Pompeo competing for influence in Central Europe
The U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is touring Central Europe. On 11 February, he visited Budapest followed by Bratislava, he closes his trip in Warsaw leaving the Czech Republic out of the agenda.
According to a senior U.S. administration official, Washington did not pay attention to Central Europe in recent years. Last head of U.S. diplomacy was in Bratislava in 1999 and while Putin visited twice last year, it has been twelve years since the U.S. president visited Budapest.
During the trip, Pompeo focused mostly on security, already in Budapest, he made it clear that the U.S. wants to reengage with the region to counter Russian and Chinese influence.
Zselyke Csaky from Freedom House glossed whether the Central European governments should not game the system and play the U.S., Russia, and China against one another for benefits.
Meanwhile last week, Freedom House downgraded Hungary from ‘Free’ to ‘Partly Free’ in its newest report. It is thus understandable that Pompeo focussed also on human rights and democratic freedoms. Amidst protests from U.S. officials and academics, Hungary forced the Soros-funded Central European University out of the country last December. Pompeo also announced support for independent journalism, which has been under threat both in Hungary and Slovakia.
During the Budapest visit, energy security, NATO cooperation and relations with Ukraine were discussed. Huawei and suspicions about its connections to Chinese intelligence was also an important topic. In Bratislava, the issues did differ a bit. Instead of energy security, Pompeo emphasised military cooperation, especially in connection to the selection of American F-16 fighter jets by the Slovak army.
Interestingly, the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) with Russia was not mentioned once, even though it will affect primarily European NATO members.
Huawei can also be expected to dominate the discussion in Warsaw. Poland took actions against Chinese companies suspected from intelligence connections and arrested a Chinese Huawei employee and a Pole on cyber-business spying allegations. Warsaw also considers banning Huawei from the development of its 5G infrastructure.
China sure seems to be influential enough to motivate and dominate a visit from top U.S. official.
Disputed presidency of Venezuela
The president of Venezuela’s National Assembly Juan Guaidó declared himself the country’s temporary president on 23 January, appealing to the constitution and promising free elections. The May 2018 elections were disputed by the international community and boycotted by the opposition.
Guaidó received recognition from the majority of the Americas, most of the EU member states recognized his presidency as well. The European Council condemned the authorities’ violent actions and called for free elections. However, the EU joint statement to recognize Guaidó as the president was blocked by Italy, three other EU members also did not recognise the self-proclaimed president – Cyprus, Greece, and Slovakia.
Russia, China, and Iran are the big backers of Maduro’s regime. Iran supposedly maintains ties with Hezbollah diaspora present in Venezuela, which helps fund the terrorist group with revenue from drug smuggling. Guaidó would likely try to combat Hezbollah after consolidating power, but getting the loyalty of Venezuela’s military will not be an easy task, hence the strong ties with Russian military and support for Maduro among the higher ranking officers. Russia also has political and oil business connections with Venezuela. Rosneft, Russia’s national oil company, has stakes in Venezuela’s oil industry.
China’s stance is not clear, in the last decades, it was providing loans to Venezuela, hoping for stability and protecting its economic interests. Openly supporting Maduro, who brought the country into crisis, could hurt China’s image as a global leader of the South-South development cooperation. China now adopts a non-interference policy and probably will try to maintain pragmatic relationships.
Nicolás Maduro has so far been barring the international humanitarian aid from entering Venezuela on the Colombia borders. Guaidó acknowledges the need for the aid and he has set up 23 February as the day when the aid arrives, ordering the army to protect the supplies. This may eventually show where the loyalty of the armed forces is.
#NATO: Peace deal close in Afghanistan?
Washington might be close to the final peace agreement with Afghanistan which could lead to the end of the longest war in U.S. history, enabled by Trump´s willingness to withdraw U.S. military forces from the country.
Series of peace talks are underway between U.S. diplomats and representatives of fundamentalist Muslim movement Taliban, excluding the Afghan government. On 28 January Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad said that officials have agreed on the basic framework which could lead to a final peace agreement. Negotiators of Afghan government was also in the vicinity but the Taliban refuses to negotiate with them.
This framework consists of a guarantee that militants would prevent terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda from using Afghan territory. This could lead to a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in return for the Taliban´s lasting cease-fire and entering talks with the Afghan government. Yet Khalizad pointed out that this framework is just a primary draft, any potential agreement has to be flashed out into details and there is no timetable for withdrawal so far.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg finds negotiations encouraging but considers discussions about the troops’ withdrawal premature. At first, the stability of the whole country needs to be ensured since Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries with a weak government. Respect for fundamental human rights could be threatened by the Taliban.
The second round of talks is planned on 28 February in Qatar. For this purpose, the Taliban created a 14-member negotiation team which includes five former Guantanamo Bay inmates and one high-profile militant prisoner.
40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution
On 11 February, Iran is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revolution that toppled the Monarchy.
Hundred thousands of Iranians have taken the streets all around the Islamic Republic to celebrate the anniversary and the defeat of the U.S.-backed Islamic shah. Iranian State TV showed large crowds carrying Iranian flags while chanting “Death to Israel, Death to America, and Death to the al-Saud” trademark chants of the revolution.
In the past few days, Iranian activists in Europe protested against this anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, calling for the “death” of the Iranian Islamic system.
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani claimed in his speech that the revolution in 1979 saved the country from “tyranny, colonization, and dependence” adding that the country will continue to pursue its missile programme to defend the country from external threats.
Although the Islamic Republic complies with the 2015 nuclear deal, it is facing heavy sanctions from the Trump administration. White House officials are persuading allies around the world from maintaining ties with Iran.
Iranian media have also reported that on the occasion of the anniversary, Iran will pardon around 50,000 prisoners.
Image: Iranian Revolution Anniversary | Wikimedia Commons / Mohammad Akhlaghi (CC BY 4.0)
STRATPOL Memos is a project which on a bi-weekly basis provides a short overview of the most important selected moments of Euro-Atlantic security and related areas. Our goal is to provide brief and informative comments with short analysis putting news into a broader context.
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Authors: Jan Slánský, Daniel Kikič, Matyas Bajer and Jennifer Bergerova
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