Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Georgia Started The War: European Report

A report commissioned by the Council of the European Union on last year's conflict between Russia and Georgia has finally been released and the blame for starting the war has been put firmly on the Georgian side.

According to Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, who was the head of the fact-finding mission that researched and drafted the report: "In the mission's view, it was Georgia which triggered off the war when it attacked Tskhinvali (the capital of South Ossetia, and home to about half the region's citizens) with heavy artillery on the night of 7 to 8 August, 2008." The report also contradicts one of the main claims of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili - that Georgia was forced to act to prevent a Russian takeover of his country, saying: "there was no massive Russian military invasion under way" when the Georgians opened fire on Tskhinvali.

The report though has its share of criticism for the Russian side as well saying that the Russians tried to "provoke" the Georgians into action by, among other things, passing out Russian passports to citizens in the disputed regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia; that the Russian military response was 'disproportionate' (in other words far too harsh); and that the Russians (as well as the Georgians) failed to take steps to protect civilians within the conflict zones, and actually allowed ethnic cleansing to take place in villages in South Ossetia - under international law, an occupying force has a responsibility to protect civilians within a conflict zone.

Needless to say, both sides are viewing the report as justifying their actions in the conflict. It's hard though to see how the Georgians can spin this in their favor. The official position of the report is that the Georgian military opened fire on a city filled with civilians in the middle of the night, for no apparently justifiable reason. The report rejected Saakashvili's claim the Russians were massing their forces within Tskhinvali for an invasion of Georgia. It's worth noting that under the agreement that ended the Georgia-South Ossetia and Georgia-Abkhazia conflicts that sprang up in the early 1990's after the Soviet Union disolved, the Russians had the right to station peacekeeping troops within both territories. But having a small force of Russian peacekeepers, who were allowed to be there in the first place, is something quite different than a massive army poised to strike.

It's very clear that both sides, the Russians and the Georgians, were sniping at each other through the early months of 2008 (something we covered here in a number of posts with both sides committing violations of the Sochi cease-fire agreement), but these tit-for-tat measures were nothing new, and in fact were something that Saakashvili was using as a bargaining chip in his efforts to get Georgia into NATO. It will be interesting now to see if this report changes the relationship between the United States and Georgia. Vice President Biden caused a stir when he visited Georgia earlier in the year, giving his support to Georgia in the face of Russian 'aggression', a move the Russians said undermined all the talk of a 'reset' in US-Russian relations that Pres. Obama and Sec. of State Clinton had been pushing just weeks earlier. Now, with the official European report clearly stating that Saakashvili started the war, not to mention the months of domestic protests against his rule as being 'undemocratic' you have to wonder if the United States will continue to cultivate a close relationship with Georgia, at least Georgia as ruled by Mikhail Saakashvili.
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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Internet Kills Off Yugoslavia

ICANN (or more formally The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the folks who regulate the usage of names and domains on the Internet) is pulling the plug on the domain ".yu", thus ending one of the last remaining vestiges of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

ICANN stopped accepting registrations to the ".yu" domain in 2006, but as of September 30, they will officially stop the use of the domain, meaning the 4,000 or so sites still ending in ".yu" will go dark. The Republic of Yugoslavia officially ended in 2006 when its last two republics, Serbia and Montenegro parted ways. According to ICANN, since Yugoslavia no longer exists, there's no need for ".yu" websites and that those pages that still exist should transition to ".rs" or ".me", the respective domains for Serbia and Montenegro.

This isn't the first time ICANN has phased-out a domain for a country that no longer exists, Czechoslovakia (.cs) and East Germany (.dd) both have had their former domains retired. But there is one Cold War relic still going strong on the Internet - ".su", the domain assigned to the Soviet Union. ICANN hoped to rid the Internet of ".su" as well, but so far haven't been able to. In fact in 2008 Russia began accepting new registrations for the domain, even though the Union it represented has been gone for nearly two decades.

As of August 2009, there were more than 80,000 sites registered under the ".su" domain, while a search on Google for pages within ".su" turned up more than eight million hits.
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Monday, September 28, 2009

US and China's Pledges to Fight Climate Change: Progress or Hot Air?

Environmentalists were happy last week to see China's President Hu Jintao commit his country towards fighting the greenhouse gas emissions that are blamed for global climate change. In his UN address, Hu pledged that China would get 15% of their power from non-fossil fuel sources by the end of the next decade and would plant an area of China roughly the size of California in forests to help offset emissions from other sources. Not to be left out, President Obama used his UN speech, in part, to re-commit the United States also to fighting climate change.

Having the two countries responsible for almost half the world's greenhouse gas emissions talk about taking the threat of climate change seriously is a step in the right direction in the view of many environmentalists. But I'd argue that there's actually less here than meets the eye.

This December, nations from around the world will gather in Copenhagen to try to agree to a new global climate change agreement to replace the expiring (and many would argue ineffective) Kyoto Protocols. And that's the problem with the statements of Presidents Hu and Obama - in addition to promising grand, though ultimately vague, goals for projects to fight climate change, each president proposed domestic solutions to a global problem - both China and the United States would set their own goals and judge themselves on how well they meet them.

The problem is that global climate change is a global problem (see the world 'global' is even there in the title). Logically a global problem needs a global solution. But what Hu and Obama are saying is basically: here's our idea on how to curb greenhouse gas emissions within our countries, now wait and we'll tell you how well we do at reaching it. Heading into Copenhagen, diplomats from industrialized nations are pushing for a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions so that global temperatures only rise to 2 degrees C (or 3.6 degrees F) over what they historically were before the world began to industrialize. But without the US and China, and our nearly 50% of the world's emissions, on board it's hard to imagine how that goal could ever be met. And Obama and Hu are already signaling that they'll excuse their respective countries from any kind of global standards on capping and reducing emissions.

Copenhagen is seen as really the last chance to seriously fight global climate change in the coming century. Even the 2C goal is seen by some of those most affected as a weak target. Lost in the shuffle of the UN General Assembly last week was a meeting of the Alliance of Small Island States, or AOSIS, a group of 42 island nations, many of them very low-lying island nations; some, like the Maldives fear they could disappear entirely if ocean levels continue to rise due to the melting of the polar ice caps. AOSIS is pushing for a global warming goal of only 1.5 degrees C, though they admit even limiting global warming to that small amount might be too much for the future survival of their island homes.
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A Wrong Turn in Honduras

Honduras' deposed President Manuel Zelaya might have taken things a step too far in his quest to return to office. As we've talked about in other posts here, Zelaya was removed from power by the Honduran military at the end of June when he tried, apparently illegally, to change the country's constitution to allow him to run for a second term. The US government, along with many others in Latin America, were quick to brand his removal a 'coup', though there is a good case to be made that the military was actually acting to enforce the law under the Honduran constitution.

Last week, Zelaya surprised everyone by sneaking back into Honduras with the help of the Brazilian government, who are now hosting him at their embassy in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. But his return has sparked a crisis in Honduras, with the government briefly placing the country under martial law after Zelaya called for his supporters to spark "a final offensive" on Monday to return him to office.

And that might have been a step too far for his supporters in Washington. Our ambassador to the Organization of American States, Lewis Anselem, slammed Zeyala's actions as "irresponsible and foolish," for creating a crisis out of what had been peaceful and fairly calm negotiations to return Zelaya to power, while also taking a shot at the the Brazilians by saying: "President Zelaya and those who have facilitated his return, bear particular responsibility for the actions of his supporters."

So far the Hondurans have managed to keep things calm in Tegucigalpa, but whether that remains the case is anybody's guess and depends a lot on what Zelaya does next. For now though, it looks like he has hurt his case with some of his most vocal backers if Amb. Anselem's comments are any indication.

The whole situation in Honduras could resolve itself in a little over a month when the country holds the long-scheduled presidential elections to pick Zelaya's successor. Earlier Secretary of State Clinton suggested the United States might not view the winner of that election as the legitimate president of Honduras. It will be interesting to see though, in light of Zelaya's reckless course of action, if the United States backs away from that position.
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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Obama's UN Speech, Too Bad The US Didn't Listen

On Tuesday President Obama addressed the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, and even by Obama's high standards of oratory, it was an excellent speech. In it Obama made pledges to fight climate change, terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons. But more than those lines - which really are the kind of things you expect he'd say in a speech of that magnitude - Obama called on the members of this global body to set aside their petty arguments and actually act together in the best interests of the world on these matters. And if you follow the goings on at the UN at all, then you know that far too often countries turn the UN into a platform to make silly points for consumption in their homelands rather than staying true to the mission of the UN - working together to find solutions to global problems.

So it was great that Obama made ending the pettiness that infects so many UN debates a key point of his speech. It's just too bad our own UN delegation, along with many of our closest allies, ignored him. Just hours later the United States delegation, as well as a number of our allies, all dramatically walked out during the address of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Afterwards the US delegation said they walked out to protest the "hateful, offensive, anti-Semetic rhetoric," of Pres. Ahmadinejad. If you ask me, that's a pretty flimsy excuse for a huge act of public rudeness. Not that I'm endorsing anything Ahmadinejad said, actually I missed his speech, but that's also my point. Going into his address I could give you a pretty decent outline of what he would say: he'll make some controversial remark about Israel, he'll accuse the United States and Great Britain of neo-colonialism and oppressing people around the world, and will defend Iran's right to pursue nuclear research.

I know it, our diplomats know it and anyone who follows the actions of Ahmadinejad know it - that's his schtick. Which makes our walk-out of his speech even more childish, since our diplomats certainly can't claim to be "shocked" at Ahmadinejad giving basically the same speech he's been giving for the past few years.

Obama was right, if the United Nations is ever to live up to it's promise as a global organization, then its members need to stop acting so childish. It's just too bad our own diplomats didn't listen to what he was saying.
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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Dust Storms Darken Sydney

I had to do a post about this because the visuals are just so cool. This past week Sydney, Australia was blanketed by the worst dust storms in nearly 70 years, as high winds deposited inches of the Outback across the city. That sounds pretty bad, but the pictures though looked like something out of Mad Max III, with iconic Sydney landmarks barely visible in the rust-colored sky. Check out this picture below from the London Telegraph of the Sydney Harbour Bridge:

The historic storms were blamed on a combination of long-term drought and high westerly winds. Some parts of Sydney reported several inches of dust on the streets, visibility measured in just feet and the highest air pollution counts on record.
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A Collection of Wars That Never Were

Interesting post from Russia Today on ten wars that never happened. Actually, only some are real conflicts that were narrowly avoided - like a war in the 1850's between the United States and Canada over the killing of a wandering hog (really), while others are hypothetical battles that could have happened if a certain chain of events unfolded, like a study in Collier's Magazine (a popular American publication from the middle of last century) on how World War III between the United States and Soviet Union might have unfolded. If you're into alternative history, it's worth a read.
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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Did Brzezinski Call For The US To Attack Israel?

President Jimmy Carter's National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski gave an interview to Gerald Posner of on President Obama's foreign policy message. Now there's nothing too strange there - an official from a former administration commenting on the current one, but in the interview there was an exchange about a possible Israeli attack on Iran over Iran's nuclear program.

The most direct path from Israel to Iran is over Iraq. Since Iraq doesn't have a functioning air force of its own, that job is being handled by the US Air Force. This led Brzezinski to say if the United States was serious about preventing an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities (which many believe could lead to an all-out regional war), the USAF could "deny" the Israeli use of Iraq's airspace. Brez went on to suggest that a "reverse" of the USS Liberty incident could occur. (In case you don't know, the USS Liberty was a United States Navy ship involved in a 'friendly-fire' incident with the Israeli Air Force in 1967. Israel has always contented it was an unfortunate accident, while the Liberty's crew has never bought the idea that their ship, flying a huge American flag, could be 'mistakenly' attacked for three hours).

Now if it was me doing the interview, my next question to Brzezinski would be: "are you suggesting the USAF shoot down Israeli jets?", in fact I think that would be the follow-up question of most journalism school students. Mr. Posner, listed as The Daily Beast's chief investigative reporter, though apparently didn't think this bombshell was all that important since his next question was on missile defense.

A renowned foreign relations expert suggests the US and Israel get into a shootout and you don't think to follow up on that? Maybe The Daily Beast needs a new chief investigative journalist...
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Europe Cries Foul Over Germany/General Motors Deal

Workers and governments in several European nations are angry over Germany's role in General Motors sale of their European-based Opel brand to a Canadian/Russian consortium. You might remember this post from a few weeks ago about the wheels almost coming off the deal when GM became worried that one of the half of the consortium - Russia's Sberbank, which has close ties to the Kremlin - would funnel GM trade secrets to the Russian auto industry.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel stepped in and threw her weight behind the Sberbank consortium keeping the sale on-track. But now accusations are flying that Merkel in fact cut a deal with Opel and the Russians to protect German jobs. Along with the sale comes a restructuring of Opel, and that means job cuts, about 11,000 of them it's estimated, and the vast majority of them apparently will be outside of Germany.

This is causing some anger around Europe, not the least of which at the Opel factory outside of Antwerp, where thousands of workers staged a mass protest. The factory is facing heavy job cuts even though the Belgians say is their plant is more efficient than Opel plants in Germany that aren't in line for a major restructuring. That has government officials in Belgium, Spain and the United Kingdom suggesting that the German and Russian governments cut a deal for German support of the sale in return for Opel's German factories not facing the job-cutting axe. This is also feeding into lingering unease in some parts of Europe over the close economic relations between Germany and Russia.

Germany's opinion though is that closer economic ties with Russia will bind it closer to Europe and make it a more reliable trading partner in the future.
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The Car Smugglers of Gaza

If you set aside your geopolitical feelings on the region, you have to admit that the Palestinians are a pretty ingenious people.

For years Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have operated tunnels under the Israeli-controlled border between the Strip and Egypt. The Israelis say the tunnels are used by Hamas to smuggle explosives and weapons into Gaza, while the Gazans say that the tunnels are a vital link to the outside world, and are often the only way to bring in the staples of life - food, fuel, medicine, etc. past the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Now something new is coming through the tunnels of Gaza - automobiles.

Smugglers have started to bring entire cars through the small, hand-dug tunnels. The cars, often stolen in Egypt have to be hacked apart into four or more pieces to be hauled through the tunnels. Once on the Gaza side, they're reassembled and even painted in the new owners' choice of color. The cars aren't cheap - they sell for at least twice as much in Gaza as they would in Egypt, but demand is reportedly high - hundreds of cars were reported destroyed in Israel's military campaign in January, while many others stopped running because of a lack of spare parts.
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Monday, September 21, 2009

The Un-Coup in Honduras

Since last June I've been following the "coup" in Honduras (and just in case you haven't, the military there removed President Manuel Zelaya from power and sent him into exile the night before a referendum he backed to rewrite the Honduran constitution to allow him to serve a second term was scheduled to be held). The Obama administration quickly branded the military's action a coup and has demanded that Zelaya be returned to power, even suspending foreign aid to Honduras in protest.

My take on events though, after reading a bit about Honduras' constitution was that the military was acting to uphold the law - the Honduran constitution specifically bars anyone from serving more than one term as president and goes on to state that anyone who tries to amend this part of the constitution (like Zelaya was trying to do) must be removed from office, immediately.

Now, according to today's Wall Street Journal, the Congressional Research Service backs up my take on Honduran law - stating that they see the military's action in removing Zelaya from power: "to be in accordance with the Honduran legal system." The WSJ goes on to say in their editorial that the United States is actually pressuring the Hondurans to violate their own laws with our demand that they bring Zelaya back to power and even claims that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has "an obsession" with Honduras, though unlike the Congressional Research Service, the Wall Street Journal never answers the question of why the US is backing Zelaya or their claim that Clinton is obsessed with any research or facts.
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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Afghan Update: Stealing an Election

President Hamid Karzai got a little closer to "winning" the election in Afghanistan this week as an unofficial tally gave him just over 54% of the vote - enough to avoid a run-off with the man in second place, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. Charges of wide-spread vote fraud though continue to swirl and Karzai himself admitted that there were some "irregularities" in the August election. But he insisted that it wasn't part of a government-backed attempt to steal the vote, but rather a few isolated incidents by people who just love him so much they couldn't help themselves from voting for him two or three or fifty times.

Lame as that excuse is, it just might be enough to keep him in office. So far the international community, while not happy with the Afghani election, seems awfully reluctant to step in and declare it a fraud. The United Nations is "confident" that any issues with the election can be sorted out and have ordered their independent Electoral Complaints Commission to do a recount of 10% of the ballots.

That sounds great, except if you do a recount of fraudulently stuffed ballot boxes, all you're doing is counting a lot of bogus votes a second time - you're not getting at the heart of the fraud, you're just endorsing its results. And apparently there are some people within the UN mission who aren't happy with their bosses' decisions. Peter Galbraith, America's top diplomat in the UN Afghan mission, abruptly left Afghanistan, apparently over a disagreement with his boss over the handling of the vote fraud. Galbraith wanted to toss out the results from 1,000 polling stations and recount those from 5,000 more - a much more aggressive stance than the UN position of just recounting votes from 1,000 stations.

The international community has been reluctant to go that far, and likely won't in the future. Their position is that its better to let a fraudulent election stand than to risk the chaos that could be caused by trying to hold a new election with the harsh Afghan winter fast approaching and the Taliban active in much of the country.

So much for that idea of trying to bring democracy to Afghanistan...
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Big Week Ahead For The International Community

This week is going to be like the Superbowl for folks interested in International Affairs with heads of state from nations around the world addressing the UN General Assembly in New York AND also a meeting of the G20 nations (the world's top industrial and developing countries) taking place in Pittsburgh. So expect to hear a lot of stories in the coming week about the environment, the question of what to do about Iran, and on the global economy.

On that last point, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy is planning to urge his fellow G20 heads of state to adopt the 'Tobin Tax' (named for the American economist who came up with the idea in the 1970s). Basically the Tobin Tax is a tax on financial transactions - Sarkozy says it will reduce the number of speculative, high-risk, short-term deals made by financial traders and instead will encourage longer-term, strategic investment.

His fellow heads of state have already said the Tobin Tax idea is a non-starter, though most agree that something needs to be done to better regulate the global financial system and that a global approach is needed, otherwise financial traders will just move from places that are tightly-regulated to places that are not.

It should be an interesting week.
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Russian Billionaire to Bail Out Nets?

Could Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov be riding to the rescue of the New Jersey Nets? Word is that Prokhorov is willing to foot the bill for the Nets proposed new $700 million arena in the heart of Brooklyn in return for a majority ownership stake in the team.

If you live around NYC, then you know that the Nets move to Brooklyn has been years in coming and is starting to look like it may never happen. Ambitious plans for a huge complex designed by famed architect Frank Gehry, that would have included a signature skyscraper dubbed "Miss Brooklyn" have been scaled back several times, and Gehry himself was finally replaced as project architect in a cost-cutting move. But still, no progress has been made, though shovels have to hit the ground by December or else the Nets owners will lose millions in tax-free bonds put up by the city for construction of the arena. So Prokhorov's offer could be the last chance for the project to be built.

Prokhorov is now regarded as Russia's richest man, with a fortune of just under $10 billion (though it is said he's lost about 40% of his wealth in the recent economic downturn). He made much of his fortune from Norilsk Nickel, Russia's largest mining firm and owns a share of Moscow CSKA in Russia's basketball SuperLeague.
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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Sanity Rules in Missile Shield Decision

President Obama's decision to pull the plug on missile defense shield bases in Poland and the Czech Republic is being blasted by his critics as either (another) sign of his weakness, a sell-out of our allies in Eastern Europe, bowing needlessly to the Russians, or any combination of the three.

Of course another take could be that it again shows the Obama administration's willingness to actually give up on over-priced military projects of dubious need and quality. Earlier this summer Defense Secretary William Gates cut the Air Force's F-22 Raptor program - the Raptor is the United States most advanced fighter aircraft, but it also costs more than a quarter billion dollars a pop, hasn't been used in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and spends about as much time down for maintenance as it does actually in the air. So Gates decided to cap the fleet at around 170, and not acquire the roughly 100 more the Air Force, and more importantly a host of defense contractors who would build them, wanted.

Missile defense has been another hugely expensive military project. And one that many scientists (the ones not directly benefiting from the project at least) doubt would ever work as advertised. Past the huge technical challenge (missile defense is often described as hitting a bullet with a bullet), there was always a nagging question of what missile defense would be protecting Europe from in the first place. Protection from "rogue states" were always cited as the missile shield's reason for being, and this was usually taken to mean "Iran", of course why Iran would choose to launch a missile at Warsaw or Prague in the first place was never really explained.

But this hasn't stopped Obama's critics as using his decision as another reason to attack him, so let's take a quick look at their charges. Claims that we're abandoning our allies in Eastern Europe are weak; that we're 'stabbing them in the back' like the Weekly Standard charges, are just silly. First, there was never a great cry from Europe for us to install a missile shield to protect them from rogue states in the first place. Second, polls showed that a majority of the Czech people were firmly against their country hosting the high-powered radar needed by the shield, support even from their government was iffy at best. Finally the country most upset about the loss of the shield is Poland, which would have hosted the interceptors, and was looking forward to their participation as part of building a strong relationship with the United States (and likely the source of much military-based funding from the US). But Former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski says it's wrong to call the decision to cut the program a betrayal of Poland, and that Poland's security interests are still protected by the United States since both countries are members of NATO.

So what about Russia? The Russians were happy to hear of the missile shield's demise, they have been staunchly opposed to the project since it was announced. Some of that opposition was that they didn't want the Americans messing around in what they feel is their back yard (just like the US was upset last year when Russian military forces conducted exercises in the Caribbean). But it goes deeper than that. When NATO started to take on Eastern European countries as members, President Bill Clinton told the Russians not to worry that NATO wouldn't spread to countries that were once part of the Soviet Union - then NATO promptly took in the three former Soviet Baltic republics. But the Russians were told they didn't have to worry about NATO since it was a 'strictly defensive' alliance - then NATO went and launched an offensive bombing campaign against Serbia over their treatment of Kosovo (the first time NATO ever acted on behalf of a non-member). So when the US told Russia they had nothing to worry about from missile bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, there wasn't a great reservoir of trust on the Russian side.

Russia was happy to hear talk about a 'reset' of relations from the Obama administrations, but they also wanted to see something concrete. Halting the missile shield they bitterly opposed will be a step in that direction. And in response, Russia has suspended plans to move their own ballistic missiles into the Kaliningrad exclave next to Poland. So while that's a positive step, expectations that Russia will now support US-led plans for "crippling" sanctions against Iran over their nuclear program are probably misguided. If anything, Russia is likely to use the United States' decision to shelve the missile shield as reason not to sanction Iran, since (they'll say) the Iranian threat obviously isn't that bad if the United States is willing to stop their installation of a missile shield.
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75% of Oklahoma Students Can't Name The First President

Seriously. That is the result of a new study conducted by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, which surveyed high school students in Oklahoma to measure their knowledge of civic affairs (by the way kids, the answer is George Washington - his picture is on money, and they named a bridge after him, and a state, and the nation's capital...).

And as the late Billy Mays use to say, but wait, there's more...The survey didn't just ask students to name the first President, they took ten questions at random from the test the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services gives to people applying to become naturalized citizens. Other questions included: "What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution?" (only 26% of OK students got that one correct); "We elect a U.S. senator for how many years?" (11% correct); and "What are the two major political parities in the United States?" (43% correct).

On average, 92% of the immigrants who take the citizenship test pass; based on their responses to the ten sample questions though, only three percent of Oklahoma high school students would earn their citizenship if they had to take the full test. Three percent! And just to make it seem like we're not picking on Oklahoma here, Brandon Dutcher of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs said that Arizona reported similar results when they tested their high schoolers.
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China's New BFF, East Timor

We've written here before about how China is throwing around huge sums of money in Africa in return for access to the resource wealth of a number of African nations. Now China is courting a new friend closer to home, the tiny nation of East Timor (or Timor Leste as it's known in Portuguese).

East Timor has a tumultuous recent history. The largely Roman Catholic former Portuguese colony finally won its independence from largely Muslim Indonesia after three decades of brutal occupation by the Indonesians. That occupation left between 100,000 and 200,000 Timorese dead and the country largely in ruins. So along with being one of the world's newest countries, East Timor is also one of its least developed.

But East Timor does have potentially huge oil and natural gas reserves, along with valuable mineral deposits, so in comes China. So far the Chinese government has spent more than $50 million on East Timor - a fraction, Reuters points out, of the $700 million in aid East Timor's main patron, Australia, has spent so far on the country - but China has spent its money in high-profile ways, building government buildings that include the new Presidential Palace, the Ministry of Defense and the Foreign Ministry headauarters. China is also investing in building two power plants in the capital, Dili. Chinese entrepreneurs are also heading to East Timor, opening stores in Dili and building on a cultural link between the two countries that dates back 500 years when Chinese sailors first set up a trading post in Dili.

In return, China is hoping that their state-run oil company, PetroChina, will be allowed to sign lucrative deals to drill in the potentially rich oil deposits off the coast of East Timor. Of course Chinese officials say that their foreign aid isn't meant to influence the Timorese government when the time comes to award the oil and gas contracts.
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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

East Africa Joins The High-Speed Web

Web surfing in Kenya, and other parts of East Africa is getting a lot faster. The second of three new undersea fiber-optic broadband cables went live over the weekend - the TEAMS cable joined another called Seacom, which started operating earlier in the summer, in bringing broadband services to Kenya. A third undersea cable is expected to come online in the near future.

With few landlines, until now most Kenyans had to rely on cellphones, or if they could afford it, satellite data uplinks to access the web. The new cables then have the potential to link PCs around the country to the Internet and to the global community for the first time. One entrepreneur put it this way to the BBC: "we have just opened our market from 37 million to six billion," going on to then tout the growth potential for Kenya and Africa opened by the new cables.

That is if people can afford it. A growing criticism is that the companies who own the cables right now are charging far more than the average Kenyan can pay for the service. For example, one ISP is charging $1,440 a year for a one megabyte per second connection, while the average salary in Kenya is just $800. Until prices come down, critics say, the cables won't have a great impact in the lives of many Kenyans.

But supporters of the Internet project say that the biggest problem is that the effects of the cables were oversold - that Kenyan ISPs mae it seem like the cables would change Kenya's Internet access overnight. Prices will come down, they say, as more infrastructure is built and as more people sign up for Internet service.

But even now, easier access to the Web is starting to filter down to rural communities, where some are getting access to the Internet for the first time. Kenya's ISPs and government are promising that much faster, and much cheaper, 'net access is just around the corner.
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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

US Commandos Raid Somalia (So What About Afghanistan?)

Stories started to dribble out of Somalia yesterday afternoon about a raid staged by 'foreign commandos' against local Islamic insurgents. It turns out that those foreign commandos were actually US Special Forces troops and their target was Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan - the man the US says was behind the bombing of the American embassy in Nairobi, Kenya in 1998 that killed more than 200 people and was al-Qaeda's biggest terror attack prior to 9/11. In addition, Nabhan was also said to be a high-ranking leader of Somalia's homegrown al-Shabab Islamic movement, which is currently locked in pitched a battle with the Somali Transitional Government for control of the capital city, Mogadishu.

According to reports, US forces used helicopters to attack a convoy Nabhan was traveling in though an al-Shabab stronghold in southern Somalia. After the aerial attack, US commandos landed and scooped up what's thought to be Nabhan's body along with, according to some accounts, other al-Shabab men wounded in the attack and intelligence material.

Needless to say, al-Shabab is rather angry about the death of Nabhan and has already released a statement saying that western countries, the United States in particular, "will taste the bitterness of our response." Meanwhile Sheikh Abdullahi Sheikh Abu Yussuf, leader of a government-allied militia fighting against al-Shabab, chalked the raid up to Divine intervention: "God has sent bombers against al-Shabab. We hope more aircraft will destroy the rest of al-Shabab, who have abused Islam and massacred Somalis." Fighting between al-Shabab and the TNG has killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands of people from Mogadishu.

US intelligence has said for some time now that al-Qaeda is hoping to use Somalia's current status as a failed, lawless state to carve out a new base of operations for themselves, employing al-Shabab as their local muscle to help get the job done. That Nabhan had links both to a major al-Qaeda terror attack and the al-Shabab leadership shows that they are making progress on that front. The United States decision to put 'boots on the ground', albiet briefly, can be a sign that the US is taking Somalia more seriously as well. US forces have launched strikes in Somalia before, but in recent years they've been in the form of gunships or missile strikes; perhaps due to reluctant to have a repeat of the "Blackhawk Down" incident from 1993, Somalia has been a no-go zone for US troops.

So if the US and al-Qaeda are both looking towards Somalia, then what about Afghanistan? On the eight anniversary of 9/11 our top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, told Dutch officials that: "I do not see indications of a large al-Qaida presence in Afghanistan now." (Possibly because they're all heading to Somalia and Yemen - al-Qaeda's other rumored new base of operations).

Our top commander admits that al-Qaeda, our motivation for getting involved in Afghanistan in the first place, is no longer there in a meaningful way. A few days later US forces stage an the biggest operation so far against al-Qaeda thousands of miles away in Somalia, which has to beg the question: why are we staying in Afghanistan anyway?
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Dylan Ratigan Goes Populist

What's in the water over at MSNBC?

I'll admit that I wasn't thrilled a few months ago when MSNBC gave a show to former CNBC talker Dylan Ratigan. It had nothing to do with Dylan per se, it was more because, in my opinion, even by the low standards of American journalism today, financial reporters are incredibly inept. The 'journalists' on CNBC, FNC, the Wall Street Journal, etc. tend to be little more than cheerleaders for Wall Street, don't you think at least some of our recent economic problems could have been avoided if a few members of the financial press asked a few tough questions about the way 'The Street' had been cooking the books on the mortgage and real estate markets for years?

But a funny thing has happened with Dylan Ratigan. Since coming back from his late August vacation, Dylan's turned into a rabid populist. Check out this column he wrote a few days ago for the Huffington Post, where he basically calls Congress and the President out for caring more about Wall Street than Main Street and asking why, after last September's economic meltdown, haven't new laws been passed to regulate the financial industry? I happened to catch part of his "Morning Meeting" show today and he was similarly wound up about the health care debate.

Rather than slamming the White House for trying to take over America's health care system though (the main conservative talking point on the issue), Dylan was slamming them, and Congress, for pushing a 'reform' package that will entrench the grip a few insurance companies currently have over the system. He was fuming that the proposals, so far, don't allow consumers to shop around for their own health care - assuming they are covered by their employer, and asked why the debate so far had focused on the very rich, or very poor, ignoring - again in his words - the 200 million Americans in the middle.

Dylan was fired up and asking tough questions about the government and the economic system. It's an example I wish other members of the financial press would follow, hell, I wish members of the press in general would follow it too.
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Iraqi Shoe Thrower Claims He Was Tortured

Remember Muntazer al-Zaidi? He was the Iraqi journalist who turned into a regional folk hero after he chucked both his shoes at then-President George W. Bush during a press conference last December. That act earned him a three year sentence in prison for insulting a foreign head of state (to strike someone with a shoe is considered a grave insult in many Arab cultures).

Al-Zaidi got a gift today, an early release from jail, after serving just nine months of his sentence. And being a journalist, it's no surprise that al-Zaidi is talking.

He claims that he was tortured while in prison and fears that now he's out US intelligence forces will hunt him down, a fear that he's taking so seriously that al-Zaidi won't move into a house his employer, al-Baghdadia television in Baghdad, bought for him until he arranges for his own security detail.

Actually, the claims of torture are nothing new, soon after his arrest the New York Times, among other news sites, reported that al-Zaidi had apparently been beaten while in custody, and had even had a tooth knocked out. Al-Zaidi claimed that a confession/apology he made a few days after the event was due to this torture. In his impromptu press conference outside the prison gates, al-Zaidi said that he was regularly tortured by Iraqi officials, suffering beatings, electric shocks and exposure to extreme cold. Al-Zaidi has promised to name "senior Iraqi officials" he said were involved in his mistreatment.

After the shoe throw, al-Zaidi became a folk hero in many parts of the Mid East. He said that he threw his shoes to protest the American occupation of his country.
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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Setting the Stage for Putin II: The Sequel?

An offhand comment during a two-hour Q-and-A with a collection of Russia experts has sparked a new round of speculation that Vladimir Putin could be planning to again run for president of Russia. According to the Russian constitution, no one can serve more than two consecutive terms (unlike the US where no one can be elected to more than two terms period), meaning Putin can legally run for election in 2012, and presumably re-election in 2018.

Right now Putin is serving as prime minister, while the presidency is held by Dmitry Medvedev. The two refer to their arrangement as 'tandem' rule, while critics tend to paint Medvedev as someone who's little more than Putin's hand-picked puppet and official seat-warmer. But I am wondering if Putin and Medvedev might be engaging in a little bit of 'good cop/bad cop'.

Last Monday I wrote that Medvedev was talking about slapping restrictions on the sale of alcohol in Russia. On Friday Medvedev moved from talking to acting, ordering the Russian Duma (their parliament) to draft laws within 90 days that would restrict advertising, producing and selling alcohol in Russia, while also giving local officials the authority to ban the sale and/or consumption of alcohol at certain times of day and in specific locations of their choosing. The British medical journal The Lancet has reported that alcohol abuse accounts for nearly half the deaths among Russians aged 19-54, and is a major factor in the terribly short life expectancy of Russian men (just 59 years).

The last Russian leader to try to slap restrictions on the use of alcohol, Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, was roundly attacked for his efforts and saw his popularity plummet, which brings me back to the good cop/bad cop argument. Could Medvedev be pushing reforms like the restriction on alcohol, and another long-discussed campaign against corruption - reforms that are desperately needed, yet will be deeply unpopular, as the 'bad cop', knowing it will destroy his popularity, allowing Putin to step in in 2012 to retake the reigns of power after someone else did the dirty work for him?

It's something to think about.
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Karzai Poised to Steal, err Win, Election

News out of Afghanistan is that with nearly all the votes counted, President Hamid Karzai has just over 54% of the total, enough for him to avoid a run-off with second place finisher and former Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. The other news out of Afghanistan is that basically no one outside of Karzai's coalition of warlords and drug runners believes the outcome of the election.

Afghanistan's election commission is dealing with now thousands of complaints about vote-rigging, more than 600 of them deemed 'serious' (as in they could affect the outcome of the election) and ballots from nearly 100 polling stations have already been tossed out. Officials told the AFP that it could take "months" to sort out the remaining complaints and declare a winner in the August election, and that's bad for several reasons. Not only would it mean that Afghanistan, in effect, wouldn't have a government for the next few months, if Karzai doesn't get 50%+1 in the vote total it would trigger the need for a run-off between him and Abdullah - in winter, a time when much of Afghanistan becomes impassible.

Which is why Western diplomats are said to already be pushing the two sides to come together in a coalition government (much like the compromises that were brokered to end political gridlocks in Kenya and Zimbabwe). Problem is that neither Karzai nor Abdullah is in the mood for compromise. The growing fear now (among the Western diplomats at least) is that Abdullah could marshal his supporters into an insurgency against the Karzai government, which would turn Afghanistan into a three-sided fight of Karzai vs. Abdullah vs. the Taliban, with the US/NATO coalition stuck in the middle.
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Dubai Goes Metro

Dubai, the oil-rich city on the Persian Gulf that in recent years has engaged in a number of mind-boggling building projects including the Palms artificial islands (built in the shape of palm trees of course) and Burj Dubai, now the world's tallest building, opened another massive project on Wednesday - the Gulf region's first Metro rail system.

The Metro Red Line opened with much fanfare on Wednesday and carried more than 100,000 riders during its first two days of operation (that's nearly 10% of Dubai's total population). Though how many of them were actual commuters and how many were just trying out the latest attraction in a city full of attractions remains to be seen. The purpose of the Red Line though is to relieve traffic in car crazy, and chronically congested, Dubai. Some riders though complained of delays and equipment malfunctions on the line's first day of service, though by Thursday some of the problems had already been corrected.

If you'd like to see what the fuss is about, then check out the video below from one of CNN's "iReporters", who filmed his ride on the line from one end to the other and then sped the video up so that you're traveling about 800mph (keep in mind, the real Metro doesn't travel nearly this fast).

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

More Recognition for Abkhazia, South Ossetia

Add Venezuela to the list of countries recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia's independence from Georgia. Of course, that's a pretty short list that includes Russia and Nicaragua, and that's it. But it is at least a little boost for the independence dreams of the two breakaway regions, and another reason for the United States to be angry with Hugo Chavez. The US continues to push for "support for Georgia's territorial integrity", despite explicitly NOT respecting Serbia's territorial integrity when it comes to Kosovo...but that's a topic we've talked about here on numerous occasions, so no need to rehash now.

So why did Pres. Chavez make the decision about Abkhazia and South Ossetia now? He's in the middle of a world tour and today's stop had him speaking with Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev - Russia is the patron of both would-be countries. And according to the last line in the VOA story: "President Medvedev also announced that Russia will sell Venezuela tanks and whatever weapons it asks for."
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What's Faster, The Internet or a Pigeon?

Like an old sportscaster in New York use to say, if you took the Internet, you lost!

To protest what they said where chronic transmission delays on South Africa's supposedly broadband network, the tech firm Unlimited IT decided to stage a race - they would attempt to send a 4 gig file between their two offices 60 miles apart via an email, while also sending the same data on a flash memory drive strapped to the leg of Winston the homing pigeon.

Winston covered the 60 miles to Unlimited IT's office in Durban in just over an hour, while the staff took another hour to upload the file from the flash drive. Their broadband connection, meanwhile had only transmitted 4% of the same file. So not only did Winston win, he whipped the Internet (of course the race had its own website and hundreds were said to have followed Winston's progress on race day via Facebook and Twitter).

South Africa's biggest Internet provider, Telkom, said that they couldn't be held responsible for the slow data transmission speeds. South Africans though are hoping a series of new fiber optic cables will boost speed on the Internet. Winston, meanwhile, was said to be basking in his victory
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Monday, September 7, 2009

Woman Spared Lash For 'Indecent' Pants, For Now

For Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein a pair of pants has become a political statement. In July she and four dozen other women were arrested for wearing pants that Sudan's authorities declared were 'indecent'. The women were all part of a public protest against the law, which they say is enforced arbitrarily - women often wear trousers in Sudan, yet they can be punished if some official decides the pants show too much of the woman's 'shape', and the punishment can be up to 40 lashes from a whip.

Hussein works as a press officer for the United Nations in Sudan's capital, Khartoum, so technically she is regarded as a diplomat by the Sudanese government. But as part of her challenge against the lash law, Hussein waived her diplomatic immunity.

Her case rather quickly became an international rights embarrassment for Sudan. The government thought it had found a face-saving way out of the legal mess they'd created - the court in Khartoum on Monday decided instead to fine Hussein 500 Sudanese pounds (about $200) and spare the lash. But Hussein isn't letting this rest, now she's refusing to pay the fine, saying that she would prefer to go to prison - of face the 10 lashes that was her original sentence - in order to keep the world's attention focused on Sudan's discriminatory dress code. About 100 supporters - mostly women - gathered outside the courthouse on Monday, chanting "no to whipping!"
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Medvedev Set To Tackle Alcohol

Demographics are a hot topic in Russia. A Russian woman can today expect to live into her mid-70s, a stat roughly on par with life expectancies for women in Western Europe and the United States. Life expectancies for Russian men are a different story altogether - the average Russian man will die just before his 60th birthday, a statistic more in line with the Third World rather than the First. What's the reason behind the dramatically shorter lifespans of Russian men? According to the British medical journal, The Lancet, excessive alcohol and tobacco use. Alcohol-related diseases, the Lancet reports, account for half the deaths of Russians between the ages of 15 and 54. Andrei Demin, of the Public Health Association, an NGO in Moscow, says that the average Russian adult drinks 50 bottles of vodka a year.

President Dmitry Medvedev, apparently, has had enough. He's been on a PR crusade in the past few months to encourage his countrymen to moderate their alcohol intake, but so far has seen few results from his campaign. So now he's ordering his government to work on new laws that would put restrictions on alcohol use and sales.

The Soviet Union's last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, tried something similar, cutting vodka production while simultaneously hiking prices, and was roundly hated for it. Besides, the man-on-the-street critics say, Russians kept drinking anyway - in some cases poisonous homebrews of industrial alcohols that killed would-be tipplers. But Medvedev recently has praised Gorbachev's efforts, pointing out that it did help to at least temporarily boost Russia's sagging demographics.

Taking on Russia's love of drink is another area where Medvedev is wading into an issue that his predecessor, Vladimir Putin acknowledged but avoided. The Public Health Association's Demin notes that during his time as president, Putin put the issue of alcohol and tobacco abuse on his political agenda, but did little about either and never slapped serious taxes on either substance (a move all sides seem to agree would reduce usage). Even as Moscow has become one of the world's most expensive cities, a pack of cigarettes can still be bought for as little as 30 cents, a bottle of beer for under a dollar.
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Mongolian Nazis

No, it's not a plot twist in the next Indiana Jones movie, but a fascinating report I saw on Russia Today about the growing appeal of Nazi symbols and ideology in, of all places, Mongolia.

Mongolian nationalists are adopting Nazi ideas of racial purity and adapting it to their own situation - nationalists fear the growing influence of China in their country (there are about 2.5 million Mongolians vs. a billion plus Chinese just to the south). Mongolian nationalists fear that Chinese immigrants will "take their jobs" and "marry Mongol women," some of the nationalists are now talking about "using force" to repel the Chinese they feel are slowly taking over their country.

"There was a country called Manchuria about 90 years ago. Now the nation doesn't exist. They have mixed with the Chinese and now they look Chinese," the leader of the nationalist group 'Entire Mongolia' explained to RT on why the Chinese influx needs to be stopped.

And that's where the Nazi ideology comes into play. RT points out that the swastika is an ancient Mongolian symbol, but that it takes on a different meaning when paired with SS lightning bolt insignia. Their report showed young men with shaved heads and swastika tattoos, you could think it was a report on American skinheads, except that the young men were clearly Asian. RT also visited a restaurant in the capital, Ulan Bator that is decked out in Nazi propaganda posters and Wehrmacht uniforms, though the owners insist the place is just a 'theme' restaurant and not a political statement (can you imagine a Nazi eatery in Berlin?)

So far the Mongolian Nazi activities have largely been limited to reporting illegal Chinese and Korean immigrants to the authorities and tagging sites around Ulan Bator with swastikas, but you have to wonder if soon the Mongolian skinheads won't make good on their threats of violence.
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Sunday, September 6, 2009

IMF Loan to Zimbabwe Sparks (More) Fighting

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) threw Zimbabwe a lifeline last week when they approved a half-billion dollar loan to prop up the African country's crippled economy. Officials within Zimbabwe's unity government hope that this could be a sign that the international aid community is once again willing to open their wallets to the southern African country. The IMF halted their aid to Zimbabwe in 2002 to protest President Robert Mugabe's slow slide into dictatorship.

Of course nothing ever happens in Zimbabwe these days without political infighting between Pres. Mugabe's side and that of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. The Prime Minister's MDC party is trying to keep the IMF funds out of the hands of Gideon Gono, governor of Zimbabwe's Reserve Bank and a member of Mugabe's ZANU-PF party. The MDC blames Gono for economic policies that resulted in the worst inflation rate the world has ever seen - remember this picture from January of the Zimbabwean $500 billion bill?

The MDC also worries that Gono could use the economic power the IMF funds give him to further undermine the power-sharing government and boost the fortunes of Pres. Mugabe.

It's estimated by international financial experts that Zimbabwe would need at least $10 billion to rebuild its shattered economy - assuming that $10 billion was actually used for financial reconstruction and not skimmed off by the political elite. IMF loan aside, most foreign governments are still not ready to start sending aid directly to the Zimbabwean government until more reforms take place.
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Cuba Gets Huge Chinese Loan

Meanwhile China was doling out the cash as well on Thursday - Wu Bangguo, head of the Chinese parliament, used his visit to Havana to announce a package of Chinese loans and grants to the island totaling more than $600 million. Of that amount, $260 million are in the forms of loans for Cuba to buy grain from China, while $300 million more will go towards upgrading Cuba's telecommunications network. China will also help Cuba on a number of other projects covering everything from improving traffic signals to animal husbandry.

The influx of cash was a welcome gift for Cuba, which has been suffering economically due to the global recession that even forced President Raul Castro to introduce a package of austerity measures earlier this summer. You also have to wonder if China's generosity wasn't spurred by last year's announcement that there could be as many as 20 billion barrels of oil in fields in Cuban territorial waters.
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Saturday, September 5, 2009

Update On Russia's 'Volgograd Obama'

You might remember this post from July about Joachim Crima, the man who hoped to become Russia's first elected black politician. Crima passed an important milestone last week when he officially registered to run for a seat on the local council of the Srednyaya Akhtuba District outside the southern Russian city of Volgograd.

Crima is originally from Guinea-Bissau, like thousands of other Africans he went to Russia to attend university, in Crima's case at the school in Volgograd. He married an Armenian woman, settled down in a small village outside of the city and started his own business selling watermelons at the local market.

The BBC caught up with Crima last week to talk with him about his campaign. His first challenge was to just convince people that his candidacy was for real and not a publicity stunt. But he insists he is in the race to win, running on a platform of improving government services in the rural villages outside Volgograd - some of which lack drivable roads or reliable water supplies. And he said that people are warming to his campaign.

Still, some people around Volgograd joke that the 'Russian Obama's' campaign slogan should be “no he can't.” And a few days before talking with Crima, the BBC ran this story: “Africans 'under seige' in Moscow” about how common racially-motivated attacks against blacks have become in Moscow. According to the report, 60% of those Africans living in Russia's capital who participated in the survey reported that they had been physically assaulted. A rise in nationalism has fed suspicion of foreigners and the fact that since people of African descent make up less than 1% of the population, they are a very visible minority group are two of the main factors behind the rise in attacks.

A casual attitude toward racism doesn't help. Even Joachim Crima plays into racial attitudes with his own campaign slogan: he pledges to “work like a negro for Russia” (in other words very hard) if elected. But Crima is also optimistic that racial attitudes will improve in Russia, and that one day a black man (or woman) will be elected to office, even if it's not him. Then maybe as a final concession towards existing racial attitudes, the BBC reports that on the campaign trail, Crima is shadowed everywhere by a very large bodyguard.
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The more news that comes out of Afghanistan, the more it looks like their presidential election last month was an outright fraud. The latest is that one district expected to be a stronghold for the leading challenger, former Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, supposedly, cast 100% of its ballots for current President Hamid Karzai. And if that doesn't sound phony enough, some individual polling stations turned in ballot boxes with exactly 500 votes in them, all for Karzai.

Similar results are coming in from across Afghanistan. Local tribal leaders are saying that government troops kept them from opening polling stations in their villages, yet ballot boxes filled with votes (most or all for Karzai) were turned in from these same stations to national election officials. Others say that ballot boxes arrived at the polling sites already sealed and filled with votes (that saves time on election day I suppose). Earlier in the week Abdullah showed a video that he said was of a ballot box being stuffed with ballot sheets all marked for Karzai - in fact the markings on the individual ballots were so similar that Abdullah suggested they were pre-printed with votes for Karzai already cast. And what happened to some of those votes that were cast for Abdullah or any of the three dozen or so other candidates? Another tribal leader said in the Times that he saw those ballots being burned by Karzai supporters.

Afghanistan's Electoral Complaints Commission says they are investigating more than 600 'serious' complaints, though the Independent Election Commission (IEC), the folks doing the actual vote-counting, are sticking by the integrity of the vote, though here it's worthwhile pointing out that the IEC members were mostly appointed by Karzai himself. The international community so far has been reluctant to call the election a fraud despite the growing evidence that it was.

One person that doesn't seem to want to stand by and let Karzai (apparently) steal the election is Dr. Abdullah, who has been holding near daily press conferences to keep the stories about vote fraud alive in the international media, even if the international diplomats would like to sweep them under the rug. Nor are at least some of Afghanistan's tribal elders willing to let this one pass either. On Tuesday hundreds gathered to protest the sham election results and to call on Karzai to step down. By Friday some of Abdullah's supporters were warning of what they called "Iran-style protests", only this time with the Afghan twist of being protests "with Kalashnikovs.”

But despite all the (alleged) vote rigging, Karzai still has not gotten the 50.1% of the vote he needs to avoid a run-off against the second place challenger, Dr. Abdullah. Final, official results in the Afghani election aren't expected until mid-September. Expect a lot more tales of vote-stealing between now and then.
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Friday, September 4, 2009

US Sanctions Honduras For Trying To Uphold Their Constitution

The State Department announced that they're cutting off $30 million in US foreign aid to Honduras and could cut off $200 million more because Honduras' interim government is refusing to allow disposed President Manuel Zelaya to return to power.

The State Dept. insists that the Honduran military's removal of Zelaya from office on June 28 was a coup d'etat, and therefore illegal. We're insisting that he be allowed to return to the country and the presidency. But there's a pretty strong case to be made that the Honduran government was actually upholding their constitution and that the one in the wrong here is Zelaya.

He was removed from office the day before the holding of a referendum that he ordered to amend the constitution to let him serve a second term in office. The problem is that the Honduran constitution pretty clearly spells out that the one-term limit on the presidency can't be amended and that anyone trying to do so must be removed from office immediately. Honduras' legislature told Zelaya not to hold the referendum, so did their supreme court, but Zelaya was going ahead with it anyway. So in the end, the military stepped in, removed Zelaya from office and deposited him in neighboring Costa Rica apparently to stop a major violation of Honduran constitutional law.

Maybe it's just because we're not use to militaries removing presidents to uphold their constitutions, but the US has been solidly behind Zelaya since June. This whole problem could resolve itself in November when Honduras holds its scheduled presidential election (since Zelaya legally couldn't run for reelection he'd be out of office anyway), but now, according to the LA Times, the State Dept. is making noise about not recognizing the winner of that election as Honduras' new president either. Zelaya has some pretty powerful friends in Washington.
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One Giant Oops For Bangladeshi News

It should have been the biggest story of the decade - proof that the Moon landings in 1969 were in fact an elaborate hoax. The problem for Bangladesh's Daily Manab Zamin and New Nation newspapers was the source - the satirical American newspaper/website The Onion.

This week, The Onion ran one of their usual funny faux news stories: "Conspiracy Theorist Convinces Neil Armstrong Moon Landing Was Faked." In it Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, says he was convinced that the landing was fake after reading blog posts from a moon landing conspiracy theorist and admitted that he mis-remembered the events of July 1969.

The Daily Manab Zamin newspaper stumbled across The Onion story without realizing it was a joke, translated it into Bengali and ran it as front page news. The story was then picked up by the New Nation the next day. Hasanuzzuman Khan, associate editor at the Daily Manab Zamin, later admitted his paper's error and ran an apology. "We thought it was true so we printed it without checking," Khan said.

Of course checking your sources is Journalism 101. You can forgive the folks in far off Bangladesh for not knowing that The Onion was a joke newspaper (well one that's intentionally a joke, not like the New York Post say), but didn't they think that such a huge story would be the lead on a major news source like CNN or the BBC? The lesson for the Bangladesh news corps - always get two sources (some more J-school 101 knowledge).
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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Ticking Off The Neighbours

It seems like there's another group getting angry about the ongoing American debate over plans to reform health care - Canadians.

For months now, conservative groups opposing the health care plan have been running ads slamming to the Canadian system as what happens when you turn over the nation's health care over to the government. And now our neighbors to the north are firing back.

"The flaw in the American system," Ontario Health Minister David Caplan said recently, "is that first they check the size of your wallet, not the size of your need." That was a idea I also heard expressed by another Canadian official this weekend on C-Span - Canadians may frustrated over long wait times to see some specialists (one of Canadians biggest complaints about their system), but what they do like is that the wait times are the same for pauper and millionaire alike.

Canadians remain generally happy with their health care system, polls put the satisfaction level at around 80%. And a CBC TV viewer's contest named Tommy Douglas, Saskatchewan's longtime premier who in the late 1940s launched a provincial health care program that would eventually become Canada's national system, history's "Greatest Canadian."

Canadians will admit that their system isn't perfect - they complain that they have to wait too long to see specialists in non-emergency situations (the MSNBC article includes a section refuting a claim by a Canadian woman appearing in a conservative-funded TV ad that she "would have died" while waiting to see a specialist under the Canadian system), and that the costs are rising every year. But what's interesting is that Canada is looking to other socialized medicine systems in Europe for ways to improve, no Canadian politician is seriously arguing that Canada should adopt the American model as a way to fix their health care system.
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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Beslan Tragedy, Five Years On

Today is the five-year anniversary of Russia's worst terrorist attack - the Chechen siege of an elementary school in Beslan, North Ossetia. September 1st is the traditional opening day of school across Russia, it's a day filled with ceremonies for the new and returning students, it's common for whole families to head off to their local school for the day. That's exactly what was happening in Beslan when two dozen heavily armed Chechen terrorists stormed School No.1, taking more than 1,000 people hostages in the process. The hostages were herded into the school's auditorium, which the terrorists had rigged with explosives, which they threatened to set off if their demands weren't met.

A tense standoff at the school went on for three days between the terrorists, Russian troops and armed local citizens - many of whom had family members trapped inside. Five years later, no one is still exactly sure what ignited the fighting, but soon the terrorists inside and people outside began shooting, prompting the Russian troops to storm the school. In the end, more than 300 people were killed, a majority of them children - in some cases, entire families were wiped out.

On today's BBC news, Oliver Bullough, the Caucasus Editor for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, asks "Could [the] Beslan Tragedy Happen Again?" He gives some interesting insights into the thinking of the Chechens at the time of the Beslan attack. Shamil Basayev, mastermind of the attack, apparently really believed that Russia would give in to his demands that Russia give Chechnya its independence and that President Putin resign, in an interview following Beslan, Basayev said he "did not expect this (Russia's assault on the school)." By 2006 Basayev would be dead - blown up by Russian special forces soldiers, Aslan Maskhadov, leader of the Chechen rebels, died the year before in 2005.

For awhile it seemed like the insurgency in the Caucasus was largely finished, Russia even ended its decade-long anti-terrorism operation in Chechnya earlier this year. But Bullough argues that the passing of leaders like Basayev and Maskhadov has only paved the way for more radical voices to emerge, namely a rebel named Doku Umarov.

For Russia, the rise of Umarov is especially disturbing. Chechen leaders like Basayev and Maskhadov were basically nationalists using terrorism to carve out an independent homeland. Umarov, meanwhile, declared himself the head of the 'Caucasus Emirate' that included not only Chechnya, but the rest of the Caucasus region as well, and declared he would use it as a base to spread sharia law to all other Muslim countries around the world - basically, Umarov was fully embracing the al-Qaeda theology of global jihad.

His movement has been attracting converts fed up with the poverty and lack of opportunities that plague the Caucasus region. Recent high-profile attacks in the neighboring Republic of Ingushetia that included a bombing of a police station last month and the attempted assassination-by-bomb of Ingushetia's president show that the terror threat is once again growing in Southern Russia, only this time it's based not on the fight for an independent homeland, but instead belief in a warped ideology.
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