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The World This Week
Presidential Elections in Russia and the Summit for Democracy in South Korea

  GP Team

The World This Week #257, Vol. 6, No.11
24 March 2024

Alka Bala and Akhil Ajith


Russia: Vladimir Putin gets elected for the fifth time as the President
Alka Bala

What happened?
On 21 March, the Russian Central Election Commission (CEC) officially declared Vladimir Putin as the winner of the presidential elections. Putin secured his fifth six-year term as the president and would become Russia’s longest-serving leader in the last 200 years upon successful completion of the term. The three-day voting period from 15-17 March witnessed a final turnout of 77.49 per cent, the highest voter turnout in the history of modern Russia. Of the 87.5 million votes, Putin secured 76.3 million votes (87.28 per cent) whereas, the Communist Party candidate Nikolay Kharitonov came in second with 3.7 million votes (4.31 per cent). Other presidential candidates, Vladislav Davankov of the New People political party and Leonid Slutsky of the Liberal Democrat Party of Russia gained 3.85 per cent and 3.2 per cent, respectively. The elections included the participation of the Donetsk and Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia (Russia-occupied areas in Ukraine) regions for the first time.
 
On 18 March, in a post-election speech, Putin stated his dream of a “strong, independent, sovereign Russia” and remarked that the election victory would send a strong message to the West. Putin stated the possibility of a showdown between NATO and Russian troops, which “would be one step shy of a full-scale World War III.”
 
On 18 March, Chinese President Xi Jinping greeted Putin on his victory and said that the victory was a “full demonstration of the support of the Russian people for you," and promised to promote their bilateral partnership. Others including North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and heads of State of Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan congratulated Putin on his victory.
 
On 17 March, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, labelled Putin as a “dictator” who is “drunk from power.” Spokesperson of the US State Department. EU’s Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borell, questioned the elections over “free and fair” and the lack of real opposition.
 
What is the background?
First, a brief note on the previous Presidential elections and Putin. After serving two successful terms of Presidency from 2000 to 2008, Putin was forced to step down due to the Constitutional limit of two consecutive terms. Following his endorsement of Dmritriy Medvedev as the next president, Putin assumed the role of Prime Minister. Positions were interchanged between Medvedev and Putin in 2011, garnering resentment from the Russian public. The 2012 Presidential elections resulted in a weak opposition, as stronger candidates either withdrew or were disqualified by the Russian Central Election Commission (CEC). The 2012 elections witnessed abuse of government resources for Putin’s Presidential campaign, use of television media to mobilise support, instances of voter fraud and discrepancies in vote tallying. Similar discrepancies were highlighted in the 2018 elections, in regions with high voter turnouts. Over the years, Putin has not faced serious opposition and has garnered 53 per cent, 71 per cent, 63 per cent and 76 per cent of votes in the 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 elections, respectively.

Second, pre-election controversies. Putin successfully created a controlled pre-approved opposition who supported Russia’s military operation in Ukraine. In contrast, anti-war candidates such as Yekaterina Duntsova and Boris Nadezhdin have been systematically barred from contesting in elections. The treatment of Putin’s most vocal critic Alexei Navalny and his death in the Arctic prison before the elections, also has questioned the entire electoral process.
 
Third, the polling on the election day. According to Ella Pamfilova, the CEC head indicated instances of election disruption, highlighting thirty cases of attacks on ballot boxes “irreversibly damaging” 214 ballots. Protests labelled as “Noon against Putin” marked thousands of voters entering local ballot stations mid-day and ruining ballot papers or voting for candidates other than Putin. Some voters cast their votes for the late opposition leader Alexei Navalny who had endorsed the “Noon against Putin” campaign before his death. Moscow reported “terrorist activities” to halt elections, highlighting the drone shell dropped on a voting station in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, Ukrainian territories controlled by Russia. According to Golos, Russia’s independent election monitor, the 2024 elections have been the least constitutional and were an “imitation” of transparency and freedom of choice. Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian media outlet, reported that at least 31.6 million votes were falsified for Putin. In the four Ukrainian annexed regions, there were reports of vote rigging through coercion for voting, ballot staffing, and transporting large groups of people to polling booths.
 
What does this mean?
Firstly, the legitimisation of Putin’s Authority. Elections, although provided only pro-Kremlin candidates, essentially legitimised the authority and support for Vladimir Putin. The record-high voter turnout was achieved through large-scale public mobilisation. This also serves the purpose of portraying unity with their leader and legitimises the foreign policy actions that Putin exercises, reflecting the support of the Russian public for Russia’s actions. Putin’s promise to implement a developmental agenda would ease the public’s dissatisfaction with domestic challenges of living standards and low wages to an extent. Political analysts believe that this is a demonstration of legitimacy for the political elite as well.
 
Second, the implications of elections on the Ukraine War. Putin had indicated Moscow’s inclination towards dialogue with Ukraine if it benefitted Russian national interest. However, Kyiv maintains that it would not have a dialogue with the present Russian leadership, hence military options remain the only viable alternative for the near future. Russia in the future also aims to create buffer zones in Kyiv-controlled territories to protect civilians from cross-border Ukrainian attacks. Putin’s acceptance speech also indicated the possibility of a confrontation with the NATO and Russian troops.
 
Third, impact on the West. Putin’s victory, indication of continuing with the military offensive, and aggressive ultra-nationalist foreign policy put Ukraine’s Western allies in a difficult position. The need to increase defence spending for Europe’s security and support Ukraine’s aid becomes ever-relevant, even as differences arise within Europe and the US Congress regarding sending more aid to Ukraine.


Global Politics Explainer
Third Summit for Democracy in South Korea
Akhil Ajith
 
What was the Summit for Democracy in South Korea all about?
On 18 March, South Korea hosted the Third Summit for Democracy in the capital city of Seoul. The Summit was held for three days, from 18 to 20 March. The Theme of the Summit was “Democracy for Future Generations,” with a particular focus on the role of digital technology in democracy, including artificial intelligence, misinformation, and deep fakes. South Korean President Yoon, in his opening remarks, said: “Fake news and disinformation based on artificial intelligence and digital technology not only violates individual freedom and human rights but also threatens democratic systems.”
 
On day one of the Summit, a ministerial conference was held with the participating countries and expert roundtable discussions on “Technology and Democracy.” On day two, diverse sessions and exhibition booths were held by Summit for Democracy cohorts. Civil society groups and youth organizations participated and showcased their work in shaping the future of democracy. On day three, the virtual summit plenary was held with the heads of states of the participating countries and civil societies.
 
The Summit was attended by various leaders from countries such as the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Deputy Prime Minister of the UK Oliver Dowden, the foreign ministers of Ecuador, Gambia, Indonesia, Guyana, and Mauritius, and other minister-level leaders. On 20 March, the plenary session was held online and featured many leaders worldwide.
 
What is the Summit for Democracy?
The Summit for Democracy was one of the promises US President Joe Biden announced as part of his campaign process in 2020. The first Summit was held in December 2021, which witnessed the participation of more than 50 governments and pledged around 900 commitments related to anti-corruption reforms in areas like beneficial ownership transparency, political integrity, and bolstering anti-corruption stakeholders, including civil society.  The second Summit for Democracy was held online in March 2023 and was co-hosted by the US, South Korea, Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea and Zambia.
 
The Summit for Democracy becomes critical in 2024 as more than 60 countries, which constitute around half of the world’s total population of 8 billion people, have held or are scheduled to hold national elections this year. The summit is part of President Biden’s initiative to put democracy and human rights at the centre of US foreign policy and implement them worldwide. The summit focused on three main elements: strengthening democracy and defending against authoritarianism, tackling corruption, and promoting respect for human rights.
 
The 2024 agenda focused on digital threats to democracy, including misinformation, artificial intelligence, and deep fakes. The increased use of spyware by some countries to target activists, journalists and others has increased concerns about the weaponization of technology. Furthermore, the use of deepfakes and AI has generated disinformation among the public leading to greater manipulation while deciding votes during the elections. This indicates that a greater emphasis was given to the role of technology in ensuring democratic governance and addressing the challenges of its misuse by authoritarian regimes.
 
What are the US's role and objectives in promoting Summit for Democracy?
During the ministerial conference of the Summit, the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said: “As authoritarian and repressive regimes deploy technologies to undermine democracy and human rights, we need to ensure that technology sustains and supports democratic values and norms.”
 
The Summit was a US-led initiative that focused on bringing in like-minded allies to show the world that democracy is the ideal governance model rather than the one practiced by authoritarian countries. In the Indo-Pacific, the US intends to promote the summit’s objectives through the security partnership known as QUAD. It is labelled by the US as a democratic security diamond comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India. The summit, according to the US, has a larger geopolitical ambition to create a coalition of democratic countries to counter China’s rise and Russia’s aggression. According to President Biden, the Summit was critical for the US to address the erosion of democracies in some parts of the world and to counter the rise of authoritarian tendencies.
 
Why is China against it? What are its objections?
China criticized South Korea for hosting the Summit and inviting Taiwan to participate in the conference. China was excluded from the Summit for the third time, while an invitation was sent to Taiwan to deliver a speech online. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of China, the Taiwanese minister of digital affairs, Audrey Tang, participated online through a pre-recorded speech and spoke on how Taiwan uses co-creation and technology to successfully defend against growing cyberattacks and cognitive warfare.
 
Taiwan is another factor in China’s opposition to the Summit. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China spokesman Lin Jian said, “The Summit was using democracy as an ‘instrument and weapon’ to draw a line based on ideology, and that China firmly opposes the host country’s invitation of Taiwan.” Previously, in the first Summit for Democracy 2021, despite the Chinese objection, the US government tried to censor some parts of the speech, especially the map that showed Taiwan as a separate country. However, South Korea dismissed China's allegations. South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that it respected China's One China principle and that the summit did not target any particular country and only promoted "universal values of humanity."
 
What does it mean for South Korea?
Through this Summit, South Korea tries to showcase the progress that it had made to become a vibrant democratic society from the ruins of the Korean War to the decades of dictatorship rule that ended in 1987. The Summit for Democracy reflects South Korea’s new ambition to expand its soft power capability, which is comprised of digital innovation and culture, to promote democratic values in the world, especially in the Indo-Pacific region.
 
For East Asia, the Summit is vital for South Korea as countries with authoritarian governments, such as North Korea, China, and Russia, dominate the region and continue to pose threats to South Korea and the liberal world order. South Korea wants to preserve democratic values and ideals by partnering with like-minded allies such as the US and Japan in the region to ensure the current rules-based order ensures South Korea’s sovereignty and prevents authoritarian regimes from creating a world order with anarchic nature. Also, South Korea intends to highlight that its model is non-western and that, being a democratic nation, it provides scope for other non-western countries to play a leading role in global governance through democratic values.


TWTW Regional Roundups
News from around the World 

Akriti Sharma, Padmashree Anandhan, Anu Maria Joseph, Femy Francis, Dhriti Mukherjee, Shamini Velayutham, Akhil Ajith, Vetriselvi Baskaran, Sanjay Manivannan, Navinan Govindaraj, Narmatha S, Sneha Surendran, Rosemary Kurian and  Nuha Aamina

China This Week
China: Houthi rebels affirm safety deal with Russia and China at the Red Sea
On 21 March, Bloomberg reported on a deal struck between the Yemen-based and Iran-backed Houthi Rebel fighters in the Red Sea with Russia and China. Houthi group told China and Russia that their ships could freely sail in the region of Red and the Gulf of Aden, as they wouldn’t be attacked. This understanding was reached between the Chinese, Russian diplomats and the Houthi leader, Mohammed Abdel Salam. In return, the rebel groups want political support, like the United Nations Security Council. The misidentification of ships has become a problem in the region and now both Russia and China want stronger assurance from the rebel group, says Bloomberg. In January, missiles exploded near a ship boarding Russian Oil, days after the Houthi spokesperson affirmed that both countries should not fear the attacks. Most Western ships have changed their trajectory for trade routes by going around Southern Africa, while China and Russia’s ship tracking details show that they still follow the shipping route. The senior Houthi political leader Ali Alqhoom said: “sinking America, Britain, and the West in the swamp of the Red Sea.” Russia and China seek more security and affirm the safety of their cargo from the Houthi attacks. 
 
China: Youth employment rate sees a 15.3 per cent hike
On 20 March, the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics released the Youth Unemployment data where the rate rose to 15.3 per cent in February while in January 2024, it was at 14.6 per cent. The result shows the persisting unemployment issue in China as they try to recover their economy, the young population's employment condition from the age of 16-24 remains the same. In June 2023, the NBS issued that they won’t declare the document anymore as they saw an all-time high in the youth unemployment rate, reaching 21.3 per cent. In January, the NBS introduced a new measuring technique where they excluded students from the report. This exclusion is considered unusual in most countries like the US and European countries, including students looking for jobs as part of the census.
 
China: President Xi Jinping congratulates Putin
On 18 March, Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulated Vladimir Putin for winning the Presidential elections and said China is willing to deepen its partnership with Russia. According to Xinhua News, President Xi said, “Your re-election is a full demonstration of the support of the Russian people for you.” The two countries strengthened their bilateral relationship amid the ongoing war in Ukraine and declared a “no limit” partnership in February 2022. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lin Jian said that 2024 will mark 75 years of establishing diplomatic relations between China and Russia.
 
Taiwan: Vice President visits Czech Republic
On 19 March, Taiwan's vice president-elect and former de facto ambassador to Washington, Hsiao Bi-khim, made a trip to the Czech Republic after her recent trip to the US. China referred to her as a "diehard Taiwan independence separatist" and imposed sanctions on Hsiao. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of China spokesperson Jeff Liu said that Hsiao was extended an invitation by Sinopsis think tank to the Czech Republic. Except for the Vatican, Taiwan has no formal relations with any European country. However, many central European countries have expressed their support to Taiwan amid the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.

East Asia and The Pacific This Week
South Korea: Ambassador to Australia Lee Jong-sup to cooperate on the ongoing probe in Seoul
On 21 March, South Korea’s Ambassador to Australia, Lee Jong-sup said that he is willing to face questions from the anti-corruption agency over allegations of manipulating the probe on the death of a marine who was involved in a search and rescue operation during floods in 2023. He had denied any wrongdoings. Lee was recently appointed as the head of the embassy in Canberra. Some South Korean lawmakers had criticized Lee’s appointment as the ambassador to Australia on 10 March amid the ongoing investigation. President Yoon’s office said that Lee’s appointment was under the law and would fully cooperate with the investigation.
 
South Korea: New medical admission slots amid doctors’ protest
On 20 March, the South Korean government announced that they would be allocating 2,000 new student admission slots nationwide. The government decided to move ahead with the reform plans as the trainee doctors and senior doctors continued to strike. Thousands of doctors walked out, hospitals cancelled crucial treatments and surgeries. The government brought this provision to fill the gap in the doctor-population ratio, especially in rural areas. Most of the new students have been granted admission to universities outside Seoul, in order to boost doctors’ capacity in the rural region. Some experts believe that the issue in their medical system is that most doctors are consolidated in the metropolitan city of Seoul. The Korean Medical Association criticized the announcement and said this has: “burned the last bridge for compromise” leading to “catastrophic consequences.”
 
Australia: With China, Canberra intends to manage the differences wisely, says the foreing minister
On 20 March, Foreign Minister Penny Wong said that Australia desires a stable, productive, and mature relationship with China in her discussion in Canberra. The ties between the two countries deteriorated after Australia’s former PM, Scott Morrison, called for an inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the imposition of trade restrictions on Australian exports to China. Wong welcomed the removal of trade impediments on barley, wine, and other exports to China. Chinese state media welcomed Australia’s decision to suspend anti-dumping duties on Chinese wind towers. Wong also conveyed her concerns about the death sentence given to top Australian writer Yang Hengjun and said that the Australian government would advocate for his release. She also raised concerns about maritime security, the South China Sea, and China’s unsafe conduct in the sea. She added, “Dialogue enables us to manage our differences, it doesn't eliminate them, but this government, in the interest of Australia, will always seek to manage those differences wisely.”

South East Asia This Week
Malaysia: Cabinet rejects citizenship law
On 22 March, according to Bloomberg, Home Minister of Malaysia Saifuddin Nasution, announced that the cabinet had rejected the proposal to amend the constitution which would grant automatic citizenship to abandoned children and foundlings. On 18 March, in the backdrop of this decision, civil society Undi18 protested outside the parliament. They claimed that the amendment “directly affects Malaysian stateless children and their future”. Earlier, Saifuddin had warned of existing Malaysian laws being misused by foreigners. There have been cases of them giving birth to babies, refusing to pay the hospital bill and then abandoning them as they would receive automatic citizenship. 

Singapore: Resumption of bilateral forum with China
On 22 March, the Straits Times reported that Singapore will resume its bilateral forum with China in June. During a meeting with the Secretary of China’s Political and Legal Affairs Commission Chen Wenqing, Senior Minister of Singapore Teo Chee Hean, said that the “Singapore-China Social Governance Forum” is significant as it allows for discussion on issues related to social governance, which both countries are facing. The last forum was in 2016.

Singapore: Court charges opposition chief for lying in parliament
On 19 March, according to SouthChina Morning Post, the leader of the Workers’ Party, the opposition Pritam Singh, was charged by the court for being dishonest on behalf of a former member of parliament Raeesah Khan. The People’s Action Party which formed the government planned to refer Singh to the Community of Privileges after his confession back in November 2021. The body said that Singh must be referred to a public prosecutor. He told the parliament that Khan had accompanied a 25-year-old rape victim to the police station and that the survivor was treated indifferently by the police.

Vietnam: President resigns over corruption allegations
On 20 March, according to Reuters, Vo Van Thuong, former president of Vietnam resigned from his post as the government claimed that he violated party rules. It further added that “shortcomings had negatively impacted public opinion, affecting the reputation of the party, state and him personally”. The Vietnamese police made allegations of fraud and bribery against a former head of the Quang Ngai province, where Thuong was once the party chief. The Central Party Committee is a decision-making body in Vietnam that approved Thoung’s resignation.

South Asia This Week
Sri Lanka: Secures moratorium from the IMF on debt to India
On 21 March, The Hindu reported that Sri Lanka might finalise its debt treatment plan by taking a six-year pause and resuming payments with a reduced interest rate. The Hindu reported that the discussions with the members of the Official Creditor Committee (OCC) would soon result in a formal agreement on the terms of the debt repayment plan. This committee was formed in 2023 to facilitate the ideas and process of debt reconstruction for creditors in 17 countries that have extended loans to Sri Lanka. China is an observer at the meetings of the OCC, though it chose to stay out of it. According to the Hindu, the International Monetary Fund said that it has finalized the agreements with the creditors with critical steps that would help Sri Lanka recover from its debt recovery and economic development. It consistently negotiates with its diverse lenders to help them by working with their debt treatment plan and facilitating their recovery. The main obstacles are the private creditors with whom Sri Lanka has huge foreign debt. Sri Lanka is yet to receive the next instalment from the IMF as part of the USD 3 billion package that was allocated in 2022 to help it recover from a financial crash. The IMF said that the country is making good progress and that the government has shown commendable outcomes.

Bhutan: Indian Prime Minister receives Bhutan's highest honour
On 22 March,  Prime Minister Narendra Modi successfully commenced his 24-hour State visit to Bhutan. The warm reception in Paro included a Guard of Honour ceremony to welcome Mr Modi. During this visit, he was honoured with Bhutan’s highest civilian award, the Order of the Druk Gyalpo, recognising his significant contributions to enhancing the relationship between India and Bhutan. This visit marks a significant occasion as it is Prime Minister Modi’s first visit to Bhutan since the announcement of the prestigious award in 2021. The award was presented by Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, acknowledging Modi's efforts in strengthening the ties between the two nations.

India: Prime Minister’s conversation with Putin and Zelenskyy
On 20 March, The Hindu reported that a conversation between Indian Prime Minister Modi, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy took place. The Prime Minister of India called President Putin to congratulate him on his election win, followed by calling Zelenskyy. He reiterated its commitment to end the conflict by any means possible.  The Indian statement quoted by The Hindu said: “While discussing the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the PM reiterated India’s consistent position in favor of dialogue and diplomacy as the way forward.” PM Narendra Modi, on his X platform, described his assured India’s humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. Both Russia and Ukraine issued statements on their part.

India: Personnel transition with Maldives
On 20 March, The Indian Express reported that India and the Maldives have recently assessed the progress of transitioning Indian military personnel stationed in the Maldives with civilian technical experts. The initial group of military personnel, responsible for operating an advanced light helicopter in the Indian Ocean archipelago, has already been replaced, with the second group scheduled to depart by 10 April. During the third meeting of the bilateral high-level core group in Male, both parties reviewed the ongoing deployment of Indian technical personnel to ensure the continuous operation of Indian aviation platforms that offer crucial humanitarian and medical evacuation services to the Maldivian population. India's initial team of military personnel, previously operating an advanced light helicopter in the Maldives, has been substituted with civilian technical experts. The second core group meeting occurred in Delhi on 02 February, established after discussions between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Maldivian President Muizzu during the COP28 summit in Dubai in December 2023. Relations between India and the Maldives faced challenges following Muizzu's assumption of power in November

Maldives: President Muizzu enhances military capabilities with drones
On 20 March, Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu emphasized that the surveillance of his country's territory should not be a concern for any external parties. This statement was made during a ceremony to launch the Maldives National Defence Force's (MNDF) Air Corps and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), as per a press release by the President's Office. At the same event, President Muizzu announced new initiatives to strengthen the Maldives' military capabilities. He highlighted the importance of bolstering the country's defence forces, which led to the maiden deployment of drones to guard the archipelagic nation in the Indian Ocean. The Maldivian leader's comments came shortly after the first batch of Indian military personnel operating a helicopter gifted by India left the country. President Muizzu's stance on territorial surveillance and defence force enhancements reflects the Maldives' commitment to safeguarding its sovereignty and territorial integrity. The deployment of drones, a first for the MNDF, is a significant step towards modernizing the country's military capabilities and enhancing its surveillance and response capabilities.

Nepal: New coalition discloses “Vision statement”
On 19 March, the ruling coalition revealed the government’s vision statement. It was centred on minimum policy priorities and joint resolution. The preamble of the vision titled: “Minimum Policy Priorities and Common Resolution” reads to fight the drivers that threaten the constitutional spirits and to reawaken the public trust in government. After unveiling the paper, Prime Minister Dahal stated, “If this alliance is unable to work, the country will face a crisis,” he added, “If this alliance is unable to work, the country will face a crisis.” The declaration emphasizes women's engagement, empowerment, and social inclusion while addressing youth and sports by initiating the gig economy, tourism, culture, and social peace. Among other important concerns, it also pledges to solve transitional justice by speedy delivery of judgement, establish lasting peace by reforming the existing laws, and protect national interests abroad with an autonomous foreign policy.

Pakistan: FO says US concern over polls are based on “misunderstandings,” calls for “meaningful” talks
On 21 March, in response to a testimony of the US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu, Pakistan’s Foreign Office (FO) Spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch criticized the hearings as “intrusive.” While labelling it as indicative of a “misunderstanding of Pakistan’s domestic situation and electoral laws,” she said that Pakistan hoped to “engage in meaningful discussions with the US to address these misunderstandings.” Baloch noted that the hearing was an “internal event” of the US as it consisted of a conversation between the Congress and the administration, and advised that “deliberations of legislative bodies shou­­ld contribute to promoting positive dynamics in bilateral ties and should be based on mutual respect and understanding.” She expressed hope that the Congress would “play a positive and constructive role in strengthening Pakis­tan-US ties and developing venues of mutually beneficial cooperation.” Lu had also spoken on the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, disclosing Washington’s “goal” to prevent the construction of the line. He questioned where “the financing for such a project would come from” as he believed most “international donors” would not be “interested in funding such an endeavour.” Lu added that the White House “will uphold both in letter and spirit all sanction laws related to Iran,” and that Pakistan had not asked for a waiver related to US sanctions. On this, Baloch asserted that since the construction was an internal matter, Pakistan did not “believe that at this point there is room for any discussion or waiver from a third party.”

Pakistan: COAS and Saudi Arabian crown prince discuss enhancing bilateral ties
On 20 March, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) issued a statement, saying that the Chief of Army Staff, General Asim Munir. and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, held talks on regional peace and security, bilateral defence and security cooperation. The statement added: “Prince Mohammad Bin Salman highlighted that KSA and Pakistan have historic brotherly and strong relations, and both countries have always stood up for each other.” Abdulaziz Al-Saud further expressed the desire to enhance bilateral ties and assured that Saudi Arabia would stand by Pakistan in the future. In response, Munir “thanked the Saudi leadership for the warm sentiments and support for Pakistan.”

Middle East  This Week 
Israel: Russia and China vetos US resolution on Gaza
On 22 March, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) did not pass the resolution proposed by the US that called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza as Russia and China vetoed the resolution. 11 out of 15 council members voted in favour of the resolution wherein Russia China and Algeria refuted. Guyana abstained from voting.  Russia’s ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia, asserted that the draft was “exceedingly politicised and contained an effective green light” for Israel to conduct military operation in Rafah, where currently 1.5 million Palestinians have taken refuge. Nebenzia further said that there was no call for a ceasefire in the resolution text and added that US is “deliberately misleading the international community”. Meanwhile, China’s ambassador to UN Zhang Jun said the draft resolution “dodged the most central issue, that of a ceasefire” through its “ambiguous” language. He further added: “Nor does it even provide an answer to the question of realising a ceasefire in the short term.”

Israel: Australia and UK call for an “immediate cessation of fighting”
On 22 March, Australia and the UK called for an “immediate cessation of fighting” in Gaza. They have also warned about the devastating repercussion if Israel plans ground invasion on the southern city of Rafah. In a meeting at Adelaide, the Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Defence Minister Richard Marles welcomed their British counterparts David Cameron and Grant Shapps and released a joint statement that expresses concern over the dire “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza.  The ministers highlighted the large number of displaced people who are taking refugee in unsafe places in Gaza. In the statement they urged for an “immediate cessation of fighting in Gaza to allow aid to flow and hostages to be released as a crucial step toward a permanent, sustainable ceasefire.”
 
Israel: Opposition lawmaker calls for a war against Lebanon
On 20 March, as Hezbollah and Israel exchanged gunfire across the border, opposition politician Avigdor Lieberman urged Prime Minister Netanyahu’s war cabinet to push the fight to Lebanon. In a post on X, Lieberman stated: “After 165 days, it is obvious to everyone that the Israeli government has given up the north.” Aljazeera stated that at the start of the Gaza War, Israel and Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon, started exchanging gunfire. Incoming rockets have forced some 80,000 inhabitants of northern Israel to flee their homes. He further said: “I call on the war cabinet, the chief of staff and the general of the northern command to come to their senses and transfer the war to the enemy’s territory.”
 
Israel: Canada to implement a non-binding resolution
On 19 March, Canadian FM Melanie Joly asserted that the country would implement a “non-binding resolution” passed by Canadian lawmakers that calls for an end to “the further authorization and transfer of arms exports to Israel to ensure compliance with Canada’s arms export regime and increase efforts to stop the illegal trade of arms, including to Hamas”. The ruling comes in response to a legislative motion that the ruling Liberals were urged to submit, which was presented by the New Democratic Party (NDP), to stop exporting weapons to Israel in the future. Supporters of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's minority administration, the New Democrats, have voiced their dissatisfaction with what they perceive to be his insufficient efforts to save people in Gaza.
 
Syria: UN calls on the government to revamp the country’s peace process
On 19 March, the United Nations special envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, urged the Syrian government to resume talks on the revision of the Syrian constitution in order to revamp the country’s peace process through a political resolution. On 17 March, following the meeting with Syria’s Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad, Pedersen said: “The situation in Syria now is extremely difficult, and I think all indicators are pointing in the wrong direction when it comes to security, when it comes to the economy and when it comes to the political process.” Highlighting a political intervention, he called on the government to hold meetings in Geneva and develop the constitutional committee in order to sow hope to the Syrian people. According to the Middle East Monitor, since 2019, Pedersen had attempted to make a constitutional committee to rewrite the constitution in Geneva. However, the talks were stopped in 2022 after Russia expressed disagreement on the committee being held in Switzerland due to its imposition of sanctions on Russia over its encroachment of Ukraine.
 
Jordan: Deputy PM meets German Ambassador
On 19 March, the deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Local Administration Tawfiq Kreishan met with the ambassador of Germany Bertram von Moltke in Amman. Kreishan highlighted the “long-standing” bilateral relations of Germany and Jordan. He further highlighted the importance of German and other European allies in bolstering the efforts of His Majesty King Abdullah in inducing pressure on the Israeli government to stop the war and to release the hostages. Subsequently, his German counterpart, Moltke, lauded the bilateral relations and emphasized the meeting that happened between King Abdullah and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in which they discussed the regional issues, including the war on Gaza. Probing ahead, he highlighted Germany’s commitment to enhance and develop the relations across various sectors that encompass local administration.
 
Lebanon: PM condemns Israel for environmental destruction
On 20 March, the interim Prime Minister Najib Mikati said that Israel is persistently violating international law by targeting civilians and infrastructure in southern Lebanon. He said: “We are still victims of the ongoing Israeli aggression, which is causing significant damage to the environment and agriculture.” While addressing International Francophonie Day, he said that the current situation has put peace in jeopardy. Lebanon’s minister of agriculture, Abbas Al-Hajj Hassan, asserted that the bombings affected 55 towns, which resulted in the burning of agricultural lands. Hassan said: “The percentage of damage in forest areas containing oak and bay laurel trees reached 55 per cent, agricultural and citrus trees suffered 35 per cent, and herbs 10 per cent, while 340,000 birds and 970 head of cattle perished, 91 agricultural tents were damaged, along with 310 bee hives, and a 600-square-meter area of a fodder warehouse was completely destroyed, in addition to attacks on eight farms.”
 
Iran: US imposes sanctions on a shipping firm
On 20 March, the US imposed sanctions on a shipping company and accused it of assisting the transfer of Iranian goods that are linked to a Houthi official to China. The US The US Department of the Treasury said that it had announced sanctions against the Vishnu Inc, a shipping firm registered in the Marshall Islands, adding that one of its vessels was involved in “illicit shipments.” The department said: “In support of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) and Houthi financial facilitator Sa’id al-Jamal, who is sanctioned under US counterterrorism authorities.’ Treasury official Brian Nelson, in a statement, said: “We remain committed to disrupting the IRGC-QF and the Houthis’ attempts to evade US sanctions and fund additional terrorist attacks.”
 
Iran: Tehran to help Syria’s defense and deterrent power, says Defence minister
On 17 March, Iran’s Defence Minister, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Ashtiani, asserted that Iran is willing to help Syria in boosting its “defense and deterrent power” against US and Israel. He made the aforementioned statement during the meeting with Syrian official Ali Mahmoud Abbas, and while speaking to him, he reiterated that Iran is willing to resort to its full capabilities to help Syria, just as Iran stood by Syria during the war against terrorism. Ashtiani said: “Any strategic mistake and adventure of the US and the Zionist regime will lead to the worsening of the situation in the region.” While criticizing he further condemned Israel’s actions towards Syria and asserted that it as a breeching of territorial integrity. On the other hand, Syrian Defence Minister Abbas said: “Resistance, steadfastness and increasing defense power and strengthening bilateral cooperation is the best way to deter enemies, and this has doubled the need for cooperation and solidarity between the two countries against enemies.”

Africa This Week
Zimbabwe: Russia donates wheat and fertilizer
On 20 March, Zimbabwe received 250,000 tonnes of wheat and 23,000 tonnes of fertilizer from the Russian government and the Uralchem-Uralkali group of Russian companies. The donation is part of the free grain transfer program initiated by Russia in 2023. The programme supports drought-affected countries including Burkina Faso, Mali, Eritrea, Somalia, and the Central African Republic. Russia's ambassador to Zimbabwe, Nikolai Krasilnikov, described it as "humanitarian assistance.” He added: "Both deliveries were carried out in line with the implementation of the initiative of the President of the Russian Federation Vladmir Putin to provide assistance to African countries."

Nigeria: Launch of mega solar plant
On 20 March, BBC reported that Nigeria launched the Mega solar plant as part of its plan for transition to clean and renewable energy. It would be jointly built by the privately owned North South Power (NSP) company and the state-run Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA) in Shiroro region in the Niger state. While signing the agreement, Nigeria's Vice-President, Kashim Shettima, stated: "This is a pioneering project in terms of hybridizing power in solar and hydro."

Senegal: Foreign investors on alert ahead of elections
On 20 March, Al Jazeera reported that foreign investors in Senegal are on alert and keeping a close eye on Senegal's election due to prevailing political uncertainties and the unknown direction of the country's economy if the opposition wins. Opposition candidates Amadou Ba and Bassirou Diomaye Faye have proposed economic changes including the creation of new currencies and the renegotiation of mining and energy contracts. For foreign investors, Senegal has been the safest country in West Africa due to the peaceful transitions of power. Since the announcement of delayed elections, violent protests and the crackdown on the opposition, investors have been cautious.

Europe This Week 
Europe: Commission recommends start of accession talks for Bosnia and Herzegovina
On 21 March, according to the BBC, the European Commission recommended that Bosnia and Herzegovina begin negotiation processes for its membership into the EU, eight years after it applied to join the bloc. The Baltic country was given a green light by leaders of the EU as the President of the European Council, Charles Michel congratulated the country, welcoming them into their “European family.” The Chairwoman of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Borjana Krišto stated the importance of “mutual determination and effort” in having achieved the feat. Leaders of Germany and Croatia welcomed the country, which has over the past years passed laws focusing on democratisation as a criterion to join the bloc.

The UK: Strikes of junior doctors continue demanding pay rise
On 20 March, the BBC reported on the decision by junior doctors to continue their strike for the pay dispute. The British Medical Association (BMA) demanded a pay rise of 35 per cent for junior doctors. 98 per cent of the BMA members voted for further walkouts. Around 10 walkouts by junior doctors have been recorded so far since March 2023. The fresh vote means an extension of the strike mandate for a further six months. The government deemed their demands “unreasonable.” Robert Laurenson and Vivek Trivedi, co-chairs of the junior doctors committee, urged the health secretary to make a new offer to prevent future strikes. A spokesperson of the Department of Health and Social Care called the vote “disappointing,” calling the BMA back from negotiations to strike a “fair deal,” since further strikes will “impede the progress” in tackling hospital backlogs. Junior doctors' pay rise this year was a nine per cent average. The BMA’s 35 per cent demand is to make up for 15 years of pay rises below inflation rates. Junior doctors from Wales and Northern Ireland are also participating in the strikes. Since the strikes by doctors, nurses and other health care professionals began in December 2022, more than 1.4 million operations and appointments have been cancelled. But while other concerns have been resolved, the junior doctors remain concerned. The NHS is concerned that further strike actions will “inevitably lead to more disruption to patient care.”

France: International Olympic Committee to bar Belarusian and Russian athletes
On 20 March, the BBC reported on the decision by the International Olympic Committee to not allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to be a part of the opening ceremony of the 2024 Paris Olympics. The qualifying players are however allowed to participate under neutrality. Till now, there are 12 neutral athletes with Russian and seven neutral athletes with Belarusian passports respectively. The decision to ban players from the two countries was taken after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The qualified players have however been instructed to compete without any flags, emblems or anthems of their country. Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova expressed that Russia was “outraged” by the IOM’s decision, calling them “unprecedented discriminatory practices.” Meanwhile, Russia wants to host the ‘Friendship Games’ in September 2024, with a winter Games planned in 2026. Friendship Games was first organised by the USSR and eight other states after they boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The IOC called the decision a “blatant violation of the Olympic Charter” and a “cynical attempt by the Russian Federation to politicise sport.”

Europe: EU signs EUR 7.4 billion multi-sector deal to ease economic and energy dependency
On 17 March, according to Deutsche Welle, the European Commission announced a financial package worth EUR 7.4 billion to Egypt, to aid in stabilising its economy and reduce dependence on Russian gas. It also includes a grant to address the flow of migrants to Europe from the region. The EUR 7.4 billion was given in EUR five billion in macro-financial, EUR 1.8 billion in investments and EUR 600 million in grants from 2024-2027, to support Egypt’s declining economy. The EU-Egypt deal has boosted their relationship into a “strategic partnership” with aims to increase cooperation in energy, trade and security. The Egyptian economy has been hit due to massive infrastructure projects, the conflict in Gaza as well as its implications on tourism and shipping through the Suez Canal, a key income earner for Egypt. The IMF agreed to offer it a USD 8 billion loan package. Further, the risk of economic instability in Egypt has prompted increased migration into Europe. The EU delegation’s visit to Cairo headed by Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, also included the Italian Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni and the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis who have been receiving the majority of migrants to Europe. Human Rights Watch, a US-based NGO, stated that the deal “strengthens authoritarian rulers while betraying human rights defenders.”

Americas This Week
The US: DOJ announces lawsuit against Apple for “smartphone monopoly”
On 21 March, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a landmark civil lawsuit against tech giant Apple based on allegations that the company stifled competition to boost revenues, thus illegally monopolizing the US phone market. Apple’s iPhone, which has helped the company secure a valuation of USD 2.7 trillion, is used by more than a billion people after Apple manipulated its share of the market to undermine competitors’ products and advantage its own, as per the DOJ. Thus, Apple imposed “a series of shapeshifting rules and restrictions” to “extract higher fees, thwart innovation, offer a less secure or degraded user experience, and throttle competitive alternatives.” The US Attorney General Merrick Garland claimed that “consumers should not have to pay higher prices because companies violate the antitrust laws.” He added that Apple would “only continue to strengthen its smartphone monopoly” if it is left “unchallenged.” In response, Apple said it would “vigorously” defend itself against the suit, which it described as “wrong on the facts and the law.”

The US: Biden announces cancellation of USD six million student debt for public service workers
On 21 March, the US Department of Education announced plans to cancel USD 5.8 billion in student debt for 77,000 public service workers under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) programme. While the programme was created in 2007 to cancel the student debt of those working full-time in public service jobs, it went into effect in 2017 only to be rejected under the administration of the then US President Donald Trump. However, US President Joe Biden has made the decision to cancel student debt, saying that “public service workers have dedicated their careers to serving their communities, but because of past administrative failures, never got the relief they were entitled to under the law.” This move has been seen by many as Biden’s efforts to gain support from the younger voters, who have all strongly criticised his Gaza policy. Since the Biden administration’s larger plan for student debt relief was struck down by the US Supreme Court in 2023, he has been trying to use old and new loan repayments to relieve debt. So far, he has cancelled USD 143 billion in debt for nearly four million people.

The US: proposes bill to cut UNRWA funding
On 21 March, backed by the top Republican and Democratic politicians in the House and the Senate have revealed a USD 1.2 trillion bill to ensure continuous funding of significant parts of the US federal government, including the Departments of State and Defence. Congressional leaders in the US have suggested this financial measure would avert a government shutdown but prohibit money for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). The funding bill specifies that US funds "may not be used for a contribution, grant, or other payment" to UNRWA until March 2025. This is the second bill that the US has passed this year to ban UNRWA funding. While Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson hailed this proposal as a victory for his party. Subsequently, the UNRWA has launched an investigation following the allegations. The UN also established an independent team to investigate the agency.

Canada: Caps on temporary residents
On 21 March, Immigration Minister Marc Miller said the number of immigrants will be reduced in the next three years and the first cap is expected in September. This comes after Canada reinstated visa requirements for Mexican nationals due to an increased number of asylum seekers. Canada plans to restrict the number of residents it allows for the first time in history due to affordability and the housing crisis. This applies to international students, foreign workers and asylum seekers. Miller said Canada plans to reduce the number of residents to 5 per cent from the current 6.2 per cent. He noted that the move is to ensure “sustainable” growth. As the country heavily relies on temporary foreign workers Miller said that "changes are needed to make the system more efficient".


NEWSMAKERS THIS WEEK
Akhil Ajith, Padmashree Anandan and Navinan GV
 
Prabowo Subianto elected as the new president of Indonesia
On 20 March, election commission chairman Hasyim Asy’ari announced Prabowo Subianto was elected as the President of Indonesia. The former defense minister and his vice-presidential running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka, the eldest son of former President Joko Widodo, had won the elections in the first round. The chairman said that the winning candidates received more than 96 million votes, which is 58.6 per cent of the total votes, making it enough to secure a majority victory. Their rival candidate, Anies Baswedan, secured 24.9 per cent of the vote, while Ganjar Pranowo received more than 16 per cent. In the 2024 presidential elections, more than 164 million voters cast their votes, resulting in a voter turnout of 80 per cent of the total eligible voters in Indonesia. Prabowo easily secures his presidency for the third time after the transition period. Many political experts mention the nationalist agenda in his speeches, driving the rise of Prabowo and his growing popularity among the masses. There were, however, some criticisms and demonstrations against outgoing President Joko Widodo for supporting Subianto, alleging widespread fraud. However, Widodo and Subianto had dismissed their claims and argued that they could provide the evidence for their claims.

Leo Varadkar resigns from being Ireland’s Prime Minister
On 20 March, Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar announced his resignation stating Ireland’s coalition (Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party) government would be a better position in the re-election under a different leader. He said: “My reasons for stepping down are both personal and political.” Following the resignation, the Fine Gael party would begin the nominations on 21 March, and the parliament is expected to vote on 09 April after the results are published. During his speech in the news conference, Varadkar highlighted his achievements in improving unemployment rates, economic recovery efforts that shifted the deficits to surplus and his efforts in achieving referendums on same-sex marriage and abortion. He also mentioned his work in improving the affordability of childcare, and increasing spending on international development and public infrastructure.  In 2017 when Varadkar was appointed as the first “openly-gay” Prime Minister it was a sign of modernization of Ireland. While the Fine Gael party had already spent six years in powers with brimming domestic issues of housing crisis, health and education. His tackling of public finances during the COVID-19, and determination to balance the budget, and address the cost-of-living crisis were seen as positive. However, the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis and continued departure of the policies passed by the government under Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to impact the affordability of housing and to invest in school and hospital infrastructure was rebutted by the Irish. A 40 per cent income tax at the entry level and the inadequacy of his Land Development Agency (LDA) to meet the housing crisis was a bigger blow to the middle-class Irish.

Javier Milei completes 100 days as Argentina’s President
On 19 March, the president of Argentina, Javier Milei, marked 100 days of taking office. The far-right libertarian pledged to halt an “orgy of public spending.” Amid rising societal tensions, the president is attempting to persuade hostile MPs to support his severe austerity plan. In his initial days, he reduced the Cabinet to nine ministries, removed 50,000 public employments, cancelled all new public works contracts, eliminated significant fuel and transportation subsidies and devalued the peso by 54 per cent. His government has reported its first budget surplus in over a decade and received clearance from the International Monetary Fund, which has a USD 44 billion credit programme with Argentina. On 20 December 2023, Milei issued an emergency decree to reinforce his previous deregulation push. He named it, “Law of Bases and Points of Departure for the Freedom of Argentinians.” The decree altered 366 laws with the aim of privatization of public entities including airlines, media and the energy group YPF. On 30 January, the court stated that Milei’s reforms as “unconstitutional” and later on 14 March, Argentina’s senate rejected the decree.



 
THIS WEEK IN HISTORY
March 1739: Nadir Shah invades Delhi
T C A Raghavan

Over the spring and summer of 1739, Nadir Shah, the ruler of Persia, marched into North India. On 24 February he had defeated a large Mughal army in Karnal- about 75 miles north of Delhi. With the 14th Mughal Emperor Mohammad Shah now effectively his captive, Nadir Shah entered Delhi on 20 March 1939 and camped in the city for about two months, occupying the royal residence in the Red Fort. He was now the Shahanshah, the King of Kings, an honorific and title that had been reserved for the Mughal emperors of Delhi. To outsiders, as equally to the shattered remnants of the Mughal empire, the unthinkable would have appeared to be happening- the all-powerful Mughals were being dismantled. In retrospect, it appears self-evident that Indian history was once more at a turning point.

Writing a century ago, the great historian Sir Jadunath Sarkar saw Nadir Shah’s invasion as part of a process. The invasion was “not a cause of the decline” of the Mughal empire but rather a “symptom of the decline.” The defeat of the Mughal army in Karnal, Nadir Shah’s triumphal entry into Delhi with the Mohammad Shah receiving him as a supplicant was to Sarkar the breaking of a spell - “revealing to the world a fact accomplished long before”.

The accumulated structural weaknesses and contradictions of the Mughals had caught up with their vanities. In addition, their internecine feuding and bloodletting, the weakening of the central structure of the nobility and the neglect of the military meant that by the 1730s, the Mughals were already quite advanced in their erosion barely a quarter century after they had reached their zenith. The Maratha expansion across Central and Western India from the 1720s had become a kind of barometer of Mughal decline.  In 1738, a year before Nadir Shah’s invasion, the Marathas had campaigned up to the outskirts of Delhi. Nadir Shah was a powerful external opponent who would outmatch the Mughals even more comprehensively.

From humble beginnings, Nadir Shah had emerged as a major warlord in Persia amidst the collapse, largely parallel to the Mughals of the once great Safavids. By the 1720s, that dynasty had been reduced to a shadow of its once formidable power. The Afghans, once Persian vassals, had after rebelling in Qandahar, moved westwards and captured the Safavid capital Isfahan. The Safavid collapse also meant the Ottomans and the Russians, old imperial rivals of Safavid Persia, had made major encroachments into its territory.


18 March 2014: Russia annexes Crimea
Rosemary Kurian

On 18 March 2014, Russia officially annexed Crimea, marking the beginning of its current conflict with Ukraine. 
 
The road towards referendum and annexation
At the 21st century beginning, Ukraine had witnessed the Orange Revolution supporting the anti-Russian faction within the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian Parliament. This led to the victory of the anti-Russian Viktor Yushchenko as President of Ukraine. In 2010, Viktor Yanukovych returned to power as the new President. In Crimea, the predominantly Russian population supported Yanukovych and his pro-Russian Party of Regions. His return to presidency was favourable to the Russian control in Crimea. He extended Russia’s lease on the Sevastopol Port till 2042, which allowed Russia to bring around 25,000 troops to Sevasto

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