said the slower growth risked delaying the achievement of ambitious goals for economic development, laid out by Putin when he began his current term.   (Go to Russia)



Troubling times for Kiev as it has come to a decision on whether to join a Russian led customs union (YES), or sign a trade deal with the EU (NO). This crystallizes the conflict the nation has had since the failed Orange Revolution of 2004, indeed since the breakup of the USSR in 1991, between a Western orientation and its ‘traditional’ position and ethnicity within the Russian sphere of influence (the Russian Empire) dominated by Moscow, as in the days of the USSR. Popular protests have followed the decision to scrap the EU trade deal, not at heart for economic reasons. Yet it seems that Putin’s threats and blandishments, together with the complexities of Ukrainian politics have succeeded in turning Ukraine away from an economic future with the EU, a decision for which in Ukraine there is much public dismay. The Kiev government have just rejected the EU’s condition for their inclusion in a Trade Pact, being the release after two years from jail, of the feisty Julia Tymoshenko of ‘Orange Revolution’ fame. She, the previous prime minister became a prominent victim of ‘selective justice’ and was railroaded into jail once she was out of power. The fear was that if she were freed now, she would win the next election and be on a revenge rampage as far as her main persecutor, President Yanukovitch is concerned. It is a story more familiar in the politics of the South America of old (but no more). The former USSR’s current version of democracy would be more accurate. Here in Europe, inevitably in the former Soviet Union this kind of rotten, corrupt, politics is still rampant, as is exemplified nowhere more so than in next door Belarus, Europe’s ‘last dictatorship’.  (Go to Ukraine)



In 2013, the cracks in Kazakhstan's apparent stability began to show as the number of terrorism-related trials sky-rocketed. The frequency of Islamic incursions or uncovering of local groups by the Police/Intelligence services, is coming to dominate news from Kazakhstan. We assume, given the nature of the regime, that looking for brownie points from Western/Russian Intelligence agencies, they will be inclined to characterize criminal or subversive groups as Islamicist, which may be nothing of the sort. But there can be little doubt that there is a grave Islamist menace, if unchecked. We report on several arrests, and it seems that the long predicted dispersal of particularly Central Asian and Russian fighters from the Afghan war, apparently in its closing stages, is now happening.

Kazakhstan is a big fat prize for whoever controls it - currently the Old Guard with the presidential family seamlessly controlling the politics and the power from the time, even before the state became independent in 1991, (when the Soviet Union suddenly folded). Like neighbouring Uzbekistan, the question of the succession is high on the agenda and similarly remains quite uncertain. Like most former communist countries the expectation is that of royalty generally, a blood relationship between the heir and the present ruler, but again like Uzbekistan, there are presidential daughters, yet no sons. Sons-in-law cannot be discounted but it’s not the same, the very fact that they married the bosses daughter, probably speaks of their ambition.

The authorities continue to renege on promises made to the European Union to improve its record in human rights and the rule of law and now turning eastwards, Kazakhstan has dropped its courtship of the EU in favour of investment from China.  (Go to Kazakhstan)



Uzbekistan saw no change in its appalling human rights record in 2013, and a UN meeting on torture turned into a fiasco with the Uzbek delegate rubbishing proceedings. As ageing President Islam Karimov continues to hold on to power, alienating Uzbekistan from its neighbours and potential trading partners – the question of who will take over when he dies or falls ill, is becoming more urgent. The president's daughter, widely seen as his obvious successor, has fallen out of favour and the playing field is opening up. But for the time being, it seems that China is Central Asia's greatest hope for building relations between Karimov and his neighbours. (Go to Uzbekistan)



Financial struggles are overwhelming the Balkan state which has been forced to introduce austerity measures. Local elections recently held in Kosovo were subject to severe disruptions, undermining the possibility of normalizing relations between the two states. But Serbia does seem to have grown up, in terms of the post Yugoslav realities. After floundering along buoyed up by patriotic slogans, government in Serbia understands the need to face up to the realities. Obviously the departure of Kosovo hurt them badly. Within the Kosovan boundaries there are sectors with a Serb majority, marooned they must feel, in a sea of Kosovans. But although this is the reality, the familiar Serbian bullyboy tactics that they honed in Bosnia has no place to go, now that Kosovo is independent and recognised as such. (Go to Serbia)

                                                                Clive Lindley. Publisher



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