How the Hungarian town flooded by red toxic sludge went green
Devecser, an environmental disaster zone in 2010, reinvents itself as a hub for sustainable energy
Sean Williams in Devecser
theguardian.com, Wednesday 8 January 2014 13.49 GMT
Toldi Tamás was nursing a hangover when a wave of toxic sludge hit his family home. The night before he had won an election to become Devecser's third mayor since the fall of communism in Hungary. Champagne had flowed. But just hours later, on 4 October 2010, his phone was buzzing with messages from frightened locals. They kept mentioning a dam. "There is no dam," he told one caller.
There was a dam – six metre-high, a couple of miles away, that held back a reservoir of deadly "red mud", a caustic byproduct of aluminium extraction. But it had burst, and a million cubic metres of the slime was rushing toward Devecser, with waves of up to two metres. Within minutes the town was overcome: cars washed down streets and residents lay stricken on the roofs of their ruined homes. The "red mud disaster" claimed 10 lives, 150 were seriously injured.
Three years later, Tamás is standing atop Devecser's parish hall looking out on a new park marking the ruined area. Next to it is a 30-hectare poplar copse whose trees are used to heat 87 homes built just eight months after the disaster.
From an environmental disaster zone, Devecser has become a model town for sustainable energy. It's something Tamas, who worked seven days a week and slept just three hours each night for two years after the flood, registers with muted pride.
His town is now at the forefront of a push for waste-to-energy systems. According to environmental consultants Ecoprog there are 2,200 waste-to-energy plants worldwide, with a disposal capacity of around 255m tons of waste per year. Another 180 will be built by 2017, adding 52m tons of capacity.
A political conservative whose family made their fortune in agriculture, Tamás has used the red mud disaster to reshape Devecser as a hub for green energy and local produce – combining cutting-edge technology with ancient nous. Each summer a team of 12 workers cuts down the poplars and puts them through two mulching machines, which cost Devecser €15,000 (£12,500) each.
The new development, designed for free by the late Hungarian architect Imre Makovecz, was part of a disaster relief that cost Victor Orbán's national government some 127bn Hungarian Forints. Only the bricks used to build the houses weren't sourced locally, a blot that clearly irks Tamás: a local brickmaker, whose factory billows beyond the new-builds, couldn't make bricks for Devecser's biting winter.
"For me it's very important to use a clean source of heating energy here," says Támas. "Secondly my concern was to use locally-available sources of energy. We shouldn't use natural gas from the Caucasus in a pipeline, but use the energy poplars or mulch, or local geothermal energy."
Geothermal energy – which makes use of heat in the Earth – has been put to use heating a bus terminus that throngs with locals at rush-hour. "The mayor is superhuman," says Jennervé Pál Szilvia, director of a local kindergarten.
Tamas doesn't think so. But he is committed to his cause, and hopes his methods can bring back locals who left for cities during socialist industrialisation. "I want to bring back the low-level, healthy farming techniques we had before. Then we can make it certain that all our public institutions use local produce. It's healthier than the stuff you can buy at Tesco."
This year the town is installing a solar vegetable dehydration plant, which will help spur demand for local produce even further. And the poplars are expected to turn in even more energy. "There's a long way to come before we can be a model of sustainability," says Tamás "But we need to start somewhere."
This is the year of make or break for Europe
As Greece takes over the EU chair, a fresh eurozone crisis is inevitable unless Germany changes its tune
The Guardian, Wednesday 8 January 2014 15.29 GMT
There is something poignantly symbolic about the fact that it is under a Greek presidency that the EU faces 2014 – a year which could determine whether or not the post-second world war process of closer European integration not just halts but goes into reverse. But while Greek mythology provided many of the cultural icons for European unity, the fate of the European project will not be shaped by Greece alone.
There is no reason to suppose that the coming six months with Athens in the EU chair will be any less effective or efficient than any other presidency. The more productive ones in the past have come from the smaller EU countries.
The biggest immediate challenge to the goal of an ever-closer EU comes from the unresolved eurozone crisis. European leaders must execute a policy U-turn and abandon the present austerity strategy if a renewed crisis is to be avoided later this year, given the feeble economic recovery.
This is not some idealistic Europhile judgment, but something also recognised in the more cynical world of international finance. But has the penny dropped in Berlin? Unless the new German coalition accepts that without a new strategy based on progressive debt cancellation and a concerted drive to boost investment in the economically exhausted southern "periphery", there may be no way to avoid a second, potentially deadly crisis.
There are three reasons for some heavily qualified optimism that this may yet come to pass. First, growing numbers of German economists, impressed by the virtual disappearance of inflation, have come to see the crisis in a new light. Second, the German Social Democrats – now part of the government – fear that without a change of policy, fresh eurozone political and social turmoil could undermine a key German objective of the past 70 years: a politically stable Europe.
A third and possibly decisive factor is the evidence that, within the next year, the Greek people could elect a leftwing government determined to lead a revolt against the mindless policy of mass impoverishment, millions of Europeans and their societies.
The Syriza party's growing popularity is matched by its determination to fight for a new Europe-wide economic and social strategy and to reject any facile, nationalist or populist move to quit either the EU or the euro. That would make a future Syriza-inspired demand for a radical change of European policy all the more difficult for current rightwing political EU leadership to resist.
Indeed, the prospect of such a revolt may lead some in Berlin and Brussels to begin making these concessions while they still have their increasingly desperate conservative allies in Athens clinging to government. The precarious signs of slight economic recovery are unlikely to be enough in themselves to avert a future eurozone breakup – something from which the German economy might well emerge as the biggest loser.
Of course the eurozone crisis is only one expression of a deeper political challenge to the European cause. The rise of far-right nationalisms presents a potentially deadly challenge to the goal of a democratic, peaceful and socially just Europe. Anyone who doubts this need only await the results of the forthcoming European parliament elections.
Success for the far right will not, of course, bring them to power anywhere. But big gains will lend credibility to their increasingly strident campaign to block and then fragment the EU, and their determination to give expression to the kind of blind nationalism which has so often led Europe to disaster in the past.
On the other hand, success for a Syriza-led campaign for a fundamental change of EU policy could demonstrate that there is a better alternative to mindless hate, fear and bigotry. It could yet breathe life into the cause of a Europe of peace, democracy and social justice.
John Palmer is a former Europe editor of the Guardian
01/08/2014 03:36 PM
Disaster Centennial: The Disturbing Relevance of World War I
By Klaus Wiegrefe
It has now been 100 years since the outbreak of World War I, but the European catastrophe remains relevant today. As the Continent looks back this year, old wounds could once again be rubbed raw.
Joachim Gauck, the 11th president of the Federal Republic of Germany, executes his duties in a palace built for the Hohenzollern dynasty. But almost all memories of Prussian glory have been eliminated from Bellevue Palace in Berlin, where there is no pomp and there are no uniforms and few flags. The second door on the left in the entrance hall leads into a parlor where Gauck receives visitors.
In the so-called official room, there are busts of poet Heinrich von Kleist and Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert, the first German president after Kaiser Wilhelm II fled the country into exile, on a shelf behind the desk. There are two paintings on the wall: an Italian landscape by a German painter, and a view of Dresden by Canaletto, the Italian painter.
Gauck likes the symbolism. Nations and their people often view both the world and the past from different perspectives. The president says that he doesn't find this disconcerting, because he is aware of the reasons. In 2014, the year of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, the eyes of the world will be focused on Germany's head of state. It will be the biggest historical event to date in the 21st century.
And Gauck represents the losers.
More than 60 million soldiers from five continents participated in that orgy of violence. Almost one in six men died, and millions returned home with injuries or missing body parts -- noses, jaws, arms. Countries like France, Belgium and the United Kingdom are planning international memorial events, wreath-laying ceremonies, concerts and exhibits, as are faraway nations like New Zealand and Australia, which formed their identities during the war.
Poles, citizens of the Baltic countries, Czechs and Slovaks will also commemorate the years between 1914 and 1918, because they emerged as sovereign nations from the murderous conflict between the Entente and the Central Powers.
Unthinkable in Germany
In the coming months, World War I will become a mega issue in the public culture of commemoration. The international book market will present about 150 titles in Germany alone, and twice as many in France -- probably a world record for a historic subject. The story of a generation that has long passed on will be retold. New questions will be asked and new debates will unfold. British Prime Minister David Cameron is even making funds available to enable all children attending Britain's government-run schools to visit the battlefields of the Western Front.
A response of this nature would be unthinkable in pacifist Germany.
But Western Europeans paid a higher death toll in World War I than in any other war in their history, which is why they call it "The Great War" or "La Grande Guerre." Twice as many Britons, three times as many Belgians and four times as many Frenchmen died on the Maas and the Somme than in all of World War II. That's one of the reasons, says Gauck in his office in the Hohenzollern palace, why he could imagine "a German commemoration of World War I as merely a sign of respect for the suffering of those we were fighting at the time."
The "Great War" was not only particularly bloody, but it also ushered in a new era of warfare, involving tanks, aircraft and even chemical weapons. Its outcome would shape the course of history for years to come, even for an entire century in some regions.
In the coming weeks, SPIEGEL will describe the consequences of World War I that continue to affect us today: the emergence of the United States as the world's policeman, France's unique view of Germany, the ethnic hostilities in the Balkans and the arbitrary drawing of borders in the Middle East, consequences that continue to burden and impede the peaceful coexistence of nations to this day.
Several summit meetings are scheduled for the 2014 political calendar, some with and some without Gauck. Queen Elizabeth II will receive the leaders of Commonwealth countries in Glasgow Cathedral. Australia, New Zealand, Poland and Slovenia are also planning meetings of the presidents or prime ministers of all or selected countries involved in World War I.
'A Different Nation Today'
August 3 is at the top of Gauck's list. On that day, he and French President François Hollande will commemorate the war dead at Hartmannswillerkopf, a peak in the Alsace region that was bitterly contested by the Germans and the French in the war. The German president is also among the more than 50 heads of state of all countries involved in World War I who will attend a ceremony at the fortress of Liège hosted by Belgium's King Philippe. Gauck, a former citizen of East Germany, sees himself as "the German who represents a different nation today, and who remembers the various horrors that are associated with the German state."
The 73-year-old president hopes that the series of commemorative events will remind Europeans how far European integration has come since 1945. Gauck notes that the "absolute focus on national interests" à la 1914/1918 did not led to happy times for any of the wartime enemies.
But he knows that the memory of the horrors of a war doesn't just reconcile former enemies but can also tear open wounds that had become scarred over. In this respect, the centenary of World War I comes at an unfavorable time. Many European countries are seeing a surge of nationalist movements and of anti-German sentiment prior to elections to the European Parliament in May 2014.
In a recent poll, 88 percent of Spanish, 82 percent of Italian and 56 percent of French respondents said that Germany has too much influence in the European Union. Some even likened today's Germany to the realm of the blustering Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Last August, a British journalist emerged from a conversation with the press attaché at the German Embassy in London with the impression that Berlin, in the interest of promoting reconciliation, wanted to take part in commemorative ceremony in neighboring countries. This led to an outcry in the British press, which claimed that the Germans were trying to prevent the British from celebrating their victory in World War I.
Source of Apprehension
Such episodes are a source of apprehension for Gauck. "One can only hope that the voice of the enlightened is stronger today than it was in the period between the two wars."
And if it isn't? "Europe is too peaceful for me to consider the possibility of wartime scenarios once again. Nevertheless, we saw in the Balkans that archaic mechanisms of hate can take hold once again in the middle of a peaceful decade," Gauck warns.
Such "yes, but" scenarios on World War I are often mentioned. In the era of NATO and integrated armed forces, hardly anyone can imagine a war between Europeans. Still, it is possible to sow discord in other ways in the 21st century. Today's equivalent of the mobilization of armed forces in the past could be the threat to send a country like Greece into bankruptcy unless its citizens comply with the demands of European finance ministers. Historians of different stripes note with concern that the course of events in 1914 are not that different from what is happening in Europe today.
Even a century ago, the world was globalized after a fashion. Intercontinental trade was booming, and export quotas were higher than they would be until the era of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Germans wore jackets made of Indian cotton and drank coffee from Central America. They worked as barbers in London, bakers in St. Petersburg and maids in Paris, while Poles slaved away in Germany's industrial Ruhr region.
Those who could afford it, traveled around Europe, without requiring a passport. Professors corresponded with their counterparts in Oxford or at the Sorbonne, in English and French. The ruling aristocratic families were related to one another. In fact, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Britain's King George V and Czar Nikolai II were cousins. They called each other Willy, Nicky and George and saw each other at family events, including the wedding of the Kaiser's daughter in Berlin in 1913.
A Debate over the Beginnings
This raises the question of why, despite the many trans-national connections and interactions, the German attack began on Aug. 4, 1914, when a group of mounted lancers crossed the Belgian border. What was wrong at the cabinet tables of the day? Why did this war claim such horrendously large numbers of victims? And why did it drag on for four long years?
The calamity began when, on June 28, 1914, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was visiting the Bosnian city of Sarajevo. A group of Serbian assassins, outfitted by Serbian government officials, was waiting for him.
The young men dreamed of a Greater Serbia that would include the Serbs living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time. When Archduke Franz Ferdinand's driver had to turn his car around after taking a wrong turn, 19-year-old student Gavrilo Princip fired into the open vehicle. His wife, Duchess Sophie, was hit in the abdomen and died on the way to the residence, while the heir to the throne was hit in the neck and bled to death. Three of the conspirators were executed, while others were sentenced to long prison terms.
The assassination is not among the glorious deeds of Serbian history, and at first the mourning Habsburgs had the sympathy of other European leaders. In happy times, the majesties would have gathered at the funeral of the murdered couple and exchanged pleasantries
But the 83-year-old Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph, the uncle of Franz Ferdinand, decided to attack Serbia and wipe out the Serbian nationalism that had become a threat to his ailing realm. The monarch, who had been on the throne for 65 years, had already considered waging a war against Belgrade several times in the past. The assassination seemed to confirm the warnings of those advisers who believed that accommodation with Serbia was impossible. World War I "was unleashed, and it was Austria-Hungary that had unleashed it," writes Viennese historian Manfried Rauchensteiner.
Not Just Germany
Words like Rauchensteiner's have revived a debate that had seemed settled long ago. In the 1960s, Hamburg historian Fritz Fischer shocked Germany more than any other historian before or since. Fischer claimed that Berlin's "grasp for world power" was the main, if not the only, reason for the great massacre. After a heated debate among historians, Fischer's claim became the established view.
But just in time for the centenary, new research has raised fundamental questions about this view of events. Historians are not exonerating Kaiser Wilhelm II, who alternated between public bluster and anxious restraint. But they also stress the failures of Russia (US historian Sean McMeekin), France (German historian Stefan Schmidt), Austria-Hungary (Rauchensteiner) or all the major powers combined (Australian author Christopher Clark).
Two ostensibly solid blocs were pitted against each other: the German and Austro-Hungarian empires on one side, and the so-called Entente, consisting of the French Republic, the Russian Empire and the British monarchy, on the other. Even this constellation shows that in 1914, democracy and human rights were not at issue, but rather capitalism and the planned economy.
Although neither of the two sides was planning an attack in the spring, all the major powers viewed war as a legitimate tool of policy and even considered an armed conflict unavoidable in the medium term. The main parties feared for their standing, influence and even existence. France, believing that it had lost the arms race against Germany, urged Russia to exert pressure on Germany from the east. German military leaders assumed that they would be inferior to the Russians on the long term, which suggested that striking quickly would be the best approach. The czar, propelled by the fear that Great Britain could change sides, decided to build up his military strength. And in London, there were fears that the dynamic German Reich would outstrip the British Empire.
Meanwhile, smaller countries like Serbia sought to play off the major powers against one another.
It was a fragile, highly complex system, and controlling it required prudence and foresight. Historian Clark estimates the number of decision-makers in 1914 at several hundred, including monarchs, ministers, military officials and diplomats. They were overwhelmingly older men, and most were aristocrats.
'Quick Fait Accompli'
Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph did not fail to recognize the danger that Russia would come to the aid of its Slavic brothers in Belgrade in the event of an Austrian attack on Serbia. He asked his German allies for support, and on July 5, 1914, the Austrian ambassador called on Kaiser Wilhelm II at the New Palace in Potsdam, outside Berlin.
It's a scenario that often repeats in world politics: For egoistic reasons, a relatively weak country -- Austria-Hungary -- tries to draw a major power and ally -- the German Reich -- into a regional conflict. It wasn't the first time, either, but the Germans had always stepped on the brakes before 1914.
And this time? The Kaiser recognized that Russia was "by no means ready for war." He and his advisers felt that the risks involved in an Austrian blitzkrieg against Belgrade were manageable. "A quick fait accompli and then friendly to the Entente -- that way the shock can be endured," noted Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg.
The liberal-conservative lawyer from Brandenburg was a key figure in the so-called July crisis. Contemporaries describe the former civil servant as a conciliatory person and not an agitator. But in the summer of 1914, he agreed with the assessment of German military leaders. If the czar did not flinch, they preferred to attack, as long as St. Petersburg hadn't completed its military buildup. "Better now than later," was the motto of Helmuth von Moltke, chief of staff of the Prussian Army.
Today we know that the haste was unfounded and the Russian Empire was a giant with feet of clay. But over lunch with the Viennese ambassador, Wilhelm II issued the so-called blank check, saying that Vienna could count on his "full support," and that Franz Joseph should proceed with his attack on Serbia.
The Kaiser's blank check transformed a local crisis into a European conflict. It was the German Reich's decisive contribution to the "seminal catastrophe" of the 20th century.
Demands of an Angry Public
When Italian columnists like Eugenio Scalfari claim today that Germany threatens to ruin the continent a third time with the euro crisis, his count is based on the assumption that the blank check led to war in 1914. From this perspective, some observers could even view the economic reforms Chancellor Angela Merkel demanded for Southern Europe as a continuation of Wilhelmine power politics with different means -- the tools of economic policy.
However, in 1914 the members of the Entente could also have stopped the escalation at any time, especially the czarist regime -- which took Serbia's side, because an angry public demanded it and because the Russians hoped that by aligning themselves with a strong Serbia, they could wage a war on two fronts against Austria-Hungary.
French President Raymond Poincaré, a lawyer from the region near Verdun who pursued a rigidly anti-German course for fear of the Reich, also believed that war was unavoidable. At the height of the July crisis, when Poincaré visited St. Petersburg and gained the impression that fickle Czar Nicholas II was considering relenting on the issue of Serbia, the French president urged the czar to remain steadfast.
There is little for which the British can be reproached. Before 1914, at least at times, they sought to maintain a good relationship with the Reich -- albeit for strategic reasons rather than out of a love of peace. Their position led Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg to assume that London would remain neutral in a war, and No. 10 Downing Street allowed him to cling to that belief for much too long.
A few weeks before the Sarajevo assassination, Europe was on the brink of disaster. The events of 1914 were not unlike events in the euro crisis today, argued historian Clark in his bestseller "The Sleepwalkers." According to Clark, everyone knew that they were playing with fire, and yet everyone tried to exploit the general threat to his own advantage.
In late July Wilhelm II, at any rate, was overcome with doubts over the wisdom of his policy. The Kaiser was giving "confused speeches, from which the only clear conclusion to emerge is that he longer wants the war," noted a minister in Berlin. Wilhelm II was now calling on his ally in Vienna to take a more restrained approach toward Serbia. But he did not take back the blank check, which was critical.
The Great Plunge
On July 29, the Austro-Hungarian Danube flotilla opened fire on Belgrade. A day later, Czar Nicholas II ordered the general mobilization of the Russian army.
From then on, the logic of the so-called Schlieffen Plan shaped the fate of Europe. Germany feared a war on two fronts, and because the Russian army required months to fully mobilize its troops, the German General Staff in Berlin wanted to use the time to score a quick victory over France. The German army would then march eastward.
The plan had been conceived by Count Alfred von Schlieffen, the famous chief of the General Staff, who died in 1913. Its disadvantages quickly became obvious. The generals had anticipated a war without Great Britain, even though the concept included overrunning Belgium, whose neutrality Great Britain had guaranteed since 1832.
The time pressure resulting from the plan also proved to be fatal. As soon as the Russian mobilization was underway, the German Empire had to attack in the west -- or abandon the idea of victory. Schlieffen's plan did not envision a diplomatic approach to managing the crisis.
Faced with the choice between war and political defeat, the leaders of the Reich, caught up in the notions of power and prestige of the day, chose to attack. The "leap into the dark," Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg said with regret, was his "gravest duty."
In early August, Germany declared war on Russia and then on France. Great Britain chose sides on Aug. 4, after the German invasion of Belgium had begun.
One domino after another was falling, and yet there was no recognizable benefit. There had been countless wars in human history, wars motivated by the desire for freedom or revenge, or for economic reasons. But the war that erupted across Europe in the summer of 1914 could hardly have been more senseless.
Germany's Left Joins the Cause
Kaiser Wilhelm II is said to have had tears in his eyes when he signed the order to mobilize the German army. Soon afterwards, he traveled on a special train to German military headquarters, which were initially established in the western city of Koblenz. The monarch had little say there, with Bethmann Hollweg and the military leaders determining the course of the war.
They were deeply concerned about the working class, which stood at the workbenches in the weapons factories and made up the majority of soldiers. In the last days of July, several hundred thousand people had attended anti-war demonstrations sponsored by the Social Democratic Party (SPD), where they protested the "criminal activities of the warmongers."
Would they refuse to play along?
The SPD leadership feared that the Kaiser would unleash the police and the army on the Social Democrats, and Wilhelm and his generals did in fact consider arresting top SPD officials.
But the situation changed when Russia began mobilizing its forces. Since the days of Karl Marx, the German left had detested the repressive czarist regime, which was now being painted as the aggressor. On Aug. 4, SPD Chairman Hugo Haase declared in the Reichstag: "We will not desert our fatherland in its hour of need."
After that, SPD lawmakers approved the war credits, without which the war could not have been funded. According to the minutes of the Reichstag session, there was "repeated fierce applause and clapping." Today its approval of the war credits is seen as the darkest hour in the long history of the SPD.
Of equal importance, of course, was the failure of the German middle class, which produced the students and other ardent patriots who were depicted in many photos from the summer days of 1914 -- photos of beaming young men with flowers stuck in their gun barrels, and of cheeky sayings painted on the railroad cars ("Excursion to Paris").
'Like a Big Picnic'
In those weeks and months, artists, professors, pastors and intellectuals supplied the necessary slogans. Sociologist Max Weber called the war "great and wonderful," economist Werner Sombart dubbed the Germans "the chosen people," and poet Thomas Mann noted that a "purification" of mankind was about to occur. Suddenly it became apparent that right-wing nationalist groups had been banging the drums for the fatherland in Germany, but also in Great Britain and France, for years, and that significant portions of the European youth belonged to paramilitary organizations. In St. Petersburg, a mob stormed the German Embassy, an in London the workshops of German craftsmen were ransacked. European societies, writes Berlin historian Christoph Nübel, were "militarized societies," in contrast to present-day Europe.
There was a great willingness to go to war for one's country. In England, more volunteers reported for duty than the army could equip. Letters suggest what motivated the men, who were often spurred on by the thirst for adventure or the desire to prove their manhood in a seemingly noble struggle. "I think the war is magnificent. It's like a big picnic, but without the superfluous trappings that normally come with it," noted a British officer.
This notion began to dissipate within weeks. As in the days of Napoleon, the men stormed ahead, cheering all along -- and encountered the weapons of the 20th century. Machine guns spat out up to 600 bullets a minute and field artillery fired shrapnel grenades in rapid succession, mowing down the infantrymen. "When a machine like that hit its mark, there was nothing but minced meat left over," a German soldier wrote in a letter to his family.
The dynamics of the industrial revolution had once brought Europe control over a large portion of the world, and now it was striking back at the old continent. A gigantic killing machine ensured that an average of 6,000 soldiers a day were killed.
A French infantryman noted: "The hill is like a fire-spitting volcano: shrapnel smoke; yellow, red and green rocket flares to signal to the artillery to either open or hold fire; flares that bathe the entire 'canyon of death' in pale magnesium light, blinding the advancing troops; shells exploding everywhere, leaving behind a fiery glow and black smoke. There is an infernal noise, with the sounds of wailing, singing, whistling and shouting in front of us and behind us, as the iron explodes. The number of dead bodies lying on the ground is horrifying."
That was what the battlefields of the new war looked like.
To their surprise, the Germans encountered fierce resistance in Belgium, and the war crimes associated with the fighting remain unforgotten to this day. The occupiers reacted with draconian severity to real or alleged partisan attacks. Villages were looted, houses burned down and about 5,500 civilians shot to death, including women and children.
In the venerable university city of Louvain, soldiers with the German 1st Army killed 248 civilians, expelled about 10,000 residents and burned down part of the city, including its famous library. Hundreds of thousands of Belgians fled to neutral Holland, crossed the English Channel or escaped to France.
Now the war was becoming ideologically charged. The Allied propaganda castigated the "Huns" for their crimes. In Germany, artists and intellectuals, such as the painter Max Liebermann, theologian Adolf von Harnack and theater director Max Reinhardt issued an "appeal to the cultural world" that sought to justify the attack on Belgium. German "culture" was being pitted against French "civilization," and duty, order and Volksgemeinschaft against individualism, democracy and human rights.
Reports of success inflamed the mood. In late August 1914, the German army, under Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, won a battle near Tannenberg, about 100 kilometers (63 miles) south of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad). The czar, whose army had invaded East Prussia, was forced to retreat.
In early September, the war in the West seemed all but won, when German troops were at the gates of Paris, the French government fled to Bordeaux and the city commandant began preparations to blow up the Eiffel Tower.
But then came the "Miracle on the Marne," an event every schoolchild in France learns about to this day. The Germans, exhausted after their hasty marches and fighting in the hot summer sun, were unable to encircle the French army.
The Great Turning Point
The French commander-in-chief, Joseph Joffre, drummed up all available reserves. The son of a vineyard owner in southern France and veteran of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, Joffre even commandeered Paris taxis to transport soldiers to the front.
The nightmarish fighting lasted five days, until Helmut von Moltke, the chief of the German General Staff, interrupted the battle on Sept. 11 and ordered his troops to retreat behind the Aisne. To this day, experts argue over whether this decision was premature. Whatever the case, Moltke suffered a nervous breakdown and was replaced.
The Battle of the Marne marks the great turning point in World War I, because it meant that Schlieffen's plan to achieve a quick victory over France had failed. Both sides now attempted to encircle each other, but at the end of the so-called race to the sea, the front extended from Switzerland to the Channel coast.
The German Reich was now forced to wage the war on two fronts that its military leaders had been determined to avoid. In the west, it turned into trench warfare, which became emblematic of the years between 1914 and 1918 -- and a nightmare for the soldiers.
Plagued by rats, lice and bedbugs, the infantrymen crouched in trenches, tunnels and dugouts, the bottoms of which were often filled with groundwater. In many places in eastern France, such as the Hartmannswillerkopf in Alsace and in Vauquois near Verdun, the remains of kilometers of trench systems can still be seen today. They consisted primarily of barbed-wire barriers and head-high barbed-wire abatis, followed by three rows of trenches for the sentries, the main combat force and the reserve troops, separated by several hundred meters and often arranged in a zigzag pattern to minimize the potential targets for French or British soldiers who might gain access.
A few kilometers farther back, there were two additional lines with more trenches, dugouts, machine gun positions and embrasures. Ammunition was brought in and soldiers were replaced through so-called connecting trenches. To avoid losing their way, the soldiers assigned names to the bunkers and dugouts, names like "Bremer Ratskeller" and "Berthalust."
Contempt for Death
The men had to endure hours of shelling. "Everything around us is flying through the air," noted a French soldier. "It's a constant rolling thunder. Clods of earth and rocks hail down on our backs and shrapnel is constantly whistling by." The explosions hurled fractured tree trunks, gun parts and human bodies high into the air. Experts estimate that artillery was responsible for about 60 percent of the military casualties.
A French lieutenant shouted to his comrades that his nerves were at an end and that he had to get out of the trench. They tried to stop the crazed man but failed. "He had hardly reached the edge of the trench when an exploding shell ripped his head off," a fellow soldier reported. "I stared in a daze at the piece of his lower jaw that was still attached to the body, while blood and bone marrow flowed into the trench from his neck."
Other soldiers surrounded themselves with a shield of apparent contempt for death. The most famous example was the writer Ernst Jünger ("Storm of Steel"). Jünger's voice was that of a wounded soul. On Oct. 17, 1915, he wrote in his diary that he had found pieces of bone from a hand. "I picked them up and had the tasteful plan of having them made into a cigar holder. But there was still some decaying, greenish-white flesh stuck between the joints, so I abandoned my plan."
Experts still argue over whether the trenches saved or cost more lives. They protected the soldiers, but they also made it possible for hostile troops to come within a few dozen meters of each other, facilitating the mutual killing.
World War I should have come to an end when trench warfare began. Before 1914, the German generals had insisted that a war on two fronts was unwinnable. And indeed, Moltke's successor, Erich von Falkenhayn, contemplated the possibility of peace talks, at least to take the Russians out of play at first.
But there were no promising negotiations until 1917, neither in the east nor in the west.
There are several explanations for this. One was the extremely large number of casualties. To this day, Aug. 22, 1914 is the bloodiest day in French military history. Some 27,000 soldiers died on that day. By the end of 1914, Germans and Belgians had lost about half of their field armies, and the number of dead, wounded and captured soldiers exceeded the one-million mark in the armies of Russia and Austria-Hungary.
No Search for Compromises
Such sacrifices couldn't have been in vain. Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg expressed the prevailing German view when he said that "abandoning the country that was captured with so much blood" would be a "violation of our duty to the fallen." The Allies used similar arguments.
The governments of all the major powers were politically weakened when they entered the war, which made it all the more difficult to admit that they had not achieved victory. The czar and the two emperors of the Central Powers even feared revolutions if they failed to return home triumphant.
Instead of searching for compromises, the leaders on both sides added to their wish lists in the event of victory. Bethmann Hollweg aimed to annex substantial portions of France and Belgium, along with Luxembourg, control Central Europe and set up bases on the Faroe and Cape Verde Islands -- such claims were even considered moderate in Berlin.
French President Poincaré would have preferred to divide up the German Reich into individual states. He demanded Alsace and Lorraine, which had been part of the Reich since 1871, as well as the Saarland and territories west of the Rhine. He even wanted to dominate Belgium.
The czar's list and that of some of his advisers included Constantinople, the Dardanelles, large parts of Eastern and Central Europe and even southern Silesia and East Prussia.
Only the British exercised restraint. In their view, no one was to dominate continental Europe, including the Allies. London wanted to preserve the option of assuming the lucrative role of conflict arbitrator.
Because the balance of power was roughly equal, both sides were still hopeful of achieving victory -- if only the next attack were a success. But until 1917, all major offensives quickly became bogged down.
This became especially apparently in the four-and-a-half month Battle of the Somme, in which the British and the French managed to capture only 10 kilometers of German-held territory -- and paid for it with the loss of 600,000 men. Some 300,000 soldiers died at Verdun, and yet the front was relatively unchanged when the battle was over. And some two million Russians died, were wounded or were taken prisoner in the so-called Brusilov Offensive east of Lviv, in which between 50 and 125 kilometers of territory was captured.
The attacking generals had great difficulty controlling their large armies. Sometimes it took days for orders to reach the front. Most of all, however, the elaborate defensive positions resisted constant artillery fire.
At Verdun, German gunners fired two million artillery shells in the first eight hours. Today, almost 100 years later, the site of the battle remains a cratered moon landscape, covered with only a light coating of bushes, trees and shrubs.
When the Germans advanced after artillery fire, they were horrified to encounter surviving French soldiers, who continued to fight bitterly.
The Battle of Verdun is the most famous example of how both sides increased their efforts and encountered the suffering of their own troops with "fatal indifference," as historians Gerhard Hirschfeld and Gerd Krumeich write.
For strategic reasons, it made little sense to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of soldiers to capture the fortifications around Verdun -- and it was equally pointless to defend them at all costs.
The war became all-encompassing by 1916. In Germany, France and Austria-Hungary, about 80 percent of men fit for military service were sent to the front or to sea. An entire generation was shaped by the experiences on the battlefield. It included Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill, Ludwig Erhard, Adolf Hitler and, after the United States had entered the war, Harry Truman, the later president and founder of NATO.
To keep the massive machinery of death running, tracks were laid, roads built and ammunition depots constructed behind the front lines. Logistics experts calculated that at least 120 trains of daily supplies were required in major battles.
The spread of violence was reflected in weapons technology. Engineers developed flamethrowers, tanks and fighter planes. Even poison was used, first by the Germans and later by the Allies.
In this time of total war, victories and defeats were no longer decided by the genius of generals, but by economic and military mobilization strength. In 1917, Russia was no longer able to keep up -- ironically, it was precisely the power that the German Kaiser, his chancellor and the generals had once feared the most. The Russian economy collapsed, the czar abdicated and the prospect of land reform led to mass desertions by soldiers, most of them farmers.
Lenin, the new man in charge, wanted peace at any cost, and in December talks with Berlin's envoy began in Brest-Litovsk. Lenin eventually gave up a quarter of his European territory, including the Baltic states, Poland and Finland, which all yearned for independence.
After the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Central Powers could finally wage the single-front war Schlieffen had envisioned. But by then, the United States had already entered the war. It marked the "decisive strategic turning point," as historian Gerhard P. Gross puts it.
The largest industrialized nation on earth had already been energetically supporting England with food, raw materials and ammunition since 1914. In the belief that the British Empire would come to the negotiating table if its supplies were cut off, in early 1917 the Kaiser and his advisers launched unlimited U-boot attacks on freighters, including US ships.
It was probably Kaiser Wilhelm II's biggest mistake. The total U-boot war did not achieve the desired success, and it also brought the United States into the war, against the Central Powers.
Meeting in a Rail Car
By July 1918, a million well-rested GIs had landed on the old continent. The Allied forces were soon pushing back German divisions along a broad front. The war was lost even before it had reached German territory.
On the evening of Nov. 7, 1918, a German column of three vehicles crossed the front near Chimay, Belgium. Engineer units had cleared away all land mines along the route. A large white flag was displayed on the first car and a trumpeter blew short signals, so that no one would inadvertently open fire. The German delegation had come to sign a ceasefire agreement.
French military vehicles took the group, led by Matthias Erzberger, a Catholic member of the Reichstag, to a train that stopped the next morning near Compiègne in northern France.
The mood was icy when French Marshall Ferdinand Foch, who had recently been named the supreme commander of Allied forces, and three British officers received the Germans in one of their rail cars.
Erzberger signed the ceasefire on the morning of Nov. 11. "A nation of 70 million can suffer, but it cannot die," he announced dramatically. "Très bien," Foch replied. The parties chose not to shake hands.
The guns fell silent at 11 a.m.
A Dented Helmet
The survivors of World War I included Franz Warremann, a journeyman bricklayer from the northeastern German city of Rostock, whose grandson, Joachim Gauck, is Germany's president today. Warremann brought home a helmet from the front that had been dented when it was grazed by a bullet just above his left temple. He had apparently been extremely lucky.
The dented helmet has since been lost, says Gauck in his office at Bellevue Palace in Berlin, but the sight of it created such a strong impression on him that he could "still draw it" today.
When his grandfather got together with other veterans in the evening and they talked about the war, young Joachim was always surprised at how exuberant they seemed. How could they be so happy after those harrowing experiences?
Only much later did he understand that the men treasured spending time with fellow soldiers who had also looked death in the eye in the trenches. Only they could understand what it meant.
And that was why they were celebrating life.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Turkish Government, Shaking Up Police, Now Seeks More Power Over Judiciary
By DAN BILEFSKY and SEBNEM ARSUJAN. 8, 2014
The Turkish government reshuffled the police force yet again overnight, the police said on Wednesday, and sought to expand its power over the judiciary in a move that one former justice minister likened to a coup.
Analysts said both actions appeared calculated to fend off a widening corruption investigation that has plunged the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan into its worst crisis since it came to power more than a decade ago.
The investigation, which has linked senior politicians to murky business deals, has resulted in the resignation of three ministers, whose sons are under suspicion, as well as a fourth minister. It centers on accusations that officials took bribes in return for bending zoning rules. Turks have been riveted by lurid details leaked to the news media, like the discovery of $4.5 million in cash stuffed in shoe boxes at the home of the director of a state bank.
Mr. Erdogan’s government sent draft legislation to Parliament late Tuesday that would enhance its limited control over the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors, which is responsible for judicial functions, including appointments. The proposed law would grant the justice minister greater authority over legal discipline, judicial investigations, and the appointment of judges and prosecutors, powers the minister does not now have.
Analysts said the legislation would severely undermine the separation between the executive and judiciary branches, and undercut the judicial independence set out in a constitutional change supported by Mr. Erdogan’s government in a referendum in 2010.
“With this legislation, the government is launching an operation of revenge against the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors,” Hikmet Sami Turk, a former justice minister from a leftist opposition party, said in an interview. “The prime minister has regarded the graft probe as a judicial coup against his government, so now, with this legislation, his government launches a countercoup against the judiciary.”
But Bekir Bozdag, the current justice minister, was quoted by CNN Turk television on Wednesday as saying that the draft legislation was compatible with the Constitution, and that the High Council in its current form had too much power. “Even the Parliament does not have the power and authority that the council has,” Mr. Bozdag said.
The government also demoted or reassigned police chiefs in 15 cities and the deputy head of Turkey’s police force, the police said in a statement on Wednesday. The latest removals came after around 350 Turkish police officers in Ankara, the capital, were reassigned on Tuesday in the largest single overhaul of the police force since the corruption inquiry came to light last month. The government had already removed more than a dozen high-ranking police officials.
On Wednesday, Zekeriya Oz, the former chief prosecutor of Istanbul, who began the investigation and was eventually dismissed under government pressure, said he had been threatened by two men from the prime minister’s office who had demanded that he write a letter of apology to Mr. Erdogan, The Hurriyet Daily News reported.
Mr. Erdogan’s office quickly denied Mr. Oz’s allegation. “It is out of discussion that our prime minister would have sent some people from senior judiciary, or anybody else, regarding the matter,” the semiofficial Anadolu Agency said late Wednesday, citing unidentified officials from Mr. Erdogan’s office. “This claim, as in our prime minister’s own words, is outright slander.”
Efforts by the government that are apparently aimed at stymieing the inquiry threaten Turkey’s prospects of joining the European Union. The government’s proposal to expand its authority over judges and prosecutors drew criticism from a senior European official.
The official, Nils Muiznieks, commissioner for human rights on the Council of Europe, wrote on Twitter, “Proposals to curb powers of High Council of Judges and Prosecutors represent serious setback for the independence of the judiciary in Turkey.” The Council of Europe is a governmental group founded in 1949 to promote human rights on the Continent.
Turkey has been struggling to restart its negotiations to become part of the 28-member union, even as it shifts its focus toward its restive Middle Eastern neighbors. Current members of the union express doubts about admitting a large Muslim country like Turkey, and their doubts were further fanned last summer during the Erdogan administration’s bloody clampdown on protesters in Taksim Square in Istanbul.
The crisis also threatens to undermine the country’s economy by, among other things, alarming foreign investors when inflation is already rising and the Turkish lira has fallen. Fitch Ratings warned on Tuesday that the corruption scandal could damage Turkey’s credit rating and economic stability. The finance minister, Mehmet Simsek, said the inquiry could undermine short-term growth.
Any economic fallout would be a particular blow to Mr. Erdogan, who has sought to build economic ties with Europe and the Middle East and to fashion Turkey as a regional economic powerhouse attractive to foreign investors.
Turkey’s main opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, said on Tuesday that Mr. Erdogan would eventually face judgment for his role in the scandal. He added that the prime minister was pushing the bounds of his authority by seeking to expand the government’s role in appointing judges and prosecutors.
“He can’t have such an authority. He can’t judge. Judges do this,” Mr. Kilicdaroglu told a parliamentary group meeting of his Republican People’s Party, according to The Hurriyet Daily News.
Hugh Pope, a leading expert on Turkey, said in an interview with Strategic Europe, a journal of the research institute Carnegie Europe, that the corruption crisis could, paradoxically, help foster a more constructive foreign policy in Turkey as Mr. Erdogan seeks to offset internal turmoil by repairing frayed relations with countries like Iran and Iraq. He has also set the stage to end a bitter feud with Israel that had dismayed the United States.
US military veterans 'frustrated' by Falluja standoff
• 100 Americans died and 1,000 wounded in city during war
• Al-Qaida gains in city a bitter disappointment for many
Associated Press in San Diego
theguardian.com, Wednesday 8 January 2014 20.04 GMT
Shirley Parrello knows that her youngest boy believed in his mission in Iraq. But as she watches Iraqi government forces try to retake the hard-won city of Falluja from al-Qaida-linked fighters, she can't help wondering if it was worth Marine Lance Cpl Brian Parrello's sacrifice.
"I'm starting to feel that his death was in vain," the West Milford, New Jersey woman said of her 19-year-old son, who died in an explosion there on January 1, 2005. "I'm hoping that I'm wrong. But things aren't looking good over there right now."
The 2004 image of two charred American bodies hanging from a bridge as a jubilant crowd pelted them with shoes seared the city's name into the American psyche. The brutal house-to-house battle to tame the Iraqi insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad cemented its place in US military history.
But while many are disheartened at Falluja's recent fall to Islamist forces, others try to place it in the context of Iraq's history of internal struggle since the ouster of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. And they don't see the reversal as permanent.
"I'm very disappointed right now, very frustrated," says retired Marine Col Mike Shupp, who commanded the regimental combat team that secured the city in late 2004. "But this is part of this long war, and this is just another fight, another battle in this long struggle against terrorism and oppression."
Former scout sniper Earl J Catagnus Jr fought and bled in the taking of that ancient city on the banks of the Euphrates River. Now a military historian, Catagnus feels the battle has taken on an almost disproportionate importance in the American mind.
"If you watch 'NCIS' or anything that has a Marine ... they always say, 'Oh, I was in Falluja,'" says the Purple Heart recipient, who left the military as a staff sergeant in 2006 and is now an assistant professor of history at Valley Forge Military Academy & College in Wayne, Pennsylvania. "For the new generation, it's because everybody keeps mentioning it. And that is the battle that really made a warrior a warrior. ... It's just for us as Americans, because we've elevated that battle to such high standards ... that it becomes turned into the 'lost cause,' the Vietnam War syndrome."
Falluja: the battle that made a warrior a warrior
In the annals of the Marine Corps, the battle for Falluja looms large. The fighting there began in April 2004 after four security contractors from Blackwater USA were killed and the desecrated bodies of two were hung from a bridge. The so-called second battle of Falluja — code-named Operation Phantom Fury — came seven months later.
For several bloody weeks, the Marines went house-to-house in what has been called some of the heaviest urban combat involving the Corps since the Battle of Hue City, Vietnam, in 1968. Historian Richard Lowry, who interviewed nearly 200 veterans of the Iraq battle, likens it to "a thousand SWAT teams going through the city, clearing criminals out."
"They entered darkened rooms, kicking down doors, never knowing if they would find an Iraqi family hunkered down in fear or an Islamist terrorist waiting to shoot them and kill them," says Lowry, author of the book "New Dawn: The Battles for Falluja."
About 100 Americans died and another 1,000 were wounded during the major fighting there, Lowry says, adding that it's difficult to overstate Falluja's importance in the Iraq war.
"Up until that time, the nation was spiraling into anarchy, totally out of control," says Lowry, a Vietnam-era submarine veteran. "The United States Marine Corps — with help from the Army and from the Iraqis — went into Falluja and cleared the entire city and brought security to Anbar Province, allowing the Iraqis to hold their first successful election."
And that is why the al-Qaida takeover is such a bitter disappointment for many.
Former Marine Lance Cpl Garrett Anderson's unit lost 51 members in the city. When he considers whether the fighting was in vain, it turns his stomach.
"As a war fighter and Marine veteran of that battle, I feel that our job was to destroy our enemy. That was accomplished at the time and is why our dead will never be in vain. We won the day and the battle," said the 28-year-old, who now studies filmmaking in Portland, Oregon. "If Marines were in that city today there would be dead Qaida all over the streets again, but the reality is this is only the beginning of something most people who have been paying attention since the war began knew was going to end this way."
On Tuesday, the site duffelblog.com posted a satirical column about two former Marines raising $1,300 on Kickstarter to go back and retake the city in time for the battle's tenth anniversary.
"We paid for that city and we're keeping it!" one fictional commenter tells the site.
The piece had more than 30,000 Facebook likes by Wednesday.
Lowry says the US "abandoned" the region's Sunnis, paving the way for a Shiite-led government that has "gotten into bed with the Iranians." He adds: "There is a polarization returning between the Shiites and the Sunnis ... and it's spreading."
Catagnus and others say the situation is more nuanced than that.
A sergeant with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines at the time, Catagnus was gearing up to go out when insurgents detonated the improvised bomb about eight feet away. Despite a concussion and shrapnel wounds to his face, he never left the line. 'This is the time for Iraq to come forward. We gave them all the tools'
While conceding that the battle helped change doctrine for urban warfare, he thinks Falluja has become politicized — especially here at home.
"There's a lot of fiery language around it," he says. "I do not see this as the culmination of the failure of all of our efforts — yet."
Roman Baca, who served in Falluja for about eight months as a sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserves, says it's hard for him to hear people question the military's work there. During his time, his machine gun platoon spent many of its days patrolling local villages, delivering school supplies to students and food and water.
The 39-year-old New York City man returned to Iraq last year to conduct a dance workshop. He's most worried about what the outbreak of violence means for the Iraqis.
"You think of those kids in the villages that were so young who are now either teenagers or in their 20s," he says. "What does it mean for them? What does it mean for the interpreters who were in danger then and are in danger again because they helped the Americans and their cause?"
For some veterans, the reversal of fortunes in Anbar, while unfortunate, is hardly surprising.
David R Franco survived a roadside bomb blast outside Falluja in 2005. The retired Marine suffers from back pain, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments that send him to doctors and psychologists regularly.
"To me, it was just a matter of time for it to happen again and for al-Qaida to go back in there," said the 53-year-old veteran of Moorpark, California, who retired as a sergeant major. "It'll be a constant thing." Still, Franco — whose son was also wounded in Iraq — says it was worth it.
So does Nick Popaditch.
On April 7, 2004, Popaditch's tank was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade as he rolled through the city. Shrapnel tore through his sinuses and destroyed his right eye — now strikingly replaced by a prosthetic bearing the Marine Corps logo.
The gunnery sergeant's actions earned him a Silver Star and Purple Heart, but cost him his career. The San Diego-area man is studying to be a high school math teacher, and he refuses to second-guess the recent events in Iraq.
"There's a lot of downtrodden people there who got a shot at a free life, at freedom," says Popaditch, 46, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2012. "And if the bad guys come back into control, that's not something I can control 8,000 miles away here. I'm just proud of the fact that when it came time to stand and fight for those things, those concepts of freedom, liberty, human rights ... I'm glad my nation did it."
For his part, Shupp, the former colonel, is convinced that many of those holding sway in Falluja aren't al-Qaida, but simply "armed thugs." Even before the US-led invasion, many Iraqis considered the city a "crossroads of criminal activity," and his troops were never meant to be "an army of occupation."
"It's one of the lifetime struggles of good versus bad," says Shupp, who now works as a defense lobbyist in Washington, DC. "And this is the time for Iraq to come forward. We gave them all the tools. We gave them the ability to fight these guys."
India cracks down on U.S. embassy as deadline nears for envoy’s indictment
By Jason Burke, The Guardian
Wednesday, January 8, 2014 21:26 EST
India says U.S. embassy must cease commercial activities benefiting non-diplomats, after Indian envoy’s arrest in New York
India has ratcheted up the pressure on U.S. diplomats in Delhi as the deadline nears for the indictment of an Indian envoy in New York charged with visa fraud and underpaying a maid.
Washington has been told that restaurants and other facilities at the social club in its Delhi embassy will have to close to non-diplomats and that inquiries into the tax affairs of U.S. staff will be pursued aggressively.
The arrest last month of Devyani Khobragade, the Indian deputy consul general in New York, enraged Indians and has prompted the biggest crisis in relations between Delhi and Washington for many years.
Tensions rose further when the prosecutor handling the case in New York issued a hard-hitting statement accusing Delhi of turning a blind eye to exploitation of domestic workers serving its envoys overseas.
The latest move is “simply in line with a policy of strict reciprocity”, a senior Indian official said.
It was announced later on Wednesday that the U.S. energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, would no longer travel to India as planned next week.
“I can confirm that Secretary Moniz is no longer traveling to India next week,” an energy department official told Reuters. “We have been in conversation with Indian counterparts about the dates, and we have agreed to hold the dialogue in the near future at a mutually convenient date.”
Though John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, has expressed his “regret” for Khobragade’s arrest, this falls far short of the full apology that India wants.
“The exact words aren’t important. But either this was a mistake or a clear indication of how little they value their relationship with India. If it was a mistake, they can say sorry and we can move on,” the official said.
Delhi has demanded that all charges be withdrawn and has transferred Khobragade, 39, to its mission at the United Nations. This theoretically gives her full diplomatic immunity, but also implies a change in immigration status which has to be allowed by the U.S. state department.
Khobragade, 39, is accused of declaring on visa documents that she would pay the nanny she brought from India the minimum wage in New York, and then making her work long hours for a fraction of the agreed rate. Freed on payment of a $250,000 bond, she is due in court on 13 January and could face a maximum sentence of 10 years if convicted.
Her lawyer is believed to have applied for the date by which the diplomat has to be charged to be pushed back to allow discussions with prosecutors.
The U.S. embassy club is based in a vast compound located on embassy grounds in the centre of Delhi, and boasts a swimming pool, baseball pitch, stores selling imported U.S. products and a number of restaurants. Along with the American Embassy School, it is central to the social life of families of many expatriate employees of U.S. corporations in India.
“The use by non-diplomats is contrary to [diplomatic] conventions and we believe raises an issue of tax evasion,” the Indian official said.
India had already curtailed privileges offered to U.S. diplomats to bring them in line with the treatment of Indian envoys to the United States. Since December, the U.S. ambassador in Delhi can be subjected to airport frisking and most consular staff have reduced levels of immunity.
Concrete security barriers were removed from a road near the embassy last month, apparently in retaliation for the loss of a parking spot for the Indian ambassador in Washington.
India is also preparing to take steps against the embassy school, which it suspects may be employing some staff in violation of visa requirements, government sources told Reuters.
Indian diplomats recently received support from one slightly unlikely quarter – their hostile neighbour Pakistan. “In the entire world, there is only one way … the Vienna convention ought to be respected in letter and spirit by everybody,” Salman Bashir, the outgoing Pakistan high commissioner, said this week.
The arrest of Khobragade touches a range of sensitivities in India. Almost all middle-class households in India employ at least one, and often several, members of staff who will undertake tasks from cleaning and cooking to childcare and driving.
With few Indian diplomats paid wages that would allow them to legally employ local staff to perform such functions in postings in the west, the practice has long been for Indian workers to be flown out and paid rates that, if illegal in U.S. and elsewhere, would be generous at home.
Preet Bharara, the prosecutor in Khobragade’s case, said last month: “In fact the Indian government itself has been aware of this legal issue, and that its diplomats and consular officers were at risk of violating the law. The question then may be asked: is it for U.S. prosecutors to look the other way, ignore the law and the civil rights of victims … or is it the responsibility of the diplomats and consular officers and their government to make sure the law is observed?”
However, the arrest has outraged Indian diplomats who say none of their colleagues have been treated in such a way since one was handcuffed during the Cultural Revolution in China.
“We have the support of the entire Indian society on this. We are a country of a billion people with a reputation for being independent in our world view but we believe in our relationship with the U.S. and that is why we are genuinely shocked,” said the Indian official.
There have been several previous incidents involving senior Indian diplomats in the U.S. and domestic staff brought from India. In 2011 the Indian consul general, Prabhu Dayal, was accused by his maid of forced labour and sexual harassment, charges he called “complete nonsense” and that were later dropped.
A year earlier a U.S. judge recommended that an Indian diplomat and her husband pay a maid nearly $1.5m in compensation for being forced to work without pay and suffering “barbaric treatment” in their luxury Manhattan apartment.
The outrage in India has been fuelled by politicians’ unwillingness to seem out of step with public mood with a general election only months away.
Relations between the U.S. and India have long been rocky, though steadily improving since a nadir in the 1970s. Barack Obama received a warm welcome on his visit in 2010. However, there remains deep suspicion of Washington in Delhi, and in India more generally, and many US officials see India as a difficult partner.
© Guardian News and Media 2014
01/08/2014 04:38 PM
Brand Expansion: China's Race to Conquer World Markets
By Wieland Wagner
Chinese firms have embarked on a quest to conquer the world market. Several have already done so, with the help of Western know-how. Established rivals are making the mistake of underestimating them -- until it's too late.
The name Haier, a leading Chinese brand for household goods, originates from Liebherr, the German company that set up a joint venture with a Chinese company almost three decades ago. Liebherr taught its partner to build modern fridges. It needed to, because 20 percent of the Chinese manufacturer's output at the time was faulty.
Haier boss Zhang Ruimin started out by handing his surprised workers sledgehammers to destroy all the malfunctioning fridges they had made. The shock therapy worked. The state-owned business started to expand its market share in China, where it acquired many smaller competitors. Then it went international, and now it has an 8 percent share of the world market for household appliances.
The Chinese brand (its advertising slogan is "Haier and Higher") is well established in Germany as well. The group has a research center in Nuremberg that develops dishwashers for the European market. It bought a fridge factory from Meneghetti in Italy and is building a plant in Poland -- due to go into operation in June -- in cooperation with a partner. Haier has achieved what many companies from emerging economies aim to do: The company from the eastern Chinese city of Qingdao has established itself as a global consumer brand. It has become a serious competitor for Western companies, even in their home markets.
"If a country has no global brand, it can't be on top," says Haier boss Zhang, inspiring other Chinese CEOs to follow his example.
The Far-Eastern firms have a major advantage: established competitors in the West usually don't take them seriously, in some cases until it's too late. Indian market expert Nirmalya Kumar warns that German firms must take care or they might find themselves as overwhelmed as they were by the assault by Japanese camera manufacturers decades ago.
"Chinese companies are growing more self-confident and are intensively pursuing the goal of establishing their brands in other countries," said the Munich Technical University in a recent study of "Chinese Champions." Chinese firms already produce high tech products that meet the highest standards, the study says.
China Wants to Shed Low-Tech Image
There are many such firms on the world market now, the best known being computer maker Lenovo, which acquired the PC division of US group IBM in 2005. Lenovo is rapidly expanding its product range and aims to be perceived not as a Chinese, but as a global brand.
The Chinese government is encouraging the expansion of its companies because it wants to shed the country's image as a cheap, low-tech manufacturing location and to turn it into a center of innovation. "Zou chu qu," loosely translated as "go out," is the message the country's Communist planners are sending to the Chinese business community.
Unlike many Chinese firms, Haier didn't start its international offensive in other emerging economies, but in the US and Europe. It first targeted niche markets neglected by Western manufaturers, like mini fridges and wine coolers.
Haier has quadrupled its worldwide sales to $26 billion since 2000, and its net profit has risen six-fold to $1.4 billion.
The firms need Western know-how to expand. Haier had Liebherr, while Pearl River Piano, now the world's biggest piano maker, had Yamaha. Half a century ago the company from the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou made just four pianos a month. Now it's 100,000. The company has a 15 percent market share in Europe. That was thanks to Yamaha. The Chinese entered a joint venture with the Japanese brand 20 years ago, and once they had accumulated enough knowhow, they dissolved the partnership. In 2000 they pushed their way onto the US market with low-cost pianos. Their instruments were around a third cheaper than Yamaha models.
But Pearl River Piano has been shedding its budget image. In 2005, it entered a cooperation with Steinway & Sons and now builds Essex brand pianos in Guangzhou for the premium American manufacturer.
In Germany, it bought the marketing rights of competitor Rittmüller and poached local piano builders.
Germany is an important focus of the Chinese offensive because it has scores of medium-sized businesses with valuable knowhow. Sany Group, the world's biggest construction machinery maker, bought German concrete pump builder Putzmeister for €525 million in 2012.
The next aim is to build world-class cars. But the Chinese first need to work on the quality of their vehicles. They have already selected a German teacher: Daimler recently took a stake in BAIC, the car division of Beijing Automotive Group. There is much speculation in China about BAIC returning the favor by purchasing a stake in the German luxury automaker.
01/08/2014 04:37 PM
Brand Expert Interview: 'The Chinese Have the Necessary Vision'
Twenty years ago, China exported six cars. Last year it exported a million. Marketing expert Nirmalya Kumar speaks to SPIEGEL about the impending global ascent of brands from emerging economies.
SPIEGEL: Professor Kumar, in your recent book, you predict the breakout of future world brands from emerging markets, particularly from China. Are you not a bit premature? Even in Asia, the newly rich prefer Western brand icons like Apple or Armani to cheap local labels.
Kumar: If I had told you 25 years ago that South Korean brands like Samsung or Hyundai would successfully enter Germany, you would have called me crazy. However, now the Chinese, too, are on the advance. The Germans should take care in order not be caught off guard like in the past by the offensive of Japanese camera makers.
SPIEGEL: The advantage of the Chinese has long been in their cheap labor costs. German producers, on the other hand, stand for quality. Are they not well prepared for advances from the East?
Kumar: Chinese brands like Haier follow the same strategy as Toyota did: The Japanese automaker first produced in its own country, then it built factories throughout the world as well as bases for research and development in central markets. Finally, it also attacked in the luxury segment -- with the "Lexus." To be sure, Chinese car makers still lag behind, but they are slowly catching up, especially in the emerging markets. Twenty years ago China exported six cars, last year it exported one million cars.
SPIEGEL: Does this mean we have to be concerned about BMW or Mercedes?
Kumar: These brands are alive primarily thanks to China's growing market. There, they are adapting to the needs of their customers. BMW and Mercedes remain relevant as luxury brands. Relatively, however, the balance will shift -- in favor of new brands from the emerging markets.
SPIEGEL: And why haven't the Indians moved ahead with global brands?
Kumar: Indian companies face much higher barriers than Chinese ones: In order to make your brand known to Western customers you have to invest a lot of money in advertisement. The Chinese have the necessary vision and they have a home market which is four to five times as big as the Indian market. Profits generated in the domestic market finance their global offensives. What is more important, however: China is the only emerging market that has the ability to produce world class products. The Chinese produce for Bosch, for Apple, for Ericsson. But when they want to develop their own brands, they only have to put their own label on it.
SPIEGEL: Or they just buy Western brands. How important are brands still as a tool for consumers to judge products? Jaguar and Land Rover, for example, once stood for British tradition; now both brands belong to the Indian Tata group.
Kumar: Brands are not being defined by their country of origin any longer. Of course, if I market champagne, the country of origin still plays a role. However, if you buy an iPhone from Apple you don't think "Made in China." And if you drive a Jaguar or Land Rover you don't care about its Indian owner Tata or that the CEO of Jaguar Land Rover Automotive is a German. What matters to the consumer is whether the brand keeps what it promises.
SPIEGEL: Still, Western consumers are still skeptical when they see "Made in China" written on a product.
Kumar: Sure, during the past 40 years China defined itself by the cheap label "Made in China." In the coming 30 years, however, the world will more and more define itself by the label "Owned by China." China will own many global companies and important resources across the world.
China will work with Ghana to tackle illegal gold mining
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, January 8, 2014 19:00 EST
China’s foreign minister on Wednesday said Beijing was tackling illegal gold mining in Ghana, after hundreds of his compatriots were arrested and sent home for extracting the mineral without permission.
Wang Yi, on a four-nation tour of Africa, told reporters after meeting his Ghanaian counterpart Hannah Tetteh in Accra that China took the issue “very seriously”.
But he urged both countries to work more closely together to crack down further on the problem.
Improvements had already been made, he said through a translator, calling for increased cooperation to make the sector “more standardised, orderly and sustainable”.
“The Chinese government will encourage reputable and equitable finance companies to come to Ghana to be involved in the resource sector and we hope the government of Ghana will provide the support and facilitation to these companies,” he added.
Illegal mining in Ghana, particularly of gold, has become a major issue and also raised concerns about water pollution and environmental damage.
Last year hundreds of people, most of them from China, were detained as the government began enforcing a law barring foreign nationals from engaging in small-scale mining operations.
Ghana is Africa’s second-largest gold producer after South Africa and Chinese nationals in particular have flocked to the country in search of the yellow metal and their fortune.
Some Chinese, many of them from Shanglin county in Guangxi province which also has a tradition of gold mining, have agreed to leave voluntarily although others have been repatriated.
China is scouting for new markets, particularly in Africa, to fund and fuel its growing economy, with oil and natural resources high on its list.
The Asian giant is one of the largest infrastructure investors in Ghana, which is an emerging oil producer and has enjoyed high growth rates in recent years.
China said its exports to Ghana in 2012 stood at $4.79 billion, up from $3.11 billion in the previous 12 months, while imports nearly doubled in the same period from $363.2 million to $643.6 million.
Wang began his Africa tour this week in Ethiopia and Djibouti. After Ghana he is due to visit Senegal.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks at a press conference in Algiers on December 21, 2013 during an official visit.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Australian PM Abbott defends secrecy over border policies
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, January 8, 2014 21:16 EST
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott defended the government’s secrecy over its border protection polices Thursday after reports that boats had been turned back to Indonesia and asylum-seekers mistreated.
Under the conservative government’s hardline Operation Sovereign Borders, officials refuse to discuss “operational matters”.
This has meant reports that at least one boat has been forcibly turned or towed back to Indonesia and that members of the Australian navy subjected those on board to verbal and physical mistreatment have not been addressed.
The government has also refused to confirm or deny that it was planning to buy 16 hard-hulled lifeboats to ferry asylum-seekers to Indonesia, sparking claims from the Labor opposition that it was overseeing a “Stalinist”-style media blackout.
Abbott said he would rather be “a closed book” and have the boats stop arriving in Australian waters than provide a running commentary as “sport for public discussion.”
“I’d rather be criticised for being a bit of a closed book on this issue and actually stop the boats,” he told Sydney commercial radio.
“The point is not to provide sport for public discussion. The point is to stop the boats.
“I’m pleased to say it is now several weeks since we’ve had a boat, and the less we talk about operational details on the water, the better when it comes to stopping the boats.”
His comments follow claims by an asylum-seeker to AFP on Wednesday suggesting people on a boat towed back to Indonesia, which is the major transit point for would-be refugees to Australia, had been mistreated by the Australian navy.
Yousif Ibrahim from Sudan, claimed they were handcuffed, called insulting names, and one person was beaten with shoes after their vessel was intercepted and towed for four days back towards Indonesia, arriving at Rote Island on Monday.
“We asked for water, they didn’t want to give us. They called us inhuman words, like illegal refugees, monkeys from Africa,” he told AFP, adding that two sick children were denied medicine.
Australia’s tough policies aimed at stemming the flow of asylum boats — a key plank of Abbott’s successful 2013 election campaign — have irked Jakarta, which has warned that turning boats back could breach Indonesian territorial sovereignty.
Tensions between the neighbours have been strained for months after a diplomatic row erupted in November over claims Canberra tried to tap the phones of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and ministers.
Abbott on Thursday described Australia’s relationship with Indonesia as “strong” and marked by “a lot of cooperation and mutual understanding”.
He said he understood Indonesia’s concern for its sovereignty “but when these boats keep coming illegally to our country, that is a sovereignty issue for us”.
“It’s absolutely non-negotiable — these boats will stop, these boats must stop, and we will do whatever is necessary, consistent with our international obligations and ordinary decency, to stop the boats,” he said.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Central African Republic president to step down
Former rebel leader Michel Djotodia will relinquish role amid concern over continuing sectarian violence, sources say
Reuters in Bangui and Paris
theguardian.com, Wednesday 8 January 2014 17.37 GMT
Central African Republic's interim president, Michel Djotodia, is due to step down at a summit of regional leaders on Thursday amid frustration at his failure to quell religious violence in his country, diplomatic and political sources said.
"It's finished for him now," said a source close to Djotodia, who said he was due to step aside at the summit on Thursday in the Chadian capital N'Djamena.
A senior French diplomatic source and political sources in Bangui said Central African leaders led by Chad's Idriss Déby had run out of patience with Djotodia, who seized power in March as the head of the Seleka rebels.
French and African troops deployed in the country have struggled to stop tit-for-tat violence between the Muslim Seleka rebels and Christian militias. More than 1,000 people died in clashes in December.
Djotodia, installed as interim president under a deal with regional African states, has been powerless to halt the bloodshed, which has displaced about 1 million people and stirred fears of a repeat of Rwanda's 1994 genocide.
"A political stabilisation of the country is imperative," the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, told Le Parisien newspaper on Wednesday.
He declined to answer when asked if Djotodia could stay as president, saying: "It is envisaged that the countries of the region will meet on Thursday to take decisions."
The meeting will discuss the various options for continuing the transition. The presidents of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon, who are mediating in the crisis, would then convene a meeting to discuss the transition in Bangui on 11 January, diplomatic sources said.
Syrian Rebels Deal Qaeda-Linked Group a Reversal
By BEN HUBBARDJAN. 8, 2014
BEIRUT, Lebanon — For months, the patchwork of rebel brigades spread across northern Syria watched with foreboding as a new group gradually expanded its control, filling a vacuum left by nearly three years of war.
The group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which is linked to Al Qaeda and known as ISIS, seemed less interested in fighting President Bashar al-Assad than in imposing its ultraconservative version of Islam, antigovernment activists said. It banned smoking, ousted other rebels from their bases, and detained and executed those it decided were opposed to its international jihadist project.
Last week, mounting tensions between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and other rebel groups exploded into clashes that have raged across northern Syria, left hundreds dead and further shattered the battle lines in a conflict that is increasingly destabilizing neighboring countries. Rebel fighters have driven the group from a number of areas in recent days, and on Wednesday they ejected it from its headquarters in the major city of Aleppo, dealing the group a sharp reversal.
The rebel infighting is by far the most widespread and deadly among Mr. Assad’s opponents since the start of the conflict nearly three years ago. It also highlights the divide between international efforts to convene a peace conference in Geneva on Jan. 22 and events on the ground.
The White House has worked to ensure the attendance at the conference of the opposition’s political leadership, the Syrian National Coalition. But that rebel group has stood by helplessly as violence has engulfed the territory where it had hoped to establish an alternative to Mr. Assad’s government. Its mostly exiled leaders have no sway over fighters in Syria.
While the rebels have recently been gaining on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, their victory in Aleppo was quickly tempered by the discovery of dozens of prisoners found dead in the building’s courtyard, their hands tied and their eyes blindfolded, as if they had been executed by the group’s fighters as they withdrew, according to activists and videos of the site posted online.
Neither of the two sides in the rebel fighting presents a particularly attractive face to Western policy makers. The rebel brigades have become profoundly Islamist as the war has dragged on, and many mainline rebel leaders now consider the advancement of Sunni Islam and the foundation of an Islamic state goals of equal importance to the ousting of Mr. Assad.
Besides its affiliation with Al Qaeda and its espousal of a violent form of Islam, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria seeks to erase the border between Syria and Iraq and build an Islamic state that will serve as a base for international jihad. The group is the main destination for the foreign fighters who have flocked to Syria to join the war.
Further complicating the rebel landscape is the Nusra Front, one of Syria’s most powerful rebel groups, which has also declared allegiance to Al Qaeda but whose fighters have remained closer to Syria’s other rebel organizations. The Nusra Front has fought alongside other rebel groups against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in recent days.
The difference between the two Qaeda affiliates has more to do with their approach than with their way of thinking, analysts say. “Their ideologies are very much the same, but Nusra is really embedding itself in the Islamic landscape, working with other groups and trying to compromise, while ISIS has been doing the opposite, which is why they have no more friends,” said Aron Lund, a researcher who edits a website on the Syria conflict for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
On Tuesday, in an audio recording released online, the Nusra Front’s leader called for a cease-fire and the creation of an Islamic court to mediate disputes. In a second recording released Tuesday and attributed to a spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the group threatened to “crush” its enemies.
Rebel anger had been building for months, but most hesitated to challenge the group.
“The rebels avoided confronting ISIS in the beginning because they didn’t want to be distracted from fighting the regime,” the activist Abdul-Rahman Ismael said by Skype from Aleppo. “They hoped that ISIS would help topple the regime but found otherwise, so it became necessary to fight ISIS before fighting the regime.”
The recent infighting here is attributed by many to the death of a rebel doctor, Hussein Suleiman, who was detained by the group and returned to his colleagues last week with bullet holes in his shoulder and the top of his head missing. Photos and videos of the dead doctor spread on social media, fueling the outrage.
Subsequent episodes further outraged the rebels: One of their leaders, detained by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, was found dead on the side of a road, and fighters from the group seized a former Syrian Army base that rebels had been using since last year. The fighting has produced grim scenes reminiscent of government killings of opposition activists earlier in the war.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Wednesday that at least 385 people had been killed in five days of rebel infighting, including 56 civilians. The group, which tracks the conflict from Britain through a network of contacts in Syria, also said rebels had killed more than 40 fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in Idlib Province.
Opposition activists who have compared the group’s heavy-handed tactics to those of Mr. Assad’s government were glad to see it pushed from Aleppo. One of them, who goes by the nom de guerre of Abu Fatih, said the group’s fighters accused him and his colleagues of being heretics, evicted them from their office and barred them from smoking in the street.
“Now my neighborhood has been liberated twice,” he said. “Once from the regime and the second time from ISIS.”
Prison Violence Brings Scrutiny to State in Brazil
By SIMON ROMEROJAN. 8, 2014
SÃO PAULO, Brazil — A series of violent episodes at an overcrowded prison, and video showing inmates gloating over three decapitation victims during a riot there in December, are focusing scrutiny on the deteriorating security situation in Maranhão State, the bastion of one of Brazil’s most powerful political families.
Nearly 60 inmates were killed in 2013 at the Pedrinhas prison in Maranhão, an impoverished state governed by Roseana Sarney, the daughter of former President José Sarney. A judge investigating conditions at Pedrinhas said in December that the leaders of criminal gangs operating in the prison were raping inmates’ wives during conjugal visits.
Security forces tried to assert control at the end of December, prompting a brutal response by some inmates, who apparently ordered retaliatory attacks on Friday outside the prison walls. Gunfire was sprayed at a police station and at least four buses were burned in the state capital, São Luís. A 6-year-old girl who was aboard one of the buses died from burn injuries.
The graphic video of the decapitation victims, who were killed during a riot at Pedrinhas on Dec. 17, was apparently recorded by an inmate with a cellphone. The union representing prison workers in Maranhão obtained the images and provided them to a leading Brazilian newspaper, Folha de São Paulo, which made the video available on its website.
“You need to adjust the focus,” one prisoner is heard telling another in the video, before the camera shows three beheaded corpses on a blood-splattered floor.
Facing an outburst of criticism from human rights groups over the conditions at the prison and an overall surge in violent crime in Maranhão, Ms. Sarney’s administration issued a statement lashing out at the newspaper for circulating the video, calling the move “sensationalist.”
In an interview published on Sunday by O Estado do Maranhão, a newspaper controlled by the Sarney family, Ms. Sarney attributed the prison crisis to delays in the country’s legal system that lengthen the time inmates spend in prison, and to prison guards’ resistance to plans to change how Maranhão’s prisons are managed.
Officially, Pedrinhas has space for 1,700 inmates, but it currently has more than 2,200. In October, a battle between rival gangs at the prison left 13 inmates dead. Brazil’s Justice Ministry said on Wednesday that Maranhão had transferred 22 Pedrinhas inmates who were deemed especially dangerous to federal prisons, in an attempt to regain control of the facility.
Beyond the violence at Pedrinhas and rights activists’ claims that the authorities have been slow to build new prisons, Maranhão is struggling with a surge in homicides: Murders in São Luís more than quintupled over the last decade. The ratio of police officers to residents in Maranhão is among the lowest of any Brazilian state.
On Wednesday, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called for an investigation into the prison violence there.
Brazilian human rights groups say the violence at Pedrinhas could spread to other prisons. Brazil’s prison population is among the world’s largest, with about 550,000 inmates after a surge in incarcerations over the last two decades. The number of inmates has more than quadrupled since the early 1990s, while the population has risen about 30 percent.
“The tragedy in Pedrinhas was foretold and could be repeated at any time in other complexes facing the same problems,” said Lucia Nader, executive director of Conectas, a Brazilian rights group.
Venezuela: beauty queen and Briton killed in world's fourth deadliest nation
Former Miss Venezuela Mónica Spear and ex-husband Henry Berry murdered in roadside attack
Virginia López in Caracas and Jonathan Watts
theguardian.com, Wednesday 8 January 2014 20.56 GMT
She was a Venezuelan actor, former beauty queen and campaigner for greater awareness of Asperger's syndrome. He was an idealistic Englishman who loved the outdoors and wanted to contribute to his adopted country by starting an eco-tourism business.
When Mónica Spear and Henry Berry married in 2009, they seemed exceptional – the perfect, beautiful couple.
Even when they went their separate ways last year, they appeared to have the ideal divorce – remaining friends, loving parents to their daughter Maya and travelling together.
But they were murdered together on a roadside in El Cambur, this week, in an event that is all too common in one of the most murderous countries on Earth.
A reconstruction of the events leading up to their deaths suggests the killing had nothing to do with Spear's celebrity.
This was just another messy murder of the type that normally goes unreported because they happen so frequently in Venezuela.
The couple were on their way back to Caracas after an idyllic trip with their daughter to some of Venezuela's most beautiful locations.
In her last postings on Instagram and Twitter, Spear posed for pictures with the Warao tribe on the remote Orinoco Delta. The next day, she was boating on the Mucubaji lagoon in the Andes.
And then on Sunday – the day before her death – she went riding at dawn in the flatlands of Apure state.
In a poignant clip Spear is on horseback gazing back at the camera with the eyes that earned her the title as one of the five most beautiful women in the universe.
She then turns away and rides on before glancing back over her shoulder to blow a kiss.
Those dreamy scenes have since been played and replayed by thousands of shocked fans and friends since news broke on Monday night that the couple had been murdered in front on their five-year-old daughter.
They had been driving in an ordinary Toyota Corolla on the road between Puero Cabello and Valencia, the third biggest city in Venezuela.
Traffic would have been light and it was late – after 10pm – so they would have wanted to get to their destination as quickly as possible even if they were not aware of the reputation of the road for violent crime.
The Interregional del Centro highway has been identified by the public transport union as a hotspot for assaults. At least eight different gangs are thought to be responsible for a long list of attacks, ranging from robbing trucks to assault and murder. Local media say there are about 10 incidents per month.
A common tactic is to place glass or other sharp objects in a plastic bag on the road to puncture tyres and force drivers to pull over. That appears to have been the case for Berry and Spear.
Police say their car hit an object that blew out at least two of the tyres, forcing them to pull over on to the hard shoulder and call for assistance on a mobile phone.
The prospect of waiting on that dark, remote stretch of road must have seemed terrifying, though help arrived quite quickly when a tow truck pulled over to offer assistance within minutes.
Any relief the family felt proved short-lived. Assailants turned up just as the truck was about to leave. A deadly standoff followed. The details are still hazy, but police believe the couple were shot when they refused to unlock their doors.
"The vehicle was already on the tow truck when they were surprised by five people who shot at them after they noticed the couple were about to leave," said Commissioner José Gregorio Sierralta, the head of the intelligence unit.
The attackers fired five or six shots. Police pictures show bullet holes in the car windows. "They fired with viciousness," President Nicolás Maduro said of the attackers.
Spear was hit several times through the armpit, Berry in the chest and Maya in the leg. By the time the emergency services arrived, Spear and Berry had died of their wounds.
Maya is now in a hospital in Caracas, where she is said to be in a stable condition and receiving support from her surviving family – Spear's parents, who are based in Florida, are with her.
Berry's father – a retired mathematics professor from Ireland – and mother, who live in Caracas, are also with her and her aunt is on her way from her home in Edinburgh.
The tow truck operators are being questioned by police as primary witnesses.
According to the driver, he stopped to assist Spear when he saw her calling for help. He and his assistant loaded the car on to the truck but the attackers then leapt out from the bushes and started firing at them.
The driver says he ran a mile and a half to get help. His assistant fled into the undergrowth.
Police in Puerto Cabello have detained six members of a gang known as Los Rapiditos (the Quick Ones), who are known to operate in the area.
They include two minors and two women. Investigators have impounded the car for forensic tests.
Maduro has promised to put the full power of the state behind the investigation. The murders have already prompted demonstrations, angry barbs from the opposition and drawn global attention to the country's alarmingly unsafe society.
According to a 2010 UN report, Venezuela is among the four most murderous countries in the world, surpassed only by Honduras, El Salvador and Jamaica.
But its indicators for poverty and social inequality are nowhere close to those of the other countries with similar murder rates.
The Venezuelan government has stopped reporting on murder rates for close to a decade now. According to a recent report by the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence, a little more than 24,000 people were killed in 2013 in Venezuela, a 14% rise on 2012. That is 79 people per 100,000.
The minister of interior and justice, Miguel Rodríguez Torres, puts the figure at 39 per 100,000 and claims murder rates were reduced by 17.3%, but stories of armed robbery, kidnapping and drug battles are alarmingly common.
Berry had been a victim of violence several years earlier, when he was shot in an attack that killed one of his friends.
The experience left him scarred and he briefly left the country, but friends said he was too fond of Venezuela to stay away.
"He was so in love with this country that he gave it another chance. He was always looking for ways to do something for his country, to show the rest of the world the beauty of this country.
"He loved this country and loved the nature of this country," said long-time friend and business partner Luis Carlos Dominguez.
"What happened is a tragedy but it is no less tragic than what happens to all Venezuelans. Unfortunately, Henry has become yet another statistic. He was contagiously optimistic but violence doesn't discriminate."
In the USA....United Surveillance America
30,000 people sign petition calling for Washington Post to disclose Amazon.com’s CIA ties
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, January 8, 2014 17:46 EST
More than 30,000 people have signed an online petition calling on The Washington Post to tell readers that Amazon, founded by its owner Jeff Bezos, does business with the CIA, activists behind the campaign said Wednesday.
RootsAction.org said it would deliver the petition at the newspaper’s downtown Washington headquarters next Wednesday, as it released an exchange of correspondence with executive editor Martin Baron.
The Post, which Bezos personally acquired in October, reports regularly on the US intelligence community — most recently with coverage of Edward Snowden’s revelations about electronic surveillance.
But RootsAction.org said it should be upfront about the fact that Amazon — which has no stake of its own in the Post — has a $600 million data storage contract with the Central Intelligence Agency and hopes to do more business with the agency in future.
“A basic principle of journalism is to acknowledge when the owner of a media outlet has a major financial relationship with the subject of coverage,” the petition states.
In the exchange, Baron said it would be “outside the norm” for the Post to mention Amazon every time it writes about the CIA, although it would do so in pieces about, for instance, CIA contracting practices.
He also cited the Post’s “very aggressive coverage of the intelligence community,” including the CIA’s hidden involvement in Colombia’s conflict with FARC rebels and Snowden’s disclosures about the National Security Agency (NSA).
“You can be sure neither the NSA nor the CIA has been pleased with publication of their secrets,” said the editor, who declined a request from the petition organizers for a face-to-face meeting.
“Neither Amazon nor Jeff Bezos was involved, nor ever will be involved, in our coverage of the intelligence community,” Baron said, adding: “We take ethics very seriously here at the Post.”
Asked for comment, a Post spokeswoman told AFP by email: “Marty’s responses speak for themselves.”
RootsAction.org describes itself as “the primary website operated by Action for a Progressive Future,” a left-leaning non-profit organization. Its founders include media critic Norman Solomon, who corresponded with Baron.
Grim Sequel to Iraq’s War
By PETER BAKERJAN. 8, 2014
WASHINGTON — For two years, President Obama has boasted that he accomplished what his predecessor had not. “I ended the war in Iraq,” he has told audience after audience. But a resurgence by Islamic militants in western Iraq has reminded the world that the war is anything but over.
What Mr. Obama ended was the United States military presence in Iraq, but the fighting did not stop when the last troops left in 2011; it simply stopped being a daily concern for most Americans. While attention shifted elsewhere, the war raged on and has now escalated to its most violent phase since the depths of the occupation.
The turn of events in a country that once dominated the American agenda underscores the approach of a president determined to keep the United States out of what he sees as the quagmires of the last decade. In places like Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya and Syria, Mr. Obama has opted for selective engagement and accepted that sometimes there will be bad results, but in his view not as bad as if the United States immersed itself more assertively in other people’s problems.
The president’s methods have come under new scrutiny in recent days with flags of Al Qaeda hoisted over Falluja and Ramadi, two names with deep resonance for a generation of American veterans who spilled blood there. And the criticism was fueled by a new memoir by former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates describing an ambivalent commander in chief who did not believe in his own military buildup in Afghanistan and wanted mainly to get out of Iraq.
“The vacuum of American leadership certainly is felt there,” said Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, who last visited Baghdad in August. “It felt as if the administration thought that Iraq was checked off the list and it’s time to move on. And because it was checked off the list, there really was no reason to maintain the kind of relationship that would have been helpful.”
Critics complain that Mr. Obama squandered the military success achieved by President George W. Bush’s 2007 troop “surge” and should have done more to persuade Baghdad to accept a residual American force beyond 2011. They say he should have been more active in restraining Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, whose Shiite leadership has alienated many Sunnis, fueling the latest uprising.
But if Mr. Obama has pulled back from Iraq and other global hot spots, so has the American public. The president’s decision to withdraw troops from Iraq remains popular in surveys, and even his strongest critics generally do not advocate sending ground forces back in. After years of crushing guerrilla warfare, Obama advisers argue the president has simply recalibrated American policy to be more realistic, and many Americans seem content to let Iraqis fight it out themselves.
“There was never a sense at the White House that this is a wrap, that we’ve somehow resolved all the conflict in the country and the U.S. could pull back,” said Julianne Smith, a former deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. who is now at the Center for a New American Security. But for all the effort, she added, “we have to be cleareyed about the limits of U.S. engagement.”
She continued: “At the end of the day, the United States does not control what happens in Iraq.”
Douglas Ollivant, a former national security aide to both Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama, said the administration could not have pushed Mr. Maliki to do more, while the Iraqi leader is “getting a bad rap” since he faces an active Qaeda insurgency. “At least they’re not fighting over us,” Mr. Ollivant said, now that the American presence is no longer an issue.
The strife in Iraq today has turned into part of a larger regional battlefield tied to the civil war next door in Syria. In recent months, American officials said, as many as 50 suicide bombers a month have slipped over the border into Iraq, greatly complicating the nature of the conflict. The Qaeda assaults in Falluja and Ramadi came after a year in which 7,800 civilians and 1,000 Iraqi security troops were killed in attacks, according to the United Nations, the highest levels in five years.
Some Republicans acknowledged the complicated set of dynamics at work. “Is there some responsibility for the United States for this chain of events? Yes,” said Representative Mac Thornberry of Texas, the vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “Is it the sole cause? No.”
Mr. Obama has made no public comment about the developments in the Iraqi province of Anbar, leaving the matter instead to Mr. Biden, his point person on Iraq. Mr. Biden called Mr. Maliki on Wednesday in their second conversation in three days, pressing for more outreach to disaffected Sunnis.
The administration is sending Hellfire missiles and surveillance drones to help Iraqi forces and has stepped up efforts to persuade the Senate to permit the lease and sale of Apache attack helicopters. Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the Democratic chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has held up the Apaches while demanding that they not be used against civilians and that Mr. Maliki take steps to stop Iran from supplying Syria’s military through Iraqi airspace.
After months of waiting, Mr. Menendez received an urgent call from William J. Burns, the deputy secretary of state, on Tuesday promising a response, and Mr. Menendez signaled Wednesday that he may lift his hold. “Provided these issues are sufficiently addressed, Chairman Menendez will be ready to move forward,” said his spokesman, Adam Sharon.
Even so, other senators may still be wary. “I think we have to be very careful,” said Senator Saxby Chambliss, the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee. “All of that could fall into the wrong hands.”
And even once it is approved, it could take months for the first of the leased Apaches to arrive, and pilots would need to be trained, officials said. More broadly, the administration has made it clear that Baghdad should not expect the United States to come to its rescue. Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized last weekend that “this is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis,” using the words “their fight” four more times in the course of comments to reporters.
The White House denies that it has neglected Iraq.
“It’s an important relationship that we have with the government of Iraq, with the Iraqi people, and our commitment to assisting them in this effort I think is represented both by the military assistance that we’re providing and speeding up but also by the kind of discourse that we have with Iraq’s leaders,” said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary.
Other officials said they have quietly helped guide Mr. Maliki’s response, intervening to stop him from launching an army assault on Ramadi, which they feared would only lead to a blood bath.
Instead, they encouraged him to reach out to Sunni tribal leaders and approve payments to those fighting Al Qaeda.
In doing so, they said, the Iraqi government and its allies have recaptured much of Ramadi in just a week. They hope to try something similar in Falluja, but conceded it is more of a challenge because the city has long been friendlier to Islamic extremists.
“In cases like this, we have to choose between the least bad options,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who just completed a long study of Iraq. “The whole idea that we have some magic wand hasn’t worked out all that well.”
Christie’s Carefully Devised, No-Nonsense Image in Peril
By MICHAEL BARBAROJAN. 8, 2014
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey has built a remarkable brand in Republican politics around a simple message: that his bluster and brashness, grating as they might be, were driven by a desire to transcend partisan rancor and petty politics in the service of the public good.
He would never let himself engage, he once pledged, in the “type of deceitful political trickery that has gone on in this state for much too long.”
But embarrassing revelations about his office’s role in shutting down some access lanes to the George Washington Bridge now imperil that carefully cultivated image. They suggest that the same elbows-out approach that the Christie administration brought to policy battles at the State House may have been deployed for a much less noble end — punishing an entire borough for its mayor’s sin of not embracing the governor’s re-election campaign.
For Mr. Christie, the timing of the blossoming scandal is dreadful, disrupting a highly anticipated plan to present the popular governor to the national electorate as a no-nonsense, bipartisan balm to a deeply divided federal government.
The usually verbose and swaggering Mr. Christie, who once mocked questions from reporters about the abrupt closing of lanes to the bridge, seemed at a loss for how to respond on Wednesday.
As the drip-drip of internal documents intensified, he hunkered down in his Trenton office, canceling his sole public event, postponing long-planned interviews with local reporters and waiting seven hours before issuing a written statement expressing his own anger over the matter.
But by the end of the day, both Democratic and Republican leaders were seizing on the case’s growing links to the governor’s office, zeroing in on crude emails in which one of the governor’s top deputies and a high-level Christie appointee at the Port Authority seemed to celebrate their role in creating gridlock for residents of Fort Lee, N.J.
On Thursday morning, Mr. Christie said he would hold a news conference at 11 a.m. to address the controversy.
Despite Mr. Christie’s claims to the contrary, many saw an inescapable link to the temperamental governor, whose emotional outbursts at those who challenge him in public are a hallmark of his governing style.
Several leading conservatives, long suspicious of Mr. Christie’s allegiance to their cause, seemed eager to pounce. “The point of the story is that Christie will do payback,” Rush Limbaugh said on his popular conservative radio show. “If you don’t give him what he wants, he’ll pay you back.”
The episode is tricky for Mr. Christie and his aides. His cantankerous manner and independent streak are essential to his White House ambitions; advisers view them as an asset in early primary states like New Hampshire that have a history of embracing blunt-talking politicians.
Now there is a new worry: that what once seemed like a refreshing forcefulness may come off as misguided bullying.
“We like mavericks here,” said Thomas D. Rath, a longtime political strategist in New Hampshire. “But there is a line.”
Mr. Christie has seemed on the verge of crossing that line in the past, like when he shouted down a voter at a town hall-style meeting in New Hampshire for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
The concept of a governor whose top aides mete out political revenge by triggering a giant traffic jam “could be a problem” for people in the state, said Mr. Rath, who has advised the Republican presidential campaigns of Bob Dole, George W. Bush and Mr. Romney.
Timeline of Events
Aug. 13, 2013
Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff to Gov. Chris Christie, emails David Wildstein, Mr. Christie’s close friend and appointee at the Port Authority, which controls the bridge. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” she wrote.
“Passion has to be tempered by courtesy,” he said. “It shouldn’t be about getting back at people.”
The recent contretemps is especially jarring because it revolves around nakedly partisan score-settling against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, the kind of behavior that Mr. Christie has forsworn at every turn.
Bipartisanship has become a byword of his administration, turning his news conferences into celebrations of his ability to reach across the aisle.
Christie has basked in his carefully cultivated image as a bully. Now that an act of bullying with real consequences has been exposed after...
“Our bipartisan accomplishments in New Jersey have helped set the tone that has taken hold across many other states,” Mr. Christie has said, and he routinely scolds lawmakers in Washington for failing to follow his lead.
Even if he played no direct role in the lane closures, his administration has lost some of its post-partisan luster. “It’s always hard for anti-politicians when voters find out they have to be politicians, too,” said Alex Castellanos, an adviser to Mr. Romney in his 2008 campaign.
And while thus far the story has only entangled the governor’s aides, and not the governor — the newly released emails included messages from Mr. Christie’s campaign manager and statehouse press secretary — any indication that his denials of involvement were less than truthful could do deep damage to his straight-shooting reputation.
Still, Mr. Castellanos said he doubted the controversy would inflict lasting harm to Mr. Christie’s reputation outside of New Jersey.
National Democrats did everything they could on Wednesday to ensure that it would. The Democratic National Committee blasted out a scorching Web video about the lane closures. It showed Mr. Christie indignantly denying that his staff had a hand in the decision, and the committee’s chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, played up the danger the road changes posed to families in the state.
The danger for Mr. Christie, according to Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, is that Republican Party donors on the fence about the governor will find new reasons to doubt his viability as the party’s standard-bearer.
“It plays into a narrative,” he said. “That party leaders and donors don’t know everything about Christie that they need to know.”
In New Jersey, there were already signs of a remade political landscape. A few days ago, the incoming speaker of the State Assembly, Vincent Prieto, stood side by side with Mr. Christie at an elementary school auditorium, praising him for collaborating with Democrats and Republicans on a piece of legislation.
On Wednesday, Mr. Prieto, a Democrat, issued a different kind of message: He vowed that the Legislature’s investigation into the lane closings would extend well into the new year.
John Boehner Tells His Biggest Lie Yet By Claiming Obama Obstructed House Jobs Bills
Wednesday, January, 8th, 2014, 2:32 pm
John Boehner Tells His Biggest Lie Yet By Claiming Obama Obstructed House Jobs Bills
Job-Killers of DCFor the past three years there have been three overriding policies Republicans have embraced as their raison d’être that includes attacking women, killing jobs, and demanding a ransom in exchange for a policy that kills jobs. Republicans waltzed into the House in 2011 promising Americans their primary focus was jobs, jobs, jobs, only to begin their war on women and introduce legislation that killed a million jobs. In fact, when Speaker of the House John Boehner was informed the Republican spending cuts would kill 1 million jobs he said, “so be it” as if he could not care less Republicans broke their pledge to voters and sent over a million Americans into unemployment lines. Not much has changed as Boehner said he would consider extending “emergency” unemployment benefits if Democrats and President Obama paid a ransom of passing every Republican so-called “job creation” legislation that failed to pass the Senate.
No-one with a brain expected House Republicans, or Senate Republicans for that matter, to reinstate unemployment benefits for 1.3 million out-of-work Americans without some kind of hostage payment, and although Boehner’s demands will never be paid, it is his contemptible assertion that House Republicans passed even one jobs bill over the past three years. In fact, for three years Republicans deliberately blocked legitimate job creation bills and deliberately killed millions and millions of jobs primarily through hostage taking. Whether it was austerity cuts in the 2011 debt ceiling crisis, the sequester, the government shutdown, food stamp cuts, or failing to extend unemployment benefits two weeks ago, Republicans are riding a three-year job-killing frenzy and still, Boehner has the temerity to claim House Republicans passed several job bills that he claims President Obama stood on the sideline to obstruct Republicans.
The so-called three years’ worth of job creation legislation Republicans claim will eliminate the need for unemployment benefits is tantamount to their 2011 promise to focus on jobs; another lie and nothing but substantial gifts to their campaign donors. Boehner even had the audacity to list a few “job creation” bills in an ad campaign where he blamed President Obama for Republican inaction in helping grow the economy and get Americans working again. In Boehner’s ad, he cited five specific pieces of legislation the House passed as “job creation” bills, but like everything Republicans propose, they were gifts to corporations, the energy industry, and financial sector and would have created zero jobs.
One of the bills Boehner claimed created jobs was approving the KeystoneXL pipeline and there is a glaring Constitutional violation with the House vote; only the President of the United States is allowed to approve the pipeline because it crosses America’s international border with Canada. However, for argument’s sake, if the permit to build the pipeline was approved, it would create no more than 2,500 temporary jobs for two years and fifteen (15) permanent jobs. What constructing the pipeline really creates is billions upon billions of dollars in profits for the Koch brothers and Conoco Philips as they refine Canada’s tar and export it to China and Europe. It also boosts John Boehner’s stock portfolio since he bought shares in seven Canadian tar sand companies prior to becoming Speaker of the House and pushing the pipeline as America’s greatest job program. The pipeline actually will kill more jobs than it creates because it will raise the price of fuel that will prevent companies from expanding and hiring new workers.
Many of Republican “jobs” bills entailed rolling back or eliminating renewable energy standards and environment protections that are responsible for creating three times as many jobs as the dirty energy sector for each dollar spent. Eliminating renewable energy and environmental regulations is a gift to the dirty energy industry including the Koch brothers, fracking industry, and the dirty coal sector. Republicans never intimated exactly how killing jobs in renewable energy created jobs, but then their focus was enriching the oil industry; not creating jobs.
Republicans also claimed repealing the Dodd-Frank financial reform and consumer protection law was a job-creating bonanza, but its real intent was giving banks and Wall Street the green light to crash the economy and get bailed out, rip-off consumers’ retirement accounts, and give credit card companies free-rein to charge customers for using their own money. It is an insult to a child’s intelligence to claim deregulating the financial sector is job creation, but repealing financial reform was never about creating jobs, just creating wealth for Republican donors.
The big “job creation” legislation Boehner boasted was the one House Republicans spent over forty times attempting to pass; repealing the Affordable Care Act. Republicans claimed businesses were firing employees because of the healthcare insurance reform law, but they have never cited how repealing the law creates jobs. In fact, repealing the law, like everything Republicans have done for three years, will kill jobs that were and are being created due to more Americans having access to affordable healthcare insurance.
The idea that repealing the ACA is a job creation bill is as absurd as the one and only piece of legislation House Republicans passed that was even remotely related to employment. Eric Cantor’s bill eliminating overtime pay not only will not create one job, it is another Republican effort to kill millions of existing and potential jobs. Why would a business add one employee at an additional cost in benefits and administrative expense when they can force an existing employee to work a double shift without paying overtime wages? Cantor’s so-called “job creation” bill is specifically created to kill potential jobs and reward big business in the process.
It was no surprise that Republicans demanded concessions from Democrats and President Obama in exchange for helping 1.3 million out-of-work Americans that Republicans could have helped if they had not spent three years in a job-killing frenzy. Mitch McConnell reliably held the unemployment extension hostage for repealing the ACA, and John Boehner said House Republicans would consider “emergency” relief if the President signed Republican legislation rewarding the Koch brothers, Wall Street, and banking industry that would kill more Americans’ jobs. Regardless of their machinations to enrich their corporate masters, Republicans are continuing on the path they began in 2011 when they took control of the House with a promise to focus on jobs and then spent the entirety of three years killing them nearly as fast as the Obama economy could create them. Sadly, they are poised to spend another year killing jobs and telling Americans their focus is still creating jobs that in Republican-speak is code for creating wealth for the one percent.
House Republican Bill Requires That the IRS Investigate Sexual Assault Survivors
Wednesday, January, 8th, 2014, 7:32 pm
Every entity on Earth has certain traits, practices, and physiognomies that make them readily identifiable if a person knows what to look for and it includes political parties. Americans identify teabaggers by their incessant claim they love freedom, the Constitution, and the Founding Fathers while they advocate restricting other Americans’ freedoms and eschew the Constitution save the 2nd and 10th Amendments. Republicans are known by the preponderance of things they hate which is everything except tax cuts, deregulation, and cutting safety nets. Republicans particularly hate the Internal Revenue Service, taxes, federal regulations on businesses, IRS prying into Americans’ lives, and of course women; Republicans probably hate women as much as they hate America, but that is another story. It is interesting, then, that the first order of business for House Republicans is a piece of legislation that raises taxes on businesses and individuals, regulates businesses, and mandates IRS prying into Americans’ private lives; all because the GOP harbors intense hatred for women and their constitutional right of the pursuit of happiness.
To set the pace for this year’s session of Congress, instead of addressing jobs, extending unemployment benefits, or crushing income inequality transforming America into a peasant population serving the wealthy, the House will debate legislation crucial to Christian fundamentalists effort to legislate by bible. The bill, H.R. 7, was introduced by fundamentalist Chris Smith (R-NJ) and seeks to rewrite the IRS tax code, re-define health insurance, regulate and tax every business in America, tax individuals, insert the federal government between a woman and private medical decisions, and punish rape victims by making them relive the horrors of sexual assault. Smith promoted his legislation on Tony Perkin’s Family Research Council website as another Christian law prohibiting taxpayer funding for abortion, but it is simply legislation mandating the health insurance industry to eliminate coverage for family planning services including abortion. It is important to note that next to raising taxes, Republicans hate the federal government regulating business, especially big businesses like the health insurance industry, as much as they hate women, but regulating and taxing businesses is precisely what Smith’s legislation does under the guise of “religious liberty” to rob women of their right to choose when they produce offspring.
Smith’s bill punishes every healthcare policy holder in America by disallowing a tax deduction on income tax returns for any medical insurance if the policy includes coverage for family planning that nearly all healthcare plans provide. It even punishes women who pay for an abortion with cash because it disallows a medical deduction on Schedule A of individual income tax returns whether it was included in a healthcare insurance plan or not. The bill does allow a sexual assault victim to take the medical deduction for abortion care in a case of rape, but only after an IRS auditor verifies the victim was really sexually assaulted and conceived her attacker’s progeny.
Smith’s bill violates Republicans’ abhorrence of raising taxes, particularly on millions of small businesses because H.R. 7 raises their taxes if their employer-provided health insurance plan includes abortion coverage. The great majority of private and employer-provided plans do include abortion coverage as a legitimate medical procedure and expense, but theocrats in the House want to regulate the health insurance industry to inflict physical, psychological, and economic harm on women. Tax experts have already weighed in and the consensus is that if businesses are forced by federal regulations to choose between an increased tax liability and providing a healthcare plan that includes abortion coverage, most small businesses will switch to a Christian-approved plan under duress from theocrats masquerading as the federal government. The legislation also disallows all businesses from deducting, as a legitimate expense of doing business, their contribution to an employee’s healthcare insurance package or claim employer tax credits if the policy includes family planning coverage. In fact, H.R.7 disqualifies businesses, the insurance industry, and individuals from using the term “qualified health plan” and “health insurance coverage” in any policy covering family planning whether it is privately purchased or through an employer-provided healthcare plan.
Republicans have long-complained that the federal government, especially the IRS, interferes and intrudes into Americans’ private lives, but Smith’s bill amends the Internal Revenue Service code to require IRS auditors to investigate and interrogate sexual-assault survivors who access abortion care. A woman who is raped and does not want to carry to term and raise for eighteen years their rapist’s offspring will be required to relive the violent experience, provide documentation, and recount the violent assault to an IRS auditor. The bill will force the underfunded and understaffed IRS to set aside auditors’ time to sift through police reports, hospital records, and interrogate a rape victim to verify that their medical expense deduction does not violate the fundamentalist statute disguised as a tax code law.
Americans should be asking fundamentalist Smith exactly who the first piece of Republican legislation in 2014 benefits other than the personhood movement, Family Research Council, American Family Association, and misogynist Christians across America. The legislation certainly does not benefit every business in America offering healthcare insurance as an employee benefit, and definitely not every taxpayer who is fortunate enough to afford healthcare insurance. It certainly offers no help to the underfunded and understaffed Internal Revenue Service tasked with interrogating rape victims to verify they were indeed raped, or businesses mandated to file annual IRS reports verifying that their healthcare plans do not violate the Christian tax-code.
Smith’s legislation is an assault on women as much as it is federal government intrusion and interference in business, a universal tax hike, and government overreach into Americans’ personal and business lives. What gives Smith’s legislation away as singling out women for “special treatment” is the lack of an IRS amendment, tax increase, or federal government regulation disqualifying healthcare insurance as a legitimate business expense for policies that include coverage for male boner pills such as Viagra. No, this legislation is solely to impose a religious edict on women even if it means using everything Republicans hate to accomplish the mission and it informs the level of animosity Republican theocrats have for women.
This year is starting out just like the previous three years that Republicans promised to focus on the economy and create jobs only to immediately begin another religious assault on women’s personal rights to make medical and family decisions without interference from theocrats masquerading as the federal government. The biggest difference this year is that Republicans propose raising taxes, increasing business regulations, and forcing the IRS to intrude in Americans’ private lives to impose their religious dogma in what has been a non-stop three-year war against women. This year’s opening assault on women portends that there is no end to Republicans’ demand to control women’s personal lives including breaking character to embrace all the things they hate. Smith’s bill informs that no matter how much Republicans hate tax hikes, regulations on business, or the IRS, it pales in comparison to their hatred of women.
Rob Portman and Kelly Ayotte Cowardly Back Away From Unemployment Benefits Extension
By: Justin Baragona
Wednesday, January, 8th, 2014, 7:41 pm
Early on Tuesday, the US Senate was able to narrowly avoid a filibuster and begin debate on an extension to unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless in this country. Somewhat unexpectedly, six Republicans joined up with the Democrats to allow the bill to see the floor. It appeared at that time that the Senate would be able to narrowly pass the spending measure without having to deal with a filibuster, as it was widely assumed that all 60 votes that allowed it to go to debate would also vote to pass it.
Well, on Wednesday afternoon, both Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Rob Portman (R-OH) backtracked and said that they would only vote for passing the extension if Democrats would agree to offset the new spending with cuts elsewhere. Apparently, other than attacking the Affordable Care Act, it seems that Ayotte and Portman have their eyes set on eliminating a child tax credit. Why do they want to eliminate this tax credit? Because they have found that some undocumented workers have claimed it in the past. (Insert eye roll.)
With Ayotte and Portman backtracking and demanding what the rest of their Republican brethren is, the onus falls on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to get something done. Reid isn’t completely opposed to offsetting the spending, but he would prefer that it doesn’t affect the working or middle-class. Most likely, he’d probably go for elimination of certain tax cuts or loopholes to the wealthy, or cuts to military spending. This is what he had to say on the Senate floor on Wednesday:
“If Republicans are so interested in paying for this measure, they should propose a reasonable way to do so. That doesn’t attack the Affordable Care Act or punish American children, as these two proposals they presented yesterday do. They should propose an offset that might actually pass. Instead they propose a string of political amendments each more doomed to failure than the last one they offered.”
For the most part, Reid and the Democrats feel that it is unnecessary to even offset this spending, as they feel that is is classified as emergency spending. I feel that most level-headed people would agree. But, of course, this is a Republican Party that was asking for cuts in spending to justify relief funds in the wake of Sandy. So, what do you expect when it comes to millions of families feeling the pinch during the middle of winter? Yep, the same old heartlessness and lack of empathy.
Whereas Portman was being seen as placing politics aside for the greater good when he voted with Democrats on Tuesday, went ahead and showed his true colors on Wednesday when he had this to say:
“I think they had hoped, frankly, some of them, from a political point of view, that they could say Republicans were obstructing. I think we kind of took them by surprise and instead we’re saying we absolutely don’t want to obstruct.”
So much wrong with this statement. So, so much wrong with it. First off, he is saying that Democrats were hoping that it wouldn’t be able to pass for political reasons. That they were hoping to score some political points by NOT helping out desperate families, hoping that the GOP would be their normal obstructionist selves. Then, he say that the Republicans proved they are not obstructing anything. This AFTER he did exactly that, which is to obstruct the bill from passing by demanding something in return! Man, this guy has some real gall.
Red State Dem Steve Beshear Busts the Media’s Anti-Obamacare BS By Predicting 2014 Win
By: Sarah Jones
Wednesday, January, 8th, 2014, 1:07 pm
Red state Democratic governor Steve Beshear turned the media narrative about ObamaCare upside down and spanked it, telling Greg Sargent that ObamaCare is going to be a winner for Democrats in November of 2014, in a red state or not.
The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent interviewed Governor Steve Beshear (D-KY), one of the few Democrats who seems to understand the goldmine that ObamaCare offers Dems this election if they know what to do with it.
Beshear told Sargent “We’re doing the right thing. That’s the most important point here. The people of America, and the people of Kentucky, deserve access to affordable health care. For the first time in the history of this country, we have a tool that allows us to accomplish this goal.”
Beshear continued on, explaining what we have been saying at Politicus ever since Republicans started their ObamaCare fear-mongering, “This issue is going to look a lot different in November 2014 than it looks today. By November 2014, these exchanges will be working smoothly, and the world will not have come to an end… Right now some are afraid because of misinformation. By November they will know it’s not going to do anything to them.”
Beshear went so far as to make the bold claim that ObamaCare is a winner for Democrats, telling Sargent, “In general this issue is going to be a winner for Democrats by November of 2014 — whether you’re in a red state or a blue state.”
This is hardly his first powerful defense of the President’s healthcare reform. In August of last year, Beshear refused to buy into the Republican fear-mongering and instead, turned it around and made such a compelling argument for it that he left Senator Rand Paul and Senator Mitch McConnell reeling.
Beshear is absolutely correct, and this is why at Politicus, we never jumped on the media’s absurd months long ObamaCare-is-doomed-because-of-a-glitch wagon. In order to believe that ObamaCare was doomed over a glitch, you’d have to be very privileged. So privileged that you had never gone without health insurance and had no idea just how terrifying it was to be seriously ill without health insurance.
In truth, once people have access to affordable health insurance, they will not want to give it up. It will be similar to how Americans love Social Security. No politician who wants to get elected dares to mention taking Social Security away from Americans. Americans like their socialism. (Note: ObamaCare is not anywhere near Socialism, as it relies on market place competition to keep prices affordable.) In fact, according to a Duke and Harvard University study, 92% of Americans are socialists, they just don’t know it.
So the challenge becomes changing the frame. The big secret is that Americans say they want smaller government, but they don’t. Not really. They prefer the Swedish model of income distribution. They want Social Security and Medicare. They want a government that will be there to do appropriate storm rescue and keep corporations from bleeding them dry or making their children work in a fire hazard of a factory for 18 hours a day.
If all politics is personal, it doesn’t get any more personal than thinking someone in your family is going to die due to lack of health insurance and then getting access to affordable health insurance. This is something most Americans have some experience with, either fear of, or seeing it happen to a friend’s family, or experiencing it first hand.
What Democrats need to do is stop cringing in fear of the ObamaCare bite, and reverse tactics. Seize the reins of moral high ground, and appeal to the hearts of their constituents. The argument is very simple: In the past, we let corporate profits dictate whether or not our family got healthcare when they were sick. ObamaCare changed that. ObamaCare said that the most important thing is that everyone has access to affordable healthcare. We champion this because we are pro-life, in the real sense of the word.
The Robert Gates Books Shows Exactly Why Obama Is a Good President
By: Jason Easley
Wednesday, January, 8th, 2014, 5:00 pm
The media has fallen back into one of their favorite narratives about Obama being on the defensive, but they completely missed that Robert Gates’ new book shows why Barack Obama is a good president.
NBC News led off their story with, “The White House continued to defend President Barack Obama’s leadership style and affirm his relationship with Vice President Joe Biden Wednesday in the face of harsh accusations by Obama’s former defense secretary.”
Politico kept the story going, “The White House scrambled late Tuesday and early Wednesday to respond to a political fragging from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.”
The gossipy tween girl mentality of Beltway media is gobbling up Robert Gates’ book, and using it to push their favorite anti-Obama narrative of a presidency in crisis.
An excerpt from the book proves that the mainstream media storyline is missing the point,
I had no problem with the White House driving policy; the bureaucracies at the State and Defense Departments rarely come up with big new ideas, so almost any meaningful change must be driven by the president and his National Security Staff (NSS), led during my tenure under Obama by Gen. James Jones, Thomas Donilon and Denis McDonough.
But I believe the major reason the protracted, frustrating Afghanistan policy review held in the fall of 2009 created so much ill will was due to the fact it was forced on an otherwise controlling White House by the theater commander’s unexpected request for a large escalation of American involvement. Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request surprised the White House (and me) and provoked a debate that the White House didn’t want, especially when it became public. I think Obama and his advisers were incensed that the Department of Defense—specifically the uniformed military—had taken control of the policy process from them and threatened to run away with it.
Most of my conflicts with the Obama administration during the first two years weren’t over policy initiatives from the White House but rather the NSS’s micromanagement and operational meddling, which I routinely resisted. For an NSS staff member to call a four-star combatant commander or field commander would have been unthinkable when I worked at the White House—and probably cause for dismissal.
It became routine under Obama. I directed commanders to refer such calls to my office. The controlling nature of the Obama White House, and its determination to take credit for every good thing that happened while giving none to the career folks in the trenches who had actually done the work, offended Secretary Clinton as much as it did me.
While the media is obsessing over whether or not Joe hearts Barack or any of the other nonsense, they missed the point that Gates was not happy with the president because he wanted his people to keep an eye on the Pentagon. After years of listening to George W. Bush tell us to believe the generals, it is comforting to have a president who won’t let the Pentagon roam unsupervised.
What Gates called micromanagement and meddling was actually executive oversight. If I was Gates I would not have liked it either, but this is what a good president is supposed to do. The trust us we know what we are doing stuff is what got us into Iraq.
Obama is a good president because he is doing exactly what he said he would do with the military when he was running for president in 2008. The fact that the Obama White House is centralized and focused on domestic politics doesn’t make it much different from any other White House. I would also argue that the same strengths and weaknesses in the administration were visible during the president’s first presidential campaign.
There haven’t been any surprises with Obama. For those who paid attention, they got exactly what they thought they would be getting out of an Obama presidency. The media is using a book that is highly critical of all of Washington to attack Obama, but once again they got it wrong.
President Obama is far from perfect, but he is doing exactly what the voters sent him to Washington to do. Robert Gates didn’t like some it, the media is still grinding the anti-Obama axe, but the excerpt from this book shows why Barack Obama has been a good president with even better intentions.
The Era of Obama Is Driving the GOP Extinct as Republican Identification Plunges
By: Jason Easley
Wednesday, January, 8th, 2014, 10:19 am
If it seems like you are watching the Republican Party vanish before your eyes, it’s because you are. According Gallup, Republican Party identification has fallen to a 25 year low of 25%.
Gallup’s latest party identification poll found that Democratic identification has remained stable. Democratic identification has gone from 36% in 2008 to 31% today, but Republican identification has dropped in each of the last three years, until it has hit its lowest point in the 25 year history of the poll. Republican identification reached a peak of 34% during 2004, but eroded during George W. Bush’s second term. By the time Bush left office, Republican identification was down to 28%.
All of those disappointed Republicans have left the GOP and deemed themselves Independents. Forty percent of those polled now identify as Independents. Of course, some of the Republicans who have departed the Republican Party aren’t really Independent. They still vote Republican, but now they do it as an Independent. This is why Independents voting for Republican presidential candidates like Mitt Romney isn’t a surprise. It is also why the media needs to change their thinking about Independents. Independent voters are no longer neutrals, but they are more likely disaffected Republicans who have left their party.
The Republican decision to obstruct Obama at all costs has led to their own demise. When the Republicans became the party of no, they lost much of the country. The Obama era could have been one of bipartisan compromise and achievement, but Republicans rejected the validity of this president and his presidency from day one. The decision not to evolve with the country has left them taking unpopular position after unpopular position just so that they can say no to Obama.
The overall tone of the country’s political identification is decidedly more left. Contrary to what Republicans like to claim, America is not a conservative country. For the third straight year, the nation has identified more with Democrats than Republicans. When Independents were included in the partisan leanings question, Democrats maintained their six point advantage from last year, and led Republicans 47%-41%.
Not only is the Republican Party facing extinction, but the country itself continues to move left. The nation is leaving the Republican Party behind, and as the GOP has gotten smaller, the extremists have taken control. The only thing saving the Republican Party from total irrelevance at the federal level is their control of the House of Representatives. Of course that House of Representatives is the least popular Congress in history, which speaks volumes about the condition of the Republican Party.
America is moving on without the Republican Party. The United States truly has become no country for the old white conservative men who are the majority constituency of the GOP, as President Obama is leading a new era in American politics.
Pussy Riot pair visit court in show of solidarity with anti- Pig Putin protesters
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina criticise trial over Moscow clashes as 'politically motivated and biased'
Leonid Ragozin in Moscow
The Guardian, Thursday 9 January 2014 14.17 GMT
In the grim, cramped lobby of Zamoskvoretsky district court in Moscow, Pussy Riot's Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina stood in a group of 30 people, eyes glued to a big screen airing a live broadcast of a trial under way in the building.
The recently released prisoners re-entered the public sphere as free women on Thursday eager to use their star status to help other victims of political persecution. The eight people in the dock had been arrested following clashes between protesters and riot police at Bolotnaya Square in Moscow on 6 May 2012, the eve of Pig V. Putin's third inauguration as Russian president.
Showing little sign of their 22-month prison ordeal, the women were energised. Tolokonnikova said neither of them had stopped to rest following their release, instead embarking immediately on creating an organisation to help Russian prisoners.
"The authorities have made a grave mistake by jailing us. We emerged from prison even stronger and more resolute," she said.
Perhaps aware of the international gaze that follows the women, the judge softened her previous ban on activists and journalists in the courtroom, allowing in a handful.
"You can consider our appearance here as a protest and a gesture of solidarity with people who have been in pre-trial detention for over year although they are innocent," said Alyokhina.
The women did not draw a crowd of supporters. In front of the building a solitary female picketer stood holding a poster of the prisoners.
Several of the suspects on trial had spent 18 months in Moscow's remand centres, living in conditions worse than those in penal colonies where the Pussy Riot members served their sentences.
Most are rank-and-file activists or unaffiliated protesters charged with participation in mass riots and using violence against the police. The charges are almost entirely based on claims made by riot police, who have been confusing names and making bizarrely contradictory statements throughout the trial.
"[These] people are even more important than us because there was an element of art in what we did, but they were arrested for a straightforward political protest," Tolokonnikova said. She dismissed the trial as "politically motivated and biased".
"Even today you could see how the judge was turning down every request made by the defence and upholding every request by the prosecution," she said.
Only four Bolotnaya Square suspects qualified for release under the amnesty Pig Putin issued in late December that freed the Pussy Riot members two months earlier than scheduled.
"This selective amnesty was not an act of humanism. It was only aimed at reducing tensions in relations with the west," Tolokonnikova said. "It happened because Pig Putin is afraid that Olympic Games in Sochi will be boycotted."
Russia on alert after five bodies found with gunshot wounds
Victims found in Stavropol, gateway to region where Islamist militants have threatened to disrupt Winter Olympics in Sochi
Reuters in Moscow
theguardian.com, Thursday 9 January 2014 22.10 GMT
Russian security forces are on alert after the discovery of an explosive device and at least five bodies with gunshot wounds in the southern region of Stavropol.
Stavropol, about 300km (190 miles) from the Black Sea resort of Sochi, which will host the Winter Olympic Games next month, is the gateway to the North Caucasus region, where Russia faces an insurgency by Islamist militants who have threatened to try to prevent the Olympics going ahead.
President Pig Putin, who has staked his political and personal prestige on the Games, has already ordered security measures to be beefed up nationwide after suicide bombers killed at least 34 people in separate attacks last month in Volgograd, another southern Russian city.
The corpses were found late on Wednesday in four cars in two separate locations. A homemade explosive device in a bucket was found near one of the vehicles, according to Russia's investigative committee, which is exploring several possible motives for the crimes, along with the Federal Security Service.
No other details were available and it was not clear if the killings had any connection to the Sochi Games.
The acting governor of the Stavropol region, Vladimir Vladimirov, told the state Rossiya 24 broadcaster that authorities had taken measures "to annihilate or detain criminals who might have taken part in these cases".
Rossiya 24 reported a sixth body was found in similar circumstances and said two of the victims were local taxi drivers. This report could not be confirmed.
The broadcaster showed footage of uniformed security officers searching vehicles and questioning residents in the region on Thursday.
"It is scary," said resident Natalia Petrova. "We fear for ourselves and we fear for our children."
The Winter Olympics open on 7 February in Sochi, which is located on the western edge of the mountainous Caucasus region where the insurgents want to carve out an Islamic state.
Russian forces went on combat alert in Sochi on Tuesday and officials say about 37,000 personnel are now in place to provide security at the Games.
In Washington, the head of the FBI gave a vote of confidence to Russia's Olympic security preparations. "I think the Russian government understands the threat and is devoting the resources to address it," said FBI director James Comey, adding that the FBI would have "at least a couple dozen people" in Moscow and some in Sochi to assist the Russians.
"We have been in regular communication, including me personally, with their security organizstions to make sure that we're co-ordinating well," Comey said.
01/10/2014 11:54 AM
Olympic Construction Sins: The Leaning Houses of Sochi
By Benjamin Bidder in Sochi, Russia
Pig V. Putin promised the Olympics in Sochi would be as green as could be. Instead, the construction of facilities has had disastrous consequences for the environment, particularly for the residents of Baku Street, whose homes have become the victims of man-made erosion.
When Tigran Skiba, 52, leaves home in his delivery truck each morning to supply fresh bread throughout Sochi, he gets a view of the new sporting facilities: Fisht Olympic Stadium in the valley and the grand ice-skating palace, which shimmers in the moonlight like a pearl. It looks as if it's all right nextdoor.
Oympia Park is located less than two kilometers away from Skiba's home. What worries him these days, though, is the fact that this distance isn't remaining constant. The space between his home and the stadium is decreasing, slowly but ever so surely. The hillside upon which his home is built is sliding down into the valley at a pace of 1.5 meters (nearly five feet) per year, Skiba claims.
Residents of Baku Street had long been puzzled by the erosion that was causing their homes to slide or lean. A thick forest begins just behind the home of Skiba's neighbors. Sometimes they collect firewood there. It's in this forest that they first discovered the reason for the landslide. Excavators there dug out a pit where trucks had been dumping rubble -- waste from the Olympic construction sites. "The garbage dump has altered the groundwater flow on the hill," says Vladimir Kimayev, a member of the group Environmental Watch. "That's why the homes are sliding."
The worst hit home is a multi-family structure located across the street from the Skibas. Over the course of a few months, the five-story building slid down the hill along Baku Street. Before it was torn down, it destroyed the wooden hut of a neighbor. Skiba says a five-story building should never have been allowed to be built in Baku Street. The construction company responsible for it, like so many in Sochi, had not obtained any official permits.
A Promise of 'Green Games'
Skiba says he invested around €62,000 ($84,400) in his house, money that came from savings, but also from "loans that still torment me today." The authorities approved the plans in 2010. He says they said a two-story building for two families would be no problem.
Today, when Skiba's grandchildren play in the living room, the ball always roles into the same corner. The earth movements have literally tilted the house, which now leans at four degrees -- the same slope gradient as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Skiba has jacked up the refrigerator on one side with boards so that the compote his wife cooked won't spill out of the glasses.
When Sochi was awarded the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in 2007, the Kremlin pledged "zero waste," meaning no environmental pollution. When the news emerged in October that Russia's state railway had been dumping construction waste from a large project to create a highway and railroad link between the Sochi airport and the Olympic venues at what authorities have described as an illegal landfill in the Caucasus, the International Olympic Committee reacted with outrage. At the same time, it must have been clear that with the magnitude of investments required to prepare for an event as big as the Olympics, this promise of a "green games" would be very difficult to keep.
The Winter Olympics in Sochi are a highly complex undertaking. The Kremlin has constructed six stadiums along the Black Sea coast. In addition, ski trails have been erected, as well as ski jumps and dozens of five-star hotels on the hills of the Caucasus. The sporting facilities in the mountains and along the shoreline have been connected with a recently built mountain road. A new train line operates alongside it.
'They're Trying to Silence Me'
Environmentalists have little power against a prestigious project of this size, and most environmental organizations have already left Sochi. Environmental Watch in the North Caucasus, a regional umbrella group of activists that also includes Vladimir Kimayev, is the exception.
Environmental Watch protested against the pollution of rivers through Olympic construction and also against the destruction of forests, but it had very little success. The group also fought against any construction along the shoreline and beaches. Environmental Watch gained the attention of the international media a few years ago when activists stormed the property of several luxurious mansions that had been erected in protected nature conservation areas. One of the homes had been built by the governor of the area. Another residence -- a veritable palace with a casino and helicopter landing pad -- was reportedly intended for Pig V. Putin himself.
One environmental activist accused of damaging the fence of the governor's residence was even given a three-year suspended jail sentence. And one year ago, Environmental Watch head Suren Gazaryan became the subject of an investigation. He was accused of attempted murder. It was alleged that Gazaryan had threatened to kill a guard on the grounds of the mansion intended for Pig Putin and that he had wielded a stone. The environmental activist has since applied for political asylum in Estonia.
However, activist Kimayev has chosen to remain in Sochi. In order to avoid the long traffic jams in the coastal city, he often travels on his moped. But that, too, proved dangerous for the activist this fall when his brakes failed. Kimayev believes his moped was sabotaged. "They're trying to silence me," he says.
Is the Pig the Last Hope?
Local authorities have offered Tigran Skiba and others of Baku Street emergency accommodations, but they only include one room for each family. For the time being, Skiba has decided to stay in his leaning house. He often stays awake at night listening to the creaking sounds the house makes, just in case he needs to wake up his wife, children and grandchildren if he fears it is going to collapse.
The family believes its last hope lies with President Pig Putin. Skiba's neighbor Svetlana Afanasyeva, 60, stands in her front yard, a resolute woman wearing a bathrobe. She used to live down along the coast until construction began on the sporting facilities, in an area known as the Imereti Depression. Svetlana and her husband were paid a generous amount of compensation for their move -- around €250,000. With the money, they purchased an apartment for their daughter, the property on Baku Street and a wooden house that is now falling apart.
Afanasyeva recently wrote a personal letter to Putin. "Your honorable Vladimir Vladimirovitch, I am writing to you from Sochi, which was an enchanting place until the pigs came," she write. The letter ends with a plea: "Perhaps the next time you are in the gorgeous new city down below, you might pay attention for a moment to what is happening to us up here on the hill."
01/10/2014 11:50 AM
Out of the Abyss: Looking for Lessons in Iceland's Recovery
By Guido Mingels
In 2008, Iceland experienced one of the most dramatic crashes any country had ever seen. Since then, its recovery has been just as impressive. Are there lessons to be learned? SPIEGEL went to the island nation to find out.
What should one expect from a country in which the sentence, "What an asshole!" is a compliment? Icelanders say "asshole," or "rassgat," when they tousle a child's hair or greet friends, and they mean it to be friendly.
While trudging through a lava field within view of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, the guide says: "Iceland is the asshole of the world." That, too, is a positive statement. It's also a geological metaphor. In Iceland, which lies on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and thus on the dividing line of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, the earth has a tendency to relieve itself through various geysers, volcanoes and hot springs.
The island, an unlikely geological accident, has existed for some 18 million years, but has only been inhabited for 1,100 years. A pile of lava pushed out of the Atlantic that could eventually disappear again, it's affectionately called "The Rock" by residents. Icelanders were traditionally fishermen and farmers until they decided to turn their country into a casino for global capital around the turn of the millennium.
But now they have returned to fishing, and gladly talk about their journey back to financial health. SPIEGEL spoke with an investor, a finance minister and a fisherman, in addition to an economist who says apologetically: "Icelanders are just daredevils." And then there was a sex and knitting expert who says she believes Iceland has "found its way back to itself."
What happened in Iceland from 2008 to 2011 is regarded as one of the worst financial crises in history. It seems likely that never before had a country managed to amass such great sums of money per capita, only to lose it again in a short period of time. But Iceland, with a population of just 320,000, has also staged what appears to be the fastest recovery on record. Since 2011, the gross domestic product has been on the rise once again, most recently at 2 percent. What's more, salaries are rising, the national debt is sinking and the government has paid off part of the billions in loans it received in 2008 from the International Monetary Fund ahead of schedule. It's a sign of confidence.
But how did they do it when others cannot? Can we learn something from Iceland?
"At the beginning of the Icelandic Miracle was Germany, "says Ásgeir Jónsson, 43, in his office as he bends over a few diagrams. They all snap downward in the fall of 2008 before showing a gradual climb starting in 2010. But why Germany? Jónsson clearly enjoys the surprise on his guest's face.
Jónsson was head economist for Kaupthing Bank, one of the three Icelandic banks that leveraged far too much debt and crashed overnight in 2008 following years of unprecedented growth. Billions evaporated instantly while hundreds of thousands of depositors and foreign investors feared they would lose their money. Jónsson's job disappeared as well; with his newfound free time, he wrote the book "Why Iceland?: How One of the World's Smallest Counties Became the Meltdown's Biggest Casualty."
It was German money, Jónsson says, that flowed the most freely following the liberalization of Icelandic banks in the 1990s. Still today, Germany is the country's largest creditor, he says. In 2010, German banks had over €20 billion in open claims in Iceland. "Germany has a weakness for Iceland," says Jónsson, who now works as an economics professor in Reykjavik. "Even Wagner borrowed from our legends for his operas," he says. In 2012, the number of German tourists to Iceland, with 65,000 visitors, was in third place behind the US and Great Britain.
Iceland's rapid return to health hinged on a series of measures that Nobel laureate Paul Krugman later referred to as "doing an Iceland." Krugman, an admirer of Iceland's dramatic comeback, has recommended a similar policy cocktail for other nations in crisis. The rules are as follows: Allow your ailing banks to collapse; devalue your currency if you have one of your own; introduce capital controls; and try to avoid paying back foreign debts.
That may sound like an extremely self-serving recipe -- and it was. Whereas billions of public money was pumped into the banking system in Ireland so that financial institutions could pay back their creditors, Icelanders voted against this route in two separate referenda. They couldn't see why they should pay for the greed of foreign investors who followed the Siren song of high interest rates to the island nation.
Jónsson only shakes his head wearily when asked if he has a guilty conscience. He claims to have been one of the few who warned of the currency bubble long before it burst. Now, he is excited about the country's new opportunities, which are remarkably similar to the ones it has always had. "A hard-working populace. A healthy democracy. A high level of education. Tourism. Natural resources, such as wind, hydro-power and geothermal energy. And fisheries. What would we be without the fisheries?"
A powerful-looking reindeer head with a full rack is mounted on Valli Hoskuldsson's wall. On a bookshelf below, there are books on risk management and global finance. Hoskuldsson, a large man with a gentle voice, just returned from a 40 day fishing expedition in the Arctic Ocean on a 60-meter trawler, the Reval Viking, during which a couple hundred tons of shrimp and halibut were caught.
He began his career as a fisherman, before Icelandic men suddenly entered the financial sector to become investment advisers. Hoskuldsson himself was hired at a local bank called Glitnir, which went on to suffer billions in losses. "I was one of the guys who foisted loans on people," says Hoskuldsson. He remembers well the day that a farmer wanted to take out a mortgage worth 10 million kroner (about €65,000) on a 20-year-old piece of farm equipment. "I went to my boss with my doubts. He just said: 'Give him the money, and if he wants twice as much, give that to him too.'"
Just a month after leaving his job at the bank, Hoskuldsson was hired as a mechanical engineer on a fishing boat. Today, he views the banking job as a mistake motivated by the promise of high bonuses. It's the way many Icelanders speak of that time: They feel deceived by the country's elite and their big money, the mechanisms of which they hardly understood.
Today, fisheries are responsible for some 42 percent of Iceland's exports. Shortly after the crisis, the state opened all of its fishing sites, allowing every citizen to catch and sell up to 650 kilograms (1,433 pounds) per day when fishing is allowed, which has prompted many amateur fishermen to spend evenings and weekends on the water. What could be more Icelandic than a fishing citizenry?
With his untucked shirt, leather wristband and smile, Skúli Mogensen is considered to be one of Iceland's wealthiest residents, and some say he's also one of the coolest. Once a student of philosophy, he now founds companies and collects art. A series by prominent Danish-Icelandic artist Ólafur Elíasson called "Cars in Rivers" hangs on his office wall in Reykjavik. It features SUVs stuck in Icelandic rivers, while Icelanders try to pull them out -- a symbol of the country's hubris, but also its determination.
In October 2008, the same week that Iceland's then-Prime Minister Geir Haarde called on the Almighty to protect the country in a television address, Mogensen sold his software company OZ Communications -- based in Montreal, where Mogensen had been living for years -- to Nokia. When he heard the news of the financial collapse back home, he says: "I knew I had to go home, that they could use me now. Me and my money."
The 45-year-old invested in start-ups and founded discount airline Wow Air, which today brings tourists from 16 European cities to Reykjavik. Lying nearly horizontal in a leather chair, he continues: "I knew there are three major growth sectors in Iceland. First, fisheries, but that market is highly regulated. Second, tourism. The industry is currently growing by more than 20 percent per year. It's crazy. Thus, the airline. Third, alternative energy. Iceland is the quintessential eco-country. That's the reason for the bio-methanol thing."
When it comes to energy technology, Icelanders are pretty spoiled. Instead of heating their water to shower, they have to cool it down to avoid burning themselves. Hot water is piped under the country's sidewalks to keep them ice-free. And near the airport in Reykjavik there is a geothermal power plant that not only helped the country create its biggest tourist attraction, the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, but also aided Mogensen in his most recent investment. The lagoon is full of fantastically blue, siliceous saltwater, the byproduct of the power plant next door. Carbon Recycling International, one-fourth of which is owned by Mogensen, uses another of the plant's byproducts: carbon dioxide.
It sounds like a magic trick, and perhaps the elves and trolls that many Icelanders believe in are involved. A special process transforms the environmental killer CO2 into methanol, a green fuel. "In 2014 we want to produce 3 million liters per year," or about 3 percent of that on the world market, he says.
Methanol can be mixed with conventional gasoline, and theoretically, production stations like Carbon Recycling International's could be set up everywhere that CO2 is a byproduct. Renewable energy is thought to be Iceland's big chance for future exports. So far, the country uses just 25 percent of its potential hydropower and geothermic energy. Thus, state-run energy firm Landsvirkjun wants to build the world's longest submarine power cable to begin supplying the United Kingdom with green energy by 2020. By that time, Mogensen says, he believes that every car on Iceland's roads will be powered by renewables, just like his off-road vehicle. "It runs completely on bio-methanol," he says as he climbs in.
The Knitting and Sex Expert
The Icelandic financial crisis and recovery could be seen as the most expensive group therapy of all time. The Icelanders had five years to come together and ask themselves: Who are we, and what is our place in the world?
"I am happy that the crisis happened," says Ragnheidur Eiríksdóttir, who calls herself Ragga. "We Icelanders know once again what's important to us."
If one is to believe Ragga and several opinion polls, knitting is among these things. Since 2008, she says, "suddenly everyone started to knit Icelandic sweaters like crazy." Indeed, young Icelanders do seem to walk around less frequently in cheap labels like Zara and H&M than they do in patterned hand-knit sweaters. "They are warm, they are beautiful, they are very Icelandic. There is something comforting about them," Ragga says. She also sees them as the antithesis of suits, the globalized uniform of bankers.
Thus Eiríksdóttir began charging money to teach young Icelanders to knit. She has since produced a knitting DVD and now travels through Europe and the United States, and offers knitting tours through her own country with her company Knitting Iceland.
After the crash, many Icelanders turned away from the world and global trade. They began spending more time with their families and children, in the outdoors and with Icelandic books. Alcohol consumption dropped among young Icelanders, and the subjective feeling of happiness increased.
And along with the demand for knitting yarn came an increased desire for traditional Icelandic dishes such as lamb offal, pickled sheep testicles and horrible-smelling fermented shark meat. You are what you eat, and the Icelanders wanted to be Icelanders again.
Ragga orders another beer. She looks a bit like an ancient goddess of love in a wool sweater. She is also an expert on Icelandic relationships. She moderates a television dating show and is currently writing a book called "The Sexual Secrets of Icelanders." Women and men in the country, she says, have little trouble finding each other and hooking up. What else should one do in winter, where night lasts all day?
With an average of 2.2 children per woman, the country also has the highest birthrate in Europe. The country's demographic structure is one that is unknown in other European countries. Economist Jónsson calls it "Third World demography" -- with half of the country's population being under the age of 35. The high rate of reproduction may also have something to do with the fact that Iceland views childcare as a state responsibility, with 90 percent of one- to five-year-olds going to daycare. Young parents also don't have to worry about their careers when they have children. Some 78 percent of the country's women are employed, the highest rate in the world. But there is also another motivation. "We are a rather small people," says Ragga. "We need to avoid shrinkage."
During a walk through the parks of Reykjavik, it seems to the visitor from continental Europe that he is visiting both the past and the future. One sees more couples pushing strollers than Germany has seen since the 1950s. At the same time, though, it is a generation that is extremely well networked and excellently educated. Fully 95 percent are connected to the Internet with one third in possession of a university degree.
Get to the point, please, Bjarni Benediktsson doesn't have much time. Since May, he has been Iceland's new economy minister in addition to leading the Icelandic Independence Party. It is the same party that steered the country into the abyss, leading to a catastrophic defeat at the polls in 2009. But now, the party is back and has promised relief to the country's indebted households. Following elections in the spring of 2013, the global press noted with surprise that Iceland had made the former arsonists into its new fire department.
Benediktsson is 43, but looks more like 30 with his youthful features and nice suit. Does he have a bad conscience about what happened? "I can't really say that I am sorry, no. You can't take the blame for others' mistakes. I would love to be able to pay back all foreign creditors. But that simply isn't possible. Sorry. Any other questions?"
Why did Iceland succeed where countries like Greece and Spain failed? The minister avoids the question, saying that he finds comparisons with southern European nations in crisis to be unhelpful. In contrast to such countries, he notes, Iceland always had excellent state institutions and very little sovereign debt. "It was exclusively a problem relating to the irresponsible private sector," he says. Then he must go. Meetings.
What, then, can one learn from Iceland? Pride comes before the fall? Stick with what you know? The equally euphoric and oppressive feeling one gets is that this island nation is completely unique. One can take very little home aside from a few photographs. No applicable lessons. What goes wrong here can be fixed more quickly than elsewhere. What works here is difficult to copy in places where the situation is larger and more complex.
At the same time, Iceland is isolating itself further. One of the first things the new government did was to put EU accession negotiations on ice. Iceland on its own is enough, seems to be the message.
The Icelanders' new, solitary happiness, however, is also dangerous. Economist Ásgeir Jónsson fears "economic and mental isolation" for his country in the future. Foreign investors, as badly as they are needed, are scarce and export levels are insufficient. His fellow citizens, Jónsson observes, hardly seek to inform themselves anymore about the goings on in the rest of the world. "But we have to open ourselves to the world; otherwise we will definitely go under in the next crisis."
In the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, comedian Bjarni Thorsson teaches tourists how to "become Icelandic in 60 minutes." At the end of the bit, he confides in his audience that the most important sentence in Icelandic is "Petta reddast:" Everything will work out. Icelanders can handle anything. He has his audience chant the mantra while in the offbeat he intones some of the typical catastrophes that can befall his countrymen as everyone claps along.
"Not a single fish in the net."
"Everything will work out!"
"Sour lamb fries for breakfast."
"Everything will work out!"
"The wife has left."
"Everything will work out!"
"Trillions in debt."
"Everything will work out!"