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Anno Domini 2020: Not Only Covid-19

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In a little less than two weeks, the annus horribilis 2020 will (finally!) come to an end. A year that has seen the whole world devastated by a flu pandemic that has caused not only hundreds of thousands of victims worldwide, but also disastrous economic effects whose consequences will weigh not only on all of us, but also on our children and grandchildren.

Also due to a massive global media campaign, the attention of the public around the world has focused on Covid 19 and the health disaster that has affected not only the least developed countries, but also the richest and most advanced nations, starting with the United States, which has recorded higher mortality rates than Brazil.

However, while the pandemic has hit the headlines and has been the main topic reported in all TV news for almost a year, 2020 leaves many very sensitive dossiers open for international relations debates. If not analysed and tackled with rationality and pragmatism, these dossiers could have important consequences on the geopolitical equilibria of the most delicate regions in the world.

Owing to its geographical proximity to the Old Continent, the most recent and important dossier is the troubled and turbulent relations between the European Union and Turkey.

President Erdogan’s often unscrupulous and aggressive activism, from the Mediterranean basin to Libya and from Syria to Nagorno-Karabakh, has led Turkey to make more enemies than wisdom should suggest.

The clampdown on civil liberties imposed by President Erdogan on his own country after the “strange”, failed coup in 2016- a crackdown that last November saw over 300 alleged opponents of the regime (journalists, lawyers, military, judges, businessmen) be sentenced to life imprisonment- has created further distance with its NATO partners. It has also caused a very timid reaction –for the time being – from the EU diplomacy that, although distracted by the difficult Brexit negotiations, has managed to put on the agenda of the Meeting of the Heads of State and Government, held on December 10-11 last, the issue of possible sanctions against Turkey for human rights violations and “inappropriate” behaviours of the Turkish armed forces, whose ships patrol undisturbed the waters off Cyprus and whose aircrafts systematically violate Greek airspace in the Eastern Aegean Sea.

The discussion about Turkey’s human rights record and the possible sanctions has cleverly and skilfully been used by Chancellor Merkel to “warn” Poland and Hungary and make them accept the Recovery Plan, after their leaders threatened to sabotage the plan to support Europe’s pandemic-battered economies.

The currently threatened sanctions against Turkey are supposed to come into force next March, but the German Chancellor’s cold rationalism could avert an EU complete break-up with the Turkish government.

Germany has “special” interests with regard to Turkey: not only does it host a huge community of Turkish immigrants (over 4 million people) on its territory, but it is Turkey’s first trade partner and its main supplier of military equipment (suffice it to say that the Turkish ships patrolling the Mediterranean – leading to protests from Greece – are all made in Germany).

Italy, too, has strong trade exchanges with Turkey, to which it supplies large quantities of ammunition.

Faced with the hawks who would like a tougher attitude towards Erdogan, namely France, Cyprus, Greece, Slovakia, Slovenia and Austria, there are more accommodating countries aligned with Germany’s “soft” positions, starting with Spain and Malta, as well as Hungary and Italy.

The threat of forthcoming sanctions against Turkey – which has already been punished by Donald Trump for having purchased S-400 anti-aircraft defence systems from Russia – could in any case lead President Erdogan to be milder and follow more responsible behaviours, faced with the real danger of having attempted to play on too many tables in an adventurist and opportunist manner.

Moreover, only negotiations will be able to recognise certain Turkish reasons, which have been overshadowed by its President’s behaviours.

As Ambassador Carlo Marsili, former Head of our Representation to Turkey from 2004 to 2010, stated in an interview with ‘Formiche.net’, “the European Union should consider the need not to close the dialogue on Turkey’s accession process…Europe owes Turkey a debt of gratitude for having blocked the opening of the main political chapters of the accession negotiations on implausible pretexts”.

According to the Ambassador, a similar realpolitik approach should be taken to the thorny issue of the Turkish continental shelf actually “occupied” by Greek islands that are close to the Turkish coast. Ambassador Marsili stated: “Turkey is right in refusing to accept what France, Greece and Cyprus would like to impose on it regarding territorial waters and the exclusive economic zone. Their measurement should start from the continental shelf and not from the Greek islands, so as to prevent a country with 1,700 kilometres of coastline such as Turkey from seeing its access to the sea practically blocked. This is not about Erdogan; no Turkish government could accept the current situation’.

The Ambassador’s words make us reflect and suggest we read between the lines of the Europe-Turkey dossier with an approach closer to Germany’s than France’s.

Moreover, for some weeks now Turkey, too, seems to have softened the tone of an overly aggressive and often counterproductive foreign policy, to the point of having cautiously resumed relations with Israel.

It should be recalled that Turkey was the first, and for many years the only, Muslim country to recognise the State of Israel, with which it has entertained diplomatic relations since 1949.

Relations deteriorated when in 2010 Erdogan (him again!) sent a merchant ship flotilla off the coast of Gaza in an attempt to supply weapons and food to the Palestinian enclave isolated by an Israeli blockade. The attempt resulted in an assault by Israeli special forces on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, which cost the lives of 10 ship’s “passengers”, including Hamas guerrillas brought back to Gaza to resume the fight against the Israeli occupation.

After a partial attempt to resume dialogue between Israel and Turkey, diplomatic relations broke down again in 2018 during yet another clash between Israeli armed forces and Palestinian militias on the Gaza border.

Now the situation is improving again: a new Turkish Ambassador to Israel was appointed on December 14 last.

He is forty-year-old Ufuk Ulutas, a proactive and dynamic diplomat who studied political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and speaks fluent Hebrew. He is considered the best suited person to piece together the threads of a very important dialogue for Middle East equilibria. A dialogue that seems to have begun also at the intelligence service level.

According to ‘Al Monitor’, a geopolitical website which is very well informed on what goes on behind the scenes in the Middle East, in the last week of November reliable Turkish government sources reported that the Head of the Turkish ‘National Intelligence Service’ (MIT) initiated highly confidential contacts with the Israeli Mossad.

In the secret talks, Turkey was allegedly represented by Hakan Fidan, already used by MIT for”back bench diplomacy” with Israel, with the aim of discussing “common interests” on “security issues in Libya and Syria…”.

It is likely that Turkey has been induced to resume dialogue with Israel by the success of Trump Presidency’s best legacy for Middle East equilibria: until a few months ago the only Arab States that recognised Israel, with which they had diplomatic relations, were Egypt and the Kingdom of Jordan. With a series of successful diplomatic moves, Donald Trump, under Saudi Arabia’s benevolent gaze, succeeded in making Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan recognise Israel.

It was an unprecedented strategic success.

Israel is no longer surrounded by a sea of Arab enmity, but is starting to normalise its relations with the most important pawns on the Middle East chessboard, with undeniable potential positive repercussions (albeit not in the immediate future) on the broken dialogue with the Palestinian Authority, which, deprived of certain fundamental sponsors from the Arab front, will probably find itself obliged not only to recognise the existence of the State of Israel, so far defined as “Jewish entity” in its documents, but also to commit itself to the realistic pursuit of the two States solution, already foreseen also by the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine – a partition which the Palestinians, strengthened by an Arab support which is now beginning to wane, have never fully accepted.

Following in the footsteps of the Arab nations that have opened diplomatic relations with Israel, Morocco – ruled by a direct descendant of the Prophet – has also decided to start a formal dialogue with Israel. This move, too, has been encouraged by an initiative of Trump’s Administration in recent weeks. It seems, in fact, that King Mohammed VI has decided to recognise the existence of the State of Israel, after the United States – in turn – recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, an area on the border with Mauritania that has been the subject of disputes, including armed clashes, for over thirty years.

This is an important step, also because it comes from a country, Morocco, which has always protected the life and rights of its Jewish community, to the point that one of the King’s most respected advisors is Dr. Azoulai, an eminent descendant of a rich dynasty of Moroccan Jewish entrepreneurs.

Europe, Turkey, Israel, the Arab world. These and many other dossiers will be dealt with at the end of thisannus horribilis. A year at the end of which we would like to see at least one effective attempt to solve an all-Italian dossier, which seems to be overshadowed by the pandemic news: the affair of the 13 fishermen from Mazara del Vallo, kidnapped and imprisoned for over three months by the militias of Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, without any visible and effective Italian initiative to bring them back home.

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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Europe

The Leaders of the Western World Meet

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The annual meeting of the G7 comprising the largest western economies plus Japan is being hosted this year by the United Kingdom.  Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister has also invited Australia, South Korea, South Africa and India.  There has been talk of including Russia again but Britain threatened a veto.  Russia, which had been a member from 1997, was suspended in 2014 following the Crimea annexation.  

Cornwall in the extreme southwest of England has a rugged beauty enjoyed by tourists, and is a contrast to the green undulating softness of its neighbor Devon.  St. Ives is on Cornwall’s sheltered northern coast and it is the venue for the G7 meeting (August 11-13) this year.  It offers beautiful beaches and ice-cold seas.

France, Germany. Italy, UK, US, Japan and Canada.  What do the rich talk about?  Items on the agenda this year including pandemics (fear thereof) and in particular zoonotic diseases where infection spreads from non-human animals to humans.  Johnson has proposed a network of research labs to deal with the problem.  As a worldwide network it will include the design of a global early-warning system and will also establish protocols to deal with future health emergencies.

The important topic of climate change is of particular interest to Boris Johnson because Britain is hosting COP26  in Glasgow later this year in November.  Coal, one of the worst pollutants, has to be phased out and poorer countries will need help to step up and tackle not just the use of cheap coal but climate change and pollution in general.  The G7 countries’ GDP taken together comprises about half of total world output, and climate change has the potential of becoming an existential problem for all on earth.  And help from them to poorer countries is essential for these to be able to increase climate action efforts.

The G7 members are also concerned about large multinationals taking advantage of differing tax laws in the member countries.  Thus the proposal for a uniform 15 percent minimum tax.  There is some dispute as to whether the rate is too low.

America is back according to Joe Biden signalling a shift away from Donald Trump’s unilateralism.  But America is also not the sole driver of the world economy:  China is a real competitor and the European Union in toto is larger.  In a multilateral world, Trump charging ahead on his own made the US risible.  He also got nowhere as the world’s powers one by one distanced themselves.

Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen is also endorsing close coordination in economic policies plus continued support as the world struggles to recover after the corona epidemic.  India for example, has over 27 million confirmed cases, the largest number in Asia.  A dying first wave shattered hopes when a second much larger one hit — its devastation worsened by a shortage of hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and other medicines in the severely hit regions.  On April 30, 2021, India became the first country to report over 400,000 new cases in a single 24 hour period.

It is an interdependent world where atavistic self-interest is no longer a solution to its problems.

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Revisiting the Bosnian War

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Genocide is not an alien concept to the world nowadays. However, while the reality (and the culprit) is not hard to profile today, history is ridden with massacres that were draped and concealed from the world beyond. Genocides that rivaled the great warfares and were so gruesome that the ring of brutality still pulsates in the historical narrative of humanity. We journey back to one such genocide that was named the most brutish mass slaughter after World War II. We revisit the Bosnian War (1992-95) which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 100,000 innocent Bosnian citizens and displaced millions. The savage nature of the war was such that the war crimes committed constituted a whole new definition to how we describe genocide.

The historical backdrop helps us gauge the complex relations and motivations which resulted in such chaotic warfare to follow suit. Post World War II, the then People’s Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina joined the then Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. Bosnia-Herzegovina became one of the constituent republics of Yugoslavia in 1946 along with other Balkan states including Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. As communism pervaded all over Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina began losing its religion-cultural identity. Since Bosnia-Herzegovina mainly comprised of a Muslim population, later known as the Bosniaks, the spread of socialism resulted in the abolition of many Muslim institutions and traditions. And while the transition to the reformed Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1963 did ease the ethnic pressure, the underlying radical ideology and sentiments never fully subsided.

The Bosniaks started to emerge as the majority demographic of Bosnia and by 1971, the Bosniaks constituted as the single largest component of the entire Bosnia-Herzegovina population. However, the trend of emigration picked up later in the decades; the Serbs and the Croats adding up to their tally throughout most of the 70s and mid-80s. The Bosnian population was characterized as a tripartite society, that is, comprised of three core ethnicities: Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats. Till  1991, the ethnic majority of the Bosniaks was heavily diluted down to just 44% while the Serbian emigrants concentrated the Serbian influence; making up 31% of the total Bosnian population.

While on one side of the coin, Bosnia-Herzegovina was being flooded with Serbs inching a way to gain dominance, the Yugoslavian economy was consistently perishing on the other side. While the signs of instability were apparent in the early 80s, the decade was not enough for the economy to revive. In the late 80s, therefore, political dissatisfaction started to take over and multiple nationalist parties began setting camps. The sentiments diffused throughout the expanse of Yugoslavia and nationalists sensed an imminent partition. Bosnia-Herzegovina, like Croatia, followed through with an election in 1990 which resulted in an expected tripartite poll roughly similar to the demographic of Bosnia. The representatives resorted to form a coalition government comprising of Bosniak-Serb-Craot regime sharing turns at the premiership. While the ethnic majority Bosniaks enjoyed the first go at the office, the tensions soon erupted around Bosnia-Herzegovina as Serbs turned increasingly hostile.

The lava erupted in 1991 as the coalition government of Bosnia withered and the Serbian Democratic Party established its separate assembly in Bosnia known as ‘Serbian National Assembly’.  The move was in line with a growing sentiment of independence that was paving the dismantling of Yugoslavia. The Serbian Democratic Party long envisioned a dominant Serbian state in the Balkans and was not ready to participate in a rotational government when fighting was erupting in the neighboring states. When Croatia started witnessing violence and the rise of rebels in 1992, the separatist vision of the Serbs was further nourished as the Serbian Democratic Party, under the leadership of Serb Leader Radovan Karadžić, established an autonomous government in the Serb Majority areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The vision and the actions remained docile until the ring of independence was echoed throughout the region. When the European Commission (EC), now known as the European Union (EU), and the United States recognized the independence of both Croatia and Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina found itself in a precarious position. While a safe bet would have been to undergo talks and diplomatic routes to engage the Serbian Democratic Party, the Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović failed to realize the early warnings of an uprising. Instead of forging negotiations with the Bosnian Serbs, the Bosniak President resorted to mirror Croatia by organizing a referendum of independence bolstered by both the EC and the US. Even as the referendum was blocked in the Serb autonomous regions of Bosnia, Izetbegović chose to pass through and announced the results. As soon as the Bosnian Independence from Yugoslavia was announced and recognized, fighting erupted throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Bosnian Serbs feared that their long-envisioned plan of establishing the ‘Great Serbia’ in the Balkans was interred which resulted in chaos overtaking most of Bosnia. The blame of the decision, however, was placed largely on the Bosniak president and, by extension, the entire ethnic majority of the Bosniaks. The Bosnian Serbs started to launch attacks in the east of Bosnia; majorly targeting the Bosniak-dominated towns like Foča, Višegrad, and Zvornik. Soon the Bosnian Serb forces were joined by the local paramilitary rebels as well as the Yugoslavian army as the attacks ravaged the towns with large Bosniak populations; swathing the land in the process. The towns were pillaged and pressed into control whilst the local Bosniaks and their Croat counterparts were either displaced, incarcerated, or massacred.

While the frail Bosnian government managed to join hands with the Croatian forces across the border, the resulting offense was not nearly enough as the combination of Serb forces, rebel groups, and the Yugoslavian army took control of almost two-thirds of the Bosnian territory. The Karadžić regime refused to hand over the captured land in the rounds of negotiations. And while the war stagnated, the Bosniak locals left behind in small pockets of war-ravaged areas faced the brunt in the name of revenge and ethnic cleansing.

As Bosniaks and Croats formed a joint federation as the last resort, the Serbian Democratic Party established the Republic Srpska in the captured East, and the military units were given under the command of the Bosnian-Serb General, Ratko Mladic. The notorious general, known as the ‘Butcher of Bosnia’, committed horrifying war crimes including slaughtering the Bosniak locals captured in violence, raping the Bosniak women, and violating the minors in the name of ethnic cleansing exercises. While the United Nations refused to intervene in the war, the plea of the helpless Bosniaks forced the UN to at least deliver humanitarian aid to the oppressed. The most gruesome of all incidents were marked in July 1995, when an UN-declared safe zone, known as Srebrenica, was penetrated by the forces led by Mladic whilst some innocent Bosniaks took refuge. The forces brutally slaughtered the men while raped the women and children. An estimated 7000-8000 Bosniak men were slaughtered in the most grotesque campaign of ethnic cleansing intended to wipe off any trace of Bosniaks from the Serb-controlled territory.

In the aftermath of the barbaric war crimes, NATO undertook airstrikes to target the Bosnian-Serb targets while the Bosniak-Croat offense was launched from the ground. In late 1995, the Bosnian-Serb forces conceded defeat and accepted US-brokered talks. The accords, also known as the ‘Dayton Accords’, resulted in a conclusion to the Bosnian War as international forces were established in the region to enforce compliance. The newly negotiated federalized Bosnia and Herzegovina constituted 51% of the Croat-Bosniak Federation and 49% of the Serb Republic.

The accord, however, was not the end of the unfortunate tale as the trials and international action were soon followed to investigate the crimes against humanity committed during the three-year warfare. While many Serb leaders either died in imprisonment or committed suicide, the malefactor of the Srebrenica Massacre, Ratko Mladic, went into hiding in 2001. However, Mladic was arrested after a decade in 2011 by the Serbian authorities and was tried in the UN-established International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY). The investigation revisited the malicious actions of the former general and in 2017, the ICTY found Ratko Mladic guilty of genocide and war crimes and sentenced him to life in prison. While Mladic appealed for acquittal on the inane grounds of innocence since not he but his subordinates committed the crimes, the UN court recently upheld the decision in finality; closing doors on any further appeals. After 26-years, the world saw despair in the eyes of the 78-year-old Mladic as he joined the fate of his bedfellows while the progeny of the victims gained some closure as the last Bosnian trail was cased on a note of justice.

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Greece And Yugoslavia: A Brief History Of Lasting Partitions

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Prior to the 1992-1995 Balkan war, the European Community delegated the British and Portugese diplomats, Lord Carrington and Jose Cutileiro, to design a suitable scheme for ethno-religious partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in February 1992 they launched the Lisbon Conference, with the aim of separating Bosnian ethno-religious communities and isolating them into distinct territories. This was the initiation of the process of partition, adopted in all subsequent plans to end the war in Bosnia. However, such a concept was stipulated by Carrington and Cutileiro as the only available when there was no war to end, indeed, no war in sight; and, curiously, it has remained the only concept that the European Community, and then the European Union, has ever tried to apply to Bosnia.

Contrary to the foundations of political theory, sovereignty of the Bosnian state was thus divided, and its parts were transferred to the three ethno-religious communities. The Carrington-Cutileiro maps were tailored to determine the territorial reach of each of these communities. What remained to be done afterwards was their actual physical separation, and that could only be performed by ethnic cleansing, that is, by war and genocide. For, ethno-religiously homogenous territories, as envisaged by Carrington and Cutileiro, could only be created by a mass slaughter and mass expulsion of those who did not fit the prescribed model of ethno-religious homogeneity. The European Community thus created a recipe for the war in Bosnia and for the perpetual post-war instability in the Balkans. Yet, ever since the war broke out, the European diplomatic circles have never ceased claiming that this ‘chaos’ was created by ‘the wild Balkan tribes’, who ‘had always slaughtered each other’. There was also an alternative narrative, disseminated from the same sources, that Russia promoted the programme of ‘Greater Serbia’, which eventually produced the bloodshed in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Facts on the ground, however, do not support either of these narratives. All these ‘tribes’ had peacefully lived for centuries under the Ottoman and Habsburg empires, until nationalist ideas were imported into Serbia and Greece at the beginning of the 19th century. On the other hand, Russia’s influence in the Balkans could never compete with the influence of the Anglo-French axis. The latter’s influence was originally implemented through the channels of Serbian and Greek nationalisms, constructed on the anti-Ottoman/anti-Islamic and anti-Habsburg/anti-Catholic grounds, in accordance with strategic interests of the two West European powers to dismantle the declining empires and transform them into a number of puppet nation-states. In these geopolitical shifts, nationalist ideologies in the Balkans utilized religious identities as the most efficient tool for mobilization of the targeted populations and creation of mutually exclusive and implacable national identities.

The pivotal among these nationalist ideologies has been the Serb one,  built on the grounds of Orthodox Christianity, with its permanent anti-Islamic and anti-Catholic agenda. The existence and expansion of Serbia was always explicitly backed by London and Paris – from a semi-autonomous principality within the Ottoman territory in the 1830s and the creation of the Kingdom of Serbia in 1882, through the 1912-13 Balkan wars and World War I, to its expansion into other South Slavic territories in the form of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia), promoted at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919.

Eventually, the Serbian elites – supported by the Anglo-French axis, again – used the dissolution of the communist Yugoslavia as an opportunity for implementation of the 19th-century ‘Greater Serbia’ programme, that is, Serbia’s expansion in all the Yugoslav territories populated by the Orthodox Christians. However, this time ‘Greater Serbia’ was used as a catalyst in a bigger geopolicial reshuffling advocated by the UK and France – the simultaneous implementation of four ethnnically homogenous greater-state projects, including ‘Greater Serbia’ (transferring the Orthodox-populated parts of Bosnia, plus Montenegro and the northern part of Kosovo, to Serbia), ‘Greater Croatia’ (transferring the Catholic-populated parts of Bosnia to Croatia), ‘Greater Albania’ (transferring the Albanian-populated parts of Kosovo and Macedonia to Albania) and ‘Greater Bulgaria’ (transferring the Slavic parts of Macedonia to Bulgaria).

Since 1990s, ethno-religious nationalisms in the Balkans have served only  this geopolitical purpose – creation of ethno-religiously homogenous ‘greater’ states, including the disappearance of Bosnia and Macedonia, whose multi-religious and multi-ethnic structure has been labelled by the British foreign policy elites as “the last remnant of the Ottoman Empire“ that needs to be eliminated for good. The only major foreign power that has opposed these geopolitical redesigns is the US, which has advocated the policy of inviolability of the former Yugoslav republics’ borders. Yet, the US has never adopted a consistent policy of nation-building for Bosnia and Macedonia, which would be the only one that could efficiently counter the doctrine of ethno-religious homogeneity promoted by the UK and France and supported by most EU countries.   

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