The Estonian government has for some time been concerned about the possibility that Vladimir Putin might make a move against its predominantly Russian east a la Crimea. In order to help develop that part of the country and keep the people there happy, the Estonian government has begun investing in the arts in places like the over 90 percent Russian city of Narva:
It’s the kind of tension that Narva is becoming accustomed to as it becomes the latest front in a simmering culture war in the former Soviet bloc. Estonia is lavishing money and attention on Narva to attract investment to the city, fearing that its neglected Russian minority is prone to Kremlin influence.
The arts are central to the strategy. Kreenholm hosted the inaugural edition of Station Narva, an alternative music festival, this fall. A cultural program funded by the Ministry of Culture has also been established there, bringing in artists and exhibitions. Vaba Lava Narva, a theater in a former military factory, opened in December. A campaign is underway to make Narva one of the European Union’s capitals of culture in 2024.
Helen Sildna, who is leading the campaign, said that there was a “soft power” dimension to the cultural initiatives. “From a defense perspective, building a happy, prosperous community in our border area is crucial,” she said. “But from a human perspective, it’s the decent thing to do anyway.”
On a similar note, tensions remain uncharacteristically high between Minsk and Moscow over Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s maybe-not-entirely-unjustified fears that Vladimir Putin wants to annex Belarus. Lukashenko has been complaining for a few months now over proposed changes to Russian energy taxes that could cost Belarus heavily over the next five years, warning that Moscow is using higher energy prices as a way to weaken and then absorb his country. There’s also speculation that, when his second presidential term ends in 2024, Putin could install himself as the chief executive of the Union State, an obscure body created by treaty in the 1990s that serves as a sort of loose supranational union between the two countries. The union has virtually no real authority now, but with Putin in charge that could change significantly.
All of this is speculation, though, and Lukashenko’s fears aside it’s unlikely the Russians are really looking to annex Belarus. Crimea holds a special place in Russian history and culture, as does Ukraine in general. Belarus just doesn’t. Crimea still has great strategic value due to its position on the Black Sea. Belarus has little to none. The political and geopolitical benefits Putin accrued from annexing Crimea simply wouldn’t apply in this case, making any move toward annexation more trouble than it would be worth.
REPUBLIC OF NORTH (?) MACEDONIA
After reports yesterday suggested that Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev was struggling to get the 2/3 parliamentary support required to amend the constitution to change his country’s name to the “Republic of North Macedonia”–struggling so much, in fact, that he was postponing Friday’s planned parliamentary session on the amendments–it comes as something of a surprise that the Macedonian parliament did in fact vote to adopt those amendments on Friday. I guess this means I can remove the question mark up there, though the full agreement that Macedonia reached with Greece last year, the one whereby Macedonia agreed to change its name while Greece agreed to stop blocking it from getting into NATO and the European Union, is still up in the air. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras needs to shepherd the deal through his parliament now, and that could be an uphill battle. There’s a lot of resistance in Greece to the idea of another country using the name “Macedonia” at all, even when it’s been qualified.
It’s beginning to look like Sweden will finally get a government, and that Prime Minister Stefan Löfven is going to get to stay prime minister after all. Two members of the country’s center-right bloc, the Center and Liberal parties, have reportedly agreed to join a Löfven-led minority government that also includes Löfven’s Social Democrats and the Green Party. The Left Party, which had been in Löfven’s previous center-left coalition government, would be excluded from this government but would support it in a confidence vote. The agreement breaks the deadlock that’s gripped Swedish politics since a particularly indecisive election in September, and manages to keep the far right Sweden Democrats from having any role in the government while also avoiding a snap election, in which it was feared the Sweden Democrats might gain strength.
Ishaan Tharoor outlines what may be South America’s newest and hottest conflict, between Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and Brazil’s far right president Jair Bolsonaro:
Maduro also lashed out at Bolsonaro. On Thursday, he branded Brazil’s president as a “fascist.” In the past, he described Bolsonaro’s running mate, former general Hamilton Mourão, as a “crazy coward” with the “face of a madman.” Last month, his foreign minister said Bolsonaro was “the epitome of intolerance, fascism and the surrender to interests that go against Latin America and the Caribbean.”
Those remarks were a reaction to Brazil’s snub of Maduro, who was not invited to Bolsonaro’s inauguration at the beginning of the year. “Maduro has no place at a celebration of democracy,” Brazil’s firebrand foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo, tweeted. “All of the world’s countries must stop supporting him and come together to liberate Venezuela.”
The possibility of a military clash, with Bolsonaro being nudged along by the Trump administration and maybe working in concert with Colombia’s right-wing President Iván Duque, cannot be discounted.
In Venezuela, meanwhile, the president of the country’s powerless, opposition-run national assembly, Juan Guaidó, said in a speech on Friday that he’s ready to assume the country’s presidency from Maduro, whom he called a “usurper” over allegations that Maduro rigged last year’s election. Imagine if Nancy Pelosi suddenly announced that she was president because Donald Trump is, well, fill in the blank. This will probably be about as successful as that would be.
Don’t look now, but another migrant caravan is about to depart Honduras next week bound for the southern US border. Donald Trump is of course already using it as proof that WE NEED WALL DAMMIT, but the irony here is that, having shut the federal government down in what many are saying is the greatest, most powerful presidential temper tantrum in American history, Trump has shuttered the State Department office, the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, that’s been trying to help Central American countries address the fundamental causes of migration. Another win for our Epic Wet President.
Mexico’s gasoline woes got worse on Friday after a major pipeline supplying Mexico City was sabotaged twice on Thursday and eventually shut down. The Mexican government is upping security for fuel tanker trucks for the next two days in an effort to boost supplies across the country, but long lines are reportedly becoming a common sight at urban gas stations.
Finally, I have a couple of takes on Mike Pompeo’s “Barack Obama Sucks” speech in Cairo on Thursday. If you’re really into this speech for some reason, Al-Monitor’s Julian Pecquet provides a helpful look at precisely where Pompeo was critical of Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech here.
Paul Pillar argues that Pompeo’s speech, “written to please an audience of one—President Donald Trump,” is likely to raise some eyebrows in the Middle East for how completely out of touch parts of it seemed and for its hyper-focus on confrontation:
Some passages of Pompeo’s speech that supposedly describe past policies can only be met with a bemused shaking of the head and the question, “Where did he get this?” One such passage is “Our eagerness to address only Muslims and not nations ignored the rich diversity of the Middle East and frayed old bonds. It undermined the concept of the nation-state, the building block of international stability.” Previous administrations did not “address nations”?
There will be similar head-shaking among most Arabs and most Muslims who heard or read the speech. They will see almost nothing positive in it, from the standpoint of undercutting radical agendas, resolving conflicts within the region, or anything else. It is almost all negative and all about conflict and confrontation, especially with a military emphasis. Many will interpret the speech as a combination of domestic U.S. political combat overlaid on the Trump administration’s penchant for drawing rigid lines of conflict within the Middle East, of which the obsession with stoking hostility to Iran is a part.
And likewise, Win Without War’s Laila Ujayli takes issue with the very premise of Pompeo’s address, the delusional notion that the United States has been a “force for good” in the Middle East:
The United States has not always been a force for good in the Middle East. It has made significant mistakes that have fundamentally changed the lives of millions. Remembering that reality would not weaken U.S. policy but strengthen it.
To accept Pompeo’s claim that the U.S. approach to the world post-9/11 did not cause Americans to abandon their ideals would be to accept torture, indefinite detention, and military occupation as American values. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died as a result of the Iraq War, adding to the already enormous death toll from the strict sanctions regime the United States imposed on Iraq following the Gulf War. From Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay, the United States has been far from a force for good in the wake of 9/11.
Following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, the consequences of U.S. actions were apparent. Violence destabilized the region, weakened institutions, and deprived people of fundamental needs. Contrary to Pompeo’s assertion, a diverse set of local grievances—ranging from the lack of economic opportunity to disenfranchisement and human rights abuses—primarily drive extremist recruitment, not ideology. And the United States did not just exacerbate those local grievances but often added to the pile. The so-called Islamic State (ISIS or IS) is an evil that the United States had no small role in creating through its invasion of Iraq.