The World Today for September 29, 2016


A Duplicitous Doppelgänger

Europe is often seen as a stalwart of democratic principles, far-reaching liberal values and human rights.

But on its eastern-most periphery lies a small, often overlooked country, governed by one man, President Alexander Lukashenko, for the past 22 years – virtually since the country declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

He’s “Europe’s last dictator,” according to the Economist.

There’s a good reason for the moniker: Lukashenko has “won” every presidential election since 1994 by unrealistic double-digit margins, also because he tends to jail opposition leaders and stymie protests with force. So it was no surprise that earlier this month, the results went in his favor.

“To paraphrase Stalin, it’s unimportant who votes for whom,” said the Belarussian Nobel Prize laureate Svetlana Alexievich last year about elections in her country. “What matters is who counts the vote.”

Still, there was something different this time around.

Of 110 seats up for grabs in parliamentary elections Sept. 11, two actually went to opposition candidates in spite of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reporting that archaic libel statutes stifled the opposition’s media campaigns – or that little pesky matter of the pictures in one Minsk precinct depicting the tampering of early-voter ballots.

Change is coming to this small, isolated country, say analysts, and it’s not because of a push from the West.

The Belarussian political system is a mirror of its patron, Russia. Belarus even has an economic “union state” with its neighbor, who props up the weak Belarussian economy with cheap, duty-free oil.

But ever since the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 – the result of an umbilical Russo-Ukrainian relationship that quickly became infected – Belarus has been quietly moving closer to Western Europe, fearing that Russia could turn on its doppelgänger for its next geographic osmosis.

Lukashenko disputed Russia’s claims over Crimea and halted discussions with its “eastern brother” about constructing further air bases on Belarussian soil, Reuters reported. He then pivoted toward Europe by agreeing to allow for more transparency in the electoral process and by releasing political prisoners.

In return, the EU lifted sanctions that had been in place for five years. Belarus is now also in talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) about a $3 billion loan that would help to sever its economic lifeline with Russia.

Russia has responded by slowly decreasing Belarus’ subsidized oil supply. That, coupled with weak exports, led to a 4 percent drop in Belarus’ GDP in 2015, and a 3 percent fall already this year.

Belarus now finds itself straddling two worlds, say analysts, but pushing in a once-unthinkable direction – West. It’s anyone’s guess whether it is able to free itself completely from Russia. If it does, many hope it doesn’t end up like war-plagued Ukraine.


From Russia, with Love

Investigators claim there is “irrefutable evidence” that a Russian-made Buk 9M38 missile system – a self-propelled, Soviet-era development – downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014, as it flew over rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine. All 298 passengers on board were killed.

At a press conference in the Dutch town of Nieuwegein, an international joint investigation team (JIT) presented a raft of evidence supporting their findings: Forensic data, witness statements, satellite images and wire-tapped phone calls all corroborated conclusions that the Buk, escorted back and forth across the Russia-Ukraine border into the village of Pervomaiski by “armed men in uniform,” was responsible for the crash.

A full video simulation of the team’s findings can be found here.

Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press spokesman, responded to the allegations, saying that the “whole story is unfortunately surrounded by a huge amount of speculation and unqualified, unprofessional information.”

Despite Russian denials, the JIT has 100 unnamed suspects under investigation, many of whom are widely believed to be serving Russian military officials, the Guardian reports.

The likelihood of Russia agreeing to extraditions still remains unclear, should formal charges be filed. But victims’ families remain optimistic.

“They went into a lot of depth,” said Will Mayne, the brother of a 20-year-old victim, of the JIT’s findings “It’s going to be a struggle, but you always have to be hopeful.”


More than 200 people in Darfur have allegedly been killed by chemical weapons dropped on them by the Sudanese government since January, according to new report by Amnesty International.

Dozens of children are among those harmed by the banned weapons, which cause the affected individuals to vomit blood, struggle to breath and have their skin fall off, said the watchdog group.

Amnesty’s report, the result of an eight-month investigation, also found evidence in Darfur of “scorched earth, mass rapes, killings and bombs,” wrote the BBC.

The recurring attacks by the Sudanese government against their own people reveals that “nothing has changed” since the conflict between the government in Khartoum and rebels in Darfur broke out 13 years ago, said a director at Amnesty International.

The Sudanese government has called the allegations of chemical weapons in Amnesty’s report “baseless and fabricated” and said they were intended to derail peace processes and economic development in Sudan, reported the BBC.

Strikes, No Strikes

India’s army carried out “surgical strikes” Wednesday night on terrorist bases along its de facto border with Pakistan, an act that could further ratchet up already heightened tensions between the two countries.

An Indian army official said “significant casualties have been caused to the terrorists and those who are trying to support them” by the strikes, which occurred in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir near the so-called line of control that divides the disputed territory.

The military said it acted on “credible information” that terrorists in the border region were planning to infiltrate India and attack Kashmir and major Indian cities.

Pakistan’s military denied that the strikes occurred, saying Indian troops had only fired across the line of control, a fairly routine occurrence, reported the Wall Street Journal.

Relations between the two countries have been strained following a terror attack that killed 18 soldiers on an Indian military base in Kashmir earlier this month. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi blamed Pakistan for the attack, saying it wouldn’t go “unpunished.”


Music of the Night

Scientists at Cornell University have cracked the case of the “singing” fish.

The plainfin midshipman is a fish species native to the shallow coastline waters of the North American Pacific whose males serenade potential female partners with late-night, low-pitched hums.

But why does the midshipman prefer its loving at night?

A newly released study published in the journal Current Biology reveals the answer: The secretion of melatonin, a naturally occurring chemical ubiquitous throughout the animal kingdom, gives the midshipman the green-light to sing at night – singing is a natural part of the midshipman’s nocturnal circadian rhythm.

To discover this, researchers at Cornell University exposed plainfin midshipmen to varying degrees of light – from prolonged periods of complete darkness to non-stop brightness – in order to measure the sunlight’s influence on melatonin secretion.

Regardless of exposure, the males still belted their song, albeit in an unusual time signature – the natural 24-hour day-night cycle of light operates in harmony with the fish’s natural biology, keeping melatonin secretion consistent and the tune in sync.

“Circadian rhythms govern the daily lives of diverse lineages, from plants to animals,” said Ni Feng, a researcher on the study. “Our study helps cement melatonin as a timing signal for social communication behaviors.”


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