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Never-Ending Ethnic Conflicts in Georgia

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Georgia has been home to numerous ethnic conflicts since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even today, their effects are seen and felt in the country. The Russo-Georgian War in 2008 reminded us again that the ethnic conflicts of the region are like time bombs waiting for the trigger to explode. 

It can be said that currently, there are two main ethnic conflicts in the region: South Ossetia, and Abkhazia. As it will be shown later in the paper, both conflicts were mainly caused by the Soviet leader’s decisions of setting artificial borders without taking the ethnicities into account. Or they may have considered the existence of different ethnicities but set the borders to exercise power by the divide et impera method. Regardless of their true intentions, the conflicts seem to have taken their roots from those decisions. According to Céline Francis, as the Soviet Union became more open and slightly more transparent under Gorbachev, dissatisfied ethnic groups had the opportunity to express their concerns towards the end of the Soviet Union. As a result, the ethnic groups caused widespread chaos across the region of which the effects can still be seen. 

The Abkhazia Conflict

Abkhazia is a region located in the country of Georgia. In fact, early Muslim sources used the terms AbkhaziaAbkhaz, or Afkhaz instead of Georgia or Georgians. Abkhazia has 6 regions, and its population consists of various nationalities. Abkhazians have a long history, and even several Greek philosophers and historians have mentioned them. The nation has been able to keep its traditions and has always seen itself as a separate one. Although it has several reasons, one of the main reasons has been the location. Its location has protected Abkhazia from attacks from other nations and enabled it to preserve the culture. Throughout history, the Abkhazians have played important roles in the affairs of the Caucasus. 

Following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, which saw Russian armies’ withdrawal from the Caucasus, the Menshevik Georgian government took control of Abkhazia in 1918. With the Abkhazians’ opposition, the Independent Soviet Socialist Republic of Abkhazia was established on March 31, 1921. The SSRs of Georgia and Abkhazia, which were formed in December 1921, signed a union agreement and shared equal status in the Soviet Union’s formation. The Georgia-Abkhazian Federation was a part of the Transcaucasian Union until 1931. However, the Soviet Union started a campaign of Georgianization in Abkhazia and replaced the names of Abkhazian places with Georgian names. It is known that both Joseph Stalin and his police chief Lavrentiy Beria were against the idea of an independent Abkhazia. The campaign became even more obvious when Beria was in power. With his orders, several Abkhazian intellectuals were removed, education in Abkhazian was banned, and speaking in Abkhazian was prohibited. As a part of the campaign, thousands of Georgians were moved to Abkhazia in order to prevent Abkhazians from being the majority there. Having realized the plan, Abkhazia strengthened its relations with Russia and asked to be a part of it, although Russia turned a blind eye to that request. In 1989, 30,000 Abkhazians signed a declaration that stated their intention of having their status back. This declaration naturally angered Georgia, and small-scale armed conflicts occurred between the Georgians and the Abkhazians.

When the Soviet Union started to decline, the Abkhazians started to worry about Abkhazia’s autonomy. An independent Georgia would certainly try to take its autonomy, and therefore, the Abkhazians wanted the Soviet Union to remain. No matter what they wanted, the USSR disintegrated, and Georgia became independent. As expected, the new Georgian leader, Gamsakhurdia tried to continue the Georgianization and Christianization campaigns, but Abkhazians expressed their concerns. In 1992, Abkhazia was declared to be a sovereign state. It even sent an invitation to Georgia for bilateral relations. However, Georgia was not pleased at all. Therefore, immediately after the declaration, Georgia started large-scale military operations in Abkhazia. Although the Georgian army had impressive success at the beginning of the war, the Abkhazians resisted until the end; neither side had a victory in the end. A truce agreement was signed at the end of the war, and the deal involved Russia, Georgia, and Abkhazia. Later, the UN was involved in the issue but failed to approach from the perspectives of both sides. After series of wars, several peace deals, and the placement of peacekeepers, Georgian and Abkhazian leaders came together with leaders of international organizations to discuss the future. Although the meeting was the largest one since the war in 1993, it did not lead to a definite conclusion. A year later, the Abkhazians expressed their intentions to have their own independent state. It should be noted that Abkhazians had never ceased to request for an independent country since the war. However, the UN did not accept their requests because that would make the situation worse.

At the beginning of 2001, another step was taken in the name of the betterment of relationships. Once again, both Georgia and Abkhazia agreed to not use force against each other and to show mutual understanding. However, in the same year, the Russian army bombed a region which was belonging to Abkhazia and under the control of Georgia. Georgian leaders expressed their concerns and stated that they did not want the Russian peacekeepers to stay in their region. However, Russia did not listen and decided to pass a new regulation which would allow former Soviet nations to join the Russian Federation in case the nation itself wants it. The regulation is still threatening Georgia because as mentioned above, Abkhazians had wanted to be a part of Russia and had expressed their preference to stay in the Soviet Union in the past. Amid the heightening tensions with Russia, Georgia became closer to the United States. 

In 2008, Russia officially recognized Abkhazia which contributed to the worsening of relationships with Georgia. Since then, the situation has remained almost the same. Georgia still tries to keep Abkhazia under control, while Abkhazia tries to get other countries to recognize itself.

The South Ossetia Conflict

Ossetia consists of two separate regions: South Ossetia and North Ossetia. While South Ossetia belongs to Georgia, the latter belongs to the Russian Federation. Similar to the Abkhazians, there are several theories on the origin of the Ossetians. Nevertheless, it is known that the Ossetians have started building close relations with the Georgians since the 1st century. Their relations with Russia date back to the 18th century, which was mainly caused by the strengthening of Russia in the Caucasus. Interestingly, at that time, the Ossetians revealed their intention of being a part of Russia which did not accept it on the grounds that doing so would anger the Ottoman Empire and Iran. Nonetheless, they agreed upon that the Ossetians would support Russia during wartime and spread Orthodoxy among their population, whereas Russia would do a favor in terms of trade. In 1774, following a four-year war, the Ottomans and Russians signed a treaty that gave the entire Ossetia to the Russian Empire. That was what the Ossetians had been longing for. In the 19th century, Russia decided to give the southern part of Ossetia to Georgian feudal landowners.

It was only after the Soviet Union’s creation that South Ossetia was officially given to Georgia, and North Ossetia was given to Russia. Both regions were supposed to be autonomous regions.  It should be noted that the event is still the main cause of the Ossetia conflict.

There was almost no problem during the period between the creation of the USSR and its collapse. Since all regions, including both South and North Ossetia, belonged to the Soviet Union, nationalistic movements were not needed, and people were not encouraged to protest about anything. However, towards the end of the Soviet Union, Georgia showed signs of its desire to take total control of South Ossetia. In 1988, the country passed a law to make Georgian the official language in all parts of the country, including South Ossetia. This led to worsening relations between the two. A year later, the South Ossetians aimed to unite with North Ossetia and stop South Ossetia from being a part of Georgia. The South Ossetians even asked Abkhazians to cooperate. This would be a great concern for Georgian leaders, and therefore, military confrontations began in the region in 1989. A year later, the South Ossetians wanted to be an independent country in the Soviet Union, but their request was not accepted. To heighten tensions, Georgia decided that it does not want to see South Ossetia as an autonomous region. As a result, Georgia was condemned both by the Ossetians and the Soviet Union. Subsequently, large-scale and long-lasting military operations started, and thousands of people died. Meanwhile, the Ossetians were reiterating their request to unite, and the Soviet Union (and later Russia) was supporting them.

In 1992, the first truce was signed between the Russian Federation and Georgia. The truce and the future deals were aimed to place peacekeepers from Georgia, Russia, and both North and South Ossetia. A year later, Georgia and Russia agreed to invest in South Ossetia to get it recovered from the effects of the war. Georgia was attempting to publicize the issue and attract global organizations because it was still concerned about the existence of Russian soldiers in the region. However, except for the OSCE, no organization took responsibility. Its existence in the region was very effective. Until 2002, there was almost no disagreement or any concerning issues. Peace was maintained, and almost all of the agreements were aimed to improve relations. In 2002, Abkhazian and South Ossetian leaders decided to cooperate against Georgia and have Russia’s support. Two years later, South Ossetians asked to join Russia, but President Vladimir Putin stated that it was the internal affair of Georgia and that Russia could not do anything. However, in the same year, Russia moved additional armed forces to South Ossetia. After Georgia’s warnings, Russia denied moving troops to the region.

Later, as a consequence of the arrest of several Georgian peacekeepers, military confrontations began. Although the military confrontations stopped for a while following a truce, the sides started fighting again. In 2005, Georgia approved a declaration that would make Russian peacekeepers leave the region. Although it was beneficial for Georgia, the South Ossetians did not find the deal very helpful because they had always considered Russia as their protector. Nevertheless, the deal also benefitted South Ossetia through other means.

In 2007, the relations between Georgia and Russia worsened again. The main reason was Russia’s decision of letting the residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia participate in the elections of Russia. Georgia expressed concern when the decision was made, and it refused to accept the 2008 elections of Russia in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

In 2008, when it was clear that Kosovo would declare independence, Russia told the West that it would need to make changes in its policies towards both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Immediately after Kosovo declared independence, the South Ossetian and Abkhazian leaders went to Moscow and talked about their independence.

Naturally, in a period of heightened tensions, military conflicts started in South Ossetia and Georgia border. South Ossetians had already declared their independence (without Georgia’s approval), and Georgia realized that the only way to deter them was conducting military operations. Now, it would not be expected of Russia to stay silent in the face of such an important action taken by Georgia. Russia warned Georgia and told it to stop the operations. Later, Georgian President Saakashvili announced that the country was going for a large-scale war and asked every young man to be ready to protect the motherland. At the same time, Russian President Medvedev complained about how his people were being killed in Georgia. A few minutes later, Russian armed forces entered South Ossetia. Although a lot of countries and organizations called both sides to have peace, they did not listen in the beginning. On August 12, 2008, Russia agreed to sign a temporary truce agreement and pull its troops out of the region. Russia would later remove its troops from Georgia but continue its peacekeeping activities in South Ossetia. Two weeks later, Russia recognized the independence of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It was condemned by various global organizations for recognition. Other than Russia, four other states, namely Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, Syria, recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent and sovereign states.

The Future of the Conflicts

The world is full of ethnic conflicts and almost none of them seem to be resolved in the near future. One of the main reasons is that artificial borders that have been drawn by others without taking ethnicities into account always keep those ethnicities dissatisfied. Unless the demographic distributions of those ethnicities change drastically, the enmity and dissatisfaction remain intact. Several parts of the world, including Africa and the Middle East, abound with examples. For example, it is known that the European colonialists drew border lines in Africa to distribute resources among themselves. It is not surprising then they have not considered the ethnicities who lived there. The artificial borders caused numerous enemy nations to live in the same country. Today, we still realize its effects. The current situations in Ethiopia and other countries are the direct results of the artificial borderlines. Unfortunately, those issues have not been resolved yet, and it seems they will not be resolved peacefully.

Whether it is in the Middle East, Africa, or the Caucasus, an ethnic conflict is extremely difficult to resolve. Unlike most other types of conflicts, the concept of  “ethnicity” creates a very strong sense of “us” and “others” even before the conflict begins. The issue becomes more of an issue of pride rather than a mere conflict of calculated interests.

This also explains why conflicts like the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have not ended without bloody wars. In addition to the factors mentioned above, the Caucasus involves another major factor: the existence of a major power bloc, Russia.

Interestingly, almost any conflict in the Caucasus involves Russia, at least to a certain degree. This is not unusual or surprising because all dominant powers have attempted to be involved in major issues of their region in the past. However, the reason it is mentioned here is that the involvement of any other major power bloc as a third-party makes ethnic conflicts less likely to be resolved. The resolution of such conflicts means the major power would have fewer opportunities to exercise power and keep others under control. It is especially important in the case of Georgia because Georgia wants to join international organizations such as the EU or NATO. We should remember that when Angela Merkel discussed the application of Georgia to NATO with Vladimir Putin in 2008, she stated that it was impossible because the organization would not accept a country with regional or internal issues. This meant as long as the issues of Georgia are kept alive, the country is unlikely to be a NATO member. Therefore, the conflicts in  Georgia can be expected to linger for a long time.

Ali Mammadov has earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics and Finance at George Washington University. Currently, he is a Visiting Researcher at Economics Research Institute and writes blog posts on his Medium account. He is going to pursue a Master of Arts in International Relations at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuania is left in the dust

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The nearly completed Nord Stream 2 is again in focus. It has become known that the U.S. Senate on January 13 failed to pass a bill to slap sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline sponsored by Republican Senator Ted Cruz. The tally was 55 in favor and 44 against the bill that needed 60 votes to pass. Those who voted against his bill said it risked breaking unity in Washington and in Europe. U.S. senators said also Cruz sanctions on Nord Stream 2 could harm relations with Germany which is very important for the U.S. foreign policy and economy.

Top Ukrainian officials, as well as Lithuanian government supported Cruz’s bill, arguing the United States should do everything in its power to halt the pipeline project.

The link is designed to export gas from Russia directly to Germany by bypassing Ukraine, through which Russia has sent gas to Europe for decades. That would deprive Ukraine of lucrative transit fees and potentially undermine its struggle against alleged Russian aggression. The decision will allow the completion of the gas pipeline to Europe without the imposition of further US sanctions. Earlier Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that the a deal between the United States and Germany on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was a “mistake”. It is interesting that the vote came as U.S. and European officials held high-level talks with their Russian counterparts. It is quite possible that the decision about Nord Stream 2 pipeline was the result of these negotiations.

This fact has sparked anger and has become great political disappointment for the Lithuanian officials who view the project as a security threat.

Lithuania, positioning itself as the main Ukraine’s patron in Europe, is confused with such U.S. decision. Lithuania promotes the U.S. interests and support all American initiatives even to the detriment of its own interests. Only this month Lithuania took a number of steps to prove its commitment to US policy. Lithuania even has dared to challenge China, one the main US strategic competitors. It continues to spend millions of dollars on military purchases from the U.S. using the narrative of “the threat from the East”. In December Lithuania signed an agreement with the U.S. to improve military interoperability.

The more so, the Lithuanian government has decided to accelerate its planned purchase of a multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) amid Russia’s military buildup on its border with Ukraine. The decision to buy US’ Lockheed Martin system in 2026, two years earlier than Vilnius previously planned.

The country also regularly holds political consultations with the U.S. officials to coordinate its further actions. But the U.S. in its turn does not pay attention to Lithuania’s opinion and makes decision in its favour.

Lithuanian government should gain Lithuanians’ support and pay attention to their needs. The matter is discontent in Lithuanian society is growing every day. Thus, on January 13, the usual commemoration of Freedom Defenders saw loud booing and heckles from the crowd of protesters who called on the government (and the parliament) to resign.

It is obviously that the threat from the East is not so real as threat to be fired due to loss of confidence in near future.

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Eastern Europe

Rebuilding of Karabakh: Results of 2021

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Image source: azerfocus.com

The restoration work in Karabakh entered the active phase in 2021 as several projects had been completed and the foundations for new ones were laid down. The restoration process in Karabakh started right after the November 10th declaration that ended the 44-Day War between Armenia and Azerbaijan. After the war, Azerbaijan liberated its territories that constituted about 20% of the total territory of Azerbaijan and were occupied by Armenian forces in the early 90s.

During the occupation, about thirty years, Karabakh was subject to ruthless destruction and looting by the occupants. As a result, most of the social infrastructure, including residential buildings, schools, and hospitals, were totally destroyed, and most parts of the occupied territories were left empty. Despite the fact that the total destruction in Karabakh makes the restoration process complex and time-consuming, Azerbaijan immediately started the restoration process. For this purpose, the plan for socio-economic development of the liberated territories was prepared, and for the implementation of this plan, “Coordination Headquarters” and 17 working groups on different areas were established. In 2021, $2.2 billion was allocated from the state budget for the restoration process. The same amount of funds is planned to be directed to the restoration process in 2022 as well. The allocation of the necessary financial resources and the establishment of the state bodies for the efficient organization of the recovery process led to the rapid implementation of projects in 2021.

The most notable project that was almost completed in 2021 was the Fuzuli International Airport. The inauguration of the airport took place in Azerbaijan’s liberated city of Fuzuli in Karabakh on October 26. It was the first airport built by Azerbaijan in the liberated areas, and its construction took only eight months. It was built in accordance with the highest international standards, which enables it to accommodate any type of aircraft. A runway with a length of 3000 meters and a width of 60 meters has been put into operation at the airport. The first test flight to Fuzuli International Airport was performed on September 5, 2021, when the largest passenger aircraft of Azerbaijan Airlines, named Karabakh, landed at the airport. Because of its location, the new airport is considered as an “air gate of Karabakh”. Along with Fuzuli airport, the foundations of the other two airports in Lachin and Zangilan districts were also laid down in 2021.

The year 2021 was also marked by the establishment of the Horadiz-Jabrayil-Zangilan-Agband highway. The foundation of this road was laid on October 26, with the participation of the leaders of Azerbaijan and Turkey. With a length of 124 km, it is part of the Zangezur Corridor, the establishment of which was envisioned in the November 10 declaration. The Zangezur Corridor is a very important project that is going to change the transportation architecture of the South Caucasus and its neighborhood. Its proximity to the Karabakh and connection to the main roads in the region will accelerate the restoration and development of the Karabakh.

Within the framework of the restoration process, another important event in 2021 was the foundation of the first “smart village” in Agali village in the Zangilan district on April 26. As of October, the construction work on more than 110 hectares in Agali village was underway. It includes the construction of 200 ecological houses, 4 non-residential buildings, a smart school for about 360 students, and a kindergarten for 60 children. Work on establishing smart agricultural infrastructure on approximately 600 hectares of land is also ongoing. According to the restoration program, it is planned to re-establish cities and villages in the liberated territories based on the “smart city” and “smart village” concepts. Thus, after the Agali village, this concept will be implemented in other areas of Karabakh.

In 2021, the highway that connects the Fuzuli and Shusha cities was also opened. As this highway passes through the territory that was used to liberate Shusha city, it has a symbolic meaning for Azerbaijan, and therefore it is named “The Road to Victory.” The Fuzuli-Shusha highway is part of the Ahmadbeyli-Fuzuli-Shusha highway, one of the main highways in Karabakh. It is 101.5 km in length and reduces the distance from the capital Baku to Shusha to about 363 km. The foundation of another important transport project, the Horadiz–Agband railway, was also laid in 2021 and its construction continues. This railway is 100 kilometers long and has strategic importance as it will connect the mainland of Azerbaijan with Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan’s landlocked exclave, through the Zangezur corridor.

Along with the mentioned roads, the opening ceremony of the 28-kilometer highway that connects the city of Tartar with the villages of Sugovushan and Talish took place in 2021. The length of this road is 28 kilometers, and as planned, the extension of this project will include 22 kilometers of highway from Talish to Naftalan. Construction and planning work on various transportation projects such as the Barda–Aghdam railroad, the Fuzuli-Shusa railway, and the Toganal-Kalbacar highway were also continued.

Comprehensive works in the energy sector were also carried out within the framework of the restoration program, based on the strategy for transforming the liberated territories into “green energy” zones and connecting the energy infrastructure in those territories to Azerbaijan’s general energy system. In 2021, with a total capacity of 20 megawatts, “Gulabird”, “Sugovushan-1” and “Sugovushan-2” small hydroelectric power stations (HPS) were reconstructed and put into operation in the liberated territories. In total, nine digital substations were built in the Karabakh and East Zangezur regions. Simultaneously, in the Aghdam and Jabrail regions, the construction of “Aghdam-1,” “Aghdam-2,” and “Jabrayil” substations as well as the Karabakh Regional Digital Management Center has been completed.

The other important project in the energy sector was the foundation of the Digital Station Management Center in Fuzuli. This project, implemented for the first time in the South Caucasus, allows through automation to reduce the impact of the human factor on the operation of the network, increase reliability and reduce losses during the transmission of electricity. All these projects in the energy sector serve to maintain the energy security in liberated territories and to transform these territories into “green energy” zone.

All the mentioned projects show that Azerbaijan has actively worked for rebuilding Karabakh in 2021. It will enable Azerbaijan to fully integrate the Karabakh economy into the Azerbaijan economy and to use its economic potential in upcoming years. As the liberated territories have great potential in sectors such as agriculture and energy, it will also positively affect the development of the non-oil sector in Azerbaijan. Implementation of all projects that were started in 2021 will not only contribute to the economic development of Azerbaijan, but will also transport Azerbaijan and Karabakh to the transport and economic center of the region.

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Eastern Europe

No borders to struggle against COVİD-19: Solidarity of humanity can help the situation

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Just as COVID-19 does not recognize borders, it is necessary to build the struggle against it on the basis of organization, solidarity, mutual assistance, the use of positive experience, and it should not recognize borders.

2021 was a year of continued struggle against the pandemic and of the emergence of new variants of the virus. The South Caucasus also was not away from COVID-19 and its variants. Azerbaijan continued its effective fight against COVID-19, making the most of the lessons of previous years and the opportunities for rapid response. The vaccination campaign, which was conducted as well as in highly developed countries, is a real sign of performance in this sector. During the year Azerbaijan gave humanitarian and financial aid to more than 30 countries in order to fight the pandemic, made a voluntary financial contribution of 10 million US dollars to the World Health Organization and freely donated 150,000 doses of vaccine to four countries.

The newly appointed head of the EU delegation to Azerbaijan, Petr Michako, also stressed the high level of vaccination in Azerbaijan. The capital – Baku is working closely with The European Union in this direction. The European Union and the World Health Organization have supported the fight against COVID-19 in Azerbaijan with the necessary medical equipment. Medical personnel in Azerbaijan have been repeatedly provided with respirators, goggles, transparent masks and overalls for this purpose. All equipment sent for the safety of medical personnel fighting the virus on the front lines was tested for compliance with quality and safety standards. Kestutis Jankauskas, Head of the EU Delegation to Azerbaijan, said that his organization, as a “Team Europe”, is helping to prevent, detect and combat the COVID-19 pandemic. “Healthcare workers are at the forefront of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, which increases their risk of contracting the virus,” he said. -They are our heroes and they need protection. “As part of the Team Europe initiative, the EU has launched an individual COVID-19 package with a budget of around € 32 million to support urgent needs and socio-economic recovery.

In 2021, Azerbaijan achieved major progress in combating the pandemic and the global economic crisis and in mutual cooperation. As a chair of the Non-Aligned Movement, Azerbaijan put forward an initiative to establish a UN High-Level Panel on global restoration after COVID-19. The member states of the Non-Aligned Movement took a unanimous decision to extend Azerbaijan’s chairmanship of the movement for another year, until the end of 2023.

Azerbaijan proposed a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement on equal and universal access to vaccines for all countries and the resolution was passed unanimously in March 2021. This resolution showed Azerbaijan’s stance on the increasing vaccine nationalism in the world and became an international success.

As a result of all measurements now the number of people receiving the second,third and further doses of the vaccine in Azerbaijan has exceeded 40 percent. Azerbaijan is one of the countries in the continent where the number of virus infections is rapidly declining. Azerbaijan is doing its best to observe this trend around the world. Solidarity can help the situation.

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