September 08, 2021

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NEED TO KNOW

LITHUANIA

Human Weapons

Lithuania is building a 315-mile-long fence on its southern border. The structure has two functions: keeping refugees and asylum seekers out and snubbing Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, whom Lithuanian leaders say is trying to foist the unfortunate migrants on them in retaliation for sanctions, reported Reuters.

For example, a group of Afghan migrants who fled before the Taliban reasserted control of their country has been stuck on the Belarusian-Poland border for a few weeks. Belarus gave them visas so they could reach the European Union. But Poland refuses to grant them entry and Belarus won’t let them turn around. They do not have “easy access” to food, water or facilities, the New York Times wrote.

The issue has sparked a diplomatic crisis in the region involving the former Soviet republics and other nations in Central and Eastern Europe.

Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian and other regional leaders claim that Lukashenko is attempting to destabilize the European Union with a migrant crisis that would resemble the one involving a million refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War and other conflicts in 2015.

The Lithuanians and others cite evidence like a video that recently surfaced showing Belarusian guards pushing Iraqi refugees into Lithuania. Around 4,000 migrants have entered the country this way in the past year, according to National Public Radio.

“It is increasingly clear that this situation is not simply being tolerated by Minsk but has been planned and systematically organized,” wrote Latvian Interior Minister Marija Golubeva in an opinion piece in Politico.

The EU has slapped sanctions against Lukashenko and his associates for conducting fraudulent elections last year, cracking down violently on pro-democracy activists and fabricating a bomb threat on a commercial flight, forcing it to land in Minsk where Belarusian security forces apprehended a journalist who has been critical of Lukashenko’s regime.

The situation gets more complicated. In Poland, for example, as Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called for the president to declare a state of emergency, Politico reported in a news story that the crisis could help the political fortunes of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party.

In 2015, party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski struck a xenophobic tone when Syrian and other refugees were seeking a haven in Europe, saying they carry “parasites and protozoa.” The rhetoric worked at the polls.

More recently, however, Law and Justice’s popularity has slumped due to the government’s coronavirus response, a controversial abortion law and infighting, explained University of Sussex Politics Professor Aleks Szczerbiak in the Financial Times. Defending the county from the alleged threat of more migrants on the country’s eastern border might be a gift for Morawiecki.

It certainly isn’t for those who are being used as a political weapon and who remain stuck in no man’s land.

WANT TO KNOW

AFGHANISTAN

The Clique

The Taliban formed a caretaker government, it announced Tuesday, a day after declaring they had taken full control of Afghanistan and amid growing protests, Sky News reported.

The Islamist group appointed a number of veteran members as its ministers, including an individual that is currently on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most-wanted list.

The new government will be led by Interim Prime Minister Mullah Hasan Akhund, who had led the Taliban government before the 2001 United States-led invasion of Afghanistan. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar – who negotiated the deal with the US to withdraw its forces from the country – will become one of Akhund’s deputies.

Meanwhile, Sirajuddin Haqqani was appointed the country’s interior minister. Haqqani is head of the Haqqani network, a militant group that has been responsible for some of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan in the past two decades.

The US has designated the Taliban-affiliated network as a terrorist organization. Haqqani is also wanted by the FBI in connection with the January 2008 attack on a hotel in Kabul that killed six people, including an American citizen.

Analysts said the cabinet is made up of religious figures with no evidence of non-Taliban members – or women – in the line-up, in defiance of demands by the international community that it be inclusive.

The announcement came just hours after the Taliban dispersed and arrested multiple journalists in Kabul, part of a crackdown on growing demonstrations around the country.

It also comes a day after the Taliban claimed to have taken control of the Panjshir Valley – even though the head of the resistance forces there disputes the claim.

BRAZIL

Setting the Stage

Thousands of protesters supporting populist President Jair Bolsonaro marched in multiple Brazilian cities during the country’s independence day Tuesday in a series of rallies that have raised fears about a potential coup in Latin America’s biggest democracy, the Guardian reported.

Footage showed Bolsonaro’s supporters clashing with police in the capital, Brasilia, as authorities tried to prevent demonstrators from storming Brazil’s congress.

Local media reported some of the protesters also vowed to storm the Supreme Court, while others were calling for Bolsonaro to use the country’s military to launch a coup.

The Independence Day protests come as the embattled president’s approval ratings continue to plummet due to corruption scandals involving his allies and relatives, and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 580,000 people. Brazil ranks second in the world after the US in the total number of deaths from the virus.

Bolsonaro called for the rallies amid an ongoing row with two Supreme Court justices, who have launched probes into the president for posting confidential material on social media to discredit next year’s elections as fraudulent, Newsweek reported.

Critics say the far-right leader is trying to gather enough supporters to intimidate or overthrow judges.

On Monday, more than 150 political figures on the left published an open letter warning that Tuesday’s rallies were a danger to Brazil’s democracy.

GERMANY

Influencers

Germany called on Russia this week to end its cyberattacks against the country ahead of German elections on Sept. 26 in a particularly fraught race for the governing Christian Democrats as Chancellor Angela Merkel steps down, Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty reported.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Andrea Sasse said that the hacker group “Ghostwriter” – believed to be affiliated with Russia’s GRU, its military intelligence agency – has been “combining conventional cyberattacks with disinformation and influence operations.”

Sasse added that Ghostwriter has been using phishing emails to capture the personal log-in details of federal and state lawmakers with the aim of stealing their identity.

German intelligence agencies noted that foreign intelligence services could use the hacks to reveal personal information about the victims or publish false stories. Sasse said that the attacks could also be used to influence the upcoming elections.

Russia, meanwhile, has denied Western allegations of election interference, saying that it would never do so, the Washington Post wrote.

The elections will determine who will replace Merkel, who is stepping down after nearly 16 years in power.

Polls show that the race will be tight, with the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats polling neck-and-neck.

DISCOVERIES

A Common Babble

Human babies aren’t the only creatures that babble. Baby bats do it, too, according to NPR.

Scientists found that greater sac-winged bat infants can produce sounds similar to an infant’s babbling – although the bats sound more like a series of repetitive, high-pitched chirps.

Researcher Ahana Fernandez and her team identified a set of eight different characteristics that are found in human baby babble.

“They produce a syllable type in a rhythmic way… ‘ba ba’ and then switch to the next one ‘da da,'” said Fernandez.

Next, the team compared the human babble with that of the bats and found similarities: Just like babies, the baby bats would repeat precursor “syllables” that eventually show up in their songs when they became adults. The babbling sounds were also rhythmic and universal among all the baby pups.

The authors believe that babbling evolved in both bats and humans prior to these two species using more complex vocal behavior, such as singing and – in the case of humans – talking.

Other researchers also suggested that babbling developed as a way to attract the attention of parents without the annoyance of constant crying. They added that the new study laid down the groundwork for future research into babbling and vocal learning in other animals.

Meanwhile, Fernandez noted that the greater sac-winged bat is the only one of the 1,400 bat species worldwide that has been found to babble.

“I am absolutely sure we’re going to find another one,” she said.

COVID-19 Global Update

Total Cases Worldwide: 221,936,765

Total Deaths Worldwide: 4,586,188

Total Vaccinations Worldwide: 5,532,236,346

Countries with the highest number of confirmed cases worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*

  1. US: 40,280,094 (+0.65%)
  2. India: 33,096,718 (+0.11%)
  3. Brazil: 20,914,237 (+0.07%)
  4. UK: 7,089,051 (+0.53%)
  5. Russia: 6,946,922 (+0.25%)
  6. France: 6,938,866 (+0.21%)
  7. Turkey: 6,542,624 (+2.03%)**
  8. Argentina: 5,211,801 (+0.08%)
  9. Iran: 5,184,124 (+0.53%)
  10. Colombia: 4,921,410 (+0.03%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours

**Numbers have been adjusted by affected country

Correction: In Tuesday’s WANT TO KNOW section, we said in the “The Ledge” item that Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele could potentially become the first president in Central America to serve more than five years in office since the 1950s following a ruling by El Salvador’s highest court. In fact, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has been in power since 2007. Instead, Bukele could become the first Salvadoran president since the 1950s to serve more than five years. We apologize for the error.