The World Today for June 10, 2019

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Falling Upwards

Russian President Vladimir Putin regularly cultivates a tough guy persona. But last month as he skated a victory lap after a hockey game, he faceplanted on the ice on national television.

“In the footage, Mr. Putin’s teammates look nervous as he goes down — and after he gets up,” wrote the New York Times.

The incident is an apt metaphor for Putin today. He wields autocratic power in Russia. But he can’t control everything, especially time.

Putin, 66, has five years left on what should be his final presidential term, but some Russians are already thinking about their country’s politics and society when and if he steps aside, the Washington Times reported.

Putin might seek to become prime minister again, as he did in 2008 when he was term-limited out of office and his political ally, Dmitry Medvedev, took over as president. Or Putin might seek to become the head of a new union between Russia and Belarus. Like Kazakhstan’s former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, he might also resign from office but still retain power over his successors.

But the 36-year-old minister for economic development, Maxim Oreshkin, recently felt emboldened to say publicly that he wouldn’t mind being president one day. Nobody had ever discussed the presidency in those terms under Putin.

The Free Russia Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, recently published a 170-page report on Russia in 2030. The report suggests Russia won’t change much in the next 10 years. But Bloomberg noted that would also mean popular discontent – over matters like corruption and a lack of political diversity – could grow.

A Russian poll recently found, for example, that Putin’s trust rating had fallen to its worst level in 13 years, Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, explained in the Washington Post. Voters have come to view Putin as their country’s biggest oligarch.

“A violent eruption of discontent in multiple cities at once cannot be ruled out in the medium term – whether or not Putin is still leader when it happens,” wrote Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky in a piece that also said many Russians are already planning for life after Putin.

Putin still commands respect, of course. He’s replaced governors in a bid to revive support for his United Russia political party. He recently met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Kremlin. Xi said Putin was his “best and bosom friend,” CNN reported.

But China is waxing while Russia stagnates. Putin won’t puff himself up by playing second-fiddle to the world’s other most powerful autocrat.



Re-opening Umbrellas

Protesters in Hong Kong on Sunday staged the biggest demonstration yet against a proposed law that would allow people accused of crimes to be extradited to China for interrogation and trial by the mainland’s opaque justice system.

Organizers claimed that more than a million people joined the protest, while police estimated the crowd at around 240,000, the Wall Street Journal reported. The figure cited by the protest leaders would make the turnout more than double that of a similar demonstration in 2003 in reaction to national-security legislation that was later withdrawn by the government.

The protest closely follows another large demonstration marking the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4.

“This is the last fight for Hong Kong,” said Martin Lee, founder of the city’s Democratic Party. “The proposal is the most dangerous threat to our freedoms and way of life since the handover” of sovereignty in 1997.

Anger over the proposed law has re-energized the opposition, which has dwindled thanks to a government crackdown following the long-running “Umbrella Movement” protests in 2014.


Pre-emptive Strike

Albania’s president on Saturday announced the cancellation of the country’s upcoming municipal elections, which opposition groups had threatened to stop from taking place.

Facing thousands of opposition protesters, President Ilir Meta said going ahead with the planned June 30 vote was impossible because “the actual circumstances do not provide necessary conditions for true, democratic, representative and all-inclusive elections,” the Associated Press reported.

Thousands turned out for an anti-government protest ahead of the announcement, hurling flares, firecrackers and Molotov cocktails at the police, who responded with tear gas and water cannons.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Edi Rama criticized the president for caving to what he called political “blackmail” designed to force snap polls at the national level.

The crisis is the result of opposition claims that the ruling party has links to organized crime and has engaged in vote-rigging – both of which the government denies. Opposition lawmakers have given up their seats in parliament and demanded Rama’s resignation.


Opening the Floodgates

Venezuela reopened its border with Colombia over the weekend after a hiatus of four months, resulting in long lines at checkpoints as thousands of people queued up to cross over to buy food and medicines.

President Nicolas Maduro had ordered the border closed in February to thwart the delivery of US aid he characterized as an infringement on his country’s sovereignty. The US is backing opposition leader Juan Guaido, who has declared himself the rightful president due to questions about the legitimacy of Maduro’s recent re-election.

Even before the US aid mission, thousands of Venezuelans regularly crossed the border to buy food and medicines that are not available at home due to the collapse of the Venezuelan economy, Al Jazeera reported. And after the closure of the border, many continued to cross it illegally, though that put them at the mercy of criminal gangs.

But the relief for desperate Venezuelans is a worry for Bogota, which fears huge numbers may seek to join the million-plus Venezuelan refugees and migrants who already live in Colombia.


Fly Me to the Moon

Last week, NASA announced that it is opening up the International Space Station to businesses and tourists.

The space agency will allow private individuals – or “private astronauts” – and companies to lease out its part of the international orbiter for limited time periods, the Independent reported.

The price tag hasn’t been established but it won’t come cheap, and individuals will need to go through medical examinations and training to take part in missions of up to 30 days.

Companies, though, can bring their own equipment to the space lab and borrow NASA astronauts for commercial projects – meaning that advertisements and movies may soon be shot in space.

For a long time, the agency hesitated to commercialize its activities and the space station, strictly prohibiting objects that didn’t have an educational or research component from entering the floating lab.

But NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine is open to policy changes that could provide new sources of revenue for the government agency and help it develop space technologies in the future.

“I’m telling you, there is interest in that right now,” he said during a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council in August.

Aspiring astronauts can finally make their dream come true – for a hefty price.

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