The World Today for April 03, 2017


A Studied Approach

Prime Minister Viktor Orban has consolidated power and undercut civil liberties in Hungary for years.

Now he’s squaring off against one of the richest men in the world and one of the most respected institutions that arose from the ruins of his country after the fall of communism.

On Sunday, around 10,000 people marched in Budapest to protest proposed laws that critics said were designed to shut down Central European University, a school founded by billionaire Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros in 1991.

Soros’ vision of an “open society” is at odds with Orban’s goal of turning Hungary into an “illiberal state,” the Associated Press reported.

The AP was alluding to Orban’s remarks in 2014, when the leader of the NATO and European Union member famously said he wanted Hungary to follow the example of countries like China or Russia rather than the liberal democracies of the West.

The proposed laws would give the Hungarian government more control over the private school’s hiring and admission process. They would also prevent it from issuing American degrees – they are valid in Hungary and the US – and force it to open a campus in New York state, where it is accredited, wrote the university’s rector in a New York Times op-ed.

The rector equated the moves with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to shut down the University of St. Petersburg and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s suppression of academic freedom.

Orban claims the university is “cheating” in a competition with Hungarian public universities, according to Reuters. But school administrators said those claims were bunk. They’ve been passing muster with Hungarian regulations for years, they said.

By the way, Orban received a Soros Foundation scholarship to study at Oxford University.

The seeming incongruity of a well-educated, post-communist European leader cracking down on a flourishing institution is in keeping with Orban’s style.

Elected most recently in 2010 – he also was premier from 1998 to 2002 – Orban altered laws that his critics say have given his Federation of Young Democrats political party an unfair advantage in retaining power.

He has expanded that power at every chance, and treated the influx of Syrian and other refugees into Europe in recent years as an invasion rather than a desperate bid for survival.

Orban-watcher Kim Lane Scheppele, a Princeton University professor, has alleged that the 53-year-old prime minister has used the migrant crisis to expand the near-dictatorial powers that he has already accumulated.

Now that he holds sway over citizens and defenseless migrants, he’s targeting wealthy financiers and foreign intellectuals.

And in that, he may have overreached.

Stay Tuned.


Left’s Last Gasp

A Leftist former vice president looked poised to win a presidential election in Ecuador on Sunday, bucking the rightward trend in Latin American politics. But his conservative opponent has alleged electoral fraud and demanded a recount.

With more than 90 percent of the votes counted, Lenin Moreno, a close ally of departing President Rafael Correa, led Guillermo Lasso 51 to 49 percent, the New York Times reported. However, Lasso vowed to contest the results if he came up short, and his supporters staged demonstrations to protest what he called “a fraud attempt,” Reuters said.

Provided the results stand, Moreno’s victory would likely protect citizens from austerity measures that would slash government benefits. But it might also weaken the country’s ability to bounce back from an economic downturn across Latin America due to low oil prices and the end of the China-led commodities boom.

Regardless, Moreno’s win would be good news for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, as Lasso had promised to kick him out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London where he has sought refuge if he won.

Populist Economics

South Africa’s new finance minister has promised to redistribute the country’s wealth among the majority black population, even as investors remain shaken by the surprise removal of his respected predecessor.

“The ownership of wealth and assets remains concentrated in the hands of a small part of the population. This must change,” Reuters quoted Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba as saying following his selection.

In a speech marking the launch of a housing project in his home province Saturday, President Jacob Zuma, too, alluded to “our stated commitment to advance radical socio-economic transformation,” the agency said.

Despite the efforts of Zuma’s African National Congress, South Africa remains one of the world’s most unequal societies due to the lingering legacy of Apartheid. But critics fear more radical, populist measures to address the problem could derail the economy. Among their concerns, Zuma said recently he aims to change the constitution and seize farmland owned by the white minority – an action that had disastrous consequences in Zimbabwe.

New Fault Lines

The selection of a popular Pakistani general to head the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance has raised concerns that it could exacerbate tensions between Shia and Sunni Muslims in Pakistan.

Last week, Pakistan approved the appointment of former army chief Raheel Sharif to lead the alliance, which includes several dozen majority-Muslim countries. But Pakistani opposition politician Imran Khan and others have criticized the decision, saying it might hurt Shia-Sunni relations in Pakistan and damage the country’s relationship with Iran, the New York Times reported.

Other critics say that the group is more like a Sunni military alliance, as it does not include predominantly Shia states like Iran or Iraq. Around 20 percent of Pakistanis are Shiites, and they are frequently targeted by Sunni extremists.

Another possible fault line is the war in Yemen. So far, Pakistan has resisted Saudi Arabia’s calls to join its coalition in supporting the internationally recognized government against the Houthi rebels backed by Iran. But the Times quoted a policy analyst as saying the general’s appointment “is a bit of a departure” from Pakistan’s neutral position on the Iran-Saudi rivalry.


Another Side of the Hermit Kingdom

North Korea frequently makes the news thanks to its sporadic missile tests and the antics of its supreme leader, Kim Jong-un.

But it’s difficult for outsiders to gain a glimpse of daily life in the Hermit Kingdom that goes beyond the sanitized, state-sanctioned photos approved for release.

That’s what makes this set of images of life in the country from Ed Jones, a photographer based in Seoul so compelling.

One of the few international photographers with regular access to North Korea, Jones visited Pyongyang in February this winter to photograph celebrations of a major national holiday – the 75th anniversary of the birth of former leader Kim Jong-il.

Jones’s pictures provide a striking look at how residents of Pyongyang go about their daily life in a grey, foreboding city during a time of national pomp and circumstance.

And while Pyongyang may look austere and melancholic to Western eyes despite the intense celebrations, residents enjoy a privileged existence by North Korean standards, noted National Geographic.

Check out a slideshow of Jones’s work here.

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