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What We’re Watching: Tunisian protests, Navalny vs Putin, Italian government survives

Tunisians demand change: Marking ten years since Tunisians sparked the Arab Spring by taking to the streets to demand the ouster of longtime autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, a fresh generation is now protesting the country's dire economic and social crisis. Security forces responded with a heavy hand, using tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters who hurled gas bombs, and over 600 demonstrators were arrested. As Tunisia descends further into economic ruin, with youth unemployment hovering at 30 percent, protesters demand a new election (they have not been placated by Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi's recent attempt at a government reshuffle.) Demonstrators say that the political class has failed to follow through on pledges of reform made during the 2011 revolution: since then, living standards for most Tunisians have plummeted while poverty has soared. While Tunisia is the only state involved in the Arab Spring that became a democracy, the political elite has largely failed to root out corruption and inequality. Last year, the government responded to similar protests by creating more public sector jobs, but options are limited now due to pandemic-fueled economic stagnation.

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What We’re Watching: Navalny’s return to Russia, Italian PM in the hot seat, COVID probe begins

Kremlin critic heads home: Leading Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny plans to return to Russia on Sunday from Germany, where he has been recovering from an August 2020 assassination attempt in Russia widely attributed to agents of the Kremlin. The stakes are high: for one thing, the moment he lands, Navalny faces up to 3.5 years in prison for failing to comply with the terms of a suspended prison sentence he received in a 2014 graft trial. But the Kremlin will have to tread carefully. Navalny, a charismatic, nationalistic anti-corruption crusader with a sizable following among Russia's urban elite, has long been a thorn in President Vladimir Putin's side. But jailing him could turn him into a political martyr (as opposed to a literal martyr, which seemed to be the plan back in August) right as Russia heads towards legislative elections this winter. Those elections could prove dicey for the Kremlin: the Russian leader's popularity is near historic lows and the country is reeling from coronavirus. Putin also remembers that it was the rigged elections of 2011 that provoked the largest street protests in Russia's post-Soviet history. Who led them? Alexey Navalny.

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What We're Watching: Thai youth rally against monarchy, Italian local polls

(Some) Thais fed up with royals: In their largest show of force to date, around 18,000 young Thai activists took to the streets of Bangkok on Saturday to rally against the government and demand sweeping changes to the country's powerful monarchy. The protesters installed a gold plaque declaring that Thailand belongs to the Thai people, not the king — a brazen act of defiance in a country where many view the sovereign as a god and offenses against the royal family are punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Activists also got the royal guards to accept a letter addressed to King Vajiralongkorn with their proposed reforms. We're watching to see if the Thai government — made up mostly of the same generals who took over in a 2014 coup and then stage-managed last year's election to stay in power — continues to exercise restraint against the activists. So far, some protest leaders have been detained but they are growing bolder in their defiance of the military and the royal family, the two institutions that have dominated Thai politics for decades. Prime Minister and former army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha is in a tough spot: many young and liberal Thais will hate him if he cracks down hard on the peaceful protesters, but not doing so would make him look weak in the eyes of his power base of older, more conservative Thais who still venerate the monarchy and are fine with the military calling the shots in politics.

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US election seen from Italy: Curious about Trump’s destiny

Massimo Gaggi is an Italian journalist with the Corriere della Sera newspaper. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Willis Sparks: Italy has been through so much this year with COVID-19. What's going on in Italy at the moment, and what was the mood like then?

MG: The mood, obviously, was very depressed during the spring, when the crisis came out so badly in Italy. The mood was also a little bit upset vis-à-vis the other European countries and the United States, to be honest with you, because we felt that we didn't get any help in that period, and also that we got some judgment that was not so right. The situation is very much different now, because Italy is the country with the best situation in Europe at this moment. We are pretty proud about what we've done in this period.

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Italexit: Will Italy be next to leave the EU?

"Italy got drunk on the idea of the European project and fell in love. But now people understand that we were better off before."

That's what Gianluigi Paragone, former journalist and senator of Italy's anti-establishment Five Star Movement, said in a recent interview, outlining why he's forming the rebellious Italexit party, hoping to revive the dormant debate over Italy's possible withdrawal from the European Union. Will the Italexit movement gain steam?

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