Jun 23, 2020

Axios World

Welcome back to Axios World. We're winding our way from Brazil to the Balkans, in 1,512 words (6 minutes). New readers can sign up here.

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1 big thing: Virus and investigations spread in Brazil

Photo: Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency has captured global attention for three ongoing crises: deforestation in the Amazon, deaths from COVID-19, and doubts about the future of Brazilian democracy.

The big picture: Brazil is now the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, registering more new cases each day than any other country and the second-most deaths to date, after the U.S.

The president has downplayed that crisis but been forced to confront another as Brazil's Supreme Court has approved a sprawling investigation into his inner circle.

  • That investigation reportedly involves two of Bolsonaro’s sons and other close associates. It centers on the so-called “office of hate” — allegedly a coordinated operation to smear Bolsonaro’s critics online, spread fake news, and promote protests against the courts and congress.
  • Bolsonaro is also being investigated for obstruction of justice after the outgoing justice minister, Sérgio Moro, accused him of interfering with the police to gain more control over sensitive investigations — like an embezzlement probe involving another son, Flávio.
  • The arrest of a close Bolsonaro ally, Fabrício Queiroz, in connection with that investigation on Thursday was seen as another signal that the walls were closing in on the family. Queiroz has been described as a fixer for the Bolsonaros and used to work for Flávio.
  • Bolsonaro has railed against the investigations and claimed to be the victim of a witch hunt.

Flashback: Bolsonaro embraced comparisons to President Trump during his campaign, and the Trump administration greeted his election as a major opportunity to further its interests in the region.

  • A senior official with the State Department Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs tells Axios it has been a “remarkable 18 months” for the alliance, particularly on economic cooperation, though the pandemic has forced a change in focus.
  • The official said the current “like-mindedness” with Brazil was allowing for deeper cooperation on regional issues like Venezuela.
  • Asked about the controversies surrounding Bolsonaro at home and abroad, the official said Brazil was “an ally of ours in every sense of the word" and stressed that the country had "strong institutions."

Those institutions are under growing strain. Each weekend, Bolsonaro's supporters gather in front of the presidential palace and call for Congress and the Supreme Court to be shut down. Bolsonaro recently greeted them on horseback.

  • Bolsonaro has an unwavering base of around 30% of the electorate, who echo his support for guns, god and the military.

Where things stand: Bolsonaro continues to aim his rhetoric directly at his core supporters even during the pandemic, says Mauricio Moura, a pollster for IDEIA Big Data.

  • "He was one of the very few world leaders who did not manage to gain popularity during the pandemic," Moura says. While Bolsonaro has a formidable political base, Moura says, "he's not adding anyone."
  • Moura says the president's political fortunes will be determined not by how many coronavirus cases and deaths Brazil records, but by the success of its economic recovery.
  • The pollster expects the base to stick with Bolsonaro through the investigations, unless direct links to organized crime groups are uncovered.
2. More turbulence ahead

Bolsonaro on inauguration day. Photo: Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty

Concerns are rising over what Bolsonaro and his supporters will do if the situation truly comes to a head.

  • The Economist and FT have both raised fears about the survival of Brazilian democracy.
  • A Supreme Court justice, Celso de Mello, warned his fellow justices in a leaked message that they must “avoid what happened in the Weimar Republic,” when Adolf Hitler rose to power.
  • Many insist such fears are overblown. Though Bolsonaro is a staunch defender of military rule, retired generals have issued assurances that the military would not go along with any coup attempt.

What to watch: While there is growing speculation that Bolsonaro will be impeached or indicted, Brazilian political scientist Leonardo Barreto isn't expecting either in the short term.

  • "There is still no smoking gun against Mr. Bolsonaro — and he still commands around one-third of the electorate,” he writes for the Brazilian Report. Barreto anticipates "a long process of turbulence" instead.

The bottom line: 18 months into Bolsonaro's presidency, turbulence is one thing Brazilians have grown accustomed to.

3. Trump's mixed messages on Venezuela

Trump and Guaidó at the White House. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Trump tweeted Monday that he would only meet with Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro "to discuss one thing: a peaceful exit from power!"

Why it matters: The president's comments represent a backtrack from his recent interview with Axios' Jonathan Swan, where he set no such precondition for a Maduro meeting and suggested he'd had second thoughts about his decision to recognize Juan Guaidó as the country's legitimate leader.

  • Trump told Swan: "Maduro would like to meet. ... I'm rarely opposed to meetings. I always say, you lose very little with meetings. But at this moment, I've turned them down."
  • A former U.S. official told Swan it was a "recurring concern" inside the administration during 2017 and 2018 that Trump would meet with Maduro. "It was really stop and go there for a while. And the Venezuelan opposition was beside themselves."
  • John Bolton writes in his book that Trump called Guaidó "the Beto O'Rourke of Venezuela."

Between the lines: Trump's comments to Swan drew ire from officials in South Florida, per CBS Miami.

More from Trump's interview with Axios:

  • Trump said he'd held off on imposing sanctions against Chinese officials involved with the Xinjiang mass detention camps because doing so would have interfered with his trade deal with Beijing.
  • Trump denied asking Chinese President Xi Jinping for help with his re-election, but he said when it comes to the trade relationship, "what's good for the country is good for me."

Go deeper

4. World news roundup

An opposition rally in Malawi. Photo: Amos Gumulira/AFP via Getty

1. The White House will hold high-level meetings this week to discuss whether to give the Israeli government a “green light” on annexing parts of the West Bank, Axios contributor Barak Ravid reports.

2. Voters in Malawi will go to the polls tomorrow in a rerun presidential election, after the country’s constitutional court overturned the results of last year’s vote due to widespread irregularities.

3. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is taking no chances.

  • He has locked up a top rival, reporters and protesters ahead of an Aug. 9 election that could be the most contentious of Lukashenko’s 26-year tenure.

4. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has threatened to send in troops if militias backed by Turkey and the Tripoli government capture the strategic port city of Sirte. The government in Tripoli called that a “declaration of war.”

5. For your radar: Serbia-Kosovo talks at White House

Vučić (L) is a Putin ally, but probably not his favorite photo op counterpart. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

The leaders of Serbia and Kosovo will meet at the White House on Saturday, according to a surprise announcement last week from President Trump’s envoy for dialogue between the countries, Richard Grenell.

Why it matters: Serbia and Kosovo have been locked in a territorial dispute since Kosovo declared independence in 2008. More recently, Serbia launched a de-recognition campaign to undermine Kosovo’s international legitimacy, while Kosovo placed 100% tariffs on Serbian goods. Those policies have been halted, and the Trump administration hopes to engineer a deeper diplomatic breakthrough.

The big picture: While Kosovo’s main goal is mutual recognition and UN membership, Serbia will not recognize Kosovo without major concessions, emails Ryan Scherba of Balkan Insider:

  • In an interview with AP, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said he would reject a deal whereby Kosovo enters the UN and “we receive nothing in return, except EU membership.”

What to expect: Grenell has emphasized that this week’s discussion will center around economics, while the EU will focus on political aspects of the dispute.

  • He said land swaps would not be part of the discussion, and attributed "rumors" around that highly controversial idea to freelancing by former national security adviser John Bolton.
  • The discussions could produce smaller deals like those reached in February to restore air and rail links between Belgrade and Pristina, but don’t expect a grand, final deal at the White House.

Driving the news: Serbia held parliamentary elections yesterday that were boycotted by the opposition and saw Vučić’s party win 63% of the vote, giving him complete power over dialogue with Kosovo.

  • Vučić discussed the Kosovo issue with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Belgrade on Thursday, and he'll travel to Moscow days before his White House visit for the annual Victory Day parade. 
6. What I'm reading: When America interferes

Milošević on trial for war crimes in 2001. Photo: Raphael Gaillarde/Gamma-Rapho via Getty

The CIA has a long history of interfering in elections, beginning with Italy’s vote in 1948, writes David Shimer, the author of a forthcoming book on the subject, in Foreign Affairs.

After the Cold War, Russia continued to interfere to “sow chaos and confusion.” But what about the CIA?

Shimer interviewed eight former CIA directors, former president Bill Clinton and many others to find out. He finds that the agency has more recently been tempted to manipulate elections at least twice:

  • In 2000, Clinton signed off on a CIA campaign to prevent Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević from being re-elected. “I didn’t have a problem with it,” Clinton said. “There’s a death threshold, and Milošević crossed it.”
  • In 2005, the Bush administration considered covertly tipping the scales toward its preferred candidate in Iraq’s post-invasion election, but decided it was too risky after invading the country to promote democracy.
  • More recently, “It’s not like these ideas don’t resurface, but at least in [the Obama] administration they would get rejected,” said Tony Blinken, who served in top national security roles under Barack Obama.

The bottom line: If the U.S. were found to be manipulating elections around the world, it would undermine the values America attempts to promote, said Avril Haines, a former deputy CIA director. “The same is not true for Russia.”

Go deeper

7. Stories we're watching

A cat gains a new appreciation for dogs, in Bangkok. Photo: Mladen Antonov. AFP via Getty

  1. Trump expands coronavirus-related immigration restrictions
  2. Pompeo aide will testify on inspector general's firing
  3. Saudi Arabia to host "very limited" Hajj
  4. Farage exempted from U.S. travel ban to attend rally
  5. Mexico to stop sending migrant farmworkers to Canada
  6. China looks to establish security bureau in Hong Kong
  7. U.S. designates 4 more Chinese media outlets as "foreign missions"


"Every day you learn that the United States decided to do something that affects you without … considering the fate that you are going to suffer.”
— EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on the state of EU-U.S. relations

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