Weekly Briefing

Syria: Scud missiles

When trying to improve relations between your country and one in the Middle East, it might be unproductive to suggest that your new friend is supplying Scud missiles to the Lebanese Islamist group Hezbollah. So, while Israel's president, Shimon Peres, has accused Syria of playing "a double game" - transferring missiles powerful enough to hit Tel Aviv, yet calling for closer ties with Israel - the US has hedged its bets. Without explicitly backing Israel's claim, the US has warned that such a move by Syria would be "incendiary" and "provocative".

Hezbollah has neither confirmed nor denied the claims; a member of its parliamentary bloc, Hussein Haj Hassan, has said that the group's weaponry is "none of Israel's business". Israel, however, is unlikely to agree. Despite attempts to get closer to Syria, the US might just weigh in, too.

Greece: bankruptcy

With its debts now rated as "junk", the Greek government is unable to raise money on the international markets and stocks around the globe have been sliding as a result. The European Council's Herman van Rompuy is assuring anyone who will listen that negotiations for a €45bn rescue package are "well on track". With the IMF in talks over providing even more funding than it has already agreed to, his comments are not so reassuring.

Adding to the sense of panic, Greece's finance minister, George Papaconstantinou, told investors that they will "lose their shirts" if they bet on the cash-strapped nation's economic failure. Whether this is a warning to avoid a bad bet, or the minister's wrath, remains to be seen.

Hungary: far right I

On 25 April, Hungary's Socialist government was ousted not by Jobbik - the far-right allies of the BNP who advocate "segregation of young Roma" - but by the centre-right Fidesz Party. Years of financial chaos, including a $25bn IMF bailout, catalysed the change.

Jobbik became the third-largest party, with 16.7 per cent of votes. But it is not the only party trading on anti-Roma sentiment. The new Fidesz prime minister, Viktor Orban, has promised to tackle small crimes such as “the thefts of chickens", a loaded phrase in a country where the stereotype of chicken-stealing Gypsies is common. However, the election has increased the number of Roma politicians in parliament - from three to a grand total of four.

Austria: far right II

Elections were also held in Austria on 25 April, where the country's presidency was the goal. Like her Hungarian counterparts, Austria's far-right candidate Barbara Rosenkranz won 16 per cent of the vote. The incumbent Social Democrat, Heinz Fischer, won 79 per cent.

In an attempt to consolidate the anti-Rosenkranz vote, the other major Austrian parties endorsed Fischer rather than running their own candidates; an effective tactic, but not a very popular one. Turnout was just 48 per cent. Meanwhile, Rosenkranz, who has criticised Austria's strict anti-Nazi laws for restricting "freedom of opinion", won almost exactly the same vote share as her Freedom Party holds in parliament.

China: Expo

Cultural diplomacy: there are so many methods, and Shanghai is trying them all. At one end of the scale is the Shanghai Expo, costing anywhere between $4.2bn (twice as much as the Olympics) and $58bn. It is expected to entice 70 million visitors, although its theme, "Better City, Better Life", is probably not too thrilling for the 18,000 families forced out of their homes to make way. "If you want to protest," says Huang Jianzhi, the Expo's deputy director general, "go elsewhere."

A gentler nod to international relations comes from the proprietors of the city's new Obama Club. The flyer claims it will "blow your mind" with its pole-dancers and Vegas glitz. Just like the US president, then.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger