Apr 27, 2020

Axios World

Welcome back World readers. Tonight, we're taking you from Brazil to Kosovo in 1,555 words (6 minutes).

  • Big news: "Axios on HBO" is back tonight in a new time slot: 11pm ET/PT on all HBO platforms.
  • Tonight's episode includes an interview with Andrew Cuomo (clip), a glimpse into the future of food with chef Dan Barber, and a look at wet markets and how to prevent the next pandemic.

Situational awareness: President Trump claimed tonight that he has a "very good idea" of what Kim Jong-un's current condition is amid reports the North Korean dictator is seriously ill or even dead:

  • "I hope he's fine. I do know how he's doing relatively speaking. You'll probably be hearing in the not-too-distant future."

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1 big thing: A crisis Bolsonaro can't ignore

No longer joined at the hip. Moro (L) and Bolsonaro (R) in puppet form during Carnival in Recife. Photo: Leo Malafaia/AFP via Getty Images

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro may dismiss the coronavirus crisis, but he's taking the crisis within his administration head-on.

Driving the news: Bolsonaro’s most valuable ally resigned on national television on Friday, accusing the president of firing the head of Brazil’s federal police in order to hamper ongoing investigations.

  • Sérgio Moro said that he could no longer serve as justice minister to a president who insists on meddling in criminal investigations.

The big picture: Moro is a hero to Brazilian conservatives for an anti-corruption crusade that saw former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva jailed and brought down politicians in several other countries.

  • His allegations came amid reports that two of Bolsonaro’s sons are being investigated — Carlos Bolsonaro over an alleged “criminal fake news racket” and Flávio Bolsonaro for suspected mafia links and corruption.
  • Zoom in: While the fired police chief was removed for investigating Carlos Bolsonaro, according to Folha de S. Paolo, his replacement was photographed celebrating New Year's Eve with him.

Why it matters: Moro’s allegations could eventually provide a legal basis for the impeachment push that was already gaining steam due to COVID-19, as Bolsonaro attempted to block states from imposing lockdowns.

  • The high-profile defection also comes with Bolsonaro’s popularity dwindling down to his socially conservative base — some 30–35% of the population.

Where things stand: A poll published in early April found that 59% of Brazilians believed Bolsonaro should remain in office, while 37% thought he should resign.

  • While those numbers might be shifting, Brian Winter of Americas Quarterly estimates that 20–25% of Brazilians who don’t necessarily support Bolsonaro think, "Damn, can’t you guys in Brasilia just work this out? We just had an impeachment in 2016. We still haven’t recovered from the worst economic crisis in our history. Now we’ve got a pandemic."
  • "As long as a majority, or near-majority, of Brazilians feel that way, it’s hard to imagine Congress — which has image problems of its own — acting to remove the president, no matter how much its members despise him,” Winter contends.

Flashback: Bolsonaro swept to victory in 2018 on promises to take on the establishment, fight crime and corruption, and reform the economy.

  • Bolsonaro embraced the role of culture warrior-in-chief while delegating the second plank to Moro and the third to economy “super minister” Paulo Guedes.
  • The latest: Bolsonaro appeared alongside Guedes today to reassure jittery financial markets and rebut rumors that his other star minister was also about to bolt.

What to watch: Bolsonaro is attempting to shore up his administration and cement alliances in Congress, where majorities in both houses would be needed to remove him.

  • Bolsonaro thrives on polarization and benefits from a divided opposition. If he does complete his term, he could well win a new one in 2022.
2. Breaking it down: Global military spending
Reproduced from Stockholm International Peace Research Institute; Note: China and Saudi Arabia's spending is estimated; Chart: Axios Visuals

Global military spending climbed in 2019 for the fifth consecutive year to a new high of $1.9 trillion, or 2.2% of global GDP, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Breaking it down: The U.S. spent nearly 3x as much as China and 10x as much as any other country on Earth.

  • While U.S. spending rose 5% last year, it's still down 15% from 2010, when it accounted for 4.9% of GDP (vs. 3.4% now).
  • Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia (8%) and Oman (8.8%) spent the most on their militaries as a proportion of GDP, while Mexico (0.5%), Indonesia (0.7%), Switzerland (0.7%) and Japan (0.9%) are on the low end.
  • Germany increased military spending by 10% last year, a sign that U.S. pressure on NATO countries to spend more is showing some results.
  • India increased spending by 7% last year, and it moved from fifth to third on the list of biggest spenders.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa, home to 1 billion people, spent a total of $18 billion in 2019, less than Israel (pop. 9 million) and one-fortieth of the U.S. total.

What to watch: Military budgets contracted sharply following the 2008 financial crisis, and a similar trend is likely due to the economic fallout from the coronavirus.

Note: The numbers for China and Saudi Arabia are estimates.

3. Ramadan in the time of coronavirus

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The world's 1.8 billion Muslims are experiencing a very different Ramadan this year, Axios' Rashaan Ayesh reports.

  • Saudi Arabia has closed the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina and ordered residents to pray at home until the pandemic is over, including during Ramadan.
  • Jordan and Egypt also banned public gatherings and prayers, while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged citizens not to gather or visit holy sites.
  • Indonesian President Joko Widodo banned the annual exodus out of cities to home villages at the end of Ramadan.
  • The Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs is urging people to stay home and participate in online lectures on religion.
  • In Pakistan, religious leaders prevented mosque closures but agreed to new rules stating that worshippers must remain 6 feet apart and older people must be kept out.


  • "Every year in Cairo as the call to prayer rings out at sunset during the month of Ramadan, poor Egyptians gather at long tables lining the city streets to break fast with meals donated by wealthier Muslims. This year the streets will be empty," the FT reports.
  • "Since Ottoman times, during the holy month drummers would wake people up for the pre-dawn sahoor meal by reciting short poems and beating their drums. But this year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, Turkey’s Interior Ministry has banned Ramadan drummers," per Arab News.

In photos: Ramadan during the coronavirus pandemic

4. Leaders consolidate control as virus spreads

He's No. 1. Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen. Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

The world has rarely been more ripe for power grabs, and Hungary's Viktor Orbán is not the only leader taking advantage.

The big picture: Emergency laws in Serbia and Cambodia also provide leaders near-total power, while governments elsewhere are using the virus as cover to crack down on the media, opposition or minorities, the Economist reports:

  • China chose now to arrest Hong Kong’s leading pro-democracy activists and puncture its Basic Law.”
  • Algeria banned street marches that have lasted, off and on, for a year, threatening the elderly ruling elite.”
  • Azerbaijan’s president says the ‘isolation’ of members of the opposition may ‘become a historical necessity.’ Several have been locked up for supposedly violating a lockdown.”
  • “In Uganda police raided a shelter housing 20 gay and transgender people and later charged them with ‘congesting in a school-like-dormitory setting within a small house.’”
  • “In Turkey at least eight journalists have been arrested on charges of ‘spreading misinformation.’”
  • “In Bolivia the interim president, Jeanine Áñez, decreed that those who ‘misinform or cause uncertainty to the population’ can be jailed for one to ten years.”
  • “In Fiji there have been more coronavirus-related arrests than diagnostic tests.”

Read the piece

5. What happened in Wuhan

A scene from the now-open Wuhan Zoo. Photo: Getty Images

The Chinese government lifted the cordon sanitaire around Wuhan last week after 76 days, but it's still attempting to control the information that gets out of the city where the pandemic began.

Zoom in: At least three high-profile critics of China’s initial response have gone missing, the FT’s Don Weinland notes in a dispatch from Wuhan that contrasts the official timeline with accounts from people who lived through it.

  • “Some of us will disappear. This is nothing new,” one activist told him. “But we will keep trying to show you what is real.”
  • The official timeline issued to reporters includes no reference of Li Wenliang, the doctor who was reprimanded for trying to get the word out and later died of the coronavirus.

Chinese writer Fang Fang documented the evolving situation from Jan. 25 onward in her “Wuhan Diary,” which gained a wide readership in China even as some entries were quickly taken down by censors.

  • News that her work would be translated for publication in English and German was met with fierce nationalist backlash online. Social media users raged that she was providing ammunition to China’s critics abroad.
  • A state newspaper claimed the diary was “biased and only exposes the dark side in Wuhan while ignoring the efforts that local people made and the support extended across the nation,” per the Guardian.

The official death toll in Wuhan was raised by 50% earlier this month, but the true number may never be known.

Go deeper: The Chinese lab at the center of the coronavirus controversy

6. Meanwhile, in Kosovo...

Grenell (L) with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. Photo: Milos Miskov/Anadolu Agency via Getty

Kosovo’s acting prime minister has accused the Trump administration — specifically acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell — of causing the collapse of his government.

Why it matters: Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s government fell apart in late March after just two months. He claims it was a casualty of U.S. efforts to garner a foreign policy victory by forging a pact between Kosovo and Serbia.

The big picture: Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a decade after the Kosovo War.

  • Serbia has been waging a campaign to convince countries to derecognize Kosovo's independence. Kosovo has retaliated with a 100% tariff on Serbian goods.
  • Grenell wears many hats (he’s still ambassador to Germany), but one of them is Trump’s envoy for negotiations between the sides.

What they’re saying: Kurti, now acting prime minister, told Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon that Grenell had pressured him to drop the tariffs and, when unsuccessful, urged his coalition partners to abandon him.

  • Kurti claims Grenell viewed him as a barrier to a “secret agreement” being negotiated between the presidents of Kosovo and Serbia, which he fears will include land swaps.
  • “I think Ambassador Grenell is using the situation ... as a success in the international arena for himself and perhaps this administration. So he saw this potential for a quick deal, for a quick fix between the two presidents, and he doesn’t care very much about the contents.”
7. Stories we're watching

Istanbul's Blue Mosque sits empty as Ramadan begins. Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

  1. Saudi Arabia ends death penalty for children
  2. Hong Kong's largest protest since early March
  3. Netanyahu claims Trump will approve annexations
  4. EU accused of softening China coronavirus report
  5. Inside Trump's obsession with Iranian gunboats
  6. Delaying the insect apocalypse
  7. In photos: Spain's children finally allowed outside


"We have won that battle."
— Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on community spread of coronavirus in New Zealand. She warned that the fight wasn't over, adding: "We are opening up the economy, but we're not opening up people's social lives."