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A Brave New World: top stories to watch in 2022

Anton Rovenskyy, Master of International Relations, International Political Scientist

The year 2022 has started off the reel, promising to be full of action and conflicts. The biggest intrigues and challenges of the new year are in the material below.

Pandemics: to be continued?

In late 2021, WHO presumed 2022 to become the last year of global Covid-19 pandemics, but only in the case of just and equal global vaccine distribution. Though, the mechanisms for such an effort seem to be theoretical rather than practical. On the other hand, with Omicron being more contagious but much less lethal, the situation leaves room for optimism.

Despite any particular change in the epidemiological situation worldwide or in the actual period of pandemics, new social and management technologies, which were successfully tested by private corporations and national governments during the last 2 years, would become an integral part of post-Covid life. However, the scope of justice, inclusivity and social awareness of the post-Covid world order is yet to be discovered.

Energy crisis: here to stay?

The last 6 months of 2021 were deeply affected by the global energy crisis, when record-breaking prices of natural gas, coal, electricity, and oil products hit the markets worldwide. There are several reasons for it: from massive monetary emission in the EU and the US, which pumped up inflation globally, to a rapid ‘green transition’ and Nord Stream 2 uncertainty.

The key question for the global economy: is such abnormal price growth of energy resources a fluctuation or a sustainable trend, which leads to a transition in a technological paradigm, as well as in the global production and consumption structure? As for now, with a degree of certainty, one can consider high energy prices to remain till Q2 2022, with the further development to be shaped by the level of geopolitical tension, Covid-19 pandemics and the level of economic recovery.

In this context, the decision on the final closure of the Groningen natural gas field was rescheduled from April 2022 to at least Q3 2023, alongside with the US Department of State being rather sceptical on the new sanctions against Nord Stream 2. These elements of the global energy puzzle underline: the global growth of energy prices is in the top priority of national governments and global elites.

‘The Big Deal’: mission (im)possible?

From 9 January, a series of negotiations has started between the US and Russia, which, complementary to the bilateral format, also touch upon NATO and OSCE agenda. Despite the antagonism, US-Russia dialogue has a number of areas of common interest, in which there is a high chance for a compromise, namely the strategic arms control, climate issues and the Arctic region. A number of small compromises is unlikely to promote the ‘Big Deal’, however the transition from the phase of escalation to the agenda of managed competition would de-escalate geopolitical tension.

Considering such a compromise as a lose-lose situation, China, which transforms into the US key geopolitical rival, becomes the main beneficiary of the future US-Russia agreements. For this reason, the White House and the Kremlin would negotiate with an eye on the official Beijing, leaving less room for a political manoeuvre.

Elections in France

In spring 2022, one expects a very tough presidential election campaign in France. According to the results of the latest polls, the head of Île-de-France région Valérie Pécresse, Republican, would beat incumbent Emmanuel Macron in the run-off by 4%. However, it is too early for any conclusions, as the configuration of the elections would become more clear only by February. One cannot but remind of the 2017 presidential campaign, when François Fillon, also Republican and presidential hopeful, was knocked out due to the scandal on the phoney recruitment of his wife.

One cannot — and should not — ignore Éric Zemmour, a right-wing conservative publicist, who broke into French politics last year and announced his interest in the presidential race, launching his personal political project, Reconquête . Alongside Pécresse and Macron, Zemmour makes the top-3 of the candidate’s presidential rating.

In June 2022, a new French president will run a general election, during which a new loyal parliament majority should be formed. Otherwise, the new president of the Fifth Republic would become a lame duck, unable to be a genuine leader of the European Union.

Landscape in the Middle East

The given trends and factors would shape political developments in the Middle East in the following year.

First, the reduction of American military presence in Iraq strengthens the position of Iran in the region, which would also promote a new ‘nuclear deal’ between Washington and Tehran, with the latter being denounced by the Trump administration.

Second, new balances between Iran, Russia, Turkey and the US, being supportive of various military fractions in Syria, as well as aiming to spread their influence in the entire Middle East, are to be constructed.

Third, financial and economic problems of Turkey would reflect on its active expansionist foreign policy. The intrigue is whether Ankara's policy will become less aggressive, or whether economic problems will spur expansionism to intensify.

Fourth, the deterioration of relations between Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Joe Biden creates new reasons for the new Israeli-Palestinian escalation and expansion of conflict lines between Israel and Iran.

Fifth, the antagonism of the Arabian monarchies will be smoothed out by the upward trend in energy resources, as well as by the factor of the World Cup in Qatar, to be held in late 2022.

Sixth, attempts at a military and political settlement in Libya alongside an end to the acute socio-political crisis in Lebanon will tie up the diplomatic resources of key Middle Eastern players, with both having desperately low chances of success.

'The Great Game' in Central Asia

The events of the first days of 2022 in Kazakhstan actualized social and economic issues, security matters and confrontation between major geopolitical players in Central Asia. The uprising in Kazakhstan demonstrated that the Central Asian autocracies are very vulnerable in the face of a socio-economic decline accompanied by an exacerbation of intra-clan contradictions and increased foreign influence.

The laws of social development prove: it is impossible to “tighten the screws" endlessly. While Uzbekistan under Shavkat Mirziyoyev began to liberalize its socio-political and economic life, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, where the ruling clans have been in power for decades, threaten to “explode" at almost any moment. One should also bear in his mind the chronically unstable Kyrgyzstan, which has seen three coups d'état in the last 15 years.

The internal institutional weakness of the Central Asian republics and the increased interest in them by China, Great Britain, Russia, and Turkey determine Central Asia as one of the most conflict-prone global regions in the coming years. As well as in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the new 'Great Game' in Central Asia is going to be extremely intense and intriguing.

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