The World Today for January 23, 2020

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An Easy Puzzle

Winston Churchill famously described Russia as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” The New York Times recently alluded to that quip in a review of books that aim to explain modern Russia to Western readers.

Observers had little trouble, however, interpreting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent proposed constitutional changes and the subsequent resignations of his prime minister and the rest of the government. The changes would help Putin stay in power after he is supposed to leave the presidency in 2024, the Guardian wrote.

Under his plans, the 67-year-old Putin, who has led Russia as either president or prime minister for two decades, will likely remain Russia’s top politician when a successor takes the president’s office. Putin could become prime minister with stronger powers than currently assigned to that office, or the leader of a beefed-up State Council.

The changes might make Putin look strong. They arguably are signs of his weakness, however. For while Putin has been a masterful operator internationally, Russia is not doing well.

The country’s stagnating economy – smaller than Italy’s – has dragged down Putin’s popularity ratings, CNN reported. Street protests last year also reflected frustration with the status quo. The Russian government, in turn, has cracked down on dissidents, including artists whom the state might have celebrated in former years. Officials are working overtime to encourage families to have more children as the birthrate declines, the BBC added. Putin wanted Russian higher education to improve dramatically. Instead, a massive plagiarism scandal suggests the Russian academy is subpar, reported the Washington Post.

“Putin’s Russia is a declining state, camouflaged in external aggression to disguise its internal fragility,” wrote Janusz Bugajski, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, in an op-ed in the Hill.

In that environment, which included his underlings jockeying for power in the shakeup, Putin appears to be safeguarding his legacy of shepherding Russia out of the chaotic period that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, as well as saving his own skin.

“Interest groups are fighting to the death, the level of repression is high, and people are putting each other in jail for long terms,” political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann told the Financial Times. “This could transform into a coalition that might be hostile to him, or the mere uncertainty could contribute to instability if it’s allowed to go on for too long.”

The new prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, is a career bureaucrat known for revamping the country’s tax collection agency. He isn’t the sort who will want to aggregate power to himself as the transition unfolds, the Associated Press wrote.

Mishustin is a placeholder, filling a job he likely couldn’t refuse but which, because it’s temporary, might suit him just fine.



A Rubber Stamp

Violent protests erupted in Lebanon’s capital on Wednesday as the country’s new government convened following a three-month political vacuum, Al Jazeera reported.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab will replace former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who resigned in October last year amid protests against state corruption and mismanagement.

The new administration was formed Tuesday after Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies reached a deal to form a cabinet. The fledgling government will be tasked with tackling the country’s worst economic crisis in decades, the news agency reported separately.

Diab previously said that his administration’s financial and economic policies will differ from those of the previous government. He assured protesters that the 20-member cabinet consists of “non-partisan people who are not affected by political wrangling.”

Demonstrators denounced Wednesday’s meeting, however, saying that the new government is composed of the same political parties they blame for widespread corruption.

Since October, protesters have demanded sweeping reforms, including early elections and a technocrat-led government.


House of Cards

Italian Foreign Affairs Minister Luigi Di Maio stepped down as the leader of the populist 5-Star Movement party on Wednesday in a move that threatens to upend Italy’s fragile coalition, Politico reported.

Di Maio said that he had no other choice following the departure of more than a dozen lawmakers from his party and criticism of his leadership. He said he will still retain his foreign ministry role.

With Di Maio’s successor unknown, some fear that the next leader might break 5-Star’s coalition with the center-left Democratic Party (PD) and former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva party, Bloomberg reported.

Di Maio’s decision comes a few days before crucial regional elections in Emilia Romagna and Calabria. Polls show that his party is set for a poor performance in both elections.

The 5-Star Movement emerged as Italy’s biggest party after the 2018 elections, but support has flagged since then, as indicated by several losses in regional elections in the past 18 months.


(Un)Fit to Serve?

South Korea’s army on Wednesday discharged its first known transgender soldier, saying that she had violated regulations by undergoing gender reassignment surgery, the BBC reported.

Staff Sergeant Byun Hui-su, who joined the army as a man but became a woman following her operation in November, accused the military of discrimination and said she will sue.

Byun said that her surgery was recommended by doctors at a military hospital as a treatment for her mental health problems.

She added that she didn’t expect to be dismissed, as her superior officers told her she could become a role model to LGBT people in the armed forces.

Army officials said that her surgery “constitutes a reason for being unable to continue service” and argued the decision to discharge her was taken to avoid “unfair discrimination and treatment.”

There are no regulations in the South Korean military governing the service of transgender soldiers, according to the BBC.

Byun’s case has sparked a debate over the treatment of transgender soldiers and the LGBT community as a whole.

In recent years, South Korea has displayed more tolerance towards the LGBT community but it still has no anti-discrimination laws to protect them.


Moo Feelings

People might not think much when cows moo, but a recent study found that the large mammals are actually communicating with each other.

Researcher Alexandra Green and her colleagues found that cows have individual vocal characteristics and change the pitch of their moos depending on their emotions, the Independent reported.

Her team recorded and analyzed more than 300 samples of vocalizations from 13 young female cows, using the pitch to determine the animals’ emotional state in certain situations.

The results revealed that the creatures use their voices to stay in contact with the herd and to express a range of emotions, such as excitement, arousal or distress.

Previous research found that bovine mothers and offspring can communicate through the individuality of their sounds, but the new study highlights how cows keep their unique moo throughout their lives.

“They have all got very distinct voices,” Green said in a statement. “Even without looking at them in the herd, I can tell which one is making a noise just based on her voice.”

She hopes that her study can be used to help farmers better understand the emotional state of their cattle.

“We hope that through gaining knowledge of these vocalizations, farmers will be able to tune into the emotional state of their cattle, improving animal welfare,” she said.

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