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Russia self-trapped in Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

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Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two Russia-backed breakaway regions of Georgia were recognized by Russia as independent states following the Russia-Georgia war of August, 2008 in a hasty and emotional rather than rational move. The recognition must be reviewed in the light of the annexation of Crimea and the two brutal and bloody wars Russia had waged against its own breakaway region Chechnya.

Considering the implications of the Crimean annexation, the Chechen conflict and the recent Russian behavior in Syria what the Russian perspective on Abkhazia and South Ossetia is? I argue that the Russia perspective is awkward while the implications of the Crimean annexation and the Chechen conflict are that Abkhazia and South Ossetia have appeared to be in a humble position. Yet due to Russia’s behavior on the Syrian crisis, the international community is likely to regard the independence of Russia-backed Abkhazia and South Ossetia more adversely.

To justify its annexation of the Crimea and recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian leaders have repeatedly and publicly stated that Kosovo declared independence and was recognized by western nations, why not Crimea, why not Abkhazia, why not South Ossetia. With Russia’s own advocating and recognition of secessionist regimes in the post-soviet space like Abkhazia and South Ossetia based on the Russian elite’s “why not” logic may well retrigger a wave of national movements like the past Chechen movement by the force of the same logic: Crimea seceded from Ukraine, Abkhazia and South Ossetia seceded from Georgia and were recognized by Russia, why not Chechnya?!

Russia doesn’t seem to have a valid answer to that question. Although Crimea’s secession from Ukraine may be regarded as encouragement for Chechens, who advocate Chechnya’s secession from the Russian Federation, Crimea’s annexation by Russia sends a crystal-clear and strong message: one may secede from others but Russia and may be annexed to none but Russia.

Then, what about Abkhazia and South Ossetia? It is 8 years on that Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been recognized by Russia as independent states. The question of secession and independence may be raised not only by Chechnya but also other Muslim regions of ‘multi-national and multi-faith’ Russia. Such scenario may end up in fatal effects on Russia’s national security and territorial integrity because the independence of a Russian autonomous republic could represent a precedent for other Russian regions to follow. Therefore, it could have been logical to expect Russia to favour Georgia’s territorial integrity and national sovereignty because Russia has quite a few autonomous republics that are prone to secessionism. But it did act contrary to expectation.

A vital nuance here is that Georgia had taken orientation towards the Euro-Atlantic integration, which may mean the US or NATO military presence on Russia’s borders in future. During the Chechen wars, Russia has repeatedly blamed Georgia for being used by Chechen rebels. Any ‘third-party’ military presence in Georgia is perceived by Moscow as a direct threat to the national security. This perception is amplified by assumptions that such presence could result in more opportunities for secessionists in Russia’s North Caucasus. Secessionist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are like a sky-fallen ‘gift’ for Russia to prevent such scenarios from happening.

So, Russia looks at the future of Abkhazia and South Ossetia through this prism of its national security. Therefore, it is very likely scenario that Russia will aim at annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia at some point in future in a way similar to the Crimean annexation.

What that scenario means for Abkhazia and South Ossetia? These breakaway regions seceded from Georgia to become independent not part or dependent of Russia. They could have been better-off within Georgia rather than within Russia though. Abkhazia and South Ossetia could have better and stronger position in relation to small Georgia rather than to giant Russia where being just one of numerous autonomous republics they could find themselves in a humble position.

Apart from political aspects, even practicalities of the Abkhazian or South Ossetian independence looks troubled. Yet there is North Ossetia within Russia. Probably, one day North Ossetia and South Ossetia would like to be united. No doubt that Russia will not afford for them to unite as a nation independent of Russia. So, in the best case scenario they would be able to unite within Russia.

The populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia fluctuates around 240,000 and 60,000 accordingly. These tiny populations are not homogenously Abkhazian or Ossetian. The demographic compositions are ethnically and religiously very diverse. Abkhazians and South Ossetians sound furious about the Georgian nationalism and obsessed with promoting their ethnic, linguistic and cultural identity. That is good undertaking. But it is not unambiguous, is it? Abkhazia and South Ossetia are both inhabited by other ethnicities like Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Armenians, Jews, Turks, etc. if that identity is so vital, why they are not appealed to other ethnicities as well?!

Furthermore, there is domestic opposition to unification with Russia in particular in Abkhazia. Russia doesn’t seem to be attractive to Abkhazia. As a result of the Russian military campaign in Chechnya, the number of Chechen civilian casualties is estimated around 200,000-300,000, which roughly equals to total populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Yet the Russia’s record of democracy, rule of law, human rights, freedom of speech, and in particular the rights and powers of autonomous republics is much troubled. All these factors help to explain why ordinary populations as well as arrays of elites in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia would oppose to unification with Russia or at least would be much divided on unification with Russia. Yet, these regions are heavily dependent on subsidies from Moscow. And they have become more isolated from the international community after the Russian-Georgian war of August, 2008. And nowadays those breakaway regions even more than ever would feel the consequences of the negative attitude from the western world in response to the annexation of Crimea and Russian behavior on the Syrian crisis. The western response to Russia’s behavior and role in the separatist conflicts on the post-soviet space is much late though.

By recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moscow put itself in an awkward position while ‘helped’ Tbilisi get the rid of the Sword of Damocles hanging over Georgia, which was the fear that Russia could recognize the independence of the breakaway regions. And the proper way to follow for Tbilisi is to continue on its democratic path towards the European integration based on unifying values like democracy, rule of law, human rights, etc. Only in this way Georgia may achieve two important objectives – ensuring the well-being of its citizens and generating power of attraction to mingle with its breakaway regions. Meanwhile Abkhazia and South Ossetia must be ready for political, economic and other turbulences to come. They have become heavily dependent on Russia, which goes through hard times due to plummeting energy prices, international sanctions, and political troubles due to its interventions in Ukraine, Georgia, Syria, and elsewhere.

As Robert Strausz-Hupe famously said “a nation must think before it acts”. Russia should have thought before acting with regard to the recognition of the breakaway regions of Georgia. A consequence of that hasty and emotional decision is that Russia is confronted by a terrible dilemma either to let Abkhazia and South Ossetia go on as independent states or to annex them. Neither way works for the Russian perspective. Independent Abkhazia and South Ossetia represent an undesired precedent for Chechnya and other Russian regions. The annexation could have also bitter consequences: on one hand, it could trigger opposition from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and on the other hand, could cause another wave of international sanctions against Russia, aggravate Russia’s already damaged international reputation, and even more importantly, contribute to depicting Russia as aggressive and hostile on the neighboring post-soviet nations, who has been suffering from or prone to Russian-backed separatist conflicts. To put it differently, Russia looks like self-trapped in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The conclusion is that the Russian perspective on Abkhazia and South Ossetia appears to be awkward and humble despite the defiant rhetoric of the Kremlin. And the phrase that best describes the situation with Abkhazia and South Ossetia is ‘poor present, uncertain future’.

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The Art of Expectation Management

Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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It is evident that Vladimir Putin yearns for a meeting with Donald Trump. He has always desired this meeting — since the day Trump had won the presidential election in November of 2016. The Kremlin would have apparently preferred an early summit to take place in spring of last year. However, the first full-fledged bilateral negotiations between the US and the Russian leaders will take place only year and a half after Trump’s inauguration. It will take place and after Donald Trump has already met not only with nearly every single president or prime minister from allied Western nations, but also with President of China Xi Jinping and even with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Following a Russian proverb, “better late than never”. Vladimir Putin takes the forthcoming event in Helsinki very seriously. Unlike his US counterpart, he can afford not to care much about the domestic political opposition, moods in the legislature, and he has no Russian Robert Mueller following him closely. Still, it does not mean that sky is the limit for Putin’s aspirations and ambitions in Helsinki. There are certain limitations on what the Russian side can realistically hope for as the summit takeaways.

First, for Trump Russia remains a toxic asset back at home and this is no secret in the Kremlin.

Second, Putin should be very cautious in trying to drive a wedge between Donald Trump and his European allies.

Third, Putin has to keep in mind possible negative reactions to a new rapprochement with Trump coming from Russia’s traditional partners and allies all over the world.

In view of all these limitations, the Russian side is not in a position to offer too much to US in Helsinki or to expect a true revolution in the relationship.

The current positions of Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are asymmetrical. Anything but a clear and decisive US success will be considered a failure in Washington. Anything but a clear and decisive Russian failure will be considered a success in Moscow. This asymmetry is a complicating factor, but it should not necessarily prevent the meeting in Helsinki from tuning into a diplomatic victory for both sides.

It is evident that Vladimir Putin yearns for a meeting with Donald Trump. He has always desired this meeting — since the day Trump had won the presidential election in November of 2016. The Kremlin would have apparently preferred an early summit to take place in spring of last year. However, the first full-fledged bilateral negotiations between the US and the Russian leaders will take place only year and a half after Trump’s inauguration. It will take place and after Donald Trump has already met not only with nearly every single president or prime minister from allied Western nations, but also with President of China Xi Jinping and even with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Following a Russian proverb, “better late than never”. Vladimir Putin takes the forthcoming event in Helsinki very seriously. Unlike his US counterpart, he can afford not to care much about the domestic political opposition, moods in the legislature, and he has no Russian Robert Mueller following him closely. Still, it does not mean that sky is the limit for Putin’s aspirations and ambitions in Helsinki. There are certain limitations on what the Russian side can realistically hope for as the summit takeaways.

First, for Trump Russia remains a toxic asset back at home and this is no secret in the Kremlin. Any far-reaching Trump-Putin agreement short of a complete and unconditional surrender of Moscow to Washington would meet with a fierce and not always fair criticism within the US foreign policy establishment. The odds are that the Congress would overrule or water it down, and high-ranking bureaucrats within the Administration itself would find a way to sabotage it.

Second, Putin should be very cautious in trying to drive a wedge between Donald Trump and his European allies. It has always been tempting to go for a grand bargain with US above the heads of Europeans. There might be more personal chemistry between the US and the Russian leaders than between any of them and German Chancellor Angela Merkel or UK Prime Minister Theresa May. There might also be a shared Trump-Putin skepticism about the future of the European Union. Nevertheless, in many ways Europe remains indispensable for Moscow. Despite all the recent sanctions and counter-sanctions, EU remains the largest Russia’s trading partner, the prime source of FDIs and new technologies to the country. Moreover, on a number of important international matters – like the Iranian JCPOA — Russia and major European powers stand shoulder to shoulder against the revisionist US. From Putin’s vantage point, European leaders might look stubborn, boring and even antiquated, but most of them still appear to be more reliable compared to the flamboyant and unpredictable US President.

Third, Putin has to keep in mind possible negative reactions to a new rapprochement with Trump coming from Russia’s traditional partners and allies all over the world. How can President Hassan Rouhani interpret it from Tehran? What should Bashar Assad think in Damascus? Nicolas Maduro in Caracas? Above all, how are they likely react in Beijing? The latter should be of particular concern to Vladimir Putin because the meeting in Helsinki takes place against the background of rapidly deteriorating US — Chinese relations.

In view of all these limitations, the Russian side is not in a position to offer too much to US in Helsinki or to expect a true revolution in the relationship. If there is anyone, who might push hard for innovative, out of the box solutions in order to turn the Helsinki summit into an epic event, it should be Donald Trump rather than Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader is more likely to take a cautious approach, keeping in mind that any far-reaching deal between him and Trump would be a risky political investment for both, at least at this particular point.   The most important thing for Putin today is to change the overall dynamics of the US — Russian relationship, indicating the beginning of a new period of gradual normalization.

What does this approach mean for the US-Russian agenda? As for the strategic arms control, it is not evident that this issue is a top priority for the Kremlin these days. Judging by Putin’s March Address to the Federal Assembly, the Russian leader is confident that he can assure national security even in the absence of a US — Russian strategic arms control. However, politically strategic arms control is still important for the Kremlin; it gives Russia a very special status in the international system and puts Moscow on equal footing with Washington. This is one of not to many areas where Moscow can significantly contribute to global commons. The Russian military might lack enthusiasm about the New Start and, especially, about INF, but the political considerations can outweigh skepticism of the military provided that President Trump is also interested in salvaging INF and/or in extending the New Start.

It is impossible not to bring regional issues to the table in Helsinki, but here opportunities are limited as well. Looking from Moscow it is very hard to imagine any US — Russian ‘compromise’ on Ukraine, which would fly on the Hill and would be acceptable to the Kremlin at the same time. On the other hand, the predominant perception in Russia is that nothing significant can be accomplished in Donbas until the end of next year’s election cycle in Ukraine. Finally, the United States is not even a participant to the Normandy process and is not a signatory to the Minsk agreements. All the significance of the Volker-Surkov bilateral consultations notwithstanding, they can hardly be regarded as an efficient alternative to the German and French engagement.

Today, Russia has little to offer to US on the North Korean nuclear matter. It could have played a role of an honest broker on the Korean Peninsula when the relations between Pyongyang and Beijing were at historic lows. After Kim Jong-un’s trip to Beijing and the Chinese-North Korean reconciliation in spring, the window of opportunity shut fast for Russia. In the nearest future Moscow is more likely to follow the Chinese line on the North Korean problem rather than to advance its own innovative ideas.

A potentially more promising subject for conversation is Syria. At minimum, Trump and Putin can agree on future arrangements for the Syrian South-West and on a tactical deal regarding accommodating Syrian Kurds, at maximum — they can give a push to the Geneva process on political settlement. Does Trump intend to convince Putin to drop Russia’s current partnership with Iran and to shift to the ‘right side’ of the conflict? If so, the US President is likely to be disappointed: Iran is simply too important for Moscow in places like Afghanistan, Central Asia and South Caucasus to sacrifice this relationship in order to please Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Saudi King Salman. One should also keep in mind that the ability to keep good relations with all major sides to numerous Middle East conflicts has been a key, if not the key Russia’s comparative advantage in regional politics; with this advantage removed the Russian role in the region is likely to decline sharply.

The US sanctions against Russia might also be a part of the conversation though the official Russia’s position is that it does not conduct any negotiations about sanctions and leaves it up to states-initiators to decide on their sanctions’ future. The last round of US anti-Russian sanctions announced in April included RUSAL, Russia’s largest aluminum producer, and had a substantial negative impact not only on this company, but also on the global aluminum market at large. Vladimir Putin should know pretty well about the US legislative process that makes it impossible for Donald Trump to lift the existing sanctions against Moscow. What he can hope for is some kind of informal pledge from the US executive not to initiate any further increase of the sanction pressure on Russia. Another issue that Russians might wish to discuss in this regard is the modalities of the extraterritorial dimension of US sanctions — a politely sensitive matter that can become a nuisance for both sides.

Vladimir Putin is also well aware of the importance that Americans attach to the “Russia’s interference” into the US political system. Under no circumstances will he confess that such an interference authorized by Russian authorities did take place. The odds are that he will stick to his standard narrative about some unspecified independent actors (“patriotic hackers”) who had nothing to do with the Russian state. Nevertheless, one cannot exclude Putin offering Trump to sign a US-Russian “non-interference pact” — a mutual commitment not to mess with domestic affairs of each other. The problem for the US side is that the term “interference” is likely to be interpreted by the Kremlin in the broadest sense possible — it might include international activities of American NGO, foundations, media outlets, think tanks, Universities and so on. It is not clear how the two leaders can possibly reach a compromise on such a divisive issue.

The last but not the least, the Russian side would like to unlock doors to intergovernmental cooperation or, at least, to intergovernmental communication at various levels and in various fields including more contacts between diplomats, military, state bureaucrats, and intelligence agencies. The Russian Embassy in Washington should stop being a besieged fortress, the paralysis in the visa services on both sides should be dealt with. A symbolic progress in resolving the diplomatic property problem would also be appreciated by Moscow. One of the positive outcomes of Helsinki would be a decision of the two leaders to start planning a next summit meeting — either on the margins of a multilateral gathering like the G20 summit in Argentina or another bilateral event later this year.

In sum, the current positions of Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are asymmetrical. Anything but a clear and decisive US success will be considered a failure in Washington. Anything but a clear and decisive Russian failure will be considered a success in Moscow. This asymmetry is a complicating factor, but it should not necessarily prevent the meeting in Helsinki from tuning into a diplomatic victory for both sides.

First published in our partner RIAC

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Russia warns foreign football fans to voluntarily leave after the end of World Cup

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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As the end of FIFA World Cup draws nearer, Russian authorities have reminded foreign football fans, including those from Africa, participating in the month-long event, to leave voluntarily or face deportation.

Head of Russian Federation of Migrants (RFM), Vadim Kozhinov, a non-government organization that deals with foreign migrants disclosed that “due to the simplified visa regime introduced for the period of the World Cup, some foreign citizens want to take advantage of the legal entry into the territory of the Russian Federation to stay in Russia.”

However, such foreign citizens should understand that, starting from July 26, they would be in Russia illegally and accordingly, such citizens would be deported from the country, he warned. “If among these citizens there are those who have previously been deported, they will be sentenced to imprisonment,” Kozhinov said.

The warning comes as both local and foreign media have reported a number of foreign fans, notably from Asia and Africa, attempting to cross borders illegally into Belarus, Poland, Latvia and Finland to Europe.

Kommersant Daily, a Russian newspaper, has reported that some foreign nationals from Cameroon, Pakistan, Congo, Ghana, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Morocco have been arrested for illegal crossing near Poland border, last week.

Foreign fans have taken advantage of this opportunity to find work abroad or get political asylum. According to human rights activists, foreigners who found themselves in the Russian Federation without money, housing and the opportunity to return home, were turning to them every day with requests for all kinds of assistance.

Yulia Siluyanova, Coordinator of the “Alternative”, a human rights organization, said there had been complaints and requests for assistance from several citizens of Nigeria.

“Every day we take three or four people, but it is obvious that they are much more. The fact is that the Nigerian Embassy knows about us and immediately sends its citizens here for help.”

When GNA contacted, the Nigerian Embassy, the officials said, they were using all possible resources to help their fellow citizens. Nearly a hundred Nigerian football fans could not fly home due to scam, according to reports.

Maria Zakharova, Spokeswoman for Foreign Affairs Ministry (MFA), said at a media briefing that “winding up with no money by the end of the World Cup is not something unique to Nigerians, but all foreign fans who have come to Russia for the World Cup.”

She said that “unfortunately, it is quite natural (and we can confirm this) that when this large and very long sporting event ends all of them must leave the Russian Federation, because the FAN IDs will no longer work.”

“Some fans might wound up without money or return tickets by the end of their stay. This is also natural. Unwanted, but natural. And this is really a problem to be solved by fans, first of all, together with their countries’ diplomatic missions and consulates,” she explained.

Zakharova finally gave a firm warning: “We cannot rule out that some foreign guests are hoping to cross the Russian border, one way or another, often illegally, into a European country during the World Cup. We cannot rule this out. If this action is deemed illegal, then corresponding agencies will take the necessary administrative measures.”

To enter Russia during the tournament, football fans needed to get a “Fan ID”, which was free of charge after buying a ticket for the match. “This document gives the right to multiple visa-free entry, from June 04, until July 15, inclusive, but one must leave the country before July 26.”

The easing of the visa regime had given cause for concern by countries bordering Russia. Lithuania, in June, officially announced the strengthening of border control for fear that the citizens of third countries, using the championship, would try to get into the European Union (EU), illegally.

Russian President, Vladimir Putin, before the start of the FIFA tournament, said in his welcome video address posted to Kremlin website that he wanted the event to be considered as a global family celebration, filled with passion and emotions.

He expressed the hope that all participants and guests were going to have an unforgettable experience, not only watching the matches of their favourite teams and admiring the players’ skills, but also getting to know Russia, learning about its identity and culture, its unique history and natural diversity, its hospitable, sincere and friendly people.

“We have done our best to ensure that all of our guests – the athletes, the staff and, of course, the fans – feel at home in Russia. We have opened both our country and our hearts to the world.”

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Russia: Improving public diplomacy in Africa

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), collaborating with Ministry of Communications, Diplomatic Academy and the Institute for African Studies, plans to launch a short orientation and training programme for senior editors working in the state media organisations in African countries.

The media initiative came up as a follow up to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s discussions during his African tour early March about rolling out a comprehensive strategic roadmap for a more integrated cooperation and find effective ways of improving public diplomacy in Africa.

On May 16, Sergey Lavrov chaired the Foreign Ministry Collegium meeting on the subject “Cooperation with Sub-Saharan African countries as part of implementing important tasks of Russian foreign policy.”

The meeting noted that the consolidation of versatile ties with the Sub-Saharan African countries remains a major part of Russia’s foreign policy strategy, which is acquiring special significance in the context of deep changes in the global arena.

The MFA has released an official document, available to its website, titled “Concept of the Russian Federation on Cooperation with African Media” stresses the need to cooperate with African media as Russia looks forward to strengthening relations and share strategic interests with Africa on international arena.

According to the MFA “the Russian Federation is implementing programmes of cooperation with various African countries which include education, culture, art, the media and sport.”

The Russian Government supports the pilot programme and will be organised for African media groups in two phases: in October and in May, and planned for a two-year period from 2018 to 2020.

The participants from this pilot programme will be at the forefront to highlight or propagate post-Soviet economic and cultural reality, shape the African perception about Russia and raise Russia’s image and reputation among the political and business community and the general population in Africa.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this is the first significant step on media cooperation by the official authorities to address the information gap between the two regions. The initiative particularly seeks to bridge the widening business information gap that has existed and might help strengthen bilateral relations between Africa and Russia.

Experts have acknowledged that, for Russia, there are important geopolitical implications working with Africa and unreservedly praised Russia’s initiative for creating this mechanism for media cooperation and for more diversified aspects of its policy with Africa.

Canadian-Nigerian Professor O. Igho Natufe, Head of Ukraine-African Study Center in Kiev, says looking into the future it is important to continue approaching the relationship beyond natural resources and the economy, and to include soft power, so the move will boost the overall relationship in the long-term since the media has a huge role to play.

Undoubtedly, Natufe further explains that frequent exchange of visits by Russian and African journalists as well as regular publications of economic and business reports could help create public business awareness and raise, to an appreciable level, the understanding of the relationship between Russia and Africa.

Earlier, Dr Olga Kulkova, a Research Fellow at the Moscow based Center for the Study of Russian-African Relations, Institute for African Studies, also pointed out that “more quality information about modern Russia should be reported in Africa. Indisputably, it might take a lot of money and efforts, but the result will pay off.”

“It is excellent to adequately collaborate with African partners and attract Russian business to Africa. Russia ought to take this into account, if it wants to improve the chances for success in Africa,” Kulkova said.

Professor Gerrit Olivier from the Department of Political Science, University of Pretoria in South Africa, noted that “Russian influence in Africa, despite efforts towards resuscitation, remains marginal. The cultural gap (language in particular) is a great handicap. The official visits are mainly opening moves and symbolic and have little long-term concrete results.”

While prioritising Africa now, Russia has to do more, particularly, in the cultural-intellectual field (like China, EU and US) with a view to the longer term and work on its image problem in Africa, Professor Olivier, who previously served as South African Ambassador to the Russian Federation from 1991 to 1996, wrote in an email comment from Pretoria, South Africa.

For decades, a number of foreign countries are cooperating with African media to push their strategic policy interests. For example, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation has fixed China-Africa Press Exchange Center in Shanghai to encourage and promote exchange and visits between Chinese and African media.

In June 2018, China held the Fourth Forum on China-Africa Media Cooperation. A Joint Statement on Further Deepening Exchanges and Cooperation was adopted. During the Johannesburg summit held in 2015, President Xi Jinping said China would implement access to satellite TV for 10,000 African villages and provide training for 1,000 media professionals from Africa.

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