World update: August 31 2018

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

ISIS killed five Afghan border guards via roadside bomb on Thursday in Nangarhar province.

At The Diplomat, analyst Samuel Ramani argues that Russia’s interest in stabilizing Afghanistan is legitimate:

Although Russia has been criticized by senior U.S. officials, like General John Nicholson and the U.S. Department of State’s Alice Wells, for allegedly providing arms to the Taliban, Russian policymakers have emphasized Moscow’s commitment to peace in Afghanistan. The benefits of a stable Afghanistan for Russian policymakers are manifold, as a peace settlement in Afghanistan would enhance the security of crucial Russian allies in Central Asia, like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and stem the inflow of narcotics and militants into Russia’s southern frontiers. Through a series of Moscow-format talks, which began as a result of a December 2016 gathering of senior officials from China, Pakistan, and Russia on combatting Islamic State (ISIS), Russia is seeking to establish a leading role in the stabilization of Afghanistan and showcase its conflict arbitration prowess to a broad international audience.

Ramani believes the Russians are pursuing three aims in Afghanistan: weakening ISIS’s Khorasan Province affiliate, reducing the flow of drugs from Afghanistan into Russia, and engaging diplomatically with the Taliban in an effort to separate more moderate elements of the group from the hardcore fighters.

PHILIPPINES

In case you were wondering, Rodrigo Duterte is still a piece of shit.

CHINA

Chinese agents are allegedly using LinkedIn to recruit spies in the US and other Western countries. The company, which is owned by Microsoft, says it’s working with US authorities to deal with the problem but in the meantime you might want to ignore all those emails you keep getting from–oh, you already were? Then never mind.

NORTH KOREA

A proposed rail project that would link North and South Korea has been put on ice by the United States, reflecting differing views of the best way to approach Pyongyang. South Korea is clearly interested in improving relations while the US sees improved relations as a concession that North Korea has to earn via denuclearization. The daylight between those two approaches is worth watching over time.

JAPAN

The Japanese government, meanwhile, seems to be harboring no ambiguities about its relationship with North Korea. Largely left on the sidelines amid all the recent US-South Korean-North Korean diplomacy, the Japanese defense ministry is asking for its largest budget ever next year at almost $48 billion.

AFRICA

LIBYA

Libyan authorities closed Tripoli’s Matiga airport on Friday over renewed clashes between militias in the city. Apparently some combatant fired artillery at the airport.

TUNISIA

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed fired five top officials in his energy ministry on Friday, including Energy Minister Khaled Kaddour, over charges that they gave a sweetheart oil deal to a Tunisian investor.

SOUTH SUDAN

South Sudanese rebels approved the latest peace deal with the government on Thursday after initially refusing to do so earlier this week. The rebels and government still don’t see eye to eye on plans for a transitional political arrangement but those details are supposed to be ironed out, and a final agreement signed, at an upcoming regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development summit.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

World Health Organization officials are warning that, while containment efforts appear to be working so far, there are still “substantial risks” that the ebola outbreak in the northeastern DRC could spread. Heath officials are still identifying new cases of the disease among people for whom the vectors of their infection can’t be determined, which means there are presumably still people spreading the infection who are not known to authorities.

EUROPE

UKRAINE

Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, was assassinated on Friday in a bombing in downtown Donetsk. Three other people were injured in the explosion. There’s no indication who was behind the killing, though there was no shortage of people who might have been interested in seeing Zakharchenko dead, from the Ukrainian government to some disaffected rebel faction to the Russian government and probably more beyond that.

BALKANS

As you may know, some Serbian and Kosovar leaders have floated the idea of a territorial exchange to settle their two countries’ beef, whereby Kosovo’s predominantly Serbian northern Mitrovica area would become part of Serbia while Serbia’s predominantly Albanian Presevo Valley would become part of Kosovo. You can probably imagine that any talk about redrawing borders in the Balkans would start making European leaders sweat, and, well, you don’t have to imagine it now:

At talks between EU foreign ministers in Vienna, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that any exchange of territory “could rip open too many old wounds within the population. And that’s why we are very skeptical about this.”

There are fears in Western Europe that any changes of the borders between Serbia and Kosovo could trigger the same demands in Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro, similar to the ones that triggered the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has signaled it would accept any agreement between the two sides.

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci said in early August that he rejects the idea of dividing the territory along ethnic lines, but he said he is open to discussing “a correction” of borders during EU-mediated peace talks with Serbia. However, Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj on Friday said that any land swap would bring new tragedies in the Balkans.

The foreign ministers of Austria and Luxembourg also sounded pretty nervous about the whole idea.

UNITED KINGDOM

Words really do fail here:

AMERICAS

ARGENTINA

Al Jazeera reports on the continuing adventures of the Argentine peso:

BRAZIL

Unsurprisingly, Brazil’s electoral court ruled on Friday that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s corruption conviction means he cannot run for president in October. The court was careful to note that its ruling had nothing to do with the validity (or otherwise) of Lula’s conviction–it simply had to do with Brazilian elections law and the fact that he was convicted. Lula will undoubtedly continue to crusade against what he and his supporters have characterized as a judicial coup, but realistically at this point it’s nearly impossible to see how he could be on the ballot in October.

Lula’s presumed departure from the race throws it fairly wide open. His Workers’ Party will now push his supporters to back Fernando Haddad, but polling has suggested that many Lula backers are going to opt to sit the election out altogether. Far right candidate Jair Bolsonaro has been the consistent front runner in polls that have excluded Lula, but narrowly and not nearly by enough to avoid a runoff. Bolsonaro is so far right that he may have trouble winning a head-to-head matchup.

COLOMBIA

Two former FARC leaders, one of whom–Ivan Marquez–is being investigated by US authorities on drug trafficking charges–have apparently vanished. Both men failed to attend FARC’s annual conference, which began on Friday, and their whereabouts are unknown. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re about to return to militancy, but neither does it make for a particularly comfortable situation.

NICARAGUA

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has ordered a team of investigators from the United Nations human right office to leave the country, two days after they produced a report blaming Ortega and his government for brutally repressing protesters and committing multiple human rights violations.

GUATEMALA

Likewise, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales on Friday shut down the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), though it will continue to operate for another year under the terms of its mandate. Morales has accused the commission itself of corruption and “selective criminal prosecution with an ideological bias.” In other words, he’s angry that CICIG is investigating Morales personally over the roughly $1 million in undeclared campaign contributions he allegedly received in 2015.

CANADA

Friday’s arbitrary deadline for a new US-Canada trade deal and/or the third leg of a new NAFTA arrangement came and went without any agreement. For now the US says it plans to proceed with a bilateral agreement reached with Mexico earlier this week, even though that agreement is relatively narrow in scope and there are concerns that it may not even be implementable without Canadian participation. As I say the deadline was arbitrary and representatives from both countries plan to meet again next week.

UNITED STATES

Donald Trump may have ensured that there would be no deal on Friday by making Canada’s negotiating position untenable. Very stable genius that he is, Trump told Bloomberg News reporters off the record on Thursday that he was refusing to make any compromises with Canada but he couldn’t say that in public because “it would be so insulting they’re not going to be able to make a deal.” Yeah, about that. Somebody then leaked Trump’s comments to the Toronto Star, which had no agreement to keep them off the record, and that paper reported on them. And the Canadians, as you might expect, were not terribly pleased:

High-stakes trade negotiations between Canada and the U.S. were dramatically upended on Friday morning after inflammatory secret remarks by President Donald Trump were obtained by the Toronto Star.

Trump’s comments were viewed by Canadian negotiators as evidence for their suspicions that the U.S. was not making a legitimate effort to compromise. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s officials confronted the president’s officials with the leaked quotes at a high-level meeting on Friday morning.

Later in the day, after his administration had steadfastly refused comment on the story, Trump himself confirmed everything in the Star report via, of course, Twitter:

Remember folks, prion disease can be a crippling and tragic situation. Please see your doctor if you suspect you may be suffering from the early stages of whatever ate Donald Trump’s brain a couple of years back.

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