Aug 10, 2020

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome back to Axios World. Tonight's journey begins in Minsk and ends in New Zealand (1,557 words, 6 minutes).

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1 big thing: Postelection clashes in Belarus turn deadly

An arrest today in Minsk. Photo: Natalia Fedosenko/TASS via Getty

Protesters and security forces are clashing across Belarus tonight, with at least one person dead, hundreds injured and thousands arrested.

Why it matters: Sunday’s rigged presidential elections have yielded political uncertainty unlike any seen in Aleksander Lukashenko’s 26-year tenure. After claiming an implausible 80% of the vote, Lukashenko is using every tool in the authoritarian arsenal to maintain his grip on power.

Driving the news: The results have been challenged by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former teacher who stood in for her jailed husband as a candidate and managed to unite the opposition behind her. She’s now believed to be in hiding for her own safety.

  • Authorities arrested 3,000 people last night and have partially shut down the internet, but demonstrations are nonetheless raging in several cities. Videos of protesters being beaten, some to unconsciousness, have inflamed public anger.
  • Opposition activists are reportedly also planning strikes. Lukashenko has dismissed their efforts as futile attempts “to spoil the holiday.”
  • “I warned that there wouldn’t be a Maidan, however much some people want that,” he said, referring to the 2014 revolution in neighboring Ukraine.

Breaking it down: Lukashenko’s know-nothing approach to the pandemic — he kept the country open and prescribed vodka and exercise — seemed to catalyze discontent with his Soviet-style leadership.

  • “In the previous elections, there was always a feeling that the majority either supports President Lukashenko or is at least indifferent enough to accept him,” said Alyaksey Znatkevich, a journalist for Radio Free Europe in Belarus.
  • “There was always this argument: ‘OK, the results may be falsified, but there are obviously more people who support Lukashenko than support the alternative candidates. This perception has changed now — not only in the capital, Minsk, but in the regional cities, the smaller towns.”
  • For the first time, analysts say, the government realized the majority might very well be against them. Then came the arrests, and later the vote-rigging.

The big picture: Tonight's events in Minsk will be watched closely in Moscow and Washington. While Lukashenko has long played Russia and the West off each other, he now risks alienating both.

  • In December, he rebuffed the Kremlin's push toward a Russia-Belarus political union. When Russia subsequently halted oil exports to Belarus, the U.S. sensed an opportunity.
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Belarus in February, smiling alongside Lukashenko and vowing to export all the oil Belarus needed to ensure its “independence."
  • In April, the U.S. nominated its first ambassador to Belarus in a decade. Both the U.S. and EU discussed further loosening sanctions imposed after a previous post-election crackdown.
  • In Belarus, public support for the Russia-Belarus union fell from 60% to 40% over the last year, per the NYT, while support for joining the EU (currently a remote prospect) rose to a new high of 32%.
  • Then, in a bizarre preelection incident, Belarus arrested 33 Russian mercenaries, whom Lukashenko accused of plotting an attack.

What to watch: The pendulum may now swing back. Putin was quick to congratulate Lukashenko on his “victory,” and emphasize “the further development of mutually beneficial Russian-Belarusian relations in all areas.”

  • Pompeo, meanwhile, condemned elections he described as “not free and fair,” along with the “ongoing violence against protesters and the detention of opposition supporters.”

Go deeper: Full protest coverage

2. Putting Lukashenko's tenure in perspective

It may seem that Lukashenko has “nowhere to turn,” after alienating Belarusians, angering Russia and repelling the West, notes Carnegie Moscow’s Maxim Samorukov.

  • In fact, Samorukov writes, Lukashenko remains the best bet for the uncertainty-fearing elites in Minsk and Moscow, while policymakers in the West still see him as “the best available guarantor of Belarus’s sovereignty.”
  • “Outdated regimes can prove extremely resilient if favored by broader geopolitics,” he writes. “The same may prove true for Lukashenko, who, from his position atop a geopolitical fault line, will weather every storm as long as Russia and the West mistrust him less than they do each other."

The big picture: Lukashenko has weathered more storms than most. Just nine leaders who were in power when he was elected in 1994 — during Bill Clinton's first term — are still in office.

Data: Axios research; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
  • Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev, Sudan's Omar al-Bashir and Algeria's Abdelaziz Bouteflika all dropped off the "longest-serving" list last year.
  • Meanwhile, Putin, Rwanda's Paul Kagame and Syria's Bashar al-Assad have recently marked two decades in power.
  • What to watch: Uganda's Yoweri Museveni faces an election early next year that will be competitive, assuming he allows it to be.

The longest-serving leaders all represent countries considered “not free” by Freedom House. They're also all men.

  • Germany's Angela Merkel is the longest-serving leader of a “free” country and the longest-serving woman, after 14 years in power.

Worth noting:

  • We're only counting a leader's current tenure in their country's highest office (with a slight exception for Putin), and we left off monarchs like Queen Elizabeth II who aren't top political decision-makers.
  • We also left off countries with populations under 1 million.
3. Middle East: Lebanon's government resigns

Protests in Beirut. Photo: Maxim Grigoryev/TASS via Getty

Lebanon's prime minister and cabinet resigned today amid massive protests in the aftermath of last week's deadly explosion.

Why it matters: Protesters blame the incompetence of the ruling elite — widely viewed as corrupt — for the disaster. The unstable and deeply distrusted government will remain in place in a caretaker capacity until a new prime minister is selected.

Driving the news: Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who took office in December, addressed the nation to offer his resignation.

Between the lines: "[T]he resignation of Lebanon's government does not mean early elections. It means the appointment of a new prime minister by the existing parliament, and all the political issues that come with it," the Economist's Gregg Carlstrom points out.

  • Lebanese politics is a corrupt and generally ineffective balancing act between the interests of powerful factions, including Hezbollah.
  • The militant group dominates Lebanon's parliament, and its ally Iran has warned that it must not be sidelined as Western governments tie recovery aid to political reforms.
  • An international aid conference on Sunday raised $300 million in pledges from countries and international organizations, but leaders warned the money would not be disbursed without reforms of Lebanon's politics and economy, per the AP.

Go deeper: What's next for Lebanon after the Beirut explosion

4. Global news roundup

A blockade in El Alto, Bolivia. Photo: Luis Gandarilla/AFP via Getty

1. Armed civilians today attacked a roadblock in Bolivia, shooting and wounding three people, per Bloomberg.

  • The roadblocks have been set up by supporters of former President Evo Morales to protest repeated delays to the country's elections.
  • Political polarization has repeatedly turned to violence ahead of the long-awaited elections, currently set for October.

2. Sri Lanka’s ruling party — dominated by brothers Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa — won a landslide victory in last week’s parliamentary elections.

  • They appear to have enough support, with smaller allied parties, to reform the constitution and strengthen the presidency, which Gotabaya holds.
  • Analysts fear they will further weaken democratic institutions.

3. Afghan leaders have agreed to release 400 remaining Taliban prisoners, a controversial step which should allow intra-Afghan peace talks to begin within days.

4. Guyana’s prolonged postelection stalemate is over, and opposition candidate Mohamed Irfaan Ali was sworn in as president last week.

  • The standoff was especially high stakes because while Guyana is currently one of the poorest countries in the Americas, it could soon be one of the richest due to recent oil discoveries.

5. President Trump said today that the next G-7 summit — previously delayed until September due to the pandemic, and moved from his golf course in Miami to Camp David — should be delayed until after the presidential election.

5. China: Breaking down, faster than ever

Sunset for Hong Kong? Photo: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

The most high-profile arrest to date under Hong Kong’s new security law came today, as media tycoon Jimmy Lai was detained, along with six others.

Why it matters: Lai's newspaper, Apple Daily, is known for the sort of criticism of Beijing that will clearly no longer be tolerated in the new Hong Kong.

The big picture: Confrontation with the U.S. is also accelerating much faster than anticipated. Even at the height of Trump's trade war, his administration never hit China as hard, as fast, and on as many fronts as it is right now.

  • Health Secretary Alex Azar became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Taiwan in four decades yesterday, in a pointed signal of support for the self-governing island that has infuriated Beijing.
  • On Friday, the Treasury Department sanctioned Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's Beijing-backed leader for "implementing Beijing's policies of suppression of freedom and democratic processes." Beijing responded by sanctioning U.S. politicians.
  • Meanwhile, Trump escalated his campaign to claw apart the Chinese and American tech worlds with executive orders that threaten to ban both TikTok and massive global messaging app WeChat.
  • The U.S. has closed China’s consulate in Houston, stepped up its efforts to keep Chinese telecom giant Huawei out of allies' 5G networks, and even warned blue-chip American companies that they could face legal penalties for doing Beijing's bidding.

Go deeper

6. The place to be in the pandemic

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the launch of Labour's election campaign on Saturday. Photo: Michael Bradley/AFP via Getty

New Zealand has now gone 100 days with no detected community spread of COVID-19, Axios' Rebecca Falconer reports from Auckland.

Why It Matters: New Zealanders are going to the polls on Sept. 19, and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is flying high after an early lockdown and other restrictions helped make New Zealand a global outlier.

"When people ask, is this a Covid election, my answer is yes, it is."
— Ardern at an election rally

By the numbers: New Zealand has 23 active coronavirus cases. All are residents newly returned from abroad, who are staying in managed isolation facilities.

  • The border remains closed to nonresidents, and all newly returned Kiwis must undergo a two-week isolation program managed by the country's Defense Force, Rebecca reports.
7. Stories we're watching

The scene tonight in Minsk. Photo: Natalia Fedosenko/TASS via Getty

  1. Africa records over 1 million coronavirus cases
  2. Europe's CDC recommends new virus restrictions
  3. Venezuelan court sentences 2 former Green Berets
  4. What Russia and China want in November
  5. U.S. sanctions Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam
  6. China sanctions Rubio, Cruz, other U.S. officials
  7. Azar conveys Trump's "strong" support for Taiwan
"I discovered that corruption is larger than the state, and that the state cannot overpower it."
— Hassan Diab, Lebanon's outgoing prime minister
Dave Lawler