The World Today for March 22, 2024

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SLOVAKIA

Thousands of Slovaks took to the streets of their capital of Bratislava recently to protest the pro-Russian stance of Prime Minister Robert Fico and his Smer-SD political party. As Reuters reported, Fico has been critical of European military aid to Ukraine, while seeking to improve relations with Russia.

Fico, for example, was “overjoyed” when European Union officials recently removed Jozef Hambálek from a list of sanctioned individuals, wrote Politico. Hambálek was a Slovak leader in the Nightwolves Motorcycle Club, a pro-Russian group that participated in the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014. Fico had opposed the sanctions.

Fico’s defense minister recently suggested that European officials, rather than discussing military aid for Ukraine, should be repatriating Ukrainian men back home so they can join the war, reported Ukrainian Pravda.

Now, this tension between pro-Russian and pro-Western camps in Slovakia has become a major issue in the Central European country’s presidential election on March 23. Slovakia’s president’s powers are largely ceremonial. But the victor will have the power of the bully pulpit during what could be very tumultuous years in Europe.

Slovakia’s current President Zuzana Čaputová, whom the Financial Times described as “a standard bearer for liberal politics in central Europe,” has warned that Fico was testing “the limits of democracy” with his illiberal policies, including exerting more control over the judiciary and undermining anti-corruption investigators, a stance that has inspired protests for months.

Čaputová is now suing Fico for describing her as an “American agent” who works for George Soros, the progressive Hungarian-American financier, philanthropist, and political donor who is the subject of right-wing conspiracy theories, noted Euractiv. She similarly filed and won a case against Smer leader L’uboš Blaha, who called her a “traitor” working for Western interests.

She likely opted not to run for president again because of these headaches, added Foreign Policy.

Parliament Speaker Peter Pellegrini, a Fico ally, and former Foreign Minister Ivan Korčok, a pro-Western career diplomat, were initially considered as the main contenders for the job, according to the Associated Press.

Pellegrini replaced Fico for two years after Fico resigned amid protests related to the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in 2018, explained the Slovak Spectator.

Pelligrini’s win would embolden Fico to push Slovakia harder into Russia’s camp, argued Chatham House. Balkan Insight agreed, saying Čaputová has been one of the few checks on his quest for more power.

Korčok, meanwhile, Slovakia’s ambassador to the EU, Germany, and the US, has pledged to keep Slovakia firmly involved in the EU and NATO.

Still, analysts say the main check on Fico’s power is going to be Slovakia’s need for funds.

“Robert Fico and his government, they really need EU funds,” Katarina Klingova of the Centre for Democracy & Resilience at the GLOBSEC Policy Institute, based in Bratislava, told Balkan Insight. “So he’s definitely going to toe the line and adhere to EU policies and support EU policies.”

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Murder for Hire

INDIA

Indian government agents were involved in a murder plot against a Sikh-American activist in New York, according to India’s probe into claims made by the US, Bloomberg reported Thursday.

At least one of the people named in the investigation is no longer employed by India’s primary spy agency, the Research and Analysis Wing. The individual continues to work as a civil servant in the absence of a formal prosecution, officials said.

The results of the government-appointed panel haven’t been published yet but were shared with US authorities, who demanded that the suspects be charged.

In June 2023, Sikh separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a US citizen whom New Delhi considers a terrorist, was the target of an assassination attempt in New York. The US government accused an Indian intelligence agent of instructing Nikhil Gupta, an Indian national with connections in the criminal world, to hire a hitman to kill Pannun.

Gupta was arrested in the Czech Republic the same month and now awaits an extradition ruling by the country’s top court, India’s The Wire reported.

At a US congressional hearing on Wednesday, Donald Lu, a US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, said the government had urged India to “work quickly and transparently to make sure justice is done.”

Nonetheless, the case put the US in an awkward position as President Joe Biden’s administration has sought to strengthen relations with India amid competition with China for influence in Asia. Since news of the murder plot emerged, US officials have visited India to discuss matters such as trade in an effort to curb China’s assertiveness in the region.

Meanwhile, the murder of a Sikh separatist in Canada has caused a diplomatic rift between Ottawa and New Delhi after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly accused India of orchestrating assassination plots abroad. India denied the claims and reduced its diplomatic staff in Canada, with negative impacts on Indian nationals applying for visas to the North American country.

Break a Leg

PORTUGAL

Portugal’s president appointed center-right Luis Montenegro as prime minister on Thursday, tasking him with forming a minority government following an election that has increased political instability and seen the rapid rise of the far right’s influence in the country, the BBC reported.

The Democratic Alliance (AD) won this month’s election but fell short of an absolute majority in parliament that would have allowed the party to govern without coalition partners. Its leader, Montenegro, pledged not to enter a coalition with the far-right Chega (Enough) party.

As a result, the president appointed Montenegro as prime minister.

Montenegro’s appointment came shortly after election results for the four seats representing Portuguese living abroad were published. Chega won two, while the AD and the Socialist Party won one each, Reuters reported.

Portugal now has the most fragmented parliament in its democratic history. The two traditional blocs, the AD and the Socialist Party, are neck-and-neck, with 80 and 78 seats respectively, while Chega won 50. At least 116 votes are needed to have a parliamentary majority to easily pass legislation.

This means that Montenegro will likely have to strike deals on legislation with either the Socialists or Chega.

The far-right party made substantial gains in the election, earning the highest number of seats since the end of the Portuguese dictatorship 50 years ago. Its leader, former soccer commentator André Ventura, said the AD risked triggering political instability if they refused to heed Chega’s demands.

Analysts explained the party’s success was an expression of frustration among voters after eight years of center-left rule left Portugal’s workers struggling with low wages amid rising living costs.

Now, analysts say that should the country’s new leader be able to form a minority government, the vote on the 2025 budget in the fall will be his first challenge.

No Boogieing

CAMBODIA

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet this week ordered a ban on musical truck horns because of safety concerns, a decision that observers said appears similar to the unusual policies of his strongman father, who ruled Cambodia for nearly four decades, the Associated Press reported.

Earlier this week, the prime minister called on authorities to swiftly take action against any vehicles that have replaced their standard horns – that only honk – with ones that play tunes. He also ordered a ban on the sale of musical horns.

Hun Manet said the decisions came after he saw social media posts showing young people dancing on the roads as passing trucks blasted tunes from their horns.

He warned that such dancing impacts public order, creates a traffic hazard and poses a significant threat to the safety of both the dancers and others.

The decision comes less than a year after Hun Manet took the reins of the Cambodian government following the resignation of his father and the country’s long-time leader, Hun Sen.

Some citizens expressed surprise that the 46-year-old prime minister would act over such a “trivial” matter, but political observers noted that the measure highlights the similarities between father and son, according to Al Jazeera.

They said the move was “more posturing than policy”, adding that the new prime minister’s administration has “not been shy about ‘culture war’ issues.”

Hun Sen previously used cultural matters to promote a conservative stance on Cambodian society.

In 2020, he ordered legal action against female social media influencers for wearing revealing outfits online, saying the move was aimed at preserving the honor of Cambodian women.

Similarly, he banned beauty pageants in 2006, saying that alleviating poverty took precedence over promoting beauty.

DISCOVERIES

Tool Stories

Archaeologists recently discovered the oldest evidence of human ancestors in Europe at a site in western Ukraine dating back 1.4 million years, Cosmos Magazine reported.

Hominins – a group that includes humans and their extinct relatives – are believed to have first arrived in Eurasia from Africa one or two million years ago. However, their exact route and point of arrival remain unknown.

Now, a new study on the Korolevo archaeological site provided some invaluable insights into the early migrations of hominins into Eurasia, challenging preconceived notions and rewriting the narrative of human evolution.

Korolevo has long been recognized for its Palaeolithic stone tools, yet the precise age of these artifacts remained elusive until now.

Researchers conducted a cosmogenic nuclide analysis of sediment surrounding the tools. This technique allowed them to examine the rare forms of atomic nuclei that formed because of bombardment by high-energy rays from space.

Their findings showed that the Korolevo tools were buried about 1.42 million years ago, with the team theorizing that they were used by the extinct Homo erectus.

But the study also unveiled links connecting disparate regions and time periods, bridging the gap between ancient human finds in the Caucasus and southwestern Europe.

The authors explained that this newfound understanding of migratory routes challenges previous hypotheses, suggesting an eastern entry point into the continent, instead of a land bridge to what is today the Iberian Peninsula or across the sea to southern Europe.

The findings also hint at the dynamic interplay between early humans and their environment over millennia: It shows how these resourceful hominins capitalized on warm interglacial periods to venture into higher latitudes, exploiting opportunities presented by shifting climates to expand their reach.

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