Essequibo referendum: Is Venezuela about to seize part of Guyana?

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is organising a referendum on Sunday to decide whether to create a new state in the Essequibo territory, an area currently under the control of neighbouring Guyana. Does Caracas have the means for its territorial ambitions, or is it just political grandstanding?

On December 3, Venezuelans vote for or against the creation of a new Venezuelan state in the Essequibo region. In the eyes of Venezuelan authorities, it is a “consultative” referendum designed to put an end to over 200 years of territorial conflict. 

However, there is one big problem: the land Venezuela wants to potentially extend control over is recognised by the international community as a part of neighbouring Guyana – a sparsely populated country with some 800,000 inhabitants.

The issue has become an obsession for populist President Nicolas Maduro, who often repeats the phrase “El Essequibo es Nuestro” [The Essequibo is ours] in his speeches.

Among four other questions, the referendum asks citizens whether they favour “the creation of the Essequibo state and the development of an accelerated plan for comprehensive care for the current and future population of that territory”.

The outcome of the vote is hardly in doubt according to French daily Le Monde, which reported Thursday that the referendum “will take place without observers” and that no one dared to campaign for the “no” vote.

This situation is causing concern for Guyana’s leaders. Caracas is threatening to deprive its eastern neighbour of more than half of its territory and to make the approximately 200,000 inhabitants of Essequibo Venezuelan citizens.

“The long-term consequences of this referendum could be Venezuela’s de facto annexation of a region which covers 160,000 square kilometers, a significant portion of Guyana [215,000 km²],” says Annette Idler, associate professor at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford and a specialist in international security.

On top of significant gold, diamond, and aluminium deposits, the Essequibo has become an offshore paradise for oil and gas interests. Since Exxon discovered hydrocarbon deposits off the coast, black gold has given an unprecedented boost to the economy, raising Guyana’s GDP by no less than 62 percent in 2022.

© Guillermo Rivas Pachecor, Paz Pizarro, Jean-Michel Corbu, Patricio Arana, AFP

Writing in 2015, an American specialist in Latin America, Jose de Arimateia da Cruz, argued the discovery of these underwater oil reserves “strengthened Venezuela’s determination to support its territorial claims on this region”.

The Venezuelan government has been particularly angered by Exxon’s choice to negotiate exclusively with the Guyanese government, suggesting that the US oil giant recognised Guyana’s sovereignty over these waters and the Essequibo region.

A territorial dispute dating back to 1811

The territorial dispute over Essequibo dates back to the colonial era. In 1811, when Venezuela proclaimed its independence, it believed the region was part of its territory. Despite the claims, the United Kingdom, which occupied the territory of present-day Guyana, placed the region under the authority of the British crown. In 1899, an arbitration court ruled in favour of the UK, even though the United States had supported Caracas.

The dispute resurfaced in 1966 when Guyana gained independence. The Geneva Agreement, signed by the UK, Venezuela, and British Guiana, urged countries to agree to a peaceful resolution through dialogue, but Guyana has since sought a resolution through the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – a procedure which Venezuela rejects. 

If the Venezuelan government is pushing for a referendum now, it is partly “because the International Court of Justice declared itself competent in April to settle the dispute”, says Idler.

Maduro does not want to recognise the ruling of the ICJ – a branch of the UN with nonbinding legal authority. He even called on United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to mediate between Venezuela and Guyana.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro casts his vote during a consultative referendum on Venezuelan sovereignty over the Esquiba region controlled by neighbouring Guyana, in Caracas on December 3, 2023
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro casts his vote during a consultative referendum on Venezuelan sovereignty over the Essequibo region, controlled by neighbouring Guyana, in Caracas on December 3, 2023. © Venezuelan Presidency via AFP

There is also – perhaps most importantly – a domestic political element to the referendum. “We must not forget that the presidential election takes place in a year, and Nicolas Maduro is trying to rally support around him by playing to the national sentiment of voters,” explains Idler.

By presenting himself as the champion of nationalism, “he puts the opposition in a delicate position”, she adds. What’s more, “some observers believe he could escalate the situation with Guyana to declare a state of emergency and cancel the presidential election if necessary”.

Faced with the Venezuelan threat, Guyana is relying heavily on international law. A case was referred to the ICJ on October 3 to prevent Caracas from proceeding with its referendum. 

On Friday, the ICJ called on Caracas to take no action that would modify the disputed lands – but it did not mention the referendum.

Is Maduro bluffing?

The risk is that Venezuela may want to take advantage of international attention being focused on two major conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza. Venezuelan troops are already on the border with Guyana “carrying out anti-illegal mining activities”, reports the Financial Times.

If Venezuela were to genuinely attempt to annex Essequibo, “it could destabilise the entire region”, says Idler. Countries like Brazil or Uruguay could be forced to choose sides in this territorial conflict.

But the annexation threat could also be a bluff. Venezuela may not have the means to seize the territory, says Idler. “The authorities exercise limited control over the border regions from where Caracas would need to launch troops to take possession of this region.”

Venezuela’s president knows that such a move would prompt the United States to reimpose the sanctions that Washington has just lifted on oil exports, says Idler. Economically very fragile, Venezuela may think twice before taking such a risk.

Regardless of how the roughly 20 million eligible Venezuelans vote, little will change in the short term – the people of Essequibo are not voting, and the referendum is nonbinding.

Either way, says Idler, Maduro can hardly afford to act on his nationalist impulse.

“He will then have to choose between discrediting himself in the eyes of voters and facing new American sanctions.”

This article was translated from the original in French.

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Spain election repeat more likely after expat vote count

Spain’s already complicated electoral landscape just got a lot more complex.

On Saturday, the count of the 233,688 ballots deposited by Spaniards living abroad — which are tallied five days after the in-person vote is held — led to the redistribution of seats in the Spanish parliament. As a result, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist Party lost one of the spots it was allocated in Madrid, which will now go to the center-right Popular Party.

The Popular Party is now set to have 137 MPs in the next legislature; together with the far-right Vox party’s 33 MPs and the single MP belonging to the affiliated Navarrese People’s Union (UPN), the right-wing bloc is set to control at least 171 seats the same number as Sánchez and his preferred partners. Should the Canarian Coalition revise its stated position, which is against backing any government that includes Vox, the conservative bloc could add another seat to its tally.

Those numbers do not improve conservative leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo’s chances of becoming prime minister. Even with an additional seat under Popular Party control, he still does not have enough support to overcome the crucial simple majority vote that a candidate must win in parliament in order to form a government.

But with the technical tie created by the reallocation of seats, Prime Minister Sánchez’s already narrow path to victory has become much more precarious, making the possibility of new elections in Spain more likely.

Prior to the loss of the seat in Madrid, Sánchez’s options for remaining Spain’s head of government involved persuading nationalist and separatist MPs to back a left-wing coalition government formed by his Socialist Party and the left-wing Sumar group. The combined forces of those parties and the 153 Socialist and Sumar MPs would have enabled Sánchez to count on 172 favorable votes, slightly more than the 170 the right-wing bloc was projected to control. As long as he convinced the Catalan separatist Junts party to abstain, Sánchez would have had more yeas than nays and been able to form a new government.

But now, with only 171 votes in its favor, the left-wing bloc will be facing at least an equal number of right-wing MPs capable of rejecting Sánchez’s bid to remain Spain’s prime minister. Getting Junts to abstain is no longer enough — Sánchez will need one or potentially two of the separatist party’s MPs to vote in his favor.

A hard circle to square

If getting Junts to abstain was already unlikely, getting the party to explicitly back the Socialist candidate seems virtually unthinkable right now.

Since 2017 the party’s founder, former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, has been pursued by the Spain’s judiciary for his role in the Catalan independence referendum. As a member of the European Parliament, Puigdemont has been able to sidestep Madrid’s efforts to extradite him from Belgium, where he lives in self-imposed exile. But in June a top EU court stripped him of his immunity and just days ago Spanish prosecutors called for a new warrant to be issued for his arrest.

Earlier this week Junts said that it would only negotiate with Sánchez if he agrees to declare a blanket amnesty for everyone involved in the 2017 referendum and commits to holding a Catalan independence vote.

“The party that needs our support will have to be the one to make the effort,” said incumbent Junts MP Míriam Nogueras. “These negotiations need to be held from one nation to another … Things are not going to be as they have always been.”

Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister María Jesús Montero was quick to reject both demands, saying on Tuesday that the Socialist Party could only negotiate “within the margins of legality set out within the Spanish constitution.”

SPAIN NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS

For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

Holding new national elections would almost certainly hurt separatist parties. With the exception of Basque group EH Bildu, all of them lost seats in last Sunday’s vote, and they’re likely to lose even more support if they force electors to go back to the polls in December or January.

On Saturday, Raquel Sans, spokesperson for the Republican Left of Catalonia party, admitted that her group had begun to hold discreet talks with Junts with the goal of forging “strategic unity” among Catalan separatists and avoiding repeat elections that “are not in the interest of the public.”

The tie between the two blocs may allow conservative leader Feijóo to press Spain’s King Felipe VI to name him as his candidate to be the next prime minister when parliament is reconvened next month.

Although there is no chance that Feijóo will be able to win the required support from fellow MPs, a failed bid in parliament will allow him to momentarily quiet the dissenters in his ranks who have been calling for him to step down in the aftermath of last Sunday’s result, in which the Popular Party won the most votes in the election but failed to secure the seats needed to form a government.

There is still the possibility, however, that enough party leaders will tell the king that they back Sánchez’s bid and that he has a viable path to form a coalition government. While the now-caretaker prime minister is keeping a low-profile this week, Socialist Party representatives are said to be hard at work, holding informal chats with partners with the objective of stitching up that support in the coming weeks.

Regardless of whether the candidate is Feijóo or Sánchez, the moment one of them fails their first investiture vote, a two-month deadline will begin counting down, at the end of which the Spanish constitution dictates that the king must dissolve parliament and call new elections. That new vote must be held 54 days after the legislature concludes, so if no deal is struck in the coming months, Spaniards would go to the polls again at the end of this year or, more likely, at the beginning of 2024.



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Serbia’s far right seizes on Putin’s war to push retaking Kosovo

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BELGRADE — Serbia’s ultra-nationalists are using Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to galvanize their campaign against Kosovo’s independence — and anti-war activists are getting caught in the crossfire.

Politicians on Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić’s right flank have sniffed out an opportunity to tie Russia’s war on Ukraine to their desire to swallow up Kosovo, even as Vučić engages in EU-brokered negotiations to partially normalize relations with Kosovo, the independence of which neither Belgrade nor Moscow recognize.

A victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine is a stepping stone to Serbia regaining Kosovo, according to Miša Vacić, the leader of the highly nationalistic, pro-Kremlin Serbian Right political party.

“We must be patient and must wait to finish in Ukraine, and after that we will have enough time,” he told POLITICO.

More than 200,000 Russians have arrived in Serbia since the beginning of the invasion. As one of just a handful of European countries offering visa-free entry to Russian passport-holders, it provides safe harbor for those seeking an exit for reasons ranging from economic to ideological.

Vacić, who in September traveled to Russian-occupied Donetsk to observe the so-called referendum to join Russia that was widely slammed by Western governments as a sham, claims Russian liberal activists in Serbia are a threat to realizing his ideal society, if they join forces with their local counterparts. 

“It is a real revolution of liberals,” Vacić said, adding that even if only 10 percent of the new Russian arrivals were committed liberal activists, Serbia would still be flooded with at least 20,000 of his political enemies. “They think they must liberate Serbia from Serbs, from traditional Serbian values.”

Violent threats

Among the Russians who have arrived in Belgrade since Putin launched his full-scale invasion last year is Ilya Zernov. The 19-year-old political activist from Tolyatti in southwestern Russia sought sanctuary in Belgrade last March — his anti-war protests prompted a police search of his student dormitory in Kazan.

“I realized that I would not be able to continue my studies, and would not be able to be in Russia for a long time,” Zernov told POLITICOadding that the police who searched his dorm threatened him with violence and imprisonment.

Zernov is an active participant in the Russian Democratic Society (RDS), an anti-war organization founded last year in Belgrade with the stated goal of supporting Ukrainian victory. It has since emerged as one of the most visible pro-Ukraine advocacy groups in Serbia, regularly organizing protests in the streets.

But in a country where Putin enjoys significant support amid an increasingly assertive ultra-nationalist movement, anti-war activists are a target.

A Russian Democratic Society (RDS) event on February 24, 2023 | Bennett Murray for POLITICO

Zernov reported to the police last month that Vacić had assaulted him. The attack, which Zernov said occurred after he attempted to paint over anti-Ukrainian graffiti on the side of a Belgrade apartment block, left him with a perforated eardrum. Vacić denies assaulting Zernov.

Threats of violence also overshadowed plans to hold two anti-war rallies on the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion.

“The police warned us that they had information that some kind of violent provocations were being planned by these extreme-right people,” said RDS co-founder Peter Nikitin, whose group organized one of the protests.

Nikitin also rejected Vacić’s claims that his group, and those like it, are seeking to campaign on social issues in Serbia.

“Our only purpose is to show the world and the Serbian public what is happening, and to mobilize public opinion for Ukraine,” he said, adding that it is Vacić who wants to make Serbia subservient to foreign interests. “[Vacić] is pushing Russian interests and Putin’s interests in Serbia very directly, and he’s the one trying to turn Serbia into Russia.”

Rallying around ‘Z’

As the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approached last month, tensions simmered in Belgrade.

A far-right rally in mid-February ended with participants attempting to break into President Vučić’s office. Damjan Knezevic, the leader of the People’s Patrol far-right network, gave a fiery speech to a crowd of around 1,000 calling for Vučić to be overthrown, amid a heated national debate over the proposal to resolve the Serbia-Kosovo dispute.

Many in attendance waved Russian flags or sported pro-war symbols, including the letter “Z” used by the Russian military to mark its vehicles in Ukraine, and the skull and crosshairs logo of the Wagner Group, a private mercenary force that has been backing Moscow’s military in the war.

Police arrested Knezevic and two other associates the following day on charges of inciting violence. On the day of the rally, another People’s Patrol member was also arrested in Serbia’s second city Novi Sad on weapons charges after being discovered with a rifle, optic sight and ammunition. 

The arrests spurred yet more outrage among People’s Patrol followers, who doubled down on plans to hold a pro-war rally on February 24, adjacent to RDS’ anti-war protest. While authorities refused to issue a permit for the People’s Patrol rally, officials feared riots would ensue.

When the first year anniversary of the invasion arrived, RDS held a scaled-back version of its planned events, per police advice. It proceeded without incident.

A man wearing a patch with a “Z” on it at a rally on February 15, 2023 | Bennett Murray for POLITICO

Natalia Taranushchenko, an organizer for Belgrade-based Ukrainian association Cini Dobro who is originally from Ukraine’s Vinnytsia region, told POLITICO that while Serbia is generally welcoming, “There are still symbols of Russian aggression, letter Z on the streets of Belgrade, and we still hear that Ukrainians are ‘Nazis’ and a lot of other Russian propaganda.”

Still, there’s some hope for the Ukrainians and anti-war Russians seeking safety in Serbia: Putin’s stalled offensive has also deflated the ultra-nationalists here.

“Serbs were very passionate because they were expecting that Putin would overthrow Ukraine in three days, and after that they thought he would say that we need to get back Kosovo for Serbia,” said Čedomir Stojković, a Belgrade-based lawyer who investigates covert Russian influence in his country. 

“But over time, as the war did not happen the way people expected, those expectations started to change, and now because there is cognitive dissonance, there is no passion,” he said.



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