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June 2013 Country Archive


On June 1ST 2013


Summary: Another international conference on Syria is expected to take place in Geneva. Dubbed ‘Geneva 2’, the Conference has the ambitious goal of finding a political solution to the Syrian Civil war. Geneva 1 in 2012 essentially endorsed the ‘status-quo’. It was attended by the foreign affairs representatives from all five UN Security Council permanent members – Russia, USA, PR China, France and the UK as well as the regional powers, which have carved out a big stake in the outcome of the Syrian crisis, namely Turkey, Kuwait, and Qatar. The notable exceptions were the absence of arch-rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, for which the Syrian clash has come to serve as one of their proxy battlefields for regional influence, marked by a deepening divide between Sunni and Shiite Islam.

Geneva 2’ has not begun yet, but we fear it is already slated for failure. (Go to Syria)



Summary: Amendments to the constitution ushered in by the government of authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban have sent alarm bells ringing across the EU. Freedom of speech, voting transparency and the rights of the homeless are all infringed by these new developments, observers say. The very notable rise of anti-Semitism has been accompanied by a swell of ugly, xenophobic tendencies targeting ethnic minorities. (Go to Hungary)



The Syria crisis has once more spilled onto Turkish soil with a major incident claiming the lives of 52 citizens. A meeting was held between Erdogan and Obama in Washington to much fanfare but little ostensible progress. Relations between Turkey and Iraq and Turkey and Israel remain somewhat fractious.

This month began with rioters clashing with police at May Day protests in Istanbul. The disgruntlement of workers who claim that the government represses workers’ rights is unlikely to have been quelled by the news, celebrated by the economy ministry, that Moody’s has upgraded Turkey’s investment grade. The situation in Syria has dominated the political agenda however, after two car bombs killed dozens of people on May 11 in the southern town of Reyhanli. A subsequent meeting with Barack Obama advanced the notion of ending the civil war in Syria, but with little detail on how. (Go to Turkey)



Summary: Final results show that Maliki’s coalition did not do so well in the provincial elections of April and in fact lost considerable ground. Overall fragmentation has increased, voters have shown some attraction for hard-line sectarian politics and Maliki’s chances of winning next year’s parliamentary elections are in doubt.

In the meantime violence is reaching the highest level in five years, Al Qaida and their like doing their best to foment a full-on Sunni-Shia civil war while Maliki is now trying to appease the Kurds, after his efforts to ease tension with the Sunni Arabs achieved little last month. The number of those killed in the violence in April and May is now the highest in five years - although still well below the peak of violence of 2006-7. There is enough violence to make many fear that a serious insurgency might be taking off in the Arab Sunni heartland and a Sunni-Shiite civil war might be in the offing in the country as a whole. The situation is compounded by continuing street demonstrations by Sunni Arabs with the terror being provided by their sharp end – the jihadists of Al Qaida and their look-alikes. (Go to Iraq)



Summary: 2013 is expected to be a year of weak economic growth, at a time when the country already struggles with the uncertainties of foreign disengagement, renewed Taliban military operations, and declining prospects for a political settlement, the Taliban have a new military leader and they seem disinclined to negotiate at all. The outcome of negotiations over a US-Afghan strategic agreement is still unclear as Karzai remains hostile to conceding legal immunity to US troops, but for the time being the Afghan state remains well supported by the donors. (Go to Afghanistan)



Summary: Former president Rafsanjani had joined the electoral fray to seek a new presidential term, but he was ‘disqualified,’ the Iranian priestcraft’s way of controlling ‘the will of the people’ in their theocracy. The risk for the establishment, which they didn’t take, is that Rafsanjani as a pragmatist might have attracted disaffected voters who want a change in foreign policy, to rescue the ailing economy of the country. Ahmedinajad’s ally, Meshai also was vetoed, which probably spells the end of his own and his mentor’s political career. So the West will need to find a new ‘hate figure,’ (Israel will probably oblige). Several others were disqualified and eight were allowed to proceed. The three favourites to win appear to be Saeed Jalili, known to the world as Iran’s nuclear negotiator; Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran; and Gholam Adel, former Speaker of the majlis, none of these are known for being outspoken.

Ultimately both Washington and Teheran would like to reach a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme, but the terms which they are ready to accept do not coincide yet (and might never coincide). The time is ripe for a moderate Iranian president to take over and order a U-turn in policies, going back to where President Khatami was before Ahmadinejad. But is this Supreme Leader Khamenei’s plan? At this time, it is still not yet certain whom he will endorse in these June 2013 presidential elections. (Go to Iran)



Summary: The parliamentary election gave a strong plurality to Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N and he will ally with some small parties to form a coalition. The PPP got a drubbing and the PTI did less well than expected. The PML-N is now showing an intent to focus on the economy and wants to bring some experts into the cabinet, allegedly. But some ‘noise’ indicates a resumption of the PML-N’s confrontation with the army, which does not augur well, neither do memories of Nawaz Sharif’s last fairly ruinously corrupt regime. (Go to Pakistan)



Summary: The bombing of the French embassy in downtown Tripoli on April 23, followed by smaller bombing attacks in front of the Greek, Saudi and Algerian embassies on May 17 and a slew of bombing attacks against police stations in Benghazi point to the reliability of several reports warning about the menace of al-Qaida in Libya. The al-Qaida presence, according to the above cited sources, has been growing in the period following the attack against the US Consulate in Benghazi last September. That attack is said to have been coordinated by a number of militant cells (in Egypt as well) and that, only after Libyan jihadists started to fall under direct AQIM command.

Libya and its revolt has become the poster child against any sort of direct foreign military intervention in the revolts of the Arab Awakening, and Syria in particular, despite the fact that their socio-political contexts are very different. Libya is ethnically and culturally more uniform than the sectarian Syria, but Qadhafi had deliberately allowed tribalism to flourish, while ruling by decree and through non-existent institutions, including the Army. Qadhafi’s demise was preceded by the collapse of the security forces, creating a vacuum that leaves Libya vulnerable to the Islamist currents rising in the Maghreb and Sahel regions. (Go to Libya)



Summary: The Hasina government faces a new challenge. This is the meteoric rise of Hifazat-e-Islam, a Taliban style radical Islamist group. Having shocked many with its sudden rise to prominence, its rise is being comprehended as a backlash to the campaign launched by youth activists and bloggers demanding capital punishment for alleged war criminals involved in Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence against Pakistan. Not surprisingly, Hifazat’s emergence has further bloodied the political violence on the streets of Bangladesh.

For Bangladesh May was a very costly month both politically and in terms of human lives. Whereas on one hand a massive cyclone took more than a dozen lives and destroyed more than 100,000 thatched houses, on the other hand a collapse of a garment factory a few kilometers outside Dhaka took the lives of 1,127 workers and maimed another 2,000 for life. While the government of PM Sheikh Hasina was quick to express sympathy with the workers – who have received support from across the globe – it was equally quick in ordering a police crackdown on protesting garment workers, under pressure from owners of these factories. As for the cyclone, it was used as a pretext to put a month long ban on political rallies and gatherings of any shape and kind. This was accompanied by amending the anti-terrorism laws that would treat any political rally and demonstration as an act of terror that deems a tough response from the police. (Go to Bangladesh)



Summary: Morsi’s re-shuffle is rather defiant; it has made no concessions to the more radical opposition, the one posed by the Salafi al-Nour party and other Islamists, who had claimed some kind of inclusion in the government, and the Liberal opposition, which demanded Qandil’s resignation, proposing a national unity government instead. This would be one that would include liberal forces to overcome the current climate of tension, which reverberates in the daily protest rallies and demonstrations from one or the other side. The opposition, however, remains weak and disorganized; most importantly, the opposition has no better answers to address Egypt’s many problems; it has proven unable to formulate policy proposals and alternatives, fuelling polarization. (Go to Egypt)



Summary: The major event to have occurred in the past month comes on the domestic front, in the form of the departure of Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov, who many have credited as the godfather of the system of sovereign democracy, synonymous with Putinism. His departure has sparked conjecture as to how the appearance of Putinism and its political apparatus will change in the future. Additionally, we have seen a spy scandal cloud relations between the US and Russia, and ongoing crackdowns on civil society and the political opposition, which Gary Kasparov, former world chess champion and opposition leader characterized thus, commenting on the departure of former deputy Prime Minister Surkov from the Kremlin: -“Vladislav Surkov leaving is more confirmation that in a choice between murderers and thieves, Putin is going with the murderers. No subtlety needed now.” (Go to Russia)



Summary: It appears that Ukraine is making considerable political investment in a pro-European direction, with the ultimate objective of signing a Free Trade Association agreement in November. This trajectory, however, has the considerable pro-Russia brigade concerned about the compatibility of European values and interests with those held by a Ukraine which is Russia-leaning in influence and identity. Tymoshenko remains in jail, but in a surprise move two of her allies have been freed. With her still locked-up this is unlikely to be enough for the EU. (Go to Ukraine)



Summary: A breakthrough agreement has been reached on Kosovo. Whilst stopping short of recognizing independence it does constitute a major improvement in relations between the two states that should hasten Serbia’s progress towards EU membership. (Go to Serbia)


North Korea

As of May 22, this month on the Korean peninsula has proved quieter than the last two were. ‘For this relief, much thanks’! North Korea has eased its threats and related antics, at least for the time being. Well, almost. As of May 20 it had fired six short-range missiles in three days into what all Koreans call the East Sea (not the Sea of Japan), to rebukes from among others the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon. The DPRK cares not a jot for the world body, and even less for Ban who is a former South Korean foreign minister. On May 20 the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK) – which despite its name has issued some blood-curdling threats in recent weeks – averred that "Military the indisputable right of any sovereign nation,” adding that, “Viciously taking issue with our military's rocket firing an unacceptable challenge and a wanton provocation.” For once they have a point: UN resolutions do not forbid their testing smaller missiles. Though hardly helpful, these latest squibs do not greatly disturb the peninsula’s peace, or what passes for such. (Go to North Korea)



There was a low-key visit of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to India in the wake of the heightened tensions on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. India and the US called upon the world – without naming any single country – to initiate effective action to eliminate sanctuaries and infrastructure that supports terrorism and violent extremism. Finally, India successfully test-fired the 290-km range BrahMos supersonic cruise missile from the Navy's latest Russian built guided-missile frigate INS Tarkash. (Go To India)


Saudi Arabia

King Abdullah has opened a debate on the rights of religious minorities and freedom of the press and presented himself as a champion of women's rights. The next King will necessarily need to be a Saudi version of former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. That King will not be able to shut the door that Abdullah has unlocked and opened, and that the population now appears ready to slam wide open. A conservative, who would push the country back to stillness, would only cause it to explode. Over the past 10 years the country has faced unimaginable changes, before then. Conservative circles do not conceal hostility against his policies and are ready to express their values through the appointment of the king's successor. (Go to Saudi Arabia)


The Philippines

The mid-term election that took place on May 13 saw the return of pro-administration candidates in many areas of the country and in sufficient number to give President Aquino a majority in both houses of the Philippine Congress. This can only be a benefit to the reform agenda he has promised. Attempts by the Catholic Church to make this election about ‘pro-life’over government family-planning moves, were stillborn. Most voters ignored the admonitions and threats of the clergy. (Go to Philippines)



Summary: Vietnam may be about to embark on fundamental constitutional reform that will remove the privileges of state-owned enterprises and give equal weight to private production. At the same time – if government statements are to be believed – there will be greater emphasis on human rights and respect for the legal process. All of this comes against the background of plans to restructure the largest state-owned companies and address pressing problems in the country. While expectations should not be too high, these moves represent, at least, a step in the right direction. (Go to Vietnam)



Summary: Tensions have been running high in the South China Sea and adjacent waters, over disputed territorial claims and competing fisheries disputes – chiefly involving Chinese boats. However, Taiwan makes the same territorial claims as China and in May an incident off the coast of the Philippines Batanese Province, involving a Taiwanese fishing boat and a Philippines coast guard vessel, left one Taiwanese fisherman dead. The circumstances remain unclear with differing accounts from both sides over the incident. In Manila’s eyes, the Taiwanese vessel was clearly acting provocatively. Taipei sees an over exuberant use of force by the Philippines vessel. However, Ma Ying-jeou’s determination to extract a government-to-government response may prolong the incident and result in a loss of face. Manila is not going to abandon its one-China policy over a fishing spat. (Go to Taiwan)
                                                                                         Clive Lindley. Publisher

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