Thursday 13 September, 2018 Update: Mattis to Visit Macedonia Amid Concerns About Russian ‘Mischief.’

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US Secretary of Defense James Mattis will travel to Macedonia this weekend as Macedonians prepare to vote on a referendum at the end of the month. If passed, it would change the name of the country from Macedonia to the Republic of Northern Macedonia, and open the door to EU and NATO membership for the Balkan nation. Macedonia, and Greece have been locked in a dispute over the former’s name for decades. In June, the two nations reached an agreement to settle the matter. The referendum set for 30 September will determine if Macedonian voters will support the measure or not. Mattis is the latest US official to visit Macedonia. A number of politicians and government officials from the US, and European nations have been visited in recent weeks, encouraging Macedonians to approve the referendum. Nationalists in Macedonia and Greece have bitterly opposed the name change. Last weekend riots broke out in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki as nationalist groups gathered there and demonstrated.

Mattis is concerned about ‘the kind of mischief that Russia has practiced from Estonia to the United States, from Ukraine and now to Macedonia.’ Russia is less than pleased about Macedonia’s pivot to the West, viewing the referendum as an attempt by NATO and the US to interfere in an area that has traditionally been in the Russian sphere of influence. Over the summer, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats after accusing them of bribing an unnamed official to undermine the deal that was agreed to between Skopje and Athens. Russia’s ambassador in Macedonia has recently warned that the country could become a legitimate target if relations between the NATO and Russia do not improve. In July, Macedonia was formally invited to begin the process towards NATO membership. Moscow has opposed the move and this opposition has helped bring about concerns of Soviet mischief aimed at influencing voters in the days leading up to the referendum.

Wednesday 25 October, 2017 Update: Catalan Separatist Leader Considering a Swift Declaration of Independence

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Whether they realize it or not, Catalonia’s separatist politicians have an image problem. Carles Puigdemont and company are emerging as the rapscallions of the Catalan crisis instead of the Spanish government. This is contrary to how  Puigdemont and his associates intended the situation to play out. By this point, Madrid was expected to have seen the light and sat down with Catalan’s government officials to negotiate a phased, eventual separation of Catalonia from Spain. To the surprise of Puigdemont, the Spanish government’s response was strikingly different from what was expected. Madrid has stood up to the challenge, and has every intention of fighting tooth and nail to keep Catalonia from breaking off and becoming an independent state. Since the Catalan independence referendum on 1 October, nationalism has taken root across the country. Even in Catalonia, support for independence is not overwhelmingly high, contrary to what the separatists in the Catalan government want people, and the media to believe. In Barcelona, the heart of Catalonia, many residents are critical of their region’s government, accusing the separatist politicians of touching off this crisis purely to achieve their own ends.

Remarks made today by Catalan Vice President Orio Junqueras seem to support the suspicions about separatist politicians. In light of Madrid’s intent to impose direct rule, Junqueras sees a quick declaration of Catalonia’s independence as the region’s next logical step. Speaking on behalf of his Republican Left party’s members, he said the party is committed to “work toward building a republic, because we understand that there is a democratic mandate to establish such a republic.” Whether or not such a mandate exists depends on whom you speak to. Spain’s Constitutional Court ruled against the 1 October referendum making the results invalid.  Junqueras, Puigdemont, and Catalan separatists point to those same results as proof that a mandate exists regardless of the Constiutional Court’s ruling.

Catalonia’s political elite has still not come to terms with the severity of the situation before them. Madrid plans to fire all of them and assume control of the region until new elections can be held. Catalan leadership has yet to put together an effective plan to delay, or block Article 155’s from being implemented. Time is running out and a declaration of independence at this point will do nothing but speed up the Spanish government’s plans to impose direct rule in Catalonia and put an end to the subversion once and for all.

Tuesday 10 October, 2017 Update: Puigdemont Calls for a Negotiated Catalan Exit

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When he stepped up to the podium to address Catalonia’s parliament today, Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont had three choices to select from. He could declare independence and single handedly plunge his region, and its parent nation of Spain into a veritable civil war. Or he could do the complete opposite and back down entirely, taking the prospect of Catalan independence off the table for good. The third choice was to walk a fine line between the aforementioned options, do neither, and craft a compromise that does not extinguish the flame of regional independence. Politically speaking, this was the most palatable choice available. Not surprisingly, Puigdemont took the compromise approach and laid it out in his address today, but it remains to be seen if he grasps that there was no other choice for him and that his actions since the referendum have dramatically undercut his position.

Puigdemont, in his address, said the people of Catalonia have chosen independence but it should come through a negotiated settlement with Madrid. Catalan officials claim the results of the 1 October independence referendum indicated over 90% of Catalan voters supported independence from Spain. The vote results are not official since the referendum was declared illegal by the Spanish government and Spain’s Constitutional Court suspended it. Spanish police prevented voters from entering many polling sites, causing a series of sharp clashes between Catalan voters and police in the streets of Barcelona and surrounding towns.

Puigdemont points to a desire to de-escalate the tension around the issue as his motivation for wanting to negotiate now. This represents a 180 degree turn for a man who was poised to issue a declaration of Catalan independence the moment the referendum ended. There was no talk of negotiating with Madrid in the lead up to 1 October. If the referendum went in favor of independence, Puigdemont gave every indication that Catalonia would secede quickly. When that moment came, though, he found that he had miscalculated the Spanish government and the Spanish people. Catalonia’s separatist designs served to rapidly revive Spanish nationalism. Video and images of Catalan citizens assaulting Spanish police during the referendum has had a dramatic effect on the Spanish populace. The spectacle of Catalonia simply walking away from Spain has touched off a furious wave of nationalism across the country.

Puigdemont did not for one moment believe this was how Spain and its citizens would react. He overplayed his hand and has chosen to pull back and regroup,  believing that Madrid will negotiate a Catalan exit in good faith. The current mood in Spain, however, appears to say otherwise.

Tuesday 4 October, 2017 Update: The Catalan Crisis

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Catalonia’s ill-advised, and illegal independence referendum has placed Spain on the verge of a constitutional crisis. If  Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont follows through on his promise to declare independence in a matter of days the stage will be set for a major confrontation between the government and Catalonia. The Spanish government would almost certainly block the move by any and all means including the use of force. Spain is well within its rights should it feel compelled to use military force. Catalonia’s government leaders, police officials, and referendum organizers incited rebellion against the state with their actions thus far.

Madrid cannot and will not allow an independence declaration to stand. If Catalonia is permitted to detach itself from the rest of the country and form a new nation-state, the Kingdom of Spain would dissolve within a year, carved up and Balkanized. The Basque region will follow Catalonia’s lead and declare independence next. Although a permanent ceasefire exists between the Spanish government and Basque Separatists, Catalan moves are being watched closely in the western  Pyrénées. A whiff of independence is already in the air and if Madrid wavers even slightly in its standoff with Catalonia, Basque Country’s declaration will come quickly.

The rest of Europe is watching this crisis carefully, cognizant that the wrong move by either the Spanish government, or the Catalans may trigger a chain reaction of similar events across the continent. Spain is not the only EU nation with a separatist movement within its borders, and a few European nations have experience in fending off separation such as Belgium.  Some European leaders are calling for a dialogue between Madrid and the Catalans, however, the statements generally end there. At this point no one wants to appear to be interfering in another nation’s domestic affairs. And for the moment the Catalan situation falls squarely into that category.

 

Monday 17 July, 2017 Update: The Venezuelan Powder Keg

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The opposition movement in Venezuela has been energized by the results of Sunday’s unofficial referendum and are hoping it marks a turning point in its struggle against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Over 7.2 million Venezuelans cast votes, with the overwhelming majority were against Maduro’s plan to push forward with his plan to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution. On 30 July voters will elect delegates for a constitutional assembly. The assembly will be given the power to rewrite laws and many observers view it as nothing less than a power grab on the part of Maduro.

Venezuela continues to descend deeper into economic, and political chaos. Maduro is desperately clinging to the plan for a constitutional rewrite as his cure-all. Three months of unrest, and daily clashes between protesters, and security forces have taken a toll. A new constitution that neuters the power of his opponents in the legislature will pave the way for him to contend with the opponents on the streets once and for all. In spite of the growing turmoil, anti-government feeling, and the results of the referendum yesterday, Maduro’s position is relatively stable for the time being. There are no imminent threats to his rule. Despite the efforts of anti-Maduro lawmakers and their supporters, the current president appears likely to remain in power at least through the end of the summer.

A primary reason for this has been the opposition’s disorganization and lack of unity. The opposition is comprised of people from every facet of Venezuelan society. Unfortunately, there is no fabric to mesh together. No individual leader, or leadership council to coordinate the various groups. In the absence of a cohesion, the opposition’s efforts have been restricted mainly to street protests. In their own right, the protests are powerful, but without a political element to guide and lead them, the throngs of people taking to the streets are little more than an unruly mob. Maduro’s bands of thugs have intimidated the political opposition to a large degree. Pro-government thugs regularly assault opposition lawmakers, and on one occasion Maduro even sent a group of them to the National Assembly where they entered and beat a number of lawmakers bloody.

The political chaos might end up being overshadowed by even more economic despair soon enough. Venezuela’s foreign reserves are now down to less than $10 billion. In short, the country is on the verge of going broke. If that happens, all bets are off as to what happens next.