Economist 12/31/15

  1. Over the past two years, as its relations with the West have soured, Russia has proclaimed a “pivot to the East”. Officials envisioned China replacing Western capital markets and hoovering up Russian exports of oil, minerals and food.The Russian recession and China’s slowdown have put a damper on grand plans. With oil prices low and the rouble weak, bilateral trade shrank by around 30% in the first half of 2015.The clash with the West over Ukraine turned Russia’s focus eastward again. In May 2014, two months after the annexation of Crimea, Mr Putin met Mr Xi and announced a 30-year, $400 billion gas deal, ending a decade of talks. Russia’s rail monopoly awarded a tender to the state-controlled China Railway Group to design a high-speed train between Moscow and Kazan.But it has not exactly been a gold rush. Western sanctions have made Chinese lenders cautious about Russian firms.Russia, meanwhile, frets about being exploited.Chinese businessmen complain about restrictions on hiring foreign labourers.
  2. AMERICA incarcerates people awaiting trial at triple the world average. Every day, roughly 500,000 people who have been convicted of no crime sit in county jails. Some are there because a judge determined they were too dangerous to return to the streets. But the vast majority end up behind bars because they could not afford to post “bail”, a returnable payment designed to ensure they’ll show up for their court dates.Few people outside the rather brazen bail-bond industry have nice things to say about the present system. The American Bar Association urges judges to ask for cash bail “only when no other less restrictive condition of release will reasonably ensure the defendant’s appearance in court”. Bail systems like the one being challenged in California also have the perverse effect of encouraging some innocent defendants to falsely claim guilt in a plea bargain.
  3. Most victims of war and terrorism in the Middle East are Muslims, since they are by far the majority of the population. But the tiny Christian minority often feels singled out.Overall, the proportion of Middle Easterners who are Christian has dropped from 14% in 1910 to 4% today.Many Christians feel more at home in the West and have the means to get there. Some are leaving because of the general atmosphere of violence and economic malaise. Others worry about persecution.The Christians who remain tend to have fewer babies than their Muslim neighbours, according to the Pew Research Centre. Regional data are unreliable, but in Egypt the fertility rate for Muslims is 2.7; for Christians it is 1.9.Mosul, in northern Iraq, was once home to tens of thousands of Christians. Perceived as supporting the Americans, they were targeted by insurgents after the invasion.In the decades before the Arab spring, many Christian leaders lent their support to authoritarian rulers in return for the protection of Christians—and their own lofty status. But the deals broke down when the dictators fell or wobbled.
  4. Christian leaders have often supported whichever strongman is in power. The late Pope Shenouda III, head of the Coptic church, the largest in the Middle East, backed Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s former dictator.Yet the Copts have gained little from their leaders’ loyalty. Mr Mubarak stood by as relations between Christians and Muslims deteriorated and sectarian violence increased. Even in Lebanon, where Christians were once a majority and still hold considerable power, their political leaders have disappointed. Under the country’s unique system, government posts are shared out based on sect.Oddly enough it is the Gulf, home to the most conservative brand of Islam, which has welcomed the largest number of Christians recently, though not from Iraq or Syria.Saudi Arabia, for example, bans the practice of Christianity (though many Christians worship in private). The UAE restricts proselytisation, but has otherwise supported its Christians.
  5. After years of squabbles and delays, development of the Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine in the Gobi desert, by far Mongolia’s biggest investment project, seems to be back on track with the signing on December 15th of a new financing package worth $4.4 billion.The mine, boasting a copper deposit that is among the world’s biggest and purest, is controlled by Rio Tinto, a British-Australian firm, with the Mongolian government holding a 34% stake.But four-fifths of the project’s value may lie underground.This week’s financing deal, which involves 15 commercial banks and the American, Canadian and Australian export-credit agencies, will allow work to begin on the underground mining phase.Mongolia is not out of the woods yet. Hard currency remains in short supply, inflation is stubbornly high and the budget deficit is way above the target of 2% of GDP, despite tax rises and cuts in public-sector pay. Above all, the country’s political turbulence is all but certain to continue.Mongolian People’s Party will appeal to Mongolians’ sense of nationalism over mining.

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