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Pro-Trump rioters storm the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

REUTERS/Leah Millis

What We’re Watching: Jan 6. hearings begin, Beijing’s Zero bet & Somalia famine warning

House holds first public Jan. 6 hearing in prime time

The House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the US Capitol held its first public hearing on Thursday night, with most news channels airing it in prime time (notably not Fox News). Viewers were shown graphic, never-before-seen footage to demonstrate how, as Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) said, former President Donald Trump “lit the flame of this attack.” The hearing aired revelatory clips of testimony from former US Attorney General William Barr, who told Trump that claims about a stolen election were “bullshit,” and from Trump's daughter Ivanka, who said she’d accepted Barr’s perspective. And some participants in the attack testified that they were on hand because Trump had asked them to be there in Washington, DC, on that day. Will the hearings change hearts or minds? Unlikely in such a polarized environment, but Eurasia Group’s lead US analyst Jon Lieber says Democrats hope the hearings will help keep the focus on Trump ahead of November’s midterm elections, which are slated to be a washout for Democrats. Republicans, for their part, would rather make midterms a referendum on President Joe Biden and kitchen-table issues like inflation. The hearings — a culmination of one of the Justice Department’s largest-ever FBI investigations, which has led to more than 800 arrests across nearly all 50 states — will continue next week.

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Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during their meeting in Budapest.

Reuters.

What We're Watching: Hungarian holdout, hope in Shanghai, US troops return to Somalia

Is Hungary holding the EU “hostage”?

The European Commission is pushing hard for a bloc-wide ban on Russian oil imports. But one member state — Hungary — has gone rogue and is holding up the embargo. At a meeting of EU foreign ministers on Monday, Lithuania’s representative accused Hungary of holding the bloc “hostage,” after PM Viktor Orbán demanded that Brussels dole out hundreds of millions of dollars to offset losses from moving away from cheap Russian fossil fuels. Orbán is buddies with Vladimir Putin and has been trying to expand Hungary’s economic relationship with the Kremlin in recent months, so he is driving a hard bargain, saying that ditching Russian oil would be an “atomic bomb” for his country’s economy. Landlocked Hungary relies on Russia for around 45% of its total oil imports, and finding alternative sources could lead to shortages and price hikes at a time when Hungarians are already grappling with sky-high inflation. Still, Brussels says Budapest is being greedy because Hungary has already been given a longer window — until the end of 2024 — to phase out Russian imports. But Orbán is hoping to get more concessions ahead of a big EU summit on May 30, when the bloc aims to find a political solution to this stalemate.

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El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele present the plan of "Bitcoin City."

REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

What We’re Watching: Bukele’s crypto bomb, Somalia needs a president

Has El Salavdor’s crypto experiment bombed?

Mass protests erupted last fall after Nayib Bukele, El Salvador’s youthful, tech-savvy president with an authoritarian streak, announced that the country would begin accepting Bitcoin as legal tender. Many Salvadorans said Bukele’s embrace of the volatile currency would spur inflation and financial instability. Those warnings have proven prescient. In recent days, the crypto world has been caught in a tailspin, in part because global inflation has lowered investors’ tolerance for risk. Bitcoin and Etherium, the biggest cryptocurrencies, have both declined in value by 20-25% this week – and El Salvador is recording losses of about 37% based on what it forked out for crypto in a series of purchases. This has proven to be a disaster for Bukele: two major credit rating agencies predict El Salavdor will default on its loans. San Salvador has an IMF repayment due in January worth a whopping $800 million, and amid ongoing negotiations earlier this year the international lender warned that “Bitcoin should not be used as an official currency with legal tender status.” Still, the enigmatic Bukele continues to double down: this week, he released plans for the Bitcoin city he touted last fall – a smart city based on the use of the flailing currency.

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What We're Watching: Poland ditches ban on foreign media, Somalia's power struggle, Erdogan vs Istanbul

Poland backs down on contentious media law. Poland’s populist President Andrzej Duda has vetoed a law that would have barred companies outside of the European Economic Area from owning a stake in Polish media corporations. Critics say the now-nixed law was aimed at silencing US-owned news channel TVN24, which has covered Warsaw’s increasing authoritarian tendencies in recent years. Indeed, Washington was blindsided on December 17 when Poland’s parliament adopted the new law, saying it violates a trade and economic agreement between the two countries. Duda’s ruling Law and Justice Party, meanwhile, which heads one of Europe’s most “illiberal” governments, says the legislation was not aimed at ally Washington, but rather at freezing out hostile actors – like Russia – from its media ecosystem. Duda has been in a tight spot: the nationalist leader previously said he supported the proposed legislation, but he has clearly decided that a deepening row with Washington amid rising inflation and a COVID spike at home is not worth the headache.

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What We're Watching: Johnson's big mouth, US withdrawing from Afghanistan, back from the brink in Somalia

Boris Johnson's big mouth: Boris Johnson is no stranger to controversy over crazy things that he's said — his perilously off-the-cuff style is part of his political brand. But the British PM is currently under fire over reports that he told advisers last fall he was prepared to "let the bodies pile high in their thousands" rather than impose another lockdown in the UK. Johnson denies it, but the BBC journos who reported the story are standing by it. The flap comes right as Johnson is also being accused — by his estranged former chief advisor Dominic Cummings — of having used campaign donations to refurnish his Downing Street residence. The clash between Johnson and Cummings, who is still influential among Johnson's own Tories, centers on Cummings' accusation that the PM's handling of the pandemic was incompetent. A swift vaccine rollout has helped the polarizing Johnson claw his way back to 51 percent approval rating in recent weeks — whether these latest antics and scandals will hurt his support remains to be seen.

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What We're Watching: EU tightens vaccine exports, Kenya to close Somali refugee camps, Mexico-US border "cooperation"

Europe's vaccine war escalates: As the European Union contends with a resurgence of COVID-19 cases and deaths, and a disastrous vaccine rollout, the European Commission announced Wednesday a proposal to tighten vaccine exports from the bloc, a move referred to by one diplomat as a "retrograde step." The new measures would ban vaccine doses produced in the EU from being sent abroad to countries that don't "reciprocate" as well as those that have a higher per capita vaccination rate than EU member states (the UK falls under both categories). European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen is upping the ante from January, when the EU banned exports by companies that don't first honor their contracts with EU member states. (In practice, only one batch of vaccines from Italy was blocked from being sent to Australia.) This is a massive development within the context of an ongoing row with the UK, which so far has received almost 10 million doses of EU-made jabs, far more than any other country. London also has rolled out a much more successful vaccine drive, having administered vaccines to 45 out of every 100 people, compared to just 13 in the EU. Although EU leaders will discuss the vaccine disaster at a summit later this week, the new proposal will come into force unless most EU members oppose it — an unlikely outcome given that many EU countries are struggling to keep their COVID crises at bay.

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