Aug 17, 2020

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Welcome back to Axios World. Tonight’s journey (1,509 words, 6 minutes) takes off from Minsk and terminates in China, with stops in Pakistan and Thailand.

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  • Heads up: “Axios on HBO” is back tonight @11:15 p.m. ET/PT. This week’s headline interview is with Chad Wolf, the acting Homeland Security secretary, on the Portland protests and more.
1 big thing: A shaken strongman

Photo: Sergei Gapon/AFP via Getty Images

The man who has ruled Belarus for 26 years growled today that protesters demanding new elections would have to kill him first, while his would-be successor announced she was prepared to step in.

Why it matters: Aleksandr Lukashenko has never before appeared so weak — but he still has a fearsome security apparatus behind him, and a global power watching from the east.

Driving the news: Streets across the country were flooded with protesters over the weekend, while workers at Belarus’ state-owned enterprises and state TV network — two pillars of Lukashenko’s support — have now joined strikes.

  • “Come, sit down, we’ll work on the constitution,” Lukashenko told factory workers today. “Yes, I'm no saint. You know I can be tough, but you know that if there was no toughness, there wouldn’t be a country.”
  • When they drowned him out, shouting for new elections, he turned icy: “We held elections. Until you kill me, there will be no other elections.”
  • Meanwhile opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fled to Lithuania after the vote, released a YouTube video saying she now was prepared to take charge, release all detained protesters, and hold “real, honest, and transparent elections.”

What to watch: Lukashenko has utterly failed to reassert control in the eight days since he claimed a preposterous 80% of the presidential vote. What happens next may thus depend on another strongman: Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

  • Lukashenko has appealed for Putin’s help, though their relationship had recently grown frosty as he resisted Putin’s push for a Russia-Belarus political union and arrested Russian mercenaries in a bizarre pre-election incident.

Between the lines: “The Kremlin is not wedded to Lukashenko: it has had enough of him,” writes Carnegie Moscow’s Dmitri Trenin.

  • “It cannot, however, allow Belarus to follow the path of Ukraine and become another anti-Russian, NATO-leaning bulwark on its borders.”
  • With Lukashenko’s legitimacy now “gone forever,” Trenin contends, Russia’s best option is to convince him to step aside and “manage a transfer of power” that secures its interests.

What to watch: “At present, this is a wholly anti-Lukashenko movement, with no anti-Russian dimension, nor even an explicitly pro-Western one,” notes Russia analyst Mark Galeotti.

  • Direct Russian action, particularly on behalf of Lukashenko, could change that.
  • What Putin needs most are loyalty and stability from a country that sits on Russia's border and in its sphere of influence. His priority may thus be to secure his influence in a post-Lukashenko Belarus.

What to watch: “My pessimistic point of view is that Russia will get involved," Lena Smirnova, a Belarusian who relocated to Baltimore in 2012, told Axios. "That Lukashenko will go, but it won’t be beneficial for Belarus. This is the worst-case scenario.”

2. Watching from Washington

Protesting outside the embassy. Photo: Camila Sgrignoli Januario

Smirnova was part of a small but enthusiastic group of protesters gathered outside the Belarusian Embassy in Washington on Sunday.

What they're saying: She expressed confidence that Lukashenko's days were numbered but concern about what would come next.

  • “We hope that he will go but we will maintain independence," she said. "That someone else will come and we will have democratic elections without Lukashenko, and we will move forward with the Western world."
  • Smirnova said her fellow Belarusians should be aware that “when he goes, it will be hard. It will be worse probably, in the short term, because the economy will struggle for a while until it rebuilds again."

Alesya Semukha-Greenberg, a fellow Minsk native who has lived in the U.S. since 1995, said the peace and economic stability of the Lukashenko years had once satisfied Belarusians, "but a time of peace in prison has its limits.”

  • “I have a lot of friends and relatives in Minsk, and I’ve been asking them, ‘why now?’" she said.
  • First, she was told, came Lukashenko's indifference and ineffectiveness in the face of the pandemic. Then came the "disrespectful and unbearable" election charade. "People felt their dignity was totally ignored," she said.
  • “The brutality of the police just brought more people on the street," Semukha-Greenberg continued. "It was just like a gang on the streets of Minsk.”
  • She hopes the European Union will pressure Lukashenko to "end the bloodshed" and step aside, allowing Belarus to "go through the struggle of building the democracy."

The bottom line: "It’s not going to be easy, but it's the only way," she said. "26 years of this prison is long enough.”

3. Coronavirus: U.S. trails far behind other rich countries
Data: WHO; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

The virus blazed through the rich world in the spring, then advanced into developing countries.

Where things stand: Of the 10 countries currently recording the highest daily caseloads, just one falls in the "high-income" category: the United States.

  • 75% of all new cases and 69% of all deaths recorded in high-income economies since July came in the U.S., which accounts for 27% of that group's population.

How it happened: Other rich countries saw terrifying pandemic peaks, but most have managed to climb down.

  • Italy, for example, had recorded 34,767 deaths as of July 1 but has seen just 458 since.

The other side: A few high-income countries in Latin America and the Middle East — Chile, Panama, Israel, Oman — have actually seen sharper increases in cases and deaths than the U.S. this summer.

  • Others that managed to avoid large initial outbreaks, like Australia or Hong Kong, have seen their caseloads multiply far more quickly than America's — but from low starting points.
  • Some countries that recovered from brutal first waves, like Spain, are now responding to worrying hotspots.
  • Even New Zealand, which recorded no community spread for 100 days, has now delayed its election to deal with a new cluster.

The bottom line: The U.S. remains an exception in that it was hit so hard so early and has never truly recovered.

Go deeper

4. Saudi Arabia hits Pakistan where it hurts

"Remember that loan, Imran?" Pakistan's PM with Saudi Arabia's crown prince. Photo: Saudi handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Pakistan's army chief arrived in Riyadh today in an apparent attempt to defuse tensions that have seen Saudi Arabia demand early repayment of $1 billion in loans.

The backstory: The feud stems from Pakistani frustrations over Saudi Arabia's unwillingness to take a stronger stand on India's human rights abuses in Kashmir.

  • When Saudi Arabia — which has growing economic ties with India — refused to convene the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to discuss the matter, Pakistan's foreign minister threatened to circumvent Riyadh and call a meeting without them.

Then came the twist. The Saudis presented the bill for a massive bailout provided during Pakistan's 2018 fiscal crisis — $6.2 billion in loans and deferred oil payments.

  • Pakistan then turned to its other deep-pocketed ally. China immediately offered a $1 billion loan of its own.
  • Still, Pakistan can hardly afford a feud with the country that provides half its oil supply and can hold billions in loans over its head.

The big picture: Just as Saudi ties with India worry Pakistan, Islamabad's outreach to Malaysia, Turkey and in particular Iran have, at various times, upset Riyadh.

  • Still, their partnership has survived through decades of shifting circumstances.

The bottom line: As the Saudis have now made clear, they're the ones holding the checkbook.

5. Asia: Thai protesters breach taboo

Something's brewing in Bangkok. Photo: Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty

Upwards of 20,000 people took part Sunday in Thailand's biggest protests in years, demanding the dissolution of parliament and a new constitution.

Why it matters: The protesters are targeting not only Thailand's prime minister, who took power in a 2014 coup, but the monarchy, which has historically been shielded from criticism.

“What makes these protests groundbreaking is the public articulation of the ways in which the king is unaccountable — fiscally, legally, politically and morally," says Tamara Loos, a professor at Cornell University.

  • "King Vajiralongkorn resides in Germany for most of the year and has been criticized for his indifference to the impact of the pandemic and worsening economic crisis back home."
  • “The public nature of their demands is double-edged: protesters risk arrest or even death when they critique authorities publicly. At the same time, the very public and viral (social media) nature of these protests means that the world is watching the Thai state’s response."
6. What I'm reading: How China beat the virus

A crowded rail station in Shanghai, reminding me of something called "trains" that now seem like a distant memory. Photo: Costfoto/Barcroft Media via Getty

Peter Hessler was teaching at Sichuan University when the pandemic began, and he draws upon his experiences and those of his students in a fascinating examination of China's remarkable recovery, in the New Yorker.

Zoom in: China's pandemic response was the polar opposite of America's.

In terms of public health, virtually nothing was "left to individual choice."

  • Lockdowns were brutally strict — Hessler describes "households... sending one individual outside every two or three days to buy necessities" — and enforced by neighborhood committees.

Economically, the millions who lost jobs or had their salaries cut were left "largely on their own."

  • Many people Hessler spoke to thankfully had savings to draw from and "low expectations with regard to stability."

The big picture: A pandemic that began in China was brought under control there remarkably quickly, and China has largely managed to restart its economy without triggering big new outbreaks.

  • "In my students’ last essays, many expressed a renewed faith in their government," Hessler writes.
  • "Despite the political indoctrination involved in Chinese schooling, the system teaches people to respect science."

What to watch: While the U.S. has for months been living in a COVID grey zone of half measures and social distancing, Hessler describes a sudden transition in China from lockdown to normal (though masked) behavior — without a clear alternative to lockdown if outbreaks return.

Read the piece

7. Stories we're watching

Picking onions under the volcano, in Indonesia. Photo: Ivan Damanik/AFP via Getty

  1. U.S. rejected on Iran at Security Council
  2. Lawmakers demand answers from World Bank on Xinjiang loan
  3. UAE-Israel deal: Exclusive interview; latest developments
  4. Trump tightens Huawei restrictions
  5. The great tech decoupling is here
  6. Greenland ice sheet melts beyond repair
  7. U.S. troops to move from Germany to Poland

Quoted:

"The agreement’s backers argue that Washington, having withdrawn from the deal, has no standing to invoke its provisions. They’re right. It’s too cute by half to say we’re in the nuclear deal for purposes we want but not for those we don’t."
John Bolton on the Trump administration's threat to invoke "snapback" sanctions on Iran after a bitter defeat at the UN Security Council
Dave Lawler