Tonight’s updates didn’t really fit into any of my usual groupings, but they were too long for one post, so I mashed them together as best I could.
Although Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s approval rating is up and a plurality of Australians prefer him as PM over Labor Party leader Bill shorten, Labor is nevertheless ahead of Morrison’s coalition in the latest head-to-head polling, 53 percent to 47 percent. Australia’s next election is coming in May (for state senators) and November (for the House of Representatives and territorial senators).
At least five people were killed in clashes in eastern Ukraine on Friday–four separatists and one Ukrainian soldier. The Ukrainian government and Donbas rebels each blamed the other for provoking the fighting, which was the worst in the region since yet another ceasefire kicked in just after Christmas. The Ukrainian government, meanwhile, arrested “dozens” of right-wing protesters on Saturday in Kiev. They were demonstrating at a campaign rally for presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko, apparently due to suspicions that someone in Tymoshenko’s camp was involved in the recent murder of an anti-corruption activist.
Despite all of the country’s difficulties, journalist Paul Hockenos says that Ukraine’s democracy is positively flourishing:
Ukraine has made notable strides in its fight against corruption, its most formidable scourge and a key instigator of the 2014 Maidan protests. The deeply rooted problem persists, but Ukraine’s reformers have been relentless and creative in combatting it. Parliament has passed new legislation and designed independent institutions to combat corruption. The National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) and the High Anti-Corruption Court, for example, should be operational by spring. NABU and the court are essentially parallel structures that will pursue corruption cases outside of normal judicial channels. (Ukrainian prosecutorial offices are notorious for their own corruption and for blocking anti-corruption cases.) Run by the indefatigable Artem Sytnyk, NABU has 635 cases under investigation, 176 cases in court, and 25 convictions. The biggest fish are all still at large, but Sytnyk is optimistic that Ukraine’s high court, with independently vetted and chosen judges, will break the logjam NABU faces in the national court system.
The Ukrainian parliament has also passed ambitious reforms in health care, environmental protection, and tax law, while cleaning up the state-owned gas company, shutting down sham banking schemes, and creating a transparent electronic system for state procurement. A Ukrainian think tank calculates that just the gas sector and tax reforms have saved the state $6 billion, nearly 6 percent of GDP.
These focused efforts are even more remarkable considering that Ukraine is under nonstop assault by its nuclear-armed superpower of a neighbor, militarily on its eastern borderlands but also in a propaganda war engineered in Moscow to paint the country as a failed and illegitimate state. The Sea of Azov now constitutes another front, and there is no sign that Russia is stopping there.
Although smaller than they have been in past outings, Yellow Vest protests took place across France on Saturday for the 13th straight week. The movement that began over gas taxes has metastasized into a wider movement against Emmanuel Macron’s kiss up/kick down economic policies and the resultant inequality, and now against police brutality with respect to how the authorities have responded to the protests. They may have diminished but there are still tens of thousands of people turn out each week to demand Macron’s resignation. And while his “Great Debate” idea may be boosting his approval rating a bit, for now, there seems to be a growing and probably accurate sense that Macron isn’t listening to what the French people are trying to tell him.
An estimated 45,000 mostly right-wing people turned out in Madrid on Sunday to demand early elections. The demonstration, organized by conservative opposition parties, played upon fears that Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is giving too much away to Catalan separatists in negotiations, perhaps because his makeshift coalition depends on Catalan nationalist legislators to pass legislation. Sánchez’s government is losing ground in the polls, and while he doesn’t have to hold an election until 2020 he’s scrambling to try to pass a 2019 budget and may have no choice but to call for an early election if he fails.
Self-proclaimed Venezuelan president Juan Guaidó is asking for volunteers to help him get humanitarian aid into Venezuela. Truckloads of aid, organized by Guaidó to demonstrate his claim to power, are stuck in Colombia because Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro won’t allow any of it into the country, to demonstrate his claim to power. So it would appear that Guaidó now intends to set up a couple of large collection centers in countries with large Venezuelan refugee populations, and ask those refugees to accompany the aid convoys as they attempt to run Maduro’s blockade. If/when that fails, who knows what comes next. Guaidó may call for outside military assistance, though that would upend any progress he’s made in trying to turn the Venezuelan military against Maduro.
Venezuela’s state-owned PDVSA oil company took a couple of steps over the weekend to try to limit its exposure to US penalties. It shifted the proceeds from its international oil sales to a Russian bank, Gazprombank AO, to keep that money away from US and European banks that would have far more exposure to US sanctions. It also attempted to remove two US citizens from the board of Citgo, its US subsidiary. This step was likely intended to fend off a possible Trump administration move to replace Citgo’s board entirely with people loyal to Guaidó, but it’s not clear whether PDVSA will be able to block such a move if or maybe when it eventually comes.
The US and Russia are circulating dueling United Nations Security Council resolution drafts on Venezuela. The US draft, unsurprisingly, calls for a new presidential election, while the Russian draft, also unsurprisingly, expresses “concern” over other nations attempting to interfere in Venezuelan political affairs. Neither stands any chance of passing the council because either would be vetoed, so the whole process is performative.
Al Jazeera reports on the protests in Port-au-Prince, where two people have reportedly been killed and some 14 police officers have been injured:
Finally, a new Pew Research Center poll finds that climate change, ISIS, and the risk of cyberattack are generally the top three concerns people have around the world. But there are plenty of others, including a growing fear of the United States:
Many people also express fears about North Korea’s nuclear program, but in none of the 26 countries do people rate it as one of their top two concerns (even in neighboring South Korea).
Fewer still rate the condition of the global economy as their top international concern, although it remains a pertinent issue in many countries, especially in places where ratings for the national economy are overwhelmingly negative, such as Greece and Brazil.
And while a median of less than half across the nations in the survey say the influence of the U.S. is a major threat to their countries, more people now say it is a threat than in 2013 and 2017. Indeed, in 10 countries, roughly half or more now claim that American power is a major threat to their nation – including 64% who say this in Mexico, where ratings for the U.S. have turned sharply negative since the election of President Donald Trump.
At the bottom of the threats list is China’s power and influence, although roughly half or more in South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Australia and the U.S. name China as a major threat.