The World Today for February 23, 2024

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BELARUS

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko recently claimed that his security forces had captured Ukrainian and Belarusian “saboteurs” in a counterterrorism operation on the country’s border with Ukraine. Other than saying these so-called enemies were transferring explosives to use in Belarus and Russia, reported the Moscow Times, Lukashenko didn’t provide many details.

It looked, however, like a classic case of a dictator revealing an external threat to help rally the public around his leadership. Lukashenko has certainly taken other unapologetically non-democratic actions to retain power as Belarusian citizens are slated to go to the polls on Feb. 25.

No one doubts that Lukashenko’s allies will win the vote. “After three years of unrelenting repression and mass emigration, (the election results) are more predictable than ever,” wrote the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There are not even any arguments among the opposition about whether to take part or not: It’s simply too dangerous.”

The president, for example, has cracked down on opposition groups who helped organize demonstrations against his regime when he won the 2020 presidential election that handed him his sixth term in office, the Associated Press reported.

Currently, more than 1,400 political prisoners are in the country’s jails, including dissident politicians and human rights advocate Ales Bialiatski, winner of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. The media is constrained. State security services monitor the population.

The courts are still prosecuting people who participated in the demonstrations. Dzmitry Shcharbin, 29, a former employee of the Belarusian Metallurgical Works in the eastern city of Zhlobin, for instance, faces charges of inciting social hatred stemming from his arrest in October, Radio Free Europe wrote.

Others are threatened with execution.

Still, Lukashenko is acting like lawmakers will have an important policy to uphold – his Orwellian strategy of “armed peace,” or taking credit for keeping Belarus out of the war in neighboring Ukraine to the south – while also beefing up military spending in case the conflict escalates to a broader fight between NATO and Russia and its allies, including Belarus.

To be safe, though, the president has declined to allow representatives from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to observe the elections, the Jurist wrote. OSCE officials issued a statement saying this move was yet another sign of the repression that exists in the country.

Observers from the Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States would watch the vote, however, responded officials speaking to the state-owned Belarus Telegraph Agency.

Regardless, there’s not much to vote for anyway, say commentators.

The Belarusian Supreme Court closed down the Belarusian Popular Front Party and the United Civil Party. The Green Party, Republican Party, Social Democratic Party of People’s Accord and Belarusian Social Democratic Party have been banned.

“Depressingly,” wrote the Center for European Policy Analysis, “(The elections’) sole useful purpose will be to underline the regime’s dictatorial behavior and set the stage for another rigged vote in 2025, when Lukashenko, now 69, will seek to extend his 30-year rule.”

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

A Kinda, Sort of, Peace

LIBYA

Libya’s government on Thursday said they reached an agreement for militias to leave the capital city Tripoli after controlling it for more than a decade out of the chaotic aftermath of the Arab Spring, the BBC reported.

Interior Minister Imed Trabelsi told reporters the deal was struck following lengthy negotiations, adding that police officers would replace the armed groups in the city. He added that the government would still allow the militias to intervene, but only “in exceptional circumstances for specific missions.”

The announcement follows months of deadly clashes in the city. In August, 55 people died and 146 were injured amid fighting between two of the groups. Sixteen were killed in another clash on Saturday.

Libyans have been living in a situation of start-stop conflict since 2011, when a series of protests – part of a wider trend of civil unrest across North African and Middle Eastern countries that became known as the “Arab Spring” – resulted in the deposing and killing of longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi. This created a security vacuum, filled by rival forces, and led to a state of anarchy.

The country now has two separate authorities governing separate areas. The internationally recognized government of Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, to which Trabelsi belongs, runs the west, including Tripoli. Military strongman Khalifa Haftar leads regions in the east.

A myriad of heavily armed militias control southern areas and are present in cities. They operate independently per a special status granted in 2021 and receive public funding from the Tripoli administration.

Five groups that have shared parts of the capital – the General Security Force, the Special Deterrence Force, Brigade 444, Brigade 111, and the Stability Support Authority – agreed to the government’s deal. They are expected to leave the city by the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, on April 9.

Trabelsi said the landmark agreement would set a precedent for other cities in Libya and promised to put an end to “checkpoints” and militias.

Off-Shoring Humans

ALBANIA/ ITALY

The Albanian parliament approved an agreement Thursday to host thousands of asylum seekers for Italy, a deal aimed at tackling the influx of refugees and migrants entering the European Union, but which has drawn sharp criticism from human rights groups, Al Jazeera reported.

Lawmakers from the ruling Socialist Party voted in favor of the migrant deal, while opposition legislators boycotted the move. The approval comes weeks after Italian lawmakers also voted in favor of the accord.

First signed between the two nations in November, the agreement will see Albania host and process up to 3,000 migrants and refugees at two Italian-managed centers near the port of Shengjin for periods of about a month.

It is expected that around 36,000 individuals annually could be sent to Albania.

Italy will retain legal responsibility for the asylum seekers throughout the processing period and will handle deportations from Albania in case of rejected claims for international protection.

The agreement is part of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s efforts to share the burden of addressing migration with other European nations, the Associated Press added.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has expressed support for the agreement, while other EU officials noted that the bloc has been contemplating “this type of operation.”

However, Albania is not part of the EU and the proposal to send asylum seekers outside the bloc remains controversial.

Many human rights advocates chided the agreement as “illegal and unworkable,” while Albania’s conservative opposition warned that it is an “irresponsible and dangerous act for national security.”

Migration has taken center stage in the upcoming European elections in June, with EU nations striving to pass crucial asylum and migration reforms before the polls.

Mainstream parties hope new rules will counter anti-migrant narratives propagated by populist and far-right groups.

Silent Treatment

COLOMBIA

Colombia’s largest remaining rebel group suspended peace talks with the government this week, creating another roadblock for President Gustavo Petro’s efforts to end the South American country’s decade-long armed conflict, Agence France-Presse reported.

On Tuesday, the National Liberation Army (ELN) accused the central government of violating ground rules set when negotiations started in 2022. It also alleged that a local government in the southern Nariño department had begun separate talks with ELN fighters, while negotiations were meant to be held at a centralized level.

The armed Marxist group announced it had “frozen” the peace process until further notice.

The Colombian government criticized the ELN’s move Wednesday, saying it undermined broader confidence in the rebels’ “will for peace.”

Separately, Defense Minister Iván Velásquez warned that the government could restart aerial bombings against illegal armed groups that had been suspended shortly after Petro was elected in 2022, Reuters noted.

Peace talks between Bogota and the ELN started in November after they were initially suspended by Petro’s right-wing predecessor, Iván Duque, in 2019 following a car bomb attack.

Since his election in 2022, Petro – Colombia’s first leftist president – has strived to bring “total peace” with the country’s insurgent groups.

The ELN, formed in 1968 and boasting around 5,800 fighters, has been accused by human rights groups of taking advantage of various ceasefires to expand its influence and territory.

The armed group is linked to drug trafficking and mainly operations on Colombia’s Pacific coast and along the border with Venezuela in the northeast.

Negotiations have also been complicated by the fact that the group has individual units that have a degree of autonomy: In October, an ELN faction kidnapped the father of Colombian footballer Luis Díaz, releasing him 12 days later.

In 2016, the much larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) laid down arms following a historic peace agreement, though some renegade fighters rejected the deal and remain active under a new name.

Meanwhile, earlier this week, hundreds of people protested across Colombia to demand justice for hundreds of social leaders, human rights activists and signatories of the 2016 accord who have been killed in recent years, La Prensa Latina wrote.

According to Colombia’s Ombudsman Office, more than 180 of these individuals were murdered in the country last year alone.

DISCOVERIES

Battle of the Sexes

Primatologists have held the belief that a vast majority of primate societies are dominated by the male species.

But a recent study is challenging those long-standing assumptions, Scientific American reported.

A research team analyzed dominance patterns in 79 living primate species, taking into account factors such as mating behavior, social structure and sexual dimorphism – differences between males and females in body size and other physical characteristics.

Their findings showed that female dominance or equality with males was present in 42 percent of the species examined, highlighting the diverse range of social dynamics among primates.

The team explained that key factors that influenced dominance included physical features, such as body size and canine tooth size.

For example, male chimpanzees are larger than females and would attack females in the hopes of mating with them. In contrast, male and female bonobos are similar in size and form tight bonds together – an arrangement that can lead to female-dominated societies.

Researchers added that power dynamics can also be impacted by a difference in male-to-female ratio and mating behavior: For instance, female dominance diminished sifaka lemurs – a species known to be matriarchal – when there were more females than males. The males became more assertive because they had a wider choice of mates.

Meanwhile, the study also examined fossils of extinct primates to understand dominance patterns in the last common ancestor of all primates. The analysis unveiled patterns that matched with a variety of intersexual power relationships – meaning that the dominance status of our last common ancestor could go either way.

Primatologist Erin Vogel from Rutgers University, who was not involved in the study, commended the innovative approach, noting its implications for understanding primate societies.

“The traditional old-school thinking in primatology has always been around male dominance, but this study allows us to rethink that,” she added.

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