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

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro

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.

Western Sahara conflict flares: For decades, the Sahrawi nomads of the Western Sahara have demanded independence from Morocco, which took control of the region in the mid 1970s after Spanish colonial forces withdrew. A bloody and inconclusive war between Morocco and the local Polisario Front (a Sahrawi rebel liberation movement) ended with a fragile UN-backed truce in 1991. Now, after thirty years, tensions are flaring again, as Moroccan forces launched a military operation in a UN-controlled demilitarized zone in response to what Rabat says are recent provocations by Polisario guerillas. The Polisario, for their part, say they are fed up after years of false promises: when the 1991 armistice was declared, the UN created a mission (known as MINURSO) to monitor the ceasefire and facilitate a referendum in which the Sahrawi would choose between independence or unification with Morocco. But no such referendum has ever taken place. Meanwhile, thousands of displaced Sahrawi continue to live in squalor in refugee camps in neighboring Algeria. This conflict now threatens to further destabilize the tumultuous Sahel region, which is already grappling with a deadly Islamic insurgency, a civil war in Libya, and a flare up in Ethiopia that's spilling over into Sudan and Eritrea.

Moldova's new president: Pro-EU opposition candidate Maia Sandu won the presidential runoff in the small former Soviet republic of Moldova, defeating the staunchly pro-Russian incumbent, Igor Dodon, by a staggering 15-point margin. Sandu, a former prime minister and World Bank economist, has called for closer ties to the EU and more serious efforts to tackle the country's staggering level of corruption (an infamous bank fraud scheme totaled almost a fifth of the country's GDP). Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe, has long been caught in a tug of war between its former imperial masters in Moscow and the (distant) promise of EU membership. Sandu's upstart victory is something of a black eye for Russian president Vladimir Putin, who had openly backed Dodon. We are watching to see how Sandu navigates her country's foreign relations while trying to make much needed improvements at home.

Meet Ian Martin, an English Professor from Glasgow who is now head of Communications for Eni's International Resources. Approaching his work in the same way he used to hold his lectures, Ian is dedicated to listening and making people around him comfortable. Having working in both Milan and London, Ian utilizes his ability to communicate in different languages and cultures to prepare Eni's global messaging strategy. "Communication is a transfer of humanity," he says, and his job is as much centered around people as it as around language.

Watch Ian's human approach to communications on the most recent episode of Faces of Eni.

How to capture the essence of this incredible, terrible year in a few short words and without using profanity? It's not easy.

Thankfully, the dictionary website Merriam-Webster.com has released its list of most heavily searched words of 2020, and they tell the story of an historic year in US politics and the life of our planet. Here's a sample.

The top word, unsurprisingly, was "Pandemic," a disease outbreak that covers a wide area and afflicts lots of people. In 2020, the coronavirus crisis hit every region of the world, triggering a public health, economic, and political emergency on a geographic scale our planet has never experienced. Differing responses to that problem defined the politics (and geopolitics) of 2020.

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While recent news from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca on the efficacy of their respective COVID vaccines is encouraging, it has also given rise to bidding wars between wealthy countries trying to secure the largest supply of the new drugs for their citizens. Meanwhile, many governments in emerging market economies, where healthcare infrastructure is generally weaker, are worried they'll be kicked to the back of the line in the global distribution process. Indeed, history bears out their concerns: while a lifesaving HIV treatment hit shelves in the West in the mid-1990s, for example, it took years to become widely in Africa, which saw some of the worst HIV outbreaks in the world. But here's the catch: even if wealthy countries manage to obtain large supplies of vaccines to immunize their populations, the interconnected nature of the global economy means that no one will really be out of the woods until we all are. Here's a snapshot of how many COVID vaccines select countries have already purchased.

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.

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Two weeks ago, Russia secured a deal to build a naval base in Sudan, its first new military facility in Africa since the end of the Cold War. The accord is a major milestone in Moscow's wider push to regain influence, and income, on a continent where the Kremlin was once a major player.

But with the ideological and military contests of the Cold War long over, what is Moscow doing in Africa today?

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Reasons for Hope: COVID and the Coming Year. Watch on Friday. Dec 4 2020 12 noon - 1 pm ET


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