In the USA...
Ted Cruz Demonstrates Texans Will Elect Anyone, No Matter How Stupid, If He’s A Republican
By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, February 25, 2013 10:46 EST
Being from Texas, I can tell you that nothing embarrasses me more about the state than the way that, at least in statewide elections, the voters will elect anyone with the (R) by their name on the ballot, no matter how much of an imbecile that person is. That is being demonstrated in spades by the election of Ted Cruz to the Senate, a man who cannot open his mouth without causing the most ardent “Texas Forver” folks like myself to wonder if we should start excising “y’all” from our vocabulary. The latest revelation:
Two and a half years ago, Cruz gave a stem-winder of a speech at a Fourth of July weekend political rally in Austin, Texas, in which he accused the Harvard Law School of harboring a dozen Communists on its faculty when he studied there. Cruz attended Harvard Law School from 1992 until 1995. His spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request to discuss the speech.
Cruz made the accusation while speaking to a rapt ballroom audience during a luncheon at a conference called “Defending the American Dream,” sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, a non-profit political organization founded and funded in part by the billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch. Cruz greeted the audience jovially, but soon launched an impassioned attack on President Obama, whom he described as “the most radical” President “ever to occupy the Oval Office.” (I was covering the conference and kept the notes.)
He then went on to assert that Obama, who attended Harvard Law School four years ahead of him, “would have made a perfect president of Harvard Law School.” The reason, said Cruz, was that, “There were fewer declared Republicans in the faculty when we were there than Communists! There was one Republican. But there were twelve who would say they were Marxists who believed in the Communists overthrowing the United States government.”
So, great. Texas elected the new Joe McCarthy, except—and this is a critical point—even more of an idiot than McCarthy. After all, when McCarthy was around, we actually were in conflict with the Soviet Union. McCarthy was battling phantoms, but Cruz is battling phantoms from the past. And he’s from Texas.
I recommend next that the Texas Republicans, as an experiment, run a mummified dog turd in a tie next for statewide office, to see if it would win. Except that it’s not much of an experiment, because it totally would.
Italy votes against austerity leaving EU in turmoil
Fears that deadlock will lengthen Italy's two-year recession and spill over into rest of the eurozone hit markets across Europe
Ian Traynor in Brussels, John Hooper in Rome and Phillip Inman
The Guardian, Wednesday 27 February 2013
Three years of German-led austerity and budget cuts aimed at saving the euro and retooling the European economy was left facing one of its biggest challenges as Italian voters' rejection of spending cuts and tax rises opened up a stark new fissure in European politics.
The governing stalemate in Rome and the vote in the general election – by a factor of three to two – against the austerity policies pursued by Italy's humiliated caretaker prime minister, Mario Monti, meant that the spending cuts and tax rises dictated by the eurozone would grind to a halt, risking a re-eruption of the euro crisis after six months of relative stability.
Fears that the deadlock will lengthen Italy's near two-year recession and spill over into the rest of the eurozone hit markets across Europe. The Italian banking sector fell 7% in value, dragging the main MIB stock market index 4% lower.
The market turmoil in Milan spread to Germany, France and the UK, with domestic banks among the biggest fallers. Deutsche Bank saw almost 5% knocked off its value, while Barclays suffered a 4% decline. The FTSE 100 fell 1.4%. The German Dax slumped more than 2% and the Paris Cac was down 2.75%.
The cliffhanger vote saw the maverick comedian Beppe Grillo's 5 Star movement take almost one in four of the votes and the political revival of the ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. But the narrow victor, Pier Luigi Bersani, on the centre-left, claimed the mantle of the premiership, although it was unclear if he would be able to form a government.
Despite the withering popular verdict on cuts and taxes, Brussels and Berlin insisted the austerity programme had to be continued in Italy. France and others seized on the outcome for their own purposes, arguing for a relaxation of spending cuts and greater emphasis on policies to boost growth and job creation.
Bersani moved to try to cobble a government together by wooing the upstart Grillo with tentative talk of a reformist leftist coalition. Looking weary, Bersani said it was time for the 5 Star movement to do more than just demand a clean sweep of Italy's established political order.
"Up to now they have been saying 'All go home'. But now they are here too. So either they go home as well, or they say what they want to do for their country and their children."
Grillo said earlier his followers in parliament would not join a coalition, but would consider proposals "law by law, reform by reform".
Bersani said that, since his four-party alliance had won an outright majority in the lower house of the Italian parliament and more seats than any other grouping in the Senate, it had a responsibility to suggest ways in which Italy could be governed, despite the deadlock in the upper house.
Shunning the idea of a grand coalition with Berlusconi and the right, he proposed a government committed to a five-point plan for sweeping reform of Italy's political parties and institutions.
The north-south split in Europe opened up by the election presaged clashes between eurozone governments, likely to surface at an EU summit next month, amid calls for a shift away from the harsh regime prescribed and driven through by Berlin in recent years as the price of bailing out insolvent eurozone periphery countries.
The Italian stalemate combines with tough negotiations over a bailout for Cyprus, being resisted by Germany, worries about the French economy, an unresolved debt crisis in Spain, and David Cameron's decision to throw Britain's future in Europe into question, making EU politics unusually volatile.
"Italy plays a central role in successfully overcoming Europe's debt crisis," said the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle.
"So we assume that the policy of fiscal consolidation and reform will be consistently followed by a new government."
Angela Merkel, bidding for a third term as German chancellor in September, has been banking on a period of eurozone calm in the run-up to her election, but Italian voters have wrecked that calculation.
The Dutch finance minister, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, recently made head of the political committee that runs the euro, said Monti's policies had to be continued. "They are crucial for the entire eurozone."
The European Commission echoed the calls for sticking with the austerity medicine. Italy has the highest national debt level in the eurozone after Greece, although its budget deficit is in better shape than many others, including France and the Netherlands.
But Paris led the chorus for a policy shift. French government ministers, including Pierre Moscovici, the finance minister, demanded a change of course in remarks directed at Berlin.
Spain waited anxiously to see what impact the Italian leap in the dark would have on its debt crisis. "This is a jump to nowhere that does not bode well either for Italy or for Europe," said the foreign minister, Jose-Manuel Garcia-Margallo, adding he was "extremely concerned" about the effect on Spain's borrowing costs.
Both Berlusconi and Grillo have been harshly critical of the Germans, decried Monti's austerity packages, and have raised questions as to whether Italy, the eurozone's third biggest economy, should remain in the single currency. Grillo has called for a referendum on the matter.
Berlusconi rounded on the Germans on Tuesday, declaring that the "spread" – the difference between how much Italy and Germany pay to borrow on the bond markets – had been "invented" two years ago. This was code for saying that Berlin and Frankfurt, the German government and the European Central Bank, conspired to push up the cost of Italian borrowing in 2011 in order to topple Berlusconi and bring in Monti, the technocratic darling of the eurozone elite.
The turmoil saw Italian bond yields also jump, indicating that any new government will be forced to pay a higher interest rate on its debts.
The 10-year Italian bond yield edged back into dangerous territory on Tuesday after it passed 4.9%, although this is a far cry from 2011 when the yields shot above 7%.
02/27/2013 11:15 AM
Europe Frets over Italy: 'Two Clowns Won the Election'
Global investors have made it clear that the Italian election result is not to their liking, with Moody's even threatening a rating downgrade. European politicians are also unimpressed and fear the euro crisis may soon return. Some comments have been surprisingly undiplomatic.
"We finished first, without winning." That's how Democratic Party head Pier Luigi Bersani on Tuesday summed up the results of the Italian election, one which left his center-left camp with an edge in parliament but without sufficient leverage in the Senate. What he didn't say is that the biggest loser ultimately might not be in Italy at all. The biggest loser could be Europe and its efforts to finally emerge from years of crisis.
Those concerns were highlighted on Tuesday as stock and financial markets around the world made clear their discomfort with the political chaos in Italy that has resulted from the deadlocked vote. And more bad news could be on the horizon. The ratings agency Moody's indicated on Tuesday that it may downgrade Rome's credit rating in the wake of the election.
"Instead of increasing visibility on the country's political direction, Italy's recent elections raised the risk that the structural reform momentum achieved under the government of Mario Monti will stall, if not come to a complete standstill," Moody's wrote in a Tuesday report. The agency said it would downgrade the country from its current Baa2 rating -- just two levels above junk status -- if reform efforts wane.
It is hardly an idle concern. The Five Star Movement of former comedian Beppe Grillo emerged as the strongest single party from the election, primarily on the strength of his disdain for the political class and his unrelenting anti-European Union and anti-austerity rhetoric. Silvio Berlusconi, though he lost 4 million voters relative to his 2008 result, was also surprisingly strong -- due in large part to his own rants against the EU and, in particular, against German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
When leading European politicians finally caught their breaths on Tuesday, reactions -- fed by an unmistakable concern that political stasis in Rome could reignite the euro crisis -- were harsh.
"To a certain degree, I am horrified that two clowns won the election," Peer Steinbrück, Germany's former finance minister and the Social Democratic candidate for chancellor in autumn elections, said on Tuesday evening, referring to Berlusconi and Grillo. He said the vote will "contribute to greater problems in the euro zone." Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, in Germany for a visit, promptly cancelled a planned meeting with Steinbrück as a result of the comment.
But German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle likewise gave voice to deep concerns on Tuesday, telling reporters in Berlin "it is now decisive for Italy, because it is such an important country for the whole of Europe, that a stable and effective government can be formed as quickly as possible."
Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble added that "the onus is now on political leaders in Italy to … do what the country needs, namely form a stable government that continues on the successful path of reform."
Indeed, several leading Europeans on Tuesday urged Rome to continue on the reform path embarked on by outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti, the technocrat leader who took over from Silvio Berlusconi in the autumn of 2011. Monti's party, however, experienced nothing short of a debacle in the election, receiving a paltry 10 percent of the vote -- a clear signal that there is little appetite in Italy for further austerity.
"I assume the Italian government, no matter how it may be composed, will stick to its European commitments," Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who is also head of the Euro Group, said on Tuesday, adding that there was "no rejoicing" following the election. "A stable government is important to the euro zone. To pull Europe from an economic quagmire, stable politics are required, also in Italy," he said.
Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo was less diplomatic. The result, he said was "a jump to nowhere with positive consequences for nobody."
The markets on Tuesday made clear that investors shared such concerns over Italy. The stock index in Rome plunged by 5 percent and trading in some bank shares had to be suspended due to precipitous share-price falls. Interest rates on 10-year sovereign bonds, the canary in the euro-crisis coalmine, rose to 4.83 percent ahead of a Wednesday debt offering. European and global markets also suffered on Tuesday, with Germany's DAX shedding 2.3 percent.
That, though, isn't likely to impress Italy's leading populists. Berlusconi discounted investor concern on Tuesday, saying "markets go their own way. They are independent and also a little crazy." And Grillo? During the campaign, he called bond spreads a "hallucination."
He also seemed to welcome economic upheaval, saying it will force new elections. Any possible coalition pairing Bersani and Berlusconi, he said on Tuesday, would last but "seven, eight months. The economy won't let them escape."
cgh -- with wire reports
02/26/2013 07:08 PM
Election Chaos: 'The Whole of Europe Is Afraid of Us'
By Hans-Jürgen Schlamp
An angry comedian and "Bunga Bunga" Berlusconi won enough votes to block the formation of an urgently needed reform-minded government in Rome. They attracted millions of disenchanted people who feel they've lost out from the euro. Italy has descended into chaos and the whole of Europe will feel it.
The party officials debated deep into the night on the popular Italian TV talk show "Porta a Porta" ("Door to Door"). That's their job, after all. The one from the center-right alliance and the one from Silvio Berlusconi's center-right coalition argued about who had won more -- even though both sides lost millions of voters. Mario Monti joined by live videolink to announce that he was actually quite satisfied. This, despite the fact that voters virtually shot his centrist alliance down in flames. It was political waffle, far removed from reality.
Journalists tried to point out the problems to the political professionals. One reporter spoke of a "landslide," while another said the election outcome "calls the whole system into question." But the politicians seemed bent on showing one more time why the voters had deserted them in droves and flocked to a former TV comedian. He, by the way, was already at home and in bed at that late hour. He doesn't go on TV, especially not to talk to politicians and journalists.
Italy's Angry Voters
He's called Beppe Grillo, he's 64 years old and he's the clear winner of the Italian parliamentary election. His "Five-Star Movement" emerged as the biggest single party in the lower house of parliament. The left- and right-wing party grandees -- Pier Luigi Bersani and Silvio Berlusconi -- only managed to muster more votes than him with the help of their respective allied parties. Grillo, who already brought thousands on to the streets in 2007 for his "Kiss My Ass Day," is the mouthpiece of Italy's disenchanted, angry voters. The numbers of these protests voters are growing dramatically.
Incompetent political leadership has been running down the country for years. The state education system is poor, as are the universities and the health system. Most of the state-owned enterprises are hopelessly inefficient. Antique World Heritage Sites like Pompeii are crumbling away. And all the while the members of the political class are enriching themselves and handing out jobs and overpriced contracts to their friends. Some dodgy deal or other is uncovered almost every day. Sometimes someone ends up in jail -- but the system doesn't change. Nothing will change, in fact, unless everything changes. That is Grillo's logic. And many Italians, especially younger ones, agree with him.
And what about Silvio Berlusconi and his merry men? These prototypes of Italy's political failings and of the help-yourself mentality once again mustered almost 30 percent of the vote. Berlusconi's promises are outlandish, but many are intent on believing them, like one believes in the miracle cures of Catholic saints or in paradise. His voters are the poor, the elderly, people who aren't doing well, tradesmen facing bankruptcy -- they're all hoping for a miracle.
Like Mauro, for example, a truck driver in a small town in Tuscany. He's married, has two children and earns less than €1,000 ($1,307) a month. He's always just about managed to make ends meet. But then came Mario Monti with his austerity policy and Mauro had to start paying taxes on his apartment and everything became more expensive, including food, water, electricity. On every 26th of the month at the latest, he's run out of money and has to live on credit and buy the previous day's bread from the baker at half price. Mauro wanted a miracle -- lower taxes and higher wages -- so he voted for Berlusconi.
Mauro and legions like him have unwittingly tipped the country into political chaos. It will take a miracle to form a working government. Everything's simple in the lower house. Bersani's center-left alliance only has a lead of 0.4 percent but electoral law grants it 340 of a total of 617 seats -- a comfortable majority. But Bersani doesn't have a majority in the upper house, the Senate, even if he joins forces with Mario Monti's centrist coalition. As things stand, if Berlusconi and Grillo lower their thumbs, they can block any law initiated by a Bersani-Monti government.
All other possible coalition options are hard to imagine:
Bersani and Grillo: mathematically possible, but Grillo probably doesn't want to be part of a government. After all, he doesn't want to stabilize the system, he wants to destroy it.
Berlusconi and Grillo: they'd have a majority in the Senate but not in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies.
Bersani and Belusconi; it would be a stable government in mathematical terms, with big majorities in both chambers. Berlusconi even publicly made himself available for such an alliance on Tuesday. But it would be a political disaster, especially for Bersani's Social Democrats. Their voters would be appalled and would flock to Grillo.
A temporary grand coalition, with Bersani, Berlusconi, Monti and -- if he doesn't say no -- with Grillo, in order to take care of everyday government business and solve two problems: reform the electoral law and elect a new state president. The incumbent, Giorgio Napoletano, will step down by mid-April at the latest. Then there could be a new election. But it's unlikely that the four sides could come to an agreement.
A new election: no one wants it, apart from Grillo, perhaps. But even he would prefer to wait a little. "In three years," he says, "we'll be the strongest force."
It's a bleak prospect for Europe.
The overwhelming support given to populists in the election didn't just stem from homemade problems. It was directly linked to Europe. Many Italians -- just like the Greeks, Portuguese and Spaniards -- feel like the losers of monetary union.
Germany and some other northern nations have become richer thanks to the euro but other regions, especially in the south, have become poorer. Their purchasing power has declined, their unemployment has risen and one in three Italians aged 18 and under lives close to the poverty line. And, under an agreement with the European Union, the country is supposed to dedicate 5 percent of its gross domestic product starting in 2015 to reduce its mountain of debt. That might be the right thing to do in macroeconomic terms, but it's an extremely painful policy to impose on ordinary people. They will become poorer each year because they won't be able to generate growth anywhere close to 5 percent.
Silliest Reaction in Berlin
They're not going to accept that, and even more of them will flock to anti-European populists. EU officials have negotiated manifold agreements to bail out banks and countries. But they haven't thought enough about the impact on people. The EU won't be able to go on like this in the long run.
Politicians in Berlin should spend some time thinking about that. The most nonsensical comment on the Italian election came from the German capital, where Economics Minister Philipp Rösler appealed to Rome's "political common sense." He added that "there's no alternative" to the political direction Italy has taken so far.
Evidently, there is an alternative -- Grillo, for example. "They're afraid of us," he recently shouted to a packed square in the northern city of Trento. "The whole of Europe is afraid of us."
Italy's banks bear brunt of inconclusive election with share fall
Italian banking sector falls 7%, with stock markets down owing to fears stalemate in Rome could lead to eurozone crisis reigniting
Phillip Inman, economics correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 26 February 2013 19.08 GMT
Italian banks have borne the brunt of fears that deadlock in Rome following inconclusive parliamentary elections would undermine the country's prospects for recovery.
The banking sector fell 7% in value on Tuesday, dragging the main Italian stock market index 4% lower.
In a sign that investors are wary of the eurozone crisis reigniting, markets in Germany, France and the UK followed suit, with banks among the biggest fallers. Barclays share fell by 4% to 299p while Royal Bank of Scotland, which is still 83%-owned by the UK government, lost 3.4% to close at 342p.
The FTSE 100 was 1.4% lower at 6268 points, the German Dax more than 2% at 7596 and the Paris Cac 2.75% at 3619.
Analysts warned that several smaller Italian banks were vulnerable to collapse if the economic situation worsened.
Rome has pumped €4bn (£3.44bn) into the Tuscan bank Monti Paschi di Siena in recent months after the latter revealed undisclosed losses. Analysts fear more regional banks could go bankrupt without further government support.
To prevent a run on two regional banks, the Italian banking regulator banned financial bets on a decline in their share price, known as short selling. The two-day ban is expected to shore up support for the banks and keep hedge funds that make money from short selling at bay.
Italian bond yields also jumped, indicating that the government will be forced to pay a higher interest rate on its debts.
With debt in excess of 120% of GDP, Italy is vulnerable to a rise in interest rates. Last year, the yields on its 10-year bonds shot above 6.6%. The shock, when combined with Spain's near bankruptcy, forced the European Central Bank governor, Mario Draghi, to issue an emergency statement that the bank would do "all in its power" to protect the euro.
The 10-year Italian bond yield edged back into dangerous territory on Tuesday, moving above 4.9%.
But in a swift indication of the speed that market confidence can evaporate, the government's borrowing costs shot up by more than two thirds at an auction of six-month bonds. Investors demanded a yield of 1.237%, the highest since October. The yield was 0.730% in a similar sale a month ago.
Raj Badiani, an economist at the French bank Société Générale, said pressure was mounting on Italy to its tackle deep-seated employment restrictions and barriers to new private sector investment, adding that without reforms, the country is unlikely to end its double-dip recession, which has last nearly two years.
"Pressure could take the form of rising borrowing costs to painfully high levels, which could force Italy to approach the European stability mechanism (ESM)," said Badiani, referring to the rescue fund already propping up Portugal, Ireland and Greece. But Italy is unlikely to go cap in hand to Brussels, he added.
Public spending cuts pushed through the Italian parliament by Mario Monti's technocratic administration have dramatically reduced Italy's annual budget deficit and restricted the amount of new debt the country needs to sell on the private markets to survive.
Most of the large Italian banks are also protected from a spike in interest rates on their own debt, after raising billions of euros in reserves, much of it in the form of cheap loans from the ECB.
Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch foreign politician who chairs the eurozone's Eurogroup of finance ministers, said: "I think and I hope there is a broad understanding that there is also a responsibility for the stability of the eurozone as a whole, and that agreements have to be met.
"Pulling Europe from the economic doldrums requires a stable, political policy, also in Italy."
Dario Perkins, an economist at Lombard Street Research, said: "There is a subtle message from these elections. One that if the rest of Europe ignores, will be disastrous for the euro in the longer term. This was a vote against austerity.
"The future of the euro remains in question and if the politicians don't take action to restore growth to the euro area, [Italian comedian and Five Star Movement con-founder] Beppe Grillo might mark the start of a new trend in European politics."
Italian elections: austerity challenged
Italians this week have voted their discontents, their divisions, and their fantasies. Not so very different, then, from other European electorates
The Guardian, Tuesday 26 February 2013 22.26 GMT
Italians this week have voted their discontents, their divisions, and their fantasies. Not so very different, then, from other European electorates. But in Italy the political system, in part because of Silvio Berlusconi's malign institutional heritage, seems perfectly designed to magnify all three.
The result has scared Brussels and Berlin, scared the markets, and scared Italians themselves. What have they wrought? Is Italy headed for permanent political crisis? And could this vote endanger the already threatened common currency, with all which that implies for Europe and its future?
Asked a few years ago whether he was worried about the political situation in his country, an Italian economist replied: "I'm not worried, but I am desperate." There is indeed something about Italian politics, at least since the rise of Mr Berlusconi, which induces a state of chronic desperation. Italy "has been in a political, economic and moral crisis for the past 20 years," observed one shrewd student of its affairs, "as it never really succeeded in achieving agreement over reforms" following the collapse of the old party system in 1992. Well, it is still far from that today, although the efforts of Pier Luigi Bersani to tempt the Five Star movement of Beppe Grillo into a common reform programme may offer some hope for the future.
Five Star campaigned, in essence, on the Italian equivalent of the American slogan "Throw the bums out". It did not entirely succeed in that: Mr Berlusconi, the biggest villain of the piece for the grillini, has ended up in a powerful position in the upper house, although he cannot veto the Bersani-Grillo partnership which, if it happens, may turn out to be a way forward for the country.
But, so far, how the Italians are going to get out of this mess is anybody's guess. A grand coalition of left and right is a possibility, and so is the deal between the centre left and the Five Star movement which Mr Bersani is exploring . But how would either cope with a renewed economic storm, interest rates shooting up, austerity packages unravelling, grim messages from Angela Merkel? How long could such unnatural marriages last?
And if such a government set out to call fresh elections, perhaps with a new electoral law, how would the established parties avert an even greater triumph for Beppe's people? That would not clear up the mess: it would merely create a new one. So, on one level, this was yet another election which failed to solve Italy's chronic political problems. On another, it was a verdict on the German-led austerity policy which is Europe's current remedy for its common currency and other economic ills. Mario Monti, austerity's main man in Italy, went down with a bang, and Mr Grillo's pledge of a referendum on the euro certainly played a part in the success of his movement.
This was an Italy saying no to austerity. And, with unemployment at more than 11%, according to a recent article in Le Monde, more than 100,000 small firms, the backbone of the Italian economy, closing in 2012, and the number of graduates leaving the country reaching a million, that is an understandable negative. Such a verdict cannot be wished away. It is of course far from the first such judgment. The backlash against austerity has brought down incumbent after incumbent across Europe, and, most recently, François Hollande's victory owed something to his pledge to fight austerity. But Italy is the eurozone's third-largest economy, and the vote there this time went less to candidates promising to soften or contest austerity, like Mr Hollande and Mr Bersani, than to those saying, or hinting, that they would reject it.
The German government will be forced to reconsider – or, rather, to reconsider even more than it already reluctantly has. France, coping with its own slipping economic performance, also has difficult choices. In retrospect, 25 February 2013 may go down as the day when Europe's austerity policies, at least as originally conceived, finally hit the buffers.
02/27/2013 11:35 AM
Stalling for Time: Greek Reform Effort Slows to a Crawl
By Georgios Christidis in Thessaloniki
The troika is back in Athens this week and with all eyes on Italy, Greece feels it has little to fear. But important reforms have stalled and the government's belt-tightening efforts seem paralyzed. Politicians are playing for time and hoping for fresh money.
The troika mission has returned to Greece, but this time things are different. No front page headlines are warning about new painful demands made by Greece's international creditors, no government officials are pleading for unity in the three-party coalition in support of unpopular measures. And there is no overhanging fear of a long drawn-out process of evaluation, full of innuendos about a catastrophic default or euro-zone exit.
For the moment, Europe is watching developments in Italy. Following the election debacle there, concerns have reawakened that the euro crisis might return. The Greek government, on the other hand, is confident that the inspection started on Monday by the troika -- comprised of officials from the European Central Bank (ECB), the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) -- will be over by March 10 and will approve the release of the next two tranches of bailout aid -- €2.8 billion in March and a further €6 billion in April. No one seems to fear a repetition of the drama of the previous troika inspection, which lasted a full five months.
On the contrary, the government in Athens is going on the offensive this time, presenting its own list of demands. The Greek government is determined to push lenders to agree on a list of concessions it hopes will help to alleviate the crisis. They include a lower VAT, or sales tax, for restaurants, the allocation of EU funds to combat unemployment and a new law aimed at making life easier for indebted households.
Reforms Lose Traction
But such complacency seems unfounded given the situation on the ground. The Greek economy remains mired in recession, and is expected to contract by another 4.5 percent of gross domestic product in 2013. The latest statistics show that 27 percent of Greeks are unemployed, and among those under the age of 24, that figure is 62 percent. Many are already fearful of the "Bulgarian syndrome," a reference to the street violence and anti-austerity protests that have shaken the government in Greece's northern neighbor.
Furthermore, it has become increasingly clear that the government in Athens is failing to implement promised reforms:
On the privatization front, Greece is supposed to generate €2.5 billion in proceeds by the end of 2013. To meet this goal, the government plans to sell the state gambling monopoly OPAP and Greece's natural gas assets before the summer. Yet given the dismal track record, optimism is misplaced. Total revenues so far for all of Greece's previous privatizations have been a meagre €2 billion, making the 2020 revenue target of €25 billion look increasingly unattainable.
Even the sale of those companies that have been dubbed the "crown jewels" of publicly owned enterprises and have attracted a lot of interest from foreign investors, is full of pitfalls. OPAP is considered a cash cow, and many are wondering why the government should sell one of the few companies it has that is actually making money. Furthermore, betting giants StanleyBet, SportingBet and William Hill are seeking to contest what they view as an OPAP monopoly at the Hellenic Council of State, the country's highest administrative court. It is still unclear whether the court will take on the case. Pending a decision, investors might be unwilling to participate in the sale or significantly lower their offers.
Different but equally serious are the problems at state gas company DEPA and its subsidiary DESFA. Russian gas giant Gazprom and Sintez are among the bidders and they have awoken the resistance of the EU as well as the United States, which want to keep Moscow away from valuable energy resources in Europe.
Nor is much progress being made in the matter of slimming down the public sector. Under the provisions of the bailout program, the public sector is to shrink by 25,000 employees by the end of the year, half of them by June. So far, only 2,000 employees have been put on reserve (meaning they will receive 75 percent of their income for a year and are to be dismissed if they aren't moved to another post within the public sector by the end of a 12-month period). Courts have frequently been overturning decisions made under this provision and the latest data shows that more than half of those employees put on reserve have already returned to their old posts. Greek media reports indicate that of the 500 municipal workers put on reserve, a full 300 have won their jobs back by court order or interim measures.
So how can this new Greek complacency be explained? Prime Minister Antonis Samaras believes that if the government manages to remain on top of things by June, then Greece will be out of the woods. Talking with members of parliament over lunch last week, Samaras said: "If we hold on tight and make it to the summer, in September we will liftoff." A record number of tourists are expected in Greece this year and Samaras is calculating that a good summer season will boost the economy. At the same time, politicians in Athens are impatiently counting the number of days until German federal elections in September. Expectations are running high that a newly formed German government might agree to a second debt haircut that would impose losses on euro-zone governments and make Greece's explosive debt viable.
Still, Samaras is very aware that a lot can happen in six months. He wants to preserve the good faith his government seems to be enjoying in Europe at the moment and deal with the maladministration in his government. Greek government representatives have already stated that the troika is expected to demand immediate dismissals if the bailout provisions for reducing the size of the public sector aren't met. Athens continues to insist that the reduction can be achieved via retirements and the firing of corrupt public officials.
Still, Samaras appears to be losing his patience as well. He has publicly expressed his frustration over delays in reforms, and a cabinet reshuffle appears to be imminent. Samaras is expected to sack ministers who have proven unable, unwilling, or both, to implement the terms of the bailout. The cabinet reshuffle is expected in early March.
Hungary's rabid right is taking the country to a political abyss
Carl Rowlands for New Left Project, part of the Guardian Comment Network
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 27 February 2013 09.00 GMT
The left has found no response to the right's attacks on Gypsies, its virulent antisemitism and its xenophobic Christian nationalism
"Most Gypsies are not suitable for cohabitation. They are not suitable for being among people. Most are animals, and behave like animals. They shouldn't be tolerated or understood, but stamped out. Animals should not exist. In no way." Zsolt Bayer, Magyar Hirlap, 5 January 2013
Zsolt Bayer, one of the founders of Hungary's ruling Fidesz party and personal friend of prime minister Viktor Orbán, has been saying this kind of thing in public for many years. How has it become acceptable to openly express such sentiments in a European country? Especially a country which played so prominent a role in the 1944-45 Holocaust?
Hate speech has been a defining aspect of the Hungarian right wing since well before the transition to multi-party democracy in 1989. The "democratic opposition" to the communist system always contained elements sympathetic to the authoritarian pre-war Horthy regime, a semi-constitutional autocracy with a welfarist dimension that became less democratic and more antisemitic as the 1930s progressed, despite (or because of) the admiral's raging Anglophilia and enduring fascination with the English aristocracy. Despite appearances, the communist system did not displace such widely held prejudices; rather, it tended to work around them, offering a world of fixed markers, casual bribery and calculated submission. By the late 1980s, communism had bred a kind of sullen torpor among many, best described, perhaps, in Laszlo Krasznahorkai's recently translated novel Satantango.
The ruling party in 1990's first post-transition government, the MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) even included Istvan Csurka among its leaders. Csurka was an overtly nationalistic antisemitic politician, dedicated to restoring Hungary's pre-first world war borders. His presence at the centre of post-transition political life indicated the weakness of democratic forces, even at the height of their supposed triumph. The borders between mainstream, European centre-right politics and the Horthy-centric far right have never been firmly established. In 1993, even as Csurka was expelled from the collapsing MDF administration, the leaders of the government engineered a ceremonial reburial of Admiral Horthy's bones in his home village of Kenderes. Throughout the MDF government and its increasingly shrill and authoritarian Fidesz successors, the European People's party – dominated by the German CDU and CSU – has been a loyal and largely uncritical supporter of the Hungarian right.
The politics of hate are usually twisted, and few countries can boast nationalist sentiment more deeply warped than that of the Hungarians. Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin have suffered harsh injustices since the Mongol invasion in the 13th century – the consequences of being on the wrong side in two world wars, the Turkish invasion, the Austrian invasion, occupation by the Soviets and the loss of territory under the bitterly regarded Treaty of Trianon. The current generation of Hungarian rightwing politicians is dominated, however, not by the likes of Csurka, but by a younger group of friends, epitomised by the energetic and exuberant writer of our article, Zsolt Bayer, who really remembers only the tail end of the Kadar years.
The 1980s were a time when Hungary was opening up to the financial institutions of the west – when dissidents were harassed, imprisoned and sidelined, but not, generally, killed. Describing themselves as a golden generation, the Fidesz circle around Zsolt Bayer and Viktor Orbán came of age during the Thatcher/Reagan years, fashioning their politics on a vaguely anti-authoritarian liberal economics and contrasting their youthful dynamism with the musty reform communism of the 1980s.
It could also be described as a "finance generation" – for the first time, Hungary was permitted to borrow on the international money markets, just when capital was riding the crest of a wave of deregulation. Whoever was quick to master the complexities of the new rules regarding ownership and finance would stand to win. The emerging professional classes have hardly been averse to hate speech, as can be seen in another recent headline case of antisemitism in Hungarian politics, involving Marton Gyongyosi, shadow spokesman on foreign policy for the far-right Jobbik party. In November, the privileged and monied Gyongyosi – a son of diplomats, graduate of Trinity College, Dublin and, most strikingly, former advisor with KPMG – demanded the compilation of an official list of all Jews representing a "national security risk".
The MDF in the early 1990s had advocated a naive Thatcherism – the monetarism of Keith Joseph combined with the social conservatism of Rhodes Boyson – but its anti-communist opposition ideologues were quickly superseded by a younger, yuppified Fidesz party with some insight into the real workings of power and a far deeper understanding of modern politics. Viktor Orbán, who spent a year in Oxford under the sponsorship of Gyorgy Soros, developed a political model which drew from the UK. Orbán and his friends observed that the real long-term beneficiaries of Reaganism and Thatcherism had been private contractors, defence industry specialists, arms dealers, advertising and communications experts, and capitalists with links to service providers in what had formerly been the public sector. The Hungarian right therefore shifted from a literal interpretation of what we know as Thatcherism to an organisational-cultural interpretation. It wasn't Thatcher herself who became the key figure, but rather those industrialists and businessmen (the Lord McAlpines and Lord Hansons) who funded her. Fidesz is in many ways an abstract exercise. Its aim is to prove the possibility of emulating Thatcher's model of politics, whilst ditching large chunks of its policy base – which, arguably, merely represents a surface texture to the interests of big capital. Fidesz's rhetoric can therefore easily switch from liberalism to social democracy to outright religious nationalism, as if changing a slide on a projector.
Bayer effectively represents a "closed circle" – a central committee of inner Fidesz confidantes. Their takeover of the withered Hungarian state apparatus has been accompanied by widespread gerrymandering of public contracts and an insular, insider culture which aims to concentrate resources in the hands of a select few. By forming alliances with the most powerful players in domestic capital the Fidesz elites engage in a direct power-play, developing personal fortunes through land ownership to create an aristocratic, feudalistic bourgeoisie, with a fairly small middle-class clustered in the service sector.
Serious resources are required to maintain stark cultural and personality-based differences in public life, while building up a circle of power at the core of the state. Sure enough, Fidesz devotes massive public resources to communication. Waging a kulturkampf to remove people of questionable loyalty from theatres, museums and opera houses, Fidesz reaps a double reward of engaging the opposition in yet another battle on the periphery, while ensuring that yet more budgets come under the centralised jurisdiction of the "closed circle". In addition, rightwing supporters have been quick to claim ownership of Hungary's barely-formed post-communist media landscape, whose early-1990s idealistic liberalism was quickly checked by brutal economic and technological realities. Zsolt Bayer can often be seen on Echo TV, part of a rightwing media empire which has emerged in the past 10 years, including radio stations, television channels and newspapers such as Magyar Hirlap, where his anti-Gypsy article appeared.
The Hungarian right is loud, strident and radical, and benefits from embedded support within various institutions, not least the Catholic church. The church in Hungary has rallied support for the government's policies of victimising the poor and concentrating power in the centre. This close relationship between the church and the government may have a deeper meaning – that Fidesz has become the true party of state, inheritors of the governing apparatus. The Catholic church was chief among the many institutions contaminated by covert state operations, with widespread use of clerics as informants. Given that the MDF's Istvan Csurka admitted that he was an informant for the communist authorities, it is highly likely that the upper reaches of Fidesz also include former opposition figures compromised by informal and covert operations. Some legacies of communism continue to damage public life, yet manifest themselves in hidden ways.
The Hungarian right has established prominent media platforms and built solid institutional networks. The final piece in the puzzle is its direct emulation of modern US Republicanism, with its toxic brew of intolerance, fundamentalist Christianity and xenophobic nationalism. Fidesz national symbolism is strongly redolent of redneck Southern nationalism – the ubiquity of the flag on political platforms, and its placement on flagpoles outside large traditional-styled dwellings. Fidesz trades in a strikingly glossy, soft-brush veneration of nation, family and mum's apple pie (neatly counterpointed in Hungary by the inevitable cauldron of stew). Ranged against these "good things" are cosmopolitans (Jews), criminals (Gypsies), sexual deviants (homosexuals) and people who want to give prisoners an easy time (liberals). This straightforward approach defines the opposition as a set of grotesque caricatures before it has a chance to mount any kind of challenge. It is as brutally effective now as it was in 1964, when Harold Wilson was able to define the Tories as incompetent, grouse-hunting aristocrats. Fidesz does hard politics, delivered effectively. However, to reinforce the message, such a strategy has increasingly relied upon hate speech and castigation of different minorities. The resulting effluent provides rich pickings for neo-fascist groups.
Of course, just as Clinton's New Democrats seemed to lead inexorably to Newt Gingrich's Republican takeover in 1994, we can also add genuine economic populism to Fidesz's political repertoire. The interests of the little man are being ignored by neoliberalism. Jobbik, playing the wild younger brother to the striped-shirt-wearing Fidesz hacks, can issue loud, clear and well-received demands for social and economic autonomy, alongside its thinly-veiled aggression against minorities. Those elements of the left unaffected or unpersuaded by neoliberalism have been pushed to the fringes of political impotence, and so calls for economic solidarity often originate from the radical right. The fragmented official opposition, mainly comprised of colourless liberals and social democrats, finds itself dancing a death tango with the combined, increasingly powerful forces of the right, and each year sees the couple move closer to the brink of an as-yet unknown abyss.
Even in Sweden, the social security system is failing people
Despite a few excellent social policies, benefits are increasingly going to relatively well-off families instead of the poorest
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 27 February 2013 10.07 GMT
We want to believe that in times of economic crisis it will be Sweden that sets an example, with its sophisticated and once visionary social security system. For my family of four, Sweden's affordable preschools and free universities make all the difference to our quality of life. We are happy to pay the high taxes to support this system.
Despite cutbacks, Sweden guarantees a full-time preschool place from a child's first birthday, with an income-based fee that can be as low as £10 a month. In my son's preschool, the teachers are certified in early childhood education, the teacher-to-child ratio is about 1:3, and there are two nutritious meals and two snacks available (with mostly organic ingredients).
Another essential feature of life here is that people without savings can easily access higher education throughout their lives. Universities and adult education are free.
For university education, the state offers six years of grant (equivalent to £260 a month), topped up with an optional loan (another £570 a month, paid back once you finish your studies at a rate adapted to your income, and paid in instalments for up to 25 years).
But despite a few excellent social policies, according to Tapio Salonen, professor of social work and dean at the Faculty of Health and Society at Malmö University, the redistributive goal of the social security system is failing, with increasing portions of benefits going to relatively well-off families instead of the poorest.
A recent Save the Children Sweden report called Välfärd, Inte För Alla (Welfare, Not For Everyone) shows that even though families with children have experienced a rising disposable income across all classes in Sweden from 1992 to 2008, there is a growing inequality between them, with the top fifth of income earners taking a bigger and bigger slice of the cake every year.
Salonen describes the current labour market as unforgiving to inexperienced applicants and yet a third of unemployed people in Sweden are not eligible for unemployment benefits. The försörjningsstöd ("living support") is the last alternative for people who cannot provide for themselves, and who were not eligible for any other type of help. The amount of people in this category is increasing, yet the försörjningsstöd is harder and harder to qualify for.
It was designed to provide people with temporary assistance to allow them to have a decent standard of living. Yet in the current economic conditions, Salonen says the försörjningsstöd is too little for a family to live on comfortably, and an increasing number of people are relying on it long-term.
According to the Save the Children report, in 2010, 242,000 children (or 12.7% of children) in Sweden were living in poverty. Children from families with an immigrant background, who live in the suburbs of the big cities or with a lone parent, are the most vulnerable.
The report describes child poverty as a living standard that is too low for the child to participate in their school and extra-curricular life as other children can, with all the equipment and clothing required for these activities. Homelessness is also on the rise in Sweden. In the past 13 years, it has quadrupled from 8,300 people to 34,000, out of Sweden's 9 million inhabitants. The main reason is unemployment. It's hard for unemployed people to get housing because of few affordable properties to rent, and landlords have stopped taking people on försörjningsstöd.
Anneli Nordström, head of the Kommunal, the biggest union in Sweden with 500,000 members, argues that the Swedish welfare system is being dismantled, with diminishing resources available and well-qualified staff losing jobs in the health sector.
Mats Olsson, professor of economic history and Vänsterpartiet (Left party) representative in Lund Commune, says that since the Alliansen centre-right government came to power in 2006, it has legislated for tax cuts worth approximately £14bn, including lowering income tax and abolishing property tax. This year, a further estimated £1.4bn cuts are expected by lowering corporate taxes.
These tax cuts have been financed by direct cuts to the welfare system, says Olsson, including the safety net for sick, poor and unemployed people and by not recalculating money handed out to municipalities to reflect higher costs and inflation. This then reduces local and regional government welfare and social care spending.
If the Swedish government continues to try to rationalise the welfare system, such policies in the long term will cost Swedish society far more than they save.
Finland has an education system the US should envy – and learn from
Finland's test scores top global charts, but the country doesn't obsess about tests like the US, and it pays teachers adequately
guardian.co.uk, Friday 15 February 2013 15.17 GMT
A new book has attracted much interest in the Washington DC, especially on Capitol Hill, Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in Finland?. The book arrives after Finland scored first in science and second in reading and math on the standardized test administered by the Program for International Student Assessment.
Conducted among industrialized nations every three years, American students finished 25th in math, 17th in science and 12th in reading on the latest PISA assessment. Obviously, in our global economy, this nation's international educational attainment is discouraging for our future prospects.
What stands out to me is that Finnish students take only one mandatory standardized test, at age 16. Finland has the same number of teachers as New York City, but only 600,000 students compared to 1.1m in the Big Apple. Finnish teachers' starting salaries are lower than in the US, but high-school teachers with 15 years' experience make 102% of what other college graduates make. In the US, the figure is 62%.
Some of Finland's students' outcomes should be especially interesting to US policy makers. Fully 93% of Finns graduate from high school – 17.5 points higher than American students. And 66% of Finns are accepted to college, a higher rate than the US and every European nation. Strikingly, the achievement gap between the weakest and strongest students academically is the smallest in the world.
What might really interest some politicians is that Finland spends about 30% less per student to achieve these far-superior educational outcomes. For those who argue that a much smaller, less diverse country like Finland can't easily be compared to the US, there is an inconvenient fact: Finland performs much better educationally when compared to similar Scandinavian nations with similar demographics. Plainly, something is right in the "Land of a thousand lakes".
Fortunately, US education policy is evolving in the face of our relative global underperformance. Federal policy continues to move away from the rigid certainties of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind legislation. The NCLB law set a hopelessly unrealistic target for 100% student proficiency in every school by 2014. It's clear that won't be achieved.
Currently, 32 states and the District of Columbia have successfully applied for waivers from NCLB. To secure this flexibility, states had to have the US Department of Education approve credible plans to raise standards, strengthen accountability and undertake reforms to improve teacher effectiveness. Localizing education reform in this way should more effectively combine ambition and realism.
Additionally, President Obama's Race to the Top program provides federal incentives for states to reform their public education offerings. These education reforms include lifting caps on the number of public charter schools, innovative policies to turn around failing schools, and improving teacher and principal effectiveness.
As an educator who opened one of the first public charter schools in Washington DC in 1998, — at the height of the crisis of our unreformed public education system — I've always had a different take on reform than the NCLB dogma. I could see that the predominantly disadvantaged students whom the status quo was failing would need more than standardized tests to ensure school success.
We decided to create a school that would help students develop the habits, knowledge and skills that would be required in this new century, rather than limiting our students to learning reading and math, the subjects that students are most often tested on. We require our pre-K through sixth grade students to speak, read, write and think in two languages — either French and English, or Spanish and English.
Our educational program invests in children early, to prepare them for the next step in their academic careers and beyond, into the world of work. We want them to gain the following: an understanding of how to use technology to enhance learning; an appreciation for, and facility in, the arts; scientific curiosity; an appreciation and knowledge of their cultures and those of others; and the capacity to think critically.
We are proud of our alumni, including those who have earned Posse Scholarships (college scholarships for students who exhibit strong leadership and academic potential), those who are enrolled in prestigious colleges; and those who are flourishing at high-performing high schools, such as Capital City and Washington Latin.
Our students — 69% of whom are economically disadvantaged — can perform at the highest-level academically. Traditional standardized tests fail to adequately assess our academically rich program. Yet our scholars outperform their traditional public school peers by 16% points, and charter peers by nine points. We're not in Finland yet, but we are making progress.
02/26/2013 03:50 PM
Trans-Atlantic Rifts: European Activists Could Thwart US-EU Trade Deal
By Christoph Pauly and Christoph Schult
Consumer watchdogs, Internet activists and European farmers are gearing up to fight the planned trade agreement between Europe and the United States. Many in Europe are worried that politicians will make backroom deals at the expense of consumers.
When it comes to face-to-face meetings, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and United States President Barack Obama have had a somewhat one-sided relationship so far. The chancellor has been to Washington several times, but Obama has never been to Berlin as president, despite several invitations.
It could finally happen in June. Obama's advisors are mulling whether the president should visit Berlin during his trip to Europe. There would be two reasons to do so. First, this year marks the 50th anniversary of former President John F. Kennedy's legendary Berlin speech, in which he proclaimed: "Ich bin ein Berliner." And negotiations are set to begin this summer over a trans-Atlantic free trade agreement between Europe and the United States, which the president announced two weeks ago.
Industry representatives are already waxing lyrical about the prospect of the free world, with its 800 million consumers, joining forces to form a gigantic trading bloc with common rules. The American Chamber of Commerce in Germany sees the agreement as a promise of more growth, while officials at the Federal Chancellery call it the cheapest way to stimulate the economy. The old industrialized countries intend to confront China's expanding economic might by creating a shared market of common standards, patents and laws.
But the planned trading union isn't going to be an overnight success. Europe and the United States face years of painful negotiations, and many critics see the whole thing as a flight of fancy. Consumer advocates, as well as environmental and Internet activists, are preparing to fight the treaty with all means at their disposal. They fear that bad compromises will be made at the expense of consumers in secret negotiations between the European Commission and the Obama administration.
"The treaty cannot fail because of chlorinated chickens this time," says German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. He is referring to the Europeans' distaste for US meat products that are disinfected in chlorine baths, products that are currently banned from importation to Europe.
Major Differences Over GM Foods
Contentious issues like this have brought down many a trans-Atlantic agreement. They may sound petty, but elementary questions of consumer and citizen's rights are at stake. What do we want to eat? How are our personal data treated in the Internet? In recent years, very different traditions have developed in the United States and Europe in this regard, creating considerable potential for conflict. For instance, there are much greater restrictions on the sale of genetically modified food products in Europe, while most Americans have no problem with such products, as long as they are cheap and look good.
The technology is now used by most US farmers, enabling them to grow plants that are resistant to insects and produce higher yields per hectare. Last year, 88 percent of corn, 93 percent of soybeans and 95 percent of beets grown in the United States were from genetically modified seed. "Transparency, freedom of choice and the principle of foresight cannot be sacrificed to the free movement of goods in Europe," says Christoph Then, managing director of Testbiotech, a non-profit association opposed to genetic engineering.
The American farm lobby has long fought against European trade barriers for genetically modified potatoes and hormone-treated beef. Now the free trade treaty will provide them with considerable leverage for cracking the European front.
In a letter to US Trade Representative Ron Kirk, Max Baucas, a Democrat senator from Montana, outlined what he hopes to achieve in the upcoming negotiations. His list includes EU restrictions on genetically modified grain, the use of hormones in cattle and "unscientific restrictions on the use of safe feed additives like ractopamine in beef and porks," all positions that are anathema to European consumer advocates.
For example, American farmers use the hormone rBST, developed by the agricultural corporation Monsanto. The drug is intended to increase milk production by up to 20 percent and meat yield by up to 30 percent. But it is also suspected of causing cancer in human beings. In addition, high-performance cows require additional antibiotic treatment, because their mammary glands are more likely to become infected.
European Farmers Fear Competitive Disadvantage
"If American hormone meat reaches Europe, it will have a considerable impact on European producers," warns Lutz Ribbe, an agricultural expert with the environmental organization Euronatur. Because production is cheaper in the United States, says Ribbe, European farmers are at a clear competitive disadvantage.
Free trade agreements with other countries show how justified the concerns are. In ongoing talks with India, the EU wanted to include a section on "sustainable development" in the agreement, but the Indians refused. Negotiations with Canada also stalled, partly because of disputes over agricultural issues.
In addition to free trade for agricultural products, the Americans want to place intellectual property rights at the center of the upcoming trans-Atlantic poker game. The business interests of Hollywood and Silicon Valley are behind the effort. They produce movies and software that are coveted worldwide but can often be copied easily. To address the problem, the Americans already negotiated a trade agreement with international partners and the EU in recent years, but then the European Parliament thwarted the effort.
The failure of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) was the first major victory for an international web public that had organized a major campaign on the Internet and major demonstrations in Warsaw, Berlin and Paris. The activists felt that ACTA would threaten freedom on the Internet.
Jérémie Zimmermann, one of the organizers of the anti-ACTA movement, believes the time will soon come for new protests. The spokesman for the Paris-based organization La Quadrature du Net can prove that old paragraphs from the failed ACTA were inserted into a preliminary version of the proposed Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), which the European Commission is currently negotiating with the Canadians and whch could serve as a blueprint for the treaty with the Americans.
Rift on Data Protection
"It's a favorite game of the entertainment industry to hijack free trade agreements for their own purposes," says Zimmermann. He sees democracy at risk when negotiations concerning the future of all people are conducted behind closed doors. "Millions of citizens can be mobilized if their freedoms are threatened," he says.
Jan Philipp Albrecht, a Green Party member of the European Parliament, who opposed ACTA from the start, is also pessimistic about the trans-Atlantic free trade deal, unless national parliaments are brought in early on. "Otherwise the free trade agreement will collapse under opposition from ordinary Europeans."
Albrecht, the European Parliament's rapporteur for the proposed Data Protection Regulation, sees considerable potential for conflict. While US companies can use their customers' personal data with almost no restrictions, Europeans are protected by minimum standards. Finding a compromise on this issue is virtually impossible, says Albrecht.
US companies like Facebook and Google see European data privacy as a potential threat to their billions in profits. Indeed, European authorities have just threatened, once again, to penalize Internet giant Google for its treatment of the personal data of European customers.
Another option is to exclude contentious issues like agriculture and data protection from the free trade negotiations. But if that happened, there wouldn't be much of a trade deal left and the whole project would be redundant. Customs duties, for example, are already so low today, at about 3 percent on average, that they play a relatively minor role.
The free trade agreement is "by far our most important project for the future," says Chancellor Merkel. It appears that not everyone in Europe agrees.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Greece and Spain helped postwar Germany recover. Spot the difference
Sixty years ago, half of German war debts were cancelled to build its economy. Yet today, debt is destroying those creditors
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 27 February 2013 12.24 GMT
Sixty years ago today, an agreement was reached in London to cancel half of postwar Germany's debt. That cancellation, and the way it was done, was vital to the reconstruction of Europe from war. It stands in marked contrast to the suffering being inflicted on European people today in the name of debt.
Germany emerged from the second world war still owing debt that originated with the first world war: the reparations imposed on the country following the Versailles peace conference in 1919. Many, including John Maynard Keynes, argued that these unpayable debts and the economic policies they entailed led to the rise of the Nazis and the second world war.
By 1953, Germany also had debts based on reconstruction loans made immediately after the end of the second world war. Germany's creditors included Greece and Spain, Pakistan and Egypt, as well as the US, UK and France.
German debts were well below the levels seen in Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain today, making up around a quarter of national income. But even at this level, there was serious concern that debt payments would use up precious foreign currency earnings and endanger reconstruction.
Needing a strong West Germany as a bulwark against communism, the country's creditors came together in London and showed that they understood how you help a country that you want to recover from devastation. It showed they also understood that debt can never be seen as the responsibility of the debtor alone. Countries such as Greece willingly took part in a deal to help create a stable and prosperous western Europe, despite the war crimes that German occupiers had inflicted just a few years before.
The debt cancellation for Germany was swift, taking place in advance of an actual crisis. Germany was given large cancellation of 50% of its debt. The deal covered all debts, including those owed by the private sector and even individuals. It also covered all creditors. No one was allowed to "hold out" and extract greater profits than anyone else. Any problems would be dealt with by negotiations between equals rather than through sanctions or the imposition of undemocratic policies.
Perhaps the most innovative feature of the London agreement was a clause that said West Germany should only pay for debts out of its trade surplus, and any repayments were limited to 3% of exports earnings every year. This meant those countries that were owed debt had to buy West German exports in order to be paid. It meant West Germany would only pay from genuine earnings, without recourse to new loans. And it meant Germany's creditors had an interest in the country growing and its economy thriving.
Following the London deal, West Germany experienced an "economic miracle", with the debt problem resolved and years of economic growth. The medicine doled out to heavily indebted countries over the last 30 years could not be more different. Instead, the practice since the early 1980s has been to bail out reckless lenders through giving new loans, while forcing governments to implement austerity and free-market liberalisation to become "more competitive".
As a result of this, from Latin America and Africa in the 80s and 90s to Greece, Ireland and Spain today, poverty has increased and inequality soared. In Africa in the 80s and 90s, the number of people living in extreme poverty increased by 125 million, while economies shrank. In Greece today, the economy has shrunk by more than 20%, while one in two young people are unemployed. In both cases, debt ballooned.
The priority of an indebted government today is to repay its debts, whatever the amount of the budget these repayments consume. In contrast to the 3% limit on German debt payments, today the IMF and World Bank regard debt payments of up to 15-25% of export revenues as being "sustainable" for impoverished countries. The Greek government's foreign debt payments are around 30% of exports.
When debts have been "restructured", they are only a portion of the total debts owed, with only willing creditors participating. In 2012, only Greece's private creditors had debt reduced. Creditors that held British or Swiss law debt were also able to "hold out" against the restructuring, and will doubtless pursue Greece for many years to come.
The "strategy" in Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain today is to put the burden of adjustment solely on the debtor country to make its economy more competitive through mass unemployment and wage cuts. But without creditors like Germany willing to buy more of their exports, this will not happen, bringing pain without end.
The German debt deal was a key element of recovering from the devastation of the second world war. In Europe today, debt is tearing up the social fabric. Outside Europe, heavily indebted countries are still treated to a package of austerity and "restructuring" measures. Pakistan, the Philippines, El Salvador and Jamaica are all spending between 10 and 20% of export revenues on government foreign debt payments, and this doesn't include debt payments by the private sector.
If we had no evidence of how to solve a debt crisis equitably, we could perhaps regard the policies of Europe's leaders as misguided. But we have the positive example of Germany 60 years ago, and the devastating example of the Latin American debt crisis 30 years ago. The actions of Europe's leaders are nothing short of criminal.
February 27, 2013
Pope Benedict Evokes Difficult Moments in Final General Audience
By RACHEL DONADIO and ALAN COWELL
VATICAN CITY — In the waning hours of his troubled papacy, Pope Benedict XVI held his final general audience in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday, telling tens of thousands of believers in an unusually personal public farewell that his nearly eight years in office had known “moments of joy and light but also moments that were not easy” when it seemed “the Lord was sleeping.”
The audience came a day before Benedict’s resignation takes formal effect and was one of the last public appearances scheduled before he begins what Vatican officials have depicted as a cloistered life of prayer and meditation.
In his homily, the pope cited the biblical voyage of Jesus and the apostles on the Sea of Galilee, saying God had given him “so many days of sun and light breezes, when the fishing was abundant. But there were times when the waters were choppy and there were headwinds, as throughout the history of the church, and it looked as if the Lord was sleeping. But I have always known that the Lord was in that boat, that the boat was not mine or ours, but was his and he will not let it founder.”
His reference was to a scriptural passage in which Jesus falls asleep in a boat with his disciples on a stormy sea.
Explaining his decision to resign — the first pope to withdraw voluntarily in six centuries — he said that in recent months “I felt that my powers were diminished. And I asked the Lord insistently, in prayer, to illuminate me with his light to make me take the right decision not for my good but for the good of the church.”
He added: “To love the church also means having the courage to take difficult decisions, bearing always in mind the good of the church and not of oneself.” His words were frequently interrupted by applause.
The pope recalled the day in April 2005 when he assumed the papacy, and, in an apparent message to his successor, said that whoever succeeds him “no longer has any privacy. He belongs forever and totally to everyone, to all the church.”
“My decision to renounce the active exercise of the ministry does not change that. I am not returning to private life, to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences et cetera. I am not abandoning the cross, but I remain close to the crucified Lord in a new way,” he said.
Vatican officials said around 50,000 tickets had been requested for the occasion, which drew many more pilgrims into the broad boulevard leading toward the Vatican from the River Tiber.
"I’ve never felt lonely while carrying the burden and the joy of Peter’s ministry,” the pope also said. “Many people have helped me, the cardinals with their advice, wisdom and friendship, my collaborators starting with the state secretary and the whole curia, many of whom lend their service in the background, and all of you,” he said.
“The pope is never alone and I can now feel it in such a great way that it touches my heart,” he added.
Vatican officials said 150,000 people packed into the square and the avenue leading to it to hear the pope speak, although other estimates put the figure lower. Around 70 cardinals lined up to listen to him in their crimson skullcaps.
The pope, who is 85, sent shock waves around the Roman Catholic world on Feb. 11 when he announced he would resign on Thursday. He is scheduled to leave Rome by helicopter for the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo and greet residents and well-wishers there before his retirement formally comes into effect at 8 p.m. local time. At that point, the ceremonial Swiss Guards will march off from the Vatican, signifying that their job of protecting the pope is over until a successor is appointed.
Dressed in white, the pope rode in a covered vehicle known as the popemobile flanked by security guards on Wednesday, weaving through the crowd. Several times, the pope halted to bless babies handed to him from the throng.
“We came to give the pope our support,” said Giovanni Sali, 25, a student who had traveled from central Italy. “We want him to know we are close to him.”
Lucilla Martino, from Rome, said she had been surprised when the pope announced his resignation, but it had been a “positive shock” and “the right thing to do.”
The resignation left officials scrambling to deal with the protocols of his departure as he ceases to be the leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Roman Catholics. Only on Tuesday did the Vatican announce that he will keep the name Benedict XVI and will be known as the Roman pontiff emeritus or pope emeritus.
He will dress in a simple white cassock, forgoing the mozzetta, the elbow-length cape worn by some Catholic clergymen, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told reporters at a news briefing on Tuesday.
And he will no longer wear the red shoes typically worn by popes, symbolizing the blood of the martyrs, Father Lombardi said, opting instead for a more quotidian brown.
Benedict’s resignation has also triggered a surge of maneuvering among the more than 100 cardinals who will elect his successor in a conclave starting next month, reviving concerns about the clerical abuse scandals that dogged Benedict’s time at the Vatican.
Indeed, the abrupt resignation of the most senior Roman Catholic cardinal in Britain on Monday — after accusations that he made unwanted sexual advances toward priests years ago — showed that the taint of scandal could force a cardinal from participating in the selection of a new pope.
His exit came as at least a dozen other cardinals tarnished with accusations that they had failed to remove priests accused of sexually abusing minors were among those gathering in Rome to prepare for the conclave.
But there was no indication that the church’s promise to confront the sexual abuse scandal had led to direct pressure on those cardinals to exempt themselves from the conclave.
Rachel Donadio reported from Vatican City, and Alan Cowell from Paris. Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting from Rome.
February 26, 2013
Hilltop Town, a Host to Popes for Centuries, Prepares for an Eminent Retiree
By ELISABETTA POVOLEDO
CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy — This cramped hilltop town outside Rome is in its final preparations for the arrival on Thursday afternoon of an honored guest: Pope Benedict XVI, who will commence his new life as pope emeritus, one of the titles by which he will be known.
Town officials have been gearing up for a rousing — as far as ecclesiastical events go — welcome, with ringing bells, processional torches and the distribution of religious images with the pope’s countenance on one side and a prayer on the back.
“We want to express affection and solidarity for a choice that left us perplexed and stunned,” said the Rev. Pietro Diletti, the parish priest of the church of San Tommaso di Villanova, where the pope celebrates Mass each Aug. 15, the feast day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
The pope will spend some two months here as he waits for the restoration of more permanent lodgings in a convent inside the Vatican where he will live out his life, “hidden to the world,” as he said this month. And as the College of Cardinals begins to congregate next week ahead of a March conclave to choose Benedict’s successor, the pope’s off-season stint in Castel Gandolfo, about 15 miles southeast of Vatican City, is an added assurance that he won’t exert any undue influence in the selection.
For nearly 400 years, the town of Castel Gandolfo has played host to a succession of pontiffs seeking solace from the stifling Roman summer.
The papacy first laid claim to Castel Gandolfo — originally a small fortress belonging to the Savelli family — in 1596, but it was 30 years later that it officially became the papal summer residence, when Pope Urban VIII built a new wing on the side of the fortress that overlooks Lake Albano. Some years later, the renowned Baroque architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini developed a second wing, under Pope Alexander VII, and over the years new lots of land with their villas were acquired and elaborate gardens were developed.
The pontifical villas of Castel Gandolfo cover a triangle-shaped swath of the town, totaling about 135 acres. A working farm provides produce — fruits and vegetables, oil, eggs and dairy products — to the pope’s kitchens, both here and in Vatican City. Though the villas are under pontifical jurisdiction and high walls and secure gates bar entry to outsiders, there is considerable interaction with the town.
“Formally we are two states, but in fact it’s all one community,” said the mayor, Milvia Monachesi, noting that a number of its 9,000 residents work for the papal villas.
The pope’s current butler is from Castel Gandolfo. He replaced Paolo Gabriele, the manservant convicted of leaking confidential Vatican documents, an episode that weighed heavily on the final year of Benedict’s pontificate. Sentenced to 18 months in prison in October, Mr. Gabriele was later pardoned by the pope.
Townspeople of a certain age still recall the protection given by Pope Pius XII after Allied troops landed in Anzio in 1944 and the area became an open war zone. Some 12,000 people found refuge in the pontifical villas. “Around here there are many people named Pio or Pia, Eugenio or Eugenia,” in honor of Eugenio Pacelli, who became Pius XII, said Pier Paolo Turoli, an administrator of the Pontifical Villas at Castel Gandolfo.
Like other towns in the Alban hills, Castel Gandolfo is a popular weekend destination for Romans escaping the capital’s chaos. “But when the pope is here, it becomes the center of the world,” Ms. Monachesi said, with a surge in pilgrims, tourists and the occasional head of state. “We’re small, but we’re also very international.”
It was natural, residents say, for Benedict to want to return to “a place that he loved,” the mayor said. A plaque outside city hall quotes the pope’s own 2011 endorsement: “... Here I find everything. Mountains, a lake, and I can even see the sea ... And good people.”
The pope will arrive here by helicopter on Thursday afternoon, and will address the members of the diocese of Albano from the apostolic palace in the square in the final hours of his pontificate, which will end precisely at 8 p.m.
“Symbolically, at that time we will see the gates of the palace close, and the Swiss Guards will make their departure,” the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said at a news briefing on Tuesday, speaking of the armed forces that have served as papal bodyguards since 1506. The Vatican police will take over the protection of the former pontiff.
The pope will reside in his summer apartment here with his two secretaries and four memores, the laywomen of the community Memores Domini who care for him, said Saverio Petrillo, the director of the Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo. The intimate setting “allows for a more familial life,” he said.
Benedict will have access to landscaped gardens built over the ruins of the sprawling villa used as a summer residence by the Emperor Domitian, who ruled in the first century. “Castel Gandolfo is one place where the pope can find privacy,” Mr. Turoli said. “And it’s our job to ensure that he has a restful stay here.”
Anna Maria Vici Torrigiani, whose shop here makes cassocks and church decorations, presented the pope last year with an icon of the Virgin Mary against a background that depicts Lake Albano and Castel Gandolfo.
“I am hoping that he will take the icon with him when he goes into the convent in the Vatican,” she said. “Given he won’t be able to see the world anymore, I hope he will bring a bit of Castel Gandolfo with him.”
February 26, 2013
Now Gathering in Rome, a Conclave of Fallible Cardinals
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
The sudden resignation of the most senior Roman Catholic cardinal in Britain, who stepped aside on Monday in the face of accusations that he made unwanted sexual advances toward priests years ago, showed that the taint of scandal could force a cardinal from participating in the selection of a new pope.
His exit came as at least a dozen other cardinals tarnished with accusations that they had failed to remove priests accused of sexually abusing minors were among those gathering in Rome to prepare for the conclave to select a successor to Pope Benedict XVI. There was no sign that the church’s promise to confront the sexual abuse scandal had led to direct pressure on those cardinals to exempt themselves from the conclave.
Advocates for abuse victims who were in Rome on Tuesday focused particular ire on Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, the former archbishop of Los Angeles, and called for him to be excluded from the conclave. But Cardinal Mahony, who has vigorously defended his record, was already in Rome, posting on Twitter about the weather.
Even stalwart defenders of the church point out that to disqualify Cardinal Mahony would leave many more cardinals similarly vulnerable. Many of the men who will go into the Sistine Chapel to elect a pope they hope will help the church recover from the bruising scandal of sexual abuse have themselves been blemished by it.
“Among bishops and cardinals, certainly the old guys who have been involved for so long, sure they’re going to have blood on their hands,” said Thomas G. Plante, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University, who has served on the American bishops’ national abuse advisory board and has written three books on sexual abuse. “So when Cardinal Mahony says he’s being scapegoated, in some respects I think he’s right. All the focus is on him, but what about the other guys?”
Among the many challenges facing the church, addressing the wounds caused by sexual abuse is among the top priorities, church analysts say. When Pope Benedict was elected in 2005, many Catholics hoped that his previous experience at the helm of the Vatican office that dealt with abuse cases would result in substantive changes.
Benedict has repeatedly apologized to victims, and listened personally to their testimonies of pain. After the abuse scandal paralyzed the church in Europe in 2010, and began to emerge on other continents, Benedict issued new policies for bishops to follow on handling sexual abuse accusations, and he held a conference at the Vatican on the issue. But despite calls from many Catholics, he never removed prelates who, court cases and documents revealed, put children at risk by failing to report pedophiles or remove them from the priesthood.
It is not that these cardinals behaved so differently from the others, or that they do not have achievements to their names. It is just that they happened to come from pinpoints on the Catholic world map where long-hidden secrets became public because victims organized, government officials investigated, lawyers sued or the news media paid attention.
They include cardinals from Belgium, Chile and Italy. They include the dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, who is accused of taking large monetary gifts from a religious order, the Legion of Christ, and halting an investigation into its founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel — who was later exposed as a pathological abuser and liar.
They also include cardinals reviled by many in their own countries, like Cardinal Sean Brady, the primate of All Ireland, who survived an uproar after government investigations uncovered endemic cover-ups of the sexual and physical abuse of minors.
“There’s so many of them,” said Justice Anne Burke, a judge in Illinois who served on the American bishops’ first advisory board 10 years ago. “They all have participated in one way or another in having actual information about criminal conduct, and not doing anything about it. What are you going to do? They’re all not going to participate in the conclave?”
Even one cardinal frequently mentioned as a leading candidate for pope has been accused of turning a blind eye toward abuse victims. The Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet issued apologies to the many victims of abuse in church boarding schools in Quebec Province, but left behind widespread resentment when he reportedly refused to meet with them.
Much of the attention has been focused on Cardinal Mahony. Last month a court ordered the release of 12,000 pages of internal church files on abusive priests, including many damaging documents with his signature. The documents reveal, among other things, that he advised priests to stay out of California to avoid arrest and prosecution.
Other Americans who have failed to remove priests accused of abuse, but received less attention, include Cardinal Justin Rigali, the retired archbishop of Philadelphia, and Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago, according to Terry McKiernan, co-director and president of BishopAccountability.org, a Web site that tracks abuse cases.
Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned from the archdiocese in Boston in 2002 at the height of the American scandal and moved to Rome, where he was assigned to preside at a majestic basilica, is too old to vote in the coming conclave. However, he is eligible to participate in the general congregation meetings that precede the conclave.
In Chile, sexual abuse survivors and their advocates have aimed the spotlight on Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz, a former archbishop of Santiago. They say that for years he ignored their accusations against one of the country’s most prominent and influential priests, the Rev. Fernando Karadima, and refused to meet with the victims or to conduct an investigation.
After the victims publicized their claims, court and church investigations against Father Karadima found him guilty of the abuses, and in early 2011 the Vatican ordered him to retire to “a life of prayer and penitence.” But Cardinal Errázuriz is expected to vote in the conclave.
The senior British prelate who resigned on Monday, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, said he would not attend the conclave. Three priests and a former priest accused him of making sexual advances. Although the men were not minors at the time, he held a position of authority as their church superior.
At a news conference in Rome on Tuesday, David Clohessy, the national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, told reporters that coming to grips with the sexual abuse crisis should be a priority for the next pope.
“From the new pope, we’d simply expect courage,” he said. “We long for the day when church officials announce that this cardinal or this bishop is being demoted because church officials have found proof of wrongdoing and church officials want to clean things up.”
Pascale Bonnefoy contributed reporting from Santiago, Chile; Ian Austen from Ottawa; and Gaia Pianigiani from Rome.
Iran hails turning point in nuclear talks
Six-nation group offers concessions including sanctions relief in return for acceptance of limits on uranium enrichment
Julian Borger, diplomatic editor
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 27 February 2013 13.16 GMT
Iran has declared that negotiations with a group of world powers have reached a "turning point" after it was offered a series of concessions, including sanctions relief on gold and petrochemical exports, in return for acceptance of limits on uranium enrichment.
Two days of talks in the Kazakh city of Almaty between Iran and a six-nation negotiating group ended on Wednesday with an agreement to hold further meetings aimed at finalising a deal.
In return for a limited relaxation of sanctions, the six-nation group – the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China – maintained its insistence that Iran stop making 20%-enriched uranium, which is relatively easy to turn into weapons-grade material.
However, it relaxed its demand that all of Iran's stockpile of about 170kg of 20%-enriched uranium should be shipped out of the country, allowing Iran to retain enough to fuel a research reactor in Tehran.
The six powers also softened the stipulation put forward at a series of abortive meetings last year that an underground enrichment plant at Fordow, in central Iran, should be shut down.
In Almaty the Iranians were asked only to "reduce the readiness" of Fordow while accepting more intrusive monitoring of the facility by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a western diplomat said.
Other officials said enrichment at Fordow would have to be suspended and demonstrable steps taken to ensure it could not be quickly restarted.
The main financial and oil sanctions on Iran would stay in place, but sanctions relief on gold and other precious metals would allow it to sidestep some banking restrictions. The ability to export petrochemical products would allow it to boost foreign currency earnings and potentially increase its domestic oil refining capacity.
The chief of the Iranian delegation, Saeed Jalili, welcomed the offer, saying: "We consider these talks a positive step which could be completed by taking a positive and constructive approach and taking reciprocal steps … We believe this is a turning point."
Nuclear experts from all sides are due to meet in Istanbul on 18 March to hammer out details of the proposal, and another meeting of senior diplomats in Almaty is scheduled for 5 April.
A western diplomat said: "I think we now have traction to get into proper detailed negotiations. This is the first time we have put sanctions relief on the table. Its more than a gesture, it's sending a message. We have shown we are listening and are serious without giving up the major lever we have, which is the oil embargo."
The diplomat said a deal on Iran's 20% uranium could open the way to a more comprehensive agreement later on in which the oil and financial sanctions could be lifted in return for permanent limits on Iran's nuclear programme and robust IAEA monitoring.
"It's more for less," said Shashank Joshi, the author of a study on the Iranian nuclear negotiations, The Permanent Crisis. "It's offering more sanctions relief and asking less of Iran, which is a move in the right direction that many of us have been calling for. What is just as important is the Iranian reaction. They are talking in the same terms about the same things rather than just putting forward diametrically opposed positions."
February 26, 2013
Afghan Sign of Progress Turns Out to Be Error
By MATTHEW ROSENBERG
KABUL, Afghanistan — American officials, when looking to quickly illustrate progress in Afghanistan, have in the past few months highlighted a 7 percent drop last year in what they call “enemy-initiated attacks.” Fewer attacks, the reasoning went, meant Afghans were safer and the Taliban were weaker.
The problem: There was no decline. The numbers were wrong.
The American-led NATO coalition said Tuesday that it had discovered a clerical error in its reporting and that the number of enemy-initiated attacks — defined as attacks with guns, mortars, rockets or improvised explosive devices — remained constant from 2011 to 2012.
Though the mistake may be embarrassing, it is not likely to greatly change perspectives about how the war is going. That is in part because, outside of official circles, few analysts have seen the violence statistic as good news.
In fact, the same measure, when looked at over a wider sample of years, actually depicts a drastic growth in violence since 2009, when American commanders first began inching toward a counterinsurgency strategy that focused on reducing violence rather than solely on battling militants.
Previous coalition reports, which use bar graphs to plot the level of enemy-initiated attacks each month instead of specific figures, showed about 2,000 attacks in July 2009, for instance. That was before the Obama administration deployed tens of thousands of fresh troops in a bid to stabilize Afghanistan.
A year later, with all of the American surge forces in Afghanistan, the number of monthly attacks had roughly doubled, to about 4,000.
Three years later, in July 2012, enemy-initiated attacks stood just above 3,000 — a decline, to be sure, but still far higher than the number of attacks before the surge and the strategic shift toward protecting Afghans.
The coalition has sought to overcome the problematic numbers by saying that 80 percent of the enemy-initiated attacks have taken place in areas where less than 20 percent of Afghanistan’s 30 million people live. But with no public comparative data for years past, it is not clear whether that represents a change or just a longstanding feature of the war.
On Tuesday, the coalition said the mistake in the 2012 numbers resulted from the omission of a few months’ worth of data on enemy-initiated attacks from the Afghan security forces. The error was inadvertent, it said, and was discovered during what was described as a “quality control check.”
Once the Afghan numbers were added, it became apparent that statistics released by the coalition were incorrect, and the report that included them was removed from the coalition’s Web site.
“This was a record-keeping error that we recognized and have now corrected,” said Erin Stattel, a coalition spokeswoman.
The error in the statistics was first reported by The Associated Press, which noticed that the report containing them had been taken off the coalition Web site and inquired about the reason. The coalition then said it was revising the figures.
The revised figures are being audited and will soon be reposted, Ms. Stattel said.
February 27, 2013
17 Afghan Police Officers Drugged and Killed
By ROD NORDLAND
KABUL, Afghanistan — A group of 17 Afghan policemen were drugged by their comrades while on duty and then shot to death in their sleep in what appears to be the single worst incident in a string of similar attacks, according to Afghan officials.
The attack took place at a remote Afghan Local Police post in Ghazni Province, south of the capital, early Wednesday morning, according to General Zrawar Zahid, the Ghazni police chief.
Other Afghan officials said authorities had already arrested two policemen who they said were Taliban infiltrators who had carried out the attack.
Local officials said the attack in Habib Godala village in the Andar district took place about 1 a.m., after the policemen in the outpost had been drugged during dinner and fallen asleep. All were then shot at close range, and the attackers stole their weapons and set a police vehicle on fire before fleeing.
General Zahid said that 10 of the victims were Afghan Local Police officers who had finished their training, and seven others were recruits who were undergoing training. The A.L.P. program has been controversial in many parts of Afghanistan because of prominent insider attacks as well as accusations of human rights violations by the policemen.
The officers are vetted and trained by American special operations troops as self-defense forces for their own communities, and sometimes include groups of armed men who had formerly sided with the Taliban.
Khalil Hotaki, head of a peace group in Ghazni, complained that many local officials had tried to interfere in recruitment for the A.L.P. units, creating opportunities for Taliban infiltration. He said that a similar attempt to drug policemen had taken place a week earlier in the same district, but the drug had not been strong enough and the victims were able to prevent an attack.
A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabiullah Mujahid, emailed a statement to journalists claiming responsibility for the attack.
“Locals in the area were tired of the atrocities and crimes of these arbakais and their lives and property were not safe,” Mr. Mujahid wrote, using the Afghan term for irregular militias. “By eliminating these 19 corrupt arbakais, oppression has been weakened and decreased in the area.” He claimed 19 of them were killed.
The attack was just the latest in a series of such insider attacks, often involving the use of poisons or drugs to subdue other policemen, who are then shot while unconscious.
In January, an Afghan Local Police officer killed his commander and several colleagues in that manner, in Panjway District of Kandahar Province.
In a 10-day-long period in December, there were at least three such attacks by local policemen or others, resulting in 17 deaths.
An Afghan employee of The New York Times in Kabul contributed reporting
Rapes by Burmese security forces 'may cause more strife' in troubled region
Teenage victim describes how at least 13 women were raped overnight in Arakan state, which has been focus of ethnic riots
Francis Wade in Bangkok
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 26 February 2013 12.57 GMT
Over 90,000 Rohingya refugees have been displaced due to violence between Muslim Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists in Burma, and many are seeking help in Bangladesh. Video from June 2012. Link to video: Rohingya refugees leave Burma to seek help in Bangladesh
At least 13 women, including teenagers, have been subjected to prolonged rape by Burmese security forces in a remote village in the western state of Arakan. Human rights groups have warned that the incident threatens to trigger further violence in a region where several waves of ethno-religious rioting since June last year have killed more than 1,000 people.
The women all belong to the Muslim Rohingya minority, which has borne the brunt of fighting between Muslim and Buddhist communities. One victim, an 18-year-old girl who cannot be named for security reasons, described how a group of uniformed soldiers from Burma's border security unit, known locally as NaSaKa, entered her house in northern Maungdaw township shortly after midnight on 20 February.
"They took us separately to different places and tortured and raped us," she said, referring also to her mother and younger sister, 15. The ordeal lasted until dawn, she said. "They came in and out of the house at least 15 times. They also beat my mother with a gun and dragged her outside to the road and beat her to the ground."
According to the victim, 13 people in the village were assaulted. Chris Lewa, head of the Arakan Project, which has monitoring teams in Maungdaw township, said she had separately confirmed that at least 11 people were raped that night.
The incident comes eight months after the rape of a 26-year-old Buddhist woman by three Rohingya men triggered fierce rioting across Arakan state , and a state of emergency remains in place. Arakanese and Rohingya communities have clashed a number of times. Animosity toward the Muslim group is widespread among Arakanese, many of whom consider them to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
"Sexual violence by Nasaka against Rohingya women has been documented for many years," says Matthew Smith, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, adding that prosecutions are rare for rapes committed by security forces.
Khin Ohmar, founder of the Women's League of Burma, said that such ordeals terrorise the community. "I've heard of cases where rape survivors are kicked out of their village because the village head is so scared of retribution if they complain to the Burma army."
Rohingya Muslims Rohingya Muslim women and boys cross the Naf river into Bangladesh to escape sectarian violence in Arakan state, Burma, in June 2012. Photograph: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images
She said that incidents like these happen "every time the army moves into remote areas", and that punishment is normally just transferral to another area "where rape continues but with different women". She thinks that the 20 February incident probably had its roots in "ethno-centric chauvinism and hatred" of the Rohingya.
Following the attacks, villagers fled into nearby forests and across the border into Bangladesh, said Lewa. The victim told the Guardian that she and the other women had received treatment at a local clinic. The extent of their injuries is unclear, although one 19-year-old woman is believed to be in a critical condition.
The protracted violence in Arakan state has left deep scars for communities on both sides. The UN estimates the number of people displaced since June to be around 120,000, the majority Rohingya.
There are fears however that the violence, which initially pitted Rohingya against Arakanese, is increasingly being demarcated along religious lines. Rioting broke out in Rangoon this week after a row over what local Buddhists claimed was the illegal construction of a mosque. The Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma news organisation also reported last week that the government had placed a ban on all Muslims leaving the Arakanese town of Thandwe, although no official statement has been made.
Buddhist and Muslim communities in Arakan state have now been segregated. In the state capital of Sittwe, all but one Muslim district was razed and emptied last year; the last remaining quarter, Aung Mingalar, whose population swelled from 5,000 to 8,000 residents after fighting broke out, is now guarded by soldiers.
Following a visit to several camps for the displaced this month, UN envoy Tomas Quintana spoke of his concern about aid distribution and freedom of movement. Despite government assurances that displaced Rohingya could eventually return to their homes, Quintana said that stakeholders in Arakan state believed "the current settlements will become permanent".
The medical charity Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) has warned that its staff have received threats from local Arakanese when attempting to get aid to the Rohingya. "It's just awful intimidation and threats of violence from a small but vocal group, through phone calls and on social media," said Peter Paul de Groote, Head of Mission for MSF in Burma.
"Formal permission for access is not the main problem. A big obstacle for MSF is not having enough staff – doctors and other essential personnel are scared to work in Rakhine [Arakan] state." He added that with monsoon season approaching, "we can expect a real humanitarian problem".
Maldives court orders flogging of 15-year-old girl allegedly raped by stepfather
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, February 27, 2013 4:24
A Maldives court has sentenced a 15-year-old alleged rape victim to 100 lashes and eight months under house arrest after she admitted having had premarital sex in a separate incident, an official said Wednesday.
During a police probe into allegations that the girl had been raped by her stepfather, investigators uncovered evidence that she had had consensual sex with another man.
“Though she has been sentenced she will be lashed once she turns 18,” the court official, who asked not to be named, told AFP. “But the sentence will be enforced immediately if she wants it to be carried out now.”
Premarital sex is illegal under the Indian Ocean nation’s strict Islamic law.
The child’s stepfather faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted of rape and a murder charge, after he allegedly killed a baby which resulted from his rape of his step-daughter.
The premarital sex charge against the teenager has been condemned by rights groups and the government has urged leniency towards the girl, saying she had been traumatised by the repeated rapes by her stepfather.
President Mohamed Waheed’s spokesman Masood Imad told AFP in January that the girl should be treated as a victim rather than a perpetrator of a crime.
It was unclear if the girl’s male partner would also be charged with having premarital sex.
The nation of 330,000 Sunni Muslims has been practising a liberal form of Islam for centuries. But in recent years men and women have been prosecuted for sex outside marriage.
Minors are liable for the punishment when they reach 18, the age of majority. The Maldives continues to subject women to flogging despite UN calls to drop the practice.
In September a Maldivian court ordered the public flogging of a 16-year-old who confessed to premarital sex. Her lover was jailed for 10 years.
North Korea says its nuclear weapons can reach the U.S.
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, February 27, 2013 5:35 EST
North Korea warned Wednesday that the US mainland was “well within” the range of its nuclear weapons, as Pyongyang continued to ramp up the bellicose rhetoric after its recent nuclear test.
In an article posted on the official Uriminzokkiri website, a member of the Korean National Peace Committee — a propaganda body — said the North was now a “fully-independent rocket and nuclear weapons state”.
“The United States should be acutely aware that the US mainland is now well within the range of our strategic rockets and nuclear weapons,” the signed commentary said.
North Korea made a similar claim in October last year, saying it possessed rockets capable of striking the continental United States.
That was largely dismissed as bluster, but that was before Pyongyang conducted a successful long-range rocket launch in December, followed by its third nuclear test on February 12.
Although most experts believe the North has a long way to go to developing a dependable inter-continental ballistic missile, the December launch was a strong step in the right direction.
And this month’s nuclear test also fuelled concerns that North Korea is refining the technical ability to place a miniaturised nuclear warhead on a long-range missile.
After analysing debris from the rocket launch in December, the South Korean military estimated its possible range at around 10,000 kilometres (6,200 miles), bringing in the west coast of the United States.
In a separate commentary Wednesday, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) slammed upcoming US-South joint military drills, and warned that the Korean peninsula was “an inch away from explosion”.
February 26, 2013
No Move Yet by U.N. Body After Test by Koreans
By RICK GLADSTONE
The international expressions of anger and dismay that followed North Korea’s announcement of a nuclear test a few weeks ago, punctuated by a United Nations Security Council pledge to immediately work on “appropriate measures” in a new resolution, appear to have given way to slow-motion diplomacy and some frustration that not even a draft has been circulated among the Council’s 15 members.
United Nations diplomats privately said the process had become bogged down mainly over bridging differences between China and the United States about how forcefully to respond, in some ways replicating a pattern that has prevailed in deliberations taken previously in dealing with North Korea’s defiant tests of ballistic missiles and nuclear devices.
The frustration level, diplomats say, has been most prominent in South Korea, which has just sworn in a new leader, President Park Geun-hye. The frustration has been amplified because North Korea’s announcement of a nuclear test on Feb. 12, its third, coincided with South Korea’s turn as president of the Security Council under a monthly rotation system, giving South Korea a powerful measure of control over setting its priorities.
There had been hope in South Korea that a forceful Security Council resolution, expanding the economic penalties already in place against North Korea, would be completed and presented for a vote before South Korea relinquishes the presidential gavel at the end of Thursday to Russia, the Council president for March.
But given the lack of progress, that prospect appears unlikely, diplomats said. And Russia, like China, appears in no hurry to take action that, in its view, would only further antagonize North Korea and destabilize the Korean Peninsula. “The South Koreans would like to see a resolution during their tenure,” one diplomat said.
Members of the South Korean Mission to the United Nations did not respond to telephone messages or e-mails regarding the status of a North Korean resolution.
North Korea has said it would regard any new Security Council resolution as a provocation. Since the Feb. 12 test, the North has threatened to conduct more tests, promulgated video propaganda showing President Obama covered in fire, and vowed a “miserable destruction” of American and South Korean forces should they proceed with planned joint military exercises in March.
China has shown increasing impatience with North Korea, a destitute nation that depends on China for vital economic aid and trade. But on Tuesday China signaled its cautious approach on a Security Council resolution. A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, was quoted by the official Xinhua News Agency as saying the Council’s discussions “should be conducive to the denuclearization of the peninsula as well as peace and stability in northeast Asia.”
Xinhua said the spokeswoman was responding to comments made earlier by Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, who was quoted as saying in Moscow that any Security Council resolution “must confirm that negotiations are the only choice for the parties involved.”
There has been no public indication that China would be willing to expand the sanctions against North Korea, which cover military and dual-use goods, as well as luxury items for the elite. Nor has China given any indication that it would be willing to stop trade that helps keep its longtime ally afloat.
Diplomats and scholars of China-North Korea history say that although China increasingly regards North Korea as intransigent, it does not wish to take any steps that would collapse North Korea’s government.
Many expect to see another Security Council resolution, which may have the appearance of consequences, but nothing that China would regard as destabilizing. No clues have emerged on whether North Korea used plutonium or uranium to fuel the recent blast. The impoverished state is rich in uranium deposits, and a switch to that fuel in theory could speed the expansion of its arsenal since Western intelligence officials believe that its plutonium supplies are limited.
In the two weeks since the underground test, Western states and a United Nations agency have monitored winds for signs of radioactive seepage that might answer the question. No finds have yet been reported.
William J. Broad contributed reporting.
Obama tells Egypt’s president to ‘protect’ democracy
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, February 26, 2013 18:21 EST
US President Barack Obama warned Tuesday that his Egyptian counterpart Mohamed Morsi has a “responsibility to protect” the democratic principles advanced by the 2011 uprising.
Obama “welcomed President Morsi’s commitment to serving as a president for all Egyptians, including women and people of all faiths,” the White House said, in a statement describing a phone call between the two leaders.
Obama “emphasized President Morsi’s responsibility to protect the democratic principles that the Egyptian people fought so hard to secure,” it said, referring to the uprising that brought down longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
“President Obama encouraged President Morsi, and all political groups within Egypt, to work to build consensus and advance the political transition.”
The two leaders also discussed the importance of implementing economic reforms in Egypt “that have broad support and will promote long term growth,” and Obama “welcomed” Egypt’s contribution to regional peace and security.
The National Salvation Front, an umbrella opposition group, has vowed to boycott upcoming parliamentary elections — saying their transparency cannot be guaranteed — and has refused to join a national dialogue with Morsi.
Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, became Egypt’s first-ever elected leader last year but has come under withering criticism from opponents who accuse the Islamist movement of engaging in a power grab.
The NSF organized massive protests against Morsi in November and December after he adopted now-repealed powers that shielded his decisions from judicial review.
But the anti-Morsi protests have slowed since he pushed through an Islamist-drafted constitution in a December referendum, with the mass rallies giving way to smaller and often violent protests.
The White House said Secretary of State John Kerry is to visit Egypt on March 2 and urge “Egyptians to work together to build their democracy and promote economic stability and prosperity.”
February 26, 2013
Opposition Will Boycott Egypt’s Vote for Assembly
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
CAIRO — Egypt’s main opposition coalition declared Tuesday that it would boycott the coming parliamentary elections, all but ensuring that Islamists will continue to dominate the legislature and that their rivals will continue to question their legitimacy.
With the elections scheduled to begin in April, the Islamists who dominated the 2011-12 parliamentary and presidential votes appear more vulnerable than at any time since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak two years ago. President Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, is presiding over a period of political polarization, street violence, economic hardship and the first steps of cutting public subsidies. Among the pockets of vocal discontent are the cities along the Suez Canal, which are revolting against his government and apparently eager to vote for almost any viable alternative.
Nonetheless, the boycott by the coalition, known as the National Salvation Front, underscores the depth of its animosity toward the governing Islamists. And it reveals the opposition’s continuing distrust of Egypt’s nascent political process.
“The National Salvation Front has decided not to take part in the upcoming parliamentary elections because we were not consulted about the election law,” the group said in a statement read aloud by a spokesman, referring to the district map and election rules recently approved by Mr. Morsi and the interim legislature. “And also because all our demands have been ignored, topped by the formation of a neutral government.”
In addition to the immediate replacement of the cabinet with a unity government, the front has demanded the removal of the prosecutor general appointed by Mr. Morsi, the spokesman said. He said it also continued to demand “the formation of a committee to redraft the Constitution,” which voters approved in a referendum in December. The coalition opposed the Constitution at the time.
The group did not elaborate Tuesday on any specific criticism of the Constitution or the election law, but its officials did criticize Mr. Morsi over issues including soaring prices and unrest in the canal zone.
The spokesman said the coalition also refused to take part in a so-called national dialogue that Mr. Morsi said he was attempting to hold Tuesday with other political leaders about how to ensure fairness and confidence in the elections. Mr. Morsi has been calling for these dialogues for months, and the opposition has resolutely denounced them as a sham for the cameras.
The front refuses to join any dialogue “when we do not know its agenda and we do not know its means of implementation,” the group said in its statement.
United mainly by opposition to the Islamists, the front is an alliance of liberals, leftists and members of Mr. Mubarak’s former governing party. It is led by Mohamed ElBaradei, the liberal former head of the United Nations atomic energy agency; Hamdeen Sabahi, a populist in the tradition of Gamal Abdel Nasser; and Amr Moussa, a diplomat under Mr. Mubarak.