November 16, 2021

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NEED TO KNOW

The Marlboro Men

MONTENEGRO

The US and other international observers have turned a blind eye over the years to cigarette smuggling in Montenegro, a small former Yugoslav republic on the Adriatic that achieved independence from Serbia in 2006 and joined NATO nine years later.

Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, who has led his country since 1991 when he was prime minister, was a rival of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who died in a jail cell in the Hague in 2006 while facing genocide charges. The cigarette smuggling helped fortify Djukanovic’s position domestically and in the region, the New York Times reported, citing a Croatian newspaper’s interview with a former US ambassador to Serbia and Montenegro.

Illegal cigarettes also rob governments of tax revenues that they would otherwise collect from tobacco. Revenues from the trade also fuel other corrupt activities and violence. Journalists, investigators, criminals, innocents and others connected to the illicit cigarette trade have come to untimely ends, for example.

The locus of the business has been in Bar, a seaport and free-trade zone. The zone was originally designed to cut down on shipping delays but had become a nest of smugglers who use fake documents to move cigarettes into other countries. As Investigative Journalism for Europe also noted, illicit cigarettes were part of a network that extended into Bulgaria and other nearby countries.

Now Montenegrin politicians are trying to reform Bar and end the illegal cigarette racket. As Balkan Insight explained, the government has launched a campaign to end cigarette storage in Bar with the aim of eliminating the trade. They have also cracked down on individual smuggling rings, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project wrote.

Officials also recently proposed amending the country’s laws to classify journalists as a profession of “public importance,” a designation that stiffens penalties against anyone doing them harm in the same way police officers and soldiers enjoy extra protections from violence.

Djukanovic now only holds a ceremonial position because his political party, the Democratic Socialists, lost in parliamentary elections last year. As Euronews reported, many Montenegrins want to see him and his family investigated to determine how much of the nation’s wealth they might have stolen over the past 30 years.

The president, meanwhile, has admitted to allowing the cigarette trade to flourish in the 1990s, EU Reporter wrote. His people were facing sanctions due to their affiliation with Serbia, where Milosevic was perpetrating his horrors, in addition to the violent breakdown of their former country, Yugoslavia. Cigarette smuggling was vital, he argued.

That logic might have worked a few years ago. Now it seems many people in and outside Montenegro are ready to turn the page.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

The Fall

ARGENTINA

Argentina’s ruling Peronist party is set to lose its majority in Congress following Sunday’s midterm elections, marking the first time in almost 40 years that the center-left coalition has seen defeat, Reuters reported Monday.

Early results showed that President Alberto Fernandez’s party was behind in six of eight senate races, suggesting that his government will drop below the 37 senators needed to approve legislation in the upper house.

His party currently controls 41 out of 72 seats in the upper house and the loss of seats means it will be the first time since 1983 that Peronism – the movement founded by Juan Peron in the 1940s – won’t control the chamber, according to Bloomberg.

While projections showed that Fernandez’s party will still hold a lead in the lower house, the opposition narrowly won in the Province of Buenos Aires, the country’s largest and most politically influential district.

Analysts said the results show that voters are punishing the government for its poor handling of the pandemic and Argentina’s spiraling economy. The country’s currency has fallen to record lows, annual inflation has reached 52 percent, while the poverty rate is about 40 percent.

A major defeat is also problematic for Fernandez when it comes to passing legislation, particularly as pressure builds to strike a deal with the International Monetary Fund to roll over $45 billion in debt payments.

Following the publishing of election results, the president vowed to resolve the country’s debt with the IMF and said he will submit a multi-year economic bill to Congress in early December. He also urged lawmakers from across the political aisle for their “patriotic” cooperation in pushing the draft law through Congress.

The Standoff

BELARUS

The European Union agreed to impose new sanctions on Belarus on Monday, even as the latter moved to de-escalate its migrant standoff at the Polish border, the Guardian reported.

The new levies will include asset freezes and travel bans on individuals and entities “involved in this illegal push of migrants against our borders,” according to EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell.

The bloc has accused President Alexander Lukashenko’s administration of launching a “hybrid attack” against the EU by allowing people from the Middle East to fly to Belarus and then head to the Polish border.

Lukashenko criticized the move and vowed to retaliate.

Even so, he had announced earlier Monday that he is planning to repatriate thousands of migrants camped out at the Polish-Belarus border, Politico reported.

The Belarus state airline, Belavia, also said it would stop accepting travelers from a number of Middle Eastern countries traveling to Belarus via Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Iraq also announced it would begin repatriating some of its nationals this week.

Lukashenko’s change in tone came a few days after he had threatened to cut off gas supplies to Europe via a pipeline from Russia. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin – his ally – warned Belarus against doing so.

Still, the situation remains tense at the border and human rights organizations warned that the recent developments do not resolve the humanitarian crisis brewing there. They warned that the situation is becoming increasingly dangerous for the migrants as temperatures drop.

At least nine people have died from the harsh conditions in the border area.

The Dance of Intimidation

CUBA

Cuban authorities arrested protest leaders and threatened to detain others ahead of an anti-government protest this week, a move that received condemnation from the United States, Al Jazeera reported Monday.

Over the weekend, officials detained dissident and human rights campaigner Guillermo Farinas, who is a member of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, the country’s most active political opposition group. Meanwhile, other protests leaders have been harassed and threatened with detention if they went ahead with plans for solo protests.

The group has been urging Cubans to take to the streets to demonstrate against the country’s communist government and demand the release of activists that were detained during the July protests.

Following the clampdown, Monday’s planned rallies fizzled out, CNN reported.

The government’s actions received condemnation from United States Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who called the moves “intimidation tactics.”

The Cuban government later responded Monday that the planned protests are part of a months-long destabilization campaign by the US.

In July, demonstrators marched in Cuban cities against the government’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic and the economy. The rallies were the first in decades and were met by a swift government crackdown in which at least one person died, dozens were injured and more than 1,100 were arrested.

Human rights advocates said the government has yet to release half of the detained individuals. They added that the communist regime has also continued to silence dissent, including issuing a decree to ban online content seen as attacking “the constitutional, social and economic” rules of the state.

DISCOVERIES

In Cameo

History books are filled with details about the grandeur and achievements of the Roman Empire but not a lot is known about the slaves that helped build that civilization.

Recently, archaeologists got a glimpse at how slaves lived in the city of Pompeii in ancient times, NPR reported.

Pompeii was covered in thick volcanic ash following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, which caused the city to remain very well preserved and – in some ways – frozen in time.

A research team studying a villa in Civita Giuliana, a suburb north of the city, found an intact room that is believed to have served as a dormitory for slaves.

It held three beds near walls made from wooden planks and tied with ropes. One of the beds was smaller and thought to belong to a child. The area also contained a chamber pot, a wooden chest and a few ceramic jugs believed to have been used for storage.

Director of the site, Gabriel Zuchtriegel, called the finding “a window into the precarious reality of people who seldom appear in historical sources that were written almost exclusively by men belonging to the elite.”

“The true treasure here is the human experience, in this case of the most vulnerable members of ancient society, to which this room is a unique testimony,” he added.

COVID-19 Global Update

Total Cases Worldwide: 253,913,148

Total Deaths Worldwide: 5,108,273

Total Vaccinations Worldwide: 7,523,009,505

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

  1. US: 47,221,647 (+0.31%)
  2. India: 34,456,401 (+0.03%)
  3. Brazil: 21,960,766 (+0.01%)
  4. UK: 9,649,238 (+0.42%)
  5. Russia: 8,956,136 (+0.42%)
  6. Turkey: 8,433,988 (+0.28%)
  7. France: 7,393,374 (+0.05%)
  8. Iran: 6,045,212 (+0.12%)
  9. Argentina: 5,307,159 (+0.03%)
  10. Germany: 5,091,204 (+0.69%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours