The World Today for August 17, 2017

NEED TO KNOW

EUROPE

The Badlands

Tectonic shifts are happening in Europe.

While governments in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere still espouse nationalist agendas, pro-European Union candidates won dramatic elections in France and Austria in the past year, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to make a strong showing in elections next month.

The budding reversal suggests the pro-EU camp will remain dominant in the bloc, spelling almost two years of calm before Britain’s planned exit.

The Franco-German economic engine of the EU has new wind in its sails, too. Europe’s economy is recovering from the crippling financial crisis of the last decade, the Telegraph reported.

On Europe’s eastern borders, however, clouds are forming.

Russian influence in historically tumultuous regions like Moldova and Georgia threatens to destabilize the continent, according to an analysis by Stratfor.

In the Baltic States of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia – EU members for well over a decade –rising tensions between Russia and the EU due to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea have transformed these former-Soviet states into a standoff region.

Both sides have been ramping up military exercises and stockpiling artillery on their borders. Russia is slated to deploy some 100,000 troops to the region to engage in a round of grandiose war games in September, stoking fears that Moscow isn’t just playing pretend, the New York Times reported.

“No threat looms larger in the Baltic States than the specter of aggression from your unpredictable neighbor to the east,” said Vice President Mike Pence during a recent meeting with Baltic leaders.

To the EU’s south, the long-troubled Balkan States are also threatening to fuel instability.

In the years following the fall of the Iron Curtain and the bloodshed of the Yugoslav War, the Balkans struggled to grow democratic institutions. As their economies have stagnated and refugees have poured through their borders on their way to prosperous Germany, Balkan leaders have embraced ethnic nationalism and corruption, Foreign Affairs wrote.

Despite Franco-German plans to pump money into the region for new infrastructure – an attempt to bolster pro-European sentiment – the Balkans’ unresponsive political systems have led many in Brussels to question their commitment to the European project.

That leaves the region vulnerable to Russian influence, especially in countries like Serbia, Deutsche Welle reported.

Ukraine, of course, is split. Polls show increasing support for EU and NATO in western Ukraine while war with Russia wages on the country’s eastern border, Newsweek explained.

All is mostly quiet on Europe’s western front. But the countries in the triangle between Vienna, Athens and Moscow risk becoming democratic badlands.

[siteshare]The Badlands[/siteshare]

WANT TO KNOW

SIERRA LEONE

Mass Mourning

Between a decade-long civil war and a 2014 outbreak of Ebola that resulted in a humanitarian crisis, the West African country of Sierra Leone is no stranger to tragedy. But for a beleaguered people, the unprecedented carnage from floods and mudslides this week must seem like the last straw.

With some 400 bodies recovered so far, the dead are being buried in mass graves in the capital of Freetown, the New York Times reported. And hundreds more are still missing.

Some, like 30-year-old Thomas Benson, were dealt an almost incomprehensible blow. Benson lost nine of his relatives in the tragedy, finding his nephew, sister and uncle in a morgue crowded with hundreds of corpses.

The devastation is by no means over, either. A Unicef spokesman told the Times the agency had donated a thousand body bags to assist in providing a “dignified” burial process – even if the bodies wind up in mass graves. But the specter of disease looms large.

“The potential for infectious diseases like cholera is our biggest concern,” Unicef’s John James told the Times. “The water infrastructure has taken a big hit.”

[siteshare] Mass Mourning [/siteshare]

MEXICO

The Flip Side

Polls show most Mexicans are in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and Mexican negotiators are striving to keep it afloat amid an all-out assault from US President Donald Trump. But Mexico’s small farmers say free trade has come at a high price.

Thousands of Mexican farmers and workers took to the streets on Wednesday demanding that NAFTA be scrapped, rather than revived, Reuters reported. In an echo of the US president, they called the 1994 trade deal a disaster – not because it’s cost Americans their jobs, but because it has devastated Mexican farms.

Most others agree NAFTA has led to job growth for Mexico, especially in the auto manufacturing sector, and the country’s leaders are keen to retain preferential trade relations with the US and Canada – which account for 85 percent of Mexican exports.

On the other hand, Mexico imports $18.5 billion in agriculture products every year, making it an important market for US farmers.

[siteshare]The Flip Side[/siteshare]

SOUTH KOREA

Drawing Lines

South Korean President Moon Jae-in reiterated his claim that the US will have to get a green light from Seoul before taking any military action against the North – but he said North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is fast approaching a “red line.”

“If North Korea completes development of intercontinental ballistic missiles and weaponizes it with nuclear warheads, I will consider that [a] red line,” Bloomberg cited Moon as saying Thursday.

Moon said Kim is nearing that line, but did not provide any further suggestions of what actions the South would consider if he crossed it.

One could read Moon’s statement as a sign he’s optimistic that the tensions between the US and his neighbor to the north are receding — as earlier he might have been reluctant even to hint at an ultimatum. And it does seem that the temperature is cooling, with Trump calling Kim’s decision not to fire missiles in the direction of Guam “very wise” on Wednesday.

With little hope for progress in negotiations, however, it’s not clear whether specifying a red line will make dealing with Kim easier or even more difficult.

[siteshare]Drawing Lines[/siteshare]

DISCOVERIES

Just Around the Riverbend

A long commute to work via car, train or bus can dampen even the sunniest of workdays, especially if there’s heavy traffic.

But for those who don’t mind a bit of a chill, there’s an alternative to the traditional daily commute: a brisk morning swim.

Fed up with his daily commute in Munich, German beer garden worker Benjamin David packed his laptop in a waterproof bag, slipped on a wetsuit and began swimming along Munich’s Isar River to work.

The endeavor has cut down his commute to 12 minutes when the current is especially strong, David told Reuters.

“It is beautifully refreshing and also the fastest way,” he said.

David’s alternative commute suits him well: It’s good exercise, and the beer garden where he works is located right on the riverbank.

Even when winter hits the Bavarian capital and temperatures drop to a chilly 39 degrees Fahrenheit, David says he might just upgrade his wetsuit to brave the cold.

If so, the frigid waters may reduce his commute and eliminate the need for a morning coffee – a cold swim should be enough to wake up even the most caffeine addicted among us.

[siteshare]Just Around the Riverbend[/siteshare]

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