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Italy’s crisis and the crisis of democracy in Europe

Italy’s unelected pro EU President has just set a democratic election aside by preventing anti-EU parties forming a government

Alexander Mercouris

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Before analysing what has just happened in Italy and discussing its likely consequences, it is necessary to say something about the fact of what has just happened.

Italy is supposed to be a parliamentary republic with the Prime Minister and the government accountable to the parliament.

As in other parliamentary republics the Italian President is supposed to be a figure above politics, whose primary function is to safeguard the constitution, which he is sworn to uphold.  He is not supposed to meddle in day to day politics or to take on himself the leadership of the country.

Italy recently had parliamentary elections, which parties which can be broadly defined as ‘anti-EU’ decisively won.

Italy’s most prominent pro-EU party, the Democratic Party, saw its vote fall to 19% of the vote.  By contrast the leftist but anti-EU Five Star Movement won 32% of the vote, whilst the right wing but even more anti-EU Northern League won 17.7% of the vote.

After complex and protracted discussions of a sort which are by no means unusual in Italy, the Five Star Movement and the Northern League agreed to form a coalition government together.

That coalition government would have represented the two anti-EU parties which together won almost 50% of the vote in the parliamentary elections, and which have a majority in the lower house of the Italian Parliament the Chamber of Deputies.

There was no obvious constitutional or legal reason why that government, which represents the parties which won the parliamentary elections, should not have been allowed to take office.

In the event that is not what was permitted to happen.

The strongly pro-EU Italian President Sergio Mattarella – who is not directly elected, but is elected by an electoral college made up of the two chambers of the Italian parliament and of representatives of Italy’s regions – to the surprise of some (including me) appeared to agree to the coalition’s suggestion that its nominee Giuseppe Conte should be Italy’s new Prime Minister.

However, in what I strongly suspect was a prearranged move, he then vetoed the coalition’s nominee for Finance Minister, Paolo Savona.

This is despite the fact that Savona is an experienced banker and an internationally recognised economist, who has headed several of Italy’s banks, and who has previously held ministerial office.

In vetoing Savona’s appointment Mattarella did not question Savona’s qualifications for the Finance Ministry post or question his general competence.  Savona’s record makes that impossible.

Nor did Mattarella say that Savona was unfit to hold office because, for example, he suffers from ill health or has a criminal record.

Instead Mattarella vetoed Savona’s appointment because of Savona’s known skepticism about Italy’s membership of the Eurozone, with which Mattarella happens to disagree.

Mattarella has dressed this up by talking of the negative reaction to Savona’s appointment by the financial markets, and of his “duty” to protect Italy’s savers.

As to the first, that subordinates the will of the Italian people as expressed in a democratic election to the opinion of the financial markets; as to the second, that is purely Mattarella’s opinion, whilst the nature of his “duty” to “protect” Italy’s savers is unknown to me.

I would add that it also seems to be a case of “protecting” Italy’s savers by setting aside their votes.

In either case these seem to me to be strange reasons for a President to give for in effect refusing to confirm in office a Finance Minister selected by a government which had just been democratically elected by the people.

In reality I suspect that Mattarella never intended the coalition to take power.  He did not reject Conte because that would have been too obvious a rejection of the outcome of the election, so he rejected Savona instead, knowing that that would be unacceptable to the coalition, and would cause it to return its mandate to form a government.

In that way Mattarella is now able to say that the coalition’s failure to form a government is its fault, and deny that he has set the verdict of the election aside.

In fact this is a straightforward case of the European political establishment – of which Mattarella is very much a part – setting the result of a democratic election which it doesn’t like aside.  Moreover it is not the first time the European political establishment has done this, though it has not done this previously in quite so flagrant a way.

Thus back in November 2011 the Italian Presidency was also used to help engineer the resignation of Italy’s then Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi who also had by this time. become something of a bête noire for the European political establishment.

Berlusconi  says this was because he refused to apply for a loan to the IMF, which would have required him to impose swingeing austerity measures on Italy.   Spain’s former Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero says that’s true.

As happened after Berlusconi was forced to resign, so now, the Italian Presidency is moving to appoint a rigidly orthodox pro-EU technocrat to run what is sometimes called a “technical government” in place of a government democratically accountable to the parliament.

In 2011 this was the former EU Commissioner Mario Monti.  This time it is the former IMF economist Carlo Cottarelli.

This is despite the fact that Giuseppe Conte – the coalition Prime Minister designate whose appointment the President has effectively blocked – commands a majority in the Chamber of Deputies, which Cottarelli of course does not.

Cottarelli in fact embodies and is committed to implementing precisely the mix of policies – fiscal orthodoxy, ‘supply side reforms’ and unending austerity inside the Eurozone – which Italian voters rejected in the elections in March.

There is an old British quip that if voting changed anything it would be abolished.  That is not true in Britain.  In Italy however the Italian people have just been given a lesson that voting changes nothing.

Back in November 2011, whilst the plotting against Berlusconi was still underway, but shortly after the European political establishment had engineered the resignation of Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, I wrote the following on my personal blog

If the European Union collapses as a result of this crisis this will be the moment when that collapse begins.  The European Union is supposed to be a union of democracies yet faced by the greatest crisis in its history its response is to impose its decisions by arranging the removal of the government that is supposed to be accountable to the people affected by those decisions whilst denying those same people a say.  Moreover it seems that Greece is only the start.  Steps are apparently already underway to engineer through the Italian Presidency the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Italy so that it can be replaced with a new government that is more amenable to the wishes of the French and German governments and to those of the central European institutions.

Acting in a democracy to deny the people the right to a say in the way they are governed amounts to a coup d’etat.  This is so regardless of whether this coup is carried out legally or not.  The political crisis in Germany in the early 1930s was precipitated by the perfectly legal and constitutional step of forming technocratic governments that had not been elected and which were not accountable to the German parliament the Reichstag, which sought to use Presidential powers to impose by decree austerity measures the German people had not voted for.  The result was a crisis of legitimacy that ended in dictatorship.

I do not think that this time things will go this far but no one should be under any illusions about the momentous nature of the events that are now starting to unfold.  Europe is on the brink and its crisis has just stopped being only economic.

Compare that with what the British writer and commentator John Laughland is now saying about the Italian crisis

I don’t think it’s a constitutional crisis in Italy, I think it’s a constitutional crisis in the whole of Europe.  We’ve seen now systematically how members of the European elite, of which President Mattarella is an excellent example, use every method they can to prevent parties wielding power if that power is to be wielded against the euro or against the European Union.

Back in March, immediately following the Italian parliamentary elections, I discussed the reasons for the rise of anti-EU parties in Italy and across Europe.  I said that it was the inevitable outcome of the increasingly anti-democratic style European politics have been taking for several decades now and especially after the Eurozone was established.

I should have added that it was also an inevitable response to the draconian economic policies that go hand in hand with those politics, and which in the case of Italy have delivered two decades of economic stagnation.

I also said that the European political establishment appears incapable of learning anything from this, and appears determined instead to dig in, making it a certainty that resistance to it will continue to grow

…..instead of analysing and responding to what is happening the European establishment across Europe is retreating into denial.

Thus the parties and leaders who are increasingly winning votes are dismissed as “populists” – a label which is both meaningless and deeply anti-democratic – their voters are dismissed as ‘ultra-right’ and racist, and their electoral successes are explained by sinister Russian meddling which is supposed to occur but of which no evidence is ever found…..

Unfortunately, as its denialism about its repeated electoral defeats might lead one to expect, the establishment in Europe instead of changing its approach is simply digging in.

Thus we have seen the manipulation of the French electoral process in order to engineer the election of Emmanuel Macron in France, the cobbling together of the ‘grand coalition’ in Germany, the threats against Poland and Hungary, and the increasingly frantic attempts in Britain to reverse or water down the Brexit vote.

Unfortunately – as I also pointed out in the same article – in the desert which is post-modern European politics, no convincing alternative to the European establishment exists.

Though the coalition in Italy between the Five Star Movement and the Northern League mathematically speaking commands the support of around half of Italy’s voters, the two parties are ideological opposites, and it is far from certain that the coalition they have formed would have held together in government.

Moreover there are serious doubts not just about the viability of its programme but about the managerial competence of its members.

Whilst it is certainly possible that the two coalition partners will vote down Cottarelli when he comes to parliament for a vote of confidence – forcing elections in August – and whilst it is also possible that the two parties which make up the coalition will increase their share of the vote in the August elections – no one should assume any of that.

Italy being Italy, it is not impossible that the coalition will fracture, or that there will be a strong reaction against it at the polls.

In that case the coup will have succeeded, and the ancien régime will have been restored.

However that will not resolve the underlying crisis not just in Italy but in Europe.

In my previous article I spoke of the situation not just in Italy but in Europe being one of paralysis – what the Greeks called stasis – a state of immobility or ‘standing still’ despite the situation having become intolerable.

Just as everywhere else in Europe, the political system in Italy looks increasingly discredited and broken, but no viable alternative exists to put in its place.

As Gramsci once said

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

In the current political paralysis – what the Greeks called statis – “standing still” – the chaotic electoral result in Italy is just one more of the “great variety of morbid symptoms” which are bound to appear.

Events in Europe over the last few months illustrate the extent of this paralysis vividly.  Consider for example

(1) the inability of Merkel and Macron to agree together a programme for EU reform and the growing personal antipathy there is said to be between them;

(2) the resurrection of Germany’s unpopular and discredited “grand coalition” despite the severe setback it suffered in the German parliamentary elections last September;

(3) the inability of the EU to stand by Iran and to develop an effective response to Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the JCPOA or to respond to the further sanctions on Iran which he is imposing (see this discussion in the Financial Times).

The fact that the EU is almost certain to extend the sectoral sanctions it imposed on Russia at the end of June, though barely anyone in Europe believes in them any more, also tells the same story.

In Europe – not just in Italy – not only is it a case that “the new cannot be born”, but the Europeans look increasingly unable to break out of the prison they have made for themselves.

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Russia calls on US to put a leash on Petro Poroshenko

The West’s pass for Mr. Poroshenko may blow up in NATO’s and the US’s face if the Ukrainian President tries to start a war with Russia.

Seraphim Hanisch

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Russia called on Washington not to ignore the Poroshenko directives creating an active military buildup along the Ukrainian-Donbass frontier, this buildup consisting of Ukrainian forces and right-wing ultranationalists, lest it “trigger the implementation of a bloody scenario”, according to a Dec 11 report from TASS.

The [Russian] Embassy [to the US] urges the US State Department to recognize the presence of US instructors in the zone of combat actions, who are involved in a command and staff and field training of Ukraine’s assault airborne brigades. “We expect that the US will bring to reason its proteges. Their aggressive plans are not only doomed to failure but also run counter to the statements of the administration on its commitment to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine by political and diplomatic means,” the statement said.

This warning came after Eduard Basurin, the deputy defense minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic noted that the Ukrainian army was massing troops and materiel for a possible large-scale offensive at the Mariupol section of the contact line in Donbass. According to Basurin, this action is expected to take place on 14 December. TASS offered more details:

According to the DPR’s reconnaissance data, Ukrainian troops plan to seize the DPR’s Novoazovsky and Temanovsky districts and take control over the border section with Russia. The main attack force of over 12,000 servicemen has been deployed along the contact line near the settlements of Novotroitskoye, Shirokino, and Rovnopol. Moreover, more than 50 tanks, 40 multiple missile launcher systems, 180 artillery systems and mortars have been reportedly pulled to the area, Basurin added. Besides, 12 BM-30 Smerch heavy multiple rocket launchers have been sent near Volodarsky.

The DPR has warned about possible provocations plotted by Ukrainian troops several times. Thus, in early December, the DPR’s defense ministry cited reconnaissance data indicating that the Ukrainian military was planning to stage an offensive and deliver an airstrike. At a Contact Group meeting on December 5, DPR’s Foreign Minister Natalia Nikonorova raised the issue of Kiev’s possible use of chemical weapons in the conflict area.

This is a continuation of the reported buildup The Duran reported in this article linked here, and it is a continuation of the full-scale drama that started with the Kerch Strait incident, which itself appears to have been staged by Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko. Following that incident, the president was able to get about half of Ukraine placed under a 30-day period of martial law, citing “imminent Russian aggression.”

President Poroshenko is arguably a dangerous man. He appears to be desperate to maintain a hold on power, though his approval numbers and support is abysmally low in Ukraine. While he presents himself as a hero, agitating for armed conflict with Russia and simultaneously interfering in the affairs of the Holy Eastern Orthodox Church, he is actually one of the most dangerous leaders the world has to contend with, precisely because he is unfit to lead.

Such men and women are dangerous because their desperation makes them short-sighted, only concerned about their power and standing.

An irony about this matter is that President Poroshenko appears to be exactly what the EuroMaidan was “supposed” to free Ukraine of; that is, a stooge puppet leader that marches to orders from a foreign power and does nothing for the improvement of the nation and its citizens.

The ouster of Viktor Yanukovich was seen as the sure ticket to “freedom from Russia” for Ukraine, and it may well have been that Mr. Yanukovich was an incompetent leader. However, his removal resulted in a tryannical regíme coming into power, that resulting in the secession of two Ukrainian regions into independent republics and a third secession of strategically super-important Crimea, who voted in a referendum to rejoin Russia.

While this activity was used by the West to try to bolster its own narrative that Russia remains the evil henchman in Europe, the reality of life in Ukraine doesn’t match this allegation at all. A nation that demonstrates such behavior shows that there are many problems, and the nature of these secessions points at a great deal of fear from Russian-speaking Ukrainian people about the government that is supposed to be their own.

President Poroshenko presents a face to the world that the West is apparently willing to support, but the in-country approval of this man as leader speaks volumes. The West’s blind support of him “against Russia” may be one of the most tragic errors yet in Western foreign policy.

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Second Canadian Citizen Disappears In China

According to the he Globe and Mail, the man was identified as Michael Spavor, a Canadian whose company Peaktu Cultural Exchange brings tourists and hockey players into North Korea.

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Via Zerohedge…


For a trade war that was supposed to be between the US and China, Canada has found itself increasingly in the middle of the crossfire. And so after the arrest of a former Canadian diplomat in Beijing in retaliation for the detention of the Huawei CFO in Vancouver, Canada said a second person has been questioned by Chinese authorities, further heightening tensions between the two countries.

The second person reached out to the Canadian government after being questioned by Chinese officials, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said, at which point Canada lost contact with him. His whereabouts are currently unknown and Global Affairs Canada said they are in contact with his family.

“We haven’t been able to make contact with him since he let us know about this,” Freeland told reporters Wednesday in Ottawa. “We are working very hard to ascertain his whereabouts and we have also raised this case with Chinese authorities.”

According to the he Globe and Mail, the man was identified as Michael Spavor, a Canadian whose company Peaktu Cultural Exchange brings tourists and hockey players into North Korea. He gained fame for helping arrange a visit to Pyongyang by former NBA player Dennis Rodman, and he met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on that trip, the newspaper reported. Attempts to reach Spavor on his contact number either in China, or North Korean went straight to voicemail.

Spavor’s personal Facebook page contains several images of him with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un including one of him with both Jong-un and former Dennis Rodman at an undisclosed location.

Michael P. Spavor, right, pictured here with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, second from right, and Dennis Rodman.

Another image shows the two sharing a drink on a boat.

The unexplained disappearance takes place after China’s spy agency detained former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig in Beijing on Monday, who was on leave from the foreign service. The arrest came nine days after Canada arrested Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou at the request of U.S. DOJ. While Canada has asked to see the former envoy after it was informed by fax of his arrest, Canada is unaware of Kovrig current whereabouts or the charges he faces.

“Michael did not engage in illegal activities nor did he do anything that endangered Chinese national security,” Rob Malley, chief executive officer of the ICG, said in a written statement. “He was doing what all Crisis Group analysts do: undertaking objective and impartial research.”

One possibility is that Kovrig may have been caught up in recent rule changes in China that affect non-governmental organizations, according to Bloomberg. The ICG wasn’t authorized to do work in China, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang said during a regular press briefing in Beijing Wednesday.

“We welcome foreign travelers. But if they engage in activities that clearly violate Chinese laws and regulations, then it is totally another story,” he said, adding he had no information on Kovrig specifically.

As Bloomberg further notes, foreign non-governmental organizations are now required to register with the Chinese authorities under a 2017 law that subjects them to stringent reporting requirements. Under the law, organizations without a representative office in China must have a government sponsor and a local cooperative partner before conducting activities. ICG said this is the first time they’ve heard such an accusation from the Chinese authorities in a decade of working with the country. The company closed its Beijing operations in December 2016 because of the new Chinese law, according to a statement. Kovrig was working out of the Hong Kong office.

Meanwhile, realizing that it is increasingly bearing the brunt of China’s retaliatory anger, Trudeau’s government distanced itself from Meng’s case, saying it can’t interfere with the courts, but is closely involved in advocating on Kovrig’s behalf.

So far Canada has declined to speculate on whether there was a connection between the Kovrig and Meng cases, with neither Freeland nor Canadian Trade Minister Jim Carr saying Wednesday that there is any indication the cases are related. Then again, it is rather obvious they are. Indeed, Guy Saint-Jacques, who served as ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016 and worked with Kovrig, says the link is clear. “There’s no coincidence with China.”

“In this case, they couldn’t grab a Canadian diplomat because this would have created a major diplomatic incident,” he said. “Going after him I think was their way to send a message to the Canadian government and to put pressure.”

Even though Meng was granted bail late Tuesday, that did not placate China, whose foreign ministry spokesman said that “The Canadian side should correct its mistakes and release Ms. Meng Wanzhou immediately.”

The tension, according to Bloomberg,  may force Canadian companies to reconsider travel to China, and executives traveling to the Asian country will need to exercise extra caution, said Andy Chan, managing partner at Miller Thomson LLP in Vaughan, Ontario.

“Canadian business needs to look at and balance the reasons for the travel’’ between the business case and the “current political environment,’’ Chan said by email. Chinese officials subject business travelers to extra screening and in some case reject them from entering, he said.

Earlier in the day, SCMP reported that Chinese high-tech researchers were told “not to travel to the US unless it’s essential.”

And so, with Meng unlikely to be released from Canada any time soon, expect even more “Chinese (non) coincidences”, until eventually China does detain someone that the US does care about.

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Multipolar World Order in the Making: Qatar Dumps OPEC

Russia and Qatar’s global strategy also brings together and includes partners like Turkey.

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Authored by Federico Pieraccini via The Strategic Culture Foundation:


The decision by Qatar to abandon OPEC threatens to redefine the global energy market, especially in light of Saudi Arabia’s growing difficulties and the growing influence of the Russian Federation in the OPEC+ mechanism.

In a surprising statement, Qatari energy minister Saad al-Kaabi warned OPEC on Monday December 3 that his country had sent all the necessary documentation to start the country’s withdrawal from the oil organization in January 2019. Al-Kaabi stressed that the decision had nothing to do with recent conflicts with Riyadh but was rather a strategic choice by Doha to focus on the production of LNG, which Qatar, together with the Russian Federation, is one of the largest global exporters of. Despite an annual oil extraction rate of only 1.8% of the total of OPEC countries (about 600,000 barrels a day), Qatar is one of the founding members of the organization and has always had a strong political influence on the governance of the organization. In a global context where international relations are entering a multipolar phase, things like cooperation and development become fundamental; so it should not surprise that Doha has decide to abandon OPEC. OPEC is one of the few unipolar organizations that no longer has a meaningful purpose in 2018, given the new realities governing international relations and the importance of the Russian Federation in the oil market.

Besides that, Saudi Arabia requires the organization to maintain a high level of oil production due to pressure coming from Washington to achieve a very low cost per barrel of oil. The US energy strategy targets Iranian and Russian revenue from oil exports, but it also aims to give the US a speedy economic boost. Trump often talks about the price of oil falling as his personal victory. The US imports about 10 million barrels of oil a day, which is why Trump wrongly believes that a decrease in the cost per barrel could favor a boost to the US economy. The economic reality shows a strong correlation between the price of oil and the financial growth of a country, with low prices of crude oil often synonymous of a slowing down in the economy.

It must be remembered that to keep oil prices low, OPEC countries are required to maintain a high rate of production, doubling the damage to themselves. Firstly, they take less income than expected and, secondly, they deplete their oil reserves to favor the strategy imposed by Saudi Arabia on OPEC to please the White House. It is clearly a strategy that for a country like Qatar (and perhaps Venezuela and Iran in the near future) makes little sense, given the diplomatic and commercial rupture with Riyadh stemming from tensions between the Gulf countries.

In contrast, the OPEC+ organization, which also includes other countries like the Russian Federation, Mexico and Kazakhstan, seems to now to determine oil and its cost per barrel. At the moment, OPEC and Russia have agreed to cut production by 1.2 million barrels per day, contradicting Trump’s desire for high oil output.

With this last choice Qatar sends a clear signal to the region and to traditional allies, moving to the side of OPEC+ and bringing its interests closer in line with those of the Russian Federation and its all-encompassing oil and gas strategy, two sectors in which Qatar and Russia dominate market share.

In addition, Russia and Qatar’s global strategy also brings together and includes partners like Turkey (a future energy hub connecting east and west as well as north and south) and Venezuela. In this sense, the meeting between Maduro and Erdogan seems to be a prelude to further reorganization of OPEC and its members.

The declining leadership role of Saudi Arabia in the oil and financial market goes hand in hand with the increase of power that countries like Qatar and Russia in the energy sectors are enjoying. The realignment of energy and finance signals the evident decline of the Israel-US-Saudi Arabia partnership. Not a day goes by without corruption scandals in Israel, accusations against the Saudis over Khashoggi or Yemen, and Trump’s unsuccessful strategies in the commercial, financial or energy arenas. The path this doomed

trio is taking will only procure less influence and power, isolating them more and more from their opponents and even historical allies.

Moscow, Beijing and New Delhi, the Eurasian powerhouses, seem to have every intention, as seen at the trilateral summit in Buenos Aires, of developing the ideal multipolar frameworks to avoid continued US dominance of the oil market through shale revenues or submissive allies as Saudi Arabia, even though the latest spike in production is a clear signal from Riyadh to the USA. In this sense, Qatar’s decision to abandon OPEC and start a complex and historical discussion with Moscow on LNG in the format of an enlarged OPEC marks the definitive decline of Saudi Arabia as a global energy power, to be replaced by Moscow and Doha as the main players in the energy market.

Qatar’s decision is, officially speaking, unconnected to the feud triggered by Saudi Arabia against the small emirate. However, it is evident that a host of factors has led to this historic decision. The unsuccessful military campaign in Yemen has weakened Saudi Arabia on all fronts, especially militarily and economically. The self-inflicted fall in the price of oil is rapidly consuming Saudi currency reserves, now at a new low of less than 500 billion dollars. Events related to Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) have de-legitimized the role of Riyadh in the world as a reliable diplomatic interlocutor. The internal and external repression by the Kingdom has provoked NGOs and governments like Canada’s to issue public rebukes that have done little to help MBS’s precarious position.

In Syria, the victory of Damascus and her allies has consolidated the role of Moscow in the region, increased Iranian influence, and brought Turkey and Qatar to the multipolar side, with Tehran and Moscow now the main players in the Middle East. In terms of military dominance, there has been a clear regional shift from Washington to Moscow; and from an energy perspective, Doha and Moscow are turning out to be the winners, with Riyadh once again on the losing side.

As long as the Saudi royal family continues to please Donald Trump, who is prone to catering to Israeli interests in the region, the situation of the Kingdom will only get worse. The latest agreement on oil production between Moscow and Riyad signals that someone in the Saudi royal family has probably figured this out.

Countries like Turkey, India, China, Russia and Iran understand the advantages of belonging to a multipolar world, thereby providing a collective geopolitical ballast that is mutually beneficial. The energy alignment between Qatar and the Russian Federation seems to support this general direction, a sort of G2 of LNG gas that will only strengthen the position of Moscow on the global chessboard, while guaranteeing a formidable military umbrella for Doha in case of a further worsening of relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

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