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04/12/2013 07:18 PM

Wagner's Dark Shadow: Can We Separate the Man from His Works?

By Dirk Kurbjuweit

Born 200 years ago, Germany's most controversial composer's music is cherished around the world, though it will always be clouded by his anti-Semitism and posthumous association with Adolf Hitler. Richard Wagner's legacy prompts the question: Can Germans enjoy any part of their history in a carefree way?

Stephan Balkenhol is not deeply moved, overwhelmed or delighted. He doesn't brood over the myth and the evil. It doesn't bother him and he isn't disgusted. He rolls a cigarette, gets up, digs around in his record cabinet and pulls out an old "Tannhäuser" by Richard Wagner, a Hungarian recording he bought at a flee market. He puts on the record, and the somewhat crackling music of the prelude begins to play. Balkenhol sits down again and smokes as slowly as he speaks. He doesn't mention the music, and he still doesn't feel deeply moved, overwhelmed or delighted. For him, it's just music.

That makes Balkenhol, 56, an exception, an absolute one among those who concern themselves with Wagner. Balkenhol remains unruffled. He drops two steaks into a pan, and as they sizzle, "Tannhäuser" fades into the background.

Balkenhol is a sculptor who was commissioned to create a sculpture of Wagner. He has until May 22, the composer's 200th birthday, when the new monument will be unveiled in Wagner's native Leipzig. This is the year of Wagner, but Balkenhol is keeping his cool. He isn't worried about creating a realistic likeness of the composer, with his distinctive face, high forehead, large nose and strong chin. Wagner was somewhat ugly, and Balkenhol won't try to portray him any differently.

The Composer Who Influenced Hitler

He won't need a great deal of bronze. Wagner was 1.66 meters (5'3") tall, and Balkenhol doesn't intend to make the statue much taller. He wants to give the sculpture a human dimension, avoiding exaggeration and pathos: a short man on a pedestal. But that wouldn't have been enough, because it would have belied Wagner's importance, so Balkenhol is placing an enormous shadow behind the sculpture. People can interpret it as they wish, says Balkenhol: as a symbol of a work that is larger than the man who created it, or as the dark shadow Wagner still casts today.

Music and the Holocaust come together in that shadow: one of the most beautiful things created by man, and one of the worst things human beings have ever done. Wagner, the mad genius, was more than a composer. He also influenced Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, even though he was already dead when the 12-year-old Hitler heard his music live for the first time, when he attended a production of "Lohengrin" in the Austrian city of Linz in 1901. Describing the experience, during which he stood in a standing-room only section of the theater, Hitler wrote: "I was captivated immediately."

Many others feel the same way. They listen to Wagner and are captivated, overwhelmed, smitten and delighted. Nike Wagner, the composer's great-granddaughter, puts the question that this raises in these terms: "Should we allow ourselves to listen to his works with pleasure, even though we know that he was an anti-Semite?" There's a bigger issue behind this question: Can Germans enjoy any part of their history in a carefree way?

The Nazi years lie like a bolt over the memory of a good Germany, of the composers, poets and philosophers who gave the world so much beauty and enlightenment in the 18th and 19th centuries: Kant, Hegel, Goethe, Schiller, Beethoven, Wagner and the Romantics. Nevertheless, the Germans elected a man like Hitler and, under his leadership, unleashed an inferno. In only a few years, a nation of culture was turned into one of modern barbarians. Is it not also possible that Germany's illustrious past in fact led it irrevocably towards the rise of the Nazis? Could the philosophical abstraction, artistic elation and yearning for collective salvation that drove the country also have contributed to its ultimate derailing into the kind of mania that defined the years of National Socialism? After all, it wasn't just the dull masses that followed the Führer. Members of the cultural elite were also on their knees.

Some were later shunned as a result, at least temporarily, like writer Ernst Jünger, poet Gottfried Benn and philosopher Martin Heidegger. But the situation is more complicated with Wagner, because he wasn't even alive during the Nazi years. Nevertheless, Hitler was able to learn from him. There was a bit of Wagner in Hitler, which is why the fascist leader also figures prominently in our memory of the composer.

It also explains why the shadow over the composer's legacy is so big. Any discussion of Wagner is also a discussion of denatured history, and of the inability of Germans to fully appreciate themselves and the beautiful, noble sides of their own history. Anyone who studies Wagner can perceive two strong forces, the light force of music and the dark force of the Nazi era. There are many people who cannot and do not wish to ignore this effect. They are at the mercy of Wagner's power. These are the types of people at issue here, people whose lives have fallen under Wagner's spell and who don't know what to make of their fascination.

Hitler as Wagner's Creation

Journalist Joachim Köhler, 60, described the dark side of Wagner in an especially drastic manner in his 1997 book "Wagner's Hitler -- The Prophet and His Disciple." In the 500-page work, published in German, Köhler portrays Hitler as Wagner's creation. When Hitler heard the opera "Rienzi," Köhler writes, quoting the Nazi leader, it occurred to him for the first time that he too could become a tribune of the people or a politician.

Wagner's hateful essay "Judaism in Music" offered Hitler an idea of how far one could go with anti-Semitism. The composer invokes the downfall of the Jews. Köhler detected plenty of anti-Semitism in Wagner's operas. Characters like Mime in "Siegfried" and Kundry in "Parsifal," he argued, are evil caricatures of the supposedly inferior Jews. Köhler felt that "Parsifal" anticipated the racial theories of the Nazis, quoting propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels as saying: "Richard Wagner taught us what the Jew is."

In the 1920s, Wagner's daughter-in-law Winifred invited the young Hitler to attend the Bayreuth Festival on the Green Hill in the Bavarian city of Bayreuth. When he was in prison writing "Mein Kampf," she sent him ink, pencils and erasers. According to Köhler's interpretation in 1997, the Green Hill was a fortress of evil and Wagner the forefather of the Holocaust.

Germany's Most Important Social Event
The scene is that fortress of evil, Green Hill in Bayreuth, on July 25, 2012, the premier of "The Flying Dutchman." German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in the audience, together with a half-dozen top politicians from Berlin. It's hot, the men are wearing tuxedos and the women long dresses, and their hairdos seem to shrink as the hours wear on. The Bayreuth Festival is still the country's most important social event, but it is also a drably German affair. The guests consume bratwurst in large numbers, the famous bratwurst of the Bayreuth Festival. Nowadays there is even a lobster bratwurst, which says a lot. But even the dressed-up version of bratwurst is still just a bratwurst, and German society is still a bratwurst society, no matter how sophisticated its behavior.

When the music is playing, the Festspielhaus (Festival Theater) soon becomes a disaster area. The seats are hard and packed tightly together, and it's warm and muggy inside. The audience becomes restless, the men remove their tuxedo jackets, the women fan themselves with their programs, the air becomes thick with body odor and an old woman in the lower right-hand section of the theater has to be carried out by medical personnel. Soon mobile phones are slipping out of the pockets of the tuxedo jackets, which the men have placed across their knees, crashing to the floor while Christian Thielemann directs the "Dutchman."

A young man is sitting around the middle of the orchestra section, with his hand on his companion's knee. His body twitches whenever the singers appear, as if he were trying to contribute to the success of the production. When applause erupts at the end, he gets up and pushes his way past people still in their seats and heads for the exit. The singers are applauded, the director is applauded, there is much clapping and stamping of feet and cheering, and a flood of bravos, and then the young man from the orchestra steps onto the stage. The audience's response is even louder than before, but now it consists of boos and whistles, loud and shrill.

Hitler Returns to Green Hill

Eight months later, the young man, Jan Philipp Gloger is sitting in a restaurant in the southwestern city of Mainz. He directed "Dutchman" in 2012. "I was prepared for the boos," he says, and in fact directors in Bayreuth are often met with harsh criticism. Gloger, 32, says he can live with the boos, which he considers normal. But in his case there was also something else, at it was worse than the catcalls. Suddenly Hitler was there again, and Hitler's presence in Bayreuth is a big deal, even today.

Hitler didn't know very much about Wagner when he received the invitation to the Green Hill. In the biographies he read, Wagner was portrayed "as a person with a horrible life." He used women, deceived friends and was constantly groveling for money to pay for his luxurious lifestyle. One case, in particular, is illustrative of what Wagner was like. He was in a relationship with Cosima von Bülow, the wife of a director who often worked for Wagner. She had a child fathered by Wagner, which she foisted on her husband. When rumors surfaced about the affair, Wagner wrote a public apology for Cosima, which he had signed by his patron Ludwig II, King of Bavaria. Wagner later married Cosima.

He was fleeing from creditors when he was caught in a severe storm in the North Sea. According to legend, the experience inspired him to compose "The Flying Dutchman." Gloger wanted to stage the opera without any allusions to Wagner's anti-Semitism or the Nazis. He wanted to avoid the past and the constant references to Hitler and create a more contemporary production. He turned the Dutchman into a "modern traveler" who suffers from "restlessness and emotional emptiness." The singer he chose for the role was Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin, who, according to Gloger, demonstrated "immense empathy" during rehearsals and sometimes wept as he sang.

Gloger was watching the rehearsals for "Lohengrin" in Bayreuth when he was told that there was a problem. Runes that had also been used by the SS were tattooed on Nikitin's body. Gloger sat down for a beer with Nikitin, who told him that the images were spiritual symbols of the Vikings. Then it emerged that Nikitin also had a tattoo on his chest that looked like a swastika. The premier was in five days.

Suddenly German's past had come back to haunt Germany's present. Could an opera singer perform in Bayreuth with runes and a swastika on his chest, despite "Judaism in Music," and despite Winifred and Hitler? Nikitin withdrew from the role, Gloger hastily rehearsed with another bass-baritone, and on the day of the premier he tried to explain to journalists at a press conference that it was his production, that he and his team had done a great deal of hard work, and so on. It was very hot in the press room, and it was a very German situation. Someone said that Hitler wasn't everything, and that everyone shouldn't always obssess about him. In the end, though, the conversation inevitably returned to the topic of Hitler.

As Gloger tells his story at the restaurant in Mainz, he comes across as one of the defeated in German history. He says that you only get a chance like that once, and that it was "presumably the biggest production of my life." But what remains of it is the image of a swastika on the chest of a singer who ended up not singing because of it. Gloger looks sad today, a man who reached for the stars at an early age and, like Siegfried, failed tragically. Those who become involved with Wagner can soon come across like one of his characters. There is still a spell, both good and evil alike, hanging over the Green Hill.

A Wagner Enthusiast in Israel
Jonathan Livny, 65, experiences the good spell every time he visits Bayreuth, and he comes here often. During the intermissions, he eavesdrops on the conversations of other audience members, and is pleased when he hears Hebrew, his own language. Livny is Israeli, and he loves the music of Wagner.

His father, a Jew living in Germany, recognized during the 1930s that calamity was brewing and emigrated to Palestine. He was the only member of his family to do so and the rest perished in the Holocaust. His son Jonathan says today: "God died in Auschwitz."

Livny is sitting in the lobby of a Jerusalem hotel, next to a Christmas tree that hasn't been taken down yet. He weeps when he talks about his lost family. He says that his father took along records from Germany, including Wagner's "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg." According to author Köhler, Hitler could hum and whistle the melodies of the opera. "My father loved Wagner," says Livny, who travels halfway around the world to see Wagner's most important work, "The Ring of the Nibelung." He lists all the places where he has already seen it performed: Toronto, San Francisco, Strasbourg, Berlin, Paris, Sydney, London, Milan, Vienna, Los Angeles.

Livny speaks quickly and briskly. He wears colorful glasses and drove to the hotel on a motor scooter. He has tried twice to have Wagner performed publicly in Israel. Although it isn't prohibited, Livny failed both times.

A Hideous Man Who Made 'Heavenly Music'

To some extent the now 86-year-old Israeli journalist Noah Klieger may be to blame for this. Klieger survived Auschwitz by pretending to be a boxer. The larger food rations for the boxing team saved him. Klieger speaks as animatedly as Livny, but not as quickly.

Klieger doesn't oppose concerts in Israel because Wagner was an anti-Semite. If that were the case, he says, he would also have to take a stance against performances of the music of Richard Strauss. "Wagner was more than an anti-Semite. He wanted the extermination of all Jews," he says. He cites as evidence a letter to Cosima, who had told her husband about a fire in a Vienna theater which killed hundreds, half of them Jews, during a performance of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's "Nathan the Wise". Wagner replied: "All Jews should burn to death in a performance of 'Nathan'." People can certainly listen to Wagner at home, says Klieger, but he feels that a public concert would be intolerable. Given his public tensions with Livny, Klieger even refused to take part in a public discussion with him.

Of course, that's not all that surprising given that Livny called Klieger "a professional Holocaust survivor." In Israel, this is considered a vilification of people whose position in public debates is shaped by their experiences during the Nazi era. "Wagner was a hideous man, but he made heavenly music," says Livny. He separates the man from his works, which is the reason he chooses not to pursue his cause this year. If he did, he says, it would look as though he were trying to honor Wagner in the year of Wagner, which he isn't. For Livny, it's all about the music.

Two years ago, he founded the Israeli Wagner Society "to break the last symbol of the hatred of Germans." Volkswagen has become a popular brand of car among Israelis today, says Livny, "even though it was Hitler's invention." That's why he doesn't understand people like Klieger.

Livny says he has been spat at and has received threatening phone calls. "The more they threaten me," he says, "the more I want there to be a concert. The music isn't anti-Semitic."

But is music even possible without context, and without the history of its creation and impact? Let's look at two attempts to talk about the music, and nothing but the music.

Christian Thielemann, 54, a director who specializes in Wagner, knows what it's like to perform his music in Bayreuth. You have to "remain fluid," former Festival Director Wolfgang Wagner once told him, and his wife Gudrun said that it was important to "go the distance." And that's what Thielemann does: He remains fluid and he goes the distance, whatever that means. There is a telephone in the orchestra pit, and when it lit up during rehearsals, he knew that it was festival director Wolfgang Wagner calling to tell him that it was "too loud, too loud, too loud." It's easy to get too loud in Bayreuth, says Thielemann, which is why it is important never to direct "forte." "If the director is enjoying himself too much, it's the beginning of the end," says Thielemann. There is apparently so much power in this music that a director must treat it gently to prevent it from becoming an assault.

A State of Ecstasy and Intoxication

Markus Käbisch, 45, is adept at describing what it's like to listen to this music. He studied music and is now an entrepreneur in the solar industry. He lives in Leipzig, Wagner's birthplace, and at some point he noticed that the composer "is hardly ever mentioned in Leipzig." He established an association with the goal of giving the city a monument of its famous son, but donors were few and far between. "I suspect," he says, "that there is a concern that it might not fit to the image of a liberal, cosmopolitan city." He raised the money elsewhere, and now artist Stephan Balkenhol is working on a sculpture that incorporates a shadow.

Käbisch loves Wagner's music but says he "couldn't handle it every day." He describes it as being, "extremely captivating; when you listen to it the ego and the individual disappear, and you become intoxicated, entering a state of ecstasy." Käbisch calls it "overpowering music." "That's what is so dangerous about it, and it's why this music was so well-suited to politics in the Third Reich." When the conversation turns to Wagner, politics is never far away.

Wagner himself conceived his music as political. He didn't want to be merely an artist, but to build a new society, a society of the emotionally transported, of people who seek love instead of striving for money and power. His music was also a propaganda tool for this idea.

This was convenient for the Nazis, because they too used intoxication, ecstasy and overpowering images in their propaganda, such as at their Nuremberg rallies. In the Germans, they encountered a pronounced susceptibility to emotional turmoil and pathos, which is particularly evident in German Romanticism, in the poetry of Friedrich Schiller or the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. An essentially German longing permeates Wagner's music.

In German politics, this pathos ceased to be possible after Hitler, in contrast to the United States or France. Germans can still relish in the music of Wagner, as long as they take the position that the music is innocent or that they don't care about the political context of art. Then it becomes an innocent pathos. This is one of the aspects of Germans' enjoyment of Wagner.

The Wagners: A German Family Straight Out of Greek Mythology
This is how Nike Wagner, the composer's great-granddaughter, answers her own question: "Yes, the composer of 'Tristan' was an anti-Semite and probably would have liked to burn down Paris. Wagner remains a moral problem. Nevertheless, today no one listens to Wagner from an 'ideological' perspective anymore. That's why we must allow the work to be separated from the character of its 200-year-old creator. Anti-Semitism clearly cannot be proven in his works."

She is saying this in the lobby of the Hotel Adlon in Berlin. One is tempted to search for clues of her great-grandfather in her face, but there are none. Wagner had coarse features, while Nike Wagner is petite with fine features.

Let's now take a look at the family itself. Given that there are so many Wagners, a small, albeit incomplete family tree is necessary in order to understand them better, one that only names the characters in this story. Here it goes: Richard and Cosima Wagner had a son named Siegfried, who married Winifred. They had two sons, Wolfgang and Wieland, who were the joint directors of the Bayreuth Festival from 1951 to 1966. Nike is Wieland's daughter, Eva Wagner-Pasquier is Wolfgang's daughter from his first marriage, and Katharina is his daughter from his second marriage.

For Germany, the Wagners are what the Atreidai are in Greek mythology. One of them, Atreus, committed a grave sin, casting a curse over all subsequent generations, beginning with Agamemnon and Menelaus, followed by Iphigenia, Orestes and Electra. The family is marked by enmity, as is the Wagner family.

The Nazi Stain

Nike Wagner lived in the Villa Wahnfried, which her great-grandfather had built in Bayreuth, and she more or less grew up in the Festspielhaus, the festival theater, where she played as a child and watched rehearsals. "In private, we were more likely to listen to Bach and Beethoven, while the teenagers were wild about Elvis Presley," she recalls. A strange, four-meter wall towered over the garden. Her father had it built to avoid having to look at his mother Winifred, who lived next door and continued to receive her old Nazi friends until her death in 1980. She once complained that the wall blocked out the sun.

Her father never entered his mother's house, says Nike Wagner. He accused her of dragging him into the Nazi affair. Wieland Wagner was Hitler's darling in Bayreuth. Hitler gave him a green Mercedes convertible for his 18th birthday, and he was favored as the heir apparent on the Green Hill. Wagner joined the Nazi Party and made a lot of money when he was granted the privilege of selling photographic portraits of Hitler. Later, as festival director, Wieland managed to portray himself among German intellectuals as the good Wagner by drawing attention to his grandfather's artistic sophistication.

Did Nike Wagner reproach him for his closeness to Hitler? Her father was 28 at the end of the Nazi era, so that his actions could not be attributed entirely to his mother's influence. "My father separated himself from the Nazi past in two ways: by condemning his mother and by esthetically purifying the stage. Of course, that didn't mean that Bayreuth suddenly became 'Nazi-free' or 'morally reeducated'."

She doesn't suffer from historical amnesia, but she is protective of her father. When Germans remember their history, the issue of what to preserve is always a key concern. What should remain, and what aspects of German history should continue to be portrayed in a positive light? Richard Wagner? And if not, at least Wieland Wagner, who made Bayreuth socially acceptable among intellectuals once again?

Katharina Wagner, 34, takes a similar approach to her cousin Nike. During a discussion of the Nazi era in a Berlin restaurant, she quickly turns to Winifred. The family has tacitly agreed that Winifred will carry the Nazi burden, so as to draw attention away from the others. But it wasn't that clear at all. In her book "Die Familie Wagner" ("The Wagner Family"), Brigitte Hamann writes that Winifred helped Jews during the Nazi period.

To this day, historians accuse the Wagners of withholding documents from those who study the Hitler years. In response, Nike and Katharina Wagner say that they, unlike others in the family, are willing to cooperate in every respect.

Katharina and Nike are completely different women. There is a sturdy and solid aspect to Katharina's demeanor that would seem more at home in a pub than in the family of a man who personifies German high culture. But her father Wolfgang and her great-grandfather had similar character traits.

Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner were not on good terms, even though they ran the Bayreuth Festival together. According to Nike Wagner, when Wieland died in 1966, his brother measured his apartment and then demanded rent from the brother's widow, Nike's mother, who was apparently unable to pay and forced to vacate the apartment, together with her children.

'Just Because You're a Wagner Doesn't Mean You're an Artist'

Nike Wagner lost her childhood home and later became a sharp critic of her Uncle Wolfgang, who ran the festival until 2008 and died two years later. She wanted to become his successor, together with her cousin Eva Wagner-Pasquier. In yet another twist in the battle between the clan, Eva broke off the alliance once it became clear to her that she would only get the job if she teamed up with Katharina. The two half-sisters have run the Bayreuth Festival since 2008, with Katharina also working at times as a director.

"I'm not passing judgment," says Nike. "The two women should go ahead and prove that they can do it." She does have a few bones to pick, though, such as over "the incompetence in the renovation of Villa Wahnfried." Later in the conversation, she says sharply: "Just because your name is Wagner doesn't necessarily mean you're an artist."

Katharina Wagner shrugs her shoulders. Of course she has nothing against her cousin, she says, brushing off Nike's remarks with the composure of a winner. She is running the world-famous Wagner festival in Bayreuth, while her cousin is in charge of the art festival in Weimar. The somewhat coarser side of the family has prevailed over the more sophisticated side. That's just the way it is. But is there any hostility? No, says Katharina, of course not.

Nike goes to Bayreuth every summer. Sometimes she sees Katharina, but she doesn't speak with her. The two cousins have never spoken a word with each other, and Nike is still waiting for an invitation to reconcile over a glass of champagne. Still, she never approaches her cousin. She takes her seat in the Festspielhaus and listens to the music of her great-grandfather.

Was Wagner a Leftist?

In 1986, political scientist Udo Bermbach, now 75, sat there for the first time and watched the Ring cycle. He became obsessed with Wagner after that, with both the music and the composer's political side. He shifted his academic focus and developed into an expert on the musician. His book, "Mythos Wagner" ("The Wagner Myth"), has just been published.

Bermbach did not see Wagner as the proto-fascist Köhler describes in his book "Wagner's Hitler." For Bermbach, Wagner was also a leftist. The composer had a revolutionary phase in 1848/49, when half of Germany was fighting for democracy and freedom. During the Dresden uprising in May 1849, he wrote flyers, transported hand grenades, was in close contact with the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and observed the approaching Prussian troops from the tower of the city's Church of the Holy Cross. When the revolutionaries' cause was lost, he fled to Zürich, where he lived in exile until 1858.

His time in Zürich was a wild period of his life. He went to parties, indulged in a romance with a married woman, Mathilde Wesendonck, and wrote to Franz Liszt: "I must be going mad here. It's the only solution!"

When he returned to Germany, he reconciled with the monarchies, especially with Ludwig II, who helped him pay for the Bayreuth Festival. "There was no money to be had from the leftists," says Bermbach.

What remained was the utopia of a better society, one that was not ruled by money. While in Dresden in 1849, Wagner wrote the poetic but somewhat awkward lines: "The torch, it burns brightly, it burns deeply and broadly / burning to ashes everything around it / consecrated to the worship of Mammon!"

His Ring cycle is an anti-capitalism piece, making it highly topical. The drama begins with a real estate speculation by Wotan, the father of the gods, who has the giants Fafner and Fasolt build him a house that he cannot afford.

In his utopias, too, Wagner uniquely recreates the German soul. The notion of a better world is experienced in modern-day Germany in every organic supermarket, and it's reflected in the success of the Green Party, the social welfare state and the public's resentment of power politics, as evidenced for a brief period by the success of the Pirate Party. Anti-capitalism is widespread.

In his portrayal of utopias, Wagner conveyed ideas from both the left and the right.

For Wagner, striking a chord was the key to building a better community, which is something both the Nazis and the Communists also envisioned. The Nazis added racism to their concept, which is why they made Wagner one of their own. The left distanced itself from him for the same reason.

Udo Bermbach believes that this was a "major historical mistake by the left." Because of their disgust with anti-Semitism, they "abandoned him to the right." In fact, he notes, the "democrats on the whole betrayed him." Bermbach believes that if the left had claimed him, he would not have been as useful to the Nazis and would not have been discredited quite as much. But Bermbach also believes that Köhler's book is exaggerated, saying that Hitler was not a creation of Wagner's.

A 'Prophet and a Clown'

Joachim Köhler is a slim man who bears a slight resemblance to Wagner's friend Friedrich Nietzsche. He speaks in a benign way and is surprisingly soft-spoken for the author of such an aggressive book as "Wagner's Hitler." Sitting in an Italian restaurant in Hamburg, he talks about how he hit upon the idea for the work.

In the 1990s, when Köhler was working for the weekly newsmagazine Stern, he became irate when he read the memoirs of Wolfgang Wagner, who he believes "whitewashed his story in a way that was almost shameless and portrayed Hitler as their friendly Uncle Wolf." The book was Köhler's impetus for writing his own work on the subject.

"I approached the subject in the manner of a detective, like a Sherlock Holmes, for example," says Köhler. He pauses for a moment. "What I missed, however, was the genius of the century, 'the last of the Titans'." Köhler, surprisingly enough, seems moved.

Today, commenting on his theory that Wagner was partly to blame for the Holocaust, he says: "Hardly any more so that the anti-Semites Hegel, Marx and Schopenhauer. An intellectual anti-Semitism was almost socially acceptable at the time." He lists the Jewish directors with whom Wagner worked, and says that he "had Jewish friends throughout his life, which would be hard to imagine with a dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semite."

But how, then, did the repugnant essay "Judaism in Music" come about? Köhler says: "Wagner was often one thing and its opposite at the same time. He was a passionate vegetarian, but he couldn't do without his daily steak. He had a tendency to stretch a point." Most of all, says Köhler, Wagner was simultaneously a "prophet and a clown."

Köhler launches into a lengthy speech about Wagner's humorous side. There was "a tendency to wear women's clothing; he subscribed to Paris fashion magazines and secretly wore silk negligees that he had designed himself. Wagner was difficult to paint, because he was constantly making faces, kidding around, doing somersaults and headstands. As a theatrical person, he didn't distinguish between theater and reality, and he seemed to be saying to everyone: Don't take me so seriously."

Was it all just fun and games? Was his anti-Semitism somehow a quirk and therefore tolerable? Apparently many things are possible with Wagner. As he sits there, Köhler comes across as a non-believer, a critic who became a disciple, and he clearly rejects the thesis of his book, when he says: "I no longer see Hitler being directly influenced by Wagner. Hitler didn't become Hitler because he listened to 'Rienzi'."

In the end, Köhler too has succumbed to Wagner's power. Even during his lifetime, the man who so greatly despised power was someone who could quickly become overpowering, to his women, his friends and his employees. He had a vehemence that was difficult to escape, a vehemence that was evident in his manner, his works and his longing for a new society. It is this Titanism to which Köhler has succumbed, this yearning for greatness, which was once a typically German trait, at least until Hitler's time. That too can only be savored in part when listening to Wagner today. With Wagner, it's possible to break the seal that has been placed over the years from 1933 to 1945, but it requires turning a blind eye to some things.

Preserving the Memory of Wagner in Venice
Something is still missing in this story: love. With Wagner, of course, there is no alternative but to portray love in its grandest form. He has made love grand through death and tragedy, in characters like Siegfried and Brünnhilde, Tristan and Isolde.

Alessandra Althoff-Pugliese is an attractive, elegant woman of an indeterminate age. It's fair to say that she isn't young, but old isn't a word that fits her, either. She is the chair of the Wagner Society in Venice, a city that was important to the composer. He worked here often, and he died in the city, on Feb. 13, 1883.

It's a sunny day and Althoff-Pugliese, wearing a pretty hat, takes us to the places that were important to Wagner. The palace where he once rented 15 rooms for his family and his entourage is now a casino. There are brightly flashing slot machines, and the casino management has its offices in some of the rooms Wagner once occupied. Althoff-Pugliese has made it her mission to reclaim room after room for her society. She has already succeeded with the room in which he was writing when he was seized with a painful convulsion. She is very lively in her account, even accompanying her stories with a few ballet-like steps.

On the morning of Feb. 13, Wagner had had an argument with Cosima over a visit by another woman. He was writing at his desk when a maid, Betty, heard him moan. A doctor pronounced Wagner dead at about 3 p.m. Before the fountain pen fell from his hand, he wrote: "The process of emancipation of the female only takes place amid ecstatic convulsions. Love - Tragedy." As last words, they were fitting indeed.

At around noon, Althoff-Pugliese takes us to a restaurant that she and her husband liked to frequent. She was an opera singer and was performing at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, where she met Giuseppe Pugliese, a music critic and the founder of the Venice Wagner society. He was much older than she was, but it became a great love story. Pugliese has been dead for three years, and today his widow is continuing his work, preserving the memory of Richard Wagner in Venice.

She recommends fish for lunch, together with a white wine. She apologizes for taking red with hers. She says that whenever she comes to this restaurant, she drinks the red wine her husband used to imbibe, a Merlot from the Veneto region. She also orders dishes her husband used to eat, and talks a great deal about him -- not in a sad way but perhaps with a touch of melancholy. Most of all, however, she sounds fulfilled, almost as if she had found a way to continue her life with Pugliese. When she puts on her hat again after the meal, she says that it was her husband's hat. It's a moment in which one imagines hearing the music of Wagner, disturbingly beautiful music, filled with love and tragedy, one of his quieter passages, not quite as bombastic as the rest.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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« Reply #5731 on: Apr 14, 2013, 07:52 AM »

04/12/2013 04:15 PM

The Hangman's Tale: Archaeologists Dig into History of Execution

By Matthias Schulz

For years, few were interested in unearthing what lay beneath old gallows and scaffolds. But, in Germany, growing interest in "execution site archaeology" is throwing much light on how the executed died and the executors lived.

Her interests initially focused on fashion, but then they migrated to murder and decay. Marita Genesis, 42, worked as a runway model for Escada after graduating from secondary school. Later, she studied ancient and early history, and learned about criminal law.

Now, the archaeologist is surrounded by criminals. She is standing in a storeroom belonging to the Thuringia State Office for the Preservation of Monuments and pointing at a number of bones. These are the remains of thieves, sodomites and child murderers.

The skeletons were found near Alkersleben, not far from the eastern German city of Erfurt, where the counts of Kevernburg punished criminals over 700 years ago.

On a hill directly overlooking the trade route to Nuremberg, visible far and wide, the executioner went about his grim business. He kept his head covered with a hood -- not out of repugnance, but to protect himself from the "evil eye" of the condemned.

Researchers have unearthed the remains of some 70 people, which are now undergoing an anthropological evaluation. One of the dead was tied up, another lay next to an iron strangulation chain. A third had been buried along with a sharp blade. "It could be the murder weapon," says Genesis.

The native of Potsdam, outside Berlin, has just completed her dissertation on this execution site. She is one of many hard-nosed researchers hunting for secrets under old gallows and scaffolds.

The latest astonishing findings show that a chaotic jumble of bones lies inside the mounds. "Some outlaws were hung so long by their necks that they decayed and fell down. Then they were contemptuously disposed of in unhallowed ground," explains Jost Auler, a historian from the western German town of Dormagen. "There is no mention of this in any of the old documents."

Auler, celebrated as Germany's "gallows king," is widely viewed as the pioneer of the movement. He has published three volumes on "execution site archaeology." In his most recent book, released last November, nearly 40 fellow colleagues report on "beheading sites," "tumbrels" (the vehicles used to carry the condemned to the execution site) and the trade in corpses destined for physicians' dissecting tables.

A Messy Job

Epileptics reportedly collected and drank the blood of Schinderhannes, the famous German outlaw sometimes compared to Robin Hood, in the belief that it would heal them. It's said that the head of German pirate Klaus Störtebeker was impaled on a spike along the banks of the Elbe River.

But is this true? How did our forefathers actually dispense with justice? The old "eyesores" were largely ignored for many years, Auler says in reference to execution sites, "and yet they were just as much a part of the scenery as windmills."

Now, there is renewed interest in these gruesome places. An executioner's scaffold rises seven meters (23 feet) into the air in the southeastern Austrian state of Styria, where an archaeological dig is to begin this spring. Farther north, in the Bavarian town of Pottenstein, a team is also investigating the decaying ruins of the local gallows.

The evidence they find testifies to the brutality of the Middle Ages. The archaeologists often discover scattered remains. Many cities allowed miscreants to hang in the wind for years. Ravens pecked away at their flesh and pulled the corpses apart. At one point in time, 30 criminals were rotting together on the gallows in Augsburg, near Munich. Afterwards, they were tossed into small pits like garbage. Such perfunctory burials in unconsecrated ground were common.

It was hardly any more appetizing for those who were broken on the wheel. This was the most ignominious of all punishments. The torturer broke the offender's ribs and extremities before weaving him or her onto a wheel, which was then attached to a pole to allow the condemned to be raised into the air and placed on display. "There were individuals who survived this torture and were pardoned," says Auler.

Would-be assassin Robert François Damiens, who dared to attack King Louis XV, suffered even more. Bailiffs used sulfur to burn the hand that held the dagger. Pincers were used to tear flesh from his arms, breast and thighs, and molten lead was poured in the wounds.

His subsequent drawing and quartering initially failed, even though six horses were used. It was only possible to tear the unfortunate man apart after the sinews in his shoulders and hips had been bloodily severed.

It was rather rare, however, that audiences were treated to such extravagant public orgies of torture. Instead, the archaeological evidence suggests that decapitation was a very common form of execution. The condemned had to kneel down, whereupon he or she received a massive blow from behind with a sword. In the 17th century, axes and chopping blocks came into fashion.

Young executioners, of course, had to pass tests to show that they had the requisite skills. Despite practicing on heads of cabbage, they often missed their mark and only hit the delinquent's back or skull. This can also be proven based on the remains that have been discovered.

Still, archaeologists remain puzzled by a woman's skeleton that was found on the site of the new Berlin Brandenburg Airport. The corpse was unearthed in a ditch near the village of Selchow, 15 kilometers (nine miles) from the nearest execution site. The skull was lying on a lower leg bone, indicating that she had been decapitated.

But where is her neck? Nearly all of her cervical vertebrae are missing.

Atonement and Deterrence

Executioners tortured and maimed their victims, often toiling in a cloud of putrefaction. It's no wonder others shunned them. Their profession was viewed as "disreputable," and innkeepers often refused to serve them. Executioner families only married among themselves.

Yet executioners had other, more useful duties. They rendered animal corpses, castrated dogs and cleaned prisons. And they were well versed in the healing arts and surgery.

Indeed, since executioners could neatly remove the feet of poachers, the hands of thieves and the fingers of perjurers, they were also skillful at removing diseased body parts. When branding criminals, they had to work expertly with a glowing-hot piece of iron and later rub gunpowder into the wound.

Despite their useful anatomical knowledge, executioners retained a sinister reputation. And though praised for doing "God's work" in the "Sachsenspiegel" ("Mirror of the Saxons"), a legal code drafted in the 13th century, most executioners were ostracized by society. They wore gloves because no one wanted to touch them.

What's more, they had no qualms about making sordid deals with body parts. They sold human fat and traded in pubic hairs, fingers and brain tissue as a basis for magic remedies. But their main job remained hanging. "Most death sentences were carried out with the noose," says Auler.

Hanging went like this: A greased rope was placed around the criminal's neck and he was shoved from a ladder. That was rarely enough to break his neck, though, because the drop wasn't big enough. Instead, the rope constricted the neck arteries. At best, the fall would abruptly cut off the blood supply to the brain, causing a loss of consciousness after about five seconds. At worst, people would wriggle and choke until they asphyxiated.

That is how they died, the sinners of the past: tortured, clubbed and strangulated. "At the time, no one thought of resocialization," says Auler. "It was all about atonement and deterrence."

But that wasn't always enough for medieval proponents of torture and execution. To be on the safe side, witches were burned until nothing but ashes remained.

Near the eastern German town of Alkersleben, a skeleton was discovered buried under a thick layer of stones. The man had apparently been weighed down to make it impossible for him to escape the grave.

Perhaps he was a vampire.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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« Reply #5732 on: Apr 14, 2013, 07:54 AM »

Former PM Berlusconi calls for ‘stable’ Italian government or new elections

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, April 13, 2013 21:45 EDT

Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi on Saturday called for either a strong new government or a fresh round of votes, while centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani rapped his political rivals for grandstanding during a deadlock that followed inconclusive elections.

Bersani’s coalition got the most votes in the February 24-25 ballot but failed to get enough for an overall majority in parliament, with Berlusconi’s grouping coming in a very close second.

Since then, Italy has descended into a deep political crisis since Bersani has so far failed to form a new government — refusing to join a grand coalition with Berlusconi and unable to woo lawmakers from the Beppe Grillo-led Five Star Movement which came third.

“Either there’s a strong and stable government right away or it will be preferable to let the Italians have their say by voting in June,” Berlusconi said at a political gathering in Bari in southern Italy, underscoring he would be more than ready to run again.

“We’re already ready to vote and I will be the candidate,” the scandal-tainted former prime minister said.

He also urged Bersani to stop “chasing” Grillo.

Bersani, on his end, on Saturday lashed out at both Berlusconi and Grillo, saying “that’s enough demagoguery”, warning that unless they come to agreement soon, the crisis could worsen.

“When the house is burning, anything can happen and it’s necessary to confront the crisis in a rational manner,” he said at a Rome meeting.

The ex-Communist blamed the current deadlock mainly on Grillo, saying his refusal to cooperate will lead to Italy’s “destruction”.

Italy is currently stuck in its longest recession since the Second World War and the government, still run by outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti, has said the economy will shrink by at least 1.3 percent this year.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

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« Reply #5733 on: Apr 14, 2013, 07:57 AM »

April 13, 2013

Palestinian Prime Minister Resigns, Adding Uncertainty to Government


JERUSALEM — The internationally respected prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Salam Fayyad, resigned on Saturday, raising concerns about political stability in the West Bank days after Secretary of State John Kerry proposed a broad initiative to aid the Palestinian economy there to shore up peace efforts.

The president of the Western-backed authority, Mahmoud Abbas, accepted Mr. Fayyad’s resignation but asked him to stay until a new government could be formed, according to Palestinian officials, signaling an effort to minimize the upheaval.

But the timing of the resignation, which had been brewing for weeks over Mr. Fayyad’s differences with Mr. Abbas and his Fatah party, seemed to deliver a blow to American prestige at the very least. The possibility of heading off the prime minister’s resignation was among the topics that President Obama discussed with both Mr. Fayyad and Mr. Abbas when he visited Ramallah, West Bank, last month, and it was also a focus of Mr. Kerry’s meeting with Mr. Abbas last week.

Since Mr. Kerry left the region, he has had more than one telephone conversation with both men to try to prevent the resignation. Israeli officials have also been quietly urging Mr. Fayyad to stay, aware that their public support is likely to backfire.

“The U.S. has worked very hard,” one Western diplomatic official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Kerry asked him to stay. There’s been a lot of messaging from the Western community about how much we value Fayyad’s work.”

Underlying tensions between Mr. Fayyad and Mr. Abbas burst out in early March when the finance minister, Nabil Qassis, announced that he was quitting. Mr. Fayyad accepted the minister’s resignation against the wishes of Mr. Abbas.

Palestinian insiders said that Mr. Fayyad, a political independent, submitted a letter to the president on March 23 laying out his intention to resign. In the meantime Mr. Fayyad helped pass a new annual budget, spent a few days in a hospital after suffering stomach pains and kept things on course during the visits of Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry. Mr. Obama told an Israeli audience in Jerusalem that the Israelis had “true partners” in Mr. Abbas and Mr. Fayyad. The resignation was sealed in a brief meeting with Mr. Abbas on Saturday evening, two days after Mr. Abbas returned from a trip abroad.

Mr. Fayyad, an American-educated economist, had gained the confidence of the West and of many Israelis, building up the credibility of the Palestinian Authority by introducing transparency, accountability and stability. Since being appointed to the premiership in 2007, he has championed law and order in the West Bank after years of chaos and focused on building the institutions of a future state.

But he has struggled to build a popular constituency on his home turf and became a target for senior Fatah figures resentful of his power, and who blamed him for all the authority’s problems. People who spoke with Mr. Fayyad on Saturday and throughout the past week said he had grown increasingly frustrated over attacks on his leadership by Fatah officials, and over Mr. Abbas’s failure to either defend him publicly or move behind the scenes to quell the criticism.

This month, the Fatah Revolutionary Council, the party’s Parliament, criticized Mr. Fayyad’s policies with unusual bluntness, describing them as “improvised and confused.” Mr. Fayyad has also borne the brunt of popular anger in recent months over rising prices and economic hardship in the West Bank.

The Palestinian Authority has been mired in financial crisis for two years, in part because of a shortfall in donations and Israel’s withholding of tax revenues in response to Mr. Abbas’s bid for enhanced status for the Palestinians at the United Nations. The authority has frequently been unable to pay its tens of thousands of employees in full and on time over the past year.

“Fatah has been critical of Fayyad for the last five years because he came to put things in order,” said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, an independent institute in East Jerusalem, noting that Fatah has over the years been notoriously divided and corrupt.

“Fayyad claims his mission was accomplished,” Mr. Abdul Hadi said. “Some Americans talk of ‘Fayyadism’ as a school of thought.” Now, Mr. Abdul Hadi said, “the Americans will deal with whoever is his successor in office.”

“This is realpolitik,” he said.

Ghassan Khatib, vice president of Birzeit University in the West Bank and a former Palestinian Authority spokesman, said he sensed feelings of anxiety among the public.

Mr. Fayyad, he said, was associated with moving the authority “from a state of lawlessness to order and due process and from a chaotic financial situation, corruption and a poor image to a situation of proper financial management.”

He said the confidence of foreign donors would now depend on whom Mr. Abbas assigned to replace Mr. Fayyad.

Some Western officials suggested that Mr. Fayyad might stay a month or more as a caretaker, easing immediate donor concerns, but also suggested that the Palestinian Authority’s future did not depend on Mr. Fayyad.

“Yes Fayyad is important,” said the diplomatic official, “but I think the P.A. must go on, and it’ll be interesting to see who comes next.”

“We’ve been reiterating the message that we value his work enormously,” he said of Mr. Fayyad, “but we also know that the bigger picture remains the P.A., and the game will be to work with the P.A. to build a credible institution, Fayyad or no Fayyad.”

In Washington, Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said: “Prime Minister Fayyad has been a strong partner to the international community and a leader in promoting economic growth, state-building and security for the Palestinian people. We look to all Palestinian leaders to support these efforts.”

One name that has been mentioned as a possible successor is Mohammad Mustafa, the chairman and chief executive of the Palestine Investment Fund and also a respected economist. He is seen by Western officials as part of the old-style Arab politics and by Palestinians as a technocrat with little political stature.

Members of Fatah have also floated the candidacy of Muhammad Shtayyeh, a senior Fatah official and an adviser to Mr. Abbas. But they added that Mr. Abbas was not likely to appoint a replacement before exploring new possibilities of reconciliation with his rivals in Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza — a situation that could further complicate peace efforts.

In a previous unity deal reached over a year ago, Mr. Abbas agreed to lead an interim government of political independents and technocrats to pave the way for elections in the West Bank and Gaza.

Mr. Abbas appointed Mr. Fayyad prime minister of the government formed after the split with Hamas. The Islamic group, Hamas, won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 and a year later seized control of Gaza after a factional war there. Hamas routed Fatah from Gaza, confining Mr. Abbas and his authority to parts of the West Bank.

Khaled Abu Aker contributed reporting from Jerusalem, and Jackie Calmes from Washington.

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« Reply #5734 on: Apr 14, 2013, 07:59 AM »

April 13, 2013

Mystery Shrouds Rise and Aims of Rebel at Helm of Central African Republic


A portly sexagenarian, Michel Djotodia had dressed for his coup d’état, donning desert camouflage, a turban and sandals like those of the rebels in his region of the Central African Republic.

Mr. Djotodia, a wily opportunist who has had many occupations but has rarely if ever been called a soldier, in late March rode with a rebel convoy through Bangui, the capital, just hours after President François Bozizé had fled.

Mr. Djotodia’s men pried open the front gate of the Ledger Plaza hotel, a newly inaugurated five-star palace financed by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator, as guests cowered inside. He inquired about a room.

Hours later, Mr. Djotodia, whose name was little known in Bangui and whom few analysts viewed as a figure of much political consequence, proclaimed himself president.

Changing his fatigues for dark dress suits, he continues to maintain his hold on that title, despite an outcry from governments around the world that have refused to recognize him as a legitimate head of state.

There is also a growing chorus of grumblings among his rivals, critics and the thousands of soldiers and mercenaries now roaming — and often pillaging — the streets of the capital.

Under pressure from regional leaders, Mr. Djotodia has created a transitional council, which on Saturday designated him interim president. The council is also to oversee the governing of the country until elections in about 18 months. But Mr. Djotodia has refused to renounce his claim to power, and much as his sudden rise seems a mystery, so, too, do his intentions.

“We are completely in the void,” said Marcel Mokwapi, who leads an association of newspaper editors in Bangui.

Mr. Djotodia hails from Vakaga Prefecture, in the forested savanna of the country’s northeast, an isolated region at the borders with Chad and Sudan where the Central African Republic’s Muslim minority is concentrated. If he maintains his hold on the presidency, he will be the nation’s first Muslim leader and the first from the northeast.

The mix of ethnicities in his region differs from that in Bangui. Inhabitants have long been subjected to discrimination, and occasional violence, and have been treated by the political leadership in the capital as “foreigners,” said Louisa Lombard, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied the area.

“They feel like they’ve been totally abandoned,” Dr. Lombard said, and that resentment is a foundation of the rebel coalition Mr. Djotodia helped to form last year, called Seleka.

There is little electricity or running water in the area, she said; the region also lacks police posts or health clinics. What roads exist are little more than dirt tracks, and the area is largely cut off from the rest of the country during the rainy season.

“It’s hardship, quite simply, that drove us to take up arms, that’s all,” Mr. Djotodia told Radio France Internationale last month. “It’s hardship that commands us.” Repeated attempts to interview the self-proclaimed leader were unsuccessful.

Mr. Djotodia is said to have spent a decade studying in the Soviet Union, beginning in the 1970s; he married and had two daughters there before returning with fluent Russian, Dr. Lombard said. He also speaks French and Sango, the country’s official languages, and Gula, his ethnic language.

He worked in the tax administration in the 1980s and twice ran unsuccessfully for a seat in Parliament. He became involved in the diamond trade in the north, though in what capacity remains unclear, Dr. Lombard said.

Having cultivated a relationship with Jean-Francis Bozizé, whose father, François, seized power in a 2003 coup, Mr. Djotodia was appointed as the Central African consul in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur State in Sudan.

His predecessor as consul was a sheik, an important religious leader under whom he had once worked; Mr. Djotodia’s maneuverings to take over the job were seen by many in the northeast as a breach of propriety, Dr. Lombard said.

“There’s some mistrust toward him,” she said, though he is not particularly well known even in his home region. “What people knew about him was that he wanted some more political power for himself.”

Mr. Djotodia’s willingness to cross a Muslim sheik may prove a comfort to those who have worried that he harbors anti-Christian leanings; aides to Mr. Djotodia say he will lead as a secularist.

While serving as consul, Mr. Djotodia fell out with Mr. Bozizé, “very likely” because he felt he was not moving quickly enough up the government hierarchy, said Thierry Vircoulon, project director for Central Africa for the International Crisis Group.

In 2006, Mr. Djotodia helped found an armed group, the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity, which joined an uprising against the government. The group’s grievances were largely unspecific; Dr. Lombard said she suspected that Mr. Djotodia simply felt that rebellion might be a simple path to political power.

Mr. Djotodia effectively served as the rebel group’s political representative, she said, while his co-founder, Damane Zakaria, called him the group’s “intellectual.”

During the fighting, he was arrested in Benin at the behest of Mr. Bozizé; the rebellion was put down with the aid of French forces in 2007, a peace accord was signed, and Mr. Djotodia was released from prison in 2008.

He emerged from relative silence at the end of last year, when he helped to construct the rebel coalition that drove Mr. Bozizé from power. Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries were critical to the rebels’ success, and their presence can most likely be credited to Mr. Djotodia, analysts say.

It is not altogether clear that he had always intended to seize power for himself, however, and he may in fact have been a reluctant putschist.

After peace talks in January, Mr. Djotodia was made vice prime minister of a unity government under Mr. Bozizé, and “he looked pretty satisfied,” said Mr. Vircoulon, the analyst. Some coalition members may have been unhappy with the arrangement, however, and insisted on a coup.

“His problem was basically that his people disagreed with him,” Mr. Vircoulon said.

Nor has Mr. Djotodia managed to appease the country’s political class with his recent government appointments. There have been accusations that he has given too many posts to northerners from the rebel coalition.

At the peace talks in January, Mr. Djotodia criticized Mr. Bozizé for a “clannish” approach to governance, said Bruno Hyacinthe Gbiégba, a lawyer and human rights leader who served as an observer at the negotiations.

“What he abundantly criticized in the former regime, he’s in the midst of doing the same thing,” Mr. Gbiégba said, though he added, “Since it’s the beginning, he has time to change course.”

Analysts have sounded a less optimistic note, citing a history of uprisings and coups in the Central African Republic.

“There is always that potential there,” Dr. Lombard said. “And that can also have an effect on the way that people govern.”

At a recent news conference, Mr. Djotodia insisted the nation would soon be entirely under his rule, though violent infighting has already taken hold among the rebels.

“My men are in the midst of securing the upcountry,” he said. “We are capable of doing it, of securing the whole Central African territory, the whole country.”

Benno Muchler contributed reporting from Bangui, Central African Republic.

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« Reply #5735 on: Apr 14, 2013, 08:03 AM »

April 13, 2013

Sierra Leone’s Health Care System Becomes a Cautionary Tale for Donors


FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — The health statistics in this battered land, still scarred from a decade of civil war, are so alarming that for a decade, donors have opened their wallets to help improve some of the world’s worst rates of maternal and infant mortality. This is the third-most dangerous place on earth to have a baby, and one of the most perilous to be a baby.

Millions of donor dollars later, health statistics show that the “crisis” for mothers and babies, as the British government called it, may be lessening. But one crisis appears to have spawned another: In a place where most of the population lives on less than a dollar a day, the incoming rush of health care aid has been dazzling.

Too dazzling, apparently.

Last month, the country’s 29 top health officials found themselves indicted by Sierra Leone’s anticorruption agency on charges of misappropriating a half-million dollars in grants from a global vaccine provider, GAVI Alliance, started by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The amount may not seem huge in some places, but in Sierra Leone, one of the least developed nations in the world, it looms particularly large, and the list of suspects is stunning.

The country’s top doctor — the chief medical officer, Dr. Kizito Daoh — was among those indicted. So were the director of primary health care at the Health Ministry, the permanent secretary at the Health Ministry and the ministry’s program manager for reproductive health. Much of the ministry’s leadership, the key agency in tackling some of the continent’s worst health outcomes, now finds itself charged with wrongdoing, including eight doctors.

“You have a ministry without a head,” said the World Bank representative here, Francis Ato Brown. “It’s virtually decapitated the ministry,” he said of the indictments, adding that they had “the potential to virtually destroy the health care system.”

The officials took money from the vaccine funds to hold workshops and training seminars, for instance — and then could not prove that these sessions had been held, officials say. But that may have been just a piece of the problem. Investigators say they have found evidence of large houses and expensive cars not consistent with official salaries, as well as kickbacks from suppliers.

The vaccine alliance froze about $4.2 million in coming grants in November, as a country that had been a poster child for health care projects — Britain and others have financed a free health care program for mothers and children that has reduced malaria rates — suddenly became a cautionary tale.

Investigators have found nurses illegally selling drugs to patients in the free care program and doctors charging for services that were, according to the donor terms, supposed to be free.

Government auditors have found tens of thousands of dollars withdrawn from an internationally financed maternal and child health program, with no records for how the money was spent; at hospitals in the interior, and at the central medical store in Freetown, they have found no records to support the dispensing of drugs worth thousands of dollars; and they could not find records for 23 of the Health Ministry’s 55 bank accounts. Record-keeping has been “abysmal,” an anticorruption investigator wrote in a report.

The vaccine alliance first noticed problems in an internal review. And last week i t released an audit report that found tens of thousands of dollars in unjustified uses of finances and cash withdrawals, ambulances for which the Health Ministry paid almost twice as much as it should, and over a dozen motorcycles improperly distributed. The audit showed “very high exposure of this grant to misuse,” the report concluded.

But Sierra Leone officials themselves, including the Anti-Corruption Commission and the auditor general, are the ones who are sounding alarms, motivated by the knowledge that outside aid represents 20 percent of national income.

“There is evidence of cash withdrawals, and we haven’t seen what’s been done with the cash,” said Joseph F. Kamara, the head of the Anti-Corruption Commission, whose headquarters are in an old church office building next to the Anglican cathedral downtown. “They were claiming money for supervising work that was never done.”

“We’ve seen a pattern,” the misappropriation of health funds, “clearly being replicated elsewhere,” he said.

Mr. Kamara has 161 people working for him, and they clamber up and down the narrow stairs of the old church building in this sweltering seaside capital. On the worn wooden door of his office is a sticker in the local Krio language exhorting that “corruption must be talked about.”

The charges against the country’s top physicians have also shocked the public in Sierra Leone.

“There’s a perception that doctors are meant to heal wounds, not bleed them,” Mr. Kamara said.

His predecessor obtained a corruption conviction against the former health minister, Sheiku Koroma. Health care “is an area that has long been corrupt,” said Abdul Tejan-Cole, the former anticorruption commissioner, who resigned three years ago after receiving threats.

Top doctors, including at the Health Ministry, “refuse to go to the hospital” because “it’s much more lucrative to manage a donor project,” Mr. Tejan-Cole said. “Across the board in public-sector funds, a lot is going wrong. There’s a lot of misappropriation and abuse.”

Dr. Daoh, the chief medical officer who has been indicted, was sitting on the patio of his two-story house reading the Koran on a recent Saturday afternoon. He complained that the government kept putting off his day in court and said that “nobody has asked my side of the story,” before declining to comment.

The anticorruption chief, Mr. Kamara, boasted about the speed with which he had obtained indictments, but doubts have been raised about whether they will hold up, and whether the volume of indictments was intended primarily to impress donors.

“The indictments were hurriedly done,” said a knowledgeable former top government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Nonetheless, even the official, who was critical of Mr. Kamara, agreed that a crime had been committed with the missing vaccine funds.

“We can describe this as a reversal of a moral ethos,” Mr. Kamara said. The doctors “should have been there for the victims, but it turns out that they are the perpetrators of the victims’ predicament.”

“It introduces a state of hopelessness in health security,” he added. “You have nowhere to turn to.”

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« Reply #5736 on: Apr 14, 2013, 08:05 AM »

April 12, 2013

Tasting Good Life, Opposition in Zimbabwe Slips Off Pedestal


HARARE, Zimbabwe — The guests arrived in Bentleys, Benzes and BMWs. At a plush, riverside wedding in an upscale suburb, the wine and spirits flowed and tables groaned with the ample buffet. Politicians, celebrities, diplomats and business leaders mingled to the strains of Oliver Mtukudzi, a Zimbabwean music star, serenading the happy couple with his famous love song “Svovi Yangu.”

This was not the wedding of some stalwart of the dominant party that has ruled this mineral-rich nation for decades. Instead, the 60-year-old groom was a one-time labor organizer, Morgan Tsvangirai, the longstanding opposition leader and now prime minister in a once uneasy but increasingly comfortable unity government with President Robert Mugabe.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” said Misheck Shoko, a member of Parliament for Mr. Tsvangirai’s party, the Movement for Democratic Change. “It must have cost a fortune. We cannot help but wonder: who paid the bill?”

As Zimbabwe prepares to choose a new president this year in long-awaited elections, voters are increasingly questioning the erstwhile opposition, the only serious challenger to the tight grip Mr. Mugabe and his party, ZANU-PF, have held on this nation for decades.

Mr. Tsvangirai’s underdog movement has long been the vessel of millions of Zimbabweans’ hopes for a more democratic, peaceful and prosperous future in what was once one of Africa’s most stable and wealthy nations. But four years of governing alongside Mr. Mugabe — and in some ways, analysts say, being co-opted by him and his allies — has taken a toll on its reputation.

The disenchantment was evident in a survey last year conducted for Freedom House, a watchdog group based in the United States, that found support for Mr. Tsvangirai’s party had fallen to 20 percent from 38 percent two years earlier among voters who declared a preference. By contrast, support for ZANU-PF — the party that clung to power by beating, torturing and intimidating thousands in the last election in 2008 — grew to 31 percent last year from 17 percent in 2010, the survey found, though some analysts noted that an unusually high number of people declined to respond, probably out of fear.

Mr. Tsvangirai rocketed to fame as the courageous leader of a party that dared to challenge the rule of Mr. Mugabe, who has led this country since independence in 1980. Photographs of him beaten and bleeding from the head in 2007 galvanized global opinion against Mr. Mugabe’s brutal reign.

But these days, Mr. Tsvangirai’s lifestyle has been the talk of a nation where millions live on $2 a day. He has taken to traveling abroad with a sizable entourage, officials and analysts say, honeymooning in London and spending holidays in Monaco. He recently moved into a government residence that cost about $3 million to build.

His party entered the power-sharing government in 2009, after disastrous elections in which Mr. Tsvangirai won the most votes but withdrew from a runoff because of the violence meted out against his followers. Hundreds of people were killed in the crackdown. In a deal hammered out with Zimbabwe’s neighbors, Mr. Tsvangiriai became prime minister, and the two parties agreed to share power.

In practice, Mr. Tsvangirai’s party has had almost no authority to change the fundamental structure of Zimbabwe. The army and police forces remained under Mr. Mugabe’s control. Mr. Tsvangirai’s party held ministries controlling the economy and social services, both of which have improved, but it has struggled to transform the architecture of Mr. Mugabe’s security state.

Meanwhile, officials in Mr. Tsvangirai’s party, many of whom suffered poverty while fighting to remake Zimbabwe, began enjoying the trappings of power. Government ministers, members of Parliament and other officials were awarded fancy cars and travel allowances. Mr. Tsvangirai traded his trade-unionist leather jacket for tailored suits.

His personal life has been a source of embarrassment as well. His wife Susan died in a car accident in 2009, and his romantic life since has been the subject of extensive news coverage, much to his party’s chagrin. When he was planning to marry Elizabeth Macheka, his current wife, another woman challenged, claiming that she had been married to Mr. Tsvangirai in a traditional ceremony in 2011.

The matter ended up in court, with a magistrate ruling that Mr. Tsvangirai was in fact already married under customary law. He was forced to cancel plans for a legal wedding, and instead called the ceremony last September a celebration.

Another woman also filed court papers, claiming that she and Mr. Tsvangirai had been engaged. Mr. Tsvangirai did not respond to repeated interview requests, but he apologized publicly to supporters for his messy search for a new wife, saying: “I had no intention to hurt anyone. It was a genuine search.”

Other problems have erupted. In Chitungwiza, a stronghold of Mr. Tsvangirai’s party, a corruption scandal has engulfed the City Council. Elected officials stand accused of selling access to hundreds of pieces of city-controlled land for about $4,000 per plot and pocketing most of the money.

Council members from Mr. Tsvangirai’s party, with the help of their former adversaries, parceled off soccer fields, playgrounds, wetlands and areas set aside for schools and churches. Land in Chitungwiza is not privately owned; individuals and businesses lease it from the government. But there is a long waiting list, and bribes to city councilors helped people jump the line.

For many, the painful irony is that thousands were pushed out of Chitungwiza by Mr. Mugabe’s government in a 2005 demolition campaign to eviscerate opposition strongholds. Hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed, and today housing is scarce and expensive. City employees are supposed to receive land for houses, but many are waiting — and officials from Mr. Tsvangirai’s party are now accused of profiting from the misfortune.

Never Tarugarira, a janitor and handyman at a community center, has been on a waiting list since 2005, but his number has never come up. So he rents two tiny, fetid rooms for $100 a month, eating up much of his paycheck — that is, when he gets one. He has not been paid for the past five months because of the city’s fiscal woes.

“Some nights we go to sleep without eating,” he said.

Alice Chihambakwe, another Chitungwiza resident waiting years for a plot, says her husband goes to work every day at the city’s sewer plant, but has not been paid in months. Two of her children had to postpone crucial high school exams because the family could not pay the fees, about $30 per child.

“Our lives are on hold,” Ms. Chihambakwe said, weeping softly.

The councilors proved easy marks for corrupt bureaucrats from Mr. Mugabe’s party, said Amos Matanhike, a former town clerk in Chitungwiza.

“The problem is that most of the M.D.C. councilors are very young,” Mr. Matanhike said. “They did not have houses, they owned no property. So these youngsters took that opportunity, and they got onto the gravy train.”

Once it got wind of the scandal, Mr. Tsvangirai’s party tried to take action, firing the councilors involved. But the minister for local government, a ZANU-PF appointee, vetoed the dismissals, so the councilors remain.

Critics say the former opposition party has been naïve, falling into a trap set by Mr. Mugabe to co-opt and compromise them.

“Old Bob must be chuckling and enjoying himself right now,” said Munyaradzi Gwisai, a prominent activist. “He has them right where he wants them.”

Nelson Chamisa, a top official with the Movement for Democratic Change, says Mr. Tsvangirai remains the best hope for change in Zimbabwe.

“He is the next big thing in Zimbabwe,” Mr. Chamisa said. “He is the only game in town.”

He called Mr. Tsvangirai’s ceremony “a basic wedding” and that he deserved sympathy after the tragic death of his previous wife.

“At times people are very harsh and unkind to a very noble man,” Mr. Chamisa said.

Asked who paid for the wedding, Mr. Chamisa said, “There are many people who wish him well.”

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« Reply #5737 on: Apr 14, 2013, 08:08 AM »

April 14, 2013

Venezuela's Choice: Chavez Heir or Fresh Start


CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Voters who kept Hugo Chavez in office for 14 years were deciding Sunday whether to elect the devoted lieutenant he chose to carry on the revolution that endeared him to the poor but that many Venezuelans believe is ruining the nation.

Across Caracas, trucks blaring bugle calls awoke Venezuelans long before dawn in the ruling socialists' traditional election day get-out-the-vote tactic. This time, they also boomed Chavez's voice singing the national anthem.

Nicolas Maduro was riding on Chavez's endorsement with a campaign largely silent on the issues but freighted with personal attacks that was otherwise little more than an unflagging tribute to the polarizing leader who died of cancer March 5.

Chavez's longtime Chavez foreign minister pinned his hopes on the immense loyalty for his boss among millions of poor beneficiaries of a socialist government's largesse and the heft of a state apparatus that Chavez skillfully consolidated.

The governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela deployed a well-worn get-out-the-vote machine spearheaded by loyal state employees. It also enjoyed a pervasive state media apparatus as part of a near monopoly on institutional power.

Challenger Henrique Capriles' aides accused Chavista loyalists in the judiciary of putting them at glaring disadvantage by impoverishing the campaign and opposition broadcast media by targeting them with unwarranted fines and prosecutions.

Capriles' main campaign weapon was simply to point out "the incompetence of the state," as he put it to reporters Saturday night.

Maduro, 50, was still favored, but his early big lead in opinion polls halved over the past two weeks in a country struggling with the legacy of Chavez's management of the world's largest oil reserves. Millions of Venezuelans were lifted out of poverty under Chavez, but many also believe that his confederates not only squandered but also plundered much of the $1 trillion in oil revenues during his time in office.

People are fed up with chronic power outages, crumbling infrastructure, unfinished public works projects, double-digit inflation, food and medicine shortages and rampant crime that has given Venezuela among the world's highest homicide and kidnapping rates.

"We can't continue to believe in messiahs," said Jose Romero, a 48-year-old industrial engineer who voted for Capriles in the central city of Valencia. "This country has learned a lot and today we know that one person can't fix everything."

In Caracas, 59-year-old street vendor Jose Alzualde said he believed, however, that "Chavez's legacy should continue." He said Venezuela "needs a united country in order to advance. There are political divisions that should end."

Capriles is a 40-year-old state governor who lost to Chavez in October's presidential election by a nearly 11-point margin, the best showing ever by a challenger to the longtime president.

He showed Maduro none of the respect he had accorded Chavez. Maduro hit back hard, at one point calling Capriles' backers "heirs of Hitler." It was an odd accusation considering that Capriles is the grandson of Holocaust survivors from Poland.

"Capriles ran a remarkable campaign that shows he has creativity, tenacity and disposition to play political hardball," said David Smilde, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America think tank.

At his campaign rallies, Capriles would read out a list of unfinished road, bridge and rail projects. Then he asked people what goods were scarce on store shelves. The opposition contends Chavez looted the treasury last year to buy re-election with government largesse. It also complains about the steady flow of cut-rate oil to Cuba, which Capriles says will end if he is elected.

Venezuela's $30 billion fiscal deficit accounts for about 10 percent of gross domestic product.

Maduro, a former union activist and bus driver with close ties to Cuba's leaders, constantly alleged that Capriles was conspiring with U.S. putschists to destabilize Venezuela and even suggested Washington had infected Chavez with the cancer that killed him.

He focused his campaign message on his mentor: "I am Chavez. We are all Chavez" and promised to expand anti-poverty programs.

Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank said Maduro campaigned "ineptly," trying too hard to "replay the Chavez script" and alienating moderate Chavistas.

Whoever wins Sunday will face no end of hard choices.

Many factories operate at half capacity because strict currency controls make it hard for them to pay for imported parts and materials. Business leaders say some companies are on verging on bankruptcy because they are unable to extend lines of credit with foreign suppliers.

Chavez imposed currency controls a decade ago trying to stem capital flight as his government expropriated large land parcels and dozens of businesses. Now, dollars sell on the black market at three times the official exchange rate and Maduro has had to devalue Venezuela's currency, the bolivar, twice this year.

Meanwhile, consumers grumble that stores are short of milk, butter, corn flour and other staples. The government blames hoarding, while the opposition points at the price controls imposed by Chavez in an attempt to bring down double-digit inflation.

A 40-year-old lawyer who sometimes works with the government said as he walked with his wife and two small children to the polls in central Caracas that he was fed up and voting for Capriles.

"But I can't say that openly because I could lose work," said the man, who would only give his first name, Marcelino.

"But we can't have fear," his wife, Lisette Ruiz, told him. "If Maduro wins everything is going to get worse."

Capriles said he will reverse land expropriations, which he says have ruined many farms and forced Venezuela to import food after previously being a net exporter of beef, rice, coffee and other foods. But even Capriles said currency and price controls cannot be immediately scrapped without triggering a disastrous run on the bolivar.

High international oil prices remain a boon for Venezuela, underpinning its economy. Chavez spent $500 billion to bolster social programs, trimming the poverty rate from 50 percent to about 30 percent.

But critics say the government has misused the oil industry, ordering the state oil company PDVSA into food distribution and financing of social programs while neglecting needed investment, causing production and refining to drop.

Venezuela's oil revenue is down from $5.6 billion five years ago to $3.8 billion in 2012, and PDVSA's debt climbed to $40 billion last year. The country even imports 100,000 barrels a day of gasoline from the United States.


Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas and Vivian Sequera in Valencia, Venezuela contributed to this report.

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« Reply #5738 on: Apr 14, 2013, 08:17 AM »

‘Shadow Biosphere’ theory gaining scientific support

By Robin McKie, The Observer
Saturday, April 13, 2013 20:51 EDT

Never mind aliens in outer space. Some scientists believe we may be sharing the planet with ‘weird’ lifeforms that are so different from our own they’re invisible to us.

Across the world’s great deserts, a mysterious sheen has been found on boulders and rock faces. These layers of manganese, arsenic and silica are known as desert varnish and they are found in the Atacama desert in Chile, the Mojave desert in California, and in many other arid places. They can make the desert glitter with surprising colour and, by scraping off pieces of varnish, native people have created intriguing symbols and images on rock walls and surfaces.

How desert varnish forms has yet to be resolved, despite intense research by geologists. Most theories suggest it is produced by chemical reactions that act over thousands of years or by ecological processes yet to be determined.

Professor Carol Cleland, of Colorado University, has a very different suggestion. She believes desert varnish could be the manifestation of an alternative, invisible biological world. Cleland, a philosopher based at the university’s astrobiology centre, calls this ethereal dimension the shadow biosphere. “The idea is straightforward,” she says. “On Earth we may be co-inhabiting with microbial lifeforms that have a completely different biochemistry from the one shared by life as we currently know it.”

It is a striking idea: We share our planet with another domain of life that exists “like the realm of fairies and elves just beyond the hedgerow”, as David Toomey puts it in his newly published Weird Life: The Search for Life that is Very, Very Different from Our Own. But an alternative biosphere to our own would be more than a mere scientific curiosity: it is of crucial importance, for its existence would greatly boost expectations of finding life elsewhere in the cosmos. As Paul Davies, of Arizona State University, has put it: “If life started more than once on Earth, we could be virtually certain that the universe is teeming with it.”

However, by the same token, if it turns out we have failed to realise that we have been sharing a planet with these shadowy lifeforms for eons, despite all the scientific advances of the 19th and 20th centuries, then we may need to think again about the way we hunt for life on other worlds. Robot spacecraft – such as the Mars rover Curiosity – are certainly sophisticated. But what chance do they have of detecting alien entities if the massed laboratories of modern science have not yet spotted them on our own planet? This point is stressed by the US biologist Craig Venter. As he has remarked: “We’re looking for life on Mars and we don’t even know what’s on Earth!”

The concept of a shadow biosphere was first outlined by Cleland and her Colorado colleague Shelley Copley in a paper in 2006 in the International Journal of Astrobiology, and is now supported by many other scientists, including astrobiologists Chris McKay, who is based at Nasa’s Ames Research Centre, California, and Paul Davies.

These researchers believe life may exist in more than one form on Earth: standard life – like ours – and “weird life”, as they term the conjectured inhabitants of the shadow biosphere. “All the micro-organisms we have detected on Earth to date have had a biology like our own: proteins made up of a maximum of 20 amino acids and a DNA genetic code made out of only four chemical bases: adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine,” says Cleland. “Yet there are up to 100 amino acids in nature and at least a dozen bases. These could easily have combined in the remote past to create lifeforms with a very different biochemistry to our own. More to the point, some may still exist in corners of the planet.”

Science’s failure to date to spot this weird life may seem puzzling. The natural history of our planet has been scrupulously studied and analysed by scientists, so how could a whole new type of life, albeit a microbial one, have been missed? Cleland has an answer. The methods we use to detect micro-organisms today are based entirely on our own biochemistry and are therefore incapable of spotting shadow microbes, she argues. A sample of weird microbial life would simply not trigger responses to biochemists’ probes and would end up being thrown out with the rubbish.

That is why unexplained phenomena like desert varnish are important, she says, because they might provide us with clues about the shadow biosphere. We may have failed to detect the source of desert varnish for the simple reason that it is the handiwork of weird microbes which generate energy by oxidising minerals, leaving deposits behind them.

The idea of the shadow biosphere is also controversial and is challenged by several other scientists. “I think it is very unlikely that after 300 years of microbiology we would not have detected such organisms despite the fact that they are supposed to have a different biochemistry from the kind we know about today,” says Professor Charles Cockell, of the UK Centre for Astrobiology at Edinburgh University. “It is really quite unlikely,” adds Cockell, whose centre will be officially opened this week at a ceremony in Edinburgh.

Ways need to be found to determine whether or not the shadow biosphere exists, says Dimitar Sasselov, professor of astronomy at Harvard University and director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative. “If you want a clue you can count up the amount of carbon that is emitted by living things – cows, sheep, grass, plants, forests and all the planet’s bacteria. When you do, you find there is a discrepancy of around 5% when you compare the amount given off from Earth’s standard biosphere and the amount you find in the atmosphere.”

In other words, there is slightly too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than can be explained by the emissions of standard lifeforms on Earth. There could be an error in these calculations, of course. Alternatively, the shadow biosphere could be responsible for this excess, says Sasselov. “There is plenty of room for a shadow biosphere. That is clear. Certainly, it is not true, as some allege, that we have strong evidence to show that it does not exist. In fact, the opposite is true: we do not have good enough evidence to dismiss it.”

A key point to note is that scientists – although describing the inhabitants of the shadow biosphere as weird – still assume they will be carbon-based entities. Complex chemistry based on other elements, such as silicon, is possible, they acknowledge but these alternatives cannot create the vast range of organic materials that carbon can generate. In other words, the shadow biosphere, if it exists, will almost certainly be inhabited by carbon life, albeit of an alien variety.

“Billions of years ago, life based on different types of carbon biochemistry could have arisen in several places on Earth,” says Cleland. “These varieties would have been based on different combinations of bases and amino acids. Eventually, one – based on DNA and on proteins made from 20 amino acids – formed multicellular entities and became the dominant form of life on Earth. That is why we find that life as we know it, from insects to humans and from plants to birds, has DNA as its genetic code. However, other lifeforms based on different bases and proteins could still have survived – in the shadow biosphere.”

A different prospect is highlighted by Sasselov, who points out that a complex organic chemical can come in two different shapes even though they have the same chemical formula. Each is a mirror-image of the other and are said to have a different chirality. “Amino acids are an example,” says Sasselov. “Each comes in a right-handed version and a left-handed version. Our bodies – in common with all other lifeforms – only use left-handed versions to create proteins. Right-handed amino acids are simply ignored by our bodies. However, there may be some organisms, somewhere on the planet, that use only right-handed amino acids. They could make up the weird life of the shadow biosphere.”

But how can scientists pinpoint this weird life? Microbes are usually detected in laboratories by feeding nutrients to suspected samples so they grow and expend. Then the resulting cultures can be analysed. A weird lifeform – such as one made only of proteins formed out of right-handed amino acids – will not respond to left-handed nutrients, however. It will fail to form cultures and register its existence.

One solution to this problem is being pursued by Sasselov and colleagues’ Harvard Origins of Life Initiative. They are building an artificial cell – or bionic system – made only of right-handed components including right-handed DNA and right-handed ribosomes. “If there are right-handed lifeforms out there, many of them will be viruses – which will attempt to hijack the DNA of our bionic cells,” adds Sasselov. “When they do that they will leave evidence of their existence. Essentially we are building honey traps to catch any right-handed viruses that might live in the shadow biosphere and so reveal their existence.”

Other scientists suggest a different approach – by looking at Earth’s most inhospitable ecological niches: hot vents on the seafloor, mountaintops, highly saline lakes, Antarctic ice sheets and deserts. Standard lifeforms, mainly bacteria, have been found in these places but only a few. Some niches, researchers speculate, may prove to be just too inhospitable for standard life but may just be tolerable enough to support weird life. Microscopic studies would reveal their existence while standard culture tests would show they had a different biochemistry from standard lifeforms.

And a promising example is provided by the desert varnish proposed as a target by Cleland and backed by David Toomey in Weird Life. “No laboratory microbiologist has been able to coax bacteria or algae to make desert varnish,” he states. “It is also possible that the stuff is the end result of some very weird chemistry but no one has been able to reproduce that either.” So yes, these sites could provide proof of the shadow biosphere’s existence, he argues.

Not surprisingly, Cleland agrees. “The only trouble is that no one has yet got round to investigating desert varnish for weird life,” adds Cleland. “I confess I find that disappointing.”

© Guardian News and Media 2013

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« Reply #5739 on: Apr 14, 2013, 08:37 AM »

In the USA...

Originally published Saturday, April 13, 2013 at 4:28 PM   

In another Great Migration, American Indians are moving to urban centers

More than seven of 10 Indians and Alaska Natives now live in a metropolitan area, according to Census Bureau data released this year, compared with 45 percent in 1970 and 8 percent in 1940.

The New York Times

MINNEAPOLIS — Nothing in her upbringing on a remote Indian reservation in northern Minnesota prepared Jean Howard for her introduction to city life during a visit here eight years ago: an outbreak of gunfire, followed by the sight of people scattering.

She watched, confused, before realizing that she should run, too. “I said: ‘I’m not living here. This is crazy,’” she recalled.

Not long afterward, however, Howard did return, and found a home in Minneapolis. She is part of a continuing and largely unnoticed mass migration of American Indians, whose move to urban centers over the past several decades has fundamentally changed both reservations and cities.

Though they are widely associated with rural life, more than seven of 10 Indians and Alaska Natives now live in a metropolitan area, according to Census Bureau data released this year, compared with 45 percent in 1970 and 8 percent in 1940.

The trend mirrors the pattern of millions of African Americans who left the rural South during the Great Migration of the 20th century and moved to cities in the North and West. But while many black migrants found jobs in meatpacking plants, stockyards and automobile factories, American Indians have not had similar success finding work.

“When you look at it as a percentage, the black migration was nothing in comparison to the percentage of Native Americans who have come to urban areas,” said Dr. Philip R. Lee, an assistant secretary for health during the Clinton administration and an emeritus professor of social medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

Recent budget figures show that federal money has not followed the migration, with only about 1 percent of spending by the Indian Health Service going to urban programs. Cities, with their own budget problems, are also failing to meet their needs.

One effect of the move toward cities has been a proliferation of Native American street gangs, which mimic and sometimes form partnerships with more well-established African-American and Latino gangs, according to the FBI and local law enforcement reports.

The migration goes to the heart of the question of whether the more than 300 reservations in the United States are an imperative or a hindrance to Native Americans, a debate that dates to the 19th century, when the reservation system was created by the federal government.

Citing generational poverty and other shortcomings on reservations, a federal policy from the 1950s to the 1970s pressured Indian populations to move to cities. Though unpopular on reservations, the effort helped prompt the migration, according to those who have moved to cities in recent years and academics who have studied the trend.

Regardless of where they live, a greater proportion of Indians live in poverty than any other group, at a rate that is nearly double the national average. Census data show that 27 percent of all Native Americans live in poverty, compared with 25.8 percent of African Americans, who are the next highest group, and 14.3 percent of Americans overall.

Moreover, data show that, in a number of metropolitan areas, American Indians have levels of impoverishment that rival some of the nation’s poorest reservations. Denver, Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz., for instance, have poverty rates for Indians approaching 30 percent. In Chicago, Oklahoma City, Houston and New York — where more Indians live than any other city — about 25 percent live in poverty.

Even worse off are those living in Rapid City, S.D., where the poverty level stands at more than 50 percent, and in Minneapolis, where more than 45 percent live in poverty.

“Our population has dealt with all these problems in the past,” said Jay Bad Heart Bull, the president and chief operating officer of the Native American Community Development Institute, a social-services agency in Minneapolis. “But it’s easier to get lost in the city. It’s easier to disappear.”

Despite the rampant poverty, many view Minneapolis as a symbol of progress. The city’s Indian population, about 2 percent of the total, is more integrated than in most other metropolitan areas, and there are social services and legal- and job-training programs specifically focused on them.

The city has a Native American City Council member, Robert Lilligren; a Native American state representative, Susan Allen; and a police chief, Janee Harteau, who is part Indian. But city life has brought with it familiar social ills like alcoholism and high unemployment, along with less familiar problems, including racism, heroin use and aggressive street gangs.

At the heart of one experiment to halt the cycle of poverty here is Little Earth of United Tribes, a sprawling 212-apartment complex, the nation’s only public-housing project that gives American Indians preference. It offers a wide array of social services, from empowerment counselors and bike rentals to couples’ therapy and a teen center that offers homework help, computers and board games. Houses are being built next to the complex to promote homeownership.

The typical resident is a single mother with children. The unemployment rate, more than 65 percent, is only marginally better than at impoverished reservations like Pine Ridge in South Dakota.

Bill Ziegler, the housing project’s president and chief executive officer, said he came to Minneapolis from the Lower Brule reservation in South Dakota in 2004 with a wife and five children. In the first six months, he said, there were five gang homicides, and from 2005 to 2007 only three students graduated from high school, a rate of about 5 percent.

Ziegler said the board was moving toward requiring that every resident have a job, be enrolled in school, or serve as a volunteer.

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« Reply #5740 on: Apr 15, 2013, 08:15 AM »

World on edge as nuclear North Korea celebrates long-dead leader’s birthday

By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, April 14, 2013 21:31 EDT

AFP - All eyes are on North Korea on Monday to see if it marks the birthday of late founder Kim Il-Sung with an expected missile launch, despite tension-reducing noises from Seoul and Washington.

North Korea has a habit of linking high-profile military tests with key dates in its annual calendar. The centenary of Kim’s birth last year was preceded by a long-range rocket test that ended in failure.

South Korean intelligence says the North has had two medium-range missiles primed and ready to fire for nearly a week, with many observers tapping Monday’s anniversary as a likely launch date.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, currently in Japan on the last leg of a whirlwind Northeast Asia tour, warned North Korea when he was in Seoul on Friday that a launch in the current climate would be a “huge mistake”.

The Korean peninsula has been in a state of heightened military tension since the North carried out its third nuclear test in February.

Incensed by fresh UN sanctions and joint South Korea-US military exercises, Pyongyang has spent weeks issuing blistering threats of missile strikes and nuclear war.

During his visits in Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo, Kerry talked tough on the North’s “unacceptable” rhetoric, but also sought to lower the temperature slightly by supporting a dialogue with Pyongyang and saying he would be prepared to reach out to North Korea.

He also urged North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un to lead his country back to negotiations.

“We’re prepared to reach out, but we need the appropriate moment, appropriate circumstances,” Kerry said Sunday.

In Seoul, he gave Washington’s public blessing to peace overtures made by South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-Hye, who in recent days has signalled the need to open a dialogue and “listen to what North Korea thinks”.

Park had campaigned on a promise of greater engagement with Pyongyang, but had her hands tied by the international outcry over the North’s nuclear test and the subsequent sharp escalation of tensions.

The North’s immediate response to her latest remarks was negative, with a spokesman for the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea suggesting the dialogue overtures were a “cunning” ploy.

“We found the offer an empty, meaningless act,” the spokesman said in an interview Sunday with the state media KCNA.

“If the South is genuine about having talks…it should first abandon its confrontational posture,” he said, citing ongoing military drills with the US.

Monday’s celebrations in Pyongyang will have their usual martial flavour, with a large military parade that North Korea uses to showcase its weaponry to the world.

The missiles mobilised by the North are reported to be untested Musudan models with an estimated range of up to 2,485 miles (4,000 kilometres).

That would cover any target in South Korea and Japan, and possibly even US military bases on the Pacific island of Guam.

South Korean and US forces have been on a heightened state of alert for days, and Japan has deployed Patriot anti-missile systems around Tokyo and promised to shoot down any missile deemed to be a threat.

In Beijing on Saturday, Kerry had pressed Chinese leaders to take a firmer stand with North Korea.

China is Pyongyang’s sole major ally and backer, and is widely seen as the only country with leverage to influence its actions — although it is reluctant to risk destabilising the regime.

Kerry won a promise that China would work together with the United States to reduce tensions and persuade the North to give up its nuclear weapons programme.

The ball now lies very much in Pyongyang’s court in terms of pushing ahead with a missile launch or not, and observers note that the North’s response to diplomatic pressure in the past has often been a provocative show of force.


John Kerry urges talks as world watches for North Korea missile

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, April 15, 2013 6:55 EDT

Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday the US will talk with North Korea if it takes “meaningful steps” towards peace, as the world watched to see if Pyongyang will mark its founder’s birthday with a missile launch.

The isolated state has a habit of linking high-profile military tests with key dates in its annual calendar and expectations are high that it could fire two medium-range missiles in honour of late former leader Kim Il-Sung.

But Kerry, speaking in Japan on the last leg of an Asian tour dominated by the crisis on the Korean peninsula, appealed to the North to step back.

“The United States remains open to authentic and credible negotiations on denuclearisation, but the burden is on Pyongyang,” he said.

“North Korea must take meaningful steps to show it will honour commitments it has already made.”

Kerry, who met with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday as his three-country tour came to an end, said talks in China and in South Korea had already demonstrated the world was speaking with one voice.

“One thing is certain: we are united. There can be no confusion on this point,” he said.

“The North’s dangerous nuclear missile program threatens not only North Korea’s neighbors, but also its own people.”

The Korean peninsula has been in a state of heightened military tension since the North carried out its third nuclear test in February.

Incensed by fresh UN sanctions and joint South Korea-US military exercises, Pyongyang has spent weeks issuing blistering threats of missile strikes and nuclear war.

Washington insists that the “six-party” talks on denuclearisation — which take in both Koreas, Japan, Russia, China and the US — is the only forum at which it will sit with Pyongyang.

While in Asia, Kerry has talked tough on the North’s “unacceptable” rhetoric, but also sought to lower the temperature by supporting dialogue with Pyongyang and saying he would be “prepared to reach out” to North Korea.

In Seoul, he gave Washington’s public blessing to peace overtures made by South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-Hye, who in recent days has signalled the need to open a dialogue and “listen to what North Korea thinks”.

But the North rejected the overtures as “empty talk” and a “crafty trick” to conceal Seoul’s aggressive intentions.

“It is very regrettable that the North dismissed our offer,” the South’s Unification Ministry said Monday, labelling Pyongyang’s response “totally incomprehensible.”

North Korea’s current leader and Kim Il-Sung’s grandson, Kim Jong-Un, opened Monday’s birthday events with a visit to the mausoleum in Pyongyang housing the embalmed bodies of his grandfather and his father Kim Jong-Il.

State television interspersed musical programming with documentaries on the life of Kim Il-Sung and footage of Korean soldiers honing their martial arts skills.

Kim Il-Sung’s birthday is normally marked with a large military parade that North Korea uses to showcase its weaponry to the world.

The missiles mobilised by the North for a possible launch are reported to be untested Musudan models with an estimated range of up to 2,485 miles (4,000 kilometres).

That would cover any target in South Korea and Japan, and possibly even US military bases on the Pacific island of Guam.

South Korean and US forces have been on a heightened state of alert for days, and Japan has deployed Patriot anti-missile systems around Tokyo and promised to shoot down any missile deemed to be a threat.

South Korean Defence Ministry spokesman Kim Min-Seok said the alert would remain in force even in the absence of a missile launch on Monday.

“We believe the situation may drag on for quite a while,” Kim said.

In Seoul on Friday, Kerry said a launch in the current climate would be a “huge mistake” and the next day in Beijing he pressed Chinese leaders to take a firmer stand with North Korea.

China is Pyongyang’s sole major ally and backer, and is widely seen as the only country with leverage to influence its actions — although it is reluctant to risk destabilising the regime.

Kerry won a promise that China would work together with the United States to reduce tensions and persuade the North to give up its nuclear weapons programme.
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« Reply #5741 on: Apr 15, 2013, 08:17 AM »

Afghanistan: high expectations of record opium crop

UN report reveals rapid growth of poppy farming as western troops get ready to withdraw, which reflects badly on Britain

Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul, Monday 15 April 2013 04.00 EDT   

Twelve years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan is heading for a near-record opium crop as instability pushes up the amount of land planted with illegal but lucrative poppies, according to a bleak UN report.

The rapid growth of poppy farming as western troops head home reflects particularly badly on Britain, which was designated "lead nation" for counter-narcotics work over a decade ago.

"Poppy cultivation is not only expected to expand in areas where it already existed in 2012 … but also in new areas or areas where poppy cultivation was stopped," the Afghanistan Opium Winter Risk Assessment found.

The growth in opium cultivation reflects both spreading instability and concerns about the future. Farmers are more likely to plant the deadly crop in areas of high violence or where they have not received any agricultural aid, the report said.

Opium traders are often happy to provide seeds, fertilisers and even advance payments to encourage crops, leaving farmers who do not have western or government agricultural help very vulnerable to their inducements.

At the same time the more powerful figures in the drugs trade, from traffickers to corrupt government officials, who take over half the profit from each kilo of opium, have shrinking opportunities to earn money from Nato or international aid contracts – and may be preparing a war chest for upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections.

"Opium cultivation is up for the third successive year, and production is heading towards record levels," said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, Afghanistan head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. "People are hedging against an insecure future both politically and economically."

Just 14 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces are now "poppy free", down from 20 in 2010. In three provinces, the spring sowing was the first time this decade that farmers had risked an attempt at growing opium.

The only figures showing a fall in cultivation, for western Herat province, may actually be due to a statistics blip. The UN was forced to use external data last year instead of the satellite images that are usually the basis of poppy growing calculations, and local officials protested heavily that the opium crop there had been overestimated.

If this year's poppy fields are harvested without disruption, the country would likely regain its status as producer of 90% of the world's opium. Afghanistan's share of the deadly market slipped to around 75% after bad weather and a blight slashed production over the past two years.

But the decline in opium production also drove up prices, to a record $300 a kilogramme. Prices have now slipped by over $100 but are still far above historic levels, helping tempt more farmers to turn land over to poppy.

It seems unlikely that the poor harvests of the last year will be repeated; there have been no reports of blight and the exceptionally bitter winter of 2011-12 was followed this year by a milder one, creating expectations of a large crop.

The increase has come despite a marked improvement in Afghanistan's specialised counter-narcotics units, Lemahieu said. Fear of eradication has become a far more significant reason for farmers to stick to legal crops than in the past, the report found.

But overall the government and aid community has not prioritised efforts to cut back a crop and trade that feeds global markets for heroin, Lemahieu said, despite its corrosive effect on security, corruption and trust in Kabul.

Typical of the official neglect are the 22 "national priority programmes" drawn up by Kabul to focus aid money and diplomatic efforts on its key development concerns including justice and education. Counter-narcotics was not one of them, nor has it been put at the heart of the other programmes.

"We need to have counter-narcotics dealt with seriously by the entire government as well as the aid community," Lemahieu said. "One of the big missing links here is providing for the communities themselves."

Eradication programmes that do not provide farmers with benefits such as healthcare and education, and support growing other crops will just push the Taliban or other insurgent groups that do tolerate or encourage poppy production, he added.
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« Reply #5742 on: Apr 15, 2013, 08:18 AM »

Iraq hit by wave of attacks less than a week before elections

Car bombs and shootings kill 27 people and wound over 100 in Baghdad, Fallujah, Kirkuk and towns south of the capital

Associated Press in Baghdad, Monday 15 April 2013 04.46 EDT   

A series of attacks across Iraq have killed 27 people and wounded more than 100, officials said.

The attacks, many involving car bombs, took place less than a week before Iraqis in much of the country are scheduled to vote in the country's first elections since the 2011 US troop withdrawal. The vote will be a key test of security forces' ability to keep voters safe.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but co-ordinated attacks are a favourite tactic of al-Qaida's Iraq branch.

Iraqi officials believe the insurgent group is growing stronger and increasingly co-ordinating with allies fighting to topple the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, across the border. They say rising lawlessness on the Syria-Iraq frontier and cross-border co-operation with the Syrian militant group Nusra Front has improved the militants' supply of weapons and foreign fighters.

Nearly all of the deadly attacks reported by police officials on Monday morning were bombings, which struck Baghdad, the western city of Fallujah, the contested northern city of Kirkuk and towns south of the capital. Another 100 people were wounded.

Windows rattled from the force of a blast in central Baghdad when a bomb struck the central commercial district of Karrada. That blast and others in the capital, including one caused by a parked car bomb that went off at a bus station, killed 10.

In Kirkuk, an oil-rich city about 290km (180 miles) from Baghdad, police said nine people were killed when six car bombs exploded simultaneously. Three bombs detonated in the town centre – in Arab, Kurdish and Turkoman districts. The rest went off elsewhere in the city, which is home to a mix of ethnic groups with competing claims.

In addition to the bombings, a police officer was killed in a drive-by shooting while he was driving his car in Tarmiyah, 30 miles (50km) north of Baghdad.

Although violence in Iraq has fallen from its peak in 2006 and 2007, bombings and other attacks remain common.

The blasts came a day after a series of attacks left 10 people dead, including a Sunni candidate running in the upcoming provincial elections. The most serious attack on Sunday took place when a booby-trapped body that was left in the street exploded among a group of policemen who were trying to inspect the body.

Iraqis vote on Saturday in what will be the country's first election since US troops withdrew in December 2011. The election, for local-level officials, will be a test of the strength of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki's political bloc as well as the ability of security forces to keep the country safe.
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« Reply #5743 on: Apr 15, 2013, 08:21 AM »

April 14, 2013

German Elites Drawn to Anti-Euro Party, Spelling Trouble for Merkel


BERLIN — With less than six months to go before parliamentary elections in Germany, a new political party that is calling for an end to the European currency union is gaining strength.

The party, Alternative for Germany, held its first formal party congress on Sunday at a Berlin hotel. It has emerged as a wild card ahead of the September elections and poses a potential threat to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s re-election prospects.

The question is whether the party is experiencing the short-lived buzz of a political fad or represents the beginning of a significant movement that could jeopardize the struggling euro.

The new party is driven by a collection of elites, not a groundswell from the streets, starting with Bernd Lucke, 50, a Hamburg economics professor. Mr. Lucke, along with many of the new party’s supporters, previously belonged to Ms. Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union before the Greek bailouts forced him to reconsider.

“We want to put an end to the flagrant breach of democratic, legal and economic principles that we have seen in the past three years, because Chancellor Merkel’s government said there is no alternative,” Mr. Lucke told more than 1,500 supporters on Sunday. “Now it is here, the Alternative for Germany.”

Mr. Lucke says the euro is dividing Europe rather than uniting it, as the single currency was meant to do. He has the support of a group of fellow academics who filed a case before Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court against the bailouts. Hardly a firebrand, he is also working with establishment figures like a former newspaper publisher and a former leader of the powerful Federation of German Industries. More than two-thirds of the supporters listed on the group’s home page have doctorates.

The party has more than 7,000 applicants and is working to gather enough signatures to be on the ballot in all 16 German states by the July deadline.

The fragile solidarity between the 17 euro-zone members has been sorely tested by the years of crisis and the growing list of bailouts. The countries needing help complain about diktats from Brussels and Berlin, while Germany and its northern allies grumble about the costs. Here in the German capital, the images of demonstrators in Athens, Madrid and now Nicosia, Cyprus — some of them waving swastikas or pictures of Ms. Merkel dressed as Hitler — have begun to try people’s patience.

Pollsters and political analysts doubt that the new party will attract more than 5 percent of the vote, the threshold for representation in the next Parliament. But it does not need that many votes to play the spoiler for Ms. Merkel.

“They don’t need to get 5 percent to make things very tight for the chancellor,” said Wolfgang Nowak, a fellow at the North Rhine-Westphalia School of Governance in Duisburg. “And every swastika on the street in Athens helps this new party.”

One new member, Martina Tigges-Friedrichs, said she belonged to the Free Democratic Party in the state of Lower Saxony for 15 years before she quit this year, frustrated that the pro-business party had abandoned its principles. She said she was attracted to Alternative for Germany because of the prominence of its founders, and because the current center-right government had put the country on a dangerous financial course.

“We keep giving out more and more money when we have so many problems here at home,” said Ms. Tigges-Friedrichs, who runs two hotels and a cafe in Bad Pyrmont.

The new party illustrates the increasing fragmentation of the political scene in Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse. But the rapid ascent and equally rapid descent of another protest group, the Pirate Party, whose vague platform is focused on greater openness in government, offers a cautionary tale for the professors and professionals behind Alternative for Germany.

Polls show that a large number of voters, as many as one in four, would consider voting for the party. But that might not translate into actual votes. And several other surveys have shown that the nostalgia for the former German currency, the mark, is beginning to ebb.

Discontent has its limits. While Germans dislike the notional price tag for the many commitments and guarantees their government has made over the three years of the euro crisis, the job market is strong, borrowing costs are low and the country is approaching the balanced budget it so desperately craves.

Alternative for Germany has also called for simplifying the tax code, restructuring energy subsidies and favoring the most qualified workers for immigration, but ultimately it is known here as an anti-euro party despite efforts to paint itself as a broader movement.

“If the euro fails, Europe will not fail,” said Mr. Lucke, contradicting the chancellor’s repeated insistence that the future of the 27-member European Union is tied to the success of its common currency. “If the euro fails, then the policies of Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble fail,” he said, referring to the chancellor and her finance minister.

Eager to portray itself as a moderate, academic and middle-class party, Alternative for Germany is trying to sift out far-right opponents of the common currency who have praised the party’s anti-euro policy.

“We want to show where the deficits of the main parties lay,” Ms. Tigges-Friedrichs said.

But if the party wins enough votes from the center-right, it could help return a left-wing government of Social Democrats and Greens, who have been even more receptive than the current government to burden sharing between euro countries.

Steffen Kampeter, a deputy finance minister from Ms. Merkel’s party, told the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that Alternative for Germany was giving voters a far too rosy picture of how a euro-zone breakup would occur. “The new party is deluding voters that it’s possible to renationalize the common currency without drawbacks,” Mr. Kampeter said, “as if you could make eggs again out of scrambled eggs.”
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« Reply #5744 on: Apr 15, 2013, 08:22 AM »

April 15, 2013

Greece Seals Deal With Debt Inspectors


ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece cleared an important hurdle in its drive to receive its next batch of bailout loans after international debt inspectors said Monday they had reached an agreement over the country's economic reforms — including the firing of thousands of civil servants.

The review by delegates from the International Monetary Fund, European Commission and European Central Bank — known collectively as the troika — is part of a regular process under which Greece receives installments of its multibillion-euro bailout.

"Greece is being stabilized and our position is being bolstered," Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said in a televised address Monday afternoon.

As well as reaching an agreement on the disbursement of 2.8 billion euros ($3.65 billion) worth of bailout loans pending from last month, Samaras said "the road has opened" for May's installment of 6 billion euros.

Greece has been dependent on some 270 billion euros in bailout loans and other rescue packages since 2010, the lion's share of which comes from Greece's partners in the eurozone — the 17 European Union countries that use the euro. In return, successive Greek governments have pledged to overhaul the Greek economy and imposed stringent spending cuts and tax hikes.

Almost every troika review since the start of the bailout has been delayed due to targets being missed or disagreements with the government. Apart from the initial installments, no rescue loans have been disbursed on time.

Despite often major differences between the two sides, there was less tension for this review because the threat of imminent bankruptcy, which had hung over many previous negotiations, was no longer there.

The reforms have been painful for Greece. The country is mired in a deep recession, currently in its sixth year, and unemployment has spiraled to around 27 percent.

In a joint statement, the three institutions said recent steps taken by Greece will mean that targets for March "are likely to be met in the near future" and that the country's debt sustainability "remains on track."

The eurozone and IMF board are expected to approve the review in May.

The review mainly covered the dismissal of civil servants. The government and troika have been wrangling for weeks over state-sector job losses, something which hasn't happened during the crisis so far despite pressure from Greece's creditors and massive private-sector unemployment.

The firings would be "targeted at disciplinary cases and cases of demonstrated incapacity, absenteeism, and poor performance, or that result from closure or mergers of government entities," the troika review said.

Samaras said 15,000 civil servants would be removed by the end of 2014, with 4,000 of them by the end of this year. New young employees will be hired in their place.

The job losses would include sacking those who have been convicted of criminal offenses or disciplinary violations, voluntary departures and from positions that have been axed.

"That is not a human sacrifice, as some claim. Firing people who have disciplinary violations and hiring young and able people. It is a qualitative upgrading of the public sector and a demand of the Greek people," Samaras said.

Until now, civil servants have been constitutionally guaranteed jobs for life under a law dating from the early 20th century to protect public sector workers from unfair dismissal due to political affiliations. But the law was widely abused, with politicians accused of stacking the civil service in return for votes.

The result was a massively bloated, inefficient civil service with about 700,000 employees in this country of less than 11 million people — a total that was only discovered when a public sector census was carried out at the start of the bailout in 2010.

"It's still a taboo to dismiss people from the public sector. There have been no forced dismissals of employees whose positions are eliminated or who for some reason do not perform," the IMF's troika representative Poul Thomsen said during a conference on the economy in central Athens.

"So this dramatic rebalancing of the economy ... has caused a sharp increase in unemployment in the private sector while public sector employees have been protected. This is another source of the sense of lack of fairness in the process."

Greece's civil servants' union, ADEDY, called a demonstration for Wednesday, saying the government was taking advantage of "unacceptable cases of violations and corruption" to cast blame on and make targets of all public sector workers.

Minister for Administrative Reform Antonis Manitakis said Greece's creditors had long been pressing for 15,000 public sector workers to be sacked without being replaced, but the agreement to hire new workers in their stead followed the higher-than-anticipated number of retirements — more than 180,000 of which are expected between 2010-2015.

The troika also warned that the government must still be vigilant and "respond promptly to any slippages that may emerge."

"Greece has indeed come a very long way," said Thomsen. "The fiscal adjustment in Greece has been exceptional by any standard."

If the country continues implementing reforms, no new austerity measures will be needed to achieve overall budget targets, Thomsen said.

The institutions still predict Greece will return to growth gradually in 2014.

Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras said Greece's main target for this year was to achieve a primary surplus of the budget — a surplus without taking into account interest payments on existing loans.

Once this is achieved, Athens could request activation of something Greece's eurozone partners agreed on late last year — a further reduction in the country's private debt.

In March 2012, Greece forced private investors to write off more than half the value of the government bonds they held. Due to that, Greece's debt is now mainly in public hands. A further debt reduction could come from easing the terms of the country's bailout.

"The major target now is to achieve a primary budgetary surplus this year so that we can ... ask for a drastic reduction in the public debt," Stournaras said. "That will create a very positive boost in developments and would speed up our exit from the crisis."


Nicholas Paphitis in Athens contributed.
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