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The Nexus Religion/Nationalism in Today’s Russia: Are the Roots Buried in Dostoevsky’s Novels?

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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“Only one nation is ‘god-bearing,’ that’s the Russian people, and… and…. and can you think me such a fool, Stavrogin, he yelled frantically all at once, that I can’t distinguish whether my words at this moment are the rotten old commonplaces that have been ground out in all the Slavophil mills in Moscow, or a perfectly new saying, the last word, the sole word of renewal and resurrection!”   -Shatov in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed

[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] I [/yt_dropcap]’d like to begin this reflection on the nexus between religion and nationalism in a rather prosaic mode, so to speak, with the empirical facts, as announced by Pew researchers on the subject: roughly a quarter of a century after the fall of the Soviet Union, religion has been resurrected in Russia, as well as 17 other countries formerly under its fist.

Overall, 86 percent of 25,000 respondents interviewed between June 2015 and July 2016 said they believe in God; 59 percent believe in a heaven and 54 percent believe in hell. Just 14 percent fall within the atheists or agnostics category.

In many countries formerly under Soviet rule, religion and national identity are inextricably tied. In Russia, the Orthodox Church is heavily favored, while Polish believers are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic.

Overall, 70 percent of poll respondents in those countries where Orthodoxy is predominant said their national identity was tied to their faith; for Roman Catholics, the percentage was 57.

However, identification with faith does not necessarily translate to strong church attendance. Few respondents to this poll regularly attend worship services; 25 percent of Roman Catholics said they attend weekly Mass, while only 10 percent of Orthodox adherents attend worship at least once a week.

Those statistics strongly imply that three-quarters of a century of official state atheism in the former Soviet Union and its Central and Eastern European satellite nations (from 1917 till 1989) has all but evaporated in a sudden resurgence of faith since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

From 1917, when Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks took power in Russia, until 1991, when the USSR crumbled, religious faith — though technically constitutionally protected — was treated with ambivalence and often persecuted as incompatible with Marxist ideology.

In various ways, the state oppressed religion, Christian and non-Christian alike. Believers often found themselves dismissed from their jobs, clergy imprisoned and sometimes executed or doomed to gulags for perceived disloyalty. This persecution encouraged the emergence of new officially atheistic generations which replaced the believers of old.

This may at first look like a positive development, at least for freedom of religion. But on further analysis one discovers that there is a problem in this rosy social scenario: the entanglement between nationalism as expressed by the State with the official state religion seems to have become all but inextricable. What the US founding fathers dubbed “the separation of Church and State” is also evaporating fast.

Perhaps ironically, Orthodox Christians today see Russia as playing a role in protecting — rather than persecuting — their faith. And most former East bloc, predominantly Orthodox nations agree that “a strong Russia is necessary to balance the influence of the West.” So, it appears that religion (Russian Orthodoxy, in particular) has become a political tool in the hands of Putin’s strategy of “divide and conquer,” another tool, like cyber-war and disinformation, by which to oppose the West alleged to be greedy and corrupt, devoid of moral underpinnings.

In Russia, the same above mentioned poll shows, 85 percent support the idea of their nation being a buffer against the immorality of the West, with that opinion echoed to varying degrees elsewhere in former Iron Curtain countries — from 52 percent in Romania and Georgia to 80 percent and 83 percent in Armenia and Serbia, respectively. The sole exception, as might be expected given current strained relations with Russia, is Ukraine with just 22 percent support for the concept of Orthodoxy as a defense against a corrupt West.

But, staying within the parameters of religion/nationalism, another conundrum surfaces: the resurgence of Russian Orthodoxy, has also brought on the stage increasing resistance to faiths imported from the West. Russian President Vladimir Putin — under the official impetus of cracking down on terrorism — has approved tight restrictions on missionary activity and evangelism by other non-Orthodox faiths. In other words, he does not consider Christianity a universal religion practiced by different denominations and different cultures. In that respect he is violating (like Trump in America) the constitutional violation of equal treatment of all religions.

Hit particularly hard are Pentecostals and evangelical Christians, as well as Latter-day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses, believers who consider themselves Christians and who often have been forced to conduct low-key meetings in homes. Mormon missionaries are now called “volunteers” in order to better downplay their proselytizing motives. Persecution is the air. It is a selective kind of Christianity that is propagandized by the State.

What is conveniently forgotten by this pseudo-religious posture, which amounts to a stealthy cover-up, is that the essential political struggle between Russia and the Atlantic Alliance in the West may have little to do with the struggle between atheism and religion, or between morality and corruption, or secularism against the sacred, but rather between democracy and tyranny.

I’ve already written extensively on this topic of the democratic deficit which may eventually doom both political blocks, with or without religion. What I’d like to do here is to explore the roots of the kernel of truth that exists in the concept that Russia is a substantially different from the corrupt West; that is not invented by Putin’s propaganda machine. Indeed, iIf those roots exist, one will not uncover them by merely listening and following Putin’s nationalistic rhetoric, but by reading the novels of Dostoyevsky, particularly two from which I will quote extensively in this article: The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamozov.

As an intriguing aside, one wonders how many people noticed that while the London Olympics opened up with an image of a train coming down the rail, spewing pollution into the atmosphere to glorify the industrial revolution and the British Empire of old nostalgically resurrected, while Shakespeare was not even mentioned, the Moscow Olympics did not neglect to prominently mention and display Dostoevsky’s picture, as well as that of Tolstoy, as glories of Russia.

Be that as it may, let us begin with an extensive quote from The Possessed. When I first read the novel in college in the 60s it was translated as The Devils. We shall see further down why that translation also makes eminent sense. The quote is the following:

Science and reason have, from the beginning of time, played a secondary and subordinate part in the life of nations; so it will be till the end of time.[underlining mine]. Nations are built up and moved by another force which sways and dominates them, the origin of which is unknown and inexplicable: that force is the force of an insatiable desire to go on to the end, though at the same time it denies that end. It is the force of the persistent assertion of one’s own existence, and a denial of death. It’s the spirit of life, as the Scriptures call it, “the river of living water,” the drying up of which is threatened in the Apocalypse. It’s the aesthetic principle, as the philosophers call it, the ethical principle with which they identify it, “the seeking of God,” as I call it more simply. The object of every national movement, in every people and at every period of its existence is only the seeking for its god, who must be its own god, and the faith in Him as the only true god. God is the synthetic personality of the whole people, taken from its beginning to its end….

You reduce God to a simple attribute of nationality…

I reduce God to the attribute of nationality? cried Shatov. On the contrary, I raise the people to God. And has it ever been otherwise? The people is the body of God. Every people is only a people so long as it has its own god and excludes all other gods on earth irreconcilably…. Such from the beginning of time has been the belief of all great nations, all, anyway, who have been specially remarkable, all who have been leaders of humanity…. The Jews lived only to await the coming of the true God and left the world the true God. The Greeks deified nature and bequeathed the idea of the State to the nations… If a great people does not believe that the truth is only to be found in itself alone (in itself alone and exclusively); if it does not believe that it alone is fit and destined to raise up and save all the rest by its truth, it would at once sink into being ethnographical material, and not a great people…. But there is only one truth, and therefore only a single out of the nations can have the true God, even though other nations may have great gods of their own. Only one nation is “god-bearing,” that’s the Russian people, and… and…. and can you think me such a fool, Stavrogin,’ he yelled frantically all at once, that I can’t distinguish whether my words at this moment are the rotten old commonplaces that have been ground out in all the Slavophil mills in Moscow, or a perfectly new saying, the last word, the sole word of renewal and resurrection!

Is Dostoevsky saying, via the conversation between Shatov and Stavrogin that for man to be saved and fulfill his final destiny he needs to believe in a Russian God? This line of thinking may appear preposterous to the “enlightened” secular intelligence of Western Europe, but notice please that, from the outset, science and reason are declared a secondary and subordinate part of the life of nations. In other words, the rational preoccupations of the age of Enlightenment are not the focus here; they are subordinate to a more encompassing idea; the idea of the search for the ultimate destiny of man.

As Rebecca West has aptly expressed, this is “the inquiry that looks over the shoulder of the man of science at every experiment; it is the preoccupation that sits like a judge in every artist’s brain. The discoveries of science and philosophy have opened such magic casements out of the world of appearances that they have attracted men of imagination, whose impulse it is to find out the beauty and significance of material, as strongly as they have repelled those who have staked their existence on the finality of the Christian revelation. And thus it is that the history of the research for redemption is written not in the liturgies but in literature.” Which is to say, the task may be less theological, of linking with a Greek Orthodox Church (from which derives the Russian Orthodox Church) and more philosophical and literary. And yet, Dostoevsky has that Church in mind, a church that had indeed preserved the kindness of the early church but can also be a calculating institution as many religious institutions indeed are. Just take a good look at the photograph below the title of this article.

As the title of the book The Possessed more than adequately suggests, the near-obsession with the theme of the meaning and final destiny of man’s life, was stimulated by some of the events going on at the time at the hands of the so called Nihilists. Who were the Nihilists in 19th century Russia? They were the likes of Stravogin and Shatov in the Possessed. They do not believe in the God who lives within the shining frames of the Greek icons, or the Orthodox liturgy intoned in a dialect spoken a thousand years ago in a remote corner of Macedonia. There is a strange faith, a difficult faith. At one point of the narration this exchange occurs: “I want to ask you,” asked Stavrogin coldly, “do you believe in God, yourself?” “I believe in Russia,” muttered Shatov frantically, “I believe in her orthodoxy…. I believe in the body of Christ…. I believe that the new advent will take place in Russia…. I believe…” “And in God?” pressed Stavrogin, “in God?” “I… I will believe in God….”

One is tempted to ask: has Dostoevsky too joined in spirit those disordered minds of the time called Nihilists or “disordered saints of the mind”? Those who reasserted with Schopenhauer, that there is a will-to-live which universally guides humanity with a blind sort of genius, and then with Nietzsche doctrine of egotism preached that not only men but entire collectives, entire nations could be strong, super-nations, so to speak, sinless like the angels. Those types called the possessed had become intimately involved in the eternal struggle between the proud and the humble, the original genius and the academic protocol that loves tradition, the militarist nations organized for war and obedience and the pacifist nations which leave themselves open to chaos for the sake of freedom.

Another tempting question: had Dostoevsky allied himself with the proud? The question is prompted by his book The Brothers Karamazov which relates how Christ came to Seville and is condemned to death by the Grand Inquisitor lest he should restore free will to humankind. That would explain his hatred of everything Catholic, a church which preached salvation by the subjection of the will to ecclesiastical authority, what he calls, not unlike Nietzsche, a communion of cowards rather than a communion of saints.

Again, to quote Rebecca West once again: “Dostoevsky hated the materialism of his age, which declared, in the phrase that jangles like a cracked bell through The Possessed, that “the rattle of the carts bringing bread to humanity is more important than the Sistine Madonna,” because it understated the magnificent greeds and appetites of the human animal. He loved Christianity because the willingness for sacrifice is brave, and in the words, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit,” rings such a call to adventure as no other religion has dared to take upon its lips. It behooved a man to be so proud of life that he would honor its young strength in little children; that he would welcome any deed that would make it sweeter, even if it were performed by the clumsy hands of an old man; that he would rejoice at every word that made its meaning clearer, even though it were hiccupped by a drunken convict. It behooved a man to remember that he was part of a nation crowned with the destiny of saving mankind, and to bear himself proudly and busily as one of its ambassadors. So he might be saved.”

And so we arrive at Dostoevsky’s nationalism, which some have misunderstood and confused with that of Putin and his ilk. It has nothing to do with the repression of intelligence and liberty, with the aggressive nationalism of a modern Italy or Germany, or aggressiveness and arrogance in international affairs, or the Machiavellian principles that “might makes right” or “the end justifies the means.”

Then what exactly is Dostoevsky’s brand of nationalism? It might be nothing more than the ancient Greek’s advice to create a society that aims at common good and creates an environment that is suited to the cultivation of the soul and the pursuit of perfection. If mother Russia wanted to be an example to the rest of the world it had to create those conditions.

Dostoevsky seems to imply in The Possessed that tradition is the enemy of science, or vice versa; but all he might be saying is that if one deprives an individual of his heritage and tradition the end result will be the deprivation of the total of human relationships wherein he may learn love, which strengthens the will to live. He will be in effect be robbed of that network which is necessary to remain human and above the restrictions of mere ethnicity or worse, tribal loyalty or exclusion of the other.

The problem is that in The Possessed and in The Brothers Karamazov this nationalism seems to come across as an angry kind of nationalism, one that suggests xenophobia and seems to support the nefarious attacks of the state bureaucracy against its own people. Perhaps Dostoevsky was too obsessed with his hunger for salvation and could not reflect more serenely on this crucial issue. As Rebecca West renders it “it’s like standing in the darkness outside a lighted house to which one has no key. If Dostoevsky sometimes lost himself in rage as he beat on the doors, it was because he had in his heart such a wonderful dream of the light.” Be that as it may, the path to the fulfillment of that dream will not be found in the advice of those who are pursuing another nefarious Machiavellian path and covering it up with the appearance of piety. Those people are like wolves in sheep’s clothing. Their core belief is “knowledge is power.” That slogan, come to think of it, was proffered by one of the fathers of the Western Enlightenment: Francis Bacon. Perhaps it needs a revisiting.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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Future of Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”

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As the West-Russia tensions have grown over the past years, one theater of Russian foreign policy, namely management of breakaway regions, has largely fallen out of analysts’ works. Where, in the first years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had to manage breakaway conflicts in small and poor Georgia and Moldova, by early 2019, Moscow’s responsibilities have increased exponentially. In a way Nagorno-Karabakh was also under the Russian geopolitical influence, although the Russians were not directly involved.

Following the Ukraine crisis, Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk were added to Russia’s “Breakaway Empire”. This means that at a time when economic problems are looming large within Russia, Moscow has to spend more on multiple actors across the former Soviet space. This means that Russia’s broader strategy of managing breakaway conflicts, though not very much visible, could be coming under increasing stress. Where Russia previously used the conflicts in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine to limit the ability of those countries to enter the EU/NATO, now Moscow is losing its ability to maneuver in so many diverse conflicts simultaneously. At times, various players are trying to play their own game independently from Moscow. In Transnistria, the geopolitical situation is troublesome for Moscow as Kiev and Chisinau at times consider constraining the breakaway territory, and Moscow can do little as it has no direct land or air route. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian forces watch as NATO exercises take place on Georgian soil, which suggests that, despite the Russian military footprint in the region, Western countries are continuing to expand their support for Georgia.

Without doubt, Russia will remain a dominant military power in the region and the breakaway territories will stay dependent on Moscow’s support. Yet, it will be increasingly difficult for Moscow to successfully pull the strings in several different theaters at once, particularly as the Russia is facing its own financial problems, increased Western efforts to confront its foreign policy, and “disobedience” from various separatist leaders.

Bad, but Still a Strategy

If Russia has any notion of a grand strategy in its recent foreign policy, it is certainly the purposeful creation of conflict zones and their management across the post-Soviet space. The fall of the Soviet Union was indeed a colossal geopolitical setback for Moscow as the country instantly lost portions of land on a scale rarely, if ever, seen in recorded history. But maintaining 11 buffer states (except for the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) around Russia has remained a cornerstone of the Kremlin’s foreign policy against Western military and economic encroachment. Russians knew that because of their own country’s low economic potential, the South Caucasus states would inevitably turn to Europe. The same would happen on Russia’s western frontier with Moldova and Ukraine, which have been more susceptible to Western economic and military potential because of geographic proximity and historical interconnections with Europe.

In a way, geopolitical trends also point towards the conclusion that Russia’s usage of breakaway territories to stop Western expansion in the former Soviet space is not working. True that Moscow needed, be it Abkhazia or Donetsk, to stop the countries in its “immediate neighborhood” from joining the EU/NATO. And to the Russians’ credit, it has worked: the West is hesitant to quickly make Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova the members of the EU/NATO groupings. But there are also signs that the Russian gambit that those very breakaway regions would undermine the integrity of Georgia and Ukraine has largely failed. Only Moldova might be regarded as a success for the Russians, as the country has still failed to unite around its geopolitical choice.

The point here is that although there are breakaway territories, Western expansion into Georgia and Ukraine continues through various means, importing a much “deadlier” weapon – economic influence – against that of traditional Russian military and religious influence.

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today

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Russia: Open, hospitable, only in short-term for Africans

Kester Kenn Klomegah

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The Russian Interior Ministry has reiterated that the legislation that allows special 2018 FIFA visa-free entry to Russia for the foreign visitors ended on Dec 31.

“In accordance with the legislation of the Russian Federation, foreign citizens who visited the 2018 FIFA World Cup matches as spectators and who have Fan IDs will not be able to enter the Russian Federation after December 31, 2018,” the source said.

The World Cup attracted only hundreds of football fans from many African countries while thousands arrived from the United States, Europe and Asia to Russia. According some statistics, about five million foreigners visited the country over this period from June 14 through July 15, the highest number among foreigners were fans from the United States, Brazil and Germany.

It set a new record of audience in the history of world football championships as over half of the world’s population watched the matches on televisions at home and on digital platforms.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in remarks while opening the Russia-Africa Social Forum on October 22 that he considered it (the sport event) necessary to maximise the potential of public and cultural diplomacy in the interests of strengthening and expanding the traditionally friendly and mutually beneficial ties between Russia and African countries.

“It is hard to overestimate the role of this in strengthening friendship, trust and mutual understanding between nations. For example, many Africans have in fact discovered Russia for themselves while visiting Russia as fans during the 2018 FIFA World Cup,” he said.

Foreign Ministry’s Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, during her weekly media briefing, also expressed great satisfaction and added that the MFA continued receiving messages about the enthusiasm regarding the organisation of the World Cup, the atmosphere surrounding the event, infrastructure and the country in general.

According to her, Russia in its role as the host of the World Cup had demonstrated yet again that it deserved the highest marks for the tournament. It has left an indelible impression on the memory of numerous foreign fans who arrived in the country from all over the world to support their football squads.

Commenting on Russia’s image abroad, specifically in Africa, Ambassador of Zimbabwe, Major General (rtd) Nicholas Mike Sango, told me in an interview that the Sochi International Olympics and the FIFA international football extravaganza surprised many Africans on the level of development of the Russian Federation.

“There is a dearth of information about the country. Russia-Africa issues are reported by third parties and often not in good light. As a result, Africa’s media should find space to operate in Russia. In spite of the limited resources, Russia should make it easier for African journalists to operate on her territory and consistently promote the positive changes and emerging opportunities to the African public,” Mike Sango suggested.

According to official reports released by the Presidential Press Service and the Presidential Executive Office, the initiative was crafted to promote public diplomacy and raise Russia’s image abroad.

Significant to recall here that at the opening of the World Cup, Putin said: “We prepared responsibly for this major event and did our best so that fans could immerse themselves in the atmosphere of a magnificent football festival and, of course, enjoy their stay in Russia – open, hospitable, friendly Russia – and find new friends, new like-minded people.”

FIFA World Cup ran from June 14 to July 15 in 10 different cities in Russia. The foreign fans who received Fan IDs and purchased tickets for the matches went to Russia without visas. After the end of the World Cup, the Russian president declared that the Fan ID holders would have the right to visit repeatedly visa-free until the end of 2018.

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China: Russia’s Source of Hope & Fears

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The current crisis between Russia and the West is the product of many fundamental geopolitical differences in both the former Soviet space and elsewhere. All trends in bilateral relations lead to a likely conclusion that fundamental differences between Russia and the West will remain stalled well into the future. The successful western expansion into what was always considered the “Russian backyard” halted Moscow’s projection of power and diminished its reach into the north of Eurasia – between fast-developing China, Japan, and other Asian countries, and the technologically modern European landmass.

What is interesting is that as a result of this geopolitical setback on the country’s western border, the Russian political elite started to think over Russia’s position in Eurasia. Politicians and analysts discuss the country’s belonging to either Western or Asian civilization or representing a symbiosis – the Eurasian world.

As many trends in Russian history are cyclic so is the process of defining Russia’s position and its attachment to Asia or Europe. This quest usually follows geopolitical shifts to Russia’s disadvantage.

In the 19th century, following a disastrous defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856) from Great Britain and France, the Russian intellectuals began thinking over how solely European Russia was. Almost the same thing happened following the dissolution of the Russian Empire in 1917 and break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Though in each case the Russians were reacting to European military or economic expansion with discussions, the reality was that a turn to the East was impossible as most developed territories were in the European parts of the Russian state. Back then, the Russians, when looking to the East, saw the empty lands in Siberia and the Russian Far East.

What is crucial nowadays is that Russia’s pull to the East is now happening due to the presence of powerful China bordering Siberia. This very difference is fundamental when discussing Russia’s modern quest for their position in Eurasia.

Today, Europe is a source of technological progress, as are Japan and China. Never in Russian history has there been such an opportunity to develop Siberia and transform it into a power base of the world’s economy.

Russia’s geographical position is unique and will remain so for another several decades, as the ice cap in the Arctic Ocean is set to diminish significantly. The Arctic Ocean will be transformed into an ocean of commercial highways, giving Russia a historic opportunity to become a sea power.

Chinese and Japanese human and technological resources in the Russian Far East, and European resources in the Russian west, can transform it into a land of opportunity.

Russia’s geographical position should be kept in mind when analyzing Moscow’s position vis-à-vis the China-US competition. However, apart from the purely economic and geographical pull that the developed Asia-Pacific has on Russia’s eastern provinces, the Russian political elite sees the nascent US-China confrontation as a chance to enhance its weakening geopolitical position throughout the former Soviet space. Russians are right to think that both Washington and Beijing will dearly need Russian support, and this logic is driving Moscow’s noncommittal approach towards Beijing and Washington. As a matter of cold-blooded international affairs, Russia wishes to position itself such that the US and China are strongly competing with one another to win its favor.

In allying itself with China, Russia would expect to increase its influence in Central Asia, where Chinese power has grown exponentially since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although Moscow has never voiced official concerns about this matter, that is not to deny the existence of such concerns within the Russian political elite.

However, if Moscow chooses the US side, the American concessions could be more significant than the Chinese. Ukraine and the South Caucasus would be the biggest prizes, while NATO expansion into the Russian “backyard” would be stalled. The Middle East might be another sticking point where Moscow gets fundamental concessions – for example in Syria, should that conflict continue.

Beyond grand strategic thinking, this decision will also be a civilizational choice for the Russians molded in the perennial debate about whether the country is European, Asiatic, or Eurasian (a mixture of the two). Geography inexorably pulls Russia towards the East, but culture pulls it towards the west. While decisions of this nature are usually expected to be based on geopolitical calculations, cultural affinity also plays a role.

Tied into the cultural aspect is the Russians’ fear that they (like the rest of the world) do not know how the world would look under Chinese leadership. The US might represent a threat to Russia, but it is still a “known” for the Russian political elite. A China-led Eurasia could be more challenging for the Russians considering the extent to which Russian frontiers and provinces are open to large Chinese segments of the population.

The Russian approach to the nascent US-China confrontation is likely to be opportunistic. Its choice between them will be based on which side offers more to help Moscow resolve its problems across the former Soviet space.

Author’s note: first published at Georgia Today

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