Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Khodorkovsky: A Political Prisoner Jailed Again?

On Monday a Russian court found Mikhail Khodorkovsky guilty for a second time based on his time as the CEO of Yukos, once Russia's largest oil company. The guilty verdict doesn't change Khodorkovsky’s immediate circumstances, he has been locked up in a prison in Russia's Far East since his arrest in 2003 on charges of tax evasion; what the verdict does is ensure that Khodorkovsky won't be getting out of jail next year after serving the eight year sentence he received in 2003.

For a very detailed recounting of the Khodorkovsky saga, check out Martin Sexsmith's book Putin's Oil (or for a recap, check out my review of Putin's Oil). In short, Khodorkovsky was jailed for willfully evading taxes while serving as the head of Yukos during the 1990s; in his defense, Khodorkovsky said that he followed the tax laws as best he could during the chaotic 1990s, when Russian tax laws were constantly changing, and in essence he was arrested for not accurately anticipating what the tax laws would be and not paying accordingly. In fact, the tax situation in Russia in the 90s was so confused, that the tax charges could have been levied against any members of Russia's oligarch class, who also used the economic upheaval as an opportunity to amass huge personal fortunes. That Khodorkovsky was singled out for punishment is clear indication to Kremlin critics that Khodorkovsky’s prosecution was in fact politically motivated (that any number of oligarchs could have been prosecuted, but weren’t, was a thought echoed in a fair number of comments made by Russians on the BBC’s coverage of the verdict).

They say that Khodorkovsky’s real crime was to break a “gentleman's agreement” between Vladimir Putin and the oligarch class where Putin promised to give the oligarchs a free hand in running their business empires so long as they stayed out of politics; Khodorkovsky made some relatively minor contributions to the Kremlin's political opposition in the early 2000s, soon after he found himself arrested at a Siberian airfield on the tax charges. Perhaps it is ironic that Khodorkovsky’s political donations came as part of his philanthropic efforts to build a civil society within Russia at a time when his fellow oligarchs were happy to take their money out of the country and spend it on luxury flats in London and enormous private yachts.

Khodorkovsky’s second prosecution will do nothing to dissuade critics of the idea that once again Russia's legal system is being used for political purposes. Sexsmith's book paints a picture of Putin fearful that Khodorkovsky could at long last be the symbol Russia's political opposition needs as a rallying point; it's not a coincidence then that Khodorkovsky’s original sentence would expire with enough time for him, hypothetically, to enter the 2012 presidential race. For his part, in writings from his Far East prison, Khodorkovsky has come to see himself as a “martyr” for modern Russia. Critics ask why Khodorkovsky, and his business partner Platon Lebedev, were put on trial now on charges that date back more than a decade. To further complicate matters was the judge's decision to postpone his ruling from mid-December until yesterday, a time when most Russians are preoccupied with the upcoming New Years and Orthodox Christmas holidays; perhaps the hope was that the ruling would be lost in the holiday shuffle. Western observers though have taken note, with even the US State Department expressing “concern” over the verdict and the flimsy evidence offered at trial.

Khodorkovsky’s actual sentence likely won't come for several more days as the judge has said he will not give word on punishment until he finishes reading the entire 250-page verdict. Whether this will affect foreign investment in Russia also remains to be seen.
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Saturday, December 25, 2010

African Democracy: One Step Back, One Step Forward

Two tales of democracy from Africa today, one hopeful, the other not so much...

Cote d'Ivoire (also known as the Ivory Coast) for nearly a month now has had not one but two presidents. International observers, including the United Nations, declared opposition leader Alassane Ouattara the winner of the November 28 elections, which they further certified as free and fair. But that's not good enough for the current Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo who, like a pope in the Middle Ages, just went ahead and had himself sworn back into office at the same time that Ouattara's inauguration was taking place. Gbagbo refuses to recognize the results of the November 28 vote, which he has called “a coup” (admittedly an odd way to describe a democratic election).

The UN, United States and Ecowas – the economic bloc that includes most of the countries in West Africa – are all calling on Gbagbo to stop the nonsense and gracefully step aside – well, as gracefully as one can after pretending to be president for a month... The problem is that Gbagbo still has many in the state security apparatus and military backing him, which has paralyzed Cote d'Ivoire for the past month. And indications are that the situation could be turning ugly. Ouattara's side said they have reports of 200 dead and 1,000 injured among their supporters at the hands of security forces supporting Gbagbo, they also claim other supporters have been abducted and raped. Amnesty International said they are receiving “increasing” numbers of reports of political violence. It's worth noting that Cote d'Ivoire narrowly avoided a full-blown civil war in 2002 and had previously been one of West Africa's most stable and most prosperous countries. But all of that now seems in danger because of one very stubborn man.

But the news out of Africa certainly isn't all bad as another West African nation inaugurates their first democratically-elected president in their entire 50-year history. On Tuesday Alpha Conde was sworn in as the Republic of Guinea's first-ever elected president in a ceremony attended by heads of state from across the continent. Since gaining independence from France, Guinea has been run by a succession of military strongmen; change in government only came at the end of a gun. Things didn't look promising after the most recent junta took power in 2008, despite promises by the junta that they would hold open elections “in the future”. The situation further deteriorated after the junta's leader Captain Moussa Dadis Camara was gravely wounded in an assassination attempt and forces loyal to him massacred 150 opposition supporters and reportedly beat and raped hundreds more. But Guinea's interim leader, Sekouba Konate, followed through on the pledge to hold elections, which were won by Mr. Conde, himself a long-time opposition leader and advocate for democracy who had once been sentenced to death by an earlier military regime. The 72-year old Conde ran on a platform of change and development for the impoverished Guinea, which has rich deposits of bauxite, the ore used to make aluminum.

Though the swearing in of Conde is just a first step, if a country that has spent a half-century ruled by military juntas can have open democratic elections, then that's a hopeful sign for good governance across the continent.
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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Kosovo Body Snatchers

Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci was probably planning to spend the week celebrating his party's victory in his country's first national elections, instead he is defending himself from charges that he ran a ring of international body thieves.

The allegations go back nearly a decade to the time when the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) was fighting an insurgent campaign against Serbian paramilitaries as well as the Serbian government, which was trying to pacify the rebellious region of Kosovo. The Serbs were charged with a host of war crimes against the population of Kosovo, charges that eventually resulted in a NATO-led bombing campaign against Serbia, followed by the partition, and eventual independence, of Kosovo from Serbia. But rumors persisted that the Kosovars were committing atrocities of their own, namely that they were taking civilians and captured Serbs, killing them, and then selling their organs for transplant on the black market, rumors that we have previously discussed here. With officials in Kosovo, Albania -where many of the murders and transplants allegedly took place - and EULEX (the European Union security force dispatched to Kosovo for much of the 2008) unwilling to take the allegations seriously, it seemed like they would remain rumors that is until Dick Marty, a special human rights investigator for the Council of Europe, released a report this week saying that he had proof of the body-snatching ring.

Prime Minister Thaci was obviously upset by the rumors and has branded them as an attempt to slander his fledgling state. But there are a few things worth considering: much of the current Kosovar government is made up of former members of the KLA, Thaci included; and before the KLA became allied with the West in their struggle against the Serbian government, they were listed by a host of governments (the United States included) as a potential terrorist organization with possible links to al-Qaeda (we also learned this week that some felt the KLA put more effort into fighting rival factions in Kosovo then they did the Serbs). Even though they may no longer be considered to have terrorist links, the factions of the old KLA are thought to be closely allied with organized crime groups in Kosovo and Albania; much of Kosovo's economy is currently based on activities like smuggling and other criminal activities, along with foreign aid payments and remittances by Kosovars living abroad, not exactly the basis for a thriving economy.

Kosovo has been a political football for the past several years between the US and key European powers like Great Britain and France on one side and the Russians with their traditional allies the Serbs on the other. Kosovo and Serbia spent much of the 2000s engaged in a UN-brokered set of talks to determine Kosovo's final status, a process that was short-circuited in 2008 when the Kosovars decided to walk away from the talks and declare independence and the US/UK/France decided to recognize them as the world's newest nation. The rationale given by the Western powers was that it was a necessary step to ensure another ethnic conflict didn't break out between Kosovo and Serbia, but Serbia was a much different country in 2008 – the nationalists who had driven the Kosovo conflict were out of power and the country was looking to align itself with greater Europe – it was hard to think another round of conflict was in the offing. The move rather felt like delayed payback to Serbia for causing so much mischief in the 1990s, along with an attempt to weaken the Russian position in Europe by weakening one of their allies.

As such, the Europeans didn't bother to give the persistent rumors of the Kosovo body snatching ring a proper investigation, at least until Marty came along; nor have they taken much action to quell the hold organized crime has over the country, despite the fact that – thanks to Wikileaks – they were well aware of the crime situation. Frankly, its hard to imagine what Kosovo's economy would be based on, the nation is relatively small, landlocked, and has a sparse population – the question of whether it could be a viable state was apparently not considered in the rush to recognize its independence.

It will be interesting to see how Europe moves forward with Kosovo. In addition to the body snatching ring, which Marty promises to present evidence of in the coming weeks, there are also reports from the region that there were widespread irregularities in last weekend's election that saw Thaci's party win a solid majority; certainly not good signs for the future of the Western power's pet project.
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A few weeks ago while visiting Bulgaria, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was given a special gift: a Bulgarian Shepherd puppy. Maybe that's understating the gift a bit, since Putin was given perhaps the most adorable puppy on the face of the Earth (see picture below).

The puppy had a name, one Putin didn't care for, so the puppy didn't have a name... Putin decided to turn the naming of the new pup into a national contest, which was won – as such contests always are – by a young child, a five-year old boy named Dima who suggested the president name his new pooch “Buffy”.


First, one wonders how a young Russian boy would come up with the name “Buffy” in the first place, then you have to wonder why Putin would think that Buffy was the best of the choices offered? (Perhaps because “Dmitry” would just be too confusing?) And finally you have to wonder if Buffy is really the best name for a puppy that looks like it will eventually grow to be the size of a small horse. But it's always best not to argue with Putin...
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Monday, December 13, 2010

Somalia's Mystery Militia

This story caught my eye last week, Foreign Policy picked up on a piece originally in the Washington Post about a 1,000 member militia being trained in the Puntland region of Somalia, a militia mysteriously funded by an unnamed “Islamic nation”, likely from the Persian Gulf region, and employing at least one former GW Bush-era diplomat along with a former CIA agent. Supposedly the militia is meant to fight the Somali pirates who operate in the Gulf of Aden north of Puntland as well as in the Indian Ocean; Foreign Policy even headlined their story describing the militia as an anti-pirate force.

But the details of the story make that explanation a little suspect. Puntland is an autonomous region of Somalia that has at least something of a functioning government - unlike the southern two-thirds of the nation. And while there is piracy in the Gulf of Aden, the best-known pirate strongholds are along Somalia's lawless Indian Ocean coast; these are the ports where the big ships – the cargo vessels and tankers – seized by the pirates are held for multi-million dollar ransoms. Then there's the matter of the militia's make-up. According to the Washington Post, the militia's equipment includes several airplanes and more than 100 up-armored pickup trucks, but no boats, something you would expect to be necessary equipment for battling pirates.

People involved with the militia here repeat a true assessment of the Somali situation: that piracy will be defeated ashore by taking away the pirate safe-havens, not by chasing speedboats across a million square miles of ocean. But the “ashore” strategy means strengthening Somali civil society, installing a functioning national government and bringing law to these now lawless ports; something 1,000 men in 100 armed trucks can't do. What they can do however is provide security in a specific area of the nation, and that's where the story gets interesting. Officials with the Puntland government say that the anti-piracy militia's first target will be an Islamist militia operating in the mountains 100 miles inland; a militia tied to the more powerful al-Shabaab Islamist force menacing the Somali capital Mogadishu and with ties to arms smugglers from Yemen and Eritrea, but with no apparent links to pirates. This militia operates in an area of Puntland believed to hold oil and natural gas reserves – something 1,000 men in armed trucks could do a good job at protecting.

If that's the real intent of the Puntland militia, then fine, if Puntland has natural resources they can develop, and if developing these resources can help the region to become more secure and to develop economically, all the better; but it is cynical (not to mention inaccurate) to portray this force as an “anti-pirate militia.”
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Saturday, December 11, 2010

4/11/54: The Most Boring Day

Just in case you were wondering what was the most boring day of the 20th century, detailed computer analysis has determined that it was in fact April 11, 1954. On that day there was an election in Belgium, a Turkish academic was born and a British soccer player died. That was about it.

The “Most Boring Day” honor was bestowed upon 4/11/54 by True Knowledge, a data search engine developed by Cambridge University that has compiled a database of 300 million facts, figures and events. The scientists at Cambridge designed True Knowledge to be a better Internet search engine, not to pick the most banal day of the 20th century, but its programmers figured the boring day challenge was a good test of True Knowledge's abilities. April 11, 1954 stood out for its not-worthiness since no notable people were born or died, nor were there any major news events. According to the Times of India, April 30, 1930 had previously been considered the dullest day of the century based on a BBC news bulletin that simply said of the day: “There is no news.”
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Thursday, December 9, 2010

You Think This Would Be News: Cheney Indicted

You really would think news that former Vice President Dick Cheney was likely to be indicted on charges of bribery by the government of Nigeria would at least rate a mention on the nightly news, but apparently not. So in case you likely missed this story, Nigeria's anti-corruption agency is set to levy charges against Cheney and a host of other top officials from the oil industry services company Halliburton over charges that a Halliburton subsidiary, KBR, bribed a number of Nigerian government officials to win approval for the construction of a natural gas liquefaction plant. This plant would allow KBR to export liquefied natural gas (or LNG) by ship from Nigeria. While KBR and Halliburton have since split up, the charges date back to before 2007, when KBR was still a Halliburton subsidiary, and presumably to before 2001 when Cheney was still the head of Halliburton.

KBR has already agreed to pay more than $180 million in fines to the government of Nigeria.

Of course even if indicted it is impossible to believe that Cheney would actually go to Nigeria to stand trial. But the charges shouldn't just be dismissed as the act of a grandstanding government. Nigeria is Africa's most populous nations and one of the economic powers of the continent. It is also a major supplier of crude oil to the United States and is a growing exporter of LNG.
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You Think This Would Be News: Argentina and Palestine

Second item for the Would Be News file, the government of Argentina announced on Monday that it recognized Palestine as a “free and independent” state within the 1967 borders. Argentina's announcement comes just three days after Brazil made a similar proclamation towards Palestine.

Argentina said it took the step of recognizing Palestine out of frustration on the progress (or lack of progress) in the “two-state” peace negotiations which started back in 1991 and continue to drag on today. This is exactly what Israel feared might happen after talks once again stalled after the Israeli side refused to renew a freeze on the construction of Israeli-only settlements within the borders of what would-be the Palestinian state. As part of a proposed deal for a one-time extension of the settlement freeze, the United States promised to block any unilateral moves by organizations like the United Nations to recognize Palestine as an independent state.

Of course that doesn't stop countries like Argentina from acting unilaterally, and apparently several other countries in Latin America are planning to issue their own statements of recognition according to the Palestinians. Even though Argentina's recognition has little practical effect, the Palestinians are hoping as more countries join in, the idea of a nation of Palestine occupying the 1967 borders will become the default position in the international community, a condition that they hope will lead to actual statehood for Palestine.
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Friday, December 3, 2010

America: Not As Generous As We Think

Quick, what percentage of the United States budget is spent on foreign aid?

If you answered less than one percent, you're correct (the actual amount is about .2%). You're also in the minority of people who know the facts about US foreign aid according to a new survey by WorldPublicOpinion.org/Knowledge Networks, which found that the median estimate of US foreign policy expenditures was a whopping 25% of the annual budget. Only 19% of the respondents were even close in saying that foreign aid made up less than 5% of the budget.

More surprisingly, when asked how much the United States should spend on foreign aid, the median response figure was 10%, a whopping fifty-fold increase over what the United States actually sends out in foreign assistance. That's interesting because whenever the topic of cutting the federal budget comes up, one item always put on the chopping block is foreign aid. The problem is that Americans are assuming that we're spending far more on foreign aid than we actually are. Education affected how much people though the US spent on foreign aid: those with less than a high school degree put foreign aid as a percentage of budget at an amazing 45%; high school grads said 25%; college-educated said 20%; and those with advanced degrees still gave an average total of 15%.

To put this in some perspective, Norway spends about 1% of its Gross National Income (GNI) on foreign aid; of course given the relative size of the economies, this is a fraction of the roughly $25 billion the US dispenses by giving away its .2%. Increase that to 10% of the US budget – the median amount that respondents thought was a fair amount to spend on aid – and suddenly you’re talking about $1.25 trillion.

One final fascinating note: when asked how much of the budget ideally should be spent on foreign aid, only 20% of those responding said 1% or less – the actual current amount.
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Thursday, December 2, 2010

World Cup: Russia, Qatar Win Big

Kudos to FIFA for some bold choices this morning on the sites of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which in case you missed it, will go to Russia and Qatar respectively. Though the picks are being roundly criticized in some circles – notably the UK, and to a lesser degree the US, media since each country lost out on their bids to host the Cup - it was nice to see the trend of big, international tournaments going to new parts of the world continue.

I thought that the Russian bid was heading for defeat when Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced that he would not be traveling to Zurich to make a final, personal appeal to the FIFA committee, but perhaps Putin was just playing coy, acting like he really didn't care if Russia got the cup or not... For Russia the 2018 World Cup will follow on the heels of the 2014 Winter Olympics which will be held in Sochi. Both Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev are talking about how the World Cup shows that Russia has arrived (or perhaps returned) to the level of a “First Nation” country; terms that had previously been used when Russia was awarded the Sochi Games. Even more intriguing is the award of the 2022 Cup to Qatar, which by any measure is a decidedly puny nation – coming in at 164th in the ranking of nations of the world by size and with a total population of just 1.6 million. Of course Qatar is one of the richest (in terms of per capita wealth) nations in the world thanks to huge supplies of oil and natural gas (Qatar has the world's third-largest reserves of the latter). And the Qataris are promising to spend ample amounts of that resource wealth in creating a slate of ridiculously sci-fi looking stadia that they claim will also be “carbon-neutral” for this green 21st century. One interesting aspect of the Qatar bid was their approach to recycling: some stadiums will be dismantled after the Cup and shipped to nations around the world that cannot afford to build such complexes. And while Qatar itself is small, backers of their bid say that the symbolism is huge since this is the first sporting event of global scale to be held in the Islamic world.

Critics are slamming FIFA for the awards though, stating that both countries have lousy human rights records, a factor they say FIFA should have considered in their decision. Some comments on the 2018 Cup questioned how people would get between venues since Russia is such a huge country (covering 11 time zones and 1/6 the world's surface). Russian organizers seem to plan to counter this by staging all of the WC games in cities located in the European third of the nation. Comments on message boards again slammed the Qataris for their approach to human rights, particularly the fact that homosexuality is officially a crime in Qatar; though many of the comments on British sites were complaining that alcohol sales are banned in Islamic Qatar (Qatari officials have pledged to set up special “alcohol zones” for tourists during the games, which should help to satisfy the British drunkards).

And the world now has 11 years to figure out the correct way to pronounce “Qatar”.
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Wikileaks Russia: Batman and the Mob

Frankly a lot of the Wikileaks document dump of “secret” communications from US embassies and ambassadors around the world was pretty underwhelming – a topic I'll explore a little more fully in an upcoming post on The Mantle. Not surprisingly, some of the cables dealt with US-Russian relations. Grabbing the headlines is an assessment by one Moscow embassy official that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was playing “Robin” to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's “Batman”, and a comment that today's Russia seems like less of a nation-state and more of a country-sized mafia operation with a cadre of well-connected government and security service officials getting a cut of all the major projects around the country. These are not new ideas, in fact they're fairly standard critiques from pundits from both outside Russia and within. Dig a little deeper though and the discussion gets at least a little more interesting.

The assessment of the US officials is that Medvedev is actually sincere in the many reforms of the Russian state he has proposed during his term as president, only to have them shot down by his counterpart, Prime Minister Putin. The official goes on to suggest that the Medvedev and Putin factions are in open conflict within the Kremlin, though the two primaries appear have yet to go toe-to-toe.

Hopefully the US official is at least partially right. It would be nice to think that Medvedev is sincere in the reforms he has put forward – which have ranged from reigning in Russia's endemic corruption problem, to establishing a high-tech manufacturing sector a la America's “Silicon Valley” in an effort to move Russia away from extraction industries like oil and natural gas, to addressing the sadly low life expectancy among Russian men (roughly 60 years), to protecting journalists and the freedom of the press. Since he took office from Putin in 2008 (under the Russian constitution, Putin could not run for a third term as president) there have been volumes written speculating on the true nature of the Putin-Medvedev relationship: they call their President/Prime Minister act a “tandem rule”, critics say though that Medvedev is merely a seat-warmer for Putin who can run for President again in 2012 (the constitution only bans three consecutive terms). I've speculated here a few times about their relationship, so it would be nice to think that Medvedev truly does want to address some of Russia's really serious problems. Where I hope the US official is wrong is when they suggest that Medvedev is too weak-willed to actually stand up to Putin, since Medvedev is likely the last hope Russia has to tackle some of these issues, at least for the near future.

Another interesting tidbit from the Wikileaks Russia section dealt with Chechen Warlord/President Ramzan Kadyrov. The cables included an anecdote about Kadyrov attending a wedding in Chechnya where he presented the couple with a modest gift of gold bullion before hopping into his heavily-guarded caravan of SUV and taking off. One onlooker said that Kadyrov didn't spend the night in the same place twice due to security concerns. That directly contradicts not only Kadyrov's carefully-crafted image as a regional strongman, but also his oft-repeated arguments (which Moscow bought into at least for awhile) that Chechnya was once again a safe and peaceful part of the Russian Federation.
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