The World Today for March 15, 2019

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Banking on Sanity

For years, populists have been winning office in Central Europe, often exploiting xenophobia and capitalizing on sluggish economies that have been widening the gap between rich and poor.

The trend appears to be changing in Slovakia.

Zuzana Caputova, a civil rights and good-government activist with no political experience, is leading in the polls ahead of the country’s presidential election on March 16.

Locals call her “Slovakia’s Erin Brockovich” because of her fight against an illegal landfill.

“Slovakia shows signs of state capture: power is not carried out by those elected but by those pulling the strings from behind,” Caputova told Reuters. “We have a problem with corruption, like other European countries, and with making those responsible accountable. But I see hope in people who take action, who protest and call for change.”

“State capture” refers to when organized crime, monied interests or others effectively control government.

In Slovakia, as Euronews explained, the murders of 27-year-old journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée last year brought the issue to the forefront of voters’ minds. Kuciak had been investigating links between an aide to ex-Prime Minister Robert Fico and the Italian mafia.

The killing triggered street demonstrations and protests. Fico and his cabinet resigned a few weeks after the killings. Caputova’s surge in the polls reflects how disgust with the country’s political class is still widespread, wrote Transitions Online. (Marian Kocner, a businessman long suspected of involvement in the crime, was charged Thursday with ordering the murder, the Associated Press reported).

Other signs point to voters’ dissatisfaction.

Slovakia’s far-right People’s Party had been running in second place, reported Bloomberg. The party’s leader is Marian Kotleba, who venerates Slovakia’s time as a puppet state under the Nazis and who likes to dress up like the Slovak troops who rounded up Jews during the Holocaust, the Guardian wrote. He won the governorship of the country’s Banská Bystrica region by blaming “Gypsy criminals” for the area’s ills.

But Kotleba lost his runner-up status when Maroš Šefčovič, the candidate from Fico’s Direction-Social Democracy Party (Smer-SD), took a conservative turn, including coming out against same-sex couples adopting children. Euractiv noted that Šefčovič didn’t hold such traditional positions in his former job as vice president of the European Commission.

Fico isn’t helping Šefčovič. The former prime minister wanted a seat on Slovakia’s constitutional court. But current President Andrej Kiska refused. Last month, Fico, as leader of the majority party, blocked votes on appointments to the court until after Kiska leaves office.

The ex-prime minister likely never thought Caputova might win. He may have miscalculated. As president, she would also appoint a new prosecutor who might look into the claims that Kuciak was investigating before he was killed.

In the east, that would be something.



Remembering Bad Times

Israel launched air strikes targeting Hamas facilities in the Gaza Strip on Friday, hours after two rockets were fired at Tel Aviv from the Palestinian zone in the first such attack since the 2014 war.

Witnesses said the air strikes shook area buildings and lit up the sky. However, no casualties were reported in the immediate aftermath of the attack, Reuters reported. The air strikes hit six buildings used by Hamas’ security forces, but they had been evacuated as a precaution.

The rockets fired from Gaza on Thursday night did not result in any casualties, either, as they missed populated areas. But the exchange raised the specter of escalation in the lead-up to elections on April 9, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking a fifth term on the strength of his national security credentials.

It’s not yet clear who fired the rockets. One spokesman for the Israeli military blamed Hamas, but the party denied responsibility. Other analysts suggested the rockets might have been fired by other Palestinian militants seeking to stymie a deal between Israel and Hamas.


No Constraints

The last remaining US diplomats in Venezuela left the country on Thursday following a statement from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that their continued presence in Caracas had become a “constraint” on US policy.

Pompeo said the diplomats would continue their missions from outside the country, including managing the flow of humanitarian aid, the Associated Press reported. “We look forward to resuming our presence once the transition to democracy begins,” Pompeo said, referring to America’s hopes that President Nicolas Maduro will cede power to opposition leader Juan Guaido.

The exodus comes as businesses re-opened and public transportation resumed in parts of Venezuela where power has been restored after nearly a week of blackouts.

Earlier in the week, Pompeo had tweeted that the withdrawal was necessary because the diplomats’ presence had become a “constraint” on US policy, but the Venezuelan government insists that it asked the diplomats to leave.

So far, the US has officially limited its efforts to oust Maduro to a series of escalating sanctions – though Maduro blamed the blackouts on saboteurs. But President Donald Trump has also said “all options are on the table.”


Fine Lines

The Russian parliament approved new laws establishing fines for insulting the authorities online or spreading fake news, ignoring criticism that the move could degenerate into the direct censorship of dissent.

The two bills require President Vladimir Putin’s signature before they become law, but they received strong support in the upper house despite recent protests against the country’s creeping restrictions on the Internet, Reuters reported.

The first bill suggests fining anyone who shows “blatant disrespect” online for the state, authorities, public, Russian flag or constitution as much as 100,000 rubles ($1,525), with a jail sentence of up to 15 days for repeat offenders.

The second bill would empower the authorities to block any website that fails to comply with a request to remove information that the state determines is factually inaccurate. Similarly, people who post factually incorrect information that results in a “mass violation of public order” could be fined up to 400,000 rubles ($6,100).


The Killer Stare

In Greek mythology, Medusa was a monster that could turn onlookers into stone with her gaze.

Now, scientists have recently discovered a virus that could do the same but – thankfully – only to the microorganisms known as amoebas, Live Science reported.

Aptly named the Medusavirus, the strange virus was found in the muddy waters of a hot spring in Japan. In their study, scientists explained that the new pathogen belonged to a group of “giant viruses,” known for having larger genomes than most other viruses.

Study authors added that the virus infects a type of amoeba by causing the single-cell organism to develop a thick outer “shell” and enter a dormant state – similar to the calcified condition of Medusa’s observers.

The virus also sports more than 2,600 spherical-headed spikes on its outer surface, similar to the mythical creature’s head full of snakes.

Researchers also found some Medusavirus genes in its amoeba hosts, suggesting that the virus has been infecting them since “ancient times,” and possibly exchanging genes with its hosts.

“Medusavirus is a unique giant virus that still preserves the ancient footprints of the virus-host evolutionary interactions,” the researchers said in a statement.

Scientists hope the discovery will provide more answers to the evolutionary history of viruses and cells.

Most people, however, hope the tiny organisms don’t evolve further.

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