Greece: A Decade After The Crisis
Greece's economic crisis brought it to its knees. Now that it's back from the brink, what comes next? Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the man likely to be Greece's next prime minister, weighs in.
Greece's economic crisis brought it to its knees. Now that it's back from the brink, what comes next? Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the man likely to be Greece's next prime minister, weighs in.
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Ian Bremmer shares his insights on global politics this week with a look at the deteriorating human rights situation in Belarus, Delta variant woes, and Lebanon one year after the Beirut blast.
An Olympian refuses to return home to Belarus and an anti-Lukashenko activist has been found dead in Ukraine. What's going on?
Yeah. That anti-Lukashenko activist was found hanged in a park in Kiev. Once again, not exactly likely a suicide. These anti-Lukashenko activists have a way of turning up injured or dead. It's a horrible regime. Their friends are limited largely to the Russians. That's about it. The economic pressure is growing from Europe, from the United States, very coordinated. But the problem is a very hard to do much to Lukashenko when he has not only support of his military, but also the support of most of the workers in the country who aren't prepared to strike because they want to ensure they still have jobs. I expect this is going to continue, but human rights abuses are stacking up. It is nice to see that the Americans and the Europeans are coordinating policy as well as they have been.
How has Delta variant added to the COVAX woes?
Well, we've seen a lot more cases. I mean Florida, for example, right now, highest level of cases since this pandemic has started. Hospitalizations too. But not deaths. Death numbers across the country are still comparatively very low. That's also true in Europe. Why is that? That's because even though vaccines overall are not where they need to be in the United States, the people that are most vulnerable to dying, the seriously elderly, those with pre-existing conditions are also among the most likely, sensibly, to get vaccines. And so it was a consequence. Death numbers are still mercifully comparatively low, and I suspect they're going to stay low. Having said that, we don't know much about long COVID. We do know about 50% of the people that get symptoms have those symptoms persist. The healthcare costs of that, the psychological costs of that, the reality of the quality of life, it's deteriorating for a much longer period of time. That's what we worry about the most. The thing I'm most worried about globally is China, where they're locking down big cities in part because they have no tolerance for the pandemic to grow in China. But also because their vaccines really don't work against Delta variant. That could slow down the second largest economy in the world. Watch that over the next few months.
A year after the Beirut blast, what has changed in Lebanon? One of the biggest non-nuclear blasts in global history.
Answer is very little has changed. The investigation is going nowhere. One of the few things that various factions around the government can agree with is that they don't want to be tried for corruption by independent investigators so they've been slow rolling it. Economic collapse, not much international support. Emmanuel Macron, you'll remember the French president, went down said we're going to help these people. There's been very little international aid and no new conference trying to raise that support for Lebanon. They are close to becoming a failed state and maybe not a surprise given how bad both COVID and the financial crisis has hit a country that was already among the most poorly governed in the region and the world.
It's been 365 days since twin blasts at a Beirut port decimated Lebanon's capital. More than 200 people were killed and some 7,000 were injured, yet accountability has been scarce. There is ample evidence that multiple Lebanese officials knew that ammonium nitrate was being improperly stored at the port. Four high-ranking politicians, including former PM Hassan Diab, have been charged by a Lebanese judge, but they all refuse to cooperate with the ongoing investigation.
Since then, Lebanon's already-dire economic and financial crises have only intensified. The Lebanese pound, the national currency, has plummeted, losing 90 percent of its value since 2019, when the country's economic crisis erupted. And more than 50 percent of the population is now living below the poverty line.
Some locals say Lebanon has become "unlivable" in recent months. So why isn't the country — now approaching failed-state status — getting the help it needs?
Corruption and dysfunction. International donors resent the corruption and cronyism that have long plagued Lebanon's political class and impeded meaningful political reform. And they have little reason to expect change. Despite international outrage in the aftermath of last year's explosion, Lebanese lawmakers have refused to lift immunity from prosecution for several former ministers wanted for questioning, stonewalling the state's investigation.
Even before the blasts, Lebanon's byzantine sectarian power-sharing system had brought the government to a standstill, while years of pocket-lining by politicians had crashed the economy and sent standards of living into free fall.
For those at the top, there has been little incentive to implement reforms: industry "entrepreneurs" have benefited from lack of government regulation and services — often giving generous kickbacks to politicians for preserving the status quo. Lebanon's sketchy electricity industry, which relies on so-called "generator mafias" with ties to the political elite, is a case in point.
Foreign aid distribution is politicized. Last summer, Emmanuel Macron, president of France, Lebanon's former colonial power, jetted into Beirut twice within a few weeks and vowed to help usher in the reforms needed for Lebanon's political and economic "rebirth." But he has also said that unlocking international aid would be contingent on Lebanon instituting some basic reforms, like forming a new government and rooting out corruption. So far, that's been a bust: just weeks ago, the interim PM Said Hariri threw in the towel after failing to find common ground with President Michel Aoun.
"Real reforms require the political class, as well as Hezbollah, to give up too much of the power, money and influence they accumulated over years and they're not ready to do that," Kim Ghattas , author of Black Wave and contributing writer at the Atlantic, told GZERO Media. "The real work and the real opportunity for change is next year, when Lebanon will have legislative, municipal and presidential elections."
Macron has made no secret of the fact that he's fed up with Lebanon's untrustworthy elite. Still, after last summer's aid-pledging conference covered just 5 percent of the damages, he will hold a second fundraising event this week.
International financial heavyweights are frustrated. Bailout talks between Beirut and the International Monetary Fund have also reached an impasse. Before the port explosion, Lebanon's central bank had refused to accept the IMF's assessment that it had incurred losses of $49 billion, and the IMF has grown frustrated at the lack of progress on meaningful political reforms its assistance is tied to. Earlier this year, the World Bank also approved loans to help struggling families, but some analysts say that the loan structure shortchanges needy Lebanese while benefiting the political elite.
"For years, the international community helped feed corruption by pouring aid into Lebanon to support stability but without ever inquiring about where the money went," Ghattas said. Looking ahead, "the US and France and their allies should continue to stress the need for justice and accountability, not only for the port blast but also for the country's economic crash. Without accountability there is no stability, anywhere."
Regional players have their own agenda. To make matters worse for Lebanon, wealthy Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have pulled back on doling out funds in recent years. In 2016, Riyadh scrapped a total $4 billion in aid to Lebanon's military and police, citing Iran's heavy hand in the country's affairs. The Saudis and Emiratis don't want the money going to Iran-backed Hezbollah, a dominant force in Lebanese politics, and they want to see Iran and its proxy take the blame for Lebanon's popular unrest.
So why should outsiders bail out chronically unstable Lebanon? There is, of course, the moral dimension of human suffering. For those who care about their fellow human beings, that's incentive enough.
But there's also the regional implications: instability begets instability, and Lebanon lives in an unstable neighborhood. The spillover effects of a more chaotic Lebanon won't help a region still coping with large numbers of refugees and the continuing fallout from civil wars in Syria and Yemen, and potential instability elsewhere.
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The Biden administration is finally devoting more attention to Southeast Asia. Last week US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines, marking the first regional visit by a Biden cabinet official. A trip by Vice President Kamala Harris is already in the works as well, and this week Secretary of State Tony Blinken will meet (virtually) with ASEAN counterparts.
The flurry of activity comes after earlier concerns that President Joe Biden was neglecting Southeast Asia, the region where US-China rivalry is the most intense. To understand better what Austin's visit meant, and what comes next, Eurasia Group's lead Southeast Asia analyst Peter Mumford spoke to us from Singapore.
Did anything noteworthy come out of the visits?
Well, the fact that the visit occurred at all was noteworthy. For the first six months in office, the Biden administration has spent very little time engaging with Southeast Asia. Now that appears to be changing, although the region will never be the top global priority for the US.
But specifically, while in Singapore, Austin set out the Biden administration's commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific and reassured ASEAN — a group of 10 Southeast Asian nations — that the US sees it playing a central role in regional security and prosperity. Throughout his trip, Austin reaffirmed the US treaty commitment to protect the Philippines if it is attacked, including in the South China Sea. And in a cheeky swipe at Beijing, Austin noted that some US alliances in the region actually predate the existence of the People's Republic of China altogether.
In Hanoi, Austin confirmed the US intention to further strengthen ties with Vietnam. Those ties have deepened in recent years, though he nuanced this with calls for more progress on human rights issues in what is still a one-party communist state. In Manila, Austin secured President Rodrigo Duterte's agreement to renew/retain the Visiting Forces Agreement, a key bilateral security pact that provides the framework for the US military to operate in the Philippines; this was the most tangible outcome of the trip. Duterte had previously sought to terminate the pact, but has flip-flopped since, largely because of increased Chinese assertiveness in disputed waters in the South China Sea.
Overall, Austin very effectively blended US hard and soft power during his visit, which will have gone a significant way toward reassuring allies and partners that despite the somewhat slow start from the Biden administration, Washington is, in fact, committed to the region.
Why is the US suddenly devoting all this attention to region?
During the first six months of the Biden administration there were growing worries in Southeast Asia that Washington was neglecting the region. That's in part because much of the Biden's administration's early attention to Asia was focused chiefly on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue ("Quad") partners — Japan, India, and Australia — as well as South Korea, another key US ally. The pandemic was also a factor (an earlier planned visit by Austin in June was cancelled due to COVID).
The Quad is likely to remain the top US priority in the Indo-Pacific, but Austin's visit was meant to reassure the US's regional partners and allies, and to tighten up key bilateral relations. Blinken is holding a series of video conferences with his counterparts in ASEAN this week and Harris plans to visit Vietnam and Singapore soon, building on this momentum. Biden himself plans to attend ASEAN and related summits in the region in November.
That said, Biden has yet to speak in person/on the phone with a single Southeast Asian leader, and his administration still has not fleshed out its strategy for engagement in the region. It also remains unclear when there will be cabinet-level (or above) visits to other key countries in the region including Indonesia, longstanding US treaty ally Thailand, and Malaysia.
What does the region want from the US?
First and foremost, Southeast Asian countries want to know the region remains strategically important to Washington — even if it's not the top priority — and for senior US officials to show up/engage regularly. ASEAN also wants the US, and other major players such as Japan, to counterbalance China's growing influence in the region. Austin's visit provides some belated reassurance in this regard.
But more specifically, Southeast Asian nations are currently in desperate need of vaccine supplies. Inoculation rates remain low and COVID is ravaging the region, driven by the more contagious delta variant. Although the US has committed millions of doses to the region via the multilateral COVAX facility, these supplies — while welcome — only meet a tiny fraction of the region's needs.
A key question remains what the US economic offer is to Southeast Asia, given Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative and China's central role in deepening trade integration in Asia. Many countries in the region would like to see the US pursue regional trade deals, after four years of protectionism and punitive trade actions under Trump. However, it's unlikely the US will rejoin the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and/or pursue new bilateral free trade agreements for the foreseeable future.
That's because of US domestic political pressure against new bilateral free trade deals — along with the expiration of the Trade Promotion Authority, which made it easier for the president to negotiate trade deals with minimal congressional oversight. That said, the US is pushing for the Quad to do more on infrastructure financing and is reportedly pondering a new digital trade deal for the Indo-Pacific that would likely be much less contentious in Washington.
What does the region most certainly NOT want from the US?
There is perennial fear and grumbling in Southeast Asian countries that when they do receive attention from Washington, it takes the form of punitive trade or currency actions, or pressure on democracy and human rights issues. The Biden administration will likely focus less on the economic policy issues than Trump did, but will be more assertive on the human rights front.
This shift has been most apparent on Vietnam. Longstanding US concerns about Vietnam's currency were recently resolved through bilateral discussions, but Washington is now placing more emphasis on human rights concerns there. This will be a tricky balance for the Biden team to strike going forward: Vietnam is one of the most important countries in the region when it comes to countering China's influence, as it is a key rival maritime claimant in the South China Sea and has long had tricky relations with Beijing. At the same time, dealing with an authoritarian state is problematic for Biden's democracy and human rights values agenda, especially within the Democratic Party.
Is the US-China rivalry a good or bad thing for the region?
It depends. US-China competition is broadly beneficial for Southeast Asia whereas confrontation is not. Southeast Asian countries certainly benefit from a dynamic in which the US, China, and other major players compete to shower them with affection and investment.
To some extent, ASEAN countries want to have their cake and eat it too. They want a robust US security posture in the region that acts as a bulwark against China's influence and the South China Sea turning into a "Chinese lake." But they do not want Washington to provoke Beijing in ways that could cause instability — on either security or trade — or damage their expansive commercial relations with China. After all, China is by far ASEAN's largest trading partner (though not its largest source of foreign direct investment, which more recently has been the EU).
Southeast Asian countries also fear being forced to pick sides between Beijing and Washington, though neither is asking them to do this — a point repeatedly stressed on the US side by Austin this week.
Heightened trade tensions between the US and China have been negative overall for Southeast Asia in recent years, due to the resulting global economic/trade headwinds. That said, some countries, especially Vietnam, but also to lesser extents Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia, are benefiting from US and other companies moving supply chains out of China and into ASEAN countries — a shift driven in no small part by the US-China dynamic.
Raisi won't have it easy: The newly "elected" president of Iran, Ibrahim Raisi, was officially endorsed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Tuesday. In his inaugural address, the 60-year-old hardliner pledged to get US sanctions removed and to respond to rising socioeconomic grievances within Iran, but he warned that he wouldn't lash Iran's prosperity or survival to "the will of foreigners." In Iran, the president's role focuses mainly on domestic policy, but with the economy reeling one of Raisi's big early challenges will be to continue complicated talks with the Biden administration to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal, which would lead to the US lifting some of the harshest sanctions. Both sides say they want a new deal, and have gone through half a dozen rounds of negotiations already, but they remain at odds over who should make what concessions first. Raisi also pledged to restore Iranians' flagging trust in their government and to improve the economic situation, but in ways that are in line with "revolutionary principles." He'll have his hands full with that. And don't forget that the likely imminent (re)takeover of neighboring Afghanistan by the Taliban — whom Tehran don't like at all — will also occur on Raisi's watch. Good luck, Mr. President, you'll need it.
Taliban capture a city: After taking over most of rural Afghanistan, the Taliban are now closing in on Afghan cities. This week, an Afghan general told residents to evacuate Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Helmand province, after the Taliban seized most of the urban area. This is a big blow for the government because Helmand witnessed back in 2009 one of the US/NATO military's most successful campaigns against the Taliban, although NATO forces failed to stop the Taliban from using the province's poppy fields to fuel their lucrative opium trade. Meanwhile, the Biden administration now says it'll expand US visa eligibility for Afghans fleeing the Taliban takeover. But, but, but… they'll need to apply outside the country, and Washington doesn't intend to help them get out. Afghanistan's neighbors could step in, but the last thing they want is a refugee crisis on their borders.
Belarus targets dissidents: Two days after a Belarusian sprinter sought refuge in Poland because she feared for her life after criticizing her country's government at the Tokyo Olympics, a prominent Belarusian dissident in exile has turned up dead in Ukraine. People close to Vitaly Shishov, head of a Kyiv-based NGO that helps Belarusians escape persecution, believe his death by hanging was carried out by hitmen sent by strongman President Alexander Lukashenko. Shishov is one of many young Belarusians who left the country a year ago following the regime's crackdown on mass street protests after Lukashenko's victory in the August 2020 presidential election, which outside observers say was rigged. If it's true that Lukashenko had Shishov killed, the Belarusian leader is clearly upping the ante on targeting his opponents abroad, just months after grounding an EU-bound flight to arrest an anti-government journalist. And there's not much Brussels can — or will — do about it.
China's pig hotels: If you're a Chinese pig, you're in luck. The state plans to house about 10,000 of you in a luxury condo with 24-hour security, veterinarians on call, gourmet meals, and health monitoring. This doesn't mean they don't want to eat you anymore (they do!), but rather, that they aim to keep you safe from all sorts of viruses — especially the devastating African swine flu, which wiped out half of all Chinese hogs in 2018. So say goodbye to eating scraps on a family farm, you now live in the lap of luxury. The catch is that you'll still be expected to get plump and juicy for char siu.
158: To boost vaccination rates, New York City will soon require proof of COVID vaccination or a negative test to enter gyms and restaurants, as daily new infections in the Big Apple have jumped 158 percent over the past two weeks due to the more contagious delta variant. New York is the first major US city to take this step, following similar schemes already in place in France and Italy.
8: The EU has slapped sanctions on eight senior Nicaraguan officials in response to strongman President Daniel Ortega's crackdown on potential opposition candidates ahead of this fall's presidential election. The sanctions list includes Rosario Murillo, Ortega's wife and vice president.
60 billion: The stock price of Chinese tech giant Tencent plunged more than 10 percent on Tuesday, wiping out roughly $60 billion in the company's market value, just hours after a state media newspaper called videogames "spiritual opium." The story was later taken down, but investors are concerned that online gaming may soon become the next target in Beijing's wider crackdown on Big Tech.
21: Authorities in the African island nation of Madagascar have arrested 21 people — including twelve senior military and police officials — suspected of having tried to assassinate President Andry Rajoelina in a failed coup a few days ago. Rajoelina first seized power in 2009 with military backing, and was then democratically elected in 2018.
Talk about atomic (spicy Korean) wings.
Japan says all food being served at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is absolutely safe to eat, even if some ingredients may come from a region with, let's say, a troubled nuclear past.
But since arriving in Tokyo, South Korean athletes have been screening all their meals for traces of radiation from Fukushima, which in 2011 was the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986. The athletes' caution comes as Seoul, along with Beijing, are officially furious at Japan for dumping treated radioactive wastewater from Fukushima into the Pacific Ocean.
The Japanese insist the water has been treated, but just in case the South Koreans have banned the import of all foodstuffs from Fukushima.And to play it safe, the South Korean Olympic delegation has rented an entire hotel outside of the Olympic Village to cook its meals separately, drawing snarky remarks on Japanese social media.