The news at a glance ... International
MoscowAnti-Putin protests: Thousands of Russians held protests across the country this week, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Opposition movements called the nationwide Day of Wrath to protest falling living standards, rising prices, and government corruption. The largest show of anger against the government since Putin came to power as president in 2000, protests were mounted in dozens of cities across 11 time zones, including Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Vladivostok. Though turnout appeared limited, the protests hinted at widespread frustration with Russia’s economic downturn. “The leadership is scared,” said opposition activist Solomon Ginzburg. “In nine months, the protests will be all over Russia.” The Kremlin ignored the protests, as did state-owned media.
Beijing Breathing sand: Massive sandstorms mixed with Beijing’s regular pollution this week to create a toxic brew that pushed the city’s air quality to its worst level on record. Stinky dust enveloped the city, turning the sky a sickly yellow and coating even indoor surfaces. As the storm traveled south, record pollution levels were registered in several other cities, including Hong Kong. The sandstorms, which blow in each spring from Inner Mongolia, have been getting worse in recent years because overgrazing, deforestation, and drought have caused the deserts to expand. More than one-quarter of the Chinese landmass is now suffering from some degree of desertification.
Kabul, AfghanistanInsurgents negotiate: Hezb-e-Islami, a militant group with long-standing ties to al Qaida, sent a delegation to meet with President Hamid Karzai this week for the first time. The biggest non-Taliban insurgent group in Afghanistan, Hezb-e-Islami is led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who served as Afghanistan’s prime minister before the Taliban takeover in 1996. Considered one of Afghanistan’s most brutal resistance leaders, he is responsible for several deadly attacks on NATO forces, including one in 2008 that killed 10 French soldiers. The talks were aimed at including Hekmatyar’s group in countrywide peace talks that Karzai plans to hold in April.
BaghdadElection too close to call: Iraq’s March 7 election is still a nail-biter, as the latest counts showed a tiny overall lead for secularist challenger Ayad Allawi over Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But based on a province-by-province tally—which is how parliamentary seats are allocated—al-Maliki is leading in seven of Iraq’s 18 provinces, while Allawi leads in five. The election commission this week turned down a recount request from al-Maliki and other politicians, saying that the count is being adequately monitored by international observers and Iraqi party representatives. Once seats are allocated, there will likely be weeks of wrangling as the parties try to form a governing coalition.
Khartoum, SudanTesting democracy: As Sudan prepares for its first multiparty elections in 24 years, President Omar al-Bashir has threatened to cut off the fingers of foreign election observers. Al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in Darfur, was angry at a recommendation by U.S. democracy watchdog group the Carter Center that the vote should be postponed to allow the opposition time to campaign and to register voters. “We want them to observe the elections,” Al-Bashir said, “but if they interfere in our affairs and demand the delay, we will cut off their fingers and put them under our shoes and expel them.” Fighting recently broke out again in Darfur, where government-backed militias are battling rebels and killing civilians.
Wellington, New ZealandSlur against Tongans: Air New Zealand was forced to apologize to the people of Tonga this week over a training manual that told flight attendants to be particularly vigilant when serving alcohol to Tongans. The manual, written in 2008, describes several nationalities and tells attendants what behavior can be expected from each. Tongans, it said, are likely to “drink the bar dry.” Other groups were described in more flattering terms: Koreans expect politeness, the manual said, while Samoans, who come from a tropical climate, “greatly appreciate blankets.” After the contents of the manual were reported in a New Zealand newspaper, the airline apologized and said it had already taken the manual out of use.
Port Elizabeth, South AfricaCops hit the gym: South Africa put its police force on a fitness regimen this week, including daily calisthenics, after a study in the city of Port Elizabeth found that more than half of the officers were obese. From now on, officers will be required to maintain the uniform size they wore at the academy, National Police Commissioner Bheki Cele announced. Those who bulge out of their uniforms will be given a year to get back into shape or be kicked off the force. “Police officers should be able to walk with their heads held high, their stomach in, and chest out,” Cele said, “not the other way around.”