On October 19, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin visited Uzbekistan. According to media reports, Moscow and Tashkent focused on “prospects for further strategic partnership,” cooperation in military technology, and economic ties between the two countries. Moscow is investing billions of dollars and is planning to open more branches of top Russian universities in Uzbekistan. On the same days, October 17-19, Tashkent played host to the VIII Central Asian Trade Forum, organized by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). As they spoke at the event, the US representatives announced Washington’s interest in providing duty-free access to its domestic market for several thousand products from Central Asian states. This approach reflects the policy of bilateral cooperation which the two parties agreed upon during a visit of the President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev to the United States in May this year, which resulted in $ 4.8 billion contracts.
Central Asia has been a zone of geopolitical rivalry between the world’s top players for centuries. Even when the main part of this territory was part of the USSR, the USA, China and other countries tried to influence the Soviet “soft underbelly”. After 1991, the region quickly moved to the sidelines of the military-strategic interests of Moscow, Beijing and Washington . At present, the three powers are concerned about the threat of Islamic extremism and an increase in drug trafficking in the region. While sharing the same concerns, the parties interpret the causes of these threats in different ways. In general, regional competition of external powers is moderate, being visible mainly in the economic sphere. For now, two integration projects are developing at fast pace in Central Asia – the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), promoted by the Russian Federation, whose members are Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and the Chinese Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), targeted at all Central Asian countries. In the mid-2010s, the United States unveiled its conceptual vision of the future of the region — the New Silk Road Initiative, which, however, has not yet seen any substantial progress.
At present, countries of the region are pursuing the policy of building secular national states. Searches for national identity in the values of Islam or Pan-Turkism is a thing of the past. Meanwhile, for a part of the population, religious principles still prevail over the national and civil ones. Also, there are a number of other challenges to the stability and security of the region. Russian International Affairs Council experts say that political institutions are weak, the economy is poorly diversified, heavily corrupt, hinging largely on “shadow” schemes and smuggling. Social and economic problems, disputes over the distribution of water resources, and inter-religious and inter-ethnic conflicts are acute. On top of all this comes the rapidly aggravating problem of uneven economic development of countries. The main external threats are proximity to Afghanistan and the Middle East with a high degree of border penetrability.
In general, the ruling circles of the states of the region are trying to maintain power and property and evade serious socio-economic upheavals. The financial and economic interests of the elite are largely oriented at the West. However, the current challenges to domestic and regional stability, as well as the nature of the existing regimes, are what scares Western investors the most. As a result, countries of Central Asia are drifting between globalization and regionalization, between economic projects that benefit primarily the elites themselves, and the need to guarantee an increase in the living standards of wide sections of society, “between efforts to preserve a niche in the “old” world economy and secure niches in the “new” one”.
Over the past few years, Russia has been promoting its interests in the region within the framework of the CSTO, the EAEU and the Customs Union. Until recently, the majority of projects with the participation of Russian investors were concentrated in the oil and gas sector. Meanwhile, representatives of local elites and business communities would prefer to see Russian investments in the energy sector, in the creation of cross-border “transit transport routes.” There is a high demand for projects that would develop interstate economic cooperation within the framework of the EEU, and projects whose products would be oriented at markets beyond the post-Soviet space. These areas include the military industry, the mining sector, and the supply of agricultural products. At the same time, experts point out “excessive” “coordination and regulation of economic relations” within Russian regional initiatives.
Nevertheless, Russia maintains a significant potential to secure its economic influence in the region. Most enterprises and agricultural facilities in Central Asia date back to the Soviet days and most of the infrastructure, railways and highways are focused on Russia. The Russian media are popular in the region, supporting the idea of stability and sovereignty. Until early 2010s, the “Soviet legacy” enabled the Russian Federation to remain a major economic partner for all the Central Asian countries. However, in recent years, Moscow has been losing its leading economic position to China, mainly, for lack of investment.
China’s rapidly growing economy requires more and more resources. Given that Central Asia is rich in oil, gas, minerals and cotton, Beijing has been trying to promote economic projects in the region since the early 2000s. At the end of 2017, trade turnover between China and countries of Central Asia reached $ 30 billion, whereas trade between Russia and the region was less than two thirds of this figure. China overtook Russia in trade with all countries in the region, except Kazakhstan. Now, China is pursuing multibillion-dollar projects in transport and pipeline infrastructure as part of the strategy of the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), and is increasing investment in industrial facilities and joint ventures. There are plans to build three railway corridors: between the Chinese port of Lianyungang and Kazakh Almaty, and two between the south of China and Central Asia. By the end of 2017, the Chinese investments in Central Asia had exceeded $ 100 billion. Investment plans until 2030 are estimated at several hundred billion dollars.
Meanwhile, according to most Western analysts, Russia and China have been pursuing a coordinated and well-balanced policy of extensive cooperation in Central Asia. China has been focusing on economic projects in the region, while Russia, besides the economic sphere, has taken the lead in ensuring military and anti-terrorism security and regional stability. According to Western estimates, Central Asia has been picked by Moscow and Beijing as number one site to practice strategic interaction, which can then be used in other parts of Eurasia. This cooperation hinges on an agreement reached by the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China at top level in 2015 on integration between the EAEU and the SREB. The economic role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is also expected to increase after Kyrgyzstan assumes the SCO presidency in 2019. Both countries are fully aware of the strategic mutual benefit from participation in these projects and neither pursues economic or regional security initiatives that could be detrimental to the other party.
In 2011, Washington launched the New Silk Road Strategy (NSR), which initially focused on the economic revival of Afghanistan through its integration into regional development projects. In autumn 2015, as the US Secretary of State, visited all five Central Asian countries in the course of his first tour, the Samarkand Declaration was adopted to promote the New Silk Road, which declared the widest possible range of areas of cooperation between the United States and countries of the region. Gradually, the United States began to shift from the still idealism-ridden policy of supporting the “development of democracy” in Central Asia towards a more pragmatic course, aimed at reducing the influence of the Russian Federation while simultaneously moderating the presence of China.
So far, the extent of the Trump administration’s interest in Central Asia is uncertain. It looks like the United States is ready to encourage local authorities to “soften” domestic policies, including on the expansion of international contacts, by boosting economic assistance and cementing ties between representatives of the business community. In particular, moves of this kind have been reported to come from the USA in the direction of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. USAID enjoys a significant influence on public associations in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. As for region-wide economic projects under the patronage of the United States, most of them are stalling, because they are made dependent, to this or that extent, on stabilization in Afghanistan.
Another important tool for strengthening the US positions in the region after 2001 is the promotion of a counter-terrorism agenda, a military presence, primarily in Afghanistan, and the development of military and defense ties with the Central Asian states. Preventing the spread of radical movements in Central Asia meets the interests of both Washington and all countries of the region.
In the meantime, the interests of Central Asian countries spread beyond the bounds of financial assistance and economic cooperation as they are unequivocally making it to understand that they are looking for new partners and security guarantors capable of balancing the United States, Russia and China.
This encourages countries of Central Asia to develop contacts with a whole range of external players that have noticeable interests in the region. The influence of the European Union in Central Asia decreased, after the promising projects of the previous decades fell through. EU experts argue that the Union lacks the resources to compete with Russia and China. Therefore, they call for “focusing on specific projects” that would contribute to raising the living standards across a wide section of society. As for China’s SREB initiative, the EU sees it as a significant destabilizer, given the insufficient involvement of local, particularly human, resources, and a dramatic increase in Central Asia’s political and debt dependence on Beijing. Therefore, the EU is seeking to “fit” “into the current situation with a view to influence further developments from within.”
Since 2012, Japan has been stepping up its political efforts in Central Asia. As he visited the region in 2015, Prime Minister Abe signed $ 27 billion agreements, including on cooperation in the fuel and energy sector, in infrastructure projects, and in measures to combat terrorism and extremism. While doing this, Japan reiterates its readiness to maintain extensive ties with other powers, including Russia, China and Turkey. The latter persists in its claims to play a leading role in Central Asia, nurturing ambitions to become the leader of the Turkic world. However, Ankara’s positions have suffered a blow in recent years. President Erdogan has faced a lot of criticism for not providing enough support for the Turkic communities in Russia and in the west of China.
Thus, the leading circles of the Central Asian countries are pursuing a “purely pragmatic” policy. Among the priorities are structural economic reforms, attracting more investments, primarily to the production sector and high-tech industries, and the development of “human capital.” As global players demonstrate renewed interest in the region, Central Asia has an option to pursue an increasingly varying and multi-vector policy. In spring this year, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan made a bid to form a community of five Central Asian states without participation of external powers. At last, the transformation of Central Asia is taking place against the background of the arrival of a relatively new generation of leaders, fewer and fewer of whom see Moscow as a major historical partner. Given these conditions, Russia, if it wants to maintain its positions in Central Asia, ought to devise new approaches to regional policy. In our opinion, a strategy that should take center stage in Central Asia in the near future is one that would provide countries of the region with an economic cooperation agenda that does not require a clear geopolitical choice.
First published in our partner International Affairs
Poverty Continues to Decline, but Pace of Poverty Reduction is Slowing in Central Asia
Although poverty rates in Central Asia continue to decline overall, the pace of poverty reduction is slowing, according to new data released by the World Bank. High levels of poverty remain in pockets of rural and remote areas, which also suffer from lack of employment opportunities, say new Poverty Outlooks for Central Asian countries, released ahead of International Day for the Eradication of Poverty on 17 October.
“The good news is that Central Asia continues to make progress towards eliminating poverty,” says Lilia Burunciuc, World Bank Country Director for Central Asia “However, poverty reduction is happening much less quickly than before. Rekindling inclusive growth should therefore be among the region’s most urgent priorities.”
Since the 2000s, all Central Asian countries have made significant progress in reducing poverty, but most of this progress occurred in the first few years of that decade. In the eight years from 2002 to 2009, the poverty rate dropped an average of seven percentage points per year in both Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic – down from nearly 70 percent to 25 percent in Tajikistan and to 20 percent in the Kyrgyz Republic. Since then, however, poverty rates have fallen much more slowly: by only one percentage point per year on average in Tajikistan (from 25 percent to a projected 13 percent in 2019), and by nearly zero in the Kyrgyz Republic, stalling at about 20 percent from 2009 through to today.
Poverty in Kazakhstan was already lower in the early 2000s and declined at a rate of four percentage points per year from 2002 to 2009, at which point the country had almost eliminated poverty, as measured by the low-middle-income indicator of $3.20 per day. However, when measured by the upper-middle-income indicator of $5.50 per day, the poverty rate in Kazakhstan reached its lowest point in 2013, at about 6 percent, and since then has remained stuck above 7 percent.
The slowing rate of poverty reduction in Central Asian countries reflects several economic challenges, as well as difficulties securing jobs with decent incomes for vulnerable groups of the population.
Youth and women in the region are most likely to struggle with unemployment or low incomes. In Uzbekistan, World Bank data shows that over 25 percent of women aged 15-24 were unemployed in 2018, compared to 13 percent of men in the same age group. In the Kyrgyz Republic, 15 percent of women aged 15-28 were unemployed at that time, compared to only 9 percent of men in the same age group.
Recently published poverty maps for Central Asian countries reveal that many of the remaining poverty hotspots in the region are in rural areas that lack close integration with urban growth centers. This is especially pertinent for parts of Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic, where poverty rates are above 40 percent in the most remote districts.
The analysis also finds that the middle-class in Central Asia is almost entirely concentrated in and around a handful of big cities: Nur-Sultan, Almaty, Tashkent, and to a lesser extent, in Dushanbe and Bishkek. One of the main challenges faced by all countries in the region is ensuring that people are not excluded from these dynamic labor markets.
The World Bank recommends policies that provide greater employment opportunities for people, expanding the availability of affordable housing in growing and prosperous cities, encouraging faster wage growth, and supporting vulnerable groups so they can be more competitive in the labor market.
Eurasian Economic Union Might Expand
As the strained Russia-EU relations somewhat softened recently, and a rising cooperation is being seen over questions such as Ukraine and Moldova, Russia is on the economic offensive throughout the former Soviet space.
Valentina Matviyenko, a high ranking Russian official, announced recently that Uzbekistan had already decided to join the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and that final preparations are taking place in that regard.
Uzbekistan is arguably the most important country in Central Asia as it is the only state bordering all four “stans” (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan) of the region. From a purely geographic perspective, influence over Uzbekistan would increase Russian clout throughout the entire Central Asia.
Uzbekistan’s importance is also maximized by the fact that it possesses a pretty competitive industrial sector capable of producing various machinery and other vital products.
Uzbekistan’s membership of the EEU will also be a win for Moscow because of the latter’s quiet competition with the Chinese over the region, specifically in the economic and slightly military realms. As China rolls out its flagship Belt and Road Initiative, Uzbekistan is of primary importance to Beijing.
True, membership of the EEU will not mean cutting off trade between Uzbekistan and China, and the latter will certainly continue investing in the Uzbek economy. However, though no open animosity exists between Beijing and Moscow on Central Asia issues, Tashkent’s choice to become a member of the EEU will serve as a certain limit to rising Chinese ambitions.
On the other crucial front of Russia’s borderlands, Moscow is seemingly close to reaching a higher level of integration with Belarus (a country already an EEU member) by 2022. Though Minsk has officially refuted Russian plans on economic integration, it is clear that pressure from Moscow is indeed mounting and it is becoming increasingly difficult for Belarus to withstand various Russian moves.
Both events, which, at least according to the open source material, are likely to take place in the near future, will strengthen Russia’s position in Eurasia. It will also increase the EEU’s position and make the bloc economically more attractive for non-member former Soviet states such as Azerbaijan and potentially for Middle East powers (Iran and Turkey).
Though the expansion is a good indicator of Russia’s fortunes, in the long run it shows the limit of the EEU and Moscow’s strength. Still without Ukraine, the EEU is a constrained market, solely dominated by Russia, both economically, militarily and in terms of population numbers. In fact, as I have written in several articles for GT, nowadays the expansion of Russian economic (i.e. geopolitical) interests in Belarus and Uzbekistan is logical, as avenues for Moscow’s active foreign policy are limited to Central Asia and Belarus. Elsewhere (Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia), the Russian influence reached a certain limit, going beyond which would see Moscow needing to increase its military pressure in those countries.
Thus, Economic competition around Georgia and in wider Eurasia is intensifying, with large states increase their efforts to get smaller ones into their respective economic zones. All this is likely to build up geopolitical tensions in the super-continent.
Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today
Unjustified Hope of Iran’s Central Asia Policy
The Washington factor has been and remains, if not the main obstacle, then at least a deterrent to Iran’s strengthening in Central Asia over the past thirty years. The former Soviet Central Asian Muslim republics – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan – collectively known as the “Five Stans”, is a scene of the big game and intense rivalry. In view of geopolitical and geo-economic conditions, these countries have experienced ups and downs in collaboration with Iran. Amid the background of the intensifying Iranian crisis, this article presents a brief analysis of the cooperation between Iran and Central Asian countries, whose people are regional neighbors and have close linguistic, historical and cultural commonalities.
Iran’s “soft power” in Central Asia
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Iran was among the first countries to recognize the independence of the five Central Asian republics, intending to spread its influence through cultural, historical and religious commonalities. The establishment of the first diplomatic relations fell on Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was identified in Central Asia as a relatively moderate leader. He was well aware that after 80 years of communist influence, these “Stans” secular regimes would not accept any Islamic ideology. Therefore, in the late 1990s, his government sought to consolidate the foundations of cultural and historical ties as a tool of “soft power” of Iran’s Central Asia policy.
The main executive body for promoting Iranian “soft power” in the region has become the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization (ICRO), a parastatal agency that is subordinate to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. This organization was considered Iran’s de facto public diplomacy organization and is under the control of the Supreme Leader’s office. By opening Iranian cultural centers in all Central Asian capitals, it has sought to institutionalize elements and patterns of its Persian language and culture in the region. Today, leading Central Asian faculties sufficiently promote Persian language courses that are supported by the Islamic Republic embassies.
In the light of the objectives of the present study, particularly Tajikistan case is seen as a tool of Iranian ‘soft power’ to create a “bridge” between Tehran and Central Asia and become a regional leader. These two ethnicities are considered relatively close, sharing the same Persian roots and constituting the basis of the “Great Persian World.”
Accordingly, with the financial support of Iran’s government, Research Projects such as the Tajik-Persian Culture Research Institute, the “Alhoda” bookstores and “Payvand” magazine have also had an important role in the regional influence. In accordance with the agreement on cooperation in the field of higher education, Tehran funded Tajik students to study at Iranian universities, especially in the modern Persian language and literature. In addition, in 2009, the Iranian state-run Persian News Agency opened its first office in Dushanbe. Correspondingly, Iran was able to represent itself as the main defender and provider of Persian heritage to the Tajik nation.
Additionally, Iran has solidly invested in the Tajik economy, ranking itself as the second foreign investor after China. This was particularly seen during the rule of conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who due to the growing confrontation with the West, preferred cooperation with the northern post-Soviet countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus. His government funded the construction of the Anzob/Istiqlol tunnel through the Pamirs, and the Sangtuda-2 hydropower plant. Alongside its economic support, the Tehran government has been trying to implement its own nuclear project and receiving political support from Tajikistan.
A single geographical territory in the past made these countries to have closer cultural, economic and political integration. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sought to use the national-cultural identity as a starting point for creating a Union of Persian-Speaking Nations: Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Its first joint summit was held in Dushanbe onJuly 2006, when they decided to establish a jointly-run Persian-language TV channel called “Navrooz-TV”. Also Ahmadinejad’s initiative, the three states established the Economic Council of the Persian-Speaking Union in March 2008.
The shift of political soft power is taking place at a time of intensified geopolitical uncertainty for Iran. Therefore, it is imperative to question whether Tehran’s ambitions to break out of international isolation was indeed successful. At first, the person spearheading this debate the most was none other than Afghanistan’s former president Hamid Karzai, when the U.S. and NATO forces ensured country’s military, economic and financial stability of the country. Therefore keeping excessive close ties with Iran would damage its connections with powerful western partners. Secondly, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was negatively viewed at the new Persian Union as it has military and political leverage in Tajikistan. Consequently, Russia was firm in ensuring that Tehran would not strengthen its role in the region. Moreover, Iran’s activities in the Middle East, which caused inter-religious tensions between Sunni and Shia Islam, also affected the sentiments of Central Asian Muslims. Saudi Arabia, Iran’s historical rival, has taken active steps to reach out to Sunni Tajiks to bring them to its side. Over the past thirty years, the Gulf monarchy has spent billions of dollars on spreading radical Islam in the “Five Stans” and Iran’s retention.
Tit for tat
Relations between Tajikistan and Iran seriously deteriorated in 2015 as Tajik authorities accused Iran of supporting the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), attempting a coup d’état in the country and training Tajik Islamic militants in Iran. Iran incurred Tajikistan’s profound rage in December 2015, when Iran’s top leader Ali Khamenei received IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri, who left the country due to political persecution of the authorities. Dushanbe saw the hand of Iran in a terror act on July 2018, in Danghara where 4 foreign tourists were killed. Notwithstanding, Iran has diplomatically rejected the accusation, which deteriorated the relationship between the two Persian-speaking states.
The growth of anti-Iranian sentiment, accompanied by demonstrations in front of the Iranian embassy in Dushanbe, putting an end to Tehran’s initiative in creating a Union of Persian-Speaking Nations based on close linguistic, historical and cultural commonalities. Due to the opposition of regional players and the absence of a broad Shia base, Iran failed to implement the project of the “Great Persia” in Central Asia, as it tries in the Middle East.
As a result of growing tensions, Iran significantly reduced investment in the Tajik economy and closed its economic and cultural offices in the north of Tajikistan. To hold on to its strong lineage of refuting sanctions, Tajikistan banned the import of Iranian food and goods “due to poor quality”, abolished a simplified way of obtaining visas for Iranians, and closed the branch of the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee.
After reaching the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and partial withdrawal of the international sanctions, the Rouhani government sought to resume broken relations with the European Union, Japan, South Korea, and East Asia. The result of this policy was a significant reduction in Iran’s trade with all the countries of Central Asia since 2016. According to official data, trade between Tajikistan and Iran decreased substantially more than three times, while Iran’s trade with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan experienced a significant loss in numbers.
Iran’s nuclear agenda in the Central Asian multilateral cooperation
The “diplomatic quarrel” and a “trade war” between Tajikistan and Iran negatively influenced Tehran’s ambition to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Even though Iran filed a formal application for membership in 2008, Tajikistan twice vetoed its admission and promptly placed its harsh posture against Iran. At the last SCO summit in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek on June 2019, Russia and China firmly supported Iran and stated that the other members, despite the U.S. withdrawal from JCPOA, should respect the nuclear deal. Now that the temperature of tension between Tehran and Washington has reached its highest point, as the SCO has become one of the international platforms for Iranian President Rouhani, who accused the US of “serious” threat to regional and global stability.
Governments of the “Five Stans” seek to maintain a middle position on the Iranian nuclear issue, affirming the right of Iran to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. Today, as the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy has cornered Iran and its economy has been in terrible pain, the new president of Kazakhstan, Kasymzhomart Tokayev, called for the resolution of nuclear contradictions through diplomacy. Being the country’s top diplomat and Prime minister in the 90s, Tokayev played a key role in eliminating Kazakhstan’s nuclear arsenal, inherited from the USSR, and gaining the status of a non-nuclear power. In the past, Kazakhstan has repeatedly called Iran to follow its example.
In addition, Iran and the Central Asian countries also cooperate within the framework of the OIC, the ECO and the CICA, whose platform Iran uses to accuse “American imperialism” and defend its nuclear ambition.
The ups and downs of bilateral and multilateral cooperation of Iran with the “Five Stans” over the past quarter-century have shown that Tehran failed to establish its zone of influence in Central Asia, in the same way as it has created Iranian proxy Shia groups in the Middle East. The main reason for Tehran’s inability to prove itself as an attractive economic partner in Central Asia is the US long-term strategy to contain Iran through economic sanctions and its confrontation with the West over its nuclear program. Therefore, despite the advantages of geographic, religious and cultural commonalities, Iran remains unable to open a “window” to Central Asia in conditions of international isolation and emerge as a regional power.
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