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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Washington (AFP) – The International Monetary Fund approved a $17 billion aid deal for Ukraine, even as Kiev fought to prevent pro-Moscow separatists from grabbing another chunk of the country.

Greenlighting a rescue program for an interim government which took power after an uprising two months ago, IMF chief Christine Lagarde said it was crucial to strengthen Kiev’s economy.

“Urgent action was necessary,” the Fund’s managing director said, after her executive board’s approved of the plan.

“Deep-seated vulnerabilities together with political shock have led to a major crisis in Ukraine,” she warned.

“The economy is in recession, fiscal balances have deteriorated, and the financial sector is under significant stress.”

The global crisis lender’s decision opens the way for an immediate deployment of $3.2 billion to Kiev, which the Fund said has pledged to implement tough reforms.

Those include slashing subsidies for fuel, cutting a large fiscal deficit, getting more control on salary increases, reducing corruption, and strengthening a frail banking system.

The plan also assumes a quick resolution to the country’s fight with Russia over some $2.2 billion owed to Gazprom, and agreeing a new price for gas purchases from the Russian energy giant.

Some of the money from the IMF loan could go toward repaying Gazprom.

“Decisive measures were taken by Ukraine and decisive measures have just been taken by the IMF,” Lagarde said.

But Lagarde conceded that the rescue of Ukraine — which totals $27 billion with additional aid from the World Bank, the European Union and others — faces deep challenges, especially geopolitical.

“Risks to the program are high. In particular, further escalation of tensions with Russia and unrest in the east of the country pose a substantial risk to the economic outlook.”

“We’re trying to mitigate the risks as much as we can,” she said.

The Fund has moved quickly to aid the country, under immense economic and political pressure since February’s overthrow of the pro-Russia government of president Viktor Yanukovych.

It warned that the Ukraine economy faces a 5.0 percent contraction this year, even with external support.

The IMF has been wary about lending to Ukraine after two previous loan plans since 2008 failed because of the government’s failure to meet reform conditions set by the global crisis lender.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has promised to implement new IMF-proposed reforms, including the fuel price hike that will be unpopular and politically difficult.

The IMF points out that natural gas prices in Ukraine are half those of Russia, which produces and exports gas, and less than a quarter of Poland’s.

Reza Moghadam, director of the IMF’s European Department, said some fiscal austerity is necessary to stabilize government finances.

Without a “moderate” amount of austerity, he said, the combined deficit of the government and the state energy company Naftogaz would rise to an “impossible-to-finance” 12 percent of GDP.

“The authorities see the program as a historical break with a past marked by crony capitalism, pervasive corruption, and poor governance which weighed heavily on the economy,” he said.

“They believe that there is a window of opportunity for bold and ambitious reforms.”

At the same time, the ongoing siege in economically important eastern Ukraine poses a more immediate danger.

Moscow has already engineered the secession of Crimea, which Russia then annexed, and Russian forces are massed on Ukraine’s border, threatening to join pro-Moscow secessionists in the east.

On Wednesday, Kiev said its forces were on “full combat alert” against a possible Russian invasion.

But authorities admitted they were “helpless” to prevent pro-Kremlin insurgents tightening their grip on the eastern region.

Adding fuel to the situation are Russia’s threats to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine, and the heightened sanctions against Russia by the U.S. and Europe.

“On the geopolitical front, clearly, the bilateral support and the cooperation of all parties will be extremely helpful to reinforce the position of the economy of Ukraine,” Lagarde said.

“Anything that undermines the economic situation of the country will jeopardize the implementation of the program.”

Sergei L. Loiko/Los Angeles Times/MCT

Many Democrats are getting nervous about the upcoming presidential election. Ominous, extensively reported articles by two of the best in the business—the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin and The Atlantic's Barton Gellman—outline Boss Trump's plot to keep control of the White House in 2021 no matter how the American people vote.
Trump is hardly making a secret of it. He's pointedly refused to commit to "a peaceful transfer of power."

"Well, we're going to have to see what happens," is how he answered the question. He added that after we "get rid of the ballots"—presumably mail-in ballots he's been whining about for weeks--"there won't be a transfer, frankly. There'll be a continuation."

Of course, Trump himself has always voted by mail, but then brazen hypocrisy is his standard operating mode. If you haven't noticed, he also lies a lot. Without prevaricating, boasting, and bitching, he'd be mute. And even then, he'd still have Twitter. He recently tweeted that the winner "may NEVER BE ACCURATELY DETERMINED" because mail-in ballots make it a "RIGGED ELECTION in waiting."
Gellman gets this part exactly right in The Atlantic: "Let us not hedge about one thing. Donald Trump may win or lose, but he will never concede. Not under any circumstance. Not during the Interregnum and not afterward. If compelled in the end to vacate his office, Trump will insist from exile, as long as he draws breath, that the contest was rigged.
"Trump's invincible commitment to this stance will be the most important fact about the coming Interregnum. It will deform the proceedings from beginning to end. We have not experienced anything like it before."
No, we haven't. However, it's important to remember that Trump makes threats and promises almost daily that never happen. Remember that gigantic border wall Mexico was going to pay for? Trump has built exactly five miles of the fool thing, leaving roughly two thousand to go.
His brilliant cheaper, better health care plan? Non-existent.
On Labor Day, Boss Trump boasted of his unparalleled success in strong-arming Japan into building new auto-manufacturing plants. "They're being built in Ohio, they're being built in South Carolina, North Carolina, they're being built all over and expanded at a level that we've never seen before."
Not a word of that is true. Two new plants, one German, another Swedish have opened in South Carolina, but construction began before Trump took office. Auto industry investment during Barack Obama's second term far exceeded Trump's. His version is sheer make-believe.
But back to the GOP scheme to steal the election.
First, it's clear that even Trump understands that he has virtually no chance of winning the national popular vote. He's been polling in the low 40s, with no sign of change. To have any chance of prevailing in the Electoral College, he's got to do the electoral equivalent of drawing to an inside straight all over again—winning a half-dozen so-called battleground states where he defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 by the narrowest of margins.
At this writing, that looks highly unlikely. The latest polling in must-win Pennsylvania, for example, shows Trump trailing Joe Biden by nine points. That's a landslide. Trump's down ten in Wisconsin, eight in Michigan. And so on.
So spare me the screeching emails in ALL CAPS, OK? Polls were actually quite accurate in 2016. Trump narrowly defeated the odds. It can happen. But he's in far worse shape this time. Furthermore, early voting turnout is very high, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans two to one.
Hence, The Atlantic reports, "Trump's state and national legal teams are already laying the groundwork for post-election maneuvers that would circumvent the results of the vote count in battleground states."
The plan is clear. Because more Democrats than Republicans are choosing mail-in voting during the COVID pandemic, Trump hopes to prevent those ballots from being counted. Assuming he'll have a narrow "swing state" lead on election night, he'll declare victory and start filing lawsuits. "The red mirage," some Democrats call it.
"As a result," Toobin writes, "the aftermath of the 2020 election has the potential to make 2000 look like a mere skirmish." With Trump in the White House urging armed militias to take to the street.
Mail-in votes take a long time to count. Things could definitely get crazy.
True, but filing a lawsuit to halt a Florida recount was one thing. Filing suits against a half dozen states to prevent votes from being counted at all is quite another. Public reaction would be strong. Also, winning such lawsuits requires serious evidence of fraud. Trumpian bluster ain't evidence.
The Atlantic reports that GOP-controlled state legislatures are thinking about sending Trumpist delegations to the Electoral College regardless of the popular vote winner—theoretically constitutional but currently illegal.
Fat chance. If that's the best they've got, they've got nothing.
Anyway, here's the answer: Vote early, and in person*.

[Editor's note: In some states, receiving an absentee ballot means that a voter can no longer vote in person* or may have to surrender the absentee ballot, including the envelope in which it arrived, at their polling place. Please check with your local election authorities.]