The World Today for December 14, 2018

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NEED TO KNOW

ARMENIA

A Hopeful Revolution

A revolution was hopefully cemented in Armenia recently.

On Dec. 9, voters in the small ex-Soviet Republic in the Caucasus Mountains gave the My Step alliance over 70 percent of the vote, a clear mandate for reform.

Acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian founded My Step earlier this year. Jailed in 2008 for fomenting unrest, he’s a former muckraking journalist who launched an anticorruption campaign that ousted his predecessor, Serzh Sargsyan, from office in April.

“We will be developing Armenian democracy and make an economic revolution happen,” Pashinian told Radio Free Europe after he cast his ballot. “For the future, our main goal is to strengthen democracy in Armenia at the institutional level.”

Pashinian is the real deal, said Al Jazeera reporter Robin Forestier-Walker, who rattled off a raft of expected positive changes to come. Until now, Sargsyan’s Republican Party still had a majority in Armenia’s unicameral parliament, so Pashinian and his allies could not pass legislation. In the latest election, however, the Republicans won so few votes they’re unlikely to hold a single seat in the chamber.

That opens the way for “things like dealing with the oligarchs and their monopolies on the economy, bringing in more money, more investment, changing the education system, and of course, one of his key platforms, having a free and fair democratic system,” Forestier-Walker said.

Pashinian faces a serious uphill battle, the Economist noted.

He can’t alter Armenia’s security alliance with Russia, which has a military base in the country and provides vital cheap gas to the economy. The Russian connection undercuts Armenia’s links to the West. Armenia’s western border with Turkey is closed. The country is in a military standoff with Azerbaijan. An enclave of ethnic Armenians called Nagorno Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan, a source of tension between the two countries. US sanctions on Iran, another neighbor, are also going to hurt Armenia.

Critics have also said Pashinian has created a cult of personality around himself, a recipe for bad results in a region where strongmen can let power go to their heads, Eurasianet wrote.

But the Nation was correct in saying that, at least in this early stage, Armenia has provided a flicker of hope for democratic change as far-right demagogic, civil-rights-abusing leaders have become stronger in much of the rest of Europe. “This is the first insurrection in a post-Soviet state that legitimately boiled up from the streets, free of influence from outside forces,” the leftwing magazine argued.

Let us all wish Pashinian good luck.

WANT TO KNOW

THAILAND

Votes, Yes, But Democracy?

Thailand’s military junta has announced elections will be held on February 24 and lifted its ban on virtually all political activity. But critics said they still have doubts the polls will be free and fair.

Last week, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha lifted stringent restrictions on political organizing that included a ban on gatherings of five or more people and a rule requiring political parties to get government approval before holding meetings, the South China Morning Post reported.

But many restrictions on freedom of speech remain, which will limit how parties can campaign and prevent the vote from being truly free and fair, said Sunai Pasuk, a Thailand-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.

“Everyone will [still] be expected to think and act in the same direction that the junta wants them to do,” he said.

In power since an army coup d’etat in May 2014, the junta has in 2018 prosecuted more than 100 pro-democracy activists, including several key political leaders, “for peaceful expression of their views,” according to the rights watchdog group.

CONGO

Fire But No Smoke

Election officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo said the presidential vote would go ahead as scheduled on Dec. 23, despite a fire that destroyed thousands of voting machines in the capital of Kinshasa.

The national electoral commission (CENI) said in a statement the blaze had destroyed 8,000 of 10,368 voting machines due to be used in the city, Reuters reported. The fire started about 2 a.m. Thursday in the Gombe riverside area of Kinshasa that is also home to President Joseph Kabila’s residence.

The ruling coalition and the main opposition candidate blamed each other for the blaze, though several opposition candidates had called for the voting machines to be banned, arguing they could be used to rig the vote, the BBC reported.

Kabila’s mandate ended in 2016 and term limits prevent him from contesting again, but he has clung onto power through repeated delays. Now that elections finally look imminent, he is backing his former Interior Minister, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary. A tight race is expected among Shadary, opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi and business tycoon Martin Fayulu Madidi.

VENEZUELA

Chronic Condition

Venezuela’s former oil minister died in prison Wednesday, where he had been incarcerated on corruption charges since last year.

The chief prosecutor’s office said Nelson Martinez, who was also the former head of the state-run oil giant PDVSA, suffered from a serious and chronic illness that led to his death, the Associated Press reported.

He was probably no angel – corruption is endemic in Venezuela to the great rage of its struggling population. But the incident is nevertheless likely to raise questions about the conditions under which jailed opposition figures and former government officials are being held.

Two months earlier, a Caracas councilman, Fernando Alban, died after falling from a police building. The government claims he jumped, but the opposition insists he was murdered.

The authorities are also holding five former executives from Citgo – PDVSA’s US unit – who are American citizens, AP noted.

Rafael Ramirez, another former head of PDVSA, blamed President Nicolas Maduro for Martinez’s death, saying he had repeatedly been denied visits from his family doctors.

DISCOVERIES

Ancient Toilet Humor

The ancient Romans left artworks of many kinds in their conquered territories, including an early form of a comic strip.

Most of their art documented daily life, gods and historical events. But archaeologists at a site in Turkey recently discovered that Romans were not shy about displaying toilet humor, Live Science reported.

Archaeologists came across floor mosaics in a latrine in the ancient city of Antiochia ad Cragum containing salacious images of mythological figures. One was of Narcissus admiring his genitals.

Researchers were surprised at first. Then they realized that the Romans were, after all, ordinary people.

“Bathroom humor is kind of universal as it turns out,” said archaeologist Michael Hoff from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The researchers’ initial surprise may have reflected the rarity of finding such an elaborate Roman privy.

“The number of mosaic-paved latrines is very low,” said mosaic expert Birol Can of Uşak University, in Turkey. “Antiochia ad Cragum latrine is one of the rare examples.”

The ancient city was founded during the first century AD, but it was abandoned a thousand years later, apparently becoming a hiding spot for loot and other things.

This year, archaeologists found 3,000 early 17th century coins from Europe and the Ottoman Empire, along with a skeleton believed to be a murder victim.

The perpetrators of the crime remain unknown.

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