Country Profiles

This section is dedicated to discovering what makes countries unique and diverse in today’s world. Through the monthly publication of a country profile, we hope to connect the past, the present and the future of each country so it may be viewed from a multidimensional perspective. A brief historical contextualisation will give you an insight into key moments that led to the establishment of the countries we know today. The political system and geopolitical context will position the country within a broader political-institutional framework whilst the presentation of current relevant issues will provide an insight into key debates which are likely to shape its future.

Norway

In honour of Norway’s Constitution Day on the 17th of May and Union Dissolution Day on the 7th of June, this month we take a look at the history and particular geopolitical position of this Scandinavian country.

Historical context

The history of modern Norway begins in 1814 when, in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, the country signed its first constitution, declaring itself to be an independent country. Before then, the country had been a part of the kingdom of Denmark-Norway and been effectively ruled by danish sovereigns for centuries (from the 14th to the 18th). However, this self-proclaimed independence was not internationally recognized and Norway was given over to the kingdom of Sweden. The union with Sweden was less invasive and Norway entered the union as a constitutional monarchy, thereby being able to remain a separate state with complete internal self-government. However, Sweden still had complete control of foreign policy which, combined with the emergence of a strengthening sense of national identity, led to a struggle to assert complete independence. This goal was finally reached on the 7th of June 1905, which would go down in history as Union Dissolution Day, when the union was officially dissolved. 

Norway followed a policy of strict neutrality from 1905 until 1940. In 1940, Germany invaded Norway and carried out an exacting occupation until 1945. The bitter experience of the German occupation shredded the country’s long dominant political sentiment for neutrality, and led Norwegians to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. However, the country was always determined to remain independent, as shown by the fact that Norwegians voted “no” to entering the EEA and then the EU twice (in 1972 and 1994).

Political System 

The first constitution of Norway was signed in 1814, however, the country only became a fully independent state in 1905 when it was officially separated from Sweden. Norway has always been a constitutional monarchy, where the sovereign has little political powers, whilst the parliament carries out the majority of political duties. 

Form of Government: Constitutional Monarchy. 

Sovereign: The royal family is largely appreciated and respected in Norway. The current sovereign is King Harald V, who replaced his father in 1991. The sovereign does not undertake many political actions but has a representative role instead. 

Head of government: After the parliamentary elections in 2013, the conservative Erna Solberg was formally appointed by King Harald V as the new prime minister. The decision was confirmed by the parliament and a centre-right government was formed, composed of representatives of the conservative party and the progress party. In 2017 Erna Solberg and her government were re-elected after parliamentary elections.  

Legislative power: The parliament of Norway is the most important political body of the country due to the fact that it retains the power to contest the main decisions delivered by the government and/or the sovereign. The structure of the Norwegian parliament was renewed in 2009. Formerly it was a bicameral body, whereas it currently consists of a sole chamber. At present, it counts 169 seats and is well known as Storting. The representatives composing the parliament are directly elected every four years and compete in a multiparty system. 

Political parties 

  • Labour party: Since World War II, the party has seen the most success. In order to govern, it has traditionally relied on the support of left-leaning parties. Since 2013 the group has the most seats as it approximately received 30% of the popular vote in both 2013 and 2017 elections. However, the political fraction stays in the opposition.  
  • Conservatives: This is the party of the current Norwegian prime minister. Historically, this is the political formation dominating the centre-right and thus, it substantially relies on the support of right-leaning parties at the time of forming a government coalition. In the last elections held in 2017, the party obtained 25% of the votes and was subsequently able to govern because of the support of the progress party.  
  • Progress party: Ideologically, the party is positioned on the extreme right. Established in 1973, it gathered momentum in the first years of the 21st century. In 2013 it entered in a government coalition for the first time in its history as it supported the conservative Erna Solberg. In 2017, the progress party won around 17% of the popular vote. 

Geopolitical context  

The Kingdom of Norway is located on the northern edge of the European continent, sharing an extended land border with Sweden as well as minor ones with Finland and Russia. Besides its mainland territories, Norway also controls several islands and archipelagos inside the Arctic Ocean. It is this strategic geographic location in a region increasingly contested by great powers that has cemented Oslo as a vital geopolitical actor.

By virtue of its strategic location, Norway has been the target of geopolitical machinations during the century of its independent existence. In the First World War, Oslo was forced to join the naval blockade of the German Empire. The revanchist German Reich in turn invaded Norway at the outset of the Second World War. With the dawn of the Cold War, Oslo firmly recommitted itself to the Western bloc by joining NATO as a founding member in 1948. A decision that was no doubt influenced by the Soviet invasion of neighbouring Finland in 1939 which would have signalled to the Scandinavian states Moscow’s designs in this region.

Ever since joining the Alliance, Norway fulfilled a vital role of a maritime gatekeeper. Together with fellow member state Iceland, NATO is able to guard a vital naval choke point – the so-called GIUK gap – and thereby prevent Moscow’s navy from accessing the Atlantic. Keeping an open route to the Western hemisphere is crucial for Norway as hostile threats in this maritime space could threaten both its military as well as its supply chain security. These were challenged most seriously since the Cold War in 2019, when Russia conducted a major exercise with ten ballistic missile submarines. Moscow’s intentions seem to have been testing Oslo and its allies’ reaction time when it breached the GIUK gap.

With such developments signalling the return of Great Power competition, multilateral fora are a critical force multiplier for smaller states like Norway to protect their national interests. The Arctic Council has since its founding in 1996 served this purpose by managing to prevent an all-out competition over this strategic area. By fostering cooperation on “low politics” issues like Climate Change, Arctic research, and indigenous rights, the Council has been able to facilitate confidence building between members of the rivalling blocs.  

Looking into the future, ongoing trends may further increase Norway’s geostrategic value. Global Warming has recently caused the Arctic Ocean’s permafrost to melt and its ice caps to gradually recede. This in turn has allowed increased naval traffic to pass through the so-called Northeast Passage through the Arctic Circle and thereby connect Europe and Asia. Norway may in time replace the currently predominant Indian Ocean route and serve as the new nexus for goods travelling between the two continents.

Illustration:

“America and Britain play cold-war games with Russia in the Arctic”, The Economist, 10.05.2020.


Costa Rica   

Among Central American countries, Costa Rica is often considered the one with the most stable and democratic government. This stability can be led back to a distinctive history that brought about the political system we know today. In this month’s country profile we take a closer look at this small but unique central American country. 

Historical context

Like many of its neighbouring countries, Costa Rica was also conquered and annexed to the Spanish empire over the course of the 16th century. However, due to a lack of mineral wealth, Costa Rica enjoyed significant autonomy as a colony and the early settlers who came to the area were left largely to their own devices. The indigenous population who had lived there before the arrival of Europeans, however, was decimated and today only 1% of Costa Rica’s 3 million people is of indigenous heritage. 

During Mexico’s rebellion against Spain in 1821, Costa Rica followed suit with the rest of Central America and the new nation’s first chief of state was elected in 1824. Truly democratic elections were held for the first time in 1889 and are considered the first free and fair elections in the whole region. A pattern of isolationism followed and after the potential for coffee cultivation was discovered, the country’s leaders strove to promote coffee planting which led to increased foreign investment and export. The country’s democratic trajectory was only curtailed a few times, most visibly in 1917 when Gen. Federico Tinoco Granados led one of the few coups in Costa Rica’s history. Military rule, however, was not marked by the sort of violent extremism that has occurred elsewhere in Central America and was particularly short-lived. 

Costa Rica’s most serious political crisis to date happened in 1948 after incumbent Dr Rafael Angel Calderon and the United Social Christian Party refused to relinquish power after losing the presidential election. This sparked a brief civil war in which around 2’000 civilians were killed. The war ended in a compromise, with the promise from the government to make reforms in policy and civil rights. Since then the country has remained politically stable but suffered consistent economic losses over the years, as conflicts in its neighbouring countries discouraged tourism. 

Political System 

Since 1949 when a new constitution was signed, Costa Rica has celebrated democratic elections every four years. People directly choose the parliament and the president, who is at the top of the country’s political system and selects the members of the government. 

Form of government: Presidential republic.

Head of government: Since 2018 the president of Costa Rica and thus, the head of state and the head of the Costa Rican government is Carlos Alvarado Quesada. First and foremost it is important to underline that there are two Costa Rican vice-presidents (selected by the president) who directly and actively participate in the presidential function and hence, partly share the executive power with the head of the country. Subsequently, it must be pointed out that since 1969 the president of Costa Rica cannot be re-elected and since 2003 the Costa Rican president can be re-elected but only after two different presidential periods.

Legislative power: Costa Rica has a unicameral parliament composed by 57 deputies who proportionally represent the seven provinces of Costa Rica. The members of the parliament are directly and democratically elected by the people every four years. However, deputies cannot be consecutively re-elected but have to wait at least for one legislature to pass.  

Political parties 

  • Partido Liberación Nacional: it is the oldest party among the active political fractions. Founded in 1952, it has always obtained seats in the parliament by means of a social vision of society. In the current legislature, there are 17 members of this party out of 57 deputies and hence, the party counts more representatives than any other political group. 
  • Partido Acción Ciudadana: this political fraction only has 10 representatives in the parliament, but it is the party of the current president and thus, the current government. The political message of this group is based on the creation of a social democracy where the state directly intervenes in every single sphere of the society, including and particularly in the economy. 
  • Partido Unidad Social Cristiana: In Costa Rican society, Christianity is a very important element and this party represents religion in the political sphere. The goal of this political group is to implement policy based on the Christian doctrine. In the current legislature period, this political fraction has nine members working in the parliament. 

Geopolitical context  

Costa Rica is bordered by Nicaragua to the north, the Caribbean Sea to the northeast, and Panama to the southeast. It is, among others, an active member of the United Nations and the Organization of the American States. Due to its small size, lack of raw materials and strategically non-relevant geographical location, Costa Rica has enjoyed more peace and political stability than the majority of its fellow Latin American nations. In 1987, the region benefited from this when the Costa Rican President, Oscar Arias, submitted a Peace Plan, also known as the Central American Peace Accords, which settled the longtime military conflicts in Central America and especially Guatemala.

Current issues  

FINANCIAL CRISIS

Around the globe, the fiscal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been and still is, enormous. Debts have skyrocketed in most countries (and still continue to surge significantly), but the magnitude varies widely: In Costa Rica, for example, a huge pile of government debt had already been mounting for years before the pandemic struck the country. As spending continues to outpace revenue growth, and Costa Rica’s tourism sector (a major linchpin of the country’s economy) had to shut down, the country in Central America is reeling from one of the many adverse impacts of the pandemic: the financial side effect. Costa Rica’s social indicators have long served as a flagship of Central America, but the pandemic has left lasting scars on the country’s income inequality – and the economy. Taxes already only constituted 13.9% of Costa Rica’s gross domestic product, but a tax exemption for the most affected business, as well as financial aid for people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, aggravated financial problems even more. 


Tunisia

In honour of Tunisia’s independence day on the 20th of March, this month we take a closer look at the small North African country that ten years ago set the scene for a wave of change that would engulf the Arab world. 

Historical context

Conquered by the Phoenicians, the Romans and then Arabs, modern Tunisia is a mix of different civilisations that migrated to, invaded or were assimilated into the population over centuries. The country became a province of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, but its distance from Istanbul as well as the waning power of the empire left it independent in all but name by the 19th century. 

At the height of European’s scramble for Africa, in 1881 30’000 French troops were sent to Tunisia with the excuse of countering border raids by Tunisian tribesmen into French-occupied Algeria. The troops had no intention of leaving and subsequently coerced the Tunisian bey (local ruler) to accept a French protectorate. Despite the Tunisian elite initially supporting French rule, nationalism would soon flourish and by the beginning of the 20th century, a nationalist independence movement was formed.

After WWII, Tunisians continued to demand their freedom and in 1956 France recognized Tunisia’s independence and sovereignty. In 1957, Tunisia was declared a republic and Habib Bourguiba, a former leader of the independence movement, was elected president. During this time a pro-Western modernizing approach to the economy and society was adopted, including the abolition of polygamy and sharia courts as well as the confiscation of lands from religious institutions. These changes saw a rise in support for the Islamist opposition which was however forbidden from running in the 1981 elections. By 1987, Bourguiba had become highly unpopular and was deposed in a bloodless coup by Ben Ali who became the new president.

Ben Ali focused on similar issues as his predecessor: moderate and pro-Western in foreign policy and secular domestically, his government was reinforced by the repression of political and religious opponents. In contrast to his predecessor, Ben Ali attempted to use his Muslim faith to distance himself from radical Islamist critics. However, overwhelming election results in the 1990s slowly began to show a trend which peaked in 2004, when instead of retiring the president tweaked the constitution so he could run for another two terms. In 2009, his position was confirmed again and all parties seeking to blend politics and Islam were kept away from the ballots.

This abuse of power went hand in hand with censorship in print and online, increasing corruption, high unemployment and poor living conditions, eventually leading to an event that would ignite a wave of protests destined to spread all across the Arab world. On the 17th of December 2010, in protest at the way he was being treated by police and local authorities, young street trader Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, setting off what will forever be remembered as the Arab Spring. 

Ben Ali was overthrown, and a constituent assembly was elected to draft a new constitution. However, widespread discontent remained and led to a new political crisis in 2014. During this year new elections were held, thereby formally completing Tunisia’s transition to a democratic state.

Political System

Mass protests in 2011 drove the former authoritarian President Ben Ali into exile. The result was the democratization of the country with a new constitution and the consequent formation of a semi-presidential system where the president and the prime minister share the executive power, whilst the parliament represents the legislative power.

Form of government: Semi-presidential system.

Sovereign: The current head of state is Kais Saied who was appointed in 2019 after direct elections. The president of Tunisia serves for only one non-renewable five-year term and is elected through a two-round system where the aspirant must attain more than 50% of the total votes cast in the first round. In case the mark is not reached, a second run is conducted between the top two candidates.

Head of government: Kais Saied governs the country with the support of the prime minister, Hichem Mechichi, who was appointed by the same president after being elected in 2020. The functions of the Tunisian prime minister are mainly subordinated to those of the president. 

Legislative power: Tunisia has a 217-member unicameral Assembly of the Representatives of the People which forms the parliament. Elections are held every 5 years and are conducted through a proportional party list system. The most recent elections took place in 2019 and the first elections after the revolution of 2011 were held in 2014. 

Political Parties 

  • Ennahda Movement: the most popular party in Tunisia, it received approximately 20% of the votes in the last parliamentary elections. It is a centre-right movement promoting an islamic democracy.
  • Heart of Tunisia: 2019 were the first elections for this new party which gained 15% of the votes. It is a centre and secular party.
  • Free Destourian Party: it is composed by former members of the ruling party before 2011. It is a secular party and also Tunisian nationalist.
  • Democratic Current: the goal of this party is to form a unique, giant arab federal state. Furthermore, it is positioned centre-left and encourages the creation of a social state.

Geopolitical Context

The Republic of Tunisia is located in the centre of the Maghreb region of North Africa, bordering fellow Maghreb countries Algeria and Libya to its west and east, respectively. It also possesses an extended coastline along the central Mediterranean, a feature that has in recent years come to shape Tunisia’s relations with maritime powers like Italy and Turkey.

Before Tunisia’s current trend of increased ties with Mediterranean states, its political leadership was long preoccupied with the difficult democratic transition process following the 2011 revolution. During this period, the Tunisian government was too politically fragile to even defend the interest of citizens in neighbouring Libya during its extended civil war. This geopolitical impotence would become blatantly obvious with Tunisia’s exclusion from the Berlin Conference held in January of 2020, where the future of its neighbour – Libya – was decided without any input from Tunis. In a turnabout of its previous isolation, President Kais Saied was able to host the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) in Tunis, an initiative that would pave the way for the current transitional government under Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah.

Beside its renewed engagement in Libya, Tunis has also strengthened partnerships across the Mediterranean. With Sub-Saharan Africa increasingly being considered a promising future hub for manufacturing and exports, the Maghreb is consequently starting to be eyed by capital-rich European and Middle Eastern states as a potential entryway into the continent. Tunisia, as part of the so-called Central Corridor, has in recent years seen extensive (and largely state-directed) investment from Turkey and Italy, but also from more distant investors like Qatar. Italy, for its part, has invested in highway and railway links from Algiers to Tunis, which are intended to be augmented by a Trans-Saharan Highway in the near future. This emerging corridor would then be further tied into the maritime route of the Italian shipping port in Taranto, firmly establishing Tunisia as a commercial and transportational nexus.

Tunisia’s strategic location, connecting Europe and Africa, has therefore defined its recent political re-engagement on the international stage and recently forged ties may shape its future for years to come.

Current Issues

Large-scale protests calling for social justice & reforms at the start of this year

Roughly two months ago, nationwide protests erupted in response to socio-political inequality, youth unemployment and gloomy economic prospects in debt-ridden Tunisia. COVID-19 weakened Tunisia’s already frail economy even further and in turn led to people feeling disenfranchised, forgotten and ignored after recurring pleas for systemic reforms went unheeded. The protests eventually turned into lootings and violent altercations between police officers and protesters. While the main source of motivation for the demonstrations definitely stems from collective frustration concerning the dire economic situation, the unrest was also fuelled by Hichem Mechichi announcing a four-day total lockdown to stop the surge of coronavirus cases: Some protestors claimed that this announcement served as proof for the government’s attempt to muffle uncomfortable and unwelcome political opinions. The subsequent uproar was a reaction to the police clamping down on protestors who did not want to abide by the lockdown rules due to heightened worries that their post-2011 liberty might be in jeopardy.

As of now, the protests seem to be on the wane – but that’s not to say that they won’t resurface over the course of the months ahead.

Arab spring anniversary

Ten years after the uprising against Ben Ali, Tunisians are venting their fury on the current administration, claiming that the government has failed to tackle the vestiges of past grievances. As the voices of protest grow louder and louder, a question starts to arise: Was the revolution in 2011 even worth it? On the one hand, Tunisians now have more opportunities to object and voice their doubts; freedom of speech is now not as curtailed as it was back in the day when Tunisia was a full-on autocracy. Tunisia is now a democracy (even though its functionality can be called into question) with elections and freedom of speech. On the other hand, structural inequality and unemployment continue to afflict the country to this very day: For the past 7 years, the unemployment rate has stood relatively static at 15%[1], but youth unemployment (among 15-24 year-olds) has risen to 36%[2]. This (along with the pandemic) has led many Tunisians to migrate[3]. To put it in a nutshell: Tunisia now is nowhere near the fair and prosperous country Tunisians hoped for and the revolution definitely didn’t pan out the way revolutionists wanted it to. Yet Tunisia is often seen as the success story of the Arab spring, because, unlike countries like Syria and Yemen, Tunisia is not mired in a full-scale war. The topic remains a double-edged sword…


[1] World Bank (2021, January 29): Unemployment, total (% of total labor force) (modeled ILO estimate) – Tunisia.

[2] World Bank (2021, January 29): Unemployment, youth total (% of total labor force ages 15-24) (modeled ILO estimate) – Tunisia.

[3] Foroudi, L.  (2020, September 1): COVID-19 fallout drives Tunisians to Italy despite deportations. The New Humanitarian.


Estonia

In honour of Estonia’s independence day on the 24th of February, this month we take a closer look at the complex historical and geopolitical role the small Baltic country has played in the past and continues to play today.

Historical Context

Coveted by Germany, Sweden and Russia, the small Baltic country of Estonia was dominated by foreign powers throughout much of its history. The country entered the modern period under Russian domination and throughout the 19th century underwent a period of Russification which contributed to its national awakening. In 1905 the revolution that had started in Russia spread across the area and, on the 24th of February 1918, as chaos was sweeping across Russia after the Bolsheviks seized power, Estonia declared its independence. This period of independence, however, would not last long and Estonia fell under Russian rule again in 1939 with the secret German-Soviet Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.[1]A puppet government was installed and Estonia became a part of the USSR. 

A period of repression and mass deportations ensued which, combined with WWII, devastated the country. During the war, Estonia was occupied by the Germans for three years, an occupation which was initially welcomed as a chance for statehood but was soon crushed when the Germans began executing communist collaborators. After the war, Estonia was annexed into the Soviet Union and underwent a difficult period of violent repression. Between 1945 and 1953, an estimated 80’000 Estonians were deported and massive immigration from all over the USSR diluted the indigenous population. In the mid-1980s, as the Soviet Union stood on the brink of economic collapse, an opposition began to emerge and in 1990 free elections were held, despite Moscow’s orders. In 1991 Estonia regained its independence. 

By the end of the 1990s, Estonia had developed into a stable democracy, with a fairly robust economy which was further strengthened at the beginning of the 21st century. In foreign affairs, the country has sought to strengthen its relations with Russia and Western Europe. In 2005, Estonia joined NATO and the EU and, despite the 2008 crisis, the Euro in 2011.


[1] The pact of non-aggression between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was signed only a few days before the beginning of WWII and divided Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence. 

Political System

Estonia has formally been a parliamentary republic since June 1992, when a new constitution was established. In this system, the President is the head of state. However, the majority of governmental powers remain in the Parliament, which has a direct influence on the Government. 

Form of Government: Parliamentary republic. 

Head of State: The current president is Kersti Kaljulaid. She was indirectly elected by the Parliament in October 2016. The President of Estonia serves for a five-year term and is eligible for a second term. The functions of the President are mainly representative. 

Head of Government: The Prime Minister of Estonia is the head of the Estonian Government and is appointed by the President with the approval of the Parliament. In March 2019 Juri Ratas was elected as Prime Minister of Estonia, however he resigned in January 2021. Subsequently, President Kersti Kaljulaid decided to appoint Kaja Kallas as the new head of the Government. This change has made Estonia the only country in the world to have both a female President and Prime Minister.

Legislative Power: Estonia has a 101-member unicameral Parliament known as Riigikogu. The Parliament is directly elected by Estonians every 4 years: the last elections were held in March 2019, whilst the next polls are expected to be in March 2023. Through a vote of confidence, the Government is directly reliant on the support of the Parliament, which selects the President but can be dissolved by the same.

Political Parties: 

  • Reform Party: the party of Prime Minister Kaja Kallas is a centre-right, conservative organization. Currently, it is the dominant political faction in Estonia. 
  • Centre Party: This party has always secured parliamentary seats following independence. Ideologically, the Centre Party is populist and centre orientated. 
  • Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE): it is a nationalist and conservative political movement.
  • Social Democratic Party (SDE): this party is mainly left oriented, promoting social democracy. 

Geopolitical Context

The Republic of Estonia is situated in northeastern Europe, sharing land borders with the Russian Federation to its east and Latvia to its south, while also sharing a maritime border with Finland across the eponymously named Gulf of Finland. Together with Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia forms a subregion commonly known as the Baltics. These countries share close historical ties as well as membership in NATO.

Following its secession from the Soviet Union in 1990, Estonia’s defence policy has to a large extent been defined by its NATO membership. Although this move brought Tallinn into close security partnerships with most of its western neighbours, membership in the Alliance transformed Estonia once again into a frontier state and earned it the ire of its imposing neighbour to the east. Since giving up on a pan-European project, Russian President Vladimir Putin has followed a revisionist agenda regarding Russia’s “near abroad”. Estonia, on account of its sizable Russian minority (24.7%)[2], is viewed as part of this area. Moscow, for its part, reserves for itself the right to intervene in these states whenever feeling its “vital interests” to be at stake. 

The danger Moscow poses for Estonia’s national security has repeatedly manifested itself in the past. However, due to the conventional deterrence offered by the NATO security umbrella, encroachments have primarily been of asymmetrical nature. The most consequential such instance was a massive wave of cyberattacks launched at governmental and commercial targets in Estonia over a three-week period in 2007. The technique used was to overload vital digital infrastructure with an avalanche of traffic.[3] This event marked a wakeup call for Estonia’s defence sector, firmly committing it to improve cyber resilience. Some of its NATO allies were slower to grasp this new reality. Only after the cyberattack on the 2016 US Presidential Election did the Alliance gradually start investing in collective cyber defence.

When it comes to the state of conventional armed forces in Estonia, potential threats persist despite the NATO umbrella. Geographically, Estonia and the Baltics in general find themselves within a dangerous triangle, comprised of Russia to the east, Moscow-aligned Belarus to the southeast, as well as Russian exclave Kaliningrad in the southwest. The latter of which is a remnant of German East Prussia, conquered by the Soviet Union in 1945 and inherited by Russia in 1991. This encirclement of the Baltics has recently become a matter of concern for the Alliance, especially following the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea and the Donbass. To deter Moscow from launching similar incursion in its purview, NATO has gradually built up its presence in the Baltics.[4]Recent divisions within the Alliance have, however, raised fears as to its actual willingness to defend weaker members. The recommitment to Article 5 by newly elected US President Joe Biden will therefore come as a welcomed reassurance for Estonia and the Alliance at large.


[2]“Rahvaarv rahvuse järgi”, stat.ee, 09.06.2020.

[3]Moscow conducted the cyberattack in response to the Estonian government relocating a Soviet war monument away from Tallinn’s city centre. See: “War by other Means. Geoeconomics and Statecraft”, Robert D. Blackwill & Jennifer M. Harris, Cambridge 2016.

[4] “Boosting NATO’s presence in the east and southeast”, Nato.int, 20.10.2020.

Illustration:
  • “Nato’s new fronts”, Der Spiegel, 24.05.2017.

Current Issues


Estonia’s first female PM sworn in & new government takes power

After former Prime Minister Jüri Ratas resigned in the wake of an alleged corruption scandal, Kaja Kallas, 43, has taken on the role of Prime Minister on 25 January 2021. She is the daughter of Siim Kallas, the founder of the Reform Party and former Prime Minister from 2002 to 2003. Following the transfer of power, the right-wing populist EKRE has now left the government and Kallas has started following up on her promises. “Gender balance” was on her agenda from the moment she came into office: Her cabinet is deliberately balanced: Out of her 14 ministers, six are women – including the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Moreover, Kalla – a convinced European and former Member of the European Parliament (2014-2018) – also wants to focus on restoring Estonia’s international reputation after two rather troubled years with a far-right party as part of the country’s fragile government coalition.

Kallas clearly has a tough task ahead of her: Firstly, due to the pandemic, the unemployment rate has risen dramatically. Another social problem that has repeatedly caused tensions is the situation of the Russian-speaking minority in Estonia. Kallas believes that people’s standard of living is more important than their ethnicity and now wants to tackle the problem at its root and reform the education system. (At the moment, Estonia basically has separate Russian and Estonian speaking schools that don’t really provide an equal education). Whether Kallas will manage to live up to the expectations people have set for her, remains to be seen. One definitely has to keep in mind that although Kaja Kallas is considered quite progressive, she has no governmental experience whatsoever.


Japan: a country of complexity and contrast

Complexity and contrast are two words that adequately describe Japan, a country with an intricate and ancient cultural tradition that has emerged, since the 1950s, as one of the world’s economically and technologically most advanced societies. A complex and diverse history has led the country from being one of the most war-like nations in the early 20th century, to a voice of pacifism and restraint on the international stage. 

Historical context

Between the 17th and 19th century Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa Shoguns in what is known as the Edo period and the beginning of Japanese modern history. During this era, Japan was completely closed off from the outside world and fully self-sustaining. Fearful of the potential negative influence of Christianity, the only contact with other cultures was through Dutch merchants until 1886 when the Tokugawa shogunate was replaced by the Meiji Empire and Japan became a constitutional monarchy.

The new government opened Japan to the world and, fearing colonisation by the West, soon embarked on a grand project of industrialization and militarization in order to become a force to be reckoned with on the world stage. A formidable armed force was built and thanks to victories in the Sino-Japanese (1895) and Russo-Japanese (1904-05) Wars, Japan was soon recognized as a world power and annexed Korea in 1910. In WWI the newly established power sided with the Allies and subsequently became a part of the League of Nations.

However, the Japanese were never truly considered as equals by Western powers and faced countless discriminations. The culmination was the introduction of race-based immigration policies in America in 1924 that effectively targeted the Japanese. Wanting to prove how great a power it could be, Japan invaded China in 1931, Indochina in 1940 and officially entered WWII in 1941 by attacking Pearl Harbour. Despite initial successes, the tide soon started to turn and Japan suffered numerous defeats in the following years. The worst, however, came on the 8th of August 1945: after Japan ignored calls for unconditional surrender, the USA dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing 90’000 civilians. The emperor formally surrendered after another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later, killing 50’000 people.

After the war, Japan was occupied by the United States until 1952 during which a new constitution was drafted, state and religion were separated and suffrage was extended to women. In 1951, a security treaty was signed that stipulated Japan would fall under the umbrella of protection of the US military. The treaty remains valid to this day.
During this time the country also began a trajectory of tremendous economic growth with GDP increasing by an average of 10% a year in the 1960s. The 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics were seen as a turning point, the moment Japan finally recovered from the devastation of WWII and placed itself at the forefront of the world economy. However, at the end of the 1980s, the bubble burst and the country entered the so-called “Lost Decade”, a period of economic stagnation. Since then Japan has strived to recover, effectively achieving this goal in the past years. Today it is at the top of the world’s manufacturing countries and a global financial leader. 

Political System 

Japan became a constitutional monarchy in 1868. At the top of this system, there is the Emperor. Subsequently, the parliament divided into two bodies administrates the legislative power, whilst the government, headed by the Prime Minister, manages the executive power.

Form of Government: constitutional monarchy.

Sovereign: Emperor Naruhito has been the leader of Japan since May 2019. He inherited the role from his father who abdicated after a reign of 30 years. The functions of the Emperor are mainly representative.

Head of Government: Yoshihide Suga was elected by a diet formed by the two chambers composing the parliament and formally appointed by the Emperor in September 2020. He is a member of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and served as deputy during the mandate of the former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who resigned due to health reasons. 

Legislative Power: the parliament is divided into two Chambers, both elected by direct suffrage and with a mixed system (first-past-the-post and proportional). The Chamber of Counsellors or Upper Chamber includes 245 members elected for 6 years, with half renewed every three years. The House of Representatives or Lower Chamber counts 465 members who are elected for 4 years. The two Chambers together form a diet, which elects the Prime Minister and controls the activity of the government. 

Political Parties: 

  • Liberal Democratic Party (LDP): It is a conservative party. It is the strongest political party in Japan since 1945 and in the last elections, it gained till 284 seats in the House of Representatives. 
  • Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP)It is a centre-left party. It is the main party of the left wing and currently has 55 members in the House of Representatives. 
  • Party of Hope: It is a conservative party, and currently has 50 representatives in the Lower Chamber. 
  • Kōmeitō (Buddhist): It is a religious party and thus, it is less ideologically positioned. There are 29 members of the party in the current House of Representatives.
  • Japanese Communist Party (JCP): The extreme left party has 12 members in the House of Representatives elected on 22nd October 2017. 

The Lower Chamber is also composed of 22 independents and 13 members of other parties. 

Geopolitical context  

Japan is located in the North Pacific Ocean, approximately 1.000 km away from the South Korean coast in the east. Its geopolitical situation is comparable to Great Britain’s: Both countries are islands, old and formerly great imperial powers as well as powerful economic nations. However, while Britain can rely on the military protection of NATO as well as on economic relations with the EU – despite Brexit –  Japan’s welfare and security depends heavily on China and the United States, a permanent act of balance.

China is Japan’s closest economic trade partner. In 2018, Japan exported goods worth US$ 144 billion to China which makes it Japan’s number one trade partner, followed by the US and South Korea. On the other hand, China is also Japan’s great regional rival. Ever since Xi Jinping took office in 2013, China has intensified its expansion in the South-East Asian Sea and has asserted control over islands including the Senkaku Islands which are a collection of uninhabited rocks. Japan, however, has administered and controls the islands since 1972 and does not acknowledge the claims of China nor Taiwan who also claims these strategic and power-strengthening islands for itself. 

Due to these critical circumstances with China, Japan relies on military aid for protection and deterrence. The alliance with the United States is a symbiotic relationship because of shared geopolitical concerns. The United States has surrounded the east coast of its great rival China through its alliances with South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, while these countries benefit from American military power.

Current issues  

A controversial relationship with nuclear weapons

It goes without saying that the atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki have had a long-lasting impact on Japan. Now, more than 75 years after the bombings, the topic is back in the news again:

On 22 January 2021, the United Nations’ Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) entered into force. It’s the world’s most ambitious treaty to ban nuclear weapons yet – at the time of writing, 86 nations have signed it and 51 state parties have ratified it. However, none of the signatories are nuclear powers – and interestingly, Japan, the only country that has experienced the calamitous effects of nuclear weapons, is also not on the list of signatories. Despite years of campaigning by the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organisations (and other groups) to convince the Japanese government to join the agreement, Japan’s Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, refused to sign the treaty.

His decision sparked nationwide outrage, with activists calling on Suga’s administration to ink and ratify the landmark treaty. The Japanese government’s unwillingness to espouse the treaty has antagonised many of the remaining survivors. Suga has voiced doubts about the effectiveness of a treaty that is supposed to ensure the prohibition of nuclear weapons, but is not even signed by nuclear weapons states. He reiterated that he believes Japan has a responsibility to take the lead in efforts to realise a world without nuclear weapons – but he just doesn’t think this treaty is the right way to achieve that. The topic remains a point of contention.

The Olympic Games 

Another cultural flashpoint right now is the question of whether or not Japan should host the Olympic Games this year. The world’s biggest multi-sports event – originally intended to take place in 2020, but then postponed due to COVID-19 – is now scheduled to be held in Tokyo this summer.

The significance of the Olympics as a way to demonstrate political and economic power, as well as to gain prestige should not be understated. The Tokyo Olympics would be an excellent opportunity to cement Japan’s status as a continuous economic powerhouse and an important actor in the international scenario.

Which is why the International Olympics Committee (IOC) and the Japanese government are determined to host the Olympics in Japan this year. Prime Minister Suga also sees holding the Olympics as a token of a human victory against the pandemic and a way to spread hope and courage. Public support for the games, however,  is waning in Japan as citizens fear the spread of something else: COVID-19. As worries mount up about a record surge in coronavirus cases across the country, polls and pundits alike are drawing attention to the irresponsibility of the government’s plan to host the Olympics and risk further burdening the country’s medical system. Japan has even declared a state of emergency in Tokyo and three surrounding prefectures in early January.  This juxtaposition of attempting to combat rapidly rising coronavirus caseloads while defending an international sports event entails a huge contradiction. With a spike in coronavirus cases, a steady influx of Covid-19 patients pushing the hospitals to their limits and uncertainty surrounding vaccine supplies, there is little fanfare regarding the countdown to the Summer Games.

Sources