Friday, 11 June 2021

Writing about the G7 Summit

A very special G7 summit

Victor Ângelo


The G7 summit number 47 starts today in the UK. Although the British Prime Minister will be the host, the biggest star will be Joe Biden, who chose the occasion to make his first trip abroad. He will spend a long week in Europe, thus showing that the European continent remains an important stage for diplomacy and the strengthening of American foreign alliances.

This has everything to be an outstanding summit.  The statements made in the last few days confirm the concerns that I have already expressed here in this newspaper a month ago, at the time of the preparatory meeting of the foreign ministers. Biden's intention seems to be to transform the G7 into what the UN Security Council cannot be: a platform for understanding between the great liberal democracies, able to give a coordinated response to universal issues and to face up to China's global ambitions and the threats posed by Russia. In essence, it is about seeking to safeguard American hegemony, not in an isolated way as Donald Trump advocated, but with the USA's most solid allies.

To make this alliance more effective, they associate South Africa, Australia, South Korea, and India to the group. This addition is strange and incomplete. It leaves out many important states. It is true that this is not the time for vast face-to-face meetings.  It is also true that the decision on who comes to sit at the table is up to the host. But the other members would also have a say in the matter. Nobody insisted that Mexico, Brazil, or others be invited. The reading that can be made leaves little doubt: Latin America is in crisis and counts for little more than nothing on the international stage. It is, in any case, in the North American sphere of influence. It would not need to be heard.

Africa was represented at previous summits by three or four countries. This time it was almost left out. The presence of Cyril Ramaphosa, the South African president, can be seen as the British lending a hand to maintaining stability in South Africa in order to reassure certain sections of its population. The rest of the continent is of lesser concern. Incidentally, the UK was the only G7 country that decided to cut its cooperation budget on the pretext of the pandemic. The cut is £4 billion. It will have a considerable negative impact at a time when the least developed countries need exceptional support.

Regarding the Middle East, nobody wants to hear anything about Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the general in charge in Egypt, let alone about Recep Erdoğan or Mohammed bin Salman. From the perspective of the G7, the Middle East is losing strategic relevance. On the other hand, Iran has moved into China's orbit - on 27 March, a mutual cooperation agreement for the next 25 years was signed, thus opening a way out for the Iranians, who have become freer from American and Western sanctions.

In Asia, the big bet is centred on India. It is, however, a complex and risky gamble. Narendra Modi is a radical Hindu nationalist who is dragging the world's largest democracy into an intense civil crisis. He is also a protectionist, unwilling to open the economy to foreigners. He does, however, offer one illusion: that he could become an important counterweight to China. 

China is, moreover, the main concern that Biden has in his baggage. He wants to turn the G7 into a dam against Chinese expansionism. We will see if he succeeds, apart from the mention in the final communiqué. As for Boris Johnson, the banner that would allow him to present the meeting as a success would be a resounding declaration of support for vaccination campaigns in the poorest countries, so as to have 60% of these populations vaccinated by the end of 2022. If there is a commitment to that, then this G7 will have been useful. Leaders will be able to sing victory, even though December 2022 will mean another year and a half of uncertainties and restrictions. In that perspective, helping others as quickly as possible is in the vital interests of us all, starting with the G7.

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published today in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper)



Friday, 4 June 2021

Lowering the tension between Russia and the West

Russia and us: maximum prudence and lots of diplomacy

Victor Angelo


There are some intellectuals out there with a broken compass. They have shown again this loss of reference points in the way they have reacted to the criticism made to Alexander Lukashenko, the post-Soviet relic who controls the destiny of Belarus since 1994. A character who meets all the requirements that characterize a dictator. He will not have the stature of Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping, nor the madness of Kim Jong-un, or a strategic vision that goes beyond the simple obsession with perpetuating himself in power. He is a tiny tyrant who, at his manner, ruins the freedoms and the lives of his fellow citizens. This evidence escapes some. With their gaze fixed on the past, they play at being progressive and see in him a heroic survivor of the communist era, a would-be resistor to the imperialist designs of the West. And they swallow all the falsehoods that this variant of Salazar, a version with a moustache and a brute, invents to justify his actions. In particular, the criminal action against the Ryanair commercial flight, and the lies built around Roman Protasevich. They ignore, at the same time, everything that the European leaders have said on the subject. 

The same has been true of the propaganda coming from the Kremlin. For some of our bewildered people, Putin is always right, when he attacks our part of the world. The explanation is the same, although in a strengthened dose, that the Kremlin has a more symbolic meaning and touches the soul of those nostalgic for the Soviet Union more than Minsk.

The truth is different, however. Putin is a threat. Like other despots, his power strategy is to create an external enemy, so as to allow him to appear, in the eyes of his own, as the defender of the homeland, its traditional values, and its nationalist projection as a great power. In this plan, everything that emerges as internal opposition, and that could jeopardize Putin's future, is accused of being at the service of foreign powers and pursued with all ferocity.

The external target par excellence is NATO. And the rhetoric from Moscow, which some here faithfully echo, attributes to the Atlantic Alliance the design of wanting to camp along the Russian borders. It is the alleged eastward expansion of NATO. There are four member states that share border lines with Russia: Poland and Lithuania, which are neighbours of Kaliningrad, a highly militarized Russian enclave, plus Latvia and Estonia. These countries joined NATO by their own will and because they meet the conditions required by the organization: a democratic political system, based on a market economy and respect for people's rights; and the existence of an effective defence structure duly framed by a legitimate political power. It is essentially about democracy and sovereignty. It is this sovereignty - the ability of each country to decide freely on its foreign alliances - that Putin does not want to accept being practiced by Georgia and, above all, Ukraine. Since he has no such right, he uses intimidation, trickery and, when necessary, force as an alternative. 

Those who live in an outdated ideological labyrinth do not understand these things. They pay no attention to the voices coming from the European camp, even though our leaders have the democratic legitimacy that dictators lack. Nor do they care that our side has unsuccessfully sought to revive the NATO-Russia Council, an essential consultative body for détente. The last meeting of that Council took place in July 2019. Further, Russia was invited to send military observers to the allied exercise SteadFast Defender 2021, which is taking place across Europe and with a special focus on the Black Sea. It did not respond to the invitation.

The current conjuncture is worrisome. Tension between the two sides of Europe is as it has never been in the last 30 years. In such a context, the summit planned for June 16 in Geneva between the American and Russian presidents is going to be very difficult. It is urgent to defuse the existing dangerous situation, so this meeting will require maximum diplomacy and prudence.

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published today in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper)



Saturday, 29 May 2021

Lukashenko flies low and will crash

Lukashenko in choppy flight

Victor Angelo


For some states, the repression of dissidents knows neither limits nor borders. Anything goes when someone is considered an enemy of the regime. Even when he or she lives abroad, convinced that it is safer. One may not be, however, if one is considered a target for the criminals who control power in the home country. Some dictatorships have an awfully long repressive arm. They have no qualms about operating on foreign soil and conducting murders, kidnappings, or making frivolous or unsubstantiated accusations in order to force Interpol to issue international arrest and repatriation notices. In other cases, they brutally intimidate family members who have remained in the country, with the aim of silencing the opponent in other latitudes.

The atrocious execution in Istanbul of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 was the most visible case in recent times. But it is not only Saudi Arabia that violates international law in this way. In a recently published report, the reputable NGO Freedom House took inventory of individual cases of transnational repression and the regimes that practice it, with total disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the norms of political asylum and refugee protection. In addition to the Saudis, the list includes China, Iran, Rwanda, Russia and Turkey. It would be easy, unfortunately, to add a few others. North Korea, for example, which organized the assassination of Kim Jong-un's half-brother at Kuala Lumpur airport in 2017. And as of this week, we have to include Lukashenko's Belarus.

The Belarusian dictator, who is not cleared of the well-founded suspicion of having rigged the August 2020 presidential elections in his favor, is afraid of his population and of those who lead the opposition against his regime. Therefore, it follows the old methods of dictatorships, that is, it represses the street demonstrations with all brutality, creates a generalized situation of fear, and decapitates the organizational summit, the leadership that is capable of making the popular masses move. Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, did not go to KGB school like his protector Vladimir Putin, but that does not stop him from acting in "special operations" mode.

That is what he did, by forcibly and cunningly diverting the Ryanair commercial flight from Athens to the Lithuanian capital. The interception violated all international standards related to civil aviation safety. It was also a serious affront to the European Union because it was an air link between two Schengen capitals, and a total disregard for political asylum rules. But it allowed him to kidnap and put out of action an important activist in the fight for democracy in Belarus, the young journalist Roman Protasevich.

The political costs of this criminal act are high. The European Council was expeditious and unanimous in its condemnation and response. The airspace Lukashenko controls is no longer on the route for European flights - and not only that, as several Asian airlines have followed suit - and the national airline of Belarus will have to suspend its connections with destinations within the EU. Moreover, the economic sanctions will be extended.

Some will say that these kinds of penalties have little effect on a country that depends primarily on its relations with Russia. They also add that such measures will increase Lukashenko's political subordination to the Kremlin. It is hard not to recognize the merit of these remarks. Experience shows that sanctions against third countries do not lead to major political transformations, except when they directly hit the ruling clique and the sectors vital for the country's economic survival. It is not yet known which will be the new personalities and which activities will be added to the existing sanctions list. But in these matters, the symbolic dimension is equally important. The political and diplomatic isolation of Alexander Lukashenko, and his people, must be made very clear. It serves as a lever. It is up to the Belarusian democratic opposition to do the rest. 

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published yesterday in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper)

Friday, 21 May 2021

Europe and the world: what must be done

Europe's strategic autonomy

Victor Ângelo


Tianjin is a port city, a little more than a hundred kilometres southeast of Beijing. When the European powers established concessions in China, since the middle of the 19th century, this was one of the localities chosen as a gateway, with the advantage of being close to the capital. Today, it is a metropolitan zone that covers an area larger than the district of Beja - imagine the entire Baixo Alentejo urbanized, a landscape of skyscrapers with more than 15 million inhabitants. In 2025, Tianjin should have an economy two and a half times the size of Portugal.

The Tianjin example shows how important it is to see the world with realism. China is an unstoppable giant. It has in its favour the size of its population, authoritarian centralism of power, political will, and massive investment in science, technology, and the acquisition of raw materials. In this context, what future can Portugal, or any of most European countries, have in the global balance of power? Fortunately, there is the European Union. The productive integration and the pooling of political efforts allow the member-states to carry some weight in international economic relations and in the geopolitical chess game. If there were no other reason to justify the deepening of the EU, this alone would be enough.

This is where the question of Europe's strategic autonomy arises. It is part of the ritual of the speeches now in vogue. But it needs to be deepened and transformed into an action plan. That is why I will address three aspects of the subject today, leaving the defence and security dimensions for another time.

In this decade, the first major step towards the affirmation of Europe is the strengthening of the euro as an international means of payment as well as a monetary reserve currency. The European currency is already the second most used in global transactions, well above the Japanese yen and the Chinese renminbi, but it is still far behind the US dollar. It is essential, to allow autonomy in other areas of sovereignty, that there be the political will to accelerate the use of the euro in economic and financial relations with the most diverse regions of the globe. This discussion must get on the agenda of European political leaders. This is not a mere technical problem or a question of waiting for the dynamics of the markets. It is a strategic priority.

The second line of intervention concerns foreign policy. At present, except for the climate issue, Europe's position on major issues is defined by two negative features: subordination to the conveniences of the United States and fragmentation, a consequence of the individual interests of the Union's member states. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy represents little more than himself. The current holder of the post, Josep Borrell, although more experienced than the two previous holders, does not show the ability to push a proactive and cohesive agenda. This is not the way for the EU to have a greater voice on the global stage. This is another issue that cries out for a new kind of agreement at the level of European political leaderships.

The third course of action became more evident when the pandemic highlighted the importance of self-sufficiency in the production of cutting-edge goods and services. European economies must continually invest in scientific, technological, and digital innovation, and in the training of citizens. The Social Summit held in Porto recognized the need for lifelong learning. This is the new way to look at the competitiveness of our economies. It remains to be determined which sectors should be considered key, in addition to health, the expansion of artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and energy. 

Strategic autonomy does not exclude interdependence and cooperation between us and others. And it cannot be just talk. It requires clear ideas and appropriate policies. 


(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published today in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper)



Friday, 14 May 2021

The future of Europe requires a thorough debate

Europe and the Coming Turbulence

Victor Ângelo


The launch of the Conference on the Future of Europe took place this week in Strasbourg, at the official seat of the European Parliament. The symbolism of Strasbourg is enormous. It represents reconciliation, peace, democracy, and solidarity among Europeans. These four desiderata are still as relevant today as they have been during the last seven decades, a period of continued construction  of the European political edifice. It is therefore important to remind ourselves of that, to recognize where we have come from and to define where we want to go in the next decade.

That is the aim of this initiative, which is due to be completed in March 2022. It would be a mistake to make a cynical assessment of the conference. However subtle it may seem, cynicism is the knife of the bitter and the downbeat. What is called for is a citizen's reflection that combines realism with idealism, that is a critical but constructive view. It is a matter of going beyond the rhetoric or the usual elucubrations.

The conference is a different test, which will allow us to measure the strength of citizenship movements. In fact, the biggest challenge facing the EU is precisely that which stems from the gap of ignorance or indifference between politics and the European institutions on the one hand, and people's daily lives on the other. Even in Brussels, people who live a few blocks away from the European district seem to be as disconnected from the EU as any family living in a small village in Portugal. A political project that is not understood by ordinary mortals is fragile. It can easily be jeopardized by its enemies.

The nine axes for reflection about the future ignore this disconnection. The topics are important: climate change and the environment; health; the economy, employment, and social justice; the EU's role in the world; rights and security; digital transformation; democracy; migration; and education, culture, sport, and youth. But it is a mistake to take citizens' support for the European project for granted. This is a fundamental issue. After an absolutely exceptional year, we find in European societies a lot of frustration, confusion, impatience, and a more pronounced individualism. We also have a set of internal and external enemies ready to exploit vulnerabilities and bring down the EU. That is why the discussion about the path to 2030 must begin with an analysis of weaknesses and threats.

A forward-looking assessment of the coming years shows us that we will be impacted by three major shock waves. The first comes from the accelerating use of cybernetics, in particular artificial intelligence, which will turn many Europeans into digital illiterates and redundant labour. If not properly addressed, it will further exacerbate social inequalities and job insecurity.

The second will result from new waves of uncontrolled immigration and the exploitation of this phenomenon by certain forces. It will not only be Viktor Orbán or Jarosław Kaczyński, or even Sebastian Kurz, who will divide Europe on this issue. The chances of Marine Le Pen gaining power in 2022 or of Italy being ruled by a coalition of ultranationalists in 2023 - in an alliance of Matteo Salvini with neo-fascist leader Georgia Meloni, whose Fratelli d'Italia party already mobilizes 18% of the national electorate - must be reckoned with. A front that brings together such politicians in several member states would cause a potentially fatal fracture for the continuation of Europe.

The third strategic shock - something to be avoided at all costs - could come from a possible armed conflict between the United States and China. Such a confrontation, which can by no means be excluded from the prospective scenarios, would have a devastating effect. European stability and prosperity would go down the drain.

The message, now that the debate has been opened, is that there can be no taboo subjects and no incomplete scenarios that do not consider the internal and external complexity in which we will move. Already, one fact is certain. There are years of great upheaval ahead of us.

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published today in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper)





Friday, 7 May 2021

Comments on this week's G7 meeting

A Very Combative G7

Victor Ângelo


The G7 brings together the largest liberal economies, that is, in descending order of size, the United States, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Canada. Together they represent about 50% of the world economy. The leadership of the G7 in 2021 falls to the British, who held a meeting of foreign ministers this week in preparation for the summit scheduled for June.

They have gone two years without meeting. The pandemic and the malaise caused by Donald Trump's presidency explain the long hiatus. Now the realities are different. Control of the pandemic seems possible, thanks to vaccination campaigns. And the policies pursued in Washington are no longer unpredictable. Still, it was necessary to decide between a face-to-face meeting or not. After a year of virtual conferences, it was concluded that when it comes to diplomacy, face-to-face contact is by far the most productive. Many of the videoconferences held between politicians during the pandemic turned out to be a mere formal exercise in which each one read the text in front of him  or her, without an exchange of ideas, an analysis of options or a personal commitment. We are now safely back to face-to-face discussions.

Another aspect concerns the list of countries outside the G7 but invited to the meeting. It was limited to South Africa, Australia, South Korea, and India, as well as two supranational organizations, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union. The political reading of this choice is easy to make. There is a clear preference here, and not just from the British. The economic and geopolitical focus is on Asia, on strengthening relations with countries that can stand up to competition from China.  Latin America and the Middle East were simply ignored.

China was in fact a dominant concern. The consultations among the ministers started there. The US is pursuing a very complex policy line in relation to China. They seek, in the main, to combine antagonism with cooperation. Hostility in general and agreement, in certain concrete matters, for example in the area of climate change or on Iran. This line will not work. The message received in Beijing from Washington can be summed up in one word - confrontation. And the Chinese will respond to that perception club in equivalent currency.

The Europeans themselves - and this has been shown in the statements made by Germany and France - think that the American position with regard to China is excessive. They agree with Washington when it comes to human rights, Hong Kong or Xinjiang, or the protection of intellectual property. But they believe that Europe has much to gain if the relationship with China is based on respect for established rules and the pursuit of mutual advantages. Japan prefers to follow a policy similar to Europe's, despite pressure from the Biden administration.

Russia was also high on the agenda. The Kremlin is now seen as a threat to the European and American democracies. In this matter, the harmony between the two sides of the Atlantic is clearer. The issue of defending democratic regimes, including the fight against the spread of false or biased information, was a major theme.

The American Secretary of State went to London to propose a new strategic approach. Antony Blinken argues that the group cannot just be a coordination mechanism for the big capitalist economies. It must become a platform for political intervention by the most influential democracies. This is an expression of a belief prevalent in the current American administration that the US has a mission - that of saving the democracies. For some of us here in Europe, such a proposition generates three kinds of uneasiness. One, related to the increasing marginalization of the UN's political role. The other, with the worsening polarization of international relations. The third, with the weight that a phantom named Trump may yet exert in American politics.

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published today in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper)










Friday, 30 April 2021

The French malaise

When generals write open letters

Victor Angelo


A poll released this week by IFOP, the prestigious French public opinion institute, tells us that 86% of the French consider internal security as a central issue, which will influence the outcome of the May 2022 presidential election. On the other hand, in July 2020, 71% of the adult population considered that France is going through a process of decline. Decline is a vague concept, open to various interpretations. But it reveals a feeling of social malaise, which gave rise to the "yellow vests" and has been slyly exploited by the extreme right, especially by Marine Le Pen.

Another opinion survey conducted by the Jean-Jaurès Foundation, an institution with links to the Socialist Party, revealed that a good number of French citizens believe that there is too much disorder in the country. More specifically, 82% think that France needs a strong leader, capable of restoring public order and the authority of the state. President Emmanuel Macron must not have found any comfort in these opinion polls. The images that remain are of a nation mired in political indecision and sensitive to the narrative of the far right.

It is in this context that a few days ago an open letter appeared, signed by 24 reserve generals and a hundred or so senior officers and more than a thousand military personnel of other ranks, with one or two still on active duty and the rest retired. The letter, published in the ultranationalist magazine Valeurs Actuelles, seemed to be intended as leverage to strengthen the positions of the radical right. It was viewed by the government and by many with amazement and as a call for a hypothetical coup d'état.

The text is an attack on what its authors call the lack of courage of the political class to face the existing "chaos". They further state that this weakness may lead their active military comrades to an "intervention to defend the civilizational values" of France. The word intervention does not allow for ambiguity. This is the most explosive part of the missive, which has left the defence minister and many democrats on the boil. In Europe in 2021, such a suggestion is unacceptable, even more so coming from such a large number of officers who were only recently serving in the ranks.

"The hour is grave, France is in danger, is threatened by several deadly risks." So opens the document, in the well-worn style of those who paint chaos to then claim that it is time to save the homeland. The authors refer to what they call the disintegration of French society, to what they consider to be a spreading of hatred among various sections of the population, and attack "Islamism and the hordes of the suburbs," that is, immigrants of non-European origin who live mainly in the poor dormitories that are the outskirts of the big cities. Immigration is in fact one of the great battle horses of the national-extremists, in France as in other European countries. It is an issue that concerns people with lower incomes and pensioners with small pensions the most. References to immigration bring electoral dividends. Marine Le Pen knows this. It is moreover in these social categories, who once voted left or in popular movements, that she finds a good part of her support. The IFOP data shows that 40% of workers and other low-wage earners support Le Pen.

The issue has been little talked about outside the French hexagon. It is true that the pandemic, Russia, the EU sofagate, soccer, and concern over Cristina's TV ratings decline leave no room for other news. But the letter, revealing the political turmoil in France, has a dimension that goes beyond national borders. If next year Emmanuel Macron were to lose the presidential election and the far right were to take over power in Paris, the impact of that political earthquake on the future of the European project would be incalculable. So weakening Macron, as some are doing here and there, is a very serious mistake.

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published today in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper)



Friday, 23 April 2021

The Shael without Idriss Déby

New uncertainties next door in the Greater Sahel

Victor Angelo


In 1990, the Chadian rebel leader Idriss Déby returned to the country from Sudan. He led a column of armed men, composed mainly of fighters from his home region.  Days later he seized power in Ndjamena, with the approval of François Mitterrand. The French president knew his geopolitics. He saw Chad as the essential node for the interests, influence and security of France and its client states in that part of Africa. Therefore, it was essential that it be controlled by a strong man, consistent and friendly to France. Déby had this profile. And successive French presidents got used to turning a blind eye to systematic human rights violations, high-scale corruption, and the tribalization of power, so as not to weaken their ally in Ndjamena.

The support became even more solid when Déby decided that his troops would be, on the African side, the strong arm in the fight against the different jihadist groups that terrorize the populations of the Sahel. His military became by far the best prepared in the region. Even against Boko Haram, Chad's capability is far superior to Nigeria's. The UN mission in Mali (MINUSMA) has a considerable Chadian presence - 1400 troops, with a more offensive posture than most other blue helmets. In addition, Déby had just sent an additional 1200-man brigade, as part of the regional military cooperation known as G5 Sahel, to the three-border area especially targeted by terrorists - the triangle where Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso converge.

The military institutions of the countries in the region are structurally weak and kept that way by politicians, who are more afraid of possible coups than of terrorists. Of all the neighbours, only Déby, trained as an officer in France and hardened in the desert campaigns, was a true war chief. His combativeness was legendary. In 2008, a rebel faction arrived at the gates of his palace. Nicolas Sarkozy proposed that he be exfiltrated into a golden exile. Déby and other loyalists, some of them now members of the Transitional Military Council, refused, preferring to fight to the end. And they eventually defeated the assailants. Shortly afterwards, as the UN Special Representative, I discussed this crisis with Déby. I recall three points from that meeting. First, the recognition that his troops were neither organized nor equipped effectively. Second, the decision to spend a good deal of oil money on transforming his fighters into professional soldiers. Third, the decision to seek an understanding with Omar al-Bashir's Sudan, as he had already done with Gaddafi's Libya, so that neighbouring territories would not be used as bases for launching rebellions. And so it was. By late 2009, the difference was already clear. Since then, these capabilities have been consolidated. France, the United States, and other Westerners began to see Chad as the spearhead against terrorism and religious extremism. Criticism of dictatorship and nepotism have been put in the freezer.

But in these lands of instability, life takes many turns. Déby closed his cycle this week, perhaps in a similar way to the one he did thirty years ago. Only this time the rebel column was from the tribe next door, it came from Libya, and the president fell on the front line. Chad, Central Africa, the Sahel, France, and the Europeans present in the region became more fragile.

Several questions arise from the disappearance of Idriss Déby. What motivated President Macron to leave him without his usual support, when in 2019 he had sent fighters to quell a similar rebellion? Miscalculation? Who is behind this new rebellion, known as FACT (Front for Change and Concord in Chad)? What impact will the new reality have on the conflict in the Central African Republic? What to expect from the G5 Sahel and the fight against terrorism in this part of Africa? Each of these questions hides many uncertainties and concerns. The future of the poor people of Chad is the greatest of them.

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published today in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper)



Friday, 16 April 2021

Spain getting deeper involved in Arica

Spain wants to race in Africa on its own track

Victor Ângelo


The Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, was recently in Luanda and, on his return, in Dakar. The trip marked the start of the action plan approved by his government under the title "Focus Africa 2023". The plan is a bet on African prosperity. Spain wants to be a major partner in the development of a set of countries designated as priorities. The list includes, in the North, Morocco, Algeria and Egypt, leaving out Libya and Tunisia - a nation to which Europe should pay special attention. It also includes all West Africa (ECOWAS) and countries from other regions - Ethiopia, the triangle that Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania form, South Africa and, closer to Portuguese interests, Angola, and Mozambique. This dispersion of efforts seems to me to be a weak point.

The plan is based on reinforcing embassies and trade delegations and expanding bilateral cooperation, including in the areas of culture, security, and defence. Beyond the political intentions, it opens the door and protects Spanish private investments in the selected countries. It is an intervention with two complementary fronts, the political and the economic. Arancha González, who headed the International Trade Center, a UN body, and is now Minister of Foreign Affairs, had the opportunity to see what China, India and others are doing in Africa. This experience has allowed her to design a strategy that is current, attractive, and capable of responding to Spanish nationalism. It serves, on the other hand, the personal agenda of the minister, who dreams of great flights on the international scene.

The declared ambition is to turn Spain into an indispensable player in African matters, within the European Union. In this way it will increase its relative weight in the universe of Brussels. The document clearly states that Madrid wants to lead EU action in Africa. Spanish politicians and businessmen know that Europe's relationship with the African continent will be, for several reasons, a central theme of European foreign policy. They are positioning themselves to make the most of that future.

Spain does not have the sub-Saharan experience that other EU countries have accumulated throughout history. But it shows political determination. It will be able to develop more objective relations, without the shadows of the colonial past and the misunderstandings that arose post-independence. It would be a mistake, however, not to seek to take advantage of the connections and knowledge that France, Belgium and Portugal in particular have acquired. The challenge is too great for an incursion without partnerships. That is the second weak point of this move.

The visit to Angola made it clear that it is about occupying the largest economic space possible, from agriculture and fisheries to transport and energy. There are more than 80 Spanish investment projects already underway or in the start-up phase. There also seems to be the intention of counting on Luanda to help Madrid normalize relations with Equatorial Guinea, which was the only colony that Spain had south of the Sahara and is now part of the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries (CPLP). These moves appear to be in direct competition with Portugal's interests. However, knowledge of the complexities of Angola and Equatorial Guinea would rather recommend a joint effort on the part of the two Iberian states.  

In Senegal, the problem is different. It has to do with clandestine migration. The country is a hub for those who want to enter Europe via the Canary Islands. The Senegalese are in second place, after the Moroccans, when it comes to illegal arrivals in the Spanish archipelago. It is also through the Senegalese beaches that many others pass, coming from countries in the region. For this reason, Spain has deployed 57 police officers in Senegal to help dismantle the trafficking networks and prevent people from embarking on a very dangerous sea crossing. The other dimension of the visit to Dakar is that Senegal remains the political centre and an anchor of stability in West Africa.

From all of this, I must say that running on your own track in the vastness of Africa is a challenge that I would not even recommend to a giant.

(Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published today in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper)



Friday, 9 April 2021

Putin and our side of Europe

The infinite Vladimir Putin

Victor Angelo


According to official figures, for what they are worth, the constitutional revision now enacted by Vladimir Putin would have received the approval of 78% of voters in July 2020. The opposition considered the referendum a sham full of pressure and manoeuvres, but the president will always stress that the revision deserved popular support. We all know how results like that are achieved in opaque and authoritarian regimes. In any case, it is estimated that nearly two thirds of Russians go along with the president, despite the economic doldrums, social dissatisfaction and obstacles to freedom. This level of acceptance - or resignation - is due to the regime's incessant propaganda of the leader, showing him to be a resolute and deeply nationalistic leader, the personifier and protector of Russian identity. The population still remembers the chaotic governance that preceded his coming to power in 1999. Putin means for many stability and public order.

Autocracy favours corrupt practices. That is one of the regime's weaknesses. The campaign against Putin's absolute power involves unmasking high-level corruption. Attacking him based on the aberrations inscribed in the new constitution will not have much impact. It is true that the new law allows him to remain president, if life gives him health, until the age of 84 in 2036. That is the most striking aspect of the new constitutional text. It is a cunning move that aims to allow him to leave the scene when he sees fit, without losing an inch of authority until the final moment. The other relevant changes are the lifetime impunity granted to him and his sidekick Dmitry Medvedev, and the ban on homosexual marriages.

Seeing the Russian people condemned to another number of years of oppression makes anyone who knows and cherishes the value of freedom angry. But the problem is fundamentally an internal issue, which will have to be resolved by the Russian political system and citizens' movements. Our space for action is limited to insistently condemning the lack of democracy and the attacks that the regime makes against the fundamental rights of every citizen, starting with Alexei Navalny. But it is essential not to be naïve about the danger Putin represents in terms of our stability and security. When we talk about dialogue and economic relations we do not do so out of fear or mere opportunism. We do it because that is the way to treat a neighbour, however difficult, in order to have peace in the neighbourhood.

One of the most immediate problems relates to Ukraine's aspiration to join NATO. This is an understandable ambition. It should be dealt with according to the membership criteria - democracy, the rule of law, peaceful conflict resolution and guarantees for the proper functioning of the national armed forces, including the protection of defence secrets. Kiev and Brussels do not need to ask Moscow for permission. Vladimir Putin and his people will not be at all happy when it comes to formal negotiations. However, they have no right to oppose a legitimate foreign policy decision by an independent state. However, it is important that everything is done without burning the midway points and with the appropriate diplomacy to prevent an acceptable process being exploited by the adversary as if it were a provocation.

Another area of immediate concern: the cohesion of the European Union. Putin has long been intent on shattering European unity. He sees the French presidential election of 2022 as a unique opportunity. Marine Le Pen has, for the first time, a high chance of winning. She is viscerally ultranationalist and against the European project. Her election would pose a very serious risk to the continuation of the EU. Putin knows this. He will do everything to intervene in the French electoral process and ruin anyone who might be an obstacle to the victory of the candidate who best serves his interests. It is essential to put a stop to this meddling and, at the same time, to bear in mind the lesson that the Russian leader reminds us daily: vital disputes between the major blocs are no longer fought only with a sword and rocket fire.

   (Automatic translation of the opinion piece I published today in the Diário de Notícias, the old and prestigious Lisbon newspaper)