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What We're Watching: Afghanistan's progress, Venezuela's opposition boycotts, EU vs "illiberals"

What We're Watching: Afghanistan's progress, Venezuela's opposition boycotts, EU vs "illiberals"

Afghanistan's small breakthrough: For months, disagreements over a range of political issues have hamstrung the intra-Afghan peace talks brokered by the Trump administration that aim to bridge the years-long conflict between the Afghan government and the Taliban. But this week, a significant breakthrough was made on the principles and procedures governing the talks, that, experts say, will help push negotiations to the next phase. One key advance is agreement on the official name of the Afghan government, an issue that stalled talks earlier this year. Still, progress is fragile. Taliban violence and efforts to seize territory have only increased since the militants and the US reached a deal in February on a blueprint for an American troop withdrawal. And the Trump administration says it aims to pull out all but 2,500 US troops by mid-January, whether the Taliban have kept their end of the deal or not. What's more, while this week's development puts the parties one step closer to an eventual power-sharing agreement, it's unclear whether the incoming Biden administration will even honor the Trump administration's deal with the Taliban.


The Venezuelan opposition's boycott gamble: On Sunday, Venezuela will hold legislative elections, but opponents of President Nicolas Maduro who currently control the National Assembly are boycotting the vote, which is likely to be rigged anyway. As a result, they'll lose their majority in the Assembly and, with it, opposition leader Juan Guaidó's legal claim to the presidency, which is recognized by a number of other democracies in the region and globally. It seems like ages ago that Guaidó was leading mass protests against the economic incompetence and authoritarian drift of the Maduro regime — but since his heyday in 2019, momentum has sputtered, the opposition has splintered, and Maduro's security forces and cronies have stayed loyal despite crippling US sanctions. The opposition plans to hold its own referendum next week to reject the legitimacy of Maduro's government, which will provide a fig leaf for the US and others to continue to recognize Guaidó as president. But that will increasingly be a fiction once Maduro has full control over all branches of government. Meanwhile, ordinary Venezuelans continue to reel from an economic crisis, the pandemic, and sanctions. Small wonder that nearly two-thirds of them back neither Guaidó nor Maduro at all (source in Spanish.)

European Union vs illiberals: Mired in a budget crisis after Poland and Hungary vetoed the European Union's proposed pandemic economic recovery bill last month, Brussels now says it will go ahead with the 750-billion-euro fund whether Budapest and Warsaw cooperate or not. The two eastern European states balked after the EU included a provision that made disbursement of funds, that will fund the bloc through 2027, contingent on respecting EU rule-of-law norms. (Both states are led by illiberal leaders who oft-flout democratic norms and vehemently oppose the EU's conditionality.) While the EU technically requires unanimous consent to pass the financial package, EU president Ursula Von der Leyen implied this week that the bloc would use a loophole to pass it if the veto is not lifted when EU leaders meet in Brussels on December 10. Poland and Hungary, meanwhile, say that they aren't backing down and are waiting for a compromise from Germany which holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union until the end of the year. For now, the impasse continues.

Khant Thaw Htoo is a young engineer who works in Eni's Sakura Tower office in the heart of Yangon. As an HSE engineer, he monitors the safety and environmental impact of onshore and offshore operations. He also looks out for his parents' well-being, in keeping with Myanmar's traditions.

Learn more about Khant in the final episode of the Faces of Eni series, which focuses on Eni's employees around the world.

On his first day as president, Joe Biden signed a remarkable series of executive orders. Boom! The US rejoins the Paris Climate Accord. Bang! The United States rejoins the World Health Organization. Pow! No more ban on immigration from many Muslim-majority countries. Biden's press secretary reminded reporters later in the day that all these orders merely begin complex processes that take time, but the impact is still dramatic.

If you lead a country allied with the US, or you're simply hoping for some specific commitment or clear and credible statement of purpose from the US government, you might feel a little dizzy today. The sight of an American president (Barack Obama) signing his name, of the next president (Donald Trump) erasing that name from the same legislation/bill, and then the following president (Biden) signing it back into law again will raise deep concerns over the long-term reliability of the world's still-most-powerful nation.

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Renowned tech journalist Kara Swisher has no qualms about saying that many of the country's social media companies need to be held accountable for their negative role in our current national discourse. Swisher calls for "a less friendly relationship with tech" by the Biden administration, an "internet bill of rights" around privacy, and an investigation into antitrust issues.

Swisher, who hosts the New York Times podcast Sway, joins Ian Bremmer for the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on public television nationwide beginning this Friday, January 22th. Check local listings.

Now that Joe Biden is officially US president, leaders from around the world would like a word with him — but where will he make his first international trip?

After a tumultuous four years, many countries are now clamoring for a face-to-face with President Biden. That includes allies who felt abandoned by Trump's "America First" presidency, as well as adversaries with thorny issues on the agenda. We check in on who's pitching him hardest on a near-term state visit.

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Brexit pettiness lingers: Here we were naively thinking the Brexit shenanigans were over after the EU and UK agreed to an eleventh-hour post-Brexit trade deal last month. We were wrong — the saga continues. Now, a new row has erupted after the Johnson government said it will not give the EU ambassador in London the same diplomatic status awarded to other representatives of nation states. Unsurprisingly, this announcement peeved Brussels, whose delegates enjoy full diplomatic status in at least 142 other countries. The UK says it will give the EU envoy the same privileges as those given to international organizations, which are subject to change and do not include immunity from detention and taxation given to diplomats under the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations. EU members are furious, with officials accusing London of simply trying to flex its muscles and engaging in "petty" behavior. The two sides will discuss the matter further when European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson meet next week, their first face-to-face since the two sides settled the Brexit quagmire on December 31. Alas, the Brexit nightmare continues.

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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