The World Today for March 25, 2022

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NEED TO KNOW

Crisis, Opportunity

MALTA

Maltese Prime Minister and Labour Party Leader Robert Abela recently handed out tax refund checks as large as $150 to 250,000 workers in his country, the bloc’s smallest member. Abela said the checks would probably be the last voters would see if his opponents in the Nationalist Party won office in a general election on March 26.

On the campaign trail touting how Malta now enjoyed the lowest unemployment rate in history, he claimed the Nationalists would drop subsidies for some rental leases, immediately rendering 10,000 families homeless, reported Television Malta, a public broadcasting service.

He also announced he would extend pandemic wage supplements to help businesses handle Covid-19-related problems through April. As BusinessNow.mt wrote, the subsidy gave the worst-hit businesses almost $1,000 a month per employee.

This spending spree has been a feature in recent years under Abela’s center-left Labour government even as opponents say the prime minister has been engaging in vulgar electioneering. Independent candidate Arnold Cassola filed a challenge with Malta’s Electoral Commission recently, saying the tax refunds and subsidies were wrongly distributed. And former Finance Minister Tonio Fenech, a Nationalist Party member, said the handouts were a vote-buying exercise. “This is no tax refund,” Fenech told Malta Today. “Many recipients have not even paid tax, let alone deserve a refund.”

Meanwhile, other parties running candidates are railing against Labour’s pandemic measure, such as one that hails from the evangelical community known as the River of Love with an anti-Covid vaccine, anti-abortion stance, according to Malta Today. In stark contrast is Volt Malta, which wants to safeguard sex workers, decriminalize drug use, introduce euthanasia and establish an art-focused commune.

But despite corruption scandals, grumbling over roads and other issues, the election will likely result in Abela’s party getting a third five-year term because of bread-and-butter concerns, said Reuters. The country, a popular tourist destination, took a sharp economic hit during the Covid-19 pandemic and those subsidies helped. Now, the economy of the Mediterranean island country is poised to grow six percent this year, the best rise in the EU. That growth has allowed Abela to project optimism about the future – saying that Malta can now move forward with the pandemic in the rearview mirror – that is clearly part of his appeal, noted Politico.

Still, Abela’s forecast victory is a remarkable feat given how he became premier amid scandal. As Reuters explained, Abela assumed office when former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat resigned in 2020 after his close friend, businessman Yorgen Fenech, was accused of murdering journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia almost five years ago.

“Malta’s political elite is still reeling from revelations in late 2019 that top government officials were involved in both the murder plot of Galizia, who was killed by a car bomb in 2017 and the coverup,” wrote Crux.

A 2021 government investigation also held itself responsible for the assassination of Galizia by creating an atmosphere of impunity and failed to protect journalists, wrote the Times of Malta.

Meanwhile, police this year raided Muscat’s home in yet another corruption probe involving payments he took from a Swiss company related to the management of three Maltese hospitals, reported Politico. Muscat says the payments were legitimate consulting income.

Abela has not been untouched by the stench of scandal. He was involved in a controversy in 2018 related to his involvement in a real estate transaction that may have been a tax-avoidance scheme, the Associated Press reported. He has called such stories “political spin.”

Regardless, things are looking up for Malta after years of tough times. However, the war in Ukraine could put a damper on the economic front. But Abela is not likely to let that get in his way. That’s because he’s the perfect example of a European frontman taking to heart Winston Churchill‘s admonition: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Upping the Ante

NORTH KOREA

North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Thursday, the first major weapons test by the country in more than four years, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Data from the Japanese and South Korean military showed that the missile reached an altitude of more than 3,700 miles and a distance topping 680 miles. The flight data also showed that the ICBM could carry multiple tons of payload – or multiple smaller warheads – over an intercontinental range.

The new weapon surpassed the 2017 Hwasong-15 missile test and further demonstrated North Korea’s capability to strike the United States.

South Korea chided its neighbor for breaking its pledge to suspend ICBM launches, while the US said the test “needlessly raises tensions.”

Thursday’s launch marks the latest escalation by Pyongyang, which has conducted 11 missile tests since the beginning of the year – more than all of last year.

The recent test marks another chapter in the stalled nuclear talks between North Korea and the West: Washington and Pyongyang have held two nuclear summits to reach a denuclearization deal, prompting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to impose a moratorium on nuclear tests.

But the summits failed to produce an agreement and there have been no formal negotiations in more than two years.

Analysts told the Journal that it’s unclear if Pyongyang will pursue more ICBM tests but added that any future talks with the US and South Korea will be on its own terms.

Hands and Tills

BRAZIL

Two evangelical pastors in Brazil allegedly used their influence with the Education Ministry to steer funds to their allies, a burgeoning scandal hitting the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, who faces reelection this year, the Associated Press reported.

Major Brazilian publications released stories and leaked audio recordings this week alleging that the two pastors served as the ministry’s unofficial advisers and favored municipalities run by their supporters.

In one story, the mayor of the city of Luis Domingues said Reverend Arilton Moura asked for 2.2 pounds of gold and around $3,000 in exchange for funding schools and nurseries. Meanwhile, a recording showed Education Minister Milton Ribeiro telling mayors that the government prioritized municipalities whose requests are backed by Moura and the Reverend Gilmar Santos.

During the meeting, Ribeiro also implicated Bolsonaro, saying at this was “a special request of the president of the Republic.”

Following the reports’ release, the minister said he met with the mayors and pastors on different occasions but denied any wrongdoing. He added that last year he asked Brazil’s anti-corruption agency to investigate the ministry.

The two pastors are members of one of the smaller Assemblies of God movements in Brazil. Even so, the largest of those movements, the General Convention of the Assemblies of God in Brazil, said the two individuals “do not represent and are not authorized to speak on behalf of the General Convention.”

Meanwhile, Chief Prosecutor Augusto Aras asked the Supreme Court to launch an investigation into whether people unaffiliated with the ministry acted to release public funds.

Bolsonaro’s office did not comment on the reports but the far-right president has sought the support of evangelicals for his reelection in October. Polls have consistently shown him trailing leftist former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

New Friends

CHINA

China pledged to support Islamic nations in their efforts to resolve conflicts, an announcement that many analysts described as Beijing’s attempt to foster closer ties with the Middle East as the influence of the United States decreases, the South China Morning Post reported.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said during a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad that China will “continue to support Islamic countries in using Islamic wisdom to solve contemporary hotspot issues.”

Among its pledges, China will help promote the settlement of the Palestinian issue based on a two-state solution and support Afghanistan – the latter is currently controlled by the Taliban – to build an inclusive government.

Wang also commented on the region of Kashmir, referring to the long-standing dispute between India and Pakistan over the Himalayan region, without elaborating further.

On Thursday, India criticized Yang’s remarks, saying that Kashmir’s matters “are entirely the internal affairs of India,” Al Jazeera noted.

The 57-member OIC is considered the second-largest global organization after the United Nations. Although Wang was a “special guest,” his attendance highlights China’s growing involvement with Islamic nations.

China’s comments also come as Western nations have become increasingly suspicious of Beijing’s “no-limits” ties with strategic partner Russia. At the same time, international concern has been growing over the past few years over human rights violations in China’s Xinjiang province against the Muslim Uyghurs.

Observers noted that China is trying to gain support on Xinjiang and strengthen its ties with the Islamic countries, including NATO member Turkey. They added that Islamic nations remain important to China in terms of trade, energy and diplomatic ties.

Meanwhile, relations between the US and the Middle East have become shakier following the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and attempts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

UKRAINE, BRIEFLY

  • US President Joe Biden and NATO allies met on Thursday to discuss responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as the alliance seeks measures to discourage Moscow from intensifying its attacks, the Hill reported. President Biden also voiced support for expelling Russia from the Group of 20 even as Russian President Vladimir Putin said earlier this week, he planned to attend a G-20 summit later this year.
  • The Group of Seven nations issued a statement Thursday warning Russian President Vladimir Putin against using chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in Ukraine, highlighting growing concerns that Putin, facing setbacks on the battlefield and from sanctions, will resort to more extreme actions.
  • The US, along with the G-7 and the European Union, also unveiled a new round of sanctions targeting more than 400 individuals and entities, including the Russian legislature and its members, additional members of the Russian power elite and state-owned defense companies, the Washington Post reported. The economic measures are the latest in a far-reaching sanctions package the West has unleashed on Moscow as punishment for the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
  • Dozens of countries met Thursday to pledge their support for the International Criminal Court’s investigation into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, offering money, technology and expertise to the inquiry, which was launched shortly after Russia’s invasion began a month ago, the Associated Press reported. Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for global protests against Russia’s invasion, while urging NATO to provide Ukraine with “effective and unrestricted” aid to end the bloody war, Al Jazeera added.
  • A Russian landing ship was destroyed and two other boats were damaged in the Russian-held Ukrainian port city of Berdyansk, according to Ukrainian officials, the BBC noted. The destruction follows a barrage of Russian missiles which damaged apartment buildings, shattered trees, and set at least one home on fire in central Kyiv on Wednesday, the Hill wrote.
  • The United States formally accused unnamed members of Russia’s military of perpetrating war crimes in Ukraine, according to Politico. Meanwhile, the Kremlin ordered the expulsion of a number of US diplomats from Russia in what has been described as a tit-for-tat move following Washington’s move to expel 12 Russian diplomats last month, Reuters reported.

DISCOVERIES

Binary Bros

Astronomers recently discovered a unique binary star system forming three separate planetary systems following a three-decade study of the young celestial bodies, Newsweek reported.

For years, scientists had been observing the SVS 13 double-star system, which is located around 980 light-years away from Earth. The two young stars – or stellar embryos – sit together in a disk of gas and dust and, in total, have nearly the same mass as our Sun.

In their findings, researchers explained that each star was surrounded by one disk of gas and dust that would form the building blocks of the planets. The binary suns were also surrounded by a larger planetary disk, which feeds matter into the small individual disks.

“This system shows that there will be planets with two suns in the sky and maybe even planets that orbit only one of the stars and which have no nights for part of their year,” said lead author Ana Karla Díaz-Rodríguez.

Her team added that the planetary-forming ingredients also included 13 complex organic molecules that could help start life in those planets.

Co-author Gary Fuller noted that this peculiar binary and planetary system resembles the fictional desert planet of Tatooine of the “Star Wars” franchise, which is also located in a double-sun system.

“The two suns are a binary system that formed together and our observations show the material out of which planets like Tatooine could eventually form,” he said.

Even so, Díaz-Rodríguez said the study could help “theoreticians refine their models of how these systems form.”

COVID-19 Global Update

Total Cases Worldwide: 477,388,000

Total Deaths Worldwide: 6,109,764

Total Vaccinations Worldwide: 10,852,009,175

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

  1. US: 79,888,605 (+0.06%)
  2. India: 43,016,372 (+0.00%)**
  3. Brazil: 29,755,568 (+0.06%)
  4. France: 24,823,603 (+0.57%)
  5. UK: 20,679,098 (+0.49%)
  6. Germany: 19,365,628 (+0.77%)
  7. Russia: 17,433,393 (+0.14%)
  8. Turkey: 14,760,331 (+0.11%)
  9. Italy: 14,153,098 (+0.59%)
  10. Spain: 11,378,784 (+0.00%)**

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours

**Numbers have been adjusted by affected country

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