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Western Europe’s Division on adopting a Vaccine Passport

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As vaccination rollouts continue across western Europe attention is now turning to vaccine passports. A vaccine passport is a digital documentation for an individual who has been vaccinated for the COVID-19 virus. Stored on a phone or digital wallet, the data is typically presented as a QR code and would allow for individuals to travel more freely. Although this is a fairly new idea in regard to the coronavirus, vaccine documentation is not unprecedented. In the past people have had to show “yellow cards” as proof of vaccination against diseases like cholera, yellow fever, and rubella. However, the idea of a digital passport is not without controversy, particularly among activists.

There is a division among western European nations on whether the EU should implement a vaccine passport. Spain, Denmark, and Greece support the vaccine passport because the economies, particularly Spain and Greece, rely heavily on tourism. With travel being restricted for the past year economies that rely heavily on tourism in the summer months have taken a hit. Tourism-dependent economies desperately need a strong summer travel season. With the vaccine rollout there is hope that summer travel can resume, and a vaccine passport can jumpstart tourism and allow governments to feel more secure on bringing people into the country. The cause of such strict travel restrictions is to stop the spread of the virus and the vaccine passport will provide a level of security for governments knowing the virus is significantly less likely to spread among individuals who have gotten the vaccine. The tourism industry is the most eager to put the idea into practice. Airlines such as Qantas are already requiring proof of vaccination for international flights. There are other reasons governments are wanting to establish a vaccine passport beyond travel. Universities could open up with the confidence of knowing that the students are vaccinated, along with employees going back into work, and entertainment venues like movie theaters and restaurants opening up.

On the other side of the argument are countries like France and Germany, who say the vaccine passport will increase inequality until everyone has the opportunity to get vaccinated. There is a fear that the vaccine requirement for travel will lead to discrimination among age groups, ethnicities, and those not wanting to get vaccinated. Across the region, vaccinations were first given to elderly people and the most vulnerable. It is expected that the younger generations will not receive a vaccination until early summer. It would also affect those with vaccine hesitancy. The most common reasons for hesitancy are concerns about the side effects and long-term effects of the vaccine. Travel being permitted for those with a vaccine passport can be perceived as a mandatory vaccination, which would impose on the civil liberties of individuals.

Currently, there is no international agreement on vaccine passports. Instead, countries are coming up with options they hope to see imposed. A decision will need to be made at some point but there continues to be a deep divide between those for and against it. A British petition has surpassed 260,000 signatures for the UK government to not rollout out a COVID-19 vaccine passport. Due to the high level of signatures, Parliament will now debate this petition on March 15, 2021. The European Commission proposed a ‘digital green pass’ that would provide proof that a person has been vaccinated, as well as test results for those not yet vaccinated. This proposed pass can be seen as a “happy medium” because it allows individuals to travel if they have had a recent negative COVID-19 test and will respect data protection, security, and privacy. The draft for the legislation is expected to be published on March 17, 2021.

While the debate continues, governments are under pressure to find a balance between travel restrictions and the need for summer travel to start up economies reliant on tourism and individual’s rights. A vaccine passport will not bring things back to normal but is it a small step towards healing economies. Despite the back and forth within governments and the worry among citizens, a vaccine passport scheme is still months away. There is plenty of uncertainty around vaccine passports, but it seems those who receive vaccinations will have an easier time traveling in the coming months.

Putin Facing Serious Challenges in 2021

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Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to face some serious challenges in 2021 but it won’t be enough for a change of guards to take place. If Navalny wants to seize control of the country through a revolution of the street, he needs allies within the circles of the elite. Russian history and the successful “colour revolutions” in neighbouring Georgia and Ukraine illustrate this starkly. Considering the two most recent examples from Russia’s neighbours: Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan Revolution and Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution. In both cases, though street protests played a big role in pressuring the change in regime, the protesters were abetted by the internal weakness of the regimes they were confronting. The same correlation is inexistant in Russia today. The security apparatus and the elite are firmly behind Putin.

The West has already started pressuring Kremlin to release Alexey Navalny who was jailed for 3 years after missing his probation, whilst ironically was in a coma recovering in Germany from a conspiracy to assassinate him by the Russian Security Services. Substantial evidence indicated that an FSB hit squad attempted to silence him. The same team was involved, according to Bellingcat, an open-source investigative platform, in 2020, in an attempt to assassinate Vladimir Kara-Murza, an outspoken politician against the Kremlin.

In the past, Kremlin opponents have been gunned down, poisoned or discredited in a bid to silence them. The Kremlin has always denied involvement, like in the case of Boris Nemtov (2015), Anna Politkovsakaya (2006), Alexander Litvinenko (2006), to name only a few from a long list of Kremlin opponents.

Navalny’s incarceration galvanized the biggest popular protests in Russia in nearly a decade. His supporters were joined across the country by average Russians upset with falling living standards and shrinking political freedoms. In response the Kremlin cracked down with brute force and more than 10,000 people were arrested across Russia.

For many years, Russia has been an unusual place for opposition politics. Despite dominating the messaging on traditional TV and (most) print media, the Kremlin has allowed a degree of free speech online. Navalny has taken advantage of this freedom, exposing high-level corruption first as a blogger and now as head of Russia’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (ACF). He and his team have produced voluminous reports and slickly produced viral videos detailing corruption at the highest levels of Russian politics. These videos have generated millions of clicks. But last year it appeared this uneasy truce between the Kremlin and its online opponents was breaking down. Putin’s approval ratings fell to historic lows amid a stagnating economy and the government’s dysfunctional response to COVID.

In addition, the Kremlin has ramped up its targeting of government critics and human rights groups by pushing its claims they are “foreign agents” and restricting their operations. Navalny and his ACF team have also faced growing harassment, and most are now in home arrests pending trials. With Navalny now facing a lengthy prison time, only one narrative is likely to emerge.

The narrative will be driven by the government which will seek to downplay Navalny’s symbolic importance. For his part, Putin still refuses to call Navalny by name and has recently referred to him as “the Berlin patient”. The official state media do mention Navalny, but they are increasingly characterising him as a Western agent intent on weakening Russia and unleashing revolutionary chaos. This image of Navalny fits with the Kremlin’s overall narrative that Russia is under threat from a hostile West seeking to undermine its stable development. If the Kremlin successfully paints Navalny as a foreign agent who will only bring instability to Russia, the jailed activist may retreat from public view. But if Navalny comes to symbolise unjust oppression in the face of an increasingly corrupt, unaccountable and incompetent political elite, popular pressure will only increase on the Russian government. All things considered it could take years for this alternative narrative to gather steam.

Navalny’s protests were not wholly in vain. His actions undermined an already unpopular regime heading into parliamentary elections in September and continue to mobilize a new generation of young Russians who have only ever known Putin and now are imagining a world without him. Perhaps gradually a new opposition will grow from these seeds. Yet this will take years, and there is no imminent colour revolution at hand.  The current regime is too resilient, protected by layers of security forces and aligned interests. Unlike its Ukrainian and Georgian counterparts, the increasingly professional Russian army has a history of crushing rebellions and in all likelihood will obey whatever orders it is given. Unless substantial figures within the current regime begin to defect to Navalny’s cause, the chance of street protest alone provoking a change of government is minimal. The day may come that the conditions are ripe for a change in regime, but there are no indications that time is here yet.


Neighbourly Quarrels: Somalia and Kenya

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Ties between Somalia and Kenya hit a new low in December 2020 when the Mogadishu government cut ties with Nairobi due to “constant political violation and Kenya’s open interference in Somalia’s independence”. The dispute between the two nations carried on into the new year with the Somali government accusing the Kenyan military of supporting the Jubbaland militia that fought Somali government forces in the town of Balad Hawa in late January.

What is this conflict rooted in?

There have been numerous issues in the past few months that have worsened the diplomatic ties. In December, the Somali government cuts ties with Kenya after it accused Kenya of political interference in relation to the electoral process of the region of Jubbaland. Somalia has also accused Kenya, in several statements, of supplementing armed fighters who engaged Somali forces in the border town of Balad Hawa on 25 January, a bout that cost 11 lives. Earlier signs of tensions building up can be traced back to December, when the president of Somaliland – the breakaway region which is not recognised by Somalia and internationally – was hosted in Nairobi. Somalia had also cut ties with Guinea after it received the Somaliland president. More recently, the two countries have been at odds over a maritime dispute, with Indian Ocean oil and gas reserves at stake. Somalia brought its case to the International Court of Justice at The Hague in 2014, and last week (w/c 8 February) Somalia rejected Kenya’s fourth request to the ICJ to postpone the two countries’ maritime case.

In an attempt to ameliorate the relations between the two countries, during a meeting of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) regional body in December, representatives from the two nations arranged to restore their diplomatic relations. However, Somalia had one condition, and this was for an IGAD mission to be dispatched to investigate its claims of political meddling by Kenya, which Djibouti was mandated with. Kenya has always denied political interference, as well as, any violation of airspace and territories of Somalia. At the end of January, the IGAD fact-finding team found that, as claimed by Kenya, there was no proof that Kenya was interfering in Somalia’s affairs. However, there was evidence that Kenya has violated Somalia’s airspace. On this point, it was suggested that Kenya and Somalia use diplomatic efforts to resolve matters – in order to exercise restraint, and de-escalate tensions along their borders.

However, very shortly after, Somalia disapproved of the findings by the fact-finding commission that asserted that it found zero evidence indicating Kenya’s political interference. Osman Dubbe, the Somali Information Minister, labelled the report “biased,” and “one-sided” saying:

 “The outcome of their report came as a shock to us…They [investigators] refused to go to the Somali territory. They went to Kenya twice, they went to Mandera. We wanted them to visit the Gedo region, but they refused to cross the border.”

Impact on security

A lot is at stake when two neighbouring countries have a tense relationship. It is highly likely the insurgents Al-Shabaab are keenly observing the diplomatic fallout between the neighbours and weighing their options to see how they can take advantage of security lapses resulting from these shattered relations. In this, both countries stand to lose, with the ultimate champions being the militants.

Al Shabaab has recently been increasing their activities in northern Kenya – where in Mandera the governor, Ali Roba, of the county has said that the militants now control and occupy more than 50% of the county. Therefore, it is not only Somalia that will be impacted by the group when they try to take advantage of the diplomatic scuffle. Al Shabaab has been carrying out attacks in Kenya for over a decade, ever since Kenya sent troops into Somalia as assistance in the African Union mission directed to protect the Somali government and its people from the insurgent threat. Taking the example of what is happening in Mandera, there is the likelihood Al Shabaab will seek to expand the areas and people which they control and occupy while the two countries are embroiled in maritime and diplomatic tensions.

If there is no change to diplomatic relations, there is a likelihood that Somalia will call for a prompt withdrawal of Kenya’s 3,600 troops from Somalia – a key contributor to the African Union mission. Many Somali people seem to be eager for Kenyans to withdraw from their country, in spite of the impending security risks from Al Shabaab if this were to occur. If Kenya were to withdraw their troops as well, the forces countering the militant group would significantly decrease and give the militants the opportunity to expand their influence over areas and people.  Al Shabaab, which over the past decade has materialised into a very resilient force, could quickly overrun many regions in southern Somalia, where it still maintains some control. This dispute would need to be quickly and amicably resolved in order for it to not threaten, thwart and interrupt key security efforts in East Africa.

Moreover, the African Union’ AMISOM mission is set to end its mission and fully withdraw from Somalia by December 2021. However, the Al Shabaab rebels are still potent and pose a threat to both countries. Coupled with the US withdrawing their 700 troops on 15 January, it seems imperative for Somalia to rekindle relations with Kenya so that there is a more concerted effort against Al Shabaab. If the diplomatic spat between the countries continues, Somalia could see themselves less prepared in the fight against Al Shabaab and the Islamist group could take up the opportunity of recapturing lost territory, and further general attacks and disruption.

Is the election to blame for this diplomatic spat?

It is also important to look at this conflict in context. Somalia’s incumbent president, Mohamed ‘Farmaajo’ Abdullahi, is currently running for re-election, and has taken a nationalist standpoint out on the campaign trail. It might be argued that this escalation in diplomatic tensions with Kenya is little more than a political move by the incumbent President Farmaajo to stir up quarrels, unite Somalis against the spectre of meddling foreigners, and to rally up the electorate behind him in the hope of securing him a second term. We seem to be seeing a repeat of events as preceding the election of 2016, where Farmaajo pushed the narrative of Ethiopia as the enemy that only he can successfully oppose, and this narrative aided in his election win. Currently, we see the same trend occurring but this time with Kenya. Farmaajo, his government and his supporters are also trying to showcase opposition groups in the country who contest his bid as traitors and pro-Kenya.

Haiti Political Crisis

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Haiti has been at the centre of a major political crisi this month, which has caused ongoing mass demonstrations all over the country and a supposed attempted coup. This has all routed from Haiti’s President, Jovenel Moïse,  who had been frequently criticised for his administration allowing for the increase of violence and kidnappings as well as a deepening level of poverty in the country. His presidency has often been challenged with violent protests and has been ruling by decree since 2019 after his administration failed to hold scheduled legislative elections. With the rise of tensions continuing, it is unlikely that any demonstrations will be decreasing but with the President’s international support and hold of the armed forces, it will be very difficult for him to be forced to step down.

The opposition, which is made up of political parties that are against the President feature members of the judiciary, religious and civil society groups. They had claimed that Moïse’s 5-year term had ended in February 2021. The President insisted however that he had one more year to go as he did not enter office until February 2017 due to a new vote as a yearlong delay existed from the 2015 election and its allegations of election fraud. The opposition had planned to replace President Moïse with a new head of state on the 7th of February. They have previously accused President Moïse of having a weak response to the economic crisis, which had stemmed from natural disasters in 2018, causing food and housing shortages. The economic effects of COVID 19 also aided in the economic crisis making it difficult for the population’s businesses to continue. The opposition had chosen Joseph Mécène Jean-Louis, to be interim leader. President Moïse reacted to the opposition by saying that he will not step down until February next year and that the move was an illegal usurpation. The general election according to President Moïse is scheduled for September 2021.

President Moïse had, in order to continue his relevancy in office and support, announced major changes to the country’s constitution on the 2nd of February, allowing for members of the nation’s diaspora to run for presidency, of which he believed required modernisations to it. A constitutional referendum was planned for April 2021, but unions had been demanding for President Moïse to resign.

Upon the rising tensions in the country, mass protests had occurred on the 8th of February onwards. Thousands of people marched through the streets of Port-au-Prince as well as other cities across the country. At least 23 people have been arrested, including a senior police officer and the top judge Ivickel Dabresil. Tear gas was fired from the police due to clashes with protestors. Some demonstrators were reportedly injured as well due to rubber bullets fired by police. The commander of the armed forces has so far sided with the president.

A coup attempt had been foiled in Haiti after the president claimed an attempt to kill him was made on the 8thof February. The opposition had dismissed the suggestion of a coup attempt, and that President Moïse should have stepped down on the 7th of February.

The United States has stated that they are “deeply concerned” with Haiti and that they support Moïse in his Presidency. Likewise, the United Nations and the Organisation of American States have all indicated that they want President Moïse to continue governing as long as he carries on holding fair elections. They believe that is the best strategy to avoid future conflicts. Many of the protesters and some Haitian media commentators have condemned the international support of President Moïse, describing it as an “interference”.

As protests and tensions continue, it has become increasingly likely that the demonstrations and frustrations felt by the general population will continue. With the opposition refusing to stand down on its stance and a promise of more anti-government demonstrations, it could be seen that they will then carry on having an aggressive stance and wanting a change in leadership in the country. Despite the international viewpoint, it is unlikely that any form of calm will return to the streets of Haiti without a form of successful change in leadership in the country or a form of appeasement to those protesting.

Within the next 6 months, up until the President’s plan for an official election, it is likely for aggression and frustrations around Moïse’s presidency are to continue. While it is unlikely that he will step down. International support for the President as well as the secure hold he still has upon the armed forces and the police should allow him for a hold on his presidency.  Despite this, it is going to make his remaining time within Government very difficult and he may find it hard to make the constitutional reforms he desires to complete in time.


Coronavirus Effect on Far-Right Extremism in Western Europe

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Far-right extremism is not a new phenomenon and has a known history through-out western Europe. However, it has expanded once again finding a new voice and deep impact in 2020, with no major signs of slowing down. The far-right comprises a wide range of ideologies including, white-nationalism, white supremacy, and xenophobia and is widely known as right-wing extremism. The United States is often mentioned during recent discussions of the rise of individuals with far-right ideologies, but western Europe is seeing an increase in far-right activity as well. Germany leads the way, in the number of terror incidents by right-wing extremist, followed by Italy and the United Kingdom, despite decades of successfully promoting democratic political norms.

In recent years, far-right political parties in Europe have capitalized on crises to build their support bases and have made it to positions of power as a result. The refugee crisis, economic slumps, the opposition of multiculturalism have all provided opportunities for those seeking power, or in power, to gain support using scare tactics and uncertainty. The coronavirus pandemic has provided an opportunity for far-right extremists to fill the narrative with conspiracy theories and doubts. The far-right message has quickly adopted to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially on social media platforms. The combination of the flow of misinformation on social media and the increased amount of time people are spending online due to lockdowns has allowed for far-right ideologies to spread quickly and effectively. Global platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Parler have allowed for those who share ideologies to communicate globally and share support. When the United States Capitol was stormed on January 6, by far-right extremist, individuals in Germany and Austria were able to connect and share their support and, in some cases, donate money to other far-right organizations. Typically, far-right organizations are labelled disorganized and geographically focused, but the use of social media has devolved a web of connections that reach globally.

Far-right operations have not been limited to operating online. Anti-lockdown/anti-government protests have taken place across western Europe since March 2020, displaying extremist views. It is prominent in almost every western European nation. Demonstrations have topped tens of thousands of protestors coming together to object against lockdowns and governmental measures put in place to curb the virus. As the second and third wave of the coronavirus pandemic effects Europe, people are taking to the streets to protest against the restrictive measures and in most cases do so without wearing masks and practicing social distancing guidelines. Given the sheer size of the protest they can be described as super-spreader events.

Impatience is growing in populations that have been living in lockdown for months. While the main reasons behind the demonstrations can be viewed as legitimate, the groups that organize them are often infiltrated by far-right activists, anti-vaccine individuals, conspiracy theorists, and extremists or claim the virus is a hoax. In some cases, anti-lockdown protests have been infiltrated by right-wing extremists who intend to turn the protests violent. After a protest in Italy, the National Prosecutor Federio Cafiero De Raho said that the protests showed levels of violence that are not typically associated with the working class, and claims the authorities are investigating clues that will likely lead to the involvement of mobs and extremist forces. The British government published a study in July 2020 called “Covid-19: How Hateful Extremist are Exploiting the Pandemic” and results showed a link in the violence experienced during protests to increasing amounts of conspiracy theories that have spread since the start of the pandemic. The far-right has tailored the situation in a way that has thus far been successful. The combination of disinformation and the increased amount of time those are spending online provided those hoping to spread far-right ideologies with a unique opportunity.

As the far-right advance continues, it becomes increasing likely that the operations of the groups will continue with finding online platforms to share ideologies and demonstrating against western European governments. Despite the arrival of the first vaccines against the coronavirus and the disbursements of recovery funds, western European nations will most likely experience a hard hit on the economy. Unemployment will continue to spike, and business will continue to fail as governments renew lockdowns and strict restrictions. As stated before, far-right extremism capitalizes on crises. This presents opportunities for right-wing groups to continue their messaging.

Within the next six months, the far-right movement will likely continue to resemble how it does now but with more support. The spread of misinformation on social media sites has not decreased. Instead, it can be argued it has gotten worse, due to social media platforms banning key far-right leaders. This means that all the individuals who were using popular sites like Facebook and Twitter to communicate are now looking for new sites to join. This may result in an influx of new users on lesser-known sites that could make it more difficult to investigate the information flowing on the platforms. It is possible that western Europe will recover from the increases in individuals with far-right ideologies, but with the pandemic having no clear end in sight this recovery is not close by.