Time waits for no one. Here are some important events you might have missed while on holiday, as well as some stories to keep an eye on during the coming months:
Anyone who’s followed Russian President Vladimir Putin over the years knew he would find a way to punish Ukraine for having the temerity to elect its own choice of leader instead of his. New Year’s Day was payback time, as Putin decided to cut off the gas supply to his neighbor to the West. Reaction was swift and scathing from Europe, and the supply was reinstated shortly thereafter, but Putin served notice that he would use Russia’s energy resources as weapons against anyone who crosses him. The other former Soviet republics know that they can either toe Moscow’s line or face the instantaneous “renegotiation” of their heating fuel contracts in the middle of winter. Class act, that Putin.
In the United States, the mother of all corruption scandals is just getting started, and it already looks like plenty of elected officials from both parties are going to go down. There are so many congressmen, senators and party operatives implicated in the Jack Abramoff influence-buying scandal that the continental U.S. may face an unprecedented shortage of defense lawyers for the foreseeable future. Abramoff appears to have thrown so much money at so many officials that it makes our own Liberal sponsorship scandal look cute by comparison. In the end, this mushrooming scandal will probably hurt the Republican party the most, because they’re in power, and could result in a complete realigning of both houses of Congress in the upcoming mid-term elections as one politician after another is implicated. It may also end the Presidential ambitions of some contenders for the 2008 election. Political junkies will be loving every second of this, and now that Abramoff has made a plea-bargain agreement with the prosecution, newspapers may have to print an extra section every day to cover the countless allegations, charges, claims and counter-claims. This thing is going to be ginormous, and for those who relish the spectacle of smooth operators getting caught in their own web of deceit, scrumtralescent.
Once again, the Israeli-Palestinian situation has changed completely almost overnight. On January 4th, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage which forced doctors to put him into a medically-induced coma after operating on him. While he appears to be recovering, he remains in critical condition and even if he survives, no one expects him to be capable of leading the government. This means that Kadima, the centrist party he formed a few months ago with a platform of continued unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank, has now lost its leader before it has even taken shape. While the Sharon-led coalition party was polling ahead of traditional rivals Labour and Likud, it now seems likely that Likud will form the next government under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu quit Sharon’s cabinet in protest over the withdrawal from Gaza, and with him at the helm, Likud is expected to return to their traditional hard-line approach towards the Palestinian Authority. Just like that, the centrist coalition seems to have evaporated, and unless Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert can rally the new party and the public, Sharon’s plans for phased withdrawals will end with his departure from the scene.
Things are equally tense on the other side of the fence as Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ ruling Fatah party stands to lose control of the fledgling state to Hamas in upcoming elections. Hamas has become the most powerful and popular of the Palestinian factions in the West Bank and Gaza and remains the most militant. If the elections go ahead and Hamas is swept into power, combined with a Likud win in Israel, it could spell the end of any hope for cooperation or negotiation between the two governments for a long time. Or the whole picture could change again in a flash, of course.
Perhaps most serious of all, the Iranian nuclear weapons program is approaching zero hour, and the Iranian regime isn’t even pretending to cooperate with the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency anymore. After literally standing the IAEA up at one of their scheduled meetings with Iranian “negotiators,” they’ve now announced that they will be taking the seals off of the most sensitive nuclear fuel reprocessing plants to begin the home stretch of their race to the bomb. They’re counting on certain factors for success remaining constant, such as the UN and the EU limiting themselves to issuing sternly worded letters of condemnation, and Russia and North Korea continuing to provide personnel, hardware and technical support. Nothing new there.
But they’re also counting on the U.S. being too bogged down at home and abroad to be able to do anything to stop them, and they may well be right. This is the moment when even the most virulently anti-Western governments in the region need to realize that this Iranian leadership, armed with nuclear warheads, will own them. Period. If Iran under its present rulers acquires this technology, overt intimidation and total regional domination is the very best case scenario.
Worst case? If we’ve learned anything from the twentieth century, it’s that when genocidal madmen who have no qualms whatsoever about killing their own people promise to wipe out other peoples, we’d best take them at their word. And when the world allows them to acquire the weapons to do so, they will use them.
For anyone keeping up with the news, these are exciting times indeed. For those who weren’t, sorry to rain on your parade.
Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.