Russian media versus Putin. Three prominent Russian business dailies, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Vedomosti and Kommersant, published articles criticizing the government for its role in declining household incomes, which have steadily fallen over the past five years. Specific criticisms include general economic mismanagement, structural imbalances, failed import substitution schemes, higher taxes and a “harsh” budget. Kommersant went so far as to suggest that, income-wise, things are worse now than they were in the 1990s. Vedomosti published several articles on the matter, including an analysis that said there is tension building between President Vladimir Putin and his fellow elites. It notes that Putin’s support is no longer enough to guarantee victory in regional elections – that, if anything, they will reflect the growing dissatisfaction with him. It’s uncommon for Russian media under Putin to so brazenly criticize and question the government. That, and the domestic unrest Russia’s economic duress could create, will be a constant theme of 2019.
Saudi Arabia’s high hopes. The government in Riyadh launched its National Industrial Development and Logistics Program today. Broader in scope than the current Vision 2030 project, the program seeks to attract $425 billion worth of investment over the next decade for industry, mining, energy, infrastructure and logistics projects. It has already identified 330 projects for completion, and approximately one-third of them will directly fulfill the Vision 2030 agenda. Riyadh estimates the program will generate an additional $320 billion for the Saudi economy by 2030 – that’s nearly half of Saudi Arabia’s total gross domestic product in 2018 – and bring 11 new industries like aerospace and biomedicine into the country. Enormous economic overhauls such as this one tend to look much better on paper than they do in practice, but Riyadh understands that it doesn’t have much choice – if it doesn’t diversify its economy, it will live and die by the price of oil.
Turkey moves in on the Eastern Mediterranean. Last Friday was quietly a busy day for Turkey. Greece’s National Defense General Staff reported that two Turkish F-16s violated Greek airspace when they flew over the islets of Megisti and Ro. As it happened, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was giving a speech at a military academy, during which he emphasized just how important Turkish power is in Cyprus and the Aegean Sea. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced Turkey would soon begin drilling around northern Cyprus. (The announcement came after his meeting with Turkish-Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci.) Ankara’s second platform arrives in February, and though it was originally intended to go to the Black Sea, it has since has been redirected to Cyprus. We’ve known for some time that the Eastern Mediterranean would be an arena of competition between Turkey and Western Europe. Time to see how Europe reacts.
Iran and Hezbollah keep their options open. The head of Iran’s armed forces said the military can use an offensive approach to protect Iranian interests against foreign attacks. The Iranian military already has begun the shift from defensive to offensive tactics in its latest land, sea and air drills. At the same time, Iran is trying to consolidate its economic presence in Syria. The government in Tehran will soon send an economic delegation, comprising public and private business leaders, to the country to sign a strategic economic cooperation agreement, a first for Syria. The Iranian first vice president said the deal was necessary and that Iran expects Damascus to give Iranian companies priority in Syria’s economic reconstruction because of its political and security relations with Tehran.
In addition, the leader of Hezbollah cautioned Israel that the group may respond more aggressively to airstrikes in Syria – a warning that seems to have moved Israel to look for support from allies outside the region. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin visited France and lobbied French President Emmanuel Macron to encourage Lebanon to put more pressure on Hezbollah. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, meanwhile, noted that the situation is a threat to Israel, and said Germany was working to keep Iranian forces away from the Golan Heights.
- Greece plans to issue new five-year bonds soon, according to an anonymous government official. This would mark its first attempt to access financial markets after ending its international bailout program last August.
- The U.S. Embassy in Pristina called on Kosovo to immediately suspend the tariff on imports from Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Doing so, it said, would be an act of good faith. Failing to do so would go against U.S. interests.
- Chinese security officials arrested 19 individuals on charges of organizing military veterans’ protests in two cities last year.
- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban reportedly told the U.S. ambassador in Budapest that he will continue to contribute troops to NATO but that he objects to U.S. efforts to curb the influence of Russia and China in Europe.
- Iraq’s Foreign Ministry summoned Turkey’s ambassador to Baghdad to protest Turkey’s recent military action and demanded an end to its “unilateral actions” in Iraq.
- The U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan said recent talks with the Taliban were productive and that significant progress was made. Meanwhile, the Taliban released 35 Afghan soldiers held in Herat province.