Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Moscow Bombing, CNN Blunder

By now you’ve heard about the twin suicide bombings in the Moscow subway system that killed at least 38 people. Almost immediately the mainstream media outlets in the United States pointed to independence-minded Chechen separatists as the likely bombers.

It’s a narrative though that ignores recent history. In 1994 Russia fought a bloody two-year long guerilla war against a rebel army fighting for an independent Chechnya. In 1999 the two sides resumed hostilities, only this second conflict was also marked by the use of terrorist attacks against civilian targets outside of Chechnya, including high-profile attacks that included the siege of a Moscow theater, the slaughter of children at a south Russia school and bombings of subways and jetliners. By 2004 though things changed when a pro-Moscow warlord, Ramzan Kadyrov became president of Chechnya and began his own brutal crackdown of his political opponents, many of who were the same nationalists that had spent most of the past decade fighting against Moscow (for more on the tactics and history of Kadyrov, click here).

The result is that by 2009 most of the Chechen separatists from the first two wars had either been absorbed into Kadyrov’s ruling elite or had been otherwise “eliminated”; while the official position of the Chechen government was that they were now happy to be part of the Russian Federation. Left in the nationalists’ place is a radicalized remnant operating across the Southern Caucasus region (not only Chechnya, but also the neighboring republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan) who are not fighting for independence for Chechnya but rather to create a fundamentalist Islamic state along Russia’s southern flank; the movement’s leader is Doku Umarov, the self-proclaimed “emir” of the would-be Caliphate of the Northern Caucasus.

During CNN’s coverage on Monday morning, noted Russia analyst Masha Lipman tried to give a quick thumbnail sketch of the recent history of the Caucasus region – including the important bit about how the insurgency has morphed from an independence movement into drive to create a fundamentalist Islamic state. She spent about two minutes explaining this to CNN host Kyra Phillips, who then ended her segment by saying “and there’s the Chechen separatists too.” So much for actually listening for your guests, Kyra… CNN spent the rest of the day touting “Chechen separatists” as the likely force behind the bombings.

It’s good to see our news channels actually covering important events that happen outside of the United States; it would be even better if they took the time to learn a little about the situations surrounding these events before reporting on them, rather than relying on some outdated bits of conventional wisdom.
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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Blogging Problems

You may have noticed that the site hasn't been updated in awhile. I was one of the many affected by the powerful storms that hit the East Coast during the weekend of March 13-14, in fact we just got the electric restored today (March 25th). So that should give you an idea of the scope of the problems we've been dealing with around here. But as life returns to normal, so to will the site - normal updates should resume this weekend.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Dalai Lama Takes Up Uyghur Cause

The Dalai Lama used an address to mark his 51st year since fleeing into exile from Tibet to take up the cause of another minority group within China, the Uyghurs of northwestern Xinjiang Province. The Dalai Lama called on his followers to remember the Uyghurs “who have experienced great difficulties and increased oppression,” and said that he would “like to express my solidarity and stand firmly with them.” Last summer the Chinese government cracked down forcefully on the Uyghurs after a protest in the provincial capital, Urumqi, turned violent. Officially, more than 1,000 Uyghurs were arrested, though Uyghur groups claim that thousands more, mostly young men, disappeared following the crackdown.

And in a move that further angered the Chinese government, the Dalai Lama used the name “East Turkestan” when referring to northwest China. East Turkestan was the name of the short-lived independent Uyghur nation in Central Asia in the 1940s, which was overrun by the People’s Liberation Army and absorbed into China. As you would expect the Chinese government was not pleased by the Dalai Lama’s remarks.

The state-run Xinhua news agency called the Dalai Lama’s comments “resentful, yet unsurprising,” and full of “angry rhetoric.” They went on to say that: “(the) Dalai Lama's request for 'genuine autonomy' on one quarter of the Chinese territory is anything but acceptable for the central government.” It is an odd statement for the central government to make though since the official name of Xinjiang is the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. In reality the Uyghurs have little actual autonomy in their own “autonomous region”, thanks in part to aggressive immigration policies, which have encouraged ethnic Han Chinese to settle in Xinjiang in large numbers, making the Uyghurs a minority within their own homeland. Beijing has also leveled much of the historic old city of Kashgar – long regarded as the cultural and spiritual capital of the Uyghur people, and a candidate for registry as a UNESCO World Heritage site – under the banner of “earthquake safety” measures.
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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Pirate Attacks Bloom At End of Monsoon Season

Officials with the international naval flotilla operating in the waters off the coast of Somalia are expecting a spike in pirate attacks now that the monsoon season is drawing to a close. Last weekend four pirate attacks against ships off the coast of Somalia were reported stopped by armed guards aboard the merchant vessels after shootouts with the attacking pirates.

The shootouts are a sign that the Somali pirates are becoming more aggressive in their attacks against merchant shipping, and that is because piracy has become such big business in Somalia. A large cargo ship and crew can fetch several million dollars in ransom payments to the pirates; there are now towns along the Somali coast whose entire economy is built around piracy (click here for the story about the pirate stock exchange in Haradheere). And while armed guards have been touted as one of the ways for merchant ships to prevent pirate attacks, the International Maritime Bureau is concerned about their use, fearing that armed guards on ships could spark an “arms race” with the pirates and that the pirates could resort to “shooting first” when attacking a ship. So far there have been very few deaths among the crews of the dozens of ships captured by Somali pirates – largely because the pirates make their money by ransoming the ship and crew and not from seizing the ship’s cargo. But the IMB fears that could change if merchant ships routinely fire back at the pirates. Commander John Harbour, spokesman for the European Union Naval Force, said that that the EU naval mission was also concerned about shootouts between the pirates and merchant ships, adding: “there are lots of gas and oil tankers in the Gulf of Aden that wouldn't benefit from grenades and bullets flying around.”

Meanwhile, the presence of the naval mission in the Gulf of Aden seems to be driving the Somali pirates farther out to sea. On Saturday, Norway reported that the UBT Ocean, a Norwegian-owned tanker carrying 9,000 gallons of fuel oil, had been captured by pirates off the coast of Madagascar, nearly 1,000 miles southeast of the Horn of Africa, the hub of pirate activity. It is one of the most-distant pirate attacks ever committed by the Somali pirates, in fact the UBT Ocean did not even register with the anti-piracy mission since they were traveling so far from Somalia. And according to the BBC, some pirates may also be turning inland – on Tuesday three trucks and drivers working for the World Food Program were reported captured by pirates outside of the pirate port city of Eyl. The WFP uses Eyl to move food supplies ashore for distribution into central Somalia, where many people displaced by the decades of civil strife in Somalia rely on the WFP for food assistance. An early report claimed that pirates from Eyl were demanding the release of a group of fellow pirates from Somaliland - a self-governing region of northern Somalia - in return for the WFP drivers. The seizure of the drivers and trucks marks the first time that Somali pirates have attacked ashore.
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Monday, March 8, 2010

Happy International Women’s Day

You may or may not know it, but March 8 is International Women’s Day. The day was first observed in 1909 to advocate for women’s rights and equality, especially in the rapidly industrializing workplace of the time. It has remained a day to promote equal rights and access for women around the world, though in the Soviet Union and its allied nations the day also became a sort of surrogate Valentine’s Day as well (as indicated by this Soviet-era International Women’s Day card below).

To commemorate International Women’s Day this year, lawmakers in India tried to pass an ambitious bill that would have required that one-third of legislative seats in the country be reserved for women. The bill was held up at the last minute by lawmakers from two of India’s regional political parties, but the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is strongly behind the bill and is determined to get it passed into law within the next few weeks. A spokesman for the prime minister chided the opposition politicians for keeping the bill from symbolically being passed on International Women’s Day. Women currently make up less than 10% of the legislature, even though they account for 44% of the voting population in India, the world’s largest democracy.

And since Iraq just held their parliamentary elections this past weekend, it is worth noting that by law 25% of the members of their new parliament will be women. That threshold was written into the new Iraqi constitution at the insistence of the United States. According to international monitoring groups, the women in Iraq’s parliament have better attendance and voting records than do their male counterparts. And the 25% representation in the Iraqi parliament is better than the rate of women representation in the United States own Congress, where only 17% of the members are women (17 in the Senate, 74 in the House) – an all-time high level for the United States.
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Sunday, March 7, 2010

Update on Russia’s Corruption Cop

According to Russia’s RIA Novosti news service, Major Alexei Dymovsky, the former police officer from the southern Russian city of Novorossiisk who shot to fame after posting a plea on YouTube to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin begging him to investigate rampant police corruption, was scheduled to be released from jail on Sunday. Shortly after appearing at a press conference in Moscow following his YouTube appeal, Dymovsky was fired from his police job on charges of libel and attacking the reputation of the police force. He was subsequently arrested on charges of abuse of office during his time as a police officer.

Dymovsky claimed that his superiors forced police officers to routinely report solving non-existent crimes to boost the crime clearance rate of the department; Dymovsky himself said he got his promotion to major after prosecuting a man he knew to be innocent on the orders of his superiors. He also claimed that officials ignored widespread corruption on the police force and even rented out on-duty police officers to work as private security agents. He has been in jail since late January, and could face up to 10 years in prison. RIA Novosti reports that Dymovsky will be placed under house arrest after signing a pledge not to leave Novorossiisk before his trial.

Meanwhile on Saturday 150, or 1,000, demonstrators – depending on whether you accept the figures provided by the Moscow police or the protest organizers – gathered in the capital to demand reform of the nation’s police forces. Russia’s official government Ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, was among the protesters who were calling for the resignation of the nation’s Interior Minister (who oversees Russia’s police forces) and for the end of the “persecutions” of honest police officers. Unlike many protests not sanctioned by the government, there were no reports of arrests at the anti-corruption rally.
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Friday, March 5, 2010

So Much For The Olympic Spirit

Before the 2010 Winter Games were even brought to a close, the host city’s hometown newspaper, The Vancouver Sun, took the opportunity to rip into the next host city of the 2014 Games, Sochi, Russia. Last Saturday the Sun ran this piece describing Sochi as bleak place whose Games are almost certainly to be wracked by terrorist-fueled violence. The Sun’s article is built solely on the assessment of Alina Inayeh, an analyst for the German Marshall Fund of the United States. According to Inayeh, the Sochi Games will be the first ever held in “a war zone region”, an area that she says is “home of the Chechen wars and violent feuding that surfaced after the breakup of the Soviet Union and continues to date,” and that the Games are sure to be a target of terrorists who are based nearby and “if you want to do a terrorist attack, the Olympic Games gives you the most attention you could possibly get.”

Okay, there are just a few problems with Inayeh’s Sochi rundown…

To start with Sochi would not be the first time the Olympics were held in a “war zone”, that distinction goes to the 1988 Summer Games of Seoul, South Korea, since North and South Korea only signed an armistice in 1953 to end the combat of the Korean War - the two sides have never signed a formal peace treaty, so technically the two nations still are at war. Second, while the Northern Caucasus region of Russia has been wracked by fighting, first from two wars in Chechnya and now by an insurgency in the neighboring republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia, in 15 years none of that fighting has touched Sochi, so it’s hard to argue that Sochi itself is in a “conflict zone” (Sochi was similarly untouched by the August 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia which is just down the Black Sea coast from Sochi). And finally, while Inayeh is right that the Olympic Games do provide a high-profile target for would-be terrorists, it is striking that she skips ahead to Sochi and totally ignores the 2012 Summer Games in London as a prime terror target. Let’s remember that in 2005 London suffered the “7/7 attacks” of July 7th, where four British Muslims carried out a series of coordinated suicide bombings on London’s mass transit system killing 52 and wounding 700 others. It would seem if you want to make the Olympics-as-terror-target argument, you should start with the host city that actually has suffered from a mass terror attack first.

The week before the Vancouver Sun piece ran I had dinner with a friend who was born back in the old Soviet Union, since the Games were underway the Olympics came up in our discussion. She remarked that watching the American coverage of the Games she noticed a bias by the US sportscasters against Russian athletes in the various events, it was like the Cold War had never ended she said. After reading this screed from the Sun, it’s hard to argue against that point of view.

Speaking of Russia and the Olympics, there has been a swift reaction on the part of the Russian government over the Russian team’s worst-ever showing in a Winter Games; Russia finished sixth in the medal count and failed to win gold in two events where Russia traditionally dominates: ice skating and hockey. The head of Russia’s Olympic committee resigned on Thursday after more-or-less being ordered to by President Dmitry Medvedev. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that Russia should have seen a better return on its investment in athletic training programs at the Games. He did admit though that the once-formidable Soviet-era system of athletic schools and training centers had largely collapsed and wondered aloud where the $117 million Russia spent on its Olympic athletes actually went. “Maybe the money we invested wasn't put where it should have been put, but somewhere else, where those who had it wanted it to go?” Putin said.

The answer seems to be into the pockets of the heads on Russia’s various sports federations as well as into some gaudy displays of self-promotion in Vancouver. According to Russia’s Vedomosti newspaper, Russia’s official delegation at the Vancouver Games included dozens “guests” that included actors, entertainers and politicians while Russia spent lavishly on building “Russia House”, a 10,000 sq ft temporary exhibition pavilion described as the most expensive of its kind ever at an Olympics. Meanwhile, Russian luger Albert Demchenko, who won silver at the 2006 Turin Games, had to take up a collection from his friends and family to repair his beaten up sled so he could even compete in Vancouver, his request before the Games to the Russian luging federation for a new sled had not been answered.
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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Cynicism and the Falklands

Hillary Clinton added a last-minute stop to Argentina on her tour of Latin America, and waded into that country's ongoing dispute with Great Britain over the Falkland Islands, urging both nations to sit down and negotiate a settlement. If you're wondering why a new row has erupted over the tiny, wind-swept islands nearly three decades after the two countries fought a brief and bloody war for them, than check out my latest post, "Political Cynicism on Display in the Falklands" over at The Mantle, which goes into the competing claims of sovereignty put forward by each nation, along with an explanation of why a desire to distract from some domestic problems is likely at the heart of the matter today.
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North Korea’s Own OS

“Juche” is a concept at the core of the ideology of the Kim Jong-Il regime in North Korea; loosely translated it means “self-reliance”. Apparently the Juche ideal extends even to computers and the Internet – North Korea already operates its own Internet-like information network, free from the oversight of the United States-based group ICANN, which regulates the use of Internet domains and addresses around the rest of the world. Now, North Korea is also offering up its own Linux-based OS called the “Red Star Operating System”.

Thanks to a Pyongyang-based student/correspondent, Russia Today is giving us a first-person test drive of Red Star (along with RT’s own NoKo-inspired take on the Linux penguin logo). According to “Mikhail”, Red Star is a pretty decent OS, albeit one that requires a relatively new processor and a good chunk of hard drive space (3 gigs) to run. The basic Red Star install includes a word processor, web browser, picture viewer, media player, and of course, a small selection of games like “minesweeper” (no word on whether or not the NK version of minesweeper is set in the DMZ between the two Koreas). A selection of applications that include a graphics editor, email client, notebook program (called “My Comrade”) and Windows emulator is available separately. Mikhail had Red Star up and running in about 15 minutes.

Mikhail’s review of Red Star provides an interesting insight into the way North Korea – the world’s most secretive nation – operates. It also reminded me of this story from last February about the Cuban government launching their own Linux-based OS, which they called “Nova”. The Cubans developed their own OS as a way to exercise their “technological sovereignty” and avoid, they claim, backdoors built into other operating systems by US security agencies.

The developments in Cuba and North Korea would seem to beg the question: will home-built computer operating systems become the latest tool of oppressive regimes around the world?
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Monday, March 1, 2010

Will The Resource Curse Strike The Falklands?

Great Britain and Argentina are fighting an escalating war of worlds over the Falkland Islands – that windswept collection of rocky isles that the two countries briefly warred over in 1982, and at least part of the motivation is the British decision to prospect for oil in the seabed surrounding the territory that Argentina still believes is rightfully theirs.

The theory is that there could be up to 60 billion barrels of oil under the sea around the Falklands. With license fees and royalties, extracting that much oil could give the 3,100 Falklanders one of the highest per capita incomes anywhere in the world. But some of the Falklanders are wondering if suddenly becoming one of the richest places on Earth would in fact be a good thing. The Times of London in this report on the ongoing tension over the Falklands included some of the discussions taking place via the Falkland’s only newspaper, the Penguin Times. In the pages of the Penguin Times some islanders are talking about what in international development theory is called the Resource Curse – in brief it is the paradox that while having a valuable natural resource should lead to prosperity, in practice around the world it has instead often resulted in lower economic growth, oppressive governments and a host of other societal ills. One islander remarked: “by dabbling in oil we may have tapped into the nervous system of one of the world’s most dangerous industries. One wonders if it has brought happiness and grassroots benefits anywhere.”

It is an interesting question. While other Falklanders note that they don’t want to return to the days when the Falklands were a largely forgotten outpost of the British Empire populated by sheep farmers eeking out a living (sheep still outnumber people on the islands by about 200-to-1), they are also concerned about how life would change if the Falklands were suddenly flooded with oil revenues. The Times of London notes that it will be difficult to get the Falkland’s young people to accept the tough life of a sheep farmer when there would be much more money to be made working on one of the offshore oil platforms, something that would fundamentally change the culture of the islands.

Of course they first have to find oil and then find a way to extract it while still making a profit, something that could be difficult in the stormy waters of the South Atlantic. Still, it will be interesting to see how the Falklanders deal with an oil-fueled windfall.
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