Anti-government protests have continued over the weekend in Serbia, Montenegro and Albania. While the protesters in Albania once again clashed with the police, Saturday evening marked the first time that preventive force was used against the participants of Belgrade demonstrations, who entered the building of the country`s public broadcaster.
Protests in all three countries are aiming to overthrow the ruling parties led by President Aleksandar Vučić, Prime Minister Edi Rama and President Milo Djukanovic respectively. The regimes are accused of corruption, suppression of democracy and media freedoms as well as for bad economic situation.
On 16 March, dozens of demonstrators lead by opposition politicians Bosko Obradovic and Dragan Djilas, entered the headquarters of Radio-Television of Serbia (RTS), bypassing the security and demanding an opportunity to address the viewership live. Since the protests have begun in early December, none of the organizers has been invited to RTS, which is still the most watched television channel in the country.
There were no acts of violence, and the police managed to remove the citizens from the building after several hours, with some accusations of disproportionately harsh treatment.
President Vucic announced that he will be addressing the incident during an extraordinary press conference on Sunday afternoon. Breaking from the traditional protest walks on Saturday, the organizers announced in return that they will be staging protests in the front of the Presidency at the same time, demanding Vucic`s resignation.
Earlier this week, the parties gathered in the Alliance for Serbia, the country`s strongest opposition coalition, gave Vucic and other high state officials a month to resign from their offces, or face demonstrators from all across Serbia who will gather on 13 April in Belgrade if the demands are not met by then. This is the first protests explicitly organized by the opposition politicians, who have started to address the attending citizens more and more every week, taking the role from the popular public figures and representatives of civic initiative.
At the same time, protests in Albania have been openly organized by the opposition from the start. Democratic Party MPs, along with several other opposition parties, have resigned from their parliamentary posts in February. DP`s leader Luilzim Basha has been at the forefront of the demonstrations from their start.
On the 16 March, protesters in Albania once again tried to storm the offices of Prime Minister Rama, and then the national parliament. They were stopped in the latter attempt by the police, who threw tear gas and used water cannons to disperse them. At least one protester was incapacitated. Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd, but many of protesters were prepared with gas masks. Protestants threw stones and smoke bombs at police, pulling down security fences that were erected ahead of the demonstration. The rally drew thousands of protesters from across the country. Opposition Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha was cheered when he appeared in the crowd, leading them on a march to the Office of Prime Minister Edi Rama, where police were already positioned.
Basha announced that various forms of citizen`s resistance will be held across the country. Both US Embassy and EU delegation to Albania condemned the violence, and urged the organizers to prevent it from escalating during future protests.
From the most massive protest “Resist 97,000” so far, which were joined also by students, which was held on 16 March at the Independence Square in Podgorica, was announced that the government privatized the state and protesters again requested the resignation of top officials. Students, academics, civic activists who say they are not affiliated with any political party, marched through the center of Podgorica chanting “We are the state”, “Rebellion” and mostly “Milo thief”. Opposition parties support the protests which started in early February but their leaders have distanced themselves of taking prominent role in the organization or addressing the crowd. An informal group of NGO activists, academics, journalists stand behind the protests. Beside the resignation of President Djukanovic, who has ruled for almost 30 years, the protesters demand the resignation of the Supreme State Prosecutor Ivica Stankovic, and the Chief Prosecutor for Organised Crime Milivoje Katnic. They accuse senior law officials of ignoring evidence and not prosecuting widespread corruption in the country. Saturday`s protest was the fifth in a row. It follows the revelation of footage and documents that appear to implicate top officials in obtaining suspicious funds for the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS). A video clip from 2016 aired in January showed Dusko Knezevic, chairman of the Montenegro-based Atlas Group, appearing to hand the then mayor of Podgorica, Slavoljub Stijepovic, an envelope containing $100,000, to fund a DPS election campaign. Knezevic, who is in London, has since than told the media he had been providing secret cash to the DPS for the past 25 years.
At the protest on Saturday, were more than 15,000 people, which is a big figure if we take into account that the official population of Montenegro is 620, 000 people and in reality due to emigration significantly lower. Gathering to demand the resignations of the most senior state officials, beginning with the President Milo Djukanovic, who has been in power since 1991. The demonstrations have been sparked by the numerous affairs that have revealed the extent of corruption in the ruling party. They are taking place every Saturday, and the next ones are announced for 23 March.
Recent years in the Western Balkans have been shaped by stabilocracies. Governments that first of all fulfill the geopolitical goals of the West. And because of that, by the West, as a reward they have the possibility of human rights violations, corruption and crime, full control of the media. Current protests are the answer to the stabilocracy.
In Albania, corruption and crime are out of control and the demands of the protest are completely legitimate. On the wave of fighting crime and corruption, along with promises for a better future, Edi Rama also come to power. However, the United States of America and the European Union are opposed to protests and for them Parliament is the place where all political solutions need to be found. However, in Parliament as well as in elections, nothing can change in Albania, primarily because of corruption. Because of corruption and crime, which are strongly rooted in Albania, as well as with bad economic situation, the emigration rate is high. Since Albania toppled communism in 1991 untill the end of 2018, more than 1.4 million Albanians, nearly half the current population of this Balkan country, have emigrated mostly to neighboring Italy and Greece and less to the Britain, Germany and the United States. The study, led by Rusell King of the University of Sussex and Albanian researcher Ilir Gedeshi, found that the country’s potential migration had grown from 44 percent in 2007 to 52 precent in 2018.
In Montenegro, the organizers of the protest are the biggest problem. Since the beginning of the protest, they are not conducted professionally, which lead to indignation in a part of the citizens. Protest organizers have offered the opposition parties an “Agreement about future“ which is more likely an ultimatum, in which there is an item that foreign policy of current Government, would not change. The document is submitted to the opposition on principle – take it or leave it. That’s why Dusko Knezevic spoke. Dusko Knezevic made an announcement and made it clear to the protest leaders that he will not allow them to make struggle on the opposition, but to fight against president of Montenegro Milo Djukanovic.
Certainly, the situation in Serbia is most interesting for monitoring, given that it is the most powerful state of the Western Balkans. In the West, it is clear to everyone that Vucic is hated among his people. Aleksandar Vucic put all media under his control, so the opposition is rarely seen on television. While Aleksandar Vucic is over-represented in the media, which causes frustration among the citizens. In addition, the poor economic situation and the constant false promises that it will be better reinforce dissatisfaction. Additionally Aleksandar Vucic “wants to solve the issue of Kosovo” by demarcation, which means that 90 percent of Kosovo would belong to Albania. Because of all of the above massive protests take place in 100 cities in Serbia.
The situation in Serbia is clear to the West, but there is no reliable pro-NATO alternative in the opposition, and the priority work of surrendering Kosovo to “Greater Albania” is not yet completed. West is afraid that protests in Belgrade and in 100 cities in Serbia are not going in the right direction. For this reason, they are forced to endure current Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic, who not only fulfills the requirements of the West, but in good terms anesthetizes Russia by saying exactly the words Moscow wants to hear: that Serbia will never impose sanctions to Russia, that Serbia will never enter in NATO, and that he is pro-Russian. Of course, according to agreements with NATO signed during the time of Vucic’s authorities and some other details, it is obvious that his affection for Moscow is a lie. Aleksandar Vucic persistently refuses to grant diplomatic status to the Russian Humanitarian Center in Nis, and if Russia repeatedly asked for it. At the same time, cooperation with NATO has been strengthened and NATO soldiers in Serbia have a diplomatic status. At the moment of a potential “delineation” satisfied with Vucic’s words, when Kosovo enters NATO, Vucic will probably say that “changed circumstances” force Serbia to reconsider its neutrality. Serbia would become NATO member, and of course, impose sanctions against Russia, given that it is a request of the European Union, and entering in the European Union is a strategic goal for Vucic. Russia already has an example of Vucic’s close friend in Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic, who in his time was close friend of Russia, but later introduced sanctions against Russia, against the will of the people in Montenegro, pulled the country into NATO, and even blamed Moscow for engaging in a fictitious coup against him.
One of the opposition leaders in Serbia Vuk Jeremic, speaks openly that official Brussels and Washington made it clear to him that they are against the protests until Vucic does not solve the issue of Kosovo. It is precisely the geopolitical interests of the West that can disturb the success of protests in Serbia. All in all, in the Balkans, something similar to the Arab spring can not happen, because all the governments in Balkans are pro-Western. But certainly these protests will bring more freedom to the Balkans.
First published in our partner International Affairs
Iceland’s Historic(al) Elections
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
EU-Balkan Summit: No Set Timeframe for Western Balkans Accession
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.
German Election: Ramifications for the US Foreign Policy
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 Coalitions||Trafic Light||Grand Coalition||Jamaica|
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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