The World Today for February 11, 2019

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A Shaky Domino

Athletes recently sprinted through Milestii Mici, a 124-mile-long wine cellar in the tiny east European nation of Moldova.

The six-mile race drew attention to the limestone caves that hold two million bottles of wine, the biggest store of vino in the world, according to Reuters.

The competition was also a diversion from the weightier issues bearing down on the former Soviet republic that’s approximately the size of Maryland.

Like Ukraine, Moldova is a target of competition between the West and Russia, with each side jockeying for power and influence there. Russian troops occupy Transnistria, a region in eastern Moldova, giving Russian President Vladimir Putin enormous power there.

For the past decade, however, pro-European politicians like Prime Minister Pavel Filip have run the country.

Now parliamentary elections set for Feb. 24 are shaping up to open a new chapter in the competition.

Pro-Russian Socialists are poised to win the most seats in parliament after a series of corruption scandals hurt Filip’s Democratic Party of Moldova, forecast Stratfor. The 2016 victory of Moldovan President Igor Dodon, a pro-Russian Socialist, was likely a sign of the shift in public attitudes in recent years.

In a country where corruption is rampant and the average income is less than $350 a month, forcing many to go abroad to find work, many voters could cast protest ballots simply to remove incumbents from office.

Votes matter, though. Dodon has spoken of taking Moldovan relations with Russia to a “new level,” reported Tass, the state-owned Russian news agency.

Dodon and parliament don’t get along. At the behest of lawmakers, Moldovan courts have repeatedly stripped Dodon of his powers to let parliament enact pro-EU or anti-Russia laws that he would have blocked, the Irish Times explained.

Russian leaders appear to be gunning to exploit the upcoming change. They have said they would be willing to reduce their troop numbers in Transnistria if Moldova refrains from joining NATO or the European Union, wrote Tsarizm, a conservative news analysis website.

Russia also recently announced that hundreds of thousands of Moldovans living illegally in Russia would receive amnesty if they returned before the elections. Most are expected to vote Socialist.

US Congressman Markwayne Mullin, an Oklahoma Republican, is concerned that the US and Europe are letting a democracy fail. “The dominoes are lining up for Putin in his quest to build his very own ‘Romanov Empire,’” wrote Mullin in an op-ed in the Hill, referring to the aristocrats who formerly ruled Russia.

Some believe Mullin has a valid point. Moreover, when dominoes fall, they fall quickly.



The King and I

Ahead of the March 24 election, Thailand’s king has moved to block his sister’s nomination as the country’s prime minister, calling it “inappropriate” and a violation of the rules of the constitutional monarchy.

Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi, 67, the elder sister of King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, was nominated by a party associated with the Shinawatra political family, the New York Times reported.

Two members of that party, Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, both former prime ministers, have been accused of subverting the power of Thailand’s royal institutions, the paper noted. The country’s current prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former general who came to power after the military ousted forces loyal to the billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra in 2014, has presented himself as a defender of the monarchy. Thailand remains under military rule.

The Thai Raksa Chart party that nominated the ex-princess swiftly issued a statement saying it would comply with the king’s wishes. But calls are mounting for the Election Commission to dissolve the party on Monday, signaling escalating political tensions in a country known for its chaotic and volcanic politics, Bloomberg reported.


Back to Basics

In a recently concluded trial of offering a basic income to the jobless, Finland found that recipients were happier than they were when they received unemployment benefits. But hopes that they would be more likely to work turned out to be unfounded.

Under the trial scheme, about 2,000 unemployed Finns were selected to receive a basic income, the New York Times reported. Unlike unemployment benefits, it would not be reduced if they found jobs.

Other European nations were keen to see if the scheme could encourage unemployed workers to take up low-paying and temporary jobs, as that could reduce the cost of welfare programs.

“The basic income recipients of the test group reported better well-being in every way,” said the chief researcher on the project. But Finland’s minister of health and social affairs said the stipend of 560 euros ($635) had a minor impact on employment.

The chief economist for the trial said that should come as no surprise, as it was already well known that many of the jobless have difficulty working due to health problems or a lack of marketable skills.


Rallying Cries

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez faced the largest protests he’s seen in his eight months in office on Sunday, as a proposal to appoint a special rapporteur to address the Catalan independence crisis galvanized the opposition against him.

Some 45,000 people rallied in Madrid Sunday, calling for early elections, Reuters reported.

The opposition groups viewed the government’s offer as a concession to the Catalan separatists, while on Friday Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo said the negotiations were already set to fail because the pro-independence groups had rejected the government’s terms.

The pro-independence groups are still demanding a referendum on independence, which Madrid still refuses to accept.

Meanwhile, a deadline of sorts looms Wednesday, when the legislature will vote on the government’s 2019 budget proposal. It’s unlikely to pass without the support of the Catalan parties, who say they will only do that if the government includes the possibility of independence in the negotiations. And if the parliament fails to pass the budget, that’s likely to trigger snap polls before the scheduled elections in 2020.


Ancient Cold Case

History remembers Alexander the Great as one of the ancient world’s greatest and youngest conquerors, with an empire stretching from the Balkans to modern-day Pakistan.

His reign, however, was short-lived: He died in June 323 BC, at age 32, and his senior generals bickered as to who would succeed him.

The jury is still out on the cause of death, but a recent scholarly article suggests that the young king died from a rare neurological disease and may have been declared dead prematurely, Live Science reported.

Researcher Katherine Hall argues that Alexander probably suffered from Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease.

It resulted in the leader becoming ill and falling into a deep coma, which likely led to doctors declaring him dead by mistake. Ancient historians claim that Alexander’s body didn’t decay for more than seven days after he was declared dead. Consequently, embalmers weren’t keen on working on his “corpse.”

Historians said his death was caused by a feverish illness, but some theories suggest that he was poisoned.

Hall’s theory is plausible, other scholars said, but it’s hard to establish the veracity of ancient accounts, since most were written centuries after Alexander’s death.

It’s still a cold case, for now.

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