The World Today for March 17, 2023

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The Democracy Two-Step


Campaign signs festooned the streets of Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, in anticipation of parliamentary elections on March 19. The signs feature candidates pledging to reduce housing density in the Central Asian country’s cities, reduce prices amid worldwide inflation, expand energy networks, and improve air quality.

The issues reflect how this election might the freest ever in the former Soviet republic. As argued, the election comes after protests erupted early last year over corruption that was rampant under ex-President Nursultan Nazarbayev. It also follows President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s successful constitutional referendum in June that shook up the country’s electoral system.

The new system is a mixture between a proportional system and single-member constituencies, or districts that elect a single legislator. This new system is giving critics of the government at least a chance to stand for office, an impossibility in the past.

“They were part of the government’s efforts to respond with tangible reform when it became clear that Kazakhstan needed measures to reduce presidential powers and encourage political pluralism and competition,” wrote Assel Nussupova, an economist with ties to the Kazakh government, in an op-ed the Astana Times, a local English-language newspaper.

Still, Tokayev, while seeking political liberalization, is not an ardent defender of human rights. As the Diplomat noted, he doesn’t flinch about shutting down the internet in Kazakhstan, for example, if it can take the air out of popular protests or other movements in the society that might foment instability. The country lost around $410 million last year due to stoppages online.

Attacks on independent journalists have also been on the rise since electioneering for the March 19 vote started, Radio Free Europe added.

Still, Tokayev is also seeking to improve democracy in Kazakhstan because he wants to improve ties with the West and weaken its relationship with Russia, argued geopolitical consultant and former German diplomat Thomas Matussek in Euractiv. Learning lessons from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Tokayev has concluded that having allies beyond Moscow might be prudent.

For example, Tokayev is working to diversify the routes it can use for its oil exports because at present the country is almost entirely dependent on Russia to maintain the safe passage of that crude, CNBC added.

Undoubtedly, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent visit to Astana, the Kazakh capital, was designed to signal approval of these developments.

The future of Kazakhstan still must be written. But eventually, its people might be the ones writing it.


Letting Go


Japan and South Korea pledged to improve military and economic ties after a Thursday summit as they aim to mend relations strained by long-running historical disputes in order to shore up a united front against North Korea and China, the Wall Street Journal reported.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol met Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the summit in Tokyo, the first between both countries since 2011.

The leaders agreed to resume regular visits, which have been on hold for more than a decade, the Associated Press added. Yoon and Kishida also said they would increase the direct sharing of intelligence on North Korean threats, as well as boost their economic security through cooperation in supply chains and other areas.

Relations between the two US allies have been tense for years over a number of territorial and historical issues, including Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

The recent rapprochement came a week after the South Korean government proposed a plan to resolve the dispute over payments for Koreans forced to work for Japanese companies during World War II. The proposal has been facing fierce resistance from former laborers and opposition parties in South Korea because it does not require Japanese companies to contribute to settlements.

Instead, funds would be provided by a South Korean fund to which South Korean businesses will contribute.

Analysts noted that the warming ties come as the two nations are seeking to form a united front over concerns about North Korea’s nuclear program and China’s growing influence in the region.

Breaking the Quiet


Senegalese police and protesters clashed in the capital Thursday ahead of a court case involving a prominent opposition leader, a trial whose supporters say is aimed at preventing the politician from running in next year’s presidential elections, Al Jazeera reported.

The skirmishes came as authorities escorted opposition leader Ousmane Sonko to court for the resumption of a case against him by Senegal’s tourism minister for alleged defamation and public insults.

Sonko has also been charged with raping a beauty salon employee in 2021 and threatening her life. He denies the charges and has called the accusations politically motivated.

Tensions flared over the case before Sonko’s court appearance this week, with more than 10,000 protesting in Dakar on Tuesday in support of the opposition figure.

Thursday’s clashes are the latest round of unrest in Senegal ahead of the February 2024 presidential vote. The country has been generally viewed as a bastion of stability and democracy in West Africa, a region that has seen a number of coups and ongoing insurgencies in recent years.

Many Senegalese have expressed anger at the government of President Macky Sall, who has been accused of imprisoning opponents.

Sall has also caused a stir in the West African nation because he has not ruled out running for a third term. Senegal’s constitution only allows two terms but some fear that Sall will use a recent constitutional tweak to reset his mandate.

A Vote on Cows


A Dutch farmer’s protest party secured a major victory in this week’s provincial elections that will determine the make-up of the parliament’s upper house, a win that also underscores a setback for the environmental policies of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Politico reported Thursday.

Exit polls projected that the Farmer Citizen Movement (BBB) is set to win 15 of 75 seats in the upper house, while Rutte’s center-right party will drop from 12 to 10 seats.

The results surprised many analysts and pundits, considering that the BBB was only formed three years ago and only has one seat in the lower house, Reuters noted.

But over the past few years, the party has ridden a wave of discontent with the government’s policies aimed at lowering nitrogen emissions from farms, which prompted large farmers’ demonstrations last summer.

The ruling coalition plans to cut nitrogen emissions in the Netherlands in half by 2030 by restricting the number of cows and also fertilizer use, which at current levels pollutes the soil and water to such an extent that it breaches European Union regulations.

But the BBB says the issue has been exaggerated and that proposed solutions would negatively impact farmers and would result in the closure of numerous farms and food production shortages.

Analysts noted that BBB’s victory is a major blow for Rutte’s ruling coalition in carrying out its environmental strategies because the rural party will now have the power to block legislation agreed upon in the lower house.

Others also described the results as a referendum on Rutte’s government, whose approval rating has dropped to 20 percent, according to Reuters.


This week, Poland said it is planning to give Ukraine around a dozen Soviet-made fighter jets, making it the first NATO country to fulfill the Ukrainian government’s increasingly urgent requests for warplanes, the Associated Press reported. At the same time, Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski said the country’s counter-intelligence has dismantled a Russian spy ring collecting information on military equipment deliveries to Ukraine, according to the Telegraph.

Also this week:

  • A Russian fighter jet collided with a United States Air Force drone over the Black Sea, marking the first time aircraft from both nations have come into direct physical contact since Moscow invaded Ukraine last year, CNN wrote. Video footage from the drone showed the Russian jet dumping fuel on the US aircraft twice before the collision. Russia denied that a collision occurred, but US officials countered that the highest levels of the Kremlin approved the aggressive maneuver, NBC News added.
  • Chinese leader Xi Jinping intends to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for the first time since the start of the Ukraine war, most likely after visiting Moscow next week to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to the Wall Street Journal. Officials familiar with the matter said the meetings with Putin and Zelenskyy – the latter of which is slated to take place digitally – show Beijing’s effort to play a more active role in putting an end to the conflict.
  • Russian soldiers in Ukraine committed a series of violations that amounted to war crimes and potential crimes against humanity, according to a recent United Nations report, Axios noted. The findings cover a period from the start of the invasion in February 2022 to mid-January 2023, in nine regions of Ukraine. Meanwhile, a group of Russian women and mothers have petitioned President Putin to stop sending their husbands and sons “to the slaughter” by forcing them to join assault units with insufficient training and supplies, CNN reported.


Roman Dry Cleaning

Italian archaeologists recently discovered the ancient Roman equivalent of today’s drycleaners buried in the city of Pompeii, the Miami Herald reported.

Archaeological teams came across a number of buildings while excavating unexplored areas of the ancient Roman city. Pompeii and many of its inhabitants were buried under volcanic ash following the eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE.

One of the uncovered buildings was a house that was converted into a “fullonica,” or a laundry.

The team explained that fullonicas operated similarly to today’s dry cleaners: Customers bring their clothes to the shop and pay to have their laundry done.

But unlike today’s detergents and chemicals, the ancient Roman cleaner did not have soap to wash soiled garments. Instead, they used urine – both animal and human – as a laundry detergent.

Researchers explained that urine contains ammonia, a base substance that cleans dirt and grease stains.

The Roman laundry process would start with the clothing being washed in vats filled with water and urine. Afterward, the staff would walk barefoot on the clothes. Then, the launderers would rinse them by hand and beat the garments with a stick to remove any leftover dirt.

Once they were dry, the customers could pick them up or have them delivered.

Meanwhile, previous excavations have found 10 other ancient laundry stores across the city, including the Fullonica of Stephanus, first discovered in 1912.

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