The World Today for November 18, 2019

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The Wizard’s Feint

It’s hard to know whether the Nov. 17 elections to the lower house of parliament in Belarus were free and fair.

Most doubt it.

Still, as the New York Times recently reminded everyone, democracy is on the ropes in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union despite the promises of liberty and justice that proliferated after the fall of the Berlin Wall three decades ago.

Even so, the former Soviet republic is among the least free countries in Europe, according to Amnesty International officials quoted by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Officials regularly flout citizens’ rights to assembly, speech and political dissent, while surveillance is widespread.

Belarusian authorities, for example, recently charged civil rights activist Dzmitry Paliyenka with hooliganism and other crimes after he allegedly assaulted someone with pepper spray. He claimed he was defending himself.

Amnesty International argued that Paliyenka was being framed. He had already served two years in prison on charges he said were politically motivated. Resuming his campaigning after his release, he was put on trial again and sentenced to two years of “freedom limitation,” RFE/RL reported.

The elections could have yielded some change, though. But they didn’t: Lukashenko maintained his hold on power after results published early on Monday showed not a single opposition candidate had won a seat in parliament, Reuters reported.

At the last election in 2016, two opposition members won seats for the first time in 20 years but neither was allowed to stand again this time around, the wire service noted.

As the state-controlled Belarusian Telegraph Agency reported, voters had at least two choices in every race for the 110 seats in the lower house. That said, President Alexander Lukashenko has unquestioned control in Belarus. Nobody believed voters were going to change the country overnight.

Still, Lukashenko had an incentive to at least make it appear as if the elections were more open than usual.

The Belarusian leader is now negotiating a closer union with his powerful neighbor, Russia. It’s possible that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is barred from running for re-election, might seek to retain power by becoming leader of that union, reported the Irish Times.

Coincidentally, Lukashenko traveled to Austria last week for his first bilateral meeting with a European leader since the European Union’s decision three years ago to lift sanctions on Belarus that were designed to punish the country for its civil rights violations.

It’s possible that the visit was part of Lukashenko’s campaign to extract economic aid and other support from the West as he squares off with Putin in negotiations, Bloomberg reported.

Allowing a few pro-Western lawmakers to take their seats might have placated critics in the West who are reluctant to strengthen Lukashenko’s hand in dealing with Putin, speculated Tsarizm, a right-leaning news website that covers the region.

Belarusian democracy would have arguably still been a sham. But maybe less so.



Shifting the Blame

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed “hooligans” and counter-revolutionaries for protests that gripped Iran over the weekend, following a hike in fuel prices that has set off widespread outrage, the BBC reported.

Violence initially erupted in the country on Friday when the government announced it was rationing petrol and removing subsidies, the latest sign of pressure from US sanctions.

Local sources reported that 40 people were arrested and at least one person was killed during clashes with police.

Following the protests, lawmakers planned to reverse the fuel price increase, but withdrew the motion after Khamenei expressed his support for the price hike on Sunday.

The new measures allow motorists to buy only 60 liters – about 16 gallons – of petrol per month at $0.13 per liter and pay $0.26 for any additional liter.

The government aims to use the additional revenue gained from the removal of subsidies to help low-income households.

US President Donald Trump re-imposed sanctions on Iran last year following his withdrawal of the US from the landmark 2015 nuclear deal.

The sanctions have increasingly devalued Iran’s currency, quadrupling its annual inflation rate and frightening away foreign investors.


Divided We Stand

Sri Lanka’s former defense chief Gotabaya Rajapaksa was sworn in as president Monday, following his victory in elections over the weekend, a win that has caused concern among the country’s Tamil and Muslim minorities, Agence France-Presse reported.

Gotabaya’s campaign promises included heightening security and crushing religious extremism in the Buddhist-majority nation following the April 21 Islamic suicide attacks that killed 269 people.

Nicknamed the “Terminator,” he was responsible for defeating the Tamil Tigers separatist group in 2009 during the 2005-15 presidency of his older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa.

His victory has worried members of the Tamil community that comprise 15 percent of Sri Lanka’s population: About 40,000 Tamil civilians allegedly perished at the hands of the army during the conflict.

Gotabaya has also been accused of overseeing “death squads” that eliminated rivals, journalists and others. He also faces international war crime indictments. He denies the allegations.

Under Mahinda, Sri Lanka borrowed heavily from China and even allowed two Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo in 2014, which alarmed India and Western countries.

China’s infrastructure projects increased Sri Lanka’s debts and were mired in corruption allegations.

Analysts told the New York Times that Gotabaya’s new government will tread carefully with China from now on.


A Revived Momentum

Supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido took to the streets of capital over the weekend after a notable absence to continue protesting against the government of President Nicolas Maduro, Bloomberg reported.

The recent rallies follow the uprising in Bolivia which forced Maduro’s ally Evo Morales to resign as president and flee the country.

The weekend’s protests are a boost for Guiado, whose popularity has slowly decreased following his failed attempt in April to oust Maduro.

“We will remain in the streets until we have free elections,” he told demonstrators in a speech. “We’re going to achieve Venezuela’s freedom.”

Guiado declared himself interim president in January and drew hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets earlier this year.

The United States and more than 60 countries recognize Guiado as Venezuela’s head of state, including Bolivia’s new president Jeanine Anez.

His calls to oust Maduro, however, fizzled out after the military ignored his plea to join his uprising in April.

Since then, Maduro’s government has revoked the parliamentary immunity of more than a dozen opposition lawmakers, forcing others to flee the country or hide in local embassies or safe houses.


What Lies Below

The Nile River is the longest river in the world and has been so for a while – up to nearly 30 million years, scientists say.

A recent study found that, unlike other old and long rivers, the Nile never changed course and position during Earth’s geological shifts, Science Alert reported.

Originally, scientists believed that the African river was formed six million years ago, but new evidence of volcanic rocks from Ethiopian highlands suggests an earlier origin.

Using geological modeling, the study team argued that there’s a conveyor-belt-like section of the Earth’s mantle rotating underneath the Nile, which has kept the river in place for tens of millions of years.

“Despite the multiple small-scale modifications that the Nile drainage must have undergone during the last 30 million years,” the researchers wrote, “the river has existed without interruption, continuously connecting the Ethiopian topographic swell to the Mediterranean Sea.”

They noted that without this geological setup, the Nile would have shifted west and changed the course of human history.

At the same time, the authors said that the study offers new information on how movements in the mantle can impact what happens on the earth’s surface.

They are now planning to apply the same methodology to study other large rivers, such as the Congo and Yangtze Rivers, to learn more about what goes on below the Earth’s crust.

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