Afghan Preliminary Election Results Due as Run-off Looms
by Naharnet Newsdesk
26 April 2014, 14:19
Afghanistan is set to announce preliminary presidential election results on Saturday, with former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah ahead in early counting but below the 50-percent vote required to avoid a run-off.
Abdullah secured 43.8 percent of the vote, with his main rival Ashraf Ghani on 32.9 percent, after four-fifths of ballots were counted, according to partial results released on Thursday.
The Independent Election Commission (IEC) said a press conference to release the full preliminary results was scheduled for 6:00 pm (1330 GMT).
The final official result is set to be announced on May 14 after a period for adjudication of hundreds of complaints over alleged fraud.
If no candidate gains more than 50 percent, a run-off between the two leading names is scheduled for May 28.
Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani, head of the IEC, has predicted that a second round vote would be likely.
Both Abdullah and Ghani, a former World Bank economist, have vowed to fight on if a run-off is required.
Another expensive and potentially violent election could be avoided by negotiations between the candidates in the coming weeks, but Abdullah has dismissed talks of a possible power-sharing deal.
"We have not talked or negotiated with anyone about forming of a coalition government," he told reporters after Thursday's batch of results.
- Disputes over fraud claims? -
Eight men ran in the April 5 election, with polling day hailed a success by Afghan officials and foreign allies as the Taliban failed to launch a major attack despite threats to disrupt the vote.
Serious fraud allegations are being investigated after the vote to choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai, who has ruled Afghanistan since the Islamist Taliban regime was ousted in 2001.
The 2009 election, when Karzai retained power, was marred by fraud in a chaotic process that shook confidence in the multinational effort to develop Afghanistan and also marked a sharp decline in relations with the United States.
Votes involved in alleged ballot-box stuffing and other cheating have not been counted, and Saturday's announcement is expected to be followed by fierce debate over disputed voting papers.
Preliminary results were delayed by two days due to fraud investigations, with officials vowing to sift out all suspect votes before they were counted.
Turnout from the election is set to be nearly seven million voters from an estimated electorate of 13.5 million -- well above the 2009 figure.
The eventual winner will have to oversee the fight against a resilient Taliban insurgency as 51,000 U.S.-led NATO combat troops leave Afghanistan this year.
Five NATO soldiers died on Saturday in a helicopter crash in the south of the country, officials said, adding that the cause of the incident was being investigated.
Karzai, who is constitutionally barred from serving a third term, has pledged to stay neutral in the election.
But he was widely thought to have backed former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul, who took just 11 percent of the vote on the partial count.
Rassoul could still play a key role in power-brokering before the next president is chosen, as could former Islamist warlord Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, who collected a significant seven percent of the vote on the partial count.
All leading candidates have pledged to explore peace talks with the Taliban and sign a deal with the U.S. that could allow 10,000 U.S. troops to stay on after this year on a training and counter-terrorism mission.
Karzai's surprise decision to refuse to sign the bilateral security agreement last year after agreeing to the draft text plunged relations between Afghanistan and its biggest donor to a new low.
The outgoing president has had several public disagreements with Washington in recent years, underlining efforts to establish his reputation as an independent, nationalist leader despite relying on U.S. aid and military power during his reign.
Iraqi Militants Stage Political Rally, Then Bombs Go Off
By TIM ARANGO and DURAID ADNAN
APRIL 25, 2014
BAGHDAD — A campaign rally at a ramshackle old soccer stadium on Friday afternoon began with open-air theater that crossed centuries of Shiite lore, from the martyrdom of a revered religious figure to the fight today against Sunni extremists, played by actors dressed as fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a radical Islamist group.
It ended with an outbreak of violence, three explosions, one after the other, in the parking lot, as thousands of people were leaving: a car bomb, a suicide bomber and a roadside bomb. More than 30 people were killed and many others wounded in an attack that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria said in a statement it had carried out.
The bombings struck a rally held by a Shiite militant group, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, that is trying to transform itself into a political force by fielding candidates in Iraq’s coming national elections. But rather than emphasize empowerment through politics, the rally and the subsequent Sunni militant attack underscored two troubling realities of today’s Iraq: the merging of the civil war in Syria with Iraq’s own strengthened Sunni insurgency and the rising influence of Iran, the event organizers’ most important patron.
The event at times felt more like a wartime rally than a political event, especially with boasting by Asaib Ahl al-Haq that it was sending its members to fight in the Syrian civil war.
Festooned around the stadium were banners bearing the names and faces of the men the group had lost in Syria, more than 80 names in all. Men in militia uniforms — green camouflage with Asaib Ahl al-Haq patches on the sleeves — some of them just back from the battlefield in Syria, lined the track surrounding the soccer field. As the group’s parliamentary candidates filed into the stadium, a campaign song played through scratchy stereo speakers.
“We send real men to Syria,” was one verse.
“We are protecting Zeinab,” was another, a reference to an important Shiite shrine in Syria.
Just before the formal program was to begin, the group’s leader, Qais al-Khazali, rode into the stadium in a convoy of black armored sport utility vehicles, black-suited security men hanging off the sides. Mr. Khazali was once a lieutenant for another cleric and militia leader who was also an implacable foe to the Americans, Moktada al-Sadr. Now Mr. Khazali commands his own movement that will compete for Mr. Sadr’s constituency among the Shiite underclass in the elections, scheduled for Wednesday.
On Friday he stepped to the podium and began by reciting the names of fighters killed in Syria.
“You are the reason we are here today,” he said. “And we will accomplish what you have died for.”
Then he addressed his men who are still fighting in Syria.
“To those that are defending Iraq in Syria, because they are fighting there the enemies of Iraq, I tell you all,” he said, “congratulations for having the honor to fight there. Congratulations for making history.”
The group was welcomed into Iraq’s political system a few years ago by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, just as American troops were leaving, and his acceptance of it was regarded as a move that further empowered Iran at the expense of the United States.
Iran has provided the money and training for the group’s Syria recruitment effort, analysts say. In the Shiite-dominated provinces of southern Iraq, posters urge men to go and fight, and there is a phone number to call. The rallying cry for Iraqi Shiites is the defense of the shrine of Sayeda Zeinab, the Shiite holy site in a Damascus suburb. But they often fight alongside the Syrian government, as well as alongside fighters from Iran and Hezbollah, a Shiite militant movement based in Lebanon, against the rebel fighters, who are largely Sunni Muslims.
The group is not only fighting in Syria. It is also back on the streets in Baghdad and in other areas of the country, including Anbar Province, where large sections of territory are in the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Sometimes Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s members fight alongside government forces, and at other times they carry out their own operations, militiamen say. The group was widely blamed for atrocities against Sunnis during the sectarian war of 2005 to 2007; that it is now working hand in hand with the government on the battlefield and vying for votes in the elections is further evidence of Iraq’s rising sectarian tensions.
The group’s remobilization has alarmed Iraq’s Sunnis, who recall its role in sectarian fighting just a few years ago. It also highlights the weaknesses of Iraq’s security forces and has raised alarms that the country is backsliding to the days when it was a patchwork of militias and armed groups controlled the streets.
Salam al-Jazari, an Asaib Ahl al-Haq parliamentary candidate from Baghdad, said: “All Iraqis are calling for security, and we have experiences in this field. We have military experience. Abroad, we have fighters protecting Zeinab, and inside Iraq we have fighters supporting the security forces. We have many operations inside Baghdad capturing terrorists and car bombs, and we even have our men in all the provinces, as our military wing, to impose security.”
In this environment, the group, as it campaigns for seats in Parliament, is not only celebrating its role in the war in Syria but also putting itself forward as the protector of Iraq’s Shiites.
One man at the rally on Friday said that as soon as he returned from Syria his superiors asked him to fight in Anbar.
“I just came back from Syria three days ago,” said Majeed Khadum, 25. “I still have the smell of the war in Syria on me. And my bosses just contacted me yesterday to join them on a mission, but I said no because I am still tired from the war in Syria.”
He said he was attracted to Asaib Ahl al-Haq because “they are protecting the Shiite community inside Iraq and abroad as well.”
As a full display of Iraqi politics, Friday’s event was especially emblematic, with emotional expressions of Shiite empowerment; slogans for unity between Iraq’s three main factions, Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, that felt cynical given the group’s history; and little in the way of actual policy proposals.
And then, at the end, another burst of horrific violence.
India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
Bharatiya Janata Party’s Message Is Muddled By Polarization
By NEHA THIRANI BAGRI
April 25, 2014, 9:50 am
MUMBAI, India — Even as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate for prime minister, Narendra Modi, has attempted to distance himself from his party’s right-wing Hindu nationalist ideology and focus on economic development, polarizing speeches by party members and allies dominated headlines early this week.
While campaigning in the eastern states of Bihar and Jharkhand on April 18, Giriraj Singh, a B.J.P. politician from Bihar, reportedly said: “Those looking to prevent Modi’s (rise to power) are headed for Pakistan. In the days to come, there will no place for such people in India or Jharkhand.”
At a rally organized in Mumbai on April 21, Ramdas Kadam, a leader of the B.J.P.’s alliance partner in the western state of Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena, shared a stage with Narendra Modi as he said that Muslims who were responsible for vandalizing police vehicles, damaging public property and attacking policewomen during a rally in 2011 “will not be spared”. He added: “Within six months of becoming the prime minister, Modi will take action against those Pakistanis who have beheaded our soldiers.”
Mr. Modi and senior leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party have responded by dissociating themselves from the speeches, and publicly disapproved of the controversial statements made. On April 22, Mr. Modi tweeted, “I disapprove any such irresponsible statement & appeal to those making them to kindly refrain from doing so,” adding: “Petty statements by those claiming to be B.J.P.’s well wishers are deviating the campaign from the issues of development & good governance.”
But some analysts say that the issue of Hindu nationalism is central to the party’s identity and election strategy, try as Mr. Modi might to distance himself and project economic development as his main plank. Now that the election has entered its home stretch, with just three more polling phases to go, those analysts say that the party has some strategic interest seeking to secure as many votes as possible, by any means.
Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, two states that control more than one-fifth of the seats in parliament, go to the polls in six phases each — and each has three more phases to go. As two of the electoral powerhouses of the country, they provide a strong indication of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ability to win votes at the national level. Traditionally, the Bharatiya Janata Party has had difficulty overcoming strong caste identity politics that have fragmented the Hindu vote, but analysts say they are hoping to promote a pan-Hindu identity to capture large portions of these two states.
“The B.J.P. is operating with a two-pronged approach where they are pushing the agenda of development at a national level,” said Alakh Sharma, director for the New Delhi-based Institute for Human Development. “But at a local level, wherever the local leaders think it is needed, in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, they are trying to increase religious polarization to consolidate Hindu voters.”
In Uttar Pradesh, Mr. Modi’s close aide, Amit Shah, gave a speech to Hindu Jat farmers in which he urged them to vote to “take revenge” for bloody riots in September that killed at least 1,000 people, most of them Muslims. Mr. Modi did not distance himself from Mr. Shah’s comments.
Some have said that the statements of the past week by politicians with a much lower profile than Mr. Shah were merely cases of minor politicians voicing their personal views, not to be taken as representative of the party.
“People understand that some of these leaders speak without putting too much thought into what they are saying and since they are not very senior leaders it is not denting the image of the party nationally,” Sanjay Kumar, a political analyst and director at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, said. “Any party of this size would have factions within the party and people with different leanings, ideologies and thoughts. So, yes, there are people within the B.J.P. who are strong hard-liners but there are also soft people.”
But others point out that Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing Hindu organization associated with the B.J.P., has helped organize the campaign.
“Their aim is that the primary identity of an average voter in this part of the country is being Hindu, not being the particular caste that he belongs to,” said Varghese K. George, the political editor of The Hindu, a national daily.
Mr. Modi has regularly tried to dispel this idea in speeches on the campaign trail.
At a public gathering in New Delhi in October, he said: “My image does not permit to say so, but I dare to say. My real thought is — Pehle shauchalaya, phir devalaya,” a phrase which translates as: “First build toilets, then temples.”
Part of the the reason why Mr. Modi is unable to dispel a reputation for divisive politics is that he presided over Gujarat as its chief minister when the state saw some of the worst Hindu-Muslim violence in the country, over three days in 2002, which left 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead. Another is that, although he has largely projected a gentler image in recent months, he has not been above divisive rhetoric himself on the campaign trail, especially in locations where religious tensions run high.
Some argue that development and appealing to hard-liners are not mutually exclusive for the B.J.P. but work in tandem. “Within the talk of development, the B.J.P. has managed to weave a narrative of Hindu consolidation and the idea of a Hindu India,” said Mr. George. “The implied message of the B.J.P. campaign is that development will happen only after and only if you consolidate the idea of a Hindu society.”
Nepal Passes Bill Offering Amnesty for War Crimes
by Naharnet Newsdesk
26 April 2014, 12:05
Former Maoist rebels and security forces who committed torture, killings and other crimes during Nepal's decade-long civil war could be granted amnesty under new legislation approved by parliament, a lawmaker said Saturday.
Lawmakers late Friday passed a bill in parliament to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a Commission on the Disappeared, aimed at healing wounds from the decade-long conflict.
The legislation had drawn fire before its passage from U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay who warned earlier this month that amnesties for serious abuses would "weaken the foundation for a genuine and lasting peace in Nepal".
Under provisions of the legislation, those found guilty of serious crimes during hearings by the commissions could receive a full pardon, said Ram Narayan Bidari, a Maoist lawmaker.
Bidari was present in parliament when the bill was passed by a minimum two-thirds majority.
"The commissions will investigate cases of war-time crimes related to rape, murder, abduction, et cetera, and recommend whether they qualify for amnesty or not," Bidari told Agence France Presse.
The commissions will examine all pending war-crimes cases and decide whether to forward them to a special court that will be established under the new legislation, Bidari said.
"Even if cases have been filed in court or police investigations are underway, now these cases will be brought under the new commissions," he added.
The conflict between Maoist guerrillas and the state ended in 2006, leaving more than 16,000 dead. Rebels, soldiers and police were accused of serious human rights violations including killings, rapes, torture and disappearances.
Victims' rights groups have accused politicians of bowing to demands from Maoist lawmakers to include an amnesty provision in the bill, despite recommendations from a government-appointed panel against one.
Any offer of amnesty would still need the victim's approval, according to the bill, which will now be forwarded to President Ram Baran Yadav for his signature.
The Maoists and the government agreed to set up commissions focused on peace and reconciliation when they signed a peace deal.
An earlier Maoist-led government in 2013 passed legislation that sought to grant amnesty to those responsible for major human rights violations. But the Supreme Court rejected the provisions in a ruling last January.
Although courts have issued arrest warrants and guilty verdicts in several cases of rights abuses during the war, no one has been sent to prison so far.
Thailand Makes Rare Arrest of Protest Leader
by Naharnet Newsdesk
26 April 2014, 07:27
Thai authorities have made a rare arrest of one of the leaders of the country's anti-government protest movement on charges including insurrection and inciting unrest, an official said Saturday.
Former opposition lawmaker Sakoltee Phattiyakul is one of only a handful of prominent protesters to have been detained despite dozens of arrest warrants.
He was arrested at around midnight at Bangkok's main airport while returning from a trip overseas.
"He faces five serious accusations including insurrection, trespassing, inciting unrest and obstruction of an election," said Tarit Pengdith, director-general of the Ministry of Justice's Department of Special Investigation (DSI).
Sakoltee, considered a "core protest leader", was undergoing interrogation and would be taken to the Criminal Court where the authorities would oppose his bail, Tarit said.
Leaders of the anti-government movement have flouted arrest warrants to deliver fiery speeches, lead marches, block roads and besiege government buildings in their bid to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Sakoltee led protesters to storm the building of broadcaster Thai PBS late last year.
The movement wants to replace Yingluck's government with an unelected "people's council" that would oversee reforms to tackle alleged corruption and rein in the political dominance of her billionaire family.
Top protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban faces several arrest warrants linked to the rallies including for treason, as well as murder charges linked to a deadly crackdown on opposition demonstrations in 2010 when he was deputy prime minister.
Yingluck meanwhile is accused of dereliction of duty linked to a loss-making rice subsidy scheme and the improper transfer of a senior civil servant. Both cases could lead to her removal from office within weeks.
New Pictures Confirm North Korea Nuclear Activity
by Naharnet Newsdesk
26 April 2014, 10:01
A North Korean nuclear test within days "cannot be ruled out" analysts said Saturday, after new satellite imagery showed heightened activity at the test site.
The report by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) chimes with other findings and suggests Pyongyang is moving towards an underground detonation.
Pictures taken on Friday -- the first day of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to neighboring South Korea -- show an increase in movement near one entrance to a tunnel.
"The images show in particular activity at the South Portal of the site, a possible site for North Korea’s next nuclear test, and in the main support area," ISIS said in a release.
Analysis of satellite images taken on Wednesday and released by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University showed increased activity at the Punggye-ri test site.
This was "probably related to preparations for a detonation," the institute said on its closely followed 38 North website.
ISIS said higher resolution imagery, taken on Friday confirmed that analysis and suggested the preparations were continuing.
"On April 23, several containers were located in front of one of the South Portal’s tunnel entrances," ISIS said.
"The higher resolution April 25 imagery shows more clearly what appears to be this collection of boxes or containers near this tunnel entrance."
North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013, despite huge international pressure to halt its program, and its activity is being keenly watched.
However, the regime is notoriously unpredictable and observers warn that it is possible the preparations are a feint for the benefit of the satellites Pyongyang knows are watching.
The North has a long record of making threats in an effort to extract aid or concessions from the international community.
But activity at the site is being watched particularly carefully because of Obama's presence in the region amid speculation Pyongyang would like to thumb its nose at the US.
"Test site preparations do not necessarily mean that a test will occur in the next few days. North Korea has made preparations before and not tested," ISIS cautioned.
Politics would certainly play a role in the North's calculations, and it would be weighing the possible impact of detonation while Obama was in Asia.
"It may guarantee a harsher political response from the President," said ISIS.
"Nonetheless, determining North Korea's plans and schedules is always fraught with uncertainty. Thus, a test in the next several days cannot be ruled out by any means."
Speaking earlier Saturday to US service personnel stationed in South Korea, Obama blasted North Korea as a "pariah state that would rather starve its people than feed their hopes and dreams".
"North Korea's continued pursuit of nuclear weapons is a path that leads only to more isolation," he said.
Obama Lashes North Korea as 'Pariah State'
by Naharnet Newsdesk
26 April 2014, 07:02
North Korea is a "pariah state" whose heavily militarized border with the South marks "freedom's frontier", U.S. President Barack Obama told American troops in Seoul on Saturday.
Obama, who was wrapping up a two day visit to South Korea, said Pyongyang's continued pursuit of nuclear weapons is "a path that leads only to more isolation".
His comments come after satellite images revealed the North could be preparing to carry out an atomic test -- its fourth -- despite stringent sanctions imposed by the international community.
They also come hours after Pyongyang state media claimed the North had been holding a young US citizen for two weeks because of his "rash behavior" while passing through immigration.
Obama made no mention of the man whom Pyongyang identified as 24-year-old "Miller Matthew Todd", but said the North's border with its southern neighbor separates two very different places.
"The 38th Parallel now exists as much as a contrast between worlds as it does a border between nations, between a society that's open and one that is closed," he said.
"(It is a border) between a democracy that is growing and a pariah state that would rather starve its people than feed their hopes and dreams.
"Freedom is not an accident. Progress is not an accident. Democracy is not an accident.
"These are things that have to be fought for... And they've got to be tended to constantly and defended without fail. And here, on freedom’s frontier, they are."
- 'Path to more isolation' -
Pictures from satellites have suggested increased movement of vehicles and materials near what are believed to be the entrances to two completed test tunnels at North Korea's Punggye-ri test site.
Also visible were probable command and control vehicles intended to provide secure communications between the test site and other facilities, the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University said on its closely followed 38 North website.
North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests, in 2006, 2009 and 2013.
Obama blasted Pyongyang's atomic program, which he said would do the country no good.
"North Korea's continued pursuit of nuclear weapons is a path that leads only to more isolation," he said.
"It's not a sign of strength. Anybody can make threats. Anyone can move an army. Anyone can show off a missile.
"That doesn't make you strong. It does not lead to security, or opportunity, or respect. Those things don't come through force. They have to be earned."
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Saturday that leader Kim Jong-Un had urged his soldiers to be ready for "impending conflict with the United States".
North Korean media regularly carries colorfully-phrased warnings that the isolated state is on the verge of war.
Obama, whose four nation tour of Asia began in Japan, said the U.S. was committed to its friends in the region and pledged the U.S.-South Korean alliance was as "strong as it has ever been".
"We don't hesitate to use our military might to defend our allies and our way of life," he told cheering troops and air force personnel.
Obama was at the U.S. Army's Yongsan garrison with President Park Geun-Hye to visit the command center for joint military operations.
There are around 28,500 U.S. service personnel in South Korea. Under present arrangements, U.S. forces would take command of the South's military, but an agreement is due to change that in 2015.
However, on Friday Park and Obama agreed that they could reconsider that stratagem and push back the handover date.
Obama took off from Seoul around lunchtime, bound for Kuala Lumpur. His Asian tour will also take him to Manila.
Central African Republic's Seleka rebels call for secession amid sectarian war
Muslims fleeing Christian mobs say new state needed as UN warns of 'ethnic-religious cleansing' but analysts dismiss idea
David Smith, Africa correspondent
theguardian.com, Friday 25 April 2014 18.25 BST
Rebels in the Central African Republic are calling for the establishment of a new country as a radical solution to the worsening sectarian conflict.
The name – the Republic of Northern Central Africa – and a design for a national flag, are circulating by mobile phone in the dusty town of Bambari, which divides the CAR's largely Christian south from a northern region now controlled by the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels, according to Reuters. But the United Nations, the African Union, the former colonial power, France, and many analysts insist that this is neither likely nor desirable.
The call for partition echoes numerous secessionist movements across Africa, where arbitrary borders drawn by colonial mapmakers disregarded and cut across ethnic boundaries. South Sudan, the CAR's neighbour, gained independence from Sudan in 2011 – but is now embroiled in a civil war of its own.
Bambari has become a sanctuary for Muslims fleeing lynch mobs in the south; a convoy of French peacekeepers escorted 100 Muslims there last Monday from the capital, Bangui.
Such evacuations, which are continuing, are tantamount to accepting partition, the minister for reconciliation and communications, Antoinette Montaigne has conceded.
Abdel Nasser Mahamat Youssouf, member of a youth group in Bambari lobbying for the secession of the north, was quoted as saying: "The partition itself has already been done. Now there only remains the declaration of independence."
A colleague, Oumar Tidiane, said of the south: "They don't want any Muslims. Rather than calling their country the Central African Republic, they can call it the Central African Catholic Republic."
Militias known as the "anti-balaka" have driven tens of thousands of Muslims from the south, destroying mosques and virtually wiping out the Muslim population of Bangui. The UN high commissioner for refugees, António Guterres, has said the country faces "massive ethnic-religious cleansing", while Amnesty International has warned of a "Muslim exodus of historic proportions".
But there is no simple split. Before the crisis it was estimated that half the CAR's population was Christian and just 15% Muslim. David Smith, a director of Okapi Consulting, who spent several years in the country, said: "The number of Muslims in the CAR was small and now it is dramatically smaller. The number calling for secession is so small that it's hardly worth listening to them.
"There are some people who want to compare it with Sudan and South Sudan but that is completely off the mark.
"There are lot of independence movements all over this continent and most have more steam behind them than a group of young men in the CAR. It's coming predominantly from Chadians and Sudanese who want to have free rein in the region," he added.
Indeed, an independent north would play into the hands of neighbouring Chad and Sudan, whose mercenaries played a major part in a coup in March last year, sparking a backlash along religious lines that forced the Seleka to cede power in January. This is just one reason why partition is implacably opposed by the CAR's interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon, has also warned of its dangers and the French president, François Hollande, has vowed to prevent it.
It is also unlikely to win much sympathy in the rest of Africa, where governments are resisting separatist movements everywhere from Angola to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from Nigeria to Kenya, from Somalia to Zimbabwe. At independence half a century ago, the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union) declared the borders immutable to prevent wars erupting.
It made a special case for South Sudan but is hardly like to do the same for the CAR. Koffi Kouakou, a foreign-policy expert at Wits University in Johannesburg, said: "The partition of the CAR is not likely to happen and is not desirable at political and economic levels.
"The social evidence on the ground shows that while the strife of ethnic cleansing is increasingly becoming a grave concern in many parts of Africa, mainly in central Africa, the partition of the CAR is a mirage at this stage.
"The international community will not allow it as a matter of course. A divided CAR is not feasible on international jurisdiction and on paper."
Kouakou added: "There may be an urgent need for a solution to isolate the warring populations for a while to help subside the violence. But it will not be in the interest of all parties to seek a secession of the mainly Muslim north away from the Catholic south.
"The partition of Sudan, a bordering country, is the evidence that the partition of a country is in fact not the solution to deep ethnic rivalries in Africa."
Smith said: "It's undesirable because the CAR as it stands is not a functioning state and has never been a functioning state. Cutting the CAR – which was the weakest part of French Equatorial Africa – in half will mean one half has virtually no infrastructure of any kind. If you don't have Bangui, you don't really have anything."
"It serves nobody's interest to create another basket-case state that requires aid from the international community."
Not all Muslims favour the move either. Ibrahim Alawad, one of a small band clinging to their homes in Bangui, said on Friday: "It cannot be just like that. You grow up in one country and you live in one place. We want to know what is in the minds of our fellow Christians.
"I don't want to see the country divided. Why not dialogue?"
Gaza wants back in from the darkness as Hamas feels the isolation
Toppling of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has left territory out in cold as residents consider life under Palestine unity government
Peter Beaumont in Gaza City and Patrick Kingsley in Cairo
theguardian.com, Friday 25 April 2014 20.13 BST
In his haberdashery, Saleem Salouha tracks the ups and downs of his business against events beyond his control.
The good times for his shop in Gaza City were when Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were in power in Egypt. The bolts of cloth stacked behind Salouha came via the network of smuggling tunnels under the border at Rafah. Gazans had money too to buy his goods in the middle of a mini-economic boom.
All that, however, ended last July when Morsi was deposed in a military coup and the new regime deemed the Brotherhood a "terrorist" organisation.
Egypt accused Hamas, the Brotherhood's sister group that rules Gaza, of contributing to the security crisis in northern Sinai and closed down the smuggling tunnels.
Now Salouha orders the same goods, but they are brought through an Israeli crossing, pushing up prices by 30%, even as half his customers have withered away.
"It is a double blockade," Salouha says, referring to the long-term Israeli policy of limiting goods to Gaza since Hamas assumed control in 2007. He adds bitterly: "Israel and the Egyptians are competing with each other."
The story of the Salouha shop, in business since 1962, offers a microcosm of what has happened to Gaza and Hamas since Morsi was ousted.
It explains too why, after seven years governing Gaza at odds with its rival Fatah on the West Bank, Hamas might just be serious this time about moves to reconcile the often toxic Palestinian divisions. And if it is not serious, why Hamas views the agreement, signed this week, as an expedient move.
That deal – vague on detail – will see five weeks of talks for a national unity government, apparently largely technocratic. It would see moves to bring Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad under the umbrella of the PLO and the prospect of elections by the year's end.
Despite the very many uncertainties contained within it, not least the fact that the factions have travelled this road before without success, the reality is that unfolding regional events since the Arab spring have left Hamas isolated as its former backers have become embroiled in war, like Syria, more distant, like Iran, or have slammed the door on the Islamist movement as Egypt has.
The consequences have been both economic and political.
The taxes the Hamas government once levied from the tunnel trade paid the salaries of the 47,000 people who worked directly for the movement. In recent months they have received only half pay.
And if the economic crisis in Gaza is different to previous ones, it is because while in the past goods were expensive and hard to come by, at the start of the blockade in 2007 people had money. This time people don't.
Omar Shaban, an economist at the Palthink thinktank, says of the tunnel closures: "It was a huge source of income for [Hamas] and they thought it would go on forever. The shock has been very deep because they didn't anticipate that it could happen.
"What is devastating is that they can't pay the salaries of those who work directly for the movement – and that includes a significant part of their security establishment including the Qassam brigades [Hamas's military wing] and internal security."
In political terms too, Hamas's influence has been hugely diminished. Members of the movement are aware its popularity has halved in Gaza since it won the 2006 Palestinian elections, although it probably still enjoys support from a third of the population despite polls suggesting a much lower proportion.
Behind the scenes Hamas has sustained another worrying blow to its prestige and influence. Despite Egypt's tough new approach towards it, and the closure of the tunnels, it had still maintained a hotline to Cairo's military intelligence, which historically had relied on Hamas to mediate with other factions such as Islamic Jihad in times of crisis.
But when Islamic Jihad fired 70 missiles into Israel last month, both Gaza officials and Gaza analysts admit, Hamas was cut out of the loop with Egypt contacting Islamic Jihad directly to ask for a cessation.
Officially, Egypt says its policies, including destruction of the border tunnels, are to safeguard national security and stop the flow of weapons and supplies to Sinai's militants – responsible for more than 300 reported attacks since July – and not a tactic designed to heap pressure on Hamas inside Gaza.
In showcase trials of Brotherhood figures, including Morsi, Hamas has been accused of helping spring him from jail during the 2011 uprising against the Hosni Mubarak regime.
"We will close the tunnels because they are illegal and because they constitute a security threat to Egypt," the Egyptian foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, told the Guardian last week. "It's not being used as a pressure point against Hamas in favour of the PA [Palestinian Authority]."
Privately, senior Egyptian military officials tell a different story. "Our main goal," said one, "is to secure our borders and our national security interests, and to eliminate any kind of smuggling. But also as a side-effect, we need to see the Palestinian Authority in charge of the Gaza Strip. It's our business to see the Palestinian Authority run the Gaza Strip, to have somebody to deal with … we don't have a relationship with Hamas. We see them as a terrorist organisation that is allied to the Muslim Brotherhood."
According to another military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, it was not Egypt's problem if the tunnel closures affected Hamas. "Hamas will not be happy because they get a lot of money from the tunnels – $2bn [£1.2bn] a year. But it's not our problem … should we let them do it? No. It's illegal."
He added: "Fuck them. We would prefer any other government. [That's] one of the targets. If I have an unfavourable government in a neighbouring country, of course we want regime change [there]."
Some products are still reaching Gaza from Egypt. Cement from a company in which the Egyptian military has a financial interest is one. Other foreign projects in which Egypt has a contractor interest are also still going ahead.
Politically too, while the present regime in Egypt may want to shut down Hamas for largely domestic considerations, it is also aware that collectively punishing Gaza may be unpopular.
"Hamas is a problem for Egypt. Because the Muslim Brotherhood is a banned organisation now in Egypt, Hamas is also banned. The Sisi regime cannot be seen to be dealing with Hamas. But that does not mean that there are no contacts at all, although for now they are at a minimal level," said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al Azhar University in Gaza, referring to Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the retired army chief expected to win the presidential elections next month. Abusada added that Hamas felt rejection last month when Cairo spoke directly to Islamic Jihad about ending rocket fire into Israel.
Since then, however, Egypt has allowed Hamas deputy leader, Mousa Abu Marzouk – who had been in Egypt and banned from travelling – to enter Gaza, as a prelude to the Palestinian unity talks.
One thing that many observers, both in Gaza and outside, agree on is that Hamas will be hoping the reconciliation process with Fatah leads to Egypt easing restrictions at the Rafah crossing, which is currently only open for a handful of days a month.
There is another, perhaps more self-interested reason, driving Hamas back to talks with their West Bank rivals, as described by the Haaretz journalist Amira Hass in a recent comment article.
"Many Palestinian observers predict that the collapse of the PA – assuming Israel sticks to its policy of weakening it – would help strengthen the position of Hamas and its government.
"If Hamas joins the PLO it will become a major force within it, and if it doesn't join, it will be perceived as a true and legitimate representative of the Palestinians. These mutual suspicions about the motives of the other party could end up scuttling reconciliation once again."
Founded 1987 as offshoot of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt by a group in Gaza including Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, later assassinated by Israel. Military wing is the Izz al-Din al-Qassam brigades. Its founding charter committed to the destruction of Israel and the founding of a state based on Islamist values.
Regarded as a terrorist organisation in the west for its attacks on Israelis it has in recent years offered a more nuanced view of Israel including the offer in the past of a 10-year truce in return for a complete Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967.
Its entry into mainstream politics saw it sweep Palestinian elections which Israel, the west and Mahmoud Abbas's rival Fatah movement refused to recognise, leading to Hamas asserting its control over Fatah in the Gaza Strip in 2007, leading to the rift between the two main Palestinian movements.
Seats won 74 in 2006 PLC elections.
Political strength One poll last year put support at 20%, but analysts in Gaza believe it is closer to 30%.
Armed strength Israeli estimate in 2011 said armed wing numbered 10,000.
Founded The largest faction under the umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Fatah was founded in 1959 by a group including Yasser Arafat, who led it until his death in 2004 and who signed the Oslo peace accords with Israel. Fatah was surprised by the outcome of the 2006 elections which saw many Palestinians reject a movement they believed had become self-serving and out of touch.
Since Hamas's assumption of power in Gaza the two factions have been at odds, with both sides arresting supporters of the other in the areas they control. Despite efforts to bring about a reconciliation, and two previous agreements, little progress has been made in the past.
Seats won 45 in 2006.
Political strength A poll published last month taking Gaza and the West Bank together predicted victory for Fatah in presidential and legislative council elections by 43% to 28%.
Collapse of Peace Talks Gives Israel Easy Exit, but Leaves It in a Precarious Spot
By JODI RUDOREN
APRIL 25, 2014
JERUSALEM — Less than a month ago, Israel was in Secretary of State John Kerry’s cross hairs, accused of sabotaging the peace process he had championed by continuing construction in West Bank settlements and balking on a promise to release long-serving Palestinian prisoners. But when Israel suspended the stalemated negotiations on Thursday, it did so with Washington’s tacit blessing, providing a fractured government not fully committed to peace a low-risk exit strategy.
Frustrated by the impasse in the peace talks, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has recently played a variety of cards in hopes of improving his position in the negotiating room and on the street. He took steps to join 15 international conventions, threatened to dissolve his government and, finally, made a deal this week with Hamas, the militant Islamic group that is widely reviled in the West.
The gambles drew repeated rebukes from Washington. If Mr. Abbas was trying to call Israel’s bluff and force it to yield concessions in the negotiating room, he may have unwittingly improved its hand instead.
“He did a huge favor to Bibi,” said Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser, using the nickname of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. “Since we are in this blame game now, it is easier for him to say, ‘This is not our fault, look at our potential partner.’ ” Mr. Abbas, Mr. Eiland added, “by his own behavior has pushed himself to be perceived as a very extreme person who will never be able to reach an agreement with us.”
The conundrum facing peacemakers now is that the reconciliation portends a Palestinian leadership, for the first time in years, able to speak in one voice and at least theoretically better positioned to win support for a deal with Israel in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But Israel and the West’s shunning of Hamas makes any effort to bridge that divide — and possibly moderate Hamas’s positions — a potential poison pill.
In the short term, Mr. Netanyahu avoided a crisis in his governing coalition, whose various members had vowed to quit if he released more prisoners, froze settlement construction or walked away from the talks while any sliver of hope remained for progress. The deal with Hamas, which the United States and Europe also call a terrorist organization, allowed him to at least temporarily avoid international wrath, and he made the rounds of Western television networks Thursday looking the victim.
But the collapse of negotiations that Mr. Kerry and others called the last chance for a two-state solution to the intractable conflict leaves Israel in a precarious position. The talks helped contain violence in the West Bank and hold back a mounting European boycott of Israeli goods and institutions.
Now Mr. Netanyahu faces a strengthened Palestinian president free to leverage his United Nations observer-state status to access more international institutions, including courts in which Israel could face war crimes charges. The Palestinian Authority may well collapse if the United States withdraws financial aid in response to such moves as well as the reconciliation with Hamas, leaving Israel responsible for its residents and sharpening criticism of its occupation.
Absent a peace process, the threat of a binational state in which Arabs could soon outnumber Jews grows more potent.
“I don’t think the continuation of the status quo is an Israeli interest,” said Shlomo Brom, a retired general at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
“Netanyahu went to these negotiations not because he expected there would be results — he wanted release from potential pressure from the Americans and the Europeans,” Mr. Brom added. “He got this release for the last nine months. Now he will have to think about a new trick.”
Likewise, Mr. Abbas. His embrace of Hamas is more pressure tactic than strategy shift, many Palestinian analysts said, and he figures that the deal will fall apart, as have three similar accords signed since the Palestine Liberation Organization-Hamas schism started seven years ago after a bloody battle in Gaza. Now, Mr. Abbas has five weeks to follow through with a government of so-called technocrats unaffiliated with any faction, and elections six months later.
Left unsaid in this week’s agreement is how Hamas and Fatah, the party that dominates the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority, would combine their security services in the West Bank and Gaza and otherwise redraw governance of the territories.
How will Hamas handle Mr. Abbas’s demands that the new government recognize Israel and renounce violence, tenets it rejects? Who will control the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt? Is either party really ready to face its frustrated public in long-overdue balloting?
“It will be difficult for him to press Hamas on these issues,” Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian political scientist, said of Mr. Abbas. “Now reconciliation becomes his primary gain, and although he would still have to show the international community that he is still for peace, I don’t think he will be trying to do it in a manner that forces Hamas to make a choice.”
There are also regional factors to consider: Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, key Palestinian allies, all see the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’s patron, as a threat in their battle for regional hegemony against the Iran-led Shiite block.
“What you witness is realpolitik of the region as well as realpolitik of both parties,” said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. “They did not stand up as new heroes in the region but real politicians with a contract relationship for a transitional phase pending on many conditions and lots of contradictions.”
While Mr. Netanyahu pledged Thursday that he would never negotiate with any government “backed by Hamas,” Palestinian leaders and some left-leaning Israeli politicians and analysts argued that reconciliation was a critical pathway to peace. They said Mr. Netanyahu was being hypocritical because his own government includes extremists who oppose the establishment of any Palestinian state, and because it had said the Palestine Liberation Organization-Hamas rift raised questions about Mr. Abbas’s ability to deliver Gaza, controlled by Hamas, for a potential deal.
But Palestinian analysts said the future path was more likely through demonstrations, boycotts and the United Nations than through yet another round of American-brokered talks with Israel. “If this reconciliation works — and I’m hoping it does, though I’m pessimistic — then it can be an opportunity for Palestinians to regroup and think what the next steps will be and what the right strategy will be,” said Diana Buttu, a former adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization. “I’m pretty confident the next steps will not be negotiations.”
Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the developments of recent days “may actually give everyone quite an elegant way out.” Mr. Netanyahu avoided a domestic political crisis, Mr. Abbas gained legitimacy with Palestinians who far prefer reconciliation to negotiations, and “it’s much more convenient for the Americans to pull back under these circumstances than under the circumstances where they simply couldn’t find a formula,” he said.
“The negotiations as constructed had, time and again, proved that they were not up to the task of doing anything positive,” Mr. Levy added. “So the argument that something has been lost by not continuing these same negotiations does not pass the laugh test.”
Indigenous protesters occupy Peru's biggest Amazon oil field
Around 500 Achuar protesters are demanding the clean-up of decades of contamination from spilled crude oil
Dan Collyns in Lima
theguardian.com, Friday 25 April 2014 17.28 BST
Around 500 Achuar indigenous protesters have occupied Peru’s biggest oil field in the Amazon rainforest near Ecuador to demand the clean-up of decades of contamination from spilled crude oil.
The oilfield operator, Argentine Pluspetrol, said output had fallen by 70% since the protesters occupied its facilities on Monday – a production drop of around 11,000 barrels per day.
Native communities have taken control of a thermoelectric plant, oil tanks and key roads in the Amazonian region of Loreto, where Pluspetrol operates block 1-AB, the company said on Thursday.
Protest leader, Carlos Sandi, told the Guardian that Achuar communities were being “silently poisoned” because the company Pluspetrol has not complied with a 2006 agreement to clean up pollution dating back four decades in oil block 1-AB.
“Almost 80% of our population are sick due to the presence of lead and cadmium in our food and water form the oil contamination,” said Sandi, president of FECONACO, the federation of native communities in the Corrientes River.
Pluspetrol, the biggest oil and natural gas producer in Peru, has operated the oil fields since 2001. It took over from Occidental Petroleum, which began drilling in 1971, and, according to the government, had not cleaned up contamination either.
Last year, Peru declared an environmental state of emergency in the oil field.
But Sandi said the state had failed to take “concrete measures or compensate the native people” for the environmental damage caused.
He claimed Achuar communities were not receiving their share of oil royalties and the state had failed to invest in development programmes in the Tigre, Corrientes and Pastaza river basins that had been most impacted by oil exploitation.
He said the Achuar were demanding to meet with the central government to talk about public health, the environment and the distribution of oil royalties.
"We aren’t against oil exploitation or development we are calling for our rights to be respected in accordance with international laws," he said.
"Conversations are under way to bring a solution to the impasse," Pluspetrol told Reuters. "A government commission is there and we hope this is resolved soon."
Over the past year, the Peruvian government has declared three environmental emergencies in large areas of rainforest near the oil field after finding dangerous levels of pollution on indigenous territories.
Peru’s Environment Ministry said in a statement last week that a commission formed by government and company representatives has been assigned to work with communities to tackle pollution problems and other concerns.
Uruguay to limit licensed marijuana users to 10g a week
Leaked details of overdue new regulations for legal market intended to thwart illegal resales
Associated Press in Montevideo
theguardian.com, Thursday 24 April 2014 15.51 BST
Uruguay is to limit marijuana sales to 10 grams a week for each licensed user when it publishes the rules for its legal market.
The full set of rules are already two weeks overdue.
Uruguay's president, José Mujica, had asked that no details be released until the regulations were finally published on Friday or Monday, but an official in the drug control office, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the 10g weekly limit was intended to thwart illegal resales.
Pharmacies would also not be permitted to sell the 40g monthly allocation all at once.
The delay in publishing the full set of rules was blamed on the law creating Uruguay's legal marijuana market not including measures on taxing sales, so authorities are developing fees to match highly taxed alcohol and cigarette sales.
Another problem was figuring out how to trace the plants from seed to smoke.
Scientists solve 50-year mystery of Southern Ocean’s ‘quacking’ sound
By The Guardian
Thursday, April 24, 2014 21:28 EDT
By Taku Dzimwasha, The Guardian
Noise heard in the Southern Ocean has been attributed to the underwater chatter of the Antarctic minke whale
The mystery source of a strange quacking sound coming from the ocean has been discovered.
The so-called “bio-duck” noise, which occurs in the winter and spring in the Southern Ocean, had confused researchers for over 50 years.
Scientists have now attributed the sound to underwater chatter of the Antarctic minke whale.
Submarine crews first heard the quacking sound – a series of repetitive, low-pitched pulsing sounds – in the 1960s.
Lead researcher Denise Risch, from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration north-east fisheries science centre in Massachusetts, told the BBC: “Over the years there have been several suggestions, but no one was able to really show this species was producing the sound until now.”
The research team attached suction-cup sensor tags equipped with underwater microphones to a pair of minke whales off the western Antarctic peninsula in February last year, with the aim of monitoring their feeding behaviour and movements.
These were the first acoustic tags deployed on Antarctic minke whales, and the team compared their recordings with years worth of collected audio recordings to match the sounds. Researchers were able to identify the quacking noise, as well as downward-sweeping sounds previously linked to minke whales.
The sounds “can now be attributed unequivocally to the Antarctic minke whale,” Risch and her team wrote in a study published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.
Researchers are hoping to retrospectively analyse previous recordings to investigate “seasonal occurrence and migration patterns” of the whales.
Scientists remain puzzled as to why the whales produce the sound, but it is thought that the animals make the noise close to the surface before they make a deep dives to feed.
Risch added: “Identifying their sounds will allow us to use passive acoustic monitoring to study this species. That can give us the timing of their migration – the exact timing of when the animals appear in Antarctic waters and when they leave again – so we can learn about migratory patterns, about their relative abundance in different areas and their movement patterns between the areas.”
© Guardian News and Media 2014
In the USA...United Surveillance America
F.C.C. On Track To Ruin Last Truly Democratic Institution: The Internet
By: Becky Sarwate
Thursday, April, 24th, 2014, 7:13 pm
The best thing about the Internet is that it’s a completely unmitigated free-for-all. People can literally say or do anything. That’s also the worst feature of the World Wide Web (trolls, hate speech, misogyny, child pornography) but the relatively nascent life cycle of the Internet has trained us all to take the good with the bad. Almost to a person, we’ve agreed to abide by only one law: if you don’t want to see it, read it or hear it, then don’t. Click the next link. There’s quite literally something out there for everyone and almost anyone can leverage the tools of the Web to find success within their own particular niche, no matter how singular it might appear to one’s offline community. The Internet – the greatest of equalizers.
Enjoy it while you can.
According to multiple published reports, the Federal Communications Commission has offered a proposed set of rules that would effectively end net neutrality as we know it.
Edward Wyatt of The New York Times reports “The proposal comes three months after a federal appeals court struck down, for the second time, agency rules intended to guarantee a free and open Internet.”
The writer goes on to point out the patently obvious: in the decision to allow large media companies with deep pockets to purchase rides in the “fast lanes” of Internet service providers, the last egalitarian, populist institution we share as a human species is endangered. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Equal opportunity denied to the 99 percent (or even in more charitable Romney-like estimations, 47 percent) by the superrich.
Wyatt writes, “The rules could radically reshape how Internet content is delivered to consumers. For example, if a gaming company cannot afford the fast track to players, customers could lose interest and its product could fail.” Yes. And there’s also this:
“Consumer groups immediately attacked the proposal, saying that not only would costs rise, but that big, rich companies with the money to pay large fees to Internet service providers would be favored over small start-ups with innovative business models — stifling the birth of the next Facebook or Twitter.”
But those arguments are pretty much still looking at the issue through the corporate lens. I’m more inclined to side with the proletariat view of Todd O’Boyle, Program Director of Common Cause’s Media and Democracy Reform Initiative, who warned “If it goes forward, this capitulation will represent Washington at its worst…Americans were promised, and deserve, an Internet that is free of toll roads, fast lanes and censorship — corporate or governmental.”
There is still time for the F.C.C. to turn away from the proposed changes. A final vote is scheduled for the end of the year. Let there be a huge public backlash that renders defeat unavoidable. Moreover, it’s got to come from the ground. Because this isn’t like Arizona’s recently vetoed bill that would have allowed businesses to refuse to serve gay Americans based upon “religious beliefs.” We can’t rightly expect corporate interests to intervene on this one. No threat of lost customers here. Just another opportunity to squeeze out competition.
We’re going to have to do this on our own, the way the tools and power of the Internet have famously inspired rebellion the world over: Occupy Wall Street, Tahrir Square, Julian Assange. Right or wrong, individuals and groups have made their arguments heard and shared using the Internet. It seems fitting we do the same here, while we still can.
Visit the F.C.C. website when the proposed rules are released for public comment on May 15, and for goodness sake, comment. I may be preaching to the converted when it comes to PoliticusUSA readers, but if there is any occasion (and obviously I believe there are many more) worth making our voices heard, this it. This kind of garbage flies because we are a listless and complacent electorate, but we can put a stop to that anytime.
We owe it to the Internet. The glorious, messy, crude, amateur, uniting, creative and wonderful universe – for all to share equally.
The Republican Party has Become the Party of Creepy Uncles Nobody Wanted to Talk About
By: Hrafnkell Haraldsson
Friday, April, 25th, 2014, 7:40 am
Almost Black and WhiteRepublicans are rallying around white supremacy. It’s an odd thing, listening to Republicans steadfastly deny their own racism while praising one of the most racist among them, Clive Bundy, who says slavery was good for “the negro” because they have nothing to do today but “abort their young children” and “put their young men in jail” whereas as slaves they at least learned how to pick cotton.
Now as racism goes it doesn’t get much more egregious than this – the advocacy of slavery, but Republicans love him. He is living their fantasy, you see, their dream life, thumbing his nose at the federal government, his own private militia rallying around him, and telling all those greedy, grasping, black folks they ought to get back to work picking cotton. How can they not like the guy?
It has been suggested that given Bundy’s public support for slavery Fox News and others may distance themselves from him, but I would caution against that assumption: it is not very seldom do you see one right wing fanatic distance him or herself from another right wing fanatic, and when they do, it is usually in the mildest possible terms. And in this case, as in those others, even if they issue a public “distancing” they privately agree. Thus any distancing is more illusory than real.
What has happened here is that, inadvertently perhaps, the secret has come out: Republicans are “ga-ga” over white people and “bleh” over all those of, shall we say, shades darker than Northern European, even when some of the republican racists are themselves a tint darker than that, one noted Cuban anarchist among them, a Louisiana governor as well. But then there are “tame” black folks who sign onto the white supremacist bandwagon as well, just as there are women collaborating with the Republican war on women.
When you get right down to it, in terms of the whole issue of a master, or ruling race, there is nothing but death camps to distinguish Republicans from National Socialists. They are both ethnic nationalists (Völkisch), and even where death camps are concerned the distance is not really so great, because Republicans have rallied around a more subtle final solution: no healthcare + no jobs = the “other” dies at a much more rapid rate than white folks, who do have jobs and healthcare.
The death panels, and even the actual camps, exist. They are called ghettos. And barrios. And dead, after all, is dead.
There really has been no hiding this racism since 2008. We all knew it was still there, though some of us didn’t realize just how bad it was. We were quickly brought around to the truth when Barack Obama moved into the White House not as butler but as resident, and, in the imagination of the Tea Bagger, watermelon patches appeared all over the property.
Republicans said it was satire. They blamed liberals for not having a sense of humor., for not getting the “joke,” whatever it was. But racism isn’t funny. Not any time. Not any place. Racism is ugly, pure and simple. For a party that embraces absolutes, the idea of either/or, black/white, good/evil, you would think they’d get this. But the one area in which conservatives pretend to embrace subtlety is in race relations.
But from Rand Paul’s neo-Confederate, white supremacist hireling to all the Tea Party Confederate flags to Clive Bundy, white supremacy is getting harder to hide. As the extremists increasingly call the tune Republican candidate and office holders dance to, Republicans find it increasingly difficult to hide their true bona fides, which is as wannabe plantation owning crackers with personal arsenals that would do any developing country proud.
When they say “Duck Dynasty,” they are really thinking entrenched white dynasties. The old ante bellum plantation becomes in their imagination and in our future, a firebase in “Indian country,” surrounded by seas of blacks and browns and yellows and reds. Utopia for them; dystopia for everyone else. Haves and have not clearly delineated by the color of their skin and by the caliber of their weapons, if not their brains.
That’s the America Republican victories in 2014 and 2016 would move us toward. This is what Rand Paul wants every bit as much as Clive Bundy. But Rand Paul can throw on blue jeans and say the GOP needs earrings and tattoos and imagine that saying that proves he likes black folks too.
The corporate mainstream media will happily ignore his racism, which differs from Bundy’s only in that he did kick federal agents off his lawn. In a very real sense, slavery has been mainstreamed by the GOP since 2008, and just as Bundy isn’t its first advocate (remember FAMiLY LEADER’s infamous preamble?), he won’t be the last.
The GOP has not only institutionalized racism for a new generation, they have given a home – a major (if no longer legitimate) political party – to every whack job out there, from murderers to racists to neo-Confederate to sovereign citizen militias to those who want to marry your 15-year-old daughter, Bible in hand, while he defiles her and complains about adults marrying other adults.
Remember when Sarah Jones told us how right wing websites have become the home of the “creepy old dude demo”? Those creeps have always been lurking in the shadows of our society, but now they have an outlet, and creepiness has, as a result of the Tea Party/Religious Right/Republican Party, been mainstreamed. It’s suddenly not only okay to be that uncle nobody once wanted to talk about, but worse, they all WANT to be that uncle.
And this is the party that talks about family values? Sorry, it’s become the party of racist white cracker trailer trash slave owner wannabes who want to marry your 15-year-old daughter instead. Good luck selling THAT to America’s changing demographic.
Mitch McConnell Tells Unemployed Kentuckians It’s Not His Job To Bring Jobs to Kentucky
By: Jason Easley
Friday, April, 25th, 2014, 12:23 pm
Mitch McConnell’s suicide mission of a reelection campaign continues to get worse. At an appearance back home in Kentucky, Sen. McConnell said that it is not his job to bring jobs to the state.
The Beatyville Enterprise reported:
Appearing in Beattyville, McConnell was asked by The Beattyville Enterprise what he was going to do to bring jobs to Lee County.
“Economic development is a Frankfort issue,” McConnell said. “That is not my job. It is the primary responsibility of the state Commerce Cabinet.”
Asked about public works projects McConnell said he is interested in bringing public works to the state. “Most comes from the state, though,” he said.
McConnell is claiming that his comments got lost in translation, “This April, I visited Lee County to talk about a top priority of mine: jobs. Unfortunately, my message got lost in transition, and I was surprised to see a headline about my visit that sent the exact opposite message to the one I was trying to convey.”
Notice that McConnell doesn’t deny that he said that bringing jobs isn’t his job. Instead, he is resorting to a version of claiming that he was misquoted or misinterpreted. However, his jobs comment bears a striking resemblance to what his office told an unemployed veteran in January. McConnell’s spokesperson told an unemployed veteran, “I can only tell you what we can do here in the Senate. I have no control over your life.” In other words, it’s not my job.
If bringing jobs to Kentucky isn’t his job, what is Mitch McConnell’s job? According to McConnell, it isn’t his job to bring jobs to the state, help the unemployed, or assist more people in getting access to healthcare. McConnell’s job seems to involve protecting the Koch brothers by blocking any new campaign finance laws, obstructing the agenda of Barack Obama, and denying the unemployed and veterans the support that they have earned and deserve.
Mitch McConnell is making it clear that he doesn’t care about the people of Kentucky. All Mitch really cares about is getting back to D.C., and becoming Majority Leader. McConnell reign as Minority Leader has been blight on the United States Senate. McConnell’s obstruction is the reason why Harry Reid had to invoke the nuclear option just so that the Senate could return to being a somewhat functioning body.
Sen. McConnell is bad for Kentucky, bad for the United States, and bad for democracy. Kentucky voters can do a great service to their country by voting Mitch McConnell into retirement this November.
Speaker John Boehner Slams Fellow House Republicans On Immigration Reform Obstructionism
By: Justin Baragona
Friday, April, 25th, 2014, 11:21 am
During a speech in his home district on Thursday, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) criticized his House Republicans on their intransigence when it comes to comprehensive immigration reform. A bill with bipartisan support passed through the Senate nearly a year ago. However, House Republicans have not moved on it. Many have stated they’d prefer a piecemeal approach to immigration, rather than a comprehensive approach. Others have stated their opposition to the bill because they think it provides ‘amnesty’ to undocumented immigrants.
Per CNN, Boehner mocked his fellow GOP House members while speaking in front of the Middletown Rotary Club. His claim was that House Republicans whine about immigration reform being too hard. He also pointed out that he and others were elected to Congress to solve problems and make choices.
“Here’s the attitude: ‘Ohhhh, don’t make me do this. Ohhhh, this is too hard’…We get elected to make choices. We get elected to solve problems and it’s remarkable to me how many of my colleagues just don’t want to. They’ll take the path of least resistance…I’ve had every brick and bat and arrow shot at me over this issue just because I wanted to deal with it. I didn’t say it was going to be easy.”
Obviously, Boehner’s comments received some backlash from those on the right. Heritage Action, which is an affiliate of The Heritage Foundation, released a statement on Thursday evening slamming Boehner over his criticism of his fellow Republicans.
It’s disappointing, but by now not surprising, that the Republican Speaker is attacking conservatives looking to retake the Senate. The Republican Party should be large enough for fact-based policy debates. Unfortunately, John Boehner is more interested in advancing the agenda of high-powered DC special interests than inspiring Americans with a policy vision that allows freedom, opportunity, prosperity and civil society to flourish.
You have to love a statement from a high-powered DC-area special interest group slamming a politician for being in the pockets of other high-powered DC special interest groups, don’t you? You can’t make things like this up.
Anyway, it seems apparent that Boehner is just plain sick and tired of dealing with conservative political groups and the far-right wing of his own party. The Speaker has already railed against certain conservative groups in the past months. Boehner likely knows that he is probably going to go down as the worst Speaker in Untied States history. At the very least, he’d like at least one positive legislative action with his stamp on it before he hands the gavel over.
Comprehensive immigration reform seems like something, under normal circumstances, he’d be able to get passed. Something he’d be able to point to and claim some credit for. However, these are not normal times. While comprehensive immigration reform polls well with the American people and the Senate has already acted on it, the extremist wing of the Republican Party in the House continues to obstruct any substantial legislative action. And they aren’t going to move on it before the midterms. That much is all but certain.
Ukraine PM Says Russia Violations 'War Provocation' as Rebels Accuse Detained OSCE Team of Being 'NATO Spies'
by Naharnet Newsdesk
26 April 2014, 10:27
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Saturday that Russian military aircraft had crossed the country's airspace seven times "to provoke Ukraine to start a war."
"Russian military aircraft today overnight crossed and violated Ukrainian airspace seven times. The only reason is to provoke Ukraine to start a war," he told journalists at a briefing in Rome, following a meeting with Pope Francis and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
However, shortly after the Ukraine PM's statement, Russia's defense ministry denied claims by the Pentagon and Yatsenyuk that its planes had repeatedly violated Ukrainian airspace in recent days.
"Russia's airspace monitoring systems have not registered any violations of air borders of the states adjacent to Russia, including Ukraine," the defense ministry said in a statement carried by the state ITAR TASS news agency.
The Pentagon had said Russian warplanes had violated Ukraine's airspace several times on Thursday.
The Ukrainian PM also said the seizure of 13 international OSCE observers by pro-Kremlin rebels who accuse them of being "NATO spies" was "another proof and evidence that these so-called peaceful protesters with Russian ideas are terrorists."
Russia pledged Saturday to help free the observers, who were sent to Ukraine to monitor an April 17 accord signed in Geneva between Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union that was meant to de-escalate the dangerous crisis in the ex-Soviet republic.
But pro-Russian rebels holding the OSCE observers accused them of being "NATO spies" and vowed to continue detaining them.
"Yesterday, we arrested some NATO spies... they will be exchanged for our own prisoners. I don't see any other way they will be freed," Denis Pushilin, the head of the insurgents' self-declared Donetsk Republic, told reporters.
Pushilin was speaking in front of the SBU security services building in rebel-held Slavyansk, where the OSCE team was being held.
The town's self-styled mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, also told Russian TV news crews that the OSCE members were being considered "intelligence officers of NATO country members".
"Military personnel from Denmark, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria I think and -- from somewhere else, I can't immediately recall -- have been detained," he said in broadcasts seen in Moscow.
"We believe an OSCE mission does not imply the participation of military personnel entering our territory unimpeded and studying our facilities."
Slavyansk has become the epicenter of tensions between pro-Russian protesters and Ukrainian authorities in the eastern part of the country where pro-Kremlin rebels have seized a string of towns.
Late Friday, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen confirmed that pro-Russian separatists had arrested 13 mission members, including the observers, their interpreter and driver. Four of the team are Germans, including three members of the German military.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on his Twitter feed that one of the OSCE members was a Swede.
Washington called for the immediate release of the OSCE team and State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki insisted "there is a strong connection between Russia and these separatists".
The interior ministry in Kiev said that the OSCE observers were stopped at a rebel-held checkpoint as they were entering Slavyansk on Friday and were taken to the SBU building.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe told Agence France Presse in Vienna, where it is based, that all the observers in its main mission on the ground in Ukraine were accounted for.
However, the detained group appears to be part of a separate, smaller unarmed military verification mission under German command.
The Ukrainian premier -- who is cutting short his trip will miss the canonization of John Paul II and John XXIII because of rising tensions in the eastern part of the ex-Soviet country -- said "Russian aggression aims to undermine global stability."
"We urge Russia to pull back its security forces. We urge Russia to leave us alone," he said, amid fears that Russia could be about to invade.
Yatsenyuk met Pope Francis for a private audience on Saturday, and said he had "asked his Holiness to pray for my country and peace in Europe."
At an exchange of gifts, Yatsenyuk presented Francis with a photograph of Maidan square in Kiev on New Year's night.
"This is where Ukrainians fought for their freedom and rights. Millions of people," he said.
The pope in return gave the Ukraine leader a pen, saying "I hope this pen will sign the peace", to which Yatsenyuk replied "I hope so."
As the two leaders parted, Francis put his hand on his chest and said "I will do everything possible" for peace.
The Group of Seven rich countries have agreed to slap new sanctions on Moscow as early as Monday. Russia has warned it has a "right" to invade to protect Ukraine's Russian-speaking population concentrated in the east and southeast.
In a related matter, several EU sources said Saturday that senior European Union diplomats will meet in Brussels on Monday to consider a fresh round of sanctions against Russia over the crisis in Ukraine.
Ambassadors from the 28 member states "will meet on Monday 28 April with a view to the adoption of an additional list of 'stage 2' sanctions," such as asset freezes and travel bans, said an EU official speaking on condition of anonymity.
A list adding 15 people to the 55 Russians and Ukrainians already blacklisted by the EU was approved in principle on the eve of the April 17 Geneva talks to de-escalate the conflict, an EU diplomat said.
But the EU refrained from putting the sanctions into effect so as not to scuttle the peace talks.
However with tension mounting in Ukraine the last days amid fears Russia might invade, the Group of Seven rich countries Saturday agreed to slap further sanctions on Moscow.
"In line with the G7 statement issued today, we will work to have it all adopted before the end of the day," said the EU official, referring to the list.
Another EU diplomat close to the matter said ministers from the member states would have to be called to Brussels should the 28-nation bloc intend to ratchet up the pressure on Moscow with wide-ranging economic sanctions such as trade embargoes, known as "Phase 3" measures.
"No meeting of ministers has been scheduled for now," the source said. "We will see on Monday."
Ukraine: kidnapped observers paraded by pro-Russian gunmen in Slavyansk
European military observers deny they are Nato spies while captors insist they are 'not our hostages – they are our guests'
Luke Harding in Donetsk and agencies
theguardian.com, Sunday 27 April 2014 13.43 BST
Eight European military observers kidnapped by pro-Russian gunmen in eastern Ukraine have been shown off at a press conference in the rebel-held town of Slavyansk.
The group, looking tired but unharmed, appeared next to Slavyansk's self-appointed separatist "mayor", Vyacheslav Ponomarev. They include four Germans, a Pole, a Dane, a Swede and a Czech officer. The rebels did not exhibit five members of Ukraine's armed forces captured at the same time on Friday.
Speaking in German, the senior officer, Colonel Axel Schneider, defended his mission to the region, under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). He said claims by Ponomarev that the group were Nato spies were blatantly false. "We are not Nato," he said. "Our mission was transparent. All OSCE members including Russia knew about it."
Schneider said his team had acted entirely within diplomatic protocols. He said they had not attempted to enter Slavyansk but were instead a few miles south of the town, heading back towards Donetsk, when armed gunmen intercepted their mini-van. He said they had been looking for tanks and artillery at the time but had not found any.
The rebels have described the kidnapped Europeans as "prisoners of war" and have said they might be bartered for pro-Russian activists sitting in jail in Kiev. Schneider said he had no idea what the method for a prisoner-swap might be, adding: "We are completely in the hands of mayor Ponomarev."
Masked gunmen escorted the EU nationals into the room in Slavyansk's town hall. Schneider said they had not been ill-treated, but said: "I cannot go home of my free will."
Earlier, Ponomaryov, who was wearing a pistol in a holster and was escorted by two armed bodyguards, told reporters that the OSCE observers "are not our hostages – they are our guests".
Schneider said they had initially been housed in a basement but were transferred on Saturday to a comfortable room with light and air-conditioning. He said they had agreed to take part in a press conference at Ponomarev's suggestion "so our families might see us".
The account of the kidnapping raises questions as to whether the rebels were tipped off about the group's movements in advance. The road between Slavyansk and Kramatorsk, nine miles (15km) to the south, is usually safe, with traffic flowing regularly in both directions. The one rebel check point on the outskirts of Kramatorsk is low-key. The military observers were carrying ID but were not wearing uniforms and were unarmed.
Schnedier denied rebel claims he had come to the area with spying equipment and said: "We just had small cameras with us." The mayor could use the group to get his message out, he added. Ponomarev, however, said he would not release the kidnapped military observers despite negotiations between the separatists and the Vienna-based OSCE. "We are in a war situation," he declared.
The pro-Russian militia is also holding Ukrainian journalists, local residents and the town's elected mayor, who has been allowed visits from her family and hairdresser. Another Ukrainian reporter, Lviv-based Yury Lelyavsky, was seized on Friday. The Europeans appear to be high-value bargaining chips as the west prepares for further confrontation with Moscow.
The G7 is expected to announce on Monday an expansion of the list of Russian individuals and companies subject to sanctions. They will include close friends of Russia's president, Pig Putin, as well as those allegedly involved in co-ordinating unrest across Ukraine. The US and EU accuse Moscow of failing to implement a deal agreed in Geneva under which illegal groups would end takeovers of official buildings and give up their weapons.
The British foreign secretary, William Hague, said that while diplomatic routes to de-escalate the crisis remained open, Europe and the US were also working on more far-reaching measures of economic, trade and financial sanctions in case Russia did not back down.
"Those are for the future. What we will hear about in the coming days, what we will agree … is an expansion of existing sanctions, measures against individuals or entities in Russia," Hague told Sky News.
He said Britain and its allies would be willing to accept the potential costs to their own countries of implementing further reaching economic or trade sanctions.
"It would be a price worth paying if this situation continues to deteriorate," Hage said. "We will calculate them in way that has the maximum effect on the Russian economy and the minimum effect on our own economy and the European Union's."
Hague said international observers being held by pro-Russian separatists should be released "immediately and unconditionally" and called on Russia to assist by lobbying the rebel groups.
On Saturday, a standoff continued between armed pro-Russian militias in Slavyansk and the Ukrainian army down the road. Ukraine's national guard established a checkpoint 13 miles to the north of the rebel town, on the main highway to Kharkiv. "I love my country. I'm defending it against the fascists over there," said 23-year-old soldier Andrei, gesturing towards Slavyansk.
Officers made clear they had no orders to storm Slavyansk. Instead they said their role was to prevent weapons reaching the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic".
Andrei said he had arrived at the checkpoint that morning. "We are going to win," he declared cheerfully. "We're stronger." Another soldier, lying under a blossoming tree, added: "We're going to win because we believe in God. He's on our side."
Despite the threat of war, the situation in Slavyansk was remarkably calm. Traffic, including scheduled buses, flowed in and out of town, waved through tyre checkpoints by militia volunteers. One militia checkpoint proclaimed "Stop Nato" and "Love, family and peace."
"The government in Kiev doesn't want to listen to us," said Volodya, a 49-year-old electrician. "They say they're the good guys and that we are bad guys and separatists." Volodya said that when he went to school in the Soviet Union in the 1980s he learned that Stepan Bandera – the Ukrainian nationalist leader during the second world war and venerated by the west of the country – was a fascist. He called Ponomarev a "hero on the barricades".
John Kerry discusses Ukraine crisis with Russian foreign minister
• US concerned by 'provocative' Russian troop movements
• Sergei Lavrov says Ukraine must stop military action
Guardian staff and agencies
theguardian.com, Saturday 26 April 2014 21.02 BST
John Kerry has expressed concern about "provocative" Russian troop movements along the border with Ukraine in a phone call to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, according to a US official.
The official said the US secretary of state had also urged Russia to support efforts to free the members of a mission from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), who are being held in the city of Slavyansk.
On Saturday the separatist leader Igor Strelkov made his first public appearance in the pro-Russian rebels' de facto capital. In an interview with Russian channels, he described the captured military representatives as "Nato spies".
The Russian foreign ministry said "public structures" controlling parts of south-eastern Ukraine had not been properly informed of the observers' plans to travel there.
The ministry also said Lavrov had told Kerry that Ukraine must stop military operations in the south-east, and urged the US to use its influence to secure the release of leaders of the pro-Russian "protest movement" in south-eastern Ukraine.
Kerry "expressed continued concern that Russia's provocative troop movements on Ukraine's border, its support for separatists and its inflammatory rhetoric are undermining stability, security and unity in Ukraine," the senior state department official said.
He also "urged Russian support without preconditions for the efforts of the OSCE and the government of Ukraine to liberate the Vienna Document [OSCE] inspectors and their Ukrainian guides who are being held hostage by pro-Russian separatists in Slovyansk."
Kerry's comments came as the Group of Seven top economies and the European Union signalled they would step up economic pressure on Moscow early next week, amid fears Russia is preparing an invasion of eastern Ukraine.
The US president, Barack Obama, said on Sunday that it was necessary to send a message to Russia that its “destabilizing” actions in eastern and southern Ukraine must stop.
Speaking at a news conference during a visit to Malaysia, Obama said any decision on whether to slap “sectoral” sanctions on the Russian economy would depend on whether the US and its allies could agree. The next round of sanctions, which could be unveiled as early as Monday, are expected to target Russian individuals.
The Ukrainian prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, in Italy to visit the pope and the prime minister, Mateo Renzi, claimed Russia violated his country's airspace seven times overnight, with an aim "to provoke" it into starting a war.
Moscow denied any transgression by its warplanes, with Lavrov calling for "urgent measures" to de-escalate the crisis that has plunged east-west relations to their lowest point since the cold war.
Pope Francis gave Yatsenyuk a fountain pen, telling him: "I hope that you write 'peace' with this pen."
Yatsenyuk replied: "I hope so, too."
For Russia, Negatives Seem to Outweigh Positives of an Invasion
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
APRIL 26, 2014
MOSCOW — Ukraine becomes more of a tinderbox by the day.
Thousands of Russian troops are maneuvering along the border, with Russian fighter jets menacing Ukraine’s airspace. Ukrainian leaders have warned that border crossings by any soldiers would be considered an invasion, even while the country pursues military operations against a pro-Russian rebellion in the east. Washington and Moscow hurl ever more heated pronouncements. The first casualties lie in fresh graves.
No less an authority than Gen. Philip M. Breedlove of the United States Air Force, NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe, has said Russia could overrun eastern Ukraine in three to five days. In other words, Russia could basically achieve its goal of creating a neutral, weak Ukraine almost instantly.
But will it?
At first glance, the Russian president, Pig V. Putin, seems to have strong reasons to dispatch his tanks: shaping the Ukraine he wants well before elections scheduled for May 25 put a new, legitimate government in place; reclaiming an area that was historically part of Russia; gaining direct access to natural resources and factories that have been crucial to Moscow’s military-industrial complex since Soviet times. And his land grab of Crimea in March made him wildly popular at home.
Yet the reasons for the Pig to refrain from further military adventurism make a longer, more tangled list: the cost of a huge occupation force and the responsibility for the welfare of millions more people; the effect of new, more severe Western sanctions on an already weak economy; the possibility of significant Russian casualties caused by an insurgency in eastern Ukraine; a new, implacably anti-Russian western section of Ukraine; and likely pariah status internationally.
On balance, the negatives would seem to outweigh the positives, analysts said.
“Military intervention from Putin’s point of view is Plan B,” Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor and expert on Russia’s security forces currently doing research here, said recently. “It is not off the table, but it is not the ideal outcome.”
The Pig would rather feed the insurrection from afar, analysts said, never quite allowing the calm that would give Ukraine the opening needed to join the European Union, or worse, NATO. It is a tactic Russia has used successfully in previous attempts by former Soviet republics to shift westward.
However, any conversation or briefing paper about Russia’s next moves begins with a broad caveat. Few expected that the Pig would seize Crimea in a matter of weeks.
“Nobody, including Pig, knows what he may do next as the situation changes,” the Royal United Services Institute, a military and security research organization in London, said in an analysis this month.
There are signs that Russia seems poised to invade.
On Thursday, Ukraine started tentative armed operations to dislodge pro-Russian militants from government buildings in 10 eastern towns. Russia countered with extensive military maneuvers along the frontier, including what the Pentagon said were half a dozen violations of Ukrainian airspace in 24 hours. Russia denied that.
The Pig used historical arguments to claim Crimea. He recently inaugurated a similar discourse on southeastern Ukraine, noting that huge parts of it were called Novorossiya, or New Russia, when first captured in czarist times. The rights of ethnic Russians still living there need to be protected, he said.
Significant Russian military assets, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, Navy ship gears, and jet and helicopter engines, are produced in eastern Ukraine. Vladislav Zubok, a Russian Cold War expert teaching at the London School of Economics who has been researching the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, said senior Soviet officials were panicked at the prospect of losing both Crimea and Ukraine’s industrial heartland. So the current crisis has deep roots.
But nothing is that straightforward.
Perhaps a more significant precedent, Professor Zubok said, are the high-profile military maneuvers, without an invasion, long recommended by the K.G.B. to destabilize restive neighbors. Russia deployed that tactic in Berlin in 1958, and in Poland during the 1980-81 Solidarity uprisings, for example. If Moscow is following that strategy now, no invasion is imminent, he said.
The main factor arguing against invasion is the risk to Russia’s prosperity, which the Pig restored.
“Pig will have to explain why he is risking war and sanctions and how he will improve the lot of seven million people there,” Professor Zubok said. “How to do that and still maintain the standard of living of all Russians? He would really be saying: ‘Guys, it is all for the Russian motherland now. It is time to tighten your belts.’ ”
The economic fallout from Crimea has already shoved Russia toward recession, with capital flight and skittish foreign investors. Russia’s credit rating was cut Friday by Standard & Poor’s to just one notch above “junk” status, pushing up the cost of much-needed loans abroad.
The Pig and his closest advisers and allies have brushed off the Western travel and banking sanctions imposed on them after the seizing of Crimea. But the threat of a major economic blockade, sanctions against entire sectors of the economy that would probably be set off by a Ukraine invasion, are another matter.
“The scenario is like what happened to Iran,” said Igor Korotchenko, a member of a civilian board that advises the Russian military and the editor in chief of National Defense Magazine. “The Russian Federation is not interested in bringing troops into eastern Ukraine.”
Beyond economics, the specter of Slavs killing Slavs would soon sour the Russian public on any invasion. Although the Ukrainian Army is weak, it numbers 70,000, and the country has a history of partisans’ attacking invaders. Mr. Korotchenko said Russians would probably embrace military intervention only if the army was dispatched as a peacekeeping force should the Ukrainian military cause mass casualties.
And the locals could also prove hostile. In eastern Ukraine, regional polls have found that at most one-third of the population, depending on the city, supports joining Russia.
In Crimea, Russian soldiers were greeted warmly, and needed to hold only the Isthmus of Perekop, three miles wide, to sever Crimea from Ukraine. In eastern Ukraine, if the 40,000 Russian troops now estimated to be camped along the border crossed over, they would probably be attacked. Russia would also be responsible for a flood of refugees.
“You cannot occupy this region only with these small green men,” said Alexander M. Golts, an independent Russian military analyst, referring to the anonymous soldiers in Crimea whom the Pig later admitted were elite Russian soldiers. “So you beat those poor Ukrainians. What then? You will have to establish a new border. You will not need 40,000 troops, you will need 140,000.”
Ultimately, analysts said, it is much more advantageous — and far cheaper — for Russia to manipulate a low-grade mutiny with occasional flare-ups.
That will achieve the goal the Pig wants: keeping Ukraine just destabilized enough that it remains an unattractive partner to the European Union or NATO. Russia played out the same script before in Georgia and Moldova.
“It would be a tank-free invasion,” said Cliff Kupchan, an analyst at the Eurasia Group in Washington. “That is his long game. I think he will try that before he invades.”
East Ukraine Irregulars Sign up to Fight Rebels and Russians
by Naharnet Newsdesk
27 April 2014, 13:29
Spectacles peeping through his balaclava, an amateur gun-enthusiast shows a group of recruits dressed head-to-toe in black how to strip a Kalashnikov rifle.
Past some abandoned agricultural equipment in a nearby field, five middle-aged trainees charge around a rudimentary obstacle course under the guidance of a rather portly comrade.
It may be based in a run-down farm building and claim only 100 members so far but this is the Donbass battalion, a volunteer brigade including taxi drivers, local businessmen and engineers that says it's banding together to battle separatist rebels and a possible Russian invasion in eastern Ukraine's most troubled region.
Dmitry Babkin said he did not want to leave his two teenage children, wife and Internet start-up business but the thought of tanks massing on his nation's border made him act when he found an appeal for people to join on Facebook.
"I signed up to stop outside aggression and to fight the Russians if they invade because our army isn't strong enough and we can't just rely on kids of 18," Babkin told AFP, taking off his ski-mask to reveal silver hair and a sunburned face.
"I'm ready to kill a Russian to defend our land," said Babkin, who served in the army for three years and is actually half-Russian.
Wearing a brown leather jacket and aviator sunglasses, the battalion's founder Semyon Semenchenko looks more like what he is -- a small business owner -- than an army commander despite his six years of military service.
Semenchenko, 38, says he got fed up waiting for the government to organize a promised volunteer force in the strife-torn Donetsk region so he decided to do it himself by launching an online call to arms some two weeks back that has already seen 500 people show interest.
His criteria for those wanting to join are simple -- you have to be a patriot, have a clean criminal record and no mental problems -- beyond that men of any age and experience are welcome.
Despite a recent claim by Dmytro Yarosh -- the leader of the far-right Pravy Sector group and bogeyman for the Russian press -- that he was setting up the group, Semenchenko denies any connection with the extremists.
"We are just an organized group of patriots. We want to take back our towns," Semenchenko says.
As for arms, the group appeared to have only a few automatic rifles and the occasional pistol -- all legally owned they claim -- but Semenchenko said they had enough weapons stored away "to do the job".
The battalion's new uniforms, bulletproof vests and even food come from private donations, he says, and the members do not get paid.
Despite having the insignia of the Ukrainian army on their uniforms, the group says it exists in a limbo -- cooperating with the local police to man a nearby roadblock but insisting they remain outside the control of any official security organ.
"If it comes to defending our homeland then of course we'd join them but until then its better to be the leader of a partisan group so that we don't have to obey any criminal or ineffective orders," Semenchenko says.
While the brigade might not have much chance against the force of the Russian army, what they lack in terms of military might they say they make up for with their desire to protect their homes.
"My grandson said to me that we had to stop running away and go on the attack, so I realized it was time to do something," says Zakhar, a local resident who comes originally from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, through his ski-mask.
Next to him another masked volunteer, Mikhail, says that with no signs of the unrest calming down, he fears he will not be going home anytime soon.
"We've all got families and I'd like us to just be able to go back to them peacefully," says Mikhail.
"That's the wish but the expectation is that we'll have to stay and be ready for anything."
Sanctions Revive Search for Secret Pig Putin Fortune
By PETER BAKER
APRIL 27, 2014
WASHINGTON — When the Obama administration imposed sanctions on individual Russians last month in response to Moscow’s armed intervention in Ukraine, one of the targets was a longtime part-owner of a commodities trading company called the Gunvor Group.
His name, Gennady N. Timchenko, meant little to most Americans, but buried in the Treasury Department announcement were a dozen words that President Obama and his team knew would not escape the attention of Russia’s president, Pig V. Putin. “Pig,” the statement said, “has investments in Gunvor and may have access to Gunvor funds.”
For years, the suspicion that the Pig has a secret fortune has intrigued scholars, industry analysts, opposition figures, journalists and intelligence agencies but defied their efforts to uncover it. Numbers are thrown around suggesting that the Pig may control $40 billion or even $70 billion, in theory making him the richest head of state in world history.
For all the rumors and speculation, though, there has been little if any hard evidence, and Gunvor has adamantly denied any financial ties to the Pig and repeated that denial on Friday.
But Mr. Obama’s response to the Ukraine crisis, while derided by critics as slow and weak, has reinvigorated a 15-year global hunt for the Pig's hidden wealth.
Now, as the Obama administration prepares to announce another round of sanctions as early as Monday targeting Russians it considers part of the Pig's financial circle, it is sending a not-very-subtle message that it thinks it knows where the Russian leader has his money, and that he could ultimately be targeted directly or indirectly.
“It’s something that could be done that would send a very clear signal of taking the gloves off and not just dance around it,” said Juan C. Zarate, a White House counterterrorism adviser to President George W. Bush who helped pioneer the government’s modern financial campaign techniques to choke off terrorist money.
So far, the American government has not imposed sanctions on the Pig himself, and officials said they would not in the short term, reasoning that personally targeting a head of state would amount to a “nuclear” escalation, as several put it.
But officials said they hoped to get the Pig's attention by targeting figures close to him like Mr. Timchenko, and other business magnates like Yuri V. Kovalchuk, Vladimir I. Yakunin and Arkady and Boris Rotenberg.
Among those likely to be on Monday’s list, officials said, are Igor Sechin, president of the Rosneft state oil company, and Aleksei Miller, head of the Gazprom state energy giant.
“It’s like standing in a circle and all of a sudden everyone in the circle is getting a bomb thrown on them, and you get the message that it’s getting close,” said Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, describing at a recent hearing the way the sanctions are getting closer to Pig Putin.
The Pig's Denials
The Pig's reported income for 2013 was just $102,000, according to a Kremlin statement this month. Over the years, he has crudely dismissed suggestions of personal wealth. “I have seen some papers about this,” he said at a news conference in 2008. “Just gossip that’s not worth discussing. It’s simply rubbish. They picked everything out of someone’s nose and smeared it on their little papers.”
How much the Pig cares about money has long been a subject of debate both in Russia and in the West. On government payrolls since his days in the K.G.B., the Soviet intelligence agency, the Pig to many seemed driven more by power and nationalism than by material gain. With access to government perks like palaces, planes and luxury cars, he seemingly has little need for personal wealth.
“If he really does have all that money salted away somewhere, why?” asked Bruce K. Misamore, who was the chief financial officer of Yukos Oil before the Russian government imprisoned its top shareholder, Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, seized its assets and gave many of them to Mr. Sechin’s Rosneft. “What good does it do him? Is it just ego? Presumably, it’s not to pass it down to heirs. I doubt we’ll see the Pig becoming one of the leading philanthropists in the world.”
And yet, some have drawn attention to what appear to be expensive watches on his wrist and the construction of a seaside palace that the Kremlin denied was being built for the Pig. Some argue that Pig may want money, or the appearance of it, because it is the measure of stature and power in a society whose transition to capitalism has produced instant billionaires out of the wreckage of Communism.
“I came to the conclusion after time that some of these reports may be seeded by people around Pig himself,” said Fiona Hill, who was the chief Russia expert at the National Intelligence Council and last year co-wrote a book about the Pig. Putin. “Russians have to have the biggest and the best. It’s part of the mystique, part of the image.”
The Treasury Department has not provided evidence to back up its statement about the Pig, but standard policy requires it to have enough verification to withstand a court challenge. Gunvor, a Swiss-based firm that is the world’s fourth-largest oil trader and generated $91 billion in revenue last year, said it had subsequently provided documents to the Treasury Department that it said disproved any connection to the Pig.
Some Obama administration officials have argued for releasing details of what the United States knows about the Pig's wealth to expose him to the Russian public, a suggestion so far resisted by the White House. Some lawmakers in Congress are discussing legislation to require the administration to publish an estimate of the Pig's overall worth.
American diplomatic cables obtained by the antisecrecy organization WikiLeaks show sustained attention to the subject. The cables tied the Pig not only to Gunvor but also to Surgutneftegaz, a large oil company, and even to Gazprom, but they used words like “rumored.” In one cable, for instance, diplomats cited a General Electric executive working in the region who privately said that Mr. Yakunin, the president of the state-owned Russian Railways, “has made sizable cash payments to Putin” and estimated that the Russian leader was worth “well over $10 billion.”
The C.I.A. in 2007 produced a secret assessment of Pig's wealth that has never been released, according to officials who have read it. The assessment, the officials said, largely tracked with assertions later made publicly by a Russian political analyst who said the Pig effectively controlled holdings in Gunvor, Gazprom and Surgutneftegaz that added up to about $40 billion at the time.
Trailed by Suspicion
From the start of his political career, Pig has been dogged by suspicion. While he was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in the 1990s, his office signed deals giving favored companies licenses to export $92 million in oil, timber, metal and other products in exchange for an equal amount of imported food. But the food never materialized.
Pig was not accused of personally benefiting, but a City Council committee led by Marina Salye recommended the Pig's dismissal for “incompetence” and “unprecedented negligence and irresponsibility.” She also pushed for prosecutors to investigate. Mr. Putin blamed the companies involved and was spared by the mayor, Anatoly A. Sobchak, his political patron.
Still, it was not clear whether the Pig in that era coveted money for himself or was more interested in deciding how it would be distributed as state assets were gobbled up by newly minted capitalists. Boris A. Berezovsky, the tycoon who helped install Mr. Putin in the Kremlin only to fall out with him and become his most bitter opponent, told a story of seeking and receiving Mr. Putin’s help with a business venture in St. Petersburg and then offering him a bribe in thanks, only to be turned down.
For the United States, seeking intelligence on Russia became a lower priority after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But Washington got a rare look into the world of money and the Kremlin after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Charles A. Duelfer, the weapons inspector, uncovered a web of lucrative Iraqi oil vouchers given to close the Pig's associates, including his chief of staff and the presidential office itself, in hope of eroding support for international sanctions.
In a later book, Mr. Duelfer wrote that Colin L. Powell, then the secretary of state, objected to mentioning the Pig for diplomatic reasons. By listing a Russian state company under Mr. Putin’s control, Mr. Powell said, “you are implicating Putin.” Mr. Duelfer said he reluctantly took Mr. Putin’s name out of the report. Mr. Powell said last week that he did not recall the episode.
In 2006, Mr. Bush kicked off an initiative targeting corrupt foreign leaders. Over the next year, his administration focused attention on learning more about the finances of leaders in the former Soviet Union, like Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus.
The 2007 C.I.A. assessment grew out of that. But different officials came away with different impressions of its reliability. Some said they considered it a reasonable appraisal of the Pig worth based on solid reporting. Others said they considered it to be built largely on speculation and unsubstantiated talk.
Either way, the assessment roughly mirrored estimates made publicly at the end of that year by Stanislav Belkovsky, a Russian political analyst with ties to the Kremlin whose public attack on oligarchs several years earlier had presaged the arrest and prosecution of Mr. Khodorkovsky of Yukos.
Mr. Belkovsky told European newspapers in December 2007 that the Pig had amassed a fortune of “at least” $40 billion through sizable shares of some of Russia’s largest energy companies. Pig secretly controlled “at least 75 percent” of Gunvor, 4.5 percent of Gazprom and 37 percent of Surgutneftegaz, Mr. Belkovsky said, citing only unnamed Kremlin insiders.
“The reality is that the Pig has others and entities to move money that he controls or that he might control ultimately,” said Mr. Zarate, the former Bush adviser. “The challenge with him is you don’t have an easy way of drawing the line to the assets he actually owns and controls currently. There’s a dimension of layering and relationships with people with whom he’s close and entities that serve as conduits that make it tricky to determine what is Putin’s and what is not.”
Efforts to Open Curtain
In the years since, others have taken a look at the Pig finances. The magazine The Economist linked the Pig to Mr. Timchenko in 2008. Mr. Timchenko sued but later dropped the case, and The Economist issued a statement. “We accept Gunvor’s assurances that neither Vladimir Putin nor any other senior Russian political figures have any ownership in Gunvor,” the magazine said.
In 2010, Sergei Kolesnikov, a businessman, published an open letter saying he had helped Pig secretly build a billion-dollar palace on the Black Sea. The Kremlin dismissed his claims as “absurd.” In 2012, Boris Y. Nemtsov, an opposition leader, released a report detailing the presidential perks at Mr. Putin’s disposal, including 20 residences, 15 helicopters, four yachts and 43 aircraft.
But some hunting for Mr. Putin’s private wealth have found obstacles. Last month, Cambridge University Press declined to publish a book by its longtime author Karen Dawisha, a Miami University professor, exploring how the Pig built “a kleptocratic and authoritarian regime in Russia.” The publisher wrote her saying it had “no reason to doubt the veracity” of her book, but deemed the risk of a lawsuit too high, according to letters published by The Economist. In a return letter, Ms. Dawisha called the decision “pre-emptive book burning.”
All of which makes the Treasury Department’s assertions last month so striking. In addition to targeting Mr. Timchenko, one of the founders of Gunvor, the department froze any American assets of Mr. Kovalchuk and his Bank Rossiya. It described Rossiya as “the personal bank for senior officials,” and described Mr. Kovalchuk as one of Mr. Putin’s “cashiers.”
Mr. Timchenko denied the assertions and sold his 43 percent share in Gunvor to his partner, Torbjorn Tornqvist, the day before the sanctions were issued to avoid repercussions to the firm. The sale contract has no conditions or provisions for buying the shares back, and Mr. Tornqvist now holds 87 percent of the company, while senior employees own the rest, the company said.
Seth Thomas Pietras, Gunvor’s corporate affairs director, said Pig “does not and never has had any ownership, direct, indirect or otherwise, in Gunvor,” nor is he “a beneficiary of Gunvor,” and “he has no access to Gunvor’s funds.” After the sanctions statement, Gunvor executives flew to Washington to meet with State Department officials and congressional aides. “We’re providing evidence but have not seen any sort of evidence from them yet and don’t know if we ever will,” Mr. Pietras said. He said the company’s banking partners had been satisfied by its explanations.
The Treasury Department, however, was not. “We remain confident that the information on the relationship between the Pig and Gunvor is accurate,” said a Treasury official, who asked not to be identified in a public dispute with the company.
Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess master turned opposition leader, said the Pig's wealth must be so buried that it would be difficult to prove within the standards typically required by American lawyers. “I’m sure it’s reachable, but you might have to break some of the rules to reach it,” he said. The sanctions issued so far, he said, have not made enough of an impression. “They have to convince the Pig that it will be serious,” he said.