One of the issues to do with the Fairfax/NZME media merger proposal is the decline in (a) news gathering and in (b) news analysis likely to follow in its wake. That decline is already pretty evident not only in the lack of coverage of the enduring social problems (eg. poverty, inequality, sexual violence, unmet needs in public health) that exist beyond the spinning news cycle. The coverage of international news is in an even worse state. It seems almost entirely dependent on a random selection of whatever some overseas news agency happens to be carrying overnight.
In that same spirit of randomness – but hopefully, with a pinch of context – here are a few interesting international stories that have largely flown beneath the radar this past week.
There’s a Cold War flashback quality to this Reuters story about the declining quality of life in Crimea, after its annexation by Russia. A bit like those “life behind the Iron Curtain” stories that were so popular in the Western press in the 1950s and 1960s. Reportedly, prices in the Crimea are now at Russian levels, wages have stagnated at Ukrainian levels, and the tourists from Ukraine have – understandably – stopped coming, thanks to the fighting in the region.
More than two years after Russia annexed Crimea and promised its 2 million people a better life, residents say prices have soared, wages and pensions have stagnated and tourists have fled.
The sunny and mountainous Black Sea peninsula is back in the news, with Russian President Vladimir Putin accusing Kiev of sending infiltrators across the border to wreck its industry. But locals say the damage has already been done by Moscow’s neglect.
“We joined Russia and they stopped giving a damn about us,” Yevgeny, a worker at a titanium plant in the town of Armyansk told Reuters.
“People are naive. They thought that if we were part of Russia, everything would be Russian. Prices have now jumped to the Russian level, but wages have stayed the same. That’s the main problem.”
2. Russia vs Iran
Talking of Russia, its recent use of Iran as a launching pad for bombing raids into Syria has been remarkably short-lived. The interesting thing about this story was the brutally frank explanation given by the Iranians for bringing the arrangement to a close.
[Iran’s] General Hossein Deghan was asked why Russia had chosen to reveal its presence there [ in Iran] whereas Iran had not.
“The Russians are interested to show they are a superpower to guarantee their share in the political future of Syria and, of course, there has been a kind of show-off and ungentlemanly [attitude] in this field.”
Ungentlemanly attitude? Interested to show they are a superpower? Kind of a show-off? Evidently, Iran was supremely pissed off at its supposed equal partner in keeping Assad propped up and functional on the battlefield in Syria. Russia, in the same week, had been trying to cosy up to Turkey, and make hay from Erdogan’s fury at the West’s lukewarm response to the failure of the military coup in Turkey. The blunt message from Iran was a reminder to Moscow that Iran is really its main ally in the Syrian conflict.
The battle for Mosul
One sign that the end game has begun for Mosul – the last major Iraqi city still in the hands of Islamic State – has been the arrival on the battlefield of the legendary Qassem Suleimani , head of the Revolutionary Guards. As this New Yorker profile claimed in 2013, Suleimani has been one of the most powerful background figures in the Middle East for the past 25 years.
Soleimani is rumored to have arrived in Iraq last week to prepare for the battle of Mosul with the Iraqi government forces and PMF. An unnamed Iraqi parliamentarian claimed in an Asharq al Awsat article on August 3 that Soleimani arrived without a passport and visited Mosul, Kirkuk, and the Nineveh area… The Asharq article also quoted a high-ranking PMF official, Nizam Assadi, discussing Tehran’s military assistance. He affirmed that the agreement between the two governments allows for Iran to supply the PMF, Iraq’s ministries of defense and interior, and its counterterrorism agency with “weapons, advisors and trainers for the war on ISIS.”
Mosul will be the final domino is the collapse of the Islamic State caliphate. Ramadi, Tikrit and Fallujah have already fallen. In Mosul, the separation of powers will be particularly delicate. The US has its Iraqi Army in the field, with the US special forces ‘ trainers” and coalition “ advisers” and ‘trainers” But the Iraqi Aermy is still a fairly ineffectual force, and – anyway – is primarily the military arm of a regime in Baghdad that has long been a virtual puppet of Iran. The bulk of the fighting for Mosul will be done – as usual – by the Kurds and the Shia militia, both of whom will be paying more attention to Qassem Suleimani than to the new American military leader in Iraq, Lt. General Stephen Townsend, who is the seventh US general to lead US forces in Iraq since 2003.
As Townsend told the Washington Post, his intention is to “pick up our pace of operations, our rate of fire if you will, so [Iraqi, Kurdish, and Syrian Arab allies] can posture themselves for the next big step.” He’ll be there for a year, and “it’s my intent to have liberated Mosul and Raqqa [in Syria] and be in a pursuit phase by the end of our tour.”
In case you’re been wondering how the political stalemate in Spain is playing out after nearly nine months without a proper, functioning government… here’s the deal. The first dramatic date will come next week on August 31 but as I’ll explain below, the decisive crunch vote will come on September 2. But first some background : after two inconclusive elections ( last December and in late June) the only important thing that the four main parties in Spain can agree on is that all of them desperately want to avoid being held responsible for forcing Spain to hold a third election. But that is looming on Christmas Day, 2016 if all else fails.
The key political players in Spain are : the old right wing Popular Party (PP) the new right wing party Cuidadanos, the old left wing party PSOE and the new left wing coalition Podemos/IU. Problem being, the PP caretaker government keeps winning the most seats, but not quite enough of them to form a majority government. It would need 176 seats to do so and even with Cuidadanos in tow, it falls short. (Many of the small regional parties in Spain support a referendum on Catalan independence, which PP opposes, so not much joy there.) PP has wrangled support from the likes of a regional party in the Canary Islands, but 170 seats is the best it can hope for.
On August 31, acting PM Mariano Rajoy of the PP will almost certainly fails to present King Felipe with a governing majority. That’s when the Plan B set out in the Constitution comes into play. On the second time around, the reins of power go to whoever can marshal a simple majority. To get there on September 2, PP can only form a minority government if its old left wing rival chooses to abstain. PSOE is understandably terrified of being blamed for triggering a third election, so if need be, it will almost certainly take the route of abstaining. In doing so, it will also try to paint its left wing rival Podemos as extremists who would have been willing to put the country through the electoral wringer once again. The trouble is, PSOE has to try and ring something substantial from this process as the price of abstention. This will almost certainly be the head of Mariano Rajoy. You resign, hand over to someone else, and we will abstain.
Unrtiul then, bluff is the order of the day. PSOE’s Pedro Sanchez is saying only that he will vote against PP on August 31, but thereafter….Spain’s politicians are notoriously bad at the art of compromise, so Sanchez will have its work cut out making a virtue out of necessity, given that he will actually be serving as the agent for installing the left’s ancient enemies in power. The public, fed up by the political paralysis of the past few months, will initially thank Sanchez for averting a thirds election. The public will also be crossing their fingers that there’ll be enough brakes on PP this time, such that there won’t be a resort to the austerity policies of the recent past.
Meanwhile….over this past fortnight, PP’s Rajoy has been stitching up the anti-corruption concessions that the young rightists of Cuidadanos are demanding as their price of cohabitation.
The bigger long term challenge is the one now facing the hard leftists in Podemos. In June, it gambled on replacing PSOE as the main party of the left, and failed. Its charismatic leader Pablo Iglesias was once an attraction, but he now looks more like an electoral liability. After the September 2 dust has settled, the damaging tactical differences evident earlier this year within Podemos ( mainly between Iglesias and his deputy Inigo Erregon) seem likely to resurface.
Songs Sung Blue
Here’s an interesting old ballad from the 1930s, about the feeling of loneliness. “The Cop On the Beat, the Man in the Moon and Me…” Great vocal by Leah Ray kicks in after about a minute…
And here’s another, slightly more modern song about the romance of being romantic, all over the world.