The World Today for February 08, 2024

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An Election of One


President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan recently ordered a snap presidential vote. He was slated to run for reelection next year. Now, for a variety of reasons that highlight the tensions and risks in the former Soviet region in the Caucasus, voters will likely give him a new mandate when they cast ballots on Feb. 7.

Aliyev had three reasons to call the snap vote. First, his popularity is high due to the country’s military victory last year over their nemesis, Armenia, in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Ethnic Armenians had mostly controlled the region since a separatist war in 1994. But Azerbaijan retook the territory in a short war in 2020.

“Aliyev’s approval ratings had always been high, and they skyrocketed after the victorious military operation in Karabakh,” Farhad Mamedov, an independent political analyst, said in an interview with Agence France-Presse. “He is at the peak of his popularity.”

A poll cited in the Trend News Agency, an independent Azeri news outlet, showed that 98.5 percent of respondents supported the 2020 seizure, saying it underscored “a strong national spirit.” Azeri soldiers kicked out around 100,000 Armenians from their homes in the process.

The president has also wielded the levers of power to impose a harsh crackdown on dissent and his critics in the press. Azeri authorities arrested investigative journalists Sevinc Vaqifqizi and Ulvi Hasanli on charges of smuggling foreign currency into the country, for example, charges that human rights activists say are “fabricated and part of a government crackdown on independent media,” wrote the Guardian.

Journalists, dissidents, and others who might challenge Aliyev’s regime are now filling up jails in the country, reported the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. These reporters frequently chase stories that illustrate how the president and his political rivals plunder Azerbaijan’s significant oil and gas wealth while ordinary Azeri citizens suffer economically. The president aims to “completely silence” anyone who might disrupt the Feb. 7 election, the International Press Institute added.

The last reason Aliyev likely called the snap election was because Russian leaders in Moscow are preoccupied with the war in Ukraine and therefore have less bandwidth for meddling in the vote, the Associated Press reported. Russia is traditionally Armenia’s ally.

As a result, Azeri voters have little chance to hear anything even slightly negative about the president’s performance. At a recent political debate, for example, Aliyev didn’t appear on stage, but his opponents praised his job record, raising questions, according to Radio Free Europe, about whether they were really challenging him at all.


Warning: Speed Bumps


The European Union unveiled a plan this week to slash climate-changing emissions by 90 percent by 2040 and achieve “net zero” carbon neutrality by 2050, despite mounting opposition and protests from farmers and right-leaning parties skeptical of regulations relating to climate change, the Washington Post reported.

The proposed plan, subject to approval by member nations, will include reducing fossil fuel consumption by 80 percent, phasing out coal, and ramping up carbon capture and storage technologies.

The proposals are part of the bloc’s ambitious Green Deal – first unveiled in 2019 – to position itself at the forefront of the global transition and concerns over climate change.

Through a series of climate-friendly policies and targets, the EU now accounts for only seven percent of global emissions – a figure that was 13 percent 20 years ago.

While the bloc is still ironing out details of the plan, feedback from various stakeholders, including major companies and citizens, has shown varying opinions on how to achieve these goals, including concerns over costs that might impinge on the personal finances of EU citizens.

The most obvious sign of concern has come from farmers, who have taken to the streets of many major European cities to protest against some of the proposed regulations that would impact their livelihood.

These include rules to reduce emissions from agricultural activities and cuts on fuel subsidies.

Amid growing backlash from farmer groups, the EU’s executive body, the European Commission, backtracked on plans to cut emissions and halve the use of chemical pesticides, the Guardian noted.

The Commission’s shift also underscores efforts by EU politicians to secure support from farmers, as right-leaning parties skeptical of the Green Deal have been gaining traction in opinion polls.

Analysts believe right-leaning parties are poised for a major victory in the upcoming European parliamentary elections this year.

But despite opposition, analysts added that sticking to green policies is essential for the EU to lead in the energy transition, drive global corporate responsibility, and mitigate the economic losses of climate disasters.

Crime and Punishment


Four suspects appeared before a Kenyan court this week over a gas explosion that killed six people and injured nearly 300 in the capital Nairobi last week, the BBC reported.

The individuals included three officials of the country’s National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and the main suspect, Derrick Kimathi, whom authorities accused of illegally operating the gas depot where the explosion erupted.

The charges against the individuals include murder, abuse of office and negligence.

The blast took place last Thursday when a truck carrying gas cylinders blew up in a densely populated area of Nairobi. Homes and businesses were also damaged in the explosion.

Following the blast, President William Ruto ordered the detention and prosecution of government officials who allowed the plant to illegally operate in the area.

Kimathi denied operating an illegal plant, while his lawyer countered that the vehicle that caused the explosion “was trespassing into his property without his knowledge and consent.”

Police are also searching for five more suspects, including two NEMA employees.

There have been growing public demands for accountability, while government agencies have been blaming each other over what led to the blast.

Jailbirds, Free


Indian authorities released a pigeon that had been detained for nearly a year over suspicions that the animal was spying for China, CBS News reported.

In May, guards at Mumbai’s international port seized a pigeon carrying a microchip, rings on its legs and Chinese characters written on its wings.

The city police initially suspected that the bird was used by China for spying, but investigations disproved that allegation.

Investigators told the New York Times that the avian was a racing bird from Taiwan, suggesting that the bird had arrived at the port on one of the vessels. They explained that the writing was not readable, suggesting that it had faded during the voyage.

But despite its innocence, the pigeon was kept at an animal hospital for months. The hospital and the animal rights group PETA India had contacted police to release the bird, saying it was healthy and taking up space.

Last week, police approved the bird’s release, a move that PETA celebrated as the end of a “wrongful imprisonment.”

This is not the first time India has detained birds on espionage charges.

In 2015, authorities caught a pigeon near the border with Pakistan after the bird was found to have a stamped message on its feathers written in Urdu– the main language spoken in Pakistan – and the seal of a Pakistani district.

The latest twist highlights the ongoing rivalry between China and India, with the two countries engaged in ongoing border disputes, World Politics Review noted.

China allegedly operates a pigeon military unit in its southwestern Yunnan province, according to reports from Radio Free Asia.


Hubba Bubba

Ancient teenagers likely liked chewing gum, too.

And now, the remnants of these chews are helping scientists to unveil fascinating details about Stone Age teenagers’ diets and oral health in Sweden, Agence France-Presse reported.

The gum – made from birch bark pitch – was first discovered at Sweden’s Huseby Klev archaeological site near Gothenburg three decades ago.

Dating back 9,700 years, previous research has suggested that the resin was likely used as glue to assemble tools and weapons – although scholars also believe it was chewed because ancient people liked it or thought it had some medicinal properties.

“There were several chewing gum (samples) and both males and females chewed them,” explained study co-author Anders Götherström. “Most of them seem to have been chewed by teenagers.”

While the exact purpose of the chews remains a mystery, Götherström and his team analyzed the DNA within the gums to uncover dietary habits and health conditions of the individuals who chewed the ancient “gum.”

Their findings showed a detailed picture of Stone Age food consumption: The diet mainly consisted of deer, trout and hazelnuts, but also had traces of apple and fox.

But researchers also uncovered evidence of periodontitis, a severe gum infection, in one teenager’s chewed gum. This finding suggests ancient dental health issues and offers a poignant connection to the individual’s experience thousands of years ago, AFP wrote.

“You have the imprint from the teenager’s mouth who chewed it thousands of years ago,” said Götherström. “If you want to put some kind of a philosophical layer into it, for us it connects artifacts, the DNA and humans.”

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