What’s going on right now in the small, mountainous country on the Adriatic Sea?
While playing openly on the world stage, Russia holds onto a more subtle influence in Europe
Vladimir Putin has been holding court on the international scene in recent months.
Laughing off US investigations into election meddling, championing the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s civil war efforts, and reining in Western powers’ determined punishment of North Korea.
It waves its veto whenever a Syria resolution is brought before the United Nations, and only gives the green light to sanctions on North Korea that ensure the secretive state does hold onto some wriggle room.
But as all this global drama plays out, Russia also has ongoing geopolitical interests in hidden corners of Europe.
Moldova sits on the shoulder of Romania, jutting into Ukraine. It is an often-overlooked nation – except, perhaps, by European football fans on unique away-days.
It is the poorest country in the region. Economic output last year was $6.8bn, according to the World Bank. Comparable in population size, income status and geography, Albania saw GDP of $11bn, with a much higher life expectancy.
Moldova also has a breakaway, Russian-leaning region.
Transnistria comprises a sliver of land to the east of the River Dniper up to the nearby border with Ukraine.
It has declared independence but is only recognised by other breakaway, Russophile regions, namely Abkhazia and South Ossetia (both parts of Georgia now controlled by Moscow).
Russian is the local lingo, the hammer and sickle is on the flag and citizens buy their shopping with a version of the ruble.
So could Transnistria rejoin the Moscow motherland?
It is not without precedent.
The Russian state of Tuva, now an integral part of the country, is a southern province off the south-east border with Mongolia. And in 1944 it requested incorporation into the Soviet Union. Tuvans enjoyed a 23-year-long independence before calling off their self-governing statehood.
But if Transnistria were to re-incorporate into Russia, then it would be cut off from the mainland. It would be stranded in Europe, surrounded by independent countries wary of Russia.
That, too, would not be anything new.
Nestled between Poland and Lithuania, Kaliningrad is a constituent part of Russia, but an exclave with no direct land connection to the mainland.
Annexed by the Soviet Union after World War Two, when the USSR broke up in 1989, the former Communist Poland and the former Soviet Lithuania declared independence, encircling Kaliningrad, which remained part of Russia.
It may have lost a number of its territories when the Soviet Union collapsed, but there remain several pockets of peoples across Europe who want to break free of their European Union-leaning governments and look to Moscow for their futures.
And if we are looking for a sad illustration of when these disputes turn to war, then there is also an example for this: the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, where Russophile rebels are fighting the government in the east of the country.
Islamist threats spread anxiety in Russia with the Winter Olympics just around the corner
The toothed peaks and rumbling glaciers of the Caucasus Mountains in Southern Russia, along the border with Georgia and Azerbaijan, are sharply beautiful. The view from the top of Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest point, was brilliant in the white light, far above the clouds when I summited it with two friends last August. Yet the region seemed quiet when I was there, the green glens of summer vibrant with wildflowers and the angled sun crashing off the snow caps onto green-domed mosques. All the people we met were friendly and very hospitable. But this can be a dangerous area, with worries not simply about the crevasse fields and exposed ridges. The Caucasus area has long been synonymous with an Islamist fundamentalism manifested irregularly by bombings and other atrocities, and carried out by militants who thrive in the region’s isolated backroads and labyrinthine valleys. This point was brought home to us by the border warning signs on peaks such as Mount Cheget that straddle the Georgian frontier and the fact that our mountain guide was not just responsible for our safety on the mountain, but also off the hill, as there have been kidnappings of foreign climbers in the area before.
In three weeks’ time, the Black Sea coast and mountain resort of Sochi, way out on the western fringes of the Caucasus Mountains, will host the Winter Olympics. Worryingly, the massive showpiece event has been subjected to terror threats from the extremists who are striving to create a Muslim Caliphate across the mountainous region. The self-styled leader of the ‘Caucasus Emirate’, Doku Umarov, has reproached Moscow’s staging of the Olympics in Sochi, saying the site for ‘Olympic revelry was built on the bones of Muslim brothers killed by the Russians’. That message came in a video posted in July but there was another video released last week in which he said “for those of you who are left, there is an obligation to continue this jihad until death itself.”
But is Umarov even alive? Last Thursday 16, the Chechen regional leader, said that he believed Umarov had been killed. The Interfax news agency quoted Ramzan Kadyrov in an eerie statement: “We have long been 99%-certain that D. Umarov was liquidated during one of the operations. Now there is evidence that he is not among the living”. But there has been no official announcement of this apparent operation, and it would be a timely coup for the security forces if it were to be confirmed.
One militant who has been ‘liquidated’ recently is Eldar Magatov, the alleged leader of an insurgent group in Dagestan. He was killed in a shootout on Tuesday. But security authorities are now looking for four so-called ‘Black Widows’ (whose husbands have been killed by the security services in the ongoing Caucasus skirmishes) who are believed to be either in and around Sochi now, or planning an attack of some kind on the Olympic site, possibly to avenge their spouses’ deaths.
The terror threats are certainly fresh in the Russian and international spotlight following the recent attacks in Volgograd. 34 people died in twin suicide bombings on 29 and 30 December in the southern city. Vilayat Dagestan, one of the regional militant organisations, claimed responsibility for the attacks. Vladimir Putin is certainly determined to face down the terrorists and pull off a successful Games. In the aftermath of the Volgograd bombings, he vowed to “completely annihilate” the terrorists. The Russian president has wagered a lot on being able to see off the threats coming from the region. He has also spent a lot: with a massive $51bn budget for the Games.
Troubled by the price tag, a furore over a ban on gay propaganda and now threatened by terrorist attack, the Russian government has had a controversial lead-up to these Games. It has spent a lot trying to promote these Games, bringing development to the West Caucasus region but the issue of security is certain to ensure a lot of hand-wringing in Moscow as the days count down to the start of competition. The Winter Olympic torch has been lit and has been travelling far and wide: across the Russian mainland, to the International Space Station and to the bottom of the deepest lake on Earth, Baikal. By the time of the Opening Ceremony, it will also have been to the top of Mount Elbrus. Next week sees the flame taken right through the heartlands of the North Caucasus region, reaching the pinnacle of 5,642m on Elbrus on 1 February. It would be a blessing if the Olympic torch’s view from the top of that huge mountain in a disputed region will be as hopeful and calm as the vista we enjoyed five months ago.
As the global wrangling over Syria continues, militant attacks go on in ‘post-Arab Spring’ nations
Two-and-a-half years on from the explosive revolutions that toppled dictators and forced deep re-organisations of countries’ politics from Morocco to Yemen, there seems to be no let up in the deadly instability that has rocked many of the nations that underwent upheavals.
Yesterday, the Egyptian air forces carries out raids on Islamist militant positions in the restive Sinai area – a double strike as part of an ongoing battle with insurgents in the region more generally and also in probable retaliation for two suicide car bombings on Wednesday 11. Six soldiers lost their lives and many more people were wounded in the twin assault: one targeted the intelligence building in the town of Rafah and the other hit an armoured personnel carrier. A little-known jihadist group called Jund al-Islam claimed responsibility.
There was another car bombing on Wednesday, to the east over the border in Libya. This time the device went off near the country’s Foreign Ministry in the city of Benghazi. There were no serious casualties but the explosion came on both the anniversary of the 9/11 attack in the US in 2001 and the attack on the American Consulate in the Libyan city. The U.S. ambassador and three others died as al-Qaeda-linked militants broke into the diplomatic mission last year.
At the start of the week, on Monday, the Tunisian security forces killed two Islamist fighters belonging to the Ansar al-Sharia extremist group. And just today there was another bombing of Yemen’s main oil pipeline in the central Maarib province. It is the fourth attack on the pipeline in a month.
Algeria has also been in the news over the last few days after the release of a report into a deadly siege attack in January on a gas plant in the country’s desert borderlands with Libya. 40 people were killed when Islamist extremists overran the In Amenas facility, which was home to many Western workers as well as Algerians. Statoil, the Norwegian company, published on Thursday the conclusions of an internal investigation into the militant assault.
But despite all this unrest across the region, the past seven days have been another week where the focus of the world’s media has been on Syria. There has now been an agreement between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov over how to address the 21 August use of chemical weapons, but there remains a nervousness, with the use of force by the US not totally ruled out for all contexts. The world powers may be trying to deal with the Syrian crisis, but they are only looking into the chemical weapons side of that conflict, not the deteriorating state of the nation itself, wrecked by a war that shows no signs of stopping, and is becoming ever more complex regarding the ethnic and religious alliances and hostilities at play.
What this past week encapsulates is the overarching worry of the examples now being played out by the countries ahead of Syria in the ‘Arab Spring’ transition ladder. The war in Syria seems a long way from ending (if it ever technically does, that is), but even if it were concluding, the extremist elements on both sides of the conflict point to an ominous future for the country. If terrorist bombings can continue in countries that are perceived to have already gone through the ‘Arab Spring’, then the outlook for Syria, (which has had the longest war of all those countries, and thus more time for militants to weave their extremist aims into the region), is bleak – despite the Russia-US negotiations appearing to start to bear fruit.
A video report from the Georgian town of Gori on the five-year anniversary of the 2008 war with Russia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
Several countries with competing ambitions are involved in the CIA whistleblower’s escapade
Since arriving in Moscow yesterday, Edward Snowden has set yet another diplomatic ball rolling. The cobweb of international espionage winks and nudges seems to be growing daily. The US would like to see Mr Snowden back on home turf as soon as possible to answer charges of spying and communicating classified information, but he has, so far, managed to stay one step ahead of Washington.
He first fled to Hong Kong after leaking details of the questionable intelligence-gathering methods employed by the US secret services, for whom he used to work as an IT engineer. That brought China into the mix, and although Hong Kong has a separate legal set-up to the rest of the country, it did give Beijing the indirect chance to rub the US up the wrong way.
Mr Snowden has flown from China to Russia and he has submitted an asylum request to Ecuador. He was rumoured to have been leaving Moscow today on a flight to Cuba; a journey that was possibly only going via Havana on route to its final destination in Venezuela. Lots of countries are involved and all of them are defending Mr Snowden’s right to speak out. But why? It does appear that one of the major reasons for these nations defending the name of Edward Snowden is to employ this ruse a means to irritate the US. Certainly, the Latin American states involved are all members of the late Hugo Chavez’s leftist ALBA bloc, and love nothing more than having a go at what they see as an overbearing, bullying neighbour to the north.
There has been a lot of talk on this issue so far regarding human rights, freedom of expression and the right (or lack thereof) of governments to snoop on citizens. But it is interesting to look at the list in the paragraph above of the countries now involved in this escapade. Mr Snowden claims to be fighting for freedom of expression but China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador have not been shy to suppress parts of the media that report on issues that they see as a bit too close to the ruling inner circles. The US may be wrong to think that all countries should deign to whatever arrest warrant it has issued for the latest Wikileaks-related secret data releaser. But, on the other hand, Mr Snowden may be wrong to think that a fair trial is a matter of regular, democratic order in places where restrictions on expression – the very issue at the heart of this case – have been all too common in recent years.
There is still support for the ousted colonel across a divided Africa
On Sunday 11 September, Carlos Gomes Junior, the prime minster of Guinea Bissau, told Radio Bombolom:
“With all the investment that Gaddafi has put into Guinea Bissau he deserves that respect and good treatment by the authorities and people of Guinea Bissau.”
Mr Gomes said he would welcome Gaddafi if he were to seek refuge there. Guinea Bissau is a tiny country (for further details see ‘Diagnosis elections‘– 05/09/11) with an equally small voice on the world stage. It is also a very poor country and regular cash injections from the Gaddafi regime would be celebrated publicly, even if, in reality, the money was headed for the cabinet’s bank accounts instead of social projects and food programmes. When the anti-Gaddafi fighters stormed Tripoli and the National Transitional Council (NTC) moved into town the Colonel elected to flee and African nations, including Guinea Bissau had to choose one of four paths to tread in the post-Gaddafi era:
1. Recognition and condemnation, e.g. Nigeria
On 23 August the continent’s most populous nation and one of Africa’s most important players recognised the NTC. The government was quick to lay down the law to the new Libyan leaders and said the agreement was conditional on the upholding of human rights and democratic principles.
2. Stubborn and angry refusal to accept the new order and a loss of face, e.g. South Africa
The South Africans wanted to ensure that African problems were dealt with by the African Union (AU). This was a fair aim. President Zuma flew to Tripoli in May to try to broker a peaceful end to the conflict with the AU’s backing.
But the drip-drip of countries across the world coming out in favour of the NTC and the rebels, (as they were then), backed South Africa into a corner. Hopes that it could use its membership of the BRICS emerging nations power bloc were dashed when Russia and, as of today 12 September, China recognised the NTC. In fact, Pretoria’s useless battle against the stream may well see it shipwrecked and isolated on the world stage.
3. Quietly accepting but uncertain, e.g. Niger
Niger has been accepting the steady flow of Gaddafi loyalists fleeing the new order on humanitarian grounds. In the last 24 hours, the country’s justice minister said that Colonel Gaddafi’s third son Saadi had been intercepted in an incoming convoy. Niger has also said it is unsure what it would do if the ousted leader himself turned up in Niamey.
However, on the other hand, Niger has recognised the NTC as the legitimate governing authority in Libya. It also recognises the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) jurisdiction and the ICC has an arrest warrant issued for Gaddafi. The Libyan border nation has manoeuvred into a quietly effective position: show your caring side by accepting fleeing regime soldiers but show your hardened side by waving the ICC arrest warrant at Colonel Gaddafi.
4. Continued support for Colonel Gaddafi, e.g. Guinea Bissau
Carefree and careless, Guinea Bissau, unlike South Africa, has no international standing to lose by admitting the close ties to Gaddafi and offering him a safe harbour. Such self-harm flies in the face of the attitude of influential and helpful neighbours. Bissau may feel their hands are tied by the old Gaddafi-era investment cheques. It would be better to stand up and say that those are some of its debts that will never be paid off.
On the regional diplomatic front-line against the Syrian violence, more might be expected from Lebanon
It is a fractious neighbourhood. The repressive Assad regime in Syria is surrounded by Iraq (still rocking with violence of its own), Iran (currently quietly watching events from the corner), Israel (dealing with its own Spanish indignado-style protests at the moment), Jordan (where King Abdullah has spoken recently to reassure the people of reforms), Turkey (starting to get restless with Syria and now using its megaphone to condemn Bashar al Assad) and Lebanon (a successful democracy, sitting between West and the Middle East).
However, Beirut is failing to use its geopolitical location and the fact that it has a seat on the UN Security Council at the moment to be able to lead the pack on Syrian policy. When the condemnatory statement was on the table in New York, Lebanon lifted its pen and passed it on. Discussing his country’s refusal to sign, Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour was quoted as saying that:
“The decision reflected Lebanon’s clear convictions. This position sought the higher interests of Lebanon and the entire region, including Syria.”
It is true that a resolution would have been a more defiant outcome and the European-led statement was weak. But that is not a reason not to express support for a small step on the road to reform, sanctions or intervention. This last option is the most worrying and the one that scares Russia and China the most at the moment. But Lebanon does not have to call for a Libyan-style military move.
The violence has escalated in recent days to the shelling of the port of Latakia from the sea by the Syrian navy. A simple denunciation would carry weight, as Lebanon is the only Middle Eastern and major Muslim nation on the present Council (although Gabon and Nigeria have sizeable Islamic populations as well).
But Lebanon has some tricky politics. Hezbollah, the militant Shia Muslim group, supports the Assad regime. Saad Hariri, the former prime minister, looks more to the West. With politics opening up across the region, Hezbollah ought to pause and consider the fallout if it were to continue to support a regime that was to be thrown out and whose members, like Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian president, ended up in caged docks in front of a condemnatory public. Hezbollah has links to Iran and it is hard for them to think purely within national borders, such are the complexities of the regional patronages and ties.
If it were to do so, it may see the reformist agenda led by Hariri and also the tide of condemnation growing in regional big beasts like Turkey. Lebanon is swimming against the flow at the moment and it would be better at least to turn to face the shore, rather than the swelling, international, condemnatory white rollers brewing out at sea.
How will India make use of its month in the presidency of the UN Security Council?
India has a lot of domestic and regional defence and security issues on its plate at the moment. Bearing in mind the added responsibility of chairing the UN Security Council, Delhi has a lot to shoulder. Looking at the international situation first there is one major issue: what to do with Syria. Since the Arab League gave its first official condemnation of the ongoing repression across Syria, the Gulf Nations have been queuing up to denounce the regime and their ambassadors have been jumping on aeroplanes home.
However, India’s caution on the issue has stood out. The excitable Europeans have been at the forefront of the clamour for a condemnatory resolution, with their grouping led by the UK, France and Italy (and also this time Germany, notably ambivalent about the NATO mission in Libya). Then there are Russia and China, two heavyweight permanent members flapping their vetoes in the air as a warning. India has so far aligned itself with the Russians and Chinese, who also count current non-permanent Council member South Africa, (part of the emboldening BRICS global power bloc), amongst their ranks. The Council has so far failed to agree on a resolution and only issued a weak statement. With Arab countries of regional importance both to Syria and to India starting to turn away from Damascus, India should have something a little bit more negative to say about the terrible repression in Syria.
On the home front, a relationship that unnerves Delhi is the Sino-Pakistani one. However, it has soured somewhat with Beijing’s published fears that Muslim Uighurs from Xinjiang province have been popping over the border to Pakistan to terrorist training camps. India, the host country of the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government, is eyeing China with suspicion. Indo-Pakistani relations recently came under the spotlight after many attributed responsibility for the Mumbai bombings in July to a Pakistani group. However, Islamabad strongly condemned the attacks and many instead looked to India’s homegrown Mujahideen as the possible bombers.
A new ‘Great Game’ seems to be building slowly in India, Pakistan and China. All three have nuclear weapons and very strong armed forces. India has two eyes but must not train them in the same direction. Syria is clearly important but Delhi must deliver calm diplomacy and strong leadership in the sub-continent as well. It has the chance to be a mediator in Indo-Chinese disputes at home and international disputes via the Security Council and must use these opportunities calmly and wisely.
The British government shows some determination to address its lack of commitment to Latin America
They say Latin is a dead language. Sometimes it seems that many in different British governments have believed Latin America is dead too. The visit of the British Minister for Latin America to Bolivia from 26-27 July went almost unnoticed in the UK press. The BBC had one online page of coverage of the trip; a YouTube video Jeremy Browne, the Liberal Democrat MP with responsibility for Latin America, put online had only been viewed 42 times by the time this blog was published.
In November, the Foreign Secretary made this speech about the relationship between the UK and Latin America. He was right that Britons have played a role in forging Brazilian and Uruguayan independence and being the first European nation to recognise Mexico. Welshmen took football to Argentina. Cornishmen helped develop the Mexican silver mines.
But it seems that there has been an invisible colonial barrier barring the UK from closer relations with the region; a whispered admission that this was Spain and Portugal’s domain. Africa and the sub-continent have received far greater attention from the UK, mainly owing to the colonial links. Millions across India, Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa speak English. Charities and aid workers regularly channel their efforts (rightfully) on the many social, political and medical needs of these nations but Latin America also needs support. And the UK can help the region in a different way.
It need not abandon Uganda or Bangladesh but the old colonial frontiers that stood are long gone. New-age imperialism is booming. China has already muscled in on the old UK ground: Beijing is a massive investor in many African countries now, often exchanging construction workers and architects for coal. India is turning into a global power capable of looking after itself. South Africa has now joined Brazil, Russia, India and China in their strong, emerging-powers BRICS bloc.
Latin America is full of successful, healthy and democratic countries. Mexico, Argentina and Brazil are in the G20. The region does not need stabilising support but it would welcome closer trade and investment links. As Mr Hague noted in his speech “We export over three times more to Ireland than we do to the whole of Latin America”. That needs addressing fast. China is becoming the dominant power in Africa. As Brazil outgrows Latin America and sets its sights on global ambitions, the UK would do worse then re-focusing a little of its ring-fenced international development budget and a lot of its trade desires on Latin America.