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 21 
 on: Today at 06:49 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Peshmerga forces heave Isis away from Mount Sinjar

As many as 300 militants are believed killed as US-led airstrikes assist the Kurdistan regional government in northern Iraq

Fazel Hawramy on Mount Sinjar
Sunday 21 December 2014 21.55 GMT
The Guardian
   
Kurdish peshmerga forces backed by US-led air strikes pushed Islamic State militants out of a large area around Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, according to Kurdish officials.

“We have managed to free 3,000 sq km during the last 24 hours,” Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, told reporters on top of Mount Sinjar. “Most of Sinjar is under our control now and with the help of God, we will free all of it.”

The Kurdistan regional government mobilised close to 10,000 peshmerga fighters last week in an ongoing operation to drive Isis from the Sinjar area, which is near the Syrian border.

“Peshmerga forces continue to advance inside Sinjar, engaging and suppressing Isis positions,” said statement from Kurdistan’s national security council. It added that between 250 and 300 jihadi militants had been killed since the offensive began on Wednesday, 50 of whom were killed overnight on Saturday.

Isis has held the area since August, when tens of thousands of people, mainly members of the Yazidi religion, one of Iraq’s oldest minorities, were forced to flee to Mount Sinjar or face slaughter at the hands of the advancing militants.

It was partly the plight of the Yazidi people that forced Barack Obama and the international community into action against Isis.

The US-led coalition air strikes, which began in early August, have intensified over the past 20 days after Kurdish ground forces began attacking Isis positions in Sinjar areas. On Saturday night on Mount Sinjar, the air strikes continued non-stop for more than 12 hours on Isis positions, some of which were visible from the mountain top. Peshmerga fighters there told the Guardian that the past two days had seen the most intensive bombing so far.

“I won’t leave even if I die here. I can’t abandon my soil – we were born here and we will die here,” said Jasso Qawal Rasho, 43, who has nine children and has lived in one of the camps on the mountain for four months. “It is very cold here and people have very little to eat.”

Isis still has a presence in the southern part of the Mount Sinjar but Kurdish fighters say they are confident that once the area is taken, the militants will be forced to leave. Some Isis fighters have retreated back to Tal Afar, west of Mosul.

“I am fighting because I want to be able to go back to Sinjar [town] … I have a house but I don’t know if Isis blew it up – they killed my cousin and they have taken 13 members of my family,” said Arshad Jundi, a 25-year-old Yazidi volunteer who left his wife and child in a refugee camp near Duhok city to fight.

Qassem Shasho, the most prominent Yazidi peshmerga, who has taken part in the recent operation, said this time Isis (also known as Isil or Da’esh) would be forced out of the Sinjar area. “We won’t give up until we free Sinjar and kick out Da’esh … We have not had any martyrs but we have had injuries,” he said.

The latest victories for peshmerga forces and the recapture of northern Mount Sinjar have brought new hopes to the Yazidis who are still stuck on the mountain and want to go back to their villages.

Between 7,000 and 10,000 people – mainly children – have been sheltering on top of the mountain in five camps with no running water or electricity for months.

On Friday, peshmerga forces prepared a corridor for them to escape, once the route was secured. On Sunday, several refugees said they would not leave the mountain until their villages south of Mount Sinjar were freed.

The arrival of Isis in Sinjar has also caused rifts within different religious and ethnic groups who lived side by side for many decades. Many Yazidis blame their Arab neighbours for collaborating with the militants. The village of Barzanka, near Zumar town, where the peshmerga claim some residents aided Isis fighters, has been flattened, with only the mosque left standing.

“I do not want a single Arab to stay in the area – they have committed treason against us twice: once during Saddam and this time,” said Hazem Hamza, 32, a Shia Kurd from Sinjar who has been a member of the peshmerga for seven years. “My uncle’s family were killed by Da’esh in Sinjar when they attacked the town.”

On the hill overlooking Sinjar town, a canopy of smoke formed above the town after the frequent air strikes from manned and unmanned coalition planes as well as fighting on the ground.

The Guardian saw several peshmerga fighters injured in the fight for Sinjar being treated by the Red Crescent on the mountain.

Peshmerga fighters, members of the Kurdistan workers’ party (PKK) and the people’s protection units (YPG) from Syria, and the Yazidi armed units have taken part in the latest attack on the ground, while coalition aircraft have provided air cover. On Sunday, US-led forces conducted 13 air strikes in Iraq and three in Syria against Isis targets, the US military said.

Shiyar Shixo, a 23-year-old PKK fighter who participated in the fighting in Sinjar, said four of his comrades had been injured in the fight. “We will fight Da’esh with will and determination until the whole of Kurdistan is free,” said Shixo, who has lived on top of the mountain with a group of PKK and YPG fighters for the last four months.

The British government has dropped humanitarian aid to the refugees on the mountain and RAF Tornado jets have bombed Isis positions in and around Mount Sinjar.

According to one senior Kurdish peshmerga officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, UK military advisers have been involved in the latest offensive against Isis. The officer said he had seen British military personnel advising the peshmerga in Zumar, Nineveh province, in their push for Sinjar.

As the fighting continues in Sinjar, the refugees on top of the mountains are more worried about the freezing temperature. Sino Abdi Aassem, 73, who lives in a tent dropped from British planes in the summer, said he was grateful for the help from the international community but added that they desperately need more.

“We eat bread and water and if we are lucky we have some pasta. We need more tents and food,” he said.

 22 
 on: Today at 06:47 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Angela Merkel has faced down the Russian bear in the battle for Europe

Timothy Garton Ash
The Guardian

In dealing with Putin, the German chancellor has united Europe. She is the stateswoman of the year
Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin

Monday 22 December 2014 06.59 GMT
   
In 2014, the battle for Europe’s future has been fought between two leaders: Russian president Vladimir Putin and German chancellor Angela Merkel. The contrast between them could not be sharper. There the Russian man: macho, militarist, practitioner of the Soviet-style big lie (Russian soldiers in Crimea? What soldiers?), a resentful post-imperial nationalist who in a recent press conference compared Russia to an embattled bear. Here the German woman: gradualist, quietly plain-speaking, consensus-building, strongest on economic power, patiently steering a slow-moving, sovereignty-sharing, multinational European tortoise. 19th-century methods confront 21st-century ones; Mars, the god of war, against Mercury, the god of trade; guns versus butter. For the first half of 2014, the bear was making the running, but now, with the Russian economy close to meltdown, it seems the tortoise may be winning after all.

Merkel has long been recognised as Europe’s leading politician, but this year, during the crisis over Ukraine, she became its leading stateswoman. I remain critical of her handling of the eurozone crisis, but I have only admiration for how she has addressed the return of war to European soil on the hundredth anniversary of 1914.

At the beginning of this year, German president Joachim Gauck, an east German Protestant, took up the appeal that other Europeans had already made for Germany to assume more leadership responsibility in Europe. In the course of the year, Merkel, an east German Protestant, has answered that appeal. The eastern half of Europe is her world. She has it in her bones. She understands it.

One of the early influences on her was a teacher of Russian. As a schoolgirl, she won East Germany’s Russian-language Olympiad. On her office wall, she has a portrait of Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst, the Pomeranian princess who became Empress Catherine the Great of Russia. She can speak to Putin in Russian, as he can to her in German.

Both were in east Germany in 1989 – he as a KGB officer, she as a young scientist – and the lessons they drew were diametrically opposed. In domestic politics she can appear the perfect tactician, tacking this way and that, ruthless as Catherine the Great in seeing off challenges to her power. But in this European crisis, two profound, personal commitments of a Protestant east German of her generation have come to the fore: to peace and to freedom.

In a powerful speech delivered in Sydney last month, she excoriated what Putin has done in Ukraine, referring back to the shared experience from which the two leaders drew such different conclusions: “Who would have thought it possible that 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall … something like this could happen in the middle of Europe? Old thinking in terms of spheres of influence, whereby international law is trampled underfoot, must not be allowed to prevail.”

Earlier in the same speech, she reflected on the lessons of 1914. She has thought hard about the argument made by the historian Christopher Clark in The Sleepwalkers, his masterly account of how Europe stumbled into the first world war. If European leaders went sleepwalking 100 years ago, they must learn the lessons of history and wake up to the danger today. That is why she has talked to Putin more than any other world leader has: 35 phone calls in the first eight months of this year, according to figures released by the Kremlin. (Tellingly, she is also the world leader to whom the American president has spoken most often.)

As she never tires of repeating, her strategy has three prongs: support for Ukraine, diplomacy with Russia and sanctions to bring Putin to the negotiating table. To see Germany leading the way in economic sanctions against Russia is extraordinary. In the early 1990s, I wrote a history of West Germany’s Ostpolitik, culminating in German unification, and the first commandment of that Ostpolitik was that eastern trade should always go on. Sanctions were called for by the US and resisted by Germany. Today, Germany has more trade with Russia than any other European power. Its energy, machine-tool and other eastward–oriented businesses form a powerful lobby, not least within Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Union. Yet she has taken them down the path of sanctions.

Of course Putin and the Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine helped, especially with the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner in July. But, unlike in the eurozone crisis, she has led rather than followed German public opinion. She has faced down the so-called Putinversteher – those who show such “understanding” for Putin’s actions that they come close to excusing them. She has made the larger arguments, from history, about Europe, and they have resonated. I was particularly impressed by an interview I read with the boss of a German machine-tool company whose exports to Russia have been roughly halved following the imposition of sanctions. Yet this German industrialist said he fully supported them: “If [Neville] Chamberlain had imposed some sort of sanctions on Hitler, things would have been different. Both Hitler and Putin held their Olympics, and after his Olympics, Hitler went to war.”

What is more, she has made the case for sanctions powerfully to more reluctant members of the EU, notably Italy, but also smaller east European countries where Russia wields much influence. To be sure, the formal chair of last week’s European Council was the former Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk. It is a notable day in European history when a Pole speaks to Russia not just in Europe’s name but with the whole economic and political weight of a European Union behind him. But Tusk is Merkel’s trusted ally. Everyone knows she is Europe’s real chair. In her Sydney speech, she again emphasised the vital importance of European states “speaking with one voice”.

And then she has been lucky – an essential attribute for any successful stateswoman or statesman. (I can’t bring myself to write statesperson.) Without a spectacular fall in the price of oil, the sanctions, which are still patchy, and not supported by China and other important economic partners of Russia, would not have had this dramatic impact.

The battle of Europe is far from over. In Russia itself, deepening economic crisis will not necessarily translate into more accommodating policy. There is no route map to a post-Putin regime. The cornered bear may lash out. In the bloodied fields of eastern Ukraine, there is still the risk of a series of 1914-style miscalculations leading to an escalation. Russian military planes have flown into the air space of Baltic Nato members.

Nato’s article 5 says an attack on one is an attack on all, but what, in the 21st-century, is an attack? As the apparent North Korean hacking of Sony’s computers has reminded us, cyberattacks are not like uniformed infantry divisions marching across a well-marked frontier. What if Putin sends some more unacknowledged “little green men” to stir up trouble among ethnic Russian minorities in the Baltic states?

So these are still perilous times, and 2015 may bring even larger challenges. But as 2014 draws to a close, I have no hesitation in concluding that Angela Merkel has been the stateswoman of the year.

 23 
 on: Today at 06:46 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Angela Merkel has faced down the Russian bear in the battle for Europe

Timothy Garton Ash
The Guardian

In dealing with Putin, the German chancellor has united Europe. She is the stateswoman of the year
Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin

Monday 22 December 2014 06.59 GMT
   
In 2014, the battle for Europe’s future has been fought between two leaders: Russian president Vladimir Putin and German chancellor Angela Merkel. The contrast between them could not be sharper. There the Russian man: macho, militarist, practitioner of the Soviet-style big lie (Russian soldiers in Crimea? What soldiers?), a resentful post-imperial nationalist who in a recent press conference compared Russia to an embattled bear. Here the German woman: gradualist, quietly plain-speaking, consensus-building, strongest on economic power, patiently steering a slow-moving, sovereignty-sharing, multinational European tortoise. 19th-century methods confront 21st-century ones; Mars, the god of war, against Mercury, the god of trade; guns versus butter. For the first half of 2014, the bear was making the running, but now, with the Russian economy close to meltdown, it seems the tortoise may be winning after all.

Merkel has long been recognised as Europe’s leading politician, but this year, during the crisis over Ukraine, she became its leading stateswoman. I remain critical of her handling of the eurozone crisis, but I have only admiration for how she has addressed the return of war to European soil on the hundredth anniversary of 1914.

At the beginning of this year, German president Joachim Gauck, an east German Protestant, took up the appeal that other Europeans had already made for Germany to assume more leadership responsibility in Europe. In the course of the year, Merkel, an east German Protestant, has answered that appeal. The eastern half of Europe is her world. She has it in her bones. She understands it.

One of the early influences on her was a teacher of Russian. As a schoolgirl, she won East Germany’s Russian-language Olympiad. On her office wall, she has a portrait of Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst, the Pomeranian princess who became Empress Catherine the Great of Russia. She can speak to Putin in Russian, as he can to her in German.

Both were in east Germany in 1989 – he as a KGB officer, she as a young scientist – and the lessons they drew were diametrically opposed. In domestic politics she can appear the perfect tactician, tacking this way and that, ruthless as Catherine the Great in seeing off challenges to her power. But in this European crisis, two profound, personal commitments of a Protestant east German of her generation have come to the fore: to peace and to freedom.

In a powerful speech delivered in Sydney last month, she excoriated what Putin has done in Ukraine, referring back to the shared experience from which the two leaders drew such different conclusions: “Who would have thought it possible that 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall … something like this could happen in the middle of Europe? Old thinking in terms of spheres of influence, whereby international law is trampled underfoot, must not be allowed to prevail.”

Earlier in the same speech, she reflected on the lessons of 1914. She has thought hard about the argument made by the historian Christopher Clark in The Sleepwalkers, his masterly account of how Europe stumbled into the first world war. If European leaders went sleepwalking 100 years ago, they must learn the lessons of history and wake up to the danger today. That is why she has talked to Putin more than any other world leader has: 35 phone calls in the first eight months of this year, according to figures released by the Kremlin. (Tellingly, she is also the world leader to whom the American president has spoken most often.)

As she never tires of repeating, her strategy has three prongs: support for Ukraine, diplomacy with Russia and sanctions to bring Putin to the negotiating table. To see Germany leading the way in economic sanctions against Russia is extraordinary. In the early 1990s, I wrote a history of West Germany’s Ostpolitik, culminating in German unification, and the first commandment of that Ostpolitik was that eastern trade should always go on. Sanctions were called for by the US and resisted by Germany. Today, Germany has more trade with Russia than any other European power. Its energy, machine-tool and other eastward–oriented businesses form a powerful lobby, not least within Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Union. Yet she has taken them down the path of sanctions.

Of course Putin and the Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine helped, especially with the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner in July. But, unlike in the eurozone crisis, she has led rather than followed German public opinion. She has faced down the so-called Putinversteher – those who show such “understanding” for Putin’s actions that they come close to excusing them. She has made the larger arguments, from history, about Europe, and they have resonated. I was particularly impressed by an interview I read with the boss of a German machine-tool company whose exports to Russia have been roughly halved following the imposition of sanctions. Yet this German industrialist said he fully supported them: “If [Neville] Chamberlain had imposed some sort of sanctions on Hitler, things would have been different. Both Hitler and Putin held their Olympics, and after his Olympics, Hitler went to war.”

What is more, she has made the case for sanctions powerfully to more reluctant members of the EU, notably Italy, but also smaller east European countries where Russia wields much influence. To be sure, the formal chair of last week’s European Council was the former Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk. It is a notable day in European history when a Pole speaks to Russia not just in Europe’s name but with the whole economic and political weight of a European Union behind him. But Tusk is Merkel’s trusted ally. Everyone knows she is Europe’s real chair. In her Sydney speech, she again emphasised the vital importance of European states “speaking with one voice”.

And then she has been lucky – an essential attribute for any successful stateswoman or statesman. (I can’t bring myself to write statesperson.) Without a spectacular fall in the price of oil, the sanctions, which are still patchy, and not supported by China and other important economic partners of Russia, would not have had this dramatic impact.

The battle of Europe is far from over. In Russia itself, deepening economic crisis will not necessarily translate into more accommodating policy. There is no route map to a post-Putin regime. The cornered bear may lash out. In the bloodied fields of eastern Ukraine, there is still the risk of a series of 1914-style miscalculations leading to an escalation. Russian military planes have flown into the air space of Baltic Nato members.

Nato’s article 5 says an attack on one is an attack on all, but what, in the 21st-century, is an attack? As the apparent North Korean hacking of Sony’s computers has reminded us, cyberattacks are not like uniformed infantry divisions marching across a well-marked frontier. What if Putin sends some more unacknowledged “little green men” to stir up trouble among ethnic Russian minorities in the Baltic states?

So these are still perilous times, and 2015 may bring even larger challenges. But as 2014 draws to a close, I have no hesitation in concluding that Angela Merkel has been the stateswoman of the year.

 24 
 on: Today at 06:42 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
 SPIEGEL ONLINE
12/21/2014 10:18 PM

The End of Tolerance?: Anti-Muslim Movement Rattles Germany

By SPIEGEL Staff

Disenchanted German citizens and right-wing extremists are joining forces to form a protest movement to fight what they see as the Islamization of the West. Is this the end of the long-praised tolerance of postwar Germany?

Felix Menzel is sitting in his study in an elegant villa in Dresden's Striesen neighborhood on a dark afternoon in early December. He's thinking about Europe. A portrait of Ernst Jünger, a favorite author of many German archconservatives is hung on the wall.

Menzel, 29, is a polite, unimposing man wearing corduroys and rimless glasses. He takes pains to come across as intellectual, and avoids virulent rhetoric like "Foreigners out!" He prefers to talk about "Europe's Western soul," which, as he believes, includes Christianity and the legacy of antiquity, but not Islam. "I see serious threats coming our way from outside Europe. I feel especially pessimistic about the overpopulation of Africa and Asia," says Menzel, looking serious. "And I believe that what is unfolding in Iraq and Syria at the moment is a clear harbinger of the first global civil war."

Menzel, a media scholar, has been running the Blaue Narzisse (Blue Narcissus), a conservative right-wing magazine for high school and university students, for the last 10 years. His small magazine had attracted little interest until now. But that is about to change, at least if Menzel has his way. "The uprising of the masses that we have long yearned for is slowly getting underway," he writes on his magazine's website. "And this movement is moving toward the right."

In Dresden, at least, the sentiments expressed in the Blaue Narzisse have become more palpable in recent weeks. Protests staged each week on Mondays initially attracted only a few dozen to a few hundred people, but more recently the number of citizens taking to the streets has reached 10,000. The group, which calls itself Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (and goes by the German acronym PEGIDA), demonstrates against economic migrants and a supposed "cultural foreign domination of our country" -- whatever is meant by that.

What is going on in Germany, the world's second most popular destination for immigrants? Has the open-mindedness for which Germans had long been praised now ended? Are we seeing a return of the vague fear of being overwhelmed by immigrants that Germany experienced in the 1990s, when a hostel for asylum seekers was burned down? How large is the new right-wing movement, and will it remain limited to Dresden, or is it spreading nationwide?

So far, protests held under the PEGIDA label in under cities -- like Kassel and Würzburg -- have attracted only a few hundred people at a time. In fact, some of the protests attracted significantly larger numbers of counter-demonstrators. And while thousands of "patriotic Europeans" aim to take to the streets in Dresden again in the coming days, their counterparts in Germany's western states are taking a Christmas break. PEGIDA supporters are waiting until after the holidays to return to the streets in cities like Cologne, Düsseldorf and Unna.

34 Percent Believe Germany Becoming Islamicized

Still, many Germans share the protestors' views, according to a current SPIEGEL poll. Some 34 percent of citizens agreed with the PEGIDA protestors that Germany is becoming increasingly Islamicized.

Even before the PEGIDA movement began, the number of right-wing protests was on the rise nationwide. In the first 10 months of this year, the refugee organization Pro Asyl and the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which combats racism, counted more than 200 demonstrations against hostels for asylum seekers.

Violence has erupted at the protests again and again. Right-wing perpetrators are attacking accommodations for immigrants an average of twice a week in Germany. On Dec. 11, three buildings that had been converted to house refugees but were still empty became the targets of right-wing hate, when they were painted with swastikas and set on fire. Attacks like these are "intolerable," Chancellor Angela Merkel said after the incidents.

According to the federal government, there were 86 attacks by right-wing assailants on asylum seekers' hostels between January and the end of September 2014. The offences included arson, grievous bodily assault, trespassing and painting symbols barred by the German constitution.

In addition, the Internet has been flooded with countless right-wing hate sites and Facebook groups. Just one anti-Islamic blog, Politically Incorrect, is reporting about 70,000 visitors a day.

Various movements are coming together in the new wave of protests. Concerned residents are encountering conservatives who have grown wary of democratic values, while hooligans are joining forces with neo-Nazis and notorious right-wing conspiracy theorists. Citizens' qualms about those on the far right are decreasing, and extremist, xenophobic ideas have apparently become socially acceptable.

German Officials Alarmed

This confusing coexistence of movements and ideas is what makes it so difficult to deal with the self-proclaimed saviors of the West. The majority of the demonstrators don't want to be pegged as right-wing extremists. Still, it doesn't seem to trouble them that, week after week, they are demonstrating alongside bullnecked men with shaved heads, as they all shout together: "We are the people!" Far-right groups like the xenophobic National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) see the protests as a chance to take their worldview directly to the middle class. Populist movements that have attracted little attention until now, like the so-called "identitarian movement," are suddenly in the spotlight, as is the aimlessly wandering Reichsbürgerbewegung, or Reich Citizens' Movement, which asserts that the German Reich still exists within its pre-World War II borders.

German security agencies are alarmed. "We take this very seriously," says a senior official with the domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV). The authorities were especially aroused by the events of Oct. 26, when at least 400 right-wing extremists went on a rampage in downtown Cologne during a demonstration staged by the group "Hooligans Against Salafists" (HoGeSa). The issue was even on the agenda of an "intelligence situation" meeting at Merkel's Chancellery, where officials were ordered to heighten their scrutiny of the unusual mix of protestors.

The Federal Prosecutor's Office is also involved. According to a spokesman, there are more than 100 "observation and investigation procedures associated with right-wing extremist activities" pending at the agency, based in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe. The HoGeSa movement is one of the groups under observation, say the Karlsruhe officials.

A report on the connections between hooligans and right-wing extremists compiled by the police and the BfV was the focus of a meeting of the federal and state interior ministers just over a week ago. The group also discussed PEGIDA and its many clones, as well as the question of how to handle the simmering protests.

Fomenting Fears and Prejudice

But the interior ministers failed to develop a convincing plan to effectively combat the problem. "We cannot label 10,000 people as right-wing extremists. That creates more problems than it solves," says Saxony Interior Minister Markus Ulbig, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). According to Ulbig, there were many "middle-class citizens" among the Dresden demonstrators, "and you can't toss them all into the same Neo-Nazi pot."

His counterpart from the Western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Ralf Jäger, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the current chairman of the conference of interior ministers, began the meeting by referring to some of the protesters as "neo-Nazis in pinstripes." But he too became more cautious by the end of the conference. "We have to unmask these instigators. They are deliberately fomenting fears and prejudices," said Jäger. Instead of taking a repressive approach, he explained, the authorities should create awareness campaigns for nervous citizens.

The demonstrators aren't exactly making it easy for German authorities. Since the riots in Cologne, they have generally taken great pains to avoid committing prosecutable offences during the weekly protests, or being seen as too obviously in league with right-wing extremists. But the line between freedom of expression and the right to demonstrate, on the one hand, and hate speech and xenophobia, on the other, has become blurred. As a result, citizens are currently marching straight under the radar of the BfV and police.

In Dresden on Dec. 8, an anonymous PEGIDA speaker even began his speech by quoting the words of US black civil rights leader Martin Luther King, "I have a dream." He too had a dream, the demonstrator in Saxony said, a dream of the peaceful coexistence of all human beings and cultures. But then he arrived at what he called the hard reality: that we are in a state of war.

Was there an "objective reason," the speaker asked rhetorically, to invade Iraq, overthrow Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, intervene in Tunisia, depose Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and "provoke Russia with Ukraine?" "No!" the crowd shouted each time. "He who sows war will reap refugees," the PEGIDA speaker shouted to his audience of 10,000 Dresden citizens, and warned against the "perverse ideas" that are coming to Germany. "Do we have to wait until the conditions we see in the Neukölln neighborhood of Berlin have come to Saxony?" he asked, referring to a district in the nation's capital that is home to large Turkish and Arab immigrant populations and is wrought with urban problems.

Are Germans Yearning for 'Good Old Days'?

In a dispatch from the city titled, "Dresden Journal," the New York Times wrote: "In German City Rich with History and Tragedy, Tide Rises Against Immigration." Still, the author, who was promptly interviewed by MDR, the public broadcaster for the eastern states of Thuringia, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt, praised the peaceful atmosphere at the demonstration, saying that the participants were in good cheer, "despite teeth-chattering cold." She told the German broadcaster that she had been under the impression that many were mourning the "good old days."

The only question is: Which good old days? Those after 1933, when Dresden, displaying the Nazi swastika, drove out its Jewish residents? Or those after 1945, when the East German Communist Party transformed an entire region into one that was virtually cut off from the Western world because its residents were geographically cut off from illegal broadcasts of West German television that provided a link to other East Germans to the rest of the world.

Imaginations Run Wild
What is so deeply upsetting to many Saxons is difficult to recognize at first glance. According to the official statistics, there are about 100,000 foreigners living in the state, or 2.5 percent of its population -- compared to 13.4 percent in Berlin. State interior ministry figures indicate that the share of Muslims who have the potential to seek to Islamicize the Saxon West is only 0.1 percent. But many of those who take to the streets every week don't believe the official statistics. Instead, they are convinced that a cartel of politicians and "main-stream media" are audaciously misleading the public over the true state of affairs.

At least one of Saxony's great citizens, the author Karl May, exhibited a considerable talent for imagining foreign, threatening worlds. His novels, which have sold millions of copies around the world, are crawling with what he calls Musulmans dazzling infidels with their swords or simply dispatching them straight to hell.

Many Dresden residents also let their imaginations run wild at the Monday protests. One demonstrator says that he doesn't want to see his granddaughters being forced to wear headscarves in the future, while another suggests that Islamists would be better off seeking asylum in wealthy, oil-producing countries. A woman complains that she can't afford to buy a smartphone, but that the refugees can.

Lutz Bachmann has brought them together. The impetus for his movement, he says, was a walk through Dresden's post-Socialist Prager Strasse shopping district. He witnessed a rally by supporters of the Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK, which opposes the Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq. His reaction was to start a Facebook group, primarily to oppose arms shipments to the PKK.

It was only a handful of people who showed up for the first demonstration in October. Today PEGIDA has more than 44,000 Facebook fans. By contrast, the state chapter of Merkel's conservative CDU party, which has been in office for 24 years, has only managed to drum up 661 Facebook fans.

Links to Crime and Hooligans

While PEGIDA wants to see criminal asylum seekers deported immediately, some of its own activists are known to the police. Movement founder Bachmann is registered with the authorities under the heading "General crime (including violent offences)," and he has a criminal record for offences that include burglary and drug crimes. Another member of the group's middle-class leadership is also registered with authorities under the same category, and a third rally organizer has fraud convictions on his record.

PEGIDA's connections to the hooligan community are also noteworthy. For instance, the police have identified some of the protestors as members of "Fist of the East," a Dresden hooligan group in the right-wing extremist camp. Members of "Hooligans Elbflorenz (Florence on the Elbe, a nickname for Dresden)," which the Dresden Regional Court has classified as a criminal organization, have also been spotted. Activists with the group have reportedly been in contact with the banned far-right extremist fellowship known as "Skinheads Sächsische Schweiz."

The police estimate that the PEGIDA marches include about 300 people "associated with the fan community of SG Dynamo Dresden," the city's football club, and describe about 250 of them as "problem fans." Unofficially, the authorities assume that a large portion of this group is "open to right-wing extremist ideas." There are also apparently ties between PEGIDA and HoGeSa. For instance, police have identified a 42-year-old in Meissen, a city near Dresden, who is seen as an organizer for both protest movements.

Nationalism Dressed Up as Patriotism

A vague feeling of being threatened unites the demonstrators, whether they see themselves as members of the middle-class, conservative nationalists or radical right-wingers. They yearn for isolation and simple answers, which is why almost-forgotten, Nazi-era terms like "Volk" (the people) and "Vaterland" (the fatherland) are back in vogue.

Only last summer, the German flag was a symbol of a joyous, multicultural nation of soccer fans. Now it's being waved above the heads of PEGIDA followers as they crow: "Germany is awakening. For our fatherland, for Germany, it is our country, the country of our ancestors, descendants and children."

Where does this new nationalism, dressed up as patriotism, come from? "Disenchanted citizens with right-wing sympathies" are unable to cope with the social change of the last few decades," says Alexander Häusler, an expert on right-wing extremism in Düsseldorf. The protestors are pursuing a "restorative image of society" that roughly corresponds to Germany in the 1950s, long before it became a country of immigration.

"The collaboration between society and lawmakers is breaking down," says Werner Patzelt, a political scientist at the Technical University of Dresden. For decades, he explains, there was far too little investment in political education, especially in Saxony. That too has helped fuel the marches.

Conspiracy Theories

Many citizens apparently believe that politicians and the media are treating an important issue -- the effects of immigration on society -- as a taboo. Their dissatisfaction isn't just expressed in the streets, but also in the tone of discourse in social media. It's also a popular subject for books. For instance, writer Udo Ulfkotte's book of conspiracy theories, "Bought Journalists," is currently a bestseller.

The so-called mainstream media supposed suppression of the truth has prompted Ulfkotte to speak out loudly for years. One of his subjects is a little-known variant of "holy war." Ulfkotte, a former journalist with the respected national daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, suggested on the Internet that Muslims could be deliberately contaminating European food products with their excrement. "Even the intelligence services have been warning us for years about fecal matter jihad," he wrote.

Christian Jung, an official with the city of Munich, has also struck a chord with the public. When we meet for a beer at the Isarthor pub, he looks very unassuming in his brown cardigan, as he pleasantly discusses his website Blu-News, founded in 2012, which bills itself as "middle-class, liberal and independent." The site is one of the biggest in the nationalist conservative community. Jung describes it as an "alternative medium with a politically incorrect and provocative voice."

But this isn't an accurate reflection of reality. For instance, the site characterizes the group Hooligans Against Salafists as part of a new protest culture that is being "treated unfairly in the media," and Blu-News also shows shock videos about Islamic State in which children are holding severed heads in their hands. The commentary reads: "It's the religion, nothing else. This hell cannot be explained without Islam." According to Jung, a former official with the anti-Islam party Die Freiheit (Freedom), the video is the most successful on the site to date, with more than 300,000 views.

Each of these websites links to other sites. One click after another takes us more and more deeply into a parallel world that perceives itself as a bulwark against "foreign infiltration." There's also the Patriotic Platform, which aligns itself with the anti-euro party Alternative for Germany (AfD). Another website is called Nuremberg 2.0 Germany, which wants to put about 100 prominent citizens, like former President Christian Wulff, on trial for the alleged "systematic Islamization of Germany" -- using the Nuremberg war crimes trials as its model.

Another blog, "Heerlager der Heiligen" (The Camp of the Saints), is named after a novel by French author Jean Raspail popular with the right, in which Indian refugees storm the European continent after a famine in their country.

'A Radical, Parallel Society Is Taking Shape'

Apparently the beginnings of militant structures are also taking shape in the wake of their wave of anger. The Berlin state security agency is now investigating an obscure group known as the German Resistance Movement (DWB), which has been linked to four attempted arson attacks on the national offices of the CDU, the Reichstag building in Berlin and the Paul Löbe parliamentary building.

Between Aug. 25 and Nov. 24, previously unknown assailants threw Molotov cocktails at the buildings, which fortunately caused only minor property damage. According to pamphlets the group left behind at the sites, today's prevailing "multicultural, multiethnic, multi-religious and multi-historical population mix" will "subvert and Balkanize the country."

"A radical, parallel society is taking shape here," says Andreas Zick, director of the Institute of Interdisciplinary Conflict and Violence Studies at the University of Bielefeld in northwestern Germany. What is especially unsettling, he adds, is that a number of previously separate groups and mini-groups are now on the verge of creating "a shared nationalist and chauvinist identity."

In addition to populist opponents of the euro, anti-Islam agitators and nationalists, these groups include classic right-wing extremists and, more and more openly, a portion of the AfD -- "and a large number of people who simply don't care about this country anymore," says Zick.

The emergence of PEGIDA, Zick explains, has made it possible to unite all of these groups behind a single banner. "I think this is dangerous, because there are many people with violent tendencies in those groups." This willingness to commit acts of violence is currently more palpable than measurable, he adds, "but I'm convinced that this will eventually tilt in another direction." Even today, says social psychologist Zick, the demonstrators' countless anti-foreigner slogans can be seen as veiled threats, as if the crowds were preparing a return to some kind of ethnic German ideal. "They may be chanting, 'We are the people,'" he adds, but they might as well be saying, "We are the (ethnic) German people." It's a message that is exclusionary toward immigrants and foreigners.

Meanwhile, in Dresden, Saxony Governor Stanislaw Tillich is trying to formulate an official position. He was long been silent about the conservative right-wing throngs appearing at the city's Schlossplatz square every Monday, within view of the state government headquarters. CDU politician Tillich apparently believes the PEGIDA will eventually go away.

For now, he says, he wants to "start a conversation" with the "patriotic Europeans," in order to alleviate their "anxieties." But in his statements earlier this month, he neglected to mention the anxieties of refugees and Muslims, who must live in fear of being attacked by the right-wing mob.

Hashtag #Niewieda

He has since made more clear statements against PEGIDA. In statements made to the Leipziger Volkszeitung newspaper published on Sunday, Tillich noted that world had been opened to residents of Saxony after the fall of the Berlin Wall and that the world must also be welcomed in the state. One day before the next major PEGIDA demonstration, he warned that Saxons should not have walls in their heads and that they should be open and curious about in experiencing enrichment.

Meanwhile, the counter-protests are growing. On Monday, anti-PEGIDA organizers are planning demonstrations in Dresden, Munich, Würzberg and Nuremberg. Similar acts are slated for Cologne, Leipzig, Düsseldorf and Frankfurt in January. There's even a hashtag for the counter-protests: #niewieda, "never again," the anti-Nazi slogan that has been a standard rallying cry against right-wing sentiment in Germany since the end of World War II.

By Maik Baumgärtner, Jörg Diehl, Frank Hornig, Maximillian Popp, Sven Röbel, Jörg Schindler, Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt and Steffen Winter

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

***********

Minister: Germany Plans Trauma Center for IS Rape Victims

by Naharnet Newsdesk 22 December 2014, 12:02

A German government minister said Monday Berlin aimed to set up a trauma center for victims of a mass rape campaign by the Islamic State militant group.

Overseas development minister Gerd Mueller told the Bild newspaper that the care facility in Germany could serve 100 women and girls from Syria and Iraq.

Mueller said he had spoken with five young girls on a visit to Iraq who had been captured by IS and gang raped.

"Three of them are now pregnant. We have to take care of such girls," he said.

Mueller did not provide a timetable or say where in Germany the center would be established.

IS spearheaded a sweeping offensive that has overrun swathes of Iraq and Syria since June.

In November, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria released its first report focused on IS crimes, presenting a horrifying picture of what life is like in areas controlled by the jihadists, including massacres, beheadings, torture, sexual enslavement and forced pregnancy.

Germany, Europe's biggest economy, has become the continent's top destination for asylum seekers. It expects around 230,000 asylum seekers in 2015, up from a predicted 200,000 this year.

The influx has spawned a far-right populist movement which has been staging demonstrations in cities across the country against the "Islamization" of Germany.

Source: Agence France Presse

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Greek PM Offers Elections in 2015 for Presidency Vote Deal

by Naharnet Newsdesk 21 December 2014, 19:17

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras on Sunday offered to hold early elections in late 2015 to clinch a crucial presidential vote next week that could affect the country's economic future.

"We can find the proper timeframe for national elections, even at the end of 2015", provided a president is elected and crunch EU-IMF loan talks are concluded, Samaras said in a nationally televised address.

"It is a national duty, and common sense also dictates, that we (first) conclude negotiations with the (EU-IMF) creditors," Samaras said.

Upcoming votes in parliament to elect a successor to President Karolos Papoulias, whose term ends in March, look likely to end in a stalemate which would automatically spark early elections.

Parliament last week fell 40 votes short of the required 200 to elect the government's candidate for president, former EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas.

Parliament will vote again on Tuesday when 200 votes are again required in the 300-seat chamber.

Should that also fail, a third and final vote requiring 180 votes would be held on December 29.

Samaras had until now steadfastly refused to bring forward the elections, which are normally due in June 2016.

But on Sunday, he also offered to broaden his cabinet to include pro-European voices.

"After the presidential election, we can broaden the government to bring in other people who believe in the country's European perspective," the PM said.

The government coalition has only 155 lawmakers in parliament, and most analysts agree that finding even 180 supporters would be a tall order.

The presidential vote was further tainted by allegations by a small nationalist party that people close to the government were trying to bribe its lawmakers into voting for Dimas.

European Union and International Monetary Fund officials fear an early election -- which could be held as early as January 25 -- would be won by radical leftist party Syriza and undo Greece's ongoing fiscal reforms.

Syriza on Sunday argued that Samaras' efforts to persuade independent lawmakers to support his candidate was futile.

"Above all, (the PM) fears the judgment of the people and he will not be able to avoid it," the radical leftists said.

Greece recently secured a two-month extension from its international creditors to conclude an ongoing fiscal audit that will determine the release of some 7.0 billion euros ($8.6 billion) in loans.

This extension expires in February, and the finance ministry has warned that the state will face cash difficulties from March onwards.

In 2012, back-to-back elections were needed in May and June to form a shaky coalition government, stalling Greece's fiscal reforms and sparking speculation that the country was about to be ejected from the eurozone.

Source: Agence France Presse

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Driver Ploughs into Pedestrians in France's Second 'Allahu Akbar' Attack

by Naharnet Newsdesk 22 December 2014, 07:04

A driver shouting "Allahu Akbar" ("God is greatest") ploughed into pedestrians in eastern France Sunday, injuring 11 of them, just a day after a man yelling the same words was killed in an attack on police officers.

Two of the people injured in the car attack in the city of Dijon were in a serious condition, a police source said, adding that the driver had been arrested.

"The man, born in 1974, is apparently unbalanced and had been in a psychiatric hospital," a source close to the investigation told Agence France Presse, adding that "for now his motives are still unclear".

The man had targeted groups of passersby at five different locations in the city on Sunday evening in a rampage that lasted around half an hour, the police source said.

"Nine people were lightly injured and two others seriously but their lives do not appear to be in danger," the source added.

Witnesses told police that the driver shouted "Allahu Akbar" and "that he was acting for the children of Palestine", a source close to the investigation said.

Police sources said the driver was known to police for petty offences dating back to the 1990s.

On a street in the city centre traces of blood and attempts by authorities to cover it up with sand could be seen, AFP journalists there said. Nearby, victims and their families were being cared for at a hospital.

Dijon prosecutor Marie-Christine Tarrare refused to comment when contacted by AFP.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls took to Twitter to express "solidarity" with those injured in the attack.

France is still reeling from a suspected radical Islamic attack on Saturday that saw a French convert to Islam shot dead after attacking police officers with a knife while also reportedly crying "Allahu Akbar" in the central town of Joue-les-Tours.

 

- 'Lone wolf' fears -

The assailant, Burundi-born French national, Bertrand Nzohabonayo seriously injured two officers -- slashing one in the face -- and hurting another.

The 20-year-old attacker also cried "Allahu Akbar" during the assault, said a source close to the case speaking on condition of anonymity.

The assault prompted the government to step up security at police and fire stations nationwide.

Nzohabonayo had previously committed petty offences but was not on a domestic intelligence watch-list although his brother is known for his radical views and once pondered going to Syria, the source said.

The anti-terror branch of the Paris prosecutor's office has opened a probe into that attack, with the line of inquiry focusing on whether it was motivated by radical Islam.

The weekend incidents in France come as governments around the world brace for so-called "lone wolf" attacks by individuals returning from waging jihad abroad, or who are simply following Islamic State group calls for violence in the countries involved in a coalition fighting the militants in Iraq and Syria.

The group has repeatedly singled out France for such attacks, most recently in a video posted on jihadist sites this week.

Last week in Australia, an Iranian-born Islamist with a history of extremism and violence entered a cafe and held people hostage for 16 hours before being killed. Two of the hostages also died.

Last year in France, a recent convert to Islam also stabbed a soldier in the busy Paris commercial complex and transport hub of La Defense.

And the main suspect in the murders of four people at Brussels' Jewish Museum in May, Mehdi Nemmouche, spent more than a year fighting with extremists in Syria.

Authorities in France believe around 1,200 nationals or residents are involved in one way or another in jihadist networks in Iraq and Syria.

Source: Agence France Presse

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Spanish Princess to Stand Trial in Royal First

by Naharnet Newsdesk 22 December 2014, 12:05

The sister of Spain's King Felipe VI, Cristina, will become the first member of the royal family ever to stand in the dock after a judge Monday ordered her to be put on trial for alleged tax fraud.

The historic decision stemmed from four years of investigations that plunged the royal family into crisis and contributed to the abdication of King Juan Carlos in June.

A court on the island of Majorca ordered Cristina, 49, to stand trial on two counts of accessory to tax fraud in connection with her husband's business affairs, in a written ruling seen by AFP.

She is accused of cooperating in tax evasion by her husband, the former Olympic handball player Inaki Urdangarin. He is accused of embezzling and laundering millions of euros in public funds.

Cristina's lawyers say she is innocent of any wrongdoing.

Cristina Federica de Borbon y Grecia is the youngest daughter of Juan Carlos and sixth in line to the throne. She married Urdangarin in 1997 in a glittering ceremony in Barcelona.

The case is a big headache for Felipe who took the throne on June 19 promising an "honest and transparent monarchy".

Public prosecutors had called on the court to shelve the case, saying there was a lack of evidence against Cristina and hinting that investigators were out to get the princess.

But investigating magistrate Jose Castro at the court in Palma de Majorca upheld accusations brought by Manos Limpias, a litigious far-right pressure group.

As well as Cristina and Urdangarin, the court on Monday ordered 15 other suspects to stand trial.

Urdangarin is accused along with a former business partner of creaming off six million euros ($8 million) in public funds from contracts awarded to Noos, a charitable foundation.

Cristina sat on the board of Noos and Urdangarin was its chairman.

Investigators suspect that a separate company jointly owned by the couple, Aizoon, served as a front for laundering embezzled money.

Questioned in court by Castro in February, Cristina said she had simply trusted her husband and had no knowledge of his business affairs.

A mother of four with a master's degree from New York University, Cristina was once considered untouchable as a member of the royal family.

But the so-called Noos affair fanned public anger against the monarchy and the ruling class during the recent years of economic hardship in Spain.

The scandal soured the reign of Felipe's father Juan Carlos, who gave up the throne after 39 years so his son could freshen up the image of the monarchy.

Investigations into the Noos affair were launched in 2010. Urdangarin and Cristina have been excluded from royal activities since 2011 when he was first named as a suspect in the probe.

Source: Agence France Presse

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Pope to Meet Muslim, Buddhist Leaders in Philippines Visit

by Naharnet Newsdesk 22 December 2014, 12:35

Pope Francis will meet with leaders of various religions when he visits the Philippines next month, pushing a message of tolerance in order to combat global religious conflicts, a church official said Monday.

The pontiff will hold a 10 to 15-minute dialogue with the dean of the Philippines' largest Islamic studies center and a Taiwan-based Buddhist leader on January 18, according to Father Carlos Reyes, a member of the committee organizing the Pope's visit.

He will also meet with the Hong Kong-based regional head of the Greek Orthodox Church, as well as a Hindu leader, Protestant bishops, and a Manila-based rabbi, Reyes told reporters.

The dialogue will be held at the 400-year-old church-run University of Santo Tomas in Manila, where the pontiff will also address a crowd of 25,000 youths.

"The church is Catholic, it is universal, we are in dialogue with the world," Reyes said.

"It is our job as men and women of religion not to allow the fundamentalists or extremists to hijack the religion."

The event comes as the largely-Catholic Philippines is implementing a peace deal signed last March with its main Muslim rebel group to create an autonomous area for the Muslim minority in the southern islands.

It also comes as the government fights a small band of hardliners that have reportedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, which has taken control of a swathe of territory across Iraq and Syria.

The military has in recent weeks intensified offensives against the Al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf, which is holding several hostages, including foreigners, in the troubled south.

Pope Francis will arrive in the country amid tight security on January 15 for a four-day visit highlighted by a mass in Tacloban City, ground zero for Super Typhoon Haiyan last year.

Haiyan's monster winds spawned tsunami-like storm surges that wiped out entire towns and left more than 7,350 killed or missing.

The pontiff's visit has the theme "mercy and compassion" and is expected to draw millions of the faithful to the public events.

Source: Agence France Presse

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Belarus blocks online sites and closes shops to stem currency panic

Country’s government imposes draconian measures after currency is dragged down by Russian ruble slide
President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko

Agence France Presse
Sunday 21 December 2014 22.59 GMT   

Belarus blocked online stores and news websites on Sunday, in an apparent attempt to stop a run on banks and shops as people rushed to secure their savings.

The Belarussian currency was dragged down by the slide of the Russian ruble last week, leading authorities to impose draconian measures, forbid price increases even for imported goods, and warn people against panic.

In a statement Sunday, BelaPAN news company, which runs popular independent news websites Belapan.by and Naviny.by, said that the sites were blocked on Saturday without any warning.

“Clearly the decision to block the IP addresses could only be taken by the authorities because in Belarus the government has a monopoly on providing IPs,” it said.

Other websites blocked on Sunday were Charter97.by, BelarusPartisan.org, Udf.by and others with an independent news outlook.

The blockage started on 19 December, when the government announced that purchases of foreign currency will be taxed 30% and told all exporters to convert half of their foreign revenues into the local currency.

“Looks like the authorities want to turn light panic over the fall of the Belarussian ruble into a real one,” Belarus Partisan website wrote, calling the blockages “December insanity”.

Internet shopping websites were also blocked en masse. Thirteen online stores were blocked Saturday for raising their prices or showing them in US dollars, deputy trade minister Irina Narkevich said, Interfax reported.

The government announced a moratorium on price increases for consumer goods and ordered domestic producers of appliances to “increase deliveries” and keep prices the same at the risk of their management being sacked.

The Belarussian ruble has lost about half of its value since the beginning of the year, having been hit hard by the depreciation of the Russian ruble since its economy is heavily dependent on its giant neighbour.

President Alexander Lukashenko last week complained that Belarus has “lost about a billion dollars” due to the ruble’s slide, announcing a period of strict frugality starting with the new year.

“Everything depends on the people,” he said, warning people not to “rush like crazy” to exchange savings.

“For us it’s important not to jump after Russia into the abyss,” he said.

Lukashenko was in Kiev on Sunday to revive efforts to host talks on the Ukrainian conflict. But a high-ranking Ukrainian official said the Belarussian president was equally keen to use the trip to build bridges to Europe that ease his dependence on an increasingly isolated Russia.
Shopping spree

Belarussians queued for up to four hours to clear out their bank accounts and swept store shelves to secure their savings, stocking up on foreign-made appliances and housewares.

Some ATM machines even ran out of Belarussian rubles as people feared that banks were preparing to block bank cards or introduce caps on cash withdrawals.

At the central department store in the capital, people lined up to unload their savings and buy anything from televisions to fondue sets.

“Me and my wife always argue over what to watch so we’re buying a second television. And the washing machine, how could we resist?” said a shopper who introduced himself as Ivan, as he waited for his wife to finish queueing for small appliances.

“We have to do something with these Belarussian rubles,” said a teacher named Alla, eyeing an expensive multi-cooker.

In the bedding aisle, stock was completely sold out. “It makes sense, the new shipment we received cost us 30% more,” said department manager Alla Sukhinina.

With foreign currency swiftly depleted in exchange offices, Belarussians even launched a black market website, dollarnash.com, where individuals can buy and sell dollars and euros.

While the central bank’s exchange rate on Sunday was 10,900 rubles to the dollar, rates on the website were up to 17,000.

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Crisis-hit Russia's Top Allies Build Ties with Ukraine

by Naharnet Newsdesk 22 December 2014, 14:09

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev followed his Belarussian counterpart to Ukraine on Monday as Moscow's old allies built bridges to Europe while Russia's financial crisis and diplomatic isolation grew.

Both visits were ostensibly made to kickstart stalled peace negotiations between Kiev and the two Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine that rebelled against Kiev in April.

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko hosted such talks in September and is hoping to do so again in Minsk in the coming days.

But Nazarbayev has no evident link to the eight-month conflict and remains a prominent member of a Russian-dominated economic union that includes Belarus and once had aspirations to enlist Ukraine.

A senior Ukrainian official told AFP that both leaders -- criticized in the West for their intolerance of political dissent -- were now trying to shake off the Kremlin and forge partnerships in Europe because Russian President Vladimir Putin "is weak".

Some political analysts in Russia agreed.

"This is an unambiguous signal to Putin," said Konstantin Kalachyov of Moscow's Political Expert Group think tank.

"Both Kazakhstan and Belarus fear that their union with Russia will be engulfed by (an economic) crisis."

Putin angrily rejects backing Ukraine's separatist fighters and calls the waves of Western sanctions a remnant of Cold War-era thinking designed to contain Russia and possibly even topple his team.

The veteran Kremlin leader is due on Tuesday to receive both Nazarbayev and Lukashenko for a summit of leaders from neighboring nations that have formed a loose military bloc.

But his relations with Lukashenko have been strained by the Belarussian strongman's refusal to let Russian industrial giants take over his state companies in return for discounted energy deliveries.

And Nazarbayev has balanced his Central Asian country's interests evenly between those of Russia and China -- its southeastern neighbor and increasingly important trading partner.

"Kazakhstan has equal regard for both Russia and Ukraine," Nazarbayev said on the eve of his visit to Kiev.

"We have no conflicts of interest. I am what they call an honest broker."

Lukashenko also appeared keen to cast himself as someone ready to stand up to Russia if their views did not coincide, during talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Sunday.

He appeared to be referring to Putin when he told the Ukrainian leader: "They keep saying that Lukashenko is afraid of someone. But I am not afraid."

Belarussian state media then quoted Lukashenko as saying that he supported holding "secret" negotiations about building stronger cross-border ties with Ukraine.

"Let's not say anything to anyone at all but do it in secret -- just as long as there is progress in this direction," Lukashenko was quoted as saying.

The U.S. and EU sanctions have cut off Russia's biggest companies from Western money markets and put them in danger of going bankrupt.

And the Kremlin's ability to provide their rescue has been limited by a recent plunge in the global price on Russian oil and gas exports.

But the Western restrictions have hardly dented Putin's domestic approval -- still estimated at around 80 percent -- or dramatically altered his public approach to Ukraine.

U.S. President Barack Obama on Sunday dismissed the notion that Putin was "the chess master and outmaneuvering the West and outmaneuvering Mr Obama and this and that and the other."

"Right now, he's presiding over the collapse of his currency, a major financial crisis and a huge economic contraction," he told CNN.

"That doesn't sound like somebody who has rolled me or the United States of America."

Source: Agence France Presse

*************

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
12/20/2014 08:15 AM

Ukrainian Prime Minister: Putin 'Needs New Annexations'

Interview Conducted By Matthias Schepp and Christoph Schult

In a SPIEGEL interview, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, 40, discusses his country's division, its war with Russia and why he believes all efforts to find a solution with Vladimir Putin will fail.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Prime Minister, when you took office in February, you compared your mission to that of a kamikaze pilot. How close are we to a crash?

Yatsenyuk: I was recently asked the same question by Chancellor Angela Merkel. I answered that I am sitting on a ticking time bomb. She said: "Previously, you said you are a kamikaze pilot, and today it's a ticking time bomb, so things have improved."

SPIEGEL: Is the situation so hopeless that one must resort to gallows humor?

Yatsenyuk: Not hopeless, but complicated. We are not only facing economic disaster and the question of peace and war. Ukrainians are traumatized by this Moscow-led aggression that has cost the lives of 5,000 people.

SPIEGEL: Is the West doing enough to support your country?

Yatsenyuk: The West is doing what it can.

SPIEGEL: You don't sound satisfied.

Yatsenyuk: The West's room for maneuver vis-a-vis Putin is limited. It is positive that the United States and the European Union show a great deal of unity. Putin did not expect that. He thought he could split the EU, but the opposite happened: The EU imposed sanctions and even scaled them up. Of course we need more financial and military aid, the supply of lethal weapons is of crucial importance to us.

SPIEGEL: NATO stated clearly that there's no military solution to the conflict. But you seem to think differently.

Yatsenyuk: A military solution would not be the best. My aim is not to start a new offensive against Russian soldiers, but to deter Russia from further aggression. The thing is that the EU is always playing by the rules. Putin is always playing with the rules. At the beginning, many thought that, after annexing Crimea, the beast would calm down. But he continued by supporting the so-called separatists in eastern Ukraine. When we started our anti-terror operation, Putin sent in regular troops. Appeasement has never worked and it won't work with Putin. Of course one can argue that Crimea belonged to the Czarist Empire two centuries ago. One can quarrel over what territory, historically, belongs to whom. But that does not give Russia the right to violate Ukraine's territorial sovereignty.

SPIEGEL: Is it helpful to label the Ukrainian military offensive as an anti-terror-operation at a point when many people in eastern Ukraine already view the government in Kiev with suspicion?

Yatsenyuk: For a long time we have been trying to win the hearts of the people in Donetsk and Luhansk. My government was ready to devote additional powers to the regions. In addition, taking into account the interest of the Russian minority, we have not moved to implement the decision by parliament on the language law and have restored the possibility for the regional councils to grant special status to regional languages, including the Russian language. But when we were attacked militarily it was our duty to defend our country.

SPIEGEL: Your government has stopped paying salaries and pensions to people in the territories not controlled by your government. It seems that you've already given up these parts of eastern Ukraine.

Yatsenyuk: That's not true. We still supply gas and electricity. That costs us $200 million per month. Those who register can receive the money in other regions. We are not able to pay salaries or refill automated teller machines because the terrorists rob the money transports.

SPIEGEL: How do you intend to make peace in eastern Ukraine?

Yatsenyuk: First we must deescalate the situation, and that is only possible on the basis of the Minsk Protocol. I am skeptical about deals with Russia, but there's nothing else we have on the table. Russia has supported and signed it. It provides that all Russian soldiers have to be pulled out. In exchange, we have promised to bestow the Donbass region with a special status and we have passed an amnesty law. The Minsk deal also stipulates that the border will be controlled by Kiev.

SPIEGEL: Is this the reason you are planning to build a 2,000-kilometer (1,243 mile) long fence along the border to Russia?

Yatsenyuk: It is also in the European interest that the border between Ukraine and Russia is well protected and illegal immigrants, weapons or drugs can no longer be smuggled via this border into Europe.

SPIEGEL: It would create an Iron Curtain between two brother people.

Yatsenyuk: I'm always very cautious about this "brotherhood" concept. Frankly speaking, I don't need such relatives who grab my land and kill my people.

SPIEGEL: What else would have to happen?

Yatsenyuk: Free elections in order to create legal regional authorities as foreseen in the Minsk deal. Then we need international donors who reconstruct our infrastructure. This strategy can only succeed if Russia withdraws entirely from Ukraine. Do I believe that Russia will do this? No, because Putin wants to retain these territories; he wants to keep his hand in our belly fat.

SPIEGEL: What are you planning to do in order to bring Putin to a compromise?

Yatsenyuk: Behind closed doors we have long thought about an exit strategy for Russia. It's clear that Putin has to find a way to save face. On the other hand, it's clear that his policies turn Putin into a drug-addicted person. His survival depends on land grabs of foreign territories. He needs new annexations. The annexation of Crimea has gained him much applause at home. But that will not last forever. The Western sanctions are beginning to take hold and the people are suffering. In order to maintain his popularity, Putin has to commit further international crimes. Otherwise he will be dead politically.

SPIEGEL: But the problem isn't just Putin -- many Russians seem to think like him.

Yatsenyuk: That worries me, yes. If 85 percent of Russians support the annexation of Crimea and the aggression against Ukraine, that is a very bad sign. The post-Soviet legacy is a heavy burden: Most Russians want to have the empire back. The only way it is possible to make that happen is to seize foreign territories.

SPIEGEL: Putin has always made clear that he objects having NATO troops located at the Russian border. Would Ukraine be ready to give up accession to NATO in order to placate Russian security needs?

Yatsenyuk: We stand firmly behind the decision made at the summit in Bucharest where it was decided that Ukraine could one day become a member of NATO. That is not only in the interest of Ukraine, but also in the interest of Europe and peace on our continent. But we also know it will take a long time until Ukraine fulfills the standards for NATO membership.

SPIEGEL: Are you not escalating the situation yourself by constantly meeting with NATO leaders, like Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, last Monday in Brussels?

Yatsenyuk: The Russians will always find a pretext for their aggression. It was Putin who said in 2005 that the biggest geopolitical disaster of the last century was the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin wants to bring Ukraine back into the Russian sphere of influence. That is why he tried everything in order to stop the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement.

SPIEGEL: Will Ukraine ever join the EU given the fact that the free trade agreement was put on hold?

Yatsenyuk: The EU remains our dream. We must not give it up. Otherwise Putin would win. His goal is to undermine the EU. This is not only about a conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Russia is fighting against the West and its values. Therefore, the European project of Ukraine must not fail. We know that this aim requires successful reforms in Ukraine, even if they hurt now.

SPIEGEL: You have cut social security benefits, you have fired one in 10 government officials and you have raised taxes. Don't efforts like that increase the risk people will want an authoritarian leader in your country?

Yatsenyuk: I was elected despite all these measures and I am doing everything possible in order to cushion the effects of the reforms. But serious reforms are our last chance -- we have no other option. Our strongest card in that game is a Ukrainian youth that wants to belong to Europe.

SPIEGEL: How much money does Ukraine need in order to prevent bankruptcy?

Yatsenyuk: This year we received $9 billion from the IMF and individual donor states, but we paid back $14 billion in old debts. The Ukrainian economy is shrinking this year by 7 percent and our industrial production by 10 percent. But you also have to take into account that 20 percent of our industrial production was lost due to the annexation of Crimea and that we do not yet control parts of eastern Ukraine.

SPIEGEL: Let's come back to Chancellor Merkel. Are you happy that she is leading Germany and not one of her three predecessors -- Helmut Schmidt, Helmut Kohl or Gerhard Schröder? They have all demanded publicly that Germany and the West should be more respectful of Russian interests.

Yatsenyuk: Merkel is a flagship of the EU. Not everything depends on her, but much does. I have been shocked in a positive way by how Merkel is defending international law so openly and strongly. She wants to have peace and stability in the EU, and she knows that Russia is a problem in terms of security. It seems to me that many Germans are led by a certain fear of Russia. So you hear things like, "Let's avoid conflicts with Moscow, let's appease the Kremlin."

SPIEGEL: So Schmidt, Kohl and Schröder are wrong?

Yatsenyuk: Let's put it this way: Merkel is right. The chancellor cares about the whole European project and not a special relationship with Moscow.

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