Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thanksgiving Break

Apologies for the break in posting, but I decided at the last minute to take some time off for the Thanksgiving holiday. But the world keeps moving, so we'll get back to normal blogging this week. Right now the breaking story is that Wikileaks has just dumped thousands of pages of "secret" communications between US embassies around the world and Washington DC; so far the headlines are that the Afghan government is corrupt, the Chinese are cyberspying on the world and the Saudis are helping to fund terrorism - and we needed a release of secret documents to learn this?


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If you've read this site for awhile, you probably know that I've been pretty critical of the whole US/NATO mission in Afghanistan; but the latest story about the Taliban imposter warlord takes the cake. In case you missed this one, here's a brief recap:

For the past few months the idea of negotiating with at least the more moderate elements of the Taliban has been gaining traction, the rationale being if more reasonable pieces of the Taliban could be peeled away and reintegrated into the Afghan establishment, it just might put an end to the insurgency. Symbol of these efforts were the ongoing negotiations with one Mullah Akthar Mohammad Mansour, a “senior leader” with the Taliban. NATO thought that Mansour was valuable enough to lay a lot of cash on him (six figures by some accounts) and fly him in for meetings with President Hamid Karzai. Sounds great, except that the “Mullah Akthar Mohammad Mansour” wasn't the real Mullah Akthar Mohammad Mansour, a fact that the coalition is just learning now. Who this pseudo-Mansour was/is – whether he was a simple scam artist, a Taliban agent or something else entirely – will remain a secret since he snuck across the border into Pakistan and disappeared once the jig was up. Beyond being hugely embarrassing for the coalition to be scammed like this, what does the pseudo-Mansour affair say about the coalition's whole vaunted counter-insurgency strategy in the first place? The core idea of COIN is that you get to know your adversary on a personal level so that you can out maneuver him in the hearts and minds of the general population; but how well can the coalition know their enemy though if they don't even realize that one of their top commanders is in fact an imposter?

The Taliban imposter story would be criticism enough of the ongoing Afghan mission, but it comes out at the same time as the results of Afghanistan's recent parliamentary elections are being made public, and while attempts are being made to present them as a triumph of democracy, it's looking like the Afghans have succeeded in running an even more corrupt election than their last fraud-plagued vote. So far Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) has managed to toss out 1.3 million ballots – about one-quarter of all votes cast and more than the million votes tossed out in Hamid Karzai's reelection last year – along with about 10% of the elected candidates. And here's where things start to get interesting: in the last election, the fraud swung heavily in favor of Hamid Karzai, ballot boxes were stuffed with Karzai votes, those for his main challenger Dr. Abdullah Abdullah were tossed out; this time the vote seems to have gone heavily against the Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group and traditional cultural elites.

One explanation being put forward is that the Taliban is also heavily Pashtun, so vote turnout was lowest in the provinces where the Taliban is most active allowing other ethnic groups, like the traditionally oppressed, but largely peaceful Hazaras, to turn out in large numbers, giving them a larger-than-expected share of the Afghan Parliament. But a simpler explanation is also emerging – a good, old-fashioned money for votes scam. There are reports in several news outlets that members of the IEC contacted various candidates and offered to give them more votes (or take away votes from rival candidates) for the right price. Backing up this claim are stories of elected candidates suddenly being told that they in fact “lost”. The situation is worst in heavily-Pashtun Ghazni province, which weeks after the vote still has no official results due to widespread claims of fraud. The situation has gotten so bad that Afghanistan's Attorney General Mohammed Ishaq Aloko announced he'll be launching an investigation into vote totals across the country as well as into the IEC itself. In other words the situation is quickly turning into Florida 2000, only on a country-wide scale and with heavily-armed terrorist militias.

And just to put a sad post-script on this whole story, check out this photo-essay from Foreign Policy of pictures of Kabul in the early 1960s, during that all-to-brief time when Afghanistan looked like it was on its way to becoming a modern, democratic, fairly-liberal state.
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RIP Cable News: 1980-2010

If there was one unintended casualty of Tuesday's artillery duel between North and South Korea, it was the idea of cable television news. Fox and MSNBC may have already traded in their news credentials, maintaining only a veneer of “news” coverage in the late mornings/afternoons as cover for their respective political agitprop positions, but CNN kept plugging away in the news business, albeit as a shell of its former self. At least until yesterday.

The Korean cross-border skirmish is arguably the biggest international crisis of the year – two South Korean marines and two civilians were killed in the fighting, while South Korea is ominously warning of dire retaliation if the North strikes again. I woke up at 5:30 on Tuesday and listened to a half-hour of solid coverage of the Korea situation on the BBC World Service; at 6 I turned on CNN. To their credit, CNN led with the Korea story and brought in Jill Dougherty, one of their senior foreign correspondents for some analysis. This lasted about three minutes before CNN was onto the next story, that Will and Kate at picked a site for their wedding. At 7, CNN dedicated about two minutes to Korea before returning to the Will n' Kate story. To top it off, at about 7:15 CNN cut in with “breaking news”, which I assumed would be a development in the unfolding Korea story (silly me), instead it was to announce that Will and Kate would be married at Westminster Abbey – note to CNN: if you've already been reporting it for more than an hour, by definition it is not “breaking news”.

On Tuesday morning it was clear that the folks on CNN would much rather talk about fluffy stories like Will and Kate, or the upcoming “Dancing With The Stars” finale than the situation in Korea; it was an unmistakeable sign that CNN had gone from being television's premier news provider to just another peddler of infotainment. To make matters worse, if you ever happen to see their global version, CNN International, it's clear that the folks in Atlanta still know how to do quality, serious news programming, sadly they just don't choose to share that expertise with an American audience. In a more globalized, more interdependent world, it is more critical than ever to have access to sources of quality news. But just when the need is the greatest, the “news” networks decide to feed the viewing public a diet of nonsense.
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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Another Example Of America's Stupid Cuba Policy

If you need another example of why America's policy towards Cuba is seriously flawed (ok, seriously stupid), look no further than Tuesday's New York Times and this article about another player signing up for what could be a Cuban oil bonanza. While currently an oil importing nation, recent geologic surveys indicate that there could be huge reserves of oil in deep water fields that would not only break Cuba of their energy dependence on Venezuela and revive their struggling economy, but would also allow the island to join the ranks of oil exporting nations. On Tuesday Russia's state-run energy giant Gazprom announced they were buying a 30% stake in one of the prospective fields in a deal that could run until 2042. Gazprom now joins companies from countries including Spain, Malaysia, and China in drilling for oil in the waters off Cuba.

Of course American oil companies won't be joining in this potential black gold rush because of the now 48-year long trade embargo that the United States has maintained against Cuba, all in the vain hope that maybe this just might be the year the embargo drives Fidel Castro from power. I've written before about the pointlessness of the embargo, so no need to repeat those arguments here, but there are some added reasons why the embargo is especially stupid when it comes to drilling for oil. Beyond the simple fact that it means lost revenues for American companies; US-based firms have decades of experience in drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, something the firms currently holding contracts with Cuba lack. Gazprom especially has precious little experience with offshore drilling, one reason why they signed a partnership deal with Malaysia's Petronas to develop their portion of Cuba's offshore fields; given their experience, American firms could be commanding a premium in such partnership arrangements. Then there's the issue of what happens if something goes wrong with one of these wells. Since many of the fields are adjacent to the Straits of Florida, some projections say that oil from a BP-style leak off Cuba could hit the Florida Keys within just three days, presumably then striking the east coast of the United States soon after. This summer we saw just how difficult it was to cap a deep sea well with abundant resources and technology at your disposal; Cuba lacks any sort of deep water operations equipment, particularly the remote operated vehicles (ROVs) that eventually capped the well, meaning the response to a Cuban spill would likely be much slower.

With both their experience in the region and now in dealing with a deep water blowout, the participation of American firms in oil exploration off Cuba could make the whole venture a much safer process, but thanks to the pointless, politically-motivated embargo (and with Cuban-American Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen set to become Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, that’s unlikely to change), American firms won't have that opportunity.
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Did Wes Clark Almost Start World War III?

That's the inference being made by James Blunt in a new interview with the BBC. Blunt is probably best known in the United States for his soft rock hit single “You're Beautiful”; but before making his mark on the airwaves, Blunt was a cavalry officer in the British military. In 1999 he was leading troops as part of the NATO mission in Kosovo aimed at halting the fighting between the Kosovars and Serbian forces. A key point in the NATO strategy to establish security in Kosovo was to gain control of the airfield outside the capital, Pristina; but in a surprise move Russian forces swept through Kosovo and seized the airfield ahead of the NATO troops. While the Russians were supposedly part of KFOR, the international alliance that had come together to halt the fighting in Kosovo, suspicion ran high in the US/NATO command that the Russians were in fact trying to hinder the KFOR mission on behalf of their traditional allies, the Serbians who feared Kosovo would breakaway from Serbia (a fear that turned out to be correct).

According to Blunt, General Wesley Clark, then the NATO Supreme Commander Europe, ordered NATO forces to attack and “destroy” the Russians and take control of the Pristina airfield by force. Blunt, who was at the head of the NATO column approaching the airfield, would have led the attack, but the orders seemed so crazy to him that he called up his own superior officers for clarification. Commander of the British forces, General Sir Michael Jackson ordered Blunt and his troops to stand down, saying: “I'm not going to have my soldiers be responsible for starting World War III.” The NATO troops instead encircled the airbase; the Russians, who had rushed into Pristina in such a hurry that they didn't bring enough supplies for a siege offered to share command of the airbase two days later.

Now frankly I've always thought of Wes Clark as one of the better voices out there on foreign affairs, but his command to attack the Russians is just daffy and very possibly could have led to WWIII. I'd be tempted to doubt Blunt, except for the fact that Jackson backs up his account, and if you remember any of the news accounts from the KFOR mission, then you remember that Sir Mike Jackson was most definitely a no BS kind of guy.

For his part, Blunt says that even if Jackson had not backed him up, he still would have refused General Clark's order to attack the airfield and the Russians, even though it likely would have meant his court martial, since the orders were so blatantly reckless. He explained to the BBC that a “sense of moral judgment is drilled into us as soldiers in the British army” as to why he would have refused Clark's orders.
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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Hip Hop World: Russia and Uganda Edition

The website GlobalPost recently reported on the rap scene in Russia under the title “Can Rap Change Russia?”; the subject of the piece was Russian rapper Noize MC, who just spent ten days in jail for insulting police officials in Volgograd. While politically-charged rap is nothing new in the United States (think Public Enemy and NWA among others), Noize MC is blazing a new path in Russia by writing songs about corrupt officials and abusive police officers. His biggest statement to date is the song “Mercedes S666” a rap about a mother and daughter killed in a traffic accident by a bureaucrat's speeding Mercedes. The story caused national outrage in Russia over the use of flashing blue lights attached to the top of a car – the blue lights are only intended to be used by only official vehicles in emergency situations, but they have been doled out to thousands of petty bureaucrats who use them to flout traffic laws, sometimes with disastrous results.

Noize MC was jailed for ten days after performing an impromptu rap about police abuse; he was convicted of “disorderly conduct” two days later and jailed. Since his release, he has seen some of his concerts canceled, likely due to official pressure. While Noize MC may be taking Russian rap to new places, people familiar with the Russian music industry interviewed by GlobalPost say that he is the exception to the rule, and that most musicians today are content to not make waves when it comes to criticizing the government. Perhaps there's no better indication of that than the fact that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was actually nominated for a rap award earlier this year for his appearance on “Battle for Respect”, a sort of American Idol for aspiring Russian rappers and breakdancers. Putin appeared on the show to give rap and breakdancing his seal of approval for promoting a “healthy lifestyle” among young people; Putin's appearance was subsequently nominated for “Event of the Year” at the first annual Russian Street Awards, a show dedicated to rap, breakdancing and graffiti art (to their credit, the Russian Street Awards organizers decided to limit the butt-kissing to the nomination stage rather than giving Putin an award).

And while we're on the topic of world leaders and rap, Uganda's 65-year old President Yoweri Museveni could become rap's latest, and most unlikely, star. A rap of a campaign speech Museveni gave earlier this year has been set to a beat and is currently burning up the charts in Uganda. The lyrics include the lines: “harvesters, give me millet that I gave to a hen, which gave me an egg that I gave to children, who gave me a monkey that I gave to the king, who gave me a cow that I used to marry my wife,” and are based on a Ugandan fairy tale. Museveni busted out the rhymes during a campaign stop with young supporters.
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Turkey's Rambo Takes Aim At Israel

While we're on the topic of media, Foreign Policy is reporting that relations between Israel and Turkey will likely suffer another blow with the upcoming release of a Turkish spy film. “Valley of the Wolves: Palestine” is the latest adventure for Agent Polet Alemdar, who Foreign Policy describes as a sort of “Rambo for the Islamic world”; Alemdar's target this time is Israel, specifically Israeli agents who intercepted a Turkish aid ship bout for Gaza.

You likely remember the story of the Gaza-bound relief flotilla intercepted by Israeli forces earlier this year; while several of the boardings went off peacefully, the boarding of the Turkish-owned Mavi Marmara went terribly with a battle breaking out on deck between the Gaza activists and Israeli commandos, which left nine of the Mavi Marmara's crew dead. “Valley of the Wolves: Palestine” is the story of Alemdar's quest for revenge against the Israeli agents responsible for the events aboard the Mavi Marmara, a story that actually sounds a lot like the movie Munich, the story of Israeli agents exacting revenge against the Palestinians who planned the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Similarities aside, the Israelis are livid over the release of “Valley of the Wolves: Palestine”, which they say is another example of the “creeping anti-Semitism” in Turkey today. It's worth noting that Israel-Turkey relations hit another low point recently after a Turkish television movie about secret agents painted Israel's Mossad is a very unflattering light. Following the airing of that movie, the Turkish ambassador to Israel was publicly dressed down on Israeli television, an act that outraged the Turks.

But it's not only the Israelis who are angered over their portrayal in another country's pop culture, Chinese officials are also fuming over recent depictions of their officials in the British spy series Spooks (MI-5 here in the states). According to reports in the British press, government officials in China have ordered Chinese television networks not to do business with the BBC in protest over a storyline in the latest season of Spooks, which cast the Chinese as the bad guys planning to, among other things, set off a “dirty bomb” in London if the British interfered with their plans; a pretty strong reaction considering that Spooks doesn’t even air in China. Officially, the Chinese foreign ministry said it would have to “look into the matter” of the alleged BBC boycott.
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Friday, November 12, 2010

Journalists Again Targeted in Russia

At the time this post is being written, Oleg Kashin, a journalist with the Russian newspaper Kommersant is lying in a Moscow hospital in a coma, the result of a savage beating outside of his apartment. Even though a number of high-profile journalists have been attacked, some murdered, in Russia during the past decade, Kashin's attack was particularly brazen; he was beaten with a metal rod and suffered numerous injuries to his head – including two broken jaws – a broken leg and fingers. Robbery appears not to have been the motive since his wallet and iPhone were left with Kashin (this MSNBC story includes security camera footage of the attack on Kashin).

And here's where on Law and Order they'd say that a pattern is emerging; Kashin was the third reporter beaten in such a manner. In November 2008 journalist Mikhail Beketov was assaulted outside of his home, and received a beating so severe it left him with brain damage and confined to a wheelchair; earlier this week a third journalist, Anatoly Adamchuk, was assaulted outside of the offices of his newspaper Zhukovskiye Vesti. Two threads link the three beatings – one, in each case along with a severe beating around the head, each journalist also had their hands smashed, in Beketov's case smashed so badly that several of his fingers had to be amputated; since journalists earn their living by typing – an act hard to do without the use of one's fingers – the beating of the hands sends a pretty clear message. The second common link is that prior to the beating each had written stories about historic, old-growth (and supposedly protected) forests being cut down for road-building projects, often involving well-connected land developers: in the case of Kashin and Beketov it was the Khimki Forest, a project recently suspended by President Dmitry Medvedev after some high-profile attention was cast on it by U2's Bono and Russian rock icon Yuri Shevchuk; in Adamchuk's case it was a similar project through the Tsagovsky Forest.

The inference most will likely draw is that in each case the journalists were attacked because of their writing about the controversial destruction of what should be protected public lands by people acting on behalf of the wealthy developers pushing the highway projects (road development is considered one of the most lucrative types of construction in Russia) either with the blessing of officials in the Kremlin or at least without the fear of angering them. Perhaps aware that this is the likely conclusion people will draw, Medvedev has pledged swift action and, according to Kommersant, has assigned “experts from the Prosecutor General's Office's Investigative Committee who have solved a number of high-profile cases” to the investigation. A bill was also introduced in the Duma that would grant journalists the same level of protection given to politicians, making an assault on them punishable by life in prison if the attack were grave enough. On the surface, both are strong actions aimed at getting justice for the victims and preventing future attacks, but Russia in the 21st century has a poor record of actually catching those who assault and kill journalists making all of the eventual arrests and punishments a moot point.

And just to add insult to injury, literally, this week Beketov was found guilty of slandering Khimki's Mayor Vladimir Strelchenko, who filed suit against Beketov for criticizing his administration for letting the Khimki Forest be clear-cut for the Moscow-St. Petersburg highway project. While the judge in the case was sympathetic to Beketov, who was physically unable to speak due to the injuries he sustained in the 2008 beating, he fined Beketov $160 for “tarnishing the honor and professional reputation” of Strelchenko, a fine he then waived on a technicality.
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King Me

Elections are troubling things for the world's dictators – on one hand there's always the chance you could lose, a troubling prospect for any dictator; then there's merely the indignity of allowing the people a chance to weigh in on your all-powerful rule in the first place, yet the global community tends to insist on countries holding the things and takes a dim view on those who name themselves President-for-Life. The old-school solution to this problem was to hold a rigged election that you were sure to win either by having loyalists stuff the ballot boxes with votes for you, or by intimidating the political opposition into dropping out of the race entirely (see Zimbabwe for this tactic in action); the downside to either approach though is that they are relatively easy for the global community to monitor and criticize. The newer approach has been instead to stock the country's electoral commission with your people, thereby ensuring that the votes in your favor are counted, the ones that are against you are not and that all of this is done with the veneer of legality – after all the electoral commission certified the results...

But The Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh is taking a different approach to the whole electoral problem – he's angling to be crowned King of The Gambia. Jammeh has ruled this thin sliver of a nation, which runs along the banks of the namesake Gambia River in Western Africa, for 16 years since taking power in a military coup. He has since been “elected” president three times, though Jammeh's rule is basically absolute in The Gambia – he controls the media and all branches of the national government. I happen to know someone from The Gambia, now living in exile after running afoul of Jammeh's policies, which makes me believe that the stories of his total control of the nation are not being overblown.

That also makes the story that tribal chieftans in The Gambia are pushing for Jammeh's coronation as thanks for all of the great things he's done for the country seem pretty dubious – more likely they're pushing for his coronation because they were told to do so since Jammeh seems tired of standing for elections – even sham ones that he is sure to win. The push for coronation could also be part of Jammeh's mania for collecting self-aggrandizing titles, which earlier this year also included being named an admiral in the “Nebraska Navy”. Jammeh apparently wasn't aware that landlocked Nebraska has no navy and that the title is a sort of inside joke among Cornhuskers.

His push for Kingship however is not.
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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Russia Joins US In Afghan Drug Raid

Four agents from Russia's drug enforcement agency joined American troops last week in a raid on drug labs operating in Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan. The joint US-Russian operation destroyed four labs – three producing heroin and one morphine – and seized an estimated 200 million doses of heroin according to the Russian government. The raid marks Russia's first military action in Afghanistan since the Soviet Red Army withdrew from the country in 1989. Cheap Afghani heroin has become a major public health problem in Russia. With easy access into Russia via former Soviet states like Tajikistan, heroin has been flooding Russian cities with disastrous results – an estimated 30,000 people died from heroin overdoses in Russia last year alone. Russia, meanwhile, has been critical of the US/NATO military operation in Afghanistan, saying that they are not doing enough to curtain poppy cultivation (the poppy flower provides opium, the source material for heroin/morphine) or to destroy Afghan labs that produce the drugs, since Afghan heroin is a major problem for Russia but not Europe or the United States.

Of course one person not happy with last week's raid was Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who called the Russian participation in the raid a “violation” of Afghanistan's national sovereignty and threatened that “Afghanistan will respond seriously to any repetition of such actions.” In making his statement, Karzai played up latent resentments in Afghanistan over the Soviet Union's decade-long occupation of their country. No word on whether or not Karzai was upset that the raid might have cut into his brother Ahmed Wali’s drug business (perhaps the “serious response” Karzai threatened would be Ahmed Wali's drug connections sending more cheap heroin into Russia...). There were subsequent media reports that Hamid Karzai approved the drug raids, which is the kind of flip-flop that will do nothing to calm fears that Karzai is too unstable to actually effectively govern his country.

That was one of the issues raised by former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer in his recent deconstruction of American foreign policy towards Afghanistan. It is an article worth reading, but the highlights include a critique of the top US commander, Gen. Petraeus' assertion that the recent US “surge” in Afghanistan is working. Scheuer notes that Petraeus is making these claims just before the Congressional elections, and that Petraeus made similar claims about the success of the “surge” in Iraq just before the 2008 US elections; claims that today look overly optimistic at best, or outright dishonest at worst, given the deteriorating security situation in Iraq. Turning back to Afghanistan, Scheuer shoots a lot of holes in the conventional wisdom pushed by US policymakers that if the United States were to withdraw, Afghanistan would once again become a Taliban safe-haven (a point we've made here on a number of occasions as well). He goes on to say that while the early stages of US/NATO involvement allowed some of Afghanistan's ethnic minorities access to a political process that had formerly excluded them, the focus during the past few years on the southern and eastern parts of the country, dominated by Afghanistan's largest group, the Pashtuns, have largely reversed these gains, having the effect of restoring the Pashtuns to their historical role as the dominant force in Afghanistan, increasing the likelihood of yet another civil war in the country.

Finally, the BBC recently published another interview with Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who eventually put an end to the Red Army's Afghan mission. As he has said publicly before, Gorbachev stated that it would be “impossible” for the US/NATO coalition to win in Afghanistan and suggested that the United States withdraw their forces if they did not want to wind up with “another Vietnam.” The irony here is that the case for US backing of Islamic militants in Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion in 1979 was presented as a way to suck the Soviet Union into their version of Vietnam. Gorbachev again repeated a claim to the BBC that when the Soviet Union decided to withdraw their military from Afghanistan, they struck a deal with the United States and Pakistan that they would also stop funding militants within Afghanistan and all would allow the country to develop as “a neutral, democratic country, that would have good relations with its neighbors and with both the US and the USSR.” Gorbachev contends that the US, via Pakistan, continued to support the anti-government militants in Afghanistan in violation of this agreement, which led to the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal and eventually to the rise of al-Qaeda.
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China's Miss World Payback?

When the Nobel Prize committee announced that the winner of this year's peace prize would be noted Chinese dissident – and current political prisoner - Liu Xiaobo, China warned that Sino-Norwegian relations would likely suffer as a result, but this is a bit ridiculous.

People in Norway are crying foul, saying that biased judging on the part of the Chinese caused Norwegian beauty Mariann Birkedal the Miss World crown, held last week on the Chinese island of Hainan. Birkedal is a former Miss Universe who also won the “Top Model” award in the preliminary rounds of the Miss World pageant; yet she failed to even make the top five finalists, a situation that has people in Norway claiming that Birkedal is the victim of some political payback on the part of the Chinese.

China viewed the Liu's Nobel Prize as meddling in their internal affairs on the part of the Norwegian government, even though the Nobel Prize winners are determined by an independent organization which happens to be based in Norway (perhaps it's just hard for the Chinese government to believe that there can be anything that operates in a given country that's not under the control of the State...). After protesting Lui's consideration for the Peace Prize, China then warned that relations between their country and Norway would suffer if he won the award.
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