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Russian Foreign Minister’s Pakistan Visit: Revamping Lost Ties

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Russian FM is being received by his Pakistani counterpart upon arriving at the Foreign Office. PHOTO: TWITTER/SMQureshiPTI

It is once again proven that there is no permanent ally or enemy in the global political order, rather only permanent interests. Despite the repeated attempts of warming up bilateral ties in the past, historical legacies and over-reliance on the West had constrained progress in the bilateral Pakistan-Russia relations. Yet, surprisingly there is hardly any bilateral issue or dispute that divides the two countries. Contemporary regional dynamics and shifting strategic priorities has compelled Russia to reassert its presence in its sphere of influence and beyond. Thus, the recent visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Pakistan could be seen as a ray of hope to re-invigorate the spirit of bilateral cooperation through diplomacy in multiple avenues.

The first visit by a Russian Foreign Minister to Pakistan in 9 years is itself a milestone in improving ties after a long and uneventful period. For the first time, both countries have chosen to strengthen the relationship in three areas – economy, security, and politics. Along with in-depth discussion on the war in Afghanistan, Sergey Lavrov and his counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi talked about strengthening trade with enhanced economic, energy and counter-terrorism cooperation.

In a nutshell, Sergey Lavrov’s meetings with Prime Minister Imran Khan, S M Qureshi and Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Bajwa signals a simultaneous ‘politico-defense-diplomatic’ boost to the decades-long forgotten and complex Russo-Pak ties.

Russia has started factoring in and accepting regional actors through the lens of their individual significance. Along with developing a future defence market, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and peace process in Afghanistan offers significant economic and security incentives to the Kremlin. Adopting a more balanced approach towards South Asia would provide Russia greater chances of playing an active role in institutional capacity building, developing its energy sector and wider defense cooperation within the region. Thus, framing a more cooperative regional security and economic policy approach would be beneficial for Russian interests in the coming years.

In case of Pakistan, the revamping of its foreign policy that was earlier primarily rooted in geopolitics, would help the country embrace new opportunities from both its immediate neighbors and distant countries and reduce dependence on the United States. Based on this strategy, Pakistan is equally welcoming all major powers towards geo-economic regional cooperation.

Both countries can, hence, start cooperation in the above stated domains, with frequent meeting and exchange of delegations leading to concrete agreements expected in the coming years.

This could be a worrisome development for India. While the Russian Foreign Minister’s visit raised hopes in Islamabad, it was seen suspiciously by India because it represents another failure of Indian ambitions of isolating Pakistan. According to the Indian media, the BJP-led government was unhappy that Lavrov’s trip to India was followed with one to Pakistan as well. However, one cannot ignore the reality that India still retains an edge of being a longstanding major Russian defense partner and customer, which Moscow would not overlook in near times. On the other hand, the United States has been keeping a silent but watchful eye on such developments in South Asia for the time being, while the Biden Administration refines its policy towards the region.

The boost in Pakistan-Russia ties validates the former’s crucial position in the region and highlights its growing geo-economic importance beyond its geostrategic significance due to the Afghan conflict. For Russia, it is beneficial to keep a balanced approach in its ties with China, India and now Pakistan to expand its regional influence vis-à-vis the United States. For Pakistan, enhancing friendly relations with more regional nations and world powers as well as exploring new opportunities for promoting its national interests is of vital importance in order to not only stabilize its economy, but also to improve its national security.

Hananah Zarrar is a Researcher at Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS), Islamabad. She holds an MPhil degree with major area of interest in Strategic and Nuclear Affairs.

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Political Lessons from Kerala: People’s Response to the Communist Welfare System

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Amid covid-19 fears, the elections to the legislative assemblies of four Indian states- West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam and Kerala, and the Union Territory of Puducherry were conducted in the months of April-May 2021. Of these four states, West Bengal and Kerala continue to challenge the ideology of Hindu nationalism and pose serious ideological opposition to BJP.’s right-wing politics. While BJP-led NDA ruled Assam, Tamil Nadu was ruled by AIADMK, a Dravidian party with strong BJP connections.  Puducherry, the Union Territory, was ruled by a Congress-led government in which the DMK, another Dravidian political party, was an ally. Since elections to these major states were significant for the Indian political scenario, election contestations acquired national attention. Therefore, many exit poll surveys were conducted, which showed the lack of anti-incumbency in three states except Tamil Nadu, and the results almost matched the exit polls.  What is common in this election result is that Indian National Congress (INC) and their allies faced setbacks in the five states. Despite the expulsion of the AIADMK and INC-led governments in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, respectively, the parties in Bengal, Assam and Kerala returned to power.

Of these states, election results of Kerala and Bengal have unparalleled potential in national politics, especially with the explosive performance of the LDF government in Kerala and the prospects it will raise in national politics. Moreover, Bengal and Kerala show that the tactics of the BJP, a giant of national politics, have failed miserably in challenging the party in rule. While BJP could sweep almost 75 seats in West Bengal, they lost miserably in Kerala. The loss of Nemam constituency, BJP’s only seat in the state assembly, shows that Kerala is not yet their cup of tea. On the one hand, the LDF coalition, which lost miserably in nineteen of the total twenty seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in Kerala, has won a landslide victory in the local body elections and assembly elections 2021. The LDF, a coalition of 11 centre-leftists leaning parties, showed a new model of political activism in which its traditional opponents are shattered. Conversely, LDF’s success in the state shows that they succeeded in understanding and responding to the socio-political changes since May 2019.

With this election, the practice of alternating LDF (Left Democratic Front) and UDF (United Democratic Front) every five years has changed in Kerala. We have to admit that anti-government sentiment is entirely non-existent in Kerala and that the Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who led it, has succeeded in creating an alternative to the UDF centered politics. Of course, Kerala has well-rooted soil for left ideology as it is home to the first Communist Ministry to come to power through ballot paper after San Marino, a microstate surrounded by Italy. The LDF was active in the electoral field in Kerala since 1957 and the social sphere decades ago. By now, Kerala remains the last bastion of the communists who lost their political sway in other parts of India. However, this time, it is noteworthy that the left front has been able to garner neutral votes along with the traditional left-leaning votes and the Congress BJP votes. This indicates that the Pinarayi model of governance will undoubtedly influence other rulers in India and they may gradually implement such a model. On the other hand, there is no need to be alarmed if Indian politics is gradually shifting towards the Pinarayi model of governance.

The Shift towards New Politics

It is methodologically appropriate to start analyzing Kerala politics with the 2019 Lok Sabha election review. One of the reasons for this is that though left parties lost their electoral prominence in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, they returned to a glittering victory in the 2021 state elections. To understand such a transformation, we need to divide Kerala politics into two sections. While the first phase is between 2016 and 2018, the second phase is between 2019 and 2021. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) – led LDF came to power in the 2016 elections with 91 seats in the 140 – member assembly, defeating the Congress – led UDF. For LDF, the beginning was not comfortable as various natural calamities, and the outbreak of pandemics posed severe threats to the government. Cyclone Okhi, which struck Kerala in November-December 2017, claimed the lives of more than 140 fishermen. The outbreak of the Nipah virus in 2018 further dragged the government machinery into new responsibilities. Before the waves of the Nipah outbreak and cyclone Okhi subsided, a flood hit Kerala in 2018, killing and leaving thousands homeless. The floods devastated the economy of Kerala and, to some extent, blame fell on the government, raising allegations that the government failed in curbing the disaster. There were allegations that government systems were not working efficiently and that carelessness in opening the dams caused the floods. In other words, until 2018, the LDF government in Kerala, like many other Indian governments, created the impression that it was just an ordinary government.

Meanwhile, the Sabarimala issue erupted, shaking Kerala politics. A Supreme Court ruling in October 2018 lifted the ban on women between the ages of 10 and 50 from entering the Hindu temple of Sabarimala. As the LDF-led state government decided to implement the Supreme Court judgment, various Hindu organizations and the Congress-BJP factions came out against the government. The entry of women in Sabarimala has long been acknowledged by Congress and BJP leaders, but they have used it as a weapon against the government. Anti-left sentiment grew decisive in the state as women were forcibly taken to Sabarimala. Of course, Hindu sentiment was against the government and reflected in the collapse of the leftists in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The shrinking to just one seat and the congress winning nineteen seats in Kerala broke the backbone of the LDF.

Nevertheless, the Sabarimala issue was not the only reason for the Congress’ victory as there was another national issue. This was the Citizenship Amendment Bill enacted by the BJP-NDA government in power at the Centre in December 2019. As the perception that the 2019 CAA was anti-Muslim spread, Muslims had a strong observation that the central government should be replaced. Although the struggles against the CAA were suppressed, the anti-BJP sentiment was strong among Muslims. Naturally, this was the reason why Muslim votes in Kerala went to the congress-led UDF. In other words, there was a strong perception among the minorities that it is better to vote for the Congress, which opposes the BJP at the national level, than to vote for the LDF, which is nothing at the national level. It is noteworthy that after the 2019 elections, the Pinarayi government’s style and the policy towards Sabarimala issue drew criticism from the parties in opposition and the general public.

Meanwhile, in May 2019, the Nipah virus, which Kerala once defeated, was back. However, the government of Kerala succeeded in controlling the disease, and with this, the state government was able to gain national and international attention. The next flood in August 2019 devastated Kerala, again killing many people and devastating the state. From this flood, Kerala society began to notice the changing face of the LDF government. The left parties became closer to the people by setting up a rehabilitation fund and intervening in charitable activities. The government’s image was enhanced because leftist youth organizations such as DYFI and SFI stood with the people in all possible cooperation. The Congress and the BJP, two major political parties with anti-leftist ideologies, were asleep all this time.

In 2020 March, Kerala entered the post-Covid-19 lockdown. During this period, food kits and welfare pensions, which had nurtured the leftist government’s famous face, became more popular. The most significant relief to the large section of the people who lost their jobs and income due to lockdown and covid-19 was the delivery of food items and welfare pensions to  all sections of the people through ration shops every month. The Life Mission project, which started in 2017, has already provided housing to two million homeless families. For the first time in Kerala’s history, the government’s activities have created the impression of a welfare state, and the UDF and the BJP were merely clowns, unable to cope with any of this.

Congress: A Baseless Palace

The fact that the perception of a coalition government is the key to the leftist victory is evident from the local body elections of 2020-2021. However, it should also be noted that instead of understanding the timely changes, even the backbenchers in Congress have adopted blind policies. Congress was in the mood to come to power after five years as a natural process without recognizing what was going on in the country. This laziness is evident in the way they dealt with the Kerala Congress (M), a previous ally of the UDF which joined the LDF camp at a crucial moment.

We have observed that since 2018, Kerala has been going through disasters. While cyclone Okhi, Nipah, 2018 and 2019 floods and Covid-19 were making the life of Kerala miserable, Congress and the BJP machinery failed to stand with the people. The pearly white leaders dressed in khadi were only involved in politics where the clothes were not soiled. It was the policy of the Congress, which had already lost its activists, to sit on ivory towers and enjoy a comfortable life without having to go down with the people during floods and illness. If people are wondering why they should count those who are not with them, they should not be blamed for it. And they have to check for themselves whether they are eligible for the 41 seats won by the Congress. At the same time, it should be noted that Congress does not have an effective organizational structure. While the LDF and BJP were fighting for more electoral success, the Congress was dragging its feet. In short, the strategy of Congress was to spread anti-leftism without trying to understand the will of the people and social reality. Further, Congress has humiliated itself by filing a complaint in court against the state’s food kits and welfare pensions. Such foolish gimmicks were seen as a power-hungry movement that affected the prospects of the Congress. In this situation, it will not be easy for Congress to mobilize organizational and political power. If no alternatives can be found, the Congress, the grand old party, will remain in the memory of Kerala as an erstwhile party.

BJP: Picture of a Dead Snake

In Kerala, the BJP is mainly targeting the Hindu population of about 45-50 per cent. The BJP succeeded in winning a seat in the Kerala Legislative Assembly for the first time in 2016, and its vote share was increased in the 2019 Lok Sabha and 2020 Local Body elections. However, the BJP has been adversely affected by its failure to reach out to the masses and its continued stigma of being a vote-selling party. The fact that the BJP’s nomination papers were rejected in three constituencies and they lost their only seat shows how pathetic the Kerala BJP leadership is while approaching the elections. Moreover, the election results also show how much the BJP’s Kerala faction has failed to understand the will of the people.

Further, BJP leadership in Kerala is indeed distancing itself from the masses.  For example, consider the case of the BJP state president’s election campaign. BJP State President K. Surendran contested from two places, and a helicopter was hired to cover these two constituencies. While the videos of the helicopter-campaign were circulated on social media, laypeople realized the futility of such filmy approaches.  That is why in Konni, the second constituency where he contested, the State President came third with tens of thousands of votes less than in 2016, despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s massive campaigns. Such irresponsible attitudes from the BJP leadership in Kerala resulted in a humiliating defeat despite the pro-cyber wing and pro-organization structure. The crisis is compounded by the abandonment of the BJP’s so-called Gujarat constituency, Nemam in Trivandrum, and the low turnout of 429834 votes across Kerala.

Are these the only reasons for BJP’s electoral defeat in Kerala? There are many answers to this situation. The commoner, who has to pay Rs 92 for a litre of petrol and Rs 850 for a pinch of gas cylinder, will vote for the left that benefit him, even if he pretends to be a BJP man under the pressure of circumstances. Not many ordinary Hindus of Kerala will vote for the BJP unless Rama Rajya or Sabarimala are the factors that help his daily expense, especially at this time of pandemic. Therefore, Kerala Hindu’s political decision is closely linked to what they experience in life. Along with this, the current perception in Kerala, that the left saves Kerala from various crises, also continues to be a boon for the LDF. Similarly, in Kerala, the BJP has consistently failed to intervene in popular issues and keep the ordinary people together. BJP leaders lead the party from pit to pit, believing that their speechifying in television channels is politics and encroaching on communist martyrdom hall is service to the people.

Why Leftists? : Kerala’s answers

The left government in Kerala has made it clear that coming to power is not a license to do anything for five years but a brief to work hard and to move forward with the people. This victory shows that the leftists have not lost their relevance in Kerala, where various castes and religions are equally strong in political assertions. Kerala’s recent electoral surge also indicates that politicians should be open to local realities and grass-root sentiments.  While the Congress-led UDF in Kerala and the BJP-led NDA were building anti-communist programmes and anti-government allegations, the government and the LDF went out to the people. In the last five years, the opposition has had the opportunity to build anti-leftist politics and has been able to raise them all strongly, but such strategies seemed to have failed before the welfare model approach. The huge drop in the BJP’s vote share and the defeat of even the young faces of the Congress are signs that the soil under their feet is slipping away, even though they do not take it that seriously!

At the national level, the Kerala model of governance may be copied by all the ruling parties and power-hungry politicians. There is no doubt that the experience of LDF in Kerala will further motivate other politicians to formulate more welfare schemes. Earlier, in Kerala, the strategy to come back to power was to accuse the ruling party of corruption and lack of development to build reserves of anti-incumbency. However, the new mantra is the image of a welfare state and reminding the people that the government is always with them and working for them.

Conclusions

The LDF government has returned to power after overthrowing anti-left forces at the national and state levels. Although the welfare activities and projects of the Covid-19 era have created the image of a people’s welfare government, it is a matter of great challenge to the government how long it can go on. Long term progress of the Kerala model also depends on how Pinarayi’s assurance on CAA, Covid-19 vaccination, welfare schemes, pensions, and food kits is kept. In short, the success story of the leftists in Kerala deserves serious scrutiny. The victory of the left is not only that they returned to power in 2021. On the contrary, it is noteworthy that the anti-left climate that existed until 2019 has been eliminated and the precarious conditions, including Covid-19, have been positively used by the left brigade. In India, we believe that democracy ultimately chooses the right leaders. In the next five years, Kerala society will have another opportunity to examine the realities of such a belief.    

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Afghan peace options

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President Biden’s decision to withdraw unconditionally all foreign forces from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021 will leave behind an uncertain and genuine security concerns that ramifications will be born by Afghanistan as well as the region.

The Taliban seems least interested in peace talks with the Afghan government and appear determined to take control of the entire afghan government territory by force during post-withdrawal of American forces. Short of the total surrender, Afghan government has no possible influence to force the Taliban to prefer talks over violence. Resultantly, the apprehensions that Afghanistan could plunge into another civil war runs very high.

The consequences of yet another civil war will be deadly for Afghanistan and the whole region as well. Among the neighboring countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan will bear the severe burnt of an escalation of violence in particular. A civil war or possible Taliban takeover will surely upsurge and reinvigorate the Islamic militancy in Pakistan, thus threatening to lose the hard won gains made against militancy over the past decade.

The afghan and Pakistani Taliban, nevertheless, are the two sides of the same coin. Coming back to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan is surely emboldened and revives Pakistani Taliban and other militant outfits. Moreover, spread of violence not only reduce all chances of repatriation of refugees but possibly increase the inflow of refugees from Afghanistan to Pakistan.

Furthermore, worsening of the security situation in Afghanistan will jeopardize the prospects of  trade, foreign investment and economic development initiatives such as china-Pakistan economic corridor. The chances of Gawadar and Karachi port to become a transit trade route for the region and link the energy rich region of central asia will become bleak until a sustainable peace and stability is achieved in Afghanistan.

It is against this background that the successful end of the intra-afghan talk is highly required for Pakistan, for its own sake.  Officially, Islamabad stated policy is to ensure the afghan-led and afghan-owned peace solution of the afghan conflict. It helped in bringing the Taliban on the negotiation table, which finally resulted in the signing of the Doha deal between US and Taliban. Further, Pakistan has time and again pressurized the Taliban to resume the dialogue. Moreover, Islamabad holds that, unlike in the past when it wanted a friendly regime in Kabul, it aims to develop a friendly and diplomatic relation whoever is on the power in Kabul.

Notwithstanding the stated policy and position of the Islamabad, the afghan government and the many in the US remains dubious of Pakistan’s commitment. Against these concerns, Islamabad categorically stated that it does not have complete control over the Taliban.

The success of the peace process will require coordination and cooperation among the all regional actors and the US and afghan government. Pakistan’s role is of an immense significance because of its past relation with the Taliban. There is no denying of the fact that Pakistan has not complete control over the Taliban. Despite, it has more leverage than the other actors in the region.

The Islamabad’s willingness to use its influence over the Taliban is her real test in the achievement of peace process. However, Pakistan has successfully used its leverage and brought the Taliban on negotiations table. Although, history is the testimony of the fact that mere cajoling won’t dissuade the Taliban from unleashing violence.

The prospects of intra-afghan talks will develop in success when the cajoling strategy is backed up by with credible threats of crackdown which may involve denial of safe heaven to militant leaders and their families, stopping medical treatment, and disruption of finance etc. on the other hand, strong arm tactics fail to bring the Taliban to the table, then Pakistan should make sure that its territory is not used to carry out attacks in Afghanistan.

The afghan peace process has an opportunity for Pakistan to bury its hatchets with Afghanistan and start its diplomatic journey with a new vigor. While Kabul every time attach its failure with the Pakistan and shun away from its responsibility of providing peace to people of Afghanistan, it has a fair point about our pro Taliban afghan policy. Now that the US is leaving Afghanistan, it is high time that Pakistan bring forth a shift in its Afghanistan policy. Sustainable peace in Pakistan, especially Balochistan and ex-fata region is unlikely to achieve without Pakistan contributing to peace in Afghanistan.    

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Has Modi Conceded ‘South Asia’ to the United States?

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Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been pursuing an assertive and confrontational foreign policy. From carrying out ‘surgical strikes’ across the Line of control to unilaterally scrapping Kashmir’s special autonomy, Modi has shown that he has no aversion to undertaking bold actions. For the last seven years, he has essentially reshaped India’s foreign policy to match the brand of muscular nationalistic politics that he and his party have pursued for decades. In other words, like India’s domestic politics, its foreign policy has been (excuse the pun) Modi-fied. However, no other foreign policy position of the Modi government would be as consequential as his decision to align India with the Quad, a NATO-like strategic coalition centred on the Indo-pacific. By joining the alliance, Modi has removed the last Nehruvian pillar of New Delhi’s foreign policy: Non-alignment.

Following Independence, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru crafted India’s foreign policy on the Principles of Anti-Imperialism and solidarity among the third world states recently broke free from the shackles of colonialism. Nehru was one of the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement along with Nasser and Sukarno. Despite being a comrade and disciple of Gandhi, Nehru was in no way a pacifist. He was not hesitant in using force to pursue Indian national interest wherever and whenever it was possible. Under Nehru’s leadership, India invaded and occupied Goa from the Portuguese. He also initiated India’s nuclear program. Nehru envisioned India as the hegemon of South Asia, which he believed was the country’s ‘manifest destiny’. He proposed a ‘Broad doctrine’ that hinged on the idea that New Delhi has an exclusive right to protect its national interests within its landmass and its periphery. In Nehru’s words, “any attempt by a foreign power to interfere in any way with India is a thing which India cannot tolerate, and which, subject to her strength, she will oppose.” However, this ‘Broad doctrine’ achieved maturity under Indira Gandhi, who pursued a policy of aggressive use of military force to deter external powers from interfering in South Asia. Her interventionist foreign policy led to the breakup of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. Indira’s and later Rajiv Gandhi’s foreign policy revolved around keeping external powers at bay and maintaining Indian primacy in South Asia. New Delhi was so opposed to the idea of external powers gaining a foothold in South Asia that it intervened in Sri Lanka’s civil war out of fear that the United States might secure a naval base in the strategic port city of Trincomalee.

However, it seems that Narendra Modi has reversed India’s long-standing opposition to the presence of external powers in South Asia. New Delhi has openly backed a defence agreement between Maldives and United States. Among other things, it seeks to increase cooperation between the two countries. Though Indian officials have stressed that the agreement would not “impinge on India’s role as a ‘Net security provider’ in South Asia”, it begs the question: would such policy reversals have specific implications on the geopolitical status quo in South Asia? Have India conceded its role as the primary guarantor of security of South Asia to the United States?

It certainly seems that the Modi government has abandoned India’s ‘move alone’ policy. The concept of an alliance is becoming more and more attractive to Indian policy makers. This shift signals one crucial factor: India is no longer confident of its capabilities to resist the Chinese juggernaut’s inroads into South Asia. Beijing has established a significant presence in South Asia over the years. China is now the largest source of investments in all of India’s neighbouring countries. The BRI initiative has gained many tractions among South Asian countries. New Delhi is concerned that Beijing is strategically funding infrastructure projects which could be used for military purposes in future. The very fear of encirclement by China has led India to welcome more American engagements in South Asia. But what would be New Delhi’s role in this strategic arrangement? There is no doubt that New Delhi holds a central position in US indo-pacific strategy, but the power asymmetry between the two countries overwhelmingly favours Washington.

On 7 April, US Navy’s 7th fleet conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) without consulting with New Delhi. It is interesting to note that the US generally carries out such operations in the backyards of its rivals, like in the South China Sea or Black Sea. But conducting these operations in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of an allied nation is unusual. This action indicates that Washington is unwilling to concede any space to India just for the sake of the alliance.

Historically, any partnership between a greater power and a lesser power had never been treated as ‘equal’. No matter what officials in New Delhi might believe, this is the conventional wisdom in Washington. Indo-US relations might have come a long way but, if such cooperation continues through the upcoming decades, the position of the lesser power, in this case, India, is bound to relegate to a role of a ‘junior partner’, and the United States is making no ambiguity in signaling it.

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