Thursday, March 31, 2011

Africa's Other War

An update now from Africa's other civil war: the ongoing battle for the Ivory Coast. If you've been following the situation in the Ivory Coast here, then you already know that this conflict dates back to last November when after losing what was certified by international observers as a “free and fair” election, incumbent Laurent Gbagbo decided that he really, really didn't want to stop being president, so he had himself sworn into another term of office, despite the fact that the United Nations, African Union, ECOWAS (the Economic Council of West African States) and a host of foreign governments all recognized challenger Alassane Ouattara as the rightful president of the Ivory Coast. Gbagbo went on acting like he was President while Ouattara was holed up at a seaside resort hotel in Abidjan guarded by UN troops. There were widespread reports that military and security forces loyal to Gbagbo were conducting a campaign of terror against Ouattara's supporters, particularly in the suburbs of Abidjan, in an effort to undermine his claims to the presidency. But how quickly things can change. The BBC reported yesterday that armed forces loyal to Ouattara recaptured the Ivory Coast's capital city Yamoussoukro, a milestone victory in a military drive that has seen them wrack up victory after victory against pro-Gbagbo forces since moving south from their traditional base of support in the northern part of the Ivory Coast. The tide has changed so dramatically that Gbagbo is now asking for a cease-fire in the conflict. That's probably unlikely to happen since the only solution to this conflict would seem to be Gbagbo giving up his claim to the presidency, something he seems unlikely to do unless forced. With Yamoussoukro under their control, the pro-Ouattara forces seem to be planning a move against Abidjan, Ivory Coast's largest city and its political and economic hub. A fight in the urban heart of Abidjan could be bloody though, and more than one million residents of the city are already said to have fled the battle they expect will soon arrive. So while things are looking up for Ivory Coast's “real” president, the fight seems far from over. On a side note, other media reports on the situation in Ivory Coast referred to the forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara as “rebels”. Maybe this was just a case of using the same rhetoric from reporting on the fight in Libya, but “rebels” seems to be an odd choice of words to describe troops allied with the legitimate president of a country. A subtle choice of words can have a powerful impact on the situations they describe – something too many news editors today seem to overlook.
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Russian Leaders' Libya Fight

The conflict in Libya is also sparking another battle, this time between Russia's ruling tandem: President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Putin sparked the infighting between the two last Monday when he gave an interview condemning United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 authorizing the Libyan no-fly zone that Medvedev had given his tacit support (at least by not having Russia veto it in the Security Council). Putin questioned the whole concept of a bombing campaign designed to prevent a humanitarian disaster and spoke out against a coalition of nations interfering in the internal security situation of another country, before finally comparing the current intervention in Libya to the Medieval Crusades. This last statement set Medvedev off – he said that given the existing tension between the Arab and Western worlds, it was not helpful for Putin to compare the current situation to centuries of Christian vs. Muslim warfare. Russia's now former ambassador to Libya, Vladimir Chamov, then tossed gasoline onto the smoldering fire between the two by saying he not only supported Putin's “Crusades” comment upon his return to Moscow from Tripoli, but adding that failing to oppose the UNSC resolution to launch the no-fly zone was a “betrayal of Russian interests”, noting that Russian companies have billions of dollars worth of contracts with Libyan firms, mostly in the energy sector, that are now in jeopardy (see this post for more on Russian business in Libya).

All of this has observers wondering what is really going on between Russia's two leaders. The optimistic view is that this is yet another case of the two playing a political act of good-cop/bad-cop: with Medvedev supporting the UNSC resolution to stay on the good side of the international community while Putin makes vaguely anti-Western statements to appease the nationalists within the domestic audience who see actions like the Libyan intervention as nothing but an American plot to gain control over the world, at Russia's expense. Other political analysts though think the rift may be more than play-acting.

Alexei Fenenko, an international security expert at the Russian Academy of Science said in The Guardian that Medvedev's stance was “pragmatic” since it was clear that the United States wanted to intervene in Libya and would have done so with or without a UN resolution. If the United States wants a third war, let them have it,” Feneko said. “There was already fighting in Libya even without the intervention, so our companies will lose out, bombing or not,” he added. Meanwhile s Pavel Salin, an analyst with Moscow's Center for Political Assessments believes that the clash between Medvedev and Putin was real and is rooted in their differing worldviews. "Putin, given his past [KGB] experience, is inclined to a conspiratorial view and his remarks had a certain anti-American spin. Medvedev, on the other hand, does not think in cold war terms. He would like to see Russia on good terms with everybody and perhaps play the role of an intermediary in this situation,” Salin explained in the Christian Science Monitor.

Analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, said discord in the ruling tandem had “become a generator of nervousness” within the political elite, who, like most other Russians, are wondering which of the pair will run for president in next year's elections. According to Pavlovsky and other analysts, the uncertainty over who will be the candidate – assuming that Putin and Medvedev are true to their word and don't run against each other – is causing real unrest among Russia's elite and the leaders of their business community. Time magazine takes the opposite view though arguing that the Libya spat has given Medvedev a “confidence boost”. Time cites Russian political analsyt/spin doctor Evgeny Minchenko who claims that the Medvedev position of political reform at home and deeper international cooperation with the West is gaining favor among Russia's elites because “everybody wants to be in the same club as the global elites.”

At least one thing is certain, this will be an interesting year for Russian politics as Medvedev and Putin stake out their positions ahead of the 2012 elections.
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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Libya's Oil Games

Things are starting to get very interesting on the oil front of the conflict in Libya. As recently as last week, it seemed like the Libyan rebels had all but lost control over the country's oil fields and petroleum export terminals, which are concentrated in the eastern half of the country. Since the international coalition began their airstrikes though, the Libyan rebels have been able to win back much of the ground they lost and now once again control as much as 4/5ths of Libya's oil reserves, and contrary to the fears of global oil traders, they have managed to keep the fields in production, at least at some level of output.

Now the rebels have struck a deal with the tiny Persian Gulf state of Qatar to sell their oil on the global market. Under the terms of the agreement, Qatar will take the output from the rebel Libyan fields and sell it, with the money going into an escrow account for eventual use by the rebel government (Qatar also recognized the rebels as the legitimate government of Libya). The rebels say that this arrangement is good for them since it cuts out any middlemen and give them “access to liquidity in terms of foreign denominated currency.” The rebels claim that they will be able to pump between 100,000 and 130,000 barrels of oil per day “within a week” and soon could be exporting as much as 300,000 per day, though industry officials think this figure is optimistic given that many foreign oil technicians who oversaw production from the fields fled the country as the fighting broke out last month. While it's clear what the rebels get out of the deal, it's interesting to look at it from the Qatari side: is this a case of the tiny kingdom looking to step into a vacuum left by traditional Arab powers like Saudi Arabia in the Libyan crisis and strut their stuff on the international stage, or is it simply a shrewd business move to take advantage of an emerging economic opportunity?

On the other side of the coin, Moammar Gadhafi - working on the assumption that he will remain the leader of Libya - is threatening to impose sanctions on companies from the countries that “abandoned” him during the conflict. Paolo Scaroni, the CEO of Italian energy giant Eni said that Western firms were “shooting themselves in the foot” by imposing sanctions on the Gadhafi government, an argument that will win him few supporters among the governments currently involved in enforcing UNSC 1973 and the no-fly zone. Though you do have to wonder if Gadhafi's position influenced recent comments by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who condemned the Western-led no-fly zone, comparing it to the Crusades of the Middle Ages. Perhaps Putin is hoping for a post-conflict Libya where Gadhafi remains in power and Russian firms can increase their already sizable market share in the Libyan oil/natural gas industry by taking over the operations of “sanctioned” foreign companies.

If nothing else, the oil front is becoming one of the most interesting aspects of the Libyan conflict.
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Friday, March 25, 2011

Trump’s World

Donald Trump wants you to think he’s considering running for president. I say “wants you to think” since Trump has no intention of actually running for president – that would mean too close of a look into his murky finances than The Donald would ever be comfortable with, but maintaining the image of being a possible, legitimate candidate allows him a no-cost way of building awareness of the Trump brand, along with giving his massive ego a healthy stroke. So far would-be candidate Trump has mostly kept his pseudo-political speeches to the confines of Republican-style Obama-bashing, though he has made a couple of forays into international affairs. For example, Trump said that he could solve the problem of Somali piracy with a good admiral and a couple of ships, similarly he said a few days ago that he could solve the Gadhafi problem in Libya with “a cruise missile.” Wow, who knew international affairs was so easy? And here all those eggheads in the State Dept. had us convinced that the world was a complex place… Of course the world is a complex place and Trump’s “solutions” aren’t just simplistic, they’re insultingly simplistic. I talked about his Somali solution already here, but just to recap why he’s wrong – there already are two-dozen warships patrolling the waters, the Indian Ocean is a big place, and the real solution to piracy lies ashore. As for his Libyan solution - setting aside the ethical debate about assassinating a world leader, even one as odorous as Gadhafi - shooting off a cruise missile at him both assumes that you know where he is every moment of every day and that he is even in a place where could be hit by a cruise missile and not say in a bunker somewhere (I assume this is also Trump’s solution to finally getting Osama bin Laden). The real problem with Trump’s foreign policy ramblings though is that so long as he is considered to be a legitimate, potential presidential candidate comments like these will help to shape the debate on the Republican side among a field of candidates that already includes such intellectual lowlights as Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin, people happy to flaunt their ignorance of the wider world. To a fair number of people across America, the world is a black-and-white place where simple solutions are stymied by wusses in the State Department and the Pentagon ham-strung by wimpy politicians from “solving problems”; and of course there’s the plot between Barack Obama and George Soros to impose the New World Order upon America… The reality is that the world is a complex place where a host of new and rising powers have replaced the old Cold War US-Soviet power paradigm; it is a place that will require deft policy moves by the United States to maintain its position in the world. The feel-good foreign policy simplicity peddled by Trump and Co. certainly isn’t helpful.
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Back To Blogging

You may have noticed, well hopefully noticed, that there haven’t been any updates to the site in a couple of weeks. Apologies for that, several events came together that disrupted the normal writing schedule. But as things get back to normal, so too will updates to the blog. And while there has been a lot of international affairs coverage in the news of late focusing on the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster in Japan and the rebellion in Libya there have been a host of other important events going on around the world in relative obscurity, including both Ivory Coast and Sudan edging towards civil war, a spat between Russia’s power duo of Putin and Medvedev, Obama’s South American tour and the possible collapse of Canada’s government. So stay tuned over the next few days as we get back into the swing of things.
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Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Fixed Result In Mascot Vote?

So the results are in. You might remember this recent post about the online poll to select the mascot or mascots for the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 (my favorite was the skiing dolphin). Well the votes are in and three have been chosen: Rad, a snowboarding snow leopard, a polar bear and a bunny rabbit; great, right?

Well, by an amazing coincidence, Rad the Snow Leopard just happens to be the favorite choice of Vladimir Putin, while his co-regent, President Dmitry Medvedev was said to have liked the polar bear since in Russian “Medvedev” is a named derived from the word for bear (“medved”). Of course since this is Russia, there has to be more to the story... The Moscow Times was quick to report that there was suspicion that the online results were rigged since a choice that had led the online polling for months, a psychedelic blue frog named “Zoich” was unceremoniously dropped by judges just before the final round, despite the groundswell of public support. Zoich's designer patterned him after the Hypnotoad, a mind-controlling amphibian featured in the cartoon Futurama, the Sochi judging committee though didn't appreciate the joke and found Zoich to be more “depressing” than amusing.

Two other aspiring mascots dropped from the race were a cartoon saw – “sawing the budget” is Russian slang for the bribes that go along with any official project, and Sochi is already said to be running over-budget, and a character named "Stakasha", a name derived from the word for “glass”, but also Russian slang for being drunk; it's really not surprising that the Sochi would withhold their blessing from either. Of course, my first thought on seeing the bear character that was selected, who is admittedly quite cute, was that it reminded me of “Fatov”, the faux-mascot Bart Simpson created from a picture of his dad Homer and that he passed off as the mascot for the Sochi Games. According to Bart, Fatov celebrated “the Russian spirit of sloth and alcoholism.” Probably not what the Sochi selection committee was aiming for...

Final word on the mascot selection goes to Russia's noted opposition politician and political gadfly Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who was happy to blast away at the mascot choices: “The bear is the dumbest animal, the leopard is bloodthirsty, and the hare a coward who always runs away.”
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Saudis Own Protests Coming?

Mark March 11 down on your calendars. That's the day that activists on Facebook are calling for Saudi Arabia's own “Day of Rage” public protests. Their demands seem quite reasonable, they include: an elected, representative body in the government, an independent judiciary, a minimum wage of $2,700 (plus increased employment opportunities for young people) and the “abolition of illegal restrictions on women.” It may not sound like a lot, but in many ways Saudi Arabia is still run like a feudal monarchy and their lack of rights for women has long been a sore point with the international community; and despite being awash in oil revenues, average Saudis complain that wages are low and employment opportunities few for people who are not members of the enormous royal family, the House of Saud.

While protests have been sweeping the Arab world, whether they can actually take hold in Saudi Arabia is still an open question. The experts I know on the region seem doubtful, and according to Reuters, while several hundred people have become fans of the Saudi Day of Rage Facebook page, it is impossible to tell whether they are even in Saudi or not. And unlike Gadhafi and Mubarak, King Abdullah is making efforts to get out in front of the discontent brewing in his kingdom by announcing billions of dollars in public sector aid, in an attempt to quell any public displeasure.

Stay tuned for March 11.
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