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After solution to the political crisis in Israel, are the prospects for peace in the Middle East getting closer?

Yair Lapid, image source: Wikipedia

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One of the most negative results achieved by Hamas with its useless “11-day war” was certainly that of favouring the political solution for forming a solid government in Israel, after four rounds of early elections had not been sufficient to put Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a position to have a majority of seats in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament.

When the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israeli cities and the retaliatory bombing by the Jewish side stopped on May 21, thanks to the direct mediation of Egyptian President Al Sisi, the Palestinian extremists from Hamas, which has been ruling the Gaza Strip for 14 years, and their associates from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad not only failed to achieve any of the presumable targets of the war operations launched without warning on May 10 – with a salvo of rockets fired at major Israeli cities with the clear intention of causing civilian carnage – but they found themselves actually isolated in an Arab world which, apart from a rather weak show of solidarity, did not take action to threaten – for the umpteenth time in a century – direct intervention to “destroy the Zionist entity”.

Just after the end of the missile crisis, consultations between the political forces have started again in Israel, in view of forming a government that should bring to an end the 12 years of Netanyahu’s era, with the creation of a “grand coalition” led by the leader of the Yamina party (“the Right”), Naftali Bennett, and by the leader of the centrist Yesid Atid party, Yair Lapid, which will include representatives from seven parties, including representatives from the Arab-Islamic Raam party.

The other leading politicians in the new Israeli government will be Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White political alliance, and Avigdor Lieberman, the tough former Foreign Minister and Secretary of the Israel Beytenu party.

With a government endowed with a large parliamentary majority, Israel shall face the issues left open at the end of a brief conflict on May 10-21 which, while seeing the failure of Palestinian extremists’ military goals, requires, however, the solution to political problems of great geopolitical relevance.

With the “Abraham Accords” of August 2020 that, under the aegis of the then American President Donald Trump and with Saudi Arabia’ pragmatic “non-opposition”, led to the normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan,  the Arab front – once unanimously against Israel – has further fragmented, thus leaving Qatar, the traditional sponsor of Islamic jihadist extremists and of the most radical fringes of the Palestinian resistance, totally isolated and marginalised.

The most enigmatic position, at the moment, remains that of Erdogan’s Turkey.

The Turkish President has probably realised that in recent years he has made too many enemies on the international scene, and his dream of turning Turkey into a hegemonic power at regional level has been shattered after the defeats inflicted by the Muslim Brotherhood in all Arab states, after the failure of the fake “springs” and the bloody anti-Assad insurgency that had, in the end, the only actual result of strengthening the Russian presence in the region and in the Mediterranean basin.

In spite of its sending a substantial naval force to the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey has also missed the opportunity of participating – in a climate of cooperation – in the search for natural gas marine reserves in the sea area between Egypt and Cyprus. This search also sees the participation of Israel and Greece which, together with Cyprus, have established a tripartite economic alliance which, by also co-opting Al Sisi’s Egypt, could contribute to Turkey’s further isolation.

Probably it is precisely for these reasons that Turkey not only did not go beyond a merely cosmetic show of solidarity with the Palestinians during the “11-day war”, but also hinted that it would like to improve diplomatic relations with Israel, considering that – despite propaganda and verbal threats – President Erdogan continues to maintain excellent and prosperous trade relations with Israel (indeed, bilateral trade between the two countries during the crisis has even increased).

On the other hand, only a few months ago, in December last year, the Turkish President made an astonishing public statement when he admitted: “our relations with Israel in the field of intelligence, however, have not ceased and still continue… We have difficulties with some people at the top (i.e. Netanyahu, author’s note)”.

This ambivalent attitude of Turkey towards Israel is similar to its attitude towards President Biden’s Administration.

Despite President Erdogan’s verbal protests over the new American President’s official recognition of the Armenian genocide, with the appointment of a new pro-Western Ambassador to the USA, Turkey wants to cool tensions with the United States, also through an attitude of moderation and self-restraint towards Israel. According to Israeli analyst Ely Karmon, Israel’s future policy towards Erdogan’s Turkey should be based on a “trust-but-verify approach”.

The most burning issue with which the new Israeli government shall deal is still the Iranian one.

The threat posed to Israel’s very survival by Iran’s nuclear programme is not underestimated by any of the political forces.

Hopes of a slowdown in Iran’s nuclear research after the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the agreement signed in 2015 by Iran with China, France, the United States, Germany and Russia, which envisaged substantial limits to uranium enrichment in Iranian facilities – have vanished in the face of Iran’s reticence on the matter of direct checks on its developments, and after Donald Trump’s decision to denounce its ineffectiveness.

This is the reason why Israel has continued its policy of cyber sabotage of Iranian facilities and “selective elimination” of the scientists involved in the programme (the latest victim was the Head of the Iranian nuclear programme, Moshem Fakhrizadeh, killed on the outskirts of Tehran on November 27, 2020).

Two leading representatives of Israeli intelligence, namely Ephraim Halevy, former Head of Mossad, and retired General Aharon Zeevi Farkash, former Head of the military intelligence Aman, clearly expressed their views on the subject. In an article published in Haaretz on April 22, 2021, they outlined the guidelines of what should be the Israeli strategy towards the Iranian nuclear problem. On the one hand, it would be necessary to continue with the intelligence “pressure” against the programme, considering the fact that it will anyway take two years to manufacture a nuclear weapon, once acceptable levels of uranium enrichment are reached (a move that Iran has not yet made). On the other hand, it would be necessary to reactivate the JCPOA, with a new US involvement and with the support stemming from Israel’s new positive relations with many Arab countries, in view of exerting political and diplomatic pressure on Iran – also in the light of the discreet diplomatic moves recently made by Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis Iran and Assad-led Syria – with the aim of improving mutual relations and reducing tensions in the Gulf region, starting with the civil war in Yemen, where Iran supports the Houthi rebels.

Diplomacy is therefore on the move and, in view of achieving positive results in mitigating regional tensions, it must take into account two other important strategic players, namely Russia and China.

Russia is now firmly established in Syria, where it intervened in 2015 to rescue Assad’s regime from defeat by the Islamic State and where it will play a leading role in the reconstruction of the country – 75% of which is destroyed after a decade of civil war – after having also firmly established itself militarily in the port of Tartus and in the air base of Khemeimim, in the north of the country.

Vladimir Putin was the first Russian President to visit Israel in 2005.

Since then, he has managed relations with Israel by giving them a “special status” and – despite some apparent disagreements – also thanks to the professional work of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, he has brought about a positive change in bilateral Russian-Israeli relations, which makes Russia a credible counterpart on all Middle East’s negotiating tables.

The other counterpart in the region that is becoming ever more influential is President Xi Jinping’s China.

As early as the 1990s, China and Israel have established strong bilateral economic ties, especially in the defence industry, thus arousing the ill-concealed concerns of the United States.

These relations have grown in parallel with numerous political and economic understandings between China and the Gulf States, and this has enabled China to play an increasing role throughout the region.

The truce between Hamas and Israel was brokered by Egyptian President Al Sisi, but it was reached also thanks to the behind-the-scenes work carried out by Chinese diplomacy within the UN Security Council.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict – within a scenario which remains complex, but sees the majority of political players committed to seeking new models of cooperation and peaceful coexistence – has become actually marginal, after having been the centre of gravity of the Middle East dynamics for seventy years. This probably helps explain the desperate move of Hamas which, on May 10, attempted to thwart negotiations by launching missiles against the Israeli cities, without this having any significant influence on the regional equilibria.

This is the reality that the new Israeli government shall face. A situation that was unimaginable only a few years ago and which leads us to say – paraphrasing Winston Churchill – that, with regard to the conflict in Palestine, “this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”.

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

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Turkey’s Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Cyprus, Turkey, Artsakh

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The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin of the Armenian Apostolic Church has recently hosted a conference on international religious freedom and peace with the blessings of His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians.

Tasoula Hadjitofi, the founding president of the Walk of Truth, was one of the invited guests. She spoke about genocide and her own experience in Cyprus, warning of Turkey’s religious freedom violations. Hadjitofi also called for joint legal actions against continued ethnic cleansing and destruction of Christian cultural heritage in Cyprus, Turkey, Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) and other places by the Turkish government and its regional allies including Azerbaijan.

During the two-day conference, access to places of worship in war and conflict zones, the protection of religious and ethnic minorities, and preservation of cultural heritage were among the topics addressed by many distinguished speakers.  The conference paid particular attention to the situation of historic Armenian monasteries, churches, monuments, and archeological sites in parts of Nagorno-Karabakh that have been under Azeri occupation since the 2020 violent war unleashed by Azerbaijan.

Hadjitofi presented about the situation of Cyprus, sharing her recent visit to the Cypriot city of Famagusta (Varoshia), making historic parallels between the de-Christianisation of Asia Minor, Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh by Turkey, and its allies such as Azerbaijan. See Hadjitofi’s full speech here.

Author of the book, The Icon Hunter, Hadjitofi spoke with passion about her recent visit to the ghost city of Famagusta, occupied by Turkey since 1974. Her visit coincided with the 47th anniversary of the occupation. She was accompanied by journalist Tim Neshintov of Spiegel and photographer Julien Busch as she made several attempts to visit her home and pray at her church of Timios Stavrou (Holy Cross).

Hadjitofi explained how her own human rights and religious freedoms, alongside the rights of tens of thousands of Cypriots, were violated when Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan illegally entered her country and prayed at the newly erected mosque in her own occupied town whereas she was kneeling down in the street to pray to her icon in front of her violated Christian church. In comparison, her church was looted, mistreated and vandalized by the occupying forces.  

Hadjitofi reminded the audience of the historic facts concerning Turks discriminating against Christian Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians. They also massacred these communities or expelled them from the Ottoman Empire and the modern Republic of Turkey, a process of widespread persecution which culminated in the 1913-23 Christian genocide. Hadjitofi then linked those genocidal actions with what Erdogan is doing today to the Kurds in Syria, and the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh by supporting Turkey’s wealthy friends such as the government of Azerbaijan.  She also noted that during her recent visit to her hometown of Famagusta, a delegation from Azerbaijan referred to Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus as “Turkish land” and a “part of Greater Turkey”. This is yet another sign of Turkish-Azeri historic revisionism, and their relentless efforts for the Turkification of non-Turkish geography.

Hadjitofi called for a series of legal actions against Turkey and its allies, reminding Armenians that although they signed the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court (ICC), they have not ratified it. She noted that it must be the priority of Armenians if they want to seek justice. Azerbaijan and Turkey, however, neither signed or ratified the Rome Statute.

During her speech Hadjitofi also emphasized the need for unity amongst all Christians and other faiths against any evil or criminal act of destroying places of worship or evidence of their historical existence anywhere in the world. 

In line with this call, the Republic of Armenia instituted proceedings against the Republic of Azerbaijan before the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, with regard to violations of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

In its application, Armenia stated that “[f]or decades, Azerbaijan has subjected Armenians to racial discrimination” and that, “[a]s a result of this State-sponsored policy of Armenian hatred, Armenians have been subjected to systemic discrimination, mass killings, torture and other abuse”.

Hadjitofi said that “Armenia’s lawsuit against the government of Azerbaijan is a positive move in the right direction and more legal actions should be taken against governments that systematically violate human rights and cultural heritage. I’m also in the process of meeting members of the Armenian diaspora in Athens, London, and Nicosia to discuss further joint legal actions. But the most urgent action that Armenia should take is the ratification of Rome Statute of the ICC,” she added.

Other speakers at the conference included representatives of the main Christian denominations, renowned scholars and experts from around the globe, all of whom discussed issues related to international religious freedom and the preservation of the world’s spiritual, cultural and historical heritage.

Baroness Cox, a Member of the UK House of Lords and a prominent human rights advocate, was among the participants. She has actively defended the rights of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia through her parliamentary, charity and advocacy work.

Meanwhile, the organizing committee of the conference adopted a joint communiqué, saying, in part:

” We re-affirm the principles of the right to freedom of religion or belief, as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent international and regional human rights treaties. We claim this right, equally, for all people, of any faith or none, and regardless of nation, history or political circumstances – including for those Armenian prisoners of war still illegally held in captivity by Azerbaijan, for whose swift release and repatriation we appeal and pray, and for the people of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh whose rights to free and peaceful assembly and association necessarily implicate the sacred character of human life.”

On September 11, the delegates of the conference were received by the President of Armenia, Armen Sarkissian, in his palace in Yerevan where they were thanked. The guests also visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial-Museum (Tsitsernakaberd), where Hadjitofi was interviewed on Armenian national TV. She said:

“I read about the Armenian Genocide and I am glad that more countries recognize it as such but I am disappointed that politicians do not condemn actions of Turkey and its allies in their anti Christian attitude towards Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh. I see an interconnection between the genocide and the adopted politics of Azerbaijan, when the ethnic cleansing takes place, when cultural heritage is destroyed, gradually the traces of the people once living there are eliminated and that is genocide”. 

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After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians

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The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.

According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.

The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.

“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”

Scandal of Al Hol’s children

Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.

“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”

Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021. 

Blockades and bombardment

The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.

“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.

In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.

Living in fear

In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.

At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.

Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.

Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.

Division remains

The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”

Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants

The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.

“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”

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IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking

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IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi at a press conference. Photo: IAEA/Dean Calmaa

A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?


The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.

Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.

When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.

Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible.  Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.

Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.

The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.

It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.

“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.

I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.

Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.

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