The World Today for March 27, 2017

NEED TO KNOW

Of Flags and Ducks

The tug of war between protesters and police over opposition leader Alexei Navalny in the streets of Moscow on Sunday was an apt metaphor for Russia today.

While CNN’s Fareed Zakaria recently dubbed President Vladimir Putin “the world’s most powerful man,” Putin presides over an unruly nation that he can never totally control.

In nationwide rallies that the BBC called the biggest since 2011, thousands of protesters demanded an end to the corruption plaguing Russia’s notoriously crooked government.

The police claimed the protests were illegal because organizers never received permission to march – local authorities gave 17 out of 99 protests permission to occur, the New York Times wrote.

The Russian police apprehended Navalny as he arrived at a Moscow demonstration. As the officers dragged him away, other protesters tried to pull him back.

Later, Navalny tweeted that the march should continue down the Russian capital’s main thoroughfare. “Guys, I’m fine,” he wrote. “No need to fight to get me out. Walk along Tverskaya. Our topic of the day is the fight against corruption.”

Navalny had been especially critical of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, alleging that he owns a collection of mansions, yachts and vineyards, as well as a house for raising ducks, according to the Associated Press – ducks made an appearance on many protesters’ placards.

It’s not clear if Navalny was released or whether he was charged with a crime. Last month, he was convicted of embezzling $270,000. He claims the conviction was a Kremlin plot to keep him out of parliament, since people with criminal convictions can’t stand for office in Russia.

Moscow police said they arrested 500 people. But a human rights group put the total number of arrests at double that official figure.

It didn’t look like a good day for free speech. But there were some bright spots.

The protesters appeared to have learned some tricks since the Kremlin’s brutal crackdown on anti-corruption protesters who alleged vote rigging and other fraud in parliamentary elections in 2011.

The Times noted that the protesters made sure to carry Russian flags to inoculate themselves against the charges that anyone criticizing Putin and the government are anti-Russia.

Because Putin remains popular outside liberal-leaning cities like Moscow, the crowds also put less focus on criticizing the president and more on condemning bribery, nepotism and double-dealing – which are common throughout Russia.

It’s an oblique argument, targeting the country’s political culture rather than its politicians.

But, given the size of the crowds, it’s a strategy that might help Russia’s historically weak opposition gain traction with ordinary Russians.

WANT TO KNOW

A Selection, Not An Election

Beijing loyalists handpicked a new leader for Hong Kong this weekend in what a prominent pro-democracy activist called “a selection, not an election.”

A 1,194-member election committee including the 70 members of Hong Kong’s legislative chamber and a mix of professionals, business and trade elites selected Carrie Lam as the city’s new chief executive on Sunday, the Washington Post reported.

Though it was the fifth such change in leadership since Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, it may be the most contentious so far, the Post noted. Since a move to exert more control rather than transition to greater independence spawned the pro-democracy protests known as the Umbrella Movement in 2014, the debate over Hong Kong’s dubious autonomy has grown more heated.

The original promise of “one country, two systems” was that Hong Kong would retain its autonomy after reunification. But Lam is expected to follow Beijing’s instructions without deviation. “Since 2014, the message has been, ‘Beijing is the boss,’ ” the Post quoted a former constitutional expert at Hong Kong University as saying.

 A Boost for United Europe

Elections in Bulgaria and Germany over the weekend sent positive signals for the European Union, despite the seeming rise of anti-EU, anti-migrant leaders across the continent.

The center-right former prime minister of Bulgaria looked poised to retake power in elections on Sunday, signaling that voters see their futures with the EU, the New York Times reported. Meanwhile, Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union won a clear victory in state polls seen as a bellwether for her re-election bid in national elections Sept. 24, the paper said.

With official results expected later Monday, it appears that former Prime Minister Boiko Borisov will form the next government in Bulgaria, staving off Socialists who had pledged greater ties to Russia and vowed to block a renewal of EU sanctions against the Kremlin.

In Germany, Merkel’s CDU won 40.7 percent of the vote in Saarland, which borders France and is home to around one million people. Under newly selected leader Martin Schulz, the Social Democrats won 29.6 percent of the vote, about five percentage points more than polls had shown before he took over. The anti-migrant, anti-EU Alternative for Germany won 6.2 percent – so it now holds seats in 11 of Germany’s 16 state legislatures.

A Terrible Nexus

South Korean prosecutors aim to arrest ousted President Park Geun-hye to prevent her from destroying evidence proving that she abused her power while still in office.

If the court grants the arrest warrant, Park will become the country’s third former president to be detained in custody while being investigated, Reuters reported – though the other two were not democratically elected.

Police could hold her in a cell for as long as 20 days while probing allegations that she colluded with adviser Choi Soon-sil to pressure big businesses to donate to two foundations that promoted Park’s policy initiatives.

After that, prosecutors will be required to bring formal charges against Park or release her from custody. If convicted of accepting bribes, she could face up to 10 years in prison. On Monday, prosecutors announced such bribes included as much as $38 million from Samsung – whose top executive, Lee Jae-yong, has already been arrested and indicted on bribery charges.

All accused parties have denied any wrongdoing. But Koreans see the arrests as a vital step in ending the corrupt nexus between politicians and big business.

DISCOVERIES

Laughing Matter

It turns out laughter isn’t only contagious among humans.

One parrot native to New Zealand has an infectious laugh as well, according to research published this week in Current Biology.

The kea parrot is notorious for goofing off, leading researchers to believe that the birds may have a special signal for one another when it’s time to play.

So researchers began filming the birds in the wild, playing different “kea calls” in five-minute intervals to try and illicit a reaction.

Almost immediately after pressing play on the most high-pitched call on deck, the keas broke out into an impromptu wrestling match, all the while echoing the researchers’ prepared audio.

The effect even held constant across age groups, CBS News reported.

“The fact that at least some of these birds started playing spontaneously when no other birds had been playing suggests that, similar to human laughter, it had an emotional effect on the birds that heard it,” said Raoul Schwing of the Messerli Research Institute in Austria, one of the researchers in the study.

Click here to check out the keas for yourself.

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