Looking Ahead to 2011

We here at The Mantle are rightfully proud of our stable of bloggers; they represent a broad cross-section of backgrounds, ethnicities, and regions that span the globe. At the end of the 2010, I posed a simple question to members of our blogging community: what is the one story you are most interested in following in 2011? To be sure, I did not ask for their opinion on what would be the biggest story of the coming year, or the hottest global hot spot, or any of the other superlatives tossed around at this time of year, but simply what was the person, trend, or issue that was most interesting to them in the next twelve months. And, like our community, I received a diverse range of responses from Chinese environmentalism to Sudanese independence to Arundhati Roy's political activism. I invite you to join The Mantle's bloggers in looking ahead to the year that will be.

Chris Eberhardt, “Chinese Looking Glass

About a month ago I was listening to short presentations as part of a Pecha Kucha session on environmental issues. One presentation was on trying to get more Beijingers to ride bikes, something I still find a little odd in a city with underground parking garages for bikes. Another presentation began and ended with images of Hitler. The presentations were made by ex-pats living in Beijing who make up a quite vibrant community of individuals who in various ways are trying to address environmental issues in China.

I think of these individuals as being on their own personal Peace Corps assignment without actually having signed any official contract. For those that don’t speak any Chinese, it is these individuals who are easiest to find. In the United States when I mention environmentalism in China, the first thing people ask me is if there really is any environmentalism in China? The second thing people often say is that it seems like China is horribly polluted... Yes, China does have a bit of a pollution problem I tell them, but China is like the United States, below the surface of government policies and positions you'll find vibrant communities in both countries exploring a range of environmentally more sustainable options.

As China is called on to be more active outside its borders, including cooperation on global environmental pacts, what’s going on within China’s borders? In the coming year as China is called on to be an active global player, I will highlight how not just ex-pats but also Chinese are actively trying to realize a greener China in their daily lives. If nothing else expect to hear about Chinese organic food.

Ed Hancox, “The 101

I'll be following Dmitry Medvedev in what will be his pivotal, and perhaps final, year as Russia's President. Nearly 20 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union Russia remains a country of breathtaking potential, yet one which seems unable to rise above a host of base concerns; pick a problem faced by Russia today and you can eventually trace it back to one overarching fault: corruption. Corruption in the Russian state is endemic and spills into every aspect of Russian life; affecting the nation's education and emergency response systems, its press, its business community and ultimately its government. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index placed Russia at 154th, along side countries like Tajikstan and Laos.

Medvedev has positioned himself as a reformer, promising to diversify the Russian economy away from extraction (i.e., exports of oil and natural gas), rehabilitate the military, improve the country's public health and strengthen civil society. At the heart of this reform are pledges to deal with the brutal levels of corruption. Yet he has had little concrete success. Fingers are often pointed at Medvedev's co-regent, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is alternately portrayed by sources from Wikileaks to Martin Sexsmith's recent book Putin's Oil as either a Russian godfather or someone imprisoned by his own mafia-state.

Medvedev has a year to turn things around and produce some concrete results. It won't be easy since another revelation from Wikileaks was that Medvedev's and Putin's factions are believed to be in open warfare within the Kremlin. If true, Medvedev will have to summon the courage for a fight that the Boss is either unwilling or unable to have; if not then he will likely be just what many suspected: a place-holder for the Putin 2012 presidential bid, and Russia will lose its last chance for a positive future for years to come. 

Corrie Hulse, “Do The Right Thing

Over the past few years, I have found myself incredibly taken by the story of the people of Sudan. From violent civil wars, to the ongoing genocide in Darfur, the region has seen far too much bloodshed. Yet, in the midst of the violence, the people of Sudan hold a level of hope for their future of which the rest of us would be lucky to have a sliver. They refuse to give up on their vision of a peaceful Sudan, and of reclaiming the home they once knew.

As we make our way into 2011, the story I will surely be following far beyond its scheduled date is the January 9th Referendum in Sudan. A referendum on southern independence was stipulated within the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (C.P.A.), which brought an end to the most recent civil war in the country. Should the people call for secession this January, the outcome would be the splitting of Africa’s largest country in two.

The situation surrounding the separation of these two regions of Sudan is, of course, incredibly complicated. Tensions are running high as Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir wavers daily as to whether or not he will recognize southern independence. Many on the ground and around the world are concerned that this delicate situation could break out into the bloodiest war of the decade in Africa. With violent attacks against southern villages already being reported, and the international community fumbling to assist in maintaining peace in the region, I am holding onto my sliver of hope as I watch this story unfold.

Michael J. Jordan, “Twenty Years…and Counting

For years, foreign observers of Slovakia – like me, guilty as charged – have put the puny, post-Communist country on the couch. The diagnosis: suffers an inferiority complex; never before independent; bullied for centuries by the Hungarians; little peasant brother of the Czechs.

What a difference a decade makes.

The new Slovak government is flexing its muscles, as brawny Slovak men tend to do. Except in this case, the face of forcefulness is a woman. Iveta Radičová, the first female prime minister to wield power in Communist-turned-EU-member Central Europe. The significance here is only partly that a woman has smashed the ceiling to the highest office. (Though, some women in the region are content with proving that sex still sells: during a Czech election campaign this year, six female candidates for Parliament posed skimpily for a calendar. And won.)

Instead, the story is that Radičová leads Slovakia’s one-man rebellion over the pricey EU bailout of Greece, revealing just how influential – or disruptive – the new eastern members can be. No sooner was Radičová sworn in July 8 to lead a center-right, four-party coalition, than she swung a right-hook at Brussels. She denied the 27-state union a final “yea” unless her new government could renegotiate Slovakia’s staggering contribution: 4.4 billion of the 110 billion euros ($148 billion). (It didn’t help matters when the public here caught wind of the inconvenient fact that Greek pensioners live much more comfortably than their Slovak peers.) Radicová also continues to defend Slovakia’s pro-Serbia stance on Kosovo, bucking Brussels in its recognition of Kosovo’s statehood. (The bogeyman brandished by Slovak hard-liners is less a case of Slavic solidarity than the threat that the heavily ethnic-Hungarian south of Slovakia one day breaks away.)

This week, the spotlight is again on the new premier. But this time, to be a calming voice for markets rattled by the Slovak parliamentary speaker’s call for a “Plan B”: withdraw Slovakia from the troubled, 16-member Eurozone; return Slovaks from the euro to their beloved koruny, or “crowns.” Slovakia had achieved another milestone in January 2009, when it leapfrogged the Czechs, Hungarians and Poles to become the first in Central Europe to jettison its national currency for the Euro. Today, though, Western media is awash with speculation about Slovakia: “Last in, first out?” Slovakia “hasn’t for one second” considered defecting, Radicová told reporters in Bratislava Tuesday. “Our task is to stabilize the euro. Any thoughts about alternatives are weakening the stabilization mechanism and I consider them extremely risky.”

Scrappy Slovakia, with Radičová leading the charge, will be worth watching in 2011.

Shaun Randol, “Quick and Dirty

Julian Assange and Wikileaks. I have been glued to Assange and his organization since they released the infamous Iraq War video, “Collateral Murder.” Then came the “War Logs” which provide unprecedented and unvarnished looks at the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars from the perspective of troops on the ground. And now, “Cablegate,” and a document dump that provides daily insight into the U.S.’s global diplomatic gaming. Yes, there’s a lot of trivia to be found, but amongst the coal there are some true diamonds (e.g. diplomats charged with collecting biometric data of foreign officials, American bombs raining down on Yemen, Shell’s shenanigans in Nigeria, and more!). And it’s not just the bad stuff that is interesting—as Leslie Gelb argued on The Daily Beast, the cables also show that American diplomats were/are doing their job. (It’s fascinating from a diplomatic standpoint, despite your feelings on “their jobs.”)

The global repercussions for Assange/Wikileaks will continue well into 2011 and beyond. It doesn’t even matter if Assange is imprisoned… or worse. There’s more to come. Assange/Wikileaks are not dumb: besides setting up hundreds of mirror sites to ensure their site does not go down, they have created so-called “insurance” and “poison pill” files with 200+ digit encryption codes that promise to reveal damning evidence about the BP oil spill, Bank of America’s financial chicanery, secrets about Guantanamo Bay’s prison, and who knows what else? Assange/Wikileaks have the potential to capsize mega corporations and even an American presidency. As I wrote this, “hacktivists” in a show of solidarity (a.k.a. “Operation Payback”) took down the websites of Assange’s/Wikileaks’ “enemies,” including PayPal, Visa, Mastercard, Switzerland’s Postfinance, and others. No doubt Wikileaks' “successes” so far have got other potential whistleblowers/leakers considering passing along vital information on one individual/government/corporation or another.

Assange/Wikileaks have caused and impressive disruption of international relations and finance, and their actions have raised new questions about democracy, censorship, transparency, and the right to information (and secrecy). I believe that 2011 will be an even bigger year for the “movement.” Their actions have inspired a new awakening, one that can be used for good and evil. Assange and Wikileaks are nothing short of gamechangers.

Ather Zia, “A Kashmiri Musing

It has taken about two decades of continuous verbal and nonverbal combat with a jingoistic media and the grip of a nationalistic administration to convey the “already existing” and “ever growing dissent” in Kashmir against Indian rule much to the unshakeable disbelief of Indian multitudes and the chagrin of Indian political elite. For a few years now, especially since the growing grassroots protests for independence in Kashmir which have more been about show of solidarity than violence, the conversation pivoting around the dispute in the soirees of the thinking mainland India are shifting. Many Indian intelligentsias are rethinking the Kashmiri stance, which is distanced from the shadow of gun (and emerging as more indigenous than previously thought) and the contamination of Pakistani allegiance.

Many Indian intellectuals have started airing concerns over Kashmir, albeit with some restraint, while some have thrown their no-holds-barred support behind the beleaguered Kashmiris; Arundhati Roy being one of the latter. Roy the Booker Prize-winning author of the celebrated and somewhat “controversial” debut novel The God of Small Things, is growing painfully on India’s behind for her unequivocal solidarity with resistance movements that span from Northeast India to Kashmir (and of course the huddled masses globally). She is increasingly bringing Kashmir into conversation since the 2008 mass uprising which brought to surface the popular dissent harbored by Kashmiris against India but which had been drowned in the shrill political and media tirades that strung it into an unrecognizable mass by conflating it with Islamic fundamentalism, Pakistan and terrorism. Roy famously endorsed Kashmir’s struggle for Independence by saying “India needs azadi (freedom) from Kashmir as much as Kashmir needs azadi (freedom) from India."

In the year 2011 it will be interesting to watch the Indian stance with Roy regarding Kashmir. Recently there were invocations for charges of sedition against her when she brought into question the Indian hold on Kashmir. With her, and others of her ilk, in the Indian domain restive about the situation in Kashmir, and importantly with the Quit Kashmir movement that has been underway in the valley since spring 2010, the aura of nationalistic quietude that India so seeks to maintain may be in jeopardy.

January 3, 2011

frontispiece and illustration by Sarah D. Schulman

When not writing about international affairs, Ed Hancox works in nonprofit development. He holds a M.A. degree in International Affairs from The New School where he worked as a research associate on a project examining Russia's transition from Communism. Before earning his Masters, Ed worked as a journalist, a disc jockey, and as a technical writer with a multinational electronics firm. His writings on global affairs can also be found on his blog A World View.