Sunday, January 31, 2010

Russian Military Soars Into Future

The Russian military took a huge step into the future on Friday as the prototype of the Sukhoi T-50 finally made its successful maiden flight. The Sukhoi is Russia’s first “fifth generation” fighter aircraft and is slated to become the backbone of the Russian Air Force during the next decade. Fifth generation fighters incorporate stealth, advanced electronics, extreme maneuverability and the ability to fly as supersonic speeds for extended periods of time into their design; currently the United States Air Force’s F-22 Raptor is the only fifth generation aircraft in service anywhere in the world.

The T-50 is more than just Russia’s way to keep up with the Americans though; the successful flight shows that Russia’s defense contractors are able to build world-class, advanced weapons systems. Much of the Russian military is still equipped with Soviet-era weapons and most of what the Russian arms manufacturers are building are systems still based on Soviet designs that are two, three, or more decades old. For example, two of the Russian Navy’s newest ships – the submarine Nerpa and the frigate Yaroslav Mudry – were projects actually begun in the early 1990s at the end of the Soviet Union that laid dormant for more than a decade due to lack of funds and are only being completed now, almost 20 years after their construction began. This lack of modern equipment was on display during 2008’s conflict with Georgia. The Russian army that rolled into battle lacked the unmanned drones, precision guided weapons, integrated computer system and many of the other hi-tech gadgets that their Western counterparts possess, in many ways it was the same army that entered Afghanistan in 1979 (though they were able to handily defeat Georgia’s NATO-advised troops).

“This is an epic event, because it's the first time in post-Soviet history that [the Russian military industry] has been able to create something brand new,” Alexander Khramchikhin, an expert with the independent Institute of Political and Military Analysis in Moscow told the Christian Science Monitor in an interview on Friday, giving an idea of the significance of the jet’s first flight. The Sukhoi T-50 also highlights the growing military ties between Russia and India. The Indian and Russian air forces are each scheduled to eventually purchase 250 of the new Sukhoi aircraft. In addition, the Indians are picking up 25% of the development costs of the project and are supplying the software for the T-50’s computer control systems (fifth generation fighters rely on computers to make minute adjustments to the aircraft’s control surfaces every second just to keep them in the air – it is a system that makes the planes incredibly maneuverable).

And if Wikipedia is correct (which is always an “if”), someone at NATO has a sense of humor about the Sukhoi. Its NATO designation will supposedly be “Firefox”, which also happens to be the title of a late Cold War-era novel and film about a high-tech Soviet jet fighter.
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Chinese Reality

If you listen to the Chinese media, you would think that China is leading the fight against climate change, their navy is rescuing ships from Somali pirates and that they are keeping the world safe from the Dalai Lama. In my latest post at The Mantle, I take a look at China’s take on reality and how that plays into their efforts to control access to the Internet.
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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Osama bin Laden: Economist, Environmentalist

Osama bin Laden took on an oddly populist tone for his second audiotape in the past week, as he blamed the failure of December’s climate change negotiations on the United States, while urging the world to drop the dollar as the globe’s default reserve currency. “Discussing climate change is not an intellectual luxury, but a reality,” he said, faulting the United States for rejecting the earlier Kyoto Protocols that would have set limits on greenhouse gas emissions. He added that “this is a message to the whole world about those who are causing climate change, whether deliberately or not, and what we should do about that.” Under the heading of “what to do”, bin Laden suggested that people and nations stop using the dollar in international trade in the “fastest possible time.”

Bin Laden went on to slam government bailouts of financial companies, saying that they were the ones who caused the global economic crisis in the first place. "When those perpetrators fall victims to the evil they had committed, the heads of states rush to rescue them using public money," he said. And if you’re curious as to what the world’s most wanted terrorist has been reading lately, the list seems to include noted linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky, who bin Laden cited during his audio message: “Chomsky was right when he pointed to a resemblance between American policies and the approach of mafia gangs. Those are the real terrorists,” bin Laden said referring to a recent editorial by Chomsky.

Bin Laden used his first audiotape to take credit for masterminding the failed Christmas Day airplane bombing attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, saying that America would not enjoy security until the occupation of Palestine ended.
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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Gagarin Named "Russian Idol"

A poll by the Russian firm VTsIOM named cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, as Russia’s top “Idol” from the 20th century. What makes this really interesting is that in 2008 a similar contest called the Name of Russia, conducted by the Rossiya television network to pick the person most admired in all of Russian history caused a real stir when early results projected that noted Soviet dictator Josef Stalin would be the eventual winner. This prompted a lot of talk about Vladimir Putin’s efforts to “rehabilitate” the image of Stalin in order to boost his own position as a “strong leader” of Russia as well as concern that this was a sign that Russia was turning away from the path of democracy by embracing a strongman from their recent history as the template of an ideal leader.

In the end Alexander Nevsky, a 12th century prince and military leader who established the foundation of the Russian state was selected as the Name of Russia with Stalin finishing third, Gagarin didn’t even place in the top dozen. For Russian Idol, Gagarin was the choice of 35% of those polled, while Stalin finished a distant fifth. Does this mean that Russians’ attitudes towards Stalin have changed in the past year? Perhaps, or perhaps the difference in results could be because of the different methodology used by the two contests – Russian Idol was a poll of randomly selected people while Name of Russia was a phone-in contest. In polling methodology that would mean that Idol would produce a more reliable result than Name, something to think about when considering Stalin and today’s Russia.
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Al-Qaeda Airlines?

Reuters recently published an in-depth article on an incredibly sophisticated aerial drug-smuggling ring that some security experts now fear could have ties to al-Qaeda. While drug-runners have used small airplanes to ferry narcotics from Latin America into the United States for many years, the operations that Reuters reported on are far larger in scale – these smugglers are using jet aircraft, including a retired Boeing 727 passenger liner, to ferry large quantities of drugs between South America (most notably Colombia and Venezuela) and a collection of sites in western Africa.

This route allows the South American cartels to take advantage of two things; a collection of weak governments in West Africa, which are unable to properly secure their own borders; and a network of abandoned military bases and other improvised airfields. It also lets the South American cartels avoid competition from the strong Mexican drug organizations that now dominate the United States market. Once the drugs have landed in Africa, they are transshipped through waiting supply networks to cities throughout Europe. This South America-to-Europe-via-Africa route has been developing for several years, and has been wreaking havoc on several impoverished West African states. As far back as 2007, the United Nations was warning that the tiny nation of Guinea-Bissau was on a path to become Africa’s first true narcostate. Guinea-Bissau is ranked as one of the world’s least developed nations and is struggling to recover from a brutal military coup last year. According to Reuters, the country does not have a functioning aviation radar system, meaning it is virtually impossible for them to track aircraft entering their airspace.

For their part, the smugglers are becoming more sophisticated in their use of aircraft. To hide their identity, smugglers will file false flight plans before departing South America, or will change them in mid-flight. The use of phony tail numbers is also a common ploy; the UN also reported of at least one smuggler’s aircraft using a false Red Cross logo as a way of avoiding scrutiny. The scope of the jet smuggling network only came to light in late 2008 when a burned-out Boeing 727 was found on a caravan trail far out in the deserts of Mali. Smugglers had apparently landed to unload their cargo of drugs (it’s estimated the 727 could carry as much as ten tons of narcotics) but because of a mechanical problem they could not take off again, nor could they fix the problem in the middle of the desert. To hide their identity, they torched the stranded airplane.

Some security officials are growing more concerned that there could be an al-Qaeda connection growing in the trans-Atlantic drug trade. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM for short) is becoming one of the most active al-Qaeda franchises, responsible for a series of terrorist acts across West Africa. The fear is that AQIM could follow the lead of the Taliban in Afghanistan, which gets much of its operating revenue these days from the sale of opium. Last year three men from Mali, believed to have terrorist ties, were arrested in a drug smuggling sting in Ghana, which has sparked some of the concerns of an AQIM-South America connection. And it’s worth noting that these aircraft could carry any kind of cargo – including weapons or people – on their return trips to South America, stoking further fears among terrorism analysts.

Right now the intelligence community seems to be wrestling with the seriousness of the security threat that the South American-African drug route poses and the level of AQIM’s involvement in it. But it is certainly an area to keep an eye on.
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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

RIP Howard Zinn

Sad news tonight that noted author and historian Howard Zinn passed away from a heart attack while traveling in California, he was 87. Zinn is probably best known for his 1980 book "A People's History of the United States". He was also an unabashed left wing activist.

I was lucky enough to see Zinn give a talk at The New School in New York City just before the start of the Second Iraq War in 2003. Rather than just railing against the Bush administration though, much of Zinn's speech was a discourse on how politicians sold another conflict - the Mexican-American War - to a skeptical population a century and a half earlier. It was like a lecture from a that one really cool professor whose class you always looked forward to, and it was easy enough for the audience to draw their own parallels between that conflict and the one we were about to enter. I still regret not bringing my copy of "A People's History..." along for him to sign...

Rest in peace Prof. Zinn.

Update: Democracy now has an audio file of Prof. Zinn's 2003 appearance at the New School.
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Another UN Fail In Haiti?

Responding to the earthquake disaster in Haiti isn’t turning out to be one of the bright spots in the recent history of the United Nations.

You might remember this story from a week and a half ago about UN peacekeepers ordering doctors to abandon a makeshift hospital, leaving behind more than two-dozen badly injured patients. Luckily for the wounded, CNN correspondent, and medical doctor, Sanjay Gupta happened to be there when the staff left – he and his film crew jumped in and cared for the patients through the night until the doctors returned the next day.

Now two more stories of pretty questionable judgment on the part of the UN have been caught on TV. On Monday a crew from Britain’s ITV network filmed an aid distribution debacle. Trucks from the UN’s Port-au-Prince warehouse arrived to distribute boxes of much needed food aid to a crowd of Haitians, some of whom hadn’t eaten in days. But no sooner had the aid distribution started than the UN Blue Helmets (their peacekeeping troops) providing security got spooked by the size of the crowd. Fearing a riot, they ordered the operation stopped and the aid packages loaded back aboard the truck, which then promptly returned to the warehouse with much of its load of aid supplies intact.

Yesterday MSNBC showed film from another attempted UN food distribution effort. Again, the peacekeepers quickly lost control of the crowd, panicked and this time used pepper spray on the hungry Haitians. At least this time they also managed to distribute one truckload of food, though a near riot erupted when a second truck (an SUV actually) approached – the crowd thought it was also carrying aid packages, though it turned out to have nothing to do with the UN effort (which also begs the question of why did the UN only send one truck in the first place?)

Again, I don’t want to be overly critical of the United Nations, it’s worth repeating that the UN headquarters in Port-au-Prince was destroyed in the earthquake and that the UN suffered its worst single-day loss of life in the building’s collapse. But these are three highly publicized instances where the UN has actually made a bad situation worse, and it is becoming clear that the UN peacekeepers in Port-au-Prince are in way over their heads. If the UN can’t get its act together in a hurry, then perhaps they should step aside and let agencies from other nations/organizations take the lead until they do.
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We'll Build If You Pay

Russia's envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin has offered his country's help in rebuilding Afghanistan, so long as someone else picks up the bill. According to the Russian business daily Kommersant, Rogozin said that Russia could assist the Afghans in rebuilding more than 100 structures originally built by Soviet engineers during the Cold War, along with also helping to repair the country's energy and road networks. The Soviet Union provided monetary and technical assistance to Afghanistan for decades during the Cold War; the Soviet invasion in 1979 was meant to prop up Afghanistan's communist government.

But in a twist, Rogozin is saying Russian help today should be paid for not by Russia but by NATO members who cannot send troops to Afghanistan. Even though there is a NATO mission ongoing in Afghanistan to support the government of President Hamid Karzai and fight the Taliban, not every NATO member-nation is actively supporting the effort. No word yet from NATO on Rogozin's offer.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see what (if anything) President Obama says about the United States' involvement in Afghanistan during tonight's State of the Union address. Keep an eye out tomorrow as well for a major speech by President Karzai where he may talk about a reconciliation offer to some members of the Taliban.
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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Great Britain, Argentina Relaunch Old Fight

Great Britain and Argentina are having a new diplomatic row over an old issue – the Falklands Islands. Last month Argentina passed a law claiming that they own the Falklands (or Las Malvinas as they call them), Britain has sent a note to Argentina’s embassy in London saying their new law was utter nonsense (in so many words). The two nations have debated the issue for decades – Argentina cites the island’s proximity and an 1820 decree as the source of their claim, the British respond by saying they’ve possessed the Falklands for nearly two centuries and that the islands approximately 3,000 residents overwhelmingly want to remain part of the British Empire.

Back in 1982 Argentina tried to retake the islands by force. The British responded by sailing a naval flotilla halfway around the world, which then promptly routed the Argentines and restored the Falklands to British rule. While the two nations relaunched diplomatic relations in 1990, they still have never settled their dueling claims of ownership over the islands.

So why bring this issue up now? One possible explanation is that Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner could be using the dispute as a way of shifting her nation’s attention from a collection of bruising domestic issues. Kirchner is trying to restructure her nation’s debt through a swap of foreign currency for defaulted bonds and she’s having a very public fight with her own vice president. Another possibility though is that old international relations fallback – oil.

New exploration indicates that there could be vast reserves of oil under the seabed surrounding the Falklands, some projections say the region could hold as much as the North Sea. Drilling on the first test well is planned to start next month. If the reserves pan out, it would mean an economic boom for the Falklands – the residents would get a 9% royalty on all the oil extracted from the seabed around the islands. Of course the nation that owns the Falklands would also own the oil around them, which could explain Argentina’s newfound interest in the islands.
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Putin OKs Lake Baikal Dumping

On Tuesday Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin signed a decree allowing a massive paper mill to resume dumping its wastewater into Siberia’s Lake Baikal. The OAO Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill shut down in October 2008 after environmental authorities ordered the plant to install a closed-loop system for their industrial runoff to protect the pristine waters of Lake Baikal – the world’s largest and deepest body of fresh water (estimates are that Baikal contains 20% of the world’s unfrozen fresh water). Russian environmentalists had fought for decades to stop OAO Baikalsk from using the lake as a dump, fearing the pollution would destroy Baikal’s unique ecosystem.

The Wall Street Journal is painting this as Vladimir Putin doing a favor for one of Russia’s top oligarchs, Oleg Deripaska, the owner of OAO Baikalsk. But considering that Deripaska was the same oligarch Putin publicly dressed down on Russian TV last June over his closing of a plant in the town of Pikalyovo, I doubt the PM is predisposed to do him many favors.

Pikalyovo itself is more likely an explanation for Putin’s action. The town is one of Russia’s “monocities” – places wholly dependent on one factory complex for their entire existence. In the case of Pikalyovo, shutting the plant meant that not only did the residents of the city lose their jobs, but also their hot water, which came from the factory complex’s boiler system. The 16,000 residents of Baikalsk were in much the same situation - without the plant their town could not survive. Deripaska, meanwhile, said that installing the closed-water system would make the plant unprofitable, his motivation for shutting the factory in 2008.

So, with the Russian economy already suffering from the global recession, Putin seems to have made the politically easy choice of letting the Baikalsk reopen. Environmentalists though are crushed by the decision and are warning that it could put the entire Baikal ecosystem at risk. Meanwhile, allowing outdated plants to continue operating, rather than forcing them to modernize, goes against the Russian government’s stated goal of modernizing the nation’s economy and only perpetuates the monocity problem.
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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Could An Earthquake Flatten Another World Capital?

While the world has been gripped by the tragic near destruction of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, there’s another world capital also at great risk of being felled by an earthquake – Tehran, Iran. And like Port-au-Prince, in recent decades Tehran has seen a massive influx of new residents, swelling the city’s population to more than twelve million, far more than the capital was ever designed to accommodate. With that in mind, I thought I’d repost a link to this story from last November about steps the Iranians are taking to move their capital to a less quake-prone portion of the country.

The idea of moving the capital has been kicking around for the past 20 years, but was finally given the blessing of the country’s supreme authority, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, just this past November. Iran has had numerous capitals during its long history, so a switch in cities would not be unprecedented. One seismologist suggested that rather than just changing cities though that an entirely new capital should be built in the region near the city of Qom, a part of the country that has not had an earthquake in the past 2,000 years.

But while a new capital would certainly prompt a large number of people, particularly those who work with the government, to relocate, history shows that cities of twelve million people don’t just go away. (I remember reading a study once that showed once a city’s population reaches approximately 400,000, no matter what happens; the city will always survive in some form.) So that still means that potentially millions of people will remain living in Tehran, which sits on top of a web of fault lines and thus will still be in danger. There’s recent precedent to that threat, in 2003 a quake devastated the Iranian city of Bam, killing an estimated 40,000 people. Maybe rather than moving the capital better building codes paired with urban and disaster planning might be a better use of Iran’s resources.
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Chinese Rock

Foreign Policy magazine has an interesting photo-essay this week on the budding rock music scene in China titled "Anarchy in the PRC". Authors Matthew Niederhauser and Christina Larson make the point that while usually identified with Western culture, rock music is more accurately an urban phenomenon and that rapidly urbanizing China is spawning its own generation of disaffected youth who are increasingly using rock as their preferred method of self-expression (the article's title is a take off on the 70's punk anthem Anarchy in the UK, by the seminal punk band the Sex Pistols). The authors run through a collection of the most popular acts in China's underground music scene, along with the government's reaction to them (no surprise, the Central Committee isn't all that happy). The essay is illustrated with some great photographs of the different bands, though points off FP for not including at least a few samples of some of the featured bands music.
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Ukraine's President Honors Controversial Partisan

Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko isn’t leaving office quietly. Fresh from his embarrassing loss in Ukraine’s presidential election last Sunday, (he won only about 5% of the vote) Yushchenko conferred “Hero of Ukraine” status upon the controversial WWII-era partisan leader Stepan Bandera. To Ukrainian nationalists, Bandera is a hero who fought passionately for an independent Ukraine in the 1930’s and 40’s; Russia and many ethnic Russian Ukrainians though, view Bandera as a Nazi collaborator who led a brutal guerilla war against the Soviet Union. Bandera was killed in Germany in 1959 by KGB agents.

The decision on whether to honor Bandera or not has been a source of controversy in Ukraine in recent years. Monuments in his honor have been raised in several cities in western Ukraine, where he is cast as a patriot for his efforts to resist Soviet rule, though at least one town in eastern Ukraine, where much of the country’s ethnic Russian population lives, set up their on memorial to the “victims” of Bandera’s nationalist militia. The militia organized by Bandera operated in a wide area of southeastern Europe during the war, so the controversy over their actions is not limited to just Ukraine and Russia. Slovakia has expressed their own disapproval of Yushchenko’s honoring him because of alleged atrocities committed by Bandera’s militia in Czechoslovakia during the war, while Poland last August banned a Ukrainian youth group from entering the country during a bike rally to honor Bandera because of charges that his militia was responsible for the deaths of perhaps 100,000 Poles during the war as well.

In honoring Bandera in the waning days of his term, Yushchenko is continuing some the policies that marked his presidency – stoking Ukrainian nationalism while at the same time provoking Russia. It was a deliberate strategy on the part of Yushchenko to try to once and for all break Ukraine out of Russia’s sphere of influence. But it was also a policy that overlooked the long history of deep cultural and ethnic ties between the two nations, as well as the fact that a large portion of Ukraine’s population – 30% or more – are themselves ethnic Russians who didn’t appreciate the sometimes open hostility Yushchenko showed towards Russia. In the end Yushchenko’s policies did more to cause tension between Ukraine’s ethnic groups than to build a new national identity. The two candidates in the February 7th run off election – Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and former President Viktor Yanukovych – are both proposing to improve relations between Kiev and Moscow as part of their campaigns.
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Friday, January 22, 2010

Haiti Latest: Aid, Critiques and Spy Drones

It’s been a little over a week since the devastating earthquake in Haiti, yet some conservative commentators are already using the country’s long-standing problems with poverty as an excuse to call for the end of foreign development aid. In my latest post over at The Mantle, I take on the critics and ask why they don’t also discuss America’s role in causing Haiti’s endemic levels of poverty in the first place?

Meanwhile, if you’re wondering what nations have given in disaster relief to Haiti so far, the Associated Press has compiled this handy list. The grand total so far is estimated to be around $1 billion, with more than half of that total coming from the 27 nations of the European Union and another $130 million from the United States – the single largest contribution by any nation.

And the United States has been providing far more to Haiti than only money. According to’s Dangerroom blog, the US contribution to aid efforts has even included a high-flying spy drone. An Afghanistan-bound Global Hawk, which can fly up to 14 hours beaming back hi-definition images to ground controllers, was diverted to Haiti to take pictures of the devastated capital Port-au-Prince that are being used to assist in rescue and recovery efforts. The pictures included images of famous landmarks in Port-au-Prince, like the National Cathedral shown above, which is now little more than a rubble-filled shell. Unlike most Global Hawk images, the US Southern Command has taken the step of immediately declassifying all the pictures taken of Port-au-Prince so that they can be freely used by anyone who needs them.
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Is Somalia’s Pirate Economy Starting To Fall Apart?

On Tuesday the pirates scored their largest ransom to date, $7 million for the Greek tanker Maran Centarus, which was captured 800 miles out to sea in the Indian Ocean late last November. But reports from Haradheere, Somalia are that a gun battle soon broke out between two groups over a disagreement on sharing the booty.

You might remember this post from last month about how a stock exchange, where patrons could “invest” in pirate missions, had emerged in Haradheere. The gunfight could be the result of the pirates who seized the Maran Centarus trying to renege on paying off their backers. According to the Times of London, this particular band of pirates is from the Puntland region of Somalia, to the north of Haradheere. It could be that they thought they could slip out of town without first paying off their local investors.

The pirate stock exchange basically runs on the honor system – investors give pirates money and equipment with the understanding that they will receive a portion of the prize should the pirates successfully capture and ransom a ship. But if the pirates refuse to share the wealth, the whole system falls apart. And with essentially no functioning government in that portion of Somalia, the Puntland pirates and Haradheere locals will have to sort this dispute out themselves.
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Monday, January 18, 2010

Round One Done In Ukraine Elections

Round One of the presidential elections in Ukraine are over, as expected former President Viktor Yanukovych finished in first place with more than 31% of the vote. And despite her warnings of voter fraud, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko finished a close second with around 27%; in fact Tymoshenko was the only candidate to dramatically outperform the pre-election polls, winning 10% more of the electorate than the latest polls indicated she would. Former economics minister Sergey Tigipko, who one poll predicted might challenge Tymoshenko for the number two spot, came in a distant third with 10%, current President Viktor Yushchenko meanwhile gathered a mere 5% of the vote.

This sets the stage for a Tymoshenko-Yanukovych showdown on February 7. Even in its first hours the run-off campaign is becoming nasty and personal. In a speech last night Tymoshenko blasted Yanukovych as being corrupt and undemocratic, while he tried to tar her with the unfulfilled promises of the Orange Revolution. Conventional wisdom is that in the second round Tymoshenko has the edge over Yanukovych. His support has largely come from the sizable ethnic Russian populations in the cities of Ukraine’s industrial heartland in the east, there’s a lot of doubt though that he’ll be an attractive candidate in other parts of the country. Tymoshenko, meanwhile, has been actively trying to reach out to the Russian population in the east while also calling on the supporters of the 16 defeated candidates from the first round of voting to rally around her as the “democratic” choice in the run-off.

Either candidate is likely to rebuild the strained relationship between Ukraine and Russia. Back in 2004, Moscow threw its support solidly behind Yanukovych because of his close ties to Ukraine’s ethnic Russian population. Recently though Russia has been warming to the idea of President Tymoshenko. She has actively worked to avoid another crisis with Russia over natural gas supplies, making those in the Kremlin feel like she’s someone they can do business with. Then there’s the matter of her former advisor Vitali Gaiduk, a part-owner of the massive Ukrainian steel producer ISD Corporation, which is in negotiations with a group of Russian investors, including the state-run Vnesheconombank, who are looking to take it over. Such a deal would of course boost economic ties between Kiev and Moscow and be a further indication of Tymoshenko’s openness to Russian influence.

Tymoshenko, meanwhile, is portraying herself as a populist, mother figure for Ukraine. "As long as I am prime minister, my family is Ukraine and the entire Ukrainian people," she said on a recent campaign stop.
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Should We Leave The Persian Gulf?

I tend to be hot and cold on the works of Thomas Friedman – he sometimes makes good points, but they’re rarely the revelations he portrays them to be. His latest column in the New York Times “What’s Our Sputnik?” though got me thinking.

In it Friedman questions America’s deep involvement in the Middle East – he argues that the money we are spending on anti-terrorism could be better spent in developing alternative sources of energy that would make us less dependent on the Mid East, meaning we could lessen our engagement with the region, which would in turn – he argues – would make us less a target for terrorists based, funded or inspired by sources in the region.

There is a certain logic to his argument, but it made me think of something else. In his column, Friedman notes that our two largest foreign suppliers of oil are Canada and Mexico. What he doesn’t say is that most estimates are by the middle of this new decade we find ourselves in the nations of Africa will surpass the countries of the Persian Gulf as suppliers of oil to America. So in my mind that begs the question: why should the United States keep dedicating so many of our resources to a region that in just five years will be a third-rate source of oil for us? China is talking about opening a naval base in the Persian Gulf; France is establishing one in the region as well. Maybe then it’s time to let some of the world’s other major oil importers share the burden of keeping stability in that part of the world?

Just a thought.
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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Senegal Makes Unique Aid Offer To Haitians

While offers of aid to quake-ravaged Haiti have been pouring been pouring in from around the world, Senegal’s is unique. There, President Abdoulaye Wade has offered land and “repatriation” to any Haitians who want to return to their ancestral homeland.

A spokesman for Wade said their country was ready to offer Haitians who had lost everything in the quake a parcel of land in Senegal so they could start over, and if enough Haitians took them up on the offer, they could perhaps be granted an entire region. The spokesman went on to stress that this would be good land in a fertile part of Senegal not worthless land out in the desert.

It’s quite a generous offer for sure, though at the moment I’m sure water and medicine would be more useful. We’ll follow this story and see if any Haitians take President Wade up on his offer.
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Georgia Becomes Ground Zero For Conspiracy Theories

In the past few days the Russian press has floated a couple of pretty remarkable conspiracy theories surrounding their neighbor to the south, Georgia.

On Friday, Russia Today ran a piece suggesting that terrorist groups were being trained by “foreign instructors” at bases in Georgia to then launch attacks aimed at destabilizing the already fragile Northern Caucasus region of southern Russia. In the past year, several of Russia’s Northern Caucasus republics have been rocked by high-profile terrorist attacks, including the attempted assassination of the president of the Republic of Ingushetia. Last year, Russia’s top security agency, the FSB, even went so far as to accuse the Georgian military’s special forces branch of actually training al-Qaeda operatives to conduct terror attacks in southern Russia.

It’s worth remembering here that in 2008 Russia and Georgia fought a five-day war over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia has since recognized the independence of the two regions and has stationed peacekeeping troops in both, while the Georgians insist that the two places are still part of Georgia.

Meanwhile in Ukraine, the frontrunner in today’s presidential election, Viktor Yanukovych, is claiming that Georgia is trying to interfere in his country’s political process. He warned that in the past few days three charter flights have arrived from Georgia carrying “400 athletic men”. Why these 400 athletic men chose now to visit Ukraine is unclear, though the inference is that they’re in town to disrupt the election. For the past few years Ukraine and Georgia have grown closer as their respective pro-Western leaders have tried to distance their countries from Moscow. But Yanukovych is widely seen as being pro-Russian and the belief is that if he’s elected president he’ll try to rebuild the close Ukraine-Russia relationship at the expense of Ukraine’s relations with the West.

Interestingly, Ukraine’s election commission earlier refused to register 3,000 observers that Georgia tried to send to monitor today’s election. The Georgians were attempting to send more election monitors than all of the other countries and international organizations watching the vote combined, a move that raised some eyebrows and sparked charges that the “monitors” were really meant to disrupt the election instead.

Perhaps feeding into this regional paranoia over Georgia is a recent report issued from a member of the United States Senate; Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican member of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee issued a carefully-worded report warning of a de facto arms embargo against Georgia. The logic goes that because of lower costs and familiarity in dealing with the weaponry thanks to their shared history as parts of the Soviet Union, the Georgian military is still largely equipped with Russian-made gear. But Russian firms are refusing to sell their wares to Georgia, which is still trying to rebuild its military from the 2008 conflict. The Georgians are touting the report as justification for the United States to begin arms sales to them, though the Lugar report never explicitly endorses this idea.

Officials from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, meanwhile, are saying that the Georgian desire to acquire American weapons is another indication that Georgia is in fact a belligerent, destabilizing force in the Caucasus region.
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Saturday, January 16, 2010

UN Shuts Haiti Medical Center – WTF?

The news out of Haiti last night was too much to believe. CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta was reporting from a small, makeshift medical center operating out of a tent in Port-au-Prince where more than two dozen badly wounded Hatians were finally receiving at least some medical care. That is until a group of UN peacekeepers arrived and ordered the doctors to abandon the field hospital over concerns for their safety. They were ordered to take the doctors away, but not the patients, who apparently were suppose to fend for themselves.

Dr. Gupta was dumbstruck, so too were CNN’s Anderson Cooper and retired General Russel Honore, who helped to bring order back to New Orleans in the days following Hurricane Katrina. To his great credit, Dr. Gupta stayed as the other medical staff were evacuated to tend to the patients they left behind, he even enlisted his camera crew to serve as healthcare aides. They had no problems with “security” during the night (seriously, with the entire city crying out for medical care, why would anyone attack one of the few places providing it?)

By morning, there was a change of heart somewhere and the medical staff was allowed to return to the medical center. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon even issued a statement saying that the UN had not ordered the medical staff to leave, blaming the evac order on “other agencies” – Ban’s story is hard to believe though since the medical staff specifically told Gupta they were being ordered to leave by the United Nations, the CNN film crew has video of a UN-marked vehicle arriving at the tent site and of UN peacekeepers talking with the staff.

I have to say that I support the mission and ideals of the United Nations, and I know that they employ many bright and compassionate people. But incidents like last night at the clinic in Haiti give credence to some of the biggest criticisms of the UN – for example that it is such a massive bureaucracy that it often undermines the good work it is trying to do. Granted, the UN headquarters in Port-au-Prince was destroyed in the earthquake, killing many members of the staff and plunging the UN mission into chaos (it was the largest single-day loss of life ever suffered among UN staff). But Haiti is a disaster-prone nation, in addition to the threat of earthquakes, Haiti is often struck by hurricanes – it was hit by four tropical storms in less than two months in 2008 that caused widespread damage. It would only make sense then for the UN to have had a contingency plan in place should the PAP headquarters be knocked out (the northern city of Cap Haitien for example was not affected by the quake).

Another critique the health clinic debacle is bound to bring up again is the charge that UN peacekeepers are often little more than blue helmeted bystanders. Rather than evacuating the doctors, why couldn’t a few UN peacekeepers have provided security for the clinic instead? It’s worth noting again that Dr. Gupta and crew passed the night without incident in this allegedly “dangerous” place. Surely a few peacekeepers would have been more than enough of a show of force to keep order and it is hard to argue, given the health care situation in Haiti at the moment, that they could have been better used elsewhere.

The bottom line is that United Nations projects and programs do great things in many neglected corners of the world. But if they are overmatched in Haiti – and given the losses at their headquarters it’s understandable that they may be – and they are more of a hindrance than a help, then they should step aside and let those who can provide aid in these very difficult times do just that.
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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Pre-Claims of Election Fraud in Ukraine

The first round of Ukraine's presidential election isn't even scheduled to take place until this Sunday, but already candidate (and current Prime Minister) Yulia Tymoshenko is talking about voter fraud. She's claiming there's an ongoing "deliberate disruption of the election process" on behalf of her chief rival, former president and current front-runner Viktor Yanukovych in the Donetsk region, his power base.

It was Yanukovych's alleged vote-rigging during the 2004 presidential election that sparked the whole Orange Revolution and brought Tymoshenko, along with current President Viktor Yushchenko to power in the first place, so these are charges that resonate historically in Ukraine at least. But as Yanukovych pointed out in his reply, it's a pretty difficult thing for opposition candidates to rig an election, that's usually only something that can be done by a sitting government which is already in control of the state apparatus that runs the elections in the first place.

And while cat fights between politicians are always amusing, by talking about fraud in a vote that hasn't even taken place is a pretty reckless thing for Tymoshenko to do. The worst possible outcome for Ukraine would be to have a closely-fought election where the losing side thinks that the vote was stolen from them. Ukraine can likely survive another five years of inept political leadership, whether the country can endure another political crisis following a hotly disputed election is another matter entirely. Tymoshenko's complaints of "pre-fraud" seem more like the actions of a politician doing whatever they need to so that they can hang onto power rather than someone truly concerned with the democratic growth of their country.

One reason for Tymoshenko's claims could be the latest polling data. The conventional wisdom has been that she and Yanukovych will meet in the February run-off. But a poll released this week by the Russian firm VTsIOM shows Sergiy Tigipko, a banker and former Economy Minister, edging past Tymoshenko into second place, which would put her out of the run-off. The same poll showed Yanukovych leading all 18 candidates with 30%.
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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Italy Creates "Whites Only" Town

Racist violence took another ugly turn in Italy over the weekend as two days of rioting was capped off by an ethnic cleansing of African migrant workers from the small, southern Italian village of Rosarno, turning it into what, according to The Guardian newspaper, one politician called “the world’s only entirely white town.”

The cycle of violence was sparked last Thursday after two Africans, among hundreds who came to work in the local orchards picking fruit, were shot for apparently no reason. This launched a protest by at least 100 other Africans, which turned violent and led to widespread damage in Rosarno. Italians from the region then apparently descended on the migrant camp beating and in some cases shooting the migrants they came across in retaliation, whether they had been involved in the earlier riot or not.

Italian officials had to remove more than 1,000 African migrants from the Rosarno area for their own safety. Several hundred went with authorities only after being promised that they would not be deported even if it was found that they had overstayed their visas. But Italy’s Interior Minister Roberto Maroni soon reneged on that deal saying that the law on visas was clear and would be exercised. Meanwhile, by Wednesday bulldozers were demolishing what was left of the migrant camp where the workers had lived.

This is far from the first attack in Italy in just the past year directed against African migrants or the Roma (or Gypsy) community or even immigrants from Eastern Europe. My question is how much longer is the European Union going to tolerate this kind of behavior from one of their core members? Keep in mind that the EU makes a big deal about their support for minority populations within Europe and respect for human rights in general. There was a time when politicians and governments in Europe took a stand against South Africa’s attempts to create “whites only” towns, it’s long past time that they take a stand against officials in Italy for trying to do the same thing.
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Sunday, January 10, 2010

And Starring As Evita...

According to a piece in The New Republic, Ukraine's Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko feels a real connection to Argentina's legendary First Lady Eva Perón. If fact, according to one of her closest political confidants, Tymoshenko thinks she is Evita, her reincarnation at least.

“She was told she is the reincarnation of Eva Perón,” said Dmitry Vydrin, a former Tymoshenko political adviser for much of the past decade. “And she believes it. She admits it in closed circles.” Vydrin went on to say that Tymoshenko has modeled much of her public persona on the populist Evita.

Beyond that rather odd claim, the TNR piece paints a compelling portrait of Ukraine's current Prime Minister, and Presidential candidate ahead of next weekend's elections. The article charts Tymoshenko's rise from a modest beginning in a dim industrial city, to become one of Ukraine's richest oligarchs before recasting herself as a populist leader during 2004's Orange Revolution. The one theme that runs through the TNR piece though is Tymoshenko's drive first to succeed and now for power as she pursues the presidency.

Meanwhile the man currently holding the job, President Viktor Yushchenko, thinks his PM should just quit politics all together. "She should take a rest, at least for a while, because each month of her work results in a colossal poverty in our country," Yushchenko said at a campaign stop. Despite having been partners in the Orange Revolution, the two have since become bitter political adversaries. Ahead of next weekend's vote Tymoshenko is running second in the polls, while Yushchenko's numbers are in the low single digits thanks to the economic crisis gripping the country and many Ukrainians' belief that Yushchenko's government has done little to improve the situation.
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Friday, January 8, 2010

Football Ambush in Africa

Terrorism came crashing into the Africa Cup of Nations football tournament today when the bus carrying the team from Togo was attacked as it crossed the border from Congo into Cabinda region of Angola. Cabinda is an oil-rich region separated from the rest of Angola by a strip of land belonging to the Republic of the Congo, rebels fought for independence for Cabinda until 2006 when a truce was signed with the Angolan government in Luanda hat signaled an end to hostilities.

That is until now. The Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC for short), the group that had led the previous fight for independence, has claimed responsibility for the Togo attack and said that it was the "start of a series of targeted actions" in Cabinda. FLEC attackers raked the Togo team bus with machine gun fire as soon as it crossed the border from the Congo. Nine Togo footballers where injured, at least one seriously; the driver of the bus was killed in the attack.

Organizers of the Africa Cup of Nations were concerned about Angola staging some of the Cup games in Cabinda, but government officials dismissed their fears, promising to have extra security at the events. Angola has tried to promote itself recently as a stable and growing nation in southwest Africa, even purchasing an advertising supplement in Foreign Policy magazine in recent months. Angola's state-run oil company recently won bids to develop several oil fields in Iraq, a sign of their growing economic clout in the region.
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Polaroid Primed For Comeback

News broke on Thursday that thrilled camera buffs around the world - Polaroid would relaunch production in 2010. Until digital cameras became commonplace items in the past decade, if you wanted to be able to see the picture you just took (almost) instantly, then you needed a Polaroid. But the digital revolt cut deeply into Polaroid's business, the company went bankrupt in 2001 and again in 2008. During that second reorganization, the company announced that it would give up its film-based instant camera business in favor of digital imaging.

Even though its commercial business had dwindled, Polaroid still had legions of fans around the world who still preferred the old analog format to digital. On Thursday China's Summit Global announced they would start producing a new line of cameras under the Polaroid name. But what makes a Polaroid a camera and not just an oversized paperweight (like the two I own) is the unique film, a lesson that the Soviet Union's camera industry once learned (*see end note), and that's where "The Impossible Project" steps in.

The story of The Impossible Project is fascinating in itself - after Polaroid shuttered their Enschede, Netherlands plant, a group of former technicians stepped in and acquired the factory and all its fittings. Their goal was to produce a new version of the Polaroid film for the thousands of instant picture enthusiasts out there. This meant figuring out the chemistry that essentially puts a whole darkroom on a sheet of paper - from scratch, something they themselves dubbed "the Impossible Project". But they'll be putting their film into production this year as well. Instant photography fans rejoice.

*The Soviet Union produced their own version of the Polaroid camera called the "Moment". Unfortunately for Soviet photographers, Soviet camera technicians were never able to master the production of instant film, meaning Moment owners had to try to buy Polaroid film on the black market. Few were able to and the Moment was a flop.
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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Russia's Corruption Cop Gets Busted

Major Alexey Dymovsky, the former police officer from Russia's Krasnodar region, who shot to national and international fame after issuing a plea to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on YouTube to investigate rampant corruption in the Russian police forces, has himself been charged with embezzlement while serving as a police officer. Prosecutors in Krasnodar claim that Dymovsky embezzled $800 while working as a narcotics officer.

So, are the charges true? Quite likely, but if anything that only works to reinforce Dymovsky's original claim - that Russia's police forces not only tolerate corruption, but expect it as part of the job. In his original YouTube post, Dymovsky alleged that starting salaries for police officers in Krasnodar were so low, around $400 per month, in part because ranking officials just expected younger officers to supplement their incomes with bribes.

In that way, the charges levied against Dymovsky are much like those filed against Mikhail Khodorkovsky formerly one of Russia's richest men while CEO of Yukos, formerly one of Russia's largest energy companies. In 2004 Khodorkovsky was arrested on charges of fraud and tax evasion, he would later be sentenced to eight years in prison. Some of Khodorkovsky's defenders claim the charges against him were trumped up. Actually, the charges were likely legitimate, the problem is that they could have been levied against any of Russia's oligarchs - all of whom tended to take advantage of poorly-written and rarely-enforced laws to build their mega-fortunes. Yet Khodorkovsky was singled out for punishment, the allegation is because he violated a secret agreement between then-President Vladimir Putin and the oligarch class that Putin would give them a free hand in business if they agreed to stay out of politics. Khodorkovsky made a few relatively small donation to political parties in Siberia and soon found himself being arrested by Russian security forces.

Now Dymovsky who blew the whistle on police corruption has himself been charged with taking money shouldn't have. The question is whether this is the start of the oft-promised government campaign against corruption, or if Dymovsky will be just a blue collar version of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
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Kabul's First Rock Band

Cool story yesterday from the BBC about "Kabul Dreams", who bill themselves as Afghanistan's first rock-and-roll band. The three members of Kabul Dreams are pairing Western-style indie rock music with traditional Afghan rhythms and say that the are tapping into a new-found love of rock music among young Afghanis in the post-Taliban period. Whether or not Kabul Dreams is the future of Afghanistan's music scene is yet to be seen, but they are a hopeful sign of Afghanistan's future for another reason - the multi-ethnic makeup of the band. While Afghanistan often organizes along tribal/ethnic lines, Kabul Dreams is made up of a Pashtun, a Tajik and an Uzbek.

"The reason we formed this band was to give a message to the Afghan youth, a message that they can live together," bassist Siddique Ahmad told the BBC, adding that he felt after decades of civil war, younger Afghanis were looking to put tribal identities behind them. "One Afghan, that's it," he said.
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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Another Nation Jumps on the Abkhazia Bandwagon

The would-be nations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia received a Christmas present of sorts - more international recognition of their independence. Since the August 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia over the two Georgian regions, official recognition has been hard to come by for the two fledgling states; so far only Venezuela and Nicaragua have agreed with Russia that the two regions are actually independent nations.

But now another country has joined the list, the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru. Never heard of it? You're not alone, I'd be willing to guess few people in either Abkhazia or South Ossetia knew of its existence either before the Nauruans opened diplomatic relations with them. Nauru is the smallest island state in the world, in fact with a population of just 12,000, it's so small that it's the only nation in the world without a capital city. So why would a tiny speck of a nation in the Pacific bother to get involved with post-Soviet politics half a world away? Likely for money.

Nauru's recognition comes as Russia grants the island state a loan of $50 million, money Nauru desperately needs. Nauru's economy had been largely built around an enormous phosphate mine at the center of the island - the result of centuries of accumulated droppings from migrating birds. But the guano mine played out in the 1980's, plunging the nation into a financial crisis. Nauru enjoyed a brief reprise as a money-laundering center, but international regulations put a stop to that as well; the country cannot even rely on tourism since according to Wikipedia: "there is little to see or do here, the climate is very unpleasant, and there are few facilities for tourists." The CIA estimates the economy is in such dire straits that Nauru lacks the funds to even have a functioning government.

Russia's loan is likely enough to keep Nauru solvent for the better part of the next two years. Of course the bigger question is why does Russia care about establishing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent nations anyway?

The conventional wisdom is that supporting the independence claims of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is a way for Russia to rebuild its sphere of influence in the world. While it's hard to disagree with this notion, even the great minds in the Kremlin have to realize that no one will ever confuse Russia and a collection of statelets like Abkhazia, South Ossetia and perhaps Transdniestria for the Soviet Union. The deep personal dislike between Russia's Vladimir Putin and Georgia's Mikhail Saakashvili also likely has something to do with Russia's strategy - nothing would make Saakashvili look worse than to officially lose to sizable chunks of his country's territory; Putin, meanwhile, would revel in the embarrassment of his Caucasus adversary.

But one factor - a major factor that is being overlooked - in Russia's drive to get international recognition for the two regions are the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Like Sochi, with whom it shares a Black Sea coastline, Abkhazia was once part of the "Soviet Rivera" - the favored vacation retreat for the Soviet elite. The Sochi region shares a border with Abkhazia (the places are so close, Georgia even tried unsuccessfully to get the Olympic committee to move the 2014 Winter Games in the wake of the 2008 conflict citing "security concerns"). Russia is hoping the Winter Games will spark a resurgence of the Sochi region as a world-class resort destination, and Abkhazia factors into their plans, both as a source of cheap labor and material in the run-up to the 2014 Games and in their post-Olympics development plans as well. Of course this makes a lot more sense from the Russian point of view if Abkhazia is a compliant satellite state rather than a region of their regional competitor, Georgia.

With the Winter Olympics being seen as a coming out party for the "new" post-Soviet Russia and Abkhazia factoring into their Sochi plans, don't be surprised if the Russian government doesn't dole out more foreign aid to some pretty unusual corners of the globe.
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Monday, January 4, 2010

China May Build Foreign Military Base

In a sign that China is seeing itself as a growing world power, the Chinese military is discussing building a permanent naval base in the Middle East. It's a move their admirals say is necessary if China is going to continue to participate in anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia.

China joined international efforts at curbing piracy last year. The action was a milestone change in Chinese military planning - it was the first time the navy of the People's Republic had operated so far from Chinese territorial waters and the first time naval vessels from China had engaged in a mission to Africa in 600 years, since the time of the treasure fleets of the Ming Dynasty.

China is currently the world's largest importer of oil, much of it from the Persian Gulf and Africa, so a navy base in the region to protect their energy interests makes strategic sense. But it is also a sure sign of China's growing military clout and desire to be a player in matters of international security, desires that are sure to be met with unease by some other world governments.
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Russia Launches Its Own "Cash for Clunkers"

In another effort to boost their domestic auto industry, Russia's Trade Ministry has announced their own version of the "Cash for Clunkers" rebate program for 2010. Under the terms of the program, Russians can get a certificate worth 50,000 rubles (or $1,650) towards the purchase of a new, more fuel efficient, Russian-built car.

Some Russians though think that domestic cars like Ladas are clunkers the moment they roll off the assembly line. One critic I read in an article a little while ago asked if Russian cars were so good why then do government officials drive German luxury sedans rather than home-built models? In recent years imported foreign-built used cars have been more popular with Russia's emerging middle class than new domestic autos. This prompted the government's last effort to boost domestic production - the slapping of a 50% tariff on imported used cars at the end of 2007, a move that sparked public protests in the port city of Vladivostok, which had a thriving cottage industry in importing used cars from Japan.

Russia's "Cash for Clunkers" is planned to run throughout 2010.
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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Pirates Spark Housing Price Boom

Just to prove that they deserved the "Capitalists of the Year" award, the Somali pirates are being accused of sparking a boom in housing prices in neighboring Kenya. Officials in Nairobi say that housing prices in some neighborhoods have tripled in just the past five years; by contrast they it should take at least 10 years for prices to double, given normal economic growth. The reason for the property price boom appears to be money flooding in from pirate activity in Somalia. One real estate agent interviewed by the AP said that it is not uncommon for Somalis to pay double the asking price of a property just to complete the sale quickly.

This has sparked charges that the Somali pirates are using the purchase of Kenyan houses as a way of laundering money. According to the US State Department, thanks to lax banking regulations, Kenya is a prime center for money laundering. Some Somali pirates though say that the property purchases are more of a retirement plan than an attempt to hide wealth. One pirate named Abdulle said: "I have invested through my brother, who is representing me, in Nairobi. He's got a big shop that sells clothes and general merchandise, so my future lies there, not in the piracy industry."

Meanwhile the pirates have started 2010 off with a bang by capturing four ships. Among them are two chemical tankers and the "Asian Glory" a cargo ship carrying automobiles to Saudi Arabia. Somali pirates normally do not steal the cargo of the ships they capture, instead they make their money in ransoming the ship and crew, but the automobiles could make for a lucrative payday if they can figure out a way to get them off of the ship. Thanks to 20 years of neglect, most of Somalia's port facilities are in total disrepair, meaning that there's no easy way to off-load bulk items - like automobiles.

It's estimated that pirate clans are currently holding a dozen ships and more than 250 crewmembers.
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Democracy Not Worth It, Says Presidential Candidate

It's kind of disturbing when a presidential candidate questions the whole point of democracy, but that's basically what Ukraine's Viktor Yanukovych did last week. During an interview with the Associated Press last week Yanukovych said that he thought Ukraine's pro-democracy "Orange Revolution" in 2004 wasn't worth the upheaval it cost for the country.

The whole Orange Revolution was sparked in the first place by Yanukovych's attempts to rig the results in the 2004 presidential election. Eventually the massive street protests would see his challenger Viktor Yushchenko swept into power. But the promises of the Orange Revolution have turned out to be hollow for many Ukrainians. The government has spent the past few years in virtual gridlock as the camps of President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko fought for control over the nation. Meanwhile Ukraine has suffered badly during the global recession; the economy has contracted by 15% this year alone, while they've relied on billions in loans from the International Monetary Fund just to keep their currency afloat.

The situation is so bad that Yanukovych is now leading in the polls for the presidential elections to be held later this month. He's pledging to nix membership in NATO and to rebuild relations with Russia - ideas that are playing well in eastern Ukraine, which has a large ethnic Russian population, while causing unease in western (and pro-Western) Ukraine. His main challenger is PM Tymoshenko, who Yanukovych has been slamming for allowing Ukraine's government to become corrupt and ineffective.

"Democracy is above all rule of law," Yaunkovych said to the AP. "In these five years we have seen how the laws have been systematically broken, how the principles of the law have been replaced by political expediency."

Tymoshenko and Yanukovych will likely face off in a run-off election in February.
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