The World Today for June 14, 2022

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Going, Going, Gone

KAZAKHSTAN

Kazakhs overwhelmingly voted in favor of decentralizing government, reducing the power of the president, rescinding former president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s status as “Leader of the Nation,” and banning his family from official positions.

“We have shown that we are united in building the new, just Kazakhstan,” President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said in a national address after the referendum last week, according to Reuters. “We must review the legislation which allowed a small group of people to concentrate the country’s economic resources in their hands and enjoy preferential status.”

Nazarbayev ran the oil-rich former Soviet republic and Russian ally in Central Asia for 30 years until he picked Tokayev as president. In January, civil unrest over fuel prices spiraled into demonstrations of discontent with the country’s corrupt political elites and clashes that resulted in 230 deaths. During the crisis, security officials attempted unsuccessfully to take over the country in a coup, precipitating Russian intervention to stabilize the situation.

Since then, Tokayev, rather than embracing authoritarianism, has promised a raft of changes, including reducing the power of his office and increasing the authority of parliament, eliminating the death penalty and reducing inequality, the Associated Press reported. Perhaps the most important change is the elimination of 81-year-old Nazarbayev’s role in the government and decision-making, Agence France-Presse added.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, security analyst Kamran Bokhari described the referendum’s success as a “step toward democracy.”

Even so, the Diplomat said that while the changes are a step in the right direction, they are not as revolutionary as they may seem. For example, the stripping of Nazarbayev’s status is in line with the decline of his influence following the so-called coup attempt: he was already stripped of his position as the head of the National Security Council which a 2018 law guaranteed for life. And many of his family members had already resigned their positions or were detained.

The question now, asked Eurasian.net, is whether Tokayev’s so-called “New Kazakhstan” will allow for authentic opposition parties to run for office or use the “time-honored” approach of creating false opposition parties that appear to give voters a choice but really accommodate the current regime.

Some organizations such as Human Rights Watch called for the strengthening of human rights mechanisms, including the establishment of a constitutional court to ensure that rights are protected.

Analysts also warned that Kazakhstan was embarking on internal changes during a time when the global order was remarkably unstable, Euractiv explained. Kazakhstan borders both Russia and China at a time when both powers were reorienting their stances toward the West. From the Kazakh perspective, the uncertainty makes it extremely hard to predict the best path forward. China is also making overtures to expand their relationship, added Bloomberg.

In the meantime, Kazakhstan is struggling to deal with the post-pandemic, post-Russian-invasion of-Ukraine global economy. Kazakhs recently renamed the brand of the oil they export, for example, after they took a hit from sanctions that were preventing their energy exports along with Russia’s.

If democracy really is poised to flourish in Kazakhstan, it would be an exception to the rule in the region.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Caught in the Middle

FRANCE

President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist alliance secured the lead in France’s first round of parliamentary elections but faces a tough challenge in the final round against the leftwing bloc of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Financial Times reported Monday.

Results showed that Macron’s “Ensemble” (Together) and the Mélenchon’s red-green New Ecological and Social Popular Union (Nupes) were neck-and-neck with each nearly securing 26 percent of the vote, becoming the two biggest groups in the lower house of parliament, according to Reuters.

The elections were marked by a record low turnout of 47.5 percent for this type of election.

The legislative polls come nearly two months after Macron defeated far-right leader Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential elections and secured a second five-year term. Mélenchon came in third.

The incumbent has struggled to capitalize on his re-election amid rising inflation. Mélenchon has criticized his opponent for being a free marketeer more willing to help the wealthy, instead of struggling families.

The leftist leader urged voters “to definitively reject Mr. Macron’s disastrous plans” and have their say after “30 years of neoliberalism” in the final round of voting.

Even so, the Nupes alliance is unlikely to secure a majority in the 577-seat assembly because moderate voters remain cautious about Mélenchon’s reputation as an extreme-left, Eurosceptic firebrand.

Polls predict Macron’s Ensemble will remain the largest bloc, gaining between 260 and 295 seats, while Nupes is forecast to win 160 to 210 seats.

A party or alliance needs 289 seats for an outright majority.

Meanwhile, if he fails to get a majority, Macron will be forced to “cohabit” with a government opposed to his economic objectives.

Sticks and Stones

JAPAN

Japanese lawmakers passed a bill Monday that would make online insults punishable by prison terms and steep fines, legislation considered a major step in tackling cyberbullying in the country, Kyodo News reported.

The new rules come two years after the death of Hana Kimura, a 22-year-old professional wrestler who is believed to have committed suicide after receiving hateful messages on social media.

The changes would punish offenders with up to one year in jail or a fine of more than $2,200. The current legislation punishes violators with up to 30 days in prison or a fine of less than $74.

The bill will also raise the statute of limitations from one year to three.

In Japan, insults differ from defamation in that the former publicly demeans someone without referring to a specific incident. Both are illegal.

Still, it is unclear what exactly constitutes an insult punishable under the legislation. Some opposition lawmakers warned that the draft law can be used to stifle criticism.

But the bill also includes a supplementary provision mandating a review of the law to determine if it unfairly restricts free speech.

A New Weapon

EUROPE

European authorities are grappling with reports of unknown assailants injecting needles and syringes into unsuspecting victims, warning such cases are on the rise and difficult to trace, the Washington Post reported.

The offense, known as “needle spiking,” is an injection given without consent or knowledge, usually at a bar or nightclub, in a similar vein to the far more common spiking of drinks.

Officials said these attacks have been documented in different venues and events in a number of European countries, including Britain, France and the Netherlands. So far, French police have received more than 300 complaints from victims of injections. They have made no arrests and the motive behind the attacks remains unclear.

The victims – the majority of them women – say they often experience memory loss or notice the injuries later. It’s uncertain whether drugs are being administered in the attacks.

As authorities are working on tracing the culprits, they have issued safety warnings and urged citizens to remain vigilant. In the Dutch city of Groningen, the municipality has set up an online helpline for residents to report such incidents.

Victims’ rights advocates warned that while drink spiking remains a bigger issue, the effects of needle-spiking are the same. The victims often feel “embarrassed and ashamed” and also may feel guilty for being unable to recall events, resulting in a lack of reporting.

UKRAINE, BRIEFLY

  • Russian forces have driven Ukrainian troops out of the center of Sievierodonetsk, appearing to diminish Ukraine’s hold on the vital eastern city, according to the New York Times. The Ukrainian military said combat was still going on in the riverside city, where Ukrainian and Russian soldiers have been engaged in brutal street skirmishes for weeks.
  • India, China and other Asian nations are becoming an increasingly important source of oil revenue for Moscow even as the United States and its allies have cut off energy imports from Russia over its war in Ukraine, the Associated Press reported. India, a 1.4 billion-person country, has used roughly 60 million barrels of Russian oil so far in 2022, compared to 12 million barrels in all of 2021. Shipments to other Asian nations, such as China, have climbed in recent months as well.
  • Amnesty International accused Russia of war crimes in its efforts to seize Kharkiv, a city in northeastern Ukraine, CNN added. The organization has detailed the alleged use of cluster bombs and other indiscriminate forms of attack in a new 40-page study.
  • The Wikimedia Foundation, which owns Wikipedia, has filed an appeal against a Russian court decision ordering it to erase material about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, stating that people have a right to know the truth about the conflict, Reuters wrote. A Moscow court fined the Wikimedia Foundation about US$88,000 for refusing to delete “falsehoods” from Russian-language Wikipedia pages about the conflict, including The Russian Invasion of Ukraine, War Crimes during the Russian Invasion of Ukraine, and Massacre in Bucha.

DISCOVERIES

Headbangers Redux

Giraffes didn’t evolve long necks for feeding but for fighting and attracting mates, according to new research.

A research team studied the remains of a giraffe ancestor known for having a shorter neck and a hard skull capable of delivering powerful head-butts, the New York Times reported.

First discovered in northwestern China in 1996, the Discokeryx xiezhi had teeth and an inner ear structure that resembled modern giraffes. Researchers determined that the ancient creature lived about 17 million years ago and was one of the earliest giraffids, an ancestral group of hoofed mammals that gave rise to giraffes.

Discokeryx had a shorter, bulkier neck with a peculiar skull: It consisted of a thick dome made from layers of keratin that was anchored to dense vertebrae in the animal’s neck.

The team explained that this bony cap made the extinct creature very adept at head-to-head combat. Discokeryx’s heads were tougher and more durable than their modern counterparts, including muskoxen and Himalayan blue sheep.

Researchers explained that head-to-head combat is important for many animals, including Discokeryx, to resolve conflicts and attract mates. They suggested that sexual selection and competition for mates could have been the main driving force behind the headgear evolution.

In the case of modern giraffes, the authors noted that animals use bony protrusions on their heads and their long necks to whack each other in a fight, according to Science Magazine.

They proposed that just like the Discokeryx, giraffe long necks evolved as a weapon and a method to attract the ladies – while the advantage of feeding on treetops was more of a side benefit.

COVID-19 Global Update

Total Cases Worldwide: 535,752,441

Total Deaths Worldwide: 6,310,448

Total Vaccinations Worldwide: 11,552,923,905

Countries with the highest number of confirmed cases worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*

  1. US: 85,632,808 (+0.14%)
  2. India: 43,236,695 (+0.02%)
  3. Brazil: 31,497,038 (+0.13%)
  4. France: 29,946,647 (+0.00%)**
  5. Germany: 26,915,085 (+0.39%)
  6. UK: 22,600,145 (+0.13%)
  7. South Korea: 18,239,056 (+0.05%)
  8. Russia: 18,111,240 (+0.02%)
  9. Italy: 17,664,043 (+0.06%)
  10. Turkey: 15,072,747 (+0.00%)**

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours

**Numbers have been adjusted by affected country

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