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)

 

Friday, 2 April 2021

Mozambique and the Northern challenge

Mozambique: a complex crisis

Victor Ângelo

 

 

Following last week’s terrorist attack on the town of Palma, eighteen civil society organisations sent an open letter to the President of Mozambique. In addition to condemning the acts of violence, the letter expressed concern and reminded President Filipe Nyusi that a crisis as serious as the present requires more and better public communication from national leaders.  The recommendation means that the leadership of the country does not pay due attention to the obligation to keep the citizens informed. The practice of playing down the problems is the norm. We cannot be surprised. Opacity, arrogance, and detachment are three of the characteristics that have traditionally defined the political culture of the elites in power in Maputo.

It is also noticeable that citizens do not understand what the government's strategy is, beyond the use of the armed forces, which, by the way, have shown that they are not entirely prepared for the challenge. NGOs do not believe in the national military capacity and know that there is no time to wait for the training of special forces in sufficient numbers. It is true that training special troops is essential. The willingness expressed by the Portuguese government to do so is to be commended. But the situation is urgent, for humanitarian and other reasons. What has now occurred in Palma, and what had already happened in Mocímboa da Praia and other district headquarters in Cabo Delgado province, may spread along the northern coast, especially to areas where Swahili is the lingua franca. NGOs recommend that the authorities ask the Southern African Development Community and the African Union for security assistance. I do not think they will. They do not want critical eyes around or to give the impression that the problem requires regional involvement.

It is clear, however, that this is a more serious conflict than has hitherto been thought. The offensive against Palma was planned in a professional manner. One of the conclusions that must be drawn is clear: behind all this there is an organising hand. It is essential to unmask this hand, which seems to me far more sophisticated than a vague jihadist connection.

Apparently, the central objective is to prevent the gas megaproject, which is being launched in the region, from going ahead. The price of natural gas on the international markets is at an all-time low and the trend is for it to remain that way. It is of no interest to the big gas producers for new competitors to appear, especially one that could have enormous impact. Mozambique's reserves are in third place in Africa, after Nigeria and Algeria. When they will start to be extracted - which will only happen if security is restored in the province - they will be in direct competition with Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, which are respectively the world's third, fourth and eighth largest producers. I am not pointing the finger at anyone, but geopolitics recommends that we look at data like this. Especially if we take into account that future demand for gas could stagnate for reasons of the fight against climate change. International public opinion is less and less favourable to investments in hydrocarbons.

The fundamental point, beyond the clean-up of Palma, humanitarian aid and technical-military assistance to Mozambique, is to try to understand the roots and dynamics of this terrorist offensive. To minimise, to ignore the realities of social exclusion or to insist on stereotypical explanations - including those referring to alleged links to the so-called Islamic State - would be a mistake. We are facing an insurrection capable of serving certain interests and easy to promote. These are fighters who know how to survive with little, without the need for elaborate logistics. The weapons come from desertions, from previous ambushes, now from the attack on Palma, and from the illegal markets for military equipment in East and Central Africa. They do not want to occupy land, but to shoot the representatives of power and generate insecurity in areas with economic interest, but with a weak State presence. They are therefore highly dangerous individuals. They need to be taken seriously, but without simplistic approaches.

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

 

 

 

 

 

Friday, 26 March 2021

Europe: looking ahead

European horizons and balances

Victor Ângelo

 

We live in a time of uncertainty. The pandemic is still at the centre of all worries. The different mutations of the virus and the immensity of the vaccination campaigns show that we are far from the exit of the tunnel. And the economic, social, and psychological impacts are yet to be determined. They will certainly be huge and long term. In Europe, for the time being, we are helping ourselves to the oxygen balloons that the central bank and political expedients are making available. In reality, we are living on reputation and the pledge of the future. Meanwhile, we are lagging when compared to China or the United States. And we will receive a share of the problems of a neighbourhood – to the south and to the east – which was already poor, and which will see its future difficulties increase uncontrollably. None of this is pessimism, just an announced puzzle.

To these challenges are added the geopolitical ones. We find ourselves drawn into disputes that are not necessarily our own. The Anchorage meeting, which brought two high-level delegations – one American and one Chinese – face to face late last week, revealed that the rivalries between these countries have reached an acute stage of antagonism. For the first time, neither one side nor the other sought to disguise the degree of hostility that exists. Journalists were even invited to stay in the room to take note of the mutual accusations that were made from the very beginning. Only then did the delegations move on to the quiet and substance of the bilateral discussions.

Two issues became clear. The Chinese leadership emerged strengthened from the session of the National People's Assembly held earlier this month. It now has a much more assertive mandate, internally and externally. For example, the deputies ratified a motion that opens the possibility of military intervention in Taiwan if the island's authorities take a path that could strengthen the independence thrust. This is an incredibly significant change in language. Even more telling is the new posture toward foreign governments that criticize Beijing. China has decided to advance to the geopolitical duel without a mask and with a tactical marking.

We have entered a risky cycle that could lead to a confrontation between these powers. And the new vision that the United States is proposing for Europe, through the document NATO 2030, puts the Europeans in this conflict. What is on the table, as seen at this week's NATO ministerial meeting, is an expansion of the alliance's theatre of operations in order to legitimize Washington's geopolitical ambitions in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. These regions are far outside the areas that are of direct concern to us. What is more, an extension to the far reaches will certainly weaken European capabilities in the geographies that really matter to us, which are on Europe's immediate borders.

You may retort that China is an economic and cyber threat. But these things are solved through negotiations, through trade measures and countermeasures, through the strengthening and protection of our economies, and through increasing the capacity of our intelligence services to act. In short, they require a more cohesive Europe.

The redefinition of NATO's role is necessary. The horizon we face is quite different from the past. We should, however, ask ourselves what our priority area of defence should actually be. We also need to discuss what is the balance between a Europe looking towards a Euro-Asian future and the history of our Euro-Atlantic engagement. I see two variables here that need to be addressed. One has to do with our long-term relationship with Russia. Vladimir Putin is not eternal. Russia is part of our strategic neighbourhood, our economic complementarities, and our cultural references. The other concerns the EU's defence and security autonomy. It must be permanently reinforced, without, however, jeopardizing our historic commitments to the Atlantic Alliance. Uncertain times demand that we clearly know which balances to maintain, and which path to choose. It is a question of combining courage with vision.

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

 

Saturday, 20 March 2021

Europe and its disagreements on migrations

Europe adrift in the sea of migrations

Victor Ângelo

 

A meeting of the European Union's ministers of foreign affairs and internal administration on migration was held this week at the initiative of the Portuguese presidency. The previous one had taken place in 2015, when more than a million people arrived in Europe from Syria and other parts of the Middle East, Afghanistan, and the countries of the Indian subcontinent, as well as Africa. The long gap between the two meetings happened because migration is an extraordinarily complex and fractious issue among EU member states. Leaders have systematically swept the imbroglio under the rug.

Now the meeting was a new attempt to define a common policy. There were some generic statements about the need for a comprehensive and coherent response that combines development and security partnerships with the migrants' countries of origin and transit, that opens avenues for controlled migration, that prioritizes political relations with North Africa and West Africa. All very vague and at the level of mere lapalissades. The result was, once again, below expectations.

The Mediterranean Agenda proposed in February by the European Commission, which was one of the reference documents, is equally imprecise. It lumps together completely different national realities, as if the Mediterranean geopolitical space were homogeneous. And it does not make a critical balance of the past. It suggests continuing and deepening a cooperation model that, in reality, has failed to help transform any state in the region into either a prosperous or democratic nation.

The fact is that there is no common position beyond strengthening Frontex as the European Coast Guard and border police. That is the only accepted and shared responsibility, the lowest common denominator. As for the rest, everything else is business as usual. It will be managed by chance events. The countries of entry of illegal immigrants will continue to have to bear the political, humanitarian, and economic costs that result from receiving those who arrive there. Despite the repeated appeal by the Portuguese Minister of Internal Administration, there will be no solidarity among Europeans in this matter.

The great truth is that most member-states do not want to receive new waves of immigrants coming from other geographies and unfamiliar cultures. Even countries that have traditionally been the destination of Maghrebian, African and other immigrants share this position. We, the Portuguese, are a little on the outside. We do not really understand the weight of migratory pressure on the cohesion of the social fabric of big cities in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, for example. Nor do we have a clear notion of the political impact of the presence of vast foreign communities, when they are not integrated into the societies that received them, thus being an argument easily exploited by right-wing extremists and potential terrorists. 

Europe will continue to speak constructively and act restrictively, even repressively, on this issue. International migration is one of the most complex dilemmas facing us, but one that many Europeans do not want to consider. Despite the progress of tolerance values, we are not fully prepared for the diversity of cultures and faces. Anyone in doubt should visit the new ethnic ghettos that exist in certain European metropolises. And without going any further, you can start with certain outskirts of Lisbon.

We have already seen that the sea is not enough of a barrier for those who are desperate or dream of a better life. But since the intention of those in charge is to stop population movements that seem threatening, Europe will go further. It will pour fortunes into countries that have the potential to send us new waves of migrants - as is already happening with Turkey. It is a carrot and stick gamble. Now, in these countries, the powerful always get the carrot, and the poor and the weak always get the stick. For this reason, many seek to flee to Europe.

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

Saturday, 13 March 2021

Comments on the Quad summit

Change course to avoid a collision

Victor Ângelo

 

The first Quad Summit, a new platform for strategic consultations between the United States, Australia, India and Japan, takes place today. Quad is short for quadrilateral. Since 2007, the foreign ministers of these countries have met sporadically to discuss the security of the Indo-Pacific region. This time, the meeting is at the highest level, albeit virtually, with Joe Biden and the prime ministers of the three other states.

The US President and Scott Morrison of Australia are the real instigators of this project. Narendra Modi and Yoshihide Suga were more reticent. They did not want the meeting to look like what it actually is: an avenue to discuss how to curb China's growing influence in the Indian and Pacific regions. So, the official agenda registers only three items - fighting the pandemic; economic cooperation and responding to climate change. This list thus hides the dominant concern, China's increasingly resolute power in both oceans and with the riparian states. China already has the world's largest armed fleet, with battleships, amphibious assault ships, logistics ships, aircraft carriers, polar icebreakers, and submarines. In the last 20 years, its naval capacity has grown threefold. It has more vessels than the United States and its ambition for the current five-year period (2021-2025) focuses on accelerating the production of means of ensuring presence and visibility, increasing missile capacity of distinct types and expanding nuclear weapons.  

The scale of these military investments and President Xi Jinping's very incisive foreign policy alarm many US strategists. It is in this context that the Quad summit should be seen. There are even those who think that, in time, Washington's objective is to create a defence alliance covering the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, in an arrangement that would be inspired by what exists in the North Atlantic, that is, the creation of a NATO of the East.

It will not be easy. India, notwithstanding the many border issues it has with China, does not want to be seen by Beijing as a hostile neighbour. It seeks, despite existing disputes, to maintain a certain diplomatic balance with the Chinese to moderate the latter’s support for Pakistan, which Indian leaders see as their number one enemy. Moreover, New Delhi wants to appear, not only to the Chinese but also to the Russians, as an autonomous defence power. Modi is a nationalist who knows a lot about geopolitics and international power play.

Japan, for distinct reasons, does not wish to enter into an open confrontation with China either. It will seek to continue to benefit from the American military umbrella, but without going beyond a prudent policy towards Beijing. Tokyo is banking more on mutual interests than on rivalry. And as long as Beijing does not try to capture the Japanese islands of Senkaku, long the object of diplomatic dispute between the two countries, Tokyo is unlikely to change its position.

However, the American strategy in this part of Asia is to create a containment front vis-à-vis China. If the Quad initiative does not work, they will turn to Europe, starting with NATO. This is where all this has to do with our security. I do not defend the idea of an alliance stretched to the ends of the earth, no matter how much Europeans see China as an unfair economic competitor or a state that does not follow the values we consider essential - democracy, freedom, and human rights.

The risk of an armed confrontation in that part of the world is growing. Europe's role must be to call for moderation, respect for international norms and effective dialogue between the American and Chinese leaders. The global challenges that the world faces today are already too many and require the building of a cooperation agenda between the great powers. And there, yes, they should be able to count on Europe's commitment.

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

 

  

Friday, 5 March 2021

Looking for a stronger European leadership

A more vibrant European spring

Victor Angelo

 

The next six to eight weeks, including the Easter period, could be a period of great tension in the European Union (EU). We are entering spring. This is the time when life sprouts again. People, like plant shoots, want to go outside and catch the new sun. They become impatient and find it hard to accept that their movements are controlled by a policeman on every street corner.

European leaders, including the Commission, continue to project an image of inconsistency in the face of the calamity we have been facing for a year now. The disaffection is general, although, as last week's meeting showed, members of the European Council try to disguise their disappointment and keep the discussion within the bounds of good manners. There is no direct criticism, but several national leaders are looking for alternatives, outside the common framework. Viktor Orbán, as usual, was the first out of the picture. This week he made himself publicly vaccinated with Chinese Sinopharm and approved the purchase of Russian Sputnik V. All this in defiance of what was decided in Brussels. The path he opened is being followed by the Czech Republic, Croatia, Slovakia, and Poland, which also want the Russian vaccine or those produced in China.

The conclusion is simple. The lack of speed of the vaccination campaign is currently the most important political problem in Europe. Without widespread immunity, the rest –  family life, the economy, culture, sport, travel, social activities – will remain moribund. In statements she made this week, Von der Leyen seems to have finally understood the importance of a fast, effective and well-explained campaign. But it is not enough. Confusion, bureaucracy, shuffling with pharmaceuticals and geopolitical biases continue to hold everything up. And there is no one to provide the leadership that is needed. The current Presidency of the European Council has been distracted by other things, as if we were in normal times and there was no absolute priority. Portugal needs to correct its shot.

At Member State level, in addition to the prevailing disorientation, we can see that the policies adopted are the traditional ones - confining, closing everything and creating barriers at the borders. And now the fracture is accentuated by the bilateral pacts that are in the pipeline between Austria and Denmark with Israel, a country that will try to exploit to the maximum the political dividends of these agreements.

These are case-by-case responses that call the joint effort into question.

In France, Emmanuel Macron no longer has time for European issues. He is caught up in a complex political situation, made worse by the proximity of the 2022 presidential elections. The polls, with Marine Le Pen on the rise, do not leave him in peace. Not to mention that Michel Barnier could enter the fray, thus emerging as a further obstacle to the re-election of the current president. 

In Germany, where the economy and public opinion are more resilient to the crisis, there is no great enthusiasm for European affairs. The central issue is the succession of Angela Merkel in a few months' time. And then there is the decision to put the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party under police surveillance. 

In Italy, Mario Draghi's arrival in power is good for Europe. He is a convinced and courageous European. But he must focus above all on the delicate economic and social situation his country finds itself in. And on keeping his fragile coalition together.

The rest of the EU carries little weight in defining the future line. So, it is essential to have strong EU leadership in Brussels. That is one of the lessons to be learned from the present mess - we need solid leaders in the core countries of the Union and top politicians in the European institutions. The practice of sending second-rate personalities to Brussels will not do. In the current crisis and given the scale of the challenges of the coming years, we need to think about a thorough overhaul of the present Commission and a strengthening of its powers. Something difficult, but which must be tackled without delay and with the necessary sensitivity.

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

  

 

Friday, 26 February 2021

We cannot keep shooting ourselves in the foot

Tidying up the ghosts that haunt us

Victor Angelo

 

In the times of the Soviet Union, it was said in Moscow that the past was unpredictable. The history of communist governance changed every time a new clique took over the Kremlin. That joke reminds us that the narrative about history has colossal political importance. It is usually captured by the ruling class to justify its control of power. This is the case in dictatorships.

In a democratic framework, a version should prevail, especially in describing the most controversial eras, which is as close as possible to a broad consensus. States are built with ups and downs. They result from the various facets that peoples have experienced over time, in a connection of heroic and creative moments with others of retrogression and tragedy. The truth is that a modern country cannot live in continuous disquiet with its past. States that have experienced profound national crises and have finally managed to leave behind authoritarian regimes that abuse human rights must find ways to put that phase of their history in order and focus their energies on building a future that is free, prosperous, and more just. And at peace with itself.

This is what happened in the 1990s in South Africa or, later already in our century, in Sierra Leone after the atrocities committed during the civil war (1991-2002). In both cases, the new political authorities established Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. In addition to holding accountable those who had played a key role during the dark period and acknowledging the crimes committed by individuals who acted as excessive enforcers of orders received, the commissions allowed for the building of an acceptable memory about those painful times, provided a platform for victims to make their voices heard and addressed common anxieties.

Over the past three decades more than forty countries have seen the need to make a collective introspection of their past. They have used tools for the administration of justice and reconciliation close to those piloted by the South Africans and Sierra Leoneans, with the necessary adaptations for each context. In general, these efforts have led to the strengthening of national cohesion. A summary of their conclusions shows that the focus was always placed on four pillars: explaining what happened, amnesty, reparations and resolving discrimination. The aim is to acknowledge mistakes, prevent their repetition, erase hatred and create the conditions to face the future in a constructive manner.

One of the most recent commissions was the Canadian one (2015). The core of its mission was to analyse the injustices perpetrated against indigenous communities and to propose measures of reparation and equalisation of opportunities. The issue was important as it fed a social fracture line and gave space to racist discourses on white superiority. Looking at the United States, Canadians understand the importance of combating racism and radicalism based on skin colour. 

A people cannot spend their days discussing the ghosts of old. Nor imitate the Stalinists who erased characters from official photographs according to the political convenience of the hour. The ghosts that each people have - some will have more than others - should be catalogued with common sense and stored in the museum of historical facts.

Recent noises have led me to write this text. I am referring to the controversy about the coats of arms in Praça do Império opposite the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon, the demolishing idea that brought the Monument to the Discoveries to the social networks or even the passing of a former soldier who won his medals in the colonial war. The extreme passion of the positions taken by many shows, once again, that we still cannot talk calmly about the Portugal that turned the page almost fifty years ago. Now, without forgetting what happened, the many problems we face require us to move on to the next chapter. Otherwise, we will be in conflict with ourselves, absorbed in shooting ourselves in the foot, for the profit and pleasure of those who want to keep us distracted.

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

 

 

 

 

Friday, 19 February 2021

The G20 should coordinate the global response

A vaccine against geopolitical rivalries

Victor Angelo

 

Boris Johnson convened an extraordinary virtual G7 summit today. He justified it by saying it was urgent to find an agreement that would allow a global response to covid-19, i.e. access for all to the immunisation possible. He added that it would also be an opportunity to coordinate demand for vaccines to avoid a headlong rush to the few quantities already available. The summit would be the occasion to resolve the competition between states, which, if it continues, could lead to serious political fractures between traditional partners, as seen recently in the increased tension between the EU and the London government.

The UK holds the G7 presidency in 2021. Hence the legitimacy of Johnson's initiative. But the prime minister may have other objectives well beyond seeking a global response to the pandemic. The man is a skilled politician with a knack for spectacular actions. He will try to make the most of the opportunity that the leadership of the G7 offers him to show his constituents that he has a global stature capable of setting the agenda of the group of the most developed countries. If this translates into an increase in international cooperation, which badly needs to be stimulated, we can only be grateful.

I fear, however, that it will not achieve that result. The subject of the meeting is clearly a priority, but it cannot be limited to the G7 countries. It is true that Australia, South Korea, and India have also been invited to take part in the summit. India counts in terms of vaccine production. But the invitation reflects, above all, the UK's specific interest in strengthening its relations with these countries and not the contribution they can make to getting vaccines to the poorest and most remote parts of the world. It also reflects another political agenda, one that is shared by others, especially Joe Biden. That of thwarting the geopolitical ambitions of the main rivals of the United States and its Western allies. But making international policy at the cost of a pandemic does not seem to me to be ethically acceptable.

In fact, it would be more appropriate to organise a G20 meeting to deal with the harmonisation of vaccine distribution and define everyone's contribution to achieving this objective. The G20 has the merit of sitting at the same table all the G7 countries plus China and Russia, among others. Coordination with these two States is fundamental for a rapid, effective, and generalised fight against the virus. The intrusion of hegemonic rivalries should not be admitted when it comes to responding to a problem that threatens the health of all, social progress, and the stability of the future. According to World Bank estimates, the pandemic has already pushed a dramatic number of people back into extreme poverty - it could be around 115 million. Moreover, the lack of access to vaccines for people in the poorest countries will cause a global distortion with unimaginable consequences. Among other things, international inequalities would become even more accentuated, even explosive. The worsening of imbalances between regions of the globe is one of the greatest risks facing us.

The G20 is currently chaired by Italy. The Italian executive, now with Mario Draghi at its head, faces immense internal problems. It is not in a position to play a leading role on the international stage at a time when the latter needs a giant to mobilise it in an undisputed way. Draghi is scheduled to hold a global summit in Rome on 21 May on the pandemic and related issues. May is, however, an eternity away when urgent decisions are needed.

In the meantime, in a positive spirit, I hope that today's G7 meeting will make it possible to strengthen COVAX, the mechanism set up by the WHO, in collaboration with various organisations, to guarantee countries with limited financial and operational resources equitable access to covid vaccines. If this happens, we will have to recognise that the initiative taken by Boris Johnson will have had some merit.

 

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

 

Friday, 12 February 2021

Discussing security and governance in the Sahel

In the Sahel, a lot of military and little politics

Victor Angelo

 

The call came from Bamako. On the other end of the line was a former colleague, now back home after a brilliant career in the United Nations. The essence of his conversation was against the massive presence of foreign troops in his country. There are more and more of them, both in the framework of the UN mission - known by the acronym MINUSMA - and due to calls by France. Contrary to recent statements by Emmanuel Macron, who said that the war against terrorism in the Sahel was being won, my friend told me about the deterioration of the situation in Mali and in neighbouring countries. In other words, there are more military personnel but, paradoxically, less security.

Let us look at the latest statistics from the International Organization for Migration. They count about 1.7 million displaced persons due to instability and armed actions in this part of the Sahel, especially in the tri-border area between Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso - a region known as Liptako. It is estimated, on the other hand, that about seven thousand lives were lost in the last twelve months due to acts of terrorism and counterterrorist prevention and response operations. These are figures well above the average of previous years. What is more, a recent United Nations investigation shows that war crimes and atrocities have been committed in Mali since 2013. The report, which in addition to pointing the finger at terrorists calls into question the armed forces of certain states, has fallen into a deep hole in the Security Council and awaits debate at the Greek calends. 

Liptako is a vast territory, with an area where Portugal could fit three times over. The Fulas, as nomadic herdsmen and itinerant traders in long caravans, have traditionally shared these dry, harsh expanses with other ethnic groups. But ways of life have changed. Accelerated population growth in recent decades, coupled with enormous pressure from cattle rearing - a multiplication of herds -, increasingly irregular and scarce rainfall due to climate change, poverty and the absence of effective state administration have contributed to a widespread environment of social instability, rebellion and conflict. The rush for gold, which began to be exploited intensively on an artisanal basis some twenty years ago, has also attracted new waves of violence. This is the framework in which various armed gangs move and operate under the confused banners of the terrorist network of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) or, further north, on the way to the border with Algeria, the people affiliated to Al-Qaeda. Religious fanaticism serves as an excuse or muddles along with banditry. For many young people, the Kalashnikov has replaced the shepherd's stick or the farmer's hoe in a context that is becoming progressively more arid, unpredictable, and dangerous. Someone from the region told me that joining an armed group is for many an act of self-protection.

There is a huge problem here that fundamentally requires two types of approach: one will be political and the other will be to combat desertification and poverty. I will mention only the political part, which requires the inclusion of all, without discrimination on ethnic grounds. It also means publicly showing a firm hand against corruption, in military institutions and state administrations. Inclusion and probity are two fundamental issues, which must be resolved by national elites.

 The European partners have closed their eyes and pretended not to see these problems. For example, they have been training officers in the Malian armed forces for years, knowing fully well that these officers have kept a tribal mentality and systematically divert resources intended for the country's stabilisation effort to their own advantage. We need to change the way we act in the Sahel. Dialogue with the countries in the region must be respectful. The future that is at stake is theirs, independently of the external dimensions. We cannot take the direction of the process away from them. Being more papist than the Pope in other people's land is a practice that must be put away once and for all, in a drawer of the past. But it must be a frank dialogue.

 

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

 

 

 


Friday, 5 February 2021

From Myanmar to the EU: a quick journey

Suu Kyi and our Ursula

Victor Angelo

 

 

I intended to write about the coup d'état in Myanmar. I follow regularly what happens there, especially the role of civil society associations in defending citizens, the Chinese investments, and their political impact, as well as the actions carried out by the different ethnic-based armed groups. China, which is the second largest foreign investor in the country - the first is Singapore - shares a long border with Myanmar and sees its neighbour mainly as an economic corridor with shorter and more direct access to the Gulf of Bengal. This corridor is of huge strategic interest to the Chinese, both for gas and oil imports and for exports to the Middle East and Africa. The messages I would include in my text would be to condemn the military coup and defend the process of democratisation that began in 2015 and the November 2020 legislative elections – which the Carter Center considered acceptable despite the restrictions imposed by the pandemic and the armed rebellions.

I would also seek to discuss the question marks that Aung San Suu Kyi's political activity has raised in Western circles, while recalling that she won the November elections by a large majority. The appreciation of the Burmese is very different from the judgments that we, with our European eyes, make. I would have mentioned in my text the impasse that exists in the UN Security Council when it comes to take decisions about that country. This inability to condemn has been clearly demonstrated since 2017 when close to a million Rohingya people were persecuted and expelled to neighbouring Bangladesh. The objection always comes from the same side, from Beijing, and with Moscow doing the political favour of aligning itself with the Chinese, in a tactical manoeuvre to obtain Chinese political dividends. This time, however, I was surprised by the positive. China and the other members of the Security Council yesterday approved a declaration which I consider strong and which explicitly condemns the military coup and the arbitrary arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi and all the others. It was an encouraging surprise, including a clear call for respect for human rights and freedoms, including those of the press. I would speculate that this agreement on Myanmar is a good sign, which could be seen as a conciliatory gesture by Xi Jinping addressed to Joe Biden. 

However, I have decided to change my mind and focus on the mess that the vaccination campaign in the European Union has become. Each day shows that the issue of vaccines is highly political, and that delays, failures, slowdowns and injustices can have a devastating effect on the image of the European Commission and the moral authority and stability of national governments. It is also clear that the priority in the EU must be to immunise without delay the largest number of citizens.

At the end of December, Ursula von der Leyen said, with a mixture of joy and arrogance, that the campaign was being launched simultaneously across Europe. The Commission rightly decided that orders with pharmacy industry would be placed in a unified way, for the whole EU. This would increase our negotiating strength in the face of a sector which is immensely powerful and experienced in writing commercial contracts. After five weeks, we have about 2.9% of the population vaccinated in the Union, and over 14.5% on Boris Johnson's land. The vaccines ordered are not made available to national health services because there is not enough production capacity, logistics and because the pharmaceuticals already had other contracts signed in advance.

Thus, we enter February with the clear realization that there is no more explosive subject than this. And with the certainty that it is fundamental to transform vaccination into a real campaign, urgent, massive, effective and with fair criteria accepted by the people. Otherwise, we would be heading for political and social chaos. Far and different from Myanmar, of course, but equally destabilising. 

 

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