The Planet on a Collision Course Yet, the world’s menaces are not from out there, but sadly from within
The development of science fiction and the Space Race in the mid-twentieth century turned mankind’s attention to the stars, fuelling our collective imagination about the wonders and threats that may lie beyond the skyes, from alien contact to deadly asteroids. The past few years, however, have served as an unkind reminder that our world’s direst challenges come not from the vastness of space, but from within the bounds of our planet. The Covid-19 pandemic that began in early 2020 disrupted the usual comings and goings of societies everywhere in the world, forcing them to face a challenge such as had not been seen in over a century. This has caused significant economic, social and political upheaval due to controversies surrounding the virus, the restrictive measures taken by the government to contain it, and the vaccination campaigns undertaken. Supply chain disruptions, unemployment, rising inflation, grim predictions of a harsh economic recession, opportunistic political infighting, overloaded medical infrastructures, rising Euroscepticism and social divisiveness are some of the more visible effects of the pandemic.
Additionally, on 24 February 2022, Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, cynically declaring it a “special military operation” against a perceived threat to its safety, a threat for which the Kremlin has yet to produce the proof it claimed to have. The conflict has further divided the world; the majority of the Western world, with some notable exceptions, has rallied behind Ukraine, supporting it with weapons, supplies, humanitarian aid, and intelligence. Meanwhile, other actors have either claimed to be neutral (e.g., China, Hungary) or have more or less overtly supported Russia (e.g., Iran, North Korea, Belarus). The war has generated an undeniable and tragic humanitarian crisis, along with an aggravation of the economic climate owing to rising energy prices and disruption in the trade of crucial products, as Western powers imposed harsh economic sanctions on Russia, who retaliated by leveraging its control on energy exports and by interfering with the exports of food and agricultural products through Ukrainian ports. In parallel, China has amped up its threats towards Taiwan. Tensions are also mounting between Serbia and Kosovo, while Iran’s theocratic leadership is facing yet another wave of intense public outrage and sustained protests.
Despite globalisation and interconnectedness being the dominant themes of the last few decades, “divisiveness” and “turmoil” are, perhaps, the best terms to describe the geopolitical dynamics of the past few years. The Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have produced an uptick in tensions and frustrations, bringing latent conflicts and issues to the forefront in several regions of the globe. We invite our readers to explore the following collection of essays on several interesting developments, ranging from high profile phenomena to events that have received less attention from the media. As the Chinese New Year draws near, with its trademark flamboyant fireworks that have inspired similar customs worldwide, the image of fireworks going off in the sky can be seen as a bitter metaphor for the conflicts that seem to worsen around the same time. For all the fears that these events are an omen that the danger of World War III is becoming more and more serious by the minute, we can only hope that they will be just as short-lived as the firecrackers.
Adrian-Ioan DAMOC, Editor The Market for Ideas
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Euroscepticism: the vicious virus that feeds on “too much Europe”
The term “Euroscepticism” appeared in the early 1990s as local discussions of the European Union got more divisive during the implementation of the Maastricht Treaty. In that matter, it was used as a “catch-all” phrase for any kind of opposition or reluctance to the EU (Leconte, 2010). The political environment in which European integration is taking place has significantly changed after the Cold War. In the past years, Euroscepticism has become an increasingly prevalent trend, especially after the 2008 economic crisis and the numerous arguments engendered by its impact on the EU and its principles and institutions, as well as the growth of populists and nationalist parties in many European countries.
Some Eurosceptics believe that the European Union has too much power and should be less involved in the internal affairs of Member States. Others argue that the EU has failed to address the economic and social problems of Europe and should be less centralized. Taking in consideration its characteristics, Euroscepticism has many forms – from opposition to membership in the EU to opposition to specific projects such as the monetary union or the Schengen Area (culminating with the current event where Romania and Bulgaria were rejected for joining the unrestricted travel space, representing an agonising political defeat for both countries).
Effects on European integration
Elites in Europe have typically provided substantial support for the expansion of European integration. But it has become harder to maintain the EU as it has expanded and grown more interconnected. Through public opinion, Euroscepticism has become a noticeable and enduring phenomenon in some member countries.
Since reaching a peak in 2007, according to Eurobarometer surveys of EU citizens, the trust in the EU and its institutions has decreased. It has remained continuously below 50% ever since. According to a 2009 survey, Latvia, the UK, and Hungary had the lowest levels of support for EU membership, while Greece, France, Spain, and the UK (which underwent Brexit soon after) have held the least favourable opinions on the bloc since 2016 (Dutta, 2018).
The term first made an appearance on 11 November 1985, in the British newspaper The Times, to express scepticism towards the European Union and its policies. The definition of Euroscepticism states that those who hold this perspective accuse the EU of reclaiming the national governments’ sovereignty and threatening their integrity (Ultan and Ornek, 2015). The first time this situation occurred was when Margaret Thatcher gave her “Bruges Speech” on 20 September 1988. In her discourse, the Prime Minister insinuated that she disapproved of the European Union’s claim of authority over the United Kingdom. As evidence of the increasingly sceptical attitude of Britain towards the EU, the critical situation culminated with the exit of the UK from the EU through a referendum which took place in 2016. Thus, the geopolitical event known as Brexit officially occurred in January 2020, revealing “the most evident political truth about Britain: it is a completely divided country” (Abell, 2019). This cements the fact that, over the years, the UK has not felt that it truly belongs in Europe, as it was geographically isolated from the rest of the continent in addition to already being distant from the European unity movement (inaugurated in the Rome Treaty of 1957). Moreover, the intensity of Euroscepticism as a continent-wide phenomenon increased with each expansion wave.
Euroscepticism growing across Europe
According to researchers, there are three primary factors that are driving up Euroscepticism in Europe. The first is a perceived decline in permissive consensus, particularly during the Maastricht Treaty approval period. The second is that the aim of European integration tends to use referendums to approve treaties, which stimulates interest in European problems. The third and final factor is the expansion process, which has increased the integration project plan. Numerous studies revealed that the permissive consensus was recognized as a suitable method of European integration (Taggart and Szczerbiak, 2002). During this transition, it is easy to notice that there is something different about this opposition because the right and left parties, including those from the same nation, are opposed to European integration.
However, a stronger opposition towards the European Union started to take its place in the current socio-political context. Following the conflicts that Russia initiated (in 2008 in Georgia, and in 2014 in Ukraine, respectively, the latter over the annexation of Crimea), including the ongoing war in Ukraine (which started in February 2022), EU Member States have become more concerned regarding the security and unity of Europe.
Furthermore, in the present context, the issue of accession to the Schengen Area was thought to establish stronger cooperation between European countries through which the Member States would benefit from economic and diplomatic gains on a larger scale. Recently, contrary to these ideas, Austria and the Netherlands vetoed Romania and Bulgaria’s request for integration into the Schengen Area, despite fulfilling all the requirements for admission since as far back as 2013. This may intensify anti-EU feelings in both countries and can cause more tensions with grave political and socio-economic consequences.
The visions of the future
On the political front, significant conflicts exist within the EU on how to plan for the future. The mission of European leaders is to increase Europe’s economic influence, to manage migration and to promote tolerance and pluralism both within the EU and outside of it. In its more than 60 years of history, few times have been more challenging for the EU than the one we are living through now. The European bloc has never appeared so economically fragile, uncertain about how to defend its borders, fragmented over how to manage the institutional crisis, and under assault by Eurosceptic politicians.
Regarding the nations most severely impacted by the Eurozone crisis, some, like Italy and Greece, have developed strongly negative views of the EU and are encouraged by the political environment to establish stronger relations with other members of the EU and discuss urgent national issues, while others, like Ireland and Portugal, have maintained a pro-European position. Some European countries like Sweden, France and Belgium have a long history of being sceptical towards the EU. This contrasts with some Eastern European countries (such as Poland), which joined the bloc in 2004. These countries have seen a rise in nationalism and populism, many people in the government or ruling parties being hostile to the EU. Consequently, the most convenient option that the EU countries have to consider is to identify the individual problems of their nations while using diplomatic means to resolve them in order to support pro-European political forces.
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Life is like a box of (Belgian) chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get…
Belgium as it is today
Conflict? In Belgium? One shouldn’t be shocked by this information; it is not the kind of conflict most people think of upon hearing this word as it implies the use of physical violence. Belgium is a confederation which is home to two communities: Walloon inhabitants (who mostly speak dialects of French) and Flemish inhabitants (who mostly speak a variation of Dutch called Flemish). This conflict manifests itself rather in linguistic and social tensions, which tend to be felt the most during political crises. After all, the two have separate histories, separate languages and separate governments in order for each to defend its independence.
Due to Belgium’s status as a confederation, the two communities are free to vote by referendum for the separation of the provinces anytime they feel that Belgium doesn’t represent them or their needs anymore.
An exordium to the Flemish-Walloon divide
This conflict is not recent, as we can actually trace the tensions between the two all the way back to the Roman Empire. Even in ancient times, the Franks (of Germanic origins) and the Romans (who would later evolve into a French-speaking nation) fought over the territory that is part of Belgium nowadays. After Belgium finally gained its independence from the Netherlands in 1830, the initial intention was for the state to be French dominated. The Dutch speakers, naturally, began to fight for the recognition of their language and culture, gaining national acknowledgement in 1898. But even after this victory, the two communities were not at all equally represented in the government, at least not until the economic growth of Flanders after World War II, when matters began to become more balanced between the two.
Today, Flanders is more economically developed, which engenders resentment. The official border divides the country into four parts: Wallonia, Flanders, the bilingual capital of Brussels, and the East Cantons.
Current linguistic and social climate
So how does this peculiar system of territorial administration translate into real, day-to-day life? Well, one could say that it can be summed up in a short, simple word: “tension”.
Flanders is the most populated region, with 58% of the population, while Wallonia represents 32%. As a consequence, the distribution of the population when it comes to languages is similar, 56% of Belgians being Dutch-speakers, 43.5% French-speakers and less than 1% German-speakers. The monolingual regime of both regions makes it difficult to create strong and efficient connections between the two, and demands, requests and any other administrative endeavours can only be conducted by the local authorities of each region.
Economic inequality and its political impact
In the beginning of the 90’s, Flanders became the economic powerhouse of Belgium, a position which it still holds to this day. As a result, further discord has ensued. The Flemish community feels like the contribution of Wallonia to the economic situation of the country is not as noticeable as the funds needed for local administration and investment overwhelmingly come from taxation from the booming Flemish economy. Flanders feels, briefly put, that their compatriots do not have a significant contribution to the economy and that they are forced to pay to upkeep a region that is not as economically efficient as theirs.
The economic side of things, corroborated with general social unrest and the lack of electoral unity, created the perfect environment for political parties such as the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) to propagate ideas that more autonomy for Flanders would bring more wellbeing to the Flemish community. A widespread sense of belonging and national identity are hard to establish in a country where the two major population groups think, act and feel differently, which creates the perfect breeding ground for political and social troubles.
A spiralling future
Among these lines, one intriguing question manages to rise to the top: would an independent Flanders survive in the European Union? Running an independent Flanders may well be impossible, majorly due to the fact that Belgium’s membership into the EU helps both parties that are being discussed. It would face the challenges of reintegration into the European Union possibly against the wishes of the rump Belgium and its veto on new members (as the Catalans fear with regard to Spain) and it would also face the issue of having a currency in whose governance it does not participate anymore, according to Joachim et al. (2012). The European Commission stated that new states cannot benefit instantly from their former alliances and they must apply individually for European membership, unless a deal has been signed beforehand.
Tension between Flanders and Wallonia has been felt for many decades, though at this moment there is next to nothing to worry about when taking into consideration that both Belgium and Europe have bigger issues to ponder. Although one side might be more populated than the other, or more competitive on the economic front, they have yet to make any step in a certain direction, such as separating from each other to become independent, thus feeding the question “What would an independent Wallonia or Flanders do on the great international chessboard?”. For the time being, a Belgian proverb is the only correct answer, “It is no use waiting for your ship to come in unless you have sent one out”.
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The Caucasus Mountains’ Valleys of the Shadow of Death
An old, chronicled enmity, the causes of which are discussed in Western chancelleries and in the Kremlin, a war fought not by the ruling elites of the two states, but by ordinary people, directly involved in the armed conflict – a comprehensive understanding of this armed conflict is impossible by simply not being from the region and by not being either Armenian or Azeri. But a factual understanding of the events can be obtained based on the study of the geographical, administrative and, with some reserves, the political maps of the time.
This conflict is painful because it is disputed territory/land, on which thousands of people have been born and lived their lives, many of them killed or expelled during the aggressive phases of the conflict between Azerbaijanis and Armenians. The conflict is complicated by the involvement of the two major regional actors: Turkey, which supports Azerbaijan, and Russia, which has no interest in supporting Armenia, but rather the desire to once again rule over the three Caucasian republics i.e. these two plus Georgia.
As we know, both Armenia and Azerbaijan belonged to the Soviet space, being autonomous republics until the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Armenia is politically and historically distinguished by two defining elements:
- It was successively occupied and ruled by the Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, Ottoman, and Russian Empires, as well as by the Soviet one;
- It was the first country to officially adopt Christianity, at the beginning of the 4th century.
Azerbaijan, in turn, is defined politically and historically through:
- Belonging to the group of the eight Turkish peoples, a fact highlighted in the national flag;
- Consisting of no less than fifteen ethnic groups included in the current territory of the state.
The “apple of discord” between the two nations is an intensely disputed territory, namely Nagorno-Karabakh; as seen on the current political map of the Caucasus region, the disputed territory is an Armenian enclave in the current territory included in the borders of the Azerbaijani state. The connection between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh is ensured by a corridor going both directions, i.e., the Lachin corridor, controlled by the peacekeeping forces sent by Russia.
Republic of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh
The issue of the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict was complicated with the fall of the USSR through the emergence of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, following a referendum held in this territory as well as in a neighbouring province, Shahumyan, which led to a declaration of independence and the emergence of another new republic; all of this took place the same year, in 1991. The problem is further complicated by the fact that this self-proclaimed republic is inhabited by a mostly Armenian population, with the Azeris having been expelled following the Armenian victory in the first war the two newly created states fought in the 1990s.
With no international recognition except from other areas experiencing conflict such as South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh is supported only by Armenia, which initiated a bill in 2016 aimed at the recognition of the Republic of Artsakh.
Nagorno-Karabakh – the disputed territory in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict – is an enclave (included in the Republic of Artsakh). The Nagorno-Karabakh region was established by the Soviets in 1923 in the mountainous parts of the historical Karabakh province. It should be noted in this regard that a significantly reduced area (4,400 km2) was chosen, with the maximum concentration of the Armenian population, leaving out sizable areas inhabited predominantly by Armenians. These territories were included in various other districts assigned to Soviet Azerbaijan in order to remove the local Armenian population’s notion of belonging to the same administrative and historical unit as well as to diminish its electoral impact and cohesion, exposing it to a process of denationalization favoured by economic migration.
The position of the international community and the parties
Although the UN showed a certain interest in the conflict (the Security Council adopted four resolutions – 822, 853, 873, and 884 – demanding the withdrawal of the Armenian army from the occupied territories), the OSCE dealt with the issue through its special group in Minsk. The parties involved in the conflict, with such divergent interests and motivations, have constantly sabotaged any way out of this frozen conflict. Azerbaijan insists on maintaining its territorial integrity, while Armenia seeks to preserve as much of its historical territory as possible, territories still inhabited by Armenians, insisting on the principle of national self-determination.
The truce between the two parties is only partially respected, with both sides accusing each other of violating it. The geopolitical games of the area invariably centre on the Caspian Sea to the east and the Black Sea to the west (with a smaller influence for Armenia and Azerbaijan). As a littoral state of the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan has an interest in developing a good relationship with Georgia in order to create a passageway for gas and oil pipelines to the EU; recently, an agreement was signed in Bucharest between Azerbaijan, Georgia, Romania and Hungary for the creation of a submarine cable that will cross the Black Sea and supply Eastern Europe with electricity produced from renewable sources.
Without effective efforts at mediation, continued ceasefire violations and heightened tensions pose a concerning possibility of rekindling a major conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Such an outbreak might hinder oil and gas exports to Central Asia and Europe from Azerbaijan, which produces around 80,000 barrels of oil per day, by destabilizing the South Caucasus region. In the event of military escalation, Russia is obligated by treaty to defend Armenia, while Turkey has vowed to back Azerbaijan.
In addition to Russia’s current involvement in the war in Ukraine, the United States’ ambiguous policy of publicly highlighting the plight of Armenia while establishing greater cooperation with Azerbaijan over the past few years could serve as a factor for an escalation and make efforts to secure peace in the region more difficult.
The European Union, under the direction of Charles Michel, President of the European Council, has taken on a more active mediating role in 2022 due to the weakened ability of the United States and Russia to function as trustworthy brokers.
The risk of military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is growing due to failed attempts at mediation, increased militarization and frequent ceasefire violations. Such recurrent violations of the 2020 ceasefire eventually escalated into a two-day clash that began on September 13, 2022 – the worst provocation since 2020. The death toll is disputed, with estimates ranging from 1 to 300 in the cross-border attack. Azerbaijan launched attacks on several locations on Armenian territory, forcing the evacuation of more than 2,700 civilians.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have accused each other of unleashing the violence. Despite Russia’s focus on the conflict in Ukraine, it claims to have brokered a ceasefire between the warring parties. More border clashes were reported on Sept. 21, Sept. 23 and Sept. 28, less than a week after the Russian-brokered ceasefire.
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Persian Letters. To whom it may concern.
As time goes by, it feels harder to keep up with the constant unrest and protests in Iran; just last year people were out on the streets in light of the country’s economic situation, which was not caused exclusively by the pandemic or the ongoing war in Ukraine. The Iranian economy has been on a downward trend since 2013 (The World Bank, 2022a) and has been dealing with inflation rates as high as 34% in the last 10 years (International Monetary Fund, 2022), in addition to the 2021 water shortage protests and the 2022 protests sparked by the spike in wheat prices, and it was already starting to feel as if the leaders in Tehran had a real problem on their hands. That was until 16 September 2022, when 22-year-old Masha Amini died in the hospital, a death allegedly caused by the Guidance Patrol, also known as the “morality police”, a branch of law enforcement in Iran tasked with arresting people who violate the Islamic dress code.
Instability is nothing new
Iran has been struggling with authoritarianism and an unstable rule for a long time, as early as the 19th century, when Iran’s independence was challenged by foreign powers such as Russia and Great Britain who sought its rich oil resources. Due to widespread corruption and concessions offered by the ruling Qajar dynasty to foreign powers, an uprising, lead initially by the clergy and merchants, lead to the Constitutional Revolution in 1905-1911, when thousands participated in protests and boycotts to fight for social and political reforms, such as an elected parliament and power-sharing in the state. By 1925, a coup backed by Great Britain established a new authoritarian dynasty led by Reza Shah Pahlavi who is regarded as the founder of the modern state of Iran and is also known as having been a despotic ruler (Keddie, 2003). Due to pro-Axis sympathies, the Shah was removed from power by the Soviet and British troops and his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was crowned as the new Shah.
The 30-year-rule of the new Shah was characterised by the repression of all opposition, including leftists, liberals, nationalists, and Islamists through mass imprisonment, the use of the secret police, SAVAK, and even murder and torture, while foreign companies were protected, especially after the CIA-sponsored coup that ousted prime-minister Mossadegh, who had nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and led the young Shah into a short exile in 1953. While most of the organisations opposed to the Shah’s rule were successfully banned, the Islamic opposition was harder to completely block since mosques remained a possible gathering place (Zunes, 2009).
By 1978, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was already the established opposition during his exile in Iraq, when a government-sponsored newspaper defamed him for leading seminary students to engage in conflict with police forces, during which six ended up being killed and many more were wounded, thus starting a violent unrest. Even though unrest and protests were nothing new in Iran, this time the situation escalated to a high enough level to require the Shah to call in the army to pacify the protestors, a choice which would later prove to be fatal to his regime. The mass demonstrations were quelled aggressively by the army which, in turn, caused further protests and more military interventions and, by September 1979, martial law was declared. The army killed hundreds in Tehran prompting even the Shah to criticise them, which damaged morale among the troops and fuelled mass desertions.
In December, the Shah lost control of the situation and asked opposition politician Shahpour Bakhtiar to form a new government, a proposal he would accept on the condition that the Shah should leave the country. After the Shah’s departure, a power vacuum was created, a vacuum that could only be filled by established Islamic opposition leader Ayatollah Khomeini. On 24 October 1979, the provisional government approved the new Islamic constitution, thus creating Iran as we know it today (Eisenstadt, 2011).
The government’s fight for “morality”
After the fall of the Shah’s authoritarian regime, the Ayatollah’s new Islamic rule did not bring the freedom that people desired; the Supreme Leader Khomeini had essentially received the power to create whatever government he wished, so this time it was not only the people’s political freedom that was restricted, but their personal freedom as well, transforming Iran into a full-fledged theocracy.
From the 1980s to 2005, Islamic Revolution Committees were responsible with enforcing Islamic rules such as women wearing hijabs to cover their heads and necks, concealing their hair. In 2005, the Guidance Patrol, also known as the “morality police”, was founded to deal with people who did not uphold the Islamic dress code and one such victim of this repression structure was the 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman Masha Amini. According to the Guidance Patrol, she fell into a coma while in custody and later died; however, women who were also detained with her stated that she was brutally beaten by the police (CBC News, 2022). The news of her death brought the people back in the streets to protest and, according to CNN (2022), these protests have a similar pattern to the movements against the government from 2009, 2017 and 2019, but are more widespread.
Initially, young women took to the streets in protest and were soon followed by men and other people of all age groups chanting against the government and the Islamic rule. According to the GAMAAN (2022) survey report regarding the Iranians’ preferred political system, 88% of the people have a positive view towards a democratic political system, while 67% have a negative view on a system ruled by religious law and 66% of the population hold a negative view of the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. So, it seems that the population is not on board with the way the state is being ruled and the constant widespread protests that have been taking place, not only triggered by Masha Amini’s death, but the treatment of all women over the last decades and the lack of a democratic process, are taking a big toll on the leadership’s legitimacy.
What is to follow?
While the protests that were triggered in September are not the first and will probably not be the last, the current Islamic Republic is nearing its breaking point. Most probably, the Islamic regime’s main opponent is not a foreign power, the media or even the women, but rather time and demographics.
According to The World Bank (2022b), Iran has a population of over 85 million, far exceeding the population of 37 million that took to the streets in 1979; people living today have little to do with the Islamic rule that began over 40 years ago, and the aging Ayatollah is getting more disconnected from his people as time goes by. The rather young population of Iran is not interested in what Imams have to say regarding the way they live their own lives. They desire to listen to music, party, dress the way they want, and desire the very freedom of expression that has been denied to them for almost their entire lives, and all of that may come bursting out at once.
Will the regime be toppled this time, or will the current protests fail as it happened many times before? It is hard to say; the current movement lacks leadership or a meaningful figure to fill in the void the way Khomeini did in 1979. In the GAMAAN (2022) survey, Reza Pahlavi, the son of the last Shah, ranks as the most popular figure with 39% of the people supporting him, but is that enough? Is he even the right person to take charge? The government seems to be taking the approach of disbanding the Guidance Patrol (BBC, 2022), but the future remains uncertain. The Guidance Patrol can easily be replaced with something else when the protests calm down or it can truly be gone for good, but will this be enough to stop a movement that has been brewing for decades?
Sooner rather than later we be able to hear Wind of Change chanting through the streets and government buildings of Tehran since this is, after all, a battle against time more than anything else; the unfortunate truth is that many girls and young women were the ones who had to suffer and pay the ultimate price, in a rather poetic way, to give birth to a new Iran.
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The Uyghur “Minority Report” and the slow death of a people
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is an ascendant power of the modern world, being the most populous country with 1.4 billion citizens, ranked second by GDP (almost 15 trillion dollars in 2022) and third by military power. Due to its great area size, diverse terrain and a complex history, in China there are several diverse ethnic groups, and while most of them have lots of common traits, there are a few distinctive groups residing within China’s borders.
Such an ethnic group are the Uyghurs, who live in the north-western side of the country, in the Xinjiang Region (also called Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region – XUAR), an area which used to host the famous Silk Road. The Uyghurs and the other ethnic groups in the region (such as the Kyrgyz and Kazakhs) are Muslim, Xinjiang being the only Chinese region where Islam is the main religion. The region, while being the largest in the country, is sparsely populated, with approximately 26 million inhabitants, representing only 1.85% of the PRC’s total population. Also, by population density, the Xinjiang region is among the lowest ranked. With everything stated above, the Xinjiang region doesn’t seem like a great point of interest, but it is of extreme geostrategic relevance, being the gateway towards Central Asia. Moreover, the Uyghur land has plentiful coal, gas, and other natural resources.
A BRIght future, but not for all
In 2013, the PRC’s Government, led by Secretary General Xi Jinping, launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a development plan aimed towards creating a broader network for foreign trade and investment, similar to the old Silk Road. The Party leader, Xi Jinping, described the strategy formally as a way to promote international cooperation, from which all of the partners would benefit. The Xinjiang region, being the way to the West, is a critical point for the BRI, as the majority of the land routes are set to pass though that province. Part of the rationale for the BRI itself is to give impetus to the development of China’s inner and Western regions, which are significantly impoverished compared to the prosperous coastal regions that benefited the most from China’s meteoric rise.
Historically, the Xinjiang region has always been a point of political vulnerability given its inhabitants’ preference for self-governing. In the second half of the 19th century, and until Mao Zedong became the leader of the PRC in 1949, the region was largely autonomous. After Mao took power, millions of Han Chinese were sent to the region to make it more ethnically heterogeneous, and to bring it in line demographically with the rest of China. This tendency has continued up to the present day, and over the years authorities began implementing out more and more restrictive policies for this region. However, the people’s patience ended in 2009, when riots took place in Urumqi, the capital of the said territory, which led to thousands of arrests and hundreds of disappearances.
A Cultural Revolution 2.0
With the BRI’s coming to fruition being one of the main ambitions of the Xi Administration, the restlessness in the region had to be lowered as much as possible. The PRC’s Government introduced a number of measures to that effect, such as mass surveillance, arrests, forced re-education, with allegations in the West of torture and forced labour. The re-education process, as the Government calls it, started in 2014 and has grown in size consistently. Given the secrecy of the Government, there are no clear statistics, but it is estimated that over one million Uyghurs have been placed into facilities similar to concentration camps, where supervision is maintained at all times by cameras and armed guards.
There is no sense of privacy in such camps – for instance, phones are checked often and the biometric data of the prisoners is stored in databases for later use. The Uyghur culture is being erased, mosques are being demolished, Uyghur children are taken away from their families and they are put up for adoption by Han Chinese citizens in order to create adults that conform strictly to the Han culture; women are being stopped from having more Uyghur children and the atrocities being carried out might be beyond human imagination.
While the West is claiming to be horrified by the PRC’s government, the official statements out of China regarding the re-education camps suggest that the Uyghurs are by no means oppressed in concentration camps, housed in revolting conditions, but are being trained in “vocational training centres”. In this way of perceiving the problem, their purpose should be learning, familiarizing themselves with the Chinese laws and language, acquiring certain skills that would be useful to the community and overall supporting ideas that should discourage what they call “the three evil” (terrorism, separatism and religious extremism) in fear of a repeat of the events of 2009 or worse.
So, while the Chinese government denies any sort of ruthless treatment applied to the Uyghurs, there is certain proof that the “vocational training centres” resemble the Soviet gulags much more than educational camps. The international view on the matter is generally unfavourable, while very few organisations take concrete measures against the way that the Chinese government deals with the Uyghur minority. Even if the United Nations, in an assessment regarding the Uyghur situation, exposed human rights violations, to this day not a single recommendation made by the West seems to have motivated the PRC government to put a stop to or even hinder the constant abuse and the ethnic cleansing committed in the Uyghur province. A brief conclusion may be that this kind of massacre has been more or less tolerated or ignored by the well-off yet dependent Western countries...
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Ethnic cleansing by the book: the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar
The Rohingya, known as the world’s most persecuted people, are a Muslim ethnic group who mostly live in Rakhine State, in Buddhist Myanmar (known as Burma before 1989), emigrating from the historic territory of Bengal (which included parts of present-day India and Bangladesh). Even if they have a common past with the Rakhine State, the Rohingya are not recognized by the government and have historically been denied citizenship, making them the world’s largest stateless population. The UN are considering their persecution from 2017 onward as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and the UNHCR are exposing the Myanmar government, accusing it of killing them, slaughtering children, raping women and burning entire villages and settlements to the ground, forcing them to take refuge in Bangladesh.
Nowhere at home
The government of Myanmar sees the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, in spite of them having lived there for hundreds of years, and has been subjecting them to persecution for decades. The climax of this discrimination-fuelled tension was reached in 1982, when the law of deprivation of citizenship for this ethnic group has been applied.
Yet, the Rohingya have an origin history dating from the 8th century (as some historians were able to trace them); the chronicles are placing their beginnings in the independent kingdom of Arakan (now known as Rakhine State). Arab merchants used to trade with this region between the 9th and 14th century, many of them settling, inter-marring and bringing Islam to the area.
In 1784, the independent kingdom was conquered and occupied by the Burmese king Bodawpay, forcing hundreds of thousands of refugees to settle into Bengal. That’s when the British diplomat Hiram Cox, representing the British Crown, was sent by the East India Company to take care of the problem. Nowadays, the town where most of the Rohingya refugees fled is called after him – Cox’s Bazaar – and his purpose there was to maximize tax collection by creating markets to facilitate trade with the help of the people settled there and using the areas of fertile land.
In 1824, after a series of wars, the British started to colonise Burma, running it as a province of British India, encouraging migration into Arakan, improving the local rice cultivation and infrastructure. The British saw this movement as a matter of internal affairs, but the Burmese considered it illegal. With the Second World War raging on, Japan invaded Burma in 1942 and another conflict broke out as they supported Burmese Nationalists against their enemies, the Rohingya Muslims who had the British support behind them, who had promised to bring about the autonomy of Arakan by declaring it a “Muslim National Area”.
The withdrawal of British troops and Japan’s advance didn’t help the cause of the Rohingya, rendering them human targets as they were perceived as having unfairly benefited from the British rule. After the end of the war, in 1948, Burma won its independence and the Rohingya started to become more and more persecuted, with many restrictions imposed upon them; they were forbidden to resettle in villages and had their land and properties confiscated. They were also removed from government posts and replaced with Rakhine Buddhists. Tired of this marginalization, in 1950, some Rohingya took up arms and started a rebellion, which was easily crushed by the government.
When Burma became a military dictatorship, in 1962, all the Rohingya’s social and political organizations were dissolved and in 1977 Operation Nagamin (Operation Dragon King), intended to root out “foreigners”, took an even harsher toll on the persecuted ethnic group and their migration in the years to come. Even if the military faction dissolved in 2011 and Myanmar became a democratic state, things didn’t improve for the Rohingya people, as in 2012 and 2016 tens of thousands had to escape violent movements, culminating with a record 742,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh in 2017. At least 40% of their settlements and villages were demolished and replaced with governmental facilities (as per investigations by The Australian Strategic Policy Institute and BBC).
The UN considers that “there is a serious risk that genocidal actions may occur or recur” and they ordered Myanmar to protect the Rohingya, even though the army claims that they are targeting Rohingya militants and not civilians, and the country’s leader, Aung Saan Su Kyi has obscenely denied any act of genocide and has masked these atrocities as inter-communal violence.
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The heated Pacific Rim and the justice of (the) Solomon (Islands)
In a recent interview, art critic and philosopher Boris Groys stated: “Compare the internet with the street. If you go on the street, you see mostly the things you don’t like to see. On the internet, you see only things that you like to see. Art should be like the street and not like the internet. Art should show you things that you don’t like to see, don’t want to see, or are not interested in seeing”. In his previous works he often compares art to the politics of totalitarian states, describing figures such as Stalin and Mao as “totalitarian artists”. When it comes to their foreign policy, the Communist Party of China, the largest in the world, represented by a more powerful than ever Xi Jinping, steps exactly in the footsteps of its predecessors, seemingly learning from their mistakes and expanding their diplomacy further than Stalin and Mao ever thought was possible.
The art of geopolitical ugliness
Xi Jinping, helped in many ways by Wang Huning (the country’s top political theorist and ideologist), is seemingly part of a long tradition of so-called “geopolitical artists” from Niccolo Machiavelli to Carl von Clausewitz, Alexander Kojeve (the biggest inspiration of Boris Groys) and, most recently, Henry Kissinger, all of which are studied in-depth by the future political elites of China shaped through years of study and lecture on the world of politics and statecraft. But how exactly is Chinese foreign policy that of a geopolitical artist? The answer lies in the initial quote of the text, where Boris Groys argues that art is not what one wants to see, likes to see or is interested in seeing, but the exact opposite of that.
And the world at the moment is interested in seeing what is happening for example in Ukraine, and keeps track of recent developments between China and Taiwan. Arguably the country least interested in these conflicts is China. The People’s Republic of China, almost unbothered by other world events, has thus far continued their Belt and Road Initiative, their trade with the United States, even if recently sanctioned by the “world’s policeman” and they have developed better relations with the Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia. Their geopolitical art is rather boring compared to other world events, but at the end of the day it is the most potent and with the most lasting effects for the entirety of the globe.
The People’s Republic of China started looking where nobody else would: the Solomon Islands. This archipelago has been deemed a part of “Australia’s backyard” after obtaining independence from the British Empire and becoming a constitutional monarchy in 1978. The country has been marked by tragedies of ethnic nature since, especially between 1998 and 2003. A more notable event occurred in 2006, when allegations that the prime minister at the time, Snyder Rini, received bribes from Chinese businessmen in the country. This event soon turned to violent riots against the Chinese ethnic minority leaving much of Chinatown destroyed in its aftermath. At the time China sent a few airplanes to get out the Chinese population that was being targeted.
In 2019, Manasseh Sogavare returned to office for his fourth turn as prime minister and decided to switch recognition of China from the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China. Solomon Islands had previously been one of the few countries in the world that recognized the RoC. Protests and riots in the capital were quickly organized and supported by NGOs in the country. They also had the backing of Australia, the United States and Taiwan. Malaita Province was against the recognition of Beijing and pursued even an independence referendum, which was dismissed as illegal by the national government. The United States sent aid worth $25 million to the province in 2020.
In November 2021 more riots broke out both in the capital and in Honiara, where Chinatown was looted, as well as in the Malaita Province. The goal of the riots was the resignation of the prime minister and cutting the ties with China. Sogavare accused the rioters of being politically motivated by Australia and the United States and refused to step down. Under the Australia-Solomon Islands Bilateral Security Treaty, the Australian Federal Police and Australian Defence Force were forced to intervene and maintain peace among the unrest. The peacekeeping operation was also helped by Papua New Guinea and Fiji. Australian troops remain to this day on the islands.
In 2022, tensions swept the islands yet again as a new pact between China and the Solomon Islands was signed. The goal of the proposed agreement between China and the Solomon Islands is to increase the latter’s capacity for national security. Among other things, it involves collaboration on humanitarian aid, disaster relief, and measures to uphold social order. According to a condition in the agreement, China is allowed to send Chinese military to the Solomon Islands in order to “guard the safety of Chinese employees and significant projects”, as well as conduct naval visits and carry out logistical replenishment there. As a result, there are growing worries in the United States and its allies in the area that China would send soldiers to the Solomon Islands and set up a long-term military post there, fewer than 2,000 kilometres from Australia. The most important aspect of this pact for the Solomon Islands was at least $730 million promised in financial aid.
This once again triggered riots which left people of Chinese ethnicity dead and created the opportunity for China to send anti-riot equipment as well as trainers to the government forces. After the riots eventually calmed down, Australia initiated talks with the UK and the US concerning a possible military intervention if China develops a military base in the Solomon Islands. This would be the second Chinese military base outside of China (there is another one in Djibouti) and would be seen as a provocation against Australia.
Choosing between two… evils
But what differentiates China from Australia in the eyes of the Solomon Islands government? Why would they rather deal more with China? The answer lies in the geopolitical artistry China practices outside its borders. They offer infrastructure at better prices than anyone else, with better loan terms than The World Bank or the IMF. A country like the Solomon Islands doesn’t need security deals as much as it needs trade deals and infrastructure development. Until today Australia has only been able to provide the former, as well as threats of sanctions and interventions if China continues to make deals with them. China has offered the promises of the latter, and in classic Chinese tradition, they avoid getting involved in other countries’ corruption, human rights issues, or other internal problems.
China has already started building their first hospital in the Solomon Islands in a move made to calm the anti-China crowds. In the span of three years, China has managed to convince a geopolitical ally of Australian and Taiwan to trade more with them by offering them better deals than they previously had. While the entire internet was talking about Ukraine-Russia and China-Taiwan, the Chinese made their geopolitical art look like the street – or rather, like the sea – a place seemingly uninteresting but which changes the balance of power in the Pacific Ocean.