The World Today for May 16, 2024

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Fronts and Faults

MOLDOVA

A few months ago, photos surfaced of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko standing next to a map depicting battles that had occurred in Ukraine, battles that had yet to occur in Ukraine and, curiously, another former Soviet republic: Moldova.

Specifically, reported the Hill, the plans showed Russian troops using Belarussian territory to invade the breakaway eastern Moldovan region of Transnistria, a thin strip of land along Moldova’s western border with Ukraine where local Russian-speaking secessionist leaders receive Moscow’s support. Russia has used Belarus to stage attacks on Ukraine in the past. Belarus has reportedly considered sending troops to join Russia on the front line to fight Ukrainian forces.

Moldova and Transnistria are important because they represent another political and ideological fault line between the West and Russia that has the potential to become a military front line as well.

Moldova was already reeling from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine soon after it began in late February 2022, according to World Politics Review, citing United Nations sources. In one week in March 2022, a million Ukrainians fled over their southern border to Moldova, whose population is only 2.6 million. Its tiny size is one reason why experts still discuss the slight possibility of the larger, Romanian-speaking section of Moldova, which excludes Transnistria, uniting with Romania, a member of the European Union.

More realistic, but also problematic, would be Moldova itself joining the EU. In October, the country will vote in a referendum to amend the constitution along with presidential elections to express the people’s wish to become part of the bloc, explained Chatham House. Both Moldova and another former Soviet republic, Georgia, are now slated to open formal accession talks with the EU in June, reported Radio Free Europe.

The problem is that this tilt to the West runs counter to  Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions to restore Russian hegemony over the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Moldovan leaders have also welcomed cooperation with NATO, likely further peeving Kremlin insiders, added Asia Times.

Russian officials have warned Moldovan leaders in the capital of Chișinău that they would invite a Russian military response if anyone attempted to exert control over Transnistria by force, Balkan Insight reported. Russia has alleged that 220,000 Russian citizens live in Moldova. “We are concerned about their fate and will not allow them to become victims of another Western adventure,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

To such end, they opened polls in Transnistria for the Russian presidential election in March, to fierce criticism from the Moldovan government. Putin said he would support Moldova’s autonomous region of Gagauzia after meeting the territory’s pro-Moscow leader in March, Politico noted.

Such threats and other meddling have allowed Russia to stymie Moldovan and European attempts to appease the Transnistrians and other Russian speakers in the country, noted University of Birmingham professor of international security Stefan Wolff in the Conversation. Russia’s disinformation campaign before the October vote, for instance, has been intense, wrote Politico.

At the same time, protests have broken out in Moldova over the past 18 months – most recently in February, led by the pro-Russia Revival Party, demanding the pro-Western government resign, the Associated Press reported. Most of the protests have been led by the Moscow-friendly Shor Party, which was declared unconstitutional last June by the Constitutional Court for trying to destabilize the country.

Meanwhile, pro-Western counter-demonstrators have been coming out in force, too. About 60 percent of the population supports closer ties with the EU, a poll in December showed.

Still, as Moldova fights Russian influence, and the EU’s chief has made clear that she wants to support Moldova’s bid, it’s still got much work to do at home to be able to join the bloc. Writing in Euractiv, former Moldovan minister of Justice and a former judge on the European Court of Human Rights, Stanislav Pavlovschi, said Moldova is at a crossroads, and possibly on the cusp of a new era if it can address its internal challenges such as corruption, democratic backsliding and judicial reform.

“As advocates of Moldova’s path to European Union membership, we must acknowledge the daunting task that lies ahead,” he wrote. “Moldova must navigate a delicate balance between external pressures and internal imperatives … While the road ahead may be arduous, it is not insurmountable.”

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

The Long Arm of the Law

GAMBIA

Switzerland’s top criminal court on Wednesday sentenced a former Gambian interior minister to 20 years in prison for crimes against humanity, a trial that human rights groups hailed as a watershed application of “universal jurisdiction” – a principle that allows the local prosecution of serious crimes committed outside of the country, the Associated Press reported.

The case involves Ousman Sonko, who served as the West African country’s interior minister between 2006 and 2016 during the regime of authoritarian president, Yahya Jammeh, who came to power following a coup in 1994.

Sonko was removed as minister in September 2016, a few months before Jammeh fled the country after losing that year’s presidential elections and refusing to concede.

Swiss authorities arrested Sonko in early 2017, shortly after he applied for asylum in the country.

Prosecutors accused Sonko of supporting, participating in and failing to stop attacks against Jammeh’s opponents: The crimes included murder, torture, rape and unlawful detentions.

Switzerland’s Federal Criminal Court convicted Sonko of homicide, torture and false imprisonment, adding that his felonies amounted to crimes against humanity. However, the rape charges against him were dropped.

While prosecutors had asked for life imprisonment, the court ruled that Sonko’s crimes did not rise to “aggravated” cases.

Even so, legal analysts and human rights advocates welcomed the verdict, noting that Sonko was the highest-level former official ever to be put on trial in Europe under the “universal jurisdiction” principle.

They added that the trial was an important step toward justice for victims of Jammeh’s regime, and an important message to the exiled autocratic leader that “no matter what, the long arm of justice can always catch the perpetrator.”

Jammeh is currently living in exile in Equatorial Guinea, which is currently governed by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo who has been in power for nearly 45 years.

The Russian Law

GEORGIA

Georgian lawmakers this week approved a law targeting foreign-funded organizations and media amid massive ongoing protests, with analysts saying the move could suppress anti-corruption advocates and jeopardize the country’s bid to join the European Union (EU), Politico reported.

Protesters have called the bill the “Russian law” because it draws inspiration from legislation used by Moscow to silence dissent. Ahead of the vote on Tuesday, crowds gathered in the capital Tbilisi waving Georgian, Ukrainian, and European flags and hitting pots and pans. The demonstration was met with a violent police response, wrote RFE/RL.

The so-called “foreign agents” law, proposed by the ruling Georgian Dream party, passed in an 84-30 vote following a series of clashes between lawmakers inside the chamber.

Under the new law, non-governmental organizations and independent media outlets that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from outside Georgia will have to register as bodies “bearing the interest of a foreign power.”

They will be placed under the scrutiny of the Justice Ministry and may be asked to share sensitive information. Non-compliance can be sanctioned with a $9,400 fine, the BBC explained.

Georgian Dream argued the legislation would promote transparency, CNN reported. Opponents, however, have described it as a threat to Georgia’s aspirations to join the EU, steering the South Caucasian nation closer to Russia.

The EU granted Georgia candidate status last December, but Brussels has warned the “foreign agents” law was “incompatible with European values.”

On Wednesday, EU officials told the Financial Times that the bloc was ready to indefinitely postpone talks with Georgia over its EU bid, should the law be enforced.

President Salomé Zourabichvili, meanwhile, vowed not to sign the bill into law. Even so, a simple majority in parliament would override her veto.

Moscow argued on Tuesday that criticism of the bill signaled “interference in Georgia’s internal affairs.” Since 2008, Russia has occupied 20 percent of Georgian territory.

With elections set in October, opposition lawmaker Tinatin Bokuchava told Politico the turmoil over the controversial law could drive regime change. “That’s the European way,” Zourabichvili said.

Reopening Wounds

SOUTH AFRICA

South Africa will launch a new investigation into the mysterious 1967 death of Nobel Peace Prize winner Chief Albert Luthuli, an inquest that comes decades after the then-white-minority government ruled that the anti-apartheid leader died in an accident, the BBC reported.

Justice Minister Ronald Lamola announced Wednesday that the probe follows the National Prosecuting Authority’s discovery of evidence that contradicted the prior investigation into Luthuli’s death.

The original inquest found that Chief Luthuli died after he was struck by a train as he was walking by a railway line near his home in KwaZulu-Natal province.

At the time, South Africa’s government had barred the anti-apartheid campaigner from leaving his residential area or participating in politics. Chief Luthuli’s family and supporters allege that the regime murdered him and covered it up.

He was the leader of the banned African National Congress (ANC), the liberation movement that came to power in 1994 when apartheid ended. Chief Luthuli won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960 for his anti-apartheid efforts.

Other South Africans who later received the award include Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1984 and Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk in 1993.

Mandela later became South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994, succeeding De Klerk. Under Mandela, the new government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to investigate apartheid-era crimes.

Meanwhile, Lamola also announced inquests regarding the deaths of two other prominent anti-apartheid activists.

The recent probes come as South Africans prepare to cast their ballot in the upcoming general elections later this month.

The ruling ANC, which has dominated South Africa for 30 years, faces its toughest challenge yet in the May 29 vote, with polls predicting it could lose its parliamentary majority for the first time in three decades.

DISCOVERIES

Fake It to Make It

Some animals feign their own death to elude predators, but one species of snake goes the extra mile when playing dead, Newsweek reported.

Scientists discovered that dice snakes, a non-venomous species native to Europe and parts of Asia, pretend to die by defecating, leaking blood from their mouths and covering themselves in a foul-smelling musk.

In their study, researchers closely observed 263 snakes and noticed that more than half of them would use gory tactics to deter potential predators: These included struggling and hissing loudly, while spewing out musk and feces.

“Eventually, they will become immobile, with a gaping mouth and protruding tongue in a (death feigning) display,” the researchers wrote in the paper, noting the occurrence of leaking blood, or autohemorrhaging, during feigned death feigning “either as small pools of blood or as dripping mouthfuls.”

The team added that the snakes that leaked blood and defecated simultaneously were two seconds quicker in faking their own deaths than the ones who didn’t employ these tricks.

Faking death, or apparent death, serves as a way to deter predators who often prefer to eat their prey alive – or enjoy the thrill of the chase when their food is alive and kicking.

Correction: In Wednesday’s THE WORLD, BRIEFLY section, we said in our “A Problem of Geography” item that the French lower chamber in Paris was set to discuss the bill on voter rolls in New Caledonia. In fact, the lower chamber was set to vote on the bill. It approved it Tuesday evening. We apologize for the error.

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