Covid’s spectre had largely lifted from the world in 2022, but a new set of challenges arose – the return of war to Europe, a new high to sabre-rattling in the Chinese littoral, and several other destabilising events. As 2023 approaches, a new variant of Covid is assuming contours of a threat, many of 2022’s issues remain unresolved, and then, over the horizon, there may be “unknown unknowns”.
While various “unknown unknowns”, in the picturesque language of former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, or “Black Swan Events” of writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb, may loom over us, it is the mostly the known issues from 2022 that seem set to stay in the headlines in 2023. Accompanying them will be a few elections, slated for the coming year, that may have ramifications far beyond their respective countries.
Let us see some major issues to look out for, across all the continents.
The top one will be the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian conflict, which has already sparked off major diplomatic, and economic consequences across the globe since it broke out this February.
While there was, and will be, a major disruption to food, fuel, and fertiliser across the world, it also upended Europe’s economic and security architecture, with consequences that will continue to reverberate down the years.
The fighting may be stalled during the peak winter months, but shows no indications of a resolution in the near future.
Whatever be the endgame, relations between Russia and the West, especially Europe, changing since the Crimea episode in 2014, will not return to the old mode.
Russian strategic thinkers are already speaking in terms of a pivot away from the West, towards the East and the South. And in this, there will be new challenges for all.
There are two other flashpoints in Europe. The first is in Kosovo, where Serbia, seen as Russia’s sole sympathiser in Europe, is being pushed against a wall. With the world having already seen, across the 1990s, the consequences of ethnic strife in the former Yugoslavia and the wider Balkans, a further flare-up is the last thing needed.
Then, the sporadic clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with the threat of any escalation likely to impinge on the entire tense region, would warrant a close watch, especially with Russia seeing them as in its zone of influence.
Presidential and parliamentary elections are due in Turkey in June, and it remains to be seen if Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues his grip on power, or the scattered opposition can withstand him.
While all European countries are experiencing growing social and economic tensions that spill over into politics too, the stakes are highest in the UK, where political turmoil is still present, economy is sluggish, and people are hit by a wave of strikes.
Asia, on the other hand, will continue to have its share of potential flashpoints, spanning from the volatile Middle East to the Indo-Pacific — the next spot of superpower rivalry.
China’s aggressive stance over the South China Sea, against Taiwan, and in recent times, on the boundary with India, was on over the year. However, it remains to be seen how much it will continue its adventurism after protests led to the removal of the stringent ‘Zero-Covid’ regimen, and the consequent spiral in cases with a new, highly-infectious variant of the virus.
There is not much cheer in the Middle East too. A new Benjamin Netanyahu government, with the support of an ultra-right party, means tensions with Palestinians will continue, while, in Iran, which witnessed unprecedented protests over the death of a woman, there is an uneasy calm for the time being.
In South Asia, Afghanistan continues to remain a vortex of despair, with the latest Taliban diktats against women’s education set to create a crisis, relations between India and Pakistan are at a new nadir, and Sri Lanka, after a tumultuous year of social and political upheaval which included the powerful Rajapaksa clan losing all their clout, is still in dire straits.
Pakistan is not in an enviable state, with rising political acrimony, especially after the ouster of the Imran Khan dispensation in April this year, set to continue with the next general elections due in October, and terrorism remaining a headache after the ceasefire with the TTP collapsed.
Bangladesh is also due to have general elections in December and these will show if Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League still enjoys the people’s support.
In Africa, there was generally peace, save in various old trouble spots — the Islamist insurgencies in parts of Sahel and the Horn of Africa, the Congo insurgency, and a few coups, or attempts, thereof, but none of these are likely to have much impact beyond their environs.
Eyes will, however, be on the coming general elections in West Africa’s regional powerhouse Nigeria in February-end.
In the Americas, the focus will be on the US, where political polarisation is set to rise, as contenders for the 2024 polls will emerge in both parties, seek to clinch the nomination, and launch their campaign. With former President Donald Trump being among those in the Republican side, fireworks can be expected.
With Democrats performing better than expected in the 2022 mid-terms, where they lost control over the House of Representatives by a small margin but retained the Senate, including a short-lived simple majority, President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda will face hiccups in the second part. On the other hand, House Republicans are far from united. The election of the Speaker will be the first test for them.
Elsewhere, in the Americas, events of interest will include the Cuban parliamentary elections in March — the first in nearly half a century where neither of the Castro brothers will not be present.
Argentina, where the World Cup victory was a brief respite from the economic malaise, is set to have elections in October amid Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner facing legal troubles, dating from her presidential stint (2007-15).
Brazil, where Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva narrowly returned to power, by defeating incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, who does not seem to have fully resigned to his loss and still retains influence, will be another key place to keep a watch on.
Ukraine to Taiwan, Argentina to Afghanistan, the flashpoints of 2023