The Biggest Election: India
By THE EDITORIAL BOARD
MARCH 11, 2014
A growing population guarantees that every national election in India is the largest election ever held. This year is no exception. More than 814 million citizens are eligible to vote in national elections scheduled to begin on April 7 and conclude on May 12. Much is riding on the results, which are expected on May 16.
The Election Commission of India has time and again performed the amazing feat of getting mind-boggling numbers of voters to the polls — and then counting all those votes. There is every reason to believe that this next mammoth democratic exercise will be free and fair.
Polls indicate that the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is likely to win the most seats, though probably not enough to form a government without support from one or more of India’s large regional parties. This leaves a very slim chance that the Indian National Congress could cobble together enough seats to remain a part of a governing coalition. There are many wild cards, including the impact of India’s new Aam Aadmi Party, whose anticorruption campaign resonates with many voters.
India’s national elections are an achievement, but are only one of the pillars on which democracy depends. And here India’s democracy has proved far shakier. Its Constitution promises much: It guarantees essential democratic rights, including equality before the law and freedom of religion and expression. It prohibits discrimination based on religion, caste or race, and it guarantees the right to an education. The Constitution also explicitly prohibits exploitation, forced labor and child labor.
Yet in many of these areas, the country has fallen tragically short. While a vibrant economy has created a record number of billionaires and an aspiring middle class, grossly exploitive working conditions are the lot of many Indians, including children. The vast majority of young children are now enrolled in primary school, but many attend schools so poorly staffed and equipped that they cannot learn. The court system remains inefficient, with far too many cases languishing without resolution. Attacks on freedom of expression are increasingly common, with pressure and threats of the crudest kind casting a dangerous chill on the free exchange of ideas and opinions. These conditions pose serious threats to India’s open society.
That’s why the next election will be crucial. Voter turnout is expected to be high. Indians hold dear their power to express their hopes and vent their frustrations at the ballot box. But if the next government cannot deliver the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution, India’s democracy will have failed its citizens.
Bangladesh Inspections Find Gaps in Safety
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
MARCH 11, 2014
Nearly a year after a factory building collapsed in Bangladesh, killing more than 1,100 workers, engineering teams sponsored by Western retailers have been rigorously inspecting that country’s garment industry, resulting in at least two temporary closings because of safety problems.
Inspection reports on the first 10 factories were released Tuesday and found that some lacked adequate fire doors, did not have required sprinkler systems and had dangerously high weight loads on several floors.
The inspections were organized through the Bangladesh Accord Foundation, a group of 150 clothing brands and retailers from more than 20 countries that plans to inspect 1,500 Bangladesh garment factories by early September.
“Our inspection program is in full swing,” said Brad Loewen, the group’s chief safety inspector. “It’s big news that we’re in full flight.”
The program has 38 teams of international engineers, who, with Bangladeshi engineers and technicians, plan to inspect 250 factories each month, doing fire, electrical and structural inspections on each.
The inspection reports released Tuesday found a lack of fire alarms and a need for better enclosure and maintenance of electrical wiring. The inspections, done in November and December, do not reflect any problems as severe as those that caused the collapse last spring of the Rana Plaza factory.
“The inspection reports contain an unprecedented level of detail and set a new standard in transparency and credibility,” said Jyrki Raina, general secretary of IndustriALL Global Union, a labor federation that helped set up the accord.
The inspectors found extensive fire safety problems at the Dragon Sweater factory in Dhaka. The report said the boiler and generator rooms as well as storage areas holding combustible materials were not separated from production areas using fireproof construction. The inspectors found that the exit stairs in the 18-story factory opened into areas used for storage on several floors and that the main exit stairway discharged inside the building, as did a rear exit stairway. The inspectors found a locked fire exit door on the 16th floor and numerous collapsible gates with locks, although they were not locked during the inspection.
The inspectors said Dragon’s fire alarm system was mainly a manual alarm system that notified only individual floors. The report added, “The high-rise building is not provided with automatic sprinkler protection. The large occupant loads, heavy fuel loading, and anticipated extended egress times warrant sprinkler protection.”
Dragon Sweater’s website says its customers include Walmart, C&A and Sainsbury’s.
The reports include photos with arrows pointing to specific safety problems, like cracks in beams.
“By publishing reports and making them easily understandable with photographs, we help the workers and public understand these problems and see that they’re fixable,” said Alan Roberts, executive director of the accord’s international operations. He said many safety repairs had already been made to the first factories inspected.
Separately, Walmart hired Bureau Veritas, a prominent monitoring company, to inspect Dragon Sweater and more than 200 other factories it uses in Bangladesh. Its inspections last April gave Dragon Sweater Cs for electrical and building safety, Walmart’s second-worst grade, and a follow-up assessment in July gave it a B for electrical safety and C for building safety.
The accord’s first wave of inspections focused on buildings with at least five floors that have multiple factories. Building owners are told in advance when the inspections will occur, and are asked to locate relevant documentation, said Joris Oldenziel, a spokesman for the accord. The inspection reports are sent to the factory owner, the Western brands that use the factory and worker representatives at the factory. The recipients were to come up with remediation plans, to be published on the accord’s website within six weeks of the inspection, with the Western brands promising to help finance needed improvements.
“Exits are always a big issue,” Mr. Loewen said. “Usually they have lockable gates across them — they have to be removed. The stairwells have to be separated from the factory floor with fire doors. It’s very common that they need to install fire doors.”
Another common problem was that many factories do not satisfy the accord’s requirement that sprinklers be installed on every floor of a factory building that is 75 feet or higher.
One factory owner in Bangladesh praised the inspections, saying, “No doubt, they have gone through many details, very intensively.” He added, “It is good. It can shake up the mind-set.” He spoke only on the condition of anonymity, fearing other factory owners might get angry at him because many are dismayed with the accord and inspections.
He said this should improve factory quality and create a more level playing field among factories. He predicted that some factories could face major renovation expenses, since many do not have sprinkler systems at all.
Softex, a sweater maker that supplies the French retailer Auchan, temporarily closed this week after the accord’s inspectors discovered serious structural problems, a move that resulted in the layoff of more than 3,000 workers. Labor unions criticized Softex for not paying the workers’ wages while repairs are done, while Bangladeshi factory owners have urged the Western brands to help pay the wages.
At the Viyellatex factory, fire inspectors found that two of the three exit stairways discharged inside the building rather than outside. They found that large electrical equipment was not separated by fireproof construction and that the smoke detector system did not provide automatic alarm protection. Notification was done only by manual alarm.
On its website, Viyellatex says its clients include PVH, Hugo Boss, and Marks and Spencer.
“Viyellatex is one of the best factories in Bangladesh, and it still had major problems, particularly fire and electrical,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a monitoring group based in Washington. “It indicates how widespread the problems are.”
If an inspection uncovers critical problems, accord officials must notify the government of Bangladesh and request that the factory be closed. A panel of four engineers as well as government, business and labor leaders must meet within 48 hours to review the decision. Closed factories cannot be reopened unless the four engineers all agree.
Most of the accord’s signers are European brands, including H&M, Benetton and Inditex, but a few United States companies have joined, including Abercrombie & Fitch and PVH, the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.
The inspectors found urgent structural problems at several factories. At Fashion Island, they found cracks in beams and urged, “All loads, including equipment, garments and personnel, at each floor level, including ground floor, are to be reduced.”
At Grameen Knitwear, the inspectors found what they called “uncontrolled heavy loading” on the second and third floors and voiced concerns about “the stability system for lateral loading.” At Rio Fashion Wear, the inspectors found heavy loads on the eighth floor, resulting in some cracking on the floor below.
Gap, Walmart, Target and 23 other North American retailers have formed a separate group that seeks to improve safety at apparel factories in Bangladesh.
That group, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, said it had inspected 365 factories of the 830 it said its members use in Bangladesh. It has not yet released inspection reports.
Last December, Walmart released 202 factory safety assessment reports — less detailed than the ones released Tuesday — including those for Dragon Sweater. Kevin Gardner, a Walmart spokesman, noted that 68 percent of the factories Walmart had inspected overlap with factories used by members of the accord.
“As we move forward, collaboration will be key to ensuring worker safety and effective, sustainable remediation,” Mr. Gardner said. “ In fact, the alliance formed its safety standards together with the accord.”
China Torn Between Policies and Partnership
By ANDREW JACOBS and SOMINI SENGUPTA
MARCH 11, 2014
BEIJING — From the NATO air war in Kosovo to the American invasion of Iraq, China’s opposition to foreign interference in a country’s internal affairs has been one of the mainstays of its foreign policy, along with a strategic partnership with Russia to counteract the diplomatic and economic might of the West.
Those two imperatives have collided over Ukraine, placing China in an awkward bind. It does not want to alienate its strategic partner, which has lobbied heavily for China’s support for its intervention in Ukraine. Yet it cannot be seen as supporting a referendum in Crimea, which Russia backs, on the peninsula’s possible secession from Ukraine. For Beijing, that comes uncomfortably close to approving a vote on independence for Tibet or Taiwan.
China’s solution has been to equivocate, but in a way that appears to hand a diplomatic victory to President Pig V. Putin of Russia as he faces off against the United States and Europe over Ukraine.
On Tuesday, when asked to comment on how China views the referendum, which has been denounced by the newly installed government in Kiev as well as the United States and Europe, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman was studiously noncommittal.
“We call on all parties to properly handle the rights and interests of all ethnic communities in Ukraine, to restore social order and uphold peace and stability in the region as soon as possible,” the spokesman, Qin Gang, said. The references to ethnic rights and the loss of social order echo some of Russia’s stated reasons for intervening in Ukraine.
The Pig is secure in the knowledge that Beijing will abstain from any United Nations Security Council efforts to condemn Russia’s invasion, analysts said. Should crushing sanctions be imposed by the West, the Kremlin is banking on the likelihood that China will step up its economic engagement to keep a pivotal ally afloat.
“If the West closes more doors to Russia, China would become more important, that’s for sure,” said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “It’s the one country that would not follow sanctions.”
Yet it is clear that the issue treads on sensitive ground for China, and it has contorted itself to find a neutral diplomatic position. At the United Nations, the Chinese envoy, Liu Jieyi, said in a public meeting of the Security Council in early March that China has always supported “noninterference” in the affairs of a sovereign country. On Monday, Mr. Liu spoke up in favor of Ukraine’s “sovereignty” and “territorial integrity.”
He also gave a nod to how complicated the situation in Ukraine was, but he could well have been speaking for his own capital.
Relations between Moscow and Beijing have grown steadily closer since the early 1990s, when the fall of the Soviet Union brought an end to the decades of enmity that were largely based on ideological differences between the two Communist states.
As permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the two countries have come to rely on each other to veto measures condemning dictators in Zimbabwe, Myanmar and Syria. And just last month, after President Obama and several European leaders snubbed the Pig by skipping the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Russians took comfort in the sight of President Xi Jinping of China cheering from the stands.
Yet while it may preserve the strategic relationship with Moscow, China’s support for Russian aggression in the Crimea comes with its own set of challenges and perils. Beyond rendering hollow its nonintervention credo, the coming plebiscite makes Chinese leaders especially uneasy, given the aspirations of millions of Tibetans, Mongolians and Uighurs who would jump at the opportunity to vote themselves out of the current arrangement with Beijing.
Those fears were highlighted this month when a group of attackers from far west Xinjiang, a region with a large population of Turkic-speaking Muslims, slashed to death 29 people at a train station in southwest China.
Then there is Taiwan, the self-governed island off the coast of eastern China that Beijing hopes to one day reunite with the mainland despite the objections of most residents, who prefer the status quo.
Russia’s Western rivals, having absorbed lectures about Western arrogance and self-righteousness, have not been shy about highlighting China’s difficulties. “China was one of the countries that underlined the importance it attached to the unity and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” Mark Lyall-Grant, the British ambassador, said in response to a question about China’s stance.
Last week, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, indirectly referred to China’s position, too. “Russia finds itself extremely isolated,” she said after Thursday’s Council meeting. She did not have to name China. It was implied, since on virtually every other major issue the Council has faced in recent months, China and Russia have stood shoulder to shoulder.
Moscow, on the other hand, has sought to play up Beijing’s support for its position. Last week, Russian state television reported that the two governments shared a “broad agreement in points of view” regarding the Crimean conflict.
Mainstream Russian analysts say that China shares Moscow’s anxieties over Western-backed anti-government uprisings, but that it is constrained by worries about homegrown separatism. They also said Beijing might be holding back greater support until it had a clearer indication of a Western response — the nature of sanctions from the United States and its allies, or the precise wording of a Security Council resolution.
One likely result is the speedy closing of an agreement to supply Russian gas to Chinese markets, a deal more than five years in the works and snagged in negotiations over prices, according to Vasily Kashin, a China specialist from the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technology, a Moscow-based research center.
“Now that it’s clear that we will not have big projects with Europe, and in general, everything is cloudy, it is probable that we will soon sign major agreements with the Chinese,” Mr. Kashin told Vechernyaya Moskva, a daily newspaper. “Of course the prices will not be as high as deliveries to Europe, but you can’t say that it will be a loss-making project.”
China also faces a dilemma over how to deal with Ukraine’s new Western-backed government, in that it was born out of a popular revolt against a corrupt leader — a scenario that unnerves the ruling Communist Party. But by backing Russia too forcefully, it risks damaging relations with Ukraine, a country that has substantial Chinese investment. Last year, the two countries reportedly signed a multibillion-dollar deal to lease Ukrainian farmland for 50 years, and Kiev has been one of China’s more reliable providers of military hardware.
“It’s a double jeopardy for China,” said Titus C. Chen, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University in Taiwan. “China’s leaders can’t afford to side with Kiev, and they cannot side with Russia’s forceful policy.”
Nine Chinese cities suffered more days of severe smog than Beijing
Pollution widespread and affected millions more than previously thought, 2013 data shows
theguardian.com, Wednesday 12 March 2014 11.11 GMT
Photographs of a smog-wreathed Tiananmen Square and the iconic headquarters of China Central Television dominated reports of Chinese pollution last year, but analysis shows nine other Chinese cities suffered more days of severe smog than the capital in 2013.
The worst was Xingtai, a city of more than 7 million people south-west of Beijing, which was hit by 129 days of "unhealthy air" or worse – the threshold at which pollution is considered at emergency levels – and more than twice as many days as the capital experienced.
Beijing suffered 60 days of pollution above emergency levels, sparking reports of an "airpocalypse", a boom in sales of air purifiers and masks and measures to tackle the problem including the destruction of open-air barbecues and a crackdown on fireworks for Chinese new year.
Last week, the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, "declared war" on pollution, saying it was "nature's red-light warning against the model of inefficient and blind development."
The new analysis by Energy Desk, a site published by Greenpeace, is based on Chinese government data of fine particulates (PM2.5s), that have been linked by studies to increases in lung cancer and heart failure. It ranked cities against the US air quality index, based on how many experienced "very unhealthy" days or worse, roughly equivalent to levels the Chinese government considers an emergency.
Fang Lifeng, Greenpeace east Asia climate and energy campaigner, said: "China's air pollution crisis usually makes the headlines when the smog cloud hits Beijing, but this research shows just how widespread this problem really is. There are now millions of Chinese people living in cities with air pollution above emergency levels for a third of the year, while other urban areas have gone a whole 12-month period with hardly any days of good-quality air."
Most of the cities in the top 10, including Shijiazhuang, Baoding, and Langfang, are in the Hebei province south of Beijing, which is home to a large number of coal-fired power plants and industries including steel and cement that burn coal. Harbin, a city north-east of Beijing, which made headlines in October due to a choking smog that forced schools and the airport to close, comes in below Beijing on the ranking, at number 17.
Beijing only had 13 days considered "good" on the US index last year, with 70 days of moderate air pollution, 64 at unhealthy for sensitive groups, 148 unhealthy days, 45 very unhealthy, 14 deemed hazardous and one day that registered at "beyond index", ie off the scale. Weather conditions in Beijing and the surrounding regions often compound the particulates generated by coal burning, cars and industry, with cold winter air trapping the pollution.
China is not the only country suffering air pollution problems, and far from the worst. Iran is home to four of the world's four most polluted cities, with Quetta and Peshawar in Pakistan also in the top 10 alongside Kanpur and Ludhiana in India, data from the World Health Organisation shows.
Libyan prime minister ousted by parliament
Ali Zeidan removed by vote of no confidence after militia seized port of al-Sidra and tried to sell oil to North Korean tanker
theguardian.com, Tuesday 11 March 2014 23.06 GMT
Libya's parliament has forced out the prime minister in a vote of no confidence, a move prompted by a crisis this week when a militia controlling an eastern port defied Tripoli's authority by trying to sell oil. The chamber named the defence minister as an interim prime minister until a replacement for Ali Zeidan is found.
The vote of confidence followed the standoff between the central government in Tripoli and powerful militias in the east of the country.
A militia holding the key port of al-Sidra sparked a three-day crisis when it attempted to load oil into a North Korean-flagged tanker that had docked without government permission.
The confidence vote raises the potential for armed conflict. Most politicians in Libya are backed by militias with regional or ideological allegiances, who may not accept Zeidan's removal. The parliament started off as a 200-seat chamber, but the number of its members has been reduced to 180 after a series of resignations and dismissals. The no vote won the support of 121 MPs.
Syria's unknown victims: the thousands missing or dead in regime custody
Among the more than 100,000 dead in the three years since the Syrian civil war began are at least 11,000 disappeared into the Assad regime's custody. But the true number may be much higher, the Guardian finds in interviews with released prisoners and relatives of the missing
theguardian.com, Tuesday 11 March 2014 14.00 GMT
Syria's three-year civil war has left more than 100,000 dead and uprooted 9 million people from their homes. But perhaps the most chilling statistic of all is the number who are missing, who have disappeared into the intimidating interior of the regime's "security branches", where interrogation and torture are carried out.
Numbers are hard to pin down. Last month, the Guardian reported that 11,000 Syrians had been killed while in the custody of regime security forces. A photographer from the Syrian military police defected with 55,000 images of 11,000 victims. He described a bureaucratic system in which the disappeared were executed, documented and then secretly buried in a rural area.
But many more remain unaccounted for. Relatives describe a heartbreaking, desolate search through some of the most terrifying organs of state power to try to find a trace of loved ones. And those who have been released tell of dismal conditions of detention, of dozens of people crammed into tiny cells, of long days unfed and unwatered, waiting for the next round of interrogation in which subjects are given electric shocks or hung from the walls.
The Guardian has spoken to the mother of a 17-year old boy who is still missing, the nephew of a man who died in captivity and three released prisoners.
Ahmed Safi, 31, from Homs
Ahmed, a father of two, was killed in a regime prison according to his nephew, Abu Muhammed, who tells the story.
My uncle made a living from his clothes store. He was aware of demonstrations against the regime but didn't join in because he lived in a district loyal to the Syrian regime.
Instead, he helped the revolution by promoting a network for financial donations by Syrians in exile and rich businessmen still in the country. As soon as he got the money, Ahmed would purchase clothes or food for needy families in various districts of Homs or pass money to the families, if they needed cash.
It was a hot evening in July. Ahmed was running home with his five-year-old child. He was stopped at a checkpoint: Altarbiyia, one of the most intimidating in Homs. It is common knowledge among locals that men detained at Altarbiyia go missing, and the checkpoint is known in Homs as the 'human slaughterhouse'.
An eyewitness told Ahmed's family the military had arrested him. Ahmed's young son was left abandoned in the van at the checkpoint for two hours. An acquaintance recognised the boy by chance and took him from the van, later telling Ahmed's wife of her husband's detention. Ahmed's nephew, Abu Muhammed, continues:
His family hired a lawyer to locate Ahmed. The lawyer learned that Ahmed was locked up at the military security branch in Homs, accused of acquiring money from foreign agencies and collaborating with terrorists.
The lawyer was able to reach Ahmed in jail but no one in his family was allowed to visit him. The lawyer told Ahmed's wife, who was pregnant with their third child, that Ahmed's health was in decline. He had lost lots of weight, for lack of adequate food, and he had been tortured by electricity in every session of interrogation. Ahmed could hardly stand on his feet.
After 45 days, the lawyer was summoned to the court in regard of Ahmed's case. The family thought that was a sign Ahmed might be released or sentenced; they would be able to see him for once, at least.
When the lawyer arrived at the court, to his surprise he did not see Ahmed: he had been called to the court to obtain Ahmed's death certificate, ID card and the keys to his van. The death certificate recorded the cause of death as natural. A number for his grave was handed over.
Rami Nasir, 30, Damascus
Rami, a father of two daughters, was also detained at a checkpoint and held for seven months. He was eventually released and fled to Jordan with his family.
I was with my wife heading to hospital in Damascus. We had to stop by a military checkpoint before we got to our destination. The checkpoint guard pointed at my student ID, which reads College of Sciences, physics department. He took a list of names out of his pocket. I did not know that my name was in the list.
Immediately after, our mobiles were taken and my wife sent home. The guard blindfolded my eyes and handcuffed my hands to throw me in a car. I was taken to a building that used to be a cultural centre but now is a detention depot, in Jassim city, in the capital. I was held in the centre for one night and shifted to the military security branch in Daraa city.
The cell was 5 metres by 5 metres, full of more than 100 detainees. For food, we got a piece of bread twice a day.
After 10 days, I was interrogated. The guard blindfolded me and handcuffed me. The instructor told me to kneel. He asked me about an activist I had once contacted by phone. I denied any link with him. The interrogator began shouting and beating me with a thick green pipe on my back.
The interrogator told me he would himself confess on my behalf and write down what he wanted. Then I was taken to the air intelligence branch. The moment I stepped into the branch, along with another nine detainees, handcuffed and blindfolded, we were greeted with a wave of kicks, slaps and blows coming from all directions. Some of the blows were from fists, others from pipes.
I was permitted to visit the loo twice a day. The moment you were allowed to go to the lavatory, there were 10 guards standing opposite each other, who would aim all sort of blows at the detainee, with whips and truncheons.
During a second interrogation, I was stripped to my underwear. The interrogator tied my arms to a pipe hung from a hook in the roof. Any officer or guard passing by would hit me with different things. Interrogators stubbed out cigarettes on my chest while I hung there.
I was interrogated four times in that branch. Questions were: who are the rebels that you know? What sort of weapon did you use? What is your association with that mobile number?
The interrogator was asking me questions I had no answers to. When I said, 'I do not know,' I would be hit. The scars are still carved on my body. I thought: it is better to sign whatever he says, just to put an end to the beating.
After a few days, I was called for interrogation again. Same questions, same denials. This time, however, they poured acid on my feet while I was hanging from the wall. The pain was beyond all description. I felt my heart would blow up at that moment.
The third round of interrogation had a new method of torture, which was chaining my arms back to be lifted up. My arms were crushed together for 15 minutes. Breathing was almost impossible. My shoulders were dislocated.
After 23 days, I was moved to a solitary cell. It was 180cm by 130cm but there were 14 detainees with me. A detainee would stand up to allow another to sit. I was sealed up in that cell for 43 days.
Every 48 hours, we would have a piece of bread we couldn't even see. We were shut in, naked except for our underwear. It was January, freezing cold. We were sitting on a floor thickly covered with piss and dirt. I was interrogated only once within these 43 days but I would be beaten twice when I went to the loo.
We were allowed less than 20 seconds: if you took longer, your torture would be atrocious. We would rush back and forth to the loo. I was 95kg (15 stone) before detention, and 60kg when I was released.
Some detainees died in our cell, and others died during interrogation. There was a day I moved four bodies. Some of them died because of starvation, others because of illness or injury from torture.
I was moved two more times before my family bribed an officer with 400,000 Syrian lire to put my name on top of a list of detainees who would be heard by a judge. My health was waning and my family wanted to move me to hospital. The judge decided to release me. I was detained for seven months in all.
I fled to Jordan with my wife and two little girls. One of my daughters was born while I was in prison. I'm still in pain, and am running back and forth to the doctor.
Warda Sulaiman, 31, Damascus
Warda was distributing medicine to wounded rebels and civilians in Damascus when she was snatched from the street by armed men. She was detained for 19 months and tortured.
My husband was pro-regime and was killed because the rebels suspected he was part of the Shabiha military but I wasn't. And when I saw my neighbour's son returning from detention to be shot dead in front of his kids, I found myself running down the street to hail the revolution against Assad.
I embedded with some activists to dispense medicine in edgy areas in Damascus and Homs. I was aware that this path would earn me only imprisonment or martyrdom. I would tour pharmacies in the capital collecting medical supplies and bringing them to wounded rebels and civilians.
I got a phone call from a rebel to bring down some sprays for to help stop a haemorrhage. I was waiting for the guy in the street in the evening when suddenly two big men held my arms firmly and pointed a gun to my head. They instructed me to keep silent and shoved me into a security vehicle.
They told me not to deny being a rebel while possessing these sprays. I was driven to the political security branch and found myself in a corridor where more than 20 detainees were being punched and kicked. A rebel guy was brought to be electrocuted; he was paralysed for 10 minutes, and collapsed in front of me.
Then the officer came to interrogate me, accusing me of killing my Shabiha husband and smuggling weapons to the rebels. He advised me not to deny, smacking my face repeatedly and abusing me verbally. I was kept in the branch until three in the morning. A jailer came to move me, along with few other detainees. I asked him where we were going. He laughed and said: 'To one of God's paradises.'
We arrived at the state security's al-Khatieb branch. I was taken to a dungeon to share a 70cm-by-170cm cell with another female detainee, who was six months pregnant. There were seven solitary cells with two females inside each one. I was told I would be staying there for two days, to be released later. After 10 days, I got a new female mate, who was accused of having dealings with Mossad.
The policy in the branch was to intimidate detainees by making them watch the hideous torture methods exercised inside the branch. We were allowed access to bathroom twice a day, for a single minute. The food was a little rice, rotten bread and black bitter olives with dirty water.
I was taken to interrogation every day for six hours, to reveal the names of rebels I worked with. The jailer brought a thick scourge to whip me all over my body, then handcuffed me, pinning me to the door like a sheep and electrifying me until I fainted. After the torture, I signed eight blank pieces of paper. I was kept in the branch for 45 day. The jailers did their best to avoid causing any wound to my body. They would even spray my skin with stuff to bring down all the bruises.
It was Friday. A jailer came to take me to court. Or so he said. But it turned to be Kefersusa military branch, not a court. The moment I got there, I fainted because of low blood pressure and was taken to a bathroom, where I saw a female detainee from Homs. I kept vomiting and was shivering. They brought me a doctor to continue the interrogation. After two hours, I felt well enough to give the jailer my details. My health was waning. I was taken to a 3-metre-by-4-metre room with a camera. Food was better in this branch. I was kept for 45 days sleeping on the floor. I can't go through what happened to me when I was alone in my cell. It was something brutal and cruel.
The interrogators put me on the pro-regime al-Dunia programme. I was crying and they were laughing. The officer kept hitting me and humiliating me to say what they want me to say. I was forced to say that I had taken part in car bombings in many Alawite districts.
I was dispatched to the military judiciary after the TV interview. We were supposed to see the judge but we did not: instead, we were taken to Adra prison. This was the first time I could have a cup of tea and a cigarette. This prison was much better than the other branches, but after a few months the treatment turned dreadful. The jailers would blame the terrorists for blocking roads. They brought male detainees there to torture them.
There were a couple of rape cases throughout the time of the interrogation. A few female detainees fell pregnant. A few detainees were already pregnant, and had to give birth in the dungeon.
A midwife would be rushed to the cell and all the detainees would be sent out, except for a few who stayed to help. I remember a baby died after five days because of not being checked by a doctor.
After 16 months of imprisonment, my mother told me there was an international initiative to release seven female detainees in exchange for a few Syrian officers taken by the Free Syrian Army. My name was second on the list. But I stayed for 40 days in another detention place before finally being released. After a month, I fled Syria for Turkey, still scared that the Syrian intelligence might break in my room at any moment.
Yousif Issam, 17, Idlib
Yousif is still missing. This is his mother's account of his detention.
Yousif and his friends would always hang out in the internet cafe in the centre of Idlib. But one night, he didn't come home. I rushed to the internet cafe. I was told Yousif had been arrested by the political security branch forces in Idlib. I dashed to the branch and broke down in tears as I was trying to find my way into the building. The guard at the main gateway challenged me. I told him, in a tremulous voice, that my boy had been seized by the branch. Eventually, the receptionist affirmed that the branch had locked Yousif up.
After a week, it appeared the branchfellow had lied, and Yousif was not in there. After about a week, one of his fellow inmates was acquitted and emerged to tell us that Yousif was being held by state security, and there was no way to reach him.
A month later, Yousif turned up at home with papers implying that his main offence was going on anti-regime demonstrations. I was delighted, but he looked odd, and his back was full of bleeding welts.
Yousif's father hurried to get a passport to get him out of Syria, but then our house was surrounded by 15 armed men one evening. They screamed in my husband's face and told him if he did not turn over the weapons, his teeth would be knocked out. They left no stone unturned in the house, and all of a sudden a masked guy shouted: 'This is Yousif. Get hold of him!'
Yousif's father was unable to see him for two months. We had to escape to Turkey because it was too dangerous. I went back to visit but was turned down, along with a few other mothers. The head of the security branch did meet with us. He asked me why I was there. I said my son was being held, that he had done nothing wrong. He told me that every parent told him that. He got Yousif's file and read out the charges: he possessed weapon and was a member of a fighting brigade, and his job had been to relocate rebels by motorbike during the battle for the airport.
I said that by the time the battle for the airport had been in full cry, Yousif was already in detention. So how could he have been with the rebels?
He told me he would grant me a visit to Yousif, but not an acquittal. The jailer steered me to the dungeon of the building, a long corridor where I was startled to observe inmates of different ages who looked like sparrows staring through the apertures of their cells. I could immediately see that Yousif was wearing short trousers and a light shirt, and that his eyes were too red.
Yousif told me he was bleeding from his eyes because of the ruthless beating he received every single day in the branch. I told him to try and bear it; not to confess.
On my second visit, I brought food. He wanted falafel sandwiches, not for himself but for the other detainees, who were all starving. I spent over an hour in a falafel restaurant to get a huge bag of sandwiches, which I handed over to the reception to pass to Yousif.
After a while, I was told he had been moved to the state security in Damascus, Kefersusa branch. I couldn't see him any more. Who would dare to visit the state security branch in Damascus?
I tried many lawyers in Idlib. They took lots of money but they could not get the smallest tipoff about Yousif. It has become a lucrative business for lawyers, with thousands of detainees jailed by the regime. They make use of our desperation, promising information by virtue of connections with Alawite officers.
It has been a year now, and we are dying to know anything about where Yousif is. His father and I spend most of the time looking at Yousif's pictures on the wall and his abandoned copybooks, in sombre silence.
Farouq Al-Habieb, 33, Homs
Farouq was detained at a checkpoint in Homs and tortured after his captors discovered pro-human rights material in his car. He was eventually released and fled to Turkey with his wife and three children.
I always wanted to be a journalist, perhaps working with international media. My passion was rekindled in course of Syrian revolution. I would help foreign journalists working in Homs, and tell them about the rebellion. The Syrian regime made it so difficult for journalists to work in Homs.
I was downloading pictures and videos about Homs during the Syrian army siege. All at once, the power shut off. I had to rush at 8pm to a different area where I could pick up an internet connection. The route was disrupted by countless military checkpoints. I was stopped at one I usually got through easily.
This time, the guard grabbed his mobile to call his comrades. I was held until an armed vehicle arrived to take me in.
The vehicle was full of seven armed military men who pounded me with kicks and punches. I told them I was the director of a bank and a PhD holder, and pleaded with them to ring up the head of the military branch to confirm my identity.
I was rushed to the state security branch, to the checkup room. The guard forced me to take everything off, while his colleagues cursed me. I was put in a solitary cell in a dungeon. I was lucky: other cells were packed. The jailers did not know what I was accused of.
At the end of the corridor, several detainees were hanging by their bound arms to the roof. They were being whipped by a few guards everywhere on their bodies.
I could not shut my eyes for a single minute at night. The place was filled with screams of pain and torture. People were pleading with the guards to disentangle their arms – to be able to stand on their toes and avoid getting dislocated shoulders.
The next day, they checked out my car and found a pamphlet declaring the Syrian people's rights for freedom and democracy. The guards were outraged and dragged me down the stairs, with kicks and blows with their plastic truncheons. Then they blindfolded and handcuffed me, to be handed over.
At the military security branch, I was examined again and left in my underwear, handcuffed and blindfolded. I could not sleep for few nights, thanks to the soreness of my chest. I sensed that one of my ribs was broken. The guard led me to a section where detainees were huddled upon their arrival. It was wildly hot and every detainee was naked, sweating all over their bodies. Some of the detainees were military men accused of intending to defect; others were civilians accused of taking part in protests against the regime.
After three days, I was summoned by the interrogator. I learned that I was accused of operating with foreign journalists. I convinced the interrogator I had nothing to do with the revolution: I was a bank director, and because of my job I had got to know few journalists. The interrogator tricked me into thinking I would be released imminently, and my treatment improved.
But that did not last long, I found out some of the detainees were serving as spies on others to avoid torture, passing on every last bit of gossip. They told the interrogator I was against the regime and provoking detainees against the jailers. I was dragged to the head of the branch who, the moment his eyes fell on me, started to shout: 'Why the hell are you inciting detainees against the regime?'
The next day, a vehicle arrived to take us to Palestine security branch in Damascus. I asked the guard, 'Where are we going?' He laughed and said, 'We are going to dance together.'
All the detainees and protesters in Palestine security branch are considered stooges of Israel by the regime. This branch was supposed to deal with issues relevant to Palestine but the reality was, it was for hounding opponents to the regime. I saw a 14-year-old boy who had been shot in the leg at a protest against the regime. I could see that his wound had not healed. His body was covered with torture scars; burns from cigarettes butts were on his face, chest and tongue.
At night, I and other detainees could listen to shouts of moaning and pain from detainees begging for mercy. The style of torture was almost the same. I was in a cell with 25 detainees. Some died under torture. After 66 days, I was taken back to a military branch in Homs to be referred to a military court. The guards were reading my ID, and found out I worked in a Saudi-French bank. They doubled the dose of beatings, as they considered France and Saudi Arabia as enemies of the regime. They put my head on the floor and began to beat me all over my body with their boots and pistols butts.
At the end, the judge found me innocent and released me to flee with my wife and three children to Turkey five months ago.
African Union Opens Probe into South Sudan Atrocities
by Naharnet Newsdesk
12 March 2014, 11:34
The African Union opened a commission of inquiry Wednesday into atrocities carried out in the ongoing conflict in South Sudan.
South Sudan's government has been at war with rebel groups since December 15, when a clash between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and those loyal to sacked vice president Riek Machar snowballed into full-scale fighting across the world's newest nation.
Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo heads the five-member commission, which was set up to "investigate human rights violations and other abuses during the conflict by all parties".
"Whoever is responsible must not get away with impunity," said Obasanjo, who will later submit the team's recommendations to the AU.
"Africa must not condone impunity of Africans treating Africans as if they are not human beings," he added. "I want to assure you we will leave no stone unturned."
AU commission chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said the team faced a "very important and heavy responsibility".
War crimes have been committed by all sides in the war, Human Rights Watch has said, detailing widespread atrocities in almost three months of carnage.
The two sides signed a ceasefire agreement on January 23, but heavy fighting has continued.
Stalled peace talks in Ethiopia, which have made little progress, are due to resume on March 20.
The trial of four top leaders accused of treason for allegedly attempting to topple Kiir opened on Tuesday.
Nigeria 'Atrocities' Forcing Thousands to Flee, Says U.N.
by Naharnet Newsdesk
11 March 2014, 17:43
Thousands of refugees are fleeing harrowing scenes of atrocities and body-strewn streets in northern Nigeria, the U.N. said Tuesday.
The U.N.'s refugee agency said violence in the area had prompted some 2,000 people to flee into neighboring Niger over the past four weeks alone.
UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said refugees arriving in Niger's Differ region, as well as Cameroon and Chad, were speaking of "atrocities", with one woman describing "corpses strewn through houses and floating in the water."
The woman told UNHCR staff that people feared staying even to bury their dead or find missing relatives, Edwards said, adding that others reported kidnappings of women and children.
He said it was not possible to identify the assailants.
However, violence by Boko Haram militants that has raged in northern Nigeria since 2009 is known to have become particularly ferocious in recent weeks, with some 500 people killed in suspected Islamist attacks since the start of the year.
"UNHCR reiterates to all parties to the conflict in northeastern Nigeria the vital importance of protecting civilians from harm," Edwards said.
He pointed out that the insurgency in the three northeastern Nigerian states of Yobe, Adamawa and Borno had already displaced more than 470,000 people inside the country.
"Clearly this is an escalating crisis," he said, pointing out that it was also difficult for aid workers and others to access the displaced.
"The ability of any of the international community to help inside that area is definitely constrained at the moment," he said.
In addition, more than 57,000 people have fled to Cameroon, Chad and especially to Niger, which had taken in a full 40,000.
Bachelet Returns to Power in Chile Promising Reform
by Naharnet Newsdesk
11 March 2014, 18:42
Socialist Michelle Bachelet took the oath of office as president of Chile Tuesday, returning to power after four years with a reform agenda to reduce social disparities in this prosperous South American country.
The 62-year-old was sworn in at a solemn ceremony in the Congress, which has its seat in the port of Valparaiso, 120 kilometers (75 miles) west of Santiago.
"Yes, I promise," she said as she took the oath of office from the new Senate president Isabel Allende.
Allende, the daughter of ousted president Salvador Allende who died in a 1973 coup, handed Bachelet the presidential sash.
Gathered for the transfer of power were presidents from around the region as well as US Vice President Joe Biden.
Notably absent was Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, who canceled at the last minute.
Five weeks of unrest in Venezuela, which has left at least 21 dead, including a Chilean woman, was expected to be a major topic of discussion among the leaders here.
Argentina's Cristina Kirchner, Brazil's Dilma Rousseff, Peru's Ollanta Humala, Mexico's Enrique Pena Nieto, Bolivia's Evo Morales, Ecuador's Rafael Correa and Uruguay's Jose Mujica were among the presidents attending.
Bachelet succeeds Sebastian Pinera, who took office in 2010 at the end of her first groundbreaking term as Chile's first female president.
Pinera, barred from running for a second consecutive term, is leaving office at the peak of his popularity.
In this second stint at the helm, Bachelet will have a chance to cement her legacy as a transformative leader who experienced firsthand the horrors of the 1973-1990 Augusto Pinochet military dictatorship.
During that dark period, Bachelet was tortured, fled the country, and then returned years later to work as a pediatrician, eventually entering politics.
Her father died after being tortured for remaining loyal to leftist president Salvador Allende in the 1973 coup that saw Pinochet come to power.
She returned to Chile last year after three years in New York, where she headed U.N. Women, and defeated conservative Evelyn Matthei in December elections with 62 percent of the vote.
During the intense campaign, she promised to launch major reforms of Chile's education system, its taxes and write a new constitution that wipes away vestiges of the Pinochet dictatorship.
She promised free university-level education and to end state subsidies to private, for-profit colleges, which have put higher education out of reach of the poor.
Both reforms were at the center of mass student protests that swept Santiago starting in 2011.
Student leaders have remained skeptical, however, and say the protests will continue.
To finance the educational system, Bachelet has called for an ambitious tax reform that would raise $8.2 billion, or about three percent of GDP.
The new constitution Bachelet envisions would replace one imposed by the military in 1980, and revise the length and limits on presidential terms.
"I don't say the constitution solves everything, but it provides a framework," Bachelet said before her election.
In Congress, she has the majority needed to approve the tax reform, but still must form alliances with the opposition and independents to pass the educational reform and to rewrite the constitution.
Analysts believe she can easily find the votes for education reform, but say overcoming hurdles to changing the constitution will be much tougher.
Internally, Bachelet also must deal with political differences that are already evident in the broad coalition of Christian Democrats, Socialists and Communists that support her.
The crisis in Venezuela has already confronted her with divisions between Christian Democrats, who want to censor the Maduro government, and the communists, who support him.
Bachelet is inheriting an economy that is losing steam after some five years at a five percent growth rate. Growth next year is forecast at between 3.75 and 4.75 percent.
One of her first challenges, therefore, will be to dampen the soaring expectations for quick changes, with Asian demands for Chile's copper diminishing.
Chile is the world's top copper producer and its main client is China, whose appetite for the substance has ebbed.
Anti-Government Rally Called in Caracas amid New Violence
by Naharnet Newsdesk
12 March 2014, 07:09
Students and opponents of the Venezuelan government have called a new rally for Wednesday to mark a month of protests in Caracas, as the death toll from demo-related violence reached 21.
Students throwing rocks and homemade firebombs clashed late Tuesday with police who tried to disperse them with tear gas and water cannon. No injuries were immediately reported.
The anti-government demonstrations have been fueled by rising discontent over deteriorating living conditions and police crackdowns in the oil-rich OPEC nation.
President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government has outraged many, particularly with shortages of basic goods like toilet paper and food, and amid spiraling violent crime and corruption.
Maduro vowed he would bar the protesters from entering the center of the capital Wednesday, saying they are looking for trouble in an unauthorized rally.
"I am not going to let them in," he said in a radio program. "I know they are coming with plans for violence."
The planned march could cross paths with a pro-government procession called by the education minister.
Political scientist John Magdaleno said anti-government protests would carry on but might start losing steam because they have yielded little.
Maduro, the handpicked leftist successor of the late populist firebrand Hugo Chavez, has denounced the protests as a coup in the making, encouraged by the opposition with the backing of the Unite States.
The death toll climbed to 21 after a student was fatally shot in the city of San Cristobal, authorities said Tuesday. The weeks of violence have left more than 300 people injured.
Daniel Tinoco, 24, was killed Monday night in the western city where nationwide protests against the leftist government of Maduro first ignited February 4.
In Caracas they got under way February 12 and three people were killed in a big rally.
Tinoco died from a gunshot wound to the chest, opposition Mayor Daniel Ceballos told AFP.
Since protests began, opposition leaders and government officials have blamed each other for the deadly violence.
The protests have spread to cities such as Caracas, Merida, Valencia and Maracay.
New research suggests prehistoric European men and women preferred blondes
By Travis Gettys
Tuesday, March 11, 2014 11:35 EDT
A new study suggests Europeans developed lighter skin, hair, and eyes due to their ancestors’ sexual preferences, and not just natural selection.
Homo sapiens first arose in Africa about 200,000 years ago, and anthropologists assume that those early humans resembled present-day Africans because dark skin carries advantages in that environment.
Higher levels of the skin pigment melanin block out UV light and protect against its damages, including DNA damage that causes skin cancer and the breakdown of vitamin B.
But melanin also blocks out UV light needed to produce vitamin D, so prehistoric humans needed less of the pigment for protection as they move further north of the equator.
Recent DNA analysis of ancient skeletons suggests that human factors, including diet and sexual attraction, may have caused the lightening of Europeans’ skin over the past 5,000 years, in addition to environmental factors.
Anthropologists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz and geneticists at University College London, working with archaeologists from Berlin and Kiev, published their findings this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The researchers compared DNA from archaeological skeletons with contemporary Europeans using computer simulations, and they inferred positive selection played a role when genetic changes could not be explained by the randomness of inheritance.
The darker phenotype seems to have been preferred by evolution for hundreds of thousands of years and caused prehistoric Europeans to be consistently darker than their present-day descendants.
But that began changing about 50,000 years ago as prehistoric humans migrated further north, although research suggests Europeans remained mostly dark-skinned until much later.
“Most people of the world make most of their vitamin D in their skin as a result UV exposure,” said Professor Mark Thomas, of University College London. “But at northern latitudes and with dark skin, this would have been less efficient. If people weren’t getting much vitamin D in their diet, then having lighter skin may have been the best option.”
But that evolutionary explanation is less convincing for hair and eye color, the researchers said.
“It may be that lighter hair and eye color functioned as a signal indicating group affiliation, which in turn played a role in the selection of a partner,” said researcher Sandra Wilde, of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGUM).
This sort of sexual selection is common in animals, but the researchers said it may have been one of the driving forces behind human evolution for several thousand years.
While pigmentation genes may have been favored by natural selection to “a surprising degree” over the past 10,000 years, the study’s senior author said their findings should not show that every characteristic selected in the past remains beneficial today.
“The characteristics handed down as a result of sexual selection can be more often explained as the result of preference on the part of individuals or groups rather than adaptation to the environment,” said Joachim Burger, of JGUM.
In the USA...United Surveillance America
NSA Nominee Defends Bulk Data Collection
by Naharnet Newsdesk
12 March 2014, 06:48
The nominee to head the U.S. National Security Agency on Tuesday defended the use of bulk data collection but said he also wants more transparency about the secretive spy service.
Vice Admiral Michael Rogers, nominated by President Barack Obama to head the agency at the center of a public firestorm over surveillance, told lawmakers the NSA needs to be able to access the vast amounts of metadata to thwart terror attacks.
In a written response to questions from a Senate panel for his confirmation hearing, Rogers said he sees a need to maintain the law authorizing bulk collection of phone records, known as Section 215, which has come under fire for trampling on the rights of Americans and others.
"The telephone metadata program under Section 215 was designed to map the communications of terrorists so we can see who they may be in contact with as quickly as possible," Rogers said in his written response.
"I believe that we need to maintain an ability to make queries of phone records in a way that is agile and provides results in a timely fashion. Being able to quickly review phone connections associated with terrorists to assess whether a network exists is critical."
- 'I welcome dialogue' -
But Rogers told the senators in a hearing he believes the public has a right to have better information in view of the revelations in recent months from documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
"I would attempt to be as transparent as possible with the public about what we are doing and why," he said.
"I welcome a dialogue in this topic. I think it's important for our nation."
Rogers said one of his main challenges would be "how do we engage the American people, and by extension, their representatives, in a dialogue in which they have a level of comfort as to what we are doing and why."
Rogers said he is open to Obama's recommendation that the NSA give up the database to a third party or to telecom companies, as long as the agency could gain access as needed.
"I believe, sir, with the right construct, we can make that work," Rogers said in response to a question from Senator Carl Levin, the chairman of the panel.
One of his concerns, Rogers added, is "the idea of speed, the ability to query the data... in a timely manner to generate information and insight in a way that enables us to act in a timely way."
CIA director John Brennan offered similar comments on surveillance programs during a Washington forum at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"Privacy, civil liberties, individual freedoms need to be respected," Brennan said.
"We in the intelligence community are trying to get this right. Believe me, we're trying to get it right. And it really is challenging. And some of the laws have not kept up, in fact, with the changes in the private sector."
- Cyberspace 'vulnerable' -
Rogers said that one of his priorities in the dual role heading the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command would be bolstering U.S. capacity in cyberspace.
"Adversaries today seek persistent presences on military, government, and private networks for purposes such as exploitation and potentially disruption," he said.
"We as a military and a nation are not well positioned to deal with such threats. These intruders have to be located, blocked and extracted, sometimes over long periods of time."
Rogers added that the country's cyber infrastructure "is not optimized for defense in its current form, and our communications systems are vulnerable."
Rogers, who trained as an intelligence cryptologist, would succeed General Keith Alexander, who has served in the top job since 2005. He currently heads the U.S. Fleet Cyber Command, overseeing the navy's cyber warfare specialists.
An important goal if he is confirmed, said Rogers, is developing a notion of "deterrence" in cyberspace to allow potential adversaries to know they would face consequences for a cyber attack.
"We have effective deterrent strategies in place in the other war-fighting domains, in the form of our demonstrated military might and capability," he said. "Cyber deterrence should evolve in the same way."
Rogers said the U.S. needs to have "both offensive and defensive capabilities" to deter cyber attacks, but that the "Cyber Command" would not use cyber capabilities for offensive purposes without prior approval by the president.
The Religious Right Crusades to Deny Americans Their Constitutional Rights
Tuesday, March, 11th, 2014, 9:34 am
It is beyond comprehension that there are any Americans alive today who doubt the supremacy of the U.S. Constitution as the unchallenged law of the land, and yet there is a rabid movement in America that not only eschews the Constitution as faulty and irrelevant, they actively reject it with alarming frequency. The religious right, teabaggers, and their Republican facilitators claim they love this nation and its founding document more than any other demographic in America, and regularly claim returning to the original intent of the Constitution is their raison d’être. However, for at least a half-a-century one specific demographic has made a concerted effort to abolish the Constitution that so-called “real Americans” have adopted with a clear goal of scrapping the founding document save the 2nd and 10th Amendments.
The primary target of teabaggers (their chosen name) and the religious right is the 1stand 14th Amendments, Article VI, Section 2, and Article III Sections 1 and 2 that defines the Constitution as the supreme law of the land and the judicial branch as the arbiter of the constitutionality of any law. Although the frequency of challenges to the Constitution’s validity as the law of the land have increased since the election of the first African American President, the efforts to reject the Constitution began in earnest well over 75 years ago. The primary argument of those who hate the Constitution is that “the word of God as revealed in the Bible takes priority over all human knowledge,” and it is used today more than in 1927 when theocrats argued the bible should be taught in public schools. Forty-one years later, the Supreme Court ruled in Epperson v. Arkansas that banning the teaching of evolution contravened the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because the theocrats primary purpose in teaching the bible as science is purely religious.
The purpose of this screed is not to argue that the Christian bible is not the law of the land, or that the judicial system has supreme authority to adjudicate what is, and is not constitutional, but rather, that the religious right has rejected the Constitution and Supreme Court rulings for decades with veritable impunity and have no intention of stopping. Recently there was an article decrying the religious right’s attempt to abridge Americans’ civil and human rights according to their claim religious liberty affords them the dog-given authority to abridge other Americans’ Constitutional protections. The premise of the article is beyond dispute; the religious right, teabaggers, and Republicans are on a crusade to deny Americans their Constitutional rights, but it failed to acknowledge the religious right’s campaign is founded on their rejection and hatred of the Constitution they are convinced is subservient to the Christian bible. It is a hatred they have harbored since the founding of this nation as evidenced by their continued attempts over 200 years to impose biblical law on Americans.
It has been forty years since the Supreme Court ruled, in Roe v. Wade, that it is a woman’s Constitutional right to decide when to give birth, and yet Republicans in states and the United States Congress have rejected the High Court’s ruling as illegitimate, and by extension deny the Constitution as law of the land as they continue passing legislation restricting women’s Constitutional rights because it is contrary to evangelical zealots’ Christian bible. Today there are as many attempts to abort the High Court’s ruling as there are evangelicals claiming god’s law supersedes the Constitution.
It has been 46 years since the High Court ruled that teaching the bible creation story as science in public schools is patently unconstitutional. The religious right attempted to re-litigate the High Court’s ruling again in 2005 when they renamed creationism “intelligent design” that was ruled unconstitutional because it was still “teaching religion.” The religious right cannot comport the Constitutional authority of the judicial system to rule that the Establishment and Separation clauses are the law of the land. Republicans are frantically passing unconstitutional legislation inserting creationism as science in public schools and stealing taxpayer dollars for public schools to fund private religious instruction to teach the bible as science.
It has been 52 years since the Supreme Court ruled that prayer in public schools is a violation of the Constitution and the judicial system have been vigilant in forbidding public schools and other government agencies from interfering with Americans’ constitutional right to follow their own consciences when it comes to religion. Republicans and the religious right disagree with the High Courts’ Constitutional authority to rule that official prayer had no place in public education, and with state Republican legislation are using devious means to force America’s children to be indoctrinated into the Christian religion by mandating teacher-led prayers.
The following year the High Court ruled in Abington Township School District v. Schempp, another case dealing with prayer in public schools, that school-sponsored bible reading and recitation of the lord’s prayer was unconstitutional. In fact, in the written opinion Justice Clark wrote, “Once again, we are called upon to consider the scope of the provision of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution which declares that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’.” Even the High Court acknowledged that regardless the U.S. Constitution, and Supreme Court rulings, the religious right cannot, and will not, accept that American law is not the purview of “the word of God as revealed in the Bible,” or that it does not “take priority over all human knowledge” including the Constitution as law of the land.
Some naïve Americans believed that last year’s Supreme Court ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage would put an abrupt end to Republican and the religious right’s biblical prohibition on same-sex marriage, and yet the decision only served to embolden fanatical Christians who are rabid to reject the Constitution and impose the bible as the law of the land. It has been less than a year since the High Court ruled the Constitution affords all Americans 14th Amendment equal rights, but there has been no shortage of Republican legislation in states and Congress to subvert the Constitutional authority of the Supreme Court. Republicans and evangelicals will continue attempting to deny gay Americans’ equal protection under the law despite ruling after decision striking down bans on marriage equality in Republican-controlled states.
Any American that believes the religious right’s attack on human rights, the U.S. Constitution, and other Americans is insignificant, or on the decline and not a threat to democracy, is either incredibly naïve or has not been paying attention to what is happening in this country with increasing frequency. The religious right has about as much respect for the Constitution as they do other Americans’ rights, and they have been engaged in a long-term effort to destroy both in the pursuit of theocracy as America’s government for decades.
Invariably, some Christians object to being lumped in with evangelical fanatics rejecting the Constitutions’ protection from religious imposition and domination. They proclaim loudly that they are opposed to forcing the Christian religion down the throats of Americans or denying other Americans their constitutionally-protected equal rights and it is certainly true. But it is difficult to take “those Christians” seriously while they clutch that bible to their bosoms and “cherry-pick” the “Jesus parts” out of the preponderance of hateful parts. Many, many Americans fail to see any difference between their cherry picking and evangelical extremists choosing passages to subvert the Constitution and Americans’ civil and human rights.
Frankly, few Americans, even Secular Humanists, could not care less how or why any American chooses to follow any religion and have no desire to abridge their right to worship as they see fit. But when they claim Christianity gives them authority to deny other Americans’ their Constitutional rights, and seek to destroy the Constitution and democracy, then maybe it is time to reconsider their right to religious freedom if for no other reason than to defend the Constitution from its greatest threat; Christians who will not accept that the bible is not the law of the land.
A Major Victory for Obama: House Republicans Introduce 3 Bills That Improve Obamacare
By: Jason Easley
Tuesday, March, 11th, 2014, 12:34 pm
In what is a major victory for the president, House Republicans will vote on three bills next week that correct small issues and unintended consequences in the ACA.
Politico (via Slate) has the details:
House Republican leaders are planning to bring up three changes to Obamacare next week — but unlike dozens of prior bills, these are more minor measures that are not expected to be controversial. All three bills essentially fix drafting errors, perceived oversights or unintended consequences in the president’s Affordable Care Act. They have bipartisan support and are scheduled to be considered under a suspension of the rules, which limits debate and requires support from two-thirds of House members — a signal that leaders of both parties do not expect any heated debate.
They hold some political significance, however, because they allow Republicans to push back against the Democrats’ talking point that the GOP is only interested in holding votes to pick at Obamacare’s flaws. They also represent the reality that Obamacare is now fully implemented — and not fixing errors could be more damaging to opponents than being perceived as trying to make Obamacare work better.
What makes this news all the juicier is that Boehner and company introduced these bills last Friday while conservatives were distracted by CPAC. The right wingers were screaming about repeal from across the river the Republican leadership was submitting legislation that improves the law. On at least fifty previous occasions, Republicans tried to pass off attempts to repeal the law as improvements. In this case, Republicans are actually doing their jobs.
The answer to why the House Republicans are trying to improve the ACA can be found the polling. The popularity of repeal has sunk to a record low. The vast majority of Americans say that they want to keep and improve the law.
The biggest problem for Republicans is that their just say no to Obamacare position was destined to erode away. The name Obamacare isn’t popular, but much of what the law contains is. As the ACA is fully implemented, more people are seeing the benefits, the repeal position is becoming unsustainable. House Republicans have finally caught on that should they continue to say no, they will be rejecting some very popular elements of the law.
This move by the House leadership is evidence that repeal movement is all, but, dead. Repeal Obamacare has joined Roe v Wade as nothing more than a conservative campaign slogan that will be used in future elections to encourage the Republican faithful to get out and vote.
Speaker Boehner and the House Republican leadership have a loyal group of a few dozen Republicans, who combined Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats, make up a big enough coalition to pass these bills. Republicans will hypocritically continue to rant and rave publicly about how Obamacare must die while trying to slip legislation under the radar that fixes some of the unintended consequences caused by the law.
House Republican leaders are quietly surrendering on the ACA. There will be plenty more wasteful show votes to repeal Obamacare, but that’s just a bit of theater for the folks back home. Boehner, Cantor, and the gang are throwing up the white flag.
In order for Republicans to take credit for fixing the law, they are doing something that many thought they would never do. They are acknowledging the legitimacy of the ACA.
It’s all but over. These small pieces of legislation mark a major shift, and a big win for President Obama.
As The FBI Investigates Her, Michele Bachmann Calls Obama Lawless
By: Jason Easley
Tuesday, March, 11th, 2014, 6:13 pm
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) is back with more hypocrisy. As she stands at the center of at least two federal criminal investigations, Bachmann is claiming that President Obama is a lawless president.
In the same interview where she claimed that gay people are bullying America, Bachmann also said, “Why should they? They’ve used the courts so brilliantly over the years with activist judges. And now they’ve got a president that’s making, he’s a lawless president who’s violating the Constitution with every executive order. Was it just yesterday that he changed Obamacare again for the bajillionth time? And so if I am a businessman and I say to my lawyer, can you tell me how I am in compliance with Obamacare? If I’m the lawyer, I would think do I look at the statute book and, what the law says, or do I have to go and dig up all of Jay Carney’s comments, the president’s press secretary, or the president’s press releases, or the tweets that he does on Obamacare? Because what’s law? What is law? Is it a president’s speech, or is it the law?”
If Bachmann wants to talk about lawlessness, let’s talk about an elected official who is truly lawless. Let’s spend a moment discussing a member of Congress who is being investigated by both the FBI, and the Department of Justice.
Bachmann and her husband Marcus are currently being investigated by the FBI for possible money laundering, mail fraud, and wire fraud. The FBI also found information relating to potential illegal coordination between Bachmann’s 2012 presidential campaign and a super PAC. The FBI turned their information over to the Department of Justice, who launched a second federal investigation into the Bachmanns.
The President Of The United States has never been accused of committing a crime, much less investigated for any wrongdoing. Yet to Michele Bachmann, who is facing numerous criminal investigations, the president is a lawless criminal who is trampling the Constitution.
The investigations have already cost Bachmann her House seat by pushing her into “retirement,” and it takes a hypocrite of the highest degree to call the president lawless while facing potential criminal charges for breaking numerous laws during her presidential campaign.
Some people like to laugh at, or mock Michele Bachmann, but it is the hypocrisy and abuses of power that make her unfit to hold elective office again.
President Obama isn’t a danger to our democracy, but disgraced soon to be a former member of Congress Michele Bachmann definitely is.
New Conservative Meme That Unions Outspend Koch Brothers On Elections Is Patently False
By: Justin Baragona
Tuesday, March, 11th, 2014, 8:47 pm
Recently, a new meme has been making its way around the conservative blogosphere and has been picked up by those in the mainstream media. Basically, conservatives are trying to push the story that the Koch brothers are not overly influential on the political process and that labor unions spend far more in campaign contribuions and donations to political organizations than the reclusive billionaires. They’ve used data from the Center for Responsive Politics to make their case for them.
Last week, Kimberly Strassel of the Wall Street Journal picked up on the meme and decided to push it out there for public consumption. She chastised Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) for attacking the Koch brothers for their spending and stated that he should go after the real enemy of democracy–the labor unions. She then pointed out, utilizing data from the CRP, that unions have spent greater than $600 million more than Koch Industries over the past 25 years on political campaigns.
Strassel was being obtuse for the purpose of pushing the narrative that union thugs are the real problem in politics and that it is unfair to pick on a couple of rich guys that don’t even spend all that much anyway. The fact is, that all political contributions from labor unions have to be disclosed, even if it goes towards indirect campaigning, like with political action committees (PACs.) Meanwhile, the Kochs have been able to secretly contribute hundreds of millions of dollars by setting up their own SuperPACs, creating shell companies or providing money to other people to then give to a candidate or a PAC supporting that candidate.
The fact is, that the CRP only shows disclosed and direct campaign contributions made by organizations, companies and individuals. On that level, the Kochs only show up as #59 overall for the past 25 years and contributed a total of $4.9 million in the previous election cycle. However, when you take into account all of the ‘dark’ money that the Kochs spent during the 2012 election, that figure balloons to a whopping $412 million. In comparison, the top ten labor unions combined spent a total of $153 million when counting all political contributions.
Jonathan Cohn at the New Republic wrote a piece on Tuesday dedicated to the notion that unions are outspending the Kochs. While he also pointed out that Strassel and other conservatives were obviously discounting the indirect contributions made by the Kochs, and pretending that SuperPACs like Americans for Prosperity were not directly affiliated with the Koch brothers, he made an excellent comparison between unions and the Kochs. Below is the relevant excerpt from his piece:
It’s true that labor unions and their members made far more political contributions than the Koch Brothers and their affiliates did. It’s also a misleading comparison. There are 14.5 million people in the labor movement, according to the latest government statistics. There are exactly two people in the Koch brotherhood—Charles and David Koch—plus another 350 or so self-identified Koch employees who, over that same time period, made direct campaign contributions. Extrapolate from that math, and you’ll see that the donation per Koch Industries affiliate positively dwarfs the donation per union member—by a factor of around 1,000, give or take.
The comparison is not precise, but it’s good enough to get a sense of scale. Using the same basic math—the Koch-affiliated organizations have about 200 supporters, including the Koch brothers, according to Maguire—that works out to about $850,000 of influence per Koch brother and $1.65 per union member. At that level of donation, it would take about 515,000 union members to have the same influence as just one Koch brother or affiliate.
Basically, labor unions represent millions of workers. Per person, their overall influence is far less than that of the Koch brothers and their affiliates. Making the comparison between unions and the Koch brothers is missing the point of the massive amount of influence that just two men are having on the political process of this country. Do unions donate a lot of money to political campaigns? Yes. But, they are doing so on behalf of millions of American workers. Broken down, the money spent per union member is not all that significant.
However, the Kochs have billions of disposable dollars to do with however they wish. Their preference is to pervert the political landscape in order to benefit them and the ultra-rich. Thankfully, despite Citizen United making it extremely easy for them to flood the airwaves and cyberspace with endless political ads, the electorate rejected the conservative message and Barack Obama was reelected President and Democratic gains were seen in the House and Senate. Nonetheless, they are at it again as Americans for Prosperity has already spent $30 million so far and who knows where the ceiling is. Will the American public fall for the constant barrage of dishonest political ads this time around?
Revealed: Chris Christie gave pieces of 9/11 wreckage to his cronies as gifts
By David Ferguson
Tuesday, March 11, 2014 15:29 EDT
Scandal-plagued New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) reportedly gave away pieces of metal salvaged from the wreckage of the World Trade Center as gifts to his political allies. According to the New York Times, the twisted chunks of metal were presented to a group of mayors who endorsed Christie ahead of his bid for re-election in 2013.
An investigation into Christie’s handling of the state’s Port Authority has revealed that the one-time 2016 hopeful was using the transportation nerve center as a “de facto political operation,” handing out political favors to supporters and pursuing vendettas long before the still-unexplained closing of George Washington Bridge in 2013.
The Port Authority was crucial to Christie as a means of winning the endorsement of Democrats and union leaders, said the Times, which Christie used to strip his Democratic gubernatorial challenger Barbara Buono of allies and political capital.
Furthermore, NJSpotlight.com reported on a Senate Legislative Oversight Committee’s findings that Christie inappropriately handled federal funds intended for relief from Hurricane Sandy.
As thousands of New Jersey residents anxiously awaited relief funds to rebuild their lives in the wake of the storm, Christie mishandled more than $25 million, diverting funds to places with no hurricane damage at all, locations that Christie allies had targeted for development.
Locations with desperate flooding issues were left hanging and, as Mayor Dawn Zimmer (D) reported, short-changing the city of Hoboken by $700,000.
Christie has seen his approval ratings in New Jersey plummet. The latest Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll showed the governor’s disapproval ratings overtaking his favorable ratings for the first time. Only 41 percent approve of Christie’s job performance, with 44 percent disapproving. The approval rating is down 20 points from November.
World powers warn Russia against Crimea 'annexation'
Kiev (AFP) 3/12/2014 6:01:26 PM
Leading world powers in the Group of Seven warned Wednesday against Russia's "annexation" of Crimea as the Ukrainian premier prepared to seek US President Barack Obama's help against the Kremlin's expansionist threat.
The first meeting between Obama and Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk comes with the nation on the EU's eastern border in danger of breaking apart when the predominantly ethnic Russian region holds a Moscow-backed referendum Sunday on switching over to Kremlin rule.
Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said his heavily outnumbered army would never try to seize back the Black Sea peninsula from Russian troops who made their land grab days after the February 22 ouster in Kiev of pro-Kremlin leader Viktor Yanukovych.
"We cannot launch a military operation in Crimea, as we would expose the eastern border and Ukraine would not be protected," Turchynov said in an interview with AFP.
But Turchynov also said Russian Pig President Putin had so far resisted intense international pressure and refused all contacts with Kiev aimed at resolving the worst breakdown in East-West relations since the Cold War.
The Pig's growing diplomatic isolation intensified when the Group of Seven (G7) industrialised nations issued a joint call on Russia "to cease all efforts to change the status of Crimea contrary to Ukrainian law and in violation of international law".
"The annexation of Crimea could have grave implications for the legal order that protects the unity and sovereignty of all states," said the statement from countries accounting for more than 60 percent of global wealth.
EU foreign ministers are now expected to discuss punitive measures against senior Russian officials at a meeting in Brussels on Monday.
The 28-nation bloc's leaders will then meet for a March 20-21 summit that German Chancellor Angela Merkel said could witness the signing of an historic EU-Ukraine accord whose rejection by ousted president Viktor Yanukovych in November sparked the deadly protests against his rule.
"We agreed to sign the political part of the association agreement with Ukraine as soon as possible, probably at the next EU summit," Merkel said.
Washington said Moscow could still avoid punishments if it showed a willingness to soften its stance on Crimea during talks in London on Friday between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
"We will offer certain choices to Foreign Minister Lavrov and through him the Pig president Putin in the hopes, and I think the hopes of the world, that we will be able to find a way forward," Kerry told lawmakers.
A man walks pass a poster bearing the map of Crimea with a Russian flag and Nazi swastika reading "16 March we choose" on the main road entering Sevastopol on March 11, 2014
Russia's first military involvement in a neighbouring nation since its brief 2008 war with Georgia has sparked an explosive security crisis and exposed previous rifts between Western allies over ways to deal with Pig Putin's undisguised efforts to rebuild vestiges of the Soviet state.
Washington has already imposed travel bans and asset freezes on Russians held responsible for violating the territorial integrity of the culturally splintered nation of 46 million people.
But the European Union -- its financial and energy sectors much more dependent on Russia than those of the United States -- has only threatened tougher measures after taking the lighter step of suspending free travel and broad economic treaty talks.
French President Francois Hollande told the Pig in a phone conversation that any annexation of Crimea would be "unacceptable" but said there was still time to prevent a "dangerous" escalation.
Yet the international community's almost unanimous rejection of the referendum's legitimacy has done little to slow Russia's attempt to redraw Europe's post-war borders by absorbing a region that was handed to Ukraine as a "gift" when it was still a Soviet republic in 1954.
Russia's parliament is due on March 21 to consider legislation to simplify the procedure under which Moscow can annex a part of another country that has proclaimed independence -- as Crimean lawmakers did Tuesday.
The White House is leaving no doubt about the message it intends to send to Russia with the visit of Yatsenyuk -- a premier Moscow considers illegitimate.
- Oval Office handshake -
A Pro-Ukrainian supporter holds a banner reading "the Pig is not Russia" (R) during a rally at the monument of poet and national icon Taras Shevchenko the Crimean city of Simferopol on March 11, 2014
He will be greeted by Obama in the Oval Office -- a symbol of US power -- like any other foreign leader and also meet Vice President Joe Biden who rushed back from a trip to South America to join the talks.
Washington said Yatsenyuk's reception was intended to show that it believed that Kiev's interim government has been playing a responsible role in the crisis.
"We strongly support Ukraine, the Ukrainian people and the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian government," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
Yatsenyuk will also use the chance to iron out details of a $35-billion (25-billion-euro) aid package he says his nation's teetering economy needs to stay afloat over the coming two years after being mismanaged by Yanukovych -- now living in self-imposed exile in Russia.
- Ukraine 'will not attack' -
Ukraine's soldiers and marines have won plaudits from Western leaders for refusing to open fire against Russian troops and Kremlin-backed militia who have encircled their bases and kept their ships from going out to sea.
Turchynov said that as commander in chief he understood fully the futility of launching an all-out war against a much larger invading force that had nuclear weapons and tens of thousands of additional troops stationed just inside Russia.
"Significant tank units are massed near Ukraine's eastern border," Turchynov told AFP.
"They're provoking us to have a pretext to intervene on the Ukrainian mainland... (but) we cannot follow the scenario written by the Kremlin."
Ukraine's National Security and Defence Council chief Andriy Parubiy added to the tinderbox atmosphere by noting that Russia's forces stood "just a few hours away from Kiev".
Pig Putin has accused Turchynov and Yatsenyuk of rising to power through an "unconstitutional coup" that came at the apex of last month's street unrest in Kiev in which nearly 100 people.
Obama Makes Diplomatic Push to Defuse Crisis in Ukraine
By PETER BAKER and MICHAEL R. GORDON
MARCH 12, 2014
President Obama, along with Secretary of State John Kerry, met with the interim prime minister, Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, and vowed to “stand with Ukraine.”
WASHINGTON — President Obama and Ukraine’s interim prime minister opened the door on Wednesday to a political solution that could lead to more autonomy for Crimea if Russian troops withdraw, as the United States embarked on a last-ditch diplomatic effort to defuse a crisis that reignited tensions between East and West.
The tentative feeler came as Mr. Obama dispatched Secretary of State John Kerry to London to meet with his Russian counterpart on Friday, two days before a Russian-supported referendum in Crimea on whether to secede from Ukraine. Mr. Obama said the world would “completely reject” what he called a “slapdash election,” but added he still hoped for a peaceful settlement.
In a show of solidarity for the besieged Ukraine, Mr. Obama hosted a White House visit by Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, the country’s pro-Western acting prime minister, and vowed to “stand with Ukraine.” But he also hinted at a formulation that could be the basis for the coming talks between Mr. Kerry and Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, recognizing Moscow’s interest in helping the Russian-speaking population in Crimea while affirming that it is part of Ukraine.
Mr. Obama said Mr. Yatsenyuk told him that a new Ukrainian government formed after elections scheduled for May 25 could find ways to address Crimea’s concerns. “There is a constitutional process in place and a set of elections that they can move forward on that, in fact, could lead to different arrangements over time with the Crimean region,” Mr. Obama said. “But that is not something that can be done with the barrel of a gun pointed at you.”
At a separate appearance later in the day, Mr. Yatsenyuk expressed willingness to consider concessions to Crimea. “We the Ukrainian government are ready to start a nationwide dialogue how to increase the rights of autonomous Republic of Crimea, starting with taxes and ending with other aspects like language issues,” he told an audience at the Atlantic Council.
Any such discussion, he added, had to take place in a “constitutional manner” rather than imposed by Russian troops. But he did not rule out holding a local referendum if authorized by the Ukrainian Parliament. “Only afterward, this referendum could be a constitutional one,” he said.
Although Mr. Yatsenyuk has articulated similar sentiments before, bringing the idea directly to Washington could frame the final diplomatic discussions before the Sunday vote. He also tried to reassure Moscow by saying that he respects the longstanding agreement permitting a Russian naval base in Crimea, and that Ukraine would not cut off water, electricity or other supplies to the peninsula.
But he used his visit to Washington to make clear that despite his preference for talks, his government would not accept partition of the country. “Mr. President,” he told Mr. Obama in the Oval Office, “it’s all about the freedom. We fight for our freedom. We fight for our independence. We fight for our sovereignty. And we will never surrender.”
Mr. Kerry employed similarly tough language during testimony Wednesday on Capitol Hill, where he said the United States and its partners were prepared to impose tough sanctions if Russia moved to annex Crimea. “It can get ugly fast if the wrong choices are made, and it can get ugly in multiple directions,” he said. “Our hope is that there is a way to have a reasonable outcome here.”
In fact, he suggested the two sides could continue talking even if Sunday’s referendum is held, as long as Russia stops short of annexation. “There are a lot of variants here, which is why it is urgent that we have this conversation with the Russians,” he said. The United States has “exchanged some thoughts” with Moscow on how to address the crisis, he said, but the two sides “haven’t had a meeting of the minds.”
For Mr. Yatsenyuk, the visit to Washington was not just about rallying support against Russia but was also an effort to seek an economic booster shot for his vulnerable economy. Yet even as both American political parties celebrated Mr. Yatsenyuk as a hero and promised to help Ukraine, a bid to provide financial assistance bogged down in a polarized Congress.
The Republican-led House has passed legislation authorizing $1 billion in loan guarantees, but the Democratic-led Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday passed, in a 14-to-3 vote, an alternative version that attached long-stalled reforms to the International Monetary Fund sought by the Obama administration. The administration and its allies contend that the I.M.F. changes would raise loan limits for countries like Ukraine, while House Republicans maintain they would weaken American influence at the organization and expose taxpayers to more risk.
The Treasury Department has lobbied Congress to approve the reforms since they were negotiated in 2010, and this moment might be its best chance to finally pass them. With Ukraine in financial free-fall, the department has redoubled its efforts, arguing that the country’s standing in the I.M.F., and the fund’s standing in the world, are at stake.
“We’re already hearing calls by some to say if the United States doesn’t approve them, we should maybe move on without them,” Jacob J. Lew, the Treasury secretary, told a Senate committee on Wednesday. “That’s not a good place for the United States to be.”
Some Senate Republicans and other party figures sided with the Obama administration. A group of officials from President George W. Bush’s administration sent a letter of support on Wednesday signed by Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state; Paul H. O’Neill and John W. Snow, the former treasury secretaries; Tom Ridge, the former homeland security secretary; and Stephen J. Hadley, the former national security adviser.
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said he was trying to persuade House Republicans to support the I.M.F. changes. “International organizations like the I.M.F. can provide stability at a time we really need it,” he said. “It’s a strategic tool for U.S. foreign policy. We would be shortsighted not to embrace these reforms.”
But Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, said the Obama administration was trying to take advantage of the crisis to advance unrelated policy goals. “This legislation is supposed to be about assisting Ukraine and punishing Russia, and the I.M.F. measure completely undercuts both of these goals by giving Putin’s Russia something it wants,” he said, although he missed the committee vote, citing jury duty in Miami.
Even as the administration lobbied for the bill, it also began holding the first test sale of crude oil from government reserves since 1990, a move officials said was planned months ago and yet still sent a message to Moscow that the United States could use its growing energy supplies to relieve Ukraine and other European nations dependent on Russia.
With Mr. Yatsenyuk at his side, Mr. Obama pledged again to “apply a cost” on Russia if it does not reverse course in Ukraine. “There’s another path available, and we hope that the Pig is willing to seize that path,” he said. “But if he does not, I’m very confident that the international community will stand strongly behind the Ukrainian government.”
Ukraine’s New Premier, the ‘Rabbit,’ Seems to Be in His Element
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
MARCH 12, 2014
KIEV, Ukraine — For three months, throughout the uprising and upheaval in Kiev, Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk was one of three political leaders who appeared regularly on stage in Independence Square, but he often seemed out of his element. A former foreign minister, economics minister, speaker of Parliament and acting central bank chief, he is more at home in boardrooms and in the corridors of power than on the barricades.
Now, two weeks after his colleagues in Parliament named him acting prime minister — a job he called “political suicide” even before Russia invaded Crimea — Mr. Yatsenyuk, 39, is in a role that suits him better than that of street revolutionary, but that has thrust him to the center of the crisis.
On Wednesday, he met in Washington with President Obama and other top officials to plead for economic and political assistance.
Among Ukrainians who like to talk politics, Mr. Yatsenyuk is often known as “Rabbit” because of an uncanny resemblance to the character in the Soviet cartoon version of “Winnie the Pooh” — lanky, bald and wearing a distinctive pair of eyeglasses. Derided as an uninspiring technician during a failed presidential campaign in 2010, Mr. Yatsenyuk is now said by some Ukrainians to be the right man at the right moment.
President Obama, along with Secretary of State John Kerry, met with the interim prime minister, Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, and vowed to “stand with Ukraine.”
“Yesterday I was watching Yatsenyuk at his meeting with entrepreneurs,” Valeriy Pekar, a vice president of the Ukrainian League of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, wrote on Facebook last week. “As much as the man was not in his place on Maidan,” he said, using the nickname for Independence Square, “so he looked in his place as a prime minister.”
“We’re used to the Maidan Yatsenyuk, confused, indecisive,” continued Mr. Pekar, who runs Euroindex, Ukraine’s largest organizer of trade shows. “Yesterday I saw Premier Yatsenyuk, even with a high fever, he demonstrated a sharp mind, deep knowledge of economic processes, awareness of realities, switched easily between Ukrainian-Russian-English, immediate responses to questions and suggestions, sustainable economic liberalism and reformist determination.”
“This,” Mr. Pekar summed up, “is what a person in the right place means.”
Of course, that remains to be seen.
Mr. Yatsenyuk confronts tremendous challenges as acting prime minister, not just because of the Russian military threat and the secessionist push by regional leaders in Crimea, but because of Ukraine’s deep financial problems and need for a large international bailout package. He also faces suspicion from a public that is deeply wary of his past service in the Ukrainian government, long dismissed as a cesspool of corruption and mismanagement.
The military confrontation with Russia, however, has raised the stakes, swiftly propelling Mr. Yatsenyuk beyond the tense negotiations he had expected with the International Monetary Fund and into the middle of a geopolitical firestorm that is perhaps the most ominous confrontation between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.
His meeting with President Obama at the White House — a rare invitation for a new leader — was meant to demonstrate Washington’s unwavering support for the fledgling government in Kiev. On Thursday, he is scheduled to visit the United Nations, where he will appeal for international support in advance of a referendum in Crimea on Sunday that regional leaders hope will ratify their intention to secede from Ukraine.
Mr. Yatsenyuk’s appeal in the West, where he is viewed as an able steward fluent in the language of diplomacy and international finance, is already well known because of a recording of a telephone conversation between Victoria J. Nuland, a United States assistant secretary of state, and the American ambassador in Ukraine, Geoffrey R. Pyatt, in which they discussed the possibility of opposition leaders entering the government in late January. “Yats is the guy who’s got the economic experience, the governing experience,” Ms. Nuland said, referring to Mr. Yatsenyuk, in a call during which she also famously directed an expletive at the European Union. In the end, Mr. Yatsenyuk rejected the offer to join the government because it would have left President Viktor F. Yanukoyvch in charge. Even now, it is not clear that Mr. Yatsenyuk will have a future in government beyond the presidential elections on May 25. The top contenders are expected to be the former boxer, Vitali Klitschko, a leader in Parliament who was also leader of the street protests, and Petro Poroshenko, a veteran lawmaker and one of Ukraine’s wealthiest businessman.
Mr. Yatsenyuk had been the leader in Parliament of Fatherland, the political party of Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister who was recently released from prison.
However the next few months play out, it seems certain that Mr. Yatsenyuk (pronounced YA-tsen-yuk) will celebrate his 40th birthday on May 22 as prime minister.
It is a role he seems to have been preparing for since childhood. Mr. Yatsenyuk was born in 1974 in Chernivtsi, not far from the border of Romania. His parents were professors at Chernivtsi National University. Mr. Yatsenyuk received a law degree from that university, and he later earned a master’s degree in accounting and auditing and a Ph.D. in economics from the Ukrainian Academy of Banking.
He founded a law firm and then worked for three years as a bank executive before entering public service. His first post was as minister of economics of Crimea, giving him a firsthand understanding of the region that is now trying to break away from Ukraine.
Leonid Grach, a former speaker of the Crimean Parliament, said that Mr. Yatsenyuk was not well liked. He changed the sign on his office door from Russian to Ukrainian, and was called “Little Gulliver” by some colleagues who viewed him as an outsider, Mr. Grach said. “Crimea was an accident for him, and he was an accident for Crimea,” he said.
Back in Kiev, he became deputy chairman and later acting chairman of Ukraine’s central bank, before serving as minister of economy and deputy head of the presidential administration under President Viktor A. Yushchenko, who later named him minister of foreign affairs.
In 2008, he was elected speaker of Parliament, a post he held for just under a year. Even with a long résumé in public service, Mr. Yatsenyuk faces many formidable and politically perilous tasks in addition to the crisis in Crimea. There is unrest in the heavily pro-Russian east of the country and the prospect of devastating trade sanctions by Russia should the conflict deepen.
An article last year examining his swift rise in the Fatherland Party, published on a local news site, News24UA, noted that his success in the rough political arena was belied by his gentle reputation: “Everyone calls him a rabbit, a bunny or ‘our white and fluffy Senya.’ How did it happen that people associate a leader of today’s opposition forces with a meek, innocent animal?”
G7 Says Crimea Referendum Would Have 'No Legal Effect'
by Naharnet Newsdesk
12 March 2014, 15:14
The Group of Seven most developed economies on Wednesday said a Moscow-backed referendum in Crimea on switching over to Kremlin rule would have "no legal effect" and called on Russia to back down.
The G7 -- Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States -- along with European Union leaders called on Russia "to cease all efforts to change the status of Crimea contrary to Ukrainian law and in violation of international law," according to a statement released by the White House.
"Any such referendum would have no legal effect," they said.
"Given the lack of adequate preparation and the intimidating presence of Russian troops, it would also be a deeply flawed process which would have no moral force. For all these reasons, we would not recognize the outcome."
The statement comes ahead of Sunday's referendum in the strategic Black Sea peninsula and as U.S. President Barack Obama is set to welcome Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to the White House on Wednesday.
Russian troops moved into Crimea, a predominantly ethnic Russian region, after the February 22 ouster in Kiev of Ukraine's pro-Kremlin leader Viktor Yanukovych.
The move by Moscow has sparked the biggest breakdown in relations with the West since the Cold War.
The G7 and the EU said annexation of Crimea would be a "clear violation" of the United Nations Charter, and would violate Russia's commitments under several other treaties.
"Should the Russian Federation take such a step, we will take further action, individually and collectively," they warned.
They called on Russia to de-escalate the crisis by moving forces back to bases in Ukraine and reducing numbers to pre-crisis levels, opening talks with Kiev and using international mediators to address concerns.
"We also remind the Russian Federation of our decision to suspend participation in any activities related to preparation of a G-8 Sochi meeting until it changes course and the environment comes back to where the G-8 is able to have a meaningful discussion," they said.
Merkel Warns Russia of 'Massive' Long-Term Damage over Ukraine
by Naharnet Newsdesk
13 March 2014, 12:17
German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Russia Thursday of "massive" long-term damage to its economic and political interests if it continued to violate international law with its seizure of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.
In a speech to parliament looking ahead to a European Union summit next week in which the 28-member bloc could impose new sanctions against Moscow, Merkel said Russia was using the "failed" expansionist tactics of the 19th and 20th centuries.
"If Russia continues its course of the last weeks, it would not only be a catastrophe for Ukraine," she told the chamber, where the Ukrainian ambassador to Germany was also a guest.
"It would not only change the relationship of the European Union as a whole to Russia. No, it would also, and I am firmly convinced of this, massively damage Russia both economically and politically."
Merkel said that in a year in which Europe is marking both the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I and 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia must learn from the mistakes of the past.
"You cannot turn back the clock," she said.
"Conflicts of interest in the middle of Europe in the 21st century can only be resolved successfully if we do not employ the means of the 19th and 20th centuries."
Merkel is widely seen as the EU's most influential figure in the Crimea crisis but has been accused of reluctance to bring real pressure to bear against Russia due to Germany's close trade ties with the country.
During a visit to Poland Wednesday for talks with Prime Minister Donald Tusk, she warned Russia of a "second stage of sanctions" that could be imposed on Monday if Moscow fails to reverse its course on Crimea.
Fresh sanctions could include freezing personal assets of Russians or Ukrainians seen as instigating the crisis as well as a visa ban.
Ukraine Crisis Limits Merkel’s Rapport With the Pig
By ALISON SMALE
MARCH 12, 2014
BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel, a Protestant pastor’s daughter, grew up in East Germany under a system in which the Pig President Putin of Russia served as a K.G.B. agent stationed in Dresden. Fluent in Russian, she literally speaks his language and, arguably, understands his view of the world better than any other European leader touched by the Ukrainian crisis.
With that shared background, not to speak of the extensive economic ties between the countries, Ms. Merkel has emerged as a pivotal leader in the crisis that erupted after Russian forces overran Crimea late last month, the only one whose advice the Pig might heed. But for all the familiarity, and despite hundreds of hours spent together during their years as leaders of their respective countries, Ms. Merkel has so far been unable to bridge the gap with the Pig, whose German is also good.
If anything, as the days dwindle before a Crimean referendum on secession, that gap is widening, and now Ms. Merkel is facing a perhaps historic decision on whether to take a harder line against Russia.
Since the first Russian forces infiltrated Crimea on Feb. 28, Ms. Merkel, 59, has spoken to the Pig, 61, at least four times on the phone, her spokesman says. In the space of 10 days, she went from warning him to avoid “any step that could contribute to escalation” to bluntly telling him that Crimea’s plans for a referendum on joining Russia are “illegal.”
After one recent conversation with the Russian leader, she now-famously remarked to President Obama that the Pig was in “another world.” She appears exasperated by his unwillingness to avoid further provocative steps, much less de-escalate the crisis, and her government is increasingly signaling a willingness to depart from its preferred approach of consensus building and lead Europe toward a harder line on sanctions and other steps to pressure and isolate Russia.
Germany and Russia have been trading and warring for centuries, of course, and it was a German-born princess who became czarina, Catherine the Great, who first conquered and absorbed Crimea into Russia in the 18th century. Germany was squarely on the fault line between East and West in the Cold War, and this direct knowledge of division sends a special shudder through Germany’s establishment today as the threat of a new European divide looms.
Germany is dependent on Russia for up to a one-third of its oil and gas and tens of billions of dollars in trade, while it is also a leading member of NATO, a pillar of Western policy and the biggest economy in the 28-nation European Union.
Since the 1970s, when Chancellor Willy Brandt embarked on Ostpolitik, or conciliation with the East, the German answer in reconciling those competing tugs has been to promote dialogue. But now, with an unwilling, even intransigent, the Pig, that policy may be now exhausted.
“There is no compromise in sight,” said Alexander Rahr, a longtime Kremlin observer and the head of the German-Russian Forum, a nongovernmental group in Berlin. “Nobody really wants to move toward the other.”
Ms. Merkel’s pleas to refrain from the annexation of Crimea are now outdated, he suggested, given the apparent popularity of the Pig's move in Russia, which governed Crimea for two centuries before the Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine in 1954.
“He cannot turn back,” Mr. Rahr said of the Pig and “she is not helping him out of the situation.”
In the absence of diplomatic progress, the European Union intends to move forward with tougher sanctions next Monday, and to sign, probably next Thursday, the political part of the Association Agreement with Ukraine that first sparked unrest in Kiev in November, Ms. Merkel and Prime Minister Donald Tusk of Poland announced on Wednesday.
Speaking after talks in Warsaw, Ms. Merkel said she thought the West would need “a great deal of patience” before the Ukraine crisis is over. The ultimate way forward lies through diplomacy, she said, but noted that six days had elapsed since the European Union demanded a Contact Group bringing together Russia, Ukraine and other powers, making sanctions almost unavoidable.
“We are in the 21st century,” she told reporters, speaking of Europe. “We don’t solve conflicts militarily, we’ve said that. But we also don’t try to avoid conflicts.”
And the current crisis, she said, “is a very serious conflict in Europe.”
Before Ms. Merkel’s visit, Mr. Tusk took a highly unusual swipe at Germany and the chancellor as Poland proudly marked the 15th anniversary of its NATO membership.
“Germany’s reliance on Russian gas can effectively limit European sovereignty, I have no doubt,” he said, according to the news agency Reuters. “I’ll be speaking very openly with Merkel, making it clear that the existing climate and natural gas policies risk posing a threat to the security and sovereignty of Europe as a whole.”
Germany has pioneered alternative energy policies since Ms. Merkel mandated the gradual shutdown of nuclear power plants in the aftermath of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan in 2011. Poland, which wants to reduce its dependence on Russian gas, hopes shale gas discoveries will gradually help, and in the meantime relies heavily on polluting brown coal to generate power.
In recent years, Mr. Tusk said, Germany “has been a strong example” of where dependency on Russian energy can lead.
Even so, faced with the unnerving possibility that dialogue will produce nothing in Ukraine, German leaders are sounding increasingly resigned to tighter European Union sanctions on Russia over Crimea, if only, perhaps, to draw Russia back to the bargaining table.
“Sanctions hurt both sides, that’s quite clear,” Germany’s defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, said Monday. “But if you look at the numbers, Russia has 15 percent of its G.D.P. depending on trade with Europe, Europe only 1 percent,” she added. “That means that the reliance on a functioning business relationship with Europe is much, much bigger in Russia.”
That is why sanctions should prod the oligarchs and Russian business, she contended, to lean on Mr. Putin “to bring him back on to the track of talks — he must open a dialogue.”
The Ukrainian crisis has increasingly brought a military response that unsettles Germans, who have largely renounced the militarism that brought World Wars I and II.
The German news media has given prominent play to reports that 12 extra F-16 fighter jets were sent to Poland, whose air force already has 48 such jets, after six F-15s were sent to the Baltic states last week and reconnaissance planes were deployed in Poland and Romania.
In a strong indication of how worried even conservatives are about losing good contact with Russia, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl on Wednesday gave a statement to Bild, the country’s biggest-circulation newspaper, saying that “great omissions” had been made in policy toward Ukraine. “The mood of revolt in Ukraine was not intelligently followed. Equally there was a lack of sensitivity in the dealings with our Russian neighbor, especially President Putin,” he said.
“We cannot forget: War is not policy,” he added.
Ms. Merkel’s governing partners, the Social Democrats, issued a similar warning. “Europe stands dangerously close to the brink of a military confrontation,” the party said this week in an unusually tense statement. “One hundred years after the start of World War I, military force should never again become the means of conducting politics.”
“Europe stands at a crossroads,” it added. “We must do everything in our power to prevent a new division of our continent and a regression into a pattern of confrontation long considered overcome.”
Kerry Plans 11th-Hour Meeting With Russians Over Crimea
By MICHAEL R. GORDON
MARCH 12, 2014
WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry will fly to London to meet with his Russian counterpart in a 11th-hour effort to persuade the Kremlin not to move forward with the annexation of Crimea, American officials said on Wednesday.
Mr. Kerry’s meeting with Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, will come on Friday, just two days before a Sunday referendum in Crimea in which the region is to decide whether to become part of Russia.
The United States and its partners have said that such a referendum would not be legal, and Mr. Kerry has warned that Russian steps to annex the region would “close any available space for diplomacy.”
Mr. Kerry announced the meeting with Mr. Lavrov in testimony to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations. His testimony came as Ukraine’s acting prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, was scheduled to consult with Mr. Kerry at the State Department this afternoon before meeting with President Obama and Mr. Kerry at the White House.
In his opening statement, Mr. Kerry repeated his oft-made point that while Russia had legitimate interests in Crimea, “nothing justifies a military intervention,” adding that there were peaceful ways to ensure to that Moscow’s concerns were addressed.
Under questioning, Mr. Kerry asserted that the United States and its partners were prepared to impose tough sanctions if Russia moved to annex Crimea. “It can get ugly fast if the wrong choices are made, and it can get ugly in multiple directions,” he said. “Our hope is that there is a way to have a reasonable outcome here.”
Mr. Kerry held out the hope that a political solution might be reached even though there have been no public hints of Russian flexibility. Even if the referendum in Crimea went ahead, he suggested, there might be a chance for a political solution if Russia stopped short of annexing the province.
“There are a lot of variants here, which is why it is urgent that we have this conversation with the Russians,” he said.
President Obama, along with Secretary of State John Kerry, met with the interim prime minister, Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, and vowed to “stand with Ukraine.”
Mr. Kerry noted that the United States has “exchanged some thoughts” on how to address the crisis but acknowledged that the two sides “haven’t had a meeting of the minds.”
The announcement of Mr. Kerry’s trip came as the Group of 7 nations on Wednesday issued a statement warning Russia to “cease all efforts to change the status of Crimea contrary to Ukrainian law and in violation of international law.”
“We call on the Russian Federation to immediately halt actions supporting a referendum on the territory of Crimea regarding its status, in direct violation of the Constitution of Ukraine,” the statement said. “Given the lack of adequate preparation and the intimidating presence of Russian troops, it would also be a deeply flawed process which would have no moral force. For all these reasons, we would not recognize the outcome.”
Mr. Kerry met with Mr. Lavrov twice last week in Europe. American officials later said that the Russian foreign minister did not appear to have the authority to negotiate a compromise with the United States.
A visual survey of the continuing dispute, including satellite images of Russian naval positions and maps showing political, cultural and economic factors in the crisis.
The Obama administration then weighed sending Mr. Kerry to Russia so he could meet directly with the Pig. But the administration decided not to do so because there were no indications that the Pig appeared receptive to the American position. The United States seeks a halt in Russia’s military moves in Crimea, the affirmation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and a meeting between Russian officials and officials from the new Ukrainian government, either directly or as part of an international “contact group.”
The London meeting is expected to last a day, possibly two. The choice of the venue appeared to reflect a recognition that the American conditions for a Russia trip had not been met.
On Saturday, the State Department sent Mr. Lavrov a series of questions that were intended to probe whether the Kremlin was receptive to the American proposals for addressing the crisis. On Monday night, the Russians responded, but the answers did not signal a shift toward the Western position, American officials said.
“We received responses from the Russians last night,” Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said on Tuesday. “They largely restate positions that we heard in Paris and Rome,” she added, referring to Mr. Kerry’s meetings there with Mr. Lavrov last week.
Another important issue, which come up at the hearing on Wednesday, is the $1 billion American loan guarantee that Mr. Kerry announced during a visit to Kiev last week.
The Obama administration is seeking Congressional support for the loan guarantee, but the prospects for speedy Congressional approval are unclear. The House has voted to provide the loan guarantee. But Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, wants to combine it with measures to overhaul the International Monetary Fund that the House may not support.
Representative Harold Rogers, the Kentucky Republican who leads the House Appropriations Committee, urged the Senate to support the $1 billion loan guaranteed “unencumbered” by other measures.
US financial aid to Ukraine in limbo as Congress wrangles with legislation
Obama calls on Congress to put differences aside to show united front against Russia ahead Crimea referendum vote
Dan Roberts and Nora Biette-Timmons in Washington
theguardian.com, Wednesday 12 March 2014 22.32 GMT
A political row over reforms to the International Monetary Fund threatened to frustrate US attempts to agree on financial aid for Ukraine on Wednesday as US president Barack Obama met with its prime minister in an attempt to show united western support.
Though warmly received in Washington, the visit by Arseniy Yatsenyuk coincided with the difficult process of assembling a coalition in the US Congress to pass legislation for a package of loan guarantees and sanctions against Russia.
The Senate foreign affairs committee passed a version of the legislation by 14 votes to three on Wednesday afternoon, but included controversial reforms to the IMF which the administration says will increase its flexibility to respond to future crisis.
These are opposed by many Republicans and a separate amendment initially intended to placate them was not included by the GOP’s ranking member on the committee, senator Bob Corker, for fear of further complicating the bill’s passage.
Senator John McCain was one of several senior Republicans opposed to the IMF measures, though said he would vote in favour when the bill reaches the floor of the full Senate.
“Obviously there are issues associated with the legislation that may still be controversial but the legislation itself has the support of the majority our colleagues,” he added.
But senator Rand Paul was sharply critical of the reforms which he said would paradoxically increase Russian influence in the IMF. He also questioned whether loans to Ukraine would merely go to fund gas imports from Moscow or would encourage corruption.
Obama called on Congress to put such differences aside in the interests of showing a united front against Russian aggression ahead of a referendum in Crimea this weekend.
“We’re asking Congress to act promptly to deliver on an aid package, including a $1bn loan guarantee that can help smooth the path for reform inside of Ukraine and give the prime minister and his government the capacity to do what they need to do as they are also organising an election process,” he told reporters after his meeting with Yatsenyuk
“So I would just ask both Democrats and Republicans, who I know are unified in their support of Ukraine, to move quickly to give us the support that we need so that we can give the Ukrainian people the support that they need.”
Yatsenyuk acknowledged concerns of corruption during a separate event at the Atlantic Council, but called on US politicians to support internal reform with financial assistance.
“We fully realise that the IMF program is not a sweet candy, but on the other hand my country desperately needs real reforms,” he said.
Ironically, Republican discomfort with the shape of the Ukraine legislation comes as many hawks on the right are also worried that Obama is not forceful enough in his dealings with Russia.
At a debate at the conservative Heritage Foundation, a panel of diplomats and commentators dismissed the Obama administration’s previous diplomatic attempt at a “Russian reset”.
“The current crisis is not an aberration, it is the culmination of many years” of Russian policy, said Stephen Blank, a senior fellow with the American Foreign Policy Council.
Luke Coffey, a fellow at Heritage, said that before any American military intervention, “Ukrainians are going to have to show us that they think Crimea is worth dying for.”
Blank proposed long-term actions, suggesting the installation of a permanent Nato fleet in the Black Sea, and American missile defences in the Baltic states.
“If Russia tears up arms treaty, I’d say: ‘Be my guest. We’re prepared to spend you into the ground,’” Blank said.
Belarus Asks Russia to Deploy 'up to 15 Jets'
by Naharnet Newsdesk
12 March 2014, 17:08
Belarussian President Swine Alexander Lukashenko said Wednesday he would ask Russia to station up to 15 jets in his country in response to NATO's moves over the Ukraine crisis.
"If NATO decided, together with the Americans, to ramp up their air force presence near our borders, what, should we just watch them?" the maverick leader said, speaking at a meeting of his security council.
"If they deployed half a dozen interceptor aircraft or some other planes in Lithuania and they are flying near our borders, we will behave appropriately."
NATO said on Monday it would deploy reconnaissance aircraft to overfly Poland and Romania as part of alliance efforts to monitor the crisis in Ukraine.
In response to PresidentPig Putin's move into Crimea, home to a large Russian-speaking population and the Black Sea fleet, the U.S. is also sending a dozen F-16 fighter jets and 300 service personnel to Poland for what it says is an exercise.
"We've reacted in a calm manner until large-scale games started in the south, in Poland, and Poland asked for these games to be expanded. This begs the question: why?" said Swine Lukashenko.
"Why now when everything is not so calm in this region?"
Citing his own information, he added that more planes were redeployed from Italy "last night, late at night or early this morning."
"We have to react to this," he said, tasking his aides with contacting the Russian General Staff to ask Moscow to deploy jets in Belarus.
"Let's say no more than 12-15 planes right now," he said. "Let them work, patrol."
Russia currently has four jets stationed in the ex-Soviet country. Moscow plans to set up an air base in Belarus by next year.
Arms Control Work with Russia to Continue
by Naharnet Newsdesk
12 March 2014, 18:20
The White House's top arms control official on Wednesday said U.S. cooperation with Russia on agreements limiting nuclear arsenals would survive the worst East-West tensions in years sparked by Ukraine.
Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall said that U.S. and Russian officials were even now working "effectively" together to prepare for a nuclear security summit in The Hague later this month which President Barack Obama will attend.
"We expect that the Russians will continue to abide by the arms control agreements that they have reached with us," said Sherwood-Randall, the White House Coordinator for Defense Policy, Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Arms Control.
"These are in our mutual interest and we see no reason that tensions that exist over Ukraine should in any way obstruct the path towards fulfilling the commitments that we have made with the Russians to reduce nuclear weapons on both sides," she said at an event sponsored by National Journal in Washington.
As part of its earlier "reset" of relations with Russia, the Obama administration concluded a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that limits both sides to 1,550 warheads and puts caps on the numbers of deployed intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles and other launch vehicles.
The treaty includes verification mechanisms that include on-site inspections, data exchanges and other notifications so that each side can have confidence the other is complying with the terms of the pact.
The White House had hoped to follow on from the treaty with Russia to make further arms reductions in line with Obama's core counter-proliferation strategy, but those aspirations fell foul of worsening relations since the Pig's return to the Russian presidency.
The Obama administration, while vigorously condemning Russia's incursion into Crimea, has sought to insulate the wider U.S.-Russia relationship, already rocky, from more permanent damage.
Officials argue that nuclear cooperation, along with common approaches to the Iranian nuclear issue, are two areas where it is in Russia's own national interest not to thwart U.S. foreign policy.
That theory is likely to be put to the test if the White House goes ahead in the coming days with imposing meaningful sanctions on the Russian government and top officials over the Ukraine crisis.