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The Queen’s Last Ball?

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With a little imagination, the annual Munich Security Conference can be presented as a big social event or royal ball in one of Alexander I’s or Louis XVIII’s European palaces. Just like at a grand ball, great importance is attached to details here, the invitees gossip and exchange rumours, and, on occasion, they even find solutions to extremely important problems. Why was the jumped-up gasbag Count N invited to the ball this year, while the genius and brilliant dancer Marquise NN was not? What were the well-known schemer Baron Z and the rising military General Z whispering about in the corner all that time? And, as a matter of fact, “dost thou know the lady in the crimson cap who with the Spanish envoy speaks?”

As in any ritual honed over the course of decades, everything in Munich is important — the order of the speakers, the time allotted for each session, the status of the moderator, the language preferences of the speakers and much, much more. A significant portion of the activities takes place outside the official program and is not recorded by “uninitiated” observers.

For example, even among the journalists who were present, hardly anyone paid attention to the intricate machinations that were taking place within the rather large delegation from the United States Congress. We are referring here to the search for a political successor to John McCain, that is, for someone who would replace the late Arizona senator as the informal leader of U.S. lawmakers in international affairs. It would seem that the circle of candidates has narrowed considerably, with Republican senator Lindsey Graham (one of the masterminds behind the latest package of sanctions against Russia) taking pole position. However, we will not find out the winner until the next Munich Security Conference.

Attendees at this year’s conference were wondering why such stars of previous editions as Emmanuel Macron and Theresa May were absent this time round. And why did Alexander Lukashenko and Benjamin Netanyahu get cold feet at the last minute? I was particularly disappointed by Netanyahu’s absence — his extremely moving speech, which included props (he showed part of the wreckage of an Iranian drone shot down by the Israeli Air Force), was one of the hits last year. One person who was there, however, was the Israeli Prime Minister’s eternal enemy — Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran Mohammad Javad Zarif, who delivered a speech with his characteristic brilliance.

The most anticipated speakers did not bring any real surprises. Vice President of the United States Mike Pence delivered a speech in the style of an evangelical pastor from his native Indiana, urging obstinate allies to discard their heretical doubts and follow President Trump on every single issue without exception — from counteracting Nord Stream 2 to withdrawing from the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran. The European Union was criticized for its indecisiveness regarding Venezuela: not all of the United States’ European allies have stated their distrust of Nicolás Maduro and recognized Juan Guaidó as the country’s interim president. And China was admonished for its unfair trade practices. Pence also hinted at the impermissible behaviour of Ankara in its decision to enter into military-technical cooperation with Moscow.

The American preacher was repeatedly applauded for his eloquence, at least by the first few rows, which were made up of representatives of the United States and NATO. However, judging from the reaction of everybody else in the conference hall, most of the heretics had no interest in being told off like little children and continued to dig their heels in and hold on to their pernicious delusions. The overall impression was that the Atlantic split continued to deepen, despite the desperate attempts of the political elites on both sides of the Atlantic to halt the process.

Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov was restrained and concise. With his whole appearance, Lavrov demonstrated that his main aim in Munich was not just to publicly state Russia’s positions once again, but to engage in closed bilateral consultations with Russia’s main partners. Rumour has it that his meeting with his German counterpart Heiko Maas and a group of leading German businesspeople was extremely productive. All the more so, as he was joined at the meeting by such pillars of Russian business as Herman Gref and Aleksey Mordashov.

Many were eagerly awaiting the outcome of the consultations between Sergey Lavrov and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Japan Tarō Kōno. According to leaks, the two had a lively, and even stormy, discussion, although no progress in the way of concluding a peace treaty was made. Although it is worth saying here that such a meeting would not have even taken place in principle if it were not for the efforts of Vladimir Putin and Shinzō Abe.

Lavrov’s laconicism at the podium in Munich was compensated to a certain degree by his deputy. At the session on nuclear arms control, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Ryabkov looked more convincing, in my opinion, than his counterpart, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs Andrea Thompson.

Russia’s standout achievement in Munich was the holding of the Primakov Readings at the conference. I cannot recall a single occasion in the past where Russia was given its own platform at the Munich Security Conference. Credit must be given here to the President of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences Alexander Dynkin for his energy and perseverance in getting the event to happen, as well as to Wolfgang Ischinger for his political integrity in giving the Russian side such an opportunity.

However, perhaps the most impressive speech was given by the host of the conference, Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel. Merkel was the true queen of the Munich ball; there was even chatter on the side-lines of the event to the effect that it was the best speech of her long political career. That, of course, is open to argument. I remember another rousing speech she gave at the 51st Munich Security Conference in February 2015.

At that time, Merkel had just returned from a trip to Kiev and Moscow, where she and President of France François Hollande had held exhausting negotiations with Petro Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin on how to put an end to the hostilities in Donbass. Merkel had an urgent flight to catch to Washington, where she had talks with Barack Obama, and a few days later, she was at the historic meeting in Minsk to sign the Minsk II protocols. At the 2015 conference, the German Chancellor looked extremely troubled and visibly tired, yet absolutely convinced in both the desirability and the possibility of preventing bloodshed. She had metal in her voice, the audience hung on her every word, a dead silence reigned in the conference hall and not a single person, it seemed, had any doubts about who the real leader of Europe was.

At the 2019 Munich Security Conference, Merkel looked great. She spoke freely, rather than reading from a script, reacting in a lively manner to the audience and not shying away from difficult questions or resorting to diplomatic ambiguities. Most importantly, she touched upon what most of the people in the audience had long been waiting for. The German Chancellor unequivocally reaffirmed Germany’s candidacy for leader of Europe and, more importantly, outlined a course for Europe to achieve “strategic autonomy” from the United States.

All the “red lines” were clearly marked out. Continuing the energy partnership with Moscow. Preserving the multilateral nuclear deal with Tehran. Opposing the course taken by Washington towards trade wars. Condemning the erosion of U.S.–Russia control over nuclear weapons. Adhering to the letter and spirit of the 1997 Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation. Focusing on multilateralism as a fundamental principle of Germany’s foreign policy.

While the U.S. Vice President was applauded almost exclusively by those VIPs sitting in the front rows of the Hotel Bayerischer Hof conference hall, the German Chancellor’s speech was met with a prolonged ovation from everyone in the hall. Merkel deftly touched what we might call the “main” nerve of the European political process, and she said exactly what most of the people in the hall — Germans and other Europeans — had been waiting to hear.

Of course, there were also sceptics among the participants. There always are! Some were saying on the side-lines of the event that, now Merkel had left her post as leader of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany and was nearing the end of her political career, she could afford herself more liberties than she had done in the past. The suggestion was made that the Chancellor’s speech should be viewed in the context of the upcoming elections to the European Parliament in May, where the European Union’s traditional parties will face an unprecedented challenge from non-systemic nationalists and right-wing populists. Others even argued that the 2019 Munich Security Conference was the “queen’s last ball,” and her speech was not so much a program for the Chancellor’s further work as it was a political bequest to her successor.

We do not know, and perhaps Angela Merkel does not know either whether the 2019 Munich Security Conference was indeed the “queen’s last ball.” We do not know when the veteran of European politics will leave her residence in the government quarter in Spree Bend and start penning her memoirs. The question remains open as to how far Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer or another probable successor will preserve the Chancellor’s political legacy: after all, Merkel herself was once seen as a pale and unimpressive shadow cast by the majestic figure of Helmut Kohl.

What we can say for sure is that, right now, Russia does not have a more reliable, more predictable and more significant partner in Europe, or in the West as a whole. And this despite the fact that Angela Merkel is a difficult and uncompromising partner who is far more demanding of Moscow than, for example, her immediate predecessor Gerhard Schröder. But, as one Frenchman said many years ago, “one can rely only on that which provides resistance.”

It would be wrong to prematurely place Merkel in the category of “lame duck.” On the contrary, serious progress in Europe–Russia relations, the conditions for which may appear as early as this year, would be a worthy and well-deserved finale to the long and difficult political life of one of the most prominent European statespersons of the early 21st century, Angela Dorothea Merkel.

First published in our partner RIAC

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Iceland’s Historic(al) Elections

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The morning of September, 26 was a good one for Lenya Run Karim of the Pirate Party. Once the preliminary results were announced, things were clear: the 21-year-old law student of the University of Iceland, originating from a Kurdish immigrant family, had become the youngest MP in the country’s history.

In historical significance, however, this event was second to another. Iceland, the world champion in terms of gender equality, became the first country in Europe to have more women MPs than men, 33 versus 30. The news immediately made world headlines: only five countries in the world have achieved such impressive results. Remarkably, all are non-European: Rwanda, Nicaragua and Cuba have a majority of women in parliament, while Mexico and the UAE have an equal number of male and female MPs.

Nine hours later, news agencies around the world had to edit their headlines. The recount in the Northwest constituency affected the outcome across the country to delay the ‘triumph for women’ for another four years.

Small numbers, big changes

The Icelandic electoral system is designed so that 54 out of the 63 seats in the Althingi, the national parliament, are primary or constituency seats, while another nine are equalization seats. Only parties passing the 5 per cent threshold are allowed to distribute equalisation seats that go to the candidates who failed to win constituency mandates and received the most votes in their constituency. However, the number of equalisation mandates in each of the 6 constituencies is legislated. In theory, this could lead to a situation in which the leading party candidate in one constituency may simply lack an equalisation mandate, so the leading candidate of the same party—but in another constituency—receives it.

This is what happened this year. Because of a difference of only ten votes between the Reform Party and the Pirate Party, both vying for the only equalisation mandate in the Northwest, the constituency’s electoral commission announced a recount on its own initiative. There were also questions concerning the counting procedure as such: the ballots were not sealed but simply locked in a Borgarnes hotel room. The updated results hardly affected the distribution of seats between the parties, bringing in five new MPs, none of whom were women, with the 21-year-old Lenya Run Karim replaced by her 52-year-old party colleague.

In the afternoon of September, 27, at the request of the Left-Green Movement, supported by the Independence Party, the Pirates and the Reform Party, the commission in the South announced a recount of their own—the difference between the Left-Greens and the Centrists was only seven votes. There was no ‘domino effect’, as in the case of the Northwest, as the five-hour recount showed the same result. Recounts in other districts are unlikely, nor is it likely that Althingi—vested with the power to declare the elections valid—would invalidate the results in the Northwest. Nevertheless, the ‘replaced’ candidates have already announced their intention to appeal against the results, citing violations of ballot storage procedures. Under the Icelandic law, this is quite enough to invalidate the results and call a re-election in the Northwest, as the Supreme Court of Iceland invalidated the Constitutional Council elections due to a breach of procedure 10 years ago. Be that as it may, the current score remains 33:30, in favor of men.

Progressives’ progress and threshold for socialists

On the whole, there were no surprises: the provisional allocation of mandates resembles, if with minor changes, the opinion polls on the eve of the election.

The ruling three-party coalition has rejuvenated its position, winning 37 out of the 63 Althingi seats. The centrist Progressive Party saw a real electoral triumph, improving its 2017 result by five seats. Prime-minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s Left-Green Movement, albeit with a slight loss, won eight seats, surpassing all pre-election expectations. Although the centre-right Independence Party outperformed everyone again to win almost a quarter of all votes, 16 seats are one of the worst results of the Icelandic ‘Grand Old Party’ ever.

The results of the Social-Democrats, almost 10% versus 12.1% in 2017, and of the Pirates, 8.6% versus 9.2%, have deteriorated. Support for the Centre Party of Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, former prime-minister and victim of the Panama Papers, has halved from 10.9% to 5.4%. The centrists have seen a steady decline in recent years, largely due to a sexist scandal involving party MPs. The populist People’s Party and the pro-European Reform Party have seen gains of 8.8% and 8.3%, as compared to 6.9% and 6.7% in the previous elections.

Of the leading Icelandic parties, only the Socialist Party failed to pass the 5 per cent threshold: despite a rating above 7% in August, the Socialists received only 4.1% of the vote.

Coronavirus, climate & economy

Healthcare and the fight against COVID-19 was, expectedly, on top of the agenda of the elections: 72% of voters ranked it as the defining issue, according to a Fréttablaðið poll. Thanks to swift and stringent measures, the Icelandic government brought the coronavirus under control from day one, and the country has enjoyed one of the lowest infection rates in the world for most of the time. At the same time, the pandemic exposed a number of problems in the national healthcare system: staff shortages, low salaries and long waiting lists for emergency surgery.

Climate change, which Icelanders are already experiencing, was an equally important topic. This summer, the temperature has not dropped below 20°C for 59 days, an anomaly for a North-Atlantic island. However, Icelanders’ concerns never converted into increased support for the four left-leaning parties advocating greater reductions in CO2 emission than the country has committed to under the Paris Agreement: their combined result fell by 0.5%.

The economy and employment were also among the main issues in this election. The pandemic has severely damaged the island nation’s economy, which is heavily tourism-reliant—perhaps, unsurprisingly, many Icelanders are in favor of reviving the tourism sector as well as diversifying the economy further.

The EU membership, by far a ‘traditional’ issue in Icelandic politics, is unlikely to be featured on the agenda of the newly-elected parliament as the combined result of the Eurosceptics, despite a loss of 4%, still exceeds half of the overall votes. The new Althingi will probably face the issue of constitutional reform once again, which is only becoming more topical in the light of the pandemic and the equalization mandates story.

New (old) government?

The parties are to negotiate coalition formation. The most likely scenario now is that the ruling coalition of the Independence Party, the Left-Greens and the Progressives continues. It has been the most ideologically diverse and the first three-party coalition in Iceland’s history to last a full term. A successful fight against the pandemic has only strengthened its positions and helped it secure additional votes. Independence Party leader and finance minister Bjarni Benediktsson has earlier said he would be prepared to keep the ruling coalition if it holds the majority. President Guðni Jóhannesson announced immediately after the elections that he would confirm the mandate of the ruling coalition to form a new government if the three parties could strike a deal.

Other developments are possible but unlikely. Should the Left-Greens decide to leave the coalition, they could be replaced by the Reform Party or the People’s Party, while any coalition without the Independence Party can only be a four-party or larger coalition.

Who will become the new prime-minister still remains to be seen—but if the ruling coalition remains in place, the current prime-minister and leader of the Left-Greens, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, stands a good chance of keeping her post: she is still the most popular politician in Iceland with a 40 per cent approval rate.

The 2021 Althingi election, with one of the lowest turnouts in history at 80.1%, has not produced a clear winner. The election results reflect a Europe-wide trend in which traditional “major” parties are losing support. The electorate is fragmenting and their votes are pulled by smaller new parties. The coronavirus pandemic has only reinforced this trend.

The 2021 campaign did not foreshadow a sensation. Although Iceland has not become the first European country with a women’s majority in parliament, these elections will certainly go down in history as a test of Icelanders’ trust to their own democracy.

From our partner RIAC

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EU-Balkan Summit: No Set Timeframe for Western Balkans Accession

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From left to right: Janez JANŠA (Prime Minister, Slovenia), Charles MICHEL (President of the European Council), Ursula VON DER LEYEN (President of the European Commission) Copyright: European Union

On October 6, Slovenia hosted a summit between the EU and the Western Balkans states. The EU-27 met with their counterparts (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo) in the sumptuous Renaissance setting of Brdo Castle, 30 kilometers north of the capital, Ljubljana. Despite calls from a minority of heads of state and government, there were no sign of a breakthrough on the sensitive issue of enlargement. The accession of these countries to the European Union is still not unanimous among the 27 EU member states.

During her final tour of the Balkans three weeks ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that the peninsula’s integration was of “geostrategic” importance. On the eve of the summit, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz backed Slovenia’s goal of integrating this zone’s countries into the EU by 2030.

However, the unanimity required to begin the hard negotiations is still a long way off, even for the most advanced countries in the accession process, Albania and North Macedonia. Bulgaria, which is already a member of the EU, is opposing North Macedonia’s admission due to linguistic and cultural differences. Since Yugoslavia’s demise, Sofia has rejected the concept of Macedonian language, insisting that it is a Bulgarian dialect, and has condemned the artificial construction of a distinct national identity.

Other countries’ reluctance to join quickly is of a different nature. France and the Netherlands believe that previous enlargements (Bulgaria and Romania in 2007) have resulted in changes that must first be digested before the next round of enlargement. The EU-27 also demand that all necessary prior guarantees be provided regarding the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption in these countries. Despite the fact that press freedom is a requirement for membership, the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged the EU to make “support for investigative and professional journalism” a key issue at the summit.”

While the EU-27 have not met since June, the topic of Western Balkans integration is competing with other top priorities in the run-up to France’s presidency of the EU in the first half of 2022. On the eve of the summit, a working dinner will be held, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, called for “a strategic discussion on the role of the Union on the international scene” in his letter of invitation to the EU-Balkans Summit, citing “recent developments in Afghanistan,” the announcement of the AUKUS pact between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, which has enraged Paris.

The Western Balkans remain the focal point of an international game of influence in which the Europeans seek to maintain their dominance. As a result, the importance of reaffirming a “European perspective” at the summit was not an overstatement. Faced with the more frequent incursion of China, Russia, and Turkey in that European region, the EU has pledged a 30 billion euro Economic and Investment Plan for 2021-2027, as well as increased cooperation, particularly to deal with the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Opening the borders, however, is out of the question. In the absence of progress on this issue, Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia have decided to establish their own zone of free movement (The Balkans are Open”) beginning January 1, 2023. “We are starting today to do in the region what we will do tomorrow in the EU,” said Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama when the agreement was signed last July.

This initiative, launched in 2019 under the name “Mini-Schengen” and based on a 1990s idea, does not have the support of the entire peninsular region, which remains deeply divided over this project. While Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro are not refusing to be a part of it and are open to discussions, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, who took office in 2020, for his part accuses Serbia of relying on this project to recreate “a fourth Yugoslavia”

Tensions between Balkan countries continue to be an impediment to European integration. The issue of movement between Kosovo and Serbia has been a source of concern since the end of September. Two weeks of escalation followed Kosovo’s decision to prohibit cars with Serbian license plates from entering its territory, in response to Serbia’s long-standing prohibition on allowing vehicles to pass in the opposite direction.

In response to the mobilization of Kosovar police to block the road, Serbs in Kosovo blocked roads to their towns and villages, and Serbia deployed tanks and the air force near the border. On Sunday, October 3, the conflict seemed to be over, and the roads were reopened. However, the tone had been set three days before the EU-Balkans summit.

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German Election: Ramifications for the US Foreign Policy

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Image source: twitter @OlafScholz

In the recent German election, foreign policy was scarcely an issue. But Germany is an important element in the US foreign policy. There is a number of cases where Germany and the US can cooperate, but all of these dynamics are going to change very soon.

The Germans’ strategic culture makes it hard to be aligned perfectly with the US and disagreements can easily damage the relations. After the tension between the two countries over the Iraq war, in 2003, Henry Kissinger said that he could not imagine the relations between Germany and the US could be aggravated so quickly, so easily, which might end up being the “permanent temptation of German politics”. For a long time, the US used to provide security for Germany during the Cold War and beyond, so, several generations are used to take peace for granted. But recently, there is a growing demand on them to carry more burden, not just for their own security, but for international peace and stability. This demand was not well-received in Berlin.

Then, the environment around Germany changed and new threats loomed up in front of them. The great powers’ competition became the main theme in international relations. Still, Germany was not and is not ready for shouldering more responsibility. Politicians know this very well. Ursula von der Leyen, who was German defense minister, asked terms like “nuclear weapons” and “deterrence” be removed from her speeches.

Although on paper, all major parties appreciate the importance of Germany’s relations with the US, the Greens and SPD ask for a reset in the relations. The Greens insist on the European way in transatlantic relations and SPD seeks more multilateralism. Therefore, alignment may be harder to maintain in the future. However, If the tensions between the US and China heat up to melting degrees, then external pressure can overrule the internal pressure and Germany may accede to its transatlantic partners, just like when Helmut Schmid let NATO install medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe after the Soviet Union attacked Afghanistan and the Cold War heated up.

According to the election results, now three coalitions are possible: grand coalition with CDU/CSU and SPD, traffic lights coalition with SPD, FDP, and Greens, Jamaica coalition with CDU/CSU, FDP, and Greens. Jamaica coalition will more likely form the most favorable government for the US because it has both CDU and FDP, and traffic lights will be the least favorite as it has SPD. The grand coalition can maintain the status quo at best, because contrary to the current government, SPD will dominate CDU.

To understand nuances, we need to go over security issues to see how these coalitions will react to them. As far as Russia is concerned, none of them will recognize the annexation of Crimea and they all support related sanctions. However, if tensions heat up, any coalition government with SPD will be less likely assertive. On the other hand, as the Greens stress the importance of European values like democracy and human rights, they tend to be more assertive if the US formulates its foreign policy by these common values and describe US-China rivalry as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism. Moreover, the Greens disapprove of the Nordstream project, of course not for its geopolitics. FDP has also sided against it for a different reason. So, the US must follow closely the negotiations which have already started between anti-Russian smaller parties versus major parties.

For relations with China, pro-business FDP is less assertive. They are seeking for developing EU-China relations and deepening economic ties and civil society relations. While CDU/CSU and Greens see China as a competitor, partner, and systemic rival, SPD and FDP have still hopes that they can bring change through the exchange. Thus, the US might have bigger problems with the traffic lights coalition than the Jamaica coalition in this regard.

As for NATO and its 2 percent of GDP, the division is wider. CDU/CSU and FDP are the only parties who support it. So, in the next government, it might be harder to persuade them to pay more. Finally, for nuclear participation, the situation is the same. CDU/CSU is the only party that argues for it. This makes it an alarming situation because the next government has to decide on replacing Germany’s tornados until 2024, otherwise Germany will drop out of the NATO nuclear participation.

The below table gives a brief review of these three coalitions. 1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism and 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism. As it shows, the most anti-Russia coalition is Jamaica, while the most anti-China coalition is Trafic light. Meanwhile, Grand Coalition is the most pro-NATO coalition. If the US adopts a more normative foreign policy against China and Russia, then the Greens and FDP will be more assertive in their anti-Russian and anti-Chinese policies and Germany will align more firmly with the US if traffic light or Jamaica coalition rise to power.

Issues CoalitionsTrafic LightGrand CoalitionJamaica
Russia213 
China312 
NATO132 

1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism. 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism.

In conclusion, this election should not make Americans any happier. The US has already been frustrated with the current government led by Angela Merkel who gave Germany’s trade with China the first priority, and now that the left-wing will have more say in any imaginable coalition in the future, the Americans should become less pleased. But, still, there are hopes that Germany can be a partner for the US in great power competition if the US could articulate its foreign policy with common values, like democracy and human rights. More normative foreign policy can make a reliable partner out of Germany. Foreign policy rarely became a topic in this election, but observers should expect many ramifications for it.

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