Piloting Through the 2020 Corona-World: •An objectively subjective selection•
The much-lauded Chinese curse of living in interesting times has certainly applied to 2020. The year saw many disruptions, but also the fulfilment of key trends related to inter-state and intra-state conflict. While no one will mourn its end, we may be right to fear that this will only be a continuing act in the ongoing saga of the world’s remaking and the upending of previously cherished certainties, especially in the West.
These vignettes will help us remember the main events of the year. They should not be read in the knowledge of today, but as mementos of another period in a long line of “weeks in which decades happen”.
London Does Not Believe in Tears
The Beginning of the UK’s Goodbye to the EU
In January 2020, EU and UK leaders started the countdown and kicked off negotiations regarding the United Kingdom’s final exit from the European Union, which also triggered a transition period set to last 11 months. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was no shortage of controversies, such as Gibraltar’s situation, as it is the only British overseas territory in continental Europe and subject to Spanish irredentism. This and many other questions have been asked throughout this far-reaching and arduous process.
For a better view of the proceedings, we need to look back in time, when the referendum that led to the UK leaving the EU took place. This event, which eventually shook Europe politically and economically, was triggered in 2015, when the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced his intention to organise a referendum on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. The referendum was held on June 23, 2016, with the whole world looking on in eager anticipation. Its outcome, however, took the world by storm, when the UK, a nation known for the strength of its institutions, the tolerance of its citizens and its meticulously crafted foreign policies, decided to leave the European Union, through a close-call referendum: 51.9% votes to leave vs. 48.1% votes to stay.
The result caused volatility in financial markets around the world, a political crisis, but also the fear of a constitutional crisis, given that neither Scotland nor Northern Ireland wanted to leave the European Union. In addition, there was the issue of Gibraltar, which has always been a source of dispute between Spain and the UK. Being an exception, i.e., the only British overseas territory that was part of the European Union, Gibraltar participated in the referendum, opposing the Brexit in an overwhelming proportion of 96%. Currently, this issue is still being debated at the negotiating table.
“The only real alternative to a ‘hard Brexit’ is ‘no Brexit’. Even if today hardly anyone believes in such a possibility”. These were the exact words of the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, who stressed many times that, in the withdrawal negotiations, the interests of the 27 EU countries are his main concern. Indeed, Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union has proven to be a lengthy and difficult process. Finally, after four years with countless postponements, deadline extensions and endless rounds of negotiations, on January 24, 2020, the European Union signed the Withdrawal Agreement. The act was ratified by the United Kingdom five days later and was then approved by the European Parliament. The final step was taken on January 30, when the Agreement was ratified by the EU, and the formal withdrawal of the United Kingdom took place on January 31, 2020.
In January 2020, both sides decided that more time was needed to make a deal. Thus, the 11-month transition period began. The main issues discussed during this time were trade agreements, the back payments of the UK to the EU budget, as well as safety and security concerns. At the time of writing this article, the EU and the UK had not inked a deal. Mainly, three important issues remain to be settled: how the agreements will be implemented, the EU’s concern over the UK providing financial aid and benefits to companies in its territory and, finally, fishing permits in Britain’s waters.
It is clear that EU-UK relations have progressively deteriorated since the time David Cameron announced the intention to withdraw. Although the transition period is soon coming to an end, this is only the beginning of a long series of consequences that will affect, in one way or another, the whole world. Brexit must be seen as a wake-up call by the entire European Union – a historic event, heralding an uncertain future ahead.
The Calm Before the (Sand)Storm
An Uneasy Truce for an Uneasy Peace between the US and the Taliban
Despite doubts as to its durability, a significant breakthrough was achieved in late February 2020 as the US and the Taliban came to an agreement following negotiations spanning a year and a half. The negotiations, in no small part facilitated by the participation of former US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalizad, were initiated by the Trump Administration in a shift from its former position of letting Afghan authorities steer the process of stabilizing and normalizing relations with the Taliban. Discussions focused on reaching a cessation of violence between the Taliban and US troops. In exchange for the gradual withdrawal of all US forces in the country by April 2021, the Taliban were to refrain from attacking US targets as well as prevent other terrorist groups (e.g., Al-Qaeda, ISIS) from using Afghan territory as a beachhead to launch attacks against the US or its allies and to recruit new soldiers to bolster their own ranks.
Nevertheless, this accord is not without its controversies. To begin with, there are several confidential addenda that will not be shared with the public, raising concerns over the nature of the contents of these documents. Furthermore, negotiations up to this point have conspicuously excluded the Afghan Government, involving instead other regional representatives. Thus, this agreement only marks the beginning of the end of US military involvement in Afghanistan; to achieve long-term peace, the Taliban and the Afghan Government need to settle terms amongst themselves, but talks have been hindered by the political crisis which ensued after the 2019 presidential elections and would only be resolved in May 2020. Another issue is the refusal of the Taliban to accept a permanent ceasefire, with the result that Taliban operations against the Afghan Government continued, which led the US to providing air support to the latter.
To sum up, the outlook in the region remains unclear at best; with the withdrawal of US troops from the region, it is up to the Afghan authorities and the Taliban to work out a peace and put a halt to hostilities, which many observers deem unlikely in light of the risk that once the United States have recalled all of their forces, the Taliban would then try to push hostilities further in a bid to oust the government and take full control of the country. Another point to consider is whether the US stance on Afghanistan would change after Joe Biden won the US presidential elections in November 2020. By all estimates, it appears the Afghan affair is far from over.
The Peril that Went Viral
The Spread of the Coronavirus into Everyday Life
Due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus, also known as the SARS-CoV-2 virus, March 2020 produced major global movements, with the World Health Organization declaring the novel Coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic on March 11. The number of cases has since grown massively, with more than 20,000 confirmed cases and almost 1,000 deaths in Europe alone by one day after the declaration. The Regional Director for Europe at the World Health Organization, Dr. Hans Kluge, stated that the number of cases is expected to increase, and every single day is important in this period, urging the affected countries to implement a containment strategy to control the spread of this disease. The General Director of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom, warned that while the World Health Organization declared this state of affairs as a pandemic, the countries must stay ever vigilant, as shifting from containment to mitigation is a misguided decision with potentially very dangerous consequences. The WHO General Director added that this is more than a public health crisis. It is a crisis that will affect every industry and facet of human society, so everyone must be involved in efforts to contain and counteract the spread of the virus, for their own good. He also said that all countries can still change the course of this pandemic, “even if we have never before seen a pandemic that can be controlled”.
Unfortunately, but as expected, as the days went by so has the number of cases continued to rise, and therefore, his statement has been validated, with virtually every economic sector suffering from the effects of the pandemic-related measures, especially for the tourism and food industries. At that time, it was believed that the coronavirus causes a mild respiratory infection in almost 80% of the cases, and about half of those infected will develop pneumonia. As for the remaining 20%, 15% will face a severe illness, and only 5% would eventually need critical care. The estimates have continuously changed with better statistical data. The head of the WHO’s emerging disease and zoonoses unit, Maria van Kerkhove, gave a statement in which she said that countries need to test and ensure their laboratories and hospitals are ready, no matter how severe the cases might be. The key advice for the entire world population was that “every individual needs to play their part as well” by first of all ensuring adequate hygiene, i.e., by washing their hands and isolating themselves from others should they start to develop symptoms indicative of the coronavirus.
The World Low on Fuel
Decrease in Oil Demand Fuels Search for Viable Alternatives
After we die, will our bodies turn into oil in millions of years? And if so, considering that the chances are slim, will the future inhabitants of the planet wisely use the substances resulting from the decomposition of our bodies? Will they find applications? Most of the products that the 21st century man comes into contact with are obtained by processing and refining crude oil, a hydrocarbon resulting from the transformation of organic matter over the course of millions of years. So, whenever we admire the intense colour of paint, heal ourselves with medication or moisturize our skin with cosmetics, we enjoy these things due to oil.
The applicability of crude oil has been known for at least 12,000 years in ancient Mesopotamia. The word Petroleum has its origin in the Latin language from “oleum petrae”, meaning stone oil. Large-scale consumption began somewhere in the mid-19th century, the city of Ploiești, in Romania, hosting one of the first refineries in the world. Since the beginning of the 20th century, oil consumption has exploded, fuelling the machinery of the two world wars. Although demand has grown exponentially in the last hundred years, in April 2020 the rise was interrupted. Due to a shortage of fuel demand based on the sudden slowdown in the world economy on account of pandemic related measures, impressive amounts of oil could no longer be kept and their storage actually became dangerous given the high toxicity of the substance. Another factor that influenced the massive decline was the rupture of the agreement between Russia and the OPEC countries regarding the limitation of production to ensure price levels. This divergence has led to an overproduction race between Russia and Saudi Arabia (the OPEC leader), thus flooding markets in order to lower the price of oil, creating redundancy in its exploitation and production. Since countries exploit hydrocarbon deposits at different price levels and vary in the dependency of state budgets on oil revenue, producers sometimes engage in this exercise of self-harm to hobble a rival.
Thus, on April 20, 2020, the world witnessed the largest decrease of the oil price in history, by over 300%. The price in futures contracts became negative for the first time dropping from 17.85$ to -37.63$ in one day. In other words, producers and distributors had to pay to get rid of the oil they had in stock in order to fulfil their contractual obligations to receive shipments in-bound through tankers and pipelines. Vast fleets of tankers were parked off the coast of major hubs in the US, such as Gulf of Mexico. Global trends indicate a likely decline in consumption for the mid and long term, with renewable energy sources gaining more and more ground. Gradually, the demand for fossil fuels, including gas and coal, is expected to decrease from 75% in 2035 to 65% in 2050, while the consumption of supposedly environmentally friendly electricity will double by 2050. Another changing factor is renewable energy (wind, solar, biomass, hydro, and nuclear), the use of which is expected to increase from 25% in 2025 to 34% in 2050. Thus, the fuels of the future, which may eventually replace the fossil fuels wholesale will be obtained from the exploitation of natural forces and recycling, or from hydrogen supply, through the process of electrolysis.
When the Voiceless Must Speak
A Brief Chronicle of Race, Outrage and the Dangers of Extremes
Anti-racism protests have spread throughout major cities in the world like wildfire, with several exceedingly violent incidents taking place in the United States starting as of the end of the month of May. The catalyst for this wave of protests was the death of an Afro-American George Floyd while being forcefully subdued by a police officer named Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020. What made this particular instance of police brutality far more pungent was footage of Floyd being already restrained on the ground with the Caucasian police officer keeping his knee on his neck. Floyd pleaded for air and repeatedly stated being unable to breathe for about nine minutes before passing away.
On May 26, 2020, a series of protests begin in many of the United States’ largest cities, the apex of which was reached on May 31, with 920 protests simultaneously being held in 400 major cities all around the country. Since the onset of the protests, there have been 14,000 people arrested and at least 19 casualties. Most of the protests appeared to be peaceful and, stunningly, much of the police force sent to prevent violence from occurring sympathized with the cause of the protesters, often publicly taking a knee as an already well-known gesture of solidarity. With such a high number of protests, however, in the end the largest yearly rise in murders was registered in the US, mostly in cities affected by the conflict between protesters and police. Even where violent clashes were avoided, the ill feeling towards the police resulted in them standing down or being stood down from important policing duties, leading to an atmosphere of impunity for the criminally inclined.
The protests have also generated a series of significant, potentially lasting changes. First of all, numerous large (and small) corporations have publicly manifested their support for the BLM (Black Lives Matter) cause. Secondly, some movies and books dealing with racial issues were withdrawn or even censored. Thirdly, police departments implemented a series of measures to supposedly better control the behaviour of their agents, such as accelerating the installation of cameras on all officers, supplementing the rise of the ubiquity of citizens filming with their smartphones. A political push towards police reform, even abolition, reappeared, including the replacement of the use of police in less serious disturbances with social workers. The “defund the police” movement gained significant traction.
Unfortunately, as with most things, there is a dark side to these protests. It appears people are forgetting that not only “black lives matter”, but in a normal and ethically sound society, “all lives must matter” (which, in itself, has become a politically contentious phrase) and because of that a lot of people were wounded or even killed by some angry individuals who wanted to take advantage of this situation. Furthermore, during the protests, some of the participants began vandalizing monuments such as statues of Christopher Columbus and US Founding Fathers, or, in the UK, the statue of Edward Colston as they were associated, strongly or weakly, with racism, slavery and the displacement of native peoples. These actions must not be tolerated, especially as history has a habit of repeating itself and in order to advance, we must learn from the mistakes of the past so that we may build a better future.
Without doubt, racism is a very important topic and must be handled with a high degree of responsibility lest we find ourselves swaying in the other extreme. The best example of this was the case of Romanian referee Sebastian Colțescu, when he was widely accused of racism for using the word “black” during a football game in order to differentiate a particular person among a group of players. This case spiralled out of control and became a major international scandal, solely because the player in question was offended by being referred to by his skin colour. This situation is wrong from several points of view, chief among which is that the quest to end racial discrimination turns into a witch hunt to find traces of racism in things not even remotely related to it; indeed, racism has been turned into some sort of trump card that can be played whenever something can be construed as such in lieu of reasoned debate or valid arguments. It is also quite disheartening that the same categorical stance and condemnation of racism was not displayed when Romanian athletes themselves have been subjected to overt manifestations of racism in international sporting events on more than one occasion.
Racism is not a modern problem; it is something that has haunted us since the dawn of our species and probably will continue to be a part of our society for a long time. Even though this was not the first time the police committed a racially-loaded abuse, it seems that the death of George Floyd was the point of no return when a greater number of people than during the previous BLM protest era in 2014-2015, even beyond the US borders, reacted in solidarity with one another and in opposition towards discrimination on racial grounds. This event echoed all throughout the world as social media feeds exploded in tune with the protests in the streets, demanding decisive action from the government to ensure such a crime would never take place again. It may be too late for George Floyd, but it is not too late for the rest of the world.
Out of the Frying Pan and into the Fire
Hong Kong’s Autonomy Is Being Shanghaied by China’s New Law
The disputes between China and the former British colony of Hong Kong date back to 1997, when Hong Kong became a part of China in a union that is guided by the formula “one country, two systems”. But the story begins in 1842, when China was defeated by the United Kingdom in the “First Opium War”; Hong Kong thus came under British rule. Due to its status of British colony as well as its geographical position, Hong Kong became an important economic power, mediating much of China’s trade and investment ties to the rest of the world until recently. This influence enabled the British to negotiate several concessions in exchange for its peaceful return to China, such as autonomy in maintaining its capitalist economic system, the independence of its justice system, its freedom of trade and freedom of the local press, at least for 50 years following the handover.
Back in the present day, the communion between China and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region has been marked increasingly often by various conflicts that have intensified due to the pro-democracy protest of the people of Hong Kong who feel that China is encroaching on cherished liberties. At the same time, the frustrations among the young in Hong Kong are also fed by the relative decline of the city through the growth of alternative centres such as Shanghai and Singapore, the high cost of living, the extremely unaffordable housing and many other economic issues which feed into political discontent. In response to rising dissent, China has decided to pass a “national security law”, which detractors argue violates both human rights and freedom of expression. The main international interpretation is that, through this law, the Chinese authorities seek to attain absolute control, violating the special status that Hong Kong attained in 1997. In a press release, the USA condemned China’s actions, with President Donald Trump signing an act demanding sanctions against all those who signed the security law, but in response, China created its own document stating that it will punish all those who signed the US President’s act.
Following Donald Trump’s intervention, an official position emerged from the United Nations calling for the law to be made public, to be removed from ambiguity, to be transformed more clearly and succinctly, and to respect human rights and the laws of Hong Kong. In this context, the United Kingdom also issued a press release announcing that it will support all those who have British passports in Hong Kong and adds that this law violates the direct freedom of its people. Later on, proposals started to appear about granting British passports to all Hong Kong-ers present before the 1997 era. The law is meant to put a halt to the protests, which would thereby become illegal; furthermore, individual journalism would no longer exist, freedom of expression and access to information would be suppressed, the internet heavily regulated by what authorities decide is passable. These measures could destroy Hong Kong’s autonomy, and the law will apply to all people passing through the city, driving away investors and tourists. The punishment is imprisonment for months, years or even for life. After the approval of the national security law, protesters were assaulted with water cannons and most of them were arrested for speaking freely. Unfortunately for Hong Kong, the dialogue between the great powers does not seem to be going its way, as the latter fear causing the situation to destabilize even further.
Old Dreams Die Hard
The Shadow of Turkey’s Neo-Ottomanism Looming over the Minarets of Hagia Sophia
Turkey’s history can be described in equal parts as vast, bloody and mysterious. Hagia Sophia was built in 537 under Emperor Justinian. For over a thousand years, it was the largest building but also the largest church in the world. It served as a cathedral for the Patriarch of Constantinople before and after the Great Schism that divided Western and Eastern Christianity. After the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453, the cathedral was converted into a mosque. Under the Ottomans, the architects added minarets and buttresses to preserve the building, but the mosaics that represented Christian images were whitewashed and covered. In 1934, under the leadership of President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the mosque was converted into a museum. Politically, the transformation of Hagia Sophia into a museum was considered a symbol of the Ataturk government’s commitment to a free, secular state.
However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent decision to reconvert the former Hagia Sophia church, an important site for Orthodox Christianity, into a mosque has been seen as a provocation by Greece and risks inflaming tensions between Ankara and Athens, which are already running dangerously high. Clearly, this decision was calculated politically as an opportunistic attempt to shore up the President’s popularity with his electorate in the context of a beleaguered economy. It also underlines Turkey’s ambition to play a pivotal geopolitical role in the Middle East. After being denied membership in the European Union for decades, Turkey turned its attention elsewhere. As Hagia Sophia becomes once more a mosque after over eight decades as a state-run museum, it can be seen as a step towards building a Turkish Islamic hegemony with increasing regional influence and also towards a populist unity in the fragmented Islamic world. It also signals a resumption of the old conflict between Turanism and Arabism for control over Islam.
This announcement has caused international discontent from Washington to Paris, but especially in the Orthodox countries, most notably Greece and Russia. In addition to its impact on Greek-Turkish relations, this choice affects Ankara’s relations with the European Union, UNESCO and the world community in general. For Greece, Hagia Sophia is identified with Constantinople, the name by which the Greeks continue to call Istanbul. This decision has a double meaning in Turkey where the President is declining in popularity, but also in the West, as Turkey wants to take greater part in the power games in the Mediterranean and the Near East. It also recalls Turkey’s aggressiveness in the region, namely its attempts to exploit energy resources in the South-Eastern Mediterranean claimed by Cyprus, followed by intervention in Northern Syria and recently in Iraq or interference in the conflict in Libya. Not only that, but migration issues have become a matter of dispute between Greece and Turkey, despite both being NATO members.
In conclusion, this decision by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to reintroduce Hagia Sophia as a mosque is not accepted and embraced by Christian countries, the European Union and NATO, mostly in weariness because of Turkey’s unpredictability, its grasp for regional power and its seeming double game with Russia in areas such as military acquisitions.
The Belarusian Boiling Point
Rising Discontent in Belarus as Population Contests Lukashenko’s Re-election
Following the presidential election in Belarus on August 9, 2020, Europe’s longest-serving ruler, Alexander Lukashenko, earned a new term with over 80% of the votes being counted in his favour. Although his sixth consecutive election did not come as a surprise, it decidedly did not come as a result of the people’s desire. Belarus has not seen fair elections since 1994, when the last European dictator, as he was nicknamed by the George W. Bush Administration, began his regime. Lukashenko has been widely criticised for banning opinion polls, throwing opposition candidates in jail and rigging the elections. It is difficult to say how many citizens actually support the current president, but popular support weighs little in the calculations of a ruler who has the army, the intelligence services and the media at his beck and call.
Despite his best attempts at project the image of an invulnerable leader, Lukashenko’s empire is increasingly faltering. Winning the election was by far the least of his problems, seeing the fallout that ensued. To begin with, a compromised president will impede country’s access to foreign loans, which the Belarusian economy desperately needs in order to survive. Furthermore, there is a feeling of dissatisfaction among the population, similar to the one that manifested itself in the early 1990s which, at that time, ensured the victory of the current president. Lukashenko is now facing protests that Belarus has not seen since the fall of the USSR, with an estimated 300,000 people in Minsk and 200,000 in other cities in the country. The riots have gone on for four months without interruption, further underscoring the pent-up frustrations and disgruntlement of the population as well as its firm cry for a change to be made. Against the people who demanded new elections, the government resorted to internet blackouts and police brutality, having no intention of backing down. Since the start of the protests, more than 30,000 people have been arrested.
Although numerous global actors have denounced the cruelty of the events in Belarus, the reality in the field is unlikely to change that easily. The European Union in particular is in a tight spot; while it cannot ignore the illegalities, it cannot impose extreme sanctions on Lukashenko either as doing that would push him even further towards Russia. Although he holds no special sympathy towards his Belarusian counterpart, Vladimir Putin prefers the certainty of a weakened but familiar politician who needs his support to a power vacuum worsened by a series of unpredictable protests and regime changes. For him, the situation in Belarus may represent a new opportunity to force the Minsk regime to accept a closer integration, which would extend Russia’s influence to Poland and Lithuania. However, Putin must abandon the militaristic approach used in Georgia and Ukraine in order to avoid possible external sanctions, but also to gain the trust of the people of Belarus, especially since almost 90% of citizens want the country to maintain a good relationship with Russia and the protests are not necessarily anti-Russia, but anti-Lukashenko. That said, Putin’s ability to interfere with the events in Belarus is limited by Russia’s distressed finances as supporting the collapsing Belarusian economy requires financial resources that the country does not have.
Belarus is currently at a stalemate. On one hand, Lukashenko, although disgraced, will not relinquish power, hoping for support from Russia and indifference from the European Union. On the other hand, the opposition can offer no more than the current street protests, having no substantial political weight and no serious replacement for Lukashenko. No matter what happens in the future, it is certain that there are diseases that vodka, sauna and tractor driving, i.e., Lukashenko’s male palliative troika, cannot cure: cruelty, megalomania and a boundless appetite for power.
The Clash in the Caucasus
The Reignition of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
The 1980s heralded both the beginning of new disputes and the continuation of old ones. As the Soviet Union’s clout began to thin, a new policy was introducing called the “glasnost”. It was devised to extend political freedoms in the Soviet Union to prevent its own unravelling. However, it had unintended consequences. As a BBC reporter said at the time, “Glasnost has given people the freedom not only to create but to hate”, with long-standing feuds such as the one between Azerbaijan and Armenia resurging.
In 1988, ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh passed a referendum to leave the Azerbaijan Republic, reviving the conflict. In Armenia, people rallied for unification, while in Azerbaijan, people responded with counter protests. Violence soon erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh as the Soviet Union fell apart; Armenia and Azerbaijan each declared independence, escalating the conflict into a full-fledged war. About 20,000 people died and over 1 million were forced to flee their homes in the region. Fighting raged for three more years, until Armenia eventually won. In 1994, both sides signed a ceasefire agreement which froze the conflict. Armenia occupied several pieces of Azerbaijan as well as Nagorno-Karabakh, which was still legally recognized as part of Azerbaijan even though it had declared itself an autonomous region at the start of the war. This occupation displaced hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azerbaijanis from their homes; the deal was brokered by Russia, who was a formal ally to Armenia but also had a good relationship with Azerbaijan.
On September 28, 2020, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defence announced that Armenian armed forces had opened fire on Azerbaijani units and settlements, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs further adding that Armenian forces had intentionally targeted civilian settlements. In response, the President of Artsakh (one of the official names of the Armenian-backed Nagorno-Karabakh breakaway republic) said that it was the Azerbaijani forces that had opened fire on artillery units under the leadership of the Armenian government targeting Azerbaijan-controlled areas in the Aghdara area, leading to casualties on the Armenian side.
A ceasefire agreement was reached on November 9, with Russia brokering the peace, ensuring it would be kept with some 2,000 troops sent to the region. In practice, the conflict was an unqualified success for Azerbaijan, which had been cultivating its military strength and partnerships for years in expectation of a rematch, while Armenia, already much smaller than it, has fallen behind in every significant way. However, if history is any example, this is far from a permanent or even a satisfactory end to the crisis, but merely another time-out before the next time the conflict unfreezes.
Peace with a Price Tag
The New Sudanese Government Normalizes its Relations with Israel
The conflict between Israel and the Arab States is known as the oldest conflict in history, its beginnings being told in the Old Testament with the story of Abraham, considered the father of both religions: Judaism and Islam. Although it plays out mainly in the Arab world, the source of the conflict is land, not religion. The territory was under the occupation of the Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Egyptians, etc., the last imperial power to rule the area being the Ottoman Empire. The ongoing conflict has even given birth to armed conflicts drawing great political powers, such as the USA.
Over time, there have been several conflicts between Israel and The Arab States, territorial in nature, with the goal of occupying the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. In the year 1967, the 6-day war took place, where Israel captured the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. As a result, in 1987, the Intifada occurred, a conflict that ended with hundreds of deaths and injuries, later involving the US as President Bill Clinton established the Oslo Accords in 1993 in an attempt to broker peace. Between the years 2000 and 2005 the Second Intifada took place, where Israel conceded the Gaza Strip. In 2017, a request was made to form the Palestinian state under the borders of 1967, but without formally recognizing Israel. The next year, Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish State, moving the US embassy to the Holy City. Israel receives further support from Guatemala and Romania.
Many other Arab and mostly Islamic states, including Sudan, have supported the Palestinian case over the years, thus engendering a conflict with Israel. The Palestinian cause has also been a significant opportunity for unpopular leaders to signal their virtue towards their own populations. Because of this dispute, the US has marked Sudan as one of the states that supports terrorism since 1993. Sudan has long since made a claim to be removed from this blacklist, as its presence there is synonymous with economic sanctions and banned investments, leading to the plummeting of the country’s economy. The demand has become more and more pressing, particularly after the ousting of the former president, Omar Al-Bashir, in April 2019 following popular pressure. One of the conditions for Sudan to be removed from the blacklist is to accept the normalization of its relations with Israel, along with a compensation of $335 million for terrorist attacks on US embassies in Africa.
The American Jewish Committee congratulated Sudan on October 23, 2020 for resuming full diplomatic relations with Israel. Sudan will therefore become the 5th Arab country that signs a peace treaty with Israel. The last two countries that have signed similar treaties for the normalization of connections were the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, in September 2020. Consequently, there are voices that support the choice made by Sudan to normalize its ties with Israel due to its important contribution to Sudan’s economy and improving its image internationally, to which one may add the beginning of a solid geopolitical alliance between Sudan and the US. On the other hand, the Palestinian government has harshly criticized Sudan’s choice and puts a halt to any agreement made so far, with people claiming that Sudan has betrayed the cause of Palestine. The so-called “Abraham Accords” brokered by the US, with Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, taking the lead, have led to a historic shift in ties between Israel and the Arab world, though the threat of a resurgent Iran vying for regional hegemony had pushed the two sides together even before the first accords were signed. Even Saudi Arabia has made important symbolic concessions, such as publicized meetings between the Crown Prince and Prime Minister Netanyahu and allowing Israeli flights to travel through Saudi territory. It remains to be seen what the new US Administration will do with this important legacy.
No Country for Old Men, But No Choice Either
America’s Democracy Facing Dilemmas Amidst Division and a Pandemic
Daiana Daniela DODE
Against the backdrop of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and a deeply divided nation, Democratic candidate Joe Biden became President-elect of the United States of America after winning the pivotal state of Pennsylvania in 2020 presidential election, thereby defeating the incumbent President Donald Trump. Biden’s victory capped one of the longest and most tumultuous campaigns in modern history, in which he maintained an aggressive focus on Trump’s widely criticized handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a majority of voting citizens stating that rising coronavirus case numbers were a significant factor in their vote, according to early results from the NBC News Exit Poll of early and Election Day voters. Biden regularly criticized Trump as unfit for office and positioned his campaign as a “battle for the soul of America”. He promised from the outset of his run to heal and unite the country if he won, and the crux of his message was the pledge to represent both those who voted for him as well as those who didn’t when he got to the White House. Whether he will live up to his promises will be seen in the next four years.
According to the US electoral system, the winner is not determined solely by the number of votes expressed in their favour; instead, each state has a certain number of electoral votes, with the more populous states yielding a greater number of these electoral votes; the person with the most popular votes in their favour in a given state will receive all of that state’s electoral votes (with two exceptions). The proportion of White voters backing Biden has risen by five points on Hillary Clinton’s figure at the last election, but Trump still took the largest share of this group, the preliminary polling suggests. Meanwhile, Biden appears to have gained increasing support from young adults aged below 30 as well as the middle-aged demographic. Biden had expressed clear confidence in a victory once all the ballots were counted, speaking regularly since polls closed on Tuesday as an anxious nation waited for states to complete their tallies.
Personnel from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative appointed by President Donald Trump are delaying the transition to President-elect Joe Biden’s team by refusing to schedule meetings, according to officials with knowledge of the situation. Six weeks after the U.S. election, President Donald Trump still refuses to accept defeat, contesting the result and insisting that he is the rightful winner of the elections. This lack of fair-play and political gracefulness is not at all typical of a mature democracy, but rather of countries with what political scientists call “hybrid regimes” – nations that formally have elements of democracy in their governance systems but in practice are not democracies. Trump is seen by some analysts as an exponent of a global trend towards authoritarianism, and the United States may take more than a page from other countries’ playbooks.
Beam Me Up, Scotty!
The Fast and Furious Firing Up the Space Race
Space: The final frontier. These were the words of the famous Captain Kirk (played by William Shatner) in the first iteration of the science fiction show Star Trek which aired between 1966-1969 in an era when mankind was fascinated by outer space and the space race was in full swing as yet another form of propagandistic war between the East and the West in their never-ending quest of proving their own might. With the Soviet Union making the first steps by launching the first artificial satellite and sending the first man into space, the USA was hard pressed for a success that would end this already very expensive contest that held little real economic significance at that time, but meant everything in the fight to the death that had already been going on for 25 years, for proving that the Western philosophy, way of life and culture was superior to the one advocated by the Soviet Union. And then, on 20 July 1969, the USA dealt the coup de grâce through one simple sentence just as the one delivered by Captain Kirk, but with Neil Armstrong as its protagonist: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”. The space race was won not by the one that prevailed in the majority of the battles but by the one who won the last and most important of them and knew how to best sell it to the world. Unfortunately, the winning of the race saw the political fortunes of those committed to exploring space wane. Just three years later, the last manned mission to the Moon took place, so that the recent 50th anniversary of the Moon landing will soon be followed by the commemoration of the final landing.
It would seem that 2020 is a special year in space affairs too, but this time is not just a simple tango but rather a full-fledged ballet number. Since 2011 when the NASA Space Shuttle program was suspended, all the International Space Station Consortium nations have relied on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for transportation to the ISS. This year, however, through the daring vision of the private sector, NASA’s astronauts were sent to the ISS on May 30, 2020 by a rocket and capsule made, sold and operated by a private company. Of course, NASA had always relied on corporate contractors, by SpaceX has upped the game by becoming an actual independent service provider, under the US philosophy of focusing NASA on pushing the boundaries of science rather than acting as a service provider.
Russia, however, did not lose one second in the face of this “act of independence”. Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, declared that: “Resuming Venus exploration is on our agenda”, and “We think that Venus is a Russian planet, so we shouldn’t lag behind”. But another big player might be the one to steal the show this time. Since sending their first man into space in 2003, China has been investing colossal amounts of money into their own space program and it seems that 2020 is the year in which they start to reap the rewards. China became in 2013 the first nation to successfully land on the Moon since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 spacecraft in 1976. With their Chang’e-5 robotic lunar mission landing on December 1, 2020, they became the first to perform a lunar-sample return mission since the Space Race. What’s more, China also successfully launched its first Mars mission called Tianwen-1, this same year, on July 23, just one week earlier than the NASA Perseverance rover mission to the Red planet which was launched on July 30, 2020.
A return of the Space Race is now on the horizon after many years of cooperation between old enemies like the US and Russia, and the marginalization of contenders like China, which was not allowed to join the ISS Consortium. But, this time, the race will be much harder as there are more competitors, apart from the three aforementioned ones. On July 19, the UAE space agency launched its first mission to Mars, the Hope Probe. India is also heavily investing in its space program and has already successfully launched lunar and Martian orbital missions. This time, the Space Race will be even more exciting than the first one with old adversaries that want payback and new players that seek to make a name for themselves. Live long and prosper!