Further talks between US and Taliban representatives are now at risk over the site of the negotiations. The Taliban, which has a diplomatic office in Doha, insists on meeting there, but Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have been participating in the talks, are still blockading Qatar and won’t send representatives there. Previous regional talks have taken place in Saudi Arabia, and it’s unclear why the Taliban has suddenly decided it will only conduct talks in Qatar.
Hundreds of people protested in Bangkok on Sunday after Thailand’s ruling military junta once again postponed the elections that would take the country back to at least nominally civilian rule and had been scheduled for February. That makes five times in five years those elections have been postponed. This time the ostensible reason is that the junta doesn’t want the election and transition to overshadow the coronation of new King Maha Vajiralongkorn in May, but democracy activists are increasingly convinced the junta is just never going to give up power.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday warned that Western economic sanctions “would be instrumental in killing the opposition political party.” The European Union may be close to ending an arrangement that gives Cambodian imports duty-free status over Hun Sen’s considerable record of political repression, and that appears to have prompted his outburst. Presumably by “killing” Hun Sen means that he’ll prevent members of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party from petitioning for reinstatement in national politics, but it can’t be ruled out that he’s talking about quashing all political opposition or, even, actually killing people.
China’s first domestically built aircraft carrier completed its fourth sea test earlier this month, so it’s on track to be fully commissioned later this year. I’m sure the Pentagon response to this will be reasoned and take into account that the US has 11 active duty full aircraft carriers–plus another nine amphibious assault ships which in any other era would also be designated carriers–to China’s one, so even if Beijing adds a second carrier there’s no reason to overrea–ha ha ha I’m kidding, they’re going to ask for another $500 billion on next year’s defense budget.
ISIS-West Africa fighters reportedly seized the town of Rann in northeastern Nigeria late Monday, driving Nigerian soldiers and town residents ahead of them. There’s no word on casualties but there are reports of the insurgents setting fire to buildings in the town. Just last week the Nigerians recaptured the town of Baga, which ISIS-WA had taken last month.
Protesters in Ethiopia’s Afar region on Sunday blockaded the country’s main highway into Djibouti, and therefore to the sea, for a planned five day demonstration. The protesters say that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has contributed to a resurgence of ethnic violence in Ethiopia, specifically in this case between ethnic Afars and the region’s ethnic Somali minority.
Gabonese President Ali Bongo returned home on Monday, one week after a failed coup against his government. Bongo had spent three months out of the country supposedly recuperating from a stroke he suffered in October. His return seems to have been handled very quietly, which isn’t going to do much to quell suspicions that he did not in fact recuperate from the stroke and remains seriously debilitated.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
International pressure is growing for a recount in the DRC’s December 30 presidential election. On Monday, the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region joined the Southern African Development Community and several Western governments in expressing “concern” over the official declaration that Felix Tshisekedi was victorious. That declaration is being challenged by second-place finisher Martin Fayulu, whose contention that he won handily is supported by independent vote estimates. Fayulu has filed a complaint over the outcome with the country’s Constitutional Court, but the court’s judges were appointed by current President Joseph Kabila, who is believed to favor Tshisekedi, and is unlikely to rule in Fayulu’s favor.
So far, at least, the international pressure hasn’t been matched by very much unrest inside the DRC, which has left Kabila and Tshisekedi in a fairly strong position to just push ahead with the latter’s inauguration later this month. Fayulu hasn’t called for public demonstrations and is likely waiting to let the court case play out before he does.
Meanwhile, ethnic violence continues to plague much of the DRC countryside. Locals now say that a two-day clash between ethnic Batende and ethnic Banunu peoples in the northwestern DRC on December 16-17 killed over 400 people.
Zimbabwean unions have begun a three day strike and protests have taken hold across the country over a stagnant economy and rising cost of living. There were several reports of police responding to demonstrations with gunfire around Harare and its suburbs, and at least four people were reportedly wounded. The protest movement appears not to have been organized by Zimbabwe’s political opposition, which could make it harder to tamp down.
Al-Monitor’s Maxim Suchkov doesn’t foresee a possible US withdrawal from Syria doing much to change Russia’s objectives there:
Diplomatically, it also doesn’t change Russia’s overall course of action that much. Moscow is inclined to pursue the initiatives it set forth in 2018, the three pillars being the launch of the constitutional committee; the return of refugees; and working toward the relegitimization of President Bashar al-Assad’s government, coupled with the pursuit of funds to rebuild the country.
At the regional level, for the first set of objectives Russia will need the collaboration of the new UN envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, as well as an increase in contacts with the interested and adequate opposition groups and local councils. For the second it would seek a more fruitful cooperation with countries that hosted the most refugees: Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. For the third — funding — the likely go-tos are Gulf monarchies.
The chances that Sweden would finally be forming a government under presumptive Prime Minister Stefan Löfven may have evaporated on Monday, when the Left Party declared that it wants some say in policy in return for its support in parliament. Löfven’s new center-right coalition partners, the Center and Liberal parties, both only agreed to go in with him on the condition that the Left Party be excluded from the government. But because the new would-be governing coalition is still short of a majority in parliament, it needs the Left Party to back it in a confidence vote. Löfven seems to think he can appease the Left Party without tripping over any Center or Liberal party red lines, but he’s only got 48 hours to make it work before parliament speaker Andreas Norlén says he’ll pull the plug on the whole thing–which could mean a new election.
Theresa May is making her last push for votes before parliament considers her Brexit plan on Tuesday evening. Naturally, she’s pushing the “my way or the highway” argument, where “highway” means whatever outcome scares you most–a no-deal Brexit for Remainers, no Brexit at all for Leavers. Nevertheless, it would be a minor miracle if her plan were to pass. Its failure will likely be followed by a no-confidence vote tabled by the Labour Party, but it would also be a minor miracle if May were to lose that vote.
Britain is due to crash out of the EU, deal or no deal, at the end of March, but on Monday Spanish Prime Minister Josep Borrell suggested that date could be pushed back a bit if May’s plan is defeated. But only a bit–the European Union parliamentary election in May would seem to be a hard deadline.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro called Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro “a Hitler of the modern era” on Monday. So nice to see these two getting along so well.
Maduro is angry because Bolsonaro’s government on Saturday recognized opposition leader and National Assembly president Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela. Guaidó got the ball rolling on Friday when he told supporters that he’s, you know, “ready” to assume the presidency from Maduro. This remark got him briefly arrested by authorities on Sunday, though of course that incident has been treated as “brave freedom fighter unfairly thrown in dungeon by evil super-villain” when in reality it was a guy who arguably called for foreign intervention and/or a military coup a couple of days earlier getting temporarily detained for his trouble. For now Maduro’s government seems reluctant to really go after Guaidó lest it turn him into a symbol of popular resistance or the like.