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« Reply #3720 on: Dec 28, 2012, 08:22 AM »

12/28/2012 11:48 AM

Presidential Election: Czech Voters Yearn for Substance over Scandal

By Jan Puhl

For the first time since the Velvet Revolution, citizens in the Czech Republic will have the opportunity to vote directly for their head of state in two weeks. Former Prime Minister Milos Zeman is in the pole position. His tough-talking style appeals to Czechs who are tired of back room deals and a scandal-plagued leadership.

Miloš Zeman has set up his campaign headquarters close to his ultimate goal: His headquarters are in an historic building in the old town, close to Prague Castle, which also serves as the Czech Republic's presidential palace. The candidate lights one cigarette after another, now and then pouring himself a bit more Bohemian white wine from a large carafe. As the smoke wafts around him, Zeman declares, "I want to be president."

In these days of smoking bans across the European Union, an inhaling head of state might be something of an issue. In the Czech Republic, though, Zeman wins points for his joie de vivre.

Since the 1989 Velvet Revolution, the country's presidents have been chosen by the parliament in Prague. But in January, Czechs will elect their head of state directly for the very first time -- and that is good for Miloš Zeman. The candidate presents himself as a man of the people, coarse and direct. Polls show him in the lead, and it seems likely that he will end up in a run-off election against former Prime Minister Jan Fischer.

"I'm in favor of the EU, but against Brussels regulating things like toilets," Zeman says. If he wins, it will bring a different tone to Prague Castle. Poet-President Václav Havel, who was the first to hold the office after the collapse of communism, was given to moralizing speeches. His successor Václav Klaus, the incumbent who is approaching the end of his second term, has tended to be professorial in manner. Zeman, in contrast, is casual and provincial as a matter of principle.

A Reputation for Coarseness

Born in 1944, Zeman aligned himself with the reformers during the Prague Spring of 1968. After Warsaw Pact troops crushed the revolution, Zeman eked out a living running a gym. When the communist system collapsed, he joined the Czech Social Democratic Party, which he led to victory in the 1990s, and served as prime minister from 1998 to 2002, a time when the newly privatized economy was growing and the country was seen as a model pupil of capitalism.

But even then, Zeman gained himself a reputation for his coarse manner, deriding some journalists as "hyenas" and describing Erika Steinbach, the controversial president of an organization that represents Germans expelled from Poland, the Czech Republic and elsewhere after World War II, as "a voice of hate." But the statement that garnered the most attention in Germany was Zeman's assertion that ethnic Germans in prewar Czechoslovakia, the so-called Sudeten Germans, had been "Hitler's fifth column." Historically speaking, he's not wrong -- 68 percent of Sudeten Germans voted for Hitler ally Konrad Henlein's party in 1935 -- but Bavarian governor Edmund Stoiber demanded an apology. Zeman, of course, refused.

"All politicians are populists," the Czech presidential candidate says. His knack for boiling complex problems down to simple formulas has won him approval with Social Democratic voters. He also, however, has attracted unsatisfied voters not aligned with any party. Many of those are part of the middle class that emerged during the boom years of the 1990s and now faces the threat of unemployment as the euro crisis makes life difficult in the Czech Republic.

Zeman is seen as an honest soul, someone who "tells it like it is," in the words of Prague political scientist Robert Schuster.

Another factor in Zeman's favor is that he can present himself as anti-establishment, having left the Social Democratic Party years ago after serious disagreements with party head Jiří Paroubek. Zeman demonstratively withdrew to his dacha in South Bohemia, where he took up the role of the former statesman, appearing before TV cameras in stocking feet and sweaters to offer up his thoughts, whether in the form of advice or toxic praise. He kept himself involved in the public dialogue, but without becoming enmeshed in scandals and affairs.

'A Lump of Sugar in a Cup of Coffee'

The Czech Republic hasn't had a government in years that could count on a majority in parliament. The country's leaders find themselves in a perpetually precarious position, always having to beg for votes in parliament to support their more significant projects. Political decisions have migrated into back rooms, where posts are exchanged for votes over beer and dumplings. With new corruption scandals coming to light weekly, many Czechs are sick of their own politicians.

Zeman's squeaky-clean image, meanwhile, was only improved by a top gangster, since murdered, who commented during a conversation intercepted by the police that Zeman, unfortunately, couldn't be bribed. The politician wanted nothing more than "a sandwich, three pickles and for people to like him," lamented the gangster.

Unlike the incumbent President Klaus, Zeman takes a pro-Europe stance. Under Klaus' watch, Prague declined to sign the fiscal pact, with the president warning that Czech identity would "dissolve within the EU like a lump of sugar in a cup of coffee."

Zeman, on the other hand, declares, "I favor further steps toward integration," and believes the Czech Republic must adopt the euro, if not until the "distant future." Meanwhile, he says, the EU shouldn't be throwing so much money at Greece: "A country simply can't spend decades living beyond its means." The standard of living in the Czech Republic is lower than in Greece, and Czech voters may well reward Zeman for his tough talk.

The politician, for his part, approaches the EU with precisely the same independent-mindedness that Czechs so value in themselves. "Our nation will not disappear in the European Union," the candidate says and lights another cigarette.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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« Reply #3721 on: Dec 28, 2012, 08:24 AM »

12/27/2012 08:08 PM

Behind the Scenes in Brussels: EU Summit Reveals a Paralyzed Continent


What happens behind closed doors at an EU summit, when European leaders are among themselves? SPIEGEL has reconstructed the negotiations at the most recent meeting in Brussels in December based on documents and accounts given by numerous sources. It was a summit of hopelessness.

The haggling is in full swing at this hour -- North against South, rich countries against poor ones, German Chancellor Angela Merkel against French President François Hollande. They're stuck on a word, one that would normally have a beautiful, positive sound: common. The word "common" is dividing Europe. This is what it has come to in this night of hard-fought negotiations.

For more than six hours now, the leaders of the European Union have been meeting in Brussels to discuss the future. They are here to agree on a document, and according to item 12 of that paper, there is to be a "common backstop" for the new banking union, a sort of shared resolution fund for worst-case scenarios.

Germany wants the word "common" deleted. So do Sweden, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands. France wants to keep the word in the document, as do Italy, Spain and Portugal. The northern countries are afraid that they'll be asked to pay even more than they already do, while the south is hoping for more shared responsibility in the crisis. The dispute continues for three-quarters of an hour. The northern countries win the fight and the word "common" is stricken from the closing statement of the most recent EU summit.

This happened on Dec. 13 and 14, during a meeting of the European Council, the powerful EU body consisting of all 27 heads of state and government. They meet behind closed doors, and not even their closest staff members are allowed to attend. During these discussions, secrecy is normally paramount. But as of the last one, that no longer applies.

Months ago, SPIEGEL began opening the doors to this summit. A team of six reporters traveled to European capitals to find sources for a reconstruction of the December meeting. As a result, they were able to obtain reports on the negotiations, during and after the summit, from almost a dozen sources. The reports make it possible to accurately recount the events that unfolded.

High Expectations

The participants expressed satisfaction after the meeting. Some, including the chancellor, said they had made some progress. But is that true? Ahead of this summit, in particular, expectations had been high. It was supposed to be about the big picture, the future of the economic and monetary union -- and not just new aid for Greece. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy had been tasked with submitting proposals on how to strengthen the union.

Van Rompuy had Merkel's backing. Speaking to the European Parliament in November, she had voiced her strong support for a fundamental reform. "A renewed economic and monetary union needs more common fiscal policy," the chancellor said, as well as "a common economic policy." She had used the word "common" twice.

For some time, Merkel has believed that the founding fathers of the euro, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and former French President François Mitterrand, made a mistake when they neglected to give the currency a political structure. For Merkel, this is one of the reasons for the current crisis. She also believes that it's up to her generation to correct the mistake. She wants the EU member states to give up more sovereignty so that policymakers in Brussels can quickly and effectively decide on a common fiscal and economic policy. To achieve this, Merkel even talked about amending the European treaties.

The December summit was seen as an opportunity for Europe to take a big and decisive step in this direction. But it failed on that count, producing an outcome that was tenuous at best.

How could this happen? The days leading up to the summit and the meeting itself show how Europe functions -- or rather, doesn't -- at a key juncture. They show how a big idea can be ruined in ritualized routine. Despite the talk, few leaders are truly advocating further European integration these days.

Olso, Monday, Dec. 10, 1:20 p.m.

The applause begins to build, growing louder and louder. Merkel and Hollande, who are sitting in the front row, turn around, smiling and whispering to each other. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk tells them to finally stand up, and when they actually do, Hollande takes Merkel's hand and raises it above their heads. And there they are, standing hand in hand, their arms outstretched, and smiling.

It's an important and moving moment. The European Union is being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on this day, and the chairman of the Nobel Committee has just extoled Franco-German reconciliation, which explains why the two leaders are now standing there, basking in applause.

They're sitting at lunch an hour later, 20 EU leaders, Van Rompuy, the Council's president, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso -- the European administration, in other words -- and European Parliament President Martin Schulz. They are in very good spirits and are talking about integration and a deepening of relations. In fact, Schulz is still doing most of the talking.

Martin Schulz, 57, a Social Democrat from Würselen near Aachen in western Germany, is known for his strong personality, which he expresses in lengthy tirades. When he walks, he is as bowlegged as the professional soccer player he almost became, and he is a talented actor. Merkel likes to say to him: Why don't you do Sarkozy for us? Then Schulz does a perfect imitation of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, looking agitated and hectic, and speaking in a deep voice, to Merkel's great amusement. Another one of Schulz's strengths is that he never stops fighting for a united Europe .

In Oslo, at lunch, he talks about the upcoming elections in Italy and the threat posed by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has announced that he wants to run again. Schulz says that while only the Italian people can decide whether Berlusconi becomes their prime minister again, his election could have serious implications for all Europeans, and that this issue underscores the poor design of the EU. No one contradicts him, and many agree. Integration must continue, Merkel adds. Bathed in the halo of the Nobel prize, everyone feels very European. At this banquet, at any rate, they can give speeches that cost them nothing.

Brussels, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2 p.m.: The ministers for European Affairs are holding a luncheon in preparation of the summit.

Michael Link, a minister of state in the German Foreign Ministry, represents Germany. The documents that will serve as the basis of the summit are the main topic of discussion.

When it comes to Europe's future, the egos of the heads of the most important EU institutions play an important role. Council President Van Rompuy was actually tasked with presenting a paper to be considered at the summit, but Commission President Barroso preempted him. Thirteen days before the meeting, he presented the public with a 51-page document titled "Blueprint For a Deep and Genuine Economic and Monetary Union," in which Barroso describes his proposals for the reorganization of the EU. "In this type of monetary union," he writes, "all major economic and fiscal policy choices of its member states should be subject to deeper coordination, endorsement and surveillance at the European level." Barroso proposes establishing an economic government in three phases.

Van Rompuy followed suit five days later. His paper consisted of only 15 pages, and the title didn't sound as ambitious: "Towards a Genuine Economic and Monetary Union." Although Van Rompuy had borrowed Barroso's three-step model, revolutionary proposals like the establishment of a debt redemption fund and a European Finance Ministry were eliminated. There was, however, still talk of an independent "fiscal capacity" for the euro zone, the coordination of labor market and tax policy, and of "common decision-making" on national budgets.

Berlin Dismisses Reform Plans as 'Science Fiction'

But by a week later, on the eve of the Brussels summit, there was also little left of Van Rompuy's proposal. The draft of the document that the EU leaders are supposed to adopt, the so-called conclusions, merely mentions that the member states will discuss their reforms when deemed "appropriate." A common budget is no longer mentioned, and the document nebulously refers to an "integrated financial framework." The idea of binding reform agreements among the member states and the EU institutions has also disappeared into the fine print. The document states that "individual agreements of a contractual nature with EU institutions could enhance ownership and effectiveness." Now Van Rompuy has also eliminated the three-step plan.

In the meantime, he had spoken with many European leaders by phone, and he quickly found out that there is no strong support for deeper integration in Europe.

"Most of it is science fiction," German State Secretary Link says dismissively at the luncheon in Brussels, referring to the first Van Rompuy document.

'A Second-Class Monetary Union'
Berlin, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 11 a.m. The Federal Press Conference Building. Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut is briefing journalists on the German government's position ahead of the summit.

Meyer-Landrut, 52, heads the European Division of the German Chancellery. Despite his calm demeanor, he can be harsh, occasionally even to the chancellor. When he feels that something she has said isn't quite right, he sometimes rains on her parade, as visitors have noted with surprise. A muscle in his jaw twitches when he becomes upset or is under pressure. He is a relative of the German singer Lena Meyer-Landrut, who won the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest for Germany .

"To be honest, I'm surprised that everyone wants to talk about how and for what money can be spent," Meyer-Landrut tells the journalists. He's referring to the "anti-shock mechanism," a fund intended to reduce the impact of economic crises in individual countries. The leaders of the Southern European countries, in particular, want to discuss it in Brussels. It's based on an idea of Merkel's that she no longer fully embraces. Referring to the proposed fund, Meyer-Landrut says: "Let me say this in a very amicable fashion. I believe the idea of counterbalancing through the backdoor what we are currently establishing in the way of fiscal discipline in the member states by establishing large European funds will not meet with the approval of the German government."

Merkel is mainly interested in discussing competitiveness in Brussels. It's the Germans' strength, and it's an area in which Berlin can make demands of others without having to spend any money. Meyer-Landrut talks a lot about competitiveness. His talk is stern and distant. The topic of solidarity isn't his, meaning it isn't Merkel's, because what Meyer-Landrut is saying here is what she wants him to say. Neither one thinks much of the papers presented by Van Rompuy and Barroso, as Meyer-Landrut notes when he says: "In terms of conceptual depth and intellectual development, they are not as advanced as we would like."

Merkel's strategy for Brussels is to delay things. The Germans want to see a roadmap approved, but nothing more. At the end of the press conference, Meyer-Landrut says: "Our willingness to embark on reforms hasn't declined." It's surprising that no one laughs.

A week earlier, Meyer-Landrut had invited two colleagues to a friend's house on the Wannsee, a lake in Berlin: Philippe Léglise-Costa, the European policy advisor to French President Hollande, and Piotr Serafin, the state secretary for European affairs in the government of Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk. It was a bitterly cold -5 degrees Celsius (23 degrees Fahrenheit) night, but everyone enjoyed the magnificent view of the lake in winter. During their dinner, the three men intended to talk about what they believed Europe would look like in five or 10 years. Afterwards, Serafin was amazed over the extent to which the two other men agreed on an important point: Neither one wants key competencies, like fiscal and labor market policy, to be turned over to Brussels.

Brussels, the bar at the Sofitel, shortly after 7 p.m. Jean-Claude Juncker walks in and orders a gin and tonic.

Juncker, 58, a Christian Democrat, has been the prime minister of Luxembourg for 18 years, which also means that he has attended the meetings of the European Council for 18 years. He's fond of saying: "At my age, nothing surprises me anymore." His European counterparts sometimes find him annoying, because he has a tendency to be preachy or make a show of looking bored. Without Juncker , Luxembourg would be a very small country in Europe . But with him at the helm, it almost comes across as a medium-sized land. Referring to Germany 's European policy, Juncker once said slyly: "(Former Chancellor) Helmut Kohl was good, and Mrs. Merkel isn't bad -- although in this case 'good' and 'not bad' mean the same thing."

He takes a sip of his gin and tonic, but he doesn't look pleased. He has just read the last draft of the conclusions that Van Rompuy had sent to the European leaders. It has been a long time since he's seen a document this feeble.

How does he view the role the Germans played in the process that led to this weak document? "We've gotten used to the fact that the German position develops in an evolutionary way," he says astutely.

Brussels, Thursday, Dec. 13. Lex Building

After meeting for 14 hours, the finance ministers agree on a European banking supervisory authority under the umbrella of the European Central Bank (ECB). The Germans were long skeptical, but they eventually bowed to pressure from other member states. Once the central banking supervisory authority is up and running, by the beginning of 2014, European rescue funds will be able to bail out banks directly.

The Warsaw Airport, military section, 10:40 a.m.

It's very cold outside, as two limousines rush onto the tarmac. Prime Minister Donald Tusk is 15 minutes late. A staff member schleps suit carriers and a large travel bag up the gangway. "Even the prime minister needs fresh underwear sometimes," a Polish journalist remarks.

Donald Tusk, 55, a liberal-conservative, is a slim, modest intellectual with a trait rarely seen in politicians: a dislike of acrimonious debates. Tusk and his government are nice to everyone, so much so that their style is polemically referred to as a "love policy." Merkel is the object of a large share of this affection. Tusk has closely aligned Poland with Germany , especially on European issues. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE two years ago, Tusk admitted: "I'm incapable of getting angry with Angela Merkel."

Tusk greets the flight crew with a brief nod and sits down next to the window on the right front side of the aircraft. The plane is teeming with his staff members, as they constantly squeeze past the flight attendant, their phones pressed to their ears, as she tries to give her safety presentation in the aisle. Finally, she becomes exasperated and drops the oxygen mask and seat belt she has been holding. Telephones are still ringing when the plane reaches the runway.

State Secretary for European Affairs Serafin is sitting across from Tusk. He is satisfied with the decisions reached by the finance ministers the night before. "The draft takes all of our concerns into account," he says. The Poles are always afraid of being shut out from the rest of Europe. "Poland wants to be involved in the structuring of the euro zone without actually being a member," says Serafin. This places the large non-euro country in a special position.

Brussels, VIP entrance to the Justus Lipsius Building, where the European Council meets, 4:00 p.m.

The European leaders are arriving, starting with Merkel, who says into the microphones that "a great deal" has been achieved this year. Hollande arrives soon afterwards, and he too says that much has been accomplished.

It's dusk as the large limousines carrying the European leaders arrive behind the flickering blue lights of police cars. Ninety percent of the limousines are made in Germany -- mostly Audis and BMWs. The arrival illustrates one subject of the summit: the economic imbalance in Europe.

Tusk, together with his entourage, hurries into the office of the Polish delegation on the seventh floor, where he disappears into a room filled with elegant black furniture. Computers are booted up. The suite of rooms exudes bureaucratic matter-of-factness. There are no decorations or crucifixes, except for a plastic evergreen branch taped to the sign on the door.

Hollande has already had a brief conversation with Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and his Spanish counterpart Mariano Rajoy. He walks over to the office of the German delegation to pay Merkel a visit.

Merkel, 58, a Christian Democrat, the chancellor of Germany for the last seven years, and Hollande, a Socialist and president of France for more than half a year now who is the same age as his Berlin counterpart, rarely agree. Merkel was outraged when Hollande said in October that the German position on Europe is already being influenced by the upcoming parliamentary election in the fall of 2013. How could he! It annoys Hollande that Merkel paints herself as a great European, and yet is only interested in protecting Germany's money. She doesn't think he's amusing enough to ask Martin Schulz to do an impersonation of him either. When she says competitiveness, he says solidarity. The pair don't make for a strong Franco-German axis.

They speak to each other for half an hour. Merkel says amiably that she won't support a large European "shock absorption capacity." After the meeting, aides say that the tone of their discussion was positive.

The round table room in the council building, fifth floor, about 5:00 p.m.

The summit participants are gradually arriving. Schulz is carrying a blue notebook and Hollande a yellow one, but Merkel isn't carrying one. She greets a few of her counterparts with kisses on the cheek, and then she takes her seat between Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho and Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen. Her iPad is on the desk in front of her.

The meeting begins with Schulz giving a small speech. "The creed of the European Union is not reflected in visions of the future, but in concrete actions," he says. "For this reason, you should now take advantage of this opportunity -- and that is the choice you now confront -- to finally achieve institutional clarity and strengthen the European democracy."

Barroso takes the floor and agrees with everything Schulz has said. Merkel launches into a conversation with Coelho, who is sitting to her left, a chat she appears to find more interesting than what Barroso is saying. She shows no interest whatsoever in the speaker who follows Barroso, Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias. He's familiar with her reaction. When he speaks, the murmur of conversation in the room becomes more audible. Cyprus is a small, distant island in the Mediterranean.

Juncker is arguing with Schulz over whether it makes more sense to present the national budgets to the Commission or the individual parliaments first. The argument, in German, becomes a little heated.

Schulz's presentation lasts more than an hour. The European leaders assemble for a harmonious-looking group photo with their guest. Then it's time for Schulz to leave, and the doors are closed for the first working session.

Van Rompuy begins the meeting with the words: "This is supposed to be an evening of the economic and monetary union. I hope it won't be a night of the economic and monetary union."

Van Rompuy, 65, president of the European Council, is nicknamed "the Sphinx" in his native Belgium , because he rarely shows emotion. He attended a Jesuit school and likes to write haikus, short Japanese poems that follow a strict format. He is often on the phone with Merkel. She once said to him: "Well, Herman, then I'll carry it out just the way you describe." She didn't do it, of course. What she meant to say was that Van Rompuy has no authority over her. In fact, it's more or less the other way around, with Merkel telling Van Rompuy what flies in Europe and what doesn't. They spoke on the phone with each many times before the summit. Van Rompuy's most recent haiku reads: "The night has fallen / The bare branches can be seen / Even more lonely."

Van Rompuy has a personal interest in bringing the summit to a speedy conclusion. His son is getting married on Friday evening, and he hopes to be reasonably well rested for the wedding. The European leaders discuss the documents in front of them: Barroso's blueprint, Van Rompuy's proposal and the conclusions that were written in advance for the summit.

The South wants more solidarity, while the North demands more discipline.

Van Rompuy says: "The euro is a first-class world currency, but we only have a second-class monetary union." He then announces a scheduling change. The date of the May summit is being pushed back from the 30th to the 22nd.

Now the discussion begins. Actually, a real discussion almost never materializes, because the participants speak in accordance with the order specified on the agenda. As a result, hardly anyone ever refers to the remarks made by the preceding speaker; instead, each participant says what he or she has already decided to say. Each speaker has four minutes.

The fourth speaker after Van Rompuy is Rajoy. He says that the idea of a fiscal capacity for the euro zone is a good one, but that it will require additional money, causing Merkel to prick up her ears.

The Council Live
She is the sixth speaker after Van Rompuy. She notes that competitiveness needs to be improved. Then she addresses the issue of the fiscal capacity. If it's to be used to offset external shocks, she says, the fund will require €80 to 100 billion. "Where is this money supposed to come from?" the chancellor asks. "Can someone explain that to me? Should the EU be given the right to collect taxes directly?"

At about 8:15 p.m., Hollande glances at his mobile phone and sees that he has a text message from Schulz. He has just learned that the European summit has been rescheduled for May 22. Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) plans to celebrate its 150th birthday on the 23rd, and Hollande is expected to be the keynote speaker. This won't work, Schulz writes. I'll talk to Merkel, Hollande replies.

The chancellor reacts obstinately. The summit was only supposed to last for a day, not the usual two days, she says, so that Hollande can give his speech at the SPD event on the 23rd. Hollande writes a text message to Schulz, and he replies: There is going to be a meeting of the party leaders on the 22nd, including Social Democrats attending the summit. I'll talk to Van Rompuy, Hollande writes.

What's the topic of the summit again? The SPD or Europe's future?

The attendees are almost all multi-taskers. They spend a lot of time on their mobile phones and iPads. Merkel reads news agency reports, while British Prime Minister David Cameron passes the time with electronic card games on his iPad.

Now Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico makes an odd remark. He says that he encountered a group of students today who didn't know what the European Council does. "I gave them the draft of the conclusions, but they didn't understand any of it." Truly surprising.

Frequent Misunderstandings

In addition to the EU leaders and the heads of state and government, a few senior European bureaucrats are attending the summit. The only connection to the outside world are three minute takers with the European Council office, also known as "note takers." They write down what the politicians say.

Every 20 minutes, a note taker leaves the room and walks over to room 50.2, where there are diplomats from each EU member state who are known as Anticis. The name is derived from Italian Paolo Massimo Antici, who founded the group of officials in 1975. The note taker reads his minutes out loud to the diplomats from the member states, usually in French but sometimes in English. The Anticis from the 27 EU countries write down what the note taker is saying and then send their reports to the delegation offices. This is how Meyer-Landrut learns what Merkel has said in the meeting, although what he reads sometimes differs considerably from what his Polish or Spanish counterpart reads, because each Antici hears something different and translates what he or she hears in a different way. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the frequent misunderstandings.

An Antici's job is stressful, because the officials' duties also include attending to the needs of their national leaders at the round table. When Merkel needs a document or a glass of wine, she presses a button on the table in front of her. This illuminates a small light on a display panel in the room next door, and the German Antici hurries over to the chancellor.

The first reports from the Antici are now arriving in the delegation offices. The Polish reports appear under the heading "Rada na zywo," or "The Council Live." The Poles read the first reports calmly.

Poland's EU ambassador, Marek Prawda, is sitting in the Polish delegation's office. He is a man who talks very quietly and sometimes spends an irritatingly long time gathering his thoughts before answering. Prawda's explanation for Merkel's stepping on the brakes and seeking to postpone reform proposals like the anti-shock fund goes something like this: "Although it was the chancellor who proposed this, she was shocked to see how the southern countries pounced on it. After all, it's a question of money from Brussels in return for structural reforms. The Germans will now insert moderating language into the document, language that enables them to play for time." Poland itself doesn't want to stoke up the pace of reform, because the country is worried about being left behind. So far, nothing has happened at the summit that could jeopardize its position in Europe.

A Northern Insurrection against the South

Now Finnish Prime Minister Katainen is speaking in the round table room, marking the beginning of something one might characterize as the North's insurrection against the South. The countries in the North are doing relatively well, and they pay more into the EU than they receive in return. Katainen says: "There are some ideas that go too far, like the creation of a fiscal capacity for the euro zone. We have to get rid of weaknesses in the monetary union, but we mustn't go too far." His Swedish counterpart, Fredrik Reinfeldt, expresses himself more directly.

Reinfeldt, 47, a conservative, has been Sweden 's prime minister for six years. He is a dyed-in-the-wool Swede who likes to watch ice hockey and listen to Abba. His country has openly contravened EU rules for years, because each EU member is required to join the monetary union as soon as it has satisfied the economic requirements (exceptions apply, but only for Great Britain and Denmark ). However, the Swedes voted against the rule in a referendum, and Reinfeldt has now become an even more aggressive skeptic when it comes to Europe than British Prime Minister Cameron. Referring to Merkel, he says: "We're wired very similarly."

At the summit meeting, he initially criticizes the Council's operating methods. It's unacceptable, he says, that the Council is constantly making decisions and agreeing on the wording of resolutions, only to postpone the ironing out of details to a later date. This is a questionable practice that doesn't inspire confidence, he notes.

Reinfeldt believes that there are plenty of instruments to combat the crisis, but that they are not being implemented correctly. He notes that it isn't necessary "to constantly approve new instruments." He also says that the euro isn't the currency of the European Union, and he cites a survey in which only nine percent of Swedes supported their country joining the euro zone.

And then he makes his position perfectly clear: "My citizens are opposed to transnational responsibility when it comes to helping a bank that's gotten itself into trouble in another country." And Reinfeldt also wants nothing to do with any anti-shock fund.

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt adds: "We should concentrate on the measures we have already approved. We mustn't let ourselves be distracted by new proposals." Referring to the anti-shock fund, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, 45, says: "I am vehemently opposed to it."

In this situation, Barroso proves to be pretty much the last European.

Portuguese politician Barroso, 56, president of the European Commission since 2004, is constantly worried about getting the short end of the stick. Since Van Rompuy became the first full-time president of the European Council, thus giving him some serious competition, Barroso has been struggling even more for attention. Before the presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize, Barroso and Van Rompuy had an argument over who should represent the EU at the awards ceremony. In the end, the two men shared the acceptance speech, providing a perfect illustration of the discord among European institutions. Barroso is seen as Merkel's creation, because she once supported his candidacy. Now she sometimes finds him alarmingly pro-European.

Barroso, responding to Reinfeldt, says that under Article 3 of the EU Treaty, the euro is the currency of the European Union, and he calls for a credible political structure for the currency. No one applauds.

There is a break at about 9 p.m., and wine is served in the Polish delegation's office. Suddenly Tusk appears in the doorway and says, with feigned outrage: "Here you people are celebrating while I have to work!"

The horse-trading begins over dinner.

Monti Has Had Enough
The dining room, 9:30 p.m.

Dinner is served. Berlusconi is there, but only in spirit. He donated the large table in the dining room. White wine from Cyprus, not exactly a premium beverage, is served with the meal. According to the Daily Telegraph, the 20-year-old red wine served at the last summit was worth almost €150 a bottle. In actuality, it cost the European Council administration about €12 a bottle, but this time the officials opted for a truly inexpensive wine, so as not to create the impression that European leaders are being too extravagant in the midst of a crisis.

The rules are not as strict during dinner as they are during the working session, so that debates are more likely to materialize. No one is keeping any minutes, and Anticis are not allowed inside. The European leaders are now discussing the conclusions.

Hollande already has a problem with the introduction, because it doesn't mention the social dimension. He gets it, but in return Merkel wants the word "competitiveness" added to the introduction. The leaders agree, and the first horse trade is out of the way.

Merkel has another objection to the introduction. She doesn't like the use of the term "shock absorption capacity." She has come to Brussels determined to eliminate the term, and she is unwilling to sign a document that includes it. She gets her way.

During the dinner, no Anticis are present and there is considerable noise in the room. Participants are constantly getting up to consult with their European experts outside. Meyer-Landrut and his counterparts are outside the room, waiting for instructions from their bosses, so that they can continue their negotiations.

Merkel voices another objection. The draft states that the Commission will seek ways to factor out public investments from the deficit criteria. Each country is only permitted to increase its national debt by three percent of its annual gross domestic product. Factoring out investments will enable countries to borrow more, thereby watering down the 3-percent rule.

"I have a problem with that," says Merkel. "Angela is right," says Dutch Prime Minister Rutte. Katainen proposes deleting the sentence. Once again, the North has closed ranks against the more debt-ridden South.

But now Monti has had enough. "It wasn't Italy that watered down the Stability Pact," he says.

Monti, 69, nonpartisan, has achieved the feat of turning a nation that felt like former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's bathtub back into a real country. He is Berlusconi's polar opposite. He's proof that the clichéd notion that objectiveness and reliability are predominately Nordic traits often doesn't apply. Under Monti , Italy is in better shape and is being taken seriously again by other countries. His demands are sometimes too forceful for Merkel's taste, although he prefers to characterize his approach as "a very energetic way of working together." Nevertheless, Monti is still preferable to Merkel over Berlusconi, who made disparaging remarks last year about her derrière.

Monti takes a potshot at Germany, noting that it was unable to comply with the limit on new borrowing under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Hollande comes to Monti's defense, noting how important public investment is for growth and job creation.

Cypriot President Christofias interrupts the debate, saying that Cyprus and Greece should be allowed to factor out their military spending, because of the threat from Turkey. This time he has gained the attention of a few more people, who are now shaking their heads in disbelief. Those Cypriots.

The North more or less gets its way. "We modified the sentence until it was acceptable to us," Finnish Prime Minister Katainen says after the meeting.

The office of the Polish delegation, 10:10 p.m.

Suddenly a commotion erupts. Part of a sentence has been omitted from item 13 of the conclusions. The item relates to the rules of procedure for meetings on the fiscal pact. The missing words are: "fully respecting Article 12.3 TSCG." The letters TSCG (Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance) refer to the fiscal pact.

What happened to the missing text? Tomasz Husak, 35, the political director for European issues, who holds a doctorate in economics and another one in political science, is very focused. First he and his team comb through the document to see if the text may have been moved somewhere else. But it hasn't been. Together with Ambassador Prawda, they sit down at the computer and write an analysis. Poland is concerned that without this qualifying text, the euro countries will decide on the fiscal pact alone, that is, without Poland.

The advisors write a memo to Tusk, asking him to say: "A year ago, we spent a lot of time establishing the rules for the participation of non-euro countries. The role of the countries outside the euro zone that approved the fiscal pact must be defined in the establishment of the 'rules of procedure,' because they also determine the character of rights and obligations."

State Secretary for European Affairs Serafin takes the memo to Tusk while political director Husak meets with Merkel advisor Meyer-Landrut. Another official informs Van Rompuy about the Polish demand. "We want to be a transparent delegation. It's no use catching the others off-guard," says Husak.

Then the waiting continues. Husak and his coworkers hang around.

In the meantime, the entrée has been served in the dining room: pork loin with pureed pumpkin. The dessert is chocolate with orange peels.

After a long discussion, the word "common" is dropped from item 11, and item 12 also triggers a heated argument. Hollande insists on a "solidarity mechanism," which is just another name for an anti-shock mechanism. That's all very well, says Merkel, "but where is the money supposed to come from?" Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, agrees.

In the end, Hollande convinces the others that item 12b concerns a "social dimension of the EMU" (Economic and Monetary Union), and that item 12d describes a "solidarity mechanism," that is, a watered down version of an anti-shock fund for exceptional cases, to promote "competitiveness" (at Germany's request) and "growth" (at France's request). But Merkel expects the fund to translate into no more than €20 billion in spending, which means it'll have saved €80 billion as compared with what the Southern countries envisioned.

The meeting is interrupted at midnight to celebrate Helle Thorning-Schmidt's birthday. Waiters bring a chocolate cake into the room, and a few of them sing "Happy Birthday." Only about half the participants sing along, mostly off-key.

The office of the Polish delegation, 12:30 a.m.

"It's over now," one person writes in a text message, and a few people start putting their coats on. But as it turns out, it was a false alarm.

The European leaders have indeed discussed everything on the agenda, and Van Rompuy wants to have the final text printed out for all the participants. But then Merkel intervenes, saying that she wants the paragraph that was just amended read out loud one more time. Apparently she wants to make sure that no one has made off with the term "competitiveness." Van Rompuy does as he is told.

He interrupts the meeting for 20 minutes so that the conclusions can be printed out, and then he reads the changes in English, sentence by sentence. Merkel is satisfied. The word "competitiveness" is there, in all the right places.

Serafin and Prawda walk into the office of the Polish delegation at 2 a.m. to announce that the meeting is over. They're pleased, because the text they had been concerned about is back in the conclusions, meaning that Poland now has a say once again. Husak and a colleague give each other high fives.

No one offers any surprises, and no one fights for any bold reforms.

Waiting for the elevator on the way to her press conference, Merkel says: "Do I have to manage the Socialists' schedule now? After all, I'm not a Social Democrat. I'm a Christian Democrat." She was forced to deal with the colliding dates for the May summit and the SPD anniversary throughout the entire evening.

Hollande steps into the French briefing room for his press conference at 1:59 a.m. He had his aides apply some makeup in the delegation room, but he still looks pale and isn't smiling as much as usual. He steps onto the stage and stands at the lectern, which his staff has brought from Paris in a minibus. He says: "Okay, I congratulate you once again on your patience, your courage and your endurance, which -- combined with ours -- has made it possible to achieve significant progress for Europe in the last six months." Hollande says that he is satisfied with the summit and mentions the solidarity mechanism.

Merkel enters the German press briefing room at 2:05 a.m. She says: "Good evening, or good morning, as you wish." Then she stands behind the lectern at the front of the stage. She looks pale, her eyes are narrow and her hairdo is no longer as voluminous as usual. These nights are strenuous. But she is satisfied nonetheless. Her most important message for the German public, she says, is that changes "cannot be made at the taxpayers' expense." All she has to say about the EU's enthusiasm for reform is this: "We didn't talk about treaty amendments."

The much-touted summit ends with the conclusion that the individual countries are to negotiate contracts with the EU concerning reforms. It could also produce a tiny anti-shock fund, and there is a statement on fighting youth unemployment. Of course, competitiveness is an important goal. Everything remains vague. Somehow the task of rebuilding the EU is supposed to continue next summer, just when Germany is in the midst of its election campaign.

Europe Has Gotten Stuck in the Mud
Friday, Dec. 14, 10 a.m., the round table

The European leaders are meeting once again. Today's topics are Syria and defense policy. There will be no further changes to the conclusions on the monetary union.

British Prime Minister Cameron makes some interesting remarks. He says that there are too many redundant regulations in the EU, and he wants to see some of them suspended. His comments are also incorporated into the closing document.

Juncker says that he reviewed his press kit that morning, specifically the reports on reaching an agreement on the banking union. In one newspaper, he says, he read that Germany had prevailed, while other papers claimed that France was the winner. Speaking French, for a change, he says: "I've pretty much had enough. Eighty percent are describing the national positions. We can't go on this way."

After the summit, Juncker gets into the back seat of his BMW 7 Series, and his diplomatic advisor, Yuriko Backes, sits down next to him. Two police cars escort the limousine through Brussels rush-hour traffic. It's raining heavily, and the windshield wipers can hardly keep up. "Too bad it isn't snowing," says Juncker. After another year of countless crisis meetings, he's looking forward to a few quiet days around Christmas.

The landscape becomes hillier as the car heads southeast toward the Ardennes. The Belgian police escort takes its leave with a short burst of sirens, and then the limousine, with its Luxembourg license plate, continues along the highway alone. "The biggest contribution to the success of the summit," says Juncker, "wasn't made by the heads of state and government, but by the finance ministers ahead of the meeting." If they hadn't reached an agreement on the banking union and resolved the Greek problem, he says, "this summit would have gone down in history as a very unsuccessful meeting."

What happened to the enthusiasm for reform? Why is Merkel suddenly stepping on the brakes? Juncker lights a cigarette and takes a long drag. Largely, he says, it has to do with the growing influence of the national parliaments. "Since the Greek crisis, the members of parliament are no longer kowtowing to the heads of government. They want to know what taxpayers are being asked to pay for." He has nothing against the parliaments getting involved, says Juncker, but points out that it will become difficult when they start making preliminary determinations. "If all the parliaments do this, we'll hardly have any room to negotiate at the summits."

There is also a growing reluctance in European capitals to transfer additional rights of sovereignty to EU institutions, says Juncker. In many places, he adds, there has been a decline in awareness that the EU needs to be reformed. "Now that we are able to achieve short-term successes on the issue of the banking union and Greece, contrary to expectations, long-term reform is losing momentum."

The advisor's phone rings, indicating that she has received an agency report. Backes reads the message to her boss: "Juncker not satisfied with EU summit outcome." Juncker nods. He is indeed satisfied, because his message has been heard.

Besides, it's almost Christmas. "I like to sing," says Jean-Claude Juncker, as he breaks into the first few lines of a German Christmas carol, "Alle Jahre wieder" (Every Year Again).

A Growing Emphasis on National Interests

His BMW is speeding through a Europe that has gotten stuck in the mud. The summit has made that abundantly clear. The main problem is a growing emphasis on national interests. Almost all of the Europeans are focusing exclusively on their own interests, from the Poles to the Germans to the French. Some are determined not to lose their connection to Europe, others want to pay as little as possible and there are those who want to get as much as possible. Together, they represent three Europes: the East, the North and the South. The bridges among the three are narrow and weak.

The reports on the summit provide a sense of the torpor and ritualization. The South makes proposals, as it has always done, and the North dismisses those proposals, as it has always done -- and vice-versa. No one offers any surprises, no one goes the extra mile, and no one fights for bold reforms.

They all go through the routine motions of unwinding their national programs, as if there were no euro crisis bellowing at their doors. There is a huge difference between the public rhetoric and the behavior during negotiations, especially with the German chancellor. In public, she stresses common interests, but none of it remains once she is behind closed doors. She seems pedantic and mercantile. This doesn't mean that the Germans should always be the ones footing the bill. But a policy of trying to avoid payment at all costs isn't enough.

The summit also shows that Chancellor Merkel isn't leading, even though she ought to be. All of the participants look to her, make reference to her and wait for her. But Merkel does not make use of this position. She doesn't speak as harshly as her Swedish counterpart Reinfeldt or her Dutch colleague Rutte, and yet she is one of them. She is not someone who promotes the common cause, even though she ought to be, as the chancellor of Europe's largest and richest country.

Instead, she both accepts and is responsible for the fact that Europe currently has no vision. The December summit was historic, in the sense that it stifled Barroso's and Van Rompuy's attempt to build a political union. Both men returned home without having achieved their goals.

Monday, Dec. 17. Berlin, the headquarters of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party, a meeting of the CDU steering committee, 10 a.m.

Merkel reports on the summit in Brussels. She is under the impression, she says, that Hollande is trying to obstruct everything she proposes between now and the German parliamentary election. Hollande currently has more allies than she does, she says, which is why cooperation isn't quite working yet. But she's doing her best to gather more allies for Germany, she adds.

It sounds a little like the days when there were still wars in Europe.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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« Reply #3722 on: Dec 28, 2012, 08:26 AM »

12/28/2012 12:22 PM

Pessimistic Schäuble Changes Tune: Finance Minister Says Euro-Crisis Worst Is Over

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said on Friday that he believes "we have the worst behind us" in the euro crisis. But not everyone agrees. A leading government advisor warns that risks are looming in Italy and even Merkel isn't ready to sound the all-clear just yet.

The worst is over in the euro crisis, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said on Friday, praising Greece and expressing confidence that France would master its problems.

Asked if the euro crisis would continue to worsen in 2013, Schäuble told German daily Bild: "I think we have the worst behind us. Countries like Greece have recognized that they can only overcome the crisis with hard reforms. I hope the progress will continue. We are moving ahead step by step."

Asked if France would turn out to be the biggest threat to the euro, Schäuble said: "I am sure that France will meet its obligations. The government knows very well that every country has to continually carry out reforms to remain competitive. That applies to us Germans as well, by the way."

He added that Germany would show "decent" growth in 2013. "The situation is better than expected, partly because trade with the US and Asia is expanding more strongly," he said.

Schäuble was speaking ahead of an important regional election in the northern state of Lower Saxony on January 20, which could shape prospects for the German general election in autumn 2013 in which Chancellor Angela Merkel is seeking to win a third term.

In late October, Schäuble had sounded considerably more downbeat, saying, "I'm not so sure that the worst of the crisis is behind us." But since then, Europe has agreed on another aid package for Greece, averting the threat of a Greek default for at least a couple of years.

Nevertheless, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been more hesitant in her assessment. Speaking at the congress of her Christian Democratic Union in Hanover on December 4, she said: "I am very cautious about saying the worst of the crisis is over."

Economic Advisor Says Italy Poses Risk

Wolfgang Franz, the head of the "wise men" panel of government economic advisers and head of the Centre for European Economic Research, was also more guarded than Schäuble. "Time will tell whether we have the worst behind us," he said in an interview on Monday with Rheinische Post newspaper. "There are several silver linings on the horizon. The current account deficits in Spain and Portugal are declining because they have become more competitive and they're exporting more."

He added that: "Greece is also undertaking considerable efforts and has sharply reduced its net new borrowing in relation to gross domestic product. What's also positive is that political leaders at the European Union level have established a series of rules for the currency union, such as the fiscal pact."

But Franz added that he was now concerned about elections in Italy, one of the world's biggest sovereign debtors. "If a new government rescinds the reforms launched by (technocrat Prime Minister) Mario Monti, that will push interest rates for Italy up again," he said.

Economists say that even though markets have calmed down and bond yields for high-debt countries have fallen, Europe still faces the risk of a "lost decade" of chronic economic stagnation caused by stringent austerity measures imposed in many countries to bring down debt and meet obligations under bailout programs.
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« Reply #3723 on: Dec 28, 2012, 08:28 AM »

December 27, 2012

Car Factories Offer Hope for Spanish Industry and Workers


MADRID — Despite the economic gloom that has enshrouded it since the onset of the global financial crisis, Spain has at least one industrial bright spot: The country and its skilled, if underemployed, work force have once again become a beacon for European carmakers.

Four years of economic turmoil and the euro zone’s highest jobless rate have made the Spanish labor market so inviting — an estimated 40 percent less expensive than those of Europe’s other biggest car-making countries, Germany and France — that Ford and Renault recently announced plans to expand their production in Spain.

Even before those announcements, other carmakers had committed this year to new plants or expansion totaling as much as 2 billion euros, or $2.64 billion.

Some experts say such gains in competitiveness and investment are exactly what Spain needs for its economy to recover and to remove any doubts about whether the country can remain in the euro union.

Because Spain no longer has its own currency to devalue as a way to lower the price of its exports, it is having to find its competitive advantage in lower labor costs. Many economists have argued that societies cannot survive such painful downward adjustments.

But Spain, for now at least, seems to be defying that argument. Its trade deficit has been shrinking — down 28 percent for the first 10 months of this year, to 28 billion euros, compared with the same period a year earlier, according to newly released government data. That is the lowest level since 1972.

Although part of that trade improvement reflects lower imports, it is also a sign of better competitiveness as employers have been able to impose wage cuts without unleashing violent social unrest.

Automobile executives recognized that the financial crisis was a warning to a sector whose productivity fell from 2000 to 2007, a period when the Spanish economy was instead driven by a real estate boom.

“From 2008, we suddenly realized that we had lost a lot of competitiveness and needed to work very hard to improve things, particularly in terms of labor issues and logistics,” said José Manuel Machado, who heads Ford’s business in Spain and is also president of the Spanish Automobile and Truck Manufacturers’ Association, known as Anfac.

Anfac forecast this month that Spain’s car production would rise 11 percent next year, to 2.2 million vehicles.

Over all, Spain’s unit labor costs — a measure of productivity — are down 4 percent since 2008, according to Eurostat, the European statistics agency.

In a related measurement, the most recent Eurostat data put Spain’s average hourly labor cost at 20.60 euros which was well below Germany’s 30.10 euros and France’s 34.20 euros.

Unlike most other Spanish industries, car manufacturing has no sectorwide collective bargaining agreement with unions. As a result, each carmaker has been able to adjust working hours with its own employees, in response to changing demand.

In return, the companies have promised workers that they will not be subjected to the huge layoffs made in other parts of the economy, which have helped to lift Spain’s jobless rate to a record 25 percent. Since the start of the crisis in 2008, car factories have cut their work force by about 9 percent, compared with 21 percent for Spanish industry as a whole.

“We have lost some jobs, but it has been a proud resistance compared to the massacre in some other sectors,” said Manuel García Salgado, who is in charge of the automotive sector within the Unión General de Trabajadores, one of the two main labor unions in the country. “I don’t want to give lessons to anybody. But at such a delicate moment for Spain, showing that we believe in flexibility and consensus has certainly been highly valued by the carmakers.”

The car sector employs 280,000 people in Spain, including parts suppliers, and accounts for a tenth of the country’s economic output. About 85 percent of the industry’s workers are on long-term contracts.

“When you look at the car manufacturers and suppliers in Spain, a lot of the fat has been cut out since the start of the crisis, and what is left now is a very strong skeleton and muscles,” said Marc Sachon, a professor of operations management at the IESE business school in Madrid. “Ford and Renault are now giving further proof that companies are changing their European manufacturing footprint and moving away from places where costs are higher.”

Opel, a subsidiary of General Motors, confirmed this month that it would close its plant in Bochum, Germany, in 2016, a decision that has sent shock waves through the country, which has Europe’s largest car market. PSA Peugeot Citroën is also in tense negotiations with unions after announcing in July the closing of its factory in Aulnay-sous-Bois, near Paris, in 2014.

In contrast, carmakers have added a dozen models to their Spanish production over the last two years. The latest, introduced by Ford this month, is a new version of the Kangoo, a small van, manufactured at its factory near Valencia. The Valencia factory is also set to benefit from a hefty reorganization plan announced in October by Ford that involves closing factories in Britain and Belgium. Ford is hoping to close the Belgian plant by the end of 2014, with the loss of about 4,300 jobs, and transfer much of the work to Valencia.

And last month, Renault presented an investment plan focused on its factories in Spain, France and Turkey that would create 1,300 new jobs in Spain.

Volkswagen, the largest carmaker in Europe, is also expanding in Spain. In October, the company announced an 800 million euro investment in its Martorell plant, near Barcelona, that builds Seat cars as well as the Audi Q3, a compact sport utility vehicle. Both Seat and Audi are units of Volkswagen.

This year, Nissan and Iveco also said they would step up their investments in Spain, Nissan by 300 million euros and Iveco by 500 million euros.

During a recent visit to Renault’s Palencia factory, Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister, welcomed the French car company’s investment plan by saying that “finally I can give some good news.” He pledged that Renault and others would receive “all the facilities” to help raise production further. “The aim is to support an industry that is key for the industrial and social fabric of Spain and provide it with a climate of confidence,” Mr. Rajoy said.

Still, Anfac, the carmakers’ association, is asking the government for financial support — primarily in the form of new tax breaks — worth 500 million euros. That could be difficult for Mr. Rajoy to accommodate, given the pressure he is under to raise tax revenue to meet budget deficit goals agreed to with his European counterparts.

While car production in Spain is in the hands of foreign companies, their presence has spawned the development of a large network of parts suppliers, many of which have also successfully expanded overseas. And Irizar, a Spanish maker of buses and coaches, is set to make its first deliveries in the United States early next year. Irizar already has more than 80 percent of its sales outside Spain.

While Mr. Machado, the Ford executive and trade group head, proudly cites the Spanish car industry’s target of returning to a precrisis production level of three million vehicles a year, some analysts say that could be wishful thinking.

At least part of the demand would need to come from within Spain itself, they say. But Spanish car sales have slumped this year to an estimated 700,000 vehicles, a level of 25 years ago. With the country expected to stay in recession through the end of 2013, no quick upturn in sales is expected.

Exports now represent 90 percent of Spain’s car production, and that “in the long run makes you vulnerable to other risks, like the kind we have seen the Japanese car industry facing because of the yen’s appreciation,” said Mr. Sachon, the business school professor.

To diversify Spain’s exports, Mr. Sachon also suggested that the country needed to start aiming for more exports to the south, to Africa, within easy geographic reach.

“The Chinese seem to have discovered Africa as a market for their vehicles,” he said, “so I find very surprising the lack of interest in Spain so far for Africa.”
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« Reply #3724 on: Dec 28, 2012, 08:31 AM »

Archeologists complete ‘most important’ excavation in 80 years: 900-seat Roman arts center

By Tom Kington, The Guardian
Wednesday, December 26, 2012 10:13 EST

Arts centre discovered under one of Rome’s busiest roundabouts was built in 123 AD and could seat 900 people

Archeologists who have completed the excavation of a 900-seat arts centre under one of Rome’s busiest roundabouts are calling it the most important Roman discovery in 80 years.

The centre, built by the emperor Hadrian in 123 AD, offered three massive halls where Roman nobles flocked to hear poetry, speeches and philosophy tracts while reclining on terraced marble seating.

With the dig now completed, the terracing and the hulking brick walls of the complex, as well as stretches of the elegant grey and yellow marble flooring are newly visible at bottom of an 18ft (5.5 metre) hole in Piazza Venezia, where policemen wearing white gloves direct chaotic traffic like orchestra conductors and where Mussolini harangued thousands of followers from his balcony.

“Hadrian’s auditorium is the biggest find in Rome since the Forum was uncovered in the 1920s,” said Rossella Rea, the archaeologist running the dig.

The excavations, which are now due to open to the public, are next to a taxi rank and squeezed between a baroque church and the Vittoriano, an imposing monument to Italy’s defunct monarchy, which is nicknamed the Typewriter by locals.

The complex was only unearthed thanks to excavations to build a new underground railway line which will cross the heart of Rome. “We don’t have funds for these kind of digs so this has come to light thanks to the new line,” said Rea.

Archeologists keeping a careful eye on what gets dug up have proved to be a mixed blessing for railway engineers, who have had to scrap plans for two stations in the heart of the centre of Rome when it was discovered their exits to the surface cut straight through Roman remains.

With the discovery of Hadrian’s complex at Piazza Venezia, the line risked losing its last stop in the centre and being forced to run into the heart of Rome from the suburbs and straight out the other side without stopping. But Rea said the station and the ruins could coexist.

“I believe we can run one of the exits from the station along the original corridor of the complex where Romans entered the halls,” she said.

The site sheds new light on Hadrian’s love of poetry – he wrote his own verse in Latin and Greek – and his taste for bold architecture – a 36ft (11 metre) high arched ceiling once towered over the poets in the central hall.

Today the performing space is riddled with pits dug for fires, revealing how after three centuries of celebrating the arts, the halls fell into disrepair with the collapse of the Roman empire and were used for smelting ingots.

At the centre of the main hall, like a prop from a disaster movie, is a massive, nine-by-five metre chunk of the monumental roof which came crashing down during an earthquake in 848 after standing for seven centuries.

Following the quake, the halls were gradually covered over until a hospital built on top in the 16th century dug down for cellar space. “We found pots lobbed down a well after the patients using them died,” said Rea. “We could date them because the designs on the glaze were the same we see on implements in Caravaggio paintings.”

© Guardian News and Media 2012

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« Reply #3725 on: Dec 28, 2012, 08:33 AM »

British scientists abandon plan to drill for 2-mile deep Arctic lake

By Alok Jha, The Guardian
Thursday, December 27, 2012 10:18 EST

British scientists halt project to take samples from lake entombed under 3km of ice after drilling fails to go according to plan

An ambitious plan by a team of British scientists at the Antarctic to look for life in a lake buried under almost 2 miles of ice was abandoned this week, after a decade of preparation and almost a month of drilling.

Speaking to the Guardian from Antarctica, Prof Martin Siegert of the University of Edinburgh, said he made the “sad decision” to halt the project in the early hours of Christmas Day, after the drilling did not go according to plan. He said the scientists remained committed to the project, however, and would return to complete the job, though that might take at least four or five years. “You don’t do this kind of research without thinking about the risks involved,” he said. “It is the cutting edge of science.”

Scientists from the British Antarctic Survey flew to the site above Lake Ellsworth on the West Antarctic ice sheet in early December, joining a team of engineers who had already set up camp with the drilling equipment. They planned to use a hot-water “drill” to cut through the ice cap and sample the contents of the lake, which is liquid because of the extreme pressure of the ice on top of it. By looking for any forms of life in the water, which has been cut off from the rest of the world for anything up to a million years, they hoped to find clues about the evolution of life on Earth and, perhaps, the possibility of life on other planets.

“We need an awful lot of water to melt down 3km,” said Siegert. “The technique we use to establish a reservoir is to create a cavity, with another borehole, 300 metres beneath the ice surface. That was done very successfully.

“What we then have to do is, with the main borehole, drill very close to the first one and make sure that it goes directly into the cavity and once we’ve achieved that hydrological link, we can then continue to go further, using the water in the main reservoir. If we didn’t make the cavity, we cannot go on with the experiment.”

Though the team were able to create the initial cavity and keep it open for 40 hours, they were unable to locate it to make the link with the main borehole, which was drilled only 2 metres away from the first. “In hot water drilling, it’s often the way that you don’t hit [the cavity] first time and you have to go back up. It might well have been that the cavity was a different shape than we expected. It might be that, simply, we were unlucky this time.”

Siegert said he was disappointed, given the decade of preparation and testing, but that the team was resolved to try again. “The science aims haven’t changed and we want to explore the glacial lake Ellsworth, see if there’s life in that extreme environment. The scientific drivers of this work remain unchanged, we are as committed to wanting to understand the research at Lake Ellsworth as ever we were.”

© Guardian News and Media 2012
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« Reply #3726 on: Dec 28, 2012, 08:35 AM »

World’s smelliest and largest flower blooms in Brazil

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, December 27, 2012 18:37 EST

Hundreds of visitors are flocking daily to a botanical garden in southeastern Brazil to watch the rare blooming of the Titan arum, the world’s smelliest and largest tropical flower.

Also known as the “corpse flower” because of a smell likened to rotting flesh, it began blooming on Christmas Day and is already beginning to close, botanist Patricia Oliveira told AFP.

The flower “has a lifespan of 72 hours, during which its stink and meat-coloration attract pollinators: carrion flies and beetles,” added Oliveira, who works at the Inhotim garden, about 445 kilometers (275 miles) from Rio de Janeiro, housing the massive flower.

Titan arum, also known by its scientific name, “Amorphophallus titanum,” which means misshapen giant penis, is native to the rainforests of western Sumatra. It rarely flowers, is incredibly difficult to cultivate and takes six years to grow.

Thursday, this Brazilian specimen reached 167 centimeters (5 feet 3 inches) in height, but the species can grow up to over three meters (10 feet) tall.

This “is the second time it bloomed. The first time was in December 2010,” Oliveira said.

When it flowers, the bloom has the same temperature as that of the human body, which helps spread its pungent smell.

The species was first described in 1878 by Italian natural scientist Odoardo Beccari. Ten years later, it bloomed in a London botanical garden and its next flowering occurred in 1926

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« Reply #3727 on: Dec 28, 2012, 08:38 AM »

Rebirth of the Viking warship that may have helped conquer the seas

By Maev Kennedy, The Guardian
Thursday, December 27, 2012 23:32 EST

When the sleek, beautiful silhouette of Roskilde 6 appeared on the horizon, 1,000 years ago, it was very bad news. The ship was part of a fleet carrying an army of hungry, thirsty warriors, muscles toned by rowing and sailing across the North Sea; a war machine like nothing else in 11th-century Europe, its arrival meant disaster was imminent.

Now the ship’s timbers are slowly drying out in giant steel tanks at the Danish national museum’s conservation centre at Brede outside Copenhagen, and will soon again head across the North Sea – to be a star attraction at an exhibition in the British Museum.

The largest Viking warship ever found, it was discovered by chance in 1996 at Roskilde. It is estimated that building it would have taken up to 30,000 hours of skilled work, plus the labour of felling trees and hauling materials. At just over 36 metres, it was four metres longer than Henry VIII’s flagship Mary Rose built 500 years later, and six metres longer than the Viking ship spectacularly recreated as Sea Stallion, which sailed from Scandinavia around Scotland to Dublin in 2007.

“This ship was a troop carrier,” said Gareth Williams of the British Museum. It was built some time after 1025 when the oak trees were felled, and held 100 warriors taking turns on 39 pairs of oars if there was not enough wind to fill the square woollen sail. They would have been packed in tightly, sleeping as they could between the seats, with little room for supplies except a minimal amount of fresh water – or ale or mead, which would not have gone stale as fast – and dried salt mutton.

It would have been an uncomfortable journey, but short: they did not need to carry much as their ship could move startlingly fast – Sea Stallion managed an average speed of 5.5 knots, and a top speed of 20 knots. Once they landed, the warriors could forage with ruthless efficiency, as many a coastal community or wealthy monastery discovered.

The ship would probably not have come alone. “There are records in the annals of fleets of hundreds of ships,” Williams said. “So you could be talking about an army of up to 10,000 men suddenly landing on your coast, highly trained, fit, capable of moving very fast on water or land.” Such luxury ships were fabulously expensive to build and a devastating display of power, Williams said.

The dates suggest Roskilde 6 may have been built for King Canute, who according to legend set his throne in the path of the incoming tide, to prove to his courtiers that even a monarch could not control the force of nature. At the time the Vikings were consolidating their power from temporary raiders to permanent invaders.

With all the original timbers fitted into a steel frame that will recreate its full length and form, the ship will be the centrepiece of Viking, an exhibition opening at the Danish national museum in June, before being transported to London to launch the British Museum’s new exhibition space in 2014. It will travel in two containers, by freighter and lorry.


The vessel was found by accident when an extension was being built to the Roskilde ship museum in Denmark, itself built to hold an earlier find of Viking ships that had been deliberately sunk to narrow the fjord and protect the approach to the town, the old royal capital of Denmark.

In 1996 archaeologists watching the construction work discovered huge timbers turned up in the new foundations, some already chopped in half by the piling. It proved to be a treasure trove of nine ships, of which Roskilde 6, almost half of which was recovered, was the most spectacular.

The timbers stayed in storage while the museum worked out what to do with the unexpected addition to its collection, until the exhibition provided the opportunity for full conservation.

The original Roskilde ships are spectacularly displayed in a purpose-built ship hall, but could never travel: the timbers look solid but might shatter like glass. When excavated, the sodden timbers of Roskilde 6 would have disintegrated into a heap of dust if left exposed to air. National museum conservator Kristiane Straetkvern managed the project, which has been drying timbers up to 10 metres long far more slowly than the older techniques, then replacing the lost moisture with synthetic resin, leaving them lighter but stable.

It was a nervous moment for her when some completed timbers were test assembled, each resting in a felt lined individually laser-cut support, in a frame that bolts together like a giant Meccano set, but that dismantles into hundreds of components for travelling.

The exhibition will display finds from across Scandinavia and from deep into the countries they penetrated wherever a river could carry their shallow draft ships – as far inland as Lichfield in England, deep into Russia, to Byzantium in the east, where Vikings fought as mercenaries on both sides, and beyond. Objects from 12 countries, including many recent finds, will demonstrate that Vikings were traders, farmers, fishermen, and superb craft workers in timber, bone and metal.

However the most spectacular single artefact will be the ship, a potent witness that the Vikings were also dreaded raiders.

The Roskilde team are now experts on recreating ancient ships, regularly commissioned to build them. One day they hope to recreate a full-size, ocean-going replica Roskilde 6, and send it across the sea to awe rather than to terrorise the coasts of the British Isles. © Guardian News and Media 2012

[Viking warship via Shutterstock]

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« Reply #3728 on: Dec 28, 2012, 08:46 AM »

Earth’s twin will be discovered in 2013, astronomers predict

By Eric W. Dolan

Thursday, December 27, 2012 22:23 EST

Humanity is likely to discover its first truly Earth-like planet in 2013, according to the director of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory of the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo.

“I’m very positive that the first Earth twin will be discovered next year,” Abel Mendez told

Mendez is leading the Habitable Exoplanets Catalog project, which seeks to identify potentially habitable planets outside our solar system. Astronomers have already found a number of potentially habitable planets, based on chemical and physical characteristics that are theoretically conducive to life. Earlier this month, Mendez said seven potentially habitable planets have been found — Gliese 581d, HD 85512b, Kepler 22b, Gliese 667Cc, Gliese 581g, Gliese 163c, and HD 40307g.

Though these plants could theoretically support life, they are only marginally Earth-like. Most Earth-sized planets found to date are too close or too far from a star to support life. On the other hand, most planets found within the so-called “Goldilocks zone” where the temperature is neither too hot or too cold are much larger than Earth.

Kepler 22b, for instance, orbits within the “Goldilocks zone” but is 2.4 times the size of the Earth. It is also unknown whether Kepler 22b is rocky like Earth or gassy like Jupiter.

But Mendez and other astronomers believe it is only a matter of time before a truly Earth-like planet is spotted. With NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope spotting hundreds of new planets every year, that discovery may come sooner than later.

“The first planet with a measured size, orbit and incident stellar flux that is suitable for life is likely to be announced in 2013,” Geoff Marcy, a member of the Kepler team, told

Watch a visual representation of the seven potentially habitable planets, courtesy of, below:

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« Reply #3729 on: Dec 28, 2012, 09:03 AM »

In the USA...

Harry Reid: Boehner ‘dictatorship’ preventing fiscal cliff deal

By Dominic Rushe, The Guardian
Thursday, December 27, 2012 23:28 EST

The Democratic leader in the Senate has declared that US politicians are likely to fail in their quest to find a solution to the the fiscal cliff budget crisis.

With five days to reach a political solution before massive tax hikes and spending cuts kick in, Nevada senator Harry Reid said the deadline would probably be missed. “It looks like that’s where we’re headed,” he said on the Senate floor on Thursday. “The American people are waiting for the ball to drop, but it’s not going to be a good drop.”

Reid’s gloomy acknowledgement of the failure of bipartisan negotiations triggered a sell-off on US stock markets. All the major US markets had turned negative by noon. The latest survey of consumer confidence by the Conference Board showed a sharp drop to 65.1 in December, from a revised 71.5 in November that the thinktank blamed on uncertainty caused by the budget crisis.

US senators returned to work on Thursday after the Christmas break, and Barack Obama cut short his Christmas vacation in Hawaii to fly back to Washington in search of a deal. But the House of Representatives is not in session, prompting Reid to to accuse the Republicans of being “out watching movies” with the fiscal cliff deadline fast approaching.

“I have to be honest: I don’t know, time-wise, how it can happen,” said Reid. “I would hope that the speaker and the Republican leader here in the Senate would come to us and say: here’s what we think will work.”

On Wednesday, before boarding the plane, Obama had telephone discussions with Reid, Reid’s Republican opposite number Mitch McConnell, Republican House speaker John Boehner, and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi.

But there is little sign that either side in Congress is willing to act swiftly in search of compromise. Reid’s comments come after Boehner called on the Senate to act. On Wednesday, Republican leaders said two bills had already been presented to the Senate aimed at solving the impasse, and that senators were prepared to vote on them after amendment.

Those bills have stalled over reluctance from Republicans to sign off on any deal that raises taxes, and criticism that Obama’s spending cuts do not go deep enough.

Reid hit out in a statement Wednesday in which he said: “The Senate has already rejected House Republicans’ Tea Party bills, and no further legislation can move through the Senate until Republicans drop their knee-jerk obstruction,” he said.

On Thursday, he upped the rhetoric, saying Boehner “seems to care more about his speakership” than striking a deal.

The Republican Speaker faces a vote on his position on January 3, and Reid accused Boehner of delaying negotiations until that vote was resolved. The House is being run “by a dictatorship of the speaker,” he said.

But a spokesman for Boehner hit back: “Senator Reid should talk less and legislate more. The House has already passed legislation to avoid the entire fiscal cliff. Senate Democrats have not.”

House Republicans are planning a conference call on Thursday afternoon to discuss, among other things, their possible return this weekend. Members were told they would be given 48 hours notice before any impending return, and snowstorms across the US may delay travel plans. © Guardian News and Media 2012


Rep. Hoyer: Debt ceiling fight ‘like taking your child hostage’

By Eric W. Dolan
Thursday, December 27, 2012 19:31 EST

At a press conference on Thursday, House Democratic Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) compared Republicans to a hostage taker who threatened to shoot his own child.

The Democratic congressman was responding to a question about raising the federal debt ceiling, which Republicans plan to use as leverage to demand spending cuts from Obama.

Hoyer said the Republican majority in the House of Representatives was willing to take the country “to the brink of default,” which resulted in the United States having its credit rating downgraded last year by Standard & Poor’s. He noted that the federal debt limit allowed the United States to “pay its bills” and said the issue shouldn’t be used as leverage in partisan budget fights.

“It’s somewhat like taking your child hostage and saying to somebody else, ‘I’m going to shoot my child if you don’t do what I want done.’ You don’t want to shoot your child. There’s no Republican leader that wants to default on our debt — that I’ve talked to — so that ought to be non-partisan,” Hoyer said.

The United States will reach the debt ceiling by December 31, according to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.


Obama calls leaders for Friday talks in effort to reach fiscal cliff breakthrough

By Dominic Rushe, The Guardian
Thursday, December 27, 2012 18:58 EST

Barack Obama will meet congressional leaders on Friday as members of the House of Representatives prepare to return to Washington for a last-ditch attempt to head off the year-end fiscal cliff budget crisis.

Republican speaker John Boehner said the House will reconvene on Sunday evening, with less than 30 hours until the US reaches the fiscal cliff deadline. Boehner warned politicians they may be working through next Friday – after the 31 December deadline – to reach a deal to avert massive tax hikes and spending cuts.

The decision to call House members back came after fierce criticism from Democrat Senate leader Harry Reid, who earlier in the day had accused Republicans of “watching movies” while the budget crisis deepened.

Obama arrived in Washington on Thursday after cutting short his Christmas vacation to Hawaii, and the Senate also returned to work.

But even as talks appeared to be grinding back into motion, there were few signs that a breakthrough was imminent.

With five days to reach a political solution, Nevada senator Reid said the deadline would probably be missed. “It looks like that’s where we’re headed”, he said on the Senate floor on Thursday. “The American people are waiting for the ball to drop, but it’s not going to be a good drop.”

“I have to be honest: I don’t know, time-wise, how it can happen,” Reid added. “I would hope that the speaker and the Republican leader here in the Senate would come to us and say: here’s what we think will work.”

In a call with colleagues, Boehner told House Republicans that he was “not interested” in passing a fiscal cliff deal with “mostly Democrat votes,” according to Politico.

Reid’s gloomy acknowledgement of the failure of bipartisan negotiations triggered a sell-off on US stock markets. All the major US markets ended the day down. The Dow Jones closed down slightly for its fourth consecutive day of losses. The slip came as the latest survey of consumer confidence by the Conference Board showed a sharp drop to 65.1 in December, from a revised 71.5 in November that the thinktank blamed on uncertainty caused by the budget crisis.

On Wednesday, before boarding his plane, Obama had telephone discussions with Reid, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, Boehner, and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi.

A spokesman for Boehner said in a statement: “Senator Reid should talk less and legislate more. The House has already passed legislation to avoid [going over] the entire fiscal cliff. Senate Democrats have not.” © Guardian News and Media 2012


December 27, 2012

Summoned Back to Work, Senators Chafe at Inaction


WASHINGTON — Senators bid hasty goodbyes to families, donned ties and pantsuits in lieu of sweat pants and Christmas sweaters and one by one returned to the Capitol on Thursday to begin the business of doing nothing in particular.

But for once, those lawmakers were fully united, if only around their sadness and frustration at being stuck in Washington in a holiday week, peering over the edge of the fiscal abyss.

“This is no way to run things,” complained Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, who checked off the various backyard sports he longed to be playing with his children: football, soccer and some golf.

Members of the Senate trudged back to the Capitol ostensibly to work out a deal with the White House to avoid large tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect in just a few days. With the possibility of New Year’s Eve floor festivities looming, Congress could find itself voting on the final day of the year for the first time in more than four decades.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, was eager to demonstrate that the Senate was ready to move on any idea presented by the White House or the House even as things seemed to be careening toward failure on Thursday.

“Members of the House of Representatives are out watching movies and watching their kids play soccer and basketball and doing all kinds of things,” said Mr. Reid, in a ferocious floor attack on the House that he returned to periodically throughout the day Thursday, like an angry father-in-law revisiting a grudge he’s been nursing all year. “They should be here.”

Not to be outdone, Speaker John A. Boehner, who failed last week to cobble together enough votes for his own bill, ordered House members to return on Sunday. Saying it was the Senate’s turn to come up with an idea, he told fellow Republicans on a conference call, “The House will take this action on whatever the Senate can pass, but the Senate must act.”

Absent a solution — or even a pathway to a bill — senators whiled away the hours without any agreement, debating and voting on amendments to a surveillance measure, pondering hurricane aid, and swearing in a new senator from Hawaii. Retiring senators, who had anticipated that their services would no longer be needed, worked in offices in varying states of disassembly, their staffs pecking out e-mails on iPads because their computers had been carted away.

A meeting at the White House between President Obama and Congressional leaders scheduled for Friday offered either the promise that a resolution of the fiscal debacle was in view or a portentous sign that each side was doing all it could to make sure that it could escape blame for a potential fiscal meltdown. No one was quite sure which.

Amid the absurdity of an urgent, nonurgent holiday session, there was the odd hum of normalcy. Senators fulminated about espionage for hours on the Senate floor as they debated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Congressional aides wore their workday best as they sped through hallways, clutching their phones. Taco Thursday continued as it does each week in the small carryout restaurant where staff members collect lunches to be eaten at desks. Mr. Paul, as per usual, tussled with the leadership over one of his amendments.

Mostly, people just looked mad. Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, his tie slightly askew, looked as gloomy as the clouds hovering over the Capitol dome. “I didn’t realize how much I didn’t want to be here until I got here,” said Mr. Schumer, who had taken the red eye from San Francisco, where he had arrived only days earlier to visit his daughter.

A single senator was seen smiling: Brian Schatz, who was appointed on Wednesday by the governor of Hawaii to fill the term of the late Senator Daniel K. Inouye, held the arm of his fellow Hawaii Democrat, Senator Daniel K. Akaka, as he walked across the Senate floor to meet Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who administered the oath to the new senator. His duties complete, Mr. Biden was immediately descended upon by reporters eager for a morsel of news; he did not oblige.

The Congressional impasse over how to avoid tax increases and spending cuts has left this entire city gripping Starbucks cups procured from Georgetown to Capitol Hill, bearing the message “come together,” to wait in low-grade misery for the next chapter in the drama. This would be Sunday night, when House members arrive, just ahead of New Year’s Eve at the summons of their leaders, who decided Thursday that they could not afford to be home killing time while Senate Democratic leaders took to C-Span to take shots at the absent House.

As the nation awaited news — any news! — about what would happen to the nation’s fiscal health, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the sex therapist, volunteered on Twitter that lawmakers who could not compromise “probably aren’t good lovers.” That was around midday.

Many retiring senators’ offices looked empty and gloomy, and boxes full of years of archives piled up around the Hart Senate Office Building. The office of Mr. Inouye was jam-packed with floral arrangements, and smelled of lilies and chai tea. On the door of the office of retiring Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, was a sign imploring visitors to rap with a coin or key “so the sound will carry,” and retiring Senator Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska’s, office was absent even his name plate; a flag for his home state lingered.

The House and Senate have held numerous pro forma sessions during the week between Christmas and New Year over the years, and in 1995 during a major budget battle. But the last time they held roll call votes that week, before Thursday, was during the second session of the 91st Congress, in 1970, amid a large spending fight and a filibuster over financing for a supersonic transport plane.

Not everyone decided to make the trip Thursday. About 10 senators missed a series of votes, including Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, and Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, who has retired.

Kitty Bennett contributed research.


December 27, 2012

Putin Signs Bill That Bars U.S. Adoptions, Upending Families


MOSCOW —  President Vladimir V. Putin signed a bill on Friday that bans the adoption of Russian children by American citizens, dealing a serious blow to an already strained diplomatic relationship. But for hundreds of Americans enmeshed in the costly, complicated adoption process, the impact was deeply personal.

“I’m a little numb,” said Maria Drewinsky, a massage therapist from Sea Cliff, N.Y., who was in the final stages of adopting a 5-year-old boy named Alyosha. Both she and her husband have flown twice to visit him, and they speak to him weekly on the telephone. “We have clothes and a bedroom all set up for him, and we talk about him all the time as our son.”

But the couple fear that Alyosha may never get to New York. The ban is part of a bill retaliating against a new American law aimed at punishing human rights abuses in Russia.

The law calls for the ban to be put in force on Tuesday, and it stands to upend the plans of many American families in the final stages of adopting in Russia. Already, it has added wrenching emotional tumult to a process that can cost $50,000 or more, requires repeated trips overseas, and typically entails lengthy and maddening encounters with bureaucracy. The ban will apparently also nullify an agreement on adoptions between Russia and the United States that was ratified this year and went into effect on Nov. 1.

The bill was approved unanimously by the Federation Council, the upper chamber of Parliament, on Wednesday, and on Thursday, Mr. Putin said he would sign it as well as a resolution also adopted Wednesday that calls for improvements in Russia’s child welfare system. “I intend to sign the law,” Mr. Putin said Thursday, “as well as a presidential decree changing the procedure of helping orphaned children, children left without parental care, and especially children who are in a disadvantageous situation due to their health problems.”

Mr. Putin also brushed aside criticism that the law would deny some Russian orphans the chance for a much better life in the United States. In 2011, about 1,000 Russian children were adopted by Americans, more than any other foreign country, but still a tiny number given that nearly 120,000 children in Russia are eligible for adoption.

“There are probably many places in the world where living standards are better than ours,” Mr. Putin said. “So what? Shall we send all children there, or move there ourselves?”

United States officials have strongly criticized the measure and have urged the Russian government not to entangle orphaned children in politics. “We have repeatedly made clear, both in private and in public, our deep concerns about the bill passed by the Russian Parliament,” a State Department spokesman, Patrick Ventrell, said Thursday.

Internally, however, Obama administration officials have been debating how strongly to respond to the adoption ban, and the potential implications for other aspects of the country’s relationship with Russia.

The United States relies heavily on overland routes through Russia to ship supplies to military units in Afghanistan, and it has enlisted Russia’s help in containing Iran’s nuclear program. The former cold war rivals also have sharp disagreements, notably over the civil war in Syria.

The bill that includes the adoption ban was drafted in response to the Magnitsky Act, a law signed by President Obama this month that will bar Russian citizens accused of violating human rights from traveling to the United States and from owning real estate or other assets there. The Obama administration had opposed the Magnitsky legislation, fearing diplomatic retaliation, but members of Congress were eager to press Russia over human rights abuses and tied the bill to another measure granting Russia new status as a full trading partner.

Mr. Putin loudly accused the United States of hypocrisy, noting human rights abuses in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and he pledged to retaliate. But he held his cards even as the lower house of Parliament, the State Duma, approved the adoption bill by a large margin, followed by unanimous approval by the Federation Council.

Although his decision has been eagerly awaited, Mr. Putin seemed blasé at a meeting with senior government officials on Thursday. When Vladimir S. Gruzdev, the governor of the Tula region, said, “I would like to ask: What is the fate of the law?” Mr. Putin replied, “Which law?”

Like Mr. Obama, he can now say he is signing a bill with overwhelming support from the legislative branch — though Mr. Putin holds far more sway over Russian lawmakers than Mr. Obama does over Congress.

The adoption ban set off impassioned ideological debate here in Russia, and it opened a rare split at the highest levels of government with some senior officials speaking out strongly against it.

Critics said the ban would most hurt orphans already suffering in Russia’s deeply troubled child welfare system, while supporters said Russians should care for their own and pointed at sporadic abuse cases involving adopted Russian children in the United States that have generated publicity and outrage here.

The response has been equally emotional in the United States, where three Russian adoptees, including Tatyana McFadden, 23, a medal-winning Paralympics athlete who uses a wheelchair, waited in the snow and rain on Wednesday to deliver a petition against the ban to the Russian Embassy in Washington.

Meanwhile, supporters of the ban in the United States said there were more than enough American children in need of adoption, and critics of international adoption generally reiterated complaints that the process is overly profit-driven and sometimes corrupt.

But for parents with their hearts set on adopting Russian children, the political discourse has been little more than background noise to their own personal agony. Senior officials in Moscow have said they expect the ban to have the immediate effect of blocking the departure of 46 children whose adoptions by American parents were nearly completed.

Adoption agency officials in the United States who work regularly with Russian orphanages said there were about 200 to 250 sets of parents who had already identified children they planned to adopt and would be affected. The State Department has urged American families in the process of adopting from Russia to register for updates and potential assistance.

Robert and Kim Summers of Freehold, N.J., have already paid for three seats on a flight home from Russia next month. They are scheduled to pick up a 21-month-old boy whom they consider their son in the city of Kaluga on Jan. 14, after a required 30-day waiting period that began when a judge approved their adoption.

They plan to call the boy Preston, and their house is already filled with toys and clothes and pictures of him, said Ms. Summers, 49. “The stroller is in my dining room and the partly assembled crib is next to my bed,” she said.

“I’m appalled,” Ms. Summers said of news that the ban would become law. “I can’t even fathom what is happening, something so political that has absolutely nothing to do with children.”

One mother from North Carolina who was in Russia on Thursday preparing to return to the United States with her newly adopted son expressed outrage that Russian officials were not adhering to a requirement in the new bilateral agreement on adoptions that called for one year’s notice if either side wanted to terminate it.

This mother, who requested anonymity out of fear that her that were family would be blocked from leaving Russia, described how the relationship between parents and children begins long before the children leave the orphanage. She and her husband adopted a boy in Russia in 2009 and returned with him last week to pick up his new brother.

“A lot of parents leave little picture albums with the children, with pictures of the new Mama and Papa and siblings and pets and bedrooms,” said the mother, who is in her 30s and works in marketing.

“Facilitators help us put labels on the pictures so that the caregivers can help the children get familiar with the new faces,” she said. “I weep to think of them holding those albums and wondering why the people that promised they would be back in a few weeks have never come back. I promised both my boys that I would be back and I have no idea what I would have done if I couldn’t have come.”

This mother said her older son, now almost 5, learned about his own adoption by watching his parents adopt again. “He actually said, ‘I’m a really lucky boy that you picked me,’ ” the mother said.

In Sea Cliff, Ms. Drewinsky, 44, and her husband, Yvan, 56, an aviation consultant, grew up in Russian families, speak Russian and belong to the Orthodox Church. They speak to Alyosha, 5, every week on the phone in Russian.

Alyosha’s birth mother, who suffers from serious psychiatric illness, left him to wander the streets when he was 3; other relatives would not take him. A judge approved the adoption and they planned to go to Russia in late January or early February to bring him home.

As the couple got to know the boy in the first of two three-day visits, he held their hands and asked, “Are you going to be my new parents?” Mr. Drewinsky recalled. “We choked up and asked him, ‘Would you like that to happen?’ He said ‘yes’ in such a lovely voice — full of hope — that we melted completely.”

David M. Herszenhorn reported from Moscow, and Erik Eckholm from New York.


December 27, 2012

Developers of Wind Farms Run a Race Against the Calendar


WASHINGTON — Forget about parties, resolutions or watching the ball drop. To Iberdrola Renewables, New Year’s Eve will mean checking on last-minute details like the data connections between 169 new wind turbines in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and California and its control center in Portland, Ore.

All over the country, developers are in a sprint to get new wind farms up and running before Tuesday, when the federal wind production tax credit will disappear like Cinderella’s ball gown. After that, the nation’s wind-farm building will be at a virtual standstill.

The stakes of meeting the deadline are enormous. Wind turbines that are connected to the grid and in commercial service before midnight on New Year’s Eve are entitled to a 2.2 cent tax credit for each kilowatt-hour they generate in their first 10 years, which comes out to about $1 million for a big turbine. As it stands now, those that enter service on Jan. 1 or later are out of luck.

The deadline is a bit like the April 15 one for filing income taxes, but “there are no extensions here,” said Paul Copleman, a spokesman for Iberdrola. To reduce the risk of missing it — a risk that increases when managing construction projects on mountaintops in New England in the winter — the company allowed more than a year for what are normally nine-month construction projects.

More than just individual projects are at risk; the wind industry says it expects installations to decline by 90 percent next year, with the loss of thousands of jobs. The erratic pattern of wind subsidies has spawned a boom-and-bust cycle, with supplier companies building factories that run at full production for months and then shut down when demand collapses.

The industry has long experience with drop-dead deadlines: since the tax credit began in the early 1990s, it has expired three times, said Elizabeth A. Salerno, director of industry data and analysis at the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group based in Washington. Each time, new installations fell from 73 percent to 93 percent, according to the association.

Congress, which last renewed the credit as part of the 2009 fiscal stimulus package, balked at an extension this year. Opponents argue that the money spent so far, about $14.7 billion, is enough, and that a renewal could cost about $12.2 billion were it to last for 10 years. They also complain that the credit allows wind machines to be profitable even when there is a surplus of electricity and the market price for it falls to zero.

The tax credit could be equal to one-sixth to one-half of the revenue from the wind turbine, depending on electricity prices in the area of the generator.

Wind advocates say that the wind production tax credit did not cost the taxpayers any money, because it stimulated economic activity, in the form of manufacturing and construction, that was taxed at the federal, state and local levels.

Iberdrola’s wind farm near Rosamond, Calif., with 126 turbines, opened last week. The company said it was “extremely optimistic” that its 19-turbine farm in Monroe and Florida, Mass., and a 24-turbine farm in Groton, N.H., would be up and running by Monday night, but declined to say precisely when.

 According to the Energy Information Administration, the statistical arm of the Energy Department, wind developers were planning to install 12,000 megawatts of wind capacity this year, but as of Nov. 30, only about 6,000 megawatts had been completed.

The remaining 6,000 megawatts works out to more than 3,000 turbines: if they are all operating by late Monday night, the wind industry will have added 12 percent to its capacity in a single month. (A megawatt is the power required by, say, everything in a full-size Walmart with an included supermarket. Over the course of a year, however, a turbine produces only about one-third of its theoretical maximum capacity.) 

Iberdrola did not disclose the price of each wind farm, but the industry average is about $2 million per megawatt, meaning that the three projects may have cost a total of more than $500 million.

Wind advocates say they will seek to revive the tax credit when a new Congress convenes next month, but it will not be at the top of Congress’s agenda.

With the tax credit due to expire, few developers are now taking the early steps required to establish a wind farm, like negotiating deals to sell the power and ordering the equipment. Mr. Copleman, the Iberdrola spokesman, said his company had a variety of projects “at various stages” but was “unlikely to be pouring any concrete next year.”

For projects being wrapped up now, Ms. Salerno said, developers lined up power purchase agreements with utilities and then arranged financing a year and a half to two years ago, with the economics predicated on the tax credit.

The start-and-stop pattern of recent years has repeatedly affected companies up and down the chain, especially the highly specialized ones that make towers, blades and generators. Robert Thresher, a wind expert at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in Golden, Colo., said manufacturers were “trying to run down their inventory so they wouldn’t be caught holding turbines” after the market collapsed in January.

A study commissioned by the wind industry predicts the loss of 37,000 jobs as a result of the credit’s expiration. For example, the Spanish company Gamesa, which built the giant blades for the New Hampshire project at its factory in Ebensburg, Pa., has announced the layoffs of more than 150 workers.

Some members of Congress have proposed that the credit be renewed, perhaps with a phaseout over a few years. A one-year extension would be of little use: Ms. Salerno said it would not give developers enough time to get new projects financed, built and put on the grid before the expiration date, even if they had already completed environmental studies and obtained the various permits required.

A one-year extension would work for developers, she said, but only “if you knew 24 months ahead of time that this was going to happen.”


December 27, 2012

Sudden Death of Show Pony Clouds Image of Elite Pursuit


Early on the morning of May 26, Kristen Williams and her daughter, Katie, arrived at a barn on the grounds of the Devon Horse Show, where elite competitors in full dress have entertained spectators for the last century on Philadelphia’s Main Line.

Ms. Williams had paid thousands of dollars to lease a pony for Katie to ride in a hunter competition, a 12th birthday present. Soon after arriving, their trainer left to administer an injection to a nearby pony, Humble, that Katie’s friend, also celebrating her 12th birthday, was scheduled to ride shortly.

Moments later, with Ms. Williams and her daughter watching, Humble collapsed and died. The death of a supposedly fit pony about to carry a young rider over hurdles was worrisome by itself, but circumstances surrounding the death made it even more so.

In the three days before Humble died, he had been scheduled to receive 15 separate drug treatments, including anti-inflammatories, corticosteroids and muscle relaxants, according to his medication chart.

“The average horse that walks in my clinic here doesn’t get anything like that,” said Dr. Kent Allen, chairman of both the veterinary and the drugs and medications committees of the United States Equestrian Federation, the sport’s nonprofit governing body. “It gets a diagnosis and then gets a very specific, appropriate treatment.”

The horse-racing industry has openly debated the influence of drugs on the safety and integrity of the sport, and has taken significant steps this year to minimize it. But in the cloistered equestrian world, medicating horses has attracted much less public attention.

Since 2010, random drug tests at various equestrian events, including the Olympic trials, have uncovered dozens of violations for substances like cocaine, antipsychotics, tranquilizers and pain medication — even ginger placed in a horse’s anus to make its tail stick out.

While show-horse trainers have abused some of the same drugs that have caused problems in racing, the Equestrian Federation has lagged behind in regulating how they are administered. Now, the circumstances surrounding Humble’s death have become a rallying point for those who believe that the federation should more aggressively investigate drug use.

The federation says it responds promptly to drug concerns, citing its decision in February to ban a popular but potentially lethal drug that sedates horses, making them more manageable during competition. The group has also limited the use of anti-inflammatory drugs in competition. It randomly tests 10,000 to 12,000 horses annually. “We constantly look at issues in our sport and try to be proactive,” Dr. Allen said.

Still, a review by The New York Times of federation records, police reports and interviews with veterinarians and others in the sport shows that despite its best intentions, the federation is ill prepared to deal with episodes like Humble’s death.

At racetracks, only veterinarians are allowed to administer intravenous drugs, but on show grounds anyone can stick a needle into a horse before it performs. A year ago, the sport’s top veterinary group recommended that no horse receive drugs within 12 hours of competition. The Equestrian Federation has yet to adopt that rule. Humble was injected roughly two hours before competition, records show.

The federation also has no detailed protocol on how to respond when a horse dies on show grounds. In Humble’s case, there was no requirement that the vial and syringe be retained so its contents could be tested. And the federation relied on the mother of a competitor who saw Humble fall to collect evidence, hire a lawyer, and file a formal protest.

The federation, often referred to by the acronym USEF, convened a hearing panel, but it had no subpoena power and could not compel Humble’s trainer, Elizabeth Mandarino, to fully answer questions about the pony’s medical care, records show. The panel ultimately dismissed the protest, saying it did not have enough information to conclude whether Ms. Mandarino had violated federation rules.

Ms. Mandarino declined to be interviewed for this article, but her lawyer said in a statement that she had done nothing wrong, and that Humble had most likely died from an undiagnosed lung disease.

Federation officials point out that equestrian events run largely by volunteers cannot be compared to state-regulated horse racing, where access to the horses can be tightly controlled.

Even so, responding to questions from The Times, the federation’s chief executive, John Long, said in a statement, “It is clear that the Mandarino case has highlighted significant limitations in the USEF’s rules and procedures governing our investigative powers.”

The group, which oversees about 2,500 events each year, has assembled a task force to investigate safety issues stemming from Humble’s death, so that “the federation does not find its hands tied in the future when a matter of animal welfare like this presents itself,” Mr. Long said.

Much of the concern about drugs centers on hunter competitions, where young riders and future Olympians develop their skills.

“This is only a ticking time bomb,” said Julie Winkel, who runs a stable and has judged major shows nationally. “It’s not only the wrong thing to do for the horses, but I think it’s a very dangerous situation that we have created for the rider, handler, even grooms.”

Calming the Horses

More than blue ribbons and prestige are at stake in equestrian competitions. Horses that win big events increase in value, rising into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Hunters are judged subjectively, with an emphasis on well-mannered horses that jump safely and smoothly over fences. Temperamental horses with unnecessary movement or exuberance show poorly. Time is not an issue.

For these reasons, calming drugs and supplements are popular on the hunter circuit, even though drugs that influence a horse’s behavior are banned in competition.

Calming drugs allow horse owners to lease their animals to less skilled riders willing to pay thousands of dollars to compete. As one owner said, “It’s like putting training wheels on a horse.”

They also stunt the development of many young riders, according to George H. Morris, the show jumping chief of the United States Olympic team.

“There is more and more medication, more exhausted horses, and more incorrectly ridden horses,” Mr. Morris said at a federation forum last year.

Besides creating an uneven playing field, some calming drugs can endanger horse and rider, and be difficult to detect in post-competition testing.

A prime example: an injectable calming supplement called Carolina Gold. The federation first heard of it from competitors early in the summer of 2011, according to Dr. Stephen Schumacher, the federation’s chief veterinarian.

“The reason people were talking about it was because they were tired of getting beat by people using this substance,” he said. “We were also hearing reports of horses falling down.”

The federation learned that Carolina Gold had been used in horse racing, and that a veterinarian in South Carolina, Dr. Juan Gamboa, a rider and competitor himself, had been among those selling it. At the time the drug had not been banned in competition. Dr. Gamboa, who did not respond to requests for an interview, has served as a veterinary delegate for the Fédération Equestre Internationale, the sport’s international governing body.

To see how Carolina Gold affected horses, federation officials injected one with the substance. “The horse nearly collapsed,” Dr. Schumacher said. “It starts shaking and was really out of it.” The reaction was so worrisome that the attending veterinarian refused to test it on any more horses.

The federation now knew the drug was dangerous, but there was a problem: it was undetectable in horses.

Dr. Alex G. Emerson, a Kentucky veterinarian who blogs about horses, wrote this year that he had long worried about Carolina Gold’s “narcoleptic” effect. “How can half-asleep horses jumping three-foot wooden fences with a live human on their back be considered safe?” he wrote.

The federation eventually did develop a test for Carolina Gold and this year banned the sedative from competition. Within months, the drug had dropped in price to the point where “you couldn’t give that stuff away,” said the federation’s Dr. Allen.

Not everyone heeded the warning. The federation recently fined and suspended two trainers for using the active ingredient, a tranquilizer, in Carolina Gold and has other cases pending.

Another calming substance that worries the federation is injectable magnesium sulfate.

“It is readily available on the lay market,” said Dr. Midge Leitch, a veterinarian on two federation committees. “We’ve had a couple of quote-unquote suspicious deaths at performance horse competitions, which were probably related to inappropriate administration, either too fast or too much, which have an effect on heart rate and rhythm.”

The federation says it cannot yet test for abnormal magnesium levels, partly because magnesium, unlike Carolina Gold, occurs naturally in the body.

“It has a low margin of safety and can cause toxicity at doses that are not much higher than those used to produce a sedative effect,” said Dr. Rick Sams, who runs the drug testing lab for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.

The Equestrian Federation says magnesium in oral form does not affect performance. Yet marketers of oral supplements that include magnesium say otherwise. The makers of “Perfect Prep” products recommend using its “Extreme Formula” 90 minutes before a performance without fear that it will be “detectable as a foreign substance by the laboratory tests run by the governing bodies of high-level equine events.”

The company’s Web site included testimonials from trainers praising the formula’s calming action. “Nice horses become even nicer and even the tough ones melt,” one trainer says.

Heavy Medication

A week before Devon, Kristen Williams took Katie, her daughter, to a Florida show to try out Royal T, the pony she planned to ride at Devon. Katie’s friend Katie Ray had also traveled to Florida to try out her pony, Humble. Both ponies were owned and trained by Ms. Mandarino.

Afterward, Ms. Williams said she was surprised that Ms. Mandarino’s invoice listed $435 for unidentified “supplements.” Katie Ray’s mother, Carrie, had been billed $250 for unidentified supplements, records show.

At Devon, the following week, Ms. Williams came across the list of 15 scheduled drug administrations. All the drugs were legal. Saying she was shocked to see the horse so heavily medicated, Ms. Williams snapped a picture of the list with her cellphone. The following day, Humble collapsed and died after receiving another injection, this one not listed on the chart.

When told of the list of drugs, Dr. Rick Arthur, chief veterinarian for the California Horse Racing Board, said, “The treatment seems intensive even by racetrack standards, but I am unfamiliar with show-horse practices.”

Dr. Allen, who has extensive show-horse experience, said most veterinarians he knew could not imagine using all these drugs, “particularly large amounts of them in multiple combinations.”

The federation is realizing, he said, “that a very few trainers or owners are out there envisioning themselves as the veterinary managers of these horses, and they are giving a lot of medication with a small, very small, amount of knowledge, and to us that’s scary.”

Ms. Mandarino, who is not a veterinarian, told the police that she had given the pony the final injection. But according to a report filed by a federation steward, Carrie Ray, the mother of Humble’s rider, said Ms. Mandarino implicated a groom, saying he must have missed the vein and hit an artery. Ms. Mandarino has said the medicine was Legend, used to treat joint problems.

“Does it bother me that somebody injected a horse that close to competition? Yes, it does bother me,” said the federation’s Dr. Schumacher. “We’ve got to find a way to enforce whatever we want to put in place to curb that behavior.”

The burden for investigating Humble’s death fell largely to Ms. Williams, who described herself as a relatively inexperienced “pony mom.”

“What if Humble had made it to the ring and collapsed with Katie on his back?” Ms. Williams stated in her protest filing in June. “I am extremely concerned for the welfare of the animals and the innocent children that could potentially be victims.”

In his statement to The Times, Mr. Long of the federation emphasized that without subpoena power, its inquiries relied on members’ voluntary cooperation. He pointed out that Ms. Mandarino, through her lawyer, had refused to comply with requests for information and documentation of all substances given to Humble in the week before he died, and had even challenged the federation’s right to make the request.

Ms. Williams helped gather statements for the hearing from people who said they had seen Ms. Mandarino giving injections to horses.

In one statement, Dina Hanlon-Fritz said that her daughter, who worked for Ms. Mandarino for two months in early 2011, had seen the trainer “injecting the ponies twice a day every day so they would behave in the show ring.” According to the statement, Ms. Mandarino would yell at Ms. Hanlon-Fritz’s daughter because she “wasn’t able to get the blood off of the white ponies after so many injections.”

In another statement, Nancy Baroody said that while boarding her pony with Ms. Mandarino earlier this year, she saw her administer an injection just before the start of a 7 a.m. show. “I walked out of the tent area in disgust,” Ms. Baroody said.

And Wendy Brayman wrote that while she was with her daughter, who rode Humble in 2011, “just about everyone” associated with Ms. Mandarino was administering medicine. “I was often asked to get medicines from her drug chest,” including Carolina Gold and magnesium, Ms. Brayman said.

Ms. Mandarino did not attend the hearing, citing a death in the family. Instead, she produced statements attacking the motives of her critics and offering praise from clients, federation members and veterinarians.

Ms. Mandarino always provided “the utmost care in veterinary medicine” for her ponies, wrote Alexis G. Newman, a federation member. Ms. Mandarino also produced statements from suppliers saying they had not sold her Carolina Gold or other banned substances.

A post-mortem exam of Humble found an anti-inflammatory and a muscle relaxant, though not in excessive amounts, and no illegal drugs. In addition to emerging lung disease, the exam concluded that the pony could have died from “an overwhelming allergic response to medications or environmental triggers,” but said that was “speculative and impossible to confirm.”

In the end, the federation hearing panel dismissed Ms. Williams’s protest, saying it did not have enough evidence to decide if rules had been broken.

Ms. Mandarino filed an unsuccessful complaint against the federation’s general counsel with the Kentucky Bar Association and has filed a lawsuit accusing an online publication, Rate My Horse PRO, and various individuals of conspiring to harm her business. Rate My Horse PRO, which says it is an advocate for horses, has filed papers seeking to have that lawsuit dismissed.

A growing number of people in the horse world see another way of thinking about a horse’s behavior in the show ring. One approach that would reduce the incentive to medicate would be to change the judging criteria for hunters, said Ms. Winkel, the horse show judge and chairwoman of the officials committee for the United States Hunter Jumper Association.

This year, Ms. Winkel’s committee called for judges to stop rewarding horses for robotic conformity.

“People are realizing that it’s O.K. if horses are a little fresh and a little happy,” Ms. Winkel said, adding, “Why don’t we take a little more time and train these horses properly and educate their clients and give them better horsemen skills, other than to bring out a needle and a syringe every time we have a horse show.”

Joe Drape contributed reporting.

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« Reply #3730 on: Dec 29, 2012, 07:05 AM »

December 28, 2012

Woman Dies After a Gang Rape That Galvanized India


NEW DELHI — As protests grew in India Saturday over the death of a young woman who was raped in Delhi this month by several men in a moving bus, police said her attackers would be charged with murder.

The charges came as government officials appealed for calm in the streets after the woman, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student, died early Saturday in a Singapore hospital. In a statement, Dr. Kelvin Loh, the chief executive of Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore, said the woman died “peacefully.”

Indian police said Saturday that if convicted, the men could face the death penalty for the attack, which has served as a reminder of the dangerous conditions women face in India.

The woman, whose intestines were removed because of injuries caused by a metal rod used during the rape, has not been identified. She was flown to Singapore on Wednesday night after undergoing three abdominal operations at a local hospital. She had also suffered a major brain injury, cardiac arrest and infections of the lungs and abdomen. “She was courageous in fighting for her life for so long against the odds, but the trauma to her body was too severe for her to overcome,” Dr. Loh’s statement said.

Protesters gathered in New Delhi at Jantar Mantar, a popular site for demonstrations. By noon, the crowd had swelled to several hundred, most of them young men.

"We appeal to the people that they maintain peace," Satyendra Garg, a joint commissioner of the police, said in a televised interview. "We want the situation in Delhi to normalize as soon as possible," he said. Until then, he added, Delhi commuters will have to plan their travel carefully and be aware of the restrictions.

Upamanyu Raju, 21, a student at Delhi University, said he has been attending protests since a day after the rape victim was admitted to the hospital because of the "utter atrocity of what happened." Mr. Raju said he has given his younger sister pepper spray and a Swiss Army knife, but he worries that won’t protect her. "It’s wrong to stop girls from going out" of the house, he said, but there’s little choice because the city is so unsafe for women.

Sheila Dikshit, the chief minister of Delhi, arrived at the Jantar Mantar protest grounds in the early afternoon, and was booed, heckled and jostled by the crowd, even as the diminutive 74-year-old was surrounded by a police escort. She left after only a few minutes, after lighting a candle and holding her hands together in prayer, and without speaking to the crowd.

The roads leading to India Gate, the site of earlier protests that had turned violent, had been barricaded by the police, and nearby subway stations were closed. More than 40 police units have been deployed in the area, including 28 units of the Central Reserve Police Force, which are national anti-insurgency troops.

Revulsion and anger over the rape have galvanized India, where women regularly face sexual harassment and assault, and where neither the police nor the judicial system is seen as adequately protecting them. Top officials now say that further change is needed, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed his “deepest condolences.”

“We have already seen the emotions and energies this incident has generated,” he said in a statement. “It would be a true homage to her memory if we are able to channelize these emotions and energies into a constructive course of action.” The government, he said, is examining “the penal provisions that exist for such crimes and measures to enhance the safety and security of women.”

And Sonia Gandhi, India’s most powerful female politician and the president of the governing Congress Party, made in a rare televised statement that was broadcast on Saturday.

"As a woman, and mother, I understand how protesters feel," she said. "Today we pledge that the victim will get justice," she said.

Activists and lawyers in India have long said that the police are insensitive when dealing with crimes against women, and that therefore many women do not report cases of sexual violence.

India, which has more than 1.3 billion people, recorded 24,000 cases of rape last year, a figure that has increased by 25 percent in the past six years. On Thursday, Delhi government officials said they would register the names and photographs of convicted rapists on the Delhi police Web site, the beginning of a national registry for rapists.

The family of an 18-year-old woman in the northern Indian state of Punjab who was raped last month by two men and committed suicide on Wednesday blamed the police on Friday for her death.

Relatives of the woman say she killed herself because the police delayed registering the case or arresting the rapists.

If the police “had done their job, she would be alive today,” the woman’s sister, Charanjit Kaur, 28, said in a phone interview. “They didn’t listen to us; they didn’t act.”

On Friday, the Punjab high court intervened, asking the police to explain their delay. Three police officers have been suspended in the case, according to news media reports. Punjab police officials did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.

Ms. Kaur said the men abducted her sister from a place of worship near the small town of Badshahpur on Nov. 13, then drugged and raped her repeatedly.

When her sister reported the attack at the local police station a few days later, she was asked to describe it in graphic detail and was “humiliated,” Ms. Kaur said. Over the next few days, she said, her mother and sister were repeatedly called to the police station and forced to sit all day.

But the case was not registered for two weeks, as police officials and village elders tried to broker a deal between the men accused of the rape and the victim. In some parts of India, women are commonly married to men who have raped them.

Ms. Kaur said the police told her family that, because they were poor, they would not be able to fight the matter in court. “They kept putting pressure on my family to take money or marry the accused or just somehow settle the matter,” she said.

After no agreement was reached, the police registered the case, but made no arrests.

The victim was stalked by the men accused of the rape, who threatened to kill her and her family if she refused to drop the complaint, her suicide note said.

“They have ruined my life,” the note read, Ms. Kaur said. It named two men and a woman who allegedly helped them in the kidnapping. Those men have been arrested, the police said.

Niharika Mandhana contributed reporting from New Delhi, and Keith Bradsher contributed from Hong Kong..
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« Reply #3731 on: Dec 29, 2012, 07:11 AM »

December 28, 2012

Eight Are Charged With Chilean Singer’s 1973 Murder After Military Coup


SANTIAGO, Chile — Eight retired army officers were charged on Friday with the murder of a popular songwriter and theater director, Víctor Jara, who was tortured and killed days after the 1973 military coup in a stadium that had been turned into a detention center.

Judge Miguel Vásquez charged two of the former officers, Pedro Barrientos and Hugo Sánchez, with committing the murder and six others as accomplices. Mr. Sánchez, a lieutenant colonel, was second in command at the stadium. Mr. Barrientos, a lieutenant from a Tejas Verdes army unit, currently lives in Deltona, a city southwest of Daytona Beach, Fla., and was interrogated by the F.B.I. earlier this year at the request of a Chilean court. Attempts to reach Mr. Barrientos for comment were unsuccessful; his two listed telephone numbers had been disconnected.

Judge Vásquez issued an international arrest warrant against Mr. Barrientos through Interpol Santiago and ordered the arrest of the other seven, who were in Chile. Those charged as accomplices are Roberto Souper, Raúl Jofré, Edwin Dimter, Nelson Hasse, Luis Bethke and Jorge Smith.

Víctor Jara, then 40, was a member of the Communist Party and a leading folk singer in the late 1960s and early ’70s. A day after the American-supported Sept. 11 coup that ousted the socialist president, Salvador Allende, Mr. Jara was arrested by the military at the Santiago Technical University, where he was a professor and researcher, along with hundreds of students, teachers and staff members.

The detainees were bused to Chile Stadium, since then renamed Víctor Jara Stadium, and held in the bleachers for days with thousands of other prisoners, in the custody of army units brought in from various parts of the country.

Judge Vásquez established that Mr. Jara was recognized by military officers, separated from the rest of the detainees and taken to the basement dressing rooms, which were being used to question prisoners. There, he was interrogated, beaten and tortured by several officers, according to the court.

On Sept. 16, 1973, when the stadium was evacuated and the prisoners transferred to the larger, open-air National Stadium in the capital, Víctor Jara and a former prison service director, Littré Quiroga, who was also detained there, were taken to the basement and killed. The bodies of both men and three other victims were later found dumped near a railroad track outside a cemetery; one of the victims remains unidentified. According to the autopsy report, Mr. Jara was badly beaten and was shot 44 times.

Mr. Jara’s widow, Joan Turner, a British dancer and a resident of Santiago, was unavailable for comment.

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« Reply #3732 on: Dec 29, 2012, 07:13 AM »

December 28, 2012

Central African Republic Forces Fight for City Held by Rebels


BANGUI, Central African Republic (Agence France-Presse) — Government soldiers on Friday battled to recapture a city held by rebels, a military official said, as regional negotiators continued to seek a peaceful end to the crisis by arranging for the two sides to talk.

The official said the fighting in the captured city, Bambari, which members of a rebel coalition seized on Sunday, was “especially violent.”

The Central African Republic’s neighbors took steps Friday to address the crisis, as rebels advanced toward the capital, Bangui, stoking fears of wider violence.

Foreign ministers in the 10-member Economic Community of Central African States planned to discuss the crisis at a meeting in Gabon.

The organization’s deputy secretary general, Guy-Pierre Garcia, said late Friday that the rebels and the government had agreed to hold talks.

An official with the Central African Multinational Force, the regional peacekeeping organization, said the goal was to open talks between the two sides by Jan. 10.

A diplomatic team from the multinational force has begun talks with the authorities in Bangui and sent a delegation to the rebel-held town of Ndélé in the north to meet rebel leaders.

Fears about the deteriorating security situation have led the United States to evacuate its embassy in Bangui and the United Nations to withdraw its staff members from the country. The International Committee of the Red Cross said Friday that it, too, had evacuated some workers, although it said it would continue to provide aid to the growing number of displaced people.

The United Nations has demanded that the rebels halt their offensive, and urged President François Bozizé’s government to ensure the safety of civilians amid fears of a breakdown in law and order.

A coalition of three rebel movements known as Seleka has taken several towns, including four regional capitals. The rebels accuse the government of failing to fulfill the terms of peace pacts signed in 2007 and 2001.
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« Reply #3733 on: Dec 29, 2012, 07:18 AM »

December 28, 2012

Russia Calls for Meeting With Syrian Opposition


MOSCOW — Russia has shown a burst of diplomatic energy before talks here on Saturday with the United Nations envoy on Syria, perhaps seeing a chance for a breakthrough that would temper the criticism it has drawn in the West and the Arab world during the course of the nearly two-year-old Syrian conflict.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, on Friday made his first overtures toward the largest exile Syrian opposition coalition, saying that he had requested a meeting with its leader, Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib. The United States, Britain and several Persian Gulf nations have recognized the coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people, but Moscow has so far refused.

Though Moscow opposes any international effort to force out Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, in recent days it has expressed increasing support for beginning a political process that would draw in both sides in the conflict. The United Nations and Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, recommended this week that a transitional government be established, to rule the country until elections could be held.

“The feeling,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, “is that something is happening behind closed doors.” Russian leaders, he said, might see a chance to step in as statesmen after a long and isolating stand against international intervention.

“No one could understand why Russia was so firm and reluctant on Syria,” Mr. Lukyanov said. “Now it seems there is a chance to prove that this was right — to bring the situation close to a solution, and say that it is a big success of Russia.”

Saturday’s talks will almost certainly focus on removing impediments to talks between the sides — no easy matter, since opposition leaders insist that Mr. Assad must leave power before they will negotiate.

Leaders of Syria’s main exile opposition coalition reacted coolly on Friday to Mr. Lavrov’s invitation. Sheik Khatib, the coalition leader, told Al Jazeera that the opposition would not travel to Moscow, but that a meeting could be held in an Arab country.

Sheik Khatib, a former imam of the historic Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, also asked for Mr. Lavrov to apologize for Russia’s support for the government during the conflict.

“Why doesn’t Russia respond and issue a clear condemnation of the barbarity of the regime, and make a clear call for Assad to step down?” he said. “This is a basic condition for any negotiations.”

Another coalition member, Walid al-Bunni, struck a more conciliatory note, saying, “We want Russia to be part of the solution.” He suggested that an apology was unnecessary if Moscow cut off its support for Mr. Assad, in particular its weapons shipments to the Syrian military.

“That’s when their initiatives will be taken seriously,” he said by telephone from Budapest.

Russia has said any solution should be based on an international agreement reached last summer in Geneva, which calls for a transitional government and peacekeeping force. But the Geneva document does not address the crucial question of Mr. Assad’s fate, which remains a sticking point even as Moscow and other international parties coalesce around the idea of a transitional government.

After talks with Mr. Lavrov on Friday morning, Egypt’s foreign minister, Mohamed Kamel Amr, highlighted common ground between the two countries, saying they both reject foreign intervention and favor a political transition. Mr. Amr went on to say that Mr. Assad had to leave Syria, revealing the wide gap in positions between Russia and other nations trying to mediate the crisis.

Analysts and political observers in Moscow said Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Brahimi may try to address Mr. Assad’s role in a hypothetical transition — how long he would remain in place, for instance, and in what capacity, and what security guarantees would allow him and his associates to leave safely.

But Russia, having maintained a stand against international intervention for many months, is not likely to call for Mr. Assad’s departure now, Mr. Lukyanov said. He said Russia might apply pressure with a more cautious statement, like a demand for “a new configuration of political leadership.”

“Russia will avoid until the end publicly saying ‘Assad must go,’ because that will be seen as intervention,” Mr. Lukyanov said. “But at the same time, when they say, ‘It is not our aim to keep Assad in power,’ I think they are being quite honest.”

Fighting continued in Syria on Friday, even as diplomatic activity intensified. Antigovernment activists reported airstrikes by government warplanes in the Damascus suburbs and near the northern city of Aleppo.

A strike on the town of Al-Safira killed at least 14 people, including eight children, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an antigovernment group with a network of observers in the country. The Syrian state news agency made no mention of civilian deaths in an airstrike, saying that “the army totally destroyed several terrorists’ hide-outs” in Al-Safira.

Ellen Barry reported from Moscow, and Kareem Fahim from Beirut, Lebanon. Hala Droubi contributed reporting from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Hwaida Saad from Beirut.


December 24, 2012

No Easy Route if Assad Opts to Go, or to Stay, in Syria


BEIRUT, Lebanon — President Bashar al-Assad of Syria sits in his mountaintop palace as the tide of war licks at the cliffs below.

Explosions bloom over the Damascus suburbs. His country is plunging deeper into chaos. The United Nations’ top envoy for the Syrian crisis, Lakhdar Brahimi, met with Mr. Assad in the palace on Monday in an urgent effort to resolve the nearly two-year-old conflict.

How Mr. Assad might respond to Mr. Brahimi’s entreaty depends on his psychology, shaped by a strong sense of mission inherited from his iron-fisted father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad; his closest advisers, whom supporters describe as a hard-line politburo of his father’s gray-haired security men; and Mr. Assad’s assessment, known only to himself, about what awaits him if he stays — victory, or death at the hands of his people.

From his hilltop, Mr. Assad can gaze toward several possible futures.

East of the palace lies the airport and a possible dash to exile, a route that some say Mr. Assad’s mother and wife may have already taken. But the way is blocked, not just by bands of rebels, but by a belief that supporters say Mr. Assad shares with his advisers that fleeing would betray both his country and his father’s legacy.

He can stay in Damascus and cling to — even die for — his father’s aspirations, to impose a secular Syrian order and act as a pan-Arab leader on a regional and global stage.

Or he can head north to the coastal mountain heartland of his minority Alawite sect, ceding the rest of the country to the uprising led by the Sunni Muslim majority. That would mean a dramatic comedown: reverting to the smaller stature of his grandfather, a tribal leader of a marginalized minority concerned mainly with its own survival.

Mr. Brahimi was closemouthed about the details of his meeting, but has warned in recent weeks that without a political solution, Syria faces the collapse of the state and years of civil war that could dwarf the destruction already caused by the conflict that has taken more than 40,000 lives.

A Damascus-based diplomat said Monday that Mr. Assad, despite official denials, was “totally aware” that he must leave and was “looking for a way out,” though the timetable is unclear.

“More importantly,” said the diplomat, who is currently outside Syria but whose responsibilities include the country, “powerful people in the upper circle of the ruling elite in Damascus are feeling that an exit must be found.”

Yet others close to Mr. Assad and his circle say any retreat would clash with his deep-seated sense of himself, and with the wishes of increasingly empowered security officials, whom one friend of the president’s has come to see as “hotheads.”

Mr. Assad believes he is “defending his country, his people, and his regime and himself” against Islamic extremism and Western interference, said Joseph Abu Fadel, a Lebanese political analyst who supports Mr. Assad and met with government officials last week in Damascus.

Analysts in Russia, one of Syria’s staunchest allies, say that as rebels try to encircle Damascus and cut off escape routes to the coast, the mood in the palace is one of panic, evinced by the erratic use of weapons: Scud missiles better used against an army than an insurgency, naval mines dropped from the air instead of laid at sea.

But even if Mr. Assad wanted to flee, it is unclear if the top generals would let him out alive, Russian analysts say, since they believe that if they lay down arms they — and their disproportionately Alawite families — will die in vengeance killings, and need him to rally troops.

“If he can fly out of Damascus,” Semyon A. Bagdasarov, a Middle East expert in Moscow, said — at this, he laughed dryly — “there is also the understanding of responsibility before the people. A person who has betrayed several million of those closest to him.”

Many Syrians still share Mr. Assad’s belief that he is protecting the Syrian state, which helps explain how he has held on this long. At a lavish lunch hosted by a Lebanese politician outside Beirut in September, prominent Syrian backers of Mr. Assad — Alawites, Sunnis and Christians — spoke of the president, over copious glasses of Johnnie Walker scotch, as the bulwark of a multicultural, modern Syria.

But one friend of Mr. Assad, stepping out of earshot of the others to speak frankly, said the president’s advisers are “hotheads” who tell him, “ ‘You are weak, you must be strong,’ ” adding, “They are advising him to strike more, with the planes, any way that you can think of.”

“They speak of the rebels like dogs, terrorists, Islamists, Wahhabis,” the friend said, using a term for adherents to a puritanical form of Islam. “This is why he will keep going to the end.”

The friend added that even though Mr. Assad sometimes speaks of dialogue, he mainly wants to be a hero fending off a foreign attack. “He is thinking of victory — only victory.”

Such a crisis is the last thing that was expected for the young Bashar al-Assad. He was the stalky, shy second brother with the receding chin, dragged from a quiet life as a London ophthalmologist after the death in 1994 of his swaggering older brother, Basil al-Assad, who crashed his sports car while speeding toward the airport — along the very road that is now engulfed in fighting.

Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez, held power from 1970 to 2000, raising a second-tier clan from the oppressed Alawite minority to power and wealth. But critics say the Assads used four decades in power not to promote meaningful ethnic and religious integration, but to cement Alawite rule with a secular face.

After the uprising began as a peaceful protest movement in March 2011, Mr. Assad rejected calls for deep reform — from his people, from Turkish officials who spent years cultivating him, even from militant groups he had long sponsored, Hamas and Hezbollah, which, according to Hamas, offered to arrange talks with the rebels.

Instead, Mr. Assad took his father’s path. To put down an Islamist revolt in the 1980s, Hafez al-Assad bulldozed entire neighborhoods and killed at least 10,000 people. The son now presides over a crackdown-turned-civil war that has killed four times that many, and counting.

In a government that has become even more secretive, it is impossible to know exactly how Mr. Assad makes his decisions. Some people say he wanted to reform but his father’s generals and intelligence officials, along with his mother, convinced him that reforms would bring their downfall.

“There are two Bashar al-Assads,” said Jürgen Todenhöfer, a German journalist who interviewed him in July. One is a quiet man “who doesn’t like his job” and wants a way out, he said; the other wants to show his family and the world, “I’m not a softy.”

Others say that Mr. Assad’s reformist impulses were always meant only to bring access to the luxuries and approval of the West.

The Assads were raised by their father and their uncles — aggressive men — to believe “they were demigods and Syria was their playground,” said Rana Kabbani, the daughter of a prominent diplomat who knew them growing up.

Turkish officials say that in frequent talks during the revolt’s first months, Mr. Assad listened calmly to their criticisms, took personal responsibility for the government’s actions and promised to seek resolution.

“Either he is a professional liar or he can’t deliver on what he promises,” said a senior Turkish official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Now, Mr. Assad, 47, faces a set of unpalatable choices. Fleeing to become an Alawite militia leader is likely hard to imagine for the president, who grew up in Damascus, reached out to and married into the Sunni elite, and was even mocked in his ancestral village for his Damascus accent, said Joshua Landis, a University of Oklahoma professor who studies Syria and Alawites.

Mr. Assad was long believed to take advice from his mother; his brother Maher, who heads the army’s feared Fourth Division; his brother-in-law Asef Shawkat; and his cousins, the Makhloufs.

But his mother is believed to have fled Syria in recent weeks. Mr. Shawkat, the deputy defense minister, was killed in a bombing in July. The Makhloufs are believed to be spiriting money out of the country. Maher has been reported to have lost a leg in the bombing, but still to be commanding troops.

Turkish, Russian, Syrian and Lebanese analysts agree: Mr. Assad’s main advisers are now his father’s hard-liners and the leaders of the shabiha militias that have carried out attacks on government opponents.

If there ever existed moderates in the government who might cajole Mr. Assad to hand power to a successor who could preserve the Syrian state, that option now appears increasingly remote.

“So much blood has been shed, and it’s impossible to do this,” Mr. Bagdasarov said.

An Alawite businessman in the coastal region who said he knew Mr. Assad’s circle said the one person who might persuade him to leave is his wife, Asma, but she has taken little role in the crisis. She and their children have either left, or been prevented from leaving by Maher, or have insisted on staying — depending on the latest rumor from an edgy Damascus.

Reporting was contributed by Kareem Fahim and David D. Kirkpatrick from Beirut, Ellen Barry from Moscow, Sebnem Arsu from Istanbul, Rick Gladstone from New York, and an employee of The New York Times from Tartus, Syria.


December 28, 2012

In Russia, Exile in Comfort for Leaders Like Assad


BARVIKHA, Russia — A few years back, before he settled in this bucolic town in a pine forest near Moscow, Askar Akayev, then the president of Kyrgyzstan, had a very stressful day.

Outside his presidential palace, an angry mob had gathered. An overturned car was on fire. Protesters had shinned over a wrought-iron fence and were breaking ground-floor windows and prying open doors.

Then came word from a security adviser: The time had come.

“I left in the suit I was standing up in,” Mr. Akayev told a journalist soon after his downfall in March 2005. Within days he was here, staying in a government-owned sanitarium — and in good company.

This improbable small town of villas and luxury boutiques, built around the sanitarium where Mr. Akayev stayed, is home to half a dozen or so deposed leaders and members of their families.

And in its snowy tranquillity, it offers one strange, possible future for the embattled president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, as Western governments have been pressuring Russia since summer to smooth his departure with an offer of asylum.

For now, even with rebel fighters closing in on Damascus, diplomats in Russia, Mr. Assad’s most important ally, have denied they are considering granting him safe haven as a step toward resolution of the conflict. But the Russians have come through with 11-hour rescues of their allies before.

“The Russians have experience with getting heads of state out in the nick of time,” said Mark N. Katz, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University in Virginia. “They could be trying to signal to Assad there is an offer, but the window of opportunity is not going to remain open for a long time.”

Leaders’ hurried packing and just-in-time flight to this place from angry street crowds or the nearing sound of gunfire brought measures of resolution to conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere.

Russia has been inching closer to agreeing to a settlement that would include Mr. Assad’s departure, if that is even possible at this juncture, with rebels occupying parts of the capital and firing mortar rounds at the presidential palace in the Muhajireen neighborhood of Damascus.

On Thursday, the United Nations envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, and Russian diplomats agreed to revive a peace initiative that stalled last summer after the Russians insisted it refrain from specifically excluding a role for Mr. Assad in any transition government. It was unclear whether Russia would accede to such a demand in any new agreement, and if so, whether the Syrian leader would land here.

Not all political exiles live in the districts of spacious country homes that lie here, along the Ryublyovsky Highway, but many do.

By many accounts, once here, these people enjoy the quiet and privileged afterlife of former elites of Soviet or Russian client states that have folded. In a snowy shopping center, the Barvikha Luxury Village, Gucci, Ralph Lauren and Dolce & Gabbana shops were open on a recent visit, of possible interest to Mr. Assad’s wife, Asma al-Assad, who is known to dress fashionably.

Borislav Milosevic, the brother of Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian leader who was accused of war crimes and who died in 2006, said that family members who had settled in Barvikha had been getting on swimmingly since the Yugoslav conflicts faded from the news.

The former leader’s widow, Mirjana Markovic, and son, Marko Milosevic, live in separate villas here.

“People come from Serbia to visit,” Borislav Milosevic said in a telephone interview about Ms. Markovic’s nine years in exile, a life he described as wholly “ordinary” in its daily routines. “She has friends over all the time. She lives a respectable, normal life.”

Ms. Markovic has been compiling a book of her husband’s interviews, and her son is married to a Russian woman, with whom he has a daughter.

Ms. Markovic’s experience of exile in this town, with children and grandchildren nearby, is not burdensome or isolating, Borislav Milosevic said.

The neighborhood would by no means be seen as going downhill if the Assads came to Barvikha, Mr. Milosevic said. Accepting Asma al-Assad and the children in particular, he said, would be a “humanitarian gesture.”

Ms. Markovic, asked by phone if a reporter could visit her country home for an interview, declined.

A telephone number for Mr. Akayev, the deposed president of Kyrgyzstan who took up residence here after escaping the street protests known as the Tulip Revolution in 2005, could not be found. But a shop attendant at the Bentley dealership in Barvikha, Anna Shkoda, said she regularly saw Mr. Akayev’s son, Aidar, around town. The dealership sold the family a Flying Spur model Bentley in its first year or so of exile.

“They had much more money when they just arrived,” Ms. Shkoda said.

The town, home mostly to Russian nouveaux riches, is blocked from Moscow by traffic jams, but is otherwise a fine alternative to becoming the star in a show trial, or a victim of a summary execution on some dusty roadside.

It is a sprawl of narrow lanes in a pine forest, where every house hides behind a gigantic wall, and the lenses of closed-circuit television cameras stare blankly at passers-by.

Five years after Mr. Akayev was ousted, his successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was similarly deposed in a popular uprising when protesters stormed the presidential palace. But he fled to Belarus, avoiding the potential embarrassment of the two exiles, one of whom overthrew the other, becoming neighbors.

Moscow’s reputation as a welcoming city for deposed autocrats was reinforced in 2004, when the mayor at the time, Yuri M. Luzhkov, provided his private jet to Aslan Abashidze, the separatist leader of the Ajaria region of Georgia, in a timely gesture. Federal troops had already started their advance into his capital city, Batumi.

Mr. Abashidze reportedly lives in Barvikha.

Not all asylum bids in Moscow have gone smoothly. After losing power in East Germany, Erich Honecker and his wife, Margot Honecker, who was known as the Purple Witch for her violet hair dyes and support for repressive policies, fled to Moscow from a Soviet air base in Germany.

They took up residence in the Chilean Embassy, but President Boris N. Yeltsin extradited the couple back to Germany.

In 1998, the leader of the once Communist-leaning Kurdistan Workers Party, Abdullah Ocalan, fled from Syria to Moscow. But the Russians would not take him. He was put on a flight to Africa, where he was caught; his enemies, the Turks, have kept him locked in an island prison since.

Today, time may be running short for the Assads.

This week, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said Russia did not want even to broker Mr. Assad’s asylum with a third country. “Some countries in the region have turned to us and suggested, ‘Tell Assad we are ready to fix him up,’ ” Mr. Lavrov said. “If these people are wishing to give him some kind of guarantees, be our guest.”

Ellen Barry contributed reporting from Moscow.

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« Reply #3734 on: Dec 29, 2012, 07:22 AM »

Pakistan Taliban chief with $5 million US bounty on head ‘open to talks’

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, December 28, 2012 16:36 EST

Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud said his organisation could be open to talks with Islamabad in a video released Friday, but poured scorn on the idea his men would give up their guns.

Mehsud, who has a $5 million US government bounty on his head, said the militant group would consider negotiations with the Pakistani government but only if it abandoned ties with Washington.

The tape emerged after a spate of high-profile attacks claimed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) around the northwestern city of Peshawar in recent weeks, including the assassination of senior provincial politician Bashir Bilour.

“If Pakistan is serious about negotiations it will have to give up US slavery. We will then be ready for negotiations,” Mehsud said in the video.

“It is quite ridiculous to ask us to give up arms before entering into negotiations.

“But if Pakistan decides to open talks while remaining US slaves the talks will not succeed because a slave can never take independent decisions.”

He also accused Islamabad of reneging on peace deals in the past under US pressure, but did not elaborate.

Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the information minister for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, gave Mehsud’s comments a cautious welcome.

“We understand the Taliban’s negotiations offer as a positive step,” he told AFP, although he said the militants must “quit the path of violence”.

“The Taliban should forget whatever has happened to them and we are ready to forget whatever has happened to us,” said the minister, whose son was killed in a bomb blast blamed on the militants.

Pakistan and the United States have been fractious allies in Washington’s “war on terror” and Islamabad has received billions of dollars in American money to reimburse it for the cost of fighting homegrown militants in the northwest.

The alliance is unpopular among many Pakistanis but both sides have been working to improve relations, which plunged into crisis last year over the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden, who was hiding in Pakistan, and botched air strikes that killed 24 border guards.

Mehsud, who took over the TTP leadership after founder Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a US drone strike in August 2009, said they had avenged bin Laden’s death “several times”.

“We consider democracy as un-Islamic,” he said. “The aim of our life is the implementation of the Islamic system. We do not support any political party because we consider them un-Islamic.”

The video, distributed to media organisations in northwest Pakistan, is undated but also shows Mehsud’s deputy Wali-ur Rehman discussing the killing of Bilour on Saturday, which would suggest it was filmed in the past week.

The Taliban has waged a sustained campaign of violence in Pakistan since 2007, claiming responsibility for some of the most high-profile attacks in the troubled country, including the October shooting of schoolgirl campaigner Malala Yousafzai.

US officials believed Mehsud had been killed in a drone strike in northwest Pakistan in January 2010, but in May that year he appeared in a series of videos, claiming responsibility for an attempted car bombing in New York’s Times Square and vowing to attack major US cities.

Rehman, who also has a $5 million US government price on his head, accused Bilour’s Awami National Party, which rules in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, of selling the local people for American money.

“Our jihad against them is going on and will continue, their workers will be targeted,” he said.

He also denied recent reports suggesting a leadership struggle between him and Mehsud.

“We have no differences, there was propaganda in the media about a split in the TTP. We are one and united,” he said.

The Pakistani government says more than 35,000 people have died due to bomb blasts and suicide attacks in the country since the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

But there has been a general decline in the number and severity of attacks since 2009, when the army fought major operations against Taliban in the northwestern district of Swat and the tribal district of South Waziristan.

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