The World Today for January 26, 2024

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The Politics of Co-Dependence

FINLAND

The former president of Finland and 2008 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari died recently at the age of 86. He helped draft peace accords in Namibia in the 1980s, in Northern Ireland and between Serbia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and in Aceh province in Indonesia in 2005, the Associated Press reported.

Notably, his passing comes as this country is embarking on a new era in its international relations, as voters go to the polls on Jan. 28 to elect a new president.

Some local opinion writers believe voters could do well to heed the lessons of such a consummate statesman as Ahtisaari in the face of threats to peace.

Before the Cold War, Finland was an independent nation but under the suzerainty of Russia, a relationship that coined the word “Finlandization” for countries who must make domestic and foreign policy decisions with the interests and feelings of their powerful neighbor in mind. The fall of the Berlin Wall brought this relationship to an end, however, explained the Wilson Center.

Today, Finland, whose leaders and citizenry have condemned Russian aggression in Ukraine, is NATO’s newest member. Adding the Nordic country doubled the alliance’s border with Russia, undoubtedly causing headaches among Kremlin military planners drafting their country’s defense plans, wrote CNN.

Foreign policy has been an important issue among the nine candidates seeking to become the country’s head of state in the capital of Helsinki. As Euronews detailed, the Finnish president has executive as well as ceremonial powers, conducting Finnish foreign policy outside of the European Union and serving as commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces.

Every candidate is calling for more resistance to Russian influence and closer relationships with the West, noted YLE, the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation, a state-owned news outlet.

The ruling National Coalition Party candidate Alexander Stubb, who leads in the polls, for example, has called for a “more European NATO,” with more European spending, deployment, and therefore a say in how the alliance operates and sets its goals. This stance is not necessarily anti-American but reflects frustration over European dependence on American security.

“I think the Americans will not leave us alone (on our own), but it’s always useful to be prepared in the situation whereby we have to take more responsibility for our own defense,” Stubb said in a Reuters interview.

Opposing Stubb in second place is the former foreign minister Pekka Haavisto (Greens), who says the country must remain united against external threats, reported the Helsinki Times.

Whoever wins will have pressing issues to address immediately. Finland recently closed its 830-mile-long border with Russia to the east after an influx of African and Middle Eastern migrants across the frontier, according to the New York Times. Finnish officials suspect Russia might be funneling the migrants to the West in an effort to punish or destabilize the country.

The Finnish worldview today has one foe in mind – but Finns say it isn’t yet time to revive the effective diplomacy of Ahtisaari. “It is very likely that Russia’s hybrid influence activities will resume and expand,” said Finland’s interior minister, Mari Rantanen, last week. “National security is a critical question for Finland.”

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Broken Promises

VENEZUELA

Venezuelan opposition leader María Corina Machado accused President Nicolás Maduro of employing intimidation tactics against her and her supporters, the latest fight between the government and the opposition ahead of elections later this year, the BBC reported.

Machado alleged that two of her campaign coordinators were “abducted,” and her party’s offices were vandalized.

She claimed that these incidents directly violated a deal signed between the government and the opposition in Barbados in October, which aimed to pave the way for free and fair elections in 2024.

Under the agreement, the Venezuelan government would allow international observers to monitor the upcoming presidential vote, scheduled for the latter half of 2024. Officials also promised to guarantee that all election candidates would be able to move freely and safely across Venezuela.

In return, the United States would ease some of the economic sanctions against Venezuela’s oil sector.

But three months later, tensions between the two sides have continued to rise.

On Monday, Attorney-General Tarek William Saab announced the arrest of 32 individuals allegedly involved in a plot to assassinate Maduro and Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino.

The US, which supported the Barbados negotiations, expressed deep concern over the arrests, warning of potential consequences for actions contrary to the spirit of the agreement.

Meanwhile, questions remain about Machado’s eligibility in the upcoming elections.

In October, she overwhelmingly won an opposition primary vote, despite being banned from running for office.

The 56-year-old politician has since appealed against the ban, which she has consistently labeled as unjust and aimed at suppressing the opposition.

Maduro has yet to announce whether he will seek re-election or nominate a different candidate from his party.

Defunding Values

GERMANY

Germany’s highest court ruled this week that a small far-right party will be ineligible for state funding for six years due to its alleged unconstitutional values and goals, a verdict that comes amid protests and concerns over extreme-right political groups in the country, Euronews reported.

The case centers on the state funding of the Die Heimat party – or the Homeland in German – which was known as the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD).

The German government and parliament took the party to court, accusing it of promoting racist ideologies, including anti-Islamic and antisemitic sentiments.

In its ruling, the Federal Constitutional Court found that Die Heimat “continues to disregard the free democratic basic order and, according to its goals and the behavior of its members and supporters, is aimed at its elimination.”

Presiding Judge Doris Koenig said Die Heimat’s political concept conflicts with Germany’s constitution, adding that it promotes an ethnic definition of German identity that violates human dignity by discriminating against foreigners, migrants, and minorities.

Despite previous attempts by the government to ban Die Heimat, the court’s decision now bars the party from receiving state funding.

The court’s decision follows recent concerns about the rising popularity of the far-right in Germany, particularly the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

The anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic party has gained popularity in recent months, ranking second in recent polls. Analysts noted that the AfD has gained traction as a result of the rising costs of living, perceived increased immigration and public disappointment over Germany’s ruling three-party coalition.

Calls to ban or cut financial support for the AfD have emerged but have not been pursued seriously.

Even so, tens of thousands of people protested against the AfD this week, following a report some of the party’s members attended a secret November meeting where they allegedly discussed deporting foreigners and foreign-born Germans.

Hitting Unmute

TANZANIA

Thousands of people took to the streets of Tanzania’s biggest city on Wednesday under the banner of the main opposition party, the first large-scale protest since the government lifted a seven-year ban on political rallies, the Associated Press reported.

Supporters of the Chadema party demonstrated peacefully in Dar es Salaam against government-proposed electoral reforms. They demanded more substantial constitutional changes, independent monitoring of the upcoming elections, and the addressing of economic woes.

The demonstration was the first of its kind to be allowed since late President John Magufuli upon taking office in 2015 banned the opposition from organizing rallies.

Chadema chairman Freeman Mbowe told the protesters, “This is just the beginning.” He added that further demonstrations would take place throughout Tanzania, Al Jazeera reported.

Magufuli, nicknamed the “Bulldozer,” led a presidency described by observers as “authoritarian.” After he died in 2021, his deputy Samia Suluhu Hassan took over and launched a series of measures to undo part of his legacy and pave the way to reconciliation. She lifted the rally ban in January 2023, wrote World Politics Review.

Nonetheless, scholar Dan Paget noted that the move did not necessarily imply future democratic reforms.

Lawmakers next month will discuss a controversial bill amending Tanzania’s electoral code ahead of local government elections this year and in 2025 the first presidential election since Magufuli’s death. The measures proposed by the government include the possibility for President Hassan to appoint half of the electoral commission, which the opposition described as an attempt to “protect the ruling party.”

Mbowe demanded that the proposals be withdrawn from parliament until public opinion was considered. His party wants to allow presidential election results to be challenged in court after Magufuli’s 2020 reelection was validated amid claims of fraud.

Under Magufuli’s rule, Mbowe and other politicians were jailed, and opposition demonstrations faced state violence. On Wednesday, however, the march occurred under police protection. “Police have not disrupted the protest because they understand our quest,” Mbowe commented.

UKRAINE, BRIEFLY

This week, the battle of Adviivka has been a peculiar epicenter of the war in Ukraine. Troops from both sides continued to clash in the town, located in the Russian-claimed Donetsk region but controlled by Ukraine, resulting in heavy casualties – and new brigades continue to arrive amid frozen corpses on the ground. One Ukrainian sniper speaking with CNN called it a “meat assault.”

Meanwhile, Russian missile strikes in major Ukrainian cities, including the capital Kyiv and the country’s second-largest city Kharkiv, killed 18 people on Tuesday, Reuters reported. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said most civilians who lost their lives were residents of an “ordinary” high-rise building. The attack came after 27 people died in the shelling of the city of Donetsk on Sunday, and both sides denied responsibility.

As data on Saturday showed that Russia overtook Saudi Arabia as China’s top oil supplier, defying international sanctions, Ukraine has targeted its neighbor’s energy infrastructure. After reportedly carrying out an attack on a fuel export terminal near St. Petersburg, halting the site’s operations, Ukrainian drones hit a refinery owned by Russia’s largest oil producer, Rosneft, located on the Black Sea coast, Reuters reported.

Kyiv was also blamed for striking down a Russian transport airplane on Wednesday, killing all 74 on board. According to Moscow, the plane was carrying 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war, the Associated Press reported. This came after an accident involving a Russian private jet in Afghanistan. Russia announced an investigation into potential negligence of air safety, as flight routes usually avoid conflict-torn areas such as Afghanistan, especially since the 2014 downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine.

Igor Girkin, a Russian pro-war blogger whom the Netherlands holds responsible for the MH17 crash, was sentenced by a Russian court on Thursday to four years in jail on extremism charges after criticizing President Vladimir Putin’s “cowardly mediocrity,” CNN reported. At the same time, Darya Trepova, 26, accused of killing another pro-war blogger using a bomb, was given the longest prison sentence imposed on a woman in Russia’s modern history, the Associated Press reported.

Zelenskyy and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk on Monday pledged to ease the political tensions that had arisen over the past months, Reuters reported. The joint declaration came after Polish truckers blocking border crossings agreed to suspend their protest. Tusk added that his government was working on a new aid package for Ukraine, while the Associated Press reported the United States was unable to provide further financial support.

According to Kremlin parlance, achieving a new world order requires revisiting sovereignty over some territories, citing Venezuela’s recent disputed annexation of Guyana’s Essequibo region. Last week, Putin ordered research into Russia’s former territories, including Alaska. The US State Department responded on Monday that Alaska would remain an American state, the Hill reported. Meanwhile, Slovak leader and Putin ally Robert Fico backtracked on Wednesday after doubting Ukraine’s sovereignty earlier this week.

DISCOVERIES

Division of Labor

Scientists discovered that some species of dung beetles spontaneously become couples to work faster in moving and burying balls of fecal matter, the Washington Post reported.

The beetles are important in regulating the ecosystem by processing the dung of animals, which improves soil quality. But moving those large balls of excrement is not an easy task for the small insect.

In their study, a research team placed 188 insects from two dung-rolling species – Sisyphus fasciculatus and Sisyphus schaefferi – in tubs with fresh cow dung. They then observed how the insect pair fared on flat surfaces and terrains with barriers.

While pairing up yielded little speed advantage on flat terrains, the beetles displayed an effective division of labor when overcoming obstacles.

The females would lift the ball off the ground in a handstand position and push it from below. Meanwhile, the male would proceed to lift the object – and eventually the female upward.

But researchers noted that this team-up did not have a clear goal, meaning that the beetles would be moving the large object to an undecided destination.

“They don’t know where they’re going,” said lead author Claudia Tocco. “They want to maintain a straight line as it’s the most efficient way to escape the dung site.”

Tocco explained, however, that the cooperation helps the beetles roll the dung away from potential rivals. The laborious couple would then find a spot to bury the ball and lay eggs inside it, she added.

In the future, she and her team hope to learn more about how the insects are able to communicate while maneuvering dung balls.

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