The World Today for April 13, 2018



The Fate of a Nation

Since the end of the Yugoslav Wars and the accession of a handful of Balkan states to the European Union – Croatia was the last to join in 2013 – much of Southeastern Europe has appeared to move on from the chaos that dominated the region in the 1990s and early 2000s.

But activists in Montenegro took to the streets recently to protest a rash of explosions, assassinations and other breakdowns in public security and the rise of organized crime.

“Because of the killings and arson attacks that have become common in the country, a growing number of citizens of Montenegro feel deep personal, legal, property and other forms of uncertainty,” protesters said in a statement to the news agency BalkanInsight.

The latest high-profile incident involved a car exploding on April 1 outside the home of Saed Sadikovic, an investigative journalist.

The violence and unrest come at a perilous time. On April 15, voters in the tiny country on the Adriatic Sea elect a new president.

Milo Djukanovic, a former president and prime minister who came out of retirement to run for office again, is squaring off against Mladen Bojanic, who has the support of a coalition of opposition parties.

But the real divide between the two men is in their views on the role of Russia in Montenegro’s future.

As Radio Free Europe reported, Djukanovic foiled an alleged Russian-engineered coup in 2016 that aimed to stop Montenegro from joining NATO. Bojanic’s most important backers are the pro-Russian Democratic Front. Naming Djukanovic the frontrunner in the race, Reuters reported him as saying he wants closer ties with the West but would welcome improved relations with Russia.

Last year, US Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, wrote a powerful op-ed in USA Today warning that the coup attempt illustrated Russian President Vladimir Putin’s contempt for the West and democracy. He noted that Russian oligarchs are estimated to own as much as 40 percent of the property in Montenegro, too.

On Wednesday, Putin told Montenegro’s new ambassador to Russia that the Kremlin was also keen to improve ties, Reuters said, quoting Djukanovic as saying “it would be important to see what deeds will follow such an assessment.”

Experts at the European Council on Foreign Relations concur with McCain, foreseeing Russian meddling to bolster their man’s chances in the election. “Do the Western Balkans Face a Coming Russian Storm?” is the title of the organization’s recent report on the topic.

The report noted that the Balkans are not like the Baltics, where democracy and the rule of law are strong. Russian agents will therefore seek to exploit the Balkan region’s civil unrest, violence and confusion to gain leverage in Montenegro.

“The Balkans are very different,” the report said. “The countries of the region lack mature governance and are rife with corruption and division.”

Looks like there’s another reason for Montenegrins to take to the streets.



One Day at a Time

As Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prepares for talks with the US president, Tokyo is taking things one day at a time.

“If it’s true, I would welcome it,” Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso told reporters after learning that President Donald Trump was considering joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) after all. But the US leader “is a person who could change temperamentally, so he may say something different the next day,” Aso said.

Earlier Thursday, White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said Trump had instructed his trade advisers to take another look at joining the TPP, a multinational trade pact he withdrew the United States from last year, Reuters reported.

But hours later, the mercurial president said via Twitter that he’d only consider the flip-flop if “the deal were substantially better than the deal offered to Pres. Obama,” noted the Financial Times.

Abe is slated to visit the US April 17-20 to “thoroughly discuss North Korea and other issues of mutual interest between Japan and the US,” the Associated Press reported.


Declaring Peace

As the Trump administration reinvigorates the US war on drugs, Mexican leaders are increasingly looking at other ways to reduce gang-related violence south of the border – including legalization.

Former Mexican President Vicente Fox on Wednesday proposed legalizing the farming of opium poppies as a strategy to curtail profits for the drug cartels and reduce violence, while tourism minister Enrique de la Madrid said Mexican states should move toward legalizing marijuana to match similar measures in the US, Reuters reported.

Outgoing President Enrique Pena Nieto has said Mexico and the United States should not pursue diverging policies on marijuana, the agency noted. Fox, who was president from 2000-2006, has also advocated for the legalization of that drug in the past.

Drug policy is a major campaign issue in Mexico’s July 1 presidential election, with the front-runner, leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, suggesting an amnesty program for gang members to break the cycle of violence.


Fee Speech

Uganda and Tanzania came under fire for internet regulations that critics say are thinly disguised efforts to curb free speech.

Uganda plans to slap a new tax on social media users from July, noted Reuters, while Tanzania has introduced a $930 fee for bloggers, along with stricter regulations for online radio stations, online streaming platforms, online forums, social media users and internet cafes, CNN reported.

The Tanzanian rules require bloggers to provide information including share capital, tax certificates, estimated investments and other information to secure accreditation. The regulations also ban “content that causes annoyance… or leads to public disorder.”

In Uganda, Finance Minister Matia Kasaija said the government will tax each mobile phone subscriber using platforms such as WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook 200 Ugandan shillings ($0.027) per day, characterizing the tax as a move to generate revenue that would not limit the use of the internet.

But human rights activists weren’t convinced – considering that the government blocked access to Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp during the last general election in 2016.


Good as New

US Army officer Kit Parker witnessed first-hand how severe burns led to the tragic death of a child in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2003, prompting him to dedicate his post-military career to helping other children avoid the same fate.

Now, 15 years later, Parker, a biophysicist, and his team at Harvard have discovered two innovative new ways to heal burn wounds faster, NPR reported.

His team’s first study found that fibronectin, a substance found in large quantities in fetal skin, could heal wounds at a rate faster than more traditional treatments with little to no scarring.

Using a “souped-up cotton candy machine,” the team created a bandage made out of fibronectin nanofibers which they found healed wounds faster and allowed for new hair-follicle growth.

“The wounds treated with fibronectin closed at around Day 11 and the control was several days later — at, on average, Day 14,” Christophe Chantre, a researcher in Parker’s lab, told NPR.

Seeking a less expensive and easier way to yield the same effect, the team tested another concoction of nanofibers sourced from cellulose and soy protein.

The soy proteins also sped up the healing process and were just as effective at reducing scarring, an advancement Parker hopes could “[even] the score a little bit” for burn victims in disadvantaged parts of the world.

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