The World Today for September 29, 2023
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NEED TO KNOW
Since the invasion of Ukraine last year, Russia has become diplomatically isolated from the West – but not everywhere in Europe. Russophobes, in fact, are sounding alarms about the candidacy of Roberto Fico in Slovakia’s general election on Sept. 30.
“We are a peaceful country,” said Fico, a former prime minister and leader of the center-left Direction – Slovak Social Democracy (SMER-SDD, just Smer) political party. “We will not send a single round to Ukraine.”
As Reuters noted, Fico is favored to return to the premier’s office after voters go to the polls. It’s quite a reversal for the politician who stepped down as prime minister in 2018 after a political crisis and mass protests erupted over the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak, who had been investigating alleged ties between the Italian mafia and people close to Fico, and writing about corruption scandals linked to Fico’s party.
Afterward, dozens of senior officials, police officers, judges, prosecutors, politicians and business people linked to Smer have been convicted of corruption and other crimes, the Associated Press reported.
Last year, Fico came under investigation on suspicion of founding an organized crime group, but Slovakia’s pro-Russian prosecutor general stepped in and threw out the indictment, the AP added.
Now, if he wins, Fico has pledged to reverse the country’s current staunch support for Ukraine, a neighbor that has received Slovak funding and weapons to resist Russia’s revanchism. Slovakia, for instance, was the first NATO country to send Soviet-era fighter jets to the Ukrainians.
Instead, Fico has echoed Russian talking points about Ukrainian fascists murdering Russians in eastern Ukraine, and called for resuming diplomatic relations with Moscow. He has vowed to veto Ukraine’s proposed membership of NATO.
Those views are more popular than many Europeans would prefer. As the analytical group Carnegie Europe explained, kitchen table issues like utility rates, mortgage costs, inflation, and the quality of public services will motivate voters.
But polls in Slovakia also show that only 54 percent of Slovaks approve of giving financial aid to Ukraine, compared with a 75 percent average in the European Union. While 64 percent of EU citizens would allow Ukraine to enter the bloc, only 45 percent of Slovaks agree.
Many Slovaks feel as if the liberal democracy and free market capitalism that has reigned in the country since the end of the Cold War has failed to deliver on its promises, added the AP.
The great wave of migration of asylum seekers from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia that has swept through Europe in the past decade is likely one reason why Slovaks have soured on Western-style globalism, Deutsche Welle reported. Slovaks in communities hosting migrants or serving as thoroughfares for migrant trains complained of “litter, noise, smells and people sleeping on the ground.”
But Russian propaganda is also widespread in the country’s media. Last year, for example, wrote the Guardian, a local news outlet published a video of a Russian defense attaché attempting to bribe a Slovak journalist to disseminate Russian talking points about the war in Ukraine in the Slovakian news. The Russian agent was expelled, but the episode illustrated the state of the country’s press.
As a result, voters might be forgiven if they wonder if an attaché has ever approached Fico.
THE WORLD, BRIEFLY
Ethnic Armenian leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh agreed Thursday to end the territory’s self-governing status – a week after Azerbaijan took control of the region following decades of conflict, the Wall Street Journal reported.
“The Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) ceases to exist,” according to a decree issued by its president, Samvel Shahramanyan. Enclave officials said they will disarm and dissolve all institutions by Jan. 1.
The recent developments appear to mark a definitive conclusion to the decades-long conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the enclave, analysts said. The two countries have been at odds over Nagorno-Karabakh for a century – but especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The most recent fighting ended in 2020 with a Russian-brokered truce that saw Armenia cede much of the territory it had controlled since the 1990s.
Since the takeover by Azerbaijan last week, the region has been in turmoil. Thousands of ethnic Armenians who had called the enclave home for generations fled for neighboring Armenia.
While Azerbaijan’s government urged ethnic Armenians to stay in the region, many residents said they had little faith that they would be allowed to live in peace, citing fears of ethnic cleansing and persecution. Recent reports suggest that Azerbaijani forces have been taking actions that fuel these concerns, such as removing Armenian road signs and raiding homes.
Meanwhile, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has pledged to support and resettle the displaced. However, many remain skeptical about the government’s commitment due to their experiences during previous conflicts.
Those Left Behind
Thousands of Indigenous people protested in the Colombian capital Bogota this week to voice their concerns over the ongoing wave of violence that has disproportionately affected their communities across the country, Al Jazeera reported.
Members of the so-called “Minga” – a collective movement of Indigenous people – demanded an end to the violence caused by rebel and criminal groups across the South American nation. Although similar demonstrations have taken place in Bogota, this week’s marches mark the first during the administration of leftist President Gustavo Petro.
Many Indigenous people say they are disappointed in the government’s lack of progress in curbing violence, particularly in regions like Cauca, which has long been a focal point of conflict.
Colombia has been dealing with the consequences of nearly six decades of internal armed conflict. Petro has vowed to pursue a policy of “total peace” to end the fighting – an approach that combines military action and direct negotiations with armed groups.
However, his efforts have yielded mixed results.
Last month, the government reached a six-month ceasefire with the National Liberation Army (ELN), the country’s largest remaining rebel group. But other ceasefires have collapsed and violence continues in rural areas.
Data has shown that Indigenous communities have borne the brunt of this violence, making up about half of those displaced or affected – even though they comprise about 3.5 percent of Colombia’s population.
While some leaders at the Minga have called for support for Petro’s efforts, others expressed their frustration with what they perceive as unfulfilled promises from the government.
Analyst Elizabeth Dickinson of the International Crisis Group think-tank said the frustrations expressed by Indigenous communities are often due to limited communication between the federal government and civil society, due to the government’s “total peace” approach being top-down and which has had a minimal impact in rural areas.
Dickinson added that the government made a mistake when it granted broad concessions to armed groups without securing substantial ones in return. This has allowed criminal organizations to grow stronger instead of forcing disarmament.
Burkinabè authorities foiled a coup attempt this week, according to the ruling junta, an incident that comes less than a year after Burkina Faso experienced a military takeover amid an ongoing jihadist insurgency in the Sahel region, the BBC reported.
Government officials alleged that a group of army officers and their supporters had attempted to launch a coup Tuesday with “the sinister intention of … plunging the country into chaos.”
So far, authorities have detained a number of suspects, including four officers, and are looking for others.
The attempted coup comes months after army officers led by Capt. Ibrahim Traore – now the country’s interim president – seized power from a previous military junta. The 2022 coup was the second in Burkina Faso that year.
Since then, Traore has moved to sever relations with France, the country’s former colonial power. He has ordered the withdrawal of French forces based in the country to help fight against the Islamist insurgency in the Sahel. He also launched mass recruitment drives to shore up the security forces.
Meanwhile, the junta leader has said that elections will take place by July 2024.
Countries in the Sahel and West Africa have been experiencing a number of coups and attempted coups in recent years even as the reach of extremists has grown in the region.
Observers said the jihadist insurgency, which originated in Mali in 2015, has added complexity to the goal of transferring power to civilians by the upcoming year.
This year, roughly 6,000 people have lost their lives in jihadist attacks, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
Meanwhile, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali – all three ruled by military governments – formed a defense pact to mutually assist each other against armed uprisings or external threats such as from the regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS.
This week, Russia conducted a series of air strikes on three Ukrainian regions, targeting Mykolaiv and Odesa in the south and Kirovohrad in central Ukraine, Reuters noted. Ukrainian air defenses intercepted 34 of the 44 incoming “Shahed” drones used in the attack. While some drones were destroyed, there were reports of hits in Kirovohrad. No casualties or significant damage to civilian infrastructure were reported. The strike marked one of the largest drone attacks by Russia in recent times. Ukraine has been discussing ways to bolster its air defenses with allies amid ongoing Russian attacks.
Also this week:
- Moscow launched a missile and drone attack on the Black Sea port of Odesa, damaging the port and grain warehouses, the Washington Post reported. Two people were killed, and fires erupted across the area. The attack is part of a series of assaults targeting Ukraine’s grain industry, impacting its economy. Ukraine has faced challenges in exporting grain because of disruptions in the Black Sea and resistance from neighboring countries such as Poland fearing an influx of cheap Ukrainian grain. The ongoing attacks are exacerbating regional tensions and complicating Ukraine’s efforts to meet global food demand.
- Norwegian scientists have shared seismic evidence of four explosions related to the attack on the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea, including two previously undisclosed detonations, according to the Guardian. The explosions, which occurred off the Danish Baltic island of Bornholm, damaged the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines. While investigations are ongoing, evidence suggests the involvement of a Ukrainian-backed group or a pro-Ukrainian group operating without the Ukrainian government’s knowledge, investigators said. The attack on Nord Stream pipelines, a crucial gas transport route from Russia to Germany, has been linked to a dispute over grain exports, further escalating regional tensions.
- Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued an apology after a man who served in a Nazi unit during World War II was honored in parliament, Al Jazeera wrote. Yaroslav Hunka, 98, received standing ovations during a special parliamentary session attended by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. However, Jewish community groups later reported that Hunka served in the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the Nazi’s SS military wing during World War II, leading to calls for an explanation and an apology. Trudeau apologized to Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian delegation. Russian authorities have justified their continued assault on Ukraine as part of a push to “de-Nazify” the country, while Trudeau’s office stated they had no advance knowledge of Hunka’s invitation to parliament. The controversy led to the resignation of the parliamentary speaker, Anthony Rota, and calls by Polish politicians to have Hunka extradited to Poland, Newsweek added.
Raising the Dead
The thylacine, known also as the Tasmanian tiger, went fully extinct when the last one died in a Tasmanian zoo in 1936.
Despite the lack of a surviving member of the species, scientists recently successfully recovered RNA from the marsupial carnivore, the first time such a feat has been accomplished for any extinct species, Gizmodo reported.
In their paper, a research team extracted, sequenced and studied the RNA – short for Ribonucleic acid – from the skin and skeletal muscle tissue of a 130-year-old thylacine specimen in the Stockholm Natural History Museum in Sweden.
Similar to DNA, RNA is a molecular composition consisting of nucleotides. RNA is single-stranded and serves roles in protein synthesis as well as transporting genetic material in certain viruses.
“This is the first time that we have been able to catch a glimpse of the actual biology and metabolism of Tasmanian tiger cells right before they died,” explained lead author Emilio Mármol-Sánchez.
The Tasmanian tiger was considered the largest carnivorous marsupial in recent times and was native to the island of Tasmania, off the coast of Australia. The species’ numbers severely dropped during the 19th and 20th centuries as a result of overhunting, habitat loss, and introduced diseases.
Recently, the biotech company Colossal Biosciences announced its plans to create a surrogate species resembling the thylacine and release it into Tasmania’s forests.
The authors, however, noted that their findings weren’t focused on de-extinction efforts. Instead, they said that the marsupial offered a unique opportunity to recover and analyze RNA from an extinct species.
“In the future, we may be able to recover RNA not only from extinct animals, but also RNA virus genomes such as SARS-CoV2 … and other host organisms held in museum collections”, said co-author Love Dalén.
Correction: In Wednesday’s DISCOVERIES section, we said in our “The Head of Terror” item that the prehistoric predator’s name Pampaphoneus biccai translates to “terrible head” in Greek. In fact, that translation is attributed to the creature’s group, dinocephalia. We apologize for the error.
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