The World Today for August 08, 2018

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Reading the Tea Leaves

During the Cold War, Kremlinologists grew a cottage industry out of analyzing the Soviet Union, where leaders operated without the hindrance of public scrutiny.

In Belarus – the so-called “last dictatorship of Europe – one still needs to read the proverbial tea leaves to hazard a guess about the country’s future.

Still, things are changing.

Agence France-Presse recently reported that a health-care scandal has so shaken the country that it has forced former Communist officials who still rule with an iron hand to give ground to critics. Doctors, pharmaceutical executives and others allegedly embezzled millions in funds from the state health system, hiking prices for struggling sick people.

“The existing system of procuring medical equipment and drugs created the conditions for corrupt practices,” said Valery Vakulchik, head of the Belarussian KGB security agency.

That acknowledgment stood in stark contrast with the authorities’ usual response to negative coverage of Belarussian society.

On Tuesday, the authorities detained three journalists from independent news outlets on suspicion of hacking the computer systems of state-run news agency BelTA in a move critics said was part of a government drive to muzzle the free press, Reuters reported.

Earlier, a blogger who raised questions about the potential environmental damage from a battery plant faced police harassment before being charged with disobedience for not letting cops enter his home, the Committee to Protect Journalists claimed.

Another journalist, Dzmitry Halko, faces four years in prison for allegedly assaulting police officers when they burst into his teenage son’s birthday party and accused him of operating a drug den and pornography studio. He claimed he was simply trying to block their camera from recording teens at the party. “You don’t get a fair chance,” Halko told Radio Free Europe.

Belarusian authorities “hit an absurd new low,” Amnesty International wrote, when they persecuted an activist for a solo protest on behalf of lesbians, gays and other sexual minorities. The activist, Viktoria Biran, posed alone with a hand-held poster in front of several government buildings and posted the photos on social media. A court convicted Biran of violating procedures for holding mass events.

Between health scandals and civil-rights unrest, one would think Belarus would be on the precipice of a revolution a la Ukraine or other former Soviet republics.

But Reuters reported that the country has been benefitting from sanctions against neighboring Russia, re-exporting Russian natural gas and gaining crucial foreign currency. It’s also been making deals with Iranians, a Ukrainian news website reported. And it’s batting its eyelashes at China also, says New Eastern Europe, based in Poland, where a lot of independent Belarusian media originates.

Meanwhile, some speculation could be useful.

The Jamestown Foundation, a think tank founded during the Cold War, argued in a blog post that Belarusian leaders’ recent decision to allow for 30-day visa-free travel in the country was a sign they wanted to open up to the world. The blog suggested that the move could be a sign of a difference in opinion between Belarusian and Russian leaders over the country’s stance toward the West.

Moscow’s Pravda news service, a Kremlin mouthpiece, meanwhile, ran a story saying that a “pro-Western coup” might be in the offing in Belarus. Russia was ready for “regime change” in the country, it said.

Judging by the civil-rights crackdown, Belarus’s regime is strong. Then again, the Soviet Union disappeared almost overnight. Lightning sometimes strikes twice.



The ‘Immature Tyrant’

Saudi Arabia has expelled the Canadian ambassador and suspended air links and frozen trade deals with Canada after the Canadian foreign ministry expressed concern via Twitter over the Kingdom’s arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists.

Some years ago, the Kingdom might have shrugged off such criticism or dealt with it behind closed doors, but diplomats say Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is seeking to rewrite the rules for the way Saudi Arabia deals with its allies, the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported.

The 32-year-old prince is also keen to show his strength amid a period of flux in the region resulting from the Arab Spring, civil wars in Syria and Yemen and the collapse of Iraq.

That’s why he insists that allowing women to drive was his idea, rather than a capitulation to women’s rights activists, yet nevertheless arrests women activists for speaking with foreign governments and reporters. But the outsized reaction to the Canadian tweet makes him look like an “impetuous, petty, immature tyrant,” Steven A. Cook opines in Foreign Policy.


Damned If You Do

European companies that stop doing business with Iran for fear of US sanctions will in turn be sanctioned by the European Union, an adviser to the EU’s top diplomat warned late Monday.

Nathalie Tocci, an aide to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, told BBC radio that the counter-sanctions are needed “to signal, diplomatically, to the Iranians that Europeans are serious” about trying to salvage the Iran nuclear deal, NBC News reported. She didn’t provide details about what form the EU sanctions might take.

Mogherini said Tuesday that the EU was doing its “best to keep Iran in the deal,” despite the US move to re-impose sanctions. But it’s not clear how much impact its threat of sanctions against European firms will have, considering that EU-US trade dramatically dwarfs Europe’s trade with Iran, the news channel said.

European firms like Daimler, Peugeot, Renault and Total announced they would abide by the US sanctions almost immediately after they were re-imposed.

And Germany announced it would impose new rules that could block hundreds of millions of dollars belonging to Iran but parked in Germany from being transferred to Iran, the Wall Street Journal reported.


Stopping the Clock

Australia’s population hit 25 million decades ahead of previous forecasts made by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), energizing the country’s debate over immigration.

The historic milestone was recorded at 11.01pm (AEST) on Tuesday night by the ABS’ “population clock”, which tallies births and deaths and people entering and leaving the country, Australia’s New Daily reported.

Immigration currently accounts for 62 percent of Australia’s population growth, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported. Chinese and Indian immigrants are arriving in large numbers, changing the ethnic makeup of the country. People born in China account for 15.8 percent of total arrivals, the broadcaster said.

Since peaking at 2.1 percent in 2009 the growth rate has stabilized around 1.6 percent – the average since 1947. But the phenomenon has resulted in louder and more frequent calls for curbs on immigration, including from some sitting members of parliament and former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the BBC reported.


Without a Trace

For years, freak disappearances in the infamous Bermuda Triangle have sparked wild stories of paranormal phenomena.

Scientists, however, doubt that aliens, lost continents or otherworldly occurrences are to blame.

Instead, in a new documentary series “The Bermuda Triangle Enigma,” British scientists theorize that “rogue waves” and human error have contributed to disappearances of vessels and aircraft in the area of the Atlantic Ocean between Florida, Bermuda and Puerto Rico, according to Live Science.

“There is no doubt this area is prone to rogue waves,” oceanographer Simon Boxall told the website.

These extreme waves can form when storms from different directions – say, Mexico, the equator and the eastern Atlantic – cause several waves to join together into one. The waves can reach more than 100 feet high.

To test their theory, researchers simulated the effect of such waves on a replica of the USS Cyclops, a Navy ship that vanished in the triangle in 1918 with more than 300 passengers and crew aboard.

Results showed the waves are powerful enough to snap large vessels in half.

As for human error, Boxall noted that lack of preparation and unskilled endeavors have only helped boost the myth of the triangle.

“Wherever you get a high concentration of amateurs without any experience, you’re going to get a high concentration of mysterious disappearances,” he said.


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