Saturday, February 28, 2009

Let 'em eat cake in Zimbabwe

Let’s play a quick game of ‘What would you do?’ Pretend you're Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe - your country is a mess: unemployment is running at more than 90%, hunger affects more than half the population, a cholera outbreak has killed nearly 4,000 and sickened tens of thousands of others and the Central Bank has basically given up printing money after issuing the $500 billion bill because they can’t keep up with inflation. It’s your 85th birthday, what do you do?

If you answered attend a lavish party that cost $250,000 and featured a two-hundred pound birthday cake, consider yourself a winner, since that’s exactly how Mugabe chose to celebrate his birthday, surrounded by political cronies making grand speeches, as his country dies around him. By contrast, Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai was meeting with foreign donors, trying to put together a $5 billion emergency aid package for his country.

Meanwhile, the power-sharing deal forced upon the two men by their South African neighbors is showing more signs of falling apart. Under the agreement, government ministries would be split between Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party, and Tsvangirai’s MDC. But Mugabe’s forces have already arrested one of the MDC’s party leaders, and now Mugabe is trying to skirt the intent of the power-sharing agreement by appointing ‘permanent secretaries’ to ministries under MDC control. Tsvangirai slammed the action saying that he would not allow Mugabe to run a shadow government. “There is only one government running Zimbabwe – one government, with one vision and one agenda – democratization and stabilization,” Tsvangirai declared.

And Mugabe is relaunching the policy that helped lead Zimbabwe to ruin - the seizure of white-owned farms. Several years ago Mugabe’s government began seizing land owned by white farmers, his explanation was that while Zimbabwe’s population is overwhelmingly black, much of the country’s farmland was owned by whites, a situation he found unfair. But instead of giving the seized land to black farmers, Mugabe parceled it out to his political backers, most of whom never bothered to work the land, turning Zimbabwe from a net exporter of food into a nation plagued by hunger, ruining the economy in the process.

Now Mugabe wants to finish the job by grabbing the last 400 or so farms still owned by whites. Last year Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court ruled the land reform law was unconstitutional because it was based on race. Mugabe called the ruling nonsense and said he would ignore it.
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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Pols fight while Ukraine sinks

Economists at Standard and Poor’s have downgraded Ukraine's credit rating from B/B to CCC+/C (which is a pretty bad rating as these things go). So at this point you may be asking, why is this important?

Because Ukraine is due to receive the next portion (or ‘tranche’ in financial-speak) of their $16 billion bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a roughly $2 billion installment. While economies around the world are feeling the pinch from the global credit crisis, Ukraine's economy has taken an absolute beating; they needed the IMF loan late last year to keep their currency afloat. Things have gotten so bad that the IMF loan is no their largest source of foreign investment.

Of course the IMF doesn’t just throw billions of dollars around, they expect to see some financial responsibility on the part of the countries they’re aiding, and so far they’re not seeing it from the government in Ukraine, and that goes directly to the ongoing, and seemingly endless, and bitter, power struggle between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Instead of working together to adopt some fiscal policies to help Ukraine through these tough financial times, they have decided to just continue their feud (readers may remember that Yushchenko recently accused Tymoshenko of treason, while she tried to strip his office of all its power). The bond rating agencies have taken notice, and so too might the IMF - meaning they may decide not to release the next $2 billion in aid, a move that could sink what's left of Ukraine's economy.

Meanwhile, don’t expect these two to start acting like adults anytime soon. All indications are that they will continue their squabbling until the presidential elections early in 2010. Hopefully for Ukraine a decent third candidate will emerge.
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Women take to the bench in Palestine

There’s been an interesting development for women's rights in Palestine - the first two female judges have been appointed to an Islamic Court in the West Bank.

In many Muslim countries Islamic Courts form a parallel legal system, one that deals with civil matters like divorce, child support and inheritance issues, using the Koran as a guide. The ruling of the judge in an Islamic Court is final and binding. But with the exception of Sudan, serving as a judge in an Islamic Court has been a privilege reserved for men only.

That changed in the West Bank when Khuloud Faqih and Asmahan Wuheidi were appointed to the bench recently. Both women were already civil lawyers, not religious scholars like many Islamic Court judges, this past summer Faqih approached Sheik Taysir Tamimi who overseas the Courts in the West Bank, about applying for the bench. Sheik Tamimi was enthusiastic about the idea, believing it will help women get more favorable rulings.

Still, some women’s rights activists in the region warn that even though two women are now making decisions in an Islamic Court, they are making them based on a set of laws that overwhelmingly favor men.

But the two judges say that they bring a woman’s perspective to the court and are more sensitive to the position of their female plaintiffs, for example there are issues, like sexual matters, that female plaintiffs are reluctant to discuss in front of a male judge. “When a woman speaks to another woman, it's easier for her to speak,” Wuheidi said.

It is perhaps a small step towards a more equal society, but it is a step.
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Atlantis is still lost

Just to be clear, Google Earth did not find the lost city of Atlantis.

That has been the rumor circulating around the internet for days now. The back-story, in case you missed it, is that Google added a new feature to their popular Google Earth service - topographical maps of the ocean floor.

Some keen-eyed user then spotted this feature:

They claimed that the parallel lines were the street plan for the fabled lost city of Atlantis. The location, off the coast of northwestern Africa is backed up by the story told by Plato, which launched the whole Atlantis mythos - according to Plato the city was located beyond the Pillars of Hercules, the ancient name for the Straits of Gibraltar, but that the advanced civilization suffered a calamity and disappeared beneath the waves forever.

Nonsense says Google (politely). The grid in fact is the result of data artifacts from the sonar-scanning process, not an actual street map. Besides, they point out, the alleged ‘city’ is about twice the size of Rhode Island, meaning the streets would each be about eight miles wide.

Somehow I think this explanation will still fail to kill the ‘found Atlantis’ thread - if there's one thing the internet loves more than a juicy rumor, its powerful organization trying to squash one.
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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Uighurs burned in apparent protest

Reports from Beijing this morning are that three men were badly injured apparently after they set themselves on fire as a political protest. At least one anonymous source claims that the men were members of China’s Uighur Muslim community. As you may recall from other posts here, the Uighurs are an ethnic minority in China’s far northwestern Xinjiang province that are being systematically oppressed by the Beijing government.

The three men were sitting in a car near Tiananmen Square when police approached them. At that point the car burst into flames (the same sources claim that the car had a registration number assigned to Xinjiang). The Chinese authorities, not surprisingly, are downplaying the whole event. They have not commented on the men's ethnicity, only to say the car had a “non-Beijing” registration ID number, and that the men were apparently engaged in some type of “personal protest.” The condition of the men was also not released, though they apparently all survived the burning.

Speaking of the Uighurs, the 17 still detained at Guantanamo Bay won't be getting out anytime soon. A federal appeals court reversed a circuit court judge Ricardo Urbina’s decision demanding their immediate release. Even though with its last breath the Bush Administration tried to promote the claim that Guantanamo only contains the “worst of the worst” terrorists, the US government long ago admitted that these 17 men committed no hostile acts against the US and stopped trying to prove they ever had any intention to several years back. The US is keeping them at Gitmo since releasing them to China would likely mean prison, if not death, for them.

The appeals court ruled that the Judge Urbina overstepped his authority in ordering their release, so for now they continue to be prisoners we know are innocent of the charges against them.

One other bit of Uighur news, one of their six compatriots released in 2006 when Albania (of all places) agreed to take them in has a new home, he was granted asylum in Sweden to live with a sister who emigrated there.
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Damn you Guy Ritchie

I say that because after hearing the tragic news this morning of a Turkish Airlines 737 jet crash in Amsterdam, which killed nine people, all I can think about is a throwaway line from Ritchie's gangster-comedy movie “Snatch.”

It is when we first meet Jason Statham’s character, who's named Turkish. About his name, he explains that he knows its weird - his parents met during a plane crash, and that was the name of the airline... So of course when I saw the pictures from the crash, with the name emblazoned on the fuselage, that’s all I could think about.

A tragic event (though thankfully not as bad as it could have been since there were 134 people onboard) and all I can think about is a British gangster movie. It really is terrible how pop culture invades our minds...
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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Pirates seize another cargo ship off Somalia

After lying low for a little while, the pirates off the coast of Somalia are at it again, this time grabbing a Greek-owned, Maltese-flagged cargo ship called the Saldanha, with 22 crewmembers onboard. The seizure of the Saldanha comes after a half-dozen reported unsuccessful pirate attacks in the past week alone.

The Somali pirates have only captured a handful of ships since the start of the year, something the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet was quick to claim credit for, though many familiar with piracy off the coast of Africa say that bad weather is the more likely explanation - the pirates use small boats for most of their attacks, craft not suited for sailing in rough seas.

Meanwhile a Russian frigate operating off the coast of Somalia turned ten suspected pirates they’ve captured over to authorities in Yemen. And that illustrates another problem with the Somali pirates - what to do when you catch them. Somalia right now doesn't have a functioning government or legal system, so the Somalis can't prosecute the pirates once they’re caught. Many of the pirates turned over to officials in Somalia in the past year have wound up back at sea looking for more ships to hijack. The US Navy signed an agreement with the government in neighboring Kenya for that country to prosecute pirates caught by the US forces, but so far what to do with the pirates once caught is a hodge-podge of agreements and ideas, which again makes piracy attractive for sailors an fishermen living along the Somali coast - even if they’re caught there's little chance of them being punished, while there are few, if any, ways to legally earn a living open to them.

Finally, Reuters has published this handy “factbox” about the Somali pirates, listing some of the ships they’re still holding and how much they’ve earned from piracy.
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Guadeloupe riots, could France be next?

Though it’s been absent from the American media, there has been a public uprising going on right in our backyard.

The Caribbean island of Guadeloupe has basically been shut down for weeks thanks to massive public strikes over the terrible economic situation there. Guadeloupe is an overseas territory of France, a legal status that strangely enough gives it the highest unemployment rate (about 25 percent) in the European Union. And that gets to the heart of the protests - the feeling among the residents of Guadeloupe that they’ve been forgotten as France struggles to deal with the global economic downturn. The trouble on Guadeloupe started when a coalition of local unions, the Collective Against Exploitation (or LKP in French), began a series of general strikes in protest to the economic conditions on the island.

But the French government was slow to respond, angering Guadeloupe’s residents and prompting other groups, outside of the control of the LKP to get involved in the protests, which began to turn violent. Since then there have been riots, with the burning of some businesses and at least one union leader has been killed; dozens of other protestors have been arrested. The violence has prompted tourists, who contribute a large chunk to Guadeloupe’s economy, to flee the island and France to fly in riot police to try to restore order.

French President Nikolas Sarkozy has promised a package of 500 million Euros in assistance to Guadeloupe and France’s other Overseas Departments, but protestors are demanding that the aid package also include payments of 200 Euros a month to workers to help raise the standard of living for all on the island. Locals also say that there is a long-standing racial component to the island’s problems - much of the economy is in the hands of the whites (or “Bekes” in the local slang), who are descendants of colonial-era landlords and plantation owners, while the majority of the island’s population is black. They feel that their concerns have, historically, not been taken seriously by the French and that economic development plans leave behind the majority black population.

Meanwhile the Guardian is warning that Guadeloupe’s problems could spread back to France in the coming months. Like Guadeloupe, France is suffering from stagnant wages and rising prices - meaning the buying power of a person's salary is falling. So too are Sarkozy’s approval ratings, now tumbling down to George W. levels, about 36% according to recent polls. Worse, there is a general feeling that Sarkozy doesn’t have any solutions to France’s economic problems. Recent polls also indicated that 63% of those surveyed think Guadeloupe-style riots could come to France soon if the economic situation doesn’t improve. Sarkozy is also ruffling feathers with his fellow European Union members. Recently he said that French car makers should only get government bailouts if they keep production in France and not ship it to places in the EU where costs are cheaper - like Slovakia, a move the EU says smacks of protectionism; France is also breaking EU economic rules by running a larger than allowed budget deficit this year.
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Backward green comet, one-time only appearance

If you're like me and interested in outer space, you'll probably want to take the chance to see a unique occurrence in the night sky over the next few days.

The comet Lulin is making its one and only appearance in the nighttime sky. What makes Lulin really interesting is that it's flying “backwards” - most things in our solar system orbit the Sun in a counterclockwise direction, Lulin is traveling clockwise, making it look like it’s moving through the sky tail-first, it's also unusual since its tail has a greenish tint, something rare for comets.

Lulin is traveling so fast that the boost in speed it gets from whipping past the Sun will fling it out of the solar system into deep space, meaning this will be its one and only trip past Earth.

The best chance to see Lulin is to look to the southern sky about 1/3 of the way up from the horizon just before dawn on Monday, it will be near Saturn (which will look like a bright star in the sky), it may be visible to the naked eye, but binoculars are a better bet. Lulin is named for the Chinese teenager who first discovered it two years ago.
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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Google Earth outs secret US mission

Put this one in the whoops file. Google Earth, that amazing service that lets you see satellite images of just about any spot on Earth showed something they shouldn't have - namely US military Predator drone aircraft at a remote airfield in Pakistan.

The Predator is an unmanned aircraft, piloted remotely by an operator sitting back at its airfield (think of it as a remote control model airplane on steroids). Originally the Predator was designed to be a surveillance aircraft, something that could hover over a target in hostile territory for a few hours without putting the life of a pilot at risk. A few years ago though the military tried an experiment where they mounted a pair of missiles on a Predator, and thus a new weapon was born. For the past couple of years the Predators have been patrolling the skies above the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, occasionally taking out “high value” targets - suspected al-Qaeda members - on both sides of the border. The Pakistani public has been growing steadily more angry over these Predator airstrikes since they feel they are a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty and because there has been “collateral damage” (a.k.a. dead civilians) in a number of the airstrikes.

And that's where the problems begin. The News, Pakistan's premier English-language newspaper, got a hold of an image from Google Earth taken in 2006 that shows what appears to be three Predators sitting on the tarmac at Shamsi Airfield, a remote airport near the Afghan border. Officially Pakistan says that the United States used Shamsi during the initial movement of US forces into Afghanistan following 9/11, but that the US had stopped using the airfield by 2006. Both sides deny that there are, or ever were, Predators at Shamsi.

But it puts Pakistan's already fragile government into a difficult position - the Pakistani government has repeatedly said the US does not fly Predator drones from their territory and on a number of occasions has demanded that the US stop Predator airstrikes along their side of the border, yet the pictures tell another story. How much fallout there is from this revelation remains to be seen.

Meanwhile in other airbase news, the government of Kyrgyzstan officially approved a bill ordering the United States to leave Manas airfield in their country, which is seen as a severe blow to US operations in Afghanistan since Manas was used as a base for US transport and refueling aircraft. The US government though continues to insist a deal can still be reached with the Kyrgyz about keeping the Air Force at Manas - I still can't decide if there's something secret in the works or if this is just a wild bout of wishful thinking on the part of the Pentagon.
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Russia-China relations sinking?

Just days after signing a huge oil and finance deal, relations between Russia and China have hit a major snag over Russia's alleged sinking of a Chinese merchant ship last weekend that may have killed seven Chinese sailors.

The story surrounds the New Star, a Chinese-owned cargo ship that arrived in the Russian Far East port of Nakhoda with a cargo of rice last month. But once it arrived the Russian company buying the rice refused to take delivery saying the rice was poor quality and largely spoiled. The company, in turn, demanded that the New Star pay a fine for failing to deliver the agreed cargo. Russian authorities were preventing the New Star from leaving Nakhoda until the matter was resolved. Finally last weekend, the New Star's captain apparently had enough of the delays and left port without authorization; this prompted the Russian Navy to chase the New Star. When the Chinese ship refused to return to Nakhoda, the Russians opened fire - some accounts say the Russian ship fired 500 rounds of 30mm ammo at the Chinese vessel.

What happened next isn't clear. The Chinese are implying that the Russians actually sank the New Star, the Russians are saying that the New Star was trying to return to Nakhoda as ordered, but by that point a fierce storm had blown in and the New Star sank in heavy seas (the Northern Pacific is notorious for bad weather, especially in winter). The Russians are blaming the captain of the New Star for the loss of his ship because he left port without authorization and because he sailed into a storm; the Chinese are up in arms over that explanation and have expressed their “strong dissatisfaction” with the incident. The Chinese are also angry that the Russians failed to rescue half of the New Star's crew of 16. The Russians replied that one of the ship’s two life rafts capsized before they could reach it, throwing the sailors into the turbulent seas. Given the frigid temperatures of the Northern Pacific in winter, the sailors could not have survived for long in the water.

China has summoned Russia's ambassador and are pushing for a full investigation to the incident, along with making their public statement of “strong dissatisfaction”, which in diplomatic-speak translates into they're really pissed off.

All of this comes just about a week after Russia and China signed a $25 billion deal for oil - China will invest in developing Russian oil fields and building pipelines between Siberia and China, in return Russia's agreeing to provide China with 300,000 barrels of oil per day for the next 20 years.
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Friday, February 20, 2009

Israel stumbles towards a government

Sometimes finishing second means you finish first.

That's what happened today in Israel when Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the right-of-centre Likud party, the second-place finishers in Israel's elections ten days ago, was invited to form Israel's next government, meaning Bibi Netanyahu is poised to once again become Israel's Prime Minister.

How is that possible? Thank Israel's semi-dysfunctional version of democracy. When you vote in Israel you vote for the party not for an individual candidate, when all the votes are counted, seats in the Knesset (the parliament) are portioned out according to the percentage of votes each party received. That part isn't so bad, the problem is that Israel has set the threshold for getting representation in the Knesset at only 2% of the total number of votes cast (by comparison, most countries with similar systems set the threshold at 5%, or even 7%). This has meant that unlike most national parliaments where there are two or three main parties and two or three (if that many) smaller ones, the Knesset usually has a dozen or more (there will be 12 parties represented in the new Knesset). In practice this has kept the main parties in Israel from coming anywhere near a majority and forcing them to cobble together unstable coalitions of small parties with narrow interests - for example Kadima, the party which won the most votes only has 28 out of 120 seats in the Knesset, Likud has 27. The effect is that the smaller parties have an outsized influence over the government since if they pull out of the coalition the government falls.

All this comes back to the most recent election. Netanyahu was tapped to try to form a government since he has the support of several far right/nationalist parties, meaning he has a better chance of putting together a coalition than does Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni. Netanyahu has talked about putting together a broad-based coalition that would include Kadima; Livni is open to the idea only if the coalition doesn't include some of the small, far right parties currently supporting Netanyahu.

So the chances are that Kadima won't join the government and Netanyahu will form a weak coalition with several far right parties, a move that will be a severe blow to the idea of peace with the Palestinians. In a bad sign for the process, and frankly Israel's long-term prospects in general, one person sure to be a member of the new government will be Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party. Lieberman is a controversial figure, opposed to the two-state solution and often branded as being anti-Arab. His latest policy suggestion is that all Israeli Arabs (and they make up close to 20% of the population of Israel) be forced to take a 'loyalty oath' to Israel or lose their citizenship.

That would be a giant step towards Israel becoming an apartheid state by, in theory, creating two classes of people within its borders - citizens and non-citizens. It's also not the type of solution that would improve relations between Israel and the Arab world - which are currently at a low ebb - or one that would help Israel and Palestine come to a lasting peace agreement.

Netanyahu's first go as Prime Minister was marked by a hawkish approach towards the Palestinians. He says though that he is now older and wiser. How he deals with Lieberman will be an early test of that theory.
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The legend of Prawo Jazdy

He baffled police across Ireland, an automotive scofflaw named Prawo Jazdy was racking up dozens of fines for speeding and parking violations, yet the Irish cops couldn’t catch him since the crafty Prawo Jazdy gave different addresses to the police it seemed every time he was stopped.

But finally a sharp-eyed Irish police officer discovered the amazing truth about Mr. Jazdy, in fact, there was no Prawo Jazdy, not a person at least. You see, Prawo Jazdy is Polish for “driver’s license.”

In recent years thanks to its booming economy and the expansion of the European Union, Ireland has seen a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, particularly of people from Poland. And it seems that many of the Poles who came to Ireland like to drive fast and park where they please.

So in writing tickets police all across Ireland read “Prawo Jazdy” as the drivers name, not as the title of his (or her) driver’s license. They would write Prawo Jazdy on the summons, along with the person’s actual address, creating dozens of residences for the non-existent Mr. Jazdy in their computer system.

A memo is now going around to traffic police across Ireland that should once and for all put an end to Prawo Jazdy’s legendary reign of traffic abuse.
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O in Canada

Barack Obama took his first foreign trip yesterday, and though if you blinked you might have missed his six-hour jaunt across the border to Canada, he and Canadian leader Stephen Harper talked about a number of important issues.

The main topic of the meet-and-greet was trade - NAFTA and other related issues. Obama wants to have what are currently side agreements on labor and the environment folded into the main body of NAFTA. Harper though is reluctant to go reopening the trade agreement, which took years to negotiate in the first place. And frankly Obama shouldn't be so eager to crack NAFTA open either since many Canadians feel that they got a raw deal in the original agreement.

Past those discussions the two leaders also talked about the need to streamline the process of goods crossing the border - something they say is holding back US-Canadian trade at this point. The environment also made it into the discussion, though they fell far short of even agreeing to talks about a common US-Canadian approach to environmental regulations. Canada is looking to become a larger supplier of energy to the United States, but there is growing concern over Canada's main source of oil, the Oil Sands of Alberta - getting oil from these sands (which is more like a gooey tar) is a complex, and dirty, process. There is concern from environmentalists on both sides of the border about the cost to nature of getting oil from the Sands.

One topic the two leaders skirted was Canada's troop commitment in Afghanistan. Canada is one of the main non-US contributors of troops, but they are planning to withdraw by 2011, just as Obama is lobbying for an increase the number of boots on the ground in Afghanistan. Canada has felt that their sacrifice in Afghanistan hasn't really been appreciated - 108 Canadians have lost their lives so far. Obama was quick to thank Canada for its service and sacrifice, something that seemed to go a long way towards paving over some of those hurt feelings. Past that Obama said talk about extending the Canadian mission didn't come up.

Harper wasn't the only Canadian leader to get face time with the new American President. Obama also met with Canada's Governor-General Michaelle Jean (the Governor-General is the Queen of England's official representative in the Canadian government, since Elizabeth II is still technically the head of state in Canada - just check their money if you don't believe me). Jean is originally from Haiti, so she and Obama spent much of their brief meeting discussing the dreadful conditions in the island nation - the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.

When he arrived in Ottawa, several thousand cheering Canadians greeted Obama. George W. Bush was also greeted by thousands during his last visit to Canada, only they were protesting, rather than cheering, and making some rather un-Canadian hand gestures at the president. Just to show he had a good sense of humor about it though, Bush thanked those Canadians who waved to him using “all five fingers.”
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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Russia cuts 2014 Olympics budget

Count the Sochi Winter Olympics as another casualty of the global economic slowdown.

The Sochi games are still five years away (we have the Vancouver games of 2010 to get through first), but Russia has announced that the budget for Sochi has been slashed by more than $8 billion because of the faltering economy.

There are those who are worried that Sochi might not happen at all. The selection of Sochi was a bit of a surprise - the city in southern Russia is somewhat off the beaten path. In pitching for the games though, Russia promised to go on a building binge, creating world-class facilities where few (of any class) currently exist.

But so far its been a difficult process - some land owners have asked exorbitant prices for their land, local officials have been accused of corruption and incompetence, construction is lagging behind schedule, and Sochi - which didn’t share in the economic boom that seemed to reshape Moscow and St. Petersburg overnight - needs far more work done on its basic infrastructure than first realized.

Concerns have gotten to the point that Salzburg, Austria - which lost out in the bidding for the 2014 games - sent a note to the International Olympic Committee that they could still step in and host the 2014, you know, just in case.

Still, I think it is a little early to declare the Sochi Games in that much trouble. Remember this piece from last month about the government in British Columbia desperately looking for money to finish the facilities for the Vancouver Games that are just one year away. Russia also has a ton of national prestige wrapped up in the Sochi Games. The Russians are still sore that their one and only time hosting an Olympics, the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics, was marred by an international boycott that kept many countries that weren’t part of the Soviet bloc home.

Russia also is looking for Sochi to be an engine of economic development for that region of the country. Assuming the Games go off as planned, they will be unlike any Winter Olympics ever held. Sochi is sandwiched between the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea, a setting that creates a unique microclimate, giving Sochi, even in the winter, the type of weather you would expect in a sub-tropical city. The whole region was once the Soviet's answer to the Rivera - a coastal playground for the Soviet elite.

Still, the region, like much of Russia, suffered through years of neglect during the end of the Soviet Union and the chaotic transition of the 1990s. It all means there's a lot of work to do to prepare for the Olympics, a lot of work and now a lot less money to do it with.
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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Dubai is Peer-less

Who knew tennis could be this political?

The latest scandal to hit the tennis world is the United Arab Emirates’ decision to not give a visa to Israeli-born Shahar Peer to play in the upcoming Dubai Open. And if you think this whole thing is wrapped up in the recent Israel-Gaza conflict, you're absolutely right.

The UAE is saying they denied Peer's visa because they couldn't guarantee her safety at the Dubai Open - the folks at the Emirate somehow think she'll be the target for all sorts of pent up anger over Israel's actions in Gaza. The Israeli government counters that it is all a cheap publicity stunt to whip up more anti-Israel feelings in the Arab world.

Venus Williams, meanwhile, killed off any speculation that there might be a mass boycott by players in the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) over Peer's exclusion. And while I don't have a problem with the other players not boycotting, I have a big problem with Venus' rationale.

She didn't say it was because sports should transcend politics or anything so lofty as that, or even that tennis players were just generally apolitical. No her reason was that they didn't want to let the fans down by not appearing, or let down the sponsors. Oh, and because the tournament offers really, really big prize money.

Look, even if the reason you don't want to boycott a tournament is because you want the chance to line your pockets and you don't want to tick off the sponsors who do their fair share of pocket-lining, its pretty crass to just come out and say that. It's especially bad coming from Venus Williams, who as an African-American, not too many years ago would have been barred from playing in lots of places for reasons far flimsier than even the ones the UAE is offering up for keeping Peer out of their country.

But while the players may not be in a boycotting mood, some of the Dubai Open's sponsors are, including the European version of the Wall Street Journal.
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Chinua Achebe returns home

Since my book club is currently reading “Things Fall Apart”, I had to link to this story about writer Chinua Achebe returning to his native Nigeria for the second time in the past two decades.

Achebe is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers of modern Africa and is credited with adapting the folk-telling tradition of Nigeria into the novel format. But Achebe was partially paralyzed in an automobile accident in 1990 - a factor that required him to live in the United States since the infrastructure in Nigeria isn't well-suited to take care of persons with disabilities. His visit home required a lot of advance planning, including a police-escorted motorcade to bring him back to his native village.

Achebe still hopes one day to return to his homeland. He is building a house designed to accommodate his disability, and because of the lack of infrastructure in Nigeria, the house will have to have its own electrical and water supplies - things Achebe can't do without in his condition.

Achebe hopes to write future novels when (and if) he can in fact return to Nigeria for good, he says there are still many stories to tell. “There are stories all over the place, not written. Stories waiting to be transformed into novels,” Achebe said.

Note - In addition to "Things Fall Apart", check out "Man of the People" for a good tale of how political power tended to corrupt even the most honest men in post-colonial Africa.
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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

China gives "largest gift" to West Africa

China’s President Hu Jintao has been on a tour of Africa this past week, and he’s been playing Santa Claus along the way.

While in the West African nation of Mali, Hu announced China’s largest-ever foreign aid gift in that part of the world - a mile-and-a-half long bridge across the Niger River in Mali’s capital Bamako that will eventually cost China about $76 million to build. At the ceremonial groundbreaking Hu said the bridge will help improve trade and was a sign of the close relations between Mali and China.

It’s another symbol of China’s deep interest in the continent. In recent years China has been giving out barrels of foreign aid to countries all across Africa. Of course so have the United States and countries across Western Europe, the difference with China’s aid though is that it comes with no strings attached. Western countries have used packages of foreign aid and debt relief to promote governmental reforms among the nations of Africa - things like committing to open elections, a free press and transparent budgeting processes. Tying aid to reform has had a positive effect in a number of nations in Africa, helping them to address long-standing problems like corruption.

Chinese aid has no conditions attached. And as such has also been the foreign aid of choice with some pretty sketchy regimes, like Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and those fine folks (accused of genocide) in Sudan. All this cash flowing has helped China to build trade relationships with a series of African nations, relationships that supply China with all sorts of raw material it needs to feed it's manufacturing base - oil, copper, even rare earth minerals needed to make computer components.

It's been suggested that Hu took his trip to Africa at this time, and has been spreading around aid (like bridges in Mali) to reassure China’s new friends that the aid train will keep rolling even as the world’s economy slows down.
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Monday, February 16, 2009

Kosovo, one year on

It was one year ago that Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia. Thankfully a lot of the predictions of doom and gloom - namely a war between the Kosovars and the Serbs - never came to pass. But that’s not to say that everything is rosy for the world’s newest nation.

Only about a quarter of the UN’s member nations have recognized Kosovo as an independent country, and a lot of the places that have are members of the European Union (as well as the US and Canada). The Serbs who live in the far north of Kosovo in towns huddled along the Serbian border do not feel that they are a part of the new state and a mission of European Union troops (the largest-ever military mission by the EU) maintains an uneasy peace. Russia refuses to recognize Kosovo, blocking attempts at the UN to do so, while using the example of Kosovo as a justification for their own recognition of the Georgian lands of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

Much of the early excitement about independence has ebbed, as the reality of crushing poverty takes hold in Kosovo. Unemployment is running at a rate of 70% (and is much higher among Serbs and women), and according to the Independent newspaper of the UK, the economic situation will likely get worse. So far the country’s economy has been dependent on remittances from the roughly one million Kosovars living abroad. But they too have been hit by the global economic crisis and many find that they don’t have spare cash to send home, so Kosovo’s main source of income seems to be drying up, at least for the short term.

The economy in Kosovo, the legal part at least, is based mainly on subsistence farming, not great base to grow an economy on. Kosovo does have potential resource wealth - coal and other minerals - but getting them out of the ground and to market will take billions of dollars of investment in the national infrastructure, something unlikely to happen anytime soon.

The question of whether Kosovo was really a viable country, or whether the Kosovars would have been better as an autonomous region in a larger Serbia that was fast-tracked into the European Union, was a good question to ask about a year ago. But for reasons that seemed to have more to do with settling old political scores with Serbia and Russia rather than Kosovo itself, the Western powers (US, UK, France, Germany) were all quick to recognize Kosovo’s claim of independence. So the EU is stuck with an ill-prepared new nation that now seems destined to be dependent on foreign aid - both from other nations and their own citizens living abroad - for years to come; a place of simmering ethnic tensions and bleak futures for its citizens.

But at least, so far, it hasn’t turned out as bad as it could have.
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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Unity government off to rocky start in Zimbabwe

Months of political wrangling in Zimbabwe finally ended last Wednesday when opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai (the man many thought actually won the presidential elections last year) was sworn into the newly-created post of Prime Minister, completing a long-promised power-sharing agreement with President Robert Mugabe.

And by this weekend Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party was already trying to shatter the deal.

The national police, still under the control of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF faction, arrested Tsvangirai’s pick for Agriculture Minister Roy Bennett on charges that were first treason, and then were changed to terrorism. The police allege that Bennett planned to blow up a telecommunications station east of the capital city, Harare. Tsvangirai and his MDC party call the charges outrageous.

Bennett has a long, stormy history with Mugabe. Bennett in fact spent the last few years in exile in South Africa after the Zimbabwe government accused him of plotting to kill Mugabe. Bennett, who is white, had his farm stolen in 2003 as part of Mugabe’s “land reform” initiative, which was suppose to give black farmers access to agricultural land that was largely held by Zimbabwe’s white minority, but in reality was just a scheme to give gifts to some of Mugabe’s cronies. Few of these Mugabe insiders ever worked the land they were given, prompting the food crisis that currently grips Zimbabwe, which was once a net exporter of food to Southern Africa.

MDC party members are camped out around the police station where Bennett is being held to make sure he isn’t disappeared into the Zimbabwean hinterlands, while the MDC is saying the arrest shatters belief in the legitimacy of the power-sharing deal.

Ironically, Bennett was featured in a “From Our Own Correspondent” piece published by the BBC just before his arrest. The BBC’s Andrew Harding found a mix of fear and optimism on the streets of Zimbabwe following the swearing in of Tsvangirai as prime minister. Harding concludes though that it will likely be months before anyone knows how legitimately Mugabe’s faction will participate in the unity government. Bennett’s arrest though isn’t a positive first sign.
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Cover model - draft dodger

Who knew the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue could be this interesting?

Once again there’s controversy surrounding SI’s annual beachwear extravaganza, though this year it’s not an argument about the exploitation of women, or even some faux-outrage by PETA about the number of sand crabs squashed while shooting the pictorials. No the outrage this year, according to the blog of the site RealClearWorld, is over allegations of draft-dodging surrounding cover model Bar Refaeli.

Actually they’re not even allegations since Bar rather proudly talked about avoiding the compulsory military service required of her as an Israeli citizen.

“I really wanted to serve in the IDF, but I don’t regret not enlisting, because it paid off big time. That’s just the way it is, celebrities have other needs,” Bar said, giving an excuse even lamer than Dick Cheney’s for not answering his country’s call. She went on to say: “Israel or Uganda, what difference does it make? It makes no difference to me. Why is it good to die for our country? What, isn’t it better to live in New York? Why should 18-year-old kids have to die? It’s dumb that people have to die so that I can live in Israel.”

As you can imagine though, Bar’s attitude has ruffled a few feathers in Israel, especially among parents whose children died in the course of their military service, while she was lounging on the world’s beaches.

Bar, according to RCW, has apparently made amends, somewhat, with the IDF – promising to visit injured soldiers when she’s in Israel and serving as a “recruitment officer” for the military. I’d love to hear that sales pitch.
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Another chip in the Bush legacy - India

In polishing his legacy, one of the things supporters of President George W. Bush have pointed to as a foreign policy success is America’s strengthened relationship with India – the world’s largest democracy and second-most populous country. Their argument goes that during the Cold War India often had a close relationship with the Soviet Union, but today the US and India are cooperating on a number of fronts (like the development of nuclear power) so it’s proof of the US pulling India away from Russia and into our “orbit of influence.”

The Bush backers might want to hold off on the victory celebrations though… News this week out of India is that the Indian military has concluded an agreement with their counter-parts in Russia to jointly design a fifth-generation jet fighter. Fifth-gen aircraft are the most modern, most advanced jets in the sky, and are the planes that will form the core of any modern nation’s air force for decades to come (currently the only fifth-gen fighter in service anywhere in the world is the US Air Force’s F-22 Raptor). The agreement with Russia is to jointly build their new fifth-gen aircraft that will enter service in both countries simultaneously, not for India to receive a lower-tech export model of a Russian plane (which has been the way advanced technology has been shared in the past). The Russian-Indian consortium hopes to fly a test aircraft by the end of the year.

It is the latest in a series of military agreements between Russia and India, which include the sale of other fourth-generation aircraft, a Soviet-era aircraft carrier (currently being refurbished in Russia) and possibly the lease of a new Russian nuclear attack submarine. They’re all ties that poke holes in the idea that George W. has pulled India out of the Russian orbit and into ours – its probably a lot more accurate to say that India will act in India’s best self-interests, working with Russia on a host of issues and the US with others when they see an advantage for India in doing so.

Meanwhile, this morning in a survey of US presidential historians sponsored by C-SPAN, George W. came in at 36 overall and 41st when you focus just on International Relations (William Henry Harrison finished last in case you’re wondering).
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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Is Medvedev Putin's Taft?

You may not believe it, but there are some strange between iconic US President Theodore Roosevelt and Russia’s former (and also iconic) President Vladimir Putin. Both were self-styled outdoorsmen, both were young when they took the office of president, a job neither man was expected to ever take (Putin was plucked from relative obscurity by Boris Yeltsin in the waning days of his presidency, while Roosevelt took the office after the assassination of Pres. McKinney).

And now there could be another link developing between the two of them - the men they chose to be their successor could each turn out to have a mind of their own.

After two terms in office Roosevelt tapped William Howard Taft to run on the Republican ticket in his place, thinking that Taft would continue Roosevelt's campaign of progressive government reforms. But when Taft didn’t live up to Roosevelt’s version of progressivism, he ran against him as a third party candidate, splitting the Republican vote and giving Democrat Woodrow Wilson the presidency.

Putin, constitutionally prevented from seeking a third term, also picked a relatively obscure successor - St. Petersburg lawyer, Dmitry Medvedev. Since his announcement as candidate, Medvedev has been looked on as Putin's puppet by many observers both in Russia and abroad. But in recent weeks, Medvedev has been taking steps to move out of the bosses' shadow.

The split has been brewing (as reported here a few weeks ago) since the two differed on how to deal with tax protestors in Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East (Putin wanted to take a hard line, Medvedev supported a local official who let the protestors protest). Since then the two have been quietly been taking different paths. Medvedev criticized the government’s response to the recent economic crisis as too slow, even though Putin is the point man on the economy. Medvedev also ordered a new law that would have drastically cracked down on dissidents - a law drafted by Putin - to be reconsidered before going on the books.

According to the Washington Post the two have even started to have a third party take minutes of their meetings because of past “disagreements” about what each of them said. And Medvedev sat down with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and editor Dmitri Muratov of the newspaper Novaya Gazeta - for a wide-ranging interview in the wake of the murder of journalist Anastasia Baburova, a young reporter killed in Moscow a few weeks ago.

The Putin-Medvedev duopoly has brought back a classic Soviet parlor game - trying to figure out just who is in charge at the Kremlin. Of course that people are even wondering who is in charge means that Medvedev may in fact be stepping from out of Putin’s shadow. Could he turn out to be Putin's Taft after all?
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Cuba fights computer imperialism with Linux

It’s pretty impressive, Cuba only legalized the ownership of home computers last year, but the island nation has already launched its own computer operating system. The OS, dubbed “Nova” is built on the Linux platform and was introduced this week at a computer conference on “technological sovereignty” in Havana.

Cuba’s logic goes like this - since US security agencies have their own built-in backdoors to Microsoft’s ubiquitous Windows operating system, it's not a secure platform for the Cuban government’s computers, so they wanted their own OS. Nova is a bundle of Linux OS applications; Linux is the free, open-source computer operating system promoted as an alternative to the corporate closed-source OS sold by Microsoft (and for that matter Apple as well). Since it's open-source, anyone is free to make improvements to it or customize it to better suit their own needs, a spirit that meshes well with the Cuban government’s socialist worldview.

“The free software movement is closer to the ideology of the Cuban people, above all for the independence and sovereignty,” said Hector Rodriguez, dean of the School of Free Software at Cuba's University of Information Sciences. About 20% of the PCs in Cuba are already using Linux; Cuban officials hope that Nova will push that number to 50% in the next few years.
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US wears out welcome at Kyrgyz base

Just a short follow up to the post “Kyrgyzstan to kick US out” - about the government of Kyrgyzstan’s decision to end the United States military’s lease at the Manas airport in their country. A lot of the commentary recently has been about how the Russian's have either threatened or bribed (or both) the Kyrgyz into deciding to end their relationship with the United States. But the Associated Press published a story today that shows the US did a lot of things to make themselves an unwanted guest in Kyrgyzstan.

According to the AP account, residents near Manas complained about excessive noise from Air Force planes and their dumping excess jet fuel that has killed off crops and orchards around the base. Worst of all was the killing of a local Kyrgyz man in 2006 by a security guard at the base. The US military bundled the soldier up and flew him out of the country, an action that hasn’t sat well with the man’s family.

Kyrgyz officials also said that the United States refused requests for an increase in the fees they pay to use the base, another factor in their decision to end the relationship. Russia, meanwhile, has offered the Kyrgyz government a package of aid and debt relief totaling over $2 billion.
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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Time for Marx

The inauguration of Barrack Obama was Time magazine's choice for cover story for their Feb. 2 issue around the world - everywhere that is except in Europe. Who replaced Obama in Europe? Why, none other than 19th century political and economic theorist Karl Marx.

Ol’ Karl was the subject of Time Europe’s cover story, “Is it time to rethink Marxism?”

It’s frankly another sign that American-style Capitalism is in real trouble around the world. Our cable news channels - Fox and CNBC primarily, but the others to a lesser degree as well - have reported on comments slamming the Capitalist system made by national leaders like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Vladimir Putin of Russia, painting them as a sort of sour grapes over the dominance of the American economic model in world affairs (and also ignoring the fact that Russia left socialism behind years ago, but we'll let that pass for now).

What they haven't reported on though have been the similar comments coming from our allies. Britain's Gordon Brown became the latest to speak of the need for a new “moral Capitalism” last week, joining the leaders of France and Germany in calling for a fundamental restructuring of the world's economic system. (You can read about Sarkozy and Merkel's earlier call, here).

Basically their idea of moral Capitalism is a system heavy on international regulation that takes into consideration the needs of the developing world in policy decisions - a vast departure from the laissez-faire, bare knuckles style of Capitalism promoted by the United States these past few decades.

Sarkozy and Merkel (and now apparently Brown as well) have argued that the version of the Capitalist system championed by the United States has let the world down, because it put earning a quick profit, by any means necessary, for a select minority over steady, sustainable growth that benefited a large swath of society. The tipping point has been the meltdown of the subprime loan market, which has led to economic crises across Europe, and has brought some countries, like Iceland, to bankruptcy. The subprime market, they argue, never would have developed to the gargantuan size that it did if there had been effective oversight of the system.

The $50-billion ponzi scheme run by Bernie Madoff and the obscenely large compensation packages paid out to executives in the banking industry, while their financial empires collapsed around them, haven’t helped endear Wall Street-style Capitalism to the rest of the world either. In recent speeches, Brown also took aim at the epic compensation packages offered to top executives, saying they were another aspect of the system that needed to be changed.

The upcoming meeting of the G20 industrial and developing nations in early April will likely be the coming out party for Europe's idea of moral Capitalism, it will also be a real test of Pres. Obama's ability to justify why America should continue to be considered the leader of the world economy.
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George W. Bush is dead (for about three seconds)

That was the news headline scrolling across TV screens in South Africa, if you were quick enough to read it.

When officials at ETV News realized the faux headline was going out over the air they quickly pulled it and Dubya rejoined the realm of the living. So what happened? Apparently an editor at the station wanted to try out the scrolling news ticker (you know that thing that rolls along the bottom of the screen on CNN and such - except during commercials, since nothing must detract from the purity of the ad experience). As a test headline, they typed in “George Bush is dead”, only instead of hitting the ‘preview’ button that would have only shown the graphic in the studio, they hit the ‘air’ button and sent the fake headline out to thousands of South Africans watching the news (ETV is calling it a ‘misbroadcast’).

Ironically it is now another thing Bush 43 shares in common with Bush 41. When the elder Bush was president CNN received an erronious news flash that he had died. Their on-air anchor had just begun to announce “tragic news regarding President Bush,” when a producer realized the error, shouted “No!” off-camera and abruptly cut off the reading of the news flash - just in time.
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French fighter planes grounded by virus

It's nice to know that I'm not the only one who was felled by a virus recently...

News out of France is that much of the French Navy's air fleet was recently grounded because of a computer virus. The infection though wasn't caused by terrorists or hostile nations, but rather the laziness French naval officers.

It seems that three months ago the French Navy was told to update the security patches on the Windows-based OS that runs their military computers to guard against a new strain of computer virus. But they didn't for reasons that seem to boil down to that they just never got around to it.

So last week when the “Conficker” virus hit computers around the world, the French Navy's intranet was infected as well - the virus coming in through an unsecured part of the network that had never been patched. It quickly swept through the system. The French Navy's advanced Rafale fighters were said to be "nailed to the ground" from the virus, because pilots were unable to upload flight plans onto the Rafale's computers (and at this point I have to ask hasn't anyone in the French Navy been watching Battlestar Galactica?)

All of this chaos finally prompted the French Navy IT department to install the needed patches and supposedly the fleet is once again up and running. It is another tale though of how disturbingly vulnerable the modern military is to cyberattack.
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Monday, February 9, 2009

Kyrgyzstan to kick US out

Looks like its advantage Russia in Central Asia.

Two interesting bits of news have come out of the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan in the past few days - the first is that they, and five other former members of the Soviet Union are joining Russia in putting together a regional rapid reaction military force, the other news is that the Kyrgyz are taking steps to evict the United States from an airbase we currently lease in their country. Manas airbase provides support for US/NATO forces operating in Afghanistan, serving as a transportation hub and a base for refueling aircraft.

But the Kyrgyz have apparently decided that they've had enough of the American presence on their soil and are taking steps to evict the US forces. Some - like Fox News' "Beltway Boys" are painting this as another case of Russia bullying their neighbors. Really though Russia just made the Kyrgyz a better offer - roughly $2 billion package of foreign aid and debt relief.

And the US military helped to make themselves unwanted guests - in 2005 a US guard at Manas shot and killed an unarmed Kyrgyz civilian. The details of the shooting are sketchy and won't ever become any more clear since the military’s reaction to the shooting was to bundle up the soldier involved and spirit him out of the country, much to the ire of the Kyrgyz government which at least wanted a full explanation of the incident.

Then there's the matter of that newly announced security force. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has turned the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), until now a non-descript regional security forum, into a rapid reaction military force. Six Asian nations that were once all part of the Soviet Union (including Kyrgyzstan), will contribute troops to the force, which will be built around a core of Russian paratroopers. The CSTO group will serve as an anti-terror, anti-crime regional security and military force that will also be able to quickly provide aid in response to natural disasters (the region is prone to earthquakes as well as harsh winter weather).

Some regional observers say though that Kyrgyzstan decided to accept Russia's offer to join CSTO after deciding that NATO was just too ineffective to provide similar services.

So what makes Kyrgyzstan's decision to end the US lease at their airbase important? Two things:

First it potentially closes off part of the “Northern Route” into Afghanistan. Most off the supplies used by the US/NATO military forces in Afghanistan come into the country by way of Pakistan. But Pakistan seems to be getting more unstable by the day, not to mention that NATO is doing a terrible job of protecting their own supply convoys, which are attacked on a very regular basis. So with a planned surge in troops coming in 2009, getting men and material into Afghanistan is vitally important. Not having Manas makes that job a good deal harder.

Second, the decisions to join CSTO and kick the US out seems to, for now, move Kyrgyzstan back into the Russian sphere of influence and that's important because of the vast reserves of natural gas buried under the sands of Central Asia. The whole drama last month surrounding the pipeline dispute between Russia and Ukraine that caused shortages through a wide swath of Europe show how closely tied energy supplies are to national security. Russia desperately wants to secure the natural gas reserves of Central Asia to keep the local governments from selling them to a proposed European pipeline project (a.k.a. “Nabucco”). The European consortium backing Nabucco has already struggled to find the billions of dollars in financing it will take to build the pipeline, a task that will only get more difficult if it seems like there’s no gas for the pipeline to pump in the first place. By building ties to the former Soviet Rebublics in Central Asia based on foreign aid and security makes it less likely they’d sell their natural gas to a European syndicate and more likely they would to Russia and their rival pipeline project “South Stream” (which conveniently bypasses Russia’s gas nemesis, Ukraine).

The Kyrgyz government said that their decision to end the US lease on Manas is final, though the American side still holds out hope that they might change their mind…They don’t call it the Great Game* for nothing.

*The term ‘Great Game’ was originally used to describe the strategic struggle in the 19th century between Czarist Russia and the British Empire for control over Central Asia.
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Flu bug

You may have noticed a lack of updates for the past few days. Simple reason: I had the flu and didn't do much besides sleep and watch TV for a few days. But I'm getting back to normal now and the site will as well over the next few days. Thanks for your patience.

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

And Starring Dick Cheney as Dr. Strangelove...

Just in case showing up at the inauguration in a wheelchair wasn't enough, former VP Dick Cheney has completed the transformation into Dr. Strangelove (and if you haven't seen the movie, shame on you) with his latest fear-fueled rant.

Not even a month into the tenure of Pres. Barack Obama, Cheney is making noise about the threat posted to America by terrorists, specifically terrorists packing nuclear bombs, chemical or bioweapons, and then warning about how Obama isn't taking the threat (well, his threat) seriously enough.

Of course the idea of a terrorist with a nuclear bomb is, well, terrifying. But it’s also something a lot more suited to the Tom Clancy’s and Jack Bauer's of the world than to reality. The simple fact is that of all the mass casualty terror attacks this decade - from 9/11 through London, Madrid, Moscow, Beslan (the school massacre in Southern Russia), Bali, right up to Mumbai late last year, none have involved anything more sophisticated than knives, AK-47's and home-made bombs. Why? Because we have seen that those simple things, when wielded by dedicated attackers, can bring a country to its knees.

So in the terrorists’ grisly cost-benefit analysis, WMDs just aren't worth it. Why spend millions of dollars and years of intense effort trying to acquire an a-bomb or a bioweapon when a box cutter will do just nicely? And there's the small matter that WMDs are damn finicky things. North Korea spent years and billions of dollars, turning itself into a pariah state in the process only to produce a nuclear dud (a "fizzle" in technical jargon). Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese doomsday cult, unleashed a Sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway (Sarin is one of the deadliest nerve gases out there), yet only killed 6 people.

WMDs are tricky, expensive things that in the hands of a novice are more likely to kill the attacker than the attackee. But this doesn't stop us from scaring ourselves silly over the idea of terrorists using them.

And that gets back to Cheney. With the Bush Administration legacy in tatters, why not try to scare people about the new guy? Comments like this coming from Cheney though are about as believable as Dr. Strangelove warning about the mineshaft gap with the Soviets (go see the movie, you'll get the reference).
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Monday, February 2, 2009

Iraqi elections - good news, not great

Iraq’s local and regional elections went off relatively smoothly this past weekend, though I’d say it’s a little much to hail them as the rousing triumph for democracy that some would like to paint them as being.

For one thing turnout lagged pretty sizably behind expectations – early estimates put them at 51%, a good deal below the 60% that the government was touting in pre-election estimates. And the Iraqis didn’t even bother to hold elections in the three northern provinces that make up the self-styled Kurdish homeland nor did they hold elections in the city of Kirkuk, which both the Iraqi Arab and Iraqi Kurd factions are claiming as their own (check out this post for a little more detail on the whole Kirkuk conundrum). Elections in these regions will be held “later.”

The elections did go off relatively violence-free, and that is noteworthy considering the anarchical state of Iraq just a couple of years ago. Also noteworthy was the fact that of the 14,000 candidates in the general elections, around 4,000 of them were women, so Iraq deserves kudos for writing laws that guarantee women access to the political process.

But again, this isn’t the triumph that it first appears to be. During the reign of Saddam Hussein, Iraq was arguably the most moderate of all the countries in the region when it came to women’s rights. Women could seek higher education, own property, and work outside the home – they could even be the bosses of men in the workplace. Contrast that with Iraq’s neighbor to the south, Saudi Arabia, where a woman who leaves home without her husband or another male relative invites a public flogging (literally). It wasn’t until Iraq was liberated from Saddam and thrown into the hands of religious extremists, each with their own private militia, that women had to don the veil and stay at home.

The first official results from the election should be made public on Tuesday, and they are expected to strengthen the hand of Iraq’s current Prime Minister (and budding strongman in his own right) Nouri al-Maliki.
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Israel threatens Gaza with disproportionate force (again)

Just two weeks after Israel’s military campaign wrapped up in Gaza and already the rockets are starting to fall again on Israeli towns in the south. So far only a handful (four at last count) have been launched and none have caused any real damage or injury (except maybe to the notion that Israel won the war). But that hasn’t stopped Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert from warning of dire consequences. “We've said that if there is rocket fire against the south of the country, there will be a disproportionate Israeli response to the fire on the citizens of Israel and its security forces,” Olmert said.

Will be disproportionate force? I thought that already happened…

Olmert’s bluster overshadowed an announcement from Egypt that Hamas has agreed, in principle, to a long-term truce agreement with Israel. News agencies from the region reported a major breakthrough in the talks with Hamas, though the details were sketchy. Really it’s amazing there could have been any progress at all in the negotiations considering that Israel is refusing to talk with Hamas, yet wants them to agree to a truce (this might be a good time to again quote former Israeli PM Yitzak Rabin: “you don’t make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies…”).

And the United States’ relationship with Israel could get even tenser if, as expected, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party wins in the elections next week. Netanyahu has again raised the idea of air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. The problem for the US with this plan is that the most logical route has the Israeli Air Force crossing over Iraq to get to Iran, and refueling in mid-air while they do it. Iraq would never agree to let Israel use their airspace, but Iraq has no air force to speak of, controlling the skies is our job. So, in theory, the USAF could be put in the position of either confronting the Israelis or ignoring their responsibility of patrolling Iraq’s skies and letting them fly through should Israel decide to strike.

Frankly I could see Netanyahu launching an attack on Iran as a way of pressuring the Obama administration to choose sides – either Israel or the Arab world. Hopefully the folks in the White House are having the same thought and are deciding what they’ll do in case that happens.
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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Russians protest from Moscow to Vladivostok

People across Russia turned out to protest against the government’s response to the country’s economic crisis on Saturday. And while the protestors were few in number in relation to the size of the country (a few thousand people in a land of more than 140 million), the fact that there were protests at all is noteworthy since the Kremlin has actively tried to put a lid on public rallies that they don't approve of in advance.

Moscow saw the bulk of the action with several protests going on at once - one led by chess master-turned political activist Garry Kasparov was attacked by a group of unknown masked men wielding clubs, the National Bolshevik Party (an organization banned by the Russian government for alleged ties to extremist groups) met a more formal response with a number of their members getting arrested by riot police before their rally really got started. Not to be outdone, the Communists gathered about 1,000 people to hear party leader Gennady Zyuganov call for an end of capitalism in Russia; while 5-8,000 mostly young people gathered outside the Kremlin in a government-approved counter-rally in favor of Putin and Medvedev's actions in response to the crisis.

Eleven time zones to the east, several thousand people braved blustery winter cold to rally against the Putin/Medvedev government in the port city of Vladivostok. This isn’t the first time the citizens of Vladivostok have taken to the streets recently. Prime Minister Putin’s plan to save Russian auto manufacturers by putting a hefty tariff on cars imported from abroad hit Vladivostok especially hard - the city has a thriving cottage industry in shipping in used cars from Japan. Used imports are popular with Russia’s emerging middle class who can't afford high-priced luxury models like Audis and Mercedes, but regard the domestic offerings as sub-par. Since the tariff went into effect in the middle of January, Vladivostok has seen a 95% drop in the number of cars coming in from Japan. A group of 2,000 people marched through Vladivostok, calling for Putin and Medvedev to step down.

But according to the UK's Sunday Telegraph newspaper there are signs more ominous than a few thousand protestors coming out of Vladivostok. The Telegraph reports that in December two senior officials in Vladivostok defied an order from the Kremlin to send riot police to break up an earlier peaceful protest against the car tariff. When Putin ordered the official in charge of the security forces, Maj. Gen. Andrei Nikolayev to be removed from office, he refused to go. Medvedev, the president, backed Nikolayev’s decision to stay at his post. So Putin was apparently defied not only by a senior government official, Nikolayev, but also his supposed partner in running Russia (the Telegraph claims that Medvedev’s wife, Svetlana, has been pushing him to use the economic crisis as a front for putting some political distance between himself and his mentor, Putin, who has taken personal responsibility for leading Russia out of the crisis).

So it all makes for some interesting subtexts to a collection of relatively small protests, Saturday's “Day of Dissent” had been planned by a collection of opposition groups several weeks in advance, so its not quite the same as people spontaneously taking to the streets. But it is a rare show of public anger with the government, something that has been largely absent in the past few years. It's important to note that recent polls still had more than 80% of Russians saying they support Putin and the government's economic policies. But Russia is suffering from the global economic crunch just like much of the rest of the world. And with unemployment and inflation rising in Russia, but world oil prices (the main engine of the Russian economy) not, the chances are good that the public’s dissatisfaction will grow. And the public at-large isn’t likely to be happy with the Kremlin’s choice of approved dissident groups - which we can assume is the Communist Party, since their rally was allowed to go on while Kasparov's Another Russia and the National Bolshevik Party’s were interrupted by either the police or mysterious groups of masked men. The Communists are a safe opposition front for the Kremlin since their support tends to hover around 10% in national elections, and many of their members are older people who have been with the party since Soviet times.

Saturday’s Day of Dissent likely won’t be the last for Russia in the near future. How the government responds to future actions will be key to how the country manages to weather the crisis. And if the Telegraph is right that there is a split brewing between Medvedev and Putin, then things could get really interesting...
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