November 29, 2021

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NEED TO KNOW

Auf Wiedersehen, Mutti

GERMANY

Acting German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently warned her fellow Christian Democrats that the fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic hitting the Central European country could be “worse than anything we’ve seen,” as Bloomberg wrote. The situation, she said, was already “highly dramatic.” She then called on local government officials to enact stricter measures to stop the spread of Covid-19.

These measures would not likely be popular – protests against mask measures and restrictions on entry to restaurants and bars for those unvaccinated have already inspired numerous demonstrations. But the notoriously poker-faced Merkel has been no stranger to unpopular decisions. The question is what Germany will do once she and her straight-talking style are gone when she leaves office, most likely next week.

As the Associated Press explained, Merkel, sometimes called “Mutti” (mommy), is technically now a caretaker chancellor. After 16 years in office, she did not run for reelection in parliamentary elections in late September. She’ll remain in her job until a new government can take her place. That government, led by the Social Democrats, Greens and the Free Democrats, will be voted on next week after a coalition deal was sealed on Nov. 24, the Washington Times reported.

The deal resulted in Olaf Scholz of the left-leaning Social Democrats succeeding her if parliament approves. While Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats will go into opposition, the election was hardly a stern rebuke. Scholz has been Merkel’s vice chancellor and finance minister since 2018 under a grand coalition government. Meanwhile, Merkel has long polled ahead of her party.

Still, an era is ending, as the Washington Post wrote. Merkel made history when she became Germany’s first female leader. In 2009, she was portrayed as hard-hearted during the Eurozone financial crisis, demanding that Greece and other Southern European countries enact austerity budgets while they repaid their debts. In 2015, she was portrayed as soft-hearted when she allowed more than one million refugees from Syria and elsewhere into her country despite the rise of xenophobic sentiments among voters.

Armed with a doctorate in physics, she advocated for the fight against climate change. At the recent climate change meeting in Glasgow, she called on the international community to put aside nationalism in order to protect humanity, the Christian Science Monitor wrote. But more recently, she also presided over Germany increasing its dependence on coal, Clean Energy Wire noted.

Regardless of her actions, she’s always been portrayed as Europe’s top crisis manager.

Now, Scholz will likely preside over the “traffic-light” coalition that derives from the red, yellow and green colors associated with his Social Democrats, the pro-business, libertarian Free Democrats and the environmentalist, social justice-minded Greens. Reflecting a broad set of views, the coalition’s platform appears watered down, the Economist wrote.

Even so, it’s a “remarkable” new direction for Germany and some expect bold strokes out of the new governing coalition, which is the youngest and most liberal in postwar history, the Washington Times wrote.

Still, many say they will miss Merkel, whose departure has prompted a months-long international outpouring of respect and support. At home, there has been no small amount of quiet fretting either. The farewell has been in stark contrast to the departure of Merkel’s political mentor, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who also served 16 years when he stepped down in 1998.

“We were worn out by Kohl – there was a sense of relief when he left,” one voter said. “Merkel, though, ran the country decently, kept things in check, kept things normal.”

On Wednesday, Scholz brought her flowers at the weekly meeting of the Cabinet, likely her last. And as the leader of Europe prepares to depart the world stage, many believe she earned the respect and accolades.

That’s setting a very high bar for her successor.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

What Lies Beneath

SOLOMON ISLANDS

Calm returned to the Solomon Islands over the weekend following days of violent riots in the capital, Honiara, over the government’s decision to switch its diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China, the New York Times reported.

Clashes erupted last week when protesters from Malaita island marched to Guadalcanal – where the capital is located – to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare over the cutting of ties with Taiwan, as well as lack of government services and accountability.

Authorities said that demonstrators stormed the country’s parliament and burned down buildings, including a police station and some in Honiara’s Chinatown. Police said they arrested at least 100 people and are currently investigating the deaths of three found in a burned-out building.

The tense situation prompted the Chinese government to warn its citizens in Honiara to shutter their businesses and hire security guards. Meanwhile, Australia sent around 100 members of the security forces to help stabilize the situation.

Sogavare blamed the unrest on foreign influences, making a thinly veiled reference to Taiwan and the United States, according to Euronews.

Analysts said the riots were not only motivated by the diplomatic shift but also lingering issues between Malaita – one of the poorest provinces and the most populous – and Guadalcanal over perceived unequal distribution of economic resources and development.

Malaita has kept its diplomatic ties with Taiwan, despite the central government’s decision to align with China in 2019. The island is also expected to receive millions in US aid, which has angered central government officials.

Taking on Memory

RUSSIA

A Russian prosecutor called on the Supreme Court to abolish one of Russia’s most prominent human rights organizations under the country’s controversial “foreign agents” law, a move that advocates and international officials called “political pressure,” Radio Free Europe reported.

Authorities said that the prestigious organization, International Memorial, has systematically violated the “foreign agents” law by failing to properly label its materials. In a separate case, Moscow officials also targeted the Memorial Human Rights Center, the organization’s human rights wing.

The Supreme Court began hearing the case earlier this week but adjourned the proceedings until Dec. 14. Meanwhile, the trial for International Memorial’s human rights wing in Moscow has been adjourned until Nov. 29.

The organization said, “there are no legal grounds for liquidation,” while a number of people protested the closure in front of the Supreme Court.

International Memorial was founded in the twilight period of the Soviet Union and is one of Russia’s oldest human rights groups. Since its creation, the organization has documented human rights violations in Russia, as well as conducted research on abuses perpetrated by the Soviet regime, while fostering remembrance, the Hill noted.

It is one of the many non-governmental organizations in Russia that have been labeled as “foreign agents” in what human rights activists consider a major crackdown on civil society and critics of the government.

Two Russian Nobel Peace laureates – including former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev – warned that attempts to close International Memorial had “caused anxiety and concern in the country, which we share.”

Blind spots

IRAN

A Dutch-based arbitration panel ruled in favor of two Iranian banks in a dispute involving the 2015 closure of a Bahraini financial institution suspected of assisting Iran in evading sanctions from the United States and the United Nations, the Washington Post reported.

The tribunal said that Bahrain violated its own banking policies and regulations by closing Future Bank, an institution co-founded by Iranians, and linked by Bahraini officials to money-laundering and other illicit practices, the newspaper said.

The panel’s arbitrators added that while infractions had occurred, the government’s decision was a “contrived agenda of political retribution” that reflected regional animosities against Iran. They also ordered Bahrain to pay more than $270 million in compensation for losses and legal fees.

Future Bank was established in Bahrain in 2004 with the support of two of Iran’s largest financial institutions, Bank Melli and Bank Saderat – with all three banks targets of US economic sanctions.

In 2015, Bahrain closed the bank after Iran, the US and other world powers signed the landmark nuclear agreement. Officials argued that the move was necessary to protect investors against alleged corruption and sanctions violations by Future Bank’s management, some of whom were later convicted of financial crimes in Bahrain.

Hamid Gharavi, who represented the Iranian banks, welcomed the decision and called on Bahrain to compensate Iran for other asset seizures or freezes in sanctions-related disputes.

Bahrain said it would appeal the case.

DISCOVERIES

Fake Fossils

A new research paper is warning scientists and astronomers to watch out for “false fossils” – or pseudofossils – when looking for signs of life on Mars, Science Alert reported.

Researchers Sean McMahon and Julie Cosmidis wrote that Mars, just like Earth, could be rife with stones and minerals that look a lot like real fossils of ancient microbial life – known as microfossils.

“At some stage, a Mars rover will almost certainly find something that looks a lot like a fossil, so being able to confidently distinguish these from structures and substances made by chemical reactions is vital,” McMahon said in a statement.

The researchers explained that microfossils are particularly hard to distinguish even on Earth: Many physical processes related to the weathering and depositing of sedimentary layers can produce mundane rocks that look like ancient remains.

They also noted that even a “chemical garden” – a mechanism in which chemicals mixing can produce structures that look biological – can fool scientists.

Previously, researchers have claimed to have found evidence of mushrooms or bugs on the red planet, only to later be disappointed.

“We have been fooled by life-mimicking processes in the past,” Cosmidis noted.

The authors suggested that further analysis into the chemistry and physics of Mars could shed light on the processes that form pseudofossils.

COVID-19 Global Update

Total Cases Worldwide: 261,507,827

Total Deaths Worldwide: 5,199,920

Total Vaccinations Worldwide: 7,604,559,814

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

  1. US: 48,229,273 (+0.06%)
  2. India: 34,580,832 (+0.02%)
  3. Brazil: 22,080,906 (+0.02%)
  4. UK: 10,202,370 (+0.36%)
  5. Russia: 9,403,480 (+0.00%)**
  6. Turkey: 8,748,025 (+0.25%)
  7. France: 7,723,032 (+0.90%)
  8. Iran: 6,108,882 (+0.06%)
  9. Germany: 5,804,139 (+0.40%)
  10. Argentina: 5,326,448 (+0.02%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours

**Numbers have been adjusted by affected country



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