Kazakh political turmoil. “Dozens” of anti-government protesters have been killed by security forces in Kazakhstan, which has declared a state of emergency over the worst political crisis in a decade. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev sacked the entire government in response to widespread street protests, which started days ago over a planned fuel price hike. Since then, the demonstrations have morphed into wider outrage against an entrenched regime, in power since the Central Asian republic broke away from the USSR in 1991. Things are escalating rapidly in Almaty, the business capital, where demonstrators have reportedly set the presidential palace on fire. Tokayev — who took over in 2019 as the handpicked successor of former strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev — now says he may assume wider powers to end the crisis and asked Russia to send in “peacekeepers” under the umbrella of the CSTO, a Moscow-led grouping of former Soviet Republics. Vladimir Putin, always wary of popular uprisings in the Kremlin’s sphere of influence, is one of the two world leaders closely watching developments in Kazakhstan along with Xi Jinping, given that China is thirsty for Kazakh oil, gas, and minerals.
Macron wants to make the unvaccinated miserable. French President Emmanuel Macron is in hot water after saying he wants to make life difficult for unvaccinated people (he used the French word emmerder, which translates to “piss off” or “hassle.”) The unrefined comment comes as omicron cases are surging in France, while hospitalizations are also steadily rising. As the public health situation deteriorates — and the collective appetite for lockdowns wanes — the French parliament is set to pass a bill that would tighten requirements for the health pass system, so that proof of a negative test will no longer be enough to enter public places like restaurants, bars, and museums. While France has a solid vaccination rate — 73 percent of the population is fully vaxxed — a very vocal vaccine-hesitant constituency has rallied against government containment measures. Naturally, Macron’s political opponents used the unfolding scandal to smear the president just three months out from a tighter-than-expected presidential election: far-right hopeful Marine Le Pen accused the incumbent of “continuing his policy of division.” It’s unclear if this mini-scandal will have real political implications, but Macron — who in the past has been accused of being an aloof elitist detached from real people — can hardly afford another misstep as he tries to maintain a steady lead in the polls.
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You’ve probably read this week that Novak Djokovic, the world’s number-one ranked tennis player, was caught in an awkward standoff with Australian border police.
A quick catch up: Upon arriving in Melbourne for the Australian Open, one of the world’s four Grand Slam tennis tournaments, the unvaccinated Serbian tennis star was denied entry by federal authorities who said he did not meet the criteria for a vaccine exemption and so does not satisfy entry requirements.
Djokovic explained that he was previously granted a vaccine exemption by Tennis Australia and the Victorian state government. The feds were unmoved.
Djokovic is no stranger to whacky health and conspiracy theories. He is a proponent of holistic healing (nothing wrong with that), but he has also said that you can make toxic water drinkable simply by using “the power of your mind.”
If you are pro-science – and/or a person who has missed out on family milestones over the past 24 months by honoring travel rules – it’s easy to criticize Djokovic, who seems to think his trophy case entitles him to special consideration. But this flare-up isn’t really about the tennis star’s predilections for natural (or unnatural) remedies.
As the highly transmissible omicron sweeps the globe, perhaps redefining the trajectory of the pandemic, many argue that vaccine mandates for cross-border travel are superfluous. Others say these requirements remain crucial to protect public health.
Here are some good arguments on both sides.
The pro-mandate camp
Preliminary data suggest that omicron is much less likely to hospitalize or kill the infected, thanks in part to the most effective vaccines. Still, the variant’s unprecedented rate of transmission means that even if a smaller percentage of infected people need medical care, the overall larger number of infected people can still fill a city’s hospital beds.
In the US and parts of Europe where vaccination rates remain sluggish, mandates would prevent non-vaccinated foreigners coming in who might place even more burden on already-swamped healthcare systems. Vaccine mandates for border crossers aren’t foolproof. But they are the best protection we’ve got in speeding the shift to endemicity.
Moreover, some vaccines still offer some protection against the antibody-evading omicron strain. This is particularly true for those who have been fully vaccinated and boosted with an mRNA shot. Indeed, the more people that get vaccinated, the less opportunity the virus will have to spread and mutate, threatening those who are vulnerable to severe illness. Requiring vaccines for all international travel will force many fence-sitters and skeptics to get the shot. Consider this: If Djokovic was told from the get-go that exemptions weren’t an option, would he still have resisted the mandate and given up his spot in four Grand Slams this year?
The anti-mandate camp
A majority of the world’s vaccinated people has received a non-mRNa shot from Johnson & Johnson, Oxford-AstraZeneca, Russia’s Sputnik V or China’s Sinopharm or Sinovac. These vaccines don’t appear to block omicron as effectively as mRNa vaccines. Sinopharm and Sinovac, which account for roughly half of all shots delivered globally, provide no protection against infection at all (though they still appear to provide some protection against severe illness).Vaccine mandates for travel become obsolete when even vaccinated people have a high chance of turning up a positive result.
Some have argued that to give Djokovic a special tennis pass when Australian citizens living abroad weren’t able to return home for close to two years is a slap in the face to those who respect rules. But public health policy should be based on science-based reasoning and logic – not driven by political principle.
Additionally, there have been some studies that show that virus acquired immunity provides broader protection from reinfection than vaccination immunity. If so, exposure to omicron, which comes at low personal risk, coupled with vaccination – a conceot known as hybrid immunity – could be the fastest way to reach herd immunity (and end the pandemic), a sentiment supported by Israel’s health minister.
Ramanan Laxminarayan, an epidemiologist, told the New York Times that “the combination of vaccination and exposure to the virus seems to be stronger than only having the vaccine,” adding that India and Brazil may therefore be better positioned to deal with the omicron wave than countries that have experienced lower infection rates.
So, were the Aussies right to ban the unvaccinated Novak Djokovic? Let us know what you think.
On January 6, 2021, hundreds of angry people gathered outside the US Capitol to protest the certification of Joe Biden’s election as president. Some forced their way inside the building to try to forcibly stop that process.
Today, as we mark the one-year anniversary of that attack, Americans continue to disagree about these events, and their meaning.
What happened, and why? Opinions differ. Sharply.
Survey after survey measures the partisan split. A recent poll found that 78 percent of Democrats said the protesters who entered the US Capitol were “mostly violent.” Just 26 percent of Republicans agreed.
Sixty-six percent of Republicans don’t think the storming of the Capitol was an attack on the government, and 77 percent say former president Donald Trump — who certainly fired up the crowd outside the White House that day — bears no responsibility for what happened later at the Capitol.
While, 76 percent of Republicans said they disapproved of “those who forced their way into the Capitol,” 56 percent of Republicans say protesters were “defending freedom.”
Still another survey reports that 72 percent of Americans said rioters were mostly “threatening democracy,” but a quarter of respondents said they were mostly “protecting democracy.”
We shouldn’t be surprised by these wide differences of opinion. News sources favored by Republicans have reported the January 6 story by mainly showing peaceful protesters waving flags and chanting “USA.” Those most often frequented by Democrats have repeatedly shown images of protesters forcing their way into the Capitol building, angrily confronting police, threatening lawmakers, and chanting “hang Mike Pence” — an expression of their fury that the then-VP had refused to halt congressional certification of Biden’s election victory.
Given this polarization, neither future media coverage nor the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th attack on the US Capitol will change many minds ahead of midterm elections in November.
What does this mean for America’s political future?
There are also unsurprising divisions of opinion about Trump. Some 94 percent of Democrats say he’s tried to undermine democracy over the past year, while 85 of Republicans disagree.
And his future ambitions? Trump’s popularity with GOP voters remains undeniably strong. Some 78 percent of Republicans want him to run for president in 2024, a boost from 66 percent last May.
In addition, Trump has worked to cement his hold on the Republican Party ahead of the midterm elections and the 2024 presidential vote. Since leaving office, he’s aggressively used his undeniable popularity with GOP voters to endorse more candidates than in the past, to back many more pro-Trump insurgents in races against Republican incumbents whose loyalty Trump questions, and to inject his name into local races that determine how future elections are administered. That could help Trump overturn future vote results much more easily.
That last point speaks to Top Risk #3 in the annual global geopolitical risks report from Eurasia Group, our parent company. If Republicans win back control of Congress in 2022, it becomes easier for them to boost Trump by rejecting certifications of elections in 2024.
What about the floundering Democrats?
While 65 percent of Americans consider President Biden’s 2020 election victory “legitimate,” his leadership isn’t inspiring much confidence these days. A composite of current polls puts President Biden’s approval rating at just 43 percent. That number is lower than every president of the past 75 years, except Trump, at this point in his presidency.
Unless Biden turns that around, his unpopularity will offer Republicans a sizable advantage in the midterms, which historically favor the party outside the White House.
In fact, the Democrats’ best chance for a stronger-than-expected showing in November lies in delivering on their promises on Capitol Hill. This week also marks the one-year anniversary of the surprise runoff victories of Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Georgia, which gave the Dems majority control of the Senate. Everything Democrats moved through Congress in 2021, including trillions of dollars in pandemic relief and infrastructure investment, was made possible by that result.
If Democrats can use the next 10 months to move more legislation — in particular, the controversial Build Back Better to rewrite the American social contract — their ability to prove they can get things done might help them match Republican enthusiasm and voter turnout.
This week, our parent company Eurasia Group published its annual list of top geopolitical risks for 2022, which we hosted a livestream conversation about on Monday. During the program we received many great questions from our viewers, but couldn’t answer them all in the time allotted, so we thought we’d have some Eurasia Group experts tackle them here.
What are Jair Bolsonaro’s chances in Brazil’s upcoming presidential election?
He has a chance, but they aren’t good. Bolsonaro has the support of close to 30 percent of Brazil’s electorate, with his anti-establishment message still resonating amongst his core base of support. But he has paid a high price for mismanaging the pandemic, and with inflation squeezing the disposable income of poor families, economic discontent has also risen. With most economists forecasting close to zero growth in 2022, odds are he won’t recover. His best shot remains one of reaching a run-off against former president Lula da Silva, and exploring the latter’s vulnerabilities over the massive corruption scandal that rocked the Worker Party’s two previous administrations. Possible, but unlikely to succeed.
Chris Garman. Managing Director, Americas
In Turkey, what share of the country’s youth backs the leadership?
The ruling Justice and Development Party gets more votes from the older age groups. It’s the same for the AKP’s parliamentary ally, the Nationalist Movement Party. The AKP receives only 17 percent of its support from those aged 18 to 34, whereas its average support is close to 24 percent. Young Turks are also the most dissatisfied with the state of the economy, with around 85 percent of those aged between 18 and 34 evaluating the economy as very bad or bad.
What is the probability of war between the US and China in the next 15 years?
Very low, but likely to grow over time.
If there is a war anytime soon, it is more likely to be the result of an accidental conflict resulting from miscommunication than one resulting from miscalculation. The US and China have the most robust trading relationship in world history. Unless there is a fundamental rebalancing of that economic relationship over the next 15 years — which is possible given ongoing decoupling in the tech and capital flows — the two countries are unlikely to escalate any conflict to disrupt that. Furthermore, the cyber capabilities and economic are so interlinked that any actual conflict is more likely to be limited to economic disruption, and not turn into a hot war.
The top flashpoint remains Taiwan, and China is years away from having the military capability and economic dominance to invade without major risks for economic and political stability. Even if the Chinese were to act fast enough to surprise and overwhelm Taiwan’s defenses, the US is likely to respond with sanctions and trade embargoes that would severely impact the Chinese economy, and significantly raise the costs of invading.
Fifteen years is a long time, of course. The conditions for war would include one and probably more than one of the following: accelerated decoupling in trade of physical goods between the US and China, a significantly more advanced Chinese military, an internally weak US president unable to rally Americans to defend Taiwan, more dependence of regional Chinese trade partners (India, Japan, and Australia), and a rebalancing of economic power in those countries away from the US towards China.
Jon Lieber. US managing director
How big of an economic and security threat are high energy prices?
High energy prices have become a significant drag on global economic growth. In China, Japan, South Korea, and many European countries — all of which are highly dependent on fossil fuel imports of natural gas and thermal coal — prices have skyrocketed since late 2020. Europe has the additional complication of security of supply due to escalating tensions with its biggest gas supplier, Russia. Major emerging economies like India and Indonesia are also affected by surging import costs and supply disruptions due to COVID.
In the best case, rising industrial and household energy bills weigh on economic growth prospects. In the worst case, there are supply shortages that lead to industrial closures or even localized blackouts.
Government reactions show the severity of the problem. European governments have implemented measures to secure affordable household energy during this winter, including by windfall taxes on the energy industry. China has repeatedly interfered in energy markets by capping prices, and shut down some energy-intensive industries. Indonesia, the world’s biggest exporter of thermal coal, suspended exports amid tight domestic supply. Even in the US, which is rich in domestic oil and gas reserves, the Biden administration in late 2021 interfered in markets by releasing part of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in order to cool retail gas prices.
The global energy crunch has led to emotional and polarized debates about its cause. This will hamper climate action efforts, as governments juggle the long-term need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with the immediate priority of ensuring affordable and reliable energy for everyone.
Henning Gloystein. Director for Energy, Climate & Resources
Should we expect more government regulation of crypto this year?
Following the massive inflow of capital into the crypto sector and increased industry lobbying in 2021, friendly lawmakers in the US Congress plan to introduce soon a sweeping piece of legislation to fully integrate digital assets into the financial system. The growing pro-digital asset group of representatives and senators want to provide clearer guidance for digital assets and will seek to normalize their use with rules for stablecoins, consumer protection provisions, and updated taxation guidance. While likely to spur debate across industry and regulators, the bill’s passage will probably be delayed by more pressing administration priorities and a lack of policymaker understanding of crypto issues.
New action by the Securities and Exchange Commission is likely before any new legislation is enacted. SEC Chairman Gary Gensler gave a series of speeches in late 2021 on the need for more regulation of the crypto sector, and the SEC appears nearly ready to launch a major regulatory probe of global centralized cryptocurrency exchange leader Binance and its CEO, likely on charges including money laundering. Jurisdictions in Asia and Europe already moved last year to rein in Binance operations. Nevertheless, major digital asset players have deep pockets and will certainly launch legal challenges to any SEC moves. The outcome of the current SEC lawsuit against Ripple — for which expert witness testimony was largely completed in December — will be closely watched for indications about where US courts stand on issues related to the definition of cryptocurrencies as securities.
Paul Triolo. Practice head, Geotech
What major shifts should we watch for in (sub-Saharan) Africa this year?
Upcoming elections around the continent will be a major watchpoint. Kenya goes to the polls in August to select President Uhuru Kenyatta’s successor in a race that is poised to be close, while Joao Lourenço is likely to win a second term as Angolan president in the same month despite an anticipated stronger showing by the opposition. Meanwhile, Nigeria’s two main parties will hold primaries to select their presidential candidates ahead of pivotal elections in 2023, while South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is favored to win another term as head of the African National Congress despite growing factionalism within the party. Finally, the African Continental Free Trade Area is likely to launch this year once technical negotiations are completed, creating the world’s largest trade community by area. Yet the economic benefits of the agreement will take years to materialize given the persistence of non-tariff barriers to trade.
Tochi Eni-Kalu. Analyst and Practice Manager, Africa
Ian Bremmer’s Quick Take: Hi, everybody, Ian Bremmer here, and it is January 6th, one year on, a date that’s going to be seared in American consciousness for a long time. And of course, depending on who you are in the United States, a date that has a radically different meaning for you than many of your neighboring Americans. And that of course is precisely why this crisis of democracy has become what it is, that Americans don’t agree on what actually happened on the date. Was this seditious behavior, trying to overturn a legitimate election, being exhorted to violence by the former sitting president of the United States, Donald Trump? Or was it a group of patriots trying to ensure that the false certification of a stolen and fraudulent election would not place and ensuring that Trump would be installed as reelected as a legitimate president?
Literally, the country is divided not down the middle, only about 30% of Americans believe in the latter narrative, but it’s an enormously disturbing divide. And look, simply by saying this, there are people that are watching this video that are going to disagree with me and say, “how can you say that President Trump called for violence, and this was all BS, and this was a fake insurrection.” And I am someone who came out on the day and said, this was not a coup, it was not a coup attempt. The military was not involved and was independent. Judiciary did its job. And I mean, the possibility, the worst possible scenario was that a bunch of sitting legislators and maybe even the vice president were in physical danger and could have been killed. And that would’ve been a horrible, horrible thing, but we’ve had assassinations of presidents in the past in the United States and the US has gotten through it.
The reason that this is such a critical crisis in the United States is not because of the violence on January 6th. It’s because the aftermath of January 6th was only greater political division. The aftermath of January 6th was only that larger and larger numbers of Americans believe that the election was stolen falsely, and larger numbers of Americans believe that their principle enemy is the political opposition across the aisle, in their own country. Their fellow Americans, their fellow citizens, their fellow patriots are actually their enemies and countries that operate like that don’t stay functional democracies for long. This is not new. I’ve been talking about this. We’ve been talking about this as a country for a while now.
The US election process has been getting worse through the last two cycles. In 2016, an election that Trump won legitimately and I did not vote for him, but I told everyone at the time he was my president, but a lot of people that didn’t vote for him did not say that. Hillary Clinton, of course, conceded and called Trump on the evening and congratulated him, but a large number of Democrats on the media and even sitting in office believed and said that the election was stolen by Trump, who engaged in collusion with the Russian government and shadowy forces to ensure that they could steal the election from Hillary Clinton.
And we even had an impeachment procedure over that. And we had the Mueller investigations over that. And for years you had Democrats saying that Trump was not a legitimately elected president of the United States. Then we had the 2020 election and it got a lot worse because in this case you had the sitting president of the United States saying that the fair election, which was certified by Republicans in the key states like Georgia and Arizona, and found no cases of significant fraud anywhere. And all of the cases that were brought by Trump and Giuliani and his supporters were either thrown out of court or found to be unfit. They were not clear cases. There was no substance to them. It was a free and fair election, but the president himself did everything possible to stoke the belief, the false belief that the election was stolen.
And therefore, that Biden is not the legitimate president of the United States, so much so that you now have millions of Americans, tens of millions of Americans that believe that Biden is not their president, millions of Americans that believe that Trump should be installed as president by force. And this would be legitimate. This is unprecedented in our lifetimes, in the United States. We’re going to have midterms coming up in November and the Republicans will almost surely win the House. And you see with all of the Democrats, some 25 Democrats in the House say they’re not going to run again far more than Republicans, including some committee chairs. They all see the writing on the wall that they’re going to lose. The Senate may well flip to Republican. That’s a closer call. Many of the key swing states that are critical for certifying a 2024 election, the gubernatorial elections, the state legislatures are likely to be in the Republican hands on the back of 2022 elections.
In other words, we are set up for the 2024 election to be a step change even worse than 2020, which itself was a step change even worse than 2016. This is not normal in a democracy. This is an enormous challenge for the United States. And indeed, this could not happen in other advanced industrial democracies around the world. In the past few months, we’ve had elections in Canada, in Japan, in Germany, free and fair, peaceful transfer of power. We’re going to have elections in the coming months in South Korea and in France. They will be free and fair, peaceful transition of power. We can no longer say this about my country. A fundamental part of a representative democracy are legitimate free and fair elections accepted by the citizens of the country. The United States no longer has that.
And so it’s not a question of, can we keep democracy? It’s a question of, can we rebuild some of the democracy that has eroded? Can we change the course that the United States is on right now towards a hybrid system, a system that no longer reflects and represents the interests of the average American voter? Unfortunately, right now, the answer is no. There is nothing that you can see in the near-term political future of the US that would imply that this is going to be fixed. It doesn’t make me despair, but it certainly makes me want to work harder. And I hope that that is the reaction of most of you who are watching this today. It’s something we’re going to be seeing much more of as we get closer to the ’22 midterms, which are the most important midterm elections in American history for all the reasons I just described and which will drive so much political danger and uncertainty as we get closer to 2024.
So that’s a little bit for me on this rather disturbing anniversary, one year anniversary of the events of January 6th, I hope everyone’s well and I’ll talk to you soon.
EU warns the US and Russia. EU officials look to be getting nervous about meetings next week between Russia, the US, and NATO. Though NATO representatives from EU member states will be part of the talks, the EU itself was not invited to join. During a visit to Ukraine this week, the EU’s top diplomat warned that “We are no longer in Yalta times,” a reference to the 1945 Yalta agreement among the US, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union that helped to divide post-war Europe into eastern and western blocs. “In this dialogue, there are not two actors alone, not just the US and Russia,” Josep Borrell added. Russia has massed 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, and Vladimir Putin has demanded guarantees that NATO not expand to include Ukraine or other former Soviet states. The EU’s comments are intended, in part, to reassure Ukraine that it will not be abandoned to Russian domination. But it’s also a sign that officials in Brussels don’t fully trust US President Joe Biden to protect European rights and interests in bargaining with Putin.
More Kazakh turmoil. Violence continues to escalate in Kazakhstan, and troops from a Russian-led military alliance have arrived on the scene at the invitation of Kazakhstan’s frightened leaders. The unrest began in the town of Zhanaozen in response to a planned price hike that immediately doubled the cost of fuel. The trouble then spread to Almaty, the country’s most populous city, and to Nur-Sultan, the capital. As we wrote yesterday, Kazakhstan’s government has declared a state of emergency after anti-government demonstrators were killed by police during intense protests and state buildings were set aflame. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s decisions to sack the government and call off the fuel price hike have not appeased protesters, who remain angry not just about inflation, but also about wealth inequality in a resource-rich country and the perceived cronyism and ineptitude of a regime that has dominated Kazakh politics since the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia is now directly involved in restoring order. China — which imports a lot of Kazakh oil, gas, and minerals — is watching closely.
50: Italy will make COVID vaccines mandatory for everyone over 50. No penalties have been announced for those who don’t comply, but those who refuse jabs — or have not recently recovered from infection — will be denied the “super green pass” necessary to enter a workplace.
40: China plans to carry out more than 40 space launches this year, a number roughly on par with the US. Beijing clearly wants to up its space exploration game, as China also aims to complete its first orbiting space station and kick off at least two crewed missions there in 2022.
5,000: Skyrocketing food prices have prompted Malawi’s government to issue a new 5,000 kwacha ($6) bill that’s worth more than double the previous highest-denomination currency. Malawians have taken to the streets in recent months to protest inflation in a country that has been one of Africa’s biggest democratic success stories.
One year after the US Capitol insurrection, what’s the state of American democracy? For former US national security official Fiona Hill, not good.
“We’re still grappling with the ongoing consequences of that particular event,” she says. In her view, the events of January 6, 2021 laid bare “the deep divisions, the partisan infighting, the polarization within our society” — which resulted in American citizens storming “a building that is supposed to be a unifying symbol, symbol of freedom, of representational democracy, not of repression.”
For Hill, we haven’t fully processed yet what a big deal it all was. Why? One reason is that we lack a common narrative on what actually happened between Democrats and Republicans.
She also thinks those facing the music for January 6 should realize they’ve been lied to. Once they recognize that, Hill says, she’d sue those that egged them on under false pretenses — starting with former president Donald Trump.
Watch her interview with Ian Bremmer in the upcoming episode of GZERO World.