On 19 December, Chile elected its youngest ever president, Gabriel Boric. It was a close contest between Boric and his far-right rival José Antonio Kast, who has been likened to Bolsonaro and openly admires Pinochet, but Boric was victorious with 56% of the vote. Turnout for the election was the highest since compulsory voting ended 9 years ago. Though the election rhetoric was extreme, it is likely that an attitude of cooperation with other parties will characterise Boric’s administration. His victory caps off the rise in support for Chile’s progressive left that has been gaining ground since the 2019 protests that left 30 people dead. It is a continuation of a region-wide trend to favour leftist candidates who aim to ease social inequality; a trend that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In July, Peru elected Pedro Castillo. In April, Colombians began demonstrating for several months against tax reform and police brutality. In November, Honduras voted in Xiomara Castro.
Oliver Stuenkel, professor of international relations at Brazil’s Fundacao Getulio Vargas told Bloomberg that “Many point to a new ‘pink tide’ in Latin America after Boric’s victory […] But Chile’s president-elect has very little in common with Castillo in Peru and even less with Venezuela’s authoritarian regime. Boric is a progressive. Castillo and several other iconic left-wing leaders are social conservatives. That may allow Boric to become the face of Latin America’s new left, inspiring other candidates in the region.” There appears to be evidence of these progressive concerns within Gabriel Boric’s policies. He has proposed a green public investment program to target alternative energy and climate adaption, and is interested in improving social care provisions and in advancing feminist causes. Boric wrote in an open letter about the importance of “having a real social security system that doesn’t leave people behind, ending the hateful gap between healthcare for the rich and healthcare for the poor, advancing without hesitation in freedoms and rights for women.” He recognises LGBT rights and the rights of indigenous peoples. He had previously pledged to overhaul Chile’s “neoliberal” economic model but softened his stance on this in the weeks running up to the election in order to win over more centrist voters. This helped him on his way to victory, as he was more successful in winning over these voters who did not support either him or Kast. Supporting the re-write of Chile’s Pinochet-era constitution will also be a priority for Boric.
With the stark choice between left and right the election presented Chileans with, the collapse of centrist parties within the country, and the intense rhetoric that has characterised the campaign, there is concern that Chile’s society could become highly polarized and an environment of divisiveness could emerge. Yet, since Boric’s win, the atmosphere on both sides appears conciliatory and calm. Kast tweeted that he had called Boric to congratulate him on his “great triumph,” adding that “From today he is the elected President of Chile and deserves all our respect and constructive collaboration.” Outgoing President Sebastián Piñera said Chile was living in “an environment of excessive polarisation, confrontation [and] disputes,” and urged his successor to “be the president of all Chileans”.
It is likely that Gabriel Boric will continue with his strategy of pragmatism, looking to breach divides and find common ground on key issues like economic policy. For example, in the weeks leading up to the elections, Boric emphasized fiscal responsibility. He also supports the independence of the Central Bank. José Antonio Kast’s party still has a large presence in parliament and in the senate and so Boric will need to seek their cooperation in order to fulfil his programme. Looking at what Boric’s plans are for foreign policy, he has said he will “give priority to the Pacific Alliance in the future”. Yet, he stresses his immediate priorities are team building in Chile rather than international matters.Gabriel Boric will take office in March 2022, his term ending in 2026.
In December 2021 and early January the international community witnessed an escalation of the internal conflict in Myanmar. The UN Rights Office recently warned that the Human Rights situation is worsening on an unprecedented scale, and fresh prison sentences against the former leader Aung San Suu Kyi only add fuel to internal divisions. News broke when 30 civilians were killed and burned on Christmas eve in Moso, in the state of Kayah. Other incidents, including the killing of eleven civilians in Salingyi Township, Sagaing region, or the death of a journalist in prison have been only some of the news coming from the country in the last weeks.
The Min Aung Hlaing Administration is far from achieving a complete control of the country. The Myanmar armed forces, or Tatmadaw, have been increasing their fighting against local armed resistance groups across the country, especially in Karen and Kayah states. In Karen, a region bordering Thailand, the rebel group Karen National Union has been stepping up the fight against the military junta. Around midnight on 23 December, the Tatmadaw launched at least two air strikes against the guerrillas. Thai Foreign spokesperson Tanee Sangrat reported that the two air strikes also affected Thais residing on the border between the two countries.
In Sagaing region and Shan state clashes between the military and local resistance groups are being waged on a daily basis. While some ethnic armed groups have offered their support to the local civilian resistance groups, some remain ambivalent. It is unclear the extent to which civilian resistance groups could inflict significant damages to the military. It is expected that the fighting will continue until its main objective of toppling the military regime is achieved. Ethnic guerrillas, around two dozen in the country, could take advantage of the political turmoil to attain greater political leverage and eventually achieve autonomy. According to the Association for Political Prisoners of Myanmar, more than 1,300 people have been killed by the military and almost 8,300 have been arrested or convicted since the coup in February 2021.
Moreover, it is estimated that since December 15, more than 10,000 people have fled Karen, including more than 4,200 who, according to the Thai Foreign Ministry, have already crossed the border. Several non-governmental organizations are asking Bangkok not to close its borders due to the massive arrival of refugees. Apart from violence, civilians are fleeing to neighbouring countries due to the lack of humanitarian aid. The junta is deliberately blocking the provision of humanitarian aid in conflict-ridden states as a form of punishment for the support of the civilian population to resistance groups. The situation is so critical that Myanmar has reached a level of impoverishment not seen since 2005. The strategy of blocking the provision of humanitarian aid is part of the wider strategy that the Tatmadaw has been using for decades: the ‘four cuts’. Even if the Tatmadaw does not use that term anymore, the strategy is definitely the same as that of the four cuts they have used against the ethnic population for more than 70 years, which consists of preventing the guerrillas from accessing food, financing, intelligence information and the possibility of recruitment. To make things worse, aid efforts have faced a number of significant operational challenges including travel and COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Overall, this situation will further intensify the existing economic, social, and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar.
Apart from the more commonly conflict-ridden areas of the country where ethnic minorities are present, the conflict has spread to urban areas as well. The deterioration of the socioeconomic conditions has cropped up resistance in cities and regions where the ethnic Bamar are a majority. On 5 December five protesters were killed and several dozens were injured during anti-government protests in Yangon after a car initially drove into a group of demonstrators at high speed. Besides, and coinciding with International Human Rights Day on 10 December, thousands of citizens joined the calls of activist groups to stage an unprecedented “silent protest” against the regime. Businesses were closed and people isolated themselves at home across the country to show their rejection of junta violence.
The internal turmoil has been escalated with new prison sentences for the leader of the National League for Democracy party and Myanmar’s former state councillor (head of government) Aung San Suu Kyi. On 6 December she was sentenced to two years in prison for inciting violence and failure to comply with COVID-19 measures. The sentence was initially of four years in prison, but shortly after the ruling was known, the military junta made official a partial pardon that reduced the sentence to 2 years. In addition, on 10 January Suu Kyi was sentenced, in other two processes, to a total of four more years in prison for violating the laws against the pandemic and for the illegal importation and possession of various telecommunications devices. There has been a widespread international rejection for these judicial processes, which have been considered politicized and lacking of judicial guarantees. Suu Kyi could still face nine other charges with accumulated penalties that exceed 100 years in prison.
Given the new escalation of violence by the Tatmadaw the international community has announced a new set of sanctions against the junta. As a response to human rights abuses, the US and other governments such as those of Canada and the United Kingdom have imposed a fresh set of sanctions on dozens of people and entities linked to Myanmar. Moreover, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, urged the imposition of an international arms embargo on the country. The international community is also keeping an eye on ASEAN moves. Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen, started in early January an official visit to Myanmar that has been widely criticized by fellow members of ASEAN, especially by Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, as being a move to legitimate the junta’s actions. Cambodia will chair the presidency of ASEAN in 2022, and the situation in Myanmar is set to increase internal divisions within the organization. The leaders of ASEAN already agreed on a Five-Point consensus plan in April 2021 to tackle the internal crisis in Myanmar, which resulted in an evident fiasco.
The escalation of violence in Myanmar against civilians, as well as the continued persecution of political opponents and journalists has led to new sanctions against the junta. Furthermore, the internal situation in Myanmar has increased tensions in neighbouring countries, since Thailand has seen a significant increase in refugees from Myanmar, and the Cambodian Prime Minister’s state visit has generated tensions among ASEAN members. The following months will be filled with internal uncertainty and external criticisms.
In 1992, war broke out in Bosnia. Muslim Bosniaks fought against Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats. The fall of Yugoslavia left the region in turmoil with each party vying for power and their own plot of land, but Bosnia had a pretty even balance of Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. In February 1992 the Serb majority in the country decided to boycott a referendum and reject its outcome and instead created their own constitution of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Following Bosnia’s declaration of independence that year, the Bosnian Serbs led by Radovan Karadžić and supported by the Serbian government of Slobodan Milošević mobilised their forces inside Bosnia in order to secure their ethnic territory. In doing so they kicked off a war that would take hundreds of thousands of lives and be characterised by bitter fighting, indiscriminate shelling of towns and cities, war crimes and ethnic cleansing.
The scars of the war 30 years ago still run deep in the region today, but yet again teeters on the edge of a cliff that could see the Bosnia return to war. Milorad Dodik in the Serb Bosnian dominated Republika Srpska has been vying for more autonomy for his people for years. He wants to abandon Bosnia’s institutions, the security forces, the judiciary system and the tax system, in doing so he would be leaving the region on high alert. At the start of December he led a vote at the parliament for the Republika Srpska in which 48 out of a possible 83 seats in parliament voted to withdrawe from the institutions.
Dodik said that the vote was “the moment of conquering the freedom for Republika Srpska” and that “Bosnia is an experiment… I don’t believe it can survive because it does not have the internal capacity to survive.” Now the vote has been passed the regional government should now draft new laws on the military, judiciary system and tax system to replace state laws. Dodik also wants to roll back on all reforms made after the war and return to the 1995 constitution under which the state was represented by basic institutions only while all powers had belonged to the regions.
In a joint statement, the embassies of the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy as well as an EU delegation said that the parliamentary motion was a “Further escalation”. More recently the US has imposed sanctions on Dodik for corruption and threatening the stability and integrity of Bosnia.
However, the motion continues to threaten the region’s delicate peace. In the days around the Orthodox Christmas, nationalists, encouraged by their leader’s rhetoric, provoked Muslim neighbourhoods, shot guns near mosques during prayers and sang nationalist songs glorifying convicted war criminals during street parades. Some days later, Bosnian Serbs celebrated the day in 1992 when they declared their independence, triggering the Bosnian War, with a parade of armed police forces in direct defiance of a court ban and the US sanctions. Dodik has been using racial slurs against Muslim Bosniaks, degrading them to a religious group without ethnic identity and ascribing them the “colonial mentality”. All of which only adds fuel to an already deteriorating situation in the country as ethnic lines grow further apart once again.
Dodik has dismissed the threat of the EU and US sanctions claiming that he has spoken with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin who offers his help. With the EU sanctions, Dodik has suggested they only push him closer to China and its investments claiming that, like Putin, China’s President Xi Jinping is all but happy to help. Dodik claims he was not elected “to be a coward” and with the backing of Russia and China, we could see him further stretch his secessionist motions. Along with close ties to Serbia itself, Dodik feels he has some powerful allies behind whom he can shelter against these sanctions and further his movements towards an independent Serb state in Bosnia.
If secession does happen, Dodik will have both Russia and Serbia to call in for immediate help. Serbia itself has very close ties with Russia and they continue to do arms deals with the most recent being a shipment of 9M133 Kornet anti-tank missiles with more to come later in the year. Last year in November Serbia procured 30 T-72MS tanks and 30 BRDM-2MS armoured personnel carriers. From 2018 to 2020, Russia donated four Mi-35M helicopters, six MiG-29 fighter jets, 10 BRDM-2 amphibious armoured scout cars, three Mi-17V-5 transport helicopters, and Pantsir-S1 air-defence missile-gun system to Serbia as military technical assistance.
Serbia has also been accused, on various occasions, of attempting to destabilise the region, especially with attempts towards neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina. Should war break out in Bosnia, Serbia, with the backing of Russia, would be perfectly placed to aid Dodik in securing Serb lands. The last thing the EU or the US wants is for there to be another blood-filled war in Europe, and so Dodik currently has a choice; continue with his secession attempts with the threat of war increasingly likely and intervention from the EU and US in which, like the first time, thousands might die, or attempt to work with the EU and the Bosnian government to find a peaceful resolution to the situation. Either way, Dodik has expressed his desire to show his strength, and with many remembering the violence of the first Bosnian War, tensions are as high as they have ever been.
Diplomacy in Eastern Europe in December was dominated by heightened tensions between Russia and the West, after a US intelligence report on Russian troop movements, sounding alarms in the West that Russian military forces were amassing near the Ukrainian border in preparation for a potential invasion as early as the first months of 2022. Russia and Ukraine have been in conflict since February 2014, when the Euromaidan protests resulted in the removal of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. In early March 2014, the Russia launched an overt military operation to annex the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, after which a Russian-organized referendum held in the region returned a result heavily in favour of joining the Russian Federation. On 18 March 2014 Russia formally annexed Crimea and has since supported the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in their conflict with Ukraine, supplying troops and equipment.
On 3 December 2021 US intelligence assessed that over 94,000 Russian military personnel were assembled near Ukraine, along with medical, fuel and supply stockpiles. Russian authorities dismissed the invasion accusations as lies and blamed NATO for escalating tensions, citing armaments transfers to Ukraine and military exercises close to Russia’s borders. A series of telephone and video-call negotiations were held throughout December between Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden and his EU and NATO allies, in which the West pushed for a de-escalation and a drawdown of Russian forces, while Moscow attempted to leverage the situation to secure ‘redline’ security guarantees, including a pledge to end military deployments in Eastern Europe and former Soviet states, as well as a bar against any future Ukrainian membership of NATO.
The US, EU and NATO strategy in addressing the crisis has been to attempt to present a united front in standing firm against Moscow’s demands, jointly agreeing a raft of sanctions that would be enacted in the event of an invasion, including financial sanctions against Russian banks and a block on the exchange of Rubles into foreign currencies. Meanwhile, the US put pressure on the new German government of Olaf Scholz to delay the completion of the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline between Germany and Russia. US President Joe Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg issued clear statements to Russia that the future membership of NATO would be decided only by the alliance itself, refusing Russia’s demand for a bar on Ukrainian membership.
The Russian strategy during the conflict appears to be a continuation of the ‘hybrid warfare’ – the combination of military tactics with political warfare methods such as cyber warfare, disinformation, and diplomacy – that was employed during its annexation of Crimea in 2014. Senior Russian politicians have vigorously denied accusations that Moscow is planning any invasion of Ukraine, while accusing Ukraine and NATO of escalating tensions through their own military build-ups in the region. Simultaneously, Russian officials have issued repeated warnings of unspecified military responses if their demands are not met, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stating that “if there is no constructive response within a reasonable time and the West continues its aggressive line, then Russia will be forced to take all necessary measures to ensure strategic balance and eliminate unacceptable threats to our security.” Vladimir Putin has publicly projected a desire to negotiate a diplomatic de-escalation of tensions by engaging in one-on-one talks with President Biden over the course of the conflict, however his insistence on demanding security guarantees to which he almost certainly knows NATO cannot agree call his sincerity into question.
Despite some reports in late December that a small fraction, around 10,000, of the Russian build-up around Ukraine has been withdrawn, there is little evidence to believe that a significant thawing of relations over military build-ups over the Russian-Ukrainian border is imminent. A Russian diplomatic delegation is scheduled to meet with US, NATO and European allies in three meetings from 9-13 January. However, with neither side appearing willing to abandon its own ‘red lines’ it is difficult to anticipate that significant progress will be made toward de-escalation.
Iraq and Iran have had a dynamic relationship over the past few decades. The Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s was a period of conflict, but in recent times since the fall of the Saddam regime in 2000, the regional neighbours have shared closer ties. 2020 onwards however has been an interesting time in the history of their relations – “interesting” meaning their relations have been somewhat of a ‘mixed bag.’ This article explores whether at present Iraq is veering closer to its neighbour, or pulling apart from it.
On the one hand it seems to be courting Iran (or perhaps Iran is courting it). This can be seen in its actions in strengthening bilateral coordination with Iran – namely in the areas of defence, diplomacy, economics and politics. Notably in November 2020, the defence apparatus of the two countries explored the prospect of strengthening defence and military cooperation – also in the area of counter-terrorism. The latter issue is especially poignant in Iraq – which faces threats from a resurgent Islamic State. On the issue of diplomacy, their leaders and senior officials meet regularly. Further, they also attend each other’s state events. Notably last month, Iraq’s President Barham Saleh attended the inauguration of Iran’s new president. Iran reciprocated through its Foreign Minister being in attendance at Iraq’s special Baghdad Conference in the same month. Iraq has also been a mediatory bridge between Iran and its major regional rival, Saudi Arabia.
The latter could be a seen as Iraq taking interest in its neighbour’s diplomatic relations. However, it seems much more likely Iraq would seek to involve itself as a mediator to bolster its own international or regional reputation. In other words, using such high-profile talks to make itself look good. This is certainly not an action that would endear Iraq to Iran. Further, being that Iraq has relations with both countries, its mediator role more than likely looks to be a cover for trying to get the most out of its relations with both countries. This seems plausible, considering in November 2020 Iraq reopened its border crossing with Saudi Arabia – which had been closed since 1990. As mentioned previously, in the same month Iraq sought to strengthen its ties with Iran militarily. Further, on 4 September 2021 Iraq and Saudi Arabia met to discuss security cooperation. Together, such moves suggest Iraq is playing a game – seeking to keep both sides close, so that it can benefit from both. Being mediator is of course another step towards securing closeness and extensive diplomatic dialogue with both.
Further, diplomatically and culturally-speaking, the peoples of both Iraq and Iran share extensive ties. This is evident in the fact thousands of Iranian Arbaeen pilgrims flock each year to Iraq’s holy Shi’a sites. The latter is something the two governments have this month capitalised on, when they reached a no-visa deal for their peoples entering the other’s country. In the same religious and cultural remit, Iraqi society is very much influenced by Iran. This is evident in the Iraqi state-sanctioned Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). The latter group is home to a number of Iraqi militias who either possess sectarian ties to, or are backed by Iran. Examples of such militias are the Khataib Hezbollah; Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and the Badr Organisation. Such groups have vast sway in the Iraqi state, whilst also acting as proxies in the region. This suggests that agents of the Iraqi state are moving towards Iran.
However, as much as the two countries have ties, there also exist times when they do not see eye-to-eye. This is evident in the way many in Iraqi civil society have blamed Iran for the ills of their country – namely its role in the violent targeting of anti-corruption activists and journalists in Iraqi society. For example, last month an Iraqi Shi’a cleric publically called out PMF militias with links to Iran for being ‘disloyal’ to Iraq. One has to wonder whether such a voice is in the minority or in the majority. I suspect such a voice is in the minority in the PMF, but in the majority amongst Average Joe Iraqi citizen. Further, in May 2021 in the city of Karbala, demonstrators who blamed Iran for its role in the death of a prominent anti-corruption and anti-sectarian journalist, set fire to the gates, entrances and trailers of the Iranian consulate in the city. Iran of course voiced strong condemnation of the attack on its consulate, and also urged neighbouring Arab countries to pursue the case under international conventions. Iran not choosing to overlook the actions of Iraqi citizens suggests the relationship between Iran is not as special as one might think. Further, the strong-willed actions of the Iraqis who attacked the consulate suggests Iraqis at least are not as mesmerised with Iran as the Iraqi state might be.
But aside from the people, at the previously mentioned Baghdad Conference, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi made cryptic remarks whereby he said Iraq refuses to be used as a middle ground for conflicts – both regional and international. Further, he said his country “reject[s] Iraq being used as a springboard for any threat to any party.” It is unclear which party or parties he was referring to, but in context he could very well have been referring to Iran’s role in the country. This can be deduced from the fact Iran has a number of ongoing conflicts both regionally and internationally – with Israel, the US, and the Arab Gulf states. Additionally, it can be deduced from Iran’s Foreign Policy being predicated on influencing foreign affairs via its proxies and enablers in the region. Again, Iran already has proxies in Iraq. Assuming Iran is the subject being referred to, this would suggest Iraq by the very least is trying to distance itself somewhat from Iran.
But with no specifics given to identify who the Prime Minister was speaking of, his speech cannot definitively be used for comment on the nature of Iraq-Iran relations. Moreover, with the presence of Iran’s Foreign Minister at the Conference, it makes it unlikely Iraq would speak of its close neighbour like that. Nevertheless, it is not impossible, and could account for the reason why Iraq’s leader chose to speak cryptically. This is because it seems plausible that Iraq would only be able to speak freely and more explicitly about its concerns at such a conference if the party was not present at the time of delivery. This therefore suggests the subject of the speech was indeed present at the time: Iran’s Foreign Ministry. Again, this suggests Iraq is seeking to move away from Iran – or by the very least away from Iran’s foreign policy.
Whilst unproven, one area that seems to indicate Iraq is repelling Iran is with Iraq’s working relationship with the United States. The US has had large numbers of troops deployed in Iraq. They do so to help Iraqi security forces maintain peace and stability in the country – having spent much of the time liberating the country from Islamic State militants since 2014. Iran is not a fan of the United States, nor of its presence in Iraq and in the wider region. In fact, the United States is an arch rival of Iran, and both are currently in conflict. The United States however contributes much to Iraq’s internal security and stability – with American troops having trained and fought alongside Iraqi security forces in the fight against terrorism.
Over the past few months, Iraq has seen many attacks on its capital Baghdad as well as other areas from militants. The latter have mainly been seeking to attack the United States and its installations in the country. The US has claimed Iran and Iran backed militias are responsible for carrying out such attacks. Assuming Iran is responsible for such attacks, Iraq is clearly being destabilised by Iran’s actions. This would suggest Iraq would seek to do what it can to distance itself from Iran and its perceived actions. This could therefore explain why Iran would make a speech at the Baghdad Conference, warning against being used as a “middle ground” or “springboard” for conflict [with the United States].
One interesting areas of Iraq-Iran relations is in the energy sector. Iraq is a beneficiary of much of Iran’s petroleum and gas. In fact in October 2020, Iran’s secretary of the Iranian Union of Petrochemical, Gas and Oil Exporters revealed that 60 percent of the country’s petrol went to neighbouring Iraq. Further, Iran also sends Iraq mammoth amounts of gas. On the latter issue, Iraq has accrued $5 million in arrears. Iran has been seeking the money back from Iraq. Therefore, it was no coincidence that early this month Iran began turning off the gas. In fact, Iran reduced the amount of gas it supplies its neighbour to 8 million cubic meters per day – down from 49 million. No reason was given as to why it acted to do so, but Iraq’s debts are suspected. This suggests Iraq has somehow fallen out of favour with the Islamic Republic. However, Iran’s actions this month suggest Iraq does indeed share a special relationship with it – or rather that their relationship is still somewhat close. This is evident in Iran’s Oil Ministry’s decision to appoint a special envoy for Iraqi affairs. The latter decision suggests a special interest in Iraq on the Iranian side. It also shows a willingness to resolve the issue by diplomatic means – as opposed to more hostile or impersonal means. This in itself indicates Iraq and Iran, at least on this issue, are not repelling each other. However, one will have to see in the coming months or year if the outcome of this issue will have bearing on Iraq’s perception of and relations with its close neighbour.