All things must come to an end and that includes political eras. The Merkel Era is drawing to a close. Germany and Europe are anxiously peering ahead into an ambiguous future. Regrettably for them, the Merkel Era does not seem to be going gently into that good night. Instead of a quick death, it appears destined to linger for an extended period of time before dying off. Its current status is comparable to a patient entering hospice care. The end is inevitable, and family members have gathered around to say goodbye, though no one is certain when that will be. And, to quote Tom Petty, ‘the waiting is the hardest part.’
Germany is in a period of political stasis. Politicians, and political parties alike have been behaving out of character since Angela Merkel’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. Nobody wants to join a coalition government chaired by the chancellor. Her efforts to build a coalition have been rebuffed and stonewalled by friend and foe alike. The Free Democrats (FDP) stepped away and are now pursuing their own path to power, while the Social Democrats (SPD) have been carping over the details so much they have made it readily apparent that they want nothing to do with a Merkel-built coalition. Eventually, a coalition will be formed and Merkel will be the head of it, but she might do more harm than good. Her political capital has been exhausted and the September elections made it clear that a significant number of Germans want to move away from Merkelism. She may not cede power for another year or two, but German politicians are already positioning themselves for the post-Merkel Era future.
The European Union is in an even more delicate position. The political crisis in Germany has stopped the EU agenda dead in its tracks. Efforts to figure out the shape institutional reforms cannot move ahead until the situation in Germany resolves itself. France’s president Emanuel Macron has his own set of ideas, and reforms which he would like to be considered. Unfortunately, the EU is reluctant to even begin discussing Macron’s ideas until the German situation resolves itself. In other words, the EU is not going to be making consequential decisions, or moving forward on major issues without Germany. With or without Angela Merkel in power, Germany continues to be central to all things Europe in the eyes of the EU. It’s unclear if this will remain true as the political fortunes of Emanuel Macron rise, but at present, most in the EU appear reluctant to rock the boat.
Even with the Merkel Era waning away, and the current German government adopting a caretaker status, Germany remains the undisputed Godfather of the continent.
The Sri Lankan government formally handed over control of the strategic port of Hambantota to China last week. The two nations signed a 99 year lease that gives the Chinese almost-complete control of the port as partial payment on the $8.8 Billion debt Sri Lanka owes to the PRC. China’s presence in Sri Lanka has grown over the last five years and the relationship between the two has flourished as a result. Chinese firms have invested billions of dollars to modernize Sri Lankan port facilities as part of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ drive to expand Chinese market reach.
Concern is expanding across South Asia over China’s investment in Sri Lanka and the level of Chinese involvement in the region overall. Instinctively, New Delhi is alarmed, and suspicious of further Chinese encroachment upon its sphere of influence. The Indians are wary of the growing Chinese challenge to its regional hegemony. Consequently situation in Sri Lanka is hitting close to home both literally and figuratively. The island nation is situated just off India’s southeastern coast and it has been firmly inside of India’s orbit for years. India has invested large sums of treasure, and material to stabilize the island. To address the Chinese presence and influence, India has partnered with Japan to develop Sir Lanka’s eastern coastline, and improve the existing infrastructure there. Beyond India, pushback over Chinese investments and influence has occurred in Nepal, Pakistan, and Myanmar.
India-China relations are still on the mend following the Doklam standoff earlier this year. Both nations appear sincere in their desires to see ties continue improving. However, the potential for an economic proxy war in Sri Lanka is quite real. This situation, along with other rising economic and security challenges in the region threaten to disrupt those relations indefinitely. China is aggressively using its economic power to extend its geopolitical influence far beyond its own borders.
With that influence now butting up against Indian shores, the ball is in New Delhi’s court. India’s response could very well define India-China relations for some time to come.
*Author’s Note: Very brief update this evening, I’ll follow up with a more detailed update tomorrow.*
Gas is flowing once more from the Baumgarten pipeline hub in Eastern Austria following a major explosion that killed one worker and injured eighteen. Gas Connect Austria said the site had been shut down while firefighters worked to bring the blaze under control. Gas deliveries to parts of southern Austria have been affected. The pipeline that runs through Baumgarten brings gas from Russia to Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, and other European nations including Germany. Italy is so dependent upon the gas being piped through Baumgarten that it anticipated the worst and declared a state of emergency shortly after the explosion. At current, it seems that the move was premature. A major disruption in gas supply doesn’t seem likely right now.
Nevertheless, the Baumgarten explosion highlights how fragile the European natural gas pipeline network is, and how susceptible it is to a major disruption, man made or otherwise.
Almost four years after the Maidan revolution swept Viktor Yushchenko and his regime from power, Ukraine is in the midst of another bout of political turmoil. Protesters have taken to the streets chanting “Bandits Out!” and protester tents have returned to Maidan Square. This time around, the scope of the protests is smaller than four years ago, but the target of the growing dissent is essentially the same: Government graft.
The current political drama’s impetus is Mikhail Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia. He entered Ukrainian politics after Maidan to help combat corruption. He served as governor of the Odessa region before a falling out between him and his longtime friend, Ukraine’s current president Petro Poroshenko. Saakashvili resigned from his post in 2016 and publicly accused Poroshenko of corruption and blocking reforms. Poroshenko responded in July by stripping him of his Ukrainian citizenship, opening the door for his potential deportation back to Georgia where Saakashvili is wanted on fraud charges. With the help of supporters, Saakashvili made his way back into the country late Sunday. Earlier this week, he held a rally in Kiev where he called for Poroshenko to be impeached. Two days later, he was arrested by security service agents, but a large crowd of his supporters blocked the van carrying him and freed him from government custody. Late on Friday, Saakashvili was arrested again and taken into custody, prompting crowds of his supporters to gather outside of the detention center where he is being held.
The draconian manner in which Poroshenko is handling this challenge to his position reveals the grim reality that the primary demand of Maidan has yet to be realized. Corruption is still prevalent, and the Oligarchic system remains in place. This situation would be bad enough even under peacetime conditions, however, the fact that Ukraine is mired in a nearly four-year long war against Russian-supported separatists exacerbates matters. The West has done little to assist in the corruption fight since Maidan, focusing its efforts on military and diplomatic assistance instead. Now, even those efforts have diminished. Europe is suffering from ‘Ukraine burn-out’ and the United States has still not adopted a thorough Ukraine policy. It was hoped that the Trump administration would make it a priority, but that has yet happen.
The turmoil in Ukraine could provide Russia with a window of opportunity as well. It is likely that right now in the Kremlin Vladimir Putin and his advisers are looking at the situation and working on a way to turn it to Russia’s advantage. The war in Ukraine has dragged on in stalemate for quite some time. Putin has been patiently awaiting the time when favorable circumstances could permanently change that.
That moment could very well be now.
Pressure is building on Saudi Arabia to lift its blockade of Yemeni ports and allow food, water, and other essential materials into the country. Saudi Arabia blockaded Yemen’s ports after Houthi rebels fired a SCUD missile last month. Relief organizations have been warning that the situation in Yemen is growing dire. The nation’s economy and infrastructure have been shattered by years of strife, and civil war. Millions of civilians are at risk of starvation.
Now the United States is joining the chorus of nation-states and organizations around the world that are calling on Saudi Arabia to open access in Yemen to prevent yet another humanitarian crisis in the Middle East. Yesterday, President Trump issued a harsh criticism of the Saudi actions and announced that his administration would be calling upon Riyadh to end its blockade. Today, administration officials and advisors have gone to work on the matter in a series of phone calls and meetings with Saudi officials.
Saudi Arabia is a close US ally, and the relationship between the Trump administration and Riyadh has been particularly warm. The White House is hoping to use its clout to ameliorate the deteriorating humanitarian situation. Of course, the request is not being made simply because it is the right thing to do. There are potential benefits for the Trump administration’s foreign policy embedded in it as well. The US announcement that it recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and will be moving its embassy in Israel there from Tel Aviv is a potential power keg. There is concern about the how Muslims across the region will react to the move. The US is hoping its position on the Saudi blockade, and improving the situation in Yemen will cool Muslim reactions to the Jerusalem move.
The Saudis might not be ready to relinquish the blockade so easily, though. The death of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh by Houthis on 4 December has altered the dynamics of the Yemeni civil war. Wednesday’s Saudi airstrikes against targets in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, launched in retaliation for Saleh’s death, indicate escalation could be on the horizon. It would be in Saudi Arabia’s best interests to halt the blockade at least temporarily, however, given the events of the past few days in Yemen, there’s no guarantee that Riyadh’s final decision will be influenced even by the prodding of its closest ally.