Sunday, November 29, 2009

Terrorists Behind Russian Rail Crash, But Which Terrorists?

Russian officials are blaming terrorists for the crash of a luxury Moscow-to-St. Petersburg train on Friday, but who these terrorists are remains a mystery.

The luxury Nevsky Express derailed after an improvised explosive device blew a three-foot deep crater under the tracks, sending the last few cars of the train off the rails. Latest reports are that at least 25 people were killed in the crash, with 90 others injured, some of them seriously. The attack happened on a remote, rural area of the route, which kept rescue teams from reaching the site of the crash for several hours. According to reports posted on Russian social media sites, some unhurt passengers provided immediate first aid to their injured fellow travelers.

With the rescue efforts finished, the focus is now shifting to who might be responsible for the worst act of terrorism in Russia (outside of the volatile North Caucasus region) in five years. The immediate suspicion is falling on the usual suspects, Islamic militants from the Caucasus region - most likely from Chechnya. Since the end of the Soviet Union, Russia has fought two bloody wars in Chechnya, and the early part of this decade was marked by several high profile terror attacks throughout Russia carried out by Chechen terrorists.

But as of Sunday afternoon, no Islamic or Chechen groups had taken claim for the attack on the Nevsky Express. And that raises the question, could someone other than the Chechens be responsible for the attack? The Nevsky Express is the high-speed rail-link between Moscow and St. Petersburg, it is a train popular with members of the country's business and political elite traveling between Russia's top two cities. One possibility is that this made the Nevsky Express not a target for the Chechens, but rather an ultra-nationalist (and anti-government) group of Russians. According to Russia's independent Ekho Moskvy radio station, a radical, neo-Nazi group phoned in a claim of responsibility on Friday, but that claim hasn't yet been verified and others ultra-nationalist groups used their websites to quickly disavow any connection to the attack.

In the past decade, many neo-Nazi/skinhead groups have emerged in Russia - often targeting immigrant workers from the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia in violent, sometimes fatal, attacks. These groups have also voiced anger at the Russian government for not cracking down on immigration of "non-Russians" and for business and political policies they feel has left Russia "weak". The Nevsky Express then would make a tempting target for groups with such an ideology. It was attacked in a similar fashion in 2006, though no one was killed and few people were injured in that incident. Suspicion at the time initially fell on ultra-nationalist groups, though it was eventually blamed on a small group of Chechen separatists. Russian authorities have a "person of interest" they are looking for to question about Friday's attack, he is described as being 40-ish, stocky with ginger-colored (red) hair - not the description of your typical Chechen.

And then there's the political dimension of the Nevsky Express story. Media reports already contain quotes from average Russians worried about a return to the early 2000s when Russia endured a string of terror attacks from the seizure of a Moscow theater, to airplane bombings to the slaughter of an elementary school. The idea of a new wave of Chechen terror attacks is bad, but the thought of high-profile attacks carried out by Russian nationalists - committing terror attacks not to win the independence of some out of the way corner of Russia but aimed at bringing about a fundamental change of the country's government and economy - could be worse. It may be enough for the Russian government to just blame the Nevsky Express attack on the usual suspects (the Chechens) and move on.
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Swiss Nix Minarets

With its clear blue lakes, craggy snow-capped mountains and quaint villages, to many Americans there are few places more quintessentially European than Switzerland. Another American perception of Europe is that it is a liberal, obsessively politically-correct place. That makes the apparent passage of a referendum in Switzerland banning the construction of minarets all the more interesting.

Minarets are to mosques what spires are to cathedrals. And that's the problem that many on the Swiss political right have with them, or as one of the "Stop Minarets" campaign leaders, Ulrich Schueler put it: "This minaret is a symbol of conquest and power which marks the will to introduce Sharia law as has happened in some other European cities. We will not accept that." In the past few years several new mosques, complete with minarets, have been built in Switzerland. A request to build one in the small city of Langenthal, already home to 11 churches, seems to have sparked the ban the minarets campaign.

The minaret ban made it onto Swiss ballots after supporters collected the 100,000 signatures necessary to put it to a vote under Swiss law. The ban though wasn't expected to pass, a poll just last week showed 53% of the Swiss planning to vote against it. But exit polls available shortly after the polls closed indicated the ban passing comfortably with 59% of voters saying yes. And that result has many other Swiss worried.

Some Swiss feel that the ban goes against ideas of equality and inclusion that are at the core of Swiss identity, others have more practical concerns - that the ban could harm Swiss business interests in the Muslim world. Still others were upset at the racial overtones of the campaign. The anti-minaret campaign poster - featuring a burka-clad woman and minarets that looked like missiles - was even banned as offensive in some cities. And finally, the success of the ban campaign can be seen as another sign of the growing clout of right-wing, nationalistic political parties across Europe.
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Saturday, November 28, 2009

War Worries Over Colombia/Venezuela

This week our friends from Canada, MacLean's Magazine, offer up a nice summary about a growing concern in South America - fear over a war between Colombia and Venezuela. Hugo Chavez has been making a lot of noise recently about his neighbor, but noise and Hugo Chavez pretty much go together. What has people concerned now, particularly people in Colombia, is Chavez's decision earlier this month to move 15,000 troops to the border between their two nations, supposedly to increase security after two Venezuelan border guards were shot.

Chavez is also furious over Colombia's signing a deal with the United States last month that gives the US access to seven Colombian military bases supposedly to help fight drug traffickers operating in their country. The subtext to Colombia's courting of the US though is that they have been accusing Venezuela of giving sanctuary to the FARC rebels who have been fighting a decades-long insurgency/terrorist campaign against Colombia's government. Chavez sees the agreement as setting the stage for a US invasion of Venezuela (Chavez accused the CIA of being behind a 2002 coup attempt that briefly removed him from power).

Of course it's hard to believe that the Colombian base deal is really the first step in a US invasion of Venezuela - especially since the US military is already so overstretched dealing with Iraq, Afghanistan and the way things are heading, perhaps military action against Iran as well. The problem is though with tensions running high between Colombia and Venezuela and troops massed at the border, a small event could rapidly spin out of control into something far worse.

Stay tuned...
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Friday, November 27, 2009

Fatal Pirate Attack in West Africa

There was a pirate attack Tuesday off the coast of Africa. Two things make this one especially noteworthy: first is that it occurred not off of Somalia, but rather off the coast of Benin in Western Africa; the second is that sadly this attack killed a Ukrainian crewman aboard the target ship.

While the Somali pirates have grabbed the world's attention (including Fox News, who last weekend did a surprisingly good hour-long report on the Somali pirate problem), the west coast of Africa - particularly the stretch of coastline between Nigeria and Liberia - has a small, but persistent pirate problem of its own. Western Africa offers a tempting mix for would-be pirates: plentiful shipping related to the oil wealth of states like Nigeria, along with quasi-lawless regions, particularly in Sierra Leone and Liberia (which are both recovering from long civil wars) to provide safe havens.

In Tuesday's attack, pirates boarded the Liberian-flagged tanker Cancale Star. Unlike their Somali counterparts who try to capture entire ships and hold them for ransom, the West Coast pirates were after the contents of the ship's safe, which they stole and took with them. The attack though left one of the Cancale Star's crew dead and one pirate, a Nigerian, in custody. Authorities in Benin are now trying to track down the rest of the pirate crew.
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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

World Faces Outbreak of Giant Statues

Forget swine flu, the world seems to be suffering from a new epidemic - the construction of giant statues.

First there was the dedication earlier this month in Pristina, Kosovo of an 11-foot tall, gold-covered statue of former President Bill Clinton (who the Kosovars feel helped to end the Serbian aggression against them and laid the foundation for their nation). Then there's Santiago, Chile, where construction is well underway on a 45-foot tall likeness of Pope John Paul II. A clay model of the late pontiff has already been finished, the next step would be to use that model to create a mold and cast John Paul in bronze.

But Chile's National Monuments' Council has derailed the pontiff project, at least temporarily. They felt that the size of the statue would overwhelm the city square that was intended to be its home (and they felt the location, above an underground car park, wasn't a setting quite befitting the late Pope). Since the clay model is already finished, it's likely the bronze statue - which critics have dubbed "Popezilla" - will eventually be cast and placed somewhere in or near Santiago.

Meanwhile, the biggest statue of them all is nearing completion. Work in Senegal is almost finished on "African Renaissance", a statue commissioned and allegedly designed by Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade. "African Renaissance" is a truly massive structure depicting a man cradling a woman and holding aloft a baby who is pointing towards "the future"; when finished it will be taller than the Statue of Liberty in New York City and larger in volume than the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

As you can imagine, a project that large is drawing giant amounts of criticism. Some are asking why is Senegal, a struggling nation in West Africa, spending $27 million on building this colossus rather than on programs that would do more practical things like feed hungry Senegalese? Others are also asking why "African Renaissance" was not designed or built by Africans? Instead of using local artists and craftsmen, President Wade contracted with a North Korean firm to build the monument.

And, critics say, it shows - rather than having an African feel, they say "African Renaissance" looks like an old Soviet statue. I have to admit they have a point, at first glance "African Renaissance" reminded me of the giant statues the Soviet Union use to churn out, especially under Stalin (see the example to the right), not surprising since North Korea is the world's only remaining Stalinist state. (And considering that North Korea has yet to master the art of making a durable beer bottle, I'd also be wary about hiring a North Korean firm to build a giant statue perched on a hill above my capital city).

Critics are also angry at President Wade for trying to turn a profit off the endeavour. "African Renaissance" will generate revenue from people visiting its site and a related museum that will also be built, and President Wade has cut himself in for a share of the profits - 35% of the profits to be exact. Wade explains he is entitled to the fee since he is the "designer" of the statue, many Senegalese don't agree.

"Since the beginning of the world, I have never heard, I have never seen, or never read, that a president has created something for his country, and is demanding 35% in return," said Amadou Camara, Director of the Commerce and Business Institute in Dakar in an interview with the BBC. Wade's "designer's fee" has also been the topic of numerous editorials in Dakar's newspapers.

"African Renaissance" is set to be officially unveiled in April.
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Monday, November 23, 2009

Putin, Medvedev Onside For Russia's Future

Last week in his state-of-the-nation address, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev laid out an ambitious (though vague) plan for Russia's future, titled quite humbly as: "Go, Russia!" At the time, critics thought the speech was also a thinly-veiled critique of his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, since he had failed to modernize the Russian economy and tackle corruption during his time as president. Putin seemed visibly uncomfortable at times during Medvedev's address, so Russia watchers were interested to see what his "response" would be when he addressed the party congress of United Russia (the dominant party in Russian politics) on Saturday.

It turns out that Putin largely endorsed the position of his protege. He echoed calls to modernize the Russian economy, saying that too many companies in Russia tried to: "squeeze out every last drop from aging equipment and get into debt with the hope that the state will provide a shoulder at the last minute and drag them out of their hole." He went on to say that the business climate was dominated by "short-term opportunists", and that long-term investment is what Russia truly needs. He also announced a plan to help Russia's "monocities", factory towns built around a single industry, to diversify their economies, including a plan to create "techno-parks and ‘business incubators’.”

Putin even called for a crackdown on corruption (though he has made this call a number of times in the past), singling out Russian state monopolies especially to engage in internal reforms. It was an interesting response from Putin, and one that is bound to spark yet another round of speculation about the true nature of their relationship - this picture from the Moscow Times was surely released to reinforce the idea of a strong partnership (even if it does sort of make them look like they're out on a date...).

Medvedev, meanwhile, pressed on with his push for reforms. He used his address at the party conference to call for free and fair elections (the last few in Russia have been alleged to be anything but free or fair). He also called for amending laws to strengthen the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Russia - in 2006 Putin signed a law that made operating an NGO in Russia nearly impossible. To make matters worse, there have been several high-profile murders of people involved with Russian human rights NGOs in the past year. Medvedev pledged to "continue to perfect the legal status of NGOs" in Russia, along with more than a billion rubles in aid to NGOs.

Critics say that the plans from both Medvedev and Putin are vague, that really at this point they're nothing more than talking points. But they are plans and plans that point in the right direction for Russia. The challenge for both Putin and Medvedev now is to show that these really are the outline for a course of action for the future and not just a few well-crafted speeches.
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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Meet President van Rompuy!

This week Herman van Rompuy became the first president of the European Union, capping a nearly decade-long battle by European bureaucrats to reform the political structure of the EU.

If you're reaction to the headline was "who?", the BBC was kind enough to publish this profile on President van Rompuy. His selection as EU president has already brought out the critics, some of whom say that van Rompuy was the only man bland enough for all 27 EU members to agree upon. Former British PM Tony Blair lobbied hard for the job, but ultimately failed to gain enough support, especially from EU powers like Germany - Blair's support for the Iraq War and George Bush weighed against him. Others though are asking what exactly the EU president will do, his/her duties under the Treaty of Lisbon are pretty vague, and President van Rompuy himself has defined his role more as a manager than as a strong leader.

But two countries could be impacted by the selection of van Rompuy as EU president. One is his native Belgium, where van Rompuy will have to give up his job as prime minister, a move that could launch the nation into a political crisis. Following national elections in June 2007, Belgium was effectively without a government for almost a year as the country's two main ethnic groups - the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons - failed to agree on a prime minister. After an interim government fell apart, Belgium's King Albert II stepped in and asked van Rompuy - a political moderate respected by both sides - to take the job, finally ending the crisis. The question now is if there's another van Rompuy waiting in the wings, or if the Flemish and Walloons will restart their battle over which side should lead the country.

Meanwhile Turkey likely won't be happy over van Rompuy's new role. For a decade now, Turkey has been trying to join the EU club, only to have negotiations over their membership drag on and on. While in the Belgian parliament five years ago van Rompuy spoke out forcefully against Turkish membership in the EU. "Turkey is not a part of Europe and will never be part of Europe," he said, adding "the universal values which are in force in Europe, and which are fundamental values of Christianity, will lose vigor with the entry of a large Islamic country such as Turkey."

Whether President van Rompuy moderates that position remains to be seen, but another high-profile European leader, France's Nikolas Sarkozy, is also against Turkey's membership in the EU, so I wouldn't expect a lot of progress in membership talks anytime soon. How Turkey reacts to that will be interesting to see.
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English-Russian Language Links Over Hockey

A couple of interesting stories today from the New York Times "SlapShot" blog on hockey - first is news that Russia's upstart professional circuit, the Kontinental Hockey League has finally launched an English-language version of its website. The KHL, which stretches across Russia and into parts of Eastern Europe, is trying to establish itself as the world's other premier professional hockey league (aside from North America's NHL, of course). An English-language website is a step towards trying to stoke interest in the KHL on the other side of the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins are going in the opposite direction, starting a Russian-language show on their HD radio station. The 30-minute “NHL In Russian” (or “NXL Na Russkom” as it's called in Russian) will air once a week on the Penguins' station, be streamed live over the Internet via the Penguins and NHL websites and will be available as a podcast. The show will be hosted by a Ukrainian-born, Russian-speaking member of the Penguins front office staff.

No word on what percentage of the Penguins fans are Russian speakers, but a clue about the prospective audience for "NHL in Russian" might be in its air-time: 8:30 Tuesday mornings in Pittsburgh, which works out to 4:30 in the afternoon in Moscow. Last year's top scorer in the NHL, Russian-born Evgeni Malkin plays for the Penguins.
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Friday, November 20, 2009

Cosmonaut's Blog, The Funniest Thing in Space posted this story yesterday about Cosmonaut Maksim Suraev, blogger and current resident of the International Space Station. And unlike NASA's efforts on the Internet, Suraev's blog is pretty damn funny (thankfully RussiaToday is offering an English-language translation of Suraev's posts). Among his recent posts was the photo below:

Suraev described the gadget as a combination eavesdropping device for listening in on the American side of the space station and ray gun for fighting off an alien invasion - though the ray gun could come in handy if the Americans were to again ban the Russians from using their toilet (actually the thing is a pump Maksim and another astronaut had just replaced). In other posts, Suraev describes a panicky late-night wake-up call from ground control about a possible collision with some space debris, and some truly bizarre mis-translations of food packet labels. With his blog, Cosmonaut Suraev manages to put a very human, and occasionally hilarious, face on space travel.
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Don't Worry About Iran Getting The Bomb

The Asia Times offers up one of the best and most interesting pieces I've read about the whole topic of Iran's pursuit of a nuclear bomb.

Sure, we'd all love a world without nukes, but that just ain't gonna happen...and currently the international community is bound up over what to do over Iran's (alleged) development of a nuclear weapon. The Asia Times' Aetius Romulous though makes a fairly compelling case that Iran's getting the bomb would be a good thing. His argument goes that an Iran with the bomb would become a regional power in its own right - preventing them from becoming a client state of Russia, while at the same time reducing Iran's need to try to project influence through the Mid-East by funding terrorist proxy groups like Hezbollah. Iran's rise to regional power status would also secure the oil supplies for two of the world's great rising powers, China and India (currently Iran's two biggest customers), likely reducing future tension between them since a big chunk of their energy supplies would now be secure.

It is an argument that goes against the conventional wisdom of keeping Iran from getting the bomb by any means necessary, thus making well worth your time to read.
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Wise Uses of America's Power?

RealClearWorld's Compass Blog offered up this post the other day: "The Use and Abuse of American Power". The post started out talking about the United States' ongoing involvement in Afghanistan, but it went on to cite a quote from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in a 2008 speech when he talked about the use of American military forces during the past 40 years in locales including: "Vietnam, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa, and more."

Writer Greg Scoblete goes on to ask "whether most of these military conflicts were worthwhile endeavors in the first place." I think he makes an excellent point. Was it really in the United States national interest to get involved in Lebanon, Grenada or Panama? Looking back, the logic for American involvement in Vietnam also seems pretty weak - the rationale at the time was expressed as the "Domino Theory": that Communism was like a virus, and if Vietnam was allowed to "go Red" other Asian nations like Japan and South Korea would soon follow. Of course after a decade of war Vietnam did go Communist and Japan and South Korea went on to become Capitalist powerhouses in the 1980s, so go figure...

Scoblete's point is that, militarily speaking, the United States tends to shoot first and try to decide if it was a good idea later. It is an excellent point to keep in mind while we try to figure out what to do next in Afghanistan.
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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Go, Russia!

In my latest post over at The Mantle I talk about Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's state-of-the-nation address entitled "Go, Russia!" Unfortunately a lack of specifics in Medvedev's roadmap for the future of Russia has left a lot of the comments about the speech to focus on talk of time zones, YouTube clips and the body language of Vladimir Putin. And while in the speech Medvedev makes a point of talking about how he enjoys reading comments made by average Russians on his official blog, I have to wonder if the recent spate of YouTube confessionals by corrupt Russian cops was the kind of social media interaction he had in mind.
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Monday, November 16, 2009

Obama's Phantom Town Hall Meeting

I had trouble sleeping last night, so I turned on the TV and was able to catch some of President Obama's townhall meeting in Shanghai with an audience of Chinese university students. Laying in my bed I was able to do something most Chinese were not, to watch Obama engage in a Q&A session with the students.

The townhall was suppose to be one of the key events of Obama's visit to China, a chance for the country to see the new president in action. The original idea was for the event to be broadcast nationwide on China's state-run TV network. But after two weeks of negotiations, the best the White House could get was coverage on the local Shanghai affiliate station and in Hong Kong, as well as on the Internet. But if the Obama Administration was hoping that the Internet would bring the townhall to the masses, they were badly mistaken - access to streaming video via was said to be "unreliable" in Beijing, while Chinese authorities blocked access through Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. Comments critical about the government posted to Chinese news sites were reported by several Chinese bloggers to have been quickly scrubbed by the authorities.

Perhaps all that censorship was unnecessary - the audience in Shanghai was said to have been carefully pre-screened by the local branch of the Communist party and was only about a quarter of the size Obama had hoped for. And to a degree Obama was self-censoring, soft-pedaling the topic of human rights in China. Obama did take a stand against Internet censorship, but only in reply to a question asked not by a student but by the US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman (from an email, he said, sent to the US Embassy in China). Perhaps the most effective form of censorship really is self-censorship.
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News: America Has An Afghan Strategy

In an interview with Germany's Der Spiegel magazine, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reveals that the United States actually does have a strategy for Afghanistan.

Clinton said that the United States' goal is to "defeat al-Qaeda and its extremist allies." Of course since a number of senior US military leaders have in recent months stated that there are less than 100 al-Qaeda operatives left in Afghanistan, you could make the case that we've already reached that goal. While Der Spiegel didn't ask raise that point, they did ask Sec. Clinton a pointed question in relation to Afghanistan's recent fraudulent elections, namely: "should our troops die for a corrupt government?"

Clinton responded by saying that she didn't "think they are fighting and sacrificing for the Afghan government - they do this for all of us." With that answer Clinton tried to continue the idea that Afghanistan is the central front in a global war on terrorism, despite the mounting evidence from our own military and intelligence services that it is not, nor is it likely to once again become an al-Qaeda safe haven should we leave.

And that is the biggest problem with the current debate on what to do next in Afghanistan - it is all built on faulty information. And it is impossible to make a good decision based on bad information.
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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Opinion Polls in Russia, Ukraine (and Moscow Rappers)

News now from a couple of opinion polls about the leadership in Russia and the upcoming presidential elections in Ukraine.

In Ukraine, a poll taken last week has former President (and presidential vote-rigger back in 2004) Viktor Yanukovych leading all candidates with 21.4%, current Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko came in second at 18%. A half-dozen other candidates, including current President Viktor Yushchenko, all failed to register above the single digits.

Meanwhile in Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's approval rankings tumbled six points to their lowest level since he took over as PM, coming in at 66%. Now for an elected official 66% is usually regarded as a excellent level of support, but it is quite a decline from Putin's formerly stratospheric numbers up in the 80% range.

The poll numbers came out as Putin was appearing on "Battle for Respect", a hip-hop contest sponsored by Muz TV, a Russian-language rival to MTV. Putin himself didn't rap, but he did address the crowd and received chants of "Respect, Vladimir Vladimirovich!" in reply. Rapper Zhigan, who did win "Battle for Respect", said though that it would be "cool" to record a track with Putin "because he is a legendary man and our idol." I think that Zhigan will have a bright future ahead of him...
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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Spain Wants To Take Fight To Pirates

Spain is proposing a drastic change to the way the international community is dealing with the piracy problem off the coast of Somalia. Spain's new idea is to blockade the three Somali port cities used by the pirates as bases of operation and as places to store the ships they capture.

In recent weeks the piracy problem has become personal for the Spanish - three dozen Spaniards were captured aboard a fishing trawler, the Somali pirates are refusing to let any of them go until the Spanish government releases two pirates they are currently holding. The Spanish government is of course refusing this demand.

There is some logic to the Spanish blockade approach. In the past month, the pirates have launched a series of attacks hundreds of miles from the Somali coast, in one case they attacked a ship nearly a thousand miles out to sea, meaning piracy is now a threat throughout a good chunk of the Indian Ocean. It is far too much sea for the roughly two dozen international warships participating in anti-piracy efforts to effectively patrol. Two dozen ships though could blockade three port cities.

What the Spanish didn't explain is what they would do if the Somali pirates tried to run the proposed blockade, especially if they tried to bring a captured civilian ship into port, since a military attack would almost certainly kill some or all of the civilian ship's crew. Spain will formally make their proposal at a meeting next week of countries participating in the anti-piracy flotilla.
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Looming Hockey Strike in Russian League?

It's not that often that hockey intrudes into the realm of international affairs, though it seems to be happening more and more often with Russia's fledgling Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). The latest story involves the KHL's Lada Togliatti, which is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and whose players are threatening to strike over unpaid wages.

Lada Togliatti is sponsored by Russia's automotive conglomerate AutoVaz, maker of the venerable Lada line of cars. Problem is that few Russians today want to buy Ladas. That has left AutoVaz on the verge of making massive layoffs and that has the city Togliatti in a panic, since the sprawling AutoVaz complex employs about one in seven of Togliatti's residents.

One cost-cutting measure at AutoVaz apparently has been to stop paying the players on Lada Togliatti, prompting them to threaten a strike. So far the KHL has agreed to pay the players through November, the league is also negotiating with a subsidiary of Russia's state-run weapons manufacturer Rosoboronexport about taking over the sponsorship of the team - now that could make for some interesting give-away nights for the fans...
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Thursday, November 12, 2009

So Much For "Freedom Of The Press" In Iraq

The British newspaper/webportal The Guardian is furious over a fine levied by an Iraqi court against one of their reporters, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad for his April article that quoted intelligence officials who accused the country's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki of becoming "increasingly authoritarian."

The Guardian published a flood of condemnations from around the world against the Iraqi court decision. Honestly, The Guardian laid it on a bit thick, but the underlying message is a good one: how can we consider the new government in Iraq truly democratic if it is so quick to try and muzzle the press over coverage that is unflattering to its leader? Some of the strongest condemnations came from the Arabic-language newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, which called the Iraqi tribunal a "kangaroo court" and said: "Despite the fact that the Americans spent $800bn to create a democracy and promote freedom of expression, what we have seen in Iraq is an appalling media where the opposition points of view rarely surface. It is sectarian or factional or financed by the Americans."

Much of the criticism continued in that vein, with words like "mockery" and "affront" thrown around a lot. And this isn't the first time charges like this have been leveled at al-Maliki, back in January the Los Angeles Times did a long piece on the growing authoritarianism of his regime, though the Times was never sued.

Mamoun Fandy from the think-tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies though did see some signs of progress in the slander lawsuit. He said, "it is new that a leader or an intelligence agency in that part of the world takes a journalist in their jurisdiction to court instead of jailing him or ordering him being bumped off."
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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Russia Rocked By Police Corruption Claims

The idea of police corruption is sadly nothing new in Russia - I've heard from a number of friends stories of having to pay "fines" (small bribes really) for committing non-existent offenses while visiting Russia; I also once heard a well-known journalist explain how during the Beslan elementary school terrorist attack/siege in 2004, it was possible to bribe your way past the security cordon for just a few dollars. But the revelations of Alexei Dymovsky, formerly a Major on the Novorossiisk, Krasnodar police force have become the talk of the nation, perhaps for the way Major Dymovsky told his tale - through a series of online videos on YouTube and his personal website last Thursday.

In the clips, Maj. Dymovsky gave a gripping account of a police department riddled with corruption: from young people taking jobs with the police at just $400 per month, knowing that they could make much more from bribes; to officers being ordered to solve non-existent crimes to boost statistics; to officers being denied sick days and health care access; to his own personal admission that he gained his Major's rank by agreeing to prosecute a man he knew to be innocent. Dymovsky repeated his allegations at press conference in Moscow on Tuesday, which also sadly happened to be National Police Day in Russia.

Dymovsky's allegations have officials scrambling. He was promptly fired by the Novorossiisk Police Dept., who are also threatening to sue him for slander. At his press conference Dymovsky claimed he had to drive the 800 miles to Moscow after he found he couldn't buy an airline ticket because his credit card was frozen and he feared his family was now being followed by the authorities. Officially the Kremlin has not had a response, saying that Dymovsky's claims had to be checked first, even though he addressed his You Tube clip to "Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin]" asking him to conduct "an independent investigation throughout Russia" into police corruption.

This wasn't the first time, according to RussiaToday that Dymovsky tried to enlist Putin in an investigation of the police. In 2006 during a televised nationwide Q&A session with the then president, Dymovsky asked Putin: "when will the police abuses be stopped in Krasnodar region?”, though he says his chiefs then pressured him to say he misspoke.

Some official quarters have responded though, the Russian Interior Ministry announced they would launch an investigation into Dymovsky's charges beginning on Monday. Of course since this is Russia, the conspiracy theories are also flying along with Dymovsky's charges. Those trying to discredit Dymovsky say he being used by "foreign influences" to discredit Russia's police, specifically the United States who are funneling money from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) through a Novorossiisk-based human rights organization to Dymovsky; another theory is that Dymovsky is being used as a front by the Kremlin itself to remove some high-ranking police officials under a cloud scandal.

The record number of hits on Dymovsky's website and his YouTube videos though suggest this conspiracy won't go away quietly.
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Last Brit WWI Vet Shuns Holiday

Today is Veteran's Day, or Remembrance Day as it is known in the British part of the world. The British are marking the day with a special air of solemnity since in the past year they lost their last three surviving veterans of World War One, the final one being the "Last Tommy", Harry Patch who passed away this past August.

There is technically one British vet left, 108-year old Claude Choules, a Royal Navy veteran now living in Australia. Choules lied about his age to join the Royal Navy at 14, he transferred to the Australian Navy in 1926 and was still serving when the Second World War broke out.

Even though Mr. Choules is said by his family to be "holding up well" for 108, he will not be attending any Remembrance Day services, saying that, in his opinion, the memorials only serve to "glorify war."
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Monday, November 9, 2009

Berlin Wall and Bad History

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. By now you've probably heard Ronald Reagan's famous "tear down this wall!" speech on the news a few dozen times. What you might not know, and what author Will Bunch explains in his book/deconstruction of the Reagan years, "Tear Down This Myth", was that Reagan's Wall speech was aimed less at "Mr. Gorbachev" and more at his conservative critics at home who feared the Gipper had gone soft on the Reds, you know, negotiating nuclear arms reduction treaties with them and all that...

Expect to hear a fair bit of misinterpreted history over the next few days as every news magazine, paper and cable outlet does their own Berlin Wall recap. I stumbled across this piece by George Packer in the New Yorker: "Communism Collapsed, Is Iran Next?", where Mr. Packer talks about Communism being consigned to the "ash heap of history" - something which must come as news to the 1.3 billion Chinese currently living under a Communist government. In fact Beijing just commemorated the 60th anniversary of Communist rule with great fanfare, and despite the free market trappings and luxury cars in the streets of Shanghai, China is still very much a centrally-ruled country, just as the Soviet Union once was.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gorbachev used the anniversary to plead with world leaders to tear down a wall of a different sort, Gorbachev said that the governments of the world must unite now to take on climate change. He draws a parallel between the global security threat the world faced 20 years ago and the one posed by a changing climate today. And just as few thought 20 years ago that the Wall would ever come down, he argues meaningful progress can be made in tackling the causes of climate change and addressing the gap between the world's rich and poor if people and governments are willing to commit to taking action.

Finally, for a personal view of the time surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall, and an excellent movie to boot, check out the film "Goodbye Lenin!"
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Sunday, November 8, 2009

A New Look At An Old War

A new book is prompting a re-examination of a controversial figure from South American history and is dredging up some hard feelings between two neighboring countries.

Eliza Lynch has been painted as a former Irish prostitute who became the unofficial "Queen of Paraguay" that led her country into a disastrous war with Brazil. Now a new book, The Lives of Eliza Lynch: Scandal and Courage, by Michael Lillis, a former diplomat, and Ronan Fanning, a historian is taking a new view of Lynch. Rather than a bloodthirsty wanna-be Queen, they say Lynch was a loyal wife to dictator Francisco Solano López, and the authors say that that López, not Lynch, was the one who pushed for the ill-fated war against the "Triple Alliance" of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay in 1864.

The war was an utter disaster for Paraguay - Brazilian forces would rampage throughout the country, leaving 90% of Paraguay's men dead. In addition to trying to rehabilitate the image of Lynch, the authors also say that the Brazilians bear responsibility for what they call a "near genocide" during the final two years of the six year war as Brazil's Emperor Dom Pedro II tried to wipe out every last remnant of Paraguay's military.

With their portrayal of Francisco Solano López and Emperor Dom Pedro II, authors Lillis and Fanning have managed to anger people in both Paraguay and Brazil - they have received death threats from Paraguayan nationalists upset at their treatment of López, while the Brazilians have bristled at charges of genocide, who note that it was Paraguay who started the war in the first place.

Meanwhile in modern-day South America, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez told his military on Sunday to "prepare" for war with Colombia. Chavez has accused Colombia of being a puppet of the United States and has said that the US is negotiating a ten-year lease for a Colombian military base to use it as a stepping stone for an eventual US-led invasion of Venezuela. Relations between Venezuela and Colombia have been getting steadily worse, on Thursday Venezuela sent 15,000 soldiers to the Colombian border, supposedly to fight drug trafficking.
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Moscow Holds A Parade For A Parade

They held a big military parade in Moscow on Saturday, technically it was a parade to commemorate another parade - the 1941 Red Army march through the streets of Moscow (which itself was meant to mark the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917...). The 1941 parade (pictured) was noteworthy because the troops went from a display march directly to the front lines to fight off a desperate German attempt to take Moscow before the winter set in. Honored guests at yesterday's parade included 45 survivors from the 1941 parade, and subsequent battle, along with two World War II-vintage T-34 tanks. Several thousand others also participated in the parade, some in replica WWII uniforms.

The Anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution on November 7 was one of the biggest holidays in the Soviet calendar, but was abolished by Vladimir Putin several years ago (no reason to celebrate all those old Soviet holidays in the new Russia it was thought). But old habits die hard, many Russians - particularly the Communists who held their own November 7 rally - still mark the day.
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Saturday, November 7, 2009

Bird Foils Big Bang

Ok, this is a little scary - the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, the multi-billion dollar science experiment that is suppose to simulate the conditions of the Big Bang was brought to a screeching halt this week by a bird, specifically a bird that dropped "a bit of baguette" into the works.

According to officials at the LHC, a bird snacking on a piece of bread at one of the machine's capacitors caused a temperature spike that caused the LHC to shut down. The LHC uses 16 miles of supercooled tubing to accelerate hydrogen atoms to nearly the speed of light before smashing them into each other in an attempt to create sub-atomic particles.

I guess it's a good thing that the machine shut itself down when it detected a problem, it is a little scary though to think such a huge, complex thing could be knocked out by a snacking bird.
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Saudis Battling Rebels Along Yemeni Border

For the past several days Saudi Arabia has engaged in a series of fierce clashes along their southern border with Yemen.

That the Saudi military is actually fighting somebody could be news in itself - an apocryphal story from the first Gulf War was that if Saddam Hussein ever invaded Saudi Arabia, US forces were ordered not to fire at the first troops they saw coming from the border since those would be the Saudis abandoning their posts. This time, the Saudis have taken the offensive against Yemeni rebels from the Zaidi Shiite sect. Yemen's government has accused the Zaidis of trying to overthrow them to restore a religious imamate that overthrew an earlier Yemeni elected government back in 1962, sparking a civil war in the process.

The Yemeni government has fought the rebels for the past five years along the rugged border with Saudi Arabia. Recent cross-border raids by the Zaidis prompted the Saudis to act. The Saudi military has used both aircraft and artillery in a series of intense strikes against the rebels, which began on Tuesday. Details on casualties and even where the fighting is exactly occurring are sketchy - the rebels say the Saudis have attacked inside Yemen, while the Saudis say the military strikes have been limited to their side of the border.

In either case though the Saudis have the support of the Yemeni government, which supports their actions against the rebels. And looming large over the whole situation is Al-Qaeda. Twice in the past three months, Saudi Arabia claims to have foiled terror attacks by a Yemen-based Al-Qaeda affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (or AQAP). According to analysts, the Yemeni government's battle against the Zaidi rebels has left them with little ability or initiative to fight groups like AQAP. In turn, veteran jihadis from Iraq and Afghanistan are said to be moving to Yemen, which along with the largely lawless Somalia, are being viewed by Al-Qaeda as the most likely places to establish a new base of operations.
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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Domain That Refused To Die

My latest bit of writing over at The Mantle - nearly two decades after the end of the Soviet Union, one piece of the old empire persists: the Internet domain ".su", despite all the best efforts to delete it. In my post I take a look at the ."su" domain, who uses it and what the future holds for the last vestige of the old Soviet empire.
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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Last Thoughts On The Afghan Election

There's a lot happening in the world, but I wanted to share a few last links about the Afghan election debacle. The first is an editorial by Peter Galbraith, who was the UN official who sounded the alarm about the massive fraud in the Afghan election in the first place. I'd say those credentials alone make his editorial worth reading, but Galbraith also debunks a major claim making the rounds, namely that President Hamid Karzai would have won the election anyway, fraud or not.

This bit of "wisdom" is being offered up as a justification for continuing Western support of the thoroughly corrupt Karzai regime. But Galbraith argues that it's a big assumption to make. An audit of the votes cast in the August 20th election dropped Karzai below the 50% threshold needed to trigger a run-off, once officials hit that target though, they stopped examining the votes. Galbraith claims that his sources indicate if all the votes were examined and all the bad ones tossed, the results would have been Karzai 41% / Abdullah 34%. A seven-percent deficit certainly isn't insurmountable in a run-off election - if the second round was run fairly - so this notion that Karzai would have won regardless is a pretty big assumption to make.

Germany's Der Spiegel, meanwhile, offers a round-up of opinions from the German media about the elections in Afghanistan. The take-away is that they pretty much all view Karzai's "victory" as a fraud and most question the ongoing purpose of the Afghan mission.

And finally Fox News of all places offers up an editorial by analyst KT McFarland who says that in the wake of Karzai's stealing the election the US should "pull the plug" on our Afghanistan mission. Now I ripped KT a couple of weeks ago for an utter lack of knowledge on current events in Russia, but this time I think she makes a good argument - the real security/terrorism problem lies in Pakistan so why should the US continue to spend lives and money propping up a corrupt government in Kabul?
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Clinton Gets A Statue, Bolt Gets A Cheetah

So if you're the fastest man in the world, what animal to you choose as a pet? A cheetah, of course... Well, Olympic Champion Usain Bolt didn't exactly buy a cheetah as a pet, but he did adopt one at a refuge in Kenya, which he named "Lightning Bolt". Bolt, Usain Bolt that is, was visiting Kenya to help launch "The Long Run", an ecology campaign sponsored by a German charity, the Zeitz Foundation. Bolt was also made an honorary Masai Warrior during his visit.

But if you're looking for honors, it's hard to beat the one that Kosovo bestowed upon former President Bill Clinton. Officials in Pristina unveiled a gold-covered 10-foot tall likeness of the former president, whom many in Kosovo honor as the man responsible for ending their conflict with Serbia and ultimately paving the way for Kosovo's independence. Bill Clinton himself was on hand for the unveiling, along with at least one young Kosovar named "Klinton" in his honor. For the record, the Kosovars also have similar warm feelings for George W. Bush as well, though Bush only has a street named after him in the capital, no giant gold-plated statue.

In his speech, Clinton called upon the Kosovars to forge a multi-ethnic society. So far ethnic relations in Kosovo have focused on keeping the peace between the Albanian majority and the Serbian minority. But there are other smaller ethnic groups in Kosovo as well who say that they are being shoved to the margins of society. The London Telegraph recently ran this story about Kosovo's Ashkali minority, who claim that in efforts to build bridges between the Serbs and Albanians, their plight is being ignored. Like the Roma (Gypsies), the Ashkali have a murky ethnic lineage that stretches back to Central Asia, and like the Roma, the Ashkali often find themselves excluded from society. The Ashkali interviewed by the Telegraph say they have an almost 100% unemployment rate, their children can't go to school and that the Kosovo government largely ignores them, focusing solely on the Serbian minority.

It's something for the Kosovars to keep in mind as they listen to the words of Bill Clinton.
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Monday, November 2, 2009

Karzai Finally Steals Afghan Election

The Afghan election debacle came to an end this morning when Dr. Abdullah Abdullah officially dropped out of the planned run-off against President Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) took the opportunity to then proclaim Karzai the president for another five year term.

"Whew! I'm glad we didn't have to go through with rigging another election," said Azizullah Ludin, the chairman of the IEC, "you know how hard stuffing ballot boxes can be? And we were worried that we wouldn't have time to get the ballots with votes pre-printed for Karzai finished in time."

Ok, Ludin didn't really say that, at least not as far as I know, but in Abdullah's opinion, he might as well have. Dr. Abdullah was calling for the removal of Ludin from his position at the IEC since that organization oversaw the fraud-riddled first round of the election. Abdullah also protested the opening of more polling stations in the southern part of the country - a Karzai stronghold, but also the region where the Taliban is the most active. Because of the shaky security situation many polling stations in the south never opened for the August 20 round of voting, yet still turned in ballot boxes filled with votes for Karzai - many of the ballots that were later thrown out. More polling stations there seem like just more chances for fraud.

Rather than face a second rigged vote, Abdullah bailed out of the election. While some media outlets like The Guardian are suggesting that this latest turn of events further undermines the legitimacy of the Karzai presidency, the international community is already rallying to Karzai's side. Hillary Clinton said the Obama administration would back Karzai's new term in office, and the UN's Secretary General Ban Ki-moon flew to Kabul to lend the UN's support.

Of course the international community was more than willing to look the other way on the fraudulent first round of the vote until the UN's number two man in Kabul, Peter Galbraith raised enough of a stink about the vote-rigging force the global community into pressuring Karzai to accept a run-off election (Galbraith lost his UN job in the process). The global community valued the "stability" of the corrupt Karzai regime over the "chaos" of an actual fair election - ignoring the fact that it has been the corruption and incompetence of the Karzai government that led to the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the first place.

I can't think of any clearer indication of how screwed up the situation in Afghanistan has become. Unfortunately the international community is showing a lack of will to take any real steps to make things better.
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Sunday, November 1, 2009

Ten Foreign Policy Myths

Stephen Walt over at Foreign Policy magazine does a nice job of skewering the conventional wisdom that surrounds some of the biggest fears in international affairs, everything from the real threat posed by "Rogue States" to "Islamofascism" (perhaps the dumbest term in all of foreign policy in my opinion).

Walt's rationale is that in all of the ten cases he lists we let ourselves be scared silly by things that in reality aren't all that scary. This has led, and continues to lead, the US into making some really poor foreign policy choices. It's definitely worth a read, especially if you're not satisfied with the way American foreign policy is going these days.
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Somali Pirates: We're Protecting Our Fish

Along with issuing a ransom demand on Saturday for a British couple whose yacht they seized, the Somali pirates used the opportunity to accuse foreigners of stealing their resources, namely their fish. "The Western forces continue to loot our natural resources. They continue to harass local fishermen and destroy their fishing nets, so we want them to taste the consequence," said Ahmed Gadaf, a self-described spokesman for the pirate group holding the wayward British yachters Paul and Rachel Chandler. Gadaf went on to say that "many countries are fishing illegally in Somali waters," and estimated that they were taking "hundreds of millions of dollars" worth of fish from Somalia.

Though the US media has picked up on Gadaf's claims as something new, this isn't the first time the pirates have painted themselves as a sort of vigilante coast guard fighting to defend Somalia's waters - you can click on the "Pirates" tag on the right side of the page to read earlier claims by the pirates that they are really acting out of economic self-defense.

And honestly there is something to their claims, many of today's pirates were once fishermen who plied the waters just off the Somali coast. But without a viable government for the past two decades, there has been no way for Somalia to patrol their territorial waters, leaving them open to exploitation by whomever - including, according to the pirates, the fishing fleets of any number of nations. But coastal defense doesn't explain why Somalia's pirates are now heading hundreds of miles out into the Indian Ocean to capture ships and hold them for ransom.

In addition to the Chandler's yacht, Somali pirates have also seized a large Chinese cargo ship and a Thai-owned, Russian-crewed fishing vessel in recent days.
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