Vatican, Moscow & China: A New Global Religious and Spiritual Hegemony
The record is substantially positive. This is how Cardinal Parolin has summarized the results of his recent visit to the Russian Federation.Firstly, there is the Russian Catholic community to protect, with 300 parishes and 270 priests – mostly non-Russians, but Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Ukrainians – as well as an Archbishop of Moscow, namely the Italian Paolo Pezzi, coming from the movement of “Communion and Liberation”, who is an expert in Russian political, cultural and religious issues.
A brilliant prelate to be supported, having a profound knowledge of Russian issues and Orthodox theology.
It is worth recalling that Pope Francis shook hand with Patriarch Kirill in the first historic meeting held in Havana last year between the two highest representatives of the 1054 schism.
An action that was favourably viewed by the United States and supported by the whole Cuban people.
This is a diplomatic success of which the Pope will soon take advantage.
Finally, Pope Francis is no longer very interested in the Eastern schism and in its doctrinal, theological and strategic connotation.
If anything, Pope Francis is interested in a new alliance between Russia, the Catholic Church of Rome and, in the future, China, so as to put an end to the Western Church’s geopolitical dependence on the Euro-American West.
As explicitly stated, the Pope no longer wants to only be the spokesman of Western civilization, which is now dechristianized.
As Cardinal Parolin himself has recalled, he is the first High Representative of the Catholic Church to visit Moscow after the Crimean War.
This is an essential political and symbolic aspect to mark the distance between the Vatican and the Atlantic axis between Western Europe and the United States.
With Foreign Minister Lavrov, whom Cardinal Secretary of State met in Moscow, a clear agreement was reached quickly: the Russian forces’ de facto protection of all religious minorities in the Middle East.
And to think that, in this case, the United States have even come to blame Russia for “penalizing” the so-called moderate jihadists that NATO and the United States keep on training in Syria and in other parts of the world.
Therefore the Vatican explicitly views the Kremlin’s pro-Assad policy favourably, together with the Syrian Christian community – in all its various forms – that continues to live in Syria and the Middle East, protected by Russia and Bashar al-Assad’s Alawites much more than by the “moderate” jihad that, since the time of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, is still at the core of US operations in that region.
Considering the current condition of Catholics in Russia, there was some foreseeable friction between Minister Lavrov and Cardinal Parolin.
Apart from the practical freedom to profess the Catholic faith, one of the issue at stake is the ownership of churches and palaces of the Russian Catholic Church, confiscated by the Soviet regime and never returned to the legitimate owners after the USSR collapse in spite of the favourable court judgments for the Church of Rome in Russia.
Catholics in Russia are few – approximately 800,000, accounting for 0.5% of the total population. Nevertheless, the true strategic aim is not the number, but the quality of the Vatican and Russian joint strategic actions: the goal is exactly Pope Francis’ visit to Russia.
It would be the seal of a Catholic Church that – as at the time of Pope John Paul II – anticipates and overcomes the end of the Cold War, thus envisaging a link between the Vatican and the emerging powers of the Eurasian Heartland, which is now the alternative to a weak and dangerous strategic link between the Vatican and the consumerist and scientist atheism currently in power in the Euro-American West.
It is now clear that Pope Francis does not like this West at all: a universe without God that is heading for a quick, ethical and anthropological cupio dissolvi.
In fact, the Pope prefers the areas of the world in which the Catholic Church can still serve as “field hospital” and operate in a cultural universe in which religion, even the non-Catholic one, is respected.
Better a Confucian than a naive European atheist, only believing in science (he/she does not know) and in the freedom of instincts.
Here Cardinal Parolin’s and the Pope’s ideas are on the same wavelength as those of Patriarch Kirill, who wants fewer links between the Orthodox Church and the Russian State, as well as a spiritual status not far from the Kremlin, but autonomous from Putin’s line of politique d’abord (politics, first of all).
A system envisaging Patriarch Kirill as the world leader of the Orthodox Church and Pope Francis as the world inevitable leader of Catholicism, designed to build – also after the agreement with the Chinese government – a sort of new global religious and spiritual hegemony, outside the subjection to Westernism for the Vatican, and lateral to the Russian strategic interest for Patriarch Kirill.
The central political factor of this new geo-religious system is the Ukrainian question.
The extraordinary fundraising campaign launched by Pope Francis for Ukraine, which has been operating since 2014, has had positive impact on the Russian Orthodox Church and the whole community of believers. The success has been great (1 million and 230 thousand euros have been collected) and it has proved that the Vatican – even in the charitable and universalistic dimension characterizing it – does not think in the same way as the Western powers currently operating in the Ukrainian theater of operations.
While the West currently operates in the war-stricken regions with an inept internationalism, the Vatican of Cardinal Parolin and Pope Francis is still based on the traditional and unsurpassed “law of nations” (ius gentium) – and on a reasonable and never sectarian respect for nationality, ethnicity, borders and legitimate States.
Pope Francis’ and Cardinal Parolin’s law is, first and foremost, humanitarian law: agreements between the parties, wherever possible; immediate release of prisoners, a theme that alone can break through the political situation; truce and cease-fire are all actions that the Vatican is putting in place to solve the Ukrainian crisis.
And possibly solve also the tension in Syria where, since 2011, the two million Catholic believers have fallen to one only.
In Iraq, Christians have currently fallen from 300,000 to 200,000.
In Syria a real “war against Christians” is being waged – as recently stated by Jacques Benhan Hindo, the Syrian-Catholic Archbishop of Hassakè-Nisibi, the diocese in which Raqqa is located – while the YPG Kurds behave very badly with the various Christian churches still present there.
It can be easily foreseen that these Kurds will be abandoned by the United States as soon as it has exploited them fully and all the way.
Daesh-Isis is supported by Turkey and the United States, while the Christian communities are protected – within the limits of their areas and fields of competence – by the Russian soldiers and Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
In such a situation, certainly Pope Francis’ Church cannot fully work, but it can certainly unite the basic religious and ethnic communities and make them act as parties in the future negotiations.
An operation that could more easily take place in Ukraine.
In fact, if Syria is broken up – as is increasingly likely – the Shiite axis between Bashar al-Assad’s area and Iran – which was at the origin of the Sunni and jihadist war against the Syrian Baathist regime – will be strengthened, while Russia will become the true strategic player in the region, with the United States relegated to the rank of mere counterparts of Qatar (funding Al Nusra) and Saudi Arabia (funding Isis-Daesh).
Hence the Christian traditions are being eradicated in Syria and in rest of the Middle East with a view to fostering the final clash between Shiites and Sunnis – a clash that the Vatican does not want and will do its utmost, with Russia and China, to avoid.
A clash between Shiites and Sunnis – “a piecemeal World War Three”, just to use Pope Francis’ expression – in which Westerners side with the Sunnis, thus preparing other years of blood and destruction for them and for the Middle East.
As already happened with Cuba, in the new world context it will be the Vatican to bring the United States and Russia closer at the right time.
Possibly with a new agreement for the Middle East, as is said in the Vatican Secretary of State’s office.
This will exactly be the purpose of Pope Francis’ and Cardinal Parolin’s “geopolitics of mercy”.
With a tough statement made in September 2013 the Pope condemned the United States for wanting to overthrow Assad with missiles, but there is another point of agreement between Putin and the Pope, namely the defense of the traditional family.
The Kremlin leader has repeatedly condemned the Western “nihilistic drift”, as well as the obsessive and philosophically unreasonable confidence in Reason. On the media both Patriarch Kirill and President Putin often repeat the old statement made by former Pope Benedict XVI whereby “the worst enemy of the West is the West itself”.
Furthermore, the schism could be doctrinally overcome with a statement – that Patriarch Kirill had already suggested – in which it is accepted that the Pope, the Patriarch of Rome, is the protos among the Patriarchs of the other Churches – on the basis of the document discussed in 2008 on the island of Crete, regarding the history and identity of the Churches before and after the Great Schism.
This is another theme that will soon come to its natural fulfillment in the diplomatic practice of mercy established by Cardinal Parolin and Pope Francis.
Europe’s relations with Africa and Asia are on the brink of collapse, and Russia is benefiting
More than one year since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the world remains caught in the middle. Against a backdrop of high energy and food prices, ravaging inflation, social unrest and fears of another global recession, Western and Russian blocs are once again vying for support from nations of the developing world.
Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz, Sergei Lavrov, Qin Gang, and Anthony Blinken are just some of the names that have made high-profile visits to Africa in the last 12 months. All have largely focused on cooperation and trade, yet each has done so with a discourse reflecting a kind of Cold War reboot, with Ukraine as one of its most prominent symptoms.
Each in their own way, armed with their respective propaganda, these superpowers wish for nations of Africa and Asia to pick a side. Yet, unlike the previous century, those nations cannot so easily be made to choose, nor should they have to. Russia understands this. The West does not.
It’s no secret that Africa has been reluctant to overtly condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine, or to participate in Western efforts to sanction and isolate the warring country. Instead, African and Asian nations have continued to welcome these longstanding partners with open arms – widely condemning the war, but not Russia.
In Malawi, for instance, Russia’s deliveries of tens of thousands of tonnes of fertiliser amidst global shortages are seen as a gift from heaven by struggling farmers. Malawi’s minister of agriculture shook hands with the Russian ambassador, describing Russia gratefully as “a true friend”. Russia’s announced plans to send 260,000 tonnes of fertiliser to countries across Africa, is certain to spread similar sentiments.
In my country Congo-Brazzaville, the government signed five major cooperation agreements with Russia in the midst of its war with Ukraine, including for the construction of a new oil pipeline and to enhance military cooperation.
This charm offensive, prominently led by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who has visited South Africa, Eswatini, Angola, Eritrea, Mali, Sudan and Mauritania just since January, is already nourishing pro-Russian sentiment throughout the continent, and stands in sharp contrast to the damp squib that was President Emmanuel Macron’s recent African adventure.
In his press conference with Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) President, Felix Tshisekedi, in what was perhaps the most deaf-tone faux pas of his entire trip, President Macron was repeatedly asked to condemn Rwanda’s support for M23 rebels causing havoc in eastern DRC – a situation that closely resembles Russia’s covert support for Donbass separatists in recent years. For all intents and purposes, he failed to do so.
Instead, when a French journalist quizzed him on former Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s disparaging mention of an “African-style compromise” in relation to President Tshisekedi election in 2019, Macron proceeded to lecture the Congolese President on freedom of the press – much to the disbelief of those witnessing the scene.
Despite President Macron’s effusive rhetoric about ‘new relationships’ and ‘new starts’, his outburst was yet another bitter reminder of Europe’s longstanding paternalistic and dissonant attitude towards the continent. This is the same attitude whereby decades of European political and military influence on the continent have failed to generate meaningful progress when they did not actively undermine those efforts. Africans are wise to this and refuse to take it anymore, as evidenced by the growth in anti-French sentiment in West Africa. Russia, China and others, though far from being without reproach, are merely seizing the presented opportunities.
Just as the share of EU aid going to Africa has declined significantly, similar problems are afoot with Europe’s relations in Asia. Its share of Southeast Asian merchandise trade, excluding China, fell by over a third over the last two decades. Western Europe was the destination for less than a tenth of Malaysian, Singaporean, South Korean and Taiwanese exports in 2021. Russia is again moving fast to fill the gap, adopting China as its main trading partner, and consistently exporting oil and gas to eager Asian buyers, rather than to the West. When Russia suspended its double taxation treaties with “unfriendly” countries around the world in mid-March, most Southeast Asian countries were exempted from this measure.
Moreover, Russia has over the last decade become the largest arms supplier to the region, recently running joint naval exercises with the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia have all rejected imposing sanctions on Moscow, whilst Malaysia signed a memorandum of understanding with Russia to improve agricultural trade earlier this year.
One cannot fault these nations for engaging in partnerships and cooperation with international partners, in the interest of addressing their most urgent societal priorities. Nor can one fault African and Asian countries for taking with a pinch of salt a discourse on international values and change, when this supposed change stems not from recognition of current flaws, but from the impositions of emergent global trends.
What lessons can be given about territorial integrity and justice, when the events of 2011 in Libya, as well as their enduring consequences, remain traumatically fresh in African minds, or when the posture of African countries relative to the war in Ukraine is almost identical to that of Europe relative to the conflict in the eastern provinces of the DRC?
What lessons should be drawn from European courts proceeding to the seizure of Malaysian assets and properties worth $15 billion – including lucrative oil and gas assets – based on a questionable arbitration authorised by a Spanish arbitrator facing criminal prosecution from the Spanish authorities? And who will really benefit, given that this claim on sovereign territories, derived from a mid-nineteenth agreement between a long-vanished Sultanate and a colonial-era British company, is funded by unknown third-party investors?
The willingness of European courts to confiscate the resources and assets of a sovereign Asian nation on such flimsy grounds is not lost on observers in Africa and across the developing world.
Whatever the answer to these questions may be, it is evident that relations between the old and new worlds will continue to strain as long as underlying assumptions and beliefs do not evolve. Specifically, change is needed in those attitudes that continue to consider developing nations as oblivious to the many contradictions of rhetoric and practice that characterise the world as we know it – whether in terms of: a system of aid and trade that nourishes the imbalances and ills it purports to address; a discourse on international law and values that crumbles in the face of past transgressions and current drives for reforms; or even negotiations on climate finance in which urgency stops when economic interests begin.
The Western world can only reverse this trajectory by seeking out a genuinely new footing in its relations with the countries of Africa and Asia – challenging its own assumptions and understandings about what a respectful partnership between equally legitimate nations truly means. This is not about paying lip-service to ideals struggling to remain convincing, nor is it about entirely conceding these ideals on the altar of economic pragmatism.
Rather this means accepting a due share of responsibility for the current state of affairs, understanding expectations for the future, being willing to make real concessions, and aligning discourse with dollars and deeds. In doing so, the Western world will reassure those of us that continue to believe in the promises of the UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that these were not merely pretences to maintain hegemony in the face of existential threats, but rather an enduring vision for a better world that remains worth fighting for today.
A Muscular U.S. Foreign Policy and Changing Alliances
Imagine a country rich in fossil fuels and another nearby that is Europe’s premier industrial power in dire need of those resources — is that a match made in heaven?
Not according to Joe Biden who quashed it as if it was a match made in hell. Biden was so much against any such rapprochement that to end all prospects of a deal, he ordered the bombing of the Nord Stream pipelines. Two out of four lines were severely damaged, about 50 meters of them and Russia chose not to conduct repairs. Instead,it is pumping its gas up through Turkey.
So far, Russia has not responded to this act of war but a leader can not afford to lose face domestically or internationally, and one may not be surprised if an American facility or ship suffers an adverse event in the future.
In the meantime, Russia has become fast friends with China — the latter having its own bone to pick with Biden. China, a growing industrial giant, has almost insatiable energy needs and Russia stands ready to supply them. An informal deal has been agreed upon with a formal signing ceremony on March 20, 2023.
So who won this fracas? Russia gets to export its gas anyway and China, already generating the world’s highest GDP on a purchasing-power-parity basis, has guaranteed itself an energy source.
Of course there is Ukraine where Biden (like the US in Vietnam) is ready to fight to the last Ukrainian. Despite a valiant resistance, they are not winning, for Russia continues to solidify its hold on Ukraine’s east, most recently by taking Soledar and capturing parts of the transport hub Bakhmut itself.
And then there is Saudi Arabia: hitherto a staunch U.S. ally, it is now extending a hand of friendship to Iran, which its previous king used to call the snake in the Middle East. But Saudi Arabia is keenly aware of the vassal-like manner in which the U.S. has treated Germany, its ally with the largest economy in Europe, over its desire to buy cheap gas from Russia. The deal was nixed and observers estimate it cost Germany a couple of points of GDP growth. Such a loss in the U.S. would translate to almost zero growth.
India used to be a neutral country between the great powers. In fact, its first leader after independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a leading figure in the non-aligned movement. It is now being tugged towards the US.
The latest tug is ICET or the initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies. Its purpose is to find ways to engage through “innovation bridges” over the key areas of focus. This coordination between the two countries is to cover industry, academia and government.
On the other hand, India’s arch rival Pakistan used to be in the US orbit for decades. Now it is virtually a Chinese client state even though for a time, particularly during the Afghan war, it was a source of much help for the US.
Such are the vagaries of alignments in a multi-polar world, particularly when under pressure from major powers.
Adoption of the controversial pension reform bill in France
On Thursday, 16th March 2023, the senate adopted the pension reform bill with 193 senators voting for the project and 114 senators voting against it. A few hours later, after many meetings of key figures of the government and the Renaissance party –the governing party – , it was decided that the National Assembly was not going to vote for the bill but rather the government would use the famous 49.3, an article of the 1958 constitution which allows the prime minister to have a bill adopted into law without a vote. The Senate and the National Assembly – through a joint committee – had agreed on a compromise text of the bill the day before the crucial vote in the Parliament. The project was so important to President Macron that he threatened to dissolve the National Assembly if the project did not go through. Some analysts saw this threat as way of inducing members of the National Assembly to adopt the project rather than put into jeopardy their political careers. Politicians like Christian Estrosi, mayor of Nice, a staunch republican, claims members of the National Assembly had to vote the bill because they should be convinced that it is the best thing to do right now for a sustainable pension system in France.
When President Macron was elected in 2017, he pledged to change the pension system in France for he believed that it was unjust and that it would be difficult to sponsor it in the years to come since more people will be going into retirement. It is believed that those aged 65 will be more than the under 20 come the year 2030. Macron did not carry out the reform in his first term in office after meeting with different resistance like the one of the Gilets Jaunes; he probably feared it may cost him the second term. Once the first term was over, he was most probably determined to carry on simply because he is not scared to lose, his second term being the last one. The pension reform has been heavily contested, with polls in February 2023 suggesting that 65% of the French people are against it.
The reform moves the retirement age from 62 to 64 years. The change will be carried out progressively with 3 months added each year to make it two years in total in 2030. To have fully contributed to the retirement insurance one will have worked 43 years. People working in relatively hard industries like the police, firefighters, garbage collection will still be able to retire early. However, those who entered the career late like those who had long studies will have to work until 67 years. Disabled people could still go on retirement at the age of 55 while those who have suffered disability along the way could retire at the age of 60.
With the new bill having become a law, those who will have a complete career (43 years) will not receive less than 85% of minimum wage (i.e. 1200 Euros gross salary). Furthermore, the government believes it will be able to save 17.7 billion Euros by 2030 with the new pension system. According to the government, increasing the retirement age was the fairer way than increasing taxes especially that people are believed to live longer than in the past.
The left parties (La France Insoumise LFI, Les Socialistes, Europe Ecologie-les Verts) have made it difficult for the bill discussion especially in the National Assembly by proposing thousands of amendments to delay the voting process and even derail it. This is probably why the government feared to lose the vote and decided to invoke 49.3. The government doesn’t have the outright majority and has had to rely on the right party (les Républicains LR) to have the reform bill voted in the Senate but some of Renaissance members of the National Assembly were reluctant to vote for the bill and some LR members had said they would abstain, leaving the ruling party with no other choice than to use 49.3. The Prime Minister suggested that “the reform is necessary” and she was taking responsibility by invoking 49.3.
The reform bill was so unpopular that there have been protests for months spearheaded by the Union of workers who mobilized workers across many industries (i.e. energy, transport) and public institutions (e.g. education). Millions of people have been on the street, a reminiscence of 1968, when students spearheaded strikes in which 10 million of people took to the street to make request which resulted, inter alia, in the 35% increase of minimum wage. The objective of protestors against pension reform bill had been to make the government withdraw the entire project because they believe it is unjust to ask people to work two years more, considering that their career is long enough. President Macron seemed not interested to receive the Unions and had no intention to withdraw the project.
As a result of strikes, the city of Paris and some other cities in France have seen the bins fill up along the streets and residents are said to hold their noses as they pass by. For some this is not the image to show to the world for a city that is hosting Olympic games in 2024 let alone for health reasons but for others this is the price to pay for the actions of a government that does not hid the voices of the people. Transport on the road as well as in the air has been heavily disrupted. Those who don’t participate in strikes are generally said to support the actions of the protesters. However, it is unclear if they will keep supporting them if the movement lasts long.
Using 49.3 always comes with the risk that the opposition would present a censure motion, in which the government itself runs the risk of being forced to resign and the text of the bill being rejected if the censure motion is adopted. Before the Prime Minister announced that the government had chosen to use 49.3 to adopt the pension reform bill, she was not allowed to speak for a few minutes. Ivan Rioufol, a journalist at CNews believes that this moment is not just a big moment for the 5th Republic but also a historical moment. For now, the government has triumphed and one of the most contested reforms of French modern politics has become a law– at least if the censure motion does not bring down the government and along with it, the newly-adopted law.
Nonetheless, despite the bill being adopted into law by the Senate and through 49.3, unions have vowed to keep protesting until the law is suspended. In a recent BFMTV poll, 62% French people would want the strikes to continue if the bill passes. Now that it has passed, it is not clear whether the resistance will make the government change anything. Neither is it clear whether the movement itself will be able to resist long since the longer workers strike the more money they lose from the salary. With the inflation and conditions of life that have been hard due to Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine it will be hard to sustain the strikes. What is clear is that the repercussions of this reform will linger on for many years to come. One anonymous political scientist even claimed that this could open the narrow door to the extreme right to come into power.
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