World update: April 17 2018



Protests continued in Yerevan on Tuesday against the installation of former President Serzh Sargsyan as the country’s new prime minister. Speaking to the crowd, opposition legislator Nikol Pashinyan declared “the start of a peaceful, people’s velvet revolution.” He’s got quite an uphill battle in front of him if he’s planning to take on Sargsyan.


A bomb exploded outside an Indian consular office in the town of Biratnagar on Tuesday. There’s no information on who set it or why, but resentment toward India is an occasional feature of Nepali politics.


South China Sea analyst Mark Valencia looks at how Southeast Asian countries are adjusting their foreign relations to accommodate an ascendent China:

This week China will undertake live-fire exercises in the Taiwan Straits.  This provocative action comes on the heels of simultaneous major U.S. and Chinese naval exercises in the South China Sea.  While the situation is not as dire as it may seem, competition between the United States and China for dominance in the region is indeed intensifying.  Faced with this burgeoning soft and thinly veiled hard power struggle for their political hearts and minds, Southeast Asian countries are doing what they can and must to maintain their relative independence and security in this roiling political cauldron. Indeed, neither China nor the United States should be under any illusions that any particular Southeast Asian country is supporting them in general or in a particular policy or action because it believes in their vision of the ideal world order.


During his Mar-a-Lago summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe on Tuesday, Donald Trump told reporters that talks have been ongoing between US and North Korean officials at “extremely high levels.” And, well, it turns out they have:

CIA Director Mike Pompeo made a top-secret visit to North Korea over Easter weekend as an envoy for President Trump to meet with that country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, according to two people with direct knowledge of the trip.


The extraordinary meeting between one of Trump’s most trusted emissaries and the authoritarian head of a rogue state was part of an effort to lay the groundwork for direct talks between Trump and Kim about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, according to the two people, who requested anonymity because of the highly classified nature of the talks.

Sure it might seem a little weird that Trump sent his CIA director to talk to Kim Jong-un, but a) this is Donald Trump we’re talking about, and b) Pompeo had already established a backchannel relationship with figures in the North Korean government. If he’s already met with Kim himself, that means things are presumably moving forward pretty quickly.

Trump won’t commit to meeting with Kim, but it really does sound like this summit is on. Meanwhile, he gave his “blessing,” as though it were needed or even requested, for this:

Obviously finally declaring an end to the Korean War would be a Big Deal. It remains to be seen, though, if South Korean President Moon Jae-in is going to try to extract some sort of concession from Kim in return for a treaty. Kim does plan to commit to working toward denuclearization when he meets with Moon, but there too it’s unclear if he’s willing to put it into writing or if it’s going to be a less binding verbal thing. It’s also not clear what path he’ll be willing to take toward denuclearization. Kim is known to prefer a phased approach to denuclearization with rewards at each stage of the process, something that a lot of US hardliners (John Bolton, for one) reject. Moon also seems to want at least a commitment to full denuclearization from Kim, even if the process goes in phases.



Human Rights Watch says that the Burundian government has begun imprisoning people who oppose a May 17 referendum that could leave President Pierre Nkurunziza in office until 2034. The referendum would reset presidential term limits (Nkurunziza is currently serving the third of a maximum two terms) and extend presidential terms from five to seven years, both effective at the end of Nkurunziza’s current term in 2020. Security forces have reportedly been beating and arresting people for allegedly “inciting” other people to vote “no,” with is otherwise known as “campaigning.” At least two people have reportedly been killed in the process.



The European Court of Justice ruled on Tuesday that the Polish government’s logging activity in the primeval Białowieża forest has violated European law. Polish authorities claim they were fighting a spruce beetle outbreak, but the court ruled that even Poland’s own assessments show that the logging was more destructive than the beetles would have been. This ruling could leave Poland vulnerable to millions of euros in fines if it doesn’t knock it off.


The French government has announced plans to block any European Union expansion just as the European Commission was preparing to open membership talks with Albania and the Republic of Macedonia. French President Emmanuel Macron wants to see the EU “reformed” before it adds any more states. Now, nobody is talking about making Albania or Macedonia members anytime soon, but Brussels believes, and not without reason, that dangling the prospect of EU membership has been important in tamping down conflict in the Balkans, and if Macron slams the door shut on new members it could have negative effects.


Macron’s new big project is apparently to “reform Islam.” No, really:

He has said that in the coming months he will announce “a blueprint for the whole organization” of Islam. And those trying to anticipate what that will look like are turning their attention to Hakim El Karoui, a leading voice on how Islamic traditions fit within French culture.


It is hard to miss that the man who appears to have Macron’s ear on this most sensitive of subjects cuts a similar figure. Like the president, El Karoui is an ex-Rothschild investment banker with an elite social pedigree who favors well-tailored suits, crisp white shirts and the lofty province of big ideas.


The latest of those ideas is this — that the best way to integrate Islam within French society is to promote a version of the religion “practiced in peace by believers who will not have the need to loudly proclaim their faith.”

You know, there’s a term in Arabic, the mujaddid, that refers to a preeminent scholar or leader who emerges every few centuries or so to renew the Islamic faith, reboot it in a sense. You don’t suppose…


No, I’m sorry, even as a joke I can’t go there. Forget it.

To sum up, the president of France and a super-rich secularist dude who, while nominally Muslim, doesn’t have any connection to France’s migrant Muslim community are going team up to explain to French Muslims how they should be practicing their faith. The explicitly secular French government wants to regulate how French Muslims practice their faith. There’s no possible way this could go wrong.



The Venezuelan Congress and some opposition judges are planning to put President Nicolás Maduro on “trial” for allegedly accepting some $50 million from the scandalous Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht to help finance his 2013 presidential campaign. The only real problem here is that neither the Venezuelan Congress nor these judges have any authority anymore, because Maduro has stripped them of it. So it’s all for show.

Thousands of Venezuelan oil workers, including highly trained engineers and managers, are reportedly quitting their jobs to escape low wages and mistreatment under the country’s new oil minister, Major General Manuel Quevedo. It’s gotten to the point where the state oil firm, PDVSA, has stopped accepting resignations at some of its offices.


To end on a high note, it appears that Donald Trump has gotten the United States back in the business of extraordinary rendition:

An American citizen who has been held without charge in Iraq since last September by the US military now faces being moved to an unidentified foreign country under government plans that his lawyers are scrambling to challenge.


A heavily redacted court document, released on Tuesday at the orders of a federal judge in Washington, reveals the intention of the defense secretary, Gen James Mattis, to move the detainee to a third country, having kept him captive for the past seven months in Iraq.


The name of the receiving country is being kept secret, though reports have suggested it is Saudi Arabia.

The practice of transferring prisoners to the custody of other countries in order to deny them their basic civil rights and/or facilitate their torture was one of the most disgusting regular features of the Bush administration. While the Obama administration had its own problems with protecting civil rights in the War on Terror, it did at least put an end to this practice. Now, I guess, it’s back. Oh goodie.

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