April 23, 2021

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NEED TO KNOW

ALBANIA

Tickets to Never Never Land

Facebook knowingly allowed Albanian officials to spread lies on the social network. When an investigator discovered the posts, Facebook failed to act, a Guardian investigation found.

Misinformation online and a government attempt to manipulate voters are only a few concerns Albanians and others are raising before voters go to the polls on April 25 to elect a new government. The US, for example, has been outspoken in warning that criminals and their allies might appear on the ballot.

American Ambassador Yuri Kim described the situation in an interview with Albanian media. She didn’t single out anyone by name but Balkan Insight suggested the ambassador was referring to Tom Doshi, chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Albania, who has been banned from entering the US because of corruption allegations but remains on the campaign trail throughout the Balkan nation.

“It doesn’t mean he’s a good guy because he came to your daughter’s wedding,” Kim said, according to a US Embassy transcript. “The man does not belong in parliament.”

The elections are important because Albania must show progress in reforming its corrupt bureaucracy, strengthening its civil society and other institutions, protecting the freedom of the press and solidifying other democratic reforms before it can begin serious negotiations to enter the European Union, wrote European Western Balkans, a publication of the Center for Contemporary Politics, a Serbia-based think tank.

Prime Minister Edi Rama, a Socialist, has cracked down on drug running and enacted judicial reforms that have helped put Albania on the road to EU membership, reported BNE Intellinews. But many feel he has not done enough.

Rama has been critical, moreover, of EU officials who appeared at an educational event with his rival, Lulzim Basha, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party. Basha has shared images of the event in a bid to bolster his popularity among voters. The Albanian affiliate of CNN, A2, quoted EU officials who denied they were playing favorites.

Rama is also hitting resistance from foreign leaders in Kosovo, where Albanians are the ethnic majority. Kosovo’s leaders have endorsed opposition candidates in part because both sides are calling for greater anti-corruption efforts and opposing a series of proposed hydropower plants, but the meddling could backfire and create a rift between the two countries, argued Pristina Insight columnist Agron Demi.

Alternatively, cooperation between Albanian and Kosovar politicians could also support long-held dreams among ethnic Albanians to unite the two countries into one, Euronews wrote.

Still, both sides might want to secure their immediate futures before embarking on changing the map of Europe.

WANT TO KNOW

AUSTRALIA

No Deals, Mate

Australia canceled two major infrastructure deals between the state of Victoria and China this week, a move that could inflame tensions between the two nations, Nikkei Asia reported.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne vetoed the agreements – related to China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative – saying that they were “inconsistent with Australia’s foreign policy.”

The cancelation marks the first time the Australian government has used a new law passed in December: Under that legislation, the federal government can nullify any agreement struck between a local government in Australia and another country if such a deal goes against the country’s foreign policy.

Following the veto, China criticized Australia on Thursday for its “Cold War mentality and ideological bias” and demanded a reversal, according to Reuters.

Australia enacted the law over concerns that China was trying to exert influence through its investments.

Relations between the two nations have deteriorated since April last year when Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

China retaliated by suspending some imports of Australian meat and imposing high tariffs on barley and wine.

RUSSIA

When Lines Turn Red

Russian police detained more than 1,000 protesters in demonstrations across the country over the imprisonment and treatment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, CNN reported Thursday.

Demonstrators are demanding that Navalny be released and receive independent medical treatment following reports of his ailing health.

The Kremlin critic has been on a hunger strike for three weeks and has been demanding “proper medical care” from prison officials. On Monday, he was moved to a prison hospital but authorities have refused his own medical team from accessing him.

Wednesday’s demonstrations came on the same day that President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual address to the nation. Putin made no mention of the jailed opposition leader but warned foreign powers not to cross Moscow’s “red lines.”

Navalny’s imprisonment has caused a rift between Russia and Western nations with the United States and Europe calling for his immediate release.

Tensions between Moscow and Washington also escalated this month when the Biden administration imposed new sanctions on Russia for allegedly interfering in the 2020 US elections and the SolarWinds cyberattack.

The Kremlin denies involvement.

Relations have also worsened over Russia’s military moves at the Ukraine border, which has raised concerns that Moscow is planning an invasion.

On Thursday, Russian Defense Minister announced that troops at the border will withdraw starting Friday, the Moscow Times reported.

MALAWI

Insufficient Data

Hundreds of Malawians took the streets this week to protest against rising cell phone charges, which advocacy groups say highlights the government’s disregard for the impoverished in the southeastern African nation, the Guardian reported Thursday.

Sylvester Namiwa of the Center for Democracy and Economic Development Initiatives said the price hikes for calls and data come as Malawians are “struggling to make ends meet.”

Among the complaints, the pressure group noted that Malawians are facing higher prices for essential commodities and services including water, electricity and cooking oil following new tax regimes.

Malawi is the fifth most expensive country for mobile data, making access to the internet a luxury for most people.

Information Minister Gospel Kazako complained that data in Malawi is being sold at 80 cents per second whereas in neighboring Tanzania, it costs as “less as 4 cents per second.”

Officials have been trying to urge mobile companies to reduce charges: So far, they have responded by reducing pay-as-you-go tariffs but the move has done little to appease the public.

Wednesday’s rallies mark the latest demonstrations against data charges in Malawi. Last year, activists started the #DataMustFall online campaign following a similar campaign that began in South Africa in 2016.

DISCOVERIES

Van Gogh, Renoir and Blockchain

An auction worth about $70 million set a record in the digital art world last month, reported the BBC.

The auctioned artwork was a collection of 5,000 digital images by the artist Mike Winkelmann, better known as Beeple. The buyer walked away with a single unique digital token called NFT.

An NFT, or Non-Fungible Token, is a string of code that’s stored on a digital ledger called blockchain. These tokens act as digital certificates of ownership that can be bought or sold with all transactions encrypted, making them a one-of-a-kind collectible.

This year has seen all kinds of NFT sales such as the first tweet by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, the Nyan cat meme, and even artwork by the humanoid robot Sophia for about $700,000.

The creator economy of digital artists sees NFTs as the perfect solution for proof-of-ownership, usually reserved for physical art. Meanwhile, avid collectors see it as an investment. However, there are rising concerns over the environmental impact of energy use from these blockchain technologies.

The creation of an NFT has on average a “stunning environmental footprint of over 200 kilograms of planet-warming carbon, equivalent to driving 500 miles in a typical American gasoline-powered car,” the New York Times reported.

There are moves to shift to less carbon-intensive models but likely not anytime soon.

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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: 31,929,599 (+0.21%)
  2. India: 16,263,695 (+2.09%)
  3. Brazil: 14,167,973 (+0.32%)
  4. France: 5,469,674 (+0.62%)
  5. Russia: 4,682,573 (+0.19%)
  6. Turkey: 4,501,382 (+1.23%)
  7. UK: 4,413,834 (+0.06%)
  8. Italy: 3,920,945 (+0.41%)
  9. Spain: 3,456,886 (+0.31%)
  10. Germany: 3,254,609 (+0.98%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours