It began with a roar and it ended with a whimper.As 2012 wound down in Russia, the soaring expectations for change that accompanied the civic awakening and mass protests at the year’s dawn had clearly faded.
But the social, economic, and political forces that spawned them will continue to shape the landscape well into the new year.
A fledgling middle class remains hungry for political change, splits still plague the ruling elite over the way forward, and a fractious opposition movement continues to struggle to find its voice.
With the Kremlin unable to decisively squelch the mounting dissent and the opposition unable to topple President Vladimir Putin, Russia has entered an uneasy holding pattern that has the feel of an interlude between two epochs.
“I don’t think we are at the end of the Putin era, but we are at the beginning of the end,” says longtime Russia-watcher Edward Lucas, international editor of the British weekly “The Economist” and author of the recently published book “Deception.”
With economic headwinds on the horizon, generational conflict brewing, and new political forces developing, Russian society is changing — and changing rapidly. But the political system remains ossified.
So what can we expect in 2013? Below are several trends and issues to keep an eye on in the coming year.
The Oil Curse: Energy Prices And The Creaking Welfare State
If 2012 was all about politics, 2013 will also be about economics.
The Russian economy, the cliche goes, rests on two pillars — oil and gas. And both will come under increasing pressure as the year unfolds.
World oil prices, currently hovering between $90 and $100 per barrel, are expected to be volatile for the foreseeable future. And any sharp drop could prove catastrophic for the Russian economy.
Energy experts and economists say Russia’s budget will only stay balanced if oil prices remain between $100 and $110 per barrel. Five years ago, the figure needed for a balanced budget was $50 to $55.
Meanwhile, Moscow’s dominance of the natural gas market is being challenged by the development of new energy sources like shale gas and liquefied natural gas.
“The Russians are going to have to face, just as the Saudis did in the 1980s, the possibility of dropping energy prices,” says Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College.
The flush days when petrodollars could power Russia’s economy and lubricate Putin’s political machine are coming to a close.
How the political system responds to these challenges will be a key question in 2013.Leading Russian economists like Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich and former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin have stressed the need to diversify the economy away from its dangerous dependence on nonrenewable energy. Both Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev have likewise made calls for diversification.
But despite all the rhetoric, there has been little real action.
Part of this is due to fierce resistance from powerful figures in the Russian elite with ties to the energy industry, like Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, a longtime Putin crony.
But the reasons for inaction are actually much more fundamental. Diversifying and modernizing Russia’s economy would entail a degree of decentralization and the subsequent development of alternative centers of economic power. This, in turn, would eventually lead to new centers of political power with more independence from the Kremlin than Putin appears willing to tolerate.
“The decoupling of gas and oil prices, the large quantities of liquefied natural gas on world markets, the growth of shale gas have all [diminished the regime’s] ability to collect natural-resource rents,” Edward Lucas says. “And the collection and distribution of those rents is central to its model.”
With resources declining and no economic diversification program in sight, the authorities appear to have concluded that they need to reform the country’s creaking social-welfare system. But such a move is certain to be politically volatile, especially since Putin’s main base of support is now the rural poor and the working classes.
The Kremlin is still haunted by the protests that broke out in 2005 when the government attempted reforms to the social safety net.
Fathers And Children: The Looming Generational Conflict
When Putin took power in 2000, the 40-something former spy looked like an energetic young leader, especially compared to his geriatric predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.
But more than a decade later, he and his team are aging together. And by most accounts, they intend to remain in office at least until 2018 — and possibly until 2024. By that time, much of his ruling circle will be in their 70s.
The comparisons to Leonid Brezhnev that accompanied Putin’s return to the Kremlin were not superfluous. In addition to the fears of stagnation, the graying of Team Putin also sets the stage for a generational conflict within the elite.
“The lack of institutional mechanisms for promotion and rotation is a problem because, when you don’t have that, it leads the younger generations to get frustrated if they don’t believe there is a way to advance within the system,” Gvosdev says. “If everything is blocked off it creates tension. You can’t just freeze the government establishment because the energy of people is going to be directed toward breaking into it or replacing it, and that becomes a danger.”
How this generational discord develops will be one of the key underlying trends to watch in 2013. This is especially true since a whole new cohort entered the elite over the past four years.
During his presidency, Dmitry Medvedev made a concerted effort to bring younger cadres into the Kremlin, which analysts say added a political element to the generation gap.
“Real fragmentation is taking place by age because Medvedev rejuvenated the system of administration,” prominent Moscow-based sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya told the daily “Nezavisimaya gazeta” this summer. “The more conservative older part of the elite was irritated by this and moved toward Putin. And those who were younger moved toward Medvedev in hopes of a quick career if Medvedev remained for a second term.”
The young guns who came in with Medvedev are also ideologically inclined toward greater pluralism. “Many observers are convinced that these leaders are giving financial support to the opposition,” Kryshtanovskaya said.
The generational gap in the elite is mirrored by a similar one in society as the cohort born after the fall of the Soviet Union — and which has only faint memories of the chaos of the 1990s — comes of age.
“This group of citizens sees itself as not only post-Soviet, but non-Soviet,” says Masha Lipman of the Moscow Carnegie Center. “They don’t consider themselves to be vassals of the state. They are more free-thinking.”
Lipman adds that this younger generation is helping fuel Russia’s civic awakening. “This process is irreversible,” she says. “And as Russia continues to urbanize and cities become centers for younger people, this process will only accelerate.”
Strange Bedfellows: When Aleksei Meets Aleksei
When speculation emerged that anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny and former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin may be cooperating politically, it raised eyebrows among Kremlin-watchers.
And the reason for the interest goes much deeper than an abiding fascination with these two emerging players on the political scene.
An alliance of the Alekseis would have pointed to one of the key developments analysts have been watching for since mass protests broke out a year ago: collaboration between the technocratic wing of the elite and moderate elements in the opposition.
Such a marriage makes sense in many ways. Elite technocrats understand that Russia is dangerously dependent on energy exports, that current levels of corruption are unsustainable, and that in order for the economy to diversify and modernize, the political system will need to become more pluralistic.
Moreover, as moderate opposition activists come to understand that a colored revolution in Russia is unlikely, they are more likely to place their hopes in evolutionary change.
And in the event that the Putin regime begins to look dangerously shaky, overtures from inside the halls of power to the opposition will become more likely.
“We are going to see more people toying with defection to the opposition, people opening up back channels,” says Mark Galeotti, the author of the blog “In Moscow’s Shadows” and a professor at New York University. “We’re going to see the economic elite trying to reach out [to the opposition] and this is going to be very dangerous for the state.”
On the opposition’s Coordinating Council, a bloc is already emerging that seeks to negotiate political change with willing elements in the Kremlin, rather than trying to topple the regime, according to press reports.
The faction apparently includes 16 members of the 45-seat council. In addition to Navalny and his backers, it reportedly includes socialite-turned-activist Ksenia Sobchak and her supporters, as well as longtime opposition figure Ilya Yashin and entrepreneur Aleksandr Vinokurov, the co-owner of Dozhd-TV.
For his part, Kudrin has been trying to position himself as a bridge between the opposition and the authorities to foster what he calls “evolutionary change” toward greater pluralism. So has billionaire oligarch and former presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov.
If a bridge is ultimately built between the opposition and the technocratic wing of the elite, it could result in negotiated political reforms, in the co-opting of a vital wing of the Kremlin’s opponents — or a measure of both.
“I think it is more likely that as we see divisions within the regime that one faction tries to exploit public discontent,” Lucas says. “It will still be kind of ‘inside baseball’ rather than a 1917-style change.”
Beyond The Street: Will The Opposition Mature?
Bouts of soul searching are an inevitable ritual after the past few opposition demonstrations.
The heady days of December 2011 and January 2012, when dissenters found their voice and discovered they were not alone, are a fading memory. Likewise, the period from the beginning of the year until Putin’s return to the Kremlin in May, when the opposition seemed to control the national conversation, is also over.
And opposition leaders look increasingly uncertain about what to do next.
“They’re focusing on the glory days, the revolutionary days of December through May. But nobody is thinking about what happened after May, when they lost control of the agenda,” says Sean Guillory, a fellow at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies. “How are they going to recapture the agenda and how are they going to really start making connections with society?”
The opposition, of course, is not a unified movement. It comprises nationalists, leftists, and liberals, united only by their opposition to Putin.
Will a single leader emerge in the coming year? Will the Coordinating Council, an elected body designed to bridge the divides in the opposition and establish a bond with civil society, prove an effective form of collective leadership?
“A process we are going to see is the opposition actually beginning to fragment,” Galeotti says. “You will begin to see ideological blocs, real opposition movements rather than just the generic ‘we want Russia without Putin’ thing. But it will be a painful process.”
What happens with the opposition, whether it is able to move beyond the street and develop into a potent political force, is a trend to watch because there is a deep well of discontent in society to potentially tap.
“They have this feeling of stagnation,” Lucas says. “Of institutions that don’t work, of a public life plagued by lies, evasions, and propaganda. They want more decent behavior by public officials and public institutions and they aren’t getting it.”
Copyright (c) 2013. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036
Putin’s post-Soviet world remains a work in progress, but Africa already looms
Russian civilisationalism is proving handy as President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand the imaginary boundaries of his Russian World, whose frontiers are defined by Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than international law and/or ethnicity.
Mr. Putin’s disruptive and expansive nationalist ideology has underpinned his aggressive
approach to Ukraine since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the stoking of insurgencies in the east of the country. It also underwrites this month’s brief intervention in Kazakhstan, even if it was in contrast to Ukraine at the invitation of the Kazakh government.
Mr. Putin’s nationalist push in territories that were once part of the Soviet Union may be par for the course even if it threatens to rupture relations between Russia and the West and potentially spark a war. It helps Russia compensate for the strategic depth it lost with the demise of communism in Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
However, equally alarmingly, Mr. Putin appears to be putting building blocks in place that would justify expanding his Russian World in one form or another beyond the boundaries of the erstwhile Soviet Union.
In doing so, he demonstrates the utility of employing plausibly deniable mercenaries not only for military and geopolitical but also ideological purposes.
Standing first in line is the Central African Republic. A resource-rich but failed state that has seen its share of genocidal violence and is situated far from even the most expansive historical borders of the Russian empire, the republic could eventually qualify to be part of the Russian world, according to Mr. Putin’s linguistic and cultural criteria.
Small units of the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by one of Mr. Putin’s close associates, entered the Centra African Republic once departing French troops handed over to a United Nations peacekeeping force in 2016. Five years later, Wagner has rights to mine the country’s gold and diamond deposits.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Russian mercenary presence persuaded President Faustin-Archange Touadera that the African republic should embrace Russian culture.
As a result, university students have been obliged to follow Russian-language classes starting as undergraduates in their first year until their second year of post-graduate studies. The mandate followed the introduction of Russian in the republic’s secondary school curriculum in 2019.
Mr. Touadera is expected to ask Mr. Putin for Russian-language instructors during a forthcoming visit to Moscow to assist in the rollout.
Neighbouring Mali could be next in line to follow in Mr. Touadera’s footsteps.
Last month, units of the Wagner Group moved into the Sahel nation at the request of a government led by army generals who have engineered two coups in nine months. The generals face African and Western sanctions that could make incorporating what bits of the country they control into the Russian world an attractive proposition.
While it is unlikely that Mr. Putin would want to formally welcome sub-Saharan and Sahel states into his Russian world, it illustrates the pitfalls of a redefinition of internationally recognised borders as civilisational and fluid rather than national, fixed, and legally enshrined.
For now, African states do not fit Mr. Putin’s bill of one nation as applied to Ukraine or Belarus. However, using linguistics as a monkey wrench, he could, overtime or whenever convenient, claim them as part of the Russian world based on an acquired language and cultural affinity.
Mr. Putin’s definition of a Russian world further opens the door to a world in which the principle of might is right runs even more rampant with the removal of whatever flimsy guard rails existed.
To accommodate the notion of a Russian world, Russian leaders, going back more than a decade, have redefined Russian civilisation as multi-ethnic rather than ethically Russia.
The Central African Republic’s stress on Russian-language education constitutes the first indication in more than a decade that Mr. Putin and some of his foreign allies may expand the Russian world’s civilisational aspects beyond the erstwhile Soviet Union.
Some critics of Mr. Putin’s concept of a Russian world note that Western wars allegedly waged out of self-defense and concern for human rights were also about power and geopolitical advantage.
For example, pundit Peter Beinart notes that NATO-led wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Libya “also extended American power and smashed Russian allies at the point of a gun.”
The criticism doesn’t weaken the legitimacy of the US and Western rejection of Russian civilisationalism. However, it does undermine the United States’ ability to claim the moral high ground.
It further constrains Western efforts to prevent the emergence of a world in which violation rather than the inviolability of national borders become the accepted norm.
If Russian interventionism aims to change borders, US interventionism often sought to change regimes. That is one driver of vastly different perceptions of the US role in the world, including Russian distrust of the post-Soviet NATO drive into Eastern Europe and independent former Soviet states such as Ukraine.
“People with more experience of the dark side of American power—people whose families hail from Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Haiti, or Mexico, where US guns have sabotaged democracy rather than defended it—might find it easier to understand Russian suspicions. But those Americans tend not to shape US policy towards places like Ukraine,” Mr. Beinart said.
Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia
Through all the discussions that accompanied the preparation of the Valdai Club report “Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours”, the most clear question was whether Russia should or should not avoid repeating the historical experience of relations with its near abroad. This experience, in the most general terms, is that after Russia pacifies its western border with its foreign policy, the Russian state inevitably must turn to issues related to the existence of its immediate neighbourhood. With a high degree of probability, it will be forced to turn to its centuries-old method for solving problems that arise there: expansion for the sake of ensuring security.
Now Russia’s near abroad consists of a community of independent states that cannot ensure their own security and survival by relying only on their own forces; we cannot be completely sure of their stability. From Estonia in the west to Kyrgyzstan in the east, the existence of these countries in a competitive international environment is ensured by their link with one of the nuclear superpowers. Moreover, such connections can only complement each other with great difficulty. As the recent developments in Kazakhstan have demonstrated, they are not limited to the threat of an external invasion; even internal circumstances can become deadly.
The dramatic events in that country were intensified by external interference from the geostrategic opponents of Russia, as well as international terrorists, but it would be disingenuous to argue that their most important causes are not exclusively internal and man-made. We cannot and should not judge whether the internal arrangements of our neighbours are good or bad, since we ourselves do not have ideal recipes or examples. However, when dealing with the consequences, it is rational to fear that their statehood will either be unable to survive, or that their existence will take place in forms that create dangers which Russia cannot ignore.
In turn, the events experienced now in relations between Russia and the West, if we resort to historical analogies, look like a redux of the Northern War. The Great Northern War arose at the beginning of the 18th century as the result of the restoration of Russia’s power capabilities; the West had made great progress in approaching the heart of its territory. Within the framework of this logic, victory, even tactical victory, in the most important (Western) direction will inevitably force Russia to turn to its borders. Moreover, the reasons for paying more attention to them are obvious. This will present Russia with the need to decide on how much it is willing to participate in the development of its neighbours.
The developments in Kazakhstan in early January 2022 showed the objective limits of the possibilities of building a European-style sovereign state amid new, historical, and completely different geopolitical circumstances. More or less all the countries of the space that surrounds Russia, from the Baltic to the Pamir, are unique experiments that arose amid the truly phenomenal orderliness of conditions after the end of the Cold War. In that historical era, the world really developed under conditions where a general confidence prevailed that the absolute dominance of one power and a group of its allies creates conditions for the survival of small and medium-sized states, even in the absence of objective reasons for this.
The idea of the “end of history” was so convincing that we could accept it as a structural factor, so powerful that it would allow us to overcome even the most severe objective circumstances.
The Cold War era created the experience of the emergence and development of new countries, which until quite recently had been European colonies. Despite the fact that there are a few “success stories” among the countries that emerged after 1945, few have been able to get out of the catch-up development paradigm. However, it was precisely 30 years ago that there really was a possibility that a unipolar world would be so stable that it would allow the experiment to come to fruition. The visible recipes of the new states being built were ideal from an abstract point of view, just as Victor Frankenstein was guided by a desire for the ideal.
Let us recall that the main idea of our report was that Russia needs to preserve the independence of the states surrounding it and direct all its efforts to ensure that they become effective powers, eager to survive. This desire for survival is seen as the main condition for rational behaviour, i.e. creating a foreign policy, which takes into account the geopolitical conditions and the power composition of Eurasia. In other words, we believe that Russia is interested in the experiment that emerged within the framework of the Liberal World Order taking place under new conditions, since its own development goals dictate that it avoid repeating its past experience of full control over its neighbours, with which it shares a single geopolitical space.
This idea, let’s not hide it, prompted quite convincing criticism, based on the belief that the modern world does not create conditions for the emergence of states where such an experience is absent in more or less convincing forms. For Russia, the challenge is that even if it is technically capable of ensuring the immediate security of its national territory, the spread of the “grey zone” around its borders will inevitably bring problems that the neighbours themselves are not able to solve.
The striking analogy proposed by one colleague was the “hallway of hell” that Russia may soon face on its southern borders, making us raise the question that the absence of topographic boundaries within this space makes it necessary to create artificial political or even civilisational lines, the protection of which in any case will be entrusted to the Russian soldier. This January we had the opportunity to look into this “hallway of hell”. There is no certainty that the instant collapse of a state close to Russia in the darkest periods of its political history should be viewed as a failure in development, rather than a systemic breakdown of the entire trajectory, inevitable because it took shape amid completely different conditions.
Therefore, now Russia should not try to understand what its further strategy might be; in any case, particular behaviour will be determined by circumstances. Our task is to explore the surrounding space in order to understand where Russia can stop if it does not want to resort to the historical paradigm of its behaviour. The developments in Kazakhstan, in their modern form, do not create any grounds for optimism or hopes for a return to an inertial path of development. Other states may follow Ukraine and Kazakhstan even if they now look quite confident. There are no guarantees — and it would be too great a luxury for Russia to accept such a fate.
This is primarily because the Russian state will inevitably face a choice between being ready for several decades of interaction with a huge “grey zone” along the perimeter of its borders and more energetic efforts to prevent its emergence. It is unlikely that Moscow would simply observe the processes taking place on its immediate periphery. This is not a hypothetical invasion of third forces — that does not pose any significant threat to Russia. The real challenge may be that in a few decades, or sooner, Moscow will have to take on an even greater responsibility, which Russia got rid of in 1991. Even now, there seems to be a reason to believe that thirty years of independence have made it possible to create elements of statehood that can be preserved and developed with the help of Russia.
from our partner RIAC
Do as You’re Told, Russia Tells the Neighborhood
The Kremlin has always argued that it has special interests and ties to what once constituted the Soviet space. Yet it struggled to produce a smooth mechanism for dealing with the neighborhood, where revolutionary movements toppled Soviet and post-Soviet era political elites. Popular movements in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and most recently Kazakhstan have flowered and sometimes triumphed despite the Kremlin’s rage.
Russia’s responses have differed in each case, although it has tended to foster separatism in neighboring states to preclude their westward aspirations. As a policy, this was extreme and rarely generated support for its actions, even from allies and partners. The resultant tensions underlined the lack of legitimacy and generated acute fear even in friendlier states that Russia one day could turn against them.
But with the activation of the hitherto largely moribund six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Kazakhstan seems to be an entirely different matter. Here, for the first time since its Warsaw Pact invasions, Russia employed an element of multilateralism. This was designed to show that the intervention was an allied effort, though it was Russia that pulled the strings and contributed most of the military force.
CSTO activation is also about something else. It blurred the boundaries between Russia’s security and the security of neighboring states. President Vladimir Putin recently stated the situation in Kazakhstan concerned “us all,” thereby ditching the much-cherished “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the internal affairs of neighboring states. The decision was also warmly welcomed by China, another Westphalia enthusiast.
In many ways, Russia always wanted to imitate the US, which in its unipolar moment used military power to topple regimes (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and to restore sovereignty (in Kuwait.) Liberal internationalism with an emphasis on human rights allowed America and its allies to operate with a certain level of legitimacy and to assert (a not always accepted) moral imperative. Russia had no broader ideas to cite. Until now. Upholding security and supporting conservative regimes has now become an official foreign policy tool. Protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan helped the Kremlin streamline this vision.
Since Russia considers its neighbors unstable (something it often helps to bring about), the need for intervention when security is threatened will now serve as a new dogma, though this does not necessarily mean that CSTO will now exclusively serve as the spearhead of Russian interventionist policy in crises along its borders. On the contrary, Russia will try to retain maneuverability and versatility. The CSTO option will be one weapon in the Kremlin’s neighborhood pacification armory.
Another critical element is the notion of “limited sovereignty,” whereby Russia allows its neighbors to exercise only limited freedom in foreign policy. This is a logical corollary, since maneuverability in their relations with other countries might lead to what the Kremlin considers incorrect choices, like joining Western military or economic groupings.
More importantly, the events in Kazakhstan also showed that Russia is now officially intent on upholding the conservative-authoritarian regimes. This fits into a broader phenomenon of authoritarians helping other authoritarians. Russia is essentially exporting its own model abroad. The export includes essential military and economic help to shore up faltering regimes.
The result is a virtuous circle, in the Kremlin’s eyes. Not only can it crush less than friendly governments in its borderlands but it also wins extensive influence, including strategic and economic benefits. Take for instance Belarus, where with Russian help, the dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka managed to maintain his position after 2020’s elections through brutality and vote-rigging. The end result is that the regime is ever-more beholden to Russia, abandoning remnants of its multi-vector foreign policy and being forced to make financial and economic concessions of defense and economics to its new master. Russia is pressing hard for a major new airbase.
A similar scenario is now opening up in Kazakhstan. The country which famously managed to strike a balance between Russia and China and even work with the US, while luring multiple foreign investors, will now have to accept a new relationship with Russia. It will be similar to Belarus, short of integration talks.
Russia fears crises, but it has also learned to exploit them. Its new approach is a very striking evolution from the manner in which it handled Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, through the Belarus and Armenia-Azerbaijan crises in 2020 to the Kazakh uprising of 2022.
Russia has a new vision for its neighborhood. It is in essence a concept of hierarchical order with Russia at the top of the pyramid. The neighbors have to abide by the rules. Failure to do so would produce a concerted military response.
Author’s note: first published in cepa
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