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Then and Now: South Africa, Algeria, Ukraine

Then and Now: South Africa, Algeria, Ukraine

We at GZERO are old enough to remember a time when there was some story about the US president trying to buy Greenland… last week. The news cycle moves fast. In fact, since you started reading this piece, it's already moved on.

As an antidote to the news cycle madness, we are creating a little time machine. Every so often we'll fire it up to check on, and update, stories that we've covered in the past.

For our inaugural voyage, we look back at South Africa's elections, Algeria's protests, and a scary near miss between Ukraine and Russia.


Three months ago – A South African reformer struggles: Cyril Ramaphosa's triumph in South Africa's May elections was seen as a reformist rebuke to his African National Congress (ANC) party's corrupt old guard. Now, three months into the job, he is dealing with two main issues: a corruption row and land reform. When Ramaphosa took over as party chief from Jacob Zuma — who was forced out amid widespread corruption allegations — he pledged to bring "ethics" into politics. But for much of his short tenure, Ramaphosa has been fighting a campaign finance scandal. Meanwhile, one of Ramaphosa's first moves as president was to spearhead a controversial land reform that would expedite land transfers to the black majority. This, too, has split public opinion over how, exactly, it will help the poor or speed the country's economic progress.

Six Months ago – Algeria's unfulfilled protests: In February, hundreds of thousands of Algerian protesters hit the streets to call for the ouster of the country's long-serving and functionally-deceased strongman Abdelaziz Bouteflika. He resigned in April but since then the government has been run by the same military cronies who kept Bouteflika in power. That doesn't sit well with protesters, who continue to flood the streets every weekend to demand more than just a cosmetic change to a repressive and corrupt system. They want fresh elections and a civilian government, but no new ballot is on the calendar yet. It's a stalemate in which the military is trying to outlast the streets. A reminder that while popular protests can succeed in ousting specific leaders (think Egypt's Mubarak or Sudan's Bashir) the systems behind those leaders are often much harder to displace.

Nine Months ago – Ukraine and Russia on the brink: For a few days last November, it seemed Moscow and Kyiv's simmering conflict over Eastern Ukraine might escalate into outright war on the high seas, when the Russian navy fired on Ukrainian ships in a contested waterway. Since then things have cooled – and Ukraine has elected a comedian as president. In recent days there has been talk of a major prisoner swap between Ukrainian forces and the Russian-backed rebels who control large swathes of eastern Ukraine. That would be a step forward in resolving the conflict, which is now in its fifth year. But the crux of it remains unresolved: Moscow wants Kyiv to grant the separatist provinces more autonomy than Ukraine's parliament can stomach.

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Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made a lot of foreign governments really mad. Let's call the roll.

Europe. The EU is angry that Turkey is drilling for oil in the eastern Mediterranean, and NATO is furious that member Turkey has defied its protests to purchase S-400 missiles from Russia. Erdogan has repeatedly rejected pushback from EU leaders by calling them fascists and Islamophobes.

Just this week, Erdogan refused to express sympathy with France following the beheading of a French schoolteacher by an Islamist extremist, attacked Macron's own response to the murder, suggested the French president needed "some sort of mental treatment," and countered Macron's vow to crack down on Islamist radicals with calls for a boycott of French products.

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Less than a week before the US election, President Donald Trump is repeatedly questioning the legitimacy of the vote (if he doesn't win) over largely unsubstantiated claims of potential fraud in universal mail-in voting. But with absentee ballots coming in all-time highs in all states due to the coronavirus pandemic, some Americans worry that the system itself may not be able to handle such an influx of ballots, including those already cast by a record number of early voters. Whether or not you agree, Gallup data show that US citizens are now less confident that the election will be conducted accurately — and more concerned about election irregularities and voter suppression — than they were four years ago. We take a look at how Americans' views on these electoral integrity issues have changed from 2016 to 2020.

Belarus on strike: In recent days, the Belarusian streets have turned up the heat on strongman President Alexander Lukashenko, as thousands of state factory workers and students in Belarus heeded a call from opposition leader Svyatlana Tikhanouskaya to join a general strike. Protests have roiled the country since August, when Lukashenko, in power since 1994, won a presidential election widely regarded as rigged. Last Sunday, 100,000 people turned up in Minsk, the capital. Tikhanouskaya — who ran against Lukashenko in that election and is currently exiled in neighboring Lithuania — had demanded the president resign by October 26. When he didn't, the walkout began. In one of the most iconic moments of protest so far, a striking worker at a refrigerator factory climbed the plant's tower to record a dramatic call for Lukashenko to step down. Belarus has been hit with sanctions from the US and EU, both of which are calling on him to hold new elections, but so far he has shown no signs of backing down, deploying his riot police with the usual fury. Something's got to give, soon.

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Who does Vladimir Putin want to win the US election? Given the Kremlin's well-documented efforts to sway the 2016 vote in Donald Trump's favor, it's certainly a fair question. And while there's no solid evidence that Russian interference had any decisive effect on the outcome four years ago, the Trump administration itself says the Kremlin — and others — are now trying to mess with the election again.

So let's put you in Vladimir Putin's size 9 shoes as you weigh up Donald Trump vs Joe Biden while refreshing your own personal PyatTridsatVosem (FiveThirtyEight) up there in the Kremlin.

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