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« Reply #12285 on: Mar 05, 2014, 07:01 AM »

Colombia's Santos Throws Hat in Ring for re-Election

by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 March 2014, 22:50

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos submitted his official bid for re-election Tuesday, with a promise to complete the work he's begun in negotiations with leftist rebels.

Accompanied by his family and supporters from his center-right majority, Santos, 62, registered with the election authority in Bogota for the May 25 polls.

Santos used the opportunity to flag up his efforts to achieve peace in the 50-year-old conflict with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels.

"We must finish the job, we must follow the path, because we've done a lot, but there is still much, much more to do," he said.

Santos ,who is running for a second four-year term, the last allowed under Colombian law, promised to bring "prosperity and peace" to the country.

Although he is the favored candidate, elections will likely continue beyond the May 25 ballot to a second round on June 15, as Santos is unlikely to secure the 50 percent of votes necessary to win outright.

Negotiators for the Colombian government and the guerrillas have been in talks in Havana since November 2012 to seek an agreement to end the oldest rebellion in Latin America.

Although Santos has said he is optimistic about the outcome of the talks, a recent poll showed that 58 percent of Colombians are pessimistic about the outcome.

Santos leads the country's center-right coalition which is expected to maintain its majority in Congress in legislative elections on March 9.


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« Reply #12286 on: Mar 05, 2014, 07:02 AM »

Thousands Protest against Caracas Government ahead of Chavez Anniversary

by Naharnet Newsdesk
04 March 2014, 21:15

Thousands of flag-waving protesters flooded the streets of Venezuela's capital Tuesday to keep the pressure on the government on the eve of commemorations marking the anniversary of Hugo Chavez's death.

Led by students, marchers dressed in white proceeded peacefully as they streamed through middle-class neighborhoods of Caracas toward Petare, a sprawling slum on the city's eastern edge.

Protesters chanted "We love you Venezuela" and "Freedom!" as they walked, carrying signs and flags in the red, yellow and blue national colors before stopping at the entrance of Petare.

The demonstrators said they wanted to show that protesters are not just from the middle-class and that the capital's poorer places are not all strongholds of the socialist government.

"It's a lie that Petare is 100 percent Chavista," said Morela Perez, a 39-year-old unemployed resident of the barrio, which is known to include a mix of government backers and supporters of opposition leader Henrique Capriles.

Holding a sign that read "Petare you are not Chavista," she said protests have not happened there because people are afraid of pro-Chavez activists.

The protesters hoisted banners accusing the government of censorship and repression. "There is enough teargas to make Venezuela cry," read one.

At least 18 people have died and more than 260 were injured since the protests erupted February 4 in the western border city of San Cristobal, igniting the biggest challenge yet to the nearly year-old government of Chavez's handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro.

The opposition has been intent on keeping up the momentum of month-old protests against the Maduro government, which is trying just as hard to defuse the protest movement.

The government has encouraged Venezuelans to take full advantage of the annual Carnival holidays, which end Tuesday.

On Wednesday, it is staging a military and civilian parade to mark one year since Chavez's death of cancer, after 14 years in office.

Rampant crime, soaring inflation, shortages and worsening living conditions have fueled anger with the government, particularly among the hard-hit middle class.

Analysts say the protests centered on the middle-class have yet to pose a threat to the Maduro government, which relies on a well of support among the poor.

But Mariana Fonseca, a 39-year-old graphic designer in a baseball cap the colors of the Venezuelan flag, said the protesters were marching toward Petare because the poor also are affected by street crime.

"The people in the barrios are also with the cause," she said.

"I am protesting for many reasons. One is the violence in the streets, the robberies and the kidnappings. But also because of the shortages of the things like flour, oil and toilet paper," she said.

Maria Eugenia Molina, a 70-year-old who carried a sign with a peace dove and an image of the Virgin Mary, described herself as a "prisoner of the government."

"I am a prisoner of the lack of security. I have to stand in long lines to get food. My pension is not enough to make ends meet," she said.

Opposition deputy Maria Corina Machado led another group of protesters on a march in eastern Caracas, alongside the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.

As they passed by the La Carlota airbase, they hung large photographs of the dead on a perimeter fence.


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« Reply #12287 on: Mar 05, 2014, 07:04 AM »


Dark matter looks more and more likely after new gamma-ray analysis

Scientists describe as 'extremely interesting' new analysis that makes case for gamma rays tracing back to Wimp particles

Natalie Wolchover for Quanta magazine   
theguardian.com, Tuesday 4 March 2014 20.40 GMT   
   
Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent division of SimonsFoundation.org whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the physical and life sciences.
Quanta

Not long after the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope took to the sky in 2008, astrophysicists noticed that it was picking up a steady rain of gamma rays pouring outward from the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

This high-energy radiation was consistent with the detritus of annihilating dark matter, the unidentified particles that constitute 84% of the matter in the universe and that fizzle upon contact with each other, spewing other particles as they go. If the gamma rays did in fact come from dark matter, they would reveal its identity, resolving one of the biggest mysteries in physics. But some argued that the gamma rays could have originated from another source.

Now a new analysis of the signal claims to rule out all other plausible explanations and makes the case that the gamma rays trace back to a type of particle that has long been considered the leading dark matter candidate – a weakly interacting massive particle, or Wimp. Meanwhile, a more tentative X-ray signal reported in two other new studies suggests the existence of yet another kind of dark matter particle called a sterile neutrino.

In the new gamma-ray analysis, which appeared February 27 on the scientific preprint site arXiv.org, Dan Hooper and his collaborators used more than five years' worth of the cleanest Fermi data to generate a high-resolution map of the gamma-ray excess extending from the center of the galaxy outward at least 10 angular degrees, or 5,000 light-years, in all directions.

"The results are extremely interesting," said Kevork Abazajian, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Irvine. "The most remarkable part of the analysis is that the signal follows the shape of the dark matter profile out to 10 degrees," he said, explaining that it would be "very difficult to impossible" for other sources to mimic this predicted dark matter distribution over such a broad range.

The findings do not constitute a discovery of dark matter, the scientists said, but they prepare the way for an upcoming test described by many researchers as a "smoking gun": If the gamma-ray excess comes from annihilating Wimps, and not conventional astrophysical objects, then the signal will also be seen emanating from dwarf galaxies that orbit the Milky Way – diffuse objects that are rich in dark matter but not in other high-energy photon sources such as pulsars, rotating neutron stars that have been floated as alternative explanations for the excess.

"These gamma rays match the predictions of a pretty prototypical Wimp, the kind of thing we were all writing down 10 or 15 years ago," said Hooper, a theoretical astrophysicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the University of Chicago, and the person who co-discovered the gamma-ray excess with then graduate student Lisa Goodenough in 2009. "That's where my money is."

"It's definitely exciting," said Neal Weiner, a dark matter specialist at New York University. "I think we'd like to see it somewhere else, like a dwarf galaxy, before getting really excited."

Preliminary results from the Fermi Collaboration – scientists who process, analyze and release the telescope data – offer hints that there may indeed be a surplus of gamma rays coming from the dwarf galaxies. Although there is currently too little data to determine whether an excess exists, "we are starting to get closer to the range," said Jennifer Siegal-Gaskins, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology and a member of the Fermi Collaboration. "I would say the next couple of years of data could really be important for testing this excess."

"If that small excess from the dwarf galaxies turns to a big one, that would convince the whole community," Hooper said. "That would be game over."

While most experts agree, some question whether indirect glimpses of dark matter can ever truly constitute a discovery.

Dark matter consists of elementary particles that do not emit or absorb light, because they do not experience the electromagnetic force. These particles are also unaffected by the strong nuclear force, which ensnares many of the known particles into atoms. Cosmologists infer the existence of dark matter, and can model its distribution throughout the cosmos, because it does participate in the force of gravity and therefore plays a leading role in shaping galaxies. If dark matter particles also experience the fourth and final force of nature, called the weak nuclear force, then they are of a type known as a Wimp.

In many theories, pairs of Wimps can annihilate each other on contact, emitting other particles as they go. If the glimmer of gamma rays from the inner galaxy is the afterglow from such annihilations, then their detected energy levels indicate that they most likely originate from Wimps with a mass of 35 giga-electron-volts (GeV) annihilating into quarks, or 10-GeV Wimps annihilating into tau particles.

The 35-GeV WIMP model "fits the data best," said Tracy Slatyer, an assistant professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a co-author of the new paper. The fit has greatly improved, she said, since the group's last analysis of the gamma-ray excess. If the signal wasn't from dark matter, "it's not at all clear that going to a better data sample would make the results look better," she said, "but when I saw the new results, I was amazed."

WIMPs have not yet shown up in direct detection experiments, which look for spurts of energy coming from their weak interactions with atomic nuclei, usually in detectors placed in mine shafts deep underground to lower the background noise. But this does not mean 35-GeV Wimps don't exist, scientists said, because no one knows how frequently they interact. The authors of the new study "could be perfectly right, and we just need detectors two orders of magnitude more sensitive to see the particles," said Juan Collar, an associate professor of physics at the University of Chicago who helps develop direct detection experiments.

Most of the researchers interviewed for this article said the presence of a gamma-ray excess from the dwarf galaxies would be sufficient proof of Wimps, but a few said that it might take a direct detection to convince them. "The problem is the universe is a messy place," said Kathryn Zurek, an associate professor of physics at the University of Michigan. Try as they might to rule out "astrophysics" – shorthand among dark matter researchers for all the conventional stuff in the sky, from pulsars to supernovae to the sun – it is always possible that they have missed something.

The study authors, however, are confident that dark matter is the only plausible source of the gamma rays. "We threw everything including the kitchen sink at the problem," Hooper said. "My views are on the record."

Meanwhile, just as Hooper's group was putting the finishing touches on the new manuscript, two other teams of scientists independently reported the discovery of a different anomaly in the sky: a dash of X-rays emanating from distant galaxies that is consistent with the decay of 7-kilo-electron-volt (keV) sterile neutrinos — heavier and less active cousins of the familiar neutrinos that are also dark matter candidates.

Esra Bulbul, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and her colleagues spotted the X-rays in data from the Chandra and XMM-Newton space telescopes and published their results Feb. 10. A week later, a group led by Alexey Boyarsky of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands reported the same X-ray excess in telescope observations of the Andromeda galaxy.

"I think we have a very big fish here," Bulbul said.

Bulbul and colleagues report a statistical significance of between 4 and 5 sigma, meaning the X-ray signal is strong enough that the odds that it is a random fluke are only one in 100,000. However, putative dark matter signals often hover at the 4-sigma brink of statistical significance only to fade into the background when more data is collected. Seasoned veterans of this boom-and-bust cycle are skeptical about the new anomaly, but some have expressed cautious optimism.

"It's definitely intriguing," said John Beacom, a theoretical astrophysicist at Ohio State University. "They certainly have tried very hard to eliminate or examine the possibility of an atomic transition being the cause. They've also gone to great lengths to eliminate instrumental effects."

The X-ray bump appeared in all subsets of the data, no matter how Bulbul and colleagues sliced it — a sign that the bump did not come from a bias somewhere in the telescope instrumentation. It was this same omnipresence that convinced particle physicists at the Large Hadron Collider that they had cornered the Higgs boson in 2012 before their signal reached the 5-sigma strength formally needed for a discovery. Further support for the significance of the X-ray excess comes from the Dutch group's discovery of the same bump at 4.4-sigma strength in a different data set.

If the X-rays come from sterile neutrinos, the existence of these particles would very likely solve a long-standing puzzle about galaxy formation known as the "too big to fail" problem, which asks why objects called dark matter subhalos don't collapse and form dwarf galaxies. "That's one of the reasons I'm actually more excited about this result than I would be otherwise," Abazajian said. The particles also play a role in the seesaw mechanism, the most widely supported explanation for the minuscule mass of regular neutrinos. Decays of sterile neutrinos shortly after the Big Bang could even explain the mysterious dominance of matter over antimatter in the universe today. "Sterile neutrinos get invoked for twenty different reasons," Beacom said.

Like the gamma-ray signal, the X-ray excess will face a clear-cut test in the near future. The Astro-H telescope, set for launch in 2015, will be sensitive enough to detect the smear of the signal. If the width of the bump is consistent with the expected speed of decaying dark matter particles, "that would be a detection," Abazajian said.

Both signals are tough to dismiss, raising a strange prospect. "It's possible they are both dark matter," Abazajian said. "It would be crazy, but it's certainly possible."

The sterile neutrinos associated with the X-rays could account for anywhere from 1 to 100 percent of dark matter, depending on how often they decay. And the WIMPs tied to the gamma rays are almost as flexible. The two could coexist. As Collar put it, "If the matter we know about is so rich in families of particles, what tells you this dark sector we know nothing about is not as rich or richer?"

A theoretical model called "exciting dark matter," proposed in 2007 by Weiner and Douglas Finkbeiner of Harvard, a co-author of the new gamma-ray paper, even predicts the existence of both a keV-scale dark matter particle and a GeV-scale particle working in tandem. "So, at the moment, I'm quite excited!" Weiner said in an email.

But at least for the next couple of years, another nagging possibility remains.

"It's like the Monty Python sketch – nobody ever expects the Spanish Inquisition," Beacom said. "Sometimes in this field nobody expects astrophysics, but it's almost always astrophysics. All of these groups have tried to be very careful, but it is difficult, and nature may surprise us with astrophysics yet again."


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« Reply #12288 on: Mar 05, 2014, 07:20 AM »

In the USA...United Surveillance America

Bernie Sanders Praises Obama’s Budget For Not Cutting Social Security

By: Jason Easley
PoliticusUSA
Tuesday, March, 4th, 2014, 5:02 pm   

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and much of the left, are praising President Obama’s budget today because he has dropped his proposal to cut Social Security via Chained CPI.

In a statement, Sen. Sanders said:

    President Obama’s budget provides major investments on rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, expanding community health centers and improving the lives and educational opportunities of our children.  It includes smart investments in pre-school education and job training. It calls for expanded tax credits for 13.5 million low-income workers. At a time when the wealthiest Americans are doing phenomenally well, it asks some of the richest people in the country to start paying their fair share of taxes. At a time when the country is still struggling to recover from a terrible recession, the president’s initiatives would benefit Vermonters and all Americans by improving the economy and creating of millions of decent-paying jobs.
     
    As the founder of the Defending Social Security Caucus, I am especially proud that the president did not renew his proposal to cut Social Security benefits. With the middle class struggling and more people living in poverty than ever before, we cannot afford to make life even more difficult for seniors and some of the most vulnerable people in America.
     
    As a member of the Senate Budget Committee, I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate to build on the many positive proposals in the president’s budget and address those areas where the president’s proposals fall short.

It is safe to say that Chained CPI is likely off the table for the remainder of the Obama presidency. President Obama only offered to cut Social Security, in an attempt to get Republicans to negotiate a “grand bargain” on the budget.

Since Republicans hate President Obama more than they despise Social Security, it didn’t work.

After the tried to sell his fellow Democrats on Chained CPI as part of a budget deal, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) joined with Sanders in promising that any deal containing Chained CPI would never pass the Senate. This proclamation from Reid killed Chained CPI. Outside of a deal with Republicans, there was never any incentive for the president to push for Social Security cuts.

Chained CPI is terrible policy. It is anything but a small tweak to Social Security. For example, disabled veterans would see their benefits cut by $1,300-$2,260 a year by the time they reach age 65. Republicans are trying to create more revenue by reducing the level of benefits for disabled veterans. If implemented, the chained CPI would push Americans who already in or teetering towards poverty deeper into economic distress.

There is a bit of confusion making the rounds today about whether or not President Obama’s budget cuts Social Security. The 2015 Obama budget contains no cuts to Social Security. There is no Chained CPI in this budget. If there was, you can bet that Sen. Sanders would not be praising the president’s budget.

Obama seems to have gotten Chained CPI out of his system, and has returned to the traditional Democratic role of guarding Social Security.

This is development that every Democrat and liberal should be happy about.

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

Millionaire Paul Ryan Disguises Plan to Gut All Programs for the 99% as Helping the Poor

By: Rmuse
PoliticusUSA
Tuesday, March, 4th, 2014, 9:57 am   

Income inequality has grown exponentially in the United States easily ranking it the highest among developed nations, with most of the widening gap coming between the middle class and richest one percent with the disparity becoming more extreme the further one goes up in the income distribution. In 2012, the gap between the richest 1% and the remaining 99% was the widest it has been since the 1920s with incomes of the wealthiest 1% percent rising nearly 275%, whereas the income of the remaining 99% rose barely 1% in comparison. While President Obama has spent the past year emphasizing the need to address the increasing gap between the rich and the poor and vanishing middle class, Republicans led by Ayn Rand devotee Paul Ryan intend on enacting a replacement 2015 budget that focuses on reforms. If Americans are wary of what Republicans mean by reforms, they have a good reason. Ryan is proposing sweeping reforms on welfare and complete overhauls of all social programs including Head Start, Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, housing assistance, and anything helping the poor; or as Ryan calls them the 47% he considers “takers” and “moochers.”

Yesterday Ryan released a 204-page rebuke of the government’s anti-poverty programs that questions the concept of helping poor Americans by deriding initiatives that assist the poor struggling in low-wage jobs; if they have a job. As is usually the case when Republicans talk reform, Ryan specifically cites consolidating and then slashing all anti-poverty programs he claims “created a poverty trap that we’ve got to fix with significant reform.” Regardless of whether Republicans are citing social anti-poverty programs or tax cuts for the rich and corporations; “significant reform” always translates into drastic cuts and Ryan’s report criticizes every aspect of every anti-poverty program Republicans intend to subject to significant reforms.

The Republican report, “The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later,” analyzes eight areas of federal policy Ryan and Republicans lust to “reform” including cash aid, education and job training, energy, food aid, health care, housing, social services, and Veterans benefits. Each of the sections begins with criticism of both state of federal anti-poverty programs that Lyndon Johnson initiated 50 years ago as part of his “war on poverty” Republicans have sought to eliminate to fund tax cuts for the richest 1% of income earners.

The Ayn Rand disciple said his “reform” document “is a precursor not only of our budget but of our larger project to introduce poverty reforms over the course of this year.” The president may focus on inequality because he can’t talk about growth. We’re focused on upward mobility, speaking directly to people who have fallen through the cracks.” It is doubtful that Ryan will actually tell people who have fallen through the cracks of his intent to target programs like food stamps, Medicaid, Head Start, low-income housing and heating assistance, most other social service programs, and low-income tax credits that prevented millions of Americans from perishing due to starvation, exposure, and ill-health. Ryan claimed the Republicans’ comprehensive anti-poverty reforms (Draconian cuts) will coincide with the GOP’s intent to eliminate the Affordable Care Act and impose major cuts to Medicaid.

Ryan’s remark that the President cannot talk about growth is laughable when Obama has proposed several job creation policies, including for Veterans, that Republicans have rejected out of hand as too expensive as they plan large tax cuts for the richest Americans and their corporations. The President just announced a $300 billion infrastructure improvement plan that, although sorely needed, is woefully inadequate and less than one-tenth what the nation requires to bring the richest country on Earth in line with every developed nation in the world. Republicans have rejected every one of the President’s proposals for infrastructure programs in the past because they did not fit their job-killing agenda.

House Republicans still portray Ryan as their fiscal genius, and Representative Tom Cole (R-OK) said “Paul Ryan remains our big-ideas guy, and he’s talking about these issues in human terms.” According to Ryan, his big ideas focusing on human terms include “solutions that solve weaknesses in how the government supports the poor” that a serious round of cuts will solve. In fact, one of the more mysterious aspects of his report is Ryan’s assertion that “poor families face very high implicit marginal tax rates the federal government uses to effectively discourage them from making more money.” That’s right, Ryan who parrots Willard Romney’s assertion the “47% moocher class” do not pay any taxes claims the poor are facing very high tax rates that keep them from making more money at poverty-wage jobs. However, that is not the only scandalous assertion in Ryan’s statement about reforming (cutting) anti-poverty programs.

Ryan’s report cites the “breakdown” of the family as one of the primary reasons so many Americans are afflicted by low-wage jobs that keep them trapped in poverty. It says “the single most important determinant of poverty is that is it a result of broken families.” One wonders if the Republican anti-poverty agenda will include forcing all Americans into traditional marriages, criminalizing single-parent households and divorce, or forcing unmarried women into Christian-imposed chastity belts to ensure they will not be single parents. Ryan also boasted that he learned from a former leader of Britain’s Conservative Party how to “rework our welfare system” that means major cuts to anti-poverty safety nets. The ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee, Representative Chris Van Hollen (MD), said Ryan’s report is “simply laying the groundwork to slash social safety net programs” that he identified as “Mitt Romney’s attack on the 47 percent.”

Ryan’s report is an archetype of a class warfare manifesto that would elicit highest praise from Ayn Rand for adhering to the ideology in her fictional work Atlas Shrugged. According to House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), “People used to say we couldn’t talk about these issues. Now they have become a framework.” Republicans have been talking about slashing or eliminating anti-poverty programs incessantly since Americans first elected an African American man as President, and the people are well-aware that any Republican framework with the words “reform” and “overhaul” means massive cuts or elimination. Any Republican plan to fight poverty has nothing to do with fighting poverty and everything to do with fighting anti-poverty programs with a view towards completely eradicating them.

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

House Republicans Dig a Deep Hole with Budget that Kills Medicare and Cuts Head Start

By: Sarah Jones
PoliticusUSA
Tuesday, March, 4th, 2014, 2:20 pm      

Republican whisperer Robert Costa explained in the Washington Post why the budget the President released today won’t matter much this year (others disagree). Included in this analysis was a rather stunning bit about House Republicans preparing a budget that will turn Medicare into a voucher program and make cuts to Medicaid and Head Start:

    House Republicans are drafting a budget that ignores Obama’s request for more money for education and whatnot. Later this month, Ryan will put out his latest blueprint, which will not only press the case for using vouchers for Medicare benefits, but is also likely to propose sharp cuts to Head Start and Medicaid.

Yes, that’s the exact same budget that caused Paul Ryan to be such a drag on the Romney/Ryan ticket. The budget that the nuns protested. The budget Ryan couldn’t balance back then, and couldn’t even do the math on. Paul Ryan is staying true to being the Poverty Creator that my colleague Rmuse wrote about yesterday.

While Republican leadership is making a big effort to mask the tea crazy this election year by publicly stating that they support sanctions against Putin and refusing to go down on the SS GOP Debt Ceiling Disaster again, they are still busy appeasing the base. This budget is an example of how they plan to play to the base while edging their way out of the crazy corner for public relations purposes.

What is hard to understand, however, is how a play like announcing that House Republicans want to turn Medicare into a voucher program is going to help them in Senate races. And no matter what Fact Check says, turning a social safety program into a voucher program does kill the part of the program where it’s a social safety net, thereby effectively changing the entire meaning of “Medicare”, while still calling it “Medicare”. It’s not Medicare if you have to use vouchers that may or may not cover costs.

Theodore Marmor at Yale University wrote about this issue when Ryan proposed this same idea while running with Mitt Romney, and he concluded it would not work. “Medicare’s guarantee of affordable health care and ask future retirees to buy private insurance plans with limited vouchers that would cover less of rising costs as time goes on.”

If you recall, the non-partisan CBO was not impressed either, and pointed out that the Ryan voucher concept would result in rising costs for older Americans. People would have higher out of pocket expenses even as their medical bills escalated. The bottom line is that the Republican plan “saves” money by shifting the burden of pay onto seniors, and this means that they no longer have the guarantee of Medicare. By any logic, this fundamentally changes Medicare enough to call it killed, as the entire purpose was to provide a safety net.

Sure, picking on the vulnerable works for Republicans running in gerrymandered districts in the House, but it’s also easy for Democrats to seize on this as the Republican agenda (which it clearly is) and then run against this agenda, as revealed in the only chamber where the GOP has the majority. Democrats could easily use this budget to stamp all Republicans with the Mitt Romney brand.

“If you want your Medicare turned into a voucher program for some real death panels, vote Republican in 2014!”

I grant that no one does double speak better than this current crop of Republicans, but even these guys may not be able to overcome the alarming fear that taking away a social safety net from the people engenders. This is one of the more stupid things this House has done, and that’s saying something.

The budget released by the President reveals his values, and that’s why he said this today, “… our budget is about choices. It’s about our values. As a country, we’ve got to make a decision if we’re going to protect tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, or if we’re going to make smart investments necessary to create jobs and grow our economy, and expand opportunity for every American. At a time when our deficits are falling at the fastest rate in 60 years, we’ve got to decide if we’re going to keep squeezing the middle class, or if we’re going to continue to reduce the deficits responsibly, while taking steps to grow and strengthen the middle class.”

So while the President’s budget may not go anywhere due to Republicans refusing to budge off of their austerity rocks, it still serves a purpose in an election year, when people have choices to make.

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

Opportunity for Democrats: 68% Think the Republican Party is Out of Touch

By: Sarah Jones
PoliticusUSA
Tuesday, March, 4th, 2014, 10:56 am   

Sixty-eight percent of all polled and 69% of registered voters think the Republican Party is out of touch with the concerns of most people, according to a new Washington Post/ABC poll. Only 28% think they are in touch.

Asked, “Q: Do you think the Republican party is in touch with the concerns of most people in the United States today, or is it out of touch?”

Broken down by party ID, only 12% of Democrats think Republicans are in touch, which is to be expected, but a mere 27% of Independents think the GOP is in touch. Of course, 57% of Republicans think the party is in touch, but only 39% of conservatives agree.

Only 30% of whites think the GOP is in touch, and Hispanics lead with 32% thinking the GOP is in touch.

More surprising, 32% of young people think the GOP is in touch, while only 26% of the age group of 40-64 think so, and only 28% of the GOP base, age 65+, think so.

While 30% of some High School or less think the GOP is in touch, only 23% of Post grad agree. But 30% of college graduates think the GOP is in touch.

Broken down by income there isn’t much disagreement at all, in fact, the $100k+ and the $50-100k groups fell right at 29%, and the less than $50ks came in at 30% who think the GOP is in touch.

And by region, things are no better for the GOP. If only all of these folks voted. In the South and Midwest, only 26% of adults think the GOP is in touch. The Republican Party fares better in the West and Northeast.

In case you’ve ever wondered why Republicans cater so much to the far right religious crowd, it’s because basically that’s all they have now. White, evangelical protestants gave the GOP 35% who think the party is in touch, with white Catholics following at 31%. White non-evangelical Protestants only gave them 28% and the people who categorized themselves as having no religion only gave the GOP 23% who believe they are in touch.

What this poll suggests is that the GOP is not even hanging on to their base in terms of being seen as in touch. After all, 48% think the Democratic Party is in touch with the concerns of most people, and an even 48% disagree, while a full 68% think the GOP is out of touch.

However, this same poll suggests that while the Democratic Party wins on issues like raising the minimum wage, these factors are not going to translate to the 2014 election. Democrats even won by 1% on which party is better at handling taxes, yet when voters are asked which party they will vote for, even when later they say they are 50% more likely to vote for someone who supports raising the minimum wage, they’re pretty much split.

In a terrifying case of Not Paying Attention Much, “If a candidate for U.S. Congress supports the tea party political movement, would that make you more likely to vote for that candidate, less likely or wouldn’t it make much difference in your vote?” a full 41% said it wouldn’t make a difference.

So, the take away is that while Americans know where they stand on issues, they do not seem to understand what to do about it. This confusion benefits the party that Americans do not think are in touch with them. The goal of the Democratic Party is to translate this predominant lack of trust in the GOP into votes. They can’t do this when they are always playing defense against Darrell Issa’s witch hunts, which is yet another reason why Darrell Issa is conducting them.

However, instead of being so issue specific, Democrats could run with the general mistrust of the GOP and the Republicans’ the hatred of the 47%, in order to connect the dots between the GOP and Mitt Romney’s out-of-touchness. Pretty much no one would want to be associated with Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, or George W Bush – and the Democrats must not let the public forget what Republican leadership means. It is much clearer and easier to paint the party with one image than to try to educate the electorate about more complicated issues like closing the “Gingrich” tax loophole for higher income professionals.

Democrats are supported by the facts and should present their policy based solutions, but they should know that most of the public isn’t connecting the dots. Go with something simple, such as the idea that a vote for a Republican in any office is a vote for laws that benefit the Mitt Romneys of the world.

*********

Republicans Proven Wrong About Obamacare as The ACA Boosts Personal Income and Spending

By: Jason Easley
PoliticusUSA
Tuesday, March, 4th, 2014, 11:51 am      

Republicans have been proven completely wrong as the ACA helped both personal income and spending increase in January.

The Rupert Murdoch owned Wall Street Journal delivered the bad news to the GOP:

    The Affordable Care Act, President Barack Barack Obama’s signature health law, is already boosting household income and spending. The Commerce Department reported Monday that consumer spending rose a better-than-expected 0.4% and personal incomes climbed 0.3% in January. The new health-care law accounted for a big chunk of the increase on both fronts.

    On the incomes side, the law’s expanded coverage boosted Medicaid benefits by an estimated $19.2 billion, according to Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis. The ACA also offered several refundable tax credits, including health insurance premium subsidies, which added up to $14.7 billion.

    Taken together, the Obamacare provisions are responsible for about three-quarters of January’s overall rise in Americans’ incomes.

Republicans have spent years screaming from the highest peaks of Bulls–t Mountain that the ACA was going to kill jobs, drive healthcare costs up, and trash the economy. It turns out that the exact opposite is true.

What’s happening here is a matter of common sense. Millions of Americans are spending less on healthcare. People have more money to spend on other things. The ACA’s refundable tax credits are giving people billions of dollars back into their own pockets. The $19.2 billion in expanded Medicaid coverage is helping some people who paid for their own insurance or who were uninsured and paid for healthcare services out of pocket.

The fact that Obamacare is boosting the economy adds even more urgency to the Republican desire to get rid of it. The Republican mission is to stagnate all economic growth while Barack Obama is president. If his signature health insurance law is boosting the economy, it must be destroyed.

Reality is going to stop Republicans from campaigning hard against the ACA in both the 2014 and 2016 elections. The GOP is going to keep trying to destroy something that is not only helping millions of people get access to healthcare, but is also boosting the national economy.

Republicans were utterly, fantastically, completely wrong about the ACA, and as the law takes full effect, the news is only going to get worse for the Republican Party.

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

Obama Vows To Drop The Veto Hammer On Republicans 51st Attempt to Kill Obamacare

By: Jason Easley
PoliticusUSA
Tuesday, March, 4th, 2014, 7:32 pm   

House Republicans have launched their 51st attempt to kill the ACA, and President Obama has already promised that he will veto the legislation if it ever gets to his desk.

In a statement about the absurdly misnamed SIMPLE Fairness Act, the White House said:

    The Administration strongly opposes House passage of H.R. 4118, the Suspending the Individual Mandate Penalty Equals Fairness Act, because the bill would increase health insurance premiums, decrease tax credits, increase the number of uninsured, and shift costs to businesses, workers, and health care providers. Rather than attempting once again to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which the House has tried to do approximately 50 times, it is time for the Congress to stop fighting old political battles and join the President in an agenda focused on providing greater economic opportunity and security for middle class families and all those working to get into the middle class.

    The Affordable Care Act gives people greater control over their own health care. Every day, thousands of Americans are signing up for insurance, and four million have signed up so far. Because of the Affordable Care Act, Americans who have previously been denied coverage due to a pre-existing medical condition now have access to coverage. Additionally, the law helps millions of Americans stay on their parents’ plans until age 26, and provides access to free preventive care like cancer screenings that catch illness early on.

    H.R. 4118 would repeal the provision in the coming year that applies only to those Americans who can afford to purchase health insurance but decide not to do so. In fact, the Affordable Care Act already includes affordability and special-circumstances exceptions for Americans who cannot afford insurance. And the individual shared responsibility provision is essential to ensuring that the 129 million Americans with pre‑existing conditions can get coverage without being charged more or losing coverage when they get sick. Repealing this part of the law would also result in higher premiums for those who remain insured, fewer premium tax credits for middle‑income families, and increased cost‑shifting of uncompensated care to health care providers, workers, and businesses.

    If the President were presented with H.R. 4118, he would veto it.

In other words, this is going to end up in the same place as the 50 previous House Republican attempts to repeal Obamacare.

The Republican concept of fairness is interesting. They consider increasing the number of uninsured and raising the cost of health insurance fair. They consider taking money out of people’s pockets fair. What Republicans call unfair is the notion that Americans deserve access to healthcare.

The SIMPLE Fairness Act is nothing more than another lamebrain gimmick that is designed to waste taxpayer money while House Republicans pretend that they have the ability to stop the ACA. Republicans understand that support for repealing Obamacare has hit an all time low, so they are trying to disguise their repeal attempts as fairness.

There is no “fairness” in this piece of legislation. This bill is designed to force another show vote because Republicans have it stuck in their heads that if they can get Democrats on the record as supporting the ACA, they are certain to win every election from now until the end of time.

This bill will never get to Obama’s desk, but if it did, the president would veto it faster that George W. Bush can say decider. As long as Barack Obama is in office, the ACA isn’t going anywhere. It doesn’t matter what Republicans say about controlling both the House and Senate.

The ACA is here to stay.

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

GOP’s 2016 Chances Fading As Hillary Clinton Holds Commanding Lead In Virginia

By: Justin Baragona
PoliticusUSA
Tuesday, March, 4th, 2014, 12:32 pm      

A new poll released by Roanoke College on Tuesday shows that the GOP is in serious trouble in their bid to take the White House in 2016. The poll was done in New York, New Jersey and Virginia. While, predictably, New York and New Jersey both showed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton well in the lead, the results for Virginia were a little surprising and have to be discouraging for Republicans.

The poll revealed that in matchups with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, Clinton is well in the lead against all three. Considering that Virginia is a ‘swing’ state, and the GOP needs to flip at least a few states in 2016 to have a chance, this doesn’t bode well for them. Against the embattled Christie, Clinton holds a solid eight-point lead, 48-40. Against Tea Party darling Paul, her lead widens to 14 points. Ryan also trails by double-digits, 51-40.

The poll also shows that Christie, while still relatively popular in his home state despite his recent troubles, would still get beat soundly there if he faced off against Clinton. While Christie fared much better in Jersey than either Paul or Ryan, he still trails Clinton by 10 points, 51-41. Paul trails by 29 and Ryan by 25 points. In New York, no GOP candidate comes within 33 points of Mrs. Clinton.

Clinton’s favorability rating is quite high in Virginia, and far ahead of these three potential GOP candidates. 56% of Virginia residents hold a favorable view of the former First Lady, compared to 28% who see her negatively. Meanwhile, Christie is pretty much net-neutral on favorability in the state, with 38% seeing him positively while 37% have an unfavorable view of him. Paul is slightly net-negative with Virginia residents, as he’s at 32% favorable against 36% negative. 40% of Virginians see Ryan in a positive light while 32% do not like him personally.

This poll seems to compare favorably with recent polls in battleground states that show Clinton is well in command. While still obviously early, it has to be frustrating for the GOP to see the Democrats with a solid candidate in place with high visibility and who is generally well-liked. Meanwhile, they have NO idea who they might be running at this point. They don’t even have 2 or 3 potential favorites. It is a complete crap shoot at this point.

Currently, the GOP is in the same situation as 2012 in regards to electoral votes, if not worse. President Obama won by 126 electoral votes and he lost two states from the election before (North Carolina and Indiana.) It is possible, at this point, that Clinton could pick up North Carolina again and maybe even another one or two. States like Georgia, Missouri or Arizona have the potential to flip, especially for a strong candidate like Clinton.

Unless, the GOP somehow gets Clinton not to run, or finds some magical candidate that energizes the nation for them, they have almost no chance in winning in 2016. Hillary Clinton as the 2016 Democratic candidate makes it nearly a foregone conclusion that the White House stays Blue.


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« Reply #12289 on: Mar 06, 2014, 06:52 AM »

Ukraine crisis: Crimea announces referendum on joining Russia

As EU leaders meet to decide response to Russia's military occupation, Crimean government announces 16 March vote on region's status

Ian Traynor in Brussels, Paul Lewis in Washington, Kim Willsher in Paris, Patrick Wintour and agencies
theguardian.com, Thursday 6 March 2014 12.06 GMT     

As EU leaders huddled in Brussels on Thursday morning for an emergency summit to address the Ukraine crisis, the Crimean regional government took matters into its own hands and announced it would hold a referendum on whether the region should officially join Russia on 16 March.

At a press conference in Sevastopol, Rustam Temirgaliev, the Crimean vice-premier, said the referendum was being held purely to ratify the decision of the Crimean parliament to join the Russian Federation, and the parliament had appealed to Russia to assist with this.

He said Crimea was Russian with immediate effect: "From today, as Crimea is part of the Russian Federation, the only legal forces here are troops of the Russian Federation, and any troops of the third country will be considered to be armed groups with all the associated consequences."

The referendum was immediately denounced as illegitimate by the new government in Kiev.

A referendum had already been scheduled in Crimea on 30 March, but the question to be put to voters was on whether their region should enjoy "state autonomy" within Ukraine.

On Wednesday evening, the new leader of the Crimea region, Sergei Aksyonov, said pro-Russian forces had control of all of the peninsula and had blockaded all Ukrainian military bases yet to surrender.

The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, had said on Wednesday that EU leaders could impose sanctions on Russia if the situation in Crimea had not defused by the time they met in Brussels on Thursday. While it may not have escalated, the crisis is far from defused.

Ahead of the summit, the European Union froze the assets of Ukraine's ousted Russia-backed leader Viktor Yanukovych and 17 other officials suspected of violations of human rights and misuse of state funds.

David Cameron, François Hollande and Angela Merkel were due to meet on Thursday morning before the summit to discuss a range of possible punitive economic sanctions against Moscow.

The US secretary of state, John Kerry, has threatened Russia with isolation "diplomatically, politically and economically" to withdraw from the Crimea.

As the EU meets, 40 unarmed military personnel are expected in Crimea on a mission by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to try to defuse tensions in the region.

Later, the 15-member UN security council will hold closed-door talks in New York – the fourth such consultations since Friday.

Speaking on his Call Clegg phone-in show on LBC on Thursday morning, Nick Clegg expressed despair that Vladimir Putin was displaying cold war reflexes and said the Russian president had to realise that Ukraine need not be forced into a binary choice between Russia or the EU.

The deputy prime minister said: "Putin is displaying cold war reflexes which are totally out of step with modern Europe, and his mindset is a throwback to cold war thinking. He regards any closer contact between Ukraine and the EU as all synonymous with the old style conflict between capitalism and communism. It is not. This is where he has got it so very wrong."

He added: "To see always this as a zero sum game, and there are these rigid boundaries on the map that have to be protected, is a throwback to a past which I hoped Europe had gone beyond."

But Putin has so far shown no indiciation that he is ready to bend. The first western attempts to get Moscow to back down over its seizure of Crimea failed on Wednesday evening.

Negotiations in Paris between Kerry and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, broke up without agreement on Wednesday. The Americans and the Europeans hoped to persuade Moscow to open a dialogue with the new government in Kiev and to withdraw its forces in Crimea to their bases and allow in international monitors.

But while Lavrov accused the Americans of tabling unacceptable ultimatums, Kerry said there were "a number of ideas" up for discussion. Both men are expected to resume negotiations in Rome on Thursday after consulting their respective presidents, Barack Obama and Putin.

"Things have moved in a good direction," said Fabius.

Lavrov said western countries were proposing "steps that do not help create an atmosphere of dialogue. John Kerry agreed that such an atmosphere needed to be created. It's very hard to make honest agreements that will help the Ukrainian people stabilise the situation in an atmosphere of threats and ultimatums."

Kerry insisted he had not come to the French capital expecting to find an instant answer to the crisis in the Crimea, but was encouraged by signals from the Russians after meeting his Moscow counterpart Lavrov. Kerry also met the Ukrainian foreign minister, Andrij Deshchytsia.

"I believe I have something to take back to President Obama, and I believe Foreign Secretary Lavrov has something to take back to President Putin. All parties agree it's important to resolve this issue through dialogue," Kerry said.

It had been a day of frantic diplomacy in Paris, where Kerry met his Russian counterpart in an attempt to find a peaceful solution to the Ukrainian crisis. "We will not allow the integrity, the sovereignty, of Ukraine to be violated – or for that violation to go unchallenged," Kerry told journalists after the meeting.

"Russia made a choice. We have clearly stated it is the wrong choice to move troops into the Crimea. Ukrainian territorial integrity must be restored and maintained." Kerry added that efforts would continue to allow a "de-escalation" of the situation.

The meeting between Kerry and Lavrov was the first direct US-Russian contact since the Ukrainian crisis acquired alarming dimensions at the weekend with the fall of President Viktor Yanukovych and Russia's military occupation of Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.

Analysts and diplomats in Brussels had been expecting the Kremlin to make symbolic concessions in order to weaken the case for sanctions against Russia by Europe and America, but those failed to materialise. That put further pressure on Thursday's emergency EU summit, with the Europeans almost obliged to impose punitive measures on Russia.

Early on Thursday the EU said it had targeted Yanukovych and 17 other members of his former Ukrainian hierarchy with an assets freeze.

In Washington, Congress was fine-tuning legislation that would provide Obama with a "sanctions toolbox", including visa bans and asset freezes, similar to those used against Iran. The US is expected to push ahead with sanctions, which at their most extreme would include measures to restrict trade, irrespective of the decisions taken in Europe.

Lavrov said Moscow could not order the forces controlling Crimea back to bases or barracks since they were not under Russian control, but were local "self-defence" units opposed to the new government in Kiev and safeguarding their region. Diplomats in Brussels said this amounted to opposition to the western proposals.

In Crimea, a UN special envoy had to abandon his mission after being stopped by armed men and besieged inside a cafe by a hostile crowd shouting "Russia! Russia!"

The envoy, the Dutch diplomat Robert Serry, agreed to leave Crimea to end the standoff.

Germany has led the push to get Russia to engage diplomatically, resisting calls from Washington to isolate the Kremlin. The German push was reinforced by William Hague, the British foreign secretary, and the European commission, which unveiled an €11bn (£9bn) financial package for Ukraine, the equivalent of the $15bn pledged by Russia to shore up Yanukovych before he was toppled.

The transatlantic gulf opening up over how to respond to Putin appeared to be widening. One senior official from a G7 country spoke of growing unease over the US push for economic sanctions against Russia. "This isn't time for economic sanctions," the official said. "There is no clock ticking and we should be careful not to antagonise the other side."

The senior official said Berlin, rather than Washington, should assume the lead in talks with Russia. "I don't think the US should necessarily be taking the lead on behalf of G7 countries."

Merkel has spoken to Putin six times in the past week and the Germans are keen to engage rather than isolate the Russians.

In Washington, the Republican leader of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, said a bipartisan push was under way to pass legislation that would "strengthen the president's hand". He said it would be similar to how the US Congress and White House had dealt with Iran. "We gave the administration what I'll call a toolbox of sanctions [against Tehran] that they had the ability to impose as they saw fit," Boehner said.

Comparisons to the situation with Iran are likely to unnerve the White House, which has been embroiled in a series of bruising battles with hawks in Congress, who have spent months trying to push through sanctions legislation that further squeeze Tehran, a move the Obama administration believes would scupper nuclear negotiations.

But Obama, who last week insisted "there will be costs" for Putin if he intervened in Ukraine, a threat he has repeated several times since, is under pressure to follow through with action.

Officials in Brussels said there was little sign of willingness from the Russians to pursue a political settlement of the crisis, but they did not rule out a last-minute proposal from the Kremlin that would deflect the pressure for sanctions and divide Europeans going into the summit.

"The situation in Crimea needs to be handled through political dialogue in the framework of the Ukrainian constitution and respecting the rights of all Ukrainian citizens and communities," said José Manuel Barroso, the head of the European commission. "I expect no one will oppose a deployment of international observers to Crimea."

Earlier in Paris, Lavrov boycotted a meeting with Kerry, Hague and Deshchytsia. Kerry said that "regrettably" one member – Russia – had failed to appear for a meeting of the so-called Budapest agreement group, which guaranteed Ukraine's borders after it renounced nuclear weapons in the 1990s.

Lavrov repeated the Kremlin's assertion that the 16,000 troops that have seized Crimea were not Russian forces. "If you mean the self-defence units created by the inhabitants of Crimea, we give them no orders, they take no orders from us," he said. "As for the military personnel of the [Russian] Black Sea fleet, they are in their deployment sites."

European officials and diplomats admit that the sanctions being discussed on Thursday were symbolic rather than substantive. The measures include freezing talks on making it easier for Russians to travel to Europe and on a new overall agreement regulating relations between Russia and the EU.

Russian and European officials admit that both sets of talks are unofficially frozen anyway. Nonetheless, Moscow is threatening to retaliate.

Hague said the summit would need to show that there were "costs and consequences for Russia's actions against Ukraine". But the impact was more likely to be long-term rather than immediate.

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

U.S. Imposes Visa Restrictions over Ukraine

by Naharnet Newsdesk
06 March 2014, 15:39

Stepping up the pressure on Russia, the United States on Thursday imposed visa restrictions and set the stage for other potential sanctions over the Russian intervention in Crimea.

U.S. President Barack Obama was ordering visa bans "in response to Russia's ongoing violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity," the White House said.

In an executive order, Obama also authorized the blocking of property of officials and individuals implicit in such action.

"This (executive order) is a flexible tool that will allow us to sanction those who are most directly involved in destabilizing Ukraine, including the military intervention in Crimea, and does not preclude further steps should the situation deteriorate," the administration said.

The move comes after Russian forces took de facto control of strategically important Crimea, home to Kremlin's Black Sea Fleet, following the ouster on February 22 of Ukraine's pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych.

Washington, in response to the incursion on the peninsula, has already announced it was pulling out of preparatory meetings for the G8 and warned it was prepared to slap sanctions on Moscow. Other steps include suspending bilateral discussions on trade and investment, the White House said.

"Depending on how the situation develops, the United States is prepared to consider additional steps and sanctions as necessary," it said in a statement.

"We call on Russia to take the opportunity before it to resolve this crisis through direct and immediate dialogue with the government of Ukraine," it said.

It also urged the "immediate pull-back of Russia's military forces to their bases, the restoration of Ukraine's territorial integrity, and support for the urgent deployment of international observers and human rights monitors who can assure that the rights of all Ukrainians are protected, including ethnic Russians."

Dan Pfeiffer, Obama's top political advisor, said the executive order would "set up a framework for potential sanctions."

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

US and Russia fail to reach Ukraine deal on day of frantic diplomacy

John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov to resume talks on Thursday as pressure grows on EU to pass punitive measures against Moscow

Ian Traynor in Brussels, Paul Lewis in Washington and Kim Willsher in Paris
The Guardian, Wednesday 5 March 2014 21.44 GMT     

John Kerry: ‘All parties agreed today that it is important to try to resolve these issues through dialogue’

The first western attempts to get Moscow to back down over its seizure of Crimea failed on Wednesday evening, putting pressure on the EU to resort to punitive action against the Kremlin at an emergency summit on Thursday.

Negotiations in Paris between John Kerry, the US secretary of state, and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, broke up without agreement on Wednesday. The Americans and the Europeans hoped to persuade Moscow to open a dialogue with the new government in Kiev and also to withdraw its forces in Crimea to their bases and allow in international monitors.

But while Lavrov accused the Americans of tabling unacceptable ultimatums, Kerry said there were “a number of ideas ” up for discussion. Both men are expected to resume negotiations in Rome on Thursday after consulting their respective presidents, Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin.

“Things have moved in a good direction,” said Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister.

Lavrov said western countries were proposing “steps that do not help create an atmosphere of dialogue. John Kerry agreed that such atmosphere needed to be created. It’s very hard to make honest agreements that will help the Ukrainian people stabilise the situation in an atmosphere of threats and ultimatums.”

Kerry insisted he had not come to the French capital expecting to find an instant answer to the crisis in the Crimea, but was encouraged by signals from the Russians after meeting his Moscow counterpart Sergei Lavrov. Kerry also met the Ukrainian foreign minister Andrij Deshchytsia.

“I believe I have something to take back to President Obama, and I believe Foreign Secretary Lavrov has something to take back to President Putin. All parties agree it’s important to resolve this issue through dialogue,” Kerry said.

It had been a day of frantic diplomacy in Paris, where Kerry met his Russian counterpart in an attempt to find a peaceful solution to the Ukrainian crisis. “We will not allow the integrity, the sovereignty, of Ukraine to be violated – or for that violation to go unchallenged,” Kerry told journalists after the meeting. “Russia made a choice. We have clearly stated it is the wrong choice to move troops into the Crimea. Ukrainian territorial integrity must be restored and maintained.” Kerry added that efforts would continue to allow a “de-escalation” of the situation.

The meeting between Kerry and Lavrov was the first direct US-Russian contact since the Ukrainian crisis acquired alarming dimensions at the weekend with the fall of President Viktor Yanukovych and Russia’s military occupation of Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.

Analysts and diplomats in Brussels had been expecting the Kremlin to make symbolic concessions in order to weaken the case for sanctions against Russia by Europe and America, but those failed to materialise. That put further pressure on Thursday’s emergency EU summit, with the Europeans almost obliged to impose punitive measures on Russia. Early on Thursday the EU said it had targeted Yanukovych and 17 other members of his former Ukrainian hierarchy with an assets freeze.

In Washington, Congress was fine-tuning legislation that would provide Obama with a “sanctions toolbox”, including visa bans and asset freezes, similar to those used against Iran. The US is expected to push ahead with sanctions, which at their most extreme would include measures to restrict trade, irrespective of the decisions taken in Europe.

The Vienna-based Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe announced that it was sending a team of 35 observers to Ukraine. Initial signs of concessions from the Russians were scant.

Lavrov said it was not up to Russia to invite the observers to Crimea as that was not Russian territory. He also said Moscow could not order the forces controlling Crimea back to bases or barracks since they were not under Russian control, but were local “self-defence” units opposed to the new government in Kiev and safeguarding their region. Diplomats in Brussels said this amounted to opposition to the western proposals.

In Crimea, a UN special envoy had to abandon his mission after being stopped by armed men and besieged inside a cafe by a hostile crowd shouting “Russia! Russia!” The envoy, the Dutch diplomat Robert Serry, agreed to leave Crimea to end the standoff.

Germany has led the push to get Russia to engage diplomatically, resisting calls from Washington to isolate the Kremlin. The German push was reinforced by William Hague, the British foreign secretary, and the European Commission, which unveiled an €11bn (£9bn) financial package for Ukraine, the equivalent of the $15bn pledged by Russia to shore up Yanukovych before he was toppled.

The transatlantic gulf opening up over how to respond to Putin appeared to be widening. One senior official from a G7 country told the Guardian of growing unease over the US push for economic sanctions against Russia. “This isn’t time for economic sanctions,” the official said. “There is no clock ticking and the we should be careful not to antagonise the other side.”

The senior official said Berlin, rather than Washington, should assume the lead in talks with Russia. “I don’t think the US should necessarily be taking the lead on behalf of G7 countries.”

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has spoken to Putin six times in the past week and the Germans are keen to engage rather than isolate the Russians.

In Washington, the Republican leader of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, said a bipartisan push was under way to pass legislation that would “strengthen the president’s hand”. He said it would be similar to how the US Congress and White House had dealt with Iran. “We gave the administration what I’ll call a toolbox of sanctions [against Tehran] that they had the ability to impose as they saw fit,” Boehner said.

Comparisons to the situation with Iran are likely to unnerve the White House, which has been embroiled in a series of bruising battles with hawks in Congress, who have spent months trying to push through sanctions legislation that further squeeze Tehran, a move the Obama administration believes would scupper nuclear negotiations.

But Obama, who last week insisted “there will be costs” for Putin if he intervened in Ukraine, a threat he has repeated several times since, is under pressure to follow through with action.

Officials in Brussels said there was little sign of willingness from the Russians to pursue a political settlement of the crisis, but they did not rule out a late, last-minute proposal from the Kremlin that would deflect the pressure for sanctions and divide Europeans going into the summit.

“The situation in Crimea needs to be handled through political dialogue in the framework of the Ukrainian constitution and respecting the rights of all Ukrainian citizens and communities,” said Jose Manuel Barroso, the head of the European Commission. “I expect no one will oppose a deployment of international observers to Crimea.”

Earlier in Paris, Lavrov boycotted a meeting with Kerry, Hague, and the Ukrainian foreign minister, Andrii Deshchytsia. Kerry said that “regrettably” one member – Russia – had failed to appear for a meeting of the so-called Budapest agreement group, which guaranteed Ukraine’s borders after it renounced nuclear weapons in the 1990s.

Lavrov repeated the Kremlin’s assertion that the 16,000 troops that have seized Crimea were not Russian forces. “If you mean the self-defence units created by the inhabitants of Crimea, we give them no orders, they take no orders from us,” he said. “As for the military personnel of the [Russian] Black Sea fleet, they are in their deployment sites.”

European officials and diplomats admit that the sanctions being discussed on Thursday were symbolic rather than substantive. The measures include freezing talks on making it easier for Russians to travel to Europe and on a new overall agreement regulating relations between Russia and the EU. Russian and European officials admit that both sets of talks are unofficially frozen anyway. Nonetheless, Moscow is threatening to retaliate.

Hague said the summit would need to show that there were “costs and consequences for Russia’s actions against Ukraine”. But the impact was more likely to be long-term rather than immediate.

***********

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
03/05/2014 03:51 PM

Ukraine Crisis: EU Concerned about Cost of Sanctions on Russia

By Gregor Peter Schmitz

Russia's aggression in Ukraine has set off plenty of bluster and aggressive rhetoric in Europe. But many EU member states are skittish about the potential dangers of imposing punitive economic measures on Moscow.

Great Britain would very much like to penalize Russia for its encroachment on the Crimean Peninsula. But it should cost the UK as little as possible. That, it would appear, is London's strategy for dealing with Moscow's aggression against Ukraine -- an approach made public through an embarrassing blunder on Monday. A freelance photographer snapped a picture of a classified document held by a government official as he entered Downing Street for consultations. The document outlined the potential punitive actions British Prime Minister David Cameron might take against Russia.

Britain should "be prepared to join other EU countries in imposing 'visa restrictions/travel bans' on Russian officials," the paper advised. It added that Britain should "not support, for now, trade sanctions … or close London's financial center to Russians."

The message is clear: The British economy, which profits immensely from wealthy Russians, should be protected from potential fallout from the ongoing stand-off over Ukraine. Sanctions of some sort, it has become increasingly clear, will almost certainly be imposed, particularly with EU leaders gathering in Brussels on Thursday to develop a joint bloc response.

But the document photographed outside Downing Street reflects the deep wariness in the EU of the potential costs associated with punitive action against Moscow. Brussels wants to send a message, while preventing excessive backlash.

Tough Rhetoric

The risks for such a backlash are high. The EU economy is heavily reliant on Russia -- the country represents the EU's third-largest trading partner. The reverse, of course, is true as well: Europe is number one on the Russian list. Economic ties between the EU and Russia continue to be tight despite the turbulence triggered by the global economic crisis and the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict. European exports to Russia primarily include machinery, chemicals and agrarian products whereas imports from the Russians are predominantly made up of raw materials.

The EU was also a major backer of Russia's admission to the World Trade Organization in 2012 and maintains significant influence over Moscow; EU member states are by far the most important source of foreign investment in Russia.

Nevertheless, with tough rhetoric having come out of several European capitals in recent days, and equally pointed retorts emanating from Moscow, it seems likely that some form of tit-for-tat looms. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Tuesday said that EU sanctions could come as soon as Thursday. In response, Russian parliament has warned that Moscow would respond in kind, according to a Wednesday report on the Voice of Russia website.

Countermeasures from Russia could prove painful to the EU, particularly when it comes to the energy sector. Germany, for example, imports more than a third of its natural gas and oil from Russia; other European countries are vastly more dependent on Moscow for their energy needs. Theoretically, Europe could compensate by turning to Norway for its natural gas needs, but energy prices would spike as a result.

Thus far, no concrete steps have been taken to impose penalties aside from the suspension of trade talks between the US and Russia. The EU, however, has been openly considering sanctions on individuals and specific companies, so-called targeted measures.

The US is keeping a close eye on Europe's sanctions debate, knowing full well that America alone is unable to exert sufficient pressure on Moscow. The US isn't even among Russia's top 10 trading partners. "The Americans can only exert effective economic pressure on Russia together with Europe," says transatlantic expert Jack Janes of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies in Washington.

Diligence over Speed

It is now up to the Europeans to decide how far they want to go. And given the wildly varying degrees of enthusiasm for sanctions, it seems safe to assume that they won't go far. Several Eastern European countries have emerged as hardliners, but the further the distance from Ukraine, the less the enthusiasm for confronting Russia. The Austrians, too, expressed skepticism of punitive measures on Wednesday, with Finance Minister Michael Spindelegger saying that in the Ukraine crisis, the focus should not be put on sanctions.

Germany is somewhere in the middle, with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier stressing the creation of a forum for direct Ukraine-Russia talks over sanctions. Gernot Erler, the German government's coordinator for relations with Russia, has also been cautious. "I would warn against imposing sanctions at the current point in time," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE on Tuesday. "Such a move could ruin chances for achieving a political solution, as small as the window for such a solution might appear."

No matter what happens, though, collateral damage is to be expected, with the New Russia-EU Framework Agreement likely to suffer. Negotiations on the deal have been sluggish recently, primarily due to Russia's focus on creating a customs union with Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.

On the website of Germany's Foreign Ministry, a blurb about the Framework Agreement reads: "Negotiations have been ongoing since 2008 on this ambitious document, which is to establish a reliable and long-term foundation for relations in the areas of politics, economics, trade, science and culture. The discussions have come a long way. But because of the importance of the agreement to both sides, diligence takes precedence over speed."

Given the current stand-off, that is likely truer now than ever before.

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

Mystery Men at De Facto Crimean Border Help Fuel Suspicion and Dread

By ALISON SMALE
MARCH 5, 2014
IHT

ARMYANSK, Ukraine — If anyone wonders if Russia and its supporters in Crimea are serious about holding on to territory that is still formally part of Ukraine, the de facto border checkpoint near this shabby garrison town on the northern edge of the peninsula dispels any doubt.

The mystery men whom everyone takes for armed and masked Russian troops without insignia on their uniforms were here en masse, and they seem to have dug in for the long haul at what is clearly intended as a marker of a new border between the largely Russian-speaking Crimea and the rest of Ukraine.

Facts on the ground like these are driving tensions ever higher in perhaps the worst East-West confrontation since the Cold War. And, as in the Georgian-Russian war in 2008, the language of confrontation is roadblocks, territorial claims and swiftly organized shows of popular support: from shadowy self-defense groups to poorly prepared referendums used to legitimize steps already taken.

One big difference from Georgia is that, although Crimea has for centuries been a bitterly contested prize, there has been little history of overt ethnic tension since World War II, when locals battled the Nazis and Stalin deported the Crimean Tatars, a Turkic Muslim people, to Central Asia.

Now, in a strange ghost of a conflict, a previously calm, if impoverished, population of two million has been whipped into anxiety and dread by war talk and mounting suspicion.

People who admit that they would never have done so even two weeks ago now identify to which percentage they are Ukrainian, Russian, Tatar or some other nationality. At military sites across Crimea, Ukrainian forces have been neutralized but not evacuated, forced into a strange bond with the mystery men by a mutual determination — so far — to avoid bloodshed and provocation.

On Wednesday, at least 10 Kamaz trucks of the kind seen transporting Russian soldiers across Crimea in recent days were parked in a large field to the left of the road leading up to the checkpoint here. The uniformed men had pitched the type of large khaki tent that could be used as a field kitchen and canteen or possibly as sleeping quarters.

A few hundred yards beyond the tent and the trucks was what had been a traffic police station, like those that dot roads across the former Soviet Union. This one, firmly on Ukrainian territory, had clearly been taken over by pro-Russia forces, with two large Russian flags flying at its edge. Also visible was the red, blue and green flag of Kuban Cossacks, who traditionally inhabit a Black Sea region to the east of the Crimean Peninsula.

An armored personnel carrier was positioned on the side of the road as reporters drove up from the Crimean side, with a second personnel carrier blocking the road farther up.

Cinder blocks and sandbags were piled around the edge of the traffic post and across the road to slow any vehicles passing in either direction.

Refusing to talk to reporters, six of the men in unmarked uniforms discussed in Russian whether to go for a wash, pulling identical small white towels out of their kits.

In general, no one was willing to talk, or to allow photographers and reporters to get close enough to observe the installation. Reporters who had arrived by late morning saw two men in distinctive Cossack uniforms helping the soldiers keep a careful watch on vehicles coming through from Crimea. One of the soldiers appeared to be writing down license plate numbers, while a couple of others examined documents before allowing vehicles to head north.

Reporters who arrived just two hours later saw at least 20 Kuban Cossacks in combat fatigues and lambskin hats staffing the checkpoint, all equipped with new-looking automatic weapons — a highly unusual sight for a group known more for its skill on horseback.

None of the photographers, television crews or other journalists who arrived during the morning were allowed closer than about 100 yards from the post. The armed men quite firmly, if politely, kept everyone away, even a crew from Russia Today, the 24-hour station funded by the Russian government.

A man introduced to the first group of reporters as the commander made clear there was to be no talking and no approach. The second group of reporters was introduced to a masked man in the uniform of the Berkut secret police — used by the former Ukrainian president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, to attack protesters in Kiev — who the Cossacks said was the commander.

He suggested to that group of reporters that they could take a smaller road out of Crimea. What was unclear was whether reporters would have been allowed back in.

In general, there seemed to be almost no traffic coming in, while perhaps a dozen vehicles — some long-haul trucks, others private vans and cars — crossed in the space of 30 minutes toward the north and the Ukrainian district of Kherson.

The narrow neck leading out of Crimea’s northwest toward Kherson, and territory farther to the east, have for centuries been a battleground. They control access to miles and miles of plains rolling south to the regional capital, Simferopol, and on toward the hills and dramatic coastline of the Black Sea.

It was in this region that the Russians stormed Tatar fortifications during a war with the Turks in the early 18th century, clearing the way for their eventual control over what had been led by a Turkic khan. In 1920, the Bolsheviks triumphed in the region.

Now, conflict seems to have descended once more. To the south of Armyansk, a bus stop in the small town of Ishun bore a token of how this formerly peaceful peninsula had been grabbed and torn in just the past week.

“Putin No to War!” read the sign, spray-painted in Russian.

Farther south, in Simferopol, a United Nations envoy, Robert Serry, got a taste of the enmity now roiling the region on Wednesday evening as an angry local crowd surrounded him. Mr. Serry, a Dutch diplomat, was eventually forced to take refuge in a cafe before agreeing to go straight to the airport.

The message that outsiders are not necessarily welcome has been mounting in recent days, as pro-Russian crowds or self-appointed self-defense forces have rallied around the mystery men outside military bases, and Ukrainians inside have surrendered their weapons while declining to leave territory they feel a duty to protect.

In Yevpatoriya, a resort town northeast of Simferopol, the Ukrainian commander, Col. Andrei Matvienko, a career officer stationed there since 1997, has allowed 40 armed men, whom he identified as Russians, to take up shared supervision of his missile defense unit.

His 200 men have surrendered their arms, he said, in the name of avoiding a clash. Though tucked into a residential complex, the base has been the scene of confrontations for days.

“The truth will be with us,” was what he offered as an eventual outcome. As for which side has right on its side, Colonel Matvienko said as a soldier with a grenade launcher walked past, “Draw your own conclusions.”

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

Russia Today news anchor Liz Wahl resigns live on air over Ukraine crisis

US-based Wahl said she could not work for a network that 'whitewashed' the actions of Russian leader Vladimir Putin    

Rory Carroll in Los Angeles
theguardian.com, Thursday 6 March 2014 00.29 GMT   
  
Link to video: RT journalist resigns on air

http://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2014/mar/06/rt-journalist-resigns-on-air

An American anchor for the Kremlin-funded news channel RT has quit on air and accused the network of "whitewashing" Moscow's military intervention in Crimea.

Liz Wahl, a Washington-based correspondent for RT-America, part of the network formerly known as Russia Today, told viewers on Wednesday she was resigning because of its coverage of President Vladimir Putin's actions in the Ukrainian region.

Veerng off script, Wahl said: "I cannot be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin. I'm proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth, and that is why, after this newscast, I'm resigning."

As the daughter of a military veteran and the wife of a military base physician the network's coverage of a potentially explosive crisis presented ethical and moral dilemmas, she said.

Wahl cited another RT host, Abby Martin, who made headlines on Tuesday when she declared: "Russian intervention in the Crimea is wrong." In a tweet she later called Martin "my girl" and commended her for going "spectacularly off-message".

Wahl, a self-described "Filipina-Hungarian-American", also alluded to Moscow's bloody intervention in Hungary in 1956. "Just spoke to grandparents who came to US as refugees escaping Soviets during Hungarian revolution. Amazing to hear amid new Cold War fears," she tweeted.

RT, a predominantly English-language network aimed at a global audience, broadcasts news, documentaries and talk shows with a distinctly pro-Russian slant. RT-America provides several hours of US-produced content a day, including a show hosted by former CNN star Larry King.

Unlike other international broadcasters who have reported the presence of Russian troops in Crimea the station has echoed the Kremlin line about the troops being local self-defence forces.

In a statement, RT denounced Wahl's actions as a "self-promotional" stunt. It drew a distinciton between her role as a newscaster and Martin's position as an opinion host.

"When a journalist disagrees with the editorial position of his or her organization, the usual course of action is to address those grievances with the editor, and, if they cannot be resolved, to quit like a professional. But when someone makes a big public show of a personal decision, it is nothing more than a self-promotional stunt," it said.

"It actually makes me feel sick that I worked there," Wahl told the Daily Beast.

She had planned the move for some time, she said. "When I came on board from the beginning I knew what I was getting into, but I think I was more cautious and tried to stay as objective as I could.

"*************

U.S. Hopes Boom in Natural Gas Can Curb Putin

By CORAL DAVENPORT and STEVEN ERLANGER
MARCH 5, 2014
IHT

A look at natural gas in Ukraine, Russia’s and Ukraine’s points of leverage, and the United States’ role in the situation.

WASHINGTON — The crisis in Crimea is heralding the rise of a new era of American energy diplomacy, as the Obama administration tries to deploy the vast new supply of natural gas in the United States as a weapon to undercut the influence of the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, over Ukraine and Europe.

The crisis has escalated a State Department initiative to use a new boom in American natural gas supplies as a lever against Russia, which supplies 60 percent of Ukraine’s natural gas and has a history of cutting off the supply during conflicts. This week, Gazprom, Russia’s state-run natural gas company, said it would no longer provide gas at a discount rate to Ukraine, a move reminiscent of more serious Russian cutoffs of natural gas to Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe in 2006, 2008 and 2009.

The administration’s strategy is to move aggressively to deploy the advantages of its new resources to undercut Russian natural gas sales to Ukraine and Europe, weakening such moves by Mr. Putin in future years. Although Russia is still the world’s biggest exporter of natural gas, the United States recently surpassed it to become the world’s largest natural gas producer, largely because of breakthroughs in hydraulic fracturing technology, known as fracking.

“We’re engaging from a different position because we’re a much larger energy producer,” said Jason Bordoff, a former senior director for energy and climate change on the White House’s National Security Council.

Over the past week, Congressional Republicans have joined major oil and gas producers like ExxonMobil in urging the administration to speed up oil and natural gas exports. Although environmentalists, some Democrats and American manufacturing companies that depend on the competitive advantage of cheap domestic natural gas oppose the effort, they have fallen to the sidelines in the rush.

For Russia, energy supplies are as important to keeping a hold on Ukraine and the other former countries of the Soviet Union as is the Russian Army itself. Ukraine would freeze without Russian gas, and its flow has been a considerable source of wealth and corruption in both countries. But Russia is also obligated by contract to provide natural gas to Western Europe, and Moscow remains highly dependent on Ukrainian pipelines to get it there.

David Dalton, the editor of the Economist Intelligence Unit, said: “Russia has always used gas as an instrument of influence. The more you owe Gazprom, the more they think they can turn the screws.”

But this time, there is a major difference. As recently as 2007, American natural gas supplies were believed to be dwindling, and the George W. Bush administration was considering importing natural gas from Russia. Since then, fracking, which environmentalists say could contaminate America’s water supplies, has transformed the strategic landscape.

The United States does not yet export its natural gas. But the Energy Department has begun to issue permits to American companies to export natural gas starting in 2015. American companies have submitted 21 applications to build port facilities in the United States to export liquefied natural gas by tanker. The agency has approved six of the applications.

About 80 percent of Russian gas exports to Europe pass through Ukraine. Europe, in turn, depends on Russia for 40 percent of its imported fuel. According to Mikhail Korchemkin, head of East European Gas Analysis, a consulting firm in Pennsylvania, the most important pipelines that run through Ukraine are the ones leading to Slovakia. They will eventually take gas to Germany, Austria and Italy. Ukraine Crisis in

However, even if the Energy Department approves all the pending permits from companies seeking to export natural gas, the fuel could not begin flowing overseas for at least a few years. Most American natural gas export terminals are in the early stages of construction. While one, in Sabine Pass, La., is tentatively scheduled to open in late 2015, most others will not start operating until 2017 or later.

At the helm of the new energy diplomacy effort is Carlos Pascual, a former American ambassador to Ukraine, who leads the State Department’s Bureau of Energy Resources. The 85-person bureau was created in late 2011 by Hillary Rodham Clinton, the secretary of state at the time, for the purpose of channeling the domestic energy boom into a geopolitical tool to advance American interests around the world.

In an interview, Mr. Pascual asserted that his team’s efforts had already weakened Mr. Putin’s hand, and had helped lower Ukraine’s dependence on Russia for natural gas supplies to 60 percent, down from 90 percent.

Mr. Pascual said that his team had worked to help Ukraine and other European countries break away from dependence on Russian gas by finding supplies elsewhere, including Africa, and assisting the Europeans to build up their natural gas storage. The team, he said, is working with Ukraine and the European Union on completing a European energy charter, which already allows natural gas to move more quickly through Europe and permits countries to negotiate lower rates with Gazprom.

In addition, he said, the team is helping countries develop their own natural gas resources, including in partnership with American energy giants. Halliburton has started fracking for natural gas in Poland, while Shell last year signed a contract to explore for natural gas in Ukraine.

Mr. Pascual said that although the prospective American exports would not immediately solve the problems in Europe, “it sends a clear signal that the global gas market is changing, that there is the prospect of much greater supply coming from other parts of the world.”

“This is a radically changed market,” he added. “Our challenge is to look at U.S. production in the global context and understand how we can influence what happens.”

Energy is always a big component of politics and international affair. Now that the U.S. has the leverage, she should use it judiciously for...

    
In the coming years, Gazprom’s influence will be further weakened as American supplies are shipped onto the global market, Mr. Pascual said.

This week, Republicans escalated their calls for the administration to speed those exports.

On Tuesday, Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, said: “One immediate step the president can and should take is to dramatically expedite the approval of U.S. exports of natural gas. The United States has abundant supplies of natural gas — an energy source that is in demand by many of our allies — and the U.S. Department of Energy’s excruciatingly slow approval process amounts to a de facto ban on American natural gas exports that Vladimir Putin has happily exploited to finance his geopolitical goals.

“We should not force our allies to remain dependent on Putin for their energy needs,” he said.

The efforts this week are not the first time that the State Department has used newfound energy resources to gain geopolitical advantage.

In 2012, in response to Iran’s nuclear program, the United States urged the Europeans to impose financial sanctions that greatly limited Iran’s ability to sell oil on the world market. Other countries feared that the move would raise prices, but officials assured other nations that a surge in American oil production would keep prices stable.

Earlier this year, the United States worked to broker a sale of Israeli natural gas to Jordan, in an effort to stabilize relations in the Middle East.

“In World War II, we were the arsenal of democracy,” said Robert McNally, who was the senior director for international energy issues on the National Security Council during the Bush administration. “I think we’re going to become the arsenal of energy.”

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

Putin, Flashing Disdain, Defends Action in Crimea

By STEVEN LEE MYERS
MARCH 4, 2014
IHT

MOSCOW — He sat alone in an armchair, alternately slouching, his legs spread wide in confidence, and squirming uncomfortably. He displayed flashes of sardonic wit, anger and palpable disdain, especially toward the Americans and Europeans but also toward the leaders of a country, Ukraine, he made clear was a political neophyte, unable to govern itself.

He demonstrated his characteristically uncanny grasp of detail in such matters as natural-gas pricing, but contradicted himself at times and wandered off into obscure historical digressions. He made assertions that were clearly exaggerated or, less charitably, clearly not true.

President Vladimir V. Putin, Russia’s paramount leader for more than 14 years, at last broke his studied silence on the political upheaval in Ukraine on Tuesday during a 66-minute news conference that sought to justify Russia’s actions and policies. In the process he offered an unvarnished glimpse into the thinking of the man who, by all accounts, singularly controls those actions.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, in his first comments since the Ukrainian crisis escalated, said on Tuesday that Russia reserves the right to use all means necessary in Ukraine.

“The only thing we had to do, and we did it, was to enhance the defense of our military facilities because they were constantly receiving threats and we were aware of the armed nationalists moving in,” Mr. Putin said, referring to Russia’s longstanding bases affiliated with the Black Sea Fleet, which has its headquarters in the port of Sevastopol in the Crimea region of Ukraine.

He delivered a version of the crisis that was fundamentally at odds with the view held by most officials in the United States, Europe and Ukraine. “Is this some manifestation of democracy?” Mr. Putin asked, rhetorically, of course. He went on to recount one grisly story on the mob violence that in his view has dragged Ukraine into nightmarish chaos: the humiliation of the recently appointed governor of the western region of the Volyn region, Oleksandr Bashkalenko. On the night of Feb. 20, he was handcuffed by protesters, doused with water, “locked up in a cellar and tortured.”

“He was actually only recently appointed to this position, in December, I believe,” Mr. Putin explained. “Even if we accept that they are all corrupt there, he barely had time to steal anything.”

His remarks were his first in public on the crisis. They were aimed at both international and domestic audiences, defending Russia from the fury of the global criticism for the furtive occupation of Crimea and rallying support at home.

He seemed eager to assure a wary population in Russia — as well as nervous markets that plunged on Monday — that he did not intend to go to war with Ukraine, a country with deep historical, cultural, social and familial ties with many Russians.

But he offered no clear prescription for ending the crisis, appearing content, as his spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said later, to wait to see what develops next.

Russia did not want a war against our “brothers in arms” in Ukraine, he said, only days after Russian special operation troops spread across the Crimean Peninsula in southern Ukraine and effectively seized control. At the same time, he fiercely challenged the version of events in Ukraine that had been presented by European and, especially, American leaders, whom he accused not only of abetting but orchestrating an “unconstitutional coup.”

His remarks were the closest any Russian official has come to acknowledging the deployment of troops in what Ukrainian and other foreign leaders have said was the de facto invasion of Crimea by 6,000 to 15,000 additional Russian troops. The forces, according to reports, continue to arrive by ferry and helicopter across the Kerch Strait, at the peninsula’s closest point to southern Russia.

“We did this, and it was the right thing to do, and very timely,” he said.

Mr. Putin defended Russia’s actions in Ukraine as a justified and measured response to an “orgy” of violence by nationalists, fascists, reactionaries and anti-Semites who are now in control of an illegitimate government. He described the former leader, President Viktor F. Yanukovych, as the legitimate president of Ukraine, despite the Parliament’s impeachment-like vote to strip him of his powers after he fled Kiev last month.

At the same time, Mr. Putin, whose relations with Mr. Yanukovych have always been rocky, said the former leader had no political future and that he had personally told him so.

He later added that while Russia’s upper house of Parliament had granted him the legal authority to use force in Ukraine, he believed it was not necessary to do so in eastern Ukraine and other parts of the country. At least not yet. Ethnic Russians in that region have been seizing government buildings and appealing for Russian intervention in a pattern very much like that in Crimea over the last week.

“Such a measure,” he said of a larger incursion into Ukrainian territory, “would certainly be the very last resort.”

Mr. Putin’s remarks were made before the Kremlin’s selected pool of journalists at his residence in Novo-Ogaryovo, outside Moscow, and they were broadcast live on state television networks repeatedly through the afternoon and evening, giving the country and the world the outlines of a strategy that at the end remained unclear.

His larger annual news conferences are highly choreographed and planned weeks in advance, but on this occasion Mr. Putin’s appearance appeared hastily organized, and he coyly evaded some of the most direct questions. They included one about the Russian soldiers arrayed outside Ukrainian military bases in Crimea, which he deflected by saying that the uniforms they wore were common through the post-Soviet region. “Go to our stores, and you can buy any uniform,” he said.

Gleb Pavlovksy, a political consultant who worked with the Kremlin in the past, described the news conference as “eclectic.” He said: “I expected him to prepare a message, a thesis, ideological or strategic, but it was more explanatory and defensive. It contained contradictions, which spoke to the fact it was not prepared. It explained something about his motives, but they were various.”

Above all, Mr. Putin appeared defiant, evidently frustrated by what he described as false promises by foreign diplomats and double standards that justify American or NATO military operations in the name of protecting human rights or democracy but disregard Russian concerns.

“We are often accused of illegitimacy in our actions, and when I ask the question, ‘Do you think everything you do is legitimate?’ they say yes,” he said, and then went on.

“It’s necessary to recall the actions of the United States in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya, where they acted either without any sanction from the U.N. Security Council or distorted the content of these resolutions, as it happened in Libya,” he said. “There, as you know, only the right to create a no-fly zone for government aircraft was authorized, and it all ended in the bombing and participation of special forces in ground operations. Our partners, especially the United States, always formulate their geopolitical and state interests, and then drag the rest of the world with them, guided by the well-known phrase ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us.’ ”

He brushed aside concerns about President Obama’s threat of sanctions and dismissed the suspension of preparations for the Group of 8 summit meeting scheduled in Sochi, where Mr. Putin hosted the Olympics after a reconstruction effort that cost more than $50 billion.

“As for the Group of 8, I don’t know,” he said with an indifferent shrug. “We are preparing for the Group of 8, and we will be ready for them to accept our colleagues. If they don’t want to come, well, they don’t need to.”

Mr. Putin refused to recognize Oleksandr V. Turchynov, who had been named acting president of Ukraine, and said he would not recognize a new round of elections “if they were held under the same terror which we are now seeing in Kiev.”

At the same time he suggested that Ukraine hold a referendum to adopt a new constitution, presumably addressing the status of Crimea and other regions with large Russian populations, and then hold elections for a new president and Parliament.

He said that the people of Crimea, a mixture of Russians, Ukrainians and Tatars, should be allowed to “determine their own future,” comparing them pointedly to Kosovars, who, after a NATO air war, ultimately declared Kosovo’s independence from Serbia in 2008.

Mr. Putin has viewed similar calls for self-determination among Russia’s ethnic republics as treasonous and presided over a prolonged war in Chechnya that begin in 1999 to crush its separatist movement.

Mr. Putin, surprisingly, expressed some understanding for the protesters who massed on Independence Square in Kiev with a pointed rebuke of Ukraine’s political system as an immature, corrupted one. He said they wanted “radical change rather than some cosmetic remodeling of power.”

“Why are they demanding this?” he said. “Because they have grown used to seeing one set of thieves being replaced by another. Moreover, the people in the regions do not even participate in forming their own regional governments.” Mr. Putin nonetheless denounced the methods of the protests and their political supporters in Parliament, particularly the eruption of violence in Kiev on Feb. 18 and 19.

He suggested at one point that it was provocateurs from the opposition posing as snipers — and not government forces — who shot and killed many of those who died, a statement inconsistent with numerous witness accounts.

Secretary of State John Kerry, visiting Kiev, sharply disputed Mr. Putin’s version of events in Ukraine, saying there was “not a single piece of credible evidence” for his claims.

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

Point by Point, State Department Rebuts Putin on Ukraine

By PETER BAKER
MARCH 5, 2014
IHT

WASHINGTON — Obama administration officials watched President Vladimir V. Putin’s defiant news conference on Tuesday with barely concealed scorn. Time after time, they argued, Mr. Putin had distorted reality.

So on Wednesday, the administration put its argument in writing. In a rare, in-your-face statement more reminiscent of a political campaign than the rarefied world of diplomacy, the State Department issued a “fact sheet” rebutting what it called “10 False Claims About Ukraine” made by the Russian president.

“As Russia spins a false narrative to justify its illegal actions in Ukraine,” the department’s statement said, “the world has not seen such startling Russian fiction since Dostoyevsky wrote, ‘The formula “two plus two equals five” is not without its attractions.’   ”

Among other things, the statement rejected assertions by Mr. Putin that Ukraine’s new government is illegitimate, that its Parliament is under the influence of extremists or terrorists and that Russian forces were acting to protect Russian military assets. Contrary to what Mr. Putin contended, “there have been no incidents of attacks on churches” and “absolutely no evidence of a humanitarian crisis” prompting Ukrainian refugees to seek Russian asylum, the statement said.

The most salient claim that Mr. Putin has made to justify the military intervention in Crimea is that ethnic Russians were targeted for violence, requiring rescue. “Outside of Russian press and Russian state television, there are no credible reports of any ethnic Russians being under threat,” the statement said.

It added, “Ethnic Russians and Russian speakers have filed petitions attesting that their communities have not experienced threats.”

Referring to the Ukrainian capital, it said: “Furthermore, since the new government was established, calm has returned to Kyiv. There has been no surge in crime, no looting, and no retribution against political opponents.”

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

One Goal in Hand, Kiev’s Demonstrators Vow to Stay ‘Until the End’

By C. J. CHIVERS
MARCH 6, 2014
IHT

KIEV, Ukraine — Vasil V. Puhalskyi, a farmer scarred about the face and ringed by veterans of the lethal street clashes here last month, offered an explanation for why, even after chasing President Viktor F. Yanukovych from power, he and his friends had fortified their barricades anew.

Those who stood up to Ukraine’s ousted authorities trust neither their interim government nor Russia, he said, and so will remain in place at least through elections in late spring. Only then will they decide if they are satisfied enough to leave their fighting positions in the capital’s central square.

“We will stand until the end,” Mr. Puhalskyi said.

The end for Ukraine’s fighters and demonstrators has proved elusive, and it is nowhere near in sight.

Even after the opposition’s surprise victory late last month, and after threats of a large-scale military invasion from Russia have appeared to subside in recent days, Independence Square, or Maidan, and its surrounding streets remain a nationalist encampment, at once grieving, proud and preparing for another fight, should it come.

Its volunteer street fighters have donned new camouflage uniforms and patrol on foot with batons. Barricades have been rebuilt and hardened with stones and bricks that might stop bullets. Firewood and food are stacked high, as if the camp were still besieged. Firebombs and tires that can serve as fuel for a flaming wall remain within reach, although no foe masses on the streets.

Activists have continued to organize as if nothing gained is yet secure.

Aware of the failures of the Orange Revolution — peaceful demonstrations in 2004 that overturned a rigged election but served to install a government that itself was soon sapped by incompetence and corruption — the opposition of 2014 says its battle-hardened ranks must serve as a check against another political betrayal.

“Now we have a period of transition, from old times of the regime to a new government,” said Vasyl Rozhko, a young architect who is a coordinator for Maidan Self-Defense, the umbrella group of fighters whose tents fill the avenues here. “Many people are afraid of the same developments that came after 2004. They are afraid of being disappointed like last time.”

At the center of this sustained street presence are the sotni, the midsize and seemingly well-organized groups of fighters who resisted the Yanukovych government’s attempts to clear the square by force, and who remain in place on their battlefield.

There are more than 45 sotni now, organizers say. Many have roots outside Kiev, mostly in Ukraine’s west.

Mr. Puhalskyi is a member of Sotnya No. 17, from Chernivtsi. Tents along the streets are adorned with each unit’s banner, often declaring their origins.

In front of Parliament, young men of Sotnya No.


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Ukraine crisis is about Great Power oil, gas pipeline rivalry

Resource scarcity, competition to dominate Eurasian energy corridors, are behind Russian militarism and US interference

Nafeez Ahmed   
Thursday 6 March 2014 07.26 GMT theguardian.com

Russia's armed intervention in the Crimea undoubtedly illustrates President Putin's ruthless determination to get his way in Ukraine. But less attention has been paid to the role of the United States in interfering in Ukrainian politics and civil society. Both powers are motivated by the desire to ensure that a geostrategically pivotal country with respect to control of critical energy pipeline routes remains in their own sphere of influence.

Much has been made of the reported leak of the recording of an alleged private telephone conversation between US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland and US ambassador to Kiev Geoffrey Pyatt. While the focus has been on Nuland's rude language, which has already elicited US apologies, the more important context of this language concerns the US role in liaising with Ukrainian opposition parties with a view, it seems, to manipulate the orientation of the Ukrainian government in accordance with US interests.

Rather than leaving the future of Ukrainian politics "up to the Ukrainian people" as claimed in official announcements, the conversation suggests active US government interference to favour certain opposition leaders:

    Nuland: Good. I don't think [opposition leader] Klitsch should go into the government. I don't think it's necessary, I don't think it's a good idea.

    Pyatt: Yeah. I guess... in terms of him not going into the government, just let him stay out and do his political homework and stuff. I'm just thinking in terms of sort of the process moving ahead we want to keep the moderate democrats together. The problem is going to be Tyahnybok [Oleh Tyahnybok, the other opposition leader] and his guys and I'm sure that's part of what [President Viktor] Yanukovych is calculating on all this.

    Nuland: [Breaks in] I think Yats is the guy who's got the economic experience, the governing experience. He's the... what he needs is Klitsch and Tyahnybok on the outside. He needs to be talking to them four times a week, you know. I just think Klitsch going in... he's going to be at that level working for Yatseniuk, it's just not going to work.

    [...]

    Nuland: OK. He's [Jeff Feltman, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs] now gotten both [UN official Robert] Serry and [UN Secretary General] Ban Ki-moon to agree that Serry could come in Monday or Tuesday. So that would be great, I think, to help glue this thing and to have the UN help glue it and, you know, Fuck the EU.

    Pyatt: No, exactly. And I think we've got to do something to make it stick together because you can be pretty sure that if it does start to gain altitude, that the Russians will be working behind the scenes to try to torpedo it.

As BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus rightly observes, the alleged conversation:

    "... suggests that the US has very clear ideas about what the outcome should be and is striving to achieve these goals... Washington clearly has its own game-plan.... [with] various officials attempting to marshal the Ukrainian opposition [and] efforts to get the UN to play an active role in bolstering a deal."

But US efforts to turn the political tide in Ukraine away from Russian influence began much earlier. In 2004, the Bush administration had given $65 million to provide 'democracy training' to opposition leaders and political activists aligned with them, including paying to bring opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko to meet US leaders and help underwrite exit polls indicating he won disputed elections.

This programme has accelerated under Obama. In a speech at the National Press Club in Washington DC last December as Ukraine's Maidan Square clashes escalated, Nuland confirmed that the US had invested in total "over $5 billion" to "ensure a secure and prosperous and democratic Ukraine" - she specifically congratulated the "Euromaidan" movement.

So it would be naive to assume that this magnitude of US support to organisations politically aligned with the Ukrainian opposition played no role in fostering the pro-Euro-Atlantic movement that has ultimately culminated in Russian-backed President Yanukovych's departure.

Indeed, at her 2013 speech, Nuland added:

    "Today, there are senior officials in the Ukrainian government, in the business community, as well as in the opposition, civil society, and religious community, who believe in this democratic and European future for their country. And they've been working hard to move their country and their president in the right direction."

What direction might that be? A glimpse of an answer was provided over a decade ago by Professor R. Craig Nation, Director of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the US Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute, in a NATO publication:

    "Ukraine is increasingly perceived to be critically situated in the emerging battle to dominate energy transport corridors linking the oil and natural gas reserves of the Caspian basin to European markets... Considerable competition has already emerged over the construction of pipelines. Whether Ukraine will provide alternative routes helping to diversify access, as the West would prefer, or 'find itself forced to play the role of a Russian subsidiary,' remains to be seen."

A more recent US State Department-sponsored report notes that "Ukraine's strategic location between the main energy producers (Russia and the Caspian Sea area) and consumers in the Eurasian region, its large transit network, and its available underground gas storage capacities", make the country "a potentially crucial player in European energy transit" - a position that will "grow as Western European demands for Russian and Caspian gas and oil continue to increase."

Ukraine's overwhelming dependence on Russian energy imports, however, has had "negative implications for US strategy in the region," in particular the strategy of:


    "... supporting multiple pipeline routes on the East–West axis as a way of helping promote a more pluralistic system in the region as an alternative to continued Russian hegemony."

But Russia's Gazprom, controlling almost a fifth of the world's gas reserves, supplies more than half of Ukraine's, and about 30% of Europe's gas annually. Just one month before Nuland's speech at the National Press Club, Ukraine signed a $10 billion shale gas deal with US energy giant Chevron "that the ex-Soviet nation hopes could end its energy dependence on Russia by 2020." The agreement would allow "Chevron to explore the Olesky deposit in western Ukraine that Kiev estimates can hold 2.98 trillion cubic meters of gas." Similar deals had been struck already with Shell and ExxonMobil.

The move coincided with Ukraine's efforts to "cement closer relations with the European Union at Russia's expense", through a prospective trade deal that would be a step closer to Ukraine's ambitions to achieve EU integration. But Yanukovych's decision to abandon the EU agreement in favour of Putin's sudden offer of a 30% cheaper gas bill and a $15 billion aid package provoked the protests.

To be sure, the violent rioting was triggered by frustration with Yanukovych's rejection of the EU deal, along with rocketing energy, food and other consumer bills, linked to Ukraine's domestic gas woes and abject dependence on Russia. Police brutality to suppress what began as peaceful demonstrations was the last straw.

But while Russia's imperial aggression is clearly a central factor, the US effort to rollback Russia's sphere of influence in Ukraine by other means in pursuit of its own geopolitical and strategic interests raises awkward questions. As the pipeline map demonstrates, US oil and gas majors like Chevron and Exxon are increasingly encroaching on Gazprom's regional monopoly, undermining Russia's energy hegemony over Europe.

Ukraine is caught hapless in the midst of this accelerating struggle to dominate Eurasia's energy corridors in the last decades of the age of fossil fuels.

For those who are pondering whether we face the prospect of a New Cold War, a better question might be - did the Cold War ever really end?


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« Reply #12291 on: Mar 06, 2014, 07:07 AM »


The Russian oligarchs who could be in John Kerry's sights

US secretary of state John Kerry has threatened Russia with isolation 'diplomatically, politically and economically'. If the US ever decided to make a move against individuals, these 12 men could be the targets

Simon Goodley   
theguardian.com, Thursday 6 March 2014 07.00 GMT   

Len Blavatnik

Wealth $18.7bn*; Lives: New York and London

Blavatnik is technically now classed as an American after emigrating to the US from Russia in 1978, but many still see him as Russian.

He bought Warner Music, the world's third-biggest record label, for more than £2bn in 2011 and was one of the quartet of Russian oligarchs who owned half of TNK-BP, a highly profitable if often uncomfortable joint venture with the British oil company BP. The four oligarchs received a $28bn (£16.7bn) payout after selling their stake to state oil group Rosneft in 2012 and Blavatnik now splits his time between London, where he owns a £41m house in Kensington Palace Gardens, and his Fifth Avenue apartment in New York.

Alisher Usmanov

Russia's richest man and now officially the UK's richest man. Uzbekistan-born Usmanov came to the City's attention with an unsuccessful tilt at taking over British Steel owner Corus in 2004, before becoming a far more famous face after buying a 30% stake in Arsenal FC. He was also was an early investor in Facebook, owns a large stake in Russian internet company Mail.ru, 60% of Metalloinvest, Russia's largest iron ore producer, and controls a majority holding in MegaFon, a mobile phone operator that listed on the London Stock Exchange in 2012. He owns his stakes in Metalloinvest and MegaFon alongside Vladimir Skoch, the father of billionaire Duma-member Andrei. During the MegaFon float, Goldman Sachs pulled out of the listing, sparking questions over MegaFon's governance.

Mikhail Fridman

Wealth: $17.6bn; Lives: Moscow

Came to the attention of the City as one of the co-investors (alongside Blavatnik, Viktor Vekselberg and German Khan) in TNK-BP. The money he made from selling his stake in that business is now being reinvested via his London-based investment vehicles: L1 Energy, which includes former BP boss Lord Browne as an adviser, and Pamplona Capital.

L1 is believed to be eyeing up numerous European assets and has reportedly filed a €5bn (£4bn) bid for the oil and gas production and exploration unit of RWE, Germany's second-largest utility.

Viktor Vekselberg

Wealth: $17.2bn; Lives: Moscow

Another of the big winners out of TNK-BP's sale to Rosneft, Vekselberg spent a chunk of his windfall buying 25% of Swiss steel company Schmolz+Bickenbach. His Renova group invests in Swiss companies, including hi-tech industrial group Oerlikon and Sulzer. Vekselberg made his first fortune from metals, initially selling scrap copper before founding SUAL, which merged with aluminium maker Rusal and miner Glencore to create the world's largest aluminium producer, UC Rusal. He retains a stake.

German Khan

Wealth: $11.3bn; Lives: London and Moscow

The fourth part of the TNK-BP quartet has a reputation as an uncompromising negotiator – he once reportedly pulled out a pistol in front of a mayor of a Russian oil town, just to demonstrate inadequate security at City Hall. He owns major properties in London, is now understood to be spending most of his time in the UK working with Fridman on L1, and has been spotted watching Chelsea in Roman Abramovich's box.

Alexey Mordashov

Wealth: $10.5bn; Lives: Moscow

Mordashov owns 79% of shares in London-listed Severstal, a steel group with $14bn in revenues and with assets in Russia, the US, Ukraine, Latvia, Poland, Italy, Liberia and Brazil. He also holds 84% of Nordgold, a gold producer also listed on London.

Wealth: $9bn; Lives: Moscow

Yevtushenkov owns about 64% of Sistema, a conglomerate with businesses principally focused on Russia and Asia, but with links to the UK. A form of the company's shares are listed on the London Stock Exchange and last year it hired a new British director fanning much interest and speculation: it was former UK minister and erstwhile European commissioner for trade, Lord Mandelson.

Andrei Skoch

Wealth: $8.2bn; Lives: Moscow

Frequently dubbed the "richest man in the Duma", the lower house in Russia's parliament, Skoch is a close friend of Usmanov and one of the early executives behind Metalloinvest. Skoch's father, Vladimir, owns shares alongside Usmanov.

Oleg Deripaska

Wealth: $6.5bn; Lives: Moscow

Introduced to the UK in 2008 after it emerged that financier Nat Rothschild had invited the then shadow chancellor George Osborne on board Deripaska's £80m yacht moored off Corfu. They were joined by then European trade commissioner Peter Mandelson and the conversation proved politically explosive.

His investments are almost as newsworthy. Deripaska's En+ owns 48% of Rusal, the world's largest producer of aluminium, and his fellow shareholders include FTSE 100 commodity trader Glencore and fellow Russian oligarchs Mikhail Prokhorov and Vekselberg. Between them they control about 90% of the company. Aluminium is important for Europe, which accounts for more than 13% of global aluminium consumption. The continent's major aluminium market is Germany, because of its car makers, and the country takes about 32% of Europe's total aluminium consumption.

Roman Abramovich

Wealth: $9.1bn; Lives: London

Probably the best known Russian oligarch in the UK because of his ownership of Chelsea football club, but far from the richest. Forbes ranks him at 137 in its list of global billionaires, and the 14th wealthiest Russian. Apart from Chelsea, he likes metals, owning stakes in steel giant Evraz, Highland Gold Mining and Norilsk Nickel.

Alexander Mamut

Wealth: $2.3bn; Lives: Moscow

A former adviser to Boris Yeltsin, he sold his 50% stake in mobile phone chain Evroset to Usmanov in December 2012 for more than $1bn. He owns San Francisco-based social networking site LiveJournal, but is best known in the UK for buying the bookshop chain Waterstones for £53m in 2011.

Ziyavudin Magomedov

Wealth $1.2bn; Lives: Moscow

Said by some in London's expat Russian community to be among the "next big oligarchs", and is rumoured to have recently bought a property in London. Magomedov is chairman of Summa Group, a conglomerate with investments in a wide range of global interests including port logistics, engineering, construction, telecommunications, and oil and gas.

* Wealth figures from Forbes' billionaires list.


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« Reply #12292 on: Mar 06, 2014, 07:11 AM »


Ukraine: EU freezes assets of Yanukovych's former hierarchy

Ousted president, his son, closest aides and the ex-PM on list of 18 blamed for embezzling state funds

Associated Press in Brussels
theguardian.com, Thursday 6 March 2014 04.44 GMT   

The European Union has announced an assets freeze covering the ousted Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and 17 other people held responsible for embezzling state funds.

The 28-nation bloc early on Thursday revealed the names of those targeted by its sanctions. The list appears to include Yanukovych’s closest aides, including a former interior minister, justice minister, the prosecutor general, the head of the security services and Yanukovych’s son.

The sanctions also target the former Ukrainian prime minister Mykola Azarov and his son.

The EU had said on Wednesday it was freezing assets of Ukrainian officials held in the EU but did not name them pending the publication in its official legal journal on Thursday.


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« Reply #12293 on: Mar 06, 2014, 07:17 AM »


Ukraine crisis: bugged call reveals conspiracy theory about Kiev snipers

Estonian foreign minister Urmas Paet tells EU's Cathy Ashton about claim that provocateurs were behind Maidan killings

Ewen MacAskill   
the Guardian, Wednesday 5 March 2014 19.06 GMT      

A leaked phone call between the EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and Estonian foreign minister Urmas Paet has revealed that the two discussed a conspiracy theory that blamed the killing of civilian protesters in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, on the opposition rather than the ousted government.

The 11-minute conversation was posted on YouTube – it is the second time in a month that telephone calls between western diplomats discussing Ukraine have been bugged.

In the call, Paet said he had been told snipers responsible for killing police and civilians in Kiev last month were protest movement provocateurs rather than supporters of then-president Viktor Yanukovych. Ashton responds: "I didn't know … Gosh."

The leak came a day after the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, said the snipers may have been opposition provocateurs. The Kremlin-funded Russia Today first carried the leaked call online.

The Estonian foreign ministry confirmed the leaked conversation was accurate. It said: "Foreign minister Paet was giving an overview of what he had heard in Kiev and expressed concern over the situation on the ground. We reject the claim that Paet was giving an assessment of the opposition's involvement in the violence." Ashton's office said it did not comment on leaks.

During the conversation, Paet quoted a woman named Olga – who the Russian media identified her as Olga Bogomolets, a doctor – blaming snipers from the opposition shooting the protesters.

"What was quite disturbing, this same Olga told that, well, all the evidence shows that people who were killed by snipers from both sides, among policemen and people from the streets, that they were the same snipers killing people from both sides," Paet said.

"So she also showed me some photos, she said that as medical doctor, she can say it is the same handwriting, the same type of bullets, and it's really disturbing that now the new coalition, that they don't want to investigate what exactly happened."

"So there is a stronger and stronger understanding that behind snipers it was not Yanukovych, it was somebody from the new coalition," Paet says.

Ashton replies: "I think we do want to investigate. I didn't pick that up, that's interesting. Gosh," Ashton says.

Russia Today, reporting the call, said: "The snipers who shot at protesters and police in Kiev were allegedly hired by Maidan leaders, according to a leaked phone conversation between the EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and Estonian foreign affairs minister, which has emerged online."

Last month, a recording was leaked in which US state department official Victoria Nuland was heard venting the White House's frustrations at Europe's hesitant policy towards pro-democracy protests. Speaking to the US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, Nuland was heard to say "fuck the EU."

Asked about the emergence of a second embarrassing phonecall, a spokesperson for the US state department said: "As I said around the last unfortunate case, this is just another example of the kind of Russian tradecraft that we have concerns about."


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« Reply #12294 on: Mar 06, 2014, 07:22 AM »


The clash in Crimea is the fruit of western expansion

The external struggle to dominate Ukraine has put fascists in power and brought the country to the brink of conflict

Seumas Milne   
The Guardian, Wednesday 5 March 2014 20.30 GMT      

Diplomatic pronouncements are renowned for hypocrisy and double standards. But western denunciations of Russian intervention in Crimea have reached new depths of self parody. The so far bloodless incursion is an "incredible act of aggression", US secretary of state John Kerry declared. In the 21st century you just don't invade countries on a "completely trumped-up pretext", he insisted, as US allies agreed that it had been an unacceptable breach of international law, for which there will be "costs".

That the states which launched the greatest act of unprovoked aggression in modern history on a trumped-up pretext – against Iraq, in an illegal war now estimated to have killed 500,000, along with the invasion of Afghanistan, bloody regime change in Libya, and the killing of thousands in drone attacks on Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, all without UN authorisation – should make such claims is beyond absurdity.

It's not just that western aggression and lawless killing is on another scale entirely from anything Russia appears to have contemplated, let alone carried out – removing any credible basis for the US and its allies to rail against Russian transgressions. But the western powers have also played a central role in creating the Ukraine crisis in the first place.

The US and European powers openly sponsored the protests to oust the corrupt but elected Viktor Yanukovych government, which were triggered by controversy over an all-or-nothing EU agreement which would have excluded economic association with Russia.

In her notorious "fuck the EU" phone call leaked last month, the US official Victoria Nuland can be heard laying down the shape of a post-Yanukovych government – much of which was then turned into reality when he was overthrown after the escalation of violence a couple of weeks later.

The president had by then lost political authority, but his overnight impeachment was certainly constitutionally dubious. In his place a government of oligarchs, neoliberal Orange Revolution retreads and neofascists has been installed, one of whose first acts was to try and remove the official status of Russian, spoken by a majority in parts of the south and east, as moves were made to ban the Communist party, which won 13% of the vote at the last election.

It has been claimed that the role of fascists in the demonstrations has been exaggerated by Russian propaganda to justify Vladimir Putin's manoeuvres in Crimea. The reality is alarming enough to need no exaggeration. Activists report that the far right made up around a third of the protesters, but they were decisive in armed confrontations with the police.

Fascist gangs now patrol the streets. But they are also in Kiev's corridors of power. The far right Svoboda party, whose leader has denounced the "criminal activities" of "organised Jewry" and which was condemned by the European parliament for its "racist and antisemitic views", has five ministerial posts in the new government, including deputy prime minister and prosecutor general. The leader of the even more extreme Right Sector, at the heart of the street violence, is now Ukraine's deputy national security chief.

Neo-Nazis in office is a first in post-war Europe. But this is the unelected government now backed by the US and EU. And in a contemptuous rebuff to the ordinary Ukrainians who protested against corruption and hoped for real change, the new administration has appointed two billionaire oligarchs – one who runs his business from Switzerland – to be the new governors of the eastern cities of Donetsk and Dnepropetrovsk. Meanwhile, the IMF is preparing an eye-watering austerity plan for the tanking Ukrainian economy which can only swell poverty and unemployment.

From a longer-term perspective, the crisis in Ukraine is a product of the disastrous Versailles-style break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. As in Yugoslavia, people who were content to be a national minority in an internal administrative unit of a multinational state – Russians in Soviet Ukraine, South Ossetians in Soviet Georgia – felt very differently when those units became states for which they felt little loyalty.

In the case of Crimea, which was only transferred to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s, that is clearly true for the Russian majority. And contrary to undertakings given at the time, the US and its allies have since relentlessly expanded Nato up to Russia's borders, incorporating nine former Warsaw Pact states and three former Soviet republics into what is effectively an anti-Russian military alliance in Europe. The European association agreement which provoked the Ukrainian crisis also included clauses to integrate Ukraine into the EU defence structure.

That western military expansion was first brought to a halt in 2008 when the US client state of Georgia attacked Russian forces in the contested territory of South Ossetia and was driven out. The short but bloody conflict signalled the end of George Bush's unipolar world in which the US empire would enforce its will without challenge on every continent.

Given that background, it is hardly surprising that Russia has acted to stop the more strategically sensitive and neuralgic Ukraine falling decisively into the western camp, especially given that Russia's only major warm-water naval base is in Crimea.

Clearly, Putin's justifications for intervention – "humanitarian" protection for Russians and an appeal by the deposed president – are legally and politically flaky, even if nothing like on the scale of "weapons of mass destruction". Nor does Putin's conservative nationalism or oligarchic regime have much wider international appeal.

But Russia's role as a limited counterweight to unilateral western power certainly does. And in a world where the US, Britain, France and their allies have turned international lawlessness with a moral veneer into a permanent routine, others are bound to try the same game.

Fortunately, the only shots fired by Russian forces at this point have been into the air. But the dangers of escalating foreign intervention are obvious. What is needed instead is a negotiated settlement for Ukraine, including a broad-based government in Kiev shorn of fascists; a federal constitution that guarantees regional autonomy; economic support that doesn't pauperise the majority; and a chance for people in Crimea to choose their own future. Anything else risks spreading the conflict.

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

Ukraine's revolution and Russia's occupation of Crimea: how we got here

A guide to what's happening, how it got to this point, and why some people say 'the Ukraine'

Alan Yuhas and Raya Jalabi   
theguardian.com, Wednesday 5 March 2014 19.22 GMT   
   
Ukraine

Ukrainians at a rally outside the parliament building in Kiev on the day Viktor Yanukovych reappeared in Russia, saying he was still the nation?s president. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP
Recent history

The standoff between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces continues as global leaders push for a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Ukraine. On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops near Ukraine's border to return to their bases as the US secretary of state, John Kerry, visited Kiev.

The latest developments are the result of a four-month-long deadlock between Ukrainian demonstrators and Viktor Yanukovych's government. Protests erupted on 21 November 2013 when then-president Yanukovich backtracked on promises made to sign a trade deal with the EU, allegedly at Moscow's behest. Though protests, set off by the pivot toward Russia, were initially peaceful, things turned violent in January when police tried to break up demonstrations in a violent crackdown. Dozens died before a European-brokered peace deal ended the fighting, but as violence began again, Yanukovych disappeared. He has since surfaced in Russia, claiming to be the legitimate ruler of his country.

• How did Ukraine get here (and why do some people say "the Ukraine")?

• Let's break this out with some maps

• Political divisions: Yanukovych v Tymoshenko and EU v Russia

• Why Russia is in Crimea
Anti-government protests in Ukraine A protester uses a catapult during clashes with riot police in Kiev, where 26 people people have been killed in violent clashes. Photograph: Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA

Ukraine's parliament has largely taken over, and named an interim president, Olexandr Turchynov, started to set up a new government and called May elections. Then, as pro-Russian protests and armed bands of men started appearing in eastern Ukraine, accusations started flying of a slow-motion invasion by Russia – which has professed innocence and an interest only in protecting ethnic Russians from dangerous factions. Now the EU and US are throwing down threats of sanctions, and Russia's representatives are meeting behind closed doors with western diplomats.

How exactly did Ukraine get here?

We look back at the major developments in the country's recent history to get you up to speed with events on the ground today

• Cracking the USSR: In 1991, as the collapsing USSR dissolved its hold on Soviet republics, Ukraine achieved independence, and three years later, Russia, the US, Britain and Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum – part of the negotiations aimed at keeping Soviet-era nuclear weapons from scattering to the winds. Ukraine agreed to send its nuclear weapons to Russia to be disarmed there, in return for the three powers' promises to respect Ukraine. Specifically, they agreed never to coerce Ukraine with economic pressure; to never threaten or use force against Ukraine; and to respect Ukrainian territory and sovereignty.

• Ukraine by any other name: While on the subject of Ukrainian sovereignty, a brief aside about the country's name. Though it may seem trivial, many are angered by the addition of the article "the" to Ukraine, arguing that it undermines Ukrainian statehood. Theories of its etymology vary, but most are rooted in Ukraine's history of being on the peripheries of Russian power, as linguists suggest Ukraine derives from an Old Slavic word for "borderland." (For more on Ukraine, read this.)
Ukraine in maps

• One map does not explain Ukraine: Ukraine is, like everywhere else, complicated. Forty-five million people live there, meaning it's got about the population of Texas and New York combined. Not only that, any division between ethnic groups, or language, or "ethno-linguistics" risks being oversimplified. While it's true that Ukrainian language dominates in Kiev and the west of the country and Russian is far more common in the east, most of the country is bilingual. It's not uncommon for two people – one speaking Ukrainian, the other Russian – to hold intelligible conversations using either language.

Peter Pomerantsev at the London Review lays out the missing link, and explains why the country doesn't divide along language lines:

    "Ukraine's lingua franca is Surzhyk, a motley mix of Ukrainian and Russian (sometimes with bits of Hungarian, Romanian and Polish). … Now that Ukrainian is the official language, Russian-speaking officials sometimes have difficulty with it. Watching a session of the Ukrainian parliament can be like observing a secondary school foreign language class. … The big winner from the conceptual division of Ukraine into 'Russian' and 'Ukrainian' spheres may well be the Kremlin. The idea that Russia is a separate political and spiritual civilisation, one which is a priori undemocratic, suits the Kremlin as it looks to cut and paste together an excuse to validate its growing authoritarianism. So every time a commentator defines the battle in Kiev as Russian language v Ukrainian, a Kremlin spin doctor gets in another round of drinks.

• This map could explain Ukraine a little bit better:
Ukraine crisis languages map As this Ukrainian-language map illustrates, Ukrainian and Russian share overlap with Surzhyk (Yellow – West: Russian: 3.1%, Surzhyk: 2.5%, Ukrainian: 94.4%; Yellow – center Russian: 24.2%; Surzhyk: 14.6%; Ukrainian: 61.2%; Bright green – east-center: Russian: 46.4% Surzhyk: 21.7% Ukrainian: 31.9%; Teal – east Russian: 86.8% Surzhyk: 9.6% Ukrainian: 3.7%; Teal – south Russian: 82.3%; Surzhyk: 12.4%; Ukrainian: 5.2%). Wikimedia

Political divisions

• Yanukovych v Tymoshenko: In 2004, after a decade of government incompetence, corruption and a disastrous economy, the year's presidential elections would inevitably be close. Viktor Yushchenko, suffered a mysterious poisoning that left his face disfigured. Viktor Yanukovych claimed victory over his opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, in a run-off … until reports of fraud and rigged elections came in, prompting massive, peaceful street protests in Kiev, dubbed the Orange Revolution. The protests managed to get the original vote annulled, the nation's supreme court called a new election, and Yushchenko beat Yanukovych with 52% of the vote.

As the years went on, though, hopes for reform were sidelined by continued corruption and economic problems, and Yushchenko's prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko – of the elaborately braided hair– became her party's leading figure, and Yanukovych's personal nightmare. By the 2010 election, however, discontent with Yushchenko's failure to reform the economy – or strengthen ties with Europe – gave a boost to Tymoshenko's opponent: Viktor Yanukovych. When Yanukovych won the ballot, he promptly had Tymoshenko put in jail for allegedly abusing her power during a gas deal with Russia.

• EU v Russia: Skipping ahead to November 2013, Ukraine is saddled with massive debt, endemic corruption and in dire need of assistance. The EU offers a trade deal to strengthen ties in the long-run, but only if Ukraine excepts painful conditions in the short-term. Russia offers a $15bn loan to be doled out over the course of several years, and makes overtures that Ukraine join a "Eurasian Union" – Vladimir Putin's alternative to the EU, which along with Russia will include human rights luminaries Kazakhstan and Belarus. Yanukovych hems and haws, until finally on 21 November, he ditches the EU and takes Putin up on that deal.

Peaceful protests explode in Kiev, as protesters take over the city's main square and declare it EuroMaidan. They build tents, barricades and catapults, but peaceful protests continue through the next two months, despite several abortive attempts by police to break up the crowds. A former boxer, Vitali Klitschko, joins the opposition leaders, whose demands grow from partnering with the EU to government reforms to Yanukovych's resignation. Finally, on 22 January, clashes with police leave three dead, and the protests mount with increasing tension and bursts of violence.

Mysterious groups – feared Berkut riot police, hired thugs called "titushki", far-right nationalist groups – become involved, and protesters take government buildings in Kiev and elsewhere. After a few uneasy truces, the dams break, and protesters fend off sustained nighttime assaults by the police. EU countries broker a truce agreement with Yanukovych, who reportedly calls Putin as his government loses control. Putin orders military exercises near the border. Yanukovych and his cohorts flee. Parliament impeaches him. An interim government is formed, with new elections slated for 25 May, and Tymoshenko is freed. Kiev's revolution ousts Yanukovych in two weeks.

    Best part of the Yanukovych mansion photos is he went ahead and named his galleon "Galleon" http://t.co/lmDgpztXuG pic.twitter.com/uYAVMZcxlh
    — Abraham Riesman (@abrahamjoseph) February 22, 2014

Russia in Crimea

But hardly can the country start to recover than reports of pro-Russian protests emerge from the country's south-east. Russia, just like the US, has military bases on foreign soil, and existing agreements with Ukraine allowed Russia its biggest by the Black Sea. Russian forces begins moving around Ukraine, apparently both on legitimate terms of the military agreement and in violation of those terms. Crimea, a peninsula with many ethnic Russians, is suddenly full of Russian plated-trucks and aircraft, and its parliament and airport seized by men carrying Russian guns, denying that they're Russian. The Crimean parliament – presumably accompanied by men with guns – votes to hold a referendum on 25 May regarding the region's "autonomy".

Unarmed Ukrainian troops bearing their regiment and the Ukrainian flags march to confront soldiers under Russian command occupying the Belbek airbase in Crimea in Lubimovka, Ukraine. Unarmed Ukrainian troops bearing their regiment and the Ukrainian flags march to confront soldiers under Russian command occupying the Belbek airbase in Crimea in Lubimovka, Ukraine. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

On 28 February, Yanukovych reappears in Russia, denouncing the "coup" and asking Putin to act decisively. The next day, Russia's parliament approves Putin's request to intervene militarily in Ukraine, to "protect the ethnic Russian minority". Ukrainian forces in Crimea refuse to surrender, though forces speaking Russian and armed with Russian arms surround their bases. Ukraine's interim president says Russia is trying to provoke Ukraine into war. The UN Security council calls emergency meetings, President Obama denounces Putin's actions and threatens sanctions and finally, 4 March, Putin breaks his silence and tells a press conference that military force is a last resort, Yanukovych has no political future and the chaos in Ukraine is in part due to rogue agents and western nations' interference.
What happens next is anyone's guess.


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« Reply #12295 on: Mar 06, 2014, 07:28 AM »

Pakistan and Taliban Negotiators Call for Higher-level Talks

by Naharnet Newsdesk
06 March 2014, 09:40

Peace negotiators representing the Pakistani government and Taliban insurgents called on Thursday for higher-level talks between the two sides, following a breakfast meeting hosted by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Talks aimed at ending the Islamists' seven-year insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives resumed on Wednesday, following a two-week suspension after militants killed 23 kidnapped soldiers.

The military retaliated with a series of air strikes that it said killed more than 100 militants, and the Taliban last weekend announced a month-long ceasefire.

But negotiations have so far been conducted through teams of go-betweens, which has hampered their effectiveness according to some observers.

"We have asked the prime minister to replace this committee with an effective forum," said government chief negotiator Irfan Siddiqui after Thursday's meeting.

"We believe that in the next phase, sensitive issues and demands will come up and we need to have a mechanism for direct contacts."

Rahimullah Yusufzai, another government negotiator, told AFP: "We have proposed that those who have authority to make decisions should be part of this committee. There should be representatives from the government and the military in the committee."

On the Taliban side, chief negotiator Maulana Sami-ul-Haq said his team was "satisfied with the round of talks this morning with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif".

"It was decided in the meeting that now the time has come to strengthen the committees and empower them more," he added.

Haq said his team might have to return to the Taliban's base in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan in a day or two to report back to their leadership.

A statement issued by Sharif's office said he was committed to peace.

"As prime minister it is my constitutional, religious, national, moral and human duty to stop the continuation of fire and blood and give peace to the country and citizens," it said.

The peace talks, which began in February, were a key campaign pledge for Sharif before he was elected to office for a third time last year.

But many analysts are skeptical about their chances for success, given the Taliban's demands for nationwide sharia law and a withdrawal of troops from the lawless tribal zones.

Many regional deals between the military and the Taliban have failed in the past.


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« Reply #12296 on: Mar 06, 2014, 07:33 AM »


Indian elections to begin on 7 April

World’s biggest democracy announces calendar for month-long vote that pits ruling Congress party against resurgent BJP

Jason Burke and Anu Anand in Delhi
The Guardian, Wednesday 5 March 2014 15.01 GMT    

The Indian elections, the world’s biggest democratic exercise, will take place over nearly six weeks beginning on 7 April, the country’s election commission has announced. More than 800 million voters are eligible to cast ballots at 930,000 polling booths to elect a new 543-seat lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha (House of the People) and decide who will lead the vast emerging economic power over a five-year term.

Announcing the polls in Delhi, the chief election commissioner, VS Sampath, spoke of “yet another milestone in the history of Indian democracy”, but warned politicians that the electoral code of conduct was now in immediate force to ensure free and fair polls. Sampath said counting would take place on a single day: 16 May.

Observers say the contest is one of the most significant since India won independence from Britain in 1947. It will pit Narendra Modi, the candidate of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), against Rahul Gandhi, the scion of India’s most prominent political dynasty, who is the face of the ruling Congress party’s campaign. Congress has been in power since 2004 but has been badly hit by corruption scandals, a failure to push through reforms, runaway inflation and flagging economic growth.

Modi, who is one of India’s most polarising political figures, has topped most recent popularity surveys. Congress appears set to be reduced to one of its smallest parliamentary presences ever, as voters demand wholesale change.

For the first time ballots will include a “none of the above” option for those who do not wish to vote for any candidate.

Close to 4 million staff will be deployed during the polls, which will occur over nine separate phases to allow security personnel to be shifted around the country. The Indian constitution demands that voters do not have to travel more than 1.2 miles (2km) from their homes to vote.

Sheer logistics make it impossible to conduct the poll on a single day. Camel carts carry voting booths across sand dunes in arid western constituencies.

Security is also a major issue. The disputed Kashmir valley and the country’s north-east have been hit by separatist violence. There are also problems in parts of central and eastern India where Maoist insurgents continue a violent campaign. Other perils are less predictable. In rural areas of the southern state of Karnataka rogue elephants can pose problems.

Among the thousands of candidates – whose nominations will be have to be put forward to the election commission in coming weeks – are expected to be Bollywood film stars, cricket players, serving parliamentarians accused of rape and murder, as well dozens of larger-than-life regional leaders.

Figures such as Mamata Banerjee, maverick chief minister of the state of West Bengal, and Jayalalithaa Jayaram, chief minister of the southern Tamil Nadu state, are likely to be key powerbrokers. No single party has won a majority since 1989.

Other major politicians such as Mayawati, a female politician who goes by one name and who leads a party representing those at the bottom of India’s tenacious “caste” social hierarchy, could play a significant role.

One new entrant is the Aam Admi (Common Man) party, founded in late 2012, which has overturned traditional politics in the capital, Delhi. Senior officials of the party, which briefly ran the capital after winning 28 of 70 seats in a local election last year, say they believe its strong stance on governance, transparency and corruption, as well as its raft of first-time candidates, can win support across the country.

“The public mood is definitely with the AAP,” Aatishi Marlena, a senior policy official in the party, said.

More than 150 million first-time voters are expected to play a key role. Many have grown up with a booming economy and high expectations. “This is one of the most significant elections since India’s independence,” said Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of the Caravan magazine.

Sampath, the election commissioner, said there were 100 million more voters in 2014. His colleagues have predicted turnouts up to or exceeding 70%. “We expect the polling percentage to touch 70% or even cross it for the 16th Lok Sabha election. The [commission] has done work on a massive scale to educate voters, especially the vulnerable ones – illiterate, poor, marginalised – as well as women and youth,” HS Brahma, an election commissioner, told reporters.

Election results in India are always notoriously difficult to predict but many analysts expect a fractured mandate and another era of coalition politics. Congress ministers say they believe they will be able to form a government with the assistance of minor parties. “There is still a battle here. It’s not all going the BJP’s way,” one told the Guardian last month.

Privately, however, ministers have admitted they face major losses. “Congress has actually come to terms with the fact that it’s going to put in one of its most dismal showings in years,” said Bal, the journalist. “They’re trying to do their best in a bad situation with the hope that a coalition of regional parties will be able to keep Modi out of power.”

India has seen strong economic growth during the early part of the past decade of Congress rule but also immense problems. Inflation hit double figures in 2011 and 2012, forcing millions of India’s poorest to choose between food and medicine.

Corruption scandals surrounding the 2010 Commonwealth Games and telecom licences undermined faith in good governance, and the response to the gang-rape of a Delhi student in 2012, which brought thousands of protesters on to the streets, was seen as slow and inadequate.

BJP strategists believe Modi, 63, can bring victory, with supporters pointing to his honesty and an impressive record of economic growth and decision-making in Gujarat, the state he has run since 2002. But his reputation has been tarnished by allegations he failed to stop sectarian rioting shortly after he took power. More than a thousand people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the violence, which was sparked by the deaths of 59 Hindus in a blaze started on a train carrying pilgrims. This may stop India’s estimated 150m Muslims voting for Modi, some analysts say. “You can see a Modi and BJP wave in every corner of the country,” said Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, the BJP vice-president.

In an indication of how high tensions are running, supporters of the AAP and the BJP clashed in street battles in Delhi and elsewhere on Wednesday after the leader of the new party was stopped by police during a campaign in Gujarat.

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

Narendra Modi: India's saviour or its worst nightmare?

India goes to the polls next month to elect a new prime minister. The BJP candidate, and frontrunner, is seen by supporters as a dynamic man of the people. Opponents say he is little more than a rabid nationalist. What would his victory mean?

Jason Burke in Meerut
The Guardian, Thursday 6 March 2014   
       
Narendra Damodar Das Modi strides to the lectern. Thousands are still crossing the open space around the site of the rally. Tens of thousands more are crowding the long road from the fields where hundreds of buses have been haphazardly parked. Then there are the long lines of packed minivans stuck on the highway, only a mile or so from their destination.

There is no more space in the vast bamboo pens in front of the stage set up on this wasteland outside the northern Indian city of Meerut, and police and officials from Modi's Bharatiya Janata (Indian People's) party are turning away latecomers. But only those at the front of the crush know this and those behind quicken their step when they hear the voice of the man they have come to see. Unlike most Indian politicians, Modi is punctual. His rallies start and finish with a minimum of delay.

"As I flew over in the helicopter, it was as if a sea of saffron was beneath me," Modi tells the crowd. Saffron is the colour of the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), of which he is the candidate in national polls next month, and is powerfully symbolic in Hinduism.

There is a cheer, a guttural roar, from this overwhelmingly male crowd. Meerut is a scruffy, conservative, hardscrabble town surrounded by hundreds of tough, conservative, hardscrabble villages. Some political meetings, in India and elsewhere, are full of hope and confidence, often joyous and celebratory. But not this one.

"I ask forgiveness from those who could not make it to these grounds on time," Modi is saying as the latecomers press forward. Some surge through the bamboo fences into the crowded pens. There are scuffles. The BJP officials haul them out. A constable raises his stick. Modi is now praising Meerut for the role soldiers stationed there played in the 1857 Indian mutiny, or war of independence, against British overlords. Another cheer.

"There is a leader among us who wants to take our country forwards," says Sakshan Shukla, 19, who set out early with his brother from their Meerut home and has found a place close to the stage. "A leader who is honest, who cares for us, who will protect us from the threats against us, who will make us strong. I have come to hear such a leader."

Such words are far from rare now. Yesterday the Indian election commission announced the dates of the coming polls, effectively starting the real campaign for power. The 800 million eligible voters will take six weeks to cast their votes, starting on 7 April. Though the natural drama of democratic process is often drowned in a very Indian alphabet soup of acronyms, this time it is clear the nation is at a pivotal moment.

Modi, 63, is currrently the frontrunner, with surveys repeatedly placing him ahead of 43-year-old Rahul Gandhi, the scion of India's first political family and candidate for the incumbents, the venerable Congress party.

The battle between the two draws sharp lines across the Indian political landscape. Modi is proud to call himself a "Hindu nationalist" and appears to favour radical reform of the country's flagging economy. Gandhi holds true to the leftwing economics and belief in religious pluralism that is the legacy of his great grandfather, Jawarharlal Nehru, the country's first prime minister.

The BJP believes Modi, one of the most polarising figures to walk the Indian political stage for many years, can lead it to a landslide victory, despite opposition claims that he is a demagogue and a "hatemonger". After a false start in 1996, the party won real power for the first time two years later, but lost the 2004 elections. Now BJP strategists believe they have an opportunity to end the long decades of Congress dominance for good – and with it the power of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Insider v outsider, dynast v working-class boy made good, suspected sectarian v secularist: this electoral battle has it all. Some analysts talk of the most significant contest since India won its independence from Britain in 1947.

Modi was born in the dusty temple town of Vadnagar in what is now the western Indian state of Gujarat. His family belonged to the Ghanchi caste, low down on the tenacious social hierarchy that still often defines status in India, and had little money. As a boy, Modi helped out on his father's tea stall before his lessons at a government school where he was neither an outstanding student nor particularly sociable. He was, however, fastidious, opinionated and, says his biographer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, "rebellious". The late 1960s were times of great ferment in India, as the country struggled with massive economic problems and was riven by ideological battles. By the time he was 10, Modi was attending the early-morning outdoor drill meetings held by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, National Volunteer Organisation), the highly disciplined rightwing organisation dedicated to realising a nationalist, traditionalist and religious vision of India's future. When he left university, he became a full-time RSS activist, a pracharak, sworn to a celibate, teetotal, vegetarian life of organisation and propaganda. According to Indian news reports that have not been officially denied, an early arranged marriage was quietly forgotten. Modi's first job was sweeping the local offices, which he did with customary dedication and efficiency. He worked hard and rose rapidly.

The RSS, which has around 40 million members, was, and still is, controversial. The organisation was banned in the aftermath of Mohandas Gandhi's killing by a Hindu fanatic in 1948, and again during the Emergency, a two-year suspension of democracy by Indira Gandhi, Rahul's grandmother, in the 1970s. During this time, Modi worked underground. A third ban came after the destruction of a mosque on a contested site in Ayodhya, a northern city, by Hindu extremists in 1992.

By then Modi had transferred to the BJP, which is ideologically close but organisationally distinct from the RSS. In 2001 he replaced a rival within the BJP to become the chief minister of his home state.

Now that Modi is a prime-ministerial candidate, the argument over the lessons that can be drawn from his 12-year-plus reign in Gujarat has intensified. Supporters say his achievements in the state demonstrate his ability to get things done. Modi has successfully pushed through major projects, such as a vast reconstruction of the centre of Gujarat's biggest city, Ahmedabad, and presided over a tripling of the size of Gujarat's economy. Local and international firms are queuing up to invest, power supply has improved significantly and exports have soared.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, all this, along with generous tax breaks, has made Modi a corporate favourite. "If we'd had a Modi running the nation instead of the crew we've had to suffer for the last decade, I'd be a lot better off, and so would everyone else," said one major industrialist and hotelier from the northern state of Punjab who, likely many interviewed for this article, preferred to remain anonymous. A media tycoon in Delhi described Modi bluntly as "the only man who can get us out of the hole we are now in".

Modi's apparent executive ability contrasts dramatically with the squabbling, ineffectual Congress-led coalitions in power at a national level since 2004. Support for the incumbents has been battered by the slowdown in India's booming economy in recent years, runaway inflation and successive corruption scandals. In a political world vitiated by graft allegations, no one, not even his fiercest opponents, has accused Modi of any interest in personal material gain, whether licit or illicit.

But there are many criticisms too. Both Modi's claims of economic achievement and his cosiness with India's so-called "croney capitalists" are frequently questioned. Many say growth in Gujarat is no greater than that in several other states in India and is considerably less well-distributed. Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate economist, has said the state's social and economic progress is poor. Others claim that keeping growth at healthy levels in Gujarat, a mid-sized state with a strong tradition of trade and a better infrastructure than much of the country, is easier than elsewhere. The chief minister's executive ability is not a result of administrative skill, some argue, but of deep, aggressively authoritarian instincts. In Gujarat, journalists in Ahmedabad say, simple intimidation has reduced the press corps to cowed servility. Modi is not a man who patiently builds consensus. He does not, it appears, like to be challenged.

But it is not economics, nor even his alleged dictatorial tendencies, that makes Modi such a polarising figure. It is violence, and specifically an outbreak of rioting in Gujarat in 2002 triggered by the deaths of 59 Hindu pilgrims after their train was torched in a largely Muslim town. Of the thousand or more killed and hundreds of thousands forced out of their homes in the chaos that followed, most were Muslims.

Modi, who had just taken over power when the riots occurred, recently described his "pain" during the episode. Yet he has never apologised for his failure to protect the minority community. Repeatedly accused of allowing, even encouraging, Hindus whipped up by hardline activists to vent their fury, Modi has consistently denied all wrongdoing and has been cleared by a succession of high-powered legal inquiries. It was after a key court decision that the UK decided in 2012 to end a boycott of Modi by senior officials. Only weeks ago, the US followed. Nonetheless, Modi has yet to shake off the controversy.

There are many reasons for this. India has long been prone to periodic bouts of communal violence, and political opponents, cynically or otherwise, repeatedly cite the 2002 rioting to highlight the threat of sectarian conflict if Modi wins the coming elections. Though Modi has not been convicted, they point out, associates have been sent to prison for their role in the violence. There are also many ordinary Indians, and not just India's Muslim minority, who are deeply committed to a tolerant, pluralist, progressive vision of India and who believe Modi would divide and damage their country.

Others see things differently. For tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of people across India, what happened in 2002, or at least what they believe happened, does not so much raise doubts about Modi's claim to lead the country, but reinforce it.

In a school run by the RSS close to the Meerut rally site, on the eve of the meeting, members of the organisation gathered for a conference on encouraging traditional sports. Their worldview is nationalist and conservative. Incidents such as the 2012 gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman on a bus in Delhi are a result of "moral decadence" and western culture, they say, while the boundaries of "Bharat", the Sanskrit-origin word they use to describe their country, should encompass Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tibet, Bangladesh and Burma. One veteran claims India faces three problems: "corruption, inflation and Muslims". Modi has an answer to all three, he insists. Rajendra Agrawal, the BJP member of parliament representing Meerut's 1.4 million voters, stresses that Hinduism's message is one of peace and tolerance but "one day … Islamic aggression will have to be dealt with".

A key question is how far Modi has moved from the hardline vision of the organisation he joined at the age of 10. In recent years, there have been tensions between the politician and the RSS. The candidate's pragmatic, business-friendly, globalised outlook is at odds with the traditional self-reliance of the nationalist movement. The RSS did not take it well, either, when Modi suggested that India needed to build toilets before temples.

Christophe Jaffrelot, a political scientist who specialises in extremism in south Asia, says Modi has effectively "emancipated himself" from the RSS high command, who traditionally outrank even senior BJP figures. Yet, he adds, Modi may well "do anyway what the RSS has wanted to do for decades because he is perfectly in tune with their ideology."

How much of that programme Modi will implement depends, Jaffrelot said, on how much power he has. And that depends on how many seats he gets and how many parties he has to work with to form a coalition.

Strategists working for Modi and the BJP know that Uttar Pradesh, the northern state with a population of nearly 200 million that sends 80 representatives to the 545-seat lower house, is critical to the party's declared aim of securing a majority. This is why Modi has come to Meerut, a typical Uttar Pradesh city with typical Uttar Pradesh problems.

Though only 50 miles from Delhi, Meerut is a zone of transition. Those who live there are caught between the country and the city, old poverty and new wealth, traditional values and "modernity", old communities and individual pleasures, fear and hope, scarcity and aspiration. Drive through Meerut and it is clear that much has changed in recent years but little has been completed, other than perhaps a bypass, a mall and a new four-star hotel.

There has been progress in Meerut of course. People are, on the whole, less poor than they were. The local literacy rate has now risen to around 75%, though progress has slowed in the last decade. Due to a preference for sons followed by widespread discrimination in youth and adult life, there were 886 women to every 1,000 men in 2011 – a slight improvement on 2001 when the previous census had been done. There are more power, sewage and water connections and water than a decade ago, though still nowhere near enough. The rate of population growth has slowed, though less than in wealthier and better educated parts of the country. In India, two thirds of the population is under 35. The coming election will see 150 million first-time voters. In Meerut, the median age is even lower than the national average. There are nowhere near enough jobs.

The result in Meerut is very large numbers of young men, on the streets, in the bus station, around the university, outside the Hair Fixing Centre and the IDEA High Speed Internet Store, outside the shabby cinema where posters advertising the latest Bollywood blockbusters peel from mouldering walls.

In the mall, open only three months, business is slow. Michael Jackson's Thriller blasts through the echoing halls. Few locals have 2,000 Rupees (£20) for a pair of jeans on sale in Numero Uno clothes shop. The manager, 25-year-old Mukesh Verma, says he will vote for Modi who, he thinks, "will do something for the new generation" and "make India a strong country again". Down in the centre of Meerut, there is much talk of "opportunity", of "removing corruption", of "government jobs", of national pride. Some travel four hours on overloaded busses every day to Delhi and back to study or work. Others, including graduates, eke a living from intermittent labouring jobs or teach in the unregistered, sub-standard "colleges" that have proliferated on the outskirts of the city. Many simply spend their days "doing timepass", a word that Oxford University geography Professor Craig Jeffrey, who has done research in Meerut, uses to sum up both the numbing tedium of their lives and their sense of being economically detached and politically disengaged.

"This place is stagnant, left behind," says Archana Sharma, a political science professor at Meerut's main university. "The poor people now feel it is a question of their own survival. The business community, the middle section of society, are all very worried about security. They want someone who will bring fair, firm administration."

But there is another dynamic also at work, specific to the town. Talk to people in Meerut about Modi and a divide becomes very obvious, very quickly. In the shopping mall, Javed and Furqan, both 19, say they will vote for Rahul Gandhi. Both are Muslim. "There is tension in the mind about the future otherwise," Furqan says quietly. In a park, Mohammed and Azaruddin, teenagers working in a local sports goods factory, but spending a Saturday afternoon "doing timepass", look worried when Modi is mentioned and walk quickly away. In a shabby mosque, Mobeen Ahmed, an Islamic studies teacher, first claims that "communal relations are good and harmonious" in Meerut, then says he has "no idea" what sparked the sectarian violence which killed 64 people a month or so previously just 40 miles to the north. Finally he says that "if Modi could deal out injustice in Gujarat, he could to it as prime minister too".

Even his detractors admit that Modi is a formidable public speaker. In smaller meetings, he varies his tone from the confidential to the triumphant depending on the audience. When he speaks to the crowd in Meerut, his tone is simply angry.

"Even now, more than 150 years after the rebellion of 1857, we have to fight for roti [bread] in the houses of the poor. The date of this rebellion is important yet this government did not see that importance. Congress has forgotten the number of young people who gave their lives for the 1857 rebellion. But we must remember them."

In three sentences Modi has touched on national pride, the anti-colonial struggle, continuing poverty, youth, sacrifice and disappointment. He talks about a key 19th-century reformist Hindu scholar and activist, Dayananda Saraswati, whose message, he says, is relevant today and then turns to Meerut. The town, Modi says, has been left behind.

"Do you get power 24 hours a day? If your mother is unwell can you switch on a fan? If your son has exams can you turn on the light so he can study? When the British were here they saw the people of Meerut as enemies … but your own government? Why does Meerut not get roads, railways, an airport? What has Meerut done? What is Meerut's crime?" Modi thunders. There is a growl of assent from the crowd.

"Do you believe your sisters and mothers are safe?" Modi asks. "When your daughter goes out, do you think she will come back and say: 'Daddy, nobody troubled me'? Terrorists and criminals are rewarded in this state these days. In Meerut, there is a riot all the time. Ten years ago, in Gujarat, there used to be many riots. But now the people of Gujarat know they have to live in peace, to live free from the politics of polarisation. They know they have to take the path of development. And all is calm."

Another growl, applause, and scattered cheers. And so it continues, for 49 of the scheduled 50 minutes. There are further references to violent crime, to youth unemployment, to the bribes that have to be paid to secure jobs, and then a sudden, ferocious attack on the Congress party. First Modi quotes Rahul Gandhi, who told a recent rally of how his mother, party president, chair of the ruling coalition and widow of an assassinated prime minister, had cried as she told him that "power was poison".

"Who has been in power most of these last 60 years?" he asks, building in volume.

"If power is poison, who has taken most? Who has a stomach full of poison? Who is vomiting it out now? It is Congress, the party which divides and rules, which pits one religion against another, states against states, which is breaking the country."

"Brothers, sisters," Modi cries. "Enough poison, enough of the politics of poison. We need the politics of development, so the poor need welfare, the young get jobs, mothers and sisters get respect."

He pauses, then calls out: "Time is running out. Promise me you will change this nation. Clench your fists. Say it with all your might: 'Vote for India.'"

The vast crowd on the outskirts of the troubled city in one of the most troubled parts of the nation do what Modi tells them. They raise their arms, clench their fists in the air and, again and again, come the ragged shouts of "Vote for India".

One evening, a few days later, Modi makes an appearance at a society wedding reception at a five-star hotel in Delhi's diplomatic quarter. It is a gathering of Delhi's power elite. Cabinet ministers, chief ministers, the senior ranks of the BJP, millionaire businessmen, famous academics and newspaper editors have gathered to gossip, eat and drink.

Smaller, stouter than he looks on a stage, Modi, avuncular if slightly preoccupied, greets the bride and groom and then makes a slow progress through the guests. He is preceded by a small swarm of backpedalling supplicants. An ambassador introduces himself and his bejewelled wife, insisting that he is "so pleased to meet" him and that his country is "such a dear friend of India". Modi nods graciously and moves on. There is a brief exchange with a media mogul, and with me. The Meerut rally was a success, he indicates, making an odd gesture, part invocation, part assertion, with a hand pointing heavenwards. He stands with a clutch of middle-aged ladies as pictures are taken, poses for a selfie with a teenager and pats children, slightly uneasily, on the head. Then he excuses himself, turns and strides purposefully through the hotel lobby, trailed by his Gujarati security detail, and disappears into the chill northern Indian night.


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« Reply #12297 on: Mar 06, 2014, 07:35 AM »


Malaysian prosecutors appeal against Anwar Ibrahim acquittal

Former deputy PM, who remains potent threat to ruling coalition, spent six years in prison charged with sodomy and corruption

Reuters in Kuala Lumpur
theguardian.com, Thursday 6 March 2014 09.19 GMT   

Malaysian prosecutors have begun their appeal against the acquittal of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on a charge of sodomy, a case that international human rights groups have condemned as politically motivated.

A verdict by the court of appeal could come in days or weeks, legal experts say, just as Anwar tries to win a local election this month that many expect to pave the way for him to run Selangor, Malaysia's richest and most populous state.

The charismatic Anwar, 66, remains a potent threat to the Barisan Nasional coalition led by the prime minister, Najib Razak, leading a three-party opposition that has made deep inroads into the BN's parliamentary majority in the past two national elections.

If convicted of sodomy, the former finance minister and deputy prime minister would be disqualified from holding political office in the Muslim-majority country and face a jail sentence of up to 20 years and whipping.

His legal team plans to appeal against a conviction and is likely win a stay of the sentence, lawyers say. But the case will keep Anwar's legal problems in the spotlight during his latest political gambit, which promises to give him a formidable power base ahead of the next election, which must be held by 2018.

Anwar was arrested in 2008 on charges of having intercourse "against the order of nature" with an aide. He had already spent six years in prison on sodomy and corruption charges after he was sacked as deputy prime minister in 1998 and lost his status as heir apparent to the then prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad.

He was acquitted of the latest charge in January 2012 due to doubts over whether DNA samples tendered by police as evidence were contaminated.

"By continuing this political motivated persecution, it's clear that PM Najib and his government are determined to remove Anwar from the political scene by hook or by crook, even if that involves dragging the Malaysian judicial system into the mud," Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said in a statement.

The prime minister's office did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Anwar's defence has been dealt a series of setbacks in recent weeks, which lawyers and rights groups have said raises doubts over whether he will receive a fair trial.

It failed in three attempts to disqualify the lead prosecutor, Shafee Abdullah, arguing that the lawyer's strong links to the ruling party – the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) – would hurt the chances of a fair trial.

Shafee has denied opposition allegations that he conspired with the government to end Anwar's political career. But he has not denied being present during a 2008 meeting between Najib and Saiful Bukhari Azlan – the aide Anwar is accused of "forcibly sodomising" – which lawyers said raised questions of a conflict of interest.

"To me, that is enough to show that you are in some way partisan," said Andrew Khoo, co-chair of the Malaysian Bar Council's Human Rights Committee.

"For the judges to say that doesn't matter, or that doesn't prejudice anything, to me is really odd."

Najib's ruling coalition slumped to its worst election showing last May, though Anwar's alliance failed to repeat the massive gains it made in 2008 polls that deprived the BN of its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time.

Last year's election result has heightened ethnic tensions in the multiracial south-east Asian nation, emboldening conservatives in the ethnic Malay Umno party after minority ethnic Chinese largely deserted the ruling coalition.

After failing in his bid to dispute the election result, Anwar announced in January that he would run for a seat in the state assembly of Selangor, an industrial hub and crucial electoral battlefield neighbouring the capital Kuala Lumpur.

Many analysts see the move as a bid by Anwar to take over the chief minister job in the opposition-controlled state, although he has refused to confirm the speculation.


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« Reply #12298 on: Mar 06, 2014, 07:36 AM »

China 'Will Not Stop Increasing' Military Spending

by Naharnet Newsdesk
06 March 2014, 07:48

Chinese state-run media backed the country's military spending Thursday, after the government announced a 12.2 percent increase in its defense budget for 2014.

The plans should not be regarded as evidence of a mounting "China threat", newspapers said, arguing that Beijing's steady raises in the defense budget were rooted in a desire for peace rather than conflict.

Beijing is embroiled in a series of territorial disputes with Japan and other neighbors, and has pursued its claims more assertively in recent years.

China announced Wednesday, on the opening day of its Communist-controlled National People's Congress (NPC), that it plans to spend 808.23 billion yuan ($132 billion) on the People's Liberation Army for 2014, in the latest double-digit increase.

That figure is still far short of the $633 billion defense budget for 2014 approved by the United States, the global leader in military spending.

But analysts believe China's actual defense expenditure is significantly higher than publicized.

"China will not stop increasing its military spending," the state-run Global Times wrote in an editorial Thursday. "It is believed the best scale for it in the long run is keeping it at half or two-thirds of that of the U.S.."

This year's official rise is the largest since 2011, and in its editorial the China Daily newspaper said China was "only making up for what it has neglected to do in the past".

"The current increase is both imperative and legitimate, because China now has broader interests to defend," the paper wrote. "At the same time, more security threats are sprouting up in its immediate neighborhood."

Beijing's growing military expenditures and capabilities have raised worries in Asia and the U.S., and Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters Wednesday that its lack of transparency on spending "has become a matter of concern for the international community, including Japan".

China's official Xinhua news agency dismissed those concerns in a bylined commentary Thursday, arguing that "it is Washington and Tokyo, instead of Beijing, that should explain to the world their military postures and intentions".


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« Reply #12299 on: Mar 06, 2014, 07:38 AM »


Israeli forces seize rockets 'destined for Gaza' in raid on Iranian ship in Red Sea

Army spokesman says missiles originally came from Syria and were capable of reaching large area of Israel

Martin Chulov in Beirut and Ian Black   
The Guardian, Wednesday 5 March 2014 17.23 GMT   

Israeli naval forces have raided an Iranian freighter in the Red Sea and seized dozens of missiles that were allegedly destined for Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli officials say the weapons were flown from Damascus to Tehran, then shipped from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas to the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr, where they were disguised among bags of cement. From there, the missiles would have been transferred by land across Sudan, into the Sinai desert and onwards to Gaza, the officials said.

Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israeli army, said the Iranian shipment had been seized at the end of a "complex, covert intelligence-led mission" which had started when the missiles began their journey at Damascus international airport several months ago.

The high seas interception is the fourth of its kind by Israel in the past 12 years and the first since the start of the Syrian civil war three years ago. It comes after a spate of air attacks on weapons warehouses and arms convoys in the past 18 months that officials in Tel Aviv had hinted were destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The seizure follows a visit this week by the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, to Washington, where he used a meeting with Barack Obama and a stump speech to the powerful pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC to underscore his reservations about a nuclear deal with Iran.
Map – Missile shipment intercepted in Red Sea

"At a time when it is talking to the major powers, Iran smiles and says all sorts of nice things," Netanyahu said on Wednesday. "The same Iran is sending deadly weapons to terrorist organisations … that will be used to harm innocent citizens. This is the true Iran and this state cannot possess nuclear weapons."

Iran's armed forces denied the Israeli claims as baseless, according to the semi-official Tasnim news agency, which is affiliated to the revolutionary guards.

The Panamanian registered vessel, KLOS-C, was boarded by naval special forces on Tuesday night, shortly before it entered Sudanese waters. Lerner said "scores" of Syrian-made M320 surface-to-surface rockets had been seized. With a range of over 100 miles, these could hit targets from Nahariya in northern Israel to Eilat in the far south, where the freighter is expected to dock on Friday, escorted by warships.

17 crew members co-operated when their ship was intercepted in international waters between Eritrea and Sudan, Lerner said. The operation was codenamed Full Disclosure.

"It is a huge shipment of weapons that could have inflicted great damage on the state of Israel," Lerner said. "That's why we intercepted it. We have had it under our view since the loading in Damascus airport several months ago."

Intelligence on who was to receive the weapons in Gaza was "still a bit preliminary", he said.

Video released by the Israel Defence Forces showed uniformed men inspecting large green rockets in green wooden boxes. Packets of cement with Iranian markings were also visible. Websites that monitor international shipping show that the KLOS-C was last at port in Umm Qasr and was last known to be in the Gulf of Oman.

Israeli warnings about Iran have intensified since an interim deal was struck late last year with the president, Hassan Rouhani, to ease sanctions against Tehran if the Islamic Republic scales back its nuclear programme. The US and European states say they will negotiate a final deal if Iran gives up its enrichment programme and stops work on a heavy water reactor, both of which are key components used to make nuclear weapons.

After more than 40 years of cold truce between Tel Aviv and Damascus, the Golan Heights border between the two countries is increasingly becoming a battle zone. Israeli officials claim tank fire killed two Hezbollah members trying to plant a bomb on the border fence early on Wednesday. Israel believes Syria is stepping up efforts to move strategic weapons, such as anti-ship and anti-aircraft weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, where they pose a potent threat to its military and citizens. Israeli jets attacked a crossing point between Syria and Lebanon's Bekaa valley last week that officials had suggested was being used at the time to move advanced missiles to Hezbollah.

Israeli jets have also struck Damascus three times since last January, levelling a base of the Fourth Division near Damascus, destroying a convoy outside a scientific institute and striking an unknown target near the Lebanese border.

Large explosions attributed to the Israeli air force have also taken place in warehouses in the coastal cities of Tartous and Latakia, both strongholds of the regime military.

In addition, Israeli jets twice bombed factories allegedly used to store Iranian-supplied weapons in 2009 and hit a military facility south of Khartoum in 2011. Two overland convoys in western Sudan were also hit by an air strike in 2011.

The regular appearances of Israeli jets above Syria and Lebanon are yet to attract direct retaliation from Hezbollah, which has not yet responded to Wednesday's apparent Golan Heights clash and played down last week's strike on the Syrian border.

Hezbollah is heavily engaged in Syria, with its forces playing a lead role in attacking rebel and jihadist groups in the Qalamoun mountains, near the strategically important Lebanese border town of Arsal. Both the Shia militia and its main patron, Iran, remain heavily invested in ensuring that the regime of Bashar al-Assad prevails in the war, which next week will enter a fourth year with little sign of slowing down.

Assad has increasingly relied on his key allies, along with Russia, as the war has gathered steam. Until the start of the war, which has pitched an almost exclusively Sunni opposition against an Alawite and Shia Islamic alliance, Assad had been regarded by Palestinians as an essential champion of their cause.

However, the relationship between the regime and Palestinian factions – particularly Hamas – had broken down by the end of 2012, by which time the Hamas leader Khaled Mashal and his politburo had left Damascus for Doha, and Palestinian refugee camps in the capital were under attack by regime forces.

The break between Hamas and the Assad regime also caused a freeze in relations between the militant Islamic rulers of Gaza and Iran, which had in the past supplied rockets and other munitions to the group. After enjoying close ties with the former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's new rulers have in effect sealed off Gaza in recent months, stopping all arms transfers while they fight a jihadist insurgency in the Sinai.


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