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Macron trying to reconcile Serbs and Albanians

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A two-day visit to Serbia by French President Emmanuel Macron, which came to a close on July 16, was designed to repair the damaged reputation of Paris and the entire European Union in the Balkan settlement, particularly, in Kosovo. A meeting of Presidents of Serbia and Kosovo, Aleksandar Vučić and Hashim Thaci, with Macron and German  Chancellor Angela Merkel, which took place in Berlin at the end of April, ended without result, mainly due to differences between Paris and Berlin on the partition of Kosovo. A similar meeting scheduled for the beginning of July in Paris, did not go ahead at all due to a widening gap in the positions of the parties involved. The Balkan capitals are talking ever louder about Europe’s inability to propose to the Balkans at least some effective scenarios and  signal the need to attract the United States in securing the Balkan settlement, which would in fact mean the EU is facing a “vote of no confidence” in the Balkans.

From this point of view, the French leader and his Serbian counterpart managed to achieve some progress. The two parties agreed to gather for the next Kosovo summit in Paris in September.

Speaking of the European political scene, it is Emmanuel Macron who advocates a strong and united European Union, which adapts to the socio-economic specifics of various regions.

Contributing to such an adaptation is the concept of “Europe of two velocities” and of “zones of strong and weak euro”, which come from the transformation of a formally unified EU into a two-tier structure consisting of the financially and economically strong “core” and the weak “periphery”, which comprises, among others, the Balkans.

It is precisely this that causes current friction between France and Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel strongly opposes any division lines in the European Union, be it political and economic ones, and is against re-considering the existing borders. The latter circumstance directly concerns the Balkans in general and Kosovo in particular, since the division of Kosovo into Serb and Albanian parts underlies a scenario that has been under discussion over the past year in Belgrade and in Pristina. It is this plan, or rather, a fierce rejection of it by Angela Merkel (Emmanuel Macron seems to be in favor of it) that, according to reports, led to the failure of the April summit on Kosovo in Berlin and became the main reason for the negotiating parties’ unwillingness to gather in Paris at the beginning of July.

“Those who listened attentively to what President Macron said, understood that they have their own debates and have their own problems to resolve, while we should concentrate on the problems of the region, achieve the best relations possible – in this case we will become stronger and more powerful”, – the Serbian President said commenting on the results of the talks in Belgrade, differences within the European Union itself, and his own vision of how to normalize relations with Kosovo. Speaking in the run-up to negotiations, Aleksandar Vucic emphasized that “Macron is one of the top two European leaders and the person of the future.” He described his French counterpart as “a hardworking and energetic person who is not always easy to deal with.”

The French president did not make it a secret from his Serbian counterpart what kind of problems he faces in the EU proper. According to the Belgrade-based Politika, during a closed meeting of the two leaders with Serbian students, Emmanuel Macron complained about the difficulties of passing any decisions in the European Union and reiterated the need to “modernize” the EU. Aleksandar Vučić, for his part, reaffirmed his commitment to a “compromise solution” on Kosovo, which, in his opinion, would lead to the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina.

Simultaneously, the Serbian president made it clear that Belgrade is ready to reconsider its tough position regarding the decision of the Kosovo authorities adopted at the end of 2018 to impose 100% protective duties on products from Serbia (as well as from Bosnia and Herzegovina). Until now, Belgrade has cited this anti-Serb measure as the main reason for lack of progress in negotiations with Pristina. However, his rhetoric seems to be changing. “I think it’s time to talk anew about some things. I’d hate to slap the blame on the other party and talk about duties; let us give the great powers an opportunity to do their job, ” – said Aleksandar Vucic in the presence of Emmanuel Macron, hinting at the Serbian leaders’ readiness for new compromises. “We are witnessing an upsurge in tension and this tension at times feeds on assistance from external forces that are interested to see to it that a solution is not found,” – Emmanuel Macron remarked, implying that Serbia, Kosovo and France would be able to address the problem of Kosovo more successfully, if there were no obstacles from the outside. In the next few weeks, he said, he would make all the necessary efforts to organize a four-party meeting in Paris with the participation of leaders of France, Germany, Serbia and Kosovo in order to secure a “global and achievable solution” on Kosovo.

What could become such a solution is an agreement on the division of Kosovo with Belgrade retaining control over its northern, Serb-populated regions. Over the past year, Belgrade and Pristina have worked out two draft agreements on the normalization of bilateral relations regarding territorial claims. The corresponding maps were prepared on the basis of an agreement on the delineation of borders, which Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic reached in August 2018 at the European Forum in Austria. The document was supposed to be signed in Brussels in early September 2018 with the participation of the EU leadership. However, disagreements over the principles of demarcation, as well as protests by opposition forces in Belgrade and Pristina, disrupted the schedule.

The Pristina plan proceeds from the fact that the Serbian-Albanian delineation plan should be a “package”- based one, envisaging a comprehensive exchange of territories, including Kosovo’s Serb-populated areas, which constitute a fifth of the region’s territory, the mainly Albanian-populated Bujanovac and Presevo communities adjacent to Kosovo, and, if possible, the community of Medveda, where the population ratio is gradually changing in favor of the Albanians. That the Pristina authorities should transfer part of the territory of Kosovo to Serbian control was indicated by Hashim Thaci at the beginning of 2019, as he spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. In his words, the signing of the relevant agreement with Belgrade in Brussels under the patronage of the EU will allow Kosovo to receive recognition from Serbia and join the UN: “If a minor border adjustment is the price to pay for a final settlement, this should be acceptable.” The resulting document, Hashim Tachi said, must be signed “with the support of the United States.”  Russia, he said, “seems ready to accept an agreement which will be reached” between the parties concerned.

What is meant by the above mentioned is “commitment to achieve a comprehensive peace agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, which will guarantee Kosovo a place in the UN and will enable it at the appropriate time to join NATO allies and the EU,” – the Kosovo leader explained on Twitter.

According to the latest census of Serbia’s population, Presevo is home to 89% of Albanians and 9% of Serbs, Bujanovac is populated by 55% of Albanians and 34% of Serbs, and Medveda – by 26% of Albanians and 67% of Serbs.

The proposed agreement, including in terms of relevant territorial exchanges between Belgrade and Pristina, is supported by the United States. For US President Donald Trump, international conflicts should be settled within the format of bilateral business deals, while his National Security Adviser, John Bolton, has already made it clear that Washington does not “rule out the possibility of re-drawing borders” in the Balkans if “both sides are ready for a compromise between themselves and come to agreement.”

“If Serbia and Kosovo manage to come to agreement on the re-drawing of the border, Austria will definitely not be against this,” – the former (and, most likely, the next) Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said in support of this approach.

However, the agreement in question has many opponents. Among them are not only nationalist and radical forces in Serbia and Kosovo, but also influential players on the European scene. In particular, the former UN special envoy in the Balkans, Carl Bildt, is categorically against changes of borders in the Balkans: “When you do that, you know where to stop but you don’t know how it will end. Borders are borders, they are not to be touched. Many borders in Europe are drawn with blood, and if you change them, you cannot be sure what will happen next. ”

The differences between Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, which do make it difficult for the EU to act as an active and independent player, including in the Balkans, are likely to persist in the coming months. According to the Croatian edition Advance, “ French President, Emmanuel Macron, has been skeptical of late about further enlargement of the European Union. However, some do not share his views, ”including the Federal Chancellor of Germany. “I agree with President Macron that the mechanisms of the European Union need to be improved, but I do not associate this process with a refusal to negotiate membership in the European Union,” – Advance quotes her as saying at the recent EU summit on Western Balkans in Poland.  Advance then continues to analyze the layout of forces in the France-Germany-USA triangle: “Trump will be the last to support the expansion of the European Union. Moreover, he will seek to cut down the existing EU (Brexit and possible future “exits”) during the potential second mandate even more actively than now. Besides, Macron has already made it clear that he is ready to support Trump’s position if he finds it more beneficial (attitude towards Syria, criticism of the Iranian ballistic program, and so on). And Macron will most likely go for it, because he expects Washington to approve him in the role of the “top figure” of what is and will be known as the European Union. ”

Russia has repeatedly pointed out that it will support the agreements between Belgrade and Pristina, if they meet the interests of the Serbian side. In addition to reducing tensions in the Balkan region, normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo would ensure their greater participation in Russian infrastructure and energy projects, including in terms of connection to Russian gas transportation routes. In particular, this could mean stretching an export line of the Turkish Stream gas pipeline through the territory of Southern Serbia and a possible branch from it through Kosovo and further to the Adriatic Sea, with a view to plug in Italy.

 From our partner International Affairs

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

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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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