The World Today for March 27, 2019

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For Once, a Graceful Exit

Soon after he took the oath of office on March 20, the new acting president of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, announced that the name of the country’s capital would change from Astana to Nursultan.

The move was to honor Nursultan Nazarbayev, 78, the first Kazakh president, who stepped down on March 19 after leading the nation for 30 years, including when it was a Soviet republic, the BBC reported.

Nazarbayev’s resignation was startling, and rare for any country, anywhere. “Once a strongman has been in power for 30 years, it is reasonable to assume he will leave office only in a coup or a coffin,” the Economist wrote.

Nazarbayev retains key roles, including leadership of his political party, Nur Otan, or the “Radiant Fatherland.” He’s giving up the presidency, not power, Foreign Policy wrote.

But when he signed his resignation papers on national television, Nazarbayev’s remarks were remarkable for their farsightedness, the BBC reported. He said he wanted to facilitate a new generation of leaders who might succeed in accomplishing goals that he admitted to failing to achieve, like improving sectors of the economy that haven’t boomed amid a tide of foreign investment.

“Making this move shows that Nazarbayev is the most forward-thinking leader in the region, and the most experienced one – his instincts are still right,” Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told the Financial Times.

Gabuev’s point is important because Kazakhstan is an island of stability in Central Asia. While delivering economic growth at home, Nazarbayev took pains to maintain good relations with his neighbors Russia and China, and with the US.

To be clear, he ruled as an autocrat. CNN noted that Nazarbayev supposedly received 98 percent of the vote in his 2015 reelection bid. The US State Department said the vote was “marked by irregularities and lacked genuine political competition.” Recently, when a group of around 20 protesters held a rally in the capital calling for public input on the decision to change the city’s name, police arrested them.

Observers in the capital are now wondering what comes next.

Tokayev is likely a placeholder who won’t keep his job past presidential elections next year, wrote Reuters. Nazarbayev’s family has players who might step up. His eldest daughter was quickly promoted to speaker of the Senate, possibly signaling she’s the heir apparent, wrote Reuters separately. Other possible contenders include Nazarbayev’s nephew, who is the second-most powerful official in the National Security Committee, the agency that replaced the KGB in the country after the fall of the Soviet Union.

In the Independent, Kazakh journalist Aigerim Toleukhanova wrote that she was excited when Nazarbayev announced his resignation. She understands that the country will remain authoritarian but she’s hopeful.

For now, maybe that’s good enough.



We Did It

A secretive North Korean dissident group called Cheollima Civil Defense on Tuesday claimed responsibility for a raid on Pyongyang’s embassy in Madrid last month. However, the group denied that it was an “attack” by armed intruders and said no foreign governments were involved in the operation.

“This was not an attack,” the dissident group said in a statement Tuesday, CNN reported. “We were invited into the embassy, and contrary to reports, no one was gagged or beaten.”

The statement was issued hours after a Spanish judge said that one of the alleged perpetrators of the raid had contacted the FBI and offered to provide data stolen during the incident. “The organization shared certain information of enormous potential value with the FBI in the United States, under mutually agreed terms of confidentiality,” the CCD statement said.

Earlier, Judge José de la Mata lifted a secret decree on the investigation into the Feb. 22 raid and revealed that he believes the alleged perpetrators included American and South Korean citizens who subsequently traveled to the US.

A State Department spokesman said the US government “had nothing to do with” the incident.


Policing the Internet

The European Union on Tuesday approved sweeping changes to its copyright laws that could make tech giants like Facebook and Google legally responsible for the content that users upload to their websites.

Supporters say the changes are needed to protect the rights of the creators of the intellectual property stored and shared on the web, while critics say it will limit freedom of expression and might lead to censorship, the Washington Post reported.

The new rules would force Google and other aggregators to pay publishers for certain types of links to their articles, and make services like YouTube and Facebook that allow users to upload articles and videos liable for content that violates copyrights. That’s stricter than US rules, which only require companies to remove infringing content swiftly and take action against repeat offenders.

In another significant shift, Article 11 of the new law requires aggregators to pay licensing fees when they include excerpts of content and provide links to articles on other sites.


It’s High Time

Mexico’s president has written to Spain’s King Felipe VI and Pope Francis urging them to apologize for the massacres of indigenous people and other abuses committed during the conquest of the region 500 years ago.

Speaking from the ruins of an ancient city, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called for a full account of the abuses committed by the Spanish troops and subsequent rulers, the BBC reported.

“There were massacres… The so-called conquest was done with the sword and the cross. They raised churches on top of temples,” López Obrador said. “The time has come to reconcile but first they should ask forgiveness.”

The Spanish government swiftly rejected his request for an apology, saying in a statement that the conquest could not be “judged in the light of contemporary considerations.” The Vatican did not immediately respond to the request.

Interestingly, a Spanish group called the Hispanic Civilization Foundation was founded last year to try to rehabilitate the reputation of the conquerors, saying the legend of their brutality was promulgated by English and Dutch chroniclers to discredit their Catholic enemies, the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported.


Hidden Abilities

Many animals are able to sense Earth’s magnetic field, making travel easier for them – an ability known as magnetoreception.

Humans, on the other hand, rely on GPS devices and compasses to navigate the globe.

The exact science of magnetoreception remains unclear, and scientists weren’t sure whether humans had this ability.

But now a research team has discovered hints of a magnetic sensory system in the human brain, capable of determining the direction of Earth’s poles, the Guardian reported.

“We have not as a species lost the magnetic sensory system that our ancestors (millions of years ago) had,” according to geophysicist Joseph Kirschvink, lead author of the study.

Kirschvink and his team studied the brain waves of 34 participants by placing them individually in a special room that produced magnetic fields similar to the ones on Earth.

Researchers noticed that a participant’s brain acted up on several occasions, suggesting that the mind was picking up the shifting magnetic field.

The team speculates that special cells containing iron-based crystals give humans this innate ability to distinguish north from south – similar to a compass.

Future studies will shed more light on these hidden abilities, researchers say. Although it’s likely the navigational apps are here to stay.

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