The World Today for April 03, 2023

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Waterfront Property


The presidential race in tiny Montenegro, a NATO member with close ties to Russian-ally Serbia, became a proxy political contest between the West and East as tensions in southeast Europe ratchet up amid the war in Ukraine.

You could say the West won.

On Sunday, Montenegro’s former minister of economic development Jakov Milatovic, 36, won the country’s presidential runoff “in a landslide” – with 58.9 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results – against the long-serving incumbent President Milo Djukanovic, Reuters reported.

Milatovic, from the newly-formed Europe Now group, which vowed to raise living standards, strengthen relations with the European Union, and improve ties with Serbia, said in his victory speech that Montenegro has taken a “step forward.”

“We said goodbye to crime, corruption and their association with politics,” he said. “We said good day to a successful, European Montenegro.”

That was quite a turnaround from the elections held last month when Djukanovic, 61, won around 35 percent of the vote, not enough to forestall a runoff on April 2, reported the Associated Press. In the March 19 vote Milatovic had garnered about 29 percent.

Sunday’s results, while not final, were certainly a break with the past, as the winner noted.

Djukanovic has been either president or prime minister for more than 30 years. During the campaign, that left him open to attacks from Milatovic, who had called for Montenegrins to retire the president and make way for a new generation of leaders. Milatovic also charged Djukanovic with aiding and abetting the corruption in the country. Russian money plays a large role in that corruption, as independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta wrote.

The political clash in the former Yugoslav republic on the Adriatic Sea was about more than domestic issues, however. The presidential election was also a test of whether the nominal Western ally will opt to move closer to Russia and neighboring Serbia, or chart a path that bends toward eventual membership in the EU. Milatovic has pledged to guide the country on the path to EU accession, according to Radio Free Europe.

“With a population of just over 600,000, Montenegro plays a crucial role in maintaining stability in the Western Balkans and is a key factor in ensuring NATO’s full control of the Adriatic coast,” the Atlantic Council explained.

Montenegro’s presidency is a largely ceremonial office but the winner will set the tone for politics in the country, including during parliamentary elections on June 11.

Djukanovic condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and steered his country to join NATO despite Russian objections. But an alliance of pro-Russian parties defeated Djukanovic’s party, the Democratic Party of Socialists, in the 2020 parliamentary elections. And in 2016, Russian and Serbian agents launched a failed coup attempt to unseat the government, a testament to the Kremlin’s interest in the country, added bne IntelliNews.

Russia might not have necessarily been interested in a pro-Kremlin candidate winning the presidency, noted CNBC. Instead, they might simply have wanted to divert Western attention from the war, a tactic designed to complicate American and European efforts to support Ukraine.

In the end, the voters decided which way their country goes.


The Doom Loop


Bulgaria held its fifth election in two years on Sunday, with voters casting their ballots in an effort to end the political deadlock plaguing the European Union country that has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, Bloomberg reported.

With 62 percent of the votes counted as of noon Monday local time, the coalition of the former long-time Prime Minister Boyko Borissov was leading with 25.84 percent of the vote against the “We continue the change – Democratic Bulgaria” coalition of Kiril Petkov on 24.9 percent, wrote Euractiv.

Meanwhile, the news outlet noted that the pro-Russian, anti-European party “Vazrazhdane” had won 14.9 percent according to preliminary results, gaining about 5 percent from past elections, boosted by actively campaigning for a referendum against the eurozone. If the results hold, it’s likely that Vazrazhdane becomes kingmaker in any new coalition.

The Balkan nation of seven million has seen its political system paralyzed following a series of inconclusive elections – the last was in October – that have failed to produce a party with enough support to create a government.

For the past two years, there have been several short-lived governments with interim cabinets appointed by President Rumen Radev.

Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest nation, is also experiencing high inflation that has caused the country to abandon its goal to join the eurozone next year. The crisis has also prevented Bulgaria from proposing a 2023 budget bill, tapping the EU’s Covid-19 recovery funds and tackling reforms aimed at catching up with richer bloc nations.

While economic issues and the Ukraine war boosted support for Vazrazhdane, at the same time President Radev, a former fighter pilot and general who received training from NATO, has openly favored Russia, for example recently commenting during an election campaign that Crimea belongs to Russia. He has also labeled opponents who support arming Ukraine as warmongers.

Analysts and also voters expressed skepticism that Sunday’s elections would resolve the political stalemate plaguing the country. Meanwhile, Foreign Policy also noted how the country is stuck in an electoral “doom loop” because of parliament’s dysfunction, and said this situation has opened the door to a pro-Russian presidential power grab.

No Quarter


Hundreds of thousands of Israelis demonstrated across the country over the weekend, the latest unrest targeting Israel’s conservative government’s plan to overhaul the judiciary and the first protests since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paused the bill last week, the Washington Post reported.

Protests took place in more than 100 locations, including Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, nearly a week after Netanyahu put on hold the plan to give the government and lawmakers more power in appointing judges, as well as allow parliament to overrule the country’s Supreme Court.

Since it was proposed earlier this year, the reform plan has faced intense opposition from many facets of Israeli society, including tech companies, trade unions, and military reservists. The draft legislation also received criticism from US President Joe Biden, who urged Netanyahu to “walk away from” the planned overhaul.

Meanwhile, opposition has also emerged from the country’s figurehead President Isaac Herzog and members of Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Netanyahu and his coalition – consisting of religious and hardline right-wing parties – maintain that the bill aims to create a proper balance between the elected government and the unelected judiciary. But critics have described it as a judicial coup that risks undermining Israel’s legal checks and balances.

Last week, the government moved to pause the package following popular and political pressure, including a general strike that ground Israel’s economy to a halt.

But opponents see the move as a delaying tactic and said it was necessary to continue pressure until the plan is permanently shelved.

The crisis has also raised concerns about Israel’s national security, as thousands of reservists have vowed to refuse to report for service if the bill becomes law. Israeli authorities are currently on high alert ahead of the convergence of the Jewish holiday of Passover and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan next week.

There is also rising concern among security officials over reports that Netanyahu has promised his far-right ally, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, the formation of a “national guard” under the latter’s authority.

The move came after Ben Gvir threatened to quit the coalition if the prime minister backed down from the judicial reform.

Some military and security officials have warned that the force could end up as Ben Gvir’s own private militia, the newspaper said.

Just a Minute


Italy’s data protection watchdog issued a temporary ban on the popular artificial intelligence chatbot ChatGPT over alleged privacy violations, the first Western nation to do so, Euronews reported.

Over the weekend, the Italian National Authority for Personal Data Protection said the chatbot had experienced a data breach last month “concerning users’ conversations and payment information of subscribers to the paid service.”

The watchdog also criticized ChatGPT for failing to provide notice to users whose data is collected by its maker, the US-based OpenAI. It also complained that the AI lacks filters to verify the age of its users, saying that the chatbox risks exposing minors “to responses absolutely not in accordance with their level of development.”

OpenAI has 20 days to resolve the situation or risk a fine of up to four percent of its annual global turnover, the Italian authority said.

Since its launch in November 2022, ChatGPT has become a sensation worldwide for its ability to explain complex things clearly and simply, create poems, write computer code, and even pass exams.

The watchdog’s announcement comes as the European police agency, Europol, warned last week that criminal groups are using AI chatbots to commit fraud and other cybercrimes.

Meanwhile, Elon Musk and hundreds of researchers worldwide cautioned that AI systems pose “profound risks to society and humanity,” and urged corporations to cease further research of the technology for at least six months.


The Resurrection

An Australia-based meat company recently unveiled a meatball made from the flesh of the woolly mammoth, the Guardian reported.

Last week, visitors at the Nemo science museum in the Netherlands got to see – but not taste – a food product from the long-extinct creature that early humans would hunt tens of thousands of years ago.

Vow, a cultivated meat firm, said their product was part of a project to underscore the benefits of lab-grown meat, but would also highlight the impact of large-scale livestock production on wildlife and the climate.

“We chose the woolly mammoth because it’s a symbol of diversity loss and a symbol of climate change,” said Tim Noakesmith, a co-founder of Vow.

The company and researchers that created the unique meatball explained that its production was “ridiculously easy and fast.”

Scientists developed the mammoth’s myoglobin – a muscle protein that gives meat its flavor – and filled in the missing sequences using elephant DNA. They then placed this sequence in sheep stem cells which replicated into billions of cells subsequently used by Vow to grow the mammoth meat.

The meatball is not yet available for consumption.

“We haven’t seen this protein for thousands of years,” said researcher Ernst Wolvetang, who helped create the mammoth meatball. “So we have no idea how our immune system would react when we eat it.”

Even so, Vow and other organizations promoting cultivated meat products hope that the project will spark discussions about the sustainable potential of cultivated meat.


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