2014: year in review (by countries, part 3)

2014

 

This is the last article from the series reviewing events that have taken place across different countries this year. Now the last day in 2014, my only expectation towards 2015 is a better year ahead, albeit some difficulties, and some challenges, accumulated from past mistakes, will continue to befall us.

As I forgot to include Hong Kong and Mexico in the first two parts, I’ll just put them here.

 

Hong Kong – if this semi-autonomous region of 7.2 million people used to be known rather for dim sum, skyscrapers, action films, and Jackie Chan, now Hong Kong filled international headlines in 2014 with ‘protests’ being the most popular keyword. Triggered largely in part due to the latest decision by China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee in having to screen out candidates in the upcoming 2017 Chief Executive election, which would be the first direct election in Hong Kong, this marked what had been more than two decades of impatience Hong Kong public has been faced in gaining universal suffrage. While the city has achieved monumental economic success since 1970s, the most crucial issues that have never been addressed are the worsening social inequality (Hong Kong is ranked the worst among developed regions’ Gini index, now reaching a staggering level of almost 0.56), astronomical home prices which most people can hardly afford, increasing living costs with low social safety nets, as well as erosion of freedom of expression, by which Hong Kong’s rank, according to Freedom House, has fallen drastically from among the top 15 in 2004 to now 61 a decade after.

But Hong Kong also inspired the world what ‘civil disobedience’ truly meant. Despite several scuffles (mostly infiltrated by certain elements), no buildings were damaged (except the Legislative Councils headquarters’ front window), no cars were burned, and life goes on fairly normal on most parts of the city. People helped each other, students continued to do their homework and studied at night, some set up medical clinics, and others even assisted in trash collection and recycling activities. There is hardly any place doing a civilized protest as Hong Kong has shown.

Mexico – this country of 115 million has long been faced with a massive drug war, having seen more than 100,000 people killed by both security forces and similarly heavily-armed drug cartels, but the forced disappearances of 43 university students, and their subsequent killings, marks the climax of this war, with millions of civilians coming out to the streets to protest both the government and drug lords, who have remained somewhat hypocritical and vicious in this matter. The murder started with student protests in Iguala, by which local police responded with mass suppression, and the subsequent kidnapping of 43 students. Nonetheless, having handed them down to drug lords instead to prosecutor’s office, and having these people brutally murdered, mutilated, and their body remains completely burned, this became what triggered the people to really show their anger. Such tragedy deals another further blow to the country’s current president, Enrique Pena Nieto, who has long been criticized for being hypocritical and not doing enough to solve many of Mexico’s crucial issues.

Pakistan – three gargantuan events have shaken this country throughout the year. Firstly, there’s this mass protest known as Azadi March, by which millions of people again went to the streets to demand an end to the country’s first democratically-elected government, led by Nawaz Sharif. Nonetheless, there remained suspicions that these protests were actually organized by certain elements with close ties to intelligence and military forces, notoriously known to have been partially infiltrated by several Taliban movements. The military itself had previously been in charge of the country’s leadership for decades, the climax of which was the ascendancy of Pervez Musharraf into the power, ending in 2008 after mass protests led by civilians. This march, for the first time, becomes a major test to Sharif’s government to which extent he could balance fragile relations between the authority, critically needing the support of security forces, and the military themselves.

Another one was Nobel Peace Prize jointly awarded to both Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi, both hailing from cognate countries long involved in decades-old conflicts over numerous issues: Pakistan and India. Both of them were actively involved in advocacy towards children’s rights and education, and had faced formidable obstacles in their respective home countries. No matter how often the two nations clash, it was hoped the shared visions of Malala and Kailash could inspire both people to appreciate each other much better.

But the last one remains what becomes the most tragic closing event for the country’s 2014. Taliban, known for always targeting military forces and intelligence services, this time targeted a school attended by innocent kids. More than 150 people, mostly students, were brutally murdered by the ambush led by Taliban forces in Peshawar, leading to huge civilian protests, and a harsh crackdown by Pakistani government into the militants. While it is deplorable to see how US drones continuously invade civilian places – further encouraging Taliban to conduct more attacks, robbing the lives of innocent kids, dreaming hard of a better future, is another useless eye for an eye.

Qatar – other than Al Jazeera as its global media outlet, the country has faced another international scrutiny in regard to alleged abuse of migrant workers in this oil-and-gas-rich tiny Gulf state. With population of migrant workers 1.7 million strong, or 75% of its whole population, how the country handles these people remains a question, especially as Qatar has been selected for 2022 World Cup, with a fantastically planned expenditure of 220 billion US$. It is estimated that among 1.7 million foreign workers residing in this country, majority of them do not have enough social protection from the respective government. What those people will experience in the years to come until 2022 remains a huge stake for Qatar’s credibility, nonetheless.

Russia – first, the world was surprised by how ‘unusual’ Winter Olympics had been, as shown by how the 50-billion-dollar project in Sochi turned into a completely gargantuan white elephant. Many stadiums ended up in decrepitude, hotels were largely unfurnished, and the city turned up pretty merely throughout the Olympics’ season, only to subsequently end up neglected much of the time afterwards.

After Sochi, Kremlin once again shook the world with its subsequent annexation of Crimea Peninsula in Ukraine, a Russian-dominant territory Soviet Union once awarded to the latter back in 1950s. As though not done with Crimea, Moscow continued to silently support pro-Russian separatists in East Ukraine, particularly in Donetsk, once one of the country’s most important industrial cities, now turning into a war zone. More than 4,000 people had been killed in the conflict lasting more than 9 months, and it is not expected the conflict will end anytime soon.

Sanctions and a drastic drop in oil prices themselves, again, give this country a hard slap. Ruble values have sharply declined by more than 70%, the worst performing this year, excluding the estimated capital flight at more than 130 billion US$ this year. Foreign exchange reserves, meanwhile, have evaporated almost 50%, leaving the country with less than 200 billion US$ to anticipate the crisis. Worst, Russia’s oil revenues will drop between 90 and 140 billion US$ this year, making 2014 the worst year for this country of 142 million after 1998.

Next year, former Soviet states like Estonia and Kazakhstan will have to be very careful of their giant neighbor.

South Korea – the sinking of MV Sewol became an international spotlight. Over 300 high school students out of 460 people on board a passenger ship heading to Jeju Island were killed as the ship perished at sea, and the reason was what gave the public enough outrage to be expressed at the national government, currently led by President Park Geun-hye: the ship itself has exceeded its sailing age, and there is certain extent of negligence by ship crew when the accident happened. This accident prompted a suicide case by the students’ vice principal, resignation by prime minister, and the subsequent disbandment of the country’s transport safety commission. Also, what was highlighted here is the continued issue of corruption, as well as collusion of power between government and major corporations controlling a large share of the country’s economy.

Another controversial issue is the widespread violence experienced by many servicemen during military service, as recently illustrated by the mass shooting in a military base by one of them.

Sudan / South Sudan – the world’s newest sovereign state faces a devastating civil conflict that had killed thousands of people since last year, driven largely in part by former vice president Riek Machar’s rebellion attempt against the government currently led by Salva Kiir. Millions of people were internally displaced, and governmental functions were mostly paralyzed. Nonetheless, despite infrequent coverage of these two countries, they remain widely discussed within international relations discourse given the influence of the soon-to-be superpower: China. Having staked out many oil and gas possessions in both countries, it is highly important for Beijing to create an uneasy counterpoise and political compromise between them, while also ensuring internal security in South Sudan to not interfere with their extraction activities. This country, in many geopolitical estimates, will become a ‘knot’ in determining of how Chinese foreign policy will transform in the years to come.

Syria – the country’s civil war, which has killed over 200,000 people within 3 years, doesn’t show any signs of abating. The nation remains largely divided, with Bashar al-Assad’s government still having a stronghold in the largely Southern part, while much of the North has fallen to both various rebel groups (often clashing against each other and against the government) and ISIS. Thousands of civilians, former government troops, and various tribal fighters have fallen victim to the savagery displayed by the Islamic State, and with the reluctance of both Assad’s government and rebelling coalitions to dialogue, despite an attempted peace talk brokered by Russia, it is expected that the country’s civil war will not subside anytime soon, even in two or three years to come.

Taiwan – 2014 was particularly not a really good year for this island country. In March, most of the central government was paralyzed by the largest mass protest ever organized since the 1990 democratization, with hundred thousands of students occupying Legislative Yuan’s headquarters in Taipei for nearly one month. This protest was largely triggered by China-Taiwan trade agreements, which many feared would give Beijing a stronger economic leverage towards the country’s survival. With bilateral trade between both countries surpassing 170 billion US$, or 30% of Taiwan’s overall annual volume, and Taiwan’s largest corporations benefiting the most, much of the public is concerned how this free trade policy will determine the country’s long-term existence.

Two more disasters befell Taiwan, with a plane crash in Penghu Islands, and a massive gas pipe explosion in Kaohsiung, devastating several parts and many buildings across the city. Ma Ying-jeou’s administration faced another major blow with the ruling party Kuomintang’s massive defeat in this year’s municipal elections, driven largely in part by public’s increasing dissatisfaction towards the government.

By 2016, with a presidential election already scheduled, this is going to determine the future direction Taiwan will go towards.

Thailand – for the umpteenth time (after nearly 20 times of coup d’etat since early 1930s), Thailand effectively becomes a military junta again, a consequence of lengthy political fights between kingdom-supported military, urban middle-class, and farmers plus rural villagers, who mostly support Thaksin Shinawatra and his associates. To make a long story short, the military junta will not end anytime soon, unless steps have been taken to reconcile both the royalists and the villagers (which so far hasn’t seen any concrete results).

Turkey – When Russia has Putin, Turkey has Erdogan. The mass protests originating from Istanbul’s Taksim Square, which later spread into the entire country last year, failed to overthrow Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government; instead, it gave him further legitimacy to alter the current state of Turkey. Beforehand a three-term prime minister, previously hailed for his successful economic transformation of this country of 70 million, Erdogan has been increasingly faced with scandals involving his inner circles, and his increasingly conservative, and oftentimes iconoclastic, views about Islam and the world. This year, Erdogan is sworn in as the country’s president, eliminating the position of ‘prime minister’. Now being head of state and head of government, with numerous cash-draining, oftentimes ‘white elephant’ projects across the country (including a brand-new one-billion-dollar presidential palace in Ankara), the leader is getting more unpopular across much of the country’s youth.

Ukraine – situated in between European Union and Russia, Ukraine remains in difficult position. Much of the nation was fractured with mass protests taking place from November 2013, which ended with a street battle in February this year. While much of the country demand a complete integration with EU, many important elements within the country also want closer ties with Russia, enticed by Soviet-era stability. The protests, later known as Euromaidan, ended up with a bloodshed killing more than 100 people, and the subsequent escape of Viktor Yanukovich, the country’s deposed pro-Russia president.

Nonetheless, the protests ended up exacerbating the current situation in Ukraine, with many of the pro-Russian civilians taking up weapons and declaring their own republics across much of the Eastern part. The country itself was also faced with another threat on its Western part: Moldova, its neighboring state, served as a Moscow-supported bulwark against Kiev. Crimea and Donetsk has been taken, much of the country remains under war, and worse still, an airliner was bombed.

The current government led by Petro Poroshenko (known as the Ukraine’s Chocolate King) has also been faced with internal infighting within the parliament, giving this conflict an uncertainty when it will end.

United Kingdom –  It’s good that Scotland didn’t split up from the country; otherwise UK would have to rename itself, change its flag, and worse, other constituent countries like Wales and Northern Ireland will possibly follow the same way had Scotland chosen to declare independence.

United States – the world’s largest superpower faces its own largest racial tensions since 1960s, with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, prompting large-scale protests nationwide, and subsequent acts of rioting and looting in several towns across the States. A few other African-Americans were also shot down by police, but this also fuels debates whether the police are getting increasingly militarized, or the Blacks are really trying to attack them.

The Republicans’ success in taking control of US Senate gives another blow for Obama’s administration, especially after the last year’s government shutdown in regard to endless debates about Obamacare and other proposed policies that didn’t get passed. With two years left for President Obama, there won’t be much left for him to accomplish given the latter’s strong control of the Senate.

Nonetheless, there’s good news aside: economic recovery has shown its outcome, now at a level of 4%, the highest since Clinton’s era. With Europe still at its teeters, China facing a gradual slowdown, and Japan entering recession, US is now driving the world’s economic growth again for the first time (albeit not so in long term, as long as economic reforms are not activated).

Venezuela – with Hugo Chavez passing away, people once put another populist hope on his former vice president, Nicolas Maduro. It turned out to be wrong: economy remains at a dismal level, and with oil prices further dropping, revenues are increasingly small. Despite Venezuela’s status as currently the world’s largest holder of oil reserves, much of the population remains chronically poor, crime rate remains among the world’s highest (nearly similar to that of war-ravaged nations), and state-organized violence remains dominant in suppressing freedom of expression. Worse, with Maduro’s limited capability in handling the country’s issues, all these invoked massive anger from much of the populace. The country experienced mass protests when hundred thousands of people went to the streets, demanding his resignation.

More than 40 people were shot to death, including former pageants (pageants are the most popular figures in Venezuela, sometimes comparable to government leaders), and Maduro remains in power.

 

 

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Starting from next year, 2015, I will not frequently update this blog anymore, given that there are several things I have had commitment to do so, but this doesn’t spell an end to it (even though there were quite some moments I was considering to simply terminate this blog). It’s just that there are some adjustments I have to do with my schedule, so I hope you, readers, can understand that. I wish you all the best luck ahead, and I’ll see you in 2015.

The Dying Russians

russia depopulation

 

Russia is facing the longest depopulation crisis since World War II (when almost 30 million people in the then-Soviet Union perished in war efforts against NAZI Germany), with 7 million of them ‘disappearing’ in statistics since its beginning of post-Soviet rule in 1991. While Russia’s economy, for all its inherent problems, is relatively stable, its incomes significantly rising along with a thriving middle class, and its healthcare slightly better than some of its ex-Soviet counterparts, people keep dying for some mysterious reasons.

Masha Gessen attempts to find out the answer in New York Review of Books. Read her full explanation here.

 

Excerpt:

 

In the seventeen years between 1992 and 2009, the Russian population declined by almost seven million people, or nearly 5 percent—a rate of loss unheard of in Europe since World War II. Moreover, much of this appears to be caused by rising mortality. By the mid-1990s, the average St. Petersburg man lived for seven fewer years than he did at the end of the Communist period; in Moscow, the dip was even greater, with death coming nearly eight years sooner.

In 2006 and 2007, Michelle Parsons, an anthropologist who teaches at Emory University and had lived in Russia during the height of the population decline in the early 1990s, set out to explore what she calls “the cultural context of the Russian mortality crisis.” Her method was a series of long unstructured interviews with average Muscovites—what amounted to immersing herself in a months-long conversation about what made life, for so many, no longer worth living. The explanation that Parsons believes she has found is in the title of her new book, Dying Unneeded.

Parsons chose as her subjects people who were middle-aged in the early 1990s. Since she conducted her interviews in Moscow over a decade later, the study has an obvious structural handicap: her subjects are the survivors, not the victims, of the mortality crisis—they didn’t die—and their memories have been transformed by the intervening years of social and economic upheaval. Still, what emerges is a story that is surely representative of the experience of a fair number of Russians.

 

Interactive: Russia’s sprawling military bases

russia military bases

 

Despite the unforgiving collapse of Soviet Union and the negative impacts it brought towards Russia for nearly a decade, Moscow can still afford a strong military presence in its surrounding ex-Soviet states, as seen by its sprawling number of military bases, scattered mainly across Eastern Europe (Ukraine and Moldova), Central Asia, and Caucasus region (see Azerbaijan and Georgia’s ‘defiant’ territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia). The numbers are infinitesimal compared to those of United States, its on-and-off political and military rival, but the influence their existence exerts is still comparatively formidable for these surrounding countries, though.

Check the full interactive on Al Jazeera, and click on each of the dots to know more about these bases.

Why America’s decline is dangerous for global security

america's allies

 

As I’ve said before in previous posts, no superpowers are absolute sages. Either their good deeds – providing aid packages and investment worth billions of dollars – or bad deeds – overthrowing other countries’ regimes by force, everything is done under the context of ‘global interest’, actually referring back to the superpowers’ own sake. Nonetheless, when the ‘big brother’ grows frail, what will happen to its key allies, or at the least, those leaning towards them? Will the rise of another global hegemony ensure that their countries will maintain their ‘business-as-usual’ approach? In politics, the answer is uncertain.

In regard to America’s influence, we can see both the positive and negative sides it has spread across the globe. We see democracies flourishing, global trading increasingly interdependent, and globalization itself more intense, but at the same time, we still see Western-backed plutocrats in power, Western-waged geopolitical wars, and international rivalry with a few competing emerging regional powers, say Russia and China. None of these countries, despite being US allies, is completely reluctant to surrender all its rights to the Globocop as well. However, the most fretful question – in early 21st century context – is: when American influence increasingly declines, especially as seen from Obama’s increasingly timid, hyper-cautious, and anti-military stance in his approach towards global problem-solving, what will happen to those which are depending on its global might?

A lot of fretful things, indeed, have happened. Russia, led by Putin, has led the pivot by firstly annexing Crimea, the geopolitical point of contention between Ukraine and the latter. Baltic states, Poland, and other NATO members, are being scared of a possibility of Putin leading another ‘conquest’ towards their countries. Japan is afraid of China, especially when it comes to the ownership of a chain of uninhabitable rocks known as Senkaku (in Japanese) or Diaoyutai (in Mandarin). South Korea is apprehensive about its aggressive North, and any probability of China leading another military intervention should North Korea collapse (which is an imminent risk many experts concern). Taiwanese people are particularly afraid of such prospect, as Taiwanese economy is becoming increasingly dependent on China’s, leading to their greater fears about ‘future reunification’. Southeast Asian states, particularly Vietnam and Philippines (and most recently, Indonesia), are in deep uncertainties in regard to the ownership of South China Seas, which, by its entirety, is claimed by Beijing. India doesn’t want to provoke a nuclear war with China, but it also doesn’t want to let go some of its territories in Himalaya. Gulf states, and Saudi Arabia in particular, do not want to see a nuclear-powered Iran leading any future invasion (but which threats are being calmed down after Hassan Rowhani’s charismatic leadership).

 

Still, despite some animosity, support of American global influence remains a Hobson’s choice.

 

Read a complete analysis on The Economist.

Spotlight: Republic of Crimea

flag of crimea

 

 

Profile of a newly independent, sovereign state, and a new 2-million-strong nation, ‘born’ amid an international diplomatic crisis involving United States, European Union, Ukraine, and Russia. Read the complete article about Republic of Crimea on Wikipedia.

 

Excerpt:

 

Formerly annexed by the Russian Empire, Crimea was reoccupied by the Soviet Russia in 1921 and was granted the status of autonomous republic. After the World War II in 1945 the Soviet authorities deported the indigenous population of Crimean Tatars and the autonomous status of the region was stripped. In 1954, the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the Soviet Union transferred the region to Ukraine. Ukraine restored Crimea’s autonomous status in 1991 and allowed all Crimean Tatars to return. Crimea’s autonomous status was further reiterated in 1996 with the ratification of Ukraine’s current constitution, which declared Crimea to be the “Autonomous Republic of Crimea”, but also an “inseparable constituent part of Ukraine.”

On March 11, 2014, amid the 2014 Crimean crisis, the Crimean parliament and the Sevastopol City Council issued a letter of intent to unilaterally declare independence from Ukraine. The document specifically mentioned Kosovo as a precedent in the lead part.

The declaration was done in an attempt to legitimize a referendum on the status of Crimea where citizens were to vote on whether Crimea should apply to join Russia as a federal subject of the Russian Federation, or remain part of Ukraine.

Think again: the China-Russia split in Central Asia

russia pipe

 

 

A look back at the uneasy, love-hate story in China-Russia relations, in particular when it comes to geopolitical influence in Central Asia. While the former continues to maintain its Soviet-like stature through establishment of numerous multilateral initiatives which tie countries ranging as far from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, to Turkmenistan, the latter, altogether with its rising GDP, and insatiable hunger for more natural resources control, is also making use of its economic boom to entice these countries’ leaders with promising investment in mega-projects worth tens of billions of US dollars, one that Russia, given its stagnating economic growth, is lacking of. For this reason, Central Asia remains a point of contention in the bilateral relations, and also one of the illustrations of the ongoing rivalries taking place between two Eurasian great powers.

Read the complete analysis in Al Jazeera.

 

Excerpt:

 

Putin’s regional integration project will likely not prevent, but rather pave the way for Chinese comprehensive economic expansion. While Russia needs Central Asian states in the Customs Union for the purpose of maintaining its geopolitical presence, China pursues its economic benefits. Russia relies on its military might and traditional soft power in the region, whereas China applies its financial clout.

So while Beijing refrains from all out confrontation with Russia’s interests (as opposed to PRC’s hawkish approach to its neighbours in the East and South-East Asia), Chinese policymakers certainly take advantage of the Kremlin’s missteps and limited capabilities.

China takes note of the stagnating Russian economy  that is gradually losing positions in the region. Russia and Central Asia overall trade turnover reached $27.3bn in 2011, when China’s commerce with Central Asia topped $46bn in 2012. Single-handedly, Beijing has become a main trade partner to all former Soviet states of Central Asia, except for Uzbekistan, where it is the second. 

Infographic: Ukrainian invasion – the sum of all fears

russian invasion

 

 

Will Russia invade Ukraine over Crimea’s matter? That remains a critical concern in today’s international relations.

First thing Kremlin has to consider though: it is technically, cost-wise, impossible for Moscow to launch a huge military offensive on a country populated by more than 45 million people, but that doesn’t also mean improbable as well. Russia had gotten with similar conflict with Georgia in 2008, but the government would be considerate enough to assume that Ukraine is no Georgia.

Well, there’s something that may inhibit Putin’s plan, at the very least: as much as 60 billion US$ has evaporated from Russian stock indices in a single day. A goddamn single day. He must have had enough inner fear himself.

But one analyst, in a counter-argument, and with his similarly risky data analysis, dares himself to invest in Moscow’s stock market. Read the full article in Quartz. Perhaps it’s also the same consideration that comes along Putin’s mind. Think again.

 

Infographics’ source: Business Insider