September 07, 2020

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NEED TO KNOW

RUSSIA

Speaking, and Dying

Russian blogger and dissident Yegor Zhukov, 22, had just finished a live interview on YouTube. It was around 10 p.m. He was outside, near his apartment building in Moscow when two men mugged him. He said the men focused on his face. He escaped serious injury but his torn, fat lip and bruises testify to the pain.

“My professional activities frustrate many scoundrels and the same number of thieves,” Zhukov wrote in late August on social media app Telegram, according to Radio Free Europe. “This is about politics for sure. [It is] an example of real Russian politics in the year 2020.”

Zhukov has faced charges of extremism in Russian courts related to video clips he published on pro-democracy protests. He received a three-year suspended sentence late last year.

It would be easy to dismiss Zhukov’s beating as a mugging. But he spoke as another high-profile critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin – Alexei Navalny – lay in a coma in a German hospital after his supporters (and others) claimed that Kremlin agents poisoned him. Poisoning is a well-known tactic that Russian security services use to silence critics, the Sydney Morning Herald explained.

Navalny, 44, has been arrested numerous times and convicted of embezzlement in Russia’s compromised judicial system, the Financial Times wrote. He’s repeatedly been the target of physical intimidation, too, including a chemical attack that left him blind in one eye.

It’s gotten worse, recently, however, after lawmakers controversially changed the country’s constitution to allow Putin to remain in power for an additional 16 years, the Washington Post reported. Putin rose to power in 2000. Maintaining that foreign powers fund Navalny, the Russian government has denied accusations that they are to blame for his illness.

Next door, the mass rallies in Belarus continue to try to topple the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko – an ally of Putin – after a contested election likely ratcheted up the pressure to squash dissent in Russia. Putin and Lukashenko both harken back to the glories of the former Soviet Union.

Navalny’s suspected poisoning fueled more protests in Khabarovsk, a city in Siberia where residents have taken to the streets to protest the July 9 detention of Sergei Furgal, a popular local leader, on murder charges that he denies, reported the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Furgal won office after defeating a Putin ally.

Navalny’s team published the investigation they were assembling just before their leader fell ill. The project details how lawmakers in Siberia often own construction companies that receive government contracts for big projects. They urged people to vote in local elections on Sept. 13 even as Navalny’s candidate was barred from running by a court on a pretext, Reuters reported.

Voting is the only way, says Navalny’s team in the original Russian-language investigations story, to take on a power-hungry leader who does whatever he wants and where the corruption has filtered down to every level, something everyone knows.

Putin might be in charge, they add, but he’s only the top of a very large pyramid. It’s time to start hammering at the base.

WANT TO KNOW

EL SALVADOR

Faustian Pacts

El Salvador’s government made deals with leaders of the MS-13 gang in an attempt to reduce violence in the country and win support for the party of President Nayib Bukele, according to a new and explosive report.

The story, in El Faro, said that the two key officials from Bukele’s administration visited MS-13 leaders in a maximum-security prison more than a dozen times since June 2019, the Washington Post reported.

It added that these imprisoned gang members would receive various benefits, including an unofficial reversal of a government policy that mixed rival gangs in prison cells.

The report contradicts statements from the government, which has emphasized that it would not negotiate with the gang. The president denied the allegations.

The MS-13 gang – a reference to its Spanish name, “Mara Salvatrucha” – has footholds in Central America, Mexico and the United States, where it has been tied to human trafficking, drug networks and targeted killings. El Salvadoran courts have declared it a terrorist organization.

This is not the first time the Central American government has been accused of negotiating with gang leaders.

In 2012, former President Mauricio Funes brokered an infamous truce that gave special privileges to gang members in exchange for a reduction in violence and support in presidential elections.

KOSOVO

Peace, in Steps

The leaders of Kosovo and Serbia signed a US-brokered limited economic agreement over the weekend, a move aimed at establishing full diplomatic relations between the once-warring nations, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The two-page agreement restated some unfulfilled pledges for the two Balkan nations to achieve including instituting railway, highway and air traffic between the countries.

The deal also guaranteed that Kosovo, a Muslim-majority nation, will recognize Israel. The move is seen as part of a victorious initiative by Washington in getting Muslim-majority countries to recognize the Jewish nation.

The agreement, however, did not touch on the issue of Serbia’s refusal to recognize Kosovo: The parties had agreed to a yearlong “freeze” on the matter.

Analysts were cautious in calling the deal a foreign policy victory because the issue of Kosovo’s statehood was put on hold. They added that President Donald Trump’s strategy resembled his policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which called for Palestinians to delay their statehood aspirations in exchange for financial rewards.

The largely ethnic-Albanian nation broke away from Serbia and declared independence in 2008. Kosovo’s independence was recognized by the United States and other European nations but not by Serbia and Russia.

HONG KONG

The Right to Vote

Thousands of protesters clashed with police in Hong Kong Sunday over a government decision to postpone the territory’s legislative elections, with hundreds of demonstrators arrested, the BBC reported.

The city’s legislative elections were originally scheduled for Sept. 6 but the government delayed them by a year citing fears over the pandemic. The opposition, however, accused the government of using the pandemic as an excuse to stop people from voting in pro-democracy candidates.

Opposition and pro-democracy activists were hoping to obtain a majority in the Legislative Council elections after mainland China imposed a controversial national security law on the semi-autonomous region this summer.

Pro-democracy candidates made historical gains in last year’s district council elections, winning 17 out of 18 councils.

Activists argue that the law – aimed at halting, subversion, secession and collusion with foreign forces – erodes Hong Kong’s freedom.

The former British colony was handed back to China in 1997 under an agreement that would guarantee the city a high degree of autonomy for 50 years.

DISCOVERIES

Houdini’s Beetle

The Regimbartia attenuata beetle is a sort of magician in the animal world – the aquatic beetle can escape unscathed from the bowels of frogs.

Researcher Shinji Sugiura discovered that once a frog gulps down the tiny insect, the latter emerges out of the amphibian’s anus, Smithsonian Magazine reported. In his experiments, Sugiura noted that the bug had an escape success rate of more than 90 percent, taking up to six hours to fully emerge out of the frog alive.

He suggested that once the insect was swallowed, it quickly got moving to get out of the proverbial belly of the beast before it would get digested. He added that no frogs were harmed during the escape – nor did they mind the empty feeling in their stomachs.

He theorizes that the beetle evolved this capability as an anti-frog defense tactic and hopes to learn more about the relationship between the predator and its prey.

Meanwhile, the beetle has escapist cousins, too.

In 2018, Sugiura recorded bombardier beetles spraying toxic chemicals while inside a toad, which forced the amphibian to vomit the bug back out alive.

Click here for the amazing R. attenuate’s death-defying performance.

COVID-19 Global Update

More than 180 nations worldwide have confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The following have the highest numbers worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*:

  1. US: 6,276,834 (+0.49%)
  2. India: 4,204,613 (+2.21%)
  3. Brazil: 4,137,521 (+0.35%)
  4. Russia: 1,022,228 (0.00%)**
  5. Peru: 689,977 (+0.92%)
  6. Colombia: 666,521 (+1.22%)
  7. South Africa: 638,517 (+0.26%)
  8. Mexico: 634,023 (+0.73%)
  9. Spain: 498,989 (+0.00%)**
  10. Argentina: 478,792 (+1.48%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours

**Numbers have been adjusted by affected country