March 16, 2013
The Cossacks Are Back. May the Hills Tremble.
By ELLEN BARRY
STAVROPOL, Russia — Outside this city’s police headquarters on a recent night, a priest in a purple velvet hat and gold stole moved from one man to the next, offering a cross to be kissed and drenching their faces with holy water from a long brush.
And so began another night of law enforcement as Cossacks, the fierce horsemen who once secured the frontier for the Russian empire, marched out to join the police patrolling the city.
In his third term, President Vladimir V. Putin has offered one clear new direction for the country: the development of a conservative, nationalist ideology. Cossacks have emerged as a kind of mascot, with growing financial and political support.
The Kremlin is dipping into a deep pool of history: Cossacks are revered here for their bravery and pre-modern code of honor, like cowboys in the United States or samurai in Japan. But their legacy is bound up with battle and vigilante-style violence, including campaigns against Turks, Jews and Muslim highlanders.
These days men in Cossack uniforms are making appearances all over Russia, carrying out blustery raids of art exhibits, museums and theaters as standard-bearers for a resurgent church. But here on Russia’s southern flank, the Cossack revival is more than an idea. Regional leaders are granting them an increasing role in law enforcement, in some cases explicitly asking them to stem an influx of ethnic minorities, mainly Muslims from the Caucasus, into territory long dominated by Orthodox Slavs.
“We’ve lived cheek to cheek with them, and sometimes we fought with them, and we probably understand them better than a Russian from Moscow,” said Staff Capt. Vadim Stadnikov, head of security for the Terek Cossack Army, whose office displays a portrait of Czar Nicholas II. “They respect strength here.”
“With police it is a short conversation — you committed a crime, here’s the punishment,” he said. With Cossacks involved, he added, “There is a prophylactic effect, a kind of education. They come here. Take this group of young people. Explain to them the traditions of the Orthodox, Slavic, Cossack people of the city of Stavropol. What our rules are. How we live here.”
A series of violent episodes have underlined the potential for trouble in this incendiary and heavily armed part of Russia. This month, a Cossack chieftain was fatally shot trying to arrest a drunken man who had taken hostages in the neighboring region of Krasnodar. At the chieftain’s funeral, Cossacks in crimson coats, carrying leather whips and sabers, streamed after a riderless horse, a sight that could have dated from the 16th century.
Afterward, a top official said the time had come for the state to allow Cossack patrolmen to carry traumatic guns, nonlethal weapons that can inflict severe injuries at close range — a proposal that has been endorsed by the governors of Krasnodar and Stavropol.
“Some human rights activists, some ill-wishers, talk a lot about whether it’s necessary or not necessary,” Nikolai A. Doluda, chieftain of the Kuban Cossack Army and a deputy to the governor, told Russian television. “This terrible, frightening event underlines the fact that it is necessary.”
Historians still argue about who the Cossacks were — descendants of escaped serfs or Tatar warriors, an ethnic group in their own right or a caste of horsemen. They played a crucial role in colonizing the south for the Russian empire, and later turned on peasant and worker uprisings, defending the czar.
The Bolsheviks nearly obliterated them, deporting tens of thousands in a process they called “de-Cossackization,” but the image of the Cossack, wild and free, was a permanent part of the Russian imagination.
When Tolstoy sat down to write his classic novel “The Cossacks,” he set it near present-day Stavropol, where the Terek River divided the Muslim-populated mountains from the steppes, which were Cossack country. In a scene taught to generations of schoolchildren, a young Cossack spots a Chechen swimming across the Terek disguised as a log and shoots him.
The notion of an ethnic dividing line is widely accepted to this day, but it is running up against demography. Muslim ethnic groups in the Caucasus have a high birthrate, and Russians are abandoning the steppe. About 81 percent of Stavropol’s population is ethnic Russian, but that share has been shrinking for decades, the International Crisis Group has reported.
This rapid change is unsettling to ethnic Russians in Stavropol, who sometimes refer to the newcomers as “shepherds.” Gennady A. Ganopenko, 42, said he grew up in a city so homogeneous that “the sound of a non-Russian language was grounds for a brawl.”
“Earlier, this was the gate to the Caucasus,” he said. “We opened the gate, and then the gate came off the hinges.”
The Cossack revival seeks to slow this trend. Last summer, Aleksandr N. Tkachev, the governor of the Krasnodar region, to the west, took aim at his neighbors in the Stavropol region, saying so many Muslims had resettled there that Russians no longer felt at home. The region, he said, no longer served its traditional function as an ethnic “filter.”
To crack down on illegal migration, he announced the creation of a salaried force of 1,000 Cossack patrolmen, which — he explained in a speech to law enforcement officers — would not be restrained by the law as the police are. He put it this way: “What you cannot do, a Cossack can.”
Stavropol’s leaders bridled at the speech, but it struck a chord with nationalists. Among them was Boris V. Pronin, chieftain of the Romanov-Cossacks, one of the many Cossack associations in Stavropol not officially registered with the government. Like many people in the region, he said youths from the Caucasus had begun to behave too freely in Stavropol.
“It’s as if I came to your house, slapped you in the face and said, ‘Tonight, I’m going to sleep with your wife,’ ” he said in an interview.
Mr. Pronin has bright blue eyes and the battered nose of a boxer, and he wears a handsome, traditional Cossack uniform. After an ethnic Russian man was stabbed in a brawl with Muslim youths from the Caucasus this winter, he lashed out at regional law enforcement for acting too slowly to detain his assailants. He advocates the creation of a Cossack guard unit with powers equivalent to those of the police, warning that immediate action is needed.
“If a person has a cancer and metastasis has begun, if a professional doctor doesn’t take care of this metastasis, he will die,” he said. “It is the same with society. If there is already metastatic cancer on the territory of Stavropol region, one has to take appropriate preventive measures.”
The rise in official support for Cossacks is troubling to some Muslims, though their official representatives are careful about saying so. An exception was Zainudin Azizov, who, on a recent morning, barreled past herds of sheep and over acres of gray-brown steppe in a Mercedes S.U.V. while music wailed from its dashboard.
“One class is turning out to be somehow privileged,” he said of the Cossacks. “Why don’t they support the whole Russian people? Why are they supporting only this small class?”
Mr. Azizov represents Dagestani families who now dominate in villages at the far-eastern edge of the Stavropol region, and he is particularly irritated by a plan to grant free land in areas like his own to Cossack families being resettled, creating a kind of buffer zone of ethnic Russians. Nor does he like the idea of Cossack patrolmen receiving salaries from the state. While some of the local Cossacks are old friends, he said, others are “skinheads.”
“They join the Cossacks, but then they behave like nationalists,” he said. “They have support from the region, from Moscow. They feel they can do anything they want, that tomorrow they will have protection.”
Indeed, the Cossacks who set out to patrol Stavropol on a recent night felt that they were part of a rising tide. Andrei Kovtun, 29, recalled the ribbing he got from his former colleagues in law enforcement when he first patrolled with the Cossacks, who do not have the right to demand documents, carry weapons or detain people.
Still, on one of his early calls — separating two groups of brawling men — he understood that a Cossack’s presence had a psychological effect. “Are you a cop?” someone asked him, and when he answered, the room went quiet. Mr. Kovtun understood why: Policemen are bound by the law.
“A complaint cannot be made against a Cossack, and a Cossack cannot be fired,” he said. “They know Cossacks are free, and will not think too much about how to take a violator to a police station, but will simply give him a whipping. This is what people are afraid of — that a Cossack will punish the culprit in the old, traditional but fair fashion.”
“However,” he added hastily, “first we should always stop it by force of persuasion.”
March 16, 2013
U.S. Cancels Part of Missile Defense That Russia Opposed
By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN and MICHAEL R. GORDON
MOSCOW — The United States has effectively canceled the final phase of a Europe-based missile defense system that was fiercely opposed by Russia and cited repeatedly by the Kremlin as a major obstacle to cooperation on nuclear arms reductions and other issues.
Russian officials here have so far declined to comment on the announcement, which was made in Washington on Friday by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel as part of a plan to deploy additional ballistic missile interceptors to counter North Korea. The cancellation of some European-based defenses will allow resources to be shifted to protect against North Korea.
Aides to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said there would be no reaction until early next week, when they expect to be briefed by American officials.
But Russian news accounts quickly raised the possibility that the decision could portend a breakthrough in what for years has been a largely intractable dispute between Russia and the United States. A headline by the Itar-Tass news agency declared, “U.S. abandons fourth phase of European missile defense system that causes the greatest objections from Russia.”
Russian leaders on several occasions used meetings with President Obama to press their complaints about the missile defense program. At one such meeting, in South Korea last March, Mr. Obama was heard on a live microphone telling the outgoing Russian president Dmitri A. Medvedev in a private aside that he would have “more flexibility” to negotiate on missile defense after the November presidential election in November.
Pentagon officials said that Russia’s longstanding objections played no role in the decision to reconfigure the missile interceptor program, which they said was based on the increased threat from North Korea and on technological difficulties and budget considerations related to the Europe-based program.
“The missile defense decisions Secretary Hagel announced were in no way about Russia,” George Little, a Pentagon spokesman, said Saturday.
Still, other Obama administration officials acknowledged potential benefits if the decision was well-received in Moscow, as well as the possibility of continued objections given that the United States is not backing away from its core plan for a land-based missile shield program in Central Europe.
“There’s still an absolutely firm commitment to European missile defense, which is not about Russia; it’s about Iran these days,” said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “If there are side benefits that accrue with Russia, so be it. But that wasn’t a primary driver.”
Regardless, some experts said it could help relations by eliminating what the Russians had cited as one of their main objections — the interceptors in the final phase of the missile shield that might have the ability to target long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles, which are part of Russian’s nuclear arsenal.
The Obama administration has sought cooperation from Russia on numerous issues, with varying degrees of success. Russia generally has supported the NATO-led military effort in Afghanistan and has helped to restrict Iran’s nuclear program by supporting economic sanctions. But the two countries have been deeply at odds over the war in Syria, and over human rights issues in Russia. Most recently, Mr. Obama has said he would like further reductions in the two countries’ nuclear arsenals, something Russia has said it would not consider without settling the dispute over missile defense.
American experts insisted that the Russians’ concern over the antimissile program was exaggerated and that the system would not have jeopardized their strategic missiles had the final phase been developed. That Russian concern has now been addressed.
“There is no threat to Russian missiles now,” said Steven Pifer, an arms control expert who has managed Russia policy from top positions at the State Department and the National Security Council. “If you listen to what the Russians have been saying for the last two years, this has been the biggest obstacle to things like cooperation with NATO.”
“Potentially this is very big,” said Mr. Pifer, now of the Brookings Institution. “And it’s going to be very interesting seeing how the Russians react once they digest it.”
In Washington, many officials have said they believe Russia’s real objections are not only about the particular capabilities of the missile shield but also about a more general political and strategic opposition to an expanding American military presence in Eastern Europe. Canceling only the final stage of the program does not address that concern, so it is possible that Russia’s position will remain unchanged.
Sean Kay, a professor at Ohio Wesleyan University and expert in international security issue and Russian relations, said that the so-called fourth stage of the Europe-based missile defense program “was largely conceptual” and might never have been completed.
Eliminating that portion of the program made sense, Mr. Kay said. “In effect, by sticking with a plan that was neither likely to work in the last stage but was creating significant and needless diplomatic hurdles at the same time, we gained nothing,” he said. At least some of the canceled interceptors were to have been based in Poland, which will still host less-advanced interceptors.
In the past, efforts to restructure the antimissile program provoked sharp criticism in Poland, but this time reaction from Warsaw has been more muted. Analysts have said Poland’s main goal in hosting the interceptors has been having an American military presence there as a deterrent to Russia.
David M. Herszenhorn reported from Moscow, and Michael R. Gordon from Washington. Thom Shanker contributed reporting from Washington.
China's new premier, Li Keqiang, vows to tackle bureaucracy and corruption
Li, who took over as premier from Wen Jiabao on Friday, also promises to maintain steady growth and reduce inequality
Tania Branigan in Beijing
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 17 March 2013 10.24 GMT
China's new premier has promised to tackle bureaucracy, government excess and corruption as he began his term.
Li Keqiang, who will steer the world's second-largest economy and oversee the government, also vowed to curb public discontent by tackling inequality, at a press conference following the close of the largely rubber-stamp parliament on Sunday.
But the 57-year-old, who formally succeeded Wen Jiabao on Friday, said maintaining sustainable economic growth – of at least 7.5% annually over the coming years – was the highest priority.
"It will not be easy, but we have favourable conditions and enormous potential in domestic demand," he added.
The country's new leader, Xi Jinping, who took on the presidency on Thursday, has repeatedly vowed to make tackling abuses and cutting government spending and red tape a priority – a message he repeated in his address to almost 3,000 delegates at the parliamentary session's closing ceremony.
Li offered the first measurable commitments, promising to cut the government workforce, halt spending on government offices and hotels, freeze spending on overseas trips and official vehicles and slash the 1,700 processes requiring government approval by a third.
"The central government will lead by example. Local governments must follow suit," he added.
But Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, noted that Li's concrete promises built on ideas already outlined, and said: "You are not going to be held to those."
Niu Jun, a scholar at Peking University's school of international relations, told Associated Press that he did not have "terribly high expectations" of the pledges, but was more impressed by Li's commitment to handle matters according to laws and rules.
"No matter who you are or what you intend to do, you should not exceed the boundaries of the rule of law," Li told reporters.
Yang said that echoed remarks made by other parts of the leadership during the National People's Congress.
"I see a concentrated effort by the new generation of leaders to set the tone on how power should be regulated," he said.
Questions for the annual premier's press conference are vetted in advance, but Li gave a notably confident performance, with a smile that rarely faltered and moments of off-the-cuff humour.
"In pursuing reform we have to navigate uncharted waters. We may also have to confront protracted problems, because we will have to shake up vested interests," said Li.
"Sometimes stirring vested interests may be more difficult than stirring the soul. But however deep the water may be, we will wade into the water because we have no alternative. Reform concerns the destiny of our nation."
He said improving social fairness was crucial to improving satisfaction with the government, closing the gap between urban and rural dwellers and improving the social safety net.
He added a personal touch by stressing his experience of working on the land as a "sent-down youth". He said he would not forget the hardship faced by farmers, but also focused on the way that reform had transformed people's lives.
While hundreds of millions in China have climbed out of poverty, inequality has soared and around an eighth of the population still lives on less than $1.25 per day (83p), according to the United Nations Development Programme.
Li also touched on other sources of widespread discontent, pledging to crack down on food safety offenders with an "iron fist". As smog shrouded the Great Hall of the People, he acknowledged that he too was "quite upset" about recent widespread air pollution.
On Saturday, almost a third of the parliamentary deputies rejected or abstained on the new membership of the environmental protection committee, with 850 opposing, 140 choosing not to vote and another 1,969 supporting.
It is highly unusual for such a high proportion of the legislature to oppose a decision, underlining the growing concern about pollution.
Li shrugged off a question about Chinese cyber-attacks on US systems, reiterating Beijing's complaint that it too is a victim and warning: "I think we should not make groundless accusations against each other, and spend more time doing practical things that will contribute to cyber-security."
He also declined to offer detail on much-anticipated plans to overhaul the government's re-education-through-labour scheme, saying only that they were likely to emerge before the end of the year.
• This article was amended on 17 March 2013 to remove repetition in the second paragraph.
March 16, 2013
2 Years Late, Zimbabwe Votes on New Constitution
By LYDIA POLGREEN
HARARE, Zimbabwe — Batsi Munyaka, 27, an unemployed mechanic, had not read the document that could govern his nation for decades to come. But he said he was tired of trying to cobble together a living with little ventures that did not add up to much, and he hoped that a new Constitution, whatever its provisions, could help get Zimbabwe’s economy on track.
“I have the right to vote, and maybe it can make a change in our country,” he said with a shrug.
More than two years late — and in far smaller and less enthusiastic numbers than their leaders had hoped for — Zimbabweans went to the polls on Saturday to vote in a referendum on a new Constitution, a crucial step toward holding presidential elections this year.
The document was the product of endless months of tortured negotiations between ZANU-PF, the party of the longtime president, Robert Mugabe, and the two factions of the rival Movement for Democratic Change.
The results of the vote are expected within five days, one of the last steps in the long process intended to set Zimbabwe back on the path of normalcy. That route was laid out after the disastrous 2008 presidential election, in which the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, won the most votes but then refused to participate in a runoff after his supporters endured a violent onslaught by Mugabe loyalists.
Eventually, regional leaders brokered an agreement in which Mr. Mugabe would share power with Mr. Tsvangirai as part of a transitional government that would overhaul the country’s brutal and deeply politicized security services, stabilize its bottomed-out economy and write a new Constitution as a prelude to fresh elections. It was supposed to take 18 months, but the process has dragged on for four years. Switching to the United States dollar has arrested the hyperinflation that crippled the economy, but the country’s security forces remain unchanged and firmly in the grips of Mr. Mugabe and his allies.
The new Constitution was meant to help resolve some of the festering problems that have kept Zimbabwe, once one of Africa’s most stable and prosperous nations, mired in crisis.
Opposition parties had initially wanted a less powerful presidency, more power for provincial and local officials, and a strengthening of the rule of law. Mr. Mugabe’s all-encompassing power, they argued, had allowed him to lead Zimbabwe into chaos by seizing land, stacking the courts with his allies and making disastrous economic policy with the stroke of a pen.
In the new Constitution, the president’s power to rule by decree is curtailed, and the document bolsters the bill of rights by banning cruel punishments and torture. But critics say the draft retains many of the president’s powers and does not do enough to increase oversight.
“This will create one monster who will determine the future of this country,” said Job Sikhala, leader of a breakaway faction of the Movement for Democratic Change known as M.D.C.-99, who urged people to vote against the new Constitution. “Is that what we fought for?”
Top officials of Mr. Mugabe’s party, ZANU-PF, campaigned hard for a “yes” vote, seeing the approval of the Constitution as the fastest way to get to presidential elections, which are supposed to be held later this year.
Simon K. Moyo, a senior party leader, said in an interview that the draft had emerged from a public process and reflected the will of Zimbabweans.
“This is the people’s Constitution,” Mr. Moyo said. “The people have given this Constitution. So why would they vote against themselves?”
The main faction of the Movement for Democratic Change is also supporting the new Constitution, arguing that it reflects the best bargain that could be won at this stage.
“It is the M.D.C. that single-handedly forced Mr. Mugabe to come to the negotiating table, kicking and screaming, to agree to the new draft Constitution,” Mr. Tsvangirai, who has been serving as prime minister, said at a rally in Bulawayo on Thursday. “That is why you must all vote yes.”
Lovemore Madhuku, a leader of the National Constitutional Assembly, a civic group that urged people to vote against the Constitution, said the document represented a compromise between political enemies, not an expression of how Zimbabwe’s people wish to be governed.
“A democratic constitution must come from a democratic process that must be dominated by the wishes of the people,” Mr. Madhuku said. “Almost every Zimbabwean accepts that the process was not a good process.”
The initial draft of the Constitution was shaped by public meetings and outreach to Zimbabweans, as required by the agreement that created the power-sharing government. But ZANU-PF objected to many of its provisions, and several messy rounds of bargaining produced a very different final draft.
“Two political parties agreed to rubber-stamp a conglomeration of their own ideas into national law so that they go for elections,” said an editorial in News Day, an independent newspaper. “There is absolutely no doubt that most Zimbabweans that are voting today are doing so blindly.”
The new Constitution limits the president to two terms, a crucial provision given that Mr. Mugabe, 89, has ruled Zimbabwe since its independence in 1980. But Mr. Mugabe’s previous terms will not count, so he is free to run twice more. The new charter also increases the size of Parliament, which critics say is wasteful because lawmakers get many perks but have few actual powers.
Some women’s rights groups have praised the Constitution for cementing gender equality in Zimbabwe. The document also calls for the creation of a constitutional court, which would replace the Supreme Court as the highest court in the country and enforce fundamental rights.
Many voters have either not seen the new Constitution or do not really understand how it differs from the old one.
“I don’t know much about it, to be honest,” said Tanatswa Zimunya as a friend braided her hair in a busy market in the township of Warren Park, at the edge of Harare, the capital. “I will vote yes anyway.”
Given the disputed election in 2008, in which hundreds of people died in bloody crackdowns on opposition supporters, Ms. Zimunya said she was simply happy that the main political parties had finally agreed on a Constitution.
“Whatever they decide is O.K.,” she said. “We need peace. We cannot have violence.”
Women remain ‘slaves’ despite UN accord: Egyptian politician
By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, March 16, 2013 13:15 EDT
Women are “the slaves of this age,” according to an Egyptian politician who took a stand against the country’s Muslim Brotherhood to back a UN declaration on violence against women.
Mervat Tallawy, who headed the Egyptian delegation at a United Nations conference that ended late Friday, said that despite the hard-fought declaration, secured after two weeks of tense negotiations, more help must be given to women in the Middle East.
Tallawy stunned many at the UN Commission on the Status of Women — marked by blocking tactics by conservative Muslim and Roman Catholic states — by backing the document that set global standards to combat violence against women.
Despite growing human rights, wealth and other progress, Tallawy told reporters after the landmark accord was approved that there is still too much discrimination.
“Women are the slaves of this age. This is unacceptable and particularly in our region,” Tallawy said.
Tallawy, a diplomat turned politician and head of Egypt’s National Women’s Council, said “international solidarity is needed for women’s empowerment and preventing this regressive mood whether in the developing countries or developed, in the Middle East in particular.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, from which President Mohamed Morsi hails, said this week that the proposed UN document “undermines Islamic ethics” and “would lead to the complete disintegration of society.”
Tallawy said there is “a global wave of conservatism, of repression against women. And this paper is a message that if we can get together, hold power together, we can be a strong wave against this conservatism.”
When asked about the Muslim Brotherhood’s opposition, the official said she had already challenged Morsi in his office about Egypt’s constitution.
“I believe in women’s cause. I don’t take money from the government, I work voluntarily. If they want to kick me out they can, but I will not change my belief in women.”
The UN declaration broke new ground by stating that violence against women could not be justified by “any custom, tradition or religious consideration.” This had infuriated Iran and other conservative Muslim states.
But Western nations had to tone down their demands for references to gay rights and sexual health rights to secure the accord after two weeks of tense negotiations. The United States and others said there should have been an acknowledgement that lesbian women also deserve equal rights.
“I was really afraid that we would not have an agreement,” Norway’s Gender Equality Minister Inga Marte Thorkildsen told AFP. Scandinavian nations took a tough stance at the conference calling for an aggressive document.
“I am very happy that it was possible to isolate some of the most reactionary groups, including the Vatican and Iran.”
Thorkildsen was upset however that gender identity and sexual orientation was not included in the declaration.
“That was impossible and I think that it is sad that so many countries don’t want to protect their own inhabitants from violence just because they have a different sexual orientation or gender identity. I find that unacceptable.”
The minister said her concern now would be how countries apply the statement. The United Nations has called for concrete action to apply the commitments.
“It will vary to what extent the different countries will implement the different parts and that is worrying,” said Thorkildsen.
The minister said there also had to be action to prevent a weakening of women’s rights already achieved and highlighted “backlashes after the Arab Spring” to back comments made by Tallawy.
“There are too many forces who don’t accept that women have the exact same rights as men. We have to fight in the future,” said Thorkildsen.
March 16, 2013
Assad Issues a Worldwide Plea as a Top Syrian General Defects
By ANNE BARNARD
BEIRUT, Lebanon — A Syrian general who was in charges of army supplies and logistics has defected from the army, he said Saturday, a day after the rebels’ top military commander again called for members of the armed forces to join the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, now entering its third year.
But there were no reports of unusually widespread or decisive defections in response to a video address in English and Arabic released Friday by Gen. Salim Idris, who defected last July and is now the leader of the Free Syrian Army’s unified military command. Instead, Mr. Assad’s government went on the political offensive, calling on Brazil, China, India and other developing powers to help stop the Syrian conflict and find a political solution to the uprising.
Protests across Syria to observe the uprising’s two-year anniversary were small and muted compared with the exuberant demonstrations that initially set off the revolt, underscoring the growing sense that the war is nowhere near an end. The government remains dug in and is willing to use extreme force, and a political solution appears remote.
The request for political support from developing nations came in a letter delivered by an Assad adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, to the president of South Africa, who is hosting a meeting next week of the so-called Brics nations: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
As Europe and the United States weigh stronger action to aid the Syrian rebels, including directly arming them, Mr. Assad appeared to be appealing to those nations’ aversion to Western military interventions.
Before the uprising, Ms. Shaaban portrayed herself as an advocate for reform and modernization, but she has rarely been seen since she offered her support for the security forces during the early days of the crackdown.
The uprising began peacefully, but elements of the opposition eventually took up arms after security forces fired on protesters.
The new defector, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Nour Ezzedeen Khallouf, the army’s chief of supplies and logistics, appeared briefly on Saturday in a broadcast on Al Arabiya.
“Arrangements for the defection from the current Assad regime started a while ago,” he said. “There was coordination with several sides from various factions of the Syrian revolution.”
His acceptance into the rebels’ ranks underscores their assertion that they will welcome anyone who switches sides even now, so deep into the conflict.
Antigovernment activists said that while his high rank was notable among defectors, his departure would not change things for the government, which could easily replace him.
As the conflict continues, the Syrian government has increased its use of cluster bombs, which are widely banned because those that do not explode on impact often injure civilians who find them, the international watchdog group Human Rights Watch said in a report issued Saturday.
In the past six months, the Syrian government has dropped 156 cluster bombs in 119 places, said Human Rights Watch. Two recent strikes alone killed 11 civilians, including two women and five children, the group said.
Hania Mourtada and Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 17, 2013
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the responsibilities of a Syrian general who defected. The officer, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Nour Ezzedeen Khallouf, was involved with army supply and logistics, not with a military intelligence branch that has been accused of torture. A different general who is also named Mohammed Khallouf runs the intelligence agency.
March 16, 2013
Kenyan Court Asked to Order New Election For President
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
NAIROBI, Kenya — Raila Odinga, the second-place finisher in Kenya’s presidential race this month, filed a sweeping petition before Kenya’s Supreme Court on Saturday contending “glaring anomalies” in the vote and calling for the court to nullify the results and order a new election.
Mr. Odinga has been urging his supporters to remain peaceful and refrain from rioting, as they did in 2007 when he narrowly lost Kenya’s last presidential election amid widespread evidence of vote rigging similar to the allegations he is making now.
So far, the peace has held, though on Saturday police officers fired tear gas at Odinga supporters who had gathered in front of the Supreme Court in downtown Nairobi to show their solidarity.
The case is sure to be a test of Kenya’s recently overhauled judiciary. It is now much more widely respected, but some analysts have questioned whether all six Supreme Court justices will be able to withstand the pressure of refereeing such a high stakes contest for power. Even before the election, the chief justice received death threats, and analysts have raised questions about the independence of some of the other justices.
On March 4, millions of Kenyans flooded to the polls, some waiting in line for 10 hours to cast their ballots. According to the national election commission, Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s first president, won 50.07 percent of the vote, avoiding a runoff by a minuscule margin of about 8,000 votes.
Mr. Odinga won about 43 percent. But in his petition, which his lawyers have been working on for the past week, he claims that his vote was covertly reduced and that Mr. Kenyatta’s was inflated in a “deliberate, well-calculated and executed ploy” to hand the election to Mr. Kenyatta.
Many outside countries are watching closely to see if Kenya can handle a disputed election without erupting as it did in 2007 and 2008, when more than 1,000 people were killed.
Many Western officials had hoped that Mr. Odinga would win because Mr. Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, have been charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity connected to the violence last time.
In his petition, Mr. Odinga levels a variety of complaints, from the “catastrophic scale” of computer failures to discrepancies between results announced publicly and results entered into the final tally.
The election commission has acknowledged that some of its newly installed computer systems malfunctioned but said the results were still valid.
Mr. Kenyatta, who is also one of the richest men in this part of Africa, has insisted that the election is “over.”
March 16, 2013
Rebels in Congo Loyal to Warlord Flee or Give Up
KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) — Congolese rebels loyal to the warlord Bosco Ntaganda have fled into neighboring Rwanda or surrendered to United Nations peacekeepers after being routed by a rival faction, rebels and United Nations officials said Saturday.
After weeks of infighting within the March 23 Movement, the leader of another rebel faction, Gen. Sultani Makenga, could now be in a position to sign a peace deal with the government, bringing an end to a yearlong rebellion in eastern Congo.
General Makenga’s fighters seized control of the town of Kibumba, about 20 north of Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province, on Saturday, said Col. Vianney Kazarama, a spokesman for General Makenga’s faction of the rebel group, also known as the M23.
Mr. Ntaganda and an estimated 200 fighters fled into the forest while others crossed the border into Rwanda, Colonel Kazarama said. At least seven fighters were killed.
Mr. Ntaganda is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of killing civilians during a previous rebellion. His links to the M23 have been a stumbling block to peace talks with the government, which has repeatedly said it wants him brought to justice.
Rwanda said Saturday that more than 200 rebel fighters had fled across its border overnight, including the former leader of the M23’s political wing, Jean-Marie Runiga, a Ntaganda loyalist who was ousted from the rebel hierarchy last month.
Originally published Saturday, March 16, 2013 at 3:56 PM
Israel sees Obama visit as chance for positive story
President Obama’s three-day trip to Israel and the West Bank begins Wednesday and offers Israelis a rare opportunity to shine before a global audience. They’re determined not to squander a minute of it.
By Edmund Sanders
Los Angeles Times
JERUSALEM — When the White House tweaked President Obama’s upcoming Mideast itinerary to include Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, Israelis feared he wouldn’t have time for a field trip to see their beloved Iron Dome missile-defense system.
No problem, Israeli officials decided. If Obama can’t come to the Iron Dome, the Iron Dome will come to him. One of the five U.S.-funded batteries will be temporarily repositioned to the airport for a photo op with the arriving president.
Obama’s three-day trip to Israel and the West Bank begins Wednesday and offers Israelis a rare opportunity to shine before a global audience. They’re determined not to squander a minute.
Politicians and pundits will schmooze with some of the estimated 500 visiting foreign journalists at a government-sponsored cocktail reception, while special excursions are being offered for visitors to highlight the softer side of Israel, from wine tasting to Christian pilgrimage.
High-technology companies are putting together a special exhibit of their accomplishments at the Israel Museum, and the Jerusalem International Ice Festival is creating a frozen sculpture in the president’s likeness.
The trip has an official government logo (U.S. and Israeli flags morphed into one), a slogan (“Unbreakable Alliance”) and a new smartphone app launched by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office to track every step.
With Palestinian peace talks stalled and no sign Obama will use the trip to pressure Israel to make new concessions, Israelis are hoping to use the long-anticipated visit to cast themselves in a more positive light: as a world-class society and close U.S. ally.
“Israel does not get many opportunities for positive international attention,” said Gabriel Weimann, a political-communications experts at Haifa University. “Israel will try to use this as a chance to market itself and show there is more to the country than conflict.”
Israel is no stranger to the international limelight, but it usually focuses on the West Bank occupation, settlement construction and threats to bomb Iran’s purported nuclear-weapons program.
Aside from U.S. presidential visits, the only other time so many foreign journalists go to Israel is usually during wars and military confrontations, such as last year’s eight-day conflict in Gaza Strip.
For a country often facing international criticism, a U.S. presidential visit is a big deal, officials say.
Jerusalem city workers are busily repairing roads, fixing street lighting and hanging an estimated 1,000 U.S. and Israeli flags. The historic Old City walls will have special lighting so the president can enjoy the view from his King David Hotel suite.
Thousands of extra police and other security personnel will be dispatched to clear and secure roads at an overall estimated price tag for Israel of nearly $4 million, though much of the cost of security and accommodation will be borne by the U.S.
Hoping to avoid an embarrassing public confrontation over settlement construction, government officials said Netanyahu has ordered a temporary halt to all hearings or approvals of Jewish housing in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The international community views such housing as illegal.
In 2010, approval of 1,600 housing units in the east Jerusalem development of Ramat Shlomo during a visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden created a diplomatic rift.
The Government Press Office is focusing on the hundreds of journalists expected to cover the trip, 250 traveling with Obama and another 250 arriving independently, director Nitzan Chen said.
He noted that with so much regional upheaval in recent years, attention on Israel has diminished and the trip offers a chance to regain some of that. “We’re not leading the news anymore,” Chen said.
The fact that there probably won’t be big breaking stories opens a window for Israel to fill the news hole, he said. Chen’s office is hoping to ferry journalists to meet rocket-attack victims near the Gaza Strip or to see the unstable Syrian border, but those looking for something lighter can tour a winery or take an evening stroll through the Old City.
Despite efforts to show Israel as more than a land of conflicts, the itinerary for Obama will include visits to a model of the destroyed Second Temple of Jerusalem and to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum complex.
That focus on Israel’s suffering led Haaretz newspaper columnist Uri Misgav to quip that Obama “will be treated to Jerusalem’s full-dress victim show, a modern Via Dolorosa,” referring to the trail that Christians believe Jesus took to his Crucifixion.
Chen said the campaign is about education, not spin.
“We want to make sure that everyone understands the history and background about the conflict,” he said. “We’re focusing on the press because they are part of the way we can persuade the entire world that we are right.”
March 16, 2013
New Apartments Will Complicate Jerusalem Issue
By JODI RUDOREN
JERUSALEM — The Muslim call to prayer resounds through the traffic circle in the Palestinian enclave of Ras al-Amud, through the taxi stand where waiting drivers sip sweet coffee and the vegetable market where boys help their fathers after school. It can also be heard down the street in Maalot David, where a few Jewish families have quietly taken up residence in newly renovated apartments with prime views of Jerusalem’s Old City.
Maalot David is not a typical Israeli settlement, a planned community in the hills, surrounded by gates and guards, where Jews live separate and apart from nearby Palestinian villages. It is a new apartment block sandwiched into the very fabric of Arab East Jerusalem, a construction many say fundamentally undermines the idea that the area could ever serve as the capital of a Palestinian state.
Israel’s building of Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and West Bank territories seized during the 1967 war has been a longstanding friction point between Jerusalem and Washington.
With President Obama scheduled to visit this week, the government has postponed action on several East Jerusalem projects, to make sure there are no awkward events like when Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. arrived in 2010 and was greeted by an announcement of 1,600 new units.
Those more traditional, government-financed settlements may be delayed, but The Jerusalem Post has for weeks been running advertisements promoting Maalot David and another new apartment block, Beit Orot — both privately owned and developed — as a “dream come true” for their proximity to the Old City and the 3,000-year-old Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives.
While most experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have long imagined Jerusalem as ultimately being divided, with Jewish neighborhoods remaining part of Israel and Arab ones joining Palestine, these new buildings make such a plan more complicated if not impossible — which may be exactly the point.
“The world is talking about dividing Jerusalem — it’s in many ways churning water,” said Daniel Luria, executive director of Ateret Cohanim, an organization that is not involved in these two projects but that has led many other efforts to establish Jewish beachheads in the area. “What has happened since 1967 in the Old City and around the Old City has made any discussion of dividing Jerusalem the way the Arabs see it irrelevant, because on the ground it ain’t going to happen.”
Palestinian leaders say that Maalot David and Beit Orot are part of an insidious ring of Israeli activity around the so-called Holy Basin of sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, which includes a vast national park and a planned military academy.
“It is all part of the plan, part of the scheme, to undermine the two-state solution and East Jerusalem being the capital,” said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, on Thursday during a tour for foreign diplomats intended to highlight the issue ahead of Mr. Obama’s visit.
On a similar outing last month, the Palestinian Authority’s governor of Jerusalem, Adnan Husseini, declared, “This phase of colonization is very dangerous, because it disintegrates inside the Palestinian neighborhoods — now they want to disfigure the core itself.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and most of the leaders in his new coalition, as well as the mayor of Jerusalem, have steadfastly maintained Israel’s right to build anywhere in the city, though its 1967 annexation of the Arab areas has not gained international acceptance.
Daniel Seidemann, a lawyer and settlement opponent who documents Israeli building in East Jerusalem, estimates there are 196,000 Jews living in such areas. The vast majority are in large, established neighborhoods like French Hill, near Hebrew University, or Har Homa, at the city’s southern edge, and are not seen by most Israelis as settlers.
About 2,200, according to Mr. Seidemann, are scattered in Palestinian enclaves in and around the Old City — many of them ultra-Orthodox extremists who took it as a religious and political mission to seize individual homes and raise Israeli flags on them.
Beit Orot and Maalot David represent a different approach: modern, comfortable apartments tucked into existing Palestinian neighborhoods. (It is not unprecedented: About 90 Jewish families live in Maale Hazeitim, across the street from Maalot David, and a similar number in Nof Zion, which opened several years ago in nearby Jebel Mukaber.)
But these projects come at an especially anxious time — with the peace process long stalled, confidence between the parties all but absent, and international condemnation of settlements generally intensifying. Heightening concerns of settlement critics, the new Israeli government finalized on Friday named as minister of housing and construction a former leader of the settlers’ council, whose Jewish Home Party opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Beit Orot, on the edge of the Palestinian neighborhoods of Al Sawana and A-Tur, includes 24 units in four, four-story buildings next to a yeshiva by the same name whose property was bought by Irving I. Moskowitz, a wealthy Miami doctor who has financed many East Jerusalem projects. There are three-, four- and five-bedroom apartments with large porches and parking spaces, starting around $350,000.
Maalot David, a former police compound used by Jordan when it controlled the area from 1948 to 1967 and then by Israel, has 20 units, three of them small houses. The asking price for its 2,500-square-foot penthouse, with views of the Dome of the Rock out the 14 windows in the open kitchen-living area, is near $1 million.
Harel Basel, the real estate broker handling sales, said buyers so far had been religious but not ultra-Othodox families, some from West Bank settlements, drawn by both location and relative affordability. Similar apartments in prime West Jerusalem, he said, go for two or even four times as much.
“Something that is more than just an apartment in Jerusalem,” Mr. Basel. “Something for the soul, something with a goal, a vision, not just a house.”
Nechama Meir, who moved into Maalot David six months ago, said that she is no pioneer and that her address is “not a geopolitical question.”
A 33-year-old mother of six, ages 6 months to 11 years, Ms. Meir said she wanted more space (860 square feet, compared with 600 in the old place) and a yard (they planted their own grass). She also yearned to be closer to the Old City, where the children go to school, and to the Mount of Olives, where her husband’s great-grandfather is buried, along with generations of great rabbis.
A few weeks ago, the family visited a site believed to be where the red heifer was sacrificed, during biblical times, in a purification ritual.
“It’s a very holy place,” said Ms. Meir, who grew up in Neve Yaakov, a settlement of about 20,000 people in the northern reaches of East Jerusalem, and sells natural cosmetics. “You go out, you feel connected to all the generations of the nation. It’s just special to live in a place that you feel connected to your roots.”
Her children ride their bikes in the parking lot, behind Maalot David’s iron gates and tall fences; the streets outside are deemed too dangerous. They are not allowed to walk alone to the Old City: the Ras al-Amud traffic circle is notorious for Palestinian youths throwing stones at Israeli soldiers, settlers and visitors.
The parents do sometimes shop at the produce stand down the street. And when some Palestinian young men accidentally tossed their keys over the fence one recent afternoon, the couple said, they spent an hour searching in the bushes, though they would not risk letting the neighbors in to hunt for themselves.
Muhammad Zaghal, an optometrist who grew up in Ras al-Amud, has watched tensions swell as first Maale Hazeitim and then Maalot David opened their doors.
After Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier kidnapped in the Gaza Strip, was released in late 2011 in exchange for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, Mr. Zaghal said, some Jews threw stones and water at people celebrating in the street, and made a big sign declaring, “One Jew is Worth 1,000 Arabs.”
“Everyone knows they don’t love us and we don’t love them,” Mr. Zaghal, 32, said. “They think that this is their place and this is their land, but this is not the case. We are here and we are staying here, but they won’t. There are people here who won’t let them.”
March 16, 2013
In Effort to Try Dictator, Guatemala Shows New Judicial Might
By ELISABETH MALKIN
XIX, Guatemala — Tiburcio Utuy thought he saw fear cross the former dictator’s face.
A judge had just ruled that the military dictator, Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, now 86, should stand trial for genocide and crimes against humanity committed under his rule in the 1980s, a decision Mr. Utuy and other Maya survivors of Guatemala’s 34-year civil war had gathered in the courtroom to hear in person.
“He won’t suffer the same way we suffered — but he will be scared,” Mr. Utuy said in his mountaintop village a few days after the ruling in late January. “And maybe he will spend a little bit of time in prison.”
Mr. Utuy, 71, is set to be a witness in a trial that few believed would ever take place.
But Guatemala’s justice system has begun a transformation. In a show of political will, prosecutors are taking long-dormant human rights cases to court, armed with evidence that victims and their advocates have painstakingly compiled over more than a decade — as much to bear witness as to bring judgment.
“It’s sending the most important message of the rule of law — that nobody is above the law,” said Claudia Paz y Paz, the attorney general, who many here say has been one of the most important forces behind the change.
In the 17 months that Mr. Ríos Montt controlled Guatemala, before he was overthrown in a coup in August 1983, his soldiers intensified a scorched-earth campaign across the Maya highlands begun by his predecessor in 1981 to flush out leftist guerrillas. The military marched into villages, torturing, raping and killing those who could not run away. They burned down houses and crops, and butchered livestock.
A United Nations truth commission concluded in 1999 that attacks on specific indigenous groups amounted to genocide. “The aim of the perpetrators was to kill the largest number of group members possible,” the commission’s report said.
Investigators concluded that the war took more than 200,000 lives over more than three decades before the 1996 peace accords. They identified the Ixil, who live in mist-shrouded hamlets here in El Quiché Department, as the hardest-hit Maya group.
Between 70 and 90 percent of the Ixil villages were razed during the war’s bloodiest period, between 1981 and 1983. The truth commission documented about 7,000 Ixil deaths and estimated that more than 60 percent of the Ixil were forced to flee into the mountains, where many more died of cold, hunger and disease, or were killed when the army bombed them from the air.
But the report produced no action. The military wielded power behind the scenes over malleable elected presidents. Mr. Ríos Montt became a legislator, which gave him legal immunity from prosecution, and as president of Congress in 2000 he maneuvered his allies into the judiciary.
Prosecutors shelved investigations. When they did try to act, judges paralyzed the proceedings, taking years to consider requests to release military documents or pushing appeals back through multiple lower courts.
Ms. Paz y Paz, 46, a former judge with ties to rights groups, was appointed in December 2010 and switched gears, filing war crimes charges against several members of the military high command. She won the first convictions against officers accused in some of the worst massacres.
After Mr. Ríos Montt’s term in Congress expired at the beginning of 2012, it was his turn. A year later, Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez overruled multiple defense motions to dismiss the case and ruled on Jan. 28 that the trial would go ahead. Oral arguments are scheduled to begin Tuesday before a three-judge panel.
The proceedings will be one of the few times that any credible national court is trying a former leader on charges of genocide, said Paul Seils, vice president at the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York.
“Latin America absolutely leads the way in terms of national authorities trying to prosecute significant crimes,” Mr. Seils said, citing trials in Argentina, Chile and Peru.
Mr. Ríos Montt’s lawyers have based their defense on the military’s longstanding argument that the massacres were excesses ordered by field commanders. Mr. Ríos Montt, they say, had no knowledge of those actions. That was not how the general explained the chain of command at the time. In an interview in 1982 for an American documentary, he exclaimed, “If I can’t control the army, then what am I doing here?”
A retired colonel, Mario Mérida, who now heads the government’s National Institute for Strategic Security Studies, argued that the trial was politically motivated and influenced by international public opinion.
“There was no institutional policy against any ethnic group,” said Mr. Mérida, although he acknowledged that the military never punished any soldier for the massacres. He described the army’s actions in the 1980s as “a psychological campaign so that people would abandon the guerrillas” because the rebels claimed to have built a base of support among the Maya.
President Otto Pérez Molina, a former general who served in the Ixil region in 1982-83, said in a recent interview to a Spanish newspaper that Mr. Ríos Montt should be tried for “abuses and undeniable excesses,” but not genocide.
Mr. Pérez Molina was elected in November 2011, and his military background set off concern that he might dismiss Ms. Paz y Paz, who was appointed to a four-year term by his predecessor, or hamper her investigations. But he has shown respect for prosecutors’ independence, she said.
During several days of hearings in Guatemala City in recent weeks, Mr. Ríos Montt sat expressionless behind his legal team, occasionally thumbing through a copy of the Constitution. A sticker on the back of his courtroom chair noted that it had been donated by the United States government, evidence of the aid from the United States and European countries to bolster Guatemala’s effort to establish the rule of law.
In the audience, staring intently, were some of the victims, many of whom speak only indigenous languages and are unable to follow the proceedings, which are in Spanish.
“They are just starting to listen to us now,” said Anselmo Roldán Aguilar, 47, of the victims’ group Association for Justice and Reconciliation, which filed the first case against Mr. Ríos Montt and his high command more than a decade ago. Mr. Roldán lost his father and five brothers and sisters in the war.
At the beginning, the victims were afraid to speak out. Isolated by language and discrimination, displaced by the war, and traumatized by the massacres, they tried to rebuild lives in the villages they had fled.
The United Nations truth commission broke that silence. Other evidence emerged: forensic anthropologists have been exhuming the bodies for 20 years, using clothes and other artifacts to identify the remains in hastily dug graves. Only a fraction of the victims have been identified, but the exhumations offer chilling proof that the victims were noncombatants.
Fredy Peccerelli, the head of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, said teams had unearthed bodies buried around a church, cataloged the number of children in mass graves and gathered accounts from survivors.
“This is terror,” said Mr. Peccerelli, who will testify at the trial. “This is a strategy to make sure that anyone and everyone who is opposed to you is afraid of you; not only now, is afraid of you forever.”
More information came from the release of American government files, declassified by the National Security Archive in Washington. They showed that American diplomats and intelligence agencies knew that the Guatemalan Army was carrying out the massacres, even though the Reagan administration argued in public that human rights conditions were improving.
When the early cases stalled, lawyers turned to Spain’s National Court, which claimed universal jurisdiction in cases of crimes against humanity. Victims and witnesses traveled to Madrid to testify before a Spanish judge.
Mr. Utuy was among them. In 1982, he fled with his wife and children into the mountains after soldiers had razed Xix twice and killed whomever they could chase down, he said, including a neighbor who was pregnant. “When I saw them cut her belly, I began to cry,” he said.
The family survived bombing and machine gun fire from army helicopters, but then Mr. Utuy was captured while searching for food. For eight months, he was tortured and interrogated on military bases, he said. Finally he was let go, bullets whizzing by as he walked off the base.
Almudena Bernabeu, a lawyer with the Center for Justice and Accountability, a San Francisco-based human rights group that helped bring the Spanish case, said that Mr. Utuy’s testimony could help corroborate a military document known as Operation Sofía. Rights groups say it describes the campaign against the Ixil and clarifies the chain of command to Mr. Ríos Montt.
In Operation Sofía, “it said that 100 percent of the Ixiles collaborated with the subversives,” making them “an internal enemy,” said Juan Francisco Soto, a lawyer for the Center for Legal Action on Human Rights, which represents the victims groups. “By assuming that 100 percent were guerrillas, it is saying that everybody, men, women, children, elderly people are all enemies, and by qualifying them as enemies you are legitimizing attacks on them.”
A court ordered military documents to be turned over in 2009, and the military began to comply, one of several cracks in the wall that had blocked the case. Guatemala’s government also invited a United Nations legal panel, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, to help strengthen its prosecutions against corruption and illegal security groups.
Under prodding from the commission, the attorney general was replaced and two special trial courts were set up to deal with high-impact cases, including drug-trafficking, corruption and war crimes. New judges on the Supreme Court threw out procedural appeals that had delayed the investigations.
“Guatemala has taken important steps towards consolidating a democratic rule of law over the last three years,” said Edgar Pérez, a lawyer. “There is a long way to go — you can’t expect that this is all fixed in two or three years.”
Francisco Dall’Anese, the commissioner of the United Nations panel, said the Ríos Montt trial had set in motion a course that would be difficult to halt.
“Opening the trial against Ríos Montt is like filling a tank of gas for those who have been pressuring for many years and thought it was a lost cause,” he said. “Now they see a light at the end of the tunnel and they won’t stop.”
When Francisco Rivera was just a child, soldiers killed his mother, along with two of his brothers, in the village of Pexla Grande. His older sister dragged him into the mountains to hide.
In December, Mr. Rivera, now 32, learned that the remains of his mother and one brother had been identified. They were buried this year in one of 44 government-supplied crypts laid out in neat rows in the village cemetery.
Up the mountain above the village rooftops, a monolith is engraved with the names of Pexla Grande’s 77 victims.
“Here’s the proof, they can’t say it’s a lie,” said the village’s mayor, Andres Solís Santiago. “I hope the judge follows the law.”
March 15, 2013U.N. Body Agrees on Women's Rights Policy, Skirting Sexual Politics
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A U.N. policy-making body agreed upon a declaration Friday urging an end to violence against women and girls despite concerns from conservative Muslim countries and the Vatican about references to women's sexual and reproductive rights.
Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Libya, Nigeria and Sudan, along with Honduras and the Vatican, expressed reservations about the declaration of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, but did not block adoption of the 18-page text.
While the declaration of the commission, created in 1946 for the advancement of women, is non-binding, diplomats and rights activists say it carries enough global weight to pressure countries to improve the lives of women and girls.
"People worldwide expected action, and we didn't fail them. Yes, we did it," Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile and head of U.N. Women, which supports the commission, told delegates on Friday after two weeks on negotiations on the text.
Shannon Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy at the International Women's Health Coalition, said the declaration was a victory for women and girls, but could have gone further to recognize violence faced by lesbians and transgender people.
"Governments have agreed to take concrete steps to end violence," she said. "For the first time, they agreed to make sure that women who have been raped can get critical health care services, like emergency contraception and safe abortion."
Earlier in the talks Iran, Russia, the Vatican and others had threatened to derail the declaration with concerns about references such as access to emergency contraception, abortion and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, activists said.
A proposed amendment by Egypt, that would have allowed states to avoid implementing the declaration if they clashed with national laws, religious or cultural values, failed. Some diplomats said it would have undermined the whole document.
But on Friday, Egypt's delegation said it would not stand in the way of the declaration for the sake of women's empowerment. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Islamists had warned on Thursday that the declaration could destroy society.
'FREE OF FEAR'
The United States welcomed the declaration but lamented that references were not made to lesbian and transgender women and that the term "intimate partner violence" was not used to capture the range of relationships in which abuse can happen.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice last week boasted that all 50 U.S. states have laws treating date rape or spousal rape as equal to that of rape by a stranger. In contrast Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood decried the idea of allowing women to prosecute their husbands for rape or sexual harassment.
Last year, disagreements over sexual and reproductive rights issues prevented the commission from agreeing upon a declaration of a theme of empowering rural women. The commission was also unable to reach a deal a decade ago when it last focused on the theme of ending violence against women and girls.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said states now had a responsibility to turn the 2013 declaration into reality.
"Violence against women is a heinous human rights violation, global menace, a public health threat and a moral outrage," Ban said in a statement. "No matter where she lives, no matter what her culture, no matter what her society, every woman and girl is entitled to live free of fear."
Germany's U.N. Ambassador Peter Wittig said the declaration was balanced and strong. "It sends a much-needed message to the women around the world: your rights are crucial," he posted on Twitter (@GermanyUN)
The full declaration of the Commission on the Status of Women can be seen at: www.unwomen.org
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Todd Eastham)
Witness: Children of the Riots
Greek youths reflect on how the killing of a teenager by the police and the resulting riots changed their lives.
Witness Last Modified: 26 Feb 2013 15:05
By Christos Georgiou
When Alexandros Grigoropoulos was shot dead on December 6, 2008, the idea that a 15-year-old boy could die on a seemingly safe pedestrian street in the middle of Athens on a Saturday night, as he and his friends talked about which party they should go to, at the hands of a man who as a policeman was supposed to protect children like Alexandros, a man who was himself a father, it was hard to believe.
At that time I had recently become a father myself and the idea that anyone who had experienced the blessing of new life, could raise a gun and shoot a child made me sick.
In pictures: Anger on the streets of Athens
For the generation of Alexandros, the 15-year-old children who took part in the riots that followed his death, the lessons learned were simply: The police are your enemy, politicians are in their overwhelming majority corrupt and your life has no value.
Finding people to talk about the riots was not so easy. Slogans like "the police are talking to you through the eight o'clock news" illustrate how journalists have earned the reputation of being paid liars.
Many times while filming, people and especially young people would suspiciously ask: "Who are you? Are from one of the Greek TV channels?"
During riots it is, of course, even worse. Both parties, police and demonstrators, for obvious reasons do not want to be photographed while acting in an incriminating manner.
But December 2008 was not just any riot, to these children it was an uprising most of them are proud to have taken part in and so after they got to know us they did eventually trust us with their stories.
A cycle of strikes, protest and violence
Three years later, on July 29, 2011, under the pressure of the financial crisis, the Greek parliament, faithfully following the instructions of the EU and IMF, voted to pass new austerity measures. The social problems that existed in 2008, stemming from corruption and the misuse of power, were still there, but were now compounded by the financial crisis.
"The first week we believed this would change the world."
"It was a war zone. Cars exploding, shop fronts burning. For ten days it was fire and stones everywhere."
"Everyone, students included, found it very logical to throw a stone or anything else at the police."
We were filming our protagonists taking part in protests outside parliament as the politicians inside were voting "yes" to austerity measures. Teargas filled the air and Amnesty International observers noted countless examples of excessive use of force by the Greek police on the Greek people who had gathered there to make their "no" vote heard. This, sadly, is what passes for democracy at work these days.
We all knew this would happen. The day before recession hit Greece one business was booming: Gas mask sales. Even my local hardware shop had completely sold out. When we go to demonstrations in Greece we expect this. The cycle of strikes, protest and violence has unfortunately become one of the few things you can rely on in Athens today.
Leaving the riots we stopped to get one more shot of the massive police presence. On a main street in Athens a policeman came and asked us to hand over our camera. We refused and within seconds were surrounded by police trying to grab the camera and threatening to arrest us. When I asked the policeman to calm down and not be so aggressive, he said he liked being aggressive and asked what did I think, that he was my friend?
While making this documentary I was inspired to see that despite what our young protagonists have experienced they still hold on to the thin line of fading hope for a better future; they fight for it day by day and keep their humanity, their need to love and to laugh, intact.
I wanted this documentary to give these children the opportunity to show their lives to the world. Lives all too often reduced by the world media to an image of a petrol bomb exploding. It is a powerful image, but it is not the only one in their lives.
Click to watch the documentary: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C45QKpGFy6w
In the USA...
CPAC 2013: Angry and beaten right wingers offer wacky ideas in search for electoral victory
By Paul Harris, The Observer
Saturday, March 16, 2013 11:58 EDT
Delegates at fringe Republican convention seek a way back into America’s heart at a key annual meeting of conservatives
Gene Wisdom, a 55-year-old conservative from Nashville, Tennessee, was no fan of Barack Obama. Clutching a book called The Communist, he was waiting eagerly to meet the book’s author, Paul Kengor, so that he could sign it. The book, which detailed the life of black American journalist and labour activist Frank Marshall Davis, bore a startling subtitle: “The untold story of Barack Obama’s mentor.” That worked for Wisdom. “It is very convincing,” he said.
Believing that the president is more or less a communist would be surprising in many political circles, including many Republican ones. But Wisdom was not just queuing at another book launch. He was one of the crowd at the largest and most important conservative gathering in the American political calendar, where the outlandish is commonplace.
The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), hosted by the American Conservative Union, does not do moderation or restraint. At times it appears to maintain only a loose connection with political realities. This is an annual shindig of conservative clans from across the nation. But this year the conclave took place against the sombre backdrop of presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s disastrous defeat.
For a location, organisers had plumped for a gigantic convention complex just outside Washington DC. It was a place of giant hotels and expensive upmarket chain restaurants, surrounded by freeways. It felt like an artificially suburban, self-contained, inward-looking universe with almost no natural relationship to the surrounding landscape. As such, it was perfect.
Obama’s win has left many American conservatives angry. They are mostly furious at Romney – a vastly rich titan of free market capitalism and deeply religious social conservative – whom they consider not rightwing enough. “This Romney campaign was the worst campaign in the history of the United States,” said pollster Pat Caddell.
Other consultants complained that Romney had failed to hone the right conservative message. But then it is not easy. The movement is a fractious mix of social conservatives who hate abortion and gay rights, fiscal conservatives who do not care about such things but hate government, and then foreign policy conservatives who are obsessed with the latest fashion in perceived threat – a hot seat currently occupied by Iran.
So instead, conservative activists often find themselves glued together by emotion, paranoia and a firm belief that America is about to turn into a liberal totalitarian state. Tea Party groups promoted themselves with events linked to the Hunger Games, the dystopian sci-fi novel and film, and a video that fantasised about violent revolution. In a giant exhibition hall in the bowels of the centre, dozens of stalls vied for who could be most apocalyptic about the state of America. One contender was Cliff Kincaid’s group called America’s Survival. Kincaid was also promoting a film about Frank Marshall Davis. But this work postulated Davis was not just Obama’s political father but also his biological one: a development that would shock the many conservatives convinced Obama is a Kenyan. “He is a Marxist, though. It is his background,” Kincaid said.
The idea that Obama – whose administration has seen a wild stock market boom and who boasts Goldman Sachs as a major campaign contributor – is to the left of Lenin would seem insane anywhere outside this place. But inside CPAC there is a vast self-referencing ecosystem of media and thinktanks to back up that world view. Corridors are lined with talk radio shows and booksellers all barking up the same tree that says Obama is a nightmare come true, the very embodiment of a leftwing anti-American autocrat. A cinema even beamed films like Frack Nation, America at Risk and Hillary: The Movie. Internal logic is not always a strong point. In one film screening about abortion, an interviewee onscreen declared: “They are attempting to do abortions on women who are not pregnant.”
Those same corridors were also full of fresh-faced members of the Young America’s Foundation handing out posters – eagerly snapped up – of a beaming Sarah Palin riding on a horse. “They see her as a star. As someone to look up to and a person of change,” said foundation spokesman Adam Tragone.
Not many Americans outside CPAC share that view. The former Alaska governor is seen as someone who left her job as governor of Alaska early to pursue a media career. Her talent for mis-statements, which helped derail John McCain’s 2008 presidential run, are a joke for many Americans – not to mention people overseas. But then even Palin looks like a genius compared to another CPAC star, Donald Trump. The reality TV mogul was given a primetime slot which he used to launch a plea for a return to American manufacturing, even as he boasted of buying all his TVs in South Korea. “I am continuously criticised. It’s unbelievable,” he mused.
Not surprisingly, many have called on CPAC – and the wider Republican party on which it still exerts powerful influence – to change. Obama’s victory was built on the votes of the young, women and minorities: all demographics that some conservatives have toiled mightily to offend. Nor have those habits been broken. CPAC embraced Trump but did not invite gay Republicans, with their GOProud organisation reduced to a single speaker on a single panel invited along by the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “We are taking tolerance out of the closet,” boasted institute director Fred Smith, which raised the question of why it was there in the first place.
Yet, unlike gays, outreach to non-whites was a theme of Cpac. But it did misfire on occasion. One panel on conservatives from non-white backgrounds featured two white speakers, including a standup comedian from Hollywood. Panel moderator Suhail Khan explained – apparently in earnest – that Hollywood was considered minority outreach due to liberals dominating the entertainment industry. “Cartoon films have a very left message. The Lorax was a recent example of that,” he said.
Another disaster was a Tea Party-organised panel entitled “Tired of being called racist?” which was attended by at least two white nationalists. As black speaker K. Carl Smith outlined his vision of a colour-blind ideology, two young white men, Scott Terry and Matthew Heimbach, spoke up to defend slavery, racial segregation and insult Martin Luther King. The meeting descended into an ugly shouting match, though Heimbach, who heads the White Students Union at his college, explained later to the Observer: “After a few drinks most people here agree with us.”
That is no doubt a demented pipe dream. But conservatives do have a serious image problem of being too white in a country whose skin tone is changing more with every election cycle. Much of the convention’s attention was focused on America’s millions of Hispanics, who are the fastest-growing major demographic in America and who have fled the party because of its hardline stance on immigration control. Belatedly many have realised that is a major problem. Kay Rivoli, a singer known for her viral YouTube ditty Press 1 for English, even admitted as much. “We need to change on immigration reform,” she said.
But on nearly everything else Rivoli was a font of optimism about conservatism’s political future. “We have to be a little more loud, a little more brazen,” she said, though it was hard to imagine such a thing. She then happily mused that somewhere in the giant CPAC hall a future conservative president was walking. “There’s a possibility,” she said.
Not everyone sees it that way. Bill Nitze was wearing an 18th century costume, complete with Revolutionary War-style hat. He styled himself a conservative, keen on the constitution and a patriot. But, despite his elaborate dress, he was hardly a CPAC fanatic. “This group, in my view, is too associated with what I call the last stand of white Christian America,” he said. So who had Nitze voted for in 2012? “Obama,” he replied.
© Guardian News and Media 2013
03/18/2013 12:31 PM
Cyprus Bailout: Widespread Anger Erupts Over Bank Account Levy
By Severin Weiland and Philipp Wittrock
The euro-zone deal to save Cyprus from bankruptcy was hard-fought, and a long time coming. But the conditions placed on the bailout, namely a one-time tax on all bank deposits, have sparked fury in Cyprus and abroad. Parliamentary approval in Nicosia is far from certain.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble have not won any friends in Cyprus this week. Sure, they approved a rescue package for the country, but at what price? People on the small island in the Mediterranean are reacting to the deal with shock, anger and disgust, with many rushing to ATMs to withdraw as much of their savings as possible before a chunk of it is confiscated to pay for their government's bailout.
Under the bailout deal, everyone with a bank account on the island has to pay a one-time levy on their deposits -- 6.75 percent on everything up to €100,000 ($129,000) and 9.9 percent on anything more. The levy was a key condition for the €10 billion in emergency loans from its euro-zone partners, and Germany was its most vociferous advocate. The government in Nicosia begrudgingly agreed, because its only other choice was to risk bankruptcy.
The anger hasn't been limited to middle class Cypriots, either. Russian President Vladimir Putin said through a spokesman that the tax on bank deposits was "unfair, unprofessional and dangerous." Russian investors hold a considerable amount of money on the island.
Despite the approval of the bailout in Brussels over the weekend, the Cypriot parliament must still approve the deal -- by no means a certainty. President Nicos Anastasiades had planned to hold the vote on Sunday, but postponed it by one day out of apparent fear of a rejection. His conservative DISY party has only 20 votes in the 56-member legislature, coupled with nine votes from the coalition DIKO party. One dissenter from either faction could create a stalemate. Opposition parties have already said they will vote "no." Then, on Monday, a vote was delayed again until Tuesday in order to provide enough time for a thorough debate in parliament, and officials said banks in Cyprus may have to remain closed through Wednesday.
No Guarantee in German Parliament Either
In Germany, Chancellor Merkel has defended the bank deposit tax, which she pushed through in part for domestic political reasons. Many in her coalition government took issue with the idea of a bailout of Cyprus, alleging that much of the Russian money on the island is laundered, or is parked there so the oligarchs can avoid paying taxes on it. Around one-third of the money in Cypriot banks belongs to foreigners, led by Britons and Russians. The bailout levy is meant to force those foreigners to share the burden of stabilizing the country's finances. "It's a good step that certainly made our agreement to aid for Cyprus easier," Merkel said of the tax.
Easier, perhaps, but in addition to a difficult vote in Nicosia, the deal will also require approval by the parliaments of the other euro-zone members -- including Germany, where a majority in the Bundestag is also not yet certain. The federal parliament could take up the issue and give preliminary approval as soon as Thursday. Finance Minister Schäuble plans to have the issue officially settled and approved by parliament in April.
The center-left opposition Social Democrats (SPD) and Green Party have always voted with the conservative government on previous euro-zone bailouts. But the federal elections scheduled for this fall could influence the parties' votes. They have long been looking for a way out of the multi-party bailout alliance, which enjoys much more consensus among politicians than it does among average voters. The opposition could claim the agreement in Brussels doesn't do enough to fight money laundering and tax dodging, using that as an excuse to vote "no."
Dissent Within German Government
Merkel would still have her own majority in parliament, even if the SPD and Greens reject the Cyprus deal. But even within her coalition, there have been a few dozen "no" votes on previous euro-zone bailouts. Some conservative lawmakers have already announced their opposition. And Finance Minister Schäuble may have a difficult time explaining why he wants to save the country from financial collapse when just weeks ago he voiced doubt that a bankruptcy in Cyprus would have a major affect on the euro zone.
Parliamentarian Frank Schäffler, a member of Merkel's junior-coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), echoed that sentiment in an interview with the website of the business daily Handelsblatt. "I won't go along with the perversion of the term 'solidarity' in Europe," Schäffler said. "If things continue as they are, we'll soon be bailing out Andorra and San Marino because they have such close economic ties with other crisis countries like Italy and Spain." The tiny countries of Andorra and San Marino use the euro currency, but are not in the EU and thus are not official members of the euro zone.
Schäffler's criticism isn't unique in his party, either. FDP parliamentary floor leader Rainer Brüderle said he expects the question of whether Cyprus is indeed systemically relevant, or "too big to fail," to be "clearly and comprehensively" presented.
Calls to Exempt Small-time Depositers
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle (FDP) has also reportedly criticized the deal. Sources told SPIEGEL ONLINE that Westerwelle said at a party meeting on Sunday that "It would have been smarter to exempt small-scale savers" from the bank deposit tax. He also said certain legal prerequisites for the bailout, like the sustainability of the country's debt and its "systemic relevance" to the euro zone, have not yet been made clear.
Although Berlin played a key role in pushing the demand for the partial expropriation of accounts in Cyprus, Finance Minister Schäuble on Sunday took pains to distance Germany from the decision to also apply a levy to small-scale savers. He said both Berlin and the IMF had sought to respect the EU's deposit insurance program, which secures the savings of accounts with up to €100,000. But the rules do not protect depositors against the kind of tax to be imposed. In an interview with German public television, Schäuble said it had been the decision of the Cypriot government, the European Commission and the ECB to hit small-scale savers with the levy.
The first step in approving the Cyprus bailout still lies in Nicosia. President Anastasiades has been aggressively lobbying for the deal, with all its painful conditions. He argues that there is no alternative other than an uncontrolled bankruptcy. Without fresh cash on hand, Cyprus would be unable to pay its bills as soon as May, potentially leading to its exit from the euro zone and incalculable consequences for the rest of the currency union.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz, a German member of the SPD, pointed to a possible compromise that would appease some of those opposed to the bailout deal. He suggested on Sunday that account holders with less than €25,000 in the bank be spared the tax -- an idea already supported by the SPD leader in the German parliament. But getting the 17 euro-zone leaders to agree on the current deal was hard enough, and bringing everyone back to negotiations could be an enormous challenge.
And yet that may be precisely what happens. The German financial daily Handelsblatt reported on its website Monday that talks have reopened between the Cypriot government and its euro-zone partners because of the fierce resistance to the wealth tax among virtually all parties in the country. The newspaper said Cyprus's euro-zone partners are considering modifying the terms of the deal and that a conference call may be held among finance ministers to approve a modified bailout package.
On Monday, both the Wall Street Journal and French news agency AFP reported that the Cypriot government and the international creditors were considering revisions to the levy that would reduce the tax imposed on normal savers to 3 percent.
Cyprus president defends bank levy as ‘least painful option’
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, March 17, 2013 22:16 EDT
The president of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades said in a televised address on Sunday that the controversial bank levy being imposed as part of an EU bailout deal is the “least painful” option available under the circumstances.
President Nicos Anastasiades said Sunday that a controversial bank levy on private depositors in Cyprus banks as part of an EU bailout deal was the “least painful” option for the financially embattled island.
“I chose the least painful option, and I bear the political cost for this, in order to limit as much as possible the consequences for the economy and for our fellow Cypriots,” Anastasiades said in a televised address to the nation.
As a condition for a desperately-needed 10-billion-euro ($13 billion) bailout for Cyprus, fellow eurozone countries and international creditors Saturday imposed a levy on all deposits in the island’s banks.
Deposits of more than 100,000 euros will be hit with a 9.9 percent charge, while under that threshold the levy drops to 6.75 percent.
Cypriots react with dismay over levy on savings
By Solange MOUGIN
Anastasiades urged all political parties in Cyprus to ratify the terms of the EU deal when parliament meets on Monday.
“I urge the parliamentary parties to decide, and I will fully respect their decision, in the best interests of the people and this country,” Anastasiades said.
“I hope that together, based on the facts as they have developed, we will take the wisest decision,” he said, adding, “the road ahead will not be easy.”
“The solution we came to is certainly not the one we wanted, but its the least painful under the circumstances,” the president said.
Anastasiades needs to get the legislation ratifying the deal through parliament before banks reopen Tuesday after a long three-day weekend or face a run on accounts.
But Cyprus media reported that the scale of revolt against the agreement among MPs has thrown into disarray his efforts to do so over the weekend, and he may have to declare an additional bank holiday on Tuesday.
Cyprus also postponed until Monday an emergency debate in parliament on the deal that was scheduled for Sunday.
[Photo of Cyprus president Nicos Anastasiades via AFP]
03/18/2013 12:29 PM
Saving Cyprus: Tapping Bank Customers Is the Right Move
A Commentary By Christian Rickens
The move in Cyprus to apply a one-time levy on all bank accounts is both a fair and pragmatic way of easing the country's debt burdens. It also marks the start of a new phase in the euro crisis that could have implications for future bailouts.
When historians look back on the euro crisis decades from now, they will likely speak of March 16 as the beginning of its fourth phase. Pressured by the other euro-zone member states, Cyprus is being forced to partially expropriate the funds of banking customers to assist in the country's financial restructuring. This after Cyprus was essentially sucked into the crisis because of its bloated banking sector.
It's a dramatic forced measure, and it won't just hit the pockets of Russian oligarchs who are fond of depositing their money at banks on the Mediterranean island. It will also burden average Cypriot savers. Accounts are being partially frozen, and a vote on a hastily drafted expropriation law is expected in parliament on Monday. And what scenes will unfold when the country's banks reopen their doors on Tuesday? Quite possibly those more associated with crisis-ridden South American countries than Southern European ones.
Still, forcing savers to participate in the bailout is a further step towards greater pragmatism and fairness that has also marked the other important milestones in the euro crisis.
In the beginning, during phase one, the belief that the crisis could be overcome solely with credit guarantees and austerity programs prevailed. In other words, taxpayers within the euro zone were to carry all the burdens. It's a position governments had been pressured to take by financial industry lobbyists. But it's also a path that led to lasting recession in the south and sowed strife between Northern and Southern Europe.
Phase two of the crisis began with the Greek debt haircut and the recognition that the country's creditors also had carry their part of the burden. All of the banks and insurance companies that had so carelessly lent money in Southern Europe finally had to pay up.
A now legendary speech by Mario Draghi, the head of the European Central Bank (ECB) marked the start of phase three. In autumn 2012, he announced that crisis-plagued countries that have undertaken reforms would be provided with ECB support via the purchase of unlimited amounts of sovereign bonds. The move violated all established monetary policy principles in Europe, but proved to be correct and pragmatic during a period of existential threat to the common currency.
Breaking the Next Taboo
And now comes the partial expropriation of bank customers. The move is little more than a symbolic contribution to solving the Cyprus crisis, but it sends an important message: For Europe's taxpayers, it is a question of fairness that they not be left alone to bear the burdens of the costs of the crisis. And it is the only way to prevent the euro crisis from further fomenting anti-EU sentiment in the member states.
For the people of Europe it is a question of fairness. For the politicians seeking to end the crisis, it is one of pragmatism. Taxpayers alone will not be able to buy Europe out of its debt trap. And those who want to solve the problems in the euro zone need to access the money where it can be found: through bondholders, through the ECB, through banking customers and, hopefully, as a next step through the owners of troubled banks, as well as wealthy people living in Southern Europe.
The next taboo-breaking measures are already taking shape on the horizon. Spain is soon expected to use billions in guarantees from the long-term euro rescue fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), to rescue its flagging banks. It will be crucial that the shareholders and creditors of these banks also be drawn into the bailout. Italy could also relieve some of its debt problems if the government finally took the step of implementing a wealth tax that would require the country's richest to contribute to solving the crisis.
Fearing that tapping any of these potential sources of money could have disastrous consequences on the financial markets, many in the past have argued they should be categorically ruled out. But each time that position has proven untenable.
Eurozone crisis: Byzantine lessons for Europe
18 March 2013
The Guardian London
From managing a single currency, to exiting a recession and negotiating political and fiscal unions among a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic commonwealth, Byzantium’s leaders handled the lot. The EU’s politicians could learn much from their ancient forebears, argues a UK historian.
Sometimes it is easy to forget why we study history. Of course, we use the past to understand the present; but also, ideally, we learn from it too. What a shame, then, that there is no space in the new national curriculum for the history of Byzantium. The eastern half of the Roman empire that flourished long after Rome itself spiralled into decline in late antiquity.
Unfortunately, because generations have never learned about the mighty eastern Mediterranean that once ruled from Venice to Palestine, from north Africa to the Caucasus, the lesson that could be learned in the modern world is lost in the mists of time – a lesson that Europe could do with now more than ever.
Like the EU, the Byzantine empire was a multilingual, multi-ethnic commonwealth that spread across different climates and varied local economies, ranging from bustling cities to market towns, from thriving ports to small rural settlements. Not only that, but it also had a single currency – one, furthermore, that did not fluctuate in value for centuries.
Contrary to popular opinion expressed on an almost daily basis in the House of Commons, where MPs queue up to describe over-regulation or over-complex legislation as "Byzantine", the Byzantine empire was in fact a model of sophistication – particularly when it came to the sorts of areas where the EU has been found wanting. Unlike the European Union, Byzantium was not riddled with inefficiency and disparity when it came to tax: profits could not be parked in a more attractive region, thereby undermining the empire's structure. Government in Byzantium was lean, simple and efficient.
Freedom from taxes
There was no question that different parts of the empire could have different rules or different taxation policies: for the state to function with a single currency, there had to be fiscal, economic and political union; taxes had to be paid out from the periphery to the centre; and it was understood that resources had to be diverted from rich regions to those that were less well blessed – even if not everyone was happy about it. Freedom, grumbled one author in the 11th Century, meant freedom from taxes.
If Eurocrats could learn from the structure of the empire, then so too could they benefit from looking at how it dealt with a chronic recession, brought on by the same deadly combination that has crippled western economies today. In the 1070s, government revenues collapsed, while expenditure continued to rise on essential services (such as the military); these were made worse by a chronic liquidity crisis. So bad did the situation become that the doors of the treasury were flung open: there was no point locking them, wrote one contemporary, because there was nothing there to steal.
Those responsible for the crisis were shown no mercy. The Herman Van Rompuy of the time, a eunuch named Nikephoritzes, was lambasted by an angry population faced with price rises and a fall in the standard of living, and was eventually tortured to death. Widespread dissatisfaction led to others being unceremoniously removed from position, often forced to become monks, presumably so they could pray for forgiveness for their sins.
The crisis even gave rise to a Nigel Farage figure, whose arguments about why things had gone wrong sounded "so persuasive", according to one contemporary, that people "united in giving him precedence" and welcomed him everywhere with applause. He was a breath of fresh air at a time when the old guard were paralysed by inaction and by a dire shortage of good ideas. His message, that the current crop of leaders was useless, was hard to argue with.
Byzantine quantitative easing
The limp policies that were being tried were a disaster, having no effect whatsoever on fixing the problems. This included debasing the currency by pumping out more and more coins while reducing its precious metal content; a form of quantitative easing, in other words. It was like putting a plaster on a gunshot wound.
As the situation got worse, it was time for a clean sweep of the old guard. New blood was brought in, and with them came radical new ideas. A German bailout was one suggestion, although it failed to materialise, despite looking promising for a while. But as food ran short and talk turned to apocalypse, there was no choice but to take decisive action.
The solution was threefold. First, the currency was taken out of circulation and replaced by new denominations that were a fair reflection of real value; second, the tax system was overhauled, with a compilation of who owned what assets across the empire serving as a primer to raise revenue in the future; finally, commercial barriers were lowered to encourage those with outside capital to invest more cheaply and easily than in the past – not in asset acquisition, but specifically for trade. Such was the empire's plight that these barriers were dropped to the point that outside investors could even undercut the locals, at least in the short term, in order to stimulate the economy. The process worked: it was not as painful as had been feared, and resuscitated a patient that had been suffering from economic cardiac arrest.
The Nigel Farage of the 11th century never made it, by the way, though he did pave the way for a really good candidate to rise to the top. Alexios Komnenos was the name of the man who rebuilt Byzantium, though he had to pay the price for his reforms: despised in his lifetime for making difficult decisions, he was ignored by history for centuries afterwards. Perhaps we should be looking for someone with broad enough shoulders today.