Tuesday, June 30, 2009

China Opens Its Wallet For Zimbabwe

While Western governments were reluctant to dole out foreign aid for Zimbabwe, China apparently, is not, today offering up a nearly billion-dollar line of credit to the impoverished nation.

Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai spent the past three weeks on tour, visiting Western heads of state (including Barack Obama), hoping to put together an aid package that would plug the $8 billion hole in his country’s economy. But despite Tsvangirai’s attempts to put a good face on the tour (like touting the $150 million in aid from the European Union), Western governments were skeptical (make that very skeptical) about the power-sharing deal between Tsvangirai and long-time President Robert Mugabe, and largely decided to take a wait-and-see attitude towards giving Zimbabwe aid – wanting to first see real signs of change before investing large sums of money in the country.

A collection of Zimbabwean exiles also decided it’s best to wait and see, even shouting down Tsvangirai’s request that they return home during a meeting with the exile community in London. His ‘partner’, Mugabe took the chance to slam his PM for the poor results of his tour, saying that the Western governments were “imperialists” (the standard Mugabe refrain) and chiding Tsvangirai that they were not his friends.

But then there’s China. While Tsvangirai was away, Chinese officials hashed out a deal with Zimbabwe’s finance minister to provide a $950 million line-of-credit to the nation, apparently with no strings attached.

It’s another example of the differing ways the West and China are approaching Africa these days. Western governments are increasingly linking foreign aid to government reforms – they want to see that African governments are spending the aid money responsibly (and not just dumping it in the Swiss bank accounts of the president’s inner circle), and that governments are responsive to the people – fair elections, a free press, and all those sorts of things. China, meanwhile, has just been tossing huge amounts of cash around, with few strings attached.

Of course the motivation for China’s investment in Africa is to secure raw materials for the ever-expanding manufacturing base that drives their economy. Zimbabwe is no exception – the country is rich in minerals, including: platinum, nickel, zinc, tin, coal and to top it off, diamonds. China’s hoping that a billion dollar line-of-credit will them get more access to Zimbabwe’s mineral reserves.
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France, Israel Have War (Of Words)

Israel and France are in the midst of a diplomatic spat over a comment French President Nicolas Sarkozy apparently made to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

At a meeting in Paris last week, Sarkozy is said to have told Netanyahu he needed to “get rid” of his Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, Sarkozy went on to suggest that Netanyahu replace him with Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister. Lieberman has a long history of controversial comments that have led many critics to brand him as anti-Palestinian, if not an outright racist (Lieberman recently suggested Israel’s Arab population should take “loyalty oaths” to Israel or be stripped of their citizenship). But Lieberman used the third-place finish of his political party, Israel Our Home, in last February’s elections to force Netanyahu to give him a plum position in the new government.

Lieberman’s office slammed Sarkozy for meddling in Israel’s internal affairs, while Netanyahu gave his “full confidence” to his foreign minister. And this isn’t the first time Sarkozy has caused a stir in international politics lately – his perceived snub of Queen Elizabeth II cast a shadow over the D-Day commemorations earlier this month, and French-Chinese relations are still suffering following his decision last year to basically treat the Dalai Lama as a visiting head of state, much to the annoyance of China, which views the Dalai Lama not as a spiritual leader, but a political troublemaker who continually focuses the world’s attention onto China’s actions in Tibet.
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Ayatollahs: Thanks Michael!

According to author David Rothkopf over at Foreignpolicy.com, the ayatollahs ought to give thanks to Michael Jackson. His rationale? That Jackson’s sudden death effectively drew the media’s attention away from the street protests in Iran and lessened the pressure from the Western world on Iran’s government. Without the world’s focus squarely on them, the Revolutionary Guard’s Basiji militias managed to brutally silence the protestors, and Revolutionary Council even conducted a recount of 10% of the ballots cast (guess what? A-jad won!).

I think that Rothkopf is onto something. On Friday I posted a note on my Facebook page that I thought it was sad the media’s coverage of Jackson’s death was better in both quantity and quality than their coverage of the Iranian protests up to that point. The difference was most noticeable on CNN, where when it came to Michael, they actually had their reporters talking to people instead of relying on an endless string of ‘tweets’ like they had done with their coverage of Iran.

Rothkopf also notes that because the media spent a few days being all Michael all the time, they missed the passage of the Waxman-Markey Bill – also known as the American Clean Energy and Security Act (a.k.a. ACES, since these things have to have a snappy acronym) in the House of Representatives that will set caps on greenhouse gas emissions and funnel billions of dollars into creating “green” jobs.
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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Weekend Round-up, June 27

Now for a small collection of interesting stories from the past week that didn't seem to fit in elsewhere, but that are still worth a look.

First up, North Korea. While the saber-rattling continues between the North Korean government and, basically, the rest of the world, it’s good to know that there's an almost-complete map of the Hermit Kingdom's extensive railroad network. The amazing thing is that the map was compiled not by the CIA, MI-5 or any other government intelligence agency, but rather by a George Mason University doctoral student.

Curtis Melvin put the map together using Google Earth satellite images, backed up by testimonies from North Korean defectors (Melvin operates the website North Korean Economy Watch). He says that his map is "90% complete" and includes some of the private railway lines used by the North Korean elite to whisk them away to secure luxury retreats far from the crushing poverty endured by the rest of the country.

Australia. For years now, enthusiasts have pointed to crop circles (geometric patterns traced into farmers' fields by flattening crops apparently without human intervention) as evidence of intelligence life in the universe. Officials in Tasmania though have finally identified the mystic creators of at least some of the circles - stoned wallabies.

Apparently the little marsupials have been wandering into the poppy fields of Tasmania and eating the poppy heads, getting stoned in the process. The wasted wallabies are then said to stumble around in circles (creating the aforementioned crop circles), before passing out in a drug-induced stupor. And here it’s important to remember that poppies provide the raw material for heroin and other opiates.

Russia. Finally, while checking out the site EnglishRussia I came across this story about the art of book covers in Russia, with many examples of science-fiction/fantasy novel covers by artist Leo Hao. It's interesting to look at, but there was something about the one pictured here that I found really fascinating. It's obviously a scene from some post-apocalyptic future war of a Russian soldier (who looks oddly like Daniel Craig, the current James Bond) standing in front of a wrecked enemy tank. The flag on the tank though isn't the Stars and Stripes, like you'd expect, but rather it's China's.

A sign of the future of international relations perhaps?
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Friday, June 26, 2009

Suicide Bombing Puts Southern Russia On Edge

Russia could be dealing with a new wave of terrorism after a suicide bombing nearly killed Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the President of the Southern Caucasus region of Ingushetia on Monday. As of Thursday night, Yevkurov was still reported to be in serious condition from injuries suffered when an explosives-packed Toyota swerved into his presidential motorcade and blew itself up, several people in his entourage were killed in the attack.

The Caucasus Mountains along Russia's southern border have historically been a hard-to-control region, home to fiercely independent ethnic groups. Since the end of the Soviet Union, Russia has fought two wars in the Caucasus in Chechnya - the second Chechen war sparked a wave of high-profile terrorist attacks across Russia that killed hundreds of civilians. Chechnya has calmed down in recent years since President (and local strongman) Ramzan Kadyrov took control of the territory and was given a free hand by Moscow to crush dissent, by any means necessary. Kadyrov, whose family once fought against the Russians before switching sides, brutally cracked down on Chechen rebels (human rights groups accuse him of many rights violations), to the point where Russia ended anti-terrorism operations in Chechnya earlier this year.

But instead of just going away, the terrorist problem seems to have shifted to the neighboring regions of Ingushetia and Dagestan. And while Yevkurov was the highest-profile official killed or wounded by terrorists, he's far from the first - judges and local government ministers have also been recent victims.

Having pacified Chechnya, Kadyrov is now saying he's ready to take on the Ingush terrorists as well, promising "cruel revenge" against Yevkurov's attackers. "I warn that the terrorists, the inhuman ones, the devils who badly wounded Yevkurov will soon regret it," Kadyrov said, vowing revenge "according to mountain traditions." There are reports that Kadyrov was personally asked by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to take on the anti-terrorist campaign, though officials in Ingushetia say they would prefer to handle matters themselves. The Ingush are also apparently worried that letting Chechnya's Kadyrov take the lead in anti-terrorism operations could be the first step in merging the two regions, like they had been in Soviet times. Recently there's been a drive in Russia to combine some of the country's 83 sub-divisions into bigger regions in an effort to streamline the government.

Meanwhile, there have been no claims of responsibility for the suicide attack on President Yevkurov.
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Could Prisioner Release Been the End of "President" Abbas?

I have to wonder if Israel's decision to release a high-profile Palestinian prisoner could lead to political change in Palestine.

On Tuesday, Isreal decided to let Aziz Dweik out of jail two-months early. Mr. Dweik is also the Speaker of the Palestinian Parliament and a member of Hamas, his membership in that organization is what prompted the Israelis to throw him in jail for a three year stretch on charges of being a member of an illegal organization.

But now that Speaker Dweik is out of jail will he, and Hamas, push to formally take over the Palestinian government? While Palestine is currently led by President Mahmoud Abbas, his term in office officially ended in January, meaning that under the Palestinian constitution, Abbas legally has no claim on the job. Power should pass, according to the structures spelled out in the constitution, to the Speaker of the Legislative Council, Mr. Dweik, though formally taking power would obviously have been difficult with him stuck in prison.

Now that's changed. Hamas didn't push the matter of control when Abbas' term ended, because back in January Palestine was reeling from the three-week Israeli incursion into Gaza. But with Dwiek out of jail, the peace process stalled and the relationship between Israel and their chief ally, the United States, strained over the issue of Israeli settlements, you have to wonder if Hamas will think the time is right to make a bid for full control over the Palestinian government.
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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Cool Picture of the Day

The folks at NASA provide us with the cool picture of the day - a volcanic eruption as seen from space.

The International Space Station happened to be flying over Sarychev Peak, on the Russian island of Matua in the Northern Pacific, while it was erupting. Some quick camera work captured this awesome shot.
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Pirate Fear Grips Tuvalu

Even though half the globe separates them, the residents of the tiny South Pacific island nation of Tuvalu are fearful of the Somali pirates.

No, the Somalis haven't sailed all the way to the Pacific (at least not yet), but they did capture 11 Tuvaluan sailors when they seized the German-owned freighter Hansa Stavanger, but to the isolated, tight-knit nation, it's like they’ve captured all of Tuvalu.

Subsistence farming and fishing are the meager ways that Tuvalu's 12,000 residents eek out a living, that and by signing on as seamen on foreign cargo ships. Approximately 40% of Tuvalu's men are estimated to be working as merchant sailors. Many of the men work with shipping firms in Germany, so Tuvaluans never thought that pirates would be a threat to their safety. According to the cousin of one of the captured sailors, as reported by the BBC, many Tuvaluans have never even seen a gun.

To make matters worse, the $15 million ransom that the Somali pirates are requesting for the release of the Hansa Stavanger is more than the entire annual budget for Tuvalu (luckily negotiations are actually going on with the Hansa Stavanger's owners). In the past, the Somali pirates have usually released captured sailors unharmed once some sort of ransom is paid. Until then the folks on Tuvalu will have to wait for their sailors to come home.
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The Dumbing of America - Twitter Edition

Great, if a couple of American college students have their way, the next big thing will be Twitterature. Two freshmen from the University of Chicago are planning to take a collection of classics from English literature - including works by Dante, Shakespeare and James Joyce - and boil them down to 20 or fewer tweets. So if you can't commit to reading the Cliff Notes version of King Lear or Ulysses, soon you should be able to plow through the Twitterlit version in about five minutes.

Sorry, but I think this just helps to make my point from this post: "What Would George Orwell Think of Twitter?" I wrote a couple of weeks ago - namely that the truncated tweets, which by design must be 140 characters or less, do not provide enough space to express complex thoughts and ideas; a bad thing in today's increasingly complex world.

Sure, Twitterature is a gimmick by two aspiring writers who, apparently, have no original ideas of their own. But the point of reading a novel isn't just the mechanical transfer of information, it is suppose to be an enriching experience, something I don't think it's possible to get in 2,800 characters.

It would be ironic to read the Twitterlit version of 1984 though...
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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Is Mousavi Really The Hero We Want Him To Be?

Presidential candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi has become the de facto head of the protests in Iran - after all, the whole reason people are taking to the streets in the first place is because they think their votes weren’t counted and that he was cheated out of the presidency. But is Mousavi really the reformist leader we’ve (at least we in the West) have made him out to be? Perhaps not…

Members of Mousavi’s own Azeri community have their doubts according to EurasiaNet. The Azeri make up about a quarter of the population in Persian-dominated Iran, yet they often complain about being the victims of ethnic discrimination, claiming to routinely suffer from restrictions on their cultural and linguistic rights. The Azeri voted heavily in favor of Mousavi – at least it’s thought they did before the vote-rigging began. But they haven’t taken to the streets in huge numbers to support Mousavi, nor to they seem to plan to do so in the future.

The reason is that the Azeri don’t see Mousavi as a strong champion of ethnic rights; his record on fighting for minority rights is said to be “lackluster”. While the community views him as a change from Ahmadinejad, they don’t view him as a particularly large change, nor do they expect that their lives would greatly improve, or that discrimination against the Azeri, would end under President Mousavi.

It’s useful to remember that despite the reformist mantle, Mousavi is a political insider, intimately involved in the revolution that brought the Ayatollahs to power in 1979, and that he served as the Islamic Republic’s Prime Minister from 1981 to 1989.

Mousavi was PM when members of the group ‘Islamic Jihad’ launched devastating suicide attacks against US interests in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983, including a truck bomb attack on military barracks that killed 299 people, 220 of them US Marines (the death toll from the Beirut bombing was the worst one-day loss the Marines had suffered since the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II). Islamic Jihad was an affiliate of Hezbollah, which in turn was (and is) supported by Iran. According to former CIA officials, not only did then Prime Minister Mousavi almost certainly know in advance about the attacks because of Iran’s sponsorship of Hezbollah, there’s some belief that he may have picked the bombers himself.

Of course people can change a lot in the course of 25 years, they can try to atone for a lot of sins, but it is at least a cautionary point to keep in mind, that the situation in Iran is far more complex than many out there – our politicians, the media and legions of Tweeters – would like to believe.
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Another Dismal Day For Democracy In Ukraine

The New York Times has apparently figured out that things in Ukraine are a mess.

The Times published this story: "Ukraine’s Political Paralysis Gives Black Eyes to Orange Revolution Heroes" about the unending political infighting between Ukraine's two Orange Revolution superstars - President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (and for more on the ongoing feud between these two, check the 'Ukraine' tag on the right side of the page).

Fighting between these two has gotten so bad that Viktor Yanukovich, whose attempt at vote-rigging launched the whole Orange Revolution in the first place, is now the most popular politician in Ukraine. Plus several key government posts have gone unfilled because of the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko feud, and the country is at risk of both another showdown with Russia over natural gas supplies and in failing to get another payment of a loan from the International Monetary Fund.

Sadly, it's just another day for Ukrainian democracy.
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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Who'd You Think They'd Be Bombing John?

Let me start this by saying that I like Senator John McCain. But his recent statements on the protests in Iran have me scratching my head.

In the past few days McCain has repeatedly given his whole-hearted backing to the protesters on the streets of Tehran, and has talked about being moved by their resolve and yearning for democracy. I can certainly respect that position.

But we have to remember that this is the same John McCain who this time last year, while running for president, was the one who co-opted a Beach Boys tune to sing "bomb, bomb, bo-mb, bomb, bomb Ir-an" at a campaign stop. Geez Senator, didya ever stop to think that the people you were joking about dropping bombs on last year are the same ones you're commending for standing up to the bullets and beatings of the Ayatollah's regime?

It would be nice if McCain (and other politicians as well) would remember that there are often people on the receiving end of those bombs...
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US Keeps Kyrgyzstan Base (Sort Of)

The folks in charge of the US military campaign in Afghanistan are breathing a sigh of relief now that officials in Kyrgyzstan have reversed an earlier decision to kick the United States out of Manas Airport.

Manas is a vital link in the US strategy in Afghanistan, providing a base for air patrols over the northern part of the country, as well as a route for shipping in supplies and personnel. But in February the Kyrgyz officials decided to evict the US Air Force from the base, in part because of complaints over noise and pollution from Manas and the death of a Kyrgyz man, shot by US security personnel.

The other reason was cash, and a lot of it. Russia, not happy with a US military presence in their back yard, offered the Kyrgyz government a $2 billion aid package, and soon Kyrgyzstan was asking the US to leave (though both governments insist that the aid package had nothing to do with tossing the US out). But now the US has turned around and made the Kyrgyz a better deal of their own, tripling the amount of rent they pay yearly for Manas, along with a package of over $100 million in improvements to the base and funding for anti-drug trafficking programs (and you have to hand it to Kyrgyzstan for turning a crumbling Soviet-era airstrip into such a cash cow).

For their $100 million, the US Air Force will be allowed to use Manas as a transit hub to ship non-lethal supplies into Afghanistan, but not as a combat airfield, an option the Air Force still wanted. It is a similar deal to one the US has with other Central Asian states, important to the war effort in Afghanistan, the US military says, so that they are not solely dependent on a route up through Pakistan for their supplies.

Another reason Kyrgyzstan may have had a change of heart over Manas, besides the cash, is a growing feeling among the countries in Central Asia that if the war in Afghanistan were to fail, Islamic extremists could begin operating in their countries as well. A bombing last month in Uzbekistan was linked to Islamic extremists by the Uzbek government, though they have a habit of branding any opponents to the authoritarian rule of President Karimov as "terrorists".
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Ethiopia Makes Tracks to the Future

Came across this pretty cool story while looking at the BBC site about the history and possible future of the railroads of Ethiopia.

Railroading in Ethiopia has a long and somewhat odd history - the French built a railroad 100 years ago for Emperor Menelik to link his new capital city, Addis Ababa with the Red Sea port of Djibouti hundreds of miles away. Even today, staff on the railroad make announcements in French (even though Ethiopia's official language is Amharic and English is the most common European language).

Much of the line had fallen into serious disrepair, but now, thanks to support from the European Union, the line is being rehabilitated and there are bold plans for hundreds of miles of new routes. Given the rugged, beautiful territory the Addis-Djibouti line crosses, it could become a major tourist destination.
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Monday, June 22, 2009

Greenlanders Gain Home-Rule

Time to check in now on the fine folks of Greenland. You might remember this post from last November about the Greenlanders voting for increased home-rule of their island - the world's largest that's not also considered a continent.

On Monday the new Greenlandic government took power and the territory took another big step towards independence from Denmark. Greenland's government will now control the island's police, courts and other domestic programs, with Denmark only keeping control over defense and foreign-policy issues. Greenlandic (also known as Kalaallisut) will replace Danish as the island's official language.

Despite the island's huge size, its population is tiny, numbering only about 57,000, with nearly a third of that number living in the capital city, (and maybe here 'city' is an overstatement) Nuuk. But, Greenland could have a bright future, thanks to global warming. The island is incredibly rich in natural resources - oil, natural gas, coal, diamonds, uranium and other rare minerals. But the fearsome cold and dense ice that covers most of the land has made getting at those natural resources if not impossible, then financially impractical - a situation which is likely to change as the Arctic ice continues to retreat.

But according to the BBC, Greenland's new government will be more focused on domestic issues - especially in reducing high rates of domestic violence and suicide - than they will be about trying to exploit their natural resources.
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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Europeans Set To Blame Georgia For Last Year's War

According to documents obtained by Germany's Der Spiegel magazine, the European Union is ready to slam Georgia for starting last August's war with Russia over the breakaway region, South Ossetia.

While it's clear there was a war in South Ossetia, how that war started has been anything but. Almost as soon as the fighting began, Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili launched a PR campaign, pushing the story that Russian troops poured into the disputed region on August 7th, quickly overwhelming small Georgian force stationed there. Russia, meanwhile, said that it was the Georgian side who invaded South Ossetia first after bombarding the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali during the night of August 7th/8th, killing some Russian peacekeepers in the process, and that Russian troops only went in to keep their peacekeeping forces from being wiped out.

Western governments quickly embraced the Saakashvili version of events (anyone remember Senator, and at the time presidential candidate, John McCain's declaration that "we're all Georgians now" after the fighting started?), but the EU investigation finds they shouldn't have. The EU report will apparently largely back up Russia's version of events, finding that Saakashvili ordered the military action against South Ossetia and that the Russians only entered the territory after the Georgians began the fighting.

And while the European Union report is important, it's not the first to dispute Georgia's version of the war. Last November the New York Times published an in-depth piece based in large part on observations from officials with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that did not find evidence of the large-scale Russian offensive the Georgians said they were responding to, and at roughly the same time the BBC published their own in-depth analysis based on eyewitness reports from observers in Tskhinvali who said the Georgians opened fire on a sleeping city. (If at this point you're asking why would the Georgians launch such an attack, a probable reason is Saakashvili trying to make good on a campaign promise to bring the region back under Georgian control for the first time in over a decade by any means necessary).

The EU report, apparently, won't find the Russians blameless - it will cite them for responding with excessive force against Georgia – after retaking South Ossetia, Russia occupied part of Georgia temporarily and largely dismantled the Georgian military - and also for not protecting civilians in South Ossetia once they controlled the region (many ethnic Georgians were reportedly killed or driven from their homes by South Ossetian militias - as the occupying power, Russia had a responsibility to protect those civilians).
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Russia Stung By D-Day Diss

Russia's Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said on Thursday that the leaders of Britain, France, Canada and the United States gave a "peculiar interpretation" of World War II at the recent commemorations of the D-Day landings in Normandy, France. Russia feels that the role of the Soviet Union in the victory over Nazi Germany was not adequately acknowledged at the event, part of a larger campaign the Russians have been on recently to give, in their opinion, proper credit to the Soviet Union's sacrifice in WWII. The Soviets lost an estimated 27 million troops and civilians in the fighting - the most of any nation.

Of course I have to ask what took the Foreign Ministry so long to raise their complaint, since the commemoration happened almost two weeks ago. And it's a little difficult for the Russians to say that they were singled out for insult since France's President Sarkozy neglected to invite Queen Elizabeth II to the event - not only was the Queen the only head of state from the Allies who was even alive during the war, she also served as a volunteer driver with the British military.
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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Spring Goes Missing in Northern Canada

Apparently someone forgot to tell Mother Nature that it's suppose to be springtime in Northern Canada. According to the Winnipeg Free Press, as of June 11, the ground in Northern Manitoba was still completely covered in snow, the latest date ever measured. Residents in Churchill, Manitoba say they've never seen snow on the ground this late into the year and that some roads in the town remain blocked by snow drifts. Temperatures are nearly four degrees Celsius (that's almost eight degrees Fahrenheit) lower than normal.

The lack of spring in Northern Canada could wipeout an entire generation of migratory birds who give birth to chicks in the northern climes before heading south for winter. Scientists who study the habits of these birds say the late arrival of spring means that the birds won't be able to lay eggs until later in the year and that the chicks who hatch then won't be strong enough by fall to make the long flight south.

Scientists from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration though say the cold temperatures are actually a sign of climate change and global warming - that as the Arctic warms in general, there will be greater fluctuations in temperatures and that sometimes this will mean colder than usual temps.

"People often confuse climate with weather, and this spring is a weather phenomenon," said an Environment Canada spokesperson to the Winnipeg Free Press.
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WWI Vet Now World's Oldest Man

There are so few veterans of the First World War left that whenever there's news about one of them, I like to share. Today the folks at Guinness World Records announced that a WWI Vet, Britain's Henry Allingham, aged 113, is now officially the oldest person alive.

Mr. Allingham is one of only two surviving British WWI vets and is the only living participant from the Battle of Jutland, the biggest naval battle of World War I and the only time in history that large fleets of Battleships faced off against one another in direct combat.

Allingham joined the Royal Naval Air Service in 1915, a year before Jutland. Later in life he became an advocate WWI vets, encouraging everyone to remember their sacrifice in what was thought at the time to be the "war to end all wars".
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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Twitter Revolution: More Hype Than Help?

You can’t watch or read a news story about the ongoing protests in Iran without hearing some mention of the role Twitter is playing. But is the role of the “Twittersphere” being over-hyped by the mainstream media?

Probably yes, according to Wired.com’s “Dangerroom” blog. While admitting that it’s hard to track the actual number of tweets, Nicholas Thompson author of the Dangerroom post notes that even the most prominent Iranian tweeters have between 10,000 and 30,000 followers, a lot of people to be sure, but just a fraction of the million plus who follow actor Ashton Kutcher. And an analysis of users who say they’re in or near Tehran finds posts in German, Spanish and English, but none in Farsi, odd for posters based in Iran.

Babak Rahimi, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, contacted by Dangerroom said that while Twitter is being used as an organizing tool, it’s not as important in Iran as cellphones or other social networking sites. So it does seem like Twitter’s role in the revolution is being overstated, just like it was in the first ‘Twitter Revolution’ - the protests in Moldova back in April over the results of their election.

At the time, news outlets like the New York Times gushed about the role that Twitter was supposedly playing in organizing the mass rallies in Moldova’s capital, Chisinau. But as the protests’ main organizer Natalia Morar would later admit to the BBC, Twitter was only one of a stew of new technologies – that included cellphones, social networking sites and SMS text messages – she and her compatriots used to organize their protests. In the end, Moldova’s Twitter Revolution was more light than heat – the Moldovan government cracked down on the demonstrations after a few days and the ‘revolution’ fizzled out.

So why all the attention to Twitter as a tool of revolution? Because Twitter is the latest hi-tech infatuation of the mainstream media (if Twitter was a person, CNN would qualify as a stalker). And since everyone inside the NYC-DC media bubble is now on Twitter, members of the MSM naturally assume that the entire world is busy tweeting. Sure Twitter is an important tool, but it’s real value is more likely in getting the story out of Iran than it is in organizing events in-country. Do we really think that these protests wouldn’t be happening if Twitter didn’t exist?

It’s a sign of some sloppy reporting by the American MSM of the whole Iranian affair, as is portraying what’s going on as a revolution. So far it isn’t. Protesters in the streets of Tehran aren’t calling for the overthrow of the Ayatollahs, they just want their votes counted, in their opinion, this time fairly (of course the counter-protesters in favor of President Ahmadinejad think the vote count should stand as is). Mir Hossein Mousavi is called a reformer and is certainly more moderate than Ahmadinejad, but he’s no Iranian Barack Obama, and even if he manages to overturn the election results as they stand now and takes the presidency, it won’t be a revolutionary change in Iran.

Or to paraphrase Mark Twain – reports of the Twitter Revolution have been greatly exaggerated.
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Study Says Mekong River Dolphins Near Extinction

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is warning that the Mekong River's Irrawaddy Dolphin, one of the few species of dolphin that call rivers home, is in grave danger of extinction.

The WWF says that only between 76 and 64 Irrawaddy Dolphins are left in the Mekong, while in the past six years officials recorded the deaths of nearly 90 dolphins. Increasing levels of pollution seems to be the main cause of the demise of the Irrawaddy Dolphin in the Mekong.

In 2007, China's Baiji, or Yangtze River Dolphin, was declared "functionally extinct" - a search in 2006 found no Baiji in the Yangtze, and while there was a reported, but unconfirmed sighting in 2007, it was decided that there was not a large enough Baiji population remaining to keep the species going, so it was declared "functionally" extinct. Pollution and collisions with ships were blamed for the Baiji's demise.

The announcement of the Mekong River dolphin situation came alongside a report issued by a collection of local NGOs that pollution and plans for nearly a dozen hydroelectric dams along the Mekong threatened mass extinctions of many other species. The "Save the Mekong" coalition warns that the dams, if built, would devastate one of the world's richest fisheries. According to the coalition, the Mekong Basin accounts for 2% of all the fish caught annually in the world, and feeds tens of millions of people in Southeast Asia.
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Carter Decries Gaza Situation (and cries)

Former President Jimmy Carter visited Gaza on Tuesday and slammed Israel for their treatment of the territory’s 1.5 million residents. Since their conflict with Hamas, who controls the territory last January, Israel has maintained a strict blockade on the Gaza Strip. But this has prevented many Gazans from repairing the thousands of buildings damaged or destroyed by the fighting. The Israeli blockade has been so tight that some Gazans have resorted to using mud to repair their damaged homes (mud historically has been used as a building material in the region so the idea's not all that crazy, we just don't usually think to build mud buildings in the middle of urban areas in the 21st century).

While the Washington Post said that Carter "decried" the Gaza destruction and the Israeli blockade, other media reports said that conditions on the ground moved him to tears. The former president didn't hold back in his criticism saying that the Gazans were being treated "more like animals than human beings", and that "never before in history has a large community been savaged by bombs and missiles and then deprived of the means to repair itself." Carter went on to say that the Israeli blockade has caused many Gazans to rely on smugglers, who use tunnels under the border from Egypt, to survive.

One interesting development - Carter said that Hamas' exiled leader Khaled Meshal, whom Carter met in Syria, told him that Hamas would accept a peace agreement with Israel if the Palestinians approved the measure in a referendum, and if Israel returned to its 1967 borders - leaving the West Bank and Gaza - this now puts Hamas in-line with the pan-Arab peace deal put forward by the Saudis in 2002.

Meanwhile a group of 40 humanitarian organizations, including the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), Oxfam International and CARE all called for Israel to lift its blockade to allow desperately needed humanitarian aid into Gaza.
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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

BRICs and SCOs

You have to hand it to Russia, even though their economy has taken a beating in the global recession, they're still pushing forward with their efforts to emerge as a counterpoint to American power in the world.

In the past week Russia has played host to not one but two major regional summits - the meetings of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRIC Group (that's Brazil, Russia, India and China, the four fastest developing economies in the world). The subtext was clear, that the idea of a "unipolar" world, with the United States as the sole superpower, hasn't worked and needs to be replaced by a "multipolar" world, where global affairs are dominated by several powers, thus better representing the interests of humanity and preventing one powerful nation from imposing their will upon the rest of the world (at least that’s the theory). Of course Russia wants to be one of those "poles".

And both the SCO and BRIC are part of that strategy - powerful organizations where the US doesn't have a seat at the table. One common headline emerged from the dual summits - that the US dollar needs to be replaced as the world's sole reserve currency. Right now, nations tend to value their currency against the dollar (they will exchange their currency for Euros or Yen or whatever, but it’s the currency’s worth against the dollar that remains the important benchmark), many trade deals (like oil sales) are valued in dollars no matter where they occur, and for countries with failing economies buying and selling in dollars is always a safe option (see what happened in Zimbabwe as their currency became worthless last year).

But Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said that this is bad for the global economy because it makes the world too vulnerable to fluctuations in the American system - like how last fall's Wall Street credit crunch sparked a global recession. His solution, which he pushed to both the SCO and BRIC, is to have additional reserve currencies. The SCO even backed a Russian idea for a common currency for the SCO - like the European Currency Unit, the forerunner to the Euro.

This sparked some hysterical declarations, like this one from journalist Chris Hedges where he states, "the American Empire is Bankrupt". That's a bit of an overstatement (ok, more than a bit...)

The SCO and BRIC meetings are important, but you have to understand the nature of both bodies, they're not really policy-making groups, in fact this was the first BRIC summit ever. Their talk about other reserve and common currencies was, at this point, just talk. And while Russia would like both groups to become powerful international organizations, right now they're not. Competing interests between Russia and China (both look to dominate Central Asia and the other four current SCO members - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) could likely keep the SCO from becoming anything more than it already is - an organization that meets to discuss security concerns (mostly terrorism related) in Asia.

But you do have to hand it to Russia for trying to shake up the geopolitical stage.
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Omar vs. The Pirates

According to the BBC, Farah Ahmed Omar could have the worst job in the world. Why you ask? Because he's just taken the job as commander of the navy in pirate-plagued Somalia.

Somalia's incredibly shaky interim government is thinking boldly - they claim they've recruited 500 Somalis to train as sailors in the navy, even though they currently have no ships, and they pledge to stop their country from being a modern day Port Royal (the Jamaican city that was Pirate Central back in the golden days of piracy), even though they control virtually none of Somalia's coastline and are basically not welcome in the Puntland region, which is home to most of the Somali pirate bases.

But it wasn't always this way, Mr. Omar points out. Thanks to some clever playing of the US off the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Somalia once had one of the best navies in Africa, something Mr. Omar thinks could be true again with some help from the international community.

What struck me though from the BBC piece was something Mr. Omar said that echoed a claim from Abdiweli Ali Taar, commander of Puntland's ad-hoc Coast Guard, as quoted in MacLean's magazine's story "This Cabbie Hunts Pirates" from January (Ali Taar was once a Toronto cab driver, hence the title of the article) - that if the coalition of nations patrolling the waters off the Somali coast were to spend some of that money ashore, the piracy problem would likely disappear.
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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

China Dodges Efforts at Emissions Reduction

Though it didn’t get a lot of coverage, last week marked the end of a round of talks in Bonn, Germany involving more than 180 countries all meeting to come up with a coherent plan to fight global warming. A new plan is needed since the current one, the Kyoto Protocol, expires at the end of 2012.

The new plan will force developed nations to slash their greenhouse gas emissions – by how much though still remains to be seen. But the United States has pushed to absolve China from being included in any system of caps.

My question is why?

The reason given, the reason that China itself pushes, is that it’s a developing nation and that being forced to cut their greenhouse gas emissions would have serious negative effects on their future economic growth.

The “developing nation” excuse though is hard to swallow when you consider that at last April’s G20 summit of the world’s 20 largest developed and developing economies, some observers said the meeting that really mattered was the G2 - the bilateral sessions between the United States and China since they are the two engines that drive the global economy. In fact those in the world of financial journalism have a term for us – “Chimerica” (the names of China and America squished together in case you missed that).

So it does beg the question of how can you be one of the two most important economies in the world while also claiming to be a developing nation with a fragile economy? Of course it’s a good deal for China since they get to avoid all of those expensive emission-capping technologies and schemes, but it’s a bad deal for the world, and one that also basically condemns any emissions-reduction plan to failure before it begins. China is now the number one producer of greenhouse gasses by most estimates, surpassing the United States. And while the US actually saw a slight reduction in its use of coal, the fuel that produces the most greenhouse gas, last year, China’s use increased, and will continue to increase for the foreseeable future – depending on which study you read, China opens between two and four new coal-fired power plants per week.

Meaning that as the developed nations reduce their emissions, China’s will continue to increase, erasing any overall reduction in the amount of greenhouse gas pumped into the atmosphere in the process. There are some countries, ones just starting to industrialize, to modernize, that can make the claim that adopting pollution-reduction technologies and shifting to cleaner fuels will hurt their economies and their populations to such a degree the extra pollution is worth it. But given the size and strength of their economy today, China’s not one of them. The US shouldn’t aid and abet, and the world can’t afford, their efforts to skirt meaningful emissions reduction efforts.
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Monday, June 15, 2009

Netanyahu Makes History (or maybe not)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a major speech yesterday on Israel's relations with the Palestinians where he for the first time endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state.

All in all it was a pretty mild endorsement, he only used the term "Palestinian state" three times and just one of those was in reference to an actual homeland for the Palestinians. And there were a few strings attached: the Palestinians would have to recognize Israel as a nation itself, give up claims to Jerusalem, give up claims of the "right of return" for Palestinians displaced by Israel's founding in 1948, not form a military, not control their own airspace, not form military agreements with other countries, and had to accept the continued growth of Israeli settlements in their territory. But they can have their own flag and anthem. (The full text of the Netanyahu speech is here).

So really it's not a very historic speech after all since the Palestinians will never accept the conditions Netanyahu is putting on them (in fact they've already rejected his offer). In many ways, the speech really was another round in an ongoing battle between Netanyahu and Barack Obama over the issue of Israeli settlements inside what the Palestinians hope one-day will be Palestine.

There are two problems with Israel and its settlements: first they're illegal under international law - an occupying country (Israel) can't just move its citizens into occupied lands. Second, Israel agreed to halt "all settlement activity" as part of the 2003 'Roadmap to Peace' with the Palestinians. Now the Bush Administration let Israel slide with a wink and a nod, not protesting as they continued to build and expand settlements in violation both of international law and their 2003 pledge. Netanyahu mentioned his handshake deal with Bush to Obama after he was sworn in as President, Obama in turn told him it’s a new day and a new administration and that the settlement activity had to stop.

Netanyahu has agreed, sort of - Israel won't build any new settlements, but they insist on 'natural growth' of the existing ones, meaning the settlements should be allowed to expand as their populations grow. There are about 500,000 Israelis living in settlements, which makes for a lot of growth...So far it's not an argument the Obama Administration is buying.

The problem for the two leaders is that neither one of them can afford to back down on the settlement issue. Obama recently gave his own major speech in Cairo, the Muslim world (a lousy term for such a diverse collection of countries and cultures, but an easy bit of shorthand to reference a big chunk of the globe) is looking for a different policy from America, and they're interested in concrete action, not just moving speeches. If Obama gives in on the settlements, it will likely be taken as a sign by the Muslim world that nothing's really changed as far as American policy. Netanyahu, meanwhile, is catching flak from members of his own ruling coalition for even suggesting there might be a Palestinian state and for putting any limits on the settlements.

But something has to give. The status quo has gone on too long. The Saudis earlier in the year said that their own peace proposal - peace between Israel and all the Arab states if Israel leaves the Occupied Territories - wouldn’t stay on the table much longer. Meanwhile Obama either has to take a hard-line with Netanyahu over the settlements or risk seeing his plans for a new relationship with the Muslim world fall apart. And Sunday's speech aside, Netanyahu is hoping not for history, but more of the same.
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Scenes from the Aral Sea

Last month I wrote this post about Uzbekistan, where I mentioned what's perhaps the world's worst ecological disaster - the disappearance of the Aral Sea in Central Asia. Once one of the world's largest inland bodies of water, the Aral Sea has shrunk by almost 90% thanks in large part to its two feeder rivers being diverted to grow cotton, and other crops, in the high desert of Central Asia.

In case you're interested on what this looks like (beyond the satellite image here of the Aral Sea in 1989 and 2003), the website EnglishRussia posted a series of photos - and no, they didn't build those ships in the desert, that was once the Sea.
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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Uighur Update: China's mad, so is the UK

A follow up now on Tuesday's post about the United States’ plans to finally release 17 Uighur detainees held at Guantanamo Bay for years after the government decided they were neither terrorists nor posed any threat to the US.

Early reports were that the tiny Pacific Ocean island nation of Palau agreed to take all 17 Chinese Muslims. Palau is in a rare position to take men that China considers to be terrorists since it's one of the few countries in the world that recognizes Taiwan, rather than Beijing, as the legitimate government of China - in other words, Palau doesn't care how much Beijing complains (and they are making quite a stink about the Uighurs release, more on that in a moment).

Concern over China's reaction apparently prompted the United States to hide the fact that they were negotiating with Bermuda to also host some Uighur prisoners. Bermuda agreed this week to take four of the men (with the other 13 going to Palau), a fact that came as quite a surprise to the British government, which still rules Bermuda as an Overseas Territory. American officials said they deliberately hid the negotiations from the British government so that the Chinese government, which apparently has been twisting arms around the world to keep countries from taking the refugee Uighurs, wouldn’t put similar pressure on the Brits. For their part, the British government has said it’s angry the US didn't deal with them directly and that officials in Bermuda overstepped their authority by agreeing to take the four Uighurs since it is an immigration issue and thus something London has to decide about, but they said they will not step in to overturn the decision.

China, meanwhile, is demanding the return of all 17 Uighurs, claiming they're terrorists - even though the US has already cleared them of any terrorism charges. Calling the Uighurs terrorists though is a knee-jerk reaction from Beijing – while the Uighur resistance to Chinese attempts at wiping out their culture in China's far northwest Xinjiang Province has been largely peaceful, China accuses the Uighurs of terrorism to justify their heavy-handed tactics against them. Two weeks ago China claimed it smashed seven "terror cells" in Xinjiang's largest city, Kashgar; a claim the Uighur exile community's leader met with "utmost skepticism", saying China had not offered the "slightest piece of evidence" that these were in fact terror cells and said that the Uighurs struggle has a peaceful one.
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Russian Dolls in Need of a Bailout

We've heard of banks, insurance companies and auto manufacturers requesting financial bailouts, now there's another industry in Russia asking for help - Matryoshka makers.

Matryoshkas are the pear-shaped wooden dolls that nest one inside another, painted typically to look like peasant women, though politicians and entertainers have also been depicted in Matryoshka form. They are an iconic symbol of Russia and a popular souvenir for tourists, but they're also a folk industry that is in a lot of trouble. Matryoshka manufacturers say that orders for their crafts are nearly non-existent thanks to the poor economy, many worry that they may not be able to stay in business, possibly spelling the end for a traditional Russian craft in the process.

The Kremlin has promised help, pledging to buy $30 million worth of Matryoshkas and other folk art as a kind of government bailout plan. But Matryoshka manufacturers are doubtful that the politicians will follow through on their promise, since past pledges to help out the folk art sector never panned out. What manufacturers say they really want are cuts in export taxes and government subsidies for folk art producers. Without them, they say that Matryoshkas and other traditional Russian woodcrafts could very well be a thing of the past.
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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Cuban Ex-pat Punks Castro's Son

It's a modern-day tale, Fidel Castro's son, Antonio Castro Soto del Valle, thought he was carrying on an internet love affair with a Columbian woman named Claudia, but unfortunately for him, 'Claudia' was actually a Cuban expatriate named 'Luis'.

Luis Domínguez, aka Claudia, revealed the scam on a Miami-based TV station. He said he got the idea to try to lure the younger Castro into a phony love affair after seeing Antonio Castro being treated "like a rock star" while touring South America with the Cuban national baseball team. The goal of the scam was to show how the Castros live a far more privileged life than the average Cuban and to "shatter" the image of Cuba's state security apparatus. For example, Domínguez said that while many Cubans were barred from using the Internet, Antonio Castro had his own Apple laptop with unlimited web access and his own BlackBerry.

Castro had 20 chats with 'Claudia' over the space of eight months, with one chat lasting for five hours. He didn't reveal any state secrets, according to Domínguez, but did give her his private phone number and address in Havana.
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Was the US Duped Into Afghan Attack?

Meanwhile, Britain's Channel 4 is ready to air a documentary on Monday that alleges the United States military was victim of a scam as well in Afghanistan - only this one lead to the deaths of as many as 90 civilians.

The attack on the small village of Azizabad last August marked a low-point in US-Afghani relations. American aircraft pounded the mud-walled village, killing dozens of civilians in the process. At the time the US Air Force contended they were carrying out operations against Taliban insurgents, that the death toll was only about three-dozen, and that only a handful of those killed were civilians (the US has since upped the civilian casualty count to 33, still far shy of the Afghan estimate).

But in March, and Afghani court sentenced Mohammed Nader, an elder from a neighboring village, to death for passing false information onto American forces about Taliban militants using Azizabad as a base, prompting the fatal air strikes. And this is only the tip of a murky battle between the villages of Kalask and Azizabad with the United States military stuck firmly in the middle.

According to the Channel 4 report, a feud between the two villages erupted over jobs at a United States military base in nearby Shindand. In addition to the air raid against Azizabad last August, the US also got involved after an ambush by Kalask men killed a man from Azizabad, and started a fight between the two villages that was broken up by US and Afghan Army forces. One Azizabad man was taken away in a US-led convoy. Several hours later he turned up dead, his body allegedly showing signs of torture. Local authorities wanted three Afghanis working with the US troops turned over for questioning, a move the US military has so far blocked.

A spokesman for the US Central Command in Afghanistan refused to comment on the Channel 4 report.
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Ahmadinejad 'Wins' Election

By now you've probably heard that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won yesterday's election, and that the opposition is crying foul over the results.

Both CNN and the BBC are reporting large-scale demonstrations in the streets of Tehran, one of the power-bases of Ahmadinejad's challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi. For his part, Mousavi is saying that really he won the election and that the results have been falsified. The official tally gives Ahmadinejad 63% of the vote to only 34% for Mousavi, a wild turn of events, considering polling just before the election had the two in a virtual dead heat and that Mousavi's supporters were energized following a wild televised debate two weeks ago.

But on Thursday, EurasiaNet published a detail story on just how Ahmadinejad's supporters could steal the election. Key to the strategy are the thousands of Ahmadinejad loyalists filling the ranks of the Interior Ministry and Guardian Council - the two bodies in charge of running the election. EurasiaNet notes that in 1999, the Guardian Council tossed out 700,000 votes to ensure a victory for a hard-line parliamentary candidate over his reformist challenger, and that the Council was also accused of vote-rigging during Ahmadinejad's first presidential victory in 2005.

Mousavi hoped to counter voter fraud with thousands of volunteer poll-watchers, but Iran's Internet and cell phone services were suffering mysterious slow-downs on Election Day, among the worst hit sites? Those supporting Mousavi.

Unfortunately for Mousavi, it's unlikely that there will be any serious investigation of his vote-fraud claims, so the results will probably stand. The big questions now are whether or not the street protests will continue and whether Iran's Guardian Council, the collection of religious leaders who really run the country, will make any changes to Iran's public policy to appease the newly energized Iranian moderates.
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Friday, June 12, 2009

Putin Speaks, Plants Re-open

Last week I wrote this post about the verbal beating Prime Minister Vladimir Putin gave to local officials and billionaire Oleg Deripaska, the owner of a shuttered factory complex in the town of Pikalyovo. Now, less than a week later, Russia's RIA Novosti news service is reporting that the plant was scheduled to reopen on Thursday.

The folks in Pikalyovo got the attention of Putin himself after blocking a highway to protest the shutdown of the Deripaska-owned plant. That closure had a ripple effect that also shut two other plants in town, basically leaving the citizens of Pikalyovo without any jobs at all.

The Guardian took the Pikalyovo protests as a reason to run this piece: "Protests against Putin sweep Russia as factories go broke". While the article makes some good points, particularly that Russia's economy is especially vulnerable because of the hundreds of factory towns across Russia that rely on a single industry for most (if not all) the employment in that town, the problem I had with it was that a large chunk of the article focused on protests against a tax on importing automobiles, that we talked about here last year (recap: to help Russia's ailing auto industry, Putin imposed a 50% tax on all used imported cars sold in Russia, Vladivostok in Russia's Far East, has a booming trade in used Japanese imports, so folks there were not at all happy with the new tax).

The Guardian makes the case that protests like Pikalyovo are far more common than the Russian government would like you to think they are. Fair enough, I just wish they had used stories of some recent wage-driven hunger strikes to back up that claim, rather than a rehash of a story of tax protests that happened seven months ago.
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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

For Sale: Gitmo Detainees, Near Mint Condition

Caught this tonight on the Rachel Maddow Show; the United States is looking for a home for a group of Guantanamo Bay detainees and is willing to pay big bucks to any country that will take them.

The detainees in question are 17 Uighurs - Chinese Muslims - scooped up in Afghanistan by US forces back in 2002. We've been following the saga of the Uighurs here for some time, but briefly - the US decided long ago that the Uighurs weren't terrorists, nor were they trying to become terrorists, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. So letting them go should be a no-brainer, right? Yes, except that China is trying to eradicate Uighur culture, just like they're trying to wipe out the Tibetan one, shipping the Uighurs back to China then is not an option since they'd likely be jailed by the Chinese authorities for the crime of being an unfavorable minority.

And even though there's a Uighur exile community in the US, giving them asylum is a non-starter politically. So we've been looking for a third-party to take the 17 men, and while we look, they sit in Gitmo.

Now, according to Maddow and the New York Times, the United States is trying to strike a deal with the tiny South Pacific island nation of Palau to take them; and according to Maddow, we're offering big bucks to Palau, one of the world's smallest countries in both size and population - $200 million in foreign aid.

To put that in perspective, according to the CIA World Factbook, Palau's entire Gross Domestic Product for 2008 was only $164 million; divided among Palau's 20,000 residents, the Gitmo payment would give $10,000 to every citizen in a country where the average salary is just over $8,000.

Should Palau go for the deal, the 17 Uighurs would find themselves in a humid tropical climate, quite a departure from the high desert of their native Xinjiang; and while there is no Muslim population to speak of, there is a Chinese population of roughly 1,000, so at least these 17 Uighurs could have some cultural kinsmen, unlike six other Uighurs released to Albania in 2006.

And if Palau doesn't go for the deal, I have a spare bedroom I'm willing to let the Obama Administration use for a mere $3 million.
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Aargh! Pirates in Parliament (and other tales from the Euro elections)

Avast, there be pirates in the Parliament.

Well, one pirate at least, and no we’re not talking about Somalia here, but Sweden and the results from last week’s elections for the European Parliament, the main law-making body of the European Union.

Sweden’s Pirate Party pulled off what many thought was impossible, getting enough votes to actually win a seat in the new Parliament – the Pirate Party just squeaked over the 7% threshold to win themselves a seat in the upcoming Euro Parliament. The platform of the Pirate Party is, well, pro-Pirate you could say: they advocate basically scrapping all intellectual property laws: no copyrights, no patents, just the free flow of information.

Considering some of the other groups who won seats in the new Parliament, the Pirate Party will likely be a welcome distraction. Turnout for the European Parliament elections, held in all 27 European Union nations, were incredibly low – just over a four in ten eligible voters even cast ballots. And that paved the way for a collection of far-right parties, some overtly racist, anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic ones, to win seats.

One of the big winners was the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders who is so virulently anti-immigrant (though he reserves special scorn for the Muslims), that he’s actually been banned from entering Great Britain. His Freedom Party gathered 15% of the Dutch vote, giving them 25 seats in the new Parliament. Not to be out done though, the Brits threw enough support to the British National Party to give them their first-ever seats (eight total) in Parliament. The BNP is strongly anti-immigrant, wants to keep Turkey out of the European Union, along with getting Great Britain to drop out as well. They dispute that they’re racist though, saying they’re just as opposed to white Polish immigrants as they are to black Nigerian ones (great argument guys…). And finally, Italy will be sending members of their own anti-immigrant party, The Northern League, to Parliament, though in the past the groups the Northern League have considered to be foreigners include Southern Italians.

In practice, the far-right groups will make headlines, but it’s unlikely they’ll make much law. Power in the European Parliament comes from coalitions of parties coming together across national boundaries; the far-right parties won’t be able to gather enough support to form an effective coalition. But the rise in support for them, along with the historically low turnout across Europe, is troubling signs that Europeans in general are apathetic about the European Parliament. Critics say its just another level of bureaucracy in an already bloated EU government – even though the European Parliament has broad powers to make laws. At the same time, there has been real reluctance in parts of Europe to adopt changes to the EU’s constitution that would strengthen the Parliament on the grounds that it would mean a loss of national sovereignty among the members of the EU.
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Monday, June 8, 2009

What Would George Orwell Think of Twitter?

Sixty years ago today, George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, the classic study of a government run amok in the name of ‘safety’, was released. If it’s been awhile since you last read 1984, it presents a barely-recognizable England where its citizens are under constant surveillance by an omnipresent government, humanized in the persona of ‘Big Brother’ the dear leader who stares at them 24/7 from video screens installed in every home, to protect them of course.

The Guardian marks the occasion with this post from Henry Porter who looks at the government’s (in this case the British government) desire for public surveillance through the lens of 1984, he draws some interesting parallels between ‘Oceania’, the nation making war against Big Brother’s homeland Ingsoc, and the threat of global terrorism today, arguing that like Oceania, global terrorism is an equally poorly-defined threat that is used to justify government intrusion into individual liberties under the banner of ‘security’.

It’s interesting to speculate what Orwell would think of the security cameras that stare at us from every grocery store, ATM and, increasingly, street corner, and what he would think of our placid acceptance of these devices in our lives (not to mention how his ultimate symbol of government impression – Big Brother himself – has been used as the conceit for a cheesy reality show).

But the article made me think of something else entirely – Twitter, the latest Internet craze, the site that allows you to tell the world about your life, in 140-character bursts. It reminds me of another concept from Orwell’s 1984 – Newspeak.

Newspeak was the Ingsoc government’s attempt to simplify language – rather than have a collection of words to describe a concept like “bad”: poor, unpleasant, dire, deficient (and about four dozen other synonyms), it was replaced by one word: “ungood”. Something very bad was “plus ungood” or “double plus ungood” if it was absolutely awful. The stated reason for Newspeak was efficiency, the real goal though was the further control of society – to so limit human ability to communicate beyond the simplest constructions, so that fomenting a rebellion against Big Brother would be impossible - people simply would not be able to express the deep concepts and emotions that motivate individuals to oppose tyranny.

And that brings me back to Twitter. Am I saying it is some sort of nefarious government mind-control plot? Of course not. But I do have to wonder if it could not have a similar effect, by limiting expression to 140 character bursts, do we run the risk of losing our ability to clearly express complex ideas? (Let’s not forget text messaging, or TXT MSGNG, which also stresses a similar economy of characters) Just last week, Senator Charles Grassley decided to use Twitter to attack the Obama Administration’s health care proposals. Unfortunately for Grassley, the truncated Twitter-speak made him sound like an idiot – few Tweets or Texts read like fine literature.

But is Twitter the right place for public discourse on a complex issue like national health care in the first place? My answer is no, yet pressure to use the new technology is driving the debate there, and forcing it to conform to the rigid standards of the new media. It makes you wonder though, if we allow the media to dictate the message, will we lose the ability to make complex arguments all together?

It’s certainly a question Orwell would have pondered.
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Sunday, June 7, 2009

Yes, they actually have elections in Iran

The conventional wisdom on Iran - from the American perspective at least - is that it's a country run by a cabal of religious leaders and one loopy dictator, "President" Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But Ahmadinejad was actually elected to the office and stands for re-election this week. And the traits that make the West think he's a bit nuts, might just derail his bid for a second term.

Iran is apparently abuzz over last week's televised presidential debate between Ahmadinejad and his main challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister and once-close confidant to the Islamic Republic's founder the late Ayatollah Khomeini (despite that pedigree, Mousavi is considered a moderate reformer). Ahmadinejad came out in the debate in his usual style, rhetorical guns blazing, essentially accusing Mousavi of treason and corruption, his sons of stealing from the government and his wife, a university professor, of faking her credentials (The Guardian has video highlights of the debate).

But Mousavi shot back - accusing Ahmadinejad of being a bad Muslim for making accusations against his family without offering proof, and slammed the president for ruining Iran's reputation abroad with his claims that the Holocaust never happened, along with his confrontational attitude towards the global community.

According to EurasiaNet, the debate was an eye-opener for many Iranians, since the tightly-controlled, state-run media in Iran usually shies away from showing Ahmadinejad's rants and conspiracy theories. The belligerent Ahmadinejad that appeared in the debate was not the one they were use to seeing. After the debate, watched by perhaps 60% of all Iranians, people took to the streets to talk about what they had just seen, with some impromptu political rallies breaking out.

Ahmadinejad's attack-dog approach to the debate may have backfired. Not only did it spark a surge of interest in the Iranian public, which previously had been fairly apathetic towards the election, but it also prompted some stinging rebukes from Iran's religious leadership. Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's supreme religious leader, took Ahmadinejad to task for his unsubstantiated charges against Mousavi saying: "one doesn’t like to see a nominee, for the sake of proving himself, seeking to negate somebody else," basically putting a lid on negative campaigning in the process.

Another of Iran's religious leaders, Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei (himself another Khomeini disciple) went a step further and urged Iranian voters to oust President Ahmadinejad for failing to improve the lives of poor Iranians and, again, for damaging the country's image abroad by failing to live up to a 2003 deal where Iran agreed to suspend its nuclear research program and for his repeatedly calling the Holocaust a 'myth'.

It's worth remembering that Ahmadinejad was actually elected on a platform of making sure Iran's oil wealth helped out the poorest members of their society. But during his reign, little progress has been made in reducing poverty in Iran, while state resources have been diverted to the country's nuclear research program – something that, along with his own belligerence, has helped to isolate Iran from the international community.

But with Ahmadinejad taking flak from Iran's religious authorities and political reformers suddenly energized by last week's debate, Thursday's election could be one to watch.
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Gazans Fall Victim to Tunnel Scam

As if the military campaign last January that destroyed thousands of homes and the ongoing economic blockade of their homeland by Israel don't make life hard enough in Gaza, The Guardian reports that thousands of Gazans have another problem - they've lost their life savings to scam artists.

The scam centered on the hundreds of smuggling tunnels running under the sealed Gaza/Egypt border. Because of the Israeli blockade, the tunnels have become the life-blood of the Gazan economy - just about everything is brought through them: food, building materials, luxury items and creature comforts. The amount of commerce flowing through these tunnels has made some of their operators rich, and there's the hook for the scam: that investors could turn a quick profit by helping to fund the construction of more tunnels (tunnel construction can cost upwards of $100,000).

In a land with epidemic levels of unemployment, the offers seemed too good to pass up. Problem was that these tunnels people invested in didn’t, and never would, exist; scammers took investors money and disappeared. According to officials in Gaza, the tunnel scam has already netted $100 million from duped investors, though other estimates put the loss total much higher. Meanwhile, Gaza's Hamas-led government doesn't seem to be too willing to investigate the tunnel scam because of their own involvement in the smuggling industry and because some of the lead scammers likely have ties to the organization themselves.
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Saturday, June 6, 2009

Economy in Russia - Hunger Strikes, Putin Slams

A couple of weeks ago I posted this story about a group of Siberian stewardesses who went on a hunger strike to try and shame their now-bankrupt former employer, the airline KrasAir, into paying them up to eight months of back wages. Apparently this isn't the only work-related hunger strike going on in Russia at the moment.

Workers at the Baikal Pulp Mill are well into their own hunger strike to protest not receiving all the wages owed to them when their plant shut down last year. This week 21 former employees joined a group of 42 already on a hunger strike. In total some 2,000 former workers say they're owed 100 million rubles ($3.25 million). Actually it's a good thing the Pulp Mill closed, because for decades it dumped its waste straight into Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake and one of its most unique ecosystems - but the workers were promised new jobs at a new facility, which like their back wages, has failed to materialize.

Another group of workers in the town of Pikalyovo (near St. Petersburg) could have resorted to a hunger strike of their own when the three major factories in their town were shut down (taking with them the town's supply of hot water as well as their jobs), but why do that when you have Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in your corner?

Putin visited Pikalyovo to check on the situation personally. But officials thought they could pull a fast one on the Prime Minister by suggesting he visit other factories in the region. According to Pravda.ru, they quickly learned that pissing off the most powerful man in Russia isn't a good idea.

Putin used his visit to Pikalyovo as an opportunity to bitch-slap the local authorities - first asking them: "why did you make everything look like a dump here?" during a tour of the shuttered factories, then asking them "why was everyone running about like cockroaches here before my arrival?" Putin sat down with the owner of Pikalyovo's main industries, Oleg Deripaska - who until the economic crisis last year was Russia's richest man. Putin ordered that the 41 million rubles in back wages be paid to the workers, the next day. He then told Deripaska to reopen the factories - when Deripaska forgot to sign a the documents authorizing the plants' restart, Putin was said to have thrown a pen at him, then demanded it back when Deripaska tried to walk away with it.

How much of this tale is true is anyone's guess, since it does sound a little too much like a propaganda piece, casting Putin as hero of the working man, but it sure makes for a great read - and seems like a great blueprint for dealing with any future Wall Street bailout requests.
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As US media markets shrink, ethnic ones grow

By now you've read stories about how American newspapers are dying, and how even viewership among cable news channels is down, but there is one sector of the media that is seeing strong and steady growth - ethnically-themed outlets.

Publications, radio and cable TV stations aimed at specific ethnic groups in America, usually in their native language, are nothing new, but a poll released this week finds that nearly 60 million Americans - basically one in five - are regular consumers of ethnic media, a jump of 16% from a poll conducted just four years ago in 2005. The strongest growth was seen among African-American newspapers and magazines, which grew by 42% since 2005, and Spanish-language radio, which is becoming a fixture in markets - like North Carolina and Washington - places not usually noted for their large Hispanic populations.

And the number of Americans tuned into ethnic media could even be higher. The poll, released at the annual Ethnic Media Expo and Awards, was conducted only in eight languages - Cantonese, English, Hindi, Korean, Mandarin, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese, which left many ethnic groups out of the poll.

Officials at the Expo said that the poll's results should be a message to advertisers and politicians alike not to ignore this vibrant sector of the media.
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Thursday, June 4, 2009

Update #1 - Cuban invitation

Yesterday, I wrote this post about how most members of the Organization of American States - except for the US - wanted to reverse the nearly four decades-long ban on Cuba. Well, the OAS went ahead today and did in fact vote to lift the ban.

The United States has, not surprisingly, slammed the decision, saying that Cuba's Communist system doesn't fit in with the mission of the OAS. Robert Menendez, a Democratic Senator from New Jersey and himself a Cuban-American, has gone so far as to suggest that Congress cut American funding to the OAS, which gets 60% of its budget from the US.

But all the bluster is likely for nothing since Cuba is saying that while they're happy the OAS lifted their suspension, so far they have no intention of rejoining the organization
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Update #2 - Hope for Demoracy in Russia?

Here we go back to April to revisit the case of Anton Chumachenko, who at that time was a newly-elected member of the St. Petersburg legislative council. Like many recent elections in Russia - from last year's presidential vote to April's high-profile mayoral race in Russia's Olympic city (in 2014 that is), Sochi - Chumachenko's was also marred by accusations of vote rigging in favor of the dominant United Russia party.

This worked out well for Chumachenko since he ran on the United Party ticket. But the 23-year old Chumachenko decided that wasn't the way he wanted to start his political career, so he challenged his own victory. Now Radio Free Europe is reporting that the court ruled in Chumachenko's favor - which in this case means his election was fraudulent - and gave the seat to his primary challenger, the Yabloko Party's Boris Vishnevsky (Yabloko was one of the two main liberal parties in Russia that flourished in the 1990s and still has solid support in fairly liberal St. Petersburg).

RFE reports that while the Chumachenko case is rare, it's not unique, citing several other cases across Russia where charges of vote fraud are being investigated, or where the public is pushing for the recall of a candidate they feel won their seat improperly. Whether it is a reliable sign of some of the reforms promised by President Dmitry Medvedev taking root though remains to be seen.
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Obama apology tour (really?)

Right now I'm watching MSNBC's rebroadcast of President Obama's speech early this morning in Egypt (click here for the full text). So far, it's an excellent, wide-ranging, but ultimately balanced speech hitting on all the hot topics in the Mid-East and wider Muslim world - Iran, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, extremism, etc.

One thing I haven't heard though is Obama apologizing for America, or America's role in the world. This has become the default charge of Obama's foreign policy critics that he is running around the world "apologizing" for America.

Frankly, that's utter nonsense (I'd prefer to use another word, but I try to keep my posts PG). Obama has been stressing the need for America to do crazy things like actually listen to and respect other nations - a break from the Bushite/Neoconservative unilateral foreign policy of "shut up and do what your told."

But to the neocons, this equals both apology and surrender, making Obama the Neville Chamberlain of our time. Case in point: this anti-Obama screed published by Nile Gardiner on Tuesday. Nile is the Director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation.

I don't care if Gardiner, the Heritage Foundation and London's Telegraph newspaper want to slam Pres. Obama, they just shouldn't offer up such intellectually lazy arguments as the one Nile puts forward (really, if you have a title like Director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom you should be able to put together a decent argument). Just three paragraphs into his screed, Nile says this: "the Obama doctrine is now lying in tatters after North Korean tyrant Kim Jong-Il and Iranian demagogue Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met Obama’s recent overtures with missile tests and even a nuclear blast from Pyongyang." The implication being that this wouldn't have happened on George Dubya's watch.

But, in fact, it did. North Korea's first nuclear test happened in 2006, six years into the reign of Bush II; Iran's ballistic missile program also progressed by leaps and bounds during the Bush regime, so has (if we believe the most dire estimates) Iran's nuclear program.

These regimes weren't slowed by the Bush's unilateral foreign policy - it could be argued (successfully I think) that the belligerent tone and lack of diplomatic engagement actually encouraged their weapons programs, making the world not more safe, but less. Just as Bush's policy of "my way or the highway" damaged our relations with wide swaths of the globe: Latin America, Russia and Western Europe especially. Gardiner and the rest of the 'apology' critics ignore these facts, shouting that the tough Bush/Neocon foreign policy enhanced America's position in the world, when in reality it did the opposite.

There's certainly room to criticize Obama's foreign policy, but that criticism needs to be more than some lame charges that he's an apologist.
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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

US, LA at odds again over Cuba

Cuba is once again dominating relations between the United States and Latin America.

The forum this time is the annual meeting of the Organization of American States. Cuba was kicked out of the OAS back in 1962 after the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. Now most of the members of the OAS think it's time for the ban to end, the one member that doesn't is of course the United States. The United States is saying that Cuba first would need to make democratic and human rights reforms before the US would back a Cuban membership bid.

So far this argument has taken up a day of the OAS meeting. And according to the BBC report, it's pointless - Cuba has said they have no intention of rejoining the OAS now even if invited. So in other words, the United States is picking a fight over an issue that, in reality, doesn't exist; and it's causing more friction between the United States and Latin America at a time when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been arguing about the need for the US to rebuild ties with our neighbors to the South.

The OAS could vote to extend the invitation to Cuba without the United States' support.
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Israel tries to pass the buck on Palestine

Politicians in Israel's parliament, the Knesset, have come up with an idea on how to solve their Palestinian problem - ship ‘em all to Jordan.

That's the gist of a proposal put forward earlier this week that would name an official Palestinian homeland. The only problem is that the homeland would be Jordan (and no one asked the Jordanians what they thought of this idea before proposing it).

The proposal’s supporters argue that it just makes sense since more than half of the folks in Jordan can trace their roots back to Palestine. But critics say that the proposal is just a thinly-veiled attempt to expel all of the Palestinians from the West Bank, and the proposal has already caused an uproar in Jordan, putting more stress on an already strained relationship between the Israeli and Jordanian governments.

The proposal was put forward by the National Union party, which holds only four seats in the Knesset. Some are saying that the National Union only put the idea forward to cause problems for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu because he didn't include their party in his governing coalition. Netanyahu slammed the Jordan proposal. But members of Jordan's parliament respond by pointing out that the proposal then received 53 votes in the 120-member Knesset, an indication, they say, of broader support for the idea.

Expect a lot more on this topic in the next few days as Barack Obama conducts his whirlwind tour of the Middle East.
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