India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
October 31, 2012, 2:21 am
On This Day: The Assassination of Indira Gandhi
By THE NEW YORK TIMES
"Strong-willed, autocratic and determined to govern an almost ungovernable nation that seemed always in strife, Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister four times and the dominant figure in India for almost two decades," Linda Charlton wrote in The New York Times obituary of Ms. Gandhi, who was assassinated on October 31, 1984.
"During her tenure the Government made limited headway against such age-old Indian problems as overpopulation, hunger, caste, inadequate sanitation and chronic religious strife among the majority Hindus, Moslems and other sects," she wrote. "Her critics charged that her promises to erase poverty were quixotic and that India's chronic and severe social problems actually burgeoned during her years of power." (Read the full obituary here.)
Of her death, New Delhi correspondent William K. Stevens wrote "Her sudden disappearance from the public scene represents a considerable challenge to the future of the Indian experiment in democracy."
Hours after her death, he wrote, "her 40-year- old son, Rajiv Gandhi, was sworn in as her successor. It is his abilities and performance that are, perhaps, the biggest uncertainty for many people as the nation tries to adjust to the events of today." (Read the full article about her death here.)
In One Slum, Misery, Work, Politics and Hope
By JIM YARDLEY
MUMBAI, India — At the edge of India’s greatest slum, Shaikh Mobin’s decrepit shanty is cleaved like a wedding cake, four layers high and sliced down the middle. The missing half has been demolished. What remains appears ready for demolition, too, with temporary walls and a rickety corrugated roof.
Yet inside, carpenters are assembling furniture on the ground floor. One floor up, men are busily cutting and stitching blue jeans. Upstairs from them, workers are crouched over sewing machines, making blouses. And at the top, still more workers are fashioning men’s suits and wedding apparel. One crumbling shanty. Four businesses.
In the labyrinthine slum known as Dharavi are 60,000 structures, many of them shanties, and as many as one million people living and working on a triangle of land barely two-thirds the size of Central Park in Manhattan. Dharavi is one of the world’s most infamous slums, a cliché of Indian misery. It is also a churning hive of workshops with an annual economic output estimated to be $600 million to more than $1 billion.
“This is a parallel economy,” said Mr. Mobin, whose family is involved in several businesses in Dharavi. “In most developed countries, there is only one economy. But in India, there are two.”
India is a rising economic power, even as huge portions of its economy operate in the shadows. Its “formal” economy consists of businesses that pay taxes, adhere to labor regulations and burnish the country’s global image. India’s “informal” economy is everything else: the hundreds of millions of shopkeepers, farmers, construction workers, taxi drivers, street vendors, rag pickers, tailors, repairmen, middlemen, black marketeers and more.
This divide exists in other developing countries, but it is a chasm in India: experts estimate that the informal sector is responsible for the overwhelming majority of India’s annual economic growth and as much as 90 percent of all employment. The informal economy exists largely outside government oversight and, in the case of slums like Dharavi, without government help or encouragement.
For years, India’s government has tried with mixed success to increase industrial output by developing special economic zones to lure major manufacturers. Dharavi, by contrast, could be called a self-created special economic zone for the poor. It is a visual eyesore, a symbol of raw inequality that epitomizes the failure of policy makers to accommodate the millions of rural migrants searching for opportunity in Indian cities. It also underscores the determination of those migrants to come anyway.
“Economic opportunity in India still lies, to a large extent, in urban areas,” said Eswar Prasad, a leading economist. “The problem is that government hasn’t provided easy channels to be employed in the formal sector. So the informal sector is where the activity lies.”
Dharavi is Dickens and Horatio Alger and Upton Sinclair. It is ingrained in the Indian imagination, depicted in books or Bollywood movies, as well as in the Oscar-winning hit “Slumdog Millionaire.” Dharavi has been examined in a Harvard Business School case study and dissected by urban planners from Europe to Japan. Yet merely trying to define Dharavi is contested.
“Maybe to anyone who has not seen Dharavi, Dharavi is a slum, a huge slum,” said Gautam Chatterjee, the principal secretary overseeing the Housing Ministry in Maharashtra State. “But I have also looked at Dharavi as a city within a city, an informal city.”
It is an informal city as layered as Mr. Mobin’s sheared building — and as fragile. Plans to raze and redevelop Dharavi into a “normal” neighborhood have stirred a debate about what would be gained but also about what might be lost by trying to control and regulate Dharavi. Every layer of Dharavi, when exposed, reveals something far more complicated, and organic, than the concept of a slum as merely a warehouse for the poor.
One slum. Four layers. Four realities.
On the ground floor is misery.
One floor up is work.
Another floor up is politics.
And at the top is hope.
“Dharavi,” said Hariram Tanwar, 64, a local businessman, “is a mini-India.”
The streets smell of sewage and sweets. There are not enough toilets. There is not enough water. There is not enough space. Laborers sleep in sheds known as pongal houses, six men, maybe eight, packed into a single, tiny room — multiplied by many tiny rooms. Hygiene is terrible. Diarrhea and malaria are common. Tuberculosis floats in the air, spread by coughing or spitting. Dharavi, like the epic slums of Karachi, Pakistan, or Rio de Janeiro, is often categorized as a problem still unsolved, an emblem of inequity pressing against Mumbai, India’s richest and most glamorous city. A walk through Dharavi is a journey through a dank maze of ever-narrowing passages until the shanties press together so tightly that daylight barely reaches the footpaths below, as if the slum were a great urban rain forest, covered by a canopy of smoke and sheet metal.
Traffic bleats. Flies and mosquitoes settle on roadside carts of fruit and atop the hides of wandering goats. Ten families share a single water tap, with water flowing through the pipes for less than three hours every day, enough time for everyone to fill a cistern or two. Toilets are communal, with a charge of 3 cents to defecate. Sewage flows through narrow, open channels, slow-moving streams of green water and garbage.
At the slum’s periphery, Sion Hospital treats 3,000 patients every day, many from Dharavi, often children who are malnourished or have asthma or diarrhea. Premature tooth decay is so widespread in children that doctors call them dental cripples.
“People who come to Dharavi or other slum areas — their priority is not health,” said Dr. Pallavi Shelke, who works in Dharavi. “Their priority is earning.”
And that is what is perhaps most surprising about the misery of Dharavi: people come voluntarily. They have for decades. Dharavi once was known for gangs and violence, but today Dharavi is about work. Tempers sometimes flare, fights break out, but the police say the crime rate is actually quite low, even lower than in wealthier, less densely populated areas of the city. An outsider can walk through the slum and never feel threatened.
Misery is everywhere, as in miserable conditions, as in hardship. But people here do not speak of being miserable. People speak about trying to get ahead.
The order was for 2,700 briefcases, custom-made gifts for a large bank to distribute during the Hindu holiday of Diwali. The bank contacted a supplier, which contacted a leather-goods store, which sent the order to a manufacturer. Had the order been placed in China, it probably would have landed in one of the huge coastal factories that employ thousands of rural migrants and have made China a manufacturing powerhouse.
In India, the order landed in the Dharavi workshop of Mohammed Asif. Mr. Asif’s work force consists of 22 men, who sit cross-legged beside mounds of soft, black leather, an informal assembly line, except that the factory floor is a cramped room doubling as a dormitory: the workers sleep above, in a loft. The briefcases were due in two weeks.
“They work hard,” Mr. Asif said. “They work from 8 in the morning until 11 at night because the more they do, the more they will earn to send back to their families. They come here to earn.”
Unlike China, India does not have colossal manufacturing districts because India has chosen not to follow the East Asian development model of building a modern economy by starting with low-skill manufacturing. If China’s authoritarian leaders have deliberately steered the country’s surplus rural work force into urban factories, Indian leaders have done little to promote job opportunities in cities for rural migrants. In fact, right-wing political parties in Mumbai have led sometimes-violent campaigns against migrants.
Yet India’s rural migrants, desperate to escape poverty, flock to the cities anyway. Dharavi is an industrial gnat compared with China’s manufacturing heartland — and the working conditions in the slum are almost certainly worse than those in major Chinese factories — but Dharavi does seem to share China’s can-do spirit. Almost everything imaginable is made in Dharavi, much of it for sale in India, yet much of it exported around the world.
Today, Dharavi is as much a case study in industrial evolution as a slum. Before the 1980s, Dharavi had tanneries that dumped their effluent into the surrounding marshlands. Laborers came from southern India, especially the state of Tamil Nadu, many of them Muslims or lower-caste Hindus, fleeing drought, starvation or caste discrimination. Once Tamil Nadu’s economy strengthened, migrants began arriving from poverty-stricken states in central India.
Later, the tanneries were closed down for environmental reasons, moving south to the city of Chennai, or to other slums elsewhere. Yet Dharavi had a skilled labor force, as well as cheap costs for workshops and workers, and informal networks between suppliers, middlemen and workshops. So Dharavi’s leather trade moved up the value chain, as small workshops used raw leather processed elsewhere to make handbags for some of the priciest stores in India.
During this same period, Dharavi’s migration waves became a torrent, as people streamed out of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the teeming, backward northern states now at the locus of rural Indian poverty.
“After 1990, immigration was tremendous,” said Ramachandra Korde, a longtime civic activist commonly known around Dharavi as Bhau, or brother. “It used to be that 100 to 300 to 400 people came to Dharavi every day. Just to earn bread and butter.”
Leatherwork is now a major industry in Dharavi, but only one. Small garment factories have proliferated throughout the slum, making children’s clothes or women’s dresses for the Indian market or export abroad. According to a 2007 study sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development, Dharavi has at least 500 large garment workshops (defined as having 50 or more sewing machines) and about 3,000 smaller ones. Then there are the 5,000 leather shops. Then there are the food processors that make snacks for the rest of India.
And then still more: printmakers, embroiderers and, most of all, the vast recycling operations that sort, clean and reprocess much of India’s discarded plastic.
“We are cleaning the dirt of the country,” said Fareed Siddiqui, the general secretary of the Dharavi Businessmen’s Welfare Association.
Mr. Asif, the leather shop owner, is a typical member of Dharavi’s entrepreneur class.
Now 35, he arrived at the slum in 1988, leaving his village in Bihar after hearing about Dharavi from another family. He jumped on a train to Mumbai. He was 12.
“Someone from my village used to live here,” he said. “We were poor and had nothing.”
Mr. Asif began as an apprentice in a leather shop, learning how to use the heavy cutting scissors, then the sewing machines that stitch the seams on leather goods, until he finally opened his own shop. As a poor migrant, Mr. Asif could never have arranged the loans and workspace if Dharavi were part of the organized economy; he rents his workshop from the owner of the leather-goods store, who got the order from the supplier for the briefcases for the bank.
Today, nearly all of Mr. Asif’s workers are also from Bihar, one of the myriad personal networks that help direct migrants out of the villages. Mohammad Wazair earns roughly 6,000 rupees a month, or about $120, as a laborer in Mr. Asif’s workshop. He sends about half home every month to support his wife and two children. He is illiterate, but he is now paying for his children to attend a modest private school in their village. He visits them twice a year.
“In the village, what options do we have?” he asked. “We can either work in the fields or drive a rickshaw. What is the future in that? Here, I can learn a skill and earn money. At least my children will get an education.”
“Now the place is gold,” said Mr. Mobin, the businessman.
He is sitting on the top floor of his building, surrounded by men’s suits in the apparel shop. His family began in the leather business in the 1970s and has since moved into plastic recycling, garments and real estate. Slum property might not seem like a good investment, but Dharavi is now one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in Mumbai. Which is a problem, as Mr. Mobin sees it.
“People from all over the city, and the politicians, are making hue and cry that Dharavi must be developed,” he said. “But they are not developing it for the people of Dharavi. They will provide office buildings and shopping for the richer class.”
As Mumbai came to symbolize India’s expanding economy — and the country’s expanding inequality — Dharavi began attracting wider attention. Mumbai grew as Dharavi grew. If the slum once sat on the periphery, it now is a scar in the middle of what is a peninsular, land-starved city — an eyesore and embarrassment, if also a harbinger of a broader problem.
Today, more than eight million people live in Mumbai’s slums, according to some estimates, a huge figure that accounts for more than half the city’s population. Many people live in slums because they cannot afford to live anywhere else, and government efforts to build affordable housing have been woefully inadequate. But many newer slums are also microversions of Dharavi’s informal economy. Some newer migrants even come to Dharavi to learn new skills, as if Dharavi were a slum franchising operation.
“Dharavi is becoming their steppingstone,” said Vineet Joglekar, a civic leader here. “They learn jobs, and then they go to some other slum and set up there.”
Dharavi still exists on the margins. Few businesses pay taxes. Few residents have formal title to their land. Political parties court the slum for votes and have slowly delivered things taken for granted elsewhere: some toilets, water spigots.
But the main political response to Dharavi’s unorthodox success has been to try to raze it. India’s political class discovered Dharavi in the 1980s, when any migrant who jabbed four posts into an empty patch of dirt could claim a homestead. Land was scarce, and some people began dumping stones or refuse to fill the marshes at the edge of the Arabian Sea.
Rajiv Gandhi, then India’s prime minister, saw the teeming slum and earmarked one billion rupees, or about $20 million, for a program to build affordable, hygienic housing for Dharavi’s poor. Local officials siphoned off some of the money for other municipal projects while also building some tenements that today are badly decayed. The proliferation of shanties continued.
Three decades later, the basic impulse set in motion by Mr. Gandhi — that Dharavi should be redeveloped and somehow standardized — still prevails. But the incentives have changed. Dharavi’s land is now worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Private developers do not see a slum but a piece of property convenient to the airport, surrounded by train stations and adjacent to a sleek office park.
A sweeping plan approved in 2006 would provide free apartments and commercial space to many Dharavi residents while allowing private investors to develop additional space for sale at market rates. Many Dharavi civic and business leaders endorsed the plan, even as critics denounced the proposal as a giveaway to rich developers.
For now, the project remains largely stalled, embroiled in bureaucratic infighting, even as a different, existential debate is under way about the potential risks of redeveloping Dharavi and shredding the informal networks that bind it together.
“They are talking about redeveloping Dharavi,” said Mohammad Khurshid Sheikh, who owns a leather shop. “But if they do, the whole chain may break down. These businesses can work because Dharavi attracts labor. People can work here and sleep in the workshop. If there is redevelopment, they will not get that room so cheap. They will not come back here.”
Matias Echanove, an architect and urban planner, has long argued that Dharavi should not be dismissed as merely a slum, since it operates as a contained residential and commercial city. He said razing Dharavi, or even completely redeveloping it, would only push residents into other slums.
“They are going to create actual, real slums,” he said. “Nobody is saying Dharavi is a paradise. But we need to understand the dynamics, so that when there is an intervention by the government, it doesn’t destroy what is there.”
Sylva Vanita Baskar was born in Dharavi. She is now 39, already a widow. Her husband lost his vigor and then his life to tuberculosis. She borrowed money to pay for his care, and now she rents her spare room to four laborers for an extra $40 a month. She lives in a room with her four children. Two sons sleep in a makeshift bed. She and her two youngest children sleep on straw mats on the stone floor.
“They do everything together,” she said, explaining how her children endure such tight quarters. “They fight together. They study together.”
The computer sits on a small table beside the bed, protected, purchased for $354 from savings, even though the family has no Internet connection. The oldest son stores his work on a pen drive and prints it somewhere else. Ms. Baskar, a seamstress, spends five months’ worth of her income, almost $400, to send three of her children to private schools. Her daughter wants to be a flight attendant. Her youngest son, a mechanical engineer.
“My daughter is getting a better education, and she will get a better job,” Ms. Baskar said. “The children’s lives should be better. Whatever hardships we face are fine.”
Education is hope in Dharavi. On a recent afternoon outside St. Anthony’s, a parochial school in the slum, Hindu mothers in saris waited for their children beside Muslim mothers in burqas. The parents were not concerned about the crucifix on the wall; they wanted their children to learn English, the language considered to be a ticket out of the slums in India.
Once, many parents in Dharavi sent their children to work, not to school, and child labor remains a problem in some workshops. Dharavi’s children have always endured a stigma. When parents tried to send their sons and daughters outside the slum for schooling, the Dharavi students often received a bitter greeting.
“Sometimes, the teacher would not accept our children, or would treat them with contempt,” said Mohammad Hashim, 64. “Sometimes, they would say, ‘Why are you Dharavi children over here?’ ”
Mr. Hashim responded by opening his own school, tailored for Muslim children, offering a state-approved secular education. He initially offered the curriculum in Urdu but not a single parent enrolled a child. He switched to English, and now his classrooms are overflowing with Muslim students.
Discrimination is still common toward Dharavi. Residents complain that they are routinely rejected for credit cards if they list a Dharavi address. Private banks are reluctant to make loans to businessmen in Dharavi or to open branches. Part of this stigma is as much about social structure as about living in the slum itself.
“They all belong to the untouchables caste,” said Mr. Korde, the longtime social activist, “or are Muslims.”
But money talks in Mumbai, and Dharavi now has money, even millionaires, mixed in with its misery and poverty. Mohammad Mustaqueem, 57, arrived as a 13-year-old boy. He slept outside, in one of the narrow alleyways, and remembers being showered with garbage as people tossed it out in the morning. Today, Mr. Mustaqueem has 300 employees in 12 different garment workshops in Dharavi, with an annual turnover of about $2.5 million a year. He owns property in Dharavi worth $20 million.
“When I came here, I was empty-handed,” he said. “Now I have everything.”
Dharavi’s fingerprints continue to be found across Mumbai’s economy and beyond, even if few people realize it. Mr. Asif, the leather shop owner, made leather folders used to deliver dinner checks at the city’s most famous hotel, the Taj Mahal Palace. The tasty snacks found in Mumbai’s finest confectionaries? Made in Dharavi. The exquisite leather handbags sold in expensive shops? Often made in Dharavi.
“There are hundreds of Dharavis flourishing in the city,” boasted Mr. Mobin, the businessman. “Every slum has its businesses. Every kind of business is there in the slums.”
But surely, Mr. Mobin is asked, there are things not made in Dharavi. Surely not airplanes, for example.
“But we recycle waste for the airlines,” he answered proudly. “Cups and food containers.”
Hari Kumar contributed reporting.
In the USA...
October 30, 2012
A Far-Reaching System Leaves 8 Million Without Power
By JOHN SCHWARTZ
SCRANTON, Pa. — The reach of the storm called Sandy was staggering, with devastation along the coasts, snow in Appalachia, power failures in Maine and high winds at the Great Lakes.
In West Virginia, two feet of snow fell in Terra Alta, where Carrie Luckel said she had to take drastic measures to stay warm. “We are seriously using a turkey fryer to keep our bedroom warm enough to live and a Coleman stove in our bedroom to heat up cans of soup,” Ms. Luckel said. “Our milk is sitting on the roof.”
Along the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago, gawkers who had come to see the crash of 20-foot waves were struggling against gusts that the National Weather Service said could reach 60 miles per hour. “It’s hard to even stand there and look,” said Mike Magic, 36.
The storm was very unlike last year’s deluging Hurricane Irene, which caused severe flooding across many states. The relative lack of rain and the weakening of the storm as it progresses means that the worst damage — and the historic significance — of this storm will be its battering effect on the East Coast, said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane expert at the University of Miami. “Irene will be remembered only for its rain, and Sandy will be remembered only for its surge,” he said.
While the storm has weakened as it moved inland, its winds downed trees and caused some eight million utility customers to lose power. Coastal flooding hit Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and the storm left local flooding in its wake across Delaware, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. In Maryland, the sewage treatment plant for Howard County lost power, and about two million gallons of water and untreated sewage poured into the Patuxent River hourly. Still, Gov. Martin O’Malley said the state was “very, very fortunate to be on the kinder end of this very violent storm.”
Forecasters said on Tuesday that they no longer expected the storm to turn to the northeast and travel across New England. Instead, the track shifted well to the west, and prediction models suggested a path through central Pennsylvania and western New York State before entering southern Ontario by Wednesday, said Eric Blake, a hurricane specialist with the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
In Scranton, residents enjoyed the relief that comes whenever bullets have been dodged.
“People around here are very concerned about flooding after Irene last year — many people are just recovering,” said Simon Hewson, the general manager at Kildare’s Irish Pub. He prepared the establishment for a severe storm, then “just hunkered down and waited,” said Mr. Hewson, who hails from Dublin. He came in the next morning to an undamaged pub: “We got lucky.”
Experience with natural disaster in an environment that climate change has made increasingly unpredictable has taught strong lessons to many of those who have to deal with storms. Amy Shuler Goodwin, director of communications for the office of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin of West Virginia, said “without question we are better prepared this time around than last time,” referring to the freakishly powerful “derecho” line of storms that slammed across 700 miles of the Midwest and the mid-Atlantic in July.
As the storm continues to move inland and loses contact with the ocean — its source of moisture — rain levels are expected to diminish, though wind damage is still likely.
When it comes time to assess the damage and help clean up the mess caused by the storm, the Army Corps of Engineers will have plenty of work on its hands, said Col. Kent D. Savre, the commander and division engineer for the corps’ North Atlantic division, whose operations stretch from Virginia to Maine; he expects help from corps districts across the nation: “They kind of come to the sound of the guns when there’s an event like this.”
For some, the storm brought wonder. At LeConte Lodge in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a hike-in set of cabins at 6,600 feet, about 25 visitors huddled around a fire while snow piled up in drifts of up to five feet, said Allyson Virden, who runs the lodge. The 22-inch snowfall is already eleven times greater than the average for October, but Ms. Virden tried looking on the bright side. “We don’t have power to lose up here,” she said. “And it’s gorgeous.”
Reporting was contributed by Brian Stelter from Delaware, Theo Emery from Maryland, John H. Cushman Jr. from Washington, Timothy Williams from New York, Katharine Q. Seelye from Boston, Kim Severson from Atlanta, Steven Yaccino from Chicago and Cynthia McCloud from Terra Alta, W.Va.
10/30/2012 03:18 PM
Handling Hurricane Sandy: Obama's Moment of Truth
By Sebastian Fischer in Washington
Hurricane Sandy has devastated parts of America's East Coast, and now Barack Obama must manage the crisis. Up for reelection in just one week, the president is forced to take on a new role. A failure could cost him his job.
Even before the storm hit America's East Coast, President Barack Obama wanted to show that he's ready, that he can lead the country through this crisis. It was exactly eight days before the presidential election on Nov. 6.
"This is going to be a big and powerful storm," Obama said on Monday. He said he had spoken with the governors of all the affected states and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had been put on alert. Food and water provisions were at the ready, he assured, adding that in times of crisis, America sticks together. The country was ready to handle this storm, he said.
This is the president as crisis manager. Obama is doing what Americans expect from a president when a massive storm like Sandy comes along: He is demonstratively setting politics aside and acting as the top catastrophe prevention official. When a reporter then asked him, "What about the impact on the election, sir?", the president answered soberly, unselfishly and energetically. "The election will take care of itself next week," he said. "Right now, our number-one priority is to make sure that we are saving lives … ."
His handling of the storm could determine the outcome of the election. "The hurricane will pose a huge test for Obama in the next few days, one that will make the debate in Denver look like child's play," writes Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, for US broadcaster CNN. Obama lost to Republican candidate Mitt Romney in Denver, giving his rival an unexpected boost in the campaign.
Success Equals Reelection
One thing must not happen if Obama wants to have a second term in the White House: If he appears weak like his predecessor George W. Bush did during Hurricane Katrina, he can pack his bags. Bush ruined his reputation in 2005 when it took him four days to show up in New Orleans after the disaster. The federal authorities, particularly FEMA, which Bush had previously downgraded, failed to respond properly. More than 1,800 people died, most of them poor and black. It was countries like Germany that sent food and pumps to the area.
Obama, who has blamed Bush for this failure, must now avoid his own Katrina moment. If he succeeds, the his Sandy moment will lead him to an election victory. The crisis is the hour of the executive office, after all.
And this crisis is just beginning. Monday night was terrible. People died, some 5 million were cut off from electricity, Manhattan was flooded and a nuclear plant on the New Jersey coast was placed on alert and shut down as a precaution. Now Obama and his team must act. Will the victims be taken care of? Is there enough food? How quickly will the power be turned back on?
Already on Monday the White House sent out a lengthy email detailing the government's catastrophe prevention program:
More than 1,500 disaster workers have been deployed along the East Coast to support states with their search and rescue operations, as well as communications and logistics.
Another 28 FEMA teams with a total of 294 members will be standing by.
Three rescue task forces have been set up in the Mid-Atlantic region, with four more on alert.
Five million liters of water, 3 million meals, 900,000 blankets and 100,000 cots have been sent out. Distribution centers for these items have been set up in New Jersey and Massachusetts.
The National Guard has deployed 1,900 troops to the affected states.
And it goes on and on. At the center of it all stands Craig Fugate, the FEMA chief appointed by Obama, who has also restored FEMA's powers. Fugate had already proven himself as the former head of the Florida Division for Emergency Management. As Sandy began to hit the coast, Fugate sent out concrete, useful messages via Twitter. "As power goes out, turn on your battery powered or hand-crank radio for news updates from your local broadcasters," he wrote.
Campaigning Goes on Behind the Scenes
Crisis manager Obama has appeared side by side with Fugate and cancelled his campaign appearances for Tuesday. But in the background, his top strategist David Axelrod continues to work on his reelection. During a telephone conference on Monday, he assured journalists that an Obama victory was inevitable, with the president polling ahead in key swing states. The Republican claims that Romney is gaining on the president are merely "bluffing," he said. It took a few minutes before Obama's campaign manager Jim Messina interrupted to ensure that both he and Axelrod were sending their "thoughts and prayers" to the catastrophe zones.
But Axelrod's assurance of victory is hardly backed up by the "cold, hard data" he claims to have, because Sandy and its fallout could actually keep voters that Obama depends on from going to polling stations -- the ordinary people who are hard to motivate. If the power remains out for days, they will likely have better things to do than cast their ballots.
For his part, Romney also cancelled his next campaign appearances shortly after the president did. He can't afford to give the slightest impression that he wants to profit politically from the crisis. He called on his supporters to make donations to the victims. He also renamed an appearance in the important battleground state Ohio. Instead of a "victory rally," it is now called a "storm-relief event," which will help raise money for victims.
Romney is acting presidential and trying to seize the middle ground. He believes that "this is a time for the nation and its leaders to come together to focus on those Americans who are in harm's way," said Gail Glitcho, his communications director, in a statement on Monday.
During the stormy night it could have easily been forgotten that in the summer of 2011 during a televised primary debate, Romney said he wanted to get rid of FEMA, the organization proving to be so important at the moment, calling disaster relief spending "immoral" when the focus should be on deficit reduction. "Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction. And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that's even better," he said.
The Huffington Post had hardly reminded the country about this statement when a Romney spokesperson assured that the Republican nominee did not want to scrap FEMA. Of course. There are just 7 days to go until the election.
October 30, 2012
Obama Promises Speedy Aid as Storm Takes On Added Political Weight
By MARK LANDLER
WASHINGTON — When President Obama dropped in to give a pep talk to workers at the American Red Cross here on Tuesday afternoon, it seemed like a standard ritual for a leader confronting a natural disaster. But in the final week of a presidential campaign that has been scrambled by an epic storm, nothing can be divorced from politics.
Mr. Obama, eager to project the image of a president responding forcefully to the crisis, promised the storm’s victims in New Jersey, New York and elsewhere that federal help was on the way. And he warned the rank and file in federal agencies that they had better not get in the way of that effort.
“My message to the federal government: no bureaucracy, no red tape,” said Mr. Obama, flanked by Red Cross employees. “Get resources where they’re needed as fast as possible.” Referring to a call he held earlier with 20 governors and mayors, Mr. Obama said he told them, “If they’re getting ‘no’ for an answer somewhere in the federal government, they can call me personally at the White House.”
For a president locked in a razor-thin battle for re-election, the storm has presented a moment — both promising and perilous — to rise above the partisan fray and shift the tone of a campaign that had settled into a grinding slog to Election Day.
Mr. Obama could yet suffer President George W. Bush’s fate after the government’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina, a lapse that contributed to steep Republican losses in the 2006 midterm elections. With Katrina indelibly stamped on people’s memories, the historian Michael Beschloss said, “the obvious downside is that if the executive branch fails to respond competently, the president will receive large blame.”
The president got an unexpected Republican vote of confidence from Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who lavished praise on Mr. Obama for his responsiveness. He recounted a midnight phone call, in which the president pledged to cut through paperwork to get New Jersey declared a major disaster area, freeing up federal assets for the rescue effort.
“The president’s been all over this,” Mr. Christie said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “He deserves great credit.”
Only eight days ago, Mr. Christie, who gave the keynote address at the Republican National Convention and was a potential running mate for Mitt Romney, described Mr. Obama as “blindly walking around the White House looking for a clue.” On Wednesday, Mr. Obama plans to travel to New Jersey, where Mr. Christie will personally show him the devastation.
As if to underline the gap between a sitting president and a candidate, Mr. Christie impatiently dismissed a suggestion by a host on Fox News that he take Mr. Romney on a similar disaster tour. “I could care less about any of that stuff,” he said.
New York’s mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, said he politely declined Mr. Obama’s offer to visit the city, though he, too, praised the federal effort.
White House officials could scarcely have anticipated Mr. Christie’s effusive words. From a political perspective, they viewed the storm with trepidation — both because it would pull Mr. Obama off the campaign trail for precious days in the last week, and because natural disasters tend to punish presidents more often than reward them.
On Sunday evening, with Hurricane Sandy bearing down on the East Coast, Mr. Obama flew to Florida, hoping to squeeze in one more rally. When the storm accelerated overnight, his pilots told him at 6 a.m. that they could not fly Air Force One back safely unless he left immediately, skipping the rally.
Once back at the White House, though, Mr. Obama brought a singular focus to the storm, his aides said. At a briefing in the Situation Room on Tuesday with cabinet secretaries and other officials, he summed up what he expected: that everyone “lean forward.”
“Our response has to be big, fast and thorough,” he said, according to an aide in the room. “I don’t want to see stories of bureaucracy getting in the way. I will have zero tolerance of anything that looks like we’re not responding quickly enough.”
Lest anyone miss the message of a leader in command, the White House has issued photographs of his briefings and detailed descriptions of his calls with state and local officials — a practice the White House has perfected in previous crises, like the earthquake in Haiti.
White House aides described Mr. Obama’s swift approval of the disaster declarations for New Jersey and New York. After his call with Mr. Christie, the president directed officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency to call the governor with questions that would normally have to be answered in writing. That happened at 2 a.m., and the declaration was approved by Mr. Obama before sunrise.
With those legal steps out of the way, Mr. Obama held a conference call with executives of utility companies to prod them to restore power to more than eight million customers.
For a White House consumed for months by campaigning, the challenge of coping with a natural disaster is almost a relief to some aides. And Mr. Obama, who spent the days before the storm needling his opponent for his “Romnesia,” seems to have found a bigger voice.
Speaking at the Red Cross, Mr. Obama recalled stories of nurses removing patients from a darkened New York hospital, firefighters wading into waist-deep water in Queens and a Coast Guard ship off North Carolina, sending a swimmer out to rescue people from a sinking ship. “During the darkness of the storm,” he said, “I think we also saw what’s brightest in America.”
October 30, 2012
Storm Brings Obstacles One Week Before Vote
By MICHAEL COOPER
Hurricane Sandy spurred Maryland to suspend its early voting program for a second day on Tuesday and forced the closing of some early voting sites in battleground states like North Carolina and Virginia. But the bigger question that many state and county elections officials in storm-battered states were asking themselves was how to get ready for Election Day next week.
The obstacles are formidable. More than 8.2 million households were without power by midday Tuesday, with more than a fifth of them in swing states — a potential problem in an age when the voting process, which once consisted of stuffing paper ballots into boxes, has been electrified.
Roads were impassable in some states, and mass transportation was hobbled in others. And Postal Service disruptions threatened to slow the delivery of absentee ballots to election boards.
The storm revived an uncomfortable debate, last raised after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, about what to do in the event that a disaster interfered with an election. (The attacks led New York City to postpone its mayoral primary, which was already in progress that morning when the hijacked airplanes hit the World Trade Center.)
There are legal ways to change the date of a presidential election, said Jerry H. Goldfeder, a prominent election lawyer and special counsel at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan. One would require Congress to choose a new date. It was not until 1845 that Congress decided there should be a single date for presidential electors to be chosen in the states, the Tuesday immediately following the first Monday in November.
But there is also a federal law that gives states the opportunity to try again if they fail to choose electors on Election Day. “Whenever any State has held an election for the purpose of choosing electors, and has failed to make a choice on the day prescribed by law, the electors may be appointed on a subsequent day in such a manner as the legislature of such State may direct,” the law says.
Mr. Goldfeder wrote a law review article in 2005 arguing that Congress should clarify what should be done if a terrorist attack or a disaster upended an election, so that states would not come up with their own disparate solutions.
But he said in an interview on Tuesday that even without such action, Congress could change the date of the election in the event of an emergency, or that states that failed to choose electors on Election Day could effectively attempt a do-over under federal law.
“Legally it’s simple,” Mr. Goldfeder said. “But historically, politically and logistically, it would be a highly extraordinary and unique event in American history.”
Officials in many states were making preparations to ensure that residents would be able to vote. In Maryland, Gov. Martin O’Malley issued an executive order extending early voting hours through Friday to make up for the days lost to the storm. Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania extended the deadline for county elections offices to take applications for absentee ballots. And many states were coordinating with county officials to prepare their polling places for next week.
Some of the hardest-hit counties in New York have begun weighing the possibility of moving their voting sites at the 11th hour.
For now, most election officials say they believe that they will be ready for voting on Tuesday. Matt McClellan, a spokesman for the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office, said that county boards across the state had prepared contingency plans for any emergencies.
“Our office is staying in touch with boards of elections,” he said in an e-mail, “and we are confident that at this point in time local boards are prepared.”
A spokesman for the Virginia State Board of Elections, Justin Riemer, said that only about 10 of the state’s 134 early voting sites were closed on Tuesday and that the state expected to be ready for Election Day. “We don’t believe there are going to be any lingering power outages for Election Day,” he said, noting that utilities were being asked to give priority to restoring power at polling places.
But some voting sites may have to be moved in New York, which was battered by the storm. John Conklin, a spokesman for the State Board of Elections, said local elections officials “are assessing what their poll sites look like right now.”
He added, “They’re looking whether they have power, whether they are accessible to the public, accessible to getting voting machines in and are structurally sound and safe.”
In the coming days, Mr. Conklin said, local elections officials will decide whether they have to move some polling places.
October 31, 2012
Ohio Working Class May Offer Key to Obama’s Re-election
By JEFF ZELENY and DALIA SUSSMAN
COLUMBUS, Ohio — As President Obama and Mitt Romney enter the closing week of the presidential race, where the 18 electoral votes of Ohio are seen by both sides as critical to victory, Mr. Obama’s ability to prevent erosion among working-class voters may be his best path to re-election.
In Ohio, according to the latest poll of likely voters by Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS News, Mr. Obama runs nearly even with Mr. Romney among white voters who do not have college degrees.
That helps explain why he appears slightly better positioned there in the closing week of the campaign than in Florida and Virginia, where the polls found that Mr. Romney holds an advantage of about 30 percentage points among those voters.
The presidential contest has become an intense state-by-state fight, with the climate in Ohio shaped by months of efforts by the Obama campaign to portray Mr. Romney as a job killer who opposed the president’s decision to bail out the auto industry.
Mr. Obama, who has a 50 percent to 45 percent edge here, also appears to be benefiting from an economic recovery in Ohio that is running ahead of the national recovery.
The poll found that nearly half of all white voters without college degrees here say the economy is improving, and most give Mr. Obama some credit. Only about a quarter of those voters in Virginia and Florida say their economy is getting better.
The polls, along with interviews with strategists and supporters in the three battleground states, illustrate the dynamic facing both campaigns in the final days of the race. The race is essentially tied in Florida and Virginia, the polls found.
The presidential race is now brimming with even more uncertainty as Mr. Obama canceled a trip to Ohio on Wednesday and stays off the campaign trail for a third straight day. Mr. Romney was set to resume his schedule in Florida and Virginia, but he faced a delicate task of campaigning during a natural disaster.
But the campaign is still very much alive here in Ohio, where Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama are locked in a bitter duel over blue-collar voters. A dispute over the Obama administration’s 2009 effort to rescue the auto industry boiled over yet again on Tuesday, with the Romney campaign arguing in a new radio commercial that the government’s $80 billion assistance plan helped China more than the United States.
The chief executive of Chrysler, Sergio Marchionne, took the rare step of disputing a presidential candidate by calling the assertion “inaccurate.” He said production would not be moved from the United States to China, adding: “Jeep is one of our truly global brands with uniquely American roots. This will never change.”
The Ohio economy’s recovery has complicated Mr. Romney’s efforts to portray Mr. Obama as an ineffective leader. The president is seen in a favorable light by 52 percent of likely voters, compared with 46 percent who have a favorable opinion of Mr. Romney.
Yet the poll here showed that the race is tight, with Mr. Obama’s five-point edge the same as last week but cut in half from a month ago.
Among the likely voters in Ohio who say they are paying a lot of attention to the race, Mr. Obama’s edge narrows to one percentage point, or essentially tied, which underscores the extent to which the race will turn on the get-out-the-vote efforts of each campaign.
“It seems like the economy is on an upswing,” Kathleen Foley, a special-education teacher in Dayton, said in a follow-up interview. “I truly believe that in the next few years, our economy is going to see an upswing. I’d like Obama to get some credit for the work he’s done.”
In the closing stages of the race, Mr. Romney has taken steps to emphasize the moderate elements of his record. His campaign was running a television advertisement here on Tuesday reminding voters that he supports abortion rights in the case of rape, incest or to protect the life of the mother. Democratic groups and the Obama campaign countered with their own ads.
The economy remains the top issue on the minds of voters, the poll found, and the ads were dismissed as not relevant by one poll respondent, Dana Hogan of Cincinnati.
“Do I really think we’re going to go back to the point where women won’t be able to have abortions or birth control is going to be rationed? That’s just silly to even think of,” said Ms. Hogan, who works at a small company and spoke in a follow-up interview. “Some women do still get really riled up by that, but I think it’s just a scare tactic. Really, you think women are that dumb?”
The presidential race, which has largely played out in nine swing states, is suddenly showing signs of expansion. The Romney campaign and Republican groups announced new investments in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota, a reflection that the contest was tight across the country and their options in the existing battleground states may not be enough for Mr. Romney to reach the necessary 270 electoral votes.
A nationwide poll of likely voters from The New York Times and CBS News, which was released Tuesday evening, found that more voters now view Mr. Romney as a stronger leader on the economy and Mr. Obama as a better guardian of the middle class. The president was the choice of 48 percent, with 47 percent for Mr. Romney. The poll had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points.
But the biggest focal point of the race remains in seven states, particularly Ohio, where Mr. Romney appeared for the last three days. Mr. Obama had been scheduled to make two stops in Ohio on Wednesday before the storm hit the East Coast. Both candidates are set to make multiple trips back to the state before Election Day, aides said.
The Times, in collaboration with Quinnipiac and CBS News, has tracked the presidential race with recurring polls in key battleground states. The three latest surveys, which were conducted Oct. 23 to 28 among likely voters on landlines and cellphones, are the final series in the project.
In Florida, the overall race has narrowed considerably from a month ago, with Mr. Obama now the choice of 48 percent to 47 percent for Mr. Romney. In Virginia, Mr. Obama has 49 percent, with 47 percent for Mr. Romney. The results in each state have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.
In each state, Mr. Obama holds a double-digit lead among female voters, while Mr. Romney does better among men, especially white men. Most voters age 65 and older in each state prefer Mr. Romney, while younger voters support Mr. Obama. Voters who call themselves independents are closely split in Florida and Ohio, the polls found, but support Mr. Romney by a wide margin in Virginia.
The polls offer a window into the intensity of the campaign in these states, with more than three in four likely voters in each state saying they are paying a lot of attention to the election and wide majorities saying they have been contacted by one or both campaigns.
Few voters in each state — just 3 percent in Florida and Virginia, and 4 percent in Ohio — remain undecided. And just 3 percent of voters who support a candidate in Florida, and 4 percent in Ohio and Virginia, say they might change their mind.
In Ohio and Florida, the voting is already well under way. The Ohio poll found an advantage for the Obama campaign in their efforts to get out early voters. Nearly one in four voters in Ohio said they had already cast their ballots, and 6 in 10 of them say it was for Mr. Obama, compared with 34 percent for Mr. Romney.
The poll found a closer race among the one in five voters in Florida who said they had already voted, with 50 percent of them saying they backed Mr. Obama and 44 percent saying they supported Mr. Romney.
Jeff Zeleny reported from Columbus, and Dalia Sussman from New York. Reporting was contributed by Allison Kopicki, Marjorie Connelly and Megan Thee-Brenan in New York, and Craig Duff in Cincinnati.
October 30, 2012
Oklahomans Prepare for New Law That Will Make Guns a Common Sight
By MANNY FERNANDEZ
OKLAHOMA CITY — Bryan Hull will soon strap his Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum revolver to his hip and meet his armed friends at Beverly’s Pancake House here. They have no interest in the cash register. They just want a late-night breakfast.
A new law takes effect on Thursday in Oklahoma — anyone licensed to carry a concealed firearm can choose to carry a weapon out in the open, in a belt or shoulder holster, loaded or unloaded. Five minutes after midnight Thursday, Mr. Hull and his friends — supporters of the Oklahoma Open Carry Association, a gun rights group — will mark the occasion by wearing their unconcealed handguns while dining at Beverly’s, a 24-hour restaurant.
“It’s just a peaceful assembly,” said Mr. Hull, 44, the association’s co-director. “We’re all licensed by the state to carry. We’ve all been trained and vetted. Why wouldn’t somebody want to have that kind of a group do business with them in their establishment?”
In a state with 142,000 men and women licensed to carry concealed weapons, the scene at Beverly’s will most likely become commonplace as Oklahomans take advantage of the law by displaying their handguns while they shop for groceries, eat at restaurants and walk into banks.
Advocates for gun rights said the ability to “open carry” would deter crime and eliminate the risks of a wardrobe mishap, such as when someone carrying a concealed weapon breaks the law by accidentally exposing the firearm. But the new law is a symbolic as well as practical victory. Supporters said there was no better advertisement for the Second Amendment than to have thousands of responsible adults openly carrying their weapons in a highly visible fashion.
“This enhances Oklahomans’ ability to exercise their Second Amendment rights,” said the Republican state senator who wrote Senate Bill 1733, Anthony Sykes. “I think the evidence is clear that gun owners are some of the most responsible people, and they’ve shown that in not just Oklahoma, where we’ve had conceal carry for quite some time and there’s never been an incident, but in these other states as well.”
When the law takes effect, Oklahoma will become the 15th state to allow people to openly carry firearms with a license. Those 15 states include Utah, Iowa, New Jersey and Connecticut. Several other states, including Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada, have even more permissive laws that allow the carrying of unconcealed firearms without a license. All but six states and the District of Columbia allow some form of open carry, said John Pierce, founder of OpenCarry.org.
Though common around the country, these laws in several states have posed legal and logistical problems for municipalities and law enforcement agencies seeking to balance gun owners’ constitutional rights with maintaining order.
Even in Western and Midwestern states where support for gun rights is strong, the laws have often passed after lobbying efforts lasting years, and have led to confusion and debate about where it is appropriate, let alone legal, for people to openly display their handguns.
In Mason City, Iowa, officials debated seeking an ordinance making it illegal to open-carry in city parks after two people displaying their firearms showed up at a children’s playground. To avoid potential litigation, officials decided to not pursue an ordinance. They instead started a marketing campaign last month asking residents to keep their weapons concealed in public parks.
On the East Coast, open-carry laws generate little controversy because several states make it hard for average citizens to acquire the permits necessary to display unconcealed firearms.
Oklahoma is considered a “shall-issue” state, meaning that once a resident meets the legal requirements, officials must issue a license. Others states, including New Jersey and Connecticut, are known as “may-issue” states, meaning that even if a resident satisfies the requirements, officials may or may not issue the license because they have the discretion to consider other factors.
Last year, Iowa expanded its gun rights and switched from a “may-issue” state to a “shall-issue” one, over the objections of the Iowa State Sheriffs and Deputies Association.
In Oklahoma, some police officials, merchants and residents have expressed varying levels of concern and unease with the law. In 2010, a similar bill was vetoed by the governor at the time, Brad Henry, a Democrat, in part based on law enforcement concerns that such a law would make it difficult for officers to sort out the good guys from the bad guys at a crime scene. This year, the bill was signed into law in May by Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican and a gun owner.
The governor and the bill’s supporters say those who will be openly carrying are law-abiding citizens, all of whom received their concealed-carry license after taking a firearms training course and passing a criminal background check by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. The average age of a license holder is 51.
The new law has illustrated the ways in which the state’s image as a bastion of rugged outdoorsmen and gun-toting cowboys is as much fact as it is fiction.
Beverly’s Pancake House is not exactly located in the Oklahoma prairie, where firearms turn few heads. The diner is in a strip mall off a busy expressway, behind a Starbucks and across the street from a Marriott hotel. Michael Rodriguez, the general manager, said he supported Mr. Hull and his other armed guests, but he planned on asking them Thursday to show their handgun licenses. Downtown, managers at the Bricktown Brewery plan on posting a “no weapons allowed” sign.
“I see our city with an opportunity to continue to be a modern, upscale city,” said Charles Stout, the brewery’s managing partner. “I think we have to be careful of the message we’re sending.”
In recent weeks throughout Oklahoma, there has been a flurry of activity and debate as the date has approached. Businesses and property owners have been figuring out their policies, and law enforcement agencies have been conducting trainings on the law for officers and dispatchers. Police officials in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and other cities said they anticipated receiving an increased number of “man with a gun” calls, but they did not expect widespread problems.
In Stillwater, about 65 miles north of Oklahoma City, the owner of the Stillwater Armory gun shop said the new law has brought about a subtle change in buying habits. Customers with small handguns that are easy to conceal have been buying larger weapons, with longer barrels that hold additional rounds, as they prepare to wear their guns unconcealed.
“The old saying within the community is, ‘It’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it,’” said the owner, Tom Smith, 42, who openly carries a Springfield XD-S pistol while in his shop.
The law prohibits concealed or unconcealed firearms in a handful of places, including government buildings, schools and bars. Most businesses, however, must decide on their own how to handle those openly carrying.
People entering one of Bank of Oklahoma’s 85 branches in the state need not leave their weapon in the car. They can bring it inside. Similarly, customers of American Eagle Towing in Oklahoma City will find that they and their holstered handguns are welcome. Mr. Hull is the general manager, and he openly wears a Ruger LC9 pistol while at the office. Last year, he said, a group of would-be robbers whose car had been impounded saw his pistol and quickly left.
“I never saw a weapon,” Mr. Hull said. “I never drew my weapon. There was no need to. My openly carried firearm deterred whatever it was they had in mind, and I’m sure it wasn’t to bring me a thank-you card.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 30, 2012
An earlier version of the first photo in the story incorrectly identified a firearm as a Springfield XD-S pistol. It is an Ed Brown 1911 .45 caliber pistol.
Scientists uncover oldest known prehistoric ‘town’ near ancient salt mines
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, October 31, 2012 19:45 EDT
Archaeologists in eastern Bulgaria say they have unearthed the oldest prehistoric town ever found in Europe, along with an ancient salt production site that gives a strong clue about why massive riches were discovered in the region.
Excavations at the site near the modern-day town of Provadia have so far uncovered the remains of a settlement of two-storey houses, a series of pits used for rituals as well as parts of a gate, bastion structures and three later fortification walls — all carbon dated between the middle and late Chalcolithic age from 4,700 to 4,200 BC.
“We are not talking about a town like the Greek city-states, ancient Rome or medieval settlements, but about what archaeologists agree constituted a town in the fifth millennium BC,” said Vasil Nikolov, a researcher with Bulgaria’s National Institute of Archeology, after announcing the findings earlier this month.
Nikolov and his team have worked since 2005 to excavate the Provadia-Solnitsata settlement, located near the Black Sea resort of Varna.
A small necropolis, or burial ground, was also found this year, but has yet to be studied more extensively and could keep archaeologists busy for generations.
Archeologist Krum Bachvarov from the National Institute of Archeology qualified this latest find as “extremely interesting” due to the peculiar burial positions and objects found in the graves, which differed from other neolithic graves found in Bulgaria.
“The huge walls around the settlement, which were built very tall and with stone blocks … are also something unseen in excavations of prehistoric sites in southeast Europe so far,” Bachvarov added.
Well fortified, a religious centre and most importantly, a major production centre for a specialised commodity that was traded far and wide, the settlement of about 350 people met all the conditions to be considered the oldest known “prehistoric town” in Europe, the team says.
“At a time when people did not know the wheel and cart these people hauled huge rocks and built massive walls. Why? What did they hide behind them?” Nikolov asked.
The answer: “Salt.”
The area is home to huge rock-salt deposits, some of the largest in southeast Europe and the only ones to be exploited as early as the sixth millennium BC, Nikolov said.
This is what made Provadia-Solnitsata what it was.
Nowadays, salt is still mined there but 7,500 years ago it had a completely different significance.
“Salt was an extremely valued commodity in ancient times, as it was both necessary for people’s lives and was used as a method of trade and currency starting from the sixth millennium BC up to 600 BC,” the researcher explained.
Salt extraction at the site first began in about 5,500 BC when people started boiling brine from the nearby salty springs in dome kilns found inside the settlement, Nikolov said, citing carbon dating results from a British laboratory in Glasgow.
“This is the first time in southeast Europe and western Anatolia that archeologists have come upon traces of salt production at such an early age, the end of the sixth millennium BC, and managed to prove it with both archeologic and scientific data,” Bachvarov confirmed.
Salt production was moved outside the settlement towards the end of the sixth millennium and productivity gradually increased. After being boiled, the salt was baked to make small bricks.
Nikolov said production increased steadily from 5,500 BC, when one load from the kilns in Provadia-Solnitsata yielded about 25 kilogrammes (55 pounds) of dry salt. By 4,700-4,500 BC, that amount had increased to 4,000 to 5,000 kilos of salt.
“At a time when salt was as precious as gold you can imagine what this meant,” he said.
The salt trade gave the local population huge economic power, which could explain the gold riches found in graves at the Varna Necropolis and dating back to around 4,300 BC, Nikolov suggested.
The 3,000 jewelry pieces and ritual objects have been internationally recognised as the oldest gold treasure in the world, raising questions as to how a culture of farmers and stock-breeders from a region otherwise poor in natural resources could acquire such wealth.
The excavations have however suffered from a chronic lack of state funding, which Nikolov replaced with private donations.
A British anthropologist, a Japanese ceramics expert and a team of radiocarbon specialists from Germany have worked on the site for free this season.
11/01/2012 12:50 PM
Unholy Alliance?: Merkel and Cameron Lead Opposition to EU Budget
Britain is deeply opposed to the draft European Union budget and is threatening to veto it. Germany too has its doubts. The two countries could torpedo the upcoming EU summit, but Chancellor Merkel is eager to find a compromise. Prime Minister David Cameron, on the other hand, has his hands tied -- and a protracted battle may ensue.
The European Union's budget summit on Nov. 22 appears set to collapse after Britain's House of Commons on Wednesday evening demanded that Prime Minister David Cameron push through major cuts to the EU's seven-year draft budget. The parliamentary vote is non-binding, but it still significantly limits Cameron's room for maneuver.
In three weeks, the leaders of the 27 EU member states plan to meet in Brussels to approve the next budget for the European Commission, the club's executive, covering the years from 2014 to 2020. The British government had previously announced that it wanted to freeze the budget at its current level. But for a majority of British lawmakers, that doesn't go far enough. The opposition Labour Party aligned with dozens of MPs from the right wing of the Conservative Party in an attempt to force Cameron to adopt a more radical course in Brussels.
"At a time when he is cutting the education budget by 11 percent, the transport budget by 15 percent and the police budget by 20 percent, how can he even be giving up on a cut in the EU budget before the negotiations have begun?" thundered Labour leader Ed Miliband.
Miliband then sought to stir parliament against Cameron, saying the prime minister was "weak abroad and weak at home" and claiming: "It's John Major all over again." In British politics, there are few insults worse than a comparison to the unpopular former prime minister.
The new rhetoric coming from the traditionally pro-European Labour Party is indicative of just how deep-seated anti-EU sentiment has become in the United Kingdom. To be sure, Labour MPs formed allied with the EU-skeptic wing of the Tories primarily out of political expediency; they wanted to create an embarrassment for the prime minister. Still, the stance mirrors the sentiment of a majority of Brits.
Members of parliament with all parties have argued that they cannot justify to British voters a situation in which the EU's administrative organs are not being subjected to major cuts at a time when radical savings are being undertaken in the UK's public sector.
The prime minister had already told parliament that he would exercise his veto power in Brussels if the EU budget increase is greater than the cost of inflation. Now he will be left with little choice but to remain firm. His government would seem to have wasted little time in adopting the new message. On Thursday morning, British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne promised to negotiate hard over the EU budget. "We will veto any deal that is not good for the British taxpayer," he said.
EU Could Extend Negotiations into Next Year
The Brits aren't alone in their demand to freeze the budget. Other EU net contributors, including Germany, believe that increases to the Brussels budget cannot be justified to the public. But the other countries appear to be more willing to compromise with the European Commission.
The Commission is calling for a budget of around €1 trillion ($1.29 trillion) for the next fiscal period between 2014 and 2020. The Commission's draft budget has been backed by the European Parliament as well as net recipient countries -- those EU member states that receive more in subsidies than they pay into the coffers.
Berlin is seeking to shave €100 billion off the budget. London want to go further and freeze the EU budget at its 2011 level, permitting only an inflationary adjustment, which would effectively trim the Commission's budget plan by €200 billion.
In principle, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Cameron will be fighting on the same side at the summit. But they both have very different starting positions. Merkel wants a swift agreement. She feels that a fight over the budget will distract attention from the more important task at hand of rebuilding the euro zone. From Cameron's perspective, however, his political authority will rise or fall on the budget issue. As such, he insists that Britain will only agree to a deal that meets its specifications. If necessary, the leaders will extend negotiations into 2013.
A Veto Could Get Expensive for London
A paralyzing debate lasting months is the last thing Merkel wants. In an effort to push things forward, she plans to visit Cameron in London on Nov. 7 to urge the prime minister to take a step toward compromise as others have as well. It seems doubtful that she will find much success. Cameron reiterated on Wednesday that he would apply his veto if the other EU member states didn't fall in line with his position.
Approval of the EU budget requires a unanimous vote -- without a "yes" from London, the seven-year financing cannot be passed. Still, a veto wouldn't be in Britain's interests, either. If London did take the step, it would mean that a new EU budget would have to be passed each year until a deal could be reached on longer-term financing. The catch for Britain is that an annual budget would require only a qualified majority, meaning other EU member states could overrule the UK. It's likely the budget would then increase each year. Indeed, this is the argument Cameron is using within his own party to convince lawmakers that some sort of deal in Brussels would be better than none.
Still, no agreement seems to be materializing on the horizon. After consulting with all EU governments, Cyprus, which currently holds the EU's six-month rotating presidency, proposed a compromise on Monday that would see at least €50 billion shaved off the Commission's budget plan. The proposal, however, was swiftly reject by both camps. The Commission as well as Poland, the largest recipient country, said the cuts go too far. But Michael Link, a minister of state within the German Foreign Ministry said the cuts proposed "fall markedly short of those that are necessary."
France Also Threatens with Veto
For their part, officials at the European Commission are arguing that they need more money in order to promote economic growth and research and development in the EU in order to offset stark economic and structural differences between the regions. They have also pointed out the contradictory position of member state leaders who are fond of approving EU economic growth programs at summits but then turn around and decline or backpedal when it comes to actual EU investments. It's an objection that is justified. It is also true when it comes to the much vilified EU bureaucracy. Administration only accounts for 6 percent of the total EU budget, a much smaller share than that spent on administration by individual member states back home.
These objections seem to be falling on deaf ears in EU member states. The Commission has the misfortune this time around of having to conduct negotiations amidst the worst budget crisis in the EU has seen in years. Even in 2005, the last time an EU budget got approved, the task proved to be a very arduous one. But in times of scarcity, opposing interests become even more entrenched.
Berlin, Stockholm and London are also demanding further cuts to the EU's famous agricultural subsidies before they will agree to send more money to Brussels. Agricultural subsidies currently represent the largest single share of the EU budget, at 40 percent -- a fact which would seem to contradict the Commission's argument that it will strengthen the European Union's overall competitiveness with its investments.
Meanwhile, Britain isn't alone with its threat to veto the budget. On Wednesday, the French government said that it would not accept the budget if agricultural subsidies are reduced.
Britain’s PM David Cameron ‘humiliated’ by EU budget defeat
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, November 1, 2012 7:55 EDT
Prime Minister David Cameron was battling to reclaim authority on Thursday, after Conservative party rebels delivered his first major parliamentary defeat by defying him over the EU budget.
MPs passed a motion late Wednesday urging Cameron to insist on a real-terms cut in the European Union’s trillion-euro 2014-2020 budget at a summit in Brussels next month.
While the vote is not binding, it is the most significant defeat for the Conservative-led coalition since it came to power in 2010.
Cameron had attempted to stave off a rebellion by promising to veto any above-inflation increase of the EU budget, which has become increasingly contentious as austerity measures bite across the continent.
He insists that a seven-year EU budget freeze in real terms is the best Britain can realistically expect next month, as most of the bloc’s 27 member states support a budget increase.
But in a humiliating blow to his authority, 53 Conservative MPs defied the prime minister and voted for a budget cut.
After heated debate in the House of Commons, the vote passed by 307 votes to 294, to loud cheers from the rebels.
The Telegraph described the defeat as a “Halloween horror” for Cameron, while the i newspaper summed the situation up as: “Nightmare on Downing Street”.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said there was “absolutely no hope” of a real-terms cut in EU spending.
“The coalition government’s position remains the same — we will not accept an increase, above inflation, to the EU budget,” he was due to say in a speech at the Chatham House think-tank on Thursday.
“That is the toughest position of any European country,” the draft speech added.
Clegg, like Cameron, warns that if a seven-year deal is not struck next month the EU will have to revert to annual budgets, which they say would be more costly for Britain.
“The Prime Minister and I may have our differences on Europe, but on this we are absolutely united,” said Clegg, a former Member of the European Parliament whose party is more pro-EU than the Conservatives.
But ministers face a battle to get any EU budget deal approved by parliament. Mark Reckless, a leading Conservative rebel, said Cameron could not afford to return from Brussels with anything less than a real-terms budget cut.
“If the government comes with anything except a cut in the EU budget then they are not going to be able to get that through parliament — and they are going to need to get it through parliament in this case,” Reckless told BBC television.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, wants a budget of 1.03 trillion euros for 2014-2020, up 5.0 percent on 2007-2013, but seven major contributor states have balked at the increase at a time when they are having to cut spending at home.
It rejected on Tuesday a 50-billion-euro cut suggested by Cyprus, the current holder of the EU’s rotating presidency.
But Germany and France have joined Britain in insisting that the EU cannot expect to get more when national governments have to make do with less, demanding cuts in the 2014-2020 budget of 100 billion euros or more.
Wednesday’s parliamentary revolt puts renewed pressure on Cameron after months of blunders and U-turns by the coalition, which is halfway through its five-year term, and whisperings of a possible leadership challenge.
He is not the first Conservative PM to be haunted by Europe, an issue that has bitterly divided the party for decades.
Infighting over the bloc plagued the leadership of John Major, and was central to the downfall of Major’s predecessor Margaret Thatcher.
Europe is also likely to be an issue in the next general election, scheduled for 2015, amid growing scepticism about the EU among British voters.
Many Conservatives have called for a referendum on ending Britain’s membership of the bloc altogether. Cameron opposes an “in-out” referendum, but has hinted at a public vote on adjusting Britain’s relationship with the EU.
Cameron warned European Council president Herman van Rompuy at talks in London last week that Britain, which does not use the euro currency, could not support a sharp increase in the EU budget.
In December, Cameron dramatically parted ways with the bloc over the EU fiscal compact, which laid down the lines for tighter coordination of tax and spending policy amid the eurozone crisis.
10/31/2012 06:09 PM
Turkey and EU: Erdogan Visit to Berlin Betrays Tensions
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday he wants Turkey to be a full member of the EU by 2023. Chancellor Angela Merkel assured him the talks would be "honest.' Their meeting in Berlin once again showed that relations between Turkey and Germany have become complicated.
At the end of the news conference Angela Merkel narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips. Her face seemed to say: What's he talking about? Next to her, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was talking about Cyprus. It was a mistake, he said, to allow "South Cyprus" into the European Union, and he added that the chancellor shared that view.
It's a claim Erdogan has made before, most recently on Tuesday evening at the opening of the new Turkish Embassy in Berlin. That doesn't make it any truer, say officials close to Merkel. Some might say it's not especially diplomatic of him to repeat the statement in her presence. But perhaps the prime minister really believes it. Merkel is wise enough not to contradict him in public. She prefers to direct him to the side for the obligatory photo in front of the flags of their two nations. A handshake, smiles, and off they go.
The little incident shows that German-Turkish relations are rocky at the moment, and not just regarding Europe. They're finding it hard to conceal their differences on a range of other topics such as the Syrian conflict, in how to deal with the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party PKK, on the integration of the 3 million people of Turkish origin living in Germany. The two leaders stressed their close and friendly ties on Wednesday, but there was no evidence of great warmth between Merkel and Erdogan. They ticked off Erdogan's program of engagements politely, but without smiling much.
Erdogan Sets Deadline for EU Accession
The dispute over Cyprus, divided since a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup, is only one of several obstacles to Turkey's accession to the EU. Turkey formally applied to join the the club in 1987 and negotiations began seven years ago, but there has been no progress since mid-2010. The EU's latest progress report on Turkey wasn't particularly flattering: It complained about breaches of freedom of speech and the right to free assembly, and said Turkey's democratic reforms had come to a standstill. Nevertheless, Merkel on Wednesday assured Erdogan that accession negotiations would be "honest."
Erdogan said he regretted the lack of progress. He made plain how honest he thought Europe was being with Turkey on Tuesday evening at a conference on Europe when he accused the EU of engaging in delaying tactics. Asked if Turkey would become a full member of the EU by 2023, he said: "They won't keep us waiting that long, will they?" If they did, he added, "then the EU will lose, at least it will lose Turkey."
It was meant as a warning to Europe's leaders. Turkey's eagerness to join the EU evaporated a long time ago. The Turkish economy is continuing to boom and Erdogan and his conservative-Islamic AKP party feels too strong and self-confident to wait for the Europeans. The country is refocusing and trying to boost its influence in the Muslim world. It's a twin strategy: Turkey wants to enhance its position as a regional power and signal to Europe how important it is to the West as a bridge to the Islamic, Arab world.
Merkel Pledges Support in Syria Conflict
Against that backdrop, the Syria conflict represents a special challenge. Turkey has firmly positioned itself on the side of the rebels in the neighboring country and is demanding a tougher approach against the Assad regime by the international community. Addressing the situation in Syria, Merkel spoke of a "true burden" for Turkey, praised Ankara's level-headedness in view of the recent missile strikes against a Turkish village that originated from Syria and pledged further support for NATO partner Turkey. But Ankara is also asking for considerably more support than it has obtained up until now -- especially in light of the continuing flight of refugees from Syria into Turkey. According to the UN Refugee Agency, Turkey is currently providing aid to 101,834 Syrian refugees who have fled their homes and crossed the border into Turkey.
Ankara also wants greater assistance on the PKK issue. Shortly before he departed for Berlin, Erdogan complained that the German government is doing too little to assist in efforts to stop the terrorist activities of the organization, adding that PKK front organizations in Germany, which is home to the largest Turkish population outside Turkey, are able to raise money in the country to be directed at the armed conflict "without any trouble." It's a statement the government in Berlin strongly denied. Merkel said that Germany is "helpful in every area" in regard to terrorist activities by the PKK. But Erdogan also thanked Merkel for the support and avoided any harsh rhetoric -- an obvious attempt to ensure that good appearances were preserved in Berlin on Wednesday.
It was also fitting that Erdogan saw nothing of the around 2,500 people who were protesting against his policies about 500 meters away from the Chancellery in front of the Brandenburg Gate. A broad coalition of leftist groups, Kurds and Turkish religious minorities accused the prime minister of pushing the country in the direction of further Islamization and human rights violations. As the peaceful protest slowly dispersed early in the afternoon, Erdogan's motorcade was already headed towards the airport.
With additional reporting by Christoph Sydow
10/31/2012 04:18 PM
Jobless in the Crisis: Euro-Zone Unemployment Higher than Ever Before
The European debt crisis and related austerity measures continue to drive up unemployment across the euro zone. In September, according to statistics released on Wednesday, fully 18.5 million people were without work in the common currency area, more than ever before.
Global financial markets have, for the moment, been calmed. The European Central Bank has embarked on its program to buy unlimited sovereign bonds as needed from euro-zone countries suffering from high borrowing costs and all of those countries have adopted strict austerity programs to get their budgets in order.
That, though, has not been good for economic growth -- and now the European Union has released new figures highlighting a struggling euro-zone economy. According to a report released on Wednesday by Eurostat, the European Union's statistical office, unemployment in the 17-nation common-currency area stood at 11.6 percent in September, the highest it has ever been.
The numbers represent an up-tick against the 11.5 percent rate reported for August. In total, Eurostat estimates that 18.49 million people were out of work in the euro zone, up 146,000 over August. The rate indicates a significant rise against the euro-zone unemployment rate in September 2011, which was 10.3 percent.
The trend toward spiking unemployment rates was particularly strong in those countries suffering the most under the ongoing euro-zone debt crisis. Between September 2011 and the same month a year later, the unemployment rate in Spain rose from 22.4 percent to 25.8 percent and in Portugal from 13.1 to 15.7 percent. In Greece, unemployment rose from 17.8 to 25.1 percent from July 2011 to July 2012, the last figures available for the country.
With the euro-zone economy likely headed for a year of negative growth this year -- the ECB is forecasting a 0.4 percent contraction -- it seems unlikely that employment in the 17-country currency zone will improve any time soon. Next year, the ECB foresees a mere 0.5 percent expansion in the euro-zone economy. "With surveys suggesting that firms are becoming more reluctant to hire, the euro-zone unemployment rate looks set to rise further," Ben May, a European economy analyst with Capital Economics, told the Associated Press.
German Labor Market Stagnation
Some countries within the euro zone, however, have so far avoided high unemployment rates, with Austria, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands leading the pack. According to EU calculation methods, Austria has an unemployment rate of a mere 4.4 percent, while Germany comes in at 5.4 percent.
The German rate, however, is no longer falling, according to a report released by the country's Federal Employment Agency. According to the German method for measuring unemployment -- which calculates those looking for work rather than the EU method which counts those who work below a minimum number of hours each week -- the jobless rate in the country was 6.5 percent in October.
The rate is unchanged against September, indeed the absolute number of unemployed people even fell by 35,000 to 2.75 million. But once the numbers are seasonally adjusted, they reveal that the number of jobless actually rose slightly. The October numbers also represent a climb against the same month in 2011, the first time that has happened since way back in February 2010.
« Last Edit: Nov 01, 2012, 06:42 AM by Rad »
October 31, 2012
Turkey Given Reassurance by Germany on Talks
By MELISSA EDDY and CHRIS COTTRELL
BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany met with Turkey’s prime minister here on Wednesday and pledged that the European Union would continue to pursue talks “in good faith” over Turkey’s accession to the bloc, despite disagreements that have proved challenging for both sides.
“The E.U. is an honest negotiating partner,” Ms. Merkel said. “These negotiations will continue irrespective of the questions that we have to clarify.”
Her pledge came after the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, warned that the European Union stood in danger of losing Turkey if it was not granted membership by 2023.
“No other country has been kept waiting, knocking on the door of the E.U., for such a long time,” Mr. Erdogan told a gathering in Berlin late Tuesday, hours after he opened his country’s new embassy to Germany. An ever stronger economic and political force in the region, Turkey has been in negotiations to join the bloc since 1995, and some analysts have worried that a frustrated Turkey might shift from its Western focus to building stronger ties with Moscow and Tehran.
Despite Turkey’s status as a NATO ally and its long-running ties to much of Europe, Germany, France, Austria and the Netherlands have never fully warmed to the idea of granting it full European Union membership. Ms. Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union has even suggested that Turkey be granted instead a special status in the form of a “privileged partnership.”
On Wednesday, the chancellor insisted that she and the Turkish leader had been able to work together despite their differences on membership.
She praised the openness with which Turkey had accepted the flood of refugees — estimated at more than 100,000 — who have poured in from Syria and the “prudence” with which Mr. Erdogan’s government had handled the recent threat of escalating frictions at the border.
She also pledged German humanitarian assistance “wherever needed” to help Turkey cope, acknowledging that the Syrian refugees were “a real strain” on the country. Neither she nor Mr. Erdogan broached the issue of whether the rest of Europe would be asked to take in Syrians.
Germany is Turkey’s largest trading partner, with bilateral trade reaching $40.7 billion in 2011, despite the economic crisis in Europe. To explain the strength of the Turkish economy, Mr. Erdogan points to austerity measures and restructuring programs pushed through by his government, in similar scale to those being sought by Germany in several of the European Union’s weaker member states.
Given the potential for tensions, the two leaders seemed generally relaxed with each other. Even reference to Cyprus, home to one of Europe’s most intractable ethnic divides and the reason Turkish accession talks have ground to a halt, did not overshadow their appearance.
The island is broken into the mainly Turkish-speaking north — occupied by Turkey since an invasion in 1974 — and the mainly Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus in the south, which the European Union recognizes exclusively. The republic currently holds the European Union’s rotating presidency.
Ms. Merkel refrained from comment after Mr. Erdogan said that she had told him in the past that accepting a divided Cyprus into the union had been a mistake. Mr. Erdogan also took a dig at the republic on Tuesday night, asking whether it was really “southern Cyprus” that wielded so much power.
The European Commission has said that Turkey must not only bend on Cyprus, but it also has a long way to go before its standards on human rights and freedom of speech can reach the levels required for membership.
Turkey’s minister for European Union affairs, Egemen Bagis, pointed out earlier in Berlin the progress that his country had made on human rights and freedom of speech since Mr. Erdogan’s party came into power about 10 years ago. He cited Kurdish language broadcasts and the restitution of property rights to religious minorities as examples of what he called “a much more democratic and transparent” country.
October 31, 2012
Market Rises, Perfume and All, as Refugees Face a Long Syria War
By JODI RUDOREN
ZAATARI, Jordan — Maintaining a glimmer of hope and humor amid grim surroundings, Noor Ibrahim calls his wares “Eau de Liberty.” He stands ready to mix scents like “Red Angel” or “Night of Love” into spray bottles arrayed on a tray set atop an overturned garbage can between the endless rows of dusty tents here. He said he was making $8 to $14 a day.
Selling perfume? In a refugee camp full of Syrians who had fled their country’s civil war?
“People like to have a good scent in front of people in any culture,” said Mr. Ibrahim, 30. “There is no real hygiene here. Everybody smells. Sometimes, they spray their tent.”
The little perfumeria is part of a makeshift marketplace that has sprung up here in recent days as the thousands who have fled here, mostly from Dara’a, the city where the uprising began, are beginning to come to terms with their new reality: that the war at home is not about to end anytime soon, and that they will probably live in this camp for months, not days or weeks.
Beyond the market, the refugees have also elected several camp councils to mediate disputes and negotiate with the authorities and aid agencies. Several hundred men are employed by the camp, earning about $10 for six-hour shifts digging trenches or distributing supplies. There are at least three coffee shops where people can smoke the ubiquitous water pipes, called shisha, and a brand-new falafel stand inside a tent.
The nascent marketplace spreads out along the main road through the camp, which the Syrians call Hamra Street, after a shopping strip in the heart of Damascus.
Fruit and vegetable stands allow those with pocket change to supplement dry food rations. Piles of used clothes are being picked over as people prepare for winter. A minimart offers small bags of fresh cumin and chili pepper alongside lollipops and lighters. Cigarette stands, of course. Cellphone cards. And several deep fryers popping out awameh, spheres of doughnut-like delights that can be had for a single piaster, or about a penny and a half.
Zemur Reda, 40, a mother of five, picked up a pair of checked Vans slip-on sneakers, vintage 1990-something, for about $2 on Monday afternoon. “For my son; he’s barefoot,” Ms. Reda said. “My kids keep on losing their clothes, so I have to go and buy.” A man bought his 9-year-old son, Khaled, a black jacket with a fur-lined hood for about $10 as the sun fell.
The little boutique — really, piles of worn garments lined up on the side of the road — is run by Yasser Mekdad, 23, who pays about $5 per day to two employees, one of whom lost a leg in the recent fighting. A woman rejected a pair of pink sweat pants, and Mr. Mekdad nodded in understanding. “In Syria, I wouldn’t accept them as a desk cloth,” he said. “Now desperation makes us wear these things. We’re turning into beggars.”
The refugee entrepreneurs procure their products from Jordanians who visit daily, sometimes investing savings they brought, sometimes making deals on credit. Beyond filling refugees’ needs, the kiosks give idle men something to do after weeks of watching the sand swirl around the tents and commiserating about the deteriorating situation back home.
“This is what happens when you get tens of thousands of people together: an economy starts developing,” said Andrew Harper, who as the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Jordan essentially runs the Zaatari camp. “What we need to work on is getting the sense of community back, the sense of responsibility back, getting people occupied.”
The 214,000 Syrians who Mr. Harper says have landed in Jordan — more than 80 percent of them settling outside the camp — are just the latest surge of refugees to challenge the capacity of a country where jobs and water are scarce, and the politics fraught. An estimated 800,000 Iraqis fled to Jordan in the middle of the last decade, though many have since left, and Palestinians, who poured in when Israel became a state in 1948 and again after it occupied the West Bank in 1967, make up a majority of Jordan’s population of six million.
The influx from Dara’a, just over the border, remains steady but has slowed since the summer, when 3,500 people crossed in one 24-hour period. On Monday night, 522 people arrived, including 44 babies, the youngest only 2 days old, and an 18-month-old whose parents had been killed in the fighting. Last week there was a 90-year-old woman. “The most vulnerable are coming across,” Mr. Harper said.
Even keeping track is a huge task, one Mr. Harper said he hoped would soon be helped by iris scanners. He estimated Zaatari’s population at 38,000, though another aid worker said it was half of that, noting that some refugees sneak back into Syria or out into Jordan each night.
The United Nations and the roughly 30 relief agencies helping it run the camp are now struggling to winterize tents or buy more-durable prefab containers, and to control the increasingly restless population. A recent donation of 12,000 pieces of clothing was looted, and the authorities have used tear gas at least once to break up riotous crowds. A United Nations document calls for 60,000 blankets and 12,000 stoves in Jordan alone, but a spokesman said the agency had yet to collect a third of the nearly $500 million needed throughout the region.
“You can’t set up a five-star refugee camp if you haven’t got the resources,” Mr. Harper said. “It’s always a question of do you spend $500 on a tent or do you spend $2,500 on a container?”
But the refugees are not just waiting for Mr. Harper; they are transforming the place themselves. At the produce stands, tomatoes and cucumbers are the hot sellers, though Munther Siran searched in vain for cauliflower on Monday. “Birds refuse to eat the rice we get,” he said as he shopped. “The cheese is expired. The tuna fish, it smells.”
But Adnan Rahmoul, a member of one of the camp councils, said the marketplace was only a partial solution, saying that “those who have no money can’t do anything.”
Like any small-town general store, Taher Farhan’s shop, under a canopy of gray blankets propped on poles, offers all manner of goods and gossip. Cigarettes go for a bit more than $2, potato chips, 15 cents. Biscuits and tiny bags of peanuts are each less than a dime. The political talk is free.
“I’m going to call it the Occupied Dara’a Supermarket,” Mr. Farhan said.
“Don’t call Dara’a occupied,” interrupted Mr. Mekdad, who had wandered over during a lull. “It’s liberated!”
“No,” lamented Mr. Farhan. “It’s occupied.”
Ranya Kadri contributed reporting.
October 31, 2012
Arab Women Turn to Crafts as a Source of Employment
By RANA F. SWEIS
AMMAN — Through their eight years of marriage the husband of Suzan Qouqas would not allow her to work, even though she had studied to become a pharmacist. A year ago, she found herself divorced, with three children and no career.
At first, Ms. Qouqas, 34, who lives in Amman, found solace in baking desserts and selling them to neighbors and friends.
Then one day Ms. Qouqas stumbled onto a Facebook page called Sitat Byoot, or Women of the Home, an online start-up created two years ago by Saeed Omar, 34, as a marketplace for Arab handicrafts created by women.
Sitat Byoot promotes, sells and delivers worldwide handmade products created by Arab women — and it provides skills training.
Ms. Qouqas decided to learn how to crochet, a form of knitting that produces lacy fabrics, using a hooked needle. Today her skills in crocheting are turning her into a promising entrepreneur.
“I knew I had it in me to create, work and support my children, but I didn’t think I could implement my ideas,” Ms. Qouqas said during an interview.
Ms. Qouqas is one of an increasing number of Jordanian women who, for a few hours each day, escape from family and social constraints into gainful, home-based activities: Some plant, some weave, some work as designers.
For those who do not have access to the Internet, marketing is done primarily by word of mouth. They sell their products to relatives and neighbors: More and more, they make a significant contribution to the household’s income.
Because they work from home — and often alone — they can do so without alarming Jordan’s predominantly conservative society. They still tend to children and chores.
Even in rural districts, still struggling with basic services and chronic unemployment, women of all ages are learning skills that match the needs of their communities. Loans from foreign donors and nongovernmental organizations are being allocated to training and skills development as the cost of living continues to rise.
Over the years, women in Jordan have become judges, lawyers, doctors and ministers, but traditional attitudes toward gender roles have been embedded in the culture. Rising enrollment of women in universities has yet to show through in the broader labor force.
“The challenges for women’s equality still remain in family relationships and the struggle begins from there,” said Layla Naffa, a project director at the Arab Women’s Organization, a nongovernmental organization that was founded in 1970 by a group of Jordanian women activists.
Two-thirds of unemployed university graduates are women, according to the department of statistics. The mismatch between job requirements and skill sets is a major contributing factor to unemployment, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The Sitat Byoot Facebook page created by Mr. Omar for women’s creations already has over 24,000 fans and a link to the store.
“My family is into retail and fashion so I was born into this,” he said. “The handmade industry worldwide is huge and the Arab world is not contributing. I thought let’s solve this problem and make these products appear.”
The online marketing provided by Sitat Byoot has become popular among Jordanian women.
“I already had the passion and commitment to make unique products that cannot be easily found in shops,” said Ms. Qouqas, “but it is very difficult to do it without a platform, so Sitat Byoot has helped in terms of implementation.”
“There is a demand for good quality,” she said of the items she crochets, “and when it is handmade I choose the colors and the threads.”
Other products being crafted by women include designs on glass cups, chocolates and wrappings for them, jewelry, stationery, organic soaps made with olive oil, and school bags.
International organizations are giving loans to locally trained women who are buying their own sewing machines to create school bags, while women in rural areas are being trained to plant and cultivate vegetables in their home to be sold in the market.
Alaa’ Abu Karaki, public relations and projects manager at DVV International, a German adult education association that implements development projects, said: “After the training, the women are eager to apply for loans and to have their own greenhouses. They have commitment, enthusiasm and patience, and they are becoming the leaders in the family.”
But real challenges remain for these women.
For those who live in more conservative and rural districts, just going to training sessions outside the home can cause family feuds. For other women, lack of transportation from rural districts to training centers in Amman is a barrier.
The economic sustainability of these small projects also remains a main concern for both the women and for small businesses like Sitat Byoot.
“We are a small start-up and we don’t have any investors,” said Mr. Omar. “Social impact investors are absent, and so sustainability is a big problem and it is something I worry about a lot.”
For women like Ms. Qouqas, meeting with other women at the training sessions has both inspired her and empowered her.
“I really want to believe that people will realize that this is part of our tradition and that women have talents and have always worked,” she said. “They can contribute a lot to society.”
China’s Communist Party prepares for power handover
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, November 1, 2012 2:54 EDT
China’s political elite are expected to oust disgraced figure Bo Xilai and jostle for leadership roles in their last formal meeting which opened Thursday ahead of next week’s landmark power handover.
The Communist Party’s Central Committee convened behind closed doors, state media said, with 500 senior members to debate key issues ahead of a congress which will open on November 8 to usher in leaders for the next decade.
The congress, which groups around 2,000 party members, is set to name Vice President Xi Jinping to succeed outgoing President Hu Jintao, while Vice Premier Li Keqiang is expected to replace outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao.
Little else is known about who will fill a supporting cast to run the world’s second-largest economy, and observers say candidates are still vying for top jobs in a game of intrigue played out beyond the view of the media.
Xinhua said the plenum of the 17th Communist Party Central Committee, which began Thursday and could last up to four days, will finalise several reports to be tabled at next week’s congress including an amendment to the Communist Party charter which it did not detail.
Former Communist Party star Bo was stripped of his parliament seat and lost legal immunity last week, paving the way for him to face charges of abuse of power, taking bribes and improper sexual relations.
A scandal surrounding him and his administration in the southwestern city of Chongqing, which has seen his wife convicted for the murder of a British businessman, has plagued the sensitive leadership transition.
The party announced in September that he would be expelled but his formal ouster is a final piece of housekeeping the leaders are expected to conclude before the congress starts, analysts say.
Observers say the scandal has split the top leadership, with reformers using it as ammunition to advance their push for democratic reform, while conservatives scrambled to shore up the image of a ruling party mired in corruption allegations.
Further complicating the political landscape is a New York Times report that last week said Wen’s family had accumulated assets worth $2.7 billion, in a blow to his self-styled image as a common man leading the fight against graft.
Ahead of the congress, the ruling party has further tightened already strict censorship of the media and Internet, while cities have been flooded with police and security personnel.
Over 1.4 million people have volunteered to help police “maintain stability” in Beijing in the run up to the landmark meeting, state-run news agency Xinhua reported.
“Since early October, Chinese authorities have engaged in a campaign of intimidation and incarceration to preempt any potential expressions of dissent or protest,” Renee Xia, director of the Chinese Human Rights Defenders said in a statement.
“China’s top political leaders are very nervous, as they have since early this year been consumed by one of the most destabilising and disharmonious power struggles in decades.”
October 31, 2012
Wary of Future, Professionals Leave China in Record Numbers
By IAN JOHNSON
BEIJING — At 30, Chen Kuo had what many Chinese dream of: her own apartment and a well-paying job at a multinational corporation. But in mid-October, Ms. Chen boarded a midnight flight for Australia to begin a new life with no sure prospects.
Like hundreds of thousands of Chinese who leave each year, she was driven by an overriding sense that she could do better outside China. Despite China’s tremendous economic successes in recent years, she was lured by Australia’s healthier environment, robust social services and the freedom to start a family in a country that guarantees religious freedoms.
“It’s very stressful in China — sometimes I was working 128 hours a week for my auditing company,” Ms. Chen said in her Beijing apartment a few hours before leaving. “And it will be easier raising my children as Christians abroad. It is more free in Australia.”
As China’s Communist Party prepares a momentous leadership change in early November, it is losing skilled professionals like Ms. Chen in record numbers. In 2010, the last year for which complete statistics are available, 508,000 Chinese left for the 34 developed countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That is a 45 percent increase over 2000.
Individual countries report the trend continuing. In 2011, the United States received 87,000 permanent residents from China, up from 70,000 the year before. Chinese immigrants are driving real estate booms in places as varied as Midtown Manhattan, where some enterprising agents are learning Mandarin, to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, which offers a route to a European Union passport.
Few emigrants from China cite politics, but it underlies many of their concerns. They talk about a development-at-all-costs strategy that has ruined the environment, as well as a deteriorating social and moral fabric that makes China feel like a chillier place than when they were growing up. Over all, there is a sense that despite all the gains in recent decades, China’s political and social trajectory is still highly uncertain.
“People who are middle class in China don’t feel secure for their future and especially for their children’s future,” said Cao Cong, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham who has studied Chinese migration. “They don’t think the political situation is stable.”
Most migrants seem to see a foreign passport as insurance against the worst-case scenario rather than as a complete abandonment of China.
A manager based in Shanghai at an engineering company, who asked not to be named, said he invested earlier this year in a New York City real estate project in hopes of eventually securing a green card. A sharp-tongued blogger on current events as well, he said he has been visited by local public security officials, hastening his desire for a United States passport.
“A green card is a feeling of safety,” the manager said. “The system here isn’t stable and you don’t know what’s going to happen next. I want to see how things turn out here over the next few years.”
Political turmoil has reinforced this feeling. Since early this year, the country has been shocked by revelations that Bo Xilai, one of the Communist Party’s most senior leaders, ran a fief that by official accounts engaged in murder, torture and corruption.
“There continues to be a lot of uncertainty and risk, even at the highest level — even at the Bo Xilai level,” said Liang Zai, a migration expert at the University at Albany. “People wonder what’s going to happen two, three years down the road.”
The sense of uncertainty affects poorer Chinese, too. According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, 800,000 Chinese were working abroad at the end of last year, versus 60,000 in 1990. Many are in small-scale businesses — taxi driving, fishing or farming — and worried that their class has missed out on China’s 30-year boom. Even though hundreds of millions of Chinese have been lifted from poverty during this period, the rich-poor gap in China is among the world’s widest and the economy is increasingly dominated by large corporations, many of them state-run.
“It’s driven by a fear of losing out in China,” said Biao Xiang, a demographer at Oxford University. “Going abroad has become a kind of gambling that may bring you some opportunities.”
Zhang Ling, the owner of a restaurant in the coastal city of Wenzhou, is one such worrier. His extended family of farmers and tradesmen pooled its money to send his son to high school in Vancouver, Canada. The family hopes he will get into a Canadian university and one day gain permanent residency, perhaps allowing them all to move overseas. “It’s like a chair with different legs,” Mr. Zhang said. “We want one leg in Canada just in case a leg breaks here.”
Emigration today is different from in past decades. In the 1980s, students began going abroad, many of them staying when Western countries offered them residency after the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising. In the 1990s, poor Chinese migrants captured international attention by paying “snakeheads” to take them to the West, sometimes on cargo ships like the Golden Venture that ran aground off New York City in 1993.
Now, years of prosperity mean that millions of people have the means to emigrate legally, either through investment programs or by sending an offspring abroad to study in hopes of securing a long-term foothold.
Wang Ruijin, a secretary at a Beijing media company, said she and her husband were pushing their 23-year-old daughter to apply for graduate school in New Zealand, hoping she can stay and open the door for the family. They do not think she will get a scholarship, Ms. Wang said, so the family is borrowing money as a kind of long-term investment.
“We don’t feel that China is suitable for people like us,” Ms. Wang said. “To get ahead here you have to be corrupt or have connections; we prefer a stable life.”
Perhaps signaling that the government is concerned, the topic has been extensively debated in the official media. Fang Zhulan, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing, wrote in the semiofficial magazine People’s Forum that many people were “voting with their feet,” calling the exodus “a negative comment by entrepreneurs upon the protection and realization of their rights in the current system.”
The movement is not all one way. With economies stagnant in the West and job opportunities limited, the number of students returning to China was up 40 percent in 2011 compared with the previous year. The government has also established high-profile programs to lure back Chinese scientists and academics by temporarily offering various perks and privileges. Professor Cao from Nottingham, however, says these programs have achieved less than advertised.
“Returnees can see that they will become ordinary Chinese after five years and be in the same bad situation as their colleagues” already in China, he said. “That means that few are attracted to stay for the long run.”
Many experts on migration say the numbers are in line with other countries’ experiences in the past. Taiwan and South Korea experienced huge outflows of people to the United States and other countries in the 1960s and ’70s, even as their economies were taking off. Wealth and better education created more opportunities to go abroad and many did — then, as now in China, in part because of concerns about political oppression.
While those countries eventually prospered and embraced open societies, the question for many Chinese is whether the faction-ridden incoming leadership team of Xi Jinping, chosen behind closed doors, can take China to the next stage of political and economic advancement.
“I’m excited to be here but I’m puzzled about the development path,” said Bruce Peng, who earned a master’s degree last year at Harvard and now runs a consulting company, Ivy Magna, in Beijing. Mr. Peng is staying in China for now, but he says many of his 100 clients have a foreign passport or would like one. Most own or manage small- and medium-size businesses, which have been squeezed by the policies favoring state enterprises.
“Sometimes your own property and company situation can be very complicated,” Mr. Peng said. “Some people might want to live in a more transparent and democratic society.”
Amy Qin and Patrick Zuo contributed research.
October 31, 2012
Can China Be Described as 'Fascist'?
By DIDI KIRSTEN TATLOW
BEIJING — Chinese politics is controlled by the Communist Party and its powerful families and factions, so when the son of a former party chief says the state is virtually “fascist,” it’s worth listening.
That’s what Hu Deping, son of the late Hu Yaobang, the party general secretary forced to resign in 1987 for being too reform-minded, said to a group of mostly Chinese businesspeople and environmentalists in late 2005, in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square. (Because of his father’s fall, Mr. Hu is outside the mainstream of power, dubbed a “nonprinceling,” but his pedigree still makes him a party aristocrat.)
Seven years later, with pressure for political reform mounting and a new generation of leaders to be announced in that same Great Hall of the People at the 18th Party Congress, which starts next Thursday, Mr. Hu’s words continue to reverberate. What is China today, and where is it headed?
Here’s what Mr. Hu said, according to my notes: “No matter how authoritarian this society is, even fascist, the people of this country still want justice. One thing they seek is profit, and the other is justice.”
Is today’s China fascist?
To cite a few characteristics, starting with the one-party state: Since the economic reforms that followed the death of Mao Zedong, it has grown immensely wealthy through its state-owned companies, some of which rank among the world’s richest. What was once a poor, authoritarian state has become a rich, authoritarian state.
The rights to speak and associate freely remain tightly hobbled despite some relaxation, and some top officials openly scorn democracy. The courts obey the party’s directives.
Official slogans increasingly exhort nationalism and “national rejuvenation,” a concept rooted in a mystical sense of nationhood popular with fascist thinkers in the last century.
“The signs have long been there,” said Wang Lixiong, a prominent writer and scholar. “I feel there is a very clear trend toward fascism, and the source of fascism comes from the ever-growing power of the power holders.” China is “a police state,” he said, where power rules for power’s sake.
The passing of Mao did not lead to power-sharing, it just stripped China of its Communist ideology, and no convincing value system has filled the gap, he said.
“Power has become an interest group,” Mr. Wang said.
“Today the interest groups have no ideology,” he said. “Their goal is to protect their own profit and power. They can only rely on power to rule, because they have no goal that convinces the people. So the state relies on power to suppress society and attain its objectives. I think there’s no other route the power holders can go.”
These are large issues. On a more human scale, I was reminded of Mr. Hu’s words on Monday when five men, several of whom said they were police officers, came to our Beijing apartment to check our passports, visas and residence permits, almost certainly part of the stepped-up security before the Party Congress.
Seconds after they left, a loud argument erupted in the corridor outside. Through the spy hole I watched a Chinese neighbor loudly berate the police for meddling. The checks are intimidating and resented — and people increasingly are not afraid to say so.
For sure, terms other than “fascism” are also used to describe what’s going on. Xu Jilin, a leading intellectual and history professor at East China Normal University, in Shanghai, for example, writes that “statism” has grown dominant in the past decade.
In an essay last year, Mr. Xu warned that in an atmosphere where the Communist Party and the state claim the sole right to represent the “universal interest,” China may “re-tread the broken road of 20th-century Germany and Japan.”
For John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University, in South Korea, there are important differences between classic fascism, such as Nazi Germany’s, and what is happening in China today.
“Absolutely the critical thing is how to define fascism,” he said by telephone from Seoul.
“One of the strongest objections to using the word fascism is that a central element of fascism was mass mobilization,” which included the symbolism and choreography associated with, for example, Hitler’s rallies at Nuremberg, Mr. Delury said. While Mao did that, the current leadership does not, he said, a sign that the term does not exactly fit.
“I think still this leadership is very post-Mao, if not anti-Mao,” said Mr. Delury.
Yet for Mr. Wang, fascism is a threat, even without Mao’s charismatic leadership. He points to rising nationalism at home, increasingly directed overseas.
Does it surprise him to hear what was once a taboo word, an epithet to be hurled at the enemies of Communism, used by a member of China’s elite — even if a critical member — to describe China’s political direction?
“I’m not surprised to hear it, because they know, the people in these ruling circles, they don’t think it’s strange, they know what’s happening,” he said.
October 31, 2012
As Fighting Rages, Clinton Seeks New Syrian Opposition
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR and MICHAEL R. GORDON
BEIRUT, Lebanon —The United States indicated on Wednesday that it was undertaking its most aggressive attempt yet to reshape the Syrian opposition, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton dismissing the current leadership as a bunch of out-of-touch exiles who should be replaced with a group more representative of the fighters on the ground.
“There has to be representation of those who are on the front lines, fighting and dying today to obtain their freedom,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters during a trip to Croatia. “This cannot be an opposition represented by people who have many good attributes, but have, in many instances, have not been inside Syria for 20, 30 or 40 years.”
Hundreds of opposition figures are gathering in Doha, Qatar, next week to try to form such a group — ostensibly under the auspices of the Arab League but really pushed there by the United States. Mrs. Clinton said she had been heavily involved in planning the meeting, including recommending individuals and organizations to include in any new leadership structure.
“We’ve made it clear that the S.N.C. can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition,” Mrs. Clinton said, referring to the Syrian National Council. It can participate, she added, “but that opposition must include people from inside Syria and others who have a legitimate voice that needs to be heard.”
Although council members are likely to have up to one third of the seats on the new body, which is expected to have 35 to 50 members, Mrs. Clinton’s very public announcement could well be the council’s death knell. “The S.N.C. has been over with for a long time now; fighters only talk about it sarcastically,” said Khaled Youssef al-Aboud, a pilot in northeast Syria.
The Obama administration has been exasperated for months with the anemic leadership and constant bickering of the council, which is often far more caught up in fighting over spots on travel delegations than in creating an effective transitional government. It failed to attract significant representation from minority groups, including the Alawites who dominate Syria as well as the Christians or the Kurds. Its obscure academics and long-exiled activists also seem increasingly irrelevant in a civil war in which extremist jihadis are gaining more visibility.
From the beginning, the council was seen as a prime vehicle for the long-exiled Muslim Brotherhood, backed by Turkey, and Mrs. Clinton said it was not inclusive enough and too accommodating of extremists.
“There needs to be an opposition leadership structure that is dedicated to representing and protecting all Syrians,” she said. “And we also need an opposition that will be on record strongly resisting the efforts by extremists to hijack the Syrian revolution.”
The timing of the Qatar meeting that could produce the change is interesting since the announcement is anticipated for next Wednesday, a day after the American presidential election, so the outcome of the attempt will not become an election issue.
Although no great shift in policy is anticipated no matter who wins the election, some analysts are expecting that the United States could become more deeply involved by supplying weapons, including antiaircraft weapons, to the opposition. Thus far it has insisted it was supplying only nonlethal aid, although it has been directing weapons from other states to favorite groups.
“They are hoping that some new body will emerge that they can work with, that they can recognize and that they can insert inside,” said Amr al-Azm, a Syrian academic in the United States who has long been a critic of the council.
“It will also ratchet up the pressure on the regime,” he added. “At the moment it is all moving at a snail’s pace. There is a stalemate on the political front and on the battle front.”
On Wednesday, the Syrian government was deploying its air force heavily against rebel strongholds in the north of the country and in the Damascus suburbs in what the opposition called a failed attempt to dislodge it from smaller towns it had captured.
Although the United States and its partners are trying to extract military commanders from Syria for the Qatar meeting next week, there was no guarantee that the overall effort would succeed. Previous attempts to create a more unified, more representative opposition have ended in spectacular failure, with a similar meeting in Cairo last June descending into acrimonious shouting and fisticuffs.
This week council members and other opposition activists fired the first shot over the bows against the Qatar meeting. One influential activist suggested Washington wanted to recreate its success in forming a friendly government in Baghdad after the 2003 invasion. The Damascus Declaration, a group of mainly secular leftists on the council, accused the United States of abandoning it because it refused any compromise with the government in Damascus. “We are against any new political entity that becomes subject to the agendas of foreign countries,” said Samir Nachar, one member.
Their statement said that it was too early for a transitional government because opposition territorial gains thus far had been “negligible,” with no safe zone, and that there was a potentially explosive lack of coordination among the various political, military and activist groups. Finally, it said that the need for a transitional government warranted further study.
Several of the failings, particularly the final one, were those for which foreign governments blame the council, whose members have been fighting to undermine the decision at the failed Cairo conference to form a committee on creating a more representative opposition organization. “The S.N.C. ship is holed, and now they are fighting over the lifeboats,” Mr. Azm said.
Neil MacFarquhar reported from Beirut, and Michael R. Gordon from Zagreb, Croatia. Hania Mourtada and Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, and Hala Droubi from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
October 31, 2012
Clinton Urges Serbia to Accept Kosovo’s Borders
By MICHAEL R. GORDON
PRISTINA, Kosovo — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that Serbs must accept that they cannot change Kosovo’s borders, as the United States and the European Union pressed Serbia and Kosovo to normalize relations.
“We oppose any discussion of territorial changes or reopening Kosovo’s independent status,” Mrs. Clinton said after meeting with Kosovo’s prime minister, Hashim Thaci, and Kosovo’s president, Atifete Jahjaga. “These matters are not up for discussion. The boundaries of an independent, sovereign Kosovo are clear and set.”
Kosovo was Mrs. Clinton’s third stop in a whirlwind round of Balkan diplomacy as the United States and the European Union have sought to grapple with some of the bitter issues that have continued to bedevil the region after NATO’s interventions more than a decade ago.
Serbia’s forces were driven out of Kosovo after NATO mounted an air war in 1999 to stem persecution of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian population. After a period of relative autonomy supervised by the United Nations and safeguarded by international peacekeeping troops, Kosovo declared its independence in 2008.
Ninety nations have recognized Kosovo’s independent status, including the United States, which played a lead role in organizing the military effort in 1999 and which remains hugely popular with the ethnic Albanian majority here. A large monument to former President Bill Clinton has been erected in a square here in Pristina near a store named Hillary.
Neighboring Serbia, however, has refused to formally recognize Kosovo’s independence, fearful of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian-dominated government, and many Serbs inside Kosovo are resisting the government’s authority as well. About 60,000 Serbs who live in the northern part of Kosovo have continued to run their own schools and hospitals, which are under the protection of Serbian security forces and financed, American officials say, by the authorities in Belgrade, the Serbian capital.
“The presence of illegal structures financed by Serbia makes our work very difficult there,” Mr. Thaci said.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, who accompanied Mrs. Clinton to Pristina on Wednesday, met in Brussels with Mr. Thaci and Serbia’s prime minister, Ivica Dacic, earlier in October to prod them to improve their relations. A follow-up meeting in Brussels is scheduled soon.
There is a lot at stake for both sides. Serbia wants to join the European Union. While the United States and the European Union are not demanding that Serbia endorse Kosovo’s independence as a prerequisite for membership, they are insisting that Serbia make headway in normalizing its relations with Kosovo, a point that American officials recognize will be a step-by-step process.
The European Union is also unlikely to accept Kosovo as a member while the status of the north stretch of its territory is being challenged internally and its international borders are not fully recognized and under Kosovo’s control.
So far, the steps that the two sides have taken have been somewhat technical and have included understandings on recognizing diplomats and land records. Serbia has dropped objections to Kosovo’s participation in international meetings.
Serbs make up slightly more than 6 percent of Kosovo’s 1.7 million residents. They are the dominant population in northern Kosovo, and many also live in pockets in the south.
Before departing Pristina, Mrs. Clinton, who urged Kosovo to protect and reach out to the Serb minority, met with several prominent Serbs who had fled the ethnic Albanian-dominated area of Kosovo but have returned, lured by the Kosovo’s government’s promise that the Serbian minority could live peacefully in Kosovo and have a role in political life there.
Mrs. Clinton met with a ranking Serbian Orthodox official in Kosovo, a local Serbian parish priest and two ethnic Serbs who serve as ministers in the Kosovo government. The meeting was held at a church that was largely destroyed during a wave of ethnic Albanian rioting in March 2004 in which 34 churches were attacked. Only a fraction of the thousands of Serbs who have left the Albanian-dominated areas of Kosovo have returned.
Continuing her Balkan swing, Mrs. Clinton next flew to Croatia to meet with leaders there.
October 31, 2012
Libya Parliament Approves New Premier’s Cabinet
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
CAIRO — The Libyan Parliament voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to approve the new prime minister’s cabinet, ending months of uncertainty about who was in charge of the government. The top officials of defense and security are now expected to take responsibility for investigating the attack on the American Mission in Benghazi on Sept. 11 of this year, as well as the larger challenge of controlling the militias that have dominated Libya since the death of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi more than a year ago.
The approval follows three weeks of confusion after the newly elected Parliament named an earlier prime minister and then removed him in less than a month. It had rejected his attempt to form a cabinet, leaving in place a lame-duck team criticized as weak from the moment it was named last fall.
The political paralysis had left the government in limbo as it scrambled to respond to the Benghazi attacks.
The new prime minister, Ali Zeidan, previously worked as a human rights lawyer in Geneva, where he was a leader of an exiled opposition group, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya.
Mr. Zeidan was chosen two weeks ago as prime minister with the backing of the Parliament’s two largest blocs of voters — the relatively secular coalition formed around the wartime civilian leader Mahmoud Jibril, and the moderate Islamist coalition formed by Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood. In Parliament, 105 of the 200 members voted to approve Mr. Zeidan’s cabinet; 9 voted against, and the rest were absent or abstained. (Many were traveling for a Muslim holiday or pilgrimage).
An initial attempt to vote on the new government was called off on Tuesday after protesters stormed the Parliament. Some demonstrators complained that certain regions were underrepresented in the proposed cabinet; ultraconservative Islamists charged that a religious affairs minister belonged to a mystical sect, and others accused certain ministers of having ties to the Qaddafi government. But on Wednesday, tight security prevented another protest from derailing the vote, and the lawmakers then exited quickly for their own safety.
Suliman Ali Zway contributed reporting from Tripoli, Libya.
10/31/2012 04:31 PM
Nervous on the Nile: Minorities Fear End of Secularism in Egypt
By Daniel Steinvorth and Volkhard Windfuhr
When he took office as Egypt's new president in June, Mohammed Morsi pledged to follow a pluralist policy that respected the rights of women and non-Muslim minorities. But everything he has done since then indicates that he intends to replace the secularist dictatorship of his predecessor with an Islamist one.
Egypt's president sat cross-legged on a green rug with his eyes closed and hands raised in prayer. His lips moved as Futouh Abd al-Nabi Mansour, an influential Egyptian cleric, intoned: "Oh Allah, absolve us of our sins, strengthen us and grant us victory over the infidels. Oh Allah, destroy the Jews and their supporters. Oh Allah, disperse them, rend them asunder."
This was a Friday prayer service held in the western Egyptian port city of Marsa Matrouh on October 19. The words of this closing prayer, taken from a collection of sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, seemed quite familiar to Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's new president. A video clip obtained by the US-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) shows Morsi murmuring the word "amen" as this pious request for the dispersal of the Jews is uttered.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which backs Morsi, has since removed a note concerning the president's visit to Marsa Matrouh from its website, and the daily newspaper al-Ahram has reported that the president must have been "very embarrassed" over the matter. Are such statements enough to dispel the incident?
Fighting to Keep Church and State Apart
Morsi has been in power for four months. In June, with the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi won a narrow victory over a representative of the country's former regime. Many voters supported Morsi only out of fear of a return to the days of dictatorship. But the new president has remained an enigma to his people. Who is this man with an American Ph.D. in engineering, who sometimes presents himself as a democrat and a peacemaker and sometimes as a hard-line Islamist?
The tasks facing Egypt's first freely elected president remain unresolved. Indeed, these are immense economic and social problems that can't simply be waved away. At the same time, precisely the thing that secularists, leftists and Christians have long feared is coming true: Egypt is growing ever more religious.
For the last three weeks, the activists who previously protested against the country's military council and the old regime of Hosni Mubarak have once again been gathering regularly on Cairo's Tahrir Square. Their new opponent is the Muslim Brotherhood, which the demonstrators believe is in the process of establishing a new dictatorship -- but an Islamist one.
The protests are primarily directed against the Islamists' attempts to push a religious constitution on the country. A constitutional council convened by Egypt's parliament has suggested redefining the roles of church and state, with the "rules of Sharia" becoming the basis for the country's laws. This would also entail re-examining and renegotiating the issue of equality between men and women.
The committee is dominated by members of the Muslim Brotherhood and by Salafists; the secularists and Christians who once sat on it abandoned it in protest. "Laws like these will land us in the Middle Ages," says Ahmed al-Buraï, a lawyer who stepped down from the committee. "This would be the end of our 200-year-old civil state."
On October 12, when Morsi's detractors took to Tahrir Square for the first time, buses of Muslim Brotherhood supporters arrived, as well. These bearded men set one of the secularists' platforms on fire, threw stones at their opponents and shouted: "We love you, oh Morsi." More than 150 people were injured.
One Muslim Brotherhood spokesman later claimed that those who committed the violence were not organization members. Instead, he said they were so-called baltagiya, or groups of thugs hired by "dark forces" trying once again to drag the Brotherhood's name through the mud. Yet bloggers have proved that the Islamists had long-established plans to sabotage the event.
Images of protests against the president don't look very good on television, especially not when they are held on the very square that has become the global symbol of the Arab Spring. But although the atmosphere in Egypt is tense, Morsi is doing little to connect with his critics. After his electoral victory, he promised to be the president of "all Egyptians." He even announced his intention to leave the Muslim Brotherhood so as to be able to perform his role neutrally as well as his plan to install women and representatives of the country's Coptic Christian minority in high government positions. So far, nothing has come of those promises.
"He has yet to internalize the idea that the existence of an opposition is an important instrument of democracy," says Amr Hamzawy, a Cairo-based political scientist. "He's well on his way to creating a single-party system, just as it was under Mubarak."
The 'Ikhwanization' of Egypt
Egypt's critical newspapers call this trend "ikhwanization," with "ikhwan" meaning "brothers." The process has seen the president and the Muslim Brotherhood bringing all state-run institutions under their control within a short period of time. This includes state-owned media, where critical editors-in-chief have been replaced with Morsi supporters.
The "Holy Koran," a state-run radio service that has traditionally been moderate in terms of religion, has also become "ikhwanized." It has declared that so-called liberals are nothing more than immoral heretics who have "fallen" from Islam and are bent on the single goal of destroying society, and it has asserted that only the president can lead the country to "true Islam."
In some parts of the country, Egyptians seem to be trying to outdo one another in their displays of piety. A teacher in the Luxor governorate, in southern Egypt, recently cut off the hair of two 12-year-old students after the girls refused to wear headscarves. The incidents sparked protests, and the teacher was transferred to another school.
When a Coptic Christian tried to order a beer in a suburb of Cairo last week, the waiter reacted violently. The government plans to massively restrict the consumption of alcohol, a move whose effects will also be felt by members of the country's Christian minority. Especially in Upper Egypt and in Alexandria, where religious tensions already existed under Hosni Mubarak, thousands of Christians are believed to have applied for visas for the United States and European countries.
The Men Behind the President
What has become of Morsi's promise to be an impartial president? "The boundaries between the office of the president and the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood aren't defined," says Hamzawy, the political scientist, in an understated way.
Many Egyptians believe Morsi is still taking his cues from two men in particular. One is Mohammed Badie, a 69-year-old professor of veterinary science and the man to whom all members of the movement swear lifelong loyalty as the Brotherhood's "supreme guide."
The other, Khairat el-Shater, was initially the Muslim Brotherhood's presidential candidate, but he was disqualified before the election on account of having once been imprisoned for money-laundering -- although this was admittedly under Mubarak, who used his justice system to sideline political opponents. Shater, a millionaire with good connections to the Gulf states, is considered an important financial backer of the Muslim Brotherhood and is believed to have been Morsi's direct superior within the organization.
Shater has considerably expanded his empire of supermarket chains and textile and furnishings shops in the new Egypt. Likewise, he's viewed as a model businessman among the Muslim Brotherhood, which has so far continued Mubarak's neoliberal economic policies. It's an approach meant to win the trust of the foreign investors that Egypt so desperately needs.
Mubarak left his successor a country deeply in debt, where millions of people are unemployed and a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. For years, salaries were constantly kept low and unions were suppressed.
Keeping Egypt from national bankruptcy will eventually require unpopular decisions, such as cuts to gas and bread subsidies. But, so far, Morsi has decided to wait it out. The only area where he has been active is a different one entirely: In a television address last week, Morsi announced a new religious campaign that will see an army of preachers fan out through the country "spreading the true word among the people." It's a re-education measure that may yet help to dislodge Western ideas from people's heads -- such as the absurd belief that religion is a private matter.
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
October 31, 2012
French Socialists, Under Fire, Display a Lack of Fraternité
By STEVEN ERLANGER
PARIS — The symbol of the victorious French Socialist Party is the rose, but the bloom is off five months after François Hollande won the presidency, and the petals are blowing around.
Buffeted by a bad economy and rising unemployment, a decent but uninspiring prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, has been left by Mr. Hollande to ride the waves as best he can. But bosses are angry, workers are angry and mistakes are mounting, leaving the always disputatious Socialists sniping at their own leaders.
At the Socialist Party’s recent annual congress in Toulouse, there were complaints that economic rigor had gone too far, and that the government should renege on its promises to European allies and the markets to get the budget deficit this year to 3 percent of gross domestic product.
Others complained that Mr. Hollande’s decision to meet the target by raising taxes and freezing spending, rather than cutting it, would throw France into recession, even as growth, so far elusive, would by itself provide more tax receipts and jobs.
The main business lobby, Medef, has warned of more bankruptcies and layoffs, while an association of the top French companies, the Association Française des Entreprises Privées, called for a 30 billion euro, or $38.8 billion, cut in public welfare fees paid by employers over the next two years to try to reduce the weight of taxes and promote competitiveness. The group also called on the government to cut spending by $77.7 billion over five years, warning that France could no longer afford to have the state producing 56 percent of G.D.P.
The complaints come as a much-heralded report due next week on how to improve French competitiveness — commissioned by Mr. Hollande in July from Louis Gallois, the former head of the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company — is being played down by the government. Mr. Gallois and Medef want “a competitiveness shock,” in which some social welfare fees now paid by companies would be transferred to the general budget or covered by other taxes.
But Mr. Hollande, who was criticized during the campaign as being indecisive and vague, said that a shock was a bad idea, and that he preferred a gradual “competitiveness trajectory.”
“France is now facing triple challenges,” he said, speaking of steep debt, poor growth and high manufacturing costs. Politically, it would be a difficult time to ease taxes on companies by raising them for retirees, but the softening of his promise to provide strong measures to improve competitiveness, and hence employment, disappointed many.
Even Le Monde, on the center-left, asked in a front-page headline on Wednesday evening, “Has Hollande underestimated the crisis?”
There are also questions about leadership. Mr. Hollande has tried to contrast his style with that of his predecessor, the hyperkinetic Nicolas Sarkozy, but the French, never happy, complain that Mr. Hollande seems somnolent in the face of the economic crisis. He has also sent mixed messages — vowing that France will not undergo austerity while raising taxes on companies and the rich, and at the same time trying to show that he is fiscally responsible to the markets and his euro zone allies.
While the markets are for the moment giving France a cautious free ride, middle-class French are giving Mr. Hollande no credit for sparing them, because they do not feel spared, especially since tax brackets are not being adjusted for inflation.
Perhaps worse, his ministers have shown little discipline in their public comments, sometimes contradicting government policy and sometimes just thinking aloud.
Mr. Ayrault, for example, caused a huge stir when he suggested this week that one of the holy commandments of the party, the 35-hour week, introduced by the Socialists in 2000, might be reviewed. Asked about restoring the 39-hour week during a meeting with readers of the newspaper Le Parisien, he said: “Why not? There is no taboo.”
His remarks prompted a furor within the party. There was quick backtracking, and Labor Minister Michel Sapin, who is close to Mr. Hollande, was brought forth to declare, “The 35-hour week must not be abolished.”
Laurence Parisot, who heads Medef, said that if Mr. Ayrault raised the subject, “it’s because he knows, in a confused way, that there’s a problem.”
The right, in the midst of its own fight over Mr. Sarkozy’s successor as party president, was quick to pounce, damning Mr. Ayrault with faint praise. Jean-François Copé, a candidate to lead the party, the Union for a Popular Movement, said he “applauded” Mr. Ayrault for “reviving the program” of the right to end the 35-hour week. Mr. Copé’s opponent, the former prime minister François Fillon, accused Mr. Ayrault of lacking authority and said he had been “cut down to size by his labor minister.” In the meantime, speculation rises as to whether Mr. Sarkozy will choose, in time, to re-enter politics and run again.
Mr. Ayrault, a former German teacher, jumped the gun by announcing a constitutional court decision — before the court had a chance to — that disallowed a Socialist bill to increase public housing. The bill was disallowed on procedural grounds because of an improperly quick legislative process, a misstep attributed to the government.
The government has also run into trouble with some of its campaign promises, including efforts to legalize gay marriage, which has stirred a protest among religious leaders, and to allow foreigners to vote in local elections. Mr. Hollande commented dryly, “Gay marriage and the right of foreigners to vote are harder to institute than foreseen.”
There have also been sharp strains with the Socialists’ allies, the Greens, over the future of nuclear energy and a law to set limits on budget deficits and debt. Most Greens voted against the budget law in Parliament, but Green ministers remained in the government.
Other ministers have taken contradictory public positions with little consequence. Education Minister Vincent Peillon spoke favorably about decriminalizing marijuana, despite Mr. Hollande’s opposition, earning more derision from the right. He got a modest put-down from Mr. Ayrault, who said ministers “should defend the policy of their ministry and of the government. And nothing else.”
Interior Minister Manuel Valls has become popular for his consistency and his toughness, especially against Islamic radicalism and Romanian and Bulgarian citizens, most of them Roma, who overstay their legal residence period in France. More centrist than many, he has also opposed some Hollande positions.
There have also been spats over policies, which is to be expected. Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici has disagreed with Arnaud Montebourg, the industrial renewal minister, over how to structure a public investment bank. Budget Minister Jérôme Cahuzac and Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti have fought over money and whether to bring back evening advertising on public television. And there is a new fight about raising the consumption tax on restaurant meals.
The opinion polls show high dissatisfaction with Mr. Hollande. About 64 percent of the French are unhappy with his government, and only 10 percent think the situation in France has improved since he took office, according to an OpinionWay poll last week for Le Figaro.
Sixty-nine percent of those polled said they were unhappy with the failure to reduce unemployment, at a 13-year high, and 66 percent were unhappy with fiscal policy. Sixty-eight percent said they thought Mr. Hollande did not know how to show authority, and 63 percent said he could not make difficult decisions.
Mr. Hollande has a five-year term. But in the meantime, Mr. Sarkozy, tanned and often unshaven, hovers in the wings, silent but hardly forgotten.
October 31, 2012
Russians See Church and State Come Closer
By SOPHIA KISHKOVSKY
MOSCOW — As the Russian Orthodox Church continues its ascent as a political force, Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov stands at the center of a swirling argument about the church’s power and its possible influence on President Vladimir V. Putin.
Father Tikhon, a former film student, presides over the 14th century Sretensky Monastery here, near the headquarters of the former KGB, for which Mr. Putin worked in Soviet times. A media-savvy figure, Father Tikhon has written a surprise best seller about monastic life and has been described as “Putin’s spiritual father” — a label he coyly neither embraces nor denies.
“It would be cruel of me to answer this question, to say yes or no and take away the bread of journalists,” he said recently in an interview in his receiving room, adorned with portraits of a saint and a czar. “Although, of course, one doesn’t answer such a question about anyone,” he added.
This week, Father Tikhon was in the news again after reports, swiftly denied, that the police had shut down a brothel on the grounds of his monastery. He branded the story “unconscionable slander” and “a vivid example of the information war against the church.” The truth, he told the news agency RIA Novosti, was that a brothel had been operating in a building next to cloister grounds, and that his monastery had demanded it be shut.
Father Tikhon, 54, took over at the white-walled monastery, one of Russia’s oldest, in 1995. He has since transformed the structure, which served as a killing ground in Stalin’s times, into a cinematically perfect vision of Orthodoxy.
A few days later, on an idyllic fall evening, his black monastic robes billowed in the wind as choral music wafted through the air and a crush of bescarved women lunged for his blessing.
Some critics belittle Father Tikhon as a publicity hound. But others, who see him as a rising power broker, call him a promoter of a rigid Orthodox fundamentalism. That is a charge he dismissed as “nonsense.”
The old debate over the role of the Orthodox Church and its relationship to the state broke into the open most recently over the conviction of members of the punk band Pussy Riot for staging an anti-Putin stunt at Moscow’s biggest cathedral. The performance, which was captured on a video that circulated widely on the Internet, mocked both Mr. Putin and Patriarch Kirill I, the head of the Orthodox Church.
In this atmosphere, Father Tikhon’s ties to Mr. Putin have come under scrutiny. He had already attracted attention in 2008, for writing and narrating a television documentary that depicted the fall of Byzantium as a parable about the threats to modern Russia. The film was derided by liberals as pandering to Mr. Putin’s worldview of a virtuous Russia under threat from foreign forces.
Now as the author of “Unsaintly Saints and Other Stories,” a book about monastic life and the path to faith, Father Tikhon and his Kremlin connection are even more prominent. The book focuses on another famous monastery that Mr. Putin visited shortly after becoming president in 2000.
One unanswered question is whether Father Tikhon is, in fact, Mr. Putin’s spiritual father — in Russian Orthodox tradition, a figure who is a father confessor and guide to salvation.
“I know Archimandrite Tikhon personally, and he told me directly that he is not Putin’s spiritual father,” Father Georgy Mitrofanov, a prominent St. Petersburg priest, said publicly in September. “I think that our president’s main spiritual father is he himself.”
When pressed on the question, Father Tikhon changed the subject to the Chinese winter watermelon grown on the farm run by his monastery.
For all the reticence, Father Tikhon is an unabashed supporter of Mr. Putin, saying he saved Russia from “vulgar liberals” who nearly destroyed it in the 1990s. During the interview, he checked the time to make sure he would not be late to a Kremlin meeting of Mr. Putin’s culture commission.
At the meeting, according to the Kremlin Web site, Mr. Putin chided the monk, who is a member of the commission, for comparing today’s young Russian women to “a drunk girl standing by the bus stop.”
“Father, you have gone too far,” Mr. Putin reportedly said.
In 2007, Mr. Putin and Father Tikhon were instrumental in the reunification of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, which is based in New York. The reunification is a centerpiece of Mr. Putin’s efforts to stitch together the red and white in Russian history — the Soviet and the czarist pasts.
To mark the fifth anniversary of that reunification and to promote an English translation of his book, Father Tikhon toured the United States in October with the Sretensky Monastery Choir.
His book runs 640 pages and has sold over 1.1 million copies. Millions more have been downloaded electronically, Father Tikhon said. OLMA Media Group, which published the book in 2011, announced in August that it was the country’s biggest best seller since the Soviet era. The profits are going back into the Sretensky Monastery, Father Tikhon said, to build a cathedral honoring those killed there for their religious faith in Soviet times.
The book is a portrait of one of the Orthodox Church’s holiest sites, the Pskovo-Pechersky Monastery in northwestern Russia. The monastery stayed open during the Soviet era, surviving first within independent Estonia, then by the wiliness and fortitude of the monks after the territory was absorbed into the Soviet Union.
Georgy Shevkunov, as Father Tikhon was known before taking his vows, became a novice there shortly after his baptism in 1982, a sharp turn from studies at the Soviet Union’s most prestigious film school. At the monastery, he writes, “a new world had suddenly opened up, incomparable in its beauty.”
Mr. Putin visited the monastery in August 2000. Russian church Web sites say that he spent over an hour in private conversation with Archimandrite Ioann Krestyankin, a revered monk who died in 2006 and who served as spiritual guide to Father Tikhon.
In the monastery’s guest book, Mr. Putin wrote: “The revival of Russia and growth of its might are unthinkable without the strengthening of society’s moral foundations. The role and significance of the Russian Orthodox Church are huge. May God protect you.”
October 31, 2012
In This Corner, a Much-Needed Distraction
By MATTHEW ROSENBERG
KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghans love a good fight. Dog fights, ram fights, partridge fights — if two combatants square off here, there is sure to be a crowd cheering them on.
So when a German promoter this week brought the spectacle of professional boxing to Kabul — an international title fight with an Afghan contender, no less — the only real question for many Afghans was what took so long and, of course, how to get tickets.
The Thrilla in Manila it was not. Billed as the Fight 4 Peace, Tuesday night’s match played out more like the Squabble in Kabul.
The championship at stake was the unclaimed intercontinental middleweight belt of the World Boxing Organization, a title that is about as second-tier as it gets. The contenders — Hamid Rahimi, 29, a German of Afghan descent, and Said Mbelwa, 23, of Tanzania — were recognizable names nowhere beyond Afghanistan. To keep the crowd’s attention, there was also a praying mullah, a soccer ball juggler, a pair of Afghan pop stars and two slender men who pantomimed a Thai kickboxing match. Despite the fact that Mr. Rahimi was the clear crowd favorite, many onlookers acknowledged that his eventual victory through a technical knockout was dubious.
But they loved it anyway. Thousands showed up to see the match, and riot police officers were needed to keep those without tickets from storming the venue. Tens of thousands or more watched it on television. Afterward, young men cruised the streets, hanging out of car windows and chanting “Ha-Mid! Ha-Mid! Ha-Mid!”
By Wednesday morning, the match was the biggest news in the capital. Ahmad Noor, 42, a construction company manager, quipped that Mr. Rahimi’s fame now equaled that of President Hamid Karzai and Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader. (Mr. Omar surely would have been displeased with the comparison, since he banned boxing when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan.)
Adel, 30, a street-side snack vendor who uses only a single name, said Mr. Rahimi’s victory was better than Id al-Adha, a major Islamic holiday that ended a few days ago. In American terms, that would be like saying it was better than Christmas.
If anything, the late summer and autumn of 2012 may well be remembered by Kabulis as the time when Western-style professional sports finally came to their city. The boxing match, as well as a string of soccer games, gave many a good reason to forget, at least for a few hours, the Taliban, the foreigners, the warlords and every other unwelcome group or unsavory character that has inflicted pain and suffering here.
Afghanistan has long had an active amateur sports scene, and Afghan athletes have competed internationally in the last few years. But many of those efforts — a women’s boxing team, for instance — often seemed to be at least partly geared toward Westerners eager to see how their countries’ efforts were changing Afghanistan.
This season’s big sports events, in contrast, were aimed squarely at Afghans themselves. Before the Fight 4 Peace came the Afghan Premier League, a well-organized professional soccer league that concluded its inaugural season a few weeks ago.
Both the boxing match and the soccer league had the trappings of big-time American or European sports events, with corporate sponsorships and live television broadcasts. Each was easily as big a story to Afghans as the events here that grabbed the Western news media’s attention, like the end of the American surge, which played out during the Premier League season.
“Why do I have to think about the Taliban or Obama when I watch a game? What do you think about?” snapped Muhammad Ishaq Geran at a Premier League match in late September when asked a few too many questions about watching soccer under Taliban rule.
Mr. Geran, 48, an administrator at the Ministry of Public Health, said the Taliban had nearly ruined soccer for him. Back when they were in power, games were often turned into propaganda spectacles with executions and amputations at half time.
He hated it. But with television, music, dancing and a host of other entertainment options banned, the soccer games “were the only entertainment we had,” he said. So he closed his eyes during the executions.
Now that Afghanistan had the Premier League, he could finally find the same escape in sports that fans do all over the world, he said. The cheap tickets — 30 afghanis, or $0.60, a seat — and live television broadcasts helped, too.
The Squabble in Kabul provided the same escape but at a steeper price. Tickets were 3,000 afghanis, about $60, and scalpers were selling them for as much as 12,000 afghanis, or nearly $240.
The ring was set up inside what is known as the loya jirga tent, a large concrete conference hall originally built for Afghan leaders to meet and decide matters of national importance, like whether to sign a strategic partnership deal with the United States.
No one was debating international affairs on Tuesday night. First came the mullah, who recited a prayer that he said the Prophet Muhammad spoke before conquering Mecca. Then came blaring pop music of a decidedly un-Islamic bent — “give me what you got in store, girl, I’m begging for more” — and the other opening acts.
The roughly 3,000 men at the tent were riled up by the time the fight got under way. Mr. Mbwela, who had to know he did not have a fan in the house, quickly embraced the role of the villain, theatrically pumping his fists at the crowd between rounds.
The fighters each got in their punches until early in the seventh round when Mr. Rahimi hit Mr. Mbwela in the shoulder. The Tanzanian retreated to his corner, gripping the shoulder with his glove. The fight was over.
The crowd went wild at the announcement Mr. Rahimi had won. Even Mr. Mbwela appeared to get caught up in the moment. He grabbed the new champion, who is now marketing an energy drink here, and lifted him into the air — and spawned Afghanistan’s latest conspiracy theory: that of the rigged boxing match.
“I think it was fixed,” said Arash, 27, a money exchanger who uses only a single name. “His rival grabbed him and raised him even though he was defeated.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: November 1, 2012
An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of a boxer from Tanzania. He is Said Mbelwa, not Mbwela