Friday, October 29, 2010

Would The US Bomb Argentina?

The setup to that question deals with the British government, which last week as part of a fiscal austerity program announced across-the-board budget cuts that included the Ministry of Defense, which will see its budget cut by 8%. To put that in some perspective that would equal a roughly $56 billion dollar cut in current US defense spending (and to put that in perspective, that figure is nearly equal to Great Britain's entire defense budget). Bearing the brunt of the MoD cuts is the Air Wing of the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy is planning to add two state-of-the-art aircraft carriers to the fleet this decade; the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales. Normally when budgets are cut, proposed weapons systems are the first to go, but the British government found that because of the way the shipbuilding contracts for the carriers is written, it would actually be cheaper to build the carriers than to cancel the project outright. This has put the MoD in the odd position of announcing that the Queen Elizabeth will be built and put into service in 2016 without aircraft (which is kind of the whole purpose of an aircraft carrier...) for about three years until the Prince of Wales is finished; the Queen Elizabeth will then be retired in almost new condition. To make matters worse, the Royal Navy will retire their two existing carriers by 2014, leaving them without any aircraft carriers in service for three years and without any with actual airplanes aboard ship for almost six.

This situation has some in Britain – pundits, defense analysts, and judging by the comment boards of English newssites a fair number of average citizens – quite upset. The question being asked is how Great Britain can consider itself a world power without a way of projecting that power around the globe in the way that only a fully functioning aircraft carrier can. More specifically, some are asking how (or even if) Great Britain will be able to protect some of their last remaining far-flung bits of Empire, and here talk generally falls on the Falkland Islands. In 1981 a British fleet sailed halfway across the globe to wrestle the Falklands away from an invading force from Argentina (the two countries have spent nearly a century and a half of wrangling over possession of the islands, for a more detailed history, check this earlier post about the Falklands situation). Now, critics in Britain say that the MoD cuts would make a repeat of the 1981 flotilla an impossibility, while also noting that reclaiming the Falklands (or Las Malvinas as the Argentineans call them) is a recurring motif in Argentine politics and that the islands themselves may sit on rich oil and natural gas reserves, making them potentially very valuable real estate.

Some in America are upset by the British cuts as well since the British have been arguably the most active and most valuable members of the military coalitions assembled by the United States in recent years – the 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia, the first Gulf War, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the ongoing GWOT mission in Afghanistan. The MoD cuts though make it less likely that the British will be able to participate in future American-led coalitions like they have in the past, a fact upsetting the military minds in the United States.

And all of that brings us to the question asked in the headline; does that kind of partnership go both ways? In none of the coalition examples listed before was there a direct threat to the British homeland, people or interests abroad, yet Great Britain was an active and valued participant in what were essentially American military campaigns (particularly the “Global War on Terror” and the 2003 Iraq War). So what if the British asked the United States to join in a military campaign to defend their interests, would we join? For the sake of argument, let's assume that its 2015 and after a quick naval landing Argentina has retaken the Falkland Islands. The British government has vowed to retake the islands and has assembled another armada for the long sail across the Atlantic, just as they did in 1981. The difference is in 2015 the British don't have a functioning aircraft carrier, meaning they can't protect the armada from the air or support their Marines in a landing to retake the Falklands; in modern military terms, this makes the British mission nearly suicidal. The British ask the United States to join their coalition by adding one of our aircraft carriers to the fleet and providing air support. What would our answer be?

Almost certainly, it would be no. In terms of the Falklands/Malvinas issue, the United States historically has not taken a position – not wanting to offend either our long-standing allies the British, nor wanting to upset the nations of Latin America (or to provide any anti-colonial fodder for Latin America's more leftists leaders like Hugo Chavez by backing the British claim). Since the United States has spent the last century telling the two sides to “talk” about the Falklands/Malvinas issue and didn't support the British in the 1981 operation, it's impossible to see the US agreeing to go to war with Argentina on Britain's behalf.

Of course, from the British side you'd have to wonder what was the point of backing America on all of those earlier military coalitions if the US isn't going to support you when you need them the most. It is an interesting foreign policy question indeed...
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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Is The Anti-Socialist Tea Party Being Funded By European Socialists?

According to a new survey by a European pro-environment group the answer is yes, sort of. The Climate Action Network Europe (or Cane) conducted an analysis of campaign contributions made by major European firms and found that several of Europe's biggest carbon-emitters – including BP and Germany's BASF and Bayer – were major contributors to two of the Tea Party's favorite Senators; Oklahoma's James Inhofe and South Carolina's Jim DeMint, who received nearly a quarter of a million dollars from the European companies. DeMint is just about the closest thing the diffuse Tea Party has to a national spokesman, it's worth noting that he recently finished just behind the Queen of the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, in a straw poll about who the Tea Partiers would like to see run for president in 2012.

In addition to their status as Tea Party favorites, DeMint and Inhofe are two of the biggest climate change skeptics in the United States Senate, which is likely what's driving the contributions from big emitters like BP and BASF – given the United States' status as the world's largest economy (for now at least), whatever climate change legislation is adopted here will have an affect on business around the world. BP, BASF, Bayer, etc are likely then trying to nip any potential legislation in the bud by supporting climate skeptics in the US Senate.

The issue also raises some interesting questions for the Tea Party crowd. One of their motivating factors is a desire to save America from the socialism that, they say, is taking over the country. Of course among those on the Right, there's no bigger symbol of socialism in the world today than Europe, whose tax structure and generous social programs put them firmly in the “socialist” category (at least in the minds of the Right). So what does it say when American politicians take support from this hotbed of socialism (even if it is from European companies)? And second, how do politicians taking donations from European sources square with the Tea Party's self-stated mission of “taking our country back”? Seems like if anything they would be against politicians becoming beholden to foreign sources of money...

The CANE report does seem to offer some support for one of the claims made by the Democrats in this election cycle, namely that foreign sources are pouring campaign donations into races in 2010, a claim refuted by a number of Republican sources.
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AU: Seal Off Somalia

Though they haven't been in the news lately, it seems the Somali pirates haven't given up their pirating ways. Over the weekend pirates seized a German cargo ship and a Singapore-flagged liquefied gas tanker heading from Kenya to the Seychelles Islands. There has been some confusion in the press reports over whether the Singapore ship, the MV York, was carrying liquefied natural gas (LNG) or a type of liquid gas, like gasoline. For the pirates it probably doesn't make a difference, their standard operating procedure is to hold a ship and crew for ransom, not to try to offload and sell the ship's cargo.

The capture of the two ships likely points to a seasonal uptick in piracy off the Somali coast, which tends to increase at the end of the year when the weather patterns in the Indian Ocean become more favorable to the pirates. The attacks also mark some of the furthest the pirates have ventured fropm Somalia so far – the German ship was seized nearly 1,200 miles from the coast of Kenya, while the MV York was taken 170 miles from Mombasa, which is near Kenya's southern border – far from Somalia. The European Union Naval Force, which is helping to coordinate anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean said they believe the Somali pirates currently hold close to 20 ships and nearly 400 sailors.

The African Union meanwhile has formally requested that the United Nations endorse a military mission to completely seal off Somalia's borders from land and see. Under the plan suggested by the AU, a UN-led naval force will engage in a total blockade of Somalia's 1,500 miles of coastline both to try to halt piracy in the Indian Ocean and to stop the flow of weapons and foreign fighters into Somalia. On land a contingent of 6,000 AU peacekeepers is fighting a running battle with Islamist militias in the capital, Mogadishu, all in an attempt to keep Somalia's fragile Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in power. The AU would like this peacekeeping force bolstered to 20,000; funded in large part by the United Nations. So far the AU troops have had their hands full trying to maintain control over just a portion of Mogadishu; expanding this security operation out into the countryside will be impossible without additional troops and funding, and so long as Somalia remains without a functioning government, Somalia will remain a haven for pirates and possibly al-Qaeda-linked militias.

The African Union plan is supported by the Somali TFG's foreign ministry, no word yet on whether the United Nations will throw their support behind the plan as well.
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Monday, October 25, 2010

For Southern Sudan, Anthem First, Independence Second

Officials in Southern Sudan held a contest on Sunday to select music for their upcoming national anthem; the lyrics and title, “Land of Cush” (Southern Sudan is in the region of the biblical land of Kush) have already been chosen. Of course Southern Sudan doesn't actually exist yet, the region is scheduled to have a referendum on independence from Sudan in early January. It seems pretty clear how the Southern Sudanese expect that vote to go...

Kidding aside, the situation in Southern Sudan could prove to be the first international crisis of 2011. While brutal fighting in the Darfur region of western Sudan has gotten the majority of the international community's attention for the past few years, Southern Sudan waged their own brutal insurrection against Sudan's Khartoum-based government. In both Southern Sudan and Darfur, the basic motivation has been the same – opposition to attempts by the Khartoum government to impose Islamic-based law on these largely non-Muslim areas. Fighting in Southern Sudan came to a halt in 2005 when a cease-fire agreement was negotiated between the government of Sudan and the leaders of the Southern Sudan insurgency. On the main issue – independence for Southern Sudan – the two sides punted, pushing off a final decision to be determined by a referendum far off in the future, in 2011. The Southern Sudanese side is waiting a whole nine days into 2011 before holding that vote.

At least before trying to hold the vote that is. Sudan's government is furious over the proposed referendum, even though they had agreed to it as part of the cease-fire deal. The reason is simple, Southern Sudan seems ready to breakaway (as evidenced by the whole national anthem contest), and Southern Sudan holds the bulk of Sudan's oil reserves. The government in Khartoum has been loudly suggesting that they won't recognize the outcome of the January 9 vote, trying to lay the groundwork that the vote – which hasn't occurred yet – was fraudulent, and trying to get the international community not to recognize the outcome. All of which suggests that Sudan is not going to quietly standby while the southern third of their nation, and much of their oil reserves, goes off on its own.
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Moscow Allows Protest (For Once)

An odd thing happened in Moscow over the weekend, a group of about 500 people gathered in a political protest. What makes this protest unusual is that it was the first rally against the Putin government in several years to receive an official permit from authorities in Moscow. Officials in Moscow regularly denied permits to such rallies in the past, and regularly sent in the riot police to break-up even the smallest gatherings. But Saturday's rally – organized by the group “Five Demands” (one of which is for the resignation of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin) and which featured former chess champion turned political activist Garry Kasparov – went off without incident.

That could be part of a strategy on the part of the Russian government to blunt international criticism over a lack of political freedom in Russia, namely to blame previous heavy-handed tactics on that mean old Yuri Luzhkov, Moscow's now former mayor. Luzhkov was deposed by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev after a brief power-struggle. Luzhkov, who served as mayor of Moscow for nearly two decades and who oversaw the city's transformation from drab Soviet capital to glitzy European metropolis, was widely regarded as Russia's third most-powerful politician behind only Medvedev and Putin. One critique of Luzhkov was that he, on occasion, used Moscow's police force as his own private militia, quickly breaking up public gatherings that he did not approve of. It seems like the Kremlin is eager to push this narrative when it comes to political gatherings in the capital.

But the news for the political opposition isn't all good. UPI is reporting that last week the Russian Duma amended a law to bar people merely charged with disorderly conduct from being allowed to organize political events. Considering that mass arrests, often with few or no prosecutions, has been a tactic used to breakup unwanted political rallies in Moscow for years now, this law would in theory cover most of the political opposition's organizers, further restricting freedom of speech in Russia according to Lev Ponomarev, leader of the group For Human Right.
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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

An Illusion Of Peace

Some quick thoughts on the suicide attacks this morning in Chechnya; you can read full reports of the event here and here, but to sum it up, this morning a combination of suicide bombers and suicide gunmen attacked the parliament building in Grozny, the capital of the Russian Republic of Chechnya, leaving at least four dead and at least 17 others injured. The high-profile attack punctured the idea promoted since last year by both Russian officials and Chechnya's President Ramzan Kadyrov that after a decade and a half of bitter fighting, Chechnya was finally at peace.

Of course peace in this southwest corner of Russia was and is an illusion. Even if we accept Kadyrov's claims that he had finally pacified the Chechen insurgency, the reality is it was more like squeezing a balloon – Kadyrov's brutal tactics may have briefly calmed Chechnya, but the militants merely spilled over to neighboring republics like Ingushetia and Dagestan, where terror attacks against government offices, security forces and frequently the general public are a common occurrence. Now it appears that Kadyrov can't even keep the peace in Chechnya; the attack on the parliament was a deliberate attempt by the militants to give his ruling regime a black eye, just as their attack in August against Kadyrov's hometown, which left 12 dead, was also meant to do.

Observers of events in the region, and in their more candid moments even Russian officials including President Dmitry Medvedev, say that the militancy in the Caucasus Mountains region along Russia's southern border is in large part a reaction to brutal tactics on the part of the local security forces, and is fueled by the rampant corruption, poverty and lack of possibility for future development (that being hindered by the first two factors) endemic in the region. In September, the de facto leader of the Chechen militants, Doku Umarov, oddly retired from jihading, only to unretire a few days later – it's suggested that Umarov's retirement/unretirement points to a split within the militant community between those who see their struggle as part of an al-Qaeda-linked global jihad and those who want to return to the militancy's original goal of securing independence for Chechnya (Umarov is in the global jihad camp, and has proclaimed himself the “Emir of the North Caucasus”). How the attack on the Chechen Parliament factors into this struggle remains to be seen. It also remains to be seem whether the Kremlin will decide that Kadyrov is more trouble than he's worth. Moscow has let Kadyrov have a free hand in running Chechnya in return for keeping the republic peaceful and firmly in the Russian camp; Kadyrov meanwhile has been accused of rampant human rights violations, has endorsed the oppression of women and introduced elements of Islamic fundamentalism into the governing of Chechnya.

In short, he's become a real embarrassment for Moscow, though the Kremlin seemed willing to put with him so long as he kept a lid on Chechnya. But now that Chechnya is starting to again show signs of boiling over will Moscow's attitude towards Kadyrov change? And would replacing Kadyrov with a less brutal governor truly help to reduce the militancy in the North Caucasus?
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Other People's Backyards

Two recent posts/events got me thinking (again) about America's foreign policy role in the world of 2010. The first was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent swing through the Balkans, with stops in Kosovo and Bosnia (her stop in Kosovo led to what might be the foreign policy picture of the year, her posing in front of the statue the Kosovars put up to honor her husband, former President Bill Clinton, in their capital, Pristina). Part of her trip was the usual mission of just flying the US flag in some part of the world to let them know that America still remembers them; the other rationale for the trip though was to highlight the unresolved problems of the region and to gently prod the Europeans into taking action. While Kosovo may have won its independence from Serbia three years ago, the country is still in a delicate condition with foreign aid, expat remittances and a thriving black market accounting for much of Kosovo's economy; in Bosnia the situation is even more precarious, 15 years after the end of the bloody Bosnian conflict, the nation remains really two separate states – one Serbian, one Croatian/Bosnian Muslim – loosely bound together by a weak central government. The second story was this one from RealClearWorld about Afghanistan, which argues that the US presence in that country has brought enough stability to allow regional Asian powers – namely China and India – to start their own economic investment in the place. China, for example, is looking to invest in natural gas pipelines that would run from Turkmenistan (holder of one of the world's largest reserves of natural gas) through northern Afghanistan to help fuel China's economic growth, they are also investing in a massive copper mine south of Kabul.

And that brings us to the question; should the United States really be pursuing security goals (and in the case of Afghanistan sacrificing the lives of our soldiers and hundreds of billions of dollars) to make the backyards of Europe and Asia safe places? Shouldn't these be projects for the regional powers in Europe and Asia to undertake? Or in other words, if China wants Afghanistan to be safe enough for pipeline routes and mineral exports, why shouldn't they send in their own soldiers and spend their own budget on the project? If Europe is serious about making the Continent a safe and secure place (which was the point of the whole European Union project), shouldn't they take the lead in Bosnia and Kosovo?

Past the theoretical question of whether the United States should be involved in bringing order to places on the other side of the globe, there is the practical question as well. The Afghan mission has been hugely expensive both in terms of money and the lives of soldiers; yet nearly a full decade into the mission and the primary goal – the capture or elimination of Osama bin Laden still has not been achieved, nor is Afghanistan yet a stable and secure member of the global community of nations; it's hard to imagine that another year or two or five will appreciably change that situation. In the Balkans, 15 years ago through tough negotiations, the United States managed to stop the brutal war in Bosnia, but stopping a war is not the same as securing a lasting peace. The Dayton Accords, which stopped the fighting in Bosnia, also set up the dual state system and enshrined the Serbian entity, the Republika Srpska, as a political system – a situation that has led to the deadlock that grips Bosnia today and has observers worried that nationalists on both sides could drag the region back into conflict. In Kosovo, the United States again dragged a reluctant Europe into stopping the conflict there as well (this time via a “NATO-led” aerial bombing campaign of Serbia conducted mostly by the United States Air Force), yet little has been done to make Kosovo into a real and sustainable state.

Logically the Chinese, Indians, Russians and other neighboring lands should be more concerned with the growth and stability of Afghanistan than the United States; ditto for Bosnia/Kosovo and Europe. Yet in both cases, the United States is put in the position of taking the lead. Perhaps it's time to let other people deal with the problems in their own backyards.
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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Borat and Chechnya

Remember in the movie Borat when after traveling across the country to meet his dreamgirl, model/actress Pamela Anderson, he decides to propose marriage in the “traditional Kazak manner” by tossing her into a giant sack and hauling her off over his shoulder? It was a pretty funny scene. What's not funny (and frankly almost not believable) is that this tradition of bride-napping is actually practiced, and as the BBC reports with growing frequency, in Chechnya; what's even less funny is the official response to this problem from the Chechen government.

It seems that in Chechnya if you're a man who sees an attractive woman walking on the street, it's culturally permissible for you (or for goons hired on your behalf) to grab her, toss her in the back of a car and drive off – in effect kidnapping her. British filmmaker Lucy Ash, who recently made a film on the bride-stealing tradition, said she has footage of such bride-nappings occurring in broad daylight on the streets of the capital, Grozny. What typically happens next is stranger still – usually the abducted girls' family contacts the abductors, typically using a local mullah as an intermediary, not to demand the return of the girl, but to negotiate a settlement for her. Abducted brides can find themselves married off to their kidnapper within a few days.

Bride-napping was supposedly part of Chechnya's rough-and-tumble past, but Ash reports for the BBC that most indications in Grozny are that the trend is increasing. And Chechen officials seem to not be too concerned about the problem. Punishment for bride-napping had been a fine of about $1,000. Recently the punishment was increased to a fine of about $40,000 – a sharp increase to be sure, but as one Chechen businessman told the BBC, it is an amount a rich man would likely be willing to pay if the girl he fancied was pretty enough.

It is yet another in a long list of human rights violations in this little corner of Russia, and it's unlikely the officials in Moscow will do anything to stop it. As I discussed in this post from last year; Moscow struck a deal with Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov – so long as he kept terrorism quiet in Chechnya (by whatever means necessary), Moscow would generally stay out of his hair. So far, they've kept up the bargain and looked the other way over numerous human rights violations, many of which have nothing to do with fighting terrorism. Before the two Chechen-Russian conflicts, which began in the mid-1990s and “officially” ended last year, Chechnya practiced a fairly moderate brand of Islam. The Chechen opposition though became radicalized during the second conflict, which saw their leaders change their demands from independence for Chechnya to a desire to carve a fundamentalist Islamic caliphate out of southern Russia. Since brutally suppressing the insurgency, Kadyrov himself has introduced a more fundamentalist strain of Islam into Chechnya, partially to try to win over the now-radical militants and partially to solidify his own grip on the republic. Under his rule things like polygamy and honor killings have become acceptable in Chechnya, even though they are direct violations of Russian law.

The BBC piece ends with a story that since the summer unknown assailants have been shooting paintball guns at women who go around the streets of Grozny with their heads uncovered, a “warning” the gunmen say. Kadyrov took to Chechen television, not to condemn the attacks but rather to “express [his] gratitude” towards the attackers.
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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Hezbollah's Green Gambit

Environmental advocates have a new ally, but they may not want him.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, head of Hezbollah – a group considered by the United States and Israel to be one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations in the Middle East – dedicated much of a speech on Saturday to promoting environmental causes in Lebanon.  Nasrallah cited climate change as one of the greatest threats to mankind today and made the case that being pro-Green is also Islamic, citing events from Muslim history, as well as Islamic scripture to bolster his claims.  According to Reuters, Nasrallah argued that reforestation is in Lebanon's national security interests and announced that Hezbollah's development arm, Jihad al-Bina, recently planted their millionth sapling in the country.  It's worth noting that Lebanon was once a heavily-forested land, their flag even features a cedar tree, the national symbol, and that the pharaohs of ancient Egypt imported Lebanese timber for some of their signature construction projects.   But centuries of agricultural mismanagement, years of poorly-planned development and, as Nasrallah made a point of mentioning, Israeli deforestation efforts in the southern part of the country – meant to deny guerillas cover from which to launch attacks – have left large parts of Lebanon barren.

It was an odd message to hear from an organization best known in the United States as Israel as a hardcore terrorist group.  But Nasrallah's comments point to the complexity of the situation in Lebanon, where Hezbollah has taken pains to establish themselves as a legitimate political movement and has provided much of the redevelopment funding and expertise in the southern part of the country, which was devastated by the Hezbollah-Israel conflict in 2006.
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Get Your War On: Venezuela Edition

You would think that with the United States already bogged down in two unwinnable military engagements (Iraq and Afghanistan) the punditocracy wouldn't be advocating for a third, yet the sabre-rattling towards Iran, and occasionally North Korea, would indicate that two conflicts just aren't enough for some people. Now you can add Venezuela to that list, which as Rizwan Ladha alleges in the Huffington Post, is actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program in partnership with that other nuclear bogeyman, Iran.

Ladha's post is heavy on the rhetoric, light on facts and is largely a rehash of an earlier column written by Roger Noriega, whose own motives in raising allegations against Venezuela must be carefully scrutinized given Noriega's association with the Neoconservative movement and his long history in battling Leftist governments in Latin America (Noriega was an Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs under President George W. Bush and is currently a fellow with the conservative American Enterprise Institute). Among the flaws in Ladha's article are his misidentifying Venezuela as a Southern Hemisphere nation (it's north of the equator) and his implication that the southern half of the globe has always been a nuclear-free zone – South Africa developed their own nuclear weapons, which they gave up at the end of the country's Apartheid regime. Ladha's biggest flaw though is failing to offer up any truly compelling evidence that Venezuela and Iran are collaborating on building nukes. Iran insists that their nuclear program is designed for the peaceful generation of electrical power only; while the world may have its doubts on the Iranian claims, there's no definitive proof to refute them. So right now it's a stretch to say that Iran is developing nukes, it's an even bigger stretch to say that Iran has reached such an advanced level of expertise that they are in a position to help another country establish a nuclear weapons program of their own.

Ladha ends his piece by saying that even if Venezuela is trying to build a nuclear bomb, there's really nothing we can do about it. While this may be correct, talking about a leader like Hugo Chavez – widely regarded in the United States as someone who is both erratic and staunchly anti-American – getting a nuclear bomb is something political leaders in the US aren't going to stand for, recall how the most-effective bit of agitprop used by the Bush administration to build the dubious case for war with Iraq were the claims that Saddam Hussein was actively pursuing his own nuclear weapons program. You can't just raise the spectre of the nuclear genie in the hands of one of America's “enemies” and then tell people to live with it, something I suspect that deep down Ladha and Noriega know all too well.
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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Putin's Dueling Calendars

There are birthday presents and then there are birthday presents... A group of female journalism students from Moscow State University decided that the best way to celebrate the 58th birthday of President Vladimir Putin was to make him a calendar, so the twelve young ladies put on their best lingerie, struck their best poses and the result is “We Love You, Vladimir Vladimirovich” a glossy twelve-month calendar garnering a lot of stares and more than a few laughs thanks to the mildly suggestive (ok, blatantly suggestive) odes each student gives to Mr. Putin (the Toronto Sun kindly provides a month-by-month view).

Past the laugh-and-leer factor of “We Love You, Vladimir Vladimirovich”, the calendar points to a few real problems, not the least of which is that Moscow State Univ. is suppose to be Russia's top center for higher education, its journalism school well-respected and Russia itself is suppose to be a country with a free and independent press (a point many will argue in reality isn't the case). One of the first things I learned in J-school was the idea of objectivity; but it's hard to maintain the image that you'll take an objective view of the government though when you're posing in your underwear while pledging your love for the president – image if a group of Columbia University journalism students made a bikini calendar dedicated to Barack Obama; Fox News would call it the death of the American Press...  Not to mention that the girls of “We Love You...” come off as at best a bunch of airheads and at worst as being incredibly indifferent to recent national tragedies. My favorite comment came from Nastya (aka Miss November) who said to Putin: “I don’t need a fire bell, I need you.” Along with being a come-on to a guy old enough (by a fair margin) to be her father, it also referenced the devastating wildfires that scorched large swaths of western Russia this summer and the Internet protest of a blogger whose village burned thanks to the poor fire-fighting response of the government (see “Give Me Back My Rynda” for the full story) – ironically his post was an effective use of the freedom of the press, a point likely lost on the Putin calendar girls.

In response, another group of female MSU J-students put out their own calendar in protest to “We Love You, Vladimir Vladimirovich”; theirs trades in the lingerie for conservative business attire accented with crosses of tape over their mouths – a protest, they say, against the real lack of freedom of the press in Russia. Rather than come-ons to Putin, the alternative asks tough questions about topics Putin would probably like to avoid: one asks "Who killed Anna Politkovskaya,” referencing the respected Russian journalist murdered outside of her home (Politkovskaya herself was a graduate from MSU's journalism school), a case that is still unsolved; another asks "When will the next terrorist attack be?"; while a third wonders "When will Khodorkovsky be freed?", citing the case of the former CEO of Yukos, once Russia's largest corporation and a man many say was jailed to keep him from emerging as a political rival to Putin himself.

It’s a bold public protest, one not without it's risks; the protest calendar's producer said that some women she approached refused to be on the calendar, fearing a possible backlash from government officials, something the girls of “We Love You, Vladimir Vladimirovich” won’t have to worry about.
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Saturday, October 9, 2010

A Nobel Stand Against China

Congratulations are in order for Liu Xiaobo for being the recipient of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, though it's unlikely that Liu himself knows about the honor since he's currently serving a decade-long stretch in a Chinese labor camp for the crime of advocating for human rights in China. Liu is regarded as China's best-known political prisoner; his life as a dissident goes back to the infamous student-led Tienanmen Square protests of 1989. Arrested and released several times since for his political activities, he has been in jail since December 2008 for his role in authoring a call to the Chinese government to respect basic human rights.

Congratulations too are in order for the Nobel Committee and the government of Norway for not caving into the bullying tactics of the People's Republic – Chinese officials protested vehemently against the campaign to honor Liu with the Nobel Peace Prize and warned the Norway that if he won the award Chinese-Norwegian relations would likely suffer as a result. But as Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjoern Jagland explained: “we have to speak when others cannot speak. As China is rising, we should have the right to criticize ... We want to advance those forces that want China to become more democratic.” Or in other words, if China wants to be treated like one of the leading nations in the world, then that role comes with certain responsibilities, among them are not jailing people for saying things the government doesn't like, not oppressing certain domestic groups based on their ethnicity, and not using your economic clout to bully your neighbors like China recently tried to do with Japan. (For a full explanation of the recent China-Japan diplomatic spat and China's attempt at playing the “resource card” against Japan, check out my most recent post at The Mantle.) It's a simple and worthwhile message, yet one that few governments or organizations seem to be willing to press against China, downplaying any criticism of Beijing in order to maintain access to China's billion-plus consumers, and in the case of the United States, also so that China will continue to buy up American debt. Of course the result of these inactions is an ever more-powerful China that feels it can flaunt the norms of international behavior without fear of repercussions.

Along with Liu himself, it's unlikely on Friday that many other Chinese knew of the honor given to one of their countrymen either – the satellite feeds of the BBC and CNN, which were carrying the Nobel presentation ceremony live, reportedly went dark in China just as Liu's name was being announced.
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Friday, October 8, 2010

Dr. Evil Goes To Korea

I think it's safe to say that the Kims – the ruling family of North Korea – have officially become the real-life versions of Mike Myers' uber-villian Dr. Evil. Current President-for-Life Kim Jong-Il has been heading this way for some time; from the TV screens in every hotel room that broadcast a 24/7 propaganda feed about the “Dear Leader” a la Big Brother (not to mention the very “Dear Leader” tag itself), to his one-time kidnapping of a South Korean movie star in an effort to kick-start his own country's film industry, to the mythic descriptions of his powers that include the ability to manipulate time (though coaching soccer apparently isn’t on the list). But the final straw came with this story about the elevation of his youngest son Kim Jong-un to the role of his chosen successor.

At least we think the man is Kim Jong-un, ABC News, along with Germany's Der Spiegel, is reporting that some “experts” say that the man elevated to power at last week's Worker's Party convention isn't the same person as pictured in the only known photograph of Kim Jong-un from his schoolboy days in Switzerland. His father, Kim Jong-Il has long been reputed to use doubles in his running of North Korea, in fact there are allegations that the now ailing Kim Jong-Il actually died in 2008 and since then the country has been run with a faux Kim Jong-Il as figurehead. Now, some North Korea watchers are alleging that the man put forward as Kim Jong-un is himself a double, which raises the question as to who's actually running the country, and also slips North Korea into that special realm of Dr. Evil style cartoonish super-villany.

It's important to note, as does South Korea's JoongAng Daily, that the people who engage in Kim-ology often have their own agendas and are often wrong in their assessments, so their proclaimations need to be taken with a grain of salt. But the Kim Jong-un succession does point to some serious issues within North Korea – the 27 (or 28) year old Kim Jong-un has no known military experience, yet was just given the rank of four-star general and the modest propaganda title of “Great General”, moves designed to groom him to take over for his dad as leader of North Korea (or possibly for his double to take over for his dad's double). China, North Korea's biggest patron, is trying to put a positive spin on the Kim Jong-un succession, saying it points to stability within North Korea; some analysts are also suggesting that Kim Jong-un, who has actually lived abroad, is likely to be more open to engaging with the wider world than his father ever was. Officials in the United States and South Korea are more pessimistic, saying that the dynastic rule emerging in North Korea is actually a step back from the pro-reform efforts that were underway in the early 2000s and that since the succession discussions began in 2008, the propaganda coming out of North Korea has gotten decidedly more hardline, likely in an effort to build an image of the Kim family as the strong and rightful leaders of North Korea.
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Monday, October 4, 2010

Sen. Coburn: Screw Haiti

In March, the United States pledged more than $1.5 billion in long-term aid to help Haiti rebuild from the devastating earthquake that struck the impoverished island nation on January 12. Ten months later, do you know how much of that aid has been disbursed? If you answered none, you are correct, and the man to thank for that inaction is Oklahoma's Senator Tom Coburn.

Coburn insists that he's taking his stand against releasing the reconstruction funds for Haiti as part of his fight against government waste, namely the $1 million that would go towards paying for a manager and staff to oversee the dispersal of the Congressional funds. Coburn asks why can't the United States' ambassador just serve in this role – a statement that shows that Coburn not only lacks basic human compassion but also a knowledge of how the US foreign service actually works. An ambassador's duties are to represent the American state to a foreign government and to provide assistance to American citizens and businesses in a foreign land, not to manage the installation of US-funded sewer pipes in Port-Au-Prince.

Of course Coburn's real motivation is to be able to show his politically conservative base that he's fighting against “government waste”, and Haiti provides him with a golden opportunity for some top-flight political grandstanding without inconveniencing any Americans – the only people who are suffering are the thousands of Haitians forced to live among their own filth and the rubble of their former lives because the funds America promised are not available to help them rebuild. It's worth noting here that paying for a project manager and staff (whose salaries would amount to less than one-one thousandth of the total aid package) would ensure that the Congressional assistance funds were used as intended and not skimmed off by Haiti's notoriously corrupt government – ironically its an effective way to fight against government waste just like Coburn alleges he wants to do.

Perhaps the best way to resolve this situation and fight against waste would be to rescind Coburn's Senatorial salary, this would not only help pay for the aid management staff in Haiti it would also be a worthwhile stand against government waste since the man certainly isn't earning his money.
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Russian Surge In Latvian Elections

Voters in Latvia went to the polls over the weekend and gave a second term in office to the ruling coalition headed by current Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis; placing a strong second was the left-leaning Harmony Center, a party which draws it support almost exclusively from Latvia's ethnic Russian minority population (some pre-election polls suggested that Harmony could gather the most votes of any single party in the Latvian elections).

It is a surprising turn in Latvia where Russians complain that even though they make up nearly a third of Latvia's population, they are openly discriminated against. The teaching of Russian was barred in Latvian schools a few years ago, while Russian-speaking Latvians are not automatically granted citizenship unless they can pass Latvian language exams or prove that their family lived in Latvia before the outbreak of World War II. The discrimination is a reflex action on the part of ethnic Latvians following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Latvians view the Soviet era as a time of occupation – a native Latvian once told me a Soviet-era joke: that the two-story KGB headquarters in Riga was the tallest building in all of Latvia, because from there you could see Siberia.

The Harmony Center was formed five years ago to maximize the political power of Latvia's ethnic Russians by uniting various Russo-centric political parties and movements under one banner. Since Harmony's foundation, they have been gaining steadily in political strength, including getting one of their own elected mayor of the capital, Riga. Harmony has been helped in part by public backlash against the global economic crisis, which has hit Latvia especially hard – the Latvian economy contracted by nearly 25% last year, prompting a series of unpopular austerity moves on the part of Prime Minister Dombrovskis. But the head of Harmony's faction within the Latvian parliament, Janis Urbanovics, contends that the reason for Harmony's growing support outside of Latvia's Russian community is not only their opposition to the austerity measures, but also because they represent a future for Latvia as a multicultural state that has moved past the ethnic feuds of the post-Soviet era. “Voters are now looking to our side because we stand for ending this division of our society into two separate ethnic camps which traditionally mistrust each other and hold different views on everything from politics to culture and even past history,” Urbanovics was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times.

Still, some ethnic Latvians view Harmony Center as a stealth attempt by Russia to again take over Latvia. Armands Tsepulis, an ethnic Latvian, was quoted in the same Times article as saying: “it is simply a creeping Russian revenge. Russia never dropped its plans to get us back, and I can see it trying to do it by hook or by crook.”
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