December 16, 2016

NEED TO KNOW

Concentrating Power

Kyrgyzstan became the latest country to upend its internal politics by holding a referendum over the weekend on a range of constitutional issues.

Citizens in the mostly Muslim country voted on 26 proposed amendments that required a simple yes or no answer on Sunday. The proposals included a ban on same-sex marriage that passed despite much international criticism.

But more controversial were a slew of measures – approved by 80 percent of voters – to shift power away from Kyrgyzstan’s president to the prime minister, said Radio Free Europe.

The amendments allowed the prime minister to appoint and dismiss cabinet members with parliament’s approval – currently a power the Kyrgyz president holds. Another measure strips the president of his role as chair of Kyrgyzstan’s Defense Council and thus the head of the Kyrgyz army and law enforcement.

Supporters of Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev say the amendments increase the powers of parliament – currently dominated by members of Atambayev’s Social Democratic Party – and strengthen the country’s system of checks and balances.

But critics have accused Atambayev of gaming the system, wrote the Associated Press.

They say Atambayev is empowering the office of prime minister with the ultimate goal of moving into the premier’s office himself after his term as president ends next year, a change of address that would enable him to retain much of his power.

Atambayev has so far denied having any such plans in mind.

But observers aren’t convinced. They warn that the results of the referendum could accelerate the country’s ongoing slide towards authoritarianism by concentrating more political power in one office, says Deutsche Welle.

And the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said this summer that other amendments contained in the referendum – like the aforementioned same-sex marriage ban – could weaken the ex-Soviet republic’s commitment to international treaties on human rights and freedoms.

Still, it’s not difficult to understand why voters were in favor of many of these measures.

While it is one of the most democratic countries in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan has been rife with instability in recent years – including the terrorist threat posed by separatists from the ethnic Uighur minority – as Deutsche Welle pointed out.

Two presidents have been violently thrown out of power since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union, and its constitution has repeatedly been altered by referendums, wrote The New York Times.

But it remains to be seen whether Atambayev’s proposals will deliver more stability to the country.

As Reuters pointed out, if the referendum causes conflict between Atambayev and the opposition to worsen, stability could be elusive for even longer.

Holiday Promo

WANT TO KNOW

Evacuation At Last

After one failed start, the evacuation of Aleppo began in earnest on Thursday, laying the groundwork for an end to the shelling of Syrian civilians.

More than 3,000 people have been evacuated in buses and ambulances from a besieged rebel-held enclave in the Syrian city, the BBC reported. The full evacuation of civilians and rebels is likely to take several days.

Nonetheless, US Secretary of State John Kerry accused President Bashar al-Assad’s government of carrying out “nothing short of a massacre” in Aleppo and urged Syria to return to peace talks in Geneva.

For his part, Assad said the “liberation” of Aleppo would go down in history like the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the two world wars, the New York Times reported. That’s hyperbole, but the victory does put Assad in a new position of strength – along with his Russian and Iranian backers.

The less territory the rebels hold, the more difficult it will be for the US to get Assad to negotiate with them – if that even remains a goal under the new president-elect.

China’s Trumpet

In the wake of President-elect Donald Trump’s policy-breaking phone call with the president of Taiwan, China said it would use weapons installed in the South China Sea as a “slingshot” to ward off threats to its territory – signaling a likely ramping up of tensions with the United States.

“As for necessary military facilities, they are primarily for defense and self-protection, and this is proper and legitimate,” China’s Defense Ministry said in a statement posted on its website following a US-based think tank’s publication of satellite images that indicated the presence of large anti-aircraft guns and other weapons on the disputed Spratly Islands.

“If someone was at the door of your home, cocky and swaggering, how could it be that you wouldn’t prepare a slingshot?” the New York Times quoted the statement as saying.

There are several possibilities as to who that someone might be – Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte or Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, for instance. But “cocky and swaggering” is certainly an apt description of the US president-elect.

Russian Sabers

The US president-elect isn’t giving up on his bromance with Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite new claims that the ex-KGB officer played a personal role in Russian hackers’ attempts to influence the US presidential election. But the prospect of a friendly face in the White House doesn’t seem to be easing tensions.

On the eve of talks with NATO over the continuing conflict in Ukraine, a Russian military commander said Moscow is likely to step up mobile missile patrols on the doorstep of Europe in 2017, the BBC reported. New pontoon technology now makes it possible to move its nuclear missiles to new areas – potentially even closer to Berlin, Paris and London, the BBC quoted Col Gen Sergei Karakayev as saying.

Ambassadors from all 28 members of NATO – which accused Moscow of “aggressive military posturing” after a similar move earlier this year — will meet with Russia’s permanent representative to the Western alliance on Monday for the first NATO-Russia Council (NRC) meeting since July.

DISCOVERIES

Stranger Things

Seahorses are one of the ocean’s strangest creatures.

They’re vertically oriented, have long, monkey-like tails and lack pelvic fins, instead using a small, fluttering dorsal fin to propel themselves through the water.

They have a fused jaw and lack teeth; instead of chewing, they suck their food through a mouth siphon.

And – perhaps the seahorse’s most anomalous feature – males of the species give birth. It’s the only case of its kind in the animal kingdom, the Los Angeles Times reports.

There are some 47 known species of seahorses in the world. But now scientists have gotten a bit closer to understanding at least one type of this unique animal by beginning to map its genome. They published some of their findings recently in the journal Nature.

Researchers report that the tiger tail seahorse likely evolved more quickly than its ancestors, influencing the enamel production that led to its signature snout.

And what about its lack of pelvic fins, the aquatic equivalent of paraplegia? The tiger tail is missing the appropriate gene for that, a likely explanation for its coiled tail.

But what the seahorse lacks in some genes it makes up for with others: The male seahorse contains six copies of the gene Pastrisacin, the gene for male pregnancy.

In fact, the genes normally expressed in females to create eggs are instead found within the male’s so-called brooding pouch.

Take a look at a male seahorse birthing his brood here.