Security Exchange News

Security Exchange Newsletter | January

01 February 2021

The first edition of the InTouch Monthly for 2021 comes a year after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global public health emergency in response to the outbreak of coronavirus in China. At that time just over 200 people had died; one year later and the virus has claimed more than 2.2m lives across the world. We look at some of the areas where the virus is having the most significant impact, alongside other key issues such as the Afghan peace talks and the farm law protests in India.


Central African Republic | At the start of December, the Constitutional Court barred former President Francois Bozize from running in the upcoming elections. Then the government accused Bozize of plotting a coup in the country after the three main rebel groups announced that they had formed a coalition – the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC). Rebel fighters gathered in the city of Bossembele before fighting spread across the country. Despite the increase in violence, the presidential elections went ahead and incumbent President Faustin-Archange Touadera was re-elected in early January. However, the fighting has intensified and rebel forces now control two-thirds of the country, while more than 200,000 people have been displaced, including more than 90,000 who have fled to neighbouring Chad, Cameroon and DR Congo. At least seven UN peacekeepers have been killed and a state of emergency was proclaimed in the capital, Bangui after rebel fighters surrounded the city. Hundreds of reinforcements from Russia and Rwanda have been deployed to assist the government forces. Meanwhile, aid agencies have warned of shortages of basic goods in the country due to a rebel blockade which has prevented supplies from entering the country, notably from Cameroon.

The violence has shattered several years of optimism in Central African Republic (CAR) and there is an acute risk that the civil war which began in late-2012 will undermine the limited progress which had been made in the country. The largely Muslim Seleka coalition forced Bozize to flee the country in March 2013 and its leader, Michel Djotodia, seized power. His tenure lasted less than a year and coincided with a sharp rise in sectarian clashes between ex-Seleka rebels (which had splintered into several smaller groups – including FPRC, MPC, UPC) and the largely Christian anti-Balaka militia, which was formed in response to the Seleka. Under interim President, Catherine Samba-Panza, the levels of violence started to diminish, although the government continued to have limited control in large parts of the country. This trend continued after Faustin Touadera was elected in 2016, and in 2019 the government signed a peace deal with 14 rebels groups, many of which have now taken up arms again to join the CPC. Bozize has denied the allegations that he is working alongside the new rebel coalition, which contains members of the Seleka who forced him out of power back in 2013. A key difference between then and now is the presence of the 14,000-strong UN Mission in Central African Republic (MINUSCA), which has thus far helped the government to hold off the rebel offensive of Bangui. While the government might be able to hold on to the city, and to power, the route to stability has become much more complicated.

South Africa | A new variant of the coronavirus (known as B.1.351) was discovered in Nelson Mandel Bay in samples from October 2020. This new variant has been blamed on the second wave of cases in South Africa which began in mid-November. New cases of the virus rose from 2,000 a day to more than 15,000 in mid-January. There was also a sharp rise in Covid-19 deaths in the same period - 118 on 17 November to 839 on 19 January. Mutations in the spike protein of the B.1.351 variant prompted fears that it was both more infectious and more deadly than the earlier strains of the virus, and led to multiple countries from banning flights to and from South Africa. The government in Pretoria also took the decision to close all land borders until at least mid-February to help limit the spread of the virus. Sharp rises in cases have also been reported across the region, including in neighbouring Zimbabwe and the kingdoms of Lesotho and Eswatini. The new variant also raised fears that the various vaccines which have been produced to fight the virus will be less effective. A study at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban suggested that the new strain was able to evade immune responses triggered by previous infections; while early data from two new trials of vaccines from Novavax and Johnson & Johnson indicated that they are less effective against the South Africa variant.

South Africa has yet to start its vaccination programme, and despite the potential reduction of their efficiency, this is still the best route out of the pandemic. The government has secured 20m doses of vaccines and the first batch of the AstraZeneca vaccine is set to arrive in the country from India today, with distribution planned for mid-February. President Cyril Ramaphosa recently accused wealthy nations of "hoarding" supplies of the vaccine, although the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) said the government only started the procurement process at the start of January. Last week the DA announced it was taking court action to force the government to release details of its vaccination plans. “Ramaphosa wants a get-out-of-jail-free card by blaming the West for having ordered in time. We didn't order in time, and now we're blaming everyone else," said Helen Zille, chair of the DA's Federal Council.

Ethiopia | The federal government’s military operation against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the northern Tigray region, which began in late-November, has been largely completed. Last week the electoral board deregistered the TPLF as an official political party and many of its senior officials have been killed or arrested. However, the TPLF’s leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, released a statement claiming that the party was committed to an “extended resistance” against the federal government. There are still reports of sporadic fighting in the Tigray region, although reports have been hard to verify since the government restricted access to foreign media and aid workers.

Although the operation has been a successful one, in the view of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government in Addis Ababa, it has also seriously damaged his reputation on the world stage. There had already been allegations that Abiy had become increasingly authoritarian after he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for ending the conflict with Eritrea. The security forces were accused of killing protesters in the Oromo region after popular singer Hachalu Hundessa was shot dead last June, while hundreds of people have been arrested and free speech has been restricted. The Tigray operation has resulted in the wider condemnation of Abiy’s government.

The EU suspended $110m in aid in response to the conflict and has said that is concerned by multiple reports of ethnic-targeted killings and possible war crimes in Tigray. There have also been reports that Eritrean troops, who were unofficially involved in the fighting alongside Ethiopia’s federal forces, have been forcibly seizing Eritrean refugees from UN-run camps. The UN has also called for “immediate, unimpeded and safe passage of humanitarian personnel and supplies to Tigray to reach all people who need assistance,” and last week they pushed for an inquiry into the killing of Tigray journalist Dawit Kebede, who was found dead in Mekelle on 19 January. On Monday, Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said aid is still not reaching civilians in Tigray. “In 40 years a humanitarian, I’ve rarely seen an aid response so impeded. We are failing as an int’l community,” said Egeland on Twitter.


USA | Joe Biden has been sworn into office as the 46th President of the United States of America, replacing Donald Trump. Extensive security measures were put in place for Biden’s inauguration ceremony in Washington DC, which took place without members of the general public due to coronavirus restrictions. Thousands of members of the National Guard were deployed across the US capital to prevent a repeat of the mass unrest which broke out a week prior when five people died as right-wing groups stormed the Capitol. On his first day as president, Biden overturned multiple policies put in place by his predecessor. As of late-January, the federal register confirmed that 21 executive orders have been signed by Biden, covering a range of policy areas, including lifting a ban on transgender people joining the military; protection for workers and federal employees; a massive economic package to address the coronavirus crisis; and multiple orders associated with pandemic recovery efforts. The Biden administration has also confirmed a planned return to the Paris Climate Agreement, the integration of undocumented migrants in the national census, the promotion of racial equality and support for vulnerable communities in the US. Biden is also expected to champion a far less rigid approach towards immigration. He previously vouched that an eight-year citizenship pathway would also be proposed and ordered the end of the construction of Trump’s controversial US-Mexico wall.

US politics is now experiencing a pivotal shift after years of cautious apprehension under the Trump administration. Crucially, Biden will benefit from having control of both houses of Congress, which will be key to passing important legislation, especially during the pandemic recovery period. Despite Trump’s departure from the White House and impeachment charges, he is still expected to continue to impact American politics, as his support base makes up a significant proportion of the US electorate. Official results showed that he secured more than 74m votes in the election. Trump has become the first US president to be impeached twice in the House of Representatives. However, as his charges for inciting violence during the Capitol Hill riots in January heads to the Senate, he is unlikely to be charged. While high-level Republicans, including the former Senate Speaker Mitch McConnell, condemned Trump’s actions, Democrats will likely fail to secure enough votes to charge him.

During the first 100 days of his presidency, Biden will face important challenges which will set the tone for the new administration. He and Vice-President Kamala Harris have launched an ambitious plan to move forward with a national vaccination programme. The National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness sets out seven objectives to properly address the current crisis. On foreign policy, Biden has already held talks with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, and has extended a critical arms control treaty with Russia which limits the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In Asia, his administration has already committed to a tougher stance towards China and Beijing’s strategy in the South China Sea. During his election campaign, Biden also criticised the treatment of Uighur Muslims in China’s far-western province of Xinjiang, where state detention facilities and so-called ‘re-education camps’ have been accused of targeting the ethnic minority in a mass genocide campaign. As the long-running US-China trade war rages on, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has warned the Biden administration not to further inflame tensions by pressuring Europe and other nations to choose between China or the US as trading partners.

Brazil | Brazil continues to be one of the most affected countries by the coronavirus pandemic. Coronavirus cases in the country are rapidly approaching 10m, while the number of deaths has already reached 220,000. The total number of confirmed cases has been on the rise since November and is expected to increase further in the aftermath of the Christmas and New Year holidays. Concerns have been raised over large gatherings and cross-state travel during the summer holidays when millions of Brazilians usually head to beach resorts. Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais have reported the highest total number of deaths and cases, but major concerns have also been raised over less populated and distant regions with fragile healthcare systems. This was evident when a shortage of oxygen was reported in the northern city of Manaus. Located in the heart of the Amazon and the biggest city in the vast jungle region, Manaus has reported a high incidence of cases when compared with other state capitals. Oxygen was flown in from other states through special delivery by the Brazilian Air Force. Support also came from neighbouring Venezuela despite bilateral ties hitting an all-time low due to a rift between President Jair Bolsonaro and his Venezuelan counterpart, Nicolas Maduro. Similar issues with healthcare supplies have also been reported in smaller cities in the Amazon.

Manaus has been struggling to cope with the high number of cases and deaths since the pandemic in March 2020; however, the situation has recently taken a turn for the worse, with Manaus now considered the epicentre of the Brazilian variant of the coronavirus. Like the UK (B117) and South African (B1351) variants of the virus, the Brazilian (P1) variant is also known to be much more infectious. First detected in early-December, the Brazilian variant has already been detected in eight countries, including Japan, Italy, the US, South Korea, and the Faroe Islands. Global outbreak data indicates that, so far, there have been no reported cases of local transmission of the new variant outside of Brazil. In January, Brazilian authorities were notified of the detection of the P1 variant in four passengers on a flight to Japan. Reports indicated that the infected passengers departed from Amazonas to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. Although the Brazilian variant hasn’t spread as far as the UK and South African variants, several countries have already imposed travel restrictions against Brazil to prevent its spread worldwide. In mid-January, the federal government officially launched its vaccination campaign after significant delays in the supply of doses. With state governments also making purchase arrangements of their own, the National Health Surveillance Agency (Anvisa) has already approved the use of the Chinese-developed Coronavac – Brazil’s Butantan Institute also contributed to its development. Meanwhile, lengthy negotiations between the federal government and other laboratories - including Pfizer/BioNTech, the US-based Moderna and the AstraZeneca/University of Oxford - are still ongoing.

Venezuela | President Nicolas Maduro has tightened his grip on power after his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) regained control of the National Assembly (AN). In a controversial vote held in early-December, the PSUV and allied parties managed to secure the most seats. The election led to the disbanding of the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), a powerful legislative body that exclusively sided with the president. Despite most countries in Europe and Latin America not recognising the legitimacy of the new AN mandate, the opposition leader Juan Guaido was removed as the AN speaker. This has consequently led to issues surrounding his authority as an elected official. On the one hand, the US and the UK still recognise Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president, while on the other hand, the EU has withdrawn its support and now considers him the ‘opposition interlocutor’. The EU’s decision came despite foreign ministers from several EU member states urging the European Parliament to restore Guaido’s status. 

Since becoming a prominent figure in Venezuelan politics, Guaido has failed to sustain the momentum to pressure the Maduro administration. This could be due to the intervention of a powerful state machine behind a highly controlled society, while Maduro still enjoys the support of the military and the high-ranking members of the Venezuelan armed forces. US, UK, and EU sanctions targeting high-level officials and the state-owned oil company PDVSA have not been enough to force Maduro to make concessions due to continued support received by him from China, Russia, Iran, and other smaller oil-dependent nations. Hostility towards his government also reduced after left-wing governments were elected in Bolivia and Argentina. Former US President Donald Trump targeted Venezuela and other nations who were circumventing sanctions, including Cuba and Iran. Throughout 2020 when Venezuela faced fuel shortages, several Iranian-flagged vessels attempted to deliver fuel to Venezuela. As a result, the US government added other companies and vessels to its sanctions list as a warning to others backing President Maduro. In recent developments, the government has launched an investigation into Guaido and former opposition lawmakers for their alleged connections to organised crime and claims that they defrauded the Venezuelan public.

Meanwhile, the Maduro government has stepped up pressure on neighbouring Guyana to settle a long-standing border dispute. The two sides have been embroiled in disputing control of the Essequibo region since 1899. The dispute escalated in recent years after oil companies discovered significant oil reserves off Guyana. Reports indicate that the main operator in the region is the US-based ExxonMobil, which is already exploring the vast Stabroek block, but other foreign companies are also expected to begin operations. Disputes in the region led to an increase in tensions involving the Venezuelan armed forces and their Guyanese counterparts. In January, tensions escalated after several Venezuelan fishing boats were seized for allegedly violating Guyanese sovereign waters. In April 2020, during the Trump administration, then US Defence Secretary Mark Esper announced the increase of operations to address drug-trafficking in the Caribbean based on claims that “corrupt actors, like the illegitimate Maduro regime in Venezuela, rely on the profits derived from the sale of narcotics to maintain their oppressive hold on power”. In a move to strengthen ties, the US and Guyana launched a major joint military exercise in late-January, which Venezuela labelled a provocation. Although the International Court of Justice (ICJ) sided with Guyana’s arbitration request, Maduro highlighted that Venezuela does not recognise the ICJ’s authority.


Afghanistan | The first few days of 2021 saw the second round of intra-Afghan talks resume between delegations from the Taliban and the Afghan government. The talks so far have been hosted by Doha in Qatar, where the Taliban still hold a political office. The resumption of talks followed a three-week break in negotiations after negotiators on both sides of the peace talks agreed on procedural rules in a breakthrough in December. A statement released at the time read: "The current negotiations between both teams show that there is a willingness among Afghans to reach sustainable peace and both sides are committed to continuing their sincere efforts to reach a sustainable peace in Afghanistan". The issue of outlining rules for the peace process had become a sticking point in the weeks prior to December’s breakthrough – which was widely met with a positive international response.

The second round of talks was generally expected to focus on agreeing on the outline for a potential ceasefire between the Taliban and Afghan government troops, as well as a road map for post-war Afghanistan. However, substantial progress has yet to be seen since talks started up again. Onlookers suggest the stall could be linked to notable absences from the negotiating table, including the Taliban’s chief negotiator, Mullah Abdul Hakim, and the head of the Taliban office in Qatar, Mullah Baradar. Some Afghan negotiators were also not in Doha for the first few weeks of January and a number of US diplomats and military leaders from the US team, which has been talking separately with both sides, were also absent as talks resumed – arguably contributing towards a reduced sense of urgency.

Absences on the US side could be attributed to the recent change in the US administration led by newly elected President Joe Biden and subsequent changes to the US policy on Afghanistan. Biden has inherited a situation in which 2,500 US troops will be left in Afghanistan after his predecessor’s administration ordered an accelerated timetable for the withdrawal of American soldiers. According to the deal, all US soldiers are supposed to leave Afghanistan by April 2021. Biden’s administration said it would review the US agreement in a move which has been welcomed by the Afghan government but has potentially caused upset amongst Taliban leaders. White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan stated that the reassessment would evaluate “whether the Taliban was living up to its commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups, reduce violence in Afghanistan and engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and other stakeholders". A recent request asking the US’ top negotiator with the Taliban, Zalmay Khalilzad, to stay on in the role hints at a general policy of continuation. It’s also worth remembering that, when Biden served as vice president under Barack Obama, he backed the long-term goal of exiting Afghanistan, but did call for a small stabilising force to remain – a position unlikely to be favoured by the Taliban. Towards the end of January, the US suggested the Taliban had failed to meet its side of the peace agreement, prompting a response from the Taliban accusing the US of violating the terms of the deal by allegedly “bombarding civilians” in US airstrikes. The US has yet to officially confirm if it will honour Trump’s commitment to withdrawing US forces but is expected to continue to support diplomacy in regard to the US-Taliban peace deal.

Meanwhile, a group of Taliban leaders recently touched down in Tehran to meet with Iranian officials for talks. Leaders in Iran are understood to have urged the Taliban to cooperate with the Afghan government to find a peaceful solution to the 18-year-long war, stating that “Iran will never recognise a group that wants to come to power through war”. Mullah Baradar is reported to have provided an insight into the progress of peace talks whilst in Iran, alluding to an alleged growing sense of distrust in the US’ policy on Afghanistan. Despite the ongoing peace talks, there has been a noticeable uptick in violence reported in Afghanistan in the last few months – including the targeted killings of activists, journalists, and government officials. The Taliban has continued to assert that – as per its agreement with the US – the reduction of violence is directly linked to the release of insurgent prisoners held by the Afghan government, along with the removal of their names from global financial blacklists.

The outlook of peace talks going forward will depend greatly on a range of factors. These include potential changes to US policy on Afghanistan, the extent to which the Afghan government will be willing to further compromise with the Taliban in relation to prisoner releases, and international tolerance of continued violence in Afghanistan fuelled by Taliban activity.

India | In recent months, large protests and demonstrations have been carried out by groups of farmers and agricultural workers across India in opposition to the farm reform laws. The government claims the agricultural reforms will aim to liberalise the farming sector; however, farmers argue the move risks making them poorer. The main sticking point of the reforms is that they will remove government assured pricing for farming products and will loosen other rules around the sale, pricing and storage of farm produce which have previously protected farmers from the free market. Farmers opposed to the laws claim that, without government assured pricing, the bargaining power of farmers will be weakened – leaving them vulnerable to exploitation in the free market by private companies. Many groups have likened the laws to a “death warrant”. While most economists agree the Indian agriculture is in need of reform, the Indian government failed to consult with farmers themselves before passing the laws – leading to a major conflict of interests.

As the protests rolled over into the new year, demonstrations showed no signs of abating as talks with the government continued. Last week, leaders of farmers unions made a collective decision to reject the latest offer from New Delhi: to suspend the laws for 18-months while a consulting committee was set up by protest leaders to enter into further negotiations with government representatives with an aim to resolving the issue. The offer was made and rejected days before farmers’ unions held a huge tractor rally in the outskirts of New Delhi.

The rally took place on Tuesday 26 January, coinciding with Republic Day celebrations - a national holiday marking the anniversary of India officially adopting its constitution in 1950. The police granted approval for up to 12,000 tractors to traverse a 100-km stretch around the capital after the Supreme Court declined a government petition to ban the peaceful rally. The police also stipulated that the rally had to adhere to a strict route and not disrupt Republic Day celebrations in central Delhi. While the demonstration began peacefully, groups of participating protesters began to break through police barricades and converge on the capital – violating the conditions under which the rally had been allowed to take place and prompting police intervention.

Leaders of farmers' unions have since condemned the violence which subsequently broke out between protesters and the police – which led to the death of one protester while more than 80 police officers were also injured in the ensuing clashes. Police and paramilitary personnel used tear gas to disperse the crowds after the protesters briefly overran the Red Fort complex, and mobile internet services were also suspended for a time across parts of Delhi. Samyukta Kisan Morcha, an umbrella group of protesting farmers, said in a statement that they "condemn and regret the undesirable and unacceptable events and disassociate ourselves from those indulging in such acts". Protest leaders have blamed the outbreak of chaos during the tractor rally on rogue participants of an otherwise peaceful march. The unions behind the demonstrations confirmed their determination to continue with their protests, although, in the days following the deadly clashes, protest leaders called off a march on parliament which was scheduled for Monday 01 February, when the government presents its annual budget. While the march has been postponed, rallies and a hunger strike planned for Saturday 30 January still went ahead and farmers have largely maintained their position of refusing to call off protests until the government agrees to a complete repeal of the three controversial farm reform laws which initially triggered the unrest last year. Opposition parties also recently boycotted Parliament in solidarity with farmers.

Over the coming weeks, talks between protest leaders and the government will be closely watched; however, the protest movement is unlikely to subside as it continues to gain momentum. Protests, rallies and marches are likely to continue to take place in and around New Delhi as farmers lobby for the complete repeal of the reform laws. The longer the stalemate between the government and the protesters drags on, the protests are expected to become, with demonstrations in support of the cause already reported in southern states like Tamil Nadu. Leaders of farmers’ unions will be keen to avoid a repeat of the violent deadly clashes which broke out in New Delhi on Republic Day. Despite the intentions of protest leaders to keep demonstrations peaceful, there remains a risk of further clashes with the security forces.

Nepal | In recent weeks, Nepal has seen a protest movement take a hold of the capital, fuelled by Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharam Oli’s controversial move to dissolve Parliament. Widespread protests broke out in December when Oli dissolved the House of Representatives (HoR) and called for an early general election. The divisive move has triggered significant opposition, further exacerbating splits between factions of the governing Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and creating a crisis of government in a country with a history of political instability. Oli has now been removed from the NCP and has been stripped of party leadership.

Despite his removal from the NCP, Oli technically remains in office as caretaker prime minister while the courts have yet to come to a decisive verdict on whether his dissolution of the HoR and call for elections are unconstitutional. Oli claims new elections are essential to ending infighting within the NCP, which has suffered from months of internal squabbling and a lack of co-operation from the former Maoist wing of the party – leading to a paralysis of the decision-making process in government. The elections are currently scheduled for 30 April and 10 May 2021.

An estimated 10,000 protesters took part in a march in Kathmandu at the end of December – one of the largest such demonstrations seen since Oli’s government came to power in 2018. Protests have since escalated further throughout January, with police using batons and a water cannon to disperse hundreds of protesters, while several arrests were also made. Further protests and demonstrations are expected to continue to take place in the capital, where political tensions remain high and protesters have established a foothold. In the immediate future, the focus will turn to the Supreme Court as it prepares to deliver a verdict in response to numerous petitions filed against the dissolution of the HoR. If the court decides Oli’s actions were not legal, it could worsen the existing governmental crisis, with the potential for a clash between the executive and the legislature – which could, in turn, lead to an opposition-led upheaval of government in the long-term.


UK | As 2020 came to a close, so did the UK’s 11-month transition period after leaving the EU earlier in the year. After months of negotiations, a permanent trade agreement was successfully reached between both sides during the last week of December. The EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) defines the future of the EU-UK relationship going forward by laying out new rules for how the UK and EU will live, work, and trade together. Under the TCA, which took effect from 1 January 2021, the UK has officially left the European Single Market and the European Union Customs Union. The UK is now free to negotiate its own trade policy and trade deals with other countries. Talks with the US, Australia and New Zealand – none of which have free trade deals with the EU - will be closely watched. At the end of January, the UK confirmed plans to apply to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) - a free trade area with 11 Asia and Pacific nations covering a market of approximately 500 million people.

Fears over delays and backlogs at ports like Dover have been addressed by the UK government, which said it will delay checks on new paperwork required by six months and will also enforce a system of diverting trade to other ports around the country to avoid gridlock on the roads. Nevertheless, some disruption remains inevitable and unfortunately, due to time restraints and probable future disputes over certain rules, the finalisation of the TCA is unlikely to mean Brexit will disappear from the UK government’s agenda any time soon.

Another topic which has been at the top of the government’s agenda over the last year is the Covid-19 pandemic. As Boris Johnson was reaching an agreement on the TCA in the lead up to Christmas, he was also announcing stricter measures as part of the UK’s tiered approach to tackling the Covid-19 outbreak as a new, more highly contagious, and potentially more lethal variant of the virus emerged in the UK. Just days into the new year, a new nationwide lockdown was announced, following the outbreak trends seen in continental Europe, where the second wave of infections swept across many countries in November, including France, Italy, Germany and Spain. Johnson has now promised to lay out a plan in February for a “gradual and phased” easing of lockdown measures, which could begin in early March if death rates and hospitalisation numbers fall low enough. Such a plan would also likely depend on the progress of vaccinations and changes to the virus. Recent forecasts estimated that the impact of the vaccination campaign could be seen by as early as mid-February.

The much-anticipated vaccination rollout has been the silver lining as the UK population wades through the current winter lockdown. Starting with those most vulnerable, including frontline workers and the elderly, the rollout of Covid-19 vaccinations in the UK offers a glimmer of hope that, if transmission rates fall low enough, some essence of social normality could begin to return by early Spring. Johnson has ruled out schools in England re-opening after the February half-term but set a new 08 March target date and indicated that any relaxation of restrictions would almost certainly begin with the re-opening of schools. Despite falling cases and vaccination progress, the government has made it clear that a roadmap for relaxing lockdown measures will be dependent on emerging data on the impact of the vaccination programme and virus mutations. However, with the economic and social cost of lockdown mounting, the pressure to ease restrictions will likely increase if cases continue to fall over the next few weeks.

EU | As vaccination efforts get underway across Europe, discord has broken out recently between the EU and British-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, which has been manufacturing Covid-19 vaccinations. European politicians have demanded a plan from the company on how it will distribute the promised number of vaccine doses. Tensions initially flared when the drug manufacturing giant said it wouldn’t be able to provide the previously announced number of inoculations in Europe due to production issues at factories on the continent and issues with the supply chain. Of the 100 million promised doses by March, only 25 percent can be guaranteed. AstraZeneca issued a statement saying they would continue efforts to provide as many doses as possible at no profit during the pandemic; however, the EU claimed the failure was a breach of contract and that the company should divert doses from other production facilities – such as those in the UK – to match the promised amount of doses. AstraZeneca chief executive, Pascal Soriot, has said that - amid the unprecedented and uncertain pandemic environment - the firm's contract with the EU stipulated that the company would make its "best-effort" to meet the EU demand and did not compel the company to stick to a specific timetable. The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, claims the contract contained "binding orders" though, citing that the two UK plants were also listed as production facilities, leading to the contract being published in a bid for transparency.

UK Cabinet Minister Michael Gove empathised with the EU’s plight, saying they would work with EU leaders to help the bloc secure as many doses as possible, but that the British government’s priority had to lie with the British public and that “the vaccine supply that has been bought and paid for, procured for those in the UK, is delivered”. Issues with the European supply chain have been, in part, attributed to general teething problems – which the UK largely avoided as the contracts we agreed three months earlier than those with the EU. The AstraZeneca vaccine, developed with Oxford University in the UK, was only very recently approved for use by the EU. UK PM Boris Johnson further enflamed tensions last week when he suggested that Britain had benefited from not following advice to stay in the EU vaccine programme. The EU has faced criticism for its slow rollout of vaccinations, as its deal with US-German vaccine-maker Pfizer/BioNTech also faces delays due to supply issues.

European Commissioner for Health Stella Kyriakides rejected AstraZeneca’s claim that they were contractually obliged to fulfil the UK’s vaccine order from local plants first, stating that vaccine doses should not be rolled out on a ‘first come first served’ basis, as such an approach would be unethical. Kyriakides said that four European plants were listed as suppliers in its contract with AstraZeneca, including two in the UK, and therefore they should be expected to fulfil the order. A spokesperson for AstraZeneca stated that: “Each supply chain was developed with input and investment from specific countries or international organisations based on supply agreement. (…) As each supply chain has been set up to meet the needs of a specific agreement, the vaccine produced from any supply chain is dedicated to the relevant countries or regions and makes use of local manufacturing wherever possible”. In response, the EU is now investigating whether vaccines developed in AstraZeneca’s plants in Belgium and the Netherlands have been sent to the UK, with an aim to prevent the UK from receiving future doses manufactured in continental Europe. 

Such a move could present a risk to exports of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine from European plants, which could be blocked from reaching the UK in a retaliatory move – sparking fears of a trade war. In the last few days of January, tensions between the UK and the EU, as well as Ireland, further flared when Brussels suggested the EU was considering installing checks on the Irish border as part of efforts to control vaccine exports; however, fierce opposition to the move has since forced the EU to retract the threat. As of Monday 1 February, the EU and AstraZeneca are still seeking to resolve the vaccine supply crisis. The European Commission has dismissed fears of a potential trade war, while UK government scientific adviser Sir Jeremy Farrar urged against vaccine nationalism, warning it would not serve anybody to fight over vaccine supply. The British government also issued a statement saying it was confident the EU would not block vaccines entering the UK. Following crisis talks held last week between the EU and AstraZeneca, Kyriakides said that while she was regretful no clarity had been achieved on a timeframe for vaccine delivery, they would continue to work closely with the drug firm to resolve the issue.

The vaccine row comes after most countries in Europe saw a second spike in Covid-19 cases between October and December, with Spain currently experiencing what is thought to be the third wave of infections. The widespread surge in cases has prompted a strict national lockdown and border closures, with many countries enforcing night-time curfews as a way to prevent further spread of the disease. Travel restrictions across Europe have also been further impacted by the emergence of new strains of the virus. The variant which emerged in the UK in December has been of particular concern –triggering an immediate border closure at Dover and Calais. Many places are now curbing travel to and from places with reported cases of a new variant. Germany recently announced it was enforcing a travel ban to and from countries with a high incidence of a new Covid-19 variant, while Portugal suspended all flights to and from the UK last month. Countries where new strains of the virus have emerged include Denmark, the UK, South Africa and Brazil. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the UK variant has been detected in at least 70 countries so far, while the South African strain has been detected in 31. The Brazil variant is thought to have spread to eight countries, while the strain linked to mink farms in Denmark which emerged last year has been relatively contained with only a dozen or so human cases recorded.

As restrictive measures continue to be strengthened in response to rising cases and the emergence of new variants, some populations have become increasingly less tolerant of life under pandemic rules. The Netherlands has been particularly impacted by anti-lockdown protests in recent weeks, with Dutch leaders condemning recent ‘criminal’ clashes during protests, which broke out in response to the imposition of the first curfew enforced since World War II. Anti-lockdown protests have also broken out in Denmark, with recent demonstrations turning violent, prompting police to make arrests. Meanwhile, the Spanish capital of Madrid has also been rocked by disruptive rallies against pandemic restrictions, with police issuing fines to over 200 people. As public intolerance continues to grow in hard-hit countries, the pressure will mount on the EU to deliver its vaccination programme efficiently and without further delay – potentially forcing EU leaders into a stand-off over vaccine supply unless a solution is agreed with AstraZeneca soon.

Russia | Police have intensified a crackdown on allies of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Navalny returned to Russia in mid-January after being poisoned in Siberia. He was airlifted to Germany last August to receive hospital treatment. Laboratories in France and Sweden confirmed that Navalny was targeted with the military-grade Russian chemical agent, Novichok. The same conclusion was reached by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which further clarified that Navalny had been poisoned with a new type of Novichok – one which was not listed in the Chemical Weapons Convention’s (CWC) official list of controlled chemicals, further incriminating Moscow. Russia has continued to deny all allegations of any involvement in the poisoning. Navalny is known for being an avid critic of President Vladimir Putin. He has been detained several times for leading unauthorised demonstrations in Moscow. Since becoming a prominent political figure, Navalny has been targeted and assaulted several times. In 2017, he was doused in green paint in Barnaul, Siberia. During the latest raids, his wife, doctors, and several of his associates were also detained. Moscow’s apparent targeting of Navalny has further fuelled tensions between Russia and the West. In the aftermath of his arrest, the European Parliament demanded additional sanctions against Russia. The UK government has also stated that it is considering imposing additional sanctions, while several US officials made statements supporting pro-Navalny demonstrators. The Kremlin has maintained a position of dismissing allegations related to targeting opposition figures and has condemned the international sanctions, accusing foreign officials of meddling in Russian domestic affairs.

Navalny’s return to Russia has widely been seen as a sign of defiance against the Kremlin. Just before his return, the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) had already warned that if Navalny returned to Russia, he would be detained for previous charges dating back to 2014, when he was accused of embezzlement and money laundering. In September, during an interview with German news outlet Bild, Navalny claimed that his movement was getting stronger and that “if there were fair elections tomorrow, we would beat Putin”. He urged the international community to directly target Putin’s inner circle. He argued: “Sanctions against the entire country don’t work. The most important thing is to ban the regime’s profiteers from entering the country and to freeze their assets. Oligarchs and high officials, Putin’s closest circle”. Navalny now poses a major challenge to President Putin, who has recently pushed through several constitutional reforms which will allow him to remain in office until 2036. The latest developments will also put considerable pressure on the EU, the UK and the US over their timely reaction towards Navalny’s arrest.

Russian-German relations, which have been rapidly deteriorating since the 2019 assassination of the former Chechen commander Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in Berlin, have been further damaged by the poisoning of Navalny. Germany is also being pressured by both the EU and the US to halt its involvement in the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The US has already imposed sanctions on the project. The new US Secretary of State Antony Blinked said: “I’m determined to do whatever I can to prevent that completion”, while many European officials have also called on Germany to suspend its construction.


Tunisia | The 10-year anniversary of the Tunisian Revolution has been marked by sustained anti-government protests. The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Ben Arous in January 2011 unleashed a wave of anger that swept through the region and became the Arab Spring. Many of the conditions which fueled that momentous period of social unrest still exist today. The authoritarian regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has been replaced by a democratically-elected government, yet the conditions for most Tunisians have barely improved in the last decade. Unemployment is still high, particularly among the country’s youth, and the situation has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has further damaged Tunisia’s already weak economy. The protesters who have taken to the streets in the last few weeks have complained about police brutality and political corruption, while Prime Minister Hichem Mechich has been compared to Ben Ali. Prior to the pandemic, the travel industry was slowly starting to recover following the terror attacks in Sousse in 2015; however, global travel bans have left the country’s hotels and resorts empty.

The government’s response to the latest unrest has been heavy-handed. Hundreds of people have been arrested and in the central town of Sbeitla a protester was killed during clashes with police. The death sparked angry rioting in the town and protesters tried to storm the local police station. Thousand of people marched in central Tunis over the weekend to demand the release of recently detained demonstrators. The government has largely failed to deliver on the promises of the Revolution due to internal infighting. There have been nine different heads of government in the last decade, and the lack of stability has coincided with a lack of policies designed to address the key structural problems that the country faces. 

Lebanon | The situation in Lebanon has many parallels with that in Tunisia. The political class has failed, and the country has reached crisis point. Economic mismanagement and widespread corruption were serious problems before 2020; however, they have been compounded by the blast at the port in Beirut in August and the outbreak of coronavirus, which has recently forced the country into a strict lockdown. Violent protests erupted in the northern city of Tripoli last week and resulted in clashes with the security forces. Hundreds of people have been wounded in the unrest, which was sparked by the government’s decision to force all businesses to close and the order for people to stay at home.

Little to no economic support has been given to those affected by the lockdown, while the economic crisis has seen the Lebanese pound collapse against the dollar on the black market. The price for goods has risen significantly and there are widespread shortages of foods and other basic goods. Lebanon defaulted on its foreign debt for the first time last year and talks with the IMF for a bailout have thus far failed. There are reports of starvation and hunger across the country, and the World Bank has approved $246m in emergency aid to help those worst affected. The social affairs minister, Ramzi Musharrefieh, said that three-quarters of the population are in need of assistance. However, the government does not have the funds to provide such support. The lack of investment has also been evident in the country’s health system, which has seen hospitals reach breaking point as new cases of the virus rise. Some hospitals have been rejecting patients because they are overwhelmed.

Iraq | The Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for the twin suicide bomb attack in Baghdad on 21 January. At least 32 people were killed and more than 100 others wounded in the blasts in Tayaran Square. It was the group’s first major suicide bombing in the capital for three years, and it has prompted fears that further attacks could follow. The incident followed a steady but noticeable increase in IS activity in the country throughout 2020. Although IS no longer holds any territory, dozens of small-scale attacks were reported in Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninevah, Baghdad and Salahuddin last year. In response to the Baghdad bombings, US airstrikes killed IS’s senior commander in the country. Abu Yasir Al-Issawi, who reportedly coordinated IS operations in the country, was targeted near the northern city of Kirkuk. US coalition spokesman Col Wayne Marotto said Al-Isaawi was responsible for helping IS to expand its presence in Iraq and said his death was a “significant blow” to the militant group. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi responded by replacing several heads of intelligence and security operations, claiming that the services had failed to prevent the attack in Baghdad.

The potential resurgence of IS in Iraq coincides with a new administration in the US. Former President Donald Trump reduced US troop numbers to around 2,500 across three bases. Biden and the new Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who served as a commander in the 2003 Iraq War, have yet to outline US policy in the country. The new administration has made relations with Iran a key priority, but its policy towards Iraq could have a significant impact on the country’s trajectory, especially with elections scheduled in October. The US airstrike that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020 sparked multiple attacks on US interests in Iraq from Iran and its proxies. Any shift in US policy towards Tehran will impact on its relations with Baghdad and vice versa.