Countries to Watch in 2017

Countries like the United States, Russia, China, Turkey and Germany are likely to receive a lot of media attention in 2017. However, there are many other countries that are worthy of note in the year 2017. In this article crew members of International Perspective present to you eight countries that should not be kept under the radar this year. (Featured Image © PhotoGraham

Destroyed Azeri tanks in Nagorno-Karabakh, © Nicholas Babaian

Azerbaijan’s Dangerous Geopolitical Tinderbox: Nagorno-Karabakh – Tarak Martijn Labiad

Plagued by declining revenue dues to falling oil prices, the ruling regime of Azerbaijan is engulfed in a battle for power by competing clans within the government. Faced with many budget cuts in the country’s ambitious domestic programs, the government also seeks to regain fledging popular support by showing that it is still firmly in control by taking an assertive stance in the continuing conflict with Armenia over the mountainous, landlocked and predominantly ethnic Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a disputed area between Armenia and Azerbaijan. According to the United Nations, the region is still officially part of Azerbaijan, even though is currently controlled by ethnic Armenian separatists. In 1922 Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin placed the area under Azerbaijan’s control.  As the Soviet Union collapsed, Armenian-backed forces began to push for unification with Armenia resulting in a bitter conflict costing the lives of more than 30.000 people. In 1993 several resolutions were passed in the UN Security Council requiring Armenia to unconditionally withdraw its troops from the disputed region.

Azerbaijan’s strategic location between Russian, Turkey and Iran, Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has the potential to escalate and ignite a dangerous geopolitical tinderbox.

In 1994 a truce ended the war with Armenia in which Azerbaijan lost the de facto control of the region. Since then, diplomatic efforts have continued in vain by the Minsk Group. Over the years, periodic fighting has become particularly frequent and in April 2016 dozens were killed on both sides. A new ceasefire was brokered but failed to achieve a permanent settlement. At the beginning of 2017, fighting broke out once again when according to the ethnic Armenian military leadership it repulsed an Azeri attack resulting in the death of several Azeri soldiers. These continuing clashes might provoke big regional players to intervene as a pretext to further their own national interest in the region. Located strategically between superpowers such as Russia, Turkey and Iran, the conflict has to potential to escalate and ignite a dangerous geopolitical tinderbox.

Footbridge in the Greek part of Nicosia that offers a view on the demilitarized United Nations Buffer Zone and the Turkish part of the city, © Gérard Janot

Breaking the Status Quo in Cyprus – Jorn Vennekens

The Island of Cyprus gained independence in 1960, but distrust between the Greek (south) and Turkish (north) Cypriots quickly resulted in intercommunal violence. Regional “guarantors” exacerbated the downward spiral by exerting their influence: in 1974, the military junta in Greece backed a southern coup, followed by an invasion of Turkish troops in the north.

The conflict froze and the resulting discrepancy was enormous: the south of the island joined the EU and grew prosperous, while the north (only recognised as a state by Turkey) became impoverished. Reunification talks took place occasionally, but failed due to issues of distrust and displacement. Now, however, the Turkish Cypriot leader has called for an urgent solution in 2017.

A federal state in Cyprus is in the making, but thorny issues such as power-sharing remain. Yet in the end, it may be external threats that push both sides to a final deal.

The emotional value of reunification and the prospect of economic growth (especially with natural gas reserves discovered in Cyprus’ offshore economic zone), have seen both Greek and Turkish Cypriot politicians rally around this call. A federal state is in the making, but thorny issues such as power-sharing remain. Yet in the end, it may be external threats that push both sides to a final deal.

For one, Russia’s relationship with Cyprus is complex and a reunification may not be to their benefit. Turkey may be a greater spoiler: the north of Cyprus is uncomfortably dependent on Turkey, and dislikes Ankara’s ongoing efforts to increase its influence. Without a solution, it is feared, Greek Cypriots may find themselves becoming neighbours with Turkey on the island.

Cypriot leaders seem well-aware of the risks: talks in Geneva on 12 January paved the way for further negotiations and they agreed to meet weekly throughout February to address outstanding issues. Their plan is to host the next high level meeting in early March.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama and former Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas addressing a group of U.S. and Estonian soldiers at the Ämari Air Base in Harjumaa, © U.S. Army

Estonia’s Fear of Being Putin’s Testground – Jan-Hendrik van Sligtenhorst

With a simple look at the map of Europe, one can easily identify the geostrategic location of Estonia, one of the least populous member states of both NATO and the EU. From the restoration of independence in 1991 onwards, Estonia’s relationship with Russia has been complicated at best. For security reasons Estonia attaches great importance to NATO. Russia’s interference in both Georgia and Ukraine has alarmed Estonia.

However, with the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States concerns increased that NATO’s main backer might become less supportive than it used to be in the past. In January 2017 Trump called NATO “obsolete”. Besides the USA only four other members are spending at least 2% of their GDP on defence. Even though Estonia is among those who are taking their fair share, a NATO without the support of the USA could have far-reaching consequenses. Although U.S. Vice President Mike Pence reaffirmed the USA’s commitment towards NATO in a meeting with the leaders of the Baltic states, the unpredictable behaviour and policies of Trump remains a concern to the Baltics.

Given the geographical location of Estonia and the ethnic composition of the state, Estonia might become Putin’s testground in a worst-case scenario.

Estonia indeed has reasons to fear Russian assertiveness. Throughout the years Estonia has been subject of hybrid warfare from Russia. In 2007 Russian sources unleashed a series of cyber attacks on Estonia and in 2014 the Estonian intelligence officer Eston Kohver was abducted at gunpoint and taken to Russia. In the meantime, the Kremlin is very keen on influencing the ethnic Russians living in Estonia (24% of the total populations) through disinformation and propaganda in Russian-speaking media. Adding to this that Estonia’s strongest ally and security provider now has a man in the White House who is not clear on how to deal with Russia and NATO, Estonia’s fears are likely to increase in 2017. Given the geographical location of Estonia and the ethnic composition of the state, Estonia might become Putin’s testground in a worst-case scenario. And than it remains to be seen if NATO is really ready to come to the aid of their small ally.

Micro-islands near Savusavu on the Fijian island of Vanua Levu, © Dave Wilson

Fiji’s Unique Chance to Preside over COP23 – Heleen van Hecke

A year and a half ago at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris, political leaders from several Pacific island nations urged for an ambitious climate agreement that would cap global warming not at 2 but at 1.5 degrees Celsius. Media coverage of these nations’ daily struggles with sea level rise and changing weather patterns, created momentum for the endangered small island states within the international community, and their plea was heard.

Fiji managed to secure the presidency of COP23, inciting new hope, as this represents the Pacific region’s timely chance to compel the international community towards an overdue breakthrough on the climate finance issue.

The following year the Pacific Ocean islands sought to maintain their influencing role, with the region’s efforts spearheaded by the nation of Fiji. Under the leadership of its Prime Minister, Voreqe Bainimarama, Fiji became the first country to ratify the Paris Agreement. Four months later in June, it became the first ever Pacific island nation to chair the UN General Assembly, vowing to use this opportunity to voice the Pacific community’s perspectives on climate change. Unfortunately, the country and the region, more broadly, failed to capitalise on these achievements and, despite their pressing, COP22 did not see the decisive progress on the question of climate finance they – and many other developing countries dependent on international funding for the undertaking of mitigation and adaptation measures – had hoped for.

Nevertheless, Fiji managed to secure presidency of COP23, taking place in November 2017, inciting new hope, as this not only marks the first time a Small Island Developing State will take on such a task, but foremost represents the Pacific region’s timely chance to compel the international community towards an overdue breakthrough on the climate finance issue.

Impression of one of the many popular demonstrations in Beirut, © Shakeeb Al-Jabri

Lebanon: Size Doesn’t Matter – Ken Demol

Anyone looking at a map of the Middle East might be excused for not paying too much attention to Lebanon, the small patch of land wedged between Syria and Israel. As far as regional politics go, however, Lebanon tends to punch far above its weight. Still recovering from a brutal civil war, Lebanon houses around one million Syrian refugees – a tall order for a country numbering some six million – and plays a pivotal role in the fragile Shia-Sunni balance of the Middle East.

Just last year, Lebanon ended a political crisis that had left it without a head of state since 2014 by electing Michel Aoun as president, a former general of the Lebanese army. In order to become elected, Aoun had to enter into an alliance with Hezbollah. The Iranian-backed group is most commonly known for its military activities and for supporting the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, but is also a key political player in modern Lebanon.

Only time will tell if Michel Aoun – still haunted by his own involvement in the civil war – proves to be the unifying president Lebanon needs today.

With Hezbollah now having a solid hold on power, we may wonder which direction Lebanon will choose to take in 2017, and how its neighbours will respond. All eyes then, are focused on Saudi-Arabia. As it stands, both President Aoun and Hezbollah appear to be taking a conciliatory course towards Saudi-Arabia. By paying a visit to Riyadh in January, Aoun clearly reached out to the Saudi King Salman.

Internally, the Lebanese government also faces many challenges. President Aoun will have to tackle a lasting trash crisis, house Syrian refugees and improve a struggling economy, all the while being hampered by an unstable political system. Only time will tell if Michel Aoun – still haunted by his own involvement in the civil war – proves to be the unifying president Lebanon needs today.

President Rodrigo Duterte delivering a speech in front of members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines at Camp Aguinaldo, © Presidential Communications Operations Office

The Shifting Geopolitical Orientation of the Philippines – Daan Geysen

The Philippines used to be a loyal ally to the United States. However, it has shifted its regional strategy under its new President Rodrigo R. Duterte, who puts focus on boosting ties with giant neighbor China. In November 2016, Duterte paid a state visit to Beijing and laid the foundation of an economic revival of trade relations. In January this year, a delegation from the Philippines has witnessed the signing of various agreements with China.

Furthermore, the Philippines have decided not to make use of the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the South China Sea issue in July last year, which by default accused China of misconduct in the area. The Philippines dropped their case against China. In fact, it turned 180 degrees by now vowing to cooperate peacefully with China on the disputed islands in the South China Sea. Furthermore, the Philippines preside over ASEAN in 2017 and have declared that the South China Sea will never be put on the agenda. Subsequently, they wish to reach a Code of Conduct with China by the end of June this year.

Philippines turned 180 degrees by now vowing to cooperate peacefully with China on the disputed islands in the South China Sea.

Domestically, the rise of Duterte can be framed in the rising populism around the world as he is known for making harsh and controversial remarks. He cracks down hard on domestic drug dealing and on rebellions sprouting from the Muslim-majority Mindanao. The Philippines also posted a robust 6.8 percent GDP growth rate in 2016, outperforming popular investment spots such as China (6.7 percent) and Vietnam (6.2 percent). The Philippines’ strong economic performance is projected to continue into 2017.

The Philippines will certainly play a pivotal role in Asia between its Southeast Asian neighbors, China and the US.

Empty shelves in a supermarket in Caracas due to shortages, © Wikimedia Commons

Venezuela: Lurching from Crisis to Crisis – Ruben Peeters

As for now, 2017 appears to be a relatively uneventful year for Latin America (except for Mexico, of course). Nevertheless, there is still a lot of potential for trouble in the region as the Venezuelan economic and political crisis is still unfolding. The economy keeps crumbling, just like President Nicolas Maduro’s approval ratings have hit rock bottom. Maduro, however, is not thinking of leaving power.

Just last month, the Venezuelan government approved a new budget which increased social spending to keep their citizens happy. It remains, however, unlikely that this spending can solve the problem of rampant shortages that the country has been experiencing with for years. To make up for the loss in oil revenue, the government has increased taxes. The effect of this remains to be seen.

More importantly than a different spending pattern, Maduro has granted himself special executive powers last May 2016 and these have since been extended until now. In 2016, a petition was made to recall Maduro from office, this vote has been delayed to 2017. It is still uncertain whether this will go through.

The Venezuelan crisis also look unfavorably to Rafael Correa (Ecuador) and Evo Morales (Bolivia), who in the past aligned themselves with Chavez and the Venezuelan government.

As Maduro continues to rely on the military for remaining in power, one could say that 2017 will probably become the deciding year for Venezuela to shed the Chavista revolution or become a Chavista dictatorship. The way Venezuela develops this year is crucial for the whole region. Many Venezuelans have fled their country for the persistent violence and starvation, mostly to neighboring Colombia.

Additionally, continuing economic difficulties also look unfavorably to Rafael Correa (Ecuador) and Evo Morales (Bolivia), who in the past aligned themselves with Chavez and the Venezuelan government. With elections coming up in Ecuador next month and Morales deciding to run again in 2019, it is likely that the Venezuelan situation will be closely monitored.

Sarahwi people commemorating the 30th anniversary of the proclamation of the independence of Western Sahara, © Jaysen Naidoo

The Western Sahara: Emerging Chances for Self-Determination for the Sahrawi people? – Naomi Vleugels

After 41 years of Moroccan occupation the Sahrawi people could be in the position to gain independence. The criticism Morocco received on this occupation form the African Union’s predecessor caused the country to leave the intergovernmental organisation in 1984, when the Western Sahara was accepted as a member. However, they have now decided to rejoin the organisation.

By rejoining the African Union Morocco adheres to their treaties that include the right of self-determination of all peoples.

Besides international condemnation and years of fighting by the Sahrawi people, the readmission of Morocco in the largest African organisation, could be the final step for the Sahrawi’s struggle. The AU has a strict anti-decolonization policy and played an active role on the matter throughout the years. By rejoining the organisation Morocco adheres to their treaties that include the right of self-determination of all peoples.

Already in 1979 the UN formally recognized the situation as illegal occupation, and many resolutions condemning the situation followed. In 1991 a peace deal between Morocco and Polisario, the main resistance movement, ended the war but did not bring about the prospect of self-determination. Morocco currently still controls two thirds of the territory, the remaining part is inept for economic progress and covered with mines. Many Sahrawi live in refugee camps in Algeria.

This year will prove to be interesting for all partners involved. For the Sahrawi to see their goals realised, for Morocco to adapt to this impactful change and for the AU, from which a strong and decisive role should be expected.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Perspective. Please be advised that all works found on International Perspective are protected under copyright, more information in the Terms of Use.

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