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While Russia steals wheat, the far-right in Europe lures the electorate away from moderate parties

3-10-2022 |

Fresh - freshly squeezed news from the international press. We prepare it 2 times a week.

AP: Stealing Ukrainian grain helps Russia pay for war

When the bulk cargo ship Laodicea docked in Lebanon last summer, Ukrainian diplomats said the vessel was carrying grain stolen by Russia and urged Lebanese officials to impound the ship.

Moscow called the allegation “false and baseless,” and Lebanon’s prosecutor general sided with the Kremlin and declared that the 10,000 tons of barley and wheat flour wasn’t stolen and allowed the ship to unload.

But an investigation by The Associated Press and the PBS series “Frontline” has found the Laodicea, owned by Syria, is part of a sophisticated Russian-run smuggling operation that has used falsified manifests and seaborne subterfuge to steal Ukrainian grain worth at least $530 million — cash that has helped feed President Vladimir Putin’s war machine.

AP used satellite imagery and marine radio transponder data to track three dozen ships making more than 50 voyages carrying grain from Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine to ports in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and other countries. Reporters reviewed shipping manifests, searched social media posts, and interviewed farmers, shippers and corporate officials to uncover the details of the massive smuggling operation.

The ongoing theft, which legal experts say is a potential war crime, is being carried out by wealthy businessmen and state-owned companies in Russia and Syria, some of them already facing financial sanctions from the United States and European Union.

Meanwhile, the Russian military has attacked farms, grain silos and shipping facilities still under Ukrainian control with artillery and air strikes, destroying food, driving up prices and reducing the flow of grain from a country long known as the breadbasket of Europe.

Meanwhile, in the occupied territories, grain and flour were being exported in huge quantities.

Video posted to social media on July 9 shows a train pulling up to the Melitopol Elevator, a massive grain storage facility, with green hopper cars marked with the name of the Russian company Agro-Fregat LLC in big yellow letters, along with a logo in the shape of a spike of wheat.

Russian occupation official Andrey Siguta held a news conference at the depot the following week where he said the grain would “provide food security” for Russia-controlled regions in Ukraine, and that his administration would “evaluate the harvest and determine how much will be for sale.”

As he spoke, a masked soldier armed with an assault rifle stood guard as trucks unloaded wheat at the facility to be milled. Workers loaded flour into large white bags like those delivered by the Laodicea to Lebanon three weeks later.

Siguta, along with four other top Russian occupation officials, was sanctioned by the U.S. government on Sept. 15 for overseeing the theft and export of Ukranian grain.

Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov told AP the occupiers are moving vast quantities of grain from the region by train and truck to ports in Russia and Crimea, a strategic Ukrainian peninsula that Russia has occupied since 2014.

The Kremlin has denied stealing any grain, but Russia’s state-run news agency Tass reported on June 16 that Ukrainian grain was being trucked to Crimea, resulting in long lines at border checkpoints.

Tass later reported that grain from Melitopol had arrived in Crimea and that additional shipments were expected, bound for customers in the Middle East and Africa.

Satellite imagery and transponder data shows large cargo ships anchored off the Russian coast rendezvousing with smaller ships shuttling grain from both Crimean and Russian ports, obscuring the true origin of the cargo. Those larger ships then carried the blended grain to Egypt, Libya, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Turkey’s role in the theft of Ukrainian grain is particularly sensitive because the NATO country has tried to play the role of mediator between the two warring countries.

Turkey helped broker an agreement between Russia and Ukraine in July to allow both countries to export grain and fertilizer through safe corridors in the Black Sea.

Yet there are also indications the Turkish government itself may be a recipient of disputed grain from Ukraine. AP and “Frontline” tracked trips from Crimea to Turkey by the smuggling ships Mikhail Nenashev, Laodicea and Souria to docks with seaside silos operated by the Turkish Grain Board, a government-run entity that imports and exports grain and other agricultural products.

The board’s press office and executives did not respond to emails with detailed questions about the suspect shipments.

Though Turkish authorities have pledged to stop illegal smuggling, Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a June news conference his country had not found any evidence of theft.

“We’ve received such claims,” he said. “And such information is coming from the Ukrainian side from time to time. We take every claim seriously and investigate it seriously. ... In our investigation on ships’ ports and goods’ origins, following claims about Turkey, we saw the origin records to be Russia.”

Whatever the records say, the smuggling operation continues.

Crane Marine Contractor’s ship Matros Koshka — named for a Russian sailor lauded as a national hero for his bravery during the Crimean War of 1854 — cruised north last week into the Black Sea with a listed destination of Kavkaz before turning off its transponder and running dark.

Satellite imagery taken Thursday showed the 161-meter-long ship (528 feet) had docked once again at the grain terminal in the occupied Ukrainian port of Sevastopol, little more than a mile from a Soviet-era statue honoring its namesake.

Politico: How the far-right got out of the doghouse

European far-right politicians just stormed to victory in Italy, after achieving historic results in France and Sweden.

“Everywhere in Europe, people aspire to take their destiny back into their own hands!” said Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Rally Party.

Marine Le Pen and Giorgia Meloni
Foto: Twitter

But if you think there is a new wave of right-wing radicalism sweeping Europe, you’d be wrong. Something else is going on.

Analysis by POLITICO’s Poll of Polls suggests far-right parties in the region on average did not increase their support by even one percentage point between the start of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine in February and today.

Overall, the results indicate that if an increase in support occurred for far-right parties, it happened several years ago.

The Sweden Democrats’ first surge happened after the 2014 election, when the party grew from around 10 percent to 20 percent, the same one-fifth share of the vote they received in this year’s election. The far-right Alternative for Germany AfD in Germany grew fast in 2015 and 2016 reaching 14 percent in POLITICO’s polling tracker. In Italy, the Northern League overtook Forza Italia for the first time in early 2015, and peaked in 2019 at 37 percent before starting a downward trend ending on 9 percent in last month’s election. In the Italian election, voters mostly switched between rival right-wing camps.

The far-right has moved from the fringes of politics into the mainstream, not only influencing the political center but also entering the arena of power.

“There is a normalization of far-right parties as an integral part of the political landscape,” said Cathrine Thorleifsson, who researches extremism at the University of Oslo. “They have been accepted by the electorate and also by other, conventional parties.”

Cooperation between the center-right and the extreme-right has become less taboo.

This may risk destabilizing Europe even more than winning a couple of percentage points in the polls.

Italy’s far-right firebrand Giorgia Meloni is a clear-cut example. While her party draws its origin from groups founded by former fascists, she’ll now lead the EU’s third-largest economy.

In Sweden, the center-right party has started coalition talks for a minority government which would have to draw on opposition support, most likely from the far-right Swedish Democrats. Far-right parties have also entered governments in Austria, Finland, Estonia and Italy. Other countries are likely to follow.

Spain heads to the ballot box next year and socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez may have a tough time winning re-election. The conservative People’s Party is between five and seven points ahead of the Spanish socialists in all the published polls, but it is unlikely to garner enough votes to secure a governing majority outright.

That means it may have to come to an agreement with far-right party Vox, whose leader, Santiago Abascal, is an ally of Meloni’s. While the People’s Party previously refused to govern with Vox, last spring its newly elected leader, Alberto Núnez-Feijóo, greenlit a coalition agreement with the ultranationalist group in Spain’s central Castilla y León region.

“All over Europe, we see conservative parties who are considering breaking the cordon sanitaire,” said Tom Van Grieken, the right-wing Belgian politician, referring to the refusal of other parties to work with the far-right. “They are tired of compromising with their ideological counterparts, the parties at the left end of the spectrum.”

This didn’t happen overnight. The far-right worked hard to shrug off their extremist, neo-Nazi image.

The far-right invested in “image adjustment and trying to tread carefully with some issues, while unashamedly catering to others,” said Nina Wiesehomeier, a political scientist at the IE University of Madrid.  “This is particularly obvious in Italy right now, with Meloni sticking to the slogan of ‘God, homeland, family,’ as a continuation, while having tried to purge the party from more radical elements.”

In Belgium’s northern region of Flanders, the right-wing Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) explicitly dismisses the label “extreme-right.” Just like his counterparts in Italy, Sweden and France, Van Grieken, the party’s president, denounced the more extremist positions of his group’s founding fathers and moderated his political message to make voting for the far-right socially acceptable.

As Europe is battling record inflation and Europeans fear exorbitant heating bills, governments warn about the political implications of a “winter of discontent.”

“It’s a massive drainage of European prosperity,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told POLITICO recently. “In the current situation, it’s hard to believe in progress, it’s very hard to make progress. So there’s a very pessimistic feeling.”

“Such existential crises have a destabilizing effect and lead to fear,” said Carl Devos, a professor in political science at Ghent University. “Fear is the breeding ground for the far-right. People tend to translate that fear and outrage into radical voting behaviour.”

CNN: Liz Truss's plan fails before it can become a reality

The British government has announced it will reverse plans to scrap the highest rate of income tax, following a major backlash to its proposed “growth plan” and a week of economic turmoil.

In a statement posted online Monday, finance minister Kwasi Kwarteng said the plan “had become a distraction.”

British finance minister Kwasi Kwarteng
Foto: Jeff Overs/BBC via PA Media

“We get it, and we have listened,” minister said.

The announcement marks a major climb-down for new Prime Minister Liz Truss, whose government has been roiled by the reaction to its sweeping proposed tax cuts, which included slashing the top rate of income tax to 40% from 45%.

The proposed cuts of £45 billion would have been the biggest in 50 years. But they sent the pound plunging to historic lows against the US dollar, and sparked chaos in the market for UK government debt because they will require a large increase in government borrowing. Mortgage rates soared, and some pension funds struggled to remain solvent.

A degree of order was only restored by an emergency intervention last Wednesday by the Bank of England, which said it would buy UK government bonds worth £65 billion.

The government’s decision to hand top earners a big tax cut while millions are struggling to pay their energy and food bills was the most politically controversial element of the plan laid out just over a week ago.

Senior former ministerial colleagues of Truss and Kwarteng lined up over the weekend to criticize the planned giveaway, and there were signs of a wider revolt within the prime minister’s Conservative Party.

News that the abolition of the top rate of income tax was being reversed sent the pound ticking higher in early trading on Monday.

But it will likely only reduce the overall size of the tax-cutting package by £2 billion, leaving the government yet to reassure markets that it has a solid plan to fund the rest.

abcNEWS: Nobel prize in medicine awarded for research on evolution

Swedish scientist Svante Paabo won this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine Monday for his discoveries on human evolution that provided key insights into our immune system and what makes us unique compared with our extinct cousins, the award's panel said.

Svante Paabo
Photo: Christian Charisius/dpa via AP

Paabo has spearheaded the development of new techniques that allowed researchers to compare the genome of modern humans and that of other hominins — the Neanderthals and Denisovans.

While Neanderthal bones were first discovered in the mid-19th century, only by unlocking their DNA — often referred to as the code of life — have scientists been able to fully understand the links between species.

This included the time when modern humans and Neanderthals diverged as a species, determined to be around 800,000 years ago, said Anna Wedell, chair of the Nobel Committee.

“Paabo and his team also surprisingly found that gene flow had occurred from Neanderthals to Homo sapiens, demonstrating that they had children together during periods of co-existence," she said.

This transfer of genes between hominin species affects how the immune system of modern humans reacts to infections, such as the coronavirus. About 1-2% of people outside Africa have Neanderthal genes.

Paabo, 67, performed his prizewinning studies in Germany at the University of Munich and at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. Paabo is the son of Sune Bergstrom, who won the Nobel prize in medicine in 1982.

The medicine prize kicked off a week of Nobel Prize announcements. It continues Tuesday with the physics prize, with chemistry on Wednesday and literature on Thursday. The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday and the economics award on Oct. 10.

Last year's medicine recipients were David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for their discoveries into how the human body perceives temperature and touch.

The prizes carry a cash award of 10 million Swedish kronor (nearly $900,000) and will be handed out on Dec. 10. The money comes from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1895.

Picked and squeezed for you: Irina Iakovleva