What We're Watching: Lukashenko looking worried, explosion in Lebanon's "darkness", royal flight from Spain

What We're Watching: Lukashenko looking worried, explosion in Lebanon's "darkness", royal flight from Spain

Lukashenko's nerves: As Belarusians prepare to head to the polls on Sunday, strongman president Alexander Lukashenko, who's seeking re-election again after 26 years in power, lashed out at adversaries who he says are seeking his downfall. But Lukashenko wasn't laying into the Europeans or the NATO alliance — typically hostile to his strongman agenda — rather, he condemned "puppet masters" in...Russia. This is the latest episode in the deteriorating relationship between Minsk and Moscow. Lukashenko recently accused Moscow of sending mercenaries to destabilize the country and rile up Belarusian protesters dissatisfied with the government's handling of the pandemic. But it's also a sign that Lukashenko is worried about losing his grip on power. After barring two rivals from running in the election, he's now facing off against 37-year old Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a seemingly accidental candidate who's managed to unite the opposition against a man once dubbed "Europe's last dictator.


Darkness in Lebanon: The already-grim situation in Lebanon took a terrible turn Tuesday as a massive explosion tore through a warehouse at Beirut's port, killing at least 100 people. The cause of the blast is still being investigated, but the timing of the tragedy, which is believed to have caused around $3 billion in damages, couldn't be worse. Coronavirus lockdowns have caused prices of basic goods to triple since March as Lebanon's currency shed 80 percent of its value, pushing much of the country's once-vibrant middle class into poverty. Recurrent power outages — a result of mismanagement, Lebanon's shambolic electrical grid, and a series of corruption scandals involving an Algerian state-run oil company — have also worsened, with reports of blackouts for up to 20 hours a day in some parts of the country. This prompted disillusioned Lebanese to storm the Ministry of Energy on Tuesday, demanding an end to the "corruption" that has led the country into "darkness." Skirmishes with security forces ensued. The heavily-indebted country is hoping that international creditors like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will help pull it back from the brink, but that's unlikely to happen unless the Lebanese government makes crucial reforms to root out mismanagement and corruption, which it's so far been unwilling to do. Will this latest tragedy change that?

Former king ditches Spain: Former Spanish King Juan Carlos I has fled his country, weeks after the high court opened an investigation alleging that he received millions of euros in illegal kickbacks from a high-speed rail deal in Saudi Arabia. A Swiss prosecutor has also accused him of tax fraud. Until a decade ago, Juan Carlos was beloved by most Spaniards for helping steer Spain's transition to democracy in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But after a string of more recent scandals — including infidelities and breaking his hip while elephant hunting in Botswana as his countrymen were mired in a recession — he passed the throne in 2014 to his son, the current King Felipe VI. Earlier this year, Felipe himself grew concerned enough about the negative paternal publicity that he cut off his dad and renounced his own inheritance. Juan Carlos — now believed to be in either neighboring Portugal or the Dominican Republic — appears to have left Spain to spare his son (and Spaniards) further embarrassment, but he says he'd return to face formal charges. We're watching the royal legal drama but also a bigger question: will the disgraced former king's antics fuel a fresh debate over the future of the Spanish monarchy itself?

Demography is destiny. That ominous-sounding pronouncement, credited to French philosopher Auguste Comte, is today taken to mean that a nation's fate depends on the youthfulness of its population. For a poor country to become rich, it needs lots of young people ready to work, to support those too old or too young to work, and to pay taxes. This is called the "demographic dividend."

That's an important part of China's success story. Over the past 40 years, more than one billion people have emerged from poverty in China. Waves of young people surged from the countryside into cities to work in factories. The state invested in education, and wages helped young workers, and then their children, go to school. The state also began a drive to develop the technologies of the future, by any means necessary. In China, once dirt-poor, hundreds of millions have created a middle class.

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Not everyone thinks that President Biden's decision to pull all US troops out of Afghanistan by 9/11/21 is a good idea. Conservative Congressman Mike Waltz (R-FL), a combat-decorated Green Beret with multiple tours in Afghanistan, thinks that the US still needs to maintain a small presence in the country to avoid incurring "massive risks." In a spirited discussion with Ian Bremmer on GZERO World, Waltz, who served as counterterrorism advisor in the George W. Bush administration, argues, "The next 9/11, the next Pulse Night Club, which is right on the edge of my congressional district, the next San Bernardino, that's now on Biden's watch. He owns it with this decision." Their conversation is featured in the upcoming episode of GZERO World, which airs on US public television starting Friday, April 23. Check local listings.

Vaccines are the best hope to end the COVID-19 pandemic. But rich countries are hogging most of the doses, with more than 83 percent of shots administered to date having gone to residents in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Most poor countries will have to wait years to achieve widespread vaccination, according to one study.

To address this inequity some stakeholders are pushing hard for waivers to intellectual-property (IP) rights through World Trade Organization trade rules so that manufacturers in poorer countries can make their own vaccines locally. India and South Africa have been leading the charge, which would essentially mean that deep-pocketed pharma companies like New York-based Pfizer, for instance, would have to hand over the keys to the kingdom, allowing local companies in New Delhi and Johannesberg to make generic versions of their vaccines.

Unsurprisingly, the debate has gotten fiery, with passionate arguments emerging both for and against.

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Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective on Europe In 60 Seconds:

What are the Russians up to against Ukraine?

We simply don't know, except the fact that they're concentrating a huge amount of military forces. And you don't do that for nothing or for fun. They are there for a purpose, to have pressure or to undertake limited to larger operations. We simply don't know. And when Putin delivered his State of the Union speech the other day, he didn't say a thing about this. They are now talking about withdrawing the forces. But let's wait and see. They have talked about withdrawing forces from Syria for a long time, but we haven't seen that as of yet.

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Australia rips up Belt & Road deal: Australia cancelled two 2018 deals signed between Victoria, Australia's wealthiest state, and the Chinese government, that committed the two sides to working together on initiatives under China's Belt and Road infrastructure development program. Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that the agreements "were adverse to our foreign relations." Similar deals between Victoria and institutions in Iran and Syria were also abandoned by the Australian government this week, under a 2020 law that allows Canberra to nullify international agreements struck at local and state level. (Australian universities say the "foreign veto bill" amounts to "significant overreach.") Meanwhile, Beijing hit back, calling the move "unreasonable and provocative," and accusing Canberra of further stoking divisions after a series of escalatory moves by both sides that have seen China-Australia relations deteriorate to their worst point in decades. Chinese investment in Australia dropped by 62 percent last year, a massive blow for Australia's export-reliant economy.

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50: The US will aim to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by the end of the decade. The Biden administration's commitment, double the goal set by Barack Obama almost six years ago, was announced to coincide with a virtual Earth Day climate summit attended by dozens of world leaders.

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Russian president Vladimir Putin on Wednesday threatened an "asymmetrical, rapid, and harsh" response for anyone that dares to cross a "red line" with Russia.

What's the red line? Putin says he'll decide on a case-by-case basis. And the cases at the moment are growing: the US has sanctioned Russia over cyber crimes; Putin critic Alexei Navalny is near death in a Russian prison; the Czechs say Russia blew up a Czech munitions depot; and as many as 120,000 Russian troops are reported to be massing along Russia's border with Eastern Ukraine.

Which is to say: there's potentially a Sol Lewitt's-worth of red lines to ponder now.

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