South Sudan peace talks stall amid fresh clashes in Juba
Gunfire heard in northern area of the capital as rebel and government negotiators fail to hold face-to-face talks on Sunday
Reuters in Juba and Addis Ababa
theguardian.com, Sunday 5 January 2014 21.02 GMT
Sustained gunfire has been heard in South Sudan's capital, Juba, as peace talks between rebels and the government to hammer out a ceasefire deal faced further delay in neighbouring Ethiopia.
The gunfire, which lasted about an hour, came from the direction of the military headquarters of the SPLA government forces in the north of the city. It was not clear who was involved.
Three weeks of fighting, which began in Juba but spread beyond, often along ethnic faultlines, have killed more than a thousand people, forced a cut in oil output and left the world's newest state on the brink of civil war.
Juba has been largely calm since the early clashes, though there was also a brief gunfight on Saturday evening and residents talk of growing tensions.
"I saw a truck full of soldiers going along the Bilpam road. They were singing. About 20 minutes later the shooting started and people started running towards town," said Animu Afekuru, who lives in the neighbourhood.
Fighting has also erupted outside the flashpoint town of Bor, capital of the vast Jonglei state, which has untapped oil reserves.
Western and regional powers, many of which supported the negotiations that led to South Sudan's secession from Sudan in 2011, are pressing for a peace deal, fearing the latest fighting could destabilise east Africa.
The unrest pits President Salva Kiir's SPLA government forces against rebels loyal to former vice president Riek Machar.
Both warring factions have said they want peace and are committed to a ceasefire in principle, though neither has indicated when they would lay down their weapons.
Rebel and government negotiators were supposed to sit down face-to-face for the first time on Sunday. But the rebel delegation and a western diplomat told Reuters late in the evening there would be no meeting that day.
Kiir blamed his long term rival, whom he sacked in July, for starting the fighting in a bid to seize power. Machar dismissed the allegation but he has acknowledged leading soldiers battling the government.
A key stumbling block to the talks is what should happen to a number of political detainees allied to Machar who are accused of involvement in the plot.
The rebels have demanded their comrades' release – a call backed by the US and EU.
"This is a capital offence, it is a case of treason and we are expected as the government of the Republic of South Sudan to investigate within two, three days? This is out of the question," South Sudan's information minister, Michael Makuei, told reporters in Addis Ababa.
Several false starts have dampened hopes for a swift end to the fighting, which has driven more than 200,000 people from their homes. The UN is scrambling to raise money to provide food, clean water and shelter.
Sudan's state news service reported that Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir would head to Juba on Monday to meet Kiir
There is widespread scepticism of the peace talks in Juba, where residents are on edge amid rumours of a rebel advance on the city that lies on the banks of the White Nile. "I fear for our country in the coming days," said 19-year-old Nyathok Khat. "The politicians don't care about the suffering of the people."
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, on Sunday voiced his support for the Addis Ababa peace talks and warned against the use of force by either side to gain the upper hand.
"The negotiations have to be serious. They cannot be a delay gimmick in order to continue the fighting and try to find advantage on the ground at the expense of the people of South Sudan," Kerry told reporters during a visit to Israel.
January 5, 2014
Sudan’s Lost Boys Are Drawn Into War at Home
By NICHOLAS KULISH and ISMA’IL KUSHKUSH
AWERIAL, South Sudan — When Jacob Atem was just a young boy, his parents were killed during the long war for independence from Sudan, and he found himself among the legions of orphaned children known as the Lost Boys wandering hundreds of miles across this part of Africa.
Resettled and educated in the United States, he returned to the newly independent nation of South Sudan two years ago to open a clinic in the village where he was born. But the promise of this young country gave way to a new conflict in recent weeks, and Mr. Atem, now 28, found himself once more in the midst of deadly clashes, hiding in the bush from rebels, watching as the American aircraft sent to rescue him and others were strafed with a fusillade of bullets, and sheltering at a United Nations compound.
“I got lucky,” said Mr. Atem, a Michigan State University graduate, after finally making it onto a humanitarian flight and escaping the heavy fighting in Bor across the river here.
The return of South Sudan’s Lost Boys for the birth of this new nation was perhaps the perfect symbol of its hope for a new beginning. Many are American citizens who came back to vote in the 2011 referendum that split off this country from Sudan, with which it fought for decades. Others returned to try to provide the next generation of South Sudanese children with a better country than the one they were born into.
Now, many of these Lost Boys, who had already escaped the violence in their homeland but found themselves inexorably drawn back, are trying to survive the crisis that is threatening to tear their new country apart. Lost, found and lost again, Mr. Atem says that many of his comrades are now trapped in a dangerous and shaky South Sudan.
Some have not made it out alive. Andrew Bith Abui, 32, had just graduated with honors from community college and was living in Nebraska. Friends and relatives said he was an American citizen and planned to become a police officer. A former teacher described him as an “intellectual” and recalled how Mr. Abui could not wait to participate in building the new South Sudan. He recently returned there to visit his home in Pariang County in Unity State to reconnect with his family and make arrangements for his marriage.
After the fighting began last month, a relative, Simon Nygok Deng, 32, was waiting in Juba, refusing to evacuate without Mr. Abui, when he received a call from a satellite phone. A local official in Pariang informed him that Mr. Abui had been killed.
“They attacked the village and overran the police,” Mr. Deng said. “They killed anybody just because they belonged to another tribe.”
The conflict that broke out in South Sudan on Dec. 15 has killed well over 1,000 people, displaced nearly 200,000 and brought this young country to the brink of all-out civil war. A political dispute between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar, has spiraled into widespread violence and fear between the two leaders’ ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer, turning civilians into targets of the fighting.
Phillip Madol, 33, lived in Grand Rapids, Mich., for 13 years, but when he heard that his mother was sick, he decided to return to South Sudan six months ago. They barely escaped from a village near Bor as antigovernment forces swept through, burning huts and shooting his mother in the leg. They joined the tens of thousands fleeing across the White Nile, waiting for assistance here among tens of thousands of other desperate people.
“Nobody thought that this would happen,” Mr. Madol said, beads of sweat on his forehead from the hot sun. “Everybody was happy that they got the freedom and they hope to continue to live in peace.” Now, he said, he was just hoping for “another chance to get back” to the United States.
Joan Hecht, founder of the Alliance for the Lost Boys of Sudan in Jacksonville, Fla., who has worked with Lost Boys for over a decade and knows both Mr. Atem and the late Mr. Abui, said so many of them had “an inner strength and inner faith and inner drive to succeed,” motivated “to bring pride and dignity to their family’s name.”
That same impulse, she said, pushed many of them to leave the safety and comfort of the United States and return to their homeland to try to help.
Abraham Awolich, 34, graduated from the University of Vermont and Syracuse University’s school of public administration. Now he is one of the founders of the Sudan Development Foundation, which runs a walk-in medical clinic and a facility for mothers and small children here in Awerial. In recent weeks, he managed to flee South Sudan again and meet his wife and infant daughter in Uganda after the violence started here. But he has returned to the South Sudanese capital, Juba, despite the risks to his safety, hoping to get badly needed medical supplies to the clinic, which is now overwhelmed by the needs of displaced people.
“I don’t want to see another generation of children go through what I’ve gone through and what other children of my generation went through,” Mr. Awolich said. “We felt fortunate that we were able to go to the U.S. and get an education,” he said, adding that, “Since there was independence it was necessary for us to come back and help with rebuilding and the development of the country.”
The Lost Boys have, by dint of experience, a much higher threshold for danger and discomfort than many people around the world. Though he was just a small child at the time, Mr. Atem was separated from his sister and captured by troops loyal to the former vice president, Mr. Machar, during the infamous massacre in Bor in 1991, an event that many fear is repeating itself to some degree in the current conflict.
As South Sudanese children were scattered during the war with Sudan, many made their way to Ethiopia, suffering from not only hunger and exposure to the elements but also attacks by soldiers and wild animals, including lions. Many of the children were killed. They eventually found their way to camps in Kenya. There, humanitarian workers nicknamed them the Lost Boys after Peter Pan’s companions in Neverland.
Mr. Atem was 15 when he joined thousands of other Lost Boys who were resettled in the United States. As an unaccompanied minor, he was placed in a foster home in Webberville, Mich. He eventually earned a master’s degree in public health from Michigan State University.
He became a co-founder of Southern Sudan Health Care Organization, which built a health clinic that treats more than 100 patients a day in Maar, where he was born. He even learned in 2013 that his sister was still alive. They spoke by telephone and planned to reunite when he visited this past December. The reunion never happened. Instead the violence erupted.
Rescue seemed to be at hand as he saw American aircraft approaching Bor two weeks ago. “They were very low, we could see, and about to land,” Mr. Atem said, until a deafening roar of gunfire filled the air. “It was really loud. Every single gun they were pointing at our American planes,” wounding four service members and forcing the aircraft to turn back.
Twice, he took a United Nations convoy to the airport to try to catch other planes out of Bor, and twice antigovernment forces refused to allow him passage onto evacuation flights because he was Dinka, he said.
“The rebels literally said, ‘If you are Dinka you are not leaving to go anywhere,’ ” said Mr. Atem. “We had to go one by one to have our passports checked,” he added.
The third time, he got through. “I’m not a typical Dinka,” Mr. Atem said. “My skin is light. I’m not tall; I’m short. I’m not really, really thin.” He made it through but two people he knows were pulled out, he said. One of them remains missing.
Mr. Atem made it back to Juba, then to Rwanda, where he reunited with his pregnant wife, and finally back to the United States. But he and other Lost Boys say they are very concerned about those who remain in South Sudan. One of them, Simon Arop, a close friend of Mr. Abui’s, said he knew of at least eight more American citizens trapped in Unity State.
“Many, many people are stranded, scattered all over the place,” Mr. Atem said. “This is really devastating because we tried to go back and help this country. It’s really a sad situation.”
Nicholas Kulish reported from Awerial, South Sudan, and Isma’il Kushkush from Khartoum, Sudan.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: January 6, 2014
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article referred incorrectly to Simon Nygok Deng. Mr. Deng was waiting for his relative, Andrew Bith Abui, in Juba when he received a call informing him Mr. Abui had been killed. Mr. Deng was not killed.
African Union missing in action in conflicts from Mali to South Sudan
Weak leadership and rivalry between states have hampered African efforts to bring security to the conflict-hit continent
theguardian.com, Monday 6 January 2014 07.00 GMT
The retired French general Vincent Desportes told the BBC World Service last week that France should back political change in Mali and remain in the country as long as necessary.
In the Central African Republic (CAR), the current deployment of 1,600 French troops is insufficient: at least 5,000 are needed, Desportes said. No one batted an eyelid. Yet a decade ago, such statements would have been denounced as outrageous imperialist ambition to re-colonise Africa. So what has changed?
From Mali to Somalia, the continent has been convulsed by an arc of conflict. Consider the most recent wars, in CAR and South Sudan. Médecins Sans Frontières, the normally unflappable aid agency, described the violence in CAR as out of control. Half the citizens of Bangui have fled the town and, across the country, about 785,000 people are displaced. The situation in South Sudan is little better: the UN says more than 194,000 people have fled their homes and that 107,000 seek shelter around UN bases.
In all this bloodshed the African Union (AU) is nowhere to be seen. It was French troops that were airlifted into CAR to save the day – just as they did in Mali, Niger and Ivory Coast. UN peacekeepers are being rushed from Darfur, Liberia, Ivory Coast, and even Haiti, to try to staunch the fighting in South Sudan. The US deployed marinesfrom their base in Djibouti to Uganda and Juba, the South Sudanese capital, to assist in the evacuation of Americans.
The much-vaunted African Standby Force, with its regional Standby Brigades at the beck and call of the AU has failed to materialise. The idea of a military force answerable to African leaders has its origins in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Horrified as they looked on helplessly, this bred a determination to intervene in future conflicts.
The problem was discussed in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1997 by African chiefs of defence staff, but the initiative had to wait until July 2002 before it receive a formal go-ahead. African leaders planned to have five regional forces by 2010 to bring security to their troubled continent.
The Standby Brigades would answer to the AU's peace and security council, the continental equivalent of the UN security council. The aim was to produce a rapidly deployable force and that by 2012 two units, each 2,500 strong, could be operational within just 14 days.
This was highly ambitious but badly needed. When, in 2002, the AU replaced the OAU, its badly discredited predecessor, it was specifically mandated to prevent a repetition of the Rwandan genocide. The AU's constitution allows it to intervene in a member state to halt what is described as "grave circumstances, namely war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity."
The Standby Brigades gave teeth to this intention and won considerable western support. The US poured money into the initiative, providing $500m to train up to 50,000 African troops. British involvement was also substantial, with more than £110m a year being invested via the African Conflict Prevention Pool for nearly a decade.
Today the figure stands at £51.5m. The pool is a joint initiative, run by the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development. Little hard information has been provided about its programmes, which were criticised by an independent review.
In reality the Standby Brigades have not got off the ground. Differences between African states run far too deep for them to be used in the continent's many crises. Many of the troops are insufficiently trained, armed or disciplined to be deployed effectively. In November 2013 an official statement from the South African government took the route of least resistance: it announced that the force would be renamed.
The "African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises" would be what was termed a "transitional arrangement" until the African Standby Force was up and running. The Nigerian Guardian was more forthright. It reported that the Standby Brigades had made little progress since they were dreamed up more than a decade ago.
So why the failure? It is not as if Africa is incapable of running military operations, given sufficient outside financial and logistical support. The 25,000 strong AU Mission to Somalia, or Amisom, has driven al-Shabaab, the al-Qaida affiliate, out of the capital.
Amisom holds substantial areas of Somalia, but it is, in reality, run by its troop contributors. So Uganda and Burundi call the shots in the capital, while Ethiopia runs its operations in the west, and Kenya holds a strip of land in the far south. Although it nominally works in the AU, the organisation has little control over what it can and cannot do.
The root of the problem lies with a failure of African leadership. When Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo and Thabo Mbeki of South Africa held office they worked hand in glove on a range of issues. For a time it seemed that the concept of an African renaissance might become a reality. But the moment faded.
Today Nigeria is resentful that South Africa is the continent's representative among the Brics group of emerging economies. Both countries vie for a possible African seat on the UN security council. And, in Goodluck Jonathan and Jacob Zuma, both nations are saddled with weak presidents obsessed with domestic problems and incapable of giving a sense of direction to the continent.
As a result, the African Standby Force has gone the way of so many other initiatives. Who, for example, now talks of the African Peer Review Mechanism, or suggests there can only be "African solutions to African problems?" From Bamako to Bangui, ordinary African men and women have cowered and waited, hoping that western troops or UN peacekeepers will come to their aid.
January 5, 2014
The Muslim Brotherhood, Back in a Fight to Survive
By KAREEM FAHIM
FAYOUM, Egypt — They hide in safe houses on the outskirts of this city, talk only fleetingly on cellphones and avoid the cafes where they used to meet. Heavy scarves obscure their identities when they venture out to join protests.
The leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, now outlawed, have adjusted to life underground, even while hundreds of their fellow members have been arrested in this city since the military deposed President Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood leader, and the Egyptian government branded the group a terrorist movement.
Yet, rather than crack and disintegrate under the pressure, members say, the group has fallen back on the organizational structure that sustained it for decades as a banned and secretive movement. It is becoming more decentralized, but also more cohesive and rigid, as its members abandon activities like preaching and social work and shift their attention to a virtually singular goal: resistance to the military-backed government.
Their focus, many Brotherhood members say, is a protracted, grinding struggle.
“There is a vision of a political confrontation that can go on for years,” said one leader, a 33-year-old architect in Fayoum, an Islamist stronghold. He, along with other members, spoke in a cafe for a time, but changed locations after suspecting the employees were eavesdropping.
“This is our persistence stage,” he said. “We are trying to stand up as long as we can.”
The Brotherhood’s endurance so far all but ensures that Egypt will continue to be troubled by civil conflict. And it raises further doubts about the government’s attempts to extinguish a movement that has resisted such efforts since its founding more than 80 years ago and that draws support from hundreds of thousands of members and millions of affiliates and sympathizers throughout the country.
Although leaders of the group say they remain committed to protests to express their activism, some members said that many of its sympathizers were increasingly talking of violence.
“I know people who are not Muslim brothers who say, ‘We’ll get your rights back for you,’ ” said Ramadan Fadel, a 27-year-old member in Fayoum who said that an acquaintance had told him that people were ready to take up arms to protect the group.
In places like Mansoura, north of Cairo, where the Brotherhood’s footprint is smaller, there was less talk of confrontation than of survival, beginning with the difficulty of attracting new recruits. “Who would want to undergo this repression?” asked a doctor who lives just outside the city and who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.
Some members described the conflict as a zero-sum game between the military and the Brotherhood. Underscoring the perils of that conflict, at least 13 people were killed on Friday during Brotherhood marches throughout the country in some of the deadliest clashes in months.
“Our backs are against the wall,” the doctor said. The military, he added, “has left us only one path.”
After the ouster of Mr. Morsi, the few government ministers who spoke of reconciliation complained that the Brotherhood was unyielding in its demands, even as hard-liners escalated a crackdown on the movement, killing hundreds of protesters and imprisoning almost every senior leader. Now the hawks are ascendant, no one talks of compromise and officials openly accuse the Brotherhood of carrying out deadly and spectacular attacks on the security services, even when unrelated militant groups claim responsibility for such attacks.
Last week, for instance, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, a government hard-liner, accused the Brotherhood of conspiring to carry out “hostile schemes” over the years with “extremist factions,” including Palestinian militants.
In reality, though, the roots of the government’s problems are much closer to home.
In cities like Mansoura, the doctor said, members have continued to attend the small, weekly “family” meetings that are considered the most critical building blocks of the organization, and the wellspring of the brotherhood’s cohesion and its ideology.
In many neighborhoods in Fayoum, campaign posters for Mr. Morsi still hang on the walls, evidence of the futility of the government’s campaign, Brotherhood members say.
For now, Brotherhood members in Fayoum said they were concentrating on replenishing their ranks, reaching out to new recruits while trying to coax lapsed, older members into more active service. Four of the members, including a senior leader, detailed the movement’s strategy, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they feared drawing further attention from the authorities.
Efforts to keep the movement alive began after Mr. Morsi’s ouster in July, the members said, when leaders appointed deputies, who in turn appointed their own deputies, to ensure a continuity of leadership as the crackdown on protests intensified. As thousands of Islamists from across the country demonstrated in Cairo for the return of Mr. Morsi, meetings were held in the squares where the protests occurred, near the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque and at Cairo University.
When the authorities stormed the squares on Aug. 14, killing hundreds of protesters, the Brotherhood faced its greatest organizational crisis, the members said. “It took about 15 days to absorb the shock, and get back to our grass roots,” said one member, a 26-year-old veterinarian. “Now we’re expanding.”
Still, a growing pressure on the Brotherhood has forced adjustments. Meetings are now held in private homes, and members approach security checkpoints and attend protests assuming they will be arrested. Some of the protests have become more like flash mobs, with demonstrators scattering quickly to avoid a heavy security response.
Some of the older Brotherhood leaders, for whom living under repression had become a way of life, boasted about the movement’s tenacity.
But for younger members, facing the wrath of the state was still a shock. Mr. Fadel, the 27-year-old, said he had become terrified of being singled out as a member of the Brotherhood by people on the street. His family has also pressured him to leave the movement.
Having been wounded by birdshot during protests, he said, he had prepared himself for the likelihood that he would be killed. “For now I see no future,” he said. “I fear for my family.”
With the group’s narrow focus on survival, there was little talk about the long-term direction of the movement, or the mistakes during Mr. Morsi’s time in power, a tenure that ended with millions of angry Egyptians on the streets demanding his ouster. The Brotherhood members talked about a few “errors” but mostly complained about what they said were conspiracies that doomed their rule.
Their official demand, that the military takeover be reversed, has not changed since July. On the horizon were nothing but protests and some unspecified type of resistance that the leaders in Fayoum promised to unveil on Jan. 25, the anniversary of the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak.
In Mansoura, where a bombing last month was followed by retaliatory violence against the Brotherhood, the members of the movement have faced greater difficulties. The doctor said he and other members had learned to live by new rules.
“Don’t stand in the street together for too long,” the doctor said. “If you have money, gold or documents that are important for you or the Muslim Brotherhood, take them to a relative or a friend you trust.”
“We’re now placed in the same boat,” he said. “We must be tighter together than we were before, so the crisis passes.”
Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting from Cairo, and Asmaa al Zohairy from Fayoum.
January 5, 2014
On Tour of Mideast, Kerry Says Iran Might Play Role in Syria Peace Talks
By MICHAEL R. GORDON
JERUSALEM — Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday that Iran might play a role at the peace talks on Syria in Switzerland this month.
It was the first time that a senior American official has indicated that Iran might be involved in the session, which is scheduled to begin Jan. 22, even if it was not a formal participant.
Mr. Kerry said there would be limits on Iran’s involvement unless it accepted that the purpose of the conference should be to work out transitional arrangements for governing Syria if opponents of President Bashar al-Assad could persuade him to relinquish power. Iran has provided military and political support to Mr. Assad.
“Now, could they contribute from the sidelines?” Mr. Kerry said, referring to a situation in which Iran sticks by the Assad government and does not accept that goal. “Are there ways for them conceivably to weigh in? Can their mission that is already in Geneva be there in order to help the process?”
“It may be that there are ways that could happen,” Mr. Kerry added, but he said the question would have to be decided by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations, “and it has to be determined by Iranian intentions themselves.”
Mr. Kerry made the remarks at a news conference in Jerusalem on Sunday morning, before he flew to Jordan and then Saudi Arabia to confer on his efforts to forge a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians and other regional issues. Capping a day of whirlwind travel, Mr. Kerry returned to Israel in the evening.
The debate over what role Iran might play at a peace conference on Syria has been one of the major impediments for convening the meeting. Russia, which has backed the Assad government politically and by sending arms, has insisted for some time that Iran be included in the session. Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy on the Syria crisis, has also favored Iran’s participation, on the ground that Tehran is a major power in the region that has been involved in the Syria conflict.
But France and the United States, which have backed the moderate Syrian opposition, have insisted that Iran should not participate unless it first makes clear that it would accept an outcome in which Mr. Assad hands over power to a transitional body. With the planned Syria conference less than three weeks away, Mr. Kerry appeared to signal that the United States might accept a compromise on the terms of Iran’s role so that the conference could proceed.
But the issue raises broader questions about how to best manage the West’s relations with Tehran. So far, the thaw in relations between the United States and Iran has been mainly limited to the November interim agreement to suspend much of Iran’s nuclear program for six months. Technical talks on how to put that interim agreement into effect are still continuing, and it is unclear whether the agreement will be the basis for a more comprehensive accord to roll back Iran’s nuclear efforts.
Though American and Iranian officials have conferred at length on the nuclear question, however, they appear to have engaged in only very limited discussions of other regional issues.
With Western nations and Iran backing different sides in Syria, there have been no signs of the kind of political cooperation that was seen after the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan were deposed in 2001.
The Obama administration has insisted that Mr. Assad must give up power and has provided limited support for moderate elements among the rebels who are trying to unseat him. By contrast, Iran has flown shipments of arms and members of its paramilitary Quds force to help Mr. Assad’s forces in Syria. Iran has also encouraged Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, to intervene on Mr. Assad’s side.
At the same time, the Syria conflict has become a source of friction between the United States and its traditional Arab partners, especially Saudi Arabia, which is worried about Iran’s influence in the region. Those tensions became more pronounced after the Assad government used chemical weapons last year, and the White House shelved plans to mount a military strike in response. Instead, the United States worked with Russia to conclude an agreement to eliminate Syria’s arsenal of poison gas. That agreement was hailed by arms control experts as a breakthrough, but it appears to have left Mr. Assad firmly entrenched in power.
Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who visited the Saudi capital last month, said in an interview that Saudi officials were still bitter about the Obama administration’s handling of the Syria crisis. “They were going to support whomever they thought could defeat Bashar al-Assad,” and not just groups that the United States favored, Mr. McCain recalled of the Saudis.
During his Sunday swing through the region, Mr. Kerry met for more than two hours with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at his desert palace at Rawdat Khuraim, a 30-minute helicopter flight from the capital, Riyadh. Mr. Kerry said afterward that the king backed his efforts to negotiate a peace accord between the Israelis and the Palestinians. “His majesty was not just encouraging, but supported our efforts,” Mr. Kerry said.
The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, also said Mr. Kerry and the king had an “excellent meeting.” But neither side offered any details about their discussions concerning three timely and delicate issues: the situation in Syria, the coming peace conference and Iran.
How two archaeologists’ hunch led to stunning claim about Buddha’s birth date
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, January 5, 2014 11:31 EST
The two archaeologists had a hunch that the Buddha’s birthplace in southern Nepal held secrets that could transform how the world understood the emergence and spread of Buddhism.
Their pursuit would eventually see them excavate the sacred site of Lumbini as monks prayed nearby, leading to the stunning claim that the Buddha was born in the sixth century BC, two centuries earlier than thought.
Veteran Nepalese archaeologist Kosh Prasad Acharya had carried out excavations in Lumbini before in the early 1990s, when Nepal was still ruled by a king and a Maoist insurgency had yet to kick off.
The project ended in 1996 but Acharya remained unsatisfied with the results.
“My belief was that there was another cultural deposit below, which we had not uncovered,” the 62-year-old told AFP.
He headed back to his government job in the capital Kathmandu and waited to retire, restless to return to Lumbini.
The Buddha’s birthplace was lost and overgrown by jungle before its rediscovery in 1896, when the presence of a third century BC pillar bearing inscriptions allowed historians to identify it as Lumbini.
Since then, it has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site, visited by millions of Buddhists every year, with numbers expected to rise exponentially in the following decades.
Acharya had just retired from his last job, as the director general of the department of archaeology, when UNESCO asked him to co-direct an investigation of Lumbini’s foundations.
The cultural organisation asked Acharya and his longtime collaborator, Robin Coningham, Britain’s leading South Asian archaeologist, to head a team that would examine the site so conservators could develop it for growing numbers of visitors.
“In 2010, our first year there, we were pretty much the handmaidens to the conservators,” Coningham told AFP in a phone interview from his office at Britain’s Durham University, which helped fund the UNESCO project.
“The Eureka moment came in 2011, when we came across a brick temple located below the existing Asokan temple, and below that a sort of void.
“It became clear then that there was much more to this excavation.”
Over the next two years, archaeologists, geophysicists and hired workmen from Nepal and Britain worked on the site, digging in the presence of meditating monks and nuns.
“It was a very moving, very special experience to dig for traces while pilgrims prayed and paid homage,” Acharya said.
They dug for a few weeks each year and sent the samples to laboratories for analysis.
Radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence techniques were used to date fragments of charcoal and grains of sand found at the site.
The archaeologists also found holes, apparently meant to secure posts, in the open void below the brick temple.
“The intact holes suggested that whoever had built the brick temple had taken care not to damage the ancient structure below, suggesting the site was always considered holy,” Coningham said.
Lab tests confirmed the existence of roots within the void below the brick structure, suggesting it may have been a shrine where a tree once grew, possibly the hardwood sal tree under which many believe the Buddha was born.
The discovery, revealed in November, sparked huge excitement, but some historians have urged caution, saying the ancient tree shrine could have been built by pre-Buddhist believers.
“The worship of trees, often at simple altars, was a ubiquitous feature of ancient Indian religions,” Julia Shaw, a lecturer in South Asian archaeology at University College London told National Geographic’s online edition.
“It is also possible that what is being described represents an older tree shrine quite disconnected from the worship of the historical Buddha,” Shaw added.
According to Coningham, however, if the Buddhists had appropriated the tree shrine from non-Buddhists, the site would not have survived relatively unscathed.
“Also, the inscriptions at Bodhgaya (where the Buddha achieved enlightenment) reveal a thriving culture of tree worship, which suggests continuity,” he added.
Much of what is known about the Buddha’s life has its origins in oral tradition. The earliest decipherable written records in the region, the inscriptions of India’s Buddhist emperor Asoka, are dated about 250 BC.
Prior to this discovery, most scholars said that the Buddha — who renounced material wealth to embrace and preach a life of non-attachment — lived during the fourth century BC, founding a religion that now counts 500 million followers.
Buddhists in Nepal and Sri Lanka, however, have always believed that the sage was born around 623 BC, a date that now seems more accurate.
“It’s one of the great puzzles, this discovery reveals the endurance of oral traditions,” Coningham said.
“This is one of those very rare times when tradition, belief and archaeology all come together.”
In the USA...United Surveillance AmericaA more progressive America is emerging, but Republicans won’t go down without a fight
By Michael Cohen, The Guardian
Sunday, January 5, 2014 12:58 EST
Popular opinion is moving towards more progressive policies, though Republicans won’t go down without a fight
Oh to be a liberal in America today. In New York City, a Democrat has finally been elected mayor after a 24-year absence from City Hall – and he’s a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. Gay marriage is legal in 18 states including, most bizarrely, Utah, one of the most conservative states. The minimum wage is going up around the country and you can even smoke a joint in Colorado. Obamacare, for all its speedbumps over the past few weeks, is the law of the land; the Senate filibuster just took a big hit (and along with it Republican obstructionism); a nuclear deal with Iran is in the works and even Obama is talking about the scourge of income inequality.
Everything, it seems, is coming up roses.
But before progressives start donning their Che Guevera T-shirts and popping their artisanal champagne corks the liberal moment is coming face to face with a difficult reality: conservatives are not going down without a fight.
In fact, just over a year since President Obama was re-elected and it seemed the country was moving in a more progressive direction, Republicans have thwarted much of his agenda and 2014 (as well as 2015 and 2016) promises more of the same.
Immigration reform, which was at the forefront of Obama’s re-election bid, is on life support; gun control was blocked in the Senate (and never would have made it through the House anyway). The harsh budget cuts from sequestration remain largely intact as government spending is growing at anaemically low rates.
In the states, the story isn’t much better. Twenty-three of the Republican ones have rejected Medicaid expansion, which is leaving more than 5 million Americans on the outside looking in on Obamacare. Emboldened by the Supreme Court decision to overturn a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, states across the country are enacting new and onerous voting restrictions; perhaps worst of all, 2013 was the culmination of a three-year period in which more state restrictions on abortion were enacted than in the entire previous decade.
Quite simply, as the country has taken a giant step forward on a number of progressive goals, it has also taken a major step back. Indeed, in key regards, while Obamacare represents an enormous victory for American progressives and is perhaps the most important piece of social policy in more than four decades, so many liberal priorities remain unfulfilled. And nowhere is that more true than on fiscal policy. While Democrats were finally able to wring tax increases out of the Republican party they’ve been unable to get conservatives to agree to the sort of government spending that is key not only to the country’s economic recovery but to creating new jobs and reducing income inequality.
While New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, ran on a platform of universal pre-kindergarten, the president’s own plan along these lines is dead on arrival in Congress. The same is probably true for his $50bn proposal for infrastructure spending. At the end of December, unemployment insurance expired for more than a million Americans and there seems to be little impetus in Congress to restore the funding. This comes only months after the Republicans ruthlessly cut food stamp benefits for poor Americans.
The reason for this is not surprising or new. Republicans have, since Obama took office in 2009, made it their number one goal to obstruct practically every piece of legislation that the president and his party supporters favour. With the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives this year – and for the foreseeable future – that is unlikely to change soon.
This speaks to a larger challenge of American democracy: it was constructed to be a bulwark against progress. Whether it’s the three branches of the US government, the separate legislative bodies, the 50 individual state governments or a court system with the power to strike down laws, the number of obstacles in the American political system are far greater than the number of glide points. This has always given conservatives a political advantage – it’s much easier to stop reform (or water it down) than it is to enact new laws. If anything, the liberal moment may find its greatest opportunities in the same places it did during the civil rights era – in the court system (as has been the case on the issue of gay marriage). Although even there it may have to wait for President Obama to get his court picks through the Senate before significant progress can be made.
But liberals shouldn’t lose all hope. On a range of issues, progressive goals have never been so strongly supported by the American people. From gay marriage and marijuana legalisation to raising the minimum wage, immigration reform, background checks for gun buyers and even the specifics of government spending, public opinion is strongly in their favour. Americans are more supportive of activist government, populist politics and socially liberal policies than at any time in recent memory. In addition, millennials (or those in their 20s and early 30s) are decidedly liberal, even going so far in a recent poll to prefer socialism to capitalism.
The failure of liberalism to enact the types of reforms that are essential to their vision of America does not come from an inability to move popular opinion in their favour – it comes from their failure to find a way around last-gasp conservative rejectionism. But as Republicans have taken increasingly extreme positions on a host of issues – from abortion to taxes and, most damagingly, immigration – they’ve marginalised themselves and diminished the appeal of conservatism, particularly to young Americans, women and Hispanics (the fastest growing demographic group in the country).
Indeed, the success of Republicans in blocking reform is more of a desperate rearguard action to hold back progress than it is an indication of conservative success or even political ascendancy. If anything, it is making the realisation of the liberal moment that much more likely by making conservatism that much more unpopular.
The problem is: that’s not much good for the woman today who is seeking an abortion in a Republican state or the person looking for a job who is about to lose his unemployment benefits or the next victim of gun violence.
In the near term, American politics is likely to look like an extreme version of the gridlock and dysfunction to which Americans have become all too accustomed. The question then is not will liberals get their day in the sun – it’s when. Unfortunately for them – and the voters who support them – 2014 is unlikely to be the year it happens.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014
*****************Post analysis shows Koch brothers raised $400 million for shadow political network
By George Chidi
Sunday, January 5, 2014 21:49 EST
An analysis by The Washington Post and the Center for Responsive Politics published Sunday revealed that Koch Industries-backed entities operating in the opaque world of political dark money raised more than $400 million during the 2012 election cycle largely from anonymous donors.
The Post and CRP examined 17 conservative groups that made up the Koch network of loosely-affiliated organizations and found that they had raised at least $407 million during the 2012 campaign. The amount is comparable to the combined spending of all unions in state, federal and local races, and dwarfs all other sources of political spending in 2012 other than, perhaps, the Karl Rove-associated Crossroads super PAC and nonprofit group which brought in $325 million in the last cycle.
It isn’t clear, despite the Post analysis, how much the Koch brothers themselves contributed to the affiliated groups, in part because they used complicated and sophisticated financial processes to shield the identities of donors.
The Post nailed down two nodes through which much of the money passed, though. The Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, with a board of current and former Koch Industries officials, brought in nearly $256 million in 2011. The second node, TC4 Trust, raised more than $66 million in three years before it was shuttered in June 2012, according to tax filings.
*****************Republicans Nervous The Tea Party Will Obstruct The Debt Ceiling Vote
By John Amato January 4, 2014 4:04 pm
Republican strategists are freaking out as the debt ceiling vote looms because they are afraid the the loons will destroy whatever edge they think they have going into the mid-terms.
GOP strategists are getting very worried as the debt ceiling comes up for a vote again. They know how insane the tea party caucus is within their party and understand that there's not much they can do to stop the lunatics within their midst. In 2011, Bill O'Reilly even tried to stop nuts like Michele Bachmann from trying to block the raising of the debt ceiling in the above video.
When BillO sides with an Obama appointee on anything, you know it's serious.
Republican strategists would feel a lot better about the party's chances in this year's midterms if it weren't for some Republican lawmakers.
The Hill reported Saturday that the looming debt ceiling battle has a number of GOP strategists "anxious about the party’s capacity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory."
Only months removed from a government shutdown that represented a huge embarrassment for Republicans on Capitol Hill, some strategists are urging their party's lawmakers to cool it with their demands for concessions ahead of the Feb. 7 debt ceiling deadline.
“What Republicans have to realize [is] the political winds are in our direction. We can’t risk changing the winds at this stage,” GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak told The Hill. “You can shut down the Obama agenda completely if you have the Senate.”
One unnamed strategist told The Hill that another GOP pratfall on the debt ceiling might be the Democrats' only hope to win back control of the House. And here's longtime strategist Mark McKinnon's straightforward take on the situation.
"When Republicans screw with the debt ceiling and threaten a government shutdown, their unfavorable ratings go up. When they talk about Obamacare, Democrats’ unfavorables go up.”
There's a new poll out from Pew which shows how ignorant Republicans are when it comes to the economy.
The latest findings from Pew Research Center showed that while a slight majority of all Americans — 51 percent — believe that it is "absolutely essential" for Congress to raise the debt limit before the Thursday deadline, 69 percent of tea partiers said the U.S. "can go past the deadline...without major economic problems."
Thirty-six percent of all Americans believe that the U.S. can safely go past the deadline, while just 23 percent of the tea party said it's essential to raise the debt ceiling. An overwhelming majority of 67 percent of Democrats called raising the debt ceiling essential, while 52 percent of Republicans said that the deadline could pass without triggering economic problems.
The reasons for this are not surprising, since many republicans turn to wingnut source material for their answers. Fox News went on a debt ceiling-denier blitz when the debt ceiling vote came up last year and then politicians like Michele Bachmann followed their lead by constantly lying about it as often as they could:
Here it is:
BACHMANN: I think we just heard from Standard & Poor's. When they dropped our credit rating what they said is we don't have an ability to repay our debt. That's what the final word was from them. I was proved right in my position. We should not have raised the debt ceiling and instead, we should have cut government spending, which was not done and then we needed to get our spending priorities in order.
Expect the same reaction from the same people as the vote draws near. I seem to remember Fox's Steve Doocy remarking that the "sky didn't fall down" over the sequester cuts, so that will be a probable talking point on the debt ceiling vote.
************The Best Reporting on the North Carolina Takeover
John Light and Laura Macomber
One of the biggest political stories of 2013 — a year of DC discord and gridlock — unfolded at the state level in North Carolina.
In 2012, North Carolinians elected a Republican to the governor’s office. That same year, the Republican majority in the General Assembly — first elected in 2010 — grew to a supermajority. The result was that conservatives won the power to change state law dramatically — and over this last year, they used that power. The new legislation included ending benefits for the long-term unemployed; declining the Obamacare Medicaid extension; eliminating the earned-income tax credit; and passing what some observers call the worst voter suppression law in the country. In response, those critical of the right-wing legislative agenda united around protests at the state legislature on Mondays, part of a growing citizen movement that has come to be known as “Moral Mondays.” So far, the movement, however ambitious, has done little to slow the state’s Republican majority from pushing through its agenda.
But this story didn’t start on Election Day 2012 — its roots run deep. And a similar situation could unfold in any of America’s 50 states.
Here’s a rundown of some essential work by reporters following the money trail in North Carolina politics and the legislative agenda it has helped usher through.
How did hardline conservatives win so big in what has long been considered the South’s most moderate state? In The American Prospect, two writers from the progressive, nonprofit Institute for Southern Studies — Sue Sturgis and Chris Kromm — provide a comprehensive overview of the social and political forces that came together to make the moderate (and sometimes even progressive) state move hard-right.
The role of redistricting
ProPublica reported on how big money powered the redistricting of the state. Once Republicans won control of the legislature in 2010, they used their power to draw new district lines meticulously, taking into account individual households’ voting habits. It paved the way for big wins in 2012.
“Redistricting is supposed to protect the fundamental principle of one-person-one-vote,” ProPublica reported. “As demographics change, lines are shifted to make sure everyone is equally represented and to give communities a voice. In order for Republicans to win in North Carolina, they undermined the votes of Democrats, especially African-Americans. The strategy began in the run-up to the 2010 elections. Republicans poured money into local races in North Carolina and elsewhere. It was an efficient approach. While congressional races routinely cost millions, a few thousand dollars can swing a campaign for a seat in the state legislature.”
Who is Art Pope?
Most recently, he’s been Governor Pat McCrory’s budget director. But he’s been described as the architect of the conservative takeover. Pope is behind a foundation that backs three groups that were behind 75 percent of outside spending in North Carolina political campaigns in 2008, and is the primary funder of one of them. He used to be a North Carolina state legislator, and once ran for lieutenant governor. But at the root of Pope’s political power is his fortune, which comes from a discount store business (think regional Dollar General–esque chains) begun by his father. Though a private citizen at the time, he was in the room as Republicans redrew the new districts that would reinforce their 2010 wins in 2012. (Fun fact: Pope helped found the Libertarian Party of North Carolina but resigned when members spoke too frequently and too seriously about mythical beasts such as Sasquatch.) In the The New Yorker, Jane Mayer’s 2011 profile chronicled Pope’s path from wealthy businessman to political puppet master.
The end of clean judicial elections
In 2002, the North Carolina Legislature set up a program of publicly funded elections — a system by which taxpayer money helps cover the cost of political campaigns to minimize the influence of rich individuals and corporations. (For example, the system would protect a judicial candidate from being forced to accept or refuse a campaign donation from a lawyer or business that might later appear before her in court.) As a state legislator at the time, Art Pope played a leading role in the fight against the system, the Institute for Southern Studies’ publication Facing South reported. Over the next decade, Pope’s outside spending groups continued the battle — and once installed as McCrory’s budget director, Pope was well positioned to end public funding. His first budget slashed funding for the program.
“Sinful and tyrannical”?
A case study in some Pope-funded rhetoric: The Civitas Institute, for which Pope provides majority funding, wrote an op-ed saying there was “no moral justification” for publicly funded judicial elections, which are “sinful and tyrannical” (a common and deliberate misreading of Thomas Jefferson, which the late, brilliant Aaron Swartz debunked succinctly).
Supermajority in action The Nation’s Ari Berman summarized the legislation that drove Moral Monday protestors to raise their voices this summer: “So far this year, legislation passed or pending by Republicans would eliminate the earned-income tax credit for 900,000; decline Medicaid coverage for 500,000; end federal unemployment benefits for 170,000 in a state with the country’s fifth-highest jobless rate; cut pre-K for 30,000 kids while shifting $90 million from public education to voucher schools; slash taxes for the top 5 percent while raising taxes on the bottom 95 percent; allow for guns to be purchased without a background check and carried in parks, playgrounds, restaurants and bars; ax public financing of judicial races; and prohibit death row inmates from challenging racially discriminatory verdicts. ‘They’ve drank all the Tea Party they could drink and sniffed all the Koch they could sniff,’ [North Carolina NAACP president Rev. William] Barber says.”
The “worst voter suppression law”
North Carolina’s new voting restrictions were signed into law less than two months after the Supreme Court gutted the voting rights act. The Nation’s Berman reports that the NAACP and a coalition of voting rights groups filed lawsuits to block the legislation on the same day that Gov. McCrory signed it. “The sweeping law requires strict government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot, cuts the number of early voting days by a week, eliminates same-day voter registration during the early voting period, makes it easier for vigilante poll watchers to challenge the validity of eligible voters and expands the influence of unregulated corporate money in state elections,” wrote Berman. “Since the Supreme Court took away their most potent weapon for fighting voting discrimination, voting rights groups have no choice but to hope that the compelling and disturbing facts of this case persuade the courts to block the ‘monster’ new law.”
North Carolina’s General Assembly adjourned at the end of July, though protests continued. The Rev. Dr. Barber, one of the Moral Mondays protest organizers, says that the new year will see the “largest, most robust march in the South since Selma.” The 2014 legislative session begins in May. Last week, The News & Observer reported that activists from 12 states converged on Raleigh to attend a meeting to learn how to start Moral Mondays protests in their states. Meanwhile, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that demonstrations may be coming to Georgia as soon as this month: Protestors there plan to call on the legislature, which convenes this month, “to expand Medicaid, restore funding to public schools and [raise] the minimum wage.”
*************Georgetown Professor Calls for Obama's Assassination on Fox News
By Nicole Belle January 5, 2014 9:05 am
It's shocking how inured this country has become to calls of violence against this President.
When it comes to gun violence, there's inevitably a lot of finger pointing within the media, trying to place blame for the senseless and callous taking of life at violent images or rhetoric, whether it be movies, video games or music.
But let's take a moment to look at how inured the media has become to violent, eliminationist and treasonous rhetoric right there in their own studio/website: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/01/03/1267011/-Fox-News-Expert-Calls-For-Obama-s-Assassination
Lou Dobbs Tonight last night included the sage opinions of a former CIA offical and current Georgetown prof who recently called for the assassination of President Obama.
In a 12/23 column on his foreign policy website, Michael Scheuer suggested that history held in high esteem those who have killed tyrants:
As they head further down the road of losing wars and wrecking Anglo-American liberties, Messrs Obama and Cameron and their supporters in all parties would do well to read the words of the great 17th century English republican Algernon Sidney, a man who was revered on both sides of the Atlantic, who greatly influenced America’s founders, and who was executed by the British Crown for what it described as sedition. “There must therefore be a right,” Sidney wrote, "of proceeding judicially or extra-judicially against all persons who transgress the laws; or else those laws, and the societies that should subsist by them, cannot stand; and the ends for which governments are constituted, together with the governments themselves, must be overthrown. … If he [a political leader] be justly accounted an enemy of all, who injures all; he above all must be the publick enemy of a nation, who by usurping power over them, does the greatest and most publick injury that a people can suffer. For which reason, by an established law among the most virtuous nations, every man might kill a tyrant; and no names are recorded in history with more honor, than of those who did it. …
The deeming of Obama as a "tyrant" worth assassinating stemmed from Scheuer's assessment of the failures of ....wait for it... Benghazi. That favorite bugaboo of conservative media that has been soundly debunked but still looms large in their fevered brains of their consumers.
***************Conservatives Call For The Lynching of President Obama
Sunday, January, 5th, 2014, 2:49 pm
There are iconic representations, whether in paintings and photographs, that embody an event or era that are easily identified by people even remotely familiar with history. For Americans, the painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware symbolizes the revolutionary war, and photographs of burning Navy vessels in Pearl Harbor represent America’s entrance into World War II, and images of burning crosses remind Americans of Ku Klux Klan racism. Another iconic image representing the racial animus prevalent in the southern United States is African American men and women hanging from trees as a result of lynching that portrays a dark period in America’s history. Recently a racist conservative Facebook group, ”America the next generation,” created a photo-shopped image of President Barack Obama with a hangman’s noose around his neck that represents the group’s racist hatred of the President.
The group put up the image of the President’s head pasted on former Iraqi President Sadam Hussein’s body just prior to his execution with the words, “the making of a national holiday,” that surely made the Ku Klux Klan proud. The group’s stock and trade is demeaning liberals and particularly President Obama and the image garnered high praise and support such as “it should be the fate of all Traitor to the United States” and that they hoped the lynching took place before New Year’s day. Some of the racists concluded that lynching the President would make him into a martyr and suggested that life in prison was a better sentence than lynching. Some people who saw the image spoke out against it only to face outrage and vitriolic rants including one member who warned that the group could “add a rope for them next to his” because they found the image offensive and condemned the idea of lynching the President.
The image was eventually taken down, but not because it represented KKK racism and hate, but because the group “respects our regular followers that requested us to remove the post with the noose around Obamas head; we will take the high road!” Allegedly, Facebook refused to remove the image because “it does not violate community standards” that portrays them as either mortified of offending racists using their platform, or in agreement that an African American serving as President deserves to be lynched. It is likely a combination of both because Facebook is notorious for banning users for posting pictures with a woman’s breast exposed, or including racially insensitive quotes in news’ articles. What was missing from the racist image is why the group wants to lynch the President they claimed would become a national holiday, but it is safe to conclude it is related to other conservatives who claim they are victims of “Obama tyranny;” a clever cover for “the President is not white.”
The overriding theme of all the conservative and Republican calls for revolution, rebellion, or assassinating this President is “tyranny,” but that cannot possibly be true when Republicans, conservative Christians, and groups associated with ALEC and the Koch brothers rule like tyrants since they lost the 2008 general election. If conservatives are so opposed to tyranny that they are ready to rebel and call for public lynchings, they should target their own champions in Congress, state legislatures, and conservative groups for tyrannical assaults on large segments of the population. However, the simple fact that they give Republican tyranny a pass is just further proof their opposition to President Obama is pure racial animus and nothing else.
True tyranny is the U.S. House of Representatives convening an all-male panel of clergy to force women, married or not, to give birth or forego having sex because they oppose contraceptive use. Tyranny is Republicans in state legislatures banning women from using their private health insurance policies for medicine prescribed by their physicians, or allowing private businesses to force their employees to adhere to the company owners’ religious dogmata . In southern states, Republican tyrants are suppressing their citizens’ right to vote and yet there are no calls for armed insurrection or public lynching for enacting voter-suppression legislation. In several states, Republican tyrants are openly violating the Constitution’s 1st and 14th Amendments to satisfy conservative Christians replacing the Constitution with the bible as the law of the land, but no so-called patriot groups are calling for public hangings or “a new revolution” because “Christians” are shredding the Constitution. Conservatives are also not threatening the Koch brothers, ALEC, and the State Policy Network with lynching despite the tyranny of seizing employees’ pensions to give the rich greater tax cuts.
The mountain of evidence that conservatives, religious right, and Republicans are guilty of tyranny with no protestation, threats of rebellion, calls for assassination, or public lynching from groups decrying Obama tyranny leads one to conclude that in conservative speak tyranny means not white. In fact, every call to arms to overthrow the government, arrest and convict President Obama, or assassinate him are racially motivated and not due to any policies. That the “America the next generation” group used lynching as their solution to an African American President informs they represent “America the last generation” typified by the Ku Klux Klan and overt racism. The group’s Facebook post was a calculated and very deliberate clarion call to the KKK that they have an active racist support group outside of the South.
The frequency of threats of violence against this President due to his race informs that America is still an overtly racist nation, and for Facebook to allow an image of the President with a noose around his neck to remain on its site is proof racism is beyond being an acceptable form of political opposition; it is popular and the new normal. Despite the increasing number of racially-motivated threats against this President’s life, the conservative media and their Republican masters have been complicit in not reporting purely racist threats or condemning them because they reap the benefits of an angry white voting bloc rejecting anything the President advocates purely because he is Black.
There are still Americans who claim that racism is not a real problem in America and nothing like it was before the Civil Rights movement, but they are deluded. The level of hate toward President Obama transcends opposition to his political agenda and is more blatantly racially motivated as evidenced in the 2012 Republican primary and presidential election; particularly from the GOP standard bearer Willard Romney. The racist group calling for a national holiday marking the lynching of the President and being allowed to keep it and the group on Facebook was more than a shout out to the KKK, it is a sign that racially motivated calls to kill this President are normal, generally accepted, and a sign that the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists are part and parcel of mainstream America.
****************Harry Reid Drops A Bomb On Republicans By Threatening to Eliminate All Filibusters
By: Jason Easley
Sunday, January, 5th, 2014, 6:32 pm
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wants Republicans to stop the foot dragging and obstruction. If they refuse to behave responsibly, Reid warned that he is open to eliminating all filibusters.
BOB SCHIEFFER: Well, let me just ask you this: I mean listening to you this morning if the Republicans continue to throw up the kind of opposition you’ve been receiving, you say you’ve been receiving, do you have plans to extend this ban on filibusters? Right now you’ve– you’ve worked out this rule which they vehemently oppose that– so they– it’s very difficult for him to filibuster nominations. Would you be willing to just go to a Senate where just majority rules and that’s it?
SENATOR HARRY REID: Well, Bob, I think it’s something that we have to understand.
BOB SCHIEFFER: So you’re thinking about that?
SENATOR HARRY REID: But that– that’s– that’s– that’s this. We cannot have a country that’s paralyzed because of a group of people, the group of people who are like Tea Party-driven Republicans in Congress, not Republicans. I’m not here to bad mouth the Republicans around the country. I get a lot of support from Republicans in Nevada, and always have had. But they are mainstream Republicans. They’re not driven by this craziness that we have in American today. So the answer is this: We– we– we should pass raising the minimum wage. We should extend unemployment benefits. We should get rid of these tax loopholes and create jobs so the middle class can– can start growing, not shrinking.
BOB SCHIEFFER: But would you do away with filibusters entirely?
SENATOR HARRY REID: Well, I’m– we’re– we’re not there yet. I think that we– we–
BOB SCHIEFFER: I mean are you even thinking about that?
SENATOR HARRY REID: No, I’m not thinking about it today. But I– I think–
BOB SCHIEFFER: You’re saying you’re holding that out. Is– that is a possibility?
SENATOR HARRY REID: I– I– I think everyone should understand that the country cannot continue on the road that it’s on. It cannot have– you cannot have when you have vacancies in the judiciary as we’ve had, DC Circuit, some say it’s more important than the Supreme Court. But it’s, at least, the second most important. They said we’re not going to fill these spots because we don’t want to. You can’t. That’s not the way we legislate.
Majority Leader Reid has been fighting the battle to get the Senate moving again in an incremental fashion. He gave Republicans numerous opportunities to cooperate before he unleashed the nuclear option. Reid’s answer to the question of whether or not he was considering eliminating all filibusters was telling. The Nevada Democrat didn’t say no. He said that he is not considering it today.
This answer left the door open for Sen. Reid to consider it later if Republicans continue to obstruct and grind the Senate to a halt. For those who were wondering how Reid would respond to Mitch McConnell’s plan to get revenge for the nuclear option by slowing the Senate to a crawl, you now have your answer.
McConnell’s moronic revenge plan could end up costing Republicans the ability to filibuster legislation. Harry Reid delivered his first warning to Senate Republicans. His message was that they need to quit obstructing and playing games, or Democrats would take away their obstructionist toys. In the same interview, Reid also pointed out that the filibuster is not in the Constitution. He added that the filibuster is privilege, not a right.
Harry Reid may not be thinking about eliminating all filibusters today, but if Mitch McConnell continues his senseless campaign of obstruction, the Senate Majority Leader will make the GOP pay.
Russia launches security crackdown as Sochi Olympics approach
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, January 6, 2014 21:35 EST
Russia launches the largest security operation in Olympic history on Tuesday with one month to go before Pig V. Putin kicks off the Winter Games in Sochi amid renewed fears of suicide bombings.
Army soldiers manning armoured vehicles and navy officers patrolling the Black Sea will join a 37,000-strong contingent overseeing the February 7-23 sports extravaganza that will spotlight Putin’s 14-year reign.
The prestige project — often referred to as the “Pig Putin Games” and costing some $50 billion (37 billion euros) — has already been blighted by snubs from Western leaders upset with what they see as Kremlin-backed discrimination against gays and the infringement of many other rights.
Railway station and trolleybus blasts that killed 34 in Volgograd last month meanwhile revived fears that Islamists from the nearby Caucasus will seek to wreak havoc on the globally watched event.
Pig Putin responded to mounting diplomatic pressure over the weekend by easing the terms of a tough decree banning all forms of political protest in Sochi.
And Russia’s answer to the threat of terror will be unveiled Tuesday when the feared Federal Security Service (FSB) takes charge of a security clampdown even fiercer than that seen at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.
“Starting January 7, all divisions responsible for ensuring the guests’ security at the Games are being put on combat alert,” Emergencies Situation Minister Vladimir Puchkov said.
“Every facility will be put under protection and a space-based monitoring system will be launched.”
Additional measures deployed down the line will let the FSB monitor mobile phone and e-mail traffic while obliging all foreign visitors to register online.
Pig Putin brought Russia’s first post-Soviet Games to the palm tree-lined port against long odds in 2007 by personally telling Olympic chiefs in Guatemala that he would stage the best festivities they had yet seen.
That promise was soon followed by orders for Russia’s titans of industry to transform Sochi’s crumbling Communist-era skyline into that of a futuristic city worthy of the Gulf emirates.
The mission has been largely accomplished despite protests about the Games’ environmental impact and reports of migrant workers being employed at illegally low wages and housed in inhumane conditions.
But Pig Putin has been unable to duck the indignity of leaders from most big European nations and the United States snubbing the Games’ opening ceremony because of Russia’s new “homosexual propaganda” ban.
Washington will instead send a delegation featuring such openly gay and lesbian stars as Olympic figure skating champion Brian Boitano and tennis legend Billie Jean King.
“The US delegation to the Olympic Games represents the diversity that is the United States,” US National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden pointedly remarked.
Russian Olympic Committee chief Alexander Zhukov brushed off the absences as trivialities that “in no way affect the Olympic Games”.
The Pig did however bow to the International Olympic Committee on Saturday by partially reversing a blanket ban on protests in Sochi.
“We welcome this announcement,” the IOC said.
“It is in line with the assurances that President Pig Putin gave us… to ensure free expression whilst delivering safe and secure Games.”
Security became an even bigger priority over the summer when a feared Russian Islamist vowed to unleash a campaign of terror against civilians that would undermine the Pig and keep all Sochi visitors at bay.
The deadly seriousness of the issue became ever more apparent with the twin December 29-30 bombings on the million-strong southern city of Volgograd — a strike for which no one has claimed responsibility but that Russian media linked to Caucasus militants.
Pig Putin called the attacks an “abomination” and assured the nation he would “fight against terrorists until their total destruction”.
The strongman’s rule has been tied throughout to Caucasus conflicts that began in Chechnya and have since spread across the mostly Muslim region that guerrillas want to turn into their own state.
But the Pig has also been extremely sensitive about perceptions of Russia as weak, and has thus far baulked at security assistance offers from nations such as the United States.
The Pentagon reaffirmed on Saturday that it was ready to help in Sochi “if requested”.
01/07/2014 11:22 AM
Securing Sochi: Russia's Elite Counter-Terrorism Fighters
By Matthias Schepp
As Russia reels from last week's terror attack in Volgograd, President Pig Putin is going to great lengths to make sure the Winter Olympics in Sochi remain secure. The elite Spetsnaz fighters are charged with holding off Islamist separatists from the volatile Caucasus.
When Alexander Mikhailov speaks about the threat of terrorism at the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, he comes face to face with his own past. "My comrades are doing everything they can to prevent a tragedy like back then," says Mikhailov, the colonel of an elite unite of Russia's Federal Security Services (FSB). "It would be a catastrophe for our entire country."
Mikhailov wears cowboy boots, jeans and a leather jacket. He's dressed all in black, just as he was on that autumn night eleven and a half years ago, when he commanded a combat patrol during a hostage crisis at a Moscow theater. The operation ended in disaster, when logistical errors resulted in the deaths of more than 130 of the 900 hostages at the hands of Chechen Islamists. "We could have been heroes," says Mikhailov. "Instead we Russians stood there before the whole world as idiots and losers."
Such a thing should never happen again, Mikhailov says, not in Moscow and certainly not at the Winter Olympics, which begin in four weeks. "Sochi is the ultimate goal of the Islamists," fears the colonel. "The terror in Volgograd is probably just the beginning."
Two suicide bomb attacks last week in Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad, left 34 people dead and another 62 injured. President Pig Putin announced that Russia would "strongly and decisively continue the battle against terrorists until their total annihilation."
Preventing an attack in Sochi is about the safety of athletes and spectators from all over the world. It's also about the Pig's pet project, the most expensive Olympic Games of all time -- and thus the reputation of a world power striving for new heights.
A High-Risk Olympics
Picking Sochi to host the Olympics was a risk from the beginning. For years, tensions have been brewing in the region east of the Black Sea city. Riots continuously erupt between Russians and Caucasians. The federal subjects of Kabardino-Balkaria, Chechnya and Dagestan -- only some 300 kilometers (186 miles) -- are active operational zones for Islamist terrorists.
In the past year, 33 attacks shook the North Caucasus. Since October alone, 139 people have been killed by terrorists. Back in September at a meeting of the Security Council of Russia, Pig Putin called for the mobilization of all forces to ensure the safety of the Winter Games.
The Kremlin has deployed 50,000 police, intelligence officers and soldiers. Submarines patrol the Black Sea coast, drones monitor the Olympic host city from the air. Modern S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems have been put in place, capable of shooting hijacked aircraft out of the sky in an emergency.
Units of Interior Ministry troops, who number 170,000 nationwide, are charged with protecting the transport routes, ensuring that elite soldiers can arrive at any potential crisis point within Greater Sochi within minutes.
This is a daunting task. The 400,000-inhabitant city of Sochi stretches along the coast over a length of more than 100 kilometers. The Olympic Stadium, the press center and halls for ice hockey, speed skating and figure skating are located along the shore. A new 71-kilometer-long express train route runs from there through the mountains to one of the two Olympic Villages, ski slopes and luxury hotels -- a nightmare from the perspective of security experts.
The Legendary Spetsnaz Fighters
A crucial role in the protection of this hard-to-manage terrain falls to the "Spetsnaz" troops, the legendary special forces made up of officers from the Army, the intelligence services and the Interior Ministry. The elite fighters are comparable to the British SAS or the American Navy Seals, who were responsible for tracking down and assassinating Al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan.
The most famous Spetsnaz unit, Alexander Mikhailov's "Alpha" group, has already been deployed in Sochi for more than six months. The counter-terrorism specialists scour the city, Olympic Villages and sports facilities for explosives. They also make preparations for emergency operations and hostage rescues. "We've taken security measures here that have only been used before at G-8 summits, when we are charged with protecting the Pig, Obama, Merkel and Co.," says one officer.
The Spetsnaz fighters' principle target are Islamist miltants from the provinces in the Caucasus. Led by Chechen rebel leader Dokka Umarov, terrorists there want to win independence from Moscow. Umarov's goal is the establishment of an Islamic emirate of North Caucasus, governed by Sharia law. In July he called on his fellow Muslims to hinder the Olympic Games in Sochi, "this devilish dance on the bones of our ancestors," through acts of terrorism.
A Vast Network of Extremists
The Interior Ministry in Moscow estimates there are some 600 underground fighters in the region, organized in some 40 gangs spread throughout the territory of the North Caucasus. In September, the domestic intelligence agency FSB announced that up to 400 additional extremists from the Caucasus are currently in Syria fighting with Islamist groups against President Bashar Assad. The intelligence officers monitor all flights and travel movements to prevent these people from returning home in the coming weeks to launch attacks on the Sochi Olympics.
How exactly the elite soldiers are preparing for the Games is secret. They must adhere to a code of silence. Some were nevertheless willing to speak to SPIEGEL. One of them was deployed to Sochi several weeks ago. He calls himself Victor, asking that his real name not be shown in print. He and his comrades are tasked with preventing terrorists from crossing the mountain passes out of the provinces in order to infiltrate the Olympic games.
Victor's career thus far exemplifies the perseverance of the Spetsnaz. He lost his right eye in a skirmish in the Chechen capital of Grozny in September 2000. Victor, a sniper, asked his commander to be allowed to remain in service. The commander acquiesced.
From then on Victor practiced at the shooting range every day for hours until he regained his former marksmanship. Sometimes he fired off a thousand cartridges per day. "To take care of terrorists, you must never give up," says the officer. He sounds like President Pig Putin, who pithily announced before assuming the presidency in 1999, that he would hunt down terrorists and, if necessary, "waste them in the outhouse."
Threat of Terrorism Persists
But despite some successes, Russia has failed to win the fight against terrorism. Since the first major attack in 1995, when Chechen separatists occupied a hospital in the southern Russian province of Budyonnovsk and took patients and doctors hostage, terror attacks have killed 2,240 people nationwide and injured some 5,880.
Just before the New Year, however, FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov boasted with hard numbers. In 70 counter-terrorism operations last year, "more than 260 bandits were neutralized," including 42 from the leadership level of the underground fighters.
"In operations like these, we take no prisoners -- we shoot to kill," says a Spetsnaz officer.
In Makhachkala, the capital of the troubled province of Dagestan -- where most of the terrorists come from -- a Spetsnaz detachment fatally shot militant Murad Kasumov in mid-November. Kasumov was one of three militants suspeced in an attack in Volgograd on Oct. 21, in which a suicide bomber from Dagestan blew himself up on a bus, killing seven passengers.
Despite his perceived toughness, many Spetsnaz fighters don't like Pig Putin. Russia's strongman still seems too soft to them -- and much too liberal. "We need someone like Stalin," says Mikhailov, the retired colonel with Spetsnaz's "Alpha" unit.
Nostalgic for Stalin
The majority of the Spetsnaz fighters are nostalgic for the lost Soviet imperium, even if most of them were small children -- if they had been born at all -- when it vanished. They hate America and NATO and don't think much of democracy. As a result, those who are charged with protecting Russians against terrorists and insurgents are skeptical of their own state.
The government, for its part, does little to ensure the loyalty of its elite force. Spetsnaz members are paid the equivalent of between €1,000 and €2,500 per month. Veterans of the elite unit are forced to work for security firms once they leave active service because their tiny pensions aren't enough to live from.
Some former fighters become alcoholics and suffer from depression. At one meeting that was generously lubricated with vodka, a veteran complained: "We are the bloodhounds of the Kremlin. But when we stop functioning, we are thrown away like a used condom."
A Bleak Hero's Welcome
Andrei Pelikov, former captain of the Spetsnaz unit "Rus," feels similarly. Pelikov was proud of belonging to "Rus." The Pig even bestowed him with a medal for courage after he lost his left foot to a land mine while pursuing fleeing rebels in Chechnya in March 2006. Pelikov injected himself with painkillers and wrapped up his leg before leading his unit's retreat and organizing a mine sweeping team. He then lost consciousness. Later it turned out that the minefield had actually been laid by a Russian helicopter.
But after he recovered, he was only allotted a six-square-meter (65-square-foot) room in the dilapidated living quarters of a military barracks for himself, his wife and his son. "You are at the very end of a waiting list for your own place," the commander told him.
Pelikov lost his lower leg for the Fatherland and now he was being humiliated by that same state. In order to prevent any problems of loyalty, the Pig placed security for the Winter Olympics in the hands of a man that many in Moscow reverently call "the president's shadow:" General Viktor Zolotov. As head of the Presidential Security Service, he has hardly left Pig Putin's side in recent years.
In July, PigPutin sent him to the Interior Ministry and put him in charge of providing security for Sochi. His first step was to optimize the organization of Spetsnaz units and to increase salaries.
Deep Problems Remain
But the short-term personnel changes did little to help solve long-standing problems or to reduce the hate between Russians and non-Russians in the regions near Sochi. There is no Spetsnaz commander with more to say on that subject than Sergey Illarionov. The 38-year-old lives in a tiny brick house on the outskirts of the southern Russian city of Novocherkassk.
Five years ago, Illarionov was fighting against extremists in the Caucasus, now he receives a pension of just 5,500 rubles (€125, $170) per month. He works as a bodyguard to earn enough to support his wife and his two-year-old son. He still has the look of a body builder.
Illarionov was a major in the elite unit "Rossich," and his Spetsnaz comrades respect him first and foremost due to his role during the battle for the Chechen town of Komsomolskoye in March of 2000. A rebel leader had holed up there along with hundreds of fighters. A Spetsnaz unit stumbled into an ambush and 22 soldiers died within the space of just two minutes.
'Breeding Ground for Terrorists'
Illarionov volunteered to negotiate the return of the fighters' bodies with the rebels. One furious Chechen shoved the barrel of his pistol into Illarionov's mouth, but because he showed no fear, he was allowed to live and to take the bodies of his dead comrades. He removed the helmet of a friend of his who had been shot. "His skull fell apart and his brain flowed out onto my hand," he says.
Nevertheless, Illarionov speaks with respect of the people in the Caucasus, due to their courageousness. And the veteran is aggrieved by the tensions between them and the Russians. Just 30 kilometers from his apartment, in a village called Axai, a massive brawl recently took place between Russians and Dagestanis.
"You Russian pigs," the Caucasian immigrants chanted while the Russians told the men from Dagestan to go back where they came from. "That too weighs on the Sochi games," says Illarionov. "Hate is the breeding ground for new terrorists."
Northern Ireland loyalists reject ex-U.S. diplomat’s peace proposals
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, January 6, 2014 20:41 EST
Northern Ireland unionists have rejected proposals drawn up by former US diplomat Richard Haass to resolve volatile issues that threaten the peace process, calling them “not viable or acceptable”.
Haass was called on in September to help the main political parties end arguments over flags and parades which have caused rioting in the British province.
But Mike Nesbitt, leader of the pro-British Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), on Monday said he had dismissed Haass’ plans after a meeting of the party’s 100-strong ruling executive.
Nesbitt called on First Minister Peter Robinson and his deputy Martin McGuinness — the unionist and republican at the head of the province’s power-sharing government — to “clear up the obvious mess created by this process”.
He said the proposals were “not viable and not acceptable”, but that “neither was the status quo”.
“We are committed to a better and fairer way forward, we don’t believe Haass has cracked it, but it’s up to Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness to define a way forward for these talks,” he added.
McGuinness accused unionists of allowing extreme members to set their agenda.
The disputes are the legacy of the Troubles, the three decades of sectarian unrest between pro-British Protestants and Republican Catholics that largely ended in 1998.
The parties had set a December 31 deadline for an agreement.
Haass, the former US envoy to the province, said it was “no secret” that the issue of flags was the “toughest” to resolve.
However, he said there had been “significant progress” all round.
The seventh and last draft proposals by Haass were published on the Northern Ireland executive website.
The 40-page draft agreement showed that any form of a deal on flags was not even close.
Outbreaks of rioting over the past 12 months were the worst in Northern Ireland for years as community tensions over the marching season in the summer, when parades are held to mark historic dates, spilled over into violence.
Angry protests also took place in December 2012 over a decision by Belfast City Council to restrict the number of days that the British flag was flown at City Hall.
01/07/2014 11:07 AM
The Plight of the Roma: Europe's Unwanted People
By SPIEGEL Staff
More than 10 million Roma live in Europe. Tens of thousands of them are fleeing westwards from poverty and discrimination in the countries of southeastern Europe. But EU member states are failing to help them.
The cupboard door sails out of an upper floor window and lands on a heap of rubbish on a lawn in the Duisburg suburb of Rheinhausen. Half a dozen men in thick jackets and woolen hats stand just two meters (six feet) away. The door could have injured someone but Marian, Nico and the others don't move a muscle. "They're renovating," says Marian. The men laugh. "There are no problems."
Marian, who comes from the northeast of Romania, has lived in the eight-story brick building for the past three years. It has become known across Germany as a "problem house," "house of horror" or just as "Roma house." As if that said it all.
Here's a brief history of the building: A few years ago, Roma came from Romania and moved into it. More of them came, until the building almost exclusively housed Roma immigrants, more than the structure could accommodate. They held barbecue parties in the back yard, which led to complaints from neighbors. Rubbish piled up around the building and the garbage disposal service refused to remove it. That attracted rats.
Window panes broke and no one replaced them. The stairwells began to smell of urine. Some inhabitants stole, tricked people or robbed them, which led to frequent visits from the police. In the first nine months of last year, a total of 277 crimes were attributed to people living in the building.
Then far-right activists came. They demonstrated in front of the building and railed against it in Internet forums. On a Facebook page named after the address of the house, "In den Peschen 3-5," Stefan K. wrote: "Chuck a bomb in, that'll sort it." Marian D. demanded: "Burn those wankers down." The page had 1,690 likes until it was shut down last August.
That month, the building's occupants armed themselves with clubs. Left-wing activists mounted a guard at night. When the police tried to enter the building one night in August, the people inside kept them out with iron bars and pepper spray.
'We Had Nothing in Romania'
But Nico still claims "It's good here." He says: "Our children can go to school, there are no problems with the neighbors." He finds work occasionally, and when he's not working he collects discarded bottles and retrieves the deposit on them from supermarkets. "We had nothing in Romania," he says.
Politicians in Germany's new grand coalition of conservatives and Social Democrats are embroiled in a row over immigration from Romania and Bulgaria because EU migration restrictions were lifted on Jan. 1. The coalition agreement between the parties states that "incentives for migration into social welfare systems should be reduced." Elmar Brok of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party, who heads the Foreign Affairs Committee in European Parliament, has demanded that immigrants who only come to Germany to collect benefits should be fingerprinted.
Many immigrants from the two countries are well educated but immigrants also include poor and unskilled people who have little prospect of finding employment in Germany. In many case, they are Roma people.
Tens of thousands of Roma like Marian and Nico have fled the misery and discrimination they suffer in Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and elsewhere. But in France, Italy and Germany, they end up in camps or living in ramshackle accommodation. Some resort to crime. In the West too, virtually all of them remain bitterly poor and discriminated against.
Some 10 to 12 million Roma people live in Europe -- more than the population of Austria. They have lived here for over 1,000 years -- and have been ostracized, persecuted and suppressed as gypsies for centuries. The Nazis murdered hundreds of thousands of them. The Roma are Europe's biggest minority -- and remain the Continent's unwanted people.
Almost 70 years after the end of the Nazi era, Merkel in 2012 unveiled a monument to the Roma and Sinti murdered in the Holocaust. But the debate now fanned by the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's CDU, about so-called "poverty migrants" from Bulgaria and Romania, which is also raging in other EU countries, shows that old prejudices persist across Europe. The dark-skinned Roma sings and steals, doesn't put shoes on his children's feet and likes living in the dirt -- that's their tradition, so the prejudice goes.
Governments ignored the Roma for a long time. Germany had its integrated Sinti, France had the Manouches and Spain their Kale, but no one showed any interest in them -- and no one asked about the Roma in southeastern Europe. The focus has only turned to them since more of them have started coming from Bulgaria and Romania and since the number of asylum seekers from Serbia and Macedonia doubled from 2011 to 2012.
Hans-Peter Friedrich of the CSU, who was German Interior Minister until recently, wanted to get rid of these immigrants as quickly as possible and to prevent more from coming to Germany. He demanded that the countries of origin improve living conditions for Roma people there.
Living in Slums
A visit to Antena, a settlement on the outskirts of the Serbian capital Belgrade, shows the extent of improvements needed in Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia. There's no running water, the toilets are holes in the ground. The air smells of urine, mold and burned plastic.
Ramiz, 28, lives here along with 600 other Roma. He purchased eight square meters of a garbage dump for his hut for €40. Ramiz says the Roma are "the invisible people of Belgrade." Half the inhabitants of Antena have no passport or birth certificate. For the Serbian government, they simply don't exist, and they get no welfare benefits.
Most of them, like Ramiz, came during the Kosovo conflict at the end of the 1990s. They dream of getting to the rich West as quickly as possible.
During the day Ramiz and his children gather up cardboard or sift the garbage for packet soup past its sell by date, opened cornflakes boxes or cocoa powder. He has the business card of a man in his pocket who smuggles people without papers across the border to the north. Transport costs €100, bribes for the border guards cost €400. Ramiz hopes he can round up so many clients that the trafficker will let him go along free of charge.
Antena is just one such settlement in Belgrade. There are hundreds like it in Serbia and thousands in the other countries of Eastern Europe. In 2011 the European Commission together with the UN Development Program and the European Agency for Fundamental Rights examined living conditions of more than 80,000 Roma people living in 11 EU member-states and found that one-third of them were unemployed, 20 percent had no health insurance and 90 percent lived below the poverty line.
Racist Abuse and Assaults
But the Roma aren't just trying to flee poverty. They are also trying to get away from discrimination and abuse. In Romania, a far-right group last January called for the sterilization of Roma women. Bulgaria last year saw anti-Roma demonstrations in the capital, Sofia. In 2012, a mob in the Czech Republic chanted "gas the gypsies" after a 15-year-old claimed he had been beaten up by Roma people.
Human rights campaigners say the situation for Roma is particularly precarious in Hungary -- even though the government claims to have a strategy for integrating them. "The Roma in Hungary are systematically discriminated against," says Gabor Daróczi, director of the Romaversitas foundation which funds education projects for Roma. "They can't find work, children don't get an education." He said the sentiment against Roma in Hungary reminded him of the 1930s. In August, three men were convicted of murdering six Roma out of racial hatred.
Members of the right-wing government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán openly agitate against Roma people. Zsolt Bayer, co-founder the ruling Fidesz party and supposedly a confidante of Orbán, said: "Most gypsies aren't suited to communal living. They immediately want to fuck everyone they see. If they encounter resistance, they commit murder. These gypsies are animals and they behave like animals. They shouldn't exist, the animals. One has to solve that -- using all means available!"
In March 2011, far-right militants occupied Gyöngyöspata, 80 kilometers northeast of Budapest, for several weeks. Neo-Nazis marched through the streets threatening and beating up Roma people. The government didn't intervene against the racists. When an aid organization took hundreds of children from the village, the government described the rescue as an "Easter vacation."
In the end, the police did get involved and the militants left. But life hasn't improved for the Roma in Gyöngyöspata. They live in a settlement in the valley. Their homes are made of corrugated iron and chipboard, and in winter the paths are churned into mud.
'Birth Control For Gypsies'
The village is governed by the far-right Jobbik party which demands "birth control for gypsies" and is linked to one of the neo-Nazi militia groups that terrorized the Roma in Gyöngyöspata. Police demand fines when pedestrians walk on the street rather than the sidewalk. In the school in Gyöngyöspata, Roma children were reportedly taught on a separate floor.
Given such treatment, it's a miracle that not more Roma try to leave their home country. But they also face discrimination in richer countries like Germany. They frequently suffer verbal abuse and are assaulted, and they don't have equal prospects in the labor market, says Markus End, a Berlin-based political scientist. Racism against Sinti and Roma is "an everyday occurrence in Germany," he says.
The Mannheim-based information center RomnoKher presented one of End's reports to representatives of the German parliament's Human Rights Committee in December 2012. It contained accounts of media prejudice against Roma people, damage to monuments commemorating the deportation and murder of Sinti and Roma under the Nazis, and right-wing campaigns against immigrants from Eastern Europe.
There has been violence against Roma in Germany too. Rudolf H., a Sinto from Klingenhain, a village in Saxony, was called a "wog chieftain" and his wife Claudia a "gypsy slut." The Sinti family endured verbal abuse for six years. Their children were threatened at school and police once had to protect them from neo-Nazis on their way home from school.
Their house was broken into several times by people who smashed the furniture and sliced the sofa. In autumn 2009, a brick was hurled through their Wednesday with a note attached to it saying: "Beat it, you wogs." At Christmas their house was set on fire. That's when the family gave up and moved away.
But sentiment towards Roma is even more hostile in other wealthy EU countries. In Italy, the government is trying to rehouse Roma in segregated estates made of containers.
Elviz Isola lives in such a camp with his mother and many siblings. Before that they lived in "Casolino 900,"one of Europe's biggest slums which was razed by bulldozers overnight. Then the government rehoused them in Salone. Elviz waits at the gate which is secured with barbed wire. There's a surveillance camera next to it. Salone is on the outside of the ring highway surrounding Rome. It's a godforsaken place, reachable only by a narrow path. Behind the gate stands a dreary encampment of corrugated iron containers each measuring three by seven meters, standing in neat rows, with windows that resemble arrow slits.
Rats, Stray Dogs and Rotting Mattresses
Some 500 families live here, in many cases more than six or seven people in just 30 square meters. Rats scuttle along the paths between the containers, stray dogs roam and the place is filled with rotting old sofas and mattresses the Romans secretly dump here at weekends. But Salone is supposed to be a model of a city-financed, "fully equipped" housing estate for the minority -- at least, that's how the Italian government sees it.
In fact, Salone is more a ghetto than a village, and it deprives young men like Elviz of the chance to belong to the normal Italy. It takes three or four hours to get to the center of Rome where they might get a job or job training. "Who's going to take me on as a stableman, mechanic or kitchen helper with that length of commute, with this stamp as 'zingaro' that I carry on my forehead?" says Elviz. They win elections," says Salome, "by sticking Roma people in a prison like Salone."
Last summer the vice president of the Genoa city council said: "Jellyfish are like gypsies: useless and always an annoyance." According to an Amnesty International report, politicians regard the presence of Roma people as "comparable to a natural disaster."
There was a time, more than four years ago, when Elviz Isola thought things might change, Activists lodged a complaint with the EU against the police for taking fingerprints off underage Roma. Elviz was among the plaintiffs, the ruling was in his favor and he thought everything would be OK. But today, he's resigned. "We Roma didn't take part in any war, we're a peaceful people. To defend ourselves now, to rise up, what use would that be?"
Elviz and his friends prefer rhyming rap songs at the table in their container and writing a blog about their lives as gypsies. Recently, they even have a bit more money. The new pope is drawing more pilgrims to the city and the women are returning home from begging with more money in their pockets. The fact that Pope Francis speaks often of poverty and of visiting society's fringes fills Elviz with hope. "He should come," Elviz says. "You can't get anymore fringe than here in our camp, nowhere in Europe."
France too is hardly squeamish when dealing with Roma. Camps made of mobile homes and provisional shacks, established in many places by Roma from Romania and Bulgaria, are simply bulldozed away. The method began under conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, and has continued under his Socialist successor, François Hollande.
It isn't just the right-wing Front National that believes the majority of Roma are incapable of integrating. Socialist Interior Minister Manuel Valls agrees. Their way of life is "extremely different," he says. He immediately received a threat of sanctions from the office of European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding making in clear that EU rights guaranteeing personal freedom of movement apply to Roma as well. Her office noted that the EU would do everything in its power to defend these rights.
During a visit in Brussels, Reding sits in her office and sighs. "You can't win with this issue," she says. Just how little EU member states care about the Roma became clear to her when she travelled in 2010 to the Roma summit in the Spanish city of Córdoba. "Just three ministers came," she said. Germany's then-Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière likewise showed little interest and sent a representative.
'No Need for a Special Roma Strategy'
After the summit, Reding demanded that all EU member states present a strategy for the integration of Roma. The response from Germany was telling: In 2011, a several-page-long document arrived from Berlin which admitted that there were difficulties when it came to integrating immigrants. But, it went on, "there is no need for a special Roma strategy."
In the spring of 2013, Reding launched a round table for the discussion of Roma issues. It was designed to provide an opportunity to aid organizations and Roma representatives to give voice to their concerns and problems. The resulting list went from poverty to open discrimination to difficulties in accessing education and healthcare systems.
The EU, often so powerful, has little influence when it comes to Roma policy and Reding has few possibilities to impose sanctions. Former German Interior Minister Friedrich would write her complaint letters when her rhetoric grew too biting. She has also criticized Italy and even began official proceedings against France when Paris expelled large numbers of Roma.
Reding's voice is filled with frustration when she says "there are two main things that you generally get from member states: either a few well-meant Sunday speeches or populism directed against Roma." But you can't win votes by supporting the Roma. Indeed, member states haven't even made use of all of the €26.5 billion euros made available over the last five years to help integrate Roma.
Damian Draghici could perhaps explain to the justice commissioner why that is the case. The 43-year-old is Roma and is a successful musician. He was a co-composer of the film music for the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series.
Today, Draghici is the chief advisor on Roma issues to the Romanian prime minister. On one afternoon in June, he found himself sitting at a conference table in Bucharest, his Ray-Ban sunglasses pushed up on his forehead. His hair is cut short, he wears a suit and speaks English without an accent. On the table in front of him are water bottles, business cards and two smart phones.
Yes, he says, they have a Roma strategy in Romania, but only because Brussels demanded it. It is just a paper. He sums up the Roma strategy of his government and the efforts from Brussels succinctly: "Based on bullshit," he says.
He says he would be happy to help should there be problems with Roma in Germany. He could help out with projects in the Romanian villages involved as needed, you just have to ask, he insists. When he hears that German parents get 20 times as much from the state for each child than Romanian parents do, he says incredulously: "Bullshit."
He says that in the last 20 years, Roma issues were very last on Romania's list of political agenda. "The Roma are today are in the same condition they were as 150 years ago," he says. Municipalities can only help Roma on a local level, he believes, and not by resolution in Brussels and certainly not by the Romanian parliament. The lawmaking body has but a single Roma representative for the close to two million Roma in the country.
At the beginning of December, EU member states passed yet another paper in Brussels. All 28 countries committed to adopting targeted measures to accelerate the integration of their Roma populations. European Commissioner Reding says that it shows that member states are prepared to do something to help the minority. "We will not hesitate to remind EU member states of their obligations and to ensure that they fulfill them," she says.
That may be. But almost concurrently, European interior ministers placed new limitations on visa-free entries from Balkan countries such as Serbia and Macedonia. Ex-Interior Minister Friedrich even proposed, shortly before he shifted to the Agricultural Ministry, that travel freedoms be limited for people from Romania and Bulgaria, both of which are full EU members.
Such moves make Roma suspicious that the newest resolution for the improvement of their situation is little more than paper. Draghici might say: Bullshit.
BY JÖRG DIEHL, FIONA EHLERS, ÖZLEM GEZER, MAXIMILIAN POPP and FIDELIUS SCHMIDT
01/07/2014 12:10 PM
Labor Market: Does Germany Benefit from Balkan Immigrants?
By Andreas Ulrich
A debate over whether Germany profits from Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants has flared up since the EU opened its labor market to these workers. Statisticians are struggling to come up with conclusive evidence on either side of the argument.
There are many stories about immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria, and evidence can often be found to support them, whether they are about how these countries are home to doctors and engineers who are urgently needed in Germany, or about entire village communities with no job prospects who have found their way into the German social welfare system.
The reason they come remains the enormous disparity in wealth between Germany and the residents of these countries, where workers often earn hardly more than €180 ($245) per month. And the situation is unlikely to change soon, which makes the question of how the wave of migration will play out an interesting one.
The people coming from both countries are certainly not a homogenous group. On the one hand, there are university graduates whose departures weaken their home countries. But there are also members of minority groups like the Roma, many of whom have little occupational training, or are even illiterate.
The latest political debate surrounding the issue was sparked by the European Union opening its labor market to the citizens of these two new member countries, and the question of whether their presence benefits economic development or poses a burden to the social system. But research on the matter yields varying results, and regional differences are large.
Influential German weekly Die Zeit wrote that 80 percent of immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania are in jobs that require them to make social insurance contributions. This number was subsequently picked up by various other media and attributed to renowned migration researcher Klaus Bade, who headed the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration (SVR) until mid-2012.
Asked to comment, Bade has since distanced himself from that figure. He now says that 80 percent of these immigrants are working, "and of these about 46 percent are qualified and over 20 percent are highly qualified."
The SVR reports "labor-market participation" of 81.4 percent for those from Romania and Bulgaria who have come to Germany since 2007, citing a special analysis of the 2011 micro-census conducted by the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis).
But citing "labor-market participation" means little -- even those who have registered as unemployed are counted as participating in the labor market. Furthermore, only 25- to 44-year-olds were considered -- the group with the highest employment rate to begin with.
The German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) recently concluded that the employment rate for 15-to 65-year-olds who have moved to the country from Bulgaria and Romania since 2007 was at 62.6 percent in 2011. According to the DIW, the micro-census cited by the SVR is not particularly significant because "small sample sizes" permitted only "rough analysis." Nevertheless, the Institute for Employment Research concludes: "Overall Germany profits from this immigration."
But Stefan Böckler, a sociologist at the Duisburg Office for Information Logistics, disagrees. "Labor-force participation is not an indicator for a labor market integration that insures livelihoods," he argues.
Analysis of data from the Federal Employment Agency, Destatis and the cities of Duisburg and Dortmund, both of which have a particularly high population of these immigrants, showed that just 10.8 and 14.8 percent of this group respectively were working jobs in which they paid into the social insurance system. Meanwhile, some 90 percent of the Bulgarians and Romanians registered at the Federal Employment Agency's job center had not completed vocational training and therefore had little chance of entering the workforce.
More revealing statistics will only begin to emerge now that the labor market has been fully opened to Bulgarians and Romanians.
Wind power was Spain's top source of electricity in 2013
Surge in wind power and hydropower drives emissions down by more than 23%, reports BusinessGreen
James Murray for BusinessGreen, part of the Guardian Environment Network
theguardian.com, Monday 6 January 2014 13.39 GMT
Remarkable new figures from Spain's grid operator have revealed that greenhouse gas emissions from the country's power sector are likely to have fallen 23.1% last year, as power generation from wind farms and hydroelectric plants soared.
Red Eléctrica de España (REE) released a preliminary report on the country's power system late last month, revealing that for "the first time ever, [wind power] contributed most to the annual electricity demand coverage". According to the figures, wind turbines met 21.1% of electricity demand on the Spanish peninsular, narrowly beating the region's fleet of nuclear reactors, which provided 21% of power.
In total, wind farms are estimated to have generated 53,926 gigawatt hours of electricity, up 12% on 2012, while high levels of rainfall meant hydroelectric power output was 16% higher than the historical average, climbing to 32,205GWh.
"Throughout 2013, the all-time highs of wind power production were exceeded," the report stated. "On 6 February, wind power recorded a new maximum of instantaneous power with 17,056MW at 3:49 pm (2.5 per cent up on the previous record registered in April 2012), and that same day the all-time maximum for hourly energy was also exceeded reaching 16,918MWh. Similarly, in January, February, March and November wind power generation was the technology that made the largest contribution towards the total energy production of the system."
An increase in wind power capacity of 173MW coupled with an increase in solar PV capacity of 140MW and solar thermal capacity of 300MW meant that by the end of the year renewables represented 49.1% of total installed power capacity on the Spanish peninsula.
In contrast, the preliminary figures show that power output from combined cycle gas plants fell 34.2% year-on-year, coal-fired plants saw generation fall 27.3%, and nuclear power output fell 8.3%.
The dramatic shift towards renewable generation coupled with a fall in overall power demand of 2.1% led to a similarly drastic reductions in emissions from the peninsular's power sector. "The increased weight of renewable energy in the generation mix structure of 2013 compared to the previous year has reduced CO2 emissions of the electricity sector on the Spanish peninsula to 61.4 million tonnes, 23.1% lower than in 2012," the report stated.
The study follows news last year that Portugal had successfully generated over 70% of its power from renewables during the first quarter of the year, driven by a surge in wind and hydro power output.
The latest figures are likely to be seized upon by renewable energy firms as further evidence that the sector can provide a high proportion of power to a modern economy without risk of blackouts.
January 6, 2014
British Economic Debate Opens Ahead of 2015 Vote
By STEPHEN CASTLE
LONDON — With elections 16 months away, British politicians have headed into battle over the economy.
The chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, on Monday promised more austerity and further welfare cuts while warning that the task of repairing government finances was “not even half-done.”
That vow followed a call on Sunday by Ed Miliband, the Labour leader and head of the opposition, for better protection for low-wage workers.
Only a year ago, Britain faced the risk of a return to recession, and Mr. Osborne’s austerity program was getting much of the blame. But Britain is now expected to be one of the fastest-growing advanced economies in 2014, and that turnaround has left political parties scrambling for advantage at the start of the new year.
While the economic uptick is good news for the Conservative government, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, Mr. Osborne warned against a “dangerous new complacency,” arguing that, if given the chance, the opposition Labour Party would squander the gains made rather than consolidate them.
Despite its claims that austerity has laid the foundation for recovery, the government was put on the defensive late last year when the Labour Party campaigned over the cost-of-living squeeze felt by many voters whose pay increases have lagged behind big jumps in energy and other bills.
Mr. Miliband, writing in The Independent on Sunday, urged tougher action against unscrupulous firms that he said exploit cheap labor.
Calling for stiffer fines for companies that breach minimum-wage laws and a ban on recruitment agencies hiring only foreign workers, Mr. Miliband also sought to defuse the debate over immigration and worries that workers from Eastern Europe were undercutting pay levels.
“Unless we act to change our economy, low-skill immigration risks making the problems of the cost of living crisis worse for those at the sharp end,” Mr. Miliband wrote. “It isn’t prejudiced to believe that.”
Mr. Osborne, speaking on Monday at a factory in Birmingham, sought to put the focus firmly back on deficit reduction, asserting that his economic program “is working,” but that an additional 25 billion pounds in spending cuts, about $41 billion, would be needed after the next elections, due in May 2015, including £12 billion from the welfare budget. The speech effectively challenged Mr. Osborne’s opponents to say whether they would match his target and, if so, how they would achieve it — if not through restricting welfare payments.
Mr. Osborne highlighted some potential welfare savings, including cuts to housing benefits for people younger than 25, and the new restrictions on subsidized housing for those over certain salary thresholds.
Yet on Sunday, Mr. Cameron made clear that significant increases in the state pension would continue, insulating many older people from the squeeze on public spending. Political parties are wary of upsetting retired people because they tend to vote more than other age groups.
Labour countered Monday that it would focus more on growth as a way to reduce the scale of cuts. “We will get the deficit down in a fair way,” Labour’s finance spokesman, Ed Balls, said in a statement. “We know that the way to mitigate the scale of the cuts needed is to earn and grow our way to higher living standards for all.”
Meanwhile, Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, the junior party in the coalition government, distanced himself from Mr. Osborne’s comments on welfare. The Conservatives are making a “monumental mistake” in a remorseless search for cuts and in focusing the burden of consolidation on the working poor, Mr. Clegg, who is deputy prime minister, said at a news conference on Monday in London.
Although Britain’s next general election is more than a year away, elections for the European Parliament in May this year will provide a test of the parties’ relative popularity with the British public.
As the general election approaches, and with opinion polls pointing to an inconclusive outcome, Mr. Clegg’s party is trying to distinguish its image from that of the Conservatives.
Massive cuts risk England's ability to deal with floods, MPs say
Report warns of impact of budget cuts on coping with extreme weather emergencies
theguardian.com, Tuesday 7 January 2014 08.41 GMT
"Massive" and ongoing cuts to the budget of the department of environment, food and rural affairs mean its ability to respond to emergencies such as flooding is in danger, according to a report by MPs published on Tuesday.
"Recent flooding events reinforce our concerns about cuts to the Defra budget. It is a small ministry facing massive cuts," said Anne McIntosh, Conservative MP and chairman of the Efra select committee. "Ministers must clarify how further budgets will impact on ... the ability of the department to respond to emergencies."
She added: "It is remarkable that the current flood defences have held against the force of the substantial and sustained recent battering."
Heavy rain and huge waves caused further flooding and damage on Monday, following rainfall last month that made it the sixth wettest December since 1910. Environment secretary Owen Paterson, who chaired the eighth meeting of the government's Cobra crisis response committee on Monday, said extreme weather since the start of December had caused seven fatalities and flooded over 1700 properties in England. Over 1m properties have been protected by flood defences, Paterson said, but criticism of cuts in flood defence spending is intensifying as the flood waters rise.
Year-on-year spending fell by over a quarter when the coalition took power in 2010 and, despite partial U-turns since then, real-terms spending will be significantly lower at £546m in 2015-16 than the £646m spent in 2010-11. In July 2012, the Guardian revealed that almost 300 shovel-ready flood defence projects which had been in line for funding had not been built due to budget cuts.
Paterson told MPs on Monday: "Flood management is a real priority for this government. It has a vital role to play in protecting people and property from the damage caused by flooding." He described criticism of flood defence budget cuts as "chuntering" and "blather" and said "difficult decisions" had been forced on ministers by the "dire economic circumstances" left by the last Labour government.
The government's own scientists have stated that the biggest impact of climate change on the UK is rising flood risk. But spending remains well below the level needed to keep pace with the rising risk, according to the Environment Agency (EA), the frontline flood defence body funded by Defra. McIntosh noted that the EA is set to lose 1700 jobs by October, on top of 1150 jobs lost since 2009: a total of 23% of the workforce. The Efra report said Paterson had failed to set out how Defra's budget cut of over a third will be implemented.
Paul Leinster, the EA's chief executive said: "The EA has to save money and reduce staff numbers, like the rest of the public sector. We are looking to protect frontline services and our ability to respond to flooding when it occurs." In November he told trade magazine ENDS the new round of cuts were "going to be painful. Flood risk maintenance will be impacted."
The trade union Unison, which represents some EA staff, said on Monday: "Making so many skilled workers redundant will seriously affect the EA's ability to cope with future disasters. It is a disgrace that the government is happy to put cost cutting before public safety and protecting family homes. Ministers can't have it both ways, praising the sterling work of members in the EA in one breath, and in the next breath announcing further damaging cuts."
Charles Tucker, chairman of the National Flood Forum, which represents hundreds of affected communities, said: "It's about joined-up thinking. With joined-up thinking, you don't cut the staff at the EA who manage flooding and maintain flood assets. With joined-up thinking, you don't keep cutting local council capability to deal with the new flooding responsibilities they've been given."
The Efra report also criticised lack of transparency over the new "partnership funding", where a portion of central government spending on flood defences is replaced by money from local authorities and the private sector. So far £148m has been pledged up until 2015. In 2012 it was revealed that less than 4% of this funding came from the private sector but Defra now refuses to say how much is from the private sector, citing "commercial confidentiality". MPs state in Tuesday's report: "We are concerned about the small amounts of private sector funding secured to date".
Guy Shrubsole, climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: "Protecting British households from the destructive impacts of climate change is the ultimate public good; for government to slash protection with no guarantee of businesses picking up the tab instead is utter neglect. This policy isn't even treading water – it's sinking."
The Efra report, scrutinising the whole Defra budget, concludes: "In the last year Defra has had to respond to floods, horsemeat contamination, and ash dieback. Its ability to respond to emergencies such as these must be protected." It also notes low morale at the department, which rates 13th out of 17 major Whitehall departments, with just 22% of staff believing Defra management "have a clear vision for the future".
Challenges facing Defra in 2014, accroding to the Efra report, include the badger cull, proposals on biodiversity offsetting and the introduction of common agricultural policy changes and plastic bag charging.
George Eustice, environment minister, told the Today programme on Tuesday: "We within Defra have prioritised spending on flood defence in difficult times, when budgets across government are having to be cut. We've maintained spending on flood defence specifically and we are going to spend around £2.3 billion between 2015 and 2021, which will be an increase in real terms."
January 6, 2014
Czech Parties Agree to Form Center-Left Coalition
By DAN BILEFSKY
PARIS — A leftist former finance minister was expected to become prime minister of the Czech Republic after three political parties signed an agreement on Monday to form a center-left coalition government. The deal helped to bring to a close one of the most acrimonious periods of political crisis in the country’s recent memory.
Under the agreement, the former official, Bohuslav Sobotka, 42, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, will become prime minister, returning his party to power after more than seven years in opposition. Mr. Sobotka, a longtime member of Parliament who trained as a lawyer, also served as deputy prime minister under a previous government. He has vowed to increase government spending after a period of grinding austerity. He has also indicated that he seeks strong relations with the European Union and the United States.
The Czech Republic, now a member of the European Union, became a global symbol of freedom and economic liberalism after Czechoslovakia overthrew communism in 1989. But its reputation has since been tarnished by a string of corruption scandals, including a bribery and abuse-of-office scandal last summer that forced the center-right government of Prime Minister Petr Necas to resign and plunged the country into uncertainty. President Milos Zeman appointed a caretaker government in July, but it failed to win the confidence of Parliament.
Mr. Necas’s chief of staff, who was then his girlfriend and whom he has since married, was accused of using the secret services to spy on his previous wife. The biggest anticorruption operation in decades also turned up the equivalent of $8 million in cash and stores of gold that prosecutors suspect were used in kickback schemes.
Mr. Sobotka, who is known for his uncharismatic personal style, has faced infighting from within his own party including a failed attempt to unseat him as leader after October elections. He is a churchgoing father of two, and has been unscathed by accusations of corruption. On Monday, he heralded a new period of stability. “The emerging coalition is ready, both in terms of personnel and program, to assume government responsibility,” he told reporters. “It brings hope for a change for the better.”
The Czech economy has teetered in recession over the past two years and has shown only limited signs of recent recovery. Though Mr. Sobotka has promised to counter growth-busting austerity, the coalition has nevertheless said it aims to keep the deficit below 3 percent of gross domestic product, as required by the European Union. Some analysts predicted a potential clash between the left-leaning Mr. Sobotka and his likely finance minister, Andrej Babis, a blunt-spoken and economically liberal Slovak food, media and chemicals billionaire with a Czech passport. His anti-establishment party, Ano, or Yes, won the second largest number of votes in October elections.
Mr. Babis said Monday that he wanted to focus on tax collection, combating fraud and improving the absorption of European Union funds. Though he has vowed to clean up the country’s culture of sleaze, some analysts have raised questions about potential conflicts of interest, since his vast empire includes 200 companies.
The parties will now ask Mr. Zeman to appoint Mr. Sobotka as prime minister along with his cabinet. Analysts warned that political harmony was far from assured as Mr. Zeman, a former member of the Social Democrats, was a bitter political rival of Mr. Sobotka’s, and he has already indicated that he may oppose some of Mr. Sobotka’s ministerial picks.
Jan Richter contributed reporting from Prague.
French workers at Goodyear tyre plant take bosses captive
Workers in Amiens take two managers hostage at plant billed for closure in bid to keep factory open or win 'enormous' pay-offs
Kim Willsher in Paris
theguardian.com, Monday 6 January 2014 17.11 GMT
Workers at a French tyre factory threatened with closure have taken two company executives hostage and promised to hold them until given "enormous amounts of money".
The "kidnapping" was carried out at the Goodyear plant in north Amiens that was at the centre of an international spat a year ago after an American businessman called the workers there lazy.
The two men – the firm's production manager, Michel Dheilly, and the human resources director, Bernard Glesser – were due to meet union representatives on Monday morning.
However, 200 workers also turned up to pressure management and refused to let the executives leave, blocking the door of the meeting room with a tractor tyre.
The Goodyear factory is due to close throwing 1,173 workers out of work. Staff were due to receive redundancy notices this month.
Union leaders said that the atmosphere was "calm" and that the men had been allowed to keep their mobile phones and had been given water.
"Even if we have to wait three or four days, they are not getting out," Franck Jurek of the CGT union told RTL radio. "We're going to find mattresses, all of us, and sleep here.
"We want to go back to the negotiating table to seek a voluntary departure plan and see if someone will take it [the factory] over. If there's nobody, then [we want] a departure plan for everyone with an enormous amount of money."
Jurek added: "We've lost all legal means of recourse, so now we're changing tack."
Last year, France's minister for industrial regeneration, Arnaud Montebourg, wrote to American businessman Maurice "Morry" Taylor Jr, the head of the tyre company Titan International, asking if he would like to take over the Goodyear factory in the struggling industrial heartland of northern France.
Taylor, a former Republican presidential candidate nicknamed "the Grizz", responded with the written equivalent of two fingers. "Do you think we're stupid?," he replied. "I've visited this factory several times. The French workers are paid high wages but only work three hours. They have one hour for their lunch, they talk for three hours and they work for three hours."
He added: "You can keep your so called 'workers'."
Montebourg refused to comment on the response but Goodyear workers and their representatives said they were shocked at the insult.
"Mr Taylor is talking about a factory he was praising a few weeks ago," the CGT's Mickaël Wamen said at the time.
'Racist' comic Dieudonné threatens to sue over French ban for antisemitism
Dieudonné M'Bala M'Bala vows to contest ban after interior minister Manuel Valls urges regional officials to block show
Kim Willsher in Paris
theguardian.com, Monday 6 January 2014 21.58 GMT
The French comedian Dieudonné M'Bala M'Bala, who has become notorious for vitriolic outbursts against Jews and use of the controversial quenelle – allegedly a quasi-Nazi salute – threatened legal action on Monday after officials banned his show.
The order against the celebrity, better known as Dieudonné, came shortly after France's interior minister, Manuel Valls, advised local authorities they were within their rights to cancel his performances as a potential threat to public order.
Valls sent a circular to municipal chiefs across the country entitled: The fight against racism and antisemitism – demonstrations and public meetings – Mr Dieudonné M'Bala M'Bala's shows.
In it, he wrote : "The fight against racism and antisemitism is a main concern for the government and demands energetic action."
He cited the comedian's show entitled Le Mur (the Wall), which begins a national tour from Thursday and which Valls said contained "antisemitic and defamatory" material that targeted "several celebrities of the Jewish confession" as well as "virulent and shocking attacks on the memory of Holocaust victims".
He added: "Respect for freedom of expression does not prevent, in exceptional circumstances … the banning of an activity if the measure is aimed only at preventing a breach of public order."
Alain Juppé, a former centre-right prime minister and mayor of Bordeaux, was the first to react, announcing a ban on Dieudonné's planned show in the city on 26 January.
Juppé told the newspaper Le Parisien: "I believe these conditions are met in Bordeaux and as a result I'm banning the show."
Dieudonné's lawyer said on Monday evening that he would contest in court any attempt to stop the performances.
The comedian has been fined several times for defamation, using insulting language, hate speech and racial discrimination. He has argued that the quenelle is an anti-establishment gesture.
However, after photographs of people, including police officers and firefighters, doing the salute near Jewish sites, synagogues and street signs, the anti-racism group SOS Racisme said it would sue anyone who distributed pictures that left no doubt as to the antisemitic nature of the gesture.
Nicolas Anelka, the West Bromwich Albion and France footballer, who is a friend of Dieudonné, faces disciplinary action for giving the quenelle after scoring against West Ham 10 days ago.
On Monday, Dieudonné was in a provocative mood. "It warms the heart to see support growing by the day!!!" he tweeted, signing off #quenelle.
Spain's Princess Cristina in court over tax fraud claims
Trial of King Carlos's youngest daughter is latest blow to battered image of Spanish royal family
Stephen Burgen in Barcelona
theguardian.com, Tuesday 7 January 2014 11.48 GMT
The king of Spain's youngest daughter has been summoned to appear in court over money laundering and tax evasion allegations, in the latest blow to the Spanish royal family's reputation.
The charges relate to the alleged embezzlement of public funds by Princess Cristina's husband, Iñaki Urdangarin, and his business partner Diego Torres. Cristina – now a formal suspect – will have to testify in court in Palma de Mallorca on 8 March.
Urdangarin and Torres are accused of pocketing €5.8m in public funds that were channelled through their not-for-profit Instituto Nóos and the family business Aizoon, of which Cristina is co-owner. The bulk of the money came from the regional governments of Valencia and the Balearic Islands, both of whose presidents have faced a string of corruption charges.
Some of the claims against Urdangarin and Cristina relate to the €6m mansion the couple bought in Barcelona and the further €3m they spent on home improvements. The house has since been confiscated to cover Torres and Urdangarin's bail of €6.1m. The net began to close on Cristina when documents showed that she had signed herself as both owner and tenant of the palace.
José Castro, the investigating judge, claims that putting the princess on the stand will remove "any shadow of suspicion" that she is receiving special treatment. Ana María Tejeiro, Torres' wife, has been indicted since the start of the investigation while Cristina was treated as being above suspicion. "Are not all Spaniards equal before the law?" Tejeiro's lawyer asked the judge.
Tuesday's news is the latest blow to the already battered image of the Spanish royal family. King Juan Carlos was crowned in 1975, two days after the death of the dictator Franco, and became the darling of the fledgling Spanish democracy when he played a key role in stopping an attempted military coup in 1981. From then on the Spanish royals were untouchable and when Cristina married Urdangarin in Barcelona in 1997, only weeks after Princess Diana's death, many in Spain hoped she would fill the Diana's shoes as a pretty, modern, self-assured princess.
The royals began to lose their shine, first with rumours of the king's extra-marital affairs and then the divorce of Cristina's older sister. Then, two years ago, Juan Carlos was photographed standing proudly next to the elephant he shot on a hunting trip in Botswana. This proved too much for many Spaniards. Not only was the king honorary president of the World Wildlife Fund but embarking on such an expensive trip in a country with more than five million people out of work seemed proof that the royals were out of touch.
In his 227-page decree, the judge says that it would have been "difficult for Urdangarin to defraud Inland Revenue without his wife's knowledge and acquiescence", adding that Cristina "chose to look the other way".
In the unlikely event that she is found guilty, Cristina faces up to six years in prison for money laundering and a fine of three times the value of the money laundered, as well as further punishment for tax evasion. Cristina and Urdangarin both deny any wrongdoing.