The World Today for April 18, 2022

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Twilight of the Gods

RUSSIA-UKRAINE

The island of Jersey, a British territory and tax haven in the English Channel, recently froze $7 billion of assets owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. That’s around half the Chelsea football club owner’s wealth, noted Fortune. He’s been ordered to sell the team too, by the way. At around the same time, France seized an Abramovich-owned chateau worth nearly $100 million, added Insider.

British officials also seized $13 billion worth of assets owned by two other Russian oligarchs, CNBC reported. Germany recently confiscated the world’s largest yacht – almost 1,700 feet long – from a fourth oligarch, wrote Agence France-Presse. The boat was worth around $600 million. Cyprus has also stripped citizenship from four Russian billionaires who had qualified for the Mediterranean island nation’s “golden passport” program, which gave residency documents to high-flying investors, according to Radio Free Europe.

A breathtaking list of seized wealth can be viewed here in this CNN story.

The crackdown in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine brings a good run for these rich and powerful Russian men to an end.

As the Australian Broadcasting Corporation explained, Abramovich and other jet-setting Russian tycoons took advantage of the chaotic days after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s to buy up state-owned companies that were being privatized. Supporting ex-President Boris Yeltsin and his successor, Putin, they used political favoritism and corruption to cement their gains and secure more sweetheart deals.

As the Russian oligarchs grew rich, ordinary Russians experienced economic shocks, poverty and decreasing life expectancies.

When Putin sought to consolidate power after he became acting president in late 1999, oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was critical of Putin’s regime, coincidentally ran afoul of the law. Jailed for 10 years, he fled the country after Putin pardoned him in 2013. The arrest and imprisonment sent a signal to the oligarchs that they should fall in line or face the power of the state.

Today, Khodorkovsky, who lives in exile in London, regularly pleads with other oligarchs to rise up against Putin, the Washington Post wrote.

His appeals might be prescient. The era of the oligarchs might be over, argued Bloomberg. Dependent on an international financial system that allowed them to move ill-gotten gains from poor Russia to tony properties in London and elsewhere, the oligarchs now face tough sanctions and a dragnet that is stripping them of their wealth.

They enabled. They tolerated. Now they pay.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Holy Days, Bloody Days

ISRAEL/ WEST BANK & GAZA

Palestinians and Israeli police clashed at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem over the weekend, the latest unrest that has followed an uptick in violence in recent weeks that has raised concerns over a wider conflict, the New York Times reported Sunday.

Sunday’s clash was the most recent skirmish between Israeli authorities and Palestinians at the site, considered holy for both Jews and Muslims. It came a few days after more than 150 Palestinians were injured in scuffles with police.

On Friday, Israeli officials said police arrested hundreds of Palestinians. They added that the violence started after Palestinians began throwing stones and other objects at police and at worshippers at a nearby Jewish prayer area of the Western Wall in the Old City after Ramadan morning prayers, according to Reuters.

Palestinian witnesses, however, said that a small group of Palestinians hurled rocks at police – who allegedly entered the compound in force – and set off a larger fray, the Associated Press noted.

The Al-Aqsa mosque is the third holiest place in Islam, and it is situated on a hilltop in Jerusalem’s Old City that is also the most important site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount because it was the location of Jewish temples in antiquity.

For decades, the area has been a major flashpoint for Israeli-Palestinian violence.

The weekend clashes came amid a recent wave of violence that began last month: A series of attacks by Palestinian assailants killed 14 people in Israel, prompting Israeli forces to carry out military raids and arrests across the occupied West Bank. At least 25 Palestinians have been killed in operations.

The tensions come at the beginning of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, which this year is coinciding with the Jewish holiday of Passover and the Christian holidays of Easter.

This has raised fears that clashes will turn into a full-scale conflict: Last year, clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police at Al-Aqsa and threats of Palestinian displacement in East Jerusalem sparked the 11-day war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas.

This year, Israel has relaxed restrictions and other moves to defuse tensions.

Passing the Buck

UNITED KINGDOM

The United Kingdom will send future asylum seekers to Rwanda under a controversial scheme that has raised alarms among human rights groups and refugee advocates, Al Jazeera reported.

Under the plan, the British government would screen arriving asylum seekers and deliver their personal information to Rwanda before transferring them to the central African country.

The Rwandan government will then process their applications and successful asylum seekers will settle there, according to iNews. Rwanda, meanwhile, will receive an initial payment of more than $156 million to invest in “economic development and growth.”

The proposed scheme will take effect after parliament approves a bill that would criminalize any refugees entering the country without a valid visa.

The contentious move is part of the British government’s efforts to stop asylum seekers from reaching Britain using boats to cross the English Channel. Last year, more than an estimated 28,000 immigrants and refugees traveled from Europe to the UK using small boats.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the plan would “save countless lives” and clamp down on human smugglers. Rwanda also added that it will provide refugees “a dignified life with shelter.”

But human rights organizations slammed the proposed plan as “cruel,” “inhumane” and “neo-colonial.” The United Nation’s refugee agency also opposed the move, saying that asylum seekers and refugees “should not be traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing.”

Others have also criticized Rwanda’s human rights record: The government is accused of torturing, intimidating and assassinating its political opponents and marginalized groups.

Johnson noted that the proposal will become “a new international standard” in handling migration but Amnesty International warned that such a plan could “set a dangerous trend for other Western countries to adopt their offshore asylum schemes.”

Back To Work

SOMALIA

Somalia’s newly elected parliament convened for the first time Saturday, a few days after lawmakers were sworn in following a long-delayed voting process and a political struggle between the president and the prime minister, Africa News reported.

Hundreds of lawmakers from both houses of parliament took their oaths of office Thursday, with dozens more to be selected and sworn in.

The elections were originally scheduled to be held more than a year ago – before President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s term expired in February 2021. But the incumbent leader tried to extend his four-year term by another two years, a move that sparked national and international criticism, according to the National, a United Arab Emirates publication.

Mohamed eventually relented but his disputes with Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble continually delayed the elections and raised fears of further instability in Somalia, amid an ongoing Islamist insurgency and threat of famine.

In Somalia, elections follow an indirect model, with state legislatures and clan delegates selecting lawmakers, who then select the president.

The new parliament is now expected to pick a new president, even though the date has not been set. Even so, a new government must be created by May 17 in order for Somalia to continue receiving financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund.

Meanwhile, the Horn of Africa country is currently fighting a decades-long insurgency against al Qaeda-affiliate Al Shabab. Tens of thousands are also facing famine due to years of drought and rising food prices caused by the Russian-Ukrainian war.

According to the United Nations, millions of Somalians are at risk with 40 percent of the population currently experiencing acute food insecurity.

UKRAINE, BRIEFLY

  • Russian forces seized most of the besieged city of Mariupol over the weekend, according to Russian officials, as the conflict enters its second month, CNBC reported. The Russian army also told Ukrainian fighters that their lives “will be spared” if they lay down their arms. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the situation in Mariupol “inhuman,” saying further Russian war crimes would make negotiations impossible, CNN wrote.
  • Russia increased scattered strikes on Kyiv, western Ukraine, and beyond on Saturday, sending a powerful message to Ukrainians and their Western backers that the entire nation remained under threat despite Moscow’s tilt toward launching a fresh offensive in the east, the Associated Press added. As the invasion progresses, Zelenskyy asked the United States to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, according to NBC News.
  • The United Nations human rights agency said that nearly 2,000 civilians have died in Ukraine since Russia invaded the country in February, the Washington Times noted. At the same time, hundreds of Ukrainian refugees have been crossing the US-Mexico border, asking US immigration agents to let them in on humanitarian grounds, according to NPR.
  • Ukraine’s Zelenskyy said that about 2,500 to 3,000 Ukrainian troops have died and about 10,000 have been injured, Reuters reported. The president added that the Russian death toll was about 19,000 to 20,000. Both reports could not be independently confirmed. Meanwhile, Ukraine is employing facial recognition technology from the United States’ Clearview AI to identify deceased Russian servicemen and distribute photographs to their relatives in a bid to sway Russian public opinion against the conflict, the Hill added. The technology is also being used to identify Russian looters.
  • The Kremlin submitted a formal letter to the United States saying that shipments of sensitive weaponry from the US and NATO are increasing tensions in Ukraine and might lead to “unpredictable outcomes,” the Washington Post reported. Meanwhile, Russia banned high-ranking British officials, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, from entering the country, the Guardian added. Russia’s foreign ministry said the decision was made “in view of the unprecedented hostile action by the UK government.”
  • Finnish lawmaker Tytti Tuppurainen said that Finland is “highly likely” to join NATO following Moscow’s incursion in Ukraine, saying that the “people of Finland have already made up their mind” and that polls show huge support for membership in the alliance, according to Sky News.

DISCOVERIES

Mushroom-Speak

A new study discovered that fungi can talk in a manner similar to humans, the Guardian reported.

Past research has shown that fungi send electrical impulses via long, underground filamentous structures called hyphae. Scientists have theorized that the organisms use this ability to share information about food or injury with distant parts of themselves.

But researcher Andrew Adamatzky conducted a mathematical analysis of the electrical signals the organisms send to each other and came across patterns that bear a striking structural similarity to human speech.

For his study, he placed small microelectrodes into four species of fungi – enoki, split gill, ghost and caterpillar – and studied the patterns of electrical spikes they generated.

The findings showed that the spikes would cluster into trains of activity – these resembled vocabularies of up to 50 words – and the distribution of these “fungal word lengths” was quite similar to that of human language.

Among the four species, the split gills were the smooth-talkers – meaning they generated the most complex “sentences.”

Adamatzky suggested that the electrical activity could have various functions, including maintaining the fungi’s integrity but their exact purpose remains elusive. Still, he added that these electrical spikes are not random.

Other researchers, meanwhile, suggested that more evidence is needed to confirm the existence of “mushroom-speak.”

“Though interesting, the interpretation as language seems somewhat overenthusiastic, and would require far more research and testing of critical hypotheses before we see ‘Fungus’ on Google Translate,” said Dan Bebber of the British Mycological Society.

COVID-19 Global Update

Total Cases Worldwide: 504,577,044

Total Deaths Worldwide: 6,198,460

Total Vaccinations Worldwide: 11,169,580,041

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

  1. US: 80,632,301 (+0.01%)
  2. India: 43,044,280 (+0.01%)
  3. Brazil: 30,252,618 (+0.01%)
  4. France: 27,960,919 (+0.31%)
  5. Germany: 23,437,145 (+0.09%)
  6. UK: 21,916,961 (+0.00%)
  7. Russia: 17,811,199 (+0.06%)
  8. South Korea: 16,353,495 (+0.29%)
  9. Italy: 15,712,088 (+0.33%)
  10. Turkey: 14,994,937 (+0.02%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours

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