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The Big Question: Fear of the Future

 

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From the Spring 2015 issue "The Unknown"

 

What is your country's biggest fear for its future? 

With the world gripped by fear of the unknown—the next tragedy, the next crisis, the next terrorist attack, financial or societal meltdown—we thought it would be illuminating to ask our panel of global experts, who weigh in from four continents, what their fear is for the future of their nations, their respective corners of our planet.

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Antoine Levy: "France: Looming Twilight"

France is afraid of decline, and the specter of our own demise has brought about countless predictions of the country’s suicide. A sense of the looming twilight of a once great nation lingers in our hearts and minds. It discourages individual projects and collective ambitions, and fosters distrust and anger.

We look to the future with angst and see ourselves turning into a zero-sum society, where one man’s loss is another’s gain. In this nation of reduced opportunities, we worry that our future may not be one of enlightened self-interest helping us build more together, but rather one where defiance governs the sharing of an ever-shrinking pie. We distrust the Other—be it the insider who gamed the system; the political opponent who won’t compromise, for fear of being cheated; or the immigrant, as though his finding a job could only mean “one of us” losing it to him. We suspect the super-rich whose wealth must have been stolen, and the poor, bound to be leeching benefits off hard-working people.

The French populace is afraid of itself, of its collective inability to form a mutually beneficial social compact. We have known such troubled times before, when the French Revolution redefined our belonging to a common body politic. As Tocqueville, reflecting on these events, encouraged us at the very end of his Democracy in America, “let us, then look forward to the future with that salutary fear which makes men keep watch and ward for freedom, not with that faint and idle terror which depresses and enervates the heart.”

Antoine Levy is a student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Paris and HEC Paris, and teaching assistant at Sciences-Po Paris and Paris Sciences et Lettres University.

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Alaa Mohamed: "Egypt: Fearful Optimism"

Despite rising optimism for the economic future of Egypt, there remain some important warning signs for policymakers, particularly the youth bulge. In 2012, 25 percent of Egypt’s population was aged 18 to 29. Half live in poverty, with unemployment reaching 25 percent. They represent an enormous unused and untapped potential. Most youths enter the market unprepared for the skills required in a constantly changing labor market. They end up in unproductive jobs that fail to meet their aspirations for better living standards. 

Egypt won’t be able to grow and develop without this untapped potential, which is unemployed, underemployed, or leaving the country in search of a better life. If the basic education system is not reformed by 2018, one million young Egyptians will have entered the labor market without basic skills for productive jobs. Policymakers must devise a clear and strong education policy—focusing on quality education. Enhancing students’ creative and analytical skills is essential for them to enter the labor market productively. A quality education will not only strengthen the Egyptian education system, but will also help the labor market absorb youths who will turn out to be skilled and prepared to work.

Alaa Mohamed, an economist at the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies, studied at Concordia University in Montreal, and has worked as a research assistant at the World Bank and project assistant at UNDP.

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Rezwan Islam: "Bangladesh: Too Many People"

Bangladesh is one of the world’s most densely populated countries. Situated in a low-lying delta, it is vulnerable to flooding and cyclones, and each year suffers significant human and infrastructure losses from natural disasters. The South Asian nation is at the forefront of the effects of climate change. Rising temperatures associated with global warming are melting glaciers and ice caps, and the extra water is raising sea levels. Fifteen percent of the Southern coastline of Bangladesh will be underwater if the sea level rises just 18 inches by 2050. 

Though most think Bangladesh’s main problem is poverty, I would argue it is population. It’s remarkable the country’s economy is growing 6 percent per year since 1996, given its perpetual challenge to feed its 166 million people. But the country has an uncertain future, with 25 million Bangladeshis facing loss of their homes and farms as sea levels rise. This is more than the entire population of Australia whose landmass is more than 50 times Bangladesh’s. Bangladesh simply cannot accommodate all its people on a shrinking landmass. Centuries ago people would migrate from one continent to another in search of a better life. From 1815 to 1932, some 60 million left Europe for other continents. Today, visas and economic deterrents prevent climate refugees from moving freely to another country they can call home. Where will these 25 million climate refugees go?

Rezwan Islam is the South Asia Editor at Global Voices Online.

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Ayda Myrzakhmetova: "Kazakhstan: Devaluation"

Kazakhstan’s biggest fear is the next devaluation. Our country, like many others, is facing a crisis that will continue for many years. Kazakhstan has experienced three devaluations. The first was in 1999, the second in 2009, and the last was in February 2014. People expect the next in 2015. There is a general decline in the growth rate and household incomes within Kazakhstan, and increased tensions abroad, particularly the military-political conflict in Ukraine. 

In 2014, political conflicts and mutual sanctions between Russia and the West, led by the United States, resulted in a decline of Russia’s economic growth, and destabilization of the macroeconomic environment. All this will negatively affect Russia —a leading trading and political partner of Kazakhstan. Today, the crisis is reflected in a sharp drop in oil prices—below $50 a barrel—and low prices of non-ferrous and ferrous metals and other commodities. 

Kazakhstan is a developing, open, but small economy, which supplies raw materials to the world market, and thus depends largely on the global market situation. However, the collapse of oil prices, devaluation of the Russian ruble, falling export prices, and the overall geopolitical and economic crisis have had a negative impact on the trade balance and economy of Kazakhstan. In these circumstances, the expectation of devaluation and deterioration of the socio-economic development of the country are legitimate and immediate fears.

Ayda Myrzakhmetova is an associate professor and lecturer at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University’s Department of International Relations. 

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Vicnenzo Galasso: "Italy: Getting Old"

Italians are getting old. In 2000, people in their thirties represented the largest demographic group, but in 2050, the record will go to Italians in their seventies. Aging Italians should thus fear for the future stability of their generous public pension system. The financial and organizational challenges faced by their public and comprehensive health care system, and any change in immigration policies, may undermine long term care. Elderly Italians are largely cared for at home, with substantial help from female immigrants known as badanti (caretakers).

Still, the future of elderly Italians may seem rosy compared to the present and future of the younger generation. Economic growth has been stagnating since 2000, and Italy has yet to exit the worldwide economic crisis. While elderly workers are protected against the risk of dismissal, youth unemployment has skyrocketed. A brain drain—emigration of highly educated younger Italians—is also surging. In a very family-based society like Italy, elderly parents will have more to fear about the future of their children and grandchildren than about themselves.

Vincenzo Galasso is a professor of economics at the Bocconi University in Milan and research fellow at the Centre for Economic Policy Research.

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Hyeonjung Choi: "Korea: Natural Fears"

Asians, including Koreans, have traditionally equated “calamities” with “natural disasters” that bring psychological and economic damage. In fact, empirical evidence tells us that the Asia-Pacific region in the last century accounted for 91 percent of the world’s total deaths and 49 percent of the world’s total damage due to natural disasters.

The sinking of the ferry, Sewol, last year aroused unprecedented fear among Koreans of man-made calamities. That tragic accident could have been prevented, and a better response would most certainly have saved many more lives. So Koreans have come to believe that existing laws, institutions, and social infrastructure cannot guarantee their personal safety. Korea has attained the kind of economic growth that no other country has been able to achieve in modern history, and the economic overdrive often overshadows the importance of safety. Now, we are paying a social price. The government’s response system is not on a par with Koreans’ increased awareness about personal safety. That naturally resulted in a loss of faith in the government, creating social fissures. Koreans’ hysterical, groundless fear of mad cow disease in 2008, for example, engendered a serious conflict.

Indeed, the Korean people harbor a wide range of fears, including neighboring North Korea’s nuclear program, the ongoing economic recession, and natural disasters resulting from climate change. The fear that the state and government may not be able to ensure personal security and safety in times of crisis could continue to grow.

Hyeonjung Choi is a research fellow at the Asan Institute of Policy Studies, South Korea. 

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Ion Marandici: "Moldova: Moscow's Specter"

Russia’s growing military involvement in the region is the biggest threat to Moldova. While the nation’s ruling pro-European politicians try to move Moldova closer to the European Union, Russian policymakers perceive the rapprochement as a threat to their foreign policy goals. Since Russia is not willing to let Moldova join the European Union or NATO, it spends a significant amount of resources and effort to block Moldova’s European aspirations. It actively supports anti-EU political players, who have on their agenda integration with the Eurasian Union.

A political and economic organization modeled after the EU, the Eurasian Union is Russia’s attempt to recreate the Soviet Union. In Moldova, this tug-of-war between a pro-European right-wing and a pro-Russian left polarizes the Moldovan political establishment and population. In this context, the hybrid warfare initiated by Russia in neighboring Ukraine only inflates the threat perceptions of many Moldovan politicians. They see the unfolding of some form of hybrid warfare in their own country as a plausible scenario. The potential unfreezing of the Transnistrian conflict coupled with intense Gagauz activism in the southern part of Moldova provide Russia with opportunities to push the nation to the brink of a violent civil conflict. Such an attempt was already thwarted in November 2014 before the parliamentary elections, so it is not surprising that Moldovan policymakers closely follow the events in Ukraine for lessons about their own future.

Ion Marandici, a lecturer from Moldova, teaches in Rutgers University’s Department of Political Science and Center for European Studies. 

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Itzchak Weismann: "Israel: Existiential Threats"

Israel was founded in 1948, touching off a war against its Arab neighbors. The war ended in statehood for the Jews and catastrophe for the Palestinians, who became either refugees or a powerless minority within Israel. Since then, several major wars were fought against different collections of Arab states, usually with overwhelming Israeli victories. More elusive were the outcomes of military operations against nationalists and, since the 1980s, radical Islamic organizations in the Occupied Territories or beyond the nation’s borders. In between, there were also several rounds of negotiations, most notably peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan and the Oslo accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Yet, neither arms nor negotiations have brought any relief. The security problem looms large, and peace eludes Israel more than ever.

Thus, Israel, or more accurately its Jewish society, is afraid for its existence. The threat today is felt to reside less in the Arab states, and more in the rising force of Islamic radicalism, whether of the Iranian statist type and its nuclear program, or the fanatical brutal type of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Jewish society is even more afraid of the Arab-Muslim Israeli citizens who live in its midst, imagining them as a potential fifth column. Here, like in Europe, lies the roots of the growing attraction of the Israeli right-wing since the collapse of Oslo, and the exceptionally long incumbency of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose policy echoes and cultivates these fears.

Itzchak Weismann is a professor in the University of Haifa’s Middle Eastern History Department.

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Roberto Fendt: "Brazil: Adjustment Time"

Over the past four years, Brazil’s economy grew at an average yearly rate of 1.5 percent—the worst performance among the major emerging economies. It is tempting to attribute these results to the slow growth of the global economy. But Brazil’s performance lags behind the corresponding performance of its neighbors in Latin America, the emerging Asian countries, and three fellow BRICS—China, India, and Russia. The administration believed this paralysis of growth rested on insufficient domestic demand. Accordingly, the economic policy took a Keynesian route to stimulate the economy—expanding public expenditures and financing the private sector by state banks at below-market interest rates. After four years of this policy, the result was a deteriorating balance of payments and increasing inflationary pressures.

A new economic team now has the task of reversing this situation. A more orthodox policy includes reduction of subsidies, cuts in current expenditures, and rising taxes—to produce a minimum primary budget surplus required to stabilize the growth of public debt. President Dilma Rousseff correctly opted for a conservative economic policy in her second term. In so doing, she faces a big challenge—persist with the orthodox policy mix until positive results appear and protect the economic team from expected pressures from vested interests that were thriving under the previous system. 

Roberto Fendt is the executive director of the Brazilian Center for International Relations.

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Katrin Zinoun: "Germany: Surveillance"

After the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, Germany has revived its conversation on data retention, while beginning a new and expanded discussion of access to encrypted communication for state authorities. Since the uproar about mass surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and other services has ebbed, this renewed discussion of further surveillance measures no longer causes any substantial outrage. At most, there is a desperate head-shaking going through some Twitter hashtags. Certainly, there are activists and journalists who try to keep the issue on the agenda, but it no longer attracts widespread discussion. The fact that total surveillance will lead to an erosion of our basic rights seems to be forgotten. The right to privacy is virtually non-existent. If we choose to fight for our privacy, we need to implement uncomfortable solutions that require efforts many people are not willing to undertake.

A study published by PEN International shows that the behavior of journalists and other media workers has changed dramatically. Even in countries believed to be free, where free speech is a core principle, media workers self-censor their communications. Total surveillance of communications in Germany undermines the rights to privacy, perhaps society itself. But one of the biggest threats to Germany is that total surveillance as a discussion is sliding into obscurity, or simply ignored.

Katrin Zinoun is a freelance writer and German Editor at Global Voices Online.

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Aleksandr Grigoryan: "Armenia: Income Gaps"

Armenia is ranked as a middle-income country, but the weakened economic performance in recent years places the country at risk of finding itself in the pool of low-income countries. Growing inequalities and poverty polarize society. The poor are increasingly isolated from the rich, and the two segments behave as distinct societies with little interaction. The same goods, services, or art products are created and sold for the poor and rich in different spaces and at different prices.

Armenia is finding it difficult to sustain national security. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan, and a rather hostile relationship with Turkey going back to the early 20th century make the security issue of paramount importance. Armenian society needs to be unified to pursue a favorable resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and grow prosperity in Armenia. Increasing social disruption has left different social segments with little to share. The big question for the Armenian elite is how to reverse the processes of disruption in the society. 

Aleksandr Grigoryan is a professor of economics at the American University of Armenia in Yerevan.

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Taras Kuzio: "Ukraine: A Hinge Year"

The Euromaidan revolution and regime change, the economic and financial meltdown, two elections, the Russian annexation of Crimea, the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, and Russia’s intransigence returned the world to the Cold War and forced Ukrainians to wonder whether their nation would survive as an independent state.

Implementing reforms and fighting corruption have been long overdue, and even in a different environment, pro-Western leaders would only have accomplished some of these goals. Even with the election of a pro-European president and parliament, Ukraine’s complete reliance on international assistance to prevent its default and ongoing conflict with Russia make structural reforms more difficult. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s foreign policy goals of NATO and EU membership are opposed by Russia and hardly welcomed by Western European member states. 

Ukraine’s biggest fear is Russia’s desire to destroy it as an independent state, using nearly all means at its disposal. Russia’s determination to bend Ukraine to its will overrides the sanctions that damage its economy and finances, brings untold civilian suffering, high numbers of military casualties, war crimes, and destruction of property. Russia’s new imperialism rejects the very existence of Ukraine as a separate nation, in a similar throwback to Germany’s relationship toward Austria the 1930s. Ukraine is the first country to experience the deadly nature of the Putin Doctrine, but it surely will not be the last. 

Taras Kuzio is a senior research associate at the Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta and chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Toronto.

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Tiiu Pohl: "Estonia: Russian Spillover"

Estonia, a small and liberal country, is petrified of being lost between West and East, between liberal small and big countries of Europe and its illiberal giant neighbor, Russia. European states are going to be overwhelmingly occupied with terrorism, and each country’s economic problems will have to be solved. Estonia’s Western partners are far from Russia and are self-centered—their own domestic problems coming first.

In this situation, an aggressive eastern neighbor with authoritarian leadership can easily overlay military activities in some modern form with a new pretext, as happened in Crimea in 2014. Estonia, in this situation, will be left suspended between the larger countries of the West and Russia. Besides being a member of the EU, Estonia is also a NATO member country. NATO is often assumed to be a security guarantor and a defense against military action by any other state. However, beyond the fifth article of the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949, the fourth one also means that the members must first consult before taking action. Thus, Estonia’s biggest fear is to be disregarded by the West in its relations with the East.

Tiiu Pohl is a lecturer of international relations at the Institute of Political Science and Governance at the University of Tallinn in Estonia. 

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Şuhnaz Yilmaz: "Turkey: On Fault Lines"

Whether it is seismic, political, religious, ethnic, or regional, Turkey’s greatest fear concerns the activation of fault lines, and subsequent domestic and regional instability. On the domestic scene, a devastating earthquake could destroy Istanbul, Turkey’s bustling commercial center. The polarization between secularists and religious conservatives may lead to significant domestic strife, accentuated by the challenges of reconciling the country’s myriad identities. A potential failure of the current peace process with the Kurdish minority, along with intensifying regional conflicts, may once again spark ethnic separatism.

Regionally, major challenges include deepening sectarian lines, the instability caused by the Syrian conflict, the refugee crisis, and the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Moreover, Ankara must preserve a precarious balance between its Western allies and an increasingly assertive Russia, on which Turkey depends for energy. Despite a seemingly positive turn, the outcome of nuclear negotiations with Iran remains unclear. Globally, the intensifying threat from religious extremist terrorist networks, on the one hand, and Islamophobia and extreme nationalism, on the other, indicate a deepening, potentially explosive rift. 

So Turkey contends with multiple domestic, regional, and global fault lines, as well as the serious danger that one break will trigger another. Turkey’s location between Europe and Asia, its proximity to the Caucasus, the Balkans, and Africa, bestows significant opportunities. Some 1.5 billion people from 39 countries can reach Istanbul with a four-hour flight. But with opportunities come serious risks. As a crucial power in this turbulent region, Turkey plays a critical role for peace and stability. However, Turkey can be more constructive and avoid being engulfed by multiple fault lines, if it masters three challenges—consolidating its democracy, maintaining good neighborly relations, and operating within a predominantly European framework while simultaneously pursuing a multilateral foreign policy with extensive Eurasian ties. 

Şuhnaz Yılmaz is the director of the Foreign Policy Section of the Center for Globalization and Democratic Governance at Koç University in Turkey.

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Lesley Blaauw: "Namibia: Repositioning"

Namibia’s biggest problem is arguably unemployment. Since independence from South Africa in 1990, unemployment has risen at an alarming rate to a current level of 34 percent to 49 percent. Two fundamental problems arise from such high-level unemployment. The first relates to migration patterns as a result of unemployment. We are witnessing a steady increase in rural-urban migration, placing significant pressure on urban authorities, but this has also led to a significant increase in the price of urban land. 

The second issue relates to youth unemployment, which in parallel with overall jobless rates has risen from 38 percent in 2012 to 42 percent in 2013. This continued increase in youth unemployment has led to a rise in alcoholism and an increase in HIV prevalence. Recently, and partly in response to the demand for land, young people embarked on a campaign called “affirmative repositioning.” This campaign, if left unaddressed, has the potential to pose a huge challenge to the Namibian government.

Lesley Blaauw is a senior lecturer in the Department of Political and Administrative Studies at the University of Namibia.

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Compiled by Jordan Clifford,  Sophie des Beauvais,  and Evan Gottesman

[Photo courtesy of Andreas Fusser]

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