Transitions

A trial for Taylor, immunity for Rajapaksa

Europe

Ahead of Sunday's presidential elections in Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said he may run for president for a fourth time in 2018. But some observers think he may face significant challenges during his third term.

At a European Union summit in Brussels, Serbia finally received official approval as a candidate for membership in the EU. At the same the EU's 27 member nations withdrew their ambassadors from Belarus.

The Spanish Supreme Court acquitted Judge Baltasar Garzon, who had been accused of violating a 1977 amnesty law when he tried to prosecute crimes committed during the Franco era.

Middle East and North Africa

On Friday, Iranians voted in their first parliamentary elections since 2009, the year that a disputed presidential vote triggered widespread protests.  The parliamentary elections were expected by some to reinforce Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei's power, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad expected to fare badly. A leading human rights group asserted that the elections are already tainted by arbitrary disqualifications and other restrictions in the lead-up to the voting.

On Syria, the UN Security Council agreed on a statement expressing "deep disappointment" in the Syrian government's refusal to give aid agencies access to cities under attack by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. Earlier the UN Human Rights Council overwhelmingly voted to condemn widespread and systematic violations in Syria. Only China, Cuba, and Russia voted against. The opposition Syrian National Council established a military bureau to co-ordinate the various armed groups on the ground, though the head of the Free Syrian Army denied having anything to do with the move.

Egypt lifted the travel ban on 43 NGO workers accused by the government of conducting illegal activities -- a move criticized by some Egyptians, who saw it as proof of political interference in the judiciary. The dates for Egypt's presidential elections were set for May 23 and 24, 2012, with run-offs on June 16 and 17. 

Yemen's new President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi formally took office on Monday, ending Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33-year rule.

Asia

There were reports of at least 12 people killed in riots in China's ethnically divided north-western Xinjiang province, home to the restive Uighur ethnic minority. 

The Azerbaijani government dismissed a provincial governor after a rare protest.

In the Maldives, supporters of the former president blocked the current president from addressing Parliament.

The Burmese government said that it would grant exiled Burmese journalists visas to report on the elections on April 1 from inside the country. A commentator emphasized the need for urgent exchange rate unification.

A group called on the UN Human Rights Council to demand that the Sri Lankan government make dramatic and timely progress on reconciliation and accountability. Meanwhile, a U.S. court dismissed a lawsuit against President Mahinda Rajapaksa over killings allegedly committed at the end of the 1983-2009 civil war. (A poster featuring Rajapaksa is shown in the photo above.) The court ruled that his status as a head of state guarantees him immunity.

Americas

Colombia's FARC rebels announced that they plan to release any remaining "prisoners of war" and give up kidnapping in a step towards peace talks with the government.

Ecuador's President pardoned three owners and one journalist of the El Universo newspaper. They had been found guilty of libeling the president and faced three years in jail and a $42 million fine. Correa's decision marked the end of a long-simmering feud over the limits of press freedom in Ecuador. Despite the pardon, advocates of free speech worry that the case could lead to a culture of self-censorship among Ecuadorean journalists.

Africa

The United Nations has set April 26 as the day when the Special Court for Sierra Leone will issue a verdict in the trial of Liberia's ex-President Charles Taylor. It will be the first international trial of a former African head of state.

The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudan's defense minister as the result of the ICC's investigation into atrocities committed in Darfur.

Senegal's incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade will face a run-off next month against his former prime minister in the second round of presidential elections. His bid for a third term had led to violent protests.

Plus this week's recommended reads:

A former analyst at the U.S. Department of Defense describes how to save Afghanistan from falling victim to the resource curse.

The World Bank's president explains why we still need the institution.

A leading political commentator in Thailand explores the dilemma of Asian liberal democracy.

Two experts on Syria speculate on what is likely to happen after the collapse of the present regime.

Two articles contemplate the politics of economic reform in China -- and whether the uprising in Wukan provides a democratic model for the country's future.

And finally, an expert on democratic transitions analyzes the performance of Burundi's political parties.

Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Indonesia: The curse that keeps on giving

Is there a worse thing than having the oil curse? It would seem so. Indonesia, which quit the oil cartel OPEC in 2008, learns that it still has to live with the downsides of abundant domestic petroleum supplies even though today it is importing most of its oil needs like much of the rest of the world.

The government continues to spend huge sums of money to subsidize domestic fuel consumption, thus making Indonesia's gasoline, at the equivalent of 50 US cents a liter, the cheapest in Asia. But with world oil prices continuing to soar, the government has now reluctantly agreed to raise domestic fuel prices beginning on April 1, although it hasn't decided by how much. (The photo above shows a man changing the prices at a Jakarta gas station.)

Politics, rather than economics, is the main consideration when it comes to setting fuel prices.

The lion's share of the fuel subsidy is actually enjoyed by the wealthy and powerful. They are resisting any attempt to increase fuel prices. The price increase, when it is announced, will likely be marginal, and it is unlikely to make much of a dent in the costs of the subsidy.

In 2011, the fuel subsidy cost the government $18 billion, money which critics say could have been better spent on badly needed infrastructure, education, health care, or even upgrading the nation's antiquated military arsenal. This year, the government has already committed to spend 10 percent of its revenue on subsidizing fuel.

Indonesia is burning the oil it doesn't really have anymore. The curse has not been lifted, at least not entirely.

Once a medium-size oil exporter, Indonesia offers a classic example of why having abundant natural resources can be more of a curse than a blessing. The ruling elite virtually squandered the country's wealth during the oil heyday. The state oil company Pertamina almost went bankrupt in the 1970s when it overstretched itself with huge debts and had to be bailed out by the government. In the late 1990s, corruption became so rampant that the government slid into bankruptcy, and had to be rescued by the IMF.

Today this nation of 240 million people has managed to lift itself out of poverty and become a middle-income country despite, and not because of, its oil. Indonesia still produces around 900,000 barrels per day, almost half of its peak output in the 1970s. But rising domestic demand means that Indonesia still has to import some of its oil needs.

This makes Indonesia vulnerable to the volatile oil markets. The fact that Indonesia quit OPEC only in 2008, years after it had already become a net oil importer at the turn of the century, illustrates the country's collective sense of denial. No one wants to admit the reality that the oil reserves are being depleted.

This attitude is still strongly felt among the nation's middle class elite. Even though some commentators point out that as much as 40 percent of the subsidy money goes to the wealthy, there are few voices pushing for a cut in the subsidy bill (or the corresponding rise in domestic fuel prices that would ensue). If the subsidy is intended to help the poor and needy, then the government misses the target by a long shot.

There is a very good reason for this behavior: Politics.

Raising fuel prices is risky. It can even lead to political suicide, whether the country in question is a democracy (as Indonesia is today), or an autocracy (as Indonesia used to be). President Suharto made the mistake of hiking fuel prices at the height of the Asian financial crises in May 1998. Two weeks later, he found himself facing massive riots that ended his 30-year rule.

Today, under the conditions of democracy, pandering to populism becomes the norm. A hike in fuel prices, as imperative as it is today given the soaring world oil prices, is not something that elected politicians -- not President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and not the House of Representatives -- want to be seen advocating.

Not even when general elections are still two years away.

The oil curse will probably only be lifted when Indonesia's oil wells dry up completely.  Not before.

BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images