The World Today for February 15, 2023

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The Other Front


As their fellow citizens battle the Russian army on the eastern front, Ukrainian authorities recently displayed the mounds of cash, luxury watches and cars that a corrupt chief tax collector in the capital of Kyiv acquired as he overlooked $1.2 billion in taxes, CNN reported.

The number of such raids has spiked in recent weeks as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has cracked down on graft in Ukraine, both to curb criminality – a good thing in its own right – but also to prove to foreign leaders that he is in control of the vital aid and assistance they are contributing to the war effort, Newsweek explained. As he tours Europe’s capitals with cap in hand for military and economic assistance as well as seeking European Union membership, wrote Foreign Policy, Zelenskyy can hardly tolerate the embezzlement of those vital resources.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, for example, recently said he would have zero tolerance for corruption and announced that more than 620 officials in his ministry had been fined or reprimanded for unspecified violations, Reuters reported.

Many observers have wondered whether Reznikov should keep his job or face prosecution given the scale of the graft that appears to have been occurring under his nose, Politico noted. Addressing this criticism, he claimed that he has been too preoccupied with moving soldiers, equipment and supplies to the front.

Corruption was rampant in Ukraine in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union and continued up to Russia’s invasion in early 2022. Most just shrugged it off in resignation.

Now, there’s a growing intolerance for it.

For example, outrage erupted in the country after it was reported that Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office, repeatedly drove a Porsche worth $100,000 on the streets of Kyiv. He was also caught driving a new Chevrolet Tahoe SUV that had been donated for humanitarian aid.

“Can the representatives of power in this country, (where) a quarter territory lies already in ruins, live luxuriously?” wrote Ukrainska Pravda journalist Mykhailo Tkach, who broke the Porsche story.

Meanwhile, American officials, who have funneled billions in aid, weapons, and other materials to Ukrainian forces, have been pleased with the progress of the country’s anti-corruption efforts, according to the New York Times, though they have experienced “anxiety” at the prospect of so much taxpayer money disappearing into an East European warzone. Still, Daniel Twining, the president of the International Republican Institute, an affiliate of the Republican Party in the US, said that Zelenskyy was making progress.

Zelenskyy now has a chance to wipe the slate clean and rebuild a new, less corrupt political system, argued analyst David Dalton, of the British geopolitical and security consultancy Dragonfly Intelligence. “In the past, these (reports of corruption) would probably have been ignored,” Dalton told Radio Free Europe. “It is the onset of a potentially profound and potentially very beneficial accelerated evolution of the governance regime, driven by war.”

A poll recently found that Ukrainians consider eliminating graft to be as important as restoring the territorial integrity of their war-torn country, wrote the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Meanwhile, there’s another significant war dividend, Ukrainian and US officials told the Washington Post, namely the diminishment of the dominant power of Ukraine’s oligarchs over society and life. That’s due to the vast losses from the war, growing government pressure, and a newly energized population no longer willing to tolerate the politics of the past. That could mean a postwar Ukrainian society that is more democratic, less corrupt and more economically diversified.

Based on the war effort, anything is possible.


Test of Wills


The Israeli opposition warned Tuesday that mass protests a day before against legislation to overhaul the country’s top court was “just the start” if the bill continues to advance through parliament, the Times of Israel reported.

On Monday, tens of thousands of Israelis protested in front of the country’s parliament while thousands more went on strike as the right-wing government advanced legislation opponents say risks chipping away the country’s democracy, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The draft legislation would allow a simple majority of lawmakers to overturn Supreme Court decisions and have more influence on the committee that appoints judges. The coalition is expected to approve two significant reform components through a key parliamentary committee.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition criticized the court for being ruled by left-wing, activist justices who strike down bills supported by the majority of the country’s population.

Coalition members have said they hope to pass a number of laws that were previously struck down by the court, including legislation formalizing a longstanding exemption for ultraorthodox students from army service.

But opposition politicians and critics warned that the top court’s overhaul would give Netanyahu’s coalition unchecked power. Israel has a limited system of checks and balances, with the Supreme Court serving as the primary check on legislative and executive power.

The controversial bill has also drawn criticism from the Israeli business community and tech sector, with economists worrying that the judicial changes would weaken the independence of Israel’s courts and could hurt its economy.

‘Exporting’ History


Greece’s parliament approved a new law this week that will allow the exhibition of rare antiquities outside the country, a move that has raised concerns among archaeologists that it could lead to the long-term “export” of rare artifacts, Agence France-Presse reported.

The legislation affects five of the country’s top state museums, including the National Archaeological Museum and the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens – which hold some of Greece’s most priceless antiquities.

It will allow the five institutions to create satellite branches outside Greece, which government officials said would give museums more freedom to plan exhibitions and raise sponsorship.

The parliamentary vote comes as the Greek government negotiates with the British Museum for the return of the Pantheon Marbles – sculptures held by the United Kingdom since the 19th century.

Last week, the Financial Times reported on a secret meeting between Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and British Museum chair George Osborne where they discussed the exchange of Greek antiquities in return for some of the Parthenon Marbles.

Santorini’s stunning frescoes, dating to 1700 BCE, have been considered as potential candidates for such a swap.

Even so, the association of Greek archaeologists cautioned that important artifacts could be sent abroad indefinitely. It plans to challenge the law in court.

For years, Greece’s culture ministry has attempted to negotiate deals for the return of artifacts without resorting to legal action.

Last year, the ministry arranged for the acquisition of 161 Bronze Age artifacts previously owned by US billionaire and philanthropist Leonard Stern.

The antiquities will be progressively returned to Greece over the next 25 years after being displayed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But the archaeologist association criticized the move. They noted that Stern was a “proven recipient of smuggled archaeological discoveries”, including the artifacts under consideration, and that the deal set a poor precedent by letting wealthy collectors get away with disregarding legal provenance rules.

A Valentine Gesture


A mayor in the Philippines handed out extra pay to single employees during Valentine’s Day on Tuesday, in a show of gratitude for the extra hours they work and to say that “someone loves them,” Agence France Presse reported.

Employees at General Luna town hall in Quezon province will receive three times their usual daily wage if they can prove they have been single for more than five years, according to Mayor Matt Florido.

Out of the 289 employees, 37 qualified for the extra compensation after passing a stringent vetting process to confirm their single status, including the requirement to report when they were last in a relationship and why they are still single.

Florido told AFP that he understands what single folks “are going through,” being a lifelong bachelor himself.

He is paying the $511 in extra wages out of his own pocket, noting that the money is also an acknowledgment of the pressures placed on single employees to work extra hours when necessary.

It is the third year in a row that the mayor has handed out extra payments to single staff, noting that married employees or those in relationships have not objected to their colleagues getting bonus pay.

“Maybe they understand what the single people are going through,” Florido said.


Wanted: Elbow Room

The Milky Way is no run-of-the-mill galaxy, according to a new study.

A team of astronomers recently discovered that our spiral-shaped home galaxy is actually too big for its surroundings, Science Alert reported.

The Milky Way is located in a “neighborhood” called the Local Sheet, which is a flat arrangement of galaxies that share similar velocities and are surrounded by empty space called voids.

The team explained that the Local Sheet serves as an example of a cosmological wall and separates the Local Void from the Southern Void. The relationship between the galaxies in the Local Sheet has a strong influence on their behavior, such as their similar velocities relative to the expansion of the Universe.

But the Milky Way appears to be an exception.

In their paper, researchers conducted an analysis using simulations from a project called IllustrisTNG, which models the physical Universe.

They found that, being a billion light years across and containing millions of galaxies, very few galaxies located within a cosmological wall structure are as big as the Milky Way.

The study underscores the importance of considering the local environment when studying our home galaxy, rather than assuming that it is in an average spot in the universe.

The environmental context could also help explain some previously unexplained phenomena, such as the odd arrangement of satellite galaxies around Andromeda and the peculiar lack of them around the Milky Way.

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