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2022 General elections in the Philippines: the return of the Marcos family

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On 9 May general elections were held in the Philippines. In these elections more than 67 million Filipinos chose a president, vice president, 12 senators, 300 lower house legislators, and about 18,000 officials across 7,600 islands. As polling stations closed and the vote count started, data showed a huge early lead for the candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (commonly referred to as Bongbong Marcos (BBM)), son of the late dictator. The second most voted candidate, a Human Rights lawyer of the Liberal party and the current vice-president, Leni Robredo, has fallen behind in the number of votes. This is considered a make-or-break moment for the country: it will be the end of the era of Rodrigo Duterte, the controversial outgoing president who, in addition to his bloody war on drugs, has been a scourge of dissidents, indigenous peoples and the country’s Muslim population. The election of BBM only raises questions about the future of democracy in the country. There are three main factors that explain the return of the Marcoses to power in the Philippines.

First of all, electoral analysts have referred to the concept of authoritarian nostalgia. Marcos’ father ruled the country for two decades (1965-1986), including nine years under a brutal period of martial law, a period that saw disappearances, detentions, killings and torture of people, as well as massive corruption (Marco’s family has been estimated to have stolen up to US$10 billion from public coffers). The Marcos family fled to Hawaii after the 1986 revolution, but since then their human rights’ abuses and kleptocracy have been whitewashed up to today. Some analysts have pointed out that this historical revisionism has been easier in the Philippines because there was no transitional justice during the democratic transition in the late 1980s.

Marcos Jr has presented his campaign in terms of unity and highlighting the promise of reviving a former greatness. The Marcos’ years in power are seen as a golden era when there was social stability, peace, order, a thriving economy and development of infrastructures. The idea of a golden age is especially influential nowadays due to the impact of the pandemic on the poorest. Marcos’ electoral campaign, with the slogan “together we shall rise again” has ironically been seen as a one of the most divisive and polarising political campaigns in the country’s history.  The voters’ decision is however not a unexpected turnaround: it is the verification of the triumph of the anti-political discourse initiated six years ago by Duterte, who has governed with a national-populist message with which he has silenced any criticism of the country’s situation.

Another element that feeds authoritarian nostalgia is the influence of individuals over political parties. For voters in the Philippines, political parties tend to be secondary to personalities, with loyalties shifting easily. This means that the charisma, agenda or reputation of a certain candidate carry an enormous weight. The popularity of Marcos Jr. has also been fuelled by different campaigns on social media. Filipinos spent an average of 10 hours a day on the internet, 4 hours of those consuming social media. This makes the spread of disinformation an effective tool for controlling the public discourse.

The second factor that explains the victory of BBM in the Philippines is thus his successful campaign to control the political discourse on social media. Although the battle to control the popular narrative was fierce, it is the campaign in favor of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos the one that had the most power of public reach and manipulation, according to the experts. Apart from spreading on social media the story of an idyllic Philippines in his father’s time, he has taken advantage of hoaxes that thousands of citizens have believed, such as the one that his family hides a great treasure of gold ingots that they will distribute among the population if he is elected president. On the other hand, the second most popular candidate, Leni Robredo, has been slandered with hoaxes such as an alleged sexual video of her daughter or the insistent message that she is allied with the communist insurgents. To compensate disinformation on social media, Robredo’s supporters launched an unprecedented door-to-door effort that is unusual in such a large scale.

Finally, the spread of disinformation on the internet has also been largely absorbed by the younger generations, including first-time voters. Analysts consider that, even if Marcos Jr. has high levels of popularity among all age groups, young voters have been key in his electoral triumph. Young people do not remember the millions of dollars looted from the public coffers during the term of the Marcos’ dictatorship, as well as the cases of torture and executions. Apart from the age gap that prevents young people from having directly experienced the years of the dictatorship, the educational system has not been able to properly discuss the dictatorship era. Historical revisionism has affected the morals and the political conscience of young people. This gap in public knowledge, especially among younger generations, has been exploited by Marcos Jr’s campaign.

The three factors that explain the return of the Marcos family to power in the Philippines (authoritarian nostalgia, disinformation, and the role of the younger generations) have given rise to concern about the future of democracy in the country. The Philippines, one of the oldest democracies in Asia, has seen with Duterte a turn towards China that could continue with the next president Marcos Jr. The president-elect has asked that he be judged for his actions and not for his family past. Regardless of his words, his actions will definitely be closely monitored by the international community.

Ethnic tension Flare-ups in North Kosovo Destabilising Regional Peace

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Kosovo police patrols have been coming under attack in the north of the country, near its border with Serbia. Specifically in the north, ethnic tensions continue to simmer almost two decades since the war between ethnic Albanians and ethnic Serbs ended.  It is still not known the reasons for the attacks, but ethnic tensions are the most likely motivation.

The northern region of Kosovo is renowned for smuggling activities. With high police presence it could be that smugglers decided to attack police in order to threaten the police away from the area. Kosovo police have been closing roads i that are used by smugglers to illicitly transport people and goods across from Kosovo to Serbia and through into Europe. But given the extent to which the police have been targeted, and general ethnic tension in the region, the attacks hold heavier sentiment than commercial gain.

The border police came under attack with automatic weapons, AK-47s, and a hand grenade showing the potential lethality of the assault. However, other attacks featured people throwing stones at the police cars and road equipment used to damage and stop police cars as they drive by. All of which attest to the ambition of harming Kosovo authority in the area.

Between 15 April and 26 April there were five attacks on border police in the region. No police officer was injured in the attacks, but they resonate the feeling of the local populace. The attacks have come just weeks after Kosovo refused to construct polling stations for the Serbian elections at the start of April, a move that led to condemnation from Serbian officials, as well as EU and UN officials, because of its destabilising potential. Kosovo’s reasons to prevent ethnic Serbs in Kosovo from voting is that it would undermine Kosovo sovereignty, especially given that Serbia does not recognise Kosovo’s independence.

Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti has claimed that the attacks originated on the Serbian side of the border with the aim of destabilising the Kosovo. He called the attacks an act of terror that were aimed at intimidating the police and people of Kosovo. Serbia suggested that the attacks were in fact a Kosovan attempt at destabilising things in the region. Both lobbying the UN to accuse the other.

The region has experienced repeated flare-ups since Kosovan independence in 2008 and it looks to continue. With Europe’s tensions at an all-time high, these flare-ups have put even more pressure on the European community to ensure tranquillity between Serbia and its neighbours. It is a hard job, though, as Serbia is surrounded by mostly pro-western governments who, not only condemn the attacks on Ukraine by Serbian-ally Russia but are looking to secure European and American support should Russia show aggression towards the Balkans.

Although Serbia and Russia are allies, it would be unlikely that Serbia would be aggressive against its neighbours while Russia is occupied in war in Ukraine. Serbian support for Russia is still high, but Serbia realises that while Russia is occupied it must find a powerful friend elsewhere with whom it can do business. This friend has come in the form of China who has been sending military equipment, notably surface-to-air missile systems to Serbia, these systems have shown their applicability in modern conflict given their extensive use (different systems) by Ukraine against the superior numbers of the Russian air force. China has also been investing in the Balkans, not only in Serbia.

Although these police attacks have shown how unstable the position is between Kosovo and Serbia, it is unlikely that a flare-up like this should warrant further action from either side. Both Serbia and Kosovo have been accusing the other of destabilising tactics and rhetoric to the United Nations, but as peace is the main goal, the UN is solely trying to reduce these tensions. The UN is also looking at changing its role in Kosovo as the UN Mission in Kosovo has accomplished its goals. So, we could see increased security measures being used by the UN to maintain peace in the region. However, Serbia is looking to balance its relationships between Europe and Russia and China and so any aggression towards Kosovo or its neighbours would ultimately ruin any prospect of joining the EU, something Aleksandar Vučić has said is one of Serbia’s goals.

Will Moldova become the next target of Russian aggression?

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On May 2, Ukrainian intelligence sources revealed that they believe that the Kremlin has already taken the decision to launch an invasion of Moldova through the country’s breakaway Transnistria region, suggesting that Russia may attempt to use Transnistria’s Tiraspol airport to land forces and overwhelm Moldova’s army, which numbers less than 4,000 active-duty soldiers.  A Times article quoted an unidentified military source as saying “We believe the Kremlin has already taken the decision to attack Moldova. The fate of Moldova is very crucial. If the Russians start to take control, we will, militarily, be an easier target and the threat to Ukraine will be existential.” The source also suggested that an invasion could take place around the time of Russia’s Victory Day celebrations on 9 May.

Transnistria, also known as the Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic (PMR), is a breakaway region of Moldova and self-declared presidential republic, unrecognised by the wider international community (with the exception of mutual recognition with Abkhazia, Artsakh, and South Ossetia), but supported by Russia. Geographically, Transnistria comprises a long narrow strip of landlocked territory of 4,163 km² sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine. The region declared independence from Moldova in 1990 sparking a conflict which in 1992 was paused by a ceasefire agreement that has held until the present. In Transnistria’s most recent census in 2015, ethnic Russians made up the largest percentage of respondents at 29.1%. Since the 1992 ceasefire, the Russian Federation has maintained military facilities and around 1,500 are deployed in Transnistria, supporting a Transnistrian paramilitary force of at least 7000.

In the first week of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a publicity video of Putin ally and Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko appeared to show a map depicting Russian forces entering Moldova from Ukraine, raising fears that Russia also planned to eventually annex the former-Soviet state. On 14 April, Ukrainian Defence Minister Hanna Malyar claimed that Russia was amassing troops on Ukraine’s border with Transnistria, but this was denied by Transnistrian authorities. On 22 April, Deputy Commander of Russia’s Central Military District, Major General Rustam Minnekayev, speaking at the annual meeting of the Union of Defence Industries of the Sverdlovsk Region, suggested that Russia might push to control the entirety of Southern Ukraine to Transnistria, creating a ‘land bridge’ between Russia-controlled Crimea and Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. On 25 April, Transnistrian sources reported that an attack had been carried out against the headquarters of the Ministry of State Security (MGB) and on 26 April two radio antennas close to Tiraspol near the Ukrainian border were destroyed by explosions. In response to the explosions, the Transnistrian Defence Ministry ordered a general mobilisation of “all men between 18 and 55”.

The opening of a new front in Moldova could provide several advantages for Russa. If successful, controlling southern Ukraine, a key Kremlin aim of the war, and creating a land bridge between Crimea and Transnistria could open up Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, in particular Odessa, for increased transports of forces and materiel into the country. This would facilitate reinforcement of the Russian military and reduce the risk to Russian navy vessels operating on the Black Sea from Ukrainian anti-ship missiles. Mobilisation of Transnistria’s paramilitaries could offer a new source of manpower for Russia’s campaign in Ukraine and open up a new front in the west to split Ukraine’s defence. The Kremlin may also hope that a stronger presence in Transnistria would deter Moldova’s pro-EU President, Maia Sandu, from siding with the west and participating in sanctions against Russia. Expanding Russia’s threat to Moldova could also serve to divert NATO and EU attention and weapons shipments from Ukraine.

There are, however, also arguments against the likelihood of Ukraine’s warning of an impending invasion of Transnistria or Moldova. Although Transnistria’s Tiraspol airport’s runway, at around 2,400m length, would be adequate for the landing of Russian Il-76 transport and aircraft, Russian flights into Transnistria would at present be forced to run the risk of overflying Ukrainian anti-air missile defence systems. At the same time, the Russian military’s push to secure southern Ukraine and the port of Odessa appears to be stalled by strong resistance in the city of Kherson, thwarting plans to link-up with Transnistria. Increased Russian presence on the border of Moldova might also backfire in pushing the Moldovan government further towards the EU and in particular the safety of NATO.

At present the high-risk strategy of Russia expanding its operations to Moldova is judged to be an unlikely outcome. This assessment appears to be shared by western intelligence agencies which have not echoed Ukraine’s warnings, in contrast to the loud and repeated warnings of an impending Russian attack which were made prior to the invasion of Ukraine. However, this situation may change should the efforts of Russia’s push to occupy southern Ukraine become more successful and resistance in Ukraine’s southern cities ceases to hold back Russian forces.

Armed Clashes in Colombia’s Border Regions

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On 29 March, 11 people were killed in what Colombian authorities described as an operation by security forces against former FARC members. It emerged in the following days that some of the 11 people may have been civilians. The victims allegedly included community and indigenous leaders and a 16-year-old teenager. On 30 March, the OHCHR office in Colombia tweeted that it is following up on the incident, where “civilians, community and indigenous leaders reportedly lost their lives,” calling on authorities to investigate and clarify the facts. The Colombian prosecutor’s office said on Twitter that it was opening an investigation into “the events in Puerto Leguizamo where 11 people died.”

This extremely concerning incident occurred as part of a focus by Colombian security forces on cracking down on former FARC dissidents. The FARC, despite agreeing to disarm as part of the 2016 Final Agreement to End the Armed Conflict and Build a Stable and Lasting Peace agreement, remain a significant presence in rural regions in Colombia. There are also other non-state actors active in these areas. According to the Indepaz peace research institute, there are 90 armed groups with some 10,000 members active in Colombia overall. These figures include more than 5,000 FARC dissidents who rejected peace, some 2,500 members of the National Liberation Army or ELN (the country’s last active guerrilla group), and another 2,500 rightwing paramilitary fighters. There are frequent armed clashes between these different groups. The Venezuelan army is also involved in the conflict, it has been claimed by rights organisations and by Colombian President Ivan Duque. Humanitarian workers and refugees from Apure said that they have witnessed members of Venezuela’s National Guard entering villages with the ELN rebels and taking people away in trucks.

Local communities become caught up in the violence between the Colombian army and these groups, and caught up between the groups fighting each other, as these actors compete for territory. The conflict has had dire humanitarian consequences for the populations of regions like Apure, as levels of violence has increased over the last year or so. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, mass displacement in Colombia almost tripled in 2021 compared with 2020. UNOCHA states that in total nearly 110,000 people have been displaced or confined by the armed conflict in 2021 alone. Human Rights Watch said that at least 103 people were killed in Arauca in the first two months of 2022 amid violence between the armed groups, the highest death toll in the region for January and February since 2010.

The violence and displacement is a consequence of inadequate implementation of the 2016 peace agreement, which aimed at bringing security to areas historically impacted by conflict when under FARC control. President Duque is steadfastly opposed to the agreement, which must be a contributing factor to the unsuccessful implementation. One of the agreement’s provisions was to protect former FARC members and allow them to reintegrate into civilian society, yet 315 former FARC members have been killed since the accord was signed. On 28 January, Colombia’s constitutional court declared an “unconstitutional state of affairs,” and ordered the government to implement the agreement’s security guarantees. Slow movement on another of its provisions, to strengthen Colombia’s government’s presence in formerly FARC controlled regions, means that a power vacuum has been created where these rural areas formerly held by the FARC are now dominated by numerous smaller splinter groups and armed nonstate actors such as the ELN. They all vie for control over illicit activities in these areas that the FARC once controlled.

Whether improvement will be seen in the situation is uncertain. A UN Security Council briefing was held on 12 April to discuss the topic where President Duque was present for the first time. It was expected there may be more encouragement to use mechanisms established by the 2016 agreement such as the he Follow-up, Promotion and Verification of the Implementation of the Final Agreement (CSIVI), but there do not appear to be solid plans or conclusions drawn from this meeting. It is possible that the May presidential elections will bring about some change to security policy and improve the situation, since current frontrunner Gustavo Petro has expressed that he is open to dialogue with the ELN to reach a peace agreement.

Russia and Serbia Friendship

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Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many countries have turned their backs on Russia. This allows us to see who Russia’s real friends are. Most notably in Europe is Serbia. Serbia and Russia share strong cultural heritage, both nations being Slavic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, both countries maintain about 70 bilateral treaties, agreements and protocols signed since the cold war, with 43 having been signed and ratified since the formation of the Russian Federation. The ties between the countries are strong but since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, these ties have come under pressure from the international community.

Since the end of the cold war, relations between the two countries have been strong. In 1998 the Kosovo war began with Russia strongly condemning the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, large numbers of Russian volunteers and mercenaries were seen leaving Russia to help Serb forces fight in the war, and the Miloševic brothers developed pro-Russia rhetoric, proposing an agreement to join the Union State, Belarus and Russia.

In 2008, these relations further blossomed, with Gazprom Neft investing in Serbia’s oil and gas company Naftna Industrija Srbija in exchange for EU400 million or EU550 million in investments. Serbia also created the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center in Niš, an intergovernmental non-profit organisation. Russia was also heavily involved in backing Serbia’s stance on Kosovo by not recognising Kosovar sovereignty. In return, Serbia did not impose sanctions on Russia during Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

However, these relations took a turn, sort of. In 2019, Serbian security services revealed that Russian intelligence operatives had been passing money to Serbian army officials, something most countries would use as fuel for retaliation, but Serbia did nothing. Serbia also looked to increase its military cooperation with NATO and in 2016 Serbia gave NATO staff free movement in Serbian territory and diplomatic immunity, something that Serbia refused to do for the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center.

Relations, even after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, are maintaining. Serbia is in an awkward place because of the open knowledge that Russia and Serbia are friends. The international community has put pressure on Serbia to denounce this friendship to no avail. Serbia refused to impose sanctions on Russia claiming it was not in Serbia’s best interest but balanced this by saying that they condemned the violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Serbia continues to buy weapons from Russia, competing with neighbour Croatia. Russia has been exporting military equipment to Serbia to counteract the arms build-up in Croatia by the United States. This adds tension to the region given Serbia’s unambiguous stance on Kosovo and the pro-Serb rhetoric from secessionist Bosnian-Serb Milorad Dodik.

It has come to light recently that Serbia has also been acting as a loophole for travel bans against Russian citizens and sanctions against Russian companies. Air Serbia still maintains flights from Russia to Serbia giving Russian citizens a way to circumvent no-fly zones. Air Serbia has even started to increase its flights to 15 a week due to high demand as Russian citizens look to avoid the harshening economic and civil climate in Russia.

Russian companies are now starting to do the same with 288 companies having been opened in Serbia by Russian legal and physical entities. The harsh economic sanctions imposed by the United States, European Union and United Kingdom mean that Russia’s economy is struggling even after the Ruble rebounded.

Pro-Russia sentiment is at an all-time high in Serbia too, with marches and rallies taking place all over the country to show support for Russia and Vladimir Putin. Pro-Russian organisations like the night wolves and right-wing group People’s Patrol organised the rallies and thousands of Serbians took part with banners and flags, including the Z symbol, now synonymous with Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Politicians have also been riding this pro-Russian wave with many candidates using pro-Russian rhetoric to gain support from the Serbian people. Elections on 3 April continued Aleksandr Vučić’s presidency with 58% of votes. Vučić has been one of Russia’s closest friends and this trend will look to continue, however, as Russian aggression continues in Ukraine and Serbia continues to allow Russians to circumvent sanctions imposed by the international community, it will be a tense time for Vučić if the world decides to start tightening their grip on Russian movements and money.