Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The U.S. political scene this week was dominated by coverage of Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings in the Senate. After the hearings, Sotomayor appears to be headed for an easy confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court, a fact conceded by Republican Senator Lindsay Graham on the first day of the hearings.

Also on the domestic political scene, the battle over President Barack Obama’s proposed health care reform heated up this week, with both sides spending increasingly large sums of money on television advertising. So far, Obama has been content to allow Congressional Democrats to lead the reform effort, but that strategy appears to be in danger after several moderate Democrats expressed hesitation over the bill introduced in the House last week.

In news from outside the United States last week:

1. A suicide bomb attack in Jakarta, Indonesia, killed 9 people and injured more than 50 on Friday. Although no group has yet claimed responsibility for the bombing, the police investigation is focusing on Jemaah Islamiyah, a terrorist group with ties to al Qaeda. The group was responsible for a series of attacks between 2002 and 2005, including the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed more than 200 people.

2. The standoff between President Manuel Zelaya and the leaders of the military coup in Honduras remains unresolved. On Friday, Zelaya attempted to return to Honduras, only to be denied entry. He is currently in Nicaragua. Meanwhile, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a close ally of Zelaya, has become increasingly vocal in his condemnation of the coup, accusing it of being backed by the United States. On Thursday, Chávez said, ““The Honduran army wouldn’t have gone forward without the approval of the state department. I don’t think they told [US president Barack] Obama, but there’s an empire behind Obama.” The de facto government of Honduras has filed a complaint against Venezuela with the United Nations Security Council, claiming that the Chávez government is interfering in its domestic affairs. But the Security Council has so far refused to deal with the complaint.

3. It’s been a month of relatively good economic news out of Zimbabwe. Although efforts at developing a new constitution to deal with the ongoing political standoff between the country’s two leading political parties appear to have stalled, the economy is slowly recovering. Finance Minister Tendai Biti announced on Thursday that the government would have a balanced budget this year, with total spending increasing 39 percent to U.S. $1.39 billion. After peaking at more than 231 million percent last year, inflation has been brought under control and the economy has effectively been dollarized, with foreign currencies used for most transactions. Nevertheless, the government is forecasting a sharp increase in agricultural production and a smaller increase in tourist revenues, which should offset a decline in mining revenue caused by the global economic crisis. Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund issued a statement describing Zimbabwe as experiencing a “nascent economic recovery” facilitated by “a more liberal economic environment, price stability, increased financial intermediation and grater access to foreign credit lines.”

4. The Russian economy is currently experiencing its worst economic decline since the transition from communism in the early 1990s. According to a Financial Times report issued on Wednesday, the Russian economy contracted by 10.1 percent in the first half of 2009, a much sharper decline than the 7.9 percent forecast by the World Bank just one month ago. Russia’s current economic woes have been caused largely by the sharp decline in global oil prices, which have recovered to $60 per barrel after falling as low as $35 per barrel earlier this year. Russia is also experiencing its own financial crisis, as commercial banks there are bogged down with bad loans. The Russian government may be forced to turn to international markets, barrowing to offset the sharp decline in tax revenues caused by the economic downturn. Based on the new figures, its projected deficit for 2010 could reach as much as 7.5 percent of GDP, a figure far above the 5 percent originally projected. Unemployment has increased from 6 to 10 percent and continues to grow. Meanwhile, many Russians are responding to the economic crisis by returning to the soil, growing their own food on small plots just outside the city.

5. Natalia Estemirova, a human rights activist in Chechnya, was murdered on Wednesday. Estemirova was kidnapped as she left her house in Chechneya on Wednesday morning, and was found shot to death in Ingushetia, a neighboring Russian republic. Protestors fathered in Moscow on news of her murder, and the international community has condemned her death. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has promised those responsible for Estemirova’s death would be punished, but the Russian human rights community remain skeptical of his reassurances. Estemirova was the third human rights activist killed this year. She was also a close friend of Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist murdered in Moscow in 2006. No one has yet been punished for any of the deaths. Estemirova’s murder, however, raises concerns that the Caucasus region may be headed toward greater instability.

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