Strange and stranger
Few new years have started with as many searching questions. From good times, just 12 months ago, we have sunk to depths of economic gloom that the experts contend will only get darker. They have hindsight, of course; there weren't too many people making such pessimistic assessments when the stock markets, commodity and oil prices, as well as property values, were soaring not so long ago. So, here we are, wondering what is afoot in 2009.
Only the brave would stick their neck out to say anything other than the obvious. On the global economy, this is surely that we 'ain't seen nothin' yet'; the worsening financial data and profit warnings from companies point squarely to even tougher times ahead. Allow me, then, to delve beyond matters fiscal to the world of issues political and social. But, before I don my soothsayer's hat, here is a tale that many will find fantastic and perhaps even crazy. Bear in mind, as I relate it - and with thoughts of the events of 2008 firmly in mind - that no matter how unlikely an event may seem, it just might come to pass.
Russian academic and former KGB agent Igor Panarin has, for the past decade, been predicting the collapse of the US in 2010 because of civil war. He is quite specific on the details: in late June or early July of that year, the nation will cease to exist, bits of it being hived off to other entities or declaring themselves independent. California and the mountainous west will fall under Chinese control or influence; Hawaii will go to either China or Japan; Alaska will revert to Russian rule; the eastern Atlantic states will join the European Union; the upper midwest will go to Canada; and Mexico will scoop up the southern states.
His scenario is based on the prediction that demographic, economic and financial trends will provoke a political and social crisis in the US. Washington will increasingly call on states to provide funding to cover soaring national debt. Rich states will eventually say no, leading to the break-up. It is in similar circumstances that the Soviet Union began fragmenting in 1989, and was no more two years later.
Professor Panarin is not on the Russian analytical fringe. He is dean of the Foreign Ministry's academy for future diplomats. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin calls on him to advise on Russia-US relations. He attends Kremlin receptions, lectures students and appears in Russian media whenever American matters arise. The Wall Street Journal gave him space on Monday to expound his ideas.
The suggestion is extraordinary to say the least - until it is given a little thought. US president-elect Barack Obama has some grand visions for his country, but lacks the funding to make them happen. His priority is to save the economy, and his nation will have to go several trillion dollars further into debt to satisfy demands; his problem is that he does not know just how serious the meltdown is. His country is also fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that are sucking up vast budget resources. The circumstances are reminiscent of what pulled the Soviet Union apart - and a war in Afghanistan happens to be a primary reason.
I cannot see Professor Panarin's scenario occurring in 2010. A decade or two later - say in the 2020s or 2030s, and he could well have a point, though. And, so, on to my predictions.
Pakistan is going to become a failed state this year. The leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, Ichiro Ozawa, will become prime minister, ending more than half a century of dominance by the Liberal Democratic Party. In Israel, February polls will return Binyamin Netanyahu to the prime minister's office; in Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be voted out in June; Indonesia's leader, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, will be handed another term in May's elections. Bird flu will make a major comeback in the region. North Korea will continue to stymie efforts to scrap its nuclear arsenal. And Zimbabwe's dictator, Robert Mugabe, will be assassinated.
Some of these suggestions may appear far-fetched but, if recent history is any guide, they are not beyond the realms of possibility.
Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor