The World Today for August 14, 2018

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Protest Fatigue

In late 2017 and into the new year, tens of thousands of Romanians marched on Bucharest in the nation’s largest demonstrations since the fall of communism: They were protesting efforts in Parliament to water down anti-corruption laws in a state ranked as one of the European Union’s most corrupt.

Romanians, who trudged through the snow to fight for clean government and democracy last winter, have grown fatigued in the months since: Despite their best efforts, lawmakers continue to undermine the judiciary’s power to combat corruption.

“People have families and jobs,” Valentina, a protester from Bucharest, told Al Jazeera. “It is hard and tiring to protest frequently over such a long period of time.”

Since joining the European Union in 2007, Romania has made significant strides in reining in graft, especially after the 2013 appointment of Laura Kovesi to head up the nation’s National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), the Economist wrote.

During her tenure, more than 1,000 public officials, businesspeople and politicians have been prosecuted. That includes the June felony conviction of Liviu Dragnea, who is the leader of Romania’s ruling Social Democrats and considered to be the nation’s most powerful politician.

Dragnea was sentenced to 3.5 years behind bars for keeping two absent officials on the public payroll for seven years while he was a local councilman, the New York Times reported.

The conviction, however, only heightened attacks against the judiciary, which Dragnea and his supporters have dubbed a “deep state” on a witch hunt, wrote the Times.

Just weeks after his conviction, the Romanian Parliament approved a raft of changes to the nation’s criminal code that severely weaken prosecutorial power, Deutsche Welle reported.

The changes, passed within a week’s time, mandate that prosecutors can only file charges against an official if they can prove without a doubt that a defendant or his or her close relatives benefited from graft. Moreover, maximum jail time was decreased from seven to five years, and those over the age of 60 can only be made to serve a third of their sentence if convicted.

Though the changes were advertised as a move to stop abuses by Kovesi and the judiciary, Dragnea stands to benefit: Neither of the people he kept on the payroll was direct family members, a condition needed to prosecute officials for corruption, the Times reported in a separate piece.

While Romanian President Klaus Iohannis condemned the move, calling it indicative of a “dictatorship of the majority,” there’s little he can do to prevent the steamrolling of the judiciary.

After being strong-armed by the Ministry of Justice and then the Constitutional Court, Iohannis was forced to dismiss Kovesi last month, Reuters reported.

Kovesi’s post still hasn’t been filled, a delay tactic analysts say will allow the Social Democrats to pass legislation effectively neutering the abilities of the president to block a nominee, Euronews reported.

Democracy activists are fighting back, the Washington Post wrote, holding silent protests in Bucharest and elsewhere around the country almost every day.

Even so, Romanians can’t help noticing that the protests are losing steam, Al Jazeera reported.

“Unfortunately, the governing coalition’s tactic, which is the one of small steps, wore down the people,” said Vlad, another protester in Bucharest.



Confirm or Deny?

China said Monday that reports it is holding a million Uighurs in internment camps are “completely untrue.” But in a rare admission, it also confirmed that “those deceived by religious extremism… shall be assisted by resettlement and re-education.”

Hu Lianhe, deputy director of China’s United Front Work Department of the Communist Party Central Committee, stated “Xinjiang citizens, including the Uighurs, enjoy equal freedom and rights.” Hu said it is “completely untrue” that they are detained in the re-education centers, the BBC reported .

China has sent a 50-member delegation to a two-day meeting of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Geneva. On Friday, it was confronted with allegations regarding the alleged internment camps from committee member Gay McDougall.

The Chinese admission prompted McDougall to press for more details, saying, “You said I was false on the million, well, how many were there? Please tell me. And what were the laws on which they were detained?”

Beijing says measures like banning beards and veils in Xinjiang – where Uighurs comprise 45 percent of the population – are necessary to fight extremism.


Be Careful What You Wish For

US economic sanctions intended to force Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to release an American pastor who was arrested in Turkey in October 2016 may be working too well.

The Turkish lira fell to another record low Monday after the country’s central bank relaxed its rules on the amount banks must hold in reserve but declined to raise interest rates, increasing concerns that it’s on the verge of a meltdown that could spread to neighboring countries and “hammer European Union institutions,” an economist told the New York Times.

US sanctions aren’t the only reason for Turkey’s woes. Erdogan has built his popularity on rapid growth that was fueled by credit, but now that interest rates have risen in the US and Europe investors are less keen on emerging markets. Meanwhile, Erdogan has moved to strip the central bank of some of its independence.

With Turkey an important buffer between Europe and the war in Syria, the stakes are high, opines Jim Edwards in Business Insider.


One-Sided Debate

Cuba began a public debate Monday over the changes to its Cold War-era constitution approved by the National Assembly last month. But skeptics say there’s no room for disagreement at the 35,000-odd meetings slated to stretch into November.

“We Cubans are going to ratify everything that has already been done, even if there are alternative proposals,” Reuters quoted the head of nursing at a state-run health clinic in the capital Havana as saying.

The draft changes to the 1976 constitution include amendments that would pave the way for recognition of private small businesses and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights – perhaps the most controversial development. The proposed version no longer describes the country’s goal as building a “communist society.” But it still recognizes the “irrevocability” of the one-party system and socialist economy.

In what the government has lauded as participatory democracy, it has distributed more than a million copies of the proposals for discussion in the lead-up to a nationwide vote in February.


Emperors, and Droughts

It wasn’t easy being a Roman emperor.

Apart from the politics and duties of tending to the empire, emperors had a 20 percent chance of being killed during their reign.

Causes of death varied over the empire’s 500 years and dozens of rulers, but a study in the journal Economics Letters suggests that droughts might have been a catalyst to regicide, Live Science reported.

Historians theorized that low crop yields, resulting from a lack of rain, led to starvation in the Roman army, which favored the start of mutinies among the ranks.

A mutiny, in turn, “would collapse support for the emperor and make him more prone to assassination,” said lead researcher Cornelius Christian.

Comparing ancient rainfall data and periods when rebellions occurred, researchers found a correlation between low rainfall and uprisings in the military, such as the A.D. 69 assassination of Emperor Vitellius, who was popular with the army but lost support after a season lacking rain.

But other factors also contributed to regicide, and historians say more research is needed.

For instance, most of Rome’s assassinations occurred in the third century A.D., during which the empire saw massive inflation, disease outbreaks and external wars, all of which took a toll on the empire’s stability, Jonathan Conant, an associate professor of history at Brown University who wasn’t involved with the rainfall study, told Live Science.

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