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 51 
 on: Mar 26, 2015, 05:52 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Kyrgyzstan reaches out to Europe – while inching closer to Russia

EU leaders should encourage president to drop anti-gay laws and free political prisoners, says Human Rights Watch ahead of key meeting in Brussels

Hugh Williamson for Human Rights Watch
Thursday 26 March 2015 05.00 GMT
Guardian    

President Almazbek Atambaev of Kyrgyzstan, one of Central Asia’s smaller and poorer republics, is a man in a hurry.

Last week he was in Russia for talks with Vladimir Putin on closer bilateral ties. This week and next he’s in Europe for talks with leaders in Berlin, Paris, and elsewhere to “deepen the political dialogue”, as his spokesperson puts it, between Kyrgyzstan and Europe. He will meet European Council president Donald Tusk and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels today.

On his returns his agenda will shift gears again, as he oversees Kyrgyzstan’s entry in May into the Eurasian Economic Union, the economic trading club including Russia and other former Soviet countries. And in the autumn Kyrgyzstan will hold elections, which, the president and government hope, will reinforce the former Soviet republic’s reputation as a vibrant parliamentary democracy – the only one among the five Central Asian states.

Atambaev’s busy schedule highlights the challenges Kyrgyzstan faces, in a region already overshadowed by both the Ukraine crisis and concerns over the rising threat of extremism. As Bishkek moves to tie its economy more closely to Russia’s, it also says it remains committed to a democratic political path. It became a parliamentary democracy in 2010, peacefully transferred presidential power in 2011, and has a vibrant civil society.

The European Union and member states have an important role to play as a supportive – but also plain-talking – partner for the country’s economic and political reform process. On human rights, Europe’s leaders need to remind Atambaev of his country’s international commitments, especially to prevent discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and restrictions on non-governmental organisations.

The mountainous country of 5.7 million people went through traumatic ethnic violence in June 2010, in which hundreds were killed and thousands injured. The failure to provide justice for the victims of this violence or to hold those responsible to account is major unfinished business. Azimjon Askarov, 63, a human rights defender convicted for alleged involvement in the violence, remains in prison for life, despite an unfair trial and credible allegations of torture in custody.

Yet Atambaev can point to some positive developments. Since 2010 the government has pushed some human rights reforms, such as creating a national torture prevention mechanism. In a meeting with Human Rights Watch representatives earlier this year, a senior government official seemed open to addressing proposals made by other countries, via the UN, for human rights improvements in Kyrgyzstan. Meanwhile the head of the parliament’s human rights committee stressed the need for more discussion of human rights, among MPs, in public and in cooperation with civil society.

On both counts this felt like a breath of fresh air, in a region where human rights are under near-constant attack and in some cases open discussion of the topic could land you in prison.

Europe’s politicians should seize Kyrgyzstan’s openness to discuss human rights and other issues to remind Atambaev of the importance of respect for human rights and rule of law. In this regard, there’s plenty of work for Kyrgyzstan to do.

An anti-gay “propaganda” bill under debate in parliament, would, if adopted, violate free speech and freedom of assembly, and inevitably encourage discrimination and violence against LGBT people.

Modelled in part on a similar law in Russia, the bill aims to silence anyone seeking to openly share information about same-sex relations in Kyrgyzstan.

Another draft bill that would require NGOs that receive foreign funding and supposedly engage in “political activities” to register as “foreign agents” should also be scrapped.

Both drafts have been heavily criticised by the US, UN bodies and others, while in January the European Parliament also issued a resolution against Kyrgyzstan’s “propaganda” bill. Atambaev, who can veto this bill, should not be swayed by MPs who say they are standing up for the country’s “traditional values”. He should side with Kyrgyzstan’s constitution, which bans such discrimination.

A spokesperson for Atambaev claimed last week that Europe supports Kyrgyzstan’s chosen political path. To that end, European leaders have an excellent opportunity to send the unequivocal message that the country could do more to address long-standing abuses, including by releasing Askarov.

Last year Kyrgyzstan became the first Central Asian country to gain special “partnership for democracy” status with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. And the EU recently praised the “Kyrgyz leadership for efforts to stabilise a parliamentary democracy in the country in a challenging context”.

Now is the time for Europe’s leaders to be clear with Atambaev on the steps necessary to ensure that the warm words don’t dry up.

Hugh Williamson is the director of the Europe & Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch @hughawilliamson

**********

Kyrgyzstan's cocktail of conservatism and apathy a bitter draught for women

At her bar in the Kyrgyzstani capital Bishkek, Guliaim Aiylchy places women in jobs that are traditionally the sole preserve of men. But in a country that merely pays lip service to women’s rights, her enlightened approach appears uncommon

Liz Ford in Bishkek
Thursday 26 March 2015 07.00 GMT Last modified on Thursday 26 March 2015 07.03 GMT
Guardian   

When Guliaim Aiylchy opened her cafe-bar in Bishkek two years ago, it wasn’t just because she wanted to run her own business or make money. The 31-year-old also wanted to support other women in the city.

Sitting at a wooden table in the Chocolate Bar in Erkindik Boulevard – by day a cafe serving food and coffees, by night a cocktail bar – Aiylchy explains why she only employs women.

“Women are better to work with. If women want to work in restaurants, they’re only taken on as waitresses, not bar workers, which is seen as man’s work,” she says through an interpreter.

“I don’t know why that is. I teach women to make cocktails and work the bar so they can take that skill somewhere else. It’s seen as more prestigious working in a bar than waitressing.”

She also sells crafts produced by women, who sometimes work from the cafe, and allocates a percentage of her profits to support women who want to set up new businesses.

“I support women opening businesses. I try to train them to be economically independent.”

Her motivation to support women comes from what she sees as a slow erosion of women’s rights in Kyrgyzstan. She noticed a change five years ago, when she returned from a four-year stint in Turkey.

For her, the sign of shifting sands was the increasing number of women in the capital wearing hijabs. “There were a lot more women in headscarves when I came back,” says Aiylchy, the single mother of a five-year-old daughter.

She sees male influence behind the trend. Although not from a Muslim family, two of her sisters began wearing hijabs when they married Muslim men; one of them later removed hers when she got a divorce. Aiylchy has seen something similar happen with friends, too.

“It feels like things are going backwards,” she says. “In my family, I grew up believing that men and women are equal. I was surprised to find other families are not like that.”

She worries that, by agreeing to wear the headscarf, the women of today will have a negative impact on those of tomorrow. “It will be even easier to take away the rights of the next generation. Our daughters and granddaughters will have fewer and fewer rights,” says Aiylchy.

A report published by the Forum of Women’s NGOs of Kyrgyzstan, which represents more than 85 organisations, said the influence of religious ideology – both Islamic and Christian – “substantially contributes to discrimination against women”, especially in rural areas. The study suggested such influence had gradually increased in the vacuum created by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the country’s independence in 1991.

“Islam has a strong influence on women, how to dress and act and it’s now being discussed widely, in mosques and on television, that women should live moral lives,” says Bermet Stakeeva, programme officer at the forum.

On paper, though, the country looks progressive. Over the past 25 years, Kyrgyzstan has ratified more than 30 international conventions upholding women’s rights and empowerment. The country also signed up to the Beijing platform for action to advance women’s rights in 1995, and the Cairo agreement a year earlier promising to uphold women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. It promised to meet the UN millennium development goals. Gender equality is enshrined in the country’s constitution, gender action plans have been drawn up, and parliament has 30% quotas for women. Kyrgyzstan also has legislation protecting women from domestic violence, liberal abortion laws, and has set the legal age of marriage at 18.

However, a lack of funds and political will, and religious conservatism that casts women as inferior to men, means high ideals have rarely been translated into action.

The latest World Bank figures show that Kyrgyzstan has the highest number of maternal deaths in the region, and the country will not meet the millennium development target to reduce maternal mortality rates by three-quarters. The number of women who die from pregnancy-related causes stands at 75 for every 100,000 live births, which is about three times higher than neighbouring Kazakhstan, where the population is significantly bigger.

The number of married women using contraception has dropped from 60% in 1997 to about 36% in 2012, partly because of the influence of religious leaders, partly due to the prohibitive cost of modern family planning methods, which is pushing some women towards abortion as a cheaper option. The Reproductive Health Alliance of Kyrgyzstan (RHAK), a member of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, estimates the monthly cost of oral contraception is $5. The average basic salary for a doctor is less than $80 a month.

Sex is still a taboo subject, and sex education in schools is rare or non-existent, making the large youth population – more than 30% of people are aged 10-24 – particularly vulnerable to sexual transmitted diseases.

Violence against women remains common and is carried out with relative impunity. And while the official age of marriage is 18, this can be reduced by a year if local authorities deem there to be a “good reason”. Many marriages go unregistered, particularly in rural areas, and the practice of bride kidnapping remains widespread, despite being illegal.

The Kyrgz parliament is also debating an anti-gay propaganda bill, styled around one passed in Russia.

Rising poverty levels over the past five years have also complicated the picture for women. Roughly 38% of the population still lives below the national poverty line of $1.50 a day.

Galina Chirkina, executive director of RHAK, said the government’s support for women’s rights lacked both funding and clear strategies.

For example, there is provision in law to teach sex education in school but it’s not being implemented, she says. “There is no funding or support, and teachers don’t have the skills. No one made a programme. There was no specific training for teachers, no manuals to teach children in the school system. And nobody told them they had to teach it. There are also cultural barriers … and the influence of religious groups, who were very aggressive and negative about it.”

The RHAK was called before a parliamentary hearing in 2013 over complaints that sex education booklets it produced for young people ran counter to cultural beliefs. The complaints were made by members of the Russian Orthodox church, Muslim leaders and conservative MPs.

But women’s groups are pushing back.

Earlier this month, Bishkek staged Kyrgyzstan’s first national women’s forum, attracting representatives from more than 1,000 groups nationwide, as well as politicians and female ministers. Ahead of November’s parliamentary elections, there were calls for a specific government ministry to address gender equality and for the reproductive health bill currently being debated by parliament to be beefed up.

Local women’s groups, supported by the forum of women NGOs, are developing their own policies that have women at the centre.

For the moment, Ailychy plans to stay in Bishkek, to support women and fight from the inside. “I want to believe it will be good,” she says.

 52 
 on: Mar 26, 2015, 05:50 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
 SPIEGEL ONLINE
03/25/2015 05:01 PM

Back from the Brink: Spain Emerges as Model for Europe

By Christoph Pauly

After years of being one of Europe's shakiest economies, Spain has managed to institute strict reforms and bring back economic growth. But job numbers and research funding lag behind -- and the country's greatest challenge may be a political one.

It almost looks like the highly productive and stereotypically spotless Swabia region of Germany. So orderly. So accurate. One glassed-in company headquarters after the next. Only the park benches on the sidewalks betray the fact that Alcobendas is near Madrid, and not an industrial area near Stuttgart -- the sun shines more often here.

Mercedes Benz, which is based in Stuttgart, also has a base here. The Spanish branch of the company has its headquarters in Alcobendas. To get to the office of José Luis López-Schümmer, the president of Mercedes-Benz España, you need to walk behind a bulky SUV and head to the elevator. López, a bearded man of about 50, smiles contentedly. "Business is going well again," he says.

He has reason to be in a good mood. Mercedes van sales have already gone up by half over the past year: The cars are popular among Spanish small-business owners. In the first couple of months of this year, the number of car registrations went up by another 27 percent.

López is especially proud of the fact that over the past year his country has produced 2.4 million cars, and is leaving the traditional car-producing countries of Italy and France further and further behind. Only Germany produces more cars in Europe than Spain, albeit by a wide margin.

It was exports, and not domestic demand, that lifted Spain out of the worst economic crisis since the civil war in the 1930s. "Ninety percent of our Mercedes vans and trucks, which we produce in two plants in the Basque region, head outside of the country," López says.

The model being emulated by the country during its upturn is unmistakable. During the crisis, Spain copied the German economic model, successfully putting its emphasis on exports. In 2014, almost one third of Spanish goods and services were shipped outside of the country. 25,000 new jobs were created in the Spanish car factories of Opel, Seat, Renault, Ford and Nissan alone. Once the unions consented to making production more flexible, Mercedes invested €190 million ($208 million) in the factories. "We've been on the move," says López, who also once worked in Stuttgart.

Spain's Big Return

The European Central Bank is predicting that Spain will be one of the economic drivers of Europe in 2015. Powered by a cheap euro and low interest, economic growth is predicted to rise by 2.3 percent this year. The Spanish government is expecting one million additional jobs for 2014 and 2015.

Along with Portugal and Ireland, Spain represents an example of how an economic crisis can be turned into an opportunity. These countries' experiences show that a nation can recover its economic competitiveness through painful reform, even in a monetary union.

As a result, Spain -- especially in the eyes of liberal economists -- represents the counterpoint to Greece, which has gotten entangled in its national battle against economic relegation and is losing ever more time with its recriminations against the rest of the euro group. That's one view.

Others see the dark side of Spain's success. Mass unemployment, which is still at 23.7 percent, is simply not going down fast enough. And this past weekend showed that the reformers can't count on the gratitude of their voters.

On Sunday, Andalusia, the most populous area of Spain, headed to the polls. Contrary to many expectations, the incumbent Spanish Socialist Workers Party managed to retain all of its seats, but the conservative Partido Popular, which governs Spain, saw its voter share decrease from 41 percent to 27 percent. Two new protest parties, Podemos and Ciudadanos -- which follow the mold of Greece's Syriza -- received 15 percent and 9 percent of the vote, respectively. In Andalusia, where the Socialists have been in power for decades, more than one-third of people are unemployed.

Hemmed in by the Euro

Álvaro Nadal, 43, one of Spain's reformers, receives visitors in a neoclassical palais located directly behind Moncloa, Madrid's presidential palace. The economist thinks fast and speaks even faster. At the most important international conferences, Nadal sits next to Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, and is considered one of his most important economic advisors. His office is characterized by dark, severe furniture -- the big conference table is entirely upholstered with olive-green fabric except for its edges.

"After the introduction of the euro, our inflation was always two or three percent higher than Germany's. So after 2000, our competitiveness on the international markets sank," says Nadal, a Harvard University graduate. At first, the cheap money from the ECB and a big real estate boom plastered over the country's problems. Then in 2008 came the big real estate market crash, and Spain was trapped.

Back when the Spanish peseta was still in use, the country's currency could still simply be devalued. Thanks to that tried and tested method, the country had again and again been able to retain its competitiveness in previous decades. But when the crisis broke out, this exit strategy was off-limits: Spain would have had to leave the euro to use it. The option was seriously discussed in Spain at the time, but is now dismissed even by Podemos Head Pablo Iglesias.

Spain decided to take the more difficult road. "We are the first population-rich country that embarked on a large-scale depreciation within a currency union," Nadal says.

Taxes were raised in 2011 and many people were laid off, including those in the public administration. This led to mass unemployment, a plunge in real estate prices of over 35 percent, wage stagnation. At some point, prices also started to sink.

"For the past 18 months, inflation has been lower than in Germany. That had never been the case before," Nadal says. He shows a graphic demonstrating labor costs. Thanks to its restraint on wages, Spain managed to completely regain the competitiveness it had lost relative to countries like France and Italy since 2000. Even the gap between Spain and Germany rapidly shrank.

Lagging Job Market

Mercedes Spain head López-Schümmer confirms that wages barely rose during the crisis years. "The unions have accepted that the old system of raises based on inflation plus a certain percentage on top no longer works," says the executive, who also heads the Spanish Association of Car and Truck Manufacturers (Anfac). Work hours have become more flexible. If a company is losing money, wage increases may be cancelled. And companies began hiring new people because it has become easier to lay them off again if investment plans don't pan out.

Spain is embarking on a dream liberalization program. But the progress on the job market is puny. It is still almost impossible for young Spaniards to get a permanent job in their homeland. In some places, temporary contracts are as valuable as a winning lottery ticket. University graduates are more likely to find an adequately paying job in Antwerp, London or Frankfurt. Even Prime Minister Rajoy -- who, as a politician, is professionally required to be optimistic -- is proceeding on the assumption that five more years of economic growth will be necessary for 20 million Spaniards to have a job, as was the case before in the crisis.

During the crisis, the construction industry lost about 1.8 million jobs. Given the many empty apartment buildings, these jobs won't be returning, even if a turnaround is in sight in this sector as well. Still, in 2014, after falling by about 35 percent, apartment prices once again rose nationwide.

The Spanish state also still has to carry the burden of some infrastructure projects that verge on the megalomaniacal. Eight private highway companies went bust after building new roads that the market didn't actually need. Now they are waiting to be saved by the government -- according to the construction sector, €8 million would suffice to do the job.

Even the European Union, for whom Spain was one of its biggest subsidy recipients, has become more careful. It had plans to co-finance the unnecessary expansion of a container terminal in Cádiz, Andalusia, which has been little used for years. In the wake of a SPIEGEL report about the plans in October, the EU cancelled its co-financing in early March. Now Spain needs to submit a new project proposal for the project, which the public port company had already almost finished building using loans.

Research Investment is Crucial

Today, these forms of inherited waste are still causing problems in the country. Research funding was cut because the state ran out of money -- also as a result of its support for meaningless prestige projects. The country, however, has enormous catching up to do -- particularly in the promising high-tech sectors. Research and development are a big weakness in many companies, who invest too little in their future.

Businesses like ITP, which builds turbines and invests 8 percent of its income in research, are the exception. The company managed to use its expertise to build the turbines for Eurofighter military jet as well as civilian planes. Crucial parts of the engine -- which powers planes like Airbus' wide-body A380 or the Boeing 787 -- are designed and produced in Spain.

Rolls Royce -- alongside the Spanish family holding company Sener, which is a major stockholder in ITP -- has just signed a contact which would task the Spanish with the development of high-speed turbines that would power planes in 2025. The European Investment Bank jumped in to maintain research financing during the crisis years, when Spanish banks were no longer willing to take risks.

Spain is lucky to have entrepreneurs like 44-year-old Mónica Martínez Walter. The physicist was working as a researcher in a Max Planck Institute in Mainz, Germany when her father unexpectedly died in 2001. She needed to take over as the president of the Madrid aerospace company GMV. Now she sits in a modest office covered in numerous old maps, soberly describing the years when the banks suddenly demanded two-figure interest rates, because the financial crisis had arrived in Spain.

"During the crisis we needed to replace state clients with private ones and to further internationalize," Martínez says. She wants to turn her family business, with its 1,500 employees and its subsidiaries in 10 countries into a large corporation.

The inner courtyard of the company's headquarters contains red mounds of sand with circular craters. "We're training a robot here how to find its way on Mars," Martínez says. The company is participating in the new Mars expedition being planned by the European Space Agency. The hope is that if the Europeans land there at some point in the future, the robots, assisted by GMV technology, will be able to steer themselves on their own using digital maps and sensors to prevent them from falling into the first hole they stumble upon.

If the Europeans are going to land there at some point in the future, robots will autonomously create their own digital maps with the help of GMV, and be able to move around using visual sensors without falling into the nearest hole.

In Madrid, hundreds of scientists and technicians are working, with considerable talent for improvisation, on solutions for the future. Sometimes those involve a garbage disposal for space which could catch the space junk that flies around the Earth at various speeds. Others involve the optimization of the satellite software of the Galileo navigation system, with which the Europeans hope at some point to be able to compete with the American GPS.

But during the crisis Martínez has learned that even state-financed contracts can easily fall apart. As a result, she's happy that her clients are increasingly made up of private companies like Renault-Nissan or Daimler. In the future, the same company that helped to track and steer the European space probe Rosetta, which spent many years chasing a comet, may also be doing the same thing in cars.

Worries over Upcoming Elections

Unlike Greece, Spain has internationally competitive companies. But as in Athens, the recovery is threatened by political uncertainties. Parliamentary elections will be taking place at the end of the year. Investors are afraid of populist, anti-capitalist parties like Podemos. "Did you recently see on TV the photo of Trotsky that the Podemos supporter had posted on his Apple computer?" one of the businessmen asks with a slightly horrified tone in his voice.

The Ciudadanos people's movement, which originated in Catalonia, seems more business friendly -- they want to support the middle class and create a national anti-corruption program. Both Ciudadanos and Podemos have double-digit support levels in voter polls, because, regardless of the economic crisis, the traditional elites from both the conservative and socialist party are wrapped up in serious corruption scandals.

Nadal, the conservative presidential advisor, points to the high political costs of the reforms: "When they devalued their currency before, the companies immediately became competitive again. When you devalue within the euro zone, it takes a long time and is painful for everyone." Homeowners need to lower the prices of their homes if they want to sell it. Employees earns less. And every company makes less profit.

Rajoy's conservative government has implemented a feel-good program in order to transmit the fruits of the upturn to voters. Taxes were lowered, old cars could be scrapped and new ones purchased with the help of government subsidies and the money is flowing more freely again.

Even in a politically stable country, over three years of internal devaluation are also barely tolerable. Because then there are elections.

 53 
 on: Mar 26, 2015, 05:49 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
'A revolution is impossible in Belarus'

Analysis: A stymied opposition, turmoil in Ukraine and a lack of interest from the west have effectively ruled out prospects of an uprising, writes Siarhei Bohdan

Siarhei Bohdan for Belarus Digest, part of the New East network
Wednesday 25 March 2015 13.15 GMT Last modified on Wednesday 25 March 2015 18.07 GMT   

The political year for the Belarusian opposition begins today, on Freedom Day, with a state-sanctioned rally.

The day, which marks the foundation of the Belarusian People’s Republic in 1918, used to bring thousands to the streets of Minsk to oppose the government of Alexander Lukashenko – who has been in power since 1994.

Not anymore. The political opposition is suffering from years of exclusion from public sphere; they have not held a seat in parliament since 1996, they are virtually ignored by state-affiliated media and the government have restricted their right to protest.

The appetite for a revolution has also been quelled by events in neighbouring Ukraine. Belarusians are cautious. The risk of the state collapse, civil strife and Russian interference seems too high. The west, particularly the US, take the same line. Preserving Belarusian independence, not democratisation, has become the highest priority.

‘No conditions for a revolution’

Earlier this month Lukashenko told police there would be no “maidan” style protests in Belarus, referring to the protests in Ukraine that unseated a government. Two days later, the opposition Belarusian People’s Front Party proposed abandoning plans for street protests after the presidential election in November.

Alyaksei Yanukevich, the chairman of the party, argued that few Belarusians would participate.

Indeed, even before the conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine, 78% of respondents told the Independent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Research that a better future was “not worth people’s blood”. Seventy percent said they did not want a Ukrainian-style revolution.

The lack of a revolutionary appetite is not just about Ukraine. Belarusian circumstances were, and are, very different to those countries where the so-called colour revolutions have taken hold.
anti-government protest in Kiev

Lincoln Mitchell, who previously worked with the National Democratic Institute in a number of post-Soviet nations, has recently published a critical analysis of the so-called colour revolutions in countries such as Ukraine, Georgia and Serbia.

He lists four main premises that lead to their success. First, people should have opportunity to effectively participate in an election and be able to challenge the result.

Second, the media should be able to anticipate election fraud, be able to inform people about fraud, and cover the ensuing protests. Third, the population should not be intimidated by the state. Fourth, in cases where colour revolutions were successful, foreign and international donors and democratisation-oriented NGOs have “a degree of political access and involvement”.

None of these conditions apply in Belarus.

‘Europe’s last dictatorship’

The external environment has also changed. According to Mitchell, by the spring of 2006 Belarus was one of the few countries in the world, and the only one in the former Soviet Union, where the US administration was looking for regime change.

Belarus once was branded Europe’s “last dictatorship” by US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, despite post-Soviet regimes such as Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan raising much greater concerns about human rights and democracy.

There were geopolitics at play. As US interests focused on the Middle East, Minsk aroused suspicion over its active engagement with radical governments, including its cooperation with Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. In 2002 Washington organised a conference on Belarus as a “missing link in the axis of evil”, which was attended by such political heavyweights including US senator John McCain and Polish politician Radek Sikorski.

Belarus possessed little strategic value to the US – it was often dismissed as a murky eastern European state under Russian control – but the country was thought of as the place to showcase western commitment to human rights, democratic freedoms, and nuclear non-proliferation.
The west’s change of heart

As of 2015, the geopolitical situation has changed and, as Lukashenko is happy to boast, the west has started to view Belarus in a different light.

Lukashenko recently played peacemaker by hosting Ukraine ceasefire talks and, according to Yanukevich of the BNF party, western governments are now telling Belarus that independence should come before democracy. Their new priority is to avoid a Russian takeover.

Another important detail: Belarus relation to the Middle East have become less of a problem. The country is pursuing a more cautious foreign policy, for example in the early 2010s Minsk minimised its contact with Iran and Syria as they faced increased international isolation.

The west is no longer interested in a Belarusian revolution.

The rise of radical activism

Whilst a colour revolution is impossible in Belarus, there is some probability of clashes with radical clashes around November’s elections.

The Belarusian left-wing website Prasvet recently said that election fraud has led the opposition to lose interest in campaigning with the public. Their logic is clear: if votes aren’t counted there is no point in campaigning, it’s better find groups prepared to come to the square and confront the police.

The appearance of radical nationalist initiatives such as 1863x.com suggests that such a scenario may not be so far-fetched. Belarusian opposition insiders told the Belarus Digest that whilst they had received no foreign money to mount a presidential campaign, extreme radical groups do have sources of funding.

Simultaneously, the Belarusian law enforcement bodies and security services are monitoring events in Ukraine, meaning they may now be more willing than ever before to resort to extreme measures to defend the government.

Were the radical groups to clash with the government, ordinary Belarusians are likely to lose out. The political regime would become more brutal, its politics more radical, and Belarus’ relations with the west could deteriorate again.

Siarhei Bohdan is a senior analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre and a PhD candidate at Freie Universität Berlin. He is an alumnus of the Belarus State University and European Humanities University in Lithuania.

A version of this article first appeared on Belarus Digest

 54 
 on: Mar 26, 2015, 05:44 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Leaders of European cities make pledge to tackle climate change

Representatives of 30 cities gather in Paris to sign declaration that will also commit them to use their €10bn purchasing power to buy eco-friendly

Kim Willsher in Paris
Thursday 26 March 2015 08.40 GMT Last modified on Thursday 26 March 2015 10.38 GMT
Guardian   

Leaders and representatives of 30 European cities will gather in Paris on Thursday to declare their commitment to “clean” policies to fight climate change.

Officials will also sign a declaration agreeing to use their collective purchasing power – estimated at around €10bn (£7.4bn) a year – to buy eco-friendly.

Full text of climate change statement signed by 26 European mayors

The gathering comes eight months before Paris hosts the United Nations climate change conference, known as COP21, aimed at achieving a binding, universal and international agreement on climate for the first time in more than 20 years of UN negotiations.

In a joint statement signed by 26 European mayors, including London’s Boris Johnson, city representatives said they hoped combining forces to favour green and low-carbon industries for procurement contracts would have a “leverage effect on the private sector that very often aligns its own requirements with the public sector”.

“The time has now come for European capitals and metropolises to pool our efforts to tackle climate change. This requires a closer dialogue between cities through a more regular exchange of expertise and good practices,” they declared.

The mayors will arrive at Paris’ city hall in electric Autolib’ cars, from the city’s car-sharing service, decorated in the colours of their country.

The summit comes a week after Paris was declared the most polluted city on the planet after a choking cloud almost obscured its most symbolic monuments including the Eiffel Tower and left the city of light looking more like the capital of smog.

 55 
 on: Mar 26, 2015, 05:39 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Cane toads by the million lined up for export to China as anti-cancer remedy

Researchers at the University of Queensland hope to send ‘premium cane toads’ after discovering their venom has anti-cancer properties

Oliver Milman
Thursday 26 March 2015 06.04 GMT Last modified on Thursday 26 March 2015 06.06 GMT
Guardian
 
They may be Australia’s most hated pest, routinely clubbed to death by the public, but cane toads could soon prove an unlikely source of income – as an export commodity to China.

Researchers at the University of Queensland have discovered that cane toad venom is effective in fighting cancer, with the potency rivalling that of toads found in Asia that are used in Chinese traditional medicine.

The discovery opens up the possibility of sending millions of toads to China, where they would be systematically squeezed for their juices, which would then be mixed with herbs and consumed as medicine.

Harendra Parekh, from the university’s school of pharmacy, said Chinese companies were “queuing up” to get their hands on Australia’s cane toads.

“We don’t have any of the environmental pollution, such as heavy metal poisoning, that you see in China,” he told Guardian Australia. “So the Chinese see cane toads as living in a clean environment that doesn’t impact upon their venom.

“We could process the venom for medicine, ideally in a tablet because it tastes absolutely awful if you drink it. Look at lamb, beef and chicken – these Australian products are seen as premium goods in China. Cane toads would be no different. They’d be premium cane toads.”

The university has been working on cane toad venom as a cancer treatment since 2010, when former PhD student Jing Jing discovered that the poison killed cancerous prostate cells while sparing healthy cells.

It’s hoped that, depending upon funding, a system could be devised within three years to turn the venom into a tablet form that could be sold to the multi-billion dollar Chinese traditional medicine market.

“Ultimately, labour costs are cheaper in China than here, so we may sell the technology for the tablet and then in order to meet the demand, collect the toads and ship them there,” Parekh said.

A further possibility could be to target other forms of cancer with the venom, potentially opening up an avenue to medicine that could be sold to other countries. Currently, toads are predominantly used in Chinese medicine.

Cane toads are considered one of Australia’s worst invasive species, having been introduced in Queensland in 1935 in a misguided attempt to control the cane beetle.

It is estimated there are now more than 200m cane toads in Australia, expanding their range at about 50km a year. The toads have marched across Queensland and the Northern Territory – with disastrous effects for native animals such as quolls, goannas and snakes - and are now invading the Kimberley.

Parekh said venom was easily obtained from cane toads by simply squeezing them and collecting it from their glands.

“You can do it while they are alive and venom from one toad can go a long way,” he said. “It’s very potent, which is why it causes problems if your dog simply licks the skin of a cane toad.

“The cane toad is a pest here to stay and we are fighting a losing battle against it, but we could turn them into a lucrative export market.

“There are many opportunities a cane toad can give us rather than just whacking them with bats. Why can’t we turn them into something positive?”

 56 
 on: Mar 26, 2015, 05:37 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Female polar bear raises hopes of birth in captivity

Owners of Highland Wildlife Park hope Victoria, 18, will get chummy with male Arktos during her stay in the Cairngorms

Karl Mathiesen
26 March 2015 00.37 GMT
Guardian   

The arrival of a female polar bear at a wildlife park in Scotland has raised the prospect of the first captive birth in Britain in 23 years.

The new arrival, Victoria, is an 18-year-old bear who has spent her life in zoos in Germany and Denmark. On Wednesday, she will be introduced to an enclosure purpose-built to encourage the delicate, potentially deadly, process of polar bear breeding. She is the only female polar bear in Britain.

She joins two males, Walker and Arktos, at Highland Wildlife Park (HWP) set amid the Cairngorm Mountains in the eastern highlands.

Her keepers plan to begin introducing her to Arktos gradually during April and May – polar bears’ prime breeding season. Beside her enclosure is a special annexe with its own pool, which will house Arktos who was chosen for his rare bloodline. A strong but see-through mesh fence will allow the pair to be introduced slowly.

Douglas Richardson, head of living collections for the HWP said this was necessary because in the wild male and female bears only come together to mate. At other times the solitary animals can be territorial. A fight could be disastrous given the vast power of the male bears, which can weigh four times as much as a potential mate.

“Male polar bears can kill female polar bears so if the introduction is done inappropriately, or too fast, or at the wrong time then you could end up with a dead female. So that kind of puts the kibosh on your breeding programme. With any introduction of large carnivores it needs to be done gradually and carefully,” said Richardson.

Keepers will monitor the bears’ behaviour for signs that both are ready to mate. At this point Arktos will be allowed into Victoria’s territory. Should a fight occur, keepers plan to scare Arktos aware with the noise and smoke of a fire extinguisher.

Polar bears breed between March and May, meaning Victoria only has a few weeks to settle if this year is to be a fruitful one for the programme. If she is not ready by the end of spring the keepers will wait until next year.

Victoria has previously given birth to a male bear at Aalborg Zoo in Denmark in 2008 amid huge publicity. The first days of the cub’s life were broadcast via webcams to hundreds of thousands of viewers. HWP plans on doing the same if they produce a cub.

Richardson said hosting a successful breeding programme would attract many visitors to the park, promoting polar bear conservation and helping fund other conservation programmes.

“We will see a very significant bump in visitor numbers. Producing a polar bear cub in the UK is probably on a par with producing a giant panda cub, as far as the publicity and the desire for people to come and see it.”

Polar bears are the largest land carnivore and are famously threatened by climate change. They depend on the Arctic’s declining sea ice for survival. Last week it was reported that this winter was the worst on record for Arctic sea ice coverage.

Richardson said the aim of the breeding programme was not to reintroduce animals to the wild.

“The wild population is crashing and climate change is causing a lack of hunting habitat so there would be absolutely no point in doing any reintroduction at the moment.”

Rather, he said, it was to maintain a genetic line that that was predicted to become extinct due to climate change.

The last polar bear born in captivity in the UK was at Flamingo Land in Yorkshire in 1992. Some wildlife advocates have battled against polar bears in captivity, arguing that it is impossible to provide their complex and particular needs in a zoo. A campaign by actvists saw Britain’s only polar bear at the time, Mercedes, moved from Edinburgh Zoo to more appropriate housing at HWP in 2009.

Chris Draper from the Born Free Foundation said HWP should not breed any new bears for captivity.

“There are considerable threats facing wild polar bear habitat, but the Born Free Foundation firmly believes that breeding more bears in zoos has no genuine role to play in polar bear conservation. Furthermore, experience of polar bears in zoos the world over has shown us time and again that polar bears simply do not fare well in captivity - partly as a consequence of the restricted environment,” he said.

Visitors to HWP should be able to visit Victoria in early April.

 57 
 on: Mar 26, 2015, 05:35 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Australian zoos condemn animal abuses but won't quit global organisation

‘We need to be in the tent rather than out of it,’ Perth zoo boss says when asked why tougher action has not been taken against rogue zoos

Oliver Milman
Thursday 26 March 2015 06.04 GMT Last modified on Thursday 26 March 2015 06.06 GMT
Guardian   

Australian zoos have spoken out against the animal abuses in zoos around the world that were exposed this week but have ruled out quitting the world’s top zoos body, which has failed to act upon the ill treatment.

The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums is being taken to court by an Australian conservation group for its alleged complicity in the infamous dolphin hunts in Taiji, Japan, Guardian Australia revealed this week.

Waza is accused of sanctioning a deal under which its Japanese member would get first pick of dolphins for captivity in the month of September, despite publicly opposing the practice of dolphin hunts for meat or capture.

Dozens of examples of harrowing cruelty towards animals in Waza-member zoos have been revealed, contrary to its code of ethics, which demands the “highest standard of animal welfare”.

The videoed abuse includes elephants being beaten in an Indian zoo and dolphins forced to jump through flaming hoops at a touring Indonesian show. At one Waza-member zoo in South Korea, a terrified baby bear was put into a tiger enclosure for the amusement of TV viewers.

Waza has more than 300 individual zoo members, including London zoo, the Zoological Society of San Diego, Toronto zoo and Bronx zoo. It acts as a voice for zoos while also setting regulations for their behaviour.

Susan Hunt, the chief executive of Perth zoo, will be the next Waza president, with her term starting in October. Hunt, who now chairs Waza’s animal welfare council, said complaints of abuse would be taken “very seriously” and that the organisation was working hard to bring zoos around the world up to a standard seen in Australia.

“We need to be in the tent rather than out of it,” Hunt said when asked why tougher action had not been taken against rogue zoos. “The purpose of zoos has changed rapidly and Waza has to move with the membership. It’s very complex dealing with this on a global issue. A bad zoo reflects on every zoo.

“The question of whether Waza can be an enforcement agency is a good one. There is a lot of work still to be done globally.”

Zoos Victoria said it “fully supports” Waza in its role of upholding animal welfare and conservation.

But it added in a statement: “Zoos Victoria are deeply concerned about the alarming allegations appearing in the Guardian and will look to work with Waza in upholding its code of conduct.

“We believe this is achieved through zoos working collaboratively through Waza to progress the issue of animal welfare throughout the world.”

A spokesman for Sydney’s Taronga zoo said the zoo did not support dolphin hunting “in any way” and categorically condemned animal cruelty. “We support every effort to investigate reports of animal welfare breaches,” he said.

“Regional zoos and aquarium associations have achieved many great results for wildlife and have been very effective on bringing any matters raised before regional authorities to take action.”

He said the matters raised in the Guardian’s reporting would be discussed at an international zoo meeting in April.

 58 
 on: Mar 25, 2015, 09:53 PM 
Started by Linda - Last post by Dav
I guess the most logical place to begin would be to interpret the soul's bottom line dynamics, and thus from this understanding, grasp how the intercepted signs and planets are given meaning.

I will put together a post later when I have some more time on my hands.

Thank you.

 59 
 on: Mar 25, 2015, 08:08 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad

Utah confirms spike in infant deaths in oil and gas boomtown, but the state won’t bother finding out why

By Zoë Schlanger
3/25/2015
Newsweek

In Donna Young’s 19 years as a midwife, she’s made house calls to hundreds of mothers in Utah’s Uintah Basin, and never delivered a stillbirth—until last May. She was startled. “Everything seemed to be normal, everything seemed to be good. [But] when the baby was born, she never even tried to take her first breath. It wasn’t a struggle or anything, it just wasn’t there.”

When Young attended the child’s memorial at a cemetery in the town of Vernal a few days later, a woman pointed out a few other fresh graves. The headstones were engraved with baby feet, or just one date—markers for infants who either were stillbirths or were born and died the same day.

“After the services, I came home and got to wondering exactly how many more there were, so I started looking back through the public obituaries,” Young says.

Vernal’s population is under 10,000. Young didn’t have access to official death records, so she came up with her own numbers by looking through obituaries at the three funeral homes in the area. By her count, the infant whose burial she attended in May was the seventh in Vernal to die within a day of being born since the beginning of 2013. Another six infants would die before the year’s end.

That was a major uptick from previous years. According to Young’s findings, the town put in 191 graves in 2010, of which two were for infants. A year later, three infants died, and in 2012, four. The following year, 13 infants died shortly after birth. Total burials in Vernal numbered 176 in 2013, so roughly one in every 15 new graves was for an infant. Vernal’s rate of neonatal mortality appears to have climbed from about average in 2010 (relative to national figures) to six times the normal rate three years later, Young’s calculations show.

Infant death can have any number of causes, and Young doesn’t know the medical history of any of the infants included in her tally. But as reported in The Salt Lake Tribune, she and several advocacy groups have raised questions about the Uintah Basin’s high air pollution, which has been blamed on the oil and gas industry. Encompassing Vernal and three counties, the basin is home to around 30,000 people and some 11,200 oil and gas wells. Another 25,000 new wells are under proposal, according to a recent study from the University of Colorado Boulder. The basin is in the midst of possibly the largest oil find in the world: A 2012 federal report estimated that land in the Green River Formation, which extends through the Uintah Basin and into Colorado, might hold up to 3 trillion barrels of oil—more recoverable oil than has been used so far in human history.

“I hate to blame the oil industry, because our livelihoods depend on it. If the [drilling] industry is strong, then the community is strong,” Young says. “But I want solutions. I never want to be in that spot again. I don’t ever want to lose another child.”

The oil and gas industry acknowledges that ozone pollution is an issue in the basin, but dismisses “speculation” about any supposed connection to infant deaths. “We’ve seen the same kind of thing before, where anecdotal evidence is blamed on the oil and natural gas industry. Those accusations before there’s any real evidence are highly suspect,” Kathleen Sgamma, vice president for government affairs at the Western Energy Alliance, a trade group, tells Newsweek.

“Ozone has certain health impacts. That’s why EPA has a health standard for ozone, and Western Energy Alliance helped fund [a government-led] study,” she says. “Being that the oil and gas industry is just about the only industry in the basin, it is well known that it is the source of ozone precursors. Ozone precursors do not necessarily create ozone. You need the right weather conditions. We did have high ozone readings in 2013 and 2014, and Western Energy is working with regulators to address that.”

Oil and gas are central to life in the region. A map of the Uintah Basin is thickly cluttered with colorful dots marking the locations of oil and gas wells. “From a plane it looks like the Earth has smallpox,” says Brian Moench, an anesthesiologist and president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, an advocacy group that is urging the state to more aggressively assess the situation with the infant deaths. The area is almost completely surrounded by mountains. In the winter, it is prone to weather events called “inversions,” where warmer air floats above cooler air, forming a “cap” that keeps the air stagnant and prevents pollution from exiting the area.

Moench’s group has joined a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for what it alleges is failure to declare the Uintah Basin out of compliance with federal air-quality standards. Litigation is pending, and the EPA declines to comment on the lawsuit. “I will note that the Uintah Basin is among many areas in the country where EPA is actively evaluating and working on ozone issues,” says Richard Mylott, a public affairs spokesman for EPA Region 8.

Uintah Basin exceeded the National Ambient Air Quality Standards level for ozone pollutants for 39 days last winter, according to the University of Colorado study, which puts Uintah Basin’s ozone pollution above the Los Angeles Basin’s average summertime levels. L.A. is currently ranked the most ozone-polluted city in the U.S. by the American Lung Association. Several studies have linked L.A.’s air pollution to an increase in adverse pregnancy outcomes, such as early birth and low birth weight. But linking air pollution to infant deaths within a population as small as Vernal’s is extremely difficult. Some say the state is not trying hard enough.

“We know that pregnant women who breathe more air pollution have much higher rates of virtually every adverse pregnancy outcome that exists,” says Moench. “And we know that this particular town is the center of an oil and gas boom that’s been going on for the past five or six years and has uniquely high particulate matter and high ozone. So seeing this spike in perinatal mortality is not surprising.

“We can’t say at this point, and we probably can’t say ever, that each one of these deaths is due to air pollution,” he continues. “Much like we can’t say that someone’s lung cancer is definitely due to their smoking. But if you put the components of this equation in the context of everything else we know, it would say something.”

But when is an anomaly a trend? A few months after Young and Moench’s group say they first presented their concerns to state officials, the Utah Department of Health and the local health agency agreed to conduct a study of infant death records to determine whether pregnancy outcomes are worse for women in the area, before considering a much costlier environmental assessment. But to have a big enough sample size to rule out random chance, they say, they need to look at data across a much larger swath of geography than just Vernal.

“One of the problems we’re going to have is that we can’t just look at Vernal, we have to look at the tri-county area,” Sam LeFevre, program manager of the state’s Environmental Epidemiology Program, tells Newsweek. “The Uintah Basin stretches through all three counties, but there are natural barriers between them, like hills, so the [pollution] exposure is not going to be even across all three.”

Plus, the study won’t include data from 2013—the year that’s had the most infant deaths by far.

“We’re reliant on vital birth records registry data,” LeFevre says. “I’m talking to the registry owners and seeing what it will take [to get that]. For right now, I’m not planning on using 2013 data. You would think if there’s a health problem associated with the ozone that it wouldn’t be just that year.”

Moench says the study is a waste of time. “To us, studying it without [2013] seems pointless. Or deliberately crafted so there won’t be any alarming result. I call tell you right now that that study isn’t going to tell you anything.”

Even if the government study finds an upward trend in infant deaths, LeFevre is skeptical that the oil and gas wells will be found responsible. He says that while there is research linking air pollution to adverse pregnancy outcomes, many other studies are inconclusive or find no connection to drilling.

“Typically, negative results have a hard time getting published. I think the effects are really small and hard to find,” he says. “I’ve reviewed the literature enough to know that there are a hundred [studies] that find an effect and another 50 that don’t.”

Young, for her part, just hopes the Vernal community will come to share her concerns about air pollution and recognize that she isn’t trying to hurt the oil and gas industry.

“These are people who, if you have a flat tire, somebody is going to stop and help. It’s a good place. On a clear day, it’s one of the nicest places.”

 60 
 on: Mar 25, 2015, 07:19 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Georgia Aquarium's plan to import 18 beluga whales meets broad opposition

Scientists and celebrities join federal agency in opposing import of cetaceans
Belugas were captured in Sea of Okhotsk and are being held in Russia

Associated Press in Atlanta
Tuesday 24 March 2015 21.27 GMT Last modified on Tuesday 24 March 2015 23.01 GMT

A group of prominent actors, activists and scientists is opposing an attempt by the Georgia Aquarium to import beluga whales from Russia.

The aquarium applied in June 2012 to import 18 whales, saying it would help improve the genetic diversity of belugas living in captivity in the US. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, the federal agency formerly known as the National Marine Fisheries Service, denied the application in August 2013.

The aquarium filed a complaint in federal court in Atlanta in September 2013 asking a judge to overturn the denial of its application. The aquarium’s lawyers have said in filings that they are bringing the complaint under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which aims to conserve marine mammal populations.

The 1972 law prohibits the capture of marine mammals in US waters and by US citizens elsewhere and also doesn’t allow the import of marine mammals and marine mammal products into the US. But it does have some exceptions, and the aquarium’s lawyers have argued their permit should fall under an exception allowing the animals to be caught and imported for public display for applicants meeting certain qualifications.

The 18 belugas the aquarium is seeking to import originate from the Sea of Okhotsk in northern Russia and were collected by scientists there in 2006, 2010 and 2011. They currently live in the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia. If the permit is granted, they would be brought to accredited zoos and aquariums in the US.

The aquarium has argued that bringing new belugas into the captive population in the US would diversify the gene pool, make the population more stable and broaden the database of research on belugas’ needs and capabilities. The aquarium has said in court filings that it has taken significant steps to ensure the whales’ removal from the wild wouldn’t have negative effects on the whale population in that part of the ocean.

NOAA Fisheries argues the aquarium failed to meet the rigorous requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The aquarium did not adequately ensure that the import of the belugas would be unlikely to have an adverse effect on the beluga population in the area where they were captured, the agency argued. The import would also probably result in future captures and allow the import of animals who were nursing when captured, the agency argued.

The judge in the case last year allowed several animal welfare and conservation groups to join the litigation on the side of NOAA Fisheries. The groups argued the import of the belugas would harm their decades-long efforts to conserve and protect marine mammals and urged the judge to uphold the denial of the aquarium’s permit application.

A group that includes actors Kim Basinger, Shannen Doherty, Edward Norton and Hayden Panettiere and film producer Jean-Michel Cousteau – as well as environmentalists and a number of scientists, filmmakers and conservationists – argued in a court filing that marine mammals should not be removed from the wild for purposes of public display.

No marine mammals have been captured in US waters and none captured in foreign waters have been brought directly to the US for more than two decades, and if the aquarium is granted a permit “the example set by the US in applying rigorous standards, protective of the species and the animals, would be destroyed”, they argued.

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