Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Gaza update: aid ship rammed, Obama called out

With world opinion already solidly against Israel, the news from overnight isn’t likely to win them many fans.

The Israeli Navy rammed a boat, christened the “Dignity,” that was attempting to run the sea blockade of Gaza and deliver much-needed medical supplies to the territory. Because of the long-standing Israeli blockade of Gaza, hospitals there are suffering from chronic shortages of just about everything. Casualties generated by Israeli air strikes have driven them to the breaking point. Things are so bad that medics are asking patients who aren’t in serious condition to leave the hospitals to free up space for those more grievously wounded (for more on the medical situation in Gaza, click here).

The Dignity was in international waters when an Israeli ship struck it (“deliberately struck” according to a CNN correspondent onboard) smashing windows in the Dignity’s cabin and punching a hole in its port side. The Dignity continued on to Lebanon, where it docked safely. The government of Cyprus is calling on Israel to explain the incident since there were several Cypriots among the passengers. No word from the US government yet on whether they’d like a similar explanation on behalf of the Americans aboard.

Meanwhile a key campaign advisor has called Barack Obama out on his silence over the Gaza crisis. Obama’s camp has said that he is monitoring the situation, but that it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to comment since the United States only has one president at a time. I say they’re being very generous to George W. in saying that he’s still president… It’s been pretty clear that since the November election Dubya is much more interested in starting the rehab work on the legacy of the Bush43 presidency then he is about actually running the country. He hasn’t made a public statement on the Gaza situation; instead the only comments have come from a junior administration spokesman.

Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, one of the first military people to publicly back Obama during the campaign, told CNN that Obama has to deal with the Israel-Palestine situation on day one, and should negotiate with Hamas if certain conditions are met. Zinni went on to say that Obama had to remain committed to the peace process “no matter what happens” and that he needs to approach it in a new hands-on way, that discussions around conference tables are fairly useless at this point in building a lasting peace.

I think though Zinni’s even made a public statement at this point is an expression of frustration among some of his supporters over a perceived lack of leadership on his part in dealing with a conflict that is sure to dominate the opening days of his presidency.
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Russia to Ukraine: Pay up!

It could be a cold winter in Ukraine if they don't make good on a debt to Russia. Ukraine currently owes $2 billion to Russia's natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, who is threatening to cut off supplies as of January 1 if Ukraine doesn't make good on the outstanding balance.

The back-story here is that right after the end of the Soviet Union, Russia sold natural gas and oil to former Soviet republics like Ukraine at cut-rate prices. Countries in the West, who also bought Russian gas complained about this arrangement and wanted Russia to start paying fair market prices. Russia has been increasing the price it charges in the 'near abroad' (their term for the countries of the former Soviet Union) over the past few years though it is still well below market rates, but Ukraine has been falling behind in their payments and now owes around $2 billion. So now Gazprom is threatening to cut them off.

This all puts Ukraine in a tough spot, since they just had to ask the International Monetary Fund for a loan of more than $14 billion to keep their economy afloat, so its doubtful whether they have a spare $2 bil lying around. To make things more complicated, the pipelines that carry Russian natural gas to Europe pass through Ukraine, the Russians are worried that if Gazprom cuts off Ukraine, they might just siphon off some of the natural gas headed for customers further west.

And Ukraine isn't the only problem brewing in that part of the world. Russia's RIA Novosti is reporting that Georgia is moving tanks up to the border of South Ossetia. The deployment of tanks follows a similar report by European observers monitoring the border after the August war who noted the arrival of several dozen Georgian armored vehicles in the area in the last two weeks. All of this is sparking fears that the conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia could reignite, which would undoubtedly draw Russia back into the fight.

Perhaps all of this explains why last month President Bush decided to insure all American ships sailing through the Black Sea against damage caused by military action (usually that kind of insurance is only issued when ships will be entering a war zone). The insurance decree runs through next March.
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Monday, December 29, 2008

Latvians ask oligarch to buy their country

I'm assuming that this was meant as a joke, but you never can tell these days...

More than 400 Latvians have signed an online petition asking Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich to buy their country.

Latvia has been hit hard by the global financial crisis, its economy has taken the biggest hit in all of Europe; Latvia's gross domestic product fell by more than 4% in the last quarter alone. The country is negotiating with the International Monetary Fund for a loan of nearly $11 billion to prop up its ailing economy. Some Latvians though would apparently rather take the money from Mr. Abramovich (he could afford it, his net wealth is estimated at about $23 billion and the world famous Chelsea football club is among his many holdings).

The petition says that the Latvian people "are hard working and pleasant," and that the country is an "environmentally clean area [with] plenty of space to dock your yacht."

Strangely enough this isn't the first time there's been talk about buying a country recently.

Last month Mohamed Nasheed, the newly elected president of the Maldives islands, set up a fund to one day buy a new homeland for his nation's 300,000 citizens. The Maldives are a group of more than 1,000 small islands in the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately the average elevation of the Maldives is about four and a half feet. Even a relatively small rise in ocean levels due to global warming would make large parts of the archipelago uninhabitable.

So Nasheed is diverting a portion of the profits from the country's billion dollar tourist industry into a sovereign wealth fund to one day buy a new homeland, land in Sri Lanka or India is being considered because of the similarities in the cultures, though Australia is also an option because of the wide stretches of open land there.

"We do not want to leave the Maldives, Nasheed said, "but we also do not want to be climate refugees living in tents for decades."
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Winners in Gaza - Kadima and Labour

Early polls are showing that Israel's Gaza offensive is paying big returns for the Kadima and Labour parties just a month before Israelis vote in national elections.

Kadima's Tzipi Livni and Labour's Ehud Barak are both closely linked with past efforts at negotiations with the Palestinians. By contrast the leader of the Likud Party, former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, is one of the biggest hawks in Israeli politics and has already signaled that he would take a tough line with the Palestinians if he wins the election.

A month ago a Likud victory looked almost certain, but since the Gaza assault began both Kadima and Labour have gained ground, sparking some talk that they may get enough votes to cobble together a ruling coalition after the election. Voters interviewed by the Times of London clearly appreciated that the current Kadima-led government launched the Gaza offensive; one voter called it "genius".

The poll results are sure to spark more speculation that the whole Gaza offensive was less about providing security and more about providing votes to parties that had been trailing badly in the polls.

Political observers caution that there is still a month before the election and that if Israel were to commit troops to a (likely very bloody) ground campaign in Gaza, public opinion could quickly turn against the mission.
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Moscow-Beijing set up hotline

Sometimes small stories can be an indication of bigger things.

The commanders of the Russian and Chinese militaries used a hotline set up between the two countries for the first time this week. The call itself wasn't important, really it was just to test the system, but that the hotline even exists is another indication of how China is quickly joining the ranks of the world's superpowers.

The US and Soviet Union set up the first hotline (the infamous red phone you see in the movies, though the actual “red phone” itself is dramatic license) in the 1960s after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Unclear and delayed messages between the two sides during the crisis almost lead to a nuclear war, so both countries decided they needed a way for their leaders to talk directly to each other during an emergency - the consequences of a misunderstanding were just too great. Establishing a hotline with China shows that Russia fears a similar misunderstanding with Beijing could be a disaster as well.

The United States and China agreed on the idea of a hotline between Washington and Beijing three years ago, but so far it hasn't been set up. Why it hasn't is an open question.
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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Laura Bush talks about change in Iraq

First Lady Laura Bush gave her take on her husband's presidency in a televised interview this weekend. Not surprisingly, she had a positive view on what he accomplished, but there was one quote that jumped out at me.

In talking about the now infamous shoe-throwing incident in Iraq earlier this month, Mrs. Bush said that while she was concerned about it since it was an attempted (if slightly comical) assault on the President of the United States, she also saw it as a positive step for the people of Iraq. "In my view, it is a sign that Iraqis feel a lot freer to express themselves," she said. That echoes a comment made by George W. himself where he said he took the shoe tossing as a positive development for freedom of expression since no one would have dared to do such a thing under Saddam Hussein.

But maybe things haven't changed that much after all, if a story about the shoe thrower Muntader al-Zaidi in the New York Times last week is to be believed. Al-Zaidi wrote a letter to the Iraqi government asking for forgiveness for his actions, saying he was influenced by a known terrorist to throw his shoes at Bush. Al-Zaidi apparently decided to ask forgiveness after Iraqi security officials spent a couple of days beating the crap out of him, including whipping him with electrical cables, burning him with cigarettes and knocking out one of his teeth, according to al-Zaidi's brother.

Last month the LA Times ran a long piece on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki that said Kurdish, Sunni and even some Shiite (Maliki is a Shiite) were worried that he had the potential to turn into an authoritarian strongman, the alleged treatment of Muntader al-Zaidi, who publicly embarrassed Maliki by attacking Bush, is an indication that they could be right. Maybe things haven't changed all that much in Iraq after all.
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Can Bjork save Iceland?

Avant-garde singer Bjork is stepping up to try to rescue the economy of her native Iceland.

The Icelandic economy nearly collapsed in September when the financial crisis began, the country's three major banks were heavily invested in the sub-prime loan market and were clobbered, along with much of the island's economy. Iceland's currency, the krona, has lost half its value and the nation’s economy is expected to shrink by nearly 10% next year.

So in an effort to help make things better, Bjork is launching a venture capital fund with a pool of $800,000 to start with. The fund will focus on companies using environmentally responsible technologies and will fund "companies that create value through the uniqueness of Iceland’s nature and culture," according to Bjork's people.
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Blitzer pundit fumbles on Iraq

If you watch television then you know that pundits are fixtures on the cable news channels. But if you are going to have someone on to give their "expert" view of things, they should at least get their facts right.

My latest case in point, this morning's "Late Edition with Wolf Blizter" on CNN. Wolf had as part of a panel discussion Tara Wall, deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Times. She was, apparently, trying to defend the Bush Administration's record on Iraq when she said that this year, for the first time, Christians in Iraq were able to celebrate Christmas.

The image of a religious minority being able to openly celebrate their holy day would be a powerful image of change - if only it was true. But, in fact, even during the bad old days of Saddam Hussein, Christians in Iraq were free to practice their faith - Iraq was one of the very few places in the Arab world where you could even buy a Christmas tree. The trouble for Christians in Iraq really didn't begin until after the 2003 invasion when in the power vacuum that followed, Sunni and Shiite extremists were able to run amok. 2008 was the first year that Iraq officially recognized Christmas, as a national holiday, but that is a very different thing than to imply that before Christians in Iraq had to hide their faith and celebrations for fear of persecution, like Ms. Wall tried to do.

I don't have a problem with the cable news channels putting on pundits from the left, right or middle, it just would be nice if these "experts" had a clue as to what they were talking about.

A final note to Mr. Blitzer, I am available for booking.
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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Carnage in Gaza

If you've seen any news at all today then you've probably seen the images coming out of Gaza, which is reeling from a large-scale assault by the Israeli Air Force (which dropped 100 tons of bombs today alone on the territory). As of this evening more than 225 Gazans are reported dead with perhaps 700 more injured. The death toll will surely climb since Gaza's hospitals suffer from chronic shortages of pretty much everything because of an Israeli blockade on shipments of goods into the territory. Israel said the attacks were necessary because of rocket attacks - sometimes several dozen a day - being launched from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel.

But rocket attacks from Gaza are a fairly common occurrence and have never provoked such a violent response from the Israelis before. The BBC is speculating that there might be other reasons for the large-scale assault. The ruling Kadima party has to stand for election in a month and they have been trailing in the polls to the right-wing (and more hawkish) Likud party, so the Beeb is suggesting that politics may have influenced the decision on the timing and scale of the strike. They also note that the opinion in Israel is that Barack Obama will be more sympathetic to the Palestinians than George Bush has been, so it was best to launch an operation in Gaza before Obama takes office.

Israel has said that it cannot allow Hamas to operate in Gaza (even though they were democratically elected) and that they can't negotiate with a group that has called for Israel's destruction. It's a good point, but if you go back 20 or so years you could find the British government making the same kind of statements about talking to the Irish Republican Army. The IRA engaged in a decades-long fight against the British for control of Northern Ireland, even conducting bombings and assassinations in England itself. But the two sides did eventually sit down and negotiate and today Northern Ireland is a (relatively) peaceful place.

Israeli statesman Yitzak Rabin made the observation that "you don't make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies." Yes, Hamas would like Israel to go away, but earlier in the year polls showed that a majority of Israelis supported the idea of negotiations with Hamas, and the terrorist group even indicated it was open to the idea of talks.

While the citizens in Gaza have said that today's air strikes were the worst they could ever remember, they are not the first time Israel has tried to use force in the Gaza Strip. Government after government in Israel has launched military actions against forces in Gaza, from air strikes, to artillery barrages to full-scale invasions - none have ever turned Gaza into a peaceful place that thinks kindly of Israel. It's a pretty safe bet that this latest round won't either. Instead more Gazans will look at the bombs falling from the sky, the blockade keeping the stuff of daily life out and decide that they might as well just join up with the terrorists since there’s not much to live for anyway.

Force hasn't helped Israel solve its problem with the Palestinians for the past 40 years; it won't help this time either.
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China wants Uighurs returned from Guantanamo

You may remember the story from October about a federal judge ordering the release of 17 Uighurs from the prison at Guantanamo Bay (Uighurs are a Muslim ethnic minority group from Xinjiang Province in Northwestern China). The US government had decided long ago that the men, picked up during a security sweep in Afghanistan in 2002, were not actually terrorists, nor "enemy combatants", but with no country offering to take them in, and not wanting to give them permission to emigrate to the US (which does have a refugee Uighur population), we kept them in jail. Now China has stepped up to say they'd like their people back.

But the reason the US government didn't send them home to China in the first place is the near surety that the Chinese would jail, torture and then possibly shoot the Uighurs. China has long been pursuing a campaign of oppression against the Uighur population in Xinjiang because they have pushed for some degree of local autonomy (for a very brief period in the 1940's Xinjiang was an independent country called East Turkmenistan before being overrun by the Chinese Red Army). In fact China has been pursuing the same pattern of religious and cultural oppression of the Uighurs, while trying to displace them by moving waves of ethnic Han Chinese into Xinjiang that they have been doing for years now in the region just south of Xinjiang, Tibet. The Uighurs’ problem is that they don't have a cute and cuddly, philosophy-spouting spokesman like the Dalai Lama to lobby for their cause – probably why kids on college campuses across the country wear "Free Tibet" T-shirts instead of "Free Xinjiang" ones.

China didn't put in a claim for the Guantanamo Uighurs until Germany began talking with the US about taking them in. Hopefully the US will continue to do the right thing and not send them back to a brief and unpleasant future in China.
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Friday, December 26, 2008

US-Georgia pact shows there's still time to make foreign policy mistakes

Just to prove that there’s still time for the Bush administration to make one last bad foreign policy decision, it was announced on Monday that the US and Georgia will sign a strategic partnership agreement on January 4. Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili is hailing the deal as a “historic” partnership between the two countries. The move comes just weeks after NATO declined to launch a formal partnership agreement with Georgia that would eventually lead to their membership in NATO.

So why you ask is the US-Georgia partnership a bad idea? For a few reasons. Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s the countries in central and eastern Europe that were once part of the Soviet bloc were told that if they engaged in certain reforms and became stable democratic states they could join NATO – it was offered up as a reward for good government practices. Right now Georgia is far from a model democracy, Saakashvili does not put up with dissent (he was even rumored last week to have punched his prime minister in the face during a disagreement), while his government has been widely accused of corruption and of growing more autocratic during the past year – all reasons why NATO members like Germany felt Georgia didn’t deserve a membership plan at this point.

Saakashvili also launched his mission to retake South Ossetia by force in August (which then turned into a full-blown conflict with Russia) in part because he thought he had the support of Western powers like the US and NATO – this despite the fact that officials from Germany and even the United States explicitly warned him against provoking Russia and told him that we would not come to his aid if he started a fight with Russia. So having the US sign an “historic” agreement with him at this point is a risky thing to do since Saakashvili has yet to launch the democratic reforms he has promised several times to undertake and because he has a track record of misunderstanding foreign support for his actions.

In fact Saakashvili could already be taking the partnership agreement as a green light for military action. Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency is reporting that on Wednesday Georgia started moving armored vehicles to the disputed borders with the (self-declared) independent regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, according to reports by European monitors operating in the area. The Europeans say the armor won’t help security in the region, which begs the question as to why Georgia is moving troops to the area now? Keep in mind that Saakashvili pledged while running for reelection to bring South Ossetia and Abkhazia back under Georgian control by any means necessary (for 15 years the two regions basically governed themselves after brief civil wars in the early 1990s).

Last month I was at a panel discussion where an expert in the region said he thought there was a one-in-three chance Russia and Georgia would fight again in the near future. It’s starting to look like the chances might be better than that. Luckily the partnership agreement doesn’t commit the US into defending Georgia’s if it’s attacked.
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India and Pakistan - stumbling towards war

Pakistan today reportedly moved thousands of troops to positions along their border with India in another sign of worsening relations between the two countries.

The most recent India-Pakistan crisis was sparked by the massive series of terrorist attacks in Mumbai last month. India blamed Pakistan for the attacks – India believes that Pakistan offers a safe haven for terrorists and that the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, has helped to train them in the past. After the Mumbai attacks, India gave Pakistan 30 days to crack down on the terrorist organizations that India says organized the Mumbai attacks, or else they (India’s government) would take action on their own. Pakistan, in response, has said they can’t do much without more evidence, which they say the Indian side hasn’t provided.

The 30-day period ends today, December 26 (which probably explains why Pakistan is suddenly moving troops to the border).

I think that there is a good chance the people of India and Pakistan could push their two countries into their fourth war in the last sixty years. The population in India is getting more and more critical of their government for not taking decisive action against the terrorists that is why India gave Pakistan the 30-day ultimatum. India has talked about launching raids into Pakistan to take out what they suspect are terrorist training camps, but have held off so far, trying to cooperate with the Pakistani government instead. If India decides that Pakistan isn’t dealing with them fairly though, the pressure to take some decisive action will likely be too much for the Indian government to resist.

Of course if India attacks then the Pakistanis will want their country to retaliate, it will be hard for Pakistan’s already weak government to resist the wishes of an angry population, so they’ll likely strike back. And once that happens, it’s hard to see things getting any calmer.

The Mumbai attacks are already having the effect the terrorists hoped for – relations between India and Pakistan, after a growing thaw, have gotten much worse. Pakistan, apparently, is shifting troops from their border with Afghanistan to the border with India, meaning that there will be fewer around to patrol the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghan border, letting the extremists and terror groups already in the area operate even more freely. And wars always drive up extremist and nationalist feelings, providing new recruits for the terror groups.

The people in India, understandably, want to get the groups responsible for the Mumbai attacks; military strikes though are the wrong way to go.
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Fighting Somali pirates - UN says no, China says yes

A follow up now on a story from last week about the pirates of Somalia.

Condi Rice's last foray to the UN has landed with a thud. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the day after the Security Council of the UN approved Condi's proposal that the time was not right to send peacekeepers to Somalia. Most of the UN seemed to agree - Ban said that he talked to 50 nations about the proposed mission, only one or two offered to send troops while one other said they would provide money, but no soldiers, meaning 47 wanted no part of the idea.

In the rather tortured way that diplomats speak, Ban made an important point - that right now there is no peace in Somalia for the peacekeepers to keep. He said that a better approach to the problem is for countries to help strengthen a mission already underway by the African Union that is providing troops to the Somali government to help them fight the rebel Islamic groups that control much of the central and southern parts of the country, and to help the Somalis build up their own military so they can provide their own security in the future. Right now the weak Somali government only controls part of the capital city Mogadishu and one other southern city, leaving the rest of the nation to Islamists, separatists and, of course, the pirates. Not surprisingly, Rice disagreed with Ban and said if the UN didn't step in the situation would only get worse.

China, meanwhile, is joining the fight against the pirates at sea.

With great fanfare on Thursday, China dispatched two destroyers and a supply ship to patrol the waters off the Somali coast. It will take the Chinese fleet about ten days to reach Somalia and they may remain there for as long as three months.

It is a historic mission for China - the first time that their navy has operated so far from their home waters. It also has to been seen a sign of China's growing strength as a world and military power, in the past China has tended to maintain a neutral position on conflicts around the world, not wanting to get personally involved. Sending their navy to Somalia, even if it is just two ships, marks a real change in China’s approach to foreign policy – from observer to participant.

To think about it another way, the last time a Chinese fleet operated off the coast of Africa was nearly 600 years ago during the time of China's great maritime exploration in the 15th century. They will join ships from the navies of the United States, European Union, and Russia among other countries.
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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Ten fighters fighting

Just in time for Christmas, Russia announced a present for the government of Lebanon: ten MiG-29 fighter jets.

Russia is providing the ten aircraft to Lebanon free of charge - the first time since the days of the Soviet Union that Russia has given military equipment to another country - along with some training for the crews to operate them (the MiG-29 is roughly the equivalent of the American F-15 and is in service with more than two dozen air forces around the world). There is some hope on the part of the Russians though that the gift will prompt Lebanon to "buy Russian" in future arms purchases.

Officials from the Russian military say that they are taking the move to provide stability to Lebanon, which they feel is an important country in the region. Right now the Lebanese Air Force is in such sorry shape that it had to take several 1950's-vintage jets out of storage just to put something besides helicopters in the air. Russian military analysts also touted the gift as an example of Russia's superpower status since "only a superpower can afford this".

The Lebanon gift is another example of Russia's increasing presence in the Mid East. The Russian Navy is currently renovating a port in Syria for their fleet to use and has talked with Yemen about using a port in their country as well. Russia is also negotiating with Iran to sell that country an advanced anti-aircraft missile system.
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US funds luxury hotel in Georgia, and other overlooked foreign policy stories for 2008

It turns out that Wall Street isn’t the only one ripping off the US taxpayers.

After their brief, disastrous war with Russia this past August, the United States pledged nearly $1 billion in emergency aid to help Georgia "rebuild". Foreign Policy magazine though has found that nearly 20% of that relief aid was earmarked for Georgian businesses, and that $30 million went not for food or medical supplies, but to help build a luxury 5-star hotel in downtown Tbilisi (obviously not the sort of accommodations usually open to refugees...). Other development projects in the capital also received millions in relief funds, all for a city not touched by fighting during the war. The president of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the government agency managing the funds, defended their use to build luxury hotels and office buildings as a sign of the United States "confidence" in the future of Georgia.

The Georgian story is part of Foreign Policy's "Top 10 Stories You Missed in 2008", other highlights include a report that solar panels may in fact be more harmful to the environment than coal-fired power plants and that the US is helping India build a missile defense shield of their own. It’s definitely worth a read.
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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Economy drives protests in Russia

Vladimir Putin's latest idea to boost Russia's economy could be backfiring.

Prime Minister Putin announced on Friday that Russia would slap a 50% tariff on all used foreign-made cars sold in Russia. The idea behind the tariff is that it would increase demand for domestically-build cars, which in turn would keep Russia's car manufacturing plants in business and the one and a half million Russians involved with the industry employed. But used imports are very popular with drivers in Russia (much more so than domestic cars like Volgas), so the move sparked a rash of public protests across the country - a rarity in Russia in recent years.

The biggest protests came in the Far East city of Vladivostok, where more than 500 people turned out for a rally on Saturday against the tariff. Russian-made cars are something of a rarity in Vladivostok, which has a thriving business in importing used autos from Japan (Vladivostok is about 7,000 miles closer to Japan than it is to Moscow). By Sunday, local authorities had enough and used riot police to break up a second day of what had been until then peaceful, and largely non-political, protests. Additional rallies were reported in cities across Siberia, the Ural mountain region and even in Moscow.

Many protestors said that used foreign-build autos were the best option for them as consumers - the general feeling is that Russian companies make poor-quality cars. They also chided leaders, like Putin, for trying to promote the domestic auto industry while driving foreign luxury imports - like Audis and Mercedes - themselves (even the prize for the winner of the recent Miss Constitution pageant was a foreign-made car rather than a Russian-built one).

Meanwhile this could just be the tip of the iceberg for Russia, which depending on the analyst you read is either on the verge of, or now in, a recession. The Russian economy relies heavily on oil prices - which have fallen nearly $100 a barrel in recent months. The government also gets a fair chunk of change on taxes paid on oil sales, so fewer sales means less tax revenue and makes the economic situation even worse. The Russian stock market has also fallen by nearly 70% from its high, ending years of steady growth.

Putin has staked his personal reputation on bringing Russia through the economic crisis, promising that the country will not suffer another economic collapse like they did in 1998. But the car tariff protests could be an indication that the people's patience is running thin and that Putin's sky-high popularity ratings could be at risk.
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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Ukraine's leaders are fighting (yet again)

Well that didn't last long.

Last week Ukraine's two leading politicians, President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, announced that, for the third time, they would form a coalition government. But just ten days after that announcement, Tymoshenko is already calling on Yushchenko to resign.

Tymoshenko says that he has to go because of the way he has mismanaged Ukraine's financial crisis. Ukraine has been hit hard by the recent global downturn crisis (demand for Ukraine's main export, steel, has fallen as construction projects around the world are put on hold), the country recently needed a $16 billion line of credit from the International Monetary Fund just to keep the economy from collapsing. Tymoshenko though is accusing Yushchenko of relying on the financial crisis to boost his own popularity, which right now is languishing in the single digits. It's not the first time accusations have flown between the two.

This summer Yushchenko accused Tymoshenko of treason for not joining him in condemning Russia over its conflict with Georgia. Tymoshenko, meanwhile, used her role as prime minister to pass a law that put limits on Yushchenko's presidential powers. Probably the only reason that these two even tried to join forces again is because the IMF told Ukraine they wouldn't give them the $16 billion unless the country showed that it had a stable government.

The latest version of the Tymoshenko-Yushchenko coalition hasn't fallen apart yet, but it is hard to see it lasting if the two of them are fighting already. Meanwhile, Ukraine has another dispute brewing with Russia over more than a billion dollars owed in payments for natural gas supplies.
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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

UN approves US idea for Somalia mission

To update my post from last Thursday, the UN today approved a resolution put forward by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to take the fight against the Somali pirates ashore.

The Security Council voted 15-0 to approve an expanded peacekeeping mission in Somalia, which could begin as early as the end of this month. While, after some debate, the Security Council unanimously approved the peacekeeping force, the idea is not without its critics.

Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, commander of US naval forces operating in the Mid East, doubted that following the pirates ashore would work because they can blend in so easily with the local population in the port cities along Somalia's coast. John Prendergast, a former Clinton administration official on Africa, told the New York Times that this new measure was another example of "ill-defined peacekeeping operations" put forward by the Security Council. He also worried that foreign peacekeepers would just become a "rallying point" for different groups of Islamic insurgents fighting against the woefully fragile Somali government.

And that government just got weaker...Somalia's President Abdullahi Yusuf replaced the nation's prime minister against the wishes of the parliament. The parliament, in turn, refused to recognize the president's choice, giving Somalia, in effect, two prime ministers. Kenya (one of Somalia's neighbors) has slapped sanctions on Pres. Yusuf, branding him a "spoiler" to the peace process for his sacking of the prime minister. So in short, it’s chaos in the government.

The Somali government only controls the town of Baidoa and parts of the capital city Mogadishu. As for the rest of Somalia: Islamic groups are fighting for control in the southern and central parts, pirate groups run the port cities in the central and northern coastal areas and the northwestern most region calls itself "Somaliland" and claims to be an independent nation, though no other country in the world has ever recognized their claim (but ironically its the only stable and peaceful place in all of Somalia).
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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Can you throw a shoe at Bush?

Bush's shoe-throwing showdown only happened on Sunday, yet the first online game version of the event has already popped up on the ‘net thanks to the site kroma.no, which invites you to chuck your own size-ten at the president (and after being up for only a day the site already has over a million hits).

Meanwhile in the real world, Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zeidi (the shoe-thrower himself) is expected to appear in an Iraqi courtroom tomorrow. So far it looks like he will be charged with "insulting a foreign leader", a crime that carries up to two years in jail in Iraq. Out in the streets, the second day of rallies calling for al-Zeidi's release is underway in cities across the country. Even in the reports I've read about some Iraqis criticizing him, that feeling is motivated by the idea that he showed the Iraqi people as poor hosts (always being a polite host is a bedrock idea in Arab culture), not that they necessarily disagreed with his sentiment. Al-Zeidi yelled, "here is a going away present from the Iraqi people, dog!" (a rough translation) as he threw the first shoe, the second he dedicated to the "widows and orphans of the occupation".

Support for al-Zeidi is even spreading outside Iraq - a lawyers group from neighboring Jordan has offered to represent him in court, while a Saudi billionaire is said to have offered $10 million for the now-infamous footwear (al-Zeidi made sure to buy a new pair of Iraq-made shoes for the throw to keep with the sentiment). And finally, the daughter of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi also announced that she would be awarding the Libyan Bravery Medal to al-Zeidi for his actions on Sunday.

This should all make for one interesting exhibit in the George W. Bush Presidential Museum...
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Sorry Monroe, Russia and China are playing in our backyard

In the nearly 200 years since President James Monroe stated the foreign policy doctrine the bears his name (that would be the Monroe Doctrine of course), the United States has looked at Latin America as our backyard. Now the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean are holding a historic summit, the inaugural "Latin American and Caribbean Summit on Integration and Development" and the United States isn't invited.

But Russia and China are.

You can only take it as another sign of the United State's waning influence in a part of the world we once thought of as "ours". Even while it seemed like the world was eagerly following this past November's presidential election, a region-wide poll found that Latin America was largely indifferent to the outcome; the thought was that neither Obama nor McCain would really focus on the region.

It seemed like it would be very different when George W. took office in 2001. He touted the relationship he developed while governor of Texas with (then) Mexican President Vincente Fox as a sign of America's close relationship with Latin America, but the region quickly fell off Bush's radar. In the end, Chinese President Hu Jintao wound up spending more time in the Latin America than did Bush. China and Russia have also seen their investments in the region triple in recent years, while America's fell by nearly a quarter. China has become Chile's biggest export partner, while Russian companies are making big investments in the energy sectors in Venezuela and Bolivia. The high-profile visit to Venezuela last month by a flotilla of Russian warships is a distraction from the bigger story: Russia's increasing economic influence in the area.

So then it shouldn't be a surprise that the United States is becoming a less important player in Latin America - just because you think a place is your back yard, that doesn't mean you can ignore it and expect that circumstances will never to change. One last thing that will probably irk some folks in Washington - the conference will be the coming out party for Cuba's Raul Castro who is making his first trip abroad since taking over the leadership of Cuba from his brother Fidel.
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Monday, December 15, 2008

The creeping paranoia of Robert Mugabe

With a cholera outbreak spreading across Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe's government is now trying to blame their country's problems on an old foe. According to their information minister, Zimbabwe's cholera outbreak isn't because the country's water and sewer systems have collapsed after years of neglect, no they are part of a "calculated, racist, terrorist attack on Zimbabwe" on the part of Great Britain using a "serious biological chemical weapon."

Yes, according to Mugabe, Britain is using cholera as a weapon to turn Zimbabwe back into a colony. But this isn't the first time that Mugabe has accused the British of trying to bring his country back under its heel in an effort to cover up for his own mismanagement of his country. Now though, he's lashing out at his African neighbors as well.

On Sunday Patrick Chinamasa, Zimbabwe's justice minister, said that Botswana was working with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party to stage a coup. The MDC is the party of Morgan Tsvangirai, the man most observers believe actually won Zimbabwe's presidential elections earlier in the year. Unlike some of Zimbabwe's other neighbors (like South Africa), Botswana has been a vocal critic of Mugabe's regime and has joined the chorus of nations around the world saying it's time for him to go.

Zimbabwe, of course, accused Botswana of becoming "a surrogate of Western imperial powers", and also made a pretty direct threat against them, saying their actions could bring "a lot of suffering...[to] the population of Botswana”.

Western diplomats said that the ever more erratic behavior on the part of Mugabe is only making a stronger case for branding Zimbabwe a rogue nation. The UN, meanwhile, said that despite Mugabe's claims, the cholera outbreak is still running through Zimbabwe and could infect 60,000 people.
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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Politics in Russia: Solidarity vs. Miss Constitution

Former chess champion Garry Kasparov helped to launch a new political movement in Moscow on Saturday called “Solidarity” that hopes for nothing less than the end of the Putin regime in Russia.

If the name sounds familiar, it should, Kasparov and his fellow dissidents chose the name of the famous Eighties-era Polish movement that brought about the end of Communism in that country. "One of the tasks of the Solidarity movement is to rehabilitate those basic principles that, unfortunately, for a significant or even overwhelming portion of our fellow citizens, have become associated with failure, misery or reduction of freedom," Kasparov said.

He’s referring to the demise of Russia’s two main Democratic parties – Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces (abbreviated as SPS in Russian). The two parties were closely involved with Russia’s early transition from Communism in the 90’s, unfortunately because of their high-profile roles, the public blamed them for the economic collapse in 1998, and started to fall out of favor. Fighting within the two parties during the early days of the Putin administration did away with much of the support they had left.

So by that measure, Kasparov is right, Russia does need a more active political sphere. Opposition in the Duma (the parliament) is split between some small parties that love Putin, some who merely like him, and the Communists who seem to still hope that one day Lenin will magically rise from his Tomb to rule Russia again. At the same time, it’s getting hard not to see Kasparov as a political gadfly, a Russian Ralph Nader, someone perpetually starting political movements that ultimately go nowhere. Kasparov has never held elected office; his big draw is the fame he has from being a former Grand Champion in a chess-mad country. At least Solidarity seems to have a platform; they announced a manifesto, “300 Steps to Freedom” that outlines their plans for a post-Putin Russia.

Meanwhile another group in Moscow was trying to put a prettier face on politics.

On Friday, the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi (“Ours” in Russian) held the first annual “Miss Constitution” pageant that included a quiz on the role of the State in society and a swimsuit competition, outside, in Moscow, in December (and to provide you, dear reader with the fullest amount of information possible, I am including a link to the LA Times photo gallery of the event). This was a typical exchange from the Q-and-A portion of the event:
"Who is the only source of authority in the Russian Federation?"

"The multiethnic people of the Russian Federation!"

Miss Constitution was the first large-scale event staged by the group Nashi in a little while, so it is likely an indication that they intend to have a more visible public profile in the coming year. In the past Nashi has held summer education camps, designed to produce a new generation of politically-engaged (and pro-Putin) youth, that have drawn tens of thousands of young Russians, though since Dmitry Medvedev took over as president, they have been less-active publicly.

For her knowledge of the Russian constitution, and willingness to appear outside in a swimsuit during the Moscow winter, the eventual Miss Constitution Masha Fyodorova won a brand-new, pink-and-orange Mini Cooper, though I’d have thought Nashi would give away something domestic like a Volga Siber (formerly the Chrysler Sebring – Volga bought the entire production line lock, stock and barrel a couple of years ago).
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US Admiral skeptical about Somalia plans

As I reported on Thursday, this week Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will introduce a resolution at the UN to grant countries the right to pursue Somali pirates onto land, I didn't think it was such a good idea, neither does Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, the commander of US naval forces in the Middle East.

Vice Admiral Gortney told the Voice of America on Saturday that it would be difficult to attack the Somali pirates on land since they would easily blend into a crowd in one of the bustling port cities. He's got a good point, it's not like the Somali pirates run around with eye patches and parrots on their shoulders, many at one point were fishermen or ran small merchant vessels along the coast, boats they now use in pirate attacks. Just to emphasize the point, Gortney described an incident last week where the Navy came to the aid of a small boat adrift off the coast of Somalia. When the sailors boarded, they found machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades - the tools of the modern pirate, but since they had not actually caught the boat in the middle of a pirate attack, they had no authority to detain the crew. In short, to the Navy the pirates looked just like a broken-down fishing boat.

Gortney said that the piracy problem wouldn’t be solved until the rule of law is returned to Somalia, and economic development projects are put into place to give would-be pirates another (legal) way of earning a living. He also called on the world's shipping companies to do a better job of providing security for their vessels themselves.

The UN is scheduled to take up the Somalia resolution on Tuesday.
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Saturday, December 13, 2008

World, except the United States, bails out auto industry

Yesterday Republicans in the Senate blocked a measure to bail out the "Big Three" domestic automakers. They took this action even after Republicans in the House of Representatives joined the Democrats in approving a version of the bailout package and despite calls from the White House, and dire warnings from Vice President Dick Cheney. Even Cheney realized that having one (or more) of the three companies go under would dump potentially over a million people onto the unemployment rolls at a time when the country is already mired in a deep recession.

And while it's true that the Big Three (Ford, Chrysler, and GM) have done a fairly poor job of running themselves for years now, they, like every other car builder, are also suffering from a huge downturn in the global economy - something that everyone in the world, save for a group of Senate Republicans from the South realizes. Governments from South Korea, to China, to Germany have stepped in to prop up their domestic auto industries. On Friday alone Canada and Sweden each pledged over $3 billion to keep their car builders afloat.

So why did the Senate Republicans fail to take the same sensible action as governments in Berlin, Beijing, Seoul, Stockholm and Ottawa? It seems to boil down to a desire to try to break the powerful United Auto Workers union and to potentially knock out the competition for foreign automakers that have assembly plants in their states (though even officials at Honda worry about the impact on the industry as a whole of having even one of the Big Three fold). Pretty petty reasons when the country is teetering on the edge of an economic depression.

The Senate Republicans apparently didn't get the message from the November elections: that the people want to move beyond partisanship and want solutions to the country's problems, not more inter-party bickering. Somehow I don't think it's a coincidence that also on Friday Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (the closest thing the Republicans have to a Barack Obama) all but ruled out a run for President in 2012 - why take up the banner for a party that so far seems committed to the same formula that worked so poorly for them in 2008?

Hopefully President Bush will step in and salvage something of his legacy by releasing the $15 billion in funds the Big Three need to stay afloat.
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Friday, December 12, 2008

NATO suddenly finds it needs Russia

So after cutting off ties with Russia following this summer's Georgian conflict, now NATO needs their help.

NATO officials are negotiating with Russia and several Central Asian states to open a "Northern Corridor" into Afghanistan. The move comes after recent repeated attacks on NATO's main supply base in Pakistan that have so far destroyed more than two hundred trucks bound for Afghanistan. Lack of security along the route through the historic Khyber Pass (the gateway between Pakistan and Afghanistan) has stranded nearly another 1,000. The attacks have NATO officials worried that they won't be able to keep troops deployed in Afghanistan properly supplied, hence the talks with Russia about an alternate route into the country.

You have to wonder though how NATO can expect to run an operation to drive the Taliban and al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan when they can't even protect their own supply lines? (It seems to me like another example of NATO's utter ineffectiveness as a military organization these days) Past that, if NATO now has to rely on a supply line that runs through Russia, it's hard to imagine that either Georgia or Ukraine will be joining the alliance anytime soon, since Russia is dead set against their membership.

Meanwhile the United States is planning to increase its troop strength in Afghanistan by as many as 20,000 this summer.
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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Is the US heading back to Somalia?

Is the US about to go ashore in Somalia?

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will present a draft resolution to the UN next Tuesday calling on countries already involved in the region to "take all necessary measures ashore in Somalia" to fight the growing piracy problem in the east African country. Pirates operating out of lawless Somali ports have seized dozens of ships this year, holding them, and their crews, for ransom. The pirates are causing serious problems for the world's shipping lines, which use the route off of Somalia as the fastest way to travel between Europe and Asia and the Persian Gulf.

In one sense Rice is right - the piracy problem can only be truly solved from the shore: the pirates have to lose the ports they use as bases and safe havens, the nearly non-existent Somali government is far too weak to do the job, so foreign forces are really the only way to tackle the problem. But this seems like a situation that could all too easily turn into yet another quagmire for US forces.

We finally learned the lesson in Iraq that it is basically useless to go into a city if you have no intention of holding it or turning it over to local forces who are unable to maintain security in it (see the first four years of the Iraq War, especially the city of Fallouja for more examples). So what would likely happen in Somalia is that US forces would go into one of the Somali pirate ports, there would be a small fight before the pirates retreated to the hills to wait until the Americans left, and once they did the pirates would return and get back to business as usual. That's why it's easy to see US forces getting bogged down in Somalia as they stay onshore trying to keep these Somali ports secure. Remember that Somalia is the setting for the movie "Black Hawk Down", which of course was based on the true story of the US mission in the Somali capital Mogadishu that turned from a humanitarian relief effort into a fight against Somali warlords that ultimately left18 servicemen dead.

The Somali government is incredibly weak and likely about to get weaker. Two years ago Ethiopian troops invaded southern Somalia and drove an Islamic group, the Union of Islamic Courts, from Mogadishu, letting the Somali provisional government return. But in the two years since the Somali government has lost control of almost all of southern Somalia to a collection of Islamic groups that splintered off from the UIC. The Ethiopians, who have been fighting a guerilla war against the Islamists on behalf of the Somali government decided it's had enough and announced a sudden withdrawal of their troops by the end of the year, leaving only an under-manned peacekeeping force from the African Union standing between Mogadishu and the Islamist rebels. The African Union is also now asking the UN to step in and send more troops.

We'll see if the UN decides to step up and send in the forces needed to deal with the piracy problem in Somalia, or if it becomes one last quagmire for the Bush administration.
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Another atrocity in Zimbabwe

Another day, another terrible story out of Zimbabwe.

As if cholera wasn't killing off his citizens fast enough, today the Guardian is reporting that President Robert Mugabe has unleashed a brutal war against illegal diamond miners in Zimbabwe.

According to the Guardian, Zimbabwe security forces have begun firing indiscriminately from helicopters with machine guns at illegal diamond miners in the eastern part of the country. In past weeks police conducted bloody raids on the miners using tear gas, dogs and machine guns, often shooting miners as they fled. There are no good statistics on how many miners have been killed because some miners were quickly buried by friends in near the mines, while other bodies lie unclaimed at local hospitals.

Many of the miners who have turned up in the thousands are not really miners at all, they are former farmers, students, even professionals (like teachers and civil servants) who turned to digging for diamonds as the only way to make a living in Zimbabwe's wrecked economy. A few have struck it rich, but many just eek out a living by finding a few small, low-quality diamonds. Mugabe's government is eager to prevent illegal mining because the diamond region, supposedly, belongs in part to Mugabe's wife Grace, and because with the country's agriculture and tourism sectors in tatters, diamonds are one of the very few things Zimbabwe has that can earn the country money.

Meanwhile Mugabe has declared Zimbabwe's cholera outbreak "over". Of course Mugabe also claimed that elections earlier in the year were free and fair, so...The UN though tends to disagree with Mugabe, claiming that around 800 people have died so far with 16,000 believed to be infected and the outbreak no where near under control. The UN estimates that up to 60,000 people could be infected if no action is taken quickly. And South Africa has declared a state of emergency in a border province because of the cholera-stricken refugees streaming in from Zimbabwe.

President Bush has added his voice to the chorus of world leaders (including Nicolas Sarkozy from France and Gordon Brown from Great Britain) calling for Mugabe to step down. Calls from Western leaders though only strengthen Mugabe's resolve - he paints all of the problems he's caused Zimbabwe: the failing economy, food shortages, cholera outbreak, etc., as a plot by Western powers to turn Zimbabwe back into a colony.
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Tiny Sark ends Feudalism in Europe

It's hard to believe that feudalism - that hereditary system of government based on land ownership from the Middle Ages - could have existed in Europe into the 21st century, but it did until just this past Wednesday when the tiny British isle of Sark finally held its first democratic election.

Just two square miles and home to 600 people, Sark (a small island in the English Channel) has been run on a feudal system by 40 families holding hereditary leases since the 16th century. Among the odd laws still in force in Sark are a legal requirement for each of the 40 families to keep a musket to defend the island and a prohibition on anyone but the seigneur, the hereditary owner of the island, owning either pigeons or unspayed female dogs.

But the modern world finally caught up to Sark. Worried that feudalism wasn't compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, the residents of Sark changed the law and turned the island's governing body, the Chief Pleas, from a body where seats are passed down through land-owning families into an elected one.

British settlers colonized Sark in the 16th century to keep French pirates from using it as a base of operations in the English Channel. Among some of the more interesting events in the island's history are the occupation by German troops during World War II and an attempted one-man invasion by an unemployed French nuclear physicist in 1990. The island's economy today is based mainly on tourism and finance.
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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Time to end the Cuban embargo?

Has the time finally come to end the US embargo on Cuba?

After the Cuban exile-led Bay of Pigs invasion failed to dislodge Fidel Castro's Communist government, President John Kennedy slapped an embargo on the island nation in 1962, hoping that economic pressure would remove Castro from power. For five decades the embargo has been the bedrock of the United States' policy towards Cuba, but now there are growing calls for the US to drop this relic of the Cold War.

On Monday Caricom, a bloc that represents 15 Caribbean nations, called on President-Elect Barack Obama to end the Cuban embargo when he is sworn into power in January. Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister W. Baldwin Spencer, the acting head of Caricom, said the "transformational change" under way in Washington should include repealing the decades-long embargo. The embargo also seems to be losing support from its most passionate supporters - the Cuban-American community in South Florida.

A poll conducted by Florida International University shows that 55% of Florida's Cuban-American community now supports a change in US-Cuban relations, including the repeal of the embargo. Analysts chalk the change in attitude up to the shifting demographics of the Cuban-American community, which is now being run more and more by American-born Cuban-Americans rather than Castro-era exiles that were born in Cuba. The younger generation has a different perspective than their elders and in general want more normal relations between the US and Cuba.

The Florida Cuban-Americans have been a major reason why the embargo has lasted so long, so if their attitude is changing it could signal an end for what at this point is a terribly outdated policy. The embargo never has the success nine US presidents had hoped it would. For much of the time Cuba was a patron state of the Soviet Union, which provided it with large subsidies and was a major buyer of their exports (like sugar). Today the beaches around Havana are filled with Canadian and European tourists, and Caribbean nations send students to Cuban medical schools, while Chinese and Russian companies are negotiating with the Cuban authorities to develop offshore oil fields. So in reality, the only country not doing business with Cuba is the United States.

If the embargo didn't bring down the Castro regime for the past 46 years, its not going to do so now, so why not put to rest this relic of the Cold War and try to normalize relations with one of our closest neighbors?
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Newsweek's odd take on Ukraine

If you've read some of the posts here you probably have gotten the idea that I'm usually disappointed with the way the US media covers events in Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union. The latest issue of Newsweek hasn't changed my mind on that feeling.

Under the headline "How the West Won Ukraine" authors Owen Matthews and Anna Nemtsova talk about the current state of affairs in Ukraine (you can check the article out here, it's pretty short), I have a few problems with their take on things. For starters the article never makes the case that the West has "won" Ukraine, the first paragraph even states that support for joining NATO (one of the symbols of "Westerness" for former Soviet states) is actually waning among Ukrainians. The whole thrust of the article is that Ukraine is looking more towards the European Union rather than towards Moscow today, but this is far from saying the West has won.

Second the article doesn't even talk about Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, arguably the most popular politician in Ukraine today; instead it focuses on the solidly pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko, who also has approval ratings in the single digits. Could that be because Tymoshenko's balanced approach to relations with Moscow and the EU (she thinks Ukraine needs to be on good terms with both) doesn't support the premise of the article that the West has won Ukraine?

Finally, the article says that Ukraine shares basic "European values—including respect for its Russian ethnic minority", though just three paragraphs earlier it describes how Pres. Yushchenko barred Ukrainian schools from teaching in languages other than Ukrainian, even though the eastern portion of Ukraine is heavily populated by ethnic Russians and how he tried to get Ukrainian cable networks from carrying Russian-language television stations. Doesn't really sound like respect for minority rights to me...

This Newsweek article is another example of a too common story in the US press today - reporters looking at the situation in a part of the world (this time the former-Soviet part) and reporting the story they want to tell instead of the one that actually exists.
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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

EU navies to tackle Somali pirates

The European Union is stepping up its efforts to fight pirates off the coast of Somalia by sending a task force of ships and planes to the region - the first time in its history that the EU has ever engaged in naval operations. Eight EU members will contribute six ships and three aircraft to the mission, which will be under the command of British Rear Admiral Phillip Jones.

The EU mission comes as Somali pirates continue to plunder ships in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden (the gateway to the Suez Canal and the main shipping route between Asia and Europe). On Monday a Danish ship reported that they successfully repelled a pirate attack 450 miles off the coast of Tanzania, Somalia's southern neighbor. This is the furthest from the Somali coast that pirates are reported to have operated, the oil tanker Sirius Star was snatched 500 miles from Somalia, the previous record.

And the EU is wrestling with another problem - what to do with pirates when they catch them. One EU law says that pirates should be turned over to the nation holding the registry of the ship they attacked to let that country prosecute them. But this can run into another EU law that bars extraditing alleged criminals to countries that still use the death penalty. As a compromise, Germany suggested turning pirates over to Kenya for the time being (since Somalia doesn't really have a functioning government), but in the long-term setting up a special UN court for piracy to deal with them.

The six EU ships will join vessels from the US, Russia, India and South Korea in patrolling the waters and will take over from a task force of four NATO ships (though frankly the EU mission is yet another reason to question the worth of NATO in today's world - if Europe is willing to get together for military missions, than what is the purpose of NATO?). But until Somalia has some kind of functioning government and security forces can go in and take control of port cities like Eyl that now basically rely on piracy for their bread and butter, it's hard to imagine the pirate problem in the Horn of Africa going away anytime soon.
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Monday, December 8, 2008

Good news for democracy in Africa, thanks to Ghana

Since it feels like I’m always writing about the shortcomings of democracy in Africa (see the many posts on Zimbabwe for starters), I wanted to make sure to do a post about this weekend’s elections in Ghana.

They are remarkable for being entirely unremarkable – no riots, no threats of intimidation, no lost ballot boxes, just a well-conducted multi-party election. In fact one election observer from Nigeria remarked: “"it's really been excellent, peaceful. You cannot try to compare these elections to any other on the continent except with South Africa, that's the only country considered democratic.”

For much of its independence, Ghana was the all-too-typical story in Africa, a country stumbling from one coup to the next. But since 1992, the country has had now five peaceful elections. Even this year with pressures that historically could lead to problems – a leader stepping down, and newly-discovered oil fields about to come into production – things have gone well, with seven parties vying for power.

The results will not be official for a few days since two parties, the ruling New Patriotic Party and the main opposition group National Democratic Congress, are locked in a close race. But no problems are expected as the votes are tallied, one report said things were going “smooth as silk”.

Hopefully it’s a story that will become common in other countries across Africa.
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Obama on Meet the Press

Incoming President Barack Obama dropped in on Meet the Press on Sunday for a long discussion with Tom Brokaw. As you would expect with the ongoing financial crisis, much of the discussion was on domestic policy, but they did spend a few minutes talking foreign policy.

It does seem like Obama is taking a measured, pragmatic approach to foreign policy. As far as Afghanistan goes, Obama sees the conflict as part of a bigger, regional picture – any solution there has to include dealing with problems in India, Pakistan and Kashmir (the territory that India and Pakistan both claim) as well. He also said that any plan to bring peace to Afghanistan has to include a large portion devoted to development to help raise rural Afghanis (the bulk of the population) out of poverty. One reason the Taliban still has influence over large parts of the country is that rural Afghanis haven’t seen any real improvement in their lives since Hamid Karzai was elected president. That has to change if we hope to establish a lasting peace and a stable government in Afghanistan.

In terms of Iran and Iraq, Obama didn’t cover much new ground. He again said that it was “unacceptable” for Iran to build nuclear weapons or fund terrorist organizations like Hamas, but said that he preferred a system of sanctions (coordinated closely with Iran’s big trading partners – China, India, Russia) to military action. In Iraq he stuck with his campaign pledge to ask his military and security advisors to draw up a timetable for withdrawing our troops (an easier task since Iraq approved the new SOF agreement that includes a timetable for withdrawal), while leaving behind a “residual force” to deal with security problems or fight terrorism as-needed. Brokaw couldn’t nail him down though on how large this residual force would be.

Finally, as for Russia, Obama said, “I think that it's going to be important for us to reset U.S.-Russian relations,” before adding that Russia has “to act in ways that are not bullying their neighbors.” Unfortunately the foreign policy talk ended there. It would have been interesting to hear what “reset” meant to Obama, or more of his views on Russia bullying its neighbors. Obama and Biden both supported Georgia in the conflict between the two countries last August, though that was before the many cracks appeared in Georgia’s claims of self-defense.

All in all, Obama does look like he plans to take a pragmatic view on foreign policy and has so far put together a top-notch team of advisors.
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Sunday, December 7, 2008

Palestine problems: 'pogrom' in West Bank, collapse in Gaza

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke out forcefully against attacks against Palestinians by Israeli settlers in the city of Hebron in the West Bank last week. Settlers were described as going on a rampage after the Israeli Defense Forces evicted them from a building they were illegally occupying, more than a dozen Palestinians were wounded in the violence, several of them shot by settlers. There were also reports of settlers trying to burn at least one Palestinian home.

Olmert called the wave of violence a 'pogrom', which is an emotionally charged word for Israelis since it historically has been used to describe anti-semetic attacks carried out against Jewish communities. "The sight of Jews firing at innocent Palestinians has no other name than pogrom," Olmert said at a meeting of his cabinet this week.

Olmert, along with former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Shimon Perez, recently have all basically said that Israel needs to give up on settlements in the West Bank to ensure a peaceful future with both the Palestinians and the larger Arab world. They have shown interest in restarting talks over a proposal put forward by Saudi Arabia in 2002 where the nations of the Arab world would sign peace agreements with Israel in return for Israel withdrawing from occupied areas in the West Bank and Golan Heights.

Meanwhile, a report from the World Bank on Saturday said that civil society in the Gaza Strip (the other part of the Palestinian Territories) was near collapse and urged Israel to allow shippments of cash to banks in Gaza. Israel has maintained a blockade of Gaza since Hamas was voted into power in elections in teh summer of 2007. But now banks in Gaza are running out of money, meaning many civil servants will likely not be paid. Unemployment is already high in Gaza, home to two and a half million people; nearly 70,000 draw a salary from the Palestinian government.
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Rumor mill: Is Putin really a Georgian?

On the odd news for docket today, courtesy of the Scotsman newspaper, is the claim of an 82-year old Georgian woman that she is actually Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's mother.

Vera Putina claims that she gave up young Vlad when he was 10 years old, sending him off to live with his grandparents in Russia. His father, she says, was a Russian mechanic already married to another woman.

Putin's official biography is that he was born in St. Petersburg; his father served in the Soviet Navy and his paternal grandfather was once Josef Stalin's personal chef. Putin's parents both died in the 1990's.

Vera Putina says, "I used to be proud of having a son who became president of Russia. Since the war [between Russian and Georgia last summer] I am ashamed."

Putina's claim makes for an interesting story, but one that's hard to believe - if the claim was valid it's hard to imagine that Putin's political opponents wouldn't have used it earlier on in his career, or that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili wouldn't be making more of it to try to embarrass his rival. Vera Putina has offered to take a DNA test to confirm her claim.
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Saturday, December 6, 2008

More calls for Mugabe to go

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown added his voice to the chorus of world leaders telling Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe it's time to go. The situation in Zimbabwe gets worse by the day, a cholera outbreak, caused by the country's crumbling water and sewer systems, has already killed more than 600 people. Refugees are now spreading cholera to Zimbabwe's neighbors South Africa and Botswana. Brown said that this makes the situation in Zimbabwe "an international rather than a national emergency."

Botswana's foreign minister, meanwhile, blamed his fellow Southern African neighbors for allowing Mugabe to stay in power so long. Phandu Skelemani told BBC radio that Zimbabwe's neighbors could bring down Mugabe's regime in a matter of weeks if they wanted to. The reason? Zimbabwe is a landlocked country, so all of its imports must be unloaded at ports in neighboring countries and then shipped into Zimbabwe. Skelemani said that if neighboring countries just refused to supply Mugabe's government with gasoline, it could be enough to bring him down. "If you deny him petrol which is used by the armed forces, which is used by the police, I don't think he'll last two weeks," he said.

Earlier in the year dockworkers in South Africa refused to unload a shipload of weapons ordered by Mugabe from China, because they thought Zimbabwe's security forces would use them to silence the opposition. The ship ultimately had to return to China without unloading, so Skelemani makes a good point on how vulnerable Zimbabwe is to outside pressure. Other African nations though have been reluctant to stand up to Mugabe because in the late 1970's Mugabe was a hero in Zimbabwe's struggle for independence from their colonial masters Great Britain. Of course since then Mugabe has turned into a run-of-the-mill despot doing whatever it takes to stay in power, the kind of leader that has been holding Africa back for decades now.

Until Zimbabwe’s neighbors decide to stand up for the ideas of democracy and responsible leadership, the situation will only get worse.
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Friday, December 5, 2008

US not thrilled with Russia's EATO idea

US officials dismissed a Russian proposal for a new international body to provide security for much of the Northern Hemisphere. Russia used a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on Thursday to put forward a pet project of Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, sometimes called "EATO" or the Euro-Atlantic Treaty Organization. Medvedev sees EATO as a modern-day replacement for NATO, which he calls a "Cold War relic".

But the US officials in attendance weren't buying it. "There is no need for some new architecture," said US deputy assistant secretary of state Matthew Bryza. "I think it's about looking for an alternative to NATO, which has worked so well.

Er, maybe not...I think it's a little difficult to make the "NATO is working well" argument when you look at NATO's record recently. NATO has a large presence in Afghanistan, where things have been getting steadily worse recently and Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been getting more and more critical of the Western military forces operating in his country; NATO also sent several warships to patrol off of the coast of Somalia, but the number of pirate attacks have actually gone up since their arrival. A bigger problem for NATO is that few countries even send troops to missions like Afghanistan or Somalia, and some countries that do (like Germany) put restrictions on their troops' involvement, like keeping them out of combat zones, which would seem to defeat the purpose of sending troops to a conflict zone in the first place. And the idea of expanding NATO to include Georgia and Ukraine has been a source of great tension within Europe since it was announced, potentially making Europe less, rather than more, secure.

It’s hard then to buy the argument that NATO is doing a good job these days. But Bryza’s (and the United States') real reason for opposing the idea of EATO is that Medvedev has talked about bringing together Russia, the countries of Europe, even Canada; everyone except the US, so you can see why we wouldn't be exactly thrilled with the idea.

Few European nations at the OSCE meeting were said to be that excited about EATO either, but French President (and the current holder of the European Union's rotating presidency) Nicolas Sarkozy has promised to hold further talks on the idea.
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More political wrangling in Canada

Earlier in the week I wrote about the very un-Canadian power struggle developing in their government. Things up there just keep getting more interesting...

To recap - three of the opposition parties in the Canadian Parliament were planning to cast a vote of no confidence against Prime Minister Stephen Harper, bringing down his Conservative government elected only weeks ago. But Harper has managed to derail their attempt, for a little while at least. Harper basically shut the parliament down until the end of January (a first for Canada), preventing the opposition from holding their vote.

And the no confidence scheme may be backfiring for the opposition group. A poll taken this week showed that the Conservative Party now has nearly twice the level of support than the Liberals, 45% to 24%, a jump of 10% in support levels for the Conservatives from polls taken just last month.

Harper said he would use the delay in Parliament to put together an economic recovery plan for Canada (the opposition group said they were voting no confidence over Harper's handling of the financial crisis). Canada appears to be joining nations around the world in sliding into recession - figures for October showed 70,000 jobs lost in the manufacturing sector, the highest level since 1982.
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Western powers blast Zimbabwe

It seems like the West is finally waking up to the awful situation in Zimbabwe.

David Miliband, Great Britain’s foreign secretary, ripped into the government of Robert Mugabe calling it a "rogue regime" over its mismanagement of the country's economy and health care sectors. Not only does Zimbabwe have an utterly ridiculous inflation rate (estimated in the range of hundreds of millions or even billions of percent), but the country is also now suffering from an outbreak of cholera that has killed hundreds so far.

"The economy is in free-fall. Education and health systems have failed. Public infrastructure is in terminal decline and the government is unwilling and unable to look after its own people," Miliband said. "This is a direct result of the abuse, neglect and corruption of a Mugabe regime which long ago lost respect and in March's elections lost its legitimacy."

Meanwhile US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was even more blunt.

"It's well past time for Robert Mugabe to leave, that's now obvious," Rice said. "There has been a sham election, there was a sham power-sharing. We are now seeing the humanitarian toll."

Speaking of that supposed power-sharing...after three months of negotiations Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai still have not come to an agreement on how to jointly run the country, mostly because Mugabe's idea of power-sharing has been to keep all the power for himself and shove Tsvangirai off to the side. Tsvangirai has refused to sign onto a deal that would leave the military and national police forces under Mugabe's control. For the past few years, Mugabe has used the military to crush political opposition to his rule, so you can understand why Tsvangirai would be reluctant to agree to a setup where Mugabe keeps control over the state security forces. Mugabe is now threatening to call for a new round of elections if Tsvangirai doesn't sign onto the deal, though what good another election will do since the last was largely considered a sham is a good question.

Miliband and Rice said it is up to the other nations in Southern Africa to put pressure on Mugabe to either share power or step down.
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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Putin: Russia will survive difficult period

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin this week continued a tradition he started while he was president by holding his annual nationwide televised question and answer session with the public. Given the global economic crisis, it's not surprising that many of the questions in the three-hour broadcast focused on the economy. Putin said that inflation in Russia would likely hit 13% this year, while the economy was expected to grow around 7% this year and only projected to grow by 3% in 2009. Strong economic growth was a hallmark of Putin's two terms as president. Putin went on to say that it was possible that the government would buy "large scale" stakes in major Russian corporations and banks to help stabilize them in the global crisis, but ruled out nationalizing any of them. Putin said there would be no sharp devaluations of the ruble - a fear in the back of the minds of many Russians who recall when the country's currency suddenly collapsed during Russia's last economic crisis in 1998.

On the international front, Putin hoped for better US-Russian relations when President Obama takes office. He did have tough talk for Ukraine though, threatening to cut off supplies of natural gas if Ukraine does not pay up on back debts owed to Russian gas suppliers. Not only is Ukraine a major consumer of natural gas from Russia, but it also hosts major pipelines that carry Russian gas into Europe. Russia has warned Ukraine not to siphon off gas bound for Europe to use in Ukraine if the outstanding bills are not paid. It is another factor contributing to the already tense relations between Ukraine and Russia.

Putin tried to squash rumors that President Dmitry Medvedev will soon step down to allow Putin to return to the presidency saying their "tandem" rule of the country had been working well. He did not rule out running for president again in 2012, when Medvedev's term expires. Russian law does not prevent Putin from running for a third term; a person is only kept from serving more than two consecutive terms.

Finally, a brief note on the coverage of Putin's speech in the Western media: like much of the coverage of Russia, it tends to miss some important points. Putin spoke mostly about the economy, but reports in Reuters and the Associated Press gave a lot of space to talking about the idea that Putin would try to retake the presidency and to a comment he made about wanting to hang Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili "by the balls", a crude and silly comment (Saakashvili's reply was something along the lines that Putin didn't have enough rope) that really isn't worth a lot of discussion (plus it was made a few weeks ago anyway). The AP noted that Putin, rather than Medvedev, was dealing with the economy - but under the Russian system dealing with the economy is the prime minister's responsibility, so it just makes sense that Putin would discuss it extensively during his Q-and-A. Reuters noted that Medvedev hasn't done one of these town hall-style meetings, implying that he's distant from the public. But what Reuters failed to note is that Medvedev regularly posts a video blog (Putin himself notes that Medvedev is far more tech-savvy than he), which is a very direct, and modern, way for the president to stay in touch with the people.
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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

US-Iraq agreement revealed

Nearly lost in the Thanksgiving hubbub last week was the announcement that the United States and Iraq’s government have finally reached an agreement over the future of US troops in their country. The two sides needed to sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) because the original UN mandate that authorized the 2003 invasion was set to expire at the end of this year. Without a new agreement the US would, under international law, have no right to keep troops in Iraq past December 31 (though as I said earlier, perhaps that's not such a bad idea).

Negotiating the SOFA though has been an ordeal. President Bush was so determined to get the agreement done before the end of his term, he agreed to a withdrawal timetable - something he repeatedly slammed the Democrats for requesting. Even then the Iraqi government was reluctant to sign onto the SOFA, adding in their own round of changes (after Bush had said that SOFA negotiations were finished). The Iraqis delayed the final vote so that even more changes could be made to bring reluctant Sunni lawmakers onboard.

The details of the deal have finally been made public. The highlights:

  • US troops have to withdraw from all Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009 and from the country entirely by the end of 2011 (so ironically Bush has set the stage for Obama to make good on one of his main campaign promises);

  • the US will have the right to use Iraq's airspace and waters, but the US has promised that it will not use Iraq as a base to launch an attack on any of Iraq's neighbors (read that as Iran);

  • US forces will not be allowed to detain Iraqis without criminal charges; and finally,

  • US soldiers will not have immunity to Iraqi law when they are off US bases off-duty, nor will US contractors be immune to Iraqi law.

That last item is a major departure for US policy regarding our troops. The US government has SOFA agreements with countries all over the world, but one common provision is that US troops are immune to local laws. If they are accused of a crime in a foreign country it is up to the US military to prosecute them, not the local courts. In Iraq this immunity was also extended to US contractors who performed many paramilitary duties around the country (think of security firms like Blackwater). According to one report by MSNBC the lifting of immunity for contractors may be retroactive, meaning they could be charged for incidents that occurred years earlier. MSNBC said that firms like Blackwater are quite upset about that tidbit...

But even with all the changes made to the SOFA, it was still a hard sell for the Iraqis. Some Sunni parties did not go along with it, and a bloc of Shiite lawmakers loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr vocally opposed it. Neither group is happy with the continued presence of US troops in Iraq, nor to they want to see the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki strengthened. And even though the Iraqi government has approved the pact, it's still not the final word on the deal. The whole agreement is scheduled to be put up for a national referendum before July 30 of next year.

But for now there's a deal in place and the troops will be in Iraq for some time to come.
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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Political intrigue in Canada

In the United States we tend to look at Canada as our very polite, terminally boring northern neighbor, but a full-blown political fistfight is brewing in the Great White North, namely Canada's three opposition parties have cooked up a plan to oust Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party from power.

Harper just won reelection last month (and a note to American politicians, the entire campaign and election season in Canada lasted just SIX WEEKS!), building the Conservative Party's number of seats in Parliament and handing the Liberal Party one of its worst defeats ever. But Harper and the Conservatives didn't win enough seats for an outright majority in Parliament, so they were forced to set up a minority government.

If you're not quite sure how parliaments work, a brief recap. Ideally, one party will have a majority of the seats in a parliament, giving them the right to run the executive branch of the government - the prime minister's post, the cabinet, heads of different ministries, etc. A lot of times though one party doesn't get a majority, so it makes a deal with a smaller party to form a coalition to reach a majority and form a government. Then there is the situation that Harper has in Canada, where the Conservatives don't have a majority but instead of forming a coalition they have decided to rule as a minority government. This means that they have to get other parties to support them on important issues; if they lose a vote in parliament it can be taken as a vote of "no confidence" in the government, meaning they have to step down.

This is what's going on now in Canada. The three other parties in the Canadian Parliament - the Liberals, the New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois - have announced that next week they will hold a no confidence vote in Harper's government, bringing it down. They will then form a coalition to run the country in its place with Liberal Party leader Stephane Dion already picked as the new Prime Minister. Their reason for the vote is anger over how Harper is dealing with the economic crisis that is gripping Canada like most other places in the world.

Of course the Conservatives are up in arms over this plan, calling it "undemocratic" and suggesting it's something akin to a coup. They point out that the voters overwhelmingly rejected the Liberals just last month. To make matters worse Dion, in the wake of his party's big loss, already announced he'd step down from his post next May, a plan he intends to stick with even if he now becomes Prime Minister. Since the opposition parties are upset at Harper's plans (or lack of plans) to deal with the economic crisis, you have to wonder then if having three Prime Ministers in six months is really the best course of action.

I guess politics in Canada can be interesting after all.
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Monday, December 1, 2008

New offer from Zimbabwe government: free graves!

The cholera epidemic is getting so bad in Zimbabwe that authorities in the capital, Harare, are offering free graves to the families of victims. The reason? The economy has collapsed to a point that most families cannot afford the roughly $30 it costs to bury someone in the city.

So let's review - under Robert Mugabe's leadership Zimbabwe has fallen to the point where they can't provide their people with food, medicine or clean water, but they will give you a free hole in the ground when you die. It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.

And it's likely to only get worse. Since the infrastructure has collapsed from lack of maintenance in much of the country people have taken to digging latrines in their back yards, along with wells. And with the rainy season coming it's expected that the excess rain will cause waste from the hastily dug latrines to spill into the hastily dug wells, contaminating them and causing an even larger cholera outbreak.

Mugabe, meanwhile, jetted off for Qatar to attend a UN conference on financing development. Surely the guy whose country has an inflation rate estimated at 231 million percent has a lot to offer by way of economic advice. Again, it would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.
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