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The Showman, the Democrat and the Cleaner: Bulgaria after the elections

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Introduction: The beginning of a new era

On March 26,‎the mandate of the Bulgarian 44th National Assembly expired. After having talked with all political parties, President Rumen Radev, announced new elections for 4 April, when the spirits should have calmed. The President has regretted not having the possibility to call citizen to the polls in September 2020. In effect, crowds of citizens came out against in summer 2020asking for that. Still, the government did not resign and regular elections went on

Still, demonstrators’ wish for the Prime Minister’s, Boyko Borisov, and the Chief Public Prosecutor’s, Ivan Geshev, demission influenced the electoral outcome. Nearly all political analyst upheld this view, albeit the Chief Public Prosecutor is not an elected post. In fact, Borisov’s party lost an impressive number of preferences both as a share of the total and in sheer numbers. In comparison to 1.1 million preferences (33.65%) in 2017, this year it got about 850,000 votes (26.18%). However, the ‘protest vote’ did not merge under a sole flag; on the contrary, it split in three. In part, it distributed to two newly-formed lists: Stand up! Bastards out (Izpravi ce! Mutri vŭn, ISMV) and There is such a people (Ima takŭv narod, ITN). Meanwhile, the coalition Democratic Bulgaria (Democratichna Bŭlgaria, DB) got a fair share of these votes in big other urban areas.

Some welcomed the outcomes as the birth of a “new Bulgaria in which Borisov can win the elections […], but he cannot grab hold of power”. After all, expectations for a new cabinet and, relatedly, for the whole society rests with of a group of novices. Hence, it is valuable to learn furtheron the parties that capitalised on the pre-elector protest.

The populist showman — Ima takŭv narod

‎Before the elections ‎‎various surveys reported over 20% support for the Bulgarian Socialist Party, and no more than 12% for ITN. Yet, the Socialists marked the worst debacle since the party’s establishment in 1991. Meanwhile, on election days, Slavi Trifonov’s, a folk-rock star and former showmen, formation beat all expectations. Winning 560,000 votes (ca. 17%), ITN became the second-largest party and Trifonov the country’s most powerful Bulgarian politician besides Borisov.

ITN is a “personal party” completely dependent on its founder-leader. Trifonov has gathered ample policymaking power. For several months, ITN did not hold conventions, but folk concerts. Its populist grandiloquence spellbound those residing in smaller towns and especially embittered young people. Still, Trifonov’s strategy is not unprecedented. He grasps the sort of demagogy that another comedian, Volodymyr Zelenski, employed to become President of Ukraine.

The urban Democrat — Democratichna Bŭlgaria

Lat years’ demonstrations started a few meteoritic careers. Nevertheless, a few of the personalities who emerged in July and August 2020 has kept rising ever since. And the 46-year-old Hristo Ivanov is the most notable amongst them. Raised in a middle-class family, Ivanov’s comes from one a dynasty of office-bearers by vocation. Both of his relatives participated pro-actively in the Bulgarian Communist ‎‎Party’s life. In the late 1980s, his mother took part in quite a few nonconforming currents within the Party until he was expelled from the organisation.

Figure 1 On the night of the election, Ivanov (in the photo above) declared: “‎We are not surprised by the result, we have managed to build a working coalition. This is an important part of the change we are seeing across the political landscape.

A born rhetor, Ivanov founded and chairs Da! Bŭlgaria, a list which won some seats in Sofia’s municipal council. He got nation-wide renown during last summer as he propagated dissatisfaction by unleashing the umptieth outrage against Borisov’s and the Chief Prosecutor’s corruption. In conjunction with other minor parties, Ivanov established DB, a coalition which gathered about that 10% of the vote. Scanning its programme, DB looksas a right-of-the-centre, liberal alliance focusing on the fight against corruption and judicial reform.

The ‘Cleaner’ who shocked the left

Similarly toIvanov for DB, most of ISMV’s accomplishment boils down to a single captivating character: former Ombudswoman Maya Manolova. However, her supremacy on the rank and file is in no way comparable to Trifonov’s on ITN. In effect, ISMV is not actually a ‘party’ with a proper structure and a hierarchical organisation. It seems much more to be a loose assembly of several civic movements and NGOs. ISMV has significant struggled to be the embodiment of the protests of Summer 2020. Still, some of the currents that flow in the streets of Bulgaria resisted these attempts.

Figure 3 Maya Manovola, leader of ISMV, declared that her deputies will never join any “overt or covert alliance with Borisov”

All in all, ISMV tilts quite towards the political left while displaying a strong Europhile orientation. It shares with ITN and DB the dedication to fend off corruption and reform the judiciary. Still, ISMV’s approach to these aims is fundamentally diverse from, for instance, DB’s — whereas ITN has advanced no concrete proposal.

Scenarios: A minority government or the Constituent Assembly?

Whether Bulgaria will have a new government depends on a couple of variables. First, GERB remains the largest parliamentary group. Hence, it will not be easy to form an anti-Borisov cabinet. Meanwhile, the Socialists have lost most of their relevance because of internal unmanageableness and a dawdling leadership. Uncertainty and instability loom at the horizon.

Figure 4 Summary of the characteristics of the risk associated to Bulgarian elections’ results.

The parties emerging from popular protests are very diverse. Thus, it is quite unlikely that the new cabinet – were there ever to be one – will start a new season of political reforms and deliver on its promises. However dreary the situation may seem, many seem motivated to improve Bulgaria’s institutions. Voters recompensed anti-corruption candidates and rejected the status quo. Accordingly, it could be the case for ITN, DB and ISMV to agree on a minority government with the Socialists’ external support.

Yet, such a government is not the only possibility. Sectors within these three parties may find and entente and accelerate “judicial reform”. Passing the 2020 draft of a new constitution would automatically trigger new elections for a constituent assembly. And, this time, protest parties are likely to consolidate their gains.

Fabio A. Telarico was born in Naples, Southern Italy. Since 2018 he has been publishing on websites and magazines about the culture, society and politics of South Eastern Europe and the former USSR in Italian, English, Bulgarian and French. As of 2021, he has edited two volumes and is the author of contributions in collective works. He combines his activity as author and researcher with that of regular participant to international conferences on Europe’s periphery, Russia and everything in between. For more information, visit the Author’s website (in English and Bulgarian).

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NATO’s Cypriot Trick

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UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Warsaw Pact died, there was much speculation that NATO would consider itself redundant and either disappear or at least transmogrify into a less aggressive body.

Failing that, Moscow at least felt assured that NATO would not include Germany, let alone expand eastwards. Even the NATO Review, NATO’s PR organ, wrote self-apologetically twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin wall: “Thus, the debate about the enlargement of NATO evolved solely in the context of German reunification. In these negotiations Bonn and Washington managed to allay Soviet reservations about a reunited Germany remaining in NATO. This was achieved by generous financial aid, and by the ‘2+4 Treaty’ ruling out the stationing of foreign NATO forces on the territory of the former East Germany. However, it was also achieved through countless personal conversations in which Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders were assured that the West would not take advantage of the Soviet Union’s weakness and willingness to withdraw militarily from Central and Eastern Europe.”

Whatever the polemics about Russia’s claim that NATO broke its promises, the facts of what happened following the fall of the Berlin wall and the negotiations about German re-unification strongly demonstrate that Moscow felt cheated and that the NATO business and military machine, driven by a jingoistic Cold War Britain, a selfish U.S. military-industrial-congressional complex and an atavistic Russia-hating Poland, saw an opportunity to become a world policeman.

This helps to explain why, in contrast to Berlin, NATO decided to keep Nicosia as the world’s last divided city. For Cyprus is in fact NATO’s southernmost point, de facto. And to have resolved Cyprus’ problem by heeding UN resolutions and getting rid of all foreign forces and re-unifying the country would have meant that NATO would have ‘lost’ Cyprus: hardly helpful to the idea of making NATO the world policeman. Let us look a little more closely at the history behind this.

Following the Suez debacle in 1956, Britain had already moved its Middle East Headquarters from Aden to Cyprus, while the U.S. was taking over from the UK and France in the Middle East. Although, to some extent under U.S. pressure, Britain was forced to bring Makarios out of exile and begin negotiating with Greece and Turkey to give up its colony, the U.S. opted for a NATO solution. It would not do to have a truly sovereign Cyprus, but only one which accepted the existence of the Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs) as part and parcel of any settlement; and so it has remained, whatever the sophistic semantics about a bizonal settlement and a double-headed government. The set of twisted and oft-contradictory treaties that have bedevilled the island since 1960 are still afflicting the part-occupied island which has been a de facto NATO base since 1949. Let us look at some more history.

When Cyprus obtained its qualified independence in 1960, Greece and Turkey had already signed, on 11 February 1959, a so called ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’, agreeing that they would support Cyprus’ entry into NATO.1 This was, however, mere posture diplomacy, since Britain—and the U.S. for that matter—did not trust Cyprus, given the strength of the Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL) and the latter’s links to Moscow. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) wrote: ‘Membership of NATO might make it easier for the Republic of Cyprus and possibly for the Greeks and Turks to cause political embarrassment should the United Kingdom wish to use the bases […] for national ends outside Cyprus […] The access of the Cypriot Government to NATO plans and documents would present a serious security risk, particularly in view of the strength of the Cypriot Communist Party. […] The Chiefs of Staff, therefore, feel most strongly that, from the military point of view, it would be a grave disadvantage to admit Cyprus to NATO.’2 In short, Cyprus was considered unreliable.

As is well known, the unworkable constitution (described as such by the Foreign Office and even by David Hannay, the Annan reunification plan’s PR man), resulted in chaos and civil strife: in January 1964, during the chaos caused by the Foreign Office’s help and encouragement to President Makarios to introduce a ‘thirteen point plan’ to solve Cyprus’ problems, British Prime Minister Douglas-Home told the Cabinet: ‘If the Turks invade or if we are seriously prevented from fulfilling our political role, we have made it quite clear that we will retire into base.’3 Put more simply, Britain had never had any intention of upholding the Treaty of Guarantee.

In July of the same year, the Foreign Office wrote: ‘The Americans have made it quite clear that there would be no question of using the 6th Fleet to prevent any possible Turkish invasion […] We have all along made it clear to the United Nations that we could not agree to UNFICYP’s being used for the purpose of repelling external intervention, and the standing orders to our troops outside UNFYCYP are to withdraw to the sovereign base areas immediately any such intervention takes place.’4

It was mainly thanks to Moscow and President Makarios that in 1964 a Turkish invasion and/or the island being divided between Greece and Turkey was prevented. Such a solution would have strengthened NATO, since Cyprus would no longer exist other than as a part of NATO members Greece and Turkey. Moscow had issued the following statement: ‘The Soviet Government hereby states that if there is an armed foreign invasion of Cypriot territory, the Soviet Union will help the Republic of Cyprus to defend its freedom and independence against foreign intervention.’5

Privately, Britain, realising the unworkability of the 1960 treaties, was embarrassed, and wished to relieve itself of the whole problem. The following gives us the backstage truth: ‘The bases and retained sites, and their usefulness to us, depend in large measure on Greek Cypriot co-operation and at least acquiescence. A ‘Guantanamo’6 position is out of the question. Their future therefore must depend on the extent to which we can retain Greek and/or Cypriot goodwill and counter USSR and UAR pressures. There seems little doubt, however, that in the long term, our sovereign rights in the SBA’s will be considered increasingly irksome by the Greek Cypriots and will be regarded as increasingly anachronistic by world public opinion.7

Following the Turkish invasion ten years later, Britain tried to give up its bases: ‘British strategic interests in Cyprus are now minimal. Cyprus has never figured in NATO strategy and our bases there have no direct NATO role. The strategic value of Cyprus to us has declined sharply since our virtual withdrawal from east of Suez. This will remain the case when the Suez Canal has reopened.8

A Cabinet paper concluded: ‘Our policy should continue to be one of complete withdrawal of our military presence on Cyprus as soon as feasible. […] In the circumstances I think that we should make the Americans aware of our growing difficulty in continuing to provide a military presence in Cyprus while sustaining our main contribution to NATO. […]9

Britain kept trying to give up the bases, but the enabler of the Turkish invasion, Henry Kissinger, did not allow Britain to give up its bases and listening posts, since that would have weakened NATO, and since Kissinger needed the bases because of the Arab-Israel dispute.10

Thus, by the end of 1980, in a private about-turn, Britain had completely succumbed to American pressure: ‘The benefits which we derive from the SBAs are of major significance and virtually irreplaceable. They are an essential contribution to the Anglo-American relationship. The Department have regularly considered with those concerned which circumstances in Cyprus are most conducive to our retaining unfettered use of our SBA facilities. On balance, the conclusion is that an early ‘solution’ might not help (since pressures against the SBAs might then build up), just as breakdown and return to strife would not, and that our interests are best served by continuing movement towards a solution – without the early prospect of arrival [author’s italics]11.

And so it is today: Cyprus is a de facto NATO territory. A truly independent, sovereign and united Cyprus is an anathema to the U.S. and Britain, since such a scenario would afford Russia the hypothetical opportunity to increase its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

From our partner RIAC

[1] Ministry of Defence paper JP (59) 163, I January 1960, BNA DEFE 13/99/MO/5/1/5, in Mallinson, William, Cyprus, a Modern History, I.B. Tauris (now Bloomsbury), London and New York, 2005, 2009, 2012, p.49.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Memorandum by Prime Minister, 2 January 1964, BNA CAB/129/116, in ibid, Mallinson, William, p.37.

[4] British Embassy, Washington, to Foreign Office, 7 July 1964, telegram 8541, BNA FO 371/174766, file C1205/2/G, in ibid.’, Mallinson, William, p. 37.

[5] Joseph, Joseph S., Cyprus, Ethnic Conflict and International Politics, St Martin’s Press, London and New York, 1997, p. 66.

[6] In 1964, Cuba cut off supplies to the American base at Guantanamo Bay, since the US refused to return it to Cuba, as a result of which the US took measures to make it self-sufficient.

[7] Briefing paper, 18 June 1964, BNA-DO/220/170, file MED 193/105/2, part A. Mallinson,William, Kissinger and the Invasion of Cyprus, p. 127.

[8] ‘British Interests in the Eastern Mediterranean’, draft paper, 11 April 1975, BNA-FCO 46/1248, file DPI/515/1.

[9] Cabinet paper, 29 September 1976, in op. cit. Mallinson, William, Kissinger and the Invasion of Cyprus, p.134.

[10] Mallinson, William, Britain and Cyprus: Key Themes and Documents, I.B. Tauris, London and New York, 2011, and Bloomsbury, London and New York, 2020, pp. 87-121.

[11] Fergusson to Foreign Minister’s Private Secretary, minute, 8 December 1980, BNA-FCO 9/2949, file WSC/023/1, part C.

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Belarus divorces from the Eastern Partnership: A new challenge for the EU Neighborhood Policy

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The Eastern Partnership (EaP) is the Eastern dimension of the EU Neighborhood Policy adopted back in 2009 aimed at deepening relations between Brussels and six Eastern European partners – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The EaP has been regarded as a strategic initiative based on mutual interests and common values with a goal of strengthening political and economic relations with those countries, helping them enhance their institutional capacity through sustainable reforms. While increasing stability and paving the way for the sustainable development of those societies, the EU’s overall goal has been to secure its Eastern borders.

Since the very beginning the EaP has been suspiciously viewed by Russia as an attempt of expansion of the sphere of influence and as a first step of EU membership of these countries. Russians point to the EU and NATO ambitious expansion eastward as the main reason for complicated relations and in this context the EaP has been regarded with traditional fears and paranoic perceptions. The Russian hard power approach causes serious problems for the EaP which fails to mitigate security concerns of partner countries and to come up with serious initiatives for conflict settlement. Being a laggard in terms of soft power, the Russian ruling elite has continuously used all hard power foreign policy instruments at its disposal trying to undermine the coherence of the initiative. And the very recent démarche of Belarus to withdraw from the EaP should be seen in this context of confrontation.

On 28th of June, the ministry of foreign affairs of Belarus announced a decision to halt its membership in the EaP as a response to the EU sanctions imposed on Minsk accompanied by the recalling ambassadors from both sides. Actually, this isn’t the first case of the EaP walkout blackmailed by Lukashenko. The first escape was attempted in September-October 2011, but the difficulties were soon resolved and Lukashenko revised his decision. This time situation seems very complicated and these far-reaching tensions may have tough consequences for Lukashenko’s regime. This new group of sectoral sanctions which target banking, oil, telecommunication spheres and also ban the export of potash, is a harsh response from the EU against Lukashneko’s scandalous hijacking activity in May to detain a Belarusian opposition journalist and blogger Roman Protasevich.

Lukashenko’s administration not only challenges the EU Neighborhood Policy and shows no retreat, but also goes forward escalating the situation. Minsk takes high risks freezing the Readmission Agreement signed by the EU. This document is a legal basis for bilateral cooperation aimed at struggling against irregular migration flows. It’s not a secret that the territory of Belarus has been used for illegal migration for the groups from the Middle East to penetrate into neighboring EU member states such as Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Moreover, Belarus territory has served as a transit route for smuggling circles going from East to West and vice versa.  And now closing eyes on all these channels, Minsk hopes to increase the bargaining power vis-à-vis Brussels. However, given the Western reactions, it seems that this time the EU is resolute.

Despite the fact that Charles Michel, the President of the EU Council, described this withdrawal as “another step backwards” and even threatened that “this will escalate tensions having clear negative impacts”, the EU wants to continue working with the Belarusian society  as Josep Borrel stated. The EU’s determination to keep the bridges alive with the Belarusian people, in spite of Lukashneko’s radical stance, is aimed at preventing further isolationism of Minsk which would benefit only Russia.

In contrast to the increasing level of tensions with the EU, the Russian authorities continue to support Lukasheno’s administration, thus trying to deepen the gap and to bring Belarus under their total influence. Russia uses Belarus in its chessboard with the EU and the USA in Eastern Europe. Last year’s fraud elections and brutal crackdown by Lukashenko left him alone with the only source of power stemming from the Kremlin. Thus the withdrawal from the EaP should be understood not only as a convulsion of the Belarusian authorities in response to the sanctions, but also Russia’s employment of the Belarus card to respond to the recent joint statement of the EU-US summit in Brussels, when both parties declared their intention to stand with the people of Belarus, supporting their demands for human rights and democracy simultaneously criticising Lukashenko’s regime and his reckless political behavior and also criticising Russian’s unacceptable behavior.

So, Lukashenko’s step to quit the EaP can be seen as a well-calculated adulatory sign towards Moscow sacrificing the last remnants of sovereignty in order to receive financial and political lifebuoy amid the increasing crisis in the result of sanctions.  And the recent visit of N. Patrushev, the Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, to Minsk right after the withdrawal decision shows Russian inclination to strike while the iron is hot and to abuse the vulnerable situation of Belarus. Patrushev stated that the ultimate goal of foreign powers is to change the power in Belarus and he suggested instead of focusing on internal issues, to bring their forces together against external threats as their influence affects internal developments. For this reason, deeper integration of security and military services of both countries are on the table.

The reaction of opposition leader S. Tikhanovskaya was very rough, stating that this suspension will cut the opportunities of ordinary citizens who benefit from the political and economic outcomes of the EaP. Moreover, she claims that Lukashenko doesn’t have a right to represent Belarus since August 2020 and his decisions don’t have legal consequences for Belarus. This kind of approach is shared by the leadership of Lithuania too, whose president and minister of foreign affairs not only refuse to recognize Lukashenko as a legitimate president, but also highlight the role of the Kremlin in supporting the dictatorial power of Lukashenko in exchange for decreasing sovereignty.

The blackmail of Lukashenko to challenge the EU Eastern Neighborhood Policy  in order to have the sanctions lifted may bring about such kind of precedents with other partnering countries as well. First of all, this concerns Azerbaijan which continues to face serious problems related with human rights, freedom of expression, the problem of Prisoners of War and other traits of authoritarian power. It’s well-known that  human rights issues have been the underwater stones in the EU and Azerbaijan relations and they continue to pose new challenges for Aliyev’s non-democratice regime. Another weak ring of the EaP chain is Armenia. Even though reelected N. Pashinyan is eager to pursue a balanced foreign policy, post-war Armenia still faces serious limitations given its vulnerable dependence on Russia. Besides, Pashinyan’s main rival and the former President R. Kocharyan, whose alliance will be the second largest faction in the newly elected Parliament has recently stated that this new parliament can last up to one and half years and nobody can exclude the possibility of new snap elections. His pro-Russian attitude and anti-Western stance are well-known and in case he becomes a prime-minister, there is no guarantee that he will follow the path of Lukashenko. 

Therefore  the statement of the Austrian MFA, that ”we cannot leave South Caucasus to others” during the  recent official visit of the Austrian, Romanian and Latvian MFA under the mandate of the EU High Representative to the South Caucasus, reminds  about the EU presence in the region and also the fact that the ‘normative power’ can be a source of balance and a status quo changer.

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Anti-Macron protests underline classism, as corona protesters and gilets jaune join forces

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photo: Alaattin Doğru - Anadolu Agency

I get it. People in France are fed up with the Covid lockdowns and that’s why they are protesting against the new tightening of the Covid rules. But there is much more to the story.

The new anti-Covid rules by French President Macron came in the middle of the Cannes Film Festival where the rich and famous come out to play for 10 days at the French Reviera. I was there, too, in fact when the new set of rules angered so many ordinary French people. But guess what — the rules didn’t apply to us, those gathered for the Cannes red carpets and parties. Celebrities did not have to wear masks on the red carpet. I did not have to put on a mask at the red carpets. I was not checked even once on the mandatory Covid tests which we took every 2 days anyways. No one at the Cannes red carpets, parties or fashion shows was looking at Covid tests at the entrance, and I attended not one or two things. That’s at the time when the rest of France was boiling. Yes, we were treated differently as the Cannes crowd. That was obvious.

Don’t get me wrong — spending tens of thousands of euros to drink champaigne, walk red carpets and hang out with actors, models, designers and influencers is great. But I couldn’t help but notice that the Cannes elite was being held to a very different standard in comparisson to the ordinary French public. Macron exempted the Cannes crowd from the new rules and that smells of classism and elitism. I can see why the gillets gaune, which I wrote about in my book Trump, European security and Turkey (2020), are angry and want to resume their protests which were put an end to with the Covid lockdowns.

In fact, as soon as you move one or two streets away from the craze and snobbery of the Cannes Festival, you see a very different French picture. Actually, the most pleasant conversations I had in Cannes were with the guy that made my pizza at 2am, a couple of gillets jaune on the street, and the taxi driver who lives in Cannes. These were the pleasant, hard-working French people that represent France so much better than the snotty Cannes Film Festival organizers, the French police or the so-overrated snobbery at the Chopard events. 

From the pizza guy in Mozarella Street I learned that he works two jobs and sleeps 3 hours per night. That’s the reality for many normal French people. Yet, he was the nicest and coolest person I met in Cannes. Somehow I wished that he could trade places with some of the rest I met in Cannes who probably don’t deserve to have an easy life and should be taught a lesson. So I get it. I get the struggle of the gillets gaune and all those that are opposed to Macron’s policies. He is increasingly playing with the far right and that might as well mean that he is looking at his sunset. 

I also get the classism that persists in French society — it’s important to be aware of it even if you’re on the receiving end of a lot of glamor, bemefits and good things. All I can tell you is that next time I am in France, I am joining the gillet jaune protests. Now I really get it. 

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