December 30, 2012
Israel, in Shift, Lets Building Materials Cross Into Gaza
By ISABEL KERSHNER
JERUSALEM — For the first time in five years, Israel on Sunday allowed 20 truckloads of building materials into Gaza for use by the private sector, according to Israeli and Palestinian officials. One of the first tangible concessions under a cease-fire deal reached after eight days of intensive fighting in November, it signaled a shift in Israel’s approach to the Palestinian enclave.
Israeli officials said that construction materials would now be allowed in on a daily basis via the Kerem Shalom crossing on Israel’s border with Gaza.
The shipment on Sunday came in addition to 34 trucks of gravel that crossed into Gaza over the weekend from Egypt, which also had Israel’s approval. The materials from Egypt were earmarked for housing complexes and other construction projects that the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, pledged to pay for when he visited Gaza in October.
The easing of restrictions on imports is a result of continuing talks in Cairo meant to anchor the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza. Israel is holding the discussions with Egypt and has no direct contact with Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Israel has strictly controlled the entry of building materials. Israeli officials have argued that such materials could otherwise be used by militants for manufacturing weapons or constructing tunnels and bunkers.
In return for loosening the movement of goods, Israeli officials say, Egypt is expected to help prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza.
Maj. Guy Inbar, a spokesman for the Israeli authority responsible for the crossings, said that Israel had approved the transfer of materials to the private sector “against the background of the talks with the Egyptians and the quiet that has prevailed” in the past five weeks along the Israel-Gaza border.
Soon after the cease-fire was announced, the fishing zone off the Gaza coast was extended for Palestinian fishermen from three nautical miles to six nautical miles, and Palestinian residents of Gaza were given more access to lands in a buffer zone imposed by Israel along the border.
Taher al-Nounou, a spokesman for the Hamas government in Gaza, said Sunday that the construction materials coming from Egypt would increase to 100 trucks a day and that as part of the cease-fire agreement with Israel, more goods, including cars, would enter Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing.
“Israel is aware now that it will lose a lot financially if it doesn’t sell its goods to the consumers in Gaza,” Mr. Nounou added.
The last round of hostilities began in mid-November when Israel began an assault on the enclave after militants there stepped up rocket attacks against southern Israel. During eight days of fighting, Israel bombed more than 1,000 targets in Gaza and the militants fired more than 1,500 rockets into Israel, leaving more than 160 Palestinians and 6 Israelis dead.
With the cease-fire, the parties agreed to begin dealing with broader issues like easing restrictions on the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza. The sides have revealed little detail about the progress of talks in Cairo. Israel has played down the shift in its blockade policy, presumably not wanting to feed the Hamas assertions of victory over Israel in the latest conflict, particularly ahead of Israeli elections on Jan. 22.
But Israeli officials have explained the willingness to ease restrictions in terms of trying to ensure the longevity of the cease-fire. They say that the discussions over the deal have also provided Israel with a welcome channel of communication with the new Egyptian leadership under President Mohamed Morsi, seen here as important for the preservation of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
The election of Mr. Morsi, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader, brought Hamas, a Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood, closer to Cairo. The ousted president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, was hostile to the Islamists and helped Israel impose a tight blockade on Gaza after Hamas took over there in 2007. But Egypt under Mr. Morsi’s leadership has also remained cautious, and expectations in Gaza that the border with Egypt would be thrown open have not yet been realized.
Israel began to ease restrictions on many imports into Gaza in 2010, under international pressure after a deadly Israeli raid on a Turkish boat that was trying to breach the naval blockade. Most everyday products were allowed in. But Israel continued to ban cement, steel and other building materials for the private sector and some other products that Israel deemed a security risk. Gaza contractors came to rely on getting construction materials that were smuggled in from Egypt through a vast network of tunnels running under the border.
For that reason, some in Gaza were not particularly impressed by news of building materials arriving from Israel. Majdi Qawalishi, who owns a brick factory in Gaza City, said that the gravel that came through the tunnels from Egypt was significantly cheaper than gravel from Israel, saving him about $300 per day.
“I am not really bothered about the Israeli building materials,” he said, “as long as those from Egypt are widely available.”
An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Gaza.
Israel court overturns ban on Arab politician
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, December 30, 2012 18:15 EST
Israel’s Supreme Court on Sunday overturned a decision by the Central Elections Committee banning Arab-Israeli politician Haneen Zuabi from standing in next month’s snap general election.
“Following a hearing on 27/12/2012, it was decided unanimously to reject the Central Elections Committee’s decision… to prevent representative Haneen Zuabi from standing for elections for the 19th Knesset,” a summary of the court’s decision said.
The summary, which was released ahead of the full decision later on Sunday, did not explain why the court was overturning the committee’s decision, but confirmed that Zuabi would be able to stand in the January 22 vote.
A member of the Arab-Israeli leftwing Balad party, Zuabi is a controversial figure in Israeli society.
A firebrand critic of the government, Zuabi has regularly tangled with rightwing members of the Knesset, who sought to disqualify her from running in the next election.
They argue that she fails to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, and backed enemies of the state by participating in a 2010 Gaza-bound flotilla that was raided by Israeli commandos in an operation that killed nine Turkish activists.
Speaking to public radio after the court ruling, Zuabi said she was happy with the result.
“I welcome the Supreme Court’s decision. This is what I expected,” she said.
“I don’t regret having participated in the Mavi Marmara (flotilla). I know what I did,” she added.
“There was no legal basis for the (committee’s) decision, which was based only on political considerations,” she said in a separate interview with Israeli military radio.
“The Supreme Court has not succumbed to pressure from the racist right wing.”
Israel’s elections committee, which is composed of representatives from political parties, has in the past voted to ban Balad, as well as another Arab-Israeli party and other Arab Israeli politicians, from elections.
But those decisions were overturned by the Supreme Court, which had again been expected to strike down the decision banning Zuabi’s participation in the January poll.
December 30, 2012
Envoy to Syria Warns of Slide to Hellish Fiefs With Huge Toll
By KAREEM FAHIM and HWAIDA SAAD
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The international envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, drew a grim portrait on Sunday of the country’s future in the absence of a political solution, warning of a state carved up by warlords and a death toll that would rapidly surge, while conceding that there was little sign that the antagonists intended to negotiate.
At a news conference at Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Mr. Brahimi said the violence, which has already killed tens of thousands of people, could claim 100,000 lives over the next year.
“People are talking about a divided Syria being split into a number of small states like Yugoslavia,” he said.
“This is not what is going to happen. What will happen is Somalization — warlords,” Mr. Brahimi said, according to a transcript of his remarks. Without a peace deal, he added, Syria would be “transformed into hell.”
Mr. Brahimi’s comments reflected a deepening pessimism after his apparently unsuccessful attempt over the past week to mediate the crisis by shuttling between opposition figures and the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. The envoy indicated that Mr. Assad had made no response to peace proposals, which included a plan to create a transitional government. In another sign of the impasse, the leader of a large opposition coalition all but rebuffed an invitation by Russia, one of Syria’s closest allies, to discuss solutions to the crisis.
On Saturday, nearly a week after Mr. Brahimi traveled to Damascus, the Syrian capital, Russia’s foreign minister said there was “no possibility” of persuading Mr. Assad to leave the country, which Syrian opposition groups have insisted is a precondition for any peace talks.
The envoy’s warnings came as activists in Syria reported a new exodus of civilians from the central city of Homs, adding untold numbers of internal refugees to the millions Mr. Brahimi said had already been displaced by the war. Over the past three days, hundreds and perhaps thousands of residents have fled fighting in the Deir Ba’alba district of Homs after government troops stormed the restive neighborhood, according to activists in Talbiseh, north of Homs, where many of the refugees were being received.
Some residents have blamed rebel fighters for the incursion, saying the army moved in after the insurgents inexplicably quit the neighborhood. In Syria’s other cities, residents have frequently been angered by the tendency of rebel fighters to occupy a neighborhood and then attack government troops before abruptly withdrawing and leaving civilians to bear the brunt of the army’s brutal retaliation.
It was unclear how many people had been killed in the fighting in the district. One young witness said he believed a neighbor had been killed. Two videos purportedly from Deir Ba’alba showed the bodies of about a dozen men who had apparently been executed with gunshots to the head. But there was no confirmation of claims made on Saturday by an antigovernment group, the Local Coordination Committees, that hundreds had been killed.
One resident of Deir Ba’alba, a 14-year-old boy reached by Skype in Talbiseh, said he had fled with his parents at 1:30 a.m. Sunday. The family had grown accustomed to sporadic fighting and gunfire, and usually fled to a relative’s house elsewhere in Homs. “But this time, it was heavy shelling,” the teenager said. “I could hear the asphalt cracking under the tanks.”
As he and his family left, the boy saw the body of a neighbor, a woman, lying on the ground, he said. His mother tried to convince the boy that the neighbor was alive. “I’m sure I saw her dead,” he said. “Her neck was bleeding. She was unveiled. It was the first time I saw our neighbor unveiled.”
One fighter from Homs said the retreat had come after the rebel military council for Homs failed to provide ammunition for its fighters in Deir Ba’alba. “They asked for supplies 48 hours before the invasion,” the fighter said. “Their call was not answered. I don’t know why.”
Civilians had begged the fighters not to leave, or at least to leave their weapons behind, two fighters said. Another fighter from Homs, calling the withdrawal “suicidal,” said the rebels had left civilians “to face their destiny alone.”
“We don’t know what happened to them,” he said.
31 December 2012 - 12H22
30 tortured bodies found in Damascus: watchdog
AFP - Thirty tortured and disfigured bodies have been found in the northern Damascus neighbourhood of Barzeh, the scene of regular clashes between regime troops and rebels, a watchdog said on Monday.
"Thirty bodies were found in the Barzeh district. They bore signs of torture and have so far not been identified," said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on medics and activists on the ground in compiling its tolls.
The Syrian Revolution General Commission, a grassroots network of anti-regime activists, estimated that there were 50 bodies, adding that "their heads were cut and disfigured to the point that it was no longer possible to identify" them.
These reports could not be verified independently because of restrictions on the international media by the Syrian authorities.
The gruesome discovery was made on Sunday, the day UN and Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said he has a plan to end the conflict that could be acceptable to world powers.
The Syrian conflict, which erupted in March 2011, has claimed more than 45,000 lives, according to Observatory estimates.
On Sunday itself 160 people were killed nationwide -- 78 civilians, 41 soldiers and 41 revels, the Observatory said.
December 30, 2012
For Liberals in Egypt, a Champion Who Quips
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK and MAYY EL SHEIKH
CAIRO — As a new Constitution engraves Islam ever more firmly into Egyptian law, a young comic’s escalating battle with a group of ultraconservative television sheiks has become an early skirmish over the application of Islamic law, or Shariah.
In the weeks leading up to the referendum over the Islamist-backed charter, sheiks hosting Islamist variations on “The 700 Club” have spent weeks attacking the protesters who clogged Cairo’s streets, calling them perverts, drug users, paid thugs and Christians. When a 38-year-old television comedian, Bassem Youssef, began mocking the sheiks for their outlandish allegations, they turned on him, too, accusing him of sexual immorality and even poor hygiene.
“Bassem Zipper,” one called him, “the varmint.” Mr. Youssef “doesn’t know how to wash after he uses the bathroom,” another one said.
Far from offended, Mr. Youssef replayed clips of their attacks. “To those who tell me, ‘You insult the sheiks and scholars,’ I say, ‘The equation is very simple,’ ” he told his audience. “ ‘Just like you don’t consider us Muslims, to us, you’re not sheiks or scholars.’ ”
Mr. Youssef, who takes “The Daily Show” and Jon Stewart as models, has used parody to argue that the ultraconservatives, known as Salafis, are distorting Islam, and for the moment, his satire appears to have trumped their sanctimony. Mr. Youssef is winning not only the laughs of young audiences but also the endorsements of respected Muslim scholars. He even won a grudging apology from one of his critics.
“They outdo each over Shariah in a way that demeans Shariah and has no basis in Shariah,” said Sheik Ahmed Kerima of Al Azhar mosque-university, defending Mr. Youssef.
Habib Ali al-Jifri, an internationally known Islamic scholar based in Yemen, proclaimed that “if the enemies of Islam used all their resources to abuse it, they wouldn’t have been able to do what the sheiks did.” They had passed off their own “low morals,” he wrote, as divine teachings.
No one pretends that a late-night comedy show can erase the popular support of the Salafis or the more mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, another target of Mr. Youssef’s humor. But during his war of words with the sheiks, young men at street cafes in poor neighborhoods far from Cairo could be seen watching his show and shaking with laughter.
Egyptian liberals, delighted, say they have found a new champion.
“He makes a point of saying, ‘We are reclaiming Islam. Islam belongs to us and not you. As Muslims we are offended by what you are saying, so we are defending our religion by ridiculing you,’ ” said Hossam Bahgat, the executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. At the same time, Mr. Bahgat said, “he is very good with the sexual innuendos as well.”
“You could write a Ph.D. dissertation on the contradictions in Salafi discourse, or I could write a human rights report about its bigoted rhetoric,” Mr. Bahgat added, “but none of this is half as effective as one of Bassem’s weekly shows.”
Mr. Youssef stumbled into satire. A heart surgeon trained in the United States, he decided to take advantage of the media freedom after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak by making his own online parody of a news program, ridiculing liberals and revolutionaries just as much as conservatives and reactionaries. Appearing first only on YouTube, the show was soon picked up by private satellite networks and is now known as “Al Bernameg,” or “The Program.” This spring, Mr. Youssef even appeared as a guest alongside Mr. Stewart on “The Daily Show.”
During the sometimes violent struggle over the Islamist-backed Constitution, though, Mr. Youssef turned with special attention to what he called the “merchants of religion,” the pious Islamist television shows also newly emboldened after Mr. Mubarak.
After a night of deadly street fighting between the Islamists and their opponents, Mr. Youssef played clips in which one sheik after another demonized the protesters in much the same way that Mr. Mubarak’s state-run news media once portrayed the demonstrators in Tahrir Square, Mr. Youssef noted. But the Islamists were more vulgar.
“A bunch of thugs and female dancers,” Gamal Saber, an ultraconservative Islamist spokesman, called the protesters who camped outside the presidential palace. “You saw with your eyes the alcohol bottles they drank from — those who claim to be revolutionaries — and the coal they used to light their water pipes,” he said, citing as evidence of their decadence only piles of apples and juice boxes that he insisted had been found at the site of the camp.
In another clip, a member of the Salafi movement’s main governing council listened solemnly as a caller purported to describe even more sordid discoveries. “I swear to the glory of Allah, I found money in — I’m sorry about the word, excuse me — a man’s backside,” the caller said. Another Salafi sheik, Shabaan Mahmoud, told his audience that his supporters had found “the best and most sophisticated kinds of liquor” as well as “vaginal wash that prevented pregnancy after sex.” Ashraf Badr el-Din, a former lawmaker from the Brotherhood’s political party, insisted there were condoms as well. “Why would protesters have condoms?” he asked.
Others were sure the protesters were gay. Or they described discoveries of sexual lubricants, money or receipts from Persian Gulf monarchies hostile to the Islamists.
“So far, those protesters have: drugs, coal for water pipes, condoms and money,” Mr. Youssef told his audience incredulously. “All they need is a couple of belly dancers and five men from the gulf to open a nightclub.”
Mr. Youssef played Christmas carols over clips of the sheiks condemning the protesters as Christians.
“A message to the Egyptian Church,” Safwat Hegazy, a conservative television preacher close to the Muslim Brotherhood, thundered to an Islamist rally in one of the clips. “Never ally with the remnants of the old government,” he said. “We will never allow for 60 percent of those around the presidential palace to be Christians who chant against the legitimate authority.”
Another Salafi sheik, apparently speaking in a mosque, urged his listeners to recapture Tahrir Square from protesters. “No matter who dies and no matter who’s killed,” he said. “And the rule is well known: our dead are in heaven, and their dead are in hell.”
“So to become a martyr, you need apply for the party’s ID card?” Mr. Youssef asked, displaying a membership card for the Brotherhood’s political arm. “Is everyone going to tailor the path to paradise to their own measurements?”
Soon the sheiks were aiming their fury mainly at Mr. Youssef. Sheik Khaled Abdullah, another television preacher, lashed out at Mr. Youssef’s audience, calling them “paid kids from downtown.” Nabih el-Wahsh, a lawyer and frequent guest on Salafi networks, called the same viewers “a bunch of gays and hermaphrodites.”
Sheik Abu Islam Ahmed Abdullah, who owns his own satellite channel, joined in the verbal assault. “Yes, we’re the ones who were told by God to tell people how to go to heaven and how to go to hell,” he said to Mr. Youssef over the airwaves, quoting the Koran to back up his insults.
“The Koran itself cursed at the likes of Bassem Youssef,” Mr. Abdullah said.
But after reprimands for reducing Islam to an exchange of insults with a late-night comic, Mr. Abdullah last week professed a change of heart. He asked Mr. Youssef’s forgiveness for being “tough on him.”
In apparent attempt at humor, Mr. Abdullah then presented an altered picture of Mr. Youssef in a Muslim woman’s veil. His face was so beautiful he ought to cover it, too, Mr. Abdullah said. “You have to cover your eyes,” he said, weirdly, laughing. “God bless your eyes, your lips, and your head and your tongue.”
Faced with such compliments, Mr. Youssef did not know what to say. “This case is becoming very difficult,” Mr. Youssef responded dryly via Twitter.
31 December 2012 - 13H10
Iraq demands end to 'illegitimate' demos
AFP - The Iraqi authorities on Monday called for an end to what a senior official said were illegal and illegitimate protest rallies in Sunni-majority provinces that have cut key trade routes.
The remarks released by the office of Ali al-Alaak, cabinet secretary general, came as protests blocking a key highway linking Iraq to Syria and Jordan entered a ninth day and authorities north of Baghdad declared general strikes.
The protests were sparked by the arrest on December 20 of at least nine of Finance Minister Rafa al-Essawi's guards, and have spurred allegations that the Shiite-led government uses anti-terror legislation to target the Sunni minority.
A statement posted on Alaak's office website acknowledged that the constitution guaranteed freedom of expression, assembly and dissent, but added that such freedoms must be practised "in a way that does not oppose public order."
"These should not be carried out without the knowledge of authorities and their permission," it said. "What is happening now... is breaking the law and the constitution."
It said government employees must disregard a call from provincial authorities for a general strike aimed at pushing for the release of prisoners.
"All government offices in the provinces should not obey these illegitimate orders, or they will be held legally responsible," it said.
Nineveh province's three-day general strike extends to Tuesday, while Samarra, in Salaheddin province, began its own strike on Monday.
Protesters in Anbar province, meanwhile, blocked off the country's main highway to Syria and Jordan for a ninth straight day.
Iraq rocked by series of explosions
Reuters in Baghdad
guardian.co.uk, Monday 31 December 2012 10.03 GMT
Explosions across Iraq killed at least 11 people and wounded 46 on Monday, police said, amid a growing political crisis that is inflaming sectarian tensions.
Seven people from the same family were killed by bomb blasts near their home in the town of Mussayab, south of Baghdad.
In the Shia Muslim majority city of Hilla in the north, a parked car bomb went off near the convoy of the governor of Babil province, missing him but killing another person, police said.
A series of blasts in Iraq's disputed territories, over which both the central government and the autonomous Kurdish region claim jurisdiction, killed three people.
Two of those deaths were in the oil-rich, ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, where a bomb exploded as a police team tried to defuse it.
Violence in Iraq has eased since the carnage of 2006-2007, but attacks still take place on an almost daily basis.
12/31/2012 10:30 AM
Interview with Ahmed RashidL The West Should 'Change Its Approach to Failing States'
Ahmed Rashid, one of the world's foremost experts on Afghanistan, once welcomed US intervention in the failed state. But in a SPIEGEL interview, the Pakistani journalist says the West's model for development is fundamentally flawed and must be changed.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Rashid, in 2014 the West will withdraw from Afghanistan. To what extent have they failed?
Rashid: In my view, the Western model of influencing the development of third world countries is doomed to failure. The West does not understand how to deal with states that no longer have any authority and are threatened by dissolution. Their efforts failed in Iraq as well as Afghanistan. They are simply not capable of promoting the indigenous economy. Neither USAID nor Germany's international technical cooperation agency, the GIZ, are able to get a grip on it. They provide temporary assistance, no more than that. Many billions of dollars flooded into Afghanistan, but without any significant effect.
SPIEGEL: There is rarely a lack of monetary aid in such countries. So why does the Western model fail in building up a country such as Afghanistan?
Rashid: It would be better if the private sector would participate to a larger extent. Dysfunctional states like Afghanistan need business people who are deeply rooted in their country and invest in it. They can add stability. But all development programs of the United States and the European countries unfortunately exclude the private sector, which could make investments based on profitability.
SPIEGEL: Presumably it would also be quite difficult to persuade companies to invest in countries like Afghanistan or Somalia.
Rashid: Yes, I am aware of the challenges. But I am confident that there are hedge funds, banks or investment companies that could allocate five percent of their portfolios for risky investments. In any event, for countries like Afghanistan the formation of an entrepreneurial class is of vital importance.
SPIEGEL: The United States is trying to establish a more peaceful environment prior to the withdrawal of their troops and to initiate talks with the Taliban -- also with limited success.
Rashid: Evidently, the US also isn't capable of mediation. This lesson can be drawn from the failure of the talks with the Taliban in Qatar. Here too it would be better to involve the private sector, such as with respectable organizations that are preferably trusted by both sides. States should limit themselves to facilitating mediation. For example, the International Red Cross has the best contact to the Taliban. The Swedish Committee for Afghanistan has for the past fifteen years managed three hundred schools in an area of Afghanistan that is under Taliban control. The Swedes have to deal with the Taliban on an almost daily basis so the schools can be kept open for boys and girls. This remarkable local initiative could be transformed into a nationwide initiative for dialogue and mediation.
SPIEGEL: What you are proposing is a paradigm shift.
Rashid: Exactly, the West would be well advised to change its approach towards failing states. At present, no major power can find the correct ways and means --and the numbers of failing states are increasing, almost as if there were a race going on. This year we watched the collapse of Mali, a consequence of the Libyan civil war. The south of Libya and Mali, and Niger too, are well on the way to becoming a no-man's land. After 9/11, George W. Bush and Tony Blair made the promise that they would not tolerate failed states because they could become a haven for terrorists. And today? The number increases. Last year it was Yemen, this year it is the southern Sahara.
SPIEGEL: What do you suggest? A military intervention surely can no longer be an alternative.
Rashid: It would have been better if the United Nations had sent a team to Mali right away to mediate between the government and the rebels. But where is the political initiative? The Americans make their usual recommendations. They want to train the army for the fight with the rebels. US special forces are already in Mali.
SPIEGEL: The promise that Bush and Blair made can hardly be kept after the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the near future, the United States can probably not be persuaded to launch military interventions.
Rashid: The United States only knows one form of intervention and that is the military one. Everything depends on drawn weapons. We should, however, develop a wider scope of action. And we should learn to be patient.
SPIEGEL: But did you not welcome the military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001?
Rashid: At that time, I assumed that the Afghans were incapable of dealing with the Taliban. They were exhausted from the civil war, they had suffered defeats, they were economically destitute, the unrest in the country was enormous. They had a famine. India, Pakistan and Iran waged a proxy war in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida supported the Taliban financially, which provided a basis for them. There was no alternative to America's military intervention. Therefore I welcomed it, yes.
SPIEGEL: You have always complained that the United States neglected Afghanistan because of the war in Iraq. What should have been the second step after the occupation?
Rashid: Very simple, economic development. The civil war was over and the Taliban was no longer there. Troops were necessary to guarantee security. To that end, back then the United States stationed 20,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, but that was not enough. And so they left the security to the Afghan warlords. The CIA consulted with them and by doing so destroyed the morale of the Afghans. They hated the warlords.
SPIEGEL: But quite a few billion dollars also went into building up the country. What happened with that money?
Rashid: In 2001 USAID, the American governmental organization for international development that was founded during the Cold War, invited me and several others to give them suggestions on how development should be carried out after 9/11. We told them that in the next 10 years the United States should make $5 billion available for Afghanistan every year -- enough to revitalize the economy, invest in infrastructure and rebuild education and health. A third-world country like Afghanistan could not possibly absorb more than these five billion. Five billion was peanuts back then. Much money came in but it went to the wrong things, such as making payoffs to the warlords. There was insufficient investment in infrastructure until much later, and the same went for building a self-sustaining economy and agriculture. We suggested major investments in agriculture, as Afghanistan happens to be a land of farmers. Until 2010 nothing was allocated. Richard Holbrooke, whom Obama appointed special envoy of the region, was the first who saw the necessity of investing in agriculture.
SPIEGEL: Obama changed quite a few things in his Afghanistan policy. He increased the number of troops and at the same time set the US withdrawal date to 2014. That was America's next mistake.
Rashid: That was the biggest mistake Obama could have made. Now the United States has to ensure that Afghanistan does not immediately collapse after being left to itself in 2014.
SPIEGEL: In your lifetime, you have witnessed the interventions of two super powers. What did the Soviet Union leave behind?
Rashid: The Soviets held to the tradition of colonialism. They raped the country and killed many people. But they also built dams, electrical power plants, streets, and technical schools. They were communists and had the same vision for Afghanistan that Stalin and Lenin had for the Soviet Union: Progress is communism plus electrification. And today? Today Kabul gets its electrical power from Uzbekistan, Herat from Iran and Jalalabad from Pakistan.
SPIEGEL: And what is the West's legacy in Afghanistan?
Rashid: America does not hold to the colonial tradition. America came, liberated Afghanistan from the Taliban and al-Qaida, came to an arrangement with Hamid Karzai, wanted to organize elections as soon as possible and then withdraw. The Bush administration had an obsession with democracy building. They thought that once there is a democracy, everything else will fall into place. If today you speak to the architects of the 2001 Afghanistan Conference in Bonn, they will tell you that instead of being fixated on elections, we should have built a state with an army and a police force first.
SPIEGEL: Even after the withdrawal, some US troops will remain in Afghanistan. How many should stay?
Rashid: The Americans estimate that 15,000 to 20,000 soldiers will fight terrorists from their various bases. That makes me think of Iraq, where the US also wanted to station 20,000 soldiers. The Iraqis encouraged them to leave.
SPIEGEL: Do you think that something similar will happen in Afghanistan?
Rashid: If Afghan soldiers continue to kill American soldiers as is happening these days, it can hardly be assumed that they will stay in Afghanistan in the long term. And what role are they to play? There will not be enough soldiers to ensure the security of the country. But will the US still be permitted to kill terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan with un-manned drones? That could worsen the situation in the neighboring states and they could view Afghanistan as a threat.
SPIEGEL: After 2014, will the Taliban again play a role in Afghanistan, whether the West likes it or not? Is Mullah Omar still the same stone-age Islamist he was 11 years ago?
Rashid: I believe that the Taliban are just as worn out from war as all of the other parties are. Perhaps they realize that they cannot win another civil war, particularly since Iran and India are boosting and protecting their own allies against the Taliban. Therefore, the Taliban cannot defeat the North. Should they aim to conquer the whole country, the world would turn its back on Afghanistan, including the United Nations. Then there would be no more money for Afghanistan, and that also goes for the $4 billion the West promised in Tokyo for the economic build-up. The Taliban would be well advised to come to an agreement with the government in Kabul, because they have the access to the money from the West.
SPIEGEL: But then the Taliban of today would no longer be the Taliban of yesterday.
Rashid: I think they are ready to compromise.
SPIEGEL: You have known Hamid Karzai for decades. What do you think of him today?
Rashid: He is a survivalist. But he has also deepened the ethnic divide in the country. He has neither fought against corruption nor against crime. He has not reformed the justice system. He has personalized his leadership, and in that respect he is similar to his father. During his father's lifetime there was the king, and he negotiated matters with the tribal leaders. Fifty years ago this form of rule was pretty normal, but today that is no longer the case.
SPIEGEL: In 2014 the new president of Afghanistan will be elected. Karzai cannot run again after two terms. Who will be his successor?
Rashid: Someone from his cabinet, someone whom he trusts. In any event it will be a Pashtun. If, however, the fighting in the country still continues in 2014, matters will be difficult. In 2008, Karzai rigged the election in part because a large number of Pashtuns in areas with a lot of fighting going on could not cast their vote. If that dilemma is repeated in 2014, a candidate from the North could win the majority. But Afghanistan is not yet ready for a president who is not a Pashtun. For that reason too, an armed truce in 2014 is important.
SPIEGEL: The emerging world powers India and China border on Afghanistan and Pakistan. What are the opportunities this neighborhood offers to the smaller countries?
Rashid: The neighbors have for many decades been accustomed to exerting control in Afghanistan. But Pakistan, with its fundamentalism, with its multitude of terrorist groups, with its declining economy can hardly be curtailed. The key for any change to this permanent and ever-increasing calamity is the relationship to India. India will not trust Pakistan as long as its secret service and army allow tens of thousands of militants to fight in Kashmir, and as long as it has to anticipate another assassination plot like that in Mumbai in 2008.
SPIEGEL: The next intervention will likely not be military, but economic, and one initiated by China and India. Why not to the advantage of Pakistan?
Rashid: Our elites are spoiled by permanent foreign aid and therefore find it difficult to change course. Pakistan needs someone who stands up and says: Fundamentalism is bad, capitalism is good. This region harbors enormous potential. Pakistan could become the hub for the energy that is transported from Central Asia to South Asia. That could change the whole region. Or, India could invest in Pakistan, build factories and pipelines. Pakistan could provide engineers, drivers, workers, and forge alliances with the neighboring states. Twice the world powers have intervened and Pakistan has tried to play games with them. The third intervention will be economic, and we should participate.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Rashid, thank you for this conversation.
Interview by Gerhard Spörl
December 30, 2012
Afghan Camps Receive Winter Aid, but Officials Say It Isn’t Enough
By ROD NORDLAND
KABUL, Afghanistan — The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on Sunday distributed emergency cold-weather supplies to families in a refugee camp where two days earlier a 3-year-old died of exposure to the freezing temperatures.
But camp leaders and Afghan government officials criticized the aid delivery as inadequate to protect residents from the weather and to prevent more deaths.
Last winter, more than 100 children died of the cold in refugee camps around Kabul, with 26 dying in the Charahi Qambar camp alone. That is the same camp where the 3-year-old died Friday; it was the first confirmed death because of the cold this winter.
The distribution of supplies at the camp, which is home to about 900 families in western Kabul, had been scheduled before news reports about the child’s death, said Mohammad Nader Farhad, a spokesman for the United Nations refugees agency in Kabul.
On less than an hour’s notice, the agency convened a news conference with Afghan government officials at the camp to announce the distribution.
Each family was given warm children’s clothing, blankets, tarps, cooking utensils and soap. Separately, other aid groups, financed by the United Nations and other donors, will be distributing charcoal once every month through February, officials said.
United Nations officials acknowledged, however, that the fuel distributions in themselves were not enough to heat the mud and tarp huts throughout the season, and there were no plans to distribute food to the families. In most cases the men, who are largely war-displaced refugees, are unable to find day work as laborers in the cold weather, so they are usually unable to buy food.
“We are happy to receive this,” said Tawoos Khan, one of the camp representatives. “But we want food, and we need more fuel; we have all run out of firewood and charcoal.” He and other camp officials said large sacks of charcoal were distributed to every family more than two weeks ago, but supplies had run out.
“It’s supplementary,” said Douglas DiSalvo, a protection officer with the United Nations agency who was at the Charahi Qambar camp. “People have some level of support they can achieve for themselves.”
Mr. Farhad said, “The assistance we are providing, at least it is mitigating the harsh winter these families are experiencing right now.”
The estimated 35,000 people in 50 camps in and around Kabul are not classified as refugees from an international legal point of view, but as “internally displaced persons.” Since the United Nations agency’s mandate is to primarily help refugees — defined as those who flee across international borders — it has not provided support to the Kabul camps in the past. That changed late last winter when the Afghan government asked it to do so in response to the conditions that were taking so many lives.
This year, the agency is spearheading the effort to supply the camps, along with the Afghan government’s Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, other United Nations agencies, and several aid groups, in order to prevent a recurrence of the crisis last winter.
Ministry officials, however, criticized the effort on Sunday — even though they were among the sponsors. “We have never claimed that we provided the internally displaced Afghans with sufficient food items, clothing or means of heat. We admit this. What the internally displaced people have received so far is not adequate at all,” said Islamuddin Jurat, a spokesman for the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation.
“Before the arrival of harsh winter,” he added, “we asked the international community and donor countries to help the internally displaced people, and luckily today U.N.H.C.R. provided them with some humanitarian assistance. But again we believe it’s not sufficient at all.”
Both aid officials and the Afghan government have said they are wary about providing too much aid for fear that it would encourage more people to leave their homes. That fear has also been why the Afghan government has refused to allow permanent buildings to be erected in the camps, many of which are five or more years old.
“The illegal nature of these squatter settlements poses an obstacle to more lasting interventions and improvements,” said Mr. Farhad of the United Nations refugees agency. “Coordination this year has been very strong, and we expect that the multiagency effort will help us to detect and respond to particular problem areas as the winter progresses.”
Little is provided in the way of food aid. The only food aid in the Charahi Qambar camp is a hot lunch program for 750 students at a tented school run by Aschiana, an Afghan aid group.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is providing the cold-weather packages to 40,000 families, 5,000 of them in the Kabul camps, at a cost of $6 million. Other Kabul camps will receive distributions in the next two days, Mr. Farhad said.
The packages, which cost about $150 each, include two tarps, three blankets, six bars of soap, a cooking utensils set, and 26 items of clothing ranging from jackets and sweaters to socks and hats, mostly for children.
Taj Mohammad, the father of the child who died, Janan, said Sunday that he believed that his son might have survived if the cold-weather kit had arrived earlier. But like many of the refugees, he was critical of its contents, which he said were hard to sell in exchange for food.
“I didn’t know a package costs $150,” he said. “It’s a lot of money. It would have been much better if they had given us the money, and we would have spent it on what we need the most.”
Central African Republic president 'ready to share power' with rebels
Reuters in Bangui
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 30 December 2012 17.29 GMT
François Bozizé, the embattled president of Central African Republic, has said that he was ready to share power with the leaders of a rebellion that has swept aside government defences to come within striking distance of the capital.
The three-week old onslaught by the rebel alliance, Seleka, has highlighted the instability of the landlocked former French colony, which remains one of the world's least developed nations despite rich deposits of uranium, gold and diamonds. "I am ready to form a government of national unity with Seleka to run the country together, because I am a democrat," Bozizé told a news conference after meeting the African Union chairman, Thomas Yayi Boni, in the capital, Bangui.
Bozizé said he was ready to attend peace talks being organised by regional leaders in Libreville, Gabon, "without condition and without delay".
It was unclear if the offer would defuse the crisis, which has posed the biggest threat to Bozizé during almost 10 years in office.
A spokesman for the rebels said the group would consider Bozizé's offer, but added its aim was not to join the existing government.
"I take note of his proposals. We need to meet to study them," Seleka spokesman Eric Massi told France 24 television. He said the rebels wanted to see what guarantees would be made to them.
"Know that Seleka's aim today is not to enter into a government but to allow the people of Central African Republic to be able to drive the country towards development and self-fulfillment," he said.
Seleka, an alliance of three armed groups, accuses Bozizé of failing to honour a 2007 deal under which members who laid down their guns were meant to be paid. It claims to have a force of more than 3,000 men and to be holding positions within 45 miles of Bangui.
The last time rebels reached Bangui was in 2003 during the insurgency that swept Bozizé to power. Residents have either fled or stockpiled food and water in their homes in preparation for a rebel attack.
"There is a great deal of fear here now, and people are hiding their belongings and seeking safety," said Genael Dongonbo, a student at Bangui University from the northern town of Bambari. "I'd also like to leave, but I have no money and the rebels have already seized my town."
With a government that holds little sway outside the capital, some parts of the country have long endured the consequences of conflicts spilling over from troubled neighbours Chad, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The republic is one of a number of countries in the region where US special forces are helping local counterparts in efforts to track down the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group which has killed thousands of civilians across four nations.
Regional neighbours agreed on Friday to send more troops to shore up CAR's army after a string of defeats this month, after the French president, François Hollande, rejected Bozizé's plea for western military help last week.
The Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) already has more than 500 peacekeepers in the country. Officials did not say how many more would be deployed or when they would arrive.
About 1,200 French nationals live in CAR, mostly working for mining firms and aid groups in the capital. The French defence ministry said Paris had boosted its force in CAR from 250 to nearly 600 troops in recent days, deployed to safeguard French citizens.
December 30, 2012
Japan’s New Leader Endorses Nuclear Plants
By HIROKO TABUCHI
TOKYO — The newly elected prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, said Sunday that he would seek to build nuclear reactors, reversing within a week in office a campaign pledge to move Japan away from nuclear power.
The statement about the reactors came in Mr. Abe’s first televised interview since taking office. During his five days as prime minister, he had hinted that he would take a closer look at nuclear power.
“They will be completely different from those at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant,” he told the national television network TBS. Multiple meltdowns at the plant after an earthquake last year forced more than 100,000 people to flee their homes.
“With public understanding, we will be building anew,” Mr. Abe said.
He did not specify where or when. Building nuclear power plants would depart from the direction of the previous government of Yoshihiko Noda, who had pledged to phase out nuclear power by 2040.
It also appeared to go against a campaign platform adopted by Mr. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party that aims “to establish an economy and society that does not need to rely on nuclear power.” The platform also said Japan would put the development of alternative energy sources, like solar and wind, ahead of nuclear power, and made no mention of new nuclear plants.
Though fervent antinuclear protests across the country have kept all but two of Japan’s 50 reactors off line, Mr. Abe is betting that Japan’s silent majority will condone a return to nuclear to help bolster the economy.
Mr. Abe’s pro-business Liberal Democrats won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections this month, campaigning on promises to take bolder measures to kick-start Japan’s moribund economy. The nation’s biggest business lobby, the Keidanren, has publicly urged the government to restart the nation’s reactors.
Signaling what could be rocky relations with Tokyo’s neighbors, Mr. Abe, who returned as a prime minister after a yearlong stint in 2006-7, also hinted that he may replace or void apologies from 1993 and 1995 for Japan’s having used women as sex slaves during World War II and for past colonial rule and aggression in Asia.
In a separate interview with The Sankei Shimbun, a national daily, he said his previous administration had found no evidence that the women who served as sex slaves to Japan’s wartime military had, in fact, been coerced. The Japanese government will seek to communicate that view, the newspaper quoted Mr. Abe as saying.
A perceived lack of remorse by Japan for its colonial and wartime history has been severely criticized, especially by South Korea and China, which bore the brunt of Japan’s colonial aggressions.
Japan is already embroiled in territorial spats with the two nations, heightening tensions over the past year.
31 December 2012 - 00H23
Merkel steels Germans for 'more difficult' 2013
AFP - Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Germans that the economy, Europe's biggest, would experience a harder time next year than in 2012 and cautioned too that the eurozone debt crisis was far from over.
In her annual New Year address published Monday, Merkel said: "In fact, the economic environment next year will not be easier, but more difficult", adding: "The crisis is a long way from being beaten."
Although top exporter Germany has managed to hold up to the crisis fairly well, growth has slowed here as well since the beginning of the year.
After expanding by 0.5 percent in the first quarter of 2012, gross domestic product (GDP) grew by just 0.3 percent in the second quarter and a mere 0.2 percent in the third quarter.
And in October, the government slashed its forecast for economic output next year to 1.0 percent, compared to 1.6 percent previously anticipated.
The country's gloomy central bank has said Germany may even flirt briefly with recession early next year.
The Bundesbank also forecast that Germany would only grow by a meagre 0.4 percent next year.
Nevertheless, "it has been possible this year to have the lowest unemployment and the highest level of employment since the reunification" in 1990, Merkel recalled.
And a slowdown next year "should not leave us discouraged but should spur us on", said the chancellor, according to the text of her speech released in advance by her office.
Turning to the eurozone's efforts to tackle its three-year debt crisis, she judged that "the reforms that we have decided are beginning to work".
"However, we still need more patience. The crisis is a long way from being overcome."
She appeared more pessimistic than other eurozone leaders such as France's President Francois Hollande or even her own finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, both of whom have declared the worst of the crisis over.
In an interview with mass circulation Bild last week, Schaeuble said: "I think the worst is behind us", citing positive developments in Greece and France.
Hollande has repeatedly said the eurozone crisis, which has at times threatened the very existence of the 17-country currency union, was past.
Merkel also called for better supervision of the financial markets, stressing: "The world has still not sufficiently learnt the lessons of the devastating financial crisis of 2008".
"Never again should such a lack of responsibility assert itself as before. In the social market economy, the state is the guardian of order and people have to be able to have confidence in that," added the chancellor.
31 December 2012 - 12H35
ECB sees more stable eurozone
AFP - The eurozone is more stable than it was this time last year and price pressures are well contained, a senior member of the European Central Bank was quoted as saying on Monday.
In an interview with German daily Der Tagesspiegel, ECB Executive Board member Joerg Asmussen said: "We have no indications at the moment that inflation is rising. On the contrary."
"If we see rising inflationary pressure, we will act. But we do not see that at the moment," added the central banker.
The ECB aims to keep inflation close to but below two percent.
According to the latest data, prices in the 17-country eurozone rose by 2.2 percent in November compared with the previous year, a sharp drop from 2.5 percent in October.
Asmussen appeared optimistic about the state of the eurozone which seemed close to collapse at certain points of 2012.
"The eurozone is without doubt more stable than 12 months ago ... Ireland and Portugal have progressed the most. Both have managed to return gradually to the capital markets," he said.
"Spain has to clean up its banking sector, Greece is back on course," he judged.
Nevertheless, he cautioned that the process of recovering competitiveness in the embattled euro area "would still take years."
31 December 2012 - 12H23
Singapore 'likely in recession' after GDP data
AFP - Singapore likely slipped into recession in the three months to December, analysts told AFP on Monday, as data showed growth in 2012 came in lower than expected.
In his New Year's message, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said "growth was slower this year, at 1.2 percent", which is well off the official growth forecast of 1.5-2.5 percent.
However, CIMB Research economist Song Seng Wun said the figures for the year indicate the economy shrank 3.5 to 4.0 percent quarter on quarter in October-December, which followed a contraction of 5.9 percent in the previous three months.
Two consecutive quarters of contraction point to a technical recession.
"It's basically just the magnitude of (the recession) rather than if," he told AFP.
And Jason Hughes, head of premium client management for IG Markets Singapore, said: "It would seem that the PM's statement of 1.2 percent growth for 2012 would suggest that we've contracted in the fourth quarter which would put us in technical recession territory."
An official breakdown of the data will be released by the trade ministry on Wednesday.
Lee said growth had been hit by weakness in the city-state's key export markets of Europe, which is battling a debt crisis, and the United States and Japan, where economic recovery is sputtering.
"The weak US, European and Japanese economies dampened our growth, but some industries have also had difficulty hiring the workers they need to grow. Next year we expect to grow by 1.0-3.0 percent," he added.
Singapore, widely regarded as a bellwether for Asia's export-driven economies, went through its worst-ever recession during the global financial crisis from the third quarter of 2008 to the second half of 2009.
Unlike its bigger neighbours, however, Singapore is more vulnerable to external trade developments because it has a small domestic base of just over five million residents.
Fiscal cliff deal in peril as Senate negotiations enter standstill
Matt Williams in New York and Rory Carroll
The Guardian, Monday 31 December 2012
America is entering its final day to avert the fiscal cliff, after talks between Senate leaders in Washington broke up with no deal in sight.
Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate majority leader, and Mitch McConnell, who heads the chamber's Republican minority, ended more than a day of on-off talks on Capitol Hill on Sunday without an agreement and with nothing for lawmakers to vote on. It brings closer the prospect that America could plunge off the so-called fiscal cliff at midnight on Monday, triggering swingeing spending cuts and across-the-board tax increases.
Talks are expected to resume but with the clock ticking inexorably towards the new year deadline, few in Washington were optimistic about a deal.
McConnell said no single issue remained an "impossible sticking point" and blamed Democrats for not responding to a Republican offer made on Saturday evening.
He called vice-president Joe Biden, with whom he has worked before, to try to "jump start" negotiations. "I'm still willing to get this done but I need a dance partner."
Reid said the Republicans had a made a good-faith proposal but that the two sides remained apart on some "pretty big issues" and the Democrats could not respond.
"We've been negotiating now for 36 hours or thereabouts. We've been trying … but at this stage we're not able to make a counter-offer."
Republican senators withdrew a demand over a new way of calculating inflation that would have cut social security and other social programmes, but the concession failed to bridge the gap between the two sides.
The deadlock cast gloom over the US just hours after Barack Obama tried to inject hope with a final pitch to Congress to act on the fiscal cliff.
In a rare foray on to the weekly round of political talk shows, the president sought to put the blame for the looming economic crisis firmly at the door of the Republican party, accusing his opponents of having "trouble saying yes" to any proposal put before them.
"They say that their biggest priority is making sure that we deal with the deficit in a serious way, but the way they're behaving is that their only priority is making sure that tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are protected. That seems to be their only overriding, unifying theme," Obama said.
The pointed remarks came as lawmakers in Washington prepared for a rare Sunday session, which convened only to break up hours later with no vote.
Congress has until midnight on Monday to find a solution to the current fiasco. That deadline will automatically trigger a series of fiscal measures that experts have said could plunge the US back into a recession
If no deal is done, 88% of Americans will see their taxes rise on 1 January, a wave of deep spending cuts will start to take effect, and 2 million long-term unemployed people will lose their benefits.
The task of reaching a compromise had fallen on Reid and McConnell. Both men were summoned to the White House on Friday, alongside House speaker John Boehner and minority leader Nancy Pelosi. Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner was also in attendance.
After that meeting, Obama said he remained "modestly optimistic" that a deal could be achieved.
But since then there has been no firm indication that a grand compromise was indeed obtainable.
"I was modestly optimistic yesterday, but we don't yet see an agreement. And now the pressure's on Congress to produce," Obama told NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday, ahead of news that the talks had indeed broken down.
Boehner responded saying Americans elected the president to lead, not cast blame. "The president's comments today are ironic, as a recurring theme of our negotiations was his unwillingness to agree to anything that would require him to stand up to his own party," Boehner said. "We've been reasonable and responsible. The president is the one who has never been able to get to 'yes'."
Reid and McConnell had been tasked with coming up with a solution by 3pm Sunday. But little more than an hour until that deadline, both men took to the Senate floor to announce that both side's position remained far apart.
The main sticking point has been the threshold for raising income taxes on households with upper-level earnings.
Obama wants all earners of $250,000 a year and above to shoulder a greater tax burden. Analysts believe that any deal could be anchored on raising taxes for households earning more than $400,000 or $500,000 a year.
But many Republicans in the House have indicated that they will vote against any increase in tax.
Not only could this scupper the chances of a grand deal, it could also see the blocking of the White House's back-up plan to avert the fiscal cliff.
Obama has indicated that if Reid and McConnell fail to produce an agreement by the end of Sunday, he will strong-arm Congress into a vote on scaled-back measures that would avert the immediate cost of America heading over the fiscal cliff.
That simple "up-or-down vote on a basic package" would stop tax hikes for middle-income Americans, while "laying the groundwork for future progress on more economic growth and deficit reduction", Obama said on Saturday.
But even that may have difficulty passing through the House, given the entrenched position of some Tea Party-backed Republicans.
Obama appeared to prepare for that eventuality on Sunday.
"If all else fails, if Republicans do in fact decide to block it, so that taxes on middle-class families do in fact go up on 1 January, then we'll come back with a new Congress on 4 January and the first bill that will be introduced on the floor will be to cut taxes on middle-class families," he said.
But he warned that missing the deadline would still result in "adverse reaction in the markets" and would "hurt our economy badly".
Obama renews call to Senate leaders to reach fiscal cliff deal
Matt Williams in New York
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 29 December 2012 17.02 GMT
Senate leaders were engaged in last-ditch efforts to secure a fiscal cliff deal Saturday, as President Barack Obama prepared to strong-arm Congress into an up-or-down vote on a back-up plan to avert the looming economic crisis.
With just two days to go until a year-end deadline triggers a series of damaging spending cuts and tax increases for nearly all Americans, the president used his weekly radio address to again urge action in Washington.
"Leaders in Congress are working on a way to prevent this tax hike on the middle class, and I believe we may be able to reach an agreement that can pass both houses in time," Obama said.
It echoed comments made after a crisis meeting in the White House on Friday in which the president said he remained "modestly optimistic".
But failing any agreement, the White House is putting into motion plans to force a vote in Congress on scaled-back measures that would avert the immediate impact of heading over the fiscal cliff.
That "up-or-down vote on a basic package" would stop tax hikes for middle-income Americans, while "laying the groundwork for future progress on more economic growth and deficit reduction", Obama said Saturday.
The president has repeatedly said that he believes the stop-gap measure would clear both houses. But he made it clear that if the emergency measures failed to pass through Congress, then the blame would lie with obstructionists in the Senate and House of Representatives.
"If they still want to vote no, and let this tax hike hit the middle class, that's their prerogative – but they should let everyone vote," he said during Saturday's address.
By threatening to force a vote, the White House is putting pressure on the leaders of both sides in Congress to find a compromise by the end of the weekend at the latest. On Sunday, the House of Representatives will reconvene. House speaker John Boehner has warned colleagues to expect to work through the New Year.
The two men tasked with coming up with a deal are Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate majority leader, and Mitch McConnell, who heads the Senate's Republican minority.
Both men were summoned by Obama to a White House meeting on the fiscal cliff crisis on Friday, alongside Boehner and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. Treasury secretary Tim Geithner was also in attendance.
Both sides emerged after an hour and 15 minutes of talks with no deal, but in an apparent mood to work on a solution.
McConnell said he was "hopeful and optimistic". Obama said the meeting had been "good and constructive".
But in comments that displayed his frustration at Washington's continued brinkmanship over fiscal and budget-related deadlines, he added: "This is déjà vu all over again."
He also warned: "The American people are watching what we do here. Obviously their patience is already thin." Further pressure for a deal is expected to be exerted by the president on Sunday, when he will make his case during an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press.
If no deal is done, 88% of Americans will see their taxes rise on January 1, a wave of deep spending cuts will start to take effect, and 2 million long-term unemployed people will lose their benefits.
The main sticking point appears to be the threshold for raising income taxes on households with upper-level earnings.
Obama's initial plan was for all earners of $250,000 a year and above to shoulder a greater burden. Meanwhile, many Republicans in the House have indicated that they will vote against any increase in tax. Analysts believe that any deal could be anchored on raising taxes for households earning more than $400,000 or $500,000 a year, but it remains to be seen if such a compromise could win the backing of both houses.
"Whatever we come up with is going to be imperfect. Some people aren't going to like it, some people will like it less," Reid said on Friday.
Fiscal cliff reality check: what's really the worst thing that could happen?
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 29 December 2012 17.02 GMT
Who's afraid of the big, bad fiscal cliff? The obvious answer to that question is the White House, the Business Roundtable and the Federal Reserve – and really, not many others outside the Beltway.
Economists including Dean Baker and Paul Krugman say that going over the cliff will not be so bad, given that we have weeks, if not months, to repair any economic damage.
The Business Roundtable, which represents the CEOs of major US companies, counters that the fiscal cliff will hurt the meager economic progress we have made in the past year – and in fact, has hurt it already – and should be avoided at all costs.
In the middle of the debate are numerous numbers, statistics, benchmarks and calculations that have been hoisted in front of the public eye as proof – indubitable proof – that the fiscal cliff is destroying the economy.
It turns out, however, that many of those damning numbers that prove the evil of the fiscal cliff are not, actually, so damning. Don't get us wrong: going over the fiscal cliff is not good, and there is strong consensus that damage is surely to come. There's also no good reason for Congress's theatrical refusal to end a fight that they themselves picked.
In the interest of playing devil's advocates – and just plain old reality-checking – we look at a few benchmarks that are supposed to prove that the fiscal cliff is the worst thing that has ever happened to America. Still, truth is one thing and hysteria is another. Here is some context that the 10 Americans paying attention to the fiscal cliff might find handy.
The stock market and corporate America are suffering because of the fiscal cliff
The stock market, as measured by the S&P 500, is up 17% overall this year, according to Barclays. If that's painful, there are plenty of investors willing to take more of it.
There is also the complaint that the S&P has been flat since the election. Many have blamed that on the fears of the fiscal cliff. David Kotok, with Cumberland Advisors, doesn't buy it. He blames the flatness in the S&P on the drop in the value of Apple stock. Apple accounts for about 4.9% of the S&P 500 index. That was great when Apple stock was rocketing upwards to $700 a share in September, but now Apple has been steadily and steeply falling in value since, and now trades at $512 a share. Kotok believes Apple's fall is what's causing the dip in the S&P. He points other other S&P indexes that have risen since the election, and aren't weighed down by Apple: the MidCap 400 Index, the S&P 600 SmallCap Index, and Guggenheim's Equal Weight 500.
Another reason the stock market is not suffering (yet) is the strong impression that the market now expects Washington to be incompetent, and it certainly doesn't expect any kind of answer to the fiscal cliff until the last possible minute, if that. As such, most fiscal cliff theatrics are being met with stock-market yawns. Peter Tchir, of TF Market Advisors, noted to his clients Wednesday: "Two weeks ago, news that the president was returning early to work on cliff deal would have sparked a 20-point move in the S&P 500. [Today] it didn't." The reason, in part? "Recent events have eroded what confidence was left in government, making any meaningful long term progress highly unlikely."
Corporate earnings have not been so hot, it's true. But that is unlikely to be a pure fiscal cliff issue; remember that the US is experiencing slow economic growth and not much demand. If you have to look to Washington, consider that for most of the year, a bitter election kept many companies on the sidelines, unsure of whether Obama or Romney would win.
Whatever uncertainty exists, it has not hurt the ability of companies to borrow money, which is important because would you lend money to anyone you suspect wouldn't be able to pay it back? You would not. Investors who buy bonds think exactly the same way: they only like to buy bonds when they're sure they're going to get paid back. It's significant that, even in the face of the fiscal cliff, investors are supporting US companies. Last week – in a slow week allegedly plagued by fiscal cliff fears – US companies sold $13bn of bonds and all are performing well, according to research by Jody Lurie of Janney Montgomery Scott. If investors were truly worried about the effect of the fiscal cliff on corporate earnings in the next few weeks, they would not be buying the bonds of big US companies.
Nor have shareholders suffered unduly. Barclays noted that companies in the S&P 500 paid shareholders big dividends; in fact, Barclays says, those S&P dividends are on pace for the highest year-over-year since the 1950s.
Holiday retail sales are suffering because of the fiscal cliff
A damning Associated Press headline announced "US holiday retail sales growth weakest since 2008." That sure sounds recessionary. But a deeper dive into the story shows an omnibus of potential reasons: hurricane Sandy, the presidential election, the shootings in Newtown, and, of course, the fiscal cliff. There are a few problems with this satchel of excuses, not the least the idea that people stop shopping at times of distant school shootings. Most important, however, is this: when theories for an economic change are lined up like little soldiers, there is obvious ambiguity that the fiscal cliff is the most to blame.
In fact, the most likely reason for the drop in holiday retail sales is simply this: the Thanksgiving shopping week, including Black Friday and Cyber Monday, were huge. Black Friday sales were up both online and in retail stores, where millions more shoppers packed stores than they did in 2011; Comscore also said that Cyber Monday set a new record as the biggest online spending day in history, with consumers dropping $1.46bn on consumer goods. Consumers spent more than $1bn on both Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
Consumer experts know that when you have a big Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the rest of the holiday spending tends to be soft. Consumers, after all, don't have unlimited funds to keep spending for weeks and weeks on end. It's also likely that much of the holiday shopping haul – paid for with credit cards – will take a while for consumers to pay down. Currently, consumers are buying themselves financial breathing room by delaying their debt payments, according to the Wall Street Journal. The paper noted today that "US households spent 10.6% of their after-tax income on debt payments in the third quarter of the year, the lowest level since 1983." New holiday shopping bills are likely to pile on top of old debts, indicating that consumers probably won't spend much in any case for the next few months – fiscal cliff or not.
Also, let's be clear: a minority of Americans even understand what the fiscal cliff is, and according to Gallup, only around a third of Americans are watching the negotiations very closely.
The fiscal cliff has already subtly wrecked the economy
This is one of the most compelling arguments against letting the US go over the fiscal cliff. It all hinges on "Because Ben Bernanke said so" – and indeed, the august chairman of the Federal Reserve did indeed say that not only is the fiscal cliff a big risk to the economy, but that we're already suffering from it.
But the economy, in fact, is not doing so badly. Inflation is under control. Gas prices – which have an enormous impact on household finances – are actually dropping. Unemployment seems to be improving, albeit at an excruciatingly slow pace. Manufacturing is solid, as is consumption and personal income. Housing is rebounding. Robert Johnson, an analyst with Morningstar, judged some of the economic data and concluded that not only is the fiscal cliff not hurting progress, but that the economic numbers "[look] almost a little too good to be true".
Sentiment measures – especially among small businesses – are not so hot. Still, if you remember how few Americans understand the fiscal cliff, you'll see why ignorance, in this case, has led to relative economic bliss.
Could we be growing faster? Perhaps. Still, there is no evidence that the economy has been backsliding; all the evidence so far indicates that the economy is getting back on its feet, no matter how incompetently Congress has handled this vote.
The only proper answer to the allegation that the fiscal cliff is "destroying" the economy is the baffled comment of Inigo Montoya, the vengeful Spaniard from The Princess Bride: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
The fiscal cliff is the greatest looming threat to the US economy right now
Unfortunately, the fiscal cliff is just one of the major economic disasters we're facing, and it's a distant, distant third. By consensus, the effect of the fiscal cliff on the economy will be slow and agonizing. But other crises are facing the US with more immediate impact.
The biggest economic crisis America is likely to face soon is the threat of a strike by longshoremen, which could shut down America's major ports. The last time that happened, it cost the US economy $1bn a day. A week ago, talks broke down between the International Longshoremen's Association and the US Maritime Alliance Ltd. The ILA represents around 15,000 dockworkers and the Maritime Alliance represents the management at 14 of the biggest US ports, including Boston, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Savannah, New Orleans, and Houston.
The longshoremen's contract expires on Friday, and a strike would begin on Saturday. The issue is so major that the National Retail Federation joined 100 other associations – including the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, American Apparel & Footwear Association, American Farm Bureau Federation, National Association of Manufacturers, National Retail Federation, Toy Industry Association and the US Chamber of Commerce – to send a letter to the president on Wednesday pleading for White House intervention.
A strike at those 14 ports would mean a widespread economic impact in the United States, since millions of jobs depend on what comes through the ports. Everything from agriculture to consumer goods could either be delayed or become more expensive as shippers look for different ways to get their goods into the US. The combined impact of a strike would be enormous; the University of Georgia has estimated that Georgia's ports alone account for nearly $40bn in the state economy. A port strike would also hit employment very hard, as jobs would be lost – perhaps temporarily, perhaps not – for not only dockworkers, but also potentially every kind of worker who depends on shipped goods for their jobs.
The second biggest issue facing the economy in coming days is that of the debt ceiling. It is poised to be resurrected as a horrible sequel in the economic spotlight – sort of like Weekend at Bernie's 2, in which two men use a corpse, revived by voodoo, to locate lost treasure; the plot involves magic, goats and sacrificial blood, which, in this case, could be a metaphor for the finances of taxpayers (the metaphors run deeper on further inspection, but would take us away from our primary mission).
In any case, savvy American readers will remember this pointless debt tussle from its first incarnation in the summer of 2011. Currently, the debt limit is set at $16.39tn; the Treasury has already borrowed $16.31tn; the Treasury estimates it will be less than 10 days before the US crashes into the debt ceiling again. The last time that happened, ratings firms issued the US its first-ever downgrade in its debt, which is akin to a consumer getting notched on his credit score. The effect the last time was minimal, because the US is still better at managing its money than, say, the eurozone; it's dubious, however, whether the US can take strike two.
Romania: Lifting the Lid
We investigate whether the much-feared communist-era Securitate still controls the country from the shadows.
By Glenn Ellis
Al Jazerra: People and Power
It has been quite a year in Romania with the resignation of two prime ministers and near-impeachment of a president. This coupled with nationwide riots and a growing sense of injustice means that next month's parliamentary elections will be the most bitterly contested for decades.
The power struggle between Traian Basescu, the right-wing president, and Victor Ponta, the left-wing prime minister, has grabbed all the headlines, but the story behind this struggle stretches back to Romania's communist past – and to the very moment when a firing squad put an end to Nicolai Ceausescu, Europe's last Stalinist dictator.
On Christmas day 1989, in a barracks outside Bucharest, Captain Dan Vionea, a young military prosecutor, was told by his superiors to prepare a case. When he asked the name of the accused, he was told 'Nicolai Ceausescu'.
The Berlin Wall had just fallen and communist regimes were toppling like dominoes across Eastern Europe, but not Romania. Here Ceausescu's fearsome secret police, the Securitate, maintained a ruthless grip on power. Ordinary Romanians took to the streets. Thousands were killed or injured.
Ceausescu fled by helicopter while the capital erupted in bloodshed. But the Ceausescus were captured and the young captain found himself face to face with the dictator.
Vionea was ordered to write an indictment by hand and read the charges. He was shocked to find that no evidence was submitted and there were no witnesses.
Within an hour, Ceausescu and his wife Elena were sentenced to death and shot. The outside world hailed it as a triumph over the regime and its feared secret police, but Voinea begs to differ.
I met Voinea, now a retired general, at the barracks where the dictator and his wife were gunned down. He took me to a wall riddled with bullet holes.
"They did not think it would be a good idea to give Ceausescu a proper trial," he says. "Because other crimes of the communist regime would come out. So they killed him to save themselves and then spread the idea that the people killed Ceausecu. In this way the communists remained in power, even after the revolution."
The general's sense of injustice is palpable as we walk through the grounds of the now defunct barracks.
"In the revolution there were 8,000 victims, dead, wounded and arrested," he says. "And from these 8,000 not a single party activist."
One man who shares the general's view is historian and poet, Marius Oprea, Romania's leading expert on the Securitate.
I encountered Oprea in the magnificent baroque city of Cluj in central Transylvania at the county morgue. His team of volunteers were bent over a skeleton on a slab, piecing together the last moments of a young life tragically cut short during the communist terror.
Even now no one knows how many people were killed by the Securitate. Five years ago Oprea created the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes winning the support of President Basescu. But when he began exhuming the bodies of Securitate victims from unmarked graves and demanding justice, Basescu, fearful of what he was finding, sacked him from the organisation he had founded.
"I trusted him to clean up the country from the communists and Securitate," says Oprea. "But he put them back in power and he even threw me out of my job."
Oprea's search for Romania's missing has taken him the length and breadth of the country. But telling the truth here is risky. Oprea now has many enemies and like General Voinea, he receives death threats.
There is a sense that the old guard are simply untouchable.
"I've never seen anyone from the Securitate condemned in a court for their crimes," Oprea says, "even if it is proved. In Romania this does not happen."
From Cluj I headed west, through rolling hills and scattered farmsteads - and landscape scarcely touched by the 20th century - to meet the man credited with starting the revolution that brought an end to communism in Romania.
Laszlo Tokes went on to become a significant political figure and was until recently, vice president of the European parliament.
But back in communist times, he was a humble priest risking everything by preaching democracy and liberty from his pulpit in the city of Timisoara – tantamount to signing your own death warrant in what was easily Europe's most brutal dictatorship.
The Securitate tried everything to silence him including a botched assassination attempt. When this failed, they decided to evict him from his church. But Tokes's parishioners formed a human chain around the building.
"They stopped the whole process of eviction ..." Tokes tells me, almost overcome with emotion, "and a spontaneous revolt changed into an anti-communist demonstration and in some hours started a general uprising against the whole regime."
It was a pivotal moment. Tokes's defiance lit the touch paper that spread the revolution from Timisoara to the rest of Romania.
Nevertheless, many wonder how much things have really changed in the intervening years.
"The final victory over communism has not yet arrived." Tokes insists, pointing to the fact that many of the regimes most notorious criminals are still at liberty.
The Securitate officer responsible for the ruthless treatment of Tokes and his family is Major Radu Tinu, who agreed to meet me at his dacha in the mountains outside Timisoara.
Tinu has done well for himself in the years since and exudes an air of confidence and swagger as he pours me a plum brandy on his terrace.
"No one I knew ever objected to what I did," he says abour Tokes. "Many said: Why didn't you smash his head when you had the chance?"
Amongst Tinu's other victims was Nobel Laureate Herta Muller. Muller's chilling novels graphically depict the terror of life in Ceausescu's Romania. But Tinu is not a fan of her work.
"If she'd won the Nobel Peace Prize I would understand, but for literature ... please!"
A communist flag still flies on Tinu's garden. As I leave, his mobile phone rings with the theme from The Godfather. Though it is almost comical, I have to remind myself that Tinu was a senior figure in a brutal regime that imprisoned, tortured and killed its opponents.
Back in Bucharest, I visited the National Council for Studying Securitate Archives where Germina Nagat, the chief investigator showed me around.
She has spent 10 years sifting through the archive looking for evidence of human rights abuses. It is a massive task.
Files were kept on virtually everyone with the sole purpose of blackmail - an immense dossier to control the population. If laid end to end the documents would stretch for 24km.
As we wander through the shelves, Nagat picks a file at random and opens the cover. It is packed with secret photographs, stolen letters and personal mementos -the guiltless details of an innocent life, pored over endlessly by the Securitate.
It is one of five volumes kept on a young man from the 1950s until his death in the 1980s. Putting it back Nagat turns to me, "All this ... ," she says, gesturing to the endless rows of documents, "and for what?"
"It's not easy to understand from a human point of view," she goes on. "It's tragic ... it's monstrous. The details are more often than not monstrosities.
It's very hard to accept that it's a real story - that's what everybody from outside keeps telling us: 'well I can't believe this, it's not possible'. It was possible and it happened."
After the fall of Ceausescu, the files remained in the hands of the new secret police, the SRI, who were made up almost entirely of former Securitate officers.
Many files had been destroyed, including that of Basescu, the current president.
It took eighteen years before they were finally opened to the public and even then under pressure from the EU. Nagat has sent over a thousand cases to the prosecutor general, but to date no one has been convicted, not least, she says, because the judicial system remains riddled with former Securitate officers.
"If you see the list of persons we sent to the court," she tells me, "you will see some of the names on the list are Securitate officers in the judicial system. They were assimilated immediately after the revolution, some of them, so they are still active of course - it's very simple."
A stone's throw from Nagat's office lies the People's Parliament, the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon.
It is Ceausescu's absurd folly at the heart of Bucharest. Hundreds of historic buildings were torn down to create this ugly colossus, the construction of which virtually bankrupted Romania. Bucharest was once considered the Paris of the East, but not anymore.
In a park opposite, I had arranged to meet Constantin Bucour, a Securitate captain who was assimilated into the SRI, but was thrown out a few years ago after revealing the scale of state surveillance in post- communist Romania. According to Bucour it has actually increased.
"The phone calls of politicians and journalists are intercepted," he says.
"Actually it could be that all of us are intercepted. The president gives an order, then we will be intercepted, it doesn't matter. The people already accept this - they say it doesn't matter as well. Nobody thinks that this is repression of human rights. To intercept your phone means getting into your house, into the intimacy of your family, of your relationships. It's something very ugly."
When I press him further about President Basescu, he makes a startling accusation.
"From my point of view, I'm convinced that Traian Basescu was an undercover officer of the Securitate. A lot of archives have disappeared - but the people they didn't disappear and he had several different contact officers - so it means a lot of people know about his activity. Some of them were bribed and they are silent now. But others speak."
Not surprisingly, President Basescu denies any links to the Securitate, but it is a sobering thought.
My next appointment is with Stelian Tanase, one of Romania's leading writers.
During communism, Tanases' books were banned and he suffered badly at the hands of the Securitate. But even now Tanase, like many of the regime's current political opponents, says he is shadowed and his phone calls are monitored.
"They want to control and to know everything about us ..." he says, "my private life, my manuscripts, my friends, my relatives. They're details of our lives, but if they want to be in control then that means to have details about me - information to blackmail me, to threaten me."
I ask Tanase to describe the pervasive nature of the Securitate in Romania today.
"Eighty per cent of rich Romanian people come from the Securitate structures. If you read Forbes or Capitol, they publish every year the list with the richest people in Romania. You can take it name by name and you could discover very easily their connection with the Securitate."
And what about the president? I ask him.
"I think he was very connected with the Securitate. If you ask Romanian journalists they say the same thing. He is an officer - he is like Putin. You know this structure of a communist state? He came from there. He started his career very supported by the secret structures.
"We have an appearance of democracy, we have a constitution, we have unions, a free press, parties, election, we have everything - but it's only a façade. You know this concept: 'facade democracy' like in South America? Romania is a South American democracy - it's a half democracy half dictatorship."
Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xiuM4VoCi3I
12/31/2012 01:19 PM
Picking on the Weakest: Religious Leaders Condemn Putin's Adoption Ban
By Matthias Schepp in Moscow
Last week the Kremlin moved to ban American adoptions of children from Russian orphanages. The new law, widely perceived as retaliation against a US rule that can bar Russians responsible for human rights violations from entering the country, could mean bleaker prospects for up to 130,000 children.
The business daily Vedomosti, one of Russia's most reputable newspapers, named the most important people of 2012 in its New Year's edition. They included the new Georgian prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who was named the most impressive politician of the year, while the political activists with the punk bank Pussy Riot were dubbed "cultural heroes."
Next to them on the cover page is a photo of a smiling, blond-haired boy with blue eyes: Dima Yakovlev, the "victim of the year."
In fact, Dima had already died in July 2008, when the then two-year-old boy suffocated after being locked in a car on a swelteringly hot day. His American adoptive father had simply forgotten about the boy. Russians were outraged when an American court later acquitted the man of involuntary manslaughter.
But now little Dima, the journalists at Vedomosti wrote, was being killed a second time, in a manner of speaking, "as a child victim and against every Christian moral" -- this time by the members of the Russian parliament and President Vladimir Putin.
On Friday, President Putin signed a bill named after Dima Yakovlev into law. The new legislation, which bars American citizens from adopting children from Russia, is an act of revenge straight out of the pages of the Cold War.
It was preceded by the United States enacting the so-called Magnitsky Law, under which people responsible for human rights violations in Russia can be barred entry into the United States, and their accounts can be frozen. The law is named after Sergei Magnitsky, an attorney who was tortured to death in a Moscow prison in 2009. The law bars about 60 Russian officials allegedly responsible for Magnitsky's fate from entering the United States.
US President Barack Obama hesitated for a long time before signing the bill. His diplomats knew that Moscow would not accept the intervention into its internal affairs without striking back. But few in Washington had expected this response from the Kremlin.
Putin could have made it more difficult for the Americans to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan, because much of the operation passes through Russian territory. He could have ordered fewer Boeing wide-bodied aircraft or called for a boycott of iPhones or Coca-Cola.
Decisions that Affect Children
Instead, the man who likes to portray himself as a macho leader decided to use the weakest of the weak as pawns: the 130,000 children living in more than 2,000 Russian orphanages. Americans have adopted more than 60,000 Russian children since 1991, and hundreds also find new homes in other Western countries every year.
But Putin, who signed the bill against the advice of his foreign minister and his minister of social affairs, is also harming himself with the ban on US adoptions. Even die-hard America haters like top TV pundit Mikhail Leontyev are critical of the law. Putin also faces criticism from the Orthodox Church, which is normally submissive to the Kremlin. "We cannot accept the fact that decisions that affect children are being made on the basis of broader political considerations," said the Bishop of Smolensk.
More than 100,000 Russians had signed a petition against the law within a few days. Putin critics on the Internet even likened the Kremlin leader to King Herod in the New Testament, a child murderer.
The conditions in some Russian orphanages are still bad, although they have improved since the 1990s. This summer, 27 children died of malnutrition in an orphanage near the Siberian city of Kemerovo.
"The worst thing of all is the complete isolation of orphanage children from the outside world," concludes the Here and Now Foundation, a Moscow-based child aid organization. Besides, foreigners often adopt the children no one in Russia wants, in other words, those who will never stand a chance of being adopted now. Putin's signature last week also stopped 46 pending adoptions; the children in some of the cases are reportedly disabled.
Another aid organization has studied what happens to the 15,000 children who are discharged from orphanages each year. It concluded that 40 percent become criminals, and that one in five become homeless.
These numbers hold a mirror up to a society in which the gap between rich and poor uproots people, and in which growing affluence leads to growing egoism. The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) estimates that nine out of 10 children in Russian orphanages become so-called social orphans, which means that they still have at least one biological parent, but are cast out because of poverty or convenience.'
Instead of addressing these ills, the Russian parliament, the Duma, under pressure from the Kremlin, voted almost unanimously for the Dima Yakovlev Law. A member with the social democratic-oriented A Just Russia party even suggested that one in six Russian children adopted by Americans is sexually abused or used for organ transplants.
"Even if one-tenth of (60,000) orphans will be tortured, used for organs transplanting or for sexual exploitation, given that there are 9 million same-sex marriages in the United States, the remaining 50,000 may be used in the future to be recruited for war, maybe even with Russia," said Svetland Goryacheva, a member of the State Duma.
It's the kind of tirade, Kremlin critic Viktor Davidov wrote, that "Stalin would have enjoyed."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
The world prepares to ring 2013 in with a bang
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, December 31, 2012 8:00 EST
Sydney will Monday kick off a wave of dazzling firework displays welcoming in 2013 from Dubai to Paris and London, with long-isolated Yangon joining the global pyrotechnics for the first time.
Australia’s famous harbour city will usher in the New Year with a Aus$6.6 (US$6.9) million display curated by pop icon Kylie Minogue who designed the colour scheme and soundtrack.
“Sydney’s New Year’s Eve celebrations are world-famous and reach over a billion people — not just because we have the first major display for 2013, but because it’s the best,” said the city’s lord mayor Clover Moore.
City officials are expecting more than 1.5 million people to crowd the waterfront to watch the seven tonnes of fireworks go up, including crackers launched from jet-skis and a show-stopping finale on the Harbour Bridge.
This year sees an interactive twist with smartphone users able to download an app which will colour their screens. Held aloft, en masse, the devices will create their own show along the shore.
Major fireworks will light up the Thames in London, Moscow’s Red Square and Kremlin, the Eiffel Tower in Paris and Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour, as well as central Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, Stockholm, Amsterdam and cities across China.
Revellers in New York will celebrate the stroke of midnight with the traditional New Year’s Eve ball drop over Times Square.
In Rio de Janeiro, authorities have promised a bumper 16-minute, 24-tonne display opposite Copacabana Beach and fireworks will cap a mammoth party at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate featuring the Pet Shop Boys, Bonnie Tyler and Blue.
Vying to become a permanent fixture on the planetary map of New Year celebrations, the Gulf city state of Dubai is planning a lavish gala at the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.
Fireworks will engulf the spike-like tower, accompanied by a soundtrack performed live by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.
Some 50,000 people are also expected to flock to the revered golden Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon for the Myanmar capital’s first public countdown with fireworks, seen as further evidence of opening up after decades of junta rule.
Organisers had to campaign for months to get permission for the event from the military regime, which has embarked on dramatic reforms since President Thein Sein took office last year.
Hundreds of political prisoners have been released and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to parliament after almost two decades of house arrest.
In regions devastated by Typhoon Bopha which hit the southern Philippines in early December killing at least 1,067 people, many survivors said food, work and permanent shelter topped their priorities for the New Year.
Authorities in the capital Manila are bracing for the annual rush of injuries as families celebrate with do-it-yourself firework displays and shoot celebratory bullets into the air. Hospitals were put on high alert.
Some 171 Filipinos have already been wounded since the Christmas weekend including one poisoned after eating a firework.
Seoul will usher in 2013 with a ritual ringing of the city’s 15th-century bronze bell 33 times, reflecting the ancient practice of marking a new year.
Elsewhere in the South Korean capital, including the glitzy Gangnam district made famous by YouTube sensation Psy, there will be fireworks, concerts and street parties. Psy himself will be performing in New York.
Millions of well-wishers will visit temples and shrines in Japan for “ninen-mairi” two-year prayers and gather at family homes to feast on soba noodles and watch the New Year variety show “Kohaku Uta Gassen” or the Red and White Song Contest.
Up to 40 percent of Japan’s TV audience watch the four-hour programme, which features established acts and J-Pop stars.
Popular South Korean performers were left out of this year’s line-up amid territorial frictions with Seoul, though taxpayer-funded broadcaster NHK insisted politics had played no part in the selection of performers.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]