What We're Watching: Putin's Belarus play, Ivory Coast election ruling, historic Asian recession

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko in Sochi, Russia. Reuters

Putin's strings attached: As protesters continued to throng the streets of Minsk, Belarus' strongman Alexander Lukashenko traveled to Moscow earlier this week to seek support from longtime frenemy Vladimir Putin. During a meeting in which body language told much of the story — the burly Lukashenko uncomfortably beseeching Putin who sat stone-faced in a dread manspread — the Russian President said he'd throw his Belarusian counterpart a $1.5 billion emergency loan. But he also pressured Lukashenko to open the way to fresh elections. That's something that the Belarusian president has resisted so far — after all, the current unrest came in response to his rigging of the August election, and it's hardly clear that he would win a redo. That may be precisely the point, from Putin's perspective. He has disliked Lukashenko for years, but the last thing he wants is for street protesters to depose him, which might give Russians some crazy ideas of their own. But a reasonably fair vote might be just the way to get rid of Lukashenko. What's more, the Belarusian opposition has been careful not to alienate Russia, meaning a change of power wouldn't necessarily hurt the Kremlin's interests. What will Lukashenko do? $1.5 billion can buy a lot of vodka and saunas.


Final verdict on Ivorian election: Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara can run for a third term despite a constitutional two-term limit, the country's top court has decided. The ruling also banned former President Laurent Gbagbo from seeking the presidency in next month's election, and cleared the way for Henri Konan Bedie — another former president and coup leader — to be the main opposition candidate against Outtara. Nearly 80 people have died in violent street protests in the Ivory Coast since Ouattara announced he would run again after his handpicked successor, Amadou Gon Coulibaly, suddenly died in July while serving as prime minister. Outtara has been in office since 2011, when he took power following a brief yet bloody civil war that erupted after his predecessor Gbagbo refused to accept an election result. Whoever wins, expect more political instability in Francophone West Africa's largest economy.

Asian recession for 2020: Developing economies in Asia and the Pacific (basically all except Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea) will, as a group, experience a recession this year for the first time since the early 1960s, according to the latest update from the Asian Development Bank. ADB projects that the regional economy will contract 0.7 percent in 2020 and grow again 6.8 percent next year, confirming that the region's economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic will be more gradual (in the form of an L or swoosh) rather than what wonks refer to as the more optimistic "V-shaped recovery." Some economies will perform better than others though: China's is expected to grow by 1.8 percent in 2020, while India's will decline by 9 percent, and most Asian economies that are highly reliant on tourism revenues — such as the Philippines and Thailand — will suffer double-digit declines. Right now, ADB views a prolonged pandemic as the biggest risk for developing Asia's economic recovery from COVID-19, although the bank also says to watch the economic fallout of the US-China rivalry over technology and trade.

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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