World roundup: February 13-14 2021

Stories from Myanmar, Tunisia, Kosovo, and more

This is the web version of Foreign Exchanges, but did you know you can get it delivered right to your inbox? Sign up today:


Happy Valentine’s Day!

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

February 12, 1502: Queen Isabella of Castile publicly proclaims an edict outlawing Islam in her kingdom. The edict built on previous forced conversions in Granada and indeed was justified on the basis that it would be unfair to leave Islam legal in the rest of Castile when it had been outlawed in Granada. Muslims living in the kingdom were obliged to leave or convert, and since leaving cost money and meant uprooting your entire life, most chose conversion. Of course that only bought people about a century before King Philip III of Spain expelled the Moriscos, the descendants of converted Muslims, in 1609.

February 12, 1912: Puyi, the final emperor of both the Qing dynasty and China overall, abdicates, giving way to the Republic of China and marking the end of the Xinhai Revolution. Rebel leader Sun Yat-sen succeeded him as the first president of the provisional government of the Republic of China. Puyi would later serve as the “ruler” of the “Empire of Manchuria,” a puppet state established by Japan in northern China and Inner Mongolia that existed from 1932-1945.

February 13, 1945: The World War II Siege of Budapest ends with the Axis (German and Hungarian) defenders surrendering the city to the Soviet Red Army and allied Romanian forces. Casualties were high on both sides, but at this point in the war they were casualties the Soviets could withstand while the Nazis could not. Some 38,000 civilians are estimated to have died from combat and starvation during the nearly two month siege. On the same day, Allied forces in the west began their extended firebombing of the German city of Dresden, which lasted for three days and killed at least 25,000 people. There continues to be a debate over the legitimacy of Dresden as a target and of the justification for such an overwhelming air campaign against what was predominantly a civilian population.

February 13, 1991: During the Gulf War, the US Air Force bombs an air raid shelter in Baghdad’s Amiriyah neighborhood, killing at least 408 civilians. The Amiriyah facility was being used as a shelter for neighborhood residents, though the US military believed, and in fact continues to maintain that it was being used as an Iraqi command and control bunker and that the Iraqi government deliberately put the civilians there as human shields. This is how the United States tries to brush off a lot of its atrocities, with the argument that actually it was the Bad Guys on the other side who forced and/or tricked us into killing a bunch of innocent people. Even at that, the US military knew that the facility was at least in part being used as a civilian shelter and therefore its decision to bomb it without warning and without giving civilians time to clear the area would still make it a potential war crime, if such designations ever really applied to anything the United States does.

February 14, 1876: Alexander Graham Bell files a patent application for the telephone on the same day when Elisha Gray filed a patent caveat for a similar technology. The US Patent Office later informed Gray of the conflict and he withdrew his caveat, which was less an application than a notification of an intent to file an application and therefore wasn’t as far along as Bell’s claim. Gray later won a court decision finding that the information in his caveat was leaked to Bell and some of it appeared in his application, but regardless Bell became known as the inventor of telephone and Gray, well, didn’t.

February 14, 1943: The World War II Battle of Sidi Bouzid begins.

February 14, 1945: Franklin Delano Roosevelt hosts Saudi King Abdulaziz ibn Saud aboard the USS Quincy in the Mediterranean. Roosevelt was sailing home from the Yalta Conference and took the occasion to hold several face-to-face meetings with several regional leaders. This one was the first meeting ever between a Saudi royal and a US president. The agreement they concluded (which offered US military protection to the Saudis in return for US access to Saudi oil) created the basic contours of a US-Saudi alliance that has survived (albeit with some rough patches) to the present day.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for February 14:

  • 109,381,072 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (25,354,905 active, +290,079 since yesterday)

  • 2,410,948 reported fatalities (+6792 since yesterday)

The International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and other international organizations are pushing for a reduction in global fossil fuel subsidies, citing climate change. Inevitably, this has resulted in wealthy developed nations insisting that developing nations slash their subsidies while continuing to provide and even expand their own subsidy programs. Fuel subsidy cuts in impoverished nations have generated considerable public opposition, despite the prevailing narrative that those subsidies are merely a gift to the affluent in addition to being bad for the environment. Africa Is a Country’s Camilla Houeland looks at the roots of that opposition:

I talked to trade unionists from the NLC, SWTUF, Ghana Trade Union Congress and Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions to understand why labor opposes the removal of subsidies. While acknowledging climate change, the unionists from all four countries insisted, contrary to the neoliberalist narrative, that fuel subsidy removals are anti-poor and anti-worker. All referred to attempts to remove subsidies as linked to austerity policies, such as Structural Adjustment Programs, dating back to the 1980s.

Increased fuel prices have immediate and inflationary effects and thus impact poor people disproportionately. In 2012 in Nigeria, when President Goodluck Jonathan removed the subsidy overnight, the pump price increased by 141%, and costs of transport, food, and medicine went up immediately. Minimum wages lost their purchasing power. In Sudan and Ghana, unionists explain that loss of fuel subsidies also negatively impact agricultural production.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 14,863 confirmed coronavirus cases (+43)

  • 978 reported fatalities (+3)

According to an unnamed “senior Iraqi security source,” the Syrian Democratic Forces turned some 100 Iraqi nationals alleged to have been Islamic State fighters over to Iraqi authorities this week. Around half of the IS-linked prisoners and family members the SDF is keeping in its displaced persons camps in northeastern Syria are believed to be Iraqi, and with those camps as overcrowded as they are these kinds of transfers are not surprising. The SDF is apparently denying this claim but that may not mean much. There’s a good deal of international concern over the way the Iraqi government has handled the trials (and frequently executions) of suspected IS personnel and the SDF may be trying to avoid criticism.

YEMEN

  • 2145 confirmed cases (+9)

  • 617 reported fatalities (+1)

Yemeni government sources are saying that “dozens” of combatants were killed overnight in more heavy fighting along the front line in Maʾrib province. AFP is reporting that 16 pro-government fighters were killed while an unspecified number of Houthi fighters make up the majority of those casualties. The Houthis began a new offensive in Maʾrib earlier this month. Meanwhile, the Saudi-led forces in Yemen reported shooting down one Houthi drone heading for Saudi Arabia’s Abha airport on Saturday and two drones probably heading for King Khalid Airbase on Sunday. The Houthis, however, claim they carried out a successful drone strike on Abha on Sunday. All of these claims are unconfirmed.

IRAQ

  • 643,852 confirmed cases (+2224)

  • 13,179 reported fatalities (+15)

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on Sunday that Turkish forces operating in northern Iraq found the bodies of 13 Turkish nationals apparently abducted and killed by Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters. All were discovered in a cave system near the Turkish border. The PKK claims the 13 were all “prisoners of war” who were killed during the Turkish attack on that cave position, which began on Wednesday.

Elsewhere, Iraqi authorities say they’ve made four arrests in connection with the killing of anti-government protesters in Basra. These appear to be the first arrests related to the killing of multiple protesters, both during demonstrations and in more targeted attacks, since major protests against the Iraqi government began back in October 2019. It’s unclear who these people are or what connections they might have, but suspicion for these crimes has long revolved around powerful Iraqi militias and it seems unlikely that any of the senior, politically-connected figures in those militias are going to find themselves in any serious legal jeopardy.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

  • 55,514 confirmed cases (+22)

  • 2427 reported fatalities (+0)

At least four Afghan police officers were killed and seven others wounded, along with three civilians, in three separate incidents on Saturday. A bombing in Kunar province killed those four police officers, while another bombing in Kandahar province wounded seven officers and still another bombing in Nangarhar province wounded the three civilians. It’s unclear who was behind these attacks. Also in Kandarhar, Afghan officials say that 18 Taliban fighters were killed and nine wounded during an “operation” that took place late Friday.

MYANMAR

  • 141,601 confirmed cases (+16)

  • 3189 reported fatalities (+1)

For over a week, Myanmar’s military has been relatively restrained, at least by its own standards, in terms of cracking down on protesters resisting its coup earlier this month. That restraint apparently went by the wayside this weekend. With protests, strikes, and civil disobedience campaigns entering their ninth straight day on Sunday, the junta deployed armored vehicles into major cities and to secure key infrastructure (mostly power plants). This led to at least one confrontation outside a power plant in Kachin state in which soldiers fired on demonstrators, though it’s unclear whether they were using live ammunition.

The junta also appears to have reimposed an internet blackout and has given security forces broadly expanded powers to make arrests and conduct searches. At least 384 people are believed to have been arrested thus far. The junta ordered the release of some 23,000 prisoners on Friday, ostensibly to mark Union Day, but fears are growing that authorities mean to weaponize those prisoners against protesters. That could mean directing them to attack protesters head on or to destabilize the demonstrations in ways that could be used to justify harsher crackdowns.

AFRICA

TUNISIA

  • 223,244 confirmed cases (+740)

  • 7544 reported fatalities (+36)

The Arab Center’s Daniel Brumberg argues that the roots of Tunisia’s ongoing economic and political dysfunction can be found in a governing system that may be too effective at dispersing power:

This situation is surely paradoxical. After all, the system that emerged in 2014 was supposed to attenuate the fears of both Islamists and secularists that their rivals might take exclusive control of the parliament. This was to be accomplished by using a proportional electoral system that denied any one group a majority, thus requiring the often fractious dance of power sharing. Moreover, the new constitution divided authority between a president responsible for foreign affairs and national security, and a parliament and prime minister responsible for domestic issues. Such a division of labor encouraged all sides to look to the president, who is supposed to act as a kind of national arbiter whose primary mission is to represent the entire nation. On that basis, the president is expected to foster consensus across the social, identity, and ideological divides of Tunisian society.

This mediating role was and remains important because the constitution does not clearly delineate the procedures for sharing power between the president and parliament, and between the president and prime minister. According to Article 89, the party with the largest plurality of seats in parliament selects a government. But it is the president who “shall appoint the Head of Government and the members of government,” none of whom can come from parliament itself. By leaving the appointment of the prime minister and government to the president, while nevertheless requiring that ministers gain a vote of confidence from the parliament before being sworn in by the president, Article 89 failed to clarify whether the ultimate authority of the government derived from the parliament or the president.

Still, if these conflicting procedures invited a potential struggle between the legislature and executive, they were also politically useful: so long as the president retained the trust of all the parties, those who feared that their rivals might join with the prime minister to impose their agenda on the rest of parliament could look to the president to keep the peace. In short, while Tunisia has a “mixed system,” the president is the crucial player and arbiter.

Unsurprisingly, a system that depends on the president floating above the political fray fell apart with the election of a president, Kais Saied, who doesn’t have much apparent interest in doing that. Political reform that reduces this over-division of power—or that, in other words, makes Tunisia’s political system more like other parliamentary systems—would at least address some of the country’s political paralysis, though the country’s major factions may not trust one another enough to allow that to happen.

GUINEA

  • 14,967 confirmed cases (+72)

  • 85 reported fatalities (+1)

Guinean officials have declared a new Ebola outbreak after confirming seven cases of the illness and at least three deaths. This seems somewhat noteworthy in that the 2013-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa began in Guinea and wound up killing over 11,000 people. The World Health Organization says it intends to begin deploying resources to Guinea as soon as possible, so hopefully this outbreak can be contained before it gets out of control.

SOMALIA

  • 5183 confirmed cases (+91)

  • 152 reported fatalities (+4)

An al-Shabab bomber struck a military checkpoint in Mogadishu on Saturday, killing at least three people and wounding eight more. The attack occurred near the presidential palace, and it’s possible that was the intended target and that the bomber was stymied by the checkpoint.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

  • 24,295 confirmed cases (+55)

  • 693 reported fatalities (+0)

Allied Democratic Forces fighters attacked the town of Ndalya in the DRC’s Ituri province on Sunday left at least 11 civilians and seven combatants dead, according to the Congolese military. Four ADF fighters were killed along with three Congolese soldiers. Also Sunday, separatist Bakata-Katanga fighters attacked two military camps in the city of Lubumbashi early Sunday, killing at least four security personnel and one civilian while losing six of their own number. Lubumbashi is the DRC’s second largest city and the capital of Haut-Katanga province in the southeastern part of the country. The Bakata-Katanga have been active since 2011, fighting for the independence of the entire historic Katanga region.

EUROPE

UKRAINE

  • 1,271,143 confirmed cases (+3094)

  • 24,330 reported fatalities (+45)

Three Ukrainian soldiers were killed by a landmine just outside of the city of Donetsk on Sunday. That brings to five the number of Ukrainian soldiers killed in the separatist eastern part of the country since Friday, though to be fair the other two were killed in active clashes with rebel fighters and not by an explosive device that could have been placed there some time ago.

KOSOVO

Preliminary results have the Kosovan opposition party Vetëvendosje winning a decisive victory in Sunday’s parliamentary election. Vetëvendosje, which is led by former Prime Minister Albin Kurti, currently has just under 48 percent of the vote, well ahead of the runner up Democratic Party of Kosovo at just over 17 percent. It’s likely to fall short of a sole majority but after such a dominant performance Kurti should be able to dictate terms to any potential coalition partner.

As I mentioned on Friday, a Vetëvendosje-led government will face the same challenge as its predecessors, settling Kosovo’s conflict with Serbia. But during his very brief previous stint as PM, Kurti made it fairly clear that he takes a hard line on the subject of diplomacy with Belgrade. Though he was ostensibly removed from office over a coalition dispute around his pandemic management, it’s been speculated that he was actually ousted partly at the behest of the Trump administration, which saw him as an obstacle to the big Serbia-Kosovo diplomatic deal it wanted to broker. That deal eventually turned into a somewhat bizarre arrangement whereby the administration brokered deals between both countries and Israel but only managed to get some vague gestures toward improving their bilateral relationship.

Kurti was barred from running in the election due to a past criminal conviction, but he can still become PM and presumably that’s what will happen. He should be in a much stronger position this time around, so it’s likely he’ll last longer than 50 days in office this time around.

CZECH REPUBLIC

  • 1,088,009 confirmed cases (+5118)

  • 18,143 reported fatalities (+47)

A new poll from Czech Television offers some unwelcome news for Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. Facing an election in October, Babiš’s ANO party has dropped to second place behind the, uh, fairly unorthodox “Pirates and Mayors” alliance. That union of the anti-establishment Czech Pirate Party and the localist Mayors and Independents party is polling at 29.5 percent with ANO at 26.5 percent. Babiš and his party have consistently led polling since they emerged victorious from the 2017 election. But high Czech infection levels and his government’s handling of the pandemic seems to be turning voters off.

ITALY

  • 2,721,879 confirmed cases (+11,068)

  • 93,577 reported fatalities (+221)

Mario Draghi officially became Italy’s new prime minister on Saturday. He’ll now spend the week debating his new cabinet’s agenda in parliament ahead of confidence votes in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate that he should win quite easily.

Draghi will then be tasked with rebuilding Italy’s economy, making heavy use of European COVID stimulus and recovery funds along the way. If he succeeds, which is probably a long shot but go with me here, his government could validate the EU’s very hotly debated decision to allocate those funds and thereby become the proverbial poster child for the benefits of European fiscal solidarity. We’ll see.

AMERICAS

PERU

  • 1,235,298 confirmed cases (+8093)

  • 43,703 reported fatalities (+212)

Polling ahead of Peru’s April presidential election is extremely inconclusive, except insofar as it looks like the vote will wind up going to a second round. Retired footballer George Forsyth is, well, I guess you could call him the “front runner,” but although he’s in the “lead” he’s polling at just 11 percent. That puts him only one point ahead of former congressperson Yonhy Lescano and there are three other candidates within five points of the lead. Almost a third of voters haven’t decided yet, though, so there’s a lot of potential for these results to shift.

UNITED STATES

  • 28,261,470 confirmed cases (+64,297)

  • 497,174 reported fatalities (+1111)

Finally, at the Fellow Travelers Blog, researcher Ashley Pratt identifies one potential piece of very good news buried in the 2021 NDAA:

Buried amid end-of-the-year wrangling over then-President Trump’s threats to veto the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) over Section 230 (protecting social media companies from liability for posts on their sites), it was easy to miss several articles covering modifications to banking regulations that made it into the bill. Yet there was actually a significant progressive foreign policy win among the new banking rules.

In short, this legislation requires that companies in the US report ultimate beneficial owners, the natural person or persons who ultimately benefit from the commercial activity of the company due to their overall ownership stake, to the Department of the Treasury. While that may seem like an arcane bureaucratic change, it hands progressives the tools they need to press for global financial transparency – if they choose to do so.

Pratt contends that the collection of this data could help shed light on the use of shell companies, which could be crucial to anti-corruption efforts. But more work will be needed, particularly in terms of adding a public disclosure requirement.