Is Political Reform on the Horizon for Kazakhstan?

Is Political Reform on the Horizon for Kazakhstan?

Recent political developments in Kazakhstan have increased hopes that the country may be on a path towards democratization. Kazakhstan has been under autocracy since it first began to be taken over by the Russian Empire in the 18th century, throughout its years as part of the Soviet Union, and since its independence in 1991. After all that time, could it be possible that the country is heading towards having a more democratic nature?

 

From 1990 until early  2019, Kazakhstan was led by Nursultan Nazarbayev. He was chosen by the Communist Party to rule the country and shortly afterwards led Kazakhstan into becoming an independent state when the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991. He was elected several times since then, with the last election being held in 2015. However, no opposition parties were allowed to run in these elections and he received a suspiciously high vote share of 95% in his last two elections. Along with these electoral irregularities, his regime was marred by accusations of human rights abuses. Protests and independent media were generally suppressed, and torture was common for those detained in the country’s prisons. It is also illegal to insult Nazarbayev, making criticism of the government difficult.

 

In March 2019, following a series of protests across Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev resigned as president. He appointed a successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, to serve the rest of his presidential term. Tokayev was re-elected in snap elections shortly afterwards. Despite Tokayev being the official president, Nazarbayev still holds much power, remaining the leader of Kazakhstan’s ruling political party. He has also been appointed for life as chairman of the Security Council, which advises the president with military and law enforcement policy. This means that his influence on Kazakh politics remains strong.

 

Despite Nazarbayev’s firm grip on Kazakhstan, the Tokayev presidency has marked some changes in the political situation. While his re-election in June 2019 was also marred by allegations of voting irregularities and the detention of peaceful protestors, he has made some small steps towards improving human rights in Kazakhstan. Tokayev established the National Council of Public Trust, a body which is supposed to allow greater dialogue between the public and the government. On December 20th, at a meeting of the National Council, Tokayev announced important changes to the country’s laws. Protests will no longer need approval from state authorities to be legal, it will become easier to form political parties as the number of supporters needed to start one will be reduced, and punishments for hate speech and libel will be abolished or reduced- meaning criticism of the government will be easier. The fact that these changes were announced just days after the detention of dozens of people who peacefully protested against the government regime makes them hard to read – will Kazakhstan begin to liberalize its laws, or are these changes intended to pay lip service to democratization while making little difference to the government’s control of society? 

 

Neighbouring Uzbekistan, under a new leader since 2016, has also been experimenting with some political reform and has reduced restrictions on the media. Tokayev and Nazarvayev could be following Uzbekistan’s model. However, given Nazarbayev’s previous human rights record it may be hard for Kazakhstan to turn over a new leaf, and even in Uzbekistan, there are still many restrictions on rights. The implementation of the new laws in the coming year will be closely watched by many in Kazakhstan, and hopefully, the government will stay true to its word, allowing increased freedom of expression in a country that has been without it for so long.

 

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What is Russia doing in Africa?

What is Russia doing in Africa?

On October 23rd and 24th, Russia hosted representatives from all 54 African countries at the first ever Russia-Africa summit, with the aim of improving partnership and trade links. Putin, the Russian president,  pulled out all the stops as host, and after the summit, announced that 12.5 million dollars worth of trade deals had been discussed. This event shows that Russia is clearly seeking to further its influence in Africa. But why is Russia so interested in improving ties with African states?

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was an influential player in Africa, supporting many liberation movements and providing financial aid to regimes, often with the aim of antagonising the United States and promoting communism. However, since the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow’s influence on the continent has waned. Now, Vladimir Putin wants to bring it back.

There are several reasons why Russia wants to revive its power in Africa. The first is the desire to gain back what the Soviet Union once had. Russia wishes to be seen as a great power that can compete with the US and China on a global stage – for example, Russia may be interested in increasing its leverage over African countries to affect power dynamics in the United Nations. In 2014, 29 African states voted against or abstained from a UN resolution condemning Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in the Ukraine. This demonstrates that   increasing its power and sway can lead to clear benefits for Russia. The latter is also extending its power in the Middle East, evidenced by its involvement in the Syrian conflict. Similarly Russia has meddled in elections in multiple countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom. 

‘All of these attempts to increase the number of countries in Russia’s sphere of influence signal its desire to exert more power globally and be taken seriously as a global player. One thing that helps Russia in this quest is that some African leaders are attracted to Russia over the US and Europe, due to the lack of conditions attached to Russian aid and trade. While more liberal countries are often wary of making deals with African leaders accused of human rights violations or misuse of funds, Russia, as well as China, is happy to provide help for those leaders, and uses that to its advantage. China has massively increased its involvement with Africa in recent years, while the United States has pulled back. These provide both an incentive and an opportunity for Russia to step in.

Aside from improving its status, there are some material benefits Russia can gain from increasing its relations with Africa. Russia is currently the largest exporter of weapons to Africa and the recent Summit suggests that increased trade links are on the Russian agenda. However, its overall trade with Africa remains small compared to some other countries. There is a lot of room for Russia to potentially expand the amount of weapons it exports to African countries. Furthermore, there are lots of potential business opportunities for Russian companies in Africa, especially in the energy sector. Many Russian state-owned energy firms already have contracts with African countries and are looking to increase these. Russian mining companies also stand to benefit from the rich mineral resources of many African countries. Additionally, Putin has stated that he would like to see an increase in Russian non-military exports to Africa, such as the food export sector.

As well as being involved in trade and aid in Africa, Putin has also increased Russia’s military involvement there, with Russian soldiers being active in several countries, including the Central African Republic and Libya. While many of these soldiers work for private military groups rather than the Russian government, their presence could be helpful for Putin in boosting the reputation of Russia among African countries where those mercenaries work for government forces. These military ties may be increasing soon, as Russia seems to be in talks with the Central African Republic to open its first African military base. This move could have been spurred on by the increased presence of the Chinese military in Africa, who have a military base in Djibouti. The United States also has three bases in Africa. Therefore, if Russia really wants to seem on the same level as these countries it may need to open its own base.

Overall, it seems that increasing its presence in Africa fits into Russia’s strategy of trying to project more power globally in order to challenge the US and China. It will attempt to achieve this by increasing its military and political sway in Africa, as well as hoping to improve its own waning economy by increasing trade with African nations. It remains to be seen exactly what effects this will have on Africa. It could lead to economic gains, but given Putin’s support for dictators and his habit of  turning a blind eye to human rights abuses, if Russia’s influence comes at the expense of that of more liberal countries, it could lead to further entrenchment of these abuses in many countries.

 

Photo by @KremlinRussia_E on Twitter

 

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Is the Islamic State still a threat?

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At the end of 2018, Donald Trump announced that the Islamic State had been defeated, and that the US was pulling its troops out of Syria. The defeat of ISIS was a hard won process of reclaiming territory over five years, until finally there was only one ISIS-held village left. After a siege lasting over a month, that village too was taken, destroying the last part of ISIS’s territory, or ‘caliphate’ as they called it, that had once been the size of Great Britain. 

On October 26th of this year the United States declared that the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, had been killed. On the face of it, the loss of territory and the death of a leader might sound like the threat from the Islamic State, which at its peak had 33,000 members from over 100 nationalities and launched attacks in almost 40 countries, is finally over. Sadly, things are not that simple, and the Islamic State is unlikely to disappear any time soon.

Although ISIS has lost the territory it once controlled, that does not mean it has ceased to exist. It has just gone back to operating like a more “typical” terrorist group, as controlling as much territory as ISIS once did is unusual for a terrorist group. It is estimated that ISIS still has between 14 and 18.000 fighters left in just Iraq and Syria, and between 20 and 30.000 globally. Given that its membership peaked at around 33,000, a huge number of fighters are still active. Many of these are being held in detention camps in Syria, but there is a risk that some of these will escape because of Turkey’s recent attack on the area. 

While the destruction of the caliphate did slow down the flow of foreigners coming to fight for ISIS, there is still a small but steady stream arriving, and ISIS’s finances are still looking very healthy. ISIS also seems to be innovating somewhat, with increased reports of the use of female fighters, less likely to be suspected by security forces. Also, even though they don’t technically hold any territory, they still have de facto control over parts of Syria and Iraq as they have successfully intimidated and attacked town leaders. 

Worryingly, ISIS has a history of bouncing back from near defeat – in 2010, when the US pulled its troops out of Iraq, it had only 700 fighters left, but then grew to be one of the most powerful terrorist organisations. Given that the group is vastly more powerful now than it was then, it seems unlikely it will simply wither away, but will try to retake territory. The US pulling out of Syria could potentially mimic the conditions that their pulling out of Iraq did in allowing ISIS to gain a lot of ground, so the declaration of their defeat by Trump is likely to be very dangerous for the region.

Even the death of the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, is unlikely to undermine ISIS too much. Al-Baghdadi was a very important figure in ISIS. When ISIS members, or those who weren’t actual members but were inspired by ISIS, committed attacks in foreign countries, they would typically record themselves making a pledge before committing the attack. This pledge was not to the Islamic State, but to Al-Baghdadi himself. However, there is some evidence that this pledge is now being made to the new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, suggesting that, while followers of the Islamic State may be shaken by the death of Al-Baghdadi, they are willing to continue under a new leader. Even if some fighters decide to leave ISIS, they will probably splinter into new terrorist groups as they remain radicalized. All of this means that we are unlikely to hear the last from ISIS any time soon.

 

DoD photo by Army Staff Sgt. Timothy R. Koster on CentCom

 

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The Impeachment Inquiry Against Donald Trump – What You Need to Know

The Impeachment Inquiry Against Donald Trump – What You Need to Know

There’s been a lot of talk about impeachment investigations against Donald Trump recently. But what does impeachment mean, and why is Trump being investigated?

 

What is impeachment?

Impeachment is when a president is removed from office. In the United States, the impeachment process begins with an investigation into the president’s behaviour. Based on what is found out, the inquiry will recommend whether or not the US Congress should have a vote on impeachment. 

First, the House of Representatives (the equivalent to the Dáil) will take a vote. If they vote to impeach the president, the Senate (the equivalent to the Seanad) will then hold a trial, followed by a vote as well. If the Senate also decides to impeach, then the president will be removed from office. 

According to the constitution of the United States, a president can be impeached due to treason, bribery or ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’. No president has ever been removed from office for impeachment, despite several attempts to do so.

 

Hasn’t there been talk of Donald Trump being impeached for a while now?

Yes, but this is the first time an impeachment inquiry has actually been launched. There was talk before about impeaching Trump due to allegations of collaboration between his 2016 election campaign and the Russian government. However, an investigation into Russian involvement in the US elections, known as the Mueller Report, found that Trump’s campaign had not collaborated with Russia, although there were links between members of the campaign team and the Russian government. The lack of concrete proof of wrongdoing led many politicians to not support the impeachment, although there are  a number of politicians who have been trying to impeach Trump since he was elected.

 

Why is there an attempt to impeach him now?

Allegations were made that, on a phone call, Trump pressured the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden, in exchange for the US unfreezing military aid to Ukraine and allowing Zelensky to meet face to face with Trump. Trump alleges that Biden pressured the Ukraine to not investigate his son’s Ukrainian business dealings, although there is no evidence of this. Applying pressure to Zelensky to investigate Biden is seen as a big deal because Biden is running to be the US Democratic party’s presidential candidate, so he could end up running against President Trump in next year’s election. 

This situation is considered to be worse than the Russian collaboration allegations,  because there is clear evidence that the call actually occurred. Many Democrats who had not previously supported impeachment have now changed their minds. Trump has not denied that he asked Zelensky to investigate Biden, but has denied that he did so in exchange for military aid, which he claims was frozen for other reasons. 

This all led to the launching of an impeachment inquiry against Trump last month, and a vote last week in the House to formalise the inquiry and make its findings more public. As such, the inquiry will for the first time hold public hearings and publish the witness statements which were already made at the private hearings. 

It’s important to note that launching an investigation does not mean that there will definitely be a vote to impeach the president, but may signal trouble for Trump.

 

Is he going to be impeached?

The impeachment investigation hinges on whether Trump used his position as president to get a foreign country to interfere in US elections. So far, the witnesses that have testified for the impeachment investigation have been fairly damning against Trump’s actions. They have suggested that Trump did tell Ukraine that the launching of investigations against Joe Biden was in exchange for military aid, despite his denials. However, no one knows yet what the inquiry will actually conclude, as there are many more witnesses to be heard from. 

Even if it does conclude that Trump’s action was illegal, electoral incentives of US politicians will determine whether that actually leads to a vote on impeachment. If the Democrats think that they won’t win the vote to impeach Trump, they may not actually hold the vote, as some of them will worry that voting against Trump could lead them to lose their seats to Republicans in the next election.

If the impeachment gets to a vote, the outcome will depend on whether enough Democrats think it is worth that political risk to impeach Trump only a year before he leaves office and whether enough Republicans will turn against Trump. The Democrats have a majority in the House of Representatives so a vote seems very likely to pass the House, but the Senate has a majority of Republicans so it would be difficult to secure enough votes there. 

Given the high support for Trump among Republicans it seems unlikely he will be impeached, although some Republican politicians have expressed worries about his conduct. The House had a vote on formalising the impeachment inquiry last week, and not one Republicans voted for it. This suggests that Republicans in the Senate are also unlikely to vote to impeach Trump and he may stay in office until at least the 2020 elections. What effect the impeachment investigation has on his chances of reelection remains to be seen.

 

 

Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr

 

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