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Italy and the Belt & Road Initiative

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There has been a growing scepticism with regard to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project in many quarters, due to the lack of transparency with regards to terms and conditions as well as the economic implications for countries which are part of the project. A report published by the Center for Global Development (CGD) Washington in April 2018 flagged 8 countries (including Pakistan, Maldives, Laos and Djibouti where the level of debts are unsustainable.

Apart from red flag raised by a number of researchers, the removal of Pro-China leadership in countries like Malaysia, Maldives and Sri Lanka has also resulted in the problems of the BRI project, and China’s economic dealings (which are clearly skewed in favour of Beijing) with other countries drawing more attention.

The most vocal critic of China’s economic links has been by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. During a visit to China in August 2018, Mahathir not known to mince his words while alluding to China’s trade relations with poorer countries could lead to ‘a new version of colonialism’. Mahathir later on denied that his statement was targeted at China or the BRI. The fact is that the Malaysian Prime Minister did scrap projects estimated at well over 20 Billion USD (which includes a rail project, East Coast Link as well as two gas pipelines).

Top officials in the Trump Administration, including US Vice President Mike Pence, have also been critical of the BRI project for a variety of reasons. The major criticism from US policy makers has been the economic ‘unsustainability’ of the project as well as the point that the project is skewed in favour of China.

Italy to join BRI

As the debate carries on with regard to the BRI,no body can ignore the fact, that Italy (the world’s 8th largest economy) is likely to become the only G7 country to join the BRI.

During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Italy, later this month (March 22-24) a Memorandum of Understanding MOU, and could be signed. Senior officials in the government have been cautious, and have emphasised on the fact, that the MOU would be ‘non-binding’. Commenting on the status of the MOU, Undersecretary in Italy’s economic development ministry, Michele Geraci stated:

 ‘…it is possible that it will be concluded in time for [Xi’s] visit.”

Geraci a Sinophile, who has spent a fair amount of time in China, is said to be driving the ruling coalition’s policy (The Five Star Movement (M5S) and right leaning Lega joined hands to form a government in June 2018) towards China.

Italian PM, Giueseppe Conte while addressing a seminar, in Genoa, made the point, that while joining BRI would open new opportunities and horizons for Italy, Rome was likely to be cautious, and would not do anything in haste.

Current state of Italy-China relations

If one were to look at the state of China-Italy bilateral relations. China-Italy bilateral trade reached nearly 50 Billion USD in 2017. China is Italy’s largest trading partner in Asia. It would be pertinent to point out that ties between both countries are not restricted to the economic sphere.  There has also been a rise in Chinese tourists visiting Italy (over 1.5 million annually). Even in the sphere of education, linkages between both countries are rising. As of 2017, there were over 6,000 students Italian students in China and nearly 20,000 Chinese students in Italy.

The current government has given immense attention to China, and there have been 3 high level visits ever since the ruling coalition took over the reigns last June (senior officials who visited include – Italy’s Finance Minister Giovanni Tria, Geraci, and Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio — who also holds the charge of economic development minister). The Italian PM is also likely to attend the second Belt and Road Forum to be held in Beijing in April 2019.

The clear objective of becoming part of BRI, according to senior officials, is to get access for its goods and to also leverage its geo-political location within Europe.  During his visit to China in September 2018, the Italian Deputy PM had spoken in favour of Italy joining the project. The Deputy PM who had gone to attend the 17th Western China International Fair had made the point that Italy was identifying the possible avenues for participation in the project, and that the G7 country could benefit immensely, if it successfully harnessed it’s own economic and geographical strengths.

In  2018,the inaugural meeting of Italy’s China Task Force was held in Rome (this is headed by Michele Geraci). The key objectives of this task force are; to give an impetus to bilateral economic cooperation (to give a boost to Chinese investments in Italy, giving a push to Italian exports to China, cooperation in Research and Development) and also to explore how Italian companies could seek financing under the BRI initiative.  Italy has also been seeking to expand cooperation with China in Africa (the argument is that African growth will help in putting a check on immigration to Italy). Interestingly, former PM Paolo Gentiloni had urged EU and US to invest more in Africa, and to counter China’s growing influence.

Scepticism with regard to Italy-China economic relations

While the government has unequivocally spoken out in favour of this decision. Many argue, that Italy will need to develop it’s own infrastructure – especially the rail system, if it needs to benefit significantly from BRI. Given Italy’s current fiscal situation, too much investment into infrastructure seems highly unlikely. With China having invested in Piraeus (Greece) it is important that the Venice Port becomes more competitive. This will require not just economic investments, but strategic thinking.

There are those who also argue, that the current Italian government has given too much attention to Beijing, at the cost of relations with other countries. The China policy, it is argued will also have an adverse impact on EU’s common China policy

Unlike other Western countries, Italy has not given a very strong reaction on the Huawei controversy

Italian Deputy Prime Minister was quick to state that “We are in no way tilting the geopolitical axis,”

Italian PM also made it clear, that while Italy will join the BRI, it will ensure that this benefits both, and that EU norms and values are not forgotten.

It is argued, that by reaching out to Euro skeptics in EU, Beijing is trying to create divisions within the bloc. Countries like Hungary and Greece, which are being increasingly dependent upon China, have taken a different stance from other EU countries on issues such as The South China Sea and Human Rights violations.

The EU has been critical of the BRI..

It has even come up with its own version of BRI. In September 2018, EU’s strategy for connecting Europe and Asia. Senior EU officials including High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini made it clear, that EU’s strategy was to enhance connect between Europe and Asia, and to ensure it was beneficial for both. The project would also take into account financial and environmental sustainability.

US reaction to Italy joining BRI

US also took note of Italy joining BRI. As expected, the US was critical of Italy’s decision to join the BRI. A White House National Security Council spokesperson, Garrett Marquis in a media interview stated:

“We view BRI as a ‘made by China, for China’ initiative,”

As mentioned earlier, senior members of the Trump Administration too have flagged the shortcomings of the BRI project and how the dependence of certain countries in Asia and Africa is rising.

Conclusion

It is important for countries within the EU as well as other countries sceptical of the BRI to adopt a more pragmatic stance towards Italy’s decision. One must also keep in mind the fact, that while speaking about signing an MOU with China it has left room for manouevre. It is also important for countries vary of increasing Chinese influence to themselves stand up for liberal values, and greater economic integration. One of the reasons for Beijing’s increasing economic clout, is increasing the inward looking economic policies being adopted by a number of countries – not just the US. At the January 2017, World Economic Forum (WEF) Chinese President Xi Jinping had warned against the increasing scepticism with regard to globalisation. Said the Chinese President:

‘Some people blame economic globalization for the chaos in our world. Economic globalization was once viewed as the treasure cave found by Ali Baba in the Arabian nights, but now it has become the Pandora’s Box.’

Very few leaders have spoken up on this issue forcefully enough. Similarly, if the US has flagged problems of the BRI it should be willing to invest in an alternative narrative. So far even if one were to look about the narrative of a ‘Free and Fair’ Indo-Pacific, Washington has not made significant financial commitment (In July 2018, the Trump administration did make a commitment of 113 Million USD for areas like energy, digital economy and infrastructure). While it is believed that the US IDFC (International Development Finance Corporation) created through BUILD (Better Utilisation of Investment leading to development act)  may be able to give the much required boost to some important connectivity projects, but it’s total budget estimated at 60 Billion USD pales in comparison to China’s budget.

The only country which has attempted to put up a cohesive alternative to BRI is Japan’s ‘Partnership for Quality Infrastructure’ (PQI). Japan along with Asian Development Bank will be providing over 100 Billion USD (50 Billion from Japan and 50 Billion from ADB) for infrastructure in Asia. Japan’s economic presence in Africa is also steadily rising, though it is assisting Africa in a number of other areas like health, education through Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) ( which is co-hosted by the Government of Japan, The World Bank, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the African Union Commission and the United Nations).

While it is true, that globalization may not be perfect and some scholars went overboard, but there is also no denying the point that populist policies which have favoured economic isolationism may have helped in achieving political successes, but their limitations are beginning to show in the economic sphere. It is for this reason, that even leaders like Mahathir who are critical of Chinese projects have stated, that if he were to chose between China and an ‘unpredictable US’ he would choose the latter.  Italy on its part must be cautious and should astutely balance its own interests and not allow Beijing to have a free run. Differences with the EU, should not lead to Italy and other countries becoming excessively dependent upon China.

There is no denying the fact, that Italy’s acceptance of the BRI has important implications which go well beyond EU.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India

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Europe

Italy’s Last Unexpected Eurosceptic Friend: Edi Rama and his “Lesson to Europe”

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On March 29, Italian and Albanian media reported the news of the arrival in Italy of a team of 10 physicians and 20 nurses from Tirana to fight the Coronavirus epidemic that has hit the country since the end of February. The medical professionals will work in Italy for one month with their expenses being covered by the Albanian government. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama accompanied the team of experts at the Airport “Nënë Tereza” where he read a speech in Italian that was warmly received by the media and public opinion in the neighbouring country. To many Italians, the words of the Albanian premier sounded as a sincere act of friendship given in return of the assistance provided by Italy to Albania in the last decades and especially in the aftermath of the recent earthquake of last November. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, leader of the opposition Matteo Salvini and chief of the Protezione Civile (Civil defence Corps)Angelo Borrelli expressed their gratitude to Albania through their Social Media and public declarations. The parts of the speech that gained more media attention are those in which he underscores the selfish attitude of the other countries in the Covid-19 crisis:

“(…) It is true that all are closed within their borders and also very rich countries have turned their backs from the others. And maybe it is because we are not rich and [we are not] without memory that we cannot afford not to show Italy that Albanians and Albania will never abandon their friend in a moment of difficulty.”

In the course of last week, the Italian public opinion was strained by Germany’s and Holland’s refusal to share the economic weight of the Coronavirus crisis among EU countries through the emission of the Eurobonds. Some Italian newspapers have defined Edi Rama’s speech as a “lesson” of solidarity that a small country like Albania is giving to rich and big EU countries that cannot put aside individual interests for their collective good. The leading opposition organ Il Giornale which usually promotes anti-immigrant (including anti-Albanian) content, published on March 30th an article by the title “The great lesson of the Albanian premier to the bureaucrats of the UE” in which the author criticizes the attitude of the president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen for refusing to back Italy’s demands. The author declared that “the words of Edi Rama are above all a lesson of style to a class of eurocrats that (…) have shown their cynicism and their inadequacy. Italy will certainly not forget the solidarity of Tirana and the egoism of the European Union.” On March 29, the Left-oriented newspaper Open commented the news witha similar heading: “The lesson to the rich Europe from small Albania (…)”. The journalist remarked that the “Albanian premier Edi Rama, with his little big gesture has taught European leaders what it means to be part of Europe”. The same day Il Tempo presented Edi Rama’s speech as a “Lesson from Albania to Europe” stressing that while the EU is trying to find an agreement, Italy applauds Albania. The Italian edition of the Huffington Post in the article “The Albanian Lesson” emphasised the symbolic character of the Albanian assistance to Italy.

Beside the undisputable value that the Albanian medical staff will bring to Italy’s ability to curb the epidemic, the speech pronounced by Edi Rama has above all contributed to bring his and Albania’s popularity to a level that has never been so high in Italy. Edi Rama’s speech momentarily recalibrated the set of ideas through which the majority of Italians are accustomed to look at Albanians. It is hard to imagine that Edi Rama did not foresee the possibility that his words were going to be used in the Italian “internal” debate concerning the attitude of the EU toward their country. Edi Rama’s relation with Brussels has not been so keen after EU’s refusal to open membership negotiations with Albania last October. Put in front of the fact that Albania was not going to access the EU anytime soon, in the last months of 2019 Rama pushed for the constitution of a so-called mini-Schengen with Serbia and Northern Macedonia. On March 24, EU retrieved its decision to keep Albania (and Northern Macedonia) out of membership talks. However, Edi Rama probably did not want to miss the occasion for a little reprisal against the attitude of some EU member states that had damaged his internal and external credibility after turning down Albania from accession talks in October. His words certainly improved his own and Albania’s image in the neighbouring country, but at the same time he endorsed and alimented the endemic anti-EU Italian trends.

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Covid-19: Macron’s conflicting crisis communication

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2020 started in France with a strike from the SNCF national railway workers who were massively protesting against the ongoing reforms of their special pension system. This crisis shortly spread out to an important proportion of the french population, who rallied to this cause and challenged an executive power considered as elitist. Two months later, France is confronted to an unprecedented health crisis of a virus, the covid-19, that originated in china and quickly affected the whole world. Macron is therefore facing a major challenge : bring out of a crisis a country already in crisis, which no longer believes in its president.

First it is to be noted that the government was clearly walking on eggshells since the beginning of the crisis. The 4th march, the government spokesperson, Sibeth Ndiaye , wrongly stated that drastic measures such as closing schools in France was not necessary and that “French citizens should continue to live normally”.  A few days later, Emmanuel Macron went with his wife to the theatre, in order to encourage the French ” to continue to go out despite the coronavirus pandemic”. He even claimed : “Life goes on. There is no reason, except for the vulnerable populations, to change our habits of going out.”

One week later, the 12th march, the Head of State, spoke to the French for the first time since the beginning of the health crisis, in a completely different tone. “France is facing the most serious health crisis in a century”. It is with these words that Emmanuel Macron positioned himself as the leader of a war of another kind. Among other things, he announced the closure of schools (which was in complete contradiction with the most recent government communication). He also praised the welfare state, words that have hardly been heard in his voice since his election. Then the 14th march Edouard Philippe, the Prime Minister, faced with the accelerated spread of the virus and the number of people hospitalized in intensive care units, announced a reinforcement of the barrier measures of “social distancing”, with the  closure  at  midnight  of all places receiving non-essential public: restaurants, cafés, cinemas, nightclubs. The strict travel restriction for at least 15 days was announced by Macron the 16th march. A fortnight postponed by a fortnight, a concept french citizens quickly understood.

In this context, how can the French population not criticize the executive for not having anticipated this crisis? How can one feel safe when the government itself seems to be lost? In fact, quickly the public opinion stressed that public expectations during this period focused more on “masks, tests and post-crisis concerns” than on any need to see a Head of State play “Georges Clemenceau visiting the trenches”. Regarding the masks, the stocks were soon  empty  and  adding  to  the  government’s  mistake,  the French were lied to at the beginning of the crisis by saying that the masks were useless if we were not sick. Another political absurdity, is the fact that the government has allowed the first round of municipal elections, even though it has repeatedly ordered french people to “stay home.” An executive branch weakened by the former Minister of Health, Agnès Buzyn, who claimed to have warned Édouard Philippe and Emmanuel Macron as early as January of the impossibility of holding municipal elections because of the epidemic.

Today, the Head of State undertook to draw “all the consequences” of the crisis. Consequences that will probably be heavy considering all of the above. A crisis that calls into  question  globalisation,  the  European  Union,  the  welfare  state,  public  services, production chains and much more. It is clear that some things are going to change, that the president is going to have to govern as an economic crisis will severely hit the world.

That being said, if the government will manage to transform a crisis into an opportunity it is probably too early to tell. What’s certain is that he’s going to be held accountable for a faltering communication at a time where the population needs to know precisely what is going on and where are we going.

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Coronavirus Reveals Cracks in European Unity

Christian Wollny

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The European unity and solidarity stand at the precipice now: how can the members trust in each other in times of a greater peril when even during a global epidemic help is forsaken? How to convince Spain to commit to Poland’s protection from Russia, or prevent Italy from deepening its ties with China via the Belt and Road Initiative? The EU appears to be a house divided; the European unity must mean more than just travelling around visa-free. Failing to get their act together, Europeans will fall under approaches of the USA, Russia, and China, all vying for a slice of the European Cake.

Europe must come together politically – now, not after the crisis has passed. Politicians from Warsaw, Berlin, Paris, Madrid to Lisbon must unite as quickly as possible, coordinate, show the European people: we stand as one, nobody gets left behind, no one in our common European home. Remember the good of the united Europe, common values, and the most powerful have to move forward together in unison: Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron have to do more than just emotional appeals or the war rhetoric against the enemy named Corona. Europe must fight the virus with its common strength. This rich, diverse continent with its educated, diverse people must now prove that it is more than an economic community. Political leaders have to lead by example, or else risk losing everything that generations of statesmen and the society have so painstakingly erected: peace, stability, and friendship across a historically war-torn continent. Maybe the real pandemic is friends having been breaking apart along the way?

The EU has long not stepped forward during the ongoing Corona Crisis. While the EU usually maintains supremacy on virtually every other issue, in the case of the Corona Crisis it has been shamefully silent. Surely, health is a national issue; however, one can expect more from the entity that regulates the shape of cucumbers and the lamination of light bulbs.

Yet, in the event of a global pandemic, the EU relegates responsibility to local or regional administrations. While federal states such as Germany have been just as slow to react, leaving the organizational responsibility with local governments (and only recently nationalizing the purchase of medical equipment), other more unitary states such as France have been quicker to react.

Even the Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has admitted that the coronavirus has been underestimated by politicians. Besides appeals to member states to not shut down their borders and calls for solidarity, the EU leadership has once again showed its powerlessness during a crisis.

The Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC), founded in 2013 precisely for managing a situation like the ongoing pandemic, has failed to provide Italy the help and supplies it urgently requested. European member states can utilize the ERCC to request assistance from other members, but Italy’s latest call in this crisis has remained largely unanswered by its neighbours.

It’s a free-for-all out there. Yet before we conclude the loss of European unity, let’s examine some examples of cracks in the said unity.

Everyone for Themselves?

On March 17, 2020, the EU leadership finally decided to shut down borders, effectively banning entry into the EU for foreigners — a half eternity after nine individual member states had already unilaterally decided to shut down their respective national borders. Among these member states are the Visegrád States (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia), as well as Austria. These states previously had taken unilateral action during the Migrant Crisis of 2015. In reality, this directive facilitates the reintroduction of border controls with ID checks, but implications are far more severe. The free movement of people in Europe is one of the four tenets of the EU, and it has been rendered moot during the Corona Crisis, all under the pretense of fighting the viral epidemic.

The next concern has been how member states interact with each other in handling the crisis, or rather the lack of interaction thereof. France has unilaterally announced an export ban on medical equipment, such as masks and respirators, with Germany following suit. The rationale behind these decisions was to keep medical equipment in the country and prevent opportunists from selling them abroad at unethical prices. For smaller and severely impacted countries, though, this spells a death sentence. While Italy has called upon its European allies for aid in this dark hour, the response has been meager. China, on the other hand, answered the call by sending medical equipment via shipping to Rotterdam, to be transported to Italy through Germany. Germany initially blocked the export of these masks under the guise of its new emergency law, and only after the immense pressure from the European community did it relax the law and let the shipment pass. At the same time, Austria banned entry for Italian nationals unless they prove they are corona-free with a doctor’s note.

Italy is feeling left alone, but Italians have learned to get used to this already during the Migrant Crisis of 2015 and the Financial Crisis of 2009. Yet the Chinese gesture of supplying crucial equipment has left the EU stand in the rain, and it continues to compound this feeling, with ECB’s Christine Lagarde implying that it isn’t the ECB’s responsibility to help Italy. Her comment on how it was not her job to “close the spreads” between 10-year German and Italian bonds caused the largest daily increase on record. The FTSE MIB, the Milanese stock index, dropped significantly. Solidarity may be many things, but not that. In times of crisis, Europe’s bureaucratic machinery is painfully slow.

These three examples are only the latest to prove that the European Union does not stand as united as it likes to believe. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said, “We didn’t need to wait for Brussels to give us any advice,” when he announced the Czech Republic would effectively shut down public life. These cracks in unity are really showing now during a global pandemic, but, truthfully, they have been there from the start and have been widening since then.

A History of Discord

A more historic example of discrepancy in unity was the preferential treatment of the United Kingdom in terms of their financial contributions to the EU budget. The so-called “UK Rebate,” active from 1985 to 2020, ensured that the UK retained the majority of its financial contributions. Many EU member states have repeatedly sought to right this wrong, but to no avail. While certainly not the first injustice to sow discord among the member states, it was a particularly significant issue, showing the duality of treatment between larger and smaller economies in the EU.

The Greek government debt crisis demonstrated that the reversal of the previous example could be true. Greece, with seemingly criminal energy, forged its financial data to gain entry to the EU and its unlimited coffers. Only the impact of the 2009 Global Financial Crisis revealed the scam. The EU with Germany and Merkel at its helm fought tooth and nail to keep Greece solvent and in the union, much to the chagrin of hard-working Northern and Eastern members. When the UK would later declare its desire to leave the EU, it at least seemed like the EU (and again, Germany) felt personally insulted and could not wait for the UK to leave, as a form of punishment or vindication. The result is, however, a higher financial burden for the net paying members as the EU would not be expected to decrease its budget after all.

In 2015, another crisis would once again show the failure of the EU to stand united. As a myriad of migrants entered Greece and Italy illegally, unequivocally claiming asylum and short-circuiting the Dublin II Treaty, the EU remained silent for too long until Germany unilaterally decided to issue an “invitation” and really kick off the crisis. While indeed most of these migrants would (illegally) continue their paths on to Germany and Sweden, Italy and Greece had to deal with the impact of their arrival on their shores. As Germany took in more and more migrants, calls for Eastern European member states to take in their “fair” shares became louder from the very same German officials claiming this Willkommenskultur.

Even in the current time, the strife is evident. The ongoing Turkey-Greece 2020 Refugee Crisis showcases this yet again. Greece is expected to uphold the European law and protect the EU-borders, whilst German commentators decry her actions as “racist” and fascist.” Instead of shaming Erdogan, who unilaterally broke the EU-Turkey refugee deal, the European public hounds Greece. Against what next? Greeks have been very tolerant and welcoming over the years, but the situation on the Greek Isles has reached a tipping point, and again a member state is left alone. The ongoing crisis has been pushed back from the spotlight.

The Breaking of the Fellowship?

These historic examples, combined with the previously mentioned failures to aid during the ongoing epidemic, paint a less than favourable picture of the European Unity. There will be a time after Corona. But what will it look like? How can the EU turn from such distrust and egoism? Surely, national governments own primary allegiance to their electorates, their own citizens, and most governments are steering through this crisis by heavily relying on virologists and immunologists, who often quarrel with differentiating viewpoints. This explanation would work for other alliances, but the EU aims to be more than just an alliance, more than just a union of states. With everyone on the lookout only for themselves, it’s easy to forget these European ideals. Nevertheless, the appeal must now be made: Don’t Forget Europe!

The European unity and solidarity stand at the precipice now: how can the members trust in each other in times of a greater peril when even during a global epidemic help is forsaken? How to convince Spain to commit to Poland’s protection from Russia, or prevent Italy from deepening its ties with China via the Belt and Road Initiative? The EU appears to be a house divided; the European unity must mean more than just travelling around visa-free. Failing to get their act together, Europeans will fall under approaches of the USA, Russia, and China, all vying for a slice of the European Cake.

Europe must come together politically – now, not after the crisis has passed. Politicians from Warsaw, Berlin, Paris, Madrid to Lisbon must unite as quickly as possible, coordinate, show the European people: we stand as one, nobody gets left behind, no one in our common European home. Remember the good of the united Europe, common values, and the most powerful have to move forward together in unison: Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron have to do more than just emotional appeals or the war rhetoric against the enemy named Corona. Europe must fight the virus with its common strength. This rich, diverse continent with its educated, diverse people must now prove that it is more than an economic community. Political leaders have to lead by example, or else risk losing everything that generations of statesmen and the society have so painstakingly erected: peace, stability, and friendship across a historically war-torn continent. Maybe the real pandemic is friends having been breaking apart along the way?

From our partner RIAC

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