Thursday, December 31, 2009

It's AWV Awards Time!

Now that we have officially reached the end of 2009 it is time for A World View to pay homage to the notorious and the noteworthy. So read on for our collection of honors, including the announcement of the winner of the coveted “Golden Cockroach” (all irreverence and satire is most surely intentional). Happy 2010 to all!

Typo of the Year – The US State Department
In his first year in office, Barack Obama made a big deal out of “resetting” America’s relationship with Russia, officials even made up a giant novelty “reset” button for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first meeting with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov last March. Unfortunately, the novelty prop contained a whopping typo – it read peregruzka, which is Russian for “overcharge” not “reset” like the Secretary announced when she presented it to Lavrov. Aside from providing a moment of minor embarrassment for Clinton, the whole incident raises the question: doesn’t anybody at the State Department speak Russian?

Capitalists of the Year – The Pirates of Haradherre, Somalia
Various pirate groups operating along Somalia’s lawless coast have gotten hostage-taking and ransom negotiation down to a science, but the pirates based in the port of Haradherre have taken things to the next level by opening their own stock exchange. The exchange allows the citizens of Haradherre to “invest” in pirate missions in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean - if the pirates they fund are successful in capturing and then ransoming a ship, the investors can make tens of thousands of dollars from their share of the booty. Something tells me if the pirates of Haradherre ever decide to give up life on the sea, they could have bright futures on Wall Street…

Unintentionally Funny Terrorist Photo of the Year – Doku Umarov

Doku Umarov isn’t the warm and cuddly type. The self-styled “Emir of the Caliphate of the Northern Caucasus” is trying to establish himself as the terrorist leader of forces attempting to carve a pure Islamic state out of southeastern Russia. Unfortunately for him, the fearsome warlord image is totally ruined by pictures like this.

Obviously no one in Umarov’s entourage knew one of the basics of photo/video production – to always check the background of your shot. Otherwise it is doubtful they would have sat Umarov so that the sword on the banner in the background sticks through him like the old Steve Martin arrow-through-the-head gag. I half expect Umarov to say “I’m a wild and crazy terrorist…”

Roger Daltrey Award – President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan
Roger Daltrey of The Who once sang the line: “meet the new boss, same as the old boss…” And in that spirit we give the Roger Daltrey Award to Turkmenistan’s Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov. He is just the second leader the Central Asian state has had since it gained independence with the demise of the Soviet Union. His predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov was a humble man who crowned himself Turkmenbashi, or “Father of All Turkmen”; named a month after himself; collected his “wisdom” in a book called the Rukhnama, which he then mandated be taught in all Turkmenistan schools; and built giant golden statues of both himself and the Rukhnama. When he died in 2006 the people of Turkmenistan hoped for a less flamboyant leader.

But after a promising start Berdymukhamedov is now showing the same penchant for outlandish projects as his predecessor. This year Berdymukhamedov opened “Avaza”, a massive gambling complex on the coast of the Caspian Sea (a sort of Las Vegas of Central Asia) that cost $5 billion to build. Not to rest on his laurels, in July Berdymukhamedov personally opened the taps on a massive engineering project called the “Golden Age Lake”, an inland sea he said will “make the desert bloom.” Critics, on the other hand, say the fertilizer-laced irrigation canal runoff used to hydrate the project won’t create a living sea but rather a gigantic cesspool. Berdymukhamedov personally used a spade to open up the first feeder canal for “Golden Age Lake” before riding off on a bejeweled horse. So much for being less flamboyant…

Field of Dreams Award – “African Renaissance” in Dakar, Senegal
“If you build it, they will come”, is the famous line from the supernatural baseball movie “Field of Dreams”; the government of Senegal seems to have taken this message to heart. Work is being completed on “African Renaissance”, a massive statue of an African man, woman and child that now looms over the capital, Dakar. How big is “African Renaissance”? It’s taller than the Statue of Liberty and larger in volume than the Eiffel Tower, and built at a cost of $27 million.

Officials in Senegal hope that “African Renaissance” will become a tourist magnet. In fact, no one is hoping this more than Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade, who also cut himself in for one-third of the future revenues generated by “African Renaissance” as the project’s “designer”, much to the chagrin of his countrymen.

Plain Brown Envelope Award – EU President Herman van Rompuy
In this tight economy a piece of conventional wisdom for landing that dream job is to make yourself stand out from the crowd. It’s good advice unless you’re Herman van Rompuy, who was apparently the only person deemed bland enough for the newly created job as President of the European Union. The former Prime Minister of Belgium became the consensus pick among the 27 members of the EU, beating out the far better known (and far more controversial) early favorite, former British PM Tony Blair.

Ultimately it was felt that Blair had too much baggage – namely his support of George W. Bush during the Iraq War – for the EU to agree to tap him for the job. By contrast, everyone seemed okay with van Rompuy, who a year earlier became the Belgium PM after months of haggling among fighting political factions again because of his overall inoffensiveness. Herman von Rompuy just shows, Bland can be Beautiful.

The Golden Cockroach – President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe
Named in honor of nature’s ultimate survivor, this year’s Golden Cockroach Award goes to President Robert Mugabe. Earlier this year it looked like the sun might finally be setting on Mugabe’s three decades of rule in Zimbabwe. In the wake of a controversial, violence-plagued election, the international community pressured Mugabe into a power-sharing unity government that saw his bitter political rival Morgan Tsvangirai named to the newly created position of prime minister and government ministries split between their two factions.

But Mugabe was undeterred. He staffed key government ministries with his own ZANU-PF party loyalists despite the terms of the power-sharing deal; had Roy Bennett, a key figure in Tsvangirai’s MDC party, arrested twice; and froze the MDC out of financial negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. Tsvangirai, meanwhile, narrowly survived a car accident in April that many in Zimbabwe felt was far from “accidental”.

At the end of 2009, the unity government is largely in tatters, and Mugabe is talking about holding early elections in 2010 to consolidate his grip on power. The international community is offering little in the way of opposition to Mugabe’s power grab, this summer China offered Zimbabwe a billion dollar line of credit to prop up their shattered economy, no strings attached.

All in all, it was a survival performance by Robert Mugabe that is more than worthy of the Golden Cockroach.
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Monday, December 28, 2009

Turkey Seeks the Bones of Santa Claus

Technically they want the bones of St. Nicholas, the real-life inspiration for Santa, but the intent is the same. St. Nicholas was canonized for his lifetime of acts of anonymous charity, including once climbing down a chimney to leave a bag of gold as a gift - inspiration for Santa's preferred method of ingress. The real St. Nick was buried in his native Demre, Turkey seventeen centuries ago. But when invading Arabs converted the region to Islam in the middle ages, a group of Italian sailors dug up the Christian saint's remains and took them to their hometown of Bari for safe-keeping.

The Turkish government is now considering asking Italy for the return of the remains. But even without the bones of St. Nicholas, according to the BBC, Demre is still capitalizing on being the birthplace of Santa Claus.
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China "Rescues" Ship From Pirates

China's Xinhua news agency is reporting today that the Chinese-owned ship De Xin Hai has been successfully rescued from pirates off the coast of Somalia. Apparently though the "rescue" involved a helicopter dropping a ransom of reportedly four million dollars to pirates on the deck of the De Xin Hai, who then released the ship.

The Chinese government is denying that they bought the freedom of the De Xin Hai, though they're also not giving any details about the alleged rescue operation. When the De Xin Hai was seized in October, the Chinese government publicly vowed to make all attempts to free the ship and crew. It seems though in the end the Chinese did what other governments have - simply paid the pirates off to release their ship.

The De Xin Hai was one of the biggest ships taken by Somali pirates, the ship is a bulk cargo hauler and was carrying 76,000 tons of coal. According to the European Union, the Somali pirates are still holding eight ships and more than 200 sailors.
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Monday, December 21, 2009

Have Yourself A Racist Little Christmas

The Italian town of Coccaglio has come up with a unique way of celebrating the season - a police-led round-up of illegal immigrants living within their village in a campaign of house-to-house searches that has been dubbed "Operation White Christmas" since it's scheduled to run through December 25th.

The campaign is the brainchild of Coccaglio's town council, which is dominated by members of Italy's Northern League. In their story, The Guardian defines the Northern League as "conservative", though critics have also branded them as being racist and anti-immigrant. But the Northern League is also part of the governing coalition of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi who have endorsed the campaign in Coccaglio, even though The Vatican has called it "sad and distressing" and other local residents say it makes a mockery of the spirit of the inclusive message of the Christmas season.

Under the Berlusconi regime, immigrants - the ones who don't look Italian at least - have become the scapegoat for many of Italy's social ills. In the past decade the number of immigrants living in Coccaglio has increased ten-fold, many of the newly-arrived residents are from China, Africa and the Middle East. Town officials defend their anti-immigrant campaign, going so far as to say that sending the police around is more polite than the previous policy of just mailing a letter to people suspected of violating immigration laws.
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Friday, December 18, 2009

Climate Gridlock in Copenhagen

The landmark climate talks in Copenhagen, according to most accounts, seem to be grinding to a deadlock, making it a distinct possibility that the talks - hailed as the last chance to stop permanent climate change - will end without a binding agreement.

There will be a lot more to say on the topic later, but so far the quote of the day has to go to Venezuela's Hugo Chávez who quipped earlier on his belief that the world's developed nations are standing in the way of an agreement: "if the climate were a bank it would have been saved already."
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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Savior? Villian? Economist Yegor Gaidar Dies

I first read it in a cable TV newsticker today: "noted Russian economist dies". The economist in question though wasn't some bland academic, but rather Yegor Gaidar, the man who depending on your point of view in the early 90's either saved Russia from collapse and civil war or plunged millions of Russians into poverty.

In 1992 Gaidar had the thankless task of serving as Acting Prime Minister just as the Russian economy, now free from the centralized control of the Soviet Union, was literally falling apart. I remember a friend telling me stories of standing in lines for rations of food, the markets - never bountiful in Soviet times - had nothing on the shelves. Gaidar believed that drastic action was necessary, so he put into action a plan of rapid reforms that came to be known as "shock therapy". The idea was that a quick, though hard, adjustment of the country's economy would be better in the long run than years of measured steps.

Gaidar took away Soviet-style price controls, which freed up the Russian marketplace. Put prices, naturally, shot up and when paired with a currency devaluation that happened the year before, many Russians suddenly found themselves poor and without the Soviet-era social safety net to catch them. For many it was indeed "shock therapy", some still have not recovered. For that reason, Gaidar was reviled by many Russians, but he also has his supporters, especially among Russia's liberals who say that without his drastic reforms, Russia very likely would have collapsed, adding that his shock therapy set the stage for Russia's economic boom in the mid-2000s.

Love him or hate him, Gaidar had a deep impact on Russia that merited more than just a few words in a newsticker crawl.
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New York Times' Abbas Error

Today's New York Times featured this little article about how the Palestine Liberation Organization extended the term of office of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a move the Times said was necessary since Abbas' "official tenure expires in little over a month."

The problem is that Abbas' term as president actually ended almost a year ago on January 9th. In January of 2005 Abbas was elected to a four-year term as the president of the Palestinian Authority (the de facto national government of "Palestine"). Some simple math shows that January 2005 + four years = January 2009; yet Abbas remains in office and continues to call himself "President".

Last year Abbas said that it would be impossible to hold a presidential election since the Gaza Strip portion of Palestine was being controlled by Hamas, the arch-rivals of Abbas' Fatah Party. Abbas pushed to have the presidential election delayed until 2010 when the next elections for the Legislative Council were scheduled. Now the Palestine Liberation Organization (Fatah's umbrella organization) is using the same Hamas excuse to now indefinitely delay those elections.

The problem is that in a democracy - at least not in a functioning democracy - the president or ruling party can't just arbitrarily extend their term in office. I would expect a venerable news organization like the New York Times to know a small detail such as the fact that Abbas' term in office actually ended almost a year ago - but apparently I'm expecting too much from the Times these days.
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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Politics of Pipelines

My latest post over at The Mantle and World Policy Journal takes on Europe's need for natural gas and the politics that surround the supplies. Right now Europe gets a significant portion of their natural gas from Russia - a situation that the European Union would like to change and that Russia would like to maintain. Read about the lengths that each side is willing to go to meet their goal, and the role that Turkey could one day play in the gas supply drama.
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Monday, December 14, 2009

More Evidence Naomi Klein Was Wrong On Iraq

Author Naomi Klein has long been a vocal critic of the Iraq War, saying that the goal of the conflict wasn't to liberate the Iraqis from Saddam Hussein, but rather from their oil. Last year in an op-ed in The Guardian, she said: "'We' are already heisting Iraq's oil, or at least are on the brink of doing so...". The op-ed was an expansion of the argument she laid out in her book Shock Doctrine, where she expounded on the theory of "disaster capitalism": that the government engineers crises so that private sector companies can then reap huge profits in dealing with the aftermath.

The problem (for Klein) is that the oil contracts auctioned off by the Iraqi government last week really undercut her main argument - that the war was a gimmick for American (and maybe British) oil companies to cheaply snap up Iraqi oil reserves. If there was anything more remarkable than the truly international spread of the companies winning the bids it was how American companies were almost totally absent among the bidders.

Iraq is the plum site in the oil-producing universe. The country is believed to have the third largest proven oil reserves in the world. Thanks to decades of mismanagement by Saddam Hussein, these oil fields are largely underdeveloped, meaning that Iraq likely has the last stand of large, easily-accessible oil fields left in the world, period. So of course, now that there's some semblance of security across much of Iraq, oil companies are eager to get access to the fields. This prompted the Iraqi Oil Ministry to auction off development contracts for 15 fields this past weekend, the second such auction they've held.

And the biggest winner seems to have been Russia's Lukoil, which (with their Norwegian partner Statoil ASA) won the rights to West Qurna Phase 2, with perhaps more than 12 billion barrels of oil buried under the sands. The other big winner in the auction was China's state-run oil company China NPC, which won a bid (in partnership with Britain's BP) for the Rumaila field, among other deals. Companies from Japan, Korea, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Malaysia, The Netherlands, and even Angola's oil company Sonangol all also won bids or were in consortia that won bids for some of the 13 other fields. The only US company to win even a portion of a bid in this second round was Occidental, who is a quarter-partner in a consortium that won a bid for the Zubair field.

All of that would seem to undermine Klein's argument from The Guardian, that the war was meant so that "we" (I assume she means the United States) could "heist" Iraq's oil. Most of the companies that submitted winning bids were from countries that had no involvement in the Iraq War, some - like Russia - were even vocal critics. The Iraqi Oil Ministry rejected a fair number of bids as being insufficient, and decided to develop five of the fields offered on their own since foreign companies were concerned over the security situation in those parts of Iraq and were unwilling to make the commitment to develop them.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh summed up the auction this way to Reuters: "for us in Iraq, it shows the government is fully free from outside influence. Neither Russia nor America could put pressure on anyone in Iraq - it is a pure commercial, transparent competition." He added, "no one, even the United States, can steal the oil, whatever people think."

No word on whether he meant Naomi Klein.
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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Abkhazia Picks New President

Well, maybe it's more accurate to say that the breakaway Georgian region sent their old president back for another round; sitting President Sergei Bagpash won nearly 60% of the vote in a field of five candidates, electing him to a second term in office. Opposition candidates though are crying foul, saying there were many irregularities in the poll and Georgia said the entire election is fraudulent since they feel that Abkhazia is still a part of Georgia.

The independence of the Black Sea region, home to around a quarter of a million people, is widely disputed in the international community, so far only Russia, Nicaragua and Venezuela have recognized Abkhazia as a country; the United States and many Western European countries insist it is still part of Georgia, despite the fact that Georgia has basically not exercised any political control in Abkhazia since the region fought a year-long war for independence in the early 1990's. Georgia called this week's elections "illegitimate and amoral".

Relations with Russia were a big issue in the election as the four challengers all accused President Bagpash of being too cozy with Russia and risking turning their would-be country into a client state of Moscow. Russia currently has about 3,000 troops deployed in Abkhazia as "peacekeepers", is building two military bases on Abkhaz territory and has begun patrolling Abkhazia's coastal waters.
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Mystery Plane Detained in Thailand

Russia has had tense relations with some of its neighbors recently, but there apparently is one thing that can bring them all together - illicit arms shipments.

Officials in Thailand on Friday detained a Russian aircraft, registered in Georgia with a Belorussian crew on suspicions that it was carrying 40 tons of heavy weaponry smuggled out of North Korea. Because of North Korea's ongoing nuclear bomb and ballistic missile programs, the United Nations slapped an arms embargo on the country last June making such shipments of weapons illegal.

The mystery plane seems to have been trying to violate that embargo. The plane was seized after it stopped in Bangkok to refuel; its official manifest said it was carrying "oil drilling equipment", though upon inspection it was actually found to be full of North Korean-made weapons. The plane, crew and weapons are now being held by Thai officials.

Where the plane was ultimately heading is also a mystery. Thai officials think it would eventually have gone to Pakistan, others think that Sri Lanka, it's next stop, was also its final destination, but the pilot was quoted by China's Xinhua news service as saying they were actually headed for Ukraine.
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Friday, December 11, 2009

The Latest Horror Story From Zimbabwe

Just when you think the news from Zimbabwe can't get any worse, it does.

In March of last year, Robert Mugabe, the only president Zimbabwe has ever had since winning its independence from the British, apparently forgot to rig the latest election, putting him in the uncomfortable position of facing a runoff against his challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai. For Round Two, Mugabe's ZANU-PF party didn't bother to rig the election itself, they instead engaged in a terror campaign against members of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, until Tsvangirai finally dropped out of the race in an effort to protect his supporters.

At the time we knew about the arbitrary arrests, beatings and even murders of some MDC supporters at the hands of Mugabe's ZANU-PF. What we didn't know about until this week though was the ZANU-PF's systematic use of rape as a weapon. According to a study by the charity Aids-Free World, published by the London Telegraph, the ZANU-PF committed at least 380 rapes of MDC supporters. The ZANU-PF even had centers set up so that the rapes of women, and in some cases children, could be carried out more efficiently.

But wait, it gets worse. At least nine women interviewed said that they believed they were also infected with HIV during the attacks. One woman said her attacker told her she'd been given HIV and asked if she thought that Tsvangirai would take care of her family.

Eventually Mugabe's ZANU-PF was forced into a power-sharing government with Tsvangirai and the MDC, though the ZANU-PF has consistently failed to live up to the terms of the agreement during the past year and a half. It begs the question why any governments in the region still support the wretched Robert Mugabe? (We're looking at you South Africa.)
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Norway's Mystery Spiral A Mystery No Longer

You've probably seen the video of the bizarre blue spiral that appeared in the nighttime sky above Norway on Wednesday, but just in case you haven't you can watch it below thanks to YouTube:

The mystery of the spiral appears to have been solved. It was not a UFO, or as some wiseguys suggested a Star appearing in the Eastern Sky to herald the arrival of Barrack Obama in Oslo, but something much more mundane: a failed Russian missile test. The Christian Science Monitor went so far as to talk to a real rocket scientist about the Norwegian light show. Dr. William Dimpfl explained that the pinwheel effect was likely caused by a misfiring rocket motor spinning the rocket out of control.

That meshes well with the Russian Defense Ministry's account of the latest test of the submarine-launched Bulava missile, which they say went out of control when its third stage became "unstable". Of course the Russians built the Bulava to be the high-tech, interceptor-dodging next generation of their ICBM forces, not to put on spectacular light shows over Norway. And that's where the troubles start - so far the Bulava has failed in seven of its twelve test launches, one Russian analyst said that only one test flight was a "full success".

Some in the Kremlin say that the Bulava's design itself is flawed and are pushing for the construction of more of an earlier generation, but reliable, missile. Others in the defense ministry are offering the excuse that the Bulava is failing because of poor production quality due to outdated, Soviet-era factories, which is a pretty lousy excuse if you think about it.

No word yet on when the Bulava's next test may be, but the Norwegians will likely be watching the skies when it happens.
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The Samsonadzes

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, or then again it may just be copyright infringement. That is the question surrounding the newest offering on Georgia's Imedi TV network, a comedy program called "The Samsonadzes".

According to EurasiaNet, The Samsonadzes follow the adventures of a yellow-colored, four-fingered animated family with a slow-witted father in an anonymous small town. And if that description has you thinking of The Simpsons, you're not alone. Simpsons fans in Georgia (and apparently there are some) are crying foul over the new series, though The Samsonadzes' producers insist the similarities between the two shows are only skin deep (a strange mustard-tinged skin deep that is), and that The Samsonadzes offer a Georgian spin on the family comedy genre.

The International Intellectual Property Alliance, a trade group that targets international copyright violators, claims that Georgia is among some of the world's worst IP violators - a holdover, some say, from the country's Soviet past when "property rights" was not a familiar concept for most people. So far 20th Century Fox, the producers of The Simpsons, hasn't weighed in on The Samsonadzes.
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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Wild Theory of the Day About Hacked Climate E-mails

Hanging over the climate change talks in Copenhagen are the collection of stolen e-mails from the British University of East Anglia now known as "Climategate". The British newspaper The Independent is offering up a theory of who was behind the theft and publication of the e-mails - Russian spies.

According to The Independent, the e-mails popped up on an Internet server in the Siberian city of Tomsk, specifically on a server belonging to a security firm called Tomcity. The Independent then talks about Russia's state security apparatus, the FSB and the speculation that they have employed armies of hackers in the past, though The Independent never actually draws a direct connection between the FSB and Tomcity.

The Independent also never really explains why Russia would hack and post climate-related e-mails. They speculate that it could be so Russia could win concessions from Western governments, or that a country known for its notoriously cold winters might think a little global warming isn't such a bad idea. Interesting theories, but they fall awfully short of a convincing argument or clear motive.

All in all, The Independent's story is a pretty weak one, but it does make for a great Internet rumor.
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A Century Ago, Yet Strangely Familiar

Yesterday I stumbled across the New York Times "TimesTraveler" blog, the idea is that the blog looks back at what was in the Times 100 years ago to the day. The funny thing is how many of the big stories seem strangely familiar: the President warning against imposing trade tariffs; the United States worrying about the government of a Central American state - Nicaragua this time, not Honduras, though an official named "Zelaya" is common to both; and a warning about terrorists coming to our shores, only 100 years ago it was the Black Hand instead of al-Qaeda.

It's interesting how times change, and how they don't.
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First-Person Account of Russian Night Club Tragedy

The BBC has published a harrowing first-person account of the disastrous night club fire in Perm.

A businessman identified only as "Sergei" said he narrowly avoided being a victim of the fire at the Lame Horse club because, he admits, he was too drunk to leave the bar he was at to join his friends in heading over to the other bar. Sergei received news of the tragedy on his cellphone and headed over to the club, outside he said he saw "30 to 40 people were lying in the street in front of the club." He would later discover that his three friends all died in the fire.

Sergei says that the fire safety measures were "very bad" and that the local government will just "cover its own back...everyone knows that bribes and corruption take place in Russia so nothing will really change."

According to Russia's RIA Novosti this morning, the death toll from the fire had risen to 125, and is expected to climb further since many victims suffered severe burns. The regional governor for Perm has resigned because of the tragedy.
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Monday, December 7, 2009

Energy Company's Boast About Melting Glaciers

Today energy companies fund huge advertising campaigns to promote just how environmentally-friendly (or "green") they are, but that wasn't always the case. Check out the ad below, it's a glossy two-page magazine spread from the early 1960's where Enco (a subsidiary of Humble Oil, which later became part of ExxonMobil) boasts about supplying enough energy to melt seven million tons of glacier each day.

Of course 40-odd years later, if Enco were still around, they'd likely be running spots on TV touting their bio-fuels research efforts and employing lobbyists to question whether there really is a link between fossil fuels and global climate change. Funny how times change...
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Sunday, December 6, 2009

Bad Times in Perm

By now you've probably heard about the terrible night club fire in the Russian city of Perm that has killed over 100 people so far (dozens more are reported to be in critical condition so sadly that total is likely to rise). While the initial fear was the Perm club disaster was another act of terrorism, the blame is now falling on lax fire code enforcement and careless owners. The managers of the Lame Horse nightclub had apparently been cited twice by city officials for violations of the fire code in the recent past and using fireworks inside a club like theirs was another violation. The Lame Horse's owners have all since been arrested and President Dmitry Medvedev is promising they will face the "maximum punishment."

Yesterday's New York Times piece on the disaster though makes note of the fact that it's been a hard couple of years for the Ural mountain city. Last year an Aeroflot plane crashed just outside the city, killing 88; in October, a pedestrian's near escape from an out-of-control bus became one of the top viral videos on the Internet; and last month there was the story of the homeless men outside of Perm who, allegedly, killed and ate one of their compatriots, and then sold the left-overs to a kabob shop (think about that next time you visit a street-food cart).

It's enough to make you hope that Perm has a much better 2010.
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The Next Fashion Center: North Korea?

An odd little story from the Associated Press, North Korea is apparently trying to break into the fashion world. Even though the "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-Il rarely appears in public not clad in a "Members Only" style jumpsuit, North Korea has entered into an agreement with a Swedish firm to produce designer jeans that will be sold under the "Noko Jeans" label.

The North Korean jeans were scheduled to go on sale this weekend in Stockholm and online as well. One place you won't see Noko Jeans, for sale at least, is in North Korea itself where jeans are viewed as a symbol of American "imperialism".
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Saturday, December 5, 2009

Terror Claims in Russian Rail Crash

On Thursday, nearly a week after a bomb caused the derailment of the Moscow-to-St. Petersburg Nevsky Express, killing 26 people, a Chechen rebel group claimed responsibility.

The Armed Forces of the Caucasus Emirate said they were behind the bombing and promised that it was just part of a larger campaign of attacks against key infrastructure points across Russia. The group is led by Doku Umarov, the self-styled "emir" of the caliphate of the Northern Caucasus. Umarov is a different kind of Chechen leader. Since the end of the Soviet Union, Russia has fought two wars against would-be separatists to keep Chechnya within Russia. As part of their campaign, Russia managed to kill off much of the old Chechen leadership and buy off the ones they couldn't (like the Kadyrov clan who are Chechnya's current pro-Moscow leaders). But these old Chechen rebels were separatists at heart, they wanted an independent homeland; Umarov is more in the bin Laden mold, he sees himself fighting a war to create a pure fundamentalist Islamic state.

Though many fingers have pointed towards the Caucasus region as the likely source of the Nevsky attack, there are those who doubt that Umarov has the ability to carry out a mission so far from his base of operations. And his group does have a history of claiming responsibility for things they didn't do; they also claimed to be behind the explosion that killed 75 people this summer at Siberia's Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric plant (a faulty turbine was the true cause of the disaster).

The Nevsky Express is a luxury train favored by Russia's business and political elite (two high-ranking government officials were among the dead last Friday), for that reason I think you can't ignore the possibility that far-right, ultra-nationalist groups might be behind the attack. In fact one ultra-nationalist group "Combat 18" claimed responsibility soon after the attack. Groups like "Combat 18" are critical of the Russian government for Russia losing the "empire" it once had as the Soviet Union and for, what they think, are lax immigration policies. These kind of groups have in the past been content with assaulting, and sometimes killing, immigrants from Africa, Central Asia, and anyone else they deem not Russian enough for their liking. But something like the Nevsky Express, a mode of transport favored by the political/economic elite and tourists, would be a tempting target for them.

Meanwhile part of the blame for the death toll in the crash is falling on Germany - more specifically on the German-made seats in the train's coaches. Many of the deaths and serious injuries were said to have come from the last car of the train, which violently derailed. Rescue workers said that many were killed not by the bomb, or by fire, but by being crushed when their seats broke loose and piled into each other. The Kommersant newspaper said that the seats' lightweight aluminum construction led to their collapse and that the heavier, steel-framed, Russian-made seats common on other Russian trains would have fared better in the crash, meaning there would have been fewer casualties.
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Brazil's Mystery of The Twins

On Thursday, The Week magazine jumped into an odd conspiracy theory making the rounds on The Internet - why a small town in Brazil has so many sets of twins?

In fact, the village of Cândido Godói has about 1,000 percent more twins than the global average, and many of them, supposedly, are blond-haired and blue-eyed, also genetic rarities in Brazil (and the photo editors at The Week show that they really know how to illustrate a story). The conspiracy theory is that the boom in Nordic-looking twins is in fact the result of secret genetic experimentation by Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, who fled to South America after the end of World War II.

And how could a story that juicy not be an Internet sensation? But in their round-up The Week cites one source that says the twin birth boom in Cândido Godói goes back to 1927, well before the alleged arrival of Mengele. A secondary conspiracy theory suggests that Mengele didn't experiment on people in the village, but on their cows, whose milk and meat was eaten by villagers, thus producing an abundance of twins (the 1927 part though still isn't explained). And at least one person in The Week's comment section noted that in the National Geographic report that sparked the whole story, most of the twins shown are neither blond or blue-eyed.

The take-away here is to remember on The Internet, stories are often too good to believe.
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America's Last WWI Vet Is On A Mission

I think that if Frank Buckles, America's last surviving veteran of World War I, makes a trip to Capitol Hill, the least we can do is talk about why he went.

Mr. Buckles, 108, traveled to Washington to lobby Congress to finally create a monument to all those who fought and died in World War I. It's amazing to think, but nearly a century after the end of the conflict, there's still no national memorial to "The Great War". Mr. Buckles has endorsed a Congressional effort to change that, and to do it in a way that means he may even live to see the memorial dedicated. The "Frank Buckles World War I Memorial Act" would rededicate an existing memorial on the National Mall for soldiers from Washington DC into the national memorial for all Americans who served in WWI.

It is a cheap and easy solution to a long-standing problem, so of course there's opposition to it from Congress. Politicians in DC, and their allies in Congress, are opposed to the federal government taking over their memorial; while another group from Missouri wants to see a monument in Kansas City dedicated in 1921 by the commander of American forces Gen. John Pershing rebranded as the national WWI memorial.

Frankly, they seem like silly reasons to oppose what seems like a very sensible solution to the lack of a national WWI monument. Hopefully Congress will act to designate an official memorial, while there's still a WWI vet left to visit it.
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Thursday, December 3, 2009

Brother, Can You Spare A Won?

The North Korean government briefly threw their country into chaos as they announced a revaluation of the North Korean currency, the won. North Korea is basically taking the Zimbabwean approach to controlling inflation - they're just dropping zeros off the end of their currency, in the case of North Korea, two zeros - so your 1,000 won note is now a 10 won note.

North Korea is actually ordering people to exchange their old won for new, but capping the amount they can exchange at between 100,000 and 150,000 won. The problem for North Korea is that many people, according to the New York Times, stockpiled won to buy necessities during the lean winter months, they're now likely to be stuck with a lot of now useless paper.

The currency revaluation is also widely seen as a move to rein in North Korea's booming black market, since the black marketeers will not want to get stuck with huge piles of soon to be worthless old won that they can't exchange. In recent years the black market in all sorts of goods has boomed as the state-run economy has faltered. Because of years of failed harvests and economic sanctions, the North Korean government has put tight controls in over what items are available for sale in the marketplace, who can buy them, and when - all factors that drive the black market.

(photo Yonhap News, South Korea)
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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Pirate Stock Exchange

Every now and then you read a story that just blows your mind...I was about to post a link to my latest piece over at The Mantle, the topic this time is the Somali pirates and how they could affect the future of international relations (check it out when you finish here), then I saw this story from Reuters about the Somali Pirate Stock Exchange.

Yes, you read that right, in the port city of Haradheere, a stock exchange was founded earlier this year, built around the pirate economy. Investors buy a "share" of a future pirate mission, if it is successful and the pirates capture a ship, investors then get a cut of the eventual ransom payment - it's like Lloyds of London in reverse. Reuters told the story of Sahra Ibrahim, a divorcee who bought a share of a pirate mission by donating a rocket-propelled grenade she received as an alimony payment (and wouldn't you have loved to have sat in on that divorce hearing?). Her mission was a success, the pirates captured a Spanish fishing trawler, later ransomed for more than $3 million, which netted Ms. Ibrahim $75,000 for her investment.

Apparently the exchange has been a runaway success. Its organizers say that in the four months since its founding, the number of "maritime companies" (groups of investors) has grown from 15 to 72, and pirates are now asking for larger ransoms to pay back their shareholders.

The exchange is also a good PR move. The Somali pirates, like pirates throughout history, have tended to spend their windfall profits on wine, women and song - all no-nos in traditional, Islamic Somalia. This has made some tribal elders speak out against the pirates and pledge to kick them out of their territories. But a cut of the profits from the Haradheere Pirate Stock Exchange goes directly to the local district to fund public infrastructure projects like schools and clinics - considering that Somalia basically doesn't have a functioning national government to pay for projects like these, this "pirate tax" will likely buy a lot of good will.

So in Haradheere we have a self-organizing capitalist system with a social welfare component, it's pretty amazing really.
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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Terrorists Behind Russian Rail Crash, But Which Terrorists?

Russian officials are blaming terrorists for the crash of a luxury Moscow-to-St. Petersburg train on Friday, but who these terrorists are remains a mystery.

The luxury Nevsky Express derailed after an improvised explosive device blew a three-foot deep crater under the tracks, sending the last few cars of the train off the rails. Latest reports are that at least 25 people were killed in the crash, with 90 others injured, some of them seriously. The attack happened on a remote, rural area of the route, which kept rescue teams from reaching the site of the crash for several hours. According to reports posted on Russian social media sites, some unhurt passengers provided immediate first aid to their injured fellow travelers.

With the rescue efforts finished, the focus is now shifting to who might be responsible for the worst act of terrorism in Russia (outside of the volatile North Caucasus region) in five years. The immediate suspicion is falling on the usual suspects, Islamic militants from the Caucasus region - most likely from Chechnya. Since the end of the Soviet Union, Russia has fought two bloody wars in Chechnya, and the early part of this decade was marked by several high profile terror attacks throughout Russia carried out by Chechen terrorists.

But as of Sunday afternoon, no Islamic or Chechen groups had taken claim for the attack on the Nevsky Express. And that raises the question, could someone other than the Chechens be responsible for the attack? The Nevsky Express is the high-speed rail-link between Moscow and St. Petersburg, it is a train popular with members of the country's business and political elite traveling between Russia's top two cities. One possibility is that this made the Nevsky Express not a target for the Chechens, but rather an ultra-nationalist (and anti-government) group of Russians. According to Russia's independent Ekho Moskvy radio station, a radical, neo-Nazi group phoned in a claim of responsibility on Friday, but that claim hasn't yet been verified and others ultra-nationalist groups used their websites to quickly disavow any connection to the attack.

In the past decade, many neo-Nazi/skinhead groups have emerged in Russia - often targeting immigrant workers from the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia in violent, sometimes fatal, attacks. These groups have also voiced anger at the Russian government for not cracking down on immigration of "non-Russians" and for business and political policies they feel has left Russia "weak". The Nevsky Express then would make a tempting target for groups with such an ideology. It was attacked in a similar fashion in 2006, though no one was killed and few people were injured in that incident. Suspicion at the time initially fell on ultra-nationalist groups, though it was eventually blamed on a small group of Chechen separatists. Russian authorities have a "person of interest" they are looking for to question about Friday's attack, he is described as being 40-ish, stocky with ginger-colored (red) hair - not the description of your typical Chechen.

And then there's the political dimension of the Nevsky Express story. Media reports already contain quotes from average Russians worried about a return to the early 2000s when Russia endured a string of terror attacks from the seizure of a Moscow theater, to airplane bombings to the slaughter of an elementary school. The idea of a new wave of Chechen terror attacks is bad, but the thought of high-profile attacks carried out by Russian nationalists - committing terror attacks not to win the independence of some out of the way corner of Russia but aimed at bringing about a fundamental change of the country's government and economy - could be worse. It may be enough for the Russian government to just blame the Nevsky Express attack on the usual suspects (the Chechens) and move on.
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Swiss Nix Minarets

With its clear blue lakes, craggy snow-capped mountains and quaint villages, to many Americans there are few places more quintessentially European than Switzerland. Another American perception of Europe is that it is a liberal, obsessively politically-correct place. That makes the apparent passage of a referendum in Switzerland banning the construction of minarets all the more interesting.

Minarets are to mosques what spires are to cathedrals. And that's the problem that many on the Swiss political right have with them, or as one of the "Stop Minarets" campaign leaders, Ulrich Schueler put it: "This minaret is a symbol of conquest and power which marks the will to introduce Sharia law as has happened in some other European cities. We will not accept that." In the past few years several new mosques, complete with minarets, have been built in Switzerland. A request to build one in the small city of Langenthal, already home to 11 churches, seems to have sparked the ban the minarets campaign.

The minaret ban made it onto Swiss ballots after supporters collected the 100,000 signatures necessary to put it to a vote under Swiss law. The ban though wasn't expected to pass, a poll just last week showed 53% of the Swiss planning to vote against it. But exit polls available shortly after the polls closed indicated the ban passing comfortably with 59% of voters saying yes. And that result has many other Swiss worried.

Some Swiss feel that the ban goes against ideas of equality and inclusion that are at the core of Swiss identity, others have more practical concerns - that the ban could harm Swiss business interests in the Muslim world. Still others were upset at the racial overtones of the campaign. The anti-minaret campaign poster - featuring a burka-clad woman and minarets that looked like missiles - was even banned as offensive in some cities. And finally, the success of the ban campaign can be seen as another sign of the growing clout of right-wing, nationalistic political parties across Europe.
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Saturday, November 28, 2009

War Worries Over Colombia/Venezuela

This week our friends from Canada, MacLean's Magazine, offer up a nice summary about a growing concern in South America - fear over a war between Colombia and Venezuela. Hugo Chavez has been making a lot of noise recently about his neighbor, but noise and Hugo Chavez pretty much go together. What has people concerned now, particularly people in Colombia, is Chavez's decision earlier this month to move 15,000 troops to the border between their two nations, supposedly to increase security after two Venezuelan border guards were shot.

Chavez is also furious over Colombia's signing a deal with the United States last month that gives the US access to seven Colombian military bases supposedly to help fight drug traffickers operating in their country. The subtext to Colombia's courting of the US though is that they have been accusing Venezuela of giving sanctuary to the FARC rebels who have been fighting a decades-long insurgency/terrorist campaign against Colombia's government. Chavez sees the agreement as setting the stage for a US invasion of Venezuela (Chavez accused the CIA of being behind a 2002 coup attempt that briefly removed him from power).

Of course it's hard to believe that the Colombian base deal is really the first step in a US invasion of Venezuela - especially since the US military is already so overstretched dealing with Iraq, Afghanistan and the way things are heading, perhaps military action against Iran as well. The problem is though with tensions running high between Colombia and Venezuela and troops massed at the border, a small event could rapidly spin out of control into something far worse.

Stay tuned...
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Friday, November 27, 2009

Fatal Pirate Attack in West Africa

There was a pirate attack Tuesday off the coast of Africa. Two things make this one especially noteworthy: first is that it occurred not off of Somalia, but rather off the coast of Benin in Western Africa; the second is that sadly this attack killed a Ukrainian crewman aboard the target ship.

While the Somali pirates have grabbed the world's attention (including Fox News, who last weekend did a surprisingly good hour-long report on the Somali pirate problem), the west coast of Africa - particularly the stretch of coastline between Nigeria and Liberia - has a small, but persistent pirate problem of its own. Western Africa offers a tempting mix for would-be pirates: plentiful shipping related to the oil wealth of states like Nigeria, along with quasi-lawless regions, particularly in Sierra Leone and Liberia (which are both recovering from long civil wars) to provide safe havens.

In Tuesday's attack, pirates boarded the Liberian-flagged tanker Cancale Star. Unlike their Somali counterparts who try to capture entire ships and hold them for ransom, the West Coast pirates were after the contents of the ship's safe, which they stole and took with them. The attack though left one of the Cancale Star's crew dead and one pirate, a Nigerian, in custody. Authorities in Benin are now trying to track down the rest of the pirate crew.
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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

World Faces Outbreak of Giant Statues

Forget swine flu, the world seems to be suffering from a new epidemic - the construction of giant statues.

First there was the dedication earlier this month in Pristina, Kosovo of an 11-foot tall, gold-covered statue of former President Bill Clinton (who the Kosovars feel helped to end the Serbian aggression against them and laid the foundation for their nation). Then there's Santiago, Chile, where construction is well underway on a 45-foot tall likeness of Pope John Paul II. A clay model of the late pontiff has already been finished, the next step would be to use that model to create a mold and cast John Paul in bronze.

But Chile's National Monuments' Council has derailed the pontiff project, at least temporarily. They felt that the size of the statue would overwhelm the city square that was intended to be its home (and they felt the location, above an underground car park, wasn't a setting quite befitting the late Pope). Since the clay model is already finished, it's likely the bronze statue - which critics have dubbed "Popezilla" - will eventually be cast and placed somewhere in or near Santiago.

Meanwhile, the biggest statue of them all is nearing completion. Work in Senegal is almost finished on "African Renaissance", a statue commissioned and allegedly designed by Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade. "African Renaissance" is a truly massive structure depicting a man cradling a woman and holding aloft a baby who is pointing towards "the future"; when finished it will be taller than the Statue of Liberty in New York City and larger in volume than the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

As you can imagine, a project that large is drawing giant amounts of criticism. Some are asking why is Senegal, a struggling nation in West Africa, spending $27 million on building this colossus rather than on programs that would do more practical things like feed hungry Senegalese? Others are also asking why "African Renaissance" was not designed or built by Africans? Instead of using local artists and craftsmen, President Wade contracted with a North Korean firm to build the monument.

And, critics say, it shows - rather than having an African feel, they say "African Renaissance" looks like an old Soviet statue. I have to admit they have a point, at first glance "African Renaissance" reminded me of the giant statues the Soviet Union use to churn out, especially under Stalin (see the example to the right), not surprising since North Korea is the world's only remaining Stalinist state. (And considering that North Korea has yet to master the art of making a durable beer bottle, I'd also be wary about hiring a North Korean firm to build a giant statue perched on a hill above my capital city).

Critics are also angry at President Wade for trying to turn a profit off the endeavour. "African Renaissance" will generate revenue from people visiting its site and a related museum that will also be built, and President Wade has cut himself in for a share of the profits - 35% of the profits to be exact. Wade explains he is entitled to the fee since he is the "designer" of the statue, many Senegalese don't agree.

"Since the beginning of the world, I have never heard, I have never seen, or never read, that a president has created something for his country, and is demanding 35% in return," said Amadou Camara, Director of the Commerce and Business Institute in Dakar in an interview with the BBC. Wade's "designer's fee" has also been the topic of numerous editorials in Dakar's newspapers.

"African Renaissance" is set to be officially unveiled in April.
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Monday, November 23, 2009

Putin, Medvedev Onside For Russia's Future

Last week in his state-of-the-nation address, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev laid out an ambitious (though vague) plan for Russia's future, titled quite humbly as: "Go, Russia!" At the time, critics thought the speech was also a thinly-veiled critique of his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, since he had failed to modernize the Russian economy and tackle corruption during his time as president. Putin seemed visibly uncomfortable at times during Medvedev's address, so Russia watchers were interested to see what his "response" would be when he addressed the party congress of United Russia (the dominant party in Russian politics) on Saturday.

It turns out that Putin largely endorsed the position of his protege. He echoed calls to modernize the Russian economy, saying that too many companies in Russia tried to: "squeeze out every last drop from aging equipment and get into debt with the hope that the state will provide a shoulder at the last minute and drag them out of their hole." He went on to say that the business climate was dominated by "short-term opportunists", and that long-term investment is what Russia truly needs. He also announced a plan to help Russia's "monocities", factory towns built around a single industry, to diversify their economies, including a plan to create "techno-parks and ‘business incubators’.”

Putin even called for a crackdown on corruption (though he has made this call a number of times in the past), singling out Russian state monopolies especially to engage in internal reforms. It was an interesting response from Putin, and one that is bound to spark yet another round of speculation about the true nature of their relationship - this picture from the Moscow Times was surely released to reinforce the idea of a strong partnership (even if it does sort of make them look like they're out on a date...).

Medvedev, meanwhile, pressed on with his push for reforms. He used his address at the party conference to call for free and fair elections (the last few in Russia have been alleged to be anything but free or fair). He also called for amending laws to strengthen the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Russia - in 2006 Putin signed a law that made operating an NGO in Russia nearly impossible. To make matters worse, there have been several high-profile murders of people involved with Russian human rights NGOs in the past year. Medvedev pledged to "continue to perfect the legal status of NGOs" in Russia, along with more than a billion rubles in aid to NGOs.

Critics say that the plans from both Medvedev and Putin are vague, that really at this point they're nothing more than talking points. But they are plans and plans that point in the right direction for Russia. The challenge for both Putin and Medvedev now is to show that these really are the outline for a course of action for the future and not just a few well-crafted speeches.
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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Meet President van Rompuy!

This week Herman van Rompuy became the first president of the European Union, capping a nearly decade-long battle by European bureaucrats to reform the political structure of the EU.

If you're reaction to the headline was "who?", the BBC was kind enough to publish this profile on President van Rompuy. His selection as EU president has already brought out the critics, some of whom say that van Rompuy was the only man bland enough for all 27 EU members to agree upon. Former British PM Tony Blair lobbied hard for the job, but ultimately failed to gain enough support, especially from EU powers like Germany - Blair's support for the Iraq War and George Bush weighed against him. Others though are asking what exactly the EU president will do, his/her duties under the Treaty of Lisbon are pretty vague, and President van Rompuy himself has defined his role more as a manager than as a strong leader.

But two countries could be impacted by the selection of van Rompuy as EU president. One is his native Belgium, where van Rompuy will have to give up his job as prime minister, a move that could launch the nation into a political crisis. Following national elections in June 2007, Belgium was effectively without a government for almost a year as the country's two main ethnic groups - the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons - failed to agree on a prime minister. After an interim government fell apart, Belgium's King Albert II stepped in and asked van Rompuy - a political moderate respected by both sides - to take the job, finally ending the crisis. The question now is if there's another van Rompuy waiting in the wings, or if the Flemish and Walloons will restart their battle over which side should lead the country.

Meanwhile Turkey likely won't be happy over van Rompuy's new role. For a decade now, Turkey has been trying to join the EU club, only to have negotiations over their membership drag on and on. While in the Belgian parliament five years ago van Rompuy spoke out forcefully against Turkish membership in the EU. "Turkey is not a part of Europe and will never be part of Europe," he said, adding "the universal values which are in force in Europe, and which are fundamental values of Christianity, will lose vigor with the entry of a large Islamic country such as Turkey."

Whether President van Rompuy moderates that position remains to be seen, but another high-profile European leader, France's Nikolas Sarkozy, is also against Turkey's membership in the EU, so I wouldn't expect a lot of progress in membership talks anytime soon. How Turkey reacts to that will be interesting to see.
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English-Russian Language Links Over Hockey

A couple of interesting stories today from the New York Times "SlapShot" blog on hockey - first is news that Russia's upstart professional circuit, the Kontinental Hockey League has finally launched an English-language version of its website. The KHL, which stretches across Russia and into parts of Eastern Europe, is trying to establish itself as the world's other premier professional hockey league (aside from North America's NHL, of course). An English-language website is a step towards trying to stoke interest in the KHL on the other side of the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins are going in the opposite direction, starting a Russian-language show on their HD radio station. The 30-minute “NHL In Russian” (or “NXL Na Russkom” as it's called in Russian) will air once a week on the Penguins' station, be streamed live over the Internet via the Penguins and NHL websites and will be available as a podcast. The show will be hosted by a Ukrainian-born, Russian-speaking member of the Penguins front office staff.

No word on what percentage of the Penguins fans are Russian speakers, but a clue about the prospective audience for "NHL in Russian" might be in its air-time: 8:30 Tuesday mornings in Pittsburgh, which works out to 4:30 in the afternoon in Moscow. Last year's top scorer in the NHL, Russian-born Evgeni Malkin plays for the Penguins.
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Friday, November 20, 2009

Cosmonaut's Blog, The Funniest Thing in Space posted this story yesterday about Cosmonaut Maksim Suraev, blogger and current resident of the International Space Station. And unlike NASA's efforts on the Internet, Suraev's blog is pretty damn funny (thankfully RussiaToday is offering an English-language translation of Suraev's posts). Among his recent posts was the photo below:

Suraev described the gadget as a combination eavesdropping device for listening in on the American side of the space station and ray gun for fighting off an alien invasion - though the ray gun could come in handy if the Americans were to again ban the Russians from using their toilet (actually the thing is a pump Maksim and another astronaut had just replaced). In other posts, Suraev describes a panicky late-night wake-up call from ground control about a possible collision with some space debris, and some truly bizarre mis-translations of food packet labels. With his blog, Cosmonaut Suraev manages to put a very human, and occasionally hilarious, face on space travel.
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Don't Worry About Iran Getting The Bomb

The Asia Times offers up one of the best and most interesting pieces I've read about the whole topic of Iran's pursuit of a nuclear bomb.

Sure, we'd all love a world without nukes, but that just ain't gonna happen...and currently the international community is bound up over what to do over Iran's (alleged) development of a nuclear weapon. The Asia Times' Aetius Romulous though makes a fairly compelling case that Iran's getting the bomb would be a good thing. His argument goes that an Iran with the bomb would become a regional power in its own right - preventing them from becoming a client state of Russia, while at the same time reducing Iran's need to try to project influence through the Mid-East by funding terrorist proxy groups like Hezbollah. Iran's rise to regional power status would also secure the oil supplies for two of the world's great rising powers, China and India (currently Iran's two biggest customers), likely reducing future tension between them since a big chunk of their energy supplies would now be secure.

It is an argument that goes against the conventional wisdom of keeping Iran from getting the bomb by any means necessary, thus making well worth your time to read.
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Wise Uses of America's Power?

RealClearWorld's Compass Blog offered up this post the other day: "The Use and Abuse of American Power". The post started out talking about the United States' ongoing involvement in Afghanistan, but it went on to cite a quote from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in a 2008 speech when he talked about the use of American military forces during the past 40 years in locales including: "Vietnam, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa, and more."

Writer Greg Scoblete goes on to ask "whether most of these military conflicts were worthwhile endeavors in the first place." I think he makes an excellent point. Was it really in the United States national interest to get involved in Lebanon, Grenada or Panama? Looking back, the logic for American involvement in Vietnam also seems pretty weak - the rationale at the time was expressed as the "Domino Theory": that Communism was like a virus, and if Vietnam was allowed to "go Red" other Asian nations like Japan and South Korea would soon follow. Of course after a decade of war Vietnam did go Communist and Japan and South Korea went on to become Capitalist powerhouses in the 1980s, so go figure...

Scoblete's point is that, militarily speaking, the United States tends to shoot first and try to decide if it was a good idea later. It is an excellent point to keep in mind while we try to figure out what to do next in Afghanistan.
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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Go, Russia!

In my latest post over at The Mantle I talk about Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's state-of-the-nation address entitled "Go, Russia!" Unfortunately a lack of specifics in Medvedev's roadmap for the future of Russia has left a lot of the comments about the speech to focus on talk of time zones, YouTube clips and the body language of Vladimir Putin. And while in the speech Medvedev makes a point of talking about how he enjoys reading comments made by average Russians on his official blog, I have to wonder if the recent spate of YouTube confessionals by corrupt Russian cops was the kind of social media interaction he had in mind.
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Monday, November 16, 2009

Obama's Phantom Town Hall Meeting

I had trouble sleeping last night, so I turned on the TV and was able to catch some of President Obama's townhall meeting in Shanghai with an audience of Chinese university students. Laying in my bed I was able to do something most Chinese were not, to watch Obama engage in a Q&A session with the students.

The townhall was suppose to be one of the key events of Obama's visit to China, a chance for the country to see the new president in action. The original idea was for the event to be broadcast nationwide on China's state-run TV network. But after two weeks of negotiations, the best the White House could get was coverage on the local Shanghai affiliate station and in Hong Kong, as well as on the Internet. But if the Obama Administration was hoping that the Internet would bring the townhall to the masses, they were badly mistaken - access to streaming video via was said to be "unreliable" in Beijing, while Chinese authorities blocked access through Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. Comments critical about the government posted to Chinese news sites were reported by several Chinese bloggers to have been quickly scrubbed by the authorities.

Perhaps all that censorship was unnecessary - the audience in Shanghai was said to have been carefully pre-screened by the local branch of the Communist party and was only about a quarter of the size Obama had hoped for. And to a degree Obama was self-censoring, soft-pedaling the topic of human rights in China. Obama did take a stand against Internet censorship, but only in reply to a question asked not by a student but by the US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman (from an email, he said, sent to the US Embassy in China). Perhaps the most effective form of censorship really is self-censorship.
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News: America Has An Afghan Strategy

In an interview with Germany's Der Spiegel magazine, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reveals that the United States actually does have a strategy for Afghanistan.

Clinton said that the United States' goal is to "defeat al-Qaeda and its extremist allies." Of course since a number of senior US military leaders have in recent months stated that there are less than 100 al-Qaeda operatives left in Afghanistan, you could make the case that we've already reached that goal. While Der Spiegel didn't ask raise that point, they did ask Sec. Clinton a pointed question in relation to Afghanistan's recent fraudulent elections, namely: "should our troops die for a corrupt government?"

Clinton responded by saying that she didn't "think they are fighting and sacrificing for the Afghan government - they do this for all of us." With that answer Clinton tried to continue the idea that Afghanistan is the central front in a global war on terrorism, despite the mounting evidence from our own military and intelligence services that it is not, nor is it likely to once again become an al-Qaeda safe haven should we leave.

And that is the biggest problem with the current debate on what to do next in Afghanistan - it is all built on faulty information. And it is impossible to make a good decision based on bad information.
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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Opinion Polls in Russia, Ukraine (and Moscow Rappers)

News now from a couple of opinion polls about the leadership in Russia and the upcoming presidential elections in Ukraine.

In Ukraine, a poll taken last week has former President (and presidential vote-rigger back in 2004) Viktor Yanukovych leading all candidates with 21.4%, current Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko came in second at 18%. A half-dozen other candidates, including current President Viktor Yushchenko, all failed to register above the single digits.

Meanwhile in Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's approval rankings tumbled six points to their lowest level since he took over as PM, coming in at 66%. Now for an elected official 66% is usually regarded as a excellent level of support, but it is quite a decline from Putin's formerly stratospheric numbers up in the 80% range.

The poll numbers came out as Putin was appearing on "Battle for Respect", a hip-hop contest sponsored by Muz TV, a Russian-language rival to MTV. Putin himself didn't rap, but he did address the crowd and received chants of "Respect, Vladimir Vladimirovich!" in reply. Rapper Zhigan, who did win "Battle for Respect", said though that it would be "cool" to record a track with Putin "because he is a legendary man and our idol." I think that Zhigan will have a bright future ahead of him...
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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Spain Wants To Take Fight To Pirates

Spain is proposing a drastic change to the way the international community is dealing with the piracy problem off the coast of Somalia. Spain's new idea is to blockade the three Somali port cities used by the pirates as bases of operation and as places to store the ships they capture.

In recent weeks the piracy problem has become personal for the Spanish - three dozen Spaniards were captured aboard a fishing trawler, the Somali pirates are refusing to let any of them go until the Spanish government releases two pirates they are currently holding. The Spanish government is of course refusing this demand.

There is some logic to the Spanish blockade approach. In the past month, the pirates have launched a series of attacks hundreds of miles from the Somali coast, in one case they attacked a ship nearly a thousand miles out to sea, meaning piracy is now a threat throughout a good chunk of the Indian Ocean. It is far too much sea for the roughly two dozen international warships participating in anti-piracy efforts to effectively patrol. Two dozen ships though could blockade three port cities.

What the Spanish didn't explain is what they would do if the Somali pirates tried to run the proposed blockade, especially if they tried to bring a captured civilian ship into port, since a military attack would almost certainly kill some or all of the civilian ship's crew. Spain will formally make their proposal at a meeting next week of countries participating in the anti-piracy flotilla.
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Looming Hockey Strike in Russian League?

It's not that often that hockey intrudes into the realm of international affairs, though it seems to be happening more and more often with Russia's fledgling Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). The latest story involves the KHL's Lada Togliatti, which is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and whose players are threatening to strike over unpaid wages.

Lada Togliatti is sponsored by Russia's automotive conglomerate AutoVaz, maker of the venerable Lada line of cars. Problem is that few Russians today want to buy Ladas. That has left AutoVaz on the verge of making massive layoffs and that has the city Togliatti in a panic, since the sprawling AutoVaz complex employs about one in seven of Togliatti's residents.

One cost-cutting measure at AutoVaz apparently has been to stop paying the players on Lada Togliatti, prompting them to threaten a strike. So far the KHL has agreed to pay the players through November, the league is also negotiating with a subsidiary of Russia's state-run weapons manufacturer Rosoboronexport about taking over the sponsorship of the team - now that could make for some interesting give-away nights for the fans...
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Thursday, November 12, 2009

So Much For "Freedom Of The Press" In Iraq

The British newspaper/webportal The Guardian is furious over a fine levied by an Iraqi court against one of their reporters, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad for his April article that quoted intelligence officials who accused the country's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki of becoming "increasingly authoritarian."

The Guardian published a flood of condemnations from around the world against the Iraqi court decision. Honestly, The Guardian laid it on a bit thick, but the underlying message is a good one: how can we consider the new government in Iraq truly democratic if it is so quick to try and muzzle the press over coverage that is unflattering to its leader? Some of the strongest condemnations came from the Arabic-language newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, which called the Iraqi tribunal a "kangaroo court" and said: "Despite the fact that the Americans spent $800bn to create a democracy and promote freedom of expression, what we have seen in Iraq is an appalling media where the opposition points of view rarely surface. It is sectarian or factional or financed by the Americans."

Much of the criticism continued in that vein, with words like "mockery" and "affront" thrown around a lot. And this isn't the first time charges like this have been leveled at al-Maliki, back in January the Los Angeles Times did a long piece on the growing authoritarianism of his regime, though the Times was never sued.

Mamoun Fandy from the think-tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies though did see some signs of progress in the slander lawsuit. He said, "it is new that a leader or an intelligence agency in that part of the world takes a journalist in their jurisdiction to court instead of jailing him or ordering him being bumped off."
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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Russia Rocked By Police Corruption Claims

The idea of police corruption is sadly nothing new in Russia - I've heard from a number of friends stories of having to pay "fines" (small bribes really) for committing non-existent offenses while visiting Russia; I also once heard a well-known journalist explain how during the Beslan elementary school terrorist attack/siege in 2004, it was possible to bribe your way past the security cordon for just a few dollars. But the revelations of Alexei Dymovsky, formerly a Major on the Novorossiisk, Krasnodar police force have become the talk of the nation, perhaps for the way Major Dymovsky told his tale - through a series of online videos on YouTube and his personal website last Thursday.

In the clips, Maj. Dymovsky gave a gripping account of a police department riddled with corruption: from young people taking jobs with the police at just $400 per month, knowing that they could make much more from bribes; to officers being ordered to solve non-existent crimes to boost statistics; to officers being denied sick days and health care access; to his own personal admission that he gained his Major's rank by agreeing to prosecute a man he knew to be innocent. Dymovsky repeated his allegations at press conference in Moscow on Tuesday, which also sadly happened to be National Police Day in Russia.

Dymovsky's allegations have officials scrambling. He was promptly fired by the Novorossiisk Police Dept., who are also threatening to sue him for slander. At his press conference Dymovsky claimed he had to drive the 800 miles to Moscow after he found he couldn't buy an airline ticket because his credit card was frozen and he feared his family was now being followed by the authorities. Officially the Kremlin has not had a response, saying that Dymovsky's claims had to be checked first, even though he addressed his You Tube clip to "Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin]" asking him to conduct "an independent investigation throughout Russia" into police corruption.

This wasn't the first time, according to RussiaToday that Dymovsky tried to enlist Putin in an investigation of the police. In 2006 during a televised nationwide Q&A session with the then president, Dymovsky asked Putin: "when will the police abuses be stopped in Krasnodar region?”, though he says his chiefs then pressured him to say he misspoke.

Some official quarters have responded though, the Russian Interior Ministry announced they would launch an investigation into Dymovsky's charges beginning on Monday. Of course since this is Russia, the conspiracy theories are also flying along with Dymovsky's charges. Those trying to discredit Dymovsky say he being used by "foreign influences" to discredit Russia's police, specifically the United States who are funneling money from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) through a Novorossiisk-based human rights organization to Dymovsky; another theory is that Dymovsky is being used as a front by the Kremlin itself to remove some high-ranking police officials under a cloud scandal.

The record number of hits on Dymovsky's website and his YouTube videos though suggest this conspiracy won't go away quietly.
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Last Brit WWI Vet Shuns Holiday

Today is Veteran's Day, or Remembrance Day as it is known in the British part of the world. The British are marking the day with a special air of solemnity since in the past year they lost their last three surviving veterans of World War One, the final one being the "Last Tommy", Harry Patch who passed away this past August.

There is technically one British vet left, 108-year old Claude Choules, a Royal Navy veteran now living in Australia. Choules lied about his age to join the Royal Navy at 14, he transferred to the Australian Navy in 1926 and was still serving when the Second World War broke out.

Even though Mr. Choules is said by his family to be "holding up well" for 108, he will not be attending any Remembrance Day services, saying that, in his opinion, the memorials only serve to "glorify war."
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Monday, November 9, 2009

Berlin Wall and Bad History

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. By now you've probably heard Ronald Reagan's famous "tear down this wall!" speech on the news a few dozen times. What you might not know, and what author Will Bunch explains in his book/deconstruction of the Reagan years, "Tear Down This Myth", was that Reagan's Wall speech was aimed less at "Mr. Gorbachev" and more at his conservative critics at home who feared the Gipper had gone soft on the Reds, you know, negotiating nuclear arms reduction treaties with them and all that...

Expect to hear a fair bit of misinterpreted history over the next few days as every news magazine, paper and cable outlet does their own Berlin Wall recap. I stumbled across this piece by George Packer in the New Yorker: "Communism Collapsed, Is Iran Next?", where Mr. Packer talks about Communism being consigned to the "ash heap of history" - something which must come as news to the 1.3 billion Chinese currently living under a Communist government. In fact Beijing just commemorated the 60th anniversary of Communist rule with great fanfare, and despite the free market trappings and luxury cars in the streets of Shanghai, China is still very much a centrally-ruled country, just as the Soviet Union once was.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gorbachev used the anniversary to plead with world leaders to tear down a wall of a different sort, Gorbachev said that the governments of the world must unite now to take on climate change. He draws a parallel between the global security threat the world faced 20 years ago and the one posed by a changing climate today. And just as few thought 20 years ago that the Wall would ever come down, he argues meaningful progress can be made in tackling the causes of climate change and addressing the gap between the world's rich and poor if people and governments are willing to commit to taking action.

Finally, for a personal view of the time surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall, and an excellent movie to boot, check out the film "Goodbye Lenin!"
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