Catalan Independence

Catalonia declares itself a sovereign state

The past and future of Spain’s north-eastern separatism

January 17th 2016 | Barcelona | Martin Rogard

Photograph by AFP

In recent months, the possibility of an independent Catalan Republic has been rapidly materialising.

The election of a separatist coalition by a slim 51.7% majority on September 27th was shortly followed by the passing of a resolution on October 27th, by the regional parliament, which declared “Un Estat Català Independent”, essentially declaring Catalonia a sovereign state. Growing political salience for independence has pushed political parties to form a majority coalition in the regional parliament called Junts pel Sí, or ‘Together for Yes’, which now claims it has the electoral mandate for secession.

However, although separatists won a majority of seats, they did not receive a majority of the popular vote. Due to the way constituencies are divided, just under half of the electorate actually voted for the pro-independence coalition.


Spanish reaction

In light of these developments, Spanish president Mariano Rajoy maintains that “Catalonia is not going anywhere, nothing is going to break”.

In fact, the independence resolution was immediately followed by an extraordinary meeting of the Spanish Council of Ministers, which approved an appeal to the Constitutional Court for the nullification of Catalonia’s parliamentary ruling.

In its report, the advisory body suggested that “there is sufficient legal basis” to challenge the claim before the Constitutional Court since it “disregards the core of the Spanish Constitution by declaring disobedience to the sovereign Spanish state”. Whilst such quarrel between regional Catalan and federal institutions has not been infrequent in the past, the pressure for independence has been rapidly escalating in the midst of national elections.

Diagram by The Economist

This rising tension is difficult to ignore when walking the eclectic streets of Barcelona. A couple of days ago, a middle-aged man who was standing with a separatist flag in front of the Town hall told me that an independent Catalonia had been the dreams of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, but that it would now be him, his children and grandchildren who would finally see it happen.

In his mind, the current “oppressive” and “corrupt” Spanish Monarchy is fighting the same losing battle as the Spanish Empire had with its former colonies. “We, Catalans, are no different than Columbians or Cubans” alliterated the interviewee


Historical roots

When did this zeal for separatism actually begin? And why?

Well, the Catalan separatist movement can be traced back to the creation of the Estat Català revolutionary movement in 1922. Historically, Catalonia has always been a notorious critic of unitary and monarchical power, advocating for greater regional autonomy and a Republican nation-state.

When a Second Spanish Republic was attempted in 1931, the independence movement died down with the creation of the self-administrative ‘Generalitat de Cataluña’, still under Spanish authority, but enjoying unprecedented levels of self-rule. In fact, when the Civil War erupted, following Franco’s coup in July 1936, Catalonia was actually one of the strongholds in defense of the Spanish state.

As described by George Orwell, who fought in Barcelona, the ‘Generalitat’ in 1937 was a place of “no boss-class, no menial class, no beggars, no prostitutes, no lawyers and no priests”.

Photograph by AFP

Today, Catalonia remains disconnected with some of the most traditional Spanish values in its commitment to progressive politics. Such cultural differences are mirrored in their use of the ‘Catalan’ as the official regional language, instead of Spain’s ‘Castellano’.

Having won the conflict, Franco immediately reinforced national unity, thus curtailing the region’s autonomy. Under the dictatorship, separatist movements were silenced, but Catalonia remained tacitly critical.

In 1975, after Franco’s death, the proclamation of a constitutional monarchy rather than a republic sparked a revival of the independence movement, which continues to this day.


Economic considerations

Recently, ‘Junts Pel Si ’ has been arguing for independence so that Catalonia is no longer required to provide funding for other regions as part of the fiscal redistributive policies imposed by the Spanish government.

In keeping all tax revenues to itself, the Generalitat would enjoy a larger budget for infrastructure, education, and healthcare, estimated between 5% and 9% of GDP. As such, the past seven years of fiscal austerity have intensified the population’s eagerness to secede, demanding a different recipe for economic growth.

On the other hand, being a part of Spain allows it to export local products such as its ‘Cava’, a form of sparkling wine, anywhere in Spain and in the EU. Catalonia greatly benefits from Spain’s membership to the European Union, which offers low export costs, consistent tourism, and infrastructure funding to the region.

Photograph by David Ramos

As a result, the economic argument for independence is entirely dependent on Catalonia’s ability to negotiate favourable relations with the Spanish state and the EU on a bilateral basis if it becomes a sovereign state.

Such issues are reminiscent of similar conflicts in Scotland, which faced many of the same debates over the last few years. Indeed, while EU accession laws may grant temporary membership to a seceding territory, any new member must be unanimously vetted by all member states, including Spain, which puts separatists in an awkward bargaining position.


Corruption and democracy

Beside the long-term explanations for Catalan independence, it appears that the recent escalation in separatism has been catalysed by an ongoing democratic crisis in Spain, and Europe in a wider context.

Indeed, for the past ten years, the Spanish political landscape has been plagued with corruption scandals of illicit party funding, such as the infamous ‘Bárcenas affair’, tax evasion scandals, and abuses of executive legal immunity provisions. The Monarchy has also been engulfed by scandals as Spain’s former King Juan Carlos I engaged in elephant hunting in Botswana, as well as the ‘Urdangarín affair’, which found him accused of embezzling large sums of public money.

If the general lack of transparency, rule of law and accountability of public officials has resulted in great dissatisfaction for the general electorate, this has been exacerbated even further for Catalans.

Photograph by Paul Hanna

This democratic crisis can be statistically illustrated by a Transparency International report, which found that 74% Spaniards felt that their government’s efforts to fight corruption are ineffective. An even higher percentage of people felt that from 2007-2010, the level of corruption in the country had actually increased.

According to the independent NGO, the most corrupt institution in Spain are the political parties. The mistrust of established political parties has created an electoral vacuum in Spain, which rapidly gave rise to newer parties such as the socialist and anti-austerity Podemos, and the mostly neo-liberal Ciudadanos.

Both parties call for profound political reform, and stand to the respective political left and right of the two largest parties, PSOE and PP.


Un Estat Catala independent?

The rise of new parties, coupled with general mistrust of institutions in Spain, have produced largely fragmented results in the national elections held in December 2015, crippling the ability of any party to form a coalition government.

In fact, many in Spain now believe there will a re-run of the elections, and a large portion of the electorate seems to be calling for political change.

In Catalonia, this surely means the independence movement will continue pushing forward until serious political reform is achieved.

US Election 2016

Donald Trump leads Republican polls with 28% 

What ever happened to the GOP?

November 15th 2015 | London | Juan Schinas Alvargonzalez

Photograph by Mark J. Terrill

Anyone following the US Presidential Elections 2016 has no doubt heard the name: Donald Trump.

To the surprise of many, the real-estate mogul, TV personality, and professional controversy artist entered the Republican race in June. The media, and especially comedians across the US and the world, were all excited for what was to come.

However, as time flew by and summer continued, jokes became comments, and comments became policy. Trump’s rallies started increasing in size, his interviews became more frequent, and his endorsements started piling up. Now, he is leading the polls, with 28% percent of Republican primary voters supporting his candidacy.

Although there may be no need to worry about his national electability, the situation is somewhat concerning. The fact that a candidate who claims he will build a wall between Mexico and the US is leading the polls, followed closely by Dr. Carson who described Obamacare as “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery”, says something about today’s Republican Party. Really, what ever happened to the GOP?


The Republican Party

The answer is two-fold. The current situation the party finds itself in is a direct result of its response to Obama’s nomination and policy agenda.

The President’s healthcare bill, his stimulus package, and his general liberal stances and charisma, have cast an unbearable burden over the relationship between his administration and the GOP.

As Mitch McConnell, Republican majority leader of the Senate said: after Obama’s nomination, “the GOP’s top political priority should be to deny Mr Obama a second term”.

That statement best summarises the party’s stance today. Rather than focusing on a genuine conservative agenda, the Republicans have adopted an anti-Obama agenda, causing a political gridlock that has crippled Congress throughout the Obama years.

Photograph by WFP USA

This unwillingness to compromise and cooperate with the President culminated in the United States federal government shutdown of 2013.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives had tried to delay and defund Obamacare by strong-arming the Democratic-led Senate and Obama administration on the federal budget. With neither side backing down, the government was unable to agree on a budget in time and was forced to shut down for 16 days.

The GOP was, in a way, pressured to follow this strategy by the Tea Party movement. Having emerged in the aftermath of Obama’s plan to give financial aid to bankrupt homeowners (a sin in Republican ideology), the Tea Party movement quickly spread and became a loud minority within the Republican Party.

Its followers divided the GOP by pushing mainstream politicians (usually dubbed “the establishment”) and members of congress further to the right, or rather, more anti-Obama, by threatening to challenge their seats in congress (which 40 congressmen lost in 2010).


Trump and Carson

It is in this context that Trump appeared. By calling politicians “losers” and “all talk but no action”, he touched the minds of many disillusioned citizens, especially Republicans who saw their party as incompetent.

The Republican Party had spent the good part of these last 8 years picturing Obama as a dangerous president whose policies would ruin the entire country.  Their depiction of an evil Obama administration made Republican voters see their party as incapable of standing up to fight this “danger”, especially when Obama continued pushing his policy agenda despite the gridlock in Congress.

Trump and Carson, seen as “outsiders” of the political spectrum, carry a simple, yet powerful message: “I will get the job done”. Their campaigns have proven to be entertaining, and it seems unlikely they will receive the nomination, but their success says a lot about today’s Republican Party.

As Bill Maher said when addressing Republican commentators, “this is the Frankenstein monster that was created with the Tea Party, this is your worst nightmare”.

Diagram by Fox News

This diversion, however, follows a long-term trend within the party and its policies. Indeed, the GOP has greatly diverted from what it was, or what it could have been, in the last decades. Many commentators, including conservatives in the US, have argued that legendary Republican figures like Ronald Reagan or Dwight Eisenhower would have no place in today’s GOP.

The Republican Party’s most prominent politicians have lost touch with the party’s supposed core values, and in doing so, they have been losing many voters.


Climate change

Most Republican congressmen are climate change deniers, consistently doubting the proven facts and unanimous scientific consensus that climate change is happening and is a man-made phenomenon.

Last February, Sen. James Inhofe even threw a snowball in Senate to prove that since there is still snow, the planet is clearly not becoming warmer. This issue is one where the Republican Party diverted, and made a huge mistake by doing so.

Photograph by Fox News

It was President Nixon, a Republican, who established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the hope of enforcing stronger environmental protection laws. That same agency is now frequently attacked by the GOP.

Had the Republican Party stuck to the message that we must take care of our environment and react when it is in danger, instead of spreading misinformation, they would have more credible amongst voters today.


Drug policy

The Republican Party, at its core, believes in “small government”: the idea that the federal government has no business intervening in your private life.

This libertarian concept has many positive aspects, and is even used by some advocates of marijuana legalisation. Yet, the GOP consistently criticises and attacks this stance, claiming that marijuana is as dangerous to society as any other illegal drug.

Republicans have enacted and supported harsh laws against its use, putting thousands of people behind bars. In fact, 55% of federal and 21% of state prisoners found guilty of drug offences are incarcerated due to marijuana, and some are even sentenced to life in prison.

Diagram by Kegler Brown

This, along with other drug policies, have increased the amount of prisoners in the US to a point where it is now the largest prison population in the world and second highest per capita.

Some republicans like Rand Paul have rightly pointed out the hypocrisy behind the Republican Party’s support for such policies regarding drugs, since they have greatly expanded the intervention and cost of federal government.

The average cost of incarceration for federal inmates in 2014 was $30,619 – money that could be much better spent elsewhere.


Separation of church and state

The GOP has always been the conservative party which believes in traditional values. However, it has also been the constitutional party.

Republican politicians have argued that the Constitution should be followed as narrowly as possible, and that by following the Constitution the country would avoid dangerous and harmful policies.

Yet, the Party has diverted from this clear and (somewhat) reasonable stance, by consistently ignoring the First Amendment of the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”.

Photograph by Bartu Kaleagasi

This amendment, established in the 18th century, clearly states that the US government is never allowed to identify with one religion.

Despite this fact, The Republican Party has time and time again proclaimed that the US is a Christian country, and that government must abide by traditional Christian values.

They have argued against the right of a woman to choose to have an abortion, criticised the idea that a Muslim could be president, and consistently cited the bible and their Christian values as an argument against marriage equality.


Mass surveillance

Another deviation relates again to the idea of “small government”.

Instead of sticking to the message that the American people are better off if the government does not interfere in their lives, the GOP has supported the NSA in the national debate regarding their mass surveillance program.

As Rand Paul said, “Republicans don’t like big government until they like big government”.

Photograph by Dado Ruvic

According to most Republicans, it is not right for the government to expand in order to provide entitlements to the American people, yet it is right to expand in order to provide greater powers to the NSA and other intelligence agencies, allowing them to spy even on their own citizens without needing approval from a judicial entity.


Republican nomination

In any democracy, in order for the national debate to progress, all sides must indulge in rational discussions, arguments, and policies. It is not enough for Democrats to laugh at a possible Trump nomination or look at current Republican policies and feel relief.

If the country is to go forward, a real debate must happen during these elections. This is unlikely to happen when one of the largest parties cares more about appealing to a loud minority within its voters than about representing its core values. Doing so simply alienates the majority of Americans and reduces the potential for national debate.

As to us Europeans, we are left watching and enjoying the race. However, we should not get too comfortable either, since we all know what happened the last time America elected a questionable President.

Singapore Election Results

Singapore’s ruling party wins by landslide 

PAP: 83 seats (70%) – WP: 6 seats (12.5%)

September 12th 2015 | Singapore

Photograph by SPH

In our previous article, we analysed the changes, divisiveness and prospects of the Singapore General Election (GE). Now, we take a look at the scorecard.


Strong mandate for the PAP

Today, the nation has spoken, bringing about a massive electoral swing in favour of the ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP). Despite the massive crowds at opposition rallies, Singapore’s silent majority continues to trust and support the PAP.

The PAP won 83 out of 89 seats, just six seats shy from being the only elected party in Parliament.

The Workers’ Party (WP) took the remaining six seats and will be the only elected opposition party in the upcoming Parliament. Three of the best performing candidates among those defeated may also serve as non-constituency Members of Parliament.

Diagram by The Straits Times

Mr Lee Hsien Loong, leader of the PAP and Prime Minister of Singapore, won 78.6% of the votes in his Group Representation Constituency (GRC), Ang Mo Kio. This was the second-highest percentage of votes won in the election. Notably, the PAP team in Tanjong Pagar GRC, which was previously helmed by the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), also won a landslide victory over Singaporeans First, garnering 77.7% of the votes.

These large victories suggest that Singaporeans remain confident in a post-LKY PAP and firmly support younger PAP leaders like Mr Chan Chun Sing and Mr Tan Chuan-Jin.


The Opposition: injured but alive?

On the other side, the WP lost its seat in the Punggol East Single Member Constituency (SMC) and narrowly retained its coveted Aljunied GRC (by a margin of 2%). Even in Hougang SMC, a long-time WP stronghold, votes for the WP dropped from 62.1% to 57.7%. All in all, the WP faced a big setback to its ambition to expand its political clout to constituencies in the East.

Unsurprisingly, many supporters of the WP were visibly disappointed and shocked. WP candidates, however, remained confident that more constituencies “will be Blue one day” (blue being WP’s political colour).

Mr Chen Show Mao, MP for the Aljunied GRC, stated “we will reflect, introspect and better ourselves.” Another WP member, Mr Gerald Giam, said “we have done our best, and we will continue… to fight for Singapore.”

Photograph by Alphonsus Chern

None of the other political parties, including the Singapore People’s Party (SPP) and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), came close to defeating the incumbent. The SPP’s showing in Potong Pasir SMC (33.6% of the votes) was the highest among the rest of the Opposition, but it was still a definitive defeat in spite of the popularity of veteran opposition leader, Mr Chiam See Tong, and his wife, Ms Lina Chiam.

Surprisingly, even though Dr Chee Soon Juan of the SDP managed to reconnect with the public and gained a large number of followers on social media in his short campaigning period, his team only won 33.4% of the votes. Undoubtedly, the strength of the Opposition has greatly wavered in this election.

Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam, leader of the Reform Party, was particularly displeased with the national swing against the Opposition. According to Mr Jeyaretnam, “all this is a mandate for authoritarianism and brainwashing”. A more measured Dr Chee warned that the current political landscape is “undemocratic”.


Status Quo?

Similar to GE 2011, in GE 2015, PAP won all but six seats. But this is not status quo per se: PAP’s votes have increased significantly across the board, winning more than 70% of the votes in many constituencies. The last time Singapore saw such a high level of support for the PAP was actually in 2001.

Make no mistake about it: Singapore GE 2015 was hard fought. And it was won spectacularly.

With such a strong mandate, PAP’s representatives will naturally be more confident about future policymaking and implementation. Thus far, in almost every victory speech, PAP politicians have been using a markedly different tone, one that speaks more of humility than arrogance.

The PAP has promised policy adjustments and improvements, and candidates have been working hard to communicate with the people and understand the ground. Only time will tell whether or not Singaporeans have made the right choice.

The full results can be found here.

Singapore Election 2015

The most contested election

A look at the prospects of Singapore’s GE 2015

September 9th 2015 | Singapore

Photographs by Financial Review, Reuters, and The Straits Times

Update: Our look at the election results can be found here.

In the upcoming Singapore General Election (GE), for the first time ever, all 89 parliamentary seats will be contested.

On 11 September 2015, every eligible Singaporean will be able to vote at a polling station, and most will be deciding between the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and alternatives like the Workers’ Party (WP). For the past 50 years, the PAP maintained a stronghold in Parliament, steadily winning the vast majority of seats in every GE until 2011.

The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who led the PAP until the 1990s, was a charismatic and strong-willed leader who believed that ruling leaders “must have the iron” in them. His foresight in economic matters and foreign affairs has been hailed as the key reason for Singapore’s rapid growth from third world to first. With Mr Lee’s passing earlier this year, GE 2015 will officially usher in a new political era and be a major testing ground for current Prime Minister and PAP leader, Mr Lee Hsien Loong.


Recent changes in the political landscape

In GE 2011, Singapore’s most recent “watershed election”, the dominant opposition party, the Workers’ Party (WP), won 7 seats including 1 group constituency, creating an unprecedented crack in the PAP’s strong walls.

GE 2011 also saw the retirement of Mr George Yeo, former Minister for Foreign Affairs and PAP candidate, from the local political scene. It was a difficult decision for Singaporean voters in the Aljunied constituency, not unlike the decisions that may be made in this GE’s “hot” constituencies, including the East Coast and MacPherson constituencies. Was choosing WP the right move? With rigorous debate over the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council saga dominating the early stages of GE 2015, the jury is still out.

Although the political scene in Singapore is relatively young, it is evolving. In GE 2015, there have already been some obvious changes. Opposition parties, including smaller ones like the Singapore People’s Party and Democratic Progressive Party, are now fielding more educated candidates with distinguished professional backgrounds than ever before, touting them as competent spokespersons for the people.

Diagram by Channel NewsAsia

Certain opposition candidates, such as SDP’s Dr Chee Soon Juan, have also been emphasising that their parties offer many viable alternative policies to those currently in place by the PAP. A more regular use of statistics and studies to back up such policies has given the impression that they are well researched, albeit not tried and tested in Singapore yet.

Compared to previous elections, the number of credible alternative media websites has increased substantially, allowing the electorate to have a more informed understanding of all political parties and candidates.


Divisiveness and debate 

At the end of the day, the PAP’s narrative is simple. The PAP is a cruise ship: vote for the PAP, and the party’s competent and incorruptible leaders will continue to make Singapore an exceptional nation. Vote for the Opposition, and you will get “a mouse in the House”.

In response, WP’s leader, Mr Low Thia Khiang, agreed that the PAP is a cruise ship, but “[its] name is Titanic” (alluding to its fallibility). In this regard, the PAP has repeatedly emphasised in its manifesto and rallies that it has a strong track record and has delivered on its promises to the people.

Photograph by Wee Teck Hian

Opposition candidates have also said that it is ludicrous to expect the PAP to check itself (“students cannot mark their own scripts”), and that more can be done to help Singaporeans who have fallen through the cracks. While Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the Deputy Prime Minister and a PAP candidate, called the Opposition’s policies “false promises” that require a high amount of spending which will compromise the country’s reserves, opposition parties like Singaporeans First and the SDP have firmly defended their positions.

Regardless of who is correct (or wrong), this divisiveness in politics and policies has generated great interest in opposition rallies, and accordingly, the crowds have been large.


What lies ahead?

In all likelihood, the PAP will continue to form the next government. The election is more a matter of how many opposition members and parties, if any, Singapore will see in its new Parliament. Will the people continue to trust and support the PAP, or will the desire for cross-party checks and concerns over pensions, cost of living, and immigration policies prevail?

GE 2015 will be hard fought. In three days, Singaporeans will either witness yet another renewal of the PAP’s legacy, or a continuing shift in the tides of political control. However, to many, these are empty words; perhaps the bread-and-butter issues are the only real concerns.

Ultimately, to vote for the Opposition is to take on a certain risk – it is to depart from the familiar and enter new territory. Whether this is a risk worth taking remains squarely up to the judgement of Singapore’s increasingly vocal and astute electorate.

Greece Crisis

The Greek Story in context

A look at the past and future of the EU debt crisis

August 9th 2015 | London | Juan Schinas Alvargonzalez

Photograph by Milos Bicanski

In the past few months, Greece has been the centre of attention of world media. As the possibility of a Grexit came closer than ever, the financial stability of the Eurozone, and arguably the world, was at play.

On the 8th of July, Guy Verhofstadt gave a passionate speech in the European Parliament, directly addressing Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at the height of troubled negotiations between Greece and its creditors. His speech, which went viral on all forms of social media, ended with the phrase “do it now!”.

Mr Verhofstadt’s comment pinpoints the current scene of the “Greek Story” that we’ve been witnessing. A retrospective look on this story is necessary not only to understand the present situation, but also to understand what needs to be done in the near future.


Historical context

In the 1940s, Greece suffered a civil war which ended with the surrender of the communist party.

In its aftermath, leftists in Greece were both marginalised and blamed for the war. Years later, this rejection of the leftist movement culminated in the 1967 coup d’état, led by fascist generals at the time. Their military “junta” brought about oppression, forced exiles, persecutions, and torture of communist academics, activists and cultural figures.

After the fall of “The Colonels” in 1974, there was a progressive liberalisation of the leftist movement in Greece (along with the rest of Europe) which led to the successful election of the nation’s first ever social democratic party, PASOK, in 1981.

What came next has been attributed as the root of Greece’s modern woes.

In order to gain the vote and sympathy of the divided Greek society, the PASOK government engaged in systemic clientelism and nepotism. The public sector expanded immensely, jobs became favours, and corruption became a regular part of Greek politics and civil society.

On the other hand, the Greek people developed a love-hate relationship with the government which still persists today. Most people distrusted the government and evaded taxes in some form, whilst also simultaneously relying on it for a number of services ranging from jobs to personal favours like permits and licences.

Photograph via Media Commons

One cannot solemnly blame PASOK for this, as Greece was a relatively new country with dysfunctional institutions. Yet, as the years went by, clientelism continued and became ingrained in the minds of the average Greek citizen and politician.

In 1990, Nea Dimokratia (ND), the centre-right party, came to power in government. However, instead of changing and fixing Greece’s political culture, ND feared it would alienate voters if it discontinued the “way of government” that had prevailed during the 80’s.

Thus, Greek clientelism continued untouched, passing from ND to PASOK and arguably reaching its climax in 2004 when Greece hosted the Summer Olympics. The games not only cost billions in public money, but were also the subject of bribery relating to building contracts. In Greece, many still regard it as “the games we couldn’t pay for”.


The Great Recession 

In 2009, ND’s rule came to an end. In the wake of the Great Recession, the european financial market was hit by high government structural deficits and accelerating debt levels.

The countries most affected by the recession saw a strong rise in interest rates for government bonds as a result of investor concerns about the future sustainability of their debt. Investors started to doubt Greece’s ability to repay its accumulated debt, not only because of its ever increasing size, but also due to revelations that past data on debt levels and deficits was manipulated by the Greek government.

The outcome was a deep crisis of confidence in Greece’s economy, shown by an increase of bond yield spreads and in the cost of risk insurance on credit default swaps compared to other Eurozone countries. This not only meant that the “cheap” money flowing into Greece due to its membership in the Euro (feeding its clientelistic system) could not continue, but that the government could not even borrow any more at market levels due to the recession.

Diagram by The Economist

Greece needed urgent money to pay its debt, as well as its pensions and salaries. As a result, the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (together known as the Troika) gave Greece around €200 billion between two bailouts in 2010 and 2012.

In exchange, the Troika demanded austerity measures from the government which would lower its debt and reduce the size of its public sector. It also put forth the need for structural reforms in ministries and in the country’s tax collection system.

Whilst some were necessary, many of these measures were rightly criticised as harsh, and sometimes even counter-productive. In fact, the image of the Troika’s tainted black cars and suited men arriving in Athens to “dictate terms” gave them the lovely nickname of “Men in Black”.


Troika’s austerity measures 

In theory, the reforms would be a way of showing the Troika that Greece could indeed put its finances back in track and ditch the clientelist system that had reigned for decades. All in exchange for the bailout money.

However, PASOK and ND, the parties who oversaw the first and second bail-out reforms in 2010 and 2012, both failed to do their job.

From the list of Troika’s demands, Greek politicians chose the “easiest” and ergo most superficial ones to implement. They raised taxes, cut salaries, and reduced public sector jobs. The essential reforms that actually needed to be done, the ones that required time, energy and great political cost, were largely postponed.

For example, the fund that was designated to privatise many of Greece’s undervalued assets had as its goal to raise €50 billion euros. In reality, it raised little more than €2 billion.

Photograph by European Parliament

Indeed, privatisation in a country where the government is as big and dysfunctional as Greece’s can make those who benefit from the state angry, which in turn results in MPs losing their jobs. That is why it was easier to just sign in laws that reduced government expenses rather than making essential and difficult reforms.

In economic terms, this did little more than prolong Greece’s recession and had a very small positive effect on the country’s debt crisis.


The rise and fall of SYRIZA

So, after five years of austerity that hadn’t paid off, Greeks were becoming increasingly frustrated.

In January of 2015, the people elected SYRIZA, a party that vowed to repeal austerity laws, rehire public workers, halt privatisation of public assets, reach an agreement with the Troika that wouldn’t require austerity, “force” them to write down the debt, and eliminate the corrupt oligarchical business elites that dominate the Greek economy.

SYRIZA, treating the Greek people much like a naive child, made such a vast range of impossible-to-complete promises. Journalists and politicians constantly questioned the financial and political feasibility of such actions, but never got an answer. Nonetheless, their rhetoric played well with a society that had suffered five years of crippling austerity and recession.

Photograph via New York Times

After six months, the verdict is quite clear: SYRIZA negotiators botched the negotiations with their counterparts and brought Greece on the verge of a Grexit.

The government is now negotiating for a third bailout, having had to first implement capital controls and increasingly harsh measures. More importantly, the country is finally seeing some positive structural reforms, those that ND and PASOK had failed to implement for so many years.

Yet, the national debt has not been written down, SYRIZA has not reduced, but perhaps even increased the clientelistic methods used in the past, it has failed to eliminate the corrupt oligarchical business elites of the economy, and it and has eliminated some of the previous positive reforms made by ND and PASOK during the 2010 and 2012 bailouts.


The Third Bailout

The newest agreement between Greece and Troika is set to unfreeze €86 billion over three years.

The reforms in question consist of a mix of taxation, labour market, and banking sector reforms, alongside privatisation of state-owned assets (details can be found here). More industries will be subject to the top VAT rate of 23%, Greek islands will no longer have the lowest VAT rate of 6%, and corporate tax will also increase up to 28%.

Moreover, the retirement age will increase to 67 by 2022, whilst state-funded aid to the poorest pensioners will be eliminated by 2019. The reforms also aim to liberalise the labour market and, among other things, increase shopping hours and adopt “rigorous reviews and modernisation of collective bargaining, industrial action and, in line with the relevant EU directive and best practice, collective dismissals”.

Greece also has to reinforce banking governance by “eliminating any possibility for political interference, especially in appointment processes”. Indeed, the deal signals for the creation of a concrete programme for “de-politicising the Greek administration”.

Photograph via Reuters

Lastly, the most controversial aspect of the deal was that “valuable Greek assets will be transferred to an independent fund that will monetise the assets through privatisations and other means”.

The fund, with a value of €50 billion, will be headquartered in Greece and managed by Greek authorities under the strict supervision of the Troika. Of its revenue, 50% will go to debt repayments, 25% to investments and the remaining 25% to the recapitalisation of greek banks following their massive loss of capital that prompted capital controls.

The deal, however, does not mention a reduction for Greece’s unsustainable debt (a detail that makes the IMF wary). With such tough reforms ahead, Greece is heading for its third and hopefully last bailout for years to come.


The next chapter

So what happens now?

With the third bailout soon on its way, difficult times are ahead for Greece. There are two main issues now at play.

First, the anti-austerity platform will continue under other politicians in Greece, having been “given away” by SYRIZA. Greek society will thus continue to be divided between those who see austerity as the necessary evil to fight Greece’s woes and those who see it as an unnecessary punishment by Greece’s creditors.

Politicians will emerge, possibly old members of SYRIZA disillusioned with its trajectory, who will carry the anti-austerity movement in Greece and exploit the understandable anger and frustration of the Greek people.

Photograph by European Parliament

Second, Greece will have to live through a period of political turmoil until we can find a party to properly carry on the reforms of the third bailout. It is quite clear that SYRIZA does not believe in the reforms it signed up for; they will not be the ones to implement them.

Yet, despite the surrounding uncertainty, Greece has made one thing clear during these last 6 months: the will of the Greek people is to stay in the Euro and to find a solution to Greece’s financial problems by restructuring what is fundamentally wrong with the country.

Almost all Greeks agree that something has to change, yet they also agree that what happened these past five years is not the real answer. True reforms need to take place, and there is now, more than ever, both the political and social will to do them.

The question is, who is going to carry them out? The two parties who created the problems in the first place, or the party who promised its way into power just to repeat the same mistakes?

One thing is clear, as Mr. Verhofstadt said, someone needs to “do it now!”.

US Election 2016

Bernie Sanders pulls Clinton towards progressive politics

The Presidential candidate from Vermont who represents the people

June 23rd 2015 | Pittsburgh | Will Tomer

Photograph by Getty Images

When President Barack Obama first made his ascension to the highest office in the United States, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of American adults to see what word was most commonly associated with the president. The second most reported word was a ‘bad’ one: socialist.

To Americans, “socialist” is an unbelievably dirty word, a slur of sorts that can greatly ruin a potential political candidate’s chances of success. It is for this reason that the current popularity of Bernie Sanders, senator from Vermont and candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, is all the more surprising.


Progressive politics

Unlike President Obama, who was only called a socialist by his detractors, Senator Sanders actually describes himself with that label. He has championed the Scandinavian system of governance for decades, calling for higher tax rates, a single-payer healthcare system, free college education, increased wages, equal pay for women, stronger unions, campaign finance reform, and the expansion of social services among a litany of other leftist policies.

Friday night, appearing on Bill Maher’s show Real Time, Bernie Sanders said “It’s a very radical idea: we’re going to tell the truth. The truth is that, for forty years, the middle class of this country has been disappearing. And there has been a huge transfer of billions of dollars of working families to the top one-tenth of one percent. And what the people of this country are saying is: enough is enough, our government, our country, belongs to all of us, not just a few billionaires.”

His progressive style of politics recently became a tremendous selling point for him, allowing him to gain the support of millions of Americans between the ages of 18 and 30. Recently, Public Policy Polling (PPP) found that Mr. Sanders is currently supported by 22% of Democrats within that age bracket, beaten only by the heavily favoured Hillary Clinton.

Photograph by Oliver Parini

This may ultimately be his greatest hurdle, however, as the Democratic Party’s constituency extends far beyond the mostly white and affluent young adults who support Sanders. Clinton, who recently began to liberalise her social stances and highlight the plight of minorities within the party, is already seeing the fruits of such decisions as she currently polls at around 63% overall support rate according to PPP. Sanders, on the other hand, comes in second at a distant 13% overall.

The odds of Senator Sanders overcoming Clinton’s staggering popularity are slim, to say the least. Yet, given the nature of primaries, it is likely that his progressive views will have a wider and more important effect on US politics than his actual candidacy.

Most candidates for the Democratic nomination will be trying to play catch-up with Mr. Sanders, as his take on political issues, ranging from economics to the environment and social concerns, are more progressive than any other mainstream US politician today.


Changing the game 

On Friday, during Real Time, Bill Maher spoke in favour of Sanders for president, stating that he has “Hillary talking like Elizabeth Warren”. Indeed, Bernie Sanders could behoove Clinton to adopt many aspects of his economic philosophy as quickly as possible, as concerns of economic fairness and class mobility become central to the Democratic Party’s success in upcoming elections.

While the full scope of what his campaign will do to the American political sphere is yet to be seen, some of his ideas are already manifesting themselves in these fledgling campaigns. According to the Washington Post, Mrs. Clinton recently informed her top fundraisers that, if elected president, “all of her nominees to the Supreme Court will have to share her belief that the court’s 2010 Citizens United decision must be overturned”.

The case to which she is referring, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, infamously established that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent political expenditures by a corporation. And whilst Clinton’s stance was widely acclaimed by supporters, Senator Sanders had already made the same proclamation several days earlier.

Photograph by Jonathan Ernst

“If elected president, I will have a litmus test in terms of my nominee to be a Supreme Court justice,” Sanders said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on May 10th. “And that nominee will say that we are all going to overturn this disastrous Supreme Court decision on Citizens United, because that decision is undermining American democracy. I do not believe that billionaires should be able to buy politicians.”

This was merely the latest in a continuing line of mimicry issued by Clinton’s campaign. On May 7th, after a federal appeals court ruled that the National Security Agency (NSA)’s collection of bulk call data was illegal and unauthorised under the Patriot Act, candidates sprung into action.

Clinton, who actually voted twice in favour of the Patriot Act during her time in Senate, tweeted that “Congress should move ahead now with the USA Freedom Act — a good step forward in ongoing efforts to protect our security & civil liberties,” before signing off with the letter “H” to indicate that she had authored the message herself.

This tweet, however, came just under six hours after Bernie Sanders had tweeted his own stance on the matter: “in my view, the NSA is out of control and operating in an unconstitutional manner”.


Towards election night 

Senator Sanders’ ability to make his opponents conform to his beliefs will be a tremendous game changer throughout the Democratic primaries. Having the opportunity to have his progressive views espoused on a national scale, by even more high profile and mainstream politicians than himself, could potentially allow socialism to finally drag itself out of the dregs of American political rhetoric.

Although he still has a great deal of ground to make up, Bernie Sanders is becoming more and more of a threat to Clinton’s campaign as the days go by. After a narrow defeat in a straw poll conducted by the Wisconsin Democratic Convention (the importance of which is disputed by some), Senator Sanders has started to etch fear into his opponents. His tremendous turnouts in Iowa and New Hampshire, the states hosting the first two primaries, will likely “cause the Clinton campaign to take Sanders seriously”, according to Democratic strategist Brad Bannon.

It will still be an uphill battle for Bernie Sanders, but regardless of whether he ultimately wins the nomination or not, he is sure to be a substantial progressive force in 2016 and in the future of US politics.

Electromagnetic Propulsion

Could NASA’s EM drive defy the laws of physics?

A look at this exciting Star Trek technology and its skeptics

June 13th 2015 | Montana | Christopher Beddow

Photograph by Paramount Pictures

Rumours about the Electromagnetic Propulsion Drive, or EM Drive, have been echoing throughout the internet for several years.

This April, NASA tested this curious piece of technology at the Johnson Space Center, confirming that it was indeed able to produce propulsion in a vacuum.

Rocket engines as we know them have always produced propulsion by venting exhaust, which emerges at a high pressure as a result of combustion and causes an opposite reaction. In other words, whilst exhaust exits in one direction, the engine is propelled in the other.

This is in line with the principle of conservation of momentum; but the results of the EM Drive experiments suggest there may just be an exception to the rule.


Scientific claims

The EM Drive, in theory, converts energy into thrust without emitting any sort of exhaust — bypassing the need for mass to be expelled in one direction in order to propel the rocket in the other.

Ever since its emergence in 2001, under Roger J. Shawyer of the small UK company known as Satellite Propulsion Research, the science behind this technology has been met with skepticism. Yet, in 2010, parallel developments in this area of were undertaken in China, where Professor Juan Yang reported the potential for electromagnetic propulsion to produce thrust in space without requiring combustion.

In early 2014, Dr. Harold White of NASA picked up on similar research and presented the idea at the Joint Propulsion Conference, explaining how propulsion was produced by magnetic fields in what is called a magnetohydrodynamic drive.

Photograph by Satellite Propulsion Research

Until now, no country had tested this technological phenomenon in a vacuum yet, despite it being the very environment in which it was claimed to function. Finally, this April, NASA tested the EM Drive in a vacuum and was able to produce thrust, confirming some of the claims about its potential.

The recent test also nullified some hypotheses which had suggested that thrust came from some minute form of heat convection — wherein a transfer of fluid or gas accompanies a transmission of heat as seen in the emission of fuel exhaust from modern day rockets.

With no stowaway fluids or gases causing accidental propulsion during the experiment, the science behind the EM drive has once again become a topic of debate. The technology appears to function as described, but remains without a clear explanation.

NASA’s EM drive may just be a piece of technology that truly accomplishes the impossible, however small the scale.


Widespread skepticism

Despite all the excitement surrounding electromagnetic propulsion, the scientific community continues to deny its feasibility.

If the EM drive were to work as described, it would go against two of the most fundamental universal laws of physics: the conservation of energy, which states that you cannot create energy out of nothing, and the conservation of momentum, which states that any movement requires an equal and opposite movement to exist.

“It’s like saying you could get your car moving by sitting inside and pushing on the steering wheel” says Sean Carroll, physicist and cosmologist at the California Institute of Technology.

He adds that “the strongest bias we have is to believe things that we want to think are true”, highlighting the reason behind the countless EM drive rumours found both on the internet and in media.

In May, NASA officials confirmed Carroll’s words of caution, stating that “while conceptual research into novel propulsion methods by a team at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston has created headlines, this is a small effort that has not yet shown any tangible results”.

Photograph by Satellite Propulsion Research

An important part of the uncertainty surrounding the experiments is that its measurements do not seem to be easily repeatable. When the drive creates propulsion, there is a flurry of thermal activity as metals expand and temperature varies, making results unpredictable and insignificant when compared to potential margin of error.

Before this technology is really considered a breakthrough, space agencies not only need to show evidence of repeatable measurements, but also need to demonstrate that it can be done at a much larger scale.


The future of space travel

If it were to be developed successfully, the EM Drive would not be powerful enough to enable travel at the speed of light, nor would it create a wormhole or bend space-time — at least not in any way that is currently proven.

However, the relationship between the EM Drive’s propulsion and quantum mechanics does indeed suggest that this technology could be groundbreaking not only in its use, but also in encouraging a new realm of knowledge for scientific study.

The bottom line is that the EM Drive is a curiosity which inspires both hope and skepticism as the scientific community eyes it with a “too good to be true” attitude, but still plans to continue pursuing the possibility of a new revolution in space travel.

Although many may regard this as an opportunity to begin our inevitable path towards Star Trek, there is still a long way to go.

Arctic Geopolitics

Russia continues hostility as climate change melts ice caps

The chilling climate of arctic geopolitics in a time of global warming

June 3rd 2015 | Montana | Christopher Beddow

Photograph by Davide Monteleone

There are signs of climate change in nearly every aspect of our environment today, including the behaviour of the human civilisation.

Melting ice caps in the last 50 years have had a ripple effect on the world. A few decades ago, the media began highlighting concerns about shrinking polar bear habitats as a result of drastic climate change. Yet, in 2007, the hypothetical sea route known as the Northwest Passage was so devoid of ice that it was opened for shipping for the first time in recorded history, allowing a Norwegian cargo ship to successfully navigate the route in 2013 on a voyage from Vancouver to a port in Finland.

With foresight, the Russian government submitted a request to the United Nations in 2001 for permission to stake claim to a large swath of the Arctic. Even though the motion was rejected, Russia began moving submarines and aircraft through the region in a high profile manner. This activity sparked serious worries among other stakeholders in the Arctic, notably the Nordic countries, Denmark with its Greenland territory, and Canada.


Law and the Arctic Council

The Arctic is a rather difficult region to regulate, but is mostly covered by the UN Convention on Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS) and the Arctic Council. Comprised of representatives from eight member states, the Arctic Council primarily addresses environmental concerns and the socioeconomic well-being of local communities in the region. It is made up of The United States, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland.

In order to be compliant with the UNCLOS 1982, the territorial boundaries of Arctic Council nations must end 12 miles offshore, whilst their economic zones can extend up to 200 miles. The agreement also gives freedom of navigation through the region to all, an issue which is becoming increasingly relevant as melting ice actually opens up new trade routes for ships to sail through.

Photograph by the World Wild Fund

Commercial traffic through the Arctic has been growing significantly in the past decade, which creates the need for additional government presence in the region in order to provide security and safety. It is predicted to quadruple over the next twenty years as raw materials are shipped out in volume, construction materials are shipped in to support development, and melting ice leads to faster transit times.

The Arctic region is rich in natural resources, a trait that drives competition between nations in the same manner that has been seen throughout all of history. While Canada expects a growing output of minerals from its Arctic territories, much of the Arctic’s potential resources — including one third of the planet’s untapped oil and gas reserves — are not clearly owned by any member of the Arctic Council.

The council itself is intended to act as a barrier against any government establishing hegemony over the region, but increased Russian military presence, combined with Russian aggression in neighboring Ukraine and Georgia in past years, has made other Arctic nations cast a more serious eye on their northern coasts.


International relations

Whereas Iceland was seeking to establish better economic relations with Russia up until recently, it was discouraged by the war in Ukraine and Russia’s takeover of Crimea. This February, Russian bombers skirted along the Icelandic coast, further pushing Iceland into the grudging circle of Nordic nations against Russia.

Finland, a country whose older generation still recalls Russian and Soviet incursions during the first half of the 20th Century, is now questioning its security in the wake of recent events. This includes Russian military targeting Finnish research vessels in international waters, as well as repeated violations of Finnish airspace.

Likewise, Sweden is also growing wary of Russian activity, as seen by their efforts in pursuing a suspected Russian submarine that entered Swedish waters in the fall of 2014. Unlike other Nordic countries, neither Finland nor Sweden are members of NATO, but both recognise a need for increased security cooperation with their neighbors.

Norway made a show of strength its own response to Russia. Conducting an exercise called Joint Viking in the far northern Finnmark province, the Norway fielded more than 5,000 troops for the operation, making it the largest Norwegian military exercise since the Cold War. As a result, Russian navy was placed on high alert in the Arctic region, especially in areas bordering Norway and Finland.

Photograph by Reuters

Ironically, Norway and Iceland had both been warming their relationships with Russia in recent years. For Norway, this involved dismissing the notion that Russia is a threat to global security as it had been in the past, as well as a decommissioned Norwegian submarine base being rented to the Russian government.

On the other hand, Iceland had recently signed several agreements for economic and social cooperation, including the establishment of a joint center for collaborative development of geothermal energy. Now, it may be rolling back its willingness to work with Russia as it resumes a role similar to that of the Cold War years — when Iceland was the centre point of the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap (GIUK) that was patrolled to prevent Russian incursion into the North Atlantic.

The physical changes occurring in the Arctic are heralding a parallel transformation of economic, political, and social relationships in the region. This grand shaft, deemed the “respatialisation” of the north, is making the Arctic region less of a periphery and instead more of a functional, critical part of geopolitics. Whilst governments, private industry, and local communities in the north may experience increased prosperity as a result of melting ice caps, they will also require environmental stewardship to mitigate the risk of accidents and damages.

Russian commercial harbors along the country’s 10,000 mile coastline are being modernised, but investment in Russian military is also growing. Meanwhile, Canadian air patrols in the north have increased, and American military presence in Alaska continues to be marked by advanced missile testing ranges and regular deployment of paratroopers in frigid Arctic training grounds.


A cold future?

Despite the economic promise of the Arctic, it truly appears to be a case of geopolitical tension for the time being. The state of affairs is not one where Arctic Council members are collaborating for positive developments in the Arctic, but rather one where Russia has indicated its intentions to seek singular benefit and compete sternly against other Arctic stakeholders.

The gravity of the situation was further sealed last month by the emergence of a new Nordic defence agreement which calls for increased security cooperation against Russia in the far north. As in many other regions, it is now becoming clear that the key threat to peaceful economic cooperation in the Arctic is a solid alliance against Russian aggression.

As the northern landscape continues to morph into something navigable and inhabitable, geopolitics may dive in the opposite direction and leave an increasing amount of anxiety and hostility amid the chilling Arctic waters.

Space Debris

Earth surrounded by millions of satellites and scraps

With more and more space debris, how can we achieve sustainability?

May 19th 2015 | Montana | Christopher Beddow

Photograph by NASA

Sustainability is a fast-growing theme in our society, and one that will be of increasing importance as more and more humans venture into space.

Many headlines have highlighted the alarming accumulation of trash in our oceans, while societies far and wide fail to keep up with the cleaning of litter in cities and along highways. Considering all that we have discarded over the last few decades — plastics, metals, and other solid waste — the emptiness of space may strike one as pristine and untouched. Yet, wherever humanity goes, so waste follows.


A dangerous situation

NASA estimates that there are over 500,000 pieces of debris orbiting the Earth.

The European Space Agency (ESA) claims that this rises into the millions when the smallest pieces are counted, but says that perhaps 29,000 of these are larger than 10 centimeters. Many of the smaller pieces of debris have already been re-entering the atmosphere at a rate of one per day, according to NASA.

Beyond simple debris, there are also over 2,500 satellites in orbit that are no longer being used, but are essentially husks of metal and circuitry with nowhere else to go.

Graphic by the European Space Agency (ESA)

Our planet’s gravitational pull keeps all of this debris strongly in orbit, and to push it further out would be a hefty endeavour.

Whilst the current amount of debris has already caused some issues — such as the International Space Station moving to avoid a deactivated Russian spacecraft, or the collision of two satellites in 2009 — it is worrisome to consider the future risk of this state of affairs. The Kessler syndrome, named for NASA employee Donald Kessler, was conceived as far back as 1978 to describe a dilemma where debris is so ubiquitous that it complicates or even prevents launching missions into space from Earth.

The accumulation of space debris is certainly an unsustainable practice. The NASA Orbital Debris Program Office is an example of our efforts to mitigate and understand the risks associated with increased space debris, but it still remains unclear if there are any real solutions to the problem.


Proposed solutions

There have been promising developments, however, best seen in cooperative ventures between the United States government and several private companies and organisations. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is associated with the Department of Defense, has launched the second phase of what it calls the Phoenix Project — a program that will use robotic spacecrafts to salvage parts from decommissioned satellites. In 2014, DARPA awarded contracts to eight private companies who will collaborate with the project.

Meanwhile, there has been innovative speculation on how to recycle spent fuel capsules, known as external tanks (ETs).

The Space Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group committed to encouraging human presence in space through government and private sector cooperation, has been championing an idea to recycle these capsules into storage spaces and even inhabitable structures. The foundation suggests that each tank is equivalent to an eleven-story building, and collecting several of them presents the opportunity to form a space station that competes with NASA’s space station Alpha as well as the joint American-Russian ISS.

There is even the suggestion of a “wet launch”, where the capsule would be outfitted with basic inhabitable architecture before being filled with fuel, leaving it empty but ready for use once discarded in orbit. Alternatively, these tanks could be melted down for reuse after recovering their leftover hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen reserves — over a metric ton of useful substances.

Graphic by the European Space Agency (ESA)

NASA has indicated that its capsules are free to be reclaimed by any organisation that has the means to collect and secure them. This places what is currently debris into a new category, effectively rebranding them as a commodity. These capsules could become space stations, greenhouses, or even industrial raw material. A hypothetical moon base, also advocated by the Space Frontier Foundation, could rely on these as primary structures, much in the way that shipping containers are employed in austere locales by the US military.

Smaller debris, however, are much less of a commodity. To be effectively collected, they would have to be gathered into a large clump by such potential machines as Switzerland’s CleanSpace One. In large groups, they could be used as a shield against radiation, or be melted down and shaped into something new.


Future outlook

In coming years, practicing sustainability in space will be crucial.

For governments, sustainability could mean lower costs of operation, improved safety of manned missions, and yet a growing need to develop difficult-to-enforce regulations. For private organisations, there may be more need to practice corporate sustainability alongside an attractive opportunity to profit from repurposing much of the debris.

In the long-term, it will remain important that human activity in space serves to benefit the population and environment of the planet, and that through sustainable practice we avoid becoming a danger to ourselves while already braving the many inherent dangers of space travel.

Russia and Crimean Tatars

Russia shuts down opposition in the new Crimea

The hardships of an ethnic minority facing an uncertain future in their homeland

April 15th 2015 | Netherlands | Melih Uzun

Photograph by Max Vetrov

“This blatant attack on freedom of expression, dressed-up as an administrative procedure, is a crude attempt to stifle independent media, gag dissenting voices, and intimidate the Crimean Tatar community.”

Those were the words used by Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia, to state his concern for the wellbeing of Crimean Tatars – and compliance with their rights and liberties – as Russian authorities abruptly shut down their media outlets.

The formal annexation of the Black Sea peninsula, with the signing of a treaty between Crimea and Russia at the Kremlin on March 18th, sparked global controversy in 2014. NATO, as well as numerous prominent world leaders, condemned Russia for their conduct during the conflict that was dubbed the ‘Crimean Crisis’. Besides their disputed unconstitutional referendum, which was held to manifest Crimea’s supposed desire to join the Federation, the Russians also used persistent military intervention in order to seize control over the Ukrainian territory.


Tatar media shutdown

Crimean Tatars, now subjected to Russian legislature, have no choice but to comply to Russia’s demands that media outlets in the region must obtain a new broadcasting license. Whilst Russian-speaking media channels met the requirements with ease, newspapers and TV channels that broadcast in Crimean – a Turkic language spoken by the Tatars – were denied their permits and forced to shut down their services.

Only a single Crimean Tatar medium, the newspaper Yeni Dünya, successfully applied for their broadcasting permit. All other Tatar media have been indiscriminately rejected by the Russian authorities, often without a specified reason. In some cases, applicants were turned down multiple times or even plainly ignored. Such was the case with Crimean Tatar-language television channel ATR. Their efforts of registering under Russian legislation were arbitrarily denied three times, whereas their fourth application did not even earn a response.

“They can shut down the channel, but they can never curb the desire of the Crimean Tatar nation for truth and freedom” declared Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Twitter, strongly condemning the move against ATR.

Photograph by Vasily Fedosenko

Lilya Budzhurova, ATR’s Deputy Director for Information Policy, stated that the channel had no choice but to pull the plug. “We will be prosecuted according to Russian law. There could be severe consequences, including hefty fines of up to half-a-billion roubles (approximately $9,000), confiscation of equipment, and criminal charges against the management.”

And, just like that, an entire community was rendered speechless. By essentially turning Crimean Tatar journalism into a criminal offense, Russia is depriving this ethnic minority of their freedom of expression, and possibly much more. This is not the first time Amnesty International raised concerns for the wellbeing of Crimean Tatars. In May 2014, shortly after the Crimean peninsula was annexed, they had already predicted that the community would be at the risk of persecution and harassment under Russian rule. “Despite assurances made by the de facto Crimean authorities to protect the rights of Tatars, since the annexation of the peninsula by Russia in March this year, the Tatar community has faced increasing violence and discrimination” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Programme Director.

“The Russian authorities have allowed armed groups that have been behind some brutal attacks against the Tatars to operate freely in Crimea” he adds. “They have alienated Crimean Tatars by harassing Tatar leaders, threatening to dissolve their highest representative body, and restricting their rights to freedom of assembly and expression.”

Furthermore, Dalhuisen states that Crimean Tatars are being pressured into renouncing their Ukrainian citizenship in order to be granted a Russian one, with the only alternative to be doomed as stateless ‘foreigners’ in their own homeland. This unenviable scenario has already pushed thousands of Tatars to flee Crimea, as their outlook at home is far from reassuring.


Geopolitics of the past and future

Given the history of the two nations in conflict, these concerns are certainly not out of place.

During the Second World War, Stalin commanded atrocious acts of ethnic cleansing against Crimean Tatars, forcefully deporting their entire population – nearly a quarter million at the time – to remote parts of the Soviet Union such as the Uzbek SSR. During the journey, almost half of them died from starvation and disease, and it was not until 1989, during Perestroika, that the Tatars were allowed to return to their homeland.

Nowadays, after decades of oppression from Soviets and Russians, only one tenth of the original population remains.

Only time will tell how the future of Crimean Tatars unfolds, but the political setting in Russia provides a valid reason to remain sceptical.

United Russia, the ruling party of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and President Vladimir Putin, is as conservative as it is statist, and embodies a whopping 238 out of the 450 seats of Russia’s State Duma. This represents a vast amount power, one which is not expected to fade anytime soon.