The 5 Most Wanted Geopolitical Fugitives of 2018

7 minute read

It’s not always nice to be wanted. In a time of heightened geopolitical drama, here’s a look at a handful of the “most wanted” characters that have captivated the world’s attention, and what their specific stories tell us about the state of the globe in 2018:

Carles Puigdemont

When Spain emerged from the Franco years, it held a vote on the Spanish constitution. The people of Catalonia voted in favor of that constitution by more than 90 percent in 1978, which made it illegal for a region to declare its secession from Spain without changing the constitution, which can only be done by Spain’s parliament in Madrid.

Nearly 40 years later, Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont pushed ahead with an independence referendum regardless of what the constitution said. The vote was boycotted by anti-secession parties (just like a similar 2014 referendum), and subjected to a crackdown by Madrid. Puigdemont used the skewed results to announce Catalonia’s secession. Madrid—as is its constitutional right—dismissed the Catalan parliament and ordered new regional elections. Facing possible charges of rebellion and sedition, Puigdemont fled for Brussels, and has remained there since.

Those snap Catalan regional elections saw a constellation of pro-secession parties again emerge victorious (though barely), and Puigdemont wants to be re-elected president. And while he says he’s prepared to govern via Skype, Madrid says no. It remains to be seen how this plays out in coming weeks. But Catalan separatism hasn’t gone away, as the December elections prove. Madrid might one day be forced to allow for a legal referendum, whether Puigdemont leads the movement or not.

Fethullah Gulen

There once was a time when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was considered a genuine reformer. Along with his political ally, the cleric Fethullah Gulen (whose sprawling network of 100+ schools and community centers had earned him millions of followers), the two managed to reinject religion into previously secular Turkish politics. At the time, Erdogan’s rise was praised by the West as the political maturation of the country (the booming Turkish economy helped too).

Then Erdogan and Gulen had a falling out, and Gulen fled to Pennsylvania where he could publicly criticize Erdogan’s government from a safe distance. Erdogan has demanded that Washington extradite Gulen to Turkey for years. The U.S. refuses. Then came the failed coup attempt of July 2016, which Erdogan blamed on Gulen and his supporters. Erdogan’s retaliatory purges have included the arrest of more than 50,000 and cost an estimated 150,000 civil servants their jobs.

In the meantime, U.S.-Turkish relations have gone from bad to worse. Now that the fight against ISIS is over in Syria, the fight for what comes next has begun. The U.S. announced last week that it intends to help its allies on the ground—Syrian Kurds—establish a 30,000-person security force. Erdogan, who fears that will embolden the sizable Kurdish community already living inside Turkey’s borders, has launched an offensive against those U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds. Which means we now have two NATO member countries engaged in a direct proxy war, further undermining confidence in NATO at a time when there is already momentum for new forms of collective European defense. Gulen, meanwhile, remains in Pennsylvania.

Julian Assange

The Australian national rocketed to worldwide fame as head of Wikileaks, which he founded in 2006. In 2007, the website posted the U.S. procedures manual being used in Guantanamo Bay; in 2008, it posted Sarah Palin’s emails from her private Yahoo account. In 2010, Wikileaks dumped more than 90,000 classified documents about the Afghanistan War.

That was also the year that two female Wikileaks volunteers came forward to Swedish authorities and alleged Assange sexually assaulted them. Assange turned himself in to London authorities, but appealed his extradition request to Sweden. After a series of appeals, the U.K. decided it would honor the extradition request, prompting Assange to flee to the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012. He’s been holed up there ever since. Although Sweden withdrew its arrest warrant last year, U.S. prosecutors are mulling their own charges over the exposure of classified material.

Assange was granted asylum by Ecuador’s former president Rafael Correa, who loved nothing more than to thumb his nose at Western powers. But Ecuador’s new president, Lenin Moreno, has called Assange “more than a nuisance.” He doesn’t want anyone accusing him of caving to U.S. pressure, but he also wants a new beginning with Washington. Unfortunately for Moreno, it’s still not clear how to get Assange out of the building he hasn’t left in over five years.

Ramush Haradinaj

Kosovo’s Prime Minister made his name in the late 1990s during the conflict there. A commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, he was accused of presiding over the torture and murder of Serbs, but given a lack of evidence, he was cleared of war crimes by the UN in both 2008 and 2012. That wasn’t good enough for Serbia, which refuses to recognize Kosovo as an independent nation, and wants Haradinaj to be extradited to face justice in its courts.

It’s not only in Serbia that Haradinaj faces legal challenges. At the behest of Western allies and helped by EU funding, Kosovo’s parliament in 2015 agreed to set up a special war crimes court based in the Netherlands but operating under Kosovo’s jurisdiction, a move widely considered instrumental in helping stabilize Balkan geopolitics. Only now that indictments are set to come down, Haradinaj and other members of Kosovo’s political elite are looking for ways to derail the inquiries.

The U.S. and EU—who led the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic in the war—are both livid at Kosovo’s perceived flaunting of Western norms and values. Maybe Haradinaj and his allies figure Kosovo is too small for important geopolitical powers to care; the reality is that, to preserve the peace, they can’t afford not to.

Mikheil Saakashvili

Educated in the West, Saakashvili was one of the leaders of Georgia’s (nonviolent) “Rose Revolution” in 2003; he then served as Georgia’s president from 2004 to 2013. Having left office with allegations of embezzlement and human rights violations hanging over him, Saakashvili exiled himself to the U.S. But in 2015 he accepted an offer from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to become governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region and to introduce much needed reforms. He gave up Georgian citizenship, to become a citizen of Ukraine.

By November 2016, he had resigned his post, holding an angry press conference in which he accused Poroshenko of personally supporting corruption in Ukraine and “supporting local Odessa gangs.” Needless to say, that did not win him many fans among Ukraine’s governing elite, who have since accused Saakashvili of helping a criminal organization led by ex-Ukrainian (and pro-Moscow) president Viktor Yanukovych. Poroshenko stripped him of his Ukrainian citizenship in July last year, making him a stateless person.

This past December, footage went viral of Saakashvili trying to evade police on the rooftops of Kiev. When police did finally manage to apprehend him, throngs of his supporters surrounded the service van that was supposed to take him to a detention center, and he escaped.

Sometimes, as with Assange, Puigdemont, Gulen, and Haradinaj, outlaws can become heroes for those who oppose their would-be jailers.

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