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Top 10 of 2015 – Issue #9: Border Skirmishes Resonate in National Domestic Politics

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Top 10 of 2015 – Issue #9: Border Skirmishes Resonate in National Domestic Politics

India's unofficial economic blockade of Nepal has spurred protests around the world, incluing in Washington, DC. (Photo: S. Pakhrin)

The imposition of border controls can serve as levers of foreign and domestic power, as in the decision of Russia to suspend visa-free travel for Turkish nationals beginning January 1, 2016 in retaliation for Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet operating near the Turkish-Syrian border. The move by Russian President Vladimir Putin to impose a package of economic and other sanctions on Turkey, which is a major trading partner, played well domestically in a country that itself has been laboring under economic sanctions since its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. 

In 2015 political leaders in a number of countries altered border policies or engaged in conflicts across borders as tools of domestic policy, in the face of strong electoral challenges and falling approval rates.

Deportations and Border Closures: Venezuela and Colombia

Following an August attack by alleged Colombian paramilitaries on two Venezuelan soldiers in the border region, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro unilaterally closed several major border crossings with Colombia, sent 3,000 troops to border communities, and deported nearly 1,500 Colombians. The sudden closures paralyzed commerce and incited mass movement as an estimated 20,000 Colombians, many longtime residents of Venezuela, returned voluntarily to Colombia, fearing forcible removal or the demolition of their homes.

With Venezuela’s economy hit by low oil prices and Maduro facing a strong challenge in December’s congressional elections, the president blamed problems ranging from drug trafficking and high crime levels to currency manipulation on unauthorized Colombian immigrants. He also accused Colombian smugglers of seeking to destabilize his government and for causing the country’s rampant food shortages. The opposition, meanwhile, has described the border closures as an effort to boost the president’s dwindling popularity by heightening fears of a foreign enemy. Human Rights Watch Director for the Americas José Miguel Vivanco declared the border dispute “a conflict manufactured in Caracas.”  Putin has been similarly accused of using foreign policy to distract from economic woes at home.

Despite signing an agreement to normalize relations with Colombia in September, and acknowledgment from Colombian officials that there had been a drop in crime and smuggling along the border since the operation began, Maduro extended the state of emergency by another 60 days in mid-November. Maduro quickly took credit for the short-term improvements in security, but has yet to directly address the country’s long-term economic difficulties, even as the International Monetary Fund expects the Venezuelan economy to contract by 7 percent in 2015.

Annexation and Separatist Conflict: Russia and Ukraine

In Eastern Europe, a redrawing of borders by forcible means in 2014 led to ongoing violence and displacement in 2015. Following the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in March 2014—justified by Putin as reclaiming land that has rightfully belonged to Russia for centuries—the conflict expanded to the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk, where Russian-backed separatists declared independence. About 8,000 people had been killed in the fighting and at least 1.5 million people were internally displaced across Ukraine as of October, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (for more on global displacement trends see Issue #2: Displacement Reaches Record High as Wars Continue and New Conflicts Emerge).

In September 2015, a ceasefire between Kiev and Moscow was revived after earlier efforts to halt the fighting failed to take hold. The agreement called for withdrawal of heavy weaponry from the frontlines, international monitoring of the border, and elections in the breakaway territories to be held by the end of 2015—terms widely regarded as difficult to implement, but publicly supported by both the rebels and Ukraine. As overt violence died down in 2015, both sides turned to more subtle means of cross-border destabilization. Moscow banned imports of Ukrainian food and threatened to cut off gas and coal supplies to the country, while Ukraine has refused to rebuild power lines to a blacked-out Crimea and vowed to reciprocate with trade bans.

Many observers have suggested Russia’s Crimean annexation and ongoing military support for the eastern separatists were motivated by Putin’s desire to distract the Russian public from accusations of government corruption, increasing economic stagnation, dwindling oil reserves, and heavy Western sanctions. Even as Russia’s economic contraction has deepened, with gross domestic product (GDP) falling 4.6 percent in the second quarter of 2015, Putin may have succeeded: in June his popularity reached a record 89 percent.

Minority Politics and Economic Blockade: India and Nepal

In September, India began restricting road transportation into Nepal, while the state-owned Indian Oil Corporation refused to service Nepalese tankers, in what Nepal has termed an economic blockade. India has vocally opposed the fast-tracked approval of the Nepalese constitution, which it sees as unfair to the Madhesi minority, and which occurred amid stalled reconstruction efforts after devastating earthquakes rocked the country in April and May (for more on the migration impacts of the earthquake, see Issue #7: Climate Change and Natural Disasters Displace Millions, Affect Migration Flows).

The Hindi-speaking Madhesi, who comprise 30 percent of Nepal’s population and share linguistic and cultural ties with Indian communities across the border, say the new constitution impinges on their rights and have been protesting since August. More than 40 people have been killed in the clashes, including an Indian citizen killed on November 2 when Nepalese security forces fired on a crowd of protestors trying to block a key border checkpoint.

Following the constitution’s adoption on September 20, Indian security personnel began preventing cargo trucks from crossing the border, including hundreds carrying fuel and cooking gas. Because of the interruption, landlocked Nepal—overwhelmingly trade dependent on India—is facing severe fuel shortages.

Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli accused India of deliberately imposing the trade embargo to demonstrate its disapproval of the constitution. India denies the blockade and blames the trade disruption on insecurity caused by sit-in protests at border crossings, and has urged dialogue to resolve the political crisis. The unrest has had both domestic political and security implications for India as the neighboring Indian state of Bihar, where the Madhesi are an important voting bloc, held elections in November that delivered a powerful blow to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The election represented the biggest test for the BJP and Modi’s economic reform agenda, which has been held up in the federal parliament. As Modi has faced high-level accusations of escalating sectarian intolerance, the hard-line stance towards Nepal in support of a kindred minority group could be seen as a means of garnering public support, according to some analysts. Furthermore, with the election—a potential motivation for the blockade—completed, some Indian and Nepalese experts have indicated optimism that the blockade may be lifted soon.

While such border skirmishes may occur on the physical and political periphery, they can have wide-ranging impacts on national politics and temporarily distract public attention away from domestic troubles.

Features

MPI Research

Sources

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Alsema, Adriaan. 2015. Crime Along Venezuela Border Dropped Steeply After Closing: Defense Minister. Colombia Reports, October 18, 2015. Available Online.

Associated Press (AP). 2015. More Venezuelan Border Closures Leave Colombians Stranded. AP, September 9, 2015. Available Online.

Bell, Thomas. 2015. Analysis: Blockade Politics in Nepal. Al Jazeera, October 9, 2015. Available Online.

Birnbaum, Michael and Karoun Demirjian. 2015. A Year After Crimean Annexation, Threat of Conflict Remains. Washington Post, March 18, 2015. Available Online.

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