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The Covid bell tolls for eastern Europe’s populists

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Recurrent conflict with Brussels, populism and high levels of corruption have turned Central and Eastern European (CEE) states into the bete noire of EU politics.

But despite their governments’ sins, populists have held on to power in Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and until recently, Slovakia.

The electorate has been willing to forgive these sins in return for growth rates above the EU average and minimal unemployment, ushering traditional political parties into the wilderness of parliamentary opposition.

The pandemic has now swung the pendulum of political consensus away from the populists, eroding their approval ratings ahead of key parliamentary elections in 2021 and 2022. But to capitalise on this, traditional political parties will have to restyle themselves as “anti-populists”.

Pandemic: bad for everyone, worse for populists

Like with much else, coronavirus has had a transformative impact on CEE politics, highlighting weaknesses in populist governance and messaging.

This is most obvious in the Czech Republic, which handled the first wave of pandemic well, but subsequent mismanagement has propelled it to the second highest infection case in Europe, only behind Montenegro.

Czech prime minister Andrej Babis’ approval ratings have sunk as fast as second wave infection rates have gone up, and his party, ANO, looks set to be overtaken by the opposition in opinion polls for the first time since 2013.

While non-populist governments have also demonstrated their fair share of mismanagement during the pandemic, such incompetence at times of crisis is more damaging for populists than traditional politicians.

This is because populists’ appeals to common sense, get-things-done approach to government is a key tactic in how they set themselves apart from the ‘out-of-touch’ establishment.

Indeed, in the US, Donald Trump’s mismanagement of the crisis is also understood to have severely harmed his re-election chances.

Moreover, the crisis has undermined populist governments’ strongest assets – economic performance.

With severe recessions hitting every EU state in 2021, it will be harder for populists to point at the sluggish growth of their western neighbours in an illustration of their own superiority.

In fact, the pandemic has underlined the economic value of the EU. Even the staunchly eurosceptic Polish and Hungarian governments were forced to compromise with Brussels over new provisions to safeguard EU values in their countries to qualify for desperately needed emergency funding.

For governments who have long-berated the EU’s meddling in domestic affairs, this was a bitter pill.

One long term effect of the populist surge in the mid 2010s appears to have been the decline of the traditional political party. Traditional politicians in CEE learnt this the hard way, struggling to make any dents in the electoral performance of populist “movements”.

But traditional parties have become smarter. Across CEE, they have grouped together to form anti-populist broad-tent ‘movements’. In this way, they are using the populists’ own tactics, styling themselves as ordinary citizens’ initiatives taking on the establishment.

This strategy has already reaped fruit in Slovakia, where the aptly named Ordinary People swept into power in 2020.

Similarly in Poland’s 2019 elections, the populist Law and Justice saw its grip on power weakened after the pro-EU parties formed an electoral coalition.

Appointment with voters looms

In the Czech Republic and Hungary, anti-populist electoral alliances are outperforming ruling parties. Elections in late 2021 in the Czech Republic and 2022 in Hungary may therefore prove a watershed moment for these newly-minted anti-populist groups.

But there is a key weakness in their design.

Coalitions must rest on shared policy priorities. In the case of anti-populist electoral alliances composed of right and left-wing parties, such as in Hungary, there is little to keep them together save for their opposition to prime minister Viktor Orban. If he is defeated in 2022, the coalition will likely turn into an uncomfortable, temporary marriage, akin to the US-Soviet anti-Nazi alliance.

The populist wave therefore looks to be ebbing, and will likely be defeated by anti-populist movements who have taken several leaves out of the populist playbook.

But the inevitable fragility of these new governments means that they are unlikely to stick around for long, and a new political configuration will still need to be set.

For central and eastern Europe, this is only the end of the beginning.

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UN put Rohingya ‘at risk’ by sharing data without consent, says rights group | Rohingya

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The UN may have put hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees at risk of persecution or involuntary repatriation back to Myanmar after improperly collecting and sharing refugees’ personal information with Bangladesh, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), which is urging an investigation.

Over the past three years, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has registered more than 800,000 Rohingya refugees living in Bangladeshi camps in order to provide them with identity cards needed to access essential aid and services.

But the refugees were largely uninformed that their personal data, which included photographs, fingerprints and biographical information, would be passed by the Bangladeshi government on to authorities in Myanmar with a view to possible repatriation, said Lama Fakih, crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch.

“The UN refugee agency’s data collection practices with Rohingya in Bangladesh were contrary to the agency’s own policies and exposed refugees to further risk,” said Fakih.

“[A] refugee has the right to control their data, who has access to it, and for what purposes, and UNHCR and other agencies should be accountable to those whose data they hold.”

The UN denied any wrongdoing or policy violations, stating that it had explained all purposes of the data-gathering exercise and obtained consent, according to UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic.

Each Rohingya refugee family was “asked to consent to their data being shared with partners on the ground for the purpose of receiving assistance … [and] separately and expressly asked whether they gave their consent to have their data shared with the government of Myanmar by the government of Bangladesh” to establish right of return, said Mahecic.

But 24 Rohingya refugees interviewed by HRW between September 2020 and March 2021 about their experience registering with UNHCR tell a different story. Of the 24 refugees, 23 said they were never informed the data would be used for anything beyond establishing aid access.

They were given a receipt, in English, with a box ticked stating they had agreed to the data being shared with Myanmar, but only three of the 24 refugees could read English.

One of the three interviewees who could read English said he only realised what had happened after his interview.

“After they took my data, they printed out a receipt. I walked back to my tent, and then I looked at the paper, and noticed that on the top there was a tick box that the person at the centre had marked as ‘yes’ without ever asking me, that my data would be shared with Myanmar,” he said.

“I was so angry when I saw that, but I had already given my data, and I needed services, so I didn’t know what I could do about it.”

Although the sample size of HRW’s research is small, it is likely that their findings are echoed throughout the Rohingya refugee population, said senior HRW researcher Belkis Wille.

“Bangladesh shared the names and details of 830,000 Rohingya with Myanmar, which broadly speaking is the entire Rohingya refugee population that came to Bangladesh. So that would suggest that nobody had any objection to having their data shared with Myanmar, at least in terms of the checkbox on the form,” said Wille.

“It is hard to imagine that not a single person had a concern and said no [to giving consent]. And that is one of the key reasons why we think what we saw in our individual interviews may be what you would see across the broader Rohingya population, which is that they weren’t being asked this question or, if they were, it wasn’t in a way that they understood or in a way that they felt comfortable saying no to.”

A Rohingya refugee waits to be registered in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, 25 September 2017.
A Rohingya refugee waits to be registered in Cox’s Bazar in order to access essential supplies and services. Photograph: Cathal McNaughton/REUTERS

Of the 830,000 Rohingya whose data Bangladesh submitted to Myanmar, about 42,000 have been given right to return to their home country. They include 21 of the refugees interviewed by HRW, who said they only knew their data had been shared when they were informed they could return to Myanmar. All 21 have since gone into hiding out of fear of forced repatriation, HRW said.

Since 2016, nearly 900,000 Rohingya have fled what many have characterised as a genocide by crossing the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh. HRW has warned of the possibility that Rohingya refugees may be involuntarily repatriated to Myanmar, given a history of forced repatriations of Rohingya in the 1970s and 1990s. In those cases, UNHCR tacitly condoned Bangladesh’s coerced returns, said HRW.

UNHCR said that “any return to Myanmar must be based on the individual and voluntary choice of refugees” and that the UN would assist returns when conditions are conducive to safe and sustainable return, “which is not currently the case”.

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China officially joins Russia as a danger to Nato

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China has joined Russia as an explicit danger to Western allies after a Nato summit in Brussels on Monday (14 June).

“China’s stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to alliance security,” the 30 Nato leaders said in a joint communiqué.

“China is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal with more warheads and a larger number of sophisticated delivery systems,” the statement added.

“It is also cooperating militarily with Russia, including through participation in Russian exercises in the Euro-Atlantic area,” it said.

Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg highlighted the novelty of the text in his post-summit press conference.

“The first time [ever] we mentioned China in a communiqué and a document in a decision from Nato leaders was 18 months ago,” he noted, when Nato spoke of China-linked “opportunities and challenges” back in 2019.

“China’s not an adversary,” Stoltenberg noted.

But he also expanded on the list of its threatening activities.

“They [the Chinese] already have the … second biggest defence budget, and already the biggest navy, and they are investing heavily in new modern capabilities, including by investing in new disruptive technologies such as autonomous systems, facial recognition and artificial intelligence, and putting them into different weapon systems,” he said.

“They are really in the process of changing the nature of warfare,” Stoltenberg said.

He rejected the idea that Nato, whose core task was to defend the North-Atlantic region, was overstepping its treaty boundaries.

“To respond to the challenges we see that China poses to our security, is not about moving Nato to Asia … because we see that China is coming closer to us,” he said.

“We see China coming closer to us in cyber, controlling infrastructure in Africa and the Arctic, training together with Russia in North Atlantic waters,” he added.

The Nato pivot to China did not mean it had abandoned concern on Russia, whose malign activities, from waging war in Ukraine to blowing up warehouses in the Czech Republic, still dominated the communiqué, however.

“Until Russia demonstrates compliance with international law and its international obligations and responsibilities, there can be no return to ‘business as usual’,” the statement said.

China was named 10 times and Russia 62 times.

Macron dissent

Meanwhile, French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel also voiced a more China-friendly tone.

“Nato is a military organisation, the issue of our relationship with China isn’t just a military issue. It is economic. It is strategic. It is about values. It is technological,” Macron told press after the summit.

China was a “major power with which we are working on global issues to move forward together” as well as a “competitor”, he noted.

“It’s very important that we don’t … bias our relationship with China,” he said.

“China is not in the North Atlantic,” Macron added, going against Stoltenberg’s line.

“Russia, above all, is a major challenge,” Merkel also said, while noting the Nato communiqué reflected the fact the US was a Pacific-Ocean as well as an Atlantic power.

“If you look at the cyber threats, the hybrid threats, if you look at the cooperation between Russia and China, then you cannot simply negate China … [but] I do not think that we should overestimate the importance of this [Chinese threat],” she added.

For its part, China had not yet responded as of Tuesday morning.

The Nato summit came ahead of US president Joe Biden’s meeting with top EU officials in Brussels on Tuesday and with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Geneva on Wednesday.

It signalled a return to normal after four years in which former US president Donald Trump had questioned the value of Nato and insulted Macron, Merkel, and others, while cozying up to Putin.

Back to normal

Nato’s mutual defence pact was “rock solid” and a “sacred obligation” for the US, Biden said.

“I want all Europe to know that … Nato is critically important to us,” he added.

“With Joe Biden … there is a clear understanding of the necessity of Nato,” Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said.

“I was able to work with Trump. Of course, it was a bit more awkward … but with Joe Biden, it’s more natural again,” he added.

Meanwhile, Biden gave away little on what he might say to Putin.

But he sounded more dovish than hawkish by excluding the idea of a Nato membership action plan for Ukraine, on grounds “they [Ukraine] still have to clean up corruption”.

He also said Putin was a “bright” and “tough” adversary.

“I will make clear to president Putin that there are areas where we can cooperate, if he chooses,” Biden said.

The West needed a “robust dialogue” with Russia to “build a security framework for the European continent”, Macron also said.

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The Economy and China at the G7; The Conflict in Tigray; NATO Summit

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The Tigray region in Ethiopia faces the grim prospect of a man-made famine. What can be done to end this slide into tribal conflict?

Alexander Mercouris, editor-in-chief at The Duran, and writer on international affairs with a special interest in Russia and law, and Dr. Kenneth Surin, Professor Emeritus of literature and professor of religion and critical theory at Duke University, join us in a conversation about the main takeaways from the G7 summit over the weekend, the proposal of a global minimum global tax rate of 15%, what impact this could have on multinational corporations, and whether we should be hopeful or skeptical about this considering how low the bar has been set for these corporations. We also talk about how many of the conversations were framed within the context of a confrontation with China, by proposing a plan to counter the Belt and Road initiative, and focusing on the issues in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

Teodrose Fikremariam, cofounder of Ghion Journal, tells us about the ongoing conflict in the Tigray region in Ethiopia, including the involvement of Eritrean troops in the conflict and why they are there, claims that there is a risk of a man-made famine in Tigray and how there have been episodes of collective punishment. We also talk about how this conflict has brought a new tribalism into the forefront, how the portrayal of the Tigray authorities as victims in Western media is not completely accurate, taking into consideration that they began hostilities, and how international multilateral and regional organizations do not have the capacity or understanding of the situation to work as honest brokers in the conflict.

John Feffer, Director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, joins us to talk about the NATO summit taking place in Brussels this week, how the organization is yet again trying to redefine its mission and find its purpose, and whether they will be able maintain their membership as the justification for its existence seems to change every year. We also talk about the continued withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the establishment of permanent airbases in the region.

We’d love to get your feedback at radio@sputniknews.com



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