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.

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Inside the world’s smallest, and most baffling, republic

donetsk people's republic

 

With today’s inauguration of Ukraine’s new president (the country’s Willy Wonka, Petro Poroshenko), the new government will be faced with a greatly daunting task: restore the sovereignty of Crimea, reform the nation’s ill-fated bureaucracy and economic stagnation, and most urgently, resolve the ongoing, worsening conflicts in East Ukraine which have escalated into an all-out war.

And here is this, one of the headaches Poroshenko surely will face: a movement of pro-Russian fighters now occupying an 11-story government office building, proclaiming People’s Republic of Donetsk,, one you unofficially can acknowledge as the world’s smallest republic, and also a highly absurd and farcical one.

The New Republic has dispatched its reporters to cover on this new micronation. Read the full article here.

 

Excerpt:

 

On the tenth floor, we were greeted by a gang of hoodlums in track pants and beat up pointy leather shoes. One of them lazily pounded a black truncheon into black biker gloves. Another had one propped behind his neck. One young man in a blue t-shirt with ears like an Indian elephant had a Kalashnikov slung across his stomach.

“We need our accreditation stamped,” Max said.

We were told to wait for Yulia and sat around chatting to the hoodlums, who found a Russian and American a curious sight.

“Did you hear that Obama ran away?” said a man with a buzzcut, a blue tooth, and the eyes of a man who knows his way around the city’s alleys. 

“What?” I said. 

“Yes, yes,” he said. “He fled the White House and took a helicopter to his ranch in Texas.” 

“What?”

“You haven’t heard?”

“No?”

“And you call yourself a journalist,” he smirked. “You don’t even know anything.”

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.

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

A Jewel in Two Crowns

yalta

 

Photograph by Gerd Ludwig. Source: National Geographic

 

It is in Ukraine. It is, in geographical terms, not so far, but also not so distant, from Russia. It is ruled by an autonomous government supervised by Kiev’s authorities. But when it comes to bulk of its people, there is hardly any feeling about being Ukrainian though. They mostly talk in Russian, that’s fine; most of the populace in Ukraine is bilingual, back then, thanks to its centuries-long historical ties with the former, in particular during Soviet’s rule, lasting seven decades. Nevertheless, deep down their hearts, many of these residents feel more proud to be Russians, display Russian culture with more ostentatiously than with Ukrainian one, and almost everything they do in daily lives is much or less similar to their Russian counterparts.

This is Crimea, Ukraine’s uneasy peninsula.

2014 has been an entirely challenging year for Ukraine, notwithstanding its current, interim government in Kiev. A months-long political protest in Kiev that saw nearly a hundred civilians killed. Internal split between those who support Brussels and the others who favor Moscow much better (part of that reason may be attributed to Putin’s high willingness to provide financial rescue package worth 15 billion US$ to Kiev). A shaky, provisional regime now being tested with the interference of a few thousand Russian troops in Crimean peninsula, excluding numberless scores of pro-Russian militiamen now occupying most government offices in the territory. Exacerbate that matter with today’s Crimean parliamentary referendum, most of which favors ‘unification with Russia‘.

With another referendum for majority of the 2-million-strong population in Crimea scheduled in no more than 10 days, the future of this peninsula remains in deep limbo. Will it continue to be part of Ukraine? Or will it embrace back the hugs of Moscow?

 

This article, released in National Geographic Magazine‘s April 2011 edition, attempted to explore deeper what exactly happens in Crimea, the crown that, implicitly stated, dubiously ‘belongs’ to both Ukraine (in nationality) and Russia (in identity). Click the link to find out more.

 

Excerpt:

 

The Crimean Peninsula is a diamond suspended from the south coast of Ukraine by the thin chain of the Perekop Isthmus, embraced by the Black Sea, on the same latitude as the south of France. Warm, lovely, lush, with a voluptuously curved coast of sparkling cliffs, it was a jewel of the Russian Empire, the retreat of Romanov tsars, and the playground of Politburo fat cats. Officially known as the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, it has its own parliament and capital, Simferopol, but takes its orders from Kiev.

Physically, politically, Crimea is Ukraine; mentally and emotionally, it identifies with Russia and provides, a journalist wrote, “a unique opportunity for Ukrainians to feel like strangers on their own territory.” Crimea speaks to the persistence of memory—how the past lingers and subverts.

In 1954 Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, signed Crimea over to Ukraine as a gesture of goodwill. Galina was 14 at the time.

“Illegal,” she said, when asked about the hand­over. “There was no referendum. No announcement. It just happened.”

What was Khrushchev thinking?

“He wasn’t,” she snapped. “Khrushchev had roaches in his head.”

Crimea was a lovely present, but the box was empty. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union anyway. “My parents discussed the transfer, but we weren’t concerned,” Galina said. Moscow was still in charge. No one could have ever imagined the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, when Crimea would be pulled out of the orbit of Russian rule along with an independent Ukraine.

The Ukrainian tumult

Russian parliament approves use of force in Crimea

 

 

[Putin’s] going to lose on the international stage, Russia is going to lose, the Russian people are going to lose, and he’s going to lose all of the glow that came out of the Olympics, his $60 billion extravaganza. – US Secretary of State, John Kerry, during an interview in NBC’s “Meet The Press”, in response to Putin-led Russia’s decision to dispatch several thousand troops to the tumultuous Crimea, a pro-Russian autonomous region in Ukraine, now already shaken by internal split between those who support integration with European Union, and those who advocate closer relationship with Moscow.

Read a complete summary of the 2014 Crimean crisis on The Guardian.

 

 

Bonus: here is another longform article, titled ‘Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine‘, about the country’s ongoing political deadlock on The New York Review of Books. Here is the excerpt as follows:

 

The protesters represent every group of Ukrainian citizens: Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers (although most Ukrainians are bilingual), people from the cities and the countryside, people from all regions of the country, members of all political parties, the young and the old, Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Every major Christian denomination is represented by believers and most of them by clergy. The Crimean Tatars march in impressive numbers, and Jewish leaders have made a point of supporting the movement. The diversity of the Maidan is impressive: the group that monitors hospitals so that the regime cannot kidnap the wounded is run by young feminists. An important hotline that protesters call when they need help is staffed by LGBT activists.

On January 16, the Ukrainian government, headed by President Yanukovych, tried to put an end to Ukrainian civil society. A series of laws passed hastily and without following normal procedure did away with freedom of speech and assembly, and removed the few remaining checks on executive authority. This was intended to turn Ukraine into a dictatorship and to make all participants in the Maidan, by then probably numbering in the low millions, into criminals. The result was that the protests, until then entirely peaceful, became violent. Yanukovych lost support, even in his political base in the southeast, near the Russian border.