The World Today for June 21, 2024

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NETHERLANDS

King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima of the Netherlands recently visited Albany, Atlanta, and New York City in a state visit that highlighted the cultural and economic ties – including semiconductor research and development – between the US and the small, affluent West European country, according to Spectrum News Albany.

The king and queen coincidentally embarked on their trip as political controversies at home raged.

Hard-right political parties, including anti-Islam, anti-migrant, Euroskeptic firebrand Geert Wilders’ Party of Freedom, were the top vote-getters in the Netherlands’ general election late last year. Wilders was too divisive to gain the support of other parties to become prime minister but, after months of negotiations, he has become the kingmaker who will exert control over the next Dutch government.

“I would like a right-wing cabinet,” wrote Wilders on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, reported the BBC. “Less asylum and immigration. Dutch people first. The love for my country and voters is great and more important than my own position.”

In the wake of recent European Parliament elections which saw steep gains for far-right parties in Western Europe, the Netherlands, which held elections in November, is being watched closely in France, Germany, Belgium, Austria and elsewhere, possibly as a harbinger of what’s to come.

The next Dutch prime minister will likely be Dick Schoof, a 67-year-old former intelligence and anti-terrorism official who was working in the Dutch justice ministry and also ran the country’s immigration service around 20 years ago, Reuters wrote.

Schoof’s lack of political experience stands in stark contrast to his predecessor, Mark Rutte, a liberal who was in office for 14 years and was deeply involved in the European Union, added Euronews. Highlighting his deep ties to the European establishment that Wilders criticizes, Rutte is in line to become the next secretary-general of NATO.

Embarrassments have already rocked Wilders’ coalition.

Wilders, for example, wanted Israeli-Dutch politician Gidi Markuzower, a Party for Freedom official, to become the minister responsible for asylum and migration, explained the Jewish Telegraph Agency. But Markuzower failed a security check – for unspecified reasons – that caused Wilders to pull support for him. In addition, Markuzower had been arrested in 2008 for carrying an unlicensed firearm. Officials had also warned Wilders in the past that Markuzower had been sharing state secrets with Israel.

Another colorful cabinet nominee garnering criticism for lack of experience in government is Femke Wiersma, 39, of the Farmer-Citizen Movement, a party that emerged in 2019 to protest against Rutte’s measures to reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, Politico wrote. Wiersma famously met her husband, a dairy farmer, on a television reality show called “Farmer Wants a Wife” before co-founding the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) – a protest party launched in 2019 that won in local elections in March 2023.

These folks are ideological allies with other far-right leaders in Europe, including French opposition leader Marine Le Pen, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni, wrote the Associated Press. Their allies recently won big in the European Parliament elections held on June 6, suggesting a rightward turn on the continent with voters concerned about migration, inflation, and other issues, CNN reported.

They are, in other words, the mainstream now. And that has its own set of issues, namely voter fatigue.

That has been fully on display in post-communist central Europe, where on the other hand, “the far-right parties and their illiberal counterparts suffered a setback in a region that appeared to be their cradle,” Le Monde wrote.

For example, in Poland, a month before the Dutch elections, Prime Minister Donald Tusk defeated the center-right coalition Law and Justice party after eight years in power. And in the European Parliament elections, the center-left parties in Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Romania, all countries with powerful far-right parties, won decisively. In Hungary, the ruling Fidesz retained its lead – but lost ground for the first time in 20 years to a party started only four months ago by a former Fidesz official.

“Perhaps the takeaway from these results is that voters are disillusioned with populist parties in power,” wrote Le Monde. “In these regions, the war in Ukraine and the proximity of the Russian threat also played a mobilizing role in favor of resolutely pro-European parties, with the European Union and the unity of its members seen as a form of protection.”

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Warming Up Cold Cases

ARGENTINA

Argentina declassified a confidential intelligence report from 2003 this week that provided new insights into Iran’s role in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, MercoPress reported.

Released Wednesday, the report detailed the roles of key figures, including then-Iranian cultural attaché Moshen Rabbani, who facilitated the attack under the guise of business activities. It also implicates former Iranian Ambassador Hadi Soleimanpour and Samuel El Reda, linked to Hezbollah’s operational groups.

The attack on Argentine Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA) headquarters – orchestrated by the Lebanese-based Hezbollah at Iran’s behest – killed 85 people and injured more than 300 others. Who was behind the attack has never been solved, but Argentina and Israel have long suspected the Iran-backed group Hezbollah carried it out at Iran’s request.

The document’s release comes two months after Argentina’s highest criminal court affirmed the involvement of Iran and Hezbollah in the bombing.

In April, the Court of Cassation ruled that the bombing was done in retaliation for Argentina halting nuclear cooperation with Iran in the mid-1980s, the Associated Press wrote.

That verdict will allow victims’ families to pursue legal action against Tehran and underscores significant judicial developments after years of scandals and unresolved issues, the newswire wrote.

Even so, it failed to provide new evidence, leaving victims’ families in limbo as they await justice.

At the same, Argentina has asked Interpol to arrest Iran’s interior minister, Ahmad Vahidi, for his involvement in the bombing, France 24 wrote. He is a military commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

In a separate development, Canada designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization Wednesday, a decision that puts more pressure on European governments to follow suit, the Guardian added.

The designation will allow authorities to charge individuals supporting the IRGC financially or materially and order banks to freeze assets linked to the organization.

The move, long demanded by Canada’s Iranian diaspora, follows the IRGC’s downing of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 in 2020, killing 176, including numerous passengers with ties to Canada.

Iran condemned the designation, citing IRGC’s role in fighting the terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and elsewhere.

Tightening the Screws

RUSSIA

The European Union will impose sanctions on Russia’s lucrative gas sector for the first time since the Ukraine war started more than two years ago, a move expected to drain hundreds of millions from Moscow’s war chest, Politico reported Thursday.

The bloc announced the decision following weeks of negotiations – and opposition from Germany and Hungary.

The new levies will ban EU ports from reselling Russian liquified natural gas (LNG) and block financing for Russia’s planned Arctic and Baltic LNG terminals. However, they do not target the majority of Russia’s LNG exports to the EU.

Diplomats explained that this approach aims to limit Russia’s ability to profit from LNG exports without cutting off all supplies to Europe.

The decision was met with opposition from EU member states Hungary and Germany: Budapest initially threatened to veto the package, but relented after receiving assurances that the Russia-backed expansion of its Paks II nuclear plant would not be sanctioned.

Germany’s opposition, meanwhile, stemmed from concerns that expanding the “no-Russia clause” to include civilian products – such as chemicals and machinery – would harm small businesses, rather than from gas-related issues.

Observers said the sanctions marked a significant step in the EU’s response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022: Since the invasion, the bloc has reduced its reliance on Russian gas by around two-thirds, but continued importing and reselling Russian LNG, which brought in more than $8 billion for the Kremlin in 2023.

The new sanctions will likely reduce this revenue by about a quarter and will also force Moscow to reroute its LNG shipments to Asia through the Arctic Sea.

The EU’s decision comes a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin visited North Korea to deepen ties with Pyongyang in a bid to bypass sanctions and obtain munitions for the war in Ukraine.

During the visit, Putin announced a “breakthrough” new strategic partnership between Russia and North Korea, pledging mutual assistance if either nation is attacked, CNN noted.

The comprehensive agreement – which replaces previous deals – covers political, trade, investment, cultural, and security areas between Moscow and Pyongyang.

But the deal has raised questions about potential joint military drills and whether Russia’s nuclear deterrent now extends to cover North Korea.

Putin thanked North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for supporting his war in Ukraine, with both leaders signing a new strategic partnership that would elevate their ties to a “new level,” CNN noted.

Erasing Identity

CHINA

China’s government has been renaming villages inhabited by ethnic Uyghurs in the northwestern province of Xinjiang with names reflecting the ruling Communist Party’s ideology, a move human rights groups say underscores Beijing’s ongoing efforts to weaken its minorities’ identities, Nikkei Asia reported this week.

On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch and the Norwegian group, Uyghur Hjelp, released a report detailing how authorities are systemically removing names with cultural or religious associations with the province’s Uyghurs and other minorities.

The report identified around 630 such changes and categorized them into three patterns.

The first involves changing village names with religious affiliations, such as Hoja, a title for a Sufi religious teacher. The second altered references to Uyghur history, such as historical kingdoms and local leaders pre-1949 – the year the People’s Republic of China was founded. The third was related to Uyghur cultural activities, such as their traditional musical instruments or monuments.

The replacement Mandarin names generally include the words “happiness,” “unity” and “harmony.” For example, the village of Aq Meschit (White Mosque), was renamed Tuanjie-cun, meaning “Unity Village,” in 2018.

Meanwhile, data from China’s statistics bureau showed that roughly 3,600 out of 25,000 villages experienced name changes between 2009 and 2023. The report noted that more than 80 percent of them were technical modifications and revisions.

The findings also showed that a majority of these changes took place between 2017 and 2019, which coincided with the mass internment of Uyghurs throughout the region.

Following the report’s release, Chinese officials countered that the Uyghur culture has been “effectively protected and promoted.”

But analysts and human rights advocates told Voice of America that the government’s actions are part of a campaign to eliminate Uyghur culture and religious expression, as well as assimilate them into the Han Chinese majority.

In recent years, China has come under increased scrutiny for detaining thousands of Uyghurs and other minorities in the region in what it calls “re-education camps.” Beijing has claimed that the camps and other measures are aimed at countering terrorism and extremism, and has denied accusations of human rights abuse.

Even so, the United Nations human rights agency released a report in 2022 saying that China’s actions in the region “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

DISCOVERIES

Call Me

African elephants are talkative creatures, wandering around the savanna, trumpeting and rumbling to each other to communicate information and even coordinate group movements over long distances.

Now, scientists have learned that they call each other by name.

“Our finding that elephants are not simply mimicking the sound associated with the individual they are calling was the most intriguing,” said Kurt Fristrup, a research scientist at Colorado State University, which was involved in the study published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. “The capacity to utilize arbitrary sonic labels for other individuals suggests that other kinds of labels or descriptors may exist in elephant calls.”

Elephant vocalizations – from trumpeting to the low rumbling of their vocal cords – span a broad frequency spectrum, including infrasonic sounds below the audible range of the human ear, according to the study.

To study whether wild African elephants employ individualized vocal identifiers, much like human names, researchers utilized machine learning to analyze elephant rumbles they had collected in Kenya: Researchers captured nearly 470 distinct calls from 101 unique callers and found that about 27 percent of these calls could be identified by their intended recipient, thereby confirming that these creatures recognize calls specifically addressed to them.

For example, elephants responded more vigorously to calls directed at them, demonstrating clear recognition.

Lead author Michael Pardo explained that, unlike dolphins and parrots, elephants do not imitate calls.

“By contrast, our data suggest that elephants do not rely on imitation of the receiver’s calls to address one another, which is more similar to the way in which human names work,” he said in a statement.

These findings have profound implications: The use of arbitrary vocal labels by elephants suggests they possess advanced cognitive abilities, including a capacity for abstract thought. They also attribute the advanced ability – rare in non-humans – to the complex social structures of elephants, who live in tight-knit family units and larger clans, similar to human societies.

“It’s probably a case where we have similar pressures, largely from complex social interactions,” added co-author George Wittemeyer. “That’s one of the exciting things about this study, it gives us some insight into possible drivers of why we evolved these abilities.”

He said that more research is needed to determine if the world’s largest terrestrial animals also name other things they interact with.

Meanwhile, this discovery further strengthens the case for their conservation, especially as African savanna elephants are currently endangered due to poaching and habitat loss, according to CBS News.

With populations declining by at least 60 percent over the past 50 years, innovative conservation strategies are urgently needed.

Wittemeyer and his colleagues believe that directly communicating with the elephants could make a big difference.

“I’d like to be able to warn them, ‘Do not come here,’” he said. “‘You’re going to be killed if you come here.’”

Correction: In Thursday’s THE WORLD, BRIEFLY section, we said in our “The Politics of Entropy” item that Italy has been dogged by more than 770 governments since the end of World War Two. That number was incorrect – the correct amount is 70 administrations. We apologize for the error.

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