Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Bono And Putin Meet In The Forest...

The summer roadtrip is a tradition around the world, though Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's recent excursion was more extreme than most. He recently traveled along a desolate stretch of highway outside of the far eastern city of Khabarovsk. The purpose of this trip was two-fold: to celebrate the opening of the final section of highway that after decades of construction finally stretches across the breadth of Russia, and to boost Russia's sagging domestic auto industry since Putin took the jaunt in a new Lada Kalina. At least that was the official story, government spokesmen admitted that Putin would only be driving “part” of the trip in the Lada, the rest would be taken in one of the luxury off-road vehicles in the symbolic convoy following the Lada. The roadtrip came after Putin's excursion to the Russian Arctic north where he took to the turbulent Arctic Ocean in an inflatable boat with a scientific research team and shot a whale with a crossbow. The purpose of the arrow wasn't to harm the whale, but rather to take a tissue sample for analysis, so the folks from Sea Shepard don't have to worry about traveling north to protect the whales of the Arctic from a crossbow-totting Prime Minister, though it's doubtful that even the Sea Shepard crew would want to tangle with Putin. A joke making the rounds in Russia is that Vladimir Putin does not have to worry about ever having a heart attack since his heart would not be foolish enough to attack him.

It's a joke that speaks to the tough guy image Putin has carefully crafted during the past decade. It is an image reenforced by statements like the one he issued last week where he said that public protesters in Moscow could expect a nightstick over the head if they gathered in the streets. That's a troubling statement for the Prime Minister of a democracy to make, especially one where the people's right to peacefully assemble is guaranteed by Section 31 of the Russian Constitution.

But Putin has been having a rough time with public protests from the normally docile Russian populace. First there was the widespread discontent over the government's managing (or failure to manage) the wildfires that swept through wide swaths of European Russia this summer, which killed dozens, destroyed entire villages and wrapped Moscow in a chocking haze for nearly two weeks. More recently long-running protests over plans to build a toll highway linking Moscow and St. Petersburg through the historic Khimki old-growth forest came to a head last week thanks apparently to of all people, U2 frontman Bono – Foreign Policy even ran a story of their website asking if Bono had defeated Putin.

The backstory here is that for the past several years, Russian environmentalists have vigorously opposed the plans to carve a highway through the forest, which even during Soviet-times was a protected reserve because of its ecological importance as one of the only stands of old-growth forest left in the Moscow region. That protection was revoked in 2009 by Putin himself, and plans for the modern superhighway moved forward. Earlier in August, supporters of the Khimki forest planned a rally in central Moscow that was to feature several musicians, including Yury Shevchuk the singer for the iconic Russian rock band DDT. Moscow officials denied the group a permit for a concert, which the organizers countered by saying it wasn't a concert, but a rally featuring musicians who could perform a song or two if they wished. The rally went on anyway with 3,000 people in attendance and Shevchuk singing to the crowd through a megaphone since the rally was not allowed to have a PA system. That may have been the end of the story, but last week, U2 happened to be playing in Moscow. For an encore, Bono invited Shevchuk onstage where the two sang Bob Dylan's “Knocking on Heaven's Door”. The high-profile appearance catapulted the earlier Khimki forest protest back onto the national stage. Within a day, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced a halt to work on the highway, saying the plans needed to be “reviewed.”

The victory though could be short-lived. Putin stepped in to remind everyone that the project was only paused, not canceled outright. And environmentalists are saying the reprieve may have come too late anyway, since roughly half of the right-of-way has already been cleared through the Khimki forest (evidenced in this photo from the Moscow Times); some estimates say even if the work were permanently halted it could take the forest 70 years to recover. As to why authorities would allow a highway to be built through an ancient, and until Putin stepped in protected, forest is another question. Unfortunately the answer seems to boil down to political connections. The driving force behind the toll highway is, according to Foreign Policy, Arkady Rotenberg, an old friend of Putin from his St. Petersburg days. Meanwhile an alternate route that would have bypassed the Khimki Forest was rejected because it would have passed through land owned by the wife of Moscow's powerful mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Since the protests hit the big time though, Luzkhov is now supporting this alternative route – surely coincidentally the Moscow Times is reporting that his wife's company recently gave up on development plans for the land that would have been bisected by the new highway.

So while some are hailing the government's decision to put the destruction of the Khimki Forest on hold as a rare triumph for public discourse in Russia, it's quite easy – and perhaps quite correct – to draw a different lesson from the events; namely that the government cares very little for the will of the people and sees their mission not as the protection of the populace and the promotion of the general well-being of the nation, but rather as an opportunity to make a small circle of well-connected individuals incredibly wealthy by using the power and resources of the state, since had it not been for the chance appearance of Shevchuk and Bono, the loggers would most likely be felling trees in Khimki today.

Or to put the Khimki decision in context, it's useful to look at another Russian ecological treasure in very immediate danger – the Pavlovsk Agricultural Station. Located outside of St. Petersburg, Pavlovsk is a living depository of food crops, housing one of the world's largest collections of fruits, berries, and grains – many ancient stocks, 90% of which, according to NPR, are grown nowhere else in the world. So precious is Pavlovsk that during World War II the scientists who maintained the station decided to starve rather than eat the unique plants growing there.

That is Pavlovsk was precious, until a Russian government agency decided earlier this year that the station was in fact worthless, paving the way for the land to be commercially-developed. An auction of the first parcel of land is scheduled in three weeks. Medvedev has promised a review of this situation as well, but backers of the Pavlovsk Station fear the sale will go ahead anyway. So far international protests have failed to sway Russian governmental opinion on Pavlovsk. Hopefully U2 will be playing St. Petersburg in the next couple of weeks.
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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ebert And The Mosque

Perhaps it's a fitting summary of the bizarre, and quite ugly, debate that has sprung up over a proposed Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan, that the best commentary I've read on the issue was written by Roger Ebert.  This is no knock against Mr. Ebert's intelligence or his skills as a writer, but the man is renown as a film critic, neither a journalist nor a political commentator.  But rather than flog my own post about the Cordoba House over at The Mantle, I thought I'd discuss some of the issues from Ebert's piece, which I suggest everyone reads.

Among my favorite bits were his questioning why an Islamic center located two blocks south of the Ground Zero site somehow “dishonors” the memory of those killed in the World Trade Center attacks, while digging through the dirt beneath the Towers, dirt that contains the pulverized remains of those killed in the attacks, to put in an underground shopping mall does not?  Ebert also quotes two strippers who work at clubs within the Ground Zero Sacred Land catchment area (again, strip clubs somehow manage not to sully the alleged sacredness of the area the way a cultural center would, strange...) who offer up some of the best views on the whole controversy that I've heard – namely that the United States is a land built on the principles of tolerance.

It's also worth noting that this whole controversy wouldn't exist if not for some truly sloppy/lazy reporting on the part of the media in this country.  The “Ground Zero Mosque” is neither – as I noted in my Mantle piece – it is in reality a cultural center with a prayer room that is located two blocks south of the former WTC site.  Yet it seems that actual reporting in this country has taken a backseat to dutifully broadcasting the inane ramblings of Sarah Palin's Facebook page.  Once the “Ground Zero Mosque” meme got out into the popular discourse, the debate was already framed.  The media has also failed to press political critics – notably Rep. Peter King, former Gov. George Pataki, and aspiring Gov. Rick Lazio – why if Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the man behind the Cordoba project, is such a “radical Islamist” was he repeatedly employed by Pres. George W. Bush to act as an emissary for the United States to the Islamic world to foster an idea of reconciliation and to promote a tolerant, inclusive view of Islam in the modern world?

I guess decent reporting is too much to ask from the mainstream press these days.  Besides, then they wouldn't be able to cover their own manufactured controversies like the Ground Zero Mosque...  

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Saturday, August 21, 2010

Israel/Palestine - Why Now?

The big foreign policy news from Friday is that apparently the US has brought the Israelis and Palestinians kicking and screaming back to the negotiating table to try to hammer out some sort of lasting peace agreement. The big question is why?

Finding an end to the intractable Israel-Palestine problem has been something of a mania for the past several presidents; sadly it has also proved to be a fool’s errand. There's no reason to think this time will be any different: there has been no substantive change on the ground, if anything the two sides are less suited for talks than they were when the last round of negotiations fell apart under George W. Bush – the Israeli government is even more right-wing and hawkish than it was previously, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is even weaker than he once was (not to mention that his term of office actually ended a year and a half ago...). And if the two sides were just waiting for George W. to leave the scene before starting negotiations again, then talks would have started long ago, not more than a year and a half into the presidency of Barack Obama.

Given all that, I can't see why anyone in Washington can believe these talks will be anything more than yet another Mid-East fail. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu is steadfast in their refusal to put a full and binding halt to Israeli settlement construction; the key irritant to the Palestinian side (they raise a good point – how can they be expected to have a country when Israeli settlements are swallowing it up bit by bit?) Meanwhile Israel refuses to negotiate with Hamas, who hold half the cards in Palestine as the ruling party in Gaza.

Both Israel and the United States consider Hamas a terrorist organization, and both maintain that they won't negotiate with terrorists, which is true, except when it's not... The United States does negotiate with terrorists, and does so quite frequently in fact. The success of the much-ballyhooed “surge” in Iraq was based in large part on negotiating with “terrorists”, particularly Sunni tribes, who following the 2003 invasion became allied with al-Qaeda militants in the country. The US negotiated with, and eventually won over, many Sunni militias, rechristening them the “Sons of Iraq” who were not dedicated to rebuilding their country. Now, as we try to replicate the surge strategy in Afghanistan, a key facet is identifying and negotiating with “more moderate” elements of the Taliban – another group the US considers to be terrorists. And it's worth noting that the successful peace process in Northern Ireland came about after the British began negotiating with a group they considered terrorists, the Irish Republican Army.

The simple truth is that peace negotiations mean sitting down with people you hate. Or as the great Israeli statesman Yitzhak Rabin is often quoted as saying: “you don't make peace with your friends. You make it with very unsavory enemies.” Excluding Hamas from the talks alone is a clear indication that no one is serious about this process actually yielding results. After a couple of weeks the talks will likely end after Palestinian militants launch one of their home-made rockets into Israel, or a hawkish member of the Israeli government (looking at you Avigdor Lieberman) makes another ill-timed announcement about the further expansion of Israeli settlements; or both. As other nations around the world make a bid to be big-time players on the world stage, playing moderator for the Israel-Palestine peace process is a role the United States should gladly relinquish.
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More Fighting Over The Oil Sands

Canada's news magazine Macleans is out with another piece detailing the ongoing angst in the US government over whether or not to commit to importing oil from Alberta's oil sands region for the foreseeable future. The fight shaping up pits the Environmental Protection Agency (the EPA) against the State Department; the EPA wants to conduct a thorough review on the impact increased reliance on the oil sands will have on the United States, particularly in light of a recent oil pipeline spill in Michigan courtesy of one of the oil sands biggest corporate investors, Calgary's Enbridge Co. The State Dept., meanwhile, is trying to fast-track approval of a major pipeline expansion project, the Keystone XL that would link the oil sands in Alberta with the US Gulf Coast; the State Dept.'s position is that since America needs the oil, we might as well get it from a reliable ally.

We've talked about the oil sands numerous times here before. But in short, the environmental lobby is up in arms over the possibility of anything that will increase production in the oil sands region. The critique is that refining the synthetic crude produced by the oil sands results in far more greenhouse gas emissions than does refining a similar amount of natural crude oil; not to mention that a lot of the oil sands are currently strip-mined from the surface, a process causing damage to the Alberta prairie lands.

But the oil sands are also a symbol of a much bigger debate going on within Washington. Macleans repeats a point we made here in an earlier post about the oil sands pipeline projects: namely that a pipeline represents a decades-long commitment to buy oil from a specific market, since it will take years and years for the billions of dollars invested in the construction of the pipelines to be recouped. The “green energy” proponents in Washington then are dead-set against seeing Keystone XL, or any other oil sands-related project for that matter, move forward since it is in essence a pledge by the United States to buy oil, and a lot of it, from Canada for decades to come – something they say will work against moving the United States from a petroleum-based economy in any sort of meaningful way.
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Friday, August 20, 2010

Georgia vs. Russia; Two Years Later

The two-year anniversary of the August 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia passed recently with little fanfare, in the United States at least, save for a Washington Post editorial by Sen. John McCain that was largely a call to relaunch the Cold War (McCain was and is a staunch backer of Georgia). Since I've written about it numerous time before, I won't go into a discussion about how America's position that Georgia should be allowed to regain control over their quasi-independent former regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is awfully hypocritical considering that the United States was perhaps the biggest backer of independence for Serbia's breakaway province, Kosovo, other than to note that Georgia is staunch an American ally, while Serbia is not; feel free, dear reader, to draw your own conclusions from there.

Of course Georgia has as much hope of regaining control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia as Serbia does Kosovo, which is to say none at all short of launching an all-out war to retake the territories, a highly-unlikely prospect in either situation. For his part, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev marked the two-year anniversary of the conflict by paying a state visit on his Abkhaz counterpart, President Sergei Bagapsh (Russia is just one of a small handful of countries that recognizes the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia).

Once again though the Abkhazia situation shows that American foreign policy tends to be incredibly short-sighted. The US has been stubbornly arguing for the “territorial integrity” of Georgia, when in reality the smart play in the region would be to recognize the independence of both places and begin normal diplomatic relations, here's why: with their current status being in international limbo and with hostile relations between them and their former parent state of Georgia, both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are becoming increasingly dependent on their patron, Russia. Both places do have long-standing ties to Russia; in the period between the early 1990s, when both places fought civil wars and became self-governing territories only nominally still part of Georgia until the 2008 war when they made their final break, Abkhazia and South Ossetia relied on trade with Russia for much of their respective economies, the Russians, meanwhile, passed out Russian passports to many of the citizens of both regions. But now the governments, especially the Abkhaz government, are taking this whole “independence” thing pretty seriously; for them independence doesn't mean becoming a satellite state of Russia. In the official photo of his meeting with Medvedev, Abkhazia's Bagapsh looked particularly uncomfortable. The reality is that without broader international recognition, both tiny states – Abkhazia's population is somewhere around 300,000, South Ossetia's is only around 80,000 – will be forever tied to the largesse of Moscow.

To be honest, South Ossetia's future options are pretty limited. With a tiny population, and landlocked within the rugged and restive southern Caucasus region, being a self-governing Russian satellite is probably their best play (estimates are that 98% of the South Ossetian economy is linked to Russia). Abkhazia is rather different. During the Communist era, Abkhazia's Black Sea coastline was considered the “Soviet Riviera”; meaning it has great potential as a tourist destination (there are a fair number of countries around the world who have built fairly respectable economies on the tourist trade). Add to that the fact that in less than four years time the Winter Olympics will be held just up the road in Sochi, Russia; the world will literally be coming to Abkhazia's door. Of course all of this will mean a lot less to Abkhazia so long as they are compelled to take their marching orders from Moscow. So far Russia has been supporting Abkhazia not only economically, but also militarily; Russia's explanation – that they have to defend Abkhazia against future Georgian aggression - is not one you can easily dismiss given the boasts on the part of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili that Georgia will reclaim both breakaway regions. But the Russian military footprint is growing within Abkhazia, it now includes some of their most-sophisticated weapons (including the S-300 anti-aircraft system) and plans to expand a Black Sea naval station; signs that clearly point towards Russia planning a long stay in the region.

Neoconservatives, along with left over Cold Warriors in Washington, warn against Russia trying to reestablish a Soviet-style “sphere of influence” in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Of course when you isolate a region diplomatically, you help to push them into closer relations with the few places that do recognize their existence. All of which makes an interesting case for the United States recognizing Abkhazia's independence and launching full diplomatic relations with them. The United States shouldn't be as foolish as we previously were with pro-western governments in Ukraine and Saakashvili's-own in Georgia and expect Abkhazia to choose between the US or Russia – given their position as next-door neighbors, you would both hope and expect Russia and Abkhazia to have close and friendly relations. But that is something different than being a satellite of Russia. Sure, recognition will upset the Georgians greatly, but the United States had no problem in telling Serbia to, in essence, “get over” losing Kosovo; for the good of the region, it is a message worth repeating to the Georgians as well.
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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Beating The War Drums

A few quick thoughts on Iran. Just a casual look around the blogoshpere turns up an awful lot of pieces dealing with the idea of Iran - either warning of the growing Iranian “nuclear threat”, advocating military action to keep Iran from building a nuclear weapon, or in fewer instances, warning against the consequences of attacking Iran. Perhaps it’s laziness on the part of the punditocracy, since a rehash of the case for/against war with Iran kind of writes itself at this point; but it does seem like there’s a growing expectation that there will be some military action against Iran soon (something I humbly note that I predicted back in June).

Unfortunately for the pro-action crowd, their arguments are pretty weak. Take this recent piece in the Weekly Standard, which makes the case that the US has to take military action against Iran to protect the world’s oil supply, since if there was an outbreak of hostilities, it would negatively impact the world’s supply of oil (feel free to scratch your head over that bit of logic). The pro-action crowd also maintains that Iran’s nuclear capabilities can quickly be eliminated through a series of air strikes that will have no negative reprocussions. And if you believe that, I have some lovely beachfront property along the Straits of Hormuz to sell you.

Sadly, we’ve seen this movie before. Military action in Afghanistan was suppose to quickly decapitate al-Qaeda and eliminate the country as a terrorist safe-haven. Our soldiers in Iraq would, supposedly, be greeted as liberators, met with candies and flowers and Iraq’s oil revenues would pay for the whole invasion to boot. We all know how well those two scenarios played out. But sadly as Arnaud de Borchgrave reports in today’s Washington Times, those lessons of history seem to have been lost on the crop of neoconservatives still rattling around Washington DC; he quotes Reuel Marc Gerecht who says that Iran’s response to military action will be “minimal” and that an attack will “rock the system” in the region - basically shoveling the same stupid line the neocons pushed seven years ago about Iraq.

If we indeed are set on military action against Iran then, let’s hope our leaders do a much better job planning for the day after the attack as they do for when the bombs fall.
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So Much For The Sanctions...

Speaking of Iran, the whole sanctions regime endorsed by the United Nations and strengthened by the United States and Western Europe seems to be rapidly falling apart. Iran and Russia have struck a deal to begin the fueling process at their Russian-built nuclear reactor in Bushehr. Russia began work on the reactor back in 1994, but progress has been incredibly slow, and at times has stopped entirely (partially in response to requests to Russia from the United States that they halt work as part of the “isolate Iran” foreign policy plan). But now Russian officials say that they will start loading nuclear fuel into the plant on August 21, with Iranian officials saying the plant will go online by the beginning of September.

Meanwhile Russia's LUKoil has delivered shipments of gasoline to Iran this month as well. While Iran has vast oil reserves, they lack oil refining capacity, meaning that they have to import much of their gasoline (perhaps as much as 40%). The US and Europe passed a secondary round of sanctions that go beyond the most recent United Nations sanctions, which specifically target the nation's gasoline imports – the idea being that a shortage of gasoline would cause public unrest that could bring about the end of the A-jad regime (a bit of wishful thinking there). But LUKoil's recent deliveries show that Russia's not crazy about the idea of isolating Iran, who is one of their major trading partners. China and India have also indicated that they are not planning to go along with the oil and gas boycott of Iran either. And now you can add Turkey to that list as well, last Thursday the Turkish government said they would support Turkish companies if they decided to sell gasoline to Iran; perhaps another clear indication that after nearly two decades of trying to join the European Union club, Turkey is looking to carve out a niche for itself as a region power in the Middle East.

And to quote the old TV pitchman: “but wait, there's more.” Last week Iraq's oil ministry held talks with their Iranian counterparts and were “open” to an Iranian proposal to build a natural gas pipeline across their country so that Iran could start selling their natural gas to Syria. Iran has one of the world's largest reserves of natural gas and have recently been talking with Pakistan as well about a proposal to build a pipeline to their country as well. But the Iraq/Syria pipeline deal is particularly interesting since not too long ago (say the 1980s), Iraq and Iran were mortal enemies. Since the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein though, the two countries have set aside much of their old animosity, with Iran wielding an increasing amount of influence in Iraq.

You can chalk that up as another unintended consequence of the Iraq War II. Something to keep in mind if we decide to take military action against Iran, a decision that might be helped along by the continuing erosion of the sanctions regime against that country.
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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Russia’s Retiring Jihadi

It’s a strange story that gets stranger. Two weeks ago, Russia’s most-wanted terrorist, Chechen warlord Doku Umarov announced via the Internet that he was retiring as the leader of the jihad in Russia’s southern Caucasus region, even going so far as to appoint a successor. Late last week Umarov seemed to have a change of heart and announced he was “unretiring” and would now continue in his role as the self-styled “Emir of the Caucasus Emirate.” Just to make things more bizarre, in his second tape Umarov claimed he was in “good health” after saying a week and a half earlier that he was stepping down because of poor health.

Umarov rose from low-level jihadi to become head the Chechen insurgency in 2006. He shifted the movement’s focus from a struggle for independence from Russian rule to participating in the al-Qaeda-inspired global jihad, with the goal of creating a pure fundamentalist Islamic state along Russia’s southern flank. He also claimed responsibility for the highest profile terrorist attacks in Russia in the past five years: the twin suicide bombings of the Moscow subway system in March that killed 39 and the bombing of the Nevsky Express – a luxury, high-speed train linking Moscow and St. Petersburg – in November 2009, which killed 26 (though there is some doubt over Umarov’s claim to this attack).

The Wall Street Journal though reports that Umarov’s retirement/unretirement could signal a divide growing within the Chechen rebel movement. While Umarov came to embrace the idea of global jihad (ironically when Umarov joined the Chechen rebels in the 90s he said he did not even know how to pray properly), others within the movement want to refocus their struggle back from trying to create a Caucasus Emirate and back towards the more modest goal of winning independence for Chechnya. The short-lived successor to Umarov’s role, a militant named Aslambek Vadalov, is believed to represent this more nationalistic wing of the rebel movement.

In recent years the Chechen rebels have been more active in the neighboring Russian republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia than they have in Chechnya itself; thanks in large part to the iron-fisted tactics of the current (and Moscow friendly) Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. In exchange for his loyalty, Moscow has give Kadyrov a generally freehand in running Chechnya. This has included Kadyrov operating his own militia that has been accused by human rights organizations, both inside and outside of Russia, of conducting kidnappings and assassinations of not only alleged militants, but of their families as well (along with anyone else Kadyrov feels is a threat to his rule).
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Zimbabwe’s “Blood” Diamonds

On Wednesday, Zimbabwe held an auction for diamonds mined from their rich Marange field, all with the blessing of the world body designated to guarantee that so-called “blood” or conflict diamonds are kept out of the world’s supply – even though human rights monitors say the diamonds came from a region where soldiers force Zimbabweans, some of them children, to dig for them.

The blood diamond concept came to the world’s attention in the 1990s, when diamonds were found to be financing brutal civil wars in several African states. With their countries at war and with their economies destroyed, people turned to prospecting for diamonds to eek out a living. Often their meager finds were either purchased by the rebel factions at a fraction of their true worth, or the diamonds were stolen from the prospectors, or the rebels skipped the middleman entirely and just used forced labor to gather the diamonds. Eventually, world opinion turned against the blood diamond trade and a solution was sought. The diamond industry came up with the Kimberley Process – a scheme that was suppose to track each diamond from the time it was dug up out of the ground until it was sold to a consumer, as a way of keeping blood diamonds out of the world supply.

Wednesday’s sale in Zimbabwe was given its blessing by Kimberley observers – according to their representatives, the diamonds sold came from two mines in Zimbabwe’s sprawling Marange field that were fenced off from the rest of the field and that operated under the “minimum international standards.” But Marange is notorious for its alleged use of forced labor, including some at the hands of the Zimbabwean government, since the family of President Robert Mugabe is said to have extensive holdings in the Marange fields. Critics say it would be fairly easy for illegally mined diamonds to be slipped into the “fenced in” mines and then shipped out as Kimberley-approved stones. To make matters worse, Stephane Chardon, chairman of the Kimberley group noted to the Associated Press that the Kimberley Process is designed to prevent diamonds from being sold by rebel movements to fund civil wars, the Process isn’t meant to punish sitting governments for their labor practices.

In other words, while the Zimbabwe sale lives up to the letter of the Kimberley Process law, it certainly does not live up to its spirit. The sale of diamonds is incredibly important for Zimbabwe. The country is estimated to have just shy of $2 billion worth of diamonds in stock, their sale would pay off one-third of the national debt wracked up by Zimbabwe under the disastrous fiscal policies of President Mugabe during the past decade.

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Monday, August 9, 2010

Give Me My Rynda Back!

On Friday we wrote about the current wave of wildfires sweeping across a broad swath of western Russia; within that post was the story about a Russian blogger’s back-and-forth with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin over the disappearance of his village’s emergency warning bell (or rynda). His complaint was picked up by the independent radio station “Ecko Moskvy” (Moscow Echo) and quickly turned into a national sensation. The website Global Voices Online published this partial transcript of the exchange between the blogger, named "top-lap" and Putin’s response.

In short, top-lap says that under the now much-maligned Communists, his village had three fire ponds (basins used to hold water to be used in case of a wildfire) and his three-village area was served by their own fire truck, which in times of fire was summoned by sounding the rynda. Top-lap goes on to say: “then democrats came and that is when a f…-up started,” adding that the three ponds were filled-in for construction projects, the fire truck disappeared and the faithful rynda was replaced by a telephone that no one ever bothered to hook up. Top-lap claims that fire-fighting efforts have been hindered in his region by this lack of basic equipment – a complaint echoed in other villages around Russia as well. He then launches into a screed about official corruption and neglect for the people, all in the face of ever-rising taxes, before ending with a demand to “give me my f-ing rynda back.” For his part, Putin tried to play off the complaint, saying in a reply posted at Ecko Moskvy that top-lap’s rynda would be returned, and even delivered to top-lap personally by the local governor if top-lap would send along his address.

GVO reports though that top-lap is regretting his post to Putin; both because he now fears he’ll lose his job for speaking up so forcefully, and because his sarcastic demands to “give him his f-ing rynda back,” has become a sort of joke in the Russian blogosphere (see the cartoon below, a fictional exchange between Putin and Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich). Perhaps that second part is true, but a visit to his LiveJournal site (LJ is the most popular platform in the Russian blogosphere) shows that top-lap also tapped into a real vein of anger in Russia over the government’s handling of the wildfire outbreak; the vast majority of comments on top-lap’s site supported him in his speaking out over the rynda and the wildfire situation in general. And that circles back to my question on Friday, wondering if the 2010 wildfires will prove to be to Vladimir Putin what Hurricane Katrina was to George W. Bush?

Since coming to power a decade ago, Putin has shown a remarkable – one might say, Reaganesque – ability to not be dragged down by disastrous events that occur on his watch: the sinking of the submarine Kursk, the second Chechen War and a spate of terrorist attacks that included high-profile massacres in Moscow and at an elementary school in Beslan in 2004; none ever seemed to have a lasting impact on Putin’s personal popularity, even when official incompetence or neglect was shown to be at least a partial cause of some of these calamities. But with this summer’s wildfires, there seems to be a different attitude at-play among Russians. For the past decade there has been a largely unspoken (except for a handful of liberal political dissidents) deal in place between the government and the people: the democratic life of the country would be restricted – a system Putin refers to as “managed democracy” – in exchange for peace and economic stability for the people. To see why the Russian people would agree to such a bargain, one only has to look back to the economic chaos that followed the end of the Soviet Union; seemingly overnight, people’s meager personal fortunes, along with guarantees of lifetime employment, were wiped away. The liberal, democratic reformers bore the brunt of the people’s anger; a large part of the reason why the Russian Left is a largely irrelevant in terms of political power and why Putin’s managed democracy managed to take hold in Russia in the 2000s. But the other side of that deal is a government that provides a secure life for the people. Perhaps it the chocking smog, along with stifling temperatures, that have gripped Moscow for the past week; but patience with the governing elite seems to be wearing thin. Eurasia Review published this story today, where three Russian academics lay the blame for the out-of-control wildfires firmly at the feet of Putin and his 2007 Forest Law that shifted responsibility for preventing and combating forest fires from the government to the private sector. While the government maintained an expensive, but effective, fire-fighting apparatus, the private sector has failed miserably, and now Russia’s Emergency Ministry seems to be compounding that failure to bring the fires under control.

“Abramovich? Hello! Listen, do you have a rynda on your yacht? See, the thing is… You have to return it.” (Cartoon via LiveJournal, translation via Global Voices Online).
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Tariq Aziz On Iraq

On Friday, the Guardian published a two-part interview with Tariq Aziz, the former Deputy Prime Minister under Saddam Hussein, who, with his bushy moustache and thick, black-framed glasses, was one of the regime’s most recognizable figures. Aziz is currently sitting in jail in Baghdad, halfway through a 15-year sentence for crimes against humanity for his role in the Hussein regime. While the entire two-part interview is well worth reading – Aziz maintains that Iraq was better off under Saddam than the current regime, that Iraqis are all “victims” of the United States and Great Britain, and that the coalition has undone decades of progress made under Hussein – but past his bluster are two fascinating claims.

The first is that Aziz not only states Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction (ostensibly the reason for the 2003 invasion), but that Hussein deliberately maintained a policy of “ambiguity” around Iraq’s WMD capabilities as a hedge against their long-time adversary, Iran. If the “ambiguity” strategy sounds familiar, it is also Israel’s stated policy regarding the existence, or not, of their nuclear weapons program. Israel’s belief is that so long as hostile nations in the region think they have nuclear weapons, none will risk an outright war with them. Aziz explained that Saddam pursued the same strategy against Iran – the two countries spent much of the 1980s involved in a bloody war that saw each launch ballistic missile attacks against the other’s major cities and also the use of chemical weapons on the battlefield. Saddam’s belief was that Iran would think twice about starting a second war so long as they thought the Iraqis possessed WMDs.

And while ambiguity seemed to work against them when it came to US-led efforts to enforce UN weapons inspections to certify that Iraq was WMD-free, Aziz claims that the United States was determined to launch a war against Iraq under George W. Bush and was merely looking for an excuse. He accuses the United States of forcing Iraq to try to accomplish the impossible task of “proving a negative”. This goes back to an old story of US weapons inspectors demanding that the Iraqis prove they destroyed WMD stocks the Americans assumed they had rather than just the documented physical stockpiles they disclosed. It works like this: say for example an Iraqi lab produced 800 lbs of sarin nerve gas. The Iraqis would provide the weapons inspectors with proof that they had destroyed 800 lbs of sarin. But it wasn’t uncommon for weapons inspectors to say that they thought this lab could have produced 1,000 lbs, and then demand to see the documentation that the other 200 lbs had been destroyed. When the Iraqis claimed that this additional 200 lbs had never been produced in the first place, the American side accused them of obstructing the weapons inspector’s efforts. The excuse, voiced by Dick Cheney and other administration officials, was that we couldn’t “take Iraq’s word” on these things; of course the fact that seven years after the invasion stockpiles of these phantom WMDs have never been found would seem to bear out the idea that the Iraqis were telling the truth all along.

You can read the whole two-part interview at The Guardian.
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Friday, August 6, 2010

Putin's Katrina?

Wildfires are continuing to rage across Russia, with more than 600 reported to be burning as of Thursday; killing at least 50 and destroying hundreds of homes - in some cases entire villages - in the process. And it seems the only thing rising faster in Russia than the temperatures are the tempers of people in the affected regions. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has assumed personal control over the fire-fighting and recovery efforts, a sign some in the Western media say is an indication that he intends to run for president again in 2012, supplanting the current president, Dmitry Medvedev (though in reality domestic affairs are the responsibility of the PM, so it is natural that he would take the lead on a national emergency such as this).

But Putin’s hands-on approach in this case could backfire on him. Residents in many small villages across western Russia are complaining that their towns were doomed by official incompetence – reports have come in from the provinces of broken-down fire-fighting equipment, fire prevention measures (like retention ponds for water) that were dismantled and never replaced, and of fire-fighters who simply disappeared once the flames showed up. One blogger, whose comments were rebroadcast by Echo Moscow radio (one of the few truly independent media outlets left in the capital), complained that the town’s emergency warning bell had been taken down and never replaced; Putin said the government would replace the bell and that they would even deliver it to the blogger’s home if he would kindly supply his address (take that how you will…).

The Moscow Times, in a scathing report, explains that much of Russia’s poor response to the outbreak of wildfires could be because of a law passed in 2007 called the Forest Code that shifted responsibility for fighting forest fires from the government to major corporations who were commercially-engaged in the region. At the time of the law’s passing, even members of Putin’s own United Russia party, usually known for their compliance with the Boss’ wishes, voiced their concern that the new law could have disastrous results – if the corporations didn’t properly invest in fire-prevention efforts, the result could be catastrophic. The reports filtering in from the affected regions seem to bear out these concerns.

One of the oligarchs reaping a fortune from Russia’s forests is Oleg Deripaska, who owns some of the country’s largest paper mills. You might remember him as the oligarch Putin publicly dressed down last year for shutting off the heating supply to a factory town north of Moscow. In that case, Deripaska decided to shutter the town’s last remaining factory – a plant that also supplied the town with heat as well as being the main employer for the region. An angry Putin scolded Deripaska on national TV for his business practices, before throwing him a pre-printed order to reopen the plant, along with the pen to sign it. We’ll see if Putin decides to use Deripaska as his whipping boy again to deflect some of the public’s anger over the wildfires, though a sacrificial oligarch might not be enough this time. In an effort to seem engaged in the crisis and responsive to the needs of the people, Putin pledged that at least one of the affected villages would be rebuilt by this winter, which in that latitude starts about two months from now. Doubling-down on his pledge, Putin also said he would have webcams installed in the village so people all across Russia could watch the rebuilding progress via the Internet. And that may be a boast too far; if the village isn’t rebuilt on schedule it will reflect badly on Putin’s image as a “man of action”, while if the webcams aren’t installed, or suddenly “malfunction” this could work to erode some of his credibility. Putin remains very popular among Russians and is well-regarded, even when much of the rest of government is not; but you have to wonder if the wildfires of August could turn into Putin’s Katrina.
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Questioning Peacekeeping

Interesting piece from Foreign Policy’s website about Nigeria, Somalia and peacekeeping; on the surface the story is about the international community’s efforts to enlist Nigeria in peacekeeping efforts in Somalia. As Africa’s most-populous country and one of the continent’s economic powerhouses, it’s believed that Nigeria’s involvement in peacekeeping efforts would be a huge boost to a mission that is at best under-resourced and at worst in danger of outright failure. But Nigeria has so far refused, and for a very valid reason – they say that it’s foolish to send “peacekeepers” to a place where peace does not exist in the first place.

It’s hard to argue the Nigerians point. Peacekeeping missions, particularly UN-led peacekeeping missions, have gotten a pretty bad rap in the past twenty or so years (basically the post-Cold War period), marked by some tragic failures: Rwanda in 1994, Bosnia in 1995 and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which continues to this day. In Rwanda and Bosnia in particular, it’s widely acknowledged that UN peacekeeping troops stood by while mass slaughters of civilians took place basically under their noses. The UN argument is that the peacekeepers – essentially policemen in fancy uniforms – weren’t equipped to engage in combat with armed militias. Of course there is a good counter-argument to make that irregular militias are brutal when it comes to slaughtering women and children, but pretty quickly lose their nerve when someone actually starts shooting back at them, and that even a small number of lightly armed troops could have made a critical difference, though the UN will dispute this and will say they can’t put their peacekeepers into harm’s way.

But again, that’s exactly the Nigerians point – how can you keep a peace that doesn’t exist? Sending UN blue helmets (UN peacekeepers wear blue helmets to designate them as a UN-mandated force, hence the nickname) into a situation where armed militias are known to be operating and where civilians are at-risk, without the means to adequately defend the civilians or themselves makes them worse than useless; it not only leaves the civilians at the mercy of armed thugs, it undermines the legitimacy of the UN as an organization. Frankly, what’s needed in a situation like Bosnia, Rwanda the DRC or Somalia are not peacekeepers, but peacemakers – troops with enough firepower, and the mandate to use it, to restore some sense of order to a lawless place and to take civilian lives out of immediate danger (important to note here that the current Somali peacekeeping mission is under the authority of the African Union, not the UN, but the scenario is the same). But putting your nation’s young men and women at risk of dying for a notion as esoteric as saving the lives of some people halfway around the world is a tough sell in most places, which, as the Nigerians point out, has lead to the spate of under-resourced and ultimately ineffective peacekeeping missions we’ve seen in recent years.

For their part, the Nigerians are saying count them out, for now. They don’t intend to put their troops on the line until the international community gets a whole lot more serious about dedicating the time, troops and resources necessary to bring about a lasting solution to Somalia’s two-decades of strife. Hopefully it is a position that will spark a meaningful debate on the role of peacekeepers and peacekeeping missions around the world.
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Sunday, August 1, 2010

“Russia’s Obama” Redux

You might remember this story from almost a year ago about Joachim Crima, an African immigrant hoping to become Russia’s first black elected official - drawing comparisons to Barack Obama in the process. Crima’s campaign gathered attention from media outlets around the world, in large part because people of African descent (“Afro-Russians”) make up far less than 1% of Russia’s population; he was ultimately a distant also-ran in the election for a seat on a legislative council in the Srednyaya Akhtuba District outside the southern Russian city of Volgograd. But quietly last month Jean Gregoire Sagbo, succeeded where Crima failed, winning a seat on the municipal council in Novozavidovo, a small industrial town about 60 miles north of Moscow.

Like many Afro-Russians, Sagbo originally went to Russia from his native Benin for an education in Russia’s state-run university system. He met and married a Russian woman and decided to settle down in her hometown of Novozavidovo. Sagbo became active in the community, organizing civic improvement projects before deciding to run for the local council; his platform included pledges to tackle the town’s problem with rampant drug addiction among its young people and to finish a long-delayed project to link all of the town’s residences into a central heating grid.

In some ways his story parallels that of Crima, though Sagbo would prefer to downplay the similarities, especially the Obama comparisons. “It’s sensationalism,” he was quoted as saying in Toronto’s Globe and Mail. “He is black and I am black, but it’s a totally different situation.” In fact the stories are quite different when it comes race – Crima had a difficult time overcoming the issue of race in his campaign, and the feeling that he was more of a sideshow than a serious candidate. Crima didn’t help matters with his campaign slogan, a promise to “work like a negro for Russia”, which used a cruder term still than “negro” and was meant to imply someone who would work hard. By contrast, race seemed to be a small issue for Sagbo, who has been long embraced by the residents of Novozavidovo as one of their own. The locals were happy to see someone run for office, they said, who wasn’t a “criminal”. “We don’t care about his race,” said one Novozavidovo resident, “we consider him one of us.”

Sagbo has a tough job ahead of him. The town was hit hard when its local factory was privatized years ago, while heat and water supplies to many homes in the town remain spotty at best and the city’s last elected mayor was killed two years ago by unknown gunmen. We wish Jean Gregoire Sagbo much better luck.
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Save Somalia, Let Al-Shabaab Win?

That’s the outside-the-box proposal writer Daniel Howden put forward in the UK’s Independent on Friday. Al-Shabaab (who we have discussed in numerous posts here) is the main Islamist group opposing Somalia’s internationally-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the body that is supposed to return Somalia to functioning country status. But the TFG is doing a generally lousy job of it, fighting more amongst themselves than with al-Shabaab, other Islamic militias or the Somali pirates. The TFG is backed by the international community, much of what military power they have comes from 6,000 or so African Union peacekeepers, the majority of whom are from Uganda. Al-Shabaab apparently took notice of this a few weeks ago, conducting suicide bombings in Uganda that killed more than 70 people. The predictable knee-jerk reaction has been for Uganda to commit to send more troops into Somalia to take on al-Shabaab.

But Howden argues that this is exactly the wrong thing to do. Instead the world community should pull back on their support for the TFG and let al-Shabaab take over the country. His rationale is a two-part one: despite years of support, the TFG has been petty and ineffective, there’s no reason to think they will change anytime in the future; while on the other hand if al-Shabaab were to win control of Somalia, the group would likely quickly fall apart due to their own internal infighting.

It’s an interesting suggestion to say the least. On one hand, I agree with his assessment of the TFG, where there is a situation disturbingly similar to the one we have with the Karzai government in Afghanistan – that government also has been, and continues to be, hopelessly corrupt and incompetent, yet the US/NATO/etc. coalition is stuck with them, a factor that goes a long way towards making Afghanistan a no-win situation. But you have to ask, if we follow Howden’s advice, what happens if al-Shabaab doesn’t collapse? The group has pledged its allegiance to that global terror umbrella group, al-Qaeda; and thanks to the Uganda attacks, al-Shabaab has demonstrated their ability to stage terror attacks outside of their borders. So, would this just amount to creating a terrorist safe haven along the Horn of Africa, one that would be able to wreak havoc across much of the eastern part of the continent? On the other hand, if al-Shabaab does take control and does, as Howden suggests, fall apart, then isn’t this just another sad reset for Somalia, another return to a state of war and anarchy? The vacuum left behind after Somaila’s government first collapsed in 1991 was filled by warlords; when the warlords were defeated, the vacuum was filled by the Union of Islamic Courts, an umbrella group for a collection of Islamist factions; when Ethiopian peacekeepers drove the Courts out of Mogadishu, they were replaced by al-Shabaab, and on it goes…

Ultimately, it’s hard to see the US, the African Union, Uganda or Somalia’s neighbor Ethiopia going along with the “give up on the TFG” strategy (in fact it’s easier to see all involved just getting themselves in deeper as Uganda has already indicated they would). But it is good to read ideas from people like Howden, who are definitely thinking outside the box, especially when we’ve seen how poorly the whole traditional “counter-insurgency” idea has worked so far in Afghanistan in combating Islamist groups like the Taliban (or in this case al-Shabaab) and in establishing an actual effective national government.
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Persian Gulf Monster

The big mystery out of the Persian Gulf region last week was the question of just what happened to the Japanese oil tanker the M. Star? The tanker was passing through the Strait of Hormuz, near the coast of Iran, when something happened that left an approximately 20-foot dent in the side of the massive ship. The M. Star immediately diverted to the port of Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates, though no one on the ship was injured and the tanker was not reported to be leaking any oil. The initial report was that the damage had been caused by a “rogue wave” (a massive wave that runs counter to normal surface wave patterns), though these reports were quickly dismissed because there were no events – like a massive storm or earthquake – that would generate a rogue wave in the region at the time of the incident. The crew of the M. Star claimed to have seen a “bright flash” just before discovering the dent, raising the possibility that the tanker had been the target of a terrorist attack. But that idea has also been discounted, since experts say the dent in the side of the ship, a near perfect square, doesn’t match up with the expected blast pattern from an external explosive. Rather, the experts say, it looks like the M. Star was involved in a collision.

And here’s where I think things get interesting. The incident involving the M. Star is exactly the kind of thing you would expect the hawks out there advocating for military action against Iran, due to that country’s alleged nuclear weapons program, to jump on – raising the specter of an Iranian attack against the world’s oil supply, etc (as we’ve learned from the run-up to the Iraq War, the accuracy of such claims is a secondary concern to just getting the claims out there and ratcheting up the supposed need for action against a rogue regime). Yet the hawks have been silent on the M. Star, making me wonder if the tanker didn’t in fact run into another ship, specifically a ship that shouldn’t have been in the Strait of Hormuz in the first place – perhaps a US or Israeli navy ship on a covert mission? Ships from the navies of both nations are reported to be in the region, a fact in itself that has raised the fear of an impending Israeli or US/Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear sites. There would be a great desire to keep such an incident quiet, since covert operations work best when they’re actually covert. A second possibility being floated was that the tanker did strike another vessel – some damage assessments of the dent say it would be consistent with running into a wooden vessel, like the dhows or fishing trawlers common in the Gulf. The crew of the M. Star could be keeping the real story quiet to keep from implicating themselves in an at-sea collision (of course this raises the question of what happened to the other boat….).

It is all speculation at this point though, and it is worth noting here that a mysterious dent appearing in the side of a ship was also the way several of the Godzilla movies started… So until more evidence is found, or someone starts talking, what happened to the M. Star will remain a mystery for now.
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