The World Today for December 14, 2023

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The Stuntmen

SERBIA

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, a 73-year-old American born in California, recently became a Serbian citizen.

“Now we can boast that the computer genius is Serbian, who will live most of his life in America but will also come to his Serbia,” said Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, according to Euractiv.

The announcement in early December was undoubtedly an election gimmick aimed at Serbians heading to the polls for a snap election on Dec. 17 to elect a new parliament and municipal governments. Vučić appeared to be pulling off a stunt to help his populist, right-wing Serbian Progressive Party retain their rule of the Balkan nation after 12 years in power.

As Al Jazeera explained, Vučić announced the election in early November amid mounting criticism from Serbs and European Union officials who claim he and his allies have cracked down on freedom of the press and taken control of every state institution – while promoting a culture of violence. In May, two shootings claimed the lives of 19 people, including schoolchildren.

Opposition figures charge Vučić and populist lawmakers of ignoring the demands of protesters. European leaders say Serbia must enact policies that the populists are resisting – sanctioning Russia for invading Ukraine, rooting out corruption, improving services, cracking down on organized crime, and protecting human rights – before the country can join the bloc.

As a result, the Serbian Progressive Party is under more pressure than ever in this election, reported Politico. The mayor’s race in Belgrade, the capital, will be especially tight. Opposition leaders have seized on mounting dissatisfaction with illegal construction and “grandiose projects” given to party cronies in the city.

Vučić is an interesting figure. He was propaganda minister for Slobodan Milošević, the Serbian leader and war criminal who waged war on Serbia’s neighbors in the 1990s after the collapse of Yugoslavia, wrote SWI, Switzerland’s state-run news service. He has attempted to retain good relations with Russia. Today, however, he’s also campaigning for EU membership.

The Georgetown Journal of International Affairs described his political and diplomatic style as studied “ambiguity.”

He has been clear, however, in his staunch position on the independence of Kosovo, a former part of Serbia where an ethnic Albanian majority fought a successful NATO-backed war of secession from Serbia in the late 1990s, the Russian government-owned news agency TASS reported. Violence still regularly erupts in the region.

The Serbian Progressive Party will likely retain power, but its position will likely be eroded. One wonders what stunts they might pull off next to reclaim any power they might lose.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

The Fight Over Words

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

Delegates at the United Nations climate summit agreed Wednesday to transition away from fossil fuel consumption, in what was called an unprecedented deal to possibly end the oil age, NBC News reported.

The agreement, which came at the conclusion of the two-week UN Conference of Parties summit (COP28) in the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday, commits the international community to avoid the worst effects of climate change and move to a low-carbon future, according to COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber.

Under the non-binding deal, countries are to take meaningful and sustained action to decrease carbon emissions to limit global average temperature rises to no more than 1.5 degrees Centigrade, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial levels.

The European commissioner for climate action, Wopke Hoekstra, said the agreement was “the beginning of the end for fossil fuels.”

However, the COP28 deal received a mixed reception from various environmental groups. Supporters hailed it as a historic milestone, while others cautioned that it did not go far enough, according to the Hill.

One of the issues was the language used: It calls for nations to “transition away,” which is stronger than the “phase down” term used in earlier agreements. Still, the use of the term “transition” represents a subtle weakening of the language compared with the more forceful demand for a “phase out” that certain countries advocated for during the summit.

Brianna Fruean, the delegate from the Pacific nation of Samoa, expressed disappointment that the 39 developing and small island states most affected by climate change were not included when the decision was made to adopt the specific wording.

While acknowledging positive elements in the draft text, she emphasized the need for a more significant course correction.

“We have made an incremental advancement of ‘business as usual,’ when what we needed was an exponential step change,” she warned.

The Shortest of Honeymoons

SLOVAKIA

Thousands of Slovakians took to the streets in the country’s major cities to protest against the government’s plan to do away with investigations into corruption and soften penalties for graft, racketeering and other crimes, the Associated Press reported.

Left-wing populist and pro-Russian Prime Minister Robert Fico wants to scrap the mandate of the special prosecutor’s office for handling these crimes, and return these investigations to regional offices, which have little experience of handling them.

But critics say this plan will weaken and disrupt the legal system, especially because the office in question is still investigating around 1,000 cases.

As a result, peaceful crowds gathered in the capital Bratislava and smaller cities, chanting slogans such as, “We’ve had enough of Fico.”

It is Fico’s fourth stint as Slovakia’s leader, which followed his Smer party’s victory in September’s general election. In 2018, he was ousted after the murder of an investigative journalist – who was also investigating Fico and other members of his circle – which brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets in protests. This case was among those probed by the special prosecutor’s office that the government wants to eliminate, Politico noted.

Before Fico’s return to power, his predecessor had led a purge of high-ranking officials close to Fico, who were charged with corruption or other crimes.

But since September, some elite investigators and police officials who deal with top corruption cases have been dismissed or furloughed. The planned changes in the legal system also include a reduction in punishments for corruption.

The opposition called the government’s proposal a “pro-mafia package,” while President Zuzana Caputova opined that it was contrary to the rule of law. Critics worry it could steer Slovakia towards anti-Western democratic backsliding, and compared Fico to Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

The European Union urged the Slovak justice minister to halt the plan and denounced the government’s use of a fast-track legislative process to vote on the amendments.

Byte-sized Innovation

BRAZIL

A Brazilian city councilor revealed that a law he had sponsored that came into effect last month was written using artificial intelligence, an unprecedented event in the country that has also launched a debate on the possibilities of automation, the Washington Post reported.

The municipality of Porto Alegre approved a law relieving citizens of the cost of replacing stolen water meters. Councilman Ramiro Rosário drafted it based on constituents’ complaints that they were forced to pay when their water meters were stolen, even though these items belonged to the city.

Rosário, who calls himself a tech enthusiast, admitted six days after the law passed that he had used ChatGPT to write it. The AI bot produced the draft in 15 seconds, including eight subsections and a justification.

He added that it provided two ideas he would not have thought of himself: to impose a deadline of 30 days on the city to replace the water meters, and if that failed to occur, to drop the requirement that property owners pay their water bills.

The bill only underwent minor changes before being presented to the city council, which unanimously voted in favor.

A week later, Rosário congratulated the passing of “the first Brazilian law made exclusively by artificial intelligence,” triggering mixed reactions. Among early critics was Council President Hamilton Sossmeier, who called it a “dangerous precedent.”

Rosário explained he purposefully withheld the information that the law was AI-created in the interest of the public good: He thought the bill was important and he wanted to avoid its defeat solely on the grounds that it was created by AI.

ChatGPT is a language model that predicts sentences based on information fed by humans, from sources such as Wikipedia, newspapers and scientific papers. Experts have warned that it makes mistakes and have advised that it be used with caution.

Rosário opined that this should not prevent the use of AI in lawmaking. Bills written and voted on entirely by humans have been declared unconstitutional in the past, he argued, while AI could allow better scrutiny in the drafting process.

Meanwhile, the Council President, though not a convert of the practice, came around enough to accept that “unfortunately or fortunately, this is going to be a trend.”

DISCOVERIES

Cold, Cold Hearth

The northern regions near the Arctic Circle, mostly deserted these days, have long been perceived as peripheral in analyses of prehistory. A 6,500-year-old cemetery now challenges that conception, Gizmodo reported.

Located in the Finnish Lapland town of Tainiaro, 50 miles south of the Arctic Circle, this Stone Age cemetery is one of Europe’s largest. That is at least the conclusion of archeologists after finding numerous pits.

No human remains were found in Tainiaro because the acidic soil destroyed them millennia ago. What led archeologists to consider these pits as graves was the red ochre they found in some of them. It is believed that this colorant was used in burials.

However, red ochre was only present in 23 pits. In other pits, the scientists found ash and charcoal, hinting at the presence of fireplaces. Since most pits did not have such traces, they concluded that this was once a cemetery.

After its discovery 60 years ago, excavations in the 1980s and 1990s estimated there were about 40 graves. The latest excavation tripled that number, but the archeologists said there could be more than 200.

That such a large-scale burial site was found in the far north has led to a rethinking of the idea that this cold, inhospitable region was not a welcoming place for humans.

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