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Consequences of the Diplomatic Recognition of Abkhazia by the Syrian Arab Republic

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Abkhazia is a partially recognized state — Russia (2008), Nicaragua (2008), Venezuela (2009), Nauru (2009), Syria (2018) — of 8,660km2 and 240,000 inhabitants located on the shores of the Black Sea. During the Soviet times, the region was one of the most prosperous area in the USSR due to its geographic position in addition to a recognized wine industry, tobacco, oranges, and a hub for Soviet tourism.

Abkhazia has always been of strategic interest to the USSR/Russia and the Ottoman Empire/Turkey because it connects by land — without going through the mountains — the Slavic world to the Middle East, while ensuring control over the Caucasus people living in the area.

The Russian/Abkhaz military facility in Gudauta opened in July 1918 (1st Kursk Soviet Infantry Division) and remains active nowadays under the name of the ‘7th Krasnodar Red Banner Order Kuturoz Red Star Military Base.’ Gudauta is not the only military center, it also has the Sukhum/i airport which has one of the longest airstrips in the world, capable of accommodating space shuttles, currently used by the Abkhaz Air Force (Военно-воздушные силы Абхазии).

From a diplomatic perspective, the Russian Federation has been assisting Abkhazia since the USSR´s breakup with peacekeepers on the ground and further providing 60% of the state budget according to the Abkhaz State Investment Agency. Following the diplomatic recognition of the territory in 2008, the Russian peacekeepers became de jure the Russian Armed Forces in Abkhazia (Russian/Abkhaz perspective), and the Russian illegal occupants in Georgia (Western/Georgian perspective).

The decision to recognize Abkhazia underlines a growing competition between the West and Russia, and a strong diplomatic retaliation to the recognition of Kosovo (2008) by the United-States and (most) EU member states (e.g. Spain refused to recognize Kosovo because of the political tensions in Catalonia). The recognition of Abkhazia has been an opportunity to increase Moscow’s influence in the Black Sea and diminished NATO and EU (Eastern Partnership) smart power in the post-Soviet space.

Russian diplomacy following the recognition of Abkhazia and South-Ossetia is significantly different compared to 1992¬–2008. Before 2008, Moscow was focused on maintaining a buffer zone between Georgia — influenced by the West — and Russia. After 2008, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs began promoting the Montevideo Convention and regionalism in Europe and in the Southern Caucasus.

On the one hand, from the Russian perspective, Abkhazia remains a fundamental part of the Russian military influence power in the Caucasus. However, after 2008 it shows a more complex picture and the development of an active Russian minority-based foreign policy. Unlike Transnistria and South-Ossetia, interested in joining the Russian Federation, Abkhazia is interested in establishing bilateral relationship with Russia based on mutual respect and shared economic and security interests. The Abkhaz leadership is trying to increase the practice of Abkhaz language, preserve the Abkhaz native religion and regional identity, contrary to Transnistria and South-Ossetia interested, as it was said before, in joining the Russian Federation.

On the other, from the Western perspective, the debate on the application of the Montevideo Convention in Abkhazia is not excluded, and Western leaders are aware of the cultural specificity of Abkhazia or to be more specific in Northern Abkhazia (Southern Abkhazia — Gal/i district being mostly populated of Mingrelians with a Georgian passport -). Western states are ready to accept a debate and a referendum on an independent Abkhazia. Nonetheless, Abkhazia must be (re)attached to Georgia before and the Georgians who have been expelled from Abkhazia will vote during the referendum.

In such a context, both the West and Russia are trying to defend their positions and interests using their best assets. The West condemns countries interested in recognizing Abkhazia, while Russia tries to push more countries to recognize the state. Abkhaz leaders are in between, interested in the Russia support, but not open to being recognized by everyone.

For instance, Abkhaz leaders are interested in being recognized by North Korea, but skeptical about it, as it would undermine the country´s image abroad. The North Korean Chamber of Commerce contacted the Abkhaz Prime Minister in December 2017 and an Abkhaz delegation visited Pyongyang in August 2018. In return, a North Korean delegation visited Sukhum/i in November 2018 to discuss further cooperation. According to the Director of International Relations at the Chamber of Commerce of North Korea, construction companies, logistics, food, and textile industry, are interested in working with Abkhazia. North Korean workers could be assigned to the Black Sea country, making North Korea the next country to recognize Abkhazia after Syria (2018).

The Abkhaz Society

Contrary to the picture of isolated country, Abkhazia is in touch with the outside world through its embassy in Moscow, and the Abkhaz diplomatic missions abroad — Tunisia, Venezuela, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Italy, partially recognized states (e.g. South-Ossetia), and western NGOs working in Abkhazia (e.g. the Red Cross).

The Abkhaz society is a melting pot and the majority of the diaspora currently lives in Turkey — 500,000 people — coming back to the territory with the support of the World Abaza Congress. Abkhazians have a Turkish/Syrian background (diaspora), Greek (Ochamchire) and Estonians (0.2% of the population) ancestors. Moreover, Abkhazians with Mingrelians origins — Georgian speakers — are located in the Gal/i district close to Zugdidi. Italy is the most popular destination to study followed by Russia, while the United Kingdom remains attractive and expensive. Some Abkhazians are also living and working in the West.

Last but not least, there continues to be a growing gap between ‘Soviet’ Abkhazians and the younger generation. Young people are more interested in entrepreneurship, having access to the outside world, and using the internet on a daily basis. The relationship between Georgia and Abkhazia might be unchanged for decades, but the debate or confrontation between Abkhaz and Georgian youngsters is permanent.

Access to the international world will require to reopening the airport in Sukhum/i, providing access to faraway destinations such as Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Syria. Closed since the breakup of the USSR, the possible reopening is connected to the diplomatic recognition of Abkhazia by Damascus, and international tourism is expected to have unknown consequences on civil society and political life.

Drivers and Consequences Behind the Syrian Arab Republic Diplomatic Recognition

Moscow suggested the Syrian leaders — and the rest of its allies- to recognize Abkhazia in order to provide more legitimacy to Russian diplomacy in the Caucasus. Nevertheless, it would be naive to assume the diplomatic recognition of Abkhazia by Damascus is due to Russian smart power because other states — Belarus, Armenia, China, and North-Korea — have been asked by Moscow to do the same for several years without any success.

The relationship between Abkhazia and Syria — similar to Turkey and Jordan — started in the early 1800s when Abkhaz people had to escape the Caucasus, and since then families of Abkhaz origin (speaking Arabic and Muslims) have been living in Syria for centuries. Following the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levan (ISIL), a part of the Syrian-Abkhaz diaspora decided to come back to Abkhazia, a region open to having more Muslims and ready to provide them with housing. The newcomers — 500 families in total — are slightly different from the ‘native’ Abkhazians and not as attached to the language and paganism as they choose Russian language before Abkhazian at school and maintain Islam.

The return of the Syrian-Abkhaz diaspora to Abkhazia, combined with Russian smart power, influenced Damascus’ political choice to recognize Abkhazia, and end bilateral relations with Georgia. Damascus’ decision has been influenced by the Abkhaz flexibility when it comes to religion. In Abkhazia, Muslims represent (18%), Christians (60%) — mostly Orthodox — and pagans (8%), are living together and accepted in the society, making Abkhazia a non-denominational state with religious tolerance.

Damascus should open an embassy in Sukhum/i, and therefore Abkhazia will do the same in Syria. The opening of the new Syrian Embassy will provide an incentive in the political debate and can be an asset to deliver passports and other administrative documents in Abkhazia. As of today, no military cooperation has been mentioned by any side.

The reopening of the Sukhum/i airport will bring an opportunity to export Abkhaz products to Syria, including military equipment — according to a bilateral agreement -, and more Syrian tourists and refugees might decide to settle and invest in Abkhazia.

The Consequence for the Sukhum/i Airport

Abkhazia is connected to the outside world via the railway to Russia, the marshrutka to South-Ossetia and Eastern Ukraine, and public transportation to the partially recognized border with Georgia.

The project to reopen the airport in Sukhum/i will impact the economy, diplomacy and civil society, as it will offer direct flight connections with Moscow, Damascus, and possibly other destinations such as Venezuela, and Nicaragua. The Abkhazians will have the opportunity to travel, study, and invests in Latin America and the Middle East, while they will be able to export all kind of products and welcome tourists speaking Spanish and Arabic. Moving from a Slavic/Russian-focused society to a multicultural society might have consequences for Abkhaz´s opinion of the rest of the world, and it will likely increase the attractiveness of Spanish and Arabic studies.

From a military and intelligence perspective, the Abkhaz Air Force will have to rethink the strategy regarding security at the Sukhum/i airport because most of the military equipment — Aero L-39 and Mil Mi-8 — are located in the area. Having the fighter jets and helicopters close to the civilian airport could lead to espionage and sabotage attempts, making it easier for foreign intelligence to learn more about the Abkhaz Air Force capabilities.

If the Abkhaz Armed Forces want to move their assets, the only two options will be a relocation to Pskou — a natural aircraft — or a transfer to Bombora airport currently under the command of the Russian Armed Forces. Furthermore, it is difficult to know how the Georgian allies will react to the reopening of the airport, and it might end up with a connection only between Moscow and Sukhum/i due to international pressures from Georgia and the West.

Another question remaining is the possible flight connections with Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, and other parts of Russia. In fine, the reopening of the airport is generating to more questions than answers. It can be both a success and a failure, as the result depends on the marketing strategy of Abkhaz leaders to advertise the country in a competitive environment and the ability to develop new infrastructures suitable for international tourism and not exclusively fulfilling the expectation of the Russian tourists.

The Consequences for the Russian Armed Forces in Gudauta

The ‘7 Krasnodar Red Banner Order Kutuzov Order Red Star Military Base’ is subordinated to the command of the southern military district of the Russian Federation, allowed to be sued by Russian troops according to bilateral agreements between the Republic of Abkhazia and the Russian Federation. On paper, the military facility is supposed to be used both by the Abkhaz Armed Forces and the Russian Armed Forces, while in practice the Russian commandment decides who is allowed to get in to avoid any espionage.

Georgia and the West are suspicious regarding the activities at the Bombora airport and are suspecting a possible connection with Syria and even Eastern Ukraine. The airport is located close to the sea level, making it difficult for radars to detect fighter jets taking off and landing. Additionally, the railway from Russia to Gudauta was modernized in 2015, while the Russian Ministry of Defense mentioned a military exercise involving some S-400 and T-90 in the area.

As of today, the West knows Russian troops have 40 T-72B3 tanks; 120 BTR-82A armored personnel carriers; 18 self-propelled howitzers 2S3 “acacia”; 12 2С12 “Sunny” mortars; 18 reactive systems of volley fire BM-21 “Grad” towed howitzer D-30; it is anti-aircraft rocket complex of air defense with S-300.

Such data comes from open intelligence sources, and the absence of high-quality Russian equipment — Su35, T-14 Armata — shows Moscow is interested in establishing, more than anything else, a balance with the Georgian Armed Forces and their allies in the region. The increasing security around the facility, which confuses Georgian and Western intelligence services, is not to hide any suspicious activities but to prevent any intrusion. Such military facilities, well protected but not necessarily hiding something, are common in Russia and NATO countries (e.g. HWU transmitter in Seine-Port, France).

In addition, Abkhazia is recognized by Syria since 2018, and it allows Russia to legally transfer military equipment from Bombara to any partner. The only difference lies on the fact Abkhazia is not recognized by the West, making it more difficult for foreign intelligence and international observers to record activities in the area and relying on Georgian intelligence sources.

Syria´s diplomatic recognition of Abkhazia is also giving more legitimacy to a possible military supply by the Abkhaz Armed Forces to Syria — which is probably not the case because the Abkhazs themselves are missing capabilities at the moment — while the possibility for Russia to provide some supply to Syria remains a possibility. Nota bene, the Russian Ministry of Defense could also supply Syria directly from home or Armenia.

Conclusions

Diplomatic ties between Abkhazia and Syria will have major macroeconomic consequences and minor consequences from a military point of view. If the Sukhum/i airport is reopened in the upcoming years, it will provide the Abkhaz people with direct access to the Middle East and Latin America, changing the nature of the state currently relying on Russia and making Abkhazia the most international partially recognized state in Europe as well as Kosovo.

The Abkhaz Air Force will have to undergo changes and possibly relocate its resources elsewhere, while the Russian Armed Forces will remain the same to ensure balance in the Caucasus.

From the Western perspective, the activity in Gudauta — new railway (2015), transfer of some T-90, renewing of the fences around the Gudauta facility, etc. — is an attempt by Moscow to provide military supply to Syria and Eastern Ukraine, and to put more pressure on Georgia, which continues to try to get closer to NATO and the European Union.

From the Russian perspective, the growing military activity in Bombora is a response to the increasing diplomatic pressures from NATO and the West on Russia’s allies in the Black Sea (Armenia, Abkhazia and South-Ossetia, Transnistria) and Syria. Sending more Russian forces and equipment in Gudauta is necessary to reassure Eastern Ukraine, Syria and Abkhazia, and it shows Moscow is ready to protect its interests in the event that NATO or Georgia escalate the conflict as it happened when Saakashvili was the President of Georgia.

From our partner RIAC

Ph.D. in History of Europe & International Relations, Sorbonne University - INSEAD Business School, (Geo)political scientist working on Sino-European/Russian relations and soft power in the 21st century

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Eastern Europe

Unhappy Iran Battles for Lost Influence in South Caucasus

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Events that might not matter elsewhere in the world matter quite a lot in the South Caucasus. Given a recent history of conflict, with all the bad feelings that generates, plus outside powers playing geostrategic games, and its growing importance as an energy corridor between Europe and Central Asia, the region is vulnerable. 

This has been worsened by the two-year-long Western absence of engagement. In 2020, Europe and the U.S. were barely involved as the second Nagorno-Karabakh war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, leaving about 7,000 dead. With tensions now on the rise between Azerbaijan and Iran, Western uninterest is again evident, even though this might have wider ramifications for future re-alignment in the South Caucasus. 

The drumbeat of Iranian activity against Azerbaijan has been consistent in recent months. Iran is getting increasingly edgy about Israel’s presence in the South Caucasus — hardly surprising given Israel’s painfully well-targeted assassination and computer hacking campaigns against nuclear staff and facilities — and especially its growing security and military ties with Azerbaijan, with whom Iran shares a 765km (430 mile) border. Iran has also voiced concern about the presence in the region of Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries, who were used as Azeri assault troops last year.  

Much of the anger has been played out in military exercises. The Azeri military has been busy since its victory, exercising near the strategic Lachin corridor which connects the separatist region to Armenia, and in the Caspian Sea, where it has jointly exercised with Turkish personnel. Iran, in turn, sent units to the border region this month for drills of an unstated scale. 

This week, the Azeri and Iranian foreign ministers agreed to dial down the rhetoric amid much talk of mutual understanding. Whether that involved promises regarding the Israeli presence or a pledge by Iran to abandon a newly promised road to Armenia was not stated. 

Iran’s behavior is a recognition of the long-term strategic changes caused by the Armenian defeat last year. Iran has been sidelined. Its diplomatic initiatives have failed, and it has been unwelcome in post-conflict discussions. 

It is true that Iran was never a dominant power in the South Caucasus. Unlike Russia or Turkey, the traditional power brokers, it has not had a true ally. Iran was certainly part of the calculus for states in the region, but it was not feared, like Russia or Turkey. And yet, the South Caucasus represents an area of key influence, based on millennia of close political and cultural contacts. 

Seen in this light, it is unsurprising that Iran ratcheted up tensions with Azerbaijan. Firstly, this reasserted the involvement of the Islamic Republic in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. It was also a thinly-veiled warning to Turkey that its growing ambitions and presence in the region are seen as a threat. In Iran’s view, Turkey’s key role as an enabler of Azeri irridentism is unmistakable. 

Turkish involvement has disrupted the foundations of the South Caucasian status quo established in the 1990s. To expect Turkey to become a major power there is an overstretch, but it nevertheless worries Iran. For example, the recent Caspian Sea exercises between Azerbaijan and Turkey appear to run counter to a 2018 agreement among the sea’s littoral states stipulating no external military involvement. 

The Caspian Sea has always been regarded by Iranians as an exclusive zone shared first with the Russian Empire, later the Soviets, and presently the Russian Federation. Other littoral states play a minor role. This makes Turkish moves in the basin and the recent improvement of ties between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan an unpleasant development for Iran — fewer barriers to the Trans-Caspian Pipeline threatens the Islamic Republic’s ability to block the project.  

This is where Iranian views align almost squarely with the Kremlin’s. Both fear Turkish progress and new energy routes. The new Iranian leadership might now lean strongly toward Russia. With Russia’s backing, opposition to Turkey would become more serious; Iran’s foreign minister said this month that his country was seeking a “big jump” in relations with Russia. 

The fact is that the region is increasingly fractured and is being pulled in different directions by the greater powers around it. This state of affairs essentially dooms the prospects of pan-regional peace and cooperation initiatives. Take the latest effort by Russia and Turkey to introduce a 3+3 platform with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as well as Iran. Beyond excluding the West, disagreements will eventually preclude any meaningful progress. There is no unity of purpose between the six states and there are profound disagreements. 

Thus, trouble will at some point recur between Iran and Azerbaijan, and by extension Turkey. Given the current situation, and Iran’s visible discontent, it is likely it will take some kind of initiative lest it loses completely its position to Turkey and Russia. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Eastern Europe

Right-wing extremist soldiers pose threat to Lithuania

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It is no secret that Lithuania has become a victim of German army’s radicalization. Could this country count on its partners further or foreign military criminals threaten locals?

It is well known that Germany is one of the largest provider of troops in NATO. There are about 600 German troops in Lithuania, leading a Nato battlegroup. According to Lithuanian authorities, Lithuania needs their support to train national military and to protect NATO’s Central and Northern European member states on NATO’s eastern flank.

Two sides of the same coin should be mentioned when we look at foreign troops in Lithuania.

Though Russian threat fortunately remains hypothetical, foreign soldiers deployed in the country cause serious trouble. Thus, the German defence minister admitted that reported this year cases of racist and sexual abuse in a German platoon based in Lithuania was unacceptable.

Members of the platoon allegedly filmed an incident of sexual assault against another soldier and sang anti-Semitic songs. Later more allegations emerged of sexual and racial abuse in the platoon, including soldiers singing a song to mark Adolf Hitler’s birthday on 20 April this year.

It turned out that German media report that far-right abuses among the Lithuania-based troops had already surfaced last year. In one case, a soldier allegedly racially abused a non-white fellow soldier. In another case, four German soldiers smoking outside a Lithuanian barracks made animal noises when a black soldier walked past.

Lithuania’s Defence Minister Arvydas Anušauskas said later that the investigation was carried out by Germany and that Lithuania was not privy to its details. The more so, Lithuania is not privy to its details even now. “We are not being informed about the details of the investigation. […] The Lithuanian military is not involved in the investigation, nor can it be,” Anušauskas told reporters, stressing that Germany was in charge of the matter.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, German defence minister, said that these misdeeds would be severely prosecuted and punished. Time has passed, and the details are not still known.

It should be said Germany has for years struggled to modernize its military as it becomes more involved in Nato operations. Nevertheless problems existed and have not been solved yet. According to the annual report on the state of the Bundeswehr made in 2020 by Hans-Peter Bartel, then armed forces commissioner for the German Bundestag, Germany’s army “has too little materiel, too few personnel and too much bureaucracy despite a big budget increase.” Mr Bartels’ report made clear that the Bundeswehr continues to be plagued by deep-seated problems. Recruitment remains a key problem. Mr Bartels said 20,000 army posts remained unfilled, and last year the number of newly recruited soldiers stood at just over 20,000, 3,000 fewer than in 2017. The other problem is radicalization of the armed forces.

Apparently, moral requirements for those wishing to serve in the German army have been reduced. Federal Volunteer Military Service Candidate must be subjected to a thorough medical examination. Desirable to play sports, have a driver’s license and be able to eliminate minor malfunctions in the motor, to speak at least one foreign language, have experience of communicating with representatives of other nationalities, be initiative and independent. After the general the interview follows the establishment of the candidate’s suitability for service in certain types of armed forces, taking into account his wishes. Further candidate passes a test on a computer. He will be asked if he wants study a foreign language and attend courses, then serve in German French, German-Dutch formations or institutions NATO.

So, any strong and healthy person could be admitted, even though he or she could adhere to far-right views or even belong to neo-Nazi groups. Such persons served in Lithuania and, probably, serve now and pose a real threat to Lithuanian military, local population. Neo-Nazism leads to cultivating racial inequalities. The main goal of the neo-Nazis is to cause disorder and chaos in the country, as well as to take over the army and security organs. Lithuanian authorities should fully realize this threat and do not turn a blind eye to the criminal behaviour of foreign military in Lithuania. There is no room to excessive loyalty in this case.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuanian foreign policy: Image is everything

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It seems as if Lithuanian government takes care of its image in the eyes of EU and NATO partners much more than of its population. Over the past year Lithuania managed to quarrel with such important for its economy states like China and Belarus, condemned Hungary for the ban on the distribution of images of LGBT relationships among minors, Latvia and Estonia for refusing to completely cut energy from Belarus. Judging by the actions of the authorities, Lithuania has few tools to achieve its political goals. So, it failed to find a compromise and to maintain mutually beneficial relations with economic partners and neighbours. The authorities decided to achieve the desired results by demanding from EU and NATO member states various sanctions for those countries that, in their opinion, are misbehaving.

Calling for sanctions and demonstrating its “enduring political will”, Lithuania exposed the welfare of its own population. Thus, district heating prices will surge by around 30 percent on average across Lithuania.

The more so, prices for biofuels, which make up 70 percent of heat production on average, are now about 40 higher than last year, Taparauskas, a member of the National Energy Regulatory Council (VERT) said.

“Such a huge jump in prices at such a tense time could threaten a social crisis and an even greater increase in tensions in society. We believe that the state must take responsibility for managing rising prices, especially given the situation of the most vulnerable members of society and the potential consequences for them. All the more so as companies such as Ignitis or Vilnius heating networks “has not only financial resources, but also a certain duty again,” sums up Lukas Tamulynas, the chairman of the LSDP Momentum Vilnius movement.

It should be said, that according to the Lithuanian Department of Statistics, prices for consumer goods and services have been rising for the eighth month in a row. According to the latest figures, the annual inflation rate is five percent.

Earlier it became known that in 2020 every fifth inhabitant of Lithuania was below the poverty risk line.

Pensioners are considered one of the most vulnerable groups in Lithuania. In 2019, Lithuania was included in the top five EU anti-leaders in terms of poverty risk for pensioners. The share of people over 65 at risk of poverty was 18.7 percent.

In such situation sanctions imposed on neighbouring countries which tightly connected to Lithuanian economy and directly influence the welfare of people in Lithuania are at least damaging. The more so, according Vladimir Andreichenko, the speaker of the House of Representatives of the Belarus parliament, “the unification of the economic potentials of Minsk and Moscow would be a good response to sanctions.” It turned out that Lithuania itself makes its opponents stronger. Such counter-productiveness is obvious to everyone in Lithuania except for its authorities.

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