World update: February 16 2018



This is sure to go over well:

Azerbaijan’s president has claimed that large parts of Armenia’s territory are Azerbaijan’s “historic lands,” vowing to return to them. The fraught assertion threatens to derail any progress, however slight, in peace talks between the two countries in recent months.


“Yerevan is our historical land and we Azerbaijanis must return to these historical lands,” President Ilham Aliyev said at a congress of his New Azerbaijan Party on February 9. The speech was in effect the opening of his campaign for a fourth presidential term; earlier in the week Aliyev had unexpectedly announced snap elections to be held in April.

Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry insists that Aliyev wasn’t suggesting any territorial claim on these places, but uh, does the Armenian government get a say in whether Azerbaijanis get to “return” to these places that are in Armenia? Seems like they might want one. Especially when claims that these are “Azerbaijani” lands have to reach all the way back before the Soviets to find a time when they were majority Azerbaijani–and especially especially when opening up that can of worms would give Armenians claim to a lot of land that now belongs to Azerbaijan.


The International Criminal Court started building a war crimes case for Afghanistan a few months ago. Since that process began, Afghan civilians have submitted 1.17 million war crimes complaints to the court for investigation. I know the Afghan War has been going on for a while now, but Jesus Christ. That astonishing number highlights not only how horrible the war has been, but how little justice the Afghan people are getting from their own government.


It’s taken almost as a given on the hawkish side of the DC foreign policy community that Iran and North Korea are in cahoots. North Korea helps Iran with its missile program. North Korea is helping Iran with its supposed nuclear weapons program. Iran sends observers to North Korea to talk with its nuclear scientists and observe its nuclear and missile tests. MIT’s Jim Walsh says there’s little actual evidence of this collaboration. On the missile front, it doesn’t appear Iran and North Korea have had much contact since the mid-00s, and on the nuclear front there’s no evidence of any collaboration at all:

On the nuclear front, there appears to have been no cooperation. Period. As the Congressional Research Service concluded in 2016, “no public evidence exists that Iran and North Korea have engaged in nuclear-related trade or cooperation with each other.” Indeed, neither the US intelligence community, nor the International Atomic Energy Agency, nor the UN Panel of Experts set up to support sanctions against North Korea has ever made such a claim. Likewise, virtually no journal article in the scholarly literature has suggested nuclear collaboration between Pyongyang and Tehran.



At least 18 and perhaps more than 40 people were killed earlier this week in northwestern Nigeria’s Zamfara province in a raid by cattle thieves.


A day after Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced his resignation, the Ethiopian government declared a national state of emergency. It offered no specifics about this decision, but the country just ended a state of emergency in August that had been in place due to anti-government demonstrations within the country’s Oromo and Amhara communities. Since those protests are ongoing, it’s no secret why the government reimposed the state of emergency. Ethiopia’s restrictive, virtually single party political system is showing signs of stress, and if it begins to crack that’s going to lead to some really fun times there in the short-term.


New President Cyril Ramaphosa is already talking about having to make “tough decisions” in order to bolster the South African economy. If you’re not up on the latest in political jargon, “tough decisions” in this context means austerity, which will do the opposite of bolstering the economy, and the “tough” part will mostly be felt by people who are not Cyril Ramaphosa and are not in his usual social circles.



The Mueller investigation announced indictments on Friday against 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies over meddling in the 2016 presidential election. At least one of the individuals seems to be fairly close to Vladimir Putin, though nothing in these indictments suggests Putin’s involvement, nor does anything suggest that these guys colluded with the Trump campaign. Still, it’s a sign that there’s something to this investigation.

Meanwhile, as the fallout from all those Russian mercenary casualties in Syria last week begins to creep back to Russia, we’re starting to see some complaints from the families of Russian contractors in Syria that they’re being “abandoned” by the Kremlin. Officially of course those guys are in Syria on their own and the Kremlin has no significant obligation to them. Unofficially those contractors were hired by the Russian government, so these complaints are not without merit.


The European Union has a message for Balkan countries trying to get into the club: try harder. Brussels wants them all to do more to fight corruption, rein in organized crime, and improve their democracies. I note this only because it has implications for the next three items on the list.


One of the things countries have to do before they can get into the EU is to settle any territorial beef. The EU is not in the business of importing conflict, so your slate has to be clean before you can be admitted. On Friday, the governments of Kosovo and Montenegro settled their long-standing border dispute, with Kosovo finally agreeing to accept a 2015 agreement that some politicians in Kosovo had said ceded Kosovar land to Montenegro. The two countries agreed to cooperate to solve future disputes. The border issue has been a sore spot in Kosovar politics for some time now, but even opposition leaders seem OK with Friday’s accord.


At the other end of the scale, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić on Friday made it clear that if Belgrade has to accept Kosovo’s independence as the price for EU admission, it will be staying out of the union. It’s clear that some settlement to the Kosovo-Serbia conflict is necessary before those countries can join the EU. The simplest, on paper, would be for Serbia to just recognize Kosovo. Any other settlement is necessarily going to be more complicated and loaded with potential ways it could fall apart.


Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik (Wikimedia)

Off the scale entirely, the New York Times has a profile of Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb leader who very much wants the Republika Srpska region he heads to become an independent state:

During his two terms as president of the Republika Srpska — and two more as prime minister — Mr. Dodik has ruffled more than a few feathers. Despite warnings from the international community, and in violation of a ruling from Bosnia’s highest court, he pressed for a referendum in 2016 on whether to celebrate Jan 9 as a national holiday, the day in 1992 Mr. Karadzic declared a Serb-only state in Bosnia, unleashing a genocidal war.


After the measure passed overwhelmingly, the United States imposed sanctions on Mr. Dodik for undermining the postwar order set up by the Dayton peace agreement in 1995. As Mr. Dodik continues to undermine the country’s central authority in Sarajevo, Western diplomats fear the vote was only a prelude to a second referendum, this time on independence.

An ongoing and potentially violent Serbian secessionist movement is most likely going to be enough to keep Bosnia’s EU bid on ice indefinitely.


Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is working on new legislation to undermine NGOs that oppose his xenophobia:

Under the legislation, which was submitted to Parliament on Tuesday and is expected to face a vote only after the election, civic groups which organize, support or finance migration will only be able to operate with permission from the interior minister and would have to pay a 25 percent levy on funding received from abroad.


People working with migrants could also be banned from going closer than 8 kilometers (5 miles) from most Hungarian borders, which could possibly prevent lawyers and others from being able to meet with asylum-seekers stopped at the border.


The draft legislation has drawn sharp criticism from the Council of Europe, Amnesty International and the German government, among others.


Speaking of elections, Italy is having one on March 4, and the race’s final opinion polling (Italian law prohibits new polls from being released within two weeks of an election) was released on Friday showing that former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right coalition should come in first, but that it will not come away with a majority. Berlusconi is barred, at least at the moment, from serving in parliament and therefore from serving as PM assuming his bloc is able to cobble together a coalition–but he’s been trying to change that. The road to a governing coalition probably goes through the anti-establishment 5 Star Movement, which is forecast to be the largest single party in the parliament. Of course, if everybody bunches up around the same 28-32 percent range and there’s no clear “winner,” Italian President Sergio Mattarella could opt to give first crack at forming a government to a more mainstream figure. And of course there are still two weeks to go in the race, so things could change before people actually head to the polls.


Theresa May met Angela Merkel in Berlin on Friday to talk about Brexit, after which Merkel told reporters that she’s not “frustrated” by the negotiations, but she is “curious” as to what exactly Britain wants. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for playing things close to the chest or whatever, but aren’t we a bit far into this whole mess for the Chancellor of Germany to still not really know what the fuck it is the British government is doing? And doesn’t that suggest that, just maybe, the British government itself still doesn’t know what the fuck it’s doing?



Venezuela’s opposition Popular Will party is going to boycott the presidential election in April. The party’s leader, Leopoldo López, is under house arrest and can’t run, and anyway this is kind of what Venezuela’s opposition does, boycott elections and then complain about the outcome. Yes, the deck is heavily stacked in Nicolás Maduro’s favor and boycotting symbolically delegitimizes the whole process, but in practical terms how has systematically boycotting elections actually worked out for the opposition?


Finally, here’s Brown University’s Stephanie Savell on Americans’ remarkable apathy–enabled by Washington’s penchant for keeping us all as far in the dark as possible–toward the effects of the wars their country has been fighting for the past couple of decades:

At heart, though, whatever our small successes, we continue to face a grim reality of this 21st-century moment, one that long preceded the presidency of Donald Trump: the lack of connection between the American public (myself once included) and the wars being fought in our names in distant lands. Not surprisingly, this goes hand-in-hand with another reality: You have to be a total war jockey, someone who follows what’s happening more or less full time, to have a shot at knowing what’s really going on in the conflicts that now extend from Pakistan into the heart of Africa.

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