Good morning Pine Tree Republic citizens! Today, we debut a new feature called “Front Page News”. Every Monday morning, I intend to share 3-5 of the top news stories from the past week and discuss the broader global context in which they occurred. I’ll conclude each post with questions to help spark further dialogue in the comments section on how these stories contribute (or don’t) to our understanding of broader global and societal forces. So, let’s get started!
Quick Summary: On Feb. 27, Boris Nemtsov, one of Russia’s leading opposition critics, was shot dead in Moscow. With the murder taking place just a few blocks from the Kremlin, speculation immediately turned to whether Russian President Vladimir Putin was involved in planning the killing. Few facts have been confirmed to date, but in this article Globe and Mail foreign correspondent Mark MacKinnon lifts the veil on the culture of hatred and intolerance in Russia that has worsened since the country invaded the Crimea region of Ukraine last year, and likely contributed to Nemtsov’s killing.
Key Quote: “There is no one controlling the process any more… there is chaotic hatred. Hatred that is fuelled every day by the federal mass media.” – Ksenia Sobchak, Opposition Journalist
Context: Whether or not Vladimir Putin had any role in contracting this killing (we may never find out), MacKinnon’s article illustrates how the political culture he has created makes life extremely dangerous for political dissidents. The invasion of Crimea and Russia’s subsequent arms-length support for rebels who are continuing to fight the Ukrainian government is fuelling an already strong nationalist sentiment in Russia. On the one hand, Putin has deliberately pursued what could be viewed as a “low-cost” strategy to conflict – by supporting Ukrainian rebels sympathetic to Russia without directly declaring war on Ukraine and openly sending troops to the conflict zone, he avoids a full-out military and economic conflict with Ukraine’s allies in the West. The flip side of this strategy is that he is empowering Russian nationalist forces, in Ukraine and in Russia, who now have the motivation and wherewithal to pursue their own agendas, even beyond his control.
Alberta Premier Prentice Warns Deep Cuts Necessary to Avoid Fiscal Ruin, by Gary Mason (Globe and Mail)
Quick Summary: If you live in Alberta, news of Premier Jim Prentice’s comments on Albertans needing to take responsibility for their province’s troubled financial situation were unavoidable last week. Yet, after the social media firestorm dies down, what will be left is a series of difficult decisions that is sure to have far-reaching consequences on the people of this province. In this article, Globe and Mail reporter Gary Mason details how the premier is targeting public sector employees as a key part of his plan to reduce government spending, raising the potential for labour strife that has rarely been seen in Alberta.
Key Quote: “[Prentice] has already indicated that the province will be looking at success B.C. has had in reining in public-sector wages. When it was pointed out that Alberta has not demonstrated the same appetite for the kind of showdowns and strikes that B.C. governments have endured in the name of low-cost settlements, Mr. Prentice said: ‘To the extent we have secured labour tranquility here by overpaying what everyone else in Canada has been paying is no longer an option.”
Context: As has been well-documented, the province of Alberta has relied heavily on the oil and gas industry to finance its economy and government revenues. In boom times, this has allowed the government to keep income and corporate taxes low while providing a high level of funding for government services. Clearly, this model doesn’t work when oil prices are low, and the government now faces the prospect of multi-billion dollar deficits over at least the next couple years. What has been less discussed is the effect this will have on Alberta’s political culture. The province’s model of low taxes and high government services has generally been a recipe for low citizen engagement in politics – as long as most people generally have it good most of the time, the incentive to challenge the system is low. To remedy the challenges the province now faces, Prentice is now signalling that he is ready take on the public sector and its unions – who often prove to be the vanguard of broader public engagement in politics. This looming battle has the potential to significantly reshape how Albertans think about and engage with their province’s political system.
Iran Is “Taking Over” Iraq, Warns Saudi Arabia by Richard Spencer (The Telegraph)
Quick Summary: Over the past week, Iraqi forces have been battling ISIS forces near the Iraqi town of Tikrit, the second-largest city that ISIS controls, after Mosul. While Western nations (including the United States and Canada) and other regional powers, including Saudi Arabia, have provided training and material support to Iraqi forces, Iran has overwhelmingly had the greatest external influence on the battle. This article details how that support includes having an Iranian general co-lead the operation against ISIS. This latest example of Iran’s growing influence across the Middle East is unnerving several U.S. allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Key Quote: “Tikrit is a prime example of what we are worried about,’ Prince Saud said. ‘Iran is taking over the country.’ The possibility of a deal on Iran’s nuclear issue and President Obama’s refusal to send troops back to the Arab world despite an escalating succession of civil wars have sent shock-waves through America’s allies.”
Context: While the main headlines coming out of the Middle East these days focus on ISIS, a quieter but perhaps longer-lasting struggle for power has been taking place in the region. The rivalry between regional powers Iran (a Shiite-led regime), Saudi Arabia (a Sunni-led regime), and Israel has been around for decades, but geopolitical struggles involving countries beyond the Middle East have raised the stakes. In particular, the American-led war in Iraq and subsequent rise of ISIS, along with the civil war in Syria and inability of the international community to intervene, have constrained the ability and willingness of the international community to help balance the power between these countries’ regional struggles. As a result, Iran has been free to fill the power vacuum across the region.
As one consequence, rivals such as Israel and Saudi Arabia are ratcheting up public pressure on the international community (including the United States and Canada) to re-engage in the region and protect their traditional allies, beyond what typically is said in public. In addition to this article, Netanyahu’s speech to the U.S. Congress this week, despite President Obama’s objection, is another prominent example. At the same time, the Obama administration is seeking to resolve what it sees as the greatest geopolitical issue in the region by negotiating a settlement with Iran regarding its nuclear future, and in the long-term, seeks to shift its attention away from the Middle East towards Asia, which it sees as a more strategically important region. The upshot is an ever-increasing risk for regional Middle Eastern powers to take drastic, unilateral action themselves – potentially complicating alliances with countries outside the region even further.
What’s the Status of Women’s Rights 20 Years after Beijing? by Julia Barton and Marco Werman (PRI’s The World)
Quick Summary: This year marks the 20th anniversary of a landmark U.N. conference in Beijing, in which the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action on the status of women was adopted. Covering a comprehensive list of issues including the status of women in conflict zones, the workplace, and decision-making spheres, the declaration envisioned a world in which we would achieve gender equality by 2015. On the eve of a follow-up conference in New York this month, Public Radio International held an interview with the Executive Director of U.N. Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. The audio is well worth listening to – Ms. Mambo-Ngucka provides a frank assessment of the status of women around the world that is rare for a high-ranking diplomat. Lest people think this is just a developing world challenge, she touches on disappointments (and some progress) in industrialized countries as well, including the inability to even host a worldwide conference on the status of women this year due to governments’ refusal to have an honest discussion on these issues.
Key Quote: “And the only people that can help dismantle patriarchy effectively are men, because you know when you’re born a man, whether you want to be oppressive or not, patriarchy gives you privilege that you don’t ask for. Men have to actively disown these privileges like higher pays, compared to their counterparts that they don’t deserve.”
Context: There isn’t much to add beyond what the Executive Director dissects in her powerful interview. Perhaps one interesting additional angle on this story is how her quote about “disowning” privilege applies to so many other systems that seem stuck in today’s world. The story about Alberta’s economic troubles provides one (relatively) small example of another system that has provided privilege, both economic and political, and that will require some degree of disowning before it can be fixed.
This Week’s Discussion Questions:
- With nationalist sentiment on the rise in Russia and parts of Ukraine, what groups in the region are emboldened and empowered? What are the consequences for Russia’s foreign policy and its relations with the West?
- How might Alberta’s economic troubles and the Premier’s plan to challenge public sector wages affect the province’s political landscape and overall public engagement in the province’s politics? What social groups might become more significant players in this landscape in the near and long-term future?
- How does Iran’s ascendance in the Middle East affect the foreign policy of countries like the United States and Canada? What would be the consequences of weakening or shifting alliances between these countries and regional powers e.g. Saudi Arabia and Israel?
- What systemic forces have been slowing progress on gender equality over the last 20 years? What institutions are most influential in affecting women’s status around the world? What other “privileges” exist that must be disowned by their holders?
I look forward to reading your comments and perspectives on this week’s news.