Category: Opinion

North Korean Special Economic Zones: an untapped opportunity in nuclear negotiation

By Ashley Curtis

WASHINGTON — When U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un over Easter weekend of 2018, he offered North Korea “prosperity on par with our South Korean friends” in return for denuclearization. A survey of the country’s late 20th century history suggests that the Kim regime does not view integration into the global economy as a path to prosperity, but rather as a dangerous abdication of sovereignty. U.S. negotiators should therefore offer Kim an economic deal that allows him to cultivate foreign commercial ties while maintaining control over a “hub and spokes” configuration of trade relationships. One way to achieve this is to allow U.S. corporations to invest in North Korea’s Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in exchange for mutually-defined denuclearization.

In 1946, Kim Il Sung nationalized key industries and began to design North Korea’s economy to achieve internal interdependence and external independence. This objective clashed with the USSR’s 1949 “New Course” strategy, which sought to establish collective interdependence with its Communist allies through the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. Kim was allergic to the idea of dependency, even with friendly countries like the USSR and China, and feared a new version of colonial subservience to more mature Communist countries. He refrained from joining the collective socialist organization, opting instead to mobilize indigenous resources through a number of national economic plans.

At this time, the North Korean economy was performing relatively well — it did not begin to decline until foreign aid petered out in 1956. And yet, even under auspicious economic conditions, Kim was unwilling to risk dependence; he felt that joining a multilateral conglomeration of pooled interdependence would jeopardize his country’s economy. This historical insight sheds light on the Kim regime’s view of global interdependence today — if the regime was unwilling to run the risk of depending on allies when the North Korean economy was performing well, why would it risk dependence on “hostile regimes” today? From Kim’s perspective, such a move would threaten its already abysmal economy rather than strengthen it (Person 2019).

Another historical event that offers insight into the DPRK’s hyper-defensive stance towards its independence is the 1956 Sino-Soviet joint party intervention. In a clear abrogation of North Korea’s domestic sovereignty, China and the USSR compelled the regime to make economic reforms that derailed Kim’s Five Year Plan. This event drove Kim to aggressively minimize foreign influence over the country’s political, economic and cultural developments. To achieve this objective, he operationalized “Juche,” an ideology of national pride and identity into daily life. The nationalist ideologies that were adopted during this era continue to guide policies and daily life in the DPRK today.

With these observations in mind, the State Department should tailor its nuclear negotiation strategy to fit North Korean desires for selective, bilateral trade arrangements. An offer to permit foreign direct investment (FDI) by U.S. firms in North Korean SEZs is one win-set that would greatly entice the regime. Kim Jong Un has made economic growth through SEZs a policy priority, establishing dozens of new zones since 2013. However, the country has failed to attract the desired foreign investors and economic activity has languished as a result. Bringing American FDI to these areas would allow Kim to achieve a major national priority, and therefore represents a powerful incentive to induce denuclearization. U.S. negotiators should propose talks between the U.S. Trade Representative and the DPRK Ministry of External Economic Relations as a starting point.

While it is true that many firms are unwilling to invest in areas with high political risk, North Korea’s abundance of relatively well-educated, inexpensive manpower may be enough to attract companies in labor-intensive industries. Regardless of the level of investment that actually takes place, the benefits of officially establishing trade relations with the U.S. would have a positive ripple effect for North Korea, since trade relations with the U.S. are critical for re-establishing trade with Japan and South Korea. This downstream benefit would make the offer even more enticing to Kim.

In the present status quo, China remains firmly in the lead as the DPRK’s single-largest trading partner, trumping modest Russian and Mongolian FDI in SEZs. In line with Kim Il Sung’s philosophy, the current regime views this dependence on China as a national security threat; the government’s recognition of this vulnerability is reflected in the Central Committee and Central Military Commission’s calls to “make the foreign trade multilateral and diverse.” By allowing American investment in SEZs, the U.S. would offer North Korea a solution to its China problem while allowing the regime to retain political and economic independence. This would serve as a highly effective carrot for inducing denuclearization.

Skeptics may say that the United States should not negotiate with the DPRK because it has flagrantly disregarded various nuclear agreements since the 1990s. Indeed, North Korea has reneged on two major agreements in which the U.S. offered aid in return for denuclearization. A key reason for these failures was the use of vague language in the agreements, which caused misunderstandings regarding the scope of the deals. With these concerns in mind, permitting American FDI must be contingent upon establishing a clear framework for denuclearization using mutually-defined and concise language. According to CSIS’s Nuclear Project director Rebecca Hersman, employing a cooperative threat reduction, a comprehensive approach or a step-by-step framework would allow the U.S. to ensure that that it is not “giving things away without getting something in return.”

The Kim regime’s historical aversion to pooled interdependence continues to animate economic and political policies today through the cornerstone concept of “Juche” upon which national identity is built. Only by offering rewards that allow Kim to maintain a sense of control over the economy can the U.S. make an offer attractive enough to induce denuclearization. Historical evidence suggests that although the regime would like to cash in on Pompeo’s offer to raise the country’s level of prosperity to that of the Republic of Korea, it does not seek to get there by replicating the South Korea’s chosen path for economic growth.

Victory for the left in Spain comes at a cost

Photo credits: @Bernat Armangue/AP

By Olivia Magnanini

BOLOGNA, Italy — In a decisive victory in last Sunday’s elections, current Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez succeeded in bringing the Socialist Party (PSOE) their first governing victory in 11 years, making Spain one of the only European nations to be led by a leftist party, albeit with a fragile ruling coalition.

The call for a snap election by Sánchez’s government in February underscored the frustration that many Spaniards felt with the government and its inability to govern effectively. However, the electorate’s decision to give Sánchez’s party another chance can be seen as both a victory and a warning for the progressive movement in Spain, as Vox, the far-right movement, lost decisively but still gained seats for the first time since 1982.

Spain’s fractured electoral field made this election particularly interesting. Although it was still primarily a contest between the two leading parties, the conservative Partido Popular (PP) and the socialist Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), the far-right Vox, far-left Podemos and the center-right Catalan party, Ciudadanos, also won seats.

The political division seen in this year’s elections is the result of many years of growing polarization and frustration among the Spanish electorate with their leaders. Both the right and the left capitalized on hot-button issues, such as women’s rights, immigration, gender violence and the autonomy of regional governments, helping to drive Spaniards to the polls with a turnout rate of 75.76 percent, the highest number since 2004.

Over the last few years, Spain has suffered increasing polarization stemming from the 2015 migration crisis, the 2017 Catalan separatist referendum and sustained levels of unemployment (which, according to Eurostat, sat at 13.9 percent in February, a dramatic shift from its peak of 26.3 percent in July 2013).

In addition, the high profile Gürtel case, the largest corruption case in Spain’s history, implicated many prominent PP leaders last year, driving their voters into the arms of Ciudadanos and Vox. Many former PP leaders, including leader Santiago Abascal, splintered off to form Vox, calling his former party the “derechito cobarde,” or the cowardly right.

This pressure pushed PP candidate Pablo Casado to take a more definitive stance on culture issues, such as abortion. His PP is more pro-market, pro-U.S. and tougher on regional nationalism than former PM Mariano Rajoy had been previously. But the lack of solidarity on the right contributed to a growing momentum for the Socialists.

This was an existential election for many Spaniards, who were faced with the threat of anti-democratic Vox party in a country that still struggles to reconcile a difficult past marked by a bloody civil war and a four decades-long fascist dictatorship. In fact, after winning, Sánchez declared that through this election, “the past has lost,” implying that no political party reminiscent of Franco’s rule would have a leading role in Spanish politics.

But despite his victory, Sánchez will lead a fragile coalition, bringing together Socialists, the far-left Podemos and moderates from the Basque and Catalan nationalist movements. Sánchez’s incoming government needs to focus on structural reform around pensions, education and labor markets and other issues that impact Spaniards on many levels. Sánchez’s decision to raise the minimum wage by 22 percent and give public sector workers a 2.5 percent pay rise upon entering office last year was already a strong step in this direction. If they continue to focus on these issues, they will garner more favor from a deeply polarized electorate and take away potential future momentum from the far-right populist threat.

Sánchez and the Socialists need to build a strong coalition, perhaps making some concessions in the process, to pass initiatives that will move Spain forward and provide an example for other similar European nations, such as Italy, Greece and France, who have seen their own challenge with far-right movements.

In a country that is still trying to rehabilitate from the deep impact of the 2008 financial crisis, the Socialists need to present a clear economic plan to continue focusing on improving the lives of Spaniards. But this election still represents a victory for a country that only transitioned to democracy some 50 years ago — perhaps the rejection of the far-right is a definitive statement that Spaniards want to make in an increasingly unstable European political landscape.

Olivia Magnanini is a SAIS MA ‘20 student from the U.S. concentrating in Latin American studies and minoring in international law.

Zelenskiy’s presidency will be rife with challenges

Photo credits: Ze Komanda

By Olena Dobrunik

BOLOGNA, Italy — April 21 will be remembered as the day when Ukraine turned against the traditional political establishment by electing Volodymyr Zelenskiy as their president. The resounding defeat of Petro Poroshenko at the hands of Zelenskiy, who received over 70 percent of the vote, should be seen as a positive step forward for the democratic health of a country that is still riddled with corruption in all major domains of public policy.

The election of a new and politically-inexperienced candidate tells us a lot about the status of politics in Ukraine. It tells us that since the beginning of the Ukrainian political crisis and conflict with Russia in 2014, and Poroshenko’s corresponding election, little improvement has been made in key issues such as corruption, economic growth and the war in the Donbass.

Indeed, when it comes to corruption and transparency, Poroshenko’s narrative appears to be rather unclear. For a president who wanted to build an image based on fairness and transparency, and not that of a business magnate, it was surprising to see his name surface in the Panama Papers and to be accused of offshore business and tax evasion, particularly given the fact the Ukrainian constitution bans the president from business activities.

That said, all those who consider Zelenskiy’s political inexperience a major shortcoming should exercise caution when making their assumptions. Perhaps his inexperience will lead to better management of corruption and set the basis for the reform of both the internal and external policies of the country.

Yet, there should be no illusions about the magnitude of the change that the newly-elected president can have on Ukrainian politics. Being an outsider, Zelenskiy lacks the political capital necessary to make major changes although he does have something more valuable — a genuine commitment to fostering positive change in Ukraine.

Zelenskiy’s foreign policy is expected to take a more pro-Western approach, which cannot be taken for granted given the country’s history of Russia-backed presidents. On the internal front, he promises to reshape major policy areas such as public financing, pensions and utility costs, using Europe as a model. Moreover, his anti-establishment stance during the campaign suggests that one of his first political moves will be the abolition of prosecutorial immunity for deputies, judges and the president himself. However, the way with which many these reforms will be undertaken is rather innovative. Zelenskiy advocates a direct democratic-style referendum system for all major political decisions, suggesting that a country historically ruled by few, will finally be given the opportunity to express its will.

Concerning foreign policy and the resolution of the conflict in the Donbass, no precise plans were suggested in Zelenskiy’s platform, but one idea in all his talks has been that the surrender of Ukrainian territories cannot be a topic for negotiation. What we can expect is a proposal for an improved Minsk Protocol, capable of involving more Western countries, that will hopefully guarantee a successful peace.

One challenge for Zelenskiy will be that he has not received the warmest welcome from the country’s administrative apparatus that was generally supportive of Poroshenko. As an example, the night before the second round of the election, a Poroshenko supporter dragged Zelenskiy to court trying to prevent him from participating in the election, exemplifying the non-transparent and questionable methods used by the outgoing president that voters finally decided to oppose.

What is certain, is that the electoral success of Zelenskiy is a triumph for the majority of Ukrainians and for the young Ukrainian democracy. But, the newly-elected president will not only receive the presidential bulava (mace), but also a heavy responsibility. The responsibility of reforming the most corrupt country in Eastern Europe and the duty to protect the Ukrainian identity in a time when this identity is being shaped in different ways, languages and traditions, would prove challenging for any new head of state, especially one with no political experience.

Olena Dobrunik is a second-year MAIA student at the Bologna campus. She was born in Ukraine and moved to Italy at the age of seven. She earned her bachelor’s degree in international relations and diplomatic affairs from the University of Bologna.

让座礼仪 Generational tensions on display: public transport culture in China

By Shen Hao

Translation by Amy Bodner

“爱心专座”标识
A sign featured on buses and subways indicating who is entitled to priority seating
Photo credits: Baidu Baike

南京,中国——据新华社报道,截止2017年底,中国60岁及以上老年人将达到41亿人,占总人口17.3%。同时,到2050年老年人将占到我国总人口的三分之一。 随着老龄化日趋严重,老年人正在和年轻人共享甚至竞争有限的资源,年轻人和老年人因此产生各种代沟和误解,这一点体现在中国地铁和公交等公共交通的利益文化中。孝道为先的中国传统文化与提倡自由的新时代观念产生了碰撞,两者间的矛盾分歧亟待解决。

NANJING, China — According to Xinhua News Agency, by the end of 2017, China’s elderly population — those over the age of 60 — will reach over 4.1 billion people, accounting for 17.3 percent of the total Chinese population. By 2050, this elderly population is estimated to exceed one-third of the total population. As the average age increases, the elderly must share or compete with younger people for limited resources, which creates a generational gap that can breed misunderstanding between the young and the old. This tension is reflected in the public transport trends in China. China’s traditional culture, which values Confucian filial piety and deference to the elderly, has clashed with modern Chinese culture, which values personal freedoms.    

网易新闻报道,2018年4月1日,北京大爷坐上807路公交车,当时车上还有其他空位,却无缘无故坐在女孩大腿上。女孩表示不满并且要求大爷坐在其他位置,大爷批评女孩“不讲道理”,并且回应说“我爱坐哪里就坐哪里”。这一纷争迅速引起网友众多关注,有人批评这位大爷倚老卖老,也有人批评国家对人口老龄化治理不力。这场危机要求社会反思如何正确应对老年人口养老问题,解决两代人抢夺资源的困境。

On April 1, 2018, Netease News reported that an elderly gentleman in Beijing took bus No. 807 and sat on a young woman’s lap, even though there were empty seats on the bus. The young woman objected and asked the man to move. Instead, the elderly man criticized the young woman for being “unreasonable” and stated that he had the right to sit where he liked. The controversy quickly caught the attention of netizens, some who criticized the elderly man but others who criticized China’s inadequate governance of its aging population. Incidents like this one have forced Chinese society to reflect on how to solve generational tensions between the young and old that arise when resources are limited — even bus seats.      

无独有偶,网易新闻于2018年5月20日爆出另一桩新闻,一名女孩在地铁上未给孕妇让座,遭到老人批评。当时一位年轻男子为女孩辩解,却引发了老人和年轻男子的对骂大战。事实上,很难判定到底是谁站在道德制高点上,争辩双方都声称自己同情并帮助弱者,问题症结在于当弱者同时出现时,到底该偏向哪一方。自古以来,让座行为体现了中国尊老爱幼的传统美德,当今社会,尊重个人权利,发挥个人自由也备受推崇,“让不让座”也是一种个人权利,我们必须在此之间区分一个界限,这条界限就是到底谁更需要这个座位, “让不让座”这个问题没有标准答案,具体问题具体分析,我们可以呼吁道德,但不能道德绑架,捍卫权利,也要厘清权利的边界。

In a similar incident, Netease News broke another story on May 20, 2018 in which a young girl was criticized by an elderly man for refusing to give up her seat to a pregnant woman on the subway. A young man came to the defense of the child, which triggered a tirade of abuse from the old man and incited a heated argument. It is difficult to determine who held the moral high ground in this situation, as both sides claimed to be helping and sympathizing with the “disadvantaged.” The crux of the problem seems to lie in the question of who should compromise when both parties have rights to priority seating. In Chinese culture, giving up a seat on public transport has become associated with the traditional virtue of “respecting the old and cherishing the young.” In today’s society, respecting individual rights is also highly valued and many argue that the right to not give up a seat is a personal freedom that must be protected. Chinese society is still struggling to reach a consensus, and each incident must be judged on a case-by-case basis. We can appeal to a sense of morality, but first we must clarify and uphold the boundaries between individual rights.

公交车内座位都“分属”给老年人
The younger generations in China tend to give up their seats to the elderly
Photo credits: Baidu Baike

艺术源于生活,电影中也对这一现象有所记录。2013年国内有一部影片“搜索”(Caught in the web)讲述了一个患癌女孩在公交车上未让座给老人,被乘客拍视频发到网上,引起了社会巨大谴责,最终女孩选择了自杀。这部影片反映了当今互联网时代之下,恶意宣传会让群众盲目卷入 “道德绑架”的情境之中,并且对当事人造成难以愈合的创伤。这一部以公交车事件作为主题的影片,如果年轻人和老年人同时处于弱势群体中,到底谁可以获得座位这个问题摆在了群众和媒体面前,也敦促我们做出客观且公道的选择。

As art imitates life, controversies surrounding seat-forfeiting culture have also been captured in Chinese film. The 2013 domestic film “Caught in the Web” chronicles the life of a cancer-stricken young woman who refuses to give up her seat to an elderly passenger on a bus. This interaction is recorded and posted online, which leads to vitriolic attacks against the young woman. Unable to bear the social backlash, she eventually decides to commit suicide. This film mirrors the modern internet era, where malicious or misrepresentative media can cause the public to blindly judge or persecute people, sometimes causing irreparable harm. If young and old people can both be classified as “disadvantaged,” and the question of who deserves the seat is put to the masses and media, the correct outcome is unclear. The film encourages us to make objective and fair choices.       

国内出现了各种公交纷争,归咎其原因一方面是资源缺乏,更多的与中国传统文化的特殊性有关。在当今社会践行传统美德本来是为了营造一个更加美好的社会环境,一旦过度渲染,必定导致传统美德和现代化的自由风气形成巨大反差,两者进行巨大冲击。我们需要辩证的看待这一矛盾,不应该一昧的强调自由权利而忽视传统道德给我们带来的正面价值,同时我们也应该警惕过度的“传统价值”可能会伤害个人权利,助长差别对待的风气。

The disputes associated with seat etiquette can be attributed both to a lack of resources and the particularities of traditional Chinese culture. It is worth remembering that China’s emphasis on the practice of traditional values was originally intended to maintain a harmonious social environment. When overdone, however, these values clash with the ideals of modernity. It is critical that Chinese citizens analyze this contradiction dialectically. We should not emphasize personal freedoms at the expense of traditional morality. At the same time, we need to be alert to the potential for excessive reliance on traditional values which harm individual rights and promote an atmosphere of differential treatment.    

为解决这个问题,我们可以参考郑州市推出的“女性专车”做法,可以考虑推出“老年人专车”这一方案。真正做到帮助老年人不用“挤公交”,而是让有需要的老年人“坐公交”。让座是美德,不是义务,作为新时代的年轻人,我们在继承传统美德的同时,也要勇敢走出强制让座的道德窘境。

To solve this problem, we can look to Zhengzhou’s  model of “female-only” cars on the subway. Perhaps we could introduce a similar program that includes an “elderly-only” car, which would guarantee a seat for those elderly people who truly need it. As the young generation in China, we should inherit traditional virtues while moving away from enforcing the morally problematic elements of seat-forfeiting culture.  

Shen Hao is a first-year M.A. student at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center focusing on international politics.

NATO at 70: In its prime or prime for retirement?

Photo credits: The White House

By Silje Olssøn

BOLOGNA — When the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was founded after the Second World War, its objective was to promote cooperation among its members and preserve their freedom against the threat posed by the Soviet Union. Last week, NATO celebrated its 70th anniversary, despite it being almost 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, and it seems appropriate to ask whether NATO still adds value to the preservation of security among its member states or if it is an outdated institution that needs to be disbanded.

The future purpose of NATO lies where it always has been, namely in Article 5. The cornerstone article of the Washington Treaty institutionalized collective defense and remains the best way to ensure that outside states don’t attempt to expand into NATO territory or other areas of interest. This is especially important in relation to Russia’s ongoing westward, and possibly Arctic, expansionism. In addition, as China continues to expand and overtake the United States in certain economic and political arenas, NATO may prove to be important in counter-balancing China’s rise.

But major power confrontation won’t be the only threats that alliance members will face. Future threats will range from increased authoritarian tendencies within NATO member countries to new arenas for territorial dominance caused by the receding Arctic. One of the many consequences of climate change, the melting Arctic will give Russia new opportunities for extracting immense resource wealth and a possible new shipping route that could also carry military advantages. The rise of populism and the increase of member states and partner countries that are led by authoritarian leaders will also prove problematic, as it directly contradicts one of the founding principles of the organization and removes the value that NATO adds to the international community in terms of security and bolstering of international institutions.

Moreover, to have an effective future, NATO will have to overcome the internal turmoil caused by the debate surrounding the two percent of GDP rule on defense spending. The United States has for a long time shouldered the burden of financing NATO and this isn’t ideal. The value of an organization such as NATO is the “all for one, one for all” element it brings to security politics, and this principle doesn’t hold if it lives and breathes on the American defense spending.

However, while this is an issue, President Trump’s rants about member states not paying their dues isn’t helpful to amending the situation. Furthermore, the two percent rule doesn’t take into account the growing GDPs of some member states, which leads to a shifting of the goal posts on a yearly basis; nor does it take into account the hypocrisy employed by the United States whereby it uses the two percent goal as a means to promote the sale of American military equipment.

With these issues and many others looming — do we still need NATO? Or should the European Union or the United Nations be relied on more for providing collective security? NATO’s strength, and ultimately its future, lies in Article 5. To this end, “diluting” the organization with new members and territories is a sure way to retire it. We saw this with the League of Nations, and we are seeing it again with the United Nations: Organizations can’t defend us if they have too broad a range of members and too many competing ideologies.

NATO has successfully managed to do what the League of Nations attempted to do but failed at — preventing conflicts that could cause another world war through collective security guarantees. This is something that will continue to be of immense importance for the security and stability of Europe and the North Atlantic area. By focusing on bolstering the existing members and ensuring that NATO remains true to its mandate, the organization can last for another 70 years.

Silje Olssøn is a second-year MAIA student at SAIS Europe. Her thesis is on the designation of terrorist organizations.

Instant karma: Did Russians fall victim to the IRA’s anti-vax fake news?

Photo Credit: Aurelien Romain

By Maria Gershuni

WASHINGTON — When we were in school, our parents warned us against spreading rumors claiming they would come back to bite us. It seems their advice could also be true in the Twitterverse. A new study by George Washington University’s Dr. Broniatowski — in collaboration with our very own Johns Hopkins University — recently unveiled the role St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) has played in stoking both sides of the vaccine “debate” in the U.S. and in Europe. However, as measles rates alarmingly tripled in the Russian Federation in 2018, the question arises: Did Russians fall victim to the IRA’s anti-vax fake news? Correlation between the rise of the anti-vax movement in eastern Europe and Russia, the rates of unvaccinated children in Russia and the prevalence of fake accounts stoking passions around the vaccine debate prove that this is a question worth exploring.

According to Dr. Broniatowski, fake IRA accounts based out of St. Petersburg promoted conspiracy theories and fake news about the dangers of vaccination, stoking the fire sparked within the anti-vax community. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers anti-vax sentiment to be one of the greatest threats to global health worldwide. In a 2018 report, the WHO stated that “vaccine hesitancy — the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines — threatens to reverse progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases.” The report also noted that measles has seen a 30 percent increase in cases around the world, including in Europe and Eurasia.

Most of the newly-reported cases of measles in Europe have come from countries that have previously been the targets of IRA disinformation campaigns, such as Georgia, Serbia and Ukraine. Katrine Habersaat, technical officer at the WHO, told Radio Free Europe that misinformation online is a factor in the resurgence of measles. This misinformation has had a devastating effect.  According to Radio Free Europe, Georgia had 96 measles cases in 2017, and 2,193 cases in 2018. In Serbia, the number of measles cases shot up from 702 in 2017 to 5,076 in 2018 making it the country with the second-highest measles outbreak in 2018. In Ukraine, the situation is even more dire. It experienced 53,218 new measles cases in 2018 (up from an already devastating 4,782 in 2017).

The Russian Federation makes a surprise appearance on the list of European countries that have experienced the worst measles outbreaks. Russia reported 2,256 cases of measles in 2018, a rise from 897 cases in 2017. This is surprising because, historically, Russia’s vaccination rate has been nearly 100 percent as a relic of the Soviet Union’s vaccine coverage system. Furthermore, according to Russian state news media source TASS, Russia undertook a mass immunization campaign, leading to low measles morbidity rates. Despite this, the Russian Ministry of Health stated that those who have not been immunized account for over 90 percent of the measles cases.

The IRA’s posts represent a tepid testing of the waters of the American anti-vax landscape, if not a full blown attack on public health. Could it be that U.S.- and European-targeted misinformation campaigns on vaccines are contributing to the vaccine hesitancy within Russia? There is plenty of Russian-language anti-vax content on the internet that is viewed by Russian-speaking communities in the West. A Washington State clinician Dr. Tetyana Odarich notes the worrying rise of anti-vax sentiment among her Russian and Ukrainian patients. She notes that their hesitancy is fueled by Russian-language fake news being circulated among social networks. Dr. Odarich specifically mentions a video her clients have showed her, which looks like a legitimate news website video about a boy in Ukraine who could no longer walk after being vaccinated.

The video was clearly fake yet it was extensively shared on a Russian social media site called “Odnoklassniki.” It currently has 5 million views. Though the intended targets for the video might have been Russians living in the U.S., such as the patients in Dr. Odarich’s clinic, the video is accessible to Russians within Russia as well. A cursory search of the Russian social media website Vkontakte reveals hundreds of various anti-vaccination communities, posting memes and misinformation about how vaccines cause disabilities in children. Many of these groups link the same flawed studies and fake statistics as the IRA disinformation campaign aimed at the U.S. and Europe.

The timing of the surge of disinformation regarding vaccines, some of it created by the IRA online, coincided with a spike in measles cases in Russia. It is very easy for Russians within the Russian Federation to view this disinformation, even if it wasn’t intended for them, and use it to make decisions about vaccinating their children. This could be why, after eight decades of mass immunization, some Russian children are left susceptible to deadly diseases.

Zelenskiy is Ukraine’s best hope in upcoming presidential elections

Photo credits: Kyiv Post

By Olena Dobrunik

BOLOGNA, Italy — A matter of days separates us from the first round of the next presidential election in Ukraine. The March 31 election is the first since the 2014 victory of Petro Poroshenko after the Maidan Nezalezhnosti revolution that ended with the expulsion of former pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. However, since his election, Mr. Poroshenko has only partially fulfilled his campaign promises. One fulfilled promise was the signing of the European Union Association Agreement that established a long-awaited visa-free travel regime. Another was the establishment of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s independence from the Moscow Patriarchate.

But a glaring absence from Poroshenko’s list of fulfilled promises is a resolution to the conflict in the east that has been draining Ukrainian lives and resources for more than five years. Moreover, Mr. Poroshenko’s way of tackling escalating issues, such as temporarily introducing martial law after the Kerch Strait incident, seems to have brought more controversy than support.

Whether this move was to safeguard the interests of the nation or to stem his ever-declining popular support is hard to say. Nevertheless, despite not delivering on structural reforms and failing to fight lingering corruption, which might ultimately hurt his chances, Mr. Poroshenko has presented himself as the candidate of continuity in the upcoming election.

Another leading candidate in the presidential race is Yulia Tymoshenko, a long-lasting figure of Ukrainian politics (perhaps a bit too long). Twice prime minister and a former gas magnate, Tymoshenko has been implicated in several corruption scandals and investigations throughout her political career. The fact that on her third presidential run she is vowing to write a new constitution, reform the army and reduce energy prices, she sounds less credible if one looks at her previous record and all the broken promises that she has made in the past. Perhaps her only chance at the presidency depends on whether she can convince voters that her incessant commitment to Ukraine’s democratization and “de-oligarchization” is legitimate.

The remaining major candidate in the election is comedian and showman Volodymyr Zelenskiy. According to BDM, a polling agency, he is the frontrunner by a large margin, with 25.9 percent of the vote, compared to 17.9 percent for Mrs. Tymoshenko and only 13.3 percent for Mr. Poroshenko.

Zelenskiy’s success is partially due to his recognizability from the popular television show “Servant of the People,” where he plays the president of Ukraine. But his success is more attributable to his genuine opposition to the traditional political establishment. Both his strength and weakness is his unfamiliarity with politics. However, his lack of political experience hasn’t prevented him from promising radical policies, like taking away prosecutorial immunity from political elites, fighting tax evasion and working closely with International Monetary Fund to comply with Ukraine’s economic obligations.

A further boost to Zelenskiy’s popularity stems from a YouTube series where several experts suggest ways to transform and improve specific policy domains. While that doesn’t make him necessarily the best candidate, it certainly reinforces the people’s belief that change is possible, and perhaps that change will begin by electing somebody with something to prove.

An outstanding 39 presidential candidates will be presented to voters in the election but only the three mentioned have a realistic possibility of making it to the runoff, which will be held on April 21. At stake in the election is the fate of a well-educated country of 42 million people located in a significant geostrategic position that is drowning in corruption and fiscal problems.

Ukraine’s best shot at recovery is a candidate who not only recognizes its deepest problems but also acts in a way that detaches from an ever-present Soviet legacy and inaugurates a truly European-style democratic nation. Mr. Zelenskiy represents, at this time, the only candidate embodying these qualities and is the sole chance Ukrainian people have to get out of the stagnation-inducing corruption of the country.

Olena Dobrunik is a second-year MAIA student at the Bologna campus. She was born in Ukraine and moved to Italy at the age of seven. She earned her bachelor’s degree in international relations and diplomatic affairs from the University of Bologna.

Ghosted by WMATA – SAIS students left on read

In December the SAIS student body voted for DC’s student public transportation subsidy: UPass. Like any truly democratic vote, only 50 percent of the student body actually participated. The student body was divided in their opinion about the subsidy, but nevertheless, the UPass vote was held.

Carrie Dababi, who lives in Petworth, voted for UPass so she could save some money traveling to and from SAIS. When she first moved to the city, she didn’t realize how far Nitze was from her apartment (nor was she prepared for what an eyesore it was). With UPass, she says she might finally have enough money get the occasional Harvest Bowl from Sweetgreen on her busy days at school. Corey Ander, who lives in Adams Morgan, didn’t need UPass because he walks to school everyday. He doesn’t want to pay the 0.48 percent tuition increase for a pass he won’t really use. Regarding his thoughts on the DC Metro, he says he cannot stand the 22-minute wait for the Green Line on the weekends and would rather stay in. Dilbert Pickles however has taken too many economics classes at SAIS and had plans to sell his UPass at a premium to the most populous student population in DC: George Washington University.

Months have passed. Students have gone and returned from their winter breaks as peace negotiators, cultural experts and budding diplomats yet no results have been officially announced. Both Dilbert and Carrie continue to grudgingly pay for public transportation but only use the metro during off-peak hours between 10:45-11:00 p.m. Carrie can still only shop at Trader Joe’s and yearns for her Harvest Bowl. Corey still walks to school and buys his $5 coffee at an indie cafe because he won’t support chains. Dilbert is taking Game Theory this semester so he bought a couple of UPasses from American University students and sold them at a premium to a George Washington students after bidding up the price himself.

WMATA never responded as to what happened and why SAIS won’t be eligible for UPass; however, American University still has the passes for 10,000 students. Rumor has it you can still buy one from Dilbert at an extreme price markup that may or may not be worth it, but only if you ask him nicely.

SAIS: … so I still haven’t heard from him..

Debbie: I’m sure he’s just busy! You know how it is. Grad school, problem sets, snow days. It happens!

SAIS: Are you sure? I was really into him… I thought we had a connection.

Debbie: I’m sure you did! Just give him some time. He’ll text you back.

SAIS:

WMATA:

SAIS:

WMATA: *read* ✓

SAIS student starts GoFundMe to get into classes he already paid for

Following a meeting with the Academic Affairs, second-year SAIS student Barry Cade realized he had sacrificed most of his  bid points in his first semester to take Statistics with Professor Harrington and would be left with exactly zero points for the rest of the year. With his unpaid internship at the Brookings Institution and frustrations with upward mobility, Barry was struggling financially. In the midst of all that, he also realized that he needed to take International Trade Theory in his final semester to graduate. Being a required course, there is a high student demand met with a shockingly low supply; only three professors would teach Trade next semester. Fearing that it would go to bid for at least 600 points, Barry had to go all in to avoid the dreaded Thursday morning section. Now, he is only months away from graduating and has yet to fulfill his economics requirements. He recently overheard a conversation in the Nitze Cafe that a fellow student had all of their points left and were selling them for a dollar each. Armed with new resolve but not wanting to let go of his kidney just yet, Barry decided to set up a SAIS GoFundMe page in order to raise enough money from SAIS alumni to buy bid points from students on the SAIS black market. Since Barry needed at least 600 points to get into the class he wanted, he set his GoFundMe page goal to $15,000 to also contribute to his D.C. rent that month. It’s not everyday you get to purchase bid points, but this system would work out for him if he got the funds he wanted from friendly and wealthy alumni and donors. Ted, who has all of his bid points left, didn’t need a GoFundMe page because he only took classes with terrible professor evaluations. So every semester he sold his bid points to pay for his Triple Venti Soy No-Foam lattes at 120 degrees and organic Fig Bars at the Grab and Go. It’s worked well for both of them so far and the SAIS bid points black market has continued to thrive despite students’ current debt status which is higher than most, but still lower than Georgetown’s.

Appendix A:

Transcript of aforementioned conversation overheard at Nitze Cafe

Barry: I have to bid on ALL of my classes this semester. This is ridiculous.

Ted: Wait, do you have any bid points?

Barry: I think so…is 300 a lot?

Ted: Uh, not really. Isn’t this your second semester? What did you do with them!?

Barry: I needed to get into 8 a.m. Stats. Didn’t even get an A. Waste of time.

Ted: Wow…good luck man. Maybe try the SAIS bid point black market. I’ve heard good things.

Barry: Is it true someone actually had to sell their kidney to get enough bid points for their classes?

Ted: I can’t confirm that.

Barry: Thank god..

Ted: But I won’t deny it.
[Ted exits, leaving Barry looking visibly pale]

Confessions of the unheard: A look into social media anonymity

social media pic

By Rebecca Rashid

WASHINGTON — In early September, a mysterious account emerged on Instagram titled SAIS Confessions. The first of its kind in the SAIS community, the open forum for public secrets, confessions and generally salacious thoughts sparked immediate attention amongst the student body.

SAIS Confessions quickly became a platform for juicy romantic confessions, subtle racism and emotional vomit as graduate students began confiding in an anonymous Google Form to express their thoughts. With the gravity of the confessions ranging from high-school hallway gossip to legitimate bureaucratic concerns, the page gained traction as a forum for daily entertainment.

The social media platform allows students to submit an unlimited number of comments, thoughts or “confessions” related to the SAIS community. Although explicitly stating “no bullying,” the page has posted sexually explicit comments about professors and racial comments directed at minority groups. Arguing the platform as a forum for honest student opinions, the administrator of SAIS Confessions has stood by their creation.

The Student Government Association (SGA) caught wind of the madness and a member even called out the page questionably, citing the creator as a “Russian troll farm” yet failing to specify any clear reasoning for their disdain.

Although denying culpability, the rumored creator of the page spoke with The SAIS Observer about the controversial platform. “I have an intense passion for social media and its transformative powers…and I think it’s a great platform in that regard. I think a lot of students here feel isolated because their peers put on a bravado and give off the appearance of having their lives together.”

“An anonymous platform allows people to voice their true struggles without worrying about their security clearances or networking opportunities. SAIS Confessions shows students they are not alone, and there is value to that. … I hope it continues and no ‘disciplinary action’ is taken since no one is really doing anything wrong.”

The rumored owner proceeded to deactivate their account and order was restored. That is, until SAIS Confessions II appeared just days later.

With a nearly identical format to the initial page, SAIS Confessions II resurfaced with a stronger presence and an established popularity on campus. Its caption reads “SAIS Confessions back from the dead.”

SAIS Confessions II sought to make a statement against the institutional authorities at SAIS. Arguing itself to be a platform for open discussion and enhanced trust, SAIS Confessions II has garnered infamy among students in a matter of weeks from all three SAIS campuses.  

Accounts like SAIS Confessions are popular social media platforms at institutions of higher education in the U.S. From NYU Secrets to Stanford Confessions, these pages follow a format similar to an institutionally specific gossip column. With pages like NYU Secrets from New York University boasting a following larger than its own student body, these seemingly insular social media platforms have the capacity to shape public opinion of their respective institutions.

This new cyber phenomenon even boasts its own Wikipedia page and first emerged as a Facebook page in 2012 as a restricted 18+ page called “OMG Confessions.” Sparking debates around cyberbullying and institutional image, these pages pose different threats depending on the demographic they represent. As a high school student told Buzzfeed in 2013, “Everyone posts so much about themselves. It is sort of disturbing, borderline creepy, but sickly entertaining.”

Students questioned around SAIS DC say, “I don’t know why it’s such a big deal, lots of schools have things like this and it doesn’t mean anything.”

“I follow it. I think it’s dumb, it’s just people complaining. It’s all very negative.”

Up until now, the administrator of SAIS Confessions II remains unverified.

The challenges confessions pages pose to existing institutional structures should not be ignored. Schools and universities remain the victim of potentially finite but irreversible damage to institutional norms and campus culture. These pages air out unwanted commentary otherwise deemed inappropriate by educational standards by evading all checks to authority through anonymity and free social platforms.

How can we respect and maintain institutional structures while remaining adaptable to all the technological innovations of modern life? Using social media as a platform for ‘open discussion’ only to mask identities and accountability proves the ability of technology to revolutionize human interaction but not innovate thought. These issues are expected in developmental stages of life like high school, but why are the degrading and mindless opinions of our peers and our respective institutions still of interest to graduate students?

The SAIS Confessions’ of the online world are microcosms of the socio-political environment today — rife with unanswered questions, the public desensitized to institutional indecency and a society blind to the necessity of accountability as emotions triumph reason, even for those who should know better.

Editor’s note: The suspected moderator of the page received threats which they alleged came from a member of the SGA. However, we did not find sufficient evidence to corroborate that claim or any threats of disciplinary action by the student government.