December 11, 2012, 8:56 am
Cabinet Diversity Poses a Question for Obama
By MICHAEL D. SHEAR
It has been 15 years since a white man served as secretary of state or secretary of labor.
Yet no woman or minority member has ever led the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency or the Treasury Department. The White House chief of staff has also always been a white man.
As President Obama ponders how to shuffle his cabinet for a second term, he faces decisions that could continue these patterns - in which some cabinet jobs remain the domain of white men, while others endure as bastions of diversity - or that could break them.
Attention so far has focused on the possibility that Susan E. Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, would become secretary of state, succeeding Hillary Rodham Clinton. Mrs. Clinton followed Condoleezza Rice, Colin L. Powell and Madeleine K. Albright, with Warren Christopher, who stepped down in 1997, being the last white man to serve as America's top diplomat.
President Bill Clinton's nomination of Ms. Albright in 1997 broke the mold of what an American secretary of state should look like. And it established a pattern that succeeding presidents have been eager to follow.
Fred I. Greenstein, an emeritus professor of politics at Princeton University, offered the academic theory of "path dependence" as one possible explanation. The theory argues that earlier decisions by leaders often guide the decisions of their successors, he said.
"You get in a kind of rhythm of doing the same thing," Mr. Greenstein said.
That theory might also help explain the tendency for presidents to nominate women as labor secretary. In the last 25 years, one man and six women have occupied that post. Hilda L. Solis, a former congresswoman from California, is the current labor secretary.
(The first woman to serve in a president's cabinet was Frances Perkins, the labor secretary for 12 years under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Ms. Perkins was followed by 14 consecutive men; only one man, Robert B. Reich, has held the post since 1987.)
The theory of path dependence could also be why some cabinet jobs have continued to draw from a smaller demographic pool.
The most frequently mentioned candidate to follow Timothy F. Geithner as treasury secretary is Jacob J. Lew, the White House chief of staff. Were Mr. Lew to move across the street, the possibilities to succeed him include Denis R. McDonough, the deputy national security adviser, and Ronald A. Klain, a former chief of staff to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
But Mr. Obama also has options for the Treasury and Defense Departments, the C.I.A. and the chief of staff that would break with precedent.
He is reportedly considering Michèle A. Flournoy to take over at the Pentagon after serving as the under secretary for defense. Lael Brainard, the Treasury under secretary for international affairs, is considered a contender to become secretary, although that is considered more likely later on in Mr. Obama's second term.
The president could tap Nancy-Ann Deparle, his deputy chief of staff, to be the chief of staff. And if Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. leaves this year, Mr. Obama might shift Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, to the Justice Department, which would make her the country's second female attorney general after Janet Reno.
Also on the list of possible successors for Mr. Holder: Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, who would be the cabinet's first Indian-American, and Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts. Mr. Patrick dined with Mr. Obama right after the election, though he has said that "under no circumstances" would he take an administration job.
"It's certainly a concern," Marcia Greenberger, the co-president of the National Women's Law Center, said of the lack of diversity in some cabinet jobs. "It is important that minorities and women just become natural candidates for these positions."
The rest of the cabinet has a more diverse history, though white men dominated for decades. Women and minority members have led the Departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Transportation, Energy and Education. They have also served as trade representative and administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Norman Y. Mineta, a former congressman from California, became the first Asian-American in the cabinet in 2000 when Mr. Clinton appointed him commerce secretary. Lauro F. Cavazos, a former education secretary, became the first Hispanic American cabinet member in 1988.
Mr. Obama might also make history by nominating the first openly gay cabinet member. John Berry, the director of the president's Office of Personnel Management, is said to be a candidate for interior secretary when Ken Salazar departs. And Fred P. Hochberg, the chairman and president of the Export-Import Bank, could get the nod as commerce secretary.
If Mr. Obama does break the pattern with one of these positions, he could end up changing the way future presidents look at candidates to lead those agencies.
It was not that long ago that secretary of state seemed an unlikely symbol of workplace diversity.
December 11, 2012
The 2,000-Year-Old Wonder Drug
By DAVID B. AGUS
Los Angeles Times
THE inexorable rise in health care spending, as all of us know, is a problem. But what’s truly infuriating, as we watch America’s medical bill soar, is that our conversation has focused almost exclusively on how to pay for that care, not on reducing our need for it. In the endless debate about “health care reform,” few have zeroed in on the practical actions we should be taking now to make Americans healthier.
An exception is Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, who is setting new standards that we would do well to adopt as a nation. In the last several years, he’s changed the city’s health code to mandate restrictions on sodas and trans fats — products that, when consumed over the long term, harm people. These new rules will undoubtedly improve New Yorkers’ health in years to come.
Such bold moves prompt a provocative question: when does regulating a person’s habits in the name of good health become our moral and social duty? The answer, I suggest, is a two-parter: first, when the scientific data clearly and overwhelmingly demonstrate that one behavior or another can substantially reduce — or, conversely, raise — a person’s risk of disease; and second, when all of us are stuck paying for one another’s medical bills (which is what we do now, by way of Medicare, Medicaid and other taxpayer-financed health care programs).
In such cases, encouraging a healthy behavior, or discouraging an unhealthy one, ought to be a matter of public policy — which is why, for instance, we insist on vaccinating children for the measles, mumps, rubella and polio; we know these preventive strategies save lives.
Under that rationale, then, why not make it public policy to encourage middle-aged people to use aspirin?
Developed in 1897 by the German chemist Felix Hoffmann, aspirin, or acetylsalicylic acid, has long proved its value as an analgesic. Two millenniums before that, Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, used its active ingredient — which he extracted from the bark and leaves of the willow tree — to help alleviate pain and fevers.
Since then, we’ve gained insight into both the biological mechanism and the effects of this chemical compound. Many high-quality research studies have confirmed that the use of aspirin substantially reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. Indeed, the evidence for this is so abundant and clear that, in 2009, the United States Preventive Services Task Force strongly recommended that men ages 45 to 79, and women ages 55 to 79, take a low-dose aspirin pill daily, with the exception for those who are already at higher risk for gastrointestinal bleeding or who have certain other health issues. (As an anticoagulant, aspirin can increase the risk of bleeding — a serious and potentially deadly issue for some people.)
New reports about aspirin’s benefits in cancer prevention are just as convincing. In 2011, British researchers, analyzing data from some 25,000 patients in eight long-term studies, found that a small, 75-milligram dose of aspirin taken daily for at least five years reduced the risk of dying from common cancers by 21 percent.
In March, The Lancet published two more papers bolstering the case for this ancient drug. The first, reviewing five long-term studies involving more than 17,000 patients, found that a daily low-dose aspirin lowered the risk of getting adenocarcinomas — common malignant cancers that develop in the lungs, colon and prostate — by an average of 46 percent.
In the second, researchers at Oxford and other centers compared patients who took aspirin with those who didn’t in 51 different studies. Investigators found that the risk of dying from cancer was 37 percent lower among those taking aspirin for at least five years. In a subsection of the study group, three years of daily aspirin use reduced the risk of developing cancer by almost 25 percent when compared with the aspirin-free control group.
The data are screaming out to us. Aspirin, one of the oldest remedies on the planet, helps prevent heart disease through what is likely to be a variety of mechanisms, including keeping blood clots from forming. And experts believe it helps prevent cancer, in part, by dampening an immune response called inflammation.
So the question remains: given the evidence we have, why is it merely voluntary for physicians to inform their patients about a health care intervention that could not only help them, but also save untold billions in taxpayer dollars each year?
For some men over the age of 45 and women over 55, the risks of taking aspirin outweigh any benefits — and patients should talk with their doctors before taking any medication, including something as familiar as aspirin.
But with such caveats in place, it still ought to be possible to encourage aspirin’s use in those for whom the potential benefits would be obvious and the risks minimal. Just as we discourage smoking through advertising campaigns, for example, shouldn’t we suggest that middle-aged Americans speak to their doctors about aspirin? Perhaps pharmacists or even health insurance companies should be enlisted to help spread the word about this disease-prevention drug?
The right policy will have to be hammered out, of course. But if we’re going to address the country’s sky-high medical bill, we’re going to have to address the need for Americans to be active in protecting their own health.
Everyone may want the right to use tobacco products and engage in other behaviors that are unequivocally linked with disease — or have the right not to wear a seat belt and refrain from other actions that may protect their well-being. But, if so, should society have the obligation to cover the costs of the consequences?
As the former Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart once said, “There is a big difference between what we have the right to do and what is right to do.” Health care reform should, at long last, focus on the latter.
David B. Agus is a professor of medicine and engineering at the University of Southern California and the author of “The End of Illness.”
December 11, 2012
For Lesser Crimes, Rethinking Life Behind Bars
By JOHN TIERNEY
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Stephanie George and Judge Roger Vinson had quite different opinions about the lockbox seized by the police from her home in Pensacola. She insisted she had no idea that a former boyfriend had hidden it in her attic. Judge Vinson considered the lockbox, containing a half-kilogram of cocaine, to be evidence of her guilt.
But the defendant and the judge fully agreed about the fairness of the sentence he imposed in federal court.
“Even though you have been involved in drugs and drug dealing,” Judge Vinson told Ms. George, “your role has basically been as a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder but not actively involved in the drug dealing, so certainly in my judgment it does not warrant a life sentence.”
Yet the judge had no other option on that morning 15 years ago. As her stunned family watched, Ms. George, then 27, who had never been accused of violence, was led from the courtroom to serve a sentence of life without parole.
“I remember my mom crying out and asking the Lord why,” said Ms. George, now 42, in an interview at the Federal Correctional Institution in Tallahassee. “Sometimes I still can’t believe myself it could happen in America.”
Her sentence reflected a revolution in public policy, often called mass incarceration, that appears increasingly dubious to both conservative and liberal social scientists. They point to evidence that mass incarceration is no longer a cost-effective way to make streets safer, and may even be promoting crime instead of suppressing it.
Three decades of stricter drug laws, reduced parole and rigid sentencing rules have lengthened prison terms and more than tripled the percentage of Americans behind bars. The United States has the highest reported rate of incarceration of any country: about one in 100 adults, a total of nearly 2.3 million people in prison or jail.
But today there is growing sentiment that these policies have gone too far, causing too many Americans like Ms. George to be locked up for too long at too great a price — economically and socially.
The criticism is resonating with some state and federal officials, who have started taking steps to stop the prison population’s growth. The social scientists are attracting attention partly because the drop in crime has made it a less potent political issue, and partly because of the states’ financial problems.
State spending on corrections, after adjusting for inflation, has more than tripled in the past three decades, making it the fastest-growing budgetary cost except Medicaid. Even though the prison population has leveled off in the past several years, the costs remain so high that states are being forced to reduce spending in other areas.
Three decades ago, California spent 10 percent of its budget on higher education and 3 percent on prisons. In recent years the prison share of the budget rose above 10 percent while the share for higher education fell below 8 percent. As university administrators in California increase tuition to cover their deficits, they complain that the state spends much more on each prisoner — nearly $50,000 per year — than on each student.
Many researchers agree that the rise in imprisonment produced some initial benefits, particularly in urban neighborhoods, where violence decreased significantly in the 1990s. But as sentences lengthened and the prison population kept growing, it included more and more nonviolent criminals like Ms. George.
Half a million people are now in prison or jail for drug offenses, about 10 times the number in 1980, and there have been especially sharp increases in incarceration rates for women and for people over 55, long past the peak age for violent crime. In all, about 1.3 million people, more than half of those behind bars, are in prison or jail for nonviolent offenses.
Researchers note that the policies have done little to stem the flow of illegal drugs. And they say goals like keeping street violence in check could be achieved without the expense of locking up so many criminals for so long.
While many scholars still favor tough treatment for violent offenders, they have begun suggesting alternatives for other criminals. James Q. Wilson, the conservative social scientist whose work in the 1970s helped inspire tougher policies on prison, several years ago recommended diverting more nonviolent drug offenders from prisons to treatment programs.
Two of his collaborators, George L. Kelling of the Manhattan Institute and John J. DiIulio Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania, have joined with prominent scholars and politicians, including Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich, in a group called Right on Crime. It advocates more selective incarceration and warns that current policies “have the unintended consequence of hardening nonviolent, low-risk offenders” so that they become “a greater risk to the public than when they entered.”
These views are hardly universal, particularly among elected officials worried about a surge in crime if the prison population shrinks. Prosecutors have resisted attempts to change the system, contending that the strict sentences deter crime and induce suspects to cooperate because the penalties provide the police and prosecutors with so much leverage.
Some of the strongest evidence for the benefit of incarceration came from studies by a University of Chicago economist, Steven D. Levitt, who found that penal policies were a major factor in reducing crime during the 1990s. But as crime continued declining and the prison population kept growing, the returns diminished.
“We know that harsher punishments lead to less crime, but we also know that the millionth prisoner we lock up is a lot less dangerous to society than the first guy we lock up,” Dr. Levitt said. “In the mid-1990s I concluded that the social benefits approximately equaled the costs of incarceration. Today, my guess is that the costs outweigh the benefits at the margins. I think we should be shrinking the prison population by at least one-third.”
Some social scientists argue that the incarceration rate is now so high that the net effect is “crimogenic”: creating more crime over the long term by harming the social fabric in communities and permanently damaging the economic prospects of prisoners as well as their families. Nationally, about one in 40 children have a parent in prison. Among black children, one in 15 have a parent in prison.
Cocaine in the Attic
Ms. George was a young single mother when she first got in trouble with drugs and the law. One of her children was fathered by a crack dealer, Michael Dickey, who went to prison in the early 1990s for drug and firearm offenses.
“When he went away, I was at home with the kids struggling to pay bills,” Ms. George said. “The only way I knew to get money quick was selling crack. I was never a user, but from being around him I pretty much knew how to get it.”
After the police caught her making crack sales of $40 and $120 — which were counted as separate felonies — she was sentenced, at 23, to nine months in a work-release program. That meant working at her mother’s hair salon in Pensacola during the day and spending nights at the county jail, away from her three young children.
“When I caught that first charge, it scared me to death,” she recalled. “I thought, my God, being away from my kids, this is not what I want. I promised them I would never let it happen again.”
When Mr. Dickey got out of prison in 1995, she said, she refused to resume their relationship, but she did allow him into her apartment sometimes to see their daughter. One evening, shortly after he had arrived, the police showed up with a search warrant and a ladder.
“I didn’t know what they were doing with a ladder in a one-story building,” Ms. George said. “They went into a closet and opened a little attic space I’d never seen before and brought down the lockbox. He gave them a key to open it. When I saw what was in it, I was so mad I jumped across the table at him and started hitting him.”
Mr. Dickey said he had paid her to store the cocaine at her home. At the trial, other defendants said she was present during drug transactions conducted by Mr. Dickey and other dealers she dated, and sometimes delivered cash or crack for her boyfriends. Ms. George denied those accusations, which her lawyer argued were uncorroborated and self-serving. After the jury convicted her of being part of a conspiracy to distribute cocaine, she told the judge at her sentencing: “I just want to say I didn’t do it. I don’t want to be away from my kids.”
Whatever the truth of the testimony against her, it certainly benefited the other defendants. Providing evidence to the prosecution is one of the few ways to avoid a mandatory sentence. Because the government formally credited the other defendants with “substantial assistance,” their sentences were all reduced to less than 15 years. Even though Mr. Dickey was the leader of the enterprise and had a much longer criminal record than Ms. George, he was freed five years ago.
Looking back on the case, Judge Vinson said such disparate treatment is unfortunately all too common. The judge, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan who is hardly known for liberalism (last year he ruled that the Obama administration’s entire health care act was unconstitutional), says he still regrets the sentence he had to impose on Ms. George because of a formula dictated by the amount of cocaine in the lockbox and her previous criminal record.
“She was not a major participant by any means, but the problem in these cases is that the people who can offer the most help to the government are the most culpable,” Judge Vinson said recently. “So they get reduced sentences while the small fry, the little workers who don’t have that information, get the mandatory sentences.
“The punishment is supposed to fit the crime, but when a legislative body says this is going to be the sentence no matter what other factors there are, that’s draconian in every sense of the word. Mandatory sentences breed injustice.”
Doubts About a Penalty
In the 1980s, stricter penalties for drugs were promoted by Republicans like Mr. Reagan and by urban Democrats worried about the crack epidemic. In the 1990s, both parties supported President Bill Clinton’s anticrime bill, which gave states money to build prisons. Three-strikes laws and other formulas forced judges to impose life without parole, a sentence that was uncommon in the United States before the 1970s.
Most other countries do not impose life sentences without parole, and those that do generally reserve it for a few heinous crimes. In England, where it is used only for homicides involving an aggravating factor like child abduction, torture or terrorism, a recent study reported that 41 prisoners were serving life terms without parole. In the United States, some 41,000 are.
“It is unconscionable that we routinely sentence people like Stephanie George to die in our prisons,” said Mary Price, the general counsel of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “The United States is nearly alone among the nations of the world in abandoning our obligation to rehabilitate such offenders.”
The utility of such sentences has been challenged repeatedly by criminologists and economists. Given that criminals are not known for meticulous long-term planning, how much more seriously do they take a life sentence versus 20 years, or 10 years versus 2 years? Studies have failed to find consistent evidence that the prospect of a longer sentence acts as a significantly greater deterrent than a shorter sentence.
Longer sentences undoubtedly keep criminals off the streets. But researchers question whether this incapacitation effect, as it is known, provides enough benefits to justify the costs, especially when drug dealers are involved. Locking up a rapist makes the streets safer by removing one predator, but locking up a low-level drug dealer creates a job opening that is quickly filled because so many candidates are available.
The number of drug offenders behind bars has gone from fewer than 50,000 in 1980 to more than 500,000 today, but that still leaves more than two million people on the street who sell drugs at least occasionally, according to calculations by Peter H. Reuter, a criminologist at the University of Maryland. He and Jonathan P. Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon University say there is no way to lock up enough low-level dealers and couriers to make a significant impact on supply, and that is why cocaine, heroin and other illegal drugs are as readily available today as in 1980, and generally at lower prices.
The researchers say that if the number of drug offenders behind bars was halved — reduced by 250,000 — there would be little impact on prices or availability.
“Mandating long sentences based on the quantities of drugs in someone’s possession just sweeps up low-level couriers and other hired help who are easily replaced,” Dr. Caulkins said. “Instead of relying on formulas written by legislators and sentencing commissions, we should let judges and other local officials use discretion to focus on the dealers who cause the most social harm — the ones who are violent, who fight for turf on street corners, who employ children. They’re the ones who should receive long sentences.”
These changes are starting to be made in places. Sentences for some drug crimes have been eased at the federal level and in states like New York, Kentucky and Texas. Judges in Ohio and South Carolina have been given more sentencing discretion. Californians voted in November to soften their state’s “three strikes” law to focus only on serious or violent third offenses. The use of parole has been expanded in Louisiana and Mississippi. The United States Supreme Court has banned life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders.
Nonetheless, the United States, with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, still has nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners.
A Mother Taken Away
A Mother Taken Away
Ms. George said she could understand the justice of sending her to prison for five years, if only to punish her for her earlier crack-selling offenses.
“I’m a real firm believer in karma — what goes around comes around,” she said. “I see now how wrong it was to sell drugs to people hooked on something they couldn’t control. I think, what if they took money away from their kids to buy drugs from me? I deserve to pay a price for that. But my whole life? To take me away from my kids forever?”
When she was sentenced 15 years ago, her children were 5, 6 and 9. They have been raised by her sister, Wendy Evil, who says it was agonizing to take the children to see their mother in prison.
“They would fight to sit on her knee the whole time,” she recalled recently during a family dinner at their home in Pensacola. “It’s been so hard for them. Some of the troubles they’ve had are because of their anger at her being gone.”
The youngest child, William, now 20, dropped out of middle school. The older two, Kendra and Courtney, finished high school but so far have not followed their mother’s advice to go to college.
“I don’t want to blame things on my situation, but I think my life would have been a whole lot different if she’d been here,” said Courtney, now 25, who has been unemployed for several years. “When I fell off track, she would have pushed me back. She’s way stronger than any of us.”
Ms. George, who has gotten a college degree in prison, calls the children every Sunday. She pays for the calls, which cost 23 cents a minute, with wages from two jobs: a regular eight-hour shift of data processing that pays 92 cents an hour, supplemented by four hours of overtime work at a call center in the prison that provides 411 directory assistance to phone companies.
“I like to stay busy,” she said during the interview. “I don’t like to give myself time to think about home. I know how much it hurts my daughter to see her friends doing things with their mothers. My boys are still so angry. I thought after a while it would stop, that they’d move on as they got older and had girlfriends. But it just seems like it gets worse every Mother’s Day and Christmas.”
She seemed undaunted, even cheerful, during most of the interview at the prison, where she sleeps on a bunk bed in an 11-by-7-foot cell she shares with another inmate. Dressed in the regulation uniform, khaki pants and work boots, she was calm and articulate as she explained her case and the failed efforts to appeal the ruling. At this point lawyers say her only hope seems to be presidential clemency — rarely granted in recent years — yet she said she remained hopeful.
She lost her composure only once, while describing the evening in 1996 when the police found the lockbox in her apartment. She had been working in the kitchen, braiding someone’s hair for a little money, while Courtney, then 8, played in the home. He watched the police take her away in handcuffs.
“Courtney called out, ‘Mom, you promised you weren’t going to leave us no more,’ ” Ms. George recalled, her eyes glistening. “I still hear that voice to this day, and he’s a grown man.”
Russia says Assad regime losing control of Syria
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, December 13, 2012 8:29 EST
A top Russian diplomat said on Thursday that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is losing “more and more” control of Syria after 21 months of conflict and an opposition victory cannot be ruled out.
“As for preparing for victory by the opposition, this, of course, cannot be excluded,” Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov was quoted as saying by the ITAR-TASS news agency.
“You need to look the facts in the eyes — the government regime is losing more and more control over a large part of the country’s territory,” he said.
His comments appear to be the first time that a senior Russian official has explicitly acknowledged that the opposition could defeat Assad and take power in Syria.
Russia has so far defiantly refused to turn against Assad’s regime despite the conflict that according to rights groups has killed 42,000 people since March last year.
Moscow infuriated the West and anti-Assad Arab states throughout the conflict by refusing to cut military and other ties with Damascus that were established with the president’s father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad in the Soviet era.
The RIA Novosti news agency also quoted Bogdanov as saying that the recent recognition of the opposition Syrian National Coalition by the United States — following similar moves by other states — had only emboldened the opposition.
“They (the rebels) are saying that victory is not far away, ‘let’s take Aleppo, let’s take Damascus’,” he said.
“The recognition of the opposition, the training with rebel fighters and the weapons from abroad are now only inspiring the opposition.”
Bogdanov said that despite the changing situation on the ground, Moscow would still insist on the fulfilment of an agreement between world powers in Geneva earlier this year to solve the Syria crisis through talks involving all parties.
He said the National Coalition’s programme had raised “many questions” in Moscow and the group’s “refusal to talk to Assad and (aim) to oust the regime” went against the Geneva accord.
In another sign of Moscow’s growing recognition of the seriousness of the situation, Bogdanov said Moscow was drawing up action plans that could be used to evacuate Russian citizens from Syria if needed.
He said the majority of Russians living in Syria are Russian women who married Syrian men, and their children. There no plans yet to evacuate diplomats and their families, he added.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday that Washington was now betting on an “armed victory” by rebels in the conflict after US President Barack Obama’s recognition of the opposition on Tuesday.
The National Coalition is a bloc of opposition groups led by moderate cleric Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib formed after talks in Qatar in November as part of a Western-backed push to make the opposition a more cohesive force.
Meanwhile Russia’s top general reaffirmed that Moscow was against any military solution to the conflict.
“Our firm belief is that the solving the Syria conflict is only possible by both sides without interference from a third side and above all without the use of military force,” chief of staff Valery Gerasimov said, quoted by RIA Novosti.
U.S. alleges Syria has used Scud missiles against rebels
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, December 13, 2012 7:20 EST
The Syrian regime has fired Scud missiles at rebel forces trying to oust Bashar al-Assad, a US official said, after Arab and Western states recognised the opposition bloc as the sole representative there.
“Scuds landed within Syria,” the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Earlier Wednesday an AFP journalist in northwestern Syria reported hearing several fierce explosions daily from up to 15 kilometers (10 miles) away.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said “we’re seeing missiles employed now” but she refused to divulge intelligence on what type of missile.
But the US official speaking later said he could confirm a New York Times story that the regime was unleashing Scuds.
There was no word of any casualties caused by the Soviet-era weapons, famously fired into Israel by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War.
The unguided, short-range ballistic Scud missiles, depending on the type employed, have a range of 200 kilometres or more.
Putting further pressure on the Assad regime on Wednesday, Arab and Western states recognised the opposition National Coalition as the sole representative of Syrians.
The declaration, issued at a “Friends of Syria” meeting in Morocco, coincided with battlefield gains by jihadists fighting Assad’s forces and a rapidly deteriorating refugee situation as winter sets in.
“Today, full recognition is given to the National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people,” Moroccan Foreign Minister Saad Eddine El Othmani told a news conference after the meeting his government hosted in Marrakesh.
The talks on the 21-month-old conflict brought together representatives from 114 countries, including about 60 ministers, the Syrian opposition and international organisations.
They came just a day after US President Barack Obama endorsed the National Coalition, following a similar move by the European Union.
The Friends of Syria again called on Assad to stand down, and stressed that his regime would not escape punishment for violations of international law.
A statement also warned Damascus against using chemical weapons, saying this “would draw a serious response from the international community”.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague described the growing recognition of the National Coalition as “real progress”.
“Then the important thing is to channel more assistance through them — in our case… non-lethal assistance… and then of course we need more humanitarian aid.”
Those at the meeting also called for unimpeded access for humanitarian groups inside Syria.
Coalition spokesman Yaser Tabbara underlined hopes the Marrakesh meeting would help alleviate a mounting humanitarian crisis and support the needs of “liberated” areas, in terms of salaries and services, which the group estimates at nearly $500 million per month.
Under pressure to unite, the opposition agreed on November 11 to establish the coalition and group the various rebel forces under a supreme military council.
But jihadist rebels in Aleppo, a key front line in northern Syria, rejected the agreement, saying they want an Islamic state.
Among them is the Al-Nusra Front, which the United States blacklisted on Tuesday as a terrorist organisation, citing links to Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
National Coalition chief Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib called on Washington to “re-examine” the move.
“We can have ideological and political differences with certain parties, but the revolutionaries all share the same goal: to overthrow (Assad’s) criminal regime”.
Meanwhile, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who led the US delegation to the talks, said: “We have extended an invitation to Moaz al-Khatib and the coalition leadership to visit Washington at the earliest opportunity.”
But he defended the terror blacklisting.
“Al-Nusra, as the president made clear, is little more than a front for Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and all of us have seen what Al-Qaeda in Iraq tried to do to threaten the social fabric of Iraq,” Burns said.
With the total death toll from the civil war now topping 42,000, according to a rights monitor, the UN refugee agency said the number of Syrian refugees who had fled to neighbouring states and North Africa had now passed half a million.
In the latest violence, at least seven people were killed and 50 wounded when three bombs struck the main entrance of the interior ministry in Damascus, a security official said.
Interior Minister Mohammad al-Shaar and other top ranking officials escaped unharmed, state television reported.
Other bombings in the capital killed four people and wounded another 26, the Observatory and news agency SANA reported.
The Observatory said 121 were killed nationwide, including 57 civilians.
December 12, 2012
Members of Assad’s Sect Blamed in Syria Killings
By LIAM STACK and HANIA MOURTADA
Scores of Syrian civilians belonging to President Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite sect were killed Tuesday in the first known Alawite massacre since the Syrian conflict began. But the killings, in the village of Aqrab, happened under circumstances that remain unclear.
Rights organizations researching the massacre said Wednesday that members of the shabiha, a pro-government Alawite militia, were the killers. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad group based in Britain with a network of contacts inside Syria, said 125 to 150 civilians died.
The accusation, if confirmed, would be a shocking episode of Alawite-on-Alawite violence in a conflict punctuated by violence between sects.
Videotaped testimony said to be from survivors, primarily women and children, has flooded the Internet in the last 24 hours, providing a series of glimpses of an atrocity in a devastated town. The picture they paint is inconclusive, however, and restrictions on foreign reporting inside Syria made verification difficult.
Many of the videos were filmed by members of the Free Syrian Army, the main anti-Assad armed group, in what appears to be a clinic, where survivors were being treated for wounds or lie wrapped in blankets, faces blank with shock. In the videos, they say that members of the shabiha gathered civilians inside a building or compound as the Free Syrian Army approached the village.
Soon, though, survivors said the shabiha turned their weapons on the same civilians they had been professing to defend.
“The shabiha came and told us they wanted to protect us from the rebels, but then they wouldn’t let us go,” said a young man in one video who gave his name as Mohamed Ibrahim al-Judud, and who like others in the videos said he was able to identify the attackers by their first names. “They killed my father, my mother and my brother.”
In another video, a young man who gave his name as Mohamed Fathy Jowwal lay wrapped in a blanket, speaking to a member of the Free Syrian Army.
“They said it was better that we kill ourselves than wait for you to kill us,” he said, looking at the young rebel fighter crouching beside him. “They were from our own group.”
Throughout the videos, members of the Free Syrian Army professed a commitment to religious pluralism and said the survivors of Aqrab were under their protection. Nevertheless, there were moments when flashes of sectarian animosity shone through. In one video, a rebel fighter could be heard saying to an injured young man, “Get well soon, even if you are in the Alawite sect.”
“Man, so what if I was in the Alawite sect?” the injured young man protests, as medics busily gathered around his bare legs. A second rebel, standing nearby, interjected and stroked his face.
“Bashar does not represent the Alawite sect,” the second fighter reassured the victim. “The Syrian people are one.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it believed the massacre victims had died from “gunfire and bombs.” Almost all were members of the Alawite sect.
The observatory also could not confirm the circumstances of their deaths, but said it had identified several similar narratives of the attack. One was that shabiha members had sought cover among civilians in a residential area, using them as shields. Another was that “pro-regime militiamen held Alawite civilians captive.” It also said that explosions had caused many of the deaths.
Syria’s conflict began as an Arab Spring protest movement after four decades of rule by the family of Mr. Assad, and has since transformed into a sectarian conflict. Even so, attacks by Alawite militias on their own civilian populations have so far been unheard-of.
Faiek al-Meer, a longtime antigovernment activist, wrote on Facebook that the Aqrab episode could be seen as a metaphor for the predicament facing the entire Alawite sect. Mr. Assad, he wrote, “will continue to fight to defend his seat and the interests of his clique even if has to use the Alawites as human shields to protect himself.”
Liam Stack reported from New York, and Hania Mourtada from Beirut, Lebanon.
12/12/2012 06:27 PM
Preparing for Life after Assad: International Community Mulls Syria's Future
By Matthias Gebauer in Marrakesh, Morocco
With its recognition of the Syrian opposition coalition, the international community is seeking to prevent chaos after the fall of dictator Bashar Assad. But the question of how to address rebels who have been sent by al-Qaida to Syria remains unanswered.
With diplomatic gestures and considerable money for aid projects, the international community is seeking to prepare as best as possible for the time after the fall of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. They hope to prevent the chaos that could include bloody conflicts in the power vacuum left in his wake.
At a major meeting of the "Friends of the Syrian People," a group that includes the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany and a number of Arab countries, the countries took steps to recognize the opposition alliance of the National Coalition as its legitimate negotiating partner, massively increasing the group's clout.
The decision had been blocked for months as a result of internal fighting within the opposition forces. The agreement now also suggests that the opposition coalition, under the leadership of former imam Mouaz al-Khatib, would represent an acceptable interim government for the "Friends of the Syrian People" once Assad's regime eventually falls. The group already claims direct influence over the rebels fighting in Syria today.
But no one at the meeting in Marrakesh on Tuesday seemed ready to predict when Assad's fall might come. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle reiterated that the Assad system was showing clear signs of erosion. But, even today, his troops are fighting bitterly against the opposition rebels. The fact that the fighting remains so fierce is of deep concern for the international community as it considers the months ahead.
Yet again, representatives of the international community warned the Assad regime in a closing communiqué against the deployment of chemical or biological weapons against his own people. Any such deployment, the document warned, "would draw a serious response from the international community."
In recent weeks, the US has speculated several times over the possibility of an intervention in Syria if Assad were to deploy his arsenal of chemical weapons like Sarin or FX gas against rebels or cities. The US army has reportedly even developed emergency plans for that eventuality. So far, however, no country has shown a willingness to intervene in the highly complex Syrian conflict.
Germany Considers Humanitarian Aid
In Germany, politicians have stated they want to become active in humanitarian efforts in Syria. During the meeting, Westerwelle announced that Berlin would increase its budget for humanitarian projects from around €70 million ($91 million) to €90 million. Among the uses for the money are additional aid for refugees in Syria during the winter months. The United Nations estimates that by the beginning of 2013, around 4 million Syrians will be reliant on help from outside the country. In addition, close to a half-million Syrians have fled abroad -- where they are sitting out the bloody conflict in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
Officials at Germany's Foreign Ministry are currently considering concrete projects for areas of Syria that have already fallen under the rebels' control. For example, groups organized by Germany's international technical cooperation agency, GIZ, are soon expected to help repair destroyed streets and power sources, along with providing food to local populations. Initially, German aid workers are expected to operate solely from southern Turkey because of the perilous security situation. But a deployment in Syria is only a question of time.
The long statements in Marrakesh are also intended to send a message to Damascus. Foreign Minister Westerwelle described the decisions taken at the meeting as having sent a "powerful symbol." The foreign ministers are hoping that the international pressure might lead Assad to step down, though there are still no signs that this might happen. Besides, Assad still has the support of the Russian government, which immediately criticized the decision to recognize the opposition groups.
Worries about Jihadist Influence
Observers suspect that Assad has long since come to terms with the possibility that he will either become the victim of his own circle of power or be killed by rebels in combat. That increases the nervousness in Berlin and elsewhere that the president could be prepared for anything. It is believed that Assad has bunkered down with his last remaining confidants in Damascus. But with the exception of the Russians, few have a good idea of what is actually happening on the ground in the Syrian capital.
Meanwhile, a further problem that has kept the intelligence services busy wasn't even discussed in Marrakesh. Officials in Washington and Berlin alike are increasingly worried about the role played by Islamists within the Syrian rebel movement. Leading the pack is Jebhat al-Nusra, which is directly affiliated with the branch of the al-Qaida terrorist network in neighboring Iraq.
Because of their military experiences during the Iraq war and years of combat against American troops, fighters with the brigade are having some success against Assad's forces. But at the same time, the post-Assad Syria they aspire to is more likely to be the kind of Islamist emirate they previously sought to establish in Iraq than any kind of democratic transformation.
According to the horror scenario circulating among intelligence service experts, if Assad were to fall, the extremists could begin an endless battle against a new government in a manner similar to what was experienced in Iraq. Alternately, they could also secure major influence for themselves within a new government.
12/12/2012 03:46 PM
Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood: Who Really Holds the Reins in Egypt?
By Matthias Gebauer, Daniel Steinvorth and Volkhard Windfuhr
Mohammed Morsi may be the president of Egypt, but it's the Muslim Brotherhood that appears to be calling the shots. The Islamist group waited decades for a shot at power in the country and it isn't about to yield without a fight.
He calls himself Sharif. He is a young man without a beard who wears a hoodie and athletic shoes. He doesn't look anything like a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but rather like one of those young revolutionaries his men are assaulting with stones, sticks and steel rods.
Sharif says that he hates these liberals and leftists, who began protesting against the Muslim Brotherhood and its president, Mohammed Morsi, after he acquired sweeping new powers through a decree issued in late November. Over the weekend, Morsi moved to rescind that decree, replacing it with a weaker one. But opposition protests have hardly abated as a referendum on the country's controversial draft constitution approaches in a few days. Sharif's strong feelings, meanwhile, led him to take command of a group of Islamist thugs last week.
Sharif's Muslim Brotherhood men are well organized and disciplined, carrying plastic bags for the rocks they pull out of the track bed for street cars, and they are buoyed by their combative spirit. "We are prepared for a long struggle," says Sharif. "We will defend our president, even if things get tough."
For them, defending their president means chasing their enemies from the presidential palace into side streets, where they brutally attack and beat them. Even ordinary onlookers are attacked. With burned out cars still smoking by the side of the road, they proudly present their prisoners: 63 men, their faces swollen and bloody, herded together in front of the entrance to the presidential palace. Sharif's opponents, armed with sticks and firebombs, strike back with almost equal brutality. Last week, the violence had led to at least five deaths, several hundred injuries and the shocking realization that the new president feels less committed to the Egyptian people than to the Brotherhood. The deployment of the Egyptian military on the streets of Cairo has calmed the chaos since then, but protests continue daily.
Gangs of Thugs
Through Facebook and Twitter, the Muslim Brotherhood had called for a pro-Morsi demonstration in front of the presidential palace, and using chain text messages, they ordered their supporters to the Cairo district of Heliopolis to teach the "enemies of democracy" a lesson. The thousands of men like Sharif who heeded the call are cogs in the wheel of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is currently summoning up as many of its supporters as possible to ensure that it doesn't lose its newly acquired power.
It wouldn't be the first time that the Muslim Brotherhood had sent its gangs of thugs into the streets. In its early years, it controlled a militia that committed political assassinations and attacked leftists. "The Muslim Brotherhood feels that it has reached its goal of finally being able to implement the ideals of its founder, Hassan al-Banna. They've been preparing for this for 84 years," says Cairo political scientist Siad Akl. "That's why they won't give up power that quickly."
For many Egyptians, the rioting of the last few weeks is proof that it isn't the president but the Brotherhood that is pulling the strings -- and that it has no scruples about pushing the country to the brink of civil war, if necessary.
In late November, the US newsmagazine Time named President Morsi the most important politician in the Middle East. But very few people believe that the ponderous engineer is actually the most powerful man in the country. There are likely two other men who make the decisions: Mohammed Badie, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Khairat El-Shater, its first candidate, who was excluded from the election for formal reasons and is in charge of organization and financial affairs for the Brotherhood.
At the moment, state-owned television is probably the best place to see who is in charge in Egypt. Almost every week, it broadcasts encounters between the president and important dignitaries. Morsi often meets with Badie, greeting him by kissing his hand. It's a gesture meant to express obedience, and it shows that the oath of allegiance Morsi, like all members of the Brotherhood, once swore to the movement and its leader still applies.
More of a Pragmatist than a Democrat
What, though, does Badie want? The 69-year-old professor of veterinary medicine is the "murshid al-'am," or supreme leader of the Islamist organization. Since January 2010, he has been the chairman of the "guidance office" of the Muslim Brotherhood, a sort of politburo, currently consisting of 21 predominately older and deeply conservative men. Almost all members were shaped by many years of imprisonment. But when Badie came into office, he surprised many with his passionate support for then President Hosni Mubarak. Soon afterwards, the regime released several imprisoned members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
To this day, many Egyptians see this as evidence of secret cooperation between the former regime and the Brotherhood, their public disdain for one another notwithstanding. When it comes to power, Badie, it would seem, is more of a pragmatist than a democrat.
El-Shater, meanwhile, is the chief strategist of the Muslim Brotherhood, meaning he is nominally responsible for all political maneuvers the Brotherhood has employed to control the revolution since Mubarak's overthrow. They include the deal with the former military leadership that enabled both sides to save face, depriving the top military officials of some of their power while simultaneously preserving all of their privileges.
And his relationship with Morsi? El-Shater was once Morsi's direct superior. "Internally, the current president was seen as nothing but his errand boy," says a former member of the Brotherhood. "Morsi can't make any decisions on his own," confirms Amr al-Laithi, one of nine presidential advisors who resigned in recent weeks in protest against Morsi's dictatorial behavior. According to al-Laithi, everything -- every word, every proposal -- has to be approved by the Brotherhood's second-in-command. It isn't El-Shater who calls the president, says al-Laithi, but the president who calls El-Shater. The experts who are supposed to advise the president on key issues are all members of the Brotherhood, says al-Laithi, adding that he resigned when he realized that he had no say whatsoever.
Directly from the Politburo
There are more examples that prove that Morsi isn't the only one in charge. When the president was supposed to appoint new governors a few months ago, Egyptian journalists discovered after the fact that the list of candidates had come directly from the Brotherhood's politburo. Neither cabinet members nor the president's advisors were consulted in advance. When top officials in the government media were replaced, the incoming management was likewise chosen by the Brotherhood.
And last week, when liberals, Copts and secular Egyptians battled with members of the Muslim Brotherhood in front of the presidential palace, the president, protected by tanks and the presidential guard behind the palace walls, took more than 24 hours to comment on the rioting. Was it because he had to coordinate his response with Badie and El-Shater first?
When Morsi finally gave a televised address, he was as rigid as ever, incapable of sending a message of reconciliation to the opposition. No, he said, he was sticking to his plan of putting the constitution to popular vote, a document shaped in large part by Islamists, on Dec. 15. His power is limited, he said. And he insisted that the blame for the bloodshed rested solely with thugs paid by opponents of the Islamists, and accused them of being controlled by henchmen of the former regime. Then he spoke half-heartedly about a "national dialogue." It was a speech reminiscent of Mubarak's final efforts as the autocrat struggled to cling to power.
Little is known about the inner workings of the Muslim Brotherhood, though that is now changing. More and more members are leaving the organization, and they are taking their criticism public. They include young members who reject the Brotherhood's hierarchical structures as well as older supporters like Tharwat al-Gharbawi, a well-known attorney, who says that the Brotherhood's authoritarian ideology always becomes more prevalent when the organization comes under pressure. According to al-Gharbawi, there are even training camps where the organization trains members in hand-to-hand combat, an allegation the Muslim Brotherhood denies.
"As long as the guidance office of the Brotherhood is dominated by hardliners, a compromise isn't to be expected," says Gharbawi.
The strength of the Muslim Brotherhood was always partly the consequence of a weak opposition. Only a quarter of all voters chose Morsi in the first round of the presidential election, but he won the runoff election because the opposition couldn't agree on a candidate. Indeed, non-Islamist candidates received more than half of all votes in the presidential election, making it difficult to argue that the Brotherhood has much of a mandate for significant changes.
Since then, the group's support seems to have crumbled even further. More than 30 buildings owned by the Muslim Brotherhood were set on fire in the last two weeks, and the protesters are now chanting the same words they chanted before Mubarak was overthrown: Down with the regime.
Most importantly, opposition leaders finally joined forces in the week before last, and are now calling themselves the "National Salvation Front." The liberal Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei is part of the group, as are the former secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, and Nasserist politician Hamdin Sabahi. Many Social Democrats and Communists have also joined forces. Traditionally, these are groups that have been deeply opposed to each other. But now, they are suddenly united in their opposition to Morsi and the Brotherhood.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
12/12/2012 04:03 PM
Surprise in the West: Rocket Launch Reveals Ignorance of North Korea
A Commentary by Bernhard Zand
North Korea's long-range rocket launch on Wednesday is a reminder of the dearth of reliable information available about the secretive country. It also serves as a warning to the West to keep close watch on government changeovers underway in the Far East -- a region every bit as important to Western interests as the Middle East.
The West's ignorance of North Korea. That is the first lesson from Kim Jong Un's launch on Wednesday of a long-range rocket. On the day of the test firing, news agencies had reported that Pyongyang would postpone the launch, and that the rocket had been removed from the launch site and returned to the assembly hall.
That claim, based on the analysis of "current satellite images," was made by experts in South Korea -- precisely those experts on whose assessments everyone who speculates about North Korea has been relying for years. They have rarely embarrassed themselves so blatantly, and rarely have the world's think tanks and media had greater cause to rethink the basis of their own analysis of North Korea.
The rocket, which North Korea says put a weather satellite into orbit, has been labelled by the United States, South Korea and Japan as a test of technology that could one day deliver a nuclear warhead capable of hitting targets as far away as the continental United States.
At 09.51 local time the Unha-3- rocket lifted off rom the Sohae satellite launching station in a snow-covered bay near the Chinese border. It twisted itself up out of a ball of fire and rose above the Yellow Sea where it jettisoned its first stage, before rising up between Taiwan and Okinawa over the Philippine Sea where it threw off its second stage. The third rocket entered orbit somewhere over the South Pacific -- unlike its predecessors, which all failed to get this far.
The launch could only have gone better for Kim Jong-un, the third dictator of his bizarre dynasty, if his engineers had timed the launch for December 17, the first anniversary of his father's death, Kim Jong-Il.
The weather conditions appeared to have been unsuitable for that date -- but that is mere speculation. North Korea has never before attempted a rocket launch in winter.
Distracted by Turmoil in Middle East
Western attention has, understandably, focused on the Middle East of late, on Syria, Egypt, Gaza and Iran. The rocket launch of Sohae is a reminder that the Far East is in the midst of a political changeover affecting one-and-a-half billion people and an economic area whose significance dwarfs the Middle East
Kim Jong Un succeeded his father last year, and four weeks ago, North Korea's neighbor and hesitant ally China exchanged its own leadership. Japan elects a new parliament next Sunday, and South Korea will elect a new president the Wednesday after that.
Since the end of the Vietnam War, Asia has gotten through its political and economic crises, and its natural disasters, far more peacefully than the Middle East. But there's no guarantee that that will remain the case.
Regardless of whether democratic elections take place or not -- all four new governments in the western Pacific will have to legitimize their rule in the coming months. They will resort to tough rather than soft foreign policy to do that. Three of the four countries, after all, have strong nationalist movements. In North Korea, the government itself drives that nationalism.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, like the foreign ministers of Russia, China and the US, condemned the rocket launch and warned of worsening tensions in the Far East.
The United States condemned the launch as "provocative" and a breach of UN rules, while Japan's UN envoy called for a Security Council meeting. However, diplomats say further tough sanctions are unlikely from the Security Council as China, the North's only major ally, will oppose them.
South Korea's experts are now speculating about the extent of the military threat posed by Kim's rocket. There is no doubt that the West wants a stable Far East every bit as much as a stable Middle East.
December 12, 2012
Kim Jong-un Earns Cachet With Rocket’s Success
By CHOE SANG-HUN
SEOUL, South Korea — For North Korea’s inexperienced young leader, Kim Jong-un, the largely successful launching on Wednesday of a long-range rocket could not have come too soon.
Analysts say the launching was sure to bolster Mr. Kim’s grip on power after months of political purges meant to tame the elite class and hints of dissatisfaction among his hungry people. It was also expected to serve as an antidote to a humiliating failure early in his rule: a rocket test in April that fizzled before an international audience.
In the insular world of North Korea, the country’s ability to send a rocket hurtling hundreds of miles on roughly the course it set is a fulfillment of promises that have kept people loyal to the Kim dynasty for decades. Under that mythology, the launching was a sign that the so-called arduous march — soldiering on despite isolation and sanctions — was paying off, building a nuclear deterrent that would keep imperialist powers at bay.
Another promise — becoming increasingly important to the people, yet harder for the government to deliver on in the face of sanctions — is to resolve economic mismanagement that has kept North Koreans in chronic hunger.
Still, the success of the rocket was critical, analysts say, to Mr. Kim’s continuing attempts to strengthen his grip on the country’s powerful military, a process that in recent months has led to the dismissals of top generals loyal to his father and the elevation of a new crop of officers.
“It helps Kim Jong-un solidify internal unity,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
Ever since Mr. Kim took over after the death last December of his father, the longtime North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, he has been trying to show himself to be a worthy successor to his father and his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the North Korean founder. He badly needed a propaganda boon this year, when North Korea observes the first anniversary of his father’s death and the centennial of his grandfather’s birth.
On Wednesday, after state television announced the “important news” that the rocket had put the satellite Kwangmyongsong-3, or Shining Star-3, into orbit, government vehicles blaring the news rolled through the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, according to the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency. The Associated Press, which has a bureau in Pyongyang, reported people dancing in the streets.
“Suddenly, the whole country is engulfed with happiness and the people endlessly inspired,” the Korean Central News Agency reported, attributing the success to Mr. Kim’s father, whose main legacy was the missile program that his son just advanced, and the country’s nuclear program.
(The West considers such rocket launchings to be crucial tests of the same technology as that used by intercontinental ballistic missiles, which can carry nuclear warheads.)
“Domestically, the test provides Kim with a much-needed propaganda boost following April’s launch failure and what North Korea watchers believe have been a series of disputes with the military,” said James Hardy, a security expert at IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly.
An ability to deploy unconventional weapons has long been integral to the North Korean government’s survival strategy, analysts say, not only as a means of creating a sense of empowerment among the impoverished masses, but also for catering to the elite. Without the revenues from selling such technology abroad or the aid and investment packages North Korea’s neighbors often provide to appease it, the government can hardly afford resources to buy privileges for the military, the secret police and top party members whose loyalty is the linchpin in maintaining totalitarian control.
Recently, Mr. Kim was believed to have given out special cash cards containing foreign currency to party, military and state elites, Park Hyong-joong, an analyst, said in a recent report posted on the Web site of the government-run Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. Mr. Kim also opened a series of high-rise apartments, supermarkets and amusement parks in Pyongyang, where most of the elites and their families live.
The rocket achievement was timed well for Mr. Kim’s attempts to bolster his credibility among the North’s hard-line military, which forms the backbone of his political control. For months, Mr. Kim has been testing the loyalty of top generals by dismissing or demoting them and letting them try to win his favor again, according to South Korean officials and analysts. Meanwhile, they said, he has been putting his stamp on the military leadership by elevating a new lineup of officers who will owe their promotions to him.
These new elites — many of them reportedly also close to Mr. Kim’s aunt, Kim Kyong-hee, and her husband, Jang Song-thaek — have been depriving the old elites of lucrative rights, including the ability to trade in commodities, Mr. Park said.
Such abrupt changes have created “losers and discontent” and resulted in “indications of domestic instability,” according to a senior South Korean government official who spoke during a background briefing last week.
The launching, the analysts say, will help Mr. Kim tame such discontent by bolstering the military’s morale.
“With this first major achievement as new leader, Kim Jong-un can boost his legitimacy as a hereditary successor and consolidate the loyalty of the elite,” said Chang Yong-seok, an analyst at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University. “It helps subdue the friction and tension between the old and new elites in the military and solidify its unity.”
December 12, 2012
After Rocket Launching, a Call for New Sanctions
By DAVID E. SANGER and WILLIAM J. BROAD
WASHINGTON — The United States and its Asian allies began an effort on Wednesday to impose additional sanctions on North Korea after its largely successful rocket launching, but this time Washington added a warning to China: Failure to rein in Kim Jong-un, the North’s new leader, will result in an even greater American military presence in the Pacific.
The Chinese government, which sent a delegation to Pyongyang last month to warn against the missile test, said it “regrets” the launching, which put a 200-pound earth surveillance satellite into orbit.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said that North Korea’s right to a peaceful space program was subject to “limitations” by United Nations Security Council resolutions. But he declined to say whether North Korea had failed to live up to those obligations, which include a prohibition on launchings like the one on Wednesday morning that could be used to advance missile technology.
In fact, after a preliminary meeting of the Security Council members in New York, it was far from clear how far the Chinese are willing to go in further punishing an ally they once called as close as “lips and teeth.” Beijing’s biggest fear has always been destabilizing North Korea, and setting off a collapse that could put South Korean forces, and perhaps their American allies, on China’s border.
But the essence of the American strategy, as described Wednesday by administration officials, was to force the Chinese into an uncomfortable choice.
“The kinds of things we would do to enhance the region’s security against a North Korean nuclear missile capability,” one senior administration official said in an interview, “are indistinguishable from the things the Chinese would view as a containment strategy” aimed at Beijing.
They would include increased patrols in waters the Chinese are trying to claim as part of their exclusive zone, along with military exercises with allies in the region. “It’s the right approach, but whether it works is another matter,” said Christopher R. Hill, who was the chief negotiator with North Korea during President George W. Bush’s second term, and is now dean of the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, on Wednesday. “The approach of thickening up the antimissile effort is something that would get China’s attention.”
Many of those efforts are planned anyway as part of President Obama’s “rebalancing” strategy to ensure a continued American presence in Asia. The president has repeatedly said he has neither the desire nor the ability to contain China’s rise, but the rebalancing is clearly intended to keep the Chinese from nudging the United States out of the region.
Already, the Chinese believe that America’s antimissile efforts from Alaska to the Pacific are designed to counter their own nuclear arsenal.
Administration officials said that while the launching was successful — and advanced the North’s missile program — it was hardly a threat to the United States, despite a warning by Robert M. Gates in 2011, when he was secretary of defense, that the North would have a missile capable of reaching the United States by 2016.
“I am not disparaging this demonstration of 1950s Sputnik-quality technology,” the administration official said, referring to the Soviet satellite that prompted the space race during the cold war. He then went on to disparage it, noting that Mr. Kim “is in the family business, like his daddy before him, and it’s a form of extortion.”
South Korean officials sounded similar themes, saying that the North’s effort was to extract a higher price — in aid, investment and diplomatic concessions — for restraining future launchings or nuclear tests.
Riki Ellison, chairman of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, a private group in Washington, called the North Korean satellite launching “a fundamental breakthrough” that showed the main elements of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
“This is a resounding achievement,” he said Wednesday in a statement. He called the remaining technical steps that North Korea must take in ICBM development “much easier” than the satellite launching.
Scientific experts who examined the flight said that North Korea appeared to have solved a number of problems that caused previous efforts to blow up, but they sounded less impressed.
“It’s an important technical advance, but nothing to be horribly alarmed about” in terms of military capabilities, said Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astronomer who tracks global rocket launchings and space activity.
The North Korean satellite, he said, was orbiting a little higher than the International Space Station, reaching about 360 miles. He called the orbit’s accuracy “pretty good” for a first launching.
North Korea is the 10th nation to join the global space club by launching a satellite. The craft, said to be about the size of a washing machine, is reportedly designed for observing the earth. To make an intercontinental ballistic missile that can carry nuclear arms, scientists say, the North must master the difficult art of miniaturizing nuclear warheads and making protective re-entry capsules for the weapons that can survive the fiery plunge back to earth.
“A space launch only has to go up,” noted an analysis by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute in California.
In September, a panel of top scientists and military experts working for the National Research Council cast doubt on the claim that the space launcher itself could pose a danger to the United States. The committee, in a report on antimissile strategies for the nation, judged a military threat unlikely.
L. David Montague, the panel’s co-chairman and a retired president of Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space, told reporters that North Korea’s rocket “can’t carry enough payload to be of any significant threat.” He called it “a baby satellite launcher — and not a very good one at that.”
Scientists say the North Koreans, to make an intercontinental ballistic missile, need to focus especially on engine reliability after suffering 14 years of back-to-back, long-range rocket failures that preceded Wednesday’s success. The flops occurred in 1998, 2006, 2009 and last April.
David E. Sanger reported from Washington, and William J. Broad from New York. Choe Sang-hun contributed reporting from Seoul, South Korea.
December 12, 2012
Israeli Minister Vents Anger at Europe
By ISABEL KERSHNER
JERUSALEM — Israel’s blunt-talking foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, gave vent on Wednesday to the government’s anger over recent diplomatic gains by the Palestinians paired with international rebukes for Israel, comparing Israel’s situation to that of Czechoslovakia in 1938 before the Nazi invasion.
Israel was dismayed last month when all the countries of Europe, other than the Czech Republic, supported the Palestinians or abstained when the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to upgrade the status of the Palestinians at the United Nations.
The country was further aggrieved when several major countries responded to its immediate announcement of plans for further settlement planning and construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank by summoning Israeli ambassadors to protest.
Defiantly standing by the settlement plans, Mr. Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have expressed outrage over what Mr. Netanyahu described as a “deafening silence” abroad after Khaled Meshal, the political leader of Hamas, vowed to build an Islamic Palestinian state on all the land of Israel during a visit to Gaza over the weekend.
Addressing members of the foreign news media here on Monday, Mr. Netanyahu asked why Palestinian diplomats were not summoned in European capitals to explain why Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, not only had failed to condemn Mr. Meshal’s remarks but instead was speaking about reconciliation with the rival Hamas, which Israel, the United States and the European Union regard as a terrorist organization.
Mr. Lieberman, who leads the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu Party, has often spoken his mind in terms that critics would describe as undiplomatic. Mr. Netanyahu, of the conservative Likud Party, has on occasion distanced himself from his foreign minister’s remarks. But in October these two coalition partners announced that their parties would run on a joint ticket in the January elections, and Mr. Lieberman has effectively become Mr. Netanyahu’s No. 2.
Speaking in English at a conference for foreign diplomats in Israel sponsored by the newspaper The Jerusalem Post, Mr. Lieberman said, “When push comes to shove, many key leaders would be willing to sacrifice Israel without batting an eyelid in order to appease Islamic radicals and ensure quiet for themselves.” He added, “We are not willing to become a second Czechoslovakia and sacrifice vital security interests.”
Excerpts from the speech were broadcast and reported on The Jerusalem Post’s Web site.
In another response to the Palestinians’ successful bid to upgrade their status at the United Nations to that of a nonmember observer state, Israel refused to transfer tax revenues it had collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority last month, instead using the money to pay off part of a debt run up by the Palestinian Authority to the Israel Electric Corporation and other Israeli providers. Mr. Lieberman said Wednesday that it would take four months for the Palestinian Authority to repay its debts from tax revenues and that no money would be transferred from Israel to the authority until the debts were paid off.
December 13, 2012
Japan Scrambles Jets in Island Dispute With China
By HIROKO TABUCHI
TOKYO — Japan scrambled fighter jets on Thursday after a Chinese surveillance plane entered what Japan considers its airspace above disputed islands that have become a source of heightened tension between the Asian powers.
Though Japan routinely sends jets to head off Chinese aircraft skirting its territory, the Japanese Defense Ministry said the incident was the first known violation of Japanese airspace by a Chinese plane in more than 50 years. Tokyo lodged a formal protest with Beijing, which swiftly retorted that it was the Japanese who had encroached.
The incident threatens to escalate a maritime standoff over the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, which Japan controls and calls the Senkakus. China calls the same islands the Diaoyus. For months, patrol ships from the two countries have sporadically faced off in waters around the islets, exchanging protests over loudspeakers and, on some occasions, sparring with water cannons.
The incident also comes just days ahead of national elections in Japan on Sunday that are expected to result in a change in government.
In an embarrassment for the current administration, Japan’s radar systems failed to detect the Chinese surveillance plane Thursday morning, and Tokyo became aware of its presence only after a Japanese Coast Guard ship spotted it near the islands. By the time fighter jets were dispatched to the area from their base in Naha, on the island of Okinawa, the Chinese plane was nowhere to be seen, a Defense Ministry official said.
With the Japanese jets yet to arrive, the Coast Guard was left on its own to confront the Chinese plane. “Do not intrude into Japanese airspace,” the crew of one of its ships radioed the plane, according to the public broadcaster NHK.
“This is Chinese airspace,” the plane’s crew radioed back, according to NHK.
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura called the Chinese actions “extremely regrettable” and said that Japan had lodged an official complaint with Beijing.
Gen. Shigeru Iwasaki, chief of joint staff of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, said it was regrettable that the plane had slipped into Japanese airspace unnoticed. “We are going to make sure this does not happen again,” General Iwasaki said.
In Beijing, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said:“I want to stress that these activities are completely normal.”
“China requires the Japanese side stop illegal activities in the waters and airspace of the Diaoyu islands,” the spokesman said.
The Japanese Defense Ministry said it was only the third time foreign aircraft were known to have violated Japanese airspace since 1958, when Tokyo started keeping records of intrusions. A Soviet military jet entered Japanese territory in 1979 and a Taiwanese private plane in 1994, though neither incident led to confrontation.
With the Japanese elections just days away, public unease over China’s growing military shadow could provide a further boost for the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, which has promised to strengthen Japan’s military and is leading the governing Democratic Party in the polls. Public jitters here have also been enhanced by the fact that a rocket launched by North Korea on Wednesday traveled over Japanese territory.
Shinzo Abe, the Liberal Democrats’ conservative leader, supports an amendment to Japan’s pacifist Constitution that would allow it to establish a military beyond the self-defense forces that it currently maintains. Also running is a fringe party led by the nationalist politician Shintaro Ishihara, whose bid to purchase the disputed islands earlier this year triggered the current flare-up.
Hisako Ueno contributed reporting from Tokyo, and Bree Feng from Beijing.
December 12, 2012
Court Convicts a Bosnian Serb General of Genocide
By MARLISE SIMONS
PARIS — A former senior commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, Zdravko Tolimir, was convicted of genocide on Wednesday and sentenced to life in prison for his role in the killings of thousands of prisoners near the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995.
Judges at the United Nations tribunal in The Hague, voting 2 to 1, said that Mr. Tolimir had been found guilty because as the army’s head of intelligence he knew of the plans to commit “horrific mass murder” of Bosnian Muslim prisoners and played a pivotal role in the crime. He “deliberately participated” in the destruction of the Muslim communities under United Nations protection in the towns of Srebrenica and Zepa, the judges said.
The “despicable criminal operations,” as the presiding judge, Christoph Flügge of Germany, called them, came at the end of a Serb campaign to seize lands slated for Serbs only.
Judge Flügge said several times that Mr. Tolimir, 64, had failed in his duty to protect the prisoners of war before they were led away to the killing sites, inside buildings and on open fields. The crimes that followed were “massive in scale, severe in intensity and devastating in their effect,” he said.
Mr. Tolimir, a general, was the right-hand man of the overall Bosnian Serb Army commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic, whose trial was in progress in a nearby courtroom when the genocide verdict was issued.
Gen. Rupert Smith of Britain, the former commander of the United Nations peacekeeping forces in Bosnia, testified last year that the two men “functioned together, not in a hierarchy,” which was evident from “their body language, the tone in which they spoke to each other.” General Smith said he met with Mr. Tolimir several times, and he described his function as “fundamental in the command chain.”
As Judge Flügge, flanked by two other judges, said, “Mr. Tolimir, you are hereby sentenced to life imprisonment,” the defendant stood and listened, eyes cast down, then made the sign of the cross several times.
The verdict was the fifth conviction for genocide by the tribunal dealing with crimes after the breakup of Yugoslavia. Two former Bosnian Serb officers, both subordinates of Mr. Tolimir, have been given life sentences. Two other Bosnian Serbs are serving 35-year prison terms for aiding and abetting genocide.
The court has issued genocide convictions only for crimes committed in Srebrenica, angering victim and human rights groups that are convinced genocide also occurred in northern and eastern Bosnia, where Serbian forces began their ethnic cleansing campaign in 1992, expelling thousands of non-Serbs. Others were imprisoned, tortured, raped and burned alive in their homes.
During the Bosnian war, from 1992 to 1995, an estimated 100,000 civilians and fighters were killed, including Croats and Serbs, but most of the victims were Muslim civilians. The war began after Bosnians tried to break away from Yugoslavia, and Serbs opened a violent campaign to create lands only for Serbs. During that campaign and in subsequent fighting, more than one million people were displaced.
Besides genocide, Mr. Tolimir was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder and persecution. Acting as his own lawyer, he denied any responsibility for events in Srebrenica, saying he left after it was taken by Serbian forces.
The judges found that he went to Zepa, where three civilian and military leaders were captured and killed. There he oversaw the removal of the civilian population and the destruction of homes and a mosque. Although only three leaders were killed, the judges’ summary said, this had an important symbolic purpose, “signaling there was no hope for survival of this community.”
The trial, which went on for 242 days, was interrupted a number of times because of Mr. Tolimir’s ill health. But he insisted on representing himself.
He and some of the four witnesses he called in his defense variously argued that the Serbian forces near the United Nations enclaves were there to fight “terrorists” who were using the zones as bases from which to attack Serbs. Some said only several hundred people were killed during the operations, rather than the more than 7,000 whose bodies have been identified. Muslims in the area were not persecuted, the defense argued, but left voluntarily.
ecember 12, 2012
Failings Found in Trial of Ukrainian Ex-Premier
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN and DAVID E. SANGER
MOSCOW — In a report commissioned by the government of Ukraine, a team of American lawyers has concluded that important legal rights of the jailed former prime minister, Yulia V. Tymoshenko, were violated during her trial last year on charges of abusing her official power, and that she was wrongly imprisoned even before her conviction and sentencing.
The lawyers, led by President Obama’s former White House counsel, Gregory B. Craig, concluded that Ms. Tymoshenko was denied legal counsel at “critical stages” of her trial and that at other times her lawyers were wrongly barred from calling relevant witnesses.
Those two findings suggest that she could have some success in a pending appeal before the European Court of Human Rights.
But over all, the lawyers, from the firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, seemed to side heavily with the government of President Viktor F. Yanukovich, which commissioned their report. They concluded that Ms. Tymoshenko’s conviction was supported by the evidence presented at trial, and they found no evidence in the trial record to support to her main contention: that her prosecution was a politically motivated effort by Mr. Yanukovich, her archrival, to sideline her and cripple Ukraine’s main opposition party.
“The trial court based its finding of Tymoshenko’s guilt on factual determinations that had evidentiary support in the trial record,” the lawyers wrote. “Based on review of the record,” they added, “we do not believe that Tymoshenko has provided specific evidence of political motivation that would be sufficient to overturn her conviction under American standards.”
In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Craig, one of the most connected lawyers in the Washington establishment, said his team was not able to judge the local politics that brought Ms. Tymoshenko to trial on charges of abusing her authority in agreeing to a natural gas deal with Russia when she was prime minister. He acknowledged that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was among many Western leaders who have criticized the prosecution as crass political reprisal.
“We leave to others the question of whether this prosecution was politically motivated,” he said. “Our assignment was to look at the evidence in the record and determine whether the trial was fair.”
The report is dated September 2012, but it was held back by the Ukrainian government. It will be publicly released Thursday.
Once a strong candidate for the European Union, Ukraine has become increasingly isolated under Mr. Yanukovich’s leadership. The trial led to a sharp deterioration in relations between Ukraine and the West, and there were subsequent efforts to prosecute Ms. Tymoshenko on charges of tax evasion and embezzlement.
Ms. Tymoshenko, who has chronic back problems, was sentenced to seven years and is being held in a prison hospital in eastern Ukraine. International monitors sharply criticized parliamentary elections that were held in Ukraine in October, citing the jailing of opposition leaders as a main concern.
The Skadden lawyers sharply criticized the judge’s handling of Ms. Tymoshenko’s trial.
“Tymoshenko’s ability to present a defense in her trial appears to have been compromised to a degree that is troubling under Western standards of due process and the rule of law,” they wrote in describing how defense witnesses were barred.
Still, Ms. Tymoshenko’s supporters rejected the report as biased. Her main defense lawyer, Sergei Vlasenko, who met with the Skadden team, also accused the Yanukovich government of lying about how much it paid for the analysis. (Mr. Craig would not say what his firm was paid.)
“They are not independent lawyers,” Mr. Vlasenko said in a telephone interview from Kiev. “There were clear violations of Ukrainian and international standards.” As for the findings that supported Ms. Tymoshenko’s conviction, he said, “They received the clients’ demand: Please find something good for us.”
David M. Herszenhorn reported from Moscow, and David E. Sanger from Washington.
December 12, 2012
Russia’s History Should Guide Its Future, Putin Says
By ELLEN BARRY
MOSCOW — In his first major speech since returning to the presidency, Vladimir V. Putin on Wednesday called on Russians “not to lose ourselves as a nation,” urging them to look for guidance in Russia’s historic and traditional values — and not in Western political models — as it charts its post-Soviet development.
Mr. Putin also sent tough messages to officials in his government, warning that their spending will now be monitored and that the prosecutor’s office had been empowered to seize illegally acquired assets. He recommended barring officials and other political figures from holding stocks and bank accounts outside Russia and said the government would begin to closely scrutinize officials’ foreign real estate holdings.
“How can we trust an official who speaks loudly about the good of Russia, but tries to bring his funds, his money, overseas?” he said. When the officials in his audience began to clap, he gave a little smile. “Don’t hurry to applaud,” he said. “You may not all like this.”
Vladimir Burmatov, a pro-Kremlin lawmaker, remarked on Twitter that “a portion of the audience just had a small heart attack.”
Mr. Putin’s speech was watched for signs of the trajectory the president has chosen for Russia. He took office in May amid protests by young city dwellers, and the authorities have since hemmed in dissent while encouraging the rise of conservative and religious rhetoric.
In recent weeks, several corruption cases have been opened against high-ranking officials, accompanied by television exposés featuring their ill-gotten wealth. Those steps have failed to turn around the gradual decline in Mr. Putin’s approval ratings, though the protest movement has waned as well.
He did not announce major new policy vectors on Wednesday, instead focusing on values, an unusual topic for a Russian leader. He said that “many moral compasses have been lost” since the Soviet Union collapsed, and that Russia’s citizens had become hardened to corruption and offensive behavior.
“This often takes disgusting, aggressive and provocative forms” that threaten Russia’s security, he said. “It pains me to say this, but I feel obliged to say this: Today Russian society clearly lacks spiritual ties — mercy, sympathy, mutual compassion, support and assistance.”
Mr. Putin framed his speech in dramatic terms, warning that the world is entering a period of “fundamental changes, probably even upheavals.” He said Russia had chosen the path of democracy, but defined that as “the power of the Russian people with their traditions” and “absolutely not the realization of standards imposed on us from outside.”
Mr. Putin focused much attention on social issues like housing and Russia’s birthrate, which plummeted after the Soviet collapse. He had upbeat news to deliver, noting that this year, for the first time since then, the number of births exceeded the number of deaths for five months in a row.
This accomplishment may be undercut by the approach of what Russian demographers call the “tiny generation.” Births depend on the number of women who reach childbearing age, and very few children were born during the crisis years of the 1990s. Barring changes in immigration policy, the working-age population is likely to decrease by about one million a year over the next decade, Valery V. Elizarov, a professor of demographics at Moscow State University, said in an interview.
Mr. Putin proposed using around $3.3 billion, a part of Russia’s previously untapped sovereign wealth fund, to invest in bonds that would be used to build roads, bridges, ports and other infrastructure. Now, the sovereign wealth fund is largely invested in United States Treasury bonds and other assets abroad. He called for a plan to scale down the role played by offshore companies in Russia’s economy, noting that nine out of 10 major deals by Russian companies, including some in which the state has a stake, are not subject to Russian regulation. He recommended a luxury tax on vehicles and properties favored by Russia’s superrich.
Mr. Putin touched on the subject of foreign policy only briefly, apparently a sign of how preoccupied he is with domestic concerns.
But he gave an implied warning to the United States, which has found itself at odds with Russia over the Arab uprisings. “Risks will prevail when each player carries out his own game, and if they are not relieved of the illusion that it is possible to manage chaos,” he said.
Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting.
December 12, 2012
Fighting Corruption, One Handyman at a Time
By ANDREW E. KRAMER
MOSCOW — Not since Joe the Plumber have contractors taken on such political overtones.
In a city where it is often impossible to get a plumber or any other repairman, somebody just figured out how to fix the pipes — and replace light bulbs, scrub off graffiti and patch leaky roofs. Throughout Moscow and other Russian cities, such elementary building repairs are suddenly in full swing as the city’s craftsmen, their reputations for surliness, laziness and drunkenness undiminished, are hurrying from one appointment to another.
Delighted Muscovites are crediting a new Web site for the unaccustomed Calvinist work ethic. Called Roszkh, it streamlines the process for filing complaints about maintenance of the communal areas of apartment buildings, like hallways and entryways, that remained public property after post-Soviet privatizations.
Stymied by a loss of momentum after street protests, Russian opposition leaders had been casting about for other approaches to remain relevant through what promises to be a long tenure for President Vladimir V. Putin. Aleksei Navalny, a blogger and political activist, hit upon the idea of the Web site, which is run under the auspices of his Foundation for Fighting Corruption.
“It’s difficult to say when the next wave of protests will come,” Mr. Navalny said in an interview about his new site, named after an acronym Russians use for their combined utility and building maintenance bills, ZhKKh.
Roszkh was an instant sensation. Since the site went up on Nov. 8, 28,354 users have filed 45,835 complaints, mostly in Moscow and other large cities. So far, repairmen have fixed about 2,600 reported problems. That may not sound like much, but in Russia it qualifies as extraordinary.
“I live in an old five-story building where the hallway has no light and no windows,” one Muscovite, Boris Frantskevich, wrote in a post. It seemed it would be that way forever. But on a lark, he tried logging a complaint on the Web site.
“Just today, I walk out of my apartment and an electrician is digging in the wires,” Mr. Frantskevich wrote. “Wow, he’s fixed the light.”
Mr. Navalny attributes the site’s success to official sensitivities to a deep vein of public anger over the deplorable state of housing in Russia, and particularly in Moscow. In a leaked letter, Russia’s chief housing inspector issued an order that the complaints on Mr. Navalny’s Web site be addressed immediately.
The inspector, Nikolai Vasyutin, clarified the government response in a letter to subordinates: Applicants needed to be helped immediately, not in spite of the site’s political character, but because of it.
“It’s become obvious this is a policy by the opposition to discredit all levels of the government,” the letter said. “But this shouldn’t confuse the organs of the state housing inspection.” It instructed city officials to counteract the tactic by fixing problems quickly.
Public opinion surveys indicate that the steady rise in ZhKKh fees is the issue that upsets Russians most; a planned increase was delayed during presidential elections last winter, only to kick in this year.
The fees have been rising faster than inflation. Many Russians are incensed about paying more — currently about $130 a month in Moscow, and less in other cities — while hallways, even in upscale buildings, are often yawning black tunnels, splattered with graffiti and reeking of septic odors.
These problems have become a vulnerability for Mr. Putin, but one largely of his own making. The governing political party, United Russia, went to great pains to ensure that it dominated not only national but also regional and local politics, often suppressing opponents to do so. The party also dominates city councils.
As Mr. Navalny, a former real estate lawyer, has been gleefully pointing out, this means that every broken light bulb and burst pipe is now the party’s problem.
“We are trying to attract people who can fight corruption together with us,” Mr. Navalny said. “It’s clear that an ordinary person has a hard time helping us fight corruption at Gazprom,” the big state energy company. “But unfortunately in Russia, corruption surrounds a person everywhere. We are trying to create a mechanism for people to fight corruption themselves.”
The site asks users to enter their address and choose from a menu of common Russian repair problems: water flowing a rich orange color from rusted pipes, say, or a boiler failing in midwinter.
The program then automatically pastes on a lengthy legal text composed by Mr. Navalny and his volunteer group of lawyers for the benefit of the receiving bureaucrat, citing ordinances that mandate a response or repair, usually within 45 days.
The site automatically routes complaints to the appropriate municipal authority in thousands of cities in Russia’s 83 regions. So far, though, Muscovites and residents of a few other large cities where Internet use is high have filed most of the complaints.
The site is easy to use. It saves profiles, allowing angry Russians to return whenever they have another leaky pipe or a new buildup of filth in a hallway.
In St. Petersburg, building inspectors initially declined to respond to several thousand complaints generated on the site. Whether that was for political reasons or out of laziness remains unclear.
But by early December, the office was working overtime to fix communal areas, and a housing maintenance official had been arrested for mismanagement, one of several moves by the government in an apparent effort to get ahead of the issue.
Even as complaints pile up, site moderators urge users to keep on filing.
One man, Sergei Sadko, wrote that an entire delegation of city officials promptly visited his apartment after he complained about a leaky roof.
“They said they would fix it in the spring,” he wrote. “Should I change my status to ‘problem solved’?”
The response: “File another complaint. They are required to fix everything immediately.”
Central Europe: Where has the region’s solidarity gone?
13 December 2012
Gazeta Wyborcza Warsaw
Exactly 10 years ago, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic were given the right to enter the EU. But despite close economic ties and a sense of shared destiny, different political developments prevent them from having real weight in the Union.
The tenth anniversary of the conclusion of Poland’s EU accession talks in Copenhagen on December 13, 2002, is approaching.
Poland was given a green light to join the EU alongside nine other Central and Southern European countries. It was the last moment when the region showed a genuine united front, fighting for the best possible terms of accession. Since then our paths have diverged, each country bargaining on its own in Brussels and trying to consolidate its relations with the key EU players.
In fact, the political and economic paths had been diverging even before. The political stages in the ten countries that joined the EU in 2004 are hardly similar at all, except perhaps for their invariably solid dose of populism.
Their views on European integration differ too. Slovakia is in the eurozone, the Czech Republic remains sceptical, Hungary is valiant, and Poland, while generally in favour of the euro, feels that joining during a crisis would not make sense.
However, despite all this, these 10 countries now fundamentally depend on the EU. This is a crucial point of our geopolitical orientation and a fundamental source of modernisation funds. EU funding is present in 99 per cent of public projects in Hungary and 50 per cent in Poland. Across the board, the EU creates a greenhouse effect for investment.
In Polish politics, the region had usually been perceived as an alternative, not a goal unto itself. It was either ignored, because there more important things such as the Weimar Triangle or bilateral relations with the major players, or used (by the Law and Justice administration in 2005-2007) as a counterbalance for what was perceived as excessive dependence on Germany.
Today, Central Europe has become a means of avoiding marginalisation in the EU. The tectonic movements going on in Europe can cancel out what we have become so proud of, that is being in the heart of Europe.
We are assuming that if we stick with the others in region, we should be able to prevent a two-speed Europe. In doing so, we are turning a blind eye to what should worry us, such as how democracy is being practised. We must be aware of the side effects of this. Hungary and Romania are testing a new political culture in the region, pushing further and further the thin red line where democracy ends. If we fail to notice that, the plague will come to us too.
Shared EU interests
What unites us more than anything else are elements of a common past, a sense of not so much a shared identity as a common fate and common interests in the EU. The latter factor played a key role during the accession talks back in 2003 and later, during previous budget debate. Now its significance has waned because differences have grown and so has a sense that it is possible to achieve more through bilateral relations (e.g. Poland and Germany).
Mutual confidence has diminished too and Poland failed to convince its regional partners to veto the climate change policy together.
We have not done our homework either. The International Visegrad Fund was set up in 2000 but it was an exception to the rule of poor investment. The time to plug the resulting gap is now. Poland currently holds the Visegrad Group presidency and has tabled a solid, 53 page-long agenda. Two items are obvious: “connecting” the region’s countries through links in transport and energy infrastructure and defining common interests in the EU, from the single market to security issues.
We have a common success record. The Visegrad Group countries’ combined GDP amounts to a trillion dollars (€770bn), four times the mid-1990s level. This means that Central Europe is more than a “state of mind”. But it is still a far cry from becoming a political entity of considerable influence.
Spain: Rajoy faces down The Cavaliere factor
12 December 2012
Mario Monti is not the only victim of the Cavaliere's return to politics. His Spanish counterpart is suffering from restive markets and once again has to cope with distrust of southern Europe. It's a risk – but an opportunity to seek support from his partners as well.
Ana Isabel Sánchez
“It's the worst news that Spain could have received just now.” Blunt words indeed, spoken yesterday by a member of the government referring to the impact that the Italian political crisis may have on Spain. The government of Mariano Rajoy is not hiding its concern. The uncertainty unleashed by the departure of Mario Monti and, above all, the uncertainty over who can replace him and with what economic programme, has undermined confidence that the markets had begun to place in the European periphery and is jeopardising the plans of the Spanish president to wriggle out from accepting European Union aid.
Until now, the chief executive has succeeded in avoiding the so-called “soft” or “second generation” rescue, thanks to the confidence injected by the European Central Bank (ECB) in September, when it came out with its programme for buying government debt. Rajoy had hoped that the mere existence of this mechanism would continue to frighten away speculators and serve to keep a lid on the risk premium until reforms and adjustments had come into force.
However, the possibility that Silvio Berlusconi may return to power and the sudden exit of the Italian Prime Minister have blown away the calm that had set in among investors.
The political earthquake in Italy opens the door to a scenario in which the new government that forms could step off the path of adjustments and reforms, and so lose the ability to fund itself on the markets. The numbers are there. Berlusconi left the risk premium at 575 basis points, and now, with the European Union having great difficulty coming to decisions and with very little room for manoeuvre, any result at all seems possible.
Return to risk premiums?
A return to the risk premiums of some months back is a distinct possibility. Such premiums would be too high to achieve stable economic growth and so would be unsustainable over the medium term. In short, they would furnish an excuse for speculators to seek their fortunes once more by betting on a collapse of the euro.
Under these circumstances, the chief executive will try to wring the most out of the next European Council, which will be held in Brussels on Thursday and Friday. “Spain is the same today as it was on Friday. However, the market is going to see it differently because of what happened in Italy. It's obvious that the problem is European and has to be resolved in Brussels,” says one member of the government.
Although the prospects of the Spanish delegation are not exactly optimistic, given the fast-approaching German elections in November 2013, some of the prime minister's believe that the Italian crisis is just the thing that can make European partners sit up and notice the risk, prompting them to decide to take more decisive steps towards banking integration. Not surprisingly, as proved by earlier Council meetings, the European Union and especially the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, make greater headway when they are up against the ropes.
Rajoy will demand an agreement from his partners that will let them dispel the doubts that the Italian crisis has stirred up in the markets and insist on the need to have a common firewall to protect some countries from the crises that others are in. In his view, a substantial advance towards the banking union that EU finance ministers are currently negotiating would send the markets the message that the partners will stick together and that the euro is irreversible.
Threat of Berlusconi's return
The president will argue for the agreement to launch the banking union to be signed as soon as possible, with a specific timetable for steps towards implementation. Here he faces opposition from the UK and Germany, the most reluctant to enter any such union, together with the Nordic countries, which think that a banking union is not the solution to the crisis and does not need to be brought in with any urgency. Seeing that Mario Monti will be attending the European Council in a weaker position now that he is on the way out as Italian prime minister, Rajoy will not have the usual backing.
Both the European Commission and the governments fear the consequences of a problem that seemed to have been contained. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso called on Italians not to exploit the upcoming elections “as an excuse to doubt the indispensability of the measures taken by the Monti government.” The President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, meanwhile, warned that the possible return of Berlusconi “poses a threat” to the stability of Italy and of the EU as a whole.
And more important than Spain having to end up asking for help are the consequences that the open-ended crisis may have on the euro. Senior EU officials acknowledge the reluctance of Germany to allow unlimited bond purchases by the ECB, out of fears that such a move will trigger inflation, and if Berlin decides to put a “stop” on it there will not be enough money to support an economy such as the Italian or Spanish.
The danger for the euro, they recognise, would arise if it became necessary to ask for more contributions from the eurozone countries. “They may not all agree,” they stress.
European Union: A budget for 2013, but still not enough money
13 December 2012
The European Parliament approved a compromise 2013 EU budget of €132.8bn, ending an impasse with member states that threatened negotiations over the bloc’s long-term spending plans, writes the Financial Times. The deal represents a 2.9 per cent increase, less than half the 6.8 per cent rise that MEPs and the European Commission had originally sought. Summing up the deal, the economic daily adds –
In addition to the 2013 increase, member states will also provide an extra €6bn for the current year’s budget to deal with a growing pile of unpaid bills – an issue that was the most contentious element of the talks. The UK and other budget hawks had staunchly resisted the top-up. Although they were ultimately forced to give ground, the €6bn amending budget was less than the €9bn that the commission had requested. The €3bn gap means that the parties will probably tangle again early next year over yet another amending budget to deal with those remaining bills.
European politics website EUobserver quotes EU budget commissioner Janusz Lewandowski’s concerns that the cash shortfall issue still remains. He says –
The approved budget will in all likelihood not be sufficient to pay the incoming bills ... the pressure on the 2013 EU budget will be tremendous. There is a serious risk that we will run out of funds early in the course of next year.
12/13/2012 11:14 AM
Fixing the Crisis: Euro Zone Agrees to Bank Oversight Deal
Euro-zone finance ministers agreed early Thursday on a far-reaching deal for the creation of an oversight authority for the currency zone's largest banks. The agreement will also allow troubled financial institutions to borrow money directly from European emergency bailout funds.
Following yet another in a seemingly unending series of all-night meetings, euro-zone finance ministers on early Thursday morning signed a deal providing for a single supervisory regime for the currency union's largest banks. The move is a significant step toward unifying financial authority across the bloc and came after months of disagreement over how such a regime might look.
"It is impossible to overstate the importance of the agreement, reached by euro-zone finance ministers last night, on a legal framework and primary features of a unified oversight mechanism," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday morning. She praised the agreement by saying that the bank oversight authority "will find and correct undesirable developments in national banking sectors early on before they can present a danger to the entire euro zone."
As expected, the deal calls for the largest banks in the 17 euro-zone member states to be supervised by the European Central Bank. Other European Union countries may opt into the regime, but are not bound to do so. The ECB will also be able to intervene in smaller euro-zone banks should it determine that there is a need. The agreement also paves the way for emergency aid from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) -- the currency union's permanent bailout fund -- to provide aid directly to banks, a change that is aimed at relieving already cash-strapped governments from the strain of propping up ailing financial institutions.
'Brick by Brick'
"Piece by piece, brick by brick, the banking union will be built on this first fundamental step today," said European Commissioner for Internal Market and Services Michel Barnier, according to the Associated Press.
The deal follows months of wrangling among European capitals, with much of the disagreement centering on which banks were to be supervised. Whereas Germany wanted only the bloc's largest banks to come under ECB supervision, France wanted all financial institutions to be included.
In the end, Paris and Berlin came up with a compromise. Under the agreement, the ECB will directly supervise those banks with assets exceeding €30 billion ($39 billion) or those whose assets represent 20 percent of their home country's annual gross domestic product. There is also a provision calling for the three largest financial institutions in each euro member state to be supervised, should they not all meet the first two criteria.
In Germany, Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank and DZ Bank will fall under the new regime as will some of the country's largest state-owned regional banks -- several of which ran into serious trouble during the financial crisis both before and after the collapse of Lehman Brothers -- as will as a handful of other financial institutions. Across Europe, some 200 lenders meet the criteria for automatic supervision.
The ECB, however, will also have the ability to directly intervene in the operations of any of the currency area's 6,000 banks, no matter what their size. Furthermore, EU countries that are not part of the euro zone may submit to supervision as well should they so choose, though none have yet done so. The monitoring authority will begin work in March and should be fully operational by the end of 2013.
Merkel on Thursday morning explicitly thanked German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble for "pushing through Germany's core demands."
The supervisory regime gives the ECB full investigative powers and the ability to penalize banks in a number of different ways, including withdrawing banking licenses or applying financial sanctions. Ultimately, the plan is to include a fund to be used should a bank need to be wound down, though details still need to be worked out. Germany in particular is wary of using domestic taxpayer funds to help wind down banks abroad.
The deal fulfils a euro-zone promise to take initial steps toward banking union by the end of the year as part of its long-term efforts to combat the debt crisis which has buffered the currency union in recent years.
12/12/2012 05:25 PM
Report Blasts Berlin's Inaction: Sinti, Roma and Racism
By Maximilian Popp
Less than two months ago, Germany's government made a big show of dedicating a memorial to the Sinti and Roma victims of Nazi crimes, pledging greater efforts to fight discrimination. But a new report chastises Berlin for doing little to combat the mistreatment and prejudice the minorities face each day.
On October 24, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stood under Berlin's gray skies to inaugurate the long-delayed memorial to the some 500,000 Sinti and Roma murdered by the Nazis. In her speech, Merkel noted that "far too little attention has been paid for far too long" to their wartime suffering. And, in a time when Sinti and Roma continue to be targets of right-wing attacks and even official oppression in Europe, she added that: "It is a German and a European task to support (Sinti and Roma) wherever they live, no matter what country."
But, almost two months later, this promise has already been broken.
On Wednesday, members of the Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid Committee of the Bundestag, the German parliament, will be presented with a report describing what has been done on this front. The answer: not much. The report finds that antiziganism, a term denoting racism toward the Sinti and Roma, is widespread in Germany -- and that Berlin is doing nothing to counter it.
The study was conducted by RomnoKher, a center for culture, education and antiziganism research in the southwestern German city of Mannheim. It documents how racism against Sinti and Roma has spread in Germany over the last two years, citing cases such as the following:
In Klinghain, in the eastern state of Saxony, an apartment building was attacked and set on fire. The inhabitants had previously been assaulted and berated as "gypsies." "Beat it, you Kanaken!" the attackers had written on a piece of paper, using a derogatory word for foreigners. Even so, police would later rule out any "xenophobic background" to the crime.
A man in northern Bavaria repeatedly abused several women on the German-Czech border. At his trial, he cited "hatred against Roma" as his motive.
In the western city of Gelsenkirchen, one or more arsonists set 17 mobile homes on fire in an area inhabited by Roma.
A stone memorial set up in Merseburg, a city in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, to commemorate Nazi deportations of Sinti and Roma was desecrated seven times between December 2009 and January 2012.
When refugees from Serbia and Macedonia were being housed in a former barracks in Schneeburg, Saxony, the regional newspaper wrote: "They number among the Sinti and Roma. Along with them, fear of crime came to Schneeberg." The far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) also convened a meeting of the municipal council. And in Bavaria, a representative for the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), suffered no consequences after saying: "The most important thing is that the Roma disappear."
The study found that Sinti and Roma suffer discrimination in number of areas, such as when they are looking for apartments, in the workplace and in government agencies. It also cited an increase in negative media coverage of immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria in recent months. Markus End, a political scientist and author of the RomnoKher study, says that the media made frequent use of "gypsy" stereotypes. "The government pretends like there isn't any racism against Sinti and Roma in Germany," he says.
The University of Bielefeld conducted a similar study last year that focused on "group-related enmity." It found that 40 percent of Germans would prefer not to have Sinti or Roma living in their neighborhoods. More than a quarter of them said that Sinti and Roma should "be banned from German city centers." Likewise, almost half of respondents agreed with the claim that Sinti and Roma have a tendency to engage in crime.
At the same time, three-fourths of German Sinti and Roma claimed to be frequently discriminated against in Germany. "It is telling that the German public is more or less unaware of this form of racism," says Ferda Ataman, an editor at Mediendienst Integration, a nonprofit organization that informs journalists and other media representatives about current issues related to migration, integration and asylum in Germany.
The Council of Europe and the United Nations have repeatedly criticized Germany for not being decisive enough in its efforts to combat antiziganism. Chancellor Merkel's government responded to an official letter of inquiry on the issue submitted by the environmentalist Green Party by saying only that no complaints had been submitted to the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency (ADS). But even ADS Director Christine Lüders warns that: "Roma regularly experience a climate of ostracism and stigmatization. Rejection of them reaches deep into the middle of society."
Author of the RomnoKher study End boils the issue down by saying that "natural catastrophes" cannot be blamed for the often poor health care and bad educational and work situations of the Roma and Sinti. Instead, he says, they are the result "of processes of discrimination, ostracism and persecution."