Home > Publications > Political and security risk updates > The weekly briefing, 27 February 2018: Israeli prime minister increasingly isolated, violence erupts between Zimbabwean police and workers, China considers ending constitutional two-term limit

The weekly briefing, 27 February 2018: Israeli prime minister increasingly isolated, violence erupts between Zimbabwean police and workers, China considers ending constitutional two-term limit

by Matthew Clarke, Tim Newcomb and Chris Abbott

Briefing photo

Summary

Sub-Saharan Africa: Police in DR Congo fire on protesters in Kinshasa; Violence erupts between police and workers in Zimbabwean capital.

Americas: US treasury secretary claims United States will impose sanctions against Russia within weeks; Ecuador’s foreign minister state that British government is unwilling to reach agreement over Wikileaks founder.

Asia-Pacific: Pyongyang and Seoul begin talks over possible participation of North Korean delegation in forthcoming Winter Paralympics; China’s ruling party considering removing constitutional two-term limit for country’s president and vice-president.

Europe and Central Asia: Opposition leader calls for United Kingdom to join permanent customs union with EU after Brexit; Slovakian investigative journalist and his partner murdered.

Middle East and North Africa: Israeli prime minister increasingly isolated as key aide turns state’s witness; US secretary of state confirms that United States supports ending blockade of Qatar.

Sub-Saharan Africa

DR Congo

Police in DR Congo killed one person and injured over 20 when they fired on protesters in the country’s capital, Kinshasa, on 25 February. The crowd had gathered for a banned protest calling on the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, to resign. The demonstration was the latest in a string of protests against Kabila. The president has remained in power since 2001, despite his constitutional mandate expiring on 20 December 2016. Kabila has repeatedly pushed back the presidential election already delayed until April 2018 and now promised by the end of the year. Tensions have increased between the powerful Catholic church and the government, resulting in increasing public disapproval of Kabila’s administration, which is spilling over into civil unrest. There is currently little hope of a peaceful transition of power in the short term. Analysts are raising concerns over the danger of a possible power struggle that could descend into civil war.

Zimbabwe

Violence between police and workers has again erupted in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, over a ban on unlicensed bus vendors. The high unemployment rate in Zimbabwe has led to increased tensions in the aftermath of Robert Mugabe’s departure. This unrest is adding to an uneasy environment as Zimbabwe heads towards its first free and fair elections scheduled to be held before September 2018. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) survived Mugabe’s attacks only to be thrown into turmoil by the death of its long-standing leader Morgan Tsvangirai on 14 February 2018. The rival factions of party vice-presidents Elias Mudzuri and Thokozani Khupe are vying for control of the party after Nelson Chamisa was elected acting president. This weakens the MDC in the build up to the elections to the advantage of the ruling ZANU-PF and the new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s former vice-president.

Zimbabwean opposition in turmoil as rival factions vie for control of MDC following Morgan Tsvangirai's deathClick To Tweet

Americas

United States

The US treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, announced to reporters on 23 February that the United States will impose sanctions against Russia within weeks. Governments around the world have apparently already been warned that they could face sanctions for significant transactions with the Russian military. The US treasury intensified pressure on the Russian political and economic elite in January by publishing a list of 210 individuals said to have ties to the Russian leadership. Despite this, the treasury was criticised for not actually imposing new sanctions on Russia, six months after Congress passed a bill mandating them. The White House has recently stepped up efforts to counter allegations that it is soft on Russia following Donald Trump’s vocal praise of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and his criticism of Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 election.  

Ecuador

Ecuador’s foreign minister, Maria Fernanda Espinosa, has said that the British government is unwilling to reach an agreement on the case of the Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange. Assange has lived in the Ecuadorean embassy in London since 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden to face sex crime allegations. Although the allegations have been dropped, Assange is still wanted in Britain over violating his bail terms. Espinosa has also raised concerns that Assange could be extradited to the United States if he leaves the embassy. The case has strained relations between Quito and Washington and London. The Ecuadorian government is working hard to find a way to effectively rid itself of what the Ecuadorian president, Lenín Moreno, has previously described as ‘more than a nuisance’ and an ‘inherited problem’.

Asia-Pacific

South Korea 

Pyongyang and Seoul have begun talks over the possible participation of a North Korean delegation in the forthcoming Winter Paralympics. Two North Korean athletes have been invited to take part for the first time, but Pyongyang is considering sending a delegation of 150 people, including cheerleaders and support staff. The move comes as a senior North Korean general attended the Winter Olympics closing ceremony. In a meeting with the South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, the general apparently said that North Korea may be open to talks with the United States. The South Korean president then reportedly told the Chinese vice premier, Liu YandongIt, that the United States should lower the threshold for talks with North Korea. The hope is that North Korea’s inclusion in the Winter Olympics in South Korea has defused some of the tension between the two countries and opened back channels of communication.

The hope is that North Korea's inclusion in the Winter Olympics has opened back channels of communicationClick To Tweet

China

China’s ruling communist party has proposed removing the constitutional limit of two five-year terms for the country’s president and vice-president. The incumbent president, Xi Jinping, is due to step down at the end of his second term in 2023. While his premiership has brought about strong economic reforms and an increase anti-corruption efforts in China, he is accused of having a strong authoritarian streak. Xi has moved swiftly to consolidate his position within the Chinese Communist Party and embed his agenda and style into the constitution. The party is meeting this week to discuss the proposal. The move would need to be ratified next month by the country’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, though this is considered more of a formality rather than a political barrier. The move is typical of Chinese politics – plenty of notice to investors ahead of quick and deliberate action in order to militate any economic risks attached to major political decisions. Xi is largely popular in China, and the Chinese media is mostly supportive of the proposal to remove term limits. However, the move risks undermining decades of progress in entrenching the rule of law in China.

Europe and Central Asia

United Kingdom

The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has set out his Brexit strategy and called for the United Kingdom to join a permanent customs union with the EU. He would also seek to avoid a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The move has staked Labour’s position in opposition to that of the ruling Conservative party, which has ruled out such an option. However, a customs union would not necessarily allow access to the single market, which is consider by many to be an economic necessity. After months of prevarication, it is hoped that Labour’s position will finally allow it to fulfil its role as the official opposition and challenge the government’s Brexit strategy. The move might also lead to Labour MPs and Conservative rebels joining forces to challenge the government on key Brexit votes. This might leave the embattled prime minister, Theresa May, with little choice but to ignore those in her party calling for a so-called hard Brexit or risk losing key parliamentary votes. This would, at the same time, weaken her own precarious position within the party.

Slovakia

A journalist and his partner were found dead on 25 February after family members raised concerns that they had not been heard from in nearly a week. Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova had been shot dead in their home in Velka Maca, a village 40 miles east of the Slovak capital, Bratislava. Kuciak was an investigative journalist. He had been looking into alleged tax fraud resulting from the sale of luxury apartments involving the country’s interior minister, Robert Kalinak. Police have linked the murder to Kuciak’s investigative work. The Slovak prime minister, Robert Fico, stated that if the murder was linked to the journalist’s work, then it would be an unprecedented attack on freedom of speech and democracy in the country.

Middle East and North Africa

Israel

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has become increasingly isolated as political allies withdraw their support in light of the latest of four corruption scandals. Netanyahu is accused of pressuring regulators while he was communications minister in order to help the Bezeq telecoms company in return for favourable news coverage from one of its websites. A close aide to the prime minister, Schlomo Filber, has now reportedly agreed to testify against him. Filber is the suspended director general of the communications ministry and a former Likud campaign manager. Police have also said that there is enough evidence to indict the prime minister for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two other cases. Netanyahu faces a general election in 2019, but it looks increasingly likely that he may be forced to resign before then. Meanwhile, the Orthodox and Catholic churches accuse the Israeli government of forcing out Christians and restricting access to Christian Holy sites. Furthermore, the US embassy is set to open in Jerusalem in a controversial move in May 2018. The culmination of political, religious and ethnic unrest could spell a very chaotic year for Israel.

Qatar

On 20 February, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, stated that the United States supports the ending of the eight-month blockade of Qatar by gulf states and their allies. The conflict started when long-standing tensions between Qatar and Suadi Arabia culminated in June 2017 with the Kingdom – together with Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt – cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar and accusing it of funding terrorism. In reality, it is Qatar’s unconventional foreign policy and good relations with Shia-led Iran that are likely behind the rift. While the US state department has sought a nuanced approach to the conflict, the US president, Donald Trump, has in the past echoed the accusation that Qatar funds terrorism and expressed his support for the move to isolate the country. However, recent reports suggest that Trump will hold bilateral meetings with the leaders of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in March and April. Talks will revolve around the possibility of establishing a Gulf Cooperation Council summit later this year under the auspices of the United States.

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