We’re in the midst of Kumbh Mela, a major Hindu pilgrimage festival that began in mid-January and runs through early March. With apologies for not saying so earlier, best wishes to any Hindu readers who are celebrating.
According to Eurasianet, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev have met “three times in the last six months” to talk about “the fundamental issues that would have to be at the heart of any peace deal over Nagorno-Karabakh.” That’s the majority Armenian enclave that has been under Armenian control since for around 25 years now. Aliyev seems more willing to engage with Pashinyan than he was with Armenia’s previous, Republican-led governments, though the parameters of the talks (focusing on peripheral disputes first while holding off on final status talks over Nagorno-Karabakh itself) seem to be the same as ever.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has apparently made some legal inquiries about defining the end of his current term in office, raising speculation that he plans to call a snap election this year.
The Russian government is hosting “an intra-Afghan dialogue” this week that includes the Taliban but does not include any representatives of the Afghan government. Instead, some 40 Afghan political leaders who all have beefs with President Ashraf Ghani (including Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai) will attend to discuss what a post-war Afghanistan might look like. Increasingly it seems Ghani’s government is superfluous to the peace process.
An activist involved in Pakistan’s Pashtun rights movement was reportedly beaten to death by police over the weekend, and the movement in general is increasingly finding itself in trouble with Pakistani authorities:
The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (Pashtun Protection Movement or PTM), was launched in the wake of the killing of a tribal youth and an aspiring artist, Naqeebullah Mehsud, in what an official inquiry committee called a fake police encounter in Pakistan’s port city of Karachi last year.
Since then, PTM has treaded a thorny course by challenging the state’s powerful security establishment. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s thriving electronic media, political leadership, civil society, and rights groups have adopted an inexplicable silence over issues relating to alleged human rights violations and restrictions on civil liberties.
Over the course of one year, PTM and its leadership were labelled as traitors, disloyal, and anti-state; their struggle was criticized as “fifth generation hybrid warfare” by opponents. Supporters, on the other hand, justify the group’s criticism of Pakistan’s security agencies for what they call human rights violations during the anti-Taliban military operations in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
Multiple international human rights organizations on Monday called for a United Nations investigation into China’s treatment of its Uyghur population. The Chinese government has herded Uyghurs en masse into reeducation camps, though it insists they’re vocational schools. The UN Human Rights Council could take up an investigation as far as I understand it, but the Security Council (where China of course has a veto) would have to approve taking any steps like sending the case to the International Criminal Court.
A new report from UN monitors says that North Korea is dispersing its nuclear weapons-related facilities around the country in an effort to protect them from potential attack. Pyongyang is also allegedly continuing efforts to evade international sanctions by doing ship-to-ship transfers of oil products and coal at sea.
Washington and Seoul have reportedly agreed on a cost-sharing arrangement that will keep US forces stationed in South Korea. The previous arrangement expired last year and the Trump administration wanted Seoul to pony up more money this time around–which they will, apparently, to the tune of around $1 billion per year. That’s up from roughly $848 million/year under the former deal.
Tongan officials are now entertaining speculation that their undersea internet connection, severed last month, was deliberately sabotaged rather than accidentally cut. The nature of the damage apparently doesn’t seem so accidental, though “accident” remains the prevailing theory. If it was sabotage, it’s entirely unclear who would have done it and why.
Alex Thurston has a roundup of recent Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa activity in northeastern Nigeria:
In Nigeria, Boko Haram and its offshoot Islamic State West Africa (ISWA) have perpetrated several major attacks and a number of micro attacks recently. Here are some of the most prominent incidents in recent weeks:
An ISWA attack on a military base in Baga (map), 26 December
An ISWA attack on Rann (map), 14 January
An ISWA attack on Geidam (map), 23 January,
Attacks attributed to Boko Haram, targeting two military bases/outposts at Pulka (map) and Logomani (map) on the Nigeria-Cameroon border, 26-27 January
A second attack on Rann, attributed by some reports to Boko Haram rather than ISWA, 28 January
Some of these places are small cities – the number of displaced from Rann alone is estimated at 30,000. Most of these towns/cities have been previously, even repeatedly, exposed to Boko Haram and ISWA violence. Much of Borno State remains extremely dangerous for civilians and soldiers; all of the attacks mentioned above occurred in Borno save the one in Geidam, which is in neighboring Yobe State.
An al-Shabab car bomb killed at least 11 people at a shopping mall in Mogadishu on Monday. Another ten people were reportedly wounded. Elsewhere on Monday, al-Shabab gunmen shot and killed a P&O Ports executive in Puntland’s Bossaso port. The Dubai-based firm runs that port under a contract with the Puntland regional government.
French aircraft bombed a convoy of some 40 trucks carrying Chadian rebels from the Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic group on Sunday. The rebels were attempting to cross from southern Libya back into Chad, and the Chadian government requested French assistance in stopping them.
The German government, which like other NATO members is supposed to be increasing defense spending toward an alliance-wide target of two percent of GDP, now says it won’t even make its conservative goal of 1.5 percent by 2024. A slowing economy is apparently to blame for the lack of available revenue. This development is almost guaranteed to elicit some kind of response from Donald Trump, so keep your Twitter apps refreshed if you’re into that kind of thing.
Emmanuel Macron acknowledges that his “tax cuts for the wealthy, austerity for everybody else” economic program has caused pain for a lot of people. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to let up:
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has conceded there has been a “clear breakdown in equality” in high-rise suburbs and housing estates on the edge of major cities as he tours France to try to stem the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) anti-government protests.
Macron said the state must “guarantee social justice” and stop people in deprived suburban areas becoming trapped “under a form of social house arrest” as he appeared at a town hall building south of Paris to debate for several hours with mayors and community activists on Monday. But he hinted that further public spending cuts could be made. “We can do better while spending less, if we spend in the right places,” he argued.
Honestly at this point I’m fully prepared to entertain the notion that rather than being a pampered dipshit Macron is actually a wily genius who is deliberately trying to cause another French Revolution. It would explain a lot.
Several European states–Austria, Britain, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden–all acknowledged opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate interim president on Monday, after Venezuela’s actual president, Nicolás Maduro, failed to call for an early election as they’d demanded. The decision likely opens Maduro up to more European sanctions, though the European Union remains deadlocked on the issue as the Italian government continues to resist the international movement to oust Maduro.
Guaidó, meanwhile, is accusing Maduro of attempting to move some $1.2 billion in state assets from Venezuela’s development bank, Bandes, to Uruguay. Maduro has apparently been using Bandes’ branch in Uruguay as a way to get around US sanctions.
Independent Nayib Bukele did indeed win El Salvador’s presidency in the first round of voting on Sunday, taking 53 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. Bukele has plans to tackle corruption, which was the centerpiece of his campaign, and pump more money into education, but he may have a difficult time working with the Salvadoran assembly, which is pretty well dominated by center-right and right-wing parties and won’t be up for election again until 2021.
They say freedom isn’t free, and increasingly it appears that neither is the United States:
Among the dozens of groups that issue indexes measuring the principles of democracy, Freedom House is considered the most authoritative. It has rated countries on political rights and civil liberties since 1973, assessing them in three categories as “free,” “partly free” or “not free.”
Its annual “Freedom in the World” report is routinely cited in foreign policy discussions, and its advice is weighed in determining U.S. government grants through the Millennium Challenge Corporation.
In the newest report, the United States lags behind 51 countries, in the middle of a basket of 87 countries categorized as free. Less than a decade ago, it ranked behind just 30 countries. Now, the United States is outpaced by other big democracies such as Canada, Britain and Germany, and on the same level as Belize, Croatia, Greece, Latvia and Mongolia.
All of these “freedom rankings” are subjective nonsense on some level, so the notion that one is “authoritative” is kind of silly. But if they’re not terribly helpful in an objective sense (what the hell does it mean to be 86 percent free?), they’re also not entirely useless in a relative sense. So, uh, hooray for Latvia? The US score remained at 86/100, unchanged from a year ago but only because an increase in protests offset declines in equal protection under the law (those declines were mostly due, it appears, to the Trump administration mass child abduction policy). We’re down eight points from 2010.
Freedom is apparently on the decline all over, in case you’re wondering, and that continues a long-running trend for Freedom House though the nature of the decline has been changing. The big problem in the past couple of years is not that unfree countries are getting less free, but that ostensibly free democratic countries like Hungary, Serbia, and the US are now getting less free.