The World Today for January 31, 2023

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Silent Gestures


Muscovites recently have been laying wreaths of flowers, stuffed animals, photographs and other mementos at the feet of a statue dedicated to the early 20th century Ukrainian writer, Lesya Ukrainka. The makeshift memorial, appearing after a Russian missile hit a residential building in Dnipro in Ukraine just over a week ago, killing 46 people and injuring 80 others, is a subtle sign of discontent over Russia’s bloody, humiliating standstill war in Ukraine, the New York Times wrote.

“In contemporary Russia, under these conditions, it is a battle – a silent battle,” a Russian chemist who contributed to the memorial told the newspaper, alluding to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal crackdown on free expression and dissent over the military’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine.

With the help of the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leaders have prospered personally under Putin’s watch, as the Australian Broadcasting Company reported, Putin still maintains a solid grip on the media and other institutions that claim to reflect public sentiment and civil society.

Prominent opposition activist Aleksei Navalny has been imprisoned for the past two years, Amnesty International wrote. Russian authorities routinely shut down organizations that promote anti-war sentiments or refuse to bow to government censors, Human Rights Watch said. Putin has especially cracked down on other spaces of resistance to his conservative vision for Russian society, like the LGBTQ community, added the BBC.

Still, the Russian army’s failures in Ukraine have clearly undermined Putin’s power, countered. The Kremlin’s current regime is creaking under the stress, it said. Army generals are at odds with the Wagner Group, the Russian military contracting force that has fielded some of the toughest fighters against the Ukrainian army, for example, indicating that members of Putin’s team are pointing fingers at each other.

The increasingly outlandish statements of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are another sign of the chaos in Putin’s camp. At his recent annual press conference, Lavrov, who has served in his position at the pinnacle of the Russian political elite since 2004, said the US and Europe were pursuing a “final solution” to the “Russian question,” comparing Russia’s current diplomatic and economic isolation to the Holocaust.

“Just as Napoleon mobilized practically all of Europe against the Russian Empire, just as Hitler mobilized and captured … the majority of European countries and sent them against the Soviet Union, now the United States has organized a coalition,” Lavrov said, according to the Times of Israel.

And while Putin still seemingly has the loyalty of the elite and voters, cracks have appeared. Polls showed his popularity dipping, especially after imposing a partial draft last year. Meanwhile, he appeared to take swipes at elites who are less than supportive of the war effort, Newsweek reported.

One source close to businessmen from Putin’s “inner circle” told Meduza, an independent Russian news outlet that operates from the Baltics that, “It’s started to dawn on people: We’ve lost the real war.”

More notably, supporters are openly speaking about how the “special operation” has achieved little, noted Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia, in an opinion piece for the Washington Post.

Unfortunately, countries become more, not less, unpredictable and dangerous as they near their breaking point.


Liberté, Égalité, Réalité


France is bracing for a new wave of strikes and transportation chaos Tuesday over a government plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 years of age by 2030, the latest battle over this type of reform, the Local France reported.

Earlier this month, labor unions mobilized more than a million people to strike and demonstrate, an opening salvo in the resistance against the plan, a “success” they hope to recreate Tuesday, Radio France International said. But over the weekend, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said there would be no negotiations on raising the retirement age, indicating a hardening of the government’s position.

The government says its proposals are necessary to keep the pension system solvent as France’s life expectancy has grown and birth rates have declined.

This plan, meanwhile, is not popular with voters, with a majority against it, opinion polls show. Unions and left-wing parties want big companies and wealthier households to contribute more to balance the pension budget.

Laurent Berger, head of the CFDT union, told France 24, “the people disagree strongly with the proposal, and that view is gaining ground,” adding it would be “a mistake” for the government to ignore the protests.

France has one of the lowest retirement ages in the Western world and French leaders of all parties agree that something needs to change. However, when reforms have been introduced in the past, strikes and protests have usually erupted, most notably in 2010 when tens of thousands of protesters flooded the streets against former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s reform plan, France 24 noted.

The bill will be debated in the National Assembly on Feb. 6.

No Quarter


A suicide bomber detonated explosives inside a mosque in the city of Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan Monday, killing at least 93 worshippers and wounding scores more, the latest in a series of attacks that have become a flashpoint between Afghanistan and Pakistan, NBC News reported.

The blast occurred at a mosque inside a highly secured administrative zone in the early afternoon and is one often used by police officers. An eyewitness told ABC News that the roof collapsed from the impact.

The Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), claimed responsibility, CNN reported, saying the blast was “revenge” for the death of TTP militant Omar Khalid Khorasani last year.

Later, the Washington Post reported, the group’s spokesman denied involvement in the bombing, saying it was against “our rules.”

The TTP has been designated as a terrorist group by the US. It operates in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Talks between the TTP and the Pakistani government broke down last year. Since then, the group has taken responsibility for a string of attacks, often targeting sites in Peshawar, which is near the border with Afghanistan.

The attacks by the group have become a major cause of rising tension between the Pakistani government and the Taliban regime in Kabul, the Wall Street Journal noted.

The Taliban, which seized power in Kabul in 2021, had promised it wouldn’t allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for attacks against other countries. But Pakistan says Afghanistan’s leaders are allowing the Pakistani Taliban to do what they want. The TTP hosted the Afghan Taliban for two decades in Pakistan following the US-led ousting of the group from Afghanistan.

The TTP, formed in 2007 under the influence of al Qaeda, is even more radical than the Afghan Taliban, the newspaper added.

Message Received


Czech retired general Petr Pavel won the country’s presidential runoff this week by a landslide, in a vote overshadowed by disputes related to the Ukraine war, the Guardian reported.

Results showed that pro-Western Pavel secured more than 58 percent of the vote against his populist rival, former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, who won just less than 42 percent.

Pavel’s victory came after an election campaign that many considered divisive.

Babiš accused Pavel – who was NATO’s second-in-command – of being a warmonger over his support for military aid for Ukraine. The populist leader and business tycoon also questioned NATO’s collective security arrangements by saying he would never send Czech troops to Poland – a fellow member of the military alliance – if it was attacked.

Pavel will replace incumbent Miloš Zeman, who steps down in March at the end of his second term. Critics have accused the outgoing leader – who endorsed Babiš – of being divisive and attempting to meddle in politics beyond his constitutional powers.

As president, Pavel will have the power to appoint the members of the judiciary and central bank. He also has the prerogative to choose prime ministers in the wake of elections.

Meanwhile, analysts noted that Babiš’ defeat raises further doubts about his future in Czech politics, despite his pledges to lead his ANO party during the 2025 parliamentary elections.


The Golden Boy

Archaeologists have managed to “digitally unwrap” the mummified remains of an Egyptian teenage boy buried 2,300 years ago to learn about funerary practices and social status in ancient Egypt, NBC News reported.

Known as Egypt’s “golden boy,” the remains were initially found more than a century ago at a cemetery in Nag el-Hassay in southern Egypt that was used from around 332 to 30 BCE.

In their paper, researcher Sahar Saleem and her team used computer tomography to non-invasively unwrap the boy’s remains and discovered a treasure trove of details.

There were 49 precious amulets adorning the remains of the teenager, many of them believed to be made of gold and other materials, such as faience, or fired clay. One of the artifacts was a golden scarab that was used to replace the boy’s heart.

Saleem explained that Egyptian embalmers placed these amulets with the deceased to protect and assist the body in the afterlife. Judging by the boy’s expensive mummification, she explained that “he came from some very rich family or maybe a noble family.”

The team added that the amulets’ discovery helps provide new insights into ancient Egyptians’ complex belief systems and their intricate funerary rituals.

“All too often in the past, they’ve been removed from their original context on the body, and are therefore seen as little more than pieces of jewelry, which is to misunderstand their actual purpose as a potent amulet,” explained Egyptologist Joann Fletcher, who was not involved in the study.

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