The World Today for June 16, 2023
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Pride and Pressure
D Billions is a quartet of Kyrgyz singers whose performances for kids on YouTube have received 31 billion viewings, more than pop star Taylor Swift or South Korean sensation, BTS. As Global Voices explained, D Billions could be Kyrgyzstan’s biggest cultural export. Officials have been using the group to market the former Soviet republic in Central Asia as a budding center of creativity and innovation.
In a sign of the ecosystem that Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov wants to foster, Radio Free Europe wrote about a local coding group called Birtops that recently won a national prize for We Are Kyrgyzstan, a new web plugin that automatically rewrites the Russian colonial and Soviet-era term for the country, “Kirghizia,” with the native spelling of the country’s name.
At the same time as D Billions were garnering likes and shares and Birtops was appealing to Kyrgyz national pride, however, Human Rights Watch was issuing a clarion call to the international community to condemn a new proposal in Kyrgyzstan that would require advocacy and humanitarian groups to register and disclose their foreign funding if they were engaged in political activity. The law threatened the civic space, Human Rights Watch argued, hardly a proper atmosphere for creative inspiration.
Critics have said Japarov has also been cracking down on the opposition and media, including instituting so-called “digital authoritarianism” over the Internet, telecommunications, and other information systems. He recently ordered the arrest of 30 members of an obscure political party who were allegedly plotting to overthrow his government in a coup, Euronews wrote. Japarov, incidentally, came to power in 2020 after a popular uprising toppled the government of his predecessor, Sooronbay Jeenbekov.
These events occurred as the capital of Bishkek was suffering one of the worst droughts and water crises in memory, Eurasianet reported. The city’s Soviet-era water system was built to accommodate around 650,000 people, but the city’s population is 1.2 million today. Water storage facilities built more recently are now full. Food insecurity is also on the rise due to inflation and higher fuel prices, added ReliefWeb.
The country also faces challenges balancing the demands of the US, EU, and especially Russia, which has an air base in the country and whose leader, President Vladimir Putin, has also spooked Kyrgyz officials with the invasion of Ukraine last year. Illicit weapons shipments to Russia and drug trafficking play roles that complicate that balancing act.
It’s a remote nation that arguably is at the center of the world.
THE WORLD, BRIEFLY
A Guatemalan court this week sentenced a prominent journalist to six years in prison on money laundering charges, a trial that prompted criticism from press and human rights groups, NPR reported.
Judges found José Rubén Zamora, founder of Guatemala’s El Periódico newspaper, guilty of money laundering involving funds of nearly $40,000.
Zamora denied the charges and said the money came from the sale of a painting. He added that the money was used to help fund the newspaper and accused the court of bias against him because of articles critical of the government.
Last year, El Periódico published reports uncovering corruption in government contracts. Shortly after publication, Guatemalan authorities arrested Zamora.
The newspaper, considered a respected investigative outfit in Guatemala, eventually shut down in May amid financial and political pressure that followed Zamora’s detention.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based advocacy group, called the verdict a “stark testament to the erosion of freedom of speech in the country.”
Officials have insisted there is press freedom in the Central American country and denied that Zamora’s case was politically motivated.
Even so, more than 20 journalists have fled Guatemala in the past year amid fears of government persecution.
A British parliamentary inquiry found that former Prime Minister Boris Johnson deliberately misled Parliament over gatherings held in his Downing Street office and residence during the country’s strict Covid-19 lockdowns, USA Today reported Thursday.
In a 30,000-word report, the lower house’s Privileges Committee – which probes alleged parliamentary wrongdoing – said that Johnson committed “a serious contempt of the House,” and did so on an issue of the “greatest importance to the House and to the public, and did so repeatedly.”
The document also noted that the former leader was complicit in a “campaign of abuse and attempted intimidation of the committee,” adding that his actions were an “attack on our democratic institutions.”
The long-awaited report is part of the infamous “Partygate” scandal, which involved government officials holding alcohol-fueled parties in the prime minister’s office and at other official buildings in 2020 and 2021 when such gatherings were prohibited by pandemic restrictions, according to the Associated Press.
The scandal resulted in Johnson’s resignation as prime minister last year, although he remained a lawmaker in Parliament during the inquiry.
But less than a week before the report’s publishing, Johnson quit his position as a legislator, calling the committee a “kangaroo court” that conducted a “witch hunt” to drive him out of Parliament.
On Thursday, he described the report’s findings as the “final knife-thrust in a protracted political assassination − that is beyond contempt.”
Observers explained that the inquiry and accusations will be difficult to shake off for the Conservative politician, even though they have no legal consequences. Johnson will also not be barred from standing for re-election as a lawmaker.
Even so, Johnson faces another probe over how he and his officials responded to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Taliban’s religious police will be monitoring wedding halls in the Afghan capital Kabul to enforce a ban on playing music, the latest crackdown by the religious group against activities they consider a violation of the teachings of Islam, Al Jazeera reported.
The Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice announced this week that hall owners must prohibit music at wedding parties. The music ban had initially been imposed last year but it was not heavily enforced.
Some business owners complained about the ban.
“If there is no music at a wedding, then what is the difference between a wedding ceremony and a funeral ceremony?” questioned one manager, whose name was withheld for security reasons.
For the Taliban, music is against the teachings of Islam and only the human voice should produce sound in praise of God.
During their rule from 1996 to 2001, the armed group prohibited a series of harmless activities in Afghanistan, including flying kites and watching soap operas.
Such activities made a comeback after the United States-led invasion more than 20 years ago that ousted the armed group. However, the Taliban restarted their crackdown following their return to power in 2021.
Meanwhile, Afghan women and girls have been subjected to severe restrictions, including bans on attending school or university or holding certain jobs.
In April, the Taliban closed down a women-run radio station in northeastern Afghanistan for playing music during Ramadan: It was deemed a violation of Islamic rules and regulations.
This week, Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Russia entered a crucial phase, with both sides engaged in a battle of attrition, according to Reuters. Russian forces have fortified their positions with obstacles and defenses, while Ukraine aimed to exploit gaps in Russia’s defense for tactical advantage. Moscow’s strategy is to inflict significant casualties on Ukrainian troops before they reach the main defensive line. Ukraine has been preparing for months and has formed armored brigades – but only three have been in combat so far, and the lack of air power remains a challenge.
Still, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed this week that Ukraine’s counteroffensive has suffered major losses and is approaching “catastrophic” levels, a claim denied by Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the BBC reported. While both sides make daily claims about casualties, the situation is complex, with modest gains and setbacks in different regions.
Also this week:
- Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko announced that his country had received nuclear weapons from Russia and would not hesitate to use them if provoked, the Hill wrote. Lukashenko stated that while he would consult with his Russian counterpart before using the weapons, there would be no hesitation if faced with aggression.
- Meanwhile, the leaders of France, Germany, and Poland met in Paris to discuss military support for Ukraine’s counteroffensive and future security guarantees, the Associated Press added. They pledged ongoing support and promised deliveries of weapons and aid, although details of long-term security guarantees were not provided. The issue will be addressed at an upcoming NATO summit.
- Soldiers from the mercenary outfit Wagner Group have refused to sign contracts with Russia’s defense ministry, defying orders from Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Al Jazeera reported. The directive aimed to increase the effectiveness of the Russian army in Ukraine. Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, stated that Wagner would not comply with the order and criticized top military officials. Non-compliance could lead to Wagner being deprived of supplies. Although the ministry did not explicitly mention Wagner in its statement, the new rule seeks to rein in the controversial leader and his group following a series of public outbursts criticizing Russia’s military.
- The ministry’s directive comes as Russian citizens have begun searching for information online about Prigozhin more frequently than for President Putin, Newsweek noted. The increased interest in Prigozhin reflects his growing popularity and the strained relationship between him and the government. Some analysts speculate that Prigozhin’s actions could lead to repercussions, such as staged suicides or targeted attacks by Russian authorities.
- The European Union has extended a ban on Ukrainian grain imports to Poland and four other countries due to concerns about low-cost products damaging local farmers’ businesses, Euronews noted. Polish farmers have protested against unsold grain and low prices caused by competition from Ukraine. Analysts emphasized the need to protect Polish agriculture, which meets EU standards and contributes to food security.
- Elsewhere, Pakistan made its first government-to-government import of discounted Russian crude oil this week, breaking away from its US dollar-dominated export payments policy, according to Reuters. The payment for the crude oil was made in Chinese currency. The move is aimed at alleviating Pakistan’s economic crisis and balance of payments problem. It also provides Russia with a new market for oil sales, while Pakistan gains an alternative source of oil. The South Asian country intends to buy one-third of its total oil imports from Russia.
Peeking Into the Unknown
Marine scientists found more than 5,500 different species in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) of the Pacific Ocean, which spans about 3,100 miles in the area between Hawaii and Mexico.
In their study, the researchers wrote that more than 88 percent of the creatures had never been seen before. The most common type of marine animals found in the deep-sea region are arthropods, worms, and sponges – including one that’s carnivorous.
“There’s some just remarkable species down there,” said lead author Muriel Rabone. “Some of the sponges look like classic bath sponges, and some look like vases. They’re just beautiful.”
The findings are remarkable considering that the CCZ is an area with little sunlight and not a lot of food.
The study, meanwhile, is significant because the region is also rich with potato-sized polymetallic nodules, which are a potential mineral resource for copper, nickel, cobalt, iron, manganese, and other rare earth elements.
Many mining companies have been exploring the area for mineral extraction since the 1960s. Meanwhile, ecologists and biologists have been investigating what may be at risk once companies begin mining the area.
“We share this planet with all this amazing biodiversity, and we have a responsibility to understand it and protect it,” noted Rabone.
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