The World Today for April 07, 2017

NEED TO KNOW

The Old Song and Dance

Serbians took to the streets in recent days in protest against the election of Aleksandar Vucic as president.

“Nobody intervened,” he told Politico. “When you have all your rights to protest against someone without any kind of disturbance and interruption, that it is a sign of democracy.”

But, democracy aside, the real winner of the elections might be Russia.

President Vladimir Putin is widely perceived as brazenly seeking to reassert Russia’s political influence over the Balkans in recent years.

It wouldn’t be the first time.

Russia was often at odds with the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires for control of the region during the 19th and early 20th centuries. During the Cold War, most of the region opted for communism.

But after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russia lost its grip. The European Union shaped the region’s economic and security relationships, according to a Stratfor analysis.

For two decades, EU membership served to catalyze Balkan political and social reforms.

Now, however, after the financial and migrant crises, Brexit and questions about the US commitment to NATO, that stability is under threat, the Financial Times reported.

Russia has seized the chance to stoke the insecurities.

In Serbia, the Russian media presence has increased tenfold since 2015, according to the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies in Belgrade. Serbian newscasts often trash western idealism.

In the wake of that propaganda, Vucic’s criticism of the EU and his ideological turn toward Russia, as well as his pursuit of closer military ties with the country, support for EU membership in Serbia has fallen to 47 percent, the New York Times reported.

It’s the same story in Bulgaria: Prime Minister Boyko Borissov narrowly won recent elections there on a platform to revive the nation’s business ties with Russia.

While Borissov is still expected to continue down a pro-European track, his party’s weak showing overall may force a coalition with parties seeking more pro-Russia policies, Bloomberg reported.

Even Greece – which has quelled tensions in the region over the years – shows signs of turning toward Moscow. The country’s ongoing financial crisis has given rise to the far-right Golden Dawn, a party that has purportedly accepted loans from Russia.

Russia’s meddling may not end at the Iron Curtain.

France’s Marine Le Pen and her party, the far-right National Front, reportedly received a loan on almost $11.7 million from a Russian bank, the LA Times reported. Germans fear that Russian hackers could influence their elections in September, too.

Russian meddling isn’t new. But the climate in Europe is letting Moscow breathe new life into an old strategy.

WANT TO KNOW

A ‘One-off’ Strike?

The US missile strike on a Syrian government airfield roiled markets and prompted criticism from a member of the Russian parliament’s defense and security committee on Friday, even as the US called the launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles a “one-off.”

The strikes could undermine efforts to fight terrorism in Syria and the attack “could be viewed as an act of aggression of the US against a UN nation,” Viktor Ozerov, the head of the defense and security committee at the Russian upper house of parliament, said Friday, according to Reuters. Ozerov said Russia would call for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the incident.

Earlier, a US defense official told the news agency that the strike was a “one-off” – meaning it would not mark the beginning of a sustained escalation in the US involvement in the war or a major shift in President Donald Trump’s focus.

Gold and oil soared on the news of the strike, while US stock index futures and 10-year treasury yields plunged early Friday, Bloomberg reported.

Tremors, In the Land of Smiles

Small bomb blasts and other attacks across the restive, Muslim-majority south greeted Thailand’s efforts to end military rule on Friday – a day after King Maha Vajiralongkorn signed into law a new constitution.

Though Thailand’s 20th constitution since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932 will eventually transfer power back to a democratically elected government, critics say it will give the generals a powerful say over Thai politics for years, if not decades, Reuters reported.

Voters in the country’s Muslim-majority areas mostly rejected the draft constitution in last year’s referendum, the agency said.

Thai police reported some 22 attacks, including five small bombs that blew up electricity poles causing local power cuts, across the south. Such coordinated attacks are rare in the region, though violence has been relatively common due to a decades-long separatist rebellion – which has claimed more than 6,500 lives since 2004.

Meanwhile, the BBC noted that the new constitution is likely to increase the presence of medium-sized parties in the Thai government and reduce the influence of the party of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – an undeclared objective of its design. Thaksin’s party has won every election held in Thailand since 2001.

Rallying for Prosperity

Thousands of South Africans are expected to hit the streets Friday to protest Jacob Zuma’s ouster of his finance minister and apparent shift toward radical populism.

The surprise ouster of former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan last week has prompted S&P Global Ratings to downgrade South Africa’s bonds to junk and precipitated an 11 percent plunge in the value of the rand, Reuters reported. Meanwhile, Zuma has begun making noises about seizing land from the country’s white minority for redistribution – a policy that had disastrous economic consequences in Zimbabwe.

Zuma has faced such protests before, so it’s not clear what impact they will have. The ratings downgrade, too, could be a bigger blow to South Africa’s pride than its economy, noted Quartz, as most of South Africa’s public debt is held domestically. A bigger concern is Zuma’s unpredictability and the lack of a clear fiscal policy – both of which will scare off investors.

DISCOVERIES

The Field of Jews

As an ancient Western city with more than two millennia of history under its streets, Rome is a promising site for excavators hoping to unearth age-old artifacts.

But even archeologists were amazed when they found 38 well-preserved skeletons believed to come from a long-vanished Jewish cemetery during an ongoing building restoration near the banks of the city’s Tiber River.

The Campus Iudeorum, or Field of the Jews, in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood served as the final resting place for the city’s Jews until 1645, when the cemetery was moved to accommodate new city walls, wrote the New York Times.

Because no markers accompanied the skeletons, archeologists used carbon dating and analyzed historical maps to determine their origin – with the results suggesting they’re the first set of cemetery remains found near the Tiber.

Other clues like the lack of funerary goods among the remains – a typical Jewish funerary practice, said archeologists – supported their conclusion, they said.

“All the elements converged to identify this as the Campus Iudeorum,” Alessio De Cristofaro, one of the archeologists involved in the excavation, told the New York Times.

The skeletons have now been entrusted to Rome’s Jewish community, which intends to bury them in a more fitting – albeit belated – manner.

This is part of a regular feature highlighting comments from our readers. Send us yours.

In response to the March 22 briefing, “Zebras and Stripes”:

“Interesting that your conclusory comment in the article on Hamas suggested that it may use its weapons (such as they are) one day but no mention that Israel with its overwhelming firepower may one day use its weapons to destroy what is left of housing and infrastructure in Gaza.”

– Paul Kfoury, Bedford, New Hampshire

In response to the March 28 Discoveries piece, “Cellars in the Sea”:

“For 26 years in my professional life, I had the pleasure of being able to solve technical and commercial problems with corporate clients in 31 countries. I always favored visiting countries with a reputation for how to successfully ferment grape juice. Your revelation about aging wine submerged under water was a valuable addition to what I knew about wine. Living only about 1/2 mile from the ocean, it gives me some wonderful ideas.”

– Rolf Zenker, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

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