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In the USA...

Sen. Sherrod Brown: GOP cocoon is impenetrable to objective facts

By Eric W. Dolan
RawStory

Tuesday, December 4, 2012 18:13 EST

Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio said Tuesday on the Bill Press Show that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate were fed misinformation.

Despite claims that the race was neck-and-neck, Brown noted that President Barack Obama became the second Democratic president to receive more than 50 percent of the vote twice in Ohio. Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first Democratic president to achieve that feat in 1940.

“What’s really curious is what Republican pollsters were telling them,” Brown said. “Romney really did — I talked to Paul Ryan the other day, he really thought they were going to win, they were told that. This echo chamber for them has weaved this cocoon around them that is sort of impenetrable to objective information. It is pretty interesting.”

The Ohio senator faced millions of dollars in outside campaign spending, but still managed to keep his seat for another six years. Brown said his Republican challenger had frequently noted he was more liberal than self-avowed socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

“You don’t need to move to the center, you don’t need to talk mishmash and cloud the issue, you talk directly and voters appreciate it,” he added.

Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=C67ZiiTxo78

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Right-wing misinformation leads half of Republicans to believe ACORN stole 2012 election

By Stephen C. Webster
RawStory

Tuesday, December 4, 2012 16:45 EST

Nearly endless gobs of misinformation spewed from partisan media outlets in recent years had resulted in an astonishing achievement: 49 percent of Republicans now say that the disbanded community organizing group ACORN stole the 2012 presidential election for President Barack Obama, according to a survey by Public Policy Polling (PPP) released Tuesday.

The finding is especially stunning considering that ACORN, which stands for The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, filed for bankruptcy and disbanded in 2010. The group was targeted by conservative media prankster James O’Keefe in a series of intentionally misleading videos that purported to show employees explaining how to force children into prostitution. Then-Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) sponsored a bill in 2009 to pull all government funding of the group, which passed and led to their collapse.

Following Obama’s successful campaign against Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in 2008, PPP found that a whopping 52 percent of Republicans said that the loss was ACORN’s doing — meaning 2012′s figures are only a marginal improvement.

The apoplectic response to Obama’s win over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney doesn’t stop with feeling robbed. PPP also found that 25 percent of Republicans said they no longer want to be American and would rather their state to secede from the U.S. than take orders from President Obama.

The disbelief is so thick one could almost taste it emanating from television sets across the country on Election Day. Despite all available evidence pointing to nearly insurmountable numbers for the president, most Republican pundits and pollsters swore right up until the race was called for Obama that it would be a Republican landslide.

Even the candidate and his wife were blown away by Obama’s decisive victory, according to reports. A Romney adviser told CBS following the election that the Republican candidate was “shellshocked” after the loss. Friends of Ann Romney also told The Washington Post that she was convinced it was her “destiny” to live in the White House, and hasn’t overcome fits of crying since Election Day.

Not even former Bush strategist Karl Rove, who’s long positioned himself as the party’s preeminent electoral guru, could escape the schadenfreude on Election Day, looking about ready to vomit on live TV as he frantically argued with Fox News’s own pollsters on whether Obama had actually won or not.

That level of buying-you-own-nonsense is perhaps best illustrated in the debate over so-called “birther” conspiracy theories about the president’s citizenship, which has never actually been in question. After years of Fox News and its occasional guests promoting the theories as a legitimate topic of discussion, a poll by MIT professor Adam Berinsky found more Republicans in September 2012 who believed that the president is not a citizen than during the months before the 2011 release of his long-form birth certificate. In all, Berinsky found that 73 percent of Republicans said they either don’t believe Obama is an American or they’re just not sure, up from 70 percent in April 2011.
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Indiana lawmaker plans new attack on evolution

By Eric W. Dolan
RawStory

Tuesday, December 4, 2012 20:34 EST

After failing to allow public schools to teach “creation science,” Indiana state Sen. Dennis Kruse (R) plans to introduce a bill in the next legislative session that would allow students to question the theory of evolution.

“I would call it ‘truth in education’ to make sure that what is being taught is true,” Kruse, the chairman of the Senate Education and Career Development Committee, told Indystar. “And if a student thinks something isn’t true, then they can question the teacher and the teacher would have to come up with some kind of research to support that what they are teaching is true or not true.”

The Tennessee legislature passed a similar bill earlier this year. The law permitted public school teachers to discuss the “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.” Critics said the law was intended to undermine theories like evolution by presenting them to students as if they were controversial among scientists.

The Discovery Institute, which advocates the teaching of a variation of creationism known as Intelligent Design, is reportedly helping Kruse draft his new bill.

The Indiana Senate in February passed Kruse’s legislation to allow “the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science” in public schools. However, Republican Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma killed the bill, saying it would result in a costly lawsuit if passed.

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Republicans cite abortion, home schooling to defeat UN disability treaty

By David Edwards
RawStory

Tuesday, December 4, 2012 16:02 EST

Republican Senators on Tuesday voted to block a United Nations treaty that would have helped to protect disabled Americans — including veterans — while they are in foreign countries.

Thirty-eight Republicans voted no, giving them five votes more than necessary to defeat the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities treaty, 61 to 38.

At an event with former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) late last month, Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) announced that 36 Republicans had signed a letter pledging to vote against the treaty.

Lee told Senators on Tuesday that the treaty “threatens the right of parents to raise their children with the constant looming threat of state interference.”

“We all want to support the best interest of the the child, every child,” Lee said in a speech on the Senate floor. “But I and many of my constituents, including those who home school their children or send their children to private or religious schools, have justifiable doubts that a foreign U.N. body, a committee operating out of Geneva, Switzerland should decide what is in the best interest of the child at home with his or her parents in Utah or in any other state in our great union.”

Writing for World Net Daily on Monday, Santorum said the treaty had “darker and more troubling implications” and suggested that it would have meant the forced abortion his daughter because she has a rare genetic disorder.

“In the case of our 4-year-old daughter, Bella, who has Trisomy 18, a condition that the medical literature says is ‘incompatible with life,’ would her ‘best interest’ be that she be allowed to die?” he asked. “Some would undoubtedly say so.”

Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly also warned in November that proponents were “using this treaty as an opportunity to promote their abortion agenda.”

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who suffered disabilities while fighting in Vietnam, insisted that that the treaty would have no effect on abortion laws in the United States.

“With respect to abortion, this is a disabilities treaty and has nothing to do with abortion,” McCain told his Republican colleagues in a Monday speech on the Senate floor. “Trying to turn this into an abortion debate is bad politics and just wrong.”

President George W. Bush’s administration completed negotiations of the treaty in 2006 and it was signed by President Barack Obama in 2009. It had been supported by veterans groups, the disabilities community and the business community.

A Yale University Study released earlier this year found that the majority of homeless veterans suffered from PTSD or other mood disorders.

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December 4, 2012

Praising Immigrants, Bush Leads Conservative Appeal for G.O.P. to Soften Tone

By JULIA PRESTON
NYT

WASHINGTON — Looking for new footing on immigration before a debate on the volatile issue in Congress next year, Republicans and conservative leaders spoke out this week, raising arguments that immigration is good for the ailing economy and consistent with family values.

Former President George W. Bush weighed back in to the discussion on Tuesday by calling on policy makers in Washington to revamp the law “with a benevolent spirit” that recognized the contribution of those who moved here from other countries.

Mr. Bush spoke at the opening of a conference highlighting the benefits of immigration hosted by an institute in Dallas that bears his name and by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. He described immigrants as a bedrock of the nation’s economy, providing new skills and ideas while filling critical gaps in the labor market. But he also presented the question in more human terms in a state that has been a home to huge numbers of immigrants.

“Not only do immigrants help build our economy, they invigorate our soul,” Mr. Bush said. Growing up in Texas, he said, he had “the honor and privilege of meeting the newly arrived.”

“Those whom I’ve met love their families,” he said. “They see education as a bright future for their children. Some willingly defend the flag.”

Mr. Bush, who has remained largely out of the policy arena since leaving office, issued an appeal. “As our nation debates the proper course of action relating to immigration,” he said, “I hope we do so with a benevolent spirit and keep in mind the contributions of immigrants.”

His tone contrasted sharply with the prevailing views and language of Republicans during the presidential campaign, when Mitt Romney said he favored policies that would force illegal immigrants to “self-deport.”

In Washington, leaders of a coalition that unites conservative law enforcement officials and clergy with business leaders — they described themselves as “Bibles, badges and business” — held a strategy session Tuesday on how to push for a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws, which would include “a road to lawful status and citizenship” for 11 million illegal immigrants.

While several of the conservatives meeting here had expressed their support for legalization measures, they sought to enhance their influence in the coming debate by joining forces.

President Obama, acknowledging the central role of Latino support in his re-election, has said he intends to start the immigration debate early next year. Already, groups that favor legalization are assessing whether they should push for a path to citizenship as well as an overhaul of the immigration system, which is widely regarded as dysfunctional.

Some organizations argue that taking the thorny issues in smaller parts would be more likely to produce results, particularly since many House Republicans remain opposed to any amnesty for illegal immigrants.

But Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said Tuesday at a news conference here that immigration was a “moral issue.” He warned Republicans that “if they want to be a contender for national leadership, they are going to have to change their ways on immigration reform.”

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the largest organization of Latino evangelicals, portrayed the Republicans’ dilemma in biblical terms. “They must cross the proverbial Jordan of immigration reform,” he said, “if they want to step into the promised land of the Hispanic electorate.”

The conservatives argued that the outcome of the election, in which Latinos gave Mr. Romney only 27 percent of their votes, should force Republicans to reconsider their support for enforcement-only policies that offer no path to legal status for illegal immigrants. They argued that an overhaul would also stop the breakup of Hispanic families by deportation.

The Rev. Luis A. Cortés Jr., the president of Esperanza, an organization based in Philadelphia that includes 13,000 Hispanic churches, said conservatives had misread Latinos in the election. “In this election, the Hispanic voter moved away from social values to family values,” Mr. Cortés said.

Sheriff Mark C. Curran of Lake County, Ill., which includes the Chicago suburb of Waukegan, said he had undergone “a conversion” on immigration since taking office. He said law enforcement officials should “be honest” in recognizing that the borders could not be secured without giving legal documents to immigrants already here.

Tuesday’s strategy session was called by the National Immigration Forum, which favors an overhaul.

Steve Case, a co-founder of AOL who now runs a firm that invests in start-up companies, told the session that immigrant entrepreneurs were vital to bringing innovation that had spurred American growth in the past. “The data says they are job makers, not job takers,” Mr. Case said.

But he said both parties in Congress should focus on results. “My view is it’s important to get as much done as we can as quickly as we can,” Mr. Case said.

Peter Baker contributed reporting.

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December 4, 2012

Unionizing the Bottom of the Pay Scale

By EDUARDO PORTER
NYT

Other than poverty, José Carrillo and Joshua Williams have little in common. The austere life of Mr. Carrillo, a 79-year-old Peruvian immigrant from Washington Heights, is a universe apart from the hardscrabble reality of Mr. Williams, a 28-year-old single father from Atlanta staying at his aunt’s place in Brooklyn to save on rent.

But their lives are connected. They both work in the fast-food industry — Mr. Carrillo at a McDonald’s in Midtown Manhattan and Mr. Williams at a Wendy’s in Brooklyn. They both earn a little more than $7 an hour. And they both need food stamps to survive. Last Thursday, both did something they had never done before: they went on strike.

Their activism, part of a flash strike of some 200 workers from fast-food restaurants around New York City, caps a string of unorthodox actions sponsored by organized labor, including worker protests outside Walmart stores, which, like most fast-food chains, are opposed to being unionized, and union drives at carwashes in New York and Los Angeles.

Labor unions are hoping that the unusual tactics, often in collaboration with social justice activists and other community groups, will offer them a new opportunity to get back on the offensive, helping to raise the floor for wages and working conditions in the harsh, ultracompetitive economy of the 21st century.

Mr. Carrillo’s and Mr. Williams’s meager salaries also underscore the straightforward choice we face as a nation: either we build an economy in which most workers can earn enough to adequately support their families or we build a government with the wherewithal to subsidize the existence of a lower class that can’t survive on its own. We are doing neither.

More than two million workers toil in food preparation jobs at limited-service restaurants like McDonald’s, according to government statistics. They are the lowest-paid workers in the country, government figures show, typically earning $8.69 an hour. A study by the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning research organization, concluded that almost three-quarters of them live in poverty. And they are unlikely to have ever contemplated joining a union.

On a full-time schedule, they could make a little over $18,000 a year, just about enough to keep a family of two parents and one child at the threshold of poverty. But full-time work is hard to come by. With fast-food restaurants increasingly using scheduling software to adjust staffing levels, workers can no longer count on a steady stream of work. Their hours can be cut sharply from one week to the next based on the business outlook or even the weather.

Orley Ashenfelter, a labor economist at Princeton, published a study earlier this year that captured the plight of workers under the Golden Arches in a novel way: measuring pay by the burgers a worker could buy for an hour of work, he calculated that the real wages of McDonald’s workers in the United States hit about 2.2 Big Macs an hour last year. That’s 15 percent less than in 2000.

Many economists will argue that concern about the lowly McJob is misplaced. These jobs offer a wage to people with no training or education. Mr. Carrillo, for instance, doesn’t speak English. “To get a better job at my age, you need a profession,” he says. To improve the lives of American workers, most economists argue, we might do better by focusing on education to equip them with the skills to perform more productive, better-paid jobs.

But this argument overlooks the fact that the McJob is hardly a niche of the labor market reserved for the uneducated few. Rather, it might be the biggest job of our future.

The American labor market has been hollowing out for decades — losing many of the middle-skilled, relatively well-paid jobs in manufacturing that can be performed more cheaply by machines or workers overseas. It has split between a high end of well-educated workers, and a low end of less-educated workers performing jobs, mostly in the service sector, that cannot be outsourced or mechanized.

This process is not expected to reverse any time soon. According to government statistics, personal care aides will make up the fastest-growing occupation this decade. The Economic Policy Institute study found that some 57 percent of them live in poverty.

This poses an existential question for labor unions, which are struggling because of the loss of union jobs to automation and stiff competition, both from cheaper labor in the mostly union-free South and developing nations around the world: can they do something to improve workers’ lot?

They have in the past. A recent study by the International Labor Organization concluded that low-wage work was rare where unionization rates were high. In countries where more than half of workers belong to a union, only 12 percent of jobs pay less than two-thirds of the middle wage, on average.

Still, there is little reason to believe that American labor unions can do much to lift the floor on wages in the future. Fewer than 7 percent of workers in the private sector are in a union. We have the largest share of low-paid jobs in the industrial world, amounting to almost one in four full-time workers, according to the International Labor Organization. And our rates of unionization continue to fall.

Union leaders know they are fighting long odds — hemmed in by legal decisions limiting how they can organize and protest, while trying to organize workers in industries of low skill and high turnover like fast food. But they hope to have come upon a winning strategy, applying some of the tactics that workers used before the Wagner Act created the federal legal right to unionize in 1935.

“We must go back to the strategies of nonviolent disruption of the 1930s,” suggests Stephen Lerner, a veteran organizer and strategist formerly at the Service Employees International Union, one of the unions behind the fast-food strike. “You can’t successfully organize without large-scale civil disobedience. The law will change when employers say there’s too much disruption. We need another system.”

In the 1990s and 2000s, the S.E.I.U. unionized tens of thousands of mostly Latino janitors from Los Angeles to Houston, including thousands of illegal immigrants, who were until then considered impossible to organize because of their legal status. It did so by putting pressure not only on the building maintenance contractors but also on the building owners who hired them, often resorting to bare-knuckle tactics. In 1990, the union asked members to mail their trash to Judd Malkin, the chairman of the company that owned buildings in the Century City complex in Los Angeles, printing his address on garbage bags. Mr. Malkin met Mr. Lerner soon thereafter.

The second part of the S.E.I.U.’s strategy was equally important. Rather than proposing a union contract for janitors as a narrow goal, the S.E.I.U.’s “Justice for Janitors” campaign framed the effort as a broad movement for the economic rights of low-wage workers. And the union rallied local politicians, community leaders and civil rights groups to their cause.

If unions alone may be powerless, the thinking goes, they can be powerful as part of a broader social movement. “We need workers to come together in formations they haven’t done before,” says Mary Kay Henry, who heads the S.E.I.U. “The tipping point is the entire low-wage economy.”

The odds that organized labor can tip the scales remain long, however. The S.E.I.U. did organize many janitors, but it did not stem the decline of unions across the economy. Despite the victories, janitors in the United States today earn about 10 percent less on average than they did in 1990, in inflation-adjusted terms.

Still, if employers can’t be swayed to take on more responsibility for the welfare of their workers, the burden will fall on taxpayers. To put it succinctly, the bottom 40 percent of families earn less than they did almost a quarter of a century ago. If that trend continues, we may need a much bigger government.

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Krugman: Budget proposals ‘only considered serious if you inflict pain on vulnerable people’

By Eric W. Dolan
RawStory

Tuesday, December 4, 2012 21:56 EST

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman on Tuesday said it was “unfair” to accuse President Barack Obama of not putting forth serious reforms to Medicare amid the fiscal cliff negotiations.

Krugman noted on PBS’ Newshour that Obamacare seeks to reduce Medicare costs without affecting eligibility or benefits. The law is estimated to have provided $716 billion in savings by reducing payments to hospitals and insurers.

“He’s actually done more to bring down the cost curve for Medicare than anyone has ever done before,” Krugman remarked. “But in Washington, that is considered not serious because he’s not actually taking benefits away from people who need them. So, it’s a really weird thing. It’s only considered serious if you inflict pain on vulnerable people.”

Republicans have proposed reducing the cost of Medicare by raising the eligibility age. Currently, Americans can enroll in Medicare when they turn 65. Some Republicans have proposed increasing the eligibility age to 67 or 68.

But Krugman said that proposal wouldn’t bring much savings, because most seniors between 65-68 years old are relatively healthy.

“It makes almost no difference to the financial outlook,” he said. “But it’s cruel.”

Krugman said it was wrong to focus on Medicare and Social Security to reduce the federal deficit.

“All of these things that have occupied all our attention are not actually where the big bucks are. The big bucks are in making high-income people pay higher taxes and in actually addressing health care costs, which the Affordable Care Act does and none of the things that we’re talking about now will actually do.”

Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=xIYclBVJe_s

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Obama to Republicans: Raise taxes on rich or no fiscal cliff deal

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, December 4, 2012 19:13 EST

US President Barack Obama warned Republicans Tuesday there would be no deal on averting a potentially disastrous fiscal crisis without them caving in to his demand to raise tax rates on the rich.

But in an interview with Bloomberg TV, Obama offered a hint of wiggle room, declining to state that the top income tax rate must go up and permanently remain at the 39.6 percent level seen under the Clinton administration.

“We have the potential of getting a deal done,” Obama said, adding that Republican proposals to close loopholes and cap deductions would not produce sufficient revenue to make a serious cut in the deficit.

“We’re going to have to see the rates on the top two percent go up and we’re not going to be able to get a deal without it,” Obama said.

If Obama and Republicans cannot get a deal, George W. Bush-era tax cuts on all Americans will expire on January 1, at the same time as huge automatic spending cuts come into force, likely throwing the economy into recession.

Obama wants to extend tax cuts for most people, but raise rates on the richest two percent of Americans. Republicans want to extend all tax cuts for a year, then discuss spending cuts and tax reform to produce more revenues.

The president campaigned for re-election on the basis of raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans, while Republicans, though open to raising more revenue, refuse to do so by raising marginal tax rates.

“Let’s let the tax rates on the upper income folks go up,” Obama told Bloomberg, arguing that there was no time before the deadline to work out the comprehensive reform on taxes and social programs that Republicans want.

“Then let’s set up a process with a time certain at the end of 2013 or the fall of 2013 where we work on tax reform, (where) we look at what loopholes and deductions both Democrats and Republicans are willing to close.

“It’s possible we may be able to lower rates by broadening the base at that point.”

Obama noticeably did not commit himself to a specific top tax rate for the wealthiest Americans — which he defines as individuals earning $200,000 or families making $250,000 a year — either this year, or next.

Some analysts believe that the crisis over the so-called “fiscal cliff” could be defused by Republicans agreeing to raise the top tax rate, but to a point some way short of the Clinton-era rate.

Obama in return could offer cuts in entitlement spending and allow the closure of some tax loopholes to raise further revenue.

White House spokesman Jay Carney was later repeatedly pressed on whether Obama would draw a line in the sand and insist that tax rates for the rich must return to the 39.6 percent level permanently.

“It is his position that he will not sign an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for wealthy Americans,” Carney said.

“Those tax cuts have rates for top earners at 35 percent, and if you do not sign an extension, the rates go back up to 39, the top rate,” he said.

Obama spoke a day after Republicans laid out a plan that proposed $1.2 trillion in government spending cuts over 10 years in areas like Medicare health insurance for seniors that did not include tax rises for the rich.

The president has offered an end to Bush tax cuts for the richest Americans and a plan to raise $1.6 trillion in increased government income and $600 billion in spending cuts.

But the top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell accused the president of failing to seriously negotiate, and implicitly of misreading the message of his re-election triumph last month.

“I would hope the president would turn off the campaign — congratulations, you had a great victory — and let’s get serious about dealing with this deficit and debt here at the end of the year,” McConnell said.

“We’ve wasted an enormous amount of time here sparring back and forth in public. It strikes me it’s a good time to get serious about the proposals.”

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December 4, 2012

In Tax Fight, G.O.P. Seeks a Position to Fall Back On

By JONATHAN WEISMAN
NYT

WASHINGTON — With President Obama insisting on higher tax rates for affluent Americans and winning public support for the idea, Congressional Republicans find themselves in an increasingly difficult political spot and are quietly beginning to look for a way out.

Senior Republican leadership aides say they are contemplating a fallback position since a standoff over expiring tax rates will be portrayed by Democrats as evidence that the opposition is willing to allow taxes to rise on the middle class to keep taxes from rising on the rich — and their intransigence could mean taxes go up on rich, poor and middle class alike.

The leadership officials now say that if no deal can be struck to avert the automatic expiration of all the Bush-era tax cuts and the onset of deep, across-the-board spending cuts, they could foresee taking up and passing legislation this month to extend the tax cuts for the middle class and then resume the bitter fight over spending and taxes as the nation approaches the next hard deadline: its statutory borrowing limit, which could be reached in late January or February.

“There’s always better ground, but you have to get there,” said Representative Michael C. Burgess, Republican of Texas, who made it clear he does not support allowing any taxes to rise.

Senator Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, who is retiring, joined a handful of other Republicans on Tuesday suggesting that Congress should pass the middle-class tax cut extensions now, then leave the fight over taxes and spending until later. Americans, she said, “should not even be questioning that we will ultimately raise taxes on low- to middle-income people.” Congress could take that off the table “while you’re grappling with tax cuts for the wealthy,” she said.

But any move toward compromise with Democrats on fiscal issues quickly comes under attack from conservatives as a surrender and unsettles the rank and file.

It is a dynamic that has haunted Speaker John A. Boehner throughout the 112th Congress, as he has repeatedly been caught between the imperative to govern and the need to satisfy the restive right. Mr. Boehner, of Ohio, has drawn fire this week for removing a handful of House Republicans who have defied the leadership from their preferred committee seats, a step he took to enforce party discipline.

Mr. Obama made clear on Tuesday in an interview with Bloomberg News that he was not going to budge on raising tax rates on income over $250,000. “We’re going to have to see the rates on the top 2 percent go up,” Mr. Obama said in his first interview since his re-election, “and we’re not going to be able to get a deal without it.”

Allowing an extension only of the middle-class tax cuts is just one possibility, and Congress may never get to that point if an agreement can be reached or if another alternative can be found. And it would be a bitter pill for Republicans to swallow since they have repeatedly called for an extension of all the expiring tax cuts, saying any increases could harm the economy.

But Republicans also know they have a problem: many liberal Democrats are more than willing to return to the Clinton-era tax code, and to allow across-the-board spending cuts to take effect, which disproportionately affect the military, rather than compromise too much with Republicans after the strong Democratic showing in the elections.

“It’s a terrible position because by default, Democrats get what they want,” said Representative James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, who admitted his party is boxed in.

In the debt ceiling fight, the tables might turn. Many conservative Republicans say they are willing to let the nation default if Congress refuses to cut spending. If the tax rate fight is resolved by the time the debt limit increase is needed, Democrats will find themselves without the leverage they now have with the expiration of the lower tax rates a certainty unless Congress acts affirmatively.

That is why in his opening bid to end the fiscal standoff, Mr. Obama proposed a permanent policy change to let the president raise the nation’s borrowing limit on his own — and why Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, reportedly laughed out loud at the idea.

Popular opinion seems to be running against the Republicans. Most Americans support higher taxes on the rich, and a poll by The Washington Post and the Pew Research Center released Tuesday found that 53 percent say Republicans in Congress would and should be blamed if Washington fails to reach a deal before January. Just 27 percent said Mr. Obama would deserve more blame, while 12 percent say both sides would share the blame equally.

Most Republicans do not want tax rates to rise on anyone, and such national polls have little sway over House members in districts drawn to favor one party over the other. In November, 204 Republicans — 88 percent of the House Republican Conference — won at least 55 percent of the vote, according to David Wasserman, a House analyst at The Cook Political Report. Thirty-five of them won at least 70 percent.

Speaker Boehner took as much fire from conservatives as from Democrats after proposing a deficit-reduction plan that would raise $800 billion in tax revenue over 10 years. Conservative advocacy groups and conservatives on Capitol Hill were united in their condemnation.

“One party proposes 800 billion in tax increases. In an effort to counter them and continue to be the ‘low tax, small government’ party, the other party’s leadership proposes ... wait for it ... 800 billion in tax increases,” huffed Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, on his Facebook page.

Given the difficulty of compromise, a fallback may emerge as a top option. Republican leaders could take up legislation already passed by the Senate to extend tax cuts on income under $250,000, attach a deferral or cancellation of the automatic spending cuts, and give Mr. Obama nothing else, denying requests for increased infrastructure spending, help for homeowners to refinance their mortgages, and extensions of the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance.

Then Republicans would demand deep concessions on spending and changes to Medicare and Social Security as a price to raise the debt ceiling a few weeks later. Republicans say any such decision to follow that course is still a ways off.

There are significant problems with this possibility, starting with the estate tax. The Senate tax bill was silent on the federal tax on inherited estates, which means if the House passes that legislation at the last minute, estate taxes would rise to Clinton-era levels, with inheritances over $1 million taxed at 55 percent. Currently the value of estates over $5 million is taxed at 35 percent.

John Engler, a former Republican governor of Michigan who is president of the influential Business Roundtable, told Bloomberg News on Tuesday that Congress should raise the debt ceiling high enough to take the limit off the table for five years.

But Republicans are not about to give up that cudgel.

“Our ground is on spending, and the president intends to continue to spend more than he has coming in,” said Representative Austin Scott, Republican of Georgia. “For conservatives like me, we don’t want to see any debt ceiling increase without spending cuts to match.”

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December 4, 2012

Tax Deduction Limits May Trim Deficits, but Not Easily

By JACKIE CALMES
NYT

WASHINGTON — Behind President Obama’s insistence that tax rates must rise on higher incomes is a belief that Republicans cannot raise as much revenue as they claim, $800 billion in the first decade, simply by limiting deductions and loopholes. Yet in the past, Mr. Obama supported that option to collect even more.

Republican Congressional leaders, for their part, say it would be simple to design a plan limiting tax breaks for the affluent as part of a bipartisan budget deal. Yet they are not proposing how to do so because, well, it is not so simple. And it would certainly be controversial.

On Tuesday, a day after Speaker John A. Boehner made his deficit-cutting counteroffer to Mr. Obama that included a proposal for $800 billion in revenues, his office provided no details about how to raise that money. Instead, Republican aides cited a nine-page paper last month from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a centrist business-supported group dedicated to lower deficits, with three options for limiting deductions as an alternative to letting the top tax rates increase.

According to the analysis, each option could allow the government to collect about as much new revenue as it would if the top Bush-era tax rates of 33 percent and 35 percent expire as scheduled on Dec. 31 and revert to the Clinton-era levels of 36 percent and 39.6 percent, respectively, for couples with income above $250,000 and singles above $200,000.

Mr. Obama has vowed since his first campaign to let the top Bush rates expire, though he extended them for two years after 2010 in a compromise with Republicans for stimulus measures.

Mr. Obama is now standing his ground. He continued on Tuesday to insist that simple math argued that Republicans’ alternative to higher rates would not work, not without affecting middle-income taxpayers and eroding charitable contributions from people seeking the tax advantages for their donations.

“The only way to do that would be if you completely eliminated, for example, charitable deductions,” Mr. Obama said in an interview on Tuesday with Bloomberg TV. “Well, if you eliminated charitable deductions, that means every hospital and university and not-for-profit agency across the country would suddenly find themselves on the verge of collapse. So that’s not a realistic option.”

The president restated his bottom line for the negotiations with Congress to avert a fiscal crisis in January: “What I’m going to need, what the country needs, what the business community needs in order to get to where we need to be, is an acknowledgment that folks like me can afford to pay a little bit higher rate.”

But since 2010, Mr. Obama and lawmakers in both parties have promoted — and oversold, in the minds of some experts — the idea that Washington could overhaul the tax code, strip out deductions, tax credits, exemptions and loopholes and use the resulting revenues to both lower tax rates and reduce annual budget deficits. That idea was the core of recommendations from the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission in 2010 that Mr. Obama created, and cleared the way for a majority of liberals and conservatives to agree.

Months later, when Mr. Obama was engaged in ultimately unsuccessful negotiations with Mr. Boehner on a debt-reduction deal in the summer of 2011, he recounted his pitch to Republicans for reporters: “What we said was, give us $1.2 trillion in additional revenues, which could be accomplished without hiking taxes — tax rates — but could simply be accomplished by eliminating loopholes, eliminating some deductions and engaging in a tax reform process that could have lowered rates generally while broadening the base.”

Now, with time running out for a budget deal that would head off the automatic tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts scheduled to occur in January, some Democrats and Republicans predict a compromise that combines a higher top rate and reduced tax breaks for upper-income Americans.

Mr. Obama has called for tax increases on the wealthy that would raise about $1.6 trillion more in the first decade, or twice the Republicans’ offer. About $1 trillion would result from not extending the top Bush rates, the rest by limiting deductions but with a different approach than Republicans have offered.

Nonpartisan analysts say Republicans are correct that it is possible to raise $800 billion or more from limiting deductions for the affluent. But, they add, any such proposal would face big political hurdles given the popularity of the tax breaks at issue — especially for charitable donations, mortgage interest, state and local taxes and employer-provided health insurance. And if Congress did pass such a plan, it could further complicate tax filing for many people.

“The trick is targeting that only on high-income folks — that’s not administratively simple,” said Roberton Williams, senior fellow at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. “You’ve got to figure out how you protect the people below the threshold and then how you phase it in for the people above the threshold so there’s not a cliff.”

The first option among the three proposed by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget that Republicans are considering would put a $25,000 cap on the deductions that high-income taxpayers could claim. Mr. Williams said that many upper-income taxpayers would hit a $25,000 threshold by adding up their mortgage interest or state and local taxes alone. “So there’s no tax benefit at all to giving money away with charitable contributions,” he added.

Under the second proposal, a taxpayer would compute the value of all tax breaks, based on the individual’s top marginal tax rate, and cap it at a percentage of the filer’s adjusted gross income. “It’s just really complicated,” Mr. Williams said.

A third option is similar to Mr. Obama’s own proposal for limiting deductions, but it would add additional restrictions for higher levels of income. Though details have changed, Mr. Obama has proposed since his first year to allow deductions at rates up to 28 percent, in effect reducing the tax advantages for higher income brackets.

Last week the White House released an analysis showing that a $25,000 deductions limit could raise about $650 billion in the first decade, and $450 billion if charitable contributions were exempted from the limit.

Doug Holtz-Eakin, the president of the American Action Forum, a center-right research organization that many Republicans consult, said: “It can be done. The next question is, would you like what you have when you finish?”

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December 4, 2012

Republicans Balk at Short-Term Stimulus in Obama Plan

By ANNIE LOWREY
NYT

WASHINGTON — Republicans and Democrats are struggling to find common ground on a long-term debt deal. But as economic growth has weakened this quarter, they are at odds over what the flagging recovery needs in the immediate future, too.

The Obama administration is arguing that the sluggish economy requires a shot in the arm, and it included tens of billions of dollars of little-noticed stimulus measures in its much-noticed proposal to Congressional leaders last week. But Republicans have countered that the country cannot afford to widen the deficit further, and have balked at including the measures in any eventual deal.

The stimulus measures in the White House’s debt proposal stem from President Obama’s long-since-scuttled American Jobs Act proposal, and include a continuation of emergency support for long-term unemployed workers, an extension of the payroll tax cut, billions in infrastructure investment and a mortgage refinancing proposal.

“We have a very good plan, a very good mix of tax reforms” and savings, said Timothy F. Geithner, the Treasury secretary, on ABC News last weekend. “We can create some room to invest in things that make America stronger, like rebuilding America’s infrastructure.”

But in his counteroffer, made on Monday, House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio did not mention any such measures. Republican aides said that securing stimulus was not the main priority given concerns about the country’s fiscal state, and they appeared to be holding back on supporting any stimulus measures to bolster their bargaining position.

“The president is asking for $1.6 trillion worth of new revenue over 10 years, twice as much as he has been asking for in public,” Mr. Boehner said on “Fox News Sunday.” “He has stimulus spending in here that exceeded the amount of new cuts that he was willing to consider. It was not a serious offer.”

As the debate rages in Washington, data has shown the recovery once again sputtering, with the underlying rate of growth too slow to bring down the unemployment rate by much and some of the economic momentum gained in the fall dissipating in the winter.

The weakness comes from the manufacturing and exports slowdown, disruptions from Hurricane Sandy and sluggish underlying wage and spending growth. The storm hit the economic juggernauts of New Jersey and New York hard, pushing down work and wages.

On top of that, consumers and businesses might be holding back out of concern for the tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to take place at the first of the year unless Congress and the administration come to some agreement.

In recent weeks, many forecasters have slashed their estimates of growth in the fourth quarter. Macroeconomic Advisers, for instance, estimates the economy is expanding at only a 0.8 percent annual pace, down from 2.8 percent in the third quarter.

“It’s a pretty dramatic slowdown,” said Joel Prakken, the chairman of Macroeconomic Advisers, the St. Louis-based forecasting firm. “There’s weak demand, which just does not portend well for the coming quarters,” he said.

RBC Capital Markets put the current pace of growth at just a 0.2 percent annual rate. The chance of seeing “a negative sign in front of fourth-quarter gross domestic product is nontrivial, to say the least,” Tom Porcelli, chief United States economist at RBC Capital Markets, wrote in a note to clients last week.

If Congress and the Obama administration are able to agree on a budget deal, economists expect that economic growth will pick up in 2013. Stock markets might cheer, businesses might feel more confident about hiring workers and signing contracts and investors might feel more comfortable investing if Congress struck a deal.

The turnaround in the housing market, rising auto sales and higher consumer confidence all bode well, they note. Refinancing — supported by the Federal Reserve’s effort to buy mortgage-backed securities — would also flush more money into households.

Much of the current slowdown might be a result of temporary factors that might fade away, like fluctuations in how factories stock their inventories or the lingering effects of the hurricane.

Still, recent economic data has come in surprisingly weak. On Monday, the Institute for Supply Management reported that the manufacturing sector contracted in November, with an index of purchasing activity falling to the lowest level since mid-2009.

The report said manufacturers expressed “concern over how and when the fiscal cliff issue will be resolved” as well as a slowdown in demand.

Over all, unemployment remains high, and wage growth weak. Global growth has gone through a slowdown as well. It all adds up to a United States recovery that might remain vulnerable to shocks — like the Midwestern drought that slashed agricultural production this year, or the Japanese tsunami that depressed exports in 2011, or the long-simmering European debt crisis that has spooked financial markets — for years to come.

Economists remain nervous about the combination of the already weak recovery and the prospect of the tax increases and spending cuts — with billions of dollars of fiscal contraction likely to occur even if the White House and Congress reach a deal.

“We are worried about going too fast, too quick on the cuts side,” said former Senator Pete V. Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, on Monday at a meeting with reporters at the Bipartisan Policy Center. He was presenting a plan for a deficit reduction framework along with Alice M. Rivlin, the budget director under President Bill Clinton.

Ms. Rivlin added, “We don’t need an austerity budget.” Indeed, the two budget experts proposed including a one-year income tax rebate to give the recovery some breathing room.

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Originally published December 4, 2012 at 5:35 PM | Page modified December 5, 2012 at 6:37 AM    

Budget-crisis scenarios come in four flavors

There are at least four general scenarios for avoiding tax increases and automatic spending cuts at the start of next month.

By David Lightman and Lesley Clark
McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — Trying to predict the outcome of the "fiscal cliff" negotiations is like trying to predict the final standings for your favorite teams when the season's only half over.

There are at least four general scenarios for avoiding tax increases and automatic spending cuts at the start of next month: No deal, a big deal, an agreement to make changes in stages over the next few months and a Democratic-led effort to maintain temporary tax cuts for everyone but the top earners.

The most likely outcome is the multistage agreement, phasing in different pieces over several months, an idea that President Obama praised Tuesday. Second on the maybe list is no deal.

A big accord and the Democratic plan are long shots at best. The history of big deals in recent times is varied. Over the past 30 years, the two sides have crafted historic agreements on Social Security, budget limits and overhauling the tax code.

In the summer of 2011, Obama and Republicans engaged in tortured, lengthy negotiations over reducing the budget deficit, winding up agreeing to $900 billion in cuts from anticipated spending over 10 years. But they couldn't agree on how to go further, triggering a series of $109 billion in automatic reductions that will go into effect Jan. 2 unless a new agreement is reached.

The prospects for several possible outcomes:

MULTISTAGE DEAL

All sides mention this one, and it seems to be attainable. Republicans in the House of Representatives talked this week about agreeing to a framework, perhaps enough spending and tax cuts to avoid the January cliff, coupled with promises — written into law — to make structural changes to the tax code and Medicare sometime next year.

Congressional Democrats have criticized the plan for a lack of specifics, but Obama seemingly endorsed the idea Tuesday, saying it was unlikely that he and Congress would be able to overhaul taxes and entitlement programs in the few weeks that remain.

Instead, he suggested as a model former President Reagan's tax overhaul in 1986, which he said took 18 months to develop. He suggested letting tax rates on the top earners increase, then tackling a tax overhaul and changes to entitlement programs sometime next year. "That's the framework that we're operating on," he said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

NO DEAL

Taxes would rise across the board as income-tax rates revert to pre-George W. Bush-era levels.

A lot of lawmakers think that no deal is a real possibility. "We're standing on the edge," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

And Democrats, their thinking goes, won the presidency with Obama campaigning on a pledge to raise income taxes only for the top earners, so why give in? They'd try their chances after Jan. 1, with more Democratic members joining a new Congress.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says that scenario might trim half a percentage point off economic growth in the first half of next year. The unemployment rate, which was 7.9 percent in October, might rise to 9.1 percent, which could spark another recession.

A BIG DEAL

White House and congressional leaders continue to offer hope — usually privately — that they can reach a grand bargain not only to get over the cliff but also to begin chipping away at the federal deficit with structural changes that eluded them last year.

Getting to that point in the next few weeks is doubtful, if only because big things such as overhauling the tax code or revamping Medicare aren't going to be decided — let alone clear Congress — before the lame-duck session ends in about a month.

TAXING TOP EARNERS

This is the most unlikely scenario, but it also isn't out of the question. The Senate passed legislation in July to continue the income-tax cuts for everyone except the top earners. It's gone nowhere in the Republican-dominated House.

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Originally published December 4, 2012 at 6:44 AM | Page modified December 5, 2012 at 6:39 AM
    
Makings of a fiscal deal behind the hot rhetoric

Bluster and hot rhetoric aside, the White House and House Republicans have identified areas of significant overlap that could form the basis for a final agreement after "fiscal cliff" posturing gives way to hard bargaining.

By JIM KUHNHENN and ANDREW TAYLOR
Associated Press

WASHINGTON —

Bluster and hot rhetoric aside, the White House and House Republicans have identified areas of significant overlap that could form the basis for a final agreement after "fiscal cliff" posturing gives way to hard bargaining.

Both sides now concede that tax revenue and reductions in entitlement spending are essential elements of any deal. If the talks succeed, it probably will be because House Speaker John Boehner yields on raising tax rates for top earners and the White House bends on how to reduce spending on Medicare and accepts some changes in Social Security.

The White House and Boehner kept up the ridicule of each other's negotiating stances on Tuesday. But beneath the tough words were the possible makings of a deal that could borrow heavily from a near-bargain last year during debt-limit negotiations.

Then, President Barack Obama was willing to reduce cost-of-living increases for Social Security beneficiaries and increase the eligibility age for Medicare, as Boehner and other top Republicans have demanded. On Tuesday, Obama did not shut the door on Republican ideas on such entitlement programs.

"I'm prepared to make some tough decisions on some of these issues," Obama said, "but I can't ask folks who are, you know, middle class seniors who are on Medicare, young people who are trying to get student loans to go to college, I can't ask them to sacrifice and not ask anything of higher income folks."

"I'm happy to entertain other ideas that the Republicans may present," he added in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

At the core, the negotiations center on three key points: whether tax rates for upper income taxpayers should go up, how deeply to cut spending on entitlements such as Medicare and how to deal with raising the government's borrowing limit early next year.

White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed Boehner's proposals as "magic beans and fairy dust."

Boehner countered: "If the president really wants to avoid sending the economy over the fiscal cliff, he has done nothing to demonstrate it."

Tax rates have emerged as one of the most intractable issues, with Obama insisting the rates on the top 2 percent of earners must go up and Boehner standing steadfast that they must not.

Boehner, instead, has proposed raising $800 billion through unspecified loophole closings and limits on tax deductions.

On Tuesday, the president said he would consider lowering rates for the top 2 percent of earners - next year, not now - as part of a broader tax overhaul effort that would close loopholes, limit deductions and find other sources of government revenue. "It's possible that we may be able to lower rates by broadening the base at that point," Obama said.

On Medicare and Social Security, the Republican proposals would do relatively little to curb the deficit over the next decade, but the impact would grow over the longer term.

Raising the Medicare retirement age from 65 to 67, for instance, would wring $148 billion from the program over 10 years, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate last year, about one-fourth of the savings House Republicans hope to claim from federal health programs.

Another idea that gained currency during the Obama-Boehner talks last year would change the annual inflation measure used for Social Security cost-of-living increases and the indexation of tax brackets for inflation.

Many economists and government budget specialists believe the system is a more accurate measure of inflation because it takes into account changes in purchasing behavior

This "chained consumer price index" idea makes modest cuts to Social Security benefits at first - curbing program costs by $112 billion over a decade according to the 2011 CBO report. But those reductions build up more over time in a fashion comparable to the way compound interest builds personal savings.

The White House has not foreclosed the idea of addressing Social Security cost-of living changes in a new deal, but it has not embraced it because Obama's aides argue Social Security is not contributing to the federal deficit.

The stingier inflation measure also could raise tax revenue by $87 billion over the coming decade. Taxes would slowly increase because annual adjustments to income tax brackets would be smaller, pushing more people into higher brackets.

But the alternative inflation measure, while a favorite of budget hawks, has run into fierce opposition from defenders of Social Security.

"I've never been a part of that," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a top Obama ally.

The two sides are also close, at least in theory, on curbing spending on a host of miscellaneous programs, as well as new fees. These could lead to higher airline ticket prices, for example, an end to Saturday mail delivery, fewer food stamps and lower farm subsidies.

Republicans claim they could glean $300 billion from such cuts and fees over 10 years; the White House promises $250 billion.

So far, the public seems ready to hold Republicans responsible if negotiations fail. A new Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll shows that 53 percent say the Republicans would deserve blame if the nation tips over the fiscal cliff, and only 27 percent of those surveyed say Obama would be to blame.

Forty-nine percent don't believe Obama and Congress will reach a deal by Jan. 1, whereas 40 percent are more optimistic.

Republicans were quick to say on Tuesday that Boehner's plan was attracting criticism from the right, particularly from Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a leader of tea party conservatives, and as such represented more of a compromise than Obama's stance. DeMint said Boehner's plan "will destroy American jobs and allow politicians in Washington to spend even more."

---

Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed to this article.
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In the USA continued....

The GOP Obsession with the Rich and Corporations Has Brought Us to the Fiscal Cliff

By: Rmuse
PolitcusUSA

December 4th, 2012

The act of singling out any individual, or party, for unmerited negative treatment or blame is scapegoating and it is a cowardly action to avoid taking responsibility for one’s own behavior. Conservatives and their supporters regularly blame all manner of the nation’s ills on groups such as immigrants, the poor, and minorities to cover-up their own inadequacies and failed policies. For the past two years pundits from the right and left blamed Republican intransigence on raising taxes on the wealthy on the lowly teabaggers in Congress, and now on Grover Norquist. In particular, Speaker of the House John Boehner is often praised for his willingness to deal, and cooperate, with President Obama on economic issues, but he is let off the hook for failing to deliver because allegedly, the tea party members will not go along with, or compromise, on any deal that does not reflect their values that are exclusively anti-Obama.

In the fiscal cliff negotiations, teabaggers are not the only scapegoats, and there has been no dearth of blame targeting anti-government advocate Grover Norquist who many blame for Republicans’ obstinacy in raising taxes on the wealthy, and it is curious that a man with no real authority or power is being singled out, with teabaggers, as one of the obstacles preventing Republican compromise on taxes and spending cuts to avoid the over-hyped fiscal cliff. A stranger to politics might think there is an ideological gulf between reasonable Republicans and ideologically intransient Norquist and teabaggers that prevents them from working for the good of the nation, but the absurd notion that Republicans are being coerced by Norquist or the teabaggers to reject a balanced approach to deficit reduction, or tax increases on the wealthy, is a canard to conceal the real culprits; Republicans.

For the past four years, Republicans have staked out their position as anti-government, anti-spending, and anti-compromise politics, and interestingly it is exactly the same political agenda espoused by the tea party and Grover Norquist. Of special note is Norquist’s anti-tax pledge Republicans have embraced that appears to be their reason for holding middle class tax cuts hostage, and that teabaggers have  embraced since their inception in 2009. When the teabaggers first came on the national scene, they carried signs and proclaimed they were “taxed enough already” as a protest to President Obama even though the tax rates at the time were from the Bush era, and despite the President cutting their taxes as part of his stimulus program. However, the Republican anti-tax sentiment originated long before Barack Obama was elected President and prior to Grover Norquist entrance as an anti-government and anti-tax activist.

The Republicans’ love affair with an anti-tax agenda goes back before the Reagan era, and has persisted as the GOP embraced the lunacy of supply-side economics that claims economic growth is created by removing barriers for people to produce (supply) goods and services, such as lowering income tax and capital gains tax rates, and by eliminating regulations that explains the GOP’s frenzy to cut taxes, especially for the rich and corporations. The problem with the so-called “trickle down” theory of economics is that it has never worked; not in Reagan’s time and not now, but for some unknown reasons, only Republicans have never discovered the abject failure of tilting the nation’s economy in favor of the wealthy and their corporations.

What has occurred by continuing the Republican obsession with helping the rich and corporations is their share of the wealth is increasing as the rest of the population’s wages are at an all-time low. For example, in the third quarter of this year, “corporate earnings were $1.75 trillion, up 18.6% from a year ago,” and as corporations made more than they ever have since such records were kept, wages as a percentage of the economy are at an all-time low. The so-called trickle-down, supply-side economic theory has been a raging success, for big business and the rich while none of their wealth has trickled down to the middle class. Still, Republicans like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell claim that unless the richest Americans see lower tax rates, the so-called job creators will languish in economic darkness and despair and will not begin creating jobs.

As the fiscal cliff negotiations wind down closer to the end of the year, it is time for pundits and politicians alike to stop giving credit, or assigning blame, to the teabagger caucus in Congress or Grover Norquist because they have nothing whatsoever to do with Republican opposition to raising taxes on the wealthy. They are scapegoats, and if they did not exist, Republicans would still hold the middle class hostage for tax breaks for the rich and corporations, or as John Boehner so often refers to them, the job-creators.

There is little doubt Norquist is an ideologue whose claim to fame is as an anti-tax, anti-government, and anti-spending fanatic, but so are the teabaggers and they all are intrinsically linked to conservatives at the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Enterprise, and the Koch brothers who helped fund the earliest incarnation of the teabaggers and drive Republican economic policy. However, they are all part and parcel of the conservative movement that has quietly morphed into a libertarian party of anything goes so long as it is driven by anti-government, anti-spending, and anti-tax ideology that began over thirty years’ ago before there was a tea party, and before Grover Norquist founded Americans for Tax Reform in 1985, which he says was done at the request of then-President Ronald Reagan who only latched on to the anti-tax movement in 1979 before he was elected president and officially began the GOP’s fanaticism and opposition to taxes; especially for the wealthy.

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Failed Republican Economics are at the Root of America’s Decade of Economic Woe

By: Rmuse
December 5th, 2012
PoliticusUSA

Blame is the act of holding responsible, or making negative statements about, an individual or group that their action or actions are socially or morally irresponsible, and as the nation nervously waits to see whether or not President Obama and Republicans can reach an agreement on the dreaded fiscal cliff, someone will take the blame if there is no deal. Many Americans are worried there will not be a deal and across the board tax hikes and spending cuts will send the economy into a recession if the two sides fail to reach an agreement, and if the cuts and tax hikes go into effect early in 2013, there is sure to be plenty of blame targeting each side for not negotiating in good faith and reaching a compromise that both sides can live with. However, a recent poll shows nearly half of Americans think the President and Republicans will not find common ground to avoid the fiscal cliff that 64% of Americans think will have a major effect on the economy.

In the ABC/Washington Post poll, 49% of Americans think there will not be an agreement to avoid the fiscal cliff, and a substantial 53% of Americans believe Republicans in Congress will be to blame versus 27% who think President Obama shoulders the responsibility if there is no fiscal cliff deal. Within the poll, 64% think the fiscal cliff will have a “major” effect on the economy, 60% think the effect will be negative, and 43% say it will have a major effect on their personal financial situation; 61% say that effect will be negative. The poll’s results do not bode well for Republicans who are intransigent on raising tax rates on the wealthiest 2% of income earners and instead, propose closing tax loopholes coupled with drastic spending cuts that affect the poor, middle class, and elderly in a reiteration of failed presidential candidate Willard Romney’s tax plan.

President Obama campaigned on, and won the election based on, raising tax rates on the wealthiest Americans, and his offer last week included $1.6 trillion in new revenue over the coming decade but largely spared Medicare and Social Security from budget cuts. As a reminder, Medicare and Social Security are funded by payroll taxes, and by statute, Social Security is forbidden from adding one penny to the deficit, but Republicans called for increasing the eligibility age for Medicare and lowering cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients. The Republican proposal omitted any tax hikes on the wealthy, and it appears they will hold middle class tax cuts hostage unless the President agrees to their proposal which impacts how the public perceives where to assign blame. However, there has been little talk about why there is an impending fiscal cliff to begin with and as usual, the blame falls primarily on Republicans.

During the summer of 2011, Republicans insisted that spending cuts offset any increase in the nation’s debt limit even though they raised the limit during the Bush administration without cutting spending because when a Republican is in the White House, “deficits don’t matter.” As part of a “grand bargain,” the President and Speaker Boehner appeared to have negotiated a wide-ranging overhaul of the federal budget using a balanced approach to cut over $4.5 trillion from the deficit over ten years, but Boehner’s Republicans balked at even entertaining new tax revenues as part of any bargain, grand or otherwise.  The anti-tax Republicans rejected the President’s proposal to cut $4 trillion from the budget and chose instead to cut a little over $1.2 trillion to preserve Bush-era tax cuts for the rich. Subsequently, the Budget Control Act of 2011 directed Congress to find another $1.2 trillion through a Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (the super-committee) that was tasked with meeting and agreeing on a balanced deficit reduction package by Nov. 23, 2011.

The super-committee’s proposal, which would include tax increases and spending reductions would get a filibuster-proof, up-or-down vote in Congress, and as an incentive to the super-committee, the law included a kind of budget threat, or a “trigger mechanism on a budget bomb.” If the super-committee couldn’t agree on a balanced package of spending cuts and revenue increases, or if Congress voted it down, then across-the-board automatic cuts would go into effect  with half the cuts hitting defense, half on discretionary spending, and allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire on schedule for all income earners. These automatic cuts are referred to as “sequestration,” that when they come due at the end of the year will drive the economy off the so-called fiscal cliff. At the time, Boehner told House Republicans and other key Republicans not to worry about the “sequester” because it would be devastating to defense and that “this would be devastating, from their perspective, on their domestic priorities. This is never going to happen.” In less than a month, if Republicans continue refusing to raise taxes on the wealthy, sequestration is going to happen and like the super-committee’s failure, the blame will fall on Republicans.

Republicans have not made any proposal that asks the wealthiest Americans to pay a bit more in taxes to help pay down the nation’s debt, but they have asked every American to take a financial hit. By now, most people have learned about Medicare cuts, Social Security cuts, health care cuts, and restrictions on exemptions aimed at the middle class, but unlike the President’s proposal, Republicans do not extend the payroll tax holiday every working American has benefited from, and it may be the most important part of fiscal cliff negotiations to most Americans. In fact, whether the country goes over the fiscal cliff or the President caves to Republican demands, working Americans will be hit hardest and it is all down to the GOP’s intransigence on  tax increases on the rich that caused S&P to downgrade the nation’s credit, a near credit default, failure of the super-committee, sequestration, and now a dangerous fiscal cliff.

The GOP bears most of the blame for the economic woes over the past twelve years whether it was unfunded tax cuts, two unfunded wars, obstructing job creation, the credit downgrade, sequestration, and now the impending fiscal cliff. At the heart of Republican economic malfeasance is their refusal to tax the wealthiest Americans, and within a month of another economic calamity, adherence to Bush tax cuts for the wealthy is once again one of the core issues 98% of Americans will pay dearly for, and place the blame where it rightly belongs; on Republicans.

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Tone Deaf Republicans Push Themselves off the Political Cliff By Ignoring the Voters

By: Becky Sarwate
December 4th, 2012
PolitcusUSA

If the looming fiscal cliff weren’t so deadly serious, this would be a great time to be a Democratic political observer. Not only did President Obama win a second term last month in a landmark election that demonstrated the increasingly fringe nature of the Republican party platform (though GOP operatives would rather blame the voting public for its “freeloading” or barring that, hold their collective breath until their faces turn blue before admitting this reality), but the reinvigorated POTUS was handed the immediate opportunity to demonstrate his leadership. The long-deferred fiscal cliff crisis, a series of automatic tax increases and spending cuts set to begin on January 1, 2013 in lieu of a balanced, forward-looking budget agreement that both parties can accept, stands to clarify that one-half of our two-party system is so out-of-touch, they risk becoming a permanent minority.

GOP lawmakers are in this predicament because they are now seeking compromise with a President firmly entrenched in a “fool me once, shame on you…” mentality. After performing acts of contortion in summer 2011 to secure a “Grand Bargain” with Republican House leaders during the manufactured debt ceiling crisis, the POTUS was rebuffed and humiliated by Speaker John Boehner’s failure to corral the Tea Party extremists which now dominate the lower chamber of Congress. At that time Obama offered what many average Americans would consider some rather austere spending cuts in exchange for raised revenues that would return tax rates to Clinton-era levels for the top two percent of wealthy residents. We all know how that turned out. Republicans rejected the deal, Obama grew red faced and the United States’ credit rating was reduced to AA+ by Standard & Poor’s (S&P), from a long-held AAA.

This time, rather than report to Capitol Hill with his hat in his hands, Obama has taken the offensive position. By asking just one simple question (“Since you don’t like my ideas, what do you propose?”), the President has unleashed another round of GOP infighting, echoing the 2008 Republican primaries, that has laid bare exactly who is to blame for Congress’ inability to accomplish anything at all.

With little more than four weeks to go before fiscal cliff provisions are enacted, a backup plan that almost every economist worth his or her salt agrees would slow or freeze the nation’s fledgling recovery from the Great Recession altogether, right-leaning lawmakers can’t arrive at any internal agreement, let alone search for common ground with President Obama.

Just as Speaker Boehner finally offers a deal involving revenue increases, however insufficient these additional funds may be, Yahoo! News writer Chris Moody reports today that longtime Republican Senator Jim DeMint lashed out at his fellow lawmaker: “Speaker [John] Boehner’s $800 billion tax hike will destroy American jobs and allow politicians in Washington to spend even more, while not reducing our $16 trillion debt by a single penny. This isn’t rocket science. Everyone knows that when you take money out of the economy, it destroys jobs, and everyone knows that when you give politicians more money, they spend it. This is why Republicans must oppose tax increases and insist on real spending reductions that shrink the size of government and allow Americans to keep more of their hard-earned money.” Oh those Republicans, always thinking about the middle class and its bottom line. Whatever would we do without their support? Moody correctly observes that DeMint is “not directly involved in the negotiations and he represents just a single vote in Congress,” but with that said, the right-wing base should be running the other direction, away from thus internal strife.

It is reflective not only of a party that is unable to present solutions to near-term problems, but moreover, a group that is very close to relegating itself to the political backwoods in perpetuity. Did they not get the message on Election Day that Americans want solutions? Voters have made their voices heard: we cannot exclusively cut our way out of a financial hole that was created in large part by the failed policies of George W. Bush. The extremely wealthy took a tax vacation for 12 years on the backs of the working class. It’s over.

For a few days, GOP messaging hijinks will be amusing, but the closer we get to the New Year, the clearer it is that the party fails to understand much of anything. DeMint’s position is not mainstream and these public battles preclude the ability to hide behind President Obama’s “failure to lead.”

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« Reply #3347 on: Dec 06, 2012, 07:25 AM »

Tehran residents urged to flee ‘dangerous’ pollution

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, December 5, 2012 11:29 EST

Residents of Tehran were on Wednesday urged to leave the city, if possible, to escape a stagnant stew of choking air pollution that officials warned had reached “dangerous” levels.

Health Minister Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi made the appeal as her services recorded a 15 percent increase in hospital admissions in recent days by people suffering headaches, respiratory difficulties and nausea.

“If Tehran’s inhabitants are able to leave the city, it would be good for them to do so,” Vahid Dastjerdi was quoted as saying by the Arman newspaper.

The pollution, blamed mainly on the city’s bumper-to-bumper traffic, is a constant woe for Tehran’s eight million residents.

It often peaks around this time of year, when autumnal weather traps the hazy fumes in the city, which is bordered by mountains acting as a bowl. This year, though, appeared worse than ever, according to some inhabitants.

Authorities effectively called holidays this week, ordering Tehran schools, universities and government agencies closed on Tuesday and Wednesday because of the pollution.

A regular government cabinet meeting in the capital was also cancelled, the Fars news agency reported.

Despite the efforts to reduce vehicle emissions in Tehran, “air quality remains at dangerous levels and the concentration of polluting emissions has increased in the past 24 hours,” the head of the city’s air monitoring services, Youssef Rashidi, told the ILNA news agency on Wednesday.

The shutdowns to try to contain the pollution are proving costly, economically.

“Each day of holiday in the five biggest cities (Tehran, Mashhad, Isfahan, Arak and Karaj) costs the economy” $275 million, a lawmaker, Mohammed Reza Tabesh, told the ISNA news agency.

Efforts by Tehran officials to boost public transport, including extending the subway lines and establishing lanes for buses only, have barely dented the problem because of the ever-growing number of cars, many of which are inefficient and old.

Western sanctions on fuel imports to Iran have also forced the country to rely on its own production of petrol — of a lower grade, and therefore more polluting, than in many other countries.

Iran’s meteorological services said they expected the worst of the pollution in Tehran to dissipate from Thursday because of forecast rain.

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December 5, 2012

Asian Cities’ Air Quality Getting Worse, Experts Warn

By BETTINA WASSENER
IHT

HONG KONG — Air pollution has worsened markedly in Asian cities in recent years and presents a growing threat to human health, according to experts at a conference that began on Wednesday.

Clean Air Asia, a regional network on air-quality management, aggregated data from more than 300 cities in 16 Asian countries and found that levels of fine particulate matter — a key pollutant in terms of its impact on human health — were below targets recommended by the World Health Organization in just 16 cities, most of them in Japan.

Pollution levels in 70 percent of the cities, mostly in fast-growing, less developed countries like China, India, Bangladesh and Mongolia, exceed even the most lenient of several targets recommended by the W.H.O., the organization said.

“The economic rebound in Asia following the global economic crisis of 2008 has accelerated sales of both passenger and freight vehicles as well as power generation,” Sophie Punte, Clean Air Asia’s executive director, said in a statement. This “is putting pressure on urban air quality in the region,” she said.

The number of people living in cities in developing Asian nations is expected to swell by 1.1 billion over the next 20 years, making urban air pollution a particularly relevant issue for the region.

A study by the World Health Organization published in 2008 estimated that outdoor air pollution caused 1.3 million premature deaths worldwide per year, 800,000 of them in Asia.

Similarly, a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development this year warned that air pollution could become the biggest environmental cause of premature death by 2050 if action is not taken to improve air quality. The number of premature deaths from exposure to particulate matter is projected to reach 3.6 million a year globally by then, with most of the deaths occurring in China and India, the report said.


************

European Union and U.S. resist making pledges at climate talks

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, December 5, 2012 11:42 EST

The European Union and United States said on Wednesday they would not make concrete near-term funding pledges at UN climate talks to help developing countries cope with the fallout from global warming.

The EU said tight finances prevented it from taking on new commitments as a bloc, while Washington insisted that it was already “doing what we agreed to do and what we’ve committed to do.”

Their positions, reiterated at a news conference on the meeting’s sidelines, angered negotiators for the world’s least developed states and those most at risk from climate change, who insisted on pledges for funding from 2013.

“We want to see finance on the table as we leave here. It is part of a package that we are expecting in Doha before we are leaving here,” said Pa Ousman Jarju, a negotiator for Gambia, representing the Least Developed Countries group.

But European Union senior climate negotiator Pete Betts told the briefing that “these are tough financial times in Europe.”

As a bloc, “we, as other developed countries, are not going to be in a position at this meeting to agree any kind of target for 2015,” although individual members have said they would announce commitments in Doha.

Developed nations are being asked to show in the Qatari capital how they intend to keep a promise to raise funding for the developing world’s climate mitigation plans to $100 billion per year by 2020 — up from a total of $30 billion in 2010-2012.

Poor nations say a total of $60 billion is needed from now to 2015 to help them deal with worsening drought, flood, storms and rising seas.

Britain on Tuesday became the first country to pledge money, saying it would spend about 1.8 billion pounds (2.2 billion euros/$2.9 billion) over the next three years — though critics said most of this was not “new” money.

For the United States, negotiator Jonathan Pershing said on Wednesday: “The question of whether there is a new commitment that gets announced here is not the right question.

“The current discussions obligated us to look at a 2020 number. That’s what we agreed to do. They committed us as a downpayment in good faith to look at a $30-billion collective effort, and we have done more than that.

“In that sense I think we are doing what we agreed to do and what we’ve committed to do,” he said.

But Ousman said this was “a misinterpretation of things.”

“Our understanding is that it’s per year and that (the funding) should start now… and we want figures on the table.”

Pressed on whether the United States may still make a pledge before the talks end on Friday, Pershing said Washington was busy drawing up next year’s budget — a process he said was “fairly complicated.”

On behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States, 43 countries most at risk from global warming-induced sea level rise, negotiator Ronny Jumeau thanked Britain for its pledge.

“We would like to… strongly encourage all the other countries involved in these negotiations to follow that example and put something on the table so at least we will be arguing about figures rather than arguing about nothing.”

***********

December 5, 2012

At Climate Talks, a Struggle Over Aid for Poorer Nations

By JOHN M. BRODER
IHT

DOHA, Qatar — The United Nations climate conference here has settled into its typical doldrums, with most major questions unresolved as a Friday evening deadline for concluding the talks approaches. One of the thorniest issues is money, which has often bedeviled these affairs.

Since the process for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change began about 20 years ago, countries have been split into two often-warring camps: the small number of wealthy nations that provide money to help deal with the effects of global warming, and the much larger group of poorer states that receive it.

At a climate summit meeting in Copenhagen three years ago, the industrialized countries promised to provide $10 billion a year in funds for adapting to climate change over the following three years and $100 billion a year beginning in 2020. The short-term money has more or less been raised and spent, although some nations have quarreled over whether it was new money or simply repurposed foreign aid. A Green Climate Fund has been established to handle the money after 2020.

Left unclear was whether money would flow from 2013 to 2020. That is what negotiators from about 190 countries are fighting about here.

And it is a particularly difficult time for the donor nations to find new money. The United States, which traditionally provides about a quarter of such international finance, is teetering on a fiscal precipice, and few in Washington are thinking about finding several billion dollars to help sub-Saharan Africa or precarious island nations cope with drought and rising seas.

Jonathan Pershing, the State Department’s deputy special envoy for climate change, said Wednesday that the United States had “every intention” of finding money for climate adaptation. But he pointedly noted that in the United States, “like most places, the budgeting process is complicated.”

Pete Betts, the principal climate negotiator for the European Union, said that Europe would continue to provide climate money. But he, too, noted, “These are tough financial times, and many states are in difficult circumstances, so we won’t be in a position to state our target for 2015.”

This reticence by richer countries annoys the recipient countries, which see it as avoiding responsibility for decades of uncontrolled emissions that now threaten the health of the planet.

Some, like Brazil, raise legalistic objections that the wealthier countries promised in previous agreements to provide a steady flow of such financing.

André Corrêa do Lago, the chief Brazilian delegate, said, “There is a very different interpretation between developed and developing countries, which is natural because some are giving the money and some are getting the money.”

He said that most developing countries had believed that the roughly $10 billion a year in short-term money would be replaced by a gradual increase until 2020. He said he was sympathetic to the budget problems of Europe and the United States, but he also said that unless the donor countries promised to keep up their support, Brazil and other countries would not allow the negotiating process to go forward.

“If at the end you don’t, it’s a very frustrating exercise,” he said.

The most impassioned voices, as usual, are representatives of poor African nations and of low-lying island states threatened with being swamped by rising seas.

“Please, ladies and gentlemen,” the delegate from Nauru, a Pacific island nation, pleaded to the assembly, “show me on a map which countries you think are expendable.”

Todd D. Stern, the senior American diplomat here, said the United States understood the impatience and frustration of its negotiating partners from the developing world. Addressing the conference on Wednesday, he said that different countries had different abilities to cope with a changing climate and to find the money to adapt. He said that the United States was willing to discuss the concepts of equity and “common but differentiated responsibilities,” terms that carry heavy emotional and historical baggage at these gatherings.

In what was read by many here as a shift in tone, Mr. Stern said that such notions would be central to the outcome of a new global climate change treaty that is supposed to be concluded by 2015 and take effect in 2020 under an agreement reached in Durban, South Africa, a year ago.

“The United States would welcome such a discussion, because unless we can find common ground on that principle and the way in which it should apply in the world of the 2020s, we won’t succeed in producing a new Durban Platform agreement,” Mr. Stern said. “And we have to succeed.”

« Last Edit: Dec 06, 2012, 07:52 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #3348 on: Dec 06, 2012, 07:35 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
12/06/2012 01:55 PM

NATO Operation: Berlin Approves Patriots for Turkey-Syria Border

Chancellor Merkel's cabinet on Thursday approved a measure to send Patriot air defense missiles to Turkey as part of a NATO mission to prevent violence from spilling over from across Syrian border. Once approved by parliament, the mandate will allow the 400 German soldiers to be stationed there too.

Germany's cabinet on Thursday authorized the stationing of German Patriot air defense missiles on the Turkish border with Syria as part of a NATO mission to help protect Turkey from possible cross-border attacks. The mission will involve up to 400 troops from the German military, the Bundeswehr, and also includes personnel for AWACS surveillance aircraft and commando units. The mandate has a one year limit with the possibility of extension.

The cabinet resolution is set for parliamentary approval next week in the lower house, the Bundestag. Passage looks assured, with lawmakers in Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right governing coalition overwhelmingly in favor, and the opposition Social Democrats planning to back the measure as well.

"Syria has a not insignificant ballistic missile capability. A few hundred with a range of some 700 kilometers that could possibly hit a large area of Turkey," German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière said on Thursday. "The Syrian government has shown no intention of using these rockets, but we want it to remain that way."

The move comes in response to several incidents in recent weeks when Syrian mortars landed on the Turkish side of the 900-kilometer-long border between the two countries, including one in early October that killed five civilians in the town of Akcakale.

'Acting Protectively'

The German mission will include two Patriot batteries, which have sensitive radar systems. Eighty-five soldiers accompany each battery. Despite the maximum total of 400 soldiers allowed by the mandate, only some 220 troops will likely be sent initially, plus those manning the AWACS aircraft that are already in the area.

Foreign ministers of NATO member states authorized the Patriot mission on Tuesday in Brussels, pending parliamentary approval in national legislatures of the countries involved. The US and the Netherlands will also each send two Patriot batteries to the border, though it is not yet clear where exactly they will be stationed.

Syria has denounced the NATO plan, but de Maiziére on Thursday emphasized the defensive nature of the mission. Military officials insisted that the weapons system would only be used to intercept missiles that crossed the border into Turkish airspace. "Nobody knows what such a regime is capable of and that is why we are acting protectively here," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said, in reference to the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad.

The measure comes at a time when concern is growing over Assad's possible use of chemical weapons in his months-long battle against an opposition insurgency. Several NATO members, including the US and Germany, have warned Assad in recent days that they would not stand by without acting if he turns to chemical weapons to maintain his hold on power.

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Originally published Wednesday, December 5, 2012 at 5:48 AM   

Syria blasts NATO move on Patriot missiles

The Associated Press
BEIRUT —

A senior Damascus official on Thursday blasted NATO's move to provide Turkey with Patriot missiles to be deployed along its border with Syria, denouncing the development as a "provocative" step.

The missiles would not affect the determination of President Bashar Assad's government to crush the "terrorists," insisted deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, using the regime term for rebels fighting to topple Assad.

The comments came as Germany's Cabinet approved sending German Patriot air defense missiles to NATO member Turkey, in a major step toward possible Western military role in the Syrian conflict.

German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere told reporters that two batteries with a total of 400 soldiers would be sent to the border area under NATO command for one year, although the deployment could be shortened.

The announcement also appeared to be a message to Assad's regime at a time when Washington and other governments fear Syria may be readying its chemical weapons stockpiles for possible use.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reiterated concerns Wednesday that "an increasingly desperate Assad regime might turn to chemical weapons" or lose control of them to militant groups.

In recent days, U.S. intelligence has detected signs the Syrian regime was moving chemical weapons components around within several sites, according to a senior U.S. defense official and two U.S. officials. This type of activity had not been detected before and one of the U.S. officials said it bears further scrutiny.

Mekdad, the Damascus official, denounced the NATO move and the chemical weapons "chorus" as part of a conspiracy that is possibly laying out the foundations for a military intervention in Syria.

Syria has been careful not to confirm it has chemical weapons while insisting it would never use such weapons against its own people

"I repeat for the hundredth time that even if such weapons exist in Syria, they will not be used against the Syrian people," Mekdad said, speaking in an interview with Lebanon's Al-Manar TV station. "We cannot possibly commit suicide, Syria is a responsible country."

Mekdad added that the Syrian government is worried the U.S. or some European countries could provide "terrorist" organizations in Syria with chemical weapons to use, then blame the government.

He also said accusations that Syria would use these weapons against its own people were "disgusting."

Asked about NATO's approval to send Patriot missiles to Turkey, Mekdad said the Turkish government was "bankrupt" and was "begging for assistance from NATO countries."

"The Turkish move and NATO's support for it is a provocative move, part of psychological warfare against Syria," he said. "But if they think this will affect our determination to fight the terrorists ... they are wrong."

He warned that any foreign military intervention against Syria will be "catastrophic" with severe consequences.

The decision to send Patriot air defense missiles to Turkey must be endorsed by the German Parliament, but approval is all but assured. The Dutch Cabinet is expected to announce approval Friday, contingent on parliamentary approval.

De Maziere said the overall mission was also expected to include two batteries each from the Netherlands and the United States.

The Western alliance decided this week to approve sending the weapons to prevent cross-border attacks against Turkey after mortar rounds and shells from Syria killed five Turks.

German officials stressed that the missiles will only be used to defend Turkish territory and would not be a part of any "no fly zone" over Syrian territory.

"Nobody knows what such a regime is capable of and that is why we are acting protectively here," Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said.

Officials said the Patriots will be programmed so that they can intercept only Syrian weapons that cross into Turkish airspace. They aren't allowed to penetrate Syrian territory pre-emptively. That means they would have no immediate effect on any Syrian government offensives - chemical or conventional - that remain strictly inside the country's national borders.

Due to the complexity and size of the Patriot batteries - including their radars, command-and-control centers, communications and support facilities - they will probably have to travel by sea, NATO officials said.

They probably won't arrive in Turkey for another month, officials predicted.

*********

December 5, 2012

U.S.-Approved Arms for Libya Rebels Fell Into Jihadis’ Hands

By JAMES RISEN, MARK MAZZETTI and MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT
NYT

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration secretly gave its blessing to arms shipments to Libyan rebels from Qatar last year, but American officials later grew alarmed as evidence grew that Qatar was turning some of the weapons over to Islamic militants, according to United States officials and foreign diplomats.

No evidence has emerged linking the weapons provided by the Qataris during the uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi to the attack that killed four Americans at the United States diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in September.

But in the months before, the Obama administration clearly was worried about the consequences of its hidden hand in helping arm Libyan militants, concerns that have not previously been reported. The weapons and money from Qatar strengthened militant groups in Libya, allowing them to become a destabilizing force since the fall of the Qaddafi government.

The experience in Libya has taken on new urgency as the administration considers whether to play a direct role in arming rebels in Syria, where weapons are flowing in from Qatar and other countries.

The Obama administration did not initially raise objections when Qatar began shipping arms to opposition groups in Syria, even if it did not offer encouragement, according to current and former administration officials. But they said the United States has growing concerns that, just as in Libya, the Qataris are equipping some of the wrong militants.

The United States, which had only small numbers of C.I.A. officers in Libya during the tumult of the rebellion, provided little oversight of the arms shipments. Within weeks of endorsing Qatar’s plan to send weapons there in spring 2011, the White House began receiving reports that they were going to Islamic militant groups. They were “more antidemocratic, more hard-line, closer to an extreme version of Islam” than the main rebel alliance in Libya, said a former Defense Department official.

The Qatari assistance to fighters viewed as hostile by the United States demonstrates the Obama administration’s continuing struggles in dealing with the Arab Spring uprisings, as it tries to support popular protest movements while avoiding American military entanglements. Relying on surrogates allows the United States to keep its fingerprints off operations, but also means they may play out in ways that conflict with American interests.

“To do this right, you have to have on-the-ground intelligence and you have to have experience,” said Vali Nasr, a former State Department adviser who is now dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, part of Johns Hopkins University. “If you rely on a country that doesn’t have those things, you are really flying blind. When you have an intermediary, you are going to lose control.”

He said that Qatar would not have gone through with the arms shipments if the United States had resisted them, but other current and former administration officials said Washington had little leverage at times over Qatari officials. “They march to their own drummer,” said a former senior State Department official. The White House and State Department declined to comment.

During the frantic early months of the Libyan rebellion, various players motivated by politics or profit — including an American arms dealer who proposed weapons transfers in an e-mail exchange with a United States emissary later killed in Benghazi — sought to aid those trying to oust Colonel Qaddafi.

But after the White House decided to encourage Qatar — and on a smaller scale, the United Arab Emirates — to ship arms to the Libyans, President Obama complained in April 2011 to the emir of Qatar that his country was not coordinating its actions in Libya with the United States, the American officials said. “The president made the point to the emir that we needed transparency about what Qatar was doing in Libya,” said a former senior administration official who had been briefed on the matter.

About that same time, Mahmoud Jibril, then the prime minister of the Libyan transitional government, expressed frustration to administration officials that the United States was allowing Qatar to arm extremist groups opposed to the new leadership, according to several American officials. They, like nearly a dozen current and former White House, diplomatic, intelligence, military and foreign officials, would speak only on the condition of anonymity for this article.

The administration has never determined where all of the weapons, paid for by Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, went inside Libya, officials said. Qatar is believed to have shipped by air and sea small arms, including machine guns, automatic rifles, and ammunition, for which it has demanded reimbursement from Libya’s new government. Some of the arms since have been moved from Libya to militants with ties to Al Qaeda in Mali, where radical jihadi factions have imposed Shariah law in the northern part of the country, the former Defense Department official said. Others have gone to Syria, according to several American and foreign officials and arms traders.

Although NATO provided air support that proved critical for the Libyan rebels, the Obama administration wanted to avoid getting immersed in a ground war, which officials feared could lead the United States into another quagmire in the Middle East.

As a result, the White House largely relied on Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, two small Persian Gulf states and frequent allies of the United States. Qatar, a tiny nation whose natural gas reserves have made it enormously wealthy, for years has tried to expand its influence in the Arab world. Since 2011, with dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa coming under siege, Qatar has given arms and money to various opposition and militant groups, chiefly Sunni Islamists, in hopes of cementing alliances with the new governments. Officials from Qatar and the emirates would not comment.

After discussions among members of the National Security Council, the Obama administration backed the arms shipments from both countries, according to two former administration officials briefed on the talks.

American officials say that the United Arab Emirates first approached the Obama administration during the early months of the Libyan uprising, asking for permission to ship American-built weapons that the United States had supplied for the emirates’ use. The administration rejected that request, but instead urged the emirates to ship weapons to Libya that could not be traced to the United States.

“The U.A.E. was asking for clearance to send U.S. weapons,” said one former official. “We told them it’s O.K. to ship other weapons.”

For its part, Qatar supplied weapons made outside the United States, including French- and Russian-designed arms, according to people familiar with the shipments.

But the American support for the arms shipments from Qatar and the emirates could not be completely hidden. NATO air and sea forces around Libya had to be alerted not to interdict the cargo planes and freighters transporting the arms into Libya from Qatar and the emirates, American officials said.

Concerns in Washington soon rose about the groups Qatar was supporting, officials said. A debate over what to do about the weapons shipments dominated at least one meeting of the so-called Deputies Committee, the interagency panel consisting of the second-highest ranking officials in major agencies involved in national security. “There was a lot of concern that the Qatar weapons were going to Islamist groups,” one official recalled.

The Qataris provided weapons, money and training to various rebel groups in Libya. One militia that received aid was controlled by Adel Hakim Belhaj, then leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, who was held by the C.I.A. in 2004 and is now considered a moderate politician in Libya. It is unclear which other militants received the aid.

“Nobody knew exactly who they were,” said the former defense official. The Qataris, the official added, are “supposedly good allies, but the Islamists they support are not in our interest.”

No evidence has surfaced that any weapons went to Ansar al-Shariah, an extremist group blamed for the Benghazi attack.

The case of Marc Turi, the American arms merchant who had sought to provide weapons to Libya, demonstrates other challenges the United States faced in dealing with Libya. A dealer who lives in both Arizona and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, Mr. Turi sells small arms to buyers in the Middle East and Africa, relying primarily on suppliers of Russian-designed weapons in Eastern Europe.

In March 2011, just as the Libyan civil war was intensifying, Mr. Turi realized that Libya could be a lucrative new market, and applied to the State Department for a license to provide weapons to the rebels there, according to e-mails and other documents he has provided. (American citizens are required to obtain United States approval for any international arms sales.)

He also e-mailed J. Christopher Stevens, then the special representative to the Libyan rebel alliance. The diplomat said he would “share” Mr. Turi’s proposal with colleagues in Washington, according to e-mails provided by Mr. Turi. Mr. Stevens, who became the United States ambassador to Libya, was one of the four Americans killed in the Benghazi attack on Sept. 11.

Mr. Turi’s application for a license was rejected in late March 2011. Undeterred, he applied again, this time stating only that he planned to ship arms worth more than $200 million to Qatar. In May 2011, his application was approved. Mr. Turi, in an interview, said that his intent was to get weapons to Qatar and that what “the U.S. government and Qatar allowed from there was between them.”

Two months later, though, his home near Phoenix was raided by agents from the Department of Homeland Security. Administration officials say he remains under investigation in connection with his arms dealings. The Justice Department would not comment.

Mr. Turi said he believed that United States officials had shut down his proposed arms pipeline because he was getting in the way of the Obama administration’s dealings with Qatar. The Qataris, he complained, imposed no controls on who got the weapons. “They just handed them out like candy,” he said.

David D. Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim contributed reporting from Cairo.

**************

December 6, 2012

Car Bomb Rocks Damascus as Fighting Rages

By ANNE BARNARD
IHT

BEIRUT, Lebanon — As fighting raged in the suburbs of Damascus, a car bomb exploded in the southern Zahraa district of the Syrian capital on Thursday, killing one person and damaging the headquarters of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent relief organization, state media reported.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the conflict from Britain via a network of anti-government activists, also reported the attack. There were no immediate claims of responsibility, but the official SANA news agency blamed terrorists, its usual designation for opponents of President Bashar al-Assad.

A Lebanese news channel citing its correspondent in Damascus, reported that the attack may have targeted Prime MinisterWael al-Halki and killed his driver outside the driver’s home, but those reports were not immediately confirmed.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent plays a key role in distributing food to displaced Syrians, working with the United Nations World Food Program, which announced on Tuesday that its work was being disrupted by indiscriminate attacks on delivery vehicles.

Fighting continued throughout the Damascus suburbs, where government forces targeted rebel-held neighborhoods with artillery fire, and raged along the road to the airport as security forces continued a counteroffensive against rebels who have attempted to encircle Damascus and cut off the airport road in recent weeks.

Residents said central Damascus was in a state of lockdown and fear, with huge traffic jams and checkpoints making it difficult to move about the city, and the sounds of explosions throughout the day and night.

North of Damascus, rebels continued to battle government forces around two key bases: Wadi al-Deif at a key crossroads on the road between Damascus and the commercial hub of Aleppo, and the Managh military airport in the northern province of Idlib, where a standoff has continued for months between government forces and rebel fighters who have cut off road access to the base.

In Lebanon, meanwhile, Reuters reported, two men were killed by sniper fire in the northern port of Tripoli on Thursday during sectarian clashes between gunmen loyal to opposing sides in neighboring Syria’s civil war, the latest fatalities in three days of clashes that have killed 8 people and left 58 wounded.

Hala Droubi contributed reporting from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and a New York Times employee from Damascus.

************

December 5, 2012

Pressure Builds on Syrian Opposition Coalition; Fears of Chemical Weapons Rise

By ANNE BARNARD, MICHAEL R. GORDON and CHRISTINE HAUSER
IHT

Pressure is building on a new Syrian opposition coalition to choose leaders and transform itself into a political force that could earn formal recognition from the United States and other countries as a viable alternative to the Syrian government.

The coalition, formally known as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, was pulled together from a variety of opposition groups at a meeting last month in Doha, Qatar, that was convened at the insistence of the United States and other nations.

On Nov. 13, France became the first Western country to formally recognize the coalition, and President François Hollande said France would consider arming it. Britain, Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council have also recognized the coalition.

But the coalition has struggled to agree on a slate of governing leaders that would unite what is still a loosely allied organization, trying to weave together local councils, splinter organizations, disparate opposition groups and the loyalties of the armed units fighting the forces of President Bashar al-Assad.

On Wednesday, the United States, just ahead of a meeting next Wednesday of the so-called Friends of Syria in Marrakesh, Morocco, expressed fresh support for the coalition, as American intelligence said it had detected that Syrian troops had mixed precursor chemicals for a deadly nerve gas. American officials hinted that the United States would upgrade relations with the opposition, possibly to formal recognition, if the coalition had made progress on a political structure by the meeting.

“Now that there is a new opposition formed, we are going to be doing what we can to support that opposition,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said at a news conference in Brussels, adding that at the Marrakesh meeting “we will explore with like-minded countries what we can do to” end this conflict. The State Department announced on Wednesday that Mrs. Clinton would lead the United States delegation at the meeting. 

Separately, the United States is moving toward designating one Syrian opposition group, Al Nusra Front, as an international terrorist organization, American officials said. The group is seen by experts as affiliated with Al Qaeda. The step would be synchronized with the emerging strategy toward the opposition and  would aim to isolate radical foes of the Assad government.

With the pressure on to create a government framework, the coalition and its delegates have held meetings in Cairo to try to agree on how to choose leaders, including a prime minister. Another round of talks could take place there on Saturday. Yaser Tabbara, a member of the coalition, said they might also try to identify candidates for 10 to 15 cabinet positions.

The spotlight on the coalition as a governing alternative is also growing stronger at the same time that pressure is building on the Assad government.

This week, fighting has raged around the capital, Damascus, and the airport, and diplomatic setbacks have come in waves. A senior Turkish official has said that Russia, a staunch supporter of Mr. Assad’s government, had agreed to a new diplomatic approach that would seek ways to persuade him to give up, and a Foreign Ministry spokesman was said to have defected.

In addition, President Obama, Mrs. Clinton and NATO ministers warned Syria that any use of chemical weapons would be met with a strong international response. The Syrian Foreign Ministry told state television that the government “would not use chemical weapons, if it had them, against its own people under any circumstances.”

But American intelligence officials detected that Syrian troops have mixed together small amounts of precursor chemicals for sarin, a deadly nerve gas, at one or two storage sites, and that the chemical weapons might be loaded into aerial bombs or artillery shells and deployed in the fighting there. Mrs. Clinton again highlighted the new concerns.

“And I have to say again what I said on Monday, what President Obama has said repeatedly: We’ve made our views absolutely clear to the Syrians, to the international community, through various channels — public, private, direct, indirect — that this is a situation that the entire international community is united on,” she said in Brussels on Wednesday after the NATO meeting.

“And our concerns are that an increasingly desperate Assad regime might turn to chemical weapons or might lose control of them to one of the many groups that are now operating within Syria.”

Fighting continued on Wednesday in the suburbs of Damascus as the government pressed a counteroffensive against rebels. Some antigovernment fighters said they had taken the Aqraba air base near the Damascus airport, which has been effectively closed during six days of fighting, but activists said the fight for the base, and for Damascus was continuing.

Speculation percolated about whether Mr. Assad would seek asylum in a foreign country. State media in Cuba and Venezuela have reported that the Syrian deputy foreign minister, Faisal Miqdad, visited the countries in late November and delivered written messages from Mr. Assad to their leaders, who share his defiance of the United States. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that he had requested asylum in Latin America.

But the subject of the meetings remained unclear, and some analysts expressed doubt that Mr. Assad would leave Syria.In Washington, a State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, said, “We do understand that some countries, both in the region and elsewhere, have offered to host Assad and his family should he choose to leave Syria.”

But Mr. Miqdad, making the first appearance by a Syrian government official in more than a week, called the media reports “laughable.”

“I assure you 100 percent that President Assad will never leave his country,” he said.

Anne Barnard reported from Beirut, Lebanon; Michael R. Gordon from Brussels; and Christine Hauser from New York. Reporting was contributed by Randal C. Archibold from Mexico City; William Neuman from Caracas, Venezuela; Neil MacFarquhar from Beirut; and Eric Schmitt from Washington.

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December 6, 2012

Clinton to Discuss Syrian Conflict With Russian Counterpart

By MICHAEL R. GORDON and ELLEN BARRY
IHT

DUBLIN — A new round of diplomacy on the conflict in Syria will begin on Thursday afternoon when Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy, hosts an unusual three-way meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov.

 The session, which is being held on the margins of a meeting on European security, comes amid reports of heightened activity at Syria’s chemical weapons sites and signs that Russia may be shifting its position on a political transition in Syria.

 “Secretary Clinton has accepted an invitation by U.N. Special Envoy Brahimi for a trilateral meeting on Syria this afternoon with Mr. Brahimi and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov,” a senior State Department official said Thursday morning.

 This is not the first time that American and Russian consultations have spurred hopes of a possible breakthrough. In June, Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Lavrov and the United Nations’s envoy on the Syrian crisis at the time, former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, appeared to be close to an agreement that a transitional government should be established and that President Bashar al-Assad should leave power.

 But that seeming understanding quickly broke down with Americans officials complaining privately that the Russian side had pulled back from the deal. A major sticking point, it later emerged, was the American insistence that the United Nations Security Council authorize steps to pressure Mr. Assad if he refused to go along under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter, which could be used to authorize tougher economic sanctions and, in theory, the use of force.

 It remained to be seen if the new round of negotiations will be more successful.

 On the one hand, the military situation on the ground appears to be shifting in the rebels favor. Some Russian officials reportedly no longer believe that Mr. Assad will succeed in holding on to power and may have a new interest in working out arrangements for a transition. The changing battlefield, some experts say, may have led to a softening of the Russian position.

 A senior Turkish official said that after Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently met in Istanbul that Moscow was "softening" its "political tone" and would look for ways of getting Mr. Assad to relinquish power.

On the other hand, it was possible that Mr. Lavrov had, in effect, merely agreed to meet so that Russia could maintain influence over the discussions on Syria and find out what exactly Mr. Brahimi was prepared to propose.

There were indications on Thursday that Russian officials see the positions of Washington and Moscow on Syria moving slightly closer.

Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov expressed satisfaction in a Twitter message that the United States was moving to designate Al Nusra Front, a Syrian opposition group seen by American experts as linked to Al Qaeda, as an international terrorist organization.

The aim of the American move, which is expected soon, would be to isolate radical foes of the Assad government.

With the rebels making gains on the ground, American officials have been trying to ensure that military developments do not outpace political arrangements for a possible transition. American officials have hinted that the United States would upgrade relations with the Syria opposition, possibly to formal recognition, if the coalition made progress on a political structure by the time of a meeting of the so-called Friends of Syria in Morocco.

But emerging policy on the Al Nusra Front also acknowledges Russia’s longstanding argument that the Syrian opposition includes radical jihadists. Mr. Gatilov said that the American step “reflects understanding of the danger of escalating terrorist activity in Syria.” 

A lawmaker with the dominant party, United Russia, told British legislators visiting Moscow that Russia sees Mr. Assad’s government struggling. “We think that the Syrian government should execute its functions,” he said, according to the Interfax news service. “But time shows that this task is beyond its strength.”

Dimitri K. Simes, a Russia expert the Center for the National Interest in Washington, said, based on conversations with top officials, that Russia has indeed softened its position in light of military setbacks for the Assad government, and it is now understood that neither Mr. Assad nor his close associates would take a central role in a new government.

 However, he said Russia still wants Iran to take part in negotiations about the transition. Iran’s presence, he said, would reassure Alawites, the Shiite Muslim minority of President Assad and the core of the military, that they would be protected in the change of government.

 But even as there were hints that American and Russian stances might be converging, they differed sharply on human rights issues at the conference of the Organization for Security and Economic Cooperation in Europe, which began on Thursday.

 Before the conference, Mrs. Clinton met in a tent outside the conference center with a group of 11 civil society representatives from seven countries, including Russia and nations from Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

 Olga Zakharova, of Freedom Files in Russia, said she has worked for 20 years as a journalist and has seen her country “go from bad to worse.”

 “Even social media space is now shrinking,” she said, citing new restrictive laws on the use of the Internet. “We ask you not to leave Russia and other countries on their own,” she said.

The concern is no longer the environment, but the safety of colleagues, she said.

 Addressing the group, Mrs. Clinton said that she agreed there was a move to “re-Sovietize” the region. “We agree with your assessment that the space for civil society and the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms is shrinking and governments are becoming much more aggressive in trying to stifle dissent, prevent the free expression and exchange of views,” she said.

 Mrs. Clinton referred to the meeting with the human right activists and said that the future of the O.S.C.E. was in jeopardy because of actions taken by authoritarian members. 

Mrs. Clinton also singled out human rights abuses in Belarus, election abuses in Ukraine and restrictions on free expression in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, among other nations.

 On Russia, Mrs. Clinton criticized legislation that would require journalists and officials from nongovernment organizations to register as “foreign agents” if they received funding from abroad and other restrictions on civil society.

 Mr. Lavrov, for his, part, repeated the Russian complained about "unilateral approaches" that were interfering with the work of the organization.

Michael R. Gordon reported from Dublin, and Ellen Barry from Moscow. Anne Barnard contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.



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« Reply #3349 on: Dec 06, 2012, 07:43 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
12/06/2012 12:05 PM

Unrest in Egypt: Opposing Camps Clash Violently in Cairo

By Matthias Gebauer in Cairo

Five people were killed and 450 injured on Wednesday night in Cairo as Islamist backers of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi clashed with the opposition outside the presidential palace. The government deployed tanks on Thursday to keep the peace between the two sides, but the rift is wider than ever.

As the country's political crisis wears on, Egypt is plunging into chaos sparked by hate and violence. Late into Wednesday night, followers of President Mohammed Morsi battled on the streets of Cairo with opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood leader. For hours, the two camps fought in front of the presidential palace, with both sides throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. Those who fell into the wrong hands were savagely beaten and several cars were set on fire.

At least five people were killed in the overnight clashes and some 450 were injured. On Thursday morning, the Egyptian army was deployed in front of the presidential palace, including several tanks and other military vehicles, to protect the compound. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on Thursday morning said, "I appeal to all sides to yield to prudence and reason," adding that Berlin was "observing the situation with concern."

The orgy of violence in Egypt on Wednesday night was the worst since the days of fighting that led to the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak in the spring of 2011. And it was a night that demonstrated just how difficult it will be to find a peaceful solution to the political crisis that has become increasingly embittered in recent weeks. Even as the street battle was unfolding, each side began blaming the other for the rapid escalation of violence. The power struggle between Morsi's followers and the opposition now threatens to develop into a prolonged conflict.

Morsi and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood appear determined to tighten their already firm grip on power in the country, no matter what methods might be necessary or the consequences they might produce. Essam El-Eryan, deputy head of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Brotherhood, even claimed following Wednesday night's violence in the Cairo dustrict of Heliopolis that the Islamists had courageously fought "the last battle in the fight against the counterrevolutionaries." He said that Morsi's opponents refused to accept the "rule of the majority."

An Offer of Dialogue?

Given such rhetoric, the government's parallel offer to open a dialogue with the opposition over the controversial draft constitution, which would cement several tenants of Islamism into law, seemed farcical. In Cairo, rumors are already circulating that Morsi plans to introduce so-called revolutionary courts in order to sideline political opponents as quickly as possible. Initial charges have already been filed, such as those against opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei.

Still, three Morsi advisors resigned their posts in protest of the new wave of violence. One of them, Seif Abdel Fatah, announced the move in a live interview with Al-Jazeera, saying with tears in his eyes that the country's entire elite was self-serving and cared little about the interest of the people.

The violence on the streets of Cairo began at 6 p.m. local time. Leaders from both camps urged their followers via text messages, Twitter and Facebook to gather in front of the presidential palace. The night before, tens of thousands of opposition activists had collected there to protest decrees issued by Morsi that grant him near absolute power as well as against the draft constitution. Following a brief altercation with the police, the Morsi opponents even advanced to the gate of the compound.

On Wednesday afternoon, the deeply conservative Muslim Brotherhood urged its followers to clear a small clutch of tents erected by the opposition on one side of the palace to show their support for the head of state. The Islamists believe that the opposition has insulted the president, who left the palace at the beginning of the demonstrations on Tuesday. A Brotherhood spokesman said on television that "the time for battle" had come. Shortly thereafter, the opposition likewise called on their followers to return to the palace. A clash was unavoidable.

And it was one that showed the deep hatred dividing Morsi's followers from the opposition. Encouraged by Muslim Brotherhood leaders, thousands of Islamists headed for the palace, destroyed the opposition camp and violently beat those they found there. They then erected street barricades, collected rocks and painted over graffiti critical of Morsi on the palace walls.

Bloody Sequel

It only took an hour before a large group of opposition activists likewise reached the palace. But this time they were not the students who once triggered the revolution. Rather, it was a mob of angry youth armed with wooden clubs. Many of them wore gasmasks and motorcycle helmets as they advanced toward the barricades.

Chaos ensued. Thousands of people chased each other through the streets lined with shops. They swung at each other with rods, belts and anything else they could get their hands on. Before long, the first Molotov cocktails flew through the air and the battle was on in earnest. Initially, there was no police presence at all. Instead of attempting to keep the two groups separated, the riot police held back at first. They only swung into action once it was already too late to prevent the worst of the violence.

The unrest this week is comparable to that seen in the spring of 2011 as opposition activists and followers of Mubarak battled in the streets at the height of the revolution. Then, it was Tahrir Square in the heart of Cairo that provided the stage for the at times brutal clashes, which were some of the bleakest moments in the effort to depose the autocrat Mubarak.

Wednesday night in Cairo provided the latest bloody sequel. It seems likely that it won't be the last.


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« Reply #3350 on: Dec 06, 2012, 07:44 AM »

December 5, 2012

Peace Process Pulls at Germany-Israel Ties: By NICHOLAS KULISH and CHRIS COTTRELL

BERLIN — Growing up as a teenager in Germany, Jonathan Logan’s opinion of the Middle East conflict was black and white. “The Israelis were the good ones, and the Palestinians very clearly the bad ones,” he recalled Wednesday, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel arrived here for previously scheduled and suddenly rather tense consultations with Chancellor Angela Merkel.

That pro-Israeli attitude was, Mr. Logan said, “what you always get from the mainstream.” Now 23 and a promoter for German television, he said his views had shifted. “A Palestinian shoots a rocket, and Israel answers with a fighter jet,” he said. “Both sides kill civilians. It doesn’t matter which side kids are on.”

The complex relationship between Israel and Germany carries tremendous baggage, built as it is on a historic crime, on notions of guilt and redemption. Now that relationship is being tested by the growing discord over the peace process that has already divided Israel from much of the rest of Europe. That test comes as the underpinnings of the relationship grow looser and as the generation of perpetrators and survivors of the Holocaust begins to disappear, 67 years after the end of World War II.

Last week at the United Nations General Assembly, Germany chose to join 40 other nations in abstaining from a vote on upgrading the status of Palestinians to nonmember observer state. Germany’s decision had no effect on the outcome, with 138 nations voting for the proposal and 9 against. For any other nation, with the exception of the United States, the vote would have been little more than a footnote.

But when it comes to Israel, Germany will never be just any other nation. There might never have been an Israel if not for the waves of refugees fleeing the Nazis followed by Holocaust survivors.

Mr. Netanyahu considered Germany’s abstention significant enough that he criticized Ms. Merkel, his hostess for dinner on Wednesday evening, in a German newspaper a few hours before his plane landed at Tegel airport here.

He told the German newspaper Die Welt that it would be “disingenuous if I hid the fact that I, like many in Israel, was disappointed by the German abstention at the United Nations.”

Increasingly isolated and under heavy criticism in Europe, the Israeli government expected Germany to have its back.

Mr. Netanyahu’s comments were not just the latest evidence of a growing rift between the longtime allies, but also expressed an unspoken fear that a more substantial shift might be under way in Germany.

“Historic responsibility is no longer sufficient,” said Reinhold Robbe, a former member of Parliament from the Social Democratic Party and head of the German-Israeli Society. “With so many young people and people with a migration background with no connection to the Holocaust and no sense of responsibility.”

To understand the fear of isolation behind the Israeli disappointment, it helps to look at the short list of countries that supported Israel and the even shorter list of influential ones: the United States, Canada, the Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Panama and Palau.

A country like Germany, the biggest in the European Union, would have been a welcome addition for Israel.

Frustration with Israel has only grown in Europe since the announcement that the government had approved 3,000 more units of housing in contested areas of East Jerusalem and the West Bank and was resuming planning and zoning work in the contentious area known as E1. The announcement was viewed as a reaction to the United Nations vote, and critics said that future construction in E1 could irreparably harm the chances for a viable, contiguous Palestinian state there.

Germany stopped short of summoning the Israeli ambassador to complain about the plan, as several other European governments did, including Britain and France. But Ms. Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said Monday that the move on the settlements sent “a negative message,” and that Israel was “undermining trust in its readiness to negotiate.”

There is strong support in Germany for a two-state solution to the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians. The plans for E1 have brought even more condemnation elsewhere in Europe. Germans are increasingly joining in.

In the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, a former Israeli ambassador to Germany, Shimon Stein, described “the gulf between German politics and German public opinion as reason for concern.” Mr. Stein said that Ms. Merkel should be clear in her criticism of Israeli policy and bring Mr. Netanyahu’s attention to “the negative sentiment against Israel in Germany and in other parts of the E.U.”

Not everyone believes a significant shift is in motion in Germany. “Public opinion about Israel has slipped somewhat, but I think it’s going too far to say there’s been an erosion of support,” said Deidre Berger, director of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee, an advocacy group that supports Israel. “It goes up and down in terms of attitudes toward Israel.”

Ms. Merkel received a prize last week from Berlin’s Jewish population. She had taken a strong stance this year in supporting legislation to safeguard the right of parents to circumcise their male children, after a regional court in Cologne ruled ritual circumcision constituted bodily harm to minors. But the award was also for contributing to the security of the state of Israel and the improvement of ties between Israel and Germany.

“We are not neutral,” Ms. Merkel told the audience. The next day, Germany abstained in the United Nations vote.

Nina Müller, on her way to pick up her daughter at a Berlin day care center on Wednesday, said it still was not possible for Germany to be more critical toward Israel. “Because of its history, Germany is always cautious and diplomatic,” she said. “You can’t allow yourself to be very critical, even about things that in another situation you might see differently.”

Victor Homola contributed reporting.

*********

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
12/05/2012 05:38 PM

Touchy Talks in Berlin: Netanyahu Airs Complaints Ahead of Germany Visit

By Matthias Gebauer and Ulrike Putz

Germany's abstention in the recent UN vote to recognize a Palestinian state, along with Israel's reaction of announcing new settlement construction, have chilled relations between the traditional allies. Ahead of a visit to Berlin, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu even said that he is "disappointed" in Chancellor Merkel.

German-Israeli relations are generally a highly discreet affair. Disagreements are almost never discussed openly, which is what makes recent statements so conspicuous. The chancellor is looking forward to "open discussions among friends," her spokesman announced just ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's planned visit to Berlin on Wednesday evening.

In diplomatic speak, "open discussions" are a euphemism for tense relations, which is indeed the situation between Berlin and Jerusalem. Israel was surprised by Germany's abstention from the United Nations vote to essentially recognize a state of Palestine by elevating it to "non-member observer status." Meanwhile, Netanyahu's subsequent announcement that 3,000 new housing units would be built in East Jerusalem has upset Merkel. His government has also announced it will withhold more than $100 million in tax revenue due the Palestinians this month in response.

Israel's tit-for-tat response was ill-received in a number of European capitals, with Great Britain, France, Spain, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands all summoning the Israeli ambassadors to voice their concerns. And while Berlin may not have followed suit, the German capital still used unusually sharp words to criticize Israel's building plans, with Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert calling them a "negative message" -- an indirect appeal from the chancellor to reverse the decision.

Netanyahu Responds with More Settlements

It's not the first time that Israel's prime minister has aroused displeasure in Berlin. In September 2011, Merkel also made her disapproval of Netanyahu's policy publicly known. In a phone conversation she said she lacked "any understanding" for Jewish settlement plans in Jerusalem. Merkel also allowed her government spokesman to convey her frustration openly -- an unusual occurrence.

Yet Netanyahu has been undeterred. He answered the decision by several EU states to summon their Israeli ambassadors with another act of defiance, announcing he would expedite the construction of another 1,600 housing units in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox settlement in East Jerusalem.

Even employees of the Israeli foreign ministry have been angered by this behavior, according to Israeli media reports. The newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth wrote that it's completely understandable for the diplomats that Israel's actions would be perceived in Europe as defiant and vindictive. Europeans are truly angered this time around, the daily said -- even Germany, Israel's closest ally.

Jerusalem is looking very closely at Germany's behavior. Netanyahu told German daily Die Welt that he was "disappointed" by Merkel, though he appreciated the chancellor's support during the most recent Gaza conflict, he said. "At the same time it would be insincere if I were to hide that I was disappointed over the German abstention at the United Nations -- like many in Israel," he added.

Yedioth Ahronoth called the German abstention at the UN General Assembly "the heaviest diplomatic blow." The newspaper Haaretz has also speculated over whether Germany would even support European sanctions against Israel. European leaders, however, say sanctions are not on the table at the moment.

Close Ties with Israel Remain Important

Indeed, no one in Berlin is thinking of sanctions. Israel has always been able to count on German solidarity when it comes to existential questions. The most recent Gaza conflict is proof of that. When the radical Islamist Hamas fired rockets into Israel and the Israeli air force took action, Merkel and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle emphasized German ties to Israel. At the same time, though, Germany took pains to maintain contact with the Palestinian Authority and Egypt.

Merkel has never created doubts about the fact that German-Israeli and German-Jewish relations are special. The government in Berlin knows that its history, the Nazi murders of millions of Jews, prevents it from simply taking the position of other European countries when they criticize Israeli policy. That would be a break from the status quo, and no one wants that in Berlin.

When Israel's security is in question, Merkel's center-right government has stood its ground -- in the conflict with Iran and on the question of controversial German weapons exports to Israel's neighbors. That's why a German submarine due to be exported to Egypt has been put on ice.

Before his visit to Berlin, Netanyahu, in the middle of his re-election campaign, traveled to the Czech Republic. The country was the only one in Europe to vote against raising the status of Palestine at the UN. Netanyahu said in a statement that he wanted to thank his Czech counterpart Petr Necas for his "brave vote."
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« Reply #3351 on: Dec 06, 2012, 07:47 AM »

December 6, 2012

Congo Peace Talks Set to Open in Uganda

By JOSH KRON
IHT

KAMPALA, Uganda — Congolese rebels and government officials prepared on Thursday for direct peace talks in the Ugandan capital Kampala, their first face-to-face encounter since the rebels relinquished Goma, one of Congo’s principal cities, after capturing it last month.

“Since May, we asked Kabila to come to the table,” said Amani Kabasha, a spokesman for the March 23 rebels, or M23, at the rebel-held border post of Rumangabo, who said his delegation was awaiting vehicles sent by the Ugandan government to carry them to Kampala. “He didn’t agree, he used force, arms, fighting. But now, because he was defeated, he agrees,” Mr. Kabasha said, referring to President Joseph Kabila.

An uneasy rhythm of commerce and calm returned to Goma this week as Congolese government soldiers again patrolled the streets and the port and airport reopened, allowing a fresh influx of people and cargo, as well as much-needed humanitarian aid for more than 100,000 people displaced by the recent fighting.

“It’s as good as it has been for the last two and a half weeks,” Tariq Riebl, a humanitarian coordinator for Oxfam in Goma, said Thursday. But the situation remained “very dynamic, very fluid,” he said.

In the strategic area of Masisi, to the northwest of Goma, fighting has continued to flare between government troops and numerous militias. Masisi has long been a hotbed of militia groups and ethnic tensions, and humanitarian relief workers said they were increasingly worried about the situation.

Furthermore, neither side has said it has any real faith in the upcoming talks in Kampala, which delegates said would likely begin Friday, or possibly late Thursday.

“It’s not a negotiation,” said the Congolese government spokesman Lambert Mende. “We will receive a grievance from M23 and help the president compare with what was decided in 2009,” when the peace agreement for which the rebels are named was signed on March 23.

“We are not very optimistic, because we know that M23 is a very small part of the problem; we need the problem to be solved regionally, and internationally,” Mr. Mende said.

The governments of Uganda and Rwanda have denied accusations by a United Nations panel of covertly supporting the M23 rebels, including in the rebels’ capture of Goma. Both countries have been accused of supporting other Congolese rebels groups in the past.

Many of the rebels’ demands, which the government has dismissed, would benefit Rwanda and Uganda, which are two main transit points for commercial exports from eastern Congo.

“We want more than decentralization, we want federalism,” said Mr. Kabasha, although the specific demands had not yet been finalized. “The eastern parts of Congo’s interests are in eastern Africa. Decentralization means that the leader is near the population.”

In recent days there have been reports of lootings and rape, summary executions and recruitment of children, the United Nations office for humanitarian affairs has said. In Goma, there have also been reports of targeted killings.
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« Reply #3352 on: Dec 06, 2012, 07:55 AM »

 06 December 2012 - 12H54 

Iraq wants to open new chapter with Turkey: PM

AFP - Iraq wants a new start to improve its strained relations with Turkey and is extending an olive branch to its neighbour, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said in an interview published on Thursday.

"The current situation does not satisfy anyone, neither the Iraqi nor the Turkish people," Maliki was quoted as saying by Turkey's Hurriyet newspaper in an interview conducted in Baghdad.

"We want a new start to our political relations with Turkey," he said, adding that he wanted to extend "a hand of friendship" to his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"Despite our differences, we would like to have a good dialogue with Turkey. I am extending an olive branch, we would like to cooperate in all areas with Turkey. But Turkey must not interfere in Iraqi internal affairs."

And Maliki once again denounced Ankara for its refusal to extradite fugitive Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, who has been given four death sentences by a Baghdad court on charges of running a death squad.

"How would you feel if I granted asylum in Baghdad to the head of the PKK," Maliki asked, referring to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which took up arms in Turkey's southeast in 1984 seeking autonomy for the Kurdish-majority region and which Ankara along with the US and the EU considers a terrorist group.

The fate of Iraq's fugitive vice president is one of several bones of contention that have strained the once close ties between Ankara and Baghdad.

Others issues include the Syrian conflict, the Turkish military presence in Iraq to pursue Kurdish rebels, and how to share the region's oil wealth.

On Tuesday, Iraq barred the plane of Turkey's energy minister from landing in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region, who was reportedly on his way for the completion of an oil and gas development deal.

And in November, Iraq blocked Turkish national energy firm TPAO from bidding for an oil exploration contract, a decision Erdogan said was not "smart business," and accused Baghdad of acting "childishly".


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« Reply #3353 on: Dec 06, 2012, 07:59 AM »

06 December 2012 - 09H54 

Greek schools 'fertile ground for neo-Nazis'

AFP - Schools in crisis-hit Greece are proving fertile ground for Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi group suspected of orchestrating attacks on migrants whose popularity is on the rise, anti-racism activists warn.

Once a secretive group on the fringe of Greek politics, Golden Dawn picked up over 400,000 votes in a June election dominated by anti-austerity anger.

Capitalising on popular anger with the perceived decades-old corruption of mainstream parties, the group elected 18 lawmakers in the 300-seat Greek parliament and is now the party of choice for one in 10 Greeks, polls show.

Still thin on numbers, Golden Dawn now seeks to spread the word to the next generation.

In November, a brawl broke out between Albanian and Greek high school pupils on the island of Crete over a Golden Dawn event advertised on Facebook, sending two of them to hospital.

A fight had previously broken out at the same school over neo-Nazi slogans found on a blackboard.

In various schools "there are organised gangs harassing foreign pupils and their parents, verbally so far but with an intensity that could at any minute turn into physical violence", said Nicodemos Maina Kinyua, the 35-year-old editor of Athens-based African magazine Asante.

The Kenyan-born journalist, who has lived in Greece since childhood, says the country's education system offers "fertile ground" for neo-Nazi influence.

"The dominant concept in school is that Greeks invented everything at the time when the rest of humanity was perched on trees, eating acorns," he said.

Golden Dawn has taken a strong hand in enforcing the teaching of "accurate" history in schools.

The group denies that students were killed by security forces inside the Athens Polytechnic in 1973, a seminal event considered to have hastened the downfall of the army dictatorship then ruling the country.

And its leader Nikos Michaloliakos has publicly complained that Greek media are ruled by a "Red junta".

During a recent school visit to parliament, one Golden Dawn deputy openly told pupils to resist the "terrorism" of the Left.

School authorities were already forced into action last month to halt the transfer of a maternity school teacher on the island of Lefkada, demanded by Golden Dawn after she decorated the classroom with both Greek and Albanian flags -- in deference to her Albanian pupils -- ahead of a Greek national holiday.

And a disciplinary procedure was opened in Athens against a high school principal who threatened to call in Golden Dawn to chastise his pupils.

"This threat is very much in fashion," admits a high school teacher who was recently insulted by three of her pupils for her left-wing sympathies.

"What is worse is that two-thirds of my colleagues saw this incident as a justifiable dispute over politics," she said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Another teacher, Artemis Kalogyri, said it was a constant struggle to keep neo-Nazi arguments and behaviour outside the high school in the working class Athens district of Kallithea where she teaches literature.

"Teens are being recruited, particularly those from poor families, and receive a training in theory and paramilitary tactics so that Golden Dawn can pass on the flame," Kalogyri told a recent anti-racist gathering.

"Most of these youths want to change the world. They see the far-right as the guarantor of Hellenism against the threat of dissolution in which migrants are involved. Most of them want to join the police or the army," she said.

Deputy education minister Theodoros Papatheodorou said the country must act "without delay".

"There are sporadic attempts to penetrate schools and intimidate professors and pupils. It emanates either from parents who claim to be Golden Dawn members or from fully-fledged Golden Dawn cadres," he told AFP.


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« Reply #3354 on: Dec 06, 2012, 08:03 AM »

December 5, 2012

An Abduction Shines Light on Ukraine Asylum Policy and on Kremlin Methods

By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
IHT

KIEV, Ukraine — For two and a half days in October, Leonid Razvozzhayev, a little-known leader of the Russian political opposition, moved furtively from one part of Kiev to another, meeting with political allies and human rights experts about seeking asylum in the West. At times, he was sure he was being followed. He was right.

On a Friday afternoon in clear daylight, masked men grabbed Mr. Razvozzhayev and shoved him into a black van outside the office of a lawyer who was preparing his asylum application on behalf of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The van sped away. Mr. Razvozzhayev’s personal belongings were left behind. More than the prosecution of the punk band Pussy Riot or the criminal inquiries into numerous opposition figures, the abduction of Mr. Razvozzhayev has showcased the Kremlin’s willingness to employ aggressive — even illegal — measures to suppress the political critics of President Vladimir V. Putin.

It also fits a pattern of recent cases in which people seeking protection in Ukraine were instead returned to the countries they fled, in violation of Ukrainian law as well as international laws and treaties that protect asylum seekers.

Ukrainian officials have refused to investigate Mr. Razvozzhayev’s disappearance, saying he is not a missing person.

“We see a problem of disrespect for international law on the part of Ukraine,” said Maksim Butkevych, a rights advocate with Social Action Center in Kiev.

Russian officials have also refused to open a criminal inquiry into Mr. Razvozzhayev’s complaints. But this week they said they planned to charge him with illegally crossing the border into Ukraine by using his brother’s passport to buy a train ticket.

Other rights advocates say the actions of both Ukraine and Russia should be examined, and Mr. Razvozzhayev’s lawyers say they expect the European Court of Human Rights to intervene.

“If any government was complicit in the abduction of Leonid Razvozzhayev, that government committed a grave violation of Mr. Razvozzhayev’s right under the 1951 Refugee Convention to be protected from involuntary return,” said Mark Hetfield, the interim president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a nonprofit group whose lawyers in Ukraine were preparing Mr. Razvozzhayev’s asylum application.

After Mr. Razvozzhayev resurfaced two days later outside a Moscow courthouse in Russian custody, Vladimir Markin, the spokesman for Russia’s top federal investigator, insisted that he had “turned himself in” — an assertion flatly contradicted by interviews with Mr. Razvozzhayev’s wife, lawyers and associates who saw him in Kiev. While Russia could have requested his extradition legally, international rights monitors say Ukraine routinely flouts normal procedures.

In 2011, a Palestinian engineer, Dirar Abu Sisi, who had applied for Ukrainian citizenship, was pulled off a train traveling between Kharkiv and Kiev. Weeks later, the Israeli authorities confirmed that Mr. Abu Sisi, whose wife is Ukrainian, was in jail in Israel, charged with helping Hamas develop weapons, including Qassam rockets.

In December 2009, Khamidullo Turhunov, a refugee from Uzbekistan, disappeared in Kiev, and though there has been no official acknowledgment of his whereabouts, his family says that he is imprisoned in Uzbekistan.

In a 2010 report on human rights abuses in Ukraine, Amnesty International wrote, “There is no adequate and fair asylum procedure in Ukraine, and its asylum system fails to comply with international law.”

Mr. Butkevych said that kidnappings were rare but that asylum seekers were routinely deported or extradited from Ukraine in violation of their rights. “In general terms, Ukraine is not a safe country,” Mr. Butkevych said. “For some people, especially those people who are actually wanted by their countries of origin, it can be dangerous.”

That certainly proved true for Mr. Razvozzhayev, a former amateur boxer and native of Siberia who has long been a close associate of Sergei Udaltsov, the leader of the Left Front, a radical socialist group that is at the core of the Russian political opposition.

Mr. Razvozzhayev’s lawyers say that after he was abducted, he was driven across the Russian border, held for nearly two days in the basement of a house, denied food and subjected to what has been described as psychological torture, including death threats against his family.

They said he was also forced to write and sign a 10-page confession, admitting to allegations first raised in early October in a documentary on NTV, a government-controlled television channel. The film showed Mr. Udaltsov, Mr. Razvozzhayev and others, in what was said to be a meeting in Minsk, in Belarus, appealing for financial assistance from a political operative from Georgia, the former Soviet republic.

While they have admitted meeting with the Georgian, Givi Targamadze, Mr. Udaltsov and Mr. Razvozzhayev say much of the documentary was fabricated

In recent weeks, the Russian authorities have opened yet another criminal case against Mr. Razvozzhayev, charging him with an armed robbery that occurred in December 1997 in his hometown, Angarsk, in eastern Siberia. Supporters of Mr. Razvozzhayev said the added charges were an attempt to pressure him into confessing in the original case and testifying against others. In October, when the political opposition held elections to choose a leadership council, both Mr. Udaltsov and Mr. Razvozzhayev were on the ballot. But with pressure over the documentary intensifying, Mr. Razvozzhayev decided not to wait around for the results. He filled a small plastic bag with personal belongings and left the apartment on the western outskirts of Moscow where he lived with his wife and their two children, heading for Kiev.

On VKontakte, a Russian social media site, he posted a note denying the allegations made in the NTV documentary and announcing that he was going into hiding.

“If in the near future I am arrested or if something bad happens to me, do not believe anything,” he wrote, “no matter what bad things they say about me.”

It is clear that he was afraid of being followed and also that he had no intention of returning to Russia. Instead of taking one of the many direct trains to Kiev from Moscow or an even quicker direct flight, he took a circuitous route, first to Belarus, where Russians can travel without a visa, then from Belarus into Ukraine.

Arriving in Kiev on a Tuesday afternoon, he called Sergei Kirichyk, an old friend and the leader of Borotba, a Marxist group.

They met, along with other associates, at a kitschy, Soviet-style restaurant near the railroad station, a place with tasseled lampshades, carafes of vodka on the tables and old front pages of Pravda papering the ceiling, where Mr. Razvozzhayev contemplated an escape to the Czech Republic or Sweden.

That night he slept on a mattress in the Borotba office, an apartment overlooking Kiev’s opera house. The next morning, Russian authorities officially declared him a fugitive and special-services police searched his Moscow apartment, as well as the home of Mr. Udaltsov, who was questioned and barred from traveling outside Russia.

In Kiev, Mr. Razvozzhayev stepped up his efforts to apply for political asylum. On Wednesday night he went for a walk with a friend, Dmitry Galkin, a newspaper writer. They met at a subway station near the headquarters of the Ukrainian central election commission.

“I didn’t know he was in direct danger,” Mr. Galkin said. “He told me that he wanted to become a political refugee.” As they walked along the darkened streets, they were sure they were being followed. Mr. Razvozzhayev shut off his cellphone and ran away through a dark courtyard.

The next day he called the Kiev office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, where officials arranged for him to meet with a lawyer at 10 the following morning. Anxious to get his application done, Mr. Razvozzhayev skipped breakfast. So about 1:30 p.m., when his lawyer said he needed to make some calls, Mr. Razvozzhayev stepped out for a bite.

He did not come back.


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« Reply #3355 on: Dec 06, 2012, 08:06 AM »

 06 December 2012 - 08H16 

North Korea spends millions on Kim cult: report

AFP - North Korea spent $41.5 million dollars this year promoting the personality cult surrounding the ruling Kim dynasty, a South Korean government report said Thursday.

A cool $9.5 million was dropped on new statues of founder Kim Il-Sung and his late son Kim Jong-Il in six separate places, the Unification Ministry said, citing calculations from South Korean civilian experts.

Some $32 million went on giant frescoes of the two leaders that were painted in halls in 400 different locations during the year, the report said.

Pictures of the two Kims hang inside every North Korean home, while their bronze likenesses can be seen everywhere across the impoverished nation.

In April, towering statues of both men were unveiled in Pyongyang, soon after a failed rocket launch that had been condemned by the United States as an attempted ballistic missile test.

In October, state television showed a new giant statue of Kim Jong-Il being erected at a military base.

The Unification Ministry report estimated that the North's long-range missile programme had cost it $1.34 billion dollars in 2012.

Pyongyang plans to launch a long-range rocket later his month, in defiance of widespread international condemnation.


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« Reply #3356 on: Dec 06, 2012, 08:12 AM »

December 5, 2012

Documents Indicate Walmart Blocked Safety Push in Bangladesh

By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
IHT

Documents found at the Tazreen apparel factory in Bangladesh, where 112 workers died in a fire nearly two weeks ago, indicate that three American garment companies were using the factory during the past year to supply goods to Walmart and its Sam’s Club subsidiary.

The documents — photographed by a Bangladeshi labor organizer after the fire and made available to The New York Times — include an internal production report from mid-September showing that 5 of the factory’s 14 production lines were devoted to making apparel for Walmart.

In a related matter, two officials who attended a meeting held in Bangladesh in 2011 to discuss factory safety in the garment industry said on Wednesday that the Walmart official there played the lead role in blocking an effort to have global retailers pay more for apparel to help Bangladesh factories improve their electrical and fire safety.

Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator for the Clean Clothes Campaign, an anti-sweatshop group based in Amsterdam, said Walmart was the company that “most strongly advocated this position.”

The meeting was held in April 2011 in Dhaka, the country’s capital, and brought together global retailers, Bangladeshi factory owners, government officials and nongovernment organizations after several apparel factory fires in Bangladesh had killed dozens of workers the previous winter.

According to the minutes of the meeting, which were made available to The Times, Sridevi Kalavakolanu, a Walmart director of ethical sourcing, along with an official from another major apparel retailer, noted that the proposed improvements in electrical and fire safety would involve as many as 4,500 factories and would be “in most cases” a “very extensive and costly modification.”

“It is not financially feasible for the brands to make such investments,” the minutes said.

Kevin Gardner, a Walmart spokesman, said the company official’s remarks in Bangladesh were “out of context.”

“Walmart has been advocating for improved fire safety with the Bangladeshi government, with industry groups and with suppliers,” he said, adding that the company has helped develop and establish programs to increase fire prevention.

Ms. Zeldenrust said, “Everyone recognized that fire safety was a serious problem and it was a high time to act on it, and Walmart’s position had a very negative impact.” She added, “It gives manufacturers the excuse they’re looking for to say, ‘We’re not to blame.’ ”

Scott Nova, the executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a factory monitoring group based in Washington, was also at the meeting. He said that upgrading the factories’ safety would cost a small fraction of what Walmart and other retailers pay for the clothing they import from Bangladesh each year.

Bloomberg News first reported details of the Dhaka meeting on Wednesday.

Walmart has indirectly acknowledged that the factory, Tazreen Fashions, outside Dhaka, was producing some of its apparel, saying in a statement that a supplier had “subcontracted work to this factory without authorization and in direct violation of our policies.” In that statement, issued two days after the Nov. 24 fire, Walmart said, “We have terminated the relationship with that supplier.” Walmart has declined to name the supplier.

After Walmart was shown some of the documents from the factory on Wednesday, Mr. Gardner replied in an e-mail. “As we’ve said, the Tazreen factory was de-authorized months ago,” he wrote. “We don’t comment on specific supplier relationships.”

The photographed documents from the factory indicate that three suppliers — the International Direct Group, Success Apparel and Topson Downs — used the factory to make shirts, shorts and pajamas for Walmart. One document, written in July, provides product descriptions from Success Apparel for Walmart’s Faded Glory house-brand shorts. A photo taken inside the factory after the fire showed a pair of Faded Glory shorts.

The documents indicate that Success Apparel often worked through Simco, a Bangladeshi garment maker.

Mr. Nova of the Worker Rights Consortium said the documents raised questions about Walmart’s statements after the fire.

“It was not a single rogue supplier as Walmart has claimed — there were several different U.S. suppliers working for Walmart in that factory,” Mr. Nova said. “It stretches credulity to think that Walmart, famous for its tight control over its global supply chain, didn’t know about this.”

Mr. Nova works closely with the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity and made the factory documents available.

Investigators also found apparel made for Sears and Disney inside the factory after the fire. Both companies said suppliers had given orders to the factory without their knowledge and authorization.

Mr. Gardner said accredited outside auditors had periodically inspected the factory on Walmart’s behalf. A May 2011 audit gave the factory an “orange” rating, meaning that there were “higher-risk violations” and that it would be re-audited within six months. If a factory gets three orange ratings over two years, it loses Walmart’s approval.

A follow-up audit in August 2011 for Walmart gave Tazreen an improved “yellow” rating, meaning “medium-risk violations.”


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« Reply #3357 on: Dec 06, 2012, 08:14 AM »

December 5, 2012

Secularism in Search of a Nation

By MANU JOSEPH
IHT

NEW DELHI — In 1976, India made an amendment to its Constitution that inserted the word “secular” to describe the great republic. It was a national aspiration and still is, and is glorified as a national characteristic, which it is not from the evidence in plain sight.

By “secular,” India did not mean that it was atheistic or agnostic or that it rejected all religious practices. By “secular,” the people who framed the amendment meant that in India all faiths are accepted, and that Indians are expected to tolerate all religions. Every Indian has grown up listening to the idea of India as a “secular” republic. It is a ceaseless background hum, like all moral lessons. One cannot escape its persistence.

But can a person who is not atheistic truly be “secular” as expected by the Constitution, especially when the two major religions in India are Hinduism and Islam? What happens when the ways of one religion hurt the feelings of the other religion? Are atheistic lawmakers, of whom there were more than a few in the early days of the republic, qualified to decide how religious Indians must view other religious Indians?

On this day, Dec. 6, 20 years ago, it did appear that the demand on practicing Hindus and Muslims in India to be “secular” was unnatural and unsustainable. An ancient mosque called Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, was demolished by a Hindu mob protesting the very existence of the monument. They believed that it was built over a Hindu temple and that the site itself was sacred because Lord Rama was said to have been born there.

The demonstrators had been allowed on the site after the organizers of the protest had promised the Supreme Court that the mosque would not be harmed. The organizers, some of whom were from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which went on to govern the nation, asserted that the ensuing destruction of the mosque was the spontaneous act of an emotional crowd. In the days that followed, there were riots across India in which more than 2,000 Hindus and Muslims were killed.

The mainstream news media in India have always held that Dec. 6, 1992, was a day of shame and that the destruction of the mosque was a mindless act of vandalism. In the months after the riots, newspapers ran features about Hindus and Muslims living in harmony: a temple and a mosque somewhere standing shoulder to shoulder on a single patch of land, a Muslim family that made Hindu idols, Muslims who married Hindus, Hindus who adopted Muslim orphans and so on. That India was “secular” was the respectable point of view among educated Indians.

But, as it often is the case, there was a difference between the respectable view and what a majority actually believed and said in private, which was that the demolition of the mosque was a sign that India was changing and that in this new nation Hindus would become increasingly assertive and intimidating enough to protect themselves against other religions, especially Islam.

When India decided that it was “secular,” what it really meant, without spelling it out, was that Hindus, who make up the majority of the nation, would have to accommodate themselves to the ways of other religions, even if this meant taking some cultural blows. So, Hindus would have to accept the slaughter of cows, which they consider sacred (some Indian states have banned cow slaughter); the Muslim community’s perceived infatuation with Pakistan; the conversion of poor, low-caste Hindus to Christianity by evangelists; and the near impossibility of getting admitted to some prestigious schools and colleges run by Christian organizations because so many places are reserved for Christian students.

The anger and frustration of middle-class Hindus at all this and more greatly contributed to the Hindu nationalist movement, which picked up strength through the 1980s as an upper-caste uprising that identified conservative Islam and the Babri Masjid, one of the enduring monuments of the Moghul conquest of India, as foes.

The movement eventually hoisted the Bharatiya Janata Party as a major national party, which led India through two short spells, then for a full five-year term, starting in 1999. It was a period of economic growth, and the confident party went back to the polls in 2004 with the joyous slogan “India Shining.” But it was defeated because there were apparently still too many poor people in the country who did not see the shine.

Now the party hopes it will triumph in the 2014 general elections, chiefly riding on the back of a man linked to the 2002 riots in Gujarat, which claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat and now a possible prime ministerial candidate, was accused of discouraging the police from protecting Muslims, accusations he has denied. But he understood very early in his political career that any nation that has to declare that it is “secular” probably is not.

Manu Joseph is editor of the Indian newsweekly Open and author of the novel “The Illicit Happiness of Other People.”
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« Reply #3358 on: Dec 06, 2012, 08:18 AM »


IHT Rendezvous
December 6, 2012, 7:53 am

Pressure Grows on Swiss Banks to Expose Tax Cheats’ Billions

By HARVEY MORRIS

LONDON - Spare a thought for wealthy tax cheats.

Action by the U.S. and European governments is hacking away at Switzerland's hallowed tradition of banking secrecy, threatening the Alpine nation's reputation as the coolest place to park hot money.

Under budgetary pressure to chase down every last tax dollar and euro, authorities are working with the Swiss to close the last loopholes in a banking regime that once made it the favored offshore haven.

The federal government in Bern said it had signed a deal with the United States this week that will bring Switzerland in line with the U.S. Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), a law that obliges banks to share information about U.S. clients' assets.

In London, meanwhile, George Osborne, the British finance minister, gave Parliament details on Wednesday of a treaty with the Swiss that would allow him to levy tax on an estimated £40 billion, or $64 billion, held in secret Swiss bank accounts by British nationals.

Mr. Osborne said the £5 billion he expected to raise over the next six years amounted to "the largest tax evasion settlement in U.K. history."

And, in Germany, officials in the region of North Rhine-Westphalia have been paying anonymous bank employees for illicitly compiled data discs that reveal billions of euros stashed in Swiss accounts by German depositors.

The Swiss authorities have been cooperating with foreign governments' efforts to track down hidden assets. At the same time, they have been trying to limit the impact of tougher measures on the banking sector.

Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, the Swiss president and finance minister, has said her country has no more interest in holding undeclared foreign funds.

But she has also said there is no room for further concessions in a tax deal with Germany that was rejected last month by the Bundesrat, the German upper house, after the opposition argued it was not tough enough.

Ms. Widmer-Schlumpf, who is holding talks on tax issues in Paris on Friday with François Hollande, the French president, said the stalemate with Germany could only be "good news" for German tax evaders.

She meanwhile wants a reluctant French government to accept a so-called Rubik agreement of the kind that Switzerland already has with Britain and Austria, but which the Bundesrat has rejected.

It would mandate that Swiss banks withhold tax on individual accounts, without revealing the identity of the owners, thus preserving banking secrecy.

Bernard Droux, a Swiss private banker who heads an association of Geneva banks, said he hoped the German lower house, the Bundestag, would succeed in overcoming objections to adopting a similar deal.

Asked by the Tribune de Genève whether a banking sector under attack from all sides would be forced to adopt a "clean money" strategy, Mr. Droux replied: "We prefer to speak of a strategy of fiscal conformity."

Whatever you call it, the trend toward closing the loopholes in Switzerland and elsewhere translates into big money for the taxman.

Dick Durbin and Al Franken, Democratic U.S. senators, estimated this year that offshore tax havens and similar tax loopholes cost American taxpayers $100 billion a year.

According to Germany's Der Spiegel, Switzerland is being forced to ponder a future era of clean money in the face of the international crackdown.

The weekly said cracks had been appearing in the Swiss banking fortress since the 1980s.

"The abundance of money that was being hidden in Swiss accounts to avoid paying taxes, on the other hand, was not publicly discussed in Switzerland until recently," according to Der Spiegel's Mathieu von Rohr.

"Everyone knew that it existed, but it only became an issue when other countries started running out of money during the debt crisis."

However, he quoted Jean Ziegler, a veteran Swiss campaigner against the banks, as challenging the perception that anything had changed. "No, the banditry of the banks is in full swing!" Mr. Ziegler declared.

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December 5, 2012

For Greece, Oligarchs Are Obstacle to Recovery

By RACHEL DONADIO and LIZ ALDERMAN
IHT

ATHENS — A dynamic entrepreneur, Lavrentis Lavrentiadis seemed to represent a promising new era for Greece. He dazzled the country’s traditionally insular business world by spinning together a multibillion-dollar empire just a few years after inheriting a small family firm at 18. Seeking acceptance in elite circles, he gave lavishly to charities and cultivated ties to the leading political parties.

But as Greece’s economy soured in recent years, his fortunes sagged and he began embezzling money from a bank he controlled, prosecutors say. With charges looming, it looked as if his rapid rise would be followed by an equally precipitous fall. Thanks to a law passed quietly by the Greek Parliament, however, he avoided prosecution, at least for a time, simply by paying the money back.

Now 40, Mr. Lavrentiadis is back in the spotlight as one of the names on the so-called Lagarde list of more than 2,000 Greeks said to have accounts in a Geneva branch of the bank HSBC and who are suspected of tax evasion. Given to Greek officials two years ago by Christine Lagarde, then the French finance minister and now head of the International Monetary Fund, the list was expected to cast a damning light on the shady practices of the rich.

Instead, it was swept under the rug, and now two former finance ministers and Greece’s top tax officials are under investigation for having failed to act.

Greece’s economic troubles are often attributed to a public sector packed full of redundant workers, a lavish pension system and uncompetitive industries hampered by overpaid workers with lifetime employment guarantees. Often overlooked, however, is the role played by a handful of wealthy families, politicians and the news media — often owned by the magnates — that make up the Greek power structure.

In a country crushed by years of austerity and 25 percent unemployment, average Greeks are growing increasingly resentful of an oligarchy that, critics say, presides over an opaque, closed economy that is at the root of many of the country’s problems and operates with virtual impunity. Several dozen powerful families control critical sectors, including banking, shipping and construction, and can usually count on the political class to look out for their interests, sometimes by passing legislation tailored to their specific needs.

The result, analysts say, is a lack of competition that undermines the economy by allowing the magnates to run cartels and enrich themselves through crony capitalism. “That makes it rational for them to form a close, incestuous relationship with politicians and the media, which is then highly vulnerable to corruption,” said Kevin Featherstone, a professor of European Politics at the London School of Economics.

This week the anticorruption watchdog Transparency International ranked Greece as the most corrupt nation in Europe, behind former Eastern Bloc states like Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia. Under the pressure of the financial crisis, Greece is being pressed by Germany and its international lenders to make fundamental changes to its economic system in exchange for the money it needs to avoid bankruptcy.

But it remains an open question whether Greece’s leaders will be able to engineer such a transformation. In the past year, despite numerous promises to increase transparency, the country actually dropped 14 places from the previous corruption survey.

Mr. Lavrentiadis is still facing a host of accusations stemming from hundreds of millions of dollars in loans made by his Proton bank to dormant companies — sometimes, investigators say, ordering an employee to withdraw the money in bags of cash. But with Greece scrambling to complete a critical bank recapitalization and restructuring, his case is emblematic of a larger battle between Greece’s famously weak institutions and fledgling regulatory structures against these entrenched interests.

Many say that the system has to change in order for Greece to emerge from the crisis. “Keeping the status quo will simply prolong the disaster in Greece,” Mr. Featherstone said. While the case of Mr. Lavrentiadis suggests that the status quo is at least under scrutiny, he added, “It’s not under sufficient attack.”

In a nearly two-hour interview, Mr. Lavrentiadis denied accusations of wrongdoing and said that he held “a few accounts” at HSBC in Geneva that totaled only about $65,000, all of it legitimate, taxed income. He also sidestepped questions about his political ties and declined to comment on any details of the continuing investigation into Proton Bank.

Sitting in the office of his criminal lawyer last month, relaxed, smiling and dressed in a crisp blue suit and red-and-blue tie, Mr. Lavrentiadis said he found it puzzling that he had been singled out in reports about the Lagarde list when other powerful figures appeared to evade scrutiny.

“My question is, ‘Why me?’ ” he said. “I’m the scapegoat for everything.”

In the interview, Mr. Lavrentiadis depicted himself as an outsider and upstart, an entrepreneur in a small country dominated by old families who frown on newcomers. “I am not from a third-generation aristocratic family,” he said repeatedly.

Indeed, by some lights, Mr. Lavrentiadis fell in part because he rose too quickly and then failed to secure enough of the right friends to protect him, a perception he did not dispute.

“Why me, something that is clean, and why not something that has bigger problems?” he said. Pressed on who might be responsible for his troubles, he smiled enigmatically. “I could tell you thousands of names,” he said, “but it’s not my style.”

Mr. Lavrentiadis’s mettle was forged early, when he took the reins of his family’s chemical supply firm, Neochimiki, in 1990, after the death of his father. Bright and charming, and stricken with rheumatoid arthritis, he quickly enlarged the company and stormed into the Greek business world in 2003, when he listed the company on the Athens Stock Exchange. In 2008, the Carlyle Group, one of Wall Street’s largest asset management firms, paid more than $970 million for a stake in Neochimiki.

Over the next four years, Mr. Lavrentiadis built an empire that included holdings in pharmaceuticals, banks, a soccer team and works of art. He also took stakes in print and electronic news media outlets, following a pattern in which magnates own virtually every nongovernmental news media outlet in the country. But the veneer began to crack soon after the financial crisis hit. Carlyle lost more than $65 million on Neochimiki and accused Mr. Lavrentiadis of overstating its financial health. Cash was bleeding from a range of other business holdings.

In December 2009, four months before Greece sought a foreign bailout, Mr. Lavrentiadis bought a controlling stake in Proton Bank, which had expanded rapidly after acquiring a small bank called Omega in 2005. Omega’s board members included Mr. Lavrentiadis; the father-in-law at the time of Evangelos Venizelos, now the Socialist Party leader; and a brother of George Papandreou, a former prime minister.

Regulators now charge that from the moment Mr. Lavrentiadis took over Proton, he began looting it to prop up his failing businesses and those of a network of what appear to be shell companies. In 2010 alone, a total of $925 million — more than 40 percent of Proton’s commercial loans — were made with virtually no credit checks to his firms or to shell companies he had sold to associates, according to an audit by Greece’s central bank, first reported by Reuters.

His problems burst into the public realm in mid-2011, when Greek financial prosecutors charged him with embezzling the $65 million, following investigations into suspected money laundering.

Several months earlier, however, lawmakers had quietly passed a law that allowed people suspected of wrongdoing to avoid prosecution if they repaid the money they were accused of stealing in certain crimes. The idea, legislators said, was to speed resolution of cases in Greece’s notoriously slow courts. Mr. Lavrentiadis quickly paid back the $65 million to Proton and claimed immunity.

Then in March, a financial prosecutor charged him and 26 others with fraud, embezzlement, forming a criminal gang, money laundering and breach of faith stemming from loans believed to have been issued by Proton Bank. The $65 million repaid by Mr. Lavrentiadis in a bid to secure immunity is regarded by prosecutors as only a part of the more than $915 million in bad loans that prosecutors say Proton floated to dormant companies.

In the interview, Mr. Lavrentiadis confirmed that he had returned the $65 million but declined to say under what circumstances. He dismissed the Bank of Greece report as not “objective,” and said prosecutors had not yet called him for questioning or detailed the charges against him personally, beyond those against the 27 as a group. “I trust Greek justice,” he said.

Despite the fraud accusations against him, Mr. Lavrentiadis was still the beneficiary of questionable government actions. In July 2011, Mr. Venizelos, then the finance minister, authorized a $130 million deposit of government money to Proton for a single day, he says to avoid a calamitous collapse. The action was approved by the Greek central bank but was in defiance of a ruling by Greece’s General Accounting Office that it was illegal. The $130 million, plus interest, was returned to the government, Mr. Venizelos said in written answers to a list of questions.

“It was absolutely necessary to preserve Proton — not Lavrentiadis — in order to save huge amounts of public money,” added Mr. Venizelos, who resigned as finance minister in March. A month after the $130 million transfer, Mr. Venizelos was co-writer of a law that retroactively granted the finance minister full power to bail out banks with public money, regardless of the recommendations of other state institutions.

Mr. Venizelos said the law was necessary because “Greece had not had a clear legislative framework that could allow it to handle public deposits in crisis situations.” But legal experts said it was part of a broader pattern in Greece where actions by influential figures are later smoothed over with new legislation that eliminates any questions of illegality.

Mr. Lavrentiadis declined to comment on his ties with Mr. Venizelos, beyond saying, “I never asked a favor.”

In October 2011, Proton was nationalized. “I was shocked,” Mr. Lavrentiadis said, adding that he did not believe the bank’s finances merited the move. In March, he challenged the decision in the Supreme Court and is awaiting a ruling.

Asked if the Proton case was evidence of a regulatory system that was working or one that had failed, Mr. Lavrentiadis smiled. “It’s a regulated market without rules,” he said of Greece. “You can interpret it however it’s to your benefit.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 6, 2012

An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia. Those countries were members of the former Eastern Bloc, and what is now Slovakia was part of Czechoslovakia. They are not former Soviet states.




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« Reply #3359 on: Dec 06, 2012, 08:22 AM »

 SPIEGEL ONLINE
12/06/2012 12:19 PM

Turning Point? Light Seen at End of Euro-Crisis Tunnel

The worst of the euro crisis has passed, says European Commissioner Olli Rehn, who points to the common currency area's falling budget deficits in an interview on Thursday. Greek Prime Minister Samaras is also optimistic, saying that his country is now on the right track.

Have we seen the worst of the euro crisis? According to European Commissioner Olli Rehn, we have. He said on Thursday that the debt and financial crisis afflicting Europe's common currency zone has surpassed its apex.

Rehn, commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, told the Financial Times Deutschland on Thursday: "The last high point of the crisis was in June, around the time of the Greek elections. Now we have a reverse trend."

Rehn defended the strict austerity measures applied in countries like Greece, Portugal and Spain, and credited such policies with successfully reducing the combined budget deficit in the euro zone from 6.2 percent of the currency area's gross domestic product in 2010 to 3 percent this year and a projected 2.5 percent in 2013.

In the interview, Rehn said a change in policy is underway, from one of purely crisis management, to a focus more on structural issues and the competitiveness of all euro zone and European Union member states.

'Less Pessimistic'

Some figures from the real economy, Rehn allowed, such as extremely high unemployment in several euro-zone member states, remains alarming. Much of that, he said, is due to developments in the first half of 2012, including uncertainty over the Greek elections and doubts about Spain's banking sector. Rehn said he is "less pessimistic" than he was before the summer break because during the summer, euro-zone governments and the European Central Bank (ECB) helped stabilize the situation.

Still, he warned against being overly confident. "The greatest risk would be self-satisfaction," he told the paper.

Greece, the euro zone's most troubled member, faced another setback Wednesday when the US ratings agency Standard and Poor's downgraded its creditworthiness again, from a "CCC" rating to "SD," for "selective default," because of the current Greek debt buyback program. The program involves Athens repurchasing sovereign bonds for a fraction of their face value. Should the buyback be successful, analysts expect the raiting to return to the "CCC" level.

Rehn's comments are not the first time that he has voiced optimism about the future course of the euro crisis. In October, he told the Bangkok Post that "the worst is over for the euro debt crisis." That buoyancy was quickly countered by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who said "I'm not so sure that the worst of the crisis is behind us."

Greece's Ambition

Meanwhile, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras told the German tabloid Bild: "We will stay in the euro."

He laid out the country's goals for the future, by adding: "Our ambition is to spectacularly change Greece and to transform it from a bad example, filled with problems, to an outstanding example of a model economy."

A further debt haircut for Greece is unlikely, the prime minister said. "Our debt is now officially considered to be sustainable for the long term," he said. Samaras told Bild that his country had achieved more in the past two months than had been attempted over the last three decades.

"If you look at our reforms and our changes, you will understand that we are working on a success story," he told the paper. "That will soon be clear to everyone. And then no one will question our membership in the euro any more or a debt haircut."
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