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World roundup: February 12-13 2022
Stories from Turkmenistan, Libya, Ukraine, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
February 11, 1990: Nelson Mandela is released from South Africa’s Victor Verster Prison after serving 27 years for resisting the apartheid government. Mandela was a key figure in the negotiations to dismantle the apartheid regime and in 1994 was elected overwhelmingly as South Africa’s first truly democratically elected president.
February 11, 2011: After over two weeks of protests, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigns, becoming the second Arab leader to step down as a result of the Arab Spring movement after Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Egypt underwent a transition to a democratic election in 2012, all of which was undone by the 2013 military coup that installed current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
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 keep 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.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
An apparent Syrian artillery strike on a village in Idlib province killed six members of the same family on Saturday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The attack was part of a wider artillery campaign across rebel-held northwestern Syria
The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen bombed targets in Sanaa early Monday, destroying among other things a communications facility allegedly used to by Yemeni rebels to help operate their drone fleet. There’s no word on any casualties. Meanwhile, five United Nations humanitarian staffers were reportedly abducted in southern Yemen’s Abyan province on Saturday. The identity of their abductors still appears to be unknown, but in that area anything from tribal militias to al-Qaeda fighters is possible.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is cutting taxes in an effort to counter inflation on food. Erdoğan intends to slash Turkey’s value-added tax from 8 percent to 1 percent on foodstuffs and is “expecting” food companies to cut their prices by 7 percent to correspond with that tax cut (rather than, say, pocketing the difference). Officially inflation climbed to just over 48 percent in Turkey last month, though there’s speculation that the Turkish government is cooking the books somewhat and that actual inflation was in the neighborhood of 115 percent. Erdoğan continues to demand that his central bank keep interest rates low in defiance of the conventional economic wisdom that calls for rate hikes to counter inflation.
The Iraqi Supreme Federal Court ruled on Sunday that Kurdish politician and former Iraqi Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari cannot stand for the office of president. The ruling is based on the allegations of corruption that got Zebari canned from the finance minister post in 2016. The court had issued an interim ruling last week suspending Zebari’s candidacy but this ruling is final and should stick. Last week’s ruling preceded a planned parliamentary vote on the presidency the following day that had to be postponed due to lack of a quorum. Zebari probably had enough parliamentary support to unseat incumbent Barham Salih as he was backed by both the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Muqtada al-Sadr’s bloc, but Sadr appeared to walk his support back amid the court case and he and the KDP will now either need to find a new candidate or acquiesce to Salih’s reelection.
Israeli occupation forces shot and killed one Palestinian man during a violent encounter in a village just north of the West Bank city of Jenin on Sunday. The incident began as a protest against the planned demolition of a Palestinian home in the village and escalated from there, with reports of gunfire on both sides. Israeli authorities regularly demolish the homes of Palestinians accused of militancy in what could reasonably be characterized as an act of collective punishment against the families of the accused.
Elsewhere, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent, at least 14 Palestinian protesters were injured by Israeli police in eastern Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood late Sunday. The unrest was sparked by far right Israeli politician Itamar Ben-Gvir, who set up a tent office in the neighborhood, which has been a flashpoint as Israeli settlers keep evicting Palestinian homeowners on the basis of pre-1948 property rights.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow is apparently wasting no time handing power over to a successor. After he mused on Friday about handing power over “to young leaders who have been brought up in a spiritual environment and in accordance with the high requirements of our time,” the Turkmen government announced on Saturday that it will be holding a snap presidential election on March 12. Turkmen presidential terms run for seven years, so Berdimuhamedow wouldn’t have faced another election until 2024. It’s a near certainty that his son, Serdar Berdimuhamedow, will succeed him as Turkmen elections are really more to keep up appearances than anything else.
It’s unclear what will happen after the election. The elder Berdimuhamedow may simply drift off into retirement as he hinted on Friday, but that’s unlikely. Gurbanguly happens to be an elected member of the People’s Council, the upper house of the Turkmen parliament that was created in a constitutional change in 2020. In fact, he happens to be the chair of that body. Gurbanguly almost certainly arranged the creation of the council and his elevation to the chairperson’s role as his retirement package ahead of stepping aside for Serdar. Additionally, Turkmen presidents are both head of state and head of government. There’s an unlikely but not impossible chance that those roles could be split, with Gurbanguly retaining one of them.
Da Afghanistan Bank issued a statement on Saturday criticizing the Biden administration’s decision to seize more than $7 billion of the bank’s foreign reserves for use in funding humanitarian relief efforts and paying out settlements to the families of the victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
On Friday we discussed the perversity of holding the Afghan people liable for an attack committed by a foreign terrorist group that happened to be based within Afghanistan, and I don’t feel the need to rehash that. But it’s worth noting that even the $3.5 billion the administration wants to earmark for relief projects is problematic. For one thing, that money doesn’t belong to the United States and it’s not really Washington’s place to spend it. Any country that currently has foreign reserves in a place where the US government can access them should think about moving those assets ASAP after this move. For another thing, all of that money, along with the $2 billion or so the bank is holding outside of the US, is meant to capitalize the bank and keep the Afghan economy functioning. The negative effect of emptying the bank’s coffers on the Afghan people will almost certainly outweigh any positive effect that could come from additional relief programs.
Nepal’s on again, off again political crisis is on again, as legislators are moving to impeach Nepalese Supreme Court Chief Justice Cholendra Shumsher Rana. At issue is a ruling Rana issued last July removing then-Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli from office and reinstating the parliament that Oli had twice dissolved in order to avoid a potential no-confidence vote. Rana has since faced serious accusations that he made those moves in return for promises of high level ministerial gigs for his relatives in the new government. He’s also been accused of influence peddling more broadly. Rana is now suspended pending a vote on removing him from office. There seems to be some speculation that this vote was timed to distract from a government plan to approve a $500 million infrastructure grant from the US Millennium Challenge Corporation that is not terribly popular with the Nepalese public.
Unspecified gunmen ambushed a convoy carrying a member of the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao on Saturday, killing the MILF member and eight other people in the convoy. The attack was reportedly triggered by some sort of land dispute among clan groups in the region—the convoy was on its way to a meeting to settle that dispute when it was attacked.
Meanwhile, a new poll from Pulse Asia shows Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who answers to the nickname “Bongbong,” widening his already formidable lead heading into May’s presidential election. The survey has Marcos at 60 percent support, with runner up and current Vice President Leni Robredo way back at 16 percent. Pulse Asia’s previous poll, in December, had Marcos up 53-20. Marcos opponents are pursuing a legal challenge to his candidacy that could eventually wind up in the Philippine Supreme Court.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced during a trip through the Pacific on Saturday that the Biden administration intends to reopen an embassy in the Solomon Islands. The US closed its Honaira embassy in 1993 and has run diplomatic affairs for the Solomons out of Papua New Guinea ever since, but the geopolitical realities of the New Cold War with China demand an increased diplomatic focus on Pacific island nations lest they fall prey to Chinese perfidy, or whatever. The Solomon Islands is the largest such nation currently without its own US embassy.
The UN’s acting Libya envoy, US diplomat Stephanie Williams, met with both of Libya’s prime ministers on Sunday to urge them not to get bent out of shape over the fact that they’re both currently doing the same job. The House of Representatives based in Tobruk elected former Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha as PM on Thursday, even though incumbent Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh insists he’s still interim PM. A large convoy of heavily armed militia fighters from the cities of Khums, Misrata, and Zlitan converged on Tripoli on Saturday in a somewhat menacing show of support for Dbeibeh that may have prompted Williams to speak with both men the following day. On Friday, large demonstrations broke out in Tripoli and in Misrata in support of Dbeibeh and in opposition to Bashagha’s elevation. This is interesting because Bashagha is from Misrata and his political base is in that city, yet popular and militia sentiment there seems to be behind Dbeibeh (who, to be fair, is also Misratan).
Meanwhile, the leader of the High Council of State, Khalid al-Mishri, is actually defending Bashagha’s appointment, arguing that Dbeibeh’s mandate expired in December when Libya was at one time scheduled to elect a new parliament and presidet—despite the fact that those elections were postponed indefinitely. The HCS is an advisory legislative body that during the civil war opposed the House of Representatives and was backed by those same militias that occupied Tripoli on Saturday in support of Dbeibeh. Many of those militias once took orders from Bashagha in his capacity as interior minister for the HCS-backed government in Tripoli. So while this mess could lead Libya back into civil war, the battle lines look like they’ve changed somewhat.
Tunisian President Kais Saied moved on Sunday to tighten his control over the Tunisian judiciary, issuing a decree granting himself authority to promote and/or fire judges. He’d already dissolved Tunisia’s Supreme Judicial Council, which was supposed to manage those affairs in order to keep the judiciary independent of the executive branch. This decree removes perhaps the last thing approximating a check on Saied’s power, which he began consolidating back in July when he sacked his cabinet and suspended parliament. He’s since dissolved the legislature and assumed dictatorial powers, though he continues to insist that he’s not actually a dictator.
The BBC is reporting that there are a number of people in Guinea-Bissau who believe that the “attempted coup” earlier this month against President Umaro Sissoco Embaló may not have been an attempted coup, or may not even have taken place at all. The thinking seems to be that Embaló staged the coup attempt to consolidate his somewhat shaky hold on power and/or to entice the Economic Community of West African States to send peacekeepers to Bissau to help him consolidate control. I don’t know how much credence to lend to something that seems like it belongs in the realm of conspiracy theory unless proven otherwise, but it is an interesting theory at least.
According to Agence France-Presse, Mali’s ruling junta has put together a draft electoral bill that would bar junta leader Assimi Goïta from running for president in any future election, whenever Mali gets around to holding elections again. The bill doesn’t stipulate a date for doing that, but that detail may be worked out in concert with international organizations. If accurate, this report is not unwelcome, though even if he excludes himself from the presidency there are still plenty of ways that Goïta can ensure that he and the Malian military remain the final word in Malian politics moving forward.
French airstrikes have reportedly killed at least 40 jihadist militants in Burkina Faso over the past week. According to French officials the strikes are all in retaliation for two recent attacks over the border in northern Benin in which nine people, including one French national, were killed.
I really don’t know what to say about Ukraine at this point. Despite no outward change in Russia’s military posture, other than the continuation of what’s been a steady buildup around the Ukrainian border and in the Crimea/Black Sea region, the United States and United Kingdom continue to speak as though a Russian invasion is days, if not hours, away. Biden administration officials are saying that they can’t “confirm” reports that the Russians are planning to invade on Wednesday, reports that some of those same officials presumably leaked to the press. UK officials are claiming that they have information on Russia’s war plans, which include surrounding major Ukrainian cities and then using Federal Security Service (FSB) agents to overthrow the governments in those cities and install pro-Russian leadership. It’s unclear what, if any, evidence they have to support these claims.
US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron each spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone on Saturday in what was yet again billed as a “last ditch” attempt to avert a war that Putin is apparently still willing to discuss even though he’s supposedly already decided to start it. From the way those calls were characterized Biden made the same threats of retaliation that he’s made to Putin multiple times before, while Putin gave “no indication” that an invasion was imminent in his talk with Macron.
Many countries have pulled diplomatic personnel out of Ukraine and/or issued advisories for their citizens to leave the country ASAP, but none of them have been as active in this regard as the United States. At this point the US has effectively shuttered its embassy in Kyiv and is managing Ukrainian business out of its consulate in the western city of Lviv, much further from the potential front line. It’s also pulled its staff out of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s ceasefire monitoring mission in the Donbas, leading a number of other participating countries to do the same, to the point where it sounds like the OSCE is suspending its work. So the organization that could determine whether any ceasefire violations in the Donbas might be the result of a Russian “false flag” operation is heading for the proverbial hills. What could go wrong?
(Russia has also reduced its diplomatic staff in Ukraine, ostensibly to avoid any “provocations” though I have to concede this is one point in favor of the “imminent invasion” theory.)
While the West continues to gear up for a war that may not be coming, the Ukrainian government continues to ask its pals in Europe and the US to tone it down lest they continue to wreak havoc with the Ukrainian economy. Kyiv is not closing Ukrainian airspace, something that would presumably be in the cards if Ukrainian officials really believed an invasion was a mere three days away. But it has now been forced to set aside some $592 million as supplemental insurance for global air carriers so as to keep them from suspending flights to and from Ukraine. Life in Kyiv reportedly seems outwardly normal, though residents have made plans to evacuate and/or take shelter should a Russian attack commence.
Thousands of people participated in an anti-Russia march in the Ukrainian capital on Saturday and the Ukrainian government has asked for a meeting with Russian officials in the next 48 hours to discuss this situation, but otherwise the US and UK still seem more invested in hyping this threat than the government of the country that’s supposedly about to be attacked. Maybe that’s because Ukrainians are accustomed to Russian hostility at this point, given how much of it they’ve faced since 2014, but to bring this part of the update full circle I’m still not sure what, if anything, underpins this sense of immediacy coming out of Washington and London. The explanation from the Biden administration seems to be that they think they’re thwarting Russia’s plans by making them public, which makes some sense I guess but still implies that they really do believe Russia is planning an invasion. Apart from the troop buildup, which is a tactic Russia has employed in the past without invading, it unclear on what basis they’ve determined that an invasion is in the cards.
Germany’s Bundesversammlung (Federal Convention, which consists of members of the Bundestag plus state representatives) reelected President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to a second term on Sunday. Steinmeier enjoys broad popular support so his reelection was not a surprise and wasn’t close either—he took 77 percent of the vote. Germany’s presidency is almost entirely ceremonial, but presidents do wield a fair amount of symbolic authority and they also take on a more tangible role during times of political turmoil (e.g., if a coalition government collapses).
Canadian police moved on Sunday to clear protesters from the Ambassador Bridge, which connects the city of Windsor with the US city of Detroit and is the busiest US-Canada border crossing. Participants in Canada’s anti-COVID lockdown “Freedom Convoy” protest have been blockading the bridge, impacting supply chains for Detroit-area auto manufacturers and prompting calls from Washington for Canadian authorities to clear them out. Protesters are still clogging the streets of Ottawa despite growing calls from the residents of that city for police to take action.
Finally, newly declassified documents add to the mass of evidence that the US intelligence community has been mass surveilling US citizens:
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been secretly collecting Americans’ private information in bulk, according to newly declassified documents that prompted condemnation from civil liberties watchdogs.
The surveillance program was exposed on Thursday by two Democrats on the Senate intelligence committee. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico alleged that the CIA has long concealed it from the public and Congress.
The pair sent a letter to top intelligence officials arguing that the program operates “outside the statutory framework that Congress and the public believe govern this collection”.
Wyden and Heinrich added: “It is critical that Congress not legislate without awareness of a … CIA program, and that the American public not be misled into believe that the reforms in any reauthorization legislation fully cover the IC’s collection of their records.”