The World Today for October 17, 2018

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NEED TO KNOW

THE CAUCASUS

A New Great Game

US National Security Adviser John Bolton is visiting Russia and three Caucasus nations this month.

His trip comes at an important time, Radio Free Europe reported.

Russo-American relations are poor due to allegations of Russia’s interfering in the 2016 US presidential election and because of its actions in Ukraine and Syria.

The Caucasus – a region on the dividing line between Europe and Asia – is, therefore, a tense proxy zone where American and Russian officials are vying for influence.

In Georgia, the US has the upper hand due to Russia’s invasion of the Black Sea country in 2008 and its continued support for the breakaway Georgian states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a stalemate resembling the one in Ukraine that won’t go away anytime soon.

“I know this visit will further strengthen the deep friendship and strategic partnership between #US and #Georgia,” tweeted Georgian Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze recently.

Accordingly, Russia has accused the US of running a clandestine bioweapons lab in Georgia, the Military Times reported. The Pentagon denied the charges.

In Armenia, relations are reversed. Armenia is a close ally of Russia, having signed a new military alliance recently.

Azerbaijan is where things get even more interesting. The country has been fighting bitterly with Armenia along their border for decades over Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave of ethnic Armenians that’s technically part of Azerbaijan.

“What Azerbaijan wants to do with Karabakh is to get the land, not the people who live there,” Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan told France 24. “Their main concern is to cleanse Karabakh of the people who live there.” (On Tuesday, Pashinyan resigned to call snap polls for unrelated reasons).

Russia appears to be angling to gain influence in Azerbaijan, with Russian companies investing a total of $1.5 billion in the oil-rich country, the Associated Press wrote.

“I think we have found a way to build a neighborly relationship (with Russia) with mutual respect,” Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the US, Elin Suleymanov, told Hill.TV. “I think one thing that President Putin and Russian society as a whole needs and craves is respect.”

That increasing closeness might be one reason the man whom President Donald Trump nominated as the next ambassador to Azerbaijan, Earle Litzenberger, said the US should be cautious about cutting aid to the country in protest of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s alleged civil rights violations.

In the 19th century, Britain and Russia vied for control of Central Asia in what was later dubbed the Great Game. Echoes of that rivalry are growing louder lately.

WANT TO KNOW

PALESTINE

Quacking Like a Duck

The United Nations voted to allow Palestine to act more like a full-fledged member state in 2019, when the disputed territory will be the chair of the UN group of 77 developing countries.

The US, Israel and Australia – the latter is mulling following Washington’s lead and recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital – voted against the measure, Reuters reported. Otherwise, 146 countries voted in favor, 15 registered abstentions and 29 simply didn’t vote.

Jonathan Cohen, America’s deputy ambassador to the UN, said Washington also opposes Palestine’s selection to chair the G77 group. “We cannot support efforts by the Palestinians to enhance their status outside of direct negotiations,” Cohen said.

The UN General Assembly upgraded the Palestinian Authority’s UN observer status to non-member state – like the Vatican – from entity in 2012, a move that allows them to participate in some General Assembly votes and join some international bodies. Now, they will be able to make statements, submit and co-sponsor proposals and amendments, and raise points of order on behalf of the G77.

ITALY

Big Spenders

Italy’s deputy prime minister is confirming himself to be “a man of distinction,” in the words of songwriters Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields. Now it’s up to Brussels to decide whether or not to accept Italy’s “big spender” proposals.

“I am extremely happy, we are keeping our promises, slowly but bravely,” said Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini of the right-wing, populist League, referring to a proposed budget that would increase social spending and lower the retirement age in defiance of European Commission calls for continued austerity.

Matching the controversial campaign promises of the League and its anti-establishment counterparts from the Five Star Movement, the coalition government’s 2019 budget includes tax cuts as well as reversing the unpopular pension reforms made in 2011 and planning to introduce a basic income for the poor, CNBC reported.

The idea is to limit spending to 2.4 percent of GDP, which is lower than the European Commission’s mandated 3 percent limit but higher than Italy’s earlier target of 1.8 percent. By boosting spending, Italy is also flouting an EU rule requiring indebted nations to work toward a balanced budget.

SOMALIA

Raising the Stakes

One of the deadliest US air strikes against the al-Shabab militants in recent years killed around 60 fighters from the Islamist group in Somalia.

Launched Friday, the strike targeted militants operating in the central province of Mudug, the US Africa Command announced on Tuesday, according to the Associated Press.

It claimed that no civilians were killed or wounded in the attack, the largest since a November 2017 strike that killed around 100 fighters.

The US has carried out more than two dozen such air strikes, including drone strikes, this year, in the wake of beefing up its military presence in Somalia since early 2017 to about 500 personnel following the election of President Donald Trump.

Nevertheless, the militant group continues to carry out terrorist attacks, holds power in parts of the country’s south and central regions, and remains a threat to neighboring Kenya. On Sunday, Somalia executed one of the perpetrators involved in al-Shabab’s deadliest terror attack – a truck bombing that killed more than 500 people a year earlier.

DISCOVERIES

Hammered Fowl

Birds are getting a little rowdier this season. In fact, in Gilbert, Minnesota, birds are seemingly drunk, the New York Times reported.

The birds have been flying chaotically, crashing into windshields and windows, acting confused, and “flopping all over the place.”

Police chief Ty Techar posted on Facebook that the birds were flying under the influence due to berries that fermented as the result of an early frost.

“It appears that some birds are getting a little more ‘tipsy’ than normal,” he wrote in his post.

But bird experts suspect that the migratory season might have also been the cause for the fowl’s reckless behavior.

“I didn’t have a chance to give them a Breathalyzer test,” Techar told the Times.

Drunkenness in birds is not uncommon.

Back in 2010, Texas wildlife authorities found 50 dead birds near a roadside. All were intoxicated from nearby fermented berries.

For now, Techar and other experts believe there’s no reason to freak out over the phenomenon, even though the news has gone viral on social media.

“It has kind of gotten blown out of proportion,” he said. “It sounds like every bird in our town is hammered, and that’s not the case.”

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