The World Today for July 09, 2024

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Near Abroad Politics


Earlier this year, Georgian civilians clashed with riot police in Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet republic in the Caucasus, after the pro-Russian government revived the so-called “foreign agents” law designed to crack down on nonprofits, journalists and other civil society groups that receive international funding. The law is clearly based on a Russian law designed to suppress political dissent, wrote the Royal United Services Institute.

It’s known locally as the “Russian Law 2.0”.

As World Politics Review explained, the protesters were largely pro-Western locals who want Georgia to join the European Union. The government officials they were criticizing were in the ruling Georgian Dream party under Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze. This sharp split between East and West has thrown Georgia into crisis before upcoming parliamentary elections on Oct. 26.

While officially saying he supports Georgia joining the EU and NATO, Kobakhidze has not supported Western sanctions designed to punish Russia for invading Ukraine, reported Al Jazeera. The founder of Georgian Dream, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who wields enormous influence in the country, has never condemned the invasion, either.

Instead, the country has welcomed thousands of Russian businesses and expats, and may be helping Russia evade Western sanctions, wrote local Georgian news outlet, Commersant.

This is all part of a recent trend, says Atlantic Council researcher Eto Buziashvili. “(The new law) marks the first time in Georgia’s history that the governing political party has declared a shift in the nation’s Euro-Atlantic foreign policy alignment … pivoting Georgia’s foreign policy, potentially leading to the abandonment of the country’s NATO and EU aspirations.”

Polls show, meanwhile, that 80 percent of Georgians want to join the EU, an aspiration reflected in the constitution. Many also remember how Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, leaving troops that still occupy around a fifth of Georgian territory, around the same proportion that Russia now holds in Ukraine, CNN noted.

Writing in Politico, Hudson Institute fellow Luke Coffey argued that Georgia’s ties to ancient Greek myths, its role in early Christian history, and its experience under Russian rule made the country naturally antipathetic to Moscow. “Georgia’s future lies in Europe, as its past is rooted in Western civilization,” wrote Coffey. “The second is that Georgia can never trust Russia.”

Capturing that sentiment, Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, who once led the liberal-leaning, pro-EU Way of Georgia party, vetoed the foreign agents law, writing on X that “Georgia will not surrender to resovietisation!!” But lawmakers overrode her veto.

EU leaders also oppose the foreign agents law, saying they fear Kobakhidze will use it to meddle in the elections, according to Euractiv. In response, they have put on hold so-called accession talks in Brussels that are the precondition to joining the EU. Analysts at the European Council on Foreign Relations called for EU officials to consider withholding funding, too.

Kobakhidze appears undaunted. He has leveraged Georgian Dream’s control of parliament to propose “sweeping restrictions on LGBTQ+ freedoms and rights” based on similar Russian laws that claim to espouse traditional values, for example, Voice of America reported.

It’s just part and parcel of staying in power: As the president noted, since the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgia has often seen checks and balances fail because ruling parties tried to bend the rules to stay in power.

“With every successive regime, we have returned again and again to a single-party system that controls more and more institutions,” Zurabishvili said.

Still, Georgia may get a little help from the US: Georgia officials responsible for pushing forward the foreign agents law or cracking down on protesters could face asset freezes and travel bans under a bill to be presented to the US Congress, Politico reported.

The Georgian Dream party has “increasingly and regrettably embraced a policy of accommodation with the Russian Federation” as part of an “increasingly illiberal turn,” according to the draft bill, adding that Georgia “has openly attacked US and other Western democracy promotion organizations as well as local and international civil society while embracing increased ties with Russia in particular, as well as China.”


Too Much of a Good Thing


Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Barcelona this week to protest against mass tourism and its impact on the Catalan city, with locals blaming the rising number of visitors for the rising cost of housing and goods, CBS News reported.

Over the weekend, demonstrators marched near restaurants, hotels and tourist sites holding banners saying “Tourists, go home”, and calling for a reduction of visitors to the Catalan capital.

Videos and pictures posted online showed protesters using water guns aimed at dining tourists. Some guests were also prevented from leaving their hotels when campaigners taped up exits.

The weekend protests came as tensions are mounting across Spain over surging housing and rental costs, with many blaming trends on increasing visitors. Rents increased by an average of 13 percent last month compared with a year earlier, and by 18 percent in tourist centers, such as Barcelona and Madrid, according to Sky News.

Local authorities estimated that more than 12 million people visited Barcelona last year. Meanwhile, official statistics showed that more than 33 million people visited Spain in the first five months of 2024 – an increase of nearly 14 percent over 2023.

While they are not against tourism, many demonstrators lamented that officials need to make it “more sustainable” and control the flow of visitors.

Similar protests also occurred in other parts of Spain recently: Last month, around 15,000 people protested over-tourism in the southern city of Malaga, while the island of Palma de Mallorca saw at least 10,000 people demonstrating in May. Protests have been ongoing for months in the Canary Islands.

In response to the unrest, Barcelona’s government has announced plans to phase out all short-term apartment rentals in the city by 2028.

Last week, the Spanish government said it would begin probing listings on platforms such as Airbnb and to verify that they have licenses to rent property.

The Price of Gouging


Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, known for his aggressive crackdown on street gangs, is threatening to employ similar heavy-handed tactics against wholesalers and distributors accused of price gouging, the Associated Press reported.

Since 2022, the populist leader has used emergency powers to arrest more than 78,000 suspected gang members – often with little evidence – in his crackdown on the street gangs that controlled and terrorized neighborhoods across the country.

Last week, he threatened to use a similar strategy on wholesalers and distributors blamed for the recent increase in the price of food and other basic goods.

Bukele ordered the alleged price gougers to “stop abusing the people of El Salvador, or don’t complain about what happens afterward” – a remark similar to one he made against criminal gangs in 2022.

Observers noted that while the current emergency powers do not allow Bukele to round up individuals for charging too much, the president alleged there was evidence that the accused had engaged in tax evasion, bribery and the importation of illegal goods.

Government investigations found that the price of some products has tripled, with officials adding that issuing fines against violators might not be enough. Meanwhile, the government has also announced plans to set up 20 sales points to distribute food “at fair prices.”

Bukele is riding a wave of popularity for his clamping down on criminal gangs and was reelected earlier this year with 85 percent of the vote. His party controls the legislature and recently extended the anti-gang emergency powers.

While the policy has helped turn El Salvador into one of Latin America’s safest countries, human rights groups said that the detentions are often arbitrary, based on a suspect’s appearance or where they live.

Authorities had to release around 7,000 people because of a lack of evidence.

Paying Dues


New Zealand’s conservative coalition government will advance a new bill that will compel digital platforms to compensate media companies for news content, a measure intended to help media companies struggling with falling revenue, Reuters reported.

The Fair Digital News Bargaining Bill, introduced by the former Labour government, will be presented in Parliament with amendments to support local media revenue.

Communications Minister Paul Goldsmith said the proposed changes would make the bill more closely aligned with Australia’s 2021 “digital bargaining” law.

That law grants the government the authority to order internet giants, such as Meta and Google, to negotiate payment deals with media outlets if voluntary agreements are not reached.

Goldsmith said the changes would also mandate the communications minister to specify which digital platforms fall under the law’s jurisdiction. He added that an independent regulator would be appointed to oversee the bill’s implementation and enforcement.

Meta criticized the draft law for ignoring the realities of how its platform works, user preferences and the free value it provided outlets. Google has yet to comment.

When Canada introduced a similar law last year, Meta blocked news content from displaying on Facebook in that country. The social media giant has also announced plans to cease payments to Australian media.

Currently, the right-wing ACT New Zealand party, a partner in the ruling coalition, opposed the bill, prompting the government to seek support from other parties.

The opposition Labour said it would back the bill and is planning to review the amendments.


Young and Majestic

Star dunes are one of nature’s architectural marvels.

These massive, pyramid-shaped dunes can reach hundreds of feet high and have multiple arms radiating out like the points of a star.

Created by opposing winds that change direction throughout the year, they are mainly found in remote locations across Africa, Asia, North America, and even Mars.

But apart from their beauty, these colossal formations are also scientific gold mines.

Scientists have just revealed that one of Earth’s largest and most complex star dunes, Lala Lallia, formed a mere 13,000 years ago.

Located in southeast Morocco’s Erg Chebbi sand sea, these wonders of nature are up to 330 feet tall and 2,300 feet wide.

For their paper, study authors Geoff Duller and Charles Bristow used a technique called luminescence dating to establish the dune’s age by analyzing when the sand grains were last exposed to sunlight.

The findings showed that Lala Lallia’s formation follows a fascinating timeline: The sands near the base were buried around 13,000 years ago, marking the initial creation of the dune.

But for the next 8,000 years, the region experienced a significant hiatus in sand accumulation, which coincided with the Sahara’s shift to a warm, wet climate around 11,700 years ago – a period that marked the end of the last ice age and the start of the Holocene epoch.

During this time, the Sahara transformed into a green, marshy landscape with vegetation stabilizing the sand, evidenced by pottery fragments and stone tools found around the dune.

Then, some 4,000 years ago, the Sahara began to dry out again. Even so, Lala Lallia did not start building up immediately, but instead took several millennia before the dune began its rapid growth, a process that only started within the past 900 years.

“The thing that stood out most was how young it is,” Bristow told Live Science. “We expected that a sand dune that is (330 feet) high was going to be … thousands of years (old), maybe tens of thousands of years.”

Star dunes have often eluded detailed study because of their remote and challenging locations. Even so, the authors noted that studying them can offer a window into prehistoric climates and wind patterns.

“This research is really the case of the missing sand dune – it had been a mystery why we could not see them in the geological record,” Duller said in a statement.

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