Editor’s Note: Novichok? Not a shock.
After six months of prevaricating, London’s Metropolitan Police has finally named the two men it believes to have been behind the poisoning of former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal. Needless to say few jaws dropped when it transpired that their evidence points East.
The two men are suspected of working for the GRU – which was actually renamed the GU in 2010, but let’s stick with GRU as most people are only just coming round to the fact that the KGB are now called the FSB – a secretive branch of the Russian military also said to be behind the hacking of the U.S. election.
But despite predictable media hysteria, what is striking is the public apathy towards yet another episode of Russian malfeasance. The Kremlin’s vociferous public denials, “hey, we had an election and a World Cup coming up, why would we jeopardise that by launching a chemical attack in a foreign city – and if we had chosen to do so, do you really think Skripal would still be alive?” appear to have resonated with many.
This is also down to the fact that the British government’s handling of Russia has long been a lazy caricature. From Boris Johnson’s immediate claim that it was “definitely Russia” barely hours after the incident had taken place, despite scientists studying the Novichok sample saying that they could not ascertain the country of origin, to Gavin Williamson’s cringeworthy playground remark that Moscow should “go away and shut up“, British politicians’ repeated, ill-considered whining undermines the already low trust that British citizens have in their government’s foreign policy.
Perhaps the crowning victory in the information war between the two governments was the hugely successful hosting of this summer’s World Cup, which most fans watched from their local pub beer garden, having been scared off by years of unfounded fear-mongering from the British press and government.
There is nothing wrong with calling the Russian government what it is, a nasty collection of kleptocrat brutes, yearning for a strong Russia that their avarice has done so much to undermine, but same shrill tone is not employed when discussing, for example, Saudi Arabia, about whom the same can be said.
While meek words do little to change Russia’s ways, an opportunity to put real financial pressure on the Moscow elites is on the horizon. Currently, the EU places sanctions upon Russia as a bloc, making it difficult to impose harsh sanctions as they must be agreed by all 28 members. Many EU nations, especially Germany, have a strong business relationship with Russia that they are reluctant to jeopardise (yep, the old German carmakers argument again), and politicians in other nations, such as Hungary, Austria, and now Italy, appear to revere Vladimir Putin’s style of governance.
Upon withdrawal from the bloc however, Britain will be given a free hand to turn all these years of accusations into a serious policy initiative. Britain’s financial sector gives it underappreciated leverage – huge amounts of Russian money is laundered through both London and Britain’s overseas territories; the threat of closing these to Russian capital could make Putin’s inner circle squeal.
Jericho’s World Digest
India: Whilst many countries have passed landmark gay marriage legislation in the past few years, in much of the developing world the mere right for gay people to have a private life is considered a serious milestone. This explains the wild celebrations in India on Thursday as the Indian Supreme Court ruled to allow sex between homosexuals.
A law known as Section 377, passed by the British imperial administration in the 1860s, bans any “unnatural” sexual acts. After many months of deliberation the Supreme Court has now judged that consensual gay sex is natural. Bestiality, however, remains unnatural.
Nauru: The tiny Pacific island caused a stir when it refused to stamp the diplomatic passports of Chinese officials who had arrived for the Pacific Islands Forum. Nauru, which only recognises Taiwan as the legitimate government of China, allowed the officials to enter the country, but only through use of their personal passports.
Later, when the President of Nauru, Baron Waqa, refused to let China’s special envoy to the conference, Du Qiwen, speak out of turn, the Chinese delegation walked out of the summit in protest. Waqa did not seem to mind, describing Du as a “nobody” and demanding an apology for his “arrogance”. You can watch his forthright defence of his decision here.
Burma: There has been outcry after the sentencing of two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, to seven years in jail for breaching the Official Secrets Act after exposing a Burmese army operation that massacred ten Muslim men. In what was widely regarded as a show trial, government officials are accused of planting incriminating documents on the two journalists in order to secure a conviction.
South Korea: The government has deployed 8,000 workers to inspect public toilets after a “spy-cam” epidemic in the capital, Seoul. There were more than 26,000 victims of “spy-cam porn” in women’s toilets between 2012 and 2016. Real figures, however, are believed to be much higher as many cases go unreported.
Joe Barnes, Asia Editor
South Africa: A week which started with what was presented as a story about race relations in South Africa ended with confirmation that the nation’s economic indicators are hardly helping.
On Monday, workers of the ‘Solidarity’ union, who are predominantly white and of Afrikaner origin, voted to go on strike in response to a Sasol, a chemical company, share options scheme which was made available only to black members of its workforce. Disputes over the share of the pie in South Africa are unsurprising in a nation with the highest levels of economic inequality in the world – it scores 63.0 on the Gini index (the USA, well known for its inequality levels, scores 41.5).
Economic malaise was confirmed on Friday with news that, despite increases in confidence following the election of businessman Cyril Ramaphosa as president in February of this year, South Africa officially entered recession with a second consecutive quarter of negative growth.
FOCAC Summit: The other main story of the week revealed the extent of China’s involvement in Africa. Every African nation but one was represented in Beijing at the China-Africa summit, with many African heads of state in attendance. The only nation not to attend was eSwatini or Swaziland (see last week’s newsletter), which still has diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
At the summit, China pledged $60bn of new investment onto the continent consisting of both aid and loans. It invested $125bn 2000-2016, with $75bn of that coming during the years 2013-2016.
Swaziland: It is remarkable that the tiny nation seems not to have resulted in the same conclusion that many other African nations have come to in recent years regarding China. While Beijing says ‘there are no political strings attached’ to its financial clout, it is hard not to join the dots between altered political persuasions in Burkina Faso (2018), Sao Tome (2016) Gambia (2016), who have all switched diplomatic allegiances from Taiwan to China in recent years.
Nigeria: Even Africa’s largest economy is feeling the pressure to maintain good relations with mainland China: in a symbolic move last year, Nigeria asked Taiwan to move its trade mission from the administrative capital Abuja to Lagos.
George Grillo, Africa Editor
Brazil: On Thursday, far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro was stabbed in the abdomen while campaigning in Juiz de Fora in the state of Minas Gerais. He is currently recovering in hospital, and was leading in the polls ahead of October’s crucial election – although another study suggested that he would win the first round of the election but lose in the second.
The country’s national museum was also gutted by a fire that raged overnight, in what has been a week of yet more bad news in Brazil.
Argentina: Mauricio Macri’s government responded to the growing financial crisis in the country by disbanding half of its ministries in a bid to cut public spending.
United States: Finally, as Republicans look to secure the appointment of Supreme Court judge Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump has been enraged by a New York Times column that purports to be from an insider who is “part of the resistance” to Trump within the White House.
John Bartlett, Americas Editor
Italy: Having conquered most of the planet, Starbucks Coffee takes on what it potentially its most challenging market. It’s brand new Milan outlet, that has taken over two years to build, is not your ordinary Starbucks. As well as it’s universally recognised staples, it will serve pizza, cocktails and ice cream.
Locals however, are unafraid of the competition. Italy is, after all, a country where excellent coffee at rock bottom prices is par for the course.
Sweden: Last week Jericho jumped the gun somewhat on the Swedish election, which actually takes place this weekend. The electoral battle lines take on a familiar appearance for anyone who has followed European politics for the last three years. Yes, once again it’s the populists against the establishment.
The rise of the Sweden Democrats (SD) is the big story for the country that has taken on the largest number of refugees per capita since 2015 and has been ranked the best place for immigrants to live in. Drug-related gang violence in city suburbs, while seemingly not affecting daily life (indeed, overall crime has gone down), has left many Swedes feeling uneasy about the government’s ‘loss of control’ – and the SD look ready to pounce.
Germany: Court proceedings open in Brunswick on Monday with Volkswagen facing as much as $11 billion in damages related to its diesel emissions-cheating scandal. Investors who saw 37% of the value wiped off their shares want redress as they believe they were mislead by the company’s board.
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