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NEED TO KNOW

BELARUS

Toward a More Perfect Union

Russia annexed Crimea, a peninsula in the Black Sea that was formerly Ukrainian territory.

Could Ukraine’s northern neighbor, the ex-Soviet republic of Belarus, be next?

“I can read between the lines and I understand the hints,” Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko told reporters in Russia in mid-December, according to the Independent. “You should just say it out loud: destroy the country and become part of Russia.”

Lukashenko referred to Russian tax changes on oil for the new year that are expected to cost his country’s struggling economy billions of dollars.

Technically Belarus and Russia are joined in a “union state.” But while their militaries are closely aligned, the union exists mainly on paper. Both countries also have poor records on human rights. Belarus especially has a dismal record in allowing political dissent and freedom of the press.

Accordingly, Lukashenko has stressed that Belarus will remain independent, reported Radio Free Europe. He’s also tested Russia’s patience by suggesting that Ukraine’s leaders aren’t necessarily the bogeymen the Kremlin-controlled Russian media suggest.

He even stopped describing Russia as a “brotherly state,” the Moscow Times reported.

Russia’s oil tax changes could be intended to ruin Belarus, paving the way for a Russian takeover, wrote the Finnish Institute of Foreign Affairs in November. But they’re more likely designed to bend Lukashenko to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s will.

“Moscow’s policy is aimed at making sure that Belarus and its leadership remain critically dependent on Russia,” the Institute said in a report.

Make no mistake: Lukashenko needs Putin.

“Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an iron hand for nearly a quarter-century, cracking down on dissent and the media,” wrote the Associated Press. “He has relied on loans and cheap energy from Russia to keep a Soviet-style economy afloat.”

Putin has argued that Belarus would still receive oil at a discount even if its people paid more for fuel. Russians also pour around $4 billion in investments into Belarus annually, said the state-owned TASS news agency. That’s a bargaining chip Lukashenko can’t afford to lose.

So it came as little surprise when Lukashenko and Putin announced that they had ironed out most of their differences during a December 25 meeting. (Russia celebrates Christmas on January 7.)

Interestingly, the two countries also agreed to set up a working group to “elaborate proposals on our further integration” and other issues, a Russian official said in a Belarusian Telegraph Agency story.

The annexation of Crimea happened quickly. Putin can be patient, too.

WANT TO KNOW

CHINA

Tough As Ever

Chinese President Xi Jinping urged people in Taiwan to accept that its eventual reunification with the mainland is inevitable, further illustrating Beijing’s refusal to budge from its long-held stance.

In a speech marking 40 years since the start of improving ties with the island, which Beijing considers a renegade province, Xi called for peaceful reunification along similar lines to the process that incorporated Hong Kong in 1997, the BBC reported. But he also emphasized that China “reserves the option of taking all necessary measures” against outside forces working against reunification – obliquely warning of potential military action.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen was quick to reject a Hong Kong-like solution Wednesday, saying, “Taiwan will never accept ‘one country, two systems’.” Tsai’s election setbacks in November, however, were perceived in Beijing as a rejection of that separatist stance.

The BBC’s John Sudworth suggested that Xi has “personalized” the project of “national rejuvenation” more than any other Chinese leader. But direct intervention, if it occurs, is likely to take the form of cyber attacks against independence-oriented parties and politicians.

SOMALIA

No Longer Welcome

Somalia has ordered United Nations envoy Nicholas Haysom to leave the country after he raised questions about the arrest of a former al-Shabab leader who had run for a regional presidency.

A foreign ministry statement late Tuesday declared Haysom “persona non grata” and accused him of diplomatic overreach after he questioned the legal basis for the arrest last month of Mukhtar Robow, a former al-Shabab spokesman who defected from the group in 2017, the Associated Press reported.

Haysom also asked whether UN troops had been involved in his detention. Ethiopian soldiers from the African Union force in Somalia and local police made the arrest a few days before the regional election – in which Robow was one of the leading candidates.

The arrest sparked deadly protests, as Robow was spirited away to a Mogadishu prison run by the country’s intelligence service.

The incident is a test case for how Somalia will deal with defectors from al-Shabab, Africa’s most active extremist group, the agency said.

BRAZIL

Wasting No Time

Far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro hours after his inauguration issued an executive order transferring the regulation and creation of new indigenous reserves to the agriculture ministry, worrying environmentalists and supporters of indigenous rights.

Noting that Brazil’s agriculture ministry is effectively controlled by powerful agribusiness interests, the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported that indigenous leaders said the order threatens the Amazonian reserves that make up about 13 percent of Brazilian territory.

Previously, demarcation of indigenous reserves was controlled by the indigenous agency Funai, the paper said.

Under Brazilian law, the temporary decree will expire in 120 days unless it’s ratified by the legislature. It also empowers the office of the government secretary, Carlos Alberto Dos Santos Cruz, to “supervise, coordinate, monitor and accompany the activities” of local and international non-governmental organizations in Brazil.

Tereza Cristina Dias, the incoming agriculture minister, defended the agribusiness sector from what she called “unfounded accusations” of widespread deforestation and other environmental damage.

DISCOVERIES

Mint Condition

Egypt’s historical tourism industry could see a boom in the coming years, thanks to newly found treasures.

Archaeologists recently discovered the well-preserved tomb of a royal priest who really loved his mother, the Washington Post reported.

“He mentions the name of his mother almost everywhere here,” said Mostafa Waziri, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, pointing to ancient hieroglyphics, statues and drawings.

Waziri called the find “one of a kind in the last decades,” due to its being in near-perfect condition. The tomb wasn’t looted and the drawings were presentable.

“The color is almost intact even though the tomb is almost 4,400 years old,” he told Reuters.

The burial spot belongs to Wahtye, a royal priest who served during Egypt’s Fifth Dynasty under King Neferirkare. It was found in the Saqqara region, south of Cairo. It contains two levels filled with artifacts, as well as illustrations of the priest’s family and Egyptian daily life.

Waziri believes that the lower depths might contain the remains of the priest.

As excavations at the site continue, Egyptian authorities hope the new discoveries will boost tourism, an important industry in Egypt that has declined since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.

Click here to see the artifacts in almost mint condition.

Correction: In yesterday’s newsletter, the headline “Charlie Don’t Surf” ran over a story on new cyber regulations in Vietnam. We apologize to our subscribers for a headline that is racially insensitive to the Vietnamese people. We deeply regret the error.