The World Today for September 14, 2018

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Moving the Line

It was supposed to be a meeting poised to defuse once and for all one of Europe’s last remaining powder kegs.

Instead, Serbian President Alexsandar Vucic’s cancellation last week of a much-anticipated meeting with his Kosovar counterpart, President Hashim Thaci, just added some sparks to a conflict threatening to ignite for the last decade.

Moments before their EU-brokered meeting in Brussels was scheduled to start, both men refused to speak to each other, Reuters reported.

“It went wrong…” one EU diplomat told the news agency. “They did not meet, they indulged in some drama instead.”

At stake was something most integral to all new states but denied Kosovo by Serbia and a handful of other nations in the region: recognition of its statehood.

After the Yugoslav Wars subsided in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo escalated, ending only after NATO intervened in 1999.

Kosovo became an international protectorate until 2008, when it officially declared its independence. Serbia rejected that declaration, as did dozens of other nations around the world, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia, and five of the 28 EU member states.

In 2013, however, Serbia and Kosovo appeared to be on the mends. Brussels spearheaded efforts to normalize relations between the two lands, holding out the carrot of both eventually gaining membership in the European Union, the BBC reported.

Those efforts came to a head last month, when unofficial proposals surfaced that the two were ready to bury the hatchet with a controversial land-swap deal.

In exchange for recognition of its statehood, Kosovo would relinquish an ethnic-Serb province north of the River Ibar. Serbia would cede the Presevo Valley, where a majority of residents are ethnically Albanian, to Kosovo, Reuters reported.

The United States and some EU officials backed the proposal in a stark departure from previous policies of maintaining internationally recognized borders in the region at all costs, the Guardian reported.

“Border change may seem distasteful, but many regard it as a practical solution,” James Ker-Lindsay, a Balkans specialist at the London School of Economics, told the BBC.

Others, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are vehemently against the proposal. They believe that it would set a dangerous precedent in a region scarred by ethnic cleansing and lead to similar moves in other mixed states like Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia, the Economist wrote.

And with historic Serbian cultural sites in Kosovo now up for grabs, many residents fear a loss of culture and an uncertain future that could lead to another war, the Irish Times reported.

“There’s a terrible panic among Serbs here now,” one Serbian Kosovar said. “They don’t understand what’s happening.”

With all the controversy on both sides, rapprochement between Kosovo and Serbia appears to be off the table for now, Balkan Insight reported. Amid rumors of backroom bashing of the deal from both sides, the prospect of face-to-face talks between Vucic and Thaci in Brussels last week collapsed.

High-level Serbian officials even resorted to labeling Kosovars with racially charged slurs, the digital outlet reported.

So much for the prospect of moving the line for these two nations – whether that’s the border or how they deal with each other.



Beating Big Brother

Europe’s human rights court ruled Thursday that Britain’s mass surveillance program has violated people’s right to privacy, showing that the revelations made by American whistle-blower Edward Snowden continue to have repercussions for the intelligence community.

Judges voted six to one that Britain’s GCHQ intelligence agency’s obtaining of data from communications providers was “not in accordance with the law” and that there were “insufficient safeguards in respect of confidential journalistic material,” Al Jazeera reported. The court voted five to two that GCHQ’s data surveillance program violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights guaranteeing the right to privacy.

On the other hand, the court rejected the 16 complainants’ claim that Britain further violated their rights by sharing the information with foreign governments. The complainants comprise various rights groups and journalism organizations.

The court’s ruling can be appealed and Britain has since changed its information gathering systems to include more safeguards. But Liberty activist Corey Stoughton nevertheless hailed the decision as “a major victory for those of us who think there ought to be balance in the government’s ability to engage in surveillance”.


Gearing Up

Turkey is bolstering its military observation posts in rebel-held northwestern Syria ahead of an expected offensive by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar warned that the widely expected assault would spark a “humanitarian tragedy,” the BBC reported, saying that a full-scale attack would not only result in civilian casualties and migration but also radicalize some of those affected.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday that Turkey had sent a convoy into Idlib. After crossing the border, it split into two groups, one heading toward the northern Hama countryside and the other toward the town of Maarat al-Numan, the BBC reported.

Earlier, Turkey’s foreign minister wrote in a letter to the editors of the New York Times that the Kurdish YPG militia may fight on Assad’s behalf in the pending assault – providing the rationale for its own troop deployment and raising the specter of a clash between Turkish and Syrian forces.


Digging Up the Past

The Spanish Parliament voted to exhume the remains of dictator Francisco Franco from the massive underground basilica known as the Valley of the Fallen he constructed before his death.

The decision paves the way for Franco’s corpse to be removed from the site before the end of the year, but that won’t end the debate over the massive burial ground or the former dictator’s rightful place in Spanish history, the New York Times reported.

Built to honor those who “fell for God and Spain” in the Spanish Civil War, the Valley of the Fallen was partly constructed using forced labor and comprises a mass grave for the anonymous bones of many who fought against Franco’s fascist vision as well as those who fought on his behalf.

“There is neither respect, nor honor, nor justice, nor peace, nor concord as long as the remains of Franco are kept in the same place as the victims,” Carmen Calvo, the deputy prime minister, said in Parliament before the vote, according to the Times.


The Tricksters

Scientists have discovered a novel process that doesn’t require surgery to treat skin wounds in mice.

In a recent study in the journal Nature, researchers were able to “trick” cells inside the mice wounds by converting them into healing surface skin cells, the Guardian reported.

When the surface of the skin opens, epithelial cells – found in the outer layers of the skin – move to close the wound. But this process becomes more difficult in larger wounds and as animals grow older.

The team used cellular reprogramming to heal the wounds from inside by injecting viruses that transformed other types of skin cells into healing ones.

Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, the study’s senior author, explained that these viruses would “force the expression of four genes” in non-epithelial skin cells and turn them into epithelial cells.

It might sound scary, but the tests proved successful in mice, healing ulcers in 28 days or less.

Scientists are confident that this type of gene therapy can treat chronic ulcers in humans and assist in skin transplants. But human trials are still on the horizon.

Izpisua Belmonte remains positive.

“The current study is the beginning, and we believe that the timeframe for healing may be further shortened in the future,” he said.

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