Leafing through memories of 1968, what repeatedly comes to mind is January, or more correctly, ‘The January’ – a special notion marking an exceptional event in our history. This is how we saw it then, how we remembered it officially and in public even a year later, and for several years thereafter secretly and in samizdat. In the end, it fell into oblivion as if it were not worth remembering. And if it was remembered at all, it was only as a putsch in which the communists fought each other and the people were not involved.
I strongly believe that The January 1968 will remain a turning point in our history, not only our common Czechoslovak history but also, specifically, Slovak history. Petr Pithart wrote in this context that it was not just ‘the Prague Spring, but also the Bratislava Spring’ and this spring had a ‘Slovak beginning’. It was an open conflict between the Slovak portion of the Communist Party leadership led by Alexander Dubček and, at that time, the most influential man in the party and the state, Antonín Novotný. It represented the disparagement of specific Slovak interests by ‘Prague centralism’.
In February, Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, offered to begin a peace process with the Taliban as legitimate political actors. Ghani’s proposal for negotiations included a ceasefire, the release of Taliban prisoners, new elections with Taliban candidates, the reintegration of Taliban fighters and a constitutional review. The Taliban are yet to respond, indicating what many analysts perceive to be a serious internal debate regarding next steps. Ghani’s offer of political engagement signals a marked departure from dominant Afghan government narratives labelling the Taliban as drug traffickers or terrorists. Given that previous internationally led attempts at negotiations have stumbled over international security-related preconditions such as terrorism or foreign troop withdrawal, this move also shows unprecedented Afghan ownership of the peace process and prioritisation of the domestic political agenda.
The shift in the treatment of the Taliban from international criminals to domestic political actors coincides with a concerted Taliban strategy over the last five years to increase their legitimacy through improved governance of their territories. It reflects a small but growing consensus that successful peace-building rests on state acknowledgment of the Taliban’s role in the governance of Afghan society, particularly in rural areas where the state is largely absent or viewed as corrupt and ineffective. The Taliban have emerged as potential conduits between Kabul elites and some areas of rural Afghanistan.
Coming into its own in 2012, the revolution in Rojava (northern Syria) has been ideologically guided by women’s liberation, ecological harmony and a form of anti-capitalist radical democracy. It has provided fertile ground for a profoundly different education system from the models previously imposed in the region. Across the globe in Brazil, following the 2013 mass protests and uprisings, waves of students occupied their schools and universities starting in 2015 in the ‘student spring’. Although these contexts are not strictly similar to one another, they both open space to imagine possible political and educational pathways.
In the six months from August 2017 to February this year, three southern African countries underwent dramatic changes of president. Dramatic in Angola and Zimbabwe because José Eduardo dos Santos and Robert Mugabe had been in office for 38 and 37 years respectively. Dramatic in South Africa because in less than nine years, Jacob Zuma had given the country’s robust constitutional democracy a run for its money that it neither expected nor deserved. The faces that these three countries present to the world are very different. What I am interested in here is the histories and the institutional arrangements they have in common, and also what the distinctive processes surrounding the three presidential transitions can tell us about the particular configurations of power within each country.
Let’s start with the commonalities. All have seen an end to white rule within the lifetimes of older citizens, including the presidents themselves. All continue to be ruled by the same party that took power after a protracted and violent liberation struggle, the memory of which continues to be deployed against potential rivals (these recent changes were within parties, not between parties). In all three countries, power is centralised in an executive president who is constitutionally head of both state and government, and who in normal circumstances is also leader of the ruling party. In Angola and South Africa, though not in Zimbabwe, a proportional representation party list electoral system ensures that the legislature remains beholden to the ruling party leadership.
The Great Recession of 2008 represented two decisive starting points: the beginning of the end for Western hegemony, and the rapid rise of China. Following the collapse of global markets, the US and the EU went into a state of apoplexy as the unintended results of free market capitalism crippled economies. China, in contrast, managed to weather and emerge from the economic crash relatively unscathed and, in comparison to other economies, thrived. Now the world’s second largest economy, China’s ascent as a global powerhouse shows no sign of ceasing any time soon.
How do we understand the unique and stratospheric rise of China we are witnessing today? Although a whole host of compelling and reasoned arguments can be put forward, I posit that China will continue to thrive unanswered for now, enabled by three important and interconnected factors.
At the end of February, Cabinet Office minister David Lidington delivered to little fanfare one of the most significant speeches made by any UK minister about the UK’s future after Brexit. He set out how Theresa May’s government’s will approach the thorny question of powers returned from the EU which fall within the jurisdiction of the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, including those relating to farming, fishing and the environment. He maintained that the approach he proposed would allow the issue to be dealt with equitably, and expressed the government’s dual commitments to the devolution settlement and the integrity of the United Kingdom.
The speech also included a low-key, but notable, shift in policy as he revealed that the government would work on the presumption that devolved powers should remain devolved once Brexit happens (rather than being held initially by the UK government). He stressed too the importance of protecting the internal ‘common market’ as he simultaneously made the case for the establishment of UK-wide frameworks in areas such as package labelling and hygiene rules. These should initially be overseen by Whitehall in order to ensure that problematic kinds of regulatory divergence do not ensue.
Though the global economy has grown steadily in the years since the 2008 financial crisis, recent political events increasingly point to traditional powers’ retreat from internationalism and global governance. For this reason, the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, began 2018 by predicting a possible ‘geopolitical depression’ and ‘descent into a Hobbesian state of international politics’, continuing the trend of the Brexit vote, Donald Trump’s election as US President, the increasing illiberal nationalism of countries like Turkey and Hungary and the surprisingly strong showing of far-right parties in elections across Europe.
The context of this sudden retreat from internationalism provides an important backdrop for the articles of Issue 4 of the Cambridge Review of International Affairs Volume 30, published online in March 2018.
Margaret Thatcher was brought down by conflicts in Cabinet over Europe. Tony Blair dominated, and circumvented, his Cabinet over Iraq. Theresa May’s inner Cabinet is structurally divided over Brexit. So despite the general tendency to assume that the Cabinet has become a pro forma body unable to manage complex business, it seems that it is still the place where vital decisions on the great issues of the day get fought out. It is unavoidably the highest decision-making body in the land. Joe Wright’s new film Darkest Hour makes this point with startling force, centred as it is around the conflict in late May 1940 between a bullish Winston Churchill, newly arrived in 10 Downing Street to handle a deteriorating military position, and his Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, concerned that the new facts of Britain’s isolation, its inability to defeat Germany by itself, and the high probability of an invasion, should be faced – meaning that some kind of compromise peace might have to be seriously considered.
Professor Christopher Hill of POLIS reviews Darkest Hour over at the Cambridge Core blog.
This monument celebrates Hungarian involvement in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), on the side of the Franco regime. Once in downtown Budapest, it was moved in 1993 to Memento Park – a collection of monuments that once stood across the city, celebrating totalitarianism.
This article has been developed from a talk given to the Cambridge Central and Eastern European European Forum at Cambridge University
The opinion polls were right about one thing: The second-round run-off for the Czech presidency on 26–27 January was a close contest.
But, contrary to what most polls had forecast, it was sitting President, Miloš Zeman, who claimed a narrow victory, beating his independent opponent, Jiří Drahoš, the former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences, by 51.4% to 48.6%.
In their own way, both candidates were signs of the populist times – and proof that populism need not just take the form of outsider parties emerging from the fringes (although, in billionaire prime minister designate Andrej Babiš and his ANO movement, or the radical-right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) grouping of Tomio Okamura, the Czech Republic has these too).
Of the two presidential contenders in the run-off, Zeman was the more textbook populist. Since coming out of political retirement in 2009, the former Social Democrat prime minister – who claims to speak for the ‘bottom 10 million’ in a country with a population of 10.56 million – has combined a penchant for left-wing economics with outspokenly nationalistic and illiberal stances on migration and European affairs.
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