Articles

Too Much Heaven: A Brief Look Back at 1979

With the new year starting, it is now forty years since 1979. Forty of course is a biblical number, which is fitting because 1979 was a year in which religious belief became decisively political. Some of these events are still well remembered – Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve, the Camp David Accords between Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat, and Menachem Begin. Other key events however are often forgotten, so that 1979 does not usually get the acknowledgment it deserves as being a year of unmatched religious and political action.

The year began with the full resumption of diplomatic relations between the US and China, on New Year’s Day, ending three decades of formal estrangement between the two countries. This was followed by Deng Xiaoping visiting the White House at the end of the month, the first time a Communist leader of China had ever done so.

This new relationship had an immediate political impact when, on January 7th, the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia fell to the invading Communist Vietnamese. Five weeks after that, China invaded Vietnam, launching a short but brutal war against  Vietnamese forces that had been fighting the US only six years earlier.

While the political importance of China and America re-establishing their alliance is obvious, its religious significance tends to be overlooked. It has, however, helped lead to one of the largest increases in any religion in recent history: the adoption of Christianity by many tens of millions of Chinese since the 1970s. In 1979 China’s Three-Self Patriotic Movement church was legalized by the Chinese government. It and many other much smaller churches have been so successful in the decades since that today China and America have probably the two largest Protestant populations in the world. China’s overall Christian population is difficult to estimate, but 100 million is a common guess.

Of course, it was in the Middle East where the biggest religious and political upheaval in 1979 took place. In Iran, the Ayatollah came to power on February 11th, the Shah having fled to Egypt three weeks earlier. In a foreshadowing of events that would come at the end of the year, on February 14ththe US ambassador was kidnapped and killed in Kabul, while on the same day Iranian militants temporarily took control of the US embassy in Tehran, kidnapping a Marine there.

But what goes down also goes up. On March 26, the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty was signed. This was an event of great significance, considering that the two countries had fought four wars against one another in the preceding three decades, yet have not fought a single war against one another in the four decades since. Israel returned the Sinai Desert to Egypt as part of the deal, while Egypt became the first Arab state to recognize Israel.

The month ended on a less peaceful note in a different arena of religious and political conflict: Britain. On March 30 Airey Neave, the Tory party’s Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was assassinated outside of the British Parliament by a car bomb planted by Irish militants. The assassination took place just two days after a no confidence vote had brought down a Labour government; Margaret Thatcher was elected Britain’s first female PM a month later.

This assassination would be followed an even larger attack later in the year. On August 27[1], the Provisional Irish Republican Army killed eighteen British soldiers with two roadside bombs in Northern Ireland, while on the same day killing Lord Mountbatten (an uncle of Prince Phillip, who had formerly been head of the Royal Navy, head of the Armed Forces, and Viceroy of India), his grandson, and two others by planting a bomb on his boat[2].

A month later, Ireland would host its own biggest religious event in decades, when the Pope visited the island. The Pope was welcomed by a crowd estimated to include 2.7 million people, nearly the entire population of the Republic of Ireland[3].

This however was not the Pope’s most important trip abroad in 1979, nor the one to attract the largest crowds. John Paul II, who had only become Pope at the end of 1978, was the first non-Italian Pope in 450 years. He was, even more importantly, Polish, at a time when Poland was the largest country in the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. The Pope’s visit to Poland in June of 1979, often referred to as the nine days that changed the world, was the first trip by a Pope to a Communist country. It played a substantial role in the rise of the Polish Solidarity movement, and so in turn arguably helped end the Cold War.

The Pope’s influence also attracted enemies. When, at the end of 1979, the Pope was visiting Turkey, a man named Mehmet Ali Agca, who was then beginning a life sentence in prison for killing the editor of a Turkish newspaper earlier that year, escaped from jail and fled to Bulgaria. Two years later, Agca would shoot the Pope in St. Peter’s Square. Given Bulgaria’s position in the Warsaw Pact, many people speculate that the Soviet Union was behind this attack in some way[4].

Acga would later claim that a reason for the shooting was that the Pope had orchestrated the siege of the Grand Mosque of Mecca, a siege which was taking place when Acga made his jail break in November of 1979. This siege, which lasted for two weeks at the holiest site in Islam, involved tens of thousands of hostages[5], several hundred gunmen, and one false messiah. It took place on the first day of the new millennium of the Islamic calendar (1400 A.H.), during the annual Hajj pilgrimage. Saudi forces finally ended the siege after a number of failed attempts and hundreds of deaths, by secretly enlisting the help of France, which sent three of its Special Forces soldiers to Mecca. They quickly converted to Islam in order to enter the holy city, then used gas to sedate the gunmen, who by then had taken refuge in the catacombs beneath the Mosque.

The siege arguably had a major impact on Saudi culture and foreign policy, and a direct legacy in future events such as the emergence of Al Qaeda. It is a sad, fascinating story worth reading about, one that is often forgotten due to a Saudi media blackout and the 444-day Iranian hostage crisis, which had begun several weeks earlier and was consuming much of America’s attention.

At the time, the siege had a number of immediate consequences, owing partly to confusion as to who had orchestrated it. As we have already seen, Acga claimed the Pope was involved. Many others believed the US was behind the siege. This resulted in the destruction of US embassies by mobs in Libya and Pakistan on December 3. Others believed Shia revolutionaries in Iran were behind it. This led to an uprising in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, where the country’s Shia minority population lives (and where most of its oil is located). People there had been attempting to celebrate Ashura on November 25, a major Shia holiday prohibited in Saudi Arabia.

Shia-Sunni political relationships were also deteriorating elsewhere in the Middle East in 1979, part of a process that helped lead to the most deadly war in the recent history of the region, the Iran-Iraq War, the following year. At the start of the year Iraq and Syria had been discussing the possibility of unifying their armed forces and merging into a single state[6], to counter Egypt’s new relationship with the US and Israel. The Shia Islamic revolution in Iran however created the possibility of a closer relationship between Iran and Syria. Syria’s government, led by Hafez al- Assad and the country’s minority Allawite (a branch of Shia Islam, sort of) elite, was at the time fighting Sunni groups such as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Syria also had interests in the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990)[7], a religious sectarian war in which Shia forces – a few years later emerging as the Party of God, Hezzbolah – were being energized by the Iranian revolution as well as by Israel’s invasion and subsequent withdrawal from Shia-inhabited South Lebanon in 1978.

In Iraq the reverse situation existed. The Iranian revolution frightened Iraq’s Sunni elite, in part because a majority of Iraq’s population were disenfranchised Shia. This may have led Saddam Hussein, then vice president of Iraq, to overthrow his elder cousin Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, the president, on July 16, 1979. A week later Saddam carried out a public purge of Iraqi politicians, claiming they had been plotting with Syria to overthrow the government of Iraq. The following April, he ordered the execution of Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al Sadr (whose son-in-law, the cleric Muqtada al Sadr, is today arguably the most influential politician in Iraq), along with al Sadr’s sister Amina, before beginning an eight-year war against the ayatollahs in Iran in the fall.

The year ended with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve[8]. This was followed two days later by the Soviets killing their former ally, Communist Afghan President Hafizulla Amin[9]. US president Jimmy Carter then signed the order for the CIA to provide lethal aid to the Afghan mujahedeen. Most of this aid was facilitated by the Pakistani regime of Zia ul Haq, who came to power in a coup at the end of 1978 and would, more than any other figure, be responsible for transforming the Pakistani state from secular to theocratic. The decade-long resistance of the mujahedeen against the Soviets and their allies would result in the deaths of perhaps a million people.

Thus it can be seen that 1979 was also a turning point in the extremely violent Cold War. From a time of “national malaise” in the US (to reference the famous speech by Carter that year[10]), which was dealing with an energy crisis, a hostage crisis, and recent memories of Vietnam[11], 1979 would set in motion forces that would lead to a US victory in the Cold War ten years later. But then, it would also lead the US to its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at the start of another new millennium.

Ultimately, 1979 was significant not only because of its mix of religion and politics, a mix which obviously was not new at the time and has not gone away since. It was also important because the events of that year helped to shape the views of a generation of people who, today having reached their fifties, sixties, or seventies, can now shape events themselves[12]. Perhaps this has contributed to the fact that American relationships with Iran and Russia remain hostile just like they were in 1979, while American relationships with countries like China, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt remain cooperative just like they were in 1979. True, there are signs that some of these relationships may be beginning to change. But for today at least, 1979 remains a guide worth remembering.

 

Notes:

[1]This attack took place just as a public debate over whether or not it was appropriate to satirize religion was taking place in Britain, as only ten days earlier the Monty Python movie The Life of Brian had first been released. The movie was banned in the Republic of Ireland until 1987.

[2]Another prominent figure assassinated in 1979 was Park Chung-hee, who had been the president of South Korea since 1963, first coming to power in a military coup in 1961. He was shot by his close friend, the head of Korea’s CIA. Park’s daughter was recently president from 2013-2017, but was then impeached.

[3]Two weeks before the Pope’s visit, Ireland passed the Health Act, which legalized the selling of contraception for the purposes of family planning. China then said I’ll raise you one better, launching, in effect, mandatory contraception: 1979 was the year the one-child policy was born.

[4]Actually, Agca himself later claimed the KGB was involved. But he has a track record of making untrue, self-aggrandizing statements, so this does not prove anything.

[5]Most of whom were released at the beginning of the siege. There were an estimated 50,000 pilgrims in the Mosque to begin with, but only a relatively small percentage of them were kept hostage during the siege’s two-week duration.

[6]Like Syria and Egypt had done from 1958 to 1961.

[7]Another arena of political conflict, Cold War rivalry, and religious activity was Central America, where wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua were taking place around this time. A key event in El Salvador’s civil war (1980-1992) was the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, which took place during Mass in March of 1980, a day after he had publicly asked Salvadoran soldiers not to carry out orders to kill civilians.

[8]Though not in Orthodox countries like Russia, where Christmas is on January 7.

[9]He was not the only Amin to be ousted from power in 1979. Uganda’s Idi Amin (no relation) was removed too, by an invading Tanzanian army.

[10]Though Carter never actually used the word malaise in the “malaise speech”.

[11]At the 1979 Academy Awards, The Deer Hunter won Best Picture while Jon Voight and Jane Fonda won Best Actor and Best Actress for Coming Home. Both were films about Vietnam.

[12]In 1979, Donald Trump started building Trump Tower. Bill Clinton was elected governor of Arkansas at the age of 31. An 18-year-old Barack Obama moved to the US mainland to attend a liberal arts college in Los Angeles. Xi Jinping finished his degree in chemical engineering, as a “Worker-Peasant-Soldier student” in Beijing. Angela Merkel too was becoming a chemist in a Communist state, having finished her physics degree at the end of 1978 in Berlin. Shinzo Abe finished his degree at the University of Southern California. Narendra Modi graduated from the University of Delhi in 1978 and began working for the Hindu nationalist paramilitary organization, the RSS, in 1979. Theresa May graduated from Oxford in 1977; Jeremy Corbyn entered politics as local councillor in 1979. Bibi Netanyahu and Mitt Romney were coworkers and friends at the Boston Consulting Group.

 

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East Asia

North Korea and the Olympics Curse

Countries, or even entire regions, sometimes change dramatically soon after hosting major sports events like the Olympics or World Cup. For the next five years, these events will all be held in countries surrounding North Korea. The 2018 Winter Olympics will be in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, and the 2022 Winter Olympics in Bejing. This could, maybe, foreshadow a coming political change.

 

The Olympics Curse 

In the relatively common phenomenon known as the “Olympics Curse”, countries or even entire regions change dramatically soon after hosting major sports events like the Olympics or World Cup. Sometimes this change is for the better, but often it is for the worse. It is, typically, the result of boom-bust economic cycles: countries bid for the tournaments during periods of growth but, by the time the tournaments finally take place, leaner years have set in. 

The BRICS 

During the past decade the curse of the Olympics has been especially striking. It was felt most recently in the aftermath of the “BRICS” economic cycle, which had led to Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, Sochi in 2014, and Beijing in 2008, and to World Cups in Brazil in 2014, South Africa in 2010 and (for cricket) Mumbai in 2011. 

The BRICS boom first began to waver in 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics, as the global financial crisis began and called China’s exports to the US and Europe into question. This forced the Chinese to rely instead on growing debt — and then on a new cult of personality, that of Xi Jinping —to keep their boom going. 

The slowing economic growth in Europe and China also took a toll on commodity prices, which in turn crushed the Russian, Brazilian, and South African economies. Russia responded to this economic threat by going to war with its neighbours, first in Georgia in 2008 (the day before the Beijing Olympics), then in Ukraine in 2014 (three days before the end of the Sochi Olympics).

Brazil, meanwhile, entered what has been perhaps the worst recession in the country’s modern history; its president, Dilma Rousseff, ended up being impeached last summer (ten days after the Rio Olympics) in a political scandal that just won’t end

While India escaped the BRICS slowdown relatively unscathed (and also never hosted the Olympics), it too has undergone a political shift in recent years, with the defeat of the Congress Party and success of Hindu-nationalist figures like Narendra Modi and, recently, Modi’s chosen leader for Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath

Even the Olympics in Vancouver in 2010 and London in 2012 were, in effect, extensions of the BRICS boom. Both cities are hubs of activity and investment for persons originating from China (in Vancouver’s case) or emerging markets in general (in London’s). Both have also experienced some trouble of late. Vancouver is experiencing a housing affordability crisis partly as a result of capital flight from China, while London — where housing prices are not exactly affordable either— suffered a harsh defeat in its country’s Brexit vote last year. 

Europe

Before the BRICS sports spree began in 2008, there was Europe’s. Athens hosted in 2004, Turin in 2006. Berlin too played host in 2006, to the World Cup. It was the year before the 2007-2008 financial crisis, which led to a “lost decade” in Europe that has, among other things, wrecked Greece, weakened Italy, and brought Germany nearer than it would like to becoming again the most decisive but reviled country in the region. 

And then, of course, there was the Communist era in Europe: the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo. Neither the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia would be around within a decade of their hosting the games.

South Korea

For South Korea, which will be hosting the first-ever Winter Olympics in continental Asia at the beginning of 2018, in a city less that is than 100 km from the DMZ, the hope is that the worst of the curse has already taken place in the past year. South Korea’s economy grew more slowly in 2015 and 2016 than in any year since 1998 (with the exception of 2009, the year of a global recession), and its president was impeached in the closing days of 2016. 

Yet if the effect of the Olympics truly is a consistent phenomenon, then there is no reason to expect that Korea won’t continue to change. Not only is South Korea hosting in the winter of 2018, but all of the major sports events in the near future are going to be held in countries that surround the Korean peninsula. The 2018 World Cup will be in Russia, the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, and the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Even the host of the 2022 World Cup, Qatar, has Korean connections: South Korea is the number one destination for Qatar’s exports. 

North Korea 

For North Korea, the changes in the region that these upcoming sports tournaments may foreshadow are, if anything, only one more indication that the status quo on the peninsula is becoming less and less likely to hold. 

Whether through rapprochement, reunification, or regime change, it seems that the country and the region are headed for a significant change in political conditions.

It is possible that sports will play even a direct role in this change. Sports diplomacy, after all, has a long history in the region. The US and China played ping-pong in 1971, just months before Nixon’s infamous trip to Beijing; the ping-pong players were at the time among the first Americans to officially visit China since the end of the Korean War two decades earlier. 

More recently — just this past week, in fact — South Korea’s Chung Mong-gyu, the first Korean to hold a seat on FIFA’s council since 2001, announced that he and FIFA’s president Gianni Infantino both support the idea of a proposal for South Korea, North Korea, China, and Japan to co-host the football World Cup in 2030.

Even Dennis Rodman, who played on the 1990’s Chicago Bulls (Kim Jong Un’s favourite basketball team), used a sport trip to North Korea in 2014 as an opportunity to reach out to the isolated, tyrannical regime.

If war is to be averted, we can hope that Rodman’s Celebrity Apprentice co-star, Donald Trump, will now follow suit.

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Europe

Satellite Geopolitics in Eastern Europe

During the past year, the primary focus of the US-Russian rivalry has centred around Iran. The United States put an end to Western sanctions against Iran, and also chose to keep American troops in Afghanistan who support, among others, many of the tens of millions of Afghans who are Shiite Muslims or who can speak Farsi (as opposed to the Taliban, who are Sunni and typically Pashto-speaking). Russia, meanwhile, intervened to aid Bashar al-Assad in Syria, who’s survival diverts Sunni attention away from Iran’s Shiite allies in Iraq.

With Russia now withdrawing some of its forces from Syria and the US hoping to do so from Afghanistan, the focus of the US-Russian rivalry could revert, perhaps, to Ukraine. By comparison to the Middle East, Ukraine has appeared to be very quiet of late.

Russia may have dialed back the conflict in Ukraine partly in order to shift the West’s focus to the Middle East. This of course has not been very difficult to accomplish, given Europe’s influx of Syrian migrants and  America’s election-season rhetoric on issues like ISIS, the conflict in Libya, and Donald Trump’s proposal to ban, for an unspecified amount of time, all Muslims from travelling to the United States.

If the US-Russian focus does move back towards Eastern Europe, one can perhaps guess the rough outlines of any geopolitical contest that may occur there.

Poland will likely be the chief ally of the United States in the region. Unlike any of the five other former satellite nations of the Soviet Union, Poland borders the Atlantic Ocean (via the Baltic Sea). This provides it access to English-speaking countries like Britain, the United States, and Canada, as well as to countries where proficiency in English as a second language has become particularly widespread, most notably in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and to a lesser extent Germany.

Poland, indeed, tends to be relatively Atlantic-oriented. It conducts a larger percentage of its trade with economies like Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the United States than do any of the other ex-satellite countries in Eastern Europe. More than 10% of Poland’s modern-day labour force has worked at one time or another in Britain or Ireland, whereas Hungarians, Czechs, and Slovaks have more often gone to Germany or Austria and Romanians have more often gone to Germany, Austria, Italy, or Spain.

poles in britain

1/60 Poles are living in Britain, according to this source

Poland is not an Eastern Orthodox country, like Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia and several others in the region are. Rather, its population is predominantly Roman Catholic.

us ancestry

Poland also remains by far the largest “country of origin” in the United States among Eastern European nations, at a time when Americans may be becoming much more informed of their ancestry as a result of increasingly cheap gene-sequencing and genealogical services 

Much more important than Poland having Western ties, however, is that it may be the only state in Eastern Europe large enough to lead a US alliance. Poland’s GDP is estimated to be 80 percent as large as those of its fellow ex-satellites – Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia (formerly Czechoslovakia) – combined.

Among other things, this economic size has allowed Poland’s economy to become relatively self-sufficient: Poland’s imports and exports are thought to be equal in value to just 80% or so of Polish GDP, compared to 110-170% of GDP in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Lithuania (though just 75% in Romania). This could make Poland somewhat less susceptible to the whims of its (largely European) trading partners than the other countries in Eastern Europe might be, and so perhaps also a more dependable ally of the United States.

eastern europe satellites

Poland, finally, is the only one of the ex-satellites to border the northeastern Baltic region, which consists of the “Baltic states” of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad (which is situated between Poland and Lithuania), the Russian city of St Petersburg, and southern Finland.

Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in particular have become the object of worldwide geopolitical speculation. They are the only former members of the Soviet Union to have joined the European Union and NATO, and, along with Slovakia, Finland, Greece and Cyprus, are the only countries east of Central Europe to use the Euro in place of their national currencies. They are home to six million people, about the same number of people as live in St Petersburg.

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baltic_states_locator_2_0

While Poland will probably be the foundation of American influence in Eastern Europe, Romania may become its capstone. Though Romania’s per capita income is still considerably lower than other countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, or Poland, its population is significantly larger than any of the other former satellites apart from Poland, as is the size of its territory.

europe

Romania has Western ties because its language is close to Latin, rather than being a Slavic language like Russian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Bulgarian, Serbian, or Croatian. This has resulted, among other things, in substantial Romanian diasporas having formed in Spain and especially in Italy. A Romanian living in Italy can arguably become near-fluent in Italian within just a month or two, without much difficulty.

romanian diaspora

The Romanian Diaspora, according to Wikipedia

Crucially, Romania may also be able to exert influence in Ukraine. Romania shares a roughly 800 km frontier with the former Soviet Union (by comparison, Poland has a 900 km or so border with the former Soviet Union, Hungary and Slovakia have 70 km ones, and the Czechs and Bulgarians have none), and both Romania and Ukraine are economically oriented toward the Black Sea.

Romania and Ukraine both also surround Moldova, which is a mostly Romanian-speaking country but home to Ukrainian, Russian, and Turkic Gaguaz minority populations. This is a particularly contested region; Russia has troops stationed in Moldova’s secessionist province of Transnistria, while the Black Sea coast, which includes Ukraine’s second city Odessa (just 140 km from Romania),  is the only part of western Ukraine in which politically “pro-Russian” Ukrainians and “ethnic Russians” may still be prominent.

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Official_Russian_language_support_in_Ukraine

In response to a US-Romanian axis, Russia could attempt to press Romania from all sides by building up influence in Ukraine, Moldova, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary. Ukraine and Moldova are already home to Russian soldiers, while Serbia and Bulgaria are both Slavic and Orthodox countries that have historically often looked to Russia for support when fighting against their  non-Slavic, Catholic, or Muslim neighbours like Turkey, Greece, Albania, Croatia, Bosnia, Hungary, and Romania. Russia continues to have ties to Bulgaria, and especially to Serbia, in the present day.

black-sea-map

South of Poland, Romania is also the only place along the western frontier of the former Soviet Union in which the border with the European Union is not located entirely in the Carpathian Mountains

Hungary, however, is neither Slavic nor Orthodox. Still, Hungary would be a critical anti-Romanian ally for Russia to attempt to recruit. The large and rugged Hungarian-Romanian borderland, located in and around the region of Transylvania, has long been politically fraught. It lies on the Hungarian side of the Carpathian Mountains and is home to substantial Hungarian and Roma (who are distinct from Romanian) minority groups, yet, since roughly the end of the First World War, has mostly been part of Romania.

hungarians in romania

“Ethnic Hungarians” in Romania

Romani in Romania

Roma in Romania tend to live either in and around Transylvania or in and around the country’s capital city of Bucharest

While Romania holds the upper hand in this region, Hungary still has leverage over Romania because it controls the land and river routes that link Bucharest to markets in Austria, Germany, and northern Europe in general. Russia has been moving to form closer ties with Hungary, as Hungary’s Fidesz-led nationalist government has angered many of the other countries in the EU in recent years.

Danubemap

 Hungary and Bulgaria are both potentially significant to Russia for other reasons as well. Bulgaria can give the Russians access to the Mediterranean Sea via Greece or the Balkans, without having to pass through the Turkish Straits. It is just 250 km from the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea via Bulgaria and Greece, and 600-700 km from the Black Sea to the Adriatic via Bulgaria and the Balkans.

Indeed, given Russia’s reliance on natural gas exports and Italy’s reliance on gas imports (Russia is the world’s leading gas exporter, and Italy the world’s third largest gas importer), this trans-Bulgarian route to the Adriatic is one that Russia may need to avoid recession and at the same time maintain its influence in Italy. In turn, Russia may try to use Italy to put pressure on Romania, given the relatively close connections that exist between the two Latin countries.

europe_gas

Note that Poland, the Czech Republic, and especially Romania are not very dependent on Russian gas compared to Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Hungary

Russia may need Hungary, meanwhile, to resist interfering with Russia’s interests in Ukraine (there are an estimated 200,000 ethnic Hungarians living in western Ukraine), serve as a wedge between Poland and Romania, and ensure Russian access to Central European economies like Germany.

If, hypothetically, Russia were to cow western Ukraine into submission and then be shunned as a result by US allies like Poland and Romania and by German allies like the Czech Republic and Slovakia (The Czech Republic and Slovakia are deeply entrenched in the modern German trade network), Hungary could be left as the only land route linking Russia’s sphere of influence to potentially “neutral” European economies like Italy, Austria, Switzerland, or France.

EasternEuropeMap

Moreover, Hungary is the only ex-satellite state apart from Romania that borders both the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia. Hungary’s leading city Budapest is just 300 km from Serbia’s capital Belgrade, 300 km from Croatia’s capital Zagreb, 380 km from Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana, and 400 km from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital Sarajevo. Considering that Budapest is also only  215 km from Vienna, 160 from Bratislava, and 400 km from the outskirts of Prague, this puts seven European capital cities within a 400 km radius of Budapest. The only other EU capital which can come even close to saying the same thing for itself is Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital.

Russia might ideally like to ally itself with Germany or one of Europe’s other big economies, but if the Germans are not willing to participate in such a relationship then Hungary could be the place where a tug-of-war between Russia and America, or between Russia and Germany, or between Russia and “the West”, will occur. And if Russians do successfully win Hungary as a partner, thus potentially blocking off access to Romania from Poland, the focus of the conflict might then shift to Southeastern Europe, as the Americans could seek an alternative route to Romania.

During the Cold War the Americans involved themselves in Southeastern Europe by folding both Greece and Turkey into NATO (in spite of their intense rivalry with one another), but of late US-Turkish relations have been challenged by the wars in Syria and Iraq, while Greece has been trapped in an economic crisis and so unable to pick up the slack.

During just the past few months, though, more hopeful discussions than there have been in years have taken place regarding the possibility of the Greeks and Turks in Cyprus finally reunifying. This may perhaps portend an increasing cooperation between Turkey and the West, particularly as it has occurred around the same time as Turkey’s relationship with Russia deteriorated sharply following Russia’s entrance into Syria and Turkey’s downing of a Russian military jet there.

Then again, it is also entirely plausible that American relations with Turkey will continue to decline, and that the Greek economy will not soon recover in any meaningful way, leaving the United States to look instead to countries like Italy, Bulgaria, and the Balkan states in order to form a southern pathway to Romania and the Black Sea.

Clash of %22Civilizations%22

Greece’s fall has been Turkey’s rise

Of course, nothing like this scenario is guaranteed to happen. This is just a very rough outline of what a new US-Russian political confrontation in Eastern Europe might look like. Given that the past may not necessarily resemble the future, and in particular that technological developments could perhaps render some traditionally important geopolitical imperatives irrelevant – to give just one example, air power might allow countries like the United States to access their allies without possessing a land route to reach them – this outline may not end up being very prescient. Ideally, none of the ex-satellites will have to choose between looking eastward to Moscow or westward to Washington.


For a discussion of the conflict in Ukraine in particular, see The Geopolitics of Ukraine

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Middle East

Seniors Discount? Oil Prices and Old Rulers

Today’s low oil prices are probably not the result, even in part, of elderly men ruling over the world’s major energy-exporting nations. Still, it may be worth noting that the sons of Saudi Arabia’s modern founder, Abdulaziz bin Saud, are finally nearing the end of their long royal lifespans, while the leaders of energy-endowed countries like Iran, Algeria, Angola, Oman, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan have now reached old age too, after multiple decades in office. Even Vladimir Putin is 63 years old, long past his judo prime. He was just 47 when he first came to power.

As Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi arguably showed in 2011, longtime aging rulers can sometimes give way to political upheaval that causes domestic oil and gas production to fall. Uncertainty over the vigour of some of the following leaders might indeed cause global energy exports to fall, and thus, perhaps, prices to rise:

Kuwait – Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah – 86 years old – In power since 2006  

Sabah’s presumed successor, Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, is 78 years old. As recently as 2012 Kuwait was the world’s largest oil exporter outside of Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia – Salman bin Abdulaziz bin Saud – 80  years old – In  power since 2015 

Salman will probably be the last king to be chosen from among the 45 or so sons of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz bin Saud. Salman’s youngest living sibling, his half-brother Muqrin, is turning 71 this year and, as of last year, is no longer the designated  Crown Prince. The Saudi Crown Prince has since become Muhammad bin Nayef, Salman’s nephew, while the Deputy Crown Prince has become Salman’s own son Mohammad bin Salman

Algeria – Abdulaziz Bouteflika – 79 years old – In power since 1999 

Bouteflika came to power during and after the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s. Today his health is in question. Algeria is estimated to be the world’s 16th largest energy producer and its fourth largest natural gas exporter.

Uzbekistan – Islam Karimov – 77 years old – In power since 1991  

Karimov first came to power at the end of 1980s, when he became President of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic

Iran – Ali Khameni – 76 years old – In power since 1989 

Kazakhstan – Nursultan Nazerbayev – 75 years old – In power since 1991 

Oman –  Qaboos bin Said al Said – 74 years old – In power since 1970

Qaboos first became ruler  after overthrowing his father in a palace coup in 1970. He has no children or clear successor

South Africa – Jacob Zuma – 74 years old – In power since 2009 

Zuma was Deputy President of South Africa from 1999-2005. South Africa is a major producer of energy, and a net exporter of energy, because of its coal reserves, though it is a net importer of oil

Nigeria – Mohammadu Buhari – 73 years old – In power since 2015 

Buhari was previously Nigeria’s head of state during the 1980s

Angola – Jose Eduardo dos Santos – 73 years old – In power since 1979 

Angola, one of the fastest-growing economies of the past decade, is now the world’s third or fourth largest oil exporter outside of the Middle East

Equatorial Guinea – Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasongo – 73 years old – In power since 1979 

Equatorial Guinea is the 30th-40th largest oil producing country, but may have the world’s third highest per capita oil production, the highest outside the Middle East.  Both the age of its leader and the number of years he has been in power are exactly the same as in Equatorial Guinea’s relatively nearby neighbour Angola

Sudan – Omar al Bashir – 72 years old – In power since 1993

Brunei – Hassanal Bolkiah Muiz’zaddin Wad’daulah — 69 years old – In power since 1967

Brunei is the world’s 40th-50th largest oil producing country, but may have the 6th highest per capita oil production

Brazil – Dilma Roussef – 68 years old – In power since 2010

Her predecessor, Louis Inacio Lula da Silva, who literally as of today was selected to  become Roussef’s new chief of staffwas 65 years old when he left office in 2011 at the end of an eight-year term. Roussef has been facing an impeachment attempt, while Lula has been under investigation in a corruption scandal. 

United Arab Emirates – Khalifa Al Nayhan — 68 years old  – In power since 2004

The Emir of Dubai is 66 years old, meanwhile

Colombia – Juan Manuel Santos – 64 years old – In power since 2010 

South Sudan – Salva Kiir Mayardit – 64 years old – In power since 2011

Iraq – Haider al Abadi – 63 years old – In power since 2014 

Masoud Barzani, meanwhile, who has been president of oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan since 2005 and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party since 1979, is 69 years old. Foud Massoum, a Kurdish politician who is Iraq’s president (a more ceremonial role than prime minister), is 78 years old and has been in office since 2014. Nouri al Maliki, who was Iraq’s prime minister from 2006-2014 and is now Iraq’s vice president, will turn 66 this June. Saddam Hussein was 42 years old during his purge of 1979 and 66 years old when the US invaded in 2003.

Russia – Vladimir Putin – 63 years old – In power since 1999

Malaysia – Najib Razak — 62 years old – In power since 2009

Mahatir Mohammad, meanwhile, is 90 years old. Malaysia is thought to be the world’s 25th largest oil producing country

Turkey – Recep Tayyip Erdogan – 62 years old – In power since 2003

While Turkey is a significant net importer rather than exporter of energy, it is nevertheless capable of impacting the rest of the Middle East, and it has hopes to become a major energy nexus at the centre of the Middle East, North Africa, and Caspian Sea region. (Similarly, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been prime minister since 2009 and was previously prime minister from 1996-1999, is 66 years old)

Australia – Malcolm Turnbull – 61 years old – In power since 2015

Egypt – Abdel Fathah al-Sisi — 60 years old –  In power since 2014 

Sisi was also highly influential for at least a few years before 2014, following Hosni Mubarak’s departure from office in 2011

The following graph shows how old these countries’ rulers were in any given year between 1970 and 2015, and how old they will be in 2020 if today’s rulers remain in power for the remainder of the decade:

Age oil leaders

In the graphs below, the y-axis indicates the age of today’s rulers, the x-axis indicates the number of years they have been in power, and the size of the circles indicates the relative amount of energy that is produced by their country.

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Images

Capital Idea — Image of the Day

Capital_City_Plaza_Hotel

Countries have different way of ordering their own provinces and capital cities, and how they choose to do so may sometimes say a lot about what sort of politics they have. Where countries’ capital cities are concerned, there is usually something akin to one of the following four set-ups:

  1. The Argentine model: the country’s capital city serves as its own unique administrative district and is surrounded on all sides by a single province that it influences to a large degree.
  2. The American model: the capital city serves as its own unique administrative district but is not surrounded by a single province (or state, etc.), but rather by two or more provinces.
  3. The Saudi model: the capital city is not its own unique administrative district, but is part of an important province that is named after itself.
  4. The Canadian model: the capital city is sometimes annoyingly full of bureaucrats, but is otherwise more or less a normal place. It is not its own administrative district.

The Argentine Model 

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Examples of the Argentine model include, of course, Buenos Aires, which is surrounded by the province of Buenos Aires (Argentina’s recent presidential election, in fact, was between the mayor of Buenos Aires and the governor of Buenos Aires province); Berlin, which is surrounded by Brandenburg (see map below); Moscow, which is surrounded by the Moscow oblast; the Australian Capital Area, which is surrounded by New South Wales (see map below), Vienna, which is surrounded by Lower Austria; Brussels, which is surrounded by Brabant (though Brussels does not directly border Walloon Brabant, which is several km to the south of Brussels); Prague, which is surrounded by the Central Bohemian Region; and Addis Ababba, which is surrounded by Oromia.

Australian-States

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Beijing probably also belongs in this category: it is surrounded mostly by the province of Hebei but in two spots also by the city of Tianjin, which like Beijing is one of China’s four “direct-controlled municipalities” (the other two are Shanghai and Chongqing). Tianjin was temporarily made part of  Hebei province in the 1960s, and in recent years there has been much talk of increasing integration and cooperation between Beijing, Hebei, and Tianjin in order to form a sort of capital city macro-region, which is often referred to by the acronym Jingjinji.

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Seoul in South Korea has a similar set-up to Beijing. It is surrounded almost entirely by the province of Gyeonggi, but also touches the coastal city-province of Incheon, in the same way that Beijing does the city-province of Tianjin:

South-Korea-Divisions-Map.png

Note by the way that South Korea has a number of city-provinces. Of these, only Gwangju, in the southwest, conforms fully to the “Argentine model”.

Paris too may be included in this list; Paris is not itself a province, but it is surrounded on all sides by Ile de France, one of France’s 13 regions. (Prior to the beginning of this year Ile de France was one of France’s 22 regions, but these have since been reordered and reduced).

 

The American Model 

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Capitals which are their own unique administrative districts but lack their own single encircling province include Washington D.C. (which is surrounded by both Virginia and Maryland), Tokyo, London, Delhi; Mexico City, Bangkok, Tehran; Hanoi, Abuja (though Nigeria’s largest city by far, Lagos, which was the capital until 1991, is an example of  the Argentine model), Baghdad (which is surrounded by four other provinces), Manila, Jakarta, Madrid, Islamabad, Brasilia (though just barely …and the capital of Brazil prior to 1960 was Rio de Janeiro), Kinshasa, and Bogota (though in a relatively weird way; see map below, Bogota is the sliver between the departments of Cundinamarca – which Bogota is also the capital of – and Meta).

 

colombia

One feature that a number of these have in common is that, while the capital city’s administrative district often borders two other provinces, it is usually surrounded much more by the less populous of the two other provinces. Notable examples of this include Washington D.C., which is surrounded much more by Maryland (population 5.9 million) than by Virginia (population 8.3 million); Delhi, which is surrounded much more by Haryana (25 million) than by Uttar Pradesh (205 million); and Brasilia, which is surrounded much more by Goias (6.5 million) than by Minas Gerais 21 million.

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Capitals which do not fit this pattern, however, are Mexico City, where the federal capital district is surrounded much more by  the state of Mexico (population 16 million) than by the state of Morelos (population 1.9 million); and Islamabad, which is surrounded much more by Punjab (population 91 million) than by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (population 27 million).

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PakistanProvincesMap

 

A number of non-capital cities, meanwhile, such as Hamburg, which is the most populous city in Germany apart from Berlin, fit into this category as well.

 

The Saudi Model 

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A capital city which is not its own unique province, but rather is part of an important province named after itself. Examples may include Riyadh, Stockholm, Dhaka, Santiago, and Ankara. Bern also could probably be on this list, but Bern is only the de facto capital of Switzerland; Switzerland has no de jure capital city.

Map-of-Turkey-and-81-provinces.jpg

 

The Canadian Model 

Examples of countries in which the capital city is not its own unique independent unit may include Ottawa, Amsterdam, Rome, and Warsaw.

According to Wikipedia “two national capitals in federal countries are neither federal units [like provinces, states, etc.], special capital districts, nor capitals of federal units: Ottawa, the capital of Canada [because Toronto is the capital of Ontario, the province in which Ottawa is located], and Palikir, the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia“. Ottawa is situated entirely within the province of Ontario, but also directly borders French-speaking Quebec.

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Ottawa

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Palikir

 


Please let me know if I’ve made a mistake on any of these; administrative divisions can be a bit complicated – and I can be a bit lazy.

 

 

 

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Europe, Images

The Not-So-Tiny Baltics — Image of the Day

When, in the media, the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are mentioned, usually in a sentence like “Russia may again threaten the tiny Baltic states, which unlike Ukraine are members of NATO and the EU”, they are frequently referred to as  being “tiny”.

This is certainly true of their populations: only 3 million people live in Lithuania, 2 million live in Latvia, and 1.3 million in Estonia. (If, however, you include the Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, which is located between Lithuania and Poland, or the Russian Baltic city of St Petersburg, which is between Estonia and Finland, there are an additional 5.5 million people). It is not nearly as true of the Baltics’ territory sizes, however: they are actually not so tiny, but only appear so because they are located next to much larger countries, most notably Russia.

Baltic_Sea_map

All three Baltic states have larger territories, for example, than the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, and Switzerland, countries which most people probably assume are bigger than they are. In per capita terms, moreover, the Baltics have quite a bit more land than other European states outside of neighbouring Scandinavia or the former Soviet Union. (The Baltics’ population densities are about the same as the United States’). And in terms of per capita arable land and per capita forested land, their lead over other European countries is even greater.

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population density

 

 

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Europe, Images, Middle East

Image of the Day – Now that’s a basin!

black-sea-map

Assuming this map is accurate, the areas it highlights are those in which rivers flow into the Black Sea. A number of things about this may perhaps be geopolitically noteworthy:

– some countries, most notably Ukraine, lie almost completely within the Black Sea basin, whereas others, most notably Poland, lie just beyond the borders of the basin. Others still, like Bulgaria, are neatly bisected by it.

– a number of important cities, such as Istanbul, Lviv (the largest city in western Ukraine,  with the exception of Odessa), and the capital cities of Bulgaria (Sofia), Belarus (Minsk), and Bosnia-Herzegovina (Sarajevo), are situated precisely at the outer edge of the basin. Ankara, the capital of Turkey, is almost at the outer edge of the basin, meanwhile.

– the easternmost areas of Ukraine have rivers that flow into Russia’s Don River, and a coastline located along the Russian-controlled Sea of Azov rather than along the open Black Sea. Given that eastern Ukraine is relatively hilly (which this map does not show well) and is a leading producer of bulk goods like coal which are expensive to transport via truck, this Russian-oriented riverine and maritime access of eastern Ukraine is especially notable.

– The two most important rivers within this basin, namely the Danube and the Dnieper, empty into the Black Sea only about 200 km apart from one another, as a result of the fact that the Danube turns sharply north just before it reaches the sea, while the Dnieper turns southwest.

 

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