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The Russian constitutional referendum of July 1, 2020

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With specific reference to the health situation, Russia is still in a severe situation with over 350,000 Covid-19 cases.

 Brazil, however, has replaced the Russian Federation as the hardest hit country in the world, while the United States is now firmly at the top of the ranking. Nevertheless, what really frightens the Russian decision-makers are the medium and long-term economic consequences of the health crisis.

 Russia’s GDP had already recorded a 1.6% increase in the first quarter of 2020, but all Russian economists expect GDP to fall by at least 16% in the second quarter.

 Two-thirds of this GDP contraction, however, can still be attributed to the lockdown, but only one-third to the related fall in oil prices.

 With specific reference to the quarantine management, Prime Minister Mishustin thinks that 27 regions can now reduce quarantine restrictions, while the leaders of Rospotrebnadzor, the Russian Consumer Protection Agency, have asked the Governors of the Sverdlovsk and Smolensk regions to restore or even tighten quarantine requirements.

 The national average growth rate of viral infections in Russia is currently 3.9%, but a “Plan 2” for the definitive recovery of the Russian economy is already supposed to be in place.

 However, there will be three recovery phases: in the third quarter of 2020, the government will ensure that recession does not spread to the sectors which are still scarcely affected and will then refinance, one by one, the hardest hit economic sectors.

 The real Phase 2 – hence the real recovery – will take place from the fourth quarter of 2020 to the second quarter of 2021, with Russia trying to recover the pre-Covid 19 standards of living for the entire population. In the Phase 3, which will begin in the fourth quarter of 2021, the economy is even expected to start growing again.

 Pursuant to Russia’s current regulations, all proceeds from oil and gas exports are directly deposited into the National Welfare Fund (NWF).

 This Russian Sovereign Fund currently holds 11% of the whole Federation’s GDP. When the oil barrel prices are below 42 U.S. dollars, the Fund directly covers the difference by depositing what is needed directly into the federal budget. Above the threshold of 42 U.S. dollars, everything goes smoothly.

 Regardless of the constitutional referendum, the central government is likely to decide to take the necessary funds for the new economic expansion directly from the NWF.

 In a new crisis situation, the federal budget would directly receive all the oil revenues, which shall be allocated to the reconstruction of the Russian welfare and economy.

 Again with reference to oil, unlike other countries, Russia needs a basic oil barrel price of 40 U.S. dollars to “recover its costs”.

 Furthermore, the high prices reached after the various recent production restrictions within OPEC+ have enabled Russia to increase its reserves, which now stand at approximately 400 billion U.S. dollars.

 The Russian Federation’s current resources, however, would still enable the country to sustain even an oil barrel price of 25 U.S. dollars for ten years.

 Moreover, unlike Saudi Arabia and other OPEC+ countries, Russia depends on oil and gas exports only for approximately two thirds of its revenues, while the rest is made up of raw materials such as uranium, coal, other metals and minerals, and especially the sale of arms abroad, a sector for which the Russian Federation is second only to the United States.

 It is precisely in this geo-economic situation that the forthcoming referendum scheduled for July 1 in Russia will take place.

 As you may remember, the announcement of the constitutional referendum made on January 16, 2020, enabled the then Prime Minister, Dmitri Medvedev, to resign on that day and then take on the role of Vice-President of the Russian Security Council, which is obviously chaired by Vladimir Putin.

 Medvedev was replaced by Michail Mishustin, who is not a “man of force”, i.e. a former director of the Intelligence Services turned politician, but comes from the Federal Tax Service. When Mishustin himself fell ill with Covid-19, from April 30 to May 19 he was replaced by the economist Andrey Belousov.

 Hence what does President Putin want to achieve with his constitutional reform? Not just his mere stay in power, which the leader deems necessary, since he has not yet found his true heir apparent.

 It is a particularly effective sign that the second reading of the constitutional reform, adopted by the State Duma at the beginning of March 2020, was dominated by the presence of Valentina Tereskova, the first cosmonaut, now an 83-year-old member of Parliament.

 In that vote there were 382 in favour, 44 abstained and 0 MPs against.

 Therefore, if approved in the referendum, the current reform will be the real constitutional definition of Putin’s “vertical of power”.

 It should be recalled it is a mechanism made up of centre-periphery relations, but also of now stable electoral systems: the prohibition of presenting “independent” candidates; the registration of regular candidates by parties that are officially recognized and have at least 50,000 members in different regions of the country; the 7% hurdle, whereby the votes of those who do not reach said threshold shall always be distributed among all the other parties that have exceeded it.

 Certainly the Russian Federation cannot be a democracy. If it were so, it would no longer exist as such.

 A great empire, with a surface sixty times the size of Italy, but with a population just below the sum of Italians and Germans, as well as with empty Siberia on the border with the very overpopulated China.

 In an “empty country” – as Baron De Custine defined it at the beginning of the 19th century – the fear of foreigners always recurs: Putin’s old video, in the 2012 election rounds, showed the Chinese arriving in Khabarovsk; NATO taking Kaliningrad; the Islamists raiding in the Caucasus and finally the skinheads – an evident symbol of Western stupidity – moving freely around St. Petersburg.

 The Russian Constitutional Court, however, has already made it clear that Putin’s reform is legal.

 Hence what does Putin want? Firstly, a stronger system of central State controls over the federal and peripheral governments, so as to create the constitutional legislation of the “vertical of power” which is currently based only on Putin’s personal energy.

 Secondly the considerable strengthening of the status and role of the Russian Federation’s State Council, which is at present only an advisory body, not prescribed in the Constitution. It shall also be given the powers of orienting domestic and foreign policies, as well as identifying the main areas of future development in the country.

 Thirdly, Vladimir Putin’s proposal would mean that the regional Governors could automatically be members of the State Council, obviously after having established a pact with the Kremlin.

 Fourthly, the statute of the State Council shall be fully incorporated into the Constitution. The vast “nationalisation of elites” will be strengthened, since those who hold important positions for ensuring the country’ security, such as President, Ministers, members of the State Duma, regional Governors, judges or any other high-ranking State official, shall not have foreign citizenship or even a residence permit in other countries, either at the time of their work in office or, in the case of the President, at any time before.

 A presidential candidate, however, must prove he or she has been permanently living in Russia for at least 25 years (currently 10 years) and cannot serve more than two consecutive terms. Ex post, of course.

 The Constitution shall take precedence over international law and over the provisions of international treaties. Here the Russian concept of “sovereign democracy” is reaffirmed, which sometimes departs from the Western mythology of “human” and hence “universal” rights and states its clear opposition to dealing with the internal affairs of any other country.

 In the proposed constitutional reform, there is also the clear prohibition to transfer and alienate part of the Russian Federation’s territories.

 The Federation Council (the Upper House of Parliament), which now becomes the primary government body, shall also have the right to propose to the President to dismiss federal judges by providing a reasoned assessment and motivated opinion on their activity; in some cases, upon the proposal of the President, the Federation Council shall have the right to remove judges of the Constitutional and Supreme Courts.

 The State Duma (the Lower House of Parliament) shall have the right to approve the Prime Minister’s candidacy (currently it only gives consent to his/her appointment). The State Duma shall also approve the candidates of Deputy-Prime Minister and Federal Ministries; the President cannot refuse their appointment, but in some cases he/she will be able to remove them from office 

Hence the two directives of “United Russia”, Putin’s traditional party, become constitutional rule, i.ederžavnost’ – the ‘great power’ – and gosudarstvenničestvo, the ‘strong State’.

 Moreover, as always happens in current political propaganda, there is the issue of family relations.

 The new Constitution proposed by the President defines marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman – and even the TV propaganda of the referendum underlines this aspect.[

 Furthermore, the State has the explicit duty to “preserve and honour the memory of the Defenders of the Fatherland, as well as honour the pan-Russian cultural identity and show faith in God” as a value sacredly received by ancestors.

Sobianin, the mayor of Moscow, the city which is still the epicentre of the COVID-19 infection, wanted to hold the referendum in September, but Putin wants it now.

 Why? Because Vladimir Putin is aware of the political and personal tensions within the apparata.

 In the Secret Services and in the Armed Forces – which, over the last few months, have been the origin of indirect and veiled attacks on him. A series of events has also revealed how the Military Secret Service (GRU) is no longer entirely in Putin’s hands, as was previously the case.

 Certainly, now that the Covid-19 is in a phase of controlled expansion, Putin has anyway regained popularity.

 Still today, 63% of the Russian population shows strong support for Vladimir Vladimirovic Putin. In the referendum case, however, the voter turnout is estimated at 65%, which is always too little to ensure a real and definitive success to the President. Nevertheless, by paraphrasing Blaise Pascal, it should be recalled that democratic elections have ways “of which reason and the heart know nothing”.

 About 47% of Russians, however, states to be in favour of the reforms proposed by Putin to the Constitution.

 Too few? We shall see what the future has in store. Only 53% of young people is expected to vote, while 77% of elderly people is expected to go to the polls.

 Nevertheless, 41% of young people will always vote against Putin’s amendments to the Russian Constitution, with 45% of them living in Moscow.

 It is currently foreseen that 35% of voters will not go to the polls.

 Is Putin in danger? We do not believe so, considering that – if this happens because of his poor electoral performance – the President will find a way to recover. However, we do not think this will be the case. 

 Hence centralization of true power in Putin’s hands, up to two terms and even beyond but, on the other hand, distribution regulated by the central power to the regional governments.

 A new configuration of power in Russia, until Putin finds his true heir apparent.

 If he ever finds him, of course.

 The State is “a work of art”, as an old and valuable book by Jakob Burkhardt, “The civilization of the Renaissance in Italy”, reads.

 Therefore, every State does not reproduce as a photocopy, but only through the Author, the Artist.

 If voted and adopted, the amendments to the Russian Constitution will enable Putin to be regularly re-elected for over two consecutive terms, but, with the current changes, we can think of additional 12 years and more in power, but only for Vladimir Vladimirovic Putin.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Russia-Ukraine’s Winter’s War

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photo:© Vadim Savitsky/TASS

More than 10 months have passed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, and the conflict is still ongoing. No one knows when it will end, but today, the conflict is entering a new phase called “the Winter War,” as snow begins to fall alongside thick mud and frigid temperatures, complicating the battle for both sides. A similar fate befell the invading troops of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich in the Winter of 1941–42, just as the coming winter of 1812–13 compelled Napolean to flee from Moscow and from which the Grande Armee never completely recovered.

History of Russia’s Winter War

For as long as history records, the brutality of a Russian winter has been enough to stop the advance of an opposing army, and the Russian winter has frequently helped the Russian warriors to hold their position and destroy an approaching adversary. The climate of Russia, sometimes personified as “General Frost” or “General Winter,” is credited with helping to make the country strategically advantageous and with playing a role in the failure of several military and covert invasions intended to take Russia by surprise. The “General Winter” has been a significant contributing element to every invasion plot against Russia, from Napoleon to Hitler. Over the course of the numerous conflicts and wars the Russian army has fought in the winter, the erratic “General Frost” has often proven to be a valuable partner, lending a hand to Russian soldiers. The Russians have used the severe harsh environment to their advantage in many wars and against many enemies, including the Napoleons, in 1812-13, the Finns in 1939-40, and the Germans in 1940; and the stories of how the harsh winters have impacted the other side are also very famous, for example -: The severe frost which took a dreadful toll on the ill-prepared. It was also the Russian army’s surprise crossing of the icy Gulf of Bothnia from Finland to Aland on March 19, 1809 that ultimately determined the fate of the Finnish War and brought them to within 70 kilometres (43 miles) of Stockholm, the Swedish capital. Russia has always trained its soldiers to train, as it yearly exercises its combined troops during the colder months. Under short notice in 2013, it held more than four winter exercises. Far Eastern Higher Combined Arms Command School in Blagoveshchensk, Amur Oblast, eastern Russia is often the site of such training. The school’s goal is to train Russian soldiers for combat in harsh environments including the mountains, snow, and the Arctic.

Russia-Ukraine Conflict and Winter

After ten months of intense fighting, Russia and Ukraine have entered the “Winter War” phase, marked by thick mud, frigid temperatures, and snowfall that will help in complicating the battlefield for both sides. Many western critics have begun pointing out that the Winter will be a useful ally to the Ukrainians, and the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and many other countries have already begun providing military aid to the Ukrainians. TIU Canada, a solar energy company in Ukraine, is just one of several enterprises that have helped the country’s less fortunate with donations of necessities like flashlights, medical kits, and other items. The West hopes that its aid to the Ukrainians will turn the tide of the conflict and help them defeat the Russians this winter, or at least help them survive the winter. The reality, however, is very different; the West has only begun supplying the Ukrainians with aids like supplying generators and all within the past couple of weeks, while the Russians have been preparing for the “Winter phase” of the war for months.

Which proves once again that winter is Russia’s most reliable friend. For weeks, every major city in Ukraine has been hit by Russian air missiles or drone strikes on its power plants. Donbas and Kherson, two regions where the Ukrainian army has been fighting the Russian army, have lost their power grids in the fighting. Many of the large power generating plants that operate in Ukraine are in the occupied areas; for example, the plus 6 GW plant by the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is in Russian possession and was recently put into a cold shutdown state due to the conflict. Additionally, more than 90% of wind and more than 30% of so-called “so-called” hydropower have been cut off as a result of the fighting. Although the Ukrainian state energy company, Ukrenergo, has claimed that there is enough electricity to cover 80% of the country’s consumption, Ukrainian President Zelensky has also pleaded to the citizens “to not to increase the consumption at night,” highlighting a growing concern in Ukraine after a series of attacks and the onset of increasingly cold weather. Over past few weeks, Moscow has embarked on a keen and desperate mission to leave Ukraine without electric power, as without power, there will be no light or heat in Ukrainians’ homes, schools, offices, and without electricity, the food cannot be preserved, as the Russian President wailed. Moscow has been firing relentlessly, and has not only been using the missiles fired from planes, but has been intensifying the range of barrage of missiles from sea, batteries on land, as well.

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Russia’s Military Diplomacy in Africa: High Risk, Low Reward and Limited Impact 

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The South African Journal of International Affairs, a foreign policy think tank, has released a special researched report on Russia-Africa. According to the report, Russia has signed military-technical agreements with over 20 African countries and has secured lucrative mining and nuclear energy contracts on the continent.

Russia views Africa as an increasingly important vector of its post-Western foreign policy. It’s support for authoritarian regimes in Africa are readily noticeable, and its soft power has drastically eroded. As suspicions arise that Russia’s growing assertiveness in Africa is a driver of instability, its approach to governance encourages pernicious practices, such as kleptocracy and autocracy in Africa.

Over the years, Russia has terribly failed to deliver on its pledges and promises, various bilateral agreements undelivered. Heading into the 2023 Russia-Africa Summit in St Petersburg (unless the proposed date and venue change, again), Russia looks more like a ‘virtual great power’ than a genuine challenger to European, American and Chinese influence.

What is, particularly, interesting relates to the well-researched report by Ovigwe Eguegu, a Nigerian policy analyst at Development Reimagined, a consultancy headquartered in Beijing, China. His report was based on more than 80 media publications dealing with Russia’s military-technical cooperation in Africa. His study focused on the Republic of Mali and the Central African Republic as case studies.

The report titled – Russia’s Private Military Diplomacy in Africa: High Risk, Low Reward, Limited Impact – says that Russia’s renewed interest in Africa is driven by its quest for global power status. Few expect Russia’s security engagement to bring peace and development to countries with which it has security partnerships.

While Moscow’s opportunistic use of private military diplomacy has allowed it to successfully gain a strategic foothold in partner countries, the lack of transparency in interactions, the limited scope of impact and the high financial and diplomatic costs expose the limitations of the partnership in addressing the peace and development challenges of African host countries, the report says.

Much of the existing literature on Russia’s foreign policy pointed to the fact that Moscow’s desire to regain great power status has been pursued largely by exploiting opportunities in weak and fragile states in Africa.

Ovigwe Eguegu’s report focused on the use of private military companies to carry out ‘military diplomacy’ in those African states, and the main research questions were: What impact is Russia’s private military diplomacy in Africa having on host countries’ peace and development? Why Russia has chosen military diplomacy as the preferred means to gain a foothold on the continent? 

It interrogates whether fragile African states advance their security, diplomatic and economic interests through a relationship with Russia. Overcoming the multidimensional problems facing Libya, Sudan, Somali, Mali and Central African Republic will require comprehensive peace and development strategies that include conflict resolution and peacebuilding, state-building, security sector reform, and profound political reforms to improve governance and rule of law – not to mention sound economic planning critical for attracting the foreign direct investment needed to spur economic growth.

In the report, Eguegu further looked at the geopolitical dynamics of Russia’s new interest in Africa. He asserted that during the Cold War, the interests of the Soviet Union and many African states aligned along pragmatic and ideological lines. Many African countries had, after independence, resumed agitation against colonialism, racism, and capitalism throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The clash between communism and capitalism provided ample opportunity to the Soviets to provide support to African countries both in ideological solidarity and as practical opposition to Western European and US influence in Africa.

Since Soviet’s collapse in 1991, Russia itself has rekindled relationships with African countries for myriad reasons – but these can largely be attributed more to pragmatism than ideology. More specifically, Russia’s interactions with African states have been multi-dimensional ranging from economic and political to security oriented.

He offered the example of Moscow’s relationships with Eritrea and Sudan that ultimately provided Russia with some influence and leeway in the critical Red Sea region, and also to counter the influence of the US and China. But the main feature of Russia’s policy is mostly ‘elite-based’ and support for often illegitimate or unpopular leaders. 

The report also highlighted the myriad socioeconomic and political challenges plaguing a number of African countries. Despite these developments, some have struggled to maintain socioeconomic and political stability. The spread of insecurity has now become more complex across the Sahel region. The crisis is multidimensional, involving the political, socioeconomic, regional and climatic dimensions.

Good governance challenges plays it own role. In additional to that, weak political and judicial institutions have contributed to deep-seated corruption. 

Conflict resolution has to be tied to comprehensive improvement of political governance, economic development and social questions. Some of the fragile and conflict-ridden African countries are keen on economic diversification and broader economic development. However, progress is limited by inadequate access to finance and the fragile security situation.

According to the International Monetary Fund, these fragile states have to diversify their economy and establish connection between the various economic regions and activities. Poverty caused by years of lacklustre economic performance is one of the root causes of insecurity. As such, economic development and growth would form a key part of the solution to regional security problems.

Analysts suggest that Russia utilises mercenaries and technical cooperation mechanisms to gain and secure access to politically aligned actors and, by extension, economic benefits like natural resources and trade deals.

It is argued here that the adherence to a primarily military approach to insecurity challenges is inadequate and the right path of peace and development. Furthermore, fragmented, untransparent and unharmonized peace processes will impede considerably on sustainable solutions to the conflicts in Africa.

Worse is that Russia’s strengths expressed through military partnerships fall short of what is needed to address the complexities and scale of the problems facing those African countries. Moscow certainly has not shown enough commitment needed for the comprehensive peacebuilding programmes, security sector reforms, state-building, and improvement to governance and rule of law.

Surely, African countries have to begin to re-evaluate their relationship with Russia. African leaders should not expect anything tangible from meetings, conferences and summits. Since the first Russia-Africa summit held 2019, very little has taken place.

At this point, it is even more improbable that Moscow would commit financial resources to invest in economic sectors, given the fact that series of stringent sanctions imposed to isolate it following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The impact of sanctions and the toll of the war on the Russian economy are likely to see Moscow redirect its practical attention towards ensuring stability within its borders and in its periphery. 

Notwithstanding its aim of working with Africa, Russia’s influence is still comparatively marginal and its policy tools are extremely limited relative to other international actors, including China and Western countries such as France, European Union members and the United States. 

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Rethinking the Soviet Experience : Politics and History since 1917- Book Review

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The book was written in 1984 and is a collection of essays on Soviet politics and Sovietology, from the time of the Russian Revolution till then. Stephen Cohen, at the outset  diagnoses the problem ailing the mainstream western branch of academia researching about the Soviet Union- a common bias of ideas tilted towards the United States of America, due to the various systematic temptations offered by them, through the founding of different think tanks and foundations which support scholarly work. There was a constant assumption of a totalitarian and evil USSR while working on the politics of the federation during the Cold War era, specially amongst the western scholars. While Cohen did acknowledge that most work done on the USSR as an international entity, has been done by the United States of America, he argued that the study of Sovietology had been undertaken, the scope had been very limited, thus this stream of study needed adequate revisionism. In the 1950’s, fresh out of the Second World War, the field of Sovietology was new and encouraged new ways of thinking. Once the 1960’s came around, the field now with a number of students employed in it, started getting set in rigid biases.

His revisionism argues for thinking beyond what has now been conventionally acknowledged and thus, distorted by the Western approach to Sovietology. He emphasized on the idea of historical review for better understanding of contemporary political happenings. He substantiates this argument by stating the parallelism between the conflict within the ranks of the soviet- the tussle between the conservatives and the reformists at the time he was writing the book (1980s) and the struggles within Russian politics which led to the downfall of the Tsar in 1918. All dissidence leads to a better, more efficient system of politics and governance, in what appears to be typical Marxist fashion but it is possible that at the time of publication was considered path-breaking.

The second chapter of his book, discusses the viability of the ways of Nikolai Bukharin, considers him as a fully indoctrinated Bolshevik. He discusses his doctrine and dismisses the view that Stalinism was an inevitable consequence of the Bolshevik path undertaken, unlike what most Marxist-Leninist supporters state. This is the complete opposite of E.H Carr’s opinion who was quick to dismiss the impact of Bukharin on Soviet politics and the room for future progress under him.

In the later part of the book, the author somewhat blends Brezhnev’s era with  Nikita Khruschev’s  and attempts to highlight the continuities in Soviet conservatist sentiments so deeply entrenched in Russian society, flowing directly into and influencing each other. While conservative views were always the dominant influence on the trajectory that the USSR would follow, the fact that there was significant progress in matters relating to welfare, rural organisation and consumerism, Cohen argued, was still positive progress towards reform. In this way, while many scholars support the perception that the Brezhnev administration was conservative as it did not disrupt status quo, Cohen while arguing in favour of conservatist sentiments existing, highlighted certain reformist tendencies, which signaled the advent of the era of economic stagnation.

He attempted to justify Stalin’s iron handed measures of strict control and repression, by highlighting the impact of the Truman doctrine and the repercussions of the advent of the Cold War. The favour towards Khrushchev, as opined by Cohen, only manifested due to strong anti-Stalinist sentiments, as Stalin’s harsh measures had helped deplane plenty of ‘modernising achievements’ in the soviet economy. While calls for conservatism always remained an active branch of politics, Cohen aimed at giving gradual reformist politics its due.

These are some of the main arguments reflected in Stephen Cohen’s five chapter long book. It does not focus on any new research in the field, but rather on historiography and political relations. What was most helpful to me while reading the book was that there were plenty of footnotes which made the process of understanding the details much easier, especially considering how a major chunk of the book addresses problems within Soviet scholasticism. In no means is this work perfect, as Cohen tends to push the same ideas over and over again, within the chapters (the core arguments are mentioned above). In proposing Bukharinism as a viable alternative to Stalinism, and as a possible natural successor of Bolshevism, he puts forth a very unique idea. This is in no way a textbook on Soviet history, but it does provide insights and interesting opinions about Sovietology as a discipline, as it pushes for a new revisionist approach to examine the Soviet past, in order to understand the present and future of the USSR. Although much time has passed since  Rethinking the Soviet Experience was first published it remains seminal in the discourse regarding the history and politics of the USSR.

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