Fiji’s election is in question. Violent clashes follow the Peruvian president’s ouster. Billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried, the ‘face of crypto’, is arrested. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Zelensky pushes global peace summit as Putin attacks grid

A dark street in what appears to be a European town with old buildings and snow scattered around on the rooftops; a single shopfront can be seen with yellow light spilling out onto the street.
A street in downtown Kyiv this month. Ukraine’s energy grid and water supply have been targeted by repeated Russian attacks.
Credit: Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP

Great power rivalry

Ukraine: European countries and the United States committed this week to urgently provide aid, power equipment and 30 million energy-saving light bulbs to Ukraine to ensure its population can survive freezing winter conditions despite Russian attacks on the country’s electricity and water supplies.

On Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told a conference of donors in Paris that Ukraine needed support to counter the blackouts and the “energy terror”.

“Generators have become as important as armour to protect the population,” he said during an online address.

Zelensky this week called for a global peace summit to implement a peace proposal that he introduced last month, which would involve Russian troops withdrawing from all Ukrainian territory. He said withdrawals could begin by Christmas as a show of goodwill.

But Moscow said the proposal was “impossible” and that Zelensky needed to acknowledge Russia’s annexation of territory across eastern and southern Ukraine – a move that Russia claims was based on popular support.

The Kremlin announced this week that – for the first time in a decade – Russian President Vladimir Putin will not hold his annual marathon end-of-year news conference. The traditional event, which can last more than four hours, typically allows Putin to try to demonstrate his transparency and to discuss – at length – his foreign and domestic policy. The cancellation was seen as a sign that Putin is becoming increasingly remote, and that he has little that he wants to say about his costly 10-month-old war.

Ukraine this week stepped up its attack around the Russian-held city of Melitopol, signalling that it may be planning a counteroffensive to regain territory across southern Ukraine. In the country’s east, both sides this week acknowledged that fighting had been heavy and difficult. The US estimated last month that Russia and Ukraine each had more than 100,000 soldiers killed or wounded.

The neighbourhood

Fiji: On Wednesday, Fiji held a national election that pitted Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 2006, against Sitiveni Rabuka, the leader of the country’s first coup in 1987.

Early results this week showed Bainimarama’s party, FijiFirst, trailing Rabuka’s People’s Alliance. However, officials temporarily suspended counting due to a technical problem with the election results app. After it came back online, FijiFirst was ahead with 46 per cent of the vote, with People’s Alliance on 33 per cent.

Rabuka said he was concerned the results had been “doctored” and said he would complain to the Fijian Elections Office. Complete results were expected on Sunday, but opposition parties called for a stop to counting and declined to express faith in the elections office.

Bainimarama, a former military commander, has held two elections – in 2014 and 2018 – since his coup, and won both.

But Rabuka, who once described democracy as a “foreign flower unsuited to Fijian soil”, said this week he did not believe Bainimarama would hand over power if he lost.

Asked by an SBS News reporter this week whether he was willing to step down, Bainimarama said: “Of course… Haven’t they got any intelligent reporters from Australia to come and ask me better questions than that?”

Election observers rated the last two ballots as fair. But Bainimarama has been accused of using the courts, police and media controls to stifle and intimidate the opposition and critics.

A multinational group led by Australia, India and Indonesia is monitoring the national vote counting centre.

Democracy in retreat

Peru: Violent clashes erupted in Peru this week after the ousting of President Pedro Castillo, who was accused of attempting a coup and was removed by Peru’s congress.

Castillo, a leftist former teacher, attempted to dismiss congress last week to prevent it impeaching him over corruption allegations. But congress instead impeached him, deposed him and swore in his vice-president, Dina Boluarte, a former lawyer, as Peru’s first female president and its sixth leader in five years.

The removal of Castillo led to unrest as his supporters clashed with security forces. At least seven people have been killed and 100 injured, as protesters overturned vehicles and attacked the offices of pro-opposition media outlets.

On Monday, Boluarte, who initially said she would serve a full term until 2026, announced she would hold elections as soon as December 2023.

But Castillo’s supporters continued to protest, demanding that elections be held immediately.

In a handwritten letter from prison in Lima, Castillo insisted he would remain as leader and described Boluarte as the “snot and slobber of the coup-mongering right”.

Peru has endured political chaos in recent years and has struggled to overcome widespread corruption and deep partisan divides, despite having one of the strongest economies in Latin America. During his 18 months in office, Castillo had five prime ministers and more than 80 ministers.

Spotlight: Sam Bankman-Fried in jail

In May, Sam Bankman-Fried was interviewed at a beach club in the private compound where he was living in the Bahamas for a “Lunch with the FT” profile in the Financial Times. A week earlier, Bankman-Fried, whose wealth was then valued at $US24 billion – a “paper fortune” as the newspaper delicately pointed out – had hosted a conference at which he interviewed Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, and dined with Katy Perry.

Despite his shaggy look and trademark shorts and T-shirt attire, Bankman-Fried (or “SBF”), founder of cryptocurrency exchange FTX, was seen as the “face of crypto” who would be able to legitimise and demystify the world of crypto for policymakers and the public.

“Most of crypto is real,” he told the Financial Times over tacos and falafel, adding: “Something like 80 per cent of market cap is coming from tokens that are at least mostly not bullshit.”

But his exchange spectacularly collapsed last month as cryptocurrency values fell and the firm lacked the funds to meet a run of customer withdrawals. It has since emerged that FTX loaned vast sums to SBF’s crypto trading firm, which used the funds to make investments and buy digital tokens.

On Monday, SBF, whose wealth – on paper or otherwise – is now virtually nothing, was arrested at his compound  in the Bahamas after United States prosecutors filed criminal charges. On Tuesday, he was charged with fraud, and conspiracy to commit money laundering and to violate campaign finance laws. He was denied bail and will be held in prison ahead of his likely extradition.

A civil complaint by the US Securities and Exchange Commission said: “Bankman-Fried was orchestrating a massive, years-long fraud, diverting billions of dollars … for his own personal benefit and to help grow his crypto empire.”

In his final Twitter thread before his arrest, SBF apologised and said he would testify to US congress about “my failings”. “Hopefully people can learn from the difference between who I was and who I could have been,” he said. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 17, 2022 as "Zelensky pushes global peace summit as Putin attacks grid".

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