Sunday, February 28, 2010

Another Afghan Pipeline Conspiracy

I love a good Internet conspiracy theory, so this one from Internet journalist Webster Tarpley caught my eye. He’s arguing that the recent US-led assault on the southern Afghan town of Marjah in restive Helmand province wasn’t aimed at striking a deadly blow at the heart of the Taliban insurgency, but rather was designed to drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan and into Pakistan’s Belujistan region directly to the south. And why would the US want to push more of the Taliban into our supposed ally Pakistan? To disrupt the construction of an oil pipeline that would ship Iranian oil directly to China, of course.

What makes a conspiracy theory, like Tarpley’s ‘drive the Taliban into Pakistan’ notion, great is the inability to disprove it. But not being able to disprove something doesn’t automatically make it true, and Tarpley’s piece plays into an idea that’s become something of an obsession among some people – to explain the US/NATO/Western involvement in Afghanistan in terms of oil. The genesis for these theories likely go back to the days following the demise of the Soviet Union when it was believed that the newly-accessible Caspian Sea region (once in the midst of the Soviet heartland) might contain as much oil as Saudi Arabia. That sparked a round of speculation on how to get that oil out of the Caspian Sea and to the West via a route that didn’t cross either Russia or Iran, since both were considered to be unreliable partners in such an endeavor. The most direct path left was via Afghanistan and on to the coast of Pakistan where it could then be loaded onto tankers and shipped around the world.

But it turned out that the Caspian Sea wasn’t another Saudi Arabia, at least as far as oil was concerned and the oil pipeline plans were put on a shelf, except in the minds of people who want to see oil at the heart of any US foreign policy exercise. To confuse matters, there is a pipeline project well into the planning stages that would cross Afghanistan – the TAPI pipeline.

“TAPI” stands for Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India; the projected route of the pipeline, that’s meant to bring gas from Turkmenistan, which has the third-largest reserves in the world, to the P and I countries. The Asian Development Bank is backing TAPI to the tune of around $7 billion and the project is being touted as something that could help to stabilize Afghanistan in the long run. But even with that level of backing TAPI isn’t a sure thing. A Canadian study notes that in addition to having to build a pipeline across some of the most rugged, most remote mountains in the world, TAPI will also have to cross an area heavily landmined during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, as well as running through the heartland of the Taliban movement, including the aforementioned Helmand province.
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Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Kindler, Gentler Military Junta

Sometimes you wonder what people are thinking… Foreign Policy magazine reports that last year, a consulting firm founded by the men responsible for the prosecution of Sierra Leone’s President Charles Taylor on charges of crimes against humanity offered their services to the neighboring West African nation of Guinea to educate his military on how to observe the basic norms of human rights law. If that’s not odd enough, the training material included a PowerPoint presentation with slides that included such nuggets of wisdom as: soldiers should not shoot civilians (you would kind of hope you wouldn’t need to teach basics like that).

Ultimately the training sessions never took place because of an attempted coup against Guinea’s current junta chief Captain Moussa Dadis Camara. It got me thinking though about the over-reliance on PowerPoint presentations these days and reminded me of a story I read back when Poland was being brought into NATO. A group of Polish generals were brought to observe a NATO mock military maneuver, the day of course started with a PowerPoint presentation about the upcoming operation. This being the 1990s, the Poles were duly impressed by the (then) hi-tech presentation, but they pointed out to their American and European hosts that in a real battle, while NATO command were off preparing their PowerPoint slides, the Poles would be out in the field killing their troops.
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Friday, February 26, 2010

Canada’s Last World War One Vet Passes Away

Since there are so few living veterans of the First World War left, whenever one passes away I think it’s worth noting here. Last Friday Canada lost their last WWI vet when John Babcock, age 109, died.

Babcock lied about his age to join the Canadian military in 1915. Because of his youth he was assigned to a unit with other underage soldiers and remained in Canada for much of the war. By 1918 though he had been shipped off to England and his unit was preparing to be deployed to France when the armistice was signed on November 11th. Even though he never saw combat, by his later years Babcock became a living symbol for the 600,000 Canadians who fought, and 60,000 who died in WWI. But like other centenarian vets, Babcock was unsentimental about his service in what was then called “The Great War”.

With Babcock’s passing there are believed to be only three surviving veterans from World War One, including America’s “last doughboy” Cpl. Frank Buckles, age 108.
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Medvedev Meets His (Paris) Match

In-depth interviews with the Russian president in the Western media are somewhat of a rare occurrence, so I wanted to make sure to link to this story about Dmitry Medvedev’s recent sit-down with Paris Match magazine.

The motivation for the interview was France’s launching of the “Year of Russia”, a yearlong celebration of Russian culture and Russo-Franco relations. Beyond the kind of platitudes you’d expect him to give towards France during such an occasion, along with some warm memories of a trip to Paris, Medvedev actually had a few interesting things to say about international affairs. Among them are Medvedev’s belief that a new set of regulations need to be introduced into the global financial markets (something France’s Nikolas Sarkozy has been pushing for during the past few months), and that while Russia doesn’t view NATO as a threat, they’re also are not happy with the ongoing expansion of the military alliance. As for Iran, Medvedev didn’t seem terribly interested in slapping a new round of sanctions on the country, saying instead that it’s up to Iran to make a decision on bringing their nuclear program inline with international norms. On the domestic side Medvedev said there was still a lot of work to do in battling corruption and that Russia needs to diversify their economy away from its current over-reliance on extracting raw minerals. He also insisted again that he and Vladimir Putin have a “good relationship”.

A full transcript of the interview can be found here.
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Thursday, February 25, 2010

An Example Of Why China Is Bad For Africa

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe celebrated his 86th birthday last Sunday, and with millions of his countrymen living in poverty and hunger, you’d think that a big party might seem a big gauche. But that didn’t stop the Chinese from throwing a bash in Mugabe’s honor at their embassy in Harare, which marked the first time that Mugabe had even visited a nation’s embassy in his capital since 1980.

Many of Zimbabwe’s current problems can be traced back a decade to Mugabe’s ill-conceived “land reform” plan, which was meant to increase black ownership of farmland in the country but in reality turned out to be just a patronage plan for his political cronies. This led to chronic food shortages in the country and the collapse of the nation’s agriculture export economy. Earlier in February, Mugabe rammed through a new law that could have a similar effect on Zimbabwe’s business sector – requiring all 51% ownership by Zimbabweans in all foreign investments – possibly destroying the fragile coalition government with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai in the process.

The United States and European Union have responded to Mugabe’s actions in recent years by slapping a series of economic sanctions on Zimbabwe. China, on the other hand, has been happy to trade with them. Unlike the Western nations, who increasingly have tied economic and development aid to good governance practices, China typically offers foreign aid and trade packages with no strings attached. China’s position is that this respects the “internal affairs” of each nation. A more cynical view though is that China really doesn’t care who they do business with so long as the countries in question can continue to supply China with the raw materials they need to fuel their domestic economic expansion – in Zimbabwe’s case it’s minerals; in Sudan’s, oil.

Of course the Chinese position works at cross purposes with that of the Western nations, since why would Mugabe, or any other local despot, change their style of governance when they know they can always do business with the Chinese? Assuming, that is, that they have something China needs.
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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tymoshenko Drops Challenge, But Political Drama Continues In Ukraine

On Saturday, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko dropped her legal challenge over the results of the country’s presidential election, which she lost by about 3.5% to former President Viktor Yanukovych two Sundays ago. In dropping her lawsuit though, Tymoshenko made it clear that her actions weren’t because she suddenly accepted the results of the vote – which international observers declared free and fair – but rather because she said she thought she could not get an honest hearing in Ukraine’s courts on her charges of massive voter fraud during the February 7 elections. But in doing so Tymoshenko has shown that this ongoing drama isn’t about what’s best for Ukrainian democracy, but rather it’s all about what’s best for Yulia.

Few poll watchers in Ukraine expected Tymoshenko’s challenge to succeed; in addition to the blessing the election received from monitors from Europe’s OSCE, world leaders have lined up to congratulate Yanukovych on his victory – a stark contrast from 2004 when international pressure over what appeared to be a rigged vote forced then-President Yanukovych into a runoff with his challenger (and eventual winner) Viktor Yushchenko. But in withdrawing her challenge, Tymoshenko decided to cast doubts on not only the legitimacy of President Yanukovych but on Ukraine’s legal system as well saying that she couldn’t get a fair hearing since the court was packed with “Yanukovych supporters”.

Of course nothing is keeping Tymoshenko from just presenting her evidence directly to the public, either via the press or the Internet; that she hasn’t suggests that the OSCE monitors were right about the quality of the election in the first place. It also indicates that Prime Minister Tymoshenko is still pushing the idea of blanket opposition in lieu of an actual political platform. The main reason that voters rejected her presidential candidacy is that they were fed up with the infighting between her and President Yushchenko that marked the five years following the Orange Revolution. While the two of them fought, Ukraine’s economy shrank, their currency nearly collapsed and corruption across the country increased. Now Tymoshenko is showing that she plans to continue to be the Opposer in Chief as President Yanukovych takes office.

Yanukovych though is taking his own steps to prevent this. He has called for her resignation as Prime Minister, which Yulia has of course refused. Yanukovych is now trying to put together a coalition government that will include members of his former rival Yushchenko’s party but will exclude the Bloc Yulia Tymoshenko, thus freezing her out of the government and stripping her of the prime minister’s post in the process. If Yanukovych fails in his bid to put together his coalition, he is indicating he’ll call for early parliamentary elections, hoping that will give him the majority he needs to push Tymoshenko out.

*Ukraine 2010 electoral map from Wikipedia. Regions won by Yanukovych are blue, those won by Tymoshenko, yellow.
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Sour Grapes On The Russian Olympic Menu

The Russian Olympic Team was extremely upset by the results of the men’s figure skating after the United States’ Evan Lysacek edged out Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko for the gold medal. I have to admit I think that Russia has something of a point: Plushenko apparently skated a more technically difficult routine, yet received lower scores than Lysacek.

But Russia’s took Olympic criticism to a new level with this top-to-bottom ripping of the Winter Games: “Vancouver: Mutton Dressed as Lamb”. In it, the folks at Pravda not only light into VANOC (the Vancouver organizing committee) for the men’s figure skating judging, but also for the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili and the drug testing of a Russian skier while her event was still underway (somehow the failure of the Olympic torch to properly rise during the opening ceremonies avoided their critique). Pravda goes on to (somewhat bizarrely) suggest that Canada’s inability to stage a “successful” Olympic Games stems from their inferiority complex over being the United States “skinny and weakling bro”, and also from still being part of the British Commonwealth. They also infer that the figure skating judging was somehow influenced by Canada competing with Russia for dominance in the Arctic Sea.

All in all, it is a stunning mix of sour grapes and conspiracy theories. At the heart though is likely frustration over the generally poor performance of the Russian Olympic team, which is currently on track for their worst-ever Olympics. That is the last thing the Russians want heading into the next Winter Games, which will be held at Sochi, Russia. Countries always want to have a strong showing at the Games they host – even mild-mannered Canada launched an aggressive training program called “Own the Podium” ahead of the Vancouver Games. Russia’s only other experience as an Olympic host were during the massively-boycotted Moscow Summer Games in 1980, so the upcoming Sochi Games are a source of immense national pride. Of course Russia, traditionally a winter sports powerhouse, wants to have a strong showing for the home crowd – but the 2010 Games have so far been a pretty poor prelude of things to come, and perhaps the frustration is showing in some pretty odd ways.
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Saturday, February 20, 2010

New Missile Plans, New Problems For US/Russian Relations

So much for “resetting” relations with Russia I guess…

Just five months ago the Obama Administration gave a boost to their attempts at repairing relations with Russia with their decision to pull the plug on a scheme to base an anti-ballistic missile shield (or ABM) in Poland and the Czech Republic. Now Washington is putting new strains on that same relationship by floating plans to base elements of the US missile shield in Bulgaria and Romania instead.

In case you haven’t been keeping up with developments in anti-missile defense, a brief recap: The Bush Administration pushed to base elements of the ABM shield – a radar station in the Czech Republic and ten anti-missile missiles in Poland – in Eastern Europe to protect the Continent against rocket attacks from “rogue states”. In practice “rogue states” was translated as “Iran”. But Iran doesn’t even have ballistic missiles with the range to reach Europe, nor was it ever explained why Iran would even want to launch missiles against Europe, and there were questions about whether or not the ABM system would even work in the first place, so all in all the ABM project didn’t make a lot of sense.

The plan did however infuriate the Russians. Publicly, Russia complained that the ABM system was intended not to guard against rogue states but to oppose their own nuclear missiles, something the Americans said wasn’t true since the ten interceptors in Poland could easily be overwhelmed by the thousands of missiles in the Russian arsenal. In reality, a lot of Russia’s opposition to the ABM program stemmed from the fact that they still consider Eastern Europe to be within their “sphere of influence” (a belief held over from Soviet times). Russia likely also doubted American claims that ABM was solely a defensive system since they had received similar assurances about NATO back in the 1990s, right before NATO went on the offensive against Russia’s long-time ally, Serbia in 1999.

Ultimately, the Obama Administration’s decision to end the ABM program in Poland and the Czech Republic last year seemed to be based more on a cost-analysis of an expensive, yet strategically dubious weapons program than as a way to placate the Russians, but it had that effect also, which is what makes the Administration’s decision this week even more puzzling. Russia considers Bulgaria to be in their backyard just as much as they do Poland (maybe even more so since Russian-Bulgarian relations have historically been much better than Russian-Polish ones), so their anger over the latest ABM decision is no surprise. At the same time, Poland will likely view this as a slap against them – if the US was going to base an ABM system in Eastern Europe anyway, why not just keep it on Polish soil?

One explanation could be Bulgaria’s importance in two competing natural gas pipeline projects meant to ship gas from Central Asia to Europe – the Russian-backed South Stream and the American-supported Nabucco (the United States hopes Nabucco will help to lessen Europe’s dependence on Russia for their natural gas supplies). Bulgaria is a key transit point in both plans, so perhaps ABM is a way for the United States to build up relations with Bulgaria to win them over to Nabucco.

But whatever the motivation, the latest chapter in the ABM saga is already causing problems in US-Russian relations. Russia is now threatening to suspend talks on a renewal of the START nuclear arms reduction pact, while the tiny pro-Russian quasi-nation of Transdnestr (a breakaway region of Moldova) is offering to host Russian ballistic missiles in response to an American ABM base in Bulgaria.
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Friday, February 19, 2010

Protesting Too Is An Olympic Event

Along with the thousands of athletes, legions of journalists and hoards of spectators that have all descended upon Vancouver for the Olympic games, another group has come to town: Olympic protesters. On Monday there was a minor diplomatic incident when a young American was arrested by the Vancouver police on charges that included assaulting a police officer and inciting violence after an anti-Olympics rally turned into a vandalism spree in downtown Vancouver.

The protesters have a stew of Olympic-related complaints: Monday’s incident started out as a demonstration against the “carbon footprint” of the Games, and their ultimate effect on global climate change; another popular topic for protesters has been the diversion of public funds to build temporary housing for Olympic athletes (the Olympic Village) rather than providing permanent shelter for the city’s homeless population. To illustrate their point, homeless activists went as far as to set up their own “Olympic village” of tents for the indigent in downtown Vancouver.

That thought reminded of the song “Gassy Jack” by the Vancouver-based band, The Evaporators (for a brief musical interlude, see the video below), which includes the line: “social housing for the needy / not lofts for the greedy.” The 21st Winter Olympics will wrap up next weekend.

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Working On The Railroad In Iraq

Iraq’s international railroad network is expanding again.

Earlier in the month, Iran announced plans to link their southern city Khorramshahr and the Iraqi port Basra with about 35 miles of newly built railway. Now according to the BBC, a rail-link between Iraq and Turkey has been opened for the first time since the 1980’s.

The journey between Gazientep, Turkey and Mosul, Iraq takes about 18 hours. German workers originally built the route almost a century ago as part of a plan to link Baghdad and Berlin by rail. Iraq’s war with Iran in the 1980’s damaged the line to the point where it needed to be closed, while Turkish conflicts with Kurdish rebels based in northern Iraq kept them from investing in repairs to the route. But in recent years trade between Turkey and Iraq, particularly the Kurdish northern region that abuts Turkey, has turned into a multi-billion dollar business, and has led to a reopening of the railroad.

Turkey now has plans to expand their network of high-speed passenger trains to include the Gazientep-to-Mosul route.
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Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Dear Leader's Birthday

North Korea’s President and “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il turned 69 on Tuesday (or maybe 68, like most things in the world’s most secretive nation even the president’s age is something of a mystery). And despite the massive public celebrations, the day sparked another round of speculation on what will happen once Mr. Kim finally leaves the stage for good.

The question on who will follow Kim Jong-Il took on a new urgency in mid-2008 when the Dear Leader suffered a serious health problem, now widely believed to have been a major stroke – for months there was even a strong belief that Kim was actually dead. Since then Kim has made a series of public appearances, but it is clear that his health has taken a decided turn for the worse.

Running North Korea has been a Kim family tradition since the nation split in two in 1950. Kim Jong-Il took over from North Korea’s “Eternal President”, his father Kim Il Sung following the elder Kim’s death. It was assumed that pattern would continue when Dear Leader Kim passes away as well. But Kim Jong-Il apparently thinks his eldest son is too dumb for the job (Kim Jong-Nam once tried to sneak into Japan on a fake passport to go to Disneyland Tokyo), and his second-eldest son “too effeminate”, thus passing the mantle to his twenty-something son, Kim Jong-Un. The problem is that in North Korea’s cloistered web of leadership, Kim Jong-Un has virtually no experience. According to South Korean watchers, this has led Kim Jong-Il’s sister Kim Kyong-Hui assuming more of a leadership role by taking over a portion of the Korean Workers Party, one of the state agencies that wields power within North Korea. Kim Kyong-Hui had once held a powerful position within the North Korean leadership, but had fallen out of power due to infighting within the Kim regime.

And if all of that sounds just a little too Byzantine, this week Foreign Policy magazine published a piece on their website claiming that the United States has few plans to deal with North Korea once Kim Jong-Il passes away. It’s feared that Kim’s death will spark a battle for succession within the ranks of North Korea’s leadership, which is split among the military, the Communist Party and the Kim family. In turn that could likely spark a wave of refugees fleeing from the chaos in North Korea and possibly even a conflict with South Korea. But FP argues that despite these fears, the United States has few plans in place to promote regional security or to protect our allies, the South Koreans.
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Monday, February 15, 2010

Why Isn’t There Women’s Ski Jumping At The Winter Olympics?

The Winter Olympics are underway, and so to are the articles by sports columnists picking apart the Winter Games, like this one from Jeff Neuman of RealClearSports that asks: “Who Killed the Winter Olympics?” Neuman argues that the Winter Games have become a bloated, and ultimately not terribly interesting mess of events.

I can’t say that I totally agree with Neuman, but his column made me think about this report I saw this past weekend on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” about women’s ski jumping, or rather the lack of women’s ski jumping at the Olympics. Even though men’s ski jumping has been included in all 21 Winter Games, the women’s side of the sport is excluded. In fact, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has actively fought to keep the sport out of the Games, a group of women jumpers even tried, and failed, to sue the Vancouver Games organizing committee to force them to include their sport in this year’s Games.

According to IOC chief Jacques Rogge, the reason that women’s ski jumping isn’t included within the Olympic canon is because the relatively small number of women competing at the elite level of the sport – around 170 – would “dilute” the significance of the Olympic gold medal if it was awarded in this discipline. But ESPN notes that an even smaller number of women (about 125) are currently competing at the elite level in the relatively new sport of ski cross, yet their sport was included in the 2010 Games. Ski cross is the ski version of another fairly new sport, board cross – a seeming combination of downhill racing and roller derby, whose only Olympic moment of note so far has been the United States’ Lindsey Jacobellis hot-dogging her way out of a gold medal in the 2006 Games.

And that gets back to Neuman’s point. Traditionally the Winter Olympics were a collection of Alpine and ice sports largely dominated by a collection of northern European countries. In recent years though the Games have expanded to take in a whole collection of new winter sports (like ski/board cross), mostly created in the United States and not surprisingly dominated by American athletes. This may be good business for the IOC since massive US television contracts provide a large chunk of the their revenues, but it hasn’t necessarily improved the quality of the Games.

Of course adding in women’s ski jumping would be a simple matter of scheduling additional elements at facilities that would otherwise sit unused, it doesn’t require building entire new venues like has been the case for the snowboarding events. But it would also likely not bring any additional medals for the United States, and that’s why you probably won’t see women ski jumping at the Games anytime soon.
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Friday, February 12, 2010

The Winner in Ukraine? Democracy

Last Sunday Ukrainians went to the polls and helped Viktor Yanukovych pull off one of the greatest (and perhaps unlikeliest) comebacks in recent political history. Yanukovych defeated his rival, current Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko by 3.5% to claim the country’s presidency. And while some have lamented the result as the apparent end of the Orange Revolution, it could just as easily be seen as a triumph for democracy in Ukraine. Here are four reasons why:

The elections were free and fair. Unlike Yanukovych’s ham-fisted attempts to rig the 2004 presidential - which sparked the pro-democracy uprising that came to be called the Orange Revolution in the first place - the 2010 vote was declared free and open by international observers. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe went so far as to call the election “high quality”, quite different from their recent assessment of elections in neighboring countries like Russia and Georgia. Going hand-in-hand with a fair and open election are the development of a free press and the allowance for public debate – two things that exist today in Ukraine, but in few other places in the former Soviet Union.

The result wasn’t pre-determined. Ukraine’s February 7 election was perhaps a first for a country that was once part of the Soviet Union in that no one knew who was going to win beforehand. Even in elections in the post-Soviet space that have been declared “fair” or at least “fair enough”, one party – usually the ruling party – is so dominant that no one actually believes they’re going to lose. But in Ukraine it really was a question as to who the winner would be: Yanukovych or Tymoshenko.

The election wasn’t based on personality.
Another persistent feature of politics in the post-Soviet world is that they’re often more influenced by a particular politician’s personal image than their actual platform (think of Russia’s Vladimir Putin). The gruff, bland Yanukovych though could never be thought of as being the center of a “cult of personality”. If anything, that is a description that does fit his opponent. Even Tymoshenko’s supporters can have a hard time pinning down what she truly believes; in her time as PM, Tymoshenko has gone from talking like a pro-Western Ukrainian nationalist, to advocating closer and warmer relations with Russia. Her political party feeds into the whole cult of personality idea – it’s called simply the “Bloc Yulia Tymoshenko” and its main platform is to support her policies. But in the end, Tymoshenko’s personal magnetism wasn’t enough to bring her a victory at the ballot box.

Finally, voters held their politicians accountable. In a democracy elections give the population a chance to hold their leaders accountable for their actions (or inactions). The results of the presidential election show that the Ukrainians have learned this lesson. In the heady days following the Orange Revolution, its two leaders, Tymoshenko and President Viktor Yushchenko promised to reform Ukraine and lead it into the 21st century. In reality European integration stalled, corruption increased, and the economy stagnated and then contracted (granted the global recession had a hand in that last one). Voters turned Yushchenko out in the first round of the election, giving him less than 6% of the vote; last Sunday they passed a similar verdict on the leadership of Yulia Tymoshenko.

Still, the political situation in Ukraine is tense with Tymoshenko continuing to threaten to challenge the results of the election alleging fraud in polling stations across the country. But Tymoshenko has yet to offer up any proof of widespread irregularities and the OSCE blessing of the vote undercuts her claims. Nor does she seem to be able to summon up “street power” – the ability to turn out tens or hundreds of thousands of supporters in mass public protests for her cause, despite her earlier threats to launch a “Second Orange Revolution” if she thought the vote was rigged, leaving her campaign to threaten to launch a series of legal challenges. Tymoshenko at this point is being urged to concede defeat, even by some of her most vocal Western backers; world leaders including President Obama and Georgia’s Mikhail Saakashvili have called Yanukovych with their congratulations on his victory.

The February 7 election shows that the people of Ukraine have learned some valuable lessons about democracy, hopefully PM Tymoshenko will learn them soon as well.
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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Another Disastrous Government Policy in Zimbabwe

New regulations pushed through by President Robert Mugabe are threatening to destroy Zimbabwe’s unity government and plunge the country into another economic crisis. Under the new law, all foreign and locally owned companies must turn over 51% of their ownership over to black Zimbabweans. This law is eerily similar to the “land reforms” that Mugabe’s government passed a decade ago that seized white-owned farms across the country.

At the heart of the laws is a legitimate concern – thanks to its past as a British colony, Zimbabwe’s white minority owned many of the country’s farms and businesses, so it makes sense that after independence the government would want to increase the percentage owned by Zimbabwe’s black majority. But in practice, the land reforms didn’t compensate white farmers for their losses; in many cases armed gangs just threw the white farmers off their land. And to make matters worse, rather than turning the land over to black farmers, Mugabe parceled them out as graft to his political cronies – few of these men bothered to work the land, Zimbabwe went from being the “breadbasket of southern Africa” to a nation plagued by chronic food shortages.

Now there are worries that the same thing will happen to the country’s business sector. One of Zimbabwe’s top economists Daniel Ndlela said in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper: “there will be no foreign investment into Zimbabwe. Why would anyone come into Zimbabwe with $100 and be left with $49?” Zimbabwe had been hoping that the unity government would bring much-needed foreign investment into the country whose economy has been in shambles thanks in large part to the land reforms. But the unity government itself looks like it might be a casualty of the new economic regulations. Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai said he was never consulted on the ownership law and is furious over its passage. Meanwhile, some of the few foreign firms currently operating in Zimbabwe are now considering withdrawing their operations. The law is scheduled to be phased in over the next five years.
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End Coming For Hand-Written Newspaper?

It’s no secret that the future’s not bright for newspapers as people receive more and more of their information from online sources. But tucked away in a corner of India, the days could be dwindling for the world’s only hand-written newspaper.

Russia Today brings us the story of the Musalman, a daily four-page newspaper published in Chennai. Since 1927 the Musalman has painstakingly been written by hand in delicate Urdu calligraphy. According to RT, each page takes a trained calligrapher about four hours to ink by hand. The completed pages are then photographed and turned into printing plates to produce the newspaper’s 20,000 copies. The staff calligraphers say that writing by hand gives them more control over the Musalman’s layout than they would get from using machine or computer-produced fonts, and that the final product has a unique beauty all of its own.

But learning the fancy Urdu script – once a symbol of high status in India - is a dying art; the Musalman’s calligraphers, all into middle age or older, say that no young people want to learn the skill from them. And as more Indians go online, the paper’s circulation is shrinking, meaning the days for the world’s only hand-written newspaper are slowly drawing to an end.
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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A $700 Billion Boondoggle?

What can you get for $700 billion these days? Well, one thing is a year’s worth of American military spending. But with two wars dragging on and the fear of a terrorist attack within our country growing, this week in The Mantle I ask if we’re getting our money’s worth for our $700 billion? I put US defense spending in perspective with some of the world’s other top militaries (hint: we spend a lot more than they do), and discuss what three of America’s most noted generals from the 20th century – Colin Powell, Dwight Eisenhower and Smedley Butler – have to say on the issue of military spending and its motivations.
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Saturday, February 6, 2010

Troubles Loom Over Ukraine Election

While tomorrow is election day in Ukraine, it’s looking like the close of the polls may not be the end of the battle to become the country’s next president.

Current Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is crying foul and threatening massive street protests in Kiev following a last-minute change to Ukraine’s election laws. Basically, the rule had been that representatives from both parties had to be present to approve the vote count at each of the country’s polling stations. But a bill pushed through parliament by her challenger, Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, and signed by outgoing President Viktor Yushchenko scrapped this requirement. Tymoshenko said this opens the election up massive vote rigging, but members of the Party of Regions counter by saying the change was necessary based on rumors that Tymoshenko’s party planned to boycott the vote count process at polls across southern and eastern Ukraine (Yanukovych’s power base), invalidating the vote from these stations in the process.

This isn’t the only charge of fraud being thrown around before the vote – the Party of Regions also accused Tymoshenko of trying to print over a million phony ballots, while she has accused him of busing his own party thugs into Kiev from eastern Ukraine to try to intimidate her voters. Tymoshenko also complained of voter fraud in the first round of the election, even though independent monitors could not find evidence of large-scale problems and Tymoshenko herself did better in the voting than pre-election polls had indicated.

Right now the final polls have the election too close to call. That is coming as a surprise to many observers who thought Tymoshenko would pull ahead of Yanukovych in the second round. The reason is that Yanukovych was the candidate of choice for Ukraine’s sizable ethnic Russian minority (Yanukovych is from the Russian-leaning eastern part of the country), while Tymoshenko was battling it out with 16 other candidates for the remainder of Ukraine’s electorate in the first round of the voting. The conventional wisdom was that many more of these voters – particularly reform-minded and Western-leaning ones – would migrate to her, but Tymoshenko has had a hard time winning over Ukrainians unhappy with the unfulfilled promises of the Orange Revolution that she helped to spearhead.

With a clear winner unlikely in tomorrow’s vote, the chances of the losing side claiming fraud are high. Whether this will translate into court challenges, street protests or both remains to be seen.
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Friday, February 5, 2010

Another Visit With The Sampsonadzes

You might remember this post about “The Sampsonadzes”, the Georgian television series about an animated, yellow-skinned family that has absolutely no relation whatsoever to “The Simpsons”. Now the BBC is offering up their own take on the Sampsonadzes, complete with video clips of their recent adventure with an animated Vladimir Putin.

So far only ten episodes of “The Sampsonadzes” have been produced, the ratings have been good and the show has attracted the vocal talents of some of Georgia’s most famous actors. According to the BBC though reaction to the show among viewers is mixed, with some Georgians saying “The Sampsonadzes” is just a Georgian-tinged rip-off of “The Simpsons”. That got me thinking, if you saw the recent 20th anniversary special about “The Simpsons” then you know that the show is a true global phenomenon. Since “The Simpsons” is an animated program, perhaps rather than just dubbing the show into different languages, the Simpsons’ producers could license franchise versions of the show to be produced in different countries with culturally relevant jokes and storylines (something the makers of “The Sampsonadzes” say sets their show apart).

It’s just a thought… Meanwhile, “The Sampsonadzes” will remain on the air, at least until Fox’s attorneys can get to Tbilisi.
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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Huge Rally Catches Russian Government Off Guard

Over the past few months Russian civil rights groups have been staging a series of rallies on the 31st of every month that has 31 days. The day is meant to be symbolic – the 31st article of the Russian constitution guarantees Russians the right to publicly protest, though in practice even small, peaceful protests usually are quickly broken up by the police. In past months these 31st day protests have been small in nature, drawing just a few hundred rights activists and government critics, like former Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov. But a rally in Russia’s westernmost city, Kaliningrad, shocked authorities in the Kremlin when between 6,000 and 12,000 people turned out to protest not just a reduction in civil rights but also cuts to social programs, hikes on taxes on imported automobiles and public transit fees, and to demand the resignation of their regional governor Grigory Boos.

The Soviet Union won Kaliningrad as part of a reparations package from Germany following World War II. Even though it is just south of Lithuania, Kaliningrad was officially attached to Russia, something that was of little practical importance, at least until 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved and Lithuania and Russia were no longer part of the same country. Since then Kaliningrad has been an exclave of Russia, separated from the main body of the country, yet still strategically important since it is home to Russia’s Baltic Sea naval fleet.

But Kaliningrad residents say that being surrounded by EU member-states Lithuania and Poland make them keenly aware that their standard of living is far below that of their EU neighbors. And, they add, oft-made promises by officials in Moscow for programs to build up Kaliningrad’s economy have never been fulfilled, which helped to spark the massive rally on Sunday. Solomon Ginzburg, an opposition politician in Kaliningrad told The Guardian that the Sunday protests were even larger than street rallies in 1991 to oppose an attempted coup by KGB hardliners against Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform-minded government.

Meanwhile, Kaliningrad’s governor Grigory Boos was summoned back to Moscow following the protest. According to the New York Times, officials in the Kremlin are unhappy with Boos for not using the OMON (Russian police special units) to break up the protest before it could swell to an embarrassing 10,000 people. Last year OMON forces were flown to the Far East port city of Vladivostok to break up protests there over new taxes on imported cars (importing cars from Japan was a thriving cottage industry in Vladivostok). OMON units were used in Moscow on Sunday to disburse their 31st protests, arresting more than 100 people, including Nemtsov. But the OMON forces are struggling with a scandal brewing within their ranks.

On Monday an interview was published with a group of OMON officers titled “The Slaves of OMON”, where the officers made claims including: that they had quotas for the number of people they needed to detain per day, that their superiors often forced them to work up to 20 hours a day for as much as two weeks straight, and that they have been “rented out” to work as hired muscle to intimidate business owners and to protect prostitution rings. Officials with OMON hit back hard saying that several of the officers interviewed in the article had been fired in November and that one never even worked for OMON at all. The magazine that published the report “The New Times”, stuck by their report, and it is worth noting that the OMON charges come less than three months after the highly-publicized police corruption charges leveled via YouTube by former police Major Alexey Dymovsky. As with Dymovsky, the government is vowing to launch a “full investigation” of the OMON officers’ claims.

It will be interesting to see what the fall out will be both from the OMON charges and the Kaliningrad protests.
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Monday, February 1, 2010

More Unintended Consequences in Iraq

For those who said that the US invasion of Iraq was just a pretext for American firms to seize control of Iraq’s oil fields, there’s more news today that undercuts their claims. Russia’s Lukoil signed a deal with the Iraqi government on Sunday to develop the massive West Qurna-2 oil field. By 2017, Lukoil plans to extract 1.8 million barrels of oil from West Qurna-2 each day, the Iraqi government is hoping that by the end of the decade their fields will be producing 12 million barrels of oil per day. Iraq has the second largest known reserves of oil in the world, though because of decades of neglect of the petroleum industry the fields are only producing a small fraction of their potential.

Lukoil has a 56% share in the West Qurna-2 field along with their partners Norway’s StatoilHydro and Iraq’s North Oil Company. In recent months Iraq has been actively seeking foreign investment in their oil fields. So far Russian and Chinese firms have been the big winners, but firms from a host of other countries including France, the Netherlands, Malaysia, Japan, Korea and even Angola have all been awarded contracts; firms from the United States though have been relatively minor players in the Iraqi oil bonanza, which seems to work against the war-for-oil hypothesis.

Meanwhile in the south, Iraq is building a lasting link with their longtime nemesis (and neighbor), Iran in the form of a railroad. Iran is hoping to build a link between their city of Khorramshahr and the Iraqi port Basra; the two cities are about 50 kilometers (approx. 35 miles) apart. So far Iran has built a 16km section from Khorramshahr and is negotiating with the Iraqi government about constructing a line from Basra to the Iran/Iraq border.

Iraq’s former leader Saddam Hussein was a bitter adversary of the Iranian regime; the two nations fought a bloody war through much of the 1980s. Since the removal of Hussein, relations between the two countries have been steadily growing closer and Iran is said to have a great deal of influence over the current Iraqi government.
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