The World Today for April 18, 2024

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Gangland Elections


Zoran Milanović caused a stir last month when he announced his candidacy for Croatia’s parliament as a member of the Social Democratic Party – with the goal of becoming prime minister.

The problem was that Milanović was the president of Croatia when he made his announcement.

As the Associated Press wrote, under the Balkan country’s constitution, the president is a nonpartisan figure who presides over ceremonies, schedules elections, and serves as an apolitical commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The nation’s constitutional court ruled that he must quit his current job if he intends to seek a new one in another elected office.

After the court’s announcement, the president wrote a short note on Facebook: “The rivers of justice are coming,” reported Politico. He has also called constitutional court judges “gangsters” and “a group of thugs” trying to suppress the prime minister’s political rivals, added Balkan Insight.

He said he would resign should he win the election on Wednesday. By Thursday morning, however, with over 94 percent of votes counted, the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party had the largest haul of parliament’s seats, winning 60 out of 151 – although short of a majority.

Meanwhile, it’s not out of character for the plain-speaking populist to flout the rules to run against Prime Minister Andrej Plenković of the HDZ, say observers. What’s new in these elections is the level of vitriol between the two top contenders.

Plenković has run the country for much of the time since independence after the fall of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. As Transitions Online explained, the HDZ is pro-European Union, pro-Ukraine, pro-NATO, and therefore anti-Russia. Milanović, on the other hand, is pro-Russian and should he win, aid to Ukraine will be in jeopardy.

In March, around 27 percent of voters supported the prime minister and the HDZ, while 33 percent favored the Social Democratic Party. Smaller left- and right-wing parties garnered less than 10 percent each in support.

After holding office for seven years, wrote Euronews, Plenković can boast of expanding the Croatian economy through tourism and a real estate boom, particularly along the country’s spectacular Adriatic coast. The country has also enjoyed extensive funding for its infrastructure and other areas since joining the European Union in 2013 and NATO four years earlier.

Corruption has marred Plenković’s administration, however, and eaten into his standings, as protests that broke out earlier this year highlighted. Croatia is the fifth-most corrupt member of the EU, according to Transparency International. Around 30 ministers have quit Plenković’s government amid corruption scandals, reported Reuters, quoting Zagreb University law professor Ivan Rimac. “There have been affairs linked to misuse of EU funds, losses in public companies,” Rimac said.

Plenkovic doesn’t seem to be changing his stripes, either. Watchdogs recently decried the appointment of Ivan Turudić a former judge, as Croatia’s new prosecutor general, for instance, charging that he might be biased toward the prime minister’s government and had maintained too cozy relations with suspects in criminal cases, wrote Euractiv.

As critics allege, if Plenković loses, he might need Turudić’s help.


Stamping It Out


British lawmakers voted in favor of a pioneering bill that would prevent individuals born after 2009 from purchasing cigarettes, a piece of legislation that observers have described as one of strictest in the world, the BBC reported.

On Tuesday, the bill, proposed by Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, received resounding support in Parliament: It passed with a decisive vote of 383 to 67, despite opposition from senior Conservative leaders.

The draft law will still need to be voted in the upper chamber before it comes into force – although some observers noted that it could become law before the country’s general election which must happen by next January.

If enacted, the ban would position the United Kingdom’s smoking regulations at the forefront globally. The proposal drew inspiration from a similar law in New Zealand, which was later repealed after a change in government.

The bill’s enforcement mechanisms include empowering trading standards officers to issue on-the-spot fines of more than $120 to shops caught selling tobacco or vapes to underage individuals. Revenue generated from these fines would be allocated toward further enforcement efforts.

Older smokers can continue buying tobacco until they quit or pass away, but the new bill aims to gradually raise the legal purchase age each year for younger generations, effectively prohibiting them from buying cigarettes. Vaping products, though exempt from the ban, would undergo packaging changes to make them less appealing, the Washington Post added.

Health Secretary Victoria Atkins underscored the imperative of the legislation, emphasizing that “there is no liberty in addiction.” She championed the measure as a means to foster a “smoke-free generation,” citing the detrimental impact of nicotine addiction on personal autonomy.

The proposal comes amid concerning statistics that underscore the devastating toll of tobacco use in the UK, claiming the lives of two-thirds of long-term users and resulting in 80,000 deaths annually, according to the BBC.

Smoking-related hospital admissions occur at an alarming rate, with nearly one admission per minute in England alone.

However, key leaders of the Conservative Party, such as former Prime Ministers Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, opposed the ban. Johnson labeled it as “absolutely nuts,” decrying what he perceived as an infringement on personal freedom.

Former minister Sir Jake Berry voiced concerns over governmental intrusion into personal decisions, prioritizing individual freedom over paternalistic measures. In response, Atkins highlighted the dangerous nature of nicotine addiction, particularly among young smokers.

All For One


Venezuela and Honduras took diplomatic actions against Ecuador this week in response to a recent police raid at Mexico’s embassy in the Ecuadorian capital Quito earlier this month, Al Jazeera reported.

On Tuesday, Honduran Foreign Relations Minister Enrique Reina announced his country had recalled its charge d’affaires from Ecuador to consult on the police raid. Separately, Venezuela said it would close its embassy and consulates in Ecuador because of the raid.

The announcements marked an escalation of a diplomatic row between Mexico and Ecuador: On April 5, Ecuadorian authorities raided Mexico’s embassy in Quito to detain former Ecuadorian Vice President Jorge Glas.

Glas had been sheltering in the Mexican embassy since December to avoid arrest and imprisonment over corruption-related charges.

But the police action received criticism from legal analysts and other Latin American nations as a violation of international law.

Embassies and consulates are protected under international law from unauthorized entry by local law enforcement.

Following the raid, Mexico responded by severing ties with Ecuador and recalling its embassy staff from the country. It also filed a complaint at the International Court of Justice calling for Ecuador’s removal from the United Nations, pending an apology for the embassy incident.

Honduran officials called the raid “a disastrous precedent,” while Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro described it as an “act of barbarism.”

Meanwhile, Ecuadorian President Daniel Noboa defended the decision as necessary for upholding national security and pursuing justice.

Even so, a three-member tribunal in Ecuador found that the raid was arbitrary and illegal – although it still upheld Glas’ imprisonment.

The Imitation Game


Georgia’s parliament passed Wednesday the first reading of a bill on “foreign agents” that critics warned could be used to stifle freedoms and move the Caucasus nation further away from its path to join the European Union, Reuters reported.

The bill, supported by the ruling Georgian Dream party, passed after 83 of 150 legislators voted in favor – while the opposition boycotted the vote. Before the vote, protests erupted across the country and scuffles among lawmakers took place in parliament.

The legislation, subject to two more readings, will require organizations receiving more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as foreign agents.

Initially introduced in 2023, the “foreign agents” bill was shelved following two nights of violent demonstrations.

The government has said the draft legislation will promote transparency and counter foreign-imposed “pseudo-liberal values.” But many critics have compared the bill to Russia’s “foreign agents” law that has been used to crack down on dissent.

The EU warned that adopting the bill would hinder Georgia’s integration into the bloc, as it contradicts core norms and could restrict civil society and media freedoms. Other Western nations also urged against its passage, but Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze defended the bill.

Observers noted that the draft law has intensified divisions in Georgia, sparking opposition from various sectors, including civil society and celebrities.

President Salome Zourabichvili threatened to veto the law, but parliament can override her.

On Wednesday, protests erupted outside parliament, met with police force, with some chanting against the bill as “the Russian law.”

Russia denied involvement, calling the legislation a “normal practice” and blaming external actors for anti-Russian sentiment.


Earth Time

Global warming is widely credited for causing ice to melt at both the Earth’s poles, leading to a rise in sea levels.

And that in turn is shifting water, causing our planet to spin more slowly, Scientific American reported.

Combined with other forces that alter Earth’s rotation speed, this may impact timekeeping. In a recent study, scientists suggested we may soon have to delete a “leap second,” for the first time.

As miles-thick ice sheets melt, their mass shifts away from the poles toward the equator, slowing down Earth’s rotation – it’s similar to how figure skaters spin rapidly on ice with their arms up around their heads, and then slow when they bring their arms down and extend them outward.

For a few decades already, timekeepers have observed that our planet’s rotation has been slowing down because of other factors, including tides. They have added leap seconds to Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which most of the world uses. Those seconds are added at the end of a given day: Its last minute would be 23:59:60 instead of 23:59:59.

But the study established that the slow-down induced by ice melt had also overshadowed the fact that our Earth’s rotation has actually sped up.

In the last half-century, days have gotten about 0.0025 of a second shorter because of changes in the rotation of Earth’s liquid outer core, over 1,300 miles deep.

Without global warming, we might have retracted that extra second sooner, but the researchers predicted a deletion would be needed by 2028 or 2029.

Nonetheless, experts say leap seconds are not that relevant. The International Bureau of Weights and Measures even voted to abolish them by 2035.

“The Earth is not a perfect timekeeper,” one physicist told Scientific Alert.

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