The World Today for August 22, 2018

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Smoke and Mirrors

An appeals court’s recent release of opposition politician Ilgar Mammadov from prison in Azerbaijan is a sign of the mixed progress toward openness and freedom in the former Soviet republic.

Police arrested Mammadov in 2013 for allegedly organizing riots, Radio Free Europe reported. He was sentenced to seven years in jail.

But he always maintained the charges were politically motivated as punishment for his criticism of President Ilham Aliyev, an autocrat who has controlled the Caucasus country since 2003 after the death of his father, a former KGB agent who had ruled Azerbaijan for 10 years.

Many welcomed Mammadov’s release.

“We cannot accept political prisoners in Europe,” Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland of the Council of Europe said in a statement. “Innocent people should not be deprived of their liberty.”

The court that freed Mammadov also ordered him to remain in the country – a decision that has garnered criticism.

“While this is a moment of tremendous relief, Mammadov’s rights continue to be violated, by virtue of the fact his guilty verdict still stands and the authorities will still limit his freedoms – including his freedom of movement,” wrote Human Rights Watch Associate Director Giorgi Gogia in a dispatch.

The controversy highlights how things are often not what they seem in Azerbaijan.

Recently a man shot and injured the mayor of the northwestern city of Ganja, for example. Azerbaijani officials, who run a secular state that is largely Shiite Muslim, said the man was an Islamist militant. But Reuters reported that he might have sought to assassinate the mayor as a form of protest against the mistreatment of local people.

Last month, Hikmat Hajiyev, a spokesman for Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry, wrote an op-ed in Euractiv saying that Armenia should withdraw its troops from Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan that sparked a war between the two countries. A tenuous cease-fire has been in place since 1994 but Azerbaijani media routinely claim that Armenia violates the agreement.

In response to Hajiyev, an Armenian diplomat wrote an op-ed in the same publication that suggested Azerbaijani authorities wanted to maintain the conflict with Armenia to bolster their appeal with their own people.

“The image of Armenia and the Armenians, as the ‘enemy number one’ of the Azerbaijani people, have already become part of kindergarten and school curriculum in Azerbaijan,” the diplomat, Rima Karapetyan, wrote.

Interestingly, President Aliyev recently inked a deal with neighboring countries over Caspian Sea oil rights that appeared to favor Russia, an Armenian ally, over Azerbaijan’s traditional ally, Iran. Oil is clearly essential to the region’s future prosperity.

But there’s a flip side there, too. The deal leaves open issues that the countries must settle in bilateral agreements, the Economist noted.

When it’s not clear whom one can trust, there is no trust at all.



The ‘Strong’ Banknotes

Business ground to a halt in Venezuela Tuesday as citizens and shopkeepers struggled to deal with the introduction of a new currency called the “sovereign bolivar.”

Thousands of firms remained closed and many workers stayed home as a result, the BBC reported.

A reaction to – and supposed cure for – runaway inflation, the “sovereign bolivar” chops five zeros off the inaptly named “strong bolivar,” so a cup of coffee that used to cost 2.5 million strong bolivars now costs 25 sovereign bolivars. Citizens said they were restricted from withdrawing more than 10 sovereign bolivars from bank machines on Tuesday, however.

An opposition call for nationwide protests was only partially successful, the Washington Post reported.

There are already signs that the devaluation and President Nicolas Maduro’s other recently announced measures won’t solve the problem, as prices for some goods have already doubled since the announcement of the new currency on Friday.


Making It Pay

Germany’s foreign minister stumped for an independent European payment system to circumvent US sanctions and save the nuclear deal with Iran, while Iraqi officials said they plan to ask the US for exemptions because Iraq’s economy is so closely linked with its neighbor’s.

“It is indispensable that we strengthen European autonomy by creating payment channels that are independent of the United States, a European Monetary Fund and an independent SWIFT system,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas wrote in the Handelsblatt business daily Wednesday, according to Reuters.

Separately, top Iraqi officials told the news agency that a delegation will travel to Washington to ask for exemptions in applying the sanctions, as Iraq imports crucial supplies from Iran. While Washington has said it “is fully committed to enforcing all of our sanctions,” the US also has a strong interest in making sure Iraq’s economy recovers in the wake of its defeat of Islamic State.

Meanwhile, the plunge of the Iranian rial has already hit Iraqis who parked their money in Iran’s banks in 2015 after the nuclear accord, the Washington Post reported.


Pulling the Trigger

After making noises about canceling more than $20 billion in Chinese-funded projects, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad pulled the trigger Tuesday during a five-day visit to Beijing.

He left the window open for the $20 billion East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project and a natural gas pipeline project in Sabah to be revisited when Malaysia is in a better financial position, however, Reuters reported.

“I believe China itself does not want to see Malaysia become a bankrupt country,” Mahathir said during a press conference marking the end of his China trip.

Mahathir toned down his recent anti-China rhetoric, and analysts said both sides had shown an eagerness to “meet halfway,” according to the South China Morning Post.

Mahathir succeeded in recasting his anti-China election campaign as really being directed at ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak, said Amrita Malhi, an Asian politics researcher at the Australian National University.

“Resetting the Malaysia-China relationship so it becomes about growth and opportunity – as opposed to debt and corruption which he has associated with Najib – is appealing to voters,” Malhi said.


It’s Alive!

Science fiction is filled with stories of suspended animation, where characters wake up from a long slumber in a frozen state.

But the idea is not so fictional.

Scientists recently revived specimens of two species of nematodes – microscopic worms that live in soil – that had been frozen for 30,000 to 40,000 years in the Siberian permafrost, Live Science reported.

After defrosting, the tiny worms were alive and well and, naturally, very hungry, the scientists reported in a study published in the journal Doklady Biological Sciences.

About 1 millimeter in length, nematodes are quite adaptable and can live in strange locales. Some species thrive in slug intestines.

To the scientific team, however, the find was the first evidence of multicellular organisms waking up alive from a deep slumber in ice – what they call “natural cryopreservation.”

A few years back, a similarly frozen giant virus was discovered in the Siberian permafrost. It too came alive, but luckily, it’s only a danger to amoebas.

In the nematode study, scientists are hoping that further research into how the tiny worms survived could help expand the science of cryogenics.

It will take a while, but NASA is looking into cryo-sleep to help humans travel to Mars.

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