Risky cities: red equals danger in Bucharest, Europe's earthquake capital
The first in a new series on cities living with risk assesses the problems facing Romania's capital, where hundreds of ornate buildings in the historic centre are in real danger of collapse
Kit Gillet in Bucharest
theguardian.com, Tuesday 25 March 2014 08.00 GMT
Dan Lungu, a sprightly 70-year-old expert on seismological risk, is taking a morning stroll down a street in the centre of the Romanian capital, pointing out historic buildings that are slowly falling apart as he goes. They are the victims not only of neglect, but seismic activity. “Bucharest is the most dangerous major city in Europe when it comes to earthquakes,” Lungu explains.
Nearly 40 years ago, an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale struck 60 miles away from Bucharest. The resulting shockwaves destroyed more than 30 high-rise buildings in the Romanian capital as well as thousands of other structures. An estimated 1,578 people were killed with a further 11,000 injured. It was one of the most devastating events in recent Romanian history.
“In that 1977 quake, 33 [high-rise] buildings in Bucharest were completely destroyed, but many others were damaged,” says Lungu. The former director of the Romanian National Institute of Historical Monuments points to the metal brackets that were attached to building walls as a quick-fix solution soon after the earthquake struck. The fact those brackets are still there today, and that little has been done to shore up these heritage buildings, is of major concern to Lungu and others trying to protect both the city and its structures.
Bucharest is a beautiful and little-known European city, with an historic heart full of crumbling, ornate, early 20th-century buildings. A walk down Calea Victoriei (Victory Avenue) in the heart of the city takes you past former palaces, majestic hotels dating from the turn of the 20th century, and the homes of some of the country’s most renowned historical figures, including George Enescu, the country’s best-loved composer.
But Bucharest is also the most earthquake-prone capital in Europe, affected by numerous small tremors every year – and many of its older buildings are in real danger of collapse.
In the late 1990s, the Romanian government began a programme of building assessments, placing red circular plaques on buildings that were deemed likely to collapse in an earthquake of magnitude 7 or higher. The idea was to identify the buildings so that efforts could be made to preserve them and protect their inhabitants, with residents being given interest-free loans to carry out the necessary repairs.
To date, 374 buildings in the heart of the old city (containing as many as 2,700 apartments) have been classified as Class I risk. Many are still inhabited by long-term residents; people seeking cheap rent or those unable to afford to live elsewhere in the capital. Rents can be a third less in these buildings than in neighbouring apartments.
The testing process was begun at the request of the apartments’ residents, who then quickly realised the negatives of owning property in a building with a “red spot”. Repair loans would only be awarded if every homeowner in the building agreed – if just one resident refused, the building would still be given a red spot without any way to remove it.
“People realised it was pointless, that property prices would go down. There have been no more than 17 requests for red spot tests since 2000. If people see the spot, the price lowers and it is harder to sell,” says Lungu, adding that many residents have removed the plaques from the sides of their buildings.
“Probably nearly all of the buildings in Bucharest’s old town should have red spots,” he adds, almost as an afterthought.
Sitting in her apartment on the fourth floor of a 1930s tenement building, 34-year-old Daniela Turcu says she fell in love with Bucharest’s old architecture soon after arriving in the city a year ago – but is now planning to move from her building, which has a prominent red plaque on it. “It is cheap and everywhere in the city centre is so expensive, but after one of last year’s bigger earthquakes I got scared,” the 34-year-old Romanian artist says. “I’m not sure if I am being paranoid, but it is just not worth the risk.”
Turcu says few of the owners or landlords here bother spending money to do up the apartments, when there is a chance that the building could fall down or become uninhabitable after the next major earthquake hits – whenever that is.
According to Nicusor Dan, a 45-year-old mathematics professor who moved to the city as a 20-year-old and eventually set up his own small NGO to protect Bucharest’s heritage architecture, the fact the buildings are now nearly 40 years older, yet have had little done to preserve them, “means that if an earthquake happens again similar to 1977, we can expect an even greater number of deaths”.
Some buildings are left to deteriorate until they have to be pulled down for safety reasons – with high-rises appearing in their place Some buildings are left to deteriorate until they have to be pulled down for safety reasons – with high-rises appearing in their place. Photograph: Kit Gillet
Dan estimates there are around a thousand historical buildings in danger in Bucharest, with just 26 having been strengthened in the past 20 years. “The buildings most at danger are the high-rises built between the wars,” he says. Many of these buildings still bear the scars of the earthquake in 1977.
Despite his mathematical background, Dan declines to offer odds on the next quake happening soon – but says his logical thinking comes in useful when preparing to go to court to try to get yet another building placed on the heritage list, or protected from demolition. “When a house is destroyed, I resent it very strongly,” he says.
Hundreds of buildings dating from the early 20th century remain empty across Bucharest, having been allowed to fall into disrepair. In the pedestrian heart of the city, where revellers sit at cafe and bar terraces in the evenings, some buildings have wire-mesh netting to try to protect passersby from any falling masonry.
Critics say a significant number of these historic buildings could be strengthened, rejuvenated and saved – but that the owners prefer to leave them empty, waiting until it is necessary to tear them down for safety reasons and then, in their place, building a modern high-rise.
“A get-rich-quick mentality has been responsible for much of the destruction of Old Bucharest,” says Roxana Wring, founder of the Association for the Protection and Documentation of Listed Monuments and Heritage of Romania. “There is not even a beginning of a modern approach to what it means to preserve the cultural landscape in Bucharest.”
Wring suggests the local authorities need to treat the city’s historic buildings in a holistic way, rather than as a set of disparate objects that can be replaced by modern buildings which are, often, in stark contrast to the “historical character of the neighbourhoods”.
“Urban regeneration and conservation can only be created with decent regulations,” says Wring. “There is no political will to change things related to heritage.”
Some of Bucharest’s older buildings have stood empty for years; others are being aided in their deterioration at night through strategic vandalism. Once they reach a certain stage of disrepair, the owners will have no choice but to finish the job. In the meantime, they are dangerous shells of buildings that could easily fall on those passing by, with or without the help of an earthquake.
“It is impossible to predict when the next major quake could happen,” says Lungu, as we continue our walk around the old city centre. “A similar magnitude earthquake to the one that occurred in 1977 happens every 50 to 100 years.”
And so, people in Bucharest must go on living in and around dilapidated buildings that are at serious seismic risk. As Daniela Turcu says: “I guess most of my neighbours just try not to think about it too much.”
Japan, Belgium and Italy reduce their stockpiles of nuclear material
Announcements made during US-led summit in The Hague aimed at reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism
Julian Borger in The Hague
theguardian.com, Monday 24 March 2014 15.28 GMT
Japan announced on Monday that it would hand over hundreds of kilogrammes of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium to the United States for dilution and disposal, at the start of a global summit aimed at reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism.
Belgium and Italy also announced agreements with the US on the removal of surplus fissile material, as part of a continuing Washington-led effort to reduce global stockpiles and the number of sites around the world where they are stored.
Under the agreement, Japan will ship more than 300kg of plutonium and 200kg of highly enriched uranium (HEU) from its nuclear research site. The material would be enough to build about 40 nuclear warheads.
Japan's stock of weapons-grade material has been a source of friction with China, particularly after rightwing Japanese politicians suggested that it may have value as a deterrent, even though the country ruled out development of nuclear weapons in 1967.
The radioactive material is only a small proportion of Japan's stock, but is in a form that would make it easy to use in a nuclear warhead.
The agreement with Japan was hailed by US officials as the greatest success so far resulting from President Obama's 2009 initiative.
A 2013 deadline "to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years" has been missed. Since 2010, when the first of three nuclear security summits was held in Washington, 10 countries have rid themselves completely of plutonium and HEU: Chile, Serbia, Turkey, Austria, Mexico, Sweden, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Vietnam. The deadline was extended with the announcement there would be a fourth summit in Washington in 2016.
The two-day meeting in The Hague, involving 53 world leaders, will focus on improving security for global stocks of other radiological isotopes including cobalt 60 and caesium 137 which are used in industry, research and medicine but which could be used in a "dirty bomb" to irradiate a large urban area.
Despite the advances made in the past four years, a former US senator, Sam Nunn, the chief executive officer of a Washington-based thinktank called the Nuclear Threat Initiative, warned in a report published before the Hague summit that "nearly 2,000 metric [tonnes] of weapons-usable nuclear materials remain spread across hundreds of sites around the globe – some of it poorly secured".
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Yukiya Amano, said last year there were a hundred reported thefts on nuclear and radioactive materials on average each year, although such incidents so far have involved very small quantities.
"We are going in the right direction," said Joe Cirincione, the head of the Ploughshares Fund, which promotes disarmament and non-proliferation initiatives. But he added: "When you are fleeing a forest fire, however, it is not a question of direction but of speed. Can we get to safety before disaster overwhelms us? The current pace is only sporadically urgent. Worse, there is a real chance that even this co-operation will cease after the final, planned summit in 2016."
03/24/2014 01:37 PM
Former NSA Director: 'Shame On Us'
Interview Conducted By Marc Hujer and Holger Stark
In a SPIEGEL interview, former NSA director Michael Hayden, 69, discusses revelations of US spying on Germany made public in documents leaked by Edward Snowden, surveillance against German leaders and tensions between Berlin and Washington.
Michael Hayden, 69, served as the director of the National Security Agency from 1999 to 2005. After leaving the NSA, he served as director of the CIA from 2006 to 2009. Today he is a partner at the consulting firm Chertoff Group in Washington, DC.
SPIEGEL recently sat down with the former US Air Force general in Washington for a wide-ranging interview on revelations from the archive of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, including allegations that the intelligence agency spied on the cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, that have been the source of significant trans-Atlantic tensions.
SPIEGEL: General Hayden, let's speak about the future of the Internet. Are you concerned?
Hayden: I am very concerned. This may be the single greatest, most destructive effect from the last 10 months of what Mr. Snowden has revealed. The Internet was begun in the United States and it is based on American technology, but it's a global activity. We in the United States feel it reflects free people, free ideas and free trade. There are countries that do not want the Internet as we know it. Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia. The Snowden revelations will now allow them to argue that we Americans want to keep a single, unitary Internet, because it just helps us spy. My fear is that the disclosures may have set a motion in progress that ends up really threatening the Internet as we know it.
SPIEGEL: It is not only the Russians and Chinese who use this argument, but also Americans like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. He recently described the US government as a threat to the Internet.
Hayden: The more people like him say that, the more it indirectly strengthens these other arguments. The Russians and the Chinese aren't saying this to protect themselves against alleged American espionage. They are saying this because they don't like the Internet's freedom of speech. Their goal is to divide the Internet up into national domains and create barriers in cyberspace. That's the last thing Zuckerberg would want to have happen.
SPIEGEL: On the one hand, the United States promotes the Internet as a tool of freedom. On the other hand, it now appears to many people to be a tool of surveillance.
Hayden: I am quite willing to have a discussion about what my country has or has not done, but it has to be based on facts. Let me first point out that the NSA doesn't monitor what every American is doing on the Internet. The NSA doesn't check who goes to what websites. But you've got these beliefs out there now.
SPIEGEL: Your predecessor as head of the NSA, General Kenneth Minihan, compared the Internet with the invention of the atomic bomb. He said a new national effort should be dedicated to one single goal, "information superiority for America" in cyberspace. It looks like you've gotten pretty close.
Hayden: We Americans think of military doctrine and "domains" -- land, sea, air, space. As part of our military thought, we now think of cyber as a domain. Let me define air dominance for you: Air dominance is the ability of the United States to use the air domain at times and places of its own choosing while denying its use to its adversaries at times and places when it is in our legitimate national interest to do so. It's just a natural thing for him to transfer that to the cyber domain. I do not think it is a threat to world peace and commerce any more than the American Air Force is a threat to world peace and commerce.
SPIEGEL: But do you understand if people in other countries are concerned about one country trying to gain "superiority" over something transnational like the Internet?
Hayden: I certainly do, and I thoroughly understand that. Now, other countries are creating cyber commands, but we were first, public, and very forceful in our language. We are now accused of militarizing cyberspace. Around the time US Cyber Command was created, McAfee did a survey of cyber security experts around the world. One of the questions they asked of them was, "Who do you fear most in cyberspace?" The answer for the Americans was the Chinese. With the plurality of people around the world, it was the Americans.
SPIEGEL: Britain's GCHQ intelligence agency speaks of "mastering" the Internet, and in another document, NSA officials say they want to "own" the Internet. Is it time for a new approach?
Hayden: Maybe not for a new approach but certainly for a new vocabulary. We might have been a bit too dramatic in our language.
SPIEGEL: So it was just a language issue?
Hayden: No. But nations conduct espionage. Mine, too. We're very good at it. We spend a lot of money at it: more than $50 billion a year for the national effort. The problem is that since the Snowden revelations we're talking about American espionage, British espionage and Australian espionage, but not about Chinese or Russian espionage. As powerful as those three I mentioned are, they actually self-limit. They are also the most transparent. I would offer you the view that European parliamentarians now know far more about the National Security Agency than they will ever learn about their own nation's intelligence services.
SPIEGEL: Isn't there a disconnect between your country being the champion of the Internet as a symbol of freedom and the goal, as the NSA puts it, of owning the Internet?
Hayden: I wouldn't say disconnect. But there is a dissonance. During the Arab Awakening my government was actually giving money to NGOs to pass out software to citizens in Arab countries to protect their anonymity. You've got conflicting values, but a state has a legitimate interest in freedom, and a state has a legitimate interest in security.
SPIEGEL: It has been almost a year since Snowden left Hawaii. What has he changed?
Hayden: There are three or four effects. We do this, like other countries, for legitimate reasons, and it's harder to do this now with what has been made public, legitimate intelligence targets. It has become harder for American services to cooperate with friendly services with common goals. What foreign service would want to cooperate with us, given our absolute seeming inability to keep anything secret? And then it really harmed American industry, and that's why you have the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world and the Eric Schmidts of the world expressing great outrage. They aren't doing anything for the American government that other companies do not do for their host governments when they receive a lawful request, but they've been singled out, and they have been unfairly harmed by this. And finally, it has poisoned relationships between people who really are friends.
SPIEGEL: Germany for example.
Hayden: The whole question about the chancellor has made this much more difficult. Although I'm not prepared to apologize for conducting intelligence against another nation, I am prepared to apologize for embarrassing a good friend. I am prepared to apologize for the fact we couldn't keep whatever it was we may or may not have been doing secret and therefore put a good friend in a very difficult position. Shame on us. That's our fault.
SPIEGEL: We didn't hear someone apologize officially.
Hayden: I'm prepared to apologize.
SPIEGEL: Is there any good reason for conducting surveillance against Merkel's mobile phone?
Hayden: It's hard for me to answer as I'm not in the government. But leadership intentions are always a high priority, a foreign intelligence objective. In 1978, you've got US-President Carter wagging his finger at his intel people at the Camp David Accords between Egyptians and Israelis saying, "I want to know what Anwar al-Sadat and Menachem Begin think. I want to know what they think about me. I want to know what they think about each other. I want to know what in their heart of hearts they think about the agreement we've put on the table." How are you going to do that? I suspect you're going to conduct aggressive surveillance against their communications. Whether that circumstance applies to the chancellor is an entirely different question, but I would add that the chancellor's predecessor …
SPIEGEL: … Gerhard Schröder …
Hayden: … conducted a whole variety of things that were kind of inconsistent with the American view of the world, which is not claiming the American view is right. We did the Iraq war with very different points of view. His approach to Russia was very different than the American approach to Russia, and then finally, this whole Gazprom billion-euro loan guarantee also raised questions, which might be answered by this kind of activity.
SPIEGEL: Would that justify surveillance of his cell phone?
Hayden: I am not going to make that conclusion. What I am going to say, though, is that you could see circumstances like that where that might make it more rather than less attractive to do. In 2008, when President Obama was elected, he had a BlackBerry. We thought, oh God, get rid of it. He said, "No, I am going to keep it." So we did some stuff to it to make it a little more secure. We're telling the guy who was going to soon be the most powerful man in the most powerful country on Earth that if in his national capital he uses his cell phone, his BlackBerry, countless number of foreign intelligence services are going to listen to his phone calls and read his e-mails. It's just the way it is.
SPIEGEL: The Germans are more sensitive when it comes to the issue of surveillance.
Hayden: I confess that we Americans underappreciated the impact of that not just on the chancellor but on the German population, and I mean this sincerely. Perhaps we underestimated the depth of feelings that the German people -- and again, not just the chancellor, but the German people, felt about this question of privacy, given their historical circumstances compared to our historical circumstances. At the Munich Security Conference it was clear to me that Germans regard privacy the way we Americans might regard freedom of speech or religion. Perhaps we did not appreciate that enough.
SPIEGEL: Do you think the president missed the chance to inform the chancellor about the facts when he visited her in Berlin last June?
Hayden: I don't know the facts of the case, but to be perfectly candid with you and your readers, the president promised to not surveil Angela Merkel. This was not a promise in perpetuity that no head of the German government would be surveilled.
SPIEGEL: Who makes the decision to monitor Schröder's or Merkel's cell phone? Did the White House know about it?
Hayden: Our government has made it clear that the president did not know and I will simply say if the president said he didn't know, then the president did not know, period. But it is not plausible that the White House didn't know. It's not plausible that the National Security Council didn't know. But this had not been a personal decision on the part of the president.
'No-Spy Agreements Are Just Too Difficult'
SPIEGEL: In November 1999, you visited Germany and went to the NSA station in Bad Aibling, and afterwards you wrote a letter to the Chancellery where you assured them that you are not conducting espionage against …
Hayden: … Germany, that's right.
SPIEGEL: It could have been a wonderful friendship.
Hayden: I took as a principal position that it was worth it to me to stop collection activities in Germany -- not on Germany -- that were overhangs from the occupation and to stop that in return for entering into a very mature relationship with the German intelligence services. That was the policy we followed when I was director. We made decisions, and activities stopped -- not against Germany but from Germany, out of sensitivity to German sovereignty, in order to enable us to approach an intelligence relationship with Germany among equals.
SPIEGEL: But two years later, the surveillance of the chancellor's cell phone started. Were we Germans too naïve?
Hayden: I can neither confirm nor deny what we do or don't do, but in essence, what may or may not have been done against the chancellor is quite different from industrial strength activities being conducted from German soil. What we may or may not have started to do in 2002 affects very little the sincerity of what it is we want to do as partners with the BND (Germany's foreign intelligence service).
SPIEGEL: As a reaction, the Germans are now considering conducting counterintelligence not only against Russians, the Iranians and the Chinese, but also against NSA's and CIA's offices in Germany. Would that deepen the rift between the two countries?
Hayden: No, that's a professional reaction. That's a choice that's fully within German competence, and it in no way affects friendship between us.
SPIEGEL: Given the fact that, as you said, Americans might have underestimated the sensitivity of Germans with regards to the surveillance, don't you think it would be a valuable approach to reach a no-spy agreement with Germany?
Hayden: No-spy agreements are just too difficult. The White House made it quite clear, "No, we're not going to do no-spy agreements." It's just too hard to do, not even with the British.
SPIEGEL: How can this damaged trans-Atlantic relationship be repaired?
Hayden: I think the director of national intelligence, the director of CIA and the new director of NSA need to put Germany very early in their travel plans and meet with the German service. The areas of cooperation between us are so vast that there's plenty of work to be done in there. Let me draw this little comparison. I say, look, if this is in American interests and values and so on and this is our closest ally ever in the universe: It doesn't match always. There is so much to do in the areas where our interests and values and activities overlap that my sense is that, going forward, we should focus on that and deepen our cooperation.
SPIEGEL: You mentioned China. Would you say that China is the greatest challenge in cyberspace for America's intelligence agencies?
Hayden: What is disturbing about the Chinese is two or three things. They do connect espionage for straight-on, direct-effect industrial advantage. Second, although I think the Americans and some others are more sophisticated than the Chinese at doing this, no one is doing it on the scale that the Chinese are doing it. As a professional intelligence officer, I just stand back in awe at the depth, breadth and persistence of the Chinese espionage effort against the West and the United States, so that's a second reality. My answer to your question is a simple yes.
SPIEGEL: Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA is conducting similar operations against China. They monitor the head of state of China. They monitored a couple of universities. NSA is breaking into some Chinese companies. Isn't it hypocritical to complain and yet do similar things?
Hayden: It's only hypocritical if you had a peculiar and inaccurate way of looking at it at the beginning, and I have been quite public. I'd say, "Look, we spy. We're really good at it." There are two differences between us and the Chinese. We're actually more sophisticated, and we're self-limited. We don't do industrial espionage. I never claimed the moral high ground, you seem to be suggesting that we didn't spy. Let me play a joke on myself. I say, you know, if I had to talk to the Chinese about it, I'd go to Beijing, and I'd sit across the table, which I have done, and I would begin the conversation, "Look, you spy, we spy, but you steal the wrong stuff."
SPIEGEL: Give us a prediction about Snowden's future.
Hayden: I don't know. I think he asked for an extension of his visa. I think they will just kind of toss the ball up and keep juggling it for another year to see what happens.
SPIEGEL: Wouldn't it be better to bring him home …
Hayden: … absolutely …
SPIEGEL: … and grant him clemency?
Hayden: No. God, no. No. No. This is the single greatest hemorrhaging of legitimate American secrets in the history of this country. It is incredibly damaging, and if we give him some sort of clemency or amnesty, all we're doing is teaching the next Edward Snowden that if you do this, make sure you steal a whole bunch of stuff.Edward Snowden has given this data to all these other folks. Glenn Greenwald has got it. Laura Poitras has got it. Bart Gellman has got it. DER SPIEGEL apparently has it. I mean, this stuff is coming out beyond the control of Edward Snowden.
SPIEGEL: You've been monitored yourself on a train to New York while you spoke confidentially on the phone. A blogger overheard you and tweeted your conversations.
Hayden: My only objection was that he misrepresented what I said. If you're going to intercept somebody else's communications, get it right.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Hayden, we thank you for this interview.
Will Orkney and Shetland join the micronationalists?
As Scotland debates splitting from the UK, some of its islands are now demanding the right to their own independence vote. Where will it all end?
Monday 24 March 2014 16.07 GMT The Guardian
Alex Salmond should always have expected it. Once you stir the nationalist pot, you can never know where it will lead. Residents of Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles are petitioning the Scottish parliament at Holyrood for the right to hold their own referendum on independence, but this time from Scotland rather than the UK. In one scenario, the islands might vote to leave Scotland and remain in the UK.
That's the problem with nationalism. Where does it end? I once visited Sanday (population 550) in Orkney, and locals told me one side of the island was so distinct from the other than the accents were different. Perhaps west Sanday and east Sanday should consider splitting. Chaos beckons.
At the same time as the Scottish islanders are thinking of going their own way, Venice and the Veneto region have also declared their desire to break away from Italy. An online poll, in which 2.3m people voted, registered 89% support for secession. They have a point of course: Venice is sui generis, a world entire unto itself, culturally different from the rest of Italy. No doubt if Venice secedes, the islands of Murano and Burano will want to consider their own futures. We may be entering the age of the microstate.
All nations are constructs. Anthropologists say humans are preconditioned to want to live in extended family groups numbering about 150 people. So perhaps we are in a period when we are working towards our ideal. Even east and west Sanday may be too big. The peninsula in the north of the island will also have to declare unilateral independence.
The list of would-be seceders around the world is staggering. In Spain, the Basques and Catalans have long wanted to break away, but there also active nationalist movements in most of the other regions. In Belgium, the Flemish and Walloon halves of the country exist in a state of mutual loathing. Carinthia wants to break away from Austria; Brittany from France; Bavaria from Germany; Moravia from the Czech Republic; Frisia from the Netherlands, and on and on. And that's just Europe. Imagine how many secessionist movements there are in Africa (six in Ethiopia alone), Asia (a dozen in Burma) and the Americas. The US doesn't just have secessionists at federal level; in quite a few of the states, there are counties that want to break away.
Unless you want a UN that runs into thousands of members, the only measure to judge a country is by the way it treats its people. Where there is oppression, especially on ethnic grounds, nationalist agitation is legitimate. The anti-colonial movements of the mid-20th century were clearly necessary. But in some parts of the world, nationalism – a respectable word for tribalism – is fetishised. Countries may be historical accidents, but if they more or less function let them be. Otherwise we will be back to a world of warring villages.
Where this live-and-let-live thesis leaves Crimea, I'm not sure. Perhaps this explosive Turkish-Russian-Ukrainian mishmash is the exception that proves the rule: a place that doesn't fit anywhere, a historical quirk, a Black Sea San Marino. I'm not opposed to manifestly ridiculous pseudo-countries, just self-justifying statelets with pretensions.
• This article was amended on 25 March 2014. An earlier version referred to Sanday in the Orkneys, rather than in Orkney, in contravention of our Style guide.
Le Pen grows stronger amid disillusion as FN surprises in French elections
Far-right National Front hails breakthrough after disillusioned voters reject François Hollande and both mainstream parties
Kim Willsher in Paris
theguardian.com, Monday 24 March 2014 20.55 GMT
Was this the moment the Front National became more than just a protest party?
While France's local elections on Sunday were notable for record voter abstention and a bloody nose for the governing Socialists, it was the far-right party's showing in a crucial European election year that really stood out.
The anti-Europe FN, led by Marine le Pen, fielded candidates in fewer than 600 of France's 36,000 municipalities – and still secured about 5% of the total votes cast at the weekend. As a result, expectations are mounting that it will do extremely well in May's European elections.
The FN secured one mayor elected outright in the northern town of Hénin-Beaumont, a former coalmining area traditionally in Socialist hands, and enough votes to take part in the second-round runoff in nearly 230 municipalities. The FN goes into next Sunday's vote ahead in a number of major and symbolic towns and cities including Avignon, Perpignan and Béziers.
Commentators said the country had been washed by a wave of "bleu Marine" (a play on the FN leader's name and the colour navy blue). Le Monde described it as a "political earthquake".
"The new age of the extreme right" read the headline in the left-leaning Nouvel Observateur magazine. "Even if the FN only ends up with a handful of town halls, it's certainly a historic performance and success for Le Pen's party.
"The FN appears more and more clearly as an alternative, capable of taking responsibility and managing the affairs of a community and this is the greatest success of Marine Le Pen."
France's biggest selling newspaper, Ouest-France, said the FN was now the "third political force" in the country.
Madani Cheurfa, a political analyst at Cevipof, a political research centrethat specialises in local elections, said the results were due to three factors: the increasing gulf between politicians and the voting public, a sense that neither of the mainstream parties had solutions to ordinary people's problems and the recent spate of corruption scandals.
"There is a growing feeling of divorce between politicians and the electorate that has become worse over the last four years," Cheurfa said.
He said a recent Cevipof survey found 87% of those asked thought "politicians didn't think the same way as ordinary people" and 60% said they had no confidence in the left or the right.
"The Front National vote shows signs of being more than just a protest vote," he said. "It suggests that, locally at least, voters are attracted by their ideas and it shows that voters believe they understand the problems of local people and are convinced an FN candidate is capable of running their town."
"At the moment we are seeing the beginning of the multi-polarisation of political life, but we will have to see if the [FN] success can be repeated in a national election, such as the legislatives in 2017.
"Only then will we see whether the FN is considered an alternative to the Parti Socialist and the UMP. And by 2017 they will have been able to show if they can run a town and if they have the necessary legitimacy to become the third party."
Frédéric Dabi, of the opinion pollsters Ifop, agreed: "The rise in abstention is a rejection of politicians that has been amplified by recent [political] scandals. It also illustrates voters' disillusion over the ability of politicians to change things."
In his book, La France au Front, published last month, Pascal Perrineau, professor at the Sciences Po university and president of Cevipof, argued that the FN had prospered for the past 30 years on the "disillusions, rejections and worries" of the French: "It's a propitious moment: now more than ever, the economic and social crisis has accentuated the discredit of the two major government forces."
After Sunday's results, he said the FN result followed a "series of convergence" and had been boosted by recent scandals. "For weeks when we have spoken about politics it was with the background accompaniment of [corruption] affairs and lies," he told French radio.
"Also these municipal elections are taking part in a France in a profound economic and social crisis. If you look, the FN has a very good scores in those areas most affected."
Analysts agreed the vote was a slap in the face for François Hollande, who has become one of France's most unpopular presidents ever within two years of taking office.
"For the last few days the majority has hoped that local concerns will form a defence against the wave of discontent on a national level," wrote Grégoire Biseau in Libération.
He said the president had ignored warnings that the "real threat was that the idea of voting FN had become more and more banal".
In Paris, Socialist Anne Hidalgo is still just about on course to become mayor – with the help of the Green/Ecology party – despite more people voting in the first round for her centre-right rival, Nathalie Kosciusko Morizet.
Le Parisien's front page had a picture of Hollande and the headline: "Punished".
It said the election results were: "A monumental rout, a deep rejection and a bloody disavowal."
Nationally, the centre-right UMP party won 47% of the vote, compared with 38% for the ruling Socialists.
Despite his party being riven with disagreements, corruption scandals and a damaging leadership split, Jean-François Copé, president of the centre-right UMP, predicted a "large victory" for the party in the second round.
While the Socialist party has tactically withdrawn from a number of "triangulars" – where three parties are contesting the second round and might split the vote, letting the FN win, the UMP said it would not call on its supporters to back leftwing candidates against the FN.
The prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, said "all democratic forces" should close ranks against the FN.
"Wherever the FN is in a position to win the second round, all who support democracy and the Republic have a duty to prevent them," he said.
With Start-Ups, Greeks Make Recovery Their Own Business
By NIKI KITSANTONIS
MARCH 24, 2014
ATHENS — For Natalie Kontou, 32, Greece’s economic crisis may be a blessing in disguise.
After losing her job at a magazine in 2011, at the peak of the crisis, and a fruitless spell seeking work in Australia the following year, she is now running her own fledgling company. It offers tailor-made tour packages for a growing influx of foreign visitors to Greece.
“I always wanted to work in tourism, but I never imagined I’d set up my own business, let alone with my friends,” she said, referring to her three partners at the company, Athens Insiders. After its start last spring, on a budget of only 5,000 euros, or roughly $6,900, the business has broken even after selling 20 tailor-made tours to individuals, couples or groups, and is now seeking financing to expand.
The entrepreneurial dream is one that many in Greece are chasing. With scant opportunities in a demolished private sector, with unemployment at a record 28 percent — and above 60 percent for those under 24 — many Greeks have stopped waiting for those in power to put the country back on its feet.
The government and Greece’s troika of international lenders agreed last week on economic reforms designed to unlock an estimated €10 billion in rescue funds. But virtually all of it is to go toward paying down debt instead of investing in the growth the country desperately needs.
No wonder some Greeks are taking matters into their own hands.
Although thousands of enterprises have buckled under the pressure of a deepening recession now in its sixth year, thousands of others have opened, in defiance of that bleak narrative. According to government figures, more than 41,000 new companies were formed in Greece last year. Most of those were food or clothing retailers or other types of businesses that few experts would consider entrepreneurial innovators.
But Endeavor Greece, a nonprofit organization that supports entrepreneurship, counted 144 of those companies as entrepreneurial start-ups — a ninefold increase from the number founded in 2010.
Business incubators and shared work spaces have sprung up across Athens and other Greek cities in recent months to accommodate start-ups, while conferences and forums on entrepreneurship and innovation abound.
About a dozen incubators are competing to foster the best business ideas, helping defray operating costs and offering mentorship. One, called Enter Grow Go, has taken Athens Insiders under its wing along with 20 other start-ups and is backed by Eurobank, the third-largest Greek lender.
Another, Orange Grove, an initiative of the Dutch Embassy in Athens, supports nearly three-dozen new businesses including Clio Muse. Run by three Greeks in their 20s, Clio Muse last month rolled out a mobile application that gives visitors to museums and galleries background articles about selected exhibits.
In Athens, the newest private incubator is Romantso, named after the defunct women’s magazine in whose former headquarters it is based. There, dozens of designers, photographers and web artists pay around €300 a month to rent office space in an environment with an edgy aesthetic where they exchange ideas and expand their start-ups. Romantso supplements its income from the rent with proceeds from an on-site bar, sponsorships and paid seminars.
Vassilis Haralambidis, a 37-year-old graphic designer who opened Romantso on a tiny street in a run-down central district last autumn, said his aim was to “stop the misery.”
“We saw that people were numb, that the country was going in the wrong direction and we decided to do something,” Mr. Haralambidis said. He had postponed paying taxes, he said, in order to plow that money into Romantso, although he declined to discuss the specifics of this deferment.
The authorities are lending their support to the start-up movement, as they have in other European countries, like France and Spain, where youth unemployment is also high. The Greek government has reduced the bureaucracy and paperwork that has discouraged entrepreneurs in the past. New legislation, to come into force later this year, would allow a business to be officially set up in a single day.
A program subsidized by the European Union to support small and medium-size businesses, worth €1 billion is to be divided among more than 16,000 Greek beneficiaries this year. An additional €130 million in European Union-backed loans and venture capital programs has already been dispensed.
Many industry experts see venture capital and loans as a better option than European Union grants.
“Free money is not a solution,” said Panos Zamanis, co-founder of the Hellenic Startup Association, who advises new businesses, mainly at Orange Grove. He cited reports that millions of euros in European subsidies were squandered in the past on holiday homes and other luxuries. “There needs to be the obligation to give the money back.”
Some aspiring entrepreneurs said they preferred to approach investors offering seed funding or venture capital firms that can offer expertise along with equity investments, rather than competing for European Union money.
“The subsidies go to people with connections anyway,” said Yiannis Papageorgiou, 24, who last year set up Truckbird, an online logistics service linking shippers and carriers, with five friends. To attract customers, Truckbird began offering a free-trial service last month. Mr. Papageorgiou said there were now more than 20 companies in the trial, and he was in talks with potential investors.
The venture is a bold foray into the trucking industry, one of dozens of so-called closed professions that have been protected from competition by a mass of regulations that the country’s international lenders have insisted must be reduced or eliminated to revitalize the economy.
If Greece is to emerge from recession, analysts say it must stop being an insular economy where most people work for the state, or in copycat retailing jobs.
“Among the crowd of Greeks setting up snack bars and take-aways, a handful are trying to do something better,” said George Pagoulatos, a professor of European economics and politics at Athens University and a former government adviser.
Several fledgling companies have clearly succeeded, some with the initial help of Greek venture capital funds, which have invested €20 million in about 20 domestic start-ups over the past two years, according to Yiannis Papadopoulos who heads the Hellenic Venture Capital Association.
Several notables have expanded internationally.
Taxibeat — a mobile application allowing travelers to choose among nearby taxis on the basis of preferences and ratings by previous passengers — has been rolled out in France, Mexico, Brazil and Peru since its creation in Athens in 2011.
After securing €3.5 million in Greek venture capital, it secured an additional €3 million last year from Hummingbird Ventures, a firm in London. Taxibeat says it is now profitable in Greece and has a total of nearly a million users in its various markets.
Bugsense, a Greek company that tracks software flaws in mobile phone applications, was acquired last year by Splunk, a Nasdaq-listed software company based in San Francisco. Cookisto, an online service whose subscribers buy meals from home cooks, has expanded beyond Greece to Britain after securing €200,000 in seed funding from a Greek entrepreneur, Leon Yohai.
Workable, which designed a software application to aid the hiring process by small businesses that cannot afford a human resources department, has opened offices in London and Portland, Ore., since starting in Athens in 2012. It recently received $1.5 million in financing from Greylock IL, the British-Israel arm of the American venture capital firm Greylock Partners.
Such trailblazers are inspiration to their fledgling compatriots, like Athens Insiders.
“I know it’s a gamble but we’re going to stick at it,” said Ms. Kontou, whose company is planning tours in five different languages and exploring its finance options. “If we young Greeks don’t try and create something new, who will?”
U.S. sends more commandos to Uganda in hunt for infamous warlord Joseph Kony
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, March 24, 2014 11:11 EDT
Washington is sending more elite commandos and tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft to Uganda to help hunt for Joseph Kony, the fugitive warlord accused of rape, murder and the kidnapping of children.
At least four CV-22 Ospreys and refueling planes, as well as 150 Air Force special forces personnel and other airmen to fly and maintain the planes are scheduled to arrive in the African country mid-week, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steven Warren told AFP on Monday.
The Washington Post initially reported the story on its website Sunday.
US forces will remain in a support role helping African Union forces searching for Kony, the head of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) blamed for a string of atrocities.
Kony, originally from Uganda, is wanted by the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) for leading a grim campaign of rape, mutilation and murder, kidnapping boys to serve as child soldiers and girls as sex slaves.
President Barack Obama ordered some 100 special operations troops deployed to Uganda to help find Kony in October 2011.
US forces are equipped for combat, but are banned from engaging LRA fighters unless in self-defense, according to their rules of engagement.
The LRA is a militant outfit whose doctrine mixes African mysticism with Christian extremism. In recent years it has been forced out of Uganda, and Kony is believed to be hiding with a core of fighters in the remote jungles of Central African Republic, northeast Democratic Republic of Congo, or South Sudan.
Kony and two other LRA leaders were indicted by the ICC in 2005 on charges of butchering and kidnapping civilians.
Ospreys can take off and land straight up like a helicopter, but also fly like a turboprop airplane. This allows the planes to move more troops faster and farther than a helicopter.
The increased US assistance does not mean that the Obama administration’s criticism of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni for enacting draconian anti-gay laws has weakened, officials said.
“Ensuring justice and accountability for human rights violators like the LRA” and protecting the rights of gay and transgendered people “are not mutually exclusive,” Grant Harris, a special assistant to Obama and senior African affairs director for the National Security Council, told The Washington Post.
The force began to deploy late Sunday, Amanda Dory, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, told The Post.
C.African Religious Leaders Ask for U.N. Peacekeepers
by Naharnet Newsdesk
25 March 2014, 07:21
Christian and Muslim leaders from conflict-torn Central African Republic said Monday they have appealed to U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to rapidly deploy peacekeepers to stop the country's "descent into hell".
A multi-faith delegation, made up of an archbishop, an imam and the head of the country's Protestant community, made the plea during a 10-day visit to Washington and New York, where they also sought help from the United States to end months of Christian-Muslim violence.
"We need an operation, and for it to happen without delay," said Dieudonne Nzapalainga, the Catholic archbishop of the capital Bangui.
"We want to stop this descent into hell," he told Agence France Presse in Rome, where the three leaders have an audience with Pope Francis on Wednesday.
Nzapalainga said the current peacekeeping missions -- the 6,000-strong African Union force known as MISCA and France's 2,000-troop Operation Sangaris -- are facing "enormous logistical problems. They are stretched to the limit, and it's time to come and help them."
The leaders estimated the country needs between 15,000 and 18,000 peacekeepers, but said they fear no new force will be deployed until September.
"One of our goals in the U.S. was to explain the humanitarian situation," said Imam Oumar Kobine Layama. "It's been almost a year since people have been able to work the fields. Seeds for the next crop have been lost as villages burnt, just as the rainy season is approaching."
The religious leaders stepped in to call for peace after a spate of violence and revenge attacks between the Muslim minority and Christian majority. Thousands have been killed and a quarter of the country's population displaced in the chaos following a March 2013 coup.
Reverend Nicolas Guerekoyame-Gbangou, the president of the Evangelical Alliance, also called for some form of American aid.
"We have asked the authorities to resume their relations with the CAR. The European are there, France is taking the lead, but there is also a place for the U.S.," he said. "USAID should come, with all the other American NGOs."
HRW Says Ethiopia Spies on Citizens with Foreign Technology
by Naharnet Newsdesk
25 March 2014, 10:07
Ethiopia is using foreign technology to spy on citizens suspected of being critical of the government, Human Rights Watch said in a report released Tuesday.
The report accused the government of using Chinese and European technology to survey phone calls and Internet activity in Ethiopia and among the diaspora living overseas, and HRW said firms colluding with the government could be guilty of abuses.
"The Ethiopian government is using control of its telecom system as a tool to silence dissenting voices," HRW's business and human rights director Arvind Ganesan, said in a statement.
"The foreign firms that are providing products and services that facilitate Ethiopia's illegal surveillance are risking complicity in rights abuses."
The Ethiopian government dismissed the report as "mud-slinging" and accused the rights watchdog of repeatedly unfairly targeting the country.
"This is one of the issues that it has in the list of its campaigns to smear Ethiopia's image, so there is nothing new to respond to it, because there is nothing new to it," Ethiopia's Information Minister, Redwan Hussein, told Agence France Presse.
He said Ethiopia is committed to improving access to telecommunications as part of its development program, not as a means to increase surveillance.
"The government is trying its level best to create access to not only to the urban but to all corners of the country," Redwan added.
Ethiopia's phone and internet networks are controlled by the state-owned Ethio Telecom, the sole telecommunications provider in the country.
HRW said the government's telecommunications monopoly allows it to readily monitor user activity.
"Security officials have virtually unlimited access to the call records of all telephone users in Ethiopia. They regularly and easily record phone calls without any legal process or oversight," the report said.
The rights watchdog said information gathered was often used to garner evidence against independent journalists and opposition activists, both inside Ethiopia and overseas.
In February, a U.S. man filed a lawsuit against the Ethiopian government, accusing authorities of infecting his computer with spyware to monitor his online activity.
Rights groups have accused Ethiopia of cracking down on political dissenters, independent media and civil society through a series of harsh laws, including anti-terrorism legislation.
Only about 23 percent of Ethiopia's 91 million people subscribe to mobile phones, and less than one percent have access to mobile internet, according to the International Telecommunications Union.
The government has committed to increasing mobile access by 2015, as part of an ambitious development plan.
Ethiopia has hired two Chinese firms, ZTE and Huawei, to upgrade the mobile network across the country.
Brazil to send troops into Rio De Janeiro’s slums to boost World Cup security
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, March 24, 2014 19:01 EDT
Brazil will deploy the military in slums near Rio’s international airport to back up police as the city braces for the arrival of hundreds of thousands of tourists for the World Cup, authorities said Monday.
Justice Minister Eduard Cardozo announced the reinforcements, without giving troop numbers nor the start date for the operation.
“The federal government supports the Rio government in this battle with armed crime,” said Cardozo.
He spoke after meeting Rio Governor Sergio Cabral and the armed forces chief of staff, General Jose Carlos de Nardi, who is in charge of planning the deployment.
“We are not thinking about (quelling violence) for the World Cup so much as about the citizens of Rio,” said Rio state’s secretary for security affairs Jose Mariano Beltrame.
“We are going to show who is stronger, and show that the state of Rio is stronger and the Brazilian state is stronger” than criminal gangs, said Beltrame.
The move follows a spate of attacks on Rio police in slum areas despite an intensive, years long effort to “pacify” the densely packed neighborhoods.
With the World Cup kicking off on June 12, Rio turned to President Dilma Rousseff for federal help.
Cardozo said the focus of the troop deployment would be in the sprawling Mare favela near the Galeao international airport in northern Rio.
The favela, home to 100,000 people, is a haven for gang warfare and drug-dealing near what will be the main entry point for the flood of World Cup fans.
“There are weapons and drugs, stolen cars and motor bikes and criminals who take refuge there as if it were their territory,” Cabral said.
Insisting Brazil was perfectly capable of hosting an estimated 600,000 foreign World Cup tourists, Cardozo said troops would “stay as long as necessary” until a 1,500-strong Police Pacification Unit can be established in Mare.
An advance force of 120 special police already has moved into the area, the officials said.
Cabral vowed that authorities would not shrink from the task of “pacifying” violent shanty towns.
Since 2008, more than 9,000 police officers have been deployed in 38 units across 174 favelas in an attempt to ‘pacify’ areas in thrall to gangs and drug lords.
Michel Misse, expert on urban violence at Rio’s Federal University, told AFP that bringing in the army “does not constitute a failure by local police.
“Mare is a group of complex favelas as was Alemao,” another large complex of some 300,000 people which a force of some 2,600 police and military entered in 2010 after bloody clashes had claimed 35 lives.
“It is a show of force to reduce the risk to police, a symbolic aspect to show the force of the state against criminals,” Misse said.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Study: Tuberculosis afflicts one million children per year, double previous estimate
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, March 23, 2014 20:58 EDT
About a million children, double the previous estimate, fall ill with tuberculosis every year, said a study Monday that also gave the first tally of drug-resistant TB among the young.
“Many cases of tuberculosis and multi-drug resistant tuberculosis disease are not being detected in children,” it said.
The team’s computer model, based on population data and previous studies, suggests 999,800 people aged under 15 fell sick with TB in 2010.
Around 40 percent of the cases were in Southeast Asia and 28 percent in Africa.
“Our estimate of the total number of new cases of childhood TB is twice that estimated by the WHO (World Health Organisation) in 2011, and three times the number of child TB cases notified globally each year,” said Ted Cohen from the Harvard School of Public Health.
The research, published in The Lancet, coincides with World TB Day, which places the spotlight on a disease that claims some 1.3 million lives each year.
The team estimated that nearly 32,000 children in 2010 had multi-drug resistant TB (MDR-TB), meaning the strain was impervious to frontline drugs isoniazid and rifampin and was thus harder and costlier to treat.
This is the first estimate of MDR-TB among children under 15, who constitute a quarter of the global population.
Children are at a higher risk of disease and death from MDR-TB, but react well to medication. They are harder to diagnose, partly because smaller children cannot cough up sputum samples needed for laboratory tests.
Reliable estimates are necessary for health authorities to assign resources for diagnosing and treating the infectious lung disease.
Commenting on the study, Ben Marais of the Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity in Sydney, Australia, described it as the “most rigorous effort to date” to assess TB and MDR-TB incidence in children.
“Every effort should be made to reduce the massive case-detection gap and address the vast unmet need for diagnosis and treatment,” he said.
The WHO says about 450,000 people developed MDR-TB in 2012 and 170,000 died from it.
Less than 20 percent of MDR patients received appropriate treatment, which promotes further spread of the disease.
Nearly 10 percent of MDR cases are thought to be of the even deadlier XDR (extensively drug resistant) variety which does not respond to a yet wider range of drugs.
In the USA...United Surveillance America
NSA: House bill would lower standards for collecting individuals' data
Draft bill would allow collection of electronic communications records based only on 'reasonable articulable suspicion'
Spencer Ackerman in Washington
theguardian.com, Tuesday 25 March 2014 01.59 GMT
The House intelligence committee is circulating a draft bill that would permit the government to acquire the phone or email records of an "individual or facility" inside the US for up to a year.
The move by the House intelligence committee's leadership – the Republican chairman Michael Rogers of Michigan and Democrat Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland – would significantly prohibit mass surveillance of all Americans' phone data, a shift in position by two of the most stalwart congressional defenders of the practice. It comes as the New York Times reports that Barack Obama will propose ending bulk collection.
Obama's self-imposed deadline on revamping the National Security Agency's collection of bulk domestic phone data is set to expire on Friday.
The bill, titled the End Bulk Collection Act of 2014 and currently circulating on Capitol Hill, would prevent the government from acquiring "records of any electronic communication without the use of specific identifiers or selection terms," some 10 months after the Guardian first exposed the bulk collection based on leaks by the whistleblower Edward Snowden.
But the bill would allow the government to collect electronic communications records based on "reasonable articulable suspicion", rather than probable cause or relevance to a terrorism investigation, from someone deemed to be an agent of a foreign power, associated with an agent of a foreign power, or "in contact with, or known to, a suspected agent of a foreign power."
A draft of the bill acquired by the Guardian proposes the acquisition of such phone or email data for up to a year and would not necessarily require prior approval by a judge. Authorisation of the collection would come jointly from the US attorney general and director of national intelligence.
The NSA or the FBI would not be able to collect the content of those communications without probable cause.
Nor does the House intelligence committee's draft bill require phone companies or any other private entity to store bulk phone records on behalf of the NSA – a proposal that has met with stiff opposition from the telecom companies. In essence, the draft bill gets rid of bulk collection, but makes it easier for government authorities to collect metadata on individuals inside the US suspected of involvement with a foreign power.
The House intelligence committee proposal represents competition to a different bill introduced last fall by privacy advocates in the Senate and House judiciary committees known as the USA Freedom Act.
That bill, which has 163 co-sponsors in both chambers, does not lower the legal standard for data collection on US persons, and would prohibit the NSA from searching for Americans' identifying information in its foreign-oriented communications content databases, something the House intelligence bill would not.
A spokesperson for the House intelligence committee did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.
Rogers and Ruppersberger have scheduled a press conference on Tuesday morning to discuss what they described in a release as "Fisa improvement legislation" – a reference to the seminal Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, which their bill would amend.
While a judge would not necessarily review the collection of a US individual's phone or email records ahead of time, the House intelligence committee bill would require judicial review of the collection procedures and associated privacy protections to "reasonably limit the receipt, retention, use and disclosure of communications records associated with a specific person when such records are not necessary to understand foreign intelligence information or assess the importance of such information".
A telecom or internet service provider could challenge the collection order before the secret Fisa court under the House intelligence committee proposal. The court would also have latitude to reject challenges "that are not warranted by existing law or consists of a frivolous argument for extending, modifying or reversing existing law or for establishing a new law", and to impose contempt of court penalties for noncompliant companies.
The attorney general and the director of national intelligence would have to "assess compliance with the selection and the civil liberties and privacy protection procedures" associated with the collection every six months, and submit those assessments to the Fisa court and the intelligence and judiciary committees of the House and Senate.
Additionally, and in keeping with an October proposal from Senate intelligence committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein of California, the House intelligence committee proposal would permit the NSA to continue surveillance for 72 hours on a suspected foreigner's communications content if that person enters the US.
The House intelligence committee proposal contains provisions embraced by critics of widespread NSA surveillance. It would create a privacy advocate before the Fisa çourt; mandate additional declassification of Fisa court rulings; require the Senate to confirm the NSA director and inspector general.
It also requires annual disclosure of the number of times "in which the contents of a communication of a United States person was acquired under this Act when the acquisition authorized by this Act that resulted in the collection of such contents could not reasonably have been anticipated to capture such contents."
But in a sign of the continuing contentiousness on Capitol Hill over changes to NSA surveillance, James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican and co-author of the USA Freedom Act, preemptively rejected the House intelligence committee proposal, calling it "a convoluted bill that accepts the administration's deliberate misinterpretations of the law.
"It limits, but does not end, bulk collection. Provisions included in the draft fall well short of the safeguards in the USA Freedom Act and do not strike the proper balance between privacy and security," Sensenbrenner said in a statement late on Monday.
On Friday, the Obama administration and the intelligence agencies will face the expiration of a Fisa court order for bulk domestic phone records collection. That expiration represents a deadline imposed by Obama in January for his administration to come to reach consensus on the specific contours of post-NSA phone metadata collection.
According to a New York Times report late on Monday, Obama will propose ending bulk phone data collection and replacing it with individualised orders for telecom firms to provide phone records up to two "hops" – or degrees of separation – from a phone number suspected of wrongdoing. The effort goes further towards the position favoured by privacy advocates than Obama proposed in January. Obama will request the Fisa court bless the current bulk collection program for a final 90-day renewal as he attempts to implement the new plan, the Times reported.
A senior White House official cited a January speech by Obama in which he announced some limits on NSA surveillance: "in the coming days, after concluding ongoing consultations with Congress, including the intelligence and judiciary committees, will put forward a sound approach to ensuring the government no longer collects or holds this data, but still ensures that the government has access to the information it needs to meet the national security needs his team has identified. Until Congress passes new authorizing legislation, the president has directed his administration to renew the current program, as modified substantially by the president in his January speech."
Report to shed light on what really took place when FBI shot Ibragim Todashev
Florida prosecutor to release investigation into death of Tamerlan Tsarnaev's friend in Orlando apartment last May
Spencer Ackerman in Washington
theguardian.com, Monday 24 March 2014 18.56 GMT
Ending an interrogation in its investigation of the Boston Marathon bombing with a dead body and a host of new questions was not the sort of thing the FBI wanted.
But on May 22, an FBI agent shot Ibragim Todashev – a 27-year old former mixed-martial arts fighter and associate of one of the suspected bombers – seven times, killing him. The agent had just completed a lengthy interrogation of Todashev in his Orlando apartment, part of an inquiry into the already-dead bombing suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. One of the bullets appears to have entered through the top of Todashev’s head.
The FBI’s story, doled out through anonymous leaks, changed several times in the weeks that followed. First, Todashev, who had voluntarily endured hours of questioning, lunged at the FBI agent with a knife, or even a sword. Then it was a length of pipe. Other accounts had him knocking over a table. At least one account held that Todashev was unarmed. The version that currently stands is that Todashev wielded a metal pole – or, perhaps, a broomstick.
Little is known about that mysterious pole-slash-broomstick: its heft, its dimensions, its use. Yet it is likely to be a major difference between vindication and damnation of the FBI’s handling of the case. A Florida prosecutor examining the case is expected to publish the results of an long-awaited investigation into Todashev’s death on Tuesday morning.
Unknowns accumulate in the Todashev shooting. Two Florida detectives reportedly aided the FBI interrogation, and their role during the shooting remains unclear. Florida’s autopsy report, available since July, was barred from release by the FBI. The bureau’s months of silence over the case have compounded the questions it faces.
But the FBI has already reached its conclusion. An internal FBI inquiry vindicated the agent, whose name is not public, months ago. That’s typical for the FBI – between 1993 and 2011, its agents fatally shot 70 people and wounded another 80, and the bureau found no major improprieties in any of those cases, according to records obtained by the New York Times last year.
Former agents say there are, generically, good reasons for many of those findings, such as training that outclasses that given to local police. But shootings like these are also split-second decisions that investigators may find difficult to second-guess – particularly when they identify with their fellow agents making those calls. And FBI investigators may also fear that finding against a colleague could come back to haunt them.
Mike German, a former FBI special agent now at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said it was “critically important to have an independent investigation by state and local police as well as the FBI shooting investigation."
The Florida prosecutor conducting that independent investigation, Jeffrey Ashton, batted away reports on Friday that he has already exonerated the special agent who shot Todashev. He still may, and the bureau has to be hoping he will. The worst outcome for the bureau in the Todashev shooting would be for Ashton to contradict its findings and effectively indict its integrity.
Much as there is no stable picture of the Todashev shooting, there is no stable picture of Todashev himself.
Reportedly, just before he allegedly attacked the agent, Todashev was about to sign a confession implicating himself and Tamerlan Tsarnaev in a chilling September 2011 triple homicide in Waltham, Massachusetts. That homicide is itself one of the great counterfactuals of the case: an extensive Boston Magazine article this month suggests that more investigative work into the murders might have uncovered Tsarnaev before the Boston Marathon attack. Killing Todashev has rendered his and Tsarnaev’s involvement in the homicide an unresolved mystery.
Weeks before his death, Todashev – whom Boston Magazine described as possessing “a temper and proclivity toward violence” – was arrested after an altercation over a parking spot, but Todashev told police he didn’t throw the first punch.
Todashev’s family described him as the kind of fellow so harmless that he worked with disabled people. Following an October deportation of Todashev’s girlfriend, Tatiana Gruzdeva, family and supporters charged the bureau with mounting a campaign of intimidation. Todashev’s father has called the FBI “bandits” who killed his son “execution-style.”
Former FBI agents caution that most anything could be turned into a weapon by a man facing the prospect of extensive prison time.
“It’s not just the object that determines whether or not it is a ‘weapon’; it’s the intent of the person holding the object. In this case, the subject was a skilled martial artist armed with something that could have caused death or severe injury to the FBI agent or his colleagues,” said former FBI counter-terrorism agent Ali Soufan, who added that had Todashev not been shot, he might have gotten hold of the agent’s gun.
“It will be a fact question as to whether the agent reasonably feared for his life,” German added.
“Obviously, the FBI took his MMA training as a serious risk, and the analysis will be based on a totality of the circumstances. An object in another person's hands might not pose the same risk as it would in a trained fighter's hands.”
Revealing what Todashev held in his hands on the last night of his life won’t answer all the questions posed by his death. Nor will it tell the full story behind the Boston Marathon attacks, the last best chance for which now comes from the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev trial scheduled for November. But there’s no closure to a disturbing episode for the FBI without a thorough reckoning with what happened in that Orlando apartment.
Behind the legal challenge to Obamacare's contraception mandate
Hobby Lobby and others will argue religious infringement before the supreme court this week in the latest challenge to the ACA
Amanda Holpuch in New York
theguardian.com, Monday 24 March 2014 19.36 GMT
When the US supreme court hears a challenge to the Affordable Care Act's contraception requirement on Tuesday, the owners of dozens of for-profit companies will be hoping the justices side with their belief that it infringes on their religious freedom.
The highly anticipated hearing concerns cases brought by crafts company Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, a cabinet-making business. They are two of the 49 for-profit companies to have filed suits challenging the ACA requirement that says preventive health services, and therefore birth control, should be provided without out-of-pocket costs under insurance plans.
Among the companies’ reasons for objecting: a fundamental opposition to birth control; a belief that some forms of birth control are akin to abortion; and the claim that being forced to cover birth control is the same as being ordered to buy your employees Jack Daniel’s whiskey.
“The employers are not objecting to their employees’ private decision to use these drugs, they are objecting to being forced by the government to pay for insurance plans that facilitate or contribute to these decisions,” said the Thomas More Law Center, in an amicus brief (pdf). The law firm has filed 11 federal cases, representing 33 plaintiffs, against the contraception requirement.
Most of the cases challenging the requirement have been granted primary injunctions or their cases have been stayed in smaller courts pending the results of the supreme court decision. The plaintiffs, primarily male business owners with Christian and Catholic affiliations, believe providing the coverage is a burden to their religious freedom.
Some of these companies, like Joe Holland Chevrolet and O'Brien Industrial Holdings, already provide insurance that covers contraception. O’Brien said the company’s coverage was “inadvertent”, according to the St Louis Post Dispatch. Joe Holland Chevrolet dropped its request for a preliminary injunction once its coverage was discovered.
Catholic business owners that oppose the requirement, like Triune Health Group, fundamentally oppose the use of birth control. "We're very clear about our beliefs. If people make this a battle over contraception, they're missing the entire point," Triune co-owner Christopher Yep told The Chicago Tribune. "In this country, you have a right to act in accordance with your beliefs."
In 2012, Crain's Chicago Business awarded Triune first place place for "best place to work for women" in the area.
Other company owners don’t oppose contraception, but believe IUDs, the morning-after pill and the week-after pills cause abortion – a factually unsound and misleading claim according to health experts.
Mark Taylor, the president and CEO of the Christian publishing company Tyndale House, said the company specifically objects to providing access to the morning-after pill, the week-after pill and IUDs. Taylor, whose company’s best known title besides the Bible is the Left Behind series, told Medill Reports, the Northwestern University graduate journalism school paper: “They [the government] are forcing us to do something that we feel is morally wrong, or they’re going to charge us such huge fines that, over time, it would put us out of business.”
One of the most spirited explanations for why for-profit business owners don't believe they should offer insurance that covers birth control came from Michael Potter, the CEO and founder of natural food company Eden Foods. Potter told reporter Irin Carmon: “I’ve got more interest in good quality long underwear than I have in birth control pills."
Eden Food’s case is in the supreme court, but not scheduled for argument. Potter said he was suing “because I don’t care if the federal government is telling me to buy my employees Jack Daniel’s or birth control. What gives them the right to tell me that I have to do that? That’s my issue, that’s what I object to, and that’s the beginning and end of the story.”
The sides of the case
According to the National Women’s Law Center (pdf), the groups launching lawsuits against the contraceptive requirement include: 49 for-profit companies, 55 non-profit companies, four cases involving both and two other groups. Missouri representative Paul Wieland also brought a case against the provision, but it was dismissed. Officials from seven states – Nebraska, South Carolina, Michigan, Texas, Florida, Ohio and Oklahoma– also unsuccessfully attempted to challenge the case.
The Obama administration is working to create rules that accommodate the non-profit groups’ concerns, but still provide contraceptive coverage to employees. Whether the for-profit companies get similar exceptions is up to the supreme court.
Supporters of the contraceptive coverage requirement have filed 23 amicus briefs in the supreme court, including one filed by more than 20 medical organizations including: the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Nurses Association and the National Physicians Alliance.
Thirteen states and the District of Columbia also support the contraceptive coverage requirement: California, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.
Paul Ryan Quivers as Bernie Sanders Outs the Dirty Secret Behind His Poverty Propaganda
By: Jason Easley
Monday, March, 24th, 2014, 8:17 pm
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) sent a shiver down Rep. Paul Ryan’s spine tonight by exposing the secret behind the his sudden interest in poverty programs.
Sen. Sanders said, “You have folks out there now who have virtually no income coming in. They have families. They have kids. How are they going to eat? We have veterans out there trying to get into the food stamp program. To me, what you’re looking at is an ugly kind of class warfare where the people on top want more and more and more, and they’re pushing down in an incredibly terrible way the most vulnerable people in our country.”
Rev. Al showed this graphic that illustrates who food stamp recipients really are:
Later Sen. Sanders ripped Republicans for claiming that the problem is that children get too much help from the federal government, “These are the same people who want to eliminate the estate tax, which applies to only the top three tenths of one percent of all Americans, which is the richest of the rich, then they are going after kids. The politics of this, Al, is what they are trying to do is deflect attention away from income and wealth inequality. Attention away from the fact that the rich are doing extraordinarily well, and tell their supporters that the real problem in America is that children are getting too much help from the federal government, and that’s the kind of mentality that we have got to fight back against.”
Sen. Sanders nailed it. This is a classic case of Republicans trying to blame the victims of their policies. Republicans crashed the economy, threw millions out of work, then blamed the unemployed, and their children for needing assistance. While the GOP tries to take the food out of the mouths of those who are struggling, the rich continue to get richer.
The Koch brothers won’t have less money if children continue to get free school lunches. The issue is that the people at the very top continue to see their wealth grow while nearly everyone else is struggling to survive.
That’s the dirty little secret that Bernie Sanders exposed.
Republicans refuse to limit themselves to encouraging the wealthy. They are on a mission to take everything away from everyone else, and give it to the rich. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) has been leading this new smokescreen with a war against the poor that has been disguised as budget cuts and poverty studies.
Ryan and his millionaire Republican brothers are running a shell game. They are trying to convince the American people that the income inequality that is obvious to everyone isn’t a problem. Instead, they want the country to focus on the fact that poor people need to eat.
Bernie Sanders is one of the few members of congress who will stand up and call out this con game for what it really is, and he is not going to sit back quietly and allow Republicans to starve children, veterans, and the elderly so that the Koch brothers can have millions of dollars more in tax breaks.
Chris Christie Clears Chris Christie Of Any Wrongdoing In Bridgegate Scandal
By: Justin Baragona
Monday, March, 24th, 2014, 7:08 pm
Per a report in The New York Times on Monday, a legal team hired directly by Chris Christie’s office performed a review of the George Washington Bridge scandal and found the New Jersey Governor completely innocent of any wrongdoing. The review of the scandal was conducted by Randy M. Mastro, who just so happened to serve as New York City’s deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani has been one of the embattled Christie’s biggest supporters and cheerleaders throughout the fallout of his many controversies these past few months.
Mastro’s law firm was paid $1 million in legal fees to conduct the audit. While they pointed out that they had unlimited access to files and phones records, and that they were able to conduct at least 70 interviews with various people in the Governor’s office and administration, they did not speak with either Bridget Kelly or David Wildstein, the two most central figures in this scandal. Another person who was not interviewed was Christie’s former aide and campaign manager, Bill Stephen.
The fact that this review was conducted by a man who is a close ally of Rudy Giuliani will lead to much skepticism and criticism. Also, Mastro’s law firm, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, has done work for Christie in the past. This leads one to wonder how impartial this review really was. On top of that, New Jersey taxpayers are the ones forced to foot the bill for the Governor’s internal review.
Considering that Jersey residents are the ones ultimately paying the lawyer bills for this, shouldn’t a truly impartial and unaffiliated law firm or government agency have been tasked with conducting this review? With the use of a close ally as the investigator, Christie has to know that anything coming out of this audit that fully clears him will be seen as nothing but a whitewash. He can’t point to his own office’s investigation and say,’ Look, I’m clean. Time to move on!’
Democratic New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who chairs the panel investigating Governor Christie, obviously expressed doubts when the Times story broke on Monday. He told the New Jersey Star-Ledger the following regarding Bridget Kelly’s emails and the fact that she was not interviewed in this review:
“If we don’t know why she sent that email, if we don’t know who gave her the authority to send that email, if we don’t know what she thought she may be accomplishing by sending that email, then we can’t have a complete picture of what happened here.”
The main takeaway here is that nothing at all is resolved. Christie might be able to hold up this report and say it clears him of all wrongdoing or culpability, but only his staunchest supporters will uncritically accept that. Nobody else is going to take, at face value, a clean internal audit conducted by a law firm full of the Governor’s friends that also provided those lawyers with a $1 million payday.
Jimmy Carter Slams Republicans: Not Supporting Equal Pay Is Abuse Against Women
By: Jason Easley
Monday, March, 24th, 2014, 4:03 pm
In an interview on MSNBC, former President Jimmy Carter called women being paid less than men a form of abuse, and compared it to racial discrimination.
Former President Carter discussed the discrimination behind the Republican refusal to support equal pay during his full interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell.
Well women now make up about 57% of all the graduates, undergraduates and graduates from universities and still in the United States for the same exact work, for a full time employee, women get 23% less pay than men. And in the Fortune 500, only twenty one of those leaders among the 500 are women, and in that high level they get 42% less pay than the average man.
That is really derived, I would say, indirectly from the fact that religious leaders say that women are inferior in the eyes of God, which is a false interpretation of the holy scriptures, but when they see that the Pope the Southern Baptist Convention, and others say that women can’t serve as priests and so forth equal to men, they say, well, I’ll treat my wife any way I want to, because she’s inferior to me. Oh, I don’t have any real moral compunction against paying my employees less, and so women are abused, but men don’t really want to rock the boat because men benefit from the superiority that we enjoy. Just like white people did in the segregation days when we benefitted from deprivation of blacks’ equality.
The rationale that those who oppose equal pay for women use is virtually the same as those who support racial discrimination. At its root, the argument is that women deserve to make less money because they are inferior to men. The Republican flood of anti-women legislation is all based on the idea of gender inferiority.
Former President Carter laid out the reason why men support this inequality better than any other man ever has before. Men, especially those at the top of the financial pyramid, don’t want to rock the boat because they greatly benefit from this abuse of women.
With women being the majority of the population, it would be economic suicide for the nation not to pay women the same as men. Women are not asking to be paid more than men. They are seeking equality. They want equal pay for their equal work.
In the 21st Century, few people would dare to stand up and say that anyone should be paid less because of the color of their skin, but as a culture it is okay for Republicans to argue in support of discrimination against women.
President Carter was correct. This is an abusive system that is allowing the majority of the country (women) to be economically oppressed by a minority (men). The US economy will never be able to grow and thrive if the majority of workers are discriminated against.
Women are being denied their right to equal pay. Too many men on the left dismiss the issue of equal pay, because whether they realize it or not, they are benefitting from discrimination. They need to understand that when a woman gets paid less than a man for the same job, it hurts us all.
If the United States economy is ever going to reach its full potential, women must be paid the same as men.
West, Russia signal line drawn in Ukraine crisis
By Jeff Mason and Katya Golubkova
THE HAGUE/MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia and the West drew a tentative line under the Ukraine crisis on Tuesday after U.S. President Barack Obama and his allies agreed to hold off on more damaging economic sanctions unless Moscow goes beyond the seizure of Crimea.
Describing Russia as a "regional power" and not the biggest national security threat to the United States, Obama said Russian forces would not be removed militarily from Crimea, but the annexation of the Black Sea region was not a "done deal" because the international community would not recognize it.
"It is up to Russia to act responsibly and show itself once again to be willing to abide by international norms and ... if it fails to do so, there will be some costs," he told a news conference at the end of a nuclear security summit in The Hague.
After scoffing at a decision by Obama and his Western allies to boycott a planned Group of Eight summit in Sochi in June and hold a G7 summit without Russia instead, the Kremlin said it was keen to maintain contact with G8 partners.
"The Russian side continues to be ready to have such contacts at all levels, including the top level. We are interested in such contacts," President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told Interfax news agency.
Obama said he was concerned at the possibility of further Russian "encroachment" into Ukraine and believed Putin was still "making a series of calculations". He insisted Russian speakers faced no threat in the country, contrary to Moscow's assertions.
He urged Putin to let Ukrainians choose their own destiny free from intimidation, saying he was sure they would opt for good relations with both the European Union and Moscow rather than making a zero-sum choice for one against the other.
"Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness," Obama said. "We (the United States) have considerable influence on our neighbors. We generally don't need to invade them in order to have a strong cooperative relationship with them."
Asked what was to stop a further Russian "land grab", the U.S. president drew a distinction between an attack on members of NATO, covered by its Article V mutual defense clause, and on non-members where the West could apply international pressure, shine a spotlight on those states and provide economic support.
A senior administration official told reporters traveling with Obama on Air Force One to Brussels that "there's no question that NATO is prepared to defend any ally against any aggression."
The official said that in Obama's talks on Wednesday with NATO's secretary general, "we'll be discussing very specifically what more can be done in terms of signaling concrete reassurance to our Eastern European allies."
Previewing Obama's speech in Brussels on Wednesday, the official said the president "will speak about the importance of European security and not just the danger to the people of Ukraine, but the danger to the international system that Europe and the United States have invested so much in that is a consequence of Russia's actions."
The ruble firmed and Russian assets climbed on Tuesday after Obama and fellow G7 leaders held back from new sanctions and investors took the view that the crisis had been contained for now.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the United States and European Union allies were aligned in their response, contrary to media reports that Washington was pushing reluctant Europeans fearful for their economic interests to get tougher.
Moscow made two conciliatory gestures on Monday after its deputy economy minister said up to $70 billion in capital may have fled his country in the first quarter of the year.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met his Ukrainian counterpart, Andriy Deshchytsia, for the first time, even though Russia does not recognize the Kiev government.
Moscow also allowed monitors from the pan-European security watchdog OSCE to begin work in Ukraine after prolonged wrangling over their mandate, which Russia says excludes Crimea.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said Deshchytsia protested at the annexation of Crimea. Lavrov said Russia did not intend to use force in eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, and "the two sides agreed not to fuel further escalation in the Crimea problem that could cause casualties", it said.
Ukraine ordered its remaining forces in Crimea to withdraw for their own safety on Monday after Russian forces fired warning shots and used stun grenades when they stormed a marine base and a landing ship. There were no casualties.
That order came too late to save the job of interim Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh, sacked by parliament on Tuesday over his handling of the crisis, after it emerged that fewer than a quarter of soldiers in Crimea plan to stay in the military.
Lawmakers elected Mykhailo Koval, head of the Ukrainian border guard, to replace Tenyukh.
In the Perevalnoye base, 25 km (15 miles) southeast of the capital, Simferopol, somber-looking Ukrainian troops loaded a freight truck with furniture, clothes and kitchen appliances.
"We are not fleeing, but leaving to the mainland where we will continue to serve," said a soldier who identified himself only as Svyatoslav. "One cannot be a soldier without a country and we have to relocate," he said.
But in the Belbek air base stormed four days ago, officers and soldiers refused to leave until the Russian military releases their commander, Colonel Yuliy Mamchur, who became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance in Crimea.
According to his aides, Mamchur is being held in the Russian Black Sea Fleet's home port of Sevastopol.
IMF DEAL SOUGHT
Ukrainian Finance Minister Oleksander Shlapak said he was negotiating with the International Monetary Fund for a loan package of $15 billion to $20 billion because the economy had been severely weakened by months of political turmoil and mismanagement. He forecast a 3 percent contraction in the economy this year.
Obama also urged the IMF to reach agreement swiftly on a financial support package for Kiev, which would unlock additional aid from the European Union and Washington.
Increasing the chances a Ukraine aid bill will get through the U.S. Congress, Senate Democrats agreed on Tuesday to drop language in their measure containing reforms to the IMF. There had been stiff opposition to the IMF measures in the Republican-led House of Representatives.
The legislation backs a $1 billion loan guarantee for the government in Kiev, provides $150 million in aid for Ukraine and neighboring countries and requires sanctions on Russians and Ukrainians responsible for corruption, human rights abuses or undermining stability in Ukraine.
The measure is now expected to pass through Congress relatively quickly and be sent to Obama to sign into law, as long as another dispute over whether to include increased natural gas exports in the bill does not hold it up again.
Both the West and Russia sought to woo other key nations present in The Hague.
Obama, who discussed the Ukraine crisis with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday, met President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, which is part of a customs union with Russia but is also seeking to join the World Trade Organization.
Nazarbayev, a ruling politburo member before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, expressed understanding for Russia's position in a telephone call with Putin on March 10.
Lavrov sought support from foreign ministers of the BRICS grouping of emerging economic powers - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
In a joint statement that did not mention Ukraine or take a position on the annexation of Crimea, they said: "The escalation of hostile language, sanctions and counter-sanctions, and force does not contribute to a sustainable and peaceful solution ..."
European diplomats said tentative signs that Putin may have decided to go no farther than Crimea in his campaign to protect ethnic Russians in former Soviet republics may reflect concern about the mounting economic consequences.
The crisis is also taking a toll in Western Europe. German business morale dropped for the first time in five months in March as firms in Europe's largest economy began to worry that a standoff with Russia and further sanctions over Ukraine would hurt them in a key market, the Munich-based Ifo institute said.
(Additional reporting by William James and Steve Holland in The Hague, Lidia Kelly and Darya Korsunskaya in Moscow, Richard Balmforth in Kiev, Aleksandar Vasovic in Perevalnoye, Crimea, and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Writing by Paul Taylor and Peter Cooney; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Bernard Orr)
Ukraine Seeks Joint U.S. War Games after Crimea Takeover
by Naharnet Newsdesk
26 March 2014, 12:51
Ukraine's acting president asked parliamentary approval on Wednesday for a set of military exercises with NATO partners that would put U.S. troops in direct proximity with Russia's forces in the annexed Crimea peninsula.
Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov's request came as the chief of Russia's general staff announced in Moscow that his forces were now in full control of all 193 military bases Ukraine had in the Black Sea region prior to its seizure by Kremlin forces at the start of the month.
Turchynov said Ukraine would like to conduct two sets of military exercises with the United Sates this summer -- Rapid Trident and Sea Breeze -- that have prompted disquiet in Russia in previous years.
Ukraine is planning two additional maneuvers with NATO member Poland as well joint ground operations with Moldova and Romania.
U.S. President Barack Obama's administration this month proposed a 28-percent spending cut to a Pentagon initiative that supports modernizing the armed forces of Ukraine and other ex-Soviet states.
But a Pentagon spokeswoman said that both Rapid Trident and Sea Breeze were still expected to proceed on schedule in the coming months.
The Sea Breeze exercises have especially irritated Moscow because they had on occasion been staged in Crimea -- the base of Russia's Black Sea Fleet.
Those maneuvers have in more recent years been moved to the Black Sea port of Odessa where Ukraine also has a naval base.
An explanatory note accompanying Turchynov's request to parliament said that the naval section of Sea Breeze would this time be conducted over a 25-day span between July and October out of two Odessa ports and "along the waters of the Black Sea".
Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 1 sought and won authority to use force against his neighbor after three months of deadly protests in Kiev brought down a pro-Kremlin regime and replaced it with new leaders seeking closer ties with the West.
The resulting security crisis has set off the worst diplomatic standoff since the Cold War era and prompted the European Union to conduct urgent consultations aimed at weening itself off its dependence on Russian natural gas.
The Kremlin's forces on Tuesday stormed the last Ukrainian ship in Crimea and are now in complete military control of the Belgium-sized cape of two million mostly Russian speakers.
Kiev's Military and Political Studies Center director Dmytro Tymchuk said on Wednesday that his calculations showed the Russian flag flying over all but 10 of the 61 naval ships Ukraine had until last month.
But only one of Ukraine's remaining vessels -- the Odessa-based frigate Getman Sagaydachniy -- is an actual warship while the rest are mostly cutters and utility craft.
Both the United States and NATO have expressed grave concern about Russia's recent military buildup along Ukraine's eastern border and have warned Putin repeatedly not to push his troops beyond the annexed peninsula.
But Westerns powers have thus far also flatly refused to get militarily involved in the conflict and analysts doubt that Putin will feel particularly concerned by the planned war games.
"Putin is now certain that none of the NATO members intend to fight for Crimea," said Oleksiy Melnyk of Kiev's Razumkov political research center.
Ukraine Sacks Defense Minister over Crimea
by Naharnet Newsdesk
25 March 2014, 12:33
Ukraine's parliament sacked the crisis-hit country's besieged defense minister Tuesday after his forces began a humiliating withdrawal from Crimea without firing a shot against Russian forces who claimed the Black Sea peninsula.
Crimea's effective loss -- though recognized by no Western power -- has dealt a heavy psychological blow to many Ukrainians who have already spent the past years mired in corruption and economic malaise.
Ukraine's ground commanders in Crimea had complained bitterly of indecision and confusion among the top brass in Kiev since Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision on March 1 to seek the right to use force against his neighbour in response to last month's fall in Kiev of a pro-Kremlin regime.
Some 228 deputies in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada parliament supported Igor Tenyukh's dismissal after the acting defense minister tendered his resignation in an emotional address broadcast live across the nation of 46 million people.
"It seems that the actions of the interim defense minister in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea... has displeased some," said Tenyukh.
"I have never clung on to my job, and I don't intend to do so now," he said. "I have honor."
Deputies then quickly voted to appoint Lieutenant General Mykhailo Koval as the new acting defense minister after his name was submitted for approval by interim President Oleksandr Turchynov.
Koval had made news earlier this month when he was briefly abducted by pro-Kremlin militias near his military base in the Crimean port of Yalta.
Tuesday's session gave lawmakers a chance to voice growing frustrations with how the interim leaders have handled their jobs since being swept to power on the back of three months of deadly protests whose ultimate aim was to eliminate the corruption and Kremlin dependence Kremlin that have weighed over Ukraine throughout its post-Soviet history.
"We gave up Crimea to the Russians thanks to our unprofessionalism," independent lawmaker Igor Palytsya fumed.
"We gave up Crimea thanks to our indecision."
- Russia shrugs off G8 snub -
The Crimean crisis has sparked the most explosive East-West confrontation since the Cold War era and fanned fears in Kiev that Putin now intends to push his troops into the heavily Russified regions of southeast Ukraine.
Western leaders sought to ward off any such threat by forging a more forceful response in The Hague after two rounds of only targeted sanctions that hit only specific officials but left Russia's broader economy untouched.
A summit of the Group of Seven most industrialized countries agreed on Monday to deepen Moscow's isolation over the crisis and meet on their own -- without Russia -- in Brussels instead of gathering in Sochi in June.
They also threatened tougher sanctions over Moscow's formal annexation of Crimea last week.
"We're united in imposing a cost on Russia for its actions so far," US President Barack Obama said in reference to the travel bans and asset freezes that Washington imposed on key members of Putin's inner circle last week.
Russia's loss of the right to host the G8 summit is a moral blow to Putin -- a leader whose 14 years in power have focused on resurrecting the Kremlin's post-Soviet pride.
But the Kremlin on Tuesday shrugged off the seven world leaders' decision as "counterproductive" but otherwise harmless.
"When it comes to contacts with the G8 countries, we are ready for them, we have an interest in them," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the ITAR-TASS news agency.
"But the unwillingness of other countries to continue dialogue -- we consider it counterproductive, both for us and for our partners themselves," Putin's spokesman said.
- Urgent aid -
Western powers have been trying to boost Ukraine's fledgling interim leaders by drumming up urgent assistance that can be issued as soon as the International Monetary Fund puts the finishing touches on a new support program for Kiev.
An IMF team is due to wind up an extended mission to Ukraine on Tuesday and is expected to put the pieces in place for the first money to be issued by the second half of April.
The European Union on March 5 offered to extend up to $15 billion (11 billion euros) to Ukraine while Washington has pledged $1 billion in loan guarantees.
Japan pitched in another $1.5 billion to the Ukraine rescue fund on Tuesday.
Obama Says Russia Behavior Sign of Weakness, Comparing Crimea to Kosovo Makes 'No Sense'
by Naharnet Newsdesk
25 March 2014, 17:45
U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday hit out at Moscow's expansionism as a "sign of weakness" after Russia took control of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, fueling fears of further intervention in the region.
"Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness," Obama told journalists after a nuclear security summit in The Hague.
Obama said that while the U.S. also has influence over its neighbors, "we generally don't need to invade them in order to have a strong cooperative relationship with them."
The Crimean crisis has sparked the most explosive East-West confrontation since the Cold War era and fanned fears in Kiev that Russian President Vladimir Putin now intends to push his troops into the heavily Russified regions of southeast Ukraine.
"The fact that Russia felt (the need) to go in militarily and lay bare these violations of international law indicates less influence, not more," Obama said, rejecting Putin's claim that Russian speakers had been threatened in Crimea and in Ukraine.
"There has been no evidence that Russian speakers have been in any way threatened," Obama said, the day after a Group of Seven summit suspended Russia from the grouping of rich nations.
"I think it is important for everybody to be clear and strip away some of the possible excuses for potential Russian action," he said, before heading for his first European Union-U.S. summit in Brussels.
Ukraine's parliament on Tuesday sacked the crisis-hit country's defense minister, after his forces undertook a humiliating withdrawal from Crimea without firing a shot against Russian forces who claimed the Black Sea peninsula.
Crimea's effective loss -- though recognized by no Western power -- has dealt a heavy psychological blow to many Ukrainians who have already spent the past years mired in corruption and economic malaise.
Ukraine's ground commanders in Crimea had complained bitterly of confusion among the top brass in Kiev since Putin's decision on March 1 to seek the right to use force against his neighbor in response to last month's fall in Kiev of a pro-Kremlin regime.
Some 228 deputies in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada parliament supported Igor Tenyukh's dismissal after the acting defense minister tendered his resignation in an emotional address broadcast live to the nation of 46 million people.
"I have never clung on to my job, and I don't intend to do so now," Tenyukh said. "I have honor."
Tuesday's session gave lawmakers a chance to voice growing frustrations with how the new Western-backed leaders have handled their jobs since coming to power on the back of three months of deadly protests whose ultimate aim was to eliminate the corruption and Kremlin dependence that have weighed on Ukraine throughout its post-Soviet history.
"We gave up Crimea to the Russians thanks to our unprofessionalism," independent lawmaker Igor Palytsya fumed. "We gave up Crimea thanks to our indecision."
Tensions between the two neighbors seemed ready to spike further when Russian television aired what it claimed was a tape of former Ukrainian premier Yulia Tymoshenko -- an opposition leader released from jail after the pro-Kremlin regime's fall -- urging the "wiping out" of Russians over the seizure of Crimea.
Tymoshenko admitted that her voice was on the tape but insisted that her comments had been manipulated.
Obama's G7 summit in The Hague sought to ward off the threat of further Russian expansion with a more forceful response after two rounds of only targeted sanctions that hit only specific officials but left Russia's broader economy untouched.
The G7 agreed on Monday to deepen Moscow's isolation and meet on its own -- without Russia -- in Brussels instead of gathering in Sochi in June.
Obama on Monday said the group was "united in imposing a cost on Russia for its actions", in reference to the travel bans and asset freezes imposed by the West on key members of Putin's inner circle.
Russia's loss of the right to host the G8 summit is a moral blow to Putin -- a leader whose 14 years in power have focused on resurrecting the Kremlin's post-Soviet pride.
But the Kremlin on Tuesday shrugged off the seven world leaders' decision as "counter-productive" but otherwise harmless.
"When it comes to contacts with the G8 countries, we are ready for them, we have an interest in them," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the ITAR-TASS news agency.
Russian Troops Storm Last Ukraine Ship as Crimea Militia Disbanded
by Naharnet Newsdesk
25 March 2014, 20:11
Russian troops on Tuesday stormed the last naval vessel still flying the Ukrainian flag on the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, a regional Ukrainian defense official said.
The raid on the Cherkasy trawler occurred one day after Russian forces took control of the Kostyantyn Olshanskiy, which, like the Cherkasy, had been blocked by Russian ships in western Crimea's Donuzlav Lake, defense ministry spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov said in a statement published on his Facebook account.
"The assault team is on board the Cherkasy. The crew has been barricaded inside the trawler. The assault is on," Seleznyov wrote.
The spokesman wrote in an earlier post that the trawler had been surrounded by several Mi-35 attack helicopters, two cutters and a tugboat.
Meanwhile, the self-proclaimed leader of the Crimean port city of Sevastopol later on Tuesday disbanded its pro-Russian militia and called on them to disarm according to Russian law.
Alexey Chaly, who has been in charge of the city for about a month, signed a decree to disband the "functions of people's militia units" which said they were "no longer useful".
"The revolution is over," Chaly said in a televised address directed at militia commanders.
"We are starting to live according to Russian laws with the relevant consequences for illegal actions."
Some of the commanders are opposed to the move, however, and plan to stage a protest against it on Wednesday.
"Chaly didn't even say thank you," one of them, Vladimir Tyunin, told Agence France Presse. "He is trying to rule this city single-handedly."
Chaly, a vehemently pro-Russian politician, was proclaimed Sevastopol's mayor at the end of February by people at a rally in support of calls for the city -- home to Russia's Black Sea fleet since the time of the tsars -- to join Russia.
At the time, the city's new authorities under Chaly had called on citizens to join a "self-defense" militia, which then took part in the seizure of Ukrainian military bases and ships together with Russian troops.
Ukraine's new Western-backed interim leaders ordered a full military withdrawal from Crimea on Monday following the peninsula's seizure and annexation by Russia in response to last month's fall in Kiev of a pro-Kremlin regime.
Russian troops and pro-Kremlin militia now control almost all of Ukraine's military bases in Crimea, having conducted three major assaults on key naval and air facilities in the past four days.
03/25/2014 05:08 PM
Dossier of Dubiousness: Did Putin's Man in Crimea Have Mafia Ties?
By Benjamin Bidder
Secret documents provide new information about how Crimea's newly installed prime minister amassed his assets. They also suggest Sergei Aksyonov had ties to the mafia. To this day, he denies any links to organized crime.
Chandeliers hang from the ceiling of St. George Hall in the Grand Kremlin Palace. Gold stars evoke the glory of the past. Inscriptions extolling Russia's heroes of past and present engraved between them: "For service and bravery." In 1945, the victors of the battle of Berlin were honored in the hall and, in 1961, Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, was fêted. It's a hall for marking historical occasions.
Last Tuesday, a man stood in the limelight of St. George Hall who had previously attracted attention largely for lacking any scruples when it came to growing his private assets. Sergei Aksyonov, who was installed as Crimea's prime minister by pro-Russian forces and is known in mafia circles under the alias "Goblin," took a seat in the Kremlin in the very front row, next to the Russian prime minister.
He was there for an address by Russian President Vladimir Putin, a speech in which he lamented corruption in Ukraine and politicians who care about nothing but their own prosperity. Then he extended his hand to Aksyonov, who spent the last two decades amassing a vast business empire along the Black Sea.
A Perfect Puppet
Few know more about the career of Moscow's Crimean representative than officials within the Kremlin. And when Aksyonov read out a rather clumsy televized plea for Russian assistance on March 1, it is likely that Russia's intelligence services were somehow involved. Aksyonov, it was clear, hadn't written the call for help himself. With a past that leaves him open to blackmail, he's a perfect puppet.
SPIEGEL has viewed a 24-page, Russian-language dossier of Aksyonov's wheelings and dealings from a credible source. The document provides painstaking details from the life of Sergei Aksyonov, including notes on the purchase of weapons from a Tartar dealer ("at the Street of the Construction Workers No. 9 in Simferopol") and on the domestic help in his highly secretive apartment (and their "strict orders not to open the door").
The document claims that Aksyonov possesses a characteristic that seems to predestine him for higher-level roles: Namely his seeming indestructibility. In January 1996, for example, his Volvo came under fire in an attack attributed to a so-called "Greek Syndicate." Aksyonov was injured, but survived. The ambush was likely an act of revenge. Aksyonov had cut off ties with the "Greeks" and joined forces with a rival group.
At the time, Aksyonov was considered a strongman. He was a "brigadier," who collected protection money, recalls Ilmi Umerov, the head of the local administration in the Crimean city Bakhchisaray. Later, the mafia deployed Aksyonov as the director of firms under its control. Today, the newly installed prime minister of Crimea denies ever having had contacts with organized crime.
However, other incidents noted in the secret dossier suggest he maintained some peculiar friends. In 2001, police defused an explosive device that had reportedly been placed on the roof of Aksyonov's house, allegedly by competitors from the criminal underworld. In 2006, an Aksyonov detractor ordered a contract killer to attack him -- an employee of Ukraine's SBU domestic intelligence agency, according to the documents. He got caught in the net of an investigator who had been working together with Aksyonov.
A Vast Business Empire
The Aksyonov file also provides insights into the vast business empire the new Crimean leader has built up. Nine pages include the names, addresses and commercial registry numbers of his diverse firms. Some are registered in the name of his wife; others are in his mother-in-law's name. Many of the addresses given are letterbox entities that in truth are located in other places -- a favored trick for confusing tax authorities.
The secret documents also indicate that the network of companies includes several real estate firms, a glass factory, a construction business, a newspaper and an Internet portal based in Simferopol. Among the businesses listed is a bar -- one that even suggests a certain amount of self-irony. It's called Alcatraz.
U.S. Challenge Now Is to Stop Further Putin Moves
By PETER BAKER and MICHAEL D. SHEAR
MARCH 25, 2014
WASHINGTON — While President Obama insisted again on Tuesday that the West would not recognize the annexation of Crimea, officials in the United States and Europe have privately concluded that Crimea is lost and that the real challenge is stopping Russia from further destabilizing Ukraine.
After meeting with allies in Europe and suspending Russia from the Group of 8, Mr. Obama indicated no plans for additional sanctions unless Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, makes another provocative move. Every reference to further action against Russia during a 40-minute news conference in The Hague came with conditional phrases like “if the situation gets worse.”
Mr. Obama acknowledged that “the facts on the ground” meant that Crimea was under Russian control. “It would be dishonest to suggest that there’s a simple solution to resolving what has already taken place in Crimea,” he said, “although you know, history has a funny way of moving in twists and turns and not just in a straight line.”
President Obama said there was no evidence that Russians in Ukraine were being threatened, and he dismissed comparisons of Crimea to Kosovo.
For the United States and its European allies, the question is whether Mr. Putin will simply pocket his victory in Crimea and leave it at that. Mr. Putin has been unmoved by the cancellation of trade talks, suspension of military cooperation, and travel bans and asset freezes imposed on a handful of his aides and allies. But he has not made clear whether he feels emboldened enough to press for further territorial or political gains in Ukraine in the face of threats of more sweeping sanctions against Russian arms, energy and banking sectors.
While anything seems possible, the operating assumption among some American and European officials is that Mr. Putin will not overtly invade eastern Ukraine but instead opt for a murky middle plan, using local agitators and perhaps undercover special forces to stir even more unrest in largely Russian-speaking areas of the country.
Obama administration officials are meeting every day to shape what they call midrange sanctions to respond to such a situation — something with broader impact than the financial penalties imposed so far on individuals, although short of the sectorwide sanctions that could inflict more damage but that might draw more resistance in Europe.
An example might be the ban imposed by the United States on doing business with Bank Rossiya, the only institution so targeted to date. Washington and Brussels could go after more specific institutions with ties to Mr. Putin’s ruling circle without cutting entire industries off from international financing and trade.
That does not mean that the administration will not impose additional sanctions absent further Russian provocation, officials insisted. But they indicated that they would not move to the more painful stage of sector-wide measures without escalation by Moscow.
Current and former officials acknowledged that the recent sanctions would not force Mr. Putin to give up Crimea. “Will sanctions get Russia to leave Crimea, the current sanctions?” Michael A. McFaul, Mr. Obama’s just-departed ambassador to Moscow, said on a conference call organized by the journal Foreign Affairs. “The obvious answer is no. It’s designed to make people pay a price. It’s not designed to change their behavior.”
Ivo H. Daalder, a former ambassador to NATO under Mr. Obama and now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said the fate of eastern Ukraine, not Crimea, should be the priority for the administration now. “If the basic question is whether we focus on Crimea or focus on the next thing, the right thing to do is to focus on the next thing,” he said in an interview.
The administration cannot admit that publicly, however, because it would be taken as a sign of capitulation. Congressional Democrats and Republicans alike continued to argue that the annexation had to be rolled back. Advocating legislation sanctioning Russia and aiding Ukraine, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the Democratic chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said passage “would send a clear and unambiguous message to the world that the annexation of Crimea will not stand.”
In The Hague, administration officials repeatedly sought to avoid saying directly that the United States and its allies had accepted the annexation as a fait accompli. A senior administration official who briefed reporters on Monday under an agreement that he not be identified said Mr. Putin could incite more serious sanctions by trying to stir trouble inside Ukraine.
“The type of status quo that we’re currently in has already brought significant sanctions, and we reserve the right to move ahead with sanctions,” the official said. “It depends on how that status quo evolves, to be completely candid with you. Again, to what extent is Russia seeking de-escalation? To what extent are they engaged in acts that attempt to destabilize the Ukrainian government?”
An official in Europe privately predicted that Crimea might follow the pattern of the three Baltic states — Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia — which were absorbed into the Soviet Union in the 1940s. For decades, the West never recognized the legitimacy of that takeover, either, but could do nothing about it.
At his news conference, Mr. Obama dismissed Mr. Putin’s claims that Russian speakers were in danger in Crimea or elsewhere in Ukraine. “There has been no evidence that Russian speakers have been in any way threatened,” he said. “If anything, what we’ve seen are provocateurs who have created, you know, scuffles inside of Ukraine.”
The president likewise rejected Mr. Putin’s comparison of the Crimea annexation to Kosovo’s break from Serbia with NATO help in 1999 and declaration of independence in 2008. In the Kosovo case, Mr. Obama said, “you had thousands of people who were being slaughtered by their government,” so that is “a comparison that makes absolutely no sense.”
But the challenge is anticipating what Russia will do next. Some American officials suspect Mr. Putin may be bluffing by massing forces on Ukraine’s borders so that if he stops short of a full-fledged invasion, the West will take solace while effectively accepting Crimea’s annexation.
Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Roads to the Temple,” about the fall of the Soviet Union, said Mr. Putin was motivated as much by domestic politics as by foreign policy. With polls showing a surge of support for his defiance of the United States and Europe, external pressure may not stop Mr. Putin from expanding his intervention in Ukraine.
“At this point, it’s very hard to say because the real issue is not what things actually are but what the leader’s perception is,” Mr. Aron said. “The benefits are obvious domestically, but the downsides are huge. That will escalate it to a whole different level.”
US expands gas exports in bid to punish Putin for Crimea
Exporting natural gas would end Russia’s 'energy blackmail' and make US an energy superpower, Senate committee told
theguardian.com, Tuesday 25 March 2014 17.29 GMT
Congress moved to punish Vladimir Putin for the annexation of Crimea on Tuesday by expanding America’s exports of natural gas to challenge Russia’s energy dominance.
In the first of three hearings on natural gas exports this week, the Senate energy committee was told repeatedly that exporting US gas to Europe - or even Asia - would end Putin’s “energy blackmail” by lowering prices and providing an alternative to Russia as Europe’s big energy supplier.
“America should be an energy superpower,” Mary Landrieu, the Louisiana Democrat who chairs the Senate energy committee said. “The last thing Putin and his cronies want is competition from America in the energy race.”
The full Senate was due later on Tuesday to debate a $1bn aid package for Ukraine that could also bring more calls for expanding exports of liquified natural gas (LNG).
Landrieu was one of nine US officials sanctioned by Putin last week. She continued in Tuesday’s hearing to push for America to open up exports of LNG.
“We should use our energy prowess to break the tyrants who use their energy stockpiles to crush hopes of freedom and democracy,” Landrieu told the committee.
Lithuania’s energy minister, Jaroslav Neverovič, agreed. “Accelerating America’s entry into the global natural gas market is a win-win,” he said.
The crisis in Ukraine gave new momentum to the oil and gas industry - and members of Congress from energy states - to expand fossil fuel exports.
Fracking technology has left America awash in cheap natural gas, with prices kept low because of a glut in refining capacity.
Since the crisis erupted, Congress has introduced three bills to speed up gas exports, two brought by Democrats in the Senate, and one by a Republican in the House.
The Obama administration has been steadily granting permits for new facilities to liquify and export natural gas over the last year.
It approved a seventh licence for LNG exports on Monday - but there are still about two dozen more projects in the pipeline, and critics accuse the Obama administration of stalling approvals.
But as the hearing was told on Tuesday, even if the administration were to give an immediate go-ahead to all the export projects, it is unlikely any will be up and running and exporting LNG before the end of 2015. Even then they will fall far short of replacing Russian gas supply to Ukraine or Europe, the committee was told.
“No amount of US exports can begin to replace Russia,” Edwin Chow, senior energy fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told the hearing. “Export of LNG is not a silver bullet for Europe.”
In an interview before the hearing, Chow said approving more LNG exports would have no immediate effect on the current crisis over Ukraine or European gas supply.
“They are using yet another argument to bolster a position they had to begin with. They were already in favour of expediting LNG approvals,” he said. But he added: “In the short to medium term, it would have zero impact on Ukraine.”
Ukraine does not at the moment have an LNG receiving terminal, and such facilities typically take years to build.
The US is unlikely to begin exporting LNG before late 2015 at the earliest - and most of those shipments are committed in advance to markets in Japan and India including the Jordan Cove facility approved on Monday.
Environmental groups meanwhile are opposed to opening up LNG exports, because it would lead to an expansion of fracking. Manufacturing and chemical companies say expanding gas exports would drive up domestic gas prices.
The Michigan Democrat, Debbie Stabenow, told the committee she was concerned exports would lead to higher energy costs and undermine a “manufacturing renaissance” that was creating jobs.
“While the natural gas industry might benefit with LNG exports, other industries may lose out because of the high energy costs,” she said. “I don’t believe in stopping exports or capping exports but I do believe in moving forward in a thoughtful way.”
Western business leaders face pressure to boycott St Petersburg summit
Politicians lead calls for business leaders not attend Vladimir Putin's equivalent of Davos over annexation of Crimea
Patrick Wintour, political editor
theguardian.com, Tuesday 25 March 2014 19.18 GMT
Western bankers and business leaders, including BP's chief executive, are coming under political pressure to rethink their plans to attend Vladimir Putin's annual equivalent of the Davos summit in St Petersburg in protest at Russia's annexation of Crimea.
With calls for tighter economic sanctions against Moscow and its political isolation, the three-day event in May is increasingly seen as a serious test of western resolve. Putin's innermost circle and hundreds of western business leaders have attended the event in the past. .
The Labour party said on Tuesday that no British government officials should attend the summit.
The former Labour Europe minister Chris Bryant said: "In the present circumstances with Putin blatantly ignoring the rule of law and annexing sovereign territory, it would be remarkably unwise for any senior or serious British business to attend this Putinfest".
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat president, told the Guardian: " I think that businesses should carefully look at Putin's regime and realise the type of people they are now dealing with. Personally I do not think business leaders should be going to this event.
"Putin hosts these events to discredit the west and look like the archetypal strongman, so going to events like these give him and the government succour".
The shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, said: "Given the need to maintain pressure on President Putin, it would raise serious questions if EU leaders, including David Cameron, decided to send official representatives to an upcoming economic summit hosted by the Russian president."
Alexander is due to meet leading figures from the new Ukrainian government on Wednesday and will ask what further pressure they believe the west can place on Putin.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary and chairman of the Commons intelligence and security committee, said business leaders should be free to go, but only to tell Putin that he will lose billions in investment if they press ahead with the destabilisation of Crimea.
The government said it was keeping the event under review, but did not expect any British ministers or officials to attend.
In the US, questions have already been raised as to whether prominent Wall Street leaders with close connections to Putin, including Lloyd Blankfein and James Gorman, should attend the summit.
The St Petersburg international economic forum runs from 22 to 24 May, and ranges over a array of subjects with a focus on Russia's role in the world economy.
The list of known participants published on 14 March includes Juergen Fitschen, the co-CEO of Deutsche Bank; Andrea Orcel, the head of the Zurich-based investment bank UBS; and the heads of companies such as PepsiCo, ConocoPhillips, Alcoa, Total and Glencore Xstrata.
British-based figures on the lost of attendees include Bob Dudley, BP's chief executive; senior London Stock Exchange officials; Suma Chakrabarti, the president of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development; Mark Weinberger, the chairman of Ernst and Young; and Robert Foresman, the country manager in Russia for Barclays Capital.
The G7 group of leading economies has already said it will not attend the annual G8 summit due to be chaired this year by Putin, and that it remains ready to intensify actions, including coordinated sanctions with "an increasingly significant impact" on Russia's economy.
Offshore windfarms vital amid tensions with Russia, says energy secretary
Ed Davey says windfarms important at time of global insecurity with western world in standoff with Moscow over Crimea
Terry Macalister, energy editor
The Guardian, Tuesday 25 March 2014 17.52 GMT
Britain's growing fleet of offshore windfarms provides a vital national security role as the western world engages in a stand-off with Moscow over Ukraine, Ed Davey has said.
Speaking on Tuesday after German group Siemens said it would create 1,000 UK jobs in wind turbine production and installation, the energy and climate change secretary said he believed a long-promised renewable energy revolution in the North Sea had finally taken off.
"[Windfarms] are not just the local providers of green energy we need for our low-carbon future, but play an important role at a time of international uncertainty that we see with now Russia and Crimea," he explained.
Russia supplies about a quarter of Europe's gas. While Britain is currently not a major importer directly from Siberia, energy experts warn that the UK would feel the impact of any wider export freeze by Moscow which could drive up the price of gas on the international market.
Davey said the government had always understood the importance of wind power for strategic as well as climate change reasons. Once erected, the turbines are almost cost-free and not influenced by changes in international prices of energy such as gas.
Davey was speaking to the Guardian during a visit to Hull, where he was meeting executives from Siemens and Associated British Ports (ABP).
The German engineering group and the UK dock company have just agreed to spend over £300m between them on the construction of Britain's first large-scale turbine factories and dock facilities specifically to serve a new generation of offshore windfarms.
The move, which has been talked about for years but not acted on, has particular significance because it comes just after the cancellation of new projects such as the Atlantic Array, off England and the Argyll Array, off Scotland. This caused nervousness around the renewable sector at a time when some Conservative politicians were arguing that Britain could not afford expensive windfarms amid austerity measures and rising domestic energy bills.
Davey said: "Not everyone believed us but we always said we were confident of building 15 to 16 gigawatts of wind offshore. Now we have this big vote of confidence [from Siemens and ABP] which shows we are on track to meet our ambitions.
"We have obtained royal assent for the Energy Act and have put in place a whole series of measures to provide certainty to investors and developers."
Davey said a range of major deep sea windfarms had the go-ahead from utilities and other operators. He added that Britain may now have too many schemes proposed, rather than the too few the sceptics had feared.
"We almost have too many projects. The truth is there were always loads of them in the pipeline and some were going to fall by the wayside. We never said we could fund every project."
New wind, solar and even nuclear schemes are ultimately paid for by energy customers through a "renewable obligation feed-in" tariff or a new "contract for difference" regime.
Davey said the new turbine factory in Hull, which will create 1,000 new jobs, was also a vote of confidence in the cost of wind dropping fast in the future as new technology brings savings.
The government had previously said it wanted to see wind developers find ways of reducing costs by 30% by the end of the decade. But Siemens, developer Dong Energy and Statkraft of Norway believe costs can be cut by 40%, according to Davey.
He would not comment on the likely outcome of an investigation into the supply market by watchdog Ofgem and others who are expected to report to him on Thursday.
He said: "I genuinely don't know what is in[the report] but I set this up and have been clear all along we needed to reform the market."
Obama to Focus on Importance of Europe in Speech
By MICHAEL D. SHEAR
MARCH 26, 2014
BRUSSELS — President Obama will deliver a speech here on Wednesday that aides say is designed to explain and honor Europe’s role in the global democratic movement and to demonstrate how Russia’s use of military force in Ukraine threatens to undermine the rules that free nations have fought to establish.
Mr. Obama has spent the first half of his European trip this week immersed in the gritty details of persuading his European allies to support sanctions against Russia, President Vladimir V. Putin and some of that nation’s most prominent business leaders and politicians, and to help finance an economic recovery for Ukraine. On Wednesday, he will continue those consultations with European Union and NATO officials.
But in the speech, he will attempt to step back and look at the broader issues, aides said, in the hopes of helping to outline for Americans back home and for allies around the world why it is crucial to confront Mr. Putin after his takeover of Crimea.
A senior administration official said that by “standing at the heart of Europe in Brussels, the center of the European project,” the president “will be able to speak about the importance of European security, the importance of not just the danger to the people of Ukraine but the danger to the international system that Europe and the United States have invested so much in.” The official spoke anonymously to preview the speech.
Mr. Obama will deliver the address at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, perhaps the most prominent cultural site in Belgium. A discussion of the continuing crisis in Crimea will be a key part of the speech, the official said.
“The reason we take that so seriously is both because of our commitment to the security of Europe and the ability of the people of Ukraine to make their own decisions,” the official said. “But also because it undermines the international system when there are such flagrant violations of international law.”
Even so, the president is not likely to spend most of the speech talking about Ukraine, aides said. Instead, most of the address will invoke broader themes, especially about the importance of the relationship between the United States and its European allies.
That message could help to soothe some hurt feelings among European leaders, who watched with dismay over the last several years as Mr. Obama talked about a “pivot toward Asia” in American foreign policy. The president did not seek to abandon Europe in adjusting his foreign policy, but many on the continent took it that way.
The recent revelations that the National Security Agency has spied on world leaders have deepened the chill between the leaders in European capitals and Mr. Obama. This week’s trip to Europe and the speech on Wednesday, officials said, are an attempt to demonstrate that the president still views Europe as perhaps the most crucial region in the world.
The senior official said the president will use “this moment of crisis in Europe to reinforce the importance of a Europe that is whole, free and at peace, both to the people of the United States and Europe, but also to the world — because ultimately this has been an anchor of the international system that we’ve spent decades to build.”
For the Pig, Out With the Old Favorites
By ELLEN BARRY
MARCH 25, 2014
MOSCOW — When he returned home from work last week, the economist Mikhail E. Dmitriyev found two strangers waiting for him in the entryway. They showed no interest in his wallet but seized a bag that contained his laptop computer, and then beat him so badly he was left with a concussion.
Mr. Dmitriyev is a meticulous analyst, not inclined to hyperbole or speculation. He spent many years inside the system that President Vladimir V. Putin built, part of a team of economic modernizers that included the Sberbank chief German O. Gref and Aleksei L. Kudrin, the former finance minister.
That is why people paid attention in 2011, when Mr. Dmitriyev’s research center reported a surging demand for political change from the urban middle class, describing its swift growth during the Putin era as “a political detonator which cannot be unscrewed.”
Much has occurred between now and then. Protests materialized, as Mr. Dmitriyev predicted, and were quelled. In January, Mr. Dmitriyev was removed as the president of his organization, the Center for Strategic Research, telling an interviewer that he may have angered officials by criticizing the government’s new pension policy. This week, he is trying to reason his way through the mysterious attack.
“The police suggested that my business competitors might have stood behind it, trying to get commercially valuable data, but there was no such information in my computer which could have justified violent robbery, and my company is a research center with a rather limited budget,” he said. “So, one can guess at non-economic reasons behind this crime. We cannot rule out that this may reflect a growing intolerance to independent thinking in Russia.”
Moscow these days is a nervous city. Mr. Putin has rebuilt his popularity by pivoting away from urban elites to an audience of less privileged, conservative voters, starting an anti-Western information campaign that has reached its apex with the standoff over Crimea.
Mr. Putin’s move to reclaim Crimea is popular among Russians, even liberal ones. This is a function of history; Nikita S. Khrushchev transferred Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic for reasons that are debated to this day, not anticipating that the Soviet collapse would sever it from Russia.
But Mr. Putin is also announcing a change within his society: a turn inward, away from the West. Russia’s “Western influences,” of course, are people — economic, political and intellectual elites whose work has long since woven them into Western Europe and the United States. In a solemn speech last week, Mr. Putin set the stage for a purge of dissenters. “Some Western politicians already threaten us not only with sanctions, but also with the potential for domestic problems,” he said. “I would like to know what they are implying — the actions of a certain fifth column, of various national traitors?”
Time will tell whether this rhetoric will truly translate into a “change of the elite” — a phrase that pro-Kremlin analysts use with a straight face these days.
Nikolay V. Petrov, a professor at the Higher School of Economics, sees the change this way: Leading economic technocrats, who once served as a counterpoint to the conservative “shareholders” around Mr. Putin, will find themselves increasingly limited to technical roles, or replaced by people perceived as more loyal.
The technocrats were important to Mr. Putin at one time, when he believed liberal economic reforms could make Russia into a first-rung world power, Professor Petrov said, but now he has given up on that idea, and is looking instead to Russia’s geostrategic position as a way to assert its might on the global stage.
With that shift has come something new: focused pressure on critical voices from the liberal economic bloc. Sergei M. Guriev, an economic adviser to former President Dmitri A. Medvedev, moved to France last year, fearing that he would be targeted in a political prosecution. Sergei V. Aleksashenko, a former deputy head of Russia’s central bank who participated in antigovernment protests, took a job in Washington last year after his bids to be re-elected to the boards of three state-controlled corporations were blocked.
Mr. Dmitriyev, for his part, is still in the hospital, but when he gets out he plans to continue his work in Russia. He predicts that the Crimean crisis will trigger a “new wave of uncertainty and change” that could imprint Russians’ political views for years to come. His center plans to carry out polling to capture this change as it takes shape. First, though, he will have to get a new laptop.
Catalonia Independence Vote Unconstitutional
by Naharnet Newsdesk
25 March 2014, 20:35
Spanish judges on Tuesday branded illegal a planned referendum on independence for Catalonia, dealing a blow to the indebted region's drive for self-rule.
The northeastern region vowed to push on with the vote, however, defying fierce resistance from the national government.
Under Spain's constitution a region "cannot unilaterally call a referendum on self-determination to decide on its integration in Spain", according to a written summary of the ruling released by the Constitutional Court.
It ruled "unconstitutional and null" a declaration by the Catalan regional parliament which claimed Catalonia had a sovereign right to hold a vote on its future.
The court upheld a legal challenge by the national government to that declaration and said any "right to decide" by Catalans could only be exercised in accordance with Spain's 1978 constitution which insists on the unity of Spain.
Leaders in the northeastern region have called the referendum for November 9 to ask Catalans whether their region should be a separate, independent state.
Many Catalans have drawn a comparison with Scotland, whose leaders are holding a referendum in September on independence from Britain -- a move authorized by the British government.
Spain's conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has argued that Catalonia cannot hold a referendum like Scotland because Spain, unlike Britain, has a written constitution that rules out such a move.
Rajoy insisted last month that the referendum "can't take place".
Tuesday's ruling poses a setback for Catalonia's president Artur Mas, who has said he is determined to hold the referendum legally.
The Catalan government insisted shortly after the ruling that it would not derail the drive for a referendum, however.
"This will have no effect on the process," its spokesman Francesc Homs said on Catalan television.
The referendum is opposed by Spain's two largest national parties: the ruling conservative Popular Party and the main opposition Socialist Party.
Proud of their distinct language and culture and fed up after five years of stop-start recession, many in Catalonia want to redraw the map of Spain, saying they feel short-changed by the central government which redistributes their taxes.
Catalonia is home to 7.5 million of Spain's total population of 46 million. It accounts for more than a fifth of Spain's economic output and a quarter of its exports.
On September 11 last year, Catalonia's national day, hundreds of thousands of Catalans massed in a vast human chain stretching across the region to demand independence.
The national day recalls the conquest of Barcelona by Spanish king Philip V's forces in 1714.
Spain's regions gained a large degree of autonomy, including responsibility for health and education, after the 1975 death of General Francisco Franco.
Catalonia was there at the symbolic birth of Spain when Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon, a region that included Catalonia, married in 1469.