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What We’re Watching: Bolsonaro’s COVID crimes, Mali calls al-Qaeda, Facebook gets a facelift

Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A long-running Senate investigation in Brazil has found that by downplaying the severity of COVID, dithering on vaccines, and promoting quack cures, President Jair Bolsonaro directly caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. An earlier version of the report went so far as to recommend charges of homicide and genocide as well, but that was pulled back in the final copy to a mere charge of "crimes against humanity", according to the New York Times. The 1,200-page report alleges Bolsonaro's policies led directly to the deaths of at least half of the 600,000 Brazilians who have succumbed to the virus. It's a bombshell charge, but it's unlikely to land Bolsonaro in the dock — for that to happen he'd have to be formally accused by the justice minister, an ally whom he appointed, and the lower house of parliament, which his supporters control. Still, as the deeply unpopular Bolsonaro limps towards next year's presidential election, a rap of this kind isn't going to help.

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What We’re Watching: Suu Kyi on trial, Blinken in Israel, Mali coup 2.0

Suu Kyi in the dock: Myanmar's former leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday made her first court appearance since the military coup that deposed her last February. Suu Kyi, 75, faces uncorroborated charges — ranging from illegally importing walkie-talkies to breaching COVID rules — that could put her behind bars for the rest of her life. The National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi's political party that defended her in court, is now also at risk as the military junta is trying to dissolve it — mainly because it trounced the pro-military party in the December parliamentary election. Myanmar's generals seem to think that they can go back in time to the days of complete dominance if they throw Suu Kyi in jail and ban the NLD. But they may be underestimating the popular appetite for democratic change in a country where the military is as powerful as it is unpopular. Whatever the junta decrees, expect the NLD to continue its political activities underground and in exile.

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What We’re Watching: Chad unrest continues, Brazil spikes Sputnik, Chinese population falls

Chadians reject "soft" coup: Street protests against Chad's new military-led government have turned bloody a week after the killing of longtime President Idriss Déby. Interim leader Mahamat Idriss Déby, son of the slain Idriss, has named one of his dad's former allies as prime minister, but the opposition says he has no right to do so because he took over in a coup (and neighboring countries agree). Meanwhile France, the former colonial power which backed Déby père for 30 years, was initially open to a civilian-military transition, but has changed its position and now wants a civilian-only government before a fresh election in 18 months. But as long as the younger Déby follows in his father's footsteps by remaining a strong ally of the West against jihadists in the wider Sahel region, Paris surely won't put up too much of a fuss.

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What We’re Watching: George Floyd's family gets justice, India’s COVID mess, political turmoil in Chad

Guilty: Eleven months after George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, died under the knee of Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, on a Minneapolis street corner, we finally have a verdict in the murder trial. On Tuesday, a jury found Chauvin guilty of all three charges: second- and third-degree murder, as well as second-degree manslaughter. The verdict was celebrated by advocates for racial justice and police reform. Last summer, video footage of Floyd suffocating to death as he cried out "I can't breathe" galvanized anti-racism protests across America (some of which turned violent) that went global. We're watching to see if the jury's verdict gives fresh impetus to the nationwide movement for police accountability and broader criminal justice reform, both of which have been met with fierce resistance from law-and-order conservatives and police unions. And we'll also be keeping an eye on the sentence, as Chauvin faces up to 75 years in prison for his crimes.

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What We're Watching: Saudis brace for Khashoggi report, Sri Lanka blasts UN, political unrest in Niger

US to release Khashoggi report: The Biden administration's intel chief is expected to release on Thursday a report on the murder of Saudi dissident journalist — and US resident — Jamal Khashoggi. In line with previously reported findings, the assessment will say that Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman was involved in the plot to kill and dismember Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Aside from a sprinkling of new details, we don't expect much from the report itself, but we are keen to see how it shapes US-Saudi relations under Joe Biden, who has promised to take a harder line with Riyadh over human rights and security issues than his predecessor did. Part of that new approach is that the US president will no longer speak directly to the Crown Prince himself as Trump did — from now on, only his dad, King Salman, gets calls from the White House.

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Why doesn’t the EU hit Russia harder?

Earlier this week the European Union agreed to slap sanctions on a handful of senior Russian officials over the jailing of top Putin critic Alexei Navalny. Using a new set of sanctions designed specifically to target human rights abuses, Brussels will freeze bank accounts and deny visas to four of Russia's top justice and security officials involved in Navalny's case.

As punishments go, that's not particularly drastic: surely it stings a bit to lose access to European banks and beaches, but no one suspects that these measures are going to convince the Kremlin to free Navalny. The dissident's own people have called on Brussels to do more.

So why does the EU, the world's largest economic bloc, seem to have so little leverage over a country whose economy is barely larger than Spain's? A few things to bear in mind.

Russia keeps the heat running in Europe. The European Union depends on Moscow for some 40 percent of its gas imports and 30 percent of oil imports. For some EU countries, the numbers are even higher: Germany gets half its gas from Russian companies and is moving ahead with a new Russian gas pipeline as we speak. In Eastern Europe, the dependency ranges from roughly two-thirds in the cases of, say, Austria, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, to a straight 100 percent in the case of Finland.

The EU needs Russian cooperation outside of Europe too. Over the past decade, Moscow has shrewdly positioned itself as a kingmaker in several crises beyond Europe's borders that reverberate within the union. In Syria, Libya, the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa, Russian military or mercenaries exert an outsized role in conflicts that have generated large numbers of refugees seeking asylum in Europe.

There isn't really an "EU". The European Union is actually 27 member states, each with their own interests and views on Russia. Germany, for example, has to balance its ambitions of staking out a firmer pro-democracy European foreign policy against the energy needs of its powerful industries. France has long sought closer cooperation with Moscow on geopolitical issues across the Middle East and Africa. Many former Eastern Bloc states, meanwhile, have begun to see Moscow as a useful counterweight to an overbearing or incompetent Brussels. And of course, the UK, which historically took a harder line against Russia, is now no longer part of the EU at all.

Doing more would require a tough stomach. To be clear, it's not that the EU doesn't have ways to seriously hurt the Kremlin. Sanctioning Russia's oil and gas exports or its foreign debt would deal a big blow to Putin's regime. But the blowback for Europe would be tremendous — European consumers and factories would likely suffer massive energy shocks, while financial markets and banks that trade Russian debt would see turmoil.

After all, there's a reason that even in 2014 — when Russia invaded an EU partner state and started a civil war there — both Europe (and the US, with far less vulnerability to Russian retaliation than its European friends) stopped short of making big moves like this.

The bottom line: Europe is keen to be a more active global player on security and human rights. But when it comes to Russia, reality bites hard.


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that the Baltics as a whole receive 100 percent of their gas from Russia. While the dependency is very high -- ranging from 79 percent in the case of Estonia to 93 percent in Latvia -- Finland is the only member state that actually depends fully on Russia for natural gas. We regret the error and thank reader Guido W. for pointing it out.

What We're Watching: Bolsonaro's setback, Western Sahara flare-up, Moldova's new president

Bolsonaro allies suffer in local elections: Elections haven't brought great news for Brazil's far-right president Jair Bolsonaro lately. First his gringo pal and ideological trailblazer Donald Trump lost his re-election bid up North. Then, this past weekend, dozens of candidates whom Bolsonaro supported in Brazil's local elections failed to win outright or even make it to runoffs. According to one tally (Portuguese) by the daily Estado de São Paulo, only 9 of the 59 candidates whom the president supported advanced in any way. This is the first Brazilian election to gauge the national mood since the onset of the coronavirus — which has taken more lives in Brazil than anywhere except the US. Overall, incumbent politicians and traditional parties generally fared well. Does that mean the anti-establishment furor that swept Bolsonaro to power in 2018 is fading? It's hard to say just yet — but as Bolsonaro begins to position himself for re-election in 2022, these election results will surely be on his mind, and ours.

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A dangerous déjà vu in Mali

Malians woke up on Wednesday without a government. Although details are still murky, we do know a group of soldiers detained President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and forced him to step down. The rebel troops have promised a return to democracy — but isn't that what coup masterminds always say right after seizing power?

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