International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses developments in the Middle East, the Balkans and around the world. Dr J Scott Younger is a President Commissioner at Glendale Partners and member of IFIMES Advisory Board. In his text entitled “From Delta to Omicron – 2021; year in review” he is reviewing the past year 2021 from the geopolitical perspective.
This year has been a stark reminder that, as an erstwhile scientist put it, the virus is the insidious enemy of man. It is one hundred years since the deadly (Spanish) flu virus ran rampant and killed 20 million, to really put a stamp to the end of the first World War. The Black Death, originating in China, circa 1350, killed an estimated 75-200 million. Fortunately, we have made huge strides in medical science in the last 100 years, without which today’s number of 2+ million in the current pandemic would be many times greater. In 1920, the world population that succumbed was about 1%. Six centuries earlier it was about +/- 15%. If 1% were laid low today it would be about 90 million would die - unthinkable.
Early in the year, the military in Myanmar swooped, snatched the people’s choice as their leader – Aung San Suu Kyi – and spirited her away as well as other key civilians, and installed themselves as the government. They wrongly charged Suu Kyi’s NLD (National League of Democracy) government with fraud at the recently won elections, but ‘promised’ to hold another ‘free’ election under their control after one year, that is February 2022, two months from now. We do not have long to wait! In the meantime, they are going round murdering villagers in Chin state, as recent filmed events have uncovered. Sections of the populace are forming armed resistance groups, beyond those of the previous long-term guerrillas, not trusting the Burmese Army, who have been using the same tactics of rape, pillage and killing for many decades.
Meanwhile, the lady, as Suu Kyi is known, has been given a 2-year reduced sentence on trumped up charges but they have not finished yet in the courts, but taking a break for the end of the year. However, by putting the lady in jail she will not be able to stand in the forthcoming election – if it goes ahead! Debatable.
Not given much in the way of headlines is the tragic situation in Yemen, where many thousands of children are dying each month. The terrible plight of the people was once more aired by the UN on world news. The civil war, which has been going on for too long, is between the Houti rebels, backed by Iran, who espouse the Shi’ite version of Islam, and Yemeni government forces, backed by the Saudis and allies, who espouse the Sunni version. In turn, they are backed by the west, principally the US, how can the war be stopped without intervention? Stopping arms supply? Only part of the answer.
The main focus of attention in mid-year was on Afghanistan when the Taliban, realizing that it was a matter of time before the US withdrew totally, made a push and started gaining a foothold in the country. This followed on from President Trump’s rather vainglorious attempt to meet the Taliban on a head-to-head basis in 2018 with no Afghan government in attendance. President Joseph Biden, against a lot of advice, followed this up by announcing a complete withdrawal of American troops and citizens by 30th August, a matter of a few short weeks to unwind 20 years of recovery work towards sustainable development.
The result was the Taliban accelerated their advance and shock-surprised the Afghan government and departing parties such that they had to negotiate free passage over the last week of August for a number of key people, including Afghanis. Many of the Afghanis had helped the US and allies for years and would be targeted by the Taliban if they stayed. The short time left meant that many, perhaps most, had to be left behind, justifiably in fear for their lives. The situation is still not resolved as the Taliban have an archaic view of life, especially towards women, no funds, and have no skills by which to run a complex country with many centuries of unsettled history.
There have been other difficult spots in the world. Belarus with its troublesome president, Alexander Lukashenko, who stole the last election to stay in office, and has upset the EU on several occasions and the West generally. Lukashenko knows he has the backing of President Vladimir Putin of Russia and does things to irritate, the latest being to encourage Middle East refugees to cross into Poland. His behaviour is totally dictatorial and against most of his people’s wishes, but Putin encourages him so that it keeps a buffer, a country in the Russian communist sphere of influence.
In his 17th annual long Christmas message to the Russian people, Putin showed his thinking. He wishes to maintain Ukraine and Belarus and any other snippets of territory he can get within the Russian hegemony. He greatly regrets the loss of the Russian ‘Empire’, the huge swathes of land, individual countries, that they took over at the end of WWII. He forgets why he lost them. The Russian economy had performed poorly, year on year, during the years of Stalin and could not keep up with the democratic way of the west with whom they competed, especially the US. At the end of the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev, last General Secretary of the Communist government of the USSR and in post from 1985, then the first President of Russia, 1990-91, bowed to the inevitable. If the Russian economy was to recover, it had to release all of the countries of eastern Europe which they held in their hegemony. Continuing to take hold of those countries was no longer feasible, a terrible strain on the economy. One notable action was the demolition of the Berlin wall, which allowed the reunification of Germany to take place.
President Putin sees the expansion of EU with the previous Soviet satellite countries of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Lithuania etc., with the boundaries of NATO thereby expanding eastwards, as a potential threat to Russia. Therefore, he is stepping up the pressure on Ukraine from which he has stolen back Crimea and effectively controls the eastern border of the country. But Europe, especially Germany, needs Russian gas, of which they have plenty, so sensibly the EU and Russia are going to have a high-level meeting in early 2022 to try to iron out various points of difference. It is of benefit to both sides and further afield. Historically, up to almost a century ago European Russia, where most of the Russian decisions are made, had links with several European powers.
Other ongoing struggles are in the Middle East, which involves several adjoining countries but is largely focused on Syria, which has highlighted the refugee issue in Europe for more than a decade, and Ethiopia. In China, there is the plight of the Uighurs, who are being tortured and ‘re-educated’ to give up their Islamic beliefs and follow the central communist government party line. Xi Jinping, the President of the People’s Republic of China, since 2013, has made belligerent noises aimed at the US and west not to interfere on China’s policy of creeping land take. They have also made noises about taking Taiwan back, which is a potentially very dangerous.
The much-anticipated COP26, to show case the latest thinking from the IPCC and their scientific community was held in Glasgow towards the end of the year in November, and attracted top government representation from most countries in the world and notable figures concerned with the climate issue. It also brought many of the pressure groups who made their voices heard; all told some 40,000 attending in one way or another. CO2 was the focus, the culprit fossil fuels, and human activities leading to the Increase in it. The resolution was tabled that countries should all sign an agreement to target a reduction in use of fossil fuels to reach a position of net zero by mid-century.
At the last-minute China and India demurred and would not sign unless the final resolution document exchanged the word ‘eliminate’ use of fossil fuels to the watered-down word ‘reduce’ use of fossil fuels. India, whose economy very largely depends on coal, said they would not be ready until 2070. China’s industry and domestic needs produces, by a significant amount, the largest quantity of greenhouse gases of any nation. It also invests, however, in renewables. Each made the case that any faster rate of reduction would have a very harmful effect on their respective economies. The COP were dismayed but reluctantly agreed so that the document should be signed as a final memento of the Glasgow meeting.
Since then, the covid virus has taken centre stage once again with a new fast-moving variant, omicron, discovered in S. Africa, and supplanting the previous delta variant as the dominant strain. While the delta variant is still with us, the omicron, is worrying medical scientists more at the astonishing speed of its spread, and its potential to overwhelm a countries health service.
However, a former UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, is saying as others say “no country is safe until all countries are safe’’. He is dismayed, and rightly so, at the slow distribution of vaccines to and among poorer countries and criticizes the efforts made by wealthier nations although these poor countries are faced with badly developed communications networks, mainly roads, which just adds to the problem.
As we near the year end the virus is raising its profile instead of going gradually away. Omicron taking over from Delta, which has been the dominant strain throughout the year. There is concern at the speed at which the variant is spreading, albeit its potency seems to be less. Whatever the first two months ahead would appear to be dominated by the virus. Something like this deadly virus lasts for 3+years. We can but hope that this one can show signs of petering out in 2022. Nowadays we have a population of 8+ billion, much more than we have been before, but fortunately we know much more and are constantly updating the medical science, sometimes daily. There are other issues which are coming up and which will challenge us in the years ahead. But that is another story.
About the author:
Dr J Scott Younger, OBE, is a professional civil engineer; he spent 42 years in the Far East undertaking assignments in 10 countries for WB, ADB, UNDP. He published many papers; he was a columnist for Forbes Indonesia and Globe Asia. He served on British & European Chamber boards and was a Vice Chair of Int’l Business Chamber for 17 years. His expertise is infrastructure and sustainable development and he takes an interest in international affairs. He is an International Chancellor of the President University, Indonesia. He is a member of IFIMES Advisory Board. Lived and worked in Thailand from 1978 to 1983 and visited Burma, Bangladesh and Nepal for projects.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect IFIMES official position.
Ljubljana/Glasgow, 3 January 2022
 IFIMES – International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has Special Consultative status at ECOSOC/UN, New York, since 2018.