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March 2013 Country Archive


On March 1ST 2013


'Arab Awakening' Nations


Summary: Asad’s opponents are neither united nor do they represent the ideals of western democratic thought and libertarian ideals. Yet, total inaction is not plausible; key Middle Eastern powers on both sides of the Syrian war will be keen to see a resolution that restores regional stability while keeping Syria intact.
That great challenge might best be achieved on the sidelines and will, or should, necessarily include Iran which is heading toward a very interesting electoral period (see Iran). Improving relations between Iran and the West should be a priority despite the many forces that have been compromising this process, whether they are in Washington, Jerusalem or Riyadh. Iran has been pushed into an existential war in the past decade; it is the key element in the Neo-cons Axis of Evil and it is holding on to Syria by ‘the skin of its teeth’. Once the Hezbollah-Alawite-Iranian axis is loosened, the Asad regime will be forced to reach a compromise within Syria with the more reasonable opposition forces.
For the West to continue to demonize Iran while pushing for democratic change in Syria is only going to perpetuate the conflict one way or the other. (Go to SYRIA)



Summary: The authority of the army, which with few special exceptions, was a weak institution even under the Qadhafi era, remains compromised by militias, or rather, semi-criminal groups that continue to resist disarmament and integration within a central armed force answering only to the authorities in Tripoli.  These authorities have been struggling to extend legitimacy or credibility beyond Tripoli itself. Present day Libya is experiencing problems that have been more typical of Sub-Saharan than North African countries; Somalia has been cited by many observers by way of comparison, but even the DR Congo, with its various failed schemes to disarm a series of renegade local militias in an effort to extend the state’s reach, can serve as an example of the risks that the new Libya is experiencing. (Go to LIBYA)



Summary: Having taken political and social ownership of the Revolution, the Brotherhood - and the various Salafists have led Egypt along a vastly different course than intended. The Obama administration in Washington, accused by many of having allied itself to Islamists, had little choice but to accept what seemed to be fulfillment of Egyptians’ legitimate political aspirations. Obama and the US State Department, as well as chancelleries throughout the West, cannot be faulted for believing that the affirmation of supposedly moderate Islamists was inevitable, given that organized political opposition in the Arab world has been overwhelmingly islamist in nature, the secular variety having been deemed more dangerous than in the 1970’s and 1980’s of the Cold War. (Go to EGYPT)


Saudi Arabia

Summary: It is not easy to change the Kingdom. Saudis have been living under the constant scrutiny of a society dense in strict religious prohibitions and requirements, enforced by the mutaween or religious police (the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice) that makes Iran look like Sweden, by comparison. If they see a man and a woman alone, they promptly investigate and ascertain the nature of their relationship, and even have the right to check mobile phones in search of text messages that may violate the principles of Islamic law. The mutaween are a powerful force that is virtually above the law and above the regular police. Everyone fears their power and authority to interfere in the most intimate details of their daily lives. The symbolic step of allowing women in the Shura Council is but one of the signs reflecting a rising desire for change especially among young people. (Go to SAUDI ARABIA)



Summary: Tension between the Iraqi government and the Kurdish regional government continues to slowly escalate; as a number of oil majors are lining up behind the Kurds. Prime Minister Maliki will have to decide soon whether to ‘teach a lesson’ to the Kurds or abandon the confrontation. But Maliki is also embattled with ‘his own’ Arabs and not just the Sunnis and does not seem able to summon the strength to make a decisive push for power. The complexities of the current Iraq situation are considered here and it remains highly combustible. (Go To IRAQ)


Western & Southern Asia


Summary: The conflict between President Ahmadinejad and his rivals within the establishment continues to intensify, but it seems unlikely that the president will be able to run his own candidate in the June presidential elections. It is significant that noted politicians and 'experts' are talking openly about abandoning the nuclear project. The sanctions are putting pressure on the politicians who are readying up for the elections, but collapse of the economy does not appear to be around the corner. (Go to IRAN)



Summary: There are a number of major political debates underway in Turkey. Negotiations with the Kurdish separatist party, the PKK, responsible for a 28-year-long armed uprising are a significant step forwards. We also have the matter of Prime Minister Erdogan’s plans to change the constitution in order to afford the presidency wider executive power. The reason for this would be that next year he will have no choice but to give up his role as Prime Minister and seeks to continue manning the helm of Turkey from the presidency instead. The means he is using to go about this are drawing criticism from numerous quarters. Debates around EU accession seem to be moving, as changes in European countries stimulate reinvigorated discussion. Journalists’ and women’s rights continue to suffer. (Go to TURKEY)



Summary: Obama unveiled his plans for withdrawing from Afghanistan, but only until the end of 2013, leaving in doubt what level of long-term American presence will be there after 2014. Meanwhile the diplomatic channels are very busy with tens of bilateral and multilateral diplomatic contacts, often not very fruitful, but something is moving on the Taliban front. Their expectations concerning a political settlement might not exactly converge with Kabul’s, however (Go to AFGHANISTAN)



Summary: The PPP government is doing what it can to hold the Pakistani economy together until the elections, but without any serious long term strategy to confront the multiple crises haunting Pakistan. Zardari has finally even agreed to hand Gwadar port to the Chinese, something that Islamabad had long resisted doing. (Go to PAKISTAN).



Summary: February had been an interesting month for India as it tries to deepen its engagement with its Western counterparts on one hand, but is growing warier of its immediate neighbours. Despite having been warned by the US of increasing movement of anti-India militants from Pakistan to Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan, India is coming to terms with the harsh reality of the drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan by 2014. New Delhi has promised Washington and other Western capitals of non-interference in the domestic affairs of Afghanistan and to help stabilise the war-torn country. But it seems to be getting pulled into a proxy-war situation as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) – the group responsible for 26/11 Mumbai attacks – seeks sanctuary in East and South Afghanistan that has been a traditional stronghold of the Taliban. Adding injury to this was the recent sentence by a US court of 35-years imprisonment for the Pakistani-American LeT operative – David Coleman Headley – who helped in plotting the 26/11 attacks. On the positive side in the month were the visits by British PM David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande to India, in order to strengthen bilateral relations with the fast-growing Asian giant. (Go to INDIA)


FSU Nations


Summary: Russia is continuing its downward trajectory in terms of freedom of speech, political pluralism and tolerance. The Kremlin has made renewed attempts of late to tackle corruption, which has for many years tarnished its reputation as a business destination for international investors. Relations with the US are extremely frosty at the moment. The crisis in Syria also threatens to destabilize regional stability, a worry for Moscow which has struggled to manage terrorism from Caucasus-based separatists. (Go to RUSSIA)



Summary: Recent months have proved Alexander Lukashenka's commitment to quashing human rights and the beleaguered opposition movement, through a variety of suppressive and violent measures. The regime, which is subject to continual criticism from abroad, has released its own human rights report in retaliation, lambasting rights standards across the West. Plans to introduce what some have described as "modern serfdom" into an industrial sector are a new prong in his attack upon the citizenry. (Go to BELARUS).



Summary: The past months have seen a major crackdown on the freedom of the media, prompted by concerns that the December anniversary of the 2011 Zhanaozen oil strike massacre would stimulate sedition. The regime is unrelenting towards its opponents - prison sentences and persecution are routine. The state also has concerns relating more broadly to regional security, as a number of incidents have rocked the border control service and implied that the policing of the frontier leaves much to be desired. This is a concern as the region continues to face threats from Islamic terrorist groups. (Go to KAZAKHSTAN)



Summary: Tajikistan’s long-standing leader Imomali Rahmon is gearing up for a re-election bid. It is unsurprising that recent months have seen him quick to stifle opposition activities, particularly through a major crackdown on press freedom. Negotiations with Russia over the latter’s Tajikistan missile base, have proved somewhat tricky. Security concerns regarding the border with war-torn Afghanistan, are particularly instrumental in discussion between the Kremlin, battling its own jihadists, and Dushanbe. Tajikistan’s imminent accession to the WTO is a major event on its economic horizon. (Go to TAJIKISTAN)


East Asia

North Korea

Summary: February was not a good month for North Korea. Its rulers take a different view. Ever since the DPRK’s third and most powerful nuclear test yet on February 12, Northern media have been in bombast mode. On February 25 – even as in Seoul a new president, Park Geun-hye, took office and reiterated her commitment malgré tout to build what she calls ‘Trustpolitik’ with the North – the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) was reporting pledges to “embody Kim Jong Il's patriotism and rapidly develop the nuclear technology of the country by raising the hot wind of pushing back the frontiers of latest science and technology so as to further glorify the country as a matchless nuclear weapons state.” (Go to NORTH KOREA)


ASEAN Nations


Summary: The Catholic Bishops of the Philippines have successfully prosecuted an individual who chose to protest against the Church’s involvement in politics—and specifically its vitriolic attack on those who supported the Reproductive Health Bill recently passed by Congress. The Church won and the protestor is now in jail. But who really won? The bishops may have won this particular fight but they are certainly losing the war in the struggle for the hearts and minds of the Filipino people. (Go to Philippines)



Summary: A Cabinet reshuffle ahead of the nine-day lunar New Year holiday is being interpreted as an attempt by President Ma Ying-jeou to retain his grip on power both within his party and within government. Premier Sean Chen has lost his position not for health reasons as has been given in the official pronouncements of the change, but rather because he chose to disagree with Ma on some key policy issues. In his place comes Jiang Yi-huah who is regarded as a liberal academic although little is really known about him. Insiders believe that he will be more ‘compliant’ and accepting of President Ma’s control of party and government. Whether this will give him the leeway he needs to turn the economy around remains to be seen. At present the numbers appear to be improving and a window of opportunity is opening up. The next few months will be crucial. (Go to Taiwan)



Summary: Enter the Year of the Snake or to be precise — the Water Snake. According to the soothsayers, the snake is industrious and full of positive energy. If so, it could not come at a better time for Vietnam, which has been battling to restore its economic health, and rebuilt investor confidence after the 2011 near-meltdown.
FDI into Vietnam actually increased slightly in 2012 over the previous year and one UN agency, UNCTAD, believes that Vietnam is well positioned to take up from China as a hub for low-cost manufacturing. The government will no doubt pull out all stops to make sure this happens and has taken the first steps in unveiling its economic policies that will carry it through to 2020.
We can expect a preoccupation with rebuilding investor confidence through ensuring economic stability, continuing to restrain credit growth (although with a slight easing up on previous conditions) and financial sector reform. Wages will be kept in check and there is unlikely to be any respite in keeping dissidence under control. (Go to VIETNAM)



Summary: Myanmar entered 2013 with a lot of hope on aspects related to political reconciliation and conflict resolution. However, the problem of internally displaced people and the exodus of Rohingyas due to ethnic strife in the sensitive Rakhine state, has taken a different dimension altogether. More than 13,000 Rohingya people took to the high seas using rickety boats in order to find a safe haven in neighbouring countries in 2013. Of these, more than 500 have lost their lives due to starvation and dehydration in the two-month journey – raising alarm bells at the United Nations (UN). On the economic front, MPs of various opposition parties have severely criticised a recent draft budget that allocates more than one-fifth of the total monetary share towards defence spending. On the positive side, the government held a meeting with a conglomeration of rebel groups in North Myanmar and not only discussed plans to chart out a framework of political dialogue, but also discussed mechanisms of distributing developmental funds in the impoverished ethnic regions. Finally, the US and Myanmar has agreed to resume joint efforts to fight illicit drug trade from the world’s second largest producer of illegal opium after Afghanistan. (Go to Myanmar).
                                                                                         Clive Lindley. Publisher

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