Friends and foes alike no longer know where the United States stands. As Washington overpromises and underdelivers, regional powers are seeking solutions on their own – both through violence and diplomacy.
In April 2017, the Russian Ministry of Justice designated the Kola Ecological Center, a small environmental group in Russia’s Murmansk region, a “foreign agent.” The organization’s offense? It had advised regional authorities on nuclear waste handling and opposed plans to extend the run time of a local nuclear power plant—and, importantly, it had accepted Norwegian funding in the past. It now joins more than 150 Russian NGOs for whom the foreign agent label has led to crippling fines, onerous lawsuits, and, in the most extreme cases, liquidation.
Russia is not an isolated case. Governments around the world are cracking down on civil society activism. Pointing to threats of terrorism or the need to protect national sovereignty, they are erecting new barriers to the operations and funding of NGOs, harassing and demonizing civic activists, and criminalizing dissent through expansive anti-terrorism laws. Between 2014 and 2016, more than 60 countries restricted citizens’ freedom of assembly and civil society’s ability to access funding.
Violent protests have shaken Ethiopia in the last month. More than 50 people have died, most of them shot dead by security forces. In contrast to an earlier wave of demonstrations that claimed the lives of more than 400 protestors and security agents early this year, this time the protests weren’t limited to the Oromo federal state, but instead originated in the Amhara region.
The spread of the protests — and the accompanying violence — points to increasing dissatisfaction with the government among large segments of the population. Together, the Oromo and Amhara people, whose presence largely correlates with the eponymous federal states, account for more than 60 percent of Ethiopia’s population.
Somalia’s militant group, Al-Shabaab, has often defied its adversaries’ claims that it is in decline. In recent months, however, the movement has suffered setbacks, including territorial losses, high-ranking commanders killed and defections. The Somali Federal Government (SFG) and its internal, regional and international allies need to be clear-sighted about the reasons for these, and what they can do to stop another Al-Shabaab recovery.
Al-Shabaab’s set-backs – and fewer attacks by the movement during the Ramadan holy Muslim month of fasting than in previous years – are the result of three distinct and unrelated factors. First, an enhanced and largely externally directed and funded campaign including drone strikes has eliminated high-profile leaders and diminished its military capacity. Second, some of Somalia’s new federal units are demonstrating greater military effectiveness, even if they and the government still rely primarily on clan-based militias. Third, the Islamic State (IS) has challenged Al-Shabaab’s greatest internal vulnerability – its ideological cohesion.
Whether the Somali government and its allies can advance their cause will largely depend on greater agreement on priorities and coordination of action – no easy task, given the wide and diverse range of external and internal actors.