Don’t look now, but oil prices are back up. Brent crude closed at just shy of $70/barrel on Tuesday, the highest it’s been in about three years. The joint Saudi-Russian agreement to cut supply is finally starting to have some bite to it as stockpiles are being reduced, which is bringing the oil market back to a place where it’s fairly responsive to day-to-day events. Problems in Iraq and Venezuela coupled with the threat of new US sanctions on Iranian oil are pushing the price up, along with rising demand. The market probably can’t sustain prices this high–shale producers in the US, for example, are going to start coming back online at this price, which will create more supply and thus bring prices back down again–but this could be a temporary shot in the arm for petro-states.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev visited the White House on Tuesday, and it sounds like he and his fellow authoritarian-minded leader, Donald Trump, got along very nicely:
The two presidents discussed an “enhanced strategic partnership” between the United States and Kazakhstan, resolving to strengthen cooperation “on political and security issues, trade and investment, and people-to-people relationships through regular high-level meetings within the framework of an Enhanced Strategic Partnership Dialogue.”
“Kazakhstan is doing very well. They’re really — they’ve turned things around,” Trump said, lauding Nazarbayev’s leadership, which has now stretched to 28 years.
Nazarbayev, in turn, congratulated Trump on his first year in office. “And that year was very productive, and you achieved a lot for your country,” he said.
A mortar attack on a market in Faryab province on Tuesday killed five people. The Taliban is likely responsible but there’s been no claim of responsibility. Eight more people were killed in an attack on an Afghan army base near Kunduz that appears to have been carried out by the Taliban’s “Red Unit,” its “special forces” division.
A group of more than 1800 Pakistani religious scholars have signed on to a joint fatwa condemning the tactic of suicide bombing. Several of them are apparently notorious for their support for the Taliban and their anti-West views. Fatwas like this never have much practical impact, but in this case it does make for an impressive if unsubstantial counter to the claims that the Pakistani government is in bed with extremist groups.
The Bangladeshi and Myanmar governments have agreed on a two year timeframe for the repatriation of the nearly 750,000 Rohingya who have fled ethnic cleansing campaigns in Myanmar into Bangladesh over the past two years. There’s a fair amount of concern over this agreement because it doesn’t seem to actually involve the Rohingya refugees themselves, and plenty of them are understandably unwilling to go back to Myanmar without guarantees of basic rights and security. They’re unlikely to get either, particularly since the Myanmar military’s abuse of the Rohingya is wildly popular among the country’s majority Bamar population. It’s so popular that even ex-democracy activists seem to be willing to overlook the fact that the military still hasn’t allowed the country to undertake a full transition to actual democracy.
Speaking of things that don’t speak well of humanity, Rodrigo Duterte has once more turned his national police loose to summarily execute as many drug suspects as they want, and everybody is thrilled. And I do mean everybody:
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church, which previously rallied against drug-related killings, has also softened its stance on the issue. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) recently voiced support for Duterte’s drug war and asked the public not to condemn the extrajudicial killings. The CBCP’s support is significant for the president, since the members of the Church wield considerable influence over the predominantly Christian Philippine population.
I can’t remember the specific Gospel passage where Jesus tells his disciples not to condemn the extrajudicial killings, but I know it’s in there somewhere.
Former CIA case officer Jerry Chun Shing Lee was arrested in New York on Monday on suspicions that he’s been turning classified information over to China. However, Lee is technically being charged with unlawful possession of classified information, which means they can’t prove that he’s leaked that information to anyone. The agency has been looking for a mole in its Chinese operations for some time now, but it’s not even clear that there’s been one, let alone that Lee was it.
Leaders of all the countries that backed South Korea during the Korean War met in Vancouver today to talk about what to do about North Korea. Their conclusion? Sanctions. Damn, what a creative idea. I can’t believe nobody has tried that before.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is appealing her expulsion from the Unity Party. She insists that she did not support George Weah over Unity candidate Joseph Bokai, which is kind of an “are you going to believe me or your lying eyes” thing to say, but more importantly she and her supporters are saying that the decision to expel her wasn’t taken in accordance with party rules.
Al-Shabab has officially declared its former spokesman, Mukhtar Robow Abu Mansur, “an apostate who can be killed.” Mukhtar Robow broke with al-Shabab in 2013 and officially went over to the Somali government last year. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch released a report on Monday that says the group has been forcibly conscripting children from families in the country’s southern Bay region.
Levada, the only major pollster in Russia that hasn’t knuckled under to Vladimir Putin, says it will not publish any election polling until it assesses its legal situation. In part because it hasn’t knuckled under to Putin, Levada has been designated a foreign agent. As such, under Russian law it is prohibited from participating in politics, because the Russians–wait for it–don’t want foreign agents fucking around with their politics. Yeah, that sure would suck! Obviously there’s no mystery about who’s going to win the presidential election in March, but Putin very much wants high turnout to give his reelection a glossy sheen of legitimacy. Levada says its polling suggests only about a third of Russian voters are definitely going to participate. Putin wants turnout at 70 percent or more, and state-owned pollster VTsIOM says that its research shows that turnout should be–hey, what a coincidence–70 percent.
Levada did contribute to a new Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll that finds Russians and Americans in broad agreement on foreign policy priorities. Both peoples say that terrorism, Islamic extremism, and nuclear weapons are among their biggest foreign policy concerns, though Americans are much more likely to cite North Korea as a threat than Russians. They also differed on priorities in terms of US-Russia collaboration, with Russians citing a reduction in nuclear weapons and an end to the war in Syria and Americans citing…North Korea again. Interestingly, among Russians the poll found a pretty even split between people who thought Moscow’s intervention in Syria had been a net negative, people who thought it had been a net positive, and people who thought it had been neither.
Police and right-wing protesters clashed in Kiev on Tuesday over a new law governing the eastern part of Ukraine that the protesters say is too lenient on separatists there. The protesters were led by neo-Nazi militia leader and suspected human rights violator Semen Semenchenko, so they’ve got that going for them. Which is nice.
Romanian President Klaus Iohannis on Tuesday appointed Defense Minister Mihai Fifor as the country’s interim prime minister, replacing the departed Mihai Tudose. If he wants Fifor to take the job permanently, Iohannis appears to be heading for a confrontation with the ruling Social Democrats and their party leader, Liviu Dragnea. The party seems to prefer current European Parliament member Viorica Dăncilă as Tudose’s replacement, but she would first have to be appointed to parliament by Iohannis. Dăncilă may be a sacrificial lamb in that her job would consist of shepherding through parliament a very unpopular measure to decriminalize corruption such that Dragnea himself could finally return to the legislature and assume the premiership himself.
Iohannis, who very much does not care for Dragnea, might name Fifor as (non-interim) PM on Wednesday and then see if he can survive a confidence vote in parliament, which if he did would severely undercut Dragnea’s position.
Kosovo Serb leader Oliver Ivanović was gunned down on Tuesday in the city of Mitrovica. There’s been no claim of responsibility and it’s too early to start naming suspects. Ivanović was considered a moderate among Kosovo Serb leaders, though he’s been accused of committing war crimes during the Kosovo War in the late 1990s. His murder, condemned by the governments of Kosovo and Serbia, removes a prominent voice in favor of talks between the country’s Kosovar Albanian and Serbian communities.
Bosnian authorities say they will investigate Serbian Honor, the militia that has allegedly been formed, allegedly with support from Russian trainers, to support Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik. Presumably I don’t need to explain why this is a situation that bears watching.
Andrej Babiš’s would-be minority government finally lost its confidence vote on Tuesday. The vote, which was supposed to happen on January 10, was delayed to, I guess, give Babiš more time to fail to secure enough votes. What happens now is a bit convoluted. Babiš’s cabinet will remain in place temporarily while he tries to negotiate some kind of arrangement with enough opposition parties to form a government. He’ll be given another chance to form said government because he’s got the support of Czech President Miloš Zeman. But if Zeman loses the presidential runoff later this month, that support goes out the window.
Babiš’s ANO party could probably form a coalition…if Babiš himself, who is mired under corruption allegations, were out of the picture as would-be prime minister, a sacrifice he’s so far been unwilling to make. On the other hand, polling suggests that if the whole thing collapses and the country is forced into a snap election, ANO would actually increase its parliamentary plurality. So for that reason opposition parties may want to think about compromising with Babiš before it gets to that point.
Social Democratic Party leader Martin Schulz is traveling the country trying to convince party members to support the SPD entering into talks with Angela Merkel’s conservative alliance on forming a governing coalition. So far, it’s going really, really well:
Convincing them is proving difficult. Two regional branches have already said they do not back his deal. Many rank and file members accuse Schulz of selling out to Merkel and failing to win a signature policy to take to coalition talks, such as a major healthcare reform or tax hikes for the rich.
The Swiss People’s Party is pushing for a referendum on ending the free movement of people through Switzerland, a step that could cost the country its access to the European Union single market. Switzerland is a member of the European Free Trade Association and as such has access to the single market but only as long as it abides by other EU rules.
Remember how yesterday we weren’t sure if police officer/special forces soldier/actor/rebel Óscar Pérez was captured or killed in his standoff with Venezuelan forces? Well, turns out he was killed. Pérez was seen on video apparently shortly before his death shouting that he wanted to surrender, so expect his killing to raise some questions about what the Venezuelan forces were doing.
Salvadorans who get kicked out of the United States when their Temporary Protected Status expires in 2019 may have the option of working in Qatar temporarily under a deal that the Salvadoran government is negotiating with Doha. Conditions for migrant workers in Qatar are improving but still suck for the most part, though the Salvadoran government could in theory try to negotiate protections into the arrangement.
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