The World Today for February 02, 2017

NEED TO KNOW

In the Shadows

The countries of Central Asia – think Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan – rarely, if ever, make headlines around the world.

The international press briefly alighted in Kazakhstan last month. But that was because it hosted a two-day conference in its capital Astana in a bid to negotiate a resolution to a far more prominent issue: the Syrian civil war.

It’s a shame that more attention isn’t focused on this oft-overlooked region, however, because some significant changes are underway there.

For starters, there’s Kazakhstan’s above-mentioned emergence as a foreign policy “balancer.” In addition to hosting the Syria talks, the energy-rich country that’s geographically the ninth-largest in the world is performing a similar act between adversaries like Israel and Iran, wrote The Hill.

Other countries, including the United States, should regard Kazakhstan’s performance as a “diplomatic asset,” it said.

Perhaps more importantly, Kazakhstan – arguably the most successful of the ‘Stans in its post-Soviet transition to democracy – is about to undergo a major shake-up, some observers say.

The resource-rich state has only had one leader, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, since it gained independence from the then-Soviet Union more than 25 years ago.

But Nazarbayev announced last week that Kazakhstan’s presidential system will transition to a more parliamentary style of government.

Nazarbayev said that the current, more consolidated system had outlived its usefulness and needed to respond to rapid domestic and global changes with a “massive redistribution of power.”

Euractiv argues that these reforms are an attempt “to secure the posterity of the regime” and stave off its ouster – or even its outright collapse.

Kazakh leaders surely are introducing these reforms with an eye to their neighbors.

Uzbekistan is in a transition after the death of authoritarian President Islam Karimov. The subsequent election that brought Shavkat Mirziyoyev to power has since been deemed undemocratic, wrote Human Rights Watch.

Tajikistan, meanwhile, saw its worst human rights crackdown in 20 years as President Emomali Rahmon tried to bolster his cult-of-personality regime, the human rights watchdog claimed.

Human Rights Watch urged leaders in the region – including those of Kazakhstan – to continue to protect basic human rights as they grapple with issues of succession and transition.

Leaders would do well to heed the group’s advice and listen to their citizens, too.

Observers have noted that disaffected citizens of the ‘Stans have found a more inspiring alternative to Central Asia’s post-Soviet, authoritarian-style governments.

Unfortunately for everyone else, that alternative is the Islamic State.

WANT TO KNOW

Triage Mode

Pressure is mounting for conservative French presidential candidate Francois Fillon to give up his bid for the nation’s top spot amid accusations of nepotism.

Last week, Fillon’s campaign became mired in scandal after reports surfaced that the French ex-prime minister’s wife, Penelope, had received a payout of 600,000 euros ($647,580) for work she didn’t do, Reuters reports.

Fillon’s campaign is now finding itself in triage mode as it scrambles to develop a strategy to hold out for another two weeks, when a preliminary investigation into the claims will conclude.

But even shoring up support within his party may not save Fillon from voters: A poll published Thursday morning reports that 69 percent of people are calling on Fillon to drop out.

“I think our candidate must stop,” Alain Houpert, a conservative senator, told Public Senat television late on Wednesday.

Despite narrowly emerging victorious in his party’s primaries in November, Fillon has announced that he’ll withdraw his candidacy if he’s put under formal investigation.

Collateral Damage

The US military confirmed that a raid carried out by US troops earlier this week in Yemen “likely killed” civilians, including children.

“A team designated by the operational task force commander has concluded regrettably that civilian non-combatants were likely killed in the midst of a firefight during a raid in Yemen January 29. Casualties may include children,” Deutsche Welle quoted a US Central Command statement as saying on Thursday.

The first such raid ordered by US President Donald Trump targeted three tribal chiefs with links to al Qaeda in the central province of Bayda. The US military said earlier that 14 militants were killed in the operation, along with a member of Seal Team Six.

However, locals said as many as 30 people were killed in the raid, and alleged that the US troops had hit a school, a mosque and a medical facility and killed the eight-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric and US citizen who was targeted and killed by one of Obama’s drone strikes.

US military officials said they were conducting a “credibility assessment” on reports of additional civilian casualties.

What’s a Little Corruption?

Romanian protesters clashed with riot police over a government measure to decriminalize some abuse of office charges.

Hundreds of thousands of Romanians took to the streets to protest the measure, which local and international anti-corruption activists characterized as a step backward in the country’s fight against cronyism and graft, the Associated Press reported.

A handful of protesters threw firecrackers and smoke bombs at police guarding the main government offices, and a newspaper kiosk was set on fire. The police responded with tear gas. Local media said the violent protesters were football supporters and not anti-government demonstrators.

The protests marked the second consecutive night of demonstrations against an emergency ordinance that decriminalizes cases of official misconduct in which the damages are valued at less than $47,800.

The agency quoted the country’s chief anti-corruption prosecutor as saying her agency has prosecuted 1,170 cases of abuse in office during the past three years with damages worth around $1 billion. But this measure “will render the anti-corruption fight irrelevant,” she added.

DISCOVERIES

Family Tree

You’ve probably never had a distant cousin like Saccorhytus.

Scientists discovered this big-mouthed, sack-like creature in rock strata in central China. It dates back around 540 million years and can be found way down at the base of the tree of life that eventually branches off to include humans.

In short, Saccorhytus is our oldest known ancestor, according research published this week in the journal Nature.

Saccorhytus was roughly one millimeter long and survived on microscopic prey that it slurped into its suction-like mouth, the New York Times reported. It belongs to a group of species known as deuterostomes, which eventually spawned all vertebrates.

Before the find in China, scientists had only analyzed specimens that were between 510 and 520 million-years old, which had already begun evolving into the ancestors of other species.

“We think that as an early deuterostome this may represent the primitive beginnings of a very diverse range of species, including ourselves,” team member Simon Conway Morris with the University of Cambridge told the BBC. “All deuterostomes had a common ancestor, and we think that is what we are looking at here.”

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