Saturday, January 31, 2009

A-pirating again

The pirates of Somalia had a quiet start to 2009, and the US Navy is taking the credit.

At the end of 2008 the Navy announced the creation of Combined Task Force 151, a unit dedicated to fighting piracy in the Gulf of Aden, joining the navies of more than a dozen other countries from around the world operating off the coast of Somalia. After boom times earlier in the year that at one point saw the pirates holding nearly three dozen ships, successful hijackings fell to just a handful in December. Task Force 151's commander, Rear Admiral Terry McKnight, thinks the US has been a decisive factor in the drop.

But as Wired magazine's ‘Danger Room’ blog points out, the US Navy hasn’t actually ever engaged any pirates - unlike the navies of countries like India, Germany and Russia. And even Rear Adm. McKnight notes that the weather might be as big a factor in the drop in attacks as the presence of the US Navy, noting that the pirates’ boats tend to be small fishing craft, not suited for heavy weather and rough seas. “When the weather picks up, they tend to stay at home, and not out here,” McKnight said in a recent conference call. So much for being a decisive factor.

In fact, hot on the heels of McKnight's press conference, the pirates did land their first major prize of the year - a German tanker the MV Longchamp, which is believed to be carrying a cargo of gasoline. The pirates used a bit of trickery to catch the tanker, first launching an attack on another ship to draw naval vessels in the area away from the Longchamp, which they were then able to quickly board and capture. The German tanker's crew is reported to be okay, and will now likely be held along with their ship for ransom (the Somali pirates are estimated to have made $50 million last year from this cargo ship catch-and-release process).

And another navy is now looking to get in on the action off Somalia. Japan announced that they would be sending one of their destroyers to join in on the international patrols, though Japan will have to amend the law to allow the ship to go. Under the post-war constitution the United States wrote for Japan while we were occupying them after their surrender, Japan's military can only act in self-defense, so, technically, the Japanese ship could only respond if the pirates attacked either a Japanese-owned vessel, or one with a Japanese crew. Prime Minister Taro Aso is planning to introduce an amendment to the law to let their navy engage pirates attacking any ship.

Japan appears to have decided to send their navy to Africa after China sent two warships to the region last month, the first time in modern history that the Chinese Navy has operated away from their home waters.
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Russia, Georgia feud over 'defecting' soldier

Russia and Georgia are engaged in another war of words, this time over Alexander Glukhov, a 21-year old Russian Army sergeant.

Glukhov, and Georgia, say that he defected from his unit in South Ossetia because of the deplorable conditions at his army base and abuse from his superior officer; Russia claims that Glukhov was kidnapped by Georgian spies and brainwashed into making his comments about the military – a view of the events back up by Glukhov's mother, who told Russia's RIA-Novosti “what he's saying doesn't resemble him.” Galina Glukhova added, “it doesn't sound like it's coming from him. Someone must be pushing him.”

Glukhov is a draftee from Sarapul, in central Russia. He said on Georgian TV that despite the harsh winter conditions found in the mountains of South Ossetia, his unit was forced to stay in tents heated only by small stoves that didn't work well. He described his commanding officer as a major who “drank all the time” and took a dislike to Glukhov, constantly swearing at him. Glukhov said he couldn't bear it any longer and defected to the Georgian side.

Like many things in the Russia-Georgia conflict, it’s a little hard to figure out what’s going on here. There is a lot about Glukhov's story that makes sense - abuse by superior officers has been a terrible problem in the Russian military, especially since the end of the Soviet Union. In the past few years there have been high-profile cases of conscript soldiers dying as a result of abuse (and one well-publicized story of a soldier who had to have both legs and his genitals amputated because of hazing from his superiors). Soldiers often complain about poor-quality, or totally absent, supplies. As a result, there is a high rate of desertion in the Russian military, with many conscripts (military service is required of all young males) simply not showing up.

But part of Glukhov’s story is a little hard to believe. He claims to now be living among Georgian refugees from South Ossetia now living near the capital, Tbilisi - it is hard to imagine though that Georgian refugees would welcome a Russian soldier to live among them considering that they blame the Russian military for driving them from their homes in the first place.

Speaking of Georgian refugees- the BBC went to visit one of the villages that the Georgian government has built for people displaced from South Ossetia by the conflict, it was a pretty bleak place.

The UN's High Commissioner for Refugees in Georgia criticized the housing built by the Georgian government as sub-standard and not adequately heated in the winter. The government also gave each family a small plot of land, but the UNHCR they could likely not earn a living from them by farming because they were too small. Residents of the village interviewed by the BBC complained about a lack of wood to heat their new homes, a lack of jobs and running water. The Georgian government said that things will improve in the springtime, but many villagers seemed hopeless.

“This is not a life, it is just an existence,” one young man said. “If I continue to live here I will not be living,” adding that he could not get married since he did not want to bring his wife into the sad setting of the refugee village.

Hard to imagine these folks welcoming a Russian soldier…
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Fidel wants Gitmo back

After first praising Barack Obama as “intelligent and noble” and hailing his election, Cuba’s Fidel Castro has a new message for the president - he wants the US Navy to leave Guantanamo Bay.

Guantanamo has been in the news recently because of the detention center for suspected terrorists, but the US Navy’s presence there goes back more than a century. After the United States wrestled Cuba from Spain in the Spanish-American war, the new Cuban government signed a treaty with the US, giving them the right to put a naval base in Guantanamo Bay. One provision of the deal was that the treaty would last until the US either abandoned the base, or until both countries agreed to end the deal. Cuba has wanted the US to leave for decades - even going so far as to not cash the annual rent checks (each for a little more than $4,000) the US sends for the land at Guantanamo - but the United States refuses to end the treaty, so the base remains. And while Pres. Obama has ordered the closure of the detention center at Gitmo, he has no intention of closing the naval base itself.

Castro’s request marks a rare foray into international politics for Fidel, who turned control of Cuba over to his brother Raul last year after Fidel’s health took a mysterious turn for the worse. Last week, the New York Times published the first picture of Fidel Castro issued by Cuba in the past two months. Fidel actually looked much better than he has in other photos from last year. Still, he seemed sanguine about his future, Castro, who has outlasted nine US presidents, doesn’t expect to make it ten. “I have had the rare privilege of observing events over such a long period of time,” he wrote. “I don’t expect to have that privilege in four years, when Obama’s first presidential term will have concluded.”

Raul Castro, meanwhile, is busy shoring up relations with one of Cuba’s former allies - Russia. Raul is in Moscow on a state visit and took the occasion to sign a host of agreements including a loan from Russia to sell Russian-built aircraft to Cuba’s state-run airline and a package of emergency food aid from Russia to help Cuba cover shortages caused by the rash of hurricanes that hit the island this summer. The two leaders also signed a statement on “strategic” cooperation between their countries. Last December Cuba hosted a task force of Russian warships that were visiting the Caribbean, Cuba also has discovered reserves of oil located offshore, there have been some discussions about Russian companies coming in to drill deep-water wells offshore and to repair Cuba's ailing oil infrastructure.
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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Sparks fly at the World Economic Forum

The World Economic Forum is usually a sedate gathering of heads of state and the world's top economists all coming together to talk shop at the Alpine resort of Davos, Switzerland.

Usually...But this year's version has already seen its share of fireworks. First there was the speech by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, which Bloomberg financial news branded as ‘absurd.’ The Russian leader took the financial whiz kids of Wall Street to task for causing, in his words, the worst crisis since the Great Depression. Putin laid the blame for the global financial crunch firmly at the feet of American-style capitalism, with a little gloating to boot.

“Just one year ago we heard the words of our American friends from this tribune about the fundamental strength and the cloudless prospects for the US economy,” Putin said, before adding that now “the pride of Wall Street, the investment banks, have virtually ceased to exist.”

Economist and Harvard professor Niall Ferguson scoffed at Putin’s take on how the world got in this economic mess (apparently ignoring the fact that this is an opinion now being voiced in many parts of the globe...), saying “the idea of the Russians lecturing the West about how to run the economy is absurd.” I’ll be really interested then to see how Prof. Ferguson reacts when France's Nikolas Sarkozy and German's Angela Merkel take their whacks at the US financial system this April at the G20 economic summit (my earlier post ‘Make Way for Moral Capitalism’ should give you an idea of where Merkel and Sarkozy are coming from).

But Putin wasn't the only world leader making waves at Davos. Turkey’s PM, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, stormed off the stage after a heated exchange with Israel’s Shimon Peres, saying he would never return to Davos. Erdogan said he left after not getting time equal to Peres’ to address the gathered crowd. The two clashed, not surprisingly, over Israel’s recent military campaign in Gaza. Erdogan didn't hold back saying that Peres “killed children on beaches” and scolded the crowd for applauding Peres because he “killed people. And I think that is very wrong.”

According to the BBC, Peres couldn’t understand why Hamas fired rockets into Israel saying, “there was no siege against Gaza. Why did they fight us, what did they want? There was never a day of starvation in Gaza.” But, due respect to Mr. Peres, I think the Gazans might disagree. Israel maintained a blockade of Gaza - even after agreeing to lift it as part of the earlier cease-fire agreement with Hamas. As a result, many families in Gaza relied on food assistance programs sponsored by the UN and, yes, Hamas, to survive. So while technically Peres is right that “no one starved,” it doesn't mean people weren’t going hungry.

Who knew an economic forum could be so interesting?
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Zimbabwe finally gives up on its currency

Zimbabwe has thrown in the towel on its currency.

The country's Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa announced today that all businesses in Zimbabwe could now deal in foreign currencies. The decision came a couple of weeks after the Central Bank of Zimbabwe announced the printing of a $100 trillion bill (yes, that's trillion with a “T”), which at the time was worth about $30 in US currency and now is worth far, far less because of the country’s runaway inflation. A thriving black market has been operating in Zimbabwe for some time now where merchants trade goods for ‘hard’ foreign currencies including US dollars, South African rand and Botswana pula.


Can you spare a $500 billion?

But the decision is still unlikely to ease the crisis in Zimbabwe, where civil society is now grinding to a halt along with the economy. Teachers are refusing to report for the start of the school year since, in US dollars, the daily bus fare to work is double their monthly salary. Doctors and nurses are also refusing to report for work both because of the low salaries and lack of medical supplies. Months ago doctors were warning anyone who thought about coming to the hospital to bring their own medicine, sheets and bandages since they had none there to use of the patients.

Zimbabwe is still in the grips of a cholera outbreak that has killed an estimated 3,000 people so far and that shows no signs of letting up. Meanwhile President Obama has weighed in on the stalled power-sharing talks between President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Obama spoke with South Africa’s Kgalema Motlanthe and urged him to “show leadership” in resolving the dispute. Most observers believe that South Africa could put severe pressure on the Mugabe regime with an economic boycott, but South African leaders have repeatedly refused to use this option to force Mugabe to agree to a legitimate power-sharing deal.
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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Islamists take control of Somali city

The government of Somalia suffered another setback yesterday, losing control of the city of Baidoa to an Islamic insurgent movement known as Shebab (or al-Shabaab), meaning “the youth.” Baidoa was the last city fully under control of the Somali government, though the government’s grip over their own country was so weak that they actually met in the neighboring nation of Djibouti.

Shebab’s takeover of Baidoa wasn't a big surprise. The Somali government was only able to control even a portion of the country because the support of Ethiopian troops who rolled into Somalia in 2006, driving Shebab and another Islamist group, the Union of Islamic Courts, from Baidoa and the capital city Mogadishu. But the Ethiopians grew tired of their military mission and abruptly pulled out at the end of 2008, leaving behind only a small contingent of troops from the African Union who were not prepared to battle the Islamists.

According to a former government minister interviewed by the Voice of America though, the residents of Baidoa may welcome the return of Shebab. Former Education Minister Mohammed Ali Ahmed said that the people in Baidoa were tired of the presence of Ethiopian troops and the ineffective Somali government, and that as long as Shebab respected their elders, the takeover of the city should go peacefully. Shebab, meanwhile, said that they would soon implement sharia law (a code of justice based on a strict reading of the Koran), but so long as the people in Baidoa respected the law, there would not be problems.

And while we are on the topic of Somalia, the Canadian news magazine MacClean's published: “This Cabbie Hunts Pirates” this week, the story of Abdiweli Ali Taar, a Toronto cab driver turned coast guard commander in the Puntland region of northern Somalia.

Mr. Taar heads up the SomCan (for Somali-Canadian) Coast Guard, the country’s only line of homegrown defense against the pirates that prowl the waters off Somalia. His fleet consists of one seaworthy trawler, turned patrol ship and 200-odd, poorly paid militiamen.

It's an interesting story that gives you some insight into the complex nature of the fight off the coast of Somalia - for example, many of today's pirates were former coast guardsmen, lured away by the better pay of piracy. Mr. Taar said that fact gets to the root of the problem in Somalia - people turning to crime because of the lack of any legal jobs paying a decent wage. “I told the UN, look, if you want to help Somalia, the pirates are peanuts compared to the problems we have,” Taar said, adding that if the world’s navies took the money they are spending patrolling off the coast of Somalia and spent it on development projects ashore, it would likely end the piracy problem.
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Snow falls in the Persian Gulf

For the first time in recorded history a measurable amount of snow fell in the mountains of the United Arab Emirates.

Nearly 20 centimeters (about seven inches) of snow blanketed Jess Mountain, a 6,200-foot peak in the Ras al Khaimah emirate. Locals say that snow fell on Jess Mountain twice before - in 2004 and 1994 - but this was the first time it ever fell in measurable amounts.


Some of Jess Mountain's desert flora in the snow

Ironically Dubai, one of the other emirates, is home to one of the world's first indoor ski slopes, previously the only place you could see snow in the UAE.
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Monday, January 26, 2009

Who runs Palestine anyway?

In the aftermath of the recent Gaza conflict, leaders in Israel, the US and Europe seem puzzled as to why the Palestinians insist on following those mean people of Hamas instead of that nice President Mahmoud Abbas? Mr. Abbas is seen as the far more moderate voice in Palestinian politics and was given the honor of being the first foreign head of state that Barack Obama called after becoming president. That’s all well and good, except that Mahmoud Abbas technically isn't the president of Palestine any longer.

Abbas' term of office technically ended on January 9. Of course Abbas has continued to say that he's the president and governments from Israel to the US are happy to keep calling him president, but according to the Palestinian constitution, it’s simply not the case. Since Abbas’ term expired the job should go to the Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council (their version of a national parliament) a man named Abdel Aziz Dweik. The only problem there is that Mr. Dweik is currently in an Israeli prison for being a member of Hamas. Next up would be his deputy, Ahmed Bahar, who also happens to be part of Hamas.

So far Hamas hasn’t pushed the issue of their guy taking over for Abbas because of the crisis in Gaza, but that is unlikely to remain the case. Abbas meanwhile, wants to stay as president until election are held for the legislative council. Abbas wants those elections moved up from 2010 to sometime this year, and wants the rules changed so that people only vote based on party, not on an individual-per-seat basis as stated in the Palestinian constitution (hoping that change will make it harder for Hamas to win). The problem for Abbas though is that in a functioning democracy you can’t just make the rules up as you go along.

And all of this mess in Palestine is partly our fault. In 2005 the Bush administration pushed the Palestinians to hold elections for their legislative council, even though many experts in the region said that Hamas was likely to win a majority of the seats. When they held the elections in 2006 - which were lauded as the most fair and open ever held in the Middle East - Hamas won as expected. Our next move was to refuse to talk to Hamas, even though they were now democratically elected, because of their support for terrorism. Now we're asking the Palestinian people to follow a leader who’s now illegally squatting in the president’s office rather than following the laws they laid out in their own constitution and giving the presidency to a member of a party we don’t like (and before we get into the ‘terrorist organization’ argument, keep in mind that Abbas is from Fatah, which started as the political wing of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) – itself once committed to the destruction of Israel).

Ultimately Abbas’ future is bleak. Whether he holds elections now, later in the year or in 2010, his chances for reelection are pretty low. Even before the Gaza conflict many Palestinians were fed up with Abbas. Years of negotiations with Israel failed to remove the Israeli checkpoints that make movement for the Palestinians within the West Bank an incredible hardship, nor was Abbas ever able to get Israel to stop the growth of their ‘settlements’ that are gobbling up more and more of the land the Palestinians hope will one day be their country. During the Gaza conflict he was unable to even secure a brief cease-fire for humanitarian aid to get into the Gaza Strip and looked incredibly irrelevant.

Abbas may be able to stay on as president for a little while longer by ignoring the constitution, but it’s another blow to the idea of democracy in the Middle East.
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South African leaders hold emergency meeting on Zimbabwe

Regional leaders from Southern Africa have gathered in last minute talks to try to salvage a power-sharing agreement in Zimbabwe. The heads of South Africa, Mozambique and Botswana are sitting down with Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe to try to get him to follow through with an agreement to split Zimbabwe's government ministries with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

Months ago the two men agreed, in principle, to a power-sharing agreement that divided Zimbabwe's government ministries between their two parties. But Mugabe violated the spirit of the agreement by gobbling up all of the important posts for his ZANU-PF party. Tsvangirai has refused to join the government unless his MDC faction gets control of the Home Affairs Ministry - the department that controls Zimbabwe's national security forces. Without control of Home Affairs, Tsvangirai and the MDC will effectively be powerless.

But don't expect Mugabe to agree, he has refused all other attempts at negotiations these past several months and plans to unilaterally form a government “if” these latest talks fail - so obviously he has no reason to see that they succeed. Meanwhile a group of South Africa's religious leaders are blasting their own government for its role in the Zimbabwe crisis.

Catholic bishops from the region are saying that the South African government is conducting a “passive genocide” by not pressuring Mugabe into accepting a power-sharing deal. Zimbabwe relies on South Africa for access to ports for the shipment of imports/exports from abroad, as well as much of their electricity, so the feeling is that South Africa could put enormous pressure on the Mugabe regime with a boycott. But so far South Africa hasn't, leading critics to say that the government is favoring the Mugabe regime and allowing his disastrous policies to take their toll on Zimbabwe's people - the country's economy has largely collapsed, hunger is now a chronic problem, and a cholera outbreak has so far killed several thousand people.

The bishops said that South Africa “must stop supporting and giving credibility to the illegitimate Mugabe regime,” but so far there is no indication that the government is willing to take more aggressive steps to bring about change in Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, South African police broke up a protest by 1,500 people outside the house in Pretoria, South Africa, where the emergency meeting was being held. The European Union also announced a new round of targeted sanctions against Zimbabwe on Monday.
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Sunday, January 25, 2009

BBC refuses to show Gaza aid appeal

The BBC is finding itself on the receiving end of more and more criticism over a decision not to show an emergency aid appeal for the people of Gaza.

A group of nearly two dozen British charities, including notable groups like Oxfam and the British Red Cross, came together under the banner of the Disasters Emergency Committee to raise money to provide the people of Gaza for basic supplies like food, medicine and blankets in the wake of the three-week war with Israel. The centerpiece of the appeal is a film about Gaza that will be shown nationwide in Britain. Channel Four, Five and ITV have all agreed to broadcast the DEC's film, the BBC however refused. Their explanation was that the film was similar to images from Gaza they have shown on their newscasts and they feared that if they broadcast the film – which shows the impact of the conflict on the lives of the Gazans - it could be interpreted as the BBC taking sides in the Israel-Gaza conflict. The BBC cited the need to remain impartial in coverage of the conflict as part of their reason not to broadcast the appeal.

But in trying to be non-political, the BBC is now being accused of being just that. And being slammed by critics in the process.

So far more than 10,000 people have sent in complaints to the BBC over their decision and members of a British anti-war group ‘occupied’ the Beeb’s Glasgow office in protest. Religious leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, weighed in saying that ‘humanity’ should trump impartiality and that the BBC should air the film, meanwhile a group of 50 ministers of parliament are planning to back a motion urging the BBC to reconsider their decision.
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Is closing Guantanamo Bay really a bad thing?

Pres. Obama has been taking flak for a few days now since he signed an executive order to close the infamous prison at Guantanamo Bay. Critics of the step made the rounds of the Sunday chat shows this morning talking about the dire consequences of shutting the prison. The 240-odd inmates locked up there were described as being "hardcore terrorists" or "the worst of the worst" among other fear-inducing names.

Ignored by the critics were the guys in Gitmo that we know didn't do anything, like the 17 Chinese Uighurs who have been cooling their heels there since we scooped them up in Afghanistan in 2002. I wrote about their plight back in October (see this post "Release of Chinese Muslims Ordered"), but the highlights are that the US government has admitted that the 17 were not guilty of terrorist acts against the United States, and had long ago given up trying to prove that they were even “enemy combatants.” The only reason we haven't sent them back to China is that the Chinese government is actively trying to eradicate the Uighur’s culture from Xinjiang Province (much like they are trying to do with the Tibetan culture), so we are pretty sure the Chinese would arrest these men on sight, and likely torture and shoot them soon afterwards. We let six of their compatriots go in 2006 after Albania agreed to host them.

It makes you wonder how many other innocent men are among the “worst of the worst…”

Keith Olbermann took a shot at debunking another Guantanamo scare tactic on MSNBC ‘Countdown’ Friday night - critics also point to the number of former detainees that have been released who then became involved with terror groups in the Mid-East. Olbermann said though that the official Pentagon numbers on how many detainees became terrorists keeps shifting - ranging back and forth between several dozen down to as few as two - and that they Pentagon gives no details on what these terrorists are actually doing, making the whole story seem a bit dodgy.

Meanwhile a senior Pakistani official said that closing Guantanamo would, in fact, have a positive effect on the War on Terror in his country. “It bore no fruit for the Americans nor did it provide any leads in the war on terror,” said Tasnim Noorani. When Mr. Noorani was a senior Interior Ministry official, one of his jobs was to turn suspected militants over to the US, so I'd think he knows what he's talking about. Another unnamed Pakistani official told the AFP that “the very fact that the Americans announced they will close down this infamous prison will have a positive effect on efforts to curb militancy,” adding that it would take away one of al-Qaeda's main anti-American propaganda tools.

Pres. Obama wants Guantanamo Bay closed within a year.
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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Saudi Arabia: Patience is running out with Israel

A few days ago I wrote this post, where I talked about Saudi Arabia making a veiled threat towards Israel when they said that a 2002 proposal the Saudis put forward for peace between the Arab world and Israel wouldn't stay on the table forever. In an article in today's Financial Times, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal made that threat a little less veiled.

Saudi Arabia's 2002 proposal promised that all Arab nations would formally recognize Israel as a nation and sign peace agreements with Israel if they withdrew from the Palestinian Territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (which Israel captured during the Six Day War in 1967), and allowed the formation of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. As recently as this past November, Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that Israel should again ‘consider’ the Saudi offer.

But since Israel's military campaign in Gaza earlier this month, attitudes in the Arab world towards Israel have hardened. Two of the four Arab states that have formal relations with Israel - Qatar and Mauritania - suspended them. Turkey suggested that Israel's UN membership be suspended because of the UN sites in Gaza destroyed or badly damaged by the Israeli military. According to Al-Faisal, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently sent a letter to Saudi's King Abdullah recognizing him as the leader of the Arab and Muslim worlds - then asked him to lead a pan-Arab jihad against Israel over the Gaza conflict.

Al-Faisal's message is that while Saudi Arabia has no plans for jihad, it is getting tougher and tougher to keep a lid on the ill-will of the Arab world towards Israel, so the window for the Saudi peace deal is rapidly closing. Al-Faisal said that Pres. Obama is inheriting a “basket full of snakes” with the Israel-Palestine conflict, and urged him to take a more even tone in the peace talks than Pres. Bush, who was seen as being whole-heartedly behind Israel, ever did.

Al-Faisal makes it pretty clear what could happen if Obama fails to finally secure a comprehensive peace deal in the region.
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Is Russia-Ukraine gas dispute finally over?

Natural gas from Russia started flowing to the rest of Europe this week as Ukraine and Russia finally struck a deal, ending their dispute that has been going on since January 1. According to the US State Department, the United States "welcomes" the end to the gas dispute. Ukraine's Naftogaz and Russia's Gazprom signed a 10-year deal for Russia to sell Ukraine natural gas and for Ukraine to allow Russia to use its pipeline network to ship gas to other European countries. Ukraine gets a 20% discount from market prices this year before having to pay the same price as the rest of Europe in 2010; Russia will pay Ukraine market-rate for using their pipelines in 2010 as well.

But is this really the end of the gas war? Maybe not.

Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko is now saying the agreement needs to be renegotiated, again, claiming that the deal is unfair to Ukraine and that his country can't afford to pay near-market price for gas because of the country's ongoing financial crisis. Yushchenko wanted to pay around $200 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas (the way they price these contracts), less than half the rate other European countries are charged.

All of this is raising fears that the gas supply could be cut off again if Yushchenko goes ahead with trying to reopen the contract talks. Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko went to Moscow to negotiate the deal, but Russia worried that she didn't have the authority to sign a contract on Ukraine's behalf. All of this goes back to the long-running feud between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko that has basically brought Ukraine's government to a standstill as the two jockey for position ahead of Ukraine's presidential elections next year. Tymoshenko views her negotiations with Russia as a triumph; it's a victory Yushchenko doesn't want her to have.

So stay tuned to see if there's another chapter in the gas war.
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Friday, January 23, 2009

Iraq cuts spending as oil price falls

Add Iraq to the list of countries forced to cut back on future plans because of the plunge in oil prices.

According to the Associated Press, Iraq is slashing its spending on rebuilding projects by 40% next year because of the drop. Iraq gets more than 90% of its revenue from the sale of oil, which has dropped by nearly $100 per barrel from its highs last summer. US military commanders in Iraq are warning that a slowdown in reconstruction could lead to a new surge in violence. That's because, like in Afghanistan, the military realizes that economic development projects are one way of drying up the pool of potential terrorists and insurgents. The logic is that if people see their lives improving, they are less likely to be swayed by extremist elements trying to recruit them. But take away those projects, leaving people in poverty with little or no hope of ever having a better life, and their willingness to join extremist movements goes up.

In Iraq, the government has used oil revenue to create jobs in places like Sadr City, the sprawling slum in Baghdad that has been a hotbed of Shiite extremism. Recently, Sadr City has been relatively quiet, but if the job programs go away, there is a real fear that the sectarian strife between Sadr City's Shiite population and Sunni neighborhoods elsewhere in the city will return. Mosul is another Iraqi city where the government was hoping more jobs would mean less terrorism. According to Iraqi Police General Khalid Soltan “half the terrorists” could be defeated “if we defeat unemployment,” which is estimated at around 60%.

The Iraqis are hoping that oil prices will soon return at least to $50 per barrel - they are suspending some projects, but so far have not cancelled any, hoping to restart them when (and if) the oil prices rise. What will happen to the fragile peace in many Iraqi cities remains to be seen, as does what will happen to the provision in the Status of Forces Agreement signed by the US and Iraq that dictates US troops withdraw from all Iraqi cities by July of this year.
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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Obama's first call was to President Abbas

The White House revealed that the first world leader Barack Obama called after being sworn in on Tuesday was Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. I'd say it was a good, if small, first step in the right direction.

Obama took a lot of heat for not making any public statements about the Israel/Gaza conflict in the weeks leading up to his swearing in, but I thought his reasoning was sound - it went back to an old tradition that United States politicians speak with one voice in terms of foreign policy (remember Obama's oft-repeated comment that America has only one president at a time). But it was also a stance that has put a lot of pressure on him to offer a policy towards the Israel-Palestine conflict that is markedly different from the one offered by the Bush Administration - after all, if you were just going to do the same thing, then why not say that weeks ago, it certainly would not have gone against the ‘one president at a time’ rule if you were just going to continue what the current president was doing anyway.

Much of Obama’s credibility in the Middle East now is going to depend on approaching the problem in a substantively different way than Bush, so making Pres. Abbas his first call was a nice symbolic touch that now has to be followed up with more concrete steps. And in another sign that a new approach is needed in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia made something of a veiled threat towards Israel the other day. The Saudis were part of a conference of Arab nations meeting in Kuwait to discuss the recent conflict in Gaza. All together, the Arab states have pledged $2 billion to help rebuild Gaza, $1 billion of that amount was promised by Saudis.

The Saudis also urged Israel to reconsider the 2002 peace proposal they offered that would have all the Arab states sign peace treaties with Israel if they fully withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip so that the Palestinians can establish a state of their own. Back in November, Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that the Saudi proposal deserved a fresh look that, of course, was before Israel's military campaign in Gaza. Now the Saudis are saying that their peace proposal “can't stay on the table forever.” They didn't elaborate on what they would do though if they decided the 2002 proposal was no longer valid.

Finally, Israel has said that they will investigate their military's use of white phosphorous artillery shells during the Gaza campaign, amid international charges that Israel could be guilty of war crimes. By some accounts, Israel is so worried about international war crimes charges being levied against them that they are keeping the names of the commanders of Israeli forces in the Gaza campaign a secret, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni briefly considered canceling a trip to abroad Brussels, worried that she could be charged once she landed in Europe.

White phosphorous shells are designed to burst open before hitting the ground, scattering fragments of phosphorous, which burns fiercely when it comes in contact with air, over a wide area. Use of the shells in itself isn't a crime, but international law dictates that they can only be used in open areas for illumination at night and to create smoke screens to hide the movement of troops. Their use against people, even enemy soldiers is strictly forbidden (since phosphorous inflicts horrible burns), as is their use against buildings or other structures. Israel is accused of using them freely though over densely populated areas in the Gaza Strip. The UN contends that their main warehouse for food and medical aid supplies was burned to the ground by Israeli forces using white phosphorous shells.
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McCain's Soviet shooter dies

You might remember this post “Soviet officer who ‘shot down McCain’ speaks out” from November, it was the story of Yury Trushyekin, a Soviet military officer who claimed it was his missile battery that knocked John McCain's airplane from the skies above Hanoi during the Vietnam War. According to the folks over at englishrussia.com, Trushyekin passed away a few days ago.

The englishrussia.com story adds a few details to the earlier account, including a claim from Trushyekin that a group of Soviet soldiers actually saved McCain's life, ordering an angry crowd of Vietnamese who had hauled the badly injured McCain from a lake where his parachute landed not to kill him. He also said that he visited McCain several times while he was in the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton’ prison, and that McCain was given a copy of Karl Marx’s writings to read.

None of this is in the official account of McCain's shoot-down over Vietnam, but Trushyekin insisted his story was true up until the end. Trushyekin also said that he was glad McCain didn't win the election because “McCain hates Russia way too much, though I can understand...(why).”
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Gazan Catholics ask for global support

I wanted to link to this story, “Gazan Catholics call for global support,” because it shows just how long and complicated is the history of the region. While the conflict in the Gaza Strip tends to be seen as a fight between Muslims and Jews, there is also a small and ancient Catholic community that has lived in Gaza since the third century AD.

Father Manuel Musallam, head of the Catholic Church, called on the world community to stand up for the children of Gaza after the three-week war between Israel and Hamas. “Our children are suffering from trauma, anxiety, undernourishment, malnutrition, poverty, and a lack of heating,” he said. Fr. Musallam went on to say that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip had to end and hoped the world would grant the Palestinian people “their human rights,” something he said would lead to peace in the region.

There have been ill feelings between Israel and the Catholic Church for the past few weeks since a Vatican spokesman called Gaza a “concentration camp.”
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Fiat courts Chrysler for a US comeback

Lost in the coverage of the Obama Inauguration was this little story, that Italian automaker Fiat has signed an initial agreement to take a 35% share of struggling US automaker Chrysler. Fiat is paying Chrysler nothing to acquire more than a third of their company, in fact if you're a US taxpayer, you'll help Fiat take over a chunk of Chrysler - one condition of the deal is that Chrysler first get another $3 billion in bailout money from Congress before Fiat takes their share of the company.

The logic behind the deal is that it will give Chrysler access to new markets where Fiat is big, like Europe. Fiat, meanwhile, will use Chrysler's technology and manufacturing plants here to make a return to the American market. For the most part Fiat hasn't been active in the United States for a quarter of a century, and Fiats have a generally lousy reputation here - the old joke is that ‘Fiat’ is an acronym for: “Fix It Again, Tony.”

But Fiat thinks the time is right for a comeback. The quality of their cars has improved, and Fiat believes that the recent gas crisis has made Americans more receptive to the small, fuel-efficient cars they specialize in. They have high hopes for an American rollout of the 500, an updated take on their iconic Cinquecento model from the 1950s. Thanks to the alliance, Fiat could use Chrysler factories in the US to build the 500, or other sub-compacts, for the American market. It would also help Chrysler quickly make the switch from larger, poorly selling vehicles to something they think is more marketable.

Fiat also announced they are planning to relaunch the more upscale Alfa Romeo brand in the US in the next couple of years.
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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Russian destroyer leaves on urgent mission

Now this is interesting...the Russian Navy's destroyer Admiral Chabanenko suddenly left its base along the Baltic Sea, apparently heading to the Mediterranean.

So what's so interesting about one Russian ship leaving its base? Well the Admiral Chabanenko was one of the Russian warships that last fall sailed to Cuba and Venezuela, the Russian Navy's longest cruise since the end of the Soviet Union. It also happens to be the most modern destroyer in the Russian Navy. After returning to its homeport in Kaliningrad, the Admiral Chabanenko was suppose to undergo a major overhaul of its engines, something that was suppose to take until the end of February to finish. But instead, according to Russia's RIA Novosti news agency, hurried repairs were completed in a few days and the Admiral Chabanenko set sail on Tuesday.

The Russian Navy said the Admiral Chabanenko was heading to the Mediterranean for combat training, but that seems like a strange reason to put off major repairs. Other sources say the ship could be heading for the coast of Somalia to join another Russian warship already engaged in anti-piracy operations, but even that seems to be an odd reason to postpone a major overhaul, surely there are other ships that can take on the poorly equipped Somali pirates.

It will be interesting to see where the Admiral Chabanenko winds up.
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Mummies arrested on Red Square

Yeah, you read that headline right, riot police detained at least 30 mummies, well people dressed as mummies anyway, on Red Square in Moscow today.

So why were people dressed up like mummies you ask? Wednesday happens to be the 85th anniversary of the death of Vladimir Lenin, whose well-preserved corpse still lies on public display in a tomb on Red Square. During the days of Communism, Lenin's Tomb was quite the pilgrimage site, but since 1991 though it's become more a kitsch attraction than a place for reverence. A majority of Russians now think that Lenin should be buried once and for all, most likely in a St. Petersburg cemetery with other members of his family.

The mummies were from a group of self-described ‘Orthodox monarchists’ and planned to join a procession of Communist Party loyalists marching to the Tomb to lay wreaths and pay their respects as good Communists all across the Soviet Union once did. The mummies stated they were not planning to yell slogans or make political statements saying “the mummies will be quiet, just the way mummies should be.”

Police still detained them anyway.
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Kenyans celebrate Obama's inauguration

How excited was Kenya when Barack Obama won the election in November? So excited that Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki declared the day a national holiday. So it's no surprise that yesterday's inauguration was a nationwide event in the East African country.

Crowds gathered from small mountain villages to the capital city Nairobi to watch the inauguration, breaking out in wild cheers when Obama began his address. In the village of Kogelo, the birthplace of Obama's father, the inauguration was the culmination of a day of feasting, dancing and even an exhibition soccer game by the local team, the President Obama FC. A large-screen TV was set up in the field outside the Pres. Obama Primary School so the citizens of Kogelo could watch the event (yes, they really have embraced their native son).

Parties continued across Kenya after the inauguration ended. "Nobody will sleep today. We are all spending the night here. I can't sleep when our son is taking over such a powerful office," said Mariam Oyuka, 67, a resident of Kogelo who has met Barack Obama during visits to his ancestral hometown.

Meanwhile Barack Obama was sworn in again today. If you watched the inauguration you might have noticed Chief Justice John Roberts blowing his part of giving the oath of office to Obama (Obama even paused so Roberts could correct himself - now considering the oath is in the Constitution and Roberts is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, it's a little disturbing that he got the oath wrong, but anyway...). Apparently this little faux pas caused some conspiracy theorists out on the Internets, well conspiracy buffs and, according to MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, Fox News, to say that maybe Barack Obama wasn't really the president. So just to put the rumors to rest the two quietly redid the oath again today at the White House.
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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

President Obama

It's impossible not to be moved by the events of the day, just as it's impossible not to feel that the swearing in of President Barack Obama is ushering in a new day, a new spirit, for America. So while I should take a little time to reflect, I felt like I had to share a few quick thoughts.

First, I was surprised that Obama's inaugural address was also such a bold statement of American foreign policy. I was struck by the line “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals,” and this line that followed in the next paragraph: “Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.” Hearing that my immediate thought was ‘he gets it’, with those few words, Obama showed that he understood America's meaning to the world far better than his predecessor ever did.

The reason that so many people fled the communist states of Eastern Europe the East Germans found it necessary to build a wall to keep them in, the reason their governments so feared foreign books, movies, or even their people talking with Westerners, was never the power of our weapons, but the power of our ideals. They are the reason that America has served as a beacon to the world, especially to those living under oppressive regimes; they more than our bombers, tanks or troops (no matter how well they do their job) we will defeat the threats we face from terrorism and extremism.

And for those who think Pres. Obama will be a pushover, he gave this stern warning: “We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”

It was a speech heavy on foreign policy, one that laid out our mission statement to the world for the next four years, it said in no uncertain terms that America is again open for business, or as Obama said “we are ready to lead once more.” And for an early round up of reaction to the inauguration from around the world, check out this post from the BBC, especially the report from the Kenyan village where Obama's father was born that turned out in the middle of the night to see their favorite son become the President of the United States.

One last bit of symbolism sticks with me, the fact that a house built in part with slave labor now has its first African-American resident. MSNBC's Keith Olbermann offered this vignette: in 1961 the New York Yankees moved the site of their spring training camp in Florida because local segregation laws wouldn't let the whole team stay in the same place, 1961 was the year Obama was born. How far we've come.
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Editors around the world get in last licks on Dubya

With the last day of the Bush Regime at hand, newspapers around the world are offering up their final verdict on his presidency and no surprise, it's not good. Reuters gathered up a wide sampling under the headline: “Editorials worldwide pillory Bush one final time.” Here are a few quotes from the Reuters article:

“Goodbye to the worst president ever” - Toronto Star
“Bush leaves a country and an economy in tatters” - The Sunday Times of London
“Farewell to a flawed and unpopular commander-in-chief” - Sydney Morning Herald
“Bush led the world's most powerful nation to ruin” - Stern Magazine (Germany)
And finally the Pan-Arab al-Hayat newspaper offered this assessment: “We cried a lot and the joke was on us.”

Meanwhile the website Media Matters debunked a claim that's been being made a lot among Bush's editorial page defenders here in the US and one that even crept into Le Monde’s review of the Bush Administration - that Bush kept America safe from terror attacks after 9/11. Aside from the fact that this ignores that Bush utterly failed to keep us safe before 9/11, the claim is only true if you ignore the anthrax-laced letters that killed five people in late 2001 (after the 9/11 attacks). At the time the FBI called the anthrax letters “the worst biological attacks in US history.”

You can read the whole Media Matters rebuttal here.
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Monday, January 19, 2009

Eastern Europe worries about 'spring of discontent'

According to the Guardian (UK), governments across Eastern Europe are bracing for a spring filled with rowdy (and perhaps violent) public protests. People from the Baltic to Bulgaria are growing more and more angry with their governments over the local effects of the global financial crisis and, in countries like Bulgaria and Romania, energy shortages caused by the recent natural gas feud between Ukraine and Russia. Experts in the region warn that mass public demonstrations are likely in many countries in the region, a few have already occurred. Police used tear gas to break up a rally in Lithuania after protestors began tossing rocks at police, protests in Bulgaria and Latvia last week also turned violent. And, experts warn, that minority groups in these countries could find themselves the target of bias attacks as people look for ways to vent their frustration.

The countries in Eastern Europe are especially vulnerable in the current global crisis. For decades, these countries were under Communist rule (a description of life under Communism I once heard was that you were poor, but everyone else was poor, so it was ok since you were all in it together). When the Communists lost power in the 1990s, chaos tended to follow. In the past decade though life has gotten much better; governments have become democratic, the countries stable and the standard of living has improved enough so that most people can afford even a few modest creature comforts.

At the same time though, governments across Eastern Europe promised their citizens that if they just became part of the European Union, everything would be fine - the standard of living would just keep getting better and better until even the most remote village in the mountains of Romania looked like the American suburbs they saw on satellite TV. The result is that people in many of these countries now don't have a lot of patience for rising inflation, their money falling in value, or their jobs moving out of the country (all the effects of the global financial crunch hitting these countries now). To make matters worse, the governments in some Eastern European countries also themselves believed that life would just keep getting better and better, so they didn't plan for emergencies like they face now. The Guardian describes how Estonia actually did build up a sizable reserve of money just in case there was a financial crisis like the one currently gripping the world, their neighbor Latvia, meanwhile, a country very similar to Estonia in most ways, did not. Latvia had to get an emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund of more than six billion dollars last fall just to keep their economy afloat, while so far Estonia has weathered the crisis.

It will all make for a tough spring in a lot of places in Eastern Europe.
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Shoe-throwing Iraqi requests asylum

Muntazer al-Zaidi, better known as the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush, is now asking for political asylum in Switzerland, according to his lawyer.

Al-Zaidi became a folk hero in many Arab countries after tossing both his shoes at Bush during a press conference in Baghdad as a “farewell kiss from the Iraqi people.” Al-Zaidi was quickly arrested and charged with “aggressive actions toward a foreign official,” a charge that could land him 15 years in jail under Iraqi law. His lawyer said the asylum request came because life for al-Zaidi would be extremely difficult (even assuming that he doesn't spend the next 15 years of it in jail) and that it would be impossible for him to go back to his job as a journalist in Iraq because of his newfound notoriety.

One other reason that al-Zaidi might be seeking asylum is because Iraqi security forces apparently beat him badly while he was in custody to prompt him to write a letter asking for forgiveness for his shoe-throwing outburst. Several weeks after the beating that knocked out one of al-Zaidi's teeth, injured his eye and left him covered in bruises, his brother Maitham reports he is looking well and nearly healed. Maitham al-Zaidi said he brother was surprised at the attention his action received and the public rallies in his support. He said that Muntazer told him he threw his shoes at Bush to express his opinion, and the opinion of all Iraqis, about the occupation of Iraq by American forces.
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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Is this what Gaza is really all about?

The official explanation for Israel’s military campaign in the Gaza Strip was security, the cynical one was that it was an election year ploy by the Kadima/Labor coalition, which was trailing badly in the polls, but what if there was a different explanation entirely? And what if that explanation was natural gas?

I’ve read a number of blog posts recently suggesting that Israel’s real motivation for invading the Gaza Strip and trying to drive Hamas from power was to gain control over a valuable reserve of natural gas lying just off the coast of Gaza. This morning the Jerusalem Post weighed in on the issue.

Some background – in the 1990s a large natural gas deposit was discovered about 20 miles off the coast of the Gaza Strip. The deposit is estimated to hold at least one trillion cubic feet of natural gas – equal to about 150 million barrels of oil. Under a 1994 agreement between Israel and Palestine, the waters 20 nautical miles out from the Gaza coast were the Palestinians to use for economic development (when the agreement was signed it was assumed that fishing would be the economic activity, they didn’t know about the gas deposits yet).

In late 1999 Yasser Arafat, the PLO Chairman and then de facto leader of the Palestinians, signed a deal with British company BG Group to sink wells in the field. The agreement would give the Palestinians 10% of the profits from the field, with BG getting the other 90%. The main customer for the gas, aside from the Palestinians, would of course be Israel, but then Ariel Sharon took over as Prime Minister and vowed never to buy gas from the Palestinians, so development of the field came to a halt.

After winning a majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006, Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip. They looked at the BG Group agreement and decided that a 90/10 split for their gas really wasn’t a fair deal (perhaps they remembered Iran’s dealings with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in the first half of the 20th century – APOC was suppose to pay Iran 16% of the profits from their oil fields, but in practice, thanks to some creative accounting, APOC seldom ever paid Iran anything). Hamas voided the BG Group deal, but said that they would be open to negotiating a new, fairer deal with them in the future.

So here we are – there’s a huge pool of natural gas just sitting off the coast of Gaza, a resource that could bring billions of dollars into a region plagued by grinding poverty. Yet because of the current situation in Gaza/Israel there it sits. The position of the Israeli government, according to the Jerusalem Post, is that not only should the Palestinians stick to the original 90/10 gas deal Arafat signed with BG Group, but Israel (under the convenient catch-all rationale of ‘security’) should also determine how that 10% is spent by the Palestinians, if they don’t spend the money ‘properly’, Israel would have the right to cut off the royalty payments.

Israel is actively moving it’s energy sector away from being oil-based, so that they won’t be dependent on potentially hostile Persian Gulf countries for their energy supply, making the gas off Gaza even more important to them. But their steps to block the Gaza gas field are another example of a self-defeating Israeli policy. There is a clear link between poverty and the willingness of young men - feeling they have no future because of their dire economic situation - to join radical terrorist groups. Billions of dollars in gas revenues would have a dramatic affect on life in the Gaza Strip, helping to give the place an actual functioning economy (the unemployment rate in the Strip is over 50% and many families rely on food assistance from groups like the UN just to survive). That, in turn, would make radical groups like Hamas seem a whole lot less attractive to the Gazans, and isn’t that what Israel ultimately wants?
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Mugabe: no more concessions

Things in Zimbabwe's long-running power struggle could finally be coming to a head. President Robert Mugabe said on Sunday he won't offer any more concessions to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, which is funny since the reason the power-sharing talks have basically fallen apart in the first place is because Mugabe hasn't lived up to the concessions he’s already made.

In the power-sharing deal brokered by South Africa, Mugabe would remain as president, Tsvangirai would take the new position of prime minister and their two political parties would split the government's ministries between them. But Mugabe quickly filled all of the important ministries with his loyalists, in violation of the agreement. Tsvangirai balked when Mugabe refused to honor a pledge to give the powerful Home Affairs Ministry to Tsvangirai's MDC party. Home Affairs controls the Zimbabwe national police forces, which for the past few years have largely been used to keep Mugabe in power, so as long as he keeps control of Home Affairs, he keeps control of the country.

The two are meeting on Monday with the presidents of South Africa and Mozambique moderating, but unless South Africa is ready to finally lay some sanctions on the Mugabe regime, don't expect anything to come of the meeting. Mugabe has said that if a deal isn’t struck, he’ll declare the power-sharing talks dead and fill the government with his own people (even though he’s basically done that already), and that step could finally prompt South Africa into taking action against him.

Meanwhile Mugabe's solution to Zimbabwe's economic problems is to keep printing money, in more and more ridiculous denominations. Last week the Central Bank of Zimbabwe introduced a new note - the one hundred trillion dollar bill (yes, you read that correctly). At least this new bill should keep ahead of inflation for a month or so, Zimbabweans complained that the $Z 500 billion bill issued a few weeks ago didn't even cover bus fare in Harare.
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Putin painting auctioned for more than $1 million


He's been a judo champion, saved a TV news crew from a man-eating tiger, he's tamed Siberian rivers bare-chested and ran a trade mission in East Germany that absolutely, positively was not a front for the KGB, but now Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin can add another title to his already full resume: million-dollar painter.

Putin was among the celebrity artists contributing a work to a charity art auction in his hometown, St. Petersburg. There was one painting in the auction for each letter of the Russian alphabet and the inspiration for all of the works was Nikolai Gogol’s story ‘The Night Before Christmas’. Putin’s painting ‘Patterns’ featured a frost-covered cabin window framed by lace curtains. It fetched a price of 37 million rubles, or one million dollars, far more than any other painting in the auction.

You can see a gallery of all the paintings at the auction's official website here.
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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Gaza cease-fire, but will it last?

I don't know if I should even bother commenting on Israel's declared cease-fire in Gaza, since I have the feeling I'll wake up tomorrow and the fighting will be underway again...

In case you missed it, this afternoon Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that Israel was unilaterally halting its operation in the Gaza Strip; and that it would stay stopped so long as Hamas stopped firing rockets into Israel and did not attack the Israeli troops who would remain behind in Gaza. Since Hamas said that if even one Israeli soldier remained in Gaza the ‘resistance’ would continue and that moments before Olmert spoke Hamas fired another rocket into southern Israel, you can see why I don't have a lot of hope for this cease-fire.

Olmert said that he was halting the operation because Israel had achieved its goals. If Israel's goal was to basically destroy their image and credibility around the world (save for Washington DC), then to quote our soon to be former President, “Mission Accomplished.” As far as weakening Hamas and making Israel secure though, Olmert is sadly mistaken.

The Hamas rocket attacks never stopped during the Gaza campaign; they fell every day, often by the dozens. And while a many Hamas fighters were killed (along with many more civilians, even by Israel's calculations), just having members left alive at the end of a conflict with a vastly superior force is victory in itself - a lesson Israel should have learned after its disastrous campaign in Lebanon in 2006 against Hezbollah, who came out as the ‘victor’ in that conflict merely by surviving.

Meanwhile the UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) is calling for an international panel to investigate Israel for war crimes after yet another UN site was hit by the Israeli military overnight. Turkey has called for Israel's membership in the UN to be suspended and Venezuela and Bolivia have both kicked the Israeli ambassadors out of their countries. All definite signs that Israel lost the PR portion of the war, badly.

Prospects for a lasting cease-fire look dim, at least with the current set of negotiations. Egypt has been hosting talks with Israel and the Palestinian Authority (which controls the West Bank part of Palestine), but hasn't included Hamas (Egypt has talked with them separately). And an agreement to open border crossings between Gaza and Egypt would put them under Israeli-Palestinian Authority control, another condition the Hamas government of Gaza won't agree to.

Hopefully the people in Gaza will enjoy the calm for now, I fear it won't last.
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Kim Jong-il apparently not dead

The consensus of opinion now is that North Korea's Kim Jong-il is indeed still alive. Kim's sudden disappearance from public life in August, and the uber-secretive nature of North Korea prompted a lot of speculation that the ‘Dear Leader’ had suddenly died.

But North Korean television has shown a spate of public appearances in the past week, including one that could be definitively dated to December 16 (Kim's TV appearances are usually undated, part of their whole obsession with secrecy), which now makes most analysts believe that Kim is still alive and in control of the country. It's now generally thought that Kim, who is 66, suffered a stroke sometime in August and spent the last few months recovering. North Korean TV showed only still pictures of Kim, making some believe his body movements might have been affected by the stroke.

Who will come after Kim Jong-il though is still an open question. The BBC put together a list of possible candidates. His expected successor was to be his oldest son, Kim Jong-nam, that was until the younger Kim was caught in 2001 trying to sneak into Japan on a fake passport to, of all things, visit Disneyland Tokyo. Not surprisingly this caused a drop in his father's respect for Kim Jong-nam. Dear Leader Kim is now said to favor his number three son, Kim Jong-un, though selecting him could be difficult since tradition dictates leadership pass to his eldest son first. And as the BBC notes, any successor to Kim Jong-il needs the support of both the Communist Party and the military, the two pillars of the North Korean state.

Meanwhile, a report published today says that North Korea might already have enough plutonium to make four or five nuclear bombs. That tidbit comes from Selig Harrison, a North Korean expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who said he was told about the plutonium by North Korean military officials. There's no way of verifying the claim, but it is widely believed that North Korea was actively refining uranium to make weapons-grade material for the past few years, so it does seem plausible.

But if their 2006 nuclear test is any indication, maybe we shouldn't worry too much about North Korean A-bombs. That test explosion was a ‘fizzle’, or a nuclear dud (and yes, fizzle is the technical term for such things), that yielded less than one kiloton in explosive force. By comparison, the bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima during World War II was equal to 20 kilotons, or 20,000 tons of TNT, in explosive force.
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Gas shortage shows that EU is full of hot air

The natural gas shortage that is gripping a large swath of Central and Southern Europe shows no sign of letting up. Shortages are prompting some nations to ration the gas they still have and have a couple considering restarting potentially unsafe nuclear power plants to make up for the shortage in energy.

And while European politicians are threatening to take legal action against Russia and Ukraine because of the shortages, they apparently aren't willing to travel to Moscow to do anything concrete about it. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called for European heads of state to gather to work out a solution to the problem, but only a few nations have even agreed to send low-level envoys to the meeting, forget about sending presidents or prime ministers.

Maybe Europe could just use all the hot air their politicians vent to keep warm instead of natural gas?

The crisis seemed to be over late in the week when the European Union and Russia agreed to a series of monitors in Ukraine to watch the pipeline network that ships gas to the rest of Europe (the crisis started when Russia cut off shipments through Ukraine after claiming the Ukrainians were stealing gas bound for Western Europe). But Ukraine scuttled the deal by adding last minute conditions to the agreement, like claiming they didn't owe Russia $2 billion in payments for natural gas they have already used. Ukraine also wants Russia to give them, for free; additional gas they say is needed to maintain a working pressure in their pipeline network (Russia wants Ukraine to pay for this ‘technical gas’, since it will stay in Ukraine).

And Ukraine's ongoing political soap opera is making it impossible for them to even talk with Russia. Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is in Moscow for negotiations, but she says she does not have the authority to make a deal, something the government of Ukraine denies. She wants to treat the transportation deal as a separate matter from Ukraine's dispute with Russia over buying natural gas to use domestically, while President Viktor Yushchenko insists the two matters are connected. The result is there's a lot of talking going on, but no deal making since no one on the Ukrainian side can even agree on who has the power to say yes and what they're even negotiating about in the first place.

But this hasn't stopped European leaders like German Chancellor from blaming Russia for the current mess. On Friday she said that if gas shipments don't resume it would hurt Russia's image as a ‘credible gas supplier’. She did not though take a similar swipe at Ukraine for not being a ‘credible gas transporter’.
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Friday, January 16, 2009

Rice for cease-fire (before she was against it)

A follow-up now to the controversial claim by Israeli PM Ehud Olmert that he ‘shamed’ US Secretary of State Condi Rice into not supporting a Gaza cease-fire agreement she helped to negotiate in the UN.

According to Olmert, when he heard about her support for a cease-fire, he called Pres. Bush and demanded that he order her not to vote for it. The US State department has angrily denied this, but a new report from Israel's Haaretz newspaper basically backs up the Olmert version of the event.

Haaretz did some investigating and found that Rice told her British and French counterparts that she was 'on board' in supporting the resolution, before abstaining when the vote was called in the UN Security Council. The vote did pass with the support of the other 14 members of the council.

So why did Rice suddenly not support a resolution she herself helped to negotiate? Interesting question...
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Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Canadian playlist for Obama


The Canadian Broadcasting Company has come up with a unique gift for President-Elect Obama - an all-Canadian playlist for his iPod.

The CBC has invited its listeners to weigh in on their suggestions for the Obama playlist, asking them to suggest songs that would “best define our country” to the president-elect. After tallying up the votes, the CBC unveil the Obama playlist on Inauguration Day (that's next Tuesday, January 20) and will play the winners on the CBC's Radio 2 station all day Tuesday.

You can check out the top 100 finalists, and cast your own vote here. And being a fan of music from the North myself, I have a few songs that I would add to an Obama taste-of-Canada playlist:
The New Deal, “Going, Going, Gone”
Same name as the program that got the US out of the Great Depression

Cuff the Duke, “Meet You on the Other Side”

The Tragically Hip, “New Orleans is Sinking”
A gentile reminder of one of the past administration’s biggest failures

No. 1, “Radiate”
Cool Canadian hip-hop

The Collapse, “The Geographic Center of Canada”
My favorite song to come out of the north in the past few years

A.C. Newman, “The Town Halo”

Hanson Bros., “Gonna Play Hockey”
C’mon, it’s Canada, you gotta have at least one song about hockey

Bob and Doug McKenzie (w/Geddy Lee), “Take Off! (to the Great White North)
How can a Canadian playlist not include this classic?
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Israel burns UN food, medical relief warehouses

Just when you thought things couldn't get any worse, they do.

Overnight Israeli forces shelled the headquarters of UNRWA, the United Nations relief agency for Gaza, sparking a massive fire. The UNRWA site also happens to be the main warehouse for all of the UN's medical and food aid to Gaza and, according to the BBC, was a makeshift shelter for more than 700 Palestinian civilians. CNN is reporting that all of the food and all of the medicine stored in the warehouse has burned and that UN staff are now trying to keep the rest of the compound from going up as well (because of the war Palestinian emergency services are in shambles and water service to the Gaza Strip is unreliable).

UN chief Ban Ki-Moon, in the region to help prod the cease-fire negotiations along, was described as being furious and expressed his outrage over the attack to Israeli officials. According to Ban, the Israelis told him the HQ was hit “by mistake”, though Defense Minister Ehud Barak later publicly denied the ‘mistake’ explanation (so they attacked the UN HQ on purpose?). Israel also hit a building that houses most of the foreign press agencies in Gaza and, according to some reports, a hospital overnight as well.

Israel apparently used white phosphorus artillery shells to hit the UN compound. White phosphorus is a material that burns fiercely on contact with air and cannot be extinguished with water. Militaries use white phosphorus shells to create smokescreens on the battlefield, but their use against people (soldiers or otherwise) or their use against structures are both considered violations of international law.

With the conflict about to finish its third week, the death toll among the Palestinians has passed 1,000, with half that number being women and children according to most accounts. It's no wonder then that diplomats from around the world are warning Israel that the conflict is causing serious, long-term damage to their global image. Israel's Haaretz newspaper spoke with a number of diplomats and ambassadors from around the world, the message from all was basically the same - Israel's Gaza offensive has gone too far. One unnamed European ambassador, described by Haaretz as a ‘great friend of Israel’ told the paper: “your action is brutal and you don't realize how much damage this is causing you in the world. This is not only short term. It's damage for years. Is this the Israel you want to be?”

Burning down the UN aid warehouse certainly won’t help Israel’s image.
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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Why I’m fed up with Israel (and Bush)

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is sticking by his story that ordered the United States to abstain from a UN Security Council vote for a cease-fire in the Gaza conflict, despite claims from the US side that the incident never happened.

In case you missed it – Olmert said that when he heard US Secretary of State Condi Rice was ready to vote in favor of a cease-fire resolution (that she helped to negotiate), he angrily called Pres. Bush, and when told that Bush was on the podium at an event in Philadelphia, he demanded that Bush take his call immediately. Bush left the stage (again, according to Olmert) talked to him, then ordered Condi to abstain from voting for the measure that she negotiated – “shaming her” in Olmert’s words.

This whole story has me pissed off for several reasons: 1) that a foreign head of state would order our president around; 2) that Bush would let himself be ordered around like that by a foreign head of state; and 3) that Bush left the stage at an event to take a phone call from Ehud Olmert, yet on the morning of the worst terrorist attack ever on US soil Bush wouldn’t interrupt reading “My Pet Goat” to a bunch of schoolkids to, oh, go do his job as Commander and Chief.

Much is made of the ‘special relationship’ between the United States and Israel, but relationships are two-way streets. We give Israel foreign aid money, military support and wield our veto against any UN resolution they don’t like, but what do we get from they? Respect? Gratitude? Apparently not…

We do get one thing from the relationship – the ire of much of the Middle East. Last week in the LA Times, Hamas spokesman Mousa Abu Marzook noted, “when Palestinians see an F-16 with the Star of David painted on its tail, they see America.” The same goes when they see an Apache helicopter or a white phosphorus shell bursting over Gaza City. CNN had a pretty telling clip on Monday – during a brief opening in the border to allow wounded Palestinians into Egypt, when a Palestinian medic realized he was speaking to an American reporter said “I want to congratulate America on its weapons. They are very effective.” No wonder a majority of Americans surveyed in a recent poll think that Israel’s Gaza campaign only makes it more likely there will be a terrorist attack on American soil.

I am sure some will read this and think I am being anti-Israel. But like I argued in an earlier post, I think it is just the opposite. Ending the Bush Administration’s support Israel right-or-wrong attitude and compelling both sides to commit to the ‘two-state’ solution is ultimately in Israel’s best interest.

Hamas rocket attacks on Israel are wrong, but so is Israel’s bombing campaign of Gaza City. It’s about time we stop giving them the bombs.
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Europe is still gasless

Almost as soon as natural gas from Russia started flowing into pipelines bound for Europe, Ukraine cut off the supplies, continuing the energy crisis that has gripped much of Central and Southern Europe for two weeks now.

Ukraine admitted to shutting down their pipeline network, blocking Russia from shipping gas to Europe, after Russian gas company Gazprom imposed "unacceptable conditions" on Ukraine. Between the charges flying back and forth between Russia and Ukraine, it's hard to figure out what exactly is going on, but it seems like the hold up now is over something called ‘technical gas’.

Think of trying to drink through a straw - you need to exert a certain amount of pressure to get the liquid to flow. The same is true of pipelines - they need a certain pressure to work. But Ukraine's pipeline network isn't in great shape and loses pressure over distance, so to ship gas in it you need to pump in an additional amount, called ‘technical gas’, to maintain a constant pressure from one end of the network to the other. For the network in Ukraine, this is working out to be about 7% of the total amount shipped. Gazprom wants Ukraine to pay for the technical gas, since Gazprom says it stays in Ukraine and that they ultimately use it; Ukraine thinks the technical gas is a cost Gazprom should absorb as the price of using their network.

So the taps are closed again. Europe at this point is fed up with the whole situation - Serbia is reporting that their electric grid is straining under record demand as people use electricity for heat rather than gas, Hungary issued its first-ever smog alert in Budapest as people switch from clean-burning natural gas to oil to keep warm, while other countries report they have less than two weeks of natural gas left in their reserves (in the middle of winter, of course). They are demanding that Ukraine and Russia come to an agreement to end the standoff once and for all.

And while Russia has been bearing the brunt of the ill will over the gas dispute so far, it seems like Europe is starting to give Ukraine an equal share of the blame. Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico said, “Ukraine is losing the trust of European partners because of its behavior.”

Past the shipment agreement, Russia and Ukraine still need to negotiate a separate deal for Gazprom to supply Ukraine with gas for them to use domestically.
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Canadian report - oil sands and olympic villages

One item on the agenda when Barack Obama makes his first visit abroad as president has been revealed - Canada's Oil Sands.

Obama has made securing sources of clean energy one of the top priorities of his administration, but the oil sands though are far from clean. Instead of great pools of oil buried underground (say like you find in Saudi Arabia), in the Oil Sands, as the name implies, the oil is locked into deposits of clay and sand. So to get the oil out you have to mine the sand, like you would coal, then refine it into a sludge that you then refine again into useable oil. If it sounds like a messy process, it is. Native groups in Alberta (the heart of the Oil Sands region) have for years complained about the strip mining of their lands for sand and the pollution produced by the refining process.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper confirmed the Oil Sands would be on the agenda when he meets with Obama and says that he is committed to working with Obama on environmental issues.

Meanwhile, a little further to the west, the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver could be running into trouble.

The city of Vancouver is desperately seeking funds to complete the Athlete's Village (where athletes stay during the games); they now need more than $400 million (in Canadian dollars) in additional funds to complete the project. The city is planning to ask the provincial government of British Columbia for a one-time exception to the city's charter to let them just borrow the money to finish the Village rather than having to put the issue to a public referendum, as the city charter states.

Honestly, if I were a Vancouverite I wouldn't be happy with the city government trying to skirt the law like this, but the city is warning that if they don't get a loan, they would be responsible for the entire cost of the project (around $850 million) because of an agreement signed by the city council back in 2007. Originally a private development firm was suppose to finance the construction of the Village, then take it over after the Games and turn it into apartments that they would then rent. But the firm, US-based Fortress Investment Group, cut their funding in September, because they thought they wouldn't cover their costs due to Vancouver's declining housing market.

No word on whether or not Vancouver will just buy lots of tents as a fallback measure.
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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

One of the last surviving WWI veterans dies

Since there's less than a dozen of them still alive, I think whenever one of the remaining veterans of World War I passes away, it's worth noting.

Britain's Ministry of Defense announced that Bill Stone died over the weekend, age 108. Mr. Stone was the last British vet known to have served in both the first and second World Wars - he joined the crew of the HMS Tiger only weeks before WWI ended, and was still in the Royal Navy aboard the HMS Salamander when WWII broke out. His ship helped to evacuate British troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, when German troops drove them from the continent in 1940. The evacuation of British forces at Dunkirk kept their army from being wiped out and helped to prevent the Germans from invading England.

In November last year Mr. Stone appeared with two other British WWI vets to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the end of that war.
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Monday, January 12, 2009

Europe to get gas?

Natural gas should start flowing from Russia to the rest of Europe tomorrow according to Russian gas giant Gazprom after a deal was struck for monitors to keep an eye on the gas pipeline system in Ukraine.

Russia cut off gas supplies last week after they accused Ukraine of stealing gas being shipped across their country to more than a dozen European countries. Gazprom cut Ukraine off after the country failed to pay a $2 billion debt owed to the company for gas supplied to Ukraine. Under the agreement, European Union and Russian monitors will be stationed where the pipelines enter and exit Ukraine and will compare the amount of gas going in and out of the country – a drop in the amount going out would indicate Ukraine was siphoning some off.

But Ukraine nearly sank the agreement at the last minute by inserting a hand-written declaration saying that Ukraine hadn’t stolen any gas and that they didn’t owe Gazprom any outstanding debt. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Ukraine was making “a mockery” of the negotiations by unilaterally inserting conditions at the last minute and said Russia would not resume shipments. Ukraine then withdrew their declaration after European officials said that it was not valid.

The gas shortage has hit countries in the Balkan and Central regions of Europe hard, causing crippling drops of heating and power supplies in some countries. It’s prompted Slovakia to begin the process of restarting a closed nuclear power plant, a move that is angering their neighbor, Austria, who don’t consider the site safe. The Bohunice plant is a Soviet-era nuclear reactor, that was finally shut down last year. Slovakia’s neighbors were so concerned about Bohunice, that its shut down was one of the conditions Slovakia had to meet to join the European Union. Bulgaria is also talking about firing up two Soviet-era reactors it shut down in 2006 in order to join the EU as well because of critical energy shortages caused by the gas crisis.
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‘Joe the Reporter’ says “stop reporting!”

Remember ‘Joe the Plumber’, the presidential campaign sideshow who went on to become a mouthpiece for the McCain-Palin ticket? But Joe's real name is Samuel and he's not even a licensed plumber – now he's doing another job he's not qualified for: he’s been shipped to Israel by the conservative outfit Pajamas TV to work as a ‘war correspondent’ (honestly, I’m not making this up).

Joe's weighing in on the roll of reporters during wartime, which basically amounts to “sit down and shut up.” I'm posting Joe's quote in its near entirety because it’s just so good:

“I'll be honest with you: I don't think journalists should be anywhere allowed war. (sic) I mean, you guys report where our troops are at. You report what's happening day to day. You make a big deal out of it. I think it's asinine. You know, I liked back in World War I and World War II when you'd go to the theater and you'd see your troops on, you know, the screen and everyone would be real excited and happy for ‘em.”

I guess it escaped Joe that the whole reason people were able to see troops on the screen was because of the work of intrepid war correspondents, some of whom, like the late Ernie Pyle, gave their lives to bring the story of the war home and were beloved by the troops they covered. But no, Joe apparently rather than having a free press would like one where the government controlled what we did and didn't see, which if you think about it is kind of an odd position for a self-described conservative to hold since they usually view government as something not to be trusted in the first place.

Past that, banning war reporters in this modern world doesn't mean the story won't get out. The Israeli military has banned journalists from entering Gaza, defying an order from the Israeli Supreme Court in the process, yet the Net is filled with reports, blog posts and YouTube videos showing the war from inside Gaza.

Meanwhile we'll keep an eye out for more of Joe's dispatches from the front...
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Sunday, January 11, 2009

What will the new year bring for Russia?

Monday could give an indication of what the New Year has in store for Russia as the country comes out of its semi-official two-week winter break (which runs from around Christmas, past New Years Day and through Russian Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7). Monday is also the day when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's controversial tax on imported cars goes into effect.

Putin says the tax is meant to boost Russia's domestic auto industry and, in turn, support Russia's industrial base during the global recession. But many Russians balked at that explanation. They say that the quality of cars built by Russian companies is poor, which is why imported used cars are popular among working and middle class Russians, especially the further east you go in the vast country. The city of Vladivostok has a thriving industry in importing cars from Japan, people there say that the new law won't help the Russian economy it will only hurt theirs. Many Russians also asked if Putin thought so highly of Russian cars why did he and many other top lawmakers drive Mercedes?

The announcement of the tax sparked public protests across the country in December. Most were small, only a few hundred people on average, but what's more important is that the protests happened in the first place, since public protests have been very rare in Russia over the past few years. It will be interesting to see if more occur now that the tax is going into effect; people in Vladivostok have already staged one rally in opposition to the new law.

It will also be interesting to see how the Putin/Medvedev regime deals with the protests if they do spread across the country. For the past eight years the Russian public has generally been willing to follow Putin, wherever he led. But for most of that time Russia was also enjoying an economic boom. Russia was arguably a more democratic place during the 1990s, but it was also an economic mess - in the minds of many Russians the two ideas, Democracy and economic chaos, have been linked. That's why there's been little opposition things that Putin has done that have been seen as “anti-democratic”, people have identified Putin with stability and stability with better times (it's even been said that Russia is such a large country it needs a ‘strong leader’ in charge).

But times have changed, now not only is Russia dealing with the economic slowdown that's hitting the rest of the world, they also are suffering from a steep drop in oil prices (which has fueled Russia's economic growth these past few years). Inflation and unemployment are growing problems, and there are creeping worries that the hard times of the 90s could return.

Will Russians continue to believe in Putin? This next week could give a good indication.
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Winner of the Obama first foreign trip derby: Canada

It was announced yesterday that Canada would have the honor of being the first foreign country Barack Obama visits after being sworn in as president next week. Past that tidbit neither the Obama camp nor Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered any details on the planned visit.

Obama caused a stir on the campaign trail last summer by suggesting he would like to renegotiate some aspects of the NAFTA treaty (NAFTA established the free trade zone that includes the US, Canada and Mexico). Obama said on the campaign trail that he would like to see increased protections for labor and the environment included in an updated NAFTA agreement. But I would caution Obama that there is a danger in trying to crack open NAFTA for some reworking, many Canadians felt that they got a raw deal in the initial agreement in the early 90s, so if we start negotiating again, they'll probably have their own ideas on how to make the agreement better.

It's also likely that Obama will lobby Canada to keep their troops in Afghanistan past 2011, when they are scheduled to fully withdraw their forces. But again, this is a touchy issue with many Canadians who feel that their contributions to the war in Afghanistan aren't appreciated enough. More than 100 Canadian soldiers have died in service since the Afghan mission began in 2001. Add to that talks over the ongoing financial crisis that is hitting both of our countries and the fact that Harper himself may even be replaced as Prime Minister if the political opposition in Parliament has their way and you can see Pres. Obama's first trip abroad is going to be more than a few fluffy speeches and photo ops. The Canadian trip is expected to happen before the end of April.
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