Jan 16, 2020

Axios World

Dave Lawler

Happy Thursday and welcome back, World readers. We've got a global sampling of 1,560 words (6 minutes) for you this evening.

  • Thanks for being here, and for spreading the word about this newsletter. Would be grateful if you'd encourage a friend to sign up.
  • Editor's note: I neglected to mention in Monday's edition that Matteo Salvini is from Italy. Perdonami. Keep keeping me honest: lawler@axios.com.

Heads up: I'll be filing next week from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

1 big thing: Putin gets his house in order

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Vladimir Putin is unlikely to stay on as Russia’s president beyond 2024, but he’s even less likely to simply give up power.

Why it matters: That’s what we do know after Wednesday’s surprise shake-up, announced during Putin’s state-of-the-nation address. We still don’t know what role he’ll officially take, or how Moscow’s power structure will shift once he makes his move.

Catch up quick: With term limits looming and anxiety building over the coming transition, Putin moved a few pieces around the chessboard while clearing plenty of space for himself.

  • Putin’s plan would strip some presidential powers and give them to the parliament while increasing the authority of the State Council. Some analysts speculate that he might take charge of that body, which had been fairly obscure.
  • He picked a new prime minister — Mikhail Mishustin, a little-known bureaucrat who previously led Russia’s tax service — following the resignation of his long-time lieutenant, Dmitry Medvedev.
  • Medvedev, who is deeply unpopular but has proved a useful scapegoat, will become deputy chairman of the Security Council.

Between the lines: “This is not about a succession plan,” says Alina Polyakova of the Brookings Institution. “This is about consolidating power.”

  • Putin is already less involved in day-to-day governance than he once was, she says, focusing more on “pet ideas and foreign policy.”
  • Polyakova says the big remaining question is whether he will recede further into the background in a new role, perhaps as chairman of the Security Council.
  • The constitutional changes would hand diminished powers to his successor as president.

What to watch: I recently asked a number of top experts what they expect beyond 2024 for our “20 Years of Putin” series.

  • Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie Moscow told me that once the transition begins, “everyone will see that this guy is not for the future, which means that his real power will wane."
  • Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch infamously jailed by Putin in 2003, disagreed: "He will be in power as long as he can. The methods he can use will vary, but he will be very keen to stay in power as long as he’s alive."
  • Daniel Fried, a longtime diplomat and Russia expert, noted: “If you break down institutions, every succession is a crisis.”

The bottom line: “He’s got what I call the King Lear problem," Fried added. "How do you go into retirement comfortably after you’ve done the things King Lear has done? There’s a reason people are out to get you."

Go deeper: 20 Years of Putin Part 1; Part 2

2. Joining the ranks of leaders for life

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Several of the world’s most powerful leaders have recently shifted the rules in order to keep power past normal transitions.

  • They include China's Xi Jinping, who ended presidential term limits in 2018.

Putin didn't opt for the most straightforward choice: simply removing term limits. 

Zoom out: Several leaders who aren't quite "president for life" have prolonged their tenures through controversial means.

  • Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro rigged an election in 2018 and has defied calls to step aside amid political and economic crises. His predecessor, Hugo Chavez, eliminated term limits.
  • Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is no stranger to Putin-style constitutional maneuvering, and while Turkey still holds competitive elections, he has pulled the country in a more autocratic direction over 16 years in power.
  • Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is one of several leaders attempting to use control over institutions and the media to close the door behind him after winning office.
  • Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking both re-election and parliamentary immunity from three corruption indictments. Now Israel’s longest-serving leader, he’s positioning himself as the indispensable man.

Even Putin has lessons to learn from Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev. He left the presidency last March after 30 years but continues to wield authority as chairman of the country's Security Council.

  • He got a nice parting gift: The capital was renamed in his honor.

Worth noting: Nearly all "leaders for life," and in fact all 20 of the world’s longest-serving non-royal leaders, are men.

  • The longest-serving woman, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is expected to step aside by 2021.
3. Merkel: Don't demonize China for its success

Angela Merkel with China's Xi Jinping. Photo: Jason Lee - Pool/Getty Images

Merkel struck a dovish tone on China in an interview published today in the FT, saying she'd "advise against regarding China as a threat simply because it is economically successful."

The backdrop: Germany is deciding what role to allow Huawei in building out its 5G networks. The U.S. is calling for total bans on the Chinese giant, but China is threatening to punish German automakers if excluded. Merkel struck a middle course, as is her custom.

  • She also rejected the idea of “decoupling” economically and diplomatically from China, as many in Washington are now proposing, and said China's rise was "based on hard work, creativity and technical skills."

Merkel argues that Europe can't afford to isolate China — particularly in a world where Europe matters less to Washington.

  • Our thought bubble: Merkel's view stands in sharp contrast to those who argue China's global ambitions, combined with its authoritarian model and human rights abuses, pose an existential threat to the West.

One key quote: “I see the European Union as our life insurance. Germany is far too small to exert geopolitical influence on its own, and that’s why we need to make use of all the benefits of the single market,” she said.

  • Merkel said European firms need to be able to manufacture critical technologies like microchips and battery cells.
  • She also said Europe must be willing to “get involved” in conflicts in areas outside of NATO’s borders, including in Africa.
4. Middle East: The man who would be shah

Inside Iran's Green Palace, with a painting of Reza Shah Pahlav. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images

Iran's former crown prince entered the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, to a standing ovation on Wednesday before calling on the U.S. to support the will of the Iranian people — to bring down their government.

Some might question Reza Pahlavi's status as a spokesperson for the Iranian people. He hasn't stepped foot in Iran since his father, the shah, fled the country in 1979.

  • Pahlavi says he doesn't want to regain the Peacock Throne, but he hopes to help Iran become a secular democracy, and a U.S. ally.
  • His message to President Trump: Stop offering Tehran dialogue and treating the regime as legitimate.
  • His message to Ayatollah Khamenei: "The people have had it. ... It's time for him to let go and step down and allow the people of Iran to free themselves."

Pahlavi argues the way to bring down the regime is through a massive labor strike and by peeling away disillusioned regime members.

  • He insists the regime is about to fall, in part because "the fear has begun to dissipate" among its opponents.

In the room: Pahlavi answered audience questions with a disarming smile — though it vanished when he was asked whether he should apologize for his family's role in Iran's 1953 coup.

  • Iranians may never agree about the past, Pahlavi said, but "we need safeguards for the future."

Go deeper:

5. China's sunny spin on trade deal

President Trump meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Osaka, Japan, on June 29, 2019. Photo: Xinhua/Ju Peng via Getty Images

President Trump says the initial trade agreement between the U.S. and China is "righting the wrongs of the past," referring to what he views as China's exploitative economic and trade policies.

The flipside: Beijing is sidestepping that narrative, Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian writes:

  • Domestically, China is presenting the Phase 1 deal not as concessions made to a superior foe, but as the logical next phase of its own economic development.
  • The idea is that stronger intellectual property protections will help China, rather than harm it, as it transitions to an innovation-based economy.

The agreement includes an evaluation and enforcement framework that the U.S. hopes will help safeguard intellectual property from the rampant theft that has long plagued U.S. organizations.

  • It avoids thornier structural issues, such state subsidies for some of China's top companies that the U.S. has long decried as unfair.
  • While China is making nearly all the concessions and there's general relief over the trade war truce, many analysts found the deal underwhelming.

What's next: There's still a long road ahead to a future Phase 2 — or even Phase 3 — deal that addresses deeper structural concerns about the Chinese economy. For now, watch for signs that the new evaluation and enforcement mechanism is doing its job, Bethany writes.

6. Welcome back to Wikipedia

Erdogan takes a break from updating his Wikipedia profile to catch some wrestling. Photo: Yasin Bulbul/Turkish Presidency Press Office/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Wikipedia is returning to Turkey after the country's supreme court ruled that banning it violated freedom of expression.

The big picture: Erdoğan's government has a long history of blocking information it doesn't like. It has jailed dozens of journalists, and in this case, it went so far as to block one of the world's most-visited sites for nearly three years.

How it happened: "Four articles in particular raised its ire: references to the government’s ties with militants, a description of the Turkish republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as a 'benevolent dictator' and the financial dealings of Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law," per Al-Monitor:

  • "Turkey became just the second country, along with China, to fully block the website. Others including France, Germany, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have censored parts of the website over the years."
  • "Turkey leads the world in requests to Twitter to remove content, submitting more than 6,000 in the first half of last year. Facebook acquiesced to demands by authorities and restricted 2,300 items in 2018."

Go deeper, on Wikipedia

7. Stories we're watching

Taal volcano continues to erupt in the Philippines. Photo: Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

  1. Ukraine to investigate possible Yovanovitch surveillance
  2. Federal watchdog finds Ukraine aid holdup unlawful
  3. Senate passes USMCA trade deal
  4. Russia has already won the fight to undermine U.S. elections
  5. Venture capital ditched U.S. and China for U.K. in 2019
  6. Amazon's $1 billion bet on Indian e-commerce
  7. Clouds from Australia's extreme fires can be seen from space


"[T]he published messages contain facts of possible violations of Ukrainian law and of the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations, which protect the rights of diplomats on the territory of another state."
— Ukraine's interior ministry on possible surveillance of U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. The State Department has declined to comment on the matter.
Dave Lawler