Coronavirus and Autocratic Resurgence

April 1, 2020 at 11:40 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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One of the less discussed outcomes of the coronavirus pandemic has been the astonishing rollback of democratic rights all over the world.‘Stay at home’ decrees and commandments to maintain physical distances have allowed governments everywhere, even in long-established democracies, to suspend constitutionally guaranteed personal freedoms including the rights of assembly and free movement, the right to demonstrate against governments and other entities, and to allow intrusive surveillance. Justified in the name of public safety, even if some of these powers are rescinded once the pandemic ebbs, the data collected could be used by governments (and private companies like Zoom and Facebook) to monitor citizens with little or no public scrutiny.

 A random sample of governments amassing power by exploiting the fear of widespread contagion and extensive fatalities includes the following:  Last Monday, Hungary’s  parliament controlled by his Fidesz party greenlighted a rule by decree by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as long as a state of emergency lasts. Serbian President Aleksander Vučić also assumed autocratic powers in an open-ended emergency by the suspension of its parliament, the imposition of a 12-hour curfew to be enforced by the police, the closure of borders, and barring those over 65 years of age from leaving their homes. In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice Party under Jarosław Kaczyński which had already made the judiciary subordinate to the executive, used the pandemic to compel people in home quarantine to install a government smart phone application to track their movements.

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The Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes’ cabinet similarly obtained rights to govern by decree without parliamentary scrutiny for six months. In Israel, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had failed to win a majority after three elections and his rival Benny Gantz had been invited to form a government, he exploited his rival’s political inexperience to make him accept a junior position in a Likud-led government. Netanyahu also secured legislative authorization to use a trove of cellphone data to surveil Israeli citizens and to delay court actions, postponing his own trial on corruption charges. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who once referred to the country’s constitution as “a scrap of toilet paper,” has also engrossed emergency powers as has the Thai prime minister, Prayuth chan-ocha while the military police now occupy public squares in Chile. The Jordanian prime minister, Omar Razzaz, also acquired powers to censor news media and additional authority to detain people.

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French lawmakers increased the powers of Prime Minister Édouard Philippe to rule by decree and to requisition goods and services for the medical emergency. And in Britain, the parliament conferred what has been described as “eye-watering” powers on the government to detain people and close borders. India’s Narendra Modi who had already placed Kashmir under lockdown for more than half a year now put the whole country under lockdown with only 4 hours’ notice!

Even before the pandemic had emerged, Republicans in United States Senate had humiliatingly prostrated themselves before President Donald Trump and conducted a farcical impeachment trial; Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had used a shoddy coup attempt to crush all dissent; Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro had dismissed the participatory councils that have had a long history in the country and Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales had been removed from office in a coup.

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These breaches in the democratic fabric across the world had been so pronounced, even before the current transgressions, that one of the most discussed books in recent years has been David Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky’s How Democracies Die. Elected autocrats, they argued subvert institutions like the judiciary and the press; coopt important cultural and sports icons or malign and seek to sideline those who resist; disregard mutual tolerance; and violate the law. These are the playbooks of Trump, Modi, Duterte, Kacyński, Erdogan, Orbán, Bolsanaro, and Jeanine Añez who usurped power in Bolivia.

Yet, as Jill Lepore, wrote in the New Yorker magazine, in the years after the First World War, a war fought “to make the world safe for democracy” as U.S. President Woodrow Wilson famously put it, there was a similar collapse of democracies. Then too, after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian, German, and Ottoman empires, there had been a brief florescence of democracies: but these soon withered away in Hungary, Albania, Poland, Lithuania, and Yugoslavia, to be followed by Greece, Romania, Estonia, and Latvia and more significantly by Portugal, Uruguay, Spain, Italy, and Germany.

In the 1980s democracy had replaced dictatorships in much of Latin America, the Philippines, and South Korea. And in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in Eastern Europe. Indeed, in 1992, Francis Fukuyama had written a prominent treatise The End of History and the Last Man, celebrating the final triumph of “Western liberal democracy.” Yet, within a quarter century, democracy is once again in question.

 

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A study by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Future of Democracy, based on 25 international surveys covering 4 million people based 154 countries, concludes that 2019 “represents the highest level of democratic discontent on record” since 1995. Some 58 percent registered their disapproval with democracy in 2019 compared to 48 percent in 1995—with the drop in support especially marked in Austria, Brazil, France, Greece, Japan, Mexico, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

 

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Yet, despite similarities between these two cycles of democratic crises, there are three important differences. Immediately after the First World War, the new democracies that arose were all in Europe or in its settler colonies in the Americas. Democracies established in the Global South after the Second World War were always more fragile as processes like territorial integration, adult suffrage, economic well-being and provision of welfare that took decades if not centuries to be instituted in Western Europe and North America and were accomplished sequentially, were telescoped into a few years in newly independent countries and were expected to be instituted simultaneously in conditions of extreme material deprivation, mass illiteracy, and constant interference by their former colonial powers, and by the United States and the Soviet Union.

 Second, even though the Great Depression had weakened trade unions at the time of the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, the form of industrialization adopted by the New Deal in the United States, the welfare state in Western European high-income states, and eventually, post-war reconstruction strengthened the industrial working class which formed a bulwark against the return of authoritarianism. Today, the fragmentation of production processes and their outsourcing to low-wage locations have decapitated trade unions in most countries. Though the conservative parties initiated de-regulation in the 1980s and 1990s, it was the social democrats—Bill Clinton in the US, Tony Blair’s NewLabour in the UK, Francois Mitterand in France—who were the greatest champions of neo-liberalism and finance capital.

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Blaming globalization for the loss of jobs and incomes, the working class—abandoned by social democratic parties—fell prey to the politicians on the right who preached xenophobia and nationalism. Donald Trump’s “make America great again” promised a return to a mythical past to a historically advantaged white working class. Similarly, the Conservative Party’s Brexit campaign demolished Labour’s “Red Wall” in the north of England by blaming migrants and the European Union for economic decline. To cover up the economic failings of his government, Narendra Modi targets Muslims and domestic opponents in India. As the Canadian socialist politician, the late Tommy Douglas, said: “Fascism begins the moment a ruling class, fearing the people may use their political democracy to gain economic democracy, begins to destroy political democracy in order to retain its power of exploitation and special privilege.”

 

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Though the blaming of foreigners and domestic minorities have garnered large constituencies of support for authoritarian rulers, their policies have consistently favored the rich by tax cuts, privatizations, de-regulations, dismantling environmental controls and the protection of indigenous peoples. They have been able to subordinate the judiciary by nominating judges and to muzzle the press with varying degrees of success.

In March 2020, Prime Minister Modi nominated Ranjan Gogoi, the just retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India who had rendered crucial verdicts in support of the ruling BJP, to a seat in the Upper House of Parliament, the Rajya Sabha. Modi has also coopted sport and cultural icons: in the cricket-mad country, Virat Kohli, the captain of its national team, called the prime minister’s demonetization of ₹500 and ₹1000 notes in 2016 as “the greatest move in the history of Indian politics,” despite its drastic economic consequences.  In the case of Poland and India, it was only after the ruling parties won a second election that it surged ahead with their repressive agendas.

The emergency initiated by the Covid-19 pandemic has licensed further restrictions on the freedom of the press. Governments in many countries have banned the spread of ‘fake news’ deliberately leaving definitions vague and ambiguous.

Third, strangely, it is in fact the very global networks that are castigated for a decline in living standards that make life bearable for the poor: without the cheap smartphones and computers assembled by low-waged workers in China, Uber and Lyft, Zomato and Ola in India, could not exist to create a “gig” economy. Without the cheap imports from China and other low-wage economies, the poor in the West can hardly fulfill their credit-card driven consumer spending, itself a result of low- and middle-income countries purchasing US Treasury bonds to keep the value of their currencies low.

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Once the strength of the trade unions was eroded, opposition to authoritarianism has come from the middle classes—ironically derided as the “elite” by Donald Trump and his allies in the United States, as the ‘Khan market gang’ and the “tukde tukde gang” by Modi and his supporters in India, as “Gullenists” or the “PKK” (Kurdish Workers Party) by Erdogan. In many cases, they have failed to reach out adequately to the poor, especially ethnic minorities. In India at least, the passage of the Constitutional Amendment Act which offers citizenship to all illegal immigrants from neighboring countries except Muslims—and one which cricket captain Kohli stubbornly refused to condemn—and the attacks on universities have mobilized the youth and a wider social strata against the government.

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It is this upsurge that the new round of autocratic resurgence is trying to corral. Nine years ago, the Arab Spring may have been celebrated as a social media and Internet-sparked revolution but not only did it collapse but it also showed that the middle classes are easily surveilled by the ubiquity of mobile phones and wifi-connected cameras. Governments now have used the pandemic as an excuse to legally tap this trove of electronic data to keep an eye on its citizens.Even if these powers are rescinded after the pandemic is over, data collected could be mined to obtain granular details about the citizenry, their opinions, connections, and predilections!

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And of course, policing is always deployed as a disciplinary weapon against racial and ethnic minorities and the poor. In the United States, President Trump’s reference to the virus as “Chinese virus” and U.S. State Department’s attempt to call it the “Wuhan virus” in a G7 communique have led to heightened attacks against Asian Americans. In India, people from the northeastern states have similarly been subject to racist attacks.

‘Stay at home’ orders may subject the middle classes to electronic surveillance but the poor have to put their lives on the line and go to work.Reports of police brutality against workers delivering essential goods in India is a reflection both of their lack of information and their general disdain for manual laborers. Even worse, the sudden lockdown of the country forced millions of migrant workers to walk back to their villages in complete disregard for their lives as all public transport was grounded and private taxis were out of reach. The sheer mindlessness of the order when maintaining physical distancing is impossible for the poor in densely populated countries is not only self-evident but also not essential when people over 65 are most vulnerable and 94 percent of the population is below that age!

 

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Over the long-term, opposition to authoritarianism will pivot around how the Left can formulate a strategy that enables an increasingly atomized poor to reverse their exploitation in conditions where automation and artificial intelligence deprive them not only of well-remunerated jobs but also of opportunities to combine together. Given the world-spanning production and procurement networks, such a strategy will have to be based on a progressive internationalism, all the more compelling because of the continuing destruction of the environment wrought by capitalist neo-liberalism. We need, in short, new strategies to fight authoritarianism in the twenty-first century.

Police Brutality in Turkey! Oust Erdogan

June 16, 2013 at 4:14 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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What began as a peaceful sit-in against government plans to turn Gezi Park, one of the last remaining green spaces in Istanbul, into a shopping mall has been met with perhaps the most violent police attacks on peaceful protesters in recent history.

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Initially, trotting out clichéd Western tropes about the Middle East, international media had painted the clash between protesters and the government as a conflict between secular and Islamist Turks. The claim that this is a secular revolt against an Islamic identity is based on prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) winning 50 percent of the vote in the last elections. But the AKP’s support came not only from the Islamists. AKP’s successes at the ballot box has to do with the government diluting the dominance of the industrial family clans of Istanbul and steering benefits to the rural poor in Anatolia and elsewhere.

 

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Faced with a disorganized opposition, the AKP government has become increasingly authoritarian. Last month, the Turkish parliament passed a law severely restricting the sale of alcohol, and the Ankara metro made an announcement asking passengers “to act in accordance with moral rules” after a couple was caught kissing on security cameras–an announcement that was met by dozens of couples locking lips in front of the capital’s metro stations!

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Today, the protests stem from the government’s increasingly authoritarian policies and its majoritarian conception of power. Zeyno Üstun, one of the first 50 demonstrators to occupy Gezi Park on May 27 says

Sure, there are hardcore secularists in the crowds. But there are also feminists, LGBT activists, anarchists, socialists of various stripes, Kurdish movements leaders, unionized workers, architects and urban planners, soccer hooligans, environmentalists, and people who are protesting for the first time! Someone wearing an Atatürk [the founder of the Turkish Republic as a secular, ethnically Turkish nation-state] T-shirt walks alongside another waving a flag of [imprisoned Kurdish leader] Abdullah Öcalan.

What unites these very diverse constituencies of interests is the sheer brutality of the police and now the paramilitary forces against peaceful protesters, lobbing many rounds of teargas including teargas laced with pepper spray and volleys from water canons, without regard to the presence of young children and the elderly. The police brutalities are characteristic of the increasingly authoritarian nature of the regime.
 
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Over the last few years, the AKP government has moved to muzzle the press, despite its pretensions to democracy. In December 2011, when military pilots mistook smugglers for Kurdish militants and killed 34 villagers, the Turkish media sat on the story for several hours till it was reported by the overseas press. Last month a media clampdown was imposed on the reporting of 52 people killed in a ‘terrorist” bombing in a village on the Syrian border. And now according to Reporters Without Borders, 67 journalists are imprisoned in Turkey, making it the world leader in arresting reporters. So cowed was the media that when massive street protests erupted in cities all over the country, CNN Turk, a leading broadcaster ran documentaries on dolphins and penguins rather than on the protests–transforming penguins into all that is wrong with the press in Turkey!
 
International political leaders have also been deafening in their silence over the police atrocities against peaceful demonstrators. Tear gas in enclosed spaces can be lethal and the Turkish police and paramilitary forces have tear gassed a hotel lobby where protesters had taken refuge. It is ironic that tear gas cannot be used in warfare because of the ban on chemical weapons but it can be used domestically against workers, students, and a regime’s opponents. President Barack Obama has authorized military aid to the rebels in Syria claiming that the Assad regime crossed a ‘red line’ by using chemical weapons, but says nary a word against Erdogan, his NATO ally.
 
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What is so invigorating about the joyful protests in Gezi Park and elsewhere in Turkey before they were broken up so brutally was the strong affirmation by the youth in democracy, in the right of assembly, and political dissent; the way in which police brutalities mobilized peoples across the lines of ideology, age, and gender.
 
It is too early to tell how the events will unfold. But even if Erdogan manages to crush this movement, it has given rise to new political possibilities. And if Erdogan’s popularity comes from Turkey’s economic successes, those successes are under threat. The severe cut in wages in southern Europe makes them competitive with Turkey and the unrest makes Turkey a risky place to invest.
 
The Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc have appealed for calm and Arinc even apologized earlier this month for the “excessive use of force” against the protesters. It is time for them to oust Erdogan, protect the people and rescue Turkish democracy!
 

Gaza War: A preliminary balance sheet

November 22, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Posted in democracy, Human Rights, International Relations, World Politics | Leave a comment
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Israel’s eight-day assault on Gaza caused enormous damage to the physical infrastructure of that impoverished coastal strip and a vastly disproportionate human toll on the Palestinians. Yet, in a preliminary balance sheet, Hamas is a clear winner. Long shunned by the European Union, Israel, and the United States, it has now emerged as a legitimate player. its rival–the Palestinian Authority–was completely sidelined with its foreign minister forced to visit Gaza with an Arab League delegation! The Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmud Abbas did not visit Gaza at all in contrast to the Egyptian Prime Minister and the Tunisian Foreign Minister. Four years ago, when the Israeli’s had launched their last assault on Gaza, the Palestinian Authority had prevented demonstrations in support of the people of Gaza on the West Bank: this time it could not hold back support for Gaza. It was able to launch rockets to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that even the more militarily capable Hezbollah had not contemplated when Israel invaded Lebanon. Hezbollah, itself, by continuing to back Syria’s Bashar al-Assad who is engaged in a murderous internal war to retain his position, has also lost considerable legitimacy in the Arab street. Conversely, on this register too, Hamas by distancing itself from the Syrian regime and moving its headquarters from Damascus to Qatar, emerges stronger.

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In the deliberately ambiguously worded ceasefire negotiated by Cairo and Washington, none of the terms insisted by the Quartet–the US, the EU, Russia, and the United Nations—that Hamas renounce violence and recognize Israel in return for an engagement were mentioned. Instead, the ceasefire agreement accepted, however vaguely, Hamas’ central demands that targeted assassinations of individuals be stopped and that the border crossings be opened to the free movement of goods and people has been accepted. Whether these agreements will be implemented remains to be seen of course.

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Egypt’s newly elected president Mohamed Morsi has emerged as a key regional power weight. less than 48 hours after the Israeil bombardment, he dispatched his prime minister, Hesham Kandil, to Gaza in a show of support and pointedly condemned Israeli aggression. When the United States continued to unflinchingly support Israel, and refusing to engage Hamas, and with Turkey’s prime minister, Recip Tayyip Erdogan, having cut his ties to Israel, Morsi was the only credible interlocutor capable of negotiating a ceasefire. In fact, emboldened by his role in the Gaza ceasefire, Morsi has flexed his political muscle domestically: conferring on himself extensive powers and immunity from judicial overview.

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Cementing Hamas’ role as a legitimate regional power has been a defeat for the United States. Once again, as the Israeli assault on Gaza began, President Barack Obama said he “fully supported israel’s right to self-defense” and both houses of Congress passed lopsided resolutions in favor of Israel. Yet, as even the Economist magazine indicated the casualties have been disproportionate.

  • Number of Israelis killed by fire from Gaza between January 1st 2012 and November 11th 2012: 1
  • Number of Palestinians in Gaza killed by Israeli fire during the same period: 78
  • Number of Israelis killed by fire from Gaza, November 13th-19th 2012: 3
  • Total number of Israelis killed by rocket, mortar or anti-tank fire from Gaza since 2006: 47
  • Number of Palestinians in Gaza killed by Israeli fire from April 1st 2006 to July 21st 2012: 2,879
  • Number of people killed in traffic accidents in Israel in 2011: 384

Unable to deal directly with Hamas with which it has no formal engagement, the United States was forced to deal with them through Morsi and thus for the first time in the long history of Israeli occupation of Palestine, the ceasefire was announced in an Arab capital!

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Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu may have thought that another attack on Gaza, less than two months before an election, would have bolstered support for him. But continued international pressure, and the impossibility of stifling Gaza resistance to Israeli oppression compelled him to agree to a ceasefire. A poll found that more than 70 percent of those polled in Israel were opposed to the ceasefire, signaling possibly that Netanyahu had badly miscalculated his pre-election war strategy. No doubt, the US will fund a large part of the costs of the Israeli assault: each interceptor missile fired by its Iron Dome system costs $62,000 and each of the 5 Iron Dome batteries cost $50 million and it plans to deploy a total of 13 batteries. This cost will undoubtedly be borne by the American taxpayers–given the US Administration and Congress’ unconditional support for Israel.

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Aid  from Qatar and other Arab states–in October 2012, the Emir of Qater was the first head of state to visit Gaza since the tiny coastal enclave was turned into an open air prison by Israel in 2007–will help rebuild its arsenals and the infrastructure, along with of course support from Iran. Moreover, even as Israeli missiles and air-strikes may have devastated its weapons factories and arsenals, by bombing buses, Hamas has reminded Israeli leaders of its extraordinary resilience.

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In any preliminary assessment of the Israeli assault on Gaza, Hamas and Morsi have emerged as winners, though at a terrible cost to the people of Gaza–another thing that Netanyahu has to answer for.

Shifting Geopolitical Sands

October 22, 2010 at 8:43 pm | Posted in Political Economy | Leave a comment
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Two events this week–Chinese overtures to a Turkey that had angrily reacted to Beijing’s suppression of Uyghur protests in Xinjiang last year and NATO’s invitation to Iran to attend security briefings on Afghanistan–are indicative of major ongoing geopolitical shifts. After the Second World War, as the United States rose to a position of world hegemony and European colonial empires were dissolved, new geopolitical regions were created–Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, etc–while older geopolitical regions–Central Asia, Central Europe, etc–were erased by the fissures of the Cold War. The new post-Second World War regionalizations often violated long historical connections–as between South Asia and the Middle East on the one hand, and between South Asia and Southeast Asia on the other. Again, the Middle East was cordoned off from Central Asia (then under Soviet rule) while China was walled off from US client states in East Asia and from Southeast Asia. In East and Southeast Asia, by the early 21st century, these Cold war divides have been replaced by greater regional integration that more closely resemble the pre-capitalist Sino-centered tributary trade system as Mark Selden has recently argued.

On the Western frontiers of Asia, the increasing prominence of Turkey, India, and Iran suggest a similar realignment of forces that resemble earlier alliances between the Ottomans and the Mughals, though in a vastly changed geopolitical ecology.

Since it came to power in the elections of 2002, the Justice and Development Party (or AKP–its acronym in Turkish) has broken partly with the Kemalist republic’s orientation to the West to leverage its multiple regional identities–as a Balkan, Black Sea, Caspian, Central Asian, European, and Mediterranean state–to become a regional and global power. Rather than brusquely disavow its pro-Western stance, Ahmet Davutoglu, the party’s chief foreign policy expert and now the Foreign Affairs Minister, advocated a “zero problems with neighbors” policy.

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Defly exploiting the street cred it acquired by refusing US troops permission to pass through its territory for the invasion of Iraq, Ankara began to mediate between Syria and Israel till the brutal Israeli assault on Gaza in Operation Cast Lead caused Turkey to break off the talks. Turkey’s steadfast support to the Palestinians has won it the support of Arabs, especially since President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt is 82 and less active and the veteran Saudi foreign minister Saud al Feusal allegedly has Parkinson’s disease. Relations with its neighboring states has also been strengthened since the financial crisis beginning in 2008 which led to falls in Turkish exports to the EU and to a rise in its exports to its eastern neighbors.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Davutoglu engaged in shuttle diplomacy between Tiblisi and Moscow as Russian troops intervened on behalf of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008 during a brief war. Ankara has also promoted a series of meetings between Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia.

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More crucially, along with President Lula of Brazil, Erdogan has intervened in the dispute between the US and its allies and Iran over the latter’s nuclear energy program. Equally importantly, in November 2008, Davutoglu became in November 2009, the first high-level Turkish official to visit to the Kurdish Regjonal Government in northern Iraq which is akin to an Indian foreign minister visiting Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

Meanwhile, India has emerged as the largest regional donor of reconstruction aid to Afghanistan, Relations between India and Afghanistan had been close till the Taliban captured power in 1996. Now, the US occupation forces and India share a common goal in eliminating Islamic extremists and it is telling that Pakistan was not invited to the high-level NATO security briefing that was attended by Iran. In large part, this is the result of the US promoting India as a regional counter-weight to China but also in part due to the relationship between the Pakistani military and intelligence services with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The US is also courting India to provide a counter-weight to Iran.

Despite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s vocal opposition to Israel’s brutal oppression of the Palestinians and to US policies more generally, Iran’s growing influence in Iraq and Afghanistan where US forces are bogged down in a war they cannot win implies that the US can only extricate their forces with Iranian cooperation or an entire region with much of the world’s proven oil reserves will endure decades of political instability.

When much attention has been focussed on regional integration in east and southeast Asia, the developments sketched here suggest that there is a parallel re-emergence of regional linkages between west and south Asia. This suggests that the geopolitical regions of the world are being reshaped with much of East and Southeast Asia being reoriented towards China, while Turkey, India, and Iran are emerging as important regional powers in a re-contoured ‘geographical pivot of history,’

 

 

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