At the beginning of this year, International Perspective published a list of eight countries that we believed were worth watching in 2017. With the end of year approaching, we present to you a follow-up on what actually happened in these countries. (Featured Image © PhotoGraham)
The Continuation of the Status Quo in Azerbaijan – Tarak Martijn Labiad
Azerbaijan’s conflict with Armenia over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh reached a critical stage after multiple infringements were reported on the 20 year old cease-fire agreement. In order to prevent larger-scale conflict, the Minsk group has reaffirmed its commitment to commit to a peaceful solution in accordance with the core principles of the Helsinki Final Act.
The group has welcomed the renewed high-level dialogue in the last months, though Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned not to be too optimistic. Frustrated by the slow pace of the efforts by the Minsk group, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg met with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to reiterate the importance of a peaceful settlement.
Shattered Hopes of a Reunified Cyprus – Jorn Vennekens
What could have been a major breakthrough in 2017, turned into a diplomatic failure. The Cyprus negotiations about reunification, which culminated in UN-sponsored talks in July, hit a dead end. Turkey ultimately torpedoed negotiations as it remained unwilling to discuss the presence of Turkish troops and their right to intervene on the island.
The future of Cyprus looks grim. The EU has called for a “European solution”, but found limited support. Turkish Cypriots now fear a (de facto) annexation of Northern Cyprus by Turkey. Perhaps this will prove a bridge too far, but a unitary, federal Cyprus now seems impossible. Meanwhile, the gas drillings on the southern coast of Cyprus have lead Turkey to threaten with “countermeasures”.
Preparing for the Worst in Estonia – Jan-Hendrik van Sligtenhorst
The fear of Russian aggression remains visible in Estonia. The Zapad 2017 exercise, a joint military drill of Russia and Belarus in Estonia’s backyard indeed sparked concern. Meanwhile, Estonia continued to increase its defence expenditure. In addition, a top military official called upon NATO to incorporate cybersecurity in the overall military strategy – Estonia suffered a cyberattack in 2007. When Estonia took over the Presidency of the Council of the EU in July, it also prioritised cybersecurity as well as deeper European defence cooperation. The Tallinn Digital Summit emphasised the need to strengthen the EU’s cybersecurity strategy, of which the Council endorsed the conclusions.
Fiji’s Unique Chance to Preside over COP23 – Jan-Hendrik van Sligtenhorst
In 2017, Fiji had the unique opportunity to promote its interests as an endangered small island state by organising the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23) from the 6th to the 17th of November. Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama was joined by 12-year old schoolboy Timoci Naulusala, who delivered an impressive speech in which he told about the impact climate change has on his daily life. His story urged the international community to act in order to combat climate change.
Fiji’s key achievements are the launch of the Gender Action Plan, which highlights the role of women in climate action, and the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform, which enables the exchange of experience and best practices between indigenous peoples around the world.
Rumble in the Lebanese Desert – Ken Demol
It had been business as usual in Lebanon up until November 4th, when Saad Hariri unexpectedly announced his resignation as prime minister. That he did so not from Beirut, but from the Saudi capital of Riyadh, caused many to see the declaration as a brazen attempt by Saudi Arabia’s ambitious crown prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), to advance his country’s interests in Lebanon.
The prince is wary of ‘archenemy’ Iran gaining too much influence in the Middle East. Lebanon, as ever, sits at the figurative crossroads between the two countries, its political system based on ethnicity and religion leaving it especially vulnerable to interference.
MBS appears to have overplayed his hand in Lebanon, perhaps emboldened by a successful power grab within Saudi Arabia. After a detour in France, Hariri already withdrew his resignation late November. Despite the prime minister’s return, Lebanon’s worries are far from over.
With the war in Syria seemingly coming to a close, the Lebanese militia-turned-political party Hezbollah may return home with renewed bluster. MBS will no doubt be watching closely. Is he working on a plan to pit Israel against Hezbollah? Or is there an accident waiting to happen? Saudi Arabia’s disastrous war in Yemen tells a cautionary tale.
Filipino Foreign Policy: Balancing Between China and the USA – Daan Geysen
As a usually loyal ally to the United States, the Philippines shifted its regional strategy under President Rodrigo Duterte to warm ties with China. As presiding country over ASEAN, the Philippines managed to conclude a Code of Conduct with China and ASEAN on the South China Sea in August.
This strategy enabled Duterte to reap countless benefits in the bilateral economic and investment realm. Visits by high-ranked Chinese cabinet members counted as next steps in the Strategic Cooperation Agreement. Some sources indicate that a state visit of President Xi is to be expected in 2018.
Paradoxically enough, bilateral ties with the Trump Administration seem to have generally improved. Trump’s first state visit to Asia, including the Philippines, in November did confirm US engagement with the region. While Barack Obama condemned Duterte’s War on Drugs, Trump highly praised Duterte for his actions.
Domestically, affairs haven’t been going very smooth the last year. Multiple deadly skirmishes between army and police troops with (Muslim) rebels took place and Duterte even invoked a sixty-day martial law in the Southern Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. In a nutshell, the Philippines have simultaneously ameliorated ties with its two biggest partners, while on the domestic level many problems still wait to be resolved.
The Never-Ending Crisis in Venezuela – Ruben Peeters
Unfortunately, the crisis in Venezuela has only deteriorated over the last year. The economy shrunk with a massive 12%, inflation soared and the IMF expects it to reach 2300% by 2018. Official numbers are unavailable as the Maduro government has stopped providing any basic statistics. The IMF has urged Venezuela to provide data again.
The empty shelves and food shortages have developed into a full-blown famine. Food is simply unavailable in the country. Occasional supplies of government subsidized products are the only things people can afford, as inflation wiped out savings and purchasing power. Child mortality increased dramatically and people are emigrating to Peru, Spain, and Colombia.
Maduro is not doing much to improve the situation. The low oil price remains a problem for Venezuela, and the US had imposed economic sanctions on the country in August after Maduro consolidated power. The sanctions prohibited new public debt and dealings with the state run oil firm PDVSA. On November 14th, S&P declared Venezuela had entered selective default.
Russia has agreed to restructure the debts. Venezuela, in return, has given a concession for two gas fields to the state-owned Russian energy firm Rosneft. The protests, hunger, and general malaise continue. When 2017 did not look rosy, 2018 looks like Armageddon for what was once the richest country of Latin America.
Western Sahara: The Last Colony in Africa Remains – Naomi Vleugels
The return of Morocco to the African Union (AU) initiated some changes in the situation of the Western Sahara, but they are different from what was expected. First of all, Morocco campaigned its position on the matter, and with some success. South-Sudan and Ivory Coast have cautiously aligned themselves with Morocco. Secondly, the UN appointed a new Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, Horst Koehler. His appointment can work in favour of the peace process. The AU urged Morocco to adhere to the obligations in recognizing the Sahrawi’s right of self-determination.
Lastly, both Moroccan and Sahrawian troops drew back from a contested strip of land, thereby respecting a UN resolution. Yet, 2017 was not the year in which the Sahrawi people saw their dream realised, and 2018 will probably not bring that change either.