01 - US security
Law and borders
The US tourism industry is facing a PR crisis. Security measures imposed by the Department of Homeland Security following September 11 have frustrated visitors to the States and led to a 17 per cent decrease in tourism.
European countries have threatened to retaliate against new US legislation, expected to come into effect during 2008, requiring EU citizens currently exempt from visa requirements to give 48 hours’ notice before visiting the US. By next year, Homeland Security also expects to have a new system at airports requiring visitors to provide a full set of fingerprints (they currently give two).
US response to the problem is mystifying. The travel industry has employed Tom Ridge as a consultant to help encourage travel to the US. This is ironic considering Ridge, as the first Homeland Security chief, was the architect of the very regulations now deterring visitors. Walt Disney has also created a short film, Welcome: Portraits of America, to play to the queues at international arrivals. It was unveiled last October at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. We’ve seen it and it’s dreadful. The immigration wait was still 90 minutes.
“The damage being done to US tourism is tremendous,” says Steven Livingston, head of the Public Diplomacy Institute at The George Washington University. “This is such a typically US response – creating a video, rather than addressing substantive concerns.”
The treatment of passengers at US airports should be a matter of national shame. Homeland Security needs reining in.
02 - Alexander Lukashenko
Belarus’s leader goes nuclear
Called the last dictator in Europe because of his dismal record on human rights, Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko is also one of the world’s most notorious arms dealers. In his 13 years as president, he has sold an estimated €1.2bn of high-end equipment to the likes of North Korea and Saddam Hussein-era Iraq.
This October, he announced a new project: the construction of a nuclear power plant.Work is set to begin in 2008. The plant is meant to offset energy-price increases from Russia, says Lukashenko. But given his track record – he has sold weapons to terrorist groups and has been courting closer ties with Iran – analysts are concerned. And who knows what he is sending to insurgent forces.
“I wouldn’t want to see Lukashenko with nuclear weapons,” says David Marples, a University of Alberta professor and author of a number of books on Belarus. “He’s on a power trip and has a tremendous chip on his shoulder.”
But with Russian energy now at a premium, the EU is in a bind: Belarus exports around 30 per cent of Russia’s gas and oil to Europe – a percentage which may even increase.
Lukashenko’s grip on power is unlikely to be broken soon. He infamously promised to wring rivals’ necks “as one might a duck”.
03 - Isaias Afwerki & Meles Zenawi
Row in The Horn
Without the help of each other, Isaias Afwerki would probably not be president of Eritrea and Meles Zenawi would never have become prime minister of Ethiopia. Isaias’s Eritrean People’s Liberation Front and Meles’s Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front worked together to defeat the Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. Two years on, Isaias established Eritrea, a strip of land north of Ethiopia, as an independent state.
But their partnership has long since evaporated. A three-year border war, which ended in 2000, cost tens of thousands of lives. And they now stand on the brink of a fresh conflict.
Ethiopia and Eritrea are accused of fighting a proxy war in Somalia. Ethiopia has sent troops to back the transitional government; Eritrea has given support to the Islamist insurgents.
Another potential flashpoint is the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. Rebels in the eastern province want autonomy – Eritrea is accused of giving them financial and military support. Finally, there is the still-disputed border. Both sides have massed troops on their own side – so Meles and Isaias may end up fighting each other on three separate fronts.
US troops based in neighbouring Djibouti (see Monocle issue 8) will be busy in 2008.
04 - Bolivia
People have talked about Bolivia splitting in two along an east-west divide for years, and President Evo Morales’s anti-capitalist policies are adding fuel to the fire. “It’s going to be a very bumpy road. Morales will implement some change, but not all of his radical agenda,” says Erasto Almeida, Bolivia analyst at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group.
Part of Morales’s agenda is to write a new constitution that would keep him in power and boost rights for Bolivia’s Indian majority. But strong opposition is likely to limit its reach. Morales is forging closer links with Iran and has introduced new visa rules for US citizens only.
Even if the new left falters in Bolivia, Hugo Chávez is set to remain the region’s leading political figure.
05 - Switzerland
Black sheep of Europe
Once renowned for its tax-friendly cantons and precision engineering, Switzerland now has a darker claim to fame. The far-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP) took 29 per cent of the vote in the October election – the best result of any party there since 1919. And it can thank growing racism for its triumph.
An SVP election poster featured three white sheep driving out a black one, while a video called Heaven or Hell showed immigrants (played by actors) shooting up drugs and mugging pensioners. Amnesty International has documented growing police racism and abuse of immigrants in the country. Masked attackers set about an African immigrant with a chainsaw, severely injuring him. Bern was the scene of violent clashes between SVP supporters and leftists in October. Further unrest is likely as the SVP launches new anti-immigrant campaigns.
But perhaps we should not be surprised at this glimpse into Switzerland’s dark soul: its reputation never recovered from the revelations, a decade ago, that the country’s banks had laundered Nazi loot. And when even the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the voice of the Swiss establishment, warns of “increasing polarisation”, it’s time to take notice.
Switzerland: that bell you hear is a wake-up call. The rest of Europe: you can hear it too.