Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Khodorkovsky: A Political Prisoner Jailed Again?

On Monday a Russian court found Mikhail Khodorkovsky guilty for a second time based on his time as the CEO of Yukos, once Russia's largest oil company. The guilty verdict doesn't change Khodorkovsky’s immediate circumstances, he has been locked up in a prison in Russia's Far East since his arrest in 2003 on charges of tax evasion; what the verdict does is ensure that Khodorkovsky won't be getting out of jail next year after serving the eight year sentence he received in 2003.

For a very detailed recounting of the Khodorkovsky saga, check out Martin Sexsmith's book Putin's Oil (or for a recap, check out my review of Putin's Oil). In short, Khodorkovsky was jailed for willfully evading taxes while serving as the head of Yukos during the 1990s; in his defense, Khodorkovsky said that he followed the tax laws as best he could during the chaotic 1990s, when Russian tax laws were constantly changing, and in essence he was arrested for not accurately anticipating what the tax laws would be and not paying accordingly. In fact, the tax situation in Russia in the 90s was so confused, that the tax charges could have been levied against any members of Russia's oligarch class, who also used the economic upheaval as an opportunity to amass huge personal fortunes. That Khodorkovsky was singled out for punishment is clear indication to Kremlin critics that Khodorkovsky’s prosecution was in fact politically motivated (that any number of oligarchs could have been prosecuted, but weren’t, was a thought echoed in a fair number of comments made by Russians on the BBC’s coverage of the verdict).

They say that Khodorkovsky’s real crime was to break a “gentleman's agreement” between Vladimir Putin and the oligarch class where Putin promised to give the oligarchs a free hand in running their business empires so long as they stayed out of politics; Khodorkovsky made some relatively minor contributions to the Kremlin's political opposition in the early 2000s, soon after he found himself arrested at a Siberian airfield on the tax charges. Perhaps it is ironic that Khodorkovsky’s political donations came as part of his philanthropic efforts to build a civil society within Russia at a time when his fellow oligarchs were happy to take their money out of the country and spend it on luxury flats in London and enormous private yachts.

Khodorkovsky’s second prosecution will do nothing to dissuade critics of the idea that once again Russia's legal system is being used for political purposes. Sexsmith's book paints a picture of Putin fearful that Khodorkovsky could at long last be the symbol Russia's political opposition needs as a rallying point; it's not a coincidence then that Khodorkovsky’s original sentence would expire with enough time for him, hypothetically, to enter the 2012 presidential race. For his part, in writings from his Far East prison, Khodorkovsky has come to see himself as a “martyr” for modern Russia. Critics ask why Khodorkovsky, and his business partner Platon Lebedev, were put on trial now on charges that date back more than a decade. To further complicate matters was the judge's decision to postpone his ruling from mid-December until yesterday, a time when most Russians are preoccupied with the upcoming New Years and Orthodox Christmas holidays; perhaps the hope was that the ruling would be lost in the holiday shuffle. Western observers though have taken note, with even the US State Department expressing “concern” over the verdict and the flimsy evidence offered at trial.

Khodorkovsky’s actual sentence likely won't come for several more days as the judge has said he will not give word on punishment until he finishes reading the entire 250-page verdict. Whether this will affect foreign investment in Russia also remains to be seen.
Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, December 25, 2010

African Democracy: One Step Back, One Step Forward

Two tales of democracy from Africa today, one hopeful, the other not so much...

Cote d'Ivoire (also known as the Ivory Coast) for nearly a month now has had not one but two presidents. International observers, including the United Nations, declared opposition leader Alassane Ouattara the winner of the November 28 elections, which they further certified as free and fair. But that's not good enough for the current Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo who, like a pope in the Middle Ages, just went ahead and had himself sworn back into office at the same time that Ouattara's inauguration was taking place. Gbagbo refuses to recognize the results of the November 28 vote, which he has called “a coup” (admittedly an odd way to describe a democratic election).

The UN, United States and Ecowas – the economic bloc that includes most of the countries in West Africa – are all calling on Gbagbo to stop the nonsense and gracefully step aside – well, as gracefully as one can after pretending to be president for a month... The problem is that Gbagbo still has many in the state security apparatus and military backing him, which has paralyzed Cote d'Ivoire for the past month. And indications are that the situation could be turning ugly. Ouattara's side said they have reports of 200 dead and 1,000 injured among their supporters at the hands of security forces supporting Gbagbo, they also claim other supporters have been abducted and raped. Amnesty International said they are receiving “increasing” numbers of reports of political violence. It's worth noting that Cote d'Ivoire narrowly avoided a full-blown civil war in 2002 and had previously been one of West Africa's most stable and most prosperous countries. But all of that now seems in danger because of one very stubborn man.

But the news out of Africa certainly isn't all bad as another West African nation inaugurates their first democratically-elected president in their entire 50-year history. On Tuesday Alpha Conde was sworn in as the Republic of Guinea's first-ever elected president in a ceremony attended by heads of state from across the continent. Since gaining independence from France, Guinea has been run by a succession of military strongmen; change in government only came at the end of a gun. Things didn't look promising after the most recent junta took power in 2008, despite promises by the junta that they would hold open elections “in the future”. The situation further deteriorated after the junta's leader Captain Moussa Dadis Camara was gravely wounded in an assassination attempt and forces loyal to him massacred 150 opposition supporters and reportedly beat and raped hundreds more. But Guinea's interim leader, Sekouba Konate, followed through on the pledge to hold elections, which were won by Mr. Conde, himself a long-time opposition leader and advocate for democracy who had once been sentenced to death by an earlier military regime. The 72-year old Conde ran on a platform of change and development for the impoverished Guinea, which has rich deposits of bauxite, the ore used to make aluminum.

Though the swearing in of Conde is just a first step, if a country that has spent a half-century ruled by military juntas can have open democratic elections, then that's a hopeful sign for good governance across the continent.
Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Kosovo Body Snatchers

Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci was probably planning to spend the week celebrating his party's victory in his country's first national elections, instead he is defending himself from charges that he ran a ring of international body thieves.

The allegations go back nearly a decade to the time when the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) was fighting an insurgent campaign against Serbian paramilitaries as well as the Serbian government, which was trying to pacify the rebellious region of Kosovo. The Serbs were charged with a host of war crimes against the population of Kosovo, charges that eventually resulted in a NATO-led bombing campaign against Serbia, followed by the partition, and eventual independence, of Kosovo from Serbia. But rumors persisted that the Kosovars were committing atrocities of their own, namely that they were taking civilians and captured Serbs, killing them, and then selling their organs for transplant on the black market, rumors that we have previously discussed here. With officials in Kosovo, Albania -where many of the murders and transplants allegedly took place - and EULEX (the European Union security force dispatched to Kosovo for much of the 2008) unwilling to take the allegations seriously, it seemed like they would remain rumors that is until Dick Marty, a special human rights investigator for the Council of Europe, released a report this week saying that he had proof of the body-snatching ring.

Prime Minister Thaci was obviously upset by the rumors and has branded them as an attempt to slander his fledgling state. But there are a few things worth considering: much of the current Kosovar government is made up of former members of the KLA, Thaci included; and before the KLA became allied with the West in their struggle against the Serbian government, they were listed by a host of governments (the United States included) as a potential terrorist organization with possible links to al-Qaeda (we also learned this week that some felt the KLA put more effort into fighting rival factions in Kosovo then they did the Serbs). Even though they may no longer be considered to have terrorist links, the factions of the old KLA are thought to be closely allied with organized crime groups in Kosovo and Albania; much of Kosovo's economy is currently based on activities like smuggling and other criminal activities, along with foreign aid payments and remittances by Kosovars living abroad, not exactly the basis for a thriving economy.

Kosovo has been a political football for the past several years between the US and key European powers like Great Britain and France on one side and the Russians with their traditional allies the Serbs on the other. Kosovo and Serbia spent much of the 2000s engaged in a UN-brokered set of talks to determine Kosovo's final status, a process that was short-circuited in 2008 when the Kosovars decided to walk away from the talks and declare independence and the US/UK/France decided to recognize them as the world's newest nation. The rationale given by the Western powers was that it was a necessary step to ensure another ethnic conflict didn't break out between Kosovo and Serbia, but Serbia was a much different country in 2008 – the nationalists who had driven the Kosovo conflict were out of power and the country was looking to align itself with greater Europe – it was hard to think another round of conflict was in the offing. The move rather felt like delayed payback to Serbia for causing so much mischief in the 1990s, along with an attempt to weaken the Russian position in Europe by weakening one of their allies.

As such, the Europeans didn't bother to give the persistent rumors of the Kosovo body snatching ring a proper investigation, at least until Marty came along; nor have they taken much action to quell the hold organized crime has over the country, despite the fact that – thanks to Wikileaks – they were well aware of the crime situation. Frankly, its hard to imagine what Kosovo's economy would be based on, the nation is relatively small, landlocked, and has a sparse population – the question of whether it could be a viable state was apparently not considered in the rush to recognize its independence.

It will be interesting to see how Europe moves forward with Kosovo. In addition to the body snatching ring, which Marty promises to present evidence of in the coming weeks, there are also reports from the region that there were widespread irregularities in last weekend's election that saw Thaci's party win a solid majority; certainly not good signs for the future of the Western power's pet project.
Sphere: Related Content


A few weeks ago while visiting Bulgaria, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was given a special gift: a Bulgarian Shepherd puppy. Maybe that's understating the gift a bit, since Putin was given perhaps the most adorable puppy on the face of the Earth (see picture below).

The puppy had a name, one Putin didn't care for, so the puppy didn't have a name... Putin decided to turn the naming of the new pup into a national contest, which was won – as such contests always are – by a young child, a five-year old boy named Dima who suggested the president name his new pooch “Buffy”.


First, one wonders how a young Russian boy would come up with the name “Buffy” in the first place, then you have to wonder why Putin would think that Buffy was the best of the choices offered? (Perhaps because “Dmitry” would just be too confusing?) And finally you have to wonder if Buffy is really the best name for a puppy that looks like it will eventually grow to be the size of a small horse. But it's always best not to argue with Putin...
Sphere: Related Content

Monday, December 13, 2010

Somalia's Mystery Militia

This story caught my eye last week, Foreign Policy picked up on a piece originally in the Washington Post about a 1,000 member militia being trained in the Puntland region of Somalia, a militia mysteriously funded by an unnamed “Islamic nation”, likely from the Persian Gulf region, and employing at least one former GW Bush-era diplomat along with a former CIA agent. Supposedly the militia is meant to fight the Somali pirates who operate in the Gulf of Aden north of Puntland as well as in the Indian Ocean; Foreign Policy even headlined their story describing the militia as an anti-pirate force.

But the details of the story make that explanation a little suspect. Puntland is an autonomous region of Somalia that has at least something of a functioning government - unlike the southern two-thirds of the nation. And while there is piracy in the Gulf of Aden, the best-known pirate strongholds are along Somalia's lawless Indian Ocean coast; these are the ports where the big ships – the cargo vessels and tankers – seized by the pirates are held for multi-million dollar ransoms. Then there's the matter of the militia's make-up. According to the Washington Post, the militia's equipment includes several airplanes and more than 100 up-armored pickup trucks, but no boats, something you would expect to be necessary equipment for battling pirates.

People involved with the militia here repeat a true assessment of the Somali situation: that piracy will be defeated ashore by taking away the pirate safe-havens, not by chasing speedboats across a million square miles of ocean. But the “ashore” strategy means strengthening Somali civil society, installing a functioning national government and bringing law to these now lawless ports; something 1,000 men in 100 armed trucks can't do. What they can do however is provide security in a specific area of the nation, and that's where the story gets interesting. Officials with the Puntland government say that the anti-piracy militia's first target will be an Islamist militia operating in the mountains 100 miles inland; a militia tied to the more powerful al-Shabaab Islamist force menacing the Somali capital Mogadishu and with ties to arms smugglers from Yemen and Eritrea, but with no apparent links to pirates. This militia operates in an area of Puntland believed to hold oil and natural gas reserves – something 1,000 men in armed trucks could do a good job at protecting.

If that's the real intent of the Puntland militia, then fine, if Puntland has natural resources they can develop, and if developing these resources can help the region to become more secure and to develop economically, all the better; but it is cynical (not to mention inaccurate) to portray this force as an “anti-pirate militia.”
Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, December 11, 2010

4/11/54: The Most Boring Day

Just in case you were wondering what was the most boring day of the 20th century, detailed computer analysis has determined that it was in fact April 11, 1954. On that day there was an election in Belgium, a Turkish academic was born and a British soccer player died. That was about it.

The “Most Boring Day” honor was bestowed upon 4/11/54 by True Knowledge, a data search engine developed by Cambridge University that has compiled a database of 300 million facts, figures and events. The scientists at Cambridge designed True Knowledge to be a better Internet search engine, not to pick the most banal day of the 20th century, but its programmers figured the boring day challenge was a good test of True Knowledge's abilities. April 11, 1954 stood out for its not-worthiness since no notable people were born or died, nor were there any major news events. According to the Times of India, April 30, 1930 had previously been considered the dullest day of the century based on a BBC news bulletin that simply said of the day: “There is no news.”
Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, December 9, 2010

You Think This Would Be News: Cheney Indicted

You really would think news that former Vice President Dick Cheney was likely to be indicted on charges of bribery by the government of Nigeria would at least rate a mention on the nightly news, but apparently not. So in case you likely missed this story, Nigeria's anti-corruption agency is set to levy charges against Cheney and a host of other top officials from the oil industry services company Halliburton over charges that a Halliburton subsidiary, KBR, bribed a number of Nigerian government officials to win approval for the construction of a natural gas liquefaction plant. This plant would allow KBR to export liquefied natural gas (or LNG) by ship from Nigeria. While KBR and Halliburton have since split up, the charges date back to before 2007, when KBR was still a Halliburton subsidiary, and presumably to before 2001 when Cheney was still the head of Halliburton.

KBR has already agreed to pay more than $180 million in fines to the government of Nigeria.

Of course even if indicted it is impossible to believe that Cheney would actually go to Nigeria to stand trial. But the charges shouldn't just be dismissed as the act of a grandstanding government. Nigeria is Africa's most populous nations and one of the economic powers of the continent. It is also a major supplier of crude oil to the United States and is a growing exporter of LNG.
Sphere: Related Content

You Think This Would Be News: Argentina and Palestine

Second item for the Would Be News file, the government of Argentina announced on Monday that it recognized Palestine as a “free and independent” state within the 1967 borders. Argentina's announcement comes just three days after Brazil made a similar proclamation towards Palestine.

Argentina said it took the step of recognizing Palestine out of frustration on the progress (or lack of progress) in the “two-state” peace negotiations which started back in 1991 and continue to drag on today. This is exactly what Israel feared might happen after talks once again stalled after the Israeli side refused to renew a freeze on the construction of Israeli-only settlements within the borders of what would-be the Palestinian state. As part of a proposed deal for a one-time extension of the settlement freeze, the United States promised to block any unilateral moves by organizations like the United Nations to recognize Palestine as an independent state.

Of course that doesn't stop countries like Argentina from acting unilaterally, and apparently several other countries in Latin America are planning to issue their own statements of recognition according to the Palestinians. Even though Argentina's recognition has little practical effect, the Palestinians are hoping as more countries join in, the idea of a nation of Palestine occupying the 1967 borders will become the default position in the international community, a condition that they hope will lead to actual statehood for Palestine.
Sphere: Related Content

Friday, December 3, 2010

America: Not As Generous As We Think

Quick, what percentage of the United States budget is spent on foreign aid?

If you answered less than one percent, you're correct (the actual amount is about .2%). You're also in the minority of people who know the facts about US foreign aid according to a new survey by WorldPublicOpinion.org/Knowledge Networks, which found that the median estimate of US foreign policy expenditures was a whopping 25% of the annual budget. Only 19% of the respondents were even close in saying that foreign aid made up less than 5% of the budget.

More surprisingly, when asked how much the United States should spend on foreign aid, the median response figure was 10%, a whopping fifty-fold increase over what the United States actually sends out in foreign assistance. That's interesting because whenever the topic of cutting the federal budget comes up, one item always put on the chopping block is foreign aid. The problem is that Americans are assuming that we're spending far more on foreign aid than we actually are. Education affected how much people though the US spent on foreign aid: those with less than a high school degree put foreign aid as a percentage of budget at an amazing 45%; high school grads said 25%; college-educated said 20%; and those with advanced degrees still gave an average total of 15%.

To put this in some perspective, Norway spends about 1% of its Gross National Income (GNI) on foreign aid; of course given the relative size of the economies, this is a fraction of the roughly $25 billion the US dispenses by giving away its .2%. Increase that to 10% of the US budget – the median amount that respondents thought was a fair amount to spend on aid – and suddenly you’re talking about $1.25 trillion.

One final fascinating note: when asked how much of the budget ideally should be spent on foreign aid, only 20% of those responding said 1% or less – the actual current amount.
Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, December 2, 2010

World Cup: Russia, Qatar Win Big

Kudos to FIFA for some bold choices this morning on the sites of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which in case you missed it, will go to Russia and Qatar respectively. Though the picks are being roundly criticized in some circles – notably the UK, and to a lesser degree the US, media since each country lost out on their bids to host the Cup - it was nice to see the trend of big, international tournaments going to new parts of the world continue.

I thought that the Russian bid was heading for defeat when Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced that he would not be traveling to Zurich to make a final, personal appeal to the FIFA committee, but perhaps Putin was just playing coy, acting like he really didn't care if Russia got the cup or not... For Russia the 2018 World Cup will follow on the heels of the 2014 Winter Olympics which will be held in Sochi. Both Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev are talking about how the World Cup shows that Russia has arrived (or perhaps returned) to the level of a “First Nation” country; terms that had previously been used when Russia was awarded the Sochi Games. Even more intriguing is the award of the 2022 Cup to Qatar, which by any measure is a decidedly puny nation – coming in at 164th in the ranking of nations of the world by size and with a total population of just 1.6 million. Of course Qatar is one of the richest (in terms of per capita wealth) nations in the world thanks to huge supplies of oil and natural gas (Qatar has the world's third-largest reserves of the latter). And the Qataris are promising to spend ample amounts of that resource wealth in creating a slate of ridiculously sci-fi looking stadia that they claim will also be “carbon-neutral” for this green 21st century. One interesting aspect of the Qatar bid was their approach to recycling: some stadiums will be dismantled after the Cup and shipped to nations around the world that cannot afford to build such complexes. And while Qatar itself is small, backers of their bid say that the symbolism is huge since this is the first sporting event of global scale to be held in the Islamic world.

Critics are slamming FIFA for the awards though, stating that both countries have lousy human rights records, a factor they say FIFA should have considered in their decision. Some comments on the 2018 Cup questioned how people would get between venues since Russia is such a huge country (covering 11 time zones and 1/6 the world's surface). Russian organizers seem to plan to counter this by staging all of the WC games in cities located in the European third of the nation. Comments on message boards again slammed the Qataris for their approach to human rights, particularly the fact that homosexuality is officially a crime in Qatar; though many of the comments on British sites were complaining that alcohol sales are banned in Islamic Qatar (Qatari officials have pledged to set up special “alcohol zones” for tourists during the games, which should help to satisfy the British drunkards).

And the world now has 11 years to figure out the correct way to pronounce “Qatar”.
Sphere: Related Content

Wikileaks Russia: Batman and the Mob

Frankly a lot of the Wikileaks document dump of “secret” communications from US embassies and ambassadors around the world was pretty underwhelming – a topic I'll explore a little more fully in an upcoming post on The Mantle. Not surprisingly, some of the cables dealt with US-Russian relations. Grabbing the headlines is an assessment by one Moscow embassy official that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was playing “Robin” to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's “Batman”, and a comment that today's Russia seems like less of a nation-state and more of a country-sized mafia operation with a cadre of well-connected government and security service officials getting a cut of all the major projects around the country. These are not new ideas, in fact they're fairly standard critiques from pundits from both outside Russia and within. Dig a little deeper though and the discussion gets at least a little more interesting.

The assessment of the US officials is that Medvedev is actually sincere in the many reforms of the Russian state he has proposed during his term as president, only to have them shot down by his counterpart, Prime Minister Putin. The official goes on to suggest that the Medvedev and Putin factions are in open conflict within the Kremlin, though the two primaries appear have yet to go toe-to-toe.

Hopefully the US official is at least partially right. It would be nice to think that Medvedev is sincere in the reforms he has put forward – which have ranged from reigning in Russia's endemic corruption problem, to establishing a high-tech manufacturing sector a la America's “Silicon Valley” in an effort to move Russia away from extraction industries like oil and natural gas, to addressing the sadly low life expectancy among Russian men (roughly 60 years), to protecting journalists and the freedom of the press. Since he took office from Putin in 2008 (under the Russian constitution, Putin could not run for a third term as president) there have been volumes written speculating on the true nature of the Putin-Medvedev relationship: they call their President/Prime Minister act a “tandem rule”, critics say though that Medvedev is merely a seat-warmer for Putin who can run for President again in 2012 (the constitution only bans three consecutive terms). I've speculated here a few times about their relationship, so it would be nice to think that Medvedev truly does want to address some of Russia's really serious problems. Where I hope the US official is wrong is when they suggest that Medvedev is too weak-willed to actually stand up to Putin, since Medvedev is likely the last hope Russia has to tackle some of these issues, at least for the near future.

Another interesting tidbit from the Wikileaks Russia section dealt with Chechen Warlord/President Ramzan Kadyrov. The cables included an anecdote about Kadyrov attending a wedding in Chechnya where he presented the couple with a modest gift of gold bullion before hopping into his heavily-guarded caravan of SUV and taking off. One onlooker said that Kadyrov didn't spend the night in the same place twice due to security concerns. That directly contradicts not only Kadyrov's carefully-crafted image as a regional strongman, but also his oft-repeated arguments (which Moscow bought into at least for awhile) that Chechnya was once again a safe and peaceful part of the Russian Federation.
Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thanksgiving Break

Apologies for the break in posting, but I decided at the last minute to take some time off for the Thanksgiving holiday. But the world keeps moving, so we'll get back to normal blogging this week. Right now the breaking story is that Wikileaks has just dumped thousands of pages of "secret" communications between US embassies around the world and Washington DC; so far the headlines are that the Afghan government is corrupt, the Chinese are cyberspying on the world and the Saudis are helping to fund terrorism - and we needed a release of secret documents to learn this?


Sphere: Related Content


If you've read this site for awhile, you probably know that I've been pretty critical of the whole US/NATO mission in Afghanistan; but the latest story about the Taliban imposter warlord takes the cake. In case you missed this one, here's a brief recap:

For the past few months the idea of negotiating with at least the more moderate elements of the Taliban has been gaining traction, the rationale being if more reasonable pieces of the Taliban could be peeled away and reintegrated into the Afghan establishment, it just might put an end to the insurgency. Symbol of these efforts were the ongoing negotiations with one Mullah Akthar Mohammad Mansour, a “senior leader” with the Taliban. NATO thought that Mansour was valuable enough to lay a lot of cash on him (six figures by some accounts) and fly him in for meetings with President Hamid Karzai. Sounds great, except that the “Mullah Akthar Mohammad Mansour” wasn't the real Mullah Akthar Mohammad Mansour, a fact that the coalition is just learning now. Who this pseudo-Mansour was/is – whether he was a simple scam artist, a Taliban agent or something else entirely – will remain a secret since he snuck across the border into Pakistan and disappeared once the jig was up. Beyond being hugely embarrassing for the coalition to be scammed like this, what does the pseudo-Mansour affair say about the coalition's whole vaunted counter-insurgency strategy in the first place? The core idea of COIN is that you get to know your adversary on a personal level so that you can out maneuver him in the hearts and minds of the general population; but how well can the coalition know their enemy though if they don't even realize that one of their top commanders is in fact an imposter?

The Taliban imposter story would be criticism enough of the ongoing Afghan mission, but it comes out at the same time as the results of Afghanistan's recent parliamentary elections are being made public, and while attempts are being made to present them as a triumph of democracy, it's looking like the Afghans have succeeded in running an even more corrupt election than their last fraud-plagued vote. So far Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) has managed to toss out 1.3 million ballots – about one-quarter of all votes cast and more than the million votes tossed out in Hamid Karzai's reelection last year – along with about 10% of the elected candidates. And here's where things start to get interesting: in the last election, the fraud swung heavily in favor of Hamid Karzai, ballot boxes were stuffed with Karzai votes, those for his main challenger Dr. Abdullah Abdullah were tossed out; this time the vote seems to have gone heavily against the Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group and traditional cultural elites.

One explanation being put forward is that the Taliban is also heavily Pashtun, so vote turnout was lowest in the provinces where the Taliban is most active allowing other ethnic groups, like the traditionally oppressed, but largely peaceful Hazaras, to turn out in large numbers, giving them a larger-than-expected share of the Afghan Parliament. But a simpler explanation is also emerging – a good, old-fashioned money for votes scam. There are reports in several news outlets that members of the IEC contacted various candidates and offered to give them more votes (or take away votes from rival candidates) for the right price. Backing up this claim are stories of elected candidates suddenly being told that they in fact “lost”. The situation is worst in heavily-Pashtun Ghazni province, which weeks after the vote still has no official results due to widespread claims of fraud. The situation has gotten so bad that Afghanistan's Attorney General Mohammed Ishaq Aloko announced he'll be launching an investigation into vote totals across the country as well as into the IEC itself. In other words the situation is quickly turning into Florida 2000, only on a country-wide scale and with heavily-armed terrorist militias.

And just to put a sad post-script on this whole story, check out this photo-essay from Foreign Policy of pictures of Kabul in the early 1960s, during that all-to-brief time when Afghanistan looked like it was on its way to becoming a modern, democratic, fairly-liberal state.
Sphere: Related Content

RIP Cable News: 1980-2010

If there was one unintended casualty of Tuesday's artillery duel between North and South Korea, it was the idea of cable television news. Fox and MSNBC may have already traded in their news credentials, maintaining only a veneer of “news” coverage in the late mornings/afternoons as cover for their respective political agitprop positions, but CNN kept plugging away in the news business, albeit as a shell of its former self. At least until yesterday.

The Korean cross-border skirmish is arguably the biggest international crisis of the year – two South Korean marines and two civilians were killed in the fighting, while South Korea is ominously warning of dire retaliation if the North strikes again. I woke up at 5:30 on Tuesday and listened to a half-hour of solid coverage of the Korea situation on the BBC World Service; at 6 I turned on CNN. To their credit, CNN led with the Korea story and brought in Jill Dougherty, one of their senior foreign correspondents for some analysis. This lasted about three minutes before CNN was onto the next story, that Will and Kate at picked a site for their wedding. At 7, CNN dedicated about two minutes to Korea before returning to the Will n' Kate story. To top it off, at about 7:15 CNN cut in with “breaking news”, which I assumed would be a development in the unfolding Korea story (silly me), instead it was to announce that Will and Kate would be married at Westminster Abbey – note to CNN: if you've already been reporting it for more than an hour, by definition it is not “breaking news”.

On Tuesday morning it was clear that the folks on CNN would much rather talk about fluffy stories like Will and Kate, or the upcoming “Dancing With The Stars” finale than the situation in Korea; it was an unmistakeable sign that CNN had gone from being television's premier news provider to just another peddler of infotainment. To make matters worse, if you ever happen to see their global version, CNN International, it's clear that the folks in Atlanta still know how to do quality, serious news programming, sadly they just don't choose to share that expertise with an American audience. In a more globalized, more interdependent world, it is more critical than ever to have access to sources of quality news. But just when the need is the greatest, the “news” networks decide to feed the viewing public a diet of nonsense.
Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Another Example Of America's Stupid Cuba Policy

If you need another example of why America's policy towards Cuba is seriously flawed (ok, seriously stupid), look no further than Tuesday's New York Times and this article about another player signing up for what could be a Cuban oil bonanza. While currently an oil importing nation, recent geologic surveys indicate that there could be huge reserves of oil in deep water fields that would not only break Cuba of their energy dependence on Venezuela and revive their struggling economy, but would also allow the island to join the ranks of oil exporting nations. On Tuesday Russia's state-run energy giant Gazprom announced they were buying a 30% stake in one of the prospective fields in a deal that could run until 2042. Gazprom now joins companies from countries including Spain, Malaysia, and China in drilling for oil in the waters off Cuba.

Of course American oil companies won't be joining in this potential black gold rush because of the now 48-year long trade embargo that the United States has maintained against Cuba, all in the vain hope that maybe this just might be the year the embargo drives Fidel Castro from power. I've written before about the pointlessness of the embargo, so no need to repeat those arguments here, but there are some added reasons why the embargo is especially stupid when it comes to drilling for oil. Beyond the simple fact that it means lost revenues for American companies; US-based firms have decades of experience in drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, something the firms currently holding contracts with Cuba lack. Gazprom especially has precious little experience with offshore drilling, one reason why they signed a partnership deal with Malaysia's Petronas to develop their portion of Cuba's offshore fields; given their experience, American firms could be commanding a premium in such partnership arrangements. Then there's the issue of what happens if something goes wrong with one of these wells. Since many of the fields are adjacent to the Straits of Florida, some projections say that oil from a BP-style leak off Cuba could hit the Florida Keys within just three days, presumably then striking the east coast of the United States soon after. This summer we saw just how difficult it was to cap a deep sea well with abundant resources and technology at your disposal; Cuba lacks any sort of deep water operations equipment, particularly the remote operated vehicles (ROVs) that eventually capped the well, meaning the response to a Cuban spill would likely be much slower.

With both their experience in the region and now in dealing with a deep water blowout, the participation of American firms in oil exploration off Cuba could make the whole venture a much safer process, but thanks to the pointless, politically-motivated embargo (and with Cuban-American Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen set to become Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, that’s unlikely to change), American firms won't have that opportunity.
Sphere: Related Content

Did Wes Clark Almost Start World War III?

That's the inference being made by James Blunt in a new interview with the BBC. Blunt is probably best known in the United States for his soft rock hit single “You're Beautiful”; but before making his mark on the airwaves, Blunt was a cavalry officer in the British military. In 1999 he was leading troops as part of the NATO mission in Kosovo aimed at halting the fighting between the Kosovars and Serbian forces. A key point in the NATO strategy to establish security in Kosovo was to gain control of the airfield outside the capital, Pristina; but in a surprise move Russian forces swept through Kosovo and seized the airfield ahead of the NATO troops. While the Russians were supposedly part of KFOR, the international alliance that had come together to halt the fighting in Kosovo, suspicion ran high in the US/NATO command that the Russians were in fact trying to hinder the KFOR mission on behalf of their traditional allies, the Serbians who feared Kosovo would breakaway from Serbia (a fear that turned out to be correct).

According to Blunt, General Wesley Clark, then the NATO Supreme Commander Europe, ordered NATO forces to attack and “destroy” the Russians and take control of the Pristina airfield by force. Blunt, who was at the head of the NATO column approaching the airfield, would have led the attack, but the orders seemed so crazy to him that he called up his own superior officers for clarification. Commander of the British forces, General Sir Michael Jackson ordered Blunt and his troops to stand down, saying: “I'm not going to have my soldiers be responsible for starting World War III.” The NATO troops instead encircled the airbase; the Russians, who had rushed into Pristina in such a hurry that they didn't bring enough supplies for a siege offered to share command of the airbase two days later.

Now frankly I've always thought of Wes Clark as one of the better voices out there on foreign affairs, but his command to attack the Russians is just daffy and very possibly could have led to WWIII. I'd be tempted to doubt Blunt, except for the fact that Jackson backs up his account, and if you remember any of the news accounts from the KFOR mission, then you remember that Sir Mike Jackson was most definitely a no BS kind of guy.

For his part, Blunt says that even if Jackson had not backed him up, he still would have refused General Clark's order to attack the airfield and the Russians, even though it likely would have meant his court martial, since the orders were so blatantly reckless. He explained to the BBC that a “sense of moral judgment is drilled into us as soldiers in the British army” as to why he would have refused Clark's orders.
Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Hip Hop World: Russia and Uganda Edition

The website GlobalPost recently reported on the rap scene in Russia under the title “Can Rap Change Russia?”; the subject of the piece was Russian rapper Noize MC, who just spent ten days in jail for insulting police officials in Volgograd. While politically-charged rap is nothing new in the United States (think Public Enemy and NWA among others), Noize MC is blazing a new path in Russia by writing songs about corrupt officials and abusive police officers. His biggest statement to date is the song “Mercedes S666” a rap about a mother and daughter killed in a traffic accident by a bureaucrat's speeding Mercedes. The story caused national outrage in Russia over the use of flashing blue lights attached to the top of a car – the blue lights are only intended to be used by only official vehicles in emergency situations, but they have been doled out to thousands of petty bureaucrats who use them to flout traffic laws, sometimes with disastrous results.

Noize MC was jailed for ten days after performing an impromptu rap about police abuse; he was convicted of “disorderly conduct” two days later and jailed. Since his release, he has seen some of his concerts canceled, likely due to official pressure. While Noize MC may be taking Russian rap to new places, people familiar with the Russian music industry interviewed by GlobalPost say that he is the exception to the rule, and that most musicians today are content to not make waves when it comes to criticizing the government. Perhaps there's no better indication of that than the fact that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was actually nominated for a rap award earlier this year for his appearance on “Battle for Respect”, a sort of American Idol for aspiring Russian rappers and breakdancers. Putin appeared on the show to give rap and breakdancing his seal of approval for promoting a “healthy lifestyle” among young people; Putin's appearance was subsequently nominated for “Event of the Year” at the first annual Russian Street Awards, a show dedicated to rap, breakdancing and graffiti art (to their credit, the Russian Street Awards organizers decided to limit the butt-kissing to the nomination stage rather than giving Putin an award).

And while we're on the topic of world leaders and rap, Uganda's 65-year old President Yoweri Museveni could become rap's latest, and most unlikely, star. A rap of a campaign speech Museveni gave earlier this year has been set to a beat and is currently burning up the charts in Uganda. The lyrics include the lines: “harvesters, give me millet that I gave to a hen, which gave me an egg that I gave to children, who gave me a monkey that I gave to the king, who gave me a cow that I used to marry my wife,” and are based on a Ugandan fairy tale. Museveni busted out the rhymes during a campaign stop with young supporters.
Sphere: Related Content

Turkey's Rambo Takes Aim At Israel

While we're on the topic of media, Foreign Policy is reporting that relations between Israel and Turkey will likely suffer another blow with the upcoming release of a Turkish spy film. “Valley of the Wolves: Palestine” is the latest adventure for Agent Polet Alemdar, who Foreign Policy describes as a sort of “Rambo for the Islamic world”; Alemdar's target this time is Israel, specifically Israeli agents who intercepted a Turkish aid ship bout for Gaza.

You likely remember the story of the Gaza-bound relief flotilla intercepted by Israeli forces earlier this year; while several of the boardings went off peacefully, the boarding of the Turkish-owned Mavi Marmara went terribly with a battle breaking out on deck between the Gaza activists and Israeli commandos, which left nine of the Mavi Marmara's crew dead. “Valley of the Wolves: Palestine” is the story of Alemdar's quest for revenge against the Israeli agents responsible for the events aboard the Mavi Marmara, a story that actually sounds a lot like the movie Munich, the story of Israeli agents exacting revenge against the Palestinians who planned the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Similarities aside, the Israelis are livid over the release of “Valley of the Wolves: Palestine”, which they say is another example of the “creeping anti-Semitism” in Turkey today. It's worth noting that Israel-Turkey relations hit another low point recently after a Turkish television movie about secret agents painted Israel's Mossad is a very unflattering light. Following the airing of that movie, the Turkish ambassador to Israel was publicly dressed down on Israeli television, an act that outraged the Turks.

But it's not only the Israelis who are angered over their portrayal in another country's pop culture, Chinese officials are also fuming over recent depictions of their officials in the British spy series Spooks (MI-5 here in the states). According to reports in the British press, government officials in China have ordered Chinese television networks not to do business with the BBC in protest over a storyline in the latest season of Spooks, which cast the Chinese as the bad guys planning to, among other things, set off a “dirty bomb” in London if the British interfered with their plans; a pretty strong reaction considering that Spooks doesn’t even air in China. Officially, the Chinese foreign ministry said it would have to “look into the matter” of the alleged BBC boycott.
Sphere: Related Content

Friday, November 12, 2010

Journalists Again Targeted in Russia

At the time this post is being written, Oleg Kashin, a journalist with the Russian newspaper Kommersant is lying in a Moscow hospital in a coma, the result of a savage beating outside of his apartment. Even though a number of high-profile journalists have been attacked, some murdered, in Russia during the past decade, Kashin's attack was particularly brazen; he was beaten with a metal rod and suffered numerous injuries to his head – including two broken jaws – a broken leg and fingers. Robbery appears not to have been the motive since his wallet and iPhone were left with Kashin (this MSNBC story includes security camera footage of the attack on Kashin).

And here's where on Law and Order they'd say that a pattern is emerging; Kashin was the third reporter beaten in such a manner. In November 2008 journalist Mikhail Beketov was assaulted outside of his home, and received a beating so severe it left him with brain damage and confined to a wheelchair; earlier this week a third journalist, Anatoly Adamchuk, was assaulted outside of the offices of his newspaper Zhukovskiye Vesti. Two threads link the three beatings – one, in each case along with a severe beating around the head, each journalist also had their hands smashed, in Beketov's case smashed so badly that several of his fingers had to be amputated; since journalists earn their living by typing – an act hard to do without the use of one's fingers – the beating of the hands sends a pretty clear message. The second common link is that prior to the beating each had written stories about historic, old-growth (and supposedly protected) forests being cut down for road-building projects, often involving well-connected land developers: in the case of Kashin and Beketov it was the Khimki Forest, a project recently suspended by President Dmitry Medvedev after some high-profile attention was cast on it by U2's Bono and Russian rock icon Yuri Shevchuk; in Adamchuk's case it was a similar project through the Tsagovsky Forest.

The inference most will likely draw is that in each case the journalists were attacked because of their writing about the controversial destruction of what should be protected public lands by people acting on behalf of the wealthy developers pushing the highway projects (road development is considered one of the most lucrative types of construction in Russia) either with the blessing of officials in the Kremlin or at least without the fear of angering them. Perhaps aware that this is the likely conclusion people will draw, Medvedev has pledged swift action and, according to Kommersant, has assigned “experts from the Prosecutor General's Office's Investigative Committee who have solved a number of high-profile cases” to the investigation. A bill was also introduced in the Duma that would grant journalists the same level of protection given to politicians, making an assault on them punishable by life in prison if the attack were grave enough. On the surface, both are strong actions aimed at getting justice for the victims and preventing future attacks, but Russia in the 21st century has a poor record of actually catching those who assault and kill journalists making all of the eventual arrests and punishments a moot point.

And just to add insult to injury, literally, this week Beketov was found guilty of slandering Khimki's Mayor Vladimir Strelchenko, who filed suit against Beketov for criticizing his administration for letting the Khimki Forest be clear-cut for the Moscow-St. Petersburg highway project. While the judge in the case was sympathetic to Beketov, who was physically unable to speak due to the injuries he sustained in the 2008 beating, he fined Beketov $160 for “tarnishing the honor and professional reputation” of Strelchenko, a fine he then waived on a technicality.
Sphere: Related Content

King Me

Elections are troubling things for the world's dictators – on one hand there's always the chance you could lose, a troubling prospect for any dictator; then there's merely the indignity of allowing the people a chance to weigh in on your all-powerful rule in the first place, yet the global community tends to insist on countries holding the things and takes a dim view on those who name themselves President-for-Life. The old-school solution to this problem was to hold a rigged election that you were sure to win either by having loyalists stuff the ballot boxes with votes for you, or by intimidating the political opposition into dropping out of the race entirely (see Zimbabwe for this tactic in action); the downside to either approach though is that they are relatively easy for the global community to monitor and criticize. The newer approach has been instead to stock the country's electoral commission with your people, thereby ensuring that the votes in your favor are counted, the ones that are against you are not and that all of this is done with the veneer of legality – after all the electoral commission certified the results...

But The Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh is taking a different approach to the whole electoral problem – he's angling to be crowned King of The Gambia. Jammeh has ruled this thin sliver of a nation, which runs along the banks of the namesake Gambia River in Western Africa, for 16 years since taking power in a military coup. He has since been “elected” president three times, though Jammeh's rule is basically absolute in The Gambia – he controls the media and all branches of the national government. I happen to know someone from The Gambia, now living in exile after running afoul of Jammeh's policies, which makes me believe that the stories of his total control of the nation are not being overblown.

That also makes the story that tribal chieftans in The Gambia are pushing for Jammeh's coronation as thanks for all of the great things he's done for the country seem pretty dubious – more likely they're pushing for his coronation because they were told to do so since Jammeh seems tired of standing for elections – even sham ones that he is sure to win. The push for coronation could also be part of Jammeh's mania for collecting self-aggrandizing titles, which earlier this year also included being named an admiral in the “Nebraska Navy”. Jammeh apparently wasn't aware that landlocked Nebraska has no navy and that the title is a sort of inside joke among Cornhuskers.

His push for Kingship however is not.
Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Russia Joins US In Afghan Drug Raid

Four agents from Russia's drug enforcement agency joined American troops last week in a raid on drug labs operating in Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan. The joint US-Russian operation destroyed four labs – three producing heroin and one morphine – and seized an estimated 200 million doses of heroin according to the Russian government. The raid marks Russia's first military action in Afghanistan since the Soviet Red Army withdrew from the country in 1989. Cheap Afghani heroin has become a major public health problem in Russia. With easy access into Russia via former Soviet states like Tajikistan, heroin has been flooding Russian cities with disastrous results – an estimated 30,000 people died from heroin overdoses in Russia last year alone. Russia, meanwhile, has been critical of the US/NATO military operation in Afghanistan, saying that they are not doing enough to curtain poppy cultivation (the poppy flower provides opium, the source material for heroin/morphine) or to destroy Afghan labs that produce the drugs, since Afghan heroin is a major problem for Russia but not Europe or the United States.

Of course one person not happy with last week's raid was Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who called the Russian participation in the raid a “violation” of Afghanistan's national sovereignty and threatened that “Afghanistan will respond seriously to any repetition of such actions.” In making his statement, Karzai played up latent resentments in Afghanistan over the Soviet Union's decade-long occupation of their country. No word on whether or not Karzai was upset that the raid might have cut into his brother Ahmed Wali’s drug business (perhaps the “serious response” Karzai threatened would be Ahmed Wali's drug connections sending more cheap heroin into Russia...). There were subsequent media reports that Hamid Karzai approved the drug raids, which is the kind of flip-flop that will do nothing to calm fears that Karzai is too unstable to actually effectively govern his country.

That was one of the issues raised by former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer in his recent deconstruction of American foreign policy towards Afghanistan. It is an article worth reading, but the highlights include a critique of the top US commander, Gen. Petraeus' assertion that the recent US “surge” in Afghanistan is working. Scheuer notes that Petraeus is making these claims just before the Congressional elections, and that Petraeus made similar claims about the success of the “surge” in Iraq just before the 2008 US elections; claims that today look overly optimistic at best, or outright dishonest at worst, given the deteriorating security situation in Iraq. Turning back to Afghanistan, Scheuer shoots a lot of holes in the conventional wisdom pushed by US policymakers that if the United States were to withdraw, Afghanistan would once again become a Taliban safe-haven (a point we've made here on a number of occasions as well). He goes on to say that while the early stages of US/NATO involvement allowed some of Afghanistan's ethnic minorities access to a political process that had formerly excluded them, the focus during the past few years on the southern and eastern parts of the country, dominated by Afghanistan's largest group, the Pashtuns, have largely reversed these gains, having the effect of restoring the Pashtuns to their historical role as the dominant force in Afghanistan, increasing the likelihood of yet another civil war in the country.

Finally, the BBC recently published another interview with Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who eventually put an end to the Red Army's Afghan mission. As he has said publicly before, Gorbachev stated that it would be “impossible” for the US/NATO coalition to win in Afghanistan and suggested that the United States withdraw their forces if they did not want to wind up with “another Vietnam.” The irony here is that the case for US backing of Islamic militants in Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion in 1979 was presented as a way to suck the Soviet Union into their version of Vietnam. Gorbachev again repeated a claim to the BBC that when the Soviet Union decided to withdraw their military from Afghanistan, they struck a deal with the United States and Pakistan that they would also stop funding militants within Afghanistan and all would allow the country to develop as “a neutral, democratic country, that would have good relations with its neighbors and with both the US and the USSR.” Gorbachev contends that the US, via Pakistan, continued to support the anti-government militants in Afghanistan in violation of this agreement, which led to the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal and eventually to the rise of al-Qaeda.
Sphere: Related Content

China's Miss World Payback?

When the Nobel Prize committee announced that the winner of this year's peace prize would be noted Chinese dissident – and current political prisoner - Liu Xiaobo, China warned that Sino-Norwegian relations would likely suffer as a result, but this is a bit ridiculous.

People in Norway are crying foul, saying that biased judging on the part of the Chinese caused Norwegian beauty Mariann Birkedal the Miss World crown, held last week on the Chinese island of Hainan. Birkedal is a former Miss Universe who also won the “Top Model” award in the preliminary rounds of the Miss World pageant; yet she failed to even make the top five finalists, a situation that has people in Norway claiming that Birkedal is the victim of some political payback on the part of the Chinese.

China viewed the Liu's Nobel Prize as meddling in their internal affairs on the part of the Norwegian government, even though the Nobel Prize winners are determined by an independent organization which happens to be based in Norway (perhaps it's just hard for the Chinese government to believe that there can be anything that operates in a given country that's not under the control of the State...). After protesting Lui's consideration for the Peace Prize, China then warned that relations between their country and Norway would suffer if he won the award.
Sphere: Related Content

Friday, October 29, 2010

Would The US Bomb Argentina?

The setup to that question deals with the British government, which last week as part of a fiscal austerity program announced across-the-board budget cuts that included the Ministry of Defense, which will see its budget cut by 8%. To put that in some perspective that would equal a roughly $56 billion dollar cut in current US defense spending (and to put that in perspective, that figure is nearly equal to Great Britain's entire defense budget). Bearing the brunt of the MoD cuts is the Air Wing of the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy is planning to add two state-of-the-art aircraft carriers to the fleet this decade; the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales. Normally when budgets are cut, proposed weapons systems are the first to go, but the British government found that because of the way the shipbuilding contracts for the carriers is written, it would actually be cheaper to build the carriers than to cancel the project outright. This has put the MoD in the odd position of announcing that the Queen Elizabeth will be built and put into service in 2016 without aircraft (which is kind of the whole purpose of an aircraft carrier...) for about three years until the Prince of Wales is finished; the Queen Elizabeth will then be retired in almost new condition. To make matters worse, the Royal Navy will retire their two existing carriers by 2014, leaving them without any aircraft carriers in service for three years and without any with actual airplanes aboard ship for almost six.

This situation has some in Britain – pundits, defense analysts, and judging by the comment boards of English newssites a fair number of average citizens – quite upset. The question being asked is how Great Britain can consider itself a world power without a way of projecting that power around the globe in the way that only a fully functioning aircraft carrier can. More specifically, some are asking how (or even if) Great Britain will be able to protect some of their last remaining far-flung bits of Empire, and here talk generally falls on the Falkland Islands. In 1981 a British fleet sailed halfway across the globe to wrestle the Falklands away from an invading force from Argentina (the two countries have spent nearly a century and a half of wrangling over possession of the islands, for a more detailed history, check this earlier post about the Falklands situation). Now, critics in Britain say that the MoD cuts would make a repeat of the 1981 flotilla an impossibility, while also noting that reclaiming the Falklands (or Las Malvinas as the Argentineans call them) is a recurring motif in Argentine politics and that the islands themselves may sit on rich oil and natural gas reserves, making them potentially very valuable real estate.

Some in America are upset by the British cuts as well since the British have been arguably the most active and most valuable members of the military coalitions assembled by the United States in recent years – the 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia, the first Gulf War, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the ongoing GWOT mission in Afghanistan. The MoD cuts though make it less likely that the British will be able to participate in future American-led coalitions like they have in the past, a fact upsetting the military minds in the United States.

And all of that brings us to the question asked in the headline; does that kind of partnership go both ways? In none of the coalition examples listed before was there a direct threat to the British homeland, people or interests abroad, yet Great Britain was an active and valued participant in what were essentially American military campaigns (particularly the “Global War on Terror” and the 2003 Iraq War). So what if the British asked the United States to join in a military campaign to defend their interests, would we join? For the sake of argument, let's assume that its 2015 and after a quick naval landing Argentina has retaken the Falkland Islands. The British government has vowed to retake the islands and has assembled another armada for the long sail across the Atlantic, just as they did in 1981. The difference is in 2015 the British don't have a functioning aircraft carrier, meaning they can't protect the armada from the air or support their Marines in a landing to retake the Falklands; in modern military terms, this makes the British mission nearly suicidal. The British ask the United States to join their coalition by adding one of our aircraft carriers to the fleet and providing air support. What would our answer be?

Almost certainly, it would be no. In terms of the Falklands/Malvinas issue, the United States historically has not taken a position – not wanting to offend either our long-standing allies the British, nor wanting to upset the nations of Latin America (or to provide any anti-colonial fodder for Latin America's more leftists leaders like Hugo Chavez by backing the British claim). Since the United States has spent the last century telling the two sides to “talk” about the Falklands/Malvinas issue and didn't support the British in the 1981 operation, it's impossible to see the US agreeing to go to war with Argentina on Britain's behalf.

Of course, from the British side you'd have to wonder what was the point of backing America on all of those earlier military coalitions if the US isn't going to support you when you need them the most. It is an interesting foreign policy question indeed...
Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Is The Anti-Socialist Tea Party Being Funded By European Socialists?

According to a new survey by a European pro-environment group the answer is yes, sort of. The Climate Action Network Europe (or Cane) conducted an analysis of campaign contributions made by major European firms and found that several of Europe's biggest carbon-emitters – including BP and Germany's BASF and Bayer – were major contributors to two of the Tea Party's favorite Senators; Oklahoma's James Inhofe and South Carolina's Jim DeMint, who received nearly a quarter of a million dollars from the European companies. DeMint is just about the closest thing the diffuse Tea Party has to a national spokesman, it's worth noting that he recently finished just behind the Queen of the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, in a straw poll about who the Tea Partiers would like to see run for president in 2012.

In addition to their status as Tea Party favorites, DeMint and Inhofe are two of the biggest climate change skeptics in the United States Senate, which is likely what's driving the contributions from big emitters like BP and BASF – given the United States' status as the world's largest economy (for now at least), whatever climate change legislation is adopted here will have an affect on business around the world. BP, BASF, Bayer, etc are likely then trying to nip any potential legislation in the bud by supporting climate skeptics in the US Senate.

The issue also raises some interesting questions for the Tea Party crowd. One of their motivating factors is a desire to save America from the socialism that, they say, is taking over the country. Of course among those on the Right, there's no bigger symbol of socialism in the world today than Europe, whose tax structure and generous social programs put them firmly in the “socialist” category (at least in the minds of the Right). So what does it say when American politicians take support from this hotbed of socialism (even if it is from European companies)? And second, how do politicians taking donations from European sources square with the Tea Party's self-stated mission of “taking our country back”? Seems like if anything they would be against politicians becoming beholden to foreign sources of money...

The CANE report does seem to offer some support for one of the claims made by the Democrats in this election cycle, namely that foreign sources are pouring campaign donations into races in 2010, a claim refuted by a number of Republican sources.
Sphere: Related Content

AU: Seal Off Somalia

Though they haven't been in the news lately, it seems the Somali pirates haven't given up their pirating ways. Over the weekend pirates seized a German cargo ship and a Singapore-flagged liquefied gas tanker heading from Kenya to the Seychelles Islands. There has been some confusion in the press reports over whether the Singapore ship, the MV York, was carrying liquefied natural gas (LNG) or a type of liquid gas, like gasoline. For the pirates it probably doesn't make a difference, their standard operating procedure is to hold a ship and crew for ransom, not to try to offload and sell the ship's cargo.

The capture of the two ships likely points to a seasonal uptick in piracy off the Somali coast, which tends to increase at the end of the year when the weather patterns in the Indian Ocean become more favorable to the pirates. The attacks also mark some of the furthest the pirates have ventured fropm Somalia so far – the German ship was seized nearly 1,200 miles from the coast of Kenya, while the MV York was taken 170 miles from Mombasa, which is near Kenya's southern border – far from Somalia. The European Union Naval Force, which is helping to coordinate anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean said they believe the Somali pirates currently hold close to 20 ships and nearly 400 sailors.

The African Union meanwhile has formally requested that the United Nations endorse a military mission to completely seal off Somalia's borders from land and see. Under the plan suggested by the AU, a UN-led naval force will engage in a total blockade of Somalia's 1,500 miles of coastline both to try to halt piracy in the Indian Ocean and to stop the flow of weapons and foreign fighters into Somalia. On land a contingent of 6,000 AU peacekeepers is fighting a running battle with Islamist militias in the capital, Mogadishu, all in an attempt to keep Somalia's fragile Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in power. The AU would like this peacekeeping force bolstered to 20,000; funded in large part by the United Nations. So far the AU troops have had their hands full trying to maintain control over just a portion of Mogadishu; expanding this security operation out into the countryside will be impossible without additional troops and funding, and so long as Somalia remains without a functioning government, Somalia will remain a haven for pirates and possibly al-Qaeda-linked militias.

The African Union plan is supported by the Somali TFG's foreign ministry, no word yet on whether the United Nations will throw their support behind the plan as well.
Sphere: Related Content

Monday, October 25, 2010

For Southern Sudan, Anthem First, Independence Second

Officials in Southern Sudan held a contest on Sunday to select music for their upcoming national anthem; the lyrics and title, “Land of Cush” (Southern Sudan is in the region of the biblical land of Kush) have already been chosen. Of course Southern Sudan doesn't actually exist yet, the region is scheduled to have a referendum on independence from Sudan in early January. It seems pretty clear how the Southern Sudanese expect that vote to go...

Kidding aside, the situation in Southern Sudan could prove to be the first international crisis of 2011. While brutal fighting in the Darfur region of western Sudan has gotten the majority of the international community's attention for the past few years, Southern Sudan waged their own brutal insurrection against Sudan's Khartoum-based government. In both Southern Sudan and Darfur, the basic motivation has been the same – opposition to attempts by the Khartoum government to impose Islamic-based law on these largely non-Muslim areas. Fighting in Southern Sudan came to a halt in 2005 when a cease-fire agreement was negotiated between the government of Sudan and the leaders of the Southern Sudan insurgency. On the main issue – independence for Southern Sudan – the two sides punted, pushing off a final decision to be determined by a referendum far off in the future, in 2011. The Southern Sudanese side is waiting a whole nine days into 2011 before holding that vote.

At least before trying to hold the vote that is. Sudan's government is furious over the proposed referendum, even though they had agreed to it as part of the cease-fire deal. The reason is simple, Southern Sudan seems ready to breakaway (as evidenced by the whole national anthem contest), and Southern Sudan holds the bulk of Sudan's oil reserves. The government in Khartoum has been loudly suggesting that they won't recognize the outcome of the January 9 vote, trying to lay the groundwork that the vote – which hasn't occurred yet – was fraudulent, and trying to get the international community not to recognize the outcome. All of which suggests that Sudan is not going to quietly standby while the southern third of their nation, and much of their oil reserves, goes off on its own.
Sphere: Related Content

Moscow Allows Protest (For Once)

An odd thing happened in Moscow over the weekend, a group of about 500 people gathered in a political protest. What makes this protest unusual is that it was the first rally against the Putin government in several years to receive an official permit from authorities in Moscow. Officials in Moscow regularly denied permits to such rallies in the past, and regularly sent in the riot police to break-up even the smallest gatherings. But Saturday's rally – organized by the group “Five Demands” (one of which is for the resignation of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin) and which featured former chess champion turned political activist Garry Kasparov – went off without incident.

That could be part of a strategy on the part of the Russian government to blunt international criticism over a lack of political freedom in Russia, namely to blame previous heavy-handed tactics on that mean old Yuri Luzhkov, Moscow's now former mayor. Luzhkov was deposed by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev after a brief power-struggle. Luzhkov, who served as mayor of Moscow for nearly two decades and who oversaw the city's transformation from drab Soviet capital to glitzy European metropolis, was widely regarded as Russia's third most-powerful politician behind only Medvedev and Putin. One critique of Luzhkov was that he, on occasion, used Moscow's police force as his own private militia, quickly breaking up public gatherings that he did not approve of. It seems like the Kremlin is eager to push this narrative when it comes to political gatherings in the capital.

But the news for the political opposition isn't all good. UPI is reporting that last week the Russian Duma amended a law to bar people merely charged with disorderly conduct from being allowed to organize political events. Considering that mass arrests, often with few or no prosecutions, has been a tactic used to breakup unwanted political rallies in Moscow for years now, this law would in theory cover most of the political opposition's organizers, further restricting freedom of speech in Russia according to Lev Ponomarev, leader of the group For Human Right.
Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

An Illusion Of Peace

Some quick thoughts on the suicide attacks this morning in Chechnya; you can read full reports of the event here and here, but to sum it up, this morning a combination of suicide bombers and suicide gunmen attacked the parliament building in Grozny, the capital of the Russian Republic of Chechnya, leaving at least four dead and at least 17 others injured. The high-profile attack punctured the idea promoted since last year by both Russian officials and Chechnya's President Ramzan Kadyrov that after a decade and a half of bitter fighting, Chechnya was finally at peace.

Of course peace in this southwest corner of Russia was and is an illusion. Even if we accept Kadyrov's claims that he had finally pacified the Chechen insurgency, the reality is it was more like squeezing a balloon – Kadyrov's brutal tactics may have briefly calmed Chechnya, but the militants merely spilled over to neighboring republics like Ingushetia and Dagestan, where terror attacks against government offices, security forces and frequently the general public are a common occurrence. Now it appears that Kadyrov can't even keep the peace in Chechnya; the attack on the parliament was a deliberate attempt by the militants to give his ruling regime a black eye, just as their attack in August against Kadyrov's hometown, which left 12 dead, was also meant to do.

Observers of events in the region, and in their more candid moments even Russian officials including President Dmitry Medvedev, say that the militancy in the Caucasus Mountains region along Russia's southern border is in large part a reaction to brutal tactics on the part of the local security forces, and is fueled by the rampant corruption, poverty and lack of possibility for future development (that being hindered by the first two factors) endemic in the region. In September, the de facto leader of the Chechen militants, Doku Umarov, oddly retired from jihading, only to unretire a few days later – it's suggested that Umarov's retirement/unretirement points to a split within the militant community between those who see their struggle as part of an al-Qaeda-linked global jihad and those who want to return to the militancy's original goal of securing independence for Chechnya (Umarov is in the global jihad camp, and has proclaimed himself the “Emir of the North Caucasus”). How the attack on the Chechen Parliament factors into this struggle remains to be seen. It also remains to be seem whether the Kremlin will decide that Kadyrov is more trouble than he's worth. Moscow has let Kadyrov have a free hand in running Chechnya in return for keeping the republic peaceful and firmly in the Russian camp; Kadyrov meanwhile has been accused of rampant human rights violations, has endorsed the oppression of women and introduced elements of Islamic fundamentalism into the governing of Chechnya.

In short, he's become a real embarrassment for Moscow, though the Kremlin seemed willing to put with him so long as he kept a lid on Chechnya. But now that Chechnya is starting to again show signs of boiling over will Moscow's attitude towards Kadyrov change? And would replacing Kadyrov with a less brutal governor truly help to reduce the militancy in the North Caucasus?
Sphere: Related Content

Other People's Backyards

Two recent posts/events got me thinking (again) about America's foreign policy role in the world of 2010. The first was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent swing through the Balkans, with stops in Kosovo and Bosnia (her stop in Kosovo led to what might be the foreign policy picture of the year, her posing in front of the statue the Kosovars put up to honor her husband, former President Bill Clinton, in their capital, Pristina). Part of her trip was the usual mission of just flying the US flag in some part of the world to let them know that America still remembers them; the other rationale for the trip though was to highlight the unresolved problems of the region and to gently prod the Europeans into taking action. While Kosovo may have won its independence from Serbia three years ago, the country is still in a delicate condition with foreign aid, expat remittances and a thriving black market accounting for much of Kosovo's economy; in Bosnia the situation is even more precarious, 15 years after the end of the bloody Bosnian conflict, the nation remains really two separate states – one Serbian, one Croatian/Bosnian Muslim – loosely bound together by a weak central government. The second story was this one from RealClearWorld about Afghanistan, which argues that the US presence in that country has brought enough stability to allow regional Asian powers – namely China and India – to start their own economic investment in the place. China, for example, is looking to invest in natural gas pipelines that would run from Turkmenistan (holder of one of the world's largest reserves of natural gas) through northern Afghanistan to help fuel China's economic growth, they are also investing in a massive copper mine south of Kabul.

And that brings us to the question; should the United States really be pursuing security goals (and in the case of Afghanistan sacrificing the lives of our soldiers and hundreds of billions of dollars) to make the backyards of Europe and Asia safe places? Shouldn't these be projects for the regional powers in Europe and Asia to undertake? Or in other words, if China wants Afghanistan to be safe enough for pipeline routes and mineral exports, why shouldn't they send in their own soldiers and spend their own budget on the project? If Europe is serious about making the Continent a safe and secure place (which was the point of the whole European Union project), shouldn't they take the lead in Bosnia and Kosovo?

Past the theoretical question of whether the United States should be involved in bringing order to places on the other side of the globe, there is the practical question as well. The Afghan mission has been hugely expensive both in terms of money and the lives of soldiers; yet nearly a full decade into the mission and the primary goal – the capture or elimination of Osama bin Laden still has not been achieved, nor is Afghanistan yet a stable and secure member of the global community of nations; it's hard to imagine that another year or two or five will appreciably change that situation. In the Balkans, 15 years ago through tough negotiations, the United States managed to stop the brutal war in Bosnia, but stopping a war is not the same as securing a lasting peace. The Dayton Accords, which stopped the fighting in Bosnia, also set up the dual state system and enshrined the Serbian entity, the Republika Srpska, as a political system – a situation that has led to the deadlock that grips Bosnia today and has observers worried that nationalists on both sides could drag the region back into conflict. In Kosovo, the United States again dragged a reluctant Europe into stopping the conflict there as well (this time via a “NATO-led” aerial bombing campaign of Serbia conducted mostly by the United States Air Force), yet little has been done to make Kosovo into a real and sustainable state.

Logically the Chinese, Indians, Russians and other neighboring lands should be more concerned with the growth and stability of Afghanistan than the United States; ditto for Bosnia/Kosovo and Europe. Yet in both cases, the United States is put in the position of taking the lead. Perhaps it's time to let other people deal with the problems in their own backyards.
Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Borat and Chechnya

Remember in the movie Borat when after traveling across the country to meet his dreamgirl, model/actress Pamela Anderson, he decides to propose marriage in the “traditional Kazak manner” by tossing her into a giant sack and hauling her off over his shoulder? It was a pretty funny scene. What's not funny (and frankly almost not believable) is that this tradition of bride-napping is actually practiced, and as the BBC reports with growing frequency, in Chechnya; what's even less funny is the official response to this problem from the Chechen government.

It seems that in Chechnya if you're a man who sees an attractive woman walking on the street, it's culturally permissible for you (or for goons hired on your behalf) to grab her, toss her in the back of a car and drive off – in effect kidnapping her. British filmmaker Lucy Ash, who recently made a film on the bride-stealing tradition, said she has footage of such bride-nappings occurring in broad daylight on the streets of the capital, Grozny. What typically happens next is stranger still – usually the abducted girls' family contacts the abductors, typically using a local mullah as an intermediary, not to demand the return of the girl, but to negotiate a settlement for her. Abducted brides can find themselves married off to their kidnapper within a few days.

Bride-napping was supposedly part of Chechnya's rough-and-tumble past, but Ash reports for the BBC that most indications in Grozny are that the trend is increasing. And Chechen officials seem to not be too concerned about the problem. Punishment for bride-napping had been a fine of about $1,000. Recently the punishment was increased to a fine of about $40,000 – a sharp increase to be sure, but as one Chechen businessman told the BBC, it is an amount a rich man would likely be willing to pay if the girl he fancied was pretty enough.

It is yet another in a long list of human rights violations in this little corner of Russia, and it's unlikely the officials in Moscow will do anything to stop it. As I discussed in this post from last year; Moscow struck a deal with Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov – so long as he kept terrorism quiet in Chechnya (by whatever means necessary), Moscow would generally stay out of his hair. So far, they've kept up the bargain and looked the other way over numerous human rights violations, many of which have nothing to do with fighting terrorism. Before the two Chechen-Russian conflicts, which began in the mid-1990s and “officially” ended last year, Chechnya practiced a fairly moderate brand of Islam. The Chechen opposition though became radicalized during the second conflict, which saw their leaders change their demands from independence for Chechnya to a desire to carve a fundamentalist Islamic caliphate out of southern Russia. Since brutally suppressing the insurgency, Kadyrov himself has introduced a more fundamentalist strain of Islam into Chechnya, partially to try to win over the now-radical militants and partially to solidify his own grip on the republic. Under his rule things like polygamy and honor killings have become acceptable in Chechnya, even though they are direct violations of Russian law.

The BBC piece ends with a story that since the summer unknown assailants have been shooting paintball guns at women who go around the streets of Grozny with their heads uncovered, a “warning” the gunmen say. Kadyrov took to Chechen television, not to condemn the attacks but rather to “express [his] gratitude” towards the attackers.
Sphere: Related Content