Europe/Americas update: August 8 2018



The United States announced on Wednesday that it is imposing sanctions on Russia over the Sergei Skripol/novichok affair in the United Kingdom. At this point that amounts to “restrictions on the export of sensitive technology,” but if Russia doesn’t allow international inspections to determine whether or not it’s manufacturing chemical and biological weapons–which it won’t–then the penalties will ratchet up.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party isn’t so united these days on account of the very unpopular plan to raise the country’s retirement age. That plan is so unpopular that it actually ate into Putin’s approval rating earlier this year (it seems to have recovered somewhat), and ongoing public protests seem to have shaken some United Russia members:

Under pressure from the public, some party members have defied warnings from leaders that criticism of the plan will not be tolerated.

A senior lawmaker, Sergei V. Zheleznyak, was forced to resign as deputy secretary of the party after skipping the first vote on the bill. Party members have asked Natalya V. Poklonskaya, a nationalist who broke with her party by voting against the reform bill, to resign from Parliament.

Their dissent is rare in a party that Kirill K. Martynov, political editor of the liberal daily Novaya Gazeta, described as Russia’s “praetorian guard of stability.”


Rumors are swirling that Law and Justice party boss Jarosław Kaczyński, the most powerful political figure in Poland, is ill, perhaps gravely so. Consequently, and because Kaczyński has never made it clear who he’d like to succeed him, there may be a bit of a power struggle brewing in Warsaw:

Mr. Kaczynski’s health has been a topic of discussion not just in Poland but also in Brussels, where officials confirm that his condition is serious and that there is considerable interest in what it will mean for Poland and its fraught relationship with the European Union.

“We don’t know the truth about his health,” said Olgierd Annusewicz, deputy head of the Center for Political Analysis at the University of Warsaw. “It’s hidden. It’s more hidden than the health of the first secretaries from the days of the Soviet Union.”

Whatever the case, Mr. Kaczynski’s absence has been unmistakable. And it has raised questions about what happens when he leaves the scene and what will become of his grand vision for the country.


A coalition of five center-left parties has nominated Marjan Šarec, leader of the aptly named List of Marjan Šarec party, to be the country’s new prime minister. Slovenia has been without a government since its June 3 election, which ended very inconclusively and left Šarec and far-right Slovenian Democratic Party boss Janez Janša (whose party came in first in the election, just ahead of Šarec’s) scrambling to see which of them could cobble together a coalition. These five parties combined control 43 seats in parliament, three shy of a majority, but they believe they’ll get support from a left-wing party called, uh, The Left, which has nine seats. Parliament will vote on whether or not to make Šarec PM on August 17, so the coalition has a little over a week to convince The Left to play ball.


Boris Johnson is being openly racist on purpose again, so that presumably means he’s positioning himself to succeed Theresa May whenever she is mercifully removed from the prime ministership:

The gibe, ridiculing burqa-wearing Muslim women as “letter boxes” and “bank robbers,” was roundly condemned by the British political establishment.

Perhaps more important than the substance of the remarks, however, was their author, Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary who quit last month after clashing with Prime Minister Theresa May over Britain’s break from the European Union, known as Brexit.

The comments, in an article in The Daily Telegraph, prompted accusations on Wednesday that Mr. Johnson was taking a leaf from President Trump’s campaign book in his never-ending quest to become the Conservative Party leader and, ultimately, prime minister of Britain.



Welp, thieves in the city of El Alto on Wednesday boosted the almost 200 year old “diamond-encrusted golden medallion” that has been Bolivia’s presidential emblem since Simón Bolívar day. A soldier apparently left the medallion in his car and, well, you can figure out the rest. The thieves later returned it, which was nice of them, by leaving it at a church in La Paz.


The inevitable post-assassination attempt crackdown against the Venezuelan opposition kicked into high gear on Wednesday:

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court said it had evidence that Julio Borges, a top opposition leader who had served as head of the country’s National Assembly, had committed incitement, treason and attempted homicide in a plot against Mr. Maduro. The court ordered the arrest of Mr. Borges, who is currently in Colombia.

Late Tuesday night, Juan Requesens, a deputy in the assembly, was arrested by intelligence agents, opposition politicians said. A video that circulated on social media appeared to show Mr. Requesens emerging from an elevator, then being chased and arrested by agents whose faces were covered.

Mr. Borges did not respond to a text message seeking comment. Mr. Requesens’s political party, Primero Justicia, said he had been “kidnapped” by the government.


New Colombian President Iván Duque is promising a hard crackdown on drugs, partly in an effort to get on Donald Trump’s good side. It appears to be working:

“We’re very excited about President Duque and his plans for Colombia, the way that we’re going to be partnering with him,” said Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Trump’s representative at Duque’s inauguration.

“I think he’s got a very aggressive vision of where he sees the situation going,” Haley said, including making what she called needed improvements to the historic 2016 peace agreement with rebels.

Duque and the Trump administration also appear to be on the same page with respect to Venezuela. Haley announced on Wednesday that the US will give Colombia $9 million to help it deal with the influx of Venezuelan refugees. In his last week in office, outgoing Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos gave 400,000 Venezuelan refugees permission to remain in Colombia for up to two years.


Finally, the Washington Post looks at the Trump administration’s reliance–maybe over-reliance would be more accurate–on sanctions in lieu of a comprehensive foreign policy:

The Washington Post’s Carol Morello recently outlined just how prevalent sanctions have become in the Trump era in a recent article. She found that during just one month — February 2018 — the United States had imposed sanctions not only on North Korea, but also groups or individuals in Colombia, Libya, Congo, Pakistan, Somalia, the Philippines, Lebanon and more.

Though their use may be increasing, sanctions are not a new idea — they date back hundreds of years, if not further. Yet academic research has found that they often don’t work as intended. One study looked at 200 sanctions from between 1914 and 2008 and found only 13 that were clearly instrumental in achieving their creators’ aims.

The problem isn’t necessarily that they can’t inflict financial damage on a foe (given the power the United States holds over the global economy, that much is now a given). Instead, the issue is that this damage doesn’t always contribute to any logical foreign policy goal. This problem may be particularly acute for the Trump administration, in which sanctions are sometimes a substitute for a broader foreign policy rather than a way to implement one.

Sanctions are cool. They’re not war but using them makes you look tough and whatever pain they might wind up causing you in terms of retaliation can easily be blamed on your geopolitical foes, so their risk/reward balance is heavily swayed toward “reward.” But sanctions are a tool of coercion, not an end in themselves. Too many DC foreign policy types–and this isn’t just restricted to Trump or his administration–have started treating them as the latter in recent years.

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