Monday, January 31, 2011

The Egyptian Mirror

One of the more interesting aspects of the uprising in Egypt has been to watch the reactions of observers in the United States and Western Europe (a.k.a “The West”), and how readily what's happening on the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities is so easily conformed into the existing notions of the viewer. A few brief examples:

Egypt is the Bush Freedom Agenda in action. This is a position being pushed by former members of the Bush Administration as well as some neoconservative commentators. Bush made spreading the “blessings of liberty” around the world a key part of his foreign policy, it became the rationale for America's invasion of Iraq - at least once it was clear that no one was buying the whole Weapons of Mass Destruction thing. The idea was that a democratic Iraq would send ripples across the region, ushering in a wave of democratic conversions across the Arab world.
In reality, if anything, the uprising in Egypt is happening in spite of the Bush Freedom Agenda. The Arab street viewed the situation in Iraq not as something to emulate, but rather to avoid, especially after the chaotic period that gripped the country from 2003-2008. Bush further undermined his own Freedom Agenda by cozying up to Arab autocrats, including one Hosni Mubarak. And protesters in Cairo have been quick to note that the tear gas canisters Mubarak's police are firing at them are stamped “Made in the U.S.A.”.

The Revolution is Social Media in action! There's at least a little truth to this one; scenes of the successful uprising in Tunisia were widely shared via YouTube and Facebook, one Egyptian cleric said over the weekend that the people were not following him, but Facebook, and of course Egypt tried to bring the situation under control by killing the Internet in the country. That said it is easy to overestimate the impact of Social Media in the protests. Less than a quarter of Egyptians have access to the Internet (some estimates put the number at only 8-10%), and once the Internet went down, the protests actually got larger. Organizers resorted to old-fashioned methods like passing out leaflets and knocking on doors to get the word out. In fact, the media outlet that seemed to have the biggest impact on getting the people to rise up was Al-Jazeera, which beamed first the story of the Tunisian situation and later the first Egyptian uprisings to homes around the country (Egypt finally pulled the plug on Al-Jazeera over the weekend). Yes, Social Media has played a role in the Egypt revolts, but revolutions were happening long before Facebook went online, and this one almost surely would have happened without Twitter and YouTube as well.

Egypt will go all Fundamental Islamic. This meme has been gaining traction over the weekend in the American press, and comes from fears that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which supports Hezbollah and Hamas, could “take over” in the power vacuum that would likely follow Mubarak's deposal. Not coincidentally, casting the MB as bogeyman is exactly the strategy that Mubarak has used for years to coerce Western nations to support his autocratic regime. But noted Egypt scholar Fawaz Gerges argued on MSNBC on Sunday that the Muslim Brotherhood's constituency within Egypt is in fact limited, perhaps only a third of the nation at best supports them, and that they have not been a leading force in the uprisings. He went on to argue that the MB has become more moderate and mainstream in recent years, leaving behind the violent radicalism that marked their rhetoric in the 80s and 90s. More important is the man on the street opinion. One Egyptian I saw on CNN asked the reporter: “who here is Muslim? Who is Christian? We are together and we want Mubarak gone.” The mood on the street certainly would seem more supportive of a broad coalition government than a fundamentalist Islamic state – after all, the Egyptians are trying to get rid of an oppressive regime not merely trade Mubarak in for a Taliban-style one. Would the Muslim Brotherhood be part of a coalition government? Yes, but that is not the same as “taking over”, and certainly is not an indication that Egypt is about to turn fundamentalist.

It's racism! Finally there's this nugget via my old University's email listserv where one student took great offense at the term “Day of Rage” as one of the early protests in Egypt was called, launching into a tirade about how “whites” viewed Africans as savages only capable of rage, etc., etc. Never mind that the term “Day of Rage” had been coined in Lebanon a week earlier to mark a protest over Hezbollah's attempts to appoint a new prime minister, or that reportage of the term seems to have originated with Qatar-based Al Jazeera. She wanted to see racism, and coverage of the events in Egypt allowed her to see it.

Just like a mirror.

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Chinese Stealth, American Research

China caused a stir, and something of a minor diplomatic incident, earlier this month when they undertook the first flight of their stealth fighter jet, the J-20, during a visit by US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. I wonder if the Chinese were kind enough to thank Gates for all the help America unwittingly gave China in building the jet?

According to a new report on the BBC, the J-20 owes much of its stealthy design to parts from an American F-117 Nighthawk stealth jet shot down during the NATO-led, and US-backed bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999. The F-117 was the first operational stealth aircraft employed by any military in the world; a stealth aircraft uses a combination of shape and radio wave-absorbing materials to make the airplane nearly invisible to radar. Yet somehow the Serbians still managed to shoot one down during the conflict, military sources from the Balkan region say that Chinese intelligence agents reached the crash site and retrieved parts of the aircraft, which were believed to have given Chinese engineers a great advantage in building the J-20 they recently unveiled. The story does make some sense since in 1999 there were deep ties between Serbia and China, at the time the US angrily accused China of sharing military intelligence with Serbia. (It's worth noting that during the bombing campaign against Serbia, the Chinese embassy was “accidentally” struck by an errant bomb.) It is also strange, based on the BBC report, that the United States didn't make an effort to secure the wreckage of the F-117, or at least destroy it. The crash site was allegedly visited by Chinese, American and Russian officials and even today pieces of the F-117 are displayed in a museum in Belgrade, Serbia.

Of course China doesn't seem to have taken the most valuable lesson from the F-117 wreckage; namely that stealth technology isn't all that it is cracked up to be. Even though building a stealth jet today is the holy grail of the world's most advanced air forces, the planes do have one glaring weakness – while it is possible to make the aircraft itself nearly invisible to radar, it's not possible to disguise the turbulence it leaves as it moves though the air. Just like a boat leaves a wake in the water as it moves, so to does an airplane. And while American officials dismissed the Serbian downing of the F-117 in 1999 as a “lucky shot”, in fact the Serbs had figured out a clever way to use Doppler radar (the same kind your local weatherman uses) to track the wake of the F-117. All they had to do then was shoot at the point where the wake was starting to hit the airplane.

Getting back to the Chinese J-20, in addition to thanking the US, China probably also owes Russia a debt of gratitude as well. A few weeks ago, the Washington Post published this article about how despite their best efforts, the Chinese defense industry has had little luck in creating durable jet engines for their air force and were looking into long-term deals with Russia for a supply of aircraft engines. Just a little something to keep in mind next time you read an article about the growing might of the Chinese military.
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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Airport Bombing Rocks Russia

By now you have probably heard about the suicide bombing at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport that has killed at least 35 and wounded 180 others, many of them seriously. The attack was the worst act of terror in Russia since a suicide bombing in the Moscow Metro killed 40 last March. While no one has yet claimed responsibility for the blast, it's probably not a stretch to assume that terrorists from Russia's restive North Caucasus region are responsible.

I think that the attacks are especially interesting in the light of a news report circulating in the Russian media last week that militant Chechen leader Doku Umarov had been killed in an operation by Russian special forces soldiers. Officially, the Russian government isn't offering any proof of Umarov's death and have been somewhat downplaying the reports, noting that Umarov's demise has been falsely reported before. But at the same time, they are saying that, for all they know, Umarov could be dead. The timing of the Domodedovo bombing then becomes very interesting, could it be a statement by the terrorists that they are still a lethal force, despite the loss of their most public leader?

It will also be interesting to see what the political fallout from the attack will be for Russia's ruling tandem of Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin. Medvedev has already made the usual statements leaders make at times like this about bringing perpetrators to justice, etc., though for nearly a decade now Russia has failed to find a solution to their North Caucasus problem. Even the subcontracting of the security situation to Chechnya's President/Warlord Ramzan Kadyrov seems now to have been a failure since the problem of Chechen terror has simply migrated to neighboring republics like Ingushetia and Dagestan, which see terror attacks (albeit smaller-scale ones than Domodedovo) on a near-daily basis. Last year Medvedev correctly noted that a big factor behind the growth of militancy in the North Caucasus was the grinding poverty and lack of development in the region, but the Domodedovo attack coming on the heels of last month's murder of Russian soccer fan Yegor Sviridov by a group of men from the North Caucasus – an act which sparked several riots in Moscow – isn't likely to leave many Russian wanting to offer aid and support to their North Caucasus countrymen. What could further hurt Medvedev/Putin are reports that Russia's state security force, the FSB, were tracking what we'd call in the United States several “persons of interest” in the days before the attack, yet security levels at the airport were not raised. Among the comments posted online that I read yesterday was one from a Moscow resident saying that the FSB was more concerned about breaking up political opposition rallies than they were about actually protecting the citizens of Russia.

One final note – kudos to the BBC for their coverage of the airport attack yesterday, which included a constantly-updated ticker of breaking news.

Update - The Guardian newspaper is now reporting that a Chechen "Black Widow" female suicide bomber is suspected to have carried out the Domodedovo attack. Dmitry Medvedev also slammed officals for the lax state of security at the airport.
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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Baby (Doc) Come Back

In what's either the biggest act of political hubris in a long, long time, or the execution of a cunning plan to retake power, Haiti's former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier returned to Port-au-Prince last week after two decades in exile. His sudden arrival threw the country's already shaky political establishment into turmoil; for his part, Duvalier said he was returning to help his country rebuild after the massive earthquake that leveled large parts of Port-au-Prince and killed perhaps as many as 300,000 people – though he offered no explanation on why then he waited a whole year to make his return.

And that has people speculating that Duvalier is hoping to take advantage of the political vacuum which currently exists in Haiti. The presidential elections held last November have been marred by charges of fraud and vote-rigging; a run-off between the two top candidates still hasn't been held. Meanwhile, Port-au-Prince remains a city of rubble and refugee camps with an out-of-control crime rate. This seems to have spurred former Duvalier loyalists to lobby their boss to fly in from exile in Paris to try to retake the reins of power, a motivation at least partially confirmed by Duvalier's lawyer, Reynold Georges, who said of his client in an interview with al-Jazeera: “he is a political man. Every political man has political ambitions.” Georges added that under the new Haitian constitution that he helped to draft, Duvalier has the legal right to stand for election.

So far though, Duvalier has only stood before a Haitian judge to answer charges of corruption and embezzlement dating back to the end of his reign in 1986. Baby Doc Duvalier ruled Haiti from 1971 to 1986, taking over for his father Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. The rule of the Duvalier clan was marked by authoritarian rule and widespread human rights abuse; the Duvaliers kept power in large part thanks to a brutal militia known as the Tonton Macoutes. When Baby Doc was finally overthrown in a popular revolt, he is said to have taken a large chunk of the national treasury with him into exile, nearly $6 million of which still lies frozen in a Swiss bank account. A Haitian judge now has three months to decide whether the criminal case should continue against Baby Doc Duvalier; meanwhile he'll likely be staying in Haiti whether he wants to or not, his passport was seized by Haitian authorities.

As for the question of why would Haitians even want a brutal dictator back in the first place, it is likely an expression of just how frustrated people are over the slow pace of reconstruction in Port-au-Prince. Despite pledges of billions of dollars in foreign aid, little work in the capital has actually been done. Much of the money is tied up in political and bureaucratic red tape, and Haiti's current political turmoil isn't helping the situation. It is worth noting that the crowd who met Duvalier at the airport included a fair number of young people, all of whom were likely born after he fled to Paris. They don't remember the brutality of the Duvalier regime, but have only heard the stories of how Haiti was once not an economic basket case. Given the current sorry state of affairs, it is a powerful image.

Duvalier's return has also prompted speculation that another ousted Haitian leader may stage his own comeback: former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was driven from power by another coup in 2004. Unlike Baby Doc though, Aristide is said to still have broad support among the Haitian population. For his part, Aristide insists that the coup against him wasn't a popular uprising, but rather a manufactured revolt secretly backed by the United States because economic reforms he proposed to fight poverty and improve the lives of average Haitians would have a negative impact on American business interests in Haiti. According to this editorial by Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Aristide's decision to disband the Haitian army also factored into the United States' decision to support his ouster, since the army's main duty was to protect the country's small, but powerful upper class as well as international business interests, primarily from the United States, Canada and France. Weisbrot goes on to cite information contained within the Wikileaks dump of US foreign policy cables that contend to show the United States pressuring Brazil, the nation heading up the UN coalition supposedly providing security in Port-au-Prince, not to allow Aristide to return to Haiti from exile in South Africa.

The official position of the US State Department is that Aristide's return would only confuse the political situation in Haiti. But with near anarchy on the streets of the capital, an indefinitely-postponed presidential election and the return of a brutal former dictator, it's hard to imagine how Aristide's return could possibly make things worse.
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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Juan Of The Dead

The zombies have reached Cuba.

Not real zombies of course, no Cuba is jumping on the horror movie bandwagon as the island nation shoots its first zombie film, “Juan of the Dead”. Of course being Cuba, even a schlock horror movie has some political overtones. According to the BBC, the Cuban leaders in the movie dither as a zombie plague grips the island, blaming the outbreak on the America government and Cuban exiles as part of a sinister plan to undermine the Communist government. It falls then to the title hero Juan to try to rid his homeland of the zombie plague.

Director Alejandro Brugues said that the zombie outbreak is both a metaphor and a way to explore how Cuban react to disasters, even ridiculous movie-made ones. “It's a zombie film but it's about Cubans and how we react in the face of a crisis because we've had a lot of them here over the last 50 years,” Brugues explained to the BBC.

Cuba has a rich cinematic history, but since the fall of their primary patron, the Soviet Union, in 1991, the Cuban film industry has struggled to fund new productions. “Juan of the Dead” is a joint project between Cuban and Spanish studios, production on the film should wrap later this year.
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Making Tracks In Nigeria

Interesting story by way of The Guardian about plans in Nigeria to build a railroad in the country's commercial center, Lagos; a city that is literally clogged with people. According to businesspeople interviewed by The Guardian, daily commutes of three hours – each way – are not uncommon. Part of the problem is the geography of Lagos; the city is built on a series of islands in a swampy marshland, limiting access points in and out of the city. Still, these limitations aren't putting the breaks on Lagos' growth, projections are that within the next five years it will surpass Cairo to become Africa's largest city with a population soaring past the 12 million mark.

That's where EkoRail comes in with their plan to eventually build seven passenger rail lines, each costing about $1 billion apiece, to swiftly move people in and out of the city. Projections are that the rail lines could carry 1.4 million people per day. That, EkoRail says, will have a massive benefit throughout society in Lagos as people will be able to shave literally hours off of their current commute, giving them free time they never before had. EkoRail is also building its own electric-generation plant to power the rail lines; extra power will be sold to towns and villages around Lagos.

Like many major infrastructure projects in Africa today, EkoRail is being partially underwritten and built by the Chinese, who have shipped in many Chinese engineers and laborers to work on the construction of the network. EkoRail's backers have grand plans beyond just moving commuters in Lagos, they are studying the possibility of extending one of the network's lines westward to eventually link Lagos with the neighboring countries of Togo, Benin and Ghana.
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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Investigation Threatens Polish/Russian Relations

Last April a plane crash in Russia killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 other dignitaries. The plane carrying Kaczynski and the others was attempting to land during a fierce storm at the city of Smolensk in western Russia to bring the delegation to a ceremony commemorating perhaps the darkest chapter in Polish-Russian relations: the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, when thousands of Polish military officers were executed by the Russian secret police on the direct orders of Soviet leader Josef Stalin at the outbreak of World War II. Ironically, Russia's heartfelt response to the air crash tragedy spurred a thaw in what had been frosty relations between the two countries, relations that had grown steadily worse since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But now Russia's official investigation into the causes of the crash are threatening to undermine those much-improved relations. Polish officials have reacted angrily to a draft of the report, which places the blame for the wreck squarely on the shoulders of the Polish pilots and senior officials aboard the presidential airplane. Russian aviation officials contend that the airplane never should have attempted to land during the storm, which featured strong winds and near-zero visibility. The plane lost a wing after striking a tree causing it to crash into the ground; the theory is that the pilots were trying to “duck” under the clouds to catch a glimpse of the runway. The portion of the report that has caused true outrage among the Poles though is a contention by the Russians that the pilots were pressured into trying to land by a senior air force official aboard the plane, Gen Andrzej Blasik so that President Kaczynski would not miss the Katyn memorial ceremony scheduled for the next day. A Russian autopsy indicated that Blasik had a blood-alcohol level of 0.06, suggesting that his judgment may have been impaired. To support their theory, Russian investigators offered an excerpt of a cockpit flight recording where one of the pilots reportedly said “this is mad”, which the Russians contend meant that the VIPs aboard would be mad if they were forced to turn away from landing in Smolensk.

You have to wonder though if it wasn't a commentary on the mere craziness of trying to land in the midst of such a storm. As you can imagine the Russian report is getting an angry reception from some in Poland; President Kaczynski's brother Jaroslaw called the report a “joke against Poland”, while Blasik's widow said it was “libel” of her late husband. The Poles also criticize the Russians for not closing Smolensk's airport due to the weather conditions, though the Russians note that the air controllers at Smolensk repeatedly told the Polish aircraft not to attempt to land. But there's also indication that cooler heads might prevail. Poland's current prime minister, Donald Tusk, said that while he felt the report did not go far enough in examining the causes of the crash, it was clear that a majority of the fault lies with the Polish aircrew's decision to try to land in the first place. He also said that a disagreement over the report would not be allowed to harm the much-improved Russian-Polish relations, a sentiment echoed by Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
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Monday, January 17, 2011

Tunisia’s Twitter/Jasmine Revolution

While political scientists are still trying to sort out what to call this past weekend’s events in Tunisia: uprising, revolt, coup, etc.; the media have made their call – it’s a revolution, and according to some, not just a revolution, but a Twitter Revolution.

Let’s take a step back and look at how things have quickly unfolded in the North African nation during the past week. After his security forces were unable to quell street protests, Tunisia’s authoritarian president President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali decided to high-tail it out of the country and into exile. Over the weekend an interim government led by the country’s Prime Minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, stepped forward and assumed control, though there are reports as of Monday morning that unrest is still widespread, Tunisian state security forces are still trying to gain control of the streets and militias loyal to President Ben Ali are still roaming the countryside. Sparking all of this unrest was the suicide of 26-year old Mohamed Bouazizi, a young man who set himself on fire in an act of protest after government officials confiscated the small vegetable stand he ran when he could not find any other work after graduating from college. Bouazizi died on January 4.

With the media in Tunisia tightly controlled by the state, Bouazizi’s story only got out via social media – Facebook, YouTube, etc., so thus whatever is currently happening in Tunisia has been dubbed the “Twitter Revolution”. If all of this sounds familiar, it is; previously popular uprisings in both Iran and Moldova have been called the Twitter Revolution. But in each case – getting past the fact that Iran’s uprising failed and Moldova’s brought change, just not all that much – the “revolutions” should have been more accurately been called the Social Media Revolution, and even then only if you expand the definition of social media to include cell phones and text messages. Twitter in each case has seemed to be a tool - one of many – that people have used to get the story of the uprising out. But to be called the X-revolution, X must be the cause of the revolution, not merely the poorly-worded name for a tool used within it – and by that measure what’s happening in Tunisia is best called the Unemployed and Angry Young People Revolt (not exactly a zippy title, I know).

Of course we won’t be calling it that since the other trend in revolutions in the 21st century is to give them some color or flower-related name; in Tunisia’s case we have the Jasmine Revolution. This trend got it’s start with Georgia’s Rose Revolution, and really picked up steam with Ukraine’s Orange Revolution – where supporters of Viktor Yushchenko, who had lost an obviously-rigged presidential election – at least wore Orange to help identify each other. We also had Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution and Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution (yes, a Cedar is a tree, but it does fit the theme here). Even though I’ve read several articles calling Tunisia’s the “Jasmine Revolution”, I still can’t find out why Jasmine has gotten attached to this one.

But frankly, mass political uprisings are serious things that shouldn’t be given cutesy nicknames. And given the track record of the color/flower revolutions, Tunisia might want to steer clear. After five years, Yiktor Yanukovich, the very man whose election-rigging attempts sparked the Orange Revolution, was voted back into power; in Georgia government has flirted with authoritarianism since the Rose Revolution; Kyrgyzstan had another revolution following the Tulip one and Lebanon is currently undergoing an extended political crisis. Hopefully whatever is currently going on in Tunisia, has a brighter future over the long term.
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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Canada's Ethical Oil

The government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is taking a new tack in marketing their petroleum products by adopting the term “ethical oil”. Critics say though that it is simply a bold ploy to market what in reality is very dirty oil to a reluctant American market.

Much of the Canadian oil exported to the United States (Canada is the largest single supplier of imported oil to America) comes from Canada's oil sands region in Alberta. As discussed in earlier posts, oil sands crude is a very heavy, very dense oil that requires extensive processing to extract and prepare for shipment – a process that is taking a heavy toll on the environment in northern Alberta. Canadian firm TransCanada is proposing to build a new pipeline across the United States to refineries along the Gulf Coast specifically to process oil sands crude, but several members of Congress have been working to block approval of the Keystone XL pipeline on environmental grounds.

That's where the ethical oil argument comes in. Originally proposed last year by Canadian writer Ezra Levant and now apparently adopted by the Harper government, the ethical oil argument is that it's better for the United States to buy oil from the peaceful, human rights-respecting Canadians than it is to buy it from regimes like Saudi Arabia or Venezuela that support radical Islamic fundamentalism or are openly hostile to the US. “Canada is a very ethical society and a safe source for the United States in comparison to other sources of energy,” Harper said in a statement last Friday. Meanwhile groups like the Sierra Club say that Harper's government should put more effort into ensuring that oil sands production is in line with environmental regulations in Alberta rather than into marketing efforts.
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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Russia Roiled By Ethnic Riots

Though under-reported in the West, during the past few weeks, Russia has been dealing with some of the worst ethnic rioting seen in the country since the end of the Soviet Union. The catalyst for this situation was the murder on December 5 of Yegor Sviridov, an ethnic Russian soccer fan by another group of Russians from the Northern Caucasus region outside of a match by the club Spartak Moscow, and the subsequent release of the perpetrators by the local police. This sparked a protest by thousands of ethnic Russians outside the gates of the Kremlin on December 11. Egged on by members of nationalist and ultra-right wing groups within their numbers, the protest soon turned into a full-blown riot the elite OMON unit of the national militia struggled to contain.

While most Americans think of Russia as a nation filled exclusively with, well, Russians, it actually is a diverse, multiethnic society made up of dozens of ethnic groups. A vast, multiethnic society living together in peace was one of the big propaganda points touted by the old Soviet Union. But when the Soviet Union broke up into 15 independent nations in 1991, old ethnic tensions began to bubble to the surface. In Russia today, both Russian citizens originally from the old Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union, as well as migrant workers from those now-independent countries today, often find themselves the target of racist attacks – Central Asian workers tend to fill the same role in Russia that migrant Mexican workers do in the United States. Russians from the North Caucasus region in southwestern Russia also face widespread discrimination. The North Caucasus region is home to Chechnya, so the common assumption in Russia is that all North Caucasus residents are terrorists (or potential terrorists) and they tend to be treated accordingly.

Unfortunately in the 16 years since the beginning of the first Chechen War, unrest from Chechnya has spread across the North Caucasus to other Russian republics like Dagestan and Ingushetia, and the conflict has evolved from a struggle by Chechen militants for independence for their homeland into one that has become increasingly wrapped up in an al-Qaeda-style battle to create a fundamentalist Islamic state – all factors that feed the “all North Caucasus people are terrorists” meme within Russia. One reason this Islamic fundamentalism has found fertile ground in the region is the generally lousy living conditions found in the North Caucasus – unemployment is ridiculously high as is the poverty rate, while local officials are horribly corrupt – all problems acknowledged by President Dmitry Medvedev. Unfortunately the Russian government's response hasn't been to encourage development and crackdown on corruption in the region, but rather to give a free hand to brutal local leaders like Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov in dealing with dissent, a strategy that has succeeded only in creating more (and angrier) dissent.

Corruption also directly led to the recent riots in Moscow; the perpetrators of the fatal attack on Sviridov were released from custody after a bribe was apparently paid to the police. But again, this reality failed to bring about the expected response from Russian officials – namely an investigation into rampant police corruption, but instead brought just more political window dressing: namely a visit by Prime Minister Putin to the grave site of the murdered soccer fan, Sviridov. That and the assignment of Russia's newest superstar to the case – Anna Chapman, who was recently named to the advisory board of the “Young Guard”, a pro-Kremlin youth group, to whom she gave the kind of vague and bland speech you expect from politicians today, case in point: “we must transform the future, starting with ourselves!”

For his part, during a nationally televised address, Putin seemed willing to attack the problem of unauthorized protests within Russia, but his focus quickly shifted from ethnic strife and soccer hooligans to liberal political protests. Perhaps to emphasize the point, on December 31, one of Russia's best-known left-wing politicians, Boris Nemtsov was arrested during one of the “31” protests in Moscow – for the past year, liberal groups have publicly gathered on the 31st day or every month that has one in support of the 31st article of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees the people the right to peacefully assemble. Previously, the small gatherings were quickly broken up by the police, though the October 31 rally was allowed to go on with an official approval from President Medvedev. That wasn't the case for the December 31 protest, which was not only broken up, but saw Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister not only arrested but also sentenced to 15 days in jail.

Just as Russia chose to react to the allegations of police corruption brought forward by Novorossiisk policeman Alexei Dymovsky by creating “Dymovsky 's law” - a law that didn't punish corrupt officers, but rather those who blew the whistle on them, Russia once again seems intent on applying the wrong remedy to a problem – treating ethnic strife by arresting political critics of the Kremlin.
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Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Somali Union

There's news from Somalia that two of the rival factions struggling for control of the county have decided to set aside their differences and unite. Unfortunately it's two of the really bad factions that have decided to unite – the rival Islamist militias of al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam. Previously, the two groups had been battling for control of the capital, Mogadishu, as well as for a few port cities along the long, and lawless, Somali coast. But the two groups decided to set aside their differences and unite to fight what they see as their common enemy – Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (the TFG) and the 20,000 troops from the African Union that are helping the TFG to keep their tenuous toehold in Mogadishu. While the AU troops aren't a particularly strong fighting force, they have been enough to keep al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam from overrunning the capital – especially since al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam have spent more time fighting each other than they have the AU forces.

One factor behind the linkage of the two insurgent groups could be the fact that lately, Hizbul has been getting the worst of the battle with al-Shabaab and there are signs that Hizbul itself could split in two. That's the result of a failed offensive Hizbul launched recently against al-Shabaab troops in Mogadishu. Members of Hizbul from southern Somalia were angered that Hizbul's commanders – who come from clans based in the northern part of Somalia – decided to let Hizbul's southern Somalis make up the majority of the attacking force, and to thus take the bulk of the casualties. But for the moment, the two groups seem to be satisfied to let bygones be bygones; they handled their new union the way that two rival corporations would – with a press conference to announce the merger and explanations of who would serve in what leadership roles and that the new group would continue to do business under the al-Shabaab name – after all, why mess with a successful brand?

Joking aside, the militant merger could make things worse in Somalia. With the two groups not fighting against each other, they may in fact do a better job of battling the AU troops, a situation that won't be good for the Somali TFG. And at the press conference, the new al-Shabaab threatened stepped-up terror attacks outside of Somalia, even promising attacks in the United States if President Obama didn't lead the nation to a mass conversion to Islam (apparently word of the “Birthers” and the other fringe groups who think that Obama already is a Muslim haven't reached Somalia yet). It may be a mistake though to dismiss these claims as mere bluster. In July an al-Shabaab terror bombing killed more than 70 people who gathered outside the Ugandan capital, Kampala, to watch the World Cup; Kenyan authorities are pointing at al-Shabaab as the force behind a December 21 bombing that killed one (the bomber) and wounded 40 others on a Uganda-bound bus. Al-Shabaab has vowed to attack Uganda and Ugandans particularly because troops from that country make up the bulk of the African Union forces operating in Mogadishu.

Meanwhile a mysterious private security firm has been hired by the TFG to provide security in Mogadishu. Saracen International is the same private militia recently hired by the northern Somali region of Puntland to head up “anti-piracy operations”, a mission they will somehow do without boats (as I speculated in this earlier post, Saracen's real mission in Puntland is more likely to protect prospective oil and gas fields ashore rather than hunting pirates at-sea). Saracen is being funded by an unnamed Persian Gulf state, though neither Puntland nor the TFG are willing to disclose exactly who; international observers are concerned about who is supporting Saracen along with believing that the group's operations could be in violation of various arms embargoes against Somalia.
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Saturday, January 8, 2011

When Dima Met Arnie

Talk about a political odd couple... Russian President Dmitry Medvedev apparently has a new friend in politics, outgoing California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and just to make the story a little stranger, the two have apparently arranged a ski date, via Twitter. Nice to see 2011 is off to a boring start.

The story actually makes a little sense once you start to dig into it. The two leaders met when Medvedev was on a tour of California's Silicon Valley; Medvedev's pet project has been to launch a Russian version of Silicon Valley in the Skolkovo suburb outside Moscow, an attempt to jump-start the Russian hi-tech sector and to diversify the Russian economy away from extraction activities, namely oil and natural gas (on a side note, Russia has passed Saudi Arabia as the world's largest oil exporter). Apparently the two just really hit it off. For his part, Schwarzenegger is looking for the next act in his political career now that his role as governor is finished; Schwarzenegger himself has hinted about becoming a spokesman/cheerleader for the green energy sector, though there is also speculation that he may go back into business, his cozy relationship with Medvedev could indicate that he'd be willing to jump into the rough-and-tumble world of Russian business.

Schwarzenegger of course has some experience in Russia dating back to his role as a Russian super-cop in the 1988 film “Red Heat”, the first major American movie allowed to film in Red Square among other Russian locales. And for Medvedev it also means that he's friends with one of the few politicians in the world who could possibly beat up his political partner (and judo black belt) Vladimir Putin.

The two may choose to have their ski date outside of Sochi, Russia, which would help top promote the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics to be held in the city.
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Sunday, January 2, 2011

AWV Award Time!

With 2010 now behind us, it's time for our annual look back at the year that was and at all the strangeness this world has to offer. So, without further adieu, it's time for the A World View Awards, and as always, any sarcasm contained within is most surely intentional.

The Maxwell Smart Award – Anna Chapman
It's only fitting that an award named for a spy who continually screwed up, yet somehow always managed to find success goes to the redheaded femme fatale Anna Chapman. Apparently gone are the days when failing in your mission as a spy meant a dank prison cell followed by a bullet; after being caught in a ham-handed FBI sting (or betrayed by a rogue FSB colonel) and repatriated to Russia, Chapman has found nothing but success: taking a job as a spokeswoman for a Russian bank, singing songs with Prime Minister Putin, being named to the board of a pro-Kremlin youth group, having ballads written in her honor and even getting her own iPhone app. There's speculation that next year Chapman may try to represent her native Volgograd region in the Russian Duma, not bad for someone who apparently failed badly in her espionage mission. We should note, since the other ten alleged spies swept up with Chapman have all sunk into lives of relative obscurity, being hot helps:

Golden Lights of Democracy Award – Yahya Jammeh, The Gambia and Laurent Gbagbo, Cote d'Ivoire
A split award to two men doing everything they can to undermine the cause of democracy in Africa this past year. First is President Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia, even with the media firmly under his control and elections fully rigged, Jammeh decided this whole process of pretending to run for president was just a big ol' waste of time, his solution: attempt to have himself named King of The Gambia, an idea dutifully pushed by compliant political lackeys. But not to be out done is President Laurent Gbagbo of Cote d'Ivoire, who came up with a great way to respond to losing a presidential election: just don't stop being president! After his loss was certified, Gbagbo, who called the free and fair election a “coup”, had himself sworn into office again and for the past month has insisted he's still the president. Unfortunately he is backed by a vast security force augmented by members of the Ivorian military and allegedly mercenaries from neighboring Liberia as well who are brutally attacking supporters of the legitimate president, Alassane Ouattara; the whole situation is threatening to descend into civil war, which doesn't seem to bother “president” Gbagbo in the least.

Bad Science Idea of the Year Award – Geoengineering
2010 saw some ardent global warming skeptics come around to the idea that greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) are actually having an effect on the world's climate. Unfortunately rather than working to limit the amount of GHG pumped into the atmosphere – by taking steps like shutting coal-fired power plants, moving away from a car-centric culture and generally changing the way the developed world works – some scientists are proposing an idea called “geoengineering”, or essentially hacking the global climate. Geoengineering would involve pumping huge amounts of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to reflect a portion of the sunlight hitting the Earth back into space. With less sunlight hitting the Earth's surface, global temperatures would drop, or more correctly, would drop in a manner offsetting the rise in global temperatures caused by the GHGs, thus keeping things about where they are.
Two small problems: first is that once started, the sulfur dioxide pumping would have to continue, permanently; otherwise global temperatures could suddenly spike upward by several degrees, thanks to the GHG saturated atmosphere. The other problem is that the sulfur dioxide-reflected sunlight would cause a “permanent whitening” of day-time skies, an effect something akin to the skies from the movie The Matrix. Unfortunately, this daffy idea has the attention of some right-wing groups in the United States including the influential conservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute.

Photo of the Year #1 – Putin and Buffy
Russia's Vladimir Putin is a man who likes flying in jet fighters, sparring in judo matches and wading bare-chested through Siberian rivers (and critics will say rigging elections, limiting the freedom of the press and running a mafia-like empire); but just to show he has a softer side he also hugs adorable puppies!

The Merit Promotion Award – Kim Jong-un
For his first 27 (or 28) years, the only knowledge the world had of Kim Jong-un was a blurry photograph of a young Korean boy taken at a Swiss boarding school. But when your dad is the head of the world's last remaining Stalinist state, change can come quickly; this summer Kim Jong-un was elevated to the rank of four-star general (complete with the modest title of “Great General”) and named successor to the ailing Kim Jong-il. To prove his bona fides as the “Great General”, Kim Jong-un is allegedly the one who ordered the artillery attack on the sleeping South Korean fishing village on Yeonpyeong Island, which killed four people and brought the two Koreas to the brink of war, along with going down as one of the most lopsided military conflicts since the Klingons battled the tribbles. Unfortunately, Korea observers believe that there is still a lot of internal strife over the elevation of the 27 (or 28) year old Kim Jong-un to leader-in-waiting status, promising more uncertain times on the Korean peninsula.

The “Who Can It Be Now” Award – the Togolese “National” Soccer Team
“Friendlies” - matches between the national teams of two countries – are a fixture in world football (or soccer to us Americans) circles; so that Togo's national team traveled to the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain for a match in September wasn't unusual. But the Bahrain team was surprised by the poor quality of the Togolese side, some of whom were so out of shape they reportedly had trouble making it from one end of the field to the other; it certainly wasn't a national-caliber team, and for good reason – it wasn't the Togo national team, but rather a group of imposters gathered together for the match. The resulting scandal led to dismissals among the management of the national football authority and was a black eye for Togo's team, which earlier in the year was the victim of a terrorist massacre in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that killed two team members traveling to the Africa Cup tournament in Angola.
Honorable mention in this category goes to “Mullah Akthar Mohammad Mansour”, or at least to the guy who posed as the Taliban commander who was apparently flown into Kabul by NATO for a high-level meeting with President Karzai and given $100,000 before disappearing into Pakistan with the loot. Imagine what would be going on if we weren't winning that war...

Photo of the Year #2 – The Irish Banking Crisis
Perhaps this photo of officials from the International Monetary Fund scurrying into a meeting in Dublin on the Irish financial crisis needs no set-up...

“They Pull Me Back In” Award – Doku Umarov
In August, Doku Umarov, the leader of the Islamic militant movement in Russia's Chechnya region and the self-styled “Emir of the North Caucasus Caliphate”, announced he was retiring from jihading during an Internet press conference. A few days later Umarov held another Internet press conference to announce he was un-retiring and would once again take up the cause for jihad in southern Russia; to quote Michael Corleone: just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in...
Analysts say that the move reflects a split in the Chechen militant community between Umarov's supporters, who have thrown their lot in with al-Qaeda and have bought into Osama bin Laden's idea of a worldwide jihad, and other Chechen factions who want to ditch the global jihad talk and get back to their original mission of using terror attacks to secure independence for Chechnya, this faction supposedly didn't want to win independence from Russia only to become a small part of some new regional caliphate. Whatever the reason, it is enough to win Umarov the Pull Me Back In Award and make him the first two-time winner in the history of the AWV awards.

The Golden Cockroach – Silvio Berlusconi
Named for nature's ultimate survivor, the Golden Cockroach goes to the national leader who somehow manages to stay in power despite everything they've done during the past year; and for 2010 there's no more fitting recipient than Italy's Silvio Berlusconi. While Italy's poorly-performing economy might be enough to doom most politicians, Silvio ups the ante by making racist comments about other world leaders, cavorting with underage lingerie models, making other of his ladyfriends members of the government and hiring escorts to attend to his VIP guests at his private villa; actions that have even his own daughter speaking out against him. In November it looked like Silvio was done for, facing a “no confidence” vote by the parliament; yet somehow Silvio survived, and there are indications his ruling coalition might emerge stronger following the next election. Silvio, this cockroach is for you, you've earned it.

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