Europe/Americas update: January 31 2018



Tatarstan (red) in a map of Russia (Wikimedia | Stasyan117)

Russian journalist Kamil Galeev reports on Moscow’s efforts to stifle separatist impulses in one of its own troublesome ethnic regions–Tatarstan:

In September 2017, Russia’s central government started to enforce Putin’s instructions and push local governments into abolishing local language courses in the ethnic republics. Such measures, introduced at the beginning of an academic year, led to protests and demonstrations in Komi (a Finnish-speaking region in Northern European Russia) and in Bashkortostan.


While most local governments did not put up much of a fight, Tatarstan’s leaders pushed back hard against the new policy. This Muslim-majority republic is the closest Russian analog to Catalonia, a region with a strong local identity, tradition of resistance to central authorities and, most importantly, wealth – Tatarstan is a net donor to Russia’s budget.


Kazan, Tatarstan’s capital, has a long history of confrontation with the federal center. When the central government was weak in the 1990s, it mostly won its battles with Moscow. In 1992, only two of the 21 Russian republics (Tatarstan and Chechnya) refused to sign the federation treaty, the constitutional document that regulated the relationship between regional governments and Moscow, and which Moscow badly needed at that time. Tatarstan’s government organized a referendum on sovereignty in which 61.4 percent of voters agreed that Tatarstan was a “sovereign state.” However, instead of declaring independence like Chechnya did (which would have certainly led to war), the local government used these results to bargain for another, more favorable treaty with Moscow. This deal, signed in 1994, gave Tatarstan significant autonomy and tax benefits.


However, since Putin came to power in 2000, the trend has reversed and the region’s independence has been slowly slipping away. In 2002, the Constitutional Court of Russia declared that the “sovereignty” of the region contradicts the Russian constitution, so local legislators had to remove this word from Tatarstan’s constitution.


Negotiations between Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the Social Democrats seem to be going well. The two parties have reportedly agreed in principle on immigration reform on Tuesday, and on Wednesday they found common ground on climate issues as well as pension reform. In each case it seems the common ground is closer to the conservative position, which could make for trouble when SPD members are eventually asked to approve the formation of a governing coalition on these bases.


Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis says that his government will not reach a comprehensive treaty arrangement with the European Union in the first part of 2018 as European Commission boss Jean-Claude Juncker has demanded. The EU wants Switzerland to replace its piecemeal agreements with Brussels with an overarching deal that would obligate the Swiss government to follow EU law in exchange for increase access to the common market. But politics may not allow for such an arrangement–Swiss conservatives are particularly uneasy about requirements for the European Court of Justice to settle Swiss-EU disputes, and may be waiting to see what kind of deal Britain can get on this front before they agree to anything.


The University of Bristol’s John Foot looks at Silvio Berlusconi’s return to the center of Italian politics–and his apparent transformation from right-wing populist to sober centrist:

The political career of Silvio Berlusconi has always been marked by the surreal, but perhaps never more so than now. With Italy’s national elections looming on March 4, the 81-year-old former prime minister — the man who more or less invented modern populism in the West — is now presenting himself as the consummate moderate.


He’s not just been anti-populist, but also loudly pro-European; not just a socially conscious liberal, but also a lamb-hugging animal lover. And far from being finished — a status conferred on him many times before — he is now seen as the favorite for victory in Italy’s coming election.


Gibraltar’s chief minister, Fabian Picado, told The Independent earlier this week that Gibraltar’s constitution gives it the right to veto elements of the UK’s Brexit deal that it deems unfavorable:

Section 47(3) of the constitution gives its leadership autonomy in a range of policy areas, including those relating to business and social care, which could see it set different tariffs and regulations for its important financial services sector, for example.


He said: “It is clear that we do have a Brexit veto for Gibraltar, in Gibraltar.


“We will be able to determine whether aspects of what is agreed will be implemented in Gibraltar or not.


“The application to Gibraltar will be determined by the Gibraltarian cabinet and parliament.”

It seems unlikely that London is going to see things Picardo’s way. He also wants a second Brexit referendum after the terms of the deal with Brussels are worked out, but that’s most likely a long shot.



If front-runner Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is barred from running in Brazil’s presidential election later this year, polling shows that the race would likely be thrown into chaos. Lula has 34 percent support, while no other candidate has more than 16 percent. If he’s not allowed to run, roughly a third of Brazilian voters say that they would refuse to vote for anyone. The second-place candidate, congressman Jair Bolsonaro, would likely win the first round of a Lula-free election, but he wouldn’t win outright and he loses in most runoff scenarios.


United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has tasked the International Court of Justice with settling a more than 100 year-old border dispute between Venezuela and Guyana. Venezuela claims a region called Essequibo, which as you can see from this handy map:


covers most of modern Guyana. Guyana insists that the current border between the two countries was established by arbitration in 1899, but the Venezuelan government has never accepted that ruling. The dispute didn’t really amount to much until 2015, when–what else–oil was discovered in a deposit offshore from the Essequibo region. Now the urgency of Venezuela’s claim has ratcheted up considerably.


Polling suggests that next month’s Costa Rican presidential election will be won by right-wing candidate Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz. No candidate is expected to get enough votes in the first round to avoid a runoff in April, but Alvarado leads in all conceivable runoff scenarios. Alvarado’s appeal centers mostly on his opposition to LGBT rights, so he seems like a real nice guy.


Finally, while the Trump administration doesn’t like to talk about it, the Pentagon still recognizes that climate change poses a serious problem for its operations:

Nearly half of US military sites are threatened by wild weather linked to climate change, according to a new Pentagon study whose findings run contrary to White House views on global warming.


Drought, wind and flooding that occurs due to reasons other than storms topped the list of natural disasters that endanger 1,700 military sites worldwide, from large bases to outposts, said the US Department of Defense (DoD).


“Changes in climate can potentially shape the environment in which we operate and the missions we are required to do,” said the DoD in a report accompanying the survey.


“If extreme weather makes our critical facilities unusable or necessitates costly or manpower-intensive workarounds, that is an unacceptable impact.”

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