Monday, September 29, 2008

Olmert speaks his mind

Over the past few days, outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made some really remarkable statements.

Yesterday he said that Israel would have to withdraw almost entirely to its 1967 borders if it wanted to have peace with Palestine and Syria. In real terms this means giving back land in the West Bank, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem - all lands captured by Israel in 1967. Olmert said that this also means giving up nearly all of the West Bank settlements, and that Israel would have to swap land with Palestine at a 1:1 ratio for the settlements they want to keep.

It was amazingly free talk for an Israeli Prime Minister, even an outgoing one. The ideas of giving Israeli land for peace or abandoning settlements are always controversial issues within Israeli politics, so to suggest giving up all of the Golan Heights, and almost all of the West Bank is a pretty huge step. Olmert said that it was looking reality in the eye, something he was unwilling to do for the past 35 years.

"We have an opportunity that is limited in time, in which we can perhaps reach a historic deal in our relations with the Palestinians and another historic step in our relations with Syria. In both cases, the decision we must reach is a decision that we have been refusing to accept for the past four decades," Olmert said in a wide-ranging interview with Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. He also said that Israel was silly to consider a strike on Iran to take out their nuclear program, saying such talk was part of Israel's "delusions of grandeur".

Olmert's comments Monday came after he warned on Sunday of "an evil wind of extremism" threatening Israel's democracy. There has been an increase recently in Israeli settlers in the West Bank launching attacks against Palestinian villages and farms - including setting fires to farmhouses and fields and assaulting Palestinians. More radical elements in the Israeli settler movement call the tactic the "price tag" that Israel will have to pay if the government tries to remove the settlements in the West Bank. Basically the settlers will cause chaos within Palestinian communities, forcing the Israeli military to enter the area to maintain security, getting bogged down in the process. A prominent Israeli critic of the settlement movement was also injured last week in a pipe bomb attack tied to radicals.

So, while you have to give credit to Olmert for speaking freely and opening about some crises facing Israel, it also would have been nice if he'd taken these positions when he had the power to make them a reality (a point some of Israel's left-wing politicians have also made). The position he laid out though just makes sense - so long as the West bank is filled with settlements, the Palestinians can never form a viable state, and as long as they don't have a country of their own it's hard to see them as "partners in peace" like the peace talks always suggest; while the Syrians aren't likely to ever accept a peace deal unless they get the Golan Heights back. Then there's the demographic argument - if Israel keeps occupying these lands, because of the higher birthrate among the Palestinians, it's estimated that within a generation Israeli Jews could be a minority within their own country.

But on a positive note, Olmert did suggest that his probable successor Tzipi Livni would follow the same path in dealing with the Palestinians and Syrians when she takes power.
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Sunday, September 28, 2008

How the US presidential debate played overseas

The Christian Science Monitor did this roundup on how the first US presidential debate was received overseas; some of the reactions were interesting.

In short, Obama's talk about pursuing terrorists into Pakistan scared the Pakistanis while exciting the Afghanis, since they blame Taliban agents based in the border areas of Pakistan for causing trouble within their own country. Russians didn't like what they heard from either candidate - both of who took a tough line on Russia over the recent conflict in Georgia. Finally the debate got little reception in many of the hotspots in the Middle East - Iraq, Iran, and Syria - where the end of the holy month of Ramadan was a much bigger deal than the first presidential debate.

We’ll see what they think of Thursday’s vice-presidential debate.
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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Chavez says US needs new constitution

Venezuela's Hugo Chavez says that he has the cure for the woes on Wall Street - a new constitution for the United States.

Chavez blamed capitalism for the financial crisis and said that the US should draw up a new "truly democratic" constitution. According to Chavez, America is run by a "dictatorship of the elite", namely big banks and corporations that enrich themselves at the people's expense, and that power must be returned to the people.

"Let the US empire end and let a great nation and great republic rise from the ruin ... It's time to shout 'Liberty!' again in the United States," Chavez said.

Of course the US government accuses Chavez of running Venezuela as a near dictatorship and of silencing any political opposition, so they may not be terribly open to his definition of "democracy".

Meanwhile, Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus said that perhaps Wall Street should look to the world's poorest people for idea on how to get out of this financial crisis.

Yunus has been called the "banker to the poor", his Grameen Bank helped to start the concept of microfinance - giving small loans to some of the world's poorest people to help them start small businesses to lift themselves out of poverty. With loans of a few hundred dollars or less, people in desperate poverty have been able to purchase items like sewing machines, or even a cow, that enable them to produce and sell products and earn a living. Yunus began his lending more than 30 years ago with a $27 loan to a woman in Bangladesh.

What's most amazing is that his Grameen Bank has a loan repayment rate of more than 98%. "Don't ignore them (the poor) ... we lend over a billion dollars a year," he said. "We have to get out of the mindset that the rich will do the business and the poor will have the charity," he told an audience at the Clinton Global Initiative.
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Friday, September 26, 2008

A few random thoughts on tonight's debate

With an emphasis on "random", keep in mind this isn't a full review, though I think I may take a tip from boxing and score the next debate on a 10-point must system.

First thought? I was disappointed. The first debate was supposed to focus on foreign policy. Now with what happened on Wall Street this past week, it's understandable that there would be questions about the economy. Of course, the logical thing would have been to swap the topic of this debate with the topic of the third and final debate, which happens to be the economy. But that didn't happen, so instead we got a half-economy/half-foreign policy night.

Not that the topic seemed to matter much, both John McCain and Barack Obama didn't give answers to questions in the first half hour or so of the debate, rather they gave recaps of their stump speeches. McCain started especially slow, giving Obama an early advantage. When they did get around to foreign policy, a lot of the discussion was on the war in Iraq. And again, here they both seemed to stick to their well-trod policy positions and stump speeches. I didn't think there was a lot of new ground covered here. And I think that a big problem with US foreign policy in the past few years is that it has been so dominated by Iraq/the War on Terror that a lot of regions/countries/events have been ignored, so I was looking for discussion of some other topics.

In the end we got three: Iran, Pakistan and Russia (maybe there would have been more if the economic talk hadn't gobbled up so much time). In the Iran section McCain repeated his (dumb) idea for a "League of Democracies" to help deal with rogue states (I say the League idea is dumb because we need more dialog with the world community, not less. Remember the words of Yitzhak Rabin: "you don't make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies). For his part, Obama called a nuclear Iran unacceptable. They then fought over what the meaning of the term "pre-conditions" meant, going back to Obama's early pledge to meet with the leaders of countries like Iran without pre-conditions.

The discussion on Pakistan was the most interesting, with McCain making some good points, including the need to win the hearts and minds of the Pakistani people so that they would be partners in the fight against Islamic extremists like al-Qaeda. Obama again said that he would instruct the US military to conduct raids into Pakistan if the Pakistanis were not willing or able to do it themselves. The only problem is that the US has been doing this for the past few weeks and it's absolutely enraged the Pakistanis to the point that on at least one occasion this week their troops shot at one of our helicopters. Not a way to win hearts and minds...

The Russian section was predictable: both warned about an aggressive Russia under Putin and condemned Russia for attacking Georgia (ignoring the fact that Georgia started the conflict by attacking the South Ossetian city Tskhinvali). Obama said that he didn't want a new Cold War with Russia, but also committed a pretty sizable gaff when he said he warned about Russian peacekeepers on Georgian soil last April – apparently not knowing that Russian peacekeepers have been on the ground in the disputed regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia for the past 15 years.

Perhaps Obama was lucky that the economy took up so much of the debate, he never seemed quite comfortable or confident talking about world affairs - promoting a policy that's causing problems with Pakistan, his lack of knowledge about the Russian peacekeepers. McCain on the other hand was able to talk about personally visiting the Pakistani border area Waziristan and the disputed (now "independent") Georgian regions of South Ossetia or Abkhazia (Mac didn't specify which one he visited), it did give him a certain gravitas that Obama lacked. Obama though did have a good point at the very end - that the United States involvement in Iraq weakened the country's capacity to project power abroad.

Was there a winner? I don't think a clear one. Obama was better in the beginning, but I'd say McCain came off better on world affairs. It is too bad that they couldn't have talked more on foreign policy since there are so many more issues out there: the rise of China, America's role in South America, our relations with Europe, the brewing struggle for the resources of the Arctic, North Korea, even a discussion of Russia past the sound bites and stereotypes. It would be nice if a few of these topics could make it into one of the other two debates, but I won't hold my breath.

Next up: the vice presidential debate next Thursday.
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Early vote possible in Ukraine

Ukraine's Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko suggested on Friday that maybe Ukraine's presidential election should be moved up from its scheduled date in 2010, if the country is forced to have another round of parliamentary elections as a way of breaking the political deadlock that has plagued the country for some time now.

She also said she would like to reform a ruling coalition with President Viktor Yushchenko - though if you accept the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result, then it's insane to think that coalition could be put back together. The Tymoshenko-Yushchenko coalition has fallen apart twice since the two of them led a pro-democracy movement in Ukraine in 2004; neither time did the coalition last more than a year, and that was before Yushchenko accused Tymoshenko of treason, which he did earlier in the month. Kind of hard to imagine them getting back together.

Tymoshenko also said it was possible her party might look to form a coalition with former President Viktor Yanukovich's Party of Regions. That could signal a real change in policy for Ukraine, since Yanukovich's party is largely backed by ethnic Russian Ukrainians and is decidedly pro-Moscow.

For her part Tymoshenko says that she wants more "balanced" relations with Russia than have existed under the very pro-Western rule of President Yushchenko.
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Pirates seize ship full of tanks

Yes, you read that headline right. Pirates off the coast of Somalia have captured the Faina, a ship heading from Ukraine to Kenya with a cargo that includes 33 model T-72 tanks and a cache of ammunition recently bought by the Kenyan government. It's unclear if the pirates knew what the ship was carrying when they boarded it.

Frankly it's hard to believe that a ship with a cargo like that wouldn't have some way of defending itself, especially sailing in the waters off the coast of Somalia, which has become a modern-day version of "Pirates of the Caribbean". Piracy is an epidemic problem in the Gulf of Aden off of Africa's east coast. Pirates are able to use the basically lawless country of Somalia (Somalia hasn’t had a working national government for years) as a base to prey on vessels traveling in the busy shipping lanes off the coast.

France has been calling for international military action against the pirates, and now, with the seizure of the Faina, the Russians are sending a guided missile cruiser to the area. Though since the Russian ship has to travel from northern Europe, it's doubtful whether it will arrive in time to intercept the Faina, likely headed to the Somali city of Eyl. And while piracy might be a problem for the world's cargo shippers, the BBC reports that it's providing an absolute boom for Eyl's economy.

Somali pirates typically hold the ships and their crews for ransom (up to $1.5 million depending on the size of the ship and the crew), and much of that wealth flows into Eyl, which has developed an entire economy build around the piracy industry. Some locals act as negotiators for the pirates with the ship's insurance companies, which ultimately pay the ransoms, others act as the pirates’ accountants, the BBC even reports that some local restaurants have been set up just to cater to the kidnapped crews of hijacked ships. In all piracy is estimated to bring in $30 million to Eyl's economy each year - more than the annual budget for the entire northern Somali region Puntland.

As for those tanks aboard the Faina, some security experts say don't worry about them - tanks are difficult to maintain, so they'd be hard to sell to a third party. The problem with that explanation though is that Somalia is largely run by different militia groups, I’d imagine there might be some local warlord that would like to get his hands on at least a few of them. The US State Department also said they're concerned about the tanks.
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UN to pass "resolution"on Iran

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council (plus Germany) have agreed on a draft of another resolution condemning Iran's nuclear program. But, in a nod to Russian (and Chinese) objections the latest resolution will not include sanctions against Iran, which begs the question: what's the point?

The UN has already leveled three rounds of sanctions against Iran to try to convince them to give up their nuclear program - which the Iranians say is meant to produce power, and the US, Israel and other nations claim is really production line for atomic weapons. But Iran has brushed off the sanctions and plowed ahead with their program. Maybe it's silly to think that a fourth round of sanctions would finally convince Iran to change their ways, but its sillier still to think they'll stop their atomic program because the UN has passed a resolution asking them to do so.

Officials like US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried to spin the resolution as a powerful message to Iran that despite recent anger between the US and Russia over Russia's conflict with Georgia, the US and Russia remain committed to stopping Iran's nuclear program. I doubt the Iranians will buy that. Really it would seem to show the opposite, that Russia - which isn't keen on seeing the Iranians build a nuclear bomb either – is not willing to work with the US on an issue that they basically agree on because of the sad state of US-Russian relations. And there's China as well, also unwilling to join the Western nations of the 5+1 group on putting in more sanctions.

More sanctions might not be the best way to deal with Iran. But it does no good for anyone involved (or the prestige of the UN for that matter) proposing them, settling for silly resolutions and pretending they're meaningful.
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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

So what exactly did they bomb?

Last year Israel bombed a site in Syria that they (and the United States) said was a nearly finished, North Korean designed nuclear reactor meant to be the cornerstone of a secret Syrian atomic weapons program. But early results of testing by scientists from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world's nuclear watchdog group, have not found any of the telltale signs of a nuclear reactor.

There are more tests to be done on the samples, but some officials from the IAEA doubt they will give different results from the first tests.

So the question is what was at the site at Al Kibar? One possible explanation is that the bombs dropped by Israel did not scatter nuclear material around the site; another is that the Syrians were able to scrub the site before the IAEA inspectors arrived. Syria is refusing to allow inspectors to look at several other sites in the country suspected of being part of a weapons program.
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Monday, September 22, 2008

When Sarah met the UN

Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin is going to get a crash course in international relations this week when she hits New York City for the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly. While in the city she will be meeting with leaders from several of the world's hotspots: Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, Iraq's Jalal Talabani, the newly-elected president of Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari, Columbia's Álvaro Uribe and Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia.

Earlier today though, it was announced that Sarah would be meeting with someone who dwarfs them all - U2 frontman and world poverty activist Bono. I would just really love to be in the room for that meeting.

Palin's meetings will take place on Tuesday and Wednesday. Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain (remember them?) will face off in their first presidential debate on Friday. The topic of the debate was supposed to be foreign affairs, but given the ongoing debacle on Wall Street, we'll see if they stick to that format.
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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Changes at the top

The leaders of both Israel and South Africa stepped down today, in a rare resignation two-fer.

The end of Ehud Olmert as Prime Minister in Israel was no surprise. Olmert's approval rating has been languishing in the single digits for months now, crushed by allegations of corruption within his government (and even within his family), and blame for the month long war in Lebanon in 2006 that many feel strengthened, rather than weakened, Hezbollah's grip on power in that country.

Olmert's probable successor is Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who will take over the Prime Minister's job if she can form a coalition in Israel's parliament, the Knesset. As Prime Minister Livni could help move the peace process with the Palestinians along, which she supports. The peace process suffered in the past few months along with Olmert's popularity - he didn't have the political capital necessary to move the negotiations along and to convince his fellow politicians to agree to some of the tough choices that the process demands.

Meanwhile South Africa's Thabo Mbeki also resigned as president, a victim of political infighting in South Africa's all-powerful African National Congress. The ANC is the party of Nelson Mandela and it dominates South African politics. Mbeki fell out with the current leader of the ANC Jacob Zuma, who plans to run for president next year. Given the ANC's power in South Africa, Zuma is almost certain to become president.

But last year Zuma was accused with corruption and put on trial. The charges against him were finally thrown out last week, but the belief was widespread that Mbeki had pushed the charges against Zuma as a way of getting rid of a powerful rival.

Now Mbeki is out, and Zuma likely in. Mbeki took over for Mandela when he retired from politics and oversaw South Africa's recent economic growth. He was also the key mediator in power-sharing talks between Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai in neighboring Zimbabwe.
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Maybe this explains it...

I was wondering why Nicaragua of all places would choose to be the only country, besides Russia, to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Then I happened to stumble across this story on a Russian website (translated by computer from Spanish into English - isn't globalization grand?), which might explain things.

In short, the Nicaraguan government is saying that Russia is now interested in helping to finance a canal across Nicaragua to compete with the Panama Canal. The idea of a canal across Nicaragua linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans isn't a new one, it's been floating around for nearly 200 years. The plan would use the San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua to make much of the journey, with canals and locks bridging the remaining distance to the Pacific.

This route almost won out over the Panama Canal in the early 20th century, but lobbyists for Panama stirred up the fear that an eruption of Mt. Momotombo (actually 100 miles from the canal route) could close the Nicaragua Canal. Funding went to Panama, and the rest is history, at least until now.

A replacement for the Panama Canal is needed. The largest cargo and tanker ships can't use the Panama Canal; they must sail around Africa or South America to go between Asia and Europe or the east coast of North America, a detour that adds weeks to the journey. There is a plan underway to expand the Panama Canal so that these supersized ships can use it, but officials in Nicaragua are promoting their route as an alternate.

In addition to support for the canal, Russia is also reported to be ready to finish several hydroelectric projects started during the 1980s in Nicaragua.
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Friday, September 19, 2008

Nato should stop expanding: UK think tank

A top British think tank has issued a report saying that the plan to expand NATO by taking in former Soviet states like Georgia and Ukraine is dumb.

Of course the International Institute for Strategic Studies used more diplomatic language, saying that continued expansion is a "strategic error", but the message is basically the same. The IISS report called Georgia "irresponsible" for launching the attack on South Ossetia and then calling on the Western nations to bail them out when Russian troops flooded over their border. They also said that expansion into Ukraine doesn't make sense at this point since many Ukrainians are opposed to NATO membership, a factor in their government collapsing last week.

The IISS report is at odds with the statements of the United States and United Kingdom governments, both of whom are pushing for fast-track membership for Georgia and Ukraine. But you have to remember that whole point of NATO is for its members to provide mutual defense - if one is attacked the other members are suppose to come to their aid (militarily). It doesn't make a lot of sense then to take on members who are already involved in a conflict (like Georgia), or where the population is split over whether to join the alliance in the first place (Ukraine).

This has been the position of some powerful NATO members - namely France and Germany. It all should make for some really interesting discussions when NATO meets in December.
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Another "whoops" in Afghanistan

Another day, another accidental killing in Afghanistan, only this time it’s due to the action of Australian troops.

A group of Australian Special Forces commandoes surrounded the house of someone they thought was a Taliban commander on Thursday night. Only the home's owner wasn't a member of the Taliban, in fact he thought the Aussies themselves were Taliban insurgents. Concerned about the men lurking outside his house, he called the local police, including his friend, a man named Rozi Khan the former police chief and now governor for the district. No one is quite sure what happened next, but shooting started and soon Khan, two bodyguards and perhaps several local Afghani police were dead. None of the Australians were hurt in the incident.

It's not going to make things any easier for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is already under a lot of pressure from his citizens, alarmed at the large numbers of Afghani civilians recently killed by foreign forces. US-Afghan relations are already dicey due to a US air raid on an Afghani village last month that may have killed more than 90 civilians. After initially saying only a handful of civilians were killed, along with a couple dozen insurgents, the US reopened its investigation into the incident after cellphone videos came to light showing the aftermath of the raid.

The UN is reporting that nearly 1,500 civilians have been killed this year (a jump of 40% from last year) and that nearly half were killed by Western or Afghan military forces.
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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Could the war with Iran start soon?

That's the speculation in today's Guardian. It's fueled by two resolutions moving through Congress this week aimed at "increasing pressure" on Iran to give up its nuclear program, and that the United States (along with Britain and France) is massing the largest armada of warships in the Persian Gulf since 2003 (which happened to be when the war in Iraq started).

There are some other reasons to wonder if the war is coming.

First, on Tuesday the United States agreed to sell Israel 1,000 "bunker-buster" bombs, something the US has resisted doing in the past. The bunker-buster, like the name implies, is designed to punch through several feet of concrete to destroy fortified structures. They're not weapons that you would need for defense, but are the exactly the thing needed to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, which are buried underground for protection from air raids.

Second, China has balked at a French proposal for a new round of sanctions against Iran in the UN, saying that sanctions are not an option at this point and that the situation can only be solved through "peaceful negotiations". Since China has a veto in the UN Security Council, this basically means there will be no additional sanctions against Iran.

Then there are the rumors. Russia may sell Iran an advanced air defense system, something in the past they have refused to sell to Tehran, though supposedly anger over the West's reaction to the conflict with Georgia is causing them to rethink their position. Then there's Georgia, which was rumored to have agreed to let Israel use airbases in southeastern Georgia to launch attacks against Iran's nuclear facilities in return for sales of modern weapons to the Georgian military.
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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

From bad to worse in Bolivia

Things in Bolivia are getting worse, with anti-government rioting in the state of Pando killing as many as 18 people. President Evo Morales had government troops arrest the governor of Pando, Leopoldo Fernandez, and charge him with genocide in the death of the protestors.

Morales' attempts at land reform and spreading Bolivia's natural gas revenues with the country's poorest citizens have caused deep splits within the country. The governors of several of the countries richest states - the ones where the natural gas reserves are located - are bitterly opposed to Morales' plans. Meanwhile the country's poorest citizens - often indigenous people like Morales, who could become landowners under his plan - are threatening violence if the land reforms aren't allowed to go forward.

And in a sign of the United States diminishing influence in a region once considered America's back yard, the leaders of several other South American nations excluded the US from crisis talks in Chile aimed at finding a resolution to the Bolivian crisis.
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Monday, September 15, 2008

Why not Chechnya?

It's a question you read in some articles about how the West should react to Russia - that if Russia is going to try to help the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia breakaway from Georgia, that maybe the West should encourage Chechnya to split from them? After all, Russia has fought two wars to keep Chechnya in the union during the past 15 years; they must be just yearning to be free from Moscow, right?

Well, it's not going to happen, largely because Chechnya's current president, Ramzan Kadyrov, is decidedly pro-Moscow.

It's a point he stressed in a recent interview with the BBC. The headline of the article was about Kadyrov's belief that the United States encouraged Georgia to start the recent conflict with Russia, but the important message of the piece was that Chechnya's government today is solidly on Moscow's side. In fact Chechen paramilitaries were reported to have fought along with the Russian forces in Georgia last month.

Chechnya's capital, Grozny, is finally recovering from years of war, thanks in large part to financial aid that has flowed freely from Moscow. Construction projects have sprung up around the capital including one that build a huge presidential complex for Kadyrov, another that has constructed one of the largest mosques in Europe, and others that have rebuilt apartment blocks destroyed during the wars.

Kadyrov's father Akhmad started out fighting against Russia during Chechnya's first war in 1994-1996. But when the second war began in 1999, the Kadyrovs had a change of heart. While Chechnya is predominantly Muslim, they tend to practice a moderate form of Islam. The conflict through attracted radical, jihadist Muslims, including forces loyal to al-Qaeda. Their presence in the conflict prompted the Kadyrovs to switch sides and align themselves with Moscow, according to Ramzan. It also made them targets. Akhmad Kadyrov was elected president (in an election disputed by international monitors, who said that Chechnya was too damaged from the war to hold a fair election) and subsequently killed in a terrorist bombing in Grozny in 2004, Ramzan stepped into his role as leader of the region.

Chechen rebel groups, meanwhile, increasingly began to turn to terrorism in their struggle against Russia. They carried out a series of brutal terror attacks against civilians, including the bombing of two airliners in mid-flight, seizing a theater full of people in Moscow (more than 100 people died in the subsequent rescue operation) and in the worst attack of all, launching a two-day siege of a school in the southern Russian town of Beslan, killing more than 300 children. By 2006, after years of fighting, much of the rebel leadership had been killed, including Shamil Basayev, the alleged mastermind behind the terrorist attacks in Beslan and Moscow. The Chechen rebellion fell apart.

Ramzan Kadyrov brought a sense of stability to Chechnya - with sometimes brutal tactics and the use of his personal militia locally called the Kadyrovtsy according to human rights groups - and has built ties with Moscow. And that's the problem with the idea of saying we in the West could always just go ahead and recognize Chechnya's independence. The government in Chechnya now wants to be part of Russia, and even if you were to argue that Kadyrov is just a puppet of Moscow, the reality is the Chechen rebels (what’s left of them) are a group of airplane-bombing, schoolchild-killing terrorists aligned with al-Qaeda - not exactly the kind of folks you can embrace as aspiring democrats yearning to live free.

As much as the United States might like to one-up Russia by encouraging a separatist movement within its borders, they can’t spend seven years fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq because (supposedly) al-Qaeda was using them as terrorist bases only to encourage the creation of one within Europe.
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Power deal signed in Zimbabwe

Finally, after weeks of negotiations, President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai have signed a deal to share power in Zimbabwe.

According to the somewhat complex deal Tsvangirai will serve as Prime Minister where he will control the national police and chair a Council of Ministers; Mugabe, meanwhile, will head up the military and the presidential cabinet (which itself will be divided almost equally between Mugabe's ZANU-PF party and Tsvangirai's MDC). Other parts of the deal include promises to end violence between the two political parties, freedom for political parties to operate in the country and a return to freedom of the press.

Hopefully the two men can turn from feuding with each other to solving some of Zimbabwe's horrible problems. The economy has collapsed, inflation is now running at an unbelievable 11 million percent per year, and the country, which once was the breadbasket of Southern Africa, is now teetering on the brink of starvation. People in Zimbabwe are optimistic, but still wary that fighting between the two parties is actually over, or that Mugabe, who held onto power with an iron grip in recent years, is now ready to share.

International bodies are taking a wait and see approach for now. The European Union is waiting until October before making a decision on providing aid, while the International Monetary Fund is ready to begin talks with the new government on an aid package. International groups refused to provide aid to Zimbabwe unless Mugabe shared power with Tsvangirai.

(BBC Graphic)
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Sunday, September 14, 2008

EU rethinks biofuel goals

The European Union has changed its mind on using biofuels, at least a little.

Originally the EU wanted 10% of car and truck fuel to be in the form of biofuels by 2020. But that goal was set before people realized just how much diverting crops to fuel production would drive up world food prices, and that it would only encourage plowing under more acres of forest to turn it into farmland - both fairly big downsides. The European Parliament has now reduced the renewable fuels target from 10% to 6%, the remaining 4% now will have to come from hydrogen, electricity or from biological sources that aren't food crops.
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Australia's Outback: 'failed state'

One of the concepts you learn about in studying International Relations is the idea of something called a "Failed State". Basically it is what it sounds like - someplace that has stopped being a functioning civil society, in technical terms this usually means some blend of high poverty, high rates of crime/violence, and a poorly run (or non-existent) government that mismanages finances and resources. Usually failed states are associated with the places in the third world.

Or now, Australia.

That's the verdict of a group of prominent Australians who are now classifying the Outback - the huge, sparsely populated desert that covers much of inland Australia - as a failed state. They blame decades of Australian governments for mismanaging the vast area, and say that poor planning and lack of investment has caused to the infrastructure to crumble and many communities to become ghost towns as people pack up and head to the major cities along Australia's coast. The result, according to a report published by the Centre for Social Impact, is that much of the Outback is turning into "a largely unsettled wilderness."

The big problem for Australia is that about two-thirds of the country's mineral wealth is located in the Outback (including deposits of rare and valuable minerals like gold, diamonds and uranium), so if the region becomes abandoned, it would mean getting at that wealth would become much more difficult if not impossible, and that of course would be a real blow to Australia’s economy. The report even suggests that it could become a security problem for the country, raising the possibility that a foreign power could conceivably try to invade a portion of the Outback to get at the resources they contain on the basis that Australia had abandoned its claim to the area.
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Saakashvili planned the South Ossetia invasion

Georgia's attack on South Ossetia was at least three years in the planning according to their former Defense Minister Irakly Okruashvili, and was not the response to an unprovoked Russian invasion.

But Okruashvili, who turned into a critic of President Mikheil Saakashvili and now lives in exile, said that the Georgian president bungled the military operation, leading to Georgia's resounding defeat at the hands of Russia.

The original plan was to attack both the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali and the main highway leading into South Ossetia from Russia, but on the night of August 7 Saakashvili only launched the strike against Tskhinvali. According to Okruashvili, Saakashvili thought capturing the highway was unnecessary because he expected the United States to step in and block any Russian response. By the time Saakashvili realized that help from the US wasn't coming, it was too late to block the Russian reinforcements flooding into South Ossetia – dooming the Georgian offensive.

Of course why Saakashvili would think help was coming is a mystery since according to Okruashvili the United States told him not to expect the US to fight on Georgia's side. "When we met President Bush in May 2005, we were told directly: don't involve yourself in a military confrontation. We won't be able to help you militarily," Okruashvili told Reuters.

Okruashvili's report meshes with other recent reports that show Saakashvili as a hothead who was repeatedly told by foreign governments, including by representatives from the United States and Germany, not to provoke Russia. He went on to say that Saakashvili has turned into an authoritarian leader, "the institutions he created all revolved around him. Lack of criticism from the U.S. allowed him to go too far," Okruashvili added.

Okruashvili is an interesting character. On one hand he certainly has an axe to grind against Saakashvili - he had a falling out with the president and was charged with corruption in 2007, causing him to flee into exile. A Georgian court tried him in absentia and sentenced him to 11 years in prison. But at the same time Okruashvili is a native of South Ossetia, who during his time as defense minister did draw up plans to retake the region by force. He called the peace deal negotiated by the European Union a disgrace because of how it strengthened Russia's claim to Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Meanwhile RIA Novosti is reporting that Russian military intelligence estimates that Georgia lost up to 3,000 military and police personnel in the conflict. The Russians blame Georgia's heavy losses on poor training and low morale. Russia's official losses during the conflict are 66 killed and about 340 wounded.
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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Syria and Russia agree on naval base

Russia announced on Friday that they signed an agreement with Syria to let their navy use the Syrian port of Tartus on the Mediterranean Sea.

There have been rumors going around for a few years that Russia was talking with Syria about using Tartus as a base. Currently, the Russian Navy has a fleet based at Sevastopol in the Black Sea, but their are two problems with that: first to get out of the Black Sea into the Med and beyond, Russian ships have to pass through two narrow straits the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, (both located in Turkey, currently a member of NATO) meaning it’s a real bottleneck for the Russians; the other problem is that the base at Sevastopol is actually leased from Ukraine, but only until 2017 and the Ukrainians are not keen on renewing it. Tartus has been talked about from time to time as a new location for the Black Sea fleet for when the lease runs out.

Russia has already sent a ship to Tartus to begin work on the facilities there. With access to a new port, the Russian Navy is likely to become more active in the Mediterranean Sea. In the past year the Russian military has been conducting operations around the world in a way not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. Those operations have included exercises in the Atlantic by a large Naval task force, long-range bomber flights in the Arctic and even along the East Coast of the United States, and later this month a joint operation with Venezuela's navy in the Caribbean Sea.

Russia has also been increasing their military ties with Syria, especially since Russia's conflict with Georgia in August. There's been some speculation that Russia has cozied up to Syria in the past few weeks to annoy Israel because Israel had played a role in training and equipping Georgia's military.

The Soviet Union had maintained a supply base at Tartus, but it fell into disuse when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. Fixing the old base up though likely signals that Russia intends to return to the Med on a permanent basis.
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Friday, September 12, 2008

Chavez gets in on the US-Bolivia row

Hugo Chavez stepped into the diplomatic spat between the US and Bolivia on Friday by kicking the US ambassador out of Venezuela.

"The Yankee ambassador to Caracas has 72 hours to leave Venezuela, in solidarity with Bolivia, with the Bolivian people, and with the Bolivian government," Chavez said. His action came just hours after the United States ordered Bolivia's ambassador to leave Washington DC, a move that was in response to Bolivia asking the US ambassador to leave on Wednesday.

Follow all that?

Bolivia's President Evo Morales accused the US ambassador of plotting with opposition leaders to undermine his rule and to even break up Bolivia. Several people have been killed in recent days in fighting between pro and anti-Morales factions in one of Bolivia's provinces, and a suspicious blast shut down one of the country's main natural gas pipelines, cutting their gas exports - natural gas is one of Bolivia's main exports, and the source of much of the country's revenue.

Chavez has long had a prickly relationship with the United States, and accused the CIA of trying to overthrow him in an attempted coup. Recently, he signed a $2 billion deal with Russia for weapons and signed deals with Russian companies to work on Venezuela's oil fields (Venezuela is the United States 4th largest supplier of oil). On Thursday Russian long-range bombers landed in Venezuela as part of a military exercise between the two countries. Chavez has said that Venezuela is Russia's most important partner in the region.
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Finally, a deal in Zimbabwe

It looks like Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai have finally agreed to a power-sharing deal in Zimbabwe, but whether this will end months of political turmoil is still anybody's guess.

The deal was agreed to late Thursday night, it is suppose to be signed and made public on Monday, so the details are not available, but the two men and their parties - Mugabe's ZANU-PF and Tsvangirai's MDC - will share power just about equally according to reports.

Mugabe will remain as president with control of Zimbabwe's military, Tsvangirai will be made the Prime Minister (a post Mugabe had abolished years ago) and take control of the country's security forces, which in the past have been used to terrorize Mugabe's political opponents. Tsvangirai will also control the country's cabinet of ministers, which will be made up of members from both parties; Mugabe will chair a new body called the Council of State that will oversee the actions of the Cabinet and will again be made up of members from both parties.

It's a pretty convoluted system to be sure, but it does seem to split power pretty equally between the two sides. For weeks Mugabe had been pushing for a deal where he would retain the real power in the government while sticking Tsvangirai with the thankless task of trying to fix Zimbabwe's fractured economy; for his part Tsvangirai wanted to stick Mugabe in a purely ceremonial role as president.

Of course the deal still has to be signed and a lot of supporters on both side are said not to be happy about it, so the whole thing could still fall apart. One thing that might help is the vast amounts of foreign aid, pledged by countries on the condition that Tsvangirai and the MDC get some role in running the country.
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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Bolivian president asks US ambassador to leave

Bolivia's President Evo Morales has sent the US ambassador to his country packing.

Morales made the move after accusing the United States of undermining his rule in Bolivia, and of encouraging his political opponents. The expulsion of the ambassador came only hours after an explosion disabled an important natural gas pipeline in Bolivia, cutting their gas exports by 10%.

Like his close friend President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Morales has been pushing what the US government has called a "socialist" agenda for Bolivia. Morales is the first person of indigenous ancestry to be elected president in Bolivia, and was a poor farmer before getting involved in politics. Not surprisingly, he has funneled revenue made from exporting natural gas to some of the poorest parts of Bolivia.

But this hasn't made him popular with all Bolivians. Earlier in the year, residents in Santa Cruz - Bolivia's richest province - voted for expanded autonomy over their affairs, particularly how their gas revenues were spent. The vote in Santa Cruz triggered similar votes in some of Bolivia's other wealthier provinces, something that has undermined Morales' rule.

The final straw seems to have come when the US ambassador to Bolivia, Philip Goldberg, met with the governor of Santa Cruz province, one of Morales' biggest political opponents. Morales has long accused the United States of encouraging elements within Bolivia to rise up against him, and of supporting Bolivia’s conservative political opposition. "Without fear of the empire [his term for the US], I declare the U.S. ambassador 'persona non grata,'" Morales said, "we don't want separatists, divisionists."
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Something familiar in Japanese campaign

Tell me if any of this sounds familiar...

Yuriko Koike, a former defense minister, has launched a bid to become Japan's first female Prime Minister. Her reason for running? That because of her outsider status she is the only one capable of bringing the kind of change that Japan's government needs.

"In American terms, I am not much of a Washington insider," she said in an interview with Reuters. "I can make decisions that need to be made," said Koike, "the 'Old Boys club' can't do that. That's what has delayed change in Japan." The last two Prime Ministers have been forced to quit after failing to break the deadlock of a parliament divided between rival political parties. This leads some political observers to think that there might be a shake up of the political parties, with factions splitting off to form new alliances. Koike said that she would be best suited to put together a new ruling coalition.

Koike, meanwhile is playing down any comparisons to Republican Vice President candidate Sarah Palin, but in another odd parallel to our own election, one of the other candidates for the PM spot in Japan, Ichiro Ozawa, is running on a platform of "the people's livelihood first". Kinda sounds like the Republican's tagline "Country First", doesn't it?
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Watchdog report rips Georgian elections

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has just issued a report slamming the election of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili this past May.

In their report the ODIHR said that they had confirmed earlier claims of ballot box stuffing and other serious violations on election day. Even worse, according to ODIHR, was what happened after the election - including irregularities in the vote count and attacks against opposition candidates who reported problems, including one where an opposition politician had his leg broken by an angry mob. The report even criticized Georgia for actions before the election. Coverage of Saakashvili's government on Georgian television in the months leading up to the vote was overwhelmingly favorable, the one opposition-controlled television station in the country (Imedi TV) was for a time taken off the air, and when it was allowed to broadcast again, it did not cover politics again until after the election.

The final report was far harsher than an initial report issued days after Georgia's presidential election that said despite a few problems, the vote was generally free and fair.

Since the conflict in early August, Georgia has been held up as a bastion of democracy facing off against an oppressive, authoritarian Russia. Any allegations of Saakashvili's own authoritarian tendencies (like problems with the election, or his deploying riot police to break up a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration aimed at his government last December) were swept aside. The ODIHR report though shows that the charges against Saakashvili were based on fact and not smears made by the opposition as he had claimed. It will be interesting to see if this report affects the support for Saakashvili from governments in the United States and Europe.
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Tuesday, September 9, 2008


By now you may have heard that a bunch of scientists in Switzerland with an organization called CERN (the French acronym for European Organization for Nuclear Research) might accidentally bring about the end of the world on Wednesday by firing up something called the Large Hadrion Collider to try to create matter not seen since the Big Bang. Stuart Jeffries of the Guardian tries to explain just what's going under the Alps in a way that someone without several PhDs in Quantum Physics might understand, it's worth a read so you'll know what happened should the world suddenly end tomorrow.

About that, it's probably not going to happen. In fact scientists expect to spend years, if not decades, analyzing the data from tomorrow's experiment. They hope to create something called a Higgs boson, which they think is the building block of all matter in the universe. But they might also create a mini black hole (and they do stress "mini") in the process, one that they assure us will evaporate quickly, which has sparked all of the internet end of the world rumors.

The real likelihood though is, that like many first experiments, the whole thing will fizzle and nothing exciting at all will happen.

And as for the invariable question of what effect does any of this have on my day-to-day life, consider this: to share their data more effectively around the world, scientists from CERN created a series of protocols for sending data over the internet in graphical form. Once they wrote the protocols they shared them with the public at-large for free, creating what they called the World Wide Web - the internet we know and love today.

I hope that when they fire the Collider up tomorrow they play REM's "It's the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)", just in case.
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Is Kim Jong-Il ill?

Is Kim Jong-Il dead?

Speculation is flying over the health of North Korea's leader after he missed a huge parade to celebrate the 60th anniversary of North Korea's founding. Kim Jong-Il would normally attend a public event like the military parade held to celebrate the anniversary, so his absence has the rumor mill humming. The secretive nature of North Korea’s government, plus the fact that Kim hasn’t been seen in public in month has only made the situation worse.

US intelligence sources believe that Kim may have had a stroke late last month and could be in "grave" condition. South Korean officials report that medical experts from both France and China have been rushed into North Korea to treat him. Kim is 66 years old and widely thought to have serious health problems including a heart condition and diabetes.

Then there is a report from Japan that Kim Jong-Il actually died in 2003 and that the role of Dear Leader Kim (his preferred form of address) has been played by a series of body doubles for the past five years.

Running North Korea has been a Kim family enterprise since its founding. Kim Jong-Il father Kim Il Song (known as "Great Leader") ruled the state and groomed his son to succeed him. Even today Kim Il Song is regarded as a sort of deity in North Korea. Kim Jong-Il took over after his father died in 1994. Who will take over for him though is a mystery. He has at least four sons, his eldest Jong Nam was the likely successor until he got caught up in a very embarrassing incident in 2001 - he tried to sneak into Japan using a fake passport, his goal? A visit to Tokyo's Disney Park. That incident knocked Jong Nam out of the rotation, Kim Jong-Il now seems torn between two of his other sons.

But no matter which son (or whomever else) he picks, real power in North Korea will still lie with the country's armed forces. North Korea maintains one of the world's largest militaries.
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Obama win preferred in world poll

If the world could vote, Barack Obama would win in a landslide.

That is the result of a poll conducted by the BBC's World Service. The Beeb surveyed over 22,000 people in 22 nations across the globe, Obama was the pick of respondents in all 22 countries, and was a 4-1 survey-wide favorite over John McCain.

Digging a little deeper into the numbers, 46% think that America's relations with the world at-large will improve if Obama wins the election. Only 20% thought relations would improve under McCain. The one odd country in the survey was Turkey - more Turks thought relations with America would worsen under Obama rather than McCain, yet Turkey still hoped Obama to win the election.

Among the countries surveyed were Australia, France, Germany, India, Russia and Turkey. Obama was favored by 82% of those surveyed in Kenya, his father's birthplace.
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Monday, September 8, 2008

Russian warships to visit Venezuela

Russian warships will be in the Caribbean Sea this November.

Four of them, including the "Peter the Great", flagship of their Northern Fleet, will be conducting a joint naval exercise with ships from Venezuela. Given Russia's annoyance and Hugo Chavez's generally poor relationship with the United States, it's hard not to see this as a move designed to bother Washington, a sort of tit-for-tat exercise of playing in each other's backyard: the US sends warships to deliver aid to Georgia, so now Russian ships are coming to Venezuela. Washington has tried to downplay the importance of exercise, with one State Department official even wondering if ships from the Russian Navy could even sail all the way to Venezuela without breaking down.

Earlier this summer Russia agreed to a $2 billion arms sale to Venezuela, and Hugo Chavez has called his country Russia's most important partner in this hemisphere. In addition to the ships, Venezuela will also play host to a number of Russian military aircraft that will be involved in the naval exercise.
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Sunday, September 7, 2008

EU ministers call for probe into Georgia-Russia conflict

The foreign ministers from several European Union nations are now calling for an investigation into the recent conflict between Russia and Georgia. The ministers want to find out both who started the fighting and also if any human rights violations took place during the conflict.

The probe is an excellent idea and a good way to move forward, so long as it’s both independent and fair. All of the sides involved - the Russians, the Georgians, the South Ossetians - have been making accusations in a full-on propaganda war, while "The West" (in this case Europe and America) have broken into two camps: The US, UK and a number of Eastern Europe nations looking to take a hardline with Russia, while EU powers like France, Germany and Italy have been taking a less critical tone.

I think that Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, probably has the most realistic view of what happened. Hammarberg said that the conflict started after Georgia attacked the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, but that South Ossetian militias were responsible for attacks against Georgian villages in the following days.

Under international law Russia, as the occupying power in Georgia, would be responsible for providing security in the parts of Georgia they were occupying - in other words, they should have kept the Ossetian militias from running amok.

The EU will also meet with officials in Moscow on Monday to get Russia's agreement to send international observers to monitor the ceasefire in Georgia.
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Zimbabwe: Mugabe aides hold secret talks

Oh Robert, you should have taken my advice.

The Guardian is reporting that some of President Mugabe's top aides have held secret meetings with South African mediators trying to work out a power sharing deal between Mugabe's ZANU-PF party and his rival for the presidency Morgan Tsvangirai. What they apparently want is a promise that they won't be prosecuted if Tsvangirai's MDC party takes over power in Zimbabwe.

So far talks on sharing power haven't gone so well. Mugabe has been pushing a deal where he keeps the power in the government and sticks Tsvangirai with the thankless job of rebuilding the country's wrecked economy. Tsvangirai, for his part, is refusing to accept any deal where he doesn't have some real power, and the talks themselves seem like they're going nowhere fast.

And as I said in an earlier post, the fear of Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe seems to be evaporating, which is likely why some of his top aides look like they're searching for a Plan B. Mugabe's military and security services have kept him in power for nearly 30 years, he has relied on them much more in these past few years as popular support has built for new leadership in the country.

But above all, those responsible for keeping him in power want to save their own skins, whether that means by keeping Mugabe in power or by cutting a deal with the opposition. If Tsvangirai is willing to make a deal, and if he can convince them he means it, then this really could be the end for Mugabe.
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Friday, September 5, 2008

Aid to Georgia

On his tour of Europe, Vice President Dick Cheney has backed a proposal to send $1 billion in aid to Georgia to help them rebuild after the recent conflict with Russia. Several members of Congress including Democratic VP candidate and US Senator Joe Biden are also supporting the aid package.

As someone whose tax dollars will be part of that aid package, I have to object. The idea for sending money to Georgia started floating around the same time that Hurricane Gustav took aim at the US Gulf Coast. The governors of both Louisiana and Mississippi were deeply concerned about the damage that Gustav would inflict, especially on houses and other structures still unrepaired from the impact of Hurricane Katrina three years ago. At the same time officials from the Army Corps of Engineers and Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans both worried about the city's levee system, which in many areas still had not fully repaired from the pounding it took during Katrina.

Three years on and we still have thousands of structures unrepaired and a major city protected by a fragile levee system, yet we are being asked to send a billion dollars to Georgia not to help them rebuild from an unavoidable natural disaster, but rather a totally avoidable conflict - one that it seems they themselves started? Wouldn't it be more responsible to spend that billion at home?

Not that I am against foreign aid, far from it. But it's one thing to provide aid for development or disaster relief, it's another to hand it out as a reward for bad decisions.
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Thursday, September 4, 2008

(A little) Recognition for South Ossetia, Abkhazia

A second country has recognized the fledgling states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

That nation? Nicaragua.

Frankly, I’m still trying to figure this one out, why of all places Nicaragua would choose to take the plunge in recognizing the independence of the two former Georgian regions. I thought that maybe Iran and/or Venezuela might give their official recognition just to annoy the United States, but while they say they support Russia’s actions, they haven’t given their blessing to South Ossetia or Abkhazia. The same goes for Russia’s would-be union partner Belarus, which has talked about giving official recognition to the two states, but so far hasn’t.

So what’s the practical effect of Nicaragua’s decision? Basically, it does very little, though it at least gives Russia the ability to say that the nations of South Ossetia and Abkhazia aren’t solely a figment of their imagination.
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Mr. Cheney goes to Kiev

Vice President Dick Cheney has given his support to Ukraine’s joining NATO, whether the Ukrainians want to join is another story…

Cheney had the misfortune to drop in on Kiev just as the government of President Viktor Yushchenko collapsed. Yushchenko and his coalition partner Yulia Tymoshenko’s already strained relationship fell apart over the recent conflict in Georgia. Yushchenko wanted to condemn Russia for their actions in Georgia, but Tymoshenko refused, which caused Yushchenko to accuse her of being an agent of Moscow and basically accuse her of treason.

Things went downhill from there.

I’ve written a number of times here about the feuding between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, the two heroes of Ukraine’s pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004, so I won’t go into it again now, other than to say when they formed this coalition back in January, I said it wouldn’t last, their competing egos wouldn’t allow it.

Yushchenko is really in a bind now; he has a few choices, all of them bad. He has about a week to form a new coalition that means either mending fences with Tymoshenko, which experts put at 50-50 odds, or forming a coalition with the country’s other political power, former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich. But since Yanukovich’s base of power is in the east of Ukraine, where much of the country’s Russian population lives, it’s pretty unlikely he’ll team up with the pro-Western Yushchenko. That means Yushchenko would have to call for new elections, and there is no enthusiasm in Ukraine for that.

Ukrainians are getting fed up with their whole political situation. After the Orange Revolution there were promises of closer ties with Europe that would boost the economy, and speedy entry into the European Union and NATO. But almost four years later, the economy is in the doldrums (inflation is among the highest in Europe), while membership in the EU is in the far future. And the population is getting fed up with power just shuffling among Tymoshenko, Yushchenko and Yanukovich.

Currently Tymoshenko is leading in the polls, with Yanukovich close behind (each have just over 20% support). In more bad news for Yushchenko, his party is polling in the single digits, down with the old Communist Party of Ukraine. This also means that NATO membership could be put on the back burner. Tymoshenko wants to be in the EU, but is cool on NATO membership; the pro-Russian Yanukovich is opposed to it outright.

As are a significant number of Ukraine’s citizens. In fact, the US Coast Guard Cutter Dallas, fresh from it’s mission to Georgia, had to cut short a call on the Crimean port city of Sevastopol after the ship was met by a large group of very vocal protestors. Sevastopol is the historic home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, and the Crimea was a part of Russia until 1954, about half of Crimea’s residents are ethnic Russians. Reportedly a crowd gathered on the dock, played patriotic Russian songs from the Second World War and chanted anti-NATO slogans while Ukrainian officials visited the Dallas.
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Afghan leader vows punishment for deadly US raid

Is the United States’ relationship with Afghanistan on the rocks?

That nation’s president, Hamid Karzai, is reported to be furious over the rising number of Afghani citizens being killed as a result of US and NATO military operations. The situation came to a head following a deadly air raid on the Afghani village of Azizabad late last month that left up to 90 civilians dead (the US military disputes this figure).

Now Karzai is promising to punish those responsible for killing Afghani civilians. Karzai said in a statement that “our relationship with foreigners got worse” after the raid. He also told an assembly of villagers outside Azizabad that he has been trying for five years to reduce the number of civilian casualties caused by coalition operations in the country.

It will be difficult for Karzai to follow through on his promise though if it involves punishing US troops. As with other countries where the United States military operates, we have a “Status of Force” agreement with Afghanistan, that essentially gives US troops immunity from prosecution under local laws (the logic behind the agreements is that if the US troops didn’t have immunity then they could become the target for politically-motivated prosecutions). So the only way to prosecute military personnel involved in the Azizabad operation would be if the US military decided that there had been some gross misconduct in their action that deserved of a court marshal.

The United States though disputes the number of people killed in Azizabad, and contends that the Taliban (and their supporters) regularly inflate casualty reports after coalition operations in an effort to turn the local population against the Western forces. A US report released on Tuesday said that a joint US/Afghan force came under attack outside Azizabad, and acted in self-defense. They claim that only seven civilians were killed in the fighting along with 30 or 35 militants. It doesn’t seem like a court marshal is in the future over this raid.

Karzai is now saying that he will review the rules that the US and NATO forces operate under, and that he wants to update the status of forces agreements. That’s unlikely to happen, so you have to wonder what Karzai’s next move will be.
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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

New Features

I've been making some upgrades to the site, you can check them out along the right side of the page.

Below the post archive now is a feature that let's you view all posts tagged with a certain label - for example, click on "Canada" and you'll get all the post written about Canada. You can also still use the search box at the top left hand corner of the screen to look for specific terms.

I've also added two news features to the site. The first is a newsticker via Yahoo! that shows headlines and summaries of a few top stories from the major wire services. You can click on the links provided to open the full story. Below that is a cool feature called the News Map. Click on a country and you will get a news site from there (for example, click on Russia and you'll get The Moscow Times site).

I'm working on adding a couple of other cool things in the near future, stay tuned. Drop me a line and tell me what you think.

- E.
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Tata suspends work on world's cheapest car

India's Tata Group was forced today to stop work on a factory meant to build the world's cheapest car.

Tata made a splash earlier in the year when they rolled out a prototype for the Nano, an ultra-compact car, with a price tag of just over $2,200, aimed at India's growing middle class. They planned to build a huge new factory in the Marxist-controlled state of West Bengal, but the people there apparently object to "the people's car".

Local activists are angry that the state allowed Tata to seize 1,000 acres from local farmers for the factory. They contend the factory only needs 600 acres and want the rest of the land returned to its owners. And while protests have been going on for two years around the site, they have gotten larger and more tense in recent days, finally prompting Tata to give up on the nearly-finished plant (which has cost over $350 million to build) over fears that the workers there would not be safe.

Tata is now looking at other Indian states to host the Nano's assembly plant.

The whole Nano project has not been without its critics. Environmentalists are worried that putting thousands of Nanos on the road will only worsen India’s air pollution. Part of the reason the car is so cheap is that it does not include any modern pollution-reduction devices. If fact, Tata will only be able to build the Nano for a few years until tighter air quality laws are expected to go into effect in India. Others wonder what effect adding thousands of cars will have on India's already over-crowded urban streets.

Venu Srinivasan, chairman of India's leading manufacturer of motorcycles and scooters TVS-Suzuki, in an interview with AFP also worried that Tata's decision to relocate the almost finished plant could scare foreign investors away from India's manufacturing sector.
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Putin saves TV crew from tiger

File this one under strange but true…

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is being credited with saving a TV film crew from a wild Siberian tiger. Both Putin and the TV crew were in the wilds of Russia’s Far East to check on a conservation program aimed at saving the critically endangered Amur tiger (Amurs are a sub-species of the Siberian tiger that live in the Amur River region near the Chinese border and are the largest cats in the world).

The tiger was supposed to be caught in a trap, but when the TV crew approached, it got loose and headed straight for them. Reportedly, Putin grabbed a tranquilizer rifle from an aide and shot the tiger before it could attack. Putin then helped the scientists measure the sleeping tiger and attach a satellite-tracking collar. Rossiya television opened their national newscast with the report of Putin saving their crew.

Okay, passed the tiger, there are two other interesting elements to this story.

First is a quote from Putin: "First of all, we must thank our colleagues, Americans, European colleagues for being involved with this [the conservation program] during a difficult time for Russia when no-one was paying any attention to this," Putin said on TV. Now during the Cold War there was a skill called Kremlinology - basically it involved obsessively pouring over Russian media stories, official photographs and such to look for clues as to what the secretive Soviet leadership might be planning. So, putting on my Kremlinologist hat, could this statement, thanks to the Americans and Europeans, be an indication that Putin wants to repair relations with the West that have been strained by the whole Georgia conflict?

Second is the idea of Putin as an environmentalist. The Reuters story notes that Putin has in the past (unilaterally) redrawn the course of a pipeline that environmentalists felt passed too close to the environmentally-sensitive Lake Baikal and also moved the site of the Olympic village for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi away from a sensitive area. All that and saving tigers too…

(photo from
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Monday, September 1, 2008

Human Rights Watch: Georgia admits to dropping cluster bombs

Human Rights Watch says that the Georgian Defense Ministry has admitted to using cluster bombs in the recent conflict in South Ossetia. Cluster bombs are basically one large bomb that fractures in mid-air, releasing dozens, or hundreds of smaller bomblets over a wide area. Cluster bombs are considered an especially horrible weapon because the bomblets do not always explode on contact with the ground, and can remain lethal for months or even years after they're dropped, often killing innocent civilians long after a conflict ends. There has been a worldwide movement to stop their production or use with over 100 nations committing to the ban, though most notably Russia, the United States and Isreal have all refused to sign the ban.

Human Rights Watch accuses Russia of using cluster bombs as well during the conflict, a claim that Russia denies.

The same day the revelation about Georgia's use of cluster bombs came out, a controversy erupted over a story in a well-respected German news magazine that condemns Georgia's actions in the war.

In their Monday edition, Der Spiegel claims to have leaked documents from an Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe report on the war that accuses Georgian President Mikheil Sakaashvili of starting the conflict by ordering the all-out assault on Tskhinvali without provocation. Sakaashvili has claimed that he ordered Georgian forces into action only after a large force of Russian tanks entered South Ossetia. The same report also accuses Sakaashvili of lying to both the United States and Europe over the causes of the war, and formally condemns Georgia for the conflict.

Not so fast, says the OSCE. They say that the OSCE regularly reports to all member nations (inlcuding Russia) and that no such report like the one Der Spiegel cites has been circulated to them. The OSCE also says that the Der Spiegel contains information that the group does not have access to, like intercepted telephone calls.

We’ll see if Der Spiegel has a reply to the OSCE’s charges.
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NATO on the hot seat for killing civilians

The NATO mission in Afghanistan is again facing criticism for killing civilians. In the latest mishap, three Afghani children were killed when a NATO patrol fired on a group of insurgents, but accidentally hit a nearby house.

This incident comes less than two weeks after the Afghani government accused NATO forces of killing up to 90 civilians. Last night 60 Minutes just happened to run a story on this earlier event, visiting the small village east of the capital, Kabul, that was the site of the attack and talking to the locals.

They claim that a group of insurgents, a group unknown to the villagers, fired a mortar in the direction of a nearby NATO outpost. The NATO outpost responded with mortar fire directed at the village, and by calling in an air strike from the U.S. Air Force. Aircraft dropped two 2,000-pound bombs on the small village of mud and brick walled houses, killing dozens in the process, even wiping out entire families.

60 Minutes also talked with officials from the U.S. military about the incident. The military does say that a battle happened, and that unfortunately some civilians were killed, though the military claims only five casualties were civilians, with 25 others being militant fighters. The U.S./NATO position is that casualty claims made by Afghanis are unreliable because Taliban insurgents, and villagers who support them, will regularly inflate casualty claims among civilians to try to undermine NATO's efforts in the country by painting them as gun-happy killers to turn the population at-large against them.

I have no way of knowing whether the villagers 60 Minutes talked to support the Taliban, the government of President Hamid Karzai, or neither. But I can say that their anger over the civilians killed in their village seemed both honest and deep. One older man went so far as to say that the Americans treated them worse than the Soviets ever did. The Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan for nine years during the 1980s in an occupation noted for its brutality; so to say that the Americans are now acting worse than the Soviets is quite a claim. Meanwhile, President Karzai has recently called the US/NATO forces out several times for the increasing number of civilian deaths in his country.

All in all the war in Afghanistan is not going well. The Taliban, which looked like it was defeated a couple of years ago is back with a vengeance. Their forces are said to be operating near the outskirts of Kabul (which has been the seat of Western power in the country since their overthrow), and Taliban forces are operating in larger groups, rather than in the hit-and-run strikes they have preferred in the past. Last month a well coordinated, daylong Taliban attack left 10 French troops dead and another 21 wounded.
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