Case study Nagorno-Karabakh: What happens when international cooperation fails?

A few weeks ago, we discussed the limitations of the international community when it comes to intra-state conflicts. Today, we focus on how international organizations can cooperate to prevent inter-state conflicts, what happens when cooperation fails and how future failures can be prevented: The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict serves as an ideal case study to examine these three elements. 

In 1988 amidst the crumbling Soviet Union, a war erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Six years and approximately 30’000 deaths later, a Russia-brokered ceasefire ended the immediate belligerence. Yet, due to the obvious fragility of the truce, further international cooperation would be necessary to attain peace and prevent future wars. The second Nagorno-Karabakh war is proof that this international cooperation failed. 

Failed attempts at international cooperation

While the 1994 ceasefire ended the immediate fighting, the conflict was frozen but far from over. The problem with frozen conflicts is, that time alone does not solve them, cooperation does. With diplomatic relations and friendly advances, the two countries could have ended the conflict once and for all– but they didn’t. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan took the first step towards burying the hatchet. 

The international community made some efforts towards resolving the conflict. The most prominent example is the Minsk Group, an OSCE institution founded in 1992 with the purpose of resolving tensions between the two countries. Despite several rounds of negotiation and the creation of the Madrid Principles, the group faced heavy criticism for its apparent failure of mediation. [1]

Conflict resolution attempts were also made by the United Nations. The security council passed a total of four resolutions (822, 853, 874, 884) that condemned the violations of the 1994 ceasefire, called for a return to the negotiating table, and prompted Armenia to withdraw from Azeri territory. All attempts failed. The ceasefire was a missed opportunity to resolve the conflict diplomatically. 

So, what must change to bring about fruitful international cooperation when the next opportunity arises?

Why the chances of successful international cooperation are slim

According to political scientists Axelrod and Keohane, there are three main aspects that facilitate/hinder international cooperation – the mutuality of interest, the so-called shadow of the future and the number of actors.[2] In the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh, we find obstacles in all three categories.

The object of interest was the territory between the two countries including the self-proclaimed independent Nagorno-Karabakh region. Under international law, this territory is part of Azerbaijan, yet Armenian forces have occupied the area since the first Nagorno-Karabakh war. Since both belligerents want all of the disputed land, the interests are completely diverging. There is very little room for compromise due to the cultural and historic significance of the territory and neither party is willing to divide the land because that would legitimize the opponents claim to the area.

When it comes to war, the shadow of the future does often not seem so dark. Why cooperate and compromise if you can just achieve your goals with war? The mistrust that dominates the international field is especially present in this context. In war, the first mover advantage benefits the aggressor and thus increases the risk of escalation. It is only after homes have been destroyed and lives have been lost that the actual cost of war is felt. 

Even though the conflict started as a local dispute, there are now many actors involved. Turkey has a strong allegiance to Azerbaijan, Russia has a military base in Armenia, both countries are part of the UN and the OSCE. This complicated net of relations increases the stakes and turns the conflict into a regional powder keg. If even one actor breaches an agreement, decisive retaliation may result in complete escalation. Joint efforts by international organizations such as the UN or the OSCE were made difficult because both belligerent countries are member states and would thus oppose decisive action that went against their interests.

Where there is a will, there is a way.

It would be wrong to abandon hope for international cooperation between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, failed attempts from the last two decades have shown that it is no easy task. While the international community can try to facilitate cooperation between the two belligerents, the most basic requirement for success is the will for diplomacy in both countries. As long as either party is unwilling to compromise, it is only a question of time until the third Nagorno-Karabakh war breaks out.


[1] Hess Sargsyan, Anna. “Nagorno-Karabahk: Obstacles to a Negotiated Settlement.” CSS Analyses in Security Policy 131 (2013).

[2] Axelrod, Robert, and Robert O. Keohane. “Achieving cooperation under anarchy: Strategies and institutions.” World Politics: A Quarterly Journal of International Relations (1985): 226-254.

The 2020 EastMed Crisis – A Failure of European Solidarity?

“We almost went to war with Turkey three times last year.” This close did the Eastern Mediterranean come to erupting into conflict during the Summer of 2020. What’s more, this grim assessment did not originate in one of the conflict-stricken states bordering Turkey’s eastern and southern borders. It came from Greek Defence Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos.1 The question must therefore be addressed, how a dispute initially concerned with resource exploitation could almost escalate into an outright military confrontation. 

Realising conflict was only narrowly averted on Europe’ southern frontier may have caught some observers off-guard. Still adhering to the post-Cold War belief in Liberalist determinism, many Western policymakers have taken the ability of multilateral organisations to guarantee peace for granted. While institutions like the European Union (EU) may be suited to facilitate market integration, the bloc has with its unregulated engagement fallen woefully short in contributing to the security of its members. The close call witnessed in the EastMed should therefore serve as an urgently needed wake-up call! 

Recent Developments in the EastMed: Old Rivalries and New Alliances

The (southern) periphery of Europe is in a state of unrest not seen since the Second World War!2 Ideally, EU executive institutions and member states would realise that a divided foreign policy will leave them frustrated in every endeavour. Worse still, disunity offers ready-made avenues for authoritarian leaders to selectively challenge member states. In the absence of European solidarity, individual member states will be forced to rely on outside powers to guard against external threats. The risks of such a trend are manifold, not least because conflicting entanglements with third states may further fracture EU cohesion. 

Returning to the introductory quote, the case of Greece illustrates succinctly where a lack of EU cohesion leaves the bloc’s peripheral members.3 Not being able to rely on the bloc to protect itself from rising dangers in the region, Greece was left scrabbling for alternative ties outside its Western alliances. This development was further compounded by the US’ disengagement from the region, which precipitated the emergence of rivalling alliance systems.

Perceiving Turkey as an existential threat, Greece naturally joined a coalition that opposed Ankara’s revisionist ambitions.4 In pursuit of active deterrence, the Hellenic Republic has gradually built up bilateral and trilateral ties5 as a foundation for a fully-fledged regional alliance. The emerging coalition stretches from the Hellenic Republics of Cyprus and Greece to Israel and Egypt over the Arabian Peninsula (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain) all the way to India. 

Of all these ties, the Greek relationship with the UAE has seen the most progress. Under the de facto leadership of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ), the Emirates have taken a firm stance against Turkish support of Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood. United in their opposition of Ankara’s destabilising role in the region, MBZ agreed to establish a formal defensive with Athens this past November.For Greece, this marks a major step towards renewed engagement with its eastern neighbourhood, seeing as it constitutes the first agreement of this type outside the Western alliance framework (EU-NATO).

Future prospects: Stronger European Cohesion or Further Fragmentation?

The latest effort by Greece to cement itself within a new regional stability framework was the “Philia Forum” held on the 13th and 14th of February 2021. It brought together in Athens the Foreign Ministers (FM) of Cyprus, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, with the French FM attending virtually as an observer. The conferences laid out a broad range of economic and social domains on which the attendees pledge to cooperate. However, the broader implications the summit carried were unmistakable, seeing as from cooperation on peripheral domains would invariably follow closer coordination on matters of defence. The primary target attending countries intended to deter did not fail to take note of this development. The response from Ankara was the usual polemic rhetoric: Its Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hami Aksoy accusing participating countries of harbouring “hostility against Turkey”.7

On a broader scale, it must be asked where these developments on its very doorstep leave the EU. Although Greek efforts to solidify its deterrence have so far proven successful, there is no telling when tensions will once again spiral out of control. The only way to sustainably reduce tensions is for EU members to start conducting a more cohesive foreign policy. Members states should – for a start – terminate exports of military material in support of expansionist third states, especially if they threatened fellow member states. Coordinating such a transition falls to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. It is high time for her to fulfil her promise of a “geopolitical Commission”8 and realise a united European approach to external threats.


Sources:

[1] “Νίκος Παναγιωτόπουλος στο «ΘΕΜΑ»: Τρεις φορές φτάσαμε κοντά σε θερμό επεισόδιο”, Proto Thema, 01.02.2021.

[2] Tense developments in the region in addition to the EastMed conflict: protest movements in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Lebanon; civil wars in Libya and Syria; and the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war (September 2020).

[3] Similar instances of EU member states conducting foreign policies across purposes can also be seen in Libya, the Caucasus, and Syria.

[4] Ankara has made its expansionist designs blatantly obvious by its Memorandum of Understanding with the GNA government of Libya, wherein the two parties partitioned the Eastern Mediterranean into exclusive economic zones (EEC) contravening International Law (specifically the UNCLOS) but pursuant of the Turkish “Blue Homeland” doctrine. 

[5] The trilateral ties were established through the annual Cypriot-Greek-Egyptian “Trilateral Cooperation Summit” (held since 2012) and the Cypriot-Greek-Israeli summits (held since 2013).

[6] “Ισχυρή συμμαχία Ελλάδας – ΗΑΕ”, Ekathimerini, 23.11.2020.

[7] “Turkish Foreign Ministry accused the “Philia Forum” of hostility against Turkey”, Ahval, 13.02.3021.

[8] “The makings of a “geopolitical” European Commission”, ECFR, 28.11.2019. 

From a local dispute to a regional powder keg: The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict explained

Almost 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh is grappling anew with the implications of a centuries-old dispute. Under international law, Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region in the South Caucasus, to which both Armenia and Azerbaijan lay claim, is part of Azerbaijan – even though the majority of its population is Armenian.

The ethnic-territorial conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is multi-layered and complex. It contains political, socioeconomic and changing geopolitical dimensions – ranging from territorial disputes to ethnic hostilities. In order to understand other stakeholders, root causes, conflict dynamics and peace capacities, we need to take a look at the past.

Skirmishes along the front lines of Nagorno-Karabakh are nothing new

The power tussle between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over the region dates back to the 20th century. Even though in 1923, most of the population in Nagorno-Karabakh was Armenian, the region was attached to the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) under Stalin. 

When the Soviet Union began to crumble, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh requested the transfer from the Azerbaijani to the Armenian Union Republic in 1988, which laid the groundwork for the ensuing political turmoil. The request was rejected by both the leaders of the Azerbaijani Republic in Baku and Moscow. Nagorno-Karabakh’s declaration of independence in 1991 also went unheeded. This sparked a bloody war that claimed many lives and caused a stream of people to flee their homes. 

The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh: More than just a Cold-War-era relic

After the demise of the USSR in 1991 and the independence of both Azerbaijan and Armenia, the framework changed. The local quarrel over Nagorno-Karabakh morphed into an all-out war between the two independent states, drew in other powers and turned into a regional powder keg. Although the war officially ended with a ceasefire in 1994, frictions did not simply vanish. 

Peace talks chaired by Russia, France and the U.S. were slowly plodding along and eventually fizzled out completely – which led to new fights erupting in April 2016, lasting just four days and yet claiming the lives of approximately 350 people[1].

When analysing this conflict, one also needs to take into account that both sides are propped up by powerful backers: Turkey for example has close ties with Azerbaijan and is thus a staunch supporter, while Russia has provided weapons to both sides and wishes to preserve neutrality. But Armenia and Russia are both part of a security treaty of six former Soviet nations, which states that they must support each other in case of armed conflicts. This has led Azerbaijan to argue that Russia favours Armenia in this conflict. 

The peace deal in November 2020

In July 2020, the conflict started to flare up again and in late September, the Six Week War war broke out: 45 days of intense artillery fire, shell bombardments and more than 5000 soldiers dead[2]. In an attempt to damp down tensions, Russia brokered a peace deal – inked on Nov. 9 – which temporarily put an end to the Six-Week War. The ceasefire deal, under the aegis of Russia, also required the exchange of war prisoners, left the capital of the Nagorno-Karabakh region under Armenian control, but allowed Azerbaijan to keep broad parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and required Armenia to withdraw from other territory as well. The reaction? Jubilation in Azerbaijan, protests in Armenia.

The ceasefire did not last long: In December 2020, clashes were recorded and both sides started to blame each other over violations of the peace treaty. 

Whether there will ever be a deal that really manages to yield a permanent and full-scale settlement of the crisis over Nagorno-Karabakh remains to be seen. If so, it will end one of the world’s oldest ongoing conflicts. But if not, and if the countries involved are not willing to bury the hatchet, the fighting will go on and we could very quickly witness a seventh week of the Six Week War. 


[1] US Department of State, “Background Briefing on the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict”, 16th May 2016.

[2] BBC: “Nagorno-Karabakh conflict killed 5,000 soldiers”, 3rd December 2020.

The Moria Catastrophe and the collective failure of the European Union

COVID-19 and the US presidential election: If you’ve turned on the news anytime in the past few weeks, you will probably have realised that these topics have been dominating the headlines incessantly. Magazines are cluttered with news about the coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the world and were littered with coverage of a particularly heated election campaign and a very unusual and rocky transfer of power in the US. 

The current situation on the Greek island of Lesbos, however, scarcely attracts coverage in the news cycle, even though hundreds of people have died and are still dying in the Mediterranean Sea on their way to Europe: More than 1,000 migrants in 2019[1], 554 in 2020[2] and already 42 migrants in a shipwreck off the coast of Libya this January[3]. These appalling figures showcase a social crisis and call for a total rethink of both policy and attitude towards immigration. The issue is by no means confined to Greece only, but rather is the most obvious and significant symptom of an asylum policy based on fortifying borders.

Solidarity, tolerance, justice: Europe’s noble but hypocritical values

The conditions under which EU states are housing refugees on Greek islands are nothing new, the final catastrophe had already been brewing for months – if not years. The devastating fire in the Moria refugee camp in September 2020 only highlighted the political deadlock and human cost of the status quo, and laid bare the failure of EU member states. The humanitarian fallout caused fury among journalists and activists, directed sharply towards the EU. Empty words on the part of the European Commission and a tangle of bureaucracy, indifference, as well as a sheer lack of political willpower were met with widespread anger and seemed to typify the EU’s ambivalence towards the issue.

Two weeks after the Moria camp burnt down, the “Kara Tepe” camp was built and the people, who had just escaped intolerable conditions in Moria, found themselves in a refugee tent camp almost worse than the one before: Over 7,500 people are now living in a tent camp originally intended for 1000 people – among the dust and debris of a former military shooting range. Europe’s noble values – solidarity, tolerance, justice – probably sound like cynical mockery to those who are crammed into overcrowded tents and makeshift shelters with little to no access to water, food, sanitation and healthcare. 

But it’s not just Moria. The French port of Calais for example, has become a bottleneck for hundreds of migrants hoping to reach the United Kingdom – a journey now aggravated by Brexit. And since EU states like Hungary have put up border fences, the situation outside the EU has also become rather tense as migrants are looking for new routes: Many now try to enter the European Union via Bosnia. In December 2020, calls for help grew louder as thousands of migrants lost shelter after a blaze broke out at the so-called Lipa camp in Bosnia and had to live outside amid plummeting winter temperatures. Since early 2018, the EU has provided €89 million to Bosnia and continues to criticise the dire circumstances, as well as Bosnia’s dysfunctional migration management system to this day. 

And yet it is still hypocritical for the EU Commission to point a finger at Bosnia – after all, the EU member states themselves have also been unable to agree on a common asylum and migration policy. Especially now, as the EU border agency Frontex is accused of being involved in several illegal pushbacks on the part of Greek coast guards, it’s just duplicitous to call solidarity, tolerance and justice Europe’s values and at the same time tolerate that people are forcibly being prevented from seeking asylum in a country of the European Union – a right to which everyone arriving at the border of the EU is entitled. Passing the entire responsibility on to Bosnia and thinking that money alone will solve the problem will not be of any help. The EU should work with the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to find systemic and long term solutions, since the crisis in Bosnia is simply a consequence of the EU fortifying its borders.

Worse than the lacklustre response to the refugee crisis per se, however, was the EU’s continued refusal to completely overhaul its dysfunctional asylum policy. The two main flaws of the EU’s short-sighted, inhumane, and ineffective asylum policy have been known for years: asylum applications always take too long to process and some European member states simply don’t want to cooperate and still wish to seal off their country completely. 

The EU’s solution strategies: unrealistic, bureaucratic and too late

On the 23rd of September 2020, the European Commission launched the New Pact on Migration and Asylum in an attempt to streamline the EU’s policies in this area. 

Immediately after the pact was announced, it came under fire for allowing EU member states to opt out from participating in the relocation of asylum seekers by offering financial aid. Meaning that member states, which had previously flouted laws and agreements, suddenly had the legal permission to stand idly by. Critics have also expressed their concerns about the fact that border security had been prioritised over access to asylum and that the pact introduced measures that seemed to hamper the process of obtaining protection in the EU. Support, albeit half-heartedly, only came from a few countries – along with a lukewarm remark that the pact was at least a good starting point. 

Until September 2021, the EU wants to have established a new camp on Lesbos together with Greek authorities. For this, a memorandum of understanding between the EU, Greece and the European migration authorities was signed at the beginning of December last year. Once again, the solution comes far too late and is of no help whatsoever to those who are currently suffering. There’s a glaring irony to the fact that the European Union, the Nobel Peace Prize winner of 2012, continuously contradicts the values that the award represents, doesn’t manage to own up to its responsibility and doesn’t live up to the expectations it sets for others.

The EU must revert back to its values, and it must do so as quickly as possible. Because immigration is not something that will die down soon: The crisis is currently on a disastrous trajectory, because for years and years, it’s been categorically deprioritised, normalised and banalised. If the EU is not eager to deal with the grim reality in a human-centred way, this crisis will serve to further divide an already divided Europe, plunge Lesbos into even more turmoil and risk many more lives. 


[1] “Migrant, refugee death toll in Mediterranean tops 1’000 for 6th year: U.N.”, Reuters, 1st October 2019.

[2] “Hundreds of migrants still dying in Med five years since 2015”, BBC, 31st August 2020.

[3] “UN calls for resumption of Mediterranean rescues, after 43 die in Libya shipwreck”, UN News, 20th January 2021.

Genocide: The power of history and collective memory

As our thoughts today go out to the six million Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust and we remember the atrocities that were committed by the Nazi regime, we are reminded of the importance of remembrance, so that a similar tragedy may never happen again. The Holocaust, whose scale and organization were unprecedented, is without doubt one of the darkest chapters of human history. However, when we view the world from a global perspective, it is sadly one of many tragedies. Not only wasn’t it the first genocide in history, but it was also far from being the last one. 

The word genocide came into general usage after World War II when the full extent of the brutalities committed by the Nazi’s was revealed. In 1948 the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was approved by the UN and genocide was declared an international crime. The Convention defined genocide as any number of acts “committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”[1] and has since been ratified by more than 130 countries. 

Many genocides, however, have not yet been recognized internationally, or worse, have not seen the perpetrators take responsibility for their actions. We may not be able to bring back the thousands of people who lost their lives, but we do have the power to remember and honour the victims, to raise awareness on what happened and prevent the same crime from repeating itself. The Armenian, Cambodian and Bosnian genocides all happened in different historical and geographical contexts. Together with the Holocaust, they represent some of the darkest chapters in world history. It is precisely because of the important role history plays in shaping collective memory that these chapters must not be forgotten.

Armenian Genocide (1915-1917)

The Armenian genocide was the systematic killing and deportation of Armenians at the hands of the Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1918. The Young Turks, who had seized power in 1908, were reigning over a crumbling empire after having entered WWI on Germany’s side. Worried that the Christian Armenian population was planning to side with Russia, the Turks massacred thousands of Armenians, deporting them en masse from eastern Anatolia to the Syrian desert where they were killed or died from starvation and disease. Before the beginning of the war, 1.5 million Armenians were living in the Empire. It is estimated that up to 1.2 million died during the genocide.[2]

Despite early condemnation from the international community and a strong public outcry against the mistreatment of the Armenians, no strong actions were taken to punish the perpetrators. Moreover, no step was taken to require postwar Turkish governments make restitution to the Armenians to make up for the immense material and human losses.

Cambodian Genocide (1975-1979)

Another dark chapter in human history, the Cambodian genocide saw the annihilation of a quarter of Cambodia’s population at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, a brutal regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 under the leadership of Marxist dictator Pol Pot. 

The Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 with the goal of turning the country into an agrarian utopia: a rural, classless society comprised of collectivized farms. Money, schools, private property and religious practices were abolished, and rural collectives were set up in the countryside. In reality, however, cities were emptied, and millions of people were evacuated to labour camps where they were starved and abused. The regime singled out doctors, teachers, affluent people, anyone with an education as well as ethnic and religious minorities and whoever was unwilling or unable to undertake harsh manual labour was eliminated. Unlike other genocides, no one was immune from being branded an enemy of the state. Anyone perceived to be in the opposition was tortured and killed and it is estimated that 1.7 to 2.2[3] million people lost their lives. 

The international community was largely silent during the genocide, despite scholars and activists trying to bring attention to the atrocities that were being committed. Only after the regime was overthrown in 1979 did the brutality receive international media attention but it wasn’t until 2003 that an international tribunal was etsablished to try the perpetrators.

Bosnian Genocide (1992-1995)

The Bosnian genocide happened during the Bosnian War, a religious and ethnic conflict between Bosniaks (Muslim), Serbs (Orthodox Christian) and Croats (Catholic) that erupted after Bosnia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1992. The creation of an independent nation with a Bosniak majority was opposed by Bosnian Serbs, who launched a campaign to secure territory and rid Bosnia of its Muslim population. With the backing of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, Bosnian Serb forces targeted Bosniak and Croatian civilians in areas under their control, which resulted in the death of 100’000[4] people by 1995, 80% of whom were Bosniaks. 

In July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces murdered 7’000 to 8’000 Muslim men and boys in what will forever be remembered as the Srebrenica Massacre. The city had been declared a safe area for people fleeing the fighting by the UN and was protected by around 500 international peacekeepers. Serb forces, however, overwhelmed the troops, sent all the women to Bosnian-held territory, then rounded up men and boys and trucked them to killing sites where they were shot and buried in mass graves. 

Since the beginning of the conflict, the UN and international actors did not intervene, fearing strong action would complicate peace negotiations and jeopardize humanitarian aid. Even when it became clear that attacks on Srebrenica were planned, the international community did not offer the UN peacekeepers stationed there additional support. However, in 1993 the UN established the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia which eventually proved to be instrumental in the creation of the International Criminal Court.

The importance of history and collective memory

The above-mentioned genocides are but three of the many that took place over the course of the 20th century. Not only do they share the fact that they were initially neglected by the international community but, despite landmark international convictions and much documentation of the atrocious crimes committed, they still happen to be denied by certain actors. In Serbia, some nationalists claim that the number of dead is exaggerated and that Srebrenica was but one of the many atrocities committed during the conflict. Turkey has met the Armenian genocide with over one hundred years of silence and denial.  Similarly, there is a consistent and worrying number of people in the US and Europe that denies the Holocaust. Furthermore, after the end of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, many Western intellectuals of the left denied or minimized the human rights abuses that had taken place in an attempt to protect communist ideology.

The unwillingness to see and recognise what happened is not only dangerous but greatly undermines the role collective recognition and memory play in ensuring such crimes are not repeated. Healing the deep wounds inflicted by genocide is a difficult and perhaps impossible task. One way is surely for the perpetrators to be held accountable for their actions through international justice mechanisms. However, this is not enough. The international community has the responsibility to call out the perpetrators of such crimes and should adopt strategies to punish them, in accordance with the Genocide Convention. Seeking justice in the aftermath of such atrocities does not change the fact that if one had acted sooner, the brutality could have been avoided or at least stopped much earlier. Belated recognition also indirectly supports the proliferation of alternative narratives of what happened which undermine or deny the atrocious crimes that were comitted.

Many greatly underestimate the power of collective remembrance and recognition. Collective memory can ensure that the victims and the crimes are not forgotten, thereby preventing them from repeating themselves. Collective recognition and condemnation, on the other hand, have the potential to stop things from happening or worsening in the first place. Now the international community has the chance to redeem itself for past mistakes: by stopping China from perpetrating mass atrocities against the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority which is systematically being targeted by Beijing through a mass detention and forced labour program, restrictions on cultural and religious practices and coercive birth prevention. Despite transparent evidence of the crimes being committed, the international community has until now failed to address the situation in a meaningful way. The recent condemnation of what is happening by former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo is a step in the right direction but more immediate action is needed.

Extensive recognition of the present and remembrance of the past can spread awareness and are perhaps the strongest tools we have. The perpetrators as well as the survivors of past horrors will eventually leave us and then all we will be left with is history. We must never underestimate its power in helping us work towards a better future. To quote American-Armenian novelist Chris Bohjalian: “History does matter. There is a line connecting the Armenians and the Jews and the Cambodians and the Bosnians and the Rwandans. There are obviously more, but, really, how much genocide can one sentence handle?”.[5]


[1] Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 9 December 1948. 

[2] “The Armenian Genocide: in depth”, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

[3] The Cambodian Genocide, United to End Genocide.

[4] Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1992-1995, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

[5]Bohjalian Chris, “The Sandcastle Girls: A Novel”, Chapter 12, July 17, 2012.

The influence of right-wing populists on Sweden’s government policy

In 2017, politicians all over Western Europe were afraid of a ghost: the ghost of right-wing populism. It was not a new phenomenon in the world of politics but ever since the early 2010s, it has gotten more and more real. Parties such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany, the Front National (FN) in France, the Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands, or the Sweden Democrats (SD) in Sweden have gained more and more power and become serious competitors in national politics. Liberal voters and politicians struggled with this challenge and, as a consequence, right-wing populists performed well in recent elections in Europe. Fortunately, none of the right-wing populist parties mentioned managed to get elected into government, but some of them are haunting the executive and creating a strong opposition.

In Sweden, the right-wing populist Sverigedemokraterna (= Sweden Democrats) gained the third most seats in the parliamentary election in 2018 while the Social Democrats obtained their worst result since 1908. Due to their refusal to form a coalition with the populists, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven from the Social Democrats had no other choice but to form a minority government with the conservative party Moderata samlingspartiets. 

Policy-changes in migration and welfare-expenditures

Almost two years later the effect of right-wing populists is already noticeable. Sweden used to be a country with liberal and human policies. In 2015, it welcomed more than 160’000 refugees, which was, compared to its small population, the highest number of immigrants in Western-Europe. However, after the horrific events in the Moria refugee camp in September 2020, Sweden refused to take on any of the many refugees, while Germany rescued at least 1’500. The official statement from the government was that migration waves from recent years have led to rising crime and that the integration of the many immigrants has largely failed. While this might be one reason for a more conservative migration policy, this drastic shift is already heavily influenced by the Sweden Democrats who are pressuring the powerless minority government out of a dominant opposition. 

Another example of how right-wing populists can influence a country’s policies are the governments welfare expenditures in Sweden. Scandinavian countries usually spend more money on welfare than Anglo-Saxon nations like Great Britain or the United States. In Sweden, the welfare-expenditures steadily increased since 2014 at a high level. But in 2019, only one year after the election and the same year the new minority government was formed with the Sweden Democrats, the expenditures decreased by five percent. And during the Covid-19 pandemic, the country that was originally known as exemplary and reliable went into a questionable direction by not implementing early and strong measures to safeguard its population.

While the right-wing populists of the AfD in Germany never managed to deliver any policies at all, in Sweden they have succeeded in changing the country’s formerly liberal position into more isolated and conservative policies. The ghost of populism is haunting Swedish democracy and one question remains: Who’s gonna call the ghostbusters?

Pride vs. Prejudice: The struggle for LGBTQ+ equality in Poland

A mosaic of rainbow flags glittering on a grey and grim day, stunning dancers and meticulously designed, colourful costumes: That’s how the 2020 Pride March in Slubice, Poland, on September 5th, will be remembered. But not even the most incredible artistic ability could conceal the gloomy reality behind the glitzy façade …

Polish president Andrzej Duda, whose conservative-nationalist agenda saw him storm to victory in the 2015 and 2020 Polish presidential election, has incited worldwide outrage in light of his stance on LGBTQ+ rights. During his 2020 presidential election campaign, he repeatedly made use of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric to bolster his chances of re-election by wooing conservative voters.

A cultural conflict that has been simmering for years, has resurfaced

Since dismissing the LGBTQ+ community as nothing more than an „ideology“ that is „even more destructive“ than communism [1], Duda’s inflammatory rhetoric has deepened divisions between religious conservative and more liberal-minded Poles.

This kind of rhetoric was not only uttered by the President, but was voiced in Polish churches and on the streets of Poland: Last year, for example, the Catholic archbishop of Krakow warned Poland of a “rainbow plague”[2], and tensions boiled over on the streets of Poland when far-right demonstrators interrupted a peaceful Pride Parade in Bialystok.

Now, one year later, several Polish towns have declared themselves as LGBTQ-free, with almost 100 local governments voting to protect solely heterosexual rights. Even though these zones don’t have any legal power and are mostly symbolic, they have become a flashpoint in Poland as they are a jolting reminder that blatant homophobia is not a relic of the past, but is still partly woven into the fabric of Polish society.

Across the country, anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment has had a clear impact on the LGBTQ+community. A study conducted by the University of Warsaw[3] found that more than 67% of people identifying as LGBTQ+ in Poland had endured some type of violence, while 70% of LGBTQ+ teenagers had experienced suicidal thoughts due to enormous societal pressure.

A glimmer of hope

Some Poles have now taken it upon themselves to try and replace anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment with tolerance: Polish activist Bart Staszewski, for example, has produced a documentary film („Article 18“) which tackles the struggle for LGBTQ+ equality in Poland.

Moreover, the European Commission has described LGBTQ-free zones as a breach of basic human rights and withholds EU funding from them.

But still: According to Staszewski, Poland itself is far away from quelling its systemic problem with homophobia: As long as there isn‘t a sharp shift in government policy and a fundamental change of beliefs in the whole of Poland‘s society, anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment will most likely continue to loom over Poland for quite some time. 


[1] “Polish election: Duda says LGBT `ideology` worse than communism“, BBC World News, 14th June 2020.

[2] “Amid growing hostility, some in Poland’s LGBTQ community make a difficult choice: Leave“, Los Angeles Times, 6th August 2020.

[3] “Anti-LGBT rhetoric stokes tensions in eastern Europe“, The Guardian, 25th October 2019.

Why federalism hinders effective policies against Covid-19

Our world is facing the same problem, but different governments have reacted with different measures and strategies – and with different levels of success. Hong Kong and South Korea seem to have been the most successful countries in the fight against Covid-19. Both reacted quickly and implemented strict measures such as surveilling the movement of their citizens, quarantine, and consequent social-distancing measures. Additionally, mask-wearing is not new for citizens of Asian countries, mainly due to polluted air.

In Europe, Italy was the first country that was faced with the virus and reacted strictly with a first nationwide lockdown on the 11th of March. Germany and France followed with similar reactions, while Great Britain apparently needed its Prime Minister to experience the virus himself before taking it seriously. Sweden followed a unique strategy and the president of the United States is still highly incapable of dealing with any demanding situation at all.

Less political resistance in centralized systems

The Covid-19 pandemic did not only reveal which leaders are capable of managing a global health crisis. More than nine months since the outbreak and its spread over the whole world, it also showed which political system is the most effective and practical when dealing with a global pandemic:

The more centralized a system, the easier it is to implement (drastic) measures. It was not challenging for the Communist Party in Beijing to control 1.393 billion people in China and regulate their behavior. However, if the autocratic Chinese government were more transparent and liberal, the virus would have been contained much earlier. South Korea, a unitary presidential republic, successfully controlled the coronavirus by surveilling the movements of its citizens and implementing a national mandatory obligation to wear a mask.  Additionally, the government in Seoul supported the economy with grants from the very beginning.

The federal state of Switzerland, on the other hand, was still arguing in mid-October whether customers in a store should wear a mask or not. Of course, there are many more Covid-19 cases in urban Geneva than in rural Appenzell, but a virus does not stop at a border – and especially not within a country. After strict and centralized measures at the beginning of the pandemic, the Swiss government has lost control over the handling because the different cantons felt disempowered in the proud federal country. In Germany, a federal nation as well, the federal lands are pursuing different strategies that have caused uncertainty and political chaos in facing a second wave. In Germany’s neighbor-state, however, the French president Emmanuel Macron decided in October to reimplement a strict curfew and acted single-handedly without any form of political resistance.

Federalism – an imperfect system

While federalism is a fair system for heterogeneous countries in general, it hinders effective policies and force in times of crisis – such as the handling of a global pandemic. Centralized or even autocratic nations can implement a national strategy much faster and much more effectively than federal states due to fewer players and, therefore, less political resistance in the decision-making process. Whether this is democratic or not must be put on hold. Democracy means the government of the people, by the people, for the people, as Abraham Lincoln famously stated in 1858. This must be accepted, and policymakers must be trusted. Most importantly, in times of crisis!