Year in Review: 2016, the Year of Unmarked Change

Compared to the tumult of 2013-2015, 2016 was a year of seemingly relative quiet in Russia’s near abroad. There were no obvious invasions, the wars that had seemed to be ever-present remained that way, and change seemed to come to the periphery alone.

This is mistaken.

Ukraine’s ongoing war in the East continued to no real resolution, despite multiple attempts at something that could pass for a quiet end to the conflict. 2016 marked one of the most pronounced death-free stretches in the war — September 1 to September 9 — and the death rate slowed to a virtual trickle. The world as a whole seemed to lose the thread on this conflict, with some thinking of it as yet another of the so-called “frozen conflicts” of the breakup of the Soviet Union, despite beginning nearly 25 years later.

Ukraine also made the news for supporting a UN Resolution to declare Israel’s settlements illegal under international law — a move that some sources say was orchestrated by the Obama Administration in the US, and others say was just one of those things that happens from time to time. Israel, which had enjoyed good relations with Ukraine for decades, has ended most diplomatic and international cooperation and as of this writing is still considering withdrawing its ambassador.

Uzbekistan went from Islam Karimov’s private reserve to his graveyard, and appears to be the resting spot for his dynasty. His feuding daughters have discontinued their feud largely because Gulnara, the usually-ascendant one, went missing shortly after her father’s life did. (In a sense, this is merely the next logical step of her father’s policies, which had seen her imprisoned for two years running.) Karimov was, after a brief and slightly panicked transition, replaced by Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the former Prime Minister, whose policy direction to date appears to be “Karimov, but more so.”

Azerbaijan undertook further constitutional and legal reforms to bring the country into twenty-first century governance. Education reform, opening political office to younger citizens, and streamlining the election process were all big issues with broad popular support. Perhaps the biggest news for the country was the resolution passed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which unambiguously declared Armenia’s occupation of a fifth of the country a threat to peace and demanded it end. A direct and heartening development followed: A White House petition to support the resolution was the second-most popular in 2016, drawing hundreds of thousands of signatures from across the globe.

European and American fecklessness (and the wildly unlikely election of Donald Trump to the Presidency) in the face of ongoing Russian action in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Syria ultimately led the Baltic states to start taking their own security seriously, because no one is sure if NATO means anything any more or can effectively counter Russia. Russia’s totally-independent-and-not-a-mouthpiece network Russia Today (RT) carried this news to the group of paranoid conspiracy theorists who tune in regularly; mainstream media across the globe barely noticed the Atlantic Alliance fracturing at the edges.

Poland’s new government is either a dangerous experiment in fascism, a return of the center-right consensus in the country after a mostly-harmless and mostly-ineffective experiment in center-leftism, or both, depending on your perspective. If Europe hadn’t been consumed by its migrant crisis, it likely would have stepped beyond the mild panic mode every act by Warsaw engendered and moved to full-bore Serious Communiques.

Speaking of the migrant crisis, the Schengen free-travel agreement that made the EU a pleasant place in which to travel began its perhaps-inevitable truncation or end, and the first signs of this came from the outer edges, the first places to experience the wave of Middle Eastern refugees that Russia totally and completely and cross-their-hearts didn’t help drive there. Britain would like to take this opportunity to note, again, that Brexit was not over Middle Eastern migrants, because that would be racist; it was over Eastern European workers, who are icky.

In sum, the world as we know it continued the slow dissolve that had been underway for years, and even picked up the pace. No one really noticed the net effect; they likely won’t until the next world war ends.

Happy New Year.

The Director, Erika Chen, and Matthew Lina contributed to this report.

Image Copyright Medium69 (William Crochot) via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons (CC-BY-SA 4.0).