Daily Memo: Russian Protests, Egypt’s Options

Russian protests. Unauthorized protests took place in St. Petersburg and Moscow on Wednesday against constitutional amendments that were approved in a referendum earlier this month. Protesters gathered in the centers of both cities and collected signatures to support efforts to reverse the results of the referendum. The monitoring group OVD-Info reported that authorities detained 147 people, while the Ministry of Internal Affairs said it was 132 people. It’s unclear exactly how many people participated in the protests, but reports indicate it was several hundred. That’s not a large number, and so far public opposition to the amendments appears limited. But demonstrations like these, depending on their spontaneity, scale and frequency, can pose a problem for the Russian leadership, so they’re worth keeping an eye on. Egypt considers its options. Egypt’s defense minister, Gen. Mohamed Zaki, met in Cairo on Wednesday with U.S. Central Command Commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie to discuss regional issues and military cooperation. Though the visit is part of the U.S. commander’s regional tour, many in the media believe it is connected to Libya’s ongoing civil war, as there are growing concerns that Egypt could be drawn into the conflict. The two officials likely also discussed Ethiopia’s announcement […]

Daily Memo: Clashes in the Caucasus, Pre-election Protests in Belarus

Clashes in the Caucasus. Azerbaijan said it destroyed an Armenian military facility along the Azerbaijan-Armenia border as cross-border shelling, which began on July 12 in the Tovuz region, continued on Wednesday. In Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, more than 1,000 protesters took part in a rally in support of the army, chanting slogans like “Our Karabakh” and “Glory to the army,” according to Russian news outlet RIA Novosti. Meanwhile, Armenian hackers attacked several Azerbaijani news websites, including Day.Az, Milli.Az, AMI Trend and the Azernews and hacked a database operated by the Azerbaijani navy, according to the Facebook page of the hacker group Monte Melkonyan Cyber ​​Army. Armenian Ambassador to Moscow Vardan Toganyan said Yerevan hoped Russia would use its influence in the region to help de-escalate the situation. However, Armenia’s Defense Ministry said the situation was under control and that it would not ask the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, an alliance of six post-Soviet states, to intervene at this time. Yet, several countries have already commented on the latest round of fighting in the region. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif spoke by phone with officials in Azerbaijan and Armenia to offer to mediate between the two countries. Turkey’s […]

Daily Memo: Beijing’s South China Sea Claims, Europe’s Posture Toward Russia

Washington rejects Beijing’s claims. On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expanded the U.S. condemnation of China’s expansion in the South China Sea, rejecting several Chinese claims in disputed waters beyond what was covered in the 2016 arbitral ruling in The Hague. That ruling invalidated several Chinese claims to reefs near the Philippines in the Spratly Archipelago. Pompeo said the U.S. would also regard as illegal Chinese harassment of fishing fleets or oil exploration in certain areas off the coast of Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam. This is a notable shift for the U.S., which has traditionally just encouraged regional states to work out their myriad disputes either bilaterally or at international arbitration courts. But China, of course, has not been deterred by international rulings like the 2016 decision, and has been steadily increasing its harassment of regional states over their oil exploration and fishing activities. Indeed, over the weekend, Vietnam lost another foreign partner helping it drill for oil off its southeastern coast. The problem for the U.S., however, remains persistent doubts among regional partners about U.S. willingness or capability to go beyond rhetorical defenses of their interests. A U.S. move in May to deploy warships to waters […]

Daily Memo: Protests in Eastern Russia, Clashes in Azerbaijan

Russian protests. Protests broke out in Russia’s Far Eastern territory of Khabarovsk after Gov. Sergei Furgal was arrested and accused of organizing the murders of two businessmen in 2004-05. Unofficial reports said as many as 35,000 people participated in the protests, which claim that the arrest was politically motivated. (The region’s Internal Affairs Ministry said there were 10,000 to 12,000 protesters.) Furgal became governor of Khabarovsk in 2018, defeating candidates from the dominant United Russia party. Local authorities called on the protesters to abstain from violence and accused “non-systemic opposition and bloggers” of instigating unrest. In a separate incident in the Far Eastern Amur region, workers, many of them foreign, at a heavy industries plant that contracts with Russian energy giant Gazprom clashed with police over unpaid wages. Armenia and Azerbaijan clash. Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry on Sunday accused Armenia of violating a cease-fire and shelling Azerbaijani forces in Azerbaijan’s Tovuz district near the two countries’ border. Azerbaijan said 120 mm mortar bombs landed on a village, but Armenia said the attack targeted army engineering infrastructure and technical facilities. Both sides resumed their attacks on Monday, resulting in the deaths of three Azerbaijani soldiers and an unknown number of Armenian casualties. […]

Daily Memo: A Japan-Russia Peace Treaty, a New EU Budget

Japan and Russia talk peace. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday that Russia has presented Japan with a conceptual framework for a World War II peace treaty but has received no reply from Tokyo. On July 2, following a referendum on constitutional amendments that include a ban on ceding any Russian territory, the Japanese government said it had not changed its position on a treaty and on the South Kuril Islands. Both countries claim the South Kuril Islands, which remain the major barrier blocking a treaty that has been under negotiation since the mid-20th century. Moscow had said the amendments would not affect the negotiation process with Japan. Lavrov stressed that Russia was ready to discuss a peace treaty in accordance with the 1956 joint declaration between Japan and the Soviet Union. He also said that an agreement should reflect the current situation in the region, and that Russia did not agree with Japan that a peace treaty should be signed only after the territorial issue was resolved. Tokyo continues to claim the islands of Kunashir, Iturup and Shikotan as well as a number of other territories in the Kurils, while Russia has said it would not make concessions […]

Daily Memo: Slow Trade Growth in Germany, Fallout From the Hong Kong Bill

Slow recovery in German trade. Germany’s Federal Statistical Office released new trade figures on Thursday showing initial signs of recovery. Exports increased by 9 percent in May over the previous month (calendar and seasonally adjusted) as lockdown measures were eased. Imports also increased, by 3.5 percent over April (calendar and seasonally adjusted). On an annual basis, however, the figures are much more daunting. Exports fell in May by 29.7 percent year over year, and imports by 21.7 percent. Exports to countries outside of the European Union decreased by 30.5 percent year over year while exports within the eurozone declined by 29.1 percent. The steepest drop was in exports to the U.K., a major trade partner for Germany, which fell by 46.9 percent to 3.5 billion euros ($4 billion). Exports to the U.S. declined by 36.5 percent to 6.5 billion euros and to China by 12.3 percent to 7.2 billion euros. These figures indicate that, although the recovery has started, the German economy has a long way to go before reaching pre-pandemic levels. Asia-Pacific responds to the Hong Kong bill. A flurry of strategic defense discussions are underway in the Asia-Pacific as the fallout from China’s Hong Kong security bill continues. […]

Daily Memo: Arab Governments Look East, Scotland Pushes Back

Arab governments look east. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan has confirmed that his country will host a summit between Arab nations and China to explore strategic partnership opportunities in a number of areas. Arab governments have been warming up to Beijing of late. On Monday, the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum held a ministerial meeting during which future cooperation and responses to the coronavirus pandemic were discussed, and over the course of the COVID-19 outbreak, China has supplied eight Arab countries with medical equipment, medical personnel and researchers. Saudi Arabia and China also signed a $265 million deal to expand the kingdom’s COVID-19 testing capacity. But with the U.S. presence in the region waning, an oil price crisis emerging and a global recession looming, Arab countries are looking to China for more help on more than just the COVID-19 crisis; they hope to cooperate with Beijing on security matters as well as the Belt and Road Initiative to help diversify their economies. Scotland pushes back. Scotland and the United Kingdom appear to be on the edge of a constitutional standoff. Michael Russell, Scotland’s Cabinet secretary for constitutional affairs, has threatened to defy a Westminster bill that would impose the […]

Daily Memo: New Details on Hong Kong’s Security Law

Hong Kong security law details. The government in Hong Kong released more details on the new national security law intended to crack down on dissent. The law reduces judicial oversight restricting police surveillance, permits some police searches in the absence of a warrant, and permits officers to confiscate travel documents to prevent suspects from leaving Hong Kong. It also requires social media sites and internet service providers to remove messages considered a threat to national security and to provide user data, or face fines of up to 100,000 Hong Kong dollars ($12,903) and jail time of up to six months. In response, a number of digital platforms, such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram, said they would deny law enforcement requests for user data, and TikTok, which is owned by China-based ByteDance, announced it would cease operations in Hong Kong in the coming days. Russia’s sluggish recovery. The share of Russians with average monthly income below 15,000 rubles ($210) has grown to 44.6 percent from 38.1 percent amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to the results of a June survey conducted by the Rosgosstrakh life insurance company and the Perspektiva research and technology center. For reference, the monthly minimum wage in Russia […]

Daily Memo: South Korea Wants to Resume Nuclear Talks

North Korea has nothing to say to the U.S. Efforts are underway for the possible resumption of denuclearization talks between North Korea and the United States. South Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator on Friday met separately with the top Chinese and Russian envoys to Seoul to discuss the situation on the Peninsula. On Monday, the South’s nominee for unification minister said North-South dialogue should continue under any circumstances. And the South Korean Foreign Ministry confirmed that Stephen Biegun, the U.S. envoy for North Korea, will arrive in Seoul on Tuesday to discuss the stalled nuclear talks with his South Korean counterpart and other members of the South Korean Foreign Ministry. Biegun will then head to Tokyo for similar discussions. These developments suggest South Korean President Moon Jae-in is still intent on holding another round of U.S.-North Korean talks in October, just ahead of U.S. elections. But Moon will have his work cut out for him: North Korea’s first vice foreign minister said Saturday that Pyongyang sees no need to meet with U.S. officials and that the North already had a strategic timetable designed to contain long-term threats from the United States. Europe’s mixed signals. With less than two weeks to go […]

Daily Memo: Russian Constitutional Reforms, Korean Compromises

Russian reforms. In a seven-day referendum that ended on Wednesday, 77.9 percent of Russians voted to approve more than 200 amendments to the constitution, one of which would allow President Vladimir Putin to run for reelection in 2024. According to Russian daily Kommersant, the turnout was 68 percent, more than 10 percentage points higher than the turnout for the 1993 constitution. The highest turnout and vote of approval were in Chechnya, where 97.9 percent of voters were in favor of the changes and 95.1 percent of people cast a ballot. The regions of Tuva (96.8 percent approval), Crimea (90.1 percent), Dagestan (89.2 percent) and the Yamalo-Nenets District (89.2 percent) had the next highest levels of support. The Nenets Autonomous Region was the only region where the majority of Russians voted against the amendments (55.3 percent). Yakutia (40.7 percent disapproval) and Kamchatka (37.2 percent) regions also had high votes against the reforms. On the last day of the vote, uncoordinated protests against the changes took place in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Blagoveshchensk, Khanty-Mansiysk, Nizhny Novgorod, Novosibirsk and other cities. The demonstrations were fairly small, however; the biggest was in Moscow with 400 participants. Korean compromises. South Korean President Moon Jae-in wants U.S. […]

Daily Memo: Turkey at the Center of NATO Frictions

NATO revolves around Turkey. After a seven-month standoff, Turkey finally lifted its veto and allowed the alliance to approve a defense plan for Poland and the Baltic states. Reuters reported in November 2019 that Turkey was blocking the plan in order to pressure its NATO allies to recognize the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, as a terrorist group. (A number of NATO states, including the U.S., have partnered with the YPG in Syria and thus refused to back down.) The operational outline of the defense plan for the bloc’s eastern frontier is classified, but it reportedly includes bulking up air defenses and speeding up the deployment of allied ground forces in the event of conflict with Russia. But frictions between Turkey and other NATO member states are far from over. The latest disagreement centers on the Mediterranean Sea. According to Turkey’s ambassador to France, the French informed the Turks and NATO that they are suspending their involvement in NATO’s Operation Sea Guardian. France accused Turkey last month of behaving aggressively toward a French warship, the frigate Courbet, as it was participating in the alliance’s maritime security operation. The Turkish ambassador said Paris’ withdrawal came after a NATO investigation into […]

Daily Memo: One Country, One System?

“One country, two systems” circles the drain. On Tuesday, China’s National People’s Congress voted unanimously to pass the contentious new Hong Kong national security legislation. President Xi Jinping reportedly signed the bill, which has still not been made public but is expected to be written in a way that would effectively outlaw pro-democracy protests and anti-Communist Party media, into law shortly thereafter. This comes two days after Hong Kong police detained at least 53 people — some of them reportedly bystanders — at a rally opposing the law, and a day before Hong Kong’s annual July 1 mass pro-democracy march (which Hong Kong police have banned, conveniently on the grounds of COVID-19). The pro-democracy community in Hong Kong is understandably freaking out. For example, Demosisto, a prominent advocacy group behind some of the past year’s protests, announced that it would disband. Several other civil society groups have announced similar moves. Activists are also reportedly scrambling to delete social media posts that could prove incriminating. This speaks to a core goal of the law: to get Hong Kongers to start censoring themselves and think twice before criticizing the Chinese Communist Party, effectively allowing Beijing to stifle dissent without having to take […]