How the Pro-Democracy Election Victory Could Calm Hong Kong

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.

Nearly 3 million of Hong Kong’s 4 million registered voters expressed their disapproval of the city’s current government in a decisive local election on Nov. 24 that reduces the Hong Kong authorities’ political potency and also gives the opposition and protest movement a mandate to push against Beijing’s control. In theory, the huge electoral victory gives only a marginal political boost to the opposition in an institution that is otherwise heavily tilted in favor of the pro-establishment forces and ultimately controlled by Beijing. Nevertheless, the opposition now has much stronger backing to promote its pro-democracy agenda.


The Big Picture

Hong Kong voters went to the polls for the first time since the city’s latest political crisis began in an election to select local representatives. The vote, coming six months into a protest movement that has gripped Hong Kong, amounted to a referendum of the city’s Beijing-backed leadership. An overwhelming victory for pro-democracy candidates significantly altered Hong Kong’s political landscape and dealt the current government a blow, weakening the key pillar Beijing relies upon to exercise control.

See China in Transition


According to Hong Kong’s Registration and Electoral Office, opposition pro-democracy parties won 77 percent of the 452 total seats up for grabs, giving them control of 17 of the city’s 18 districts. This is a sharp reversal of the pro-establishment’s near-dominance of the district councils (those groups held 70 percent of total seats and controlled all districts since 2015). The record-high turnout of 71 percent, compared with the 40 percent average for previous district council elections, reflects high political awareness among the city’s residents, who were energized by the protest movement and undeterred by street battles between protesters and the police leading up to the election and the strong security presence during Hong Kong’s only direct and democratic election.

A Symbolic Landslide

The district councils traditionally hold little political power beyond decisions over local community affairs. But six months of persistent — and increasingly violent — protests effectively transformed this year’s election into a proxy battle along partisan lines, with the defeat of the pro-establishment camp apparently weakening a key pillar of governance supporting Beijing’s control in the city. The result also energizes the opposition, boosting its prospects in next year’s Legislative Council elections and could give it as many as 117 additional seats on the 1,200-member election committee that will choose Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2022. Even with the momentum from the district council vote, it’s unlikely the opposition will be able to capture a majority in either the Legislative Council or on the election committee.

But the results do send a clear measure of the strength of societal approval for it to pursue pro-democracy measures. Ultimately this means the central government will be forced to address opposition demands in some fashion or risk drawing an even stronger reaction on the streets as well as more international scrutiny. The number of opposition candidates who take seats in the local councils, however, will also lead to political impasses with the Beijing-friendly city administration over community affairs, likely leading to gridlock over local enforcement for years to come.

Despite the strong performance by opposition candidates, the raw vote totals do not necessarily translate into a sweeping popular endorsement of the protest movement, especially its more violent elements. The opposition candidates won 57 percent of the total popular vote, an improvement from their average 40 percent share of vote totals in the previous two district elections in 2011 and 2015, but not a dramatic one. Critically, this year’s election outcome will not appease the city’s more radical protesters, whose confrontations with authorities have persisted largely irrespective of the city’s political process. But the strong performance of pan-democracy politicians could restore the prominence of the protest movement’s more moderate voices.

What Could Happen Next

The local election results could effectively infuse the city’s political institutions with the spirit of Hong Kong’s street battles. The election may also provide a window of temporary respite in Hong Kong, but it likely will not last much more than a matter of days or weeks. Several major developments in the near future could signal whether the election result will lead to spikes in protest activity or whether the opposition’s demands will be channeled into political action, even as the broader protest movement is set to stay. Here are the signs to watch.

What the Protest Movement Does Next: Protest-related violence notably ebbed on election day, reflecting a degree of unity in the protest movement. One test of that unity will be whether the opposition’s electoral gains will help moderate protest groups and pan-democracy leaders discourage the more radical elements in the movement from resuming their violent tactics. It also raises the question of how the election results will be used as leverage to push forward the protesters’ demands. In particular, a scheduled protest on Dec. 8 by the Civil Human Rights Front will be important to monitor. What happens surrounding that protest will show whether protesters of all stripes can maintain a collective front on the pro-democracy demands. Another key question is whether the radical wing of the movement will maintain the peace as it did over election weekend or whether there is a quick return to disruptive action.

The loss of legitimacy suffered by its ally at the Admiralty will effectively force Beijing to choose between offering concessions to Hong Kong’s moderates or taking the risk of energizing the radicals.

How Hong Kong Authorities Respond: Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said she and her government would “seriously reflect” on the Nov. 24 results, but ultimately, Beijing will determine how she and her government respond. As happened in 2003, when mass protests led to a similar defeat of pro-establishment forces and the resignation of several key officials, the election results will almost certainly cause more fissures within the administration and possibly prompt a few officials to resign. There is also a possibility that Lam’s administration could make political concessions to try to appease moderate protesters. Anything short of those gestures, however, will only deepen the political crisis.

What Beijing Does Next: The Chinese central government has issued no official responses to the election outcome beyond making convenient accusations, blaming “outside interference” for the result. Nonetheless, the loss of legitimacy suffered by its ally at the Admiralty will effectively force Beijing to choose between offering concessions to Hong Kong’s moderates or taking the risk of energizing the radicals. Thus, it may find the more expedient course of action will be to isolate itself from the mess by scapegoating the Hong Kong authorities and forcing the resignation of some Cabinet officials — and possibly even Lam herself. Beijing may even go as far as to influence the Hong Kong authority to pursue an inquiry of police actions during earlier protests — a key demand of protesters that the Admiralty rejected out of hand. Beijing certainly doesn’t want whatever concessions it grants to further embolden the protesters and the pro-democracy movement. But its more hard-line alternatives — especially the disqualification of a few of the recently elected pro-democracy candidates — would immediately inflame protests and push a resolution of the city’s crisis even further away.


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Venezuela’s Bad Neighborhood

The last few years in Latin American politics ushered in a wave of political upheavals from Chile to Honduras to Venezuela, and most recently Bolivia. Though the causes that sparked the manifestations differed across the hemisphere, Venezuelan involvement appears to be a common thread in the northern reaches of the continent. In a region that struggles to establish liberal democracies with fully-functioning economies, the socialist government in Caracas has an existential need to avoid isolation. It pursues this objective by destabilizing neighbors it views as ideological rivals and undermining the political opposition in socialist-leaning capitals. The governments of Ecuador and Colombia have both complained directly and repeatedly to the Maduro Administration about its meddling in political protests but their concerns have fallen on deaf ears. Despite crippling inflation and a contested political atmosphere, Caracas continues to see Latin America as a bad neighborhood to be managed.

Regional Problems

The complaints emanating from Colombia and Ecuador are a natural response to apparent Venezuelan meddling in their politics. During popular protests in Ecuador last month against suspension of fuel subsidies, President Lenin Moreno accused his predecessor, exiled former President Rafael Correa, of working with Venezuela to destabilize the Ecuadoran government. Specifically, Moreno accused Correa of “igniting” the protests using Venezuelan and Cuban agitators paid to fuel the protests. Indeed, many of those arrested were in fact, Venezuelan and Cuban, suggesting a more international conspiracy than a fuel-price hike would normally trigger. More ominously, the arrest of 17 Cuban and Venezuelan “spies” caught shadowing and photographing President Moreno’s convoy suggests those countries have a very high-risk tolerance for intervening in the affairs of their neighbors.

Colombia also has its concerns about Maduro’s political meddling. In an explosive speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Colombian president Iván Duque denounced Maduro for support to drug trafficking and transnational terrorism. In addition to having similar complaints about Venezuelan nationals sparking violence at protests, Duque was referring to the more sinister threat posed by thinly-veiled Venezuelan government support to ELN and dissident factions of FARC. According to documents leaked from the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Sebín), and the Operational Strategic Command of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (CEOFANB), there is a well-known and growing relationship between Venezuela’s armed forces and these groups. Among other things, the documents revealed the Venezuelan military supports the activities of Colombian guerillas it calls “red groups.” Trained by the military, these red groups can be directly integrated with ELN and FARC and can provide intelligence support to Venezuelan military planning for war with Colombia. One document addressed to the Sebín Director of Counterintelligence shows an ELN presence in nearly every state in Venezuela, a force the Colombian military believes to number 2000 guerillas.

Global Linkages Venezuela

Venezuelan meddling in the affairs of its neighbors is almost certainly not a new phenomenon. Maduro’s relationships with other irredentist regimes like Cuba, exacerbate the threat he presents to the region. His relationships with global powers Russia and China are a problem for the United States and therefore tied to issues of global imporance. The deployment of a People’s Liberation Army (Navy) hospital ship to Venezuela in early 2018 and Washington’s reaction to it illustrate this point. As troubling as a PLA(N) presence in the Caribbean may seem to the Pentagon however, Russia has far more robust economic and military interests in the stability of the Maduro regime.

Russian oil companies are a critical factor in preventing the slow collapse of productivity by Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA. Long the economic lifeline of the Maduro regime – and the Chavez regime before that – PDVSA’s decline, and Russia’s relationship with it, gives Moscow tremendous leverage over Maduro and his foreign policy. A Venezuela-friendly neighborhood is certainly good for Russia’s military sales program which had been at a low ebb after the April 2016 election of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK) in Peru and later Ivan Duque in Colombia. In PPK’s case, he set the conditions for corruption investigations associated with previous administrations’ purchase of Mikoyan fighter aircraft, Mil helicopters, and associated support packages. For his part, Duque demonstrated an early willingness to review the peace agreement with FARC, a move that threatened to reduce its influence and that of its Russian sponsor.

Hidden Hand

Apart from Venezuela, Moscow remains a primary supplier of hardware and expertise to Nicaragua and Cuba among others and uses those countries as enablers and staging areas for the conduct of active measures like those affecting Ecuador. According to a white paper released in May 2019,[1] “Russia seeks to undermine the consolidation of the region as a group of pro-U.S. states, and in the process, distract the U.S. and weaken its strategic position in the Western hemisphere.” Russia does this by propping up friendly regimes and manipulating the politics of others as part of its larger strategy.

As U.S. Senator Rick Scott said during an interview for Brazilian newspaper: Folha de S. Paulo, “Russia and China are in all Latin American countries, but not to help. They want to control.” In many ways, this is a replay of conditions seen during the Cold War when the Soviets used proxies to drive wedges between rival governments and indigenous or marginalized political groups. Many of those groups are still notoriously underserved by their governments and represent a tremendous potential for resistance. Venezuela, which exerts influence on all the countries around it, has both the political will to develop this potential and a well-developed capacity to do so. The ability to see Moscow’s hand behind Venezuela’s machinations however is not so clear. For its own reasons, the Maduro regime seems content acting as a Russian enabler in the region if not an outright proxy for Moscow’s interests. How long those roles remain unchanged in the face of Venezuela’s continuing decline is certainly something its neighbors will watch.


[1] Though this white paper, titled: “Russian Strategic Intentions”, is not an official publication of the U.S. Department of Defense, it is signed by the Deputy Commanding General of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and includes chapters written by numerous U.S. Military and Intelligence Community officers writing in their official capacity.


Dino MoraDino Mora is an experienced Intelligence and Security Operations Specialist with a demonstrated history of working in the international affairs industry. His expertise includes Intelligence Analysis/Reporting, Counterintelligence, TESSOC threats, Tactical, operational and strategic Assessment/Planning, Counterinsurgency, Security Training & Team Leadership. He has extensive experience in NATO multinational operations and intelligence operations. Multilingual in Italian, English, and Spanish. He graduated from the Italian Military Academy.

Militancy in Tajikistan Could Draw in Outside Powers

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.


A Nov. 6 attack on a Tajik security checkpoint in Rudaki district near the border with Uzbekistan reportedly left at least 17 people dead, including 15 militants, a border guard and a police officer, though subsequent reports Nov. 9 indicate that at least five more security officers than initially reported actually died.

Authorities have detained four people suspected of involvement in the incident. According to the government, the attackers belonged to the Islamic State and entered Tajikistan from Afghanistan. Islamic State social media channels on Nov. 9 claimed the attack and attributed it to the group’s Tajikistan affiliate, though this has yet to be independently verified.


The Big Picture

The persistent threat of militancy in Tajikistan will demand the attention of Russia, China and the United States given the security interests of all three external powers in Central Asia.

See Instability in Central Asia


The Latest in a Series of Attacks

This is the latest in a series of recent militant attacks in Tajikistan. Earlier incidents included an attack on foreign bicyclists claimed by the Islamic State in July 2018 and two deadly prison riots allegedly tied to the group in November 2018 and May 2019. Whether the Islamic State, in fact, was involved in the most recent incident remains unclear; details on the identities of the attackers have not been released, and some reports have emerged that the attackers were natives of Tajikistan’s northern Sughd region.

The Tajik government has been known to exaggerate the threat of militancy generally and of the Islamic State specifically to justify security crackdowns and political consolidation when what it actually is dealing with is local opposition to its rule. If the government is correct this time, however, then the threat of a spillover of militancy from Tajikistan’s long and porous border with Afghanistan has just grown.

The attack on the security checkpoint in Rudaki district highlights the persistent threat of militancy of all stripes that Tajikistan faces, something of direct concern to external powers in the region — and especially given the U.S. drawdown of forces from Afghanistan. Primary among these concerned external powers is Russia, which has 7,000 troops stationed at a base in Tajikistan and has voiced concerns over the militant threat stemming from Islamic State militants in northern Afghanistan.

Tajikistan Map Rudaki District

China has also become more involved in the security sphere in Central Asia due to its concerns that militancy could spill over into its restive Uighur population; China, too, has a military presence on Tajik territory near the border with Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor. And despite its intention to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the United States has also remained involved in counterterrorism and counternarcotics efforts in Central Asia. Even though all three powers share an interest in preventing or mitigating the spread of militancy in Tajikistan, tensions between them could arise if any one of these countries unilaterally increases its security activities there.

What to Watch for

Details about the attackers: Further details on the identities of the attackers will help determine their links, if any, to the Islamic State or other transnational militant groups. Connections to the Islamic State would indicate a transnational militant threat has emerged in Tajikistan, as opposed to a domestic militant threat arising from local political and security dynamics within Tajikistan, where tensions stemming from crackdowns on opposition groups and lingering animosities from the country’s civil war in the early post-Soviet period still simmer. External powers are far more likely to respond — and Tajikistan is far more likely to allow them to respond — if the Islamic State was in fact responsible. It will also be key to watch if more evidence emerges linking the Islamic State to the attack, and if there are any indications of plots by the Islamic State to conduct further attacks in the country.

Tajikistan’s next moves: Tajik security forces are known to respond to such attacks with military crackdowns and security sweeps, particularly in opposition hotbeds like the Rasht Valley and the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region of eastern Tajikistan. It will be important to see if such crackdowns lead to further clashes between security forces and opposition elements, whether political or jihadist. This could create a more tenuous security situation in the country, with greater instability increasing the potential for external involvement. If the Tajik government perceives a threat from Afghanistan that it can’t deal with directly, it would be more willing to allow such involvement.

The position of Russia and other external powers: Russia’s reaction to the attack will be key to monitor, whether in terms of increased exercises or potential deployments of additional assets and personnel to the country. A day after the attack, counterterrorism units based at Russia’s 201st military base in Tajikistan conducted a military exercise that involved a mock armed group attempting to seize control of a checkpoint and military hospital in a cantonment of the Dushanbe garrison. Russia has also attempted to have its forces return to the Tajik-Afghan border in the past, something the Tajik government has resisted — though it might relent if the threat level rises. If such attacks increase in frequency and intensity, not only could Russia’s security involvement in the country increase, counterterrorism involvement by China and the United States could also increase — potentially fostering increased competition between these powers.


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Isolating Japan

The White House announcement last month that the United States would abandon its position in Syria dumbfounded many of the world’s foreign policy practitioners including, it seemed, the entire executive branch of the U.S. Government. The subsequent attempt to react to the sequence of events it unleashed will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on U.S. allies around the world, especially those that are more or less dependent upon American security guarantees. In light of what appears to be a unilateral abandonment of a longstanding U.S. policy without warning or any appreciable coordination with allies, leaders around the world are almost certainly reviewing options for their defense. For them, reassessing the reliability of America’s commitment to their security will surely become a national security priority.

Vicious Cycle

Japan is arguably the most important of America’s nervous allies. With a post-war constitution that prohibits the maintenance of armed forces, Japan is particularly vulnerable to isolation due to a dramatic U.S. policy shift affecting security in Asia. This fact is presumably not lost on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe whose party has for years played at the margins of the Japanese Constitution’s Article 9 prohibition of military forces. The foundation of his party’s efforts sits at the heart of 70 years of Japanese politics but after the American pullout of Syria last month, Abe’s argument, that Japan must be less reliant on the United States for security, must seem strikingly tangible.

Japan exists in a difficult and dangerous part of the world. Apart from the immense and growing power of China, Tokyo faces renewed Russian challenges to disputed islands, festering animosity with the Republic of Korea, and a nuclear-armed North Korea that is suddenly receiving a great deal of coddling from Washington. The alarming apathy of the Trump Administration to America’s traditional role of keeping all this in balance is surely making Abe’s case. President Trump’s oft-stated desire to “get U.S. troops out of Asia” simply highlights that much of the shifting situation is due to his disinterest in the status quo ante. Though a few within the Administration have tried to make the case that America’s alliances are investments in its prosperity and security, all seem to have failed to convince him. While Japan’s moves to spend more on its own defense predate Trump, they will surely serve to confirm the President’s point of view…at least to some.


Apathy toward the traditional American role as marriage counselor between Seoul and Tokyo will likely have an unfortunate effect on cooperation between them.


The Cost of Peace

At the precise moment Japan is taking small steps toward a more independent defense policy, Korea is undergoing a political sea change. Though South Korean President Moon Jae In doesn’t speak about it publicly, there is evidence Seoul is greatly concerned about the trajectory of U.S. diplomacy with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Though he is largely responsible for the rapid warming of inter-Korean relations that enabled the Singapore Summit between Kim Jong Un and President Trump in June 2018, Moon likely made these moves in hopes of steering the process. Instead he found himself locked out of the room in Singapore. From that moment it was clear the cost of the breakthrough was the abandonment of 70 years of U.S. support of Seoul as the only legitimate government of the Korean people.

Sharing legitimacy with Kim Jong Un is a terrible position for the South Korean leader to be in; particularly since it comes as the result of a decision made in Washington rather than in Seoul. The decision also solidifies the Japanese urge to re-arm which in turn, heightens South Korean insecurity. The lethal combination of Japanese and South Korean hedging with Trumpian apathy toward the traditional American role as marriage counselor between Seoul and Tokyo, will likely have an unfortunate effect on cooperation between them.

Isolating Japan

The sins of Imperial Japan in the 19th and early 20th centuries serve as an inhibitor to cooperation with Korea. For this reason, the United States played a critical stabilizing role in the region as the broker of alliance politics between them. If, for example, Korea could not or would not work with the Japanese directly, they could at least collaborate multilaterally. At times when even this was not possible, each could work bilaterally with the U.S. towards common objectives determined by Washington. This approach, sometimes called “multilateral bilateralism” is not ideal but the United States uses it successfully in Southeast Asia.

In Northeast Asia where the stakes are higher, this approach requires a firm and flexible American hand. That consistency and the concentration it demands seem a distant memory now. Just yesterday, 14 November, Secretary of Defense Esper landed in Seoul with a demand the South Koreans pay an additional USD $5 billion to cover the cost of U.S. troops stationed there. The surprise 400% increase is a seemingly arbitrary number proposed by President Trump himself. and one sure to exacerbate Seoul’s insecurity. With the costs of alliance skyrocketing and its benefits decreasing, the unilateral abandonment of a Syrian ally in combat half a world away will surely echo in the ears of Moon Jae In and Shinzo Abe as they consider options for the future of their national defense.

We can already see the beginnings of Japan’s isolation in the form of worsening trade relations between Seoul and Tokyo, the abandonment of an intelligence sharing agreement between them, and Sino-Russian moves this summer to exacerbate a dispute over Takeshima/Dok Do. Though these examples predate the dramatic American retreat in Syria, we can safely assume Beijing and Moscow will view Washington’s lack of reliability as a golden opportunity to isolate Japan and use South Korean fears to break apart the mechanisms of U.S. influence in the region. Once a bulwark of stability, the self-inflicted decline of American leadership in Northeast Asia will present isolating Japan as a feasible and acceptable course of action for China and Russia to pursue.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

Water Wars

On October 11th, the Nobel Prize Committee announced its decision to award the 2019 Peace Prize to Ethiopia’s charismatic Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed Ali for his efforts to “resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea.” After 30 years of insurgency and 21 years of war, Ethiopia may finally have peace with its breakaway neighbor, a conflict that cost tens of thousands of lives. With the Nobel Prize announcement, the young and energetic former Army Lieutenant Colonel joined 99 of history’s most treasured peacemakers. Eleven days later, he promised he would mobilize millions of soldiers to fight Egypt if that country sought to prevent completion of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

The spectacle of a Nobel Laureate threatening war, even a defensive one, over water rights may seem like an anachronism but it is not. Water wars are the future of conflict in many parts of the world and the distribution and intensity of that conflict is intertwined with history, climate change, population growth, and of course geography. In East Africa perhaps most of all. The Nile River is the longest in the world. Its waters flow through 11 countries and provide water to 250 million Africans on its way to Alexandria, Egypt where it flows into the Mediterranean Sea. That geographic fact has determined the rise and fall of empires from the time of the Pharaohs, through the rule of Alexander the Great and later the Ottomans. Its course shaped European colonialism on the continent and is the source of a great deal of tension between source and consumer countries today. Despite this, riparian states like Ethiopia say Nile waters are not distributed fairly.

Africa’s Water Tower

Ethiopia is a vast country that sits on a mountainous plateau. It is the source for 84% of the water in the greater Nile river system upon which so many millions depend. The country’s mountainous geography and unique political history are the reason Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that was never fully colonized by Europeans. Despite this, Ethiopia remains poorly developed and water-stressed. Successive regimes in Addis Ababa viewed dam-building as a birthright solution to Ethiopia’s water and power needs but were blocked by vigorous opposition from more powerful governments down stream. No longer it seems. Increasing pressure to dam the Blue Nile led to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project. Announced in 2011, it will be the largest dam in Africa when it is finally complete next year.

Egypt sees the Renaissance Dam as a threat to its security. So does Sudan. Both have promised to defend their rights to Nile waters. This is not hyperbole. Ninety-five percent of Egypt’s 99 million citizens live within 20 kilometers of the river and receive 90% their water from it. Any reduction of Nile waters is quite literally a limitation on the viability of Egyptian society and industry. Thus far, both Egypt and Sudan base their claims to Nile water on the 1929 Nile Waters Agreement and the 1959 Egypt-Sudan Agreement which guarantee 66% of Nile waters to Egypt and 22% to Sudan. Designed to allocate Nile waters between British colonies in East Africa and the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, those treaties included no provisions for Ethiopia or the other riparian states that subsequently achieved independence. More importantly, the 1929 agreement gave Egypt veto power over construction of dams upstream.

Unsurprisingly, Ethiopians reject this arrangement on the basis that they were never a party to the agreement. More recently, they have been working with other upstream countries — Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya — as a bloc to pursue a more inclusive agreement that is nonetheless sensitive to Egyptian concerns. As part of that effort, Addis Ababa offered to release 30 billion cubic meters from the dam annually, a total they claim is the maximum they can release while filling the reservoir. Egypt however, is not satisfied with this number and wants 40 billion cubic meters instead, a discharge rate that would increase the time required to grow the reservoir from 5-6 years to 7-9 years. For the time being, Sudan is comfortable with 30 billion and was brokering a mutually acceptable quantity until those talks broke down last week over drought provisions.

Diplomatic Timeline of Nile Water Utilization

Water Talks

Where the talks go from here is a matter of growing concern in the region and beyond. The dam will be complete sometime in 2022, a decision point in Egyptian calculations and the reason the Egyptian Foreign Minister said the dam “will have negative consequences for stability in the region” if Egypt’s concerns are not addressed. Recognizing the danger of a conflict that could engulf all of East Africa, the United States and Russia have both offered to mediate but even the question of their respective roles remains a matter of some disagreement between the parties.

The controversy of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam demonstrates that water wars are no longer a topic limited only to science fiction. They are indeed a real and growing concern that erodes existing mechanisms of diplomacy and international security at the exact moment global warming, population growth, environmental degradation, and great power competition are changing the dynamics of supply and demand between source and consumer countries. Though resource wars are not new, the explosive results of water wars, like the one that could happen on the Nile, will carry these conflicts far beyond their parched origins to areas less vulnerable to water conflict. Responding preventatively must be an international diplomatic priority today so it does not become an international military one tomorrow.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

Overcoming Democracy: Italy’s Online Experiment

A political earthquake struck Italy this summer as alliances shifted between bitter rivals in the country’s complicated multiparty system. Power plays, miscalculations and surprise deals made for juicy media headlines, but the most important lesson for the world may lie in the way one particular populist party allows technocrats to substitute technological farce for representative democracy. Though the crisis for government control made global headlines, the internal dynamics are somewhat difficult for outsiders to understand. In his 2015 book The Italians, author John Hopper observed that the turbulent surface of Italian politics may be by design. “[in Italian politics] issues remain arguable, and thus negotiable.” he wrote. “Imprecision is, on the whole, highly prized. Definition and categorization are, by contrast, suspect. For things to remain flexible, they need to be complicated or vague, and preferably both.”

In August, Matteo Salvini of the right-wing League Party created the most recent “turbulent surface” by making moves to bring down the coalition government in hopes he would then win a snap election. Despite his soaring popularity, an unlikely coalition led by the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement thwarted his attempt to gain control. 5-Star and its center-left former rival, the Democratic Party (PD), looked past their differences to freeze Salvini out completely. However temporary, sidelining Salvini and the League was a surprising outcome considering the rise of right-wing parties and leaders in Europe over the past few years. Many of these parties, including Salvini’s, have both overt or revealed links to Russia and its strongman president Vladimir Putin.

The “Non-Party” 5-Star Movement

Far from being a typical political party, the 5-Star Movement is a self-styled “anti-party” group that European journalist Darren Loucaides said “tapped deeply into one of the most powerful forces in Italian politics: disgust with Italian politics. Rather than offer an ideology or platform, Five Star offered a wholesale rebuke of the country’s entrenched, highly paid, careerist political class—left, right, and center.” A grassroots, populist movement, 5-Star emulated the profane style of its famous comedian co-founder, Bepe Grillo, calling some of its early events V-Days, a play on both the 2005 dystopian film “V for Vendetta” and a popular Italian vulgarity. Initially, the five stars in the group’s name referred to its policy priorities: sustainable transportation and development, public water, universal internet access, and environmentalism. Over the past 15 years however, that platform has expanded to include term limits, preventing those with criminal convictions from running for office, and now also a Universal Basic Income concept similar to the one making headlines in the 2020 US Presidential Race thanks to candidate Andrew Yang. Not so flatteringly, 5-Star has also been connected to anti-vaccination laws, the Brexit campaign, and American political operative Steve Bannon.


“When Grillo and Casaleggio founded the 5 Star Movement, few imagined they would reduce democratic freedom by doing so.”


Though Grillo was the public face of the movement for years, the man that truly orchestrated its rise to power was an unknown Italian entrepreneur and political activist named Gianroberto Casaleggio. Casaleggio used Grillo’s fame, straightforward internet blogs, and the Meetup.com platform to create a “grand techno-utopian project…an online voting and debate portal.” Casaleggio hoped to make the elected Italian Parliament obsolete, putting the power to legislate in the hands of the Italian people through their computers and smart devices. As Louciades wrote in Wired, as early as 2001 Casaleggio surmised technology would fundamentally change governments and politics, creating greater transparency and political accountability to the will of the people. He envisioned “interactive leaders” that deal directly with the masses, bypassing the media and its role as an interpreter. In Casaleggio’s view, a natural consequence of cutting out the media middleman would be the “imminent demise of journalism.” Society would be able to see politics as it truly is, not the “virtual reality” the media creates. He did not mince words: “Overcoming representative democracy” he said, “is therefore inevitable.”

Philosophers and Technocrats

Casaleggio named his direct democracy platform after the eighteenth century Enlightenment author and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and set its launch date for April 13th, 2016. Unfortunately for Casaleggio, he died two days before its debut and would never know how Rousseau became central to the rise of the 5-Star Movement in Italian politics. Rousseau creates democracy without the use of intermediaries or the centuries-old political caste by allowing members to vote for candidates, create referendums on party decisions, propose and debate laws, and participate in fund-raising. As the internet and smart devices make the world ever more interconnected, the potential for these tools to facilitate direct democracy could mean drastic change for governance and politics. An idealist may believe that these systems, when integrated with blockchain or online-banking style security, could empower more voters and bring participation levels to new highs. A skeptic would counter that replacing representative democracy with internet-enabled direct democracy actually creates opportunities for coercion, cybercrime, and consolidation of political power in the hands of a few powerful technocrats.

Ironically, the 5-Star Movement has been roundly criticized for pioneering this technique though it directly contradicts their populist aims. When Grillo and Casaleggio founded the Movement, in part to cut the middlemen out of Italian politics, few imagined they would reduce democratic freedom by doing so. However, with power and information strictly controlled by a small group of technocrats at Milan-based Casaleggio Associates, 5-Star stands accused of silencing dissent. Italian author Silvia Mazzini compared Beppe Grillo to a populist dictator, ushering in new party members then threatening to ostracize or punish them if they do not support his ideas. Despite espousing a desire to empower the common citizen, Casaleggio Associates hand-picks candidates for the Rousseau elections without any transparency whatsoever. There are however, more obvious problems using Rousseau as a mechanism for direct democracy. In July 2019 there were only 100,000 active members on the platform, a tiny fraction of the 10.7 million Italians that voted for the 5-Star Movement in the 2018 general election. These are underwhelming numbers, even in a country where one out of four people still lack access to the internet.

The Future of Online Voting and Direct Democracy

Though access and participation are problematic, security is perhaps a bigger concern. Rousseau suffered several high profile cyber attacks in the run up to elections in 2017 and 2018. Hackers stole members’ information and even published phone numbers and passwords of party leaders in what was probably an attempt to intimidate voters and candidates. In response, the Italian data protection authority fined Casaleggio Associates for failing to fix several security flaws in their system. Italy is hardly the only nation experimenting with risky technology in the democratic process. The Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center released a report that, among other things, concluded “mobile and internet voting technologies are not presently secure enough for large-scale applications. Nevertheless, nations like Ukraine are “moving forward with integrating blockchain-based online voting into their national election systems in efforts to increase security and prevent voter fraud.”

Italy is the first large western republic to utilize an internet-based technological platform that purports to expand democracy on a national scale. As other republics around the world grapple with new wave populism featuring interactive leaders that use social media to bypass traditional filters, the integrity of democratic voting processes becomes a paramount concern. Italy’s ongoing experiment with Rousseau demonstrates that the security vulnerabilities of online platforms and limitations on participation, access, and transparency inherent in these technologies can make some voters more equal than others. The world will do well to look deeper and decide if this is truly an expansion of democracy or actually, as Gianroberto Casaleggio predicted, “democracy overcome.”


Wilhelm JaredJared Wilhelm is a Foreign Area Officer and former Naval Aviator who lives in Italy. He is a member of the Military Writer’s Guild, was named a 2014 Olmsted Scholar, and is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, and the U.S. Naval War College. His views are his own and do not represent the views or position of any other entity. He has previously published numerous articles on democracy around the world, including Some More Equal than Others.

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