August 06, 2019

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NEED TO KNOW

RUSSIA

Strange Brews

Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny recently came down with a bizarre sickness.

His face and eyes were swollen. A rash covered much of his upper body. It appeared as though he was suffering a serious allergic reaction. But he and his doctors suspect he was poisoned.

“What happened to Alexey was a toxic reaction to an unknown chemical agent,” one of Navalny’s doctors told ABC News. “Alexey has had negative allergy tests for his whole life. He is in principle not allergic. At all.”

Navalny had been in jail on a 30-day sentence for organizing protests against the government of President Vladimir Putin. Specifically, he and others complained that too many opposition candidates have been barred from running in local races in September, the BBC explained. He was returned to jail after doctors examined him.

The protests late last month ended in a violent crackdown. Human rights groups said officers arrested record numbers of protesters, the Associated Press reported. Many suffered broken limbs from police batons, a clear message from Putin that he will brook no more challenges to central authority, Slate argued.

It was the same story this past weekend, CBS News reported.

A lawyer and anti-corruption activist, Navalny is no stranger to government pressure. He had the temerity to try to run against Putin for president last year – he was banned from running due to fraud convictions that he claims were politically motivated.

Putin might be touchy because his popularity has fallen 17 percent compared to last year, while most Russians disapprove of the government overall. The former KGB agent can’t run again in 2024, but the last time he faced term limits, he switched his title and became prime minister while his ally, Dmitry Medvedev, became president. Medvedev is now prime minister.

Navalny’s affliction bears a resemblance to other Kremlin plots.

Poison disfigured the face of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who left office in 2010. Nerve agents and radioactive elements have killed or nearly killed Russian dissidents and former agents in the United Kingdom. “Russia’s reach is long, its methods secret, and its vengeance coldly calculated,” wrote author Eleanor Herman in the New York Post. Other Putin rivals, like the late general Alexander Lebed, have also died under mysterious circumstances, the Irish Times reported in 2002.

Guardian columnist Simon Tisdall speculated that Putin’s harshness is an indication of his weakness rather than his strength. Discontent over corruption, US-led sanctions that have starved the struggling, commodity-dependent economy of foreign investment, and other moves, like Putin’s recent decision to release a journalist under public pressure, suggest the president of Russia is feeling boxed-in, Tisdall argued. Politico agreed, saying the recent crackdown on protesters showed how Putin was running out of options to contain popular unrest.

Regimes have changed in Russia before. They will again, sooner or later.

WANT TO KNOW

INDIA

Dark Days

India’s Hindu nationalist government stunned the world Monday with a move to revoke the special status granted to Indian-administered Kashmir under Article 370 of the Indian constitution, prompting widespread criticism and raising fears of a return to militancy and heightened risk of conflict with Pakistan.

The announcement sparked chaotic scenes in India’s parliament, where a legislator from the state of Jammu & Kashmir tore up a copy of the constitution before being forcibly removed, Al Jazeera reported.

Thousands of troops were deployed. Popular Kashmiri politicians such as former chief ministers Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah have been placed under house arrest. And the central government has barred public meetings, closed schools and restricted movement to essential services officials holding the appropriate identity cards, according to India Today. Via Twitter, Mufti called it the “darkest day in Indian democracy.”

Under Article 370 Kashmir was granted autonomy in all areas except defense, communication and foreign policy. Under Article 35A, which was also revoked, Indians from outside Kashmir were barred from settling or buying land there, so its revocation has prompted worries that Prime Minister Narendra Modi aims to spur a wave of Hindu migration.

Pakistan, which also lays claim to the disputed territory, declared the action to be illegal.

ITALY

A Wall on Water

The Italian government sailed through a confidence vote in the Senate on Monday related to a decree drawn up by Interior Minister Matteo Salvini to take tougher actions against ships that seek to bring migrants rescued in the Mediterranean into the country’s ports.

The coalition between Salvini’s far-right League and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement has been shaky in recent weeks, and some 5-Star legislators opposed the decree. However, the center-right opposition party Forza Italia did not take part in the vote, allowing it to pass 160 to 57, Reuters reported.

The government would have had to resign had it lost, but instead, the decree now becomes law, since it had already been passed in the lower house. In Italy, such confidence votes are often used to speed legislation through parliament without debate or opposition amendments, the agency noted.

The new law raises the maximum fine for ships that enter Italian waters without authorization to 1 million euros ($1.12 million) from 50,000. It empowers the authorities to arrest captains who ignore orders to stay away. And it calls on naval authorities to seize their boats.

EGYPT

Death on the Nile

Authorities on Monday blamed a terror group with links to the Muslim Brotherhood for a car bomb in Cairo that killed at least 20.

The blast Sunday night hit Corniche boulevard along the Nile River, setting other cars ablaze and injuring at least 47 more people, the Associated Press reported. The explosion also shattered parts of the façade of Egypt’s main cancer hospital and damaged some rooms inside, forcing the evacuation of dozens of patients, the agency said.

Having at first attributed the incident to a multi-vehicle accident, the Interior Ministry accused a militant group called Hasm, which has links to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, of responsibility once it acknowledged the blast as a terrorist attack.

Though smaller bombings have taken place fairly often in the intervening period, the explosion was the deadliest such attack to hit Cairo since the December 2016 bombing of a chapel near Egypt’s main Coptic Christian cathedral, which killed 30 people during Sunday Mass.

That incident was claimed by an Egyptian affiliate of Islamic State.

DISCOVERIES

Heavenly M&As

Just like companies on Earth, galaxies in the universe can merge to form larger celestial systems.

Such a cosmic union happened with our Milky Way galaxy about 10 billion years ago, Reuters reported.

Scientists wrote in a recent study that the Milky Way acquired its current shape and size after merging with a dwarf galaxy, increasing its mass by a quarter and starting a period of accelerated star formation.

Astronomers used data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission to determine which stars were present before and after the merger. They discovered that stars that had a higher content of elements other than hydrogen or helium originated in the Milky Way, while others with lower content belonged to the smaller galaxy it absorbed, dubbed Gaia Enceladus.

The current spiral-shaped galaxy is composed of hundreds of billions of stars, including our sun, which formed 4.5 billion years ago.

Even though a merger of such a scale might sound incomprehensible, it probably was rather uneventful.

“This crash was big in cosmic terms, but if it was happening now, we could probably not even notice at a human or solar system level,” said lead author Carme Gallart.

At least it wasn’t a violent merger and acquisition process like the galaxy’s “cannibalized” sibling.