January 05, 2021

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NEED TO KNOW

KAZAKHSTAN

Not Sitting Down

Kazakhstan didn’t take too kindly to Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 film, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.” The country’s government took out a newspaper ad to improve its public image, the Washington Post reported. But officials are more receptive to the 2020 sequel, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” as a potential boon for tourism in the Central Asian former Soviet republic.

The shift in perception could stem partly from a political sea change that occurred in 2019 when longtime President Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped down to let a new generation of leaders come to the fore, as the Wilson Center explained. A sense of hope pervaded the country.

But now many Kazakhs are worried that true political reforms might be snuffed out, echoing the dysfunctional nation depicted in Cohen’s comedies.

As Radio Free Europe reported, Kazakh voters on January 10 are scheduled to cast ballots in the first parliamentary elections since Nazarbayev’s departure from office. Nazarbayev’s Nur-Otan party is expected to do well. But no genuine opposition figures are running. They have boycotted the election, saying the rules and other measures ensure that only the current elites will remain in power.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has pledged to carve out a role for opposition parties in the country’s political system, but dissidents claim they are regularly harassed. Radio Free Europe also published an investigation that shows how Nazarbayev and his family have amassed great wealth outside Kazakhstan while the gulf between rich and poor widens at home.

Kazakhstan asserts its uniqueness and independence from Russia, as eurasianet discussed in a story that provides an interesting window into the long history between the two countries.

In recent years, however, Kazakhstan has also grown much closer to China, increasing trade – Forbes swooned over the investment opportunities – and diplomatic cooperation. It has also adopted some of China’s authoritarian characteristics, spurning the hopes many Kazakhs held immediately following Nazarbayev’s departure.

Apple, Google, Microsoft and other tech giants are currently fighting the Kazakh government’s surveillance of web traffic, as Ars Technica wrote. Tokayev recently allowed Chinese officials to target a Chinese-born, ethnic Kazakh human rights activist in Kazakhstan, forcing him to flee to Istanbul, reported the Financial Times.

Some dissidents have called on their supporters to vote in manners that would force the election rigging to become so obvious that it would be easier to expose the ruling class’s meddling, the Diplomat wrote.

When indignities are heaped upon them, people eventually take a stand.

WANT TO KNOW

QATAR

Last-Minute Deal

Saudi Arabia and Qatar reopened their land, air and sea borders on Monday, a move that signaled an end to a three-and-a-half-year blockade of the tiny Gulf country, Axios reported.

In 2017, a Saudi-led coalition severed ties with Qatar over Doha’s relations with Iran and its alleged support of terrorist groups.

The United States unsuccessfully tried to reconcile the parties in the past. However, President Donald Trump’s administration has recently put more pressure on Saudi Arabia and Qatar to resolve their dispute.

The reopening of borders comes ahead of an agreement between Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf nations to end the diplomatic crisis that erupted in 2017.

In addition to ending the blockade of Qatar by other Gulf nations, Tuesday’s deal also calls for all parties to stop their media campaigns against each other.

A senior Gulf diplomat said that the agreement was a positive step but doesn’t eliminate the “root causes” of the rift.

The agreement is considered a last-minute achievement for the Trump administration before President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20.

UNITED KINGDOM

Potential Risks

A British court ruled Monday that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange cannot be extradited to the United States to face espionage charges because of concerns over his mental health, Politico reported.

District Judge Vanessa Baraitser said that the activist would likely commit suicide if sent to the US, as his clinical depression would deteriorate while confined in a US maximum-security prison.

The verdict deals a blow to US authorities trying to extradite Assange to face 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse in connection with WikiLeaks’s publication of leaked documents about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Assange could face a maximum sentence of 175 years in prison.

Assange’s lawyers claimed that the US government is targeting their client for “pure political purposes.” They added that Assange was acting as a journalist and is entitled to First Amendment protections of freedom of speech.

Baraitser, however, rejected the argument and said that Assange’s alleged crimes could be considered a crime in Britain under the Official Secrets Act, the Washington Post wrote.

US prosecutors are now planning to appeal the case. However, the process could take months because of Assange’s health and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

SOUTH KOREA

Twilight Days

South Korea’s population declined in 2020 for the first time in its history, as the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated a downward trend caused by low birth rates and an aging population, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday.

Asia’s fourth-largest economy reported a population of 51.8 million last year, a drop of nearly 21,000 people compared with 2019, according to government data.

The country’s statistics office said the population number would decline in 2021 after accounting for other population-change factors, such as immigration.

Since 2016, births have fallen to record lows every year. The average number of children a woman will bear in her lifetime in South Korea was 1.1 last year – the lowest fertility rate in the world.

Analysts said the economic impact of the pandemic is expected to further reduce this rate as couples are forced to delay marriages or their plans to have children.

South Korea’s aging population is also expected to hinder the country’s growth as the working-age population shrinks. Currently, about 14 percent of South Koreans are elderly, but they could comprise more than 40 percent of the total population in two decades.

DISCOVERIES

Madagascar’s Crazy Beast

Earlier this year, scientists discovered the remains of a strange mammal that lived with the mighty dinosaurs in what is now Madagascar about 66 million years ago.

A recent study showed that the possum-sized mammal broke the rules of evolution that applied to other mammalian creatures during that period, Sky News reported.

It was surprisingly large unlike other mammals of its time, which were believed to be about the size of mice. The research team noted that the animal would have burrowed to hunt for food and to avoid getting stomped by big dinos.

The creature also had notable physical features, including more trunk vertebrae in the spinal area, and muscular hind limbs that were placed in sprawling position – similar to that of crocodiles.

The team added that it also had front teeth combined with back teeth which were “completely unlike those of any other known mammal, living or extinct.”

These bizarre features prompted the authors to aptly name the creature Adalatherium hui – which in Madagascar’s language, Malagasy, and Greek translates to “crazy beast.”

The researchers concluded that strange traits could be a product of living on an island.

“Islands are the stuff of weirdness,” said lead author David Krause, “and there was therefore ample time for Adalatherium to develop its many extraordinarily peculiar features in isolation.”

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COVID-19 Global Update

More than 180 nations worldwide have confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The following have the highest numbers worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*:

  1. US: 20,823,343 (+0.89%)
  2. India: 10,356,844 (+0.16%)
  3. Brazil: 7,753,752 (+0.26%)
  4. Russia: 3,250,713 (+1.47%)
  5. UK: 2,721,622 (+2.21%)
  6. France: 2,717,059 (+0.15%)
  7. Turkey: 2,255,607 (+0.61%)
  8. Italy: 2,166,244 (+0.50%)
  9. Spain: 1,958,844 (+1.59%)
  10. Germany: 1,797,858 (+0.78%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours