The World Today for December 22, 2023

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NEED TO KNOW

Flower Power

KYRGYZSTAN

The flag of Kyrgyzstan features a yellow sun on a red field. The sun evokes the “Tunduk,” a symbol for the circular opening in the center of the roof of a yurt, a traditional Central Asian tent. The problem is that the Tunduk on the flag, adopted after the former Soviet republic became independent in 1992, also looks like a sunflower.

“The sunflower has a peculiar meaning in the Kyrgyz culture equivalent to that of a weathercock in some European languages – it is used to describe a fickle and servile person willing to switch allegiance for personal benefit,” wrote Reuters.

As a result, reported National Public Radio, Kyrgyz lawmakers voted Dec. 20 to straighten out the sun’s rays on the flag.

Hopefully, this cosmetic change helps the country’s leaders address their more fundamental problems, observers say. Proponents, meanwhile, insist that it will help the country become more independent, Eurasia.net reported.

Others are less charitable regarding the change, however. Besides small protests and anger on social media, one common complaint by critics is that proposals like changing the flag show that officials and parliamentarians “have nothing better to do,” despite a multitude of pressing problems in Kyrgyzstan, wrote Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty.

For example, journalist and legal expert Semetei Amanbekov warned on Facebook on Oct. 25 that “the flag and other nonsense initiatives” are a useful way of deflecting attention from a controversial law on “foreign representatives” that has drawn widespread international criticism. “The first step has been taken towards the complete destruction of independent media and progressive NGOs (on) the road to the country’s isolation,” Amanbekov said.

Washington-based advocacy group Freedom House recently downgraded Kyrgyzstan in its latest “Nations in Transit” annual survey, Eurasia.net noted.

“At one time, Kyrgyzstan had stood out among its authoritarian neighbors for its strong civil society, independent media, and active political opposition. But an upturn in repression, through criminal prosecutions and detentions, reached a new level in 2022 under the joint rule of Japarov and (Tashiyev),” Freedom House said, referring to President Sadyr Japarov, who was sprung from prison in 2020 during post-election unrest that turned into a revolution and catapulted him to the country’s top post soon after, and the head of the security services, Kamchybek Tashiyev.

Some analysts say the government trots out such initiatives when the economic situation declines or social rumblings begin, especially in a country known for its regular revolutions and political volatility over the past three decades, France 24 said.

Suicides have recently spiked, for instance, in Kyrgyzstan in border regions where violence and unrest periodically break out with neighboring Tajikistan, reported Eurasia.net. Communities in the region have too little housing for folks caught in border disputes between the two sides. Many cases involve women who live in crowded houses with their extended family while their husbands go to Russia to find work.

Domestic violence against women is a major problem in the country, too, added the Guardian, relating horrific stories of abusive husbands who maim their wives after receiving minor punishments for past abuse. Human Rights Watch also released a report on the epidemic of abuse of women and girls with disabilities in the country.

Economic privation is likely worsening these social ills. Kyrgyzstan faces energy challenges, corruption is rampant, and climate change is hurting its vital agricultural sector. Kyrgyz migrants in Russia and elsewhere remit $2 billion to the country, making them a crucial economic lifeline, reported AKIpress, an independent news agency based in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek.

Those ties come with a cost, too, however. According to human rights activists who spoke to the Moscow Times, Russian agents abducted Russian left-wing activist and anarchist Lev Skoryakin from a prison in Kyrgyzstan in October and put him on trial. Skoryakin was in prison because he faced charges for allegedly fomenting violence at an anti-Russian demonstration in Kyrgyzstan.

The government has made some progress. In October, security forces killed crime kingpin Kamchy Kolbaev, Radio Free Europe reported. President Japarov is still pushing hard to modernize the country’s economy, too, the Diplomat noted.

Sometimes cosmetic changes are necessary to bring about substantive solutions.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Diplomatic Jail Break

VENEZUELA

Venezuela released 10 US citizens and more than 20 opposition-linked prisoners from jail this week, as part of a prisoner swap deal with the United States that observers described as the latest rapprochement effort between the two countries, Reuters reported.

The released individuals included six Americans who were wrongfully detained in the South American country and two former US Army Special Forces members, who were arrested in 2020 in connection with a botched raid aimed at ousting Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Among the released was also fugitive Leonard Francis, a former Malaysian businessman who has been accused by US authorities of bribing US Navy officers in exchange for contracts and classified information, according to the Washington Post.

US prosecutors alleged that Francis defrauded American taxpayers of around $50 million. He later escaped house arrest in the US and tried to flee to Cuba, before settling in Venezuela where he was later detained and faced extradition proceedings.

For its part, the US released Colombian businessman and Maduro ally, Alex Saab. He was accused by US officials of siphoning off some $350 million from Venezuela via the United States in a scheme that involved bribing Venezuelan government officials.

Saab denied any wrongdoing and his trial date had not yet been set before his release this week.

The prisoner swap deal followed months of Qatar-mediated talks between Caracas and Washington, as both countries have sought to thaw relations over the past year.

In October, Washington unveiled plans to provide sanctions relief to Venezuela’s energy sector if Caracas promises to hold free and fair elections in next year’s presidential race.

The US set a deadline of Nov. 30 for Venezuela to address concerns, including lifting bans on opposition candidates and releasing political prisoners and detained Americans, to prevent sanctions reinstatement.

While Venezuela is allowing opposition candidates to appeal their bans, progress on prisoner releases was limited until this recent week.

A Test for the Ages

SOUTH KOREA

Dozens of South Korean students are suing the government because their high-stakes college admission examination ended 90 seconds earlier than scheduled, with plaintiffs saying the error affected their results, and possibly their future, the BBC reported.

The lawsuit, filed this week by around 40 students, claims that the bell rang earlier at a test site in the capital Seoul during the first subject of the exam – Korean.

Some students protested immediately but their tests were removed. When proctors recognized the mistake, they gave students another one-and-a-half minutes, but only to answer blank questions, not change existing answers.

The students said they were so upset that they could not focus on the rest of the exam, which is an eight-hour marathon and known as one of the hardest exams in the world.

The students are now asking for $15,400 each in compensation – the cost of a year’s studying to retake the exam.

The country’s college admission test, known as Suneung, is the most important test in a young Korean’s life because the stakes are very high: The test not only determines university placements and future jobs, but even future relationships, the broadcaster said.

As a result, many students spend most of high school – and thousands of dollars a year – preparing for the exam, with 13-hour days spent mostly on academic study and test prep that commonly end at 10 p.m. for students, the Washington Post wrote. Hiring private tutors or going to expensive after-school prep academies known as hagwons is the norm.

The test is recognized as so important that when it is held annually, the country closes its airspace, starts work later to clear roads of traffic, and delays the opening of its stock market to allow students to concentrate.

Meanwhile, this is just the latest suit over an early bell. In April, a court in Seoul awarded $5,250 each to students who claimed they were disadvantaged during the 2021 exam because their bell rang about two minutes early.

And in 2012 in China, a man was given a one-year suspended sentence for ringing the bell four minutes and 48 seconds early during the national college entrance exam at a school in Hunan province.

Earth’s Rights

IRELAND

Ireland is considering enshrining the rights of nature into its national constitution, a move that if approved could make it the first European Union nation to do so, the BBC reported.

The Irish parliament’s Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action recommended that the government should hold a referendum this month on protecting biodiversity.

This would give elements of nature, such as trees, mountains and rivers, rights similar to those of humans. The proposal also seeks to recognize these elements as entities with rights to exist, flourish, be restored and respected.

It will also recognize the right of any person or organization to defend and enforce those rights on behalf of nature.

The committee suggested holding the referendum before Ireland’s next elections and be accompanied by a “robust public information campaign” to “prevent the spread of misinformation,” the Telegraph noted.

The proposal comes in response to a report from the Irish Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss, which urged the government to enforce existing laws to protect Ireland’s environment. The report also recommended holding a referendum to insert biodiversity and the protection of nature into the constitution.

US-based advocacy group the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights – which testified before the committee – welcomed the proposal and called it an “important step forward.”

However, the Irish Farmers’ Association has opposed the modification, contending that it would “significantly increase the strain on already overburdened legal and planning systems as well as infringe farmers’ property rights.”

Elsewhere, Ecuador made similar amendments to its constitution in 2008, while New Zealand granted its Whanganui River legal personhood in 2017.

UKRAINE, BRIEFLY

Earlier this month, the European Union paved the way for Ukraine to join the bloc, thanks to a move by a European leader to eliminate the roadblock presented in the form of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Politico reported. Orban had threatened to veto the opening of accession talks with Ukraine ahead of a European Council summit, where all members of the bloc must approve the measure. After a tense few hours of discussions, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz asked his Hungarian counterpart to step outside and get some coffee. Orban agreed. As a result, the measure was approved because a unanimous vote can occur even when one member is absent. The move also allowed Orban to continue to display his opposition to the plan.

Also this week:

  • Ukraine alleged front-line Russian soldiers were hit with so-called “mouse fever,” Business Insider reported. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines “mouse fever” as a group of illnesses spread by contact with waste from rodents. These lead to symptoms such as “intense headaches, back and abdominal pain, fever, chills, nausea, and blurred vision,” and sometimes even kidney failure. According to the Ukrainian Intelligence Directorate, Russian commanders decided to dismiss privates’ complaints, considering them “another form of evading participation.” Russian troops are made up of many former convicts who do not have access to medical care, amid growing frustration by military personnel over the lack of assistance from the government.
  • A Russian politician who claims to be “pro-peace” asked on Wednesday to register as a candidate challenging President Vladimir Putin in next year’s election, the Associated Press reported. Lawmaker and former journalist Yekaterina Duntsova filed her petition at the Central Electoral Commission after she managed to receive the endorsement of 500 people, as required by law. Should her application be accepted, she would need to gather 300,000 signatures. This would put her in a race against an essentially undefeatable candidate, Putin, whose hold over the political and institutional establishment will likely guarantee him a fifth term. Besides the risk of her candidacy failing, Duntsova could also face the fate of other vocal opponents of the president, who have been jailed, sent into exile, or even, in the case of Putin’s nemesis Alexei Navalny, poisoned. If she wins the March 17 poll, Duntsova said she would strive to free Navalny, release political prisoners, and reform Russia into a “humane” nation, “that’s peaceful, friendly and ready to cooperate with everyone on the principle of respect.”

DISCOVERIES

Holiday Blues

The holiday period comes with lots of joy and fun – but for many, plenty of anxiety and stress, too, brought on by hosting festivities, travel delays and bickering relatives.

In fact, different areas of the brain activate when dealing with various types of stressors, biologist Seena Mathew of the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Texas wrote in the Conversation. She offers some solutions, too.

For example, travel-related frustrations, such as plane delays, turn on the brain’s hypothalamus, a key region regulating the autonomic nervous system.

When under stress, it releases stress hormones, such as cortisol and epinephrine, leading to increased heart rate and feelings of irritation.

Doing deep breathing exercises can trigger the parasympathetic nervous system – also known as the “rest and digest” system – to foster relaxation and reduce frustration.

Meanwhile, family gatherings come with a whole other set of issues, particularly when dealing with conflicting personalities or unresolved parental issues. The anterior cingulate cortex, responsible for conflict resolution, activates during these uncomfortable interactions.

Mathew suggests taking short breaks from intense situations allows individuals to gain a fresh perspective and a clearer mindset in resolving disputes.

And for those spending the holidays alone, feelings of loneliness or isolation can arise. This turns on the brain’s default network, including the amygdala, which processes negative emotions to stimuli.

Physical exercise, which has been proven to improve mood, diminish frustration, and alleviate irritability, is the order of the day here. Physical activity helps in releasing stress and tension, while aerobic exercise reduces feelings of depression by influencing connections within the amygdala. Going to the gym or parks for these activities helps enhance the experience by fostering a sense of connection with like-minded people.

Mathew acknowledges that this might be a lot, but coping with stress is a gradual process that works differently for every individual.

“It will include trial and error and open-mindedness, but if you focus on identifying your triggers and adapting your own coping strategies, it will almost certainly get better with time,” she said.

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