Years from now, when we think back on international affairs in 2013, the scenes that will undoubtedly spring to mind are the pro-Europe demonstrations in Ukraine, where tens, even hundreds of thousands of people rallied against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. In a way, it’s symbolic, as the whole phenomenon of colour revolutions started almost exactly 10 years ago. In the winter of 2003, a sea of people flowed down the streets of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. Of course, the story of the Rose Revolution is quite different in many aspects from the protests on the Maidan in Ukraine’s capital, which are still ongoing. But the wave of colour revolutions that started to swell in Tbilisi 10 years ago was one of the main things that snarled relations between the West and Russia so thoroughly. Russia saw it all as a Western conspiracy ultimately bent on replacing the Kremlin’s lackeys with a people’s revolution where Washington is the one pulling the strings. In contrast, the US and the rest of the West saw it merely as autocratic, corrupt rulers entering their natural, inevitable final decline.
Relations between Russia and the West – and the impasse between them –underscored significant chapters in international events in 2013 as well. In most of these chapters, the Middle East has played a prominent third role. The bloody civil war in Syria, which has now attained catastrophic proportions, reached a dark milestone in August when President Bashar al-Assad’s forces unleashed a barrage of chemical weapons against civilians and insurgents. A disarmament deal brokered by Russia forestalled planned Western strikes against Damascus, and Al-Assad’s chemical weapon stockpiles are now in the process of being destroyed in the Mediterranean. Yet the civil war continues to rage on unabated.
Meanwhile, Iran got a new president – Hassan Rouhani – and Tehran reached a tentative agreement with six world powers that might just help to untangle the nuclear problem that has persisted over a decade. Moscow also played a role as a broker here, but strong economic sanctions pushed through by the West were the main factor in reducing Teheran’s manoeuvring room to a minimum. Russia and China had opposed the sanctions for years, tooth and nail. In the best-case scenario, the accord reached as a result of these sanctions could lead to Iran becoming a more open, affluent, and peace-oriented country – and that could significantly transform the strategic map of the Middle East.
Another strategic Middle Eastern nation, Egypt, also has a new president. A few years ago, we saw developments in Egypt amplify processes that started with a popular arising in Tunisia, and the result was Arab Spring. Then, in summer 2013, Egypt’s foray into fragile democracy has foundered in yet another military coup.
Indeed, developments in two theatres – Middle East and Russia – have critical importance for European security and well-being in this decade. But the third big question is whether the US’s century-long presence in the Old World will endure or decline.
This last issue of Diplomaatia this year discusses these topics and more, and also looks at the Estonian use of soft power. Our next issue will be published in February 2014.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.