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Unrest in Algeria: A blow against Russia?

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The political situation in Algeria has been aggravating as the number of the participants in protest rallies has amounted to one million and these are now being joined by representatives of the Algerian community in other countries – first of all, in France. Thousands of Algerians opposing the regime of incumbent President Abdelasziz Bouteflika have mounted rallies in a number of French cities while the most numerous demonstrations have been reported in Paris and Marseille.

About 200 protesters and the same number of policemen have been injured amid promises by rally activists to paralyze the country’s economic and political life by means of a nationwide strike. For Algeria, a country which has been the stronghold of stability in North Africa for nearly two decades, such a course of events could turn out to be a severe trial. However, what is happening is due to a whole range of internal and external reasons.

Among the internal reasons that have been fuelling tensions in Algeria is the refusal by many Algerians to acknowledge the decision by 82-year-old Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has been in power since 1999, to run for the fifth term in the presidential elections on April 18th.  What has caused a pubic outcry is not the president’s credentials (he played a significant role in the country’s struggle for independence and takes credit for securing an end to the bloody civil war in 2002), but the condition of his health. After surviving a stroke in 2013, Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been moving around in a wheel-chair and has been experiencing severe speech problems. He has been rarely seen in public over the past few years and had to send his representative to the Central Electoral Commission to register him as candidate to presidency from his ruling National Liberation Front. According to reports, at the time of registration the president was under treatment in Geneva and his condition has worsened of late. For this reason, many protesters announced that they had no intention of voting for an “empty place” alleging that the candidate in question barely understood what elections he would be taking part in.  «We don’t even know whether our president is still alive, or whether he is dead. We don’t know who is acting on his behalf», – the French Le Monde quotes one of the protesters as saying.

Nevertheless, shortly after the protests erupted the Algerian news media published the written version of the address to the nation by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in which the president made it clear that he had opted in favor of nominating his candidacy following «requests from the civil society and the political class». «Millions of Algerians have expressed their willingness to back my candidacy by collecting signatures and making their own personal contributions», – the president wrote. He praised the «feeling of civil duty», which, in his words, drove the participants in street protests: «I want to make it clear that I will not allow anyone to gain control of my country’s riches or its future in the interests of some underground influence groups».

Should he win in the elections, Abdelaziz Bouteflika has promised to organize a nationwide dialogue so that citizens and political groups alike could discuss how to reform the system of government in Algeria and prepare the draft of a new Constitution which will be then put to vote at the nationwide referendum. On top of that, the incumbent president signaled readiness to step up struggle against corruption and assured the country’s citizens that the fifth term in office would in any case become the last for him.

In turn, Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia has called for peace and quiet having warned the street protesters about the destabilizing consequences of their actions: «People were offering roses to the policemen, which is good. But I would like to remind you that the turmoil in Syria started with roses too». «They say some are calling for nationwide strikes but I remember the strikes in 1991», – the prime minister said recalling the tragic events of Algeria’s recent history, – when the Islamists took advantage of the protest rallies and political instability in the country to launch their armed struggle for power.

However, political processes at home are not the only factor underlying the current protests in Algeria. Unlike its Maghreb neighbors, Algeria survived the turmoil of the 2011 “Arab Spring” in good condition and with minimum pain. The Algerians received an injection against mass protests when the disturbances of the late 1980s spilled into a decade of civil war, – says Karima Diresh, an expert on North Africa at the Paris-based National Scientific Research Center. In her words, this cost Algeria about 200, 000 killed, and dozens of thousands still unaccounted for.

That’s why what causes the greatest concern in the current situation is not purely internal processes, but the striving of external forces to take advantage of the protests and instill them with a particular urgency. According to reports, standing behind the protest movement are not only activists of the Algerian diaspora abroad but also certain groups within the leadership of the European Union and some in the United States, which are extremely annoyed with the Algerian leadership for faltering in two vital sectors –the military-political and the energy.

 In terms of military-technical cooperation, Algeria is one of Russia’s key partners – not only in Africa, but worldwide. According to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), in a period from 2013 to 2017 Russia supplied Algeria with weapons for a total value of 2.4 billion dollars, which accounted for 59% of the Algerian arms imports. According to 2016 reports, Algeria came third in the list of buyers of Russian weapons ($ 923.6 million), running ahead of Vietnam and coming close to China ($ 958.8 million).

This is largely due to two major factors – firstly, the historical traditions of cooperation which go back to the days when independent Algeria was brought into being with the support of the USSR, and secondly – the country’s strained relations with neighboring Morocco over the Western Sahara. This conflict forces the Algerians to tirelessly strengthen their combat capability.

On the whole, trade and economic cooperation between Russia and Algeria has been developing progressively. According to the results of 2017, Algeria ranked second among African countries in imports from Russia, amounting to 4.6 billion dollars,  after Egypt (6.2 billion dollars). In 2016, the Russian-Algerian trade did not exceed $ 4 billion.

Significantly, all other African countries in 2017 accounted for a total of $ 3.9 billion worth of imports from Russia. According to preliminary data for 2018, the Russian-Algerian trade turnover increased to 5.4 billion dollars (of which only 10 million dollars accounted for Russian imports from Algeria).

In the course of his visit to Algeria in October 2017, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev discussed in detail with the country’s leadership the prospects for the supply of Russian technologies and knowhow in order to create a national atomic industry. “A trustworthy regulatory and legal framework has been set for cooperation in the nuclear power industry,” the head of the Russian government said back then adding that Russia is already preparing nuclear industry specialists for Algeria. “At the same time, we are ready to consider projects for the generation of “clean” power at wind and solar stations,”- Dmitry Medvedev said.

While cooperation between Algeria and Russia is rather a long-running source of headaches for the EU, NATO and the United States, the intention of the current Algerian leadership to re-consider gas supplies to the European market took Brussels by surprise and, according to reports, prompted an agenda that raised the issue of removing the incumbent leadership from power at an early date. A statement on gas supplies was voiced at the end of December 2018 by the Algerian Minister of Energy Mustafa Gitoni, who said that in the next five years his country will cut export gas supplies due to increased domestic consumption. In 2017, Algeria delivered 49.6 billion cubic meters of gas to Europe through pipelines and in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG). However, according to the minister, gas consumption at home is growing at an ever faster pace, and therefore, the leadership will have to re-consider gas exports in 2022: “We have enough gas for our domestic needs only,” predicts Mustafa Gitoni. Algeria is currently producing 130 billion cubic meters of gas, half of which goes for domestic consumption. As for gas consumption in Europe, in 2017 gas supplies amounted to 560.5 billion cubic meters. Of these, 260.4 billion cubic meters of gas were provide by European suppliers  (including non-EU member Norway). The Russian Gazprom shipped 194.4 billion cubic meters to Europe in 2017, while another 105.7 billion cubic meters came from other countries.

Among them, Algeria (with 49.6 billion cubic meters of pipe gas and LNG) was a top supplier, significantly ahead of Qatar (24 billion cubic meters) and Nigeria (12.5 billion cubic meters). The United States accounted for 2.61 billion cubic meters.

Plans by the Algerian government to reorient gas supplies to domestic consumption caused an immediate negative reaction both from the European Union leadership and in the United States. Given the reduction of gas production in the Netherlands and Norway, it is uninterrupted supplies from Algeria that should largely ensure the energy security of Europe and thus allow it to reduce its dependence on Russian gas.

Another option is LNG supplies to Europe from the United States, but their volumes largely depend on the price and demand in European and Asian markets – primarily in China, where the situation has been following an unwelcome course, from the point of view of Europeans.

According to reports by the General Administration of Customs of China for 2018, the growth of China’s gas imports compared to 2017 amounted to 31.8%. By 2025, China’s additional demand for LNG will hit some 78 billion cubic meters, –  analysts at Vygon Consulting say: “In fact, this means gas imports will double, even without Taiwan, by the middle of the next decade.” “China will likely  continue to absorb the growth of supply on the LNG market as new terminals are commissioned, primarily in the US,”- says Fitch Corporation Director Dmitry Marinchenko. According to the company’s reports,  if the above trend persists, by 2024 the absolute volumes of the Chinese gas market will grow almost fourfold.

In the current situation, we should expect more intervention from the United States and the European Union in order to provide Algeria with a ruling politician who would act in line with Western interests. So far, this politician is believed to be the richest man in the country, the billionaire industrialist Issad Rebrab, who makes no secret of his orientation towards France. However, he is already 74 years old, which makes him a transition figure. “The nationalist government formed on the basis of the National Liberation Front deliberately restrained Algerian-French ties, although from the geographic point of view, France, or Italy, are the two most suitable trading partners for Algeria. The younger generation is different. There are a lot of pro-French and pro-American representatives among the opposition who know little about the role the USSR played in the liberation of their country,”- testifies Sergey Balmasov, an expert of the Russian Council on International Affairs.

In addition, the current situation plays into the hands of Islamists who will undoubtedly try to replay the scenario of the civil war of the 1990s with more gains for themselves. And this is fraught with a new escalation of tension in  North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

 First published in our partner International Affairs

Peter Iskenderov, senior research assistant at RAS Slavic Studies Institute, candidate of historical sciences

Middle East

Erdogan’s Calamitous Authoritarianism

Dr.Alon Ben-Meir

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Turkey’s President Erdogan is becoming ever more dangerous as he continues to ravage his own country and destabilize scores of states in the Middle East, the Balkans, and North Africa, while cozying up to the West’s foremost advisories. Sadly, there seems to be no appetite for most EU member states to challenge Erdogan and put him on notice that he can no longer pursue his authoritarianism at home and his adventurous meddling abroad with impunity.

To understand the severity of Erdogan’s actions and ambitions and their dire implications, it suffices to quote Ahmet Davutoglu, formerly one of Erdogan’s closest associates who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and subsequently Prime Minister. Following his forced resignation in May 2016 he stated “I will sustain my faithful relationship with our president until my last breath. No one has ever heard — and will ever hear — a single word against our president come from my mouth.”

Yet on October 12, Davutoglu declared “Erdogan left his friends who struggled and fought with him in exchange for the symbols of ancient Turkey, and he is trying to hold us back now…. You yourself [Erdogan] are the calamity. The biggest calamity that befell this people is the regime that turned the country into a disastrous family business.”

The stunning departure of Davutoglu from his earlier statement shows how desperate conditions have become, and echoed how far and how dangerously Erdogan has gone. Erdogan has inflicted a great calamity on his own people, and his blind ambition outside Turkey is destabilizing many countries while dangerously undermining Turkey’s and its Western allies’ national security and strategic interests.

A brief synopsis of Erdogan’s criminal domestic practices and his foreign misadventures tell the whole story.

Domestically, he incarcerated tens of thousands of innocent citizens on bogus charges, including hundreds of journalists. Meanwhile he is pressuring the courts to send people to prison for insulting him, as no one can even express their thoughts about this ruthlessness. Internationally, Erdogan ordered Turkish intelligence operatives to kill or smuggle back to the country Turkish citizens affiliated with the Gülen movement.

He regularly cracks down on Turkey’s Kurdish minority, preventing them from living a normal life in accordance with their culture, language, and traditions, even though they have been and continue to be loyal Turkish citizens. There is no solution to the conflict except political, as former Foreign Minister Ali Babacan adamantly stated on October 20: “… a solution [to the Kurdish issue] will be political and we will defend democracy persistently.”

Erdogan refuses to accept the law of the sea convention that gives countries, including Cyprus, the right to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for energy exploration, while threatening the use of force against Greece, another NATO member no less. He openly sent a research ship to the region for oil and gas deposits, which EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called “extremely worrying.”

He invaded Syria with Trump’s blessing to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing autonomous rule, under the pretext of fighting the PKK and the YPG (the Syrian Kurdish militia that fought side-by-side the US, and whom Erdogan falsely accuses of being a terrorist group).

He is sending weapons to the Sunni in northern Lebanon while setting up a branch of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) in the country—a practice Erdogan has used often to gain a broader foothold in countries where it has an interest.

While the Turkish economy is in tatters, he is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the Balkans, flooding countries with Turkish imams to spread his Islamic gospel and to ensure their place in his neo-Ottoman orbit. Criticizing Erdogan’s economic leadership, Babacan put it succinctly when he said this month that “It is not possible in Turkey for the economic or financial system to continue, or political legitimacy hold up.”

Erdogan is corrupt to the bone. He conveniently appointed his son-in-law as Finance Minister, which allows him to hoard tens of millions of dollars, as Davutoglu slyly pointed out: “The only accusation against me…is the transfer of land to an educational institution over which I have no personal rights and which I cannot leave to my daughter, my son, my son-in-law or my daughter-in-law.”

Erdogan is backing Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia (backed by Iran) over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inhabited by ethnic Armenians and has been the subject of dispute for over 30 years.

He is exploiting Libya’s civil strife by providing the Government of National Accord (GNA) with drones and military equipment to help Tripoli gain the upper hand in its battle against Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Former Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said in February 2020 that “The unclear Turkish foreign policy by Erdogan may put Turkey in grave danger due to this expansion towards Libya.”

He is meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an effort to prevent them from settling their dispute unless Israel meets Palestinian demands. He granted several Hamas officials Turkish citizenship to spite Israel, even though Hamas openly calls for Israel’s destruction.

He betrayed NATO by buying the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, which seriously compromises the alliance’s technology and intelligence.

He is destabilizing many countries, including Somalia, Qatar, Libya, and Syria, by dispatching military forces and hardware while violating the air space of other countries like Iraq, Cyprus, and Greece. Yakis said Turkey is engaging in a “highly daring bet where the risks of failure are enormous.”

Erdogan supports extremist Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and an assortment of jihadists, including ISIS, knowing full well that these groups are sworn enemies of the West—yet he uses them as a tool to promote his wicked Islamic agenda.

He regularly blackmails EU members, threatening to flood Europe with Syria refugees unless they support his foreign escapades such as his invasion of Syria, and provide him with billions in financial aid to cope with the Syrian refugees.

The question is how much more evidence does the EU need to act? A close look at Erdogan’s conduct clearly illuminates his ultimate ambition to restore much of the Ottoman Empire’s influence over the countries that were once under its control.

Erdogan is dangerous. He has cited Hitler as an example of an effective executive presidential system, and may seek to acquire nuclear weapons. It’s time for the EU to wake up and take Erdogan’s long-term agenda seriously, and take severe punitive measures to arrest his potentially calamitous behavior. Sadly, the EU has convinced itself that from a geostrategic perspective Turkey is critically important, which Erdogan is masterfully exploiting.

The EU must be prepared take a stand against Erdogan, with or without the US. Let’s hope, though, that Joe Biden will be the next president and together with the EU warn Erdogan that his days of authoritarianism and foreign adventurism are over.

The views expressed are those of the author.

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Middle East

Syrian Refugees Have Become A Tool Of Duplicitous Politics

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Syrian refugees in Rukban camp

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria the issue of Syrian refugees and internally displace has been the subject of countless articles and reports with international humanitarian organizations and countries involved in the Syrian conflict shifting responsibility for the plight of migrants.

The most notorious example of human suffering put against political games is the Rukban refugee camp located in eastern Syria inside the 55-km zone around Al-Tanf base controlled by the U.S. and its proxies.

According to official information, more than 50,000 people, mostly women and children, currently live in the camp. This is a huge number comparable to the population of a small town. The Syrian government, aware of the plight of people in Rukban, has repeatedly urged Washington to open a humanitarian corridor so that everyone can safely return home. However, all such proposals were ignored by the American side. U.S. also refuse to provide the camp with first aid items. Neighbouring Jordan is inactive, too, despite Rukban being the largest of dozens other temporary detention centres in Syria, where people eke out a meager existence.

At the same time, the problem is not only refugee camps. Syria has been at war for a decade. The country’s economy has suffered greatly over this period, and many cities have been practically grazed to the ground. Moreover, the global coronavirus epidemic didn’t spare Syria and drained the already weakened economy even more. However, Damascus’ attempts of post-war reconstruction and economic recovery were undermined by multiple packages of severe sanctions imposed by the U.S. At the same time, U.S.-based human rights monitors and humanitarian organizations continue to weep over the Syrian citizens’ misery.

The situation is the same for those refugees who stay in camps abroad, especially in countries bordering on Syria, particularly Jordan and Turkey. Ankara has been using Syrian citizens as a leverage against the European states in pursuit of political benefits for a long time. No one pays attention to the lives of people who are used as a change coin in big politics. This is equally true for Rukban where refugees are held in inhuman conditions and not allowed to return to their homeland. In those rare exceptions that they are able to leave, refugees have to pay large sums of money that most of those living in camp are not able to come by.

It’s hard to predict how long the Syrian conflict will go on and when – or if – the American military will leave the Al-Tanf base. One thing can be said for sure: the kind of criminal inaction and disregard for humanitarian catastrophe witnessed in refugee camps is a humiliating failure of modern diplomacy and an unforgivable mistake for the international community. People shouldn’t be a tool in the games of politicians.

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Middle East

Is Syria Ready For Second Wave Of COVID-19?

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©UNICEF/Delil Souleiman

Despite a relative calm that has been holding on the front lines of the Syrian conflict since the beginning of the year, Syria had to face other equally – if not more – serious challenges. The spread of COVID-19 virus in the wake of a general economic collapse and a health care system battered by nine years of war threatened Syria with a death toll as a high as that of resumed military confrontation. However, the actual scale of the infection rate turned out to be less than it was expected considering the circumstances.

Although Syria did not have much in resources to mobilize, unlike some other countries that were slow to enforce restrictions or ignored them altogether, the Syrian authorities did not waste time to introduce basic measures that, as it became obvious in hindsight, proved to be the most effective. A quarantine was instituted in the areas controlled by the government, all transportation between the provinces was suspended, schools and universities were temporarily closed and face masks were made obligatory in public spaces.

As a result, official data puts the number of people infected with COVID-19 in the government areas at modest 4,457 while 192 people died of the infection. In turn, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria announced that 1,998 people contracted the virus. The data on the infection rate in the opposition-controlled areas in Idlib and Aleppo is incomplete, but the latest number is 1,072. Compared to the neighboring Turkey with  9,000 of deaths of COVID-19, Syria seems to be doing relatively well.

Tackling the virus put the already embattled health care system under enormous strain. Syrian doctors are dealing with an acute shortage of medicines and equipment, and even hospital beds are in short supply. Over 60 medical workers who treated COVID-19 patients died.

The situation is worsened even further by the economic hardships, not least due to the sanctions imposed on Syria by the U.S. and the European states. Syrian hospitals are unable to procure modern equipment necessary for adequate treatment of COVID-19, most importantly test kits and ventilators.

The economic collapse exposed and aggravated many vulnerabilities that could have been easily treated under more favorable circumstances. A grim, yet fitting example: long queues in front of bakeries selling bread at subsidised prices, that put people under the risk of catching the virus. Many Syrians are simply unable to avoid risking their health in these queues, as an average income is no longer enough to provide for a family.

Moreover, despite a nation-wide information campaign conducted with the goal of spreading awareness about means of protections against COVID-19 like social distancing and mask-wearing, for many Syrians the disease is still stigmatized, and those who contracted it are often too ashamed to go to a hospital or even confess to their friends. As consequence, a substantial number of cases goes unreported.

With the second wave of COVID-19 in sight, it is of utmost importance that the work of health care professionals is supported, not subverted by the citizens. Otherwise Syria – and the world – may pay too high a price.

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