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Stranger Document: Is the EU Losing its Grip On the Western Balkans?

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Followers and fans of Balkan politics were startled by the news that Slovenian PM Janez Janša has delivered a non-paper to the European Council, advocating the repartition of Bosnian-Herzegovinian territories between Serbia and Croatia, and the union of Albania with Kosovo. Janša denied any link with the matter and journalists from the Balkans and abroad expressed opposing views on the authorship and the place of origin of the document. On April 15, the Slovenian website necenzurirano.si, published the full version of the document titled “Western Balkans – A Way Forward”.

After some initial comments following the publication of the non-paper, the whole affair is now fading in the depths of the cyberspace from where it came without causing much regret for the unsolved mysteries that it is leaving behind. Western European media pay attention to the Balkans as long as they are a source of sensational facts such as a secret border exchange between former “enemy” countries. In the Balkan media, border exchange is usual business and the news did not create much turmoil. In this article I will take a closer look at the details of the document in order to understand the logic of the policies that it prescribes. The analysis of the non-paper enables a reflection on the popularity of the EU in the Western Balkans (WB) and allows to explore current political tendencies in the region.

A Way Forward?

Unless it turns out to be an internet meme, the content of non-paper clearly shows that it was addressed to the highest ranks of EU diplomacy. The authors of the document outline a strategy for the EU to reinforce its influence in the WB. In the first part, titled “Situation”, the document claims that the main political setbacks in the region are linked to the national issues of Serbs, Albanians, and Croatians. The Dayton Agreements of 1995 and the tense situation between Serbia and Kosovo are considered the main obstacles for the EU integration process. Turkey is designated as EU’s main competitor because of its extended influence in the region, particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina and North Macedonia.

The second part of the document titled “Solutions”, is divided in six paragraphs (from a. to f.) and provides a series of objectives aimed at accelerating access to EU and NATO memberships (f.). According to the program, the first and seemingly easier objective would be to unify Kosovo and Albania (a.). The authors claim that 95% of Kosovo wants to unite with its “Albanian nation of origin” and that the situation is similar in Albania. The data is certainly not extrapolated from statistical evidence, but by the transposition of the accepted figure of the Albanian population in Kosovo which is above 90%. The passage “want to unite with their nation of origin” is quite bizarre because it seems as if Kosovo Albanians were not from Kosovo but migrated from present day Albanian territories.

The non-paper (b.) promotes the annexation of the territory of Republika Srpska to Serbia. This process will hypothetically sort out the “Serbian national issue” and will lead Belgrade to accept the union of Kosovo and Albania. The solution of the “Croatian national issue” is open to different options (c.). The authors recommend either to unite predominantly Croatian cantons of Bosnia-Herzegovina with Croatia; or to grant a special status to the Croatian part of Bosnia-Herzegovina, similar to the one that South Tyrol enjoys in Italy. South Tyrol, which is also indicated as a model for the status of the “Serbian part” of Kosovo (a.), is probably mentioned to provide the readers with a familiar example. Bosniaks should accept the dismemberment of their state for the sake of EU interests. They would thereby “gain” (d.) an independent state and would have to organize a referendum in order choose “between EU and non-EU (Turkey)”. The authors believe that this solution will prevent the spread of further Turkish influence and radical Islam.

State-building based on national or religious grounds is against the sense of the EU integration process and is probably conceived to put an end to it. The formation of a Bosniak independent state based on a “national” principle would (legitimately)lead Bosniaks to claim the Sanjak territories in Montenegro and in Serbia. National and religious tensions will increase Turkey’s influence in the region. The union of Serbia and Republika Srpska would bring eurosceptics living on both sides of the border to join ranks, thus hindering the region’s integration in the EU. Similar outcomes would be generated by the union of Albania and Kosovo where eurosceptics have become more numerous in the last years.

With and Against the EU

The document is anonymous, but its content allows us to make a hypothesis on its commissioner. In the penultimate paragraph of the “Solutions” section, the authors lay down the areas of intervention on which the EU should focus in order to increase its influence in the Balkans. In their view, the EU should launch a “comprehensive economic programme for the stabilisation, better infrastructure and energy connectivity of the region, and environmental rehabilitation.” The authors believe that the EU should not act alone, but with the support of regional actors such as the Three Seas Initiative (3SI). The 3SI was founded in 2015 in view of enhancing collaboration between EU member states of Central and Eastern Europe. One of their official papers argues that the organisation aims at reducing the “civilisation gap” that separates Eastern from Western European countries. In order to fulfil this objective, the 3SI has devised a series of projects for improving the mobility, energy and digitalisation infrastructure of the region on a vertical axis that runs from North to South.

The policies recommended by the non-paper for the WB seem at least in part inspired by the objectives of the 3SI. For instance, the endeavour to achieve a “better infrastructure and energy connectivity of the region, and environmental rehabilitation”, falls in the organisation’s commitment to improve energy security (objective number 3) and reach climate goals (objective number 6). The 3SI and the non-paper share some conceptual analogies. The 3SI documents use the historically controversial term “nation” to refer to European states. A nation-centric perspective informs the authors of the non-paper who believe that regional problems will be solved by supporting nationalist drives instead of opposing them. WB countries which are not members of the 3SI are cited as partners in a series of projects for the development of the transport, digitalisation and energy infrastructure that were discussed during the organisation summit in Slovenia in 2019.

The non-paper and the 3SI pay attention to political stability and economic growth, but they do not seem very concerned by issues related to the rule of law, human rights and corruption, which are at least formally at the core of the EU action in the area. In the third and last section of the document, titled “Steps”, the authors draw out the strategies through which the “Solutions” can be reached. In their view, the plan should be checked and carried out with international and regional decision-makers in a “silent procedure”. According to the document, it seems that the partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the union of Kosovo and Albania could be achieved without popular vote. The non-paper expects the EU to endorse a project that will radically alter the borders of the region without taking into consideration the will of the communities that will be affected by the changes.

Return to the Old Path

The non-paper was perhaps never received by the office of the European Council. However, the mere fact that it was addressed to the EU shows that the latter is exposed to the lobbying of groups operating in contradiction with the EU agenda in the Balkans. Rather than consolidating EU interests, the non-paper exploits EU diplomacy to the benefit of its commissioners. The3SI – like the non-paper- promotes a top-to-bottom governance approach that aims at attaining political stability and economic growth at the detriment of democracy and justice. This old political strategy is the outcome of a widespread feeling of distrust in the future of the EU.

The constitution of the 3SI is a sign of this feeling. Another manifestation of this political course is the mini-Schengen initiative that was started by Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia in 2019. Both 3SI and mini-Schengen are presented as complementary to the EU. But they might also become alternatives or competitors to the EU, especially for non-member states that do not want to have too close links with Russia or/and the Atlantic Alliance. The EU is one of the main investors in the connectivity sectors in the WB, but it is not the only partner available to regional politicians who are constantly on the lookout for financial assets. Many citizens of the WB believe that their countries have no chance to access the EU in the next decade. Their opinion toward the EU has been negatively conditioned by the euroscepticism in Eastern and Western European neighbouring states. The inability of the EU to conduct a common vaccination program has also damaged its image of in the eyes of regional actors.

The EU is facing a credibility crisis that is turning former EU-enthusiast countries such as Albania into eurosceptics. Local politicians have promptly exploited this mood. In a recent interview on Vizion Plus, Albanian PM Edi Rama spoke about the EU membership of the country with realistic tones. Rama affirmed that the matter does not depend on Albanians, but on the attitudes of the European politicians who are conditioned by the public opinion of their countries. He cited the case of Bulgaria’s veto on the accession talks of North Macedonia in order to claim that Sofia’s decision was determined by internal pressures. Rama affirmed that Albania can enter “Europe” by either improving its infrastructure, economy, and digitalisation or by doing its “homework”. However, according to the Albania Premier, doing “homework” is not a guarantee of success because Albania will be subject to the incoherent judgment of EU politicians. Rama, who hopes to win the imminent general elections and obtain the third mandate in a row, praised the works undertaken by his government to improve mobility infrastructure such as airports and touristic and commercial harbours.

The policies advocated by the non-paper and by the 3SI circles that might have commissioned it reflect the overall course of WB politics. Regional actors aim at changing the configuration of the area either by redrawing the state territories or easing border regimes. However, they still want to preserve and even reinforce the idea of “nation” and the cultural boundaries that it entails. Balkan politicians are less and less concerned with inequalities, corruption and human right protection, which are the cause of some of the biggest issues in the region. The top-down strategies adopted for improving the connectivity sectors do not always take into account the ecological impact, notwithstanding the formal declarations about the protection of the environment. The way in which investments will affect the economy is uncertain because foreign and regional speculators are likely to profit from them at the detriment of small and medium local businesses and communities. The conceptual frame that is guiding WB politics and connectivity projects, suggests that the EU might be destined to a more marginal role in the area if it’s not able to regain its lost charisma.

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Iceland’s Historic(al) Elections

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The morning of September, 26 was a good one for Lenya Run Karim of the Pirate Party. Once the preliminary results were announced, things were clear: the 21-year-old law student of the University of Iceland, originating from a Kurdish immigrant family, had become the youngest MP in the country’s history.

In historical significance, however, this event was second to another. Iceland, the world champion in terms of gender equality, became the first country in Europe to have more women MPs than men, 33 versus 30. The news immediately made world headlines: only five countries in the world have achieved such impressive results. Remarkably, all are non-European: Rwanda, Nicaragua and Cuba have a majority of women in parliament, while Mexico and the UAE have an equal number of male and female MPs.

Nine hours later, news agencies around the world had to edit their headlines. The recount in the Northwest constituency affected the outcome across the country to delay the ‘triumph for women’ for another four years.

Small numbers, big changes

The Icelandic electoral system is designed so that 54 out of the 63 seats in the Althingi, the national parliament, are primary or constituency seats, while another nine are equalization seats. Only parties passing the 5 per cent threshold are allowed to distribute equalisation seats that go to the candidates who failed to win constituency mandates and received the most votes in their constituency. However, the number of equalisation mandates in each of the 6 constituencies is legislated. In theory, this could lead to a situation in which the leading party candidate in one constituency may simply lack an equalisation mandate, so the leading candidate of the same party—but in another constituency—receives it.

This is what happened this year. Because of a difference of only ten votes between the Reform Party and the Pirate Party, both vying for the only equalisation mandate in the Northwest, the constituency’s electoral commission announced a recount on its own initiative. There were also questions concerning the counting procedure as such: the ballots were not sealed but simply locked in a Borgarnes hotel room. The updated results hardly affected the distribution of seats between the parties, bringing in five new MPs, none of whom were women, with the 21-year-old Lenya Run Karim replaced by her 52-year-old party colleague.

In the afternoon of September, 27, at the request of the Left-Green Movement, supported by the Independence Party, the Pirates and the Reform Party, the commission in the South announced a recount of their own—the difference between the Left-Greens and the Centrists was only seven votes. There was no ‘domino effect’, as in the case of the Northwest, as the five-hour recount showed the same result. Recounts in other districts are unlikely, nor is it likely that Althingi—vested with the power to declare the elections valid—would invalidate the results in the Northwest. Nevertheless, the ‘replaced’ candidates have already announced their intention to appeal against the results, citing violations of ballot storage procedures. Under the Icelandic law, this is quite enough to invalidate the results and call a re-election in the Northwest, as the Supreme Court of Iceland invalidated the Constitutional Council elections due to a breach of procedure 10 years ago. Be that as it may, the current score remains 33:30, in favor of men.

Progressives’ progress and threshold for socialists

On the whole, there were no surprises: the provisional allocation of mandates resembles, if with minor changes, the opinion polls on the eve of the election.

The ruling three-party coalition has rejuvenated its position, winning 37 out of the 63 Althingi seats. The centrist Progressive Party saw a real electoral triumph, improving its 2017 result by five seats. Prime-minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s Left-Green Movement, albeit with a slight loss, won eight seats, surpassing all pre-election expectations. Although the centre-right Independence Party outperformed everyone again to win almost a quarter of all votes, 16 seats are one of the worst results of the Icelandic ‘Grand Old Party’ ever.

The results of the Social-Democrats, almost 10% versus 12.1% in 2017, and of the Pirates, 8.6% versus 9.2%, have deteriorated. Support for the Centre Party of Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, former prime-minister and victim of the Panama Papers, has halved from 10.9% to 5.4%. The centrists have seen a steady decline in recent years, largely due to a sexist scandal involving party MPs. The populist People’s Party and the pro-European Reform Party have seen gains of 8.8% and 8.3%, as compared to 6.9% and 6.7% in the previous elections.

Of the leading Icelandic parties, only the Socialist Party failed to pass the 5 per cent threshold: despite a rating above 7% in August, the Socialists received only 4.1% of the vote.

Coronavirus, climate & economy

Healthcare and the fight against COVID-19 was, expectedly, on top of the agenda of the elections: 72% of voters ranked it as the defining issue, according to a Fréttablaðið poll. Thanks to swift and stringent measures, the Icelandic government brought the coronavirus under control from day one, and the country has enjoyed one of the lowest infection rates in the world for most of the time. At the same time, the pandemic exposed a number of problems in the national healthcare system: staff shortages, low salaries and long waiting lists for emergency surgery.

Climate change, which Icelanders are already experiencing, was an equally important topic. This summer, the temperature has not dropped below 20°C for 59 days, an anomaly for a North-Atlantic island. However, Icelanders’ concerns never converted into increased support for the four left-leaning parties advocating greater reductions in CO2 emission than the country has committed to under the Paris Agreement: their combined result fell by 0.5%.

The economy and employment were also among the main issues in this election. The pandemic has severely damaged the island nation’s economy, which is heavily tourism-reliant—perhaps, unsurprisingly, many Icelanders are in favor of reviving the tourism sector as well as diversifying the economy further.

The EU membership, by far a ‘traditional’ issue in Icelandic politics, is unlikely to be featured on the agenda of the newly-elected parliament as the combined result of the Eurosceptics, despite a loss of 4%, still exceeds half of the overall votes. The new Althingi will probably face the issue of constitutional reform once again, which is only becoming more topical in the light of the pandemic and the equalization mandates story.

New (old) government?

The parties are to negotiate coalition formation. The most likely scenario now is that the ruling coalition of the Independence Party, the Left-Greens and the Progressives continues. It has been the most ideologically diverse and the first three-party coalition in Iceland’s history to last a full term. A successful fight against the pandemic has only strengthened its positions and helped it secure additional votes. Independence Party leader and finance minister Bjarni Benediktsson has earlier said he would be prepared to keep the ruling coalition if it holds the majority. President Guðni Jóhannesson announced immediately after the elections that he would confirm the mandate of the ruling coalition to form a new government if the three parties could strike a deal.

Other developments are possible but unlikely. Should the Left-Greens decide to leave the coalition, they could be replaced by the Reform Party or the People’s Party, while any coalition without the Independence Party can only be a four-party or larger coalition.

Who will become the new prime-minister still remains to be seen—but if the ruling coalition remains in place, the current prime-minister and leader of the Left-Greens, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, stands a good chance of keeping her post: she is still the most popular politician in Iceland with a 40 per cent approval rate.

The 2021 Althingi election, with one of the lowest turnouts in history at 80.1%, has not produced a clear winner. The election results reflect a Europe-wide trend in which traditional “major” parties are losing support. The electorate is fragmenting and their votes are pulled by smaller new parties. The coronavirus pandemic has only reinforced this trend.

The 2021 campaign did not foreshadow a sensation. Although Iceland has not become the first European country with a women’s majority in parliament, these elections will certainly go down in history as a test of Icelanders’ trust to their own democracy.

From our partner RIAC

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EU-Balkan Summit: No Set Timeframe for Western Balkans Accession

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From left to right: Janez JANŠA (Prime Minister, Slovenia), Charles MICHEL (President of the European Council), Ursula VON DER LEYEN (President of the European Commission) Copyright: European Union

On October 6, Slovenia hosted a summit between the EU and the Western Balkans states. The EU-27 met with their counterparts (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo) in the sumptuous Renaissance setting of Brdo Castle, 30 kilometers north of the capital, Ljubljana. Despite calls from a minority of heads of state and government, there were no sign of a breakthrough on the sensitive issue of enlargement. The accession of these countries to the European Union is still not unanimous among the 27 EU member states.

During her final tour of the Balkans three weeks ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that the peninsula’s integration was of “geostrategic” importance. On the eve of the summit, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz backed Slovenia’s goal of integrating this zone’s countries into the EU by 2030.

However, the unanimity required to begin the hard negotiations is still a long way off, even for the most advanced countries in the accession process, Albania and North Macedonia. Bulgaria, which is already a member of the EU, is opposing North Macedonia’s admission due to linguistic and cultural differences. Since Yugoslavia’s demise, Sofia has rejected the concept of Macedonian language, insisting that it is a Bulgarian dialect, and has condemned the artificial construction of a distinct national identity.

Other countries’ reluctance to join quickly is of a different nature. France and the Netherlands believe that previous enlargements (Bulgaria and Romania in 2007) have resulted in changes that must first be digested before the next round of enlargement. The EU-27 also demand that all necessary prior guarantees be provided regarding the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption in these countries. Despite the fact that press freedom is a requirement for membership, the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged the EU to make “support for investigative and professional journalism” a key issue at the summit.”

While the EU-27 have not met since June, the topic of Western Balkans integration is competing with other top priorities in the run-up to France’s presidency of the EU in the first half of 2022. On the eve of the summit, a working dinner will be held, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, called for “a strategic discussion on the role of the Union on the international scene” in his letter of invitation to the EU-Balkans Summit, citing “recent developments in Afghanistan,” the announcement of the AUKUS pact between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, which has enraged Paris.

The Western Balkans remain the focal point of an international game of influence in which the Europeans seek to maintain their dominance. As a result, the importance of reaffirming a “European perspective” at the summit was not an overstatement. Faced with the more frequent incursion of China, Russia, and Turkey in that European region, the EU has pledged a 30 billion euro Economic and Investment Plan for 2021-2027, as well as increased cooperation, particularly to deal with the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Opening the borders, however, is out of the question. In the absence of progress on this issue, Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia have decided to establish their own zone of free movement (The Balkans are Open”) beginning January 1, 2023. “We are starting today to do in the region what we will do tomorrow in the EU,” said Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama when the agreement was signed last July.

This initiative, launched in 2019 under the name “Mini-Schengen” and based on a 1990s idea, does not have the support of the entire peninsular region, which remains deeply divided over this project. While Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro are not refusing to be a part of it and are open to discussions, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, who took office in 2020, for his part accuses Serbia of relying on this project to recreate “a fourth Yugoslavia”

Tensions between Balkan countries continue to be an impediment to European integration. The issue of movement between Kosovo and Serbia has been a source of concern since the end of September. Two weeks of escalation followed Kosovo’s decision to prohibit cars with Serbian license plates from entering its territory, in response to Serbia’s long-standing prohibition on allowing vehicles to pass in the opposite direction.

In response to the mobilization of Kosovar police to block the road, Serbs in Kosovo blocked roads to their towns and villages, and Serbia deployed tanks and the air force near the border. On Sunday, October 3, the conflict seemed to be over, and the roads were reopened. However, the tone had been set three days before the EU-Balkans summit.

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German Election: Ramifications for the US Foreign Policy

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Image source: twitter @OlafScholz

In the recent German election, foreign policy was scarcely an issue. But Germany is an important element in the US foreign policy. There is a number of cases where Germany and the US can cooperate, but all of these dynamics are going to change very soon.

The Germans’ strategic culture makes it hard to be aligned perfectly with the US and disagreements can easily damage the relations. After the tension between the two countries over the Iraq war, in 2003, Henry Kissinger said that he could not imagine the relations between Germany and the US could be aggravated so quickly, so easily, which might end up being the “permanent temptation of German politics”. For a long time, the US used to provide security for Germany during the Cold War and beyond, so, several generations are used to take peace for granted. But recently, there is a growing demand on them to carry more burden, not just for their own security, but for international peace and stability. This demand was not well-received in Berlin.

Then, the environment around Germany changed and new threats loomed up in front of them. The great powers’ competition became the main theme in international relations. Still, Germany was not and is not ready for shouldering more responsibility. Politicians know this very well. Ursula von der Leyen, who was German defense minister, asked terms like “nuclear weapons” and “deterrence” be removed from her speeches.

Although on paper, all major parties appreciate the importance of Germany’s relations with the US, the Greens and SPD ask for a reset in the relations. The Greens insist on the European way in transatlantic relations and SPD seeks more multilateralism. Therefore, alignment may be harder to maintain in the future. However, If the tensions between the US and China heat up to melting degrees, then external pressure can overrule the internal pressure and Germany may accede to its transatlantic partners, just like when Helmut Schmid let NATO install medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe after the Soviet Union attacked Afghanistan and the Cold War heated up.

According to the election results, now three coalitions are possible: grand coalition with CDU/CSU and SPD, traffic lights coalition with SPD, FDP, and Greens, Jamaica coalition with CDU/CSU, FDP, and Greens. Jamaica coalition will more likely form the most favorable government for the US because it has both CDU and FDP, and traffic lights will be the least favorite as it has SPD. The grand coalition can maintain the status quo at best, because contrary to the current government, SPD will dominate CDU.

To understand nuances, we need to go over security issues to see how these coalitions will react to them. As far as Russia is concerned, none of them will recognize the annexation of Crimea and they all support related sanctions. However, if tensions heat up, any coalition government with SPD will be less likely assertive. On the other hand, as the Greens stress the importance of European values like democracy and human rights, they tend to be more assertive if the US formulates its foreign policy by these common values and describe US-China rivalry as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism. Moreover, the Greens disapprove of the Nordstream project, of course not for its geopolitics. FDP has also sided against it for a different reason. So, the US must follow closely the negotiations which have already started between anti-Russian smaller parties versus major parties.

For relations with China, pro-business FDP is less assertive. They are seeking for developing EU-China relations and deepening economic ties and civil society relations. While CDU/CSU and Greens see China as a competitor, partner, and systemic rival, SPD and FDP have still hopes that they can bring change through the exchange. Thus, the US might have bigger problems with the traffic lights coalition than the Jamaica coalition in this regard.

As for NATO and its 2 percent of GDP, the division is wider. CDU/CSU and FDP are the only parties who support it. So, in the next government, it might be harder to persuade them to pay more. Finally, for nuclear participation, the situation is the same. CDU/CSU is the only party that argues for it. This makes it an alarming situation because the next government has to decide on replacing Germany’s tornados until 2024, otherwise Germany will drop out of the NATO nuclear participation.

The below table gives a brief review of these three coalitions. 1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism and 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism. As it shows, the most anti-Russia coalition is Jamaica, while the most anti-China coalition is Trafic light. Meanwhile, Grand Coalition is the most pro-NATO coalition. If the US adopts a more normative foreign policy against China and Russia, then the Greens and FDP will be more assertive in their anti-Russian and anti-Chinese policies and Germany will align more firmly with the US if traffic light or Jamaica coalition rise to power.

Issues CoalitionsTrafic LightGrand CoalitionJamaica
Russia213 
China312 
NATO132 

1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism. 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism.

In conclusion, this election should not make Americans any happier. The US has already been frustrated with the current government led by Angela Merkel who gave Germany’s trade with China the first priority, and now that the left-wing will have more say in any imaginable coalition in the future, the Americans should become less pleased. But, still, there are hopes that Germany can be a partner for the US in great power competition if the US could articulate its foreign policy with common values, like democracy and human rights. More normative foreign policy can make a reliable partner out of Germany. Foreign policy rarely became a topic in this election, but observers should expect many ramifications for it.

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