World update: October 26 2017



Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev on Thursday started the ball rolling toward shifting Kazakhstan to the Latin alphabet. By my understanding this is approximately the 87th alphabet change Kazakhstan has gone through in roughly the last 100 years. That might be slightly exaggerated–it switched from Arabic script to Latin script in the 1920s, then to a Cyrillic alphabet in 1940. The change will make it easier to write in Kazakh on mobile devices and catches it up with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, both of which have already made the switch, but as you can imagine this is probably going to be a major ordeal, especially for older Kazakhs who have been using Cyrillic their whole lives. The pain will be lessened somewhat in that more Kazakhs actually speak Russian than Kazakh, and obviously Russian isn’t changing alphabets.


The Pakistani reception to Rex Tillerson’s visit this week, in which he took a hard line against Islamabad’s support for groups like the Afghan Taliban before jetting off to make nice with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been mostly negative. But Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi is putting a positive spin on his discussions with Tillerson, saying that “our message”–apparently that Pakistan wants peace in Afghanistan and is not working with terrorist groups, which might be a message but isn’t really the truth–“is sinking in.”


The US Treasury Department slapped new sanctions on a number of North Korean entities on Thursday:

Among those sanctioned were the director and the deputy director of the Military Security Command, the first vice minister of the Ministry of People’s Security and the labor minister. North Korea’s consul general in Shenyang, China, and a diplomat at its embassy in Vietnam were also sanctioned.

The latter two were reportedly sanctioned over their work in forcibly repatriating asylum seekers, so they seem nice. In genuinely nice news, though, Pyongyang has agreed to return a South Korean fishing boat and crew it picked up last weekend for crossing a maritime border into North Korean waters. It says it will release the boat and crew Friday evening, so stay tuned I guess.


Australia’s High Court on Friday disqualified Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce from parliament due to his dual New Zealand citizenship, of which Joyce wasn’t even aware until a couple of months ago. The ruling actually strips the Australian government of its one-seat parliamentary majority, but that’s likely to be temporary, as is Joyce’s banishment. Now that he’s renounced his New Zealand citizenship, which he did in August, Joyce is eligible to run again for his (now former) seat, which he says he will do.



The four American soldiers who were killed in Niger earlier this month had reportedly gotten separated from the rest of their unit and may have been alive when helicopters first arrived to evacuate the rest of the joint American-Nigerien patrol. This may help to explain why it took an extra two days to find one of the dead Americans, Sergeant La David T. Johnson, but frankly until a full investigation is completed there are going to continue to be some huge questions about what happened here.


ISIS claimed responsibility for a bombing on Tuesday in northeastern Nigeria. This is interesting–ISIS is of course affiliated with Boko Haram, or at least one of the group’s two factions. But to my knowledge it’s never claimed direct credit for one of Boko Haram’s attacks before. I’m not sure if this means ISIS is putting together its own separate operation in Nigeria or what, but it bears watching.


At least five people were killed on Thursday in the town of Ambo, in Ethiopia’s Oromia region, when police opened fire on a group of protesters.


Barricades, rock-throwing protesters, and tear gas marked Kenya’s attempt at redoing its presidential election on Thursday, and in the end the result seems to have been a disaster for President Uhuru Kenyatta. Kenyatta will clearly win the election, but with supporters of challenger Raila Odinga boycotting the vote, turnout plummeted from what it had been for the original vote in August:

Just before midnight on Thursday, with more than 90 percent of the returns received at the national tallying center, elections officials said slightly more than 6.5 million Kenyans had voted — only one third of those registered. In August, nearly 15 million ballots were cast for the two men, and turnout topped 75 percent.

There’s no possible way Kenyatta can claim to have won a legitimate victory under those conditions. And so this crisis is likely to continue, and probably to get worse.



The Russians test-fired four ICBMs–one land-based and three submarine-based–on Thursday. None seem to have been the new RS-28 Sarmat that we mentioned yesterday.


Hundreds of Serbian retirees protested in Belgrade on Thursday against a package of IMF-mandated austerity measures that involve cuts to their pensions. Serbian pension payments are already very low, and the cuts have left many struggling to pay for basic needs.


Likely next Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has begun his search for coalition partners by speaking with the anti-EU, anti-immigrant Freedom and Direct Democracy party, which may be too toxic to serve as a formal coalition partner but could provide confidence and supply assistance for a minority government. Babiš and his ANO party aren’t themselves anti-Europe but they are flexible enough to fake it if it gets them to a majority. They’re in what could prove to be a serious bind–ANO won so many more seats than any other party that it’s impossible to imagine a coalition government without them, but Babiš, who is reminding people of Silvio Berlusconi and comes with a cloud of corruption hanging over him to boot–is driving other mainstream parties away.


Catalan President Carles Puigdemont announced Thursday that he will not call snap regional elections without assurances from Madrid that it will in turn drop its attempt to seize direct control over the Catalan government. And it doesn’t seem like he’ll be getting those, as the Spanish senate is likely on Friday to approve Madrid’s takeover under article 155 of the Spanish constitution. Puigdemont didn’t have much support in the Catalan parliament for holding new elections anyway, so it’s not clear how things might have shaken out had he gone through with it. Madrid’s takeover will itself involve new regional elections, but under difficult conditions as the current Catalan government is expected to resist as much as it can.



Michel Temer dodged another corruption investigation on Wednesday but may have lost his parliamentary coalition in the process. Most of the members of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party, one of his coalition partners, voted to send Temer’s case to trial, which at the very least suggests they’re not going to be very amenable to helping him pass his legislative agenda moving forward.


The Cuban government aired a prime time TV special on Thursday undermining America’s case that its diplomats have been subjected to “sonic attacks” in Cuba. Officials at Cuba’s interior ministry argued that supposed recordings of the sonic attack sound very similar to cricket and/or cicada sounds and claims that researchers–it didn’t say which researchers–have found that prolonged exposure to those sounds can produce hearing loss and behavioral affects in humans. That was the only attempt the Cubans made at offering an alternative explanation for what the diplomats say they’ve experienced.


The Intercept’s Nick Turse looks beyond Niger to America’s various special forces deployments all over West Africa, and the ways they help terrorist groups recruit new fighters:

In truth, U.S. forces are already deployed all across Africa by the thousands. Around 6,000 troops are on the continent, conducting 3,500 exercises, programs, and engagements each year – almost 10 missions each day — from Cameroon to Somalia, Djibouti to Libya. More than 800 of these forces, Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Audricia Harris told The Intercept, are deployed to Niger. This is up from approximately 100 troops sent in 2013 to carry out drone reconnaissance missions, making the hardscrabble country, wedged between seven nations, including Mali, Libya, Nigeria, and Chad, the largest concentration of U.S. military forces in West Africa.


“The rapid, largely unrecognized increase in U.S. troops in Niger is part of the large expansion of the U.S. military footprint in Africa,” says William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. “This expansion is long overdue for congressional scrutiny and public discussion.” U.S. efforts, primarily focused on training allies and proxies, are flawed, often ineffective, and can have destabilizing effects on countries that military operations are meant to strengthen, according to experts. Cast as benign training operations, they can lead to unforeseen consequences and dangerous blowback. “While the Pentagon likes to downplay the military aspects of these missions, in a number of instances, they have involved acts of war that risk getting the U.S. involved in broader conflicts, even as they have had little impact on the spread of terrorism,” Hartung notes.

American counter-terrorism training naturally has the effect of strengthening a country’s military–in countries with weak civilian control over that military, this can be (and has been) hazardous to democracy. The chaos caused by coups, and attempted coups, opens space for extremist groups to operate. Those groups are then able to recruit on the back of popular resentment to the American presence.

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