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May 2013 Country Archive


On May 1ST 2013


Despite the possibility of sarin gas being used in the conflict –the big story of last week, it seems that President Obama, quite properly suspicious of being stampeded into some form of US military intervention, needs to be satisfied that the implied evidence will stand up. The failure of US and UK intelligence (and Israeli intelligence) on their assessment of WMD’s in IRAQ, resulted in an invasion and a war, the effects of which are still with us! When President Obama talked in terms of a ‘game-changer’ he must have been aware that present  information would not do in establishing the facts. It is reassuring that this US President is not ‘shooting from the hip’ like his predecessor. There are many questions to be resolved, not least how it was that Israeli intelligence apparently were the first to run with this story, when not a peep had initially been reported as being heard from the various rebel combat units opposed to the Syrian government? The Iraq experience where the US and UK intelligence agencies wrongly advised that Iraq had a concealed nuclear weapon and other WMD’s, makes it imperative that this time there must be no such false prospectus.

If it were true that Asad had flouted his undertakings and used Sarin gas against some hapless villagers then it is indeed serious enough to demand the most serious response, but the evidence has to stand-up, objectively establishing that has to be the next step. When Obama talked about ‘a red-line’ there are those involved in and around this story, capable of setting up some samples and a scenario to match, to ensure such an outcome. Particularly, when as we report below about the opposition to Asad, it does not now look that the rebels will succeed any time soon and such a ‘game changer’ might be more than just helpful to them.

Summary: In Syria the chances that the rebel forces as they are organized now may take power, have become slimmer. Last autumn, the rebels gained significant ground, especially in Aleppo, but they have not managed to capitalize on tactical victories and marginal territorial gains. A wary NATO has still refused to enforce a ‘no-fly zone’ (which in Libya found them in practice becoming ‘the rebel airforce’), and there has not been any official dispensation to arm the rebels, other than infantry weapons via Qatar and Saudi, the paymasters of the revolt.  (Go to Syria)


North Korea

Summary: April was an eventful month on the Korean peninsula. And as usual where North Korea is involved, the events and news were not good. The tensions and wild rhetoric described in NewNations’ last monthly update were ratcheted up even further. These included suggestions by the DPRK that not only foreign embassies in Pyongyang, but also foreigners in South Korea – who number some 1.4 million – might wish to leave, since their safety could not be guaranteed in the now imminent war. (Go to North Korea)



Summary: President Karzai hesitates between alternative options for the 2014 elections. Karzai seems to be trying to extract the best possible deal from a number of interlocutors, but these are on the verge of losing their patience. In the meanwhile the world is reminded of why Afghanistan might continue to be a problem by the news that the next opium poppy harvest might reach close to a new record.

In many provinces the bulk of NATO forces have already been pulled out of their forward operating bases and moved to more central locations; the Taliban have been systematically moving back into villages from where they had been forced out in 2009-11. The Kabul region appears to be particularly troubled and local governors have been sounding the alarm bells.

Although some of the Taliban might in the end re-open talks with Kabul, others are tightening their links with jihadist groups in the Arab world, Pakistan and Central Asia. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has now an Afghan branch integrated with the Taliban, which recruits heavily in the Afghan north-east. The Movement has an interest in developing a territorial base in Afghanistan, in order to facilitate its on-going efforts to infiltrate Central Asia from there. (Go to Afghanistan)



Summary: The Pakistani economy stands accused of being directionless, but private consumption keeps burgeoning, driven by an ever rising level of remittances. That will keep the economy afloat, but not necessarily the Pakistani state, as remittances completely escape taxation. With the arrest of Musharraf, the judiciary scores again and shows all its power; the parties which support it, like Imran Khan’s and the PML-N, are looking likely to have a majority in the future parliament, a fact which must contribute to embolden the judges who relish their position at a time when politicians generally are in low esteem.

Despite clear indications of the country shifting closer and closer to China in its long term economic planning, in the short term Islamabad has to cosy up to Washington in order to secure new loans. Efforts to expand Pakistan’s tax base are not achieving much, in part because more and more of the economy is going under cover. The informal share of the economy seems to be growing, with even relatively large companies disconnecting from the state. New estimates place the size of the ‘informal economy’ at 74% to 91% of the formal economy. (Go to Pakistan)



Summary: Maliki is still around despite being surrounded by enemies: Kurds, Sunni Arabs and even some fellow Shiites. His party is expected to do well in the April provincial council elections as Maliki casts himself as the only protection against chaos. The positive economy trend (despite the inefficient state machinery) also helps Maliki to gain consensus.

The Turkish government, whose AK party is particularly close to Turkey’s oil firms, is working actively to finalise a deal with the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, over the Kurdistan-Turkey pipeline, which would greatly help Turkey diversify its sources of supply. Among Iraq’s majority Shiites there is a growing body of opinion which favours Kurdish independence – not out of sympathy but because without the Kurds, controlling Arab Iraq would be much easier for them. (Go to Iraq)



Summary: Iran tries to cope with the sanctions through a mix of smuggling, development of other exports apart from oil, and austerity measures. The main problem that it has to face remains the crisis of confidence in the rial, which has given way to an inflationist spiral. Meanwhile the line-up for the June elections is still unclear, with multiple conservative candidates already having declared their intention to run and with centrists, reformists, and supporters of Ahmadinejad still having not chosen theirs. Nevertheless the elections are now dominating political life and government time. (Go to Iran)



Summary: Where it all began. The Jasmine Revolution was the first of the series of socio-political earthquakes that shook the Arab world in the so-called ‘Arab Awakening’ or ‘Arab Spring’. Nevertheless, the only real legacy of the events of Sidi Bouzeid in 2010 is that unemployed young men have continued to use self-immolation as a form of protest because in fact, more than two years after the original sacrificial gesture, nothing has changed in Tunisia. Indeed, the country is moving toward a darker and more uncertain future; the jasmine flowers having rotted away. (Go to Tunisia)



Summary: There is no question that Libya has changed since the collapse of the Qadhafi regime; there is a question, however, as to what kind of Libya it has become. Is it better? This is one of the first considerations in the wake of a car bomb that exploded in front of the French Embassy on April 23. The episode evokes the attack against the US Consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Stevens last September. However, while that episode could be explained, in part, by the long established presence of radical Islamists, the Tripoli bombing is indicative of a more insidious malaise. (Go to Libya)



Egyptian politics have become very murky in this new democracy. On one side there are the Moslem Brotherhood and its President Morsi, who are leading ‘the path to democracy’ using a rather dictatorial style - the president effectively ruling by decree and with no parliamentary debate. Then there is the rest of the country, the growing block of the anti-Islamist opposition (united under the National Salvation Front), which includes Coptic Christians, trade unions led by tourism workers (who fear Islamist terror and anti-Western laws that will ruin the sector), the judges who have been on a sort of permanent strike for the past year and since the confrontation between the presidency and the constitutional court (which dissolved parliament). Meanwhile, the government has to confront an ever graver economic crisis and the prospect of having to ingest a very bitter medicine from the IMF, which is imposing politically suicidal spending cuts in return for a much needed loan. Another reflection of the changes taking place in the Egyptian political scene, can be determined by the sharp drop in the Muslim Brotherhood’s popularity, at least as far as universities are concerned. (Go to Egypt)



Summary: The principal point of note in the past month has been a major moment in modern Turkish history: the declaration of a ceasefire with the PKK. Whether this declaration goes beyond rhetoric, will indicate how great a place the moment will occupy in the history books. Relations with Iraq are going from bad to worse due to a new oil and gas deal with the autonomous Kurdish Republic. A ‘breakthrough’ apology from Israel on the Mavi Marmara incident has, it would seem, as yet, failed to soften Ankara’s stance towards Jerusalem in any significant way. Erdogan’s ‘no problems with neighbours’ policy, is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain in the wake of the Syrian crisis, and the deepening rift with Iraq over the Kurdish region, is a powder keg. Baghdad had at one point gone so far as to threaten military action should their rights to a percentage of the profits in energy exports from the Kurdish region be contravened. As they view it, Ankara has taken a serious risk in disregarding that warning. (Go to Turkey)



Summary: While India’s security concerns in Afghanistan rise with the withdrawal of the US-led NATO forces on one hand, it has been working hard at making its presence felt both at the global BRICS Summit as well as in its own neighbourhood. New Delhi and Beijing initiated for the first time a high-level counterterrorism dialogue aimed at Afghanistan, as the country undergoes a transition. India has been concerned about rising militancy in Indian-administered Kashmir while China doesn’t want a separatist backlash in Uighur regions in Xingiang. India also participated in the 5th BRICS Summit held in Durban, South Africa, and actively supported the sanctioning of the formation of a development bank to finance infrastructure projects in emerging economies. The group also agreed to create a US$ 100 billion contingency fund to tackle any financial crisis in developing economies. In the immediate neighbourhood, India and Bangladesh have agreed to build a rail link that would not only boost cross-border trade but also enable India to access its remote northeastern states quickly via Bangladesh. Finally, India and Myanmar’s bilateral security cooperation took an important if small step ahead, as two naval vessels from Myanmar arrived for joint exercises in Vishakhapatnam, India’s naval port in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. (Go to India)



Summary: On the political front, while the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led Opposition parties increase unrest and violence over the 1971 war crimes trials and the anti-blasphemy laws, the government threatens to ban the Jamaat ’ if it acts like a terrorist group’.

In another shocking development, a new radical Islamist group called Hefajat-e-Islam, held a rally in central Dhaka with as many as half a million supporters to declare its demands for a new anti-blasphemy law. The group has put forward 13 demands, viewed by liberals as Taliban-inspired, threatening the government with a siege on May 5 unless the demands are met. The demands, however, are contrary to the constitution of Bangladesh and include the death penalty for anyone guilty of blasphemy; barring women from working with men; banning all cultural activities that defame Islam; reinstating pledges to Allah in the constitution; banning women from mixing freely with men and making Islamic education mandatory. According to analysts this agenda would amount to the "Talibanization" of Bangladesh. (Go to Bangladesh)



Summary :The trial of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who has been arrested on what have been described as trumped up charges, is a hotspot on the political agenda this month. President Putin has continued to offend the opposition, women and gay people. This month also saw the death of journalist Mikhail Beketov, a staunch defender, one might say rather a martyr to the Khimki forest, after an attack that left him paralysed five years ago. (Go to Russia)


Summary: Making the most of its record in non-proliferation, Kazakhstan has recently enjoyed hosting nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers on the future of the latter's highly controversial nuclear regime. Kazakhstan, this oil rich nation of nearly 17 million people has been a strong advocate of nuclear probity since over twenty years ago it voluntarily gave up its nuclear weapons after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The state has used this to cement a reputation for itself as a responsible nation and has enjoyed the accompanying diplomatic benefits. Its reputation in terms of rights abuses of its own citizens is however far less positive. The regime led for the past 22 years by veteran iron man Nursultan Nazarbayev, (the communist boss before the USSR broke up), is known for glaring rights abuses. (Go to Kazakhstan)



Summary: Turkmenistan’s self-ordained ‘protector’, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, wields immense power in this oil-rich Caspian nation. With enviable gas resources (the fourth largest deposits in the world) the state has managed to maintain a secure geopolitical foothold, being wooed by Asia, Russia and the West with its exports and its involvement in the North-South corridor line since 2007, which will assure transit of freight from South Asia across to Europe and the West, via the Caucasus and Central Asia. This wealth however cannot mask a striking poverty in rights and freedoms among citizens; particularly any who dare to question the regime. (Go to Turkmenistan)



Summary: The past months have proved very tense times for Georgia which is experiencing an uneasy period of “cohabitation” between arch rivals Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and President Saakashvili. Many observers have been concerned that the political landscape will descend into ongoing fighting between their two parties in a way that will prove deleterious to the country as a whole. (Go to Georgia)



Summary: Western companies doing business in Asia often fall foul of differing cultural norms. What passes for a corrupt practice in the West may, in Asia, be seen as no more than a traditional way of doing business. But attitudes are slowly changing and while Asian societies may never agree to work by the same rules that apply in the West, nor indeed want to do so; in Taiwan a start appears to have been made on dealing with the more blatant offenders. For that, President Ma Ying-jeou deserves some credit, but his native Taiwanese predecessor President Chen Shui-bian, railroaded to jail after a disgraceful trial, is still held in dire circumstances, to Ma’s particular discredit. (Go to Taiwan)



Summary: The Philippine elections are read by many as a sign of the health and vibrancy of democracy in this country. But dig a little and you will discover this is far from the case. While upon independence, the Philippines was given a western system of government patterned on the US model which appeared to work for a time, it was almost destroyed during the Marcos years and has not yet been restored to health. Indeed, and despite the efforts of the Aquino administration, in many areas the country appears to be retrogressing back to feudal values. The ongoing rise of self-serving political dynasties and the attachment of the judicial system to serve the interests of the wealthy shows signs of getting worse and not better. (Go to Philippines)



Summary: Vietnam remains beset with fundamental problems in its economic structure that the government has vowed to address. Taking a leaf from the Chinese book, Vietnam’s leaders appear to have opted for ‘slow reform, slow growth’. But will this be enough for the future? ASEAN economic integration is likely to be a reality less than two years from now and if other regional players are addressing these problems more expeditiously, will Vietnam in effect fall further behind? (Go to Vietnam)
                                                               Clive Lindley. Publisher

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