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Kazakhstan’s Snap Election Affirm Nazarbayev’s Power in Uncertain Environments

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The Kazakhstan snap Parliamentary elections were held on 20 March 2016. The snap elections were called amidst economic turmoil and fears that the Kazakhstan government would lose voter and public confidence because of the economic situation in Kazakhstan.

The elections will solidify autocratic President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s rule over the country and make it appear that he has the unwavering support of the people of Kazakhstan. Reports of crackdown of dissent suggest otherwise. The crackdowns, aimed at political dissidents and non-conformists to President Nazarbayev’s policies, is a way to control civil unrest and silence critics which is a longstanding criticism of the Nazarbayev Administration.

The elections did not generate significant differences in the country’s political landscape which has remained relatively unchanged since Nazarbayev gained power in 1989. Arguably, the elections are part of Nazarbayev’s attempts to make Kazakhstan appear as a democratic country and are part of “managed democracy.” The elections are being held against the backdrop of a failing economy, fluctuating tenge, low oil revenue prices and the oil market crash, political dissent, and Nazarbayev’s need to be reaffirmed by the people of Kazakhstan. The election will also show regional countries that Kazakhstan handle economic problems and is a reliable partner. Nazarbayev’s victory was predictable and negative implications stemming from a minor Parliamentary mix-up are non-existent.

A Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) mission monitored the elections. Kazakhstan’s past elections have fallen short of international standards citing lack of competitive candidates and corruption. As many as 234 candidates from the following six parties vied for 98 available parliament seats: the ruling Nur Otan party and the Party of President Nursultan Nazarbayev (127 candidates), Ak Zhol (35 candidates), Auyl (19 candidates), the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan (22 candidates), the Nationwide Social Democratic Party (23 candidates) and the Birlik party (eight candidates). Over 1,000 candidates are running for seats in the lower Parliament. Not much has changed as the other parties platforms do not vary that greatly. Political parties are prohibited from forming blocks.

According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the results of the March 20, 2016, parliamentary elections show, “that three parties will have seats in the Majlis[:]Nur-Otan got 82.15 percent of the vote; Ak Zhol, 7.18 percent; and the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan took 7.14 percent.” These results are similar to the 2012 Parliamentary elections which highlights the lack of political variety and true democracy in the country. The elections were hailed a success by regional organizations, the SCO and the CIS. The ODIHR did not agree as Kazakhstan has a long way to go to fulfill its democratic agreement.

International observers were not surprised at the results. As early voting commenced on Sunday, the Kazakh Central Election Committee, stated that the elections were transparent. The OSCE have been heavily involved as “the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission opened in Astana on17 February, with an11 member core team and 28 long-term-observers deployed throughout the country.”

Whether or not the elections will expedite the reforms or guarantee implementation, the economy continues to slow. If Nur Otan retains its majority in Kazakhstan’s Parliament, the speed of implementation would not be effected. The snap elections directly are not being held to give the government a mandate on “100 steps.” The legitimacy of “100 steps” is derived from the President and support from Parliament and the overall willingness to reform Kazakhstan. Fifty-nine laws have already entered into force citing information from the Astana Times.

The snap elections center on economic recovery and political change. The snap elections are supported by the Majlis, and the miners and metallurgists to allow for “further implementation of reforms,” under Plan of the Nation (or “100 Steps”) and to “understand how we work in a new way, what laws should be adopted to meet the requirements of a market economy,” according to the Kazakh BNews news portal. The Head of the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan (APK) stated elections will benefit the country politically and economically. Kazakhstan’s People’s Democratic Patriotic Party, known as “Aul” Party, also supports the snap elections. Support from Aul makes the elections and the decision not so one-sided appear pluralistic. The Astana Times, published astonishing, but not surprising, poll results about voting in a new Majlis and reforms: “92 percent of citizens believe the early elections make the public more confident the new reforms will be implemented.” Other poll results are similar.

Recently, on 12 January 2016, protests were held in Astana against the Kazakh Bank and the falling tenge. In response, the Kazakh government offered powdered mare’s milk on the global market which “can generate product worth $1 billion (a year)” to mitigate declining global oil prices. Another recent incident was the firing of the Sovereign Wealth Fund manager, Berik Otemurat, stated Kazakhstan’s National Oil Fund would run out in the next six or seven years. The National Oil Fund, often used as an emergency fund, has fallen 17% from $77 billion since August 2014 and the government is withdrawing about according to the Wall Street Journal. The tenge strengthened slightly in February after the currency declined after the government began to float the currency and the country is still experiencing weakened GDP growth. By mid-March the tenge has recovered by 10%.

Two activists in Kazakhstan, Serizkhan Mambetalin and Ermek Narymbaev, were convicted and sent to prison for two and three years respectively for Facebook posts “inciting national discord” (Article 174 of the Criminal Code) and the “authorities claimed the clips amounted to a ‘serious crime against peace and security of humankind’ ” according to Human Rights Watch. The two men were arrested in October 2015 and their trial began 9 December 2015. A third activist, Bolatbek Blyalov, has movement restricted for three years and cannot “[change] his place of residence or work, or [spend] time in public areas during his time off.” The punishment for the three activists violates many of Kazakhstan’s international commitments. On 22 February, the head of the Union of Journalists of Kazakhstan National Press Club, Seitkazy Matayev, was arrested on charges of corruption—accused of tax evasion and embezzlement of funds. According to TengrinNews, “the state anti-corruption agency said Matayev was detained along with his son Aset Matayev who heads the private KazTAG news agency.” Seitkazy Matayev was President Nazarbayev’s press secretary from 1991 to 1993. The Committee on Protecting Journalists reported that the Mateyevs sent statements to Adil Soz (a local press group) indicated harassment by city and state authorities began in January 2016.

There was also a recent protest in Almaty on 18 March 2016 about the incarceration of activist Yermek Narymbayev, one of the facebook activists, jailed for incitement ethnic strife (Kazakhstan Criminate Code Article 174).

Kazakhstan repeatedly has fallen short of commitments for democratic reforms (particularly press freedoms) and instead has strengthened Nazarbayev’s soft authoritarianism. Edward Schatz categorizes Kazakhstan as a soft authoritarian regime that engages in managed information and “[discourages] opposition and [encourages] pro-regime authorities.” Information management, according to Schatz, is not only through media, but by staging “many events to convey information dramatically.” Nazarbayev has a history of staging political events. Applying this notion to snap elections, Kazakhstan’s citizens know of the economic troubles. Snap elections are unnecessary to highlight the problem and snap elections give the impression the government is actively handling the problem and that political change is imminent.

Kazakhstan does consider itself a democracy and whether or not Kazakhstan’s democracy meets international standards will be revealed once institutions are strengthened. The Kazakhstan-based Astana Times calls the 20 March elections the first step towards returning “to the levels of growth and prosperity we experienced.” Constitutional reforms may give more power to the lower house, redistributing more power from the strong Presidential system the country now has (in theory).

Poor economic conditions are simple a pretext for squashing dissent and reducing political opposition. The poor economic conditions should be viewed as an opportunity to engage and strengthen civil society, establish dialogue between the government and non-governmental organizations, strengthen financial institutions, and explore alternatives in the energy sector. The crash of the commodities and oil markets presents Kazakhstan a unique opportunity to diversify its economy. The elections also present the opportunity to implement electoral reform as Nazarbayev has not picked a successor which greatly increases political instability and the possible formation of a power vacuum.

Kazakhstan during its time as the Chair for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has failed to live up to its democratic obligations. The early Presidential elections of April 2015 showed that democratic reforms have yet to materialize. However, failure of democratization (all-encompassing to include media and political rights) and constant criticism has not stopped Kazakhstan from taking on the role of an international mediator on many high-profile conflicts—Iran and Syria—and from becoming a reliable and cooperative economic, trade, and security partners to its neighbors. Kazakhstan’s slow rise on the stage fuel autocratic behaviors.

Kazakhstan’s elections, while varied, reflect Kazakhstan’s wavering commitment to democracy and lack of party pluralism. Snap elections and early Presidential elections provide an opportunity for Kazakhstan to slowly implement electoral reforms and most importantly media reforms. Kazakhstan’s Election Law is weak as it does provide for equal party distribution and fails to provide a concrete and non-ambiguous criteria for campaign finance.

Samantha M. Brletich is a researcher and writer specializing in Central Asia and governance, security, terrorism, and development issues. She possesses a Master’s in Peace Operations Policy from George Mason University in Virginia, United States. She works with the virtual think tank Modern Diplomacy specializing in Central Asia and diplomatic trends. Her work has appeared in multiple publications focused on diplomacy and Central Asia respectively. She is currently an employee of the U.S. Federal Government.

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Central Asia

China and Russia Build a Central Asian Exclusion Zone

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Last month, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted the China+Central Asia Foreign Ministers’ meeting in the Chinese city of Xi’an. This is the second such meeting, which increasingly focuses (with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan) on geopolitical issues. More broadly, it signals China’s lack of concern for what Russia considers its vital economic and political interests in the region. Top of the agenda was Afghanistan, as China worries about possible spillover to Central Asia and its eastern provinces as U.S. and allied troops prepare to evacuate in September.

Yet the greatest issue in Central Asia’s changing geopolitical landscape is economics and trade. China promised a number of new projects during the Xi’an gathering. Increased cooperation was pledged in agriculture, health and education, trade, energy, transportation, and even archaeology. More importantly, China vowed to help Kyrgyzstan to alleviate its debt pile and pressed it to approve a railroad linking China to Uzbekistan. Set to play a major role in connecting China with the Middle East and South Caucasus, the project has seen constant delays. Partly, that is due to economic and political troubles in Kyrgyzstan, but Russia too is partly responsible, fearing the corridor would divert a significant portion of transit cargo from its railroad tracks. Regardless, the direction of travel is clear: each economic agreement makes the region more closely aligned to China.

China has recognized that large and unwieldy summits often fail to provide the expected results and now increasingly favors small meetings. It does the same with other regions, including South-East Asia. This is far more efficient and as by far the biggest power in the room, it can dominate the agenda and outcome.

Naturally, these developments have a significant effect on Russia, the traditional powerbroker in Central Asia, and invites the question of whether it has been eclipsed. It certainly maintains significant military capabilities — recently improved — through bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and intermittent military cooperation with the region’s other countries. Russia is also a powerful economic player: it is a major trade partner for the five states, a vital source of investment, and a significant source of remittances from Central Asian migrant workers. Furthermore, Russia has joint security and economic initiatives in the region such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Last but not least, the region is close culturally to Russia through the use of Russian as the lingua franca.

China has taken aim at every sphere of Russia’s influence, and it would be surprising if these developments did not cause grievances. Certainly, there is a growing narrative in the West about an impending geopolitical showdown between the two sides in Central Asia.

The reality, however, might be more nuanced and the analysis mere wishful thinking.

To understand the nature of the China-Russia competition in Central Asia it is crucial to look into the evolving world order and what non-liberal powers seek to achieve. One of the peculiarities of the post-liberal order is the extreme regionalization of geopolitically sensitive areas. Large powers neighboring the region seek to exclude third powers. Russia pursues it successfully in the South Caucasus where together with Turkey and partially Iran, it seeks to dislodge the collective West. A similar process is underway in Syria and can be applied to the South China Sea, where China tries to settle territorial problems directly with its neighbors and without U.S. involvement.

Appearances might be deceptive. Russia and China are competitors, but they are unlikely to turn into rivals. The West should reconsider some fundamental aspects of its thinking in regards to this Central Asian partnership.

Engagement with Central Asia could certainly help, and its absence would simply hand over Central Asia to the two powers. The region is in a dire need of rebalancing, and more room to maneuver. Both Russia and China are appreciated and feared in Central Asia. The West’s position will be critical though, and it must formulate a coherent strategy for economic and political engagement with Central Asia, or be locked out.

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Central Asia

Kazakhstan under President Tokayev – transformation in all spheres

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Around two years ago, a change of leadership took place in Kazakhstan, when Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took over as Head of State following presidential elections. Since then, numerous reforms have been implemented in the country. Prior to these elections, Nursultan Nazarbayev was the president for almost three decades until 2019 and built a foundation that enabled Kazakhstan to become the biggest economy and top investment destination in the region. Under Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan also managed to build good relations with all its neighbours, as well as with Europe and the United States.

There has been a shift in focus after 2019. President Tokayev is concentrating not just on economic reforms and foreign relations, but also on political changes in the country. Prior to change in leadership, the country primarily focused on economic development and investment attraction. Indeed, Kazakhstan still has the ambition to become one of the top 30 most developed countries in the world.  Yet according to Kazakhstan’s current president, political changes are necessary to achieve economic development. One may wonder why these reforms matter outside of Kazakhstan. Yet the country is the top trading partner in Central Asia for the European Union and plays a key role in facilitating trade between China and the rest of the world through the Belt and Road project. Kazakhstan is also a founding member of the Eurasian Economic Union and is an active member of the international community, supporting the United States, Russia and other global powers in the resolution of conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan. Ultimately, the political and economic course of Kazakhstan impacts not only the country itself, but also the wider region and beyond.

One of Tokayev’s most significant changes is bringing the population closer to politics, and establishing what he calls “a listening state” – a government that listens to the feedback and criticisms of the population. To enhance dialogue between the government and the people, a National Council of Public Trust was established by Tokayev in 2019. Its aim is to develop specific proposals for reforms and legislation, taking into account the suggestions of civil society and the wider public. Making the national and local government more accountable improves its effectiveness and enables it to better fight long-lasting problems, such as corruption. In this regard, the country’s legal system has been transformed by transitioning it to a service model of work, which calls for a more active and responsible role for law enforcement personnel.

Public administration also required substantial reform as it is plagued by serious bureaucracy. As such, Tokayev instructed the government to reduce the number of civil servants by 25% while also hiring younger cadres. The President, who himself frequently uses social media, also made it a priority to digitise government services to increase efficiency.

In addition to political reforms, Tokayev has prioritised diversifying the economy to avoid excessive dependence on natural resources. For this reason, despite the lure of focusing on oil, gas, uranium and other raw materials that Kazakhstan exports, Tokayev has instructed the government to maximise the potential of agriculture, especially due to the fact that Kazakhstan neighbours China and other rapidly developing Asian countries, which require vast amount of seeds, grains and livestock.

Social reforms have also been realised. Tokayev recently stressed that “economic reforms are justified and supported only when they increase the income of a country’s citizens and ensure higher standards of living”. In practice this means protecting the most vulnerable, as well as individuals and companies that depend on loans to start a business. As such, Tokayev is aiming to expand the amount of bank loans, and direct them to companies that increase value by means of innovation, while reducing the number of inefficient enterprises run by the state. To support those that suffered the most from the economic consequences of the pandemic, the president offered his support to cancel penalties for bank loans.

Another interesting social measure that is likely to have long-term effect is Tokayev’s attempt to gradually revert the idea that higher education should be the ultimate goal of every student. Instead, Tokayev aims to reduce the number of universities to promote vocational centres and colleges that teach specific technical skills. The belief is that this is necessary in order to adapt to the needs of the market, which requires a variety of specialists.

Overall, while it is too early to assess the long-term impact of Tokayev’s presidency and his reform programme, it is clear that he is trying to fight old demons domestically, by shifting Kazakhstan away from old Soviet thinking and system of governance. The interplay between the domestic and external challenges aggravated by the test of COVID-19 and its consequences, will demonstrate whether Tokayev’s reforms are strong enough to help the country cope with the new era.

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Central Asia

The Turkish Konrul: How Ankara Uses the Turkic Council to Re-Engage in Central Asia

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The countries of Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — are divided between the remaining influence of Russia, the heir of the Soviet Union, which plays a considerable cultural and military role (e.g., within the Collective Security Treaty Organization) in the region, and the growing economic influence of China. Nevertheless, this apparent bipolar balance is incomplete, as the weight of a third country, Turkey, needs to be taken into consideration when we speak about the future of Central Asia.

Although Ankara is not in close geographical proximity to the region or has no nuclear arsenal, and therefore cannot be considered a superpower like Moscow and Beijing, it has managed to maintain its influence in Central Asia for several centuries—thanks to religion (Islam) and the Turkish language, whose significant impact is still felt in the region. Therefore, whereas China is now the first economic partner in the area, while Moscow is in charge of regional security, it is Turkey that has the most considerable soft power, an asset Erdogan is trying to reinforce through the Cooperation Council of the Turkic-Speaking States (the Turkic Council) to increase its global influence.

While it offers an alternative to the vision of a Central Asia under the bipolar influence of Moscow and Beijing, the Turkic Council is no less imperfect, as this article aims to show, but it has potential for development that might open up Central Asia and bring it closer to the Middle East, while allowing Turkey to reconnect with the glorious history of the Ottoman Empire.

In the end, it is through the Turkic Council that Ankara could become a global power again and, like the Konrul (a Turkish version of the Western phoenix), assert itself as a great power on the international scene, without having to resort to obtaining any nuclear arsenal.

The Turkic Council in the spotlight

The Turkic Council is an international organization founded on October 3, 2009 in Nakhchivan in Azerbaijan, comprising some of the Turkic countries—states which are Turkic-speaking, of Turkic origins, or both—consisting of Turkey, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, so to say most of Central Asia.

It is noteworthy that the idea for the Council did not come from Turkey, which at the time was mainly focused on EU integration, but emerged from Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2006, the same political leader who proposed the idea of a Eurasian Union, which became a reality in 2015.

The premise was simple enough at the time. Countries, like Kazakhstan, needed to find a way to be connected to the rest of the world. While the Eurasian Union could increase the economic and military relations with Russia, the Turkic Council would represent the cultural and religious interests of the Central Asian countries.

As many of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s projects, the Eurasian Union and the Turkic Council have moved on. The Eurasian Union has turned into a solely economic co-operation, and the Turkic Council is struggling with integrating states such as Turkmenistan, which is currently not a member of the Council because of its neutral status.

Nevertheless, the Council is among the fastest growing international organizations, and on 30 April 2018 it was announced that Uzbekistan would join. The country attended the summit of the organization before officially applying for membership on 12 September 2019.

Interest is growing and since the end of 2018, Hungary has had observer status and could potentially apply for full membership. Furthermore, in 2020, the Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister, Emine Ceppar, stated that Ukraine wanted to be an observer like Hungary. Meanwhile, on 3 May 2021, Afghanistan officially applied for observer status. Overall, the potential is impressive as Turkish influence in the world remains substantial and could interest some countries with Turkic minorities, such as Gagauzia in Moldova, and possibly states, such as Germany, due to the Turkish diaspora (3-7 million people of Turkish origin currently live in Germany).

Differences between the participating states are evident, and while the Central Asian states are interested in membership to avoid dependence on Russia and China, some countries, such as Azerbaijan, are doing so to strengthen the relationship with Turkey and gain more support in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In its turn, Hungary is prospecting alternatives to the European Union.

The projects are clustered into six cooperation areas: economy, culture, education, transport, customs and diaspora. Examples of projects include the establishment of the Turkish University Union and the drafting of a common history textbook. The Turkic Council is also working on ways to stimulate economic development and functions as an umbrella organization for cooperation mechanisms such as:

– Parliamentary Assembly of the Turkic Speaking Countries (TURKPA) in Baku;

– International Organisation of Turkic Culture (TURKSOY) in Ankara;

– International Turkic Academy in Nur-Sultan;

– Turkic Cultural Heritage Fund;

– Center of Nomadic Civilisations in Bishkek;

– Turkic Business Council in Istanbul.

Unlike many other international organizations, the Council presents itself with labels of ‘family’ and ‘brotherhood,’ emphasizing the difference with the Western world. As such, the ties between members are rooted in blood and Islam, certainly a more emotional component than in the case of the EU or the Eurasian Economic Union.

FinTech and crypto-currencies: A missed opportunity

In 2021, there are no plans to establish a digital currency or to adopt a common crypto-currency for all Council members. This approach may come as a surprise, as each member country has its own currency with significant fluctuation rates, which hinders the implementation of common projects and exchanges, in fine leading to the adoption of the U.S. dollar for large-scale projects.

The adoption of a new or existing crypto-currency (e.g., Stellar), whether centralized or decentralized, by all the states of the Turkic Council would strengthen economic cooperation between the members. Turkey’s recent attitude on this issue in the spring of 2021 could nonetheless delay the adoption of this technology.

A Turkish or Central Asian institution?

Looking at all elements, one can argue that Ankara is the main country interested in the Council because it remains the largest military, economic and demographic power there. Moreover, it reinforces Turkish influence, as joining the European Union is not a target to Ankara anymore.

Nonetheless, from the Central Asian states’ perspective, the Council seems to be more of a Kazakh project because it avoids the containment of Central Asia and provides an alternative to the two surrounding giants, Moscow and Beijing. As such, Central Asian states strengthening their ties with Turkey aims to ensure respect for Muslim values and develop new partnerships to export gas abroad, with Turkey being a large market. The Turkic Council thus seems to represent the variety of interests in the region, with each country having an interest in joining it.

A modern view of Islam?

Another interesting element is that the Turkic Council promotes a different view of Islam, which can be seen as a ‘soft’ Islam. The member states of the Turkic Council are less fundamentalist than the countries in the Middle East and there is no ban on alcohol consumption, while many families are monogamous. This is crucial as it could have an impact on the practice of Islam amongst prospective new member states, such as Afghanistan.

While Western organizations often enter into confrontation with the Muslim world (e.g., Iran-United States relations), the Turkic Council might present a better way to engage with other Muslim countries, as it is a softer version of Islam that nevertheless shares the same religious beliefs.

Opportunities and challenges of the Turkic Council

Although it has ambitions, the Council remains a complementary alliance and cannot substitute for security organizations (NATO for Turkey and the CSTO for the Central Asian states). Moreover, while it strengthens economic partnerships, China remains the main actor in Central Asia, and it is not possible for the Council to become an alternative to establishing commercial ties with Beijing.

The same is true for Azerbaijan, and while Baku has received support from the Muslim world in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the main decision-maker on the outcome of this conflict remains the Kremlin, as Russia is a nuclear superpower.

Another limitation of cooperation is that Beijing may want to strengthen its soft power in Central Asia in the coming years. So far, China has accepted to remain a mere economic power (with an attempt to strengthen its military power in the Wakhan corridor). Nevertheless, Beijing is expected to take a more active soft power approach by increasing its investment in promoting Confucianism and the Chinese language around the world, and more so in its neighborhood.

The Turkic Council has carried out many valuable projects, particularly in the field of education, and while its potential remains substantial, the Council’s members must ensure that it will work in line with Chinese interests in Central Asia and the Middle East to avoid a confrontation.

Ultimately, the Turkic Council is a valuable tool for building up Turkish religious approach and soft power in Central Asia, but the economy and the implementation of cutting-edge technologies are likely to remain in Chinese hands, while Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union are complementary and might contribute to the emergence of a tripolar order in the region.

From our partner RIAC

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