Friday, April 30, 2010

Presenting “His Tremendousness”

I’m fascinated by unrecognized states – places that aspire to be nations of their own, but that the rest of the world refuse to recognize. Add to that list the alleged Principality of Seborga, a tiny Italian village near the French border and within sight of that most famous of European microstates, Monaco. The good people of Seborga just elected a new prince, Marcello Menegatto, an heir to a hosiery company, who will likely take the title “His Tremendousness” (which in this case refers to the monarch’s magnificence, not his ample waistline) once installed in office.

Seborga can trace its history back 1,000 years when it became a principality of the Holy Roman Empire. (The old joke among historians is that the collection of 300-odd principalities wasn’t Holy, it wasn’t Roman and it wasn’t an Empire, and yes, historians have an odd sense of humor…) Seborga’s rather dubious claim to independence today goes back to the 19th century when Seborga was accidentally left out of the unification treaty that established the modern state of Italy in 1861. Since they weren’t included in the treaty the Seborgans think that they have the right to be recognized as an independent principality today, though they didn’t actually get around to pushing the idea of Seborga as a state until a local flower-grower named Giorgio Carbone started advocating for the idea in the early 1960’s – of course Giorgio would become the first modern prince of Seborga in 1963 (just a funny coincidence I’m sure). And Seborga hasn’t really pushed for actual independence from Italy, in fact according to the folks at Wikipedia, 84% of Seborgans voted in regional Italian elections in 2001. Seborga is content though to earn a few extra tourist dollars by issuing their own stamps and currency, the luigino, which is accepted within Seborga as legal tender.

As part of his political platform, His Tremendousness is pledging to improve Seborga’s infrastructure and their economy by building a new hotel to attract more tourists to this odd little slice of Italy.
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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Ukraine: Riot In Parliament Over Pragmatic Law

By now you’ve likely seen the video of the absolute brawl that broke out in Ukraine’s parliament on Tuesday over the passage of a deal pushed by President Viktor Yanukovych to extend Russia’s lease on their naval base at Sevastopol, Ukraine (home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet). But in case you haven’t, or would just like to see it again, you can check out the video clip below.

Ukraine’s opposition parties threw eggs, smoke bombs and tried to unfurl a giant Ukrainian flag, all to protest the deal, which they say is a complete sell-out on the part of Yanukovych to Moscow. A little background: Sevastopol has been the home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet for more than 200 years; Sevastopol and the rest of the Crimean peninsula were themselves part of Russia until 1954, when in an act of Soviet solidarity, then Premier Nikita Khrushchev transferred ownership of Crimea from Russia to Ukraine. At the time, it was no big deal since both were part of the Soviet Union, after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 though it became a very big sore point between the two now-independent nations. Russia quickly struck an agreement to lease the Sevastopol base until 2017; a date that much to the Russians dismay is now rapidly approaching. Under the terms of the new deal, approved by the parliament under a hail of flying eggs, that lease is now extended for 25 years until 2042. Not coincidentally, Russia also struck a deal with Ukraine to subsidize natural gas sales, a move Russian sources say will cost their country up to $45 billion over the next ten years.

Strong feelings on the part of the Ukrainian opposition aside, the deal Yanukovych signed got rid of two lingering problems for Ukraine – the almost annual feud they’ve had with Russia in recent years over non-payment of bills for natural gas, and the question of what would happen in Sevastopol later this decade. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet makes up a sizable portion of their naval force and helps to provide security to southwestern Russia, so the base is vital to Russia’s military operations. Thanks to the long history of the naval base at Sevastopol, and because retired sailors often settle near where they served once they retire, nearly 60% of Crimea’s population are ethnic Russians. To make matters more complicated, Crimea has autonomous status within Ukraine and recently Russia began issuing Russian passports to ethnic Russians living in Crimea (even if they are already Ukrainian citizens), much like they did with ethnic Russians living in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia’s five-day conflict with Georgia in August 2008 was motivated in part by Russia coming to the defense of “Russian passport holders” (their term) living in the two territories, which Georgia claimed as their own. Some Russia experts I spoke with would not rule out a version of this scenario playing out in Crimea if Ukraine tried to forcibly evict Russia from Sevastopol in 2017 – Russian passport holders in Crimea rising up and demanding independence from Ukraine, with Russia stepping in militarily on behalf of their “passport holders.”

So by striking the base-for-natural gas deal that he got, Yanukovych managed to get rid of the gas payments that had been a serious drag on the Ukrainian economy, while also kicking the base closure question far enough down the road that it will not be a problem for at least a generation (assuming that a future, more nationalist Ukrainian government doesn’t try to renege on the lease agreement). All in all, it was a pragmatic move by the new Ukrainian president, even if it was not a politically popular one.
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Monday, April 26, 2010

Somali Pirates vs. Al-Shabab

I know, it sounds like the set-up for an episode of Spike TV’s Deadliest Warrior, but it is a real-life showdown unfolding in Somalia as an armed force from the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic militant group al-Shabab (“The Youth”) are closing in on the port of Haradheere, a stronghold for Somali pirates. You might remember the story of the pirate stock exchange established last year in Haradheere that let residents “invest” in pirate missions; much of the town’s economy relies on piracy – both in provisioning the pirate missions themselves and in the money pirates spend once they receive ransom payments for the ships and crews they capture.

And according to the Associated Press, therein lies the problem. Like their counterparts throughout history, Somalia’s pirates tend to spend their booty on various vices – drug and alcohol use and prostitution are all commonplace in Haradheere today thanks to the free-spending pirates. All three vices also run against al-Shabab’s extremely strict interpretation of Islam, and they’re heading into the port city to restore their idea of law and order.

But according to the Voice of America, al-Shabab’s motivation to move against Haradheere may be less about religion and more about revenge. In the past two months, pirates have been very active off the coast of Somalia. Among the prizes they’ve taken were a ship allegedly transporting weapons from another al-Qaeda franchise (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP) in Yemen to their fellow al-Shabab insurgents, along with nine small Indian-owned cargo vessels called dhows that were transporting loads of charcoal from southern Somalia, which is largely under al-Shabab control. VOA explained that the export and sale of charcoal is one of the ways al-Shabab earns hard currency from abroad to fund their insurgency.

Despite an international presence of up to two-dozen warships operating off the coast of Somalia, the pirates have been undeterred. Without a functioning government for two decades, much of Somalia today is a lawless place. It’s also a place with few options for young men trying to earn a living, which makes the big ransom paydays of open sea piracy attractive to many young Somalis, since a successful capture-and-ransom of a large ship can earn the pirate crew several million dollars. According to the Washington Post, Somali pirates received $60 million in ransom payments last year, an increase of $5 million from 2008. Pirates are believed to be currently holding 20 ships and approximately 250 crewmembers, most will eventually be ransomed and released, though the process may take months. And the pirates are becoming better organized and bolder; this year pirates have launched attacks up to 1,000 miles from the coast of Somalia.

There have been some reports that al-Shabab would like in on the piracy market, but a complex structure of clans and alliances have made it difficult for outsiders like al-Shabab to gain access. So the move on Haradheere may be an attempt to take over the business by force. According to reports, rather than engage in an armed battle with al-Shabab, many of Haradheere’s pirates are said to have fled the city, likely heading for another pirate port, Hobyo, about 70 miles further up the Somali coast. This isn’t the first time that al-Shabab has moved on Haradheere; in 2008 al-Shabab forces occupied Haradheere for five months before retreating and later staged a raid on the city in an attempt to free a hijacked Saudi oil tanker. But in each case al-Shabab eventually left and the pirates quickly got back to business as usual.
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Dynamo Winds Down

News out of Russia via the “Slap Shot” blog of the New York Times is that one of the country’s most venerable hockey franchises is about to fold. Moscow Dynamo will wrap up operations at the end of April due to a lack of corporate sponsorship, according to reports. Now a member of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, Moscow Dynamo, along with the mighty Red Army squad, were the premier teams during the days of the Soviet Union. In that era, Dynamo regularly supplied players to the Soviet national team, and even today continues to develop top-quality players, like current NHL star Alex Ovechkin.

Frankly, given the rich history of the team and the amount of national pride tied up in establishing the KHL as not only the premier professional hockey league in Europe, but also as a challenge to the NHL’s reputation as the top circuit of the hockey world, it seems unbelievable that Russia would allow Moscow Dynamo to fold; though it’s worth noting that the global economic recession hit Russia’s oligarch class pretty hard as well. One potential lifeline for Dynamo could be a merger with another KHL team, HK MVD, located in the Moscow suburb of Balashikha. HK MVD is heading into a game 7 showdown with defending champions AK Bars for the Gagarin Cup, the championship trophy of the KHL. Negotiations are on hold until April 30th, after the KHL playoffs are finished.
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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Delayed Criticism On Prompt Global Strike

It’s always nice to see the New York Times pick up on a story we covered here a couple of weeks earlier…

On Thursday, the Times published a long story on the proposed weapons system called “Prompt Global Strike”, something we covered here as part of the post on the signing of the new START treaty between the United States and Russia. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and nuclear reduction advocate Joseph Cirincione also picked up the story of Prompt Global Strike late in the week.

To recap PGS – the project would replace the nuclear warheads on some of the Untied States’ arsenal of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) with conventional ones, with the goal of being able to deliver a non-nuclear strike against a target anywhere in the world within an hour or two. The “target” described in PGS launch scenarios is one that is highly mobile and that won’t remain in place long enough for the US to strike with other weapons in the arsenal - say like cave-hopping Osama bin Laden (that is if the US ever got a bead on his location in the first place). Advocates say that only PGS could deliver a strike in a short enough time to take out such a target.

Critics, meanwhile, say that such a scenario is highly unlikely to occur and that the United States has such a military presence around the world it’s hard to imagine that there wouldn’t be other US forces in the region ready to strike a highly-mobile target using other means. The bigger problem, they say, is that it would be impossible for another nuclear power – particularly Russia or China – to know that a sudden American ICBM launch was really a PGS strike against some other adversary and not the prelude to a sneak attack against them, which could prompt them to launch their ICBMs at the US in reply. Such a scenario almost unfolded in January 1995, when Russia’s missile defense system almost mistook the launch of a scientific research rocket from northern Norway for the launch of an ICBM from an American submarine under the polar icecap. Only a quick decision by a Russian officer in their nuclear chain of command prevented the Russians from launching a retaliatory strike against the United States. According to the Times, the Obama administration would allow Russia and other interested countries to inspect PGS missile silos to ensure that there were not nuclear warheads aboard the missiles, though in the same article the Times also reports that the administration is looking at basing some PGS weapons on US submarines, which would negate the whole spot inspection idea.

And others wonder if PGS would be yet another case of the Pentagon throwing billions of dollars at a weapons system without knowing if it will ever work. That’s the gist of Cirincione’s piece in Foreign Policy magazine, where he reports that officials in the Pentagon have the PGS concept down, but really don’t know what the final weapon will look like. Both FP and the Times are reporting that the PGS vehicle would be some sort of “space plane” that would be able to maneuver in orbit and would carry a weapons payload that it would drop on its target. That has me wondering if PGS has anything to do with the launch of the Air Force’s super-secret X-37B (artist rendition above) earlier this week. The X-37B is described as a computer-guided mini-Space Shuttle. Like the Shuttle it is suppose to be reusable and can carry a payload within its cargo bay; but unlike the Shuttle it is entirely computer-guided, Air Force officials even claim to not know “when it’s coming back.” Since the Air Force is being so vague and since the X-37B fits the speculation surrounding the PGS so well, you have to wonder if the two are related.
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Happy World Pinhole Day

In case you didn’t know (and to be honest I didn’t until reading about it in the BBC’s “Viewfinder”, their wonderful blog about photography), today is World Pinhole Photography Day. What is pinhole photography? Like the name implies, it is the art of making a photograph using tiny pinhole in place of a camera lens. As far back as the Middle Ages, people realized that, under the right circumstances, a tiny hole poked in the wall of an otherwise darkened room would project an image of a brightly-lit external scene onto the wall of the dark room (called a camera obscura). The modern art of photography began as the quest to find a way to permanently record the image of the camera obscura; all of the earliest cameras were in fact pinhole cameras.

Today, pinhole photography remains an active niche in the photographic world. Since pinhole cameras don’t use glass lenses for focusing, pinhole photographs often have a soft, even ethereal quality to them. And because the pinhole lets so little light into the camera, exposure times for pinhole photographs are long – usually from several seconds up to several minutes, so motion tends to become blurred during pinhole exposures adding to their otherworldly quality.

For a gallery of pinhole photographs, check out the official World Pinhole Photography day website.
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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day: Greener Than You Think

In case you somehow missed the reminders on TV, newspapers and your favorite websites, today is Earth Day. With that in mind, I thought I’d recommend a book for this Earth Day: Greener Than You Think, by Ward Moore. Written in 1947, Greener Than You Think, was an early example of the works of apocalyptic fiction that became a staple of the Cold War period – but instead of the typical nuclear showdown between the United States and Soviet Union, Moore used a different vehicle to bring about the downfall of mankind, his nemesis: a humble blade of grass.

The protagonist in Greener Than You Think is Albert Weener, a thoroughly unpleasant salesman who stumbles across Josephine Spencer Francis, an eccentric scientist who has developed a “metamorphizer” that will enable grass to grow anywhere and at an incredible rate of speed. Francis sees this as a way to end world hunger by turning any patch of land into an abundant wheat field; Weener sees a way to make a fast buck pitching the metamorphizer as a super-fertilizer for suburbia. He demonstrates by turning a homeowner’s lot of half-dead Bermuda grass into a lush lawn. But the grass doesn’t stop growing, consuming first Los Angeles and then the rest of the world. Greener Than You Think chronicles man’s attempts to stem the tide of the green wave devouring the globe, all told from the jaded eyes of Albert Weener.

What makes Greener Than You Think a good novel to read for Earth Day is the way it invites the reader to contemplate how a seemingly insignificant act – in this case fertilizing a patch of Bermuda grass – can have such broader implications on the global environment. Something to keep in mind when discussing some of the hot button environmental issues of the day like climate change or the use of genetically modified crops. And as an added Earth Day bonus for our readers, here is a link for a free download of Greener Than You Think from Project Gutenberg.
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Toxic Stew and Intersex Fish

Keeping with the Earth Day theme is this story from The Guardian about an unfolding environmental catastrophe right in the nation’s capital. A study by the Potomac Conservancy found that nearly 80% of the male smallmouth bass in the river that flows through Washington DC are also exhibiting female characteristics (i.e. carrying immature eggs within their testes), a condition known as “intersexing”. Scientists studying the fish can’t pinpoint a single cause for the gender confusion, and believe the condition may be the result of exposure to what they call a “stew” of chemicals – everything from hormones to fertilizers to chemicals used to make fabrics fire retardant. These chemicals make their way into the ecosystem as run-off from farms and suburban lawns and via municipal sewage systems. Once in the ecosystem, the chemicals can interfere with an animal’s endocrine system, causing them develop both male and female characteristics or to exhibit other deformities.

And the problem may not be limited to fish – nearly four million people in the Washington DC area get their drinking water from the Potomac, meaning they too are being exposed on some level to this “toxic stew”. To make matters worse, scientists from the US Geological Survey found intersexed fish in a third of 111 rivers sampled across the country, a survey that included some of the nation’s largest waterways, including the Mississippi and Rio Grande rivers.

The President of the Potomac Conservancy is calling for a study on how chemicals affect the endocrine systems of fish as well as for tougher regulations on the dumping of pharmaceutical products.
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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Were Drugs Behind The Kyrgyzstan Revolution?

It’s clear that Russia was putting pressure on the regime of former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in the weeks and months before his government collapsed – Russia held back several billion dollars worth of foreign aid, while coverage of the Bakiyev government turned decidedly negative in the Russian press (something that likely would not have happened without an official blessing from the Kremlin), and the catalyst for the April 6 uprising that drove him from power was Russia’s decision to enact a tariff on gas and oil imports, something that caused a dramatic spike in fuel prices in Kyrgyzstan. So far the conventional wisdom has been that Russia pushed Bakiyev out because he was trying to develop a relationship with the United States. But could drugs be the real reason Russia soured on Bakiyev?

It is a question worth pondering. On Monday Russia’s RIA Novosti reported that along with rampant corruption and human rights problems, Bakiyev’s regime also had close ties to drug lords operating in the southern part of Kyrgyzstan (not coincidentally a stronghold of support for Bakiyev). These connections were also part of a feature story on the drug trade in Central Asia in the current issue of the World Policy Journal. Currently, Russia is dealing with an utter epidemic of heroin abuse in many of their major cities, causing a public health crisis across the country. The heroin is flooding into Russia from the poppy fields of Afghanistan, and Kyrgyzstan has been cited as one of the major transshipment points for the drug. According to RIA Novosti, fear that Bakiyev and his supporters could gain control over the Osh region in southern Kyrgyzstan and turn it into a quasi-independent narco-state is the reason why Moscow was so quick to offer its support to the interim government in Bishkek. Of course you can take that logic a step further and wonder if Moscow didn’t try to force Bakiyev out in the first place as a way of trying to stop the flow of cheap Afghani heroin into Russia?
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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Kyrgyzstan Update

Even though the reports of unrest from Kyrgyzstan have already dropped from the headlines in the United States just two weeks after a street protest drove the government from power, things in the Central Asian nation are still tense.

While President Kurmanbek Bakiyev has fled the country for exile in Kazakhstan, his supporters staged a huge rally on Saturday in the southern Kyrgyz town of Jalalabad (long a stronghold of Bakiyev backers), seizing control of several buildings, including the studios of the local television station. And more troubling to the fledgling new government of Kyrgyzstan, the rally in Jalalabad included members of the police force and the former Defense Minister, all protesting against the uprising that deposed Bakiyev on April 7. Meanwhile the new Kyrgyz government is telling their neighbors they expect that Bakiyev will be returned to them for possible criminal prosecution and not treated as a political refugee.

Among the charges that Bakiyev would likely face is embezzlement. Kyrgyzstan’s interim leader Roza Otunbayeva told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that Bakiyev plundered the Kyrgyz budget, leaving behind a grand total of $80 million in the national coffers – not a lot to run a country on. Much of the theft came in the form of sweetheart deals between the Bakiyev-led government and the Bakiyev family and a close circle of supporters. One of those deals now under scrutiny is a contract between a company called Mina Corp. and the United States government to supply fuel to US aircraft based at Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan. Manas is central to US military operations in Afghanistan; the new Kyrgyz government though alleges that Mina Corp. was owned by members of the Bakiyev family, including the former president himself and that the deal was little more than a way to funnel government funds to the Bakiyev family. They would like to know what exactly the United States knew about the operation of Mina Corp. and its ties to the Bakiyev clan.

There’s also some question on whether the United States will be allowed to even continue operating at Manas. Immediately after coming to power, the interim Kyrgyz government assured the US they would honor the lease agreement for Manas signed by Bakiyev last year, but in recent days other members of the new government have talked about reexamining (and maybe ending) the agreement. Russia was quite displeased by the lease agreement between Kyrgyzstan and the United States for Manas, since the overthrow of Bakiyev, Russia has been actively courting the new government, which could lead to pressure to end the lease on Manas. That ties in with reporting from the Asia Times the change in government could have a wider affect on US-Kyrgyz relations, especially when it comes to US military activity in their country. The Times says that in addition to supplying Afghanistan, the United States also used Manas to spy into China’s Xinjiang Region. Xinjiang has been in the news lately because of the ongoing conflicts between Beijing and the Uighur ethnic group (something we've followed here), but Xinjiang is also home to a number of sites related to China’s ballistic missile program. Since Kyrgyzstan also has a Uighur population, speculation in the Asia Times is that the United States may have hoped to use the Uighurs for covert operations within China, plans that are likely derailed due to the change in the Kyrgyz government.
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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Did Neo-Fascists Kill Russian Judge?

Last Monday, Eduard Chuvashov, a Russian judge who presided over several high-profile cases involving neo-fascist and skinhead gangs was shot dead outside his Moscow apartment. According to the Washington Post, both the Russian police and human rights groups in Russia believe that Chuvashov may have been killed by other neo-fascists as payback for sending members of two ultra-nationalist gangs to jail.

Just last week Chuvashov sentenced two members of the nationalist, white supremacist “Ryno Gang” to 10 years in prison for killing 20 people. The members of the Ryno Gang posted videos of the murders online and said the people were killed for being “non-Slavic”. In February, Chuvashov sent members of another racist/ultra-nationalist gang, the White Wolves, to jail for murdering immigrants from Central Asia. Now, both the Moscow police and the Moscow branch of Human Rights Watch (two organizations that seldom see things the same way) are speculating that Chuvashov’s death may have been a contract murder staged in retribution for his rulings.

Russia has seen a dramatic rise in racially-motivated attacks during the past decade, shadowing the growth of groups of ethnic Russian young men banding together in loosely associated racist gangs. These gangs often spout a philosophy that is a mix of racism and ultra-nationalism cloaked in white supremacist and Nazi imagery (ignoring totally the fact that the Nazis viewed the Slavic people, like they did the Jews and Gypsies, as an “inferior race”). The usual target for the Russian racists wrath are immigrants from former Soviet states in Southeastern Europe and Central Asia – their darker complexion makes them stand out in Russian cities, while the racist groups blame them for a host of societal ills in Russia including rising crime and unemployment rates.

While the growth of ultra-nationalist groups has been blamed, in part, on Vladimir Putin’s attempts to project an image of Russia as strong and independent during his tenure as President, Russian ultra-nationalist groups tend to view the Putin government as part of the problem – blaming them for not cracking down on immigration and for laws that favor the rich oligarchs over the working classes, among other shortcomings that in their view have weakened Russia. The open question then is just how strong are ultra-nationalist groups in Russia? Last November, an ultra-nationalist group called “Combat 18” claimed responsibility for the bombing of the Nevsky Express, a high-speed, high-profile luxury train liking Russia’s two major cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg; an attack that derailed the train and killed 25 people. A Chechen group tied to terror leader Doku Umarov also claimed responsibility so much of the official speculation quickly fell on them instead. But the attack on the Nevsky Express was unlike the bombing of the Moscow subway two weeks ago (also claimed by Umarov), which used suicide bombers on the train itself, not a bomb buried beneath the tracks like the blast that derailed the Nevsky Express. Also, politicians and businessmen traveling between the two cities favor the Nevsky – the very people the ultra-nationalists blame for Russia’s current ills. All of which makes you wonder just how strong are the ultra-nationalist groups in Russia and whether the government would prefer to focus (or just blame) attacks on Chechen/Islamic insurgents since that is an easier narrative for the Russian government to deal with?

In addition to the murder of Judge Chuvashov, ultra-nationalists are also accused of murdering a human rights lawyer and a journalist in Moscow last year as well.
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Brits Hold American-Style TV Debate

Great Britain has parliamentary elections coming up next month, and for the first-time ever the British staged a televised, “American-style” debate among the leaders of the respective parties. It might have helped the leaders of Britain’s two main parties though – Prime Minister Gordon Brown from the Labour Party and the Conservatives’ David Cameron – if they’d read up on the career of Jesse Ventura first before including Nick Clegg, head of the third-place Liberal Democrats, in the debate.

Ventura was running a quixotic campaign for governor of his home state of Minnesota as the candidate of the Independence Party in 1998 when he managed to get himself included in a televised debate with the Republican and Democratic (technically the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in Minn.) Ventura was judged the winner of the debate; the notoriety propelled him from relative obscurity into the Governor’s office. Now something similar is happening in Britain. Clegg has been picked as the clear winner in Thursday’s debate, which itself was the most-watched political program on British television, ever. Even Clegg’s fellow debaters grudgingly admit that he was the winner. And a pair of polls taken just after the debate show his Liberal Democratic Party leap-frogging over Labour into second place, trailing the Conservatives now by just a few points.

What this means for the May 6th election remains to be seen, since voters do not directly select the Prime Minister, that job usually goes to the party that wins a majority of seats. But the strong showing by the Liberal Democrats is raising the possibility of a “hung parliament”, a situation where no one party has a majority. That could either force two of the parties into a coalition government or could even trigger a second election shortly after the May 6th vote.
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Friday, April 16, 2010

Job Opening: Hangman

Despite an unemployment rate of 94%, there’s one job in Zimbabwe that no one seems to want – hangman at the Chikurubi prison outside of the capital, Harare. In fact, according to Zimbabwe’s Daily News via the UK’s Guardian, the job has gone unfilled since the last hangman quit in 2005. Officials in Zimbabwe say candidates for the job do not need any previous experience, prison administrators will even instruct the new hangman on how to tie a proper noose.

While this story sounds kind of funny on the surface and you would think the 50-odd men on death row would actually welcome the lack of an executioner, the reality is somewhat different. Chikurubi prison has a notorious reputation as one of the worst prisons in the entire world, and President Robert Mugabe has refused to commute the sentences of any of the death row inmates, leaving them stuck in a hellish limbo, some for more than a decade. At this point, some of the prisoners would like a new hangman to be found just to get their sentence over with.

But so far there are no takers. Attempts to get the former hangman to come out of retirement also apparently have failed, since he reportedly always had a guilty conscience about his job.
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Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Today President Obama wrapped up a two-day summit on reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism in the world. With that in mind, I thought it was worthwhile to take a look at the historic deal he signed last week with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev. Nuclear disarmament advocates are hailing the new START treaty as an important step towards a nuclear-free world. Sadly, I think they’re overstating the importance of the treaty.

While START slashes the nuclear arsenals of both countries, it still allows each side to have 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads – more than enough to destroy all life on Earth. And since nuclear weapons need to be actively maintained in an operational state, in reality for the Russians (and to a degree for the US as well), START only means that they’ll have to replace fewer obsolete nuclear warheads then they would have needed to without the agreement. The treaty also limits each side to 700 “deployed delivery vehicles” (that’s bombers and missiles to you and me), but the Russians currently only have about 590 deployed delivery vehicles in their military, meaning that under the arms reduction treaty they can actually deploy more weapons systems than they have right now – that doesn’t seem like much of a “reduction”.

START has had some benefits, it is a major foreign policy achievement for Pres. Obama and it is a step towards the “reset” in relations with the Russians that his administration promised last year. The United States was able to negotiate the Russians past their insistence that ending American plans for a ballistic missile defense system based in Europe be part of any nuclear reduction deal. And anything that improves US-Russian relations is a plus for both countries.

But ironically, START could make the world a less safe place. That’s thanks to some of the planners in the Pentagon who have been working on an idea to repurpose some of those nuclear weapons-carrying ICBMs into a new, non-nuclear weapon system called the Prompt Global Strike. Basically it involves putting a high-explosive warhead onto an intercontinental ballistic missile that could be used to hit a target anywhere in the world, its designers say, within an hour. A high-explosive warhead, combined with a hypersonic reentry speed, would deliver a “devastating” payload to its target. Frankly, it seems like not only a pretty expensive way to blow up some remote corner of the world (those ICBMs aren’t cheap), but also a potentially dangerous one as well since the other nuclear armed countries, like Russia and China, wouldn’t be able to tell whether an ICBM was carrying a nuclear or a Prompt Global Strike payload and thus could easily misinterpret a Prompt Global Strike launch as a sneak American nuclear attack and react accordingly. Or as Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov put it earlier this week: “world states will hardly accept a situation in which nuclear weapons disappear, but weapons that are no less destabilizing emerge in the hands of certain members of the international community.”

While the Prompt Global Strike concept has been on the drawing boards since the mid-90s, Pres. Obama recently increased the funding for its development with a goal of getting PGS into the American arsenal by the middle of the decade. Whether the other nuclear powers think this weapon flies in the face of arms reduction efforts remains to be seen, though Lavrov’s comments give you an idea of what they’ll likely think if Prompt Global Strike becomes operational.
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Russia’s Eco Car

Russia is joining the “green” automobile movement with an entry to be produced by Yarovit Motors, who specialize in manufacturing heavy-duty trucks, and bankrolled by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who’s probably best known in the United States as the possible future owner of the NBA’s New Jersey Nets. The goal of the joint venture is to produce a small, affordable and ecologically-friendly “city” car for the Russian domestic auto market.

Unlike most of the other entries in the green auto market, which are electric or gas-electric hybrids, the Prokhorov-Yarovit entry will run on natural gas. Andrey Biryukov, the President of Yarovit motors makes a good point to RussiaToday – while plug-in electric cars are touted as having no impact on the environment, the electricity that flows into them has to come from somewhere, and usually that means burning coal or oil to produce the power to charge their batteries. So until more renewable sources of electricity production are added into the power grid, plug-in electrics will just change the location of where fossil fuels are burned, rather than eliminating their use.

The problem though with using natural gas to power automobiles is that there’s not an infrastructure of fueling stations in place like there is for gasoline or electric-powered vehicles. If people can’t easily refuel their cars from a large, widespread network of fueling stations, they’re not likely to buy them. There was no mention in the RussiaToday piece about building a network of natural gas fueling stations as well as part of the Prokhorov-Yarovit plan.

If the project gets rolling, Prokhorov-Yarovit plans to build about 10,000 cars per year using outsourced components. They then have an innovative idea to franchise the full construction of automobiles out to their various sub-contractors, hoping to lower the cost of the vehicles by building them in a number of sites spread throughout the country, lowering transportation costs of completed vehicles in the process.
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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Netless in Kyrgyzstan?

Foreign Policy magazine’s resident technology writer Evgeny Morozov weighed in on Thursday about the Internet’s impact on the sudden uprising in Kyrgyzstan – or more accurately, the Internet’s lack of impact on the uprising. Morozov notes that unlike the “Green” movement in Iran, the Kyrgyz uprising isn’t being painted as an example of the revolutionary power of the Internet. There’s little evidence that the Internet had much impact in arranging the street protests that wound up turning into an unexpected revolution, nor in trying to organize the opposition forces now that the Kyrgyz government has gone into a sort of self-imposed exile in the south of the country.

Morozov’s bigger point is that the media has had a tendency to overhype the role of the Internet, particularly Twitter, in recent social uprisings around the globe. I think he’s onto something here. It’s pretty clear that during the past year the media has gone crazy for social media, try to find a reporter or news anchor today who isn’t incessantly flogging their Twitter account or blog. Once they take to something though, the mainstream media tends to believe that it is the most important thing in the world, and social networking is no different. So of course the Internet/social media/Twitter/etc. are no different. But as Morozov points out, despite all the furious tweeting and Facebook posts about the Green movement over the course of the past year, the Ahmadinejad regime in still firmly in control in Iran, and there’s little to indicate that will change anytime soon. I’d also point to another recent Facebook phenom, the “Purple” movement in Italy. Activists fed up with the scandal-plagued government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi started a Facebook campaign to get everyone to wear purple as a symbol of their desire to send Silvio packing. Rallies in Rome brought together tens of thousands of purple-clad protestors. And it appears that the purple movement had an impact in regional elections across Italy two weeks ago. Unfortunately rather than an exercise in “purple power” many anti- Silvio voters just stayed home, which gave victories to some of Berlusconi most conservative political allies – probably not what the purple protestors intended.

This isn’t to say that the Internet/social media has no role in politics – it can be a powerful tool, but it is important to remember that social media in its various forms is just that, a tool. What’s more important though are the citizens of the nation in question since they are the ones who will ultimately decide whether an uprising fails or succeeds, with or without the use of the Internet.
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Flash Mobs For Potholes

The “flash mob” – a spontaneous gathering of people at a time and place, usually arranged via text message – is one of those odd features of life in the digital age. Often, flash mobs assemble to do something silly like having several dozen people freeze in place in the midst of a public venue or stage a pillow fight. But according to the website EnglishRussia, recently drivers in the far eastern city of Vladivostok organized a flash mob to do something constructive: fill in a pothole. The dozen flash mobbers who turned out were car owners fed up with the city administration’s inability to keep up with road repair, so they decided to take matters into their own hands – literally. The mob had a modest goal, to try to fill in a single pothole, but organizers say that their larger mission was to bring attention to the city’s crumbling roads and to shame local authorities into doing a better job of street maintenance. They also collected donations for future repairs in boxes marked “for roads without holes.”
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Friday, April 9, 2010

Meanwhile in Kyrgyzstan…

As of Friday things in the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan were still chaotic after street protests earlier in the week drove President Kurmanbek Bakiyev from power. Well, at least they appear to have driven Bakiyev from power… Opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva claims to have taken control of the government in Bishkek, though so far the opposition’s main efforts have been to bring the widespread looting in the capital under control, people have reportedly even dug up and carted off the decorative shrubs from the grounds of the Presidential Palace. Meanwhile President Bakiyev is in hiding at an undisclosed location in the south of Kyrgyzstan, refusing to resign; while the country’s military still has yet to fully pick a side.

Now fingers are being pointed at Russia as being the force behind the Kyrgyz revolution. For the past several years Russia has been competing with the United States and China for influence over the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia, collectively called “the Stans”. During the past few weeks, the Russian media has been filled with negative stories about the government of President Bakiyev. But Bakiyev’s regime has long been condemned by international groups for corruption and human rights abuses, the Russian media’s sudden interest though, according to some Russia watchers, is an indication of an official change of heart towards Kyrgyzstan in the Kremlin. And while dissent among people in Kyrgyzstan has been growing for months, according to EurasiaNet, a sudden decision by Russia to slap export duties on gasoline and diesel fuel imported by Kyrgyzstan may have been the last straw. The duties caused a dramatic spike in gas prices in Kyrgyzstan, which sparked the massive street protests in Bishkek this week, which in turn chased Bakiyev from the capital.

This could all be payback for Bakiyev’s decision to allow the United States to continue to lease the Manas Air Base outside of Bishkek. Manas has become a vital link in US military operations in Afghanistan – roughly 15,000 troops pass through the base each month on their way to Afghanistan, while the base is also the hub for all the air patrols over northern Afghanistan. In February 2009, the Kyrgyz decided to terminate the US lease on the base, something that threw the Afghan mission into turmoil. American presence in their “backyard” had long irked the Russians, in early 2009 they put together a $2 billion aid package for impoverished Kyrgyzstan, the alleged catch was that in return for the cash Kyrgyzstan would kick the US out of Manas. But after a short delay, and a massive increase in rent payments, Bakiyev decided to sign a new lease agreement with the United States, while also keeping Russia’s money. This moved him onto Russia’s bad guy list and the rest is apparently history.

The fate of the current US agreement on leasing Manas, like everything else in Kyrgyzstan today, is currently up in the air.
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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Hamid Karzai: President, Smack Addict?

The statement on Tuesday was pretty amazing; during an interview with MSNBC, Peter Gaibraith, formerly the United Nations #2 man in Afghanistan, accused President Hamid Karzai of secretly being a heroin addict. He based his claim on leaks from “insiders” in Karzai’s regime and said that drug abuse could explain the Afghan president’s recent wild mood swings – in the past week Karzai claimed that Western nations tried to fix Afghanistan’s recent presidential election (more on that in a minute), railed against American interference in his government and even claimed he might “join the Taliban.” Meanwhile, according to The Guardian, Afghan opposition leader, and Karzai’s challenger in last year’s elections, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah also accused Karzai of “erratic” behavior adding that: “as a former colleague and [medical] doctor I think this is beyond a normal attitude.” Relations between Karzai’s regime and the United States are at such a low point now the rumor is that he may be uninvited to a long-planned state visit to Washington next month.

Much of the recent flap between Karzai and the US centers on the Afghan electoral commission. Karzai is set to make key appointments to the body that oversees Afghanistan’s elections. The commission is currently made up of both Afghan and international (United Nations supplied) members, but Karzai wants the commission to be all Afghani, and all appointed by him.

President Karzai has learned the secret of modern autocrats around the world – if you pick who conducts the elections, then you don’t have to rely on primitive ways of fixing the outcome like stuffing ballot boxes or beating up opposition candidates. The commission simply counts the votes they like (the ones cast for you), tosses out the ones they don’t like (the ones cast for your opponents), and certifies the whole thing as fair and legal. It’s a simple way of effectively making you president for life. Keep in mind that it was the international members of the electoral commission who uncovered Hamid Karzai’s attempts at vote rigging in last year’s Afghan presidential elections where nearly a million fraudulent ballots, all for Karzai, were eventually rejected. Though Karzai is now claiming that the fraud was in fact committed by Western nations – though he doesn’t explain why he would then be upset at Western attempts to stuff ballot boxes for him.

Finally, Der Spiegel suggests that Karzai’s recent behavior isn’t the result of heroin but rather is because of hurt feelings and a sense of wounded pride. Karzai, they say, is upset at what he believes are attempts by Western governments to tell him how he should run his country. Karzai is reported to have recently said: “I am not a servant of a colonial regime, not a puppet president - I would rather die.”
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Monday, April 5, 2010

Moscow Bombing Follow-Up

A week ago today two female suicide bombers struck the Moscow subway system during the morning rush, killing 40 people. Here are a few news items of note from the past week of coverage:

The BBC posted a collection of eyewitness accounts from Moscow of the immediate aftermath of the bombings. Among the personal reactions to the attacks were criticisms of the Russian media, which didn’t go on the air with news reports about the bombings until several hours after the attacks. In fact many Muscovites first learned about the attacks from foreign rather than domestic media sources. The story is that the Russian channels held off on their coverage until they received word from the Kremlin on how to “properly” discuss the attacks.

And part of that discussion centers on what to call the bombers themselves. The term in common usage in the Russian media is шахидка (shakhidka), a Russianization and feminization of the Arabic word “shahid”, which is commonly translated into English as “martyr”, and that has Russia’s often outspoken ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, upset. Rogozin chafes at the use of the term “martyr” since it is a word that implies sacrifice in the service of a just cause. Rogozin said that the bombers were nothing more than terrorists and were certainly not serving a noble cause. “It’s wrong to assume that that a suicide terrorist, who sent dozens of innocent people to their deaths, can call themselves martyrs for their faith. They’re not martyrs, they’re murderers,” Rogozin said via Twitter as reported by Rogozin seems to prefer the term смертницы (smertnitsy), which is also sometimes used by the Russian media and can be roughly translated as “she-bombers”. While I can see Rogozin’s point, this line of thought reminds me of Fox News Channel’s decision a few years ago (following the lead of the Bush Administration) to refer to “suicide bombers” as “homicide bombers” instead – it’s worth nothing that the Bush Administration later dropped the whole “homicide bombers” thing, though Fox does still sometimes use the term.

Finally, one unexpected casualty of the dual suicide bombings may be Moscow’s gypsy taxicab industry. Since Soviet times, many Muscovites have earned a little extra money by using their private cars as unofficial (and unregulated) taxicabs. But following the subway bombings, some Moscow gypsy cabs started charging ten times the “normal” fare for a trip across the city as the subway system ground to a halt (and who says that Russia hasn’t taken to capitalism?) This has Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov outraged; he’s calling for strict regulation of the city’s taxicab industry. But that could be easier said than done, some transportation analysts say that Moscow does not have enough licensed cabs to efficiently move people around the city and that losing the gypsy cabs could cause even more transportation problems in Moscow, along with depriving thousands of people of a needed source of income.
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Sunday, April 4, 2010

‘African Renaissance’ Unveiled

On Saturday, President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal unveiled a colossal statue as part of his country’s celebration of its 50th anniversary of independence from colonial rule. You might remember the story from last November of “African Renaissance” – a statue of an African man embracing an African woman while holding a baby aloft, perched dramatically on a hillside above Dakar. “Colossal” might even be an understatement; African Renaissance is taller than the Statue of Liberty and larger in volume than the Eiffel Tower (for an idea of scale, those banners in the foreground of the photo are full-sized flags and flagpoles).

It has also attracted an enormous amount of controversy and critique, including complaints that its $27 million price tag would have been better spent on anti-poverty programs in impoverished Senegal, that the scantily-clad figures offended the country’s Muslim sensibilities, and that “African Renaissance” was in actuality built by a team of North Korean artisans – though if you’re building a ridiculously large statue who better to hire than craftsman from the world’s last Stalinist state? In the hours before the unveiling ceremony, thousands of people demonstrated in the streets of Dakar against the huge amount of money spent in building African Renaissance, which they called an “economic monster.”

On the other hand, the dedication ceremony attracted the heads of state from 19 other African nations, as well as African-American dignitaries that included the Rev. Jesse Jackson; a spokesman for President Wade noted that it was rare for the continent to have so many leaders gather together for a positive event. President Wade said African Renaissance illustrates Africa’s rise from “intolerance and racism”. It could also prove lucrative for President Wade personally – he has cut himself in for 35% of the revenues generated by visits to the statue for his role as African Renaissance’s “designer”.
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Ethiopia Charges Ahead With Electric Car

Electric vehicles have been all the rage at the New York International Auto Show this past week, but an Italian firm chose a place half a world away to unveil their entry into the electric market. Freestyle PLC has finalized plans to start production of the Solaris Elettra in Ethiopia; a move they hope will help to spark a “green revolution” in Africa.

The battery-powered Solaris Elettra is expected to have a range of between 50 and 100 miles on a full charge and should cost between $12,000 and $15,000. Freestyle says that production will begin slowly, with only six cars being built each week for the next several months until a new factory in the capital, Addis Ababa, is completed. Once the factory is operational, it will produce up to 30 Solaris Elettras per week and will eventually employ 350 people. Freestyle, which builds renewable energy power systems, hopes that the cars will eventually be exported across Africa and perhaps even to Europe. Their slogan for the Solaris Elettra is “from a green country to a green world.”

But auto industry analysts who spoke with the BBC are skeptical of Freestyle’s rosy projections, saying that the cost of the car – coupled with the 100% tax levied on new vehicles - would put a Solaris out of reach of most Ethiopians. And they question whether an electric-powered car is even practical for Africa, given the spotty electrical service available in much of the continent and the long distances between many African cities, which could make travel in an electric car impractical. Freestyle counters by saying that a hydroelectric dam currently under construction on the Omo River will give Ethiopia a cheap, reliable and plentiful source of electricity. The country expects that the hydroelectric plant will make Ethiopia a net exporter of electricity in Eastern Africa in the coming years.
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Goodbye WorldFocus

I tuned in on Friday and caught the last half of WorldFocus, the daily half-hour International news roundup on PBS; turns out that I caught the last half of the last ever WorldFocus. Host Daljit Dhaliwal announced that the show was going off the air as of that evening. The WorldFocus website ( will remain online indefinitely, she said, though they will stop adding new content as of April 9.

With a real lack of international news coverage in the American mainstream media, losing WorldFocus is a bad thing. The news magazine, a project of New York’s PBS outlet WNET, debuted just 18 months ago. Unfortunately it displaced the half-hour BBC world newscast on many PBS stations (why the two couldn’t coexist is a mystery); and though WorldFocus couldn’t match the resources of the BBC in covering breaking news events, it did an excellent job in providing much needed context to some of the top stories in International Affairs and produced quality features on human interest stories on a nightly basis. While WorldFocus was critically acclaimed, the reason for its cancellation was financial – officials at WNET said they were not able to secure the full slate of funding they needed to continue the production of the newscast, an effect they said of trying to launch an expensive-to-produce program in the midst of an economic recession.
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