Europe/Americas update: January 31 2019

CLIMATE CHANGE

Full disclosure: I am not a climate scientist. With that said, this seems pretty bad in my layman’s opinion:

Again I’m not an expert! Maybe we don’t need oxygen that much? But it kinds of seems like we do!

EUROPE

RUSSIA

What seems like the longest and most anti-climactic arms control negotiation in history is hopefully coming to an end soon, as the US is set to announce its formal withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Talks with Russia over its alleged treaty violating Novator 9M729 cruise missile have gone nowhere, and really there was no indication that the Trump administration had any interest in salvaging the accord–the (again alleged) Russian violation has seemed more like a pretext for the administration to do something it wants to do anyway. The announcement will trigger a six month withdrawal window during which time the US and Russia could strike some kind of agreement to save the treaty. But, again, that assumes the US actually wants to save the treaty, which at this point does not seem to be the case.

UKRAINE

In both the unlikeliest and yet somehow also most inevitable of developments, new polling indicates that comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who has literally played the president of Ukraine on television, has shot past both the actual president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, and previous frontrunner Yulia Tymoshenko to the top of the leader board for Ukraine’s upcoming presidential election. One poll has Zelenskiy at 23 percent to Poroshenko’s 16.4 percent and Tymoshenko’s 15.7 percent. Another has him at 19 percent to Tymoshenko’s 18.2 percent and Poroshenko’s 15.1 percent. Whatever happens I think we can be sure that Ukraine will be having an extremely normal election.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy

SERBIA

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has told Donald Trump via letter that he’s prepared to reopen negotiations with Kosovo over settling the two countries’ bad blood, but only after the Kosovar government rescinds a 100 percent tariff it erected on Serbian goods last year. Both Kosovo and Serbia are interested in joining the European Union, which means they have to come to some kind of accord because the EU insists that it won’t admit them otherwise.

ITALY

The Italian economy fell into a recession in the last quarter of 2018, which poses several problems for Italy’s governing coalition. For one thing, overseeing a slide into recession isn’t good politics for anybody. But for another, Rome has been trying to boost public spending while remaining within the austerity-obsessed EU’s deficit limits, and it’s been relying on some optimistic growth forecasts to make the numbers work. The news that Italy’s economy is shrinking will undoubtedly affect those estimates, so even though this news actually strengthens the case for increased government spending to stimulate the economy, it also makes it more difficult for Italy to justify that extra spending to Brussels.

AMERICAS

GUYANA

The Guyanese government may have to hold an early election in March, after the country’s chief justice ruled on Thursday that a disputed no confidence vote held last month was in fact binding. The government plans to appeal the ruling but will have to scramble to organize the election if its appeal fails. Guyana is supposed to begin pumping oil from its large offshore deposits–discovered back in 2015–either late this year or early next year, and there are now concerns that political turmoil could delay that process.

VENEZUELA

The European parliament voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to recognize Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president. This decision carries considerably less weight than the decisions of the EU’s member state governments, though many of those also either have recognized or are preparing to recognize Guaidó. Meanwhile, in Venezuela, Guaidó told a crowd of supporters on Thursday that Venezuelan police had been to his home “asking for Fabiana,” his wife. If that story is true you to other accounts of Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian approach to ending this crisis, which has included jailing at least ten journalists for their reporting on the situation. All of them were subsequently released and/or deported in the case of foreign media.

Guaidó has been pretty busy publicizing himself. He wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that was published on Wednesday in which he noted that he’s “had clandestine meetings with members of the armed forces and the security forces.” Getting those units to turn on Maduro would be the quickest way to end this situation in Guaidó’s favor. But he can only offer them amnesty, which only works if they think Maduro is going down, and unless they turn on Maduro he could well remain in power. Guaidó also has to think about how much impunity he’s willing to offer senior military figures who are heavily implicated in Maduro’s alleged human rights violations. He also also needs to be careful not to splinter the military lest he suddenly wind up causing a civil war. Lots to think about here.

In an interview with the AP on Thursday, Venezuela’s would-be president said he would appeal to Venezuela’s neighbors to send shipments of medicine and other humanitarian aid into the country despite Maduro’s ban on such aid. If he can put together a large aid convoy it could be a major test of Maduro’s remaining authority and would put Venezuela’s security forces on the spot in terms of deciding whether to obey Maduro’s orders or allow the aid to enter the country. Guaidó is also still trying to appeal to Russia and China, which are Venezuela’s two largest creditors. Guaidó is arguing that both would be better off if Maduro were ousted because Venezuela’s ability to repay its debts would be improved. Of course, part of the reason Venezuela can’t pay its debts now is because of US sanctions intended to force Maduro out of power. But I digress.

The presence of a Russian passenger jet in Caracas earlier this week raised a lot of eyebrows and speculation that Maduro might be trying to loot the Venezuelan treasury or something. Moscow insists that reports of Venezuelan gold being shipped to Russia are untrue. And as it turns out the gold isn’t headed to Russia–it’s apparently headed for the UAE instead. Maduro is reportedly selling 15 metric tons of gold to the Emiratis in the next few days, and 29 metric tons through next month, in return for euros that Venezuelan banks can add to their foreign currency reserves to finance imports. Washington has already warned that anybody trading in Venezuelan gold could wind up on the business end of US sanctions, so the Emiratis are taking a risk engaging in this deal.

The euros will be used to implement Maduro’s new plan to significantly loosen price and currency exchange controls to try to boost the Venezuelan economy. Venezuela has been selling off small amounts of gold to try to bolster its financial system, but this huge selloff is obviously a panic move and probably isn’t going to be enough to turn things around economically.

UNITED STATES

Finally, I thought you’d all like to know that Donald Trump’s promise to drain the Washington DC swamp is really paying off, big league:

The U.S. has slipped out of the top 20 countries perceived to have the least corruption, according to an annual report released Tuesday by the watchdog group Transparency International.

The Corruption Perceptions Index 2018 finds the U.S. in 22nd place, with a score of 71, right behind France and ahead of the United Arab Emirates. Countries are evaluated on a 100-point scale, based on the trust that experts and business leaders have in public institutions. A higher score means people believe the government is less corrupt. Denmark and New Zealand held the top-ranked spots on the list; Syria and Somalia were on the bottom. 

Last year, the U.S. was ranked 16th.

Zoe Reiter, Transparency International’s acting representative to the U.S., noted that this is the lowest score given to the United States in seven years.

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