The economies of Greece and other southern European countries continue to threaten the survival of the euro as a currency. Greece was hit by its worst strike to date when its two main unions reacted to new austerity measures approved March 5. Twenty thousand demonstrators took to the streets of Athens, and around a hundred anarchists confronted police with rocks, Molotov cocktails and brown spray paint. Rioters set fire to trash cans, burned cars and shattered shop windows. International flights and trains were canceled, public transport stopped, and public buildings closed down. ubs Investment Bank’s deputy head of global economics, Paul Donovan, warned that “at some point” Greece would default on its bonds. Bond yields rose dramatically on April 8. The yield on a 10-year government bond passed 7 percent—making it very expensive for the Greek government to borrow money (Greece now must pay over 4 percent higher interest than the rate Germany gets for its debt). This will make it even harder for Greece to keep its economy afloat.
The Portuguese government could be the next victim of the economic crisis. On March 8, the minority government announced unpopular austerity measures. Opposition parties severely criticized the cuts, and Portuguese unions called for more strikes. Fitch Ratings cut Portugal’s credit rating to AA- with a negative outlook on March 24, warning that poor performance over the next year or two could lead to another downgrade. All Europe is looking to Germany for leadership out of this crisis. Watch for Berlin to turn this situation to its advantage.
Strikes are also hitting other European countries as workers protest pay cuts. Britain has been hit especially hard, with newspapers labeling the bout of strikes the “spring of discontent.” Workers are unwilling to take pay cuts that are due to a recession they see as caused by rich bankers, who get to keep all of their winnings. The result is a dangerous mix of businesses that need to cut costs in order to survive and workers who feel they have a right to their current level of pay. The situation could explode in social unrest.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his cabinet are no longer at risk of corruption trials, thanks to a new law approved by the parliament March 10. The law says that cabinet officials may postpone any trial in which they are implicated for six months, as the trial may hamper their capacity to govern. This comes after the Constitutional Court declared that a law giving senior government members immunity from prosecution was unconstitutional.
The total value of German arms exports has more than doubled since 2005, making Germany the world’s third-largest weapons exporter behind the United States and Russia. German weapons sales make up 11 percent of world arms trade according to the 2009 annual report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Most of these exports are armored vehicles, with submarines and warships also making up a large percentage. Germany is once again a major arms producer, with Berlin having implemented policies specifically to build up weapons production.
Belgium moved one step closer to becoming the first European country to ban full Islamic veils from its streets on March 31. A parliamentary committee unanimously approved a proposal that would outlaw the wearing of face-covering clothing, such as Muslim burkas and veils, in public. The proposal is expected to become law as early as June, after which a woman wearing a veil or burka in public could face a week in prison or a fine on the grounds that an inability to identify people presents a security hazard. Watch for Europe to increasingly confront Islam.
U.S. President Barack Obama is pushing for a new set of United Nations sanctions on Iran. After months of failed attempts to bring Russia and China on board, Washington downgraded the proposal. According to Haaretz, the proposed sanctions do not include the kind of tools that could effect a change in Iranian policy. “Iranian shipping companies will not be blacklisted nor the international assets of Iran frozen, and oil or gas shipments from the Islamic Republic will not be cut, after these proposals were all rejected by Russia or China. It is more accurate to characterize the potential sanctions as a comprehensive warning against doing business with Tehran” (April 4). China has still not approved the new sanctions. Even if it did, Tehran has already demonstrated that such pressure will not induce it to abandon its nuclear goals. Iran has continued with its nuclear program despite three sets of existing sanctions. More sanctions would only lull the international community into a greater false sense of security.
Meanwhile, Iran announced on March 7 that it has produced a new type of cruise missile, while two days earlier, ihs Jane’s, a London-based intelligence service, reported that Iran is building a new rocket launch site with North Korea’s assistance. “It is impossible to independently verify the claims Iran makes regarding the new weapons systems it says it is developing,” wrote United Press International, “but it is clearly preparing its military forces to retaliate against an assault” (March 8). Jane’s concluded that U.S.-led sanctions were having little effect on Iran’s weapons program.
Iraq has suffered an increase in violence as political wrangling to form a government continues following March 7 parliamentary elections. According to results released March 26, secular Shiite Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc won 91 seats in the 325-seat Council of Representatives, with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Iran-friendly Shiite State of Law coalition gaining 89 seats, the pro-Iranian Iraqi National Alliance (ina) 70, and the Kurdistan Alliance 43. With none of the parties winning the majority needed to rule alone, negotiations have been underway between the different parties to form a ruling coalition.
Several factors are complicating the process. The Accountability and Justice Commission, created to purge the electoral process of candidates loyal to Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath Party, announced March 29 that it was contesting the results of the election. If it is successful, Allawi could lose his lead. On March 27, the Iraqi Supreme Federal Court issued a reinterpretation of how parties can form a government, allowing the coalition of parties that has the most seats to form the government and select the prime minister—rather than the party that won the most votes, as previously understood. This means that Maliki, despite not winning the election, could team up with the ina and gain the numbers to remain prime minister.
Additionally, anti-American radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who won the most votes within the ina and is seen as the kingmaker, has thus far withheld his support from both of the big winners. He put the choice of who should be the next prime minister to his supporters in a referendum on April 2, in which they chose Shiite politician Ibrahim al-Jaafari. This result—whether Sadr acts on it or not—will only further complicate negotiations.
Throughout this process, Iran is seeking to influence Iraq more extensively, with all of the Shiite and Kurdish coalitions having sent delegations to Iran for talks. Meanwhile, Washington is refusing to endorse any of the candidates. Nabil Said, an independent Sunni politician, said that’s the “amazing” point of the story: “Americans are just standing aside and watching, trying to pull out quickly and safely” (National Public Radio, April 5). And that is precisely what neighboring Iran wants to see. Watch for Iran’s involvement in Iraq to increase as the U.S. departs.
Newly inaugurated Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych visited Moscow March 5 and promised Russian officials a “sharp turn” in bilateral relations between the two countries. This shift into a new phase of heightened cooperation is a victory for Moscow. Yanukovych and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a statement saying Russia and Ukraine will improve ties in such sectors as aviation, nuclear power and military technology. The top priority, according to the statement, is energy cooperation, particularly in regard to natural gas. For years, the Trumpet has pointed to Ukraine as crucial turf in a future pact between Russia and Germany. Control of the strategic area will determine the line at which their individual imperialistic aims will meet.
On March 28, Islamists in Chechnya killed 39 people in bombings in a subway. Just hours earlier, an attack in Degastan took 12 lives. President Medvedev said the attacks were related, and the secretary of Russia’s national security council suggested that Georgia was behind the blasts. The comments raised concerns among Georgian officials that Moscow would use the attacks as a pretext for Russian forces to renew their aggression against Georgia, a former Soviet state.
China refuted Britain’s most recent human rights study on March 18, which listed China as one of 22 “countries of concern” in the realm of human rights. A defensive Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said that China opposed confrontation, double standards on human rights issues and interference in other nations’ internal affairs. China’s defiance is a steadily growing trend.
Currency problems are flaring up in China. In March, two People’s Bank of China advisers issued statements that supported revaluing the yuan. The move was seen as an effort to reduce tension with America ahead of calls by U.S. members of Congress to label China as a currency manipulator. China stands accused of purposefully keeping its currency undervalued in relation to the dollar, which makes Chinese exports to America less expensive for Americans. The U.S. Federal Reserve’s “quantitative easing” program of creating money out of thin air is also a direct form of currency manipulation—which in this case devalues the dollar.
Venezuela’s electricity supply is on the brink of collapse. Water levels at the Guri dam—which supplies power to 70 percent of the nation—are so low that officials may be forced to shut down a large part of the dam any day. A fire at a key thermoelectric plant for northwestern Venezuela on April 4 only made the situation worse. It also suggests that the country’s remaining power plants will not be able to pick up the slack if output from the Guri dam is greatly reduced. Venezuela needs a quick fix for this potential crisis, and its only short-term solution seems to be going to Colombia for help. Colombia is a major rival, so this electricity would have a high political cost.
April 7 witnessed a revolution in Kyrgyzstan. President Kurmanbek Bakiev was forced to flee the capital city of Bishkek after mobs of protestors seized government headquarters. Seventy-nine died in violence between police and protesters, and hundreds more were injured. Though Russian Prime Minister Putin denied involvement, much evidence points to Moscow’s having kindled the turmoil. Certainly the Kremlin stands to benefit greatly from the upheaval, while Washington has a lot to lose from it. Kyrgyzstan hosts a key U.S. military base through which 50,000 American troops pass each month on their way to and from Afghanistan. Since Bakjev’s flight from Bishkek, the fate of the strategic Manas base has been thrown into question. The Kyrgyz opposition that has assumed power has a strong pro-Russia orientation. Alongside Putin’s praise for the ousting of “nepotistic” Bakiyev, the change of government suggests that this is another instance of an emboldened Russia exerting its growing influence in the former Soviet republics.
The youth leader of South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (anc), has thoroughly endorsed Robert Mugabe’s brutality in Zimbabwe and promised that the same policies would soon be adopted in South Africa. “In SA we are just starting. Here in Zimbabwe you are already very far,” Julius Malema told a cheering crowd of Mugabe’s zanu-pf youth on a visit there on April 3. “The land question has been addressed. We are very happy that today you can account for more than 300,000 new farmers against the 4,000 who used to dominate agriculture. We hear you are now going straight to the mines. That’s what we are going to be doing in South Africa.” He also praised Mugabe for “standing firm against imperialists.” This came only a couple of weeks after Malema incited black South Africans to shoot white farmers by opening a public rally with the song “Shoot the Boer,” an apartheid-era anthem. The song was later banned by the High Court, but the anc is appealing that ruling. According to the Times, 3,000 white farmers have been murdered in South Africa since 1994. South Africa is already following in Zimbabwe’s footsteps.
The EU naval taskforce is pursuing Somali pirates more aggressively, officials told the Associated Press on March 18. Watch for this trend to continue.
Russian Prime Minister Putin visited Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in April as 38 Mi-17 Hip helicopters were delivered to Caracas. In addition to signing more than $4 billion in arms deals, Chávez invited Russian energy companies Gazprom and Rosneft to explore for oil.
The Mexican drug war escalated to new levels beginning in March. Gang members in bulletproof vehicles attacked two army bases with assault rifles and hand grenades on April 1; 18 gang members died in the ensuing conflict. Residents of one town, El Porvenir, fled to Texas after they were told to “vacate or they’re going to start killing them and burning their houses down,” according to Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West. On March 30, 10 students were killed in a grenade attack on their way to collect college scholarships. The mayor of Pueblo Nuevo, a town in the region of the attack, said he feels powerless to challenge the gangs. On March 19, soldiers and drug traffickers shocked the nation with a gun battle at Mexico’s most prestigious university, killing two. Drug-related beheadings have become routine. More than 18,000 have died in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006.
In March, a learning-disabled 64-year-old man died in Britain after more than a decade of being targeted and bullied by “yobs” who tormented him night after night in spite of police intervention. David Askew’s death at the home he shared with his wheelchair-bound mother encapsulates the sickening state of British youths, and the impossibility of policing an entire nation of families rotting from within.
More than a quarter of Britain’s adults are out of work. Official figures for February showed that 10.6 million, or 28 percent, of the country’s adults of working age either were considered economically inactive or had lost their jobs.
The Telegraph reported in late March that Britain faces an increased threat of nuclear attack by al Qaeda, citing a report that revealed trafficking of radiological materials has recently increased.
In March, the Kansas City school board decided to close half of its schools due to financial crisis. The board said it had to cut 700 of its 3,000 jobs and sell its central office.
In April, California’s last auto plant closed down. The shuttering of the New United Motor Manufacturing plant in Fremont, a 25-year-old joint venture between General Motors and Toyota, cost about 4,700 Californians their jobs.
In Australia, obesity has ballooned past smoking as the largest cause of premature illness and death. The Public Health Association found that excessive weight has more than doubled as a factor in ill health over the past six years.