The World Today for November 26, 2018

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The Angry Street

Twenty-nine years ago, Czechs overturned their communist government, inaugurating the Velvet Revolution.

Last week, the BBC reported, tens of thousands of citizens were back in Prague’s Wenceslas Square chanting “shame!” and calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Andrej Babis.

Juxtaposing the two protests, which evoke the same weird subterfuge of the Cold War, provides insights into Eastern Europe today.

Elected late last year, Babis is a billionaire businessman who is part of the anti-establishment populist wave in Europe, explained Bloomberg.

Today he stands accused of illegally receiving almost $2.3 million in European Union subsidies for his farm and conference center, the “Stork’s Nest.”

He denies the charges and has vowed to fight. “I will never resign, never,” Babis wrote on Facebook, according to Reuters. “Let everybody remember that: Never.”

The case would be a run-of-the-mill political corruption story if not for the involvement of Babis’ son.

Czech journalists used cameras hidden in their eyeglasses to record Andrej Babis Jr. saying that his father had him spirited him away to Russia-controlled Crimea so authorities couldn’t call him as a witness in the corruption case. The son said his father threatened to send him to a mental institution if he didn’t go.

But Babis claimed his son suffers from schizophrenia and left the country voluntarily. “To film a mentally ill man, secretly and in this way, is heinous and revolting,” he told the Irish Times.

The son’s claims prompted opposition parties to file a no-confidence motion against Babis and his minority coalition government. But the motion fell short of a majority in a vote by parliament last week, Politico reported. Protests continued as the result.

The brouhaha comes as people in the neighboring Slovak Republic have called for improvements in their political culture in the wake of the resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico in March amid public anger over the murder of a journalist investigating corruption allegations against Fico, euronews reported.

“We want a decent Slovakia,” and  “We are here for free, nobody paid for us to come,” chanted crowds in Bratislava on Nov. 17.

And protests have been breaking out in Romania for more than a year with demonstrators angry about corruption among their governing elite and its attempts to squash attempts to fight it.

East Europeans are growing angry as their wealthy political elites thrive in a swamp of corruption. They are disillusioned with the nexus of politics, money, power and crime that arose in their countries after communism.

Meanwhile, Babis and other East European populist leaders those in Hungary and Poland keep pushing their anti-EU agenda – including, for example, opposing plans to distribute immigrants throughout Europe, as Transitions Online reported.

Enough voters agree with the populists to keep them in office. Enough voters are disgusted with their leaders to want to kick them out. After communism, East Europeans wanted democracy. They got it. But not quite as they imagined.



Fog of War

Following an alleged chemical weapons attack on the government-held Syrian city of Aleppo Saturday, Russia launched airstrikes against rebel positions and claimed to have “destroyed” all “militant” targets.

The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies in Moscow say rebel fighters fired shells laden with chlorine gas into civilian areas of Aleppo over the weekend, injuring around 100 people, the BBC reported.

The rebels have denied using chemical weapons, saying the accusation was a pretext for the airstrikes. But the Observatory for Human Rights, a network of activist groups that monitor the conflict, said earlier that about 100 people, including women and children, had been treated for breathing difficulties.

Numerous times in the past, Western countries and the UN have accused Assad’s troops of using chemical weapons, while the government has sought to blame such attacks on the rebels.

The new strikes come as the conflict appears to be winding down, with Russia and Turkey recently negotiating a buffer zone between the rebels and government forces in northern Syria.


No End in Sight

Ukraine’s parliament is expected to vote on whether it should impose martial law Monday, following a dramatic escalation of its simmering conflict with Russia over the weekend.

Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko said he would propose instituting martial law to the parliament after the Russian military attacked and seized three Ukrainian navy ships in the Black Sea, Reuters reported.

Both countries have blamed each other for precipitating the incident, the BBC said. Russia accused the Ukrainian ships of illegally entering its waters after two gunboats and a tug attempted to sail from the Black Sea port of Odessa to Mariupol in the Sea of Azov.

Russian forces rammed the tug and captured the ships, injuring a number of Ukrainian crew members and scrambling two fighter jets and two helicopters to assist in the operation, Ukraine said. Russia’s FSB later confirmed that one of its patrol boats had seized the three Ukrainian vessels but said only three sailors had been wounded.


‘Scarier than Syphilis’

Voters deserted Taiwan’s ruling, pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in bellwether local elections on Saturday, emboldening the China-friendly opposition and prompting President Tsai Ing-wen to resign as DPP chairman.

On Monday, Chinese state media piled on the pressure, saying Beijing would seek to open direct talks with the newly elected officials, Reuters reported.

With a little more than a year to go before the next presidential election, Tsai’s DPP lost two key mayoral races. Meanwhile, the opposition Kuomintang took or retained control of 15 cities and counties, leaving the DPP with only six, the agency said.

Among the winners was Han Kuo-yu, the newly elected Kuomintang mayor of the erstwhile DPP stronghold of Kaohsiung, a southern port city. Known for saying he finds the notion of Taiwanese independence “more scary than syphilis,” following his victory he told local media he would set up a working group on China relations and break down barriers with the mainland.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council obliquely warned Beijing against approaching local governments directly.


Creating the Sun

The Chinese really like to think big.

First, they wanted to create a “fake moon” to light up a city.

Now, they’re making some impressive breakthroughs with an “artificial sun” in a quest to achieve nuclear fusion, Newsweek reported.

Fusion, a potentially unlimited source of clean and cheap energy, is the joining of lighter nuclei to produce a heavier nucleus, which in turn creates plasma, a state of matter. The actual sun is made up of gas and plasma.

The artificial sun is the nickname of a project run by scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences since 2006.

They previously announced milestones like being able to suspend plasma inside a reactor in a stable state for more than 100 seconds, a world record. Recently, they generated plasma with a temperature of more than 180 million degrees Fahrenheit – around six times hotter than the center of the sun.

While these are major steps toward achieving fusion, many challenges remain before its power can be harnessed. For now, the quest continues.


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