Sunday, May 31, 2009

Happy Blondes Day!

Apparently May 31st is Blondes Day - or at least it will be Blondes Day if officials in Latvia have anything to say about it.

Actually Blondes Day was a bid by some folks in Latvia to cheer their country up. Latvia has been crushed by the global recession - it's the worst hit member of all the 27 nations in the European Union and Latvians can expect to see their economy shrink by one-sixth this year alone.

So what better way to lift the nation's spirits than to strike up the band and have a few hundred young blonde-haired women parade through the streets of Riga? (AFP was kind enough to take some pictures) In addition to the parade there was also a fashion show, evening ball and blonde golf tournament - all held for a good cause, proceeds of the events were donated to programs serving children across Latvia.

Organizers hope that May 31st will officially become Blondes Day.
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Abkhazia leader questions Russia's involvement

The Vice-President of the breakaway Georgian territory and would-be independent nation of Abkhazia resigned last week citing, in part, the Abkhaz government's coziness with Russia.

Raul Khadjimba, now the former Vice-President, stepped down to protest the way the government of President Sergei Bagapsh is oppressing the political opposition in Abkhazia – a land of 300,000 people along the Black Sea sandwiched between Russia and Georgia. Khadjimba also said his efforts in fighting corruption in Abkhazia were being stifled by Bagapsh's government.

He went on to criticize agreements signed between Abkhazia and Russia that put Russia in charge of protecting Abkhazia's border with Georgia, saying the agreements were never debated by the government. Abkhazia has also signed agreements allowing Russia to base troops at former Soviet-era bases on their territory and to renovate a port for use by Russia's Black Sea Naval Fleet.

And Russia is also busy signing economic agreements with Abkhazia as well - including a deal signed last week with Russia's Rosneft to prospect for gas and oil reserves off Abkhazia's Black Sea coastline.

Raul Khadjimba may challenge Bagapsh for the presidency in the next round of elections in 2010.
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Sarkozy's D-Day Disaster

You have to hand it to French President Nicolas Sarkozy for turning what should have been a quaint celebration of a military victory into a public relations nightmare. Sixty-five years ago a vast armada of American, British and Canadian troops stormed onto the beaches of Normandy, France to liberate Europe from the Nazis.

Apparently though, that's news to Sarkozy, who thought next Saturday's commemoration of D-Day should be a “Franco-American event” - he made a point of inviting Barack Obama, but failed to invite the heads of state of either Great Britain or Canada. That has left the Brits feeling, as the English would say, “bloody pissed off.”

Queen Elizabeth II is said to be furious, though the Palace officially denies this. Snubbing the Queen of all people is doubly insulting though since unlike her fellow heads of state, Elizabeth actually served in the war, driving an ambulance through the streets of Blitz-stricken London. It’s a fact that prompted London's Daily Mail to ask: “What did YOUR dad do in the war Sarkozy?” (apparently Pere Sarkozy was an aristocrat who, as the Soviet army advanced on his native Hungary, fled to Germany, fearing the Soviets would brand him as a Nazi collaborator - not quite the heroic service put in by Her Majesty).

Critics say that Sarkozy skimped on the invitations so that he could have Pres. Obama all to himself to hopefully see a bounce in his own sagging poll ratings in France as he basked in the glow of the ever-popular Obama. But leaders in Canada and Britain shouldn't feel too bad since, according to the Times of London, Sarkozy also snubbed officials within his own French government as well - leaving domestic political rivals off the D-Day guest list as well.
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Politics, lack of vision muddle US space efforts

NASA announced on Friday that it had signed a $300 million deal with Russia's space agency Roscosmos to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). It's a good thing too since without the deal after next year, NASA would have no way to get astronauts back and forth to the ISS.

That's because NASA is planning to retire the Space Shuttle - America's only manned space vehicle - at the end of 2010. Its replacement, the Orion, isn't scheduled for its first manned flight until 2014, and that project is said to be running behind schedule. So even as NASA is dedicating all of the remaining Space Shuttle flights to finishing the construction of the ISS, it won't have a way to send astronauts to and fro - hence the need to rely on Roscosmos as a taxi service.

It's typical of the lack of long-term planning and political will that has hampered the American space program since the Moon landings in 1969. Take the International Space Station for example. The space station idea goes back to the Reagan administration, only then it was dubbed space station "Freedom" that would have been an American-only affair (not to mention as large as two football fields). But there was little will among Congress to pay "Freedom's" huge cost, so the project was scaled back and eventually morphed into the International Space Station.

In the early 90's NASA struck a deal with Russia to gain access to Russia's expertise in operating orbiting space stations - something the Russians had been doing since the 1970's. NASA even contributed modules to Russia's Mir space station - the crown jewel of the Russian space program. But NASA soon took to viewing Mir as a drain on its resources and as distraction from the ISS, so they pressured Russia into abandoning it and backing the ISS - which Russia finally did in 2001, sending Mir to a fiery plunge into the South Pacific.

But now, even as NASA is rushing to finish the ISS, a task projected to wrap up in 2011, they are already making plans to abandon it as well, just four years later in 2015. The reason? NASA's interest now is in going back to the Moon and maybe then onto Mars, space stations, once vital to NASA's plans, now seem like a drain on resources (like Mir was seen to be in the late 90's).

And there's the problem - space projects, like going to Mars say, can take decades - but NASA doesn't plan and Congress certainly doesn't fund projects in terms of decades. So NASA acts in a herky-jerky manner - rush to finish the ISS then quickly abandon it - that in the end doesn't accomplish much, yet spends tens of billions of dollars in the process.

Meanwhile Russia is floating an idea for recycling on a grand scale - if NASA does abandon ISS in 2015, Russia is drawing up plans to pull their parts of the ISS off and use them to create their own just-Russian space station (likely to be named Mir-2). Russian officials say that their experience from Mir (Mir-1 that is) show that by replacing components as they wear out, a space station could, in theory, operate indefinitely.
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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Russia hands over suspected pirates

One of the stories involving Somali pirates apparently ended rather quietly earlier in the month when Russia turned more than two dozen suspected pirates over to government officials from Iran and Pakistan.

Last month the Russian destroyer Admiral Panteleyev captured a motherload of 29 pirates after intercepting a pirate vessel that they believed a day earlier had attacked a Russian tanker off the coast of Somalia. But this presented Russian officials with a big problem - what to do with them?

The suspected pirates claimed to be from Iran and Pakistan (which also raises the possibility that the 'pirates' were really hostages being held by the actual Somali pirates), so in the end Russian authorities decided just to send the men back to their respective countries. The Russian Prosecutor General’s office though has given their support to a proposal from President Dmitri Medvedev that an international tribunal be established to put captured pirates on trial.
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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Have protests in Georgia hit a turning point?

For two months now thousands of protesters have occupied the center of Tbilisi, demanding the resignation of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. So far though Saakashvili has ignored their calls, stating just a few days ago that he had no plans to leave office before his term ends in 2013.

And now, the first cracks are appearing in what had until now been a largely united front among Georgia's opposition politicians. Overnight on Wednesday opposition leaders split between moderates wanting to continue rallies outside government buildings and those urging more 'direct action' - namely blocking the country's main east-west railroad. In the end, the activists won out, shutting down rail service to the capital for several hours on Wednesday, but only after opposition leaders had a public fight - on-stage at a rally in front of the parliament building.

Pro-Saakashvili forces are already trying to capitalize on the feud between the opposition's leaders. Tbilisi Mayor (and Saakashvili ally) Giorgi Ugulava said that the railroad shutdown showed that the opposition was now "hostage" to their more radical elements, which raises the idea that the so-far largely peaceful protests could turn violent.

And what about the target of these protests? While tens of thousands were gathering at Tbilisi's soccer stadium to demand his resignation, Saakashvili was reported to be in another soccer stadium - in Rome watching the UEFA Cup final between Barcelona and Manchester United. It's a move that shows Saakashvili is either a political genius (what better way to show you're not concerned over opposition protests then by leaving the country for a soccer game?) or that he, as some in the opposition claim, is in fact nuts. Georgian opposition leader Eka Beselia said Saakashvili's trip shows that "the country lacks a president simply because Saakashvili is only thinking about his personal wellbeing." Opposition leaders have long questioned Saakashvili's mental fitness, citing his ill-conceived decision to go to war with Russia last summer over South Ossetia as an indication of his mental instability.

Saakashvili though could find himself under pressure from a higher authority - Ilia II, Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church on Thursday called the situation in the country "explosive" and said the two sides should either begin immediate negotiations or that the country should hold snap elections. But in a move that angered the opposition, Patriarch Ilia II went on to ask what had Georgia gain by ousting two of its presidents since declaring independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, a statement seen by them as a quiet endorsement of Saakashvili.
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E-recycling's dirty face

The Guardian is running an interesting series of articles under the title "Greenwash, Exposing False Environmental Claims." The target of their latest article is the rapidly-growing electronics recycling industry.

While many electronics manufacturers have recently tried to put on a green face by launching recycling programs for your old TVs and PCs, much of this hi-tech gear winds up being dumped in the slums of cities across Africa, India and China, where desperately poor people hack them apart trying to recover trace amounts of valuable metals contained by the devices (not exactly my idea of ‘recycling’). But at the same time they're gathering bits of gold, silver and copper, these workers are being exposed to toxic materials like lead and mercury that are also used in producing modern electronics. And once all the valuable bits have been harvested (often by child workers who of course lack any kind gear to protect them from the toxic materials), the smashed and burned electronic leftovers wind up permanently littering the landscape (60 Minutes also did an in-depth report on e-waste last November).

The Guardian says that PC-maker Dell announced a ban on exporting their used equipment to the developing world unless the gear is in working order - but so far Dell is the exception not the rule when it comes to keeping their merchandise from becoming someone else's environmental problem.
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NK: lessons of war and peace

So as things seem to go from bad to worse on the Korean peninsula following North Korea's apparent nuclear test on Monday, the threat of military action is looming larger, driven both by the wild belligerence of the North Koreans, and foreign policy critics who insist that more sanctions against the 'Hermit Kingdom' are just a waste of time.

On Wednesday a North Korean official said that their country was no longer bound by the armistice that stopped the Korean War in 1953, after the United States and South Korea announced plans to search ships bound for the North that they suspected could be carrying material for their nuclear weapons or ballistic missile programs. At the same time, commentators - many from the neoconservative school of international relations - are popping up on TV urging Pres. Obama to take a 'harder line' (i.e. military action) against North Korea.

But's Danger Room blog notes that not only would winning a war against North Korea be a long, brutal process, but also that winning the eventual peace would make Afghanistan and Iraq look like a walk in the park by comparison. Keep in mind that North Korea already has millions of people on the brink of starvation, a situation that would become far worse after a war. And North Korea is the world's only Stalinist state - its citizens have suffered under a brutally oppressive regime for six decades, one that dealt with any opposition, real or imagined, by sending the offender to a labor camp (or just shooting them), making North Korea not very fertile ground for a quick switch to democracy.

So while diplomacy with North Korea may seem like a pointless exercise, going to war doesn't seem like a viable option either.
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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Reset Button Pt. Deux: Biden goes to Serbia

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced with much fanfare (and a wrongly-worded prop) that the US wanted to 'reset' relations with Russia. Last week Vice President Joe Biden jumped on the reset bandwagon and tried to mend fences with another country - Serbia.

US-Serbian relations have been in poor shape since the United States prompted NATO to launch a two-month aerial bombing campaign against the Serbs to force them to halt military action in Kosovo in 1999. Those relations were further strained last year when the United States was one of the leading members of the international community to recognize Kosovo's claim of independence.

So Biden traveled to the Balkans to show the flag and tell the locals that the US was interested in turning the page. I talked with a Serbian friend this weekend who told me though that folks in Belgrade were more annoyed that large parts of their city were locked-down for the visit of the Vice-President of the United States than they were interested in what he had to say. Biden's meeting with Serbian President Boris Tadic didn't fare much better.

Biden encouraged Serbia to join the European community (something most Serbs want at this point anyway), but said that the US and Serbia would have to 'agree to disagree' over the status of Kosovo - Serbia, which views Kosovo as an integral part of their country, adamantly refuses to recognize Kosovo's independence.

I've expressed my opinion a number of times on this site that recognizing Kosovo's independence was a big mistake - that it's doubtful Kosovo is a viable independent state and that its current leadership includes former terrorists and possible war criminals - so I won't rehash that argument here. Biden's subtext to Tadic was though that Kosovo wasn't going to give up their 'independence', so Serbia might as well just accept it (Biden might want to present that same argument to his allies in the Georgian government about Abkhazia and South Ossetia).

But that attitude could cause problems in another of the Biden Tour's stops - Bosnia. There the Vice-President endorsed the idea of a multi-ethnic state in Bosnia, though infighting among the country's three ethnic groups: Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks), Croats and Serbs have brought the government to a standstill. And thanks to the example of Kosovo, the Bosnian Serbs have talked about leaving the Bosnian Federation all together and seeking unification with Serbia.

And the United States’ renewed interest in the Balkans isn't sitting well in the capitals of Europe, according to the Guardian newspaper in Britain. According to them, the United States is quite worried that Bosnia could dissolve into another civil war and is prodding the Europeans to get more involved; meanwhile the Europeans see Bosnia as a governance problem and believe that despite some tough talk, none of the three sides really has an appetite for a new round of conflict.
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Kosovo driving out minorities - report

Meanwhile, Kosovo's Albanian-led government is being accused of, in effect, driving out a whole host of minority groups – that is the conclusion of a new report by the Minority Rights Group International (MGI).

MGI says that 'lack of will' among Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leadership to crackdown on discrimination against non-Serbian minority groups in Kosovo is prompting them to leave the state for good. The ethnic groups affected include: Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Turks, Croats, Roma (Gypsies), Ashkali, Egyptians, and Gorani - a collection of minorities who make up about 5% of Kosovo's population. Ethnic Serbs make up about another 10%, with the remaining majority of Kosovars being ethnic Albanians.

The report says that the minority groups are poorly treated by the Kosovar Albanian majority and that the government is reluctant to enforce existing anti-discrimination laws because of the perception that these groups sided with Serbia during the civil war in Kosovo. MGI also blasts the international community for only focusing on the Serbs when discussing minority rights in Kosovo.
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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Border sealed after Uzbek unrest

Something odd is brewing in Central Asia.

The former Soviet state of Kyrgyzstan sealed their border with neighboring Uzbekistan (another former member of the Soviet Union) after a suicide bomber reportedly attacked an Uzbek police checkpoint.

What makes this incident interesting though is that it occurred in the Andijan region of Uzbekistan. In 2005 Andijan was the site of a bloody massacre after Uzbek troops opened fire on a massive public protest. Uzbek President Islam Karimov tried to pass off the killings as a military action against Islamic terrorists, but foreign news services and non-governmental organizations operating in the region reported that the troops in fact opened fire on a large group of civilians who had taken to the streets in protest. Outside estimates put the civilian death toll at between 400 and 600, though the government only officially admitted to a few dozen deaths in the Andijan action.

So far it’s unclear what exactly happened at the border today. Officials in Kyrgyzstan reported hearing a loud blast, followed by the sounds of a gunfight. The state-controlled media in Uzbekistan said that a suicide bomber caused the explosion and that it was part of a "failed terrorist operation."

But the Uzbek government tried to pass off the events in Andijan in 2005 as terrorist activity as well, so what's the real story today is anyone's guess. President Karimov regularly makes the lists of the world's most oppressive leaders and brands his political opponents as Islamic terrorists as a matter of course. US-Uzbek relations suffered after the Andijan massacre, but have steadily improved since as the United States is relying more and more on Central Asia as a route to move supplies and troops into Afghanistan.
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Siberian piranha?

A fisherman near the city of Barnaul in Siberia got a pretty unwelcome surprise when he hauled a live piranha out of the Ob River.

No it wasn't an escapee from some crazy Soviet-era bioweapons lab, but rather an aquarium fish someone apparently dumped in the river. According to Russia's Itar-Tass news agency, piranhas are a popular aquarium fish in Russia, but scientists from a regional university told residents along the river not to worry, the waters of the Ob River are too cold for the piranhas to breed.

I'm kind of surprised by this story, since it just so happens that in college I had a friend who had a pet piranha. And despite their fearsome looks (and up-close they do look pretty fearsome), piranhas are pretty delicate fish, use to very warm waters (they do come from the Amazon), so forget breeding, I'm surprised the poor fish was even alive and swimming in the Ob - winter didn't end all that long ago in Siberia, and I can't imagine the Ob has warmed up a lot yet.

But amazingly, according to Itar-Tass, this isn't the first time this year that a Russian fisherman has caught a piranha; another was caught in a reservoir in the Kemerovo region in April.
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Monday, May 25, 2009

Update: Was North Korean Nuke a hoax?

Is it possible that Kim Jong-Il is trying to pull a fast one on the world?

According to both the Los Angeles Times and's Dangerroom blog (that covers tech-related military and security issues), a more careful look at the data gathered about last night's North Korean nuclear test show the bomb was smaller than first estimated - less than a quarter of the initial estimate of a Hiroshima-sized 20 kilotons.

North Korea's first nuke test back in 2006 was finally estimated to be only about one kiloton - the equivalent of 1,000 tons of TNT. The small size led many to speculate that the test bomb was largely a dud, but there was some thought that perhaps the North Koreans were just trying to make it look like they tested a nuclear device by packing an abandoned mine shaft with hundreds of tons of conventional explosives.

Last night's test is now estimated to be four times larger than the 2006 blast, coming in at about four kilotons, a large explosion no doubt, but still pretty puny by nuclear weapons standards. And Dangerroom points out that it is possible to create a similarly-sized boom with conventional explosives, the United States did just that with the "Minor Scale" test blast in 1985.

So are the North Koreans trying to fake a nuclear test (or perhaps fake a second nuclear test), or do they have a weapons program that's just not very good? It's yet another puzzle in a land full of mysteries.
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The many problems caused by Uzbek cotton

The Guardian reported yesterday that a group of top British retail outlets are boycotting cotton products from the former Soviet state of Uzbekistan in Central Asia because of their child labor practices.

Every year Uzbek authorities yank hundreds of thousands of children out of school and force them to harvest cotton in brutal conditions. Uzbekistan is one of the world's largest cotton exporters and the 'white gold' is a key part of the Uzbek economy. But that wealth comes on the back of children forced into the labor-intensive cotton harvest.

Previously it was considered impossible to tell what cotton came from what country - large textile mills can use cotton from many sources. But according to the Guardian new technology enables manufacturers to easily trace where their cotton comes from, and now major retailers like Tesco and the Gap have decided not to buy theirs from Uzbekistan.

And child labor isn't the only negative about the Uzbek cotton industry; it is also largely responsible for one of the world's biggest ecological disasters - the disappearance of the Aral Sea.

The Aral Sea was once one of the world's largest inland seas, supporting a unique ecology and a thriving fishing industry. But a decision by the Soviet Union decades ago, to turn the arid plains of Central Asia into a center of cotton-based agriculture (a stupid decision since cotton is a crop that requires a lot of water to grow) prompted authorities to divert much of the flow of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, which once fed the Aral Sea. The result has been that the Aral has shrunk by as much as 90% in the past few decades, causing the fishing sector to collapse and spawning dust storms that are blamed for health problems in many (formerly) seaside communities.

Uzbek authorities know about the problem, yet refuse to give up the lucrative cotton trade. Perhaps the growing boycott over child labor might prompt the Uzbeks to rethink what they grow and how they grow it.
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Breaking: North Korea goes 1-for-2 in Nuke tests

So you might have woken up this morning to the surprising news that North Korea conducted its second nuclear test overnight. And unlike their first nuclear test back in 2006, this second one seems not to have been a dud - last night's blast was in the range of 10 to 20 kilotons, roughly the size of the bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima - small by modern standards, but still big enough. The North Korean media said that this new test was at “a new higher level in terms of its explosive power and technology of its control,” their way I suppose of saying it didn't fizzle like the first NK nuke.

Of course their test has been widely condemned by the international community, with a call for a special meeting of the UN Security Council this afternoon, but I am a little surprised at how there is markedly less hysteria over this nuclear test than there have been over previous North Korean weapons tests. Even the folks over at Fox News weren't terribly panicked over the actions of the North Koreans (though they raised the idea a couple of times that North Korea might sell a nuke to al-Qaeda). The Associated Press published a good quote from Russian translator Alexei Sergeyev, based in Vladivostok (just 85 miles from the North Korean border), who summed up the North Korean weapons program nicely: “their nuclear program does not have military aims — their only aim is to frighten the U.S. and receive more humanitarian aid as a result.”

The main reaction to the North Korean test is that this is simply another weapons-based temper tantrum thrown by Kim Jong-Il in an attempt to get the global community to once again come back to the negotiating table and give his country desperately needed aid. A few analysts I heard have though raised a more interesting possibility, that the nuke test was really part of an internal power-struggle in North Korea.

For a good part of last year there was a lot of speculation that Kim was in fact dead. He's not, but it is clearly apparent that he suffered some sort of serious health problem (likely a stroke) - the once plump Kim now looks gaunt and frail. The belief is that his poor health has sparked a struggle among the North Korean elites over who will follow Kim once he does finally pass away. Kim's oldest son, Kim Jong-nam, should be his successor, but he fell out of favor after trying to sneak into Japan to go to Disneyland Asia (really); Dear Leader Kim is now said to favor his third son Kim Jong-un to follow in his footsteps, but this would mean a radical break from tradition in tradition-bound North Korea, and there are questions as to whether the younger Kim has a real base of power among chiefs in the military and Communist Party.

So some think last night's test may have really been an exercise of political power within the bizarre world of the North Korean leadership. Whatever the reason, the test is sure to provoke another round of diplomatic hand wringing and wild speculation about what the world's most secretive state will try next.
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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Nicaraguans hit by currency surprise

According to last week Nicaraguans were taken by surprise by the Central Bank of Nicaragua's issuing new currency notes (for those keeping track at home the Nicaraguan currency is the Cordoba). Time interviewed a few people on the street who all were wary of the new Cordoba notes, including business-owners who were trying to pass along the new Cordobas to unsuspecting customers as quickly as possible.

It's odd though that Nicaraguans would be caught by surprise since with just a little searching on the Internet I found this post from the site ("Breaking news about international paper money" according to its masthead) that announced the new Cordobas back in January of 2008. I'll have to assume then that the Nicaraguan government just didn't do a great public outreach/PR campaign about the new money and that Banknotenews is really on top of the ball for all things currency-related.

Perhaps part of the problem too is the Nicaraguan government's odd decision to issue only about half of the Cordoba denominations in the new format - printed on an odd, plastic-feeling polymer, which seems to be getting uniformly negative reviews from the citizens, while still printing the other half on paper. Whatever the reason - again according to - the new bills are sparking a mini-economic boom in Nicaragua as people, unsure about the new currency and wary about past government economic policies, are trying to spend the new Cordobas as fast as they get them.
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Kenyans fight political crisis with humor

I have to hand it to the Kenyans for finding some really innovative ways to protest the ineptitude of their government. First, women's groups in Kenya organized a sex boycott to force their squabbling politicians to focus on their country's problems, now the political mess has spawned a satirical puppet show, which is becoming the hottest thing on Kenyan TV.

The XYZ Show, which debuted this week, lampoons the nation's politicians. At first you wouldn't think that Kenyan politics would be a laughing matter - allegations that President Mwai Kibaki rigged his reelection, sparked weeks of bloody fighting between his faction and supporters of challenger Raila Odinga in late 2007; the two sides only averting a likely civil war when a power-sharing deal was struck that installed Mr. Odinga as prime minister.

But since then political infighting between their sides has ground the country to a halt, and the actions of the politicians seems ready-made for lampooning, from Pres. Kibaki calling a press conference to deny he'd taken a second wife, to PM Odinga complaining about the lack of a red carpet and private toilet for him at a state function. Both naturally became fodder for The XYZ Show.

As the AP article notes, African leaders have traditionally taken a dim view of their actions being used for political satire, but the owners of Citizen, the TV channel airing The XYZ Show, has pledged to stand behind the program and give it editorial freedom in its content. How long Kenyans will be content to just laugh at the buffoonery of their political leaders, though, is another question.
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Friday, May 22, 2009

Women fight for worker's rights in Russia

I came across two articles on Thursday about women taking some very different approaches in their fight for worker's rights in Russia.

First is the story of Anna Klevets who applied for the job of driving trains in the St. Petersburg subway system only to be told that the job was too ‘dangerous’ for a woman. In fact a law passed in 2000 in Russia lists more than 400 jobs government officials deemed unfit for women. Klevets lost on an appeal against the 2000 law at Russia’s Supreme Court, but is now taking a new case to a court in St. Petersburg looking to change the working conditions in the city’s metro, to make them safer and thus, according to the 2000 law, women-friendly.

One job that women can hold in Russia is that of stewardess, though that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get paid for your labor. That’s the problem facing a group of 11 women formerly employed by the now-bankrupt Siberian airline KrasAir.

KrasAir went bankrupt last October, owing its employees 340 million rubles (or $10 million) in back wages. The stewardesses in question say they're each owed eight months’ worth of back wages. There have been conflicting stories over whether or not KrasAir has put money into an account to pay their former employees, so the women launched a hunger strike in protest. So far the hunger strike has been going on for a week, with the women vowing not to eat until their paid the money they’re owed.
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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Persecuted: Carrie Prejean and Aung San Suu Kyi?

So unless you’ve been in a coma or on Mars or something like that, you’ve heard the saga of Carrie Prejean, the Miss USA contestant who sparked a huge debate across the country because of her answer to a question about gay marriage during the interview portion of the pageant.

Prejean’s supporters have (repeatedly) claimed that she is being persecuted for her stand against gay marriage based on her, as she described them, Christian beliefs. It’s a point of view that conveniently overlooks a few facts, namely: that Prejean lied, several times, about posing for nearly-nude photographs; violated the terms of her contract with the Miss California pageant by failing to make personal appearances; and violated terms of her contract again by using her Miss California title as a platform for her own political agenda.

Nor have Prejean’s supporters explained how exactly she’s being persecuted – usually ‘persecuted’ means that you’re paying some kind of price for your actions. It’s hard though to see what price Carrie Prejean is paying. Despite multiple violations of her contract, she’s kept her Miss California title. And thanks to her gay marriage answer, she’s become a minor celebrity, even guest-hosting an hour of Fox News’ morning program – now, do you even know the name of the woman who won the Miss USA pageant?

If you really want to see persecution in action, then look no further than Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent most of the past two decades under house arrest. Her crime? Winning an election back in 1990 that should have made her the country’s Prime Minister. But Burma’s powerful military decided that they wanted nothing to do with democracy, so they stepped in and put Suu Kyi under custody, where she has remained for the past 19 years, as perhaps the world’s most famous political prisoner.

But now thanks to the actions of one self-styled ‘peace activist’/garden-variety nutbag, Suu Kyi could now very well wind up in a real prison. A few weeks ago, an American, John Yettaw, decided to swim across the lake on the edge of Suu Kyi’s property and barged into her house to, according to John Yettaw, interview her. Suu Kyi, fearing the reaction of Burma’s junta, begged him to leave – for two days.

In the end, it still wound up costing Suu Kyi. The junta found out about the ‘visit’, and accused Suu Kyi of violating the terms of her house arrest, putting her on trial, again.

So if Carrie Prejean and her supporters want to see what persecution really looks like, they should learn about Suu Kyi, then come talk to us about the persecution of Ms. Carrie. Or better yet, don’t.
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Dowd kicks another hole in the Times' credibility

It hasn't been a good decade for the New York Times - first writers Jayson Blair and Judith Miller kicked some huge holes in the paper's credibility with their slipshod (or outright fictional) reporting, then the Times was hit by the economic downturn that's driven some of the country's biggest daily newspapers into bankruptcy. Now another of their writers is being called out for plagiarism.

Columnist Maureen Dowd now admits (sort of) that she lifted parts of her Sunday column from a blog post last Thursday authored by Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall. Dowd's first claimed that she never read Marshall's blog and that the parts of her column in question came from a conversation with a friend of hers. Then the Huffington Post did a side-by-side comparison showing an entire paragraph of Dowd's column was basically a word-for-word copy of Marshall's post, wrecking her ‘friend’ excuse.

Dowd has apologized and said that the Times will properly credit Marshall in their online edition. Frankly, that explanation is BS - if she just 'forgot' to credit Marshall for an entire paragraph of her column then why this story about writing that graph after talking to her friend?

All I know is that if I had pulled a stunt like that back in journalism school and was caught like Dowd has been, I would have been kicked out of school. For the sake of its credibility, the Times should do the same thing to Dowd.
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Monday, May 18, 2009

Today in history: Volcanoes, Moon Men

It turns out that Monday is the anniversary of two big science events in recent history: The Apollo 10 mission to the Moon, and the eruption of Washington state's Mount St. Helens.

Apollo 10 was the dress rehearsal for the Apollo 11 mission that would land on the Moon two months later (the BBC published a good history of the Apollo 10 mission here). The main mission of Apollo 10 was to prove that the Command Module (the part of the spaceship carrying the astronauts) could successfully launch and recover the Lunar Lander (which would actually touchdown on the Moon). Docking two spacecraft outside of Earth's orbit had never been accomplished before, which is why NASA opted to try everything out in Apollo 10, before attempting to land on the Moon in the Apollo 11 mission.

The BBC notes that the whole concept of using two ships - an orbiter and a lander - to reach the moon was first proposed by a Russian named Yuri Kondratyuk back in 1916. It's ironic since the US and Soviet Union were in quite a race to the Moon during the 1960s; and it was far from a sure thing that the United States would get there first.

The Soviet Union proved that it had a ship capable of sending a cosmonaut to the Moon and back in 1968 with the Zond 5 mission that carried a menagerie of animals on the voyage - the first living things to make the trip. But the Soviets trailed in developing a ship to actually land on the lunar surface. The Soviet program suffered in the mid-1960s from the loss its chief designer, Sergei Korolev, and its chief patron, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev; had they not lost these two men, it is quite possible that the Russians could have been the first to travel around the Moon at least.

Meanwhile Monday was also the anniversary of the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. The eruption knocked more than 1,000 feet off the top of the mountain, killed 57 people and blanketed much of the Pacific Northwest with inches of volcanic ash. I've talked with people who lived in the Northwest at the time of the eruption and they all say the ash was incredibly hard to clean up - it was so fine it got into everything, sweeping it was nearly useless since it would blow into ash clouds once a broom touched it and would then settle back down on whatever surface you just tried to clean.

That's quite a lot of history for a Monday.
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Sunday, May 17, 2009

If these places are becoming the 'new Afghanistan', can't we just forget about the old one?

In the past few weeks I've read several analysis pieces claiming that not one, but two countries (Yemen and Eritrea) are vying to becoming the "new Afghanistan" - the new home base for al-Qaeda's terror operations. Meanwhile, Gen. Petraeus, the man leading America's 'War on Terror' stated last week that al-Qaeda's leadership has, in fact, abandoned Afghanistan in favor of Pakistan. And, according to Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zadari, al-Qaeda may very well have relocated without their most famous member, Osama bin Laden, whom Zadari, based on the intelligence reports he's seen, believes is actually dead.

So if al-Qaeda has given up on Afghanistan, why can't we just do the same?

Right now the United States is in the process of pouring thousands of troops into Afghanistan to prop up a shaky NATO-led security mission and to take the fight to a resurgent Taliban. The problem is that the Taliban wasn't the reason we got involved in Afghanistan; we went charging in to destroy al-Qaeda in the wake of their launching the 9/11 terror attacks. The Taliban found themselves the target of our military assault simply because they played host to al-Qaeda, and because they refused to turn bin Laden over to us in a timely manner (the Taliban, steeped in centuries of Pashtun custom requiring a host to protect their 'guests' asked for proof of bin Laden's involvement in 9/11 before turning him over, something at the time we weren't willing to give them).

Despite their 11th century worldview and their oppression of women, pre-9/11, the US didn't really have a problem with the Taliban. In fact in May of 2001 then-Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that the US was giving the Taliban a $43 million grant as a reward for their efforts in wiping out Afghanistan's opium-producing poppy crop - not the kind of gift you usually give to someone you plan to go to war with just a few months down the road.

No, the US went into Afghanistan specifically to wipeout al-Qaeda, that we had to go through the Taliban to get them was fine with our military leaders; but the Taliban was a sideshow, not the main event. But now nearly eight years have passed since the US began its Afghan mission, while our military commanders talk about engaging the Taliban, al-Qaeda is rarely mentioned anymore, and by most indications, including those from Gen. Petraeus himself, al-Qaeda seems to have left the building.

That's not surprising since if al-Qaeda is still dedicated to bin Laden's vision of a global jihad against the West, Israel and corrupt Islamic leaders in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan - incredibly remote, with little infrastructure or contact with the global community - is just about the worst place to use as your base of operations. Al-Qaeda only wound up there because bin Laden imposed on some old connections he had from fighting in the Afghan-Soviet war and threw around a ton of cash after he was drummed out of his old base, Sudan. Given the chance it makes a lot of sense that al-Qaeda would look to relocate to Yemen (with easy access to Saudi Arabia), or Eritrea (with its long Red Sea coastline), or Pakistan (far more connected to the global community than Afghanistan).

Without al-Qaeda, the United States mission in Afghanistan is basically to be in the middle of a civil war between the incredibly fundamentalist Taliban and the somewhat less fundamentalist, but vastly more corrupt Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai. In seven years Karzai's government has shown little to indicate that they have the ability to either truly unite Afghanistan or decisively defeat the Taliban.

The military has a term for situations like this: "mission creep", it’s when one mission slowly transforms into another and it seldom ends well. We should get back to basics - we went to Afghanistan to eliminate al-Qaeda after their terrorist attack on America, if they've left Afghanistan for greener pastures, then perhaps so should we.
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Do high taxes equal happiness?

It's a question you have to ask following the results of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's world survey of "life satisfaction" a.k.a happiness. Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands finished 1,2,3 in the survey, which prompted's Thomas Kostigen to note that along with all three being Northern European countries, all also pay, by American standards, incredibly high taxes - for example, taxes will gobble up about two-thirds of your average Dane's salary, that’s the kind of level of taxation that would get an American politician tarred and feathered.

But, Kostigen notes, that for those taxes you get an incredibly high level of social services, including, among other things: comprehensive health care (including rehabilitation services and generous disability payments), education, old age pensions, nursing home services and a year's worth of maternity leave.

Nobody likes paying taxes, but what I find even more annoying is to pay taxes and feel like I'm getting nothing in return. Sure my taxes help fund a military that can pound any place on the Earth's surface into dust - let's see Denmark match that; but they don't go towards paying for a national health care or higher education system (my student loan payments can attest to that last one). That gets back to the point Kostigen raises, that taxes don't seem to have the same negative connotation in these European countries because their citizens can actually see the benefits they receive from their taxes. And not having to worry, like their American counterparts, about paying for health insurance or student loans or a number of other social welfare services, seems to make people happier.

Rounding out the OECD's Happy Nations Top Ten were Sweden, Belgium, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland and Norway. The United States finished 11th.
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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Could Bolivia build a tunnel to the Pacific?

Once, a long time ago, Bolivia had a coastline, accessing the Pacific Ocean through the mineral-rich Department of Litoral. But then Bolivia fought a war with neighboring Chile for control of the territory - Bolivia lost not only the war but control over Litoral and access to the sea as well.

Now a trio of Chilean architects have come up with a plan to once again give Bolivia access to the Pacific, via a nearly 100-mile long tunnel to an artificial island. The proposed tunnel would snake along the Peru-Chile border, delivering road and rail traffic to an artificial island created in the Pacific from soil dug out of the tunnel's path. The tunnel could also carry pipelines for oil and natural gas as well.

There are a few problems with the plan though, beyond the obvious ones of the outrageous cost and technical difficulties involved in building a 100-mile tunnel: the exact border between Peru and Chile is still under dispute, and the new island would be smack in the middle of both countries territorial waters, another area of disagreement between the two sides.

The architects though say that these are political problems that can be solved and point out that other cross-border tunnels around the world have been vehicles to bring nations together.
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Russia: energy resources could spark future wars

Securing sources of energy could lead to wars in the near future and the oil and gas rich regions of the Arctic, Central Asia and Caspian Sea may be the battlefields according to Russia's National Security Strategy paper released this week.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed off on the report, which goes on to say that Russia must be prepared for the scenario where nations resort to the use of military force to secure needed oil and gas reserves. Russia borders all three of the energy-rich regions cited in the strategy.

A commentary on the report posted by the Voice of America keyed in on another segment of the strategy paper where Russia says that expansion of NATO to countries neighboring Russia is "unacceptable" - the United States so far has been a strong backer of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. The continuing plans for a US-backed anti-missile shield to be based in Poland and the Czech Republic was also cited as a "security threat" to Russia in the report.

But despite those hurdles, other observers said that the National Security Strategy showed positive signs of Russia wanting a peaceful, constructive relationship with its former Cold War adversaries, the report itself even states that Russia seeks an "equal and full-fledged strategic partnership with the United States on the basis of coinciding interests." Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs magazine said, "the absence of tough rhetoric (in the report) reflects expectations that new agreements with the United States could be reached." He added that after years of tough talk from the Bush administration, it has taken Russian officials some time to believe that US-Russian relations could actually change in any meaningful way under President Obama. (See also this post about European-Russian perceptions and how they affect international relations.)

The Canwest News Service this week published the details of a meeting between Russian and Canadian officials that show progress between the two sides over the Arctic region. It’s estimated that a quarter of all the undiscovered oil and gas deposits left on Earth lie under the Arctic Ocean. With sea ice retreating as a result of global warming, the view of the Arctic is quickly changing from one of a frozen wasteland to a potential economic bonanza.

But that change in attitude has caused a rise in tensions among the nations bordering the Arctic - when it was a wasteland the countries surrounding it didn't worry too much about national boundaries, but now they are becoming more and more eager to assert their territorial claims. In their meeting, Russia supported Canada's claim for jurisdiction over the Northwest Passage - a potentially very lucrative commercial searoute that could shave weeks off the journey from Asia to Europe or the East Coast of North America, while also suggesting Russia, Canada and Denmark submit a joint proposal to the United Nations to determine national boundaries on the floor of the Arctic Ocean.

What's the big deal there? Oil and natural gas. Russia is attempting to claim that a vast tract of the seabed (extending right up to the North Pole) is in fact part of the Russian landmass and that rightfully all of the oil and gas beneath it therefore belongs to them. Denmark is pushing the same claim for their side (keep in mind that Greenland technically belongs to Denmark, hence their interest in the Arctic). Having the United Nations fix national boundaries would help to lessen some of the Arctic tensions.

The National Security Strategy paper will guide Russian security and government priorities through 2020.
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Friday, May 15, 2009

West Africa pirate problem bubbles up

Two weeks ago I wrote this piece about the brewing pirate problem in West Africa (not to be confused with the oft-discussed pirate problem off the coast of Somalia in East Africa). Yesterday the military in Nigeria confirmed two separate attacks on ships in the Niger River delta.

In the bigger attack, Nigerian militants seized an oil tanker, the MV Spirit, with 15 foreigners aboard. A second cargo ship with perhaps five foreigners aboard was also captured.

All of this could be the foreshadowing of a civil war in the region. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (or MEND) has warned all foreign oil companies active in the oil-rich Niger River delta to evacuate their workers in the next 72 hours or risk being caught up in a "civil war". MEND claims to represent the indigenous people of the Niger Delta region - people they say haven't shared in the oil wealth being extracted from their part of Nigeria. Critics say that MEND is really just a collection of mercenaries using a liberation struggle as cover for their illegal activities (much the same critique leveled against the pirates in Somalia).

This week the Nigerian government offered an amnesty to MEND, which they rejected, saying the offer failed to provide for the welfare of the native people of the Niger Delta. Keep in mind that Nigeria, and the rest of Western Africa, currently supplies approximately 20% of the United States imported oil.
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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Europe misunderstands Russia, says Gorbachev

Nearly twenty years have passed since the end of the Soviet Union, but Europe still doesn’t understand the new Russia – that’s the word from the Soviets’ last leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

“We must achieve an understanding of Russia by Europe. This is absent,” Gorbachev said at a news conference on Wednesday. He said that common Western views of Russia as aggressive and imperialistic are “nonsense” and that Russia only wants to be treated as an equal by Europe.

Relations between Russia and the rest of Europe hit a low point last summer after the conflict between Russia and Georgia flared up, stoking left over fears from the Cold War of a new Russian Empire set on conquering Europe. And just as those fears started to ebb as more evidence emerged that Georgia’s actions actually started the August conflict, a dispute over natural gas flared up with Ukraine, resulting in Russian gas supplies to large parts of Europe drying up in the middle of winter - sparking another bout of Russophobia.

Gorbachev sounded a more hopeful tone on the future of US-Russia relations, saying that he appreciated President Obama’s “point of view”.

Domestically, Gorbachev again said he was planning to launch a new political party in Russia to challenge the United Russia party of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister (and former President) Vladimir Putin. In March Gorbachev said that United Russia had become the “worst version” of the old Soviet-era Communist party because of its dominance of modern Russian politics.
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Somalis fighting pirates, their own government

The tide may be turning against the Somali pirates, according to the New York Times. Tribal leaders in Garoowe, one of the pirate strongholds in the Puntland region of Somalia are apparently getting fed up with their antics, calling them burcad badeed, Somali for "sea bandits". And when the sea bandits come ashore, their behavior is decidedly un-Islamic, according to the tribal chiefs in Garoowe, who say the pirate's drinking and drug use is leading to an increase in street violence and HIV/AIDS infections and generally ruining life for the rest of the folks in Garoowe.

Officials in Puntland are talking boldly of ridding their self-governing territory of pirates once and for all. Honestly though, the tough talk isn't all that impressive, previous pledges by officials in Puntland about cracking down on piracy have gone nowhere. But this time, at least one of Somalia's top pirates is also talking about giving up life at sea.

According to the Times, Abshir Boyah, a pirate chieftain who claims, with his band of sailors, to have captured 25 ships, says he's ready to give up piracy - if the right deal can be struck. Negotiations might be tough though since Boyah says that some of the hard-line Islamists want to "cut my hands off", a traditional punishment for stealing...

Speaking of the Islamists, a huge battle for Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, is shaping up between the main Islamic group al-Shabab ("The Youth") and the fragile western-backed provisional government. In the past few days a surge in fighting has killed more than 100 people and driven nearly 30,000 from their homes. Al-Shabab (which the US accuses of having ties to al-Qaeda) already controls much of southern Somalia and is hoping to once again drive the provisional government back into exile.

And the Somali government might be causing some of their own problems. A report on the Voice of America says that the Somali government hasn't been paying their soldiers, who reportedly have begun selling their weapons on the black market, sometimes to the very same al-Shabab forces they are suppose to be fighting. Somalia's President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed was quick to slam the report; his government claims that the army has in fact been paid through June.

The Somali government is hoping to get foreign aid flowing into the country to prop up their fragile position. A UN report, meanwhile, accuses several of the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as neighboring Ethiopia and Eritrea of all violating an arms embargo in Somalia, which has sparked the renewed fighting.
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Irish student's hoax goes global

So you want you news up to the second you say? Well an Irish university student's class project showed that speed doesn't always equal solid reporting and caused a world-wide hoax in the process.

Dublin university student Shane Fitzgerald slipped a made-up quote into the biography of French composer Maurice Jarre shortly after his death on March 28. Fitzgerald's phony quote was quite quote-worthy -
"One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head that only I can hear."

And that was the point, Fitzgerald wanted to see if any news agencies would pick up his incredible relevant quote, though he doubted any would since he didn't provide a citation along with it, just the quote. But that didn't stop several British cable news channels and the Guardian newspaper, among others, from including the faux-quote in their Jarre obituaries.

"I was really shocked at the results from the experiment," Fitzgerald said. He contacted the news agencies to tell them that they had unwittingly played a role in an experiment about how information flows on the internet, but added that if he hadn't he's sure that his quote would have gone down as something Jarre actually said.

An editorial about the obit in the Guardian said Fitzgerald's experiment showed the importance of checking sources - a little bit of Journalism 101 a few news agencies seemed to forget.
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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Couple tries to push gay marriage in Russia

A lesbian couple tried to strike a blow for gay rights in Russia by applying for a marriage license in Moscow on Tuesday. Russia hasn’t suddenly legalized gay marriage, but that didn’t stop Irina Fedotova and Irina Shipitko from applying for a marriage license anyway. A rather stunned city official turned down their application.

The Irinas were actually expecting that. They hoped that the city’s denial would focus attention on gay rights in Russia, which local activists say are lacking, despite Russia’s officially decriminalizing homosexuality in 1993. Russia, and other countries in Eastern Europe tend to be far less accepting of homosexuals than their counterparts in Western Europe. As for the two Irinas, their plan now is to travel to Canada where gay couples can marry. Since Russia recognizes marriages of their citizens performed abroad, the couple hopes it will be a backdoor way for them to be legally married in Russia.

Meanwhile the woman at the center of the gay marriage debate in the US, Carrie Prejean, found out today that she’d be able to keep her Miss California crown. And she has a new explanation for the flap caused by the now infamous ‘gay marriage’ question she faced at the Miss USA pageant - it was all Satan’s fault. Apparently Satan tried to tempt Ms. Prejean into betraying her values for the sake of the sparkly Miss USA crown, at least that’s the explanation she gave in an interview with conservative leader Dr. James Dobson this weekend.

‘The devil made me do it’ - haven't heard that one in awhile...
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Monday, May 11, 2009

Is another summer war coming for Georgia?

A sequel to last August's conflict in Georgia - the one that saw Russian troops push almost to Georgia's capital Tbilisi and Georgia lose what little control they had over their two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia - is looking more and more likely.

Let's start with NATO's ill-conceived decision to go ahead with exercises this week in Georgia. Rightly or wrongly, Russia is terribly paranoid about NATO's eastward expansion, especially where Georgia and Ukraine are considered. NATO's response has been that these exercises were scheduled more than a year ago, before the August conflict between Georgia and Russia, and that Russia was even invited to participate. That may all be true, but given the war and the tense feelings, postponing the exercise until things were calmer would have been the wise move. But NATO didn't want it to seem like Russia was bossing them around, so for pride’s sake, NATO went ahead with the Georgia exercise, despite the possibility they could destabilize the fragile peace in the region (an ironic move for an organization dedicated to promoting peace and security).

But Russia isn't blameless either. Just after the NATO exercises began, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed two pacts giving Russia jurisdiction over Abkhazia and South Ossetia's borders with Georgia - a move the European Union, in turn, says will destabilize the region. This will put Russian troops eye-to-eye with the same Georgian forces they faced last August. And its not the first military agreement Russia has signed with the two regions they (and Nicaragua) recognize as independent nations - Russia has been setting up military bases in both places and recently agreed to establish a new naval base in Abkhazia, which could one day host part of Russia's Black Sea Fleet.

Then there's Georgia itself, which, to put it bluntly, is a mess. Opposition protests against Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili are moving into their second month, with rallies drawing tens of thousands demanding he step down - they blame Saakashvili for failing to go through with democratic reforms, for ruining the economy and for the disastrous August war. Last week an entire tank battalion in the Georgian army, stationed just outside Tbilisi, briefly mutinied, before surrendering peacefully.

Saakashvili blamed the mutiny on Russian agents; the opposition said that Saakashvili staged the whole thing to discredit them, while the commander of the battalion said that his troops revolted to protest the ongoing fight within the government. None of the explanations are good for Georgia though - if Saakashvili's right then Russia has infiltrated Georgia to such a degree then its only a matter of time until he's gone; if the opposition's right then there is no telling what Saakashvili might do to stay in power; and if we take the commander at his word then it shows a deep level of frustration among members of the military with the civilian government and a growing willingness to take action.

So Georgia seems to be teetering on the edge while being pushed by forces both external and domestic. But what makes a second conflict this summer such a possibility is how almost every side can see how more fighting would be in their best interests.

Saakashvili has staked much of his reputation on getting back the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (a desire which led to last summer's war) - he could see a new conflict as a way of boosting his own reputation, while also hoping that new fighting would spark 'rally 'round the flag' feelings among his fellow Georgians. At the same time, the opposition could view a new war as the final nail in Saakashvili's coffin and hope that it would be the thing most Georgians would need to see him as an incompetent, unstable leader and finally turn on him.

Russia could also see a renewed conflict as a way of finally getting rid of the wildly pro-Western Saakashvili and hopefully replacing him with a more pro-Moscow leader. Russia would like a Georgian leader more willing to follow Moscow's lead on energy policy (Georgia currently hosts the only oil pipeline from Central Asia that does not pass through Russian territory) and desperately wants to reopen land routes to Armenia, a strongly pro-Moscow ally in the region, but one that is also cut off from Russia (a big problem for the Russian military forces based there).

Finally Abkhazia and South Ossetia could see a new conflict as a way of deepening their economic ties to Moscow and gaining more recognition as independent nations from the international community.

All in all it is likely to mean another summer of conflict in the Southern Caucasus. The simple fact of history is that when people want to go to war, they usually find a way.
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Immigrants and Facebook

The Guardian on Sunday published a (long) article titled: "End of the Road" about how the recent economic downturn is threatening to spark another round of immigration from the Emerald Isle. It's an interesting piece, but what struck me was a paragraph about a third of the way through that talked about how new technologies like Skype and Facebook are helping young people to pack up and leave.

Traditionally bonds of family and culture have been powerful forces in keeping would-be immigrants at home, or at least in bringing them back home. But now, thanks to communication technologies like Skype and virtual communities like Facebook, people who leave their villages, according to the Guardian, are finding they're able to feel like they are still part of their community back home. In fact, one soon-to-be immigrant in the Guardian article suggests that traditional networks of friends now active on Facebook are actually helping to lure people away from Ireland.

It’s another interesting example of how the new technologies are shaping our world in unexpected ways.
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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Kenyan sex strike lawsuit

You knew this had to happen...You might remember the story from last week about women's rights groups in Kenya urging Kenyan women to participate in a sex strike as a way to 'persuade' their squabbling politicians to set aside their personal feuds that have paralyzed Kenyan politics for the past few months.

Now a Kenyan man, James Kimondo, has sued these same women's groups in Nairobi's High Court for unspecified damages saying that his wife's observance of the sex ban caused him "anxiety and sleepless nights." Mr. Kimondo added that he had been "suffering mental anguish, stress, backaches, lack of concentration," due to the absence of amorous activities.

This guy needs a hobby, well, another hobby.
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Thursday, May 7, 2009

Kerry misses facts, pushes for Georgia partnership

Senator John Kerry, along with Representative David Dreier, apparently have a solution to all of Georgia's problems - a free-trade agreement with the United States. Our two esteemed Congressmen make their case for yet-another free-trade agreement in today's Washington Post, unfortunately it's one that gets a few of the important facts wrong.

Kerry gets off on the wrong foot by repeating the now fairly thoroughly disproven claim that Russia started last August's conflict with Georgia (most now agree that Georgia sparked the conflict with their midnight artillery barrage of Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia). He then goes on to boast about the $1 billion in post-war aid the US doled out to Georgia. Except that a report at the end of 2008 found that, even with tens of thousands of Georgian refugees displaced from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia spent 20% of the bil on helping Georgian businesses, including spending $30 million to build a luxury five-star hotel (for the business community to use mind you, not the poor folks who lost their homes in the fighting).

Finally Kerry goes on to praise Georgia for their wholehearted commitment to democracy, which begs the question why then have there been tens of thousands of people protesting in the streets of Tbilisi for the past three weeks against the anti-democratic rule of President Mikhail Saakashvili?

Kerry and Dreier go on to say that a free-trade agreement is the best way to "hold Tbilisi accountable in its efforts to enshrine the rule of law and build the institutions that are the foundation to both democratic governance and economic prosperity." That sounds great, but it also sounds like Kerry and Dreier have made a great case for dropping the decades-long embargo against Cuba and signing a free-trade agreement with them instead, since what better way to truly bring about change on the island?

Bottom line is that right now Georgia is a mess. Sure, we should encourage the Georgians in establishing democracy, free markets and the rule of law - but those are problems the Georgians need to figure out for themselves, and until they do we shouldn't tie ourselves tighter to their chaos with free-trade agreements or by pushing for their speedy entry into NATO. And John Kerry, as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, ought to know better.
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Israel blasts UN's Gaza report, but trips up on excuses

Israel is furious with the United Nations over a report on last January's Gaza conflict, submitted to the UN Security Council this week that found Israel deliberately targeted both UN facilities and the Gazan civilians hiding inside during the fighting.

Israeli bombs and missiles struck a number of UN sites within Gaza during the conflict. The worst instance was the shelling by Israeli troops of the UNRWA (the United Nations agency for refugees in Gaza) headquarters while as many as 700 Palestinians were hiding inside, hoping the HQ would be a safe refuge from the fighting. The Israeli attack sparked a fire that destroyed the warehouse housing the bulk of the UN's emergency food and medical supplies for Gaza. At the time UN head Ban Ki-moon was said to be "outraged". After the war, UN investigators said they had "hundreds" of credible reports of alleged Israeli atrocities committed during the fighting in January.

The Israeli government slammed the UN report saying, among other things, that the report was "patently biased" and ignored Israeli findings into several of the instances cited (Israel investigated just a handful of alleged atrocities and essentially cleared their military of any wrong-doing). Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak also slammed the report and repeated the assertion that Israel did not deliberately target any UN facilities.

But in the very same report in Israel's Haaretz newspaper, Barak basically contradicts his earlier claim that UN facilities were not targeted by saying "if they [Hamas] had not used neutral bodies as human shields, it would have been possible to prevent a great deal of the harm caused to civilians," which implies that UN and other civilian sites were targeted by the Israelis because Hamas was using them as bases to launch attacks. In the aftermath of the attack on the UNRWA headquarters Israel first denied that it was their shells that hit the site, then said it was an accident, then said they targeted the site because Hamas was using it to launch mortar attacks against Israeli troops (blaming Hamas for any civilian deaths in the process), before going back to the 'fog of war' excuse.

The shifting Israeli stories about their actions in Gaza, along with the implication that since they were fighting a terrorist foe international laws governing warfare didn't apply to them, are why highly regarded international human rights groups, like Amnesty International, along with several European governments, continue to press for a full war crimes investigation into Israel's actions.
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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

South Koreans foil pirate attack on North Koreans

While tensions may be high between the governments of North and South Korea, that didn't stop a warship from the South from foiling a pirate attack against a cargo ship from the North off the coast of Somalia.

On Monday a heavily-armed helicopter from the South Korean warship came to the aid of the North Korean vessel, which was being chased by a pirate ship. The South Korean helicopter circled over the North Korean ship and was preparing to open fire on the pirates when they thought better of he attack and retreated. The chopper then escorted the North Koreans to safer waters. The North Korean ship broadcast several messages of thanks to the South Korean helicopter and its mothership the destroyer Munmu the Great, which has been part of the anti-piracy flotilla off Somalia for the past month (it also replaces the Russian frigate Fearless as my favorite name among anti-pirate warships serving off Somalia).

Speaking of the Russians, they still haven't figured out what exactly to do with 29 suspected pirates seized last week by their current member in the anti-pirate coalition, the Admiral Panteleyev, though they have identified some of the 'pirates' as actually being Iranian and Pakistani fishermen. In the past, Somali pirates have seized foreign fishing vessels off the Somali coast and then used them as 'motherships' to launch pirate attacks against other larger ships further out at sea, sometimes with members of the mothership’s original crew still aboard.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev suggested that an international court be set up to try suspected pirates.
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Georgia mutiny fizzles, problems remain

The Georgian government managed to peacefully resolve a mutiny by an entire tank battalion stationed just outside of the capital, Tbilisi on Tuesday. And while the mutiny may be over, the underlying problems in Georgia remain.

Soldiers at the Mukhrovani military complex briefly revolted, demanding that the government of President Mikhail Saakashvili and his political opponents stop their feuding and begin dealing with the country's problems. Opposition groups have been staging massive protests in Tbilisi for the past three weeks, demanding that Saakashvili resign for failing to bring about democratic reforms, mismanaging the country's economy and for leading Georgia into a disastrous war against Russia last summer.

Col. Mamuka Gorgishvili, commander of the rebel tank battalion said, "watching the country being torn apart by the current standoff is unbearable," to explain why his troops chose to revolt.

But now that the uprising is over, for now, the finger-pointing has begun in earnest. Saakashvili is, of course, blaming the Russians for the uprising at Mukhrovani, saying it was part of a larger Russian-led coup attempt aimed at driving his government from power. Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin dismissed Saakashvili's accusation as being ridiculous. "If Saakashvili gets diarrhea, it must also be the hand or foot of Moscow," Rogozin said on Russian television, a humorous way of pointing out that Saakashvili now routinely blames all of Georgia's problems on Russia.

Georgia's opposition leaders, meanwhile, blamed the uprising on Saakashvili himself, suggesting that he staged the whole thing as a way of undermining the protests going on against his government and derailing a planned day of civil disobedience across Georgia. "What we saw looked like a one-man theater show," said opposition leader David Gamkrelidze after the uprising ended.

One thing is for sure; this won't be the end of the problems in Georgia, or the protests against Saakashvili.
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Sunday, May 3, 2009

Afghan politics makes Karzai America's new BFF

After a rocky start where the Obama Administration slammed Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai for widespread corruption in his government and reacted with (justified) outrage over his signing into law a measure that basically legalized spousal rape and child marriage, Team Obama is now warming up to the Afghani president.

That's the analysis offered today by Reuters, which goes into detail about the improving relations between the Obama and Karzai camps. Reuters suggests that the reasons for the improvement could be that the United States now sees the growing influence of the Taliban in Pakistan as a bigger regional problem, and that there's nothing to be gained in running down the reputation of the Afghani president.

It could also be that, suddenly, there's really no alternative to Karzai in Afghanistan. The Obama Administration had been actively cultivating a relationship with Gul Agha Sherzai, a popular regional governor who was one of the first Afghani officials to join forces with the United States against the Taliban in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Team Obama thought so much of Sherzai that he was one of only four Afghani officials to be invited to the inauguration in January.

But just a day after picking his vice-presidential candidate, Sherzai shocked everyone by abruptly dropping out of the presidential race following a face-to-face meeting with Karzai. "I visited the president, and hugged his little son and decided to withdraw my candidacy for the presidential elections," Sherzai said. He also apparently offered to step down as the governor of Nangarhar Province, but Karzai refused.

In the notoriously corrupt world of Afghani politics, you have to wonder what motivation is behind Sherzai's sudden decision, but whatever his reason, Sherzai's leaving the race means there is really no viable challenger to Karzai in the August 20 election, which probably goes a long way in explaining Washington's change in tune.

And while we're speaking of Afghanistan and corruption, a new report out today exposes just how little foreign aid is actually making it to the people of Afghanistan. According to the Independent, the World Bank calculates that 35-40% of all foreign aid is "badly spent" (their words), though the Independent's article makes this figure seem low.

The culprits are not only corrupt local officials, but incredibly wasteful Western aid agencies as well. In a country where three-quarters of all citizens don't have indoor plumbing, foreign contractors insist on bedrooms with private baths. Foreign aid consultants in Kabul can earn as much as $500,000 per year, by comparison the average salary for an Afghani civil servant is only $1,000 and a policeman's monthly salary is just $70.

The average stay for a foreign worker in Afghanistan is only a few months, and security concerns put severe restrictions on their travel, meaning that few foreigners either gain a full understanding of problems on the ground or build meaningful partnerships with local Afghanis, which in turn has a negative impact on the quality of development-assistance programs.
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US needs to focus on Latin America, Clinton warns

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says that the United States needs to pay more attention to Latin America to counter the growing influence of China, Russia and Iran in the region.

Her remarks come after Iran announced that their President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be visiting Brazil later this week, a visit Clinton described as "quite disturbing." Ahmadinejad is bringing quite a crowd with him, more than 100 representatives from dozens of Iranian companies, all in a bid to build economic ties between Iran and Brazil, the largest economy in Latin America.

Clinton said that the ties countries like Iran and China are establishing with the nations of Latin America are not in America's foreign policy interest. She blamed the Bush Administration for some of America's loss of influence in the region because of its unpopular policies towards Venezuela and Cuba - policies many Latin American leaders have been urging the Obama Administration to change.

"The prior administration tried to isolate them, tried to support opposition to them, tried to turn them into international pariahs. It didn't work,” Clinton said. Not only didn't it work, you could reasonably argue that the policies did more harm than good to the United States in Latin America. Keep in mind that last December when countries in the region held the inaugural "Latin American and Caribbean Summit on Integration and Development", they invited China and Russia to sit in as observers - and asked the US to stay home.

In the past few years China and Russia have been steadily building ties in Latin America: Russia has renewed their relationship with their old Soviet-era ally, Cuba and has invested in projects in Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua; while China is also courting Cuba, hoping to develop oil fields off the island's coast and has quietly become Chile's biggest export partner. Now Iran is hoping to build new ties in the region as well.

“I don't think in today's world...that it's in our interests to turn our backs on countries in our own hemisphere," Clinton said.
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Friday, May 1, 2009

In Kenya, a sex strike for change

Women in Kenya, fed up with the country's lack of political progress, have organized a sex boycott - hoping to get Kenya's men fed up enough to break the nation’s political impasse.

Kenya's government has basically ground to a halt over Prime Minister Raila Odinga's demands that he have a leading role in government affairs. Odinga, who in early 2008 entered into a power-sharing agreement with President Mwai Kibaki after a bitterly contested election that sparked widespread riots, now says that his rival has basically sidelined him. The political feud between the two camps has essentially shut the government down.

So last week women's groups in Kenya proposed withholding sex until the men in their country start working together. And if this all sounds like the plot of the Greek play Lysistrata - then you were paying attention during Literature class.

The boycott has gotten the support of at least one of Kenya's most powerful women, Ida Odinga, the prime minister's wife. In addition to possibly ending the political impasse, Mrs. Odinga also hoped the boycott would bring attention to issues of gender-based violence. "There are many women who are suffering rape, there are many women who are suffering hunger. And yet the leadership is not thinking about the common person," Mrs. Odinga was quoted as saying by the BBC.
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