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Off the deep end

Monday 24 May 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo erupted for the first time in two decades, leaving thousands of people homeless.
  • A cable car fell on a mountain near Lake Maggiore in northern Italy, killing thirteen adults and a child.
  • Animal Rebellion protestors demanded McDonald’s stop selling meat by 2025 and disrupted supplies to its 1,300 UK restaurants by blocking its food depots with bamboo scaffolding.

Off the deep end

You couldn’t make it up. Ryanair flight FR4978 was about to enter Lithuania’s airspace when Belarus air traffic control notified its crew of a potential bomb on board. Aleksandr Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator, ordered a MiG-29 fighter to escort the plane to Minsk airport. No bomb and seven hours later, Minsk cleared the plane for departure together with crew and all passengers, except one. 

  • Roman Protasevich, a journalist, was arrested by Belarusian authorities and taken into custody. The 26-year-old had edited Nexta, a Warsaw-based media group that covered and directed the unprecedented protests against Lukashenko last year after the dictator claimed victory in a corrupt election.
  • The country’s security service, still called the KGB, had put Protasevich on a terrorist list. He stands accused of inciting hatred and mass disorder and faces more than 12 years in prison if convicted. “It looked like if the window had been open,” one fellow Ryanair passenger told AFP, “he would have jumped out of it.”
  • Protasevich lived in Lithuania in exile. He was flying back from Greece after attending a conference there with the Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, also exiled from Belarus like many opposition figures. Those who stayed have suffered. Some 32,000 protestors have been arrested in Belarus. Four have died. Hundreds have been brutally beaten by the police.

But yesterday’s events show Lukashenko’s contempt for international norms is more extreme than anyone expected. This was not a ratcheting up of domestic oppression. It was a whole new level of crazy and the world has struggled to put that into diplomatic language.

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, called the plane’s diversion “utterly unacceptable”. NATO said the incident was “serious and dangerous”. The Greek foreign ministry called it a state hijacking. Poland’s prime minister called it an an act of state terrorism. Lithuania’s president described it as abhorrent. Germany’s foreign minister wants “clear consequences”, and France’s wants a “firm and unified response” from the EU.

The EU already imposed sanctions last year on leading Minsk officials, including Lukashenko, for “violent repression and intimidation of peaceful demonstrators, opposition members and journalists”. So did the UK. The US has also sanctioned a number of a Belarusian entities and has now called for an international investigation.

But these are all words. Absent a military response, which is inconceivable, Lukashenko can weather the storm and brush off the sanctions because he has Vladimir Putin’s support. In Russia, whose state media described last year’s protests against Lukashenko as a Western plot, Protasevich’s arrest was met with approval by Putin’s fans. The editor of the pro-Kremlin RT television network said Lukashenko “played it beautifully”. A member of the Duma allied with Putin called it a “brilliant special operation”.

As EU leaders meet today to discuss “possible sanctions” in response to Protasevich’s arrest, they should look farther east than Minsk, and start a radical rethink on how to deal with the criminal regime on Europe’s eastern border.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Gaza ceasefire
The ceasefire between Hamas and Israel continues to hold. As the dust settles, winners and losers are emerging. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, got some relief from his electoral loss and impending corruption trial. Hamas got to advance its claims to Palestinian leadership. The two million people of Gaza, whose situation was already desperate before the conflict, lost. Around 200 people were killed, including 58 children. Survivors lost their limbs and homes. Key infrastructure was destroyed. The blockade of Gaza, which Israel and Egypt began in 2007 when Hamas claimed control of the area, also holds and as long as it does it will heighten the risk of another conflict.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Rich list
The Sunday Times Rich List identified a record 171 UK billionaires – 24 more than in 2020. It’s the biggest increase in the 33 years the paper has been tracking Britain’s wealthiest individuals and families. They’re also richer billionaires: their combined fortune grew by nearly 22 per cent to £597.3 billion. Internet fashion retailers, computer game tycoons, and other technology entrepreneurs led the rise, able to deliver their services and products to populations locked-down during the pandemic. The same pandemic restrictions led to a sharp rise in unemployment while Covid itself claimed about 128,000 lives so far, and stretched many public services to their limit. The chancellor has committed to a higher rate of corporate income tax, in part to finance his policy response to the pandemic. He might want to consider a wealth tax.


New things technology, science, engineering

Epic fight
The courtroom fight between Epic Games, the $28 billion games developer that made Fortnite, and Apple is expected to end today. Epic sued Apple, claiming it improperly blocks third-party app stores on its mobile devices to force developers to use an in-app payment system that allows it to collect a commission as high as 30 per cent. Apple’s response was that there are many other ways for users to access Epic’s Fortnite and that its commission is in line with other platforms’. Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers, a US district judge, will, effectively, be ruling on Apple’s monopoly in the coming months. When Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, was on the stand, she asked him what problem Apple had with allowing users more choice. “They have a choice between many different Android models of a smartphone, or an iPhone,” Cook replied, “and that iPhone has a certain set of principles behind it in safety, security and privacy.”


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

IEA push back
The International Energy Agency’s latest major report outlined a route to net zero carbon emissions by 2050: reduce coal demand by 90 per cent, gas demand by 55 per cent, and oil demand by 75 per cent. It was bold, optimistic and – according to fossil fuel consumers and producers – wrong. Japan and Australia say they’ll ignore the IEA’s advice. Japan committed to net zero emissions by 2050 but, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, its main alternative – nuclear power – remains unpopular. Australia thinks the IEA hasn’t sufficiently accounted for carbon capture technology. The global nuclear, gas, and coal producer associations have all objected to the report’s findings. BP’s chief executive, Bernard Looney, said the report’s “a scenario on a piece of paper” and that the world needed fewer scenarios and “more action”. The IEA’s head, Fatih Birol, said the criticism “misses what the IEA is about”, which is “shaping a secure and sustainable energy future for all”. One thing the criticism makes clear is that Birol is becoming a significant figure in the climate debate.


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Herd impunity
Boris Johnson’s former aide Dominic Cummings said in tweets that the UK’s original plan was to let Covid spread through the population to achieve herd immunity, a point when most people become immune to a particular disease but which – without mass vaccination – comes with high loss of life. Priti Patel, the home secretary, denied the claim. The Health Security Agency chief, Jenny Harries, also denied it, but added that the term herd immunity has been “misinterpreted”. She claimed the plan was to achieve widespread immunity through vaccination. Cummings then denied Patel and Harries’s denials, saying he had the “official plan in all the documents, graphs and meetings” to achieve “herd immunity” by September 2020. Expect more on Wednesday when he appears in front of a parliamentary committee investigating the government’s pandemic response.

Separately, keep an eye on stories like this one ($) about researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology falling sick with Covid-like symptoms before their city’s Covid outbreak was confirmed in December 2019. They will run and run.

The week ahead

UK
24/05 – Northern Ireland eases lockdown restrictions, with people allowed to gather indoors, 25/05 – ONS publishes analysis of impact of Covid-19 and end of Brexit transition on UK trade, 26/05 – Dominic Cummings gives evidence at select committee inquiry on government’s pandemic response; Hay Festival begins, 27/05 – Rishi Sunak appears before Treasury committee session on Greensill Capital, 28/05 – Ofcom publishes annual report on UK news consumption

World
24/05 – Aung San Suu Kyi appears in court in Myanmar; WHO’s 74th World Health Assembly starts; Bob Dylan celebrates 80th birthday, 25/05 – first anniversary of death of George Floyd, 26/05 – Syrian presidential election, 27/05Friends reunion broadcast on HBO Max, 28/05 – woman charged with stealing a laptop from Nancy Pelosi’s office during January’s Capitol riots appears in court

Thanks for reading, and please share this around. 

Paul Caruana Galizia
@pcaruanagalizia   

Ella Hill
@_EllaHill

Photographs by AP/Shutterstock, Getty Images


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