The World Today for January 30, 2024

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Saving Stalin

GEORGIA

The late communist dictator Josef Stalin is arguably the most controversial native son of the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Mixed feelings about Stalin, who defeated the Nazis, turned the Soviet Union into a world power, but also oversaw an iron-fisted regime that persecuted tens of millions of people, were on display recently, for example, when an environmental activist cum vandal threw paint on an icon that features Stalin in the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi, the capital of the Black Sea nation that 60 Minutes claimed was the birthplace of wine.

“A side panel of the icon includes a depiction of the Georgian-born Stalin – an avowed atheist who violently repressed religion across the Soviet Union – being blessed by Saint Matrona of Moscow, a Russian Orthodox (mystic and) saint, during World War Two,” wrote Reuters.

A national furor broke out over the incident. “What an insult and a mockery,” said popular playwright and commentator Lasha Bughadze, as reported by Eurasianet. “Behind this image are hundreds of thousands of martyred Georgians and millions of deaths.”

The church said the image was just representing a period of the saint’s life and Stalin was a bit player in the scene. Meanwhile, the group that donated the panel, the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia, a right-wing populist party, said the image has been misinterpreted. Others remain nostalgic for the times when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union.

But critics dispute that, saying that Stalin is represented – unlike other villains in the panes such as Satan – in a positive light, wrote the Netgazeti news website of Georgia.

Meanwhile, the vandal, Nata Peradze, became an instant hero for Georgian liberals but a target of attacks and threats from ultra-conservatives and the faithful, wrote Eurasianet. Facing criminal charges, her house was also surrounded by protestors whom she said wanted to harm her and the police officers trying to hold them back.

Besides setting off a debate over the past and the Church, the incident also reflects Georgia’s deep ambivalence today towards Russia, say analysts: It invaded Georgia in 2008 and established the Russian-allied breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the country’s territory, an episode that now looks like a dry run for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine. CNN showed how even a recent fire in Abkhazia’s national art gallery could stoke political arguments over Russia.

These issues have become especially important as the Georgian parliament is set to schedule a general election this year.

Candidates have fallen into pro-Western and pro-Russian camps, reported Euractiv. The former welcomed the European Union’s decision late last year to grant Georgia membership-candidate status, a move that Atlantic Council researchers welcomed as crucial to fostering political independence, democracy, and human rights, in the small country. The pro-Russian camp wants to undermine that process even though, as World Politics Review noted, a poll last year put support for EU membership among Georgians at 89 percent.

Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire and former prime minister who is widely acknowledged as the power behind Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili of the Georgian Dream political party, for example, has been espousing “Kremlin disinformation narratives” – like claiming that EU membership could make Georgia too hospitable for LGBTQ communities – as Putin has sought to expand his country’s influence on its neighbor.

Russians who fled their country and settled in Georgia after the war in Ukraine started, whether to escape conscription or Putin’s police state, can feel the enmity of locals, explained Radio Free Liberty. Many of those migrants are now leaving. Some have moved to Serbia, where folks are more welcoming to Russians. The Russians, incidentally, injected much-needed foreign cash into the Georgian economy but also helped spur inflation that annoyed locals who saw spikes in living costs, added researchers at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Georgia is in flux, caught up in forces it can’t control, says Le Monde. That is dividing not only how its population sees the past, but also how it views its future.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Slamming the Door

WEST AFRICA

Three military-led countries, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso, decided this week to withdraw from the powerful Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), following sanctions from the bloc and allegations of foreign influence, Al Jazeera reported.

In a joint statement on Sunday, the three governments said ECOWAS had become “a threat to its member states and its population,” arguing it did not support their fight against “terrorism and insecurity.”

Between 2020 and 2023, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger experienced military coups, leading to a suspension from the bloc. ECOWAS also imposed sanctions on Mali, while even heavier sanctions against Niger have left the country vulnerable to defaulting on debt repayments.

The 15-nation bloc was formed in 1975 to promote economic integration. However, it has recently faced the opposition of some members, dismayed at the absence of sovereignty over local natural resources.

Niger was once one of the West’s closest partners in addressing the rise of violent armed groups in the Sahel area. After the coup, it joined with Mali and Burkina Faso in the so-called “Alliance of Sahel States,” demanding France, the region’s former colonial, withdraw its troops.

France’s response – withdrawal and sanctions – have led to concerns that it could further destabilize the region. The stable coastal countries of Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Ivory Coast also face the threat of armed groups destabilizing their countries.

West Africa has seen more than 1,800 attacks and 4,600 deaths recorded between January and June 2023.

The bloc stressed it had not been notified in advance of the three military regimes’ joint decision to exit. The departure could take up to a year, according to protocol.

The Street Effect

GERMANY

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party on Sunday narrowly lost a widely watched local election that it was predicted to win, following weeks of protests triggered by the party’s alleged involvement in a mass deportation scheme, the Guardian reported.

In a runoff vote in the district of Saarle-Orla, an administrative division in the southeastern state of Thuringia, the AfD’s Uwe Thrum lost by 4.6 percentage points to Christian Herrgott from the conservative Christian Democrat (CDU) party, once led by former Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Despite the election’s relatively small size – just 66,000 people were eligible to vote, in a country of 83 million – it was closely monitored even by the European Union. Analysts saw it as a gauge of the toll that weeks of protests have taken on the AfD.

Since a report came out on Jan. 10 that AfD officials had attended a meeting with alt-right figures in a villa on the outskirts of Berlin to discuss the so-called “remigration” of immigrants and poorly assimilated Germans with foreign backgrounds, more than a million people have taken to the streets to denounce the party and its alleged links with fascist movements.

Though the AfD has sought to distance itself from the meeting’s attendants, the outrage has also triggered a debate on whether to ban the party.

Prior to the revelations, the AfD was running ahead in polls in an election-rich year for Germany. As the country prepares for its next federal election in 2025, Germans this year will also vote for the European Parliament, three state legislatures and numerous local councils. The AfD had been predicted to score well in most of them.

After the party’s first district win last summer, also in Thuringia, polls had indicated the AfD would win Saarle-Orla as well. The results of the first round – 45.7 percent for Thrum and 33 percent for Herrgott – added to that expectation.

The district features a textbook sample of AfD voters: rural, earning low salaries and resenting traditional parties such as those making up Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s center-left coalition.

One Country, One Economy

HONG KONG

A Hong Kong court ordered Chinese real estate giant Evergrande to liquidate its assets on Monday after the company failed to restructure its $300 billion debt, a blow to a sector hit by crackdowns, crises, and investor hesitancy, and one that could impact the already slowing Chinese economy, the Associated Press reported.

China Evergrande defaulted in 2021, one year after the government cracked down on borrowing by property developers in an effort to address the country’s slowing economic growth. The decision led the sector into crisis, and dozens of companies collapsed.

Court documents on Monday said Evergrande is “grossly insolvent and is unable to pay its debts.” After initially allowing the company a postponement of the liquidation order in December, the judges established it had failed to provide a viable plan to restructure its debt and concluded, “Enough is enough.”

In the face of Evergrande’s slow-paced trouble-shooting efforts, the court argued that their verdict was in the best interest of creditors.

However, it’s still unclear how it will impact stakeholders, including families who invested their life savings in housing projects Evergrande has so far failed to complete.

Meanwhile, Evergrande’s Hong Kong shares dropped by 21 percent on Monday before they were removed from trading. This came after India’s stock market overpassed Hong Kong last week and claimed the former British colony’s fourth place worldwide.

Reacting to the court’s liquidation order, Evergrande CEO Shawn Siu expressed his “utmost regret” but noted that the verdict only affected the company’s Hong Kong branch.

Observers argued that it would have little immediate effect in mainland China, where Evergrande has 90 percent of its operations, though Chinese courts can recognize Hong Kong bankruptcy rulings.

Nonetheless, the court’s decision is the latest red flag to foreign investors, who have already moved billions of dollars out of China. The country’s real estate boom, once a preeminent venue for foreign investment, pushed its total debt to more than 300 percent of annual economic output, a number that is unusually high for a country with China’s economic profile.

DISCOVERIES

Waves of Destruction

More than 8,000 years ago, Storeggaslide, a massive underwater landslide off western Norway, created towering waves of up to 65 feet that destroyed many coastal communities in northern Europe.

The mega-tsunami devastated parts of northern Europe and contributed to a major decline in Stone Age Britain’s population, the Independent reported.

This geological upheaval took place during a period when northern Britain was already experiencing a dip in its population, estimated by previous studies at about only 1,000 people.

During the same period, many sites across northwestern Europe were also being abandoned because of a rapid and sustained drop in temperatures.

But University of York researchers wrote in a new paper that the Storegga event was one of the main causes of that population crash after conducting a series of computer simulations on the mega-tsunami.

Their findings suggested that sediment deposits from the prehistoric site of Howick, north of Newcastle, were likely formed by the tsunami – although only if the waves struck during high tide.

The destruction would have caused a high number of fatalities and damaged key resources that the ancient inhabitants needed to survive.

The authors conclude that it’s unlikely that Stone Age Britons, lacking any experience or awareness of tsunamis, would have been as resilient as fishing societies in tsunami-prone regions like the northern Pacific, who often relocate to higher ground when faced with such threats.

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